Getting Current December 2005
There's a line in a Talking Heads song that goes, "Well, how did I get here? Letting the days go by..."
I retired at 60, and soon I will be 62. The last years of my employment were chaotic, and the first couple of years of retirement as well, but a different kind of chaos. Needless to say, things were not anything like what I expected, and I think it's about time I tried to get oriented. Actually I have been trying to get oriented for months, now, in one way or another, and it seems the time has come to start writing about it.
My re-orientation got seriously under way when I got a therapist. I had not had a reality check with anyone other than my wife for several years, and there were some points of disagreement between us that she didn't feel capable of resolving favorably. We did agree on the therapist, however, Howard Cohn--a guy who teaches Vipassana and does therapy on the side, or vice versa. Both of us had been to meditation groups of his, we liked him, and there was the obvious advantage of the shared language of Buddhism.
We talked about "issues," of course, for several sessions: communication, relationship, etc., but in the end I sat there telling him stories about things I had done in earlier lives. (I'm not being mystical, here. When you get to your 60's and look back, much of your life seems to have happened in what my dad calls, "That other world.")
I had not spent that much time reminiscing in years, and had lost touch with a lot of the experiences that have brought me to where I am. Afterwards, as I walked down the hill to my car, I couldn't believe how high I was. Curious. Why should telling those old stories make me so happy?
I puzzled about that for several days, reminisced some more, and came to the conclusion that I was happy about who I had been. I had been, by my own appraisal, an interesting fellow: eccentric, independent, in many ways much freer than I had come to be in recent years. I liked that guy, and he had been replaced by someone who was still interesting, perhaps, but in a much more conventional, domesticated kind of way. I didn't like this new guy as well, and I wanted the old one back. At least I wanted to to explore the possibilities of getting him back. I didn't want to go back to the drug-using phase, and certainly age has placed some constraints on my options, but given those realities, what might be salvaged?
When I was working I had spent about two thirds of my time away from home, and while I was away I had had a chance to be fairly independent. Even when I was out of town there were certain mental and moral restraints in being a married man, a coupled person, but certainly there was a greater feeling of freedom than when I was home with my wife. After retirement I was home all the time, and even that limited sense of independence was gone. I missed it.
I talked to my wife about what was going on with me. It wasn't a total surprise to her. In fact I had been trying to move toward greater freedom ever since I had retired--pushing the boundaries. She had tried to be understanding, tried to accept the changes I wanted, and in this latest discussion she told me to just go ahead and be who I wanted to be, but there were difficulties--internal ones.
It was like when one of my earlier wives had yelled at me that I was the most controlled man in bed she had ever met. I answered that I had to be: I had 100 different rules and restrictions to remember and comply with; things she had told me she liked or disliked. She said I should just forget them; just do what I wanted and be spontaneous, but I didn't believe that her saying it really changed anything. I could pretend, perhaps, that she hadn't expressed a liking for this or that, but I didn't believe that her preferences had actually changed or that control was no longer required.
The same was true now, though the subject was broader than sex. How could I behave in ways that she had expressed annoyance with on numerous occasions? I felt that at best I would be grimly tolerated, which is far different than being enjoyed. If I couldn't be enjoyed by someone else, then at least let me be alone to enjoy myself.
And so here I am, settled into my new apartment, feeling so happy that I almost feel guilty about it. How does it happen that I am so lucky as to have things so much to my liking? I don't know, and of course it could change, but for the time being I am gleeful.
Norm being gleeful. For more pictures of the new apartment click here.
For years I had behaved under the principle of being happy wherever I found myself, and it had worked--if you're committed to being there, you might as well be happy. Working for the railroad, being married, had seemed like the right things to do at the time, and I was happy, with minor exceptions. But when the job on the railroad was over, that change altered the matrix within which I lived, and circumstances began moving toward a decision to change my domestic circumstances as well.
The truth of Zen, and of modern science, is that choices emerge out of the matrix of the causes and conditions that make us what we are. There is no "one," no independent entity, making the choices, any more than there is anyone deciding whether it should rain today or not.
In fact it is impossible to consciously understand the mathematics of the choices our brains make. How do they tally up a lifetime of experiences and sort them into columns with pluses and minuses and compute the result? We may get a glimpse of some of the more heavily weighted items, but there are thousands of more subtle events that add shadings of color and feeling, and all are involved in the final analysis.
