Hopkins Pond

Memory plays with our present self, teasing us with the possibility of its mutability; if we remember differently, we may become somebody else, if not in body, in essence. I have many memories I play with, imagine differently, reshape and wrestle, and many I could not mutate if I tried. Perhaps that is the required state of mind, leaving some wiggle room, if only imaginary, and at once confirming the past that is embedded. We exist, can float even, somewhere in between. Amy Scanlan O’Hearn

There is one such memory I have of a conversation with my mother, one that I revisit with intense emotional clarity and physicality. In no way can I alter it. But my life may be entirely different today if I had taken heed of the advice she gave in those moments; if I had taken action. We are in the car, one of several hundred times we rode together—to the store, clothes-shopping, to church, to the doctor or dentist. I have no idea of the destination, only of a rare time alone with her; a fifth child of seven, it was my turn. It was my senior year of high school, and she asked me what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, what I wanted to be; I was a directionless teen; each day held the view of a vague uncertain future. I remember turning to my mother and saying I don’t know—I don’t know what I want to do, but I don’t want a nine-to-five job, having little idea of what that even was. Without missing a beat, my mother replied, “Well, then, get out to the woods now.” 

I long for a field outside my door, frogs in the grass, a feral cat in the barn, and a stream close by. I have had none of those. Aside from eleven years in the country, if that’s valid nomenclature for a split-level on a gravel road with woods at the back and a farm on both sides, where my six siblings and I roamed freely and wreaked havoc in cornfields and on properties not our own—considered by the locals as foreign, destructive, and wild children, not the stock from which they came. Since then, I have languished between the pull of the bucolic in suburbia, a limbo-land, a state of mind as much as a logistical disappointment. My father moved us to suburbia at the height of his career, and I have followed a path, married, and experienced motherhood and of late, middle age, in its realm. When my husband and I set out to move to Philadelphia twenty-five years ago, we spent a few days traipsing in and out of dark, cramped apartments until we settled on one with a second bedroom, or a space that had been walled off and called a second bedroom, which featured a window and a tree outside. A month’s rent would eat up most of our earnings, but I had figured out how to cook on five dollars a day, so we were excited about a life in the city. The day before we were to sign the lease, I checked out an apartment in a small town near my mother, a train ride from my husband’s office; it was the first floor of an old Victorian with two very real bedrooms, a front porch, and a tire swing. Twenty-five years later, my suburban state of mind has come to fully appreciate the tree-lined streets of my small neighborhood, tucked just off a major interstate, and I partake of the urban experience by hopping on the train when I feel like I need its pulse.

A converse pull of the city began with my father, who believed that an individual has only really lived if he has spent time in NY, and his NY years were the stuff of legend: faded match packs, torn black and white photos from The Copacabana, and tales from behind the bar at theStork Club. We got our dose of the city once a year when he hauled us, in a Chevy wagon, nine hours away from Western Pennsylvania; there, we tumbled into tiny adjoining rooms in some hotel or other near Central Park. “Have fun,” he’d say, handing us each a twenty, and we hit the streets, picking up cheap fashions and souvenirs, spotted and stalked celebrities, entered Central Park and exited it exhausted and lost many blocks later. We found our way back to the hotel, dirty and hungry. Chinese or pizza was ordered; on Home Box Office, we watched R movies my older sister ordered, in a gravelly voice, from the front desk. I watched Shampoo at thirteen and a year later, Taxi Driver, both frightening and enticing. But I didn’t really get the city. Its enormity, the unending blocks of concrete. Even the relatively unmanicured rambles of Central Park failed to satisfy. I never forgot the woods or let them disappear from my internal horizon, and I realize now that I am fortunate to have lived the past thirty-five years within a five-mile parameter of Hopkins Pond.

I have been walking the paths that circle the two ponds since I was fifteen, taking various routes into the park that surrounds them, depending on the hour, the day, or the year. At Hopkins Pond, I have experienced beginnings, come to several ends, and suffered all the strifes and highs in between. But no matter what phase of life, I take something away every time I go there. I pick up leaves, gather bouquets of weeds, and pocket acorns, stones, and shells. And if what I carry away isn’t clutched in my palm, I leave with something else, ions maybe, but much different than the ones radiating from the granite sidewalks or rock ledges of a city park.

The park at Hopkins Pond has no rock ledges, and the earth is the Jersey soil that erodes nearly before one’s eyes. I have seen birch and oak and beech rise and topple from the ponds’ banks onto their massive sides and disintegrate over time. With the sand and soil, the ridges are never too regular, and the paths are never too predictable, meandering regularly from their well-worn ways. Even in its shifted-ness, Hopkins Pond has been a constant in my life. My footprints around its course are filled with instants from a past I cannot escape.

I don’t ever recall saying I have to live near Hopkins Pond, but that’s the way it has been. My trips to the park and circuits around the pond have become a habit or tendency, a part of my life I would miss if I were to go without. I’m not a devotee of much, but I’m holding onto the woods, and there they are, so I go.

At the ponds’ north side, the path follows the frontage of the Birdwood estate. I guess that I have passed there several hundred, perhaps a thousand, times. A dignified estate with coppices and a slate roof, a low picket fence and icehouse-turned-artist studio, it sits angled and snug on the property’s rim. I have never seen a soul enter or leave the place; its occupants forever in residence. Once, I watched a gardener load a truck of fallen limbs.

