Shame and Regret: The Sting of Social Stigma

First posted in August 2012 Shame And Regret: The Sting of Social Stigma has more of a wallop five years later than four years earlier. We as a race must get something out of persecuting the disenfranchised and marginalized friends, family’s, lovers, idols, and heroes. Maybe we ought to look inside ourselves and find that kernel of fear. Then erase it. And then get back to being compassionate brothers and sisters.

 

boygerman

Why are we ashamed by what we do?  We do what we choose to do because we stand to gain something.  Yes, some people are forced, say at gun point, to compromise; some are coerced through drugs and alcohol; and yes, some actions are purely altruistic (ashamed of philanthropy?).  It’s my opinion that consciously withholding or denying or lying about our actions is caused by fear.  Not a generic fear, but a two-tier fear.  The first tier-fear: judgement by others is beyond your control; but the second tier-fear: consequence sits squarely in your lap, and which, by the way, you’d already equated as a potential cost of your unprecedented action.  We all know this simple truth: We have absolutely no control over the actions of others.  That said, we can remove the first tier-fear: judgement by others; we now find ourselves staring down the steely barrel of culpability: we encountered a situation, measured consequence against benefit, and toed the line or stepped across it.  So shame and regret were considered well before we pandered to our hunger, thirst, or warm body (emphasis on warm).

The best possible precursor to a mental illness diagnosis was, until 1973 its own mental illness: homosexuality.  Coming out as a gay man taught me the valuable lesson that there will be people who can’t distinguish between my sexual orientation (which places me in a specific group) and who I am (in general terms) as a fellow human being.  Having learned that lesson years ago I was well prepared to face similar discrimination based upon my mental orientation, i.e. mental illness, e.g. bipolar disorder.  And yet, what is there to be ashamed and regretful about?  Don’t carry the burden of Shame or wear the shackles of Regret; never apologize to anyone irritated by what you have, especially if what you have is a medically recognized disease.

Recently I conducted a thoroughly non-scientific giddy-up poll which asked: What diseases do you think you’d be ashamed to admit having?

Answers?  Anal warts, vaginal herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea. . .what?  Anal warts? Venereal diseases? According to our non-scientific poll of middle-aged men and women, they said that carrying a sexually transmitted disease is the only other human affliction besides mental illness that they would be ashamed of having and which also carries with it a damning social stigma.  STD’s are the result of risky and unsafe sexual activities engaged in by choice. Does mental illness really belong in their company? Really?

Shame and Regret are burdens that those who choose to remain ignorant and judgmental should shoulder.

Not me.  Not you.  And certainly not the neighbor, best friend, Richard Dreyfuss rdreyfuss2
parishioner, bowling buddy, Ryan Phillippe, phillippeprom date, recipient of the first kiss, Girl Scout, Teddy Roosevelt (yes, really), Girl Scout Leader, Sinéad O’Conner, full back,  Metta World Peace ,
mettapeace offensive line coach, movie star, Burgess Meredith, Opera Star, Ronald Braunstein, famous orchestra conductor, infamous commuter train conductor or any one of the other 25% of our world’s population. How about the other 75% of the world’s population loosen the reins of their prejudice.

“Defend The Rich: Attack The Poor!” That’s America?

middleclassadvantage
ENTITLEMENT PROGRAMS: (noun), 1) A government program guaranteeing certain benefits to a segment of the population; 2) The right to benefits offered by a government.

QUESTION:  Why does the Republican leadership denounce raising taxes on the wealthy unless the Democratic leadership reduces its spending on ENTITLEMENT programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid?

In this post I will argue that Republican bias against the middle-class and their enrollment in Entitlement Programs is peanuts when compared to the wealthy’s routine use of their own Entitlement Programs.  Let’s get started:

Can you name the congressman or senator that represents the millions of disenfranchised Americans whose voice is never heard in Washington?

When will the top 1% step from behind Republican stonewalling and admit their greed is immoral and burdens the other 99% who can ill afford additional taxation?

Is Social Security Disability Income really an entitlement when over 70% of initial applications are denied; the application and subsequent supporting medical records takes an applicant months to collect; the process is so convoluted that it’s sired a cottage industry of attorneys that charge 30% or more of the applicants back-pay (back-pay is the aggregate monthly benefit beginning on the date of disability to the present day, minus the 6 month waiting period; e.g. number of months of disability benefits = 24, multiplied by the monthly benefit of $1,500 = $36,000 tax-free); so an attorney representing a client who’s approved for benefits would earn $12,000.  What kind of entitlement takes two years to process and costs the disabled 1/3 of their rightful benefit?  Why not streamline the application process and return the 30% to the SSA as a one-time contribution “To Bolster Solvency.”