Earlier in this journal I've given a history of some of what I thought at the time were the big ticket items in shaping my own decision-making processes, but in this more recent assessment I've come across some old writings that seem to have considerable bearing on the choices in this new life that is unfolding. Some cover aspects of who I am that were barely hinted at before, and may offer further insight into how I got to be this peculiar person.
For example, doesn't it seem strange that a guy who has been married four times has never before, on this web site, mentioned (gasp!) sex? Don't you suppose sex has been an issue in some of the choices that have emerged in all those marriages, and in all the relationships that didn't result in marriage? Maybe you should send the kiddies to bed before you go any further.
Sitting in the Graveyard
My first year of college, 1961, was one of the more tumultuous periods in my life. There was one particular night when, after dinner, my roommate was out, and I was too lost and depressed to study. Our room in the scholarship house was furnished with a bunk bed, two chests of drawers, and a table with two chairs. I sat at the table staring at a book for a while, then got up, closed the door, turned off the light, got into the top bunk, and lay on my side staring out into the darkened room, waiting for something to happen.
In high school, I had had an established identity, a position in the pecking order, and the goal was relatively simple and straightforward: graduate and go to college. Now that I was in college, the pecking order was far from clear--although it was clear I was not so near the top as I had been in high school--and the goal... To graduate, yes, but in what? It seemed I had to decide what to do with my life and then prepare for it, but what was life about? What was the point of it all, and what was my part in it?
What's the Point?
In high school I had never been exposed to anything that led me to question the Christian view of creation and the meaning of life. Not only did I accept it without question, I had engaged in discussions of "The Gospel" with my parents and their church friends, and had even written a couple of short treatises on passages in the Bible that I found interesting.
I had, in fact, been a religious child prodigy. My parents attended a fundamentalist Baptist church, and when I was 6 or 7 years old my mother became a member. Not long afterwards I decided I wanted to join too, to everyone's amazement.
This particular sect, the Primitive Baptists, also known as Hardshells, had no Sunday school for children, and there was no attempt to educate or recruit new members. Their belief was that God, or the Holy Spirit, called people personally to join the church, and that there was really no point in encouraging anyone to join without that Divine invitation. As a result, it was unheard of for someone my age to feel "the call," and rare even for teenagers. I was questioned by my parents and the pastor about my feelings for the church, and apparently gave satisfactory answers.
My baptism ushered in a new and wonderful period in my life. I was the church's darling, and everyone made a fuss over me. By the time we left church on Sundays, my face was covered with powder and lipstick from the old ladies.
A young preacher who sometimes visited our church took a special interest in me. His father had been a preacher, and this young fellow had begun preaching in his teens--another prodigy. He would take me home with him overnight, and I would spend a day or two tagging along with him on his insurance route. (Preaching was not a paying occupation, and all Primitive Baptist preachers had a "day job".)
In those days, no one mailed in their insurance payment--it was collected by the salesman once a month--and it was rarely a matter of simply knocking on the door and being handed the money. We went in, sat down, and talked church and family with many of them, or at a minimum had short conversations on the porch. They were all poor, and black, and they all seemed to care about the young preacher and he them. My exposure to them was not the typical experience of a white kid in the South.
An older guy, a widower, also took me home with him overnight a couple of times to "Help him break in a new horse," which consisted of my sitting on the horse while he led it around the pasture. It was an experience beyond fantasy for a kid whose heroes were Roy Rogers and The Lone Ranger, but what he didn't know was that I was as interested in what was inside his granddaughter's panties as I was in the horse. She was curious, too, and while we didn't get far in our explorations, our games were quite titillating.
As you may gather from that last paragraph, my religious experience did not greatly inhibit my interest in sex, and in the sixth grade several things conspired to advance my sexual education. More about that later, but for now, I'm trying to explain why I was lying in my college room in the dark, depressed and confused. My religious upbringing was a major factor.
Somehow, in the summer between high school and college, I came upon and read Philip Wylie's "An Essay on Morals." All I remember about it was that it asked questions I had never encountered before, and once asked, led me to answers that seemed totally obvious: the idea of God depicted in the Bible was ridiculous. I couldn't believe I had been so gullible.
At first there was a sense of amazement and freedom, but as time passed and I found myself in the new and complex environment of the University, some unconsidered implications of my lost belief began to filter into consciousness.
