Wordplay — a new book festival to be hosted in May by the Loft Literary Center — will open with a rollicking concert at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis starring the all-author supergroup the Rock Bottom Remainders.
The Rock Bottom Remainders is a fluid band, its members changing depending on who is in town, but it’s anchored by King, Tan and Karr, as well as humorist Dave Barry and sportswriter Mitch Albom, all of whom will be in Minneapolis for the festival.
I mean…I am a failed guitar virtuoso and fledgling author. I live in Minneapolis. I’m home that weekend. I should probably pencil this onto the calendar.
For the past few years, a half-dozen banker’s boxes of my “keepsakes”, to which my mother had unceremoniously transferred guardianship, have been gathering dust on shelves in my garage. On one fateful evening last summer, I decided to rifle through them in hopes of throwing out all of the contents (and the boxes).
Invariably, I ended up having a few drinks while I conducted this archaeological dig. And most likely due to the confluence of G&Ts, nostalgia, and a tacit disdain for my WHS experience, I became rather surly. Since she was sitting across the table from me, I began to regale my 12-year-old daughter with a series somewhat sketchy diatribes on the horrors of my school daze and school in general.
The next morning, as the coffee cleared the cobwebs from my gray matter, I decided my little guided tour though middle and high school—aided by the keepsake props—was maybe a bad idea. Karli argued that I was totally wrong. She assured me that my candor was at times alternately refreshing and hilarious, and that the whole production was a good, if not great, idea (in her opinion).
I still couldn’t shake the pangs of regret for a few select tidbits of unfiltered honesty I allowed to escape my lips. Just because my stint in middle and high school was borderline excruciating, I should’ve known better than to allow it to taint my kids’ outlook on school. They should be able to embark on their own excruciating journeys sans my jaded influence. Hence, I decided to christen the pair of remaining boxes containing the keepsakes that narrowly survived the boozy culling—”The boxes of bad parenting!”
Both kids still periodically point to them, again collecting dust on the garage shelves, and ask, “Hey dad, are those the boxes of bad parenting?”
“Yep…they are…” I answer in a resigned tone.
Anyway, once opened, these Pandora’s boxes yielded all manner of useless historical refuse. I found old book reports, crayon drawings, and “special awards”, which in reality were simply mimeographed half-sheets of mustard-colored paper with some blueish-purple ribbon printed in the top right corner and my name penned onto the line labelled “Student”. Beyond the superfluous compositions, assignments, and artwork (if you could call it that), I also stumbled across too-many painful memories, and too-much pointless angst, which provided ample fuel for my countless diatribes and fast-and-loose profanity.
I recycled much of it. In fact, by the time midnight had rolled around, I’d reduced the volume by two-thirds. But there were a few treasures too absurd to let go: my perfect attendance medal from Wayzata High School, my senior sympathy letter for track and field team participation—I only ever qualified for the JV team, even as a senior I was still eight seconds too slow in the 400 meter dash to officially letter—and those dreadful, heavy, pristine yearbooks. I felt compelled to keep these and a few other items. Ostensibly, so I can look back again someday and reminisce. Actually, so that they can collect dust in my garage until my kids throw them into a rented 20-yard dumpster a few weeks after eulogizing my carcass.
The whole exercise was not in vain, however. For among the piles of profitless propaganda was a stack of sumptuous sentimentality. For whatever reason, when dusk was settling on the decade that was the ’80s, I saved every issue of my high school newspaper: The Trojan Tribune. And while that publication’s moniker could lead one to think it was an industry rag containing the latest news in prophylactics, I promise you it’s something entirely different. Much to my delight, like an episode of Growing Pains, it’s an exhaustive record of what it was like to attend high school from fall 1987 through spring 1990.
Likely, my affinity for the TT could be traced back to my brief stint in Mr. Mahn’s 10th grade Journalism class, wherein I tried desperately to get one of my articles into said paper before the winter trimester (and my time in his class) ended. The closest I got, was an article where I interviewed the ladies who worked in the office to compile a list of the best excuses ever given for being late to school. To my recollection, “I accidentally flushed my baby alligator down the toilet and tried to plunge him back out.” was the hands-down winner. I mean…that’s so ridiculous, it may have actually been true, right?
