Tag Archives: childhood

Exile

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ohhhhhhhhh……aaahhhhhhh…..aaaahhhhhhhhhhh…cough, cough….sob…sob…

it went on and on. I tried to cover my head with my pillow, but I could still hear the moaning and sobbing. I understood what she wanted. Someone, anyone to come comfort her. Cough, cough, cough…. then a bit of silence. Maybe she fell asleep I hoped? Then a minute later, ohhhhhhh….sob…sob…aaahhhhhh. I was so tired. I’d been at school all day then a two hour swim workout after. I was exhausted.

I got out of bed wearing only my pajama bottoms as was our custom. At ten years old I would only wear a PJ bottom. Somehow to my three brothers and I this represented our growing maturity. My room was furthest away from hers and I wondered how come none of my brother’s seemed to have heard the moans. I walked around through her doorway and peaked in. She looked up from her bed. “Jer-bear?” “Is that you?”She asked in the dark. “It’s me.” I said walking over to her bedside. I looked down at her as she lay there holding her chest. She was so frail, thin and sickly. Almost bald, her skin paper-thin and gray with oxygen tubes coming out of her nose. “Sit here” she said patting the bed next to her. I turned slightly and sat with my legs dangling towards the floor. Her bed was the sort you would find in any hospital. It had the bars on the sides that could be raised or lowered and even had wheels in case she needed to be moved. She rested a hand on my arm. “Such a nice swimmer body” she said smiling. “Are you OK Mom?” I asked. “Oh yes sweetheart.” she said as if nothing was wrong. The stacks of pills on her bedside table, the filled ashtrays, empty glasses of bourbon and the twin five foot oxygen tanks told a different story. She was in constant pain and had been the last 6 years or so since she’d had a double-mastectomy followed by radiation and chemotherapy. She’d had her adrenal glands removed too and had a permanent open wound in her chest we changed the dressing on every night. The skin wouldn’t heal anymore and her bones were like swiss cheese from all the radiation, small fragments of which would occasionally appear in the wound and have to be removed. All of this she dulled with a crazy combination of narcotics and Jim Beam. Each of my brothers knew how to mix her drink. A tall water glass with two ice-cubes and a splash of water. “Why aren’t you sleeping?” she asked. I wanted to say, “you know very well why” but I couldn’t. I felt so bad for her lying there all day and all night alone like she did. We were the only break in that monotony when we arrived home from school in the afternoon and then again later when we would each come in to kiss her goodnight. For all of this it didn’t seem strange to me, she had been like this almost as long as I could recall.

There was a time in my dim memory of a different woman. She was tall, blonde and statuesque. She wore mink and smelled of expensive french perfume. I rarely saw this mother though. That one usually left us with our nanny, Gloria. We only saw her as she left for glamorous outings with my famous plastic surgeon father. Later we might hear them drunk and fighting. She screamed for us then as we cowered in our beds. “Help me boys!” she would call as my father beat her but none of us responded. At 3 or 4 years old there wasn’t a lot we could do. I know my older brothers had each finally confronted him but they suffered for years listening before that. The mother of this world was exotic far off and mysterious like a tragic Queen. Sometimes she was”ill” and we wouldn’t see her for weeks. Then just as suddenly she was back joining us on Sundays for church in her pencil skirts, red lipstick and heels. Outside of church she was never without a cigarette held elegantly in long manicured fingers. The only place we went as a family then was Mass. I had six siblings but the older three no longer joined us. They were separated from the younger four of us by a gap of eight years. We rarely saw them anymore. They were off in college or busy with friends. More often than not the other three younger brothers and I were shepherded around by our angry nanny. She resented us for being privileged and white. Two things the young overweight black woman from rural Georgia was not.