I remember a scene from an introductory Anthropology course in which the professor's presentation brought him to the brink of saying life was meaningless without his actually saying it. I found myself flushed with anger and hostility and forced him over the edge: "You're saying life has no meaning!" I said, my emotions clearly evident.
"That's right," he said, looking at me as if it pained him to encounter such naivete, "Life has no meaning."
I was speechless. Somehow I hadn't gotten around to considering that my prior belief in God had given my life meaning and purpose, and that losing that belief had left me with a void I didn't know how to fill.
This and similar experiences had brought me to my position on the bunk in my room, staring out as if the furniture might speak and give me an answer. None was forthcoming, but lying there, I thought of the cemetery that was only a block from our scholarship house, and grasped at the possibility that the contemplation of death might prompt the meaning of life to appear. I put on shoes, grabbed my cigarettes and went out. Minutes later I found myself sitting on the roots of a cyprus tree, surrounded by graves and tombstones.
I had the magical idea that from somewhere among all those dead people, the answers to my questions would rise up like mist from the ground, but nothing happened. I smoked a couple of cigarettes and gave up, wandering back to the house where, if I looked around, I was sure to find someone willing to drop their studies and distract me with some kind of foolishness.
Distraction, entertainment, romance; those were my only solace that first year.
One of the distractions was alcohol, although my first experiences had serious negative consequences.
Alcohol was strictly forbidden for scholarship students on moral grounds, and most of us were underage anyway, but that didn't mean it was inaccessible. An older student who had left the scholarship program to escape all the restrictions and responsibilities took it upon himself to give the younger kids an opportunity to try what had been forbidden. He bought a few cases of Spearman Ale and put the word out that for a slight mark-up and the required discretion it would be available Friday night at the house he lived in off campus. One of my buddies had a car, also forbidden--we were supposed to be too poor to have cars--and offered to drive a few of us over.
I had tasted beer and knew I didn't like it, but I was curious about intoxication, so I bought five short ales and chug-a-lugged them as quickly as I could. That got the unpleasant taste out of the way, and soon I began to feel drunk for the first time in my life. Along with the drunkenness I felt intense sexual desire, but this was an all-male party--what was I to do? It occurred to me that in one of the neighboring houses, there just might be a sexually deprived woman who would be thrilled to find a young college freshman at her door--all I would have to do was knock. I had a plan. I told my friends I was going for a walk.
Trying to look as normal as I could, I knocked at the house next door and when a man answered, said I had come to take Judy to the movies. When he told me that no one named Judy lived there, I apologized that I must have the wrong address and left. I tried the same routine at every house on the block without success, but in spite of my failure I was elated--I had had a great adventure.
By the time I got back to the Ale house there were several other guys nearly as drunk as I, looking for entertainment. Someone called out, "Hey Norm, show us your dick," and soon the cry was general. I was sitting on the living room floor, and rose to my knees to comply with the request to hoots of approval. The landlord who had given the evening its impetus was the only person who disapproved of the idea, citing the neighbors, and when his exhortations to cease and desist were met with peals of laughter, he brought out a machete and threatened to sever the offending member. He looked entirely serious brandishing the two-foot blade over his head, and I put my semi-erect organ away with some difficulty.
Somehow I ended up half naked in a back bedroom with a guy who turned out to be gay giving me a hand job. Just as I came all over my chest, about four guys with perfect timing burst into the bedroom saying, "Hey, what's going on here? What the hell are you doing?" They proceeded to finish undressing me and shoved me, laughing, into the shower.
That was the end of the fun part, and shortly after I was dried and dressed again, I found myself repeatedly throwing up off the front porch. I had thought that when my stomach was empty the vomiting would stop, but I continued to heave violently at intervals, even after my friends had sneaked me back to my room.
I had definitely enjoyed being drunk, but I was not in a hurry to suffer the aftermath again any time soon.
So why were my friends asking me to expose myself, you may wonder.
Fairly early in the school year when the weather was still hot, I had been awakened in the late evening by a small crowd of housemates standing at my bedside, peering at me and making lewd comments. I was a sleepyhead and always went to bed before anyone else, and on this particular evening I happened to have had an erotic dream, lying on my back in my underwear. The erection had caught my roommate's eye, who quickly gathered a group of witnesses. The word was out. This, however was not the first time my penis had drawn attention.
Way back in the fifth grade, when I was ten years old, what started out as an ordinary recess took an unexpected turn in the boy's restroom. The kid standing next to me at the row of urinals looked over and exclaimed, "This guy's got a dick like a grown man!"