When Mr. Mahn informed me that my “Best Excuses Ever!” article was slated for publication in the February 1988 edition, I was giddy as a schoolboy. Then, just days before it went to print, my article was summarily “bumped” by the editor. An urgent story on the search for a new principal, after a surprise retirement announcement by our at-the-time principal, needed my article’s precious column inches.
It would be 25 more years until I finally got my first commentary published in a newspaper.
Anyway, I have decided to share all of the relatively goofy, embarrassing, and wholesome coverage of the late ’80s, upper middle class, secondary education experience. Henceforth, I’m going to scan one of these each week and link it here. I did a cursory Google search for these lost relics before potentially wasting a ton of my time; Google found nothing of this sort. So, besides my desire to share, I feel like it’s my duty as a WHS grad to preserve these hallowed documents for posterity.
Maybe some story in one of these old rags will stir up a memory or three from your high school experience. And maybe, like me, you too can pass down some inappropriate anecdote to your kids in the midst of some vineal retroflection…
The full run (new episodes added weekly)
Copyright © 2018 – ∞ Blake Charles Donley
I was asked to put together a few thoughts and share them on this momentous occasion. Well, folks, there is not enough time left in this day—probably this week—for me to help you fully understand the scope of the impact that “The Shop” has had on my psyche.
I am a writer, so think of this as a public reading of a literary work. I write stories not speeches. I mean I can write a speech in a pinch. This opportunity could not be accurately described as a “pinch”.
I struggled mightily with my attempts to select which of the myriad topics I would present. I could have regaled you all with an eight-year-old’s recollection of the wild and raucous parties held at Iris’ backyard pool.
Along those lines, I could share the same memories in regards to the annual salon summer picnic/gala at the Christmas Lake home my parents shared when they were still married. These were not quite on the same level as Iris’ pool parties, but they were not all that far off.
I could share my memories of sweet Tammy. When she first cut my hair, we were both still kids. She was just starting her career working for Twila and I was just turning ten-years-old. For 25 years we grew up together one haircut at a time. I have encountered select few souls in this lifetime that could approach the level of sparkle and brilliance hers did. Tammy’s was the prototype for the notion: larger than life. A life that would end well short of the capacity left in her soul to spread her unique brand of joy to anyone drawn into her irresistible orbit. I can honestly say today that this world would benefit immensely from a whole hell of a lot more Tammy’s. And it is terribly sad that we no longer have ours…
I could enumerate the vast number of renovation projects with which I have been involved in my 40 years on this planet. I have often told my mother that the overall square footage of the salon is not what it once was due to the sheer number of alternating layers of wallpaper and paint that adorn her walls. So if any of you, Marlene, Iris, Shelly, have ever felt that the walls of the salon were closing in on you over the years, it is because they were, literally…
Along those lines I could enumerate the various positions I have held over the years at Fantasia: head grounds keeper, chief custodial engineer, inventory control specialist, head photographer, webmaster, chief organizationalist, head mechanic, external business consultant, leaf pile removal specialist, day laborer, shampoo vial filler, and the list goes on…
Instead, I chose to focus on three themes that have been omnipresent throughout my dealings with Fantasia Together Salon, Spa, Nails, Make-up, Aerobics Studio, Workout Gym, Tanning, Spray Tanning, Nutritional Consulting and Hair Replacement Center.
There is a song by K.T. Oslin entitled “80s Ladies”.
The chorus goes like this…
We were the girls of the 50’s.
Stoned rock and rollers in the 60’s.
And more than our names got changed as the 70’s slipped on by.
Now we’re 80’s ladies.
There ain’t been much these ladies ain’t tried.
And just as there is a song entitled” “80s Ladies”, there is a photo that hung on walls of various salons that I have personally captioned: “80s Ladies”. It is this photo (motion to the photo).
As the 70s were devoured by the 80s, I was eight years old and “the shop” as we know it was just being built. The group of women in this photo was likely thrilled to be moving out of a strip mall into a free-standing building where they would have much more room to spread their wings and be fabulous.
