Lust Kills Your B.S. Detector.

My father opened a shoe-repair business when I was two, and I spent a lot of time around adults. There was Joyce, the woman who made tie-dyes and sewed leather; Bob, my father’s buddy who fixed shoes; and the array of business men (it was the 70s and they were mostly men) who wore fedoras and suit jackets, and called me Chooch. Spending time around adults helped me cultivate a decent b.s. detector.

My memories from this period, before age four, are idyllic. My father had divorced my and my brother’s mother, and the three of us lived in a modest apartment. We were poor in money but rich in love, and we went everywhere together–the shoe-repair shop, the bowling alley, the bar. We ate TV dinners in front of the black and white console, mostly Laugh-In and The Sonny and Cher Show, or scarfed fried clam strips down the street at Sharkey’s Tavern.

After my father started dating “Vickie,” a high-school dropout with wavy bleached hair and freckles, my life changed. Although Vickie dressed my brother and me in nice clothes, and kept us clean, she also whipped us with leather belts and called us names. Her brother molested me when I was four. And, Vickie was a serial cheater. My father married her in 1975, and six months later my younger brother was born. He caught Vickie the first time when my brother was less than one.

My father and Vickie stayed together for 23 years. Living with her until I was 18 (I moved out on my birthday) taught me injustice, to keep silent, and to cower in the presence of a bully. Her brother had said to me, “Don’t tell your daddy what we did. He’ll think you’re nasty.” Vickie said to me, “If you tell your father I hit you, you’ll get it worse.” And when I told other family members or adults about what was happening in our home, I got a pat on the head, and a, “Oh, you’re just being dramatic.”

It may not surprise you that when I married, I fell for a male version of Vickie and left my relationship. More than once. Several people waved warning flags in my face, which I ignored. It wasn’t until the love of my life divorced me that I saw I was the problem. It took ten months for me to see through my male Vickie’s bullshit. Now, I’m single and am trying to make up for my mistakes through reading, self-reflection and therapy.

My father divorced Vickie in 1998, and he passed away in 2012. Vickie remarried and from what I hear, is cheating. I wish she would have sought help for whatever childhood haunts keep her in that self-destructive cycle. To make matters worse, I now have a good friend who’s been hoodwinked by his own version of Vickie. Did I warn him? Yup. Did he yell at me and cast me aside? Yup. It’s as if I’m reliving my childhood, watching my friend instead of my father, heading for a fall.

My hope for my friend, who usually has a keen bullshit dectector, is that he will wake up before too much damage has been done. But, similar to Vickie, his enchantress is pretty, fit, and an amazing liar. Friends tell me, “Don’t worry. She’ll hang herself. And then you can say, ‘I told you so.'” Problem is, I’m not going to say I told you so. I’m going to be there for my friend if he feels had can confide in me. Keep your fingers crossed.

 

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The Truth Is Sometimes Painful

I grew up with a father who loathed dishonesty. I credit his Italian American pride, or perhaps growing up catholic, but nothing made my father angrier than learning he’d been lied to. He tended to be “brutally honest,” and the people who loved and admired him appreciated that. As his daughter, I feared his truth-telling when I was as a girl because I was extremely sensitive, but eventually I grew to admire the trait.

You have to be courageous, confident, and often live with regret when you are honest, because people rarely want to hear the truth. The image I’ve included in this post is a sketch from my son. In order to remember his spelling words, he sketched faces beside them expressing what he believed conveyed the word. When you look at the faces beside “truthfulness,” although one wears a halo, they both look anxious. Telling the truth is hard; hearing the truth is hard.

My father once told me, “You couldn’t be more like me if you tried.” Although I was sincerely flattered to hear that, I knew it meant I am also brutally honest, have a terrible poker face, and tend to alienate people because I struggle with being dishonest even in polite conversation when sometimes you should be. This is not to say I have never told a lie. I have. And some have caused irreparable damage in my life. It’s just that lying to people causes me great internal struggle, reddens my face, and fills me with crippling guilt.

Similar to most people, it’s also not easy for me to hear the truth. When people have told me I’m too analytical, sensitive, dramatic, or that I remember more negative details than positive, I stiffen with defensiveness. All of the preceding statements are true. I am also self-deprecating, affectionate, and loyal. The older I get the kinder I am to myself (and others), and I try to work with not against my human flaws.

One of my most irritating traits, I’m guessing because I’ve received a lot of flack for it, is my incurable need to discover the “why” behind just about everything. Why did my mother leave? Why did my stepmother beat me? Why do dishonest people seem to have more success than honest ones? Why did my brother get killed? Why did my husband die? Why do I have so much trouble sustaining a romantic relationship when others seem to just do it? Why are people mean? Why I did reject the man I believe is my true love?

