The world is full of beautiful things…

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(Written for another, now defunct, blog in September of 2005.)

By Scott Ross

Butterfly wings, fairy tale kings…

So sang Doctor Dolittle, anyway. The Leslie Bricusse one, not the Hugh Lofting. And anyway, it wasn’t the doctor, it was Matthew Mugg. Or Anthony Newley as Matthew. But I’m getting further away from the subject. Which is:

Sitting on the back porch of the office this afternoon, reading Son of a Witch and indulging in the twin perversions of caffeine and nicotine, I noticed a fluttering off to my right. Looking over I saw a butterfly. Late in the season, it seems to me, but it was a beautiful thing. The portion of wings closest to the body a purple so deep it seemed black, and on the tips a pattern in navy blue. There was no light to catch it today, but I thought that if there had been the blue pattern would have sparkled like the rarest of gems.

It flitted about aimlessly, in circles from parked car to asphalt and concrete, and over again. Now and then it paused on the ground to raise and lower its wings slowly, and I wondered if perhaps it was newly born. (Or newly chrysalized?) With its dark coloring and its flitting movements, it resembled a small bat — another creature I can watch on its rounds with great pleasure.

Several weeks ago I came out in the morning to find that someone, during the night, had deposited a small tub of colored goo bearing a Smoothie label on the porch. I found its lid and attached it. Eventually, tiring of the constant swarming of flies and ants, I moved it to the ground. At my touch the lid flew off — propelled, I assume, by the pent-up gas. There it has sat, turning rancid and vinegary, and a spider has set up her web nearby to catch the odd errant fly.

After a time, the butterfly began wending its way toward this monstrosity. Becoming fearful it would somehow either fall into the tub, or brush the web and, in either case, become hopelessly enmeshed, I knelt nearby to … right it? save it? I’m only sure that, had it somehow slipped and fallen into that putrid vat, I’d have found some delicate means of extricating it. Each time the butterfly wrested itself away from the lure of the tub and flit about, I held out my arm, palm down, as a resting place. Something in me wanted this creature to land on me, however briefly. To be, for a moment, a part of its beauty.

It never did, but I was relieved when, after falling into the tub and quickly righting itself again, it flew away, very rapidly now, to the east. I was reminded of how, a couple of weeks ago on a warm, sunny afternoon, I was gifted to witness the progression down our sidewalk of a pair of Buddhist monks. The deep saffron wraps trimmed with sumptuous orange, the cheerful silence even as they conversed quietly, was a kind of benediction on the day.

So it was with the butterfly: A measure of grace, unexpected, as grace always is, to bless a surly, sunless afternoon.

Text (other than Bricusse’s lyric) Copyright 2005, 2019 by Scott Ross

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Pushing the button: Panic attacks

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[Note: I am in the process of closing out the two blogs I created before this one and am transferring their contents here, so please bear with the sudden appearance of these “old” essays &cet.]

By Scott Ross

One of the lovelier aspects of chronic high anxiety are periodic panic attacks. I’ve been having these for years but, as they have always accompanied emotional unexpected trauma, it’s only comparatively recently that I’ve realized that is indeed the name for these episodes. In my case, it begins with being broadsided by another person. After the initial shock, my face becomes numb, my entire body begins to tremble violently and I experience a state very close to what I imagine disassociation must be like: My mind is sharply focused on the violation, but the world around me disappears — and with it, any possible rational verbal response. Later, when I’m calmer, I think this must be very close to the way people feel when they commit sudden, unplanned violence. If the prompting incident is a direct physical confrontation (as opposed, say, to a telephone conversation, e-mail or instant message) I will likely end up screaming at the source, and the only possible recourse for me is a hasty exit from the scene.

(Panic attacks are not necessarily the same as hyperventilation, although I’ve experienced that as well. The first time was when, in 1979, I saw Alien in a theatre during its opening weekend. I knew nothing about it. When that thing burst out of John Hurt’s chest, I hyperventilated for five minutes.)

The first panic-inducing event happened when I was 15. Thinking about it in later years, I used to believe I possessed a long use, and a very short one, and perhaps that is so. I now realize it’s not necessarily the case, but the long build-up to this particular explosion certainly lent itself to my making that assumption. I’ve written elsewhere that what we used to call junior high school was three years of howling pain for me. To be at all sensitive — or, as I also was, bookish, shy, introspective and un-athletic — in early adolescence is to wear a perpetual “Kick Me” sign on one’s back. Mine was pretty much permanently etched to my clothing. In the spring of my 9th grade year, one of the perennial bullies who dogged my existence chose a moment in gym class, during which we were to attempt making free shots, to ride me one time too often. My face went numb, my limbs shook, my head roared like a white-noise machine and I heard myself saying, “Eddie… Get. Off. My. Back!” My voice began low; by the end of my brief outburst, I was shouting.

The second such occurrence was a little over two years later. I had been working since 16, on a part-time basis, at a two-screen movie complex in Raleigh (how quaint that then-new concept seems now, in this era of googolplexes!) The owner was one of the meanest little men it has ever been my disagreeable misfortune to know, much less work for: Stingy, piggy-eyed, a petty martinet who smiled only at own, sour humor and who never looked anyone in the eye while speaking. His eyes moved either to the left, or the right, but were never focused on the other person. Ray Nance was almost a parody of the humorless, un-pleasable employer, so much so that we often said to each other that, had he been a character in a movie or a book, no one would accept him as anything but a caricature. His approach to Mr. Lynch, the kind, decent, gentle theatre manage was to belittle him consistently… and behind his back, naturally. (The assistant manager was Mr. Nance’s son, who, having learned well at his father’s knee, made it known to us all that Mr. Lynch was “an alkie.”) On one immemorial occasion, Mr. Nance had come to the theatre during a typically hectic opening-weekend Friday evening of a new and popular movie. The start-times for the movies we showed on either side of the complex were usually staggered only very modestly, and we often found ourselves coping with hordes of customers on both sides at the same time. Frantic but professional, a half-dozen of us had nonetheless performed behind the concession counter with our standard mix of politeness, good grace and humor — and it’s worth noting that we had no cash registers behind the concession stand; every order had to be remembered, the cost totaled up in our heads and the change given back to the customer without recourse to any accoutrement beyond that of our own nimble brains.

Mr. Nance’s usual practice was to arrive between screenings, when the lobby was deserted, leaving us all suddenly left scrambling to find some busy-work to do. The fastest ones made for the sanctuary of the theatre auditoriums. The rest had to improvise. Ashtray urns already clean? Sift them again. Carpet swept? Sweep it one more time. It was ludicrous, but such is the game these types play; Mr. Nance knew his own movies’ schedules. He knew his presence would inspire this sort of mild panic. On this particular evening, and faced with the evidence of how well we had performed, individually and together… with what a bright and resourceful bunch of kids we were… during the lull that followed this explosion of hectic activity, Mr. Nance’s only comment was to lecture us, with the immortal (and, for him, all too typical) words, “I don’t want to see you enjoying yourselves while you’re working.”