Everyone crowded around to see, and from then on I got a lot of attention in the boy's room.
It isn't that my penis is freakishly huge, it's just that like most things about me, it's up around the 98th percentile, plus or minus two points. Like everything else: it has advantages and disadvantages, more of which I'll get into later. In the meantime let me note that being hung is no reason to be proud--I had nothing to do with its being what it is. It has been a great source of pleasure for me and for some other folks, but it is not the key to happiness. It hadn't kept me out of the graveyard that night, smoking cigarettes and feeling lost.
There have been guys with big dicks who didn't, for one reason or another, have the kinds of experiences with theirs that I had with mine, but mine, and the experiences it made possible, has certainly had a significant influence on my life. It was one among a number of reasons that I came to think of myself as different from other people.
I don't think the size of my penis had anything to do with my sexual education in the sixth grade. That grew out of an aspect of my life in which I was on the low tail of the bell curve--family income. We weren't the poorest kids in town, but we were below the lower fringes of the middle class. As a result my male friends at school--the idea of female friends was unfathomable at that point--were the poor kids, all of whom were older and wiser than me. They took it upon themselves to eliminate what they saw as the gross deficiencies of my prior education.
My Sixth Grade Education, and On...
I was in awe of the three guys who took on the task of bringing me up to speed in the sixth grade. I had been in awe of my official teachers up to that point, and deferential, but these guys were just the opposite, especially Dan.
Our sweet little teacher made one attempt to assert her authority. She told Dan he would have to tuck his shirt in; it looked too sloppy hanging out. He proceeded to tuck it into his underwear so that there was a good two inches of stripped boxers showing above his jeans. She told him that was not what she had in mind, but he insisted that was the way he liked his shirt tucked in, and continued wearing it that way the rest of the year--his banner of rebellion. She gave up, defeated.
From that point on she never questioned him. He would walk up to her desk with a cigar box in his hand and ask to go to the restroom, and she never dared ask him what was in the box, or why he would need to take a cigar box to the restroom. She was afraid, and rightly so, that if he showed her its contents she would be much more embarrassed than he.
The box contained my educational materials: a condom in a gold-foil wrapper looking like some foreign coin, and what he and the other guys called fuck-books, which I later learned were called Tijuana Bibles. (If you Google "Tijuana Bibles" you can read them for yourself.) I was required to follow Dan to the bathroom, peer pressure overcoming the embarrassment I felt at asking permission to do something I knew the teacher disapproved of, even though she didn't have the nerve to say so. Ray would be close behind me and the three of us would pore over the contraband.
The pornography would get us aroused, of course, and Dan and Ray--totally uninhibited--would jack off, either into a urinal or in one of the booths. They tried to teach me, but at that age, 10/11, I was not yet physiologically capable, try as I might. Ray tried to get me to chew tobacco and use the resulting brown saliva as a lubricant, demonstrating on himself, but I could never bring myself to do it, despite his claim that it was much better than plain spit.
After three or four such "field trips" to the restroom, the guys figured they had done all they could, and left it up to me to do my homework. I don't remember when I actually managed to have my first orgasm, but I'm sure I was there and trying at the moment my body was ready.
You may imagine that my "sexual education" gave me a distorted view of things that in no way prepared me for real life, and to a certain extent you would be right. Real women are not as eager for sex with strangers as the women in the fuck books. Real women have to be wooed, and there has to be foreplay and anticipation and buildup, at least in most cases, although there are exceptions. Unfortunately I did not encounter any of those exceptions until later in life, and my high school years were sadly disappointing in the sexual department.
The immediate effect of my new knowledge was that I felt like I was a deviant: nasty and evil. All kids are faced with the discrepancy between the thoughts and urges they feel and what is acceptable in society, although that discrepancy may be less today than it was fifty years ago when I was going through puberty. Couple that normal feeling of adolescent disjointedness with my pre-pubescent exposure to pornography, and you may imagine how I felt about my dirty little secret.
And yet at the same time I felt that my feelings and fantasies were more in touch with the reality of life than the sanitized version presented in the popular culture. My friends, after all, were perfectly comfortable with themselves and their bodies and their masturbation. It was our sixth grade teacher who was out of touch with what was normal and acceptable. She was the one with the distorted view, along with my parents and all the other adults I knew. The problem was that they were in charge.
