What It All Might Mean

A little over a year has passed since my lovely wife, Jeanie, was first diagnosed with cancer, just nine months since she finished her chemotherapy, and six months since she was finally declared to be cancer free. I wrote this piece back in April 2015, when the nightmare was in full swing, and the outcome of her treatment was still very much uncertain.

Jeanie and I have developed over the past few months the enjoyable habit of beginning our days sitting together in our “comfy-cozy” clothes (as Jeanie calls them) and watching the morning unfold outside our front room windows. Jeanie usually has a cup of espresso-strong coffee and a slice of toast slathered with plenty of butter and a couple of spoonfuls of that delicious raspberry freezer jam our friend Mary made for us. My digestion isn’t so tolerant of bread–or coffee–so I usually stick to having a cup of strongly brewed black tea made mellow with lots of cream and sugar. We watch our cats Andrew and Sparky wrestle with each other on the living room rug, or the occasional car running the stop sign–again–at the intersection our house is located on, or the distant, strange flock of turkey buzzards, who roost in the huge trees visible from several blocks away, as they rise en masse into the blue sky like a slow-moving black tornado, then scatter to begin their day’s foraging. Jeanie finishes working through the gobs of emails and Facebook posts that have materialized overnight on her iPhone. Mostly, however, we spend the time visiting with each other. Talking. We talk about anything that comes to mind: how well we slept (or didn’t sleep); the weather, of course; the passing on of some little tidbit regarding just about anything of interest, that one or several of her Facebook friends has shared with her; and then there’s the latest developments in our online sales business, and the dip in revenue we’ve experienced since Jeanie was first diagnosed with cancer.

Some days, obviously, our conversation is mostly about the cancer. How quickly it had developed. How few symptoms Jeanie had had. How smoothly her chemotherapy cycles have been for her, how few side-effects she’s suffered through.

This morning, we talked about how lucky Jeanie had been. Actually, the conversation started by my remarking how lucky I had been. I’d been looking out the window at the beautiful day, imagining (stupidly, I know) what it would be like to be sitting there alone with just the animals and the silence to share between us, after having lost Jeanie to her cancer. The thought brought tears to my eyes, and I looked at her. “I can’t begin to put my brain in a place that doesn’t have you in it,” I said to her. “I just can’t imagine going on without you.”

Okay, I’m a bit of a sap. But I was speaking the truth. And Jeanie knew it. She looked back at me and smiled and nodded appreciatively.

I looked back out the window. “So, as far as I’m concerned,” I said, “we both dodged a bullet. No. That’s not big enough. We dodged an atomic bomb. It’s that big.”

She laughed then. “Okay, I get it,” she said.

Yes, we’d both been lucky. Truly lucky. Tomorrow Jeanie goes in for her fifth out of six chemo cycles. Her last cycle will end May 5th, and we’ve already begun planning a celebration at The Rio, a local Mexican restaurant, to have dinner (along with one of The Rio’s famously huge margaritas) with any of our friends and local family who can come to help celebrate. Just three weeks ago, we’d met with Jeanie’s oncologist, Dr. Schuster, who’d beamed when he showed us Jeanie’s latest PET scan and announced, “I’d say your tumor is ninety-nine percent gone. You can’t even see it on the scan.” He pointed to some data on the screen. “There’s every reason to believe you’re going to be cured,” he said. And that is what we fully expect to be celebrating come May 5th.

But when we talked about these things this morning, Jeanie looked more troubled than relieved. I asked her what was wrong. “My friends all tell me how ‘courageous’ I am,” she explained, “that I’m some sort of ‘shining example of strength.’ That sort of thing. But when I think of many of the other cancer stories I’ve heard, what a lot of those people had to go through–the pain, the nausea–and how many of them actually lost their battle…well, I can’t help but feel a little–guilty, maybe.”

We looked at each other for a few moments without speaking. I couldn’t think of what I might offer in reply. What she had been feeling wasn’t so much a variation of “survivor’s guilt,” as I saw it, but was more the idea that her friends and relatives were giving her considerably more credit than she was due. “I haven’t really, truly suffered,” she said.

I didn’t agree with her, of course; I knew better. I hastened to remind her that enduring the presence of an obstructive eleven-centimeter tumor in her chest, and the resulting blockage of one major vein running from her brain to her heart (which, we learned later, was mere days from possibly killing her), as well as the total collapse of a second of these blood pathways–not to mention the surgeries to correct these issues, nor to further mention the administration of the chemotherapy drugs nor their resulting (albeit, minimal) side-effects–could hardly be called a walk in the park. I could have mentioned even more of her various trials, but by then she was giving me a look that strongly suggested I was going a little overboard, and I let the matter just sort of drift away.

A new thought came to her, however: “But, if I haven’t really suffered,” she mused, “then what’s this whole thing supposed to mean?” She looked at me. “What am I supposed to be learning here?”

I hadn’t any idea, at first. “I don’t really know,” I said. Then my mind shifted back a few minutes, to where I’d allowed that Jeanie and I have both (apparently) been coming out of this thing relatively unscathed. “Maybe,” I ventured, “it hasn’t been just for your benefit, if that’s the word. Maybe this was something designed to benefit several people.”

“Like who?” she asked.

I smiled at the idea blossoming in my head. “How about all the people who love you?” I said. “Me; your children and extended family; the vast collection of friends you’ve accumulated during your lifetime? Everyone who has rallied behind you from the beginning of your illness?”

She looked at me skeptically.

“Maybe they just needed a little nudge to help them remember how important you are to them, how much they really love you. Maybe you just needed that same nudge to remind you of the same thing: that you are loved, too.”

Of course, this brought tears to Jeanie’s eyes. I was reminded then of when she’d first been diagnosed with cancer and had begun calling or messaging close friends and relatives, how quickly, how forcefully, everyone had started communicating back, in various ways, to cheer her on, offering to help in any way they could, to pray, to send white light in her direction. It was a veritable cacophony of love. Jeanie had several times nearly melted in a pool of tears, crying out how overwhelmed she’d been by the simple, heartfelt kindness of people–and not just those people close to her, either, but acquaintances, childhood friends she hadn’t heard from in decades, neighbors on our street we hardly knew, even friends of mine she’d never met.

We chatted a little more, until the morning began approaching mid-day, and I got up and went to the back of the house to dress and to begin prepping for our breakfast of French toast. I like cooking for Jeanie, and, thankfully, she likes letting me cook for her. She understands my motivation for wanting to do so, an idea I’ve carried in my heart for most of my life: food is love.

Of course, I couldn’t help thinking, as I worked, about what Jeanie and I had talked about. That question she had asked: What am I supposed to be learning here? We’re all connected, I have always believed, so the question could have as easily been put to me: What are you (Bill) supposed to be learning out of all of this?

And when I asked myself that question, I realized I already knew the answer. But as yet I had no words for it, just an image stuck in my head. The scene was in our kitchen, shortly after Jeanie had had her second cycle of chemo. She had been “knocked on her ass,” as we both called it: a sudden, tremendous lack of energy combined with an equally abrupt inability to taste just about anything. She’d been angry and (I thought) depressed: we had already cut off what was left of her thinning hair, and now she was encountering the continuing reality of her illness, the effects of her chemo, and the steadily growing magnitude of the work that still lay ahead of her. She was certainly working now, and hard. She was sitting at the kitchen table, staring into an empty space in front of her. She was pale and listless. I’d fixed her a cup of hot coffee and had made her a slice of buttered toast with raspberry jam. I watched her. She sipped at her coffee and worked her mouth a bit, trying, it seemed, to find a place on her tongue that might allow her at least a little taste of the coffee. Then she picked up a half-slice of her toast from the plate and bit off a little of that, chewing with small but deliberate movements of her jaw. She closed her eyes, then, and made a barely audible ummmmm sound.