In late spring of that year I had been offered a position elsewhere and was on the verge of giving a week’s notice, as, if I recall correctly, my mother believed that was the very least a person should do when leaving one job for another. The manager, a man I liked and had respect for, had called the day before to ask me if I would come in an extra evening that week, and I had initially declined. After reconsideration, I called him back and said, sure, I’ll be there. After all, I thought, while I didn’t really want to be there, I could use the extra cash. When I called him back he said he’d already gotten someone, a new young employee (we were all either high-schoolers or college students) to take the shift, but that if I still wanted to come in., I would be welcome. After I’d been there perhaps half an hour that evening, the owner came into the lobby. He asked me why I was there. I told him. He ordered me to go, making a point of telling me how much more reasonable the new kid was. “You said you didn’t want to come in,” he smirked at me, “so leave.”

Despite enduring the unpleasantness and absurdities of this petty little gnat of a man for a year, I had shown him every respect and courtesy. An entire year of his absurd mean-spiritedness welled up in that moment. Again, my face was numb, I was trembling uncontrollably and, as I stormed to the big metal door off the lobby I shouted (something I almost never do) at him to shove his goddamn theatres up his ass! and slammed that door as hard as I have ever closed any portal, before or since. The manager later told me that everyone on the staff had to run off in a big, tearing hurry to some task or other. Anything would do, just so Mr. Nance would not see them all laughing. I suspect I said that night what all of them had at one time or another wanted to, and after the shock of it had abated, they were giddy with it. I should stress that I was not proud of this moment. I’d lost my cool, shouted at another human being, and suffered a debilitating state that, however brief, was deeply unsettling. I remember standing outside that door and leaning against it, shaking from head to foot, unable to believe what had just happened, or how I had responded. When I could collect myself I called my mother, gave her an abridged version of the confrontation, and after a walk and a cooling can of soda, somehow found the serenity to at least drive myself back home.

As I get older these attacks hit me, when they occur, with no less alacrity, and are generally spaced further apart. But getting over them takes considerably longer. After decades of chronic major depression and high anxiety, I suspect my resistance is far lower. (To panic attacks, and to so many other little goodies, thanks to years of unrelieved stress.) In the past few weeks, the wonder that is Facebook has been the staging ground for not one but two such attacks. The first I elide over to a large degree, as it’s too personal and painful to go into publicly, but the appalling nature of it, from a woman who, although we never spent a moment in the same room I considered a close friend, was dismaying. Her betrayal of my trust in her, and the way in which she went about flouting it, were as close to evil as a human being gets without actually being a serial killer. (I understand from a mutual friend that she now feels it was “the worst thing she’s ever done.” Well, yeah. I sincerely hope so. But that doesn’t mean I can forgive such deliberate malice.) And the panic attack I got from what she did was certainly real enough.

The most recent event occurred last a week ago. The work-day had been such that by Friday my nerves were stretched taut by the time I got home. A nap helped, dinner made it a little better. (My choice of a movie did not, but that’s my own lookout; I knew when I opted for it that Salvador would very likely upset the hell out of me. That’s why I’d put it off for so long.) Taking a cup of coffee into my home-office and logging on to Facebook, I immediately discovered an instant message from a former friend. This, if my memory is to be trusted at all, was a man with whom I had a mutual friend, and who had requested that I “friend” him. And although I found his obsessive attacks on a certain former television actress a bit dismaying (what the hell had Bonnie Franklin ever done to this guy to make him institute on his home-page a weekly flaying of her?) I had not voiced any opinion on the matter; as with a television’s channel-changer, the virtue of a social networking site is that one can simply scroll past that of which one has no interest. Somewhere along the way, however, began annoying him. I began receiving chiding notes from him in my instant-messaging in-box and ultimately decided (o being told how “hateful” I was) that, rather than continuing to argue with him, the better part of valor would be to remove my irritating presence from his life. So I “un-friended” and blocked him. End of story.

Or so I believed. Until I found this, unbidden and un-asked-for (and, initially, un-capitalized):

“after 3 years I unblocked you and you’re still an asshole. How the fuck did you hone in my friends? Go away.”

Face numb? Check. Limbs trembling uncontrollably? Check. Laser-like intensity of focus? Check. Complete loss of time and moment and external world? Check. Urges to scream and do physical violence? Check, check, check, check and check.

Naturally enough, his act of aggression was a hit-and-run: Even had I the desire to respond — which, despite the need to scream, I didn’t — he’d made sure to block me again after depositing his charming little time-bomb. When I was able to recover some of my faculties again, I availed myself of the sole means of redress Facebook provides, and reported him for harassment. This, in case you’re ever in need of knowing, involves forwarding the conversation (and which, in this case, presumably included all of his previous screeds against my apparently limitless capacity for hatefulness.) There is, or at least has not been in this instance, any follow-up. Whether he was warned, or his account suspended, I have no idea. No more than I can discover just what it was that set this craven coward off; I went through at several weeks’ worth of my posts and saw there nothing that I could pin down. And in any case, no matter what action Facebook takes, if any, I feel reasonably sure it will simply, to his disordered mind, reinforce what an asshole I am. (The man attacks me out of the blue, and for no reason I can discern, and I’m the asshole?)

What astonishes me about both these incidents is the sheer unfeeling nature of how they were perpetrated. They were done with what seems to me ungovernable fury, and with no little relish. And they bring screaming back to me my own insupportable optimism at the beginning of the Internet Age when I thought, with stunning naïveté, that the act of writing, requiring thought and rationality, might make for a more literate, and perhaps more thoughtful, set of users. That I was spectacularly incorrect is self-evident. Moreover, in both cases, the individuals involved knew full well how anxious and depressed a person I am, and how easily my equilibrium — never especially sturdy at the best of times — can be shattered. I make no claims for perfection of self. I am as flawed, and as prone to solipsism, as anyone else. I have made a conscious effort in the past few months to refrain from comment when that statement is negative, or critical, or is aimed at a friend of a Facebook friend. So, while I try to govern my conversation, including my on-line comments, with some sense of propriety, I know I occasionally err on the wrong side of caution. How could I not? It’s just so damn easy to dash off a riposte! Still. To knowingly inflict that sort of psychic anguish on another person, as these two did, is beyond my rational ken. And it’s no good saying the sickness is theirs and not mine, no matter how much of a truism that may be; the panic attacks they engender are not lessened one wit by that caveat.

