Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Finding My Story 3: Toilet-Training Pterodactyls

Reading yesterday's post, thinking about Mom, one of the things that strikes me is the weight of disapproval she dealt with her entire life. Looking at things that way, it's a familiar dynamic. I was always conscious of the people who were basically members of her fan club, but she must have felt some of the judgment directed at her.

But she did the best she could, kept progressing and growing throughout her life, tried as hard as she could to adhere to her own moral code even at personal cost. Her self-indulgence was obvious, but her self-discipline was not. She didn't care to advertise that part of herself, at least not to me. Just did her own thing her own way, head down and quietly plowing forward.

There's at least one specific trait I got from her. It's something I admire in others and resent and regret in myself -- the inability to live by rules contrary to one's own. It's a condition that occasionally requires sacrifice and effort. In my case, I think part of it comes from social confusion, part of it comes from self-will. Looking at my parents and siblings, I ain't the only one. It started early, the night Dad found a pterodactyl on the toilet.

(This story was told to me several times by both parents. "We thought it was normal.")

So they're starting to get an idea how pterodactyls reproduced... you aren't familiar with the questions around pterodactyl reproduction? Okay, quick version.

Pterodactyls were the first group of flying vertebrate animals we know of. They're regarded as archosaurs, which makes them close relatives of both crocodilians and dinosaurs. And right now, they seem to have reproduced in a very different fashion than birds.

The pattern in birds is nest-building, parental care, etc. However, birds vary widely in the amount of care they need as infants. In pterodactyls, there's currently speculation that they laid eggs with leathery shells in moist, hidden spots, and left them to hatch on their own. The hatchlings emerged ready to hunt and fly right from the eggshell. Independent.

After bringing me home, my parents settled into a routine where they'd put me in a crib in the living room at night and then go sleep in their bedroom.

This worked well. They were usually able to sleep through the night. But by the time I was a few months old -- I wish I had a number -- the pattern had settled into something a little different.

Rather than finding me in my crib at night, they'd get up and find my empty diaper in the crib, and my naked froggy body underneath the crib. It would have been summer by now, so I can see how they might be casual about this.

"They really are little monkeys," my mother would have said. "He can climb before he can crawl. How fascinating!"

"I can't believe he holds it in all night," Dad would have said. "That diaper is dry, and so is the floor. This is indeed a mystery."

One night he got up to pee. I imagine he was still a little groggy from the night before, possibly a little hungover. Shuffles through the dark, not wanting to move too precipitously. Opens the bathroom door, and feels the cold hand of the uncanny settle on his heart.

Something white and bony crouches, arms and legs sprawled over the toilet seat. It lifts its head, meets his gaze with expressionless black slits and croaks irritably.

He screams.

It's me. His little pterodactyl.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Finding My Story 2: The Getaway

When I was in elementary school, sometime early on I noticed my parents celebrating their anniversary. By then I was able to add two and two, so I did a little subtraction and found the evidence supported the notion that I was conceived three or four months out of wedlock. (That makes me just a bit of a bastard.)

When I was born, my mother was twenty and my father was nineteen. Trying to imagine the situation, looking at the timing -- I don't know, and I probably will not ask, but I would be willing to place a five-dollar bet that my mother figured out what was going on and then clamped down and held onto the secret for at least a couple of months, maybe more. And during that time, she kept on doing her thing, which was smoking and drinking.

I mentioned that my mother's mother, my Grandma Jean, was a very proper woman. My mother? From an entirely different planet. Virtually no basis for mutual understanding.

In her early years, my mother was raised by an amma in the Philippines, and she spoke Tagalog before she spoke English. When I first saw Lynda Barry's drawings of her Philippine grandmother, she squatted and smoked exactly the way my mother squatted and smoked. Exactly.

(This introduces the question of what my Grandma Jean did to occupy her time in the post-war Philippines. Given the shadiness of the whole situation, I find myself curious.)

My mother began smoking and drinking heavily in her early teens and continued until the end of her life in her early sixties. When I was a child, she loved to tell me how she started drinking early by convincing her mother that ale was a non-alcoholic beverage, so she was allowed to brew for herself and her friends.

Mom was the center of her social group. That was her natural role -- wherever she was, her people would gather. And if she picked up and moved to a new place? She'd quickly gather a new group of friends. In her presence, lively, funny, intelligent conversation sprang up naturally. You read about pub culture from time to time? Mom was pub culture.

