Where I've Been
I started this website in November 1999, about a year into what later became blogging. I've always despised the word, way too close to bog and nothing good ever came from a bog.
I reviewed a handful more than a thousand films (calling what I do a film review is a bit of a stretch - the film is usually a vehicle for writing about something entirely removed from the film); took a stab at fiction, told a ton of stories from my several jobs, got lost in the Bush years thinking what I had to say might actually matter, wrote about food, AIDS, WWI, and so on.
My best guess is close to half a million words, seven hundred American standard pages, between two and a half and three million characters (depending on whether you include spaces - my goodness the things MSWord can do!) and stopped dead in December 2009.
I have no idea why I stopped.
Or why I'm starting again.
But I think it may be worth knowing.
I entered therapy in the last few months, something I believed I would never do. Based on my experience with one couples therapist and one psychologist, I now think everyone should be in therapy. On the other hand, my dead brother Jerry was electro-shocked a few dozen times, drugged to catatonia and finally served as symbol of therapy's potential for total failure. Total.
I've learned more about myself in the past two months that I could discern in the fifty-nine years prior. Something about our inability to perceive our unconscious from within. Apparently a snap for someone on the outside but then either no one saw what this psychologist saw, or no one was willing to volunteer an opinion. Most anyone who knows me well thinks I'm terribly interesting, terribly smart and terribly unbalanced. Oh well.
Let's call this the Introduction.
Later chapters should cover my childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, three marriages, four suicide attempts, three or four radical career changes, countless horrible and some good decisions, siblings alive and dead, parents, grandparents, child, and most recently, therapy. The dream interpretation part is utterly amazing, can't wait to share.
I will allow several days to pass so family members and/or loved ones can plead for me to stop or remain silent.
In either event, I'll let you know.
A Lurking Slasher
Growing up an only child of the local jurist in rural Oklahoma, my dad (Herman Ralph, really) survived The Great Depression to take a bullet on one of those God-forsaken Pacific islands, Okinawa, I believe, get promoted for getting shot and retired from the Army as a Captain. He married Lucille Evelyn, the child of hardscrabble Oklahoma dirt farmers in a quiet ceremony of which only two pictures remain. Mom looks handsome in her white gown and Dad stiff and spiffy in his Army Captain's uniform. He had seventeen years on her and used each one as a hammer to smash her into his vision of a dutiful wife. Mom had survived her own dark and malicious mother, embittered over the Lord's decision to take her only son in a B-25 crash in the Philippines and her self-defensive coping skills were well honed. She more than paid my dad back for each and every slight as he spent the last twenty four months of his life locked inside a useless body, ravaged by ALS. I eavesdropped on her once as she gave her contempt full reign over the weeping and pathetic shell of what had been a caricature of the strong silent type featured in Hollywood films of that era. I can only imagine what ghastly abuse must have stoked those grim, bitter fires.
Eldest brother James Raymond (after the dead B-25 pilot) left for California in 1964 and never returned. He would come home infrequently to cast a disapproving eye on all he left behind. He got away before the slow motion disintegration that enveloped mom, dad, little sister Janeesa (after a science fiction heroine my father read of once), middle brother Jerry and me. James Raymond and I are the only ones left now, Jerry hung himself in 1982 and Janeesa joined him the following year. Mom was a ghost after that and I will never understand what drove her to hang on so long after it all fell apart. Twenty five years later I prevailed on her to leave the farmhouse her parents had moved into the sad little town of Mangum, Oklahoma and join us in an apartment we built in the back yard . She fell less than a month after moving in, broke her hip and died within the month. I think those are her ashes above the sink but they're just as likely to be our Airedale, Nick.
Eldest brother Jim came for the deathwatch and made sure I knew all the safety violations that led to her fall and death before returning to suburbia on the West Coast.
Little sister's suicide was a shock but not so Jerry. Two years after leaving for Vanderbilt mom went to Nashville and brought Jerry home. Catatonically depressed I did not know this person. Many electro-shock treatments later a fully diluted Jerry appeared and went through the motions for the few years it took the depression to return and swallow him. The police in El Paso called me one day to tell me they had some very bad news. I recall being struck by the useless adverb ŮveryÓ used I later understood as a coded signal to help cushion the blow to come.
