Wednesday, May 29, 2013

That Time I Lived with Vanilla Ice: A True Story

All of my posts, including this post, have been grounded in my own life.  The occurrences and events are part of my life history, and they are as accurately told as any one person can be objective in the telling of their own life.  My life has been unusual, certainly not typical, but undoubtedly not wholly unique in its, frankly, fucked up path.  However, today's post highlights one of the weirder experiences.

When I was 14/15 years old, my parents visited some friends in another part of the state for a week.  I was in charge of taking care of my sisters.  I recall having a very nice time while they were gone, my sisters spent a good portion of the week having sleep-overs with friends etc.  All in all, the week of my parent's absence was uneventful.  Their return, however, was quite another matter.

My sisters and I were hanging around the house, it was probably late afternoon.  Mom and Dad were supposed to get back sometime that evening. Eventually they arrived, and as they came into the house my father ushered in a young guy, probably in his early-mid 20s.  He was wearing a tattered baseball cap and a severely faded NFL starter jacket, probably from the late 90s.  This guy had a pretty big backpack and his head was shaved, which was especially apparent after he removed his hat.  He wore cheap wraparound sunglasses, and he was eerily quiet and detached.

I had no idea who this person was, however, sometimes my parents would invite friends to visit and I thought he might be their friend Doug.  We were all standing in the kitchen, and the silence was awkward so I asked, "Who's this?"  With a smile on his face, my dad replied, "We have no idea.  Picked him up just this side of Hayes."  We all laughed a bit, I thought my father was joking.  When he didn't clarify who the creepy guy in our kitchen actually was, I asked my mom in a serious tone, "Really, Mom, who is he?"  My mother gave me a somewhat frantic, helpless, and wide-eyed head shake accompanied by, "I really don't know.  He's a hitchhiker, your dad thought we should pick him up."

I should note that my father has a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder I which he now manages with medication.  As I was growing up, there were numerous instances of both manic episodes and depressive episodes, and my father only self-medicated with alcohol at the time.  Impulsively choosing to pick up a hitchhiker over the protestations and concerns of my mother was a good indication of my father's (poor) functioning at the time mental-health wise.  He later came to realize this.    

The hitchhiker's name was least at first report, more on that in a bit.  My parents were/are generous people, even though we didn't have much they did what they could for other people.  They offered Dennis our couch, and some money in exchange for helping around our place.  Dennis "wanted to make some money to buy a bus ticket back home."  Ever the cautious-bordering-on-overprotective-and-paranoid person I am, I constantly grilled my parents about Dennis' departure date.  My mother was at the mercy of my father for most of my entire childhood.  She did not have any power, even in this situation.  My father told me he would only be staying at most a week.  Dennis lived with us for at least two months, possibly three.  Time has blurred together for my life from ages 14-16.  My sisters remember similar time frames, however, for this event.

It was obvious from our initial encounter that Dennis was not necessarily sociable.  He always seemed uncomfortable around people, and he was unbalanced in general.  The more you interacted with him, the more it became clear he was quite mentally ill.  Not all mentally ill people are dangerous, actually very few are.  Despite this, Dennis was discomfiting and all three of us (my sisters and I) plus my mother felt completely unsafe around him.  His gaze felt inappropriate most of the time, he had a very intense presence, he spent considerable time talking to himself/imaginary others, and he routinely carried a large knife with him.  Our house was in a pretty rural area, about 10 miles from town.  Our nearest neighbor at the time was about a mile away.  Last time I checked, those elements when mixed with the presence of a hitchhiker resulted in a Capote-esq tale of death.  I created a safety plan for my sisters, and we did our best to make sure that they weren't left alone with Dennis, although at one point or another we were all in that position.  We never left the house if it would leave Mom alone with him, however.  I started sleeping with a 6 inch fixed blade buck knife under my pillow following the second week of Dennis' stay; it remained there until a solid three weeks after he finally left.  We all functioned on a hypervigilant survival mode setting and rarely let our guards down over those few months.  Living in fear and perpetually feeling unsafe is taxing, even now my sisters and I become activated when the topic of Dennis comes up.

One of the more amusing/genuinely sad interactions my sisters and I had with Dennis involved music.  We all took piano lessons starting at age 8.  When Dennis showed up, we had each been playing for a few years.  We had to practice regularly etc.  One day after we each took our turn practicing (Dennis was observing), he started asking us questions about music.  He then said, "You know, I could tell you who I really am but you wouldn't believe me."  Knowing it was going to be completely off the wall and untrue but dying to know who he "really" was, we assured him we would believe him and we would keep it a secret.  Dennis took a deep breath, looked down at the table, and said, "I'm Vanilla Ice."  He then demonstrated he was Vanilla Ice by rapping for us, doing the dance from the Ice Ice Baby video, and pulling a Vanilla Ice tape out of his pocket to show us his picture.