She was also tiny -- never topped a hundred pounds unless she was pregnant. Nervous as a terrier. Vomited more than anyone I've ever known -- you actually had to watch your speech around her if you didn't want to cause an incident. A compulsive reader, her particular vice being mysteries, the endless round of Agatha Christie and Rex Stout. She was also wanted to be a writer and was a very promising artist who was badly hampered by self-doubt.

You know the Elwood Dowd character from Harvey? "I used to be very, very clever, but now I'm very, very nice?" If Dorothy Parker went through a similar transmutation you might have something like my mom. Everybody loved her. She was smart, and she was funny, and she was nice, and she was drunk.

She was terrified of her mother. The Grandma Jean that had always been so good to me was the same woman who more or less drove my mother to drink by the time she was thirteen. Grandma Jean had a cold side that I could only detect by its effect on others, and whatever was wrong between them in the first place could not have been helped by the fact that my mother was a rabid party animal with four-wheel drive.

What was my mother doing at that point in her life? She was out of high school, and I don't think she tried college until some time later. I wonder if she was just living at home.

So I imagine my mother getting pregnant, and holding onto the secret, staying there in a state of indecision, still relishing the fact that she's the only one who knows, one eye on the clock, the other on the calender, smoke in one hand and beer in the other...

From what I can piece together, my father came into Mom's social scene from the outside, after everyone else knew each other for years, just sort of swooped in and there they were.

Dad's a big, good-looking guy. Handsome enough to irritate at times -- we've been mistaken for brothers more than once. He's a writer and political animal, and helped found the National Association of Letter Carriers. I'd like to note that he's a different man now than he was then. Quit drinking and smoking, generally put himself together. We're very close these days and spend time together regularly.

But back then he was a scared kid working on his own drinking problem. His mother had remarried, and he didn't get along with his stepfather.

So one fine night, my parents -- and I may well ask Dad about this -- sat down to discuss their situation, and make some concrete plans for the future.

And then they fled the state, telling no-one where or why. Hit the ground running. For a while they traveled with a con-man, a story I regularly pressure the old man to write.

While working on this, I had a flash of inspiration and looked to see if there were any recorded effects on a fetus if the mother experiences stress or anxiety during pregnancy.

It turns out that there are particular stages of development when a mother's stress can cause very specific types of impairment. And that mother's moods have been documented as expressing themselves in their unborn children. And that cortisol, a stress hormone that's particularly significant in the development of PTSD, travels through the placenta.

When I was a kid, Mom stated to me repeatedly and directly that she never smoked or drank while pregnant. I never asked, but she told me. Spontaneous denial is pretty much the effective equivalent of confession, and that is how this one payed out.

When I recently spoke to psychiatrists, Dad manned up and suggested that I get checked for fetal alcohol syndrome. The diagnosis was positive.

(This, incidentally, explained one of the great race identity mixups of my life. See, black people -- not African Americans, I'm including folks from Africa and the Caribbean -- tend to assume I'm Asian when we meet. It is not like a subtle thing and it's happened since childhood. Over and over again.

"Excuse me, I don't mean to be personal, but are you part Japanese?" was the most graceful phrasing. "Hey, rice boy! Hey, rice boy! Hey, rice boy, I'm talking to you! Oh, I'm sorry, white boy. I thought you was a rice boy," the most abject. Got a gray fucking beard and she called me boy.

And my brother and sister would speculate on my paternity with seeming seriousness -- there were candidates. Now, the resemblance to my father is unmistakable.)

You don't give someone fetal alcohol syndrome by having a stray beer here and a glass of fucking wine there. Mom got hammered, and I got hammered right along with her. And I'll bet anything the wee fishy proto-oaf found it a fucking relief.

Let me be straight here. I am not blaming Mom. If I was a pregnant teenage alcoholic sitting in my room and then fleeing my family across the country? I would not do that shit sober. It just wouldn't be sensible.

Anyway, Mom and Dad went from Richmond, California, to Ceder Rapids, Iowa, to have me. Didn't let anyone in the family know until the day I was born.

When I was a kid, Mom would tell me that they were so poor that for the week before I was born, all she could eat was ice chips. This is plausible. But I also recently read that a small mother having a large baby would sometimes be starved before delivery in order to reduce the birth weight of the child.

