How I See Myself

“I will never be loved for who I am; I can only be loved for what I can do.”

This is how I see myself.

This is how I have seen myself for as long as I have memories.


There is an age at which girls start to notice and like “cute boys”. I remember girls discussing it in the lunchroom, on the bus, on the ramps between classes. I remember my older sister and her friends talking about cute boys at school.

It doesn’t take a terribly observant guy to determine whether or not they are in the “cute boy” category.

I was not.

So, some boys got favorable attention merely by walking in a room. Others of us drew scorn through the same action. Or worse than scorn: being ignored completely, as though we were not really there at all.


There then came an age where kids start having “parties”. These weren’t birthday parties staged by parents, these were music and dancing parties, for boys and girls.

I know about these parties, because friends of mine were invited. I was not. Not once. Not ever.

Even in a world of relative economic sameness, people will form “haves” and “have-nots”. In this case, the “haves” are people you would want at a party. Simple. Elegant, even. An upper class of desirability (normally termed “popularity”) determined in the most straightforward manner possible.

But that was okay, I reasoned, because I could use the time to practice the piano. Having no “social life” of this sort, I could use my energies to learn to do something. After all, I reasoned, girls like musicians — even the ugly ones.


I was wrong, of course. I played classical and jazz piano, which didn’t exactly bring in groupies. It did give me an outlet, though.


Another age came, one where the desire to get close to girls was so great, boys attempt to approach them, even when they know they have no hope. But we try.

I tried.

What resulted was various girls reenacting the scene from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” where a hand is forcibly reached into a chest, and a beating human heart is withdrawn from a soon-to-be collapsed victim.

Why did I think relationships were even possible? I would ask myself every time. But the urge was too great, and I kept trying. I am not a cute boy. I have no chance.

To top things off, at that age, I didn’t have a lot of empathy, either. There were any number of girls and boys in the same situation I was in, but I had yet to really notice. I was too self-absorbed.


Not long after this age, I started to make female friends. The most popular topic among the girls I was friends with was their boyfriend. However, that was far from the only subject: there was music, and movies, and spirituality, and classes, and family…I found, in fact, that I could have conversations with girls pretty easily.

I had shifted my musical repertoire so it would include popular songs of that day, which allowed music to be a connection rather than a divider, as it had been previously.

Since a lot of girls seemed to date guys who didn’t really talk to them, I became a sort of go-to expert on why boys behaved the way they did. So by the age of sixteen I was running a sort of free counseling service.

At this point, I had started to develop the first glimmers of something like empathy, although, to begin with, my empathy lay almost entirely with the guys in these relationships. I wanted female company so badly, that I took it on the terms I could get; as a confidant.

I wasn’t, so far as I knew, any girl’s desire, as a guy. However, they desired my listening. So there was my in: they weren’t going to like me for who I was, but for what I could do for them.


After that, I made a rather fateful tactical decision.

So many girls I knew dated guys who treated them badly – or even loved guys who treated them badly – that I hypothesized that “treating girls badly” was the secret key to popularity. I had just turned seventeen, and, acting on this hypothesis, I made myself over. I quit piano lessons. I got contacts and shed my glasses. And I stopped being a shoulder for every girl to cry on.

Within two weeks, I had my first real girlfriend. Within three months, I was on girlfriend number four, and she was one of the most “popular” girls in school.

This confirmed what I had thought: I couldn’t attract girls being me; I had to be not-me. I choked off any incipient signs of empathy and acted almost completely selfishly. As a result, I was no longer alone.

But I hated myself for it.


I wasn’t like most of the boys I knew.

If her car was broken, I was clueless.

I played hours and hours of pickup basketball, but I was no athlete.

I got in fights, but I wasn’t a fighter.

I was the complete opposite of the “strong, silent type”. Strong, silent types were the male ideal.

The thing about acting is, if you do it long enough with one person, the fact that you are acting starts to come out. My complete lack of confidence, and belief that girls would always want someone other than me, would show through after a while, dooming every relationship.

At that age, girls wanted a monopoly on lack-of-confidence in a relationship. They could have it, but they guy needed to be confident. “Confident, but not arrogant” was (and is) their common mantra.

I was masking my lack of confidence under arrogance. I couldn’t keep it up.


So, I basically gave up. After a few years of pursuing girls using a fake version of me, I just stopped. I dated no one, saw no one, spoke to no one.

I was out of college by this time, so I just worked, came home, and wrote music. Music no one ever heard.