On a positive note, once I process the Why in my head, through writing, art, or talking, I can usually let it go. In some cases, like with the death of my brother, I’ve had to make peace with not knowing why it happened. That has taken 30 years. I’m still struggling with the true love question. The other whys might be explained with psychology, self-help books, chats with friends, or talk therapy–of which I’m a huge advocate. But one important lesson I’ve learned is that in order to process these questions and heal, you have to be 100% truthful.

In the book, The Courage to Heal, which I highly recommend if you’ve suffered any personal trauma, the word courage is aptly used. It’s so much easier, and fun, to ignore our flawed humanness and not heal. For years, I was the party girl, loved getting drunk, being around people, being loud and obnoxious, all in an effort not to spend time alone and seek the truth within myself. I’d gone to therapy, but never engaged fully with the tenets. It took my loving someone other than myself to see how badly I needed help.

This person is still in my life, and because we’ve hurt each other, we have had to start rebuilding trust from the bottom up. Being honest takes courage, confidence, and working through regret to move forward when we hurt each other now. But, as you’ve probably heard or experienced, there is no greater reward than having an honest, open relationship with someone you love. And I want that.

 

 

 

 

Loose Lips Can Float Ships

For the first two days of 7th grade, my friends (with whom I’d been thick for three years) ignored me. They literally did not speak to or interact with me for two school days. Confused by the treatment, but afraid to ask why they were snubbing me, I pretended not to care and sat with others in the cafeteria, while my former friends looked on.

During lunch on the third day of 7th grade, my friends invited me to their table. One said, “We weren’t going to talk to you this year.” I nodded as though I understood but wondered how they might ignore me for an entire year. Studies on human behavior show that being shunned is a universal fear. We all want to be accepted by our peers. Middle school seems to be the place where we experience both.

Over the next two years, I shunned and was shunned, bullied and was bullied, made some friends for life, and gossiped incessantly. (Perhaps that’s why my friends shunned me.) Looking back, I see my gossiping as a way to get attention and gain friends. Instead, it made people avoid me or want to kick my ass. As I came of age, even into my 20s, my loose lips continued to get me into trouble. I had to take a good look at myself and see my fingers were pointing in the wrong direction.

As I got into writing, and made friends with other writers, I discovered we are a gossiping bunch. We love to get to “the truth,” find out what goes on behind-the-scenes, and tell stories, which are good things. What I’ve learned, however, is that it’s safer and often more powerful to tell stories about myself and the dumb things I do. Some of my favorite comedic writers, Margaret Cho, Dave Chapelle, John Mulaney, and Conan O’Brien, make fun of themselves. Laughing at our humanity brings us together.

The older I get, the more I want to preserve my friendships. I try to share positive gossip. Who got a job? Who got married? What’s going on in town? I also try to think before I start yammering on. I’m far from perfect but am commited to working on this part of my personality. If we can’t invite others to our table and make connections, why are we even here?

 

The Swap

I lob my heart over to your side of the fence,
play five games of paddle-heart simultaneously,
try to keep busy, wait- wait- wait for you
to toss yours over. You catch the bloody mess
and try to hang on, crimson liquid trickling
down your arm. You observe the irregular
shape, study its pulsing blue veins, wonder,
perhaps, why I pitched it to you in the first place—
was it love? Or was I trying to fool you,
let the form fuse itself to your body, only to
snatch it away because your grip gave me
goose pimples. At one time, I might have said,
Hello-ooo. When the hell do you plan to finish
the swap? But I’ve learned that when I wait,
you surprise me, eventually climb over the fence,
deliver your heart in person, rest it in my hand,
remind me that wonderful things happen when I keep
quiet the beast clawing its way out of my chest.

Where Are You, Gen Xers?

My current job, working as the Senior Writer/Editor for a foundation at a land-grant university, involves sharing stories, Tweets, photos, and more on various social media. Most recently, on #GivingTuesday, I was checking out articles on LinkedIn, one of which mentioned “how to get Millennials to donate.” Since two of my children are Millennials in their early 20s, and I volunteer for another local foundation, I clicked on the link.

About 2/3 of the way into the article, I came across a paragraph that compared Millennial philanthropic trends with Baby Boomer trends. I kept reading, waiting to see how Gen Xers felt about philanthropy. Guess what? There was no mention of Gen Xers in the entire article. Zip. Zero. Zilch. So, I became curious. And like a Millennial, I went to Google and typed in Generation X.

