Defense

Calling my mother is like playing Plinko on the Price Is Right.  A contestant places a wooden disk at the top of the board and watches it fall in a random pattern, bouncing haphazardly between the Love/Support and Batshit Crazy slots.  There is a whole manner of additional available prizes, but they generally fall in between those two categories.  The player’s heart leaps when the piece looks to be headed toward Maternal Warmth only to sink in dismay when it makes a last second detour to Sicilian Guilt.  The outcome waits to reveal itself even to the final moments, as she answers the phone the same way, no matter her mood.

Mother’s Day was no exception.

“HELLO?!” she accused into the phone, leaving me to guess at the direction our chat would take.   To judge by her tone, anyone would think that she couldn’t possibly be more annoyed, that even correcting the grammatical errors of the entire population of Facebook would be preferable to taking my call.  That’s not really the case…it’s just how she rolls.

Knowing her tone is no indication of her mood, I chirped a cheerful Happy Mother’s Day  (!!) into the receiver and was rewarded with a couple of cold responses.  Under normal circumstances (and to save my own sanity) I will beat feet to the end of the conversation when I see it headed in this direction.  If I don’t, screaming matches occur; it’s better to live to fight another day than engage, logic has no place when her voice takes on a certain edge.  But, it WAS Mother’s Day, and as such (I felt), required a bit of extra effort on my part.

After some prying and coaxing (“Seriously, what’s the matter? Why do you sound so hateful today?”) I was rewarded with a solid dose of the truth.

Now, here I pause to tell you something else about my mother.  I’ve shared some shitty things about her on this blog.  Told a couple of horror stories.  Mostly because this seems to be where I work some crap out.  But, beyond those stories, it should also be known that she’s a woman dealing with her own shit.  A really smart fucking woman, dealing with her own shit.  I forget sometimes that she’s spent a considerably longer amount of time trying to figure herself out and get back to even than I have, and as such, has the benefit of experience.  Every once in a while, she pops out with something that sounds completely ridiculous, but turns out to be exactly what I needed to hear at that particular moment.  It’s those times that I know I’m just as Batshit as she is and that there will never be anyone out there who understands quite like she does.  This fact absolutely has TNT written all over it, but sometimes when it manifests, it’s the only thing in the world that helps me know I’m not alone.

This was one of those times.

“I’m not a goddamned business, Jennifer.”

Now, the layperson will read that line and wonder:  “What the fuck does that even mean?!”  But I’m no novice when it comes to my Mom.  I knew exactly what she was talking about.  I’d just spent the previous five-or-so minutes in a state of calm detachment, trying to figure out why she was upset.  My voice had been soft and clear, friendly even, but there was no warmth behind it.  I’d been giving her the fake customer service treatment, and she called me out.  I was instantly fighting back tears.  She knew, goddamn it.  She knew and saw right through.

I use my call center voice when I’m in danger of feeling something.  I use it when I’m perilously close to submitting to weakness.  When I’m so lonely for the touch of the person I’m speaking to that going another moment without it might drive me to desperation; the emptier my soul, the more cordial my voice.  Without that failsafe, that tone modulation, the outside world is in danger of falling victim to the dam breaking.  I’d just been using it on her and she failed to play along, instead, forcing me to recognize something about myself that had (has) become my entire world lately.

There I was, face-to-face with the truth of my coping mechanisms.

These days, I am detachment embodied.  I have shut myself down to only the bare minimum.  Essential systems only.  Reserve power.  Low lighting.  Martial law.  I have declared a  moratorium on the expression of, well, anything.  I live so teeteringly close to a breakdown that I must maintain a state of hyper-vigilance lest this wound opens only to bleed and bleed and bleed.

I have become so careful about how I express myself that I don’t express myself at all.  My closest relationships have withered off of once healthy vines.  My need and drive to write has dried up because in its honesty, it would be admitting to the lies I’ve been telling those around me.  I have no shortage of hands reaching toward me, but I’m afraid they have no idea what they’re offering; that once I give in and let go, allow myself to be comforted by those hands, that they’ll realize the extremity of my need and retreat, sorry at once that they’d offered any contact at all.

In truth, my inner world is a blustering chaos.  I don’t jest when I say that out loud.  It’s more than just a warning or humorous hyperbole.  As my skin screams out for contact, tenderness, soft words, I breathe those desires back inside.  Their ferocity isn’t to be meddled with, and I don’t trust the outstretched and open palms to know what they’re offering.  With certainty I know that once I open that door, that cut, there will be no stanching the flow.  And while I fully expect and understand that those offering aid will retract it once they see the truth in the outpouring, I also know that that abandonment is something I can never recover from.

So I keep to the inside and play my grand role.  With abiding grace, I am thankful for the kindness of the people that reach out.  I am quietly awed by their intentions and charity.  But I must, at all costs, maintain this distance; a break in the ranks could mean a break in my tanks, the reserves, what’s left of this crumbling edifice.  It’s not enough to know that she sees me, my Mother.  Not enough to just be revealed.  All I am at that point is revealed, uncovered.  There is no protection in the open, and in the end, just being found out is not the same as being understood.

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Yippee Yo, You Know This Kid??

Like any respectable 8 year old growing up in the 80s, I was introduced to new music the same way I was introduced to leggings, the side pony and turquoise eyeliner:  On the bus ride to and from school.  Parents and neighbors policed us at home, of course, and teachers laid the hammer behind those hallowed educational doors, but the bus?  Ohhhhh, the bus!  That lumbering yellow bohemoth was the blissfully disreguarded and unenforced middle ground; a sort of purgatory of freedom where kids were left virtually unattended to make out, pass notes and curse with abandon.

