Category Archives: stories

Saying what you mean, and meaning what you say…

My god, of all the things that I could call important in this life, perhaps authenticity (or perhaps better stated as sincerity) is the most important thing.

When people say you are real or the real deal, this is what they mean.

When people know where they stand with you, it’s because you are this way.

When their eyes say that they care, even if their words don’t, it’s because you have been this way with them.

When they reciprocate with support, honesty or integrity, it’s because you have demonstrated those values to them.

With anyone of good character and compassion, you will get out what you put in.

The Ebb and Flow of Curtis James

Today, as I often do, I saw Curtis James pan-handling at Stadium SkyTrain station. Normally he’s a fairly upbeat, even cheery fellow, but he was different today. He was quite agitated with humanity.

“You’re not in your usual spot, out front there today”, I observed, dropping a little change into his upturned ball cap. It was weird to see Curtis standing off to the side, shaking his head and not smiling or interacting with people. Usually he was quite social.

“People are mean today. They don’t care,” he said bitterly. “I’ve had it – to like, like this!” He raised his hand above the level of his head. He was fucking frustrated, the poor guy.

His fingernails were long, dirty and hooked like claws, making his hands look dangerous. I wondered if anyone ever took care of him.

“Aw, people can suck sometimes, yeah,” I tried to sympathize. I’d never seen Curtis so obviously impatient with the apathy of his fellow man. I speculated that maybe he hadn’t gathered any change today, or maybe he’d just felt ignored.

“Don’t let ‘em get you down, man. You stay positive.” The words came out automatically and sounded hollow even as I said them.

“Yeah, I need to change my outlook,” he muttered, working on convincing himself.

“Find that happy place – your happy place.”

Curtis’s face changed from disappointment to resolve, just like that. His energy picked up, and he looked at me with furrowed brows and serious eyes. He began quoting something inspirational from the bible, and I found us both walking down into the SkyTrain station together.

He was resilient, and was starting to mentally self-correct. “You take care of yourself now,” I said, starting to turn away.

“God bless you, brother,” he said, patting my shoulder. He was happier now, and gave me a big open yellow smile. I smiled back and meant it, and Curtis exclaimed “John Love!”, which was the nicest compliment I’d gotten all day.

Everyone has a shitty day sometimes, no matter who you are.

 

Remembering Dad’s Birthday…

Remembered Dad’s birthday again. Sometimes it feels like it’s slipping away.
I remember the man at different times.

I remember when he taught me to lace my runners when i was eight. He taught me the shape and sequence of tying them myself.
Later, when I twisted my ankle badly, he put me down on the couch and i felt cared for.

I remember him being the boss at his job, commanding respect with his inherent authority. At home, he was the boss too, and hated criticism and was not wrong.

I remember being a teen. He taught me how to punch, and he let he practice my one-two, left-right punches on his open, calloused hands. I wasn’t as big or confident as the other guys, and he wanted me to defend myself. He made me feel strong and proud, like a young man. There was no defense from him though, if I ever crossed him or challenged him. He did punch me once in anger, and it hurt. When I didn’t look up to him, I might feel fear of him.

I remember the contradictory lessons. The words he spoke were right, fair and ethical: “Respect the rights of others”, he would preach, and we tried to understand. But some of his words were sometimes racist, and some of his actions had no self-respect in them, or were downright hurtful to others.

He had difficulty with women, yet probably yearned to put them on a pedestal. He had serious, intelligent thoughts, yet being aďdicted to alcohol made him seem less intelligent. He loved his siblings and spoke warmly of being a kid and playing with them, but he rarely phoned any of them, and never wrote.

You were my hero, old man, from when I was old enough to walk until your heart attack and numerous strokes took away your ability to walk. By the time that your body had broken down enough and it stopped obeying you, I was beginning to live my own life at 19, and didn’t have to obey you. Then, when i loved you, you were a busted-down, but sweet and harmless man, staring off dreamily into past glories, remembering how great you once were. If you were bitter or hurtful, or had resentment or anger in your voice, I could tell myself it was maybe your own karma coming back to haunt you. I didn’t have to listen, and now I would never fear you again. Damage and near-death had rendered you a docile and toothless old tiger. Now I feared for you, not from you.

You built our family, and you played a huge part in tearing it down, directly and directly. I stood by you when you needed me, and I needed you to need me, Dad. If you learned from the mistakes you made, you didn’t admit it, but I could see the damned regret in your eyes.

I may be bitter about how some things happened, or wish that we’d had more years together, or that, most of all, you and mum could have stayed healthy and in love, instead of resentful, hurt, and physically and emotionally separated for the last 15 years of your life. It was what it was, and you and mum take many truths with you, that we’ll never see.

So this is this year’s memorial to you, Dad. My contradictory, heroic, villain of a father. Your sweetness comes with some bitterness,  but I hold my head up for having been your son once, about twenty-six years ago.

“All anyone needs is an E.D.!”

My street-panhandler friend, Curtis James, was on a real funny rant today, outside Stadium SkyTrain:

Curtis: “Doctor Love! I should call you Doctor Love!”

Me: “Sure man. You wouldn’t be the first. I do make house-calls.”

Curtis: “You should be Professor Love!” Then he thought for a moment before continuing. “Naw, you know, you don’t need a doctor of science degree, or a masters of math degree, or a bachelors of arts and science degree. You don’t need a PhD or a Doctors of anything degree. What you need is an E.D. All anyone needs is an E.D.!”

Me: “An E.D.? What?”

Curtis: “Everyone should have an E.D.”

Me: (Starting to chuckle) “Naw man, I don’t want E.D. Anyway, they have a little blue pill for that.” No response except for Curtis’ confused expression. Then he was off again on his universal idea.

Curtis: “You need to be a Doctor of Education, that’s all you need! Then you’re the doctor. ED – the Education Doctor! That’s all you need man!” By this time, Curtis has really gotten me laughing.

Me: “I think that the good teachers want you to really learn how to learn, to be able to teach yourself, to learn face-first from life.”

I shook his hand and wished him a happy day.

Considering the Highs and Lows…

As I approach my fifth decade, I feel a renewed sympathy for my late mother, Angela. Angela Huntley Love (1931-1995) struggled with bi-polarism and depression throughout most of her life. In hindsight, it seems obvious that her mental health challenges held her back from becoming her best self. She might have become a professional singer, or maybe an actress, or a musician, or all of those things if she’d wanted to, but that never happened. She’s been gone since 1995, but she and her sad history of mental illness have practically never been out of my thoughts.

My Mum had at least two nervous breakdowns that I’m aware of, each landing her in Riverview Psychiatric Hospital in Coquitlam. As kids, all my sister and I knew was that our Mum had a nervous breakdown, but it was never explained to us what that actually meant. We had no idea what our Mum was thinking or how she felt. Back in the seventies, when an adult had an emotional or mental breakdown, it wasn’t a shared experience – least of all to the kids. It was something to be ashamed of, to regret, like a failure, or to just swallow down and keep inside, wrapped in mystery and dread.

I learned about my Mum’s condition or wellness by listening in on grown-up conversations, and I discovered her medications by finding prescriptions for lithium sulphate in her coat pockets when I was rifling around for change. That was during the seventies, when things like mental illness were still generally stigmatized. These days, our culture is so much more open and supportive regarding mental health issues, and we’re much better off as a culture, in my opinion.

We all come from somewhere…

In my life, I’ve been fortunate to have not been challenged with chronic depression or bi-polarism. However, I can say that I’ve had depressed moments, tiny little manic flights of grandiosity, and periods of time when the world seemed to bring me too many terrible misfortunes all out of my control. (Interestingly, that sentence made me sound as if I have had chronic, recurring issues, although in my experience they’ve always been separate, spaced apart by years at a time.)

In my pre-teen and teen years, there was always a quiet, invisible dark cloud over my family and over our home (the stage for our worst scenes). As a kid, I always felt the presence of the cloud but it was invisible or at least never publicly acknowledged around me. I usually walked around feeling extremely self-conscious, certain that others were speaking about me behind my back or gossiping as I walked by. You could never know if others were discussing your family behind your back, either with benevolent, supportive intentions, or just as lascivious, thoughtless gossip. Between the ages of twelve and eighteen, I was sensitive, insecure, and mildly paranoid most of the time.

I’d always wondered why I’d been born into a family with dysfunctional, alcoholic parents who always seemed to be so unhappy and fighting. As a kid, you perceive things in a self-centred “why me” sort of response, and so “why me” (and the inevitable side-step into “poor me”) were constant background questions as I grew up – pretty much until I was old enough to live on my own and finally move along a positive life path.

Looking back, now that I’m an adult closer to the ages my parents were when I was a teen, I can see that my Mother was deeply depressed about the death of her beloved father, and probably also very unhappy in her marriage, and probably in her life in general (and menopause may have also played a factor in her feelings as well).

Angela had been an only child, and had a very strong bond with her father – probably stronger than to her husband. She was Daddy’s Little Girl, and I have no doubt that this imbalance of loyalty between father and husband was noticed by my Dad, and probably frustrated him.

Angela began self-medicating with alcohol in her teens, and her drinking and depression only worsened as the years went on. Later, in our family, it became the “elephant in the room” scenario, where nobody spoke out or took positive action to get her help. I want to believe that Angela could not see other people’s points of view, nor realize how her depression and alcoholism were hurting the people around her. I need to believe that to keep her sympathetic in my mind. It’s so hard to feel bitterness or anger towards her.

As for my Dad, he was a deeply proud man from a family of four brothers and one sister. The stories he told of his parents were of hard-working people who selflessly raised their kids with the same values. It was an idealised image which I truly think he believed, and I believe it too. But, his idealism, when used to protect himself, could also be a smokescreen, camouflaging his worst insecurities and personal demons. It wouldn’t be until a few years before his death that I’d learn more about my Dad’s negative attachment issues with women, and years after that when I’d really understand the long-term damage he’d caused in my family. He did some selfish evil shit, which contradicted the values he preached to us, so my sympathy for him yields easily to resentment, whenever I do think of the bad times.

You might be done with the past, but the past ain’t done with you…

Angela never really spoke to me much, ever. I cannot recall one actual conversation with her – just a few minimal words here and there. She just didn’t interact much, and anything I think I know about her came from other people. She offered nothing emotionally, and I will never know what was in her mind or what she thought of me, either as her son or as a person.

Thinking about what I know about Angela’s personality and mental health challenges, I have always wondered how far my apple fell from her tree.

The Apple and the Tree…

Over the years, I’ve experienced my own episodes of severe sorrow, anxiety, or momentary depression:

  • Back in 1999, the following events caused in a me a dramatic temporary episode that really scared me: I was in transition between jobs, and my sister had reported that she thought her Doctor might diagnose her with cancer (she was waiting on the results of a biopsy at the time). Further, a childhood friend had been struggling with crack and alcohol addiction. (I’ve written about this episode before.) All of these things were out of my control, and as I worried about them one night, I felt my emotions just suddenly go dead, and I felt like I was falling down a very dark hole in my mind. This concerned and fascinated me, so I took my anxious self to the fridge and got a beer, and went to the computer to look up my feelings/symptoms online. The closest match I found was “mini nervous breakdown”. I listened to some Radiohead, drank my beer, and played with my cat, and told myself the feeling would pass, and that it was all triggered by feeling alack of control. The next day, I was much better.
  • In 2009, someone very close to me (whose identity and relationship I’ll protect) tried to commit suicide. I spoke to them on the phone as they slid into unconsciousness from a Tylenol overdose, and I tried to keep them talking until the ambulance arrived. I bargained, I begged, and I yelled. When I finally heard the sirens in the background and then the paramedic’s voices in the room, the phone line went dead, and I collapsed in a sobbing heap on the floor, thinking that I might never see this person again. They survived, but that moment on the phone was as close as I ever want to come to saying goodbye to that person. I realized afterwards that I fear being abandoned and left alone. I don’t want to be the last one standing in my family.
  • My obsessive attachment to my parent’s memories has manifested in a compulsive need to document them and talk about them. This is probably the only way I can retain my attachment to them posthumously. There’s nothing else left. It’s also resulted in my remaining direct (full) family member becoming symbolically super-important to me, such that if I don’t hear from her regularly, I begin feeling anxious and insecure.
  • In the absence of regular siblings around me, I have at times assigned parental or sibling roles onto friends, either consciously  or sub-consciously. So, older female friends may end up treating me with kindness (baking, or sweet words or sympathy) that to me, resembles motherly affection. Younger females (whether relations, acquaintances or colleagues) may also be treated by me as “little sisters”, particularly if they’ve ever sought my opinion or emotional support in the past. I like feeling a good son, and also like a protective big brother. It’s not always been well-balanced or healthy, but I guess I need my symbolic proxies.
  • I had what I would characterize as another mini-nervous breakdown in 2014, triggered by fear of a failing personal relationship, and then exacerbated by a falling out with a favoured coworker. I developed a severely anxious over-reaction to the coworker’s own insecurity and their resulting lack of reciprocal communication (I was frozen out, “ghosted” as I’ve learned it’s called). I’d never experienced such an overtly negative breakdown of affinity, and for months afterwards I held onto a deep shame over hurting them and in realizing that some of it had played out in front of my other colleagues. My professional veneer had been torn away, and in my mind I decided I had to try and repack my personal baggage away as soon as possible and re-establish a persona of outer confidence before it could regrow naturally on the inside. This internal confidence rebuilding took me months, and was like a wound being torn open and rehealed a number of times, gradually getting less raw with each iteration. There’s no band-aid for this shit – no quick fix – just the regrowth of protective scar tissue. I have a difficult time letting go of people and their symbolic value once I’ve let them get under my skin.

All of these experiences seem to have a few things in common: they are episodic (they seem temporary, with a beginning, middle and end, and do not persist chronically for year after year), and they are all connected to my perceived lack of control over events.

The most important thing for me to realize is that it’s my mind, my psychology, that’s truly at the centre of all my problems. My memories and my beliefs about myself are at the core of all my worries, regardless of whomever else I believe is involved. The only thing I can truly control is my inner landscape, and the way in which I choose to respond to outside events and attitudes.

gratitude for the small things

I have gratitude for small things:

For the territoriality of small birds, which to me sounds like enthusiasm for morning light and sweet air.

For the attachment of an enthusiastic little neighbourhood cat, whose daily visits feel like unconditional, unstoppable friendship.

For warm, sincere greetings from colleagues, which to me feel like affection.

For written words, telephone voices, and occasional in-person hugs and smiles from those people who matter, all of which makes me feel that I myself matter.

For singing loud and proud when others cannot hear, which feels like pure, unfiltered existence in the moment,

For little moments of reassuring eye contact, smiles, and an hourly “I love you”, given by someone from whose side I never wish to be parted again.

For knowing how to turn a bad situation on its ear, and transform sad, scared feelings into peace, by remembering that after all, its just in my head.

All of these things help to fill in missing pieces of other things which had been lost.

Piece by piece, from pain to peace, I feel grateful.

My Family that Was, Is, and Will Be.

My Family That Was…

Life was a blur of confusion; contradictions.
Days blurred together in a little kid’s present tense.
The “always now” – too young to reflect and process.
Past days lurched forward through time, bursting unannounced into the present at the worst moment, like an obnoxious, uninvited guest.
Parents forgot that they were the centre of everything. They went out of control, abdicated responsibilities like the careless children they once were.
Their own offspring got lost in the mix, left emotionally out in the wild.

Some families seemed happy, bonded by trust.
Mine wasn’t. Were there others like us?
Father’s hands that were calloused yet gentle were also feared,
sometimes raised in anger against those they should protect.

Mother’s eyes and heart were kept to herself,
unable to deal as an adult, she surrendered to depression and booze.
No response came from her. No conversation seemed to reach her.
She was a woman thinking like a little girl, still missing her dead dad;
She couldn’t take the responsibility of parenthood.

Spun around in their young hearts, the offspring took on adult pains,
responsibilities came too early; dark abuses twisted roles out of shape;
Chronological adults became helpless from their misadventures.
Kids, forced to grow up too damn soon, sought proxy-parents to show them love in safe, harmless little doses. Over the years, they learned to shrug off the burdens that weighed them down since birth.

In my family that was, I was with them when they needed me.

My Family That Is…

Love, trust, and sharing are part of a grand journey,
where you find out who your honest friends and beloved family are.
The present time is the only time there is.
You learn that loyalty and love need not be used only in moments of crisis, but are a strength in the quietest, smallest daily moments.
You learn to be comfortable in yourself, and allow yourself and others to just be.

You learn that suffering, loss and recovery are common to us all.
My family that is, understands these things and lives from them.
You can forgive others, because you have worked to forgive yourself.
You can truly love others, because you truly love yourself.

In my family that is, they’re with me when I need them.

My Family That Will Be…

I’ll fast-forward the dream, looking towards the babies and children of today, to envision the grown-ups of tomorrow.
Sufferring will still come to them, as it does to us all,
but they will rise to the challenges the world will offer.
They will greet it with an open hand instead of a closed fist,
and an open heart instead of a closed mind or silent mouth.

They’ll remember to live by the golden rule their predecessors forgot: Treat others as you’d have them treat you.

In my family that will be, they will know who they are,
and they will feel loved and be worthy of love.
The family that will be will stay together and will be there to care.

51 stories down. [infinty symbol] to go…

I have finally added in the last of the first fifty-one stories from my old True Life site.

I started writing True Life back in 1998 as a hand-rolled web memorial to my past family, events, and themes. It was then, and remains today, my personal mirror and cathartic echo chamber, and a place where I can polish my stories, refine my memories, and find patterns and meaning.

I stopped adding to the original site sometime around 2005 – maybe I just got burned-out, or bored with the way the site looked. It had just stopped exciting me, so I let it be for what it was. Not long after, my personal Linux server started to die, so I took it offline, and True Life (which was hosted on that server) went down entirely.

Strangely, I didn’t feel much loss from “de-publishing” the True Life project – maybe I even felt liberated. I didn’t have to carry that self-imposed burden of a shrine on my back, if I didn’t want to. I began resenting Mum and Dad for all their failings as parents, and then moved their little framed photographs off the top of my dresser, and down to a low corner of a bookshelf, where I wouldn’t be reminded of them so often. I decided that it’s okay to not want to see them, and to feel sick of them and of the one-sided story I’d been telling about them for almost 10 years. I decided that we were a failed family, and they were failed parents to my sister and I. Kids can’t choose their parents, but as an adult, I could sure as hell scorn mine, post-mortem.

I have noticed that I tend to obsess over people who are no longer in my life. If there’s nothing to be learned from conversing with ghosts, I really ought to let them go unanswered.

However, I eventually came back to my family background, as I always have. Reminders of past joys, sorrows, abuses and achievements kept entering my mind. Writing my memoir as “True Life” may be a compulsion now – a deep part of my identity. As they say, I might be done with the past, but the past ain’t done with me.

So, I’ll boot up Scrivener, or get my pad and pen, and start sketching out snippets of a path that will take me from 1976 towards the early eighties, when things got much, much worse.

It’s time to bite off more than I chew again, and choke down what I can of all those random scraps of daily life, and digest it all into some kind of coherent narrative. I will stick my head out, and see where the process takes me.

Should only take a few hundred more stories to get True Life up to the year 2000. At this rate, it may never get done, but I think the process is the important piece.

True Life is coming back to life…

After many years of dormancy, I have restarted this web project, as a way to keep telling my personal history.

The history of this project goes back to 1998, when I began designing a website that could organize my memoir as a series of small stories. I didn’t know how to tell my story, and the idea of writing a book or something seemed too big and monolithic to take on. I decided to use the web, and break the tale down into little chunks that I could complete, one-by-one, as the spirit moved me and time permitted. Overall, I wrote about fifty stories or articles on  my original True Life site before I let it lapse for a number of years.

My driving need to write that story continues, fifteen years later after starting this project, and better writing platforms are making it a richer process. Now, instead of my hand-written HTML website, I can enjoy authoring with the benefits of the WordPress platform where plugins give me access to new  capabilities I have yet to fully exploit, and responsive web design means that my site looks and works better on tablets and smartphones.

WordPress also means that writing can happen anywhere I want it to. I can now write stories or post articles using apps on my tablet, instead of needing to FTP into my website and use an HTML editor. It just makes it easier to develop this project wherever I happen to be. This is the way it is now.