But that fabulous mother was from another mythic time in a fairytale past. The one I sat next to longed for those days but her fabulous King husband had abandoned for a younger princess to adorn. They apparently even had a new set of children to fill their new kingdom although I’d never met them. The mother I sat next to would often regale that man for leaving her exiled and broken. She would cry bitterly calling him a fucking asshole or some other words I had been schooled in church to never use. Sometimes this mother would get up from her bed and dance in a narcotic and alcohol fueled memory of wonderful outings shared in former grand ballrooms with my father. She told me what a great lover he was and how he had swept her off her feet. Like Mrs. Havisham in The Dickens novel, Great Expecations it was as if time had ended when her husband left. The music had stopped and the guests had all left. Now it was just the 5 of us in this echo hall of past grandeur. My mother and my 3 brothers.  I was number three. I had one younger brother who knew even less of the past than I did. The older two each knew more and I think were more injured for its memory.

“Want to watch a movie with me ber-ber?” she asked. Tired as I was, I agreed. “The life of Henry the Eighth is on at ten.” “Masterpiece Theater!” she said with some excitement. “Great Mom.” I answered crawling up next to her in the hospital bed. She lifted the remote and turned on the televison. “You’re going to learn a lot.” she said looking down. “I know Mom.” I answered back. I loved being with her and although I was tired, she was right. I learned a lot on these nights but most of it had nothing to do with the show on TV.

 

Judgement

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Lately I’ve become more aware of being judged and people who feel free to dispense their judgement on others. Some do so from some sort of ethical or religious authority that they use as justification. Others more ignorantly just pass judgement from an arbitrary sense of what “should” be. What I find most remarkable is that these same people do not hold themselves to their own standards or pick and choose which portions of their dogma to adhere with. It’s also amazing they don’t realize that even as they hand out their condemnations and guidelines for being proper they begin building a very confining prison for themselves. “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” is an old adage that often comes to mind. When one draws too many boundaries around right and wrong behavior it becomes very tricky not to step over those lines themselves. Their lives and those around them become filled with unnecessary rules and restrictions that only serve to distort and pervert our normal state of joy.

Fundamental thought comes in all shapes and sizes and from what I can tell the consequences of it range from damaging to lethal. Guilt and perversion are very typical side effects. How many more times to we have to watch some televangelist ask for forgiveness for a liaison with a prostitute or drug dealer? People only turn to these avenues when they have no access to joy through safer and healthier routes. It could be argued that much of the violence and drug abuse we witness in the world is a result of people’s joy being blocked or taken away. I have witnessed this very thing in my own life.

Formerly as a closeted Transgender person the only way I could express my gender identity was in a night club. Generally these were bars or Drag Revue locations in seedier parts of town. I was fortunate in that at least I had one relatively nearby. Many of my Trans sisters in particular had to travel hundreds of miles to find a safe place. By “safe” I actually mean safe inside. Outside many of these clubs, Gay bashers looking for kicks or sexual predators looking for an easy target would frequently be some of the very real dangers one might encounter. I can’t tell you how much my life has changed since I’ve been able to come out. Not only have I benefitted but everyone I am involved with has as well. I no longer have to hide such a huge part of myself and can be more included and happier participating in others lives in a positive way. My intimacy is no longer searched for on kinky websites but among others who are out in the world expressing themselves openly. This ability to seek and find community or a partner in a more healthy and open way results in less victimization. When we aren’t singled out, discriminated against and targeted we feel more joy and experience higher self-esteem.

So what do the “judgers” get out of looking down on others? I would have to imagine it gives them something or they would be less likely to do it. My impression is that this need comes from their own low self-esteem. It is very typical for children who feel badly about themselves to try and show others how much better they are by putting their peers down or bullying them. If one’s self esteem hasn’t improved by adulthood perhaps it makes them feel better to occupy some moral high ground so they can look down on their lesser neighbors in a more acceptable way. I imagine they were put down or shamed for something they did as a child or as in the case of the Televangelist be hiding something and are over-compensating for it.

Whatever the case, it would be hard to ignore that judgement of others  creates nothing beneficial for anyone. Wasting time wagging your finger or looking down your nose will only limit the boundaries of your own joy and that of others. Rather than wasting our time creating unhappiness why not open our hearts to others and remove the arbitrary boundaries to our joy? We should look for commonality with each other rather than what separates us. If our ideologies and societies are more inclusive than you will find less people pushed to the extreme boundaries searching for their fundamental needs and rights. People will need to escape less, participate and contribute more. I believe there was a great man who said, “Judge not lest Ye be judged.” Perhaps it’s time we listened to him.