Peace River Swamp
It seemed that most of the things I thought were exciting and fun were forbidden. I had read every Tarzan and Bomba, Boy of the Jungle book in the library, and we had something that I thought must be very like the jungle close at hand: Peace River Swamp. The problem was it was strictly off limits--it was thick with water moccasins and alligators according to my parents. What they didn't know was that one of my sixth grade friends, Warren, lived within sight of the swamp, so they weren't alarmed when I asked if I could go home with him after school to play.
Warren wasn't particularly interested in the swamp. It was so close to him that it was familiar and ordinary, and he didn't really understand why I wanted to go there. Still, he was happy to have after-school company if I wanted to come over.
Warren was too poor to live in Booger Bottom, the low income ghetto. He said his daddy ran a trotline for a living, which I found out later was an illegal way of fishing, done at night, for apparently very little money. We had to ride our bikes through Booger Bottom and beyond to get to where his family lived in a ramshackle, unpainted house that stood alone at the end of a dirt road. Typical of the older houses in town, it was built a good three feet above ground on brick posts. You could get a good idea of a house's age by how high it was built off the ground, the newer ones being built on slabs.
We went inside to get a snack before we set off for the swamp. Our treat consisted of a couple of pieces of white bread, pressed and rolled between our palms until they were solid, chewy cylinders.
Warren had told me to be quiet, that his mama might be sleeping, so I was already a little nervous when she appeared in the doorway to the bedroom. When I saw her I was outright frightened. I had never seen such a large human being before. Her body filled the entire doorway, while her head, covered in stringy hair, sat on top of her body like a lump of mashed potatoes. I was so awe-struck I didn't hear what Warren said to her, but whatever it was got permission for us to leave, and none too soon for me. A short trek across a cow pasture and we were at the edge of the swamp.
The whole area of our little town was flat as a griddle, but Peace River had carved a shallow valley through it. Where the land tilted off level marked the border of the swamp, and that slight slope meant you could never get lost--all you had to do was walk uphill and you were sure to come out of its tangled maze and into the open.
Once you stepped off the flat and started downhill you were in another world: dark, dank, and lush with undergrowth. One of my fantasies was to swing on the wild grape vines like Tarzan, and although you could hang from them and swing back and forth a bit, they were anchored to the ground and not a useful means of transportation. The easiest way to get through the chaos of vines and brambles was to walk along fallen tree trunks. When they didn't quite intersect you could sometimes clamber through the twisted dwarf trees of the understory from one log to another. Otherwise you had to step off into the muck, but you never knew how deep you'd go before you hit something solid, and with visions of quicksand acquired from my jungle books, I preferred to backtrack and look for another route.
The greatest surprise to me, and the source of our longest-lived recreational activity, was the spring we discovered that bubbled up between the roots of a giant cyprus. The water emerged in gently roiling fountains of pure white sand a few inches below the surface. The contrast between this crystal clear water in its pool of perfect mineral whiteness to the brown, rotting, clotted vegetable matter that surrounded it in all directions had a profound impact on me. It was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen, and although Warren could not quite fathom what the excitement was about, he liked the idea of damming up the outflow for a swimming hole.
A short way downhill from the spring, its trickle broadened out, partially blocked by a fallen tree. We set about improving the blockage and scooping the muck out of the bottom of our pool, and after an hour or so of sweaty work had managed to engineer a six inch deep reservoir. It was enough to warrant taking off all our clothes and going "skinny dipping"--alternately lying on our backs and our bellies so that we got wet all over, although we couldn't quite submerge.
I made a couple of trips to the swamp with Warren before the excitement faded. Our swimming hole wasn't getting any deeper, and didn't seem likely to, and there were no great Tarzanic adventures to be had. We never saw a single alligator or water moccasin--nothing but birds. And then I hit the seventh grade, and life became very different.
One of the differences was that instead of having one teacher, we had six, and a couple of them were men. Whether that had anything to do with it, or whether the rebellion I had been exposed to was a factor, I don't know, but for some combination of reasons I became a smartass. I had always been courteous and respectful with teachers before, and gotten along well enough with classmates, but I discovered I had a talent for sarcasm, and that even teachers were vulnerable to it.