ENTITLEMENT PROGRAMS FOR THE WEALTHY (AND APPROVED BY THE IRS)

The wealthiest Americans most likely have a financial firm like Atlanta Trust that manages a total of $17.6 billion for 2,200 families to develop a customized “capital-preservation” strategy.  In other words Atlanta Trust’s responsibility is to grow wealth or limit lost wealth by appropriating investments to historically safer instruments.  Wealthy American‘s treat their money like a business and receive categorized spending reports to keep their eye on what’s coming in and what’s going out.  Further, many wealthy American’s hire accounting firms or tax attorneys to prepare their income taxes by ferreting out every possible deduction (from more than 200 Federally approved deductions) and to advise of off-shore wealth and its tax liabilities (if any).  A team of financial professionals, tax attorneys, and their own consistent oversight reinforces the adage: The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Poorer.

Let’s look at Mitt Romney‘s tax situation in 2011 (as a readily available tax return and as an example of Entitlements reserved for the wealthiest American’s).

1) NET WORTH: $300 million +/-;
2) Money invested in American companies who’ve established their headquarters off-shore to avoid standard taxation;
3) Wealthy enough to hire firms to manage his assets and to uncover as many deductions as possible, which will in turn reduce his gross income tax liability to an adjusted gross income tax liability.  Remember, income tax is based on your annual income and not your net worth.

Mr. Romney didn’t disclose his gross income for 2011.  However, this is what he did disclose:

  1. His 2011 tax return was 379 pages long (a ream of paper is 500 pages);cash
  2. $13,696,951.00 (His adjusted gross income (taxable income minus allowable deductions)
  3. $1,950,000.00 (tax liability)
  4. 13.9% (final tax bracket)

If we look at the graph below, we’ll see that a person in the 13.9% tax bracket earns approximately $25,000 annually.  How on earth can someone whose gross income likely exceeded $20 million annually wind up in the same tax bracket as someone earning $25,000? (Put away your calculators, I’ve already done the math: $25,000 is 0.18252% of Romney’s adjusted gross income).

Tax Year:  2012
Filing Status:   Single
If your taxable income is between… your tax bracket is:
 $0  and  $8,750  10%
$8,700  and  $35,350  15%
 $35,350  and  $85,650  25%
 $85,650  and  $178,650  28%
 $178,650  and  $388,350  33%
 $388,350  and  ABOVE  35%

Yet, they’re in the same tax bracket?  Wondering how Mr. Romney achieves it?

  1. Great Tax Attorney’s;
  2. Preferential taxation (15% tax rate) return on investments in company’s headquartered off-shore as capital gains rather than income (35% tax rate);
  3. Crazy loophole called carried interest allowing financial managers like those working at Bain Capital (equity, hedge funds, venture capitalists) to declare their fees as capital gains (15%) rather than income (35%);
  4. Savvy and sickening at the same time.

So, back to my initial question:  Why does the Republican leadership denounce raising taxes on the wealthy unless the Democratic leadership reduces its spending on ENTITLEMENT programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid?

fiscalcliff

It would appear that this vitriolic soap-box-posturing about middle-class abuse of Entitlement Programs (which every employee contributes by way of a federal mandate requiring employers to withhold a specific percentage from every paycheck) which allegedly will be insolvent within a decade, should also include the Wealthy American’s Entitlement Programs which are routinely used in order to reduce their adjusted gross income and subsequently lower their tax liability by millions, if not billions of dollars every year.  The Federal Government loses an enormous amount of money which might be used to rescue Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid from collapse.  But that would require closing loopholes, limiting deductions, taxing ALL income at their current tax bracket (35%); in other words forcing the wealthiest 1% to pay an income tax based on income, rather than a greatly reduced income tax based on adjusting their income by as many as 200 deductions and loop holes.  Or, simply be an American and pay your fair share.

Our current situation It’s disgraceful, embarrassing for all American’s on the world stage, and further separates the bourgeoise from the proletariat (which, historically speaking, has never been a sustainable advantage for the ruling party).  The direction we’re headed, best illustrated by the stalemate in Washington, historically ends when a few have most of the wealth and the most have the fewest.  It’s not a divide, it’s a gorge, or maybe a cliff which stubbornness or back-room politics causes a financial implosion which could have been avoided if the good of the American people was paramount, not some school yard tough-guy bullying and double-dares.

I’m embarrassed to admit I’m an American.