 

 

Tiger

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I sat in the water feeling uneasy. I couldn’t say exactly why, but I felt anxious, like something wasn’t right out here. The spot was a no name break as far as I was concerned. I’d found it near a small town named “George” on the Wild Coast of South Africa. My father had dropped me off after a long day and night together traveling from his home in Cape Town. That had been trying. I hardly knew my father and we were as different as we could be. I, an 18 year old surf kid from the beaches of San Diego and he a 56 year old renegade plastic surgeon with two small children and a nagging second wife. We chatted amicably during the drive but hadn’t really done anything on the way. I arrived only 6 months before at his doorstep in one of the toniest parts of the Cape unannounced. I wrote a letter telling him I was coming, but apparently it hadn’t made it before I did. Mail from the States took a month to travel the 14,000 miles across two continents. He hadn’t recognized me at first. At 6 feet with long blonde hair I bore little resemblance to the 5 year old he had left behind.  They found a place for me in the servant quarters a few yards away from the main house. His second wife was friendly and their  2 small kids at 6 and  8 loved their new brother. I taught the younger boy how to ride a bike, drew pictures for them and basically loved them and mentored them as if I were their father. My own father was a disappointment to all of us. A washed up surgeon who had lost his license to practice in California then run to Canada with his new wife and then Africa to stay one step in front of the law. He was an alcoholic and his new wife severely codependent. I found a job working in a local steak house and would come home late at night. Many times he would be waiting for me with an open bottle of Cabernet, clearly not his first. He would offer me a glass and after it was poured begin his long tedious drunken lamentations of mistakes made and excuses for abandoning myself and my 3 brothers with a mother dying of breast cancer. Needless to say I began to avoid these encounters as much as possible. The next morning his new wife would dig up the bottles from wherever my father had tried to stash them and confront me frantically recounting their odyssey across Africa with two small children as my father lost job after job when he botched surgeries or was caught drinking by hospital staff.

We spent the night in a nearby seedy hotel. George was a small farming town in a Dutch or “Boer” part of the country. The English and Dutch had come to an uneasy truce after the Boer War ended at the beginning of the 20th century. Comparable in many ways to the Civil War in the U.S. but  fought between the British and Dutch settlers. The Dutch generally occupied the interior or farm lands and were strong supporters of the racial segregation system known as “apartheid” while the British were more for equality, educated, progressive and usually found in the cities. The bitterness and animosity between the two groups had remained even now after nearly 80 years. English travelers could encounter unfriendly locals in this area, but once they discovered my father and I were “Yanks” they warmed considerably. South Africans love their meat and you’re never far from a good steak. Blood rare steak was the only thing my father ever ate other then a baked potato with nothing on it and hand-fulls of vitamins so he fit right in. We dined in the local restaurant last night each of us ordering one of the large barbecued cuts the locals were know for.

This morning we woke at dawn. My father did his 50 push ups as was his custom as I watched from the bed next to his. We dressed and went out the door. He offered my 50 Rand about $100, but I refused. I knew I could use it but wasn’t in the habit of getting help from a parent since my mother passed away 4 years earlier. I was used to taking care of myself and waved goodbye as he got in his silver volkswagen and drove off. I turned towards the ocean with my 6’6″ Faith surfboard under my arm, my wetsuit and some clothes in a backpack. I purchased the board in Capetown at a small surf shop I found in the yellow pages. After taking a bus and train into town I had found the store. The guy at the counter seemed happy to see a Yank and confided that this particular board had belonged to the South African champion Shaun Tomson. I wasn’t sure if he was bull-shitting me but I liked the shape and the color. It was white with light green resin swirls in the gloss coat. On the center of the deck in large curvy green script was the word “Faith.” He said it was a one of a kind and I bought it for 200 Rand. I couldn’t argue that it was a great board. I had surfed it all over Cape Town and then met some people while working in the restaurant that I later began traveling with.

