Friday, October 6, 2017

Withdrawal Weekend

My sister, Theresa, invited me to visit her family to celebrate my 40th birthday. I enthusiastically took her up on it, as I hadn’t seen my 16-month-old nephew, Patrick, in almost 2 months and had started going into baby withdrawal. (I was never a baby person before, but since his birth I’ve become a bit baby-crazy, although I still don’t feel the need to reproduce.) It was also nice to get away and not hafta turn 40 at my parents’ house. They’ve been great, but that’s not really how I wanted to commemorate the Big 4-0.

Thanks to my unemployment, I was able to fly to South Bend, IN (directly) on Wed night and stay through the weekend. (Theresa’s husband, Craig, is a professor at Notre Dame, which also happens to be my dad’s alma mater.) I got in too late to see Patrick that first night, but I was up (late) the next morning to say hello. He was much chattier than the last time I saw him, which Theresa said had started just a few days before. There were very few recognizable words in his babble, but his tone was upbeat and endearing.

It took me until about the third day to really get back into “Best Uncle Ever” mode. (Theresa and Craig got a mug conferring me with that title.) I think it was his growth that threw me off. The little baby I once knew was now fully a babbling toddler whose demands were clearer and stronger. Most of the time he’s a darling, but sometimes, like most kids, he can be a handful.

I played with him quite a bit on Thursday and Friday. Theresa works from home, so she took care of the essentials and when Paddy wanted his mom, which was quite often. But after a while he’d bring me books to read and climb into my lap, which was great, obviously. Unfortunately, his Elmo book has become a gateway drug for TV. Reading it made him want to watch The Furchester Hotel, an Elmo vehicle on Netflix that they let him watch. He turned on the TV once on his own, and, after watching a few minutes of another PBS show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, in rapt wonder, I turned it off, which sent him into a crying jag.

He has a lot of toys and books. By the end of each day, the living room was a mess and, after putting him to bed, we’d clean it up. He also has a play area in the basement. There are 2 balls that light up when bounced, and he threw those around the room for a long time. With most of the basement lights off, it looked like a mini-rave. There’s also a table with buttons that make noises and play songs. He hit the buttons in rapid succession, before the songs could finish, as if he were an EDM DJ. It was like his own little dance club down there.

Friday was my birthday, so Theresa picked up a cake (chocolate with chocolate frosting, natch) and balloons, which Paddy loved, grilled up some steaks and asparagus, and we had a delightful dinner. After Patrick had retired, we stayed up late talking politics and jobs. I laughed harder than I had in a long time, so hard that I fell into a few coughing fits. It wasn’t just the hilarity of my companions, but being more relaxed than I’d been in a long time.

I should mention that “Paddy” is my nickname for him. (I wanted to double-down and whip out “Paddycakes” for special occasions, but then I heard about the new indie film Patti Cake$ and thought better of it.) His parents call him “P” or “Mr. P.” Theresa said she doesn’t like “Paddy” and has apparently managed to break Craig of the habit of calling him that. But he’s gonna need something credible for the playground, and I don’t think “P” is gonna cut it. It could, but that’s not usually how the playground, at least for boys, works. Granted, “Paddy” sounds just like “Patty,” a far more common girl’s nickname, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Besides, he’s not old enough to go by “Pat” yet.

There’s another option, of course, which would be to just go by “Patrick.” But that’s a rare situation for boys, and it seems like all boys who go by their given name have something wrong with them. Either they’re nerds or wusses or upper-class twits.

Moms have something against nicknames for their sons, it seems. My mom didn’t like calling me “Mickey.” She was afraid I’d get picked on for having the same name as Mickey Mouse (which only happened once, as I recall). My friend named her son “Thomas” and refused to call him “Tom” or “Tommy.” How ya gonna call a baby “Thomas”? It’s not like he’s the Dauphin.

I discussed this with my Aunt Kate, and she thinks moms are very attached to the names they give their kids and generally loath to abbreviate them. You don’t know what you’re doing to your sons, ladies! Don’t saddle them with their given names! Unless you name them “John” or “Hal” or “Rutiger”, yer gonna hafta let go of that nomenclature, except for when you’re really mad at them.

I got up around 10:30 on Saturday. (But Indiana is on Eastern time, so it's not as bad as it sounds.) I had just enough time for breakfast before Theresa and I took Paddy to A-mazing Acres. It’s a farm out in the boonies with a bunch of children’s activities. As Craig and Theresa said, the place has no concept of liability, because they’ve taken virtually no safety measures. But that just makes it more magical.

The first stop was the Corn Box, which is like a ball pit but with corn kernels instead of balls. It took Paddy a while to grasp the concept, but he eventually crawled around in it. We checked out the mannequin-like bunnies in Bunnieville and a coop of slightly more active chickens. There was a (stationary) wooden train that he loved crawling through and the Apple Cannon, which you could use to fire at large pictures of insects. I didn’t know if these insects were the enemies of apples or what. One was a grasshopper, so I doubt it.

We managed to make it through one of the Corn Mazes, which was my first time going through one of those. Our final destination was the coup de grâce: a huge inflatable trampoline in a barn. It was basically a bounce house without the house. Theresa went onto it with Paddy and made sure he didn’t get knocked over by the other kids. He had a ball, mainly watching the kids run and jump, but also crawling around and standing a little.