In a marl pit at the far reaches of the estate, the first nearly intact dinosaur skeleton was discovered in the late 1800s. A Quaker family who had built the house was using a remarkably large bone as an umbrella stand, noticed by a visiting friend who also happened to be a paleontologist. With permission, he excavated an abandoned marl pit on the property and within months, the first standing dinosaur exhibit was on display at the Philadelphia Academy of the Natural Sciences, and the frenzy to unearth dinosaurs in marl pits all over the state of New Jersey was underway. While my appreciation for New Jersey is elevated by the discovery (almost as sexy as living in France near the Lascaux cave), my imagination is more so drawn to the excavated marl pit than to Hadrosaurus foulkii, or Foulk’s ‘bulky lizard,’ unearthed there. I read an article in The New York Times, from the late 1800s, of two boys gone missing one December and then found days later in an abandoned marl pit. I had no idea at the time what a marl pit was. I envisioned its depths murky and dark, its slippery slides without hold. The boys had lost their way, then lost their footing and fallen in. They died clasping one another. The reporter described them arm in arm, their “curly locks laid out behind them in the muck.”

On the ponds’ western rim once stood the Birdwood property mill. Above the smaller pond, a 22-foot fall mill generated the power that ground grain to grist and turned trees to lumber for the early residents of the area. I’ve seen pictures at the local Historical Society of the stone remains in varying stages of decay. Off the path, stones are strewn here and there. Vines encrust most, and I have lifted them to find salamanders impossibly alive and breathing in the jet-black mud underneath. Once I ventured off the path into the swampy stretch of land below the two ponds to find broken bottles and plates, rusted tin, and tubeless tires. From the scraps, I fabricate in my imagination the stuff of the daily lives of the mill workers and residents of Birdwood. I wonder about their joys and disappointments, about their illnesses and struggles, and with what ease they tossed their discards off the side of a hill.

If I walk to the ponds from the house where I live now and enter from the boulevard that runs along its southern edge, I approach the lower pond by a path that bends through scrub trees and raspberry brambles. I never take this path without startling the kingfisher. His squawk belies his timidity. So do his rapid movements as he darts from fallen limb to low-hanging branch, skimming the water’s surface fast and furious. I wonder if he knows I am there, or if I have overestimated his acknowledgement. Along this same overgrown stretch, I have spotted an owl on the skeletal remains of a tree. I have never seen another. Here, I encounter the egret and the night heron, a hunkered bird with a plumage that droops just above the water. Both birds study the movement of carp and perch under the slow and silt-bedded stream. The kingfisher squawks and the egret flies. Rarely does he tolerate my approach. I was as startled when we met once on a wintery path, the quiet of the snow and the barrenness of the landscape fooling us into solitude. That same day, I flushed a flock of mourning doves when the park’s joggers and walkers were few, and the birds had taken full reign. We met in separate occupations, theirs a secret society, and I lost in thought.

Some days when I am looking to walk farther, I cross a bridge and follow paths that run at the base of the Bancroft property on the eastern side of the park. Invariably, I recall my teen self, when I spent almost every afternoon in the park after school. In summer, spring, winter, no matter the weather, I huddled with friends, passing apricot brandy or a rolled joint; we were warm against each other, and isolated. I picture us on tree stumps or fallen logs, around small fires if we dared, laughing, telling the same stories again and again. The tips of our cigarettes illuminate faces and behind us, the darkness is impenetrable. I wonder how we withstood hours in the cold, only conscious of not being caught and if we were pursued, then running like gazelles though uncharted paths we knew in the dark. Once we were pursued by the police with flashlights. I twisted myself into a trunk, hugged the bush, and willed myself to be one with it. It worked. The voices and the flashlights faded and after the pounding in my ears quieted, I made my way to my friends, knowing where they’d be waiting for me to share the details of the chase.

More often, I go to Hopkins Pond alone, except for Bingo. But with Bingo I may as well be alone. We walk in tandem, her steps regular, timed as she traces the course; mine in rhythm, too, as I compose words in my head that may evaporate or stick when I return home. Bingo’s pursuits are intense, her scent of fellow canines urgent, of chipmunk, rodent, and fowl deliberate. There have been several times she turned to me with some small creature in the clutches of her jaw. I scold her and she drops her prey, disappointed for an instant but well prepared to begin again.

Another treasured companion to Hopkins Pond has been my son, who, like an ichthyic descendant, was immediately drawn to the shallows of the waters, and he crouched there, angled, and scooped minnow’s eggs and trout. His optimism at catching something never waned, even in winter when he cracked the ice’s rippled ridges and tempted fate on a pond’s surface to see the carp he knew were lurking underneath. A favorite spot of his was on the gnarled branches of a cedar that formed a web above the pond’s surface. He straddled there and lowered bits of his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to a massive snapper while I sat nearby, watching closely and fearing the thing might take him whole if his hand got too close. On the concrete bridge that spans a stream from the lower pond, my son and I have danced barefoot around slippery eels pulled from the brackish water. The same sludge-like mess into which he kicked a treasured tackle box and sneaker while we hopped around the slithering black bodies at our feet. Even into his late teens, I could coax him to the pond, to the surprise of the kingfisher’s screech and the egret’s ancient crouch. When he visits now from NY, a walk to Hopkins Pond is a worthwhile endeavor. He has also felt the charge.