They were a fun group of college age kids a bit older than myself. There was Simon the strawberry blonde bruiser who had been fighting up on the border with the Communist guerillas and had his right bicep partially blown off. Murray a student at Cape Town University who drove a 1971 VW Bus with a rainbow stripe running around it. Murray always had weed even though it was highly illegal here and could be counted on for a ride even on the wildest adventures. John who was the dashing blond leading man of the group and his equally stunning girlfriend Yvonne also both students. They had the polished good manners of British aristocracy and found me endless entertainment as a shabby Californian with the lovely Hollywood accent. The one I hung out with the most though was Kevin. Kevin was also a student, very British and polished but with a love for trouble. He enjoyed nothing better then to get very pissed or drunk as I called it and drive recklessly through the streets in his Mini Cooper. He had crashed it many times although fortunately and miraculously not with me in it. His wealthy family would pay to repair whatever damage he did and he’d be off again on his self destructive way. Since the drinking age was 18 in South Africa it was perfectly legal for me to go to a pub and drink with my friends. This was an entirely new experience for me and I found myself drinking far more at times than I knew how to handle. One memorable night at a pub called “The Pig and Whistle” we had all been drinking Castle lager in bottles at a table near a fireplace. All of a sudden Kevin stood up and threw his bottle into the fireplace, glass shattering everywhere. He shoved me and said, “C’mon Yank, throw it in.” With my judgment somewhat impaired, I followed suit throwing my bottle into the roaring hearth. No sooner had I done it then a large man in a military uniform grabbed me by the collar yanking me off my feet. Simon, Murray and John stood up at our table with Simon grabbing the guy’s arm and stepping in between us. “He’s just a lightee and from America. He didn’t mean anythin’ mate.” Simon advised. The military man thought better after taking a look at Simon, Murray and John all glaring in his direction and released me back to my feet. At 18 I was 6 feet and 150 lbs. so was very thankful for the reprieve as I had no doubt who would have prevailed in the encounter.

This was the group who I was to rendezvous with here in George later but had 5 or 6 hours to kill before we met up at the restaurant again. The ocean was nearby and I had a surfboard so I began the mile or so walk down the paved rural road lined with grassy farmland on both sides. I could see a couple of Zebra and a group of  Springbok, a large local antelope, grazing in the distance. After about 30 minutes I crested the slope that led down to the ocean. I could see a rocky beach and what looked to be head high surf coming in. As I got nearer and found a trail leading from the grassy slope to the sand and noticed African fishermen with long poles out on the rocks. It looked as if they were doing a primitive version of surf casting. I walked onto the pristine white sand sat down and looked out. Sure enough there were waves. As I had thought they were about head high and peeling both right and left. I began to undress and then put my wetsuit on. The water in Cape Town was cold. About the same as Northern California but usually even colder because of the constant wind. I put my clothes away in my pack, gathered my board and walked into the ocean. It was slightly warmer than I expected but we were up the coast quite a ways now on the Indian Ocean side of the Cape. It would get warmer and warmer now as we went North towards Jeffreys Bay which was our ultimate destination. Jeffreys was one of the best known waves in the world and had been featured in the movie, “Endless Summer.” I had always wanted to go there and had saved the $1500 for my plane ticket by working as a busboy in a restaurant back in San Diego. It had taken me more than a year to save it, but I had finally enough and walked into a travel agency and lay down the cash mostly in ones out of a shoebox I had stashed in my bedroom.