We were there for maybe an hour-and-a-half, although I’m sure to Paddy it seemed like no time at all. Through watching him play, I’ve come to realize the joy of watching kids have fun, especially when you know them. It feels stronger than the joy I felt playing as a kid, which was quite strong.

I think it’s because I’ve reestablished an emotional link to the joy of my childhood, free of the baggage of adolescence. It has unlocked my generosity. Now I get more joy from giving than receiving. I can once again draw on the deep well of love that my family gave me. I no longer need to be an emotional miser. I have care to spare.

The weekend took a slight downward turn when we returned from A-mazing Acres. I started feeling dizzy, and I knew why. I’d forgotten to pack my paroxetine (better known as Paxil, an anti-anxiety, anti-depression medication). Since I’d be going 4 days without my meds, I figured I’d experience symptoms of withdrawal at some point.

I lay down on my bed for an hour, which renewed my energy a bit, but didn’t diminish the dizziness once I got up. I joined the fam in the living room. Craig had been tailgating with some co-workers and friends. He had a ticket for the Notre Dame football game, but decided not to go. He got me a ticket too, but I wasn’t interested either.

He was sitting on the couch, watching college football on the TV. Theresa was also on the couch, working on her laptop. Patrick was shuttling between them and his toys, having a grand old time. Craig brought out a hunk of cheese and pepperoni slices. To Theresa’s consternation, he let Paddy take the cheese and gnaw away at it. Internally, I usually side with Theresa in their parenting disputes, but I try not to insert myself. My sister and I are more cautious than Craig. It’s a classic Midwesterners-vs.-Australians situation.

Paddy looked very cute carrying around the hunk o’ cheese and gnawing on it. Then he got his hands on the cheese cutter and tried slicing the hunk. He was surprisingly successful, but it was worrying to see him handle such a sharp object.

Three friends of theirs who were in town for the game came over that evening to hang out on the patio. The woman in the group wanted to sing Paddy a Polish song as a lullaby, so she went upstairs to his bedroom when Craig was getting him ready for bed. I was too out-of-it and dizzy to socialize extensively with strangers, so I went down to the basement and watched the first few episodes of Garfunkel and Oates on Netflix. They were quite good.

My dizziness continued on Sunday. Theresa, Patrick and I went out for brunch. Theresa’s first choice, the American House of Pancakes or something, looked busy, so we went to Perkin’s instead. We were seated in a high-traffic area, and people kept squeezing by Paddy’s high chair. He’s an avid people-watcher, so that kept him distracted for a while. But the food took a while to arrive. Theresa had to go to the entertainment of last resort: the Elmo videos on her phone. Once the food arrived, he was fine, chowing down on the bits of Theresa’s meal she gave him and people-watching.

By the time we got back home, there was only an hour left before I had to be at the airport. We spent it in the backyard. Patrick has always been enamored of the outdoors. Theresa took some pictures of us, but he wouldn’t sit still long enough to get a really good one.

To my surprise, I was getting choked up, to a degree that I hadn’t in at least a decade. My emotions intensified on the car ride to the airport, while playing with Paddy in the backseat, and I alerted Theresa to my state. She assured me that I could always FaceTime with her and Paddy and we’d be seeing each other again soon. I explained that it had more to do with the fact that I haven’t had a really good cry since starting middle school. A lot of the sadness and tears of the intervening 27 years had built up. I told her I’d been trying to cry for years.

“So this is a good thing?” She asked. “Yeah,” I answered. It felt good, but it also felt really awkward and embarrassing, like the way some men (John Boehner, for instance) have of crying that makes you want to prohibit all men from crying in public. As I told Theresa, I was rusty. When we got to the airport, she proposed a group hug. Patrick has recently learned to hug, but I couldn’t tell if he joined in. I held him for a while and kissed him repeatedly on the temple. He seemed to enjoy it, because he didn’t move. Also, Patrick loves to rub heads, so he was probably enjoying the experience on that level too.

I waved goodbye and proceeded into the (small) terminal. My emotions were still exposed, but it still felt good, even though I was reluctant to exhibit these feelings in public. I approached the breaking point a few times, but I wasn’t able to go into a full-fledged bout of crying. In the line at the ticket counter was a man with a military tote bag and a group of people seeing him off. Some of them were misty-eyed, and it seemed like other people in and around the line were too.

It felt like an emotional breakthrough. I’m not sure how much of it had to do with the Paxil withdrawal. But I’d hoped to open up to Craig and Theresa that weekend anyway, so it wasn’t a total shock. Being around Paddy may have been the real trigger, stemming from the aforementioned reestablished emotional link to my childhood.

I think I fell so hard for Paddy because of his innocence (and his super-cuteness). I’d come to think of Life as a long, slow march from Cuteness to Non-cuteness, or, put another way, from Innocence to Guilt, or at least Complicity. It seemed like each year brought another moral compromise. I thought of him as a chance to start over. Maybe my life had gone horribly off-track, but I could still steer Patrick away from the rocks on which my ship ran aground.

