Welcome to Armageddon

September 25, 2020

“I’m going to tell you a true story, okay?”

Callie is looking at her phone but you know she is listening. You are driving her to rehearsal. She has a big part in Les Miserables. She plays the grown-up version of Cosette. Though you saw the movie you don’t really remember the story. Victor Hugo is not your thing. Being a musical, Callie has been practicing her song for weeks. You’ve heard her belting out lyrics from her room, in the shower, on the trampoline in the backyard, which she pretended was a stage. You couldn’t tell if she was good or not but her enthusiasm was infectious. It gladdened you to see her so passionate, so happy. Many members from your family are coming in to see her perform. Hundreds of other people as well. The tickets cost money and this is a real show. Up until yesterday Callie had been totally psyched.

One of her “friends” had disrespected her online, insulting her singing skills or some other shit. Usually a brick, Callie had been wounded.  Your wife told you as much. Now you felt it in your daughter’s sullen demeanor.

So you tell her a story…

“Before you were born,” you begin. “Back when I was coming up at my agency in Chicago, we were preparing for this huge presentation. It was my idea we’d be showing. I had written all the copy. And I had the game to go with it. I knew what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. I had my shit down.”

Callie looks up when you curse. Good. You had her attention. No easy feat with a teenager.

“Anyway, the night before I rehearsed my bit in front of the team. I get done. My colleagues are pleased. One even clapped. Then the head account person –the guy who deals with the client- he proceeds to crap all over my work. He’s not happy with the creative, he says. It’s shit. I’m dumbfounded. Where did this come from? He’d seen it before.”

Traffic on the 101 is heavy but it allows you to turn and look at your daughter. “The guy says to me, in front of everybody, if you present that work tomorrow it will be Armageddon.”

“The end of the world?” Callie asks. “What did you do?” Callie’s eyes are one of her most beautiful features, big and blue, and they are wide open staring at you.

You laugh. “I told him I would make changes. That I’d do what he wanted.”

“That sucks,” your daughter says.

“It would have sucked,” you say. “Had I listened to him. The next day I delivered my presentation just as I’d planned it. My work. My way. And I fucking killed it. When I was done the client cheered.”

“Really?”

“Damn straight,” you say. “But the story’s not over. After the meeting ends, everybody’s shaking hands, patting each other on the back. I walk over to the account guy who’d dissed my work. He thinks I’m going to shake his hand. I look him right in the eyes, and I say, ‘Welcome to Armageddon, asshole.’”

Almost missing your exit, you swiftly change lanes. So caught up are you in the tale.

“Wow, that’s a great story, dad,” Callie says. “It’s all true?”

“Every bit, sweetheart.”

At the red light, you look at Callie full on. The middle child, she’s the sassy one. The daughter that gives your wife the most trouble. You choose your words carefully. “If people disrespect you or your work that does not mean you have to listen to them. Just be…”

The light turns green and you move the car forward. The word comes to you.

“Devastating.”

AA teaches that redemption comes from being of service. Letting go the bondage of self. This is true. Yet redemption also comes by shattering the chains from the bondage of others. You want your daughter to believe in herself, even when others don’t.

In the parking lot, Callie thanks you for driving her to practice. But you sense something deeper. You can see it in her eyes.

The fierceness has returned.

You watch Callie as she marches toward the theater, joining her other cast members. When she was a toddler, she had refused to walk upright, instead choosing to tread on her knees. The pediatrician had concerns. Your wife was worried. It’s not normal, they said. But you knew her day would come. And in your mind so did she.

The world is a stage and you just gave an important player some badass direction.

Stray Cat Blues

September 15, 2020

Lying in bed you wait for the Seroquel and Gabapentin to kick in, drugs that were prescribed 15 years ago by the head of addiction therapy at Rush Hospital in Chicago. He’d said they were non-habit forming. Yet you cannot sleep without them. Go figure.

Despite being agnostic/atheist, you say a brief and scattered prayer, thanking a “Higher Power” (AA‘s euphemism for God) for keeping you clean and sober and forgiving you your defects of character. When you awake you will ask God to help you with these same things… Asking for help. Giving thanks. Prayer at its simplest. The least you can do. Taught early in recovery to fake it ‘till you make it isa strategy you still employ.

Before your eyes adjust to the dark you roll over, gathering the pillows to your chest as a child might a stuffed animal. In fact, you sucked your thumb until you were almost a teen-ager. Even now, during times of stress, you still chew your pinkie finger, gnawing on it the way your dog does his chewy. At work, you often caught yourself with a finger in your mouth. While no one ever said anything they surely must have noticed. You imagine it was one of the unsaid reasons they had to let you go. Firing The Man Who Chewed His fingers. It’s not normal. You pick at the callous, thinking, knowing, it will be there forever. The medication begins lowering its shroud, like the fog rolling over Mt. Tam. Soon you will be asleep.