Loneliness, though, was like acid; it ate away, and ate away, and ate away at me, until one day, I cracked. I shattered, then tried to jump out of, a high window at work.


Fast forward to today, and I am reliving this entire part of the history of the first half of my life with Angela, my therapist.

“So you believe that many people are loved for ‘who they are’, and you are not?”

“That’s correct, yes.”

“What does that mean?”

“In its simplest form, loved for how they look.”

“Simplest form? What other forms are there?”

“Loved just because. They don’t have to do anything, or act any certain way to merit love. They are loved, because they are lovable — whatever that means.”

“Are you loved?”

“Yes, I am, I am very fortunate in that regard. But I have to try to earn it, every day.”

“What are you afraid of?”

“Losing my usefulness.”

“What will happen if you do?”

Long pause.

Still thinking.

A Beautiful Failure

And then, there are those days when clarity arrives; when you realize that what-you-really-want and what-you-thought-you-wanted are two totally different things… divergent things, really.

There are those days. “Epiphanies” they are sometimes called.


For almost the entirety of this last year, I have been battling insomnia. My own particular form works like this: I go to bed and I fall asleep; however, far earlier that might seem healthy, I wake with a start and am unable to get back to sleep.

So I get up, go to the gym, come home, and write… like I am doing right now. This particular morning, my “wake-up time” was 2:45 am. (I am writing this three days before it is scheduled to post.)

It’s not hard to figure out what it is that wakes me up at night, because it is (almost) always the same thing: thoughts about work. In real life, I work in a little place called “Corporate America”, and where my job responsibilities directly effect thousands of employees, millions of customers, and millions of shareholders. A short description would be that I am the person at my company responsible for knowing everything that is going to happen before it actually happens.

So, no stress there.

A couple of days ago, I was approached about going back into the area I started out in with the company. It would mean leaving the “futile attempt to be omniscient” division, instead working in the “actually helping human beings” department.

You might think, by those descriptions, I would have immediately jumped at the opportunity when it was raised, but I did not. My honest initial reaction was to try to figure out first whether or not I had failed at the job I’m actually in.

As I proceeded then to discuss this with my wife, two of my co-workers, and one of my best online (blog) friends, their reactions were virtually unanimous: take the new job, it’s a godsend, this job is killing you.

This job is killing me?

“Yes,” says one of my coworkers. “I’ve seen what it’s done to you this last year. I hate seeing you like this.”

I won’t belabor the point here, it is my intention to take the new job. What’s interesting to me is how much my obsessive desire to be “good at” whatever I happen to be doing has resulted in unhealthy or even warped thinking. I didn’t seek out the job I happen to have now; I was chosen for it. I’ve been aware of having some shortcomings in the position. I should have immediately jumped at a chance to do something I know I love doing, but I hesitated because I hate to think I “failed” at anything.

And yet, by normal standards, I’ve “failed” at a lot of things. My first marriage. Being a father. You’d think I’d be used to it by now.


My first really large failure — at least, in my mind — was at age eight when I realized I was never going to be a great painter.

I was taking painting lessons from a tiny woman who had an art studio and taught something like 30 students. I had it all worked out in my head: I was going to be a world famous painter. So I listened carefully to all her instructions, and applied myself diligently. Only…

I have no eye, and I notice almost nothing, visually. I was horrible, really, but it took awhile to dawn on me. However, dawn on me, it did.

I loved paintings. My father was an artist, and I wanted to be like him; I just didn’t have it in me.

After a year of lessons, my art teacher had an “awards ceremony” (this was 1970, in case you think such things are only a recent phenomenon) where they gave out awards like “best still life” “best human figure” “best use of color” and so on. Eventually, everyone in the studio had an award, except me.

Oh, but she had thought of one. I received the “Most Original Style” award, which was a polite way of saying “what the hell is that you just painted”?

So right after the ceremony, I quit. I told my parents I didn’t want to take art lessons any more.

They argued, as some of you no doubt may try to do, that having an “original style” is what all artists strive for. Yeah, well, I wasn’t striving for it: I wanted people to be able to tell what it was I painted.

My parents asked me to reconsider and stay at it. I was obdurate: I wasn’t going back. They relented.

I did regret it, later, but in a weirdly ambiguous way. I regretted the loss of my dream of being an artist. I couldn’t really regret quitting lessons, because, I was a horrible painter.

Epiphanies don’t always make you happier at first.

