Do I Look Like A Pigeon?

There’s a basic tenet of parental behavior to which many ascribe:  Whatever you don’t like, don’t understand, or frightens you about your child, you’ll try to ignore it, or threaten it, or eliminate it under the guise of childhood protection.

If you had known me as a child you would never describe me as: bashful, shy, inhibited, reserved, demure, or innocent.  Especially innocent!  I blame my lack of innocence on a creative incarceration complete with shackles, pillory, and thumbscrews (metaphorically speaking) as the adult-authority’s recommended protocol for youngsters that emigrate to the shores of their imaginations.  My crime?  Being entertained by my imagination’s liberty to dream of things or experiences which landed far beyond the limits of our lower-middle-class capabilities, and of which I insisted were possible despite our depressed economic status.  Not that I asked for things that we couldn’t afford.  I asked for things which required creativity or compromise or cunning.  I only asked for things which were possible but perplexing; things which, if I were taller or older or motorized I could procure.  But I was a short, plump, uncoordinated child that wrestled with an unbridled imagination and raw creativity which everyone described as teetering between adaptation (the positive, yet painful struggle of change: unyielding animosity between divorced parents, recent move to the south side) and abdication (an attempt to cope by disengaging himself from his misery by displacing reality with imagination).  I had just begun implementing a plan which might conquer both my hells (before/after move).  Using creativity and imagination I might be able to map my way free of their self-centered, ego-inflamed romantic ideals and out from under the shitty and selfish mess the adults-in-charge created, then forced down my gullet like corn down the throat of the holiday goose.

So authority figures convened to develop a strategy designed to lower the volume of my imagination and increase interest in my new-world order.  By discouraging escape and encouraging capitulation they hypothesized that I would slowly build a positive (and comfortable) reality without careening into fantasy, imagination, or creativity.  In other words, we’ve tested him and he ain’t no Einstein, scored dead-center 50th percentile, and, thank God, kind, dull, unambitious, and docile: he’s simply avoiding change by daydreaming.  So the adults broke their huddle and walked to the line of scrimmage; a defense full of adulthood, authority, corporal punishment, and varying degrees of coercion designed to obliterate the supply bridge between me and my creativity and imagination.  But I was on the offensive and understood that in a matter of seconds my pulverization would commence; I mustered some resistance, usually a subtle mockery of mumbled affirmations.

Their boundless resources, their freshly recruited therapists (secretly screened in the convent) hammered my resistance and during a nighttime raid caused a debilitating breach, a nightmare, which cast doubt on imaginations allegiance.  Creativity wasn’t strong enough to deflect their incessant whittling away at my corners, sanding down my resolve in order to spit me out at eighth grade graduation: a shining example of what to do with a square peg when the world offers only round holes.  The nuns, lay-people, and counselors believed that by distracting my distractions, by motivating and redirecting and sympathetic yet tyrannical concern and instruction, they could successfully extinguish what, at the time, was thought to be simple imagination.  And I would take my place among my fellow eighth grade graduates poised for the adventure of public middle-school, then high school, and finally be added to the third-shift at some manufacturing or assembly plant as one more blue-collar-assembly-line-lifer with low expectations and very little hope.  

Tragically, these nuns and educators were in pursuit of an example, a trophy, proof that plucking me from a sea of personal trauma and forcing me to face the reality to which I was born.

How nearsighted they were to think they eliminated my problem.  It was much worse than that.  They confirmed, even back then, that it was real and I wasn’t just imagining things.

The Night My Liberty Was Nullified (Thursday, July 10, 2008)

Thursday, July 10, 2008 started out normally: cotton had been stuffed between my ears sometime throughout the night; my body had gained an enormous mass as well, its weight pulling me deeper into the feather bed, my heavy legs swinging to the edge like cast iron bells; my feet encased in iron felt ready for the ocean floor; I pushed my body upright using arm strength and sat motionless for five minutes in a kind of stupor; a man with no goal; no alarm; no schedule; no deadline. Simply a man with time. And this time continues to tick, on and on, and in this stupor it doesn’t stop, it simply continues to drum, and I am oblivious to its march. In the mornings time fails to exist; there’s simply the stupor and the weight and me, or what I think is me, trying to read the details of an unfamiliar map in poor lighting and without spectacles.