Outside a cat yowls, piercing the night. At a skunk, raccoon or possibly coyote. Such were the consequences of straying. Or, maybe it found another cat and is fucking it silly. That could easily be it, too, another consequence of straying- a better one.

You fall asleep.

Eagles, Kings & Royals

September 5, 2020

West of you was trouble, turf battled over by Latin Eagles, Latin Kings, and a hillbilly gang called the Simon City Royals. Most every garage was tagged with graffito. It got worse every block. When the Cubs nearly did something right in 1969, Wrigleyville was a war zone. Latino gangsters literally stood on the sidewalks taunting fans or worse. If there wasn’t a game there was no reason to be there. If and when you ventured that direction, to catch a bus or visit the arcade, you stashed lunch money in your sock and a few bills in your pocket to pay off the muggers.

You’d accumulated a hodge-podge of friends, misfits like you, who hid in books and hobbies, and still others more doomed by their circumstances. Some would join gangs or defy them, always fighting or fleeing. Together you were a group of electrons in an unstable atom. Catching fish in the lake. Avoiding being caught in an alley. God only knows what glue held you together. Comic books. Films. Music. But soon came liquor, pills and weed; those false prophets that caused you so much pain while pretending to soften it. And through it all, those alluring and delirious creatures from distant, unobtainable shores, sirens that beckoned you to this day: Women.

More soon…

Two Flats and Butterflies

September 3, 2020

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Yet, you were inquisitive in other ways, always wanting to know why. You liked to talk with adults and easily made them laugh. You got Woody Allen. You had a superb vocabulary and received high marks at school. Less physical and more sensitive than the average boy, you preferred nature to the man-made and pursued hobbies over sports. You collected rocks, raised guppies and caught butterflies, managed to find numerous species darting and flitting amid the small backyards on your block.

Your father was Jewish and your mother Catholic. But neither practiced their faith, nor pretended to, and so neither did you. Your folks were frantically creating the “Me” generation. Religion played no part. The only time you entered church or temple was for confirmations or a bat mitzvah. Like any kid, you couldn’t wait to leave. God wasn’t good or bad. God wasn’t anything.

You lived off Lincoln Park, in what was then called New Town, only then it was an old feeling place, with rows of decaying apartments and two-flats, their facades crumbling and peeling, yellow and grey bricks stacked up from the sidewalks. Some had front yards, more just plots, comprised mostly of crabgrass and pissed-upon Junipers, or courtyards, hard packed with dust and rubble. After a vigorous rain, you found night crawlers there by the hundreds, collecting them for fishing or merely regarding them in awe. Hard ground saturated, they came from below to mate, sticking to one another like spaghetti. In a decade, gay people would transform the neighborhood, seeking community, and after them would come everyone else. But for now it was an uneasy mix of Latinos, Asians and a handful of others, like you. Bohemians. Nicer was just east, a two-block sliver of grand homes, opulent apartment buildings and modern high-rises facing Lake Michigan. Living so close, you took advantage of the park by the lake and caught perch from its shore, bringing stringers home to fillet and cook in hot oil. The lake was vast, like an ocean.

To be continued…

Twist & Shout

August 31, 2020

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Back in the day, sucking my thumb…

Madly dancing with your mother and brother, Meet the Beatles circles the turntable, its iconic sleeve lying on a bronze carpet next to the stereo. You’re not sure the song, Twist and Shout? The memory is faded. Like home movies before smartphones. Technicolor. Monophonic. Giddy.

Your mom is pretty, with super short hair like Mia Farrow or Twiggy. You and Jess wore it long like Beatles. You know this more from photographs than the memory itself. You wish it were more vivid, less fleeting. Five years old, you had no idea a revolution was sweeping the country. Who killed the Kennedy’s? Viet Nam. You only remember dancing. That it was giddy. Your father wasn’t there. Fleeting.

15 pounds overweight, maybe 20, pigeon-toed, a mop of brown hair you seldom combed, you have a favorite sweatshirt and loose fitting cords, from the Husky Collection at Sears. You didn’t care about appearances, not yet. You even tolerated correctional shoes. You were happy, in this brief lull, which constituted your childhood.

The impact your parent’s divorce had on you would come soon enough, in waves and aftershocks. For now you saw your father on weekends and that seemed good enough, special even, with its inappropriate Saturday night movies and boozy football parties on Sunday. Your mother was both easy and difficult to be around. She saw many doctors, went to group therapy. But she knew how to cook like a French chef and you knew how to eat. Her bouts with depression, fits of madness, you did not see it then. Or chose not to.

To be continued…