As I mount the hill at Birdwood, I am careful to watch the gravel beneath me, cautious of new rivulets or of crevices in the path as it ascends and brings me into view of the upper pond at the path’s rise. Emergency lights blare, and I stiffen. Out on the ice, orange tape flaps and waves between cones. Young men in yellow frog suits carry a pole that resembles an elephant prod. They move slowly toward the middle. It is cold. Blocks of broken ice lay scattered, tipped sideways and piled askew next to a large hole in the pond’s center. I can see the thickness of the ice—a good six inches—and wonder the last time the pond was so deeply frozen. My heart sinks as I imagine the probable scenario—young boys, skating, engaging in horseplay; someone has fallen through. But as instantly, the fear dissolves and I look again at the young men in their rescue gear, like moonwalkers, head to toe in bright spandex, belted at their waist, helmeted and surreal, creatures from under the sea. They glide across the ice with boyish grins, and I am suddenly relieved—a drill, a simulated rescue operation. As the young ‘rescuers’ frolic out to the ‘danger site,’ their counterparts—potbellied and wizened old guys on the shore—huddle by the truck. There is no imminent danger, only in the extreme cold a tragic possibility to be avoided if they practice and prepare. I am relieved that my pond is not tainted, and that the worst I will associate with it are my own transgressions, where I spent and maybe wasted some hours of my adolescence, skipped school and partied, where I stashed marijuana in a fallen tree. I once saw a man jerking off in the brush, and on the rise at the upper pond’s far northern edge, in my boyfriend’s truck, I ‘lost my virginity.’ Everything short of death.

 

Photo at the top of the page is of a scene at Hopkins Pond and was taken by Amy Scanlan O’Hearn.

Pinboy

Mine was a career option knocked out from under me by mid-twentieth-century technology, not the silent artificial intelligence that threatens many occupations today, but a clanking contraption of gears, pulleys, and mechanical grippers that made human hands unnecessary. Walter Cummins

In my early teens I had worked several nights a week as a pinboy in a six-lane bowling alley one flight up from our small-town movie theater, a narrow place that smelled of shellac, spilled beer, and stale tobacco. I sat on a ledge in a pit at the end of a gleaming wood surface, huddling for safety when the bowling balls came hurtling toward me, my arms and elbows poised to fend off flying pins, then returning the ball with a shove down a grooved shaft. After a strike or the second ball ended the frame with a spare or something like an 8–10 split, I jumped into the pit to press a lever with my shoe, scoop up scattered pins, and arrange them on protruding spikes.

That was the pattern of the evening: set them up, duck for cover, and set them up again. In many ways, it was a Sisyphusean endeavor, but lacking the top of a hill as an unreachable goal. Pinboying had no such illusion of an end in sight. Just the ephemeral satisfaction of seeing the pins neatly aligned before, seconds later, they were scattered again. A lesson for life. The best laid plans smashed to smithereens.

To be honest, I wasn’t cut out for a pinboy future even if technology had not intervened. One lane was all I could handle. As a teenager, I lacked the strength, agility, and stamina of my athletic co-workers, who were able to cover the pin-setting of two adjacent lanes, hopping from one to the other, without the luxury of ducking, constantly pressing and placing and jumping. Amazingly, they were never injured by a flying pin, though we were all in apprehension of those we called Saturday Night Ball Busters—thick, muscled men who heaved balls that sailed above the wood lane until the instant before exploding the pins into lethal projectiles.

I suspect the men who ran the bowling alley, especially Al—the deep-tanned manager always perched on a stool with a cigar and a beer can—were amused by my flailings, their kind words a veiled mockery of my limitations. Every cent I earned as a pinboy, change that never left the cash register, went back to Al to cover the fees of my own bowling and pool table time.

Despite all the hours I devoted to those sports, I never advanced beyond mediocre, in fact, even worse at pool than bowling. At a peach-fuzzed fifteen, as little as I knew about most of life, I was well aware of my mediocrity. Yet I persevered, pushing an immovable rock, desperate to be competent at something, anything.

I have no clear memory of how I became a pinboy, who or what led me up the stairs off to one side of the movie theater where, as a preteen, I had fantasized emulating Roy Rogers’ horseback heroism. No memory of when I gripped my first bowling bowl. Or how Al allowed me into the pit. Did I ask? Did he, shorthanded, make an offer?

Pin-setting followed my failures in the food realm, where at our town’s vaunted seafood restaurant just down the street from the movie theater, on my initial night as a busboy, I spilled water into a customer’s lap the first time I served a table. That led to a rapid transfer into the kitchen and a stool in front of a large bowl of uncooked shrimp. My task was to peel off the shell and scrape out the dark line of innards along the curve of the creature’s shape. With intense concentration, I didn’t want to allow a speck to remain. It turned out that my perfectionism made me a very slow shrimp cleaner. The message was delivered calmly and politely, but I was fired that evening, told not to bother coming back the next day.

Even if I had been a champion shrimp deveiner, that skill would have become as useless as pin-setting. Today, shrimp are cleaned by a machine called the Jonsson System. According to the website, “Jonsson machines automatically adjust to each shrimp, gently peeling and deveining it in the style selected. Shrimp are placed in a plastic tray. Briefly, here is how the peeling process works: a clamp grabs a shrimp, the shell is cut and vein removed, pins pull the shrimp from the shell, peeled shrimp are deposited in one location, and the clean shell is then discharged elsewhere.” Manual dexterity, fine motor control, would be a wasted excess, assuming I had ever possessed it.