But mine is no longer the story of the prodigal son. My personal narrative is now one of redemption. All of my hardships have been justified (for now). I seem to be a lot closer to being the person I want to be. Even though there are sure to be more twists and turns, I may finally have the emotional resilience not to lose the plot.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Growing from an Artist into a Person

The main problem with "funemployment" is staring into the existential void every day, that bottomless abyss where my job used to be. I’ve mostly bought into our cultural programming that says one’s job is the primary source of one’s self-worth. Therefore, each jobless day becomes a quest to justify my existence for another 24 hours.

The first time I tried to escape CorpWorld, in 2008, I thought I could write my way out, so I worked (hard) on my writing almost every day. But I failed in that endeavor. Of course, I wrote a sketch comedy revue for the Fringe Festival, so the odds of hitting the big time were minuscule to begin with.

I’m still writing, but I’ve been starting my daily session a few hours later in the afternoon this time around, and it’s a much harder slog than it used to be. Although I’m trying to write essays now, which are a lot harder for me than sketches. So maybe I should cut myself some slack.

At some point between then and now, I lost faith that my artistic genius would save me from the fate that befalls most people, namely, having to work boring, everyday, run-of-the-mill jobs. That precipitated a crisis, because I could no longer discount the present.

I could no longer convince myself that the shittiness of today would be redeemed by a glorious tomorrow in which I had my dream job, acting as a vessel of the Universal Soul, delivering The Eternal Truth to the world by way of comedy sketches, sitcoms and/or films. I had to find work in the meantime that actually provided meaning (and money).

This revelation was facilitated by the tightening job market, which refused to provide me with the kind of easy data-entry gigs I found in the 2000’s. The new meaningless corporate jobs were taking up more and more of my brain and, more important, my emotional bandwidth. I couldn’t just plug into music or podcasts and space out all day. I actually had to give kind of a fuck, and that wasn’t what I was looking for in a 9-to-5.

At the same time, I had moved in with my parents, which, ironically, gave me less license to be immature. Somehow, lazing around all day watching TV seemed even more wasteful, lazy and juvenile with my parents around.

It became more difficult to justify these “quirks” as the typical growing pains of an artist when my artistic career was virtually nonexistent. My immaturity was also losing a lot of its sheen. Artists have to remain childlike in order to be creative, staying open to the wonder and absurdities of life. But, by this point, I had become more childish than childlike.

I doubt my immaturity was the reason my friends drifted away. (I tended to be my least immature around them.) But I had to accept that, if I wanted things to improve, I would have to grow up. I couldn’t just hide behind my artistic-ness or the tragedy of my friends’ abandonment anymore.

I’d always thought of myself as a Good Person, but I began to realize that I hadn’t done much lately to justify that belief. So I started behaving better and stopped calculating actions just to benefit me. I realized a Good Person wouldn’t only be friendly with people he thought could provide something for him. A Good Person would be friendly with everyone. I didn’t realize how much of my old Good Person had been lost in adolescence. (I also may be idealizing my boyhood self just a bit.)

Instead of blaming my parents for my adolescence and my current predicament (which seem inextricably linked), I became grateful for their support. Instead of harping on the shittiness of my various jobs, I appreciated the benefits, such as exercise, human contact, sense of purpose or cool co-workers, depending on what each job offered.

Because of that gratitude, I can feel a really amazing joy now in being an uncle and sharing that experience with my family, the people who continue to stand by me even though I’ve often been a pretty big asshole to them. And that’s something no amount of money or professional success can provide.

Monday, September 11, 2017

After the Flood

By any conventional measure, I’m a huge loser. I’m 39 and have been living with my parents for almost 8 years. I haven’t gotten laid in 7 years (although, frankly, I’m impressed that I managed to get laid at all after moving back home). In that time, I’ve had 2 or 3 dates. I’m a clerical worker with a degree in English. I have one friend, that is, one person I could make plans with IRL ("in real life" for all you olds).

But even now that I’m back in the ranks of the unemployed, I don’t feel ashamed like I used to. It helps that I was let go from this job instead of quitting. Also, I realized that I shouldn’t be shamed by the conventions of our society, because it’s a really messed-up society. But the real reason I’m not ashamed anymore is because I finally feel like an adult and a Good Person again.

Back in late October of 2009, when I moved in with my parents, I was in a tight spot. My cousin was moving back to Chicago after a year of being my roommate. My bank account was empty after bailing on a shitty temp job a few months before. And my friends were virtually nonexistent after drifting away over the previous few years.

I’d had enough of mainstream society. The plan was to find an intentional community (i.e., commune) where I could live in harmony with Nature and also have friends I could count on. My parents’ house was supposed to be just a waystation in that transition.

I spent a week at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in remote NE Missouri in the spring of 2010. The people there felt like kindred spirits, but my anxiety flared up. I thought if I chose to stay there I would have to spend the rest of my life there. It was a dumb thought, but the reality was I felt very insecure, and the idea of spending any significant amount of time with strangers was terrifying. I needed to unburden myself totally of the years of pain that had built up, but I didn’t know in whom I could confide.

My parents were the only ones I had any faith in, so I stayed with them and returned to the corporate world. But I didn’t have enough faith to fully unburden myself to them, and I resented them for it. My anger toward them grew. I hung out with a few people, but they weren’t the people I wanted to hang out with, so I wasn't open to everything they had to offer.