I have often said that the gravest of all human sins is a lack of imagination. The ability to empathize with creatures who are not our kind is one of the nobler qualities of the human, and one that sets us apart from the other organisms with whom we share the planet. The inability to empathize, however much it indicates a misalliance of intellect and emotion that borders on sociopathy, seems to me far more prevalent than it ought to be, and is and has been the cause of so much needless suffering throughout the history of our vain and self-regarding dominion over the earth. And nothing promulgates it as much as instant media. Things most of us would never dream of saying, or doing, to another soul if we were in his or her presence, we say and do at will, hiding behind our words, or our ability to hit-and-block, or whatever it is that allows us to inflict torment on another human being and sleep untroubled.

A friend whose anxiety is far keener than even my own has said more than once that he wished he possessed the ability to touch certain people with two fingers and make them feel what it’s like to be him, for 24 hours. I don’t think I would wish my panic attacks on anyone, even for a day.

It would be a lovely thing indeed if others didn’t wish them on me.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Where depression begins (Or, Spikes!)

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[Note: I am in the process of closing out the two blogs I created before this one and am transferring their contents here, so please bear with the sudden appearance of these “old” essays &cet.]

By Scott Ross

I’ve been ruminating on this subject as essay-fodder for some time. The recent “apparent” suicide, as they say in criminological circles, of Robin Williams is coincidental but not, I don’t think, incidental. The single most concise (and most heartbreakingly apt) description of chronic depression I’ve ever come across is Dick Cavett’s:

“[…] when you’re downed by this affliction, if there were a curative magic wand on the table eight feet away, it would be too much trouble to go over and pick it up.”

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/06/27/smiling-through/comment-page-21/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

The roots of depression are, of course, not yet firmly fixed. That its presence indicates a chemical imbalance seems assured, but is the condition genetic, or in any case, purely genetic? At this point in my life, I feel as certain that my own chronic major depression, which has blighted most of my adult life, and indeed much of my adolescence, is a function of my father’s DNA. His father, whom he loathed, was an angry, violent man and one, I believe, who bequeathed that genetic curse to at least two of his children. Dad’s sister, my Aunt Peg, committed suicide when I was very young, and I recognize many of the behavioral symptoms of depression in myself as reflections of Dad’s own persona. My mother always resisted any such conclusions on my part (“He’s not depressed.”) but at my worst I see far too many similarities between us. (The high anxiety I also contend with comes from her side of the family, or at least from her mother’s.) It was in fact my screaming — literally screaming — at other drivers on the road that finally convinced me to seek a diagnosis. That rage was not the sole manifestation of my depressive symptoms, but it was the decisive one.

Riding in a car with my father was a test of nerve. Every other drive was an idiot, and at fault, and he could also be vindictive. More than once I clung to the armrest, terror-stricken, expecting to die at any moment while he passed a driver in a no-passing zone or even, memorably, while crossing a two-lane bridge. Interestingly, to me, while Dad despised his father for his bullying, he was incapable of seeing the ways in which his own behavior often mirrored that of my grandfather. Like the man we referred to as Grant, Dad’s temper was quick, and never far from the surface. And while he at least attempted to govern his hands, he did not always succeed. At least, not with his son. A cousin recently reminded me of just such an incident, one I’d completely forgotten but which made her extremely leery of him. Like Grant, Dad had always to be right. He could not seem to locate the proper angle at which to view himself as others saw him — a common enough failing but one which, I believe, inhibits one’s making the changes to one’s own personality necessary for self-improvement. My ex shared that blind-spot and, if confronted, made the excuse that people had to take him as he was. Everyone has to adjust to the man who will not adjust himself.

My passivity in the face of brutality, psychic or physical, is, I suspect, a result of the dictum handed down to my father by his. More than once in my pubescence and adolescence I heard the “Fight your own battles. Don’t come crying to us” speech. As a result, and because I was unable to fight, I held my torments inside. I vividly remember one pleasant autumn evening at around 14 or 15, sitting with my mother on the front stoop, and her saying, the previous two years had been a waking nightmare, that screaming hell we once called junior high school. “You used to be such a happy-go-lucky kid,” Mom observed sadly. “I don’t understand what’s happened. Why you’ve changed.” I was, as always, silent. How could I tell her, even if I’d had the words then, which I surely did not, that living in hell, and being told not to whine about it, can turn the happiest child into a diffident, interior-dwelling emotional recluse?

Depression becomes manifest, we’re told, following a trauma. It may be physical or emotional. In my own case, I date the onset of my depression from the age of six or seven, when I broke my wrist in a fall from a tree. (Well, from a tree limb, to be more precise; it was a dumb stunt, and a disaster waiting to happen. Had it not been me, it would have been my sister, or one of my cousins.) In any case, I can recall sitting in a dark Canton, Ohio hospital corridor after my near-compound fracture had been X-rayed, waiting to have it placed in a cast. Was my mother with me, or had she gone off to look for a nurse, or a doctor? I no longer recall anyone near me, only the dark pall, the body-size net that cocooned me with almost as rapid a descent as the fall from that tree branch. The ensuing days are shrouded by that caul. Each time it recurred as I grew older, it was always with that same, terrible, all-encompassing swiftness. The climb back up, as anyone who’s ever been depressed, let alone depressive, can tell you, is nowhere near as swift.

Far too many people, even well-meaning people, mistake “sadness” for depression. Everyone has known sadness. Almost everyone has experienced depression, even if only for a day. And “sad” is to chronic depression as “happy” is to acute mania. I liken my depression to walking under water, every moment of every day. I smile at times, I even laugh, on occasion. But what a friend describes as feeling like a weight that will not leave her, remains. I rise, although never easily, and never with the sensation of sleep having refreshed me. I go to work. I function. But if I gave in to impulse, I would not rise. I could not function. Those who refuse to “believe there’s such a thing as depression” (and there is a shocking number of such people, most of them, in my experience, highly educated and otherwise intelligent) should take up residence in my skin for an hour. If they did not instantly change their thinking (and I ennoble such purblind obtuseness with the positive noun) I should be amazed. A co-worker, whose anxieties and attendant neuroses make mine look like the proverbial walk in the woods, says that he wishes he could touch such doubters on the shoulder and transfer how he feels to them for 24 hours. Because, outwardly, we do not appear to be suffering, our illness is not generally perceived, even when we give every indication of it. We’re “difficult.” We’re “self-involved.” We’re “unpleasant.” “Unproductive.” More than one friend has told me I have “an edge,” never quite understanding that it might be because all of my interior edges have been ground to the nub.

