big time

I hated growing up in my old hometown. People who lived in my town were either senior citizens or people whose families had lived there for multiple generations. It was relatively poor, unless you lived on the ridge above town or overlooking the lake. The downtown was dead (except for one good record store), and you had to go to a nearby city to do any serious shopping. The weather was blazing hot and dry all summer, and the vegetation looked dead or in serious distress every year. High school graduates, who were becoming more rare every year, had to leave town to go to college or find good jobs, and most of them never came back. There were few options for kids to do something other than fight or get into trouble or kill themselves and others while they were drunk driving. Crime was high, suicides were high, and homelessness was becoming a serious problem. There were so many drug addicts, and this was before methamphetamines took over. It wasn’t a fun place to live.

I wanted out, partly because I hated it there and partly because of bad memories of my childhood forever associated with the town. My first escape was to college in Nevada, but for various reasons, I had to return to town. I was angry about it, and I knew I had to leave again. In the meantime my adopted mom died, which broke the last link I had keeping me there. My girlfriend hated the town too, so we made a plan to get out. We got married, sold my childhood house, and moved elsewhere in California; I finished college before we moved out of state for several years. We returned to California for a while, then left again, moving to Ohio where we have been since 2005.

I’ve always liked the song “Big Time” by Peter Gabriel. Some of the lyrics:

The place where I come from is a small town
They think so small, they use small words
But not me, I’m smarter than that, I worked it out
I’ll be stretching my mouth to let those big words come right out
I’ve had enough, I’m getting out
to the city, the big big city

I remember being in my bed as a teen listening to this and thinking about leaving my hometown and the small-town life there. I think my wife and I have been pretty successful after leaving. We visited her extended family a few times many years ago, but I couldn’t wait to leave again because of the memories of living there. Now her family there has all moved away, so I have no reason to ever go back.

what do you want from me?

The problem with being a child genius is that everyone wants something from you.

The kid in 2nd grade wanted to cheat off my paper. The kid in 3rd grade wanted someone to be the butt of his joke. The girl in 5th grade wanted someone to manipulate. The teenager at church wanted to mock me as I performed for him. The school principal and the teacher wanted a spelling champion. Another teacher wanted an aide to help her teach the kids who didn’t understand. The kid in 6th grade wanted a partner in crime so he wouldn’t get in trouble all the time. The people at church wanted another fine young man to mold into someone who was less of a disappointment than their own kids.

The problem with being a child genius is that you want to prove how smart you are.

I let people cheat off my papers. I allowed people to bully, tease, and manipulate me. I performed for those who wanted entertainment from me. I spelled everything that was thrown at me. I gave answers and spread wisdom and behaved the way I was expected to. I believed the hype. I was full of myself.

The problem with being a child genius is that you believe you have everything figured out while you fail to realize you are socially and emotionally inept.

I couldn’t relate to my peers socially. I didn’t understand how to have meaningful friendships. My own depression was off the charts, even before the bipolar symptoms emerged. I kept my home life secret from everyone out of shame. I tried to use intelligence to buy acceptance and friendship. I would latch on to people hoping for understanding but receiving dismissal.

The problem with being a child genius is that eventually nobody gives a shit.

abusive memories

I started writing a different post, and it triggered a memory. It’s really important that I write this first.

I just heard a voice from the distant past saying, “don’t get too big for your pants.” That was always a code phrase for whenever this person was telling me I was too arrogant or full of myself; in other words, she was trying to tear me down anytime I felt a little bit of confidence.

Another one of her greatest hits was, “you’re breeding a scab on your nose,” which to me meant that I was setting myself up for embarrassment and failure. When I heard that code phrase, I would stop what I was doing because I was afraid to be seen as a failure. If she saw me as a failure, everyone else would too. This also made me want to succeed at things to spite her, and I’ve been told that spite is an ugly emotion.

I repeat those phrases in my head, and all I feel is negative emotions from the memory: anger at her for pulling a child into her bitter negativity; sadness for myself, who never learned to shake off the power her words had over me; and frustration at how badly this damaged my psyche to the point I would rarely have confidence in anything I do.

I can’t stress enough the effect this has had on me as a child, as a teen, and as an adult. My entire life has been filled with instances where I could have tried something new, but I didn’t have the fearlessness to try whatever it was because I thought it was predetermined that I would fail. I can’t count the times I might have been really good at something, but I was afraid to give it a shot for fear of embarrassment or ridicule.

I was a really smart kid, but I had no answer for the verbal abuse that was inflicted on me every day. I was book smart, but I had no emotional intelligence. I say that as if I’m blaming myself, but how could I lean and grow emotionally when I was stifled by the pressure-cooker environment I lived in? I knew my life was messed up, but not once did it occur to me that I wasn’t at fault somehow. A lifetime of emotional depression was caused by one mentally ill person constantly abusing a child, passing that mental illness down as if it were genetic, and morphing it to fit my specific weaknesses.

