Archive for May, 2012

Our dysfunction is only that we’re different.

Posted in Uncategorized on May 15, 2012 by darryl zero

ZERO: “Mom?”
MOTHER-OF-ZERO: “What’s up?”
ZERO: “Does my being so much like Dad dredge up weird memories?”
MOTHER-OF-ZERO: “Sometimes. You’re far more positive than he is, though.”

i find it fitting

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on May 13, 2012 by darryl zero

That, on the day I write an impassioned defense of parenthood, my father calls me to physically threaten me for no rational reason.  While I doubt there was a credible threat to what he said, he’s never physically threatened me before.  He played another exposed nerve, too, that I don’t really want to talk about now.

There was something in his voice, though–a weird, cold aggression, one that suggested enough menace for me to think that, given the chance, he’d fuck me up.  He hung up before I could figure out why he felt compelled to intrude on my life to issue a threat.

Dad’s always been a kind of dismissive non-presence in my life, disinterested in me pretty much since I gained the ability to walk and speak.  His Bipolar Disorder made everything sort of a weird dance, the unpredictability of his mood matched in intensity only by his fascinating ability to work with kids.  When his work at the Iowa Department of Transportation got too stressful, mom made him coach Parks & Rec Basketball; I’d watch him marshall groups of two-dozen unruly boys and have them in the palm of his hand.  His charisma lent itself to instruction; he could get kids to do anything, rarely having to raise his voice.  When we moved to Hawaii, he stepped into the classroom and taught ESL; the teaching bug really had him for a long time.  He enjoyed helping kids; they took some of the stress out of his unsatisfying life.

Growing up, everything I learned about engaging kids and challenging them to succeed, I learned from watching him coach, teach, and otherwise motivate.  He was damn good at it.  Kids remembered him.  Kids adored him.  I heard, from many more classmates than I care to admit, that they wished my dad were theirs.

I’ve never made much of a secret of the fact that I’ve always wanted to be to my students what my dad was to his.  Probably part of the reason why I’m not a parent yet is because I don’t want to be to my kids what my dad was to me.

Just a thought.

in defense of parenthood.

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on May 13, 2012 by darryl zero

So I had a thought last night, and it went something like this.  It’s neither researched, nor well-written. Here goes:

My sister, whose career and adult life have been nothing but a series of acknowledgments and validations of her hard work and dedication, steadfastly refuses to have kids, or even a desire for them.  This isn’t something we talk about (or would talk about if we actually exchanged more than terse text messages or tweets) but it occasionally pops up, usually when I start feeling more suicidal than usual, when she would send me some kind of lighthearted reminder that, without me, my parents wouldn’t have grandchildren, because she’s not having any.  I normally don’t think about it; frankly, my sister’s one of those people I’ve given up trying to think about, if only because we don’t like each other very much on an interpersonal basis, but then she posted this article to Twitter, and I snapped.

To be fair, it wasn’t just her that caused me to flip out.  Mostly it was living in Portland, and seeing so many gorgeous, interesting, intelligent people finding each other and getting married, yet meticulously choosing not to have kids.  Most of them had the same kinds of attitudes–“oh, there are too many children in the world already,” or “well, you know, I might adopt,” or “I’d make a better aunt/uncle” or, occasionally “I’m just not ready to be a parent.”  (Full disclosure: I theoretically fall into the latter category–gods know I financially do–but when an upwardly-mobile middle-class white person says it, it usually means…well, I’ll get to that later.)  Many of them settled into this sense of pride about being non-breeders, that they were bucking the stifling traditions of previous generations, I guess, or defying “the man,” as it were, by refusing to excrete crotchfruit into the world.

I used to accept those kinds of attitudes with a sort of crotchety cynicism, making legitimate appeals which I knew were perceived as the same kind of self-righteous oppressive bullshit they get from people that actually have kids.  After all, I didn’t have kids myself.  Not for lack of desire; frankly, the only thing I’ve known I ever wanted to be with any certainty was a dad.  Nor did my childlessness stem from lack of ability; sadly, I know empirically that I’m fertile.  Truthfully, the only reason why I haven’t had kids yet–not coincidentally, one of only two excuses I will accept–is because, frankly, I’m afraid I’ll fuck it up.  For the longest time, my rationale was “I can’t balance a checkbook or, for that matter, keep a positive balance in a checking account for longer than seven months–how can I raise a child without fucking it up?