“You can taste that?” I asked her.

She opened her eyes and looked at me, a slight smile playing on her pale lips as she chewed and swallowed. “Oh, yeah,” she said then. “That was good.” She took another bite and closed her eyes again and chewed.

There was something magic about this. Something wafted over me like a warm blanket, something I thought must be joy. I really have no other words for this epiphany. But my heart understood. I felt it swell in my chest until I thought it might burst out of me altogether. It was then, I think, that I finally realized: there is no calculating how much I love this woman or how much joy I feel in her presence, and no words to describe how grateful I am that this woman–the love of my life–is still in my life.

Perhaps, I thought, that was what I was supposed to learn.

What I Mean When I Say, “I Want To Fly”

oldwriterOn a rare day when I was six years old, my father walked with me down the hill from our tenement apartment in San Francisco to the neighborhood market and bought me a fifteen-cent balsa wood airplane. A glider, really, it had a paper-thin wing and stabilizers and rudder you fitted through slots and into grooves that had been cut for them into the flat fuselage, and a shiny u-shaped piece of steel clamped to the nose to give it some forward weight. The fuselage bore official “stars-and-stripes” insignia, along with the red silhouette of a jet pilot—complete with helmet and oxygen mask—sitting erect inside a cockpit outlined in blue. I could barely contain my excitement as we walked with this treasure back up the hill, past our apartment building to the huge vacant lot behind it, an area overgrown with weeds and bright orange California poppies. I watched, fidgeting impatiently, while Daddy put the plane together for me, and then squealed with delight when he finally stood and threw the toy into the air. It did an easy loop, and then arced smoothly around us, floating just inches above the rocky ground. Daddy slid the wing forward in its slot, and the plane flew tight loops and steep turns. Then he slid the wing all the way back, and it flew faster, and farther. Each time either Daddy or I threw the airplane into the air, I imagined it was me in the cockpit, skillfully performing gut-wrenching loop-the-loops and barrel rolls. Then Daddy took out his pocketknife and cut the wing real short, so that only a couple of inches or so stuck out from either side of the fuselage. “Watch this!” he said. He reared back and threw the plane high into the air. After losing sight of it for a couple of seconds, I finally saw it sailing over the roof of our cinder-block apartment building. I shrieked and giggled and ran to fetch it. But my delight quickly turned to despair. When I got to the other side of the building, I glimpsed another older kid disappearing around the far corner of the next building, my cherished airplane clutched in his hand. I didn’t see the kid’s face; he could have been any one of hundreds who lived in the area. I ran as fast as I could across the scraggly yard, hoping to catch him, but by the time I got to the corner of the building he was nowhere in sight. My plane was gone. I felt like the boy had punched me in the stomach.

By the time Daddy came around to see what was the matter, I was already sobbing, and nothing Daddy said would console me. He listened to me wail for about a minute, and hugged me. Then he stood up. “Okay, that’s enough,” he said finally. “You’re a big boy. Almost a man. Time to stop crying.” His face grew dark. I did my best to stifle my sobs, knowing what was in store for me if I didn’t. But the burning pain in my stomach lingered.

I quieted myself, and as I did I gradually became aware of a low rumbling sound hanging faintly in the air. Daddy heard it too. He looked up, his eyes scanning the cloudy skies. The sound grew steadily louder. The apartment windows around us vibrated. Suddenly the air shook with what sounded like an explosion. Daddy flinched from the deafening noise as if dodging an invisible someone who had thrown a punch at him. I looked up—just in time to see a glittering silver jet pass directly over our heads. The roar from its engine was louder than anything I had heard before; it made my stomach shake. I screamed and clapped my hands over my ears, thinking the thing might actually be falling on us. A moment later there came another explosion, and I shrieked again as a second plane appeared and screamed overhead. Daddy grinned wide and looked at me and pointed upward. He cupped his hands and yelled something at me through them.

“What?!” I said, dropping my hands from my ears.

“Fighters!” he said, louder. “Navy. F-9’s, maybe.”

I had no idea what an F-9 was, or why anyone in the Navy should be flying an airplane. Wasn’t that the job of the Air Force? I pondered this while yet another deafening roar rose up and a third jet flew overhead. The windows of the buildings around us continued shaking. Some people had come out of their apartments to look and point, the way Daddy and I did. Daddy was still gawking at the planes, looking wistful and admiring. Above us, the plane rolled suddenly into a steep bank and began turning hard to the south. Then I saw the pilot’s helmet, a little white ball visible against the dark interior of the cockpit, a live version of the silhouette on the plane I’d just lost. My heart leapt. Could he see us standing there looking up at him? Could he see the wonder in our faces? The awe? I raised my arm into the air and waved frantically at the pilot, filled suddenly with an overwhelming desire to be where he was, to have others look at me the way these people—and my father—looked at him.

The plane disappeared behind a rise of apartments to the east. The low roar of jet engines hung for a time in the still air (or was it merely an echo in my brain?), and then fell to silence. Finally, Mama stuck her head out the front door and called for us to come in for dinner, and we walked the short distance to our apartment and went inside. I was still hurting from the loss of my airplane. But all that evening—poking through my loathsome dinner of black-eyed peas and cornbread; watching reruns of Walt Disney and Maverick on our tiny round-screened TV; then listlessly flicking my fingers at my broken plastic boats while I took my hated Sunday night bath—my mind kept returning to the glittering jet I’d seen earlier. And when I fell asleep that night, it was to dreams of gazing down from the cockpit of that jet, down at a wide-eyed boy pumping his arms furiously in the air hoping so desperately to catch my eye. I waggled the wings of my powerful jet to tell him, yes, I’d seen him. Then I shoved the throttle forward to the stops and roared away, leaving the boy and the slums in which he was growing up far behind. Above the boy’s head lingered a black trail of jet exhaust, curling like an animated smoky finger in a Popeye cartoon, beckoning him to follow me if he could.


oldwriterSummer, 1962, and it was hot enough to make you think the streets were melting. Mama was out of work, after having a job as a typist at nearby Doctor’s Hospital for nearly a year. She never told us what happened to the job. Now she was on something called welfare. It wasn’t much. Mama spent a lot of the money on rent and utilities, which didn’t leave a lot for things like food and clothes. Mama always had her cigarettes, though, and plenty of Pepsi in the refrigerator.

One particularly hot day Mama made me take Karen and Debbie to the beach, for no other reason than she wanted us out of her hair. I knew there was no use whining about it: all it would get me was something across my mouth to whine about. So we went. I put on my cut-off jeans and the girls put on their ratty-looking bathing suits. We rolled up our pathetic little towels and walked barefoot along the hot streets until we reached the sand, then we spread our towels out and sat.

Occasionally, Karen and Debbie went into the water and splashed around. But I had something else on my mind besides swimming. The wide stretch of sand where I sat was filling up with people. Hordes of them, driven there by the heat and the promise of sun and cooling waves. They flocked onto the sand lugging coolers and float toys and bottles of Sea and Ski and transistor radios, and settled themselves onto huge blankets, spaced inches from other neighboring blankets, to tan or read or play in the sand or just stare off into the blue ocean horizon.

Karen and Debbie went out and came back in from the surf for the seventh or eighth time, I’d lost count. Debbie buried Karen in the sand. Then Karen buried Debbie. She buried Debbie so deep, she was just a head. I looked at her, and laughed. Then someone ran by us, accidentally kicking sand in Debbie’s mouth and eyes, and she started crying. A few seconds later, she was screaming, panicked, Karen said later, because she couldn’t use her hands and the weight of the sand against her chest made it hard to breathe. Karen and I dug her out. Then we walked over to the fresh-water shower outside the bathrooms to wash the sand out of Debbie’s eyes. Debbie held onto to my arm, trembling, she was so scared. I shook her off angrily. I couldn’t explain to her, to anyone, how it felt to have someone holding onto me like that. It was as if I couldn’t breathe, something would begin tightening in my chest, working its way up my throat, cutting off my air. I shoved Debbie ahead of me until she was under the shower, and I turned the water on for her.