Failure, shame, embarrassment, sadness, anger. It has taken me many, many years to attempt to put these thoughts behind me and move on with life. I haven’t succeeded yet.

positively negative thoughts

When I start feeling too positive about myself, I look for something negative to relieve the pressure. For example, this time I thought about multiple teenage social encounters with girls who didn’t have the slightest interest in me.

There was the girl I took to the company Christmas party because I worked with her older sister, but I was told later she found me boring. There was the “wingman” incident where my friend and his girlfriend got it on in her house, and I was left for an awkward hour with her disinterested friend. Then there was the time I was trying to talk to a girl in class, while she was trying to set up a “sleepover” with another person in class.

Remembering good times. I fucking love my brain.

cold wetlands, hot chili

Cold, rainy, slushy days remind me of my days in Oregon and Washington studying wetlands for delineations and permits. Developers always wanted their wetland study done in the late fall to winter so they could get their plans drawn for work in summer. Unfortunately this meant that I was trying to identify plants with no flowers or leaves, sometimes missing important species, or in the case of grasses trying to find stems that still had seeds. Of course it was usually raining, or even turning to snow, and I would end up getting sick from being wet and cold for hours.

There was one interesting location near Mount Hood about an hour from Portland. It was a tangled mosaic of wet and dry areas, with fens, meadows, and riparian wetlands interspersed with upland forest. It was a peaceful place, cool in summer under the shade of the tall hemlocks and Douglas firs, and it was botanically fascinating. On one wet slope I painfully discovered Devil’s Club, a nasty wetland shrub with thorns on the trunk, the leaf stems, and even on the leaves. Digging in the fens, I found identifiable plant material possibly hundreds of years old, preserved in the muck due to the cold groundwater and lack of oxygen. I hoped this place would never get developed, and 25 years later it is still intact.

There had been some logging prior to my visiting the site, and several trees were still lying on the ground. I was working with a student intern who was identifying plants for me. We were hiking through the woods when we heard a chain saw. We looked through the trees and saw a guy who was probably stealing firewood from the property. As we got closer, we realized he was naked except for a work boots and a cowboy hat. We looked at each other in disbelief, and hid in the bushes wondering what we should do. We must have moved the brush a little, because he suddenly looked in our general direction, put down the saw, and quickly moved behind his pickup to put clothes on. Tiffany and I decided to just go the other way and let him enjoy his lumberjack fantasy.

One miserable November day at this site, after being out in the bone-chilling drizzle for hours, my boss took me to eat at a nearby cafe he knew about from a previous visit. They had huge bowls of chili and bread, and a big fireplace to warm up by. It was the best chili ever.

the road trip of ’86 and eddie van halen

Many, many years ago, when I was 16, our family and another family (The Rileys) took a road trip in our RV from California to Ohio, making a half-circle around the country. The Rileys wanted to see their son in Cincinnati; Mr. Riley was going to a church convention in Indianapolis and wanted to visit several churches on the way; Mrs. Riley wanted her best friend, my adoptive mom, to come along; A-mom volunteered to do most of the driving; and I just wanted to see something different than my hometown. 

So off we went, six people in a 25-foot RV. I’ll spare you the details, but the high points were:

  • driving US 50 in Nevada, the “loneliest highway in America”
  • having part of the RV catch fire in Utah (we put out the fire)
  • riding the Pikes Peak cog railroad in Colorado
  • playing basketball and fighting with our foster kid, Bob, at a church in Indiana
  • visiting the Arch in St. Louis
  • getting a really bad sunburn at King’s Island waterpark in Ohio
  • competing in the “Bible Bowl” at the convention in Indy (basically a bible trivia contest)
  • being dissed by the cute Ohio girl who gave me the stiff arm (she liked Bob instead)
  • going to a Cincinnati Reds game
  • seeing the Neil Armstrong museum
  • camping at Yellowstone National Park

Four weeks and 6000 miles later, we all piled out of the RV. The aftermath included The Rileys headed for divorce within a year; Mrs. Riley eventually came to live with us; Bob and I hated each other, and he eventually moved out; and that I thoroughly enjoyed the trip but realized I was socially inept.