I paddled out through the surf and immediately began to feel uneasy. I wasn’t sure what I felt uneasy about but reasoned it might be that there was no one else in the water as far as the eye could see. I finally made it outside the breaking waves and sat waiting for a set. The feeling of unease was strong and my mind wandered thinking of some of the stories about gigantic sharks I’d heard about in these waters. Cape Town was known for having enormous Great Whites. A 2400 lb. beast had been caught off the rocks at a break I’d surfed ominously named “Danger Reef.” My friends had filled me in on local mythology regarding two specimens fisherman referred to as “Spot” and “The Sub.” Both were theoretically more than 25 feet in length. There was no shortage of these tales and they were all playing in my head as a wave finally came toward me. It peaked up behind me and I easily slid into it taking a few nice turns going left before kicking out and paddling back. Looking down through the clear water I could see sand plumes coming off the bottom about 6 feet below me.  I rationalized it must be surf action causing it but couldn’t correlate the sand plumes with the waves no matter how I tried. I sat again looking out towards the horizon but began to feel a sense of impending and immediate danger. I tried to calm myself, thinking I was letting my mind run away with me but my anxiety wouldn’t leave. I decided to pull my feet up onto my board. As I waited for the set my attention was drawn towards the sandy bottom again as another plume of sand rose and then began to settle. For some reason this time I couldn’t take my eyes off of the plume now only four or five feet beneath me in the clear temperate water. The shape slowly began to form. It was the stuff of nightmares. The long tapered cylinder of a very large fish extending out in front and behind me slowly became undeniably a large shark. As I stared I could see the gills working and the broad green-brown stripes running across its back. “Tiger” was the word that formed in my mind and a cold fear like I’d never known gripped me suddenly feeling every inch of my digestive tract pucker from stem to stern. I had no doubt it knew I was there and felt like a mouse watching a cat waiting for that moment when one would move and the chase would start. I was obviously at an extreme disadvantage compared to the mouse because as a human I was the slowest creature in the ocean and no match for the reaction time of the 15 foot predator beneath me.

In that moment I saw my entire short life play out before me and read the headlines of the kid from California who had been dropped off by his father along the Wild Coast never to be seen again. I doubted anyone would figure it out unless my board and belongings were found on the beach. “The Beach!” The thought exploded like a single bright ray in a dark room. “Paddle.” I said to myself. “Carefully.” I told myself. “Quietly.” I put my hands in the water very gently trying not to make a ripple. I pushed forward toward the nose causing the board to move slowly backward. I felt sure the beast would attack any second but miraculously it just lay there, its gills working, coldly indifferent to the puny creature only a few feet above. I pushed the water again this time slowly turning to face the shore. It terrified me to take my eyes from the monster but there was no other way to get in. As soon as it was out of sight my imagination began to run wild, knowing it was about to grab a leg or drag me and my board down whole at any moment. A small wave rose up behind me and I took two strong strokes catching the swell in what seemed like a gift from the Gods. I didn’t attempt to stand wanting only to make it to a shore that seemed a mile away. As I rode the broken wave in the last few yards to the sand I imagined a large fin following close behind me like something out of a cartoon. In a few seconds my board hit the sand and I scrambled frantically up the shore like a castaway who had been marooned on a raft for months. I practically kissed the ground gasping for breath on my hands and knees I turned and sat in the wet sand looking back at the sea behind me. No fin, no shark, not a sign that anything had happened.

I gathered my board and walked back to where I had deposited my clothes only 20 minutes earlier feeling like I had just survived a near death experience. I looked around. The 100 yard wide beach was absolutely empty. The fishermen still stood on the rocks casting their long poles into the water from the nearby rocks but none seemed aware of what had just transpired. After I gathered myself and got dressed I wandered over to the rocks to see what the fishermen were catching. I saw one tall lean dark man of about 45  holding what looked like a short stick under a tidal rock. He jiggled it and then quickly yanked it out. As the end came out I could see long writhing tentacles clutching and coiling at the hooked stick and the mans weathered hands. It was a large octopus. He unceremoniously grabbed the legs and in one quick motion swung it against the rocks over and over, blood and ink splattering around. I watched as he unhooked the slimy carcass from the long gaff and lay the limp 4 foot body across a rock and began cutting it up into bait size chunks. He threw the whole mess in a red bucket he had nearby then walked closer to the water’s edge. He hooked a tentacle chunk onto a large treble hook and cast out into the ocean. I stood a few yards off as he sat down and lit a hand rolled cigarette and leaned back. I walked over to within a few feet trying not to surprise him. I was impressed with his obvious knowledge and skill and had plenty of time left so thought I would find out what he was fishing for. He looked up from under his hat. “hello suh.” He said tipping his brim. He clearly thought I was a local Dutchman. I wasn’t fond or comfortable with the South African system and it always bothered me when I was addressed as if I were a superior. “Oh sorry,” I said. “I was just wondering what you’re fishing for?” “Oh, you’re from America!” he said with a thick Dutch accent sitting up now smiling openly. “Yes.” I said. “What are you trying to catch here?” I said now pointing out to the water. “Why shark my son!” He said cheerily. “Beeg Shark!”