A year or so after that, I started piano lessons, and that was much more my thing. So then I was happier.


The Beautiful One, who is peacefully sleeping right now on our bed, wants me to take this new job and find some peace of mind. It is my intention to take the job; as to peace of mind, that remains to be seen.

In this very room is one of the paintings I painted at eight years old. It’s not a great painting, but it’s a beautiful kind of failure: a still life painted with that combination of dreams and illusions that make up human hope.

So here’s to beautiful failure: for while failure is inevitable, in many ways, the desire and search for beauty, truth, and goodness are what really matters.

Drawn

He had an old-fashioned, black pen-and-ink pen in his left hand, and he was sketching on an artist’s pad. I was about five, I think, and was trying to do the same thing with a black crayon.

We were at a park outside our hotel near Rochester, New York, where my dad was from; my mother, sister, and brother had gone down the street to a drug store. I had my own little artist’s sketchbook as well, although I think the pages were lined.

“I’m going to give my picture to grandma,” I said.

“She’ll like that,” he said.


I was fourteen years old; my sister and brother were grown by then, and had left home. I was reading on my bed, when I heard my mom, who had been down the hall giving my dad hell about something, suddenly give a screech. I heard the front door bang open and I tore out of my room to see what was going on. I could see them through the hall window.

There was my mom, standing out in the yard, looking back at my dad, who was standing in the doorway. They were just looking at each other. She looked wary.

I knew right away what had happened. He had been laying down on the couch, not feeling well, and had shot up off the couch to respond to her. She, who grew up in a home racked by domestic violence, hadn’t stuck around to see what his intentions were; she ran out at the first sign of sudden movement.

He hadn’t hurt her. But for a moment, she thought he might. And he was really angry.

He stepped back from the door and she came back inside.


“What happened today?” I asked at dinner that night. “I saw you out the hall window.”

“We had an argument,” my mom said.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

They looked at each other. I guess I wasn’t supposed to have noticed, let alone started asking questions about it.

“No,” my father said slowly. “But it will be. Sometimes couples argue.”

Now they were looking worried. They always saw me as the oversensitive type who couldn’t deal with the realities of life. I changed the subject.

“Dad, I’m supposed to a sketch of a tree for school. Could you help me after dinner?”

“Yes,” he said, relieved for the change of subject.


I was in college by this time, back home visiting for one day. My mom and I were talking about this and that.

“Your father and I have been going to counseling,” she said.

“How’s that going?”

“Turns out that your father has been depressed for something like twenty years.”

I thought “You’re just now realizing that?”, but I said, “Oh, wow. Um… what other things have you all learned?”

“Ways to understand and appreciate each other better. You know how difficult your father can be to communicate with.”

“Yes.”

“And apparently, I can be hard to please at times.”

“I had never noticed.”

She laughed. “Yes you have.”

“Okay, I have. So it’s… helping? Maybe?”

“We think so.”

We moved on to other subjects.

“I got together a few things you can take with you back to school”, she said.

They were on a chair by the telephone in the front hall. There was a jacket I had been looking for, a couple of books my friend Andy had returned, and one of my father’s old sketchbooks.

“He was throwing these out, and I told him you kids my like to keep them. Here.”

I thumbed through the pages. There was the clean, simple sketch of the Rochester park. I remembered being out there with him with my crayon, drawing my crummy picture.

“Thanks,” I said.


“We knew you owed a lot, on your medical bills,” he said, “but we never dreamed you’d go out and put them all on credit cards.”

I was in my mid-twenties, and I had been very ill. Very, very ill.

He said, “I cashed in a life insurance policy we had on me, and I’m going to lend you the money to help get square.”

He produced a very neatly drawn loan amortization schedule, in his almost calligraphic print. “You will pay me on the 15th of every month, until this is paid off.” In the sum borrowed, and with payments I could afford, it would stretch on for years and years.

“Thank you,” I said. “I will, I promise.”

“Credit, and family, are things that can be drawn upon, when needed, but — you have to be careful.”

My mom was sitting at the table with us, looking fondly at my dad. He got up and left the room to go back to work in his shop.

“Your dad loves you,” she said.

“I know,” I said. “I know you both do. And I’m grateful, I really am. Now that I can work again, I should be able to pay you back.”


Five years later, at my first wedding, he waived the remaining payments as a wedding gift. I still had his carefully penned loan amortization schedule.

That was twenty-five years ago. My dad died, a little over ten years ago.