I told you that story so I could tell you this one:

Mr. Riley liked Pizza Hut, and we stopped at several along the way. One time there was a jukebox, and I saw something that would make everyone irritated. Soon, blasting through the speakers was Van Halen’s “Eruption”. Eddie Van Halen tapped and wailed and screamed through the Pizza Hut, and everyone was stunned. At the end A-mom asked “WHAT WAS THAT?” I just laughed.

high inquisitor

I have questioned my memory of the person I was in the past. I think I was a decent person, but at the same time broken, awkward, and angry due to the years of abuse. I tend to remember the worst of who I was and how I treated people, and I remember the stupid things I did because of early-onset bipolar. These feelings happen during my depressive moods, and I have a difficult time escaping the darkness that envelops my thought processes.

I have this irrational desire to question my old friends to find out what I was like from their perspective and see how terrible a person I really was. I found something I wrote here during a depressive spiral in 2011:

I keep going back to my memory to try to find the answers on my own, but I need [old friends’] testimony as evidence to build the case against myself. I want to know if they remember everything the way I do, if their story checks out with the alleged facts in my mind. I have to know what they were thinking or feeling at the time, why they did what they did, why they cared about me in the first place, what I did to drive them away, … and why they decided they could no longer trust me. I need them to tell me how badly I hurt them, and if those scars remain, and if they think about those times with sadness or anger. I want them to confirm that I was really the monster I think I was.

I’ve had people from the past tell me they remember me as a basically good person and a good friend who seemed to have things figured out. Maybe I really fooled them, which makes me a disingenuous fraud, or they aren’t being truthful; either way, I don’t believe them. I think they are trying to protect my feelings, trying to be supportive and kind rather than honest. That’s not what I want from them; I want the unvarnished facts, don’t pull your punches, give it to me straight … I can handle the truth.

I want to know … but I don’t know if I have the right to ask these questions. I want to put people I’ve loved through this insane line of questioning even though it might hurt them now more than I ever did before. Sometimes I’m prepared to torture my friends and family to get the truth, and fuck the consequences. … I know I shouldn’t do this, to myself or my loved ones, but I’m still obsessed. I still want to know, even if I have to hurt them to get the answers.

 

I have had to accept that people from my past grew up and let go; they’ve moved on, lived their life, and made their choices … while leaving me in their past. They have forgotten the exact details of that afternoon in 1986, or that weekend in 1989, or that evening in 1993. They don’t remember what song was playing, or what cookies we shared, or where we sat in the grass. They have done what adults do, leaving the details to fade into the background, just remembering the highlights, maybe feeling a little nostalgia when looking at an old yearbook, but then closing the yearbook and coming back to the present.

Sometimes I don’t know how to do that. Sometimes I want to punish myself by examining everything in painful detail, repeatedly analyzing what went wrong and what I could have done to fix it, wishing I could go back and just make a small revision or two, and wanting to find out how the story could have ended.

cheerleader

All parents are cheerleaders for their kids to a certain extent, but my adoptive mom was the whole squad. As I got older it became embarrassing when she would tell people how smart I was, how good a singer or musician I was, or how skilled at baseball I was. Even when I was proven to not be the best in those endeavors, she would stubbornly hold on to the belief that I was better than anyone else. She would complain to the coach when I didn’t get enough playing time, and she would tell the choir director that I deserved a solo when I really didn’t. I was her precious genius with superpowers, and she mollycoddled me to the point of smothering.

Despite A-mom being a cheerleader for me to the rest of the world, she never seemed to encourage me very much at home. She never sat me down and said “you can make it through college, you’re smart enough.” I felt like my motivation to succeed came from myself, partly to escape poverty and partly to prove wrong the people who told me I wouldn’t amount to anything.

I wonder if she didn’t feel like she could help me anymore once we escaped the abuse in Treetown. Maybe she felt like I was grown up at that point, which was far from the truth. I wish I had someone to help me through the transition from high school to college, but the reality is I did it all by myself. I don’t think she wanted me to leave home, and I think she was quietly happy when my first attempt at freedom failed and I moved back home.

I don’t want to be unfair to her. We were poor, and we didn’t the financial opportunity to take advantage of special tutoring or coaching or music lessons. In addition, we were both recovering from years of abuse, and we were still in a raw emotional state, trying to figure out how to live a normal life. We needed therapy more than we needed music lessons, but we had the mistaken belief that Jesus would help us more than psychiatrists.

girl of my dreams

Lisa visited me again last night. Of all the people I’ve ever met, she is the one who appears in my dreams most often. Sometimes as a friend, sometimes as a lover, sometimes as someone else’s lover, but always with that brilliant, genuine smile that lights up the room and makes you feel like you are the most important person in her world.

During our friendship she saved me from my dark places, she saved Christmas for me, and on one occasion maybe saved me from hurting myself (though she never knew it). She was the most emotionally well-adjusted person I knew, but she had her problems too, and I was there for her to cry on my shoulder. She was the first person I ever truly loved, but we never officially became a couple because she said it would ruin the relationship. She was probably right, but at the time I would have followed her anywhere had she wanted me to.

