Failing the Geography Exam

      People in Alcoholics Anonymous are not supposed to discuss what they hear in the meetings with anyone outside of the meetings, but this happened after a meeting, so I think it’s fair to talk about.  I’m changing a few details to protect the subject’s identity. 

      After the meeting, I went out with a few people for fellowship at a local diner (I swear to God, AA people keep this diner afloat. Every meeting in a 4-block radius–which is a lot of meetings–goes to eat at this diner.  Cheap food.  No booze.  Unlimited soft drink refills.).  

       The meeting had been pretty intense.  The Holidays suck for everyone, but for the addict in recovery, they suck donkey balls.  Lots of people relapse this time of year.  

         I was talking with a fellow who’d recently fallen off the wagon.  Luckily, his relapse was brief, and he came back in pretty good shape.  

        I like this person.  He’s funny, and he’s given me a lot of support over the last two years, including my 90-day chip when I finally earned one.  I even have his phone number, which is okay because he is a pure homosexual (you wouldn’t know it from looking at him, though.  He gets a lot of attention from women.  I thought he was attractive when I met him, and was startled to learn he was gay.  Though, to be fair, my gaydar is terrible.). 

       At the diner, he was talking about what it was like to come out as gay to his parents:

       “I really didn’t want to do it, because I knew that they wouldn’t approve.  I knew they suspected already, though.  See, one time when I was 14, there was this…incident with another boy.  My father called me over in his office and said: If you’re gay, you can tell me.  You just can’t expect me to look at you the same way anymore.

       I jumped in my seat, startled.

       “That’s not okay!” I yelled.  People stopped talking and looked at me, because I am the last person to yell in public.  I have a very calm and polite demeanor.  “It’s not right that he did that to you!  Because I know what that’s like!  It’s bullshit that he said that to you!  It changes you!”

        Because what he said brought back a memory.  A memory that I would have been perfectly happy to have never remembered again.  A memory I would be happy to extract from my mind, if such a thing were possible.  

        One day when I was 11 I was sitting with my father at the kitchen table.  He was reading the newspaper.  He was looking at the back page, where the weather reports are printed.  There was a long column of international cities and their daily weather reports, in Fahrenheit and Celsius. 

      My father decided it was time for a quiz.

       “Where is Amsterdam?  In which country?” he asked.


      “Good.  Brussels?”

      Uh-oh, I thought, and then said the three words that you absolutely did not want to have to say in my father’s house: “I don’t know.”

       He winced audibly.  Then: “I see.  Why don’t you know?”

       I was fucking 11 years old.  I hadn’t taken Geography in school yet.  

       I had to say the verboten words: “I don’t know.”

       He moved on to the next city, and I knew that I was trapped.  Moscow, Paris, Cairo, Hong Kong…he went right down the line.  I correctly identified about one in three.  Every time I got one wrong, he would become angrier and more disgusted.  My father’s contempt knew no bounds. The room was filling up with tension.  So was my body.  My throat was so tight that I could hardly breath.  You know that sensation you feel when you are a child, that pain in your throat when you are afraid?

       It felt like I was in that chair forever.  Terrified.  My hands were clenched in tight little fists.

       When we reached the end, he folded up the paper and threw it down on the table.  

        “It is important to know these things, Margo.  People who don’t know these things are stupid.  I do not like stupid people, and I do not like to be around stupid people.  You can’t expect me to think of you the same way after this.”

         “I’m sorry,” I squeaked.  

         “You should be,” he said.  

          Then he stood up and walked away.

         And then he didn’t talk to me for two days.  I do not exaggerate.  When he prepared a meal (I wasn’t doing the cooking yet, and I wasn’t allowed to eat any food that wasn’t given to me.  When I learned that other children had free access to the pantry and the fridge, I was stunned: You can eat whenever you want?), he’d put my plate down in front of me and then walk off to eat his dinner somewhere else.  I ate at the table alone.

          When I approached him and tried to talk, he ignored me completely.  As if he didn’t hear me.

         As if I was a ghost.

         Which, I guess, I was.  In a manner of speaking.  Little ghost Margo, trapped in the haunted house with Daddy.  Now I work in a haunted house. 

        I took the newspaper and a dictionary (he had a globe on his desk, but I wasn’t allowed to touch his things) and spent all day learning where the cities were.  I memorized every one.  I have an excellent memory when I’m not drinking.

        I wanted him to ask me where the cities were again, but he never did.  

        It was not the first test he gave me.  Or the last.  He was a true sadist, my father.  

       And that is why I yelled to defend my friend in the diner.  As if I could shield him.  

       Or myself.

Father’s Day 2013

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    Long time, no blog.

    I’d like to reiterate my thanks to the people who gave me advice about how to handle Fortinbras.  I feel in control of the situation and I have a plan now.  I intend to write about that in greater detail soon.