And what about the gross motor control of pin-setting? No humans needed. Now a computerized machine uses a combination of infrared signaling, scanner camera, sweeping bar, automatic scoring system, conveyer belt, ball returner, pin elevator wheel, another conveyer belt, and pin distributor. What does such a machine cost? Ebay offers a used “2 Lane Brunswick Frameworx Bowling Equipment With Glow Anvil Synthetic Lanes” for $18,000.

Assuming such machines had never been invented and human labor remained a necessity, what would I as a hypothetical career pinboy have cost an owner like Al? Assuming ten dollars an hour for a forty-hour week, one year of me (assuming I could have managed two lanes), even forgetting benefits, would have been more than a used machine. Over several years of the machine’s life, human labor would have been a serious economic mistake.

My incompetence turned out to be a harbinger. Pin-setting, shrimp-cleaning: They’re just two of my failures, authenticated during my early teens, years before the inadequacies of my adulthood. Fortunately, I did manage to stumble upon alternative ways of being. But what if I had had no alternative to life in a pit, ducking and setting through an eternity of frames, my muscles weakening, my bones creaking, my old man’s lungs gasping?

 

Photo at the top of the essay comes from uni-watch.com.

 

Condom Races

“I can give example after example, seemingly trivial things he said, and me-then slicing them open to examine in my journal, one day agonizing over a hex of hero-worship, the next grateful I met someone so worthy of respect.”  —Something Wrong With Her Cris Mazza

 

Shouldn’t I start with the latest, and most jarring, incident? Before character introductions, before the narrative pondering of questions raised, before metaphors for the sadness, disillusionment, even fear aroused? And fear of what? Being wrong to begin with? Sensing a narrow escape? Somehow … being abandoned?

The initial questions already listed, the primary emotions already announced, why is it so hard to simply dramatize the event? Because it was an email exchange, without setting, facial expressions, background noise … details that I know impact a dramatic scene. Maybe my title can do the job of the lead-in hook, and I can continue blathering.

He is 15 years older, and long ago had become the only person who received a copy of every one of my books — 18 at the point of this occurrence. A mentor during my inwardly tumultuous 20s, then personified, with only the thinnest of camouflage, in four novels and easily a dozen stories.

The latest timespan between book publications had been longer than usual (I’m getting tired, and the world is relieved). Plus I’d delayed sending the latest book for a year and a half after its release. So, as I had for the last several books, before addressing and mailing the package, I emailed to find out if his address had changed. Asking about his address had always been an excuse: I needed to know if he was still alive, and it’s not polite to ask outright. But this time, there was no coy substitute question to discover if he’d recovered from being sucked into an ideological black hole. I was aware he’d run for his local city council in the 2010 Republican primary, as a Tea Party candidate. In fact, the last time we’d communicated, just a year and a half earlier, he’d told me he needed to go speak with several groups about why Hilary Clinton could not be president. I do think he said could not and not should not and I’m positive he said needed; while searching for that email might validate those details, I don’t really want, right now, the visceral face-to-face of words he actually typed.

The comment about Clinton probably and partially explained my delay in sending the book. (I probably had deliberated permanently suspending the book-sending practice.) So this time, even though I had already searched local obituaries to make sure he was still alive, I still did not inquire about his address wholly without trepidation.

His answer came back promptly: yes his address was still the same, yes he and his wife were enjoying decent health, playing golf for exercise. And  … “worrying what was going to happen to California when in the schools they have relay races with 5- and 6-year-olds racing up to put condoms on models of erect penises to see which team is fastest.”

“I went back to see Pryor … In his office — not the same one where I’d worked for him, a bigger one — there was a George Bush calendar on the wall right behind his head. I didn’t want him to notice me looking at it, didn’t want to hear him say anything about it, didn’t want to know what he would say, although the fact that he had it says enough, and says, above all, that I couldn’t have known him the way I thought I had.” —Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls

Why are there people in our pasts whom we can’t forget, can’t shake even when it’s healthier to do so? Besides former-spouses or former-lovers or a love-interest who never reciprocated. Not parents who abused or abandoned or siblings who broke ties. Not close friends who died or converted to a restrictive religion. These are good reasons for the termite trails left in our brains.

But why is it sometimes so difficult to forget, break from, or merely leave behind some of those from a mentor-class: bosses, teachers, professors; maybe a coach or choreographer, music or drama director, club advisor, scout leader?

“I might dream about you, but you’d be cutting my hair or touching my eyelids with your thumbs or balancing me as I walk around on the handrail of a balcony,” —Your Name Here:___

Did the mentorship ever go bad? Not in the old-fashioned way: the pupil did not eclipse (then neglect) the mentor. We were in different fields, but even a comparison of our career trajectories had a zero factor in any morphing of the mentor relationship.