I moved out in 2011, but that lasted about 2 ½ weeks. It was a house near Uptown Minneapolis, the neighborhood I’d previously lived in. There were 4 other residents, plus a dog that I didn’t remember the landlord mentioning [considering my brain was on the fritz, I might’ve forgotten, although it’s not something I would’ve forgotten in the old days (I’m not a dog person.)], and one resident’s 2 kids spent their weekends there. (I was sure the landlord hadn’t mentioned that.)

Notwithstanding those mitigating circumstances, I clearly wasn’t in the right head-space to handle roommates, certainly not 4. One woman was in NORML and asked if I wanted to smoke up (out? blaze up? I’m getting old.) with her on a weekend afternoon. I remember thinking, “No, I wanna get shit done.” She said not all varieties of marijuana will make one tired. Even so, my college experiences with pot had left me groggy and giggly. I didn’t find it enlightening; it didn’t open my Third Eye. (Or maybe I’m just Third Eye Blind! Hey, hey! A 90’s joke!)

There was a guy in his early 40’s who was quite friendly. He had just gotten in “the best shape of his life” on P90X. He definitely looked like an “after” picture. A woman about a decade younger spent many evenings with him, but he insisted they were not romantically involved. I wasn’t sure who was more delusional: she or him.

What convinced me to leave was the loud movie-watching (You thought I was gonna say “love-making,” didn’t you? Well, he was with a lady, so I’ll award a half-point.) in the bedroom next to mine. I knocked on the guy’s door twice one evening to turn it down, and he did, but it still kept me up. I moved out shortly thereafter, believing I wasn’t yet ready to be on my own again.

This gave me a better appreciation for my parents. I’d learned that there were worse places to live than home. My gratitude for them grew. My corporate job, however, was grinding me down, and I started getting anxiety (or panic) attacks, which I’d never really had before. I finally threw in the towel in March 2014.

(I’ve noticed a seasonal pattern in my mood. March tends to be emotionally fraught. Maybe that’s what Shakespeare meant by “Beware the Ides of March.” But I doubt it. Also, my anxiety seems to peak every 3 years, going back at least to ‘02. I can even remember getting my first taste of severe anxiety in the spring of ’99 as a junior in college. I thought it was just fear of the future.)

This brought me to my emotional nadir. For the next 2 months, I haunted Uptown, floating from the gym, to the coffee shop, to a restaurant and often to a movie, freakishly alone and self-consciously failing at Life. (Even remembering those feelings now is difficult. I’m afraid of getting sucked back into that vortex.) My parents were going on a Rhine river cruise that June, and the thought of being utterly alone for 2 weeks was horrifying.

With 2 weeks to go until their departure, I confessed my terror to them. They snapped into action and booked me a spot on their trip. Immediately, my anxiety ebbed. I think it was seeing them go to such extreme lengths (fiscally) to try and help me. But I also started taking medication after being extremely resistant to the idea for years. Such was the depth of my desperation.

The river cruise was very cool. (It deserves an essay of its own.) I started feeling better, esp. when the summer ended. (I’ve never been a fan of that season.) I got a part-time job shoveling snow for seniors. It was sporadic. I only worked after significant snowfalls. But that morphed into a lawn-mowing job in the summer (of 2015), which gave me about a dozen hours of work per week.

The work was physically demanding in the heat and mostly solitary, except for some chit-chat with my clients. Unfortunately, I had to quit when my back wouldn’t allow me to lift the mower into and out of my parents’ Honda Accord anymore. That sent me into another tailspin. I had to get back on the medication, which I’d come off of a month or two before.

I was alone for 2 weeks that August when my parents went on vacation. I spent a lot of time with my 99-year-old neighbor Harry, the only person I could find who was as desperate for companionship as I was. That helped me through, but it was still a rough patch, which for some reason got rougher when my parents returned.

I muddled through the fall and winter, attending local storytelling and spoken-word shows, StorySlamMN!, The Encyclopedia Show and The Moth, performing a few times. During the summers, I was volunteering with The Food Group. During the non-growing seasons, I was volunteering with Land Stewardship Project as an envelope-stuffer and data-entry dude. This helped give me a sense of purpose and brought me in contact with a bunch of cool folks. But I didn’t form any strong friendships in the sense of hanging out regularly, which is what I was looking for (in addition to networking, I guess).

What started to break me out of the rut was going to Oaxaca, Mexico in March ’16 with a Land Stewardship Project delegation coordinated by Witness for Peace. (I documented my personal experience of the trip thoroughly on this blog.) That gave me the confidence to try working at Goodwill, taking in donations through the drive-thru.

After just over a month there, I gave my two-weeks’ notice. It was a much more stressful job than I’d expected, and I was almost solely dealing with upper-middle-class folks (“my people,” basically) donating their extra stuff instead of dealing with people in need. But it was the first time I’d ever given two-weeks’ notice instead of quitting on the spot, and I served out the full term in spite of an extremely strong temptation to walk out many times.