We managed to keep our laughter in check.  After that, though, my little sister called my brother who had just recently graduated from high school and was living in Wyoming.  My brother was...displeased...that my father had brought Dennis to our home.  He drove back home the next day and "explained to" (i.e. had a shouting match with) my father he needed to get Dennis back on the road.  My father did not listen to my brother, but my brother spoke with "us girls" and my mom to make sure we were ok.  He approved my safety plan, and he was actually the one who gave me the buck knife.  My brother also had a "talk" with Dennis about appropriate manners of house guests.  Dennis stayed for some time after the failed intervention, but my brother checked on us somewhat regularly.

After a while, my father started coming out of his manic state.  The more grounded he became, the more he saw the concerns we had.  He too began to feel uncomfortable with Vanilla Ice.  My parents bought Dennis a bus ticket home.  We drove him to the bus station, about an hour away.  I told my mom we couldn't leave until we saw the bus take off with Dennis on it.  We watched it pull away from the station, and we all smiled.  I called my brother to let him know Dennis was gone, but my sisters were still scared that he might come back.  My brother tried comforting them by explaining that Dennis had only been into town once since coming to the house, and it was unlikely he would remember how to get back after having only been up the road twice, especially because the county didn't use road signs so there wasn't a street name to remember.

My brother underestimated Dennis.  About a month after watching the bus drive away from the station, we all came home from school one day to find Dennis sitting on our deck.  My sisters and I started freaking out, by the time we made it into the house two of us were crying and one was hyperventilating.  My second youngest sister called my brother immediately, and he drove into the night to get home.  Luckily it was the weekend; I drove my sisters into town to spend the night with friends, and I stayed with my friend Cindy.  Dennis explained to my parents that his belongings and bus transfer were stolen when he was only partway through his journey home.  It had taken a month to hitchhike and find his way back to our place, which was shorter than hitching back to his home in Iowa.  My parents decided the best course of action was to have him leave as soon as possible and offered to buy him another bus ticket.  My brother explained in detail to Dennis that if Dennis returned again he would find himself at the bottom of an abandoned mine shaft, possibly in many pieces.

While nothing demonstrably traumatic happened while Dennis was staying with us, there was certainly a psychological toll.  I can definitely say thinking you might be brutally murdered in your sleep every night is something to be avoided if at all possible.  I've tried to keep up on where Dennis might be in the world since he left the second time, the advent of the internet has been very helpful.  I learned recently (today!) that he was just sentenced to 30 years in prison for a 2011 sexual assault on an elderly woman in Illinois.  I'm still processing this information and trying to put it in context with my own experience.  Overall, aside from simply being surreal, I think I just feel sad for everyone involved.      

Yo man, let's get out of here.  Word to your mother...                      


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Shooting Stars Frozen in Time: 9 Year-Old Rita

Imagine a taller than average grubby 9 year-old girl with hazel-green eyes, almost waist length brown hair, and clumsy arms and legs.  That was me: dirty, clumsy, and shy.  It wasn't quite a 1000 yard stare, but I tended to look through things and people.  My main focus was occupied trying to project the images I had created in my mind onto the world.  In addition to my unkempt, gawky, and reserved nature, I possessed an extraordinary imagination.  To help with this, I was rarely ever without a book.  Books, I found, were useful in exercising my imagination and insulating me against the more troubled aspects of my life.

I learned early as a child that the consequences for damaging or dirtying "good clothes" were severe.  Consequently, I made sure to wear play clothes when I was going outside.  In the summer, this typically meant I was in cutoffs and some sort of t-shirt, a tattered windbreaker, canvas shoes, and occasionally matching socks.  I would generally lose the socks and shoes as fast as I could once I got away from the house.  My hair was always a mess, somewhere between stringy and dirty and knotted and dirty.  There were cuts and bruises all over my legs and arms, usually from playing in the woods.  I was constantly covered in a mixture of dirt, sweat, pitch, and sometimes coal dust depending on my adventures of the day. 
"Going outside" was the family phrase for leaving the house and roaming the woods.  I made going outside a priority on most days.  On this particular day, I decided I wanted to visit the junk pile on the hill.  Mom had gone to work, and Dad was taking a nap.  My siblings were somewhere doing something.  It was the perfect time to bolt.  I had my literary reprieve selected; a book from the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander.  They were a few years below my reading level at the time. Despite that, they were well written and an interesting perspective on Welsh mythology, definitely worth escaping into.  I collected my shoes and jacket, trying desperately to be quiet on my way out.  In the event I woke Dad, it was likely I would be put to work.  This had to be avoided whenever possible.