I was still nice to the women, and one of the men was nice enough not to draw fire, but the other male made the mistake of shaming me and some of the other poor boys early in the year. We were coming to school barefoot, as we always had unless the weather turned really cold, and he called attention to that, saying we looked like country bumpkins. Unfortunately for him, he was not smart enough to embarrass me with impunity, and often made himself vulnerable by presenting the most unlikely of old wives tales as fact.
One time he told us that there was an easy way to avoid harm if you were ever attacked by a shark: since a shark's mouth was on the underside of its body, it had to turn on its side to bite you, so if you turned on your side as well, you were safe. Huh? It was the most ridiculous idea I had ever heard, and I proceeded to point out just how ridiculous it was, in the most exaggeratedly slow southern drawl I could muster.
He quickly changed the subject, but his humiliation was clear to all my classmates, some of whom expressed their amazement afterwards that I had dared confront him in such an obvious way. Of course that heightened my enjoyment, and increased the likelihood that I would take advantage of the next opportunity, of which there were many. Thanks to my parents, I was amply prepared.
My parents had done my brother and me a wonderful service, at no small sacrifice to themselves. They had bought a set of World Book Encyclopedia, which he and I read like comic books. I had accumulated a lot of information on a wide variety of subjects, and had improved my vocabulary in the process. I got in the habit of never reading anything without having a dictionary handy. As a result, I was highly armed against spurious information, and not the least hesitant to spring on it in a way that belittled the perpetrator, which, I found, could not always be done with impunity.
The most damaging response to my sarcasm came one day at the end of sixth period English. I had humiliated one of my classmates, who was so angry that as soon as we stepped out of the classroom door he swung at me. He happened to have a pencil in his fist, and succeeded in imbedding the point of it just below my right nostril, where it broke off.
They immediately took me down to the local Doctor, who told me that if he simply pulled the point out through its entry hole, I would have a blue scar there for the rest of my life from the graphite. To avoid that he had to make an incision and cut away the discolored tissue, then stitch it closed. It was a tedious process, requiring three successive shots of Novocain as the previous one wore off. He was near the end and only had a couple more snips to do before the stitching when I began to feel pain again. He was bored with the process by then, and told me to hang tough. He said he had sewn up a football player a couple of days ago with no deadening at all. It was torture, and despite his attempt to shame me into being macho, I did not take it with dignity.
Another time I smarted off to the wrong guy in the school yard, and he knocked me on my ass with one punch. Fortunately he didn't have a pencil in his hand.
As you can see, I wasn't much of a fighter, although I did have one fight, a somewhat extended one, that had a worthwhile outcome. There was a bully in my class who never picked on me, but he singled out the smallest kid in English class, who happened to sit next to him, and persecuted him without mercy. He would punch this kid in the shoulder so hard it would bring tears to his eyes, but the little guy was afraid to snitch on him to the teacher.
So I confronted the bully one day and told him to leave the kid alone and pick on someone his own size. He challenged me to meet him on top of the public library after school and he would pick on me. If that seems like an odd venue, it was because the library was small, octagonal, and had an outside stairway to the roof, which was bordered by a steel pipe railing. It was the closest thing to a boxing ring we had, although it was not the most discreet place to duke it out.
When we met on the roof, he stood in front of me with fists clenched at his side and dared me to hit him. I hadn't quite expected that, and at first refused, but he insisted. I was actually laughing a little nervously when I finally cuffed him on the shoulder, at which point he hit me on the side of the face with all his might, knocking me down. It was then that I realized this was serious.
I had no education or experience in fisticuffs. The only thing my dad had ever told me was to just go in throwing punches and don't stop no matter what, and it dawned on me that this was the best and only course I had. I got up swinging, but my opponent had apparently had some training. He avoided any damage from my flurry and got in another good one that put me on my ass again. I got up swinging again, and again he knocked me down, this time yelling at me, "Stay down, stay down!"
I got up again, but before I could reinitiate my suicidal onslaught we heard the voices of some younger girls yelling to someone down by the sidewalk, "There's some boys fightin' up there!" With that it was over. We decided we'd better vanish before the authorities showed up.
The next day at school my face was graced with several purple splotches that brought inquiries of, "What happened to you?" To which I replied, "I ran into a door." Nobody believed me of course, and I have no idea how far the real story traveled. It certainly didn't improve my reputation as a fighter, but there was one good result: The bully never hit the little guy again.