That’s when my recovery actually went into overdrive, because I became an uncle. Technically, I became an uncle 3 months before, but August ’16 was when I finally met the little guy. His name is Patrick, and he is quite possibly the cutest nephew in the world (not least because he resembles his uncle).

Through Patrick, I’ve rediscovered the tenderness I used to have that was (mostly verbally) beaten out of me in adolescence. The key was expressing that affection in front of my parents and sister. They were the ones I’d withheld it from the most. By breaking down that barrier, I’ve reconnected with emotions I’d been holding back since I started middle school over 25 years ago.

Last October, I snagged a corporate temp job at a large financial company in downtown St. Paul. My co-workers were very nice and funny. I got over my fear of conducting business over the phone, making many calls each week and actually coming to enjoy it. I was able to appreciate the courtesy and consideration of the people on the other end of the line, instead of focusing on the bad or awkward calls. (I was also lucky: Unpleasant interactions were rare.)

The fact that it came to an abrupt, unflattering end after 10 months was distressing, but I’ve managed to hold it together, even enjoying the downtime to work out and write. I think that’s a result of “growing up.” The concept of maturity is nebulous, so I’m going to try and elucidate what I mean. In this case, it means I’ve taken responsibility for my situation and stopped blaming my parents, my friends and society in general. This doesn’t mean that those people and outside forces don’t bear any responsibility for my situation, just that, if I want a better situation, it’s ultimately up to me to make the changes necessary to bring that about. It’s a utilitarian conception of self-determination. (Actually, now that I’ve articulated it, it doesn’t seem that nebulous.)

For the last 8 years I’ve been trying to hold back an ocean of shame. Living with your parents is the ultimate failure of middle-class American life. That’s rock bottom. The mental effort of walling off the shame center of my brain chopped and screwed my memory and often made me poor company: anxious, peevish, distracted.

I didn’t think I could handle being inundated with all that shame. I didn’t think there was any (available) person who could comfort or guide me through that process. My best friends had gone, and I didn’t trust my parents to see me through that flood. I figured I could just hold it off until I moved out and got back on my feet again.

But my jobs were too stressful to allow me a sense of security; I didn’t think I could keep them long-term. And my attempts to make new friends came up empty, leaving me without the social network I thought I needed to make it in the world. I had to take a hard look in the mirror and see what I was doing wrong. I realized that it wasn’t living with my parents that made me feel immature, but the fact that I was acting like a teenager (or “failson,” for fellow listeners of Chapo Trap House).

I’ve come so far in repairing my relationship with my parents and developing gratitude for what I have instead of focusing on what I don’t, that I don’t really feel like a loser anymore. Sure, the waves of shame still lap at my feet now and then, but I think I’ve earned my place in the world as an adult and a Good Person.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Kicked to the Curb

I got canned from my temp job on Tuesday, although I didn’t find out until I got home. There was an email on my phone from my temp agency with a subject line saying my job had ended. This came as quite a surprise, since I’d been there 10 months, and a month before my boss had said she requested to extend my assignment through the end of the year.

Overnight, I went from Trusted Employee to persona non grata. The email told me not to go into work tomorrow. The next morning I got a call from the agency. The lady I spoke to said she’d be visiting my former employer to collect the personal effects I’d left behind in my erstwhile cubicle. I rattled off a list of belongings that I could remember having at work.

This morning I went to the agency and met with my “recruiter,” a zaftig, middle-aged, white lady. She said that my boss thought my productivity had fallen off in the past month, and I seemed “disengaged.” This was news to me, as I told her. I admitted that my pace had probably slowed down in the last few weeks. But I didn’t think my previous pace was sustainable. I’d even told my boss a few weeks ago that I was getting stressed out and wanted to delay one of my projects. She didn’t express any resistance to that at the time, so it was shocking now to hear my output was no longer up to snuff.

The agency lady said she’d talk to my boss and give her my perspective. She even asked if I’d be interested in returning to the job. I waffled on that, and she told me to think about it. I picked up the box of stuff that had been gathered from my old cubicle and went home.

It was upsetting to hear that I’d been let go for a perceived shortcoming, but of course I bottled that up until I got home, when it was safe to fully feel those feelings (or “feels,” if you prefer). Then my brain went into self-defense mode, making me dizzy from all the spinning, trying to pin the failure on my detractors.

There was plenty of fault to be found in their behavior. Cutting me loose without any warning was at the top of the list. Barring me from returning to collect my things was also up there and at least as insulting. And over it all was slathered a thick layer of avoidance, an unwillingness to deal with me directly and honestly.

I admit that, for a long time, my middle name was Avoidance, but that doesn’t justify others treating me the same, especially not institutions like large, transnational corporations, as represented by my boss and her bosses. In this case, I think I have a right to be upset. I feel I was treated unfairly.

But it’s not like I was crazy about the job. It was just another mindless 9-to-5 that I tolerated to pay the bills. My motivation had certainly slipped in the past few weeks. I didn’t see the social benefit in what I was doing, which made it hard to maintain a withering pace for several months. In other words, the job was just OK, not good enough to motivate me, but not bad enough to let go in the assumption that the next “opportunity” will be better.