And so we have a picture of the nature of my gestation. I will set aside my sympathies for the other parties involved, as this is my story. I began life whiplashed between anxiety and drunkenness, and at the end of my term was starved into diminution. I entered the world already loaded with both genetic and developmental baggage, and the world I entered into was an Iowa February.

When I was hanging out with Mom in my late teens and we were both drunk, my will snapped and I opened my big fat mouth. "Mom, why on Earth didn't you have me aborted? I mean, what were you thinking?"

She looked at me with that monkey smile of hers, eyes gentle and sad, rocked on her heels and blew smoke from her nostrils. "Seany, I needed someone to talk to."

Monday, May 16, 2011

Finding My Story 1: Ghosts Are Gaps Shaped Like Grandfathers

This is my impression.

On both sides of my family, the bulk of my ancestry immigrated from Britain during the early colonial period. On my father's side, many of them were Quakers, and participated in things like the Underground Railroad and protests for the rights of Native Americans and so on, and refused to fight in wars and so forth. I know less about my mother's side of the family, but was told that there were connections to both Meriwether Lewis and Thomas Jefferson.

Mostly, they were small farmers. My father was raised on a farm, and my mother's mother was raised on a farm, and it's small farms all the way back so far as I know.

My mother and father both came from single-parent homes.

My mother's family moved to the Philippines immediately after World War II, and it was there that my maternal grandfather vanished from sight. When I lived with my grandmother in my early twenties, every time I drank, she would tell me about how he died. Every time the story involved alcohol, and every time it was different. The degree of departure from reality this indicated was my first sign that my grandmother might be as crazy as I.

My maternal grandmother, my Grandma Jean, was very close to me. She was the one person in my childhood who provided me with a safe place and a sense of being cared for. She was a brilliant woman, a flapper-era UC Berkeley graduate with a career as a children's librarian that was publicly recognized by everybody's favorite president, Lyndon Johnson.

She was a world traveler, amateur photographer and natural scientist, and full-blown religious lunatic who habitually engaged in meditative practices for twelve to fourteen hours a day, no fooling. She slept four hours a night, and when she wasn't specifically doing something else, it was Christian Science. She was proper, correct, the kind of person who concerned herself with how forks were being held and whether infinitives were being split.

It is important to note that as generous and loving as Grandma Jean was to me, she had a basically adversarial relationship with my mother, which I was never closely involved in.

It was at the family get-together following her death that I heard an alternative version of reality. Supposedly, my grandfather actually become a wet-brained alcoholic while in the Philippines, and my grandmother smuggled him back to the US after claiming he died in order to claim his pension from the merchant marines. She stashed him in a St. Vincent de Paul up in Oregon under a false name and visited him yearly until he died.

I've also been told that a man who worked as an MP in the South Pacific during and after WWII once looked at a picture of my grandfather standing next to his best friend. He pointed at the friend and said, "That son of a bitch was the biggest diamond smuggler in Asia."

My father's father I know a little more about. He was a kind, gentle man with an intimate contact with nature who unfortunately would occasionally get naked on the bus and claim to be Jesus, which made him a disgrace in his small, religious community. After he began self-medicating with alcohol, my maternal grandmother had him institutionalized, where he eventually died. I spent my childhood believing that he had hurled himself from a high place -- the mental image was always a metal mesh catwalk, a man in shackles, a look of resignation as he jerks out of the hands of the guards -- but my father has since told me that he died of a heart failure, partially as a result of overeating in response to his situation.

Like my maternal grandmother, my Grandma Knight is a very religious woman, though in a much more restrained fashion. (By which I mean to say, she's religiously observant, not nuts.) She's a conservative woman with a strong personality. After my grandfather was institutionalized she provided for her family for a number of years during the fifties and sixties, I believe working at a meat packing plant. Again, remember that this was a small rural community, and reputation counted for a lot. Or so I imagine...

Neither of my grandfathers was spoken of when I was a child, and they fascinated me. In some ways, I don't quite seem like anyone else in my family, and I always imagined that my grandfathers the missing parts of the puzzle. I had to piece together my images of them from overheard conversations and dropped remarks and hesitantly answered questions and piles and piles of outright lies. But I wound up imagining that I was somehow a cross between them, that the mystic of the woods and the seafaring soldier-of-fortune combined to make me.

I don't know their names. I never knew their names.

There are things I'll never know, but I do know this much --

Until now it never struck me that if the revisionist version of my Grandma Jean's story is true, they both ended their lives in a virtually identical fashion. There may be something to this coherent narrative stuff, but it's already getting kind of creepy, isn't it?