We remained in contact for several years after I got married, and we even visited each other a couple of times. Then my bipolar started raging again, and my e-mails and messages got increasingly neurotic. It scared her away, and she said she couldn’t continue down that path. We drifted apart, like so many friendships do. It would be difficult to be friends again without saying or doing something stupid that would make her uncomfortable.

Out of all the people I’ve discarded and relationships I’ve let slip away, this is the one that hurts. I remember what we had in 1989, but I can’t seem to let that go. I couldn’t go to her wedding, and I can’t go to reunions because I would see her there. I’m afraid to write to her because I don’t know if she would be interested in what I have to say anymore.

We are friends on Fakebook, but we don’t interact with each other. How sad is that? I would have spent a lifetime with her, and now we have the ability to catch up on things but never do. I don’t know what her thinking is, but maybe she believes that I would just cause chaos that she doesn’t want. She’s probably right, as usual.

low brass, high anxiety

I was a good trombone player back in high school. I was also good with a tuba and a baritone, but the trombone was what I enjoyed the most. I earned a trip to the state honor band playing trombone, which I thought was pretty cool even though I was seated in the 3rd chair.

When I went to college in Reno, I joined the marching band and immediately realized I needed to elevate my trombone game. I was suddenly surrounded with serious music students who could play circles around me, so I needed to get better. Even though I was still 3rd chair, I improved, and I knew I belonged.

After my short stay in Reno, however, I didn’t play my ‘bone for a couple of years. The local junior college had no music program, and there was no community band to play with. I missed playing.At college in Hippietown, they had an infamous marching band, but I didn’t have time to commit to practice and performances.

There was an informal jazz band, so I joined that group hoping to have fun. Unfortunately it turned out there were serious musicians in that group as well. One time we got to a place in the music where there was supposed to be a trombone solo, and I didn’t know what to do with it. The director, trying to help, said “This is yours, man – just blow!” I had no idea how to improvise, and I quickly became intimidated and embarrassed to be there.

The last day I went to the practice to tell the director I was leaving. I made up an excuse about not having enough time to be able to practice, which was mostly true, but not the real reason I was quitting. As I was walking out the door, he turned to the group and, exasperated, said “Great, there goes our trombone player!”

That hurt. I felt like I was failing, and abandoning the group who had accepted me. Then again, I’ve abandoned lots of people and places over the years, and not dealt with the wreckage. It turns out it gets easier each time, and you care less much faster.

The sting of that day stuck with me, and I never played the trombone for anyone again. I kept it long enough to find out neither child had interest in playing music, then sold it for $100.

yearbook

At the end of the high school year, there was always the ritual of signing other people’s yearbooks. Mostly these were pithy little notes like “it’s been awesome knowing you” and “hope you have a great life”. Here’s what I wish I had written in one particular yearbook:

Congratulations, you lumbering dolt, for escaping high school at the bottom of the class. You’ve been a dick to me for the past 12 years, so go fuck yourself. Sincerely, Fishrobber. P.S. I made your mother squeal last night.

escape

This town doesn’t need a name, it’s just a place on the road to somewhere else. It’s not a destination, it’s a part of the map that people avoid. This place is a starting point for some people, a purgatory for others, and a finish line for too many. Youthful dreams and old memories die here, and the cemeteries are filled with restless spirits who could never get away. Those who stay are forever scarred by the desolation of this town, a place where hope withers in the parched landscape. Those who do escape have a dark spot on their memory burned away by the searing summer sun.

And yet … something calls me back to the place it all began. Someday I will visit again, and part of me will die a little more.

olympic peninsula

I don’t have anything of substance to say, so I’ll post a few pictures. In 1997, while working in Vancouver, I was sent to a 3-day workshop in Seattle that began on a Monday morning. Of course I didn’t go directly there. I spent the weekend looking at stuff on the Olympic Peninsula: rainforest, moss, elk, wetlands, beaches, Indian museums, forts, bridges, and ferries. It was a great weekend … until Sunday night, when I didn’t feel very well. I went to the Kingdome to watch a baseball game, and I became violently ill with some kind of intestinal distress. Ew, enough said. I was sick for the next three days, but I still attended the workshop for my boss. That is dedication.

Anyway, here are a few poor quality pictures from the peninsula.

lake_crescent
Crescent Lake at dusk. This photo was taken with a cheap plastic 35mm camera, then the paper photo was recently scanned. No color fixing. Despite the poor quality, one of my favorite photos ever.

ahlstrom_prairie
Dead Elk, Ahlstrom Prairie

ozette_trail
Boardwalk trail on the way to the beach.

whidbey
Whidbey Island Bridge (I know, too much dust!)