We got back to our towels and sat. At last, I saw a fat woman get up from her towel and plod through the hot sand toward the water, leaving behind her purse and her transistor radio, which was still playing. “C’mon,” I said. The girls followed me with questioning looks on their faces. We moved nearer to the woman’s towel. I told Karen to go up toward the surf, to nod if she saw the woman going in. She went; looked, and finally nodded. I got up and walked as calmly as I could over to the towel, acting as if I was supposed to be there, opened the woman’s purse, took out the fat wallet, and walked away. Karen ran up behind me, followed closely by Debbie. “You took that woman’s wallet!” Karen said loudly, and I turned and hissed at her to shut up, keep her voice down, I knew what I’d done. “What are you going to do with it?” she asked me, “Huh? What are you going to do with it?” I was regretting having Karen and Debbie with me, wishing there was some way to ditch them, but I knew if I did, Karen would run home and squeal on me, and then I’d have to tell her I was going to beat her up, and things would just get nastier from there.

We hit the sidewalk, on the way to the little market I knew was just around the corner ahead on Abbott Street. I took a brief detour into a walkway leading into a courtyard surrounded by a squat bunch of beach bungalows, and ducked down behind a low juniper bush just long enough to take out the money—there was easily seven or eight dollars there—and throw the wallet, still fat with cards and kids’ pictures and other crap, into a nearby trash can. Karen was watching. Now she knew what I was going to do with it. I came back out to the sidewalk, and she started whining that she wanted cereal, or pizza. I told her she couldn’t have cereal or pizza, she’d have to have one of the sandwiches from the deli case, or doughnuts, or chips, because that’s all they had. We got to the market and went inside. I knew exactly what I wanted: a dozen of those big Hostess coconut doughnuts and a quart of chocolate milk, which I located quickly and plopped on the front counter next to the cash register. Karen and Debbie had a harder time choosing what to have, and I finally had to yell at them they’d better find something now, or I’d leave them there in the store and they wouldn’t get anything. Debbie decided to get what I had, except hers were sugar doughnuts, and Karen went for a tuna sandwich and some potato chips and a root beer. Then she asked if she could have a candy bar, too, and I figured it was a good idea, so I grabbed a bunch of different ones from the wire rack. I stacked everything on the counter, and Karen and Debbie watched intently as I pulled the paper bills from my pocket and paid the older kid at the register. It wiped out nearly half the money, and once again I was regretting having these parasites with me. The kid put the stuff into paper bags and opened Karen’s bottle of root beer, and we grabbed them and ran out of the store and around the corner into the alley. We stood there alongside the building for the next several minutes, ripping apart the packages and opening cartons and stuffing ourselves, too busy to say anything. If someone had come around the corner, all they’d have heard were the sounds of smacking lips and grunting. For some reason I was reminded of some nature films I’d seen at school and on TV, of hyenas that had just chased down a fat wildebeest and were ripping and shredding and rummaging through the animal’s guts, glancing suspiciously at the distant camera, blood dripping from their smiling faces.

When we were done, we went back to the beach, satisfied, each of us carrying small bags of candy and junk to snack on later. We trudged right by the fat lady, who was lying on her blanket, tanning, with apparently no clue that her wallet was missing. We moved farther up north on the beach and swam, and when we got tired, we slept in the sand, happy for the time being.


oldwriterThe year was 1963. A Saturday afternoon in July. It was hot in La Mesa, California, hotter still because there was nothing to do. My foster father, Larry, who was a San Diego policeman, was home, but he had police paperwork to do all day. It was the sort of day where nothing interests you. I didn’t want to read or watch TV, and I was tired of the toys I had. Then my friend Joey Castiglione, who lived a half block up the street, called me on the phone. “Man, there’s nothing to do,” he said. “It’s so hot!” We were quiet for a minute. “Hey, I know!” he said. “Let’s have a water balloon fight!”

Ten minutes later, Joey and his little brother Nicky came down from their house (Nicky sort of invited himself, as he had nothing better to do just then), and the three of us went to the drugstore at the bottom of the hill and bought three packages of 100 balloons each for a total of about two and a half bucks. We hustled back up to my house with our arsenal and started filling up balloons from the faucet in the front yard.

The rules of the water balloon fight were simple: you had to stay on the property; and no hitting in the face. Everything else was legal. We all agreed. Someone yelled out “Go!” and we started bashing each other with balloons, running around the house, back and forth. Butchie, Larry’s three-year-old son, had a water balloon, too, which I had given him, and he ran with me as best he could. He wouldn’t throw his balloon, though, because he didn’t want to waste it.

The fight rotated between the back yard and the front yard. Then Nicky got hit in the ear (by Joey, naturally), and it must have really hurt, because he started to scream. He held his hand to his ear and ran up to his house, crying as if he’d been shot in the head. Joey said it wouldn’t be long before his Mama is going to be calling for him, though it might not be for a few minutes.

We started bashing each other again, and we were laughing so hard it sounded more like we were screaming.

A couple of kids rode their bicycles up the street where we lived. One of them, the smaller of the two, was a gruff-looking kid with a frown on his face that looked like he’d been born with it, and ragged-looking blond hair that stuck up all over his head. The other kid was kind of quiet looking, with an easy-going expression. They were just passing by the house when I threw a water balloon at Joey. It missed him and flew into the street, falling to the asphalt right next to the gruff-looking kid’s front tire. It must have startled him, because he swerved suddenly and almost drove into the path of an oncoming car. The driver honked his horn, and everybody was looking real mean at one another: the driver looking at the kid, and the kid looking back at the driver—and then at me.

I knew he thought I’d tried to hit him. I watched, dread beginning to seep into my stomach, as he turned sharply and started pedaling hard back in our direction. Steam seemed to be gathering in this kid’s frowning face. The kid got off his bike a few feet away from us, while it was still moving, and simply dropped the bike to the ground, all the time looking at me with rage-filled eyes.

Joey and I stood there like mannequins in the yard. The only thing moving was this kid. He kept on running, coming at me full bore with his hands out. When he got to me, he shoved me in the chest and I stumbled backward, almost falling to the ground. He followed me back and shoved me again, and spit out, “You fucking asshole! You trying to hit me with that water balloon? You trying to fucking get me killed? I almost got ran over because of you. You! You mother fucker! I think for that I ought to just kick the shit out of you, right here! What do you think of that?”

Butchie was scared; he whined and ran toward the front door and started yelling, Daddy! Daddy! and went inside, the screen door slamming shut behind him. Meanwhile, the other kid had got halfway up the hill on his bicycle before he figured out his friend was no longer with him; he turned around and rode back down the hill and stopped at the curb a few feet away and just watched.

I was stunned. I couldn’t say anything. I could only look at this kid and feel a numbing fear wash over me like an icy waterfall, though, oddly, I felt my face glowing red-hot. Please, I tried to say to him, please don’t hit me. I didn’t mean it. But I couldn’t get my mouth to move.

I felt everyone’s eyes on me. Joey’s. The other kid, still on his bike, watching me silently. And this maniac who stood mere inches away from me, his fists balled. In my mind’s eye, I saw him bashing one of those rock-hard fists into my face, then the other. I saw my bones, my teeth breaking. I saw blood pouring from my nose.

“Well?!” he said to me. “What do you think of that??”

The kid on the bike looked confused. “What’s going on, Mike?” he said.