Dancing Black Water
Perhaps the most wonderful thing about the seventh grade was the dancing. We had a new girls' phys ed teacher who believed that dancing was an essential part of our physical education--girls and boys. It turned out that I was a good dancer, and that meant that the girls liked dancing with me. I was also lucky enough to have study hall third period when there happened to be a shortage of boys in the phys ed class, and those of us who wanted to could go to the gym to provide the girls with partners. Not only did I get more practice, but the third period girls were not seventh graders. They were older, and they had breasts, and they were willing to press them up against me when we slow danced. I was thrilled! Some of them didn't even mind if I got an erection and rubbed it against them, and you can believe I got quite a few masturbation fantasies from that.
I got a lot of attention for my dancing talents, but not all of it was good. I think it made some of the older boys jealous, and on one occasion one of them called me "Queer" on my way into the gym. My hair style may have something to do with it, too, since by now I was shining shoes at the barber shop and combing my hair into an outsized Pompadour. Both the hair and the dancing were uncharacteristic behavior for a kid my age in a farming community, and being a smartass didn't help. In addition, some of the girls called me "Normie," and that could easily be morphed into "Wormy," which got thrown at me much more often than "Queer."
My social success, then, was narrowly circumscribed, and it seemed I was being left out of after school activities that the more prosperous and popular kids enjoyed. It took me until the tenth grade to come to an understanding of my problem.
My understanding was advanced, I think, by the first few volumes of the Harvard Classics. I had been in the principal's office one day, and happened to run into Mrs. Evans, who was later to benefit me in many ways. On that occasion, she had told me that if she had a boy my age, she would pay him a dollar each to read the Harvard Classics. She did not offer to pay me such a heady sum, but I concluded that if they were that worthwhile, perhaps I should read them, monetary incentive or no.
There was a set at the public library, where no one before me had ever checked them out--I was the first person on the card. I actually remember reading the first two and the eighth, but I have no recollection of the ones in between or after. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, in volume one, impressed me greatly with its practicality and exhortation to frugality, but I can't remember anything specific from the rest. Still, when I recollect some of my thinking from high school years, I associate it with those books. I can't believe I would have gone through the same mental processes without them.
The challenge to my thinking in the tenth grade came when something bad happened: representatives were elected to the Student Council; I wasn't one of them, and I wanted to be. They were special, they had meetings, they got to go on field trips, and I was left out of all the fun.
I grappled with the question of why I wasn't popular enough to be elected, and I came to a conclusion: nobody likes a smartass. The problem with being sarcastic is that the people around you never know when it might be turned on them. They don't feel safe, and they don't feel liked.
I turned off the sarcasm, and I started taking a personal interest in people. I would ask the guy next to me what his brother was up to, how his mom and dad were. I asked people about themselves. I helped kids in study hall who were having trouble with their math without making them feel stupid. At first it was a conscious attempt to gain favor, but the odd thing about it was that after a while I found myself actually interested and caring about people--I was no longer faking it.
My program worked: I got elected to the Student Council, and in senior year I was president of the class.
Between Mud and Sky
I'm not sure if it was in junior or senior year that "The Gang" formed. There were six of us--five girls and me. Our main activity was to go to the drive-in movie together, smoke cigarettes, chatter, and laugh. I had "gone steady" with one of them for a while, double-dating with an older friend of mine who had his driver's license, and maybe that had something to do with my being included--I really don't remember. In my senior year I was dating two of them alternately, which neither of them liked very well, but which probably saved me from getting too serious with either one.
How strange is it for a guy to be included in a girl's high school clique? I don't know. Many years later I was in bed with a woman from Berkeley (that never happened in High School), who said to me, "It's a chauvinistic thing to say, but your feminine side is highly developed." She had called me up and invited me over to be her 40th birthday present. Oddly enough, that wasn't the only time I had been someone's birthday present, but more on that later.
So was I a member of a girls' clique because my feminine side was highly developed, or did my feminine side become highly developed as a result of being part of a girls' clique?
Several things come to mind. One is my relationship to my mother. I've already mentioned that I joined the church at an early age, soon after she did. We had that in common, and our religious feelings and beliefs were something that we talked about seriously.
What I haven't mentioned is that her membership came not long after her recovery from a nervous breakdown. Her doctor's prescription had been for her to get away from the family and spend a couple of weeks with her sister, after which she came back home, apparently recovered. No doubt that episode changed hers and my dad's relationship, as well as her relationship with us kids. How much of my joining the church was motivated by the desire to make her happy, to try to keep her from leaving again? How much was my subsequent relationship to her and all other women affected by that? You tell me.