All of that changed when I started working with kids again.  I think it was being a special-needs school bus driver that did it, frankly–seeing the sheer courage and energy from so many of those kids (especially Alec, the kid with CP who could barely form syllables, yet approached every morning with the kind of positivity and enthusiasm I’d have killed to feel myself).  When I started coaching debate, the picture got even clearer–watching young minds explode, egos collide, and vocabularies flex was far more interesting (and entertaining) from the outside looking in.  Working for Head Start sealed it, though–watching little kids who didn’t share languages or family backgrounds or skin colors function together was about as eye-opening as my experiences with some of their fucked-up, social-program-stereotype-validating, lazy, horrendously ungrateful parents (which, thankfully, did not apply to all of them).

I’ve noticed over the years that there’s a certain self-righteousness that non-breeders (that is, people who have no desire to procreate) have when it comes to those that have kids.  I’d get it a lot when I’d talk about my day job whilst working the bar job–people would hear that I worked with kids and they’d say something to the extent of “wow, that must suck.”  The more intellectual of the group usually would make some observation on how shitty parents–and, by extension, their crotchfruit (it is a great word)–are the reason why society and the usable portion of natural resources are simultaneously going down the tubes.  When I dared suggest (in one of my more caustically candid moments) that procreation ought to be a licensed privilege, one conversant suggested that only the rich ought to obtain said license, as the rich would have sufficient resources to take care of and appropriately educate a child, whereas the other dared call me “fascistic.”

I tend to refrain from explaining to them the truth, but I’m going to say it here:  The problem isn’t just the people having the kids; it’s also the people that aren’t.   Shitty-ass welfare moms that crap out babies annually to fatten their checks are just as much to blame for society going into the shitter as the intelligent, decent, thoughtful person who doesn’t have kids because they don’t want to deal with the responsibility of having them.

Because, let’s be real–the only reason why someone wouldn’t want to have kids are because they don’t want to deal with the responsibility.  We live in an entitled age, in a culture that values its freedom to be selfish and self-centered, in a country whose very ideological foundations are based on wastefulness and a low value of human life.  The backlash against the social conservatism of the 50s has led to something bordering on Anarchy, in which everyone looks at themselves as some kind of special fucking thing that has no real duty to anything other than its own comfort and excess.  So-called Liberals are often the most egregious offenders in this regard, enjoying the trappings of their freedom to do as they please, demonizing the idea of procreating because they realize they wouldn’t be able to exist solely for themselves.  “What can we do?” they say; “we don’t want to contribute to an overpopulation of idiots.”

The obvious solution, of course, is to breed out the fucking idiocracy by having kids that actually model good behavior, by having kids and teaching them how to be accountable, responsible, logical fucking citizens.

No one wants to do that, of course, drunk on the opiates of their own freedom and opportunity much as the idiots multiplying like rabbits are, because to admit they have an responsibility to society is to admit that they themselves are imperfect, insufficient, or unfit.  Furthermore–and this part is more conjecture than anything else–I think people are uncomfortable with the realization that they were better people when they were children, when all of the things in life they now find so important didn’t fucking matter, because admitting that would involve admitting their own successes and identities are completely fucking worthless in the end.  I think it’s the same reason why most adults–especially, sadly, a lot of people that do have children–don’t feel comfortable around kids in the first place, not realizing that all it does is perpetuate the cycle of kids becoming shitty adults.

Being an awesome aunt or uncle-type isn’t the answer, either–at best, that’s a stopgap, while at worst it’s creating a completely different type of problem.  One could point to me and say “but Zero, you do the whole ‘mentor’ thing even thought you don’t have kids,” and they’d be right on one level.  But I, like most of the dedicated teachers I know, care a lot about my students, making the kinds of sacrifices that go beyond simply being “cool person to talk to”.  There’s a reason why I call the kids I mentor “my kids;” because they’ve taken my advice–some of it painful–and they’ve worked their asses off at my command.  And everything I give them is a pathetic shadow of parenthood–I’ll admit that even to them–but the love I have for them comes from my desire to teach them to be better people than I am.

This, sadly, is not a problem I think anyone can really solve.  By embracing capitalism and the market economy–two things defined by shortsightedness and myopia–we humans have overtly stated that we don’t give a flying fuck about future generations, and are willing to mortgage their ability to function so that we may have luxuries today.  I wish I had a better answer other than “stop having being so narcissistic and make better people,” but that’s the best answer I’ve got right now.

It also seems to be the only one that’s even close to being a practical solution.

Just a thought, and an incomplete one at that.

my family tree is me.

Posted in Uncategorized on May 7, 2012 by darryl zero

Today means it’s been exactly one month since I crept from a house in northeast Portland, finished jamming the remains of my possessions into the back seat of my car, and left the city in which I’d spent almost the entirety of my proper adult life, one of my college buddies riding shotgun in my damaged, baling-wire-and-spit-jerryrigged-engine Intrepid.  I’ve spent twenty-eight days as a legal resident of my mother’s house; as of today, this has been the longest stretch of time I’ve spent in this house in fourteen years.