In the course of writing this, I was about to bash myself for continuing to rely on avoidance as a coping strategy. Instead of finding work that’s meaningful to me, I’ve returned to the corporate world. If I were serious about getting out of this rut and helping people, I could get a job working in a group home for developmentally disabled adults, or something along those lines.

But I forgot to give myself credit for trying to escape CorpWorld the last few years. After quitting my previous corporate job, I volunteered with The Food Group and Land Stewardship Project several hours a week. I shoveled snow and mowed lawns for senior citizens, almost literally breaking my back in the cold and heat. Then there were those 2 months at Goodwill last summer taking in donations through the drive-thru. That job was far more stressful than I would’ve thought, thanks in part to the half-assed management.

So I have made significant efforts to chart a different course in life. I’ve hit some difficult barriers, but there’s no shame in failing. My last therapist said there’s no such thing as failure, just various levels of success. The only real failure is failing to try. I like that, because I often cop out and fail to try, out of a fear of failure. (I hope you recognize my courage in dropping these little nuggets: 1. that I’ve had multiple therapists and 2. that I took comfort in that corny aphorism. As Ronald Reagan might’ve said, I’m the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.)

I guess the question is: Do I have the guts to keep trying to break out of the corporate rut? The aforementioned group home job (direct support professional or “DSP”) is one option, as is being a personal care assistant (PCA), someone who helps people in need at their homes. But I’m not sure if I have the emotional resilience or energy to cut it. As they say, there’s only one way to find out.

For now though, I’d rather keep applying for clerical non-profit jobs. Those seem like a much safer bet in terms of compatibility with my personality. That’s another sign of my growth: that I’ve been applying for jobs while working full-time. I rarely did that in the old days.

While I’m mulling over these different possibilities, I can get a little writing done. I was hoping this essay would be more profound, but I guess I have to sort through the mundane details before I can get to the meat of it. Stay tuned! (Yes, I know that’s a really hokey sign-off. I was being ironic!)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

It's Not A Tuba

This is a lightly edited version of the piece I performed in The Encyclopedia Show's October 16th edition at Kieran's Irish Pub in downtown Minneapolis. This month's theme was "Marching Bands."

As I began 7th grade and moved up to middle school, which would prove to be the longest 2 years of my life, I transitioned from playing the cornet in the school band to playing the tuba. (For those of you wondering what a cornet is, it’s a slightly shorter, stockier trumpet.) This decision was made partly due to periodontal surgery, but mainly because I figured tuba parts were way easier than cornet parts. (I turned out to be right about that.) I wasn’t playing a musical instrument for enjoyment or to better myself. I was playing it to get my mom off my back while putting forth the least amount of effort.

She had tricked me into joining the band in 5th grade, promising that if I didn’t like it, I could quit at the end of the year. This charade played out over the next 5 years. At the end of each year, I’d beg to quit, and every time she’d force me to stick with it.

It’s not that I hated it. There were many times when I liked it, but it was work and, therefore, the enemy. As my hero, role model and personal savior Homer Simpson once said, “TV gives so much and asks so little. It’s a boy’s best friend.” After a thorough cost-benefit analysis, I realized I’d rather be watching TV than practicing. It was the only thing that banished the demons of loneliness and self-doubt that lurked in the shadows of our basement in the evening.

The tuba was a pretty good instrument for someone who didn’t want to stand out and shine, someone who preferred to blend into the background, someone who was scared to death of making a mistake in public. Sure, it was big and loud, but it was clearly a supporting instrument that was rarely exposed by the limelight.

There was a price to pay for such anonymity, of course. I consigned myself to nerd-ery. But I was already painfully insecure and in band; my fate had been sealed long before this choice. I would never get laid. I was in my early teens, though, so I probably shouldn’t have been worrying about that.

To put it bluntly, the tuba is not a chick magnet. It’s not like the guitar, the drums or, for some reason, the tambourine. The only role the tuba might play in your quest to get laid is that of an obstacle.

Adding to the degree of difficulty in my attempt to appear cool was the release of the film Kindergarten Cop, which I’m sure proved to be the bane of adolescent tuba players everywhere. My bandmates could not resist telling me, “It’s not a tuba.” Although the comic appeal of this joke was limited even in its first iteration, they would continue to employ it, driving its comic value into negative territory.

As someone who goes by the nickname “Mickey,” I’m well-acquainted with the phenomenon of people beating a bad joke into the ground. (I think it’s worth noting that the video for Toni Basil’s hit song from 1982, “Mickey,” features a cheerleading theme, rendering this digression germane to the subject of this show. So this is more than just self-indulgent bitterness.)

Since I could count on one hand the number of kids from middle school I ever wanted to see again, I decided to opt out of the public school system and into the nearby Catholic high school, where my mom was a guidance counselor. Her job meant that I, and later my sister, could go there for free.

If I’d gone to the public high school, I might’ve had a lot more to say about marching bands. Their band practiced (seemingly) every day over the summer. You could hear them from our house a mile away. All the Catholic school had was a puny pep band that didn’t march. As a tuba player, pep band allowed me the opportunity to play those cool sousaphones that wrap around your torso with the big bell on top, but eventually they dig into your shoulder and the novelty wears off.