“This mother fucker threw a water balloon at me and almost got me run over!” He said this with his eyes glued to my hot face. Saying the words just seemed to infuriate him even more. He took another step toward me and shoved me hard again. I knew it was just a matter of time before he started pummeling me.

“Well?” the kid on the bike said to me, almost matter-of-factly. “Why’d you do that?”

For a brief second I relaxed, hearing what I thought was a voice of reason. “I-I didn’t mean to,” I managed weakly, as much to this kid named Mike as to the kid in the street. “It was an accident.”

“Bullshit!” Mike spat at me, taking another step and shoving me again. He was pushing me all over the yard. “You did it on purpose, I saw you, you lying mother fucker!”

“Mike,” the kid on the bike said tiredly. “C’mon, man, my dad’s already pissed off. I don’t want to be late again.”

Mike snapped his head around and shot the kid a look. “Hey, this punk almost killed me! And now I’m going to kick his ass!” He snapped his head back in the opposite direction and raised his fists and glared at me. “So go ahead,” he said. “Take a swing, so I can kick your ass fair.”

I looked at him. Already I could feel myself shutting down, going somewhere else, the way I remembered doing whenever Daddy came at me with the belt. Even Mike’s voice right in front of me was sounding smaller, farther away. I didn’t move. Then a small voice I vaguely recognized as my own said to him, “I don’t want to fight.”

Mike thought about this. His face looked even sourer than before. He shoved me backward again. “Well, what if I want to fight?” he said.

“Mike, c’mon!” said the kid on the bike again. “He doesn’t want to fight. Can we go?” He looked at me. “Kid, will you just tell him you’re sorry, so we can go?”

I looked down at the ground. I didn’t want to apologize. But I didn’t want to get beat up either. And I knew that was exactly what would happen. “I’m sorry,” I said, my voice hardly more than a whisper.

“What?” Mike said, loudly, so everyone could hear.

“I’m sorry,” I said again.

Mike glared at me some more. Then he dropped his fists. “Chicken shit!” he said, thrusting his head toward mine, making me flinch. “Pussy!” He looked at his friend on the bike. “Aw, fuck it,” he said, “let’s go.” He walked back to his own bicycle and stood it upright. “He’s too big a pussy to fight.” He said pussy with plenty of extra emphasis. “It wouldn’t be any fun beating the shit out of a pussy, anyway.” He got on his bike and the two of them started pedaling up the hill. Every couple of seconds, Mike turned and looked back and yelled, “Pussy!” or “Chicken shit!”, all the way until they got to the top of the hill and turned the corner. I figured the entire neighborhood probably heard him. I felt like I was growing smaller and smaller by the second.

Mrs. Castiglione stuck her head out her front door and yelled at Joey to come home, he was in big trouble. Joey looked at me balefully, and trudged up the hill. Not that it mattered much: I didn’t feel like playing anymore.

I went into the house, and discovered Larry sitting on the couch. He had a funny look on his face. “What was that all about?” he said to me. I shrugged, and told him the story. But I had the impression he knew it already. He stared down at the rope rug for a few seconds. “So the kid asked you to fight?” he said finally.

“Yeah. I guess so.”

“So,” he said then, looking up at me with eyes that were both sad and accusing, “why didn’t you fight him?”

I felt the weight of his question, the meaning behind it. My face grew hot again. I shrugged, unable to offer an explanation. He stood up without saying another word and walked from the room into the back of the house and out into the back yard. His wife Charlotte was busy pulling weeds out of the small garden. I saw him through the back window, talking to her, and suddenly I had the strange sensation that Larry’s voice and Mike’s voice were now one and the same, hissing over and over again a single word: pussy.

First Love…Ah, The Pain…

oldwriterMy foster parents, Larry and Charlotte, began looking around for a bigger house in the summer of 1963. But it wasn’t until the first week of December that we finally moved into a three-bedroom, bath-and-a-half stucco house on Eldridge Street in Allied Gardens—nearly one year to the day after I first came to live with them. The house had a small backyard with some grass and a concrete patio and a wall of ice plant, and cost thirty-thousand dollars, a sum I could hardly conceive of. I instantly loved Allied Gardens, with its wide streets and plentiful leafy trees, the vast canyons of sage and rock that separated us from the rest of San Diego, and finally the abundance of kids of all ages that seemed to spill out of just about every middle-class house in the area. (At this stage of my life, ‘tract’ wasn’t necessarily a bad word.)

Coincidentally, the day we moved into our new house, something in my head went ‘click’ and ‘whirr’, and I was in love with any walking, breathing thing that resembled a girl—beginning with the slender brown-haired beauty I glimpsed playing hopscotch on the sidewalk a half-block up the street, while I was helping to carry boxes from the moving truck into the house. Her name, I would learn, was Cheryl Buksas. Our new house, of course, was nice. But it was probably my budding interest in girls like Cheryl which figured most prominently in my counting the two years I would live in Allied Gardens as the happiest—and perhaps the most painful—of my life.

The first Monday after we’d moved in, Charlotte took her son Butchie next door to her new friend Arlene, who had offered to watch him whenever Charlotte needed to go anywhere. Then we walked together down Zion Street to Stephen Foster Elementary School, where she registered me. It was the fifth elementary school I would attend; the sixth, if I counted my brief classroom experience in Juvenile Hall. I was assigned to Mr. Epler’s sixth grade class. There was no wasted time: after a brief hug goodbye from Charlotte, I was taken by an office worker to my classroom.

I should have been used to it by now: coming to a new school during the middle of the year. Nonetheless, a feeling of nervousness began brewing in my belly as we neared the open door of the classroom. New kids had always been the butt of cruel jokes and ridicule in every other school I’d attended. Doubtless it would be the same here. I took a personal inventory, and came up way short of okay. My hair was too long and greasy. Even though my clothes were relatively new and in style, I knew they could have been better. I could be taller. My voice could have been lower. I was too young (this wasn’t just a matter of opinion, given that I had skipped a grade in San Francisco). I heard the kids in the classroom and the purposeful racket they made, punctuated by the occasional resonant upraised voice of (I assumed) Mr. Epler, calling for someone to quiet down or for an answer to a question.

I walked into the room with my escort, and a sudden pall settled over the place. I felt all eyes on me.

Mr. Epler, who sat on the front of his desk with a large book in his hands, was a soft-spoken man in his late forties, who (I would soon discover) always wore the same green button-up sweater atop a starched white shirt and black tie and gray slacks, no matter the weather or temperature. He put down his book and took my information sheet from the escort. “I’m glad to meet you, Mr. Campbell,” he said, reading my name and smiling warmly. Then he spun me around by my shoulders until I faced the rest of the kids. “Class,” Mr. Epler announced, “we have a new student. His name is William Campbell, and he’s just moved here from La Mesa.” There was a brief, awkward moment of silence. “You can sit next to Mr. Polischuk,” Mr. Epler said to me, guiding me with his hand toward the middle of the room. “Peter,” he said, “would you mind raising your hand so William here can see you?”

A smallish kid with short dark hair raised a hand tentatively into the air, and I hurried toward the empty chair next to him, avoiding kids’ eyes and feet as best I could. “I expect each of you to go over and introduce yourselves to Mr. Campbell like the good citizens you are,” Mr. Epler said, his exhortation followed immediately by groans and whispering, which Mr. Epler chose to ignore, but which made me suddenly want to run away and hide. “William—or do you prefer being called Bill? Anyway, you can put your coat and lunch in the cloak closet at the back of the room. Peter, while William is putting his things away, perhaps you can come to my desk and get his books for him?”

I stashed my jacket and the bologna sandwich Charlotte had made for me in the crammed coat room, and when I got back to my seat, a neat pile of books had been set on my desk, along with pens and pencils, lined paper, and other supplies.