The only thing more remarkable than the fact that I’m back here in the first place is how little I’ve managed to accomplish since I’ve returned.  I’ve applied for about sixty jobs and interviewed for three; of the three, I managed one offer, one contingent upon a committee’s decision that my abysmal credit score ought not to disqualify me from getting a job which would enable me to heal my credit.  The job doesn’t pay spectacularly, but it pays me more than what I was making when I was making the most I’ve ever made–back in 2006.  It’s a start, and there’s not a shadow of a doubt that the only reason I’m even being considered for this job is because of my personal connections.  I’m trying to let the upswing of being 99% employed numb the ache of my inability to land a job at a grocery store or, even worse, to even get an interview for a minimum-wage job in the school district from which I graduated; for the most part, it’s working.

Living with my mother has yet to present any substantial problems or impediments to my lifestyle; mom’s moved down into the basement (what once was my room), meaning I currently occupy what used to be her bedroom which, despite being tiny in comparison to what is now her living space, is still sufficiently larger than the bedroom in what was my apartment for the past three years to make it seem luxurious by comparison.  The only real substantial incursions of my life onto mom’s have been in her living room (which still features an embarrassing amount of my junk), the storage area of the basement, and her kitchen, which has been woefully underused in my father’s absence and, thus, equally understocked.  I’ve been trying to keep from asking her for money, owing to the fact that I’m already enough of a drain on her as it is; my mom’s best friend (a condescending, haughty woman whose presence I’ve always found infuriating) suggested I donate plasma, which turned out to be helpful.  Once I finally decided I wasn’t going to get a job right away and that donating plasma was hardly lucrative enough to rely upon for sustenance, I applied for food stamps; hilariously, whereas it took the jobs that actually called me back an average of three days to contact me, Department of Human Services got back to me in less than half-a-day.  My EBT card arrived on Saturday; I promptly filled the refrigerator with a comfortable amount of food for the first time since I got back.  I stored much of my food on the top shelves of mom’s kitchen cabinets, not out of secrecy, but more a desire to be as unobtrusive as possible, as she’s too short to reach those shelves and stores her food in lower levels.

I’ve seen my dad once since I got back.  When I first arrived, he called, and we scheduled a time, which he rescheduled before we actually got together.  I drove forty miles to where he lives, hoping (but not expecting) something semi-private. I haven’t had any time with my dad when it was just us since…shit, I don’t even remember, so I suppose it was foolish to even hope that he’d have wanted to hang out, interact, socialize on some level that suggested we were important or special to each other.  Still, when I saw Dad had taken care to organize our reunion at his new home, with his new wife, wife’s family, and the seven-year-old cousin who has taken my place as the focus of his life close at hand, I felt the stab in my gut.  No, not my gut–it was in my past, reaching through the non-corporeal elements of my being and into the continuum of my before-now-after, slashing much of what tethered me to what I was.  I made the most of what was an incredibly uncomfortable situation for me: sitting in the living room of my dad’s new house, in my dad’s new life, staring at a television set, suggesting we watch Jeopardy! so we could have at least the illusion of having done something together, just us, helping my stepmother’s son-in-law with a paper he’d written for a class just to have my mind working on something I was good at.  We parted amiably, me trying to seem enthusiastic about the encounter as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s; I didn’t dislike my stepmother, who was at least kind and friendly as she always has been to me, nor did I dislike my little cousin, my replacement, the one whose presence I resented but whose personality I found as charming and infectious as I find all children’s.

Having finally officially observed how my dad has completely overwritten my place in his history brought a jarring second observation into clear focus.  It sunk in each time over the subsequent few weeks that I mentioned dad to my mother, who took each occasion to show even more cracks in her veneer of impassiveness, the vitriol  making her words smooth as she pointed out the obvious truths about my father’s penchant for self-martyrdom and his revisionist way of looking at the past, and every time she mentioned something, a bit more disdain entered her voice, and each time I was brought back to being a sobbing twelve-year-old boy, holding letters with no return address, love letters from my dad’s mistress, the woman he would see when he would sneak off during those summers when we lived in Hawaii, missing every one of my birthdays to hang out with her, and mom having nothing to say other than the truth, nothing to calm me or make me feel any better.  Because the damage had been done, even then, and my mom had armored herself, youthful energy long-since transformed into an almost unnatural control, and whether it was a reaction to the stress of being a white woman having to teach two Black kids how to be Black, or having to be sustain a sense of interest in those kids after dealing with some of the fucked-up stuff she dealt with as a guidance counselor, or having to be the stable part of the family, with dad a self-destructive mess, depression swallowing the young, handsome, invincibly strong man whole and turning him into a tired, erratic, perpetually-despairing, morbidly overweight shadow of who he must have been.  I should have seen it then, of course, that  my mom was able to take everything she knew to be true so stoically, that she was able to be honest with me whenever I asked her questions, that she was able to be patient with me when my own emotions, the nascent instability that truly made me my father’s son, that she could be so coldly strong, even when she was being affectionate, but I was a kid, and an emotionally immature one at that, able to see the writing on the wall and even read it, but losing the subtext.

