One of the things I’m hoping to accomplish with my blog, aside from “not running completely dry of material to write about,” is to leave something of a written history of me behind for my son. I’d love to say I’m going to write down the whole family history, but I’m no genealogist. I can’t vouch for the rest of my family. I can only vouch for me. Sometimes these stores will get a little outside your comfort zone (hell, imagine how I feel telling you about them). This will probably be one of those. But understand that one thing it is absolutely not meant to be is a sob story. I came out of this one intact.
My mother died in 1987. I was just into my teens, which isn’t an opportune time to suddenly be without a parent. It’s a confusing enough time for anyone even with the whole family unit intact. My dad wasn’t ready to be a single parent, and that’s not something I hold against him. I wouldn’t be either. And I was already a difficult person to get along with; I lived my life behind a computer, on bulletin board systems, and as such I was already operating at a deficit when it came to real human interaction. I had friends at school, but my personality and my interests weren’t the sort of things that led to one having a heap of friends.
Worse yet, my dad immediately took to nursing his broken heart the only way he really knew how – at the bar. He was dating within weeks of the funeral; it wasn’t until years later when, a bit wiser to the ways of the world and more aware of my own family history, I realized that he’d probably been “dating” all along, but was now able to do it openly without reproach. He was lonely too. I got that. But he was spending so much time reclaiming his youth and his swinging-single-ness that I had effectively lost both parents at the same time.
He became seriously involved with one of the women he met at a bar. He later wound up marrying her, though their “courtship,” if you even want to insult courtships by calling it that, was a nightmare roller coaster ride that ran for three nonstop years before they finally tied the knot. Within two years of that, I was out of the house and living in my own place. She had made no secret of the fact that I was an obstacle to be removed (and depending on how wasted she was, one could get some really interesting insights into how far she’d go to accomplish that), and once she was entrenched with a ring on her finger, it was pretty much full scale war.
But this story isn’t about that nightmare stretch between 1991 and 1993. This story is about the perhaps even stranger period between 1988 and 1991.
My stepmother-to-be had a job that took her across the country for lengthy stays. Fine by me, really. But she wanted my dad to visit her – for all intents and purposes, she’d pretty much summon him, and he’d go. For weeks at a time.
I was in high school at the time, going into my junior year to be precise. I was an Angry Young Man with a strong streak of Just Plain Goofy. I had a wildly unconventional mode of dress, and I think I’ve mentioned before that it was a bit of an assault on the senses of everyone around me – the message was semi-consciously “I’m presenting myself on my own terms, screw you if you don’t like it.”
But the subconscious message beneath that was: “Stay away.” I had a secret to keep.
The secret was this: for much of my three years of high school, I was living in a house with no adult presence or supervision. The bills were paid, the lawn was mowed, I had money for food and gas, and I had reliable transportation. But most of the time when I went home, I went home to an empty house. Well, okay. I had a cat.
A tiny handful of my friends were in on this. My friend Rob and I spent a lot of time at my place honing the art of making really bad home movies. I had drama competitions and, when we were doing a play at school, practice to keep me busy. We did a lot of school newspapers that year that I had to stay late and copy-edit and lay out. I was in a weird ad-hoc quasi-band called The Satan Brothers, about which more another time (it really is its own very tame but weird little saga that deserves its own post one of these days, complete with audio samples). Star Trek: The Next Generation, Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who were on every Saturday night, like clockwork, and then more Doctor Who on Sunday morning. I had bulletin board systems on which to annoy people, Ultima IV to play, and I was still trying to master the nuances of creating stuff in Garry Kitchen’s Gamemaker. And always stuff to read and music to listen to. Life, to me, seemed full.
It just wasn’t full of people.
You have these things to thank for keeping me alive; please direct all thanks and/or complaints to, clockwise from upper left: Paramount Pictures, BBC-TV, Activision and Origin Systems.
And I didn’t let folks in on this. The family across the street knew something was up. They’d check on me occasionally. Obviously Rob’s family was aware; at one point when I was over at Rob’s house, his mother grilled me about how long I was the only person there, and how frequently this happened. She seemed really taken aback.
It was just a normal part of my reality, but I didn’t advertise it. On a certain level, I knew this was not something that polite society would smile at and say “Well, hon, that’s okay!” If a parent were to leave a child alone for extended periods like that in this day and age, DHS would swoop in and you’d have an adult in jail and a teenager suddenly thrust into the foster care system at a time in his life when it’s enough of a struggle to deal with homework, peer pressure, self-image and acne.
On some level, I think I was aware that this might’ve been the result even then, so I clammed up about it. I also didn’t want anyone “volunteering” my house for a party. I didn’t really want to go to their parties, and I sure as hell didn’t want them moving their parties to my place. 😆
I told my grandfather about some of this, the last time I went to visit him at his home in New Jersey in the summer of ’88. He was horrified, and immediately started making noises about me moving to Little Falls and living there with him. As hard a time as I was having getting along with my own immediate family, I knew my grandfather would “get” me even less. I told him I was okay. He disagreed: with no parental influence around, I was going to get into drinking, or drugs, or worse. I’m not sure what was worse, or how my grandfather knew about it, but I sure didn’t want to find out. This was one of the few major disagreements I ever had with the man. He was completely discounting the willpower that I was bringing to bear on my problems. In his mind, these terrible habits were a lurking monster that would pounce on me and consume me, regardless of the fact that I’d made up my mind not to go there. Even when I got into a business where I was getting paid to run around with a camera on my shoulder, he wasn’t convinced. By that point, what mattered was that I’d disagreed with him and refused his help.