For far too many of us as well, the combinations of therapy and medication simply do not work. When I was first diagnosed, in the mid-1990s, I was placed on Prozac, the “miracle” of the moment. Within six weeks, I had regained that “happy-go-lucky kid.” I felt as I hadn’t since the age of 12. But one-third of Prozac users will cease to respond to the drug over time, and I, unhappily, was in that statistic. Within six months, the pall was back, and blacker than before. Because I knew then that it was possible for me to feel better. In this way, that experience is almost worse than the disease itself: I’ve been through a veritable pharmacopeia since then, and nothing I’ve taken since has had the slightest positive effect. Ketamine, if and when it is ever placed on the market, might be the answer. It has the virtue of taking effect, not in weeks, but in hours or even minutes. If all else fails, there is always electroconvulsive therapy, but that is extreme, and requires so lengthy a procedure I’m not sure my medical insurance even covers it, or even if I could take the necessary time away from the office to effect it.

Severe depressive episodes are known as “spikes.” I was trying to remember when my depression mutated from occasional spikes to a chronic condition. I’m not sure, but I suspect it was in my late 20s; before that, I endured the spikes but had the wherewithal to work both full-time and part-time jobs simultaneously, and (at an age very close to 25) to enroll myself in college, arrange for Pell Grants, and drive myself from North Carolina to Vermont. Further, after that particular disaster, to arrange for a transfer to a different school, come back home, work for a year and a half, take on the editorship of an Arts Council newsletter to pay for my matriculation, and somehow, get myself to Amherst, Massachusetts. The slowly accumulating exhaustion, the sense of someone constantly twisting a rubber band around my temples, the increasing incidents of emotional spikes… all of that came some time during my otherwise rather happy years at Hampshire College. So it was after my return, at 29, that the condition gradually became so debilitating it forced me to seek diagnosis, and therapy.

The spikes, however, remain.

Worse, they come with increasing frequency. And each subsequent plunge into the abyss takes longer to climb out of, requires a greater pull on my diminished — and diminishing — reserves. The recent death of my mother after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s, notwithstanding its being in a way a relief, for her and for her family, especially my sister, who cared for her the last three years of her life, still served to spike my depression in unexpected ways, and with astonishing swiftness; I could feel it wrapping me in its insidious embrace on the drive back from seeing Mom the last time, and only in the last few days has it retreated sufficiently to take me from deep slough of despond to what I am accustomed to: My usual, plodding, exhausting, “norm” of chronic depression.

Some know-nothings and professional reactionaries have, typically, taken the occasion of Williams’ suicide to bloviate upon the matter of courage versus cowardice. And while I hold suicide as a perfectly reasonable response to insupportable pain, and reserve the right myself to exit at a time of my choosing should my depression prove endless and intractable, I would also say this: No one who survives, day after weary day of this condition can remotely be called a coward. As Seneca noted, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” So is reserving judgment, or at least, governing one’s tongue when one is a smug ignoramus.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

File under No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

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[Note: I am in the process of closing out the two blogs I created before this one and am transferring their contents here, so please bear with the sudden appearance of these “old” essays &cet.]

By Scott Ross

This afternoon I had to make a trip to the CVS and the Food Lion adjacent to it, situated close together on a major thoroughfare in Raleigh. Parked in the CVS lot, got what I needed there and was walking to the grocery store when I was accosted by a large (and for “large,” read “wide”) man in a wheelchair, who asked me if I could help him make it up the Food Lion ramp, informing me (why?) that he’d just come from the big hospital across the road. I got him up the ramp, he thanked me, and we went our separate ways.

As I was leaving the Food Lion, I saw him ahead of me, stopped at the sidewalk close to my car, and experienced the sudden certainty that I was going to be asked to do something else. Figuring I could push him up that ramp as well if he wanted, I was instead treated to the entirely unnecessary intelligence that he had a terminal condition and was about to take his Percocet with wine. What this had to do with what he wanted, which was for me to pick him up a couple of packs of cigarettes, is best understood by him. Sure as hell I couldn’t figure it out. He also offered to hold my grocery bags while I went into the drug store. I was perfectly happy to place them in the car. (And anyway, what was his ten dollars next to my twenty-five’s worth of groceries?) He introduced himself as former Marine Captain Jack Blahdiblah, and said that Winstons were cheaper at CVS than at Food Lion, and gave me two fives, asserting that I seemed like an honest man. Had I known what was coming, I’d have thrown the bills into his lap and pushed his chair into traffic.

Naturally, as I stood at the CVS counter waiting my turn, I saw that Winstons were 2 packs for $10.48. Fortunately, the cashier was able to take the cash and let me use my debit card for the $1.19 extra. (Captain Jack had, I’d noticed, another ten and a twenty in his wad, but apparently I only seemed so honest, and no more.)

Now you should know (even if you’d rather not) that among the genetic advantages I inherited from my father is over-active sweat glands. I perspire profusely when it’s warm, especially when, as today, it is both warm and humid. I sweat from the head, and it’s miserable. Emotional states, to which I am prone, make me perspire even more, so being upset on a hot, humid day is its own little slice of Hell on earth. I was now quite sweaty, somewhat annoyed, and wanted to end this episode as quickly as possible. As I gave Captain Jack his Winstons, he asked (in lieu of thanking me) whether I was heading south. I was, but told him I was headed north. Enough is enough!

Before I could give him his smokes, move toward the car, and effect my escape, Captain Jack asked me if I spoke Spanish and would I do him another favor (Christ, what now?) Pointing to another vehicle, he asked me to tell those women (I saw two Latinas, and some children) “driving that big van that my taxes paid for, and getting all those social services my dollars paid for, and blahdiblahdifuckingblahblah…” Resisting the urge to ask him why he assumed, as so many people like him do, that my being Caucasian and male (and, he presumably supposed, heterosexual) automatically means I run my brains through the same narrow furrows of muck as he and, dropping the Winstons in his lap, I said, “You’ll have to work that one out for yourself.”

I got into the car as quickly as I could, my now angrily buzzing brain effectively blocking out whatever incantations he was sending my way. I caught the word, “liberal,” but, fortunately everything else was “buzzbuzzbuzz.” Because the Cutlass no longer has an operable A/C, I rolled down the window and, before backing out, said, “And you’re welcome!” (He did, at that point, say “Thank you,” but I need hardly add that I no longer cared one way or another.) As I was driving away, deliberately letting him see me heading south, not north, he yelled something else, who knows what. I like to think he looked at the receipt and noticed that I’d chipped in for his cigarettes, but surely that is asking too much of an already incredulous universe.

