The General

Does this 5 lb puppy look like she's asking for a whipping?

Does this 5 lb puppy look like she’s asking for a whipping?

I got my first dog when I was 27.

I found her in the Want Ads on a Saturday morning — “Cocker Spaniel Puppies for Sale!” —- and she was an impulse decision.  It was 1992.  I’d just divorced my first (practice?) husband and moved to Phoenix for a new beginning. I remember I drew a red-ink circle around the ad and, honest to god, lost my freaking mind because within a few hours I was a single woman in a Phoenix apartment who worked long hours and traveled some and, suddenly, had a black and white cocker spaniel puppy and no idea what to do with her.

Besides love her.  Of course.

She ate everything:  an expensive necklace I dropped on the floor, pantyhose, magazines, socks and underpants, a toothbrush, my teensy-diamond earrings, a portable phone, dish towels, the linoleum in my teensy kitchen.

I spanked her.

And yet she ate the linoleum.  At least three more times.

*

This week I’m listening to all of the men — mostly black, retired, NFL players like Charles (bastion of good living) Barkley — talk about spanking.  Whipping. Whoopins. Beatings.  Given with “love.”  And I’m calling bullshit.

No human being on this planet hits or whips or lashes out at or beats any other living being, unless it’s in private where no one can see, except when it’s within their own, often unreasonable, anger.  So anyone out there (Charles Barkley, Adrian Peterson etc….) who says, “I’m doing this because I love them,” is full of it.  You are not excused.  None of us — not even me — are excused.

Like Charles and Adrian, I grew up this way too.  And I “turned out fine” as seems to be the catch-phrase.  But here’s the reality.  I desperately hated and harbored hatred for every single person who hit me in their anger, whether I “asked for it” or not.  If you think you can strike another living being in love, you are, at the very least, deluding yourself.

When my kids were teenagers, I used to tell them this:  If you wouldn’t want it on the front page of the newspaper, don’t do it.

When you hit or whip someone, let’s face it, the act is shrouded in privacy.  And why?  Because as a human being you know it is wrong and you would be embarrassed, humiliated even, if anyone saw you.

Just like I would have felt if, at age 27, anyone had seen me strike my cocker spaniel puppy on the rear “to teach her a lesson.”  A lesson she, of course, never learned.  Because none of us, not even dogs, learn anything, anything at all, from violence.

*

I got a lot of whoopins as a kid.  I had a big sassy mouth.  I was loud.  I walked loud.  I laughed loud.  I had opinions.  I pushed it.  I remember being afraid of my stepparents, of my grandparents, of my aunts and uncles.  This did not make me behave any better AT ALL. But it did make me more secretive, more of a liar, more of a fake-crowd-pleaser.  It made me into a girl, and woman, who pretended I loved people I only feared.

When I was little, my grandmother whipped my baby brother in his crib for crying.  I can still hear the sound of her hand on the plastic of his diaper.  I told my mother.  Which only made me a tattletale.  And my grandmother, as I recall, did not acknowledge or even speak to me for months.  I was devastated to lose her affections.  Lesson learned.

*

Bailey.  Also known as "The General."  Shortly before her peaceful death at age 14.

Bailey. Also known as “The General.” Shortly before her peaceful death at age 14.

When I married my husband and he had two kids — ages 9 and 15 — I arrived with my cocker spaniel.  The kids nicknamed her The General.

The General, because she’d gotten an unsightly haircut by a new groomer and looked like she was wearing a helmet.  And because her personality could be, let’s say, challenging.

The General.  The name stuck.  She ruled the house.  And she was insanely loved and fussed over for the next decade until she passed.

I remember being a new mother — a stepmother — at this time and how fraught that was with evil definition.  Can you imagine what might have happened if I’d struck one of my new children with my hand?  With a tree branch?  Left scars?

I’d have been arrested and booked.  Period.