For whatever reason, she and I talked about things more than the average mother/son, I think. There was my sister for her to explain to me: Why was she different from other kids? Why did kids tease her and tease me about her? So we talked about my sister's handicapped thinking, and about how people who don't understand such things can be cruel, etc. I had the opportunity to inquire, to observe and try to understand other people's behavior.
So perhaps because of my mom, and throw in the Harvard Classics and everything else, when I found myself experiencing jealousy in junior high, I inquired into these feelings, tried to understand them, and tried to find a way to avoid this unpleasantness.
What brought on the feelings were the girls in my eighth grade class who I liked, who I had "girlfriend" fantasies about, and who were starting to date older guys. I would see them riding by in cars with these guys, and it hurt. My first realization was that they couldn't help liking who they liked. Older guys had things to offer that I didn't, and it was perfectly normal for these girls to be attracted to them. At the same time, wasn't I attracted to more than one girl? That felt all right from my point of view, didn't it, so couldn't they like me at the same time they were dating someone else? And couldn't they date more than one guy?
I began to idealize girls less, and think of them more as human beings like me. The more familiar and comfortable I felt with these ideas, the less I was bothered by feelings of jealousy. I made progress.
The supreme test came my senior year. I was dating two of my classmates at the same time. One week I would take one to the drive-in and we would hug and kiss through a double feature, and the next weekend I would do the same with the other. No problem there, right? But being the perceptive fellow I had become, I noticed that one of them had developed a serious liking for another guy in our class. I decided that if I loved her, then the most important thing to me should be her happiness, and that I should try to facilitate that no matter who it involved. I told her about my suspicions in a way that convinced her that I welcomed the truth, whatever it was, and she confessed. She liked him, would love to date him, but it seemed he wasn't interested. Having her best interests at heart, I told her that I would let him know that I had no objections to their dating, and encourage him in that direction. She gave her approval, trusting that I could pull the maneuver off discreetly.
The outcome was not good. He liked her, but he had reason to think it probably wouldn't work out in the long run, and he wasn't interested in pursuing it. Arghh! Now I had to go back and tell her that her dreams were futile; there was no future in it. She cried, I held her, and then I left her to her sorrow.
Immediately afterwards I called another member of the gang, one I had never dated, and asked her to go for a ride with me. I told her the story, and then she held me while I cried. I had not quite developed the equanimity to hold a girl I cared about while she cried about someone else without some emotional repercussions of my own. But hey! I was only seventeen!
This same woman who held me while I cried had also given me my first cigarette, sitting in her parents' living room while she was getting ready to go to a football game. I sat in her dad's recliner, smoked that cigarette, and got high for the first time in my life. I loved it, and although there was never another cigarette like that first one, I kept at it for almost 30 years.
Getting back to the gang and me, and the why of it, I think it's clear that through a chain of odd circumstances, my attitudes toward women and toward myself had evolved in a way that was not typical of most of the guys my age. Perhaps that came through in ways that were not obvious, but nonetheless resulted in my being perceived differently by these women. I had become someone they could relax with, who could enjoy them without judgment. I consider myself very fortunate to have had a history that brought me to that point.
One last story before we leave high school. I ran into one of my seventh grade teachers in the hall once, during my senior year, and she told me that she had sat by Mrs Evans in a recent program put on by the senior class in which I sang a song. She turned to Mrs Evans and said, "I didn't know Norman could sing."
Mrs. Evans replied, "Is there anything he can't do?" The teacher who told me the story meant well, and who knows whether in the balance of things it was good for me to hear. No doubt it gave my self-confidence a boost, but perhaps it also increased my disappointment when I found there were things I couldn't do. We never know, when we interject ourselves into someone's life--even with the best intentions--how our intervention will play out in the long run.
What I hope to convey in all this is that, yes, I'm peculiar, and for good reason. The pieces of the puzzle are not altogether clear, but there's a logic in the way they fit together. There is a kind of progression that makes perfect sense, given a human being with these characteristics, these experiences. If things had been different, I would have been different, but this is the way they were, so far as I can tell. There's more to come, but ask yourself as we go along, wasn't there a progression in your life, too? You started out differently, no doubt, and you had different experiences along the way, but think back; be as honest as you can. Given the hand you were dealt, wasn't there a certain inevitability about the person you've come to be?