Romanticizing Madness

I’ve noticed recently a spate of blogs and websites declaring which famous people are bipolar (please visit: (http://pinterest.com/bipolarbandit/famous-people-with-bipolar-disorder/).  This identification of plausible personalities is a definite indication of social change.  To see familiar faces, icons, sport legends, entertainment moguls, and just plain “they’ve-got-it-too” types provides a sense of belonging to a community-at-large which includes not just me, or members of my support groups, but people whose face is undeniably recognizable and never dreamed that they, too, face the same challenges I face.  And there’s a degree of comfort in that.  Secondly, it begins to slowly tear apart the prejudice and educate the ignorant not necessarily about mental illness, but that anyone, their favorite hockey player, their dreamboat actor or actress, their business executive role model, can and do live with mental illness.

This identification is the initial crack in the shell of shame and stigma.  And we (people living with mental illness) didn’t invent the tactic.  For instance, a similar identification of the famous and powerful occurred during the homosexual march toward acceptance and respect.  The exposure of the public’s least likely to be or to have is one step closer to the day when ordinary patients living with a mental illness can disclose their disorder free from the fear of isolation, castigation, or retaliation by pointing to the recently exposed successful, popular, and famous comrades-in-madness.  This identification of recognizable personalities borders on the romanticizing of madness which isn’t that dissimilar to the mid 90’s trend to have a gay friend.

I can testify to the similarities because I’m gay and I’m bipolar and I voluntarily disclose these two details with the same degree of importance as when I confess that I microwave my ice-cream or that I prefer medium starch on my dress shirts.

In the homosexual world your voluntary disclosure is commonly referred to as “coming out (of the closet).” The expression “coming out” was introduced to the gay lexicon first in the 20th century and has permeated the American lexicon during the late 21st century.  “Coming out” was seen as an introduction into the clandestine gay subculture and compared to a débutante’s coming out party.  Today “coming out” is less likely a party and more likely an uncomfortable incident, like soiling your pants in public or getting arrested for peddling questionable pornography.  Their concern is how the homosexual lifestyle will impact them (that is, the collective “them”) and are notorious for their absence of empathy or support.  Some abandon; some think its a phase; some deny; some cover their ears; and some (like my mother) invoked the bigotry of my dead father and wept when she looked at me.  And then there are others — embracing and supportive listeners; honored to have been told; and a few see the courage and witness the honesty and reverse their ill-informed ideas that homosexuality is Satan’s playground.

In 1952 the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disorder in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) .  In 1969 a week-long gay uprising in New York City started by a police raid in a Mafia owned bar called The Stonewall Inn started the gay movement toward equality.  In 1973 homosexuality was officially removed from the DSM and was no longer considered a psychiatric disorder.


Remaining quiet, covert, dishonest, and shameful simply reinforced the commonly held belief that there was something wrong with homosexuality.  As early as the mid-19th century German’s were advocating the public admission by men and women of their homosexuality as a form of emancipation.  It took another century and countless victims of bigotry, hatred, and ignorance before homosexuals coalesced into a unified voice demanding that the social stigma of being a homosexual be eliminated.  It’s taken another 40 years before more than fifty percent of all American’s believe that gays and lesbians should have the same right to marry as heterosexuals.

I believe that there are great similarities between the long and painful trailblazing required to achieve acceptance of homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle and the eradication of the social stigma people living with mental illness experience on a daily basis.  Both groups perpetuated their own discrimination by remaining silent as society tortured, oppressed, and determined that it (homosexuality or mental illness) was an abomination which must be isolated, subjected to brutal and inhumane treatments, or permanently removed.  The gay rights movement was sparked by one drag queen who was determined that she would not tolerate brutality at the hands of the police simply because she was homosexual.  Her defiance was her voice and her protest was her high-heeled shoe parried in the face of her tormentors.

Will it be your voice that’s louder than the others?  Will it be your courage that’s Tweeted around the world?  Will you be the one that’s still mentioned fifty years later as the voice which shouted, “this is the last straw!

Which it was.

All thanks to you.

Election 2012: Forget the Gays! Let’s Kill the Middle-Class!

SCENE:

A mob of men and women sporting haute couture ensembles are followed by domestic staff brandishing fiery torches, weed-wackers, and gilded “breaking ground” shovels move at an accelerated pace (note: they are not running; they never run; they simply walk with tremendous determination) between the craggy, overhanging cliffs somewhere near Malibu or the tall, dense sand dunes near the Hampton’s.  They scream hateful epithets like “And you thought Polo was just an after-shave,” or “Only a monster prepares his own taxes,” or “Even a hunchback is beholden to religion for its servile and miserable life.”

CUT TO:

A group of men and women run up narrow, rocky paths or stumble through swallowing, deep sand.  They’re absolutely terrified, and yet they clutch one or two possessions (laptop, picture frames, deed to a house) even though their requires two hands.  You get the sense that they’re clutching all that remains of their life.  Suddenly a heavyset, winded man loses his balance and though others try to grab his free hand, they yell things like, “Let go of the picture,” or “It’s only a college degree!”