*

Looking back from so many years, I believe I hit my little dog because I’d been hit.  I never did it again because I saw the horror of it, saw the horror of myself, immediately.  Hitting another living being is a lazy and monstrous act.  If you wouldn’t want it on the front page of the newspaper, don’t do it.  Right?

So how is it that we think hitting a wife or girlfriend — or especially a child — is okay?  Why do we call it domestic violence versus just violence?  Why is only violence against strangers a crime?  If I haul off and strike you in a restaurant, I’ll be arrested.  And charged.  And booked.  And quickly.  Yet, you’re my wife or my baby or my dog, I get right off and go out to live my life.

Here’s a message directly to Charles Barkley and Adrian Peterson and Reggie Bush and everyone else who claims that they got whipped and they “turned out okay.”  I turned out okay, too.  Which is a laugh.  I still know it’s wrong.  It is wrong to strike a living being — stranger or family member or baby or animal — because we are meant to be loving, living beings in this world.  And because violence, of any kind, continues to teach us nothing.

Nothing.

The Opposite of You

I have always loved definition, the hard lines you can draw around an exact meaning.  I was the little girl in Language Arts class who raised her hand all the time and never had to be told to look up words.  I can’t solve the simplest mathematical equation, but the act of defining is practically holy.

There are problems, of course, with definition.  We say things like:  I’m a writer, I’m happy/sad/busy, I’m a runner, I’m a mom/grandmother/committee chair, I’m a (fill in the blank).  And then, if you’re like me, the fact you haven’t published your book yet or run a marathon while denying yourself bacon sends you into a mad panic.

Last night I read this essay by my good friend Suzy Vitello and I couldn’t shake the end: all who wander are not lost.  Suzy, smart like she is, left it more open-ended than that, but the idea stuck with me throughout he night.  Who decided wanderers were lost?  WHO?!?!  Even Suzy’s title, “Inventing the Truth,” stuck to my skin.  What compels us to take a snapshot and give ourselves over to a single image, to say, Yes, okay, that must be who I am.

I’ve spent much of the last week pinning on definitions.  I was an insolent daughter; my mother and my stepmother suffered at many men’s hands; my grandmother was a victim of domestic violence, as were all of her 9 children.  But even as I write that bulky sentence I balk against letting those few words define who we are, who we were.  My mother and I loved the top 40 and knew every word to popular songs, which often made us seem so dorky.  My Aunt Mary had the best laugh on planet.  And even though I most-often write dark, I am a joyful person living in the light.

(238) Teri(TO)_2I remember the first writing workshop I took where everyone seemed to dress in military boots and slink under their desks.  How I felt I didn’t belong.  I didn’t belong because I just wasn’t dark enough.  My grown daughter has said, “I’m waiting for you to write a happy story!” and, when borrowing a book from me, “Please, don’t give me anything on the Holocaust or Slavery!”  The irony being, I’m not that person.  I’m the woman who runs up and hugs you when you least expect it and laughs way too loud and calls old friends, “When are we getting together?!”  Maybe it’s like the comedian who suffers severe depression:  only because I feel joyful can I write what hurts most?

One of my favorite memories of my grandmother — the woman I told my dying mother I hated — is her love of music.  Of dancing.  We used to dance, hand in hand, on the slick linoleum in her kitchen, to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

In summer.  

That may not be how the neighbors saw her, or how her husband saw her, or how my own mother even saw her.  But it’s my best memory because it’s so very clear: there she is, cooking and fun and lively and loving this song and her Winston Salems and her LifeSaver’s Butter Rums.

It’s only now, so many decades later, that I get the LifeSaver’s irony.

All who wander are truly not lost.  Never lost.  Right Suzy?  We are so often the opposite of who we seem to be.  We are depressed and spin our comedy.  We are joyful and write the darkness.  We are mostly not, ever, who we’ve defined ourselves to be.  And for that, I’m thankful.

Here’s Brenda Lee for proof.

 

Good Sport

I am a girl who loves sports.

I’m actually a grown woman with an often-ridiculous addiction to sports, but who’s bringing age and the-crazy into it?