“All right, class,” Mr. Epler said, “let’s get back to our lesson. Who can tell me from their reading what Ecuador’s primary exports are?”

Peter had his book in front of him, and pushed it a little toward my side of the desk and pointed to the page. I opened my own book to the same page, and tried to learn something about Ecuador. Gradually, I got up the courage to look around me. A few of the kids still glanced at me occasionally, but for the most part, they were busy with the things kids generally did in school. I breathed.

When I got home that afternoon, Charlotte had unpacked what was left of our household goods, and, except for a couple of rugs that still had to be unrolled in our living room, the house was beginning to look lived-in. “How was your first day in class?” she asked. She was sitting on a stepstool in her short pants, smoking a cigarette, listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary on the radio. Behind her I could see she had been cleaning out kitchen cupboards and lining them with yellow-plaid No-Bugs-M’Lady. A huge carton labeled ‘DISHES’ was open next to her. Glassware and plates wrapped in newsprint were waiting to be put away.

I shrugged. “Alright, I guess. The kids were okay. Mr. Epler’s nice.”

“Did you learn anything new?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Ecuador sells a lot of bananas.”

Charlotte laughed at that, a smoky laugh that turned quickly into a cough, but she cleared her throat and laughed some more. “Oh, boy,” she said. “That’s sure important stuff.”

It didn’t take long to learn who was who in Mr. Epler’s class, enough that I could call most of the kids by name. It also didn’t take long for me to fall in love.

The first was Linda Johnson, with her long dark hair and sad eyes, and who wore her Blue Bird uniform to school every Tuesday. A month later, Linda was supplanted by yet another Linda: this one tall Linda Wilson, with her shining, bright blue eyes and wavy blonde hair that hung perpetually in front of her eyes. And finally, in the spring, there was Ethel Charboneau. Ethel was a slender, tallish eleven-year-old girl with perfectly straight chestnut hair (with the barest hint of red), parted neatly down the center of her scalp, and dark mahogany eyes arranged on her face into a permanent smile. Her smooth olive skin was covered ever-so-finely by a thin layer of what was politely referred to as ‘peach fuzz’. Ethel wasn’t merely beautiful; she was rapturous; she was divine. She was—well, there really wasn’t a word for Ethel.

I would have died for Ethel. In fact, I regularly began to feel as if I were dying for Ethel. I died each time I glimpsed her approaching from the end of the hall outside our sixth grade classroom each morning (I always managed to get to class a half-hour earlier than everyone else, just to make sure I was there to watch her arrival). I died again, this time more poignantly, when she finally came into the room, for she had to pass directly in front of me to get to her seat. Then I died (at least) a thousand deaths more, whenever I glanced over to her desk throughout the day and saw her doing anything except to acknowledge my existence, my obvious, undying love for her. And, finally, I died when she left again at the end of the day, strolling past my desk with nary a glance, let alone a good-bye. I was invisible to Ethel. Oh, the pain! Walking to my own home was a daily descent into hell, made tolerable only barely by the fact that the evening always held the promise of the morning after, and another day of agonized ecstasy. And weekends! Weekends were completely intolerable: two whole days without a glimpse of Ethel! I was desperate for Ethel. I’d never known such desperation, such a strange all-consuming hunger.

Nights, I dreamed of her. I dreamed she dragged her silky chestnut hair across my face. I dreamed she looked squarely into my eyes and whispered my name. Billy. Billy Campbell. No one could say my name the way Ethel could. (Not even, unfortunately, her real-life persona. But I was certain she’d talk that smoky, sultry way if she could.) I dreamed she held me close and put her breast against my cheek. (Of course, she didn’t really have any breasts yet—being only eleven years old—but that didn’t matter. It was the idea of her breasts, the intellectual concept, which counted. This was better: I didn’t want to taint my vision of Ethel with something as base as—sex.)

Ethel was all the things a boy could possibly want in a girl. In team ball, she could hurl the ball farther and harder than many of the boys, and more accurately than most. My heart pounded wildly whenever Ethel got the ball; I prayed it would be me she would try to hit. I made myself an almost embarrassingly easy target, running up to the line directly in front of her. Unfortunately, she enjoyed the challenge too much to try to hit such a willing victim. Ethel’s intellectual skills in the classroom were equally marvelous. Her spaghetti constructions were complex and architecturally daring, and Mr. Epler even commented admiringly to the class about the mountains on Ethel’s starch-and-salt relief maps. She was in the advanced Spanish group, could count to a thousand in base five, was able to recite the Preamble to the Constitution perfectly, and had read virtually every issue of Archie Comics published to date—twice. Of course, I loved Ethel for all of these things.

But what I most admired Ethel for—and what caused me to notice her in the first place— were her Beatles sneakers.

The Beatles were just then making their worldwide debut. “She Loves You”, “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, and “Do You Want To Know a Secret?” were riding high on the pop charts, and the world was going Beatles-crazy. Beatles wigs. Beatles lunch boxes. Beatles notebooks. Beatles trading cards. And an endless stream of Beatles photos in the teen magazines.

Ethel was the first in our class—and the last—to wear Beatles sneakers: white canvas tennis shoes with the smiling black-ink images of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, complete with their printed names (for the benefit of those Beatles non-initiates recently arrived on the earth from another planet). For the one day she wore her Beatles shoes to class, she was the unchallenged Queen, the hit of the day. So much of a hit, as a matter of fact, that, by the end of the day, Mr. Epler asked her not to wear them again, and announced to the class that Beatles clothes were thenceforth prohibited in his class. “Too much of a disruption,” he said simply.

But the audacity Ethel had exhibited by wearing the sneakers in the first place (most adults were still outraged and perplexed by the Beatles phenomenon) had won my heart. I had to have such a girl for my own. I couldn’t live another day without her. I would win Ethel’s heart—or I would die.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a clue how to go about making this happen. As my love for Ethel had reduced my brain to a bowl of mush, the best tactic I could come up with was to stare at her wistfully—and more or less constantly—from across the room, simultaneously hoping and deathly afraid I would eventually catch her eye. Her initial reaction was to ignore me entirely. I kept up the assault. She turned the other cold shoulder toward me. Then I wondered: even if my lame efforts were successful, then what? Was merely gazing at her with starry-eyes going to be enough to make Ethel really understand the depth of my feelings for her? Certainly not. Still, there had to be some way to proclaim my love for Ethel without actually going up to her and saying it. But how? How?

“Why don’t you just call her,” my table-mate Pete offered simply. Then he wrote down her phone number.

I was thunderstruck. “You know her phone number?” I asked him.

Pete chuckled. “I know her older brother David,” he said. “He’s one of my best friends.”

This was too much of a coincidence. This was providence. I decided then and there I would call her that day.

I lived less than a half mile from the school, and each step homeward made me more giddy, nearly dizzy with anticipation, my heart beating so hard I thought I might actually not make it home, I’d die of heart failure halfway there. But I did make it, and I mustered all the resolve I could and burst into the house, ready to hit the phone and declare my love for Ethel.

She’s just a girl, I kept telling myself, though I knew I was a liar. The phone on its brass stand in the hallway seemed suddenly more than a harmless tool for communication: suddenly it was a device for torture, or even death. I gathered my resolve and reached into my pants pocket where I had the folded paper with Ethel’s phone number on it. The neatly printed numbers on the paper, which I now held in my hand, carried behind them the smiling face of Ethel. In a way, they were a code for Ethel, they meant Ethel.

I sat on the small leatherette bench beside the phone and picked up the receiver. It felt strangely heavy in my hands and cold against my ear. I laid the paper on the bench and slowly, painfully, dialed the number.

The first ring alone was enough to nearly take the breath from my lungs. My mind’s eye saw Ethel sitting on the family couch, perhaps, watching TV, or maybe they were already eating dinner! I thought of the thousand possible things Ethel and her family might be doing, and how irritated they’d be that the phone was ringing.