Cultural anthropologists will tell you that there is a hierarchy to the madness of the school bus.  Equal parts ranking by age and social status, liberally seasoned with the kids that, regardless of age, no one wants to fuck with, it was Raffi in the front and Master of Puppets in the back with everything from U2 to Bon Jovi in between.  But regardless of social status, and despite any unfortunate wardrobe choices, EVERYONE sported a set of foam covered headphones connected to a Sony Walkman.  And in those Walkmen, tooling round and round on those magical notched wheels, were the mythical precursors to the playlist, the fabled MIXTAPES.***

Having no older siblings to show me the Tao of fitting in, I’d been relegated to the first third of the bus seats.  The BACK of the first third, mind you, but the first third nonetheless.  It would be a few years before I’d learn the art of social camouflage, but in third grade, I’d only just begun that journey, and most of my knowledge of conformity came from furtive eavesdropping and sly, sidelong glances.

Living in the new section of our development, my stop was one of the last on the bus route which fact afforded me the opportunity to move back a few seats as the bus driver expelled crowds of children along her route.  I’d been performing this very ritual of social climbing on a cold day just before Christmas break when my moon boot (yeah, you know it) crunched on a cheap piece of plastic.  I looked down into a gritty puddle of melted slush and discovered a cracked plastic case complete with contents.  GOLD!  A mixtape.  Thrilling at my find, I read the handwritten liner:        BEASTIE BOYS:  LICENSED TO ILL.

And just like that, my musical world shifted.

That tape turned out to be the entire album, copied not from the radio, but from the album itself, most likely on a dual-deck stereo.  It would be the first album I’d listen to over and over until I knew all the words.  Before Tiffany, before the Joshua Tree before The Black Album and Dookie and Ten, there was Licensed to Ill.  I knew all the words to “Paul Revere” almost before the words on the spelling test given the next week.  It was “Rhymin’ and Stealin’” that would introduce me to Led Zeppelin when my father dragged me downstairs to pull out the record that that they’d sampled (or, ‘stolen’ as Dad said) “When The Levee Breaks” from.

I was hooked.  Every consecutive Beastie’s album connected itself to an era in my life.  Paul’s Boutique came out as I headed into Junior High, Check Your Head as I passed through the doors of high school.  It was under the guise of listening to “the new Beasties” (Ill Communication) that I first “hung out” with a boy I had a crush on without making a total ass of myself.  We sat in my room for an hour laughing and drinking soda while I played it cool and lip-synched all the words to “Get it Together”.  My first-ever solo road trip took me to Boonville, NY to visit a friend over the summer after our freshman year of college and we spent the weekend bouncing around and learning all the words to “Intergalactic” off of Hello Nasty.

The Beastie Boys have followed me further than any other band or group, and so, it was a blow to the gut today as text after text poured in telling me that MCA had died.  It seemed only fitting to share a story or two about how the music he helped to create by the group he helped to found has linked itself to my life in so many ways.

Requiescat in Pace.

***In case there is doubt, mixtape is ONE WORD.  Mixtape connotes a cassette that a child of the 80s put into her “boombox” at home while she laid down next to it, finger poised over the record button, ready for her favorite song to come on the Top 40 station.  One makes mixtapes for friends, and, as a ritual of courtship, for that boy from whom a kiss is pined after.  MIXED TAPE is not, and never will be, the preferred nomenclature.

My Secret Annihilator

You got me you know.  And well.

At first, I saw your efforts as just a lark; chalked you up to a fool with nothing better to do.  I got angry, and then brushed you off, a twisted, sorry nobody with nothing better to do—a nameless face behind an unknown and distant screen.

But oh, how mistaken…how woefully misguided I was.

Because your attacks got worse.  Eight progressively more scurrilous comments that could have been the voice in my head itself.  The aplomb with which you’ve dispatched your ill-will has a horrid grace unmatched.  Your voice, on screen, rings like a bell in my head, clear and low, a thrumming kettledrum echo of everything I try not to admit to myself.

How pure and distinct your understanding of my mental state and peculiarities.

Brava, stranger, and well done.  Expertly you’ve flayed me, and here I sit, a pulpy mass.  Was it tears you were after?  Because you earned them, each runnel on my cheek an arrow to the mark.  A battered spirit?  Because you found one, only steps away before your arrival.  You have cut to the core of the things I keep inside, and done the work I thought only myself–my innerself–capable of.  Your words have found their way from my inbox to my heart and hammered down the last of what little fortitude I had.

And so I ask, humbly, quietly, and nigh on meekly:

Please stop.

As brash as my words and the jut of my chin may seem, I am not that; am, in fact, much less.  I am held together with glue and string, a heavy rain away from washing to nothing, dissolving into a puddle of paste and lint.  You needn’t have written, for I do a well-enough job of cutting myself down without your added efforts.  Any unease you wished me, I can assure you was there before you came and will remain long after you’ve tired of your campaign.

There is nothing you accuse me of that my conscience doesn’t remind me of daily.  No weakness you can point out that I haven’t already stared in the face and come to know intimately.  You may come in close, but I am still my own worst enemy, and daily fight the battle you seem to have taken as your own.

You got me, and well, and I’m asking for a reprieve.