IMG_0270.JPG - Version 2I watch the playoffs in pretty much everything; I block the weekends of golf majors on my calendar; I have been known to set my alarm clock for 1 a.m. on a Saturday night so I can watch the Australian Open Tennis men’s final LIVE.

This is face-painted me at the Australian Open a couple of years ago, where I watched 10-12 hours of tennis every day for a week in 100+ degree heat — and called it a vacation.

See what I mean?

And so this Sunday afternoon I went shopping instead of watching football.  I am not a girl who shops, at all, so that’s how off-the-rail I feel.  If you had told me a week ago that I’d spend the last 7 days writing about and talking about and reading about domestic violence, I’d have shot you a look.  It’s fair to say I was caught off-guard —- both by the details of the week AND by my personal connection and stories.  Stories I had not intended, ever, to tell.

As a kid, I loved board games.  Board games are straightforward: you read the rules and follow the rules and somebody wins, somebody loses.  One of the things I love most about sports are the rules.  Rules make games fair.  One of my favorite quotes is from the great Arthur Ashe, which I can only paraphrase here:  You must be as gracious when you lose as when you win; this is the true definition of a good sport.

I hate to lose.  So I struggle.

And yet, as I watched and read this week’s sports news, I kept thinking of this quote about grace and fairness.  Is it fair for a 300 lb athlete to bludgeon his 120 lb girlfriend, and still play the game he loves?  Is it gracious that fans showed up at games this weekend in their Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy jerseys?   Is it fair that these guys will, once all of this dust has settled —- and you know it will settle, remember Michael Vick? — go on to being admired and loved and revered for their talents, for their winning, for being good sports?

Today, the Carolina Panthers decided at the last minute to bench Greg Hardy, who was convicted — not accused, but tried and convicted — in July. Here’s what happened, in part:  First he flung her onto a bed, then he threw her into a bathtub. Then he tossed her onto a futon covered with a cache of firearms. An inventory of the guns revealed 10 semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. Hardy asserted that the rifles were loaded.  Next, Hardy ripped from her body a necklace that he had gifted her. He threw the jewelry into a toilet, and when she attempted to fish it out, he slammed the lid on her arm. He then dragged her by the hair from room to room before putting his hands around her throat. 

Convicted, and yet Greg Hardy was still on the roster and receiving his $700,000+ per week salary.  Where is the fairness in that?  Is Greg Hardy anyone’s idea of a good sport?

And then we have Adrian Peterson.  Let me get this straight: if you tell your 4 yr old child you love them before you beat them with a tree branch, it’s okay?  His 4 yr old suffered cuts and bruises to areas including his back, buttocks, ankles, legs, and scrotum.

Let’s take a second and picture how very small a 4 yr old child is.  And his father is a 220 lb professional athlete.

This morning I said to an almost 70 yr old woman in my family: “I’ve always known you were abused, especially in your youth, and I’m sorry I never said anything, never acknowledged it, never acknowledged you.”  I feared her response, was afraid I’d poked my nose in.  Afraid, until she said, “No, it’s okay.  I appreciate that.  I do.  And here are some of the things that happened to me that made me leave the first husband and stay with the second….”

Sometimes we really just have to ask the question, right?  And be willing to hear every detail.

I don’t need a video to show me what my 70 yr old female relative means when she gives me details of her abuse, of the way her first husband beat her and her baby boy.  I don’t need a video of what it looked like when Hardy’s then-girlfriend was thrown onto a couch covered in firearms.  I don’t need a video of Adrian Peterson beating his baby boy with a tree branch.  I know what that looks like.  And so do you.

I am a girl who loves sports.  Good sports.

Let us not let this go.

How We’re Tagged

Unknown-7When I was 12, I would sometimes duck into the Kroger at the corner of William and Sprigg, on the walk home from St. Mary’s Catholic School, and take a few bites from the bulk food bin.  And by take, I mean steal.