It took two hours to complete my morning routine which Nick and I have outlined on two cards and placed in the bottom edge corner of my medicine cabinet. The cards remind me of the order of bathing: brush teeth, start shower, hair, body, face, shave, squeegee, towel dry, brush hair, after-shave balm, deodorant, patch, hang towels. If I fail to use the list I forget where I am in the sequence and either stop altogether or restart from the beginning. My inability to concentrate on even the most menial activities is another symptom of my depression. I suppose I’m fortunate though, in this fog I find myself in, I don’t really judge the degree of my disability. It’s not as though yesterday I had two legs and today one. This disease is invasive: it’s a brown-out; not quite a black-out, but enough surge to switch off delicate systems and place them in a suspended mode. Next came dressing. The simple selection of items was daunting. Incapable of processing difficult code, I simply grabbed shorts, shirt and sandals and hoped I wouldn’t look like a clown.

I was exhausted by the time I made it to the garden. Nick was there working on a crossword and presented me with a cup of coffee. I opened my laptop and quickly discovered I was unable to concentrate on even simple navigation. Pulling myself up from my chair I hoisted myself onto the sofa and fell back asleep.

During sleep I began to hear the quiet invitation of the river. “Come to the river,” it asked. “Come to the river, it’s quiet here,” it pleaded.

I heard Nick’s voice far away, in the distance, miles behind me, “Harlan,” he yelled. I awoke, looking longingly for the river but all I saw was Nick, “I heard your yelling outside, about going somewhere; where were you going?” he asked. “To the river,” I said, “It was calling me.”

After a number of telephone calls I found myself in our car speeding to the hospital to be admitted. By this time exhaustion had overtook me. My resolve against the disease, its voices, its demons and magic and trickery had ceased. I was a harm to myself. I was in significant danger and unstable and required hospitalization in order to save my life from itself.

Upon entering the hospital the stark reality of mental illness was immediately evident. Once announced that you require psychiatric care you are moved through a well-oiled machine. I was placed in a triage room and asked a simple question: have you had homicidal or suicidal thoughts? A simple “yes” answer thrust my welfare to the front of the line: papers were shuffled, calls were made, registration was completed, body searches conducted, personal belongings and shoes removed and bagged, a personal security guard assigned, and the single most powerful yet profoundly simple right was revoked: my right to freedom. I had now become a legal liability requiring constant supervision in a small waiting room with other psychiatric patients. And I was incapable of leaving without seeing a doctor. I had been incarcerated by my own volition.

I found it impossible to sit in the holding cell with severely psychotic patients: one yelling someone was stabbing her; another rocking and laughing/crying; a third belching and retching; a fourth pacing like a caged cat. I asked to sit outside, right next to the pen. My guard agreed. About two hours into this episode there was a guard shift-change and I was ordered – ordered to get back into the holding pen. When I flatly refused the guards began to don rubber gloves and said, “Don’t make us lay hands on you, sir! Do not make us lay hands on you!” as though I were a criminal. I said, “I’m simply depressed! Christ, had I known it was going to be like this, I’d have simply killed myself!” and Nick and I walked back into the cell.

Nick and I sat in that holding cell for a total of five hours until at last my name was called and we (Nick, my guard and I) were escorted back to an empty emergency examination room. A nurse threw back the curtain and asked Nick to step out while she interviewed me. She was an angel, I thought, looking at her compassionate eyes and heavenly smile. She inquired as to why I found myself at the ER and I explained the days events. I told her that my language got out of hand, I talked of suicide but had spoken out of turn, and I really just wanted to go home with Nick and did not wish to be admitted.

A platoon of doctors came and went and finally I was discharged honorably into the night. It was determined that I was not a suicide risk and would see my personal psychiatrist the next day and that Nick would have to remain at my side until that time.

This mental illness has kidnapped my sanity; it has revoked my right to free thought and happiness; it has sentenced me to life with a chance for parole only if I continue to absorb Paxil at night before bedtime. But even this mindful incarceration, this disease and its disability pales in comparison to the penal colony operating under the guise of patient safety.  Having willfully turned over my right to freedom was the most eye-opening, chilling, humiliating experience of my life and one in which I will not soon forget.

Personal Assistant Career Application: Word Problems

So you’ve always wanted to be a personal assistant to the wealthy, the famous, the powerful!  Oh, the perks you tell yourself; the glamourthe benefits; the cocktail conversations!

To be a successful personal assistant you’ve got to produce, produce, produce anything asked of you, since you are an extension of them (but one they keep hidden like a blemish or disfigurement – which you’ll quickly discover).