Also, it didn’t go bad in the now #metoo-established ways. The mentorship never turned sexual, romantic, or even flirtatious. For curious reasons, this is considered bizarre or a suspicious claim. Why should it provide a problem? … but it does: in defining the relationship. The interpersonal dynamic I pondered in all those stories and novels was inexhaustive and resilient as “material” because it was an undefined relationship, or defined in the negative: not friends, not lovers, not colleagues, not peers, not professor-student, not family. As employer-employee, it was once removed. Was he my “boss”? Yes … and no. Was this a complicating factor? Yes, but not in a simple line-of-command way. And some of what did make the “boss” aspect an issue has only been perceived lately, as he was in his mid-30s and a comparison of his demeanor, insight, and ability to reflect doesn’t jibe with either 30-somethings I’ve met from “the other side” or my own bumbling 30s. But remember, my perception of him was that of a 22-year-old, and that image also doesn’t jibe with the Tea Party candidate conspiracy-believer. It’s possible his sagacity, grace-under-pressure, and calming-leadership were a sham, created in part by my unfinished brain’s stewing anxiety over my impending but latent, even delayed adulthood.

But the true complication in our unofficial mentorship relationship came primarily from the “real” boss, the one with official charge and accountability for my position, who was also my mentor’s senior-faculty program director. We both worked under an egomaniac conniver whose motives always came from his desire for power and prestige. This seems almost comical, but power and prestige exist in every little world and society, even dog-training, even Boy Scouts, even Little League, even collegiate bands, even university English departments.   When he wanted to win a teaching award, the Monster wrote a letter of recommendation for himself and asked his junior colleague to sign it. The junior colleague (my Mentor) did as asked. When I, the letter’s typist, realized and looked up from my keyboard aghast, the Mentor said, “just type it exactly as is.”
I recognize now that my mentor’s senior-colleague (and my “real” boss) was gaslighting and manipulating my mentor, “requiring” certain behavior and decisions out of sheer jealousy (the threat my mentor posed on a popularity scale, on a future-prestige scale, on a future-glory scale, etc.). The boss was using common narcissistic maneuvers on me as well. When I looked to my mentor for … what … protection? Relief? Cover? … there was little to none. There was only his ability to explain … although often cryptically. Betrayal was how his conflict became defined in my POV; but the boss had a lasso on my mentor’s future, and I did not. Maybe what we really shared as a relationship was that we were both thrashing around (maybe simultaneously cowering), trying to figure out how to react or survive this monster’s style, posture, and conduct. For decades I’ve always referred to this boss as the only human being I’ve ever hated. Just now, trying (again, again, again) to describe him, I realize he was, not-so-astonishingly, a precursor but comparatively trivial Donald Trump.   Their tension started with jealousy and was manifested by my regard for my Mentor over the Monster. I did extra work for former and not for the latter. “Too much allegiance to the desk in the corner,” I was told. While I was house-sitting for his neighbor — a situation he arranged — Monster took me aside to “warn” (i.e., gaslight) me about Mentor: He was all image and no substance, basically a charismatic, and I shouldn’t “chase after personality” because I’d lose myself. Meanwhile, while I was not privy to what Monster may have said to Mentor, the Mentor started warning me that he might have to ignore me, couldn’t be seen talking to me, and couldn’t call me the name I was currently trying to use instead of a childhood nickname, because he “can’t appear to have knowledge about parts of your [my] life that have nothing to do with your [my] job.” What was he told, what did he deduce, what did he fear?
True, it was my mentor who struggled the most under the ego-motivated, manipulative, sometimes illegal practices of this monster. But even as the mentor was pressured into participating in a plan to drive me out of my job (among other ploys he was coerced into being part of), he still tried (without grand success) to advise me in being able to function without emotion, to help me perceive more of what was going on around me besides my mess, to warn me, even console me, to validate my abilities and attempt to redirect my attention to what should be my full focus and real mission. Have any low-level White House staffers (in their 30s) mentored a troubled 20-something to get out and find their real life’s work while simultaneously finding themselves being asked to lie, falsify reports, or perform illegal practices? Perhaps his lasting impact and importance lies there.   A state-employee position granted to the band program had a student-worker who elected to go home for the summer, so he ran a scheme whereby that employee cashed his state checks and sent a personal check to the person doing the work. The Monster also falsified addresses in order to get paid jobs for noneligible students in a city-run summer employment program for inner-city youth.

“Despite an easy presumption to label it a girlish crush, it was not his leading-man exterior that entranced me. It was that he looked me in the eye, undistracted, while he spoke and listened, and frequently perceived, probed and comprehended the center of my tacit and (I thought) inexpressible insecurities.” —Something Wrong With Her

The previous 5 paragraphs were written by hand in a notebook while I waited for an oil change. On the way home, without cognizant reasoning, instead of my usual practice of listening to MSNBC or CNN news on satellite radio, I chose the 70s music channel. The playlist gave me: “You’re so Vain” … “The Way We Were” … then “To Sir With Love.”

The time has come for closing books and long last looks must end
And as I leave, I know that I am leaving my best friend
A friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong
That’s a lot to learn, but what can I give you in return?

 Well, I gave him the 18 books I authored. Now wondering about the right-and-wrong, weak-and-strong concepts I might have absorbed.

Selected mentor quotes:

  • “Are you explaining or defending?”
  • “Credit is easy. Once you’re credible you’ll wish you weren’t.”
  • “A person’s character can be judged by how he responds to not getting his own way.” [He could have used female pronouns, but probably didn’t.]
  • “When the main concern is who gets the credit, little is accomplished.”
  • “Only idiots follow instructions without asking questions.”