I knew stealing was wrong, of course I did, and my heart pounded each time with the fear of getting caught, but I felt justified and kept on.  We didn’t have food at home; my mother had to work until midnight; it would be 4 more days until she got paid; I hadn’t had money for lunch that day and I was really hungry; etc…. Until one day the store manager grabbed me hard on the arm and told me he’d had his eye on me, that I was in big trouble and he was going to call the police.

I thought about this when I saw how my last post about my grandmother was labeled.  On a page with several other stories tagged History, Science, Poetry, Hot Dogs, Scotland, and Culture, I both saw and felt the undesirable words next to mine:  Domestic Violence.  

This morning I watched this interview with Floyd Mayweather.  http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/sports/2014/09/13/floyd-mayweather-on-domestic-violence.cnn.html  The charming smile, the handsome and successful boxer, the photo of him smiling and hugging his 3 children.  The $30,000,000 he will make this weekend while being celebrated and cheered by thousands of admirers.  The serial abuser who, unlike with Ray Rice, has nothing for the public to see; nothing concrete to point to and say, “yes, that is horrific and wrong.”

Grandma Ann and me.  Winter 1965.

Grandma Ann and me. Winter 1965.

While I’m sure there were a number of reasons my grandmother and my family didn’t talk about the abuse she suffered at the hands (and voice) of my grandfather, I know one thing: she would have hated the “Domestic Violence” tag.

Her story is a certainly a domestic violence story, but there’s such a complexity of definition held within those two too-small words.  She would be relieved that there are no photos, no video evidence.

I imagine my grandmother, long dead now, looking at her face in the morning mirror and thinking, “This is not me; this is not my life,” and feeling the shame of it, the denial, the what-if-other-people-find-out and oh dear god what will they think? Not what will they think of him — the charming neighbor, handsome riverboat captain, Catholic churchgoer, Bible reader, outstanding cook — but what will they think of her?

She would not want this to be our memory of her, of the vibrant and incredible woman she was.

It occurs to me now that, even at age 12, I wasn’t really afraid of the Kroger store manager or the police or even of being punished.  I was fraid of being tagged — Thief — of my mother and family and teachers and schoolmates looking at me forever thinking how sad, that that’s who I was.

That that’s all I was.

My grandfather was respected to the day he died.  Ray Rice (we all know it) will play football again.  Floyd Mayweather will forever be revered as a champion.  But how will we tag the women who suffered at their hands; how will we remember them?

 * comments are off *

The Cycle

IMG_1282

________________

When I was 16, my high school boyfriend backhanded me across the face, with a beer bottle in his hand.  We were in his baby blue car, on our way to his house, and his father was the first to look up from watching golf on TV and notice my newly forming bruise, the swelling next to my eye.  His father lost it.  My boyfriend cowered and slunk down to the basement; his dad, apologetic about his son, drove me home.

It was never mentioned again.

But we dated for another year.  Because, of course, I “loved” him.  Awwwww.  And, honestly, I figured my sassy mouth provoked him.

*

One of my biggest regrets is something I said to my mother right before she died.

She was in severe pain and respiratory distress, shaking and sweating, a good hour from her next painkiller.  She said, “I wish you didn’t hate your grandmother. She had a hard life.”

To which I said, “Bullshit, Mom.  Everybody has a hard life.”

‘Round and ’round we went until the nurse came and gave my mother her last morphine shot. I remember my mother’s last meal was meat-stuffed-peppers, in cold tomato sauce, nursing home style.  And my bullshit words ended up being some of the last words I ever said to her while feeding her with a spoon.

*

My mother was right.

Her mother, my grandmother, led a horrific life.  Her husband was older and controlling and mentally and physically abusive.  Within a few months of their marriage, she tried to leave him, tried to go home to her parents.  Her father said, “Go home.  You made your bed, you lay in it.”

My grandmother had 9 children, which included a stepdaughter who was allowed to, and encouraged to, call her a “whore.”

My grandmother was not allowed to work, was not allowed to drive a car, was not even allowed to learn how to drive a car.