Once safely outside, I scrambled up the hill next to the small garage.  There was a field of wild grass I waded through on my way up to the junk pile.  I always took time to run my hands across the blades, swishing them and creating a distinct whooshing sound.  If I did it just right, it sounded like waves rolling into shore.  On most occasions as I  moved through the grass, I imagined I was crossing a small river.  The junk pile was near the top of the hill on the other side of the river.  As I passed through the river, I entered into the pines.  Incredibly dry, old pine needles make a satisfying crunch when stepped on.  I always enjoyed crunching my way to the top of the hill.      
The junk pile consisted of mostly iron based objects; old engines, tire rims, drag chains, gears, a rusted out 40s era Studebaker with half a hood ornament.  The Studebaker was, in short, awesome for all things imagination related.  The dash nobs were still intact, as was the radio, the shifter, and the gigantic steering wheel.  This particular day, however, the Studebaker was not on the agenda for fun.  I had come across an object in the pile that lent itself to my imagination; a grate from an old gas burning furnace.  The grate was approximately two feet wide and a foot tall.  It was metal with a faux wood grain enamel coating.  I had decided the grate would make the perfect window in my outdoor reading room. 
Other people might consider it sort of unnecessary to have a "window" in a forest.  There were no walls or ceiling, the floor was the pine needle covered ground, and I could see everything around me as it was.  The point of the outdoor reading room was to have a safe space to read...outside.  For some reason, however, it made sense to me to have a window.  To get the window where I could see through while sitting on the ground, I had to wedge it between two very spindly oak trees.  The oaks were really almost shrubs, probably 8-10 feet high, only about 3 inches in diameter.  They bent and swayed easily, even for a clumsy 9 year-old.  Their branches and leaves provided a nice canopy for my little retreat.   
Of course, a window really needs a ledge or small shelf beneath it.  To further the decorative vision of my space, I pinned a beautifully weathered board in between the oaks as well.  Naturally, a shelf under a window needs a vase with flowers and a book.  In an effort to complete my vision, I re-purposed a rather large gear with equal amounts of flaking yellow paint and rust to function as a vase.  My vase held wild larkspur, which I was convinced were really tiny (literal) shooting stars in a pretty shade of purple that had been frozen in time.  My book fit very nicely on the shelf beneath the window, and it complemented the vase and shooting stars well.  My reading spot was complete.    
I read for hours in my space until I heard Mom's car driving up the road.  It would be dinner time soon, and it was a punishable offense to be late to the table.  I put the grate, gear, and board back where I found them.  I couldn't risk leaving my reading place intact.  If I did, chances were my siblings would wreck it to torment me.  I gathered the discarded shooting stars for Mom, I liked to give her pretty things, and I wandered back to the house.  I planned to return later, maybe tomorrow.
I did return to that place many times, for many years after I created it.  It was one of my favorite hiding spots.  I still love to read outside, although it has been some time since I created a reading place from junk in the middle of a national forest.  Not that it's beyond me, I just don't happen to have a national forest or a junk pile at the moment.  I'm amazed at the typical summer day of 9 year-old Rita compared to my current summer days.  There are shared elements, namely lots of books and reading in isolation away from the overbearing presence of other people.  I like not having to sneak out of the house, however, sometimes it feels like I have to sneak out of work.  I continue to love larkspur, but I haven't seen any since I moved away from the Hills which is quite sad.  I also continue to love the idea that they could be shooting stars frozen in time...      





Friday, May 17, 2013

Fate and Fanny Packs

I'm not necessarily a spontaneous person, although I feel I have good capacity to appreciate and go with random events that happen in life.  I do not necessarily believe in fate, however, I think it is possible to find patterns and common threads in chaos.  Happenstance has been a powerful force in my development and in the relationships I build.  For example, one of the most interesting and serendipitous events in the past year was meeting my friend Tako.  

Last summer, while visiting the Como Park Conservatory to enjoy a Japanese lantern lighting festival, a friend and I were trekking across multiple parking lots and community green-space to get to the Como Park Zoo.  As we walked along, I noticed a girl with a really nice camera wandering around with a somewhat bewildered but determined look on her face.  She stopped us and politely inquired if we knew how to get to the zoo from her current location.  I told her we were headed that direction and she was welcome to walk with us if she wanted; she did.  I have a habit of asking people questions about themselves and trying to learn something about them, it was no different with Tako.  She told us she was from the Republic of Georgia, and she had just arrived in the United States two days prior.  Tako had come to study finance at the University.  Surprised that she had been in the US only two days, I asked what she was doing in St. Paul.  Fortuitously, she had come to watch the lantern lighting festival.  Given that we were all headed to the same place, with the same agenda more or less, I invited Tako to join us for the day.  We have been friends ever since.  What seems unusual about this is that Tako had only decided that morning to come to the festival after reading about it in the paper.  Aside from airport employees and the student who assigned her to her dorm room, Tako had not yet spoken with anyone, or even settled in (she had just arrived two days before!).  The portion of me that enjoys romanticized notions of relationships and fate really likes the story of how we met.      