You see, for me, that is what they were: fabulous. Beneath the surface, they were all struggling with the issues of the day, but on the surface, they exuded class. As you looked around 2756 Douglas Dr N shortly after the doors opened for business, you saw a group of women that were the essence of “put together”. They were fabulous divas before the notion became marginalized and eventually meaningless, as it is today. They were, for the most part, approaching middle age. And with age came experience, knowledge and in some cases, wisdom. As a hairdressing collective, they were beyond reproach.
So through the eyes of an introspective, sensitive, older-then-his-biological-age eight year old, these ladies shaped the notion of what is meant to be a professional women. They were confident and put together, they took shit from very few and could dish out a heaping pile when required to do so. And so I could have done much worse for a group of role models…male or female.
They were indeed 80s ladies, and there surely there ain’t been much these ladies ain’t tried…
“The Shop” and the souls that graced her hallowed spaces represented much more than a business and the people who worked within, where my mother just happened to sit atop. Over the years, especially during the ‘80s, these women became an extension of my family – as I knew it. You see, there was never a point in my life where my mother was not running a salon full of women. So, to have these ladies play such an integral part in my life was the very essence of normal.
Sure, not every single of the 1,297 employees in the history of “The Shop” were extended family. That notion is as preposterous as it is impossible. But there were a few whose lives intertwined significantly with mine. I’ll touch on them, one-at-a-time, in chronological order.
Some of you know Rosie Oschlager. She was our cleaning lady at Christmas Lake. She eventually became our part-time daycare provider. After that, she went to work as the business manager at Fantasia.
Rosie often provided dinner for my brother and I at her home. Not surprisingly, Rosie made meals that were straight from the USDA food pyramid. I do not ever recall a single meal that did not include a vegetable. One evening, Rosie provided cooked beats as the vegetable. At five years old, I was not a fan; I remember mentioning this to Rosie. She listened to my concern about the viability of beets as actual food source, and put this spin on it: (paraphrasing) “If you don’t like beets, just eat them first. That way you will have the rest of your meal to enjoy without having to worry about the beets.”
This seemingly simple piece of wisdom would eventually become one of my core philosophies. To simplify it greatly, it was the: business-before-pleasure axiom. But whether intentional or not, it was much more profound than that. Rosie provided me a strategy that I would use countless times in my life to de-emphasize the non-pleasurable tasks and emphasize the pleasurable ones. In that tiny snippet of advice was a life-long strategy for maximization of happiness.
Some of you know Betty Coleman. She was my mother’s first employee. My mother and Betty started their respective families right around the same time. Hence, we would have numerous occasions to get together and interact with Betty’s kids Mark and Kendra. Although this was more of a sporadic occurrence, I still distinctly remember one of our visits to Betty’s house to play with Mark and Kendra. Do you know how you have the most vague and random memories of places from your childhood. I have those memories of Betty’s house. I have always felt like my mother had met a kindred spirit in Betty and that Mark and Kendra had an experience somewhat similar to the one my brother and I had while growing up. Although Betty did not work at the salon forever—like the next person about which I’ll speak—she and my mother remain good friends to this day.
Iris is here tonight—God bless her!!! I have more stories about Iris than I have time with which to regale you. So, I’ll just hit a few…We spent an entire summer at her house while her son David—bless his heart–provided part-time daycare for Erik and I. I can recall on numerous occasions where I either lost or broke one of my toys being reminded that if I could just take as good care of my stuff as David did his, I’d have more stuff. David did his best to entertain us that summer. I remember countless afternoons in the backyard pool, listening to Billy Joel LPs in the basement, hanging out in the neighborhood with David’s friends and much, much more.
Some of you may know this, but Iris and her dogs lived with mother, brother and myself for a brief stint in the mid 80s. The house at: 1315 W. Medicine Lake Drive was sort of a mystical place to grow up. It represented what could be accomplished when three people work together to run a house. And, if I recall correctly, we were more than happy to welcome Iris into our happy, harmonious little homestead. I thought that is was really cool that we were all living out a real life Kate & Alley sitcom in our little home on Hidden Lake. It was like a holiday when a bunch of relatives are staying over, only it was not a holiday and it lasted more than a day or two. I looked at Iris as just another adventurer trekking through life with the rest of us @ 1315 W. Medicine Lake Dr.
