Monday, August 02, 2010

Of all the people I've met online

Of all the people I've met online, a bunch became  "how ya doin'" acquaintances. Several are in the "IM me anytime day or night if you need to chat" category. A few became enduring online long-distance friendships, with sort of shared history now.  One includes phone  contact. For those longer, stronger connections,  we wish we resided near each other.  Another briefly jumped off the internet into the physical world a decade ago,  but distance put the brakes on it. It was an adventure we don't regret. Some things I'd hoped for from the internet & e mail didn't happen;  staying  in touch with certain old friends,  family bonding.  When, a year ago, my sister suggested via e mail a sibling get-together at her house, I didn't dismiss it outright, but the idea  seemed forced & artificial. The only on-going, involved "relationship" among the four of us had been  between my sister & I, & that had fallen on tough times.  But for two decades I had spent most Christmas Days at her home, & some Christmas Eves, & had visited other times during the year, sometimes just to hang out on her patio.

My older brother in south Jersey had never invited me to any occasion down there. I could interpret it only one way.  He had reasons for not wanting me around his house. Despite years of reasonably good behavior on my part.

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My oldest brother began detaching himself  while he was still in high school, & 8 years ago he was residing in a stinking attic apt with two dozen inbred starving cats & in an almost complete state of denial. The situation  was madness to me. I had seen many forms of madness, & he was way beyond eccentricity. I didn't have a car or  money, there was nothing I could do about it as crisis intervention.  Social Services in his city, Paterson, were awful.  He rejected even what I could & would do, which was to walk with him to a store & buy some food. If he had, I planned to trick him into leaving first, opening his window so the cats could escape. My two visits to him in Paterson (which required three trains & a very long walk through bad areas)  were traumatizing to my perception of family. My sister & other brother had very stable homes. My life was unstable, but I was quite aware of it.    I had  maintained long term relationships,  & could socialize without coming across as a complete freak.  I was irresponsible in some matters & quite responsible in others. I didn't drink  or smoke pot.  I had sense enough not to  have  two dozen inbred starving cats.  Writers & WFMU DJs were never shocked by my clutter, records & books crammed into a studio apt. Tools of the trade.  I was one large closet or storage area short of minimally adequate space. When I hung out at a downtown Rahway coffeehouse run by gay guys, I inquired as to the availability of basement, garage or attic space they might want to rent cheaply so I could store boxes. But those gay guys were themselves serious collectors of antique & oddball home furnishings. One of then owned an antique & junk shop & kept his overstock at his house,  in his backyard & in his old station wagon. As a collector, I was small stuff, merely books, records, some art, & a few oddities like  an xylophone & a diner booth  jukebox. These guys had overstuffed Victorian sofas, chandeliers,  & full dining room hutches you needed a crane to move.

What happened to my brother Joe would not have happened in other families of our background & upbringing. I doubt it would have happened had our dad been alive. Joe became homeless for a year after going through a Vet program designed to prevent it. All he needed  was a furnished  one room in a safe neighborhood near a downtown, paid for via Vet benefits,  some food stamps, some regular counseling, & no cats living inside. Total cost to guvmint: About $600 per month for rent & food stamps, plus V.A. medical benefits. Take away the cats, stock Joe's pantry with canned food, maybe  put hin on Zoloft, give him a daily newspaper & an occasional cigar & he returns from madness to his current harmless eccentricity, apparently accepted by his neighbors. The guy can talk.

Jim believed Joe was a fake putting on an act. It was a front, not an act, Behind the front a tragedy was unfolding that Joe could only glimpse, so irrational it was.  Joe was incapable of holding a job, except maybe at a Burger King, where he likely would've screwed up the Whopper assembly line & talked too much with customers. I think he could run a carousel or boardwalk game if chance.

I don't visit Joe at his senior apt in Newark.  It's a good one, I've checked it out online.  He doesn't care if he sees me or not. I wish he was online, I'd send him files & links to jazz & classical videos  of music he loved & which later became staples of my WFMU radio shows. Music I learned from his record collection.To a lesser extent, my radio shows drew from the music tastes of my sister & other brother.