But suddenly he holds the framed diploma tightly against his chest as he teeters over the edge and everyone watches as he falls into the abyss tightly holding his most precious possession.

Welcome to December, 2012 if the Republican machine takes hold of the White House.

I think that it’s perfectly normal to ignore distracting noise, especially campaign noise, when 120% of your attention to personal-matters-at-hand is parsed and you’re really not interested in cockfighting.

That is until your private AGI (adjusted gross income) permits political campaigns to assign you a specific economic class moniker. The herding of same AGI’s should get your attention.  Once you’ve been economically branded you begin to recognize topics related to your self-proclaimed monikers (or, sub-classifications) which label behaviors and values, your distinguishing parts, (which you once defended, affirmed, and proudly paraded). These distinguishing parts have been diminished by time into a complex, amalgamated you much less the “youthfully combative sum of your parts” and much more like your mother or father (with very distinctive differences).

Until the amalgamated you becomes campaign fodder, a cadaver dissected in public by wielding derisive displays of contempt and hatred resurrecting foregone battles to right history’s wrongs and to spread fear like an airborne toxin.  How on earth, you think to yourself, have I been put on the ballot?

Because the run for leader of the free world has nothing to do with leading.  It’s become a referendum prosecuting or defending the future of the middle-class.  The American middle-class: devoted family, work ethics, values, respect, you get what you can afford, hard-working, proud, stable, honest, neighborly, caught. . .in the middle. . .of change.

But greed changed all that.  First bankers got greedy, then brokers got greedy, the home owners got greedy, and then. . .lower to lower-middle class were qualified for mortgages on real estate which was falsely inflated to satisfy everyone’s greed.  Families that simply couldn’t afford to buy a home found themselves underwater (owing more that the home is really worth.  In other words sellers, brokers and lenders all told varying degrees of lies and the poor schmuck wanting his piece of the American Dream ended up being the real sucker in the scheme.  But not one banking executive has gone to jail or forced to pay for those lousy mortgages out of their skyrocketing profits.

Chicago Tribune Feature – Published Sun., Aug. 26

No rhetoric; no sublime style; no lexicons or etymology.  Pure and simple disclosure of disquieting issues.

Please, REPOST THIS ON YOUR BLOG.  Personally, I prefer privacy over publicity; I exposed my life in the hope that the stigmas of mental illness, obesity, and homosexuality might be reconsidered to be human conditions worthy of respect and empathy.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/ct-met-bipolar-20120824,0,3948031.story

Bipolar II disorder: Another Chicagoan’s story

Like Jesse Jackson Jr., Harlan Didrickson has the illness and has had weight-loss surgery

 Harlan Didrickson poses outside his Rogers Park home. (Chris Walker, Tribune photo / August 17, 2012)
By Barbara Brotman, Chicago Tribune reporter, August 26, 2012
Harlan Didrickson was a model of middle-class stability.He lived with his partner of more than two decades in a handsome Victorian on a leafy North Side street. He worked as manager of executive and administrative services for a high-powered architectural firm, where he made hospitality and travel arrangements for large meetings and oversaw budgets that ran into millions of dollars.He was not the kind of person who would go to lunch with friends and come home having spent $4,500 on a puppy and a month of obedience training.

Or who would get up at 2 a.m., go to Dunkin’ Donuts, then drive to Indiana and back, snacking on Munchkins.

But that’s who he became.

Four years ago, his life was upended by bipolar II disorder, the same illness recently diagnosed in U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

This is not Jackson’s story. People with the disorder — nearly 6 million in the U.S. — have unique experiences with the illness, which cycles between moods of manic energy and deep depression.

“The symptoms of bipolar disorder can be very different from one person compared to another,” said Dr. John Zajecka, a psychiatrist with Rush University Medical Center who specializes in mood disorders.

Manic states leave some people euphoric, others irritable. “There are people who can function their whole lives in these hypomanic states,” though they may lose marriages, jobs and money, Zajecka said.

Depression, too, can appear in a variety of ways. Some sufferers stay in either mania or depression for decades; others cycle between them many times a day. And people respond differently to treatment.

But Didrickson’s struggle provides one look at how bipolar II disorder and its treatment can affect a life.

And he does have one key factor in common with Jackson. Like the congressman, Didrickson, 54, had weight-loss surgery before being diagnosed with bipolar. He had a gastric bypass procedure; Jackson had a duodenal switch.

It became a serious complication in his treatment. The weight-loss procedure, which causes the body to absorb fewer calories, prevented him from absorbing the full dose of his antidepressant medication.

Didrickson’s illness began when he started feeling extremely stressed at work. He considered himself skilled at his job but felt beleaguered by office politics.

“I felt as though I was fighting a lot of fights on different fronts in my life, and that I didn’t have the wherewithal, the energy,” he said. “I was profoundly unhappy.”