Girl

What’s wrong Bear-Bear? She asked. My sister Kerry looked at me sincerely wondering. She used the name my family called me because of the little round ‘bear’ nose I had. I shrugged, tears spilling onto my cheeks. The truth was I didn’t know. Encounters with my only sister like this were rare. I loved her so much. She was beautiful with soft clear skin, long brown hair and she smelled good. Like fresh spring flowers. Everything I wanted to be. She picked me up and gave me a hug. “It will be ok.” She said setting me back down. She looked at me again trying to see what it was and then sort of shrugged and walked away. She was 12 years older and had a busy high school life. To me She was like a noble princess. I knew she was athletic and excelled academically. Much of her life was a mystery to me though. At 4, how could I comprehend the turmoil she struggled through in our large dysfunctional house. Years later I learned of a much older boyfriend, teen pregnancy, an illegal abortion and our parents marital troubles. She was just surviving, as we all were.
The house was huge by any standard.  A “White Elephant” it had been called a few years later when it went on the real estate market. Ultimately it was divided into 3 wealthy homes and sold piece meal. It was a great place to be lost in the shuffle especially  in such a large family.  Something like 6 bedrooms and 8 baths. Lots of dark wood and gaudi furniture. A scary basement my older brother loved to lock us in and a giant living room where gladiatorial boxing matches between us were held. A perversion of the boxing lessons my golden gloves father had instituted for the older boys.
By the time the 4 youngest including myself were taught it was administered by older teenage siblings with a slightly more twisted spin. 2 younger brothers against 1 older for the entertainment of friends seated in the couches around our arena surrounded us. Blood sport. Fight until you drop or face the wrath of our older brother 10 years my senior. I lived in fear of these contests. I always ended up crying and ridiculed. “Your just a girl.” They said. It usually developed into a chant. “Girl, Girl, Girl!” I had our loving Nanny to thank for that gift. She was the first to offer them that handy label.
Gloria. 5’2″ 220 pounds of angry uneducated black female from rural Georgia with a scar on her face where she’d been disciplined by her parents with a hot iron. She was only 17 when she had taken the job of watching the 4 youngest boys. AKA “the boys.” She held us under her very firm thumb. “Coming up side our heads” if we acted up with the ring she wore on her right hand. Ever vigilant she knew just how to play our absentee parents. “No Mrs. Mahoney” she’d say, “I don’t know why they’re crying.” She’d lie after some abusive discipline behind closed doors. She knew I wasn’t just a “boy” like the rest of the four and found it entertaining to single me out. “Anyone want to try on some lipstick? “She asked on one grocery shopping excursion. I jumped up from the back bench seat of the white Chevy Impala where my 3 brothers and I sat unbuckled. “I do!” I blurted. Somehow I imagined this would be my chance to be the girl I longed to be. “Ok.” She said. “Lean forward and do your lips like this” she said puckering. I leaned over the front seat pouting my lips the way she had. I watched in ecstasy in the rear view mirror as she drew the lovely red lipstick across my mouth. The wax smell intoxicating to me. “Ha ha!” She jeered. “Why you wearin lipstick?” “You ain’t no girl!!” My brother’s began to laugh too taking their cue from her. “You just a girl you little sissy.” She taunted. “Girl, Girl, Girl.”