I no longer have any confidence that I recall my past accurately. Nonetheless, some events retain a crystalline clarity unaffected by the years. That call is one. Another is my dad asking me to disconnect his life support. Asking is not quite right, he was reduced to flailing gestures and pleading eyes to make his needs known. I told him I couldn't and mom made sure I never had to see him again. I only recently began to apprehend the colossal damage that desperate plea wreaked. I have ever since held two minds about it, the one appalled at the insensitivity of his demand on his young son and the other profoundly guilty one ashamed of my failure. The even more unfortunate truth that I was unaware of the failed son lurking in the unconscious and slashing away at any selfish happiness I might chance upon. Many years later that failed son became a failed brother to Jerry and Janeesa and a failed savior to my mom. Meanwhile, the lurking slasher was leaving drums of ammonium nitrate in my path in the form of a Seconal overdose, slashed wrists, carbon monoxide poisoning, a loaded .25 caliber handgun and an impenetrable wall between me and anyone else for whom I might take responsibility. I failed to kill my dad, killed my brother and sister and watched helplessly as my mom descended into her own personal Hell. When I finally rescued her I killed her.
The good news is the slasher is fading under the reflected light of a talented therapist. I may get to spend the balance of my years free of his havoc. I have not a clue what that will be like. Maybe I'll become a nice person.
Next installment will canvass a varied and interesting work history, cab driver to management consultant to Ombudsman.
Becoming a Geek
What curtain separates (or spares) us from early childhood memories. I don't recall anytime before the 2nd grade. That would have been 1959 and I have two memories from that time, a guy named Tony wetting his pants (and the floor) in front of my chair in Mrs. Montgomery's class, and Mrs. Montgomery demonstrating conductivity by having her class join hands and close the circle with a hand cranked generator.
The following year, 1960, saw the suicide of my best friends dad. He was 37, a physician and his death certificate lists barbiturate poisoning as the immediate cause of death. I thought it was a gunshot, but with every year now I lose more faith in my ability to accurately recall things great or small.
My dad came back from next door to announce Dr. Maginot was dead and that Marcus, my best friend, was “working himself into a fit in the front window.” I don't know if it was Marcus' emotional reaction or his placement in public view that irked my dad so. I don't recall ever talking with Marcus about it.
The next Christmas I got the hot Christmas gift for little boys, a Tiger Joe tank, and Marcus got a smaller knock-off. That was my first experience with injustice and it spelled the end of our friendship. His shame, I guess, or maybe my pity was too much for two little boys to get past.
Marcus had a big brother whom we both avoided, there was something deeply mean about Preston. I had two older brothers and a little sister. My little sister and I slept in the same room as children until I was ten. We each had a photo album, every page of first child Jim's album was filled, Jerry had a few empty pages in the back, I had a few more and Janeesa's about halfway. Mom went to work when I turned twelve. My album contains a picture of me standing on an end table wearing a t-shirt with Johnny Stiles across the front, arms outstretched, crying. Every girl I ever brought home was treated to that picture and mom's loving description of the scene. Odd in the extreme as I had been awakened and put on a small table for the photographer. Clearly I was in great pain and reaching out for mom. But the picture was more important. A picture of a child crying to be held by a mother who didn't want to spoil the shot by meeting my outstretched arms.
I know no more about my father's childhood than that he was an only child and his father was a judge. I know that because mom often referred to his only childness as if it explained - something.
I know a great deal more about my mom's childhood than I'd like to. Her older brother, Raymond, was the favored one. Mom related stories about grandmother that I never could reconcile with the tiny, frail, sweet woman I knew. Mom's dad was surely the product of farming the awful rust-colored dirt that didn't blow away in the Dust Bowl. My little sister and I spent several summers on the farm and I don't recall grandfather ever being off the tractor. I remember laying on a cot by the front door listening to some fifties doo-wop while a warm breeze blew through the screen door. I remember being content and knowing what that meant. I wasn't yet a teen-ager because with my teen years came long hair and banishment from the farm. Hair was a powerful totem back then.
I recall nothing about third, fourth or fifth grades. I do have strong feelings about being out of step with everyone else. When I finally got the gold colored zipper notebook I longed for, all the cool kids were carrying cloth-backed notebooks. I was stuck with an oversize shiny gold notebook. I hated that notebook and couldn't understand why my parents made me carry it to school every day. They must have been trying to impart some lesson but I haven't a clue what it was. I was always surprised when someone was friendly toward me, I must have had a terrible self-image.
Once in Middle School I met Jamie and Monica. They were virtually European in their coolness. Both were in the debate program (as my brothers had been) so I joined up.