But it was the second ring that I figured would bring the expected heart attack, because with it came this sudden terrible realization: I didn’t know what to say!

But before this horrible thought fully registered in my brain, there was a click, followed by an adult man’s voice: “Hullo?”

I wasn’t sure I was even breathing enough for the man to know there was someone on the line. “Hullo?” he said again.

I was finally able to clear my voice enough to stammer: “Uh—hi—uh, is Ethel Charboneau there?” In my own ears, my voice sounded as if it came from the inside of a tin can.

The voice yelled away from the mouthpiece: “Ethel! Phone!” There was a thump as the receiver was put down, and some banging around in the background (or was that my heart inside my chest?), then audible footsteps. Another thump as the receiver was picked up.


It was Ethel’s voice. I knew this because I’d heard it so many times in class when Ethel answered one of the teacher’s questions, or when I heard her giggling at one of her friends’ stupid jokes. I knew this was Ethel’s voice, but now, somehow it seemed completely different, and not only because it was coming across phone wires. It was different because Ethel was actually addressing me (albeit unbeknownst to her).

It suddenly occurred to me I had never heard Ethel speak to me. Just as suddenly, I realized I wasn’t the least bit prepared to have Ethel, this goddess, speak to me—a mere mortal. The sound of God’s voice was well known to be fatal to mere mortals.

“Hello?” she said again. “Who is this?”

I certainly didn’t want to die, despite my earlier conviction. I hung up the phone, with Ethel’s puzzled voice still coming through the receiver.

I was certain I was going to cry, and I went into my bedroom to do just that.

The next day, when Pete came into class and sat down next to me, the first thing out of his mouth was: “So? You call Ethel?”

“Well, yeah, sorta.”

“Sorta? Did you or didn’t you?”

“Well, I did call her. But I—”

Pete sighed and shook his head sadly. “You hung up on her, didn’t you?”

I didn’t have to answer: the look on my face said it all.

I finally decided to quit playing silly, juvenile games and be a man: I wrote her a letter:

Dear Ethel:

I’m writing you to tell you I really like your tennis shoes, and it’s rotten that Mr. Epler won’t let you wear them any more. They’re really neato. I think it’s a wonderful coincidence that you like the Beatles, because I like the Beatles, too, especially when they sing I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Well, goodbye. See you in class.

Yours Very Truly,

William Thomas Campbell, Jr.

“It’s not much of a love letter,” said Pete, when I showed him the letter. “You don’t even say the word ‘love’ once. I mean, what kind of a love letter is that?”

“Hey,” I said, “Ethel is really sophisticated. You have to take it slow with these sophisticated chicks.” (I liked saying the word ‘chick’. It made me feel hip, and—well, sophisticated.)

Pete looked at me like I was an idiot, but he didn’t say anything else about the letter. I asked him if he’d give me Ethel’s address. “Sure,” he said. “In fact, I’ll take you where she lives myself, if you want. You can deliver it yourself.” He flapped his eyebrows up and down provocatively. “I’ll even show you her bedroom window,” he said lowly.

I thought this was a splendid idea. We snuck off the school grounds and went during lunch, riding our bicycles down the Twain Avenue hill, then turned right onto a street I didn’t recognize, then left, and halfway down the block. We stopped, then, and Pete pointed to a dark green stucco house with a nondescript yard, fence, garage. “There’s Ethel’s house,” he said.

I felt the letter in my pocket. But I didn’t move.

“Well?” said Peter. “Aren’t you going to put the letter in her mailbox?”

I remembered then how I hadn’t been able to talk to Ethel on the phone, her irritated voice, Who is this? when I didn’t—couldn’t—answer. I imagined her opening my letter and, for some reason, laughing. I started feeling sick to my stomach. It was too much of a risk. I couldn’t do that. Better that she never knew how much I loved her than to risk her throwing it back into my face. “No,” I said. I turned my bike around and started pedaling back toward the big hill that would be hard work. “I can’t,” I said.

“Well then why the heck did we come all this way?” Pete called after me. I could tell he was a little mad, thinking maybe that the trip had been for nothing. But I didn’t think it had been for nothing, though I couldn’t really explain to him why. I didn’t answer him, and he didn’t ask again.

Then, a week later, after I’d gone into the cloak room to get my jacket, I turned and discovered Ethel standing behind me, staring into my saucer-wide eyes with an amused little smile on her face. Behind her were several of the other kids in the class, a bunch of heads sticking into the doorway, watching and snickering. It didn’t take me long to figure out what was going on. She knew exactly what she was doing; though it wasn’t likely she was aware of the exquisite pain I felt when I realized her cruel intentions.

And yet, feeling her eyes upon me, I think I loved her more at that moment than I loved life itself, more than I loved my Stingray bicycle I’d got for Christmas, or my model cars, or the new house we’d just moved into, or my chance to fly airplanes, or my 1909 S-VDB penny (which I didn’t yet have, but which I someday hoped to own). I loved her even more, I was sure, than my very next breath. I would have given it all up that very moment if I could have stayed forever frozen in that tiny room with Ethel Charboneau, looking at me, at Billy Campbell, someone who’d never had anyone so beautiful look at him so closely, so intently, even if it was to mock him, to make him feel small.

But I knew I couldn’t stay there forever, it hurt too much. I stood gazing back into her smiling eyes until I couldn’t stand it anymore, my heart acting as if it was going to punch its way out of my chest and fall out onto the floor. Neither of us said anything. What was there to say? I tried to smile and sucked in a deep breath and tore my eyes away from hers and walked past her, past the teasing eyes of my classmates, and left the classroom for the short walk home.

Walking, though, was hard. I was dizzy. Still, there was something giddy in me. Something strangely happy.

I wouldn’t understand for many years what that something was. Yes, I understood she had tried to be cruel. She’d known, I think, just how terrified I would be having her so close to me, looking at me. She’d wanted to humiliate me, to demonstrate her power over me in front of her friends. And yet, for someone as beautiful as Ethel to pay any attention to me at all was wondrous, inconceivable, even if it had been to spit on me. Oh, to be spat upon by a goddess! (I should have kissed her! Boy, wouldn’t that have been something!)

But even then, I knew her little scheme had backfired. She hadn’t made me feel small at all. She’d made me feel like Superman, a hundred times bigger and stronger than I’d ever felt, or was likely to ever feel again. For that, I would always be grateful to Ethel, would always, in a small way, love her.

Still, when I rounded the corner of my street and headed up toward my house, I noticed the neighbor girls Cheryl Buksas and Luann Hargrove playing hopscotch again in front of Cheryl’s house. They turned and looked at me for a second, then resumed their play. And when Cheryl looked back at me a second time, I felt my heartbeat quicken.


oldwriterYou’d think I’d have learned these things by now. You’ve certainly been trying very hard to teach me. Things have changed, you tell me. God is dead. The miracles are over, or, more accurately, never happened in the first place. You tell me that humans are concerned only with money and material things and with killing one another. That there is no such thing as true love, agape, that marriages cannot last. You tell me over and over again how rotten people are, that kids only care about drugs and video games and sex. And when I have failed to learn these things, you tell me I’m not listening. That I’m blind. Or stupid. For a few seconds I will believe you. And for those few seconds I will also believe in death and evil. But only for a few seconds.