Some of us, I am fully persuaded after several similar encounters over the years, have “Sucker” written all over us, our more gracious impulses misconstrued as gullibility. Is it any wonder so many people demur when asked for assistance? After years of being ill-used by strangers I’ve attempted to aid, I begin to comprehend that the seemingly selfish brushing-off of others in need may be a necessary form of self-preservation. If you suffer panic attacks, as I do, and know that the rage you feel, rapidly accelerating into the danger zone, is as troubling as it is debilitating, walking away may save you hours of rapid heartbeat, cold chills alternating with hot flashes, and no little chunk of your already limited supply of sang-froid. All it asks in return is that you shoulder a ton or so of unrelievable guilt for the next hour or two.

To calm myself, I picture Captain Jack (Jesus Christ, can you imagine the hell of having been under that asshole’s command?) helplessly rolling straight down the middle lane of Wake Forest Road.

Or perhaps sailing off the edge of the earth.

I’ll go either way.

Text copyright 2016 by Scott Ross

The old folks at home

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[Note: I am in the process of closing out the two blogs I created before this one and am transferring their contents here, so please bear with the sudden appearance of these “old” essays &cet.]

By Scott Ross

This afternoon I listened, for the first time in decades, to the single most curious album in our late parents’ collection. Generally speaking, most of their records were pretty good, in the more or less standard middle-class manner of the time. (Roughly 1957-1973.) While they did not own any Broadway cast recordings, their copies of the soundtrack albums for My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and The Unsinkable Molly Brown exposed me to musical theatre at an early age. (Your fault, Mom and Dad; musicals being, as everyone now knows, a gateway drug to homosexuality.) Their Peter Nero, Louis Armstrong, Herb Alpert and, later, early Neil Diamond, records still give me great pleasure today, and a collection I discovered of Miklós Rózsa themes piqued in me a real passion for movie scores.

Some of the sappier stuff they owned was at least explicable: Frankie Laine was very popular when Mom and Dad got married, as were Jackie Gleason’s Muzak-y romance collections. And my folks were conventionally religious, so I suppose the Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas LP made a certain amount of sense, even though the rest of our annual holiday music background scores were far more secular. But we were Ohioans, and Mom and Dad were not (at least before we moved to the South) noticeably racist. So A Tribute to the Original Christy Minstrels is a genuine mystery.

When they did away with their old television/stereo console and Mom meted out their record collection on to my sister and me, I kept the Christy Minstrels LP because I used to enjoy listening to some of the old 1890s songs, and even a bit of Mr. Interlocutor’s comedy; I suppose when I was a child I didn’t notice that all the singers and speakers were obviously white and affecting stereotypical “coon” accents… nor, apparently, did the “yuck-yuck-yuck” interjections of the End Men register with me that way.

But I’m still puzzled. Why did they buy this?

Why, Mom and Dad?

Why???

Text copyright 2016 by Scott Ross

Enemy: A love story (with apologies to I.B. Singer)

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[Note: I am in the process of closing out the two blogs I created before this one and am transferring their contents here, so please bear with the sudden appearance of these “old” essays &cet.]

By Scott Ross

I dislike him immediately.

As the sixth-grade best friend of one of my best friends, Michael is in some sense a rival. But what I detest is the arrogant superiority he wears like a second skin. Perpetually carrying a massive paperback edition of War and Peace I wonder if he ever actually reads, he disdains me as much as I loathe him. Knowing of my interest in cartoons, he accosts me once on the playground with a sneering, “Ah — Monsieur Mickey.” A few months later, his is the only name I recognize in the posted list for my upcoming 7th grade homeroom class. And against the odds we become inseparable.

Health-class this year includes sex education. After one late session, which covers V.D., Michael asks me to stay with him after class while he asks Mr. Newman a question.

Health is just before lunch. A good time to linger and speak to a teacher. When our classmates have all left, Michael asks Mr. Newman whether homosexuals can contract venereal disease. Mr. Newman assures him that they can. After we leave the classroom, I ask Michael why he brought that up. He doesn’t answer.

I’m not repulsed, or disgusted, or suspicious — merely puzzled. I’m also, sexually, not so much confused as misguided. Since I believe (as I had been taught) that men and women (or boys and girls) naturally gravitate together, it never quite occurs to me that anyone I might know would be any different — myself included. When I masturbate, I do so with pornographic cartoons I’ve drawn myself, despite one set having been discovered by my parents the year before. My drawings are utterly heterosexual, in that they contain both men and women. And anyway, it’s not the genitals per se that arouse me. It’s the sheer, trembling excitement of contemplating sex.

Yet that same year, and before Michael’s question to Mr. Newman, I find myself opening dictionaries and surreptitiously searching for the word “homosexual,” experiencing a nameless thrill at reading the definition “one attracted to his or her own sex,” and feeling something else, something I can’t pin down or put a name to. It’s only with time that I realize I am searching for my own identity in those dry, dusty pages — just as only the passing of years reveals to me why my infatuations are all with other boys: Bobby, Terry, Scooter.

Michael?

And there’s something else. Despite a couple of close friends, I am deeply, agonizingly lonely, and that is what I believe (if I believe at all) these small obsessions are about.

By this time, through the machinations of some Board of Education members, who think (wrongly, as it turns out) the move will benefit their own children once the planned new school (which never materializes) is built, the local classes of 7th through 9th grades — what we then called junior high, and which is now referred to, curiously to me, as “middle school” — are divided into two districts, and split. One half of Garner will go here, the other there.

Michael is “here”; I am “there.”

While I see and speak to him over the telephone from time to time, I have the uneasy sense that our friendship has largely lapsed. And, despite a pair of very good friends — one of whom is still my best friend today — I am desperately unhappy: Taunted and abused by bullies of both sexes, and aching for something I cannot name. (In my 30s I will date the initial onset of what is now my chronic clinical depression to this period.)*

When my sophomore year begins, at the senior high school, and Michael and I are “reunited,” the happiest period of my academic life begins. In my need to cast off an identity I associate with unhappiness, I ask family and friends to call me by my middle name. The one I have gone through life so far with, “Tim,” has for the last year or so grated on my skin the way my clothing has when I briefly experience that odd, thankfully brief, stage in my physical development in which I have to get my trousers from the “Husky” section of the J.C. Penny boys’ department. Having always been thin, this development makes me feel acutely self-conscious. Curiously, and without any overt changes on my behalf, it ends as quickly and inexplicably as it begins, and I am my normal, skinny self again when 10th grade rolls around.