Junior and High School
Jamie introduced me to David Bowie, intellectualism, a normal family, and a precious little sister. I still know Jamie, he lives in Bali and we talk from time to time. Monica introduced me to a different sort of girl, tough, smart, direct, and funny. Monica and I were an item for a short time in high school. My high school flame was a darling red-headed cheerleader named Pam. We “went steady” for two years and I have no idea what she saw in me. It seemed to end as abruptly as it started. Pam's was the first tongue I ever felt and it was an electric experience. I recall clearly we were in the back seat of someone's car (probably Jamie) and when our tongues met I was transported. Two years later we broke up. Seeing other people or some such I don't recall. I was surprised when she called me a couple of weeks after we broke up to remind me I was her date to the Junior Girls Picnic. I must have said something like, huh, and was reminded by a stern Pam that since we had gone steady for two years there was no way she was going to be able to get a date on short notice. I learned later (thank you Jamie and Monica) she was already seeing someone when we broke up. I guess he had a date to the Picnic. So, there I was driving Pam and I to the picnic when we stopped off for some chocolate milk. Really, chocolate milk. Upon leaving the convenience store we were broadsided by a pickup truck and spun into the ditch. Nobody hurt but the car was totaled. Dad came out, took one look, and drove away. When I called Mom, she said that was probably for the best. Honestly, as an adult and parent I cannot imagine exhibiting such reprehensible behavior. It was a car for Heaven's sake. That was the last date for Pam and I. She's an attorney in Chicago, at least last time I looked back in the 80's she was. Hope she's happy, she made me deliriously so for two otherwise difficult years in High School.
I don't recall any other girlfriends in high school except Dotti. I met Dotti at the Dallas Jesuit debate tournament. Her coach had assigned her to follow around some respected team. We destroyed them in a preliminary round so Dottie started following us around. We made out in the parking lot (I had driven up from Houston in my 351 cubic inch Mach 1 Mustang - a story for another time). Three or four years later she crawled naked into my bed in Austin (I had transferred from the UH). I hadn't seen her in over a year but we had kept in touch. Another strong Texas woman undeterred and undeterrable from whatever objective she had in mind.
I skipped ahead. For a reason. Junior High was a nightmare, living in fear of held-back Mike Sicola, having nightmares about not finding my class (in elementary we had to master only one address, in Junior there were six, or six-hundred, I forget), and faking my way through band class for two years. The trumpet. I never could elicit anything from it other than a hoarse bleating. I can't remember any teachers from Junior High except maybe Coach Kalina, a nasty man who failed to teach me higher math. He sat at his desk, hands behind his head, arms akimbo and giant yellow stains under each armpit gagging us all. My God, were there no adults around to help him?
My last two (total three) years in Junior High were dominated by debate, extemporaneous, impromptu and oratory. Debate was my favorite and when I discovered cross-examination debate later in High School I found my calling. Every summer was spent writing everyone under the sun that might have some information on the topic of the year. The US Congress was a fountainhead of data. It had to all be catalogued and made available at a seconds notice when an opponent's argument could be shattered by this or that expert testimony. We lugged around files of index cards that were taller than we were. The art was to track the other person's argument and be sure to counter it when your turn came. When countering in the cross-examination portion your opponent might dissolve into tears if you weren't careful. Bad form, but such fun. To this day I cannot understand a sentient human being taking some nonsense position without the ability to explain it. Talking points, it's all talking points. I've learned not to counter the passionate idiot, it never works out well.
High school was a breeze as Jamie and Monica had preceded me into the big league and sucked me right up into their crowd. Debate continued, I met Pam, and then between my sophomore and junior year everything fell apart. Dad quit the Post Office, went to work at a Stop and Go, contracted ALS and was confined to the VA Hospital within a year or so. Mom became the primary breadwinner and I think she really hated it. Really smart and consigned to secretary until some executive figured she could keep books. They sold the house and we moved into an apartment just over the line dividing the have somethings from the have everythings. Debate continued for another year, my junior year, and then in some colossal mental collapse, I quit debate to focus full time on drinking and smoking pot. I spent a few weeks in the psych ward at Bellaire General following a failed suicide attempt but I can't place the year with any accuracy. Jamie came to my rescue one day when he suggested I should just walk out. I did but not before being nearly molested by some thirty-something patient on our wing.