The pep band songs were pretty cool: “Hang On, Sloopy,” “25 or 6 to 4” and other classics from the 60’s and 70’s, although they had all spent enough time in the mainstream to be stripped of their original cultural significance, thereby meeting the Establishment’s standard for appropriate levels of youthful exuberance. They were also performed in the stilted, lazy style of teenagers terrified of being ridiculed for displaying any kind of individuality. We sounded like a pack of insecure, acne-riddled zombies.

After 9th grade, my mom finally let me quit band. It was the end of an era. I was no longer a band nerd. I was now free to be some other kind of nerd. But never again would I know the heady rush of being told, “It’s not a tuba.”

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Epilogue

From March 10th until the 20th, I was part of a delegation of Land Stewardship Project members, organized by Witness for Peace, who met with farmers and non-governmental organizations (NGO's) in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. The account of that trip begins here.

There was a presentation on the Oaxaca delegation at LSP’s Minneapolis office a month ago. Terry, Aaron, Charlie, Chris, Sylvia, Sue Ellen and I were there. Afterward, Sue Ellen asked me why I hadn’t blogged about the fact that we couldn’t flush our toilet paper in Mexico. It had to be thrown in a wastebasket next to the toilet, which lent our hostel bathroom a strong scent after a few days, what with all the diarrhea and people throwing up in there. (That’s a bit of an exaggeration.)

That wasn’t my only oversight, of course. I forgot that a bunch of us went out that first night (Day 0) to the zócalo for beers. I even ordered food. It’s strange to think how uncomfortable I was that night. I don’t know what I was afraid of.

In the village of Teotitlán del Valle, our host “mother” Petrona called me “Miguelito” and would periodically ask how I was doing. She was probably concerned by my quietude. I was moved; she was acting like a mom. I wish I’d shown them more warmth and affection. I guess I just wasn’t ready yet.

It’s been a not-that-long, not-that-strange trip to this point in life. I feel like Dante at the beginning of his Inferno:

“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

I’ve been wandering in the wilderness for too long. I need to retrace my steps and find my way back to civilization, to humanity, and reclaim my place in the human race. I need to get back to life, back to reality, back to the here and now, oh yeah. (That was for my fellow Soul II Soul fans.)

I have the capacity to do great things, but fear holds me back. Spring has brought a surplus of energy and, along with it, the annual anxiety. My springtime angst is a vestige of childhood and adolescence, when I didn’t have many friends. I dreaded the summers, because I didn’t have any structure or anyone to play with. This wasn’t due to a lack of kids my age; it was just my lack of confidence to ask the neighborhood kids if they wanted to play.

I was hoping the trip would help with my anxiety, and it did. But I didn’t have a safety net to catch me when I got back. I was floating along fine for the first week with my parents on vacation and the house to myself. But then I hit a wall; an anxiety attack really shook me on the first full Sunday after returning. I’d been too isolated, not going out much or getting much socialization. My internship kept getting cancelled because of illness in my boss’s family.

This afforded me a lot of time to work on the blog, but I kept procrastinating. I think I was afraid of finishing the travelogue because it would force me to say goodbye again: goodbye to Oaxaca, goodbye to my fellow travelers, goodbye to the experience. It also meant I couldn’t live vicariously through my memories anymore. I’d have to get back to the business of building a new life for myself.

I felt myself clinging to my memories of the trip. I have a love/hate relationship with them. When I was embroiled in the blog, I luxuriated in them, letting them wash away thoughts of my predicament. But the rest of the time I kept them at arm’s length. I didn’t want to be reminded of the possibilities they opened up to me, because my life is so disappointing and has been for a long time. I didn’t want to be reminded that I could always be as alive as I was in Oaxaca, that I could always be that happy, that engaged, that surrounded by kindred spirits, like-minded people who actually give a fuck.

But finishing the account doesn’t mean I have to leave the experience behind. I can still keep it alive in my head and heart. I’ll just have to live to the standards I set for myself on the trip. I’ll have to change. I can’t go back to my safe, old routine. I must finally have the courage of my convictions. I was reluctant to make the intention with the corn kernel, to live a life "devoted to service to those who need it," because I wasn’t sure if I could live up to it, and I’m still not sure if I can. But I don’t want it to be just another one of my empty promises, another grand scheme condemned to exist solely in the mind of a “champagne socialist.” (This was an epithet flung at Karl Marx and his wife due to their fondness for luxury.)

The truth is I don’t have much choice anymore except to “follow my bliss.” My options are dwindling. In video game parlance, I’m running out of lives. My body keeps telling me to help people and write and do comedy and act and sing (literally). But the world (and my parents) keeps telling me to play it safe, make money and save those dreams for my spare time. The problem is, when I worked those corporate jobs, it sucked all the energy and life and hope out of me, so I had nothing left to give to my passions and other people.

I’m trying to figure out what I can do. The corporate world no longer seems to be an option even as a fallback. I may have burned too many bridges there. Organic farming still holds plenty of allure, but my body doesn’t seem up to the challenge. My neck and back are often stiff with pain, although I think that’s a product of stress induced by anxiety over my situation. Farming would also hurl me into the countryside, where I’ve heard it’s lonely, and Lord knows I’ve had enough of loneliness.