When my grandmother was newly married, she was out one day, laughing and having a good time, riding in a car with her girlfriends, when they missed a stop and ran up under a tractor trailer and, while they all survived, they were all seriously injured.  I have the newspaper clipping.

My grandmother was in her early 20’s; her lower lip had been almost completely ripped off; her teeth were shoved violently up into her face; she was unconscious; they did not know if she would survive.

She survived.  However, my grandfather would not allow her to have plastic surgery.  As was his choice.  He was, after all, “the husband.”  He said, I heard, that this would keep her at home, keep her from “running around.”  He allowed the kid-doctors in the emergency room to repair her lower lip, her face.  She got false teeth.  She was not yet 25.

She did not leave.

One time he came home drunk and threw her outside into the yard, in her night gown.  Then he sat inside the door, all through the night while their children (supposedly) slept, with his shotgun and dared her to try and come inside.

She did not leave.

One time he threw her down the basement stairs, while pregnant, and her baby boy came too early.  That boy, my Uncle Jerry, would grow to man-size, but would never speak, never walk, and never leave a crib.  He remained in diapers for all of his 50 years on this earth.

She did not leave.

*

When my mother and her sisters divorced their husbands —- and there were A LOT of divorces — she had a hard time supporting them.  I see, now, how jealous she must have been.  It was the 70’s and 80’s, the height of feminism.  How her daughters, unlike her, were allowed and even encouraged, to leave.

When I left my first young husband after barely one year, my grandmother was so angry.  She called me on the phone, in my new single-bedroom apartment, and said, “What’s wrong with you?!  You’re leaving him, and he has a good job, but he doesn’t beat you, or anything!”

*

I still think about that beer-bottle bruise, my boyfriend’s father, and how I didn’t take it seriously.  At all.  I figured I’d asked for it.  I think about my last, thoughtless, words to my mother:  “Bullshit, Mom. Everybody has a hard life.”

I was wrong.

One Door Closes

Here’s the thing.  I’ve stopped blogging, I just didn’t know it yet.

I have files on this computer titled:  Thoughts on Ferguson, Disorganized Religion, Skinny, Ray Rice, On God or The Lack Thereof, The Subtext of Texting, etc….  All subjects that set my hair on fire and that I’m writing about.  Just not publicly.  Which means, not here. 

closed-doors-1400451-mIt’s like that Joan Didion saying, “I write to know what I think,” except that I’ve learned I need way more time and space, and a closed door, to know what I think.

I started this blog almost 5 years ago so I could write with immediacy without writing for real.  Like a warm up.  Like practice.  But these days I’m writing everything for real which explains all of those tucked away and titled computer files, not yet fully cooked. Which also explains why this blog has bogged down. I look back through my posts and see I’m reading this or that, walked the dogs, went on a trip, moved my computer to another room, blah boring blah.  Because when I write here these days, I find myself backing down.  Backing off topics.  Overusing the delete key.  Stalling.  I’ve become too careful here in this space, too much of a pleaser, too worried about what you and you and you will think before I’ve even had time to think it through myself.

The opposite of — the opposition to — writing.

Here’s to forgetting I have a delete key.

We Are Not Ourselves

I’ve been waiting for a new big fat sweeping family saga.

And here it is.

9781476756660

While many first novels deal with the question of how a self is formed, fewer deal with the self’s slow unravelling. We Are Not Ourselves follows the history of a family, from the childhood of Eileen Tumulty in an Irish-American household in New York, through her marriage to Edmund Leary and the birth of their son, Connell.

(read this review at The Guardian)

Thomas was thinking big when he began. “I always wanted to write something somewhat sweeping,” he says. “Towards the beginning, the efforts were discouraging. You think that you might just want to do a truncated version of what you set out to do—and you always do, anyway, the book is never exactly what you imagine it will be—but I had in mind something big. I tried to make it as short as I could and still tell the story I needed to tell.”

(or this interview with Matthew Thomas)