The other morning, I was picking up various items to take out to recycling. Among them was a crayon drawing by my eldest grandson, who is four years old. I took it out of the items for recycling and put it up in my room.

“What is this?” my wife asked. “Why is this up?”

“Because it’s hand-drawn,” I said.

She brushed her hand lovingly over my hair before leaving the room.

A Decent Guy

I was 16. I was riding in the backseat of a friend’s car. I reached for her hand. She pulled it away.

My life changed.

Nothing had happened. Well, except this: I violently agreed with her. Why would anyone want me to touch them? Of course I had been wrong to do it, I should have known better. She reacted as all girls would, and as I knew, or should have known, she would.

I was beyond angry, but I was not angry with her. I was angry at myself. Because I had wanted something I was not built to ever get. I was filled with self loathing, because of what I was.

Girls have their own problems of course. Many of them have to face violence, violence from guys who don’t react to rejection the way I did. The psychology of male decency requires consistent application of principles, the leading one of which is this: to never attempt to take what is not yours.

Even enraged as I was, I had no thoughts of wanting to cause anyone harm. But I hated myself with an almost unbearable intensity. I was repulsive. How could I not know that?

The end result of this was a strong desire not to ever have that feeling ever again. So, I became completely unwilling to initiate any kind of physical contact or relations, even with women I was dating, or, ultimately, married to. Bluntly, the joy of acceptance (and sex) paled compared to the agony of rejection.

Another result of this, completely unforeseen, is that I have hundreds of female friends, all of whom love the fact that I never come on to them.

Because I’m such a decent guy, they think.

Declarative

I’m lost in these halls. Pain makes more effective walls than steel or concrete.

Each doorway is a small politeness. We must knock before entering. Death itself serves at a shrine of manners.

I was carried in here, of course. I never walk. The world is a constant storm to brains like mine; fluorescent lights are just matches to a fuse.

The night worker looks questions at me as I wander past. I wasn’t sleeping at home, either. No, I don’t remember what happened.

I don’t see that it matters which room I return to; they are designed to be identical, as are the patients. I also can’t remember which room is mine.

Hospital rooms are never ours. We belong to them, for a time.

I find a soda machine. It takes credit cards. I have mine. I get a soda. I sit down on a sofa to drink it.

Now I’m in a bed, inside a room, a Dr. Pepper in a bottle on the table next to me; I remember thinking that it would be the most medicinal of all the soda choices, if only by name. I’m not sure how I got back to this bed.

There seems to be a considerable amount of pain in the room. I’m not entirely sure who is feeling it, however.

There is a beautiful woman sitting in a chair next to me. She looks sad.

She’s holding one of my hands.

She stands and kisses me on my forehead. You weren’t here when I got back. You can’t just leave me like that.  You can’t just disconnect yourself from your monitors.

I have been doing that most of my life, I say.

You were asleep in the break area.

And that sounds like the rest of my life.

When I wake up again, it is light outside. She is asleep in the chair. The room is cold. There is another bed in the room, but whoever the occupant was, is gone. Whoever the occupants were, I guess I should say. These beds transport many, many souls.

As do these rooms. As have these halls.

 

Music and Madness

Total time spent in mental health wing of hospital: around half a year.

Accomplishments while there: I learned the following piece of music, playing it on the piano located in the lobby area of the facility.

Suffering from mental illness has a unfair degree of stigma attached to it; however, the stigma is arguably less than when the same types of people were thought of as “mad”. 

There have always been two types of words for mental illness: stigmatizing ones like “insane” or “crazy”, and minimizing ones, like “troubled” or even “eccentric”. My coworkers thought of me as troubled, for what that was worth. The people at the hospital, on the other hand, knew I was mentally ill.

I practiced that old upright piano in lobby every day. I had to do something with the hours. I went to individual and group therapy. I saw doctors and social workers. I took various meds.

I thought a lot about suicide.

I had one book of piano music with me: 8 Brief Pieces by Gabriel Faure, of which the Nocturne, above, was the last. I kept working on them and it, everyday. Trying to create order out of the chaos in my head.

I had a crush on a nurse, then one of the social workers. I made friends. 

I kept working on the music, every day. People would come by and ask me to play popular tunes, songs they knew. I would.

When they left, though, I went back to learning this music.

Loneliness. Isolation. Chaos. Madness.

Trying to play music. Trying to breathe.