Then: At the lantern lighting festival, the day we met.   
Tako is a lovely person.  She is cynical, very smart, incredibly caring, and spunky.  She traveled all over the US while she was here, made amazing connections with people from around the world, and made sure to use her time here to benefit herself, her country, and her family and friends.  For example, Tako raised money for an orphanage in Georgia she volunteers with there.  She also studied hard and did well academically.  I continue to be amazed by her conviction to caring for people and standing her ground about politics and religion.  Tako is a strong person, I admire that.

Now: At RYKYGNYZYR's first public performance last week.
Tako is returning to Georgia tomorrow.  I'm going to miss her quite a bit.  While she was in the US we celebrated her 21st birthday, her first Thanksgiving, and a midwestern Christmas that involved snow, a spin-out, and an explanation of how a fanny pack ("fanny bag" as she later called it) is very different from "fun bags".  I am lucky to have such good people in my life.  When I think of Tako and our friendship, it is an excellent reminder for me to be open to people and new things.  It is also a reminder to be mindful of what is happening around me as there are infinite opportunities for very cool things, I just need to engage with people to make it happen.

Monday, May 13, 2013

SharkFox Attack!

SharkFox: An underhanded, sneaky, self-centered, ambitious, utterly incompetent, aggressive person who takes joy in screwing people over for their own advancement, and also because it's just "so much fun".  Vicious and sly with beady little eyes and a creepy smile.  Uses a lack of subtlety as a cover for their scheming in an attempt at faux transparency/diversion, i.e. presents as such an idiot that no one could seriously entertain the idea of them as a threat.  Uses intermittent reinforcement to its benefit because in all actuality it really is an idiot, and it has the uncanny ability to demonstrate that in earnest when people start to suspect its duplicitous nature.  May also share behavioral characteristics with a pigeon.    

The SharkFox is a particularly nasty predator, an invasive species, really, in the academic ecosystem.  It is likely that all institutes of higher education have SharkFox infestations.  The invasive and highly damaging nature of the SharkFox has been the direct cause of death to many doctoral student's careers.  The SharkFox is a cunning foe to those who are unable to recognize the signs of impending doom when in its presence.  For public safety reasons, anyone currently in a doctoral program, or those who may become a doctoral student should learn the risk signs of a SharkFox infestation, and subsequently, a SharkFox attack.
A SharkFox is very skilled at disguising him or herself to unsuspecting persons.  This ability to provide convincing camouflage enables the SharkFox to blend in with other academics in order to pursue its true desires of attention, power, and creation of human suffering.  For example, the most dangerous SharkFox known to the academic world uses the guise of a competent, decent human being with a southern accent as its cover.  SharkFox create their camouflage by ingratiating themselves, constantly smiling, and spewing unctuous and nonsensical verbal diarrhea on any and all humans in their presence.  Their sugary venom can act quickly, and those people not immune to it are easily overcome.  SharkFox venom has the ability to mentally weaken a person to the point of allowing the SharkFox to control their minds and guide their actions.  Given their preference for weak minds, it is perhaps unsurprising that the most common habitat for a SharkFox to invade is the Social Sciences, followed closely by MBA programs and the non-academic settings of political caucuses and religious institutions.  

As noted by my fellow Pink Squirrel, Snarky Squirrel, one of the SharkFox' most effective methods of gaining compliance/pure torture is its ability to stun its prey.  The stunning capabilities of a SharkFox emanate from areas of its body that should at all costs remain covered by clothing such as the chest and thighs.  However, the SharkFox uses its stun capabilities with tact, and its victims often fail to recognize the soul burning, brain melting effect of a stun until it is much too late.

SharkFox use their powers to feed on the burgeoning careers of young doctoral students.  A recognizable sign of danger for any doc student when a SharkFox is present is the phrase, "Hey, can I tell you something...?"  This often leads to venom dispersion in the form of flattery regarding the doc student's background, a borderline inappropriate reference to the SharkFox' own background, followed by an offer to work with the SharkFox.  This is then handled in two ways: SharkFox makes unreasonable requests of doc student at all hours of the day, but favors the morning hours between 2am and 5am, or SharkFox repeatedly "forgets" about the project and does everything it can to weigh it down.  Either way, the doc student lives in fear of a SharkFox attack in the hopes of getting a good letter of recommendation and a line on their CV.  Most fail to see that the SharkFox is simply playing with its food, and it has no intention of supporting them in their careers.    

At this time, there is no natural predator for the SharkFox, particularly if it has been tenured.  While its existence in the academic ecosystem allows scientists to study it in a controlled environment, the SharkFox remains a menace.