He changed jobs, twice. He still felt miserable. And he also felt trapped, having to do work he now found unbearably stressful.

More than 60 percent of people with bipolar engage in substance abuse as they try to self-medicate their inner pain. Didrickson was among them. At night he would wash down some hydrocodone, an opiate he had been prescribed for a back injury, with beer. He would stay up till 4 a.m. watching TV, then take Ambien to fall asleep.

“At 6 o’clock I woke up, got dressed and went to work. I was probably still high,” he said. “Then somewhere around noon, I would crash. I would go to the men’s bathroom, go sit on the toilet and fall asleep.”

His partner, Nick Harkin, a publicist with an entertainment and lifestyle marketing firm, had no idea how deeply troubled Didrickson had become.

But then Didrickson didn’t show up on time for a planned out-of-town getaway. When he arrived the next day, he was morose, secretive and exhausted. “It was a very abrupt shift,” Harkin said. “It was quite obvious that something was very seriously wrong.”

Didrickson was thinking of ending their relationship, he told Harkin. And he wanted to move to California’s Death Valley. He wanted to start a new life.

“I was falling apart,” Didrickson said. “It was this desperate: I will do anything to get out from under this pressure.’ It was like having a heart attack, and if you don’t get out from under it, it will kill you.”

Back home, he called a friend who had once been his therapist. She asked if he was suicidal.

“I was, like, ‘Of course I am. I think about it all the time,'” he said. “‘It’s the only comfort I have.'”

She told him to see a psychiatrist. He did, and was told he had depression — a common initial diagnosis for people with bipolar, who generally seek treatment during a depressed phase of the illness.

The antidepressant the doctor prescribed didn’t work. Didrickson developed memory problems, to the point where he forgot how to do simple tasks like using a phone.

“I could not take a shower, because I couldn’t recall the sequence of activities … turning on the water, stepping into the spray, getting wet, washing,” he said.

He lost 40 pounds and neglected bathing and grooming. And yet there were also times when Didrickson felt powerful, energetic, nearly like a superhero. He could do anything he wanted, no matter how dangerous or destructive, with no consequences.

He ran red lights. He drove the wrong way down one-way streets. “I felt like I was back to being in charge, like I was back to saying, ‘It’s going to go like this because I said so,'” Didrickson said. “I felt kind of emancipated.

“I thought, Wow, this (antidepressant) Paxil is really working.'”

But it wasn’t. A psychopharmacologist gave him a new diagnosis: bipolar II disorder, a form of bipolar disorder with less extreme mood swings.

His new doctor told him to stop self-medicating — Didrickson said he hasn’t had a drink or abused a drug since — and put him on a mood stabilizer. And then began the painstaking process of trying to find the right antidepressant: six weeks getting to a therapeutic amount of a drug, then six weeks being weaned off when it didn’t work, again and again.

“My symptoms came back. I just felt terrible,” he said.

He was still manic, once getting up at 4 a.m. to drive to Lake Shore Drive to look at newly fixed potholes. He spent money recklessly. He spent hours obsessing over the paper stock to use for custom stationery.

The manic states always turned dark, ending with him lashing out at people — usually Harkin.

“When I begin my mania, it’s a great party,” he said. “But when it gets to be months into it, it gets uglier and uglier and uglier, to the point where you really are a monster.

“Mania isn’t happy; mania is crazy,” he said.

No antidepressant worked. Then a friend with bipolar recommended Adderall, the stimulant often prescribed for attention deficit disorder.

His doctor prescribed a standard amount. It did nothing.

So Didrickson took another dose. And he felt a little better.

“I started to feel buoyant,” he said. “I always talk about feeling underwater. I felt like I was finally breaking the surface.”

He didn’t know why he needed a higher dose. But then he came upon online message board postings by people who had undergone gastric bypass surgery and then found that their antidepressant medicines stopped working.

The gastric bypass surgery he had undergone years earlier to lose weight, he concluded, was keeping his body from absorbing the medicine.

Indeed, Zajecka said, gastric bypass surgery can change how people absorb medicines given for bipolar disorder.

The Mayo Clinic statement announcing Jackson’s diagnosis also noted that the weight-loss surgery he had “can change how the body absorbs food, liquids, vitamins, nutrients and medications.”

Didrickson’s doctor would only marginally increase his dosage of the notoriously abused amphetamine. It wasn’t until he switched doctors because of a change in his health care coverage that he got what he found to be an effective dose.

His longtime internist, Dr. Eric Christoff, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, gradually increased Didrickson’s dosage, with weekly appointments to check his blood pressure.

The depression lifted. He has been on the higher dosage for a year and a half.