And on the subject of perception alone:

  • “Look around, be perceptive. You’re the center of the universe to yourself but not to the rest of the world. Things are not going to be so level, so pure as you want them to be.” [Did he say “level”? That’s what my college journal claims he said. Or did he say “simple” or “equal” or “lucid”?]
  • “When you leave home like this, all you have to do is go 100 miles up the freeway and your life doesn’t seem real anymore, everything’s out of phase, out of proportion, like worrying late at night.”
  • [And, note same theme…] “Have you ever fried an egg? Then you know how you can let it get too hard, turn it over and over-do the other side. The cell breaks down, changes composition, corrodes, changes color, and gets really ugly. That’s like thinking too much, especially when you haven’t slept, you have no resistance, everything changes color.”

Forecasting the future of his own perception?

“’How about if someone told you you’re not the center of the universe to anyone but yourself,’ even though you looked at me and smiled, your words spoken so softly, and the background was a dying day.”  —“Former Virgin”

“Are you still unadulterated?”  —“Animal Acts”

The Believing Brain

No need to repeat the facts about and research on how long it takes the human brain to fully mature. Heightened emotion, impulsiveness, varying amounts of narcissism can continue to stew up to one’s mid-20s. I’ve already wondered how that unfinished brain’s condition may have impacted the mentee’s perception of the mentor’s character, personality, integrity, as well as the one-time conclusion that he ultimately betrayed his mentee.

Now, however, I don’t know what fog or agenda in my perception wants to find a good excuse for the mentor’s turn toward the extreme outer limits of conspiracy theory. But a first look at research in conspiracy-theory belief shows researches not considering aberration but only the evolution of how a “normal” human brain works and why, with danger or survival being chief factors.     His particular conspiracy theory — condom races for 5-year-olds — has not appeared in writing anywhere that I could find. Thus it’s even more “out there” than flat-earth, contrails-are-mind-control-poison, or democrats-are-running-a-sex-slave-industry.

“Belief in conspiracy theories appears to be driven by motives that can be characterized as epistemic (understanding one’s environment), existential (being safe and in control of one’s environment), and social (maintaining a positive image of the self and the social group)… This research suggests that people may be drawn to conspiracy theories when—compared with non-conspiracy explanations—they promise to satisfy [these] important social psychological motives.” (Karen M. Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton, Aleksandra Cichocka, The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories, Dec. 7, 2017).

A related study proposes “…conspiracy beliefs are part of an evolved psychological mechanism specifically aimed at detecting dangerous coalitions.” (Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Mark van Vugt, Conspiracy Theories: Evolved Functions and Psychological Mechanisms, 2018.) 

In other words, beliefs in unproven, hyperbolic, beyond farfetched “facts” happens through normal brain function. “From sensory data flowing in through the senses, the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. Our brains connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen, and these patterns become beliefs. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive-feedback loop of belief confirmation.” (Credit to whoever wrote the book blurb for The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer.)

Further exploration might have also led me to research forms of tribalism rising in opposing political principles, and the tendency, therefore, to see hidden life-threatening (or lifestyle-threatening) danger in “the other side.” Although from my (biased) perspective, it does seem that “my side” doesn’t hold as many scientifically unsustainable (i.e., crackpot) conspiracy theories. Maybe Trump is a mentally ill psychopath counts, but when juxtaposed to Trump was sent by God to fix America the irrational derangement doesn’t seem to be of the same dimension.   April 28, 2019: A conspiracy theory is born: In a rally speech, the 45th president told the crowd that in blue states which allow late-term abortion, “The mother meets with the doctor. They take care of the baby, they wrap the baby beautifully. And then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby.” (Found on PolitiFact, TalkingPointsMemo, ScaryMommy, a few others.) No national media outlet — newspaper or broadcast network media — carried the outrageous hyperbole (i.e., lie) as “news.”

But all of the above research is only interested in conspiracy theories adopted by large swaths of people. The researchers give examples like anti-vaxxers and flat-earth, government-staging of the 1969 moon walk and terrorist attack of 2001, and the contrail-is-mind-control-poison myth (interesting note: conspiracy theorists may have either mistaken or changed the word contrail for chemtrail). Searching details from any of these conspiracies displays an abundant list on Google and Snopes. But “condom races for 5-year-olds” or “five-year-old children forced to run condom races” — in any rearrangement of specifics — exhibits zero results. No one is talking about, spreading, or believing this story. The closest hits are actual condom races sponsored by various AIDS organizations in the 1980s for college students. These couldn’t be the “patterns” perceived by an evolutionarily wary brain alert for danger.

So: what if it sounds like a conspiracy theory, but you can’t find anyone else who believes it? My conjecture is there must be a how-the-brain-works difference between joining current ballooning conspiracy theories — easily available and passed in tweets, posts, blogs, or email — and adopting one that can’t even be found anywhere on the wide swath of information available except in a different form 30 or 40 years ago. This, to me, tends to put this particular belief in the realm of paranoid delusion.

The Injured (But Believing) Brain

My mother’s brain was injured via stroke just days after a triple bypass. She was only 75. She had time left for speech therapy to improve the resultant aphasia — not a physical difficulty forming words but a neurological language-processing malady. Pronouns and prepositions were scrambled (from the same as to, here the same as there, he and she mysteriously reversed in almost every case). Family relationships (sister, daughter, mother— scrambled), verbs (go and come a mystery to be unraveled), and nouns … she might say railroad when she meant airline). The brain stores language in mysterious ways.