(Reading the preceding paragraph again I realize that my sudden weight-gain was not exactly “inexplicable.” In my 8th grade year, I was tormented, daily, on the bus ride home by a senior high school with the last name — I am not, as Anna Russell used to say, making this up — Raper. Being weak, and passive, and uncertain, and frightened, I took the abuse, silently. One afternoon as I was walking up the aisle to the exit, young Mr. Raper grabbed me by the shoulders and slammed me, hard, against the side of the bus. I ran home where, coincidentally, Michael was waiting. As I was telling my mother what happened I suddenly burst into tears. All the silent rage and humiliation of a year’s worth of constant bullying came to a head in that moment, I think. In any case, I vowed I would never ride that bus again. And I never did. In the mornings my parents would drop me at the halfway point on their way to work and I walked the rest of the way. In the afternoons, I walked the entire way. Although the distance was only slightly over a mile, the twice-daily walk (in all weathers and conditions) must have made me ravenous. From the time I arrived home until my parents came home and dinner was prepared, I ate pretty much constantly. Anything. Cereal, cookies, apples, bananas, glasses of milk with thick spoonsful of honey or Nestlé’s chocolate. Whatever was available. While I almost certainly walked off much of that the following day… well… no wonder I had to get my clothes in Husky.)

During the summer following our junior year, I begin working for the food shop Michael’s father owns at the largest mall in Raleigh. One evening Michael asks me to stay the night with him, as we are expected, early the next morning, to get to the airport to pick up a package. I have never before slept in the same bed with anyone outside my immediate family, and then not since childhood. We’re wearing our briefs and nothing else, and as the night goes on I am acutely aware of Michael’s body beside mine. The next day I tell him that lying beside him gave me an erection.

The revelation makes Michael distinctly uncomfortable, but I press him on it, because my feelings are raw and new, perplexing and, to me, somewhat incomprehensible. Finally, a day or two later, he reveals himself to me but — typically of Michael — in a manner so ambiguous I’m as puzzled as I was before, if not more so; my naiveté about sex is as profound at 17 as it was at 12. Finally, at my urging, he becomes more explicit, telling me about his previous emotional and sexual attachments, which included both that mutual friend from sixth grade and, later, while I was exiled to the other school, a boy I did not like called Tony. A Demascan Road moment for me, in which I suddenly realize not only that I am gay but that he is as well, and that I love him in a way far different from the brotherly love our friendship has previously represented. The next few months are as rocky as any I’d known. For some reason — an uncomfortable awareness of feelings he doesn’t reciprocate? concern that he will be “tainted” by association? — Michael repeatedly discounts my identifying myself as gay when I say I am.

Two observations, by others, occur to me as distinctly applicable. In his memoir Palimpsest, Gore Vidal notes of the perfect complementarity of his boyhood love affair with Jimmy Trimble, “Everything I wasn’t he was, and everything he wasn’t, I was.” It was a phrase that seemed to leap off the page when I read it, placing Michael’s and my relationship in broad relief. The second is Stephen Sondheim’s encomium for his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein: “If he’d been a geologist, I would have become a geologist; I just wanted to be what he was.” When Michael converted to Catholicism at 16, I naturally followed suit. To paraphrase Sondheim, if Michael had converted to Judaism, I would have converted to Judaism. I just wanted to be what he was.

It is this new, self-imposed Catholic identity that drives the wedge between us at the last — that, and Michael’s own intense, warring guilt at being unable to reconcile his sexuality with his chosen religion. Through that autumn, as I struggle with both my Catechism and my increasingly obsessive feelings of love, my 15 year old’s depression recurs, and deepens, made all the more unbearable by Michael’s chiding of me for both; he sees what I now recognize as a major depressive episode as “brooding.” Prideful. A sin.

The split arrives courtesy of a two separate incidents that feed Michael’s own growing discontent.

The first occurs in the wee hours of a bitter January morning, just after my birthday. We have been to a late show, in Raleigh, of Midnight Cowboy (for which, curiously, Michael later blames what happened next; but then, Michael’s reasoning is, was and likely always will be curious.) After the movie, we go back to Michael’s home. His parents have converted one area of the downstairs den (previously the basement) into a bedroom, giving Michael more or less free access through an outside door. We have recently purchased a nickel bag of pot from my friend and theatre colleague Amy, which Michael now augments with Lowenbrau and vodka. (The vodka is for him; I could not, and still cannot, bear the taste of hard liquor, neat.) When we are both good and juiced, he suggests we go to a secluded place in the woods near him home and light up the weed. (Neither of us had ever smoked marijuana.) We stagger down the street in each other’s drunken arms, giggling, and he leads me to his “private spot,” deep in the surrounding woods. A friend has given me a pipe for Christmas and we use it to smoke the pot, passing it back and forth until we are well and truly buzzed, on top of already being blitzed.

Pot, I will discover, generally does two things to me, in succession: Makes me first amorous, then sleepy. Accordingly, I lay with my back to a pine tree and close my eyes. They fly open again when I realize that Michael is on top of me, kissing my lips. We roll together on the pine straw-strewn forest floor, somehow managing to remove our clothing in the process. (This is in January, please remember.) He lies on top of me and we belly-rub until we both ejaculate. What should be the joyous consummation of my fondest wish is irreparably sullied in one, careless moment, as Michael, in the throes of erotic passion, calls me Tony.

“It’s Scott, Michael,” is my feeble response.

(Years later, when I see From Here to Eternity, I will identify that moment with the end of the famous beach scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, which most people remember as a steamy romantic interlude but which actually ends with Lancaster’s cruelty driving Kerr away in humiliation.)

When we are both sated and reality, or some form of it, returns, Michael abruptly rises and clothes himself in cold silence. I am as puzzled by his shift in mood as I had originally been elated at our finally coming together. I am also, suddenly, aware of the temperature, and begin to shiver, my teeth chattering all the way home as Michael reluctantly leads me by the hand out of the woods. When we get back to his bedroom he immediately takes a shower as I sit nodding in a chair near the bathroom door. (In his typical, ineluctable manner, he’s just ordered me not to fall asleep, and in my stupor I think there must be some reason I shouldn’t. What do I know from marijuana? Maybe it’s dangerous to drowse after.) When he is finished I remove my contact lenses and we sleep.

When we awake next morning he coolly says he is going to Mass. I say I don’t feel up to it — I’m bleary, cotton-mouthed and, essentially, still drunk. He gives me a stony look and observes that I ought to go. I decline, and he drives me home. It is perhaps 7.00 in the morning. Before getting out of the car I ask him if he’ll call me later.

“Maybe,” is all he can manage.

My ecstasy has long since passed, but his coldness remains. When he does speak to me again that afternoon, he informs me in no uncertain terms that what has happened between us will not reoccur.