But here’s the thing. No lurking monster got a chance to pounce. Where some would have stopped going to school, I kept going. I kept doing homework. Maybe not pouring the effort into it that I would have if I’d had a parent standing over my shoulder, but I kept doing it. Instead of withdrawing from everyone, I kept showing up to work on the school paper, or for play practice, or what have you. What other opportunities for social interaction did I have? Between junior and senior years I started working an early-morning weekend shift at a radio station, which I dutifully showed up for despite the brutal hours. Truth be told, I was pretty busy.
“Now wait just a minute,” I hear you asking, “you’re trying to tell me that you didn’t do even one unwise thing with that kind of unprecedented freedom?” Oh yeah, I did. You betcha. Nothing I want to tell you about, but also nothing to completely derail the rest of my life. I had already foresworn drinking (in my stubborn rebellious streak, I was pledged to not do, well, what he was doing), and obviously I wasn’t going to pole-vault over alcohol and do drugs. I am pretty sure that I mistook Chee-tos for a nutritionally valid meal a few times, but you could probably tell that by looking at me. Hygiene slipped a bit. I was already warding people off with my wardrobe (seen here is a swatch from my favorite button-down shirt at the time; man, I miss that shirt! Wish I’d had a tie to go with it! Epic!). I didn’t give a crap.
Both of them being home, and being wasted because it was the only way they could really stand each other, was far worse. I’d take the solitude any day of the week.
When I got into college, I was a bit less shy about it. I had dates over (a remarkable thing in and of itself). I didn’t try to convince them that I lived there alone year-round in a big two-story house, but I probably could have tried with little chance of being proven wrong. And by then I was working, and was, by definition, a little more self-sufficient. Still a lot of alone time, but by then… that was my fortress of solitude.
My second radio job was a late night/overnight shift, every night, and when I got into TV, more of the same. Actually encountering people was the exception for me, rather than the norm. The overnight gigs really sealed the deal and cemented the isolation: working through the night, I’d then proceed to sleep through the day, pretty much sacrificing any chance at normal interaction with anyone at a normal hour. I was a vampire. Or a zombie, if you tried to catch me during “normal people hours.”
Anyone who ever questions my ability to function by daylight now knows where it all started. And while I knew it was unusual, it wasn’t until many years later when I’d tell folks about this and they’d be utterly horrified that I realized the truth: I’ve spent the kind of time in real isolation that would rock most people back on their heels. It’s nothing to really brag about, and I won’t make any claim to it being healthy in any way, but sometimes I wonder if I haven’t missed a whole career track based on that. Maybe I should be on the space station, or in some shack in Alaska keeping an eye on a volcano. A forest ranger, maybe. I could be that lineman for the county we hear so much about, driving the main roads.
Something away from people. They’re so pesky and they get underfoot.
Pretty good eatin’[REDACTED] just the right marinade, though.
Overnighting at a TV station was the best I could manage.
In the early ’90s, a friend of mine exposed me to the movie Being There, which stars Peter Sellers as a man who has been raised in near-isolation, and has only learned to pick up social cues from watching TV. He often misjudges these cues in real life, though, leading to much hilarity; parts of the movie are fall-down funny, but it’s very subtle, and at no point is it a truly carefree, happy movie – for over two hours, even while laughing, you can cut through the sense of melancholy with a knife. The director wisely keeps the utter isolation, cluelessness and – let’s not beat around the bush – social retardation of Sellers’ character in the frame at all times, not letting you forget about it. It’s like an extra character in every shot, silently reminding you that, really, this man may be doing funny things, but his story isn’t that funny. I was instantly fascinated. That’s me.
Being There, through repeated viewings, rapidly jumped up to the top of my favorite movie list. It’s still there, ranking higher than anything that has spaceships in it. (Though I’ll admit that I’ve always found a morbid fascination and sense of identification with the opening scenes aboard the Discovery in 2001 too. I try to translate that into a healthy fascination.)
So if you’ve ever wondered how I can stand to work by myself for hours on end, there’s the secret. I’m used to it – have been since I was in high school. My dad wasn’t a horrible person, but at times he was horribly misguided. I was almost 30 before I got things ironed out with him, but even then we were barely on speaking terms.
What’s funny is that, many years later, my dad told me that assumed I was probably throwing a few parties, having girlfriends over at every opportunity… in other words, doing what he would’ve done with that same lack of supervision. He just didn’t get it. He didn’t understand that I’d spend Saturday night watching a bunch of sci-fi shows, use a couple of tape decks to re-edit a recorded thunderstorm watch from the weather radio into a kind of weird quasi-rap, eat a bunch of junk food, drink a bunch of Dr. Pepper, cruise the local BBSes and call it a night. Seriously.
I’m sure some people would accuse him of abuse by neglect in my case, but to be honest, I would’ve been more scared to see the result of being stuck in a house with someone who wanted me gone (and you can read that however you like and probably not be too far off the mark) and someone else who didn’t have the spine to take my side on that. With that being the other choice, I was more than happy to have the isolation, and to basically live a lie for a few years to keep people from finding out about it. I had more to gain by laying low in the fish tank, trying to keep everyone from looking in, than to make a lot of noise about it. I’m convinced that what I had to gain was my sanity. If you can call it that.
But it’s not something I’d recommend for everybody. Or their kids.
Please don’t try this at home.