A worse consequence of aphasia was in understanding incoming language, complicated by hearing loss. She began to sit in an isolated bubble at family dinners and parties. She could read large-print books but not watch TV. She had basic know-how for email; she had my father correct her outgoing messages and actual letters (slathered in white-out corrections). Just months after the stroke, when I’d experienced my usual airsickness returning home after visiting her, she typed in an email, “Sory for the terrible sick on the plane.” She eventually wrote an essay that started: “Time to decide to write.” There was something beautifully unique about her diction and sentence structure. Even in November 2008, when, in the weeks after the presidential election, she nearly sobbed, “This new one is going to take all our money.” It was not Obama who took their money, but the 24-hour care she required in her last year of life.

But following her stroke under George W. Bush, she slowly got better, until she started to get worse again. Congestive heart failure was shrinking the amount of oxygen sent to her brain before anyone realized. Before the longer and longer bouts of sleeping, before the fainting, before the monthly then weekly trips to the ER followed by over a year spent in a hospital bed on home-hospice care … Long before any of that, she began pestering my father to help her enter the publisher’s clearinghouse sweepstakes. “A person wins,” she would say.

Over a decade earlier, my uncle, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, was discovered to have spent thousands entering the Canadian lottery. A New York Times article in 2010 on the financial hardship of early onset dementia gave a profile of a man who was “sending substantial amounts to lottery schemes.” (Not insinuating the Canadian Lottery is a scheme.)

This kind of belief suggests brain injury. Call it heightened belief. Or delusional belief. Now add paranoid belief. Commonly, dementia manifests in paranoid delusions, most frequently involving caregivers and family members. My ex-mother-in-law reported that her caregiver ran out the back door with all her laundry, that the hospital was a “clip-joint” and her son was “in on it with them,” and that a stranger knocked on the door to tell her that her new curtains were beautiful (not all delusions are paranoid, but all delusions are …)

“Paranoid symptoms (e.g. believing that someone is out to get you, or is taking your stuff, or is in the house at night) falls into a category of mental symptoms that is technically called ‘psychosis.’” (Leslie Kernisan, MD, MPH, Better Health While Aging.) “Psychosis is uncommon in younger people, but becomes much more common as people get older. That’s because any of these symptoms can emerge when people’s brains aren’t working properly for some reason.”

And those reasons: from the earliest signs of dementia to a late onset of schizophrenia to other neuropsychiatric disorders (Naresh Nebhinani et al., “Late-life Psychosis: An Overview,” 2015). Neuropsychiatry deals with mental disorders and behaviors — including psychosis, anxiety, and disinhibition, a few I cherry-picked off a longer list — that are the result of a nervous system disease. And a “disease” like dementia could be considered a traumatic brain injury. But what if there was a prior event of a corporeal traumatic brain injury?

My last visit (out of only a handful) to my mentor in the years since my first book was published was in the early 2000s. It was also the last time he told me a story to make a point in answer to a “situation” in my life … and it spawned another book (Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls).

When you read the excerpt of that dialogue, one detail, a throwaway, is his voice being “more scratchy” than it used to be. It was an aural detail I had perceived and recalled, so there it was, included in the scene. But the background of the scratchy voice was another story he’d told during that visit; a story that had nothing to do with me, with my history with him, with our nameless relationship, and had not been used in the fictional scene. He’d told me that in the recent past, he’d been in a bicycle accident, had hit his head and lost consciousness and was ambulanced to a hospital. The scratchy voice was residual from intubation. That fact alone indicates a level of seriousness. But he also told me he’d lost a lot of his memory, for names and incidents; and his years at the university, in what he did recall, had no sense of chronology. And yet … his memory of the girl who’d tried to lure him into teenaged marriage was lucid. Long term vs. short term memory. At the dementia-care facility where I take my dog for therapy, a woman tells me the details of her 80-pound dog scaring her neighbor … three times every visit… but she doesn’t recall ever seeing my dog last week.