That seems to leave me with just one option: to stay in the Twin Cities and get a desk job or a McJob, a food service/retail job. But I’m loath to work for a Big Box store or any chain, so I’ve applied to non-profits, including Salvation Army and Goodwill. One problem is I have no retail experience and my food service experience is limited to being a cook at Pizza Hut in high school, so I may not even be able to take that step down the socioeconomic ladder.

I’ve had some interviews for non-profit desk jobs, but so far those haven’t panned out. Tomorrow I have a phone interview for a job at a warehouse that accepts donated furniture and delivers it to people who can’t afford their own. It sounds intriguing; I just hope my back can hold out. My prospects in manual labor may have more to do with emotional health than physical.

I’ve been overwhelmed by my own pain, shame and guilt, leaving me no emotional bandwidth to feel the pain of others. I was paralyzed and afraid to allow myself to empathize with others for fear of being completely overcome by despair. But I’ve gradually learned that opening up to others gives me energy, hope and strength in much greater proportion than pain, fear or despair. I just had to take the risk of making new friends, without worrying that they would leave me high and dry, like my old friends did.

Now I can open up and hurl my innermost thoughts and feelings into the void of cyberspace again, because I feel that there are people out there reading this who understand. I feel I can make that essential emotional connection with people again, the one that gives (my) life meaning.

This morning I became an uncle. I’m more excited and happy about it than I thought I would be. It occurs to me now that kids can be a ray of hope, because they have that absolute faith in the future. They haven’t been let down yet. There are no memories of disappointment to haunt them. Their minds aren’t yet full of doubt and insecurity.

One of my favorite quotes comes from the poet Kenneth Patchen (whom I’ve otherwise never heard of): “Caring is the only daring.” It’s also the only choice. The other option is death, basically, preceded by a meaningless, selfish half-life. I no longer have the luxury of wallowing in adolescent self-pity, not if I care at all for anyone but myself.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Note to Future Scholars of My Work

Hello, and welcome to the wonderful world of Mickey Foley! You’re poised on the brink of a grand adventure. Count yourself lucky that you have the privilege of diving into my oeuvre. I can only imagine the boundless joy overflowing the banks of your soul as you embark on this quest! I hope it offers you, at the very least, a tiny fraction of the bliss I felt while I was being astounded by each brilliant, new idea as it burst into my brain. Prepare to be amazed!

It’s a good thing I started documenting my life and work at the tender age of five. You may wonder how I could’ve known from such an early age that, someday, the world would need the gift of my insight. I wish I could answer such an astute question, but, alas, not even my powers of perception are strong enough to plumb the depths of my own genius. Such is the tragedy of the outrageously gifted.

I’ve tried to make it easier for you to trace my intellectual journey. I didn’t want to lead future historians on a wild goose chase through boxes of randomly scattered notebooks, journals and Trapper Keepers. Therefore, I’ve organized and annotated my papers with meticulous precision. My autobiography fills more than a thousand pages, and there are hundreds of hours of interviews recorded for my self-produced autobiographical documentary. The truly dedicated Mickey Foley-philes will be relieved to know that I’ve preserved every second of those interviews on DVD’s, VHS, Betamax and Super 8 film. It took much self-restraint to keep the film’s running time under 6 hours, but I think the results speak for themselves.

While watching the interviews with my family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, critics, rivals, blood enemies and casual acquaintances, you’ll doubtless notice their confusion and incredulity that I went to such lengths to document my journey. It may be hard to understand how they remained oblivious to my brilliance, but this was commonplace. My genius was not fully appreciated in my own time; I would even go so far as to say it was criminally neglected. Indeed, in some quarters I was vilified for flouting the prevailing conventions of thought.

But don’t be too hard on my contemporaries in your analysis. They were blinded by the myopia, greed and ignorance of our historical period. It was my sad fate to be decades, centuries or perhaps millennia ahead of my time. Thank your lucky stars or whatever higher power you believe in (if such superstitions as religion are still practiced in your day) that you didn’t live during my era. It was a dark age utterly bereft of redeeming qualities.

You’ve surely noted how my areas of expertise are not limited to history, literature, theater and comedy. No doubt my thoughts on politics, science, philosophy, psychology, sociology and Dr. Who exegesis have led to earth-shattering breakthroughs in those fields. I imagine by now whole university departments have been set aside for the study of my work, given its Shakespearean scope, encompassing the whole of human experience and imagination. There is no nook or cranny of humanity I haven’t examined through the microscope of my own peerless perception.

Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if my work had inspired the establishment of a top-flight institution of higher learning devoted completely to the study of my papers, given the endless breadth and bottomless depth of my knowledge. I can only imagine what fanciful name you’ve given to this field of study. “Mickey Foley Studies” or “Mickey Foley-ology,” perhaps. Don’t feel as if you need to limit yourself to those options. They’re merely suggestions. You can probably come up with something better. I’m afraid my infinite gift of invention is failing me at the moment.

Now I bid you adieu from the Great Beyond with my signature signoff, anticipation of which has surely kept you on tenterhooks for the duration of this preface. And so, without further ado: toodle-oo.

(Editor’s Note: This piece originally came with copious footnotes, but they were lost in a fire at the U-Haul facility where they were being stored.)