“We have never seen any evidence of drug toxicity or high blood pressure,” Christoff said. “He’s really not absorbing much of any dose he’s taking.”

Many people with bipolar disorder are able to resume their previous lives.

“It’s one of the most treatable illnesses we have in medicine,” Zajecka said. “If it’s diagnosed properly and treated appropriately, there’s no reason they can’t get back to resuming a normal lifestyle and their normal goals in life.”

But Didrickson has been unable to go back to work and still has periods of depression and mania, though much milder ones. He manages the house, cooks and has taken up woodworking.

“Going out in the evening can be very, very, challenging for him,” Harkin said. “If we go to a concert or a dance performance and it’s too noisy, he’ll have to leave. If … there’s someone in a film who’s violent or cruel, that’s very upsetting to him too.”

“It’s nothing like I thought my life would be,” Didrickson said.

“The good thing, I guess, is that I don’t hold on to yesterdays,” he said. “That’s a blessing, I think, frankly. But I also don’t have tomorrow. My life isn’t about tomorrow.”

He has gone back to writing, which he did in college. He writes a blog about his experiences with bipolar, under the name T.M. Mulligan. The moniker stands for “Taking My Mulligan.”

“I’m having my do-over,” he said. “I’m taking the second chance.”

Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune

Maybe We’re Just Like Ducks

It’s called imprinting, the rapid learning process by which a newborn or very young animal establishes a behavior pattern of recognition and attraction to another animal of its own kind or to a substitute or an object identified as the parent.  Ducks must be given full credit for bringing this natural attraction to the world’s attention.

We’ve all heard of some unusual attractions that ducklings have developed: humans, dogs, even beach balls.  So, if a duckling can blame nature for his predisposition for beach balls, perhaps our sexual proclivities are the combination of imprinting and sexual awakening: Love Potion No. 1.

My Duck Day coincided with the appearance of the concrete caravan and my budding sexual identity.

It happened during the dog days of summer, near the end of a blistering July, 1966 that the concrete caravan first appeared at the top of the hill on National Avenue and slowly made its way past Lapham Street, past the Roebuck house, skipped the alley, patched Elmer’s front walk and finally stopped to repair the crumbling curb in front of my house.

Most of the cement-men were career contract-labor: exceptionally efficient at chain-gang-hard-labor; blood-orange skin from the unrelenting sun, hints of aging hair poked from beneath hats, enormous bellies born from beer, and exhausted cigar stubs deeply wedged at the side of their mouths.  And then there was this one guy, unlike the others, this one guy resembled the older brother of everyone’s best friend; this one guy was the guy that came to pick up your sister, bewitched your mother, and worried your father; this guy, handsome in a blue-blood kind-of-way but absent of the sophisticated grooming; his countenance was basic, organic, and naturally simple; his body was whittled by the repetitious pounding of pick-axes; his age was disguised and  purposefully vague evoking my curiosity; he was a pioneer, trailblazing through his indecisive twenties.

He wore identical clothing each day: A clean, sleeveless white T-shirt absent of any distracting graphics; tattered by abrasions, the frayed front pockets of his torn 501’s gave witness to his desperate deep-hand searching for loose change to feed the pop machine; a thick, brown belt wormed its way through the faded-to-white belt loops and cinched the denim preventing its avalanche; a navy blue bandana was tied tightly across his forehead to restrain a chalky cowlick; and concealing safety glasses which rationed the gleam of his lapis colored eyes.  Draped yet suggestive, his broad shoulders were easily double the width of his narrow hips which plunged into the deeply concave impressions of his hindquarters which were kept aloft by fleshy legs challenging the denim’s restraint.

Each morning he would arrive fresh like today’s baked bread.  As the toil took its toll his sweat marked then saturated his T-shirt prompting its removal which resembled pulling peel from fleshy fruit.  From my perch on Mrs. Bower’s front steps I mapped the pathway of his perspiration, its headwater found near his neck where it gathered then overflowed and trickled south swallowing isolated beads of sweat and tributaries which first appeared on his capped shoulders and added volume and speed which breached the sinewy levee of his spine and flooded the darkening waistband of his 501 ‘s as well as the white cotton banding which sat low on his hips.

I watched him for more than a week when my mother took notice and opportunity of my afternoon routine of sitting on the front porch.  It was her idea that I take the hose and water Mrs. Bower’s flowers and front lawn.  Perfect, I reasoned, an alibi should allay any suspicion caused by my daily observations.   On Tuesday of the second week of their construction I walked through the gangway with the spitting hose and began to shower Mrs. Bower’s flowers.  By the time I started to water the parkway (grass between the street and the sidewalk) the man in the blue bandana ambled cautiously over to me like a slow, curious cow to a farmer holding a bucket of feed. I stood on the sidewalk and thumb sprayed the grass when he asked, “Mind if I have a drink from there?”