To this day, my mother still chats with Iris on the phone multiple times each week. Every time she hangs up the phone, she reminds me of the importance of people. Things are as transitory as they are temporary; they provide no permanent happiness. As fabulous as money can be; it provides no intrinsic joy. But people provide memories and memories last forever. Fantasia, for me, has always been about the people…the family…and the memories…
There is not a day that has passed in the past 50 years where this cute little engine-that-could business has not chugged forward fueled—in large part—on the blood sweat and tears of my mother. I rarely see her in her role as: CEO/president/chief cook and bottle washer at Fantasia. I do, however, get to see her in many of the other roles that she plays: mother/grandmother/friend. From my vantage point, I can say this without equivocation…this business is never more than a thought or two from the one she is having at any given moment. My mother loves this business, she loves the employees that work with her, she loves the clients that choose to patronize it and she revels in the immense happiness, success and memories that 50 years of Fantasia have seen facilitated.
It is often hard for me to see my mother as a super hero, especially when I have to show her how to operate the Comcast universal remote for the 17th time or explain the intricacies of how her internet access actually works. But folks, you must understand that she grew up in some of the most modest settings imaginable. And if you need help imagining, think a couple clicks outside of Little House on the Prairie. She has often told me of the time when her mother told her on the eve of her high school graduation: “you have to leave, there is nothing for you here.” And with literally no notion that opening one’s own business was nowhere near as difficult as running it successfully for 50 years, she did both…
I have often questioned the business decisions that have come to pass over the years. I remember thinking that when we were lugging the exercise machines into the basement of the building that I would be lugging them back out in a few months. I remember thinking that there was much too much clothing and accessories for sale at a place that was supposed to be a hair & nail salon. And I can’t tell you how many questionable coats of paint I have applied at “the shop” that I was positive I would be “refreshing” with a new color in 18 months or less. But the one thing I have nary had occasion to question was my mother’s passion for this business and for the people. For her, the focus was always right and true…the people have been and will always be the focus.
Grandma Ellen and Grandpa Harry would be so immensely proud of you on this day. For I feel that they always knew in some way that your destiny lie outside of the friendly confines of “the country”. And although at the time they could not have envisioned “the shop” as that destiny, it was truly your vision that brought it to life. And it is that same vision that moves it forward today. And so today we celebrate 50 years of that vision. Congratulations, Mom.
It was Monday. It was late afternoon. I was mowing the lawn.
Intrigued yet? I wasn’t. Not at all.
In an effort to take the edge off this necessarily monotonous task, I was aurally mainlining Sturgill Simpson’s (to-date) magnum opus: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. It got me thinking…if I ever produce anything this brilliant, I’m pulling a Salinger and vanishing into my own hubris. Most of you—all three—would be awestruck at the legend of myself that I myself project into the space between myself’s own ears.
So to reiterate, the only morsel of extraordinary I was experiencing (I thought), was a euphoric brain-chemical cocktail coursing through my bloodstream in direct proportion to the beat of the luxuriant sound particles coursing through the cable that connected my iPod Touch to my head.
All else was plain.
All else was bland.
All else was normal.
It’s a funny thing though—even tacit exposure to affectual artistry (e.g. music) can spur me to descry higher meaning in practically anything. This is a symptom of the affliction known (to me) as authoholism. This affliction is marked by excessive production of prose that piles up due to a lack of time, space, and/or suitable outlet. The result is that words, ideas, and entire novels just meander rudderless amid the neurons, dendrites, and synapses of the gray matter. In my particular case, this malady has intensified to the point of circumlocution (obviously). And so tale after wondrous tale is continuously revealed and subsequently lost for eternity in the vast caverns of my mind.
