This is not about you.

Sometimes it feels so good to be pissed off. When I’m angry, I feel powerful, eager to blast whoever offended me, cut me off in traffic, or amputated me out of his life. And yet, sometimes the anger makes me feel out of control. What did I say? What did I do? Why did I react that way? It’s exhausting. While the screaming and sarcasm feels cathartic at the time, afterward I’m left feeling downtrodden.

They say all arguments begin and end with ourselves. I believe it, and yet, I have relationships with people who can ignite me and burn me to ash in a moment. Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember I must control my behavior, especially when I’m highly emotional. How I feel and act is about me. And, your feelings and your behavior is about you.

Think about a day when you woke in a bad mood. You stubbed your toe on the door to the bathroom. There’s a nearly bare toilet paper left on the roll, which you didn’t notice before you went. Someone used most of the hot water, so your shower was about luke warm. And when you poured milk into your coffee, curdles floated to the top.

So, you drive to your favorite coffee place and order breakfast. The server asks, “How’s your morning?” and you answer “Fine,” when you want to say, “It has sucked so far.” She gives you the right coffee order but the wrong breakfast sandwich. Sausage? I wanted bacon. The world is your enemy.

Think about a day when you woke feeling light. Your dog rolled over in bed and invited you to rub his belly. Your shower was just the right temperature. Your son told you he loved you three times before you left for work. You did food prep over the weekend, so you have overnight oats for breakfast and lunches for the week. When you drive to your favorite coffee place, the person ahead of you pays for your beverage. The world is your oyster. (If you like oysters, and I do.)

It’s important to hang onto those good days, relish them. Smile as often as you can. Realize that the friend who ignores you is mad at himself. The person who cut you off while driving is oblivious. Everyone is living in their own little world, stubbing their toes and running out of toilet paper. That has nothing to do with you.

 

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The Nerd in Disguise

In the ’80s, when I was coming of age, MTV was everything–I loved the thrift-store fashions of Cyndi Lauper, the fluffy skirts, zip up boots, and torn stockings. She looked so cool. But I went to a catholic school where we had to follow a dress code: blouses, slacks and/or skirts (not too far above the knee), no stirrup pants, and dress shoes. The most rebellious I could get was popping my collar.

I had grown up as a tomboy, two years younger than my brother, and because we were not rich, my father dressed me in “Tony’s” hand-me-downs. Until I was about five, I believed I was a boy. My father let me walk around the house with no shirt on, Tony and I had fist-fights with kids on the playground, and I only wore pants.

My father remarried when I was six, and my stepmother introduced me to a hairbrush, ruffled panties, dresses, tights, and patent leather shoes. It was not a smooth transition. When she brushed my knotted hair, I wailed and she yelled. And when I hung upside down from a tree limb while wearing a dress, consequently showing my flowered underwear, she told me to get down.

Looking back, I realize my stepmother was a trend follower. She wore T-shirts with sayings on them, high-priced designer jeans, and used top-of-the-line makeup and hair products. She bought school clothes for my brother and me at the very uncool Sears store in the mall and sneakers from a place called Philadelphia Sales. Cheap!

Of course, in high school, I was desperate to fit in and begged my stepmother to buy me Izod polos, designer jeans, and elf boots. She took me to outlet malls where they had “slightly damaged” Izod clothing and I got my polos. I borrowed elf boots from my friend, and was grateful for being a cheerleader who got to look cool in my uniform on game days.

Luckily, my stepgrandmother bought me Forenza sweaters and wide wale corduroys from the Limited, and Gloria Vanderbilt designer jeans. And for my senior prom, my father gave me an unlimited price tag to buy any dress I wanted–a mauve Southern Belle dress and finger-less gloves.

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One of the things I liked about 80s fashions were they were influenced by the late 50s and early 60s fashions–saddle shoes, penny loafers, poodle skirts and angora sweaters worn over a blouse with a Peter Pan collar. When the GoGos appeared on MTV with their short hair styles and blouses, my father thought they were a 50s band.

As a woman who will turn 50 this year (yay!) I wear what I like to call “classic” fashions. Collared blouses, slacks, and shoes that don’t go out of style. This is not necessarily to make a statement; I think it’s because growing up poor taught me to be thrifty. I want my clothes and shoes to last. I shop at Goodwill and second-hand stores. I visit Nordstrom Rack, not Nordstrom. And if I think a piece of clothing I buy won’t last at least a decade, I usually put it back on the rack.

Some people always seem to know which trends are coming. The messy bun, big sunglasses, eyelash extensions, yoga pants. If it weren’t for my grown daughters, I might never know what was “in style.” I work in a professional office, so I wear dress clothes, but I feel like a nerd in disguise. I’ll leave the trends to the people who have the time and energy to follow them.

I’m deeply grateful that my father dressed me in boys’ clothes. I know I will never be a princess. Today I’m wearing a pair of Doc Marten saddle shoes I bought at a second-hand store for $35. I love telling people how inexpensive they were. I get many compliments on them. I once got a snide comment, but that woman and I hardly talk anymore.

 

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.

 

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.