But here’s an excerpt from a “PA Application” specifically asking how you would handle odd situations in order to avoid adding further stress to your boss’s life.  A PA is, after all, the gasket between their boss’s expectations and the reality which most of us endure.

In this section you will be presented with a series of actual situations which faced top-level Personal Assistants.  Please select TWO and in a brief essay,
describe how you would handle the situation.  Your answers will help us assess your creativity, dedication to service, and results orientation.  When you are finished, put down your pencil, remind yourself that every working day as a PA will resemble this test, oh, and you’re top salary will be $10/hour.

1.  Your charge, an adept 14-year old boy has recently been expunged from AOL and his mother (your boss) insists that the charge did nothing wrong, and insists that his privileges be reinstated immediately (including a formal letter of apology and one-month free service).  When you discuss the situation with the charge he insists he did nothing wrong.  You contact AOL as the family representative and discover 2 issues: A) The charge was kicked-off because he was downloading reels of porn videos; B) Only the Mrs. could reinstate the account (given it was her account).

2.  Your boss owns 3 dogs, all of which move to Fisher’s Island for the winter via the family jet (as was explained to you during your interview).

Dog 1:    Silky Terrier (size: Toy: 7″ tall x 9″ long (excluding tongue), 5 pounds),
and is a constant traveling companion via a shoulder-bag carry-on.

Dog 2 & Dog 3:     Bullmastiff (size: Gargantuan: 27″ tall, 135 pounds),
guards country property in neighboring state; aloof; maintain a distance.

You are summoned into your boss’s office and told that the next weekend is when the “pets” should travel to Fisher Island.  Wonderful, you’re thinking, strolling across the tarmac, the toy terrier in a Louis Vuitton doggie bag, and the 2 Mastiff’s flanking you on both sides.  You climb the small stairs into the Bombardier Global Express and make yourself comfortable while attended to by handsome staff.  “The Gary hanger?” you ask.

“Gary?  Oh no. . .impossible; we’re taking that to Valencia for the Ryder’s Cup. . .”  Well, you think, should I ask about the Citation or the Astra (normally on a 24-hour hold for Nanna); “Waukegan then, the Astra or. . .”  She stops you with a flip of the hand; “I thought you’d figure it out, but I guess have to spell it out. . .O-H-A-R-E.”  “Commercial?” I gasp.  “American.  And the Mastiff’s are in the country so you’ll have to get them there, then drive them to the vet for papers or something. . . American has cargo limits of which I’m certain you’re apprised. . .”   Now what?

3.  As powerful as she is in corporate America, she’s able to master only one recipe: spaghetti.  And she uses only one brand and only one size of the very specific brand: Decca No. 12 (not No. 11 or No. 13).  She plans on making New Year’s Day dinner for 25 Fisher Island friends and expects Decca No. 12 to be amply stocked when she opens the pantry door.

It’s December 29 at 3:30 pm when you discover that no grocery store of any size or affiliation in the state of Florida carries Decca No. 12.  You call the family’s local grocer here who will immediately send a case to Fisher Island.  On December 31 at 1:30 pm Immelda calls from Fisher Island inquiring about the spaghetti; she assures you that it hasn’t arrived and the Mrs. will not want to start the New Year (furthermore, hasn’t ever started a New Year without Decca No. 12 since 1968) without the ingredient which assures culinary success!  What do you tell Immelda?  What do you do next?

Good luck and we’ll score your test and post the results!

On The Periphery (novel excerpt)


The school day at St. Joe’s started promptly at 7:30 am with a Latin low mass. We were ushered into the high-backed wooden pews and told to face the altar, to stop fidgeting, ignore a classmates whispers, to focus on Christ’s suffering for our sins and pray to God Almighty for trespassing. The nuns, clothed from head to toe in long black habits waddled up and down the aisles, on the look-out for any misdemeanor, and at the first sign of insurrection, would crush an entire pew of second graders to surprise the hoodlum from behind; her thick, strapping hand landing with phenomenal precision on the scruff of the heathen and plucked him from his spot like an ugly weed.  They all appeared to be well over the age of eighty and kept their hands tucked snuggly beneath wide, white sashes or knotted behind their backs.  Corporal punishment by way of rulers, canes, and paddles was customary even for the pettiest offenses like wetting your pants.  They enforced zero-tolerance of misbehavior almost daily.  It was rumored that they were part of a special Holy See order of nuns responsible for nurturing young and vulnerable catholic students:  Sisters of the Evil Stepmother.