We built things for therapy, and in my mind, I was the jar and the crepe paper and the rhinestones and the glue smell and the man next to me had magnified eyes like jumping out of airplanes through kites in white satin —

Remember the music. Starts with an F in the right hand.

Why is there blood on my pillow? What are those shapes across the room?

You can’t go play at 3 AM.

if you had just done it while you had the chance…

No! Stop it, I’m tired of this!

Mr friend Jeneen smuggled my cat in for a visit. Her boyfriend had been feeding the cat every day. On another visit, she asked me to play “that song you always play”…

The Nocturne. The Faure.

“The therapy music. Like little bits of hope riding waves of despair.”

Little bits of hope riding waves of despair. I like that.

Total time spent in mental health wing of hospital: around half a year.

Accomplishments while there: I survived

(Another) Last Piece

Sometimes, you write something, and hit “Publish”, then an hour later, you decide that it’s the worst thing you’ve ever written, possibly with the word “you’ve” removed.

You mean that doesn’t happen to you?

That happened to me yesterday. Hence, a new post under the same photo, and with a similar title to the original, now destroyed, piece.


When I was first divorced, before my (now) wife and I started dating, I dated, consecutively, three other women. The last of the three was the strangest relationship I was ever in. It didn’t last but about two months, and it coincided with me doing about three months of therapy to sort through issues surrounding the divorce.

I’ve decided to write about that time here, every Monday, for as many Mondays as it takes. My desire to write about it is to some degree because the issues identified about me during therapy at that time have cropped up again recently.

The names of the people involved have been changed, as is always true on my blogs. Hell, half the time, the events are changed, too, and the outcomes. But I’m trying to recount the truth here. And the truth, frequently, sucks.


Looking back on that time, I feel disappointed in myself beyond my ability to describe. Disgusted with myself, really. In keeping with that mood, I wrote a short fictional piece yesterday about a woman who finds out what a scum her husband is. It involved pecan pie.

It, too, sucked, and didn’t even have the benefit of being real, or truthful. It was more just a reflection of how I was feeling about myself when I wrote it.

My complete inability to keep my feelings about irrelevant matters from spilling over into my writing is one of the reasons I became a poet. I look at poetry – and it is admittedly just one view of poetry’s value – as a realm where neither rules of syntax nor emotional nor logical coherence need apply. Which is pretty much me.

I also realize that, when the actual facts about my own life are laid out, it does not lead most people to conclude the same things I have from the circumstances concerned. Hence, I write far more coherently about other people’s feelings, which almost always make more sense to me than my own.


Last week, my sister let me know that my favorite teacher from high school had died. She was our neighbor growing up as well, and person number one I always think of in terms of me “paying it forward”, because she did so much for me that I could not pay back at the time: jobs, food, money, sympathy.

She and her husband and sons were all very tall people (she was about 6 foot 3), but lived in a very compact old house. In their kitchen, she always had sweetened sun tea, and whole meals and desserts ready to serve to whomever might come by.

She was originally from West Virginia, but had met her husband in Alaska, before ending up in Florida where we knew her. She taught a lot subjects, but I remember her best for teaching Humanities.

She loved jokes and puns, which made me a favorite student of hers, because I’ve been a random pun generator for as long as I can remember. There used to be a genre of puns called “Tom Swifties” where the joke was always structured to be in the adverb, as follows:

  • “This soda has gone bad,” he said flatly.
  • “We should go camping, she said intently.
  • “What was Stallone’s nickname again?” he asked slyly.

… and so on.

I used to generate pages of these things to give to her, for no other reason than to see if I could do it. She would then read them to other classes, which greatly lessened my already non-existent high school popularity.

She loved literature, and poetry, and plays, and music; since I did, too, that was another point of connection. She got me my first piano playing job (at the church her family attended).

I last saw her a couple of years ago when I was in Florida to visit my elder son. She seemed the same as always I’d known her: tall, energetic, jovial. Even in the face of overwhelming sadness at the untimely death of her younger son, she radiated a sort of universal love.

And the pie and the tea were still delicious.


A little house
Near Lion’s Park,
Just up the hill
From where kid’s voices ring
As they swim in summer

A garden and a fig tree
In the back

A house filled up with
The smell of books
And hospitality

A kitchen stocked
With meals prepared
And frozen, ready to be
Served to whomever
Might happen upon the door

A house where
Every inch of space was used,
Not cluttered, but
Not wasted, either

Love, as though
From its original source,
Poured out in tall glasses,
And where the last piece of pie
Was never given
Grudgingly