Next: Veronica, CO poisoning, and a lost year
A recent dream featured a small feuding farming community and a band of druid type in long flowing robes declaring a miracle in the fields. They had taken stalks of wheat, tied ears of corn to one end, supported the contraption on a stick and danced about declaring corn had sprung from the wheat. They began to set the trees afire and, in a genuine miracle, fruit sprang spontaneously from the burned branches. Lemon fruit. The first thing my therapist did was look up lemons in the symbology of dreams and found it connoted grief. So, I'm dreaming of an underlying conflict resolved in or by grief.
Assuming the underlying conflict is my attempt to reconcile who I am with who I feel I am, the grief is for my parents and siblings. A grief I've never experienced.
I'm the “go to” guy in an emergency because I am imminently rational and controlled. Or better - disconnected. Disconnected from my feelings. I now see the disconnect as occurring much earlier than the tragedies of ALS and suicide. I have never thought much about the fact that I had virtually no relationship with my father. I was mom's favorite child, she would tell of carrying me on her hip far longer than any of the other children. The photo of me crying and reaching out for her is informative.
I earlier described my father as typical of his generation, the strong silent type. But that isn't true. He was animated with my eldest brother, the football player, and overtly affectionate toward my little sister. And me? Ignored. Resented perhaps for stealing away the attention of his young bride. It would explain the absence of any memories of interactions with dad other than those depicting contempt. “Useless” he called me when I brought the wrong cigarettes back from the market. I still feel the humiliation and pain of that rebuke. I couldn't have been more than six years old. I was, to him, a nuisance or worse, a rival. Shunned by my father, I steeled up to protect, disconnected, so I wouldn't feel the unimaginable pain of that rejection. And, like any self-centered child, assumed I was the cause. I must be useless, or worse. Not being able to apprehend the enormity of what was happening I simply disconnected. If I don't feel it, it can't hurt. If I don't feel my father's illness and death, my siblings suicide, my mother's destruction, I'll be safe. No grief allowed. No grieving for the lost relationship with my dad, his death, the deaths of Jerry and Janeesa. Internalizing responsibility for all these events while not experiencing the loss through grief, the scar tissue just deepened over the years.
And the dream is my subconscious finally fighting through the coping mechanism of the disconnect to invite a renewal, a spiritual Spring, born in finally grieving the loss of so much. But I still don't know how. I'm working on it.
Veronica and the car will have to wait a bit to reveal themselves.
Veronica and the Cars
I've started three times and this is the fourth attempt. It must be Veronica. I still don't know what to make of her. She was a devotee of all things spiritual from Bhuddism to horoscopes to meditation. She was supremely confident, whip smart and always in control. We were inseparable for a year and a half, I flew out to her dad's ranch to spend the weekend with her, we spent every free moment with each other. Until we didn't. I can't recall any specifics but I do recall feeling like I had disappointed her somehow. To this day it breaks my heart. I reached out to her many years later and made contact with her dad. When I asked after her he wanted to know who I was. Veronica died of leukemia a few years ago, he said. I wished I could have been with her, she was inspired by life and relished all its mysteries, she must have greeted her death with the same awe struck wonder. It was decades and many relationships later before I met someone else I didn't have to carry. Only two out of a dozen or so “serious” relationships where I thought we were on a level playing field. What if Veronica and I had remained together only to lose her to leukemia.
The car was a muscle car that reached 90 as if it were 50 and easily exceeded 100 mph. I drove with great abandon. Stopped once on a major Houston freeway at 9 pm doing 115, I was the madman I now rail against. I still drive fast but I haven't seen 90 in twenty years. The car was provided to “level the playing field” with all the rich kids at school. It didn't level anything, of course, my social status could not be overcome by a fast car. The car I totaled on the Junior Girls picnic was also a Mustang. It is almost impossible to not see my high school driving habits as suicidal in nature. Not overt, that would come soon enough, but I risked my life almost every time I took the wheel. What suppressed hurt or fear was I attempting to assuage by driving so recklessly? Is there a connection between my dad leaving me in the street with a totaled car and the out of control driver I became? I'll likely need some help making or breaking the connection. I nearly did myself in with a garden hose out of the exhaust into the passenger compartment in my senior year in high school. I found an isolated stretch of road and hooked up the chamber only to awaken hours later with a bad headache. Enough water had condensed inside the garden hose that the carbon monoxide couldn't pass. If there truly are no coincidences then what is the link between the wrecked car, the muscle car and my scary driving, and my formal attempt to end it all. Thinking…
Assuming responsibility, that's a good thing, right? Always thought so, it's what men do, or adults, or the one responsible. Therein is the rub, what if the assumption of responsibility bears no relationship to actual responsibility? Nice if it's a stray dog or a crying child, but if it's a terminally ill father and two suicidal siblings and a broken mom, well, assuming that responsibility carries more weight than anyone can carry. It becomes a crushing weight, a reality so dense and painful a way must be found to bear it, or bury it.