Forgive me. I know that you know what you are talking about. And I’ve tried hard to pay attention. But it is the oddly-placed scent of the rose growing from the crack in the cement of the slums that distracts me. That and the old woman who stoops to water it, carefully, tenderly, each day. It is the ghetto child’s giggle and his shrill, sadness-conquering laughter as he swings higher and higher above the playground and imagines himself soaring like the eagles. It is the doctor who leaves his meal mid-bite and rushes through the restaurant to help the choking man. It is the tired husband who holds his sick wife’s hand and rubs her shoulders as she pukes into the toilet. I see and hear these things and suddenly I can’t remember what you’ve told me. Suddenly I can’t even recall who you are, why you are here, where you’ve come from. Suddenly, I can’t see or hear you at all. Suddenly you’re not even here anymore.

Some people never listen. Maybe they don’t know how.

My eight-year-old daughter makes crayon drawings of scenes from nature: mountains, valleys, rainbows and the like, then takes the paper they’re drawn on and wraps them around empty soda cans and secures them with invisible tape. Bright orange suns shine from between snow-capped purple mountains. Rainbows curve splendidly from puffy blue-white clouds. V-shaped birds soar in indigo skies.

“Those are beautiful,” I tell her.

“Thank you,” she says matter-of-factly. I’ve obviously told her something she already knows. She gathers together a whole six-pack of her art, then stands them in a line on a table and steps back to view them with what I take to be a critical eye. She screws up her lips, frowns.

“So,” I say, “what are you going to do with them?” I ask this, knowing as I speak that she plans to make of them a gift to me, as she has unerringly done in the past.

“Sell them,” she says.

“Sell them?”

“Sure,” she says. She looks at me. “Do you think a hundred dollars apiece is too little to ask?”

I cough.

By the end of the evening, after a small lesson in economics, she has revised her asking price to fifty cents—and seems to have lost a lot of the bravado she’d had earlier on. And me, I feel like a heel. I want suddenly to rush out and take out a bank loan to buy these cans from my daughter, if for no other reason than to simply make her know that she and everything she creates is worth all I have, even my own life, if necessary.

And I can’t help but think that we’ve both just lost something that, for the very short time we had it, was very, very good.

A Short Love Letter…To My Wife

oldwriterJust read (www.omg-facts.com) a revealing but, apparently, little known fact: the percentage of American men who say they would marry the same woman if they had it to do all over again: 80%. I don’t know how that staggering (to me) statistic was arrived at, but it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that I count myself firmly in that 80% camp. (And I can assure you that, as I write these words, I am not sitting under the watchful eye of my wife, Jeanie.)

Why, you might ask? I remember once watching a TV talk show whose guests Tom Cruise and his relatively new wife Nicole Kidman, along with director Ron Howard, were promoting their new movie Far and Away. The host posed Nicole with the question: Why do you love Tom? Nicole blushed and nodded toward Cruise and said, “Well, just look at him!” And anyone who hasn’t escaped the ubiquitous headlines of the supermarket tabloids knows where their marriage went.

Okay, I will admit that my wife is a looker, someone whom we, in my generation, would have referred to as “easy on the eyes.” She’s beautiful, but in so many more ways than what can be seen. I don’t just look at her; I watch her. I watch her while she’s holding the six-month old child, Elizabeth, whom she babysits twice a week. I watch her while she says hello to the five animals with whom we share our house–two dogs, two cats, and a parrot. She calls them by their names, scratches them behind their ears. And there’s nothing perfunctory about the gesture, I can guarantee you. Because I watch her, closely. I’m sensitive to such things. I would know. And I watch her when she’s on the phone with either of her two grown children, living with their own children on opposite ends of the country. There’s that look in her eyes again, that sound in her voice that speaks really just one word: love. She demonstrates love. Who in their right mind couldn’t love someone who is, herself, love?

I could go on, of course, but I don’t want to belabor the point. All I can add is that I’m pleased to learn I’m not alone in how I see the woman I’m married to. 80%. Wow.

The percentage of American women who say they’d marry the same man? 50%.  I can’t speak to that, really, not in this brief venue. Books have certainly been written on the subject. But I am certain of this: my wife is as firmly in that 50% camp answering in the affirmative as I am in my 80% camp. How do I know? She tells me, all the time. Sometimes she actually voices it. But more often, it’s just the way I see her. That’s when I can really tell. She’s shown me her heart, and it’s as plain as the smile in her beautiful eyes.

The Seeds of Shame…

Today I officially begin—again—working toward my original goal for this website (see my introduction above). It has been nearly two years since I’ve posted anything here. Frankly, it has taken me that long just to wrap my brain around one of the basic but critical premises upon which my goal is based, which is this: how we view the world around us is shockingly dependent on how we view ourselves. I have heard it often said that, if you want to know the state of your mental health, just take a look around you. What is the general character of what you see? Is it pleasant or not-so-pleasant? Those familiar with basic Freudian psychology will probably recognize the term projection. Simply put, we mentally project onto other people our repressed “unacceptable” emotions and beliefs about ourselves which our psyches are convinced would be too horrific to consciously acknowledge. Rage, fear, and shame are but a few of these unacceptable emotions we’ve ostensibly “bottled up.” But emotions, like recalcitrant demons, struggle mightily to be let out of their bottle. Projection is, therefore, a defense mechanism the psyche has worked out to protect itself from the potential pain of such expression—by ascribing them to other people.

Shame is one of the more potent repressed emotions. A person who has been shamed (as would, say, a man who was sexually abused as a boy) often has great difficulty dealing with the unique and often debilitating pain of self-loathing that is a hallmark of shame. To openly acknowledge this self-loathing, to actually feel it, might be more than he can realistically stand. Hence, he will likely project it onto others. Now, his pain and inability to succeed can be blamed on others, whom he now believes are judging him. Best of all, he can depart their company and dissociate from their (imagined) hatred/judgment, which he now sees as their problem, not his. Unfortunately, he will simply transfer his projection to the next person he comes in contact with, and the next, and the next, until it seems to him that the entire world plainly sees his fatal flaw and judges him for it.

I will deal later with some of the more common causes of shame and the various ways it can manifest. But for the time being, I’d like to share with you a story from my own personal experience that relates to shame. Read it here. And please feel free afterward to leave a comment on the story, particularly if you’ve had an experience that is in any way similar. Thanks for reading, and I’ll have more very soon.

One Small Step Forward…


The Bronx ParkThere’s a beautiful park in Bronx, NY, with a paved walking trail paralleling the Bronx River Parkway running south from East 233rd Street down to the Mosholu Parkway. The park is about two miles long, with the Bronx River (the Bronx stream, really) skirting the entire length of the park’s western edge. This past spring, when this incident took place, I’d been in the habit over the previous several weeks of beginning my days “in the city” with a walk along this trail. It gave our Sheltie dog Annie and me some exercise, and killed a little time until the library near where my wife Jeanie’s son Aaron lives opened at ten a.m. This day would be the last day I would take my walk in the park before Jeanie and I left New York to return to our home in Colorado.

Despite its beauty, I hadn’t really enjoyed the park as much as I wished I could have. There were a couple of reasons for this. The first is its location. The Bronx River Parkway is like most other traffic arteries in most large cities. Huge. Noisy. Four (sometimes six) lanes of traffic, nearly always busy, and a Metro North Railroad track on the other side of the Parkway, with trains running (screaming, actually) by every few minutes. On the other side of the park (it’s a narrow park, about fifty yards wide at its widest point), is one of the several neighborhoods that comprise Bronx, New York. Large apartment buildings, schools, the busy Our Lady of Mercy Hospital. It’s predominantly poor–which leads me to the second reason I had not often enjoyed my walks. There is an attitude I often see in large urban areas populated by mostly poor people. How can I describe it? Unhappy. Angry. Frustrated. Depressed. People I encountered in the park rarely smiled as I passed. They rarely said anything. They rarely even looked at me. And if they looked at me, there seemed (to me) to be something angry and threatening in their faces. I felt likely to be attacked, even in the broad daylight, by someone waiting for me behind a tree or bush.