I began St. Joe’s in the second grade.  The coagulation of cliques hadn’t yet occurred so a new kid didn’t draw suspicion and I was able to easily take my seat in the third row, behind Peggy, in front of Billy, and next to Jim.  But it began soon enough, the curdling, the formation of small clumps of friends; those that chased girls at recess; those that sat quietly against the fence; those that hoped and waited for an indication to advance, the willowy ones, still too shy to attract and too timid to pursue.  For the better part of the next five years I sat on the periphery, looking in at the popular, my nose flattened coldly against the window of their circle.  They were the small, the athletic and most importantly the obnoxious boys; the same boys that would terrorize the girls, but those same girls would wait, patiently, like the family dog for the briefest encounter after school.  I’d bet my mom was one of those girls when she was growing up.

That small, popular group of boys appeared to be completely satisfied; life occurred like a roaring adventure; the next day was another step towards their adulthood and independence. But for I and the other three boys on the periphery; Billy (who lacked personal hygiene); Gary (the nerd); Timmy (who had an affecting odor) observing the popular group, each day seemed to be just another  in a long line of days, some horrendously long life-sentence, perhaps passed on generation after generation.   It was a fact that a boy in the popular group was always the son of a popular father, a father that had a full-time job; a father that was a scout leader or athletic coach; a father that was found at home.  That was what the boys on the periphery envied, more than friendship, more than even membership, even more than the popular group leadership, was a home-focused father, a man that taught manliness.  For boys on the periphery it was an abysmal and persistent  absence, a longing to have that one guy to show you how and what and where and when, that guy and only that guy you could call dad; your dad to look up to, to count on, and whose discipline was fair and to the point and feared.  As I look back there was a void, a yearning that was never sated, a howling that never quieted, a wink never seen, a slap on the back that never stung.

The boys on the periphery seemed destined to spend their life in orbit, circling around others, singular, finding comfort in ourselves rather than as a pack.  However, when the popular group would turn their attention to something other than themselves it usually turned  to one of us; one of us on the periphery.   And when the popular boys would begin their attack we would scatter like a flock of pigeons, only turning back to see if we had been caught or remained free.  Unlike their pursuit of girls where each boy would target one girl like a pilot in a dogfight, one of the popular  boys would leave the pack like a scout, sniffing out the school yard for the oblivious periphery boy, and upon selecting his patsy, tempt his thirst for attention through false complements, and finally summon the rest of the pack.  In they’d come at full run to taunt, slap, tease, jeer, punch,  push, tickle . . . any action that would confuse the stooge, until the desired effect would come to pass, tears, stuttering, even urination.    It was in the grotesque embarrassment that the popular boys seemed to draw energy.  It was a hideous game and all the boys on the periphery knew that their time would come when a gangster with wandering eyes and too much time would turn, setting his sights.

I flew under the radar until the fifth grade when I learned that Jim (the boy that smiled when I first arrived in second grade) despised me from the start and his perfunctory “smile and nod,” as benign as it was, didn’t mean “welcome,” it meant “game on, big boy.”  Jim never missed an opportunity to exercise his animosity, a four-year commentary on my shortcomings, misgivings, and awkwardness.  His rancor finally turned the corner of hatred and hostility during a mid-morning lavatory-break: I was using a urinal during his standard, derisive monologue when he noticed the absence of his audience (bullying him is boring, the other boys thought) and that was it, his disgust had compounded daily and that day he decided to close his account.  I felt the hand on my shoulder grab tightly and pull me back, away from the privacy of the urinal; belt, snap, and zipper open, my fingers entwined in the fly of my brief’s, I stood there, the epicenter of mockery, ridicule, and indignity, my distress instantly appearing as damp and darkening spots on my trousers.  Initially there was raucous laughter (to which I’d become accustomed), but slowly, boy-by-boy, the lavatory grew quiet, pity replaced ridicule as boy after boy turned and walked out.  I stood there until Sister Reynolds threw open the door determined to discover delinquents but stopped immediately upon seeing me.  She closed the door quietly, walked to me, and placed her ample arm around my shoulders.  All I remember after that extraordinary display of compassion was letting four years of shame finally come out as sobs and weeping and finally dead silence as I finally understood that I would always remain outside the circle.