Allow me to elaborate…
Do this for me: imagine every other human being you encounter on any given day of this lifetime. Pay particular attention to the “friends you haven’t met”. These are the strangers that dot the landscape and lousy up the background of your day. How much heed do you pay any of them? If you are like most, you pay them exactly no heed. I mean…unless one of them is wearing chartreuse jeggings or sporting 10 (or more) facial piercings, or looking particularly fetching. In those rare cases, the flamboyant/sexy stranger in question may garner a second glance. Therefore, strangers are like to caterpillars.
They are uniquely unspectacular.
They are outwardly plain.
They are largely imperceptible.
Again, I concede that there are (previously noted) exceptions. Allow me to elaborate…
When most folks encounter strangers, most folks see caterpillars. But when those of us who suffer from authoholism encounter strangers, we often see the pale moth or vibrant butterfly that is entombed within. Allow me to elaborate…
So, I rarely see people as caterpillars. Instead, they often appear before me without their pupal disguise. I vigorously analyze their appearance, mannerisms, and aura for clues as to how I’d write them into a story.
It makes nary a difference, as THE story is prize. And everybody has a dozen or more that are worth telling. This quote from Stephen King has always resonated with me and does a much better job of explaining what has taken me three paragraphs and two bulleted lists:
“Yeah, that’s the way it works. Except that I have never felt like I was creating anything. Actually, when I feel that I’m creating, I feel that I’m doing bad work. The best work that I’ve ever done always has a feeling of having been excavated, of already being there. I don’t feel like a novelist or a creative writer as much as I feel like an archaeologist who is digging things up and being very careful and brushing them off and looking at the carvings on them.”
Anyway, back to me and the lawn mower and the iPod Touch wired to my head. As the music in my ears elevated my consciousness, the unconscious sludge that obfuscates my secret writer’s powers all-at-once disintegrated. In a few milliseconds shy of an instant, my awareness exploded. I was suddenly acutely cognizant of…
A vivacious murmur I could not see
A musky breeze I could not hear
A crisp atmosphere I could not taste
A ripening grist I could not smell
A silent decay I could not touch
And it hit me. This day of mowering was one of those rare betwixt days when a seasonal shift was evident only to those accordingly attuned—I was accordingly entranced. I was privileged to be in the thick of this fleeting moment of purgatorial latency as numerous forces pushed, pulled, and battled for seasonal supremacy. And I almost missed it. I was sleep-mowing through the late afternoon as summer was exhaling it’s final breath—one that would certainly stoke autumn’s elegant blaze of color.
As previously stated, I revere and revile this particular seasonal shift. Like no other annual transition, as the pungent sweaty aroma of summer mellows toward the refined musky scent of autumn, I am as alive as I am dying. For me, the magnitude of social and romantic possibility historically piqued this time of year. For a decade-and-a-half, September marked my return to the hallowed halls of some educational institution. I often embarked with renewed hope that I’d claim my share of the twisted social scene. The dashing of my hopes was generally complete a few weeks into the campaign. But you know what they say about hope. Possibly because all of the significant affairs of my heart were in full regalia or stripped naked come September, my heart still takes umbrage and flight this time of year. Sure, the heart heals, but it never forgets.
My monotonous chore suddenly became an orgasm of sensory throughput. Nature’s lines—the ones that defined my quaint little Urbandale Lane North—despite being obscured by too much human interference, were more ballistic than normal. Bees and butterflies suckling the last drops of nectar from exhausted blossoms assuaged my dismay at their inevitable frosty blight. I picked up a fallen apple and noticed that it was a autonomous planet complete with uncommon beauty, obvious imperfections, and a population of its own busy inhabitants. And like so much aging newsprint, a yellowing thistle jumped out as I passed to prickle my forearm and reminded me that much like old news, it too was not completely irrelevant.
You know how the anticipation of something is nearly always more satisfying than the actualization of it. This is especially true when it’s viewed in retrospect. Looking forward to something is a precarious notion at best. That’s how I felt Monday evening as the sun faded with the harvest season just over the horizon. Autumn has always held so much promise throughout my lifetime, but it rarely delivered. And yet I cherish every aspect from the crisp wind to the plethora of aromatics to the promise of cozier passion. I hate to love the mélange of autumn, and I love that.