I stood dumbfounded and handed him the hose, his wide, thickly calloused hands reaching across the freshly poured concrete for Mrs. Bower’s  Craftsman “Kinkless Guaranteed” one hundred foot garden hose, and moved the bubbling water to his mouth, drinking quietly, his lips pursed into a muscled “O”.  I watched with a great deal of curiosity as his Adam’s apple moved up and down with each quenching swallow, the dimples in his cheeks mirrored the rhythm of his bobbing Adam’s apple.  When sated he returned Mrs. Bower’s hose to my care and said, “Thanks; I’ve seen you watching us for a couple of days; thinking of a career in concrete?  What’s your name?”

“T.M.,” I said quietly.

“Thanks for the drink, T.M.” he said with a wink, then turned and rejoined his crew.

July, 1966 became known as The Summer of Eye-High Marigolds and Mrs. Bower’s Famous Flowers as reported in one local paper.  That July day in 1966 when Bandana Man put his lips to Mrs. Bower’s Craftsman “Kinkless Guaranteed” one hundred foot hose and quenched his thirst, I, instantly developed an unfamiliar thirst rising from deep within, a thirst temporarily doused by Bandana Man’s proximity, but which would reignite moments after I switched off my bedroom light later that night; by morning I longed to be near Bandana Man.  My disquieting need to putter around the front yard required a significant diversion, an understandable reason why I needed to be there.  Which is why my camouflage became an avid interest in gardening.  I think Mrs. Bower’s was exceptionally proud, and I’m happy that she took all the credit.  It was her front yard of course which received my best intentions while I continued to catch furtive glances through the gardens towering stems.

It took the concrete caravan an unprecedented three weeks to complete its concrete repair from the Roebuck house on the north end of the block to the Nichols’ house at the south end.  It was a Friday, I think, that the inevitable happened: I ran out of hose.  The crew had just turned the corner and was heading west on Mitchell Street. I stood there, water pouring from the stretched hose, acknowledging yet not understanding life’s cruelty: Why were we both at the same crossroad at the same time, if all it meant was fame for Mrs. Bower’s flowers?  As Bandana Man turned the corner he stopped, looked back at me, dropped his pick-ax and trotted in my direction, his tanned torso rippling like sheets on a clothesline.

He untied his bandana and held it beneath the cold water, wrung it out, then wiped his face and neck, returned it to the cold water and said, “You look kind of hot.  You hot, T.M.?”

“Yes,” I answered while nodding my head.

He took the hose from me letting it drop to the ground, turned me around, and wrapped the navy blue damp bandana around my head and tied it snuggly in back.  He spun me around, studied me for a moment, then said, “Cool man, you’re one of us now!”  And with a tousle of my hair he turned and ran to catch up with the crew which from afar resembled a motley gang of vagabonds.  I remained at that spot and allowed the water to drip down my face, catching a few droplets with my tongue, detecting a hint of salt which I knew was my first real taste of men.

Back Then, Ignorance Was De Rigueur

At the end of the 60’s and carrying into the 70’s there still seemed a deep-rooted sentiment: if it’s none of your business, then keep your nose out of it.  Which seemed to work fine for most people.  Of course every neighborhood had its busybody, just as it had its grouchy-keep-off-my-grass-senior-citizen, and bubble-gum-snapping-younger-than-her-bosom-suggests-daughter-of-a-longshoreman.  But by-and-large, if it didn’t directly involve you then you were commanded to stay-out-of-it.  And woe be the kids with clumsy feet: too inattentive or naive to jump when they spot trouble; or those nearest the melee when it explodes, or the small-fry-wanna-be whose taunts often ignite newly produced testosterone because they all will be hauled to the principal’s office for punishment followed by the famous litany of idiotic parental rhetoric: “. . .well, if he jumped off. . .;” “If I’ve told you once. . .;” and the classic “I  could see those <insert surname  here> boys were trouble. . .”   But the message was always the same: mind your own business.

Now, that’s not to say there was a lack of dinner-table rumor-mongering, my mother usually updating us on the goings-on of the neighborhood.  But, if the rumor was rated PG-13 and above, we were given the briefest synopsis, censored beyond recognition, devoid of any example of debauchery, infidelity, or any despicable acts whether or not the “I’m-not-naming-names-neighbor-three-doors-down” was perpetrator or victim.  My mother’s talent for omission was legendary, but her dinner-table-abridging offered very little by way of a storyline, but witnessing her agility at avoiding incriminating details while maintaining a conversational tone was so entertaining that my older brother wanted to call the Watergate crew and offer them her secret of how-to skirt the truth and avoid prison for perjury.  He said he tried but was told they don’t take messages for inmates.