    Today is Father’s Day, which is always a difficult holiday for me. I do not speak to my father, but I presume he is alive because the government has not notified me of his death.  I am his next of kin, so I expect that they would contact me if he died.  I have an elder half-sister in Germany whom I have never met.  I almost never think of her, but I do wonder, from time to time, whether we look alike, and what path she has taken in her life. My father says that he went back to see her when she was a few years old (this was before I was born), and she was cold and hostile to him.  Good for you, Gretel. Would that I had that luxury and willfulness when I was so young. 

    I envy her because she was spared our father’s control.  That is not to say that I assume she had a healthful upbringing–even the best parents fail somehow, and something had to be wrong with Gretel’s mother if she seriously entertained Franz Adler as a partner and voluntarily bore his child.  

     (I do hope that you are healthy and happy in some beautiful German town, Gretel, and I hope that your mother found a kind and responsible man who became a loving and proper father to you.)

     I looked through photographs of my family today.  I found one of my father as a young boy–maybe 11, 12, 13 years old…?  I don’t know children, so I can’t tell.  He is wearing starched dark farmers’ bluejeans with a crease in them, and a neat button-up check shirt with a stiff collar.  He is carrying a metal lunch pail to bring to school.  He is standing in front of a tiny house with a wrap-around porch, and he is smiling. The blue eyes look colorless in the black-and-white. He looks so happy.  A normal boy. 

      I wish I had a time machine and could go back in time to kill my grandfather for what he did.  I really would do it, you know.  It would be my pleasure. 

      To end this rather depressing post on a happier note, here is a plush toy I purchased from the store.  It is a daddy owl hugging a baby owl!  I love it.  I put it on my bed.

Thoughts on Books

   This morning I went to a job interview for a tutoring position.  I think that it went well.  Then I went to my secret job.  Business was crummy and I did not turn a dime.  Nobody did.  It was crickets and tumbleweeds around there!  BOOO!  Lame!

   I passed the time reading.  Since I worked a lot last week and finally had a little disposable income, I spent it the way I usually do: BOOKS and treats for my birds!  I went to one of my favorite bookstores in the East Village after an AA meeting (there was almost a fistfight on the street outside!  Wow!  More about that later) and spent a pleasant hour browsing through the stacks.  I love books.  It makes me feel good inside just to be around them.  My library is really my only material ambition right now.  Some of the fondest memories from my childhood are of the time I spent in the library of my rough, hard-luck town.  I read everything I could get my hands on.  Anything, everything.  The librarians loved me.  I would’ve lived in the library if I could have.  

    Books have never let me down.  Without a doubt, they have always been there for me.  I can always count on books. 

     They gave me an escape.  They don’t call it “The Life of the Mind” for nothing.

     I must credit my parents for giving me this gift.  Both of them read to me from my infancy, taught and encouraged my literacy, and  always provided access to reading materials.  I didn’t speak until I was three, but I could read and write very early.  

     My father was an incompetent and negligent parent in many ways, but he was a relentless taskmaster where my intellectual development was concerned.  In retrospect, I see that he did not want to make the same mistakes his father made.  My grandfather was, by all accounts, a heinous and violent anti-intellectual thug who would throw my dad’s books in the trash and ridicule his natural  (and not inconsiderable) bookish proclivities.  My father was merely heinous and a thug, so I suppose that is some improvement.  

     I cannot remember a time before he was giving me books to read, or reading from books to me.    My first memory is the night my brother was born, when I was three years old.  Then not much till about five.  And then, books.  

    I have to hand it to him: the man had pretty good taste, and he didn’t leave much out.  By the time I started high school, I’d read practically all of the literature and poetry of the English Lit canon.  I was too immature to understand or appreciate most of it the first time around (Moby Dick at age 12?  Great Expectations?  Really, Dad?  Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee gave me nightmares and made me cry.  Still does.  A Tale of Two Cities was pretty awesome, though.  The Scarlet Pimpernel was a blast, too.  And all those Pearl S. Buck books.).  But damned if I didn’t know the plots and content matter forward and back.  

Books train the brain.  They teach you how to begin to think.  It happens by some mysterious, mystical, osmosis-like process. Writing teaches you how to focus; how to apply your intellect.  Most people in college can’t write worth shit.  I know–I teach them, I grade the essays.  They can’t write because they don’t read.  By the time they get to college, it’s too late.  That proverbial train has left the station, baby.  I would never, ever actually say that in my professional capacity–such sentiments are verboten, for various reasons.  But that’s what I really do think, and I have seen nothing to dissuade me from that belief.  If you cannot write a clear, organized essay in simple declarative sentences by the time you are 18, you will probably never be able to do so.  And if you don’t like to read by the time you’re 18, you probably never will, either.  It’s a taste acquired early, or not at all.