As I stowed the mower in the shed, it dawned on me: I was the caterpillar this time.
Copyright © 2015 – ∞ B. Charles Donley
When I was slightly older than my daughter, this time of year used to cause me considerable angst. The waning moments of summer were the bitterest of sweetness. If you’ve ever lived in Minnesota, you know the value of a hot August night. Sure, the other seasons each have their richness, but none so much as the ides of August. When life can be so cold at times, there is nothing like the lavish dense warmth of summer. Plus, heading back to school was one of my fondest miseries.
To those who contend northern winters are too much to handle, I ask, “Would a season by any other name taste as sweet?” That is to say, whilst you simply endure your blistering southern summer, I’ll savor my therapeutic northern doggish days, for they are a respite from “that other season”, they are a reward for “surviving another one”. I’ll suck every last bit of temperate marrow from this most hallowed of northern seasonal varieties.
And so it was this weekend, that I had the kids at the Urbandale estate. As per my entire life since April (or thereabouts), we were carting ostensibly important stuff back and forth from our previous residence to our newest one. Subsequently. we’d put each piece of stuff in its newest temporary final resting place. I swear my kids think life with me consists of: sleeping, eating, and every activity in the realm of home renovation + moving. I don’t think we’ve sat together and stared into space while getting lost in conversation, a board game, or even a movie more than once since before the capacity of my mid-term memory.
On Saturday evening, in the bowels of the basement, Nate looked at me as we were assembling the latest ingeniously engineered modular storage contraption and asked, “Dad, are we ever going to be done moving? Summer is pretty much almost over; all we did was work on the house.” As per my pointless parental pandering, I fed him some cliched hackneyed bullshit about how “Adults “have to get things done!” and “We’ll be done eventually…” and some other crap like that—shit he’s likely heard from me a billion times in the past year. He shrugged, sighed, and handed me another 12″ x 12″ rubber-coated-metal mesh shelf. I proceeded to bang it into place.
And so it went…
The fact that this was our last summer weekend before school was never lost on me. I’ve actually ached a bit more than a bit since exiting Delano Elementary on orientation day last Wednesday. Minnesota summers are magnanimous and wondrous, and we spent it boxing up the stuff that clutters our life, carting that stuff our new house (or Goodwill, or ARC), meeting strangers to exchange stuff for money via Craigslist transactions too numerous to recant, putting stuff on shelves in drawers or in ingeniously engineered modular storage contraptions, or throwing stuff in the garbage. I’m starting to realize that I exist strictly as my stuff’s bitch.
Nate sees stuff differently than I. He likes his stuff, but he pays it less heed (and homage) than I do. Rather than ogle and fondle stuff all day, He’d rather wrestle with me, blow my doors off on a bike ride through our new neighborhood, or sit on the tailgate of my truck and eat ice cream with his sister and me. He’s a kid. He’s starting to get the fascination with stuff, but he stops short of worshiping at an alter of it.
That’s so great! It must be liberating to live beyond cloistering shadow of stuff. But alas, I’m a hypocrite, I never will.
Saturday night, after we’d assembled the ingeniously engineered modular storage contraption, and I’d shoved some stuff into it, I noticed particularly gaudy chorus of crickets serenading us from just beyond the screen porch. I asked Karli (watching Full House season 5 on DVD) and Nate (playing The Lego Movie game on the XBOX) if they wanted to go hang out in the screen porch (for the first time all summer). They both literally dropped what they were doing and bolted for the porch. With lemonade in their hands and an Oatmeal Stout in mine, we sat on the porch and chatted amid the dulcet cricketorial concerto.
We chatted about the summer’s of my youth (they love my “back in my day” stories for some reason). We recapped the one or two highlights of our summer together. We uttered the “S” word (school) and looked ahead to their 2015-16 campaign. The crazy thing is that all of this transpired in the absence of any stuff. I guess we were sitting on neat-o Coleman portable folding chairs, but we could have just as easily been sitting on the floor for all it would have mattered.