   “Those are the kinds of moments that definitely stick with you,” he said. And with that, he shifted into a different gear, back to being the Pryor who knew me as a girl, and his voice became his voice, a little more scratchy than it was then, but still the same earnest voice as when I was across from his desk. He said, “When I was in high school, I was dating this girl for a while, and it was just dating, someone nice to do things with.”
A feeling of normalcy may’ve settled over the conversation, but it didn’t mean I was relaxed the way I used to be. I would never be relaxed with him again.
“Then one night,” he continued, “she wanted me to go to this amusement park, but it seemed odd because not many other people were there. And she insisted we only go on this dark little boat ride.”
“But who could possibly do anything during the ride?”
“Well,” he said, “she tried. I was a very morally concerned boy, and didn’t think it would be right.”
“Was she furious afterward?”
“It turned out, she was pregnant, and she didn’t want the boy who was responsible to know; she didn’t think he would do the right thing, or else she knew it would be a disaster if he did. And there I was, this really nice, responsible, moral, boy, and if she could get me to …”
“Then you’d think it was yours.” I stared straight out the windshield, not at him. “Then you’d have married her.”
 “I would have. And gotten a job, and not gone to college. Everything would have been a completely different path. You can’t help but bookmark a moment like that.”
Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls
Among the symptoms of long-term effects from traumatic head injury, from multiple sources: memory loss, mood swings, impaired cognitive function, and other degenerative brain conditions. Among the symptoms of degenerative brain conditions is psychosis. Among the symptoms of psychosis are delusions, hallucinations, depression, even late-onset schizophrenia-spectrum disorders, all of which can display in  “disorganized thoughts … meaning saying or thinking things that seem illogical or bizarre to others,” (“6 Causes of Paranoia in Aging…,” Leslie Kernisan, MD, MPH). Research also led me to a lesser known from of dementia called frontotemporal degeneration (FTD), “a form of dementia centered in the brain’s frontal lobe. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, which attacks the brain’s memory centers, FTD causes atrophy in the part of the brain that controls judgment, behavior and executive function. People with FTD are often described as apathetic, lacking in empathy and exhibiting an impaired social filter,” [emphasis mine] (Kevyn Burger, NextAvenue.org). So add loss of inhibition to the list of symptoms. Our relationship couldn’t still (if it ever was) be one where he would, in his 3rd sentence, tell me his deepest fears.   Head injuries are particularly worrisome for a number of reasons—especially ones that result in traumatic brain injuries. Not only are these injuries highly dangerous in the short term, but they may have devastating long-term effects.
Depending on the nature of the injury, its severity, treatment received, and many other factors, a head wound can result in permanent brain damage that causes an impairment lasting the rest of your natural life.
Some long-term side effects caused by a head injury may worsen. This could be due to the slow degradation of brain cells over time
—team-written for SpinalCord.com 

 


Just noticed: my search for a rationalization for the Mentor’s belief in condom races for five-year-olds is in itself proving that “once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive-feedback loop of belief confirmation.” My mom entered publisher’s clearinghouse because of brain damage … my Mentor believed a conspiracy theory no one else ever heard of because of …

Crunching the cause-effect is easy, especially if you’re desperate for an answer. Impaired cognition + (forms of) psychosis + paranoia + lowered inhibition = an excuse.

It’s possibly true, may be the reason, could be what has befallen him. There are some factors that would tend to go against my hypothesis, like that his wife might also be endorsing these strange views (with only an impaired view of her social media to judge this). What can’t be denied is that finding an explanation was important … for me.

“Despite the reams of paper damaged by the electric typewriter on his second desk where I logged the bewildered fears and fretfulness and fury of a 20-year-old, I can barely begin to recount specifically what happened, and when, there in his office, where I was paid for ten hours a week, but where I stayed for at least 15, sometimes more.” —Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls

The Orphaned Brain

Is mine the first generation to feel set adrift, pushed from the nest, at 60? Or is it an upshot of myself being childless, so there’s only one parent-child relationship in my life, the first one, which, inevitably, ends. It wasn’t as though I lost a lifetime of essential influential parenting; I can remember many innocent missteps but little, if any, cogent wisdom. She gave the lesson of example: how to live fully in every moment — recognized, appreciated, idealized, if not followed. I had never, going back to teenaged years, asked her advice or told her of my sorrows or dilemmas. Still, with her passing was the basic loss of someone-who-cared. When my father followed two years later, the loss became the complete removal of scaffolding, or the sun’s gravity. It had been several years since the last time he’d dispensed advice or opinion, but almost everything I did (except writing) included a background question of what he/they would think of it.

If being a parent helps to dull the loss-of-orbit when parents pass, could being a mentor do the same when mentors fall-from-grace? If so, the comparative flimsiness of the female mentor is another topic to be plumbed, the first stop being studies that show college students more often use the words genius, wise, or inspiring for male professors, while words chosen more often for female professors than male are nice and friendly, or strict and bossy. Not qualities that develop into durable or profound mentorships. Perhaps, as well, there was a desire lacking in the particular female professor now cogitating the subject, not enough of a gut tug to become a mentor, or too much residual identity of being the mentee to allow for any effective reversal.

Recently, in a cursory communique for a practical reason, a former student — male, who had not kept contact with me and likely had read none of my books, even when he was a student — told me that a former undergrad of his — female — was doing a master’s project on all four of his novels. Must be nice, I almost replied. The irony of his boast apparently lost on him.

My mentor was in a different field, a life coach not career adviser. Without analyzing what might have been lacking in my relationship with my parents, and if possible, putting undeniable gender contrasts aside, I was apparently in enough dire need of a life coach to become addicted to the rapport, plus seemingly so inadequately or incompletely coached that I never stepped up to pay it forward. Truly alone in a self-made vacuum.

“… you’d laugh. Not out loud, but that smile which is a laugh anyway. Sometimes a shared laugh. That was only okay if I was the one sharing it. If not … I felt like someone who desperately wants something, deprived of it over and over and over. But what was it?” —Your Name Here:___

Here is where I should return to the mentor’s situation at the time, how young he actually was, how his professional (and then personal) life was destabilized by the Monster — ostensibly in a position to be his mentor. How unhealthy the whole milieu was for everyone. And still he tried. As he tries, now, to stop five-year-olds from being forced to run condom relays.

“And then you smiled. I never saw you in the process of smiling, and I never saw the sun coming up—it’s just suddenly there, muscling its way over mountains, around trees or through cracks in clouds. Your smile was always something waiting inside, on your other side, like where the sun is at night.” —“Second Person”

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