The second major incident begins with the brief memoir that is our first Psychology class assignment of the new semester. Mine is as unguarded as Michael’s is slippery, and our teacher, Miss Watkins, calls me into her office to discuss the paper, revealing that she’s already talked to Michael about the disparity between truth and fiction in his own. Since she is a very special woman, one of our two most beloved Senior year teachers, this intrusion bothers me far less than perhaps it might, or should, have. But the upshot is that Michael, with his usual flair for the over-dramatic, informs me coldly that I have brought about “a schism wider than the Reformation.” We are no longer friends. Period.

Sometime in the spring, Michael wins a current-events essay contest whose first prize is a trip to the U.N. At the time of his visit I am busily engaged as stage manager for the spring musical. (The advent of which he uses as an excuse to get rid of my presence in his father’s store.) I am taken aback one afternoon late in the spring when he appears at the stage door and asks to see me. We go into the drama director’s office and he tells me how, while in New York, he has seen A Chorus Line on Broadway and has been so moved by the gay dancer Paul’s monologue it has forced him to confront the truth about himself. He apologizes for his behavior, we embrace, and the sides of the “schism” blend into the earth once more.

Sex and love are two separate things with Michael — at least where I am concerned. While he loves me, he is never in love with me. The distinction — which to his credit he never conceals —allows him to engage in sex with me, off and on, for the next two years. But it leaves me as unrequited, as uncertain of myself, and as self-conscious of what I see as my physical imperfections as I had been that cold January morning.

Michael and I are on-again/off-again for some time — and always at his whim. I know now (and I knew then) that I permit his sexual usury. But my self-regard is so low, and my love for him so high, I follow whenever he beckons. Something in me, aside from simple biological need on his part, must be at work, but more than once he tells me he is simply not physically attracted to me. This instills, quite naturally a belief in myself that I am irredeemably unattractive. Now, when I see photos of the boy who was me at 18, 19, 20 I think, What a cute kid. Which thought is usually followed by, Why did no one ever tell him that?

Alas, when I look into a mirror now I see — as I did then — only flaws, with, now, an addition: The cruel gravity of middle age.

There is more to the story, but it’s less important than the primal fact of it. Although he could be, not deliberately but instinctively cruel, and damaging to my fragile ego, and while his body excited me (especially clothed, which doubtless makes little sense; but to me, Michael’s bubble-like ass never looked better, or more alluring, than when encased in tight corduroy) what I loved most about Michael was that I had more fun with him than with anyone else. He could be marvelously silly, in an impromptu fashion that did not eschew the ridiculous pleasures of slapstick — seeming to crash head-first against the nearest wall was a particular delight for him. It was this as much as anything that led me to cast him in my first play, which was performed at the senior high that year. He was terrible. He was certainly no actor; whatever divine inspiration overtook him in his life off the stage he simply could not channel in performance.

In Palimpsest, Vidal also maintains, apropos his young self and Jimmy, that one is lucky ever to find love, and that having found it once, one should not expect no encore.

I was never in love before I fell for Michael, and I don’t know that I will ever again experience such staggering depth of feeling for anyone else. At least, I haven’t so far. I realize of course that adolescence expands the contours of everything it touches. Love is bigger, fuller, more passionate, more intense — and when it goes awry, more devastating — at 18 than it can ever be again, especially when that love is one’s first.

Interestingly, I have no photographs of Michael. The only one I ever took — of him sleeping in my bed, naked under the sheets — did not come out when I took the film in to be developed. That’s weirdly appropriate, I think — the perfect metaphor for phantom desire.

Scott - May 1979 (re-cropped)

The author. May, 1979.


*I misspoke. My first encounter with “the mean reds,” as Capote called it, was when I broke my wrist at age 6 or 7.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

I never sang for my father either

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[Note: I am in the process of closing out the two blogs I created before this one and am transferring their contents here, so please bear with the sudden appearance of these “old” essays &cet.]

By Scott Ross

My sister recently prefaced a remark about our father with the words, “I know you didn’t get along with Dad, but…” What I wanted to say, but didn’t, was this: It wasn’t that I didn’t get along with my father; I didn’t like my father. And I think the feeling was mutual.

i_never_sang_for_my_father

When, in my late teens, I watched on television the 1970 film adaptation of Robert Anderson’s autobiographical play I Never Sang for My Father, I was immediately struck by the similarities of its painfully delineated antagonisms between father and son and that of my own relationship with, and to, my Dad. The Melvyn Douglas character is more charming than my father, and his affection for his son is expressed more fully than it was in our home. But the tension between him and the Gene Hackman figure, never far from the surface, is uncomfortably similar. It’s the reason I have never been able to bring myself to see the movie again, despite its moving qualities and its overall excellence. For many years I told myself it was the movie’s despairing portrait of a nursing home Hackman visits when he becomes concerned that his father can no longer live alone and unattended, an institution depicted in agonizingly unsettling shades of pity and horror, that was the source of my aversion. And while that sequence is harrowing, it is almost incidental. What hurt most was the enmity between father and son. It is this that, not coincidentally, which kept me from seeing the almost universally praised 1979 movie of Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini on its release (or of ever reading the novel), which aversion has continued even to today, for both. Bullying fathers hit all too close to home. My home.

I was haunted, too, by the specifics of the movie’s action, as it is the death of the elderly mother (Dorothy Stickney) that precipitates the crisis between father and son. What would I do — what would I be able to do — should Mom precede Dad in death? Could I give comfort to the man? Would I want to? In our own case, the matter was settled by my father’s contracting lung cancer a decade ago, although the survivors are in agreement that the cure was what ultimately killed him. When Dad died, I was sorriest for my mother; he was pretty much her entire world, and indeed his death at 71, my sister and I believe, was the precipitating event that led to her rapid decline into early-onset Alzheimer’s. But when Dad died I felt little, aside from concern about his widow… and, surprisingly, for me, felt no guilt whatsoever for my lack of emotional response. I thought at the time I would grieve later. I never have. Grief, like trust, like loyalty, is earned. Dad could be thoughtful, and even generous. But he was incapable of expressing love, at least to and for me. Hearing from one’s mother that one’s father loves him, or is proud of him, feels too much like special pleading.

My father’s father was almost universally acknowledged as a bastard of the first rank. Physically as well as verbally abusive (he once struck his own sweet, gentle mother across the face during an argument when she was in her 80s) he is, I suspect, the physiological link to my own chronic major depression, just as my mother’s mother is the source of the high anxiety that, together, have blemished my life for decades. I recognize my father in me, all too well: The mood swings, the dark outlook, the anti-social impulse, the sometimes explosive anger (unlike my father, usually expressed only when I’m alone.) And in fact it was that very recognition that finally spurred me to seek treatment in the mid-1990s. Dad had a splendid knack for goading my mother without seeming to, playing on her nerves and her defensiveness until she reacted, at which point his own stubbornness asserted itself, leading to the argument I sensed was imminent — and, nearly always, easily avoidable.