A year ago, I received an invite to my nephew's graduation open house.  I'm certain he, not his parents,  put my name on the guest list. He had graduated from the worst major college in America, Liberty University. In a real sense, his own parents - mainline United Methodists,  his dad a UMC pastor - had somehow lost him. He had gone from mainstream,  most reasonable & rational protestant orthodoxy to radical  Baptist fundamentalism, which is a Methodist nightmare, & on to Ron Paul libertarianism.  He remained an affable guy, girls seem to like him. My nephew & I  could have great conversations about baseball & NCAA basketball,  but I can't imagine discussing religion or politics with him.

All those Christmases, Easters, Thanksgivings, 4ths of July, graduations, ordinations, that we did not share, slowly took a toll, year by year, more & more estranged. I have poems & journal entries from 25-30 years ago documenting the process. My poems were mainly observations, so dryly stated that grants committees rejected them for being too "flat." The flatness was a check upon myself, to try to state a few facts I could defend as close enough to the bare truth. 

I didn't want to get together with my siblings to talk about "old times." Meaning childhood in Roselle Park. I have good memories & bad memories, things I understand & things I don't. But I can write an acceptable script of my childhood factoring in mom's alcoholism, the effect of my paternal grandmother on the home, which seemed so bad at times & yet her moving out marked the disintegration  of my parents' marriage. She was my sanctuary all through high school, when I escaped to Atlantic City as often as permitted.  Joe despised her. Right there is a huge difference in perception & fact.

I'm more interested what happened to the four of us after dad died.  Because how we treated each other is  not what he would have wanted.  I'm sure he expected us to carry on his few traditions, if only a Christmas gathering & a summer cookout every year to pull the clan together.  Two of his kids made good families, but his own family quickly came unglued. I envisioned a day of evasions, bad jokes, feeling embarassed, four siblings who had no clear idea of what  the other three had been doing for 30 years (except I knew my sister's life fairly well, better than she knew mine, since my visits were almost all to her home  which I enjoyed).  It would have been like looking at my reflection in three distorted funhouse mirrors, & we'd all  feel fractured, disatisfied. There would be no path to healing because who would dare acknowledge any healing was necessary? & who would mediate the healing?

I was chosen to tell the stories, & I have not told many of them. Because most are not warm & funny. My part has been, at key moments, disgraceful.

At Dad's funeral, Joe said to me, "Rixons don't cry." Maybe he thought it was true. But I had heard dad break down & weep under the verbal assaults of our angry, alcoholic mom. I knew my sister wept in private during those sad days of the wake  & funeral  so that she could function as a welcoming host for the literal hundreds who passed through the funeral home to pay respects. & I was never more than a fraction from crying for the lost opportunity to have dad as the  friend & counsel I felt was coming to me at last, which my then-girlfriend  Christine & my poetry mentor Joel Oppenheimer had steadily encouraged & nurtured over a period of years. Joel, practically an anarchist, had dismissed dad's  political conservatism as irrelevant, noting approvingly  that dad was about tradition in his military interests - old wars that were worthy wars,  old guns, old battles,  &  poets were about tradition, & what was near at hand,  & the better I tapped into those, the better dad would like & understand my writing as a form of keeping history. Dad was Joe's last grip on family. He was orphaned.

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Unfortunately, dysfunctional is the new normal.
Been that way my whole life. I can sympathise, I had the alchoholic mom too, she drank her self to death five days before my 20th birthday.I have been one for forty years now, Functional Alchohlic. I drink heavily but I get up and go to work every day.
I have been kinda like your brother Joe,just not as bad. Ya just gotta survive some times, been at it for a while now.
What do ya do?
Protect yourself.
It never hurts to work at the relationship to your siblings, just don't be hurt by diminishing returns on you investment.

Good luck dude.

Thanks, Busted. Your candor is most appreciated.
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