Suddenly, a whole new world opened to me. I was born in 1968 and have always considered myself a Gen Xer. With a brother born in ’66 and one in ’75, I’m also the middle child. Coincidentally, Gen Xers are called the Neglected Middle Child, mostly because there are 70 million plus Boomers and 70 million plus Millennials, and there are only 50 million plus Gen Xers. Why the discrepancy? Well, lucky for us, even though the hippies were having a lot of sex, in the early 70s, birth control and legalized abortion helped them have fewer children.

After visiting a few more websites, I found conflicting information regarding the specific dates that designated a person as a Gen Xer. My theory holds at this: Gen Xers were born in between the early 60s and the early 80s. And, similar to astrology, if your birthdate straddles those years, you are said to be on the cusp, or a cusper. So, my uncle John, for instance, who was born in 1965, probably has Boomer and Gen Xer traits.

When I think about my being a Gen Xer, I think about being a child of divorced Boomer parents who needed to “find themselves,” walking everywhere by myself, and being raised on or by television. I often joke that my father (a single parent until I was six) used the TV as a babysitter. Through my research, I discovered I wasn’t alone. Many, if not most, Gen Xers were left home alone with little more than the TV and their siblings to keep them company. It’s probably why we love pop culture!

On a positive note, Gen Xers are independent, resilient, hard-working, and have a sardonic wit. I remember bristling, years ago, when I heard us called the “Slacker Generation.” WTF? When I was 12 I got a paper route. And from that moment on, my father gave me no more spending money. So then I worked as a babysitter. Then as a lifeguard. McDonald’s manager. Nursing home diet aid. Retail sales. Bakery cashier. Then, when I was 20, I joined the navy to get the G.I. Bill because my father wouldn’t help me pay for college.

I’m happy to report we are the generation responsible for creating Hip Hop and paving the way for ethnic diversity. When I think of my childhood, I think of Sesame Street, Captain Kangaroo, and the Electric Company, which we watched in second grade as part of our curriculum. Also, with my father, I watched shows like Good Times, What’s Happening, Laugh In, and the Sonny and Cher Show.

On a negative note, Gen Xers, because we were almost always left alone, referred to as the “latchkey” kids, and were often physically and sexually abused, have become the “most devoted parents in American history.” Some folks call us “helicopter parents.” Guilty as charged. Both of my adult daughters failed out of college, although they grew up watching me bust my butt to earn a BA, an MA, and an MFA, all in writing. I did that without parental support. My daughters have oodles of support. Have I killed their ability to stand on their own?

Anyway: this post is a plea. If you’re a Gen Xer, I want to hear from you! After all, peers are more important to us than parents. I plan to continue my research. If you want to share a story with me, please email me at cindyjoy68@gmail.com.

Complicated Co-parenting

This is a photo of my son Vinny crossing the finish line at the Down and Dirty Mud Run in Lewiston, Idaho. Vinny is 11, and I had accidentally signed him up for the 4.5 mile race that includes several obstacles, instead of the Mini Mud, which was a four-hour open event where he could simply participate in obstacles. Oops.

A few of my reasons for registering for the event were selfish: I love running, and I wanted to do the 4.5 miler. But mostly, Vinny’s father, whom I’ve been divorced from for five long years works for the group that sponsored the race. I knew Eric would be there, and I wanted to see him. I’m pretty sure he didn’t want to see me. It was Eric who filed for divorce after I admitted to having an affair, a mistake that made him feel tossed aside, insignificant.

Looking back, I thifinishednk I had the affair because I had been feeling tossed aside and insignificant in the marriage, but didn’t have the skills or faith in Eric to tell him. So, instead, I lit a fire underneath our relationship, which sent him running. I even dated the guy with whom I’d had the affair (it was a disaster), adding insult to Eric’s injury.

It’s only been in the last year that Eric and I have started talking about our breakup. He’s shown me his wounds, and I’ve acknowledged them. I’ve told him numerous times how much I regret the affair, the break up, and that I want him back. He won’t relent.

 

Eric has said although he’s not ready to be friends, that’s what we should be working toward. Friends. How strange that word sounds. We were friends. Best friends, for twelve years. And yet, we destroyed the foundation on which all good marriages are built. For, if you’re not friends, how can you expect to be lovers? Partners? Soul mates?

A few good sources tell me I should be grateful Eric wants to be friends. I know they’re right. But I feel anxious. Friends to me means no kissing. No intimate hugging. No love making. Ever. And Eric and I were great at those things. We were also great friends who shared secrets, gossip, and personal stories. Still, something in our dynamic made me unwilling to go to him when this guy at work started bugging me. And while I kept the guy at bay for weeks, he finally broke through to the vulnerable, overworked, underappreciated mother who devoured his attention, flirting, and dirty talk. After it was too late, I knew I was headed for disaster.

What keeps me sane right now is that adorable boy in the photo. He’s honest, funny, and cares deeply for everyone in his family, even his circle of friends. Eric and I conceived that boy when we were deeply in love. And though we may not be now, we work  hard to get along because we so love him.

I have no idea what the future holds, and it scares me to my core. My sources say I need to live one day at a time. Move the mountain one stone at a time. Breathe. Keep running, one foot in front of the other. Live in the present.

On Marilyn Monroe and Childhood Sexual Abuse

Fifty four years ago today, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her bedroom from an overdose of pills meant to treat her depression. (Her death was ruled a suicide, as you may know.) I remember the first time I saw an image of Marilyn Monroe: it was on the Child of the 50s comedy album by Robert Klein. At the time, I spent many afternoons in the bedroom with my step uncle “Reggie.” We’ll get to that in a minute.

Reggie introduced me to Cheech and Chong, Robert Klein, Aerosmith, and Rush. During one afternoon while listening to Klein, I studied the album cover as he talked about putting a coin in a vending machine and getting a button with the now famous nude image of Marilyn Monroe. (If you look at my featured image, I’m talking about the two identical pictures just off center to the right in the collage.)

After I was made aware of Marilyn Monroe, I started to hear her name all the time and see images of her in cartoons, advertisements, magazines. There was even a pictorial of her in one of my father’s Playboys, which since I’m a child of the free-wheeling 70s, lay right on the coffee table in our living room.

I was struck dumb by the beauty Marilyn possessed. Sure, her hair was bleached and straightened, nose fixed, but even now, looking at the photos of her when she was simply Norma Jean, I found her breathtaking. My favorite film with her, Niagara, is worth a watch.

Fast forward to my early 20s. I had joined the navy after the death of my beloved older brother, left my hometown Binghamton, New York, and was lucky to get stationed at a weather center in Monterey, California. (Not far from Watsonville where Marilyn had once been named Miss Artichoke.) I visited Hollywood, saw Marilyn’s wax figure, and got the chills when I placed both hands in her hand-prints at Mann’s Chinese Theatre. I loved her.

I started reading books about Marilyn, biographies, anthologies, even an autobiography. She’d been abandoned by her birth mother, just like me. I’d never lived in an orphanage, but had a severely abusive stepmother. Marilyn was raped and sexually abused numerous times during her childhood. I’d never been raped, but Reggie started performing oral sex on me when I was four. His sister also molested me. The more I read about Marilyn and her problems with men, I started to wonder about myself–a woman terrified of commitment who eloped at 21 and dumped the guy three months later. In one book, Marilyn is said to have done the same thing in Mexico. (Some folks says it’s not true, but I believe it.)

Marilyn was unfaithful to every husband and lover. I’ve had many struggles with infidelity as well. The current psychology on childhood  sexual abuse tells us this type of behavior is not uncommon–the adult often tries to “work out” or repair what happened to them in the past, and that can lead to repeatedly looking for love in all the wrong places. A very smart writer I met once said, “A kid who’s been sexually abused is the world’s sex object.” The statement is both astute and heartbreaking.

If you’re lucky enough never to have endured sex abuse as a child, it might be difficult to have empathy for people who have. In my life this has been true. I’ve had family members say, “It was experimentation, get over it.” “That’s just an excuse because you were unfaithful.” One callous soul said, “You must have enjoyed it, because you never told your parents.”

Indulge me for a moment if you will. Imagine yourself at four. Or your child at four. (My uncle was 11 when he molested me. Chances are he was molested too, or at the very least exposed to inappropriate behavior.) Reggie bribed me with quarters so I would let him have his way in the bedroom. As I grew older, he gave me record albums or other presents. He said, “Don’t tell your Daddy because he’ll think you’re nasty.” Thank goodness, at age nine, I told him to stop. But the damage had been done.

Over the years, as I learned more about childhood abuse, I grew to feel empathy for Marilyn Monroe. She married for the first time at 16. Although marrying young was not uncommon at the time, I still see it as her getting the hell out of her current situation. In many of the books I’ve read about her, authors describe her as sexually frigid and a woman-child. When I hear “She slept her way to the top,” I prefer to see her not as a soulless woman using sex to get her way, but as a wounded child who believed the promises of men who offered her a better life.

Although I am in my late forties, I am still a hopeful child. Not long ago, I believed the promises of a man, even left my happy marriage. Now, I’m alone and missing my ex-husband and the amazing life we had. I’m grateful for the therapists I’ve had who’ve tried to help me heal from my past. I have a fabulous one now and we’re doing EMDR. It’s not over; and it’s not easy. Today, I wish to say, Rest in peace, Norma Jean. I’ll always be a fan. ❤