Occasionally Mom rose above it. A single example from late in my father’s life is illustrative.

A year after my parents retired to Naples, Florida, they flew me down for a visit. Mom had baked a pumpkin pie and suggested to me that we cut it after dinner. After lunch, Dad asked, “What’s for dessert?” (Dessert was something he often eschewed, until he gave up smoking at 50; after that, it became a concern of abiding interest to him.) “Let’s have some of that pie,” he added. Mom innocently noted that she thought we would wait until evening, and have it with after-dinner coffee. Dad was instantly argumentative, Mom calmly asserting that he could have pie whenever he liked, but that she and I were going to wait. When she asked if he’d like her to cut him a slice he said no, he didn’t want any pie. After he stormed away from the table and I was helping clean up, Mom, with slightly amused resignation, said, “He’ll keep saying he doesn’t want any pie. He won’t eat it now.” And indeed, that night, after dinner when she asked if we’d all like some pie with our coffee, Dad barked, “I don’t want any pie,” and left the table. Mom, for once, and to my pleasure, was blithe about it, and made no further comment to him. But for the remainder of my visit (two or three days) my father not only continued to refuse pumpkin pie when it was offered, but seldom stirred either from his office space or my parents’ bedroom, where he sat reading paperback mysteries and — there is no other word for it — pouting. And all because my mother had the temerity to suggest he consider waiting a few hours to eat a goddamn slice of pie.

My father, myself, and my sister. Summer, 1961.

My father, myself, and my sister. Summer, 1961.

Things weren’t necessarily always so tense. When I was small, Dad seemed genuinely to enjoy me; it was only as I grew that I became aware of a fissure. When we lived in Canton, Ohio, where I was born (and where, 28 years earlier, Dad was also delivered) we for a time traveled to the man-made Meyers Lake during the summer, to enjoy the water and, on the 4th of July, the fireworks display set off from Goat Island in the middle of the lake. Once, when we were preparing to leave for the fireworks, Mom served a light supper consisting of sandwiches made from strawberry preserves. Something about the jam, the texture perhaps, disagreed with me, and I found it almost impossible to swallow. My father angrily insisted on my eating every crumb of that sandwich. I forced it down, loathing every bite, and later, on the threshold of the front door as we were leaving, was violently ill. I was blamed for vomiting that sandwich, and it was at that moment that I became afraid of my father, and of his unpredictable temper. I avoided strawberry preserves, and even strawberry pie, for years after that.

One of the worst of the old (now, happily, discredited if not entirely discarded) theories of the “cause” of homosexuality was the Distant Father/Overbearing (or Overprotective) Mother school. A newer theory has been bruited about during the last few years which turns this on its head, suggesting that many fathers may sense, subconsciously, their sons’ emergent sexuality at an early age, withdrawing emotionally as a result. I remember laughing once when Ronnie Schell’s recurrent interior decorator character on the late-’60s Jim Neighbors variety show did a pratfall, and being told by my father that it was all right to laugh at the character, but to never be like him. What could that mean to an 8 or 9 year old? Throughout my childhood I kissed both my parents goodnight before I went to bed. When I was 11 my father informed me it was more manly to shake his hand. Whatever his reasons, the edict felt like a rejection. And when for my 12th birthday we were taken to see a dinner theatre production of Cabaret, and on the ride home I expressed my admiration for Frank Kopyc, who played the Emcee, Dad said (shades of Ronnie Schell) it was okay to enjoy the Emcee but not to behave like him. “Like what?” I asked, confused. “Like a pansy,” was Dad’s response.

For a long time I wondered whether our father enjoyed my sister and me until we became little persons, with minds and wills of our own. Whatever the reason for his distance, two events in my then-young life cemented my fear of, and aversion to, my Dad. Both date from the time I was 7 or 8, and 9, respectively, during the period we lived in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. Taken together, these memories anatomize for me the moments that crystallized my distrust, and dislike, of, my Dad, which lasted more or less to the end of his life. While the second event is perhaps the more extreme, it is the first one that really hurt.

Event the 2nd: I am perhaps nine years old. I am arguing with my mother. About what, I no longer recall, and the subject is undoubtedly, in the scheme of things, trivial. My father enters the room and angrily strikes me, hard, across the face. As he’s telling me never to speak to my mother that way, my nose begins to gush blood. I run upstairs in tears. Attempting to staunch the crimson flow, I hear voices raised below, and the slam of the side door. My mother attends to me. I am, somehow, made to understand that Dad has stormed out of the house. It’s the only time an argument between my parents about their children has escalated to that degree, or ever will, but it is also the first time I can remember my parents being so at odds over their respective treatment of me.

Event the 1st: I am seven or eight. On one of our long weekend drives to nowhere in particular — these were the days when Americans could actually afford to drive for pleasure — I begin to notice a plethora of service stations under the banner “B.P.” and finally ask, innocently enough I think, what “B.P.” stands for. I won’t divulge my father’s answer here, as it’s both too private and too painful; suffice to say that he uses the opportunity to make a profane, and notably ugly, joke at my expense. That my sister, and even my mother, laugh uproariously, make my shame and embarrassment that much more acute, as does the story’s being told, and re-told, endlessly throughout my childhood and adolescence. That it has never occurred to any of my relations how damaging that joke, and the subsequent sobriquet, were, and are, both to an 8-year old boy and to the adult he became, is, to me, staggering. What sort of adult takes pleasure in humiliating his children? And why can no one in the family except myself see how hurtful the obscenity was? Would they ever say such a thing to their own children? I strongly suspect not. Why, then, is it so hilarious, that the remark was made to and about me? Had I been older, even an adult, when that joke was made at my expense, I might have been able to shrug, if not exactly laugh, it off. But not as a child.

Nor should I have been expected to.

Tom Selleck as Frank Reagan (© CBS)

Tom Selleck as Frank Reagan (© CBS)

I was given some comfort a couple of years ago from, of all people, Tom Selleck. Or, rather, from Selleck and Diana Son and her collaborators, the writers of the Blue Bloods episode “Cellar Boy.”  An elderly neighboring couple of the Reagans have been murdered. The chief suspect is their adult son. During a family meal, one of the splendid hallmarks of that remarkable series, the father’s mental cruelty is discussed. To one of his grandsons’ questions, patriarch Frank intones, with appropriate sobriety, “A father should never humiliate his children.”

Forty years late, but thank you anyway, Frank. And amen.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross