On Turning Forty

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Chapter Three: Birth(day) Pains

Teenage boys do weird things when they gather together. My ragtag group of friends were an interesting mix of Dungeons&Dragons and Nirvana. Thespian Society nerds who played in band and orchestra. People who went on to become doctors and architects, musicians and professors, devoted fathers and loving partners. What we call good people. But at this time, kids earnestly trying on identities and pursuing the weird.

And as I think upon it, no small dose of unintentionally homoerotic activities. We were the first generation to grow up with parents openly gay; we lived in a community that valued the arts and expression, where, as the kids no longer say, we could let our freak flags fly. And this group was a perfect mix of nerd, geek, and dork, said in the most loving way; some of us were very smart, taking AP courses like calculus or Music Theory by junior year; others were into esoteric stuff like building motorized airplanes or the history of the SEALS; and all of us watched Monty Python, donned British accents, and push the boundaries of what was acceptable at the time. Well before I came out, I was in the habit of kissing my male friends; they kissed me back, not in a sexual way but rather as an exercise in rebellion. But we were still boys. And we did stupid shit, like cover PVC pipe in padding and duct tape to make swords that we then used to beat the ever-loving snot out of one another. And of course, there was ball tag. I don’t know what it is about men–and I have seen this even among the most heterosexual of males with whom I have spoken–we have almost a compulsive need to make contact with another man’s balls. I have never met a man–now, granted, this is not a question I frequently ask–who did not have a ball tag story. It transcends race, too. Certainly, this is not an exhaustive analysis, but I imagine that most guys reading this most likely are nodding. Because, I think, at the very least all of us have witnessed a ball sniping. You know, when a guy has been plotting all night to tag a certain set of balls, and then, like a crow in a shadow, swooping in for a perfect tag in which the hand is not fully closed, not fully open, where the knuckles shock the orbs with force as the fingers act like a whip and almost split open what my Finnish grandmother would call the kievspussi, the man bag. And all of this to a victim unawares, perhaps holding a beer or trying to work game on some cutie wearing a Tom Waits t-shirt. We made ball tag so lethal, we all finally had to covenant with one another that it was over. No more. There had been too much suffering on all sides, each of us having suffered out own, personal Gettysburgs.

And of course, there was wrestling. Like two nights before my fifteen birthday, when a group of us were wrestling on mattresses put on a concrete basement floor. It was “finished” in that my two friends, brothers both attending YSHS, each had bedrooms with waterbeds. The walls were painted with poetry and images formed in the crucible that was M—‘s mind. He was in my same year, but always just that much better than me in seemingly everything. He got better grades; knew music history I did not; got one of the leads in the musical our freshman year, something almost unheard of given the quality of acting in the high school at that time. I idealized M— in my mind. He was cooler than me; a much better singer; a fearless songwriter; an adept frontman from a young age. We recorded an album together, with the other members of the band. Many of whom were present on the night in question. Zodiak was our name. But those stories will come later. Back to the night in question. Pitch dark room. Boys hopped up on pixie sticks (generally snorted) and Mountain Dew (Diet Coke for me, even back in those days), trying to direct the hormonal energy that turned our brains into phalli.

I recall this evening as the first time I ever nearly passed out from something other than a head blow. The source of the pain, I would discover minutes later, was T–‘s heel. T– was M—‘s older brother. Beautiful voice. A ladies man, which I respected because he had a belly. But it never stopped him from seeing himself as sexy. I wanted that sort of confidence. Over the years, I will tell him, both drunk and sober, that if he had ever liked men I would have married him. Such were not the feelings I experienced on this day. T–‘s heel struck my tailbone as both my legs were curled up, leaving me in the fetal position; his heel struck the tailbone with such force and accuracy, it staved my L-5 and L-4, which impinged my sciatic nerve. My tailbone had a hairline fracture; it permanently moved off-center. The start of lifelong back problems. At the time, it felt like T– had entered me.

I remember being out of breath from pain. You ever feel that sort of pain? Like your body is so instantly exhausted from trying to process the pain that your respiratory system becomes overloaded just so the pain has somewhere to go. I got no sleep on the floor that night, my body resting on the very mattresses that were witness to my agony. I knew that if I told my parents how bad it was, the trip to Kings Island I had been promising M— for two years would be a no go. For years I had been bragging to my friends that my sister worked at KI, as I obnoxiously called it, trying to be like the employees, but that again is for another chapter, and I got free tickets. Which I did; it wasn’t a lie, but M— had been promised a trip before that didn’t come through for a reason I have since forgotten. But there was a little sour taste around it, I seem to remember, so this trip was huge. Plus, I had felt like M— was slipping away from me. I was always incredibly jealous of other people who got his attention, so I was so excited to unleash our collected weirdness onto KI and to have stories only he and I would know. I look back now and realize that I was in love with him, but I didn’t know how to process it.

I don’t remember much about the next 36 hours. Because I am a compulsively, perhaps pathologically honest person I told my parents about what had happened, and when they immediately said that I could not go to Kings Island I bawled. I pleaded. I cried so hard that I was sucking for breath and trying to get words out at the same time. Somehow, I convinced them to give me twenty four hours, which of course would put us at the night before my birthday. I recall that this was my first experience with serious pain. I had about six surgeries as a kid (minor; ear tubes; tonsils out) and was susceptible to almost everything that went around, but I never broke anything. I twisted ankles, and once got a piece of glass stuck in my eyelid, but nothing huge. This changed that; for the first, but by no means last, time I felt the excruciating torture that can arise from simply breathing wrong or trying to adjust to a new position. The throbbing pain from my tailbone and lower back was assisted by the increasingly exhausted and tight stabilizer muscles which were trying to account for the inflammation.

I toiled and fretted, feeling equally pained by the physical and emotional injuries I had suffered. It was not right, I felt, that I should be robbed of so seminal an experience. To ride The Beast with M—. To eyeball girls. To break into Primus songs while on line for The Vortex. Gone, all gone. I cried tears of bitterness. As the sun came up, I knew it was done. Finished. Kaput. Only bounding out of bed and being able to mow the lawn would get me to KI. And that was not happening. I managed to toddle my way to the bathroom, once again nearly passing out from the pain as I attempted to sit on the toilet. Shit.

I put it off until lunch. I remember that. Mom insisted that I call M— so that he could make other plans, and I was not going to eat unless I did the right thing. She was sympathetic, I know, but keep in mind that I am her second boy. And my brother got hit by a car. Twice. Different cars at different times, but the same result: cracked skull. He cracked his skull other ways, too, and also managed to get me to scrape most of the skin from my right forearm and left posterior thigh, also in separate instances. By this time, Mom’d been raising boys for over 20 years, but I do recall hearing, at least a few times, Why were you wrestling in the dark with one another? And my earnest, “‘Cause” was not as convincing as I might have hoped.

M— was not as sympathetic. And, like, we’ve talked about it over the years a couple times, generally 10-12 beers into it, a time when Lover Aaron comes out, and confesses any possible slight or sin, apologizes profusely, and insists that he loves you. And M— has apologized and we’ve hugged over it and called ourselves idiots, but at the time there was no such grace. I told him the news. He cursed me. Said he knew it was going to happen. That I was just full of shit. I told him I was hurt, that I was really sorry, and that we’d pick another time. He said no. I asked why. He said that I was giving him KI blue balls. And it just went downhill from there. He was mad. I was mad. I spent my birthday pouting. I really don’t remember much about the day. It took me about a week to get back on my feet, but my back was never the same. T– has apologized more times than I can count. But I always tell him, “T–, it’s okay. You’re the only guy in the group who can claim that you have literally put your foot up my ass.”

So last night, as I walked up to Aleta’s Cafe where about forty of my friends were waiting for me as a result of an amazing effort by my lovely wife, who did I see first, sitting at a table, waiting for me? T–. I gave him a big hug, and I thought to myself, I’m glad this big ole sunnavabitch shoved his foot inside me. 


On Turning Forty 

Chapter Two: Vague, but insistent eccentricities 

My parents both come from hardscrabble backgrounds. Dad in Detroit, Michigan; Mom in Urbana, Ohio. They had been born into a time that came to define “first one to go to college” for more people than ever in the course of American history. My Dad and Uncle Fred, who committed suicide when I was one year old, both earned PhDs. Mom, an MA and distinguished coursework in two doctorates; my maternal uncle, a JD. He is a well-respected lawyer in his hometown. I’ve known money problems, but never like my grandmothers and grandfathers; my parents made a life through the power of their minds. I am one generation removed from the farm. 

I have found that people who live a life of the mind tend to be eccentric. This is a gross generalization, of course, and I don’t want to draw too many distinctions and lines separating myself from others. But as fervently as some people work out their bodies, I work out my brain. I develop my mind. And a lot of people I know and spend time with regularly do so as well. In my experience we’re…a particular, quirky, somewhat esoteric people.

I learned all of this by watching my parents. 

I don’t know how the word “eccentric” first tripped across my transom, but it did. It is possible that it was one of the words that daily my father would require me to look up, write in a notebook, define, and craft a sentence for; he paid me $.25/word and put it into a college account. Years later, after saving my own money throughout high school from working at the Little Art, I bought my first computer: A PowerMac. It cost me $2000. That’s a lot of words. A lot of popcorn sold. A formidable vocabulary for a sassy little bi-boy coming out of the Springs, already well on his way to becoming eccentric. But I learned the word before I became it. It is also entirely possible that it was my brother who first said it, as we huddled together in his room listening to Fishbone and Big Audio Dynamite in-between U2 and AC/DC. Stephen had banished Zeppelin from the house after Melissa moved out and he took the big bedroom. Their stereo wars used to drive our parents crazy. I, sharing a room with Stephen, colluded until he hit me too hard. Then I would run down the hall safely into the confines of Sis’s room, asking to listen to Jethro Tull or Jesus Christ Superstar. 

But I think that “eccentric” becoming part of the vocabulary, a designate that we could brandish upon our parents like a  papal seal on an excommunication decree, most likely came later. After the move to Yellow Springs. In the last good period Stephen had before schizophrenia gripped him. The salad days. I have this vague, but insistent memory of gathering in the room we now call “Mimi’s room” and establishing, through dulcet tones, that Mom and Dad were just so eccentric. They read books all the time; they had “tea time” every Saturday. They liked to have long, boring conversations about things we didn’t care about and they made us stay at the table. Ugh. They were just so…weird, we thought, with family trips planned around museums, or  Bob Dylan concerts.We agreed that it was pretty cool to work in a movie theater the family owned, and getting to see films before they even came out was neat, but Mom and Dad were totally squaresville. 

I know, right?! I want to reach back in history and slap myself on the head and say, “Shut up you little shit and fucking appreciate the incredible exposure to art, literature, culture, and music your parents are giving you!!!”But at the time I remember why. I have often said that I would live through my brother’s suicide; the miscarriage and eventual divorce that occurred in the first marriage; and pretty much anything else on the long list of bad shit that has happened to and around me, before I would ever go back to middle school. It was, without question, fucking hell for me. I wanted a family like The Huxtables. I wanted to live in some idyllic world where my brother and sister did not have a different father; where I did not feel so horribly insecure about myself; where my emotions were not always so topsy-turvy, my heart so ever-on-my-sleeve. A world in which I did not feel like my body was the enemy.

Two years ago, I did not have any tattoos where people could see them unless I removed my shirt. I think I am slipping into the “heavily tattooed” category, at least for my profession. There are more of us, to be sure, than there were in the past, but we are still outside the norm. The locks are a rather new addition, too. While we are broke now, I once had expendable income that I spent on clothes that make me feel comfortable; I like suits. Waistcoats. Ties. Shoes. Hats. And I readily admit that it is born of insecurity. I have spent most of my life hating my body. Wanting out of my head. Wishing that I weren’t so…Yeah. You guessed it. Eccentric. 

It hit me last night when Miriam sent me a text asking how I was doing and I typed out: “Reading an article in The Atlantic Monthly about the necessity of humanities education in a digital world. And watching The Office. You?” I hit send and then thought, You’re an odd bird, Saari. An odd bird, indeed. Later, Mimi would say that she didn’t even bat an eye. “Of course you were,” she quipped this morning. “That’s the kinda stuff you do. I figured there was some documentary on and you were playing Scrabble.” I thought, Huh.  Just a few feet away is  the spot where Stephen and I collaborated, calling Mom and Dad eccentric. If I had only known. 

They heard us. Well, Mom did anyway. I know because it came up a couple weeks later–or a year; time is abtract–during an argument, when my mother hissed at me: “I know you and your brother think we’re eccentric! And that you’re embarrassed about us. Well you know what? I. Don’t Care.”  Which, of course, is the best answer that someone could possibly give, especially a strong, intelligent, loving mother to her sensitive, almost cowering son. I was on my way to letting fear of my peers and deep insecurities totally control my life. If mother isn’t afraid of them, I started to reason, maybe their opinions don’t matter so much. And it has taken me decades to get to a place where I feel like myself. Oh, it’s a shitstorm being me, sometimes. Bipolar is a wild ride, often exhilarating and sometimes exhaustingly terrifying. And I’d like to lose some weight. But in the main, I’m okay being eccentric if it allows me to be loving, compassionate, intentional, understanding, loyal, good, and true. 

So, that’s me.  At forty. A little quirky, a  little weathered. But standing. Surrounded by love and purpose. My life is totally different than how I pictured it when I was 18. And that’s okay.  Even though I scramble to find money, I don’t scramble to find meaning. Significance. Joy. The stuff of life that Jesus told us would lead to our true treasure. 

Or maybe I’m just being eccentric.