I realize I bring a lot of my own garbage into whatever situation I happen to find myself. I come from a poor background myself. I lived for several years in the McLaren District of San Francisco, otherwise known as the projects, until I was eight years old. There were many angry, frustrated, depressed people there, too. I learned firsthand just how violent such people can be. And I learned to be cautious, even suspicious (dare I say, paranoid?), when I was anywhere near them.

All of this notwithstanding, I still managed to suck it up and gut it out, so to speak. I dutifully snapped a leash onto Annie’s collar every day and together we strode purposefully from one end of the park to the other and back again. I told myself I’d be damned if I was going to let a little fear keep me from doing what I wanted to do.

Of course, there was no reason to think that this day’s walk would be any different from all the ones before. But as I started down the path, I noticed up ahead a young black couple crossing the street from (I assumed) their large brick apartment building and heading into the park on the grass. What caught my eye was this: the man carried what looked like a small shovel with a bright red handle; and the slender woman held a small bundle to her chest, about the size of a twelve-pack of beer, wrapped in red cloth, a blanket or towel perhaps. This was a city park, I thought. Why would they need a shovel? The pair walked slowly, deliberately, as if each step required great effort. When they came to a small shade tree still frosted with pinkish-white early spring blossoms, they stopped. They stood there motionless for a few moments and stared at the ground in front of the tree. Finally, the man took the shovel and drove it into the ground with his foot and began to dig. The woman stood and watched him, swaying a little, patting the bundle at her chest as if it were her baby.

It didn’t take much thought to figure out what was happening. They had come to the tree to bury a pet, a small dog or cat.

The paved trail passed within a few short yards of where this little ceremony was taking place. Something prompted me to stop for a few seconds, maybe even to say something to them. After all, I was walking Annie, whom I had grown to love over the nearly five years Jeanie and I have had her. Back at the fifth-wheel coach we were traveling in, we had our cats Angus and Argyle, and our Amazon parrot Pele waiting for us. They were (are) our “kids”, our family. I could easily understand what these people must have been going through. Nevertheless, I ignored the prompting, telling myself theirs was a private ceremony, I hadn’t been invited, and frankly, might not have been welcome. I hurried past without looking and continued my walk.

I tried to concentrate on the beauty of the park, the green against the sharp blue sky, the big puffy clouds like white elephants (to borrow from Hemingway), the smells of fresh cut grass (the park personnel kept the place immaculately groomed and free of the litter I’d been accustomed to seeing at other parks). But the image of the young man slowly digging into the grassy hillside, and of the young woman hovering nearby, watching, waiting, gently patting her precious bundle, followed me like an invisible ghost, whispering in my ear. How had the animal died, I wondered? Had it been sick? Was it old? I recalled the extraordinary efforts Jeanie and I had put forth just recently to save not one but both our cats from eating disorders and urinary tract infections which had nearly killed them. I guessed these people had had to put forth the same sort of effort for their own animal. I looked down at Annie, who was obviously happy to be outside, her tongue hanging happily from her mouth, her ears and eyes alert for birds or squirrels. It was easy to imagine the anguish I would feel if I lost her.

Suddenly, I realized, these people were kin.

That’s not to say that I had anything approaching a religious experience, that I was suddenly consumed with love and understanding and free of the fear which had plagued me. But something inside me seemed to shift just a little. I came upon a group of young girls, mostly black, sitting together inside one of the playgrounds. I heard their laughter; there seemed something free and clean about it, as if they’d somehow managed to avoid the anger, frustration, and general unhappiness amid which they lived. One of the park workers, a grizzled black man, looked up from raking a pile of dead leaves and nodded at me, just long enough to let me know he’d seen me. I gave a surprised nod back, and he turned and walked away, dragging his plastic trash can behind him.

The young couple at the tree were still working when I passed them on the return leg. The red bundle was gone, and the woman was patting and smoothing the fresh patch of dirt with the shovel. The man was busy nearby, carving something in the trunk of the tree with a large knife.

Once again, I was tempted to go over to them, introduce myself, tell them I was sorry for their loss. But, again, I resisted. I averted my eyes as I strode past with Annie, still telling myself they deserved their privacy. A few minutes later, I’d loaded Annie into the truck, and was pulling from the curb to begin the short drive back to Pelham Parkway where Jeanie and the library awaited me. And as I turned the corner for the on-ramp, I could see the two of them, she still tamping down the dirt, the man patiently working on the tree with his knife.

That’s the story, I guess, as far as it goes. And it might have ended there. I could just as easily have motored on as if nothing were different. But I think one of the things I am learning, slowly, is that pretty much everything we see, and how we see it, is a matter of conscious choice. If nothing changed in how I viewed life, it would be because I wanted for nothing to change. That day, I decided, I wanted different.

And so I tucked the moment away, safe in that small corner of my brain where I gather all the little snippets which serve to remind me that, despite appearances, we really are all cut from the same fabric, even if it’s from a far removed section of the patchwork quilt we call life. And I breathed a silent promise to this young man and woman, whom I would likely never see again, that I would share it with the other people in my life who care about such things, and so would understand.

Some Thoughts on American Masculinity

For any of us men who might be interested in educating ourselves about the role of men in twenty-first century America, the following collection of thoughts might well serve as a brief introduction, a teaser, if you will, to stimulate reflection. The first are quotes from the seminal book, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, by Robert Jensen (South End Press; Sep 1 2007):

We teach our boys that to be a man is to be tough, to be acquisitive, to be competitive, to be aggressive. We congratulate them when they make a tough hit on the football field that takes out an opponent. We honor them in parades when they return from slaughtering the enemy abroad. We put them on magazine covers when they destroy business competitors and make millions by putting people out of work. In short, we train boys to be cruel, to ignore the feelings of others, to be violent.

U.S. culture’s most-admired male heroes reflect those characteristics: They most often are men who take charge rather than seek consensus, seize power rather than look for ways to share it, and are willing to be violent to achieve their goals. Victory is sweet. Conquest gives a sense of power. And after closing the deal, the sweet sense of power lingers.

George W. Bush learned an unforgettable lesson about the anxious nature of masculinity in America when Newsweek tarred his father with the “wimp” charge, a perception Bush 41 never really overcame. The resolve never to be branded a wimp is the key to Dubya’s psychology: the you-talkin’-to-me? pugnacity and cock-of-the-walk swagger at press conferences; the cowboy bluster about getting Saddam dead or alive; the Top Gun posturing on the aircraft carrier, in a crotch-gripping flight suit that accentuated the Presidential Unit (leading G. Gordon Liddy to swoon — on Hardball, for Freud’s sake — “what a stud”).

Doesn’t all this chest-thumping machismo and locker-room homophobia protest a little too much? Paging Dr. Freud, pink courtesy phone: What can we say about a country so anxiously hypermasculine that it can give rise to Godmen, a muscular-Christianity movement that seeks to lure Real Men back to church with services that feature guys bending metal wrenches with their bare hands and leaders exulting, “Thank you, Lord, for our testosterone!”

And this, from Sam Keen’s book, Fire in the Belly: On Being A Man (Bantam, 1991):

When men define themselves by power they are at once driven by the impossible desire to become replicas of omnipotent gods and are haunted by their repressed knowledge of their semipotence. By definition they are able to feel their manhood only when they have the ability to make things happen, only when they can exert control over events, over themselves, over women. Therefore they are condemned to be forever measuring themselves by something exterior to themselves, by the effects of their actions, by how much change they can implement, how much novelty they can introduce into the slowly evolving history of nature. I did it; I made it happen; I exist.

And, finally, this by Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War

Men make wars for many reasons, but one of the most recurring ones is to establish that they are, in fact, ‘real men.’ Warfare and aggressive masculinity have been, in other words, mutually reinforcing cultural enterprises.

Just a little something to think about…