I was amazed at how unaffected Nate and Karli were about the forthcoming school year. Thank God! Another one of my manias with which I failed to afflict either of them; lord knows I’ve done enough damage already. They felt nothing but the sheer joy of soaking up the waning moments of a humid summer evening on a screen porch with their dad, plus a few million crickets. I felt the weight of the impending school year (homework, lunches, 8 PM bedtime), the inevitable seasonal shift (raking leaves, freezing to death on Halloween, sharpening the snow shovels) and everything that was on Sunday’s to-do list.
Why in the hell do we bother growing up…?
© 2015 – ∞ Blake Charles Donley
As I feebly attempt to cobble together my thoughts, this essay will likely kill me off one tiny piece at a time. I’m sure many great artists have felt similarly on the cusp on something profound. As I a have proven to be neither a great artist nor capable of much profundity, maybe I’ll actually be OK at the end of it all.
This past Wednesday was elementary school orientation. My daughter is entering third grade and my son is entering first grade. You need not be a mathematician to conclude that this was the fourth time I had danced this dance. Then again, maybe you do? Honestly, I did.
If you have ever been a child of divorced parents, or a divorced parent of children—I am both—you know that these (fractured) family school events are always rife with opportunities for unintentional discomfort.
Well, even today, with the myriad issues faced and handled by parents and kids within the hallowed hallways of public school, the stigma of divorce remains paramount. It’s the best and least understood of the myriad of stigmas.
Don’t believe me?
Now imagine this…
It is 1980.
I am eight years old.
Ronald Reagan has just won the November election. The U.S. was mired in the Cold War, and Reagan was talking about Selective Service during one of his speeches, which I am watching on the tiny black and white TV in room my brother and I shared. My biggest fear quickly becomes whether or not my cousin Bruce is going to be drafted into the military. You see, he had just spent all summer watching, guarding, and guiding (with a gentle hand and a gentler heart) my brother and I while my parents worked their asses off to make our upper-middle-class lifestyle appear fantastic.
From my perspective, everything did indeed appear fantastic.
Inexplicably, shortly thereafter, my parents started a cycle of screaming at each other each night minutes after putting my brother and me to bed. Neither of us had enough time to fall asleep before the insults, profanity, and vitriol were launched just 50 ft. and a pair of walls away. My inebriated mother sounded like a wounded wild animal in her attempts to parry the my bellowing father’s accusations. To my knowledge, it never got physical. And If it did…let’s just say I’m happy to remain blissfully ignorant.
My brother and I occupied dueling twin beds in our bedroom. The beds were separated by a small reddish-tan nightstand, which served as the foundation for many wads of gum and a Minnesota Vikings helmet lamp—it was the sole light in those dark days. As my parents verbally eviscerated one another in the kitchen, I would stare into my brother’s concerned blue eyes. All he could do was mirror my stare. I must have look just as concerned. Neither of us knew what to do or say.
He was my younger brother, I had two years of utterly useless eight-year-old wisdom on him. I felt like I was responsible for deflecting every barb, jab, and forked-tongued exchange, so that he would somehow be spared the impact. Plus, my bed was closer to the door, it made perfect sense to me at the time. The errant logic of a big brother who was still too little. It was a spectacular imagined yet burden—one that my brother admittedly never understood. To this day, he swears he was spared these toxic memories.
I hated my mom and dad for fighting like they did.
I hated them for terrifying me each night.
I hated them for hating each other.
I wanted them to shut the fuck up and stop laying waste to our world.
I wanted us to all sleep (and awaken) in peaceful world.
I wanted our American dream back.
In my mind, I would march out of my room in my pajamas and scream back at them. I wanted them to know what it was like to witness one of the the most important people in their life becoming dangerously unhinged. I wanted them to feel the sheer terror I felt each and every night.
I was being mercilessly bullied by the thought that we were not going to be OK. I knew that just down the hallway, mom and dad were destroying everything that we had come to know as life as we knew it. And in a battle between mom and dad, for whom do you root? The way I saw it, my little bro and I were both losers regardless of who emerged victorious from this bloody battle.