It finally hit me today.  My mother, a puppeteer of formidable skill whose talents I have disgracefully not mentioned enough here largely because she employs them almost exclusively as part of the church, brought home her audition DVD for an all-star traveling creative ministry group.  Being legitimately interested in the artistry involved, if not the philosophical message, I watched the video, which was shot by mom’s aforementioned best friend.  Most of the video featured my mom looking the way she always does unless she has a puppet in her hand or a child nearby: somewhat uncomfortable, even stiff, as she explained herself and why she should be picked for the group.  It happened during the outtakes she’d tacked onto the end of the video; she had been sitting in her chair in the small room next to my de facto bedroom, a stuffed panda behind her, a humanoid puppet in her hand, and suddenly, abruptly, the uncomfortable woman completely vanished.  She’d flubbed a line, and this smile broke out on her face as she shook her head and laughed.  It was a smile I hadn’t seen in years–decades–not even at my high school graduation or my sister’s college graduation; in fact, it had been so long I had absolutely no memory of seeing it.  The only reason I knew it existed was because of a photo my sister had found and posted to her facebook page:

image

and I realized that, for the first time I could remember, my mom actually looked comfortable.  It was a pretty smile–is a pretty smile–even now, and I laughed in spite of myself (although, to be fair, the portion of the video was funny), mom laughing as well, as amused with my amusement at herself as she was with the onscreen gaffe.

I, on the other hand, had put it together.  With me gone, and my sister two years later, and neither of us spending a lot of time in her house, my mother had adapted toward living with the emotional and spiritual vacuum of my father by throwing herself into her work, and into the only social network in which she felt comfortable: the church.  Her relationship with her best friend became that clear spiritual avenue, someone who shared her passion for puppetry in a ministry context, and, with dad being as fucked-up as he was, that became her primary means of interacting with the world.  I knew that intellectually, of course, had speculated endlessly about the nature of my mom’s relationship with her friend to the point at which I suspected it was/is something deeper than even they know, something my dad and I still occasionally talk about.  The church–and her friend–gave my mother something, a level of fulfillment she’d been lacking.  In essence, the church had become my replacement.

I tried to talk about it on base, visceral levels with my father, who took the opportunity to lambaste my mother’s emotional disconnect from their relationship (while conveniently overlooking his direct part in causing it), and on slightly less direct levels with my sister, who is so emotionally cold, like our mother, a control freak hardened inexplicably by a life that’s found all the bounces going her way, and it that was when the stab punctured me all the way through, slashed every last remaining thread, definitively sealing the envelope on my inability to go home again.  My father is addled by antidepressants, nothing like the man that gave me life, cushioned by a life specifically designed to replace and erase my very existence from his mind.  My mother is addled by religion, one of the things I hate most about the planet, cushioned by the company of a woman whom I hate with a furious passion, taking care of me because she loves me, but too far down a path I can’t follow to truly connect.  My sister is addled by her own success, completely ignorant of what it’s like to have one’s passion and hard work go completely unrewarded, cold, cruel, and corporate.

I thought about them, and whether I was wrong or not, I saw them–see them–as these fucked-up people, representative of everything about this country that I see as lifeless and empty, and I wondered what happened to us, the four people I saw occasionally in pictures, two young, beautiful, dynamic, vital people and the kids that were perfect 50/50 hybrids of the two, a family of extraordinarily intelligent, creative, beautiful people who had so much to offer the world.

I want them back.  I want my family back.

Not in the sense of I want things to be the way they were when I was too young to truly remember–I want to be able to speak to my family like I speak to human beings, because I love them all so much, even my dad, whom I’ve hated for decades, and my sister, whom I resent out of pure, irrational envy, and I don’t truly feel like anyone gets me except for these three fucked-up, weird, social dysfunctional fucking people people, and yet I feel like every time I try to reach out to them, I worry that I’m the one that’s fucked-up and weird, and that they don’t need each other, and that I’ve completely failed at my life because I need them, all three of them, so much, because I feel lost and empty and completely and utterly alone without them, alone in a way that no woman or song or film or fucking word can ever change, and I fear that if I bring life into this world, I’ll abandon it just like they, however unintentionally and through no fault of their own, have abandoned me.

I feel alone today.

Just a thought.