Until this year I had no idea I was shouldering that weight. It isn't something I can shrug off, though, it has become part of me. Like Jeff Tweedy's marvelously powerful song that decries, “I fell in love with the weight that was dragging me down.” Now, though, I have a tool. A lever or block and tackle (whatever that is!) that I have to learn to wield in such a way that I can get our from under. The weight will always be there, but I think I can fashion a permanent relief if I hold fast to this new experience, therapy. So much makes so much more sense now and so much I've done wrong is clear to me now. This can go nowhere but up. I hope you'll come with me.
We've heard in many different ways that we use only a small percentage of our brain's capacity. Beyond the small portion dedicated to “consciousness” and the larger portion controlling the autonomic functions of our body, our brain is working in secret on at least two levels of which I am aware.
One was formed in youth and is a function of experience. In my case that may be the one that experienced rejection from my father, madness in my mother, self destruction in my best friends dad, the grocer at the end of our block, my brother and sister and her husband. Self-destruction was, for me, modeled well and often.
The second I have come to know only recently through my dreams. This John seems to be working furiously at understanding, healing, and the integration of the other Johns into something new and whole. If you read this as multiple personality or dissociative disorder I've missed the mark. We are all routinely integrating our experience with our worldview. Freud tagged the multiple selves as the Id, Ego, and Super-Ego. Jung takes a more nuanced view and talks of a shadow self, sometimes operating at cross-purposes with out better interests.
In my case, the experiential self, cast in the traditional formative years, seems to believe things will never turn out alright, that no matter how much I want to influence events for the better, I will fail. In full self-protection mode this John will not form close relationships (too risky) and effectively isolates, compartmentalizes and shuts down any real empathy for others, feelings are a road to misery for this John.
The second John, the one working hard to fix things, is the subconscious John. Working in images and symbols, he holds out hope and healing. Last night, for example, I dreamed of being with three other people and explaining to them that we do not have to be controlled by our experience but can transcend experience and operate from a position of light, healing and hope. Each of the other three people took a deep breath and as they exhaled, accepted this principle. I can too, but most of my time is spent in the struggle to overcome the experiences that have, in some significant ways, malformed my psyche. I earlier describe that John as a lurking slasher. I think less harshly of him now but he nonetheless controls huge swaths of my behavior. Fear and bitterness are his tools and he wields them effectively.
The John that is typing these words is working hard to defend himself and has discovered a powerful ally in the sub-conscious. I know we'll win over that hurt and frightened child. Not to banish him, just remove him from the decision making process.
To that end I have begun Jung's man and His Symbols after having finished “This Journey We Call Life.” I have a powerful guide and am surrounded by people who care deeply for me so I don't see how I can lose.
The Much Harder Work
What if the myth of the Garden is not about God at all? What if the separation/expulsion is about something both universal and personal? Leaving the womb is our first experience with separation and it occurs before consciousness has established a foothold. The next separation occurs when we begin to differentiate ourselves from parent, when the sense of “I” is first introduced. So, like Man outside the Garden (only worse), we experience two shattering separations long before we have the mental or psychic tools to understand.
These wounds commence our search for wholeness, for the restoration of our oneness. If our parents have a less than healthy relationship and are themselves suffering, then modeled for us from the very beginning is yet more brokenness.
Little wonder then when our adult relationships are formed with the expectations that we have found the Other that can make us whole. We see in them the very things we most need but it is a false sight, a projection onto the Other. I see in you that which I seek. But what I see is an illusion, a projection from my unconscious need to heal the primal wounds suffered at birth and at consciousness.
The challenge then becomes to identify the particular adaptive mechanisms adopted by the unconscious, to bring them into consciousness. In so doing I can begin to withdraw the projections that have prevented me from knowing you. But first I must strip away the unconscious adaptations with which I have bridged the separation. They will be legion, some more significant than others; the withdrawal from intimacy, the blind dependence on the imagined Other, the shadow self that lives in fear and failure.
It will likely be the hardest thing I've ever done and is the work of a lifetime.
Films On DVD