But even spreading gossip was considered a breach of social convention and was practiced with the highest degree of discretion.  I overheard my mother talking on the phone about Mrs. Bowers and her recent loose-lipped huddle at Kroger’s with Mrs. Hanson about boys, booze, broads and a bathtub: to Mrs. Bowers chagrin the broad and bathtub belonged to Mrs. Hanson.  Right there in aisle 5-A Mrs. Hanson’s strong upper lip began to quiver and like a mudslide, her conviction simply gave-way taking her sand-bagged courage with it and Mrs. Hanson dropped to the floor as if someone had cut her marionette strings.

Back then the message was loud and clear: keep your mouth shut! 

And I suppose it was that exact 1960’s deflection of responsibility, respect for authority, and absolute ignorance of any activity which happened outside the euphemistic “four walls” of our family (and home) that created a vacuum of moral accountability.  This social ignorance was the fertile ground from which victims sprouted already marinated in the tenets of civic propriety: keep your mouth shut and mind your own business.  Now add a new genus of Catholic leadership: an indubitable, irrefutable and influential priest whose intentions, if questioned, are defended rigorously by the diocesan hierarchy.  These two social renunciations: bewilderment on the part of the parents and blindness on the part of the Catholic Church created the perfect playground for sexual predators that mocked piety and disgraced through indignity and malice, the Christian image of the protector of children.

We had a predatory priest back in Catholic grade school.  As a pedophile he’d developed quite a reputation and a skillful set of traps which left little, if any scars, except those which appeared years later.  He developed a certain degree of notoriety: A staggering example of the decades-long failure of the Church’s treatment (reflection and counseling) resulting in reassignment or perhaps the estimated number of casualties he produced (across generations in one family).  His ecclesiastic devotion was a stark contrast to his budding reputation as “overly affectionate” or “physical with boys beyond acceptable behavior” so the Arch Diocese of Milwaukee continued to pry his paws away from parishioners at one church (akin to “running him out of town”).

He was hurried over to a safe house for an overhaul: counseling, hand-slapping, celibate reminders, penitence, forgiveness, and then off to some R & R (restoration & repair), placed back into the deck, reshuffled, and dealt to an ignorant congregation of affable and duteous parents who’d bred reverent and obedient children.  Some devote parishioners believed that the affection of a doting priest was reserved for the innocent of the innocents, were venerated by God and anointed (via the local messenger, i.e. priest) with an extra helping of divinity.  I remember hearing that some devoted parents would volunteer their children’s time to vocational pursuits i.e. ironing vestments, vacuuming sacristies, opening the weekly offering envelopes, in order to maintain proximity to the priest should a divine message be received.  But back then, back in 1969, that’s how Catholics behaved because they were taught that a priest was called by God to act as emissary here on earth; and the most important (mysterious, and grossly misunderstood) tenet of a priest’s appointment was his unconditional vow of celibacy (the state of being unmarried and, therefore, sexually abstinent).

And that presumption, that priest’s were not sexual, was the perfect degree of insulation these priest’s and their superiors needed to stave off accusations of impropriety brought to the diocese.  And here’s the revelation:  No matter how impassioned, no matter how unthinkable the alleged violations seemed, no matter that these abominations were reruns from previous parishes, the victim, a child, with nothing to gain (and so much to lose) were often suspect!  First by the parents, then the parish leaders, then when facing the priest in his rectory, and then, if pursued, again face-off with highly respected and very suspicious diocesan officials and the priest (whose interest and adorations became manipulative, threatening, painful episodes and were so outrageous and impossible to prove, that the only logical and least damaging conclusion anyone with any sense could draw:  the child is  exaggerating, misconstruing, or unintentionally and without malice positioned themselves near the priest and misunderstood their physical contact as egregious.

And frankly I don’t know which buckled first: The highly improbable assertion that a child repeatedly seduced a religious official vowed to celibacy or the unquestionable devotion of generations to the Catholic Church (the age-old collapse of a faith in God and a faith in the Godliness of men ordained by Him).  But what it took to shift the burden of proof from the victim (child) to the perpetrator (priest) was a departure from isolation and silence to community and conversation.  When adults decided that blind allegiance to any organization purely based on what that organization tells you to believe is, in and of itself, questionable, was when the fortified walls of some of the world’s oldest and most revered organizations began to weaken.

It’s not what we’re told by leaders (whether religious, political, corporate) that has the capacity to tear this world apart.  It’s what we believe that we’re told.  It’s not the children’s fault that the Catholic Church protected and permitted decades of sexual abuse.  It’s the adult’s fault (whether or not your the priest or the parent or the pope).  It’s an adult’s responsibility to question authority each and every time it violates freedom!

There isn’t one person on this planet that stands above repute.  Except, that is, perhaps the children.