Finding My Story: An Explanation

It’s always interesting when two obsessions find a point of intersection. My long-running fascination with the idea that story and narrative have neurological basis, and are biologically inherent in human beings, and my recent research into the emerging sciences of the mind as applied to personal development and therapy hit an interesting nexus last week.

I suffer from a mosaic of mental illnesses ranging from fetal alcohol syndrome to OCD, and bipolar, but the big boy most of the year is post-traumatic stress syndrome. (During late winter and early spring, depression takes the lead, but that’s another subject.) No doubt further inspection would reveal more details – but the thing is, is that under the right circumstances, I function at a high level. It represents a quandary.

Since I’m close to the bottom of the income level, I’m not in a position to pay for the intensive therapy and/or medication that my situation seems to require. So I’m investigating my alternatives.

This is one of the alternatives.

It seems that a healthy individual has what is referred to as a coherent personal narrative. They have a clear sense of who they are and where they came from. My sense of self is fragmented and easily subject to disruption. In people with PTSD, this lack of narrative, of self-story, is symptomatic.

This next statement has not been demonstrated, and may be proven false. But my informed intuition tells me that story has a specific type of neurological effect. When someone is engaged with a story, specific areas of their brain are also engaged.

And given the hierarchy of the nervous system, it seems reasonable to propose that there is a feedback system engaged, where the language centers interpreting the words send their meanings to the parts of the brain involved in sensory perception, in recalled memory, in emotion – that when one engages in a story, one’s brain and mind become active and integrated, and this neurological activity is the real reward of narrative.

To have a story of your own, a sense of who you are and where you came from, a sense of place and purpose. These are complex neurological events, and they can be impaired. And repaired.

People who know me, know I have stories. But what’s the big story? I do not know, and life has put me in a position where the future is both thoroughly unpredictable and oddly optimistic.

I’ve approached writing about my life over and over again, rarely with success. The stuff I’ve done that’s cut closest to the truth has gotten me a consistent response from readers – this is your best stuff, but you need to do a lot of work on it.

So it goes in the trunk…

I’ve also resisted writing directly about my life because I don’t want to come off as engaging in race-baiting, family-directed guilt-mongering, insufferable complaining, claiming status as a victim or martyr, etc, etc, etc.

This is different. I am not in a position to pay a therapist to extract and interpret my narrative for me. But I can try and create the narrative myself. So that’s what I’m going to do. I am going to try and put down the Story of Sean. (See, even using the name ‘Sean’ seems weird to me. I don’t Sean-identify.) If I perceive my story as representing a danger to my reputation or the public well-being, hey. It’s me or you at this point.

Here are the rules. First off, these posts will not feature art. That would represent an additional level of effort that might keep me from continuing if I hit a rough patch. And this will also serve as a warning to those who prefer to avoid vicarious trauma.

Since this is supposed to be a story, I’m delivering it in rough chronological order. There will be a bit of leaping about if I run across a juicy running theme. If it makes since to say, “This happened in kindergarten, and then something like it in fourth grade and when I was twenty,” then I’ll do that – but for the most part, I intend a steady forward plod.

Next, this is a coherent personal narrative, not a literal documentation of the truth. I will stick as closely as possible to the truth, but I will also include tall tales, lies, and misconceptions, clearly labeled as such. These things also play a role in a personal mythology, and that is what I am creating here. One of the reasons I’ve been resistant to this notion in the past has been my sense of dedication to verifiable truth. Unfortunately, the most important stories of all, the stories of our lives, are composed of the flimsiest of materials – memories and other lies.

But this is what you work with. Recognizing it as a mythology helps me live with this.

In addition, there will be whatever asides as seem necessary to provide context.

My approach to these will be as casual as possible, but I am a writer, and I will be keeping an eye on the possibility that these posts may turn out to be the first draft of a finished work. That said, the novel comes first, and I can’t devote the energy to this that a serious project demands. But a casual approach may generate good results – not too much filter.

I’m putting this out on my blog for a number of reasons. One, is that I’m going into a profession that makes me a semi-public personality. Well, this internet crap is like training wheels for celebrity. As someone with terrible boundaries, it’s not a bad idea to mark them clearly. The other is that this is a format where I’ve established a currently-interrupted habit of productivity.

We’ll see how far I get. It’s an intimidating project, making sense of a life.

Especially a life like this.