My parents would eventually divorce after the funeral of my father’s mother. After that, my mother was forced to crawl out of the ashes of her marriage. She was battling an obdurate case of alcoholism. Her disease threatened every last vestige of her sanity under the guise of preserving it—the intoxicating lie that alcoholism whispers into each of her victims’ ear.
Today, it’s staggering to imagine how fragile everything had become. My father was dealing with the too-soon loss of his mother. My mother was away at an alcohol treatment facility battling to regain her sobriety. My brother and I were dealing with the loss of everything we’d ever known as “normal”. During this stint, “normal” seemed a lifetime away despite being only months in the recent past.
I have perused photos from these dark days. With the assistance of hindsight, the pain on the faces of my parents is evident. Having survived my own respective stretch—Christmas of 2010 is where my despair found its depth—I applaud my mother for doing what she did. By proxy, I likely mustered every ounce of strength that carried me beyond my own divorce, through mimicry of her gutsy performance 30 years prior.
My mother was was indeed the “1st Parent”. I could write volumes on the vast wisdom she imparted. She was brilliant when the difficult moments of parenting confronted her, and they did with ferocity. Her performance was that much more impressive considering she was running a business that kept us out of poverty (quite literally), caring for aging parents single-handedly (she’s an only child), and attempting to conduct some semblance of her own life (oh, yea, by the way, she was only human, as well). That she managed to emerge from this period with her spirituality, sanity, and sobriety in tact astounds me to this day. My brother and I are sane, only because she somehow held it together.
That makes my father, like me, the “2nd Parent”. The gravity of the label is going to be lost on anyone that has not walked either direction on this path, or who is not a father. Father’s are nearly always the “2nd Parent”. And so I believe the label was lost on my son’s teacher who handed me my 2nd Parent packet. In a world that is so intensely offended, I was not. I was transported back to my third grade divorce ordeal.
Days after the infamous “we-have-to-talk” talk on the family room sofa, I vividly recall walking into Mrs. Hansen’s 3rd grade class at Excelsior Elementary and being ushered off to have a special chat with the her and my parents. Everyone did the right things. Everyone said the right things. Everyone repeatedly uttered the mantra of the dammed: “Everyone will be OK!”
Despite Mrs. Hansen being very understanding and sweet, the entire event had the ominous undertone of death—like we were all coming together to discuss the end of something. And so we were. For me, this was my Don Henley moment: the end of the innocence. If I had to pinpoint a spec of time when reality crept up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, and punched me in the gut as I turned, this was that. Everything was different after this best intentioned meeting. I was now acutely aware that I was different.
Today, I have years of living, years of clarity, and years of therapy behind me. But being handed a packet of papers with a blue Post-It Note that read: “For 2nd Parent” vaulted me right back through some sort of kaleidoscopic time warp into that meeting with Mrs. Hansen, 1st Parent (mom) and 2nd Parent (dad). The rest of the orientation process suddenly became accessible only through my nine-year-old mind. I was slow to respond to the cavalcade of questions and requests flung at me. I likely seemed vaguely distant to my kids. I was experiencing this entire event just as my daughter was: as a third grader with divorced parents.
All this due to a little seemingly innocuous Post-it Note.
That fucking Post-it Note!
For my kid’s sake, I pray that I am doing this parenthood thing more thoughtfully than my parents did. I mean I should be elite at divorce by now, right? I should have just about all of the answers. I should always know just about the right thing to say. I should have seen just about everything by now (Post-it Note, notwithstanding). I do not want my kids to experience any of the anxiety, awkwardness, or isolation I felt.
As they strike out on their own respective paths, I don’t want my missteps to trip them up on their numerous sojourneys to find themselves. I would have a hard time forgiving myself, if I was somehow obscuring their own true direction with my warped and bent experience. It’s funny…that spectacular imagined burden just shifts shape over time. And carrying it around exacts an unexpected toll.
In an albeit pointless and symbolic attempt to shed a bit of the burden, I altered the Post-it Note slightly, yet significantly…
© 2014 – ∞ Blake Charles Donley