Saturday, November 7, 2015

Sucking on Standing Man

Existential Nurture

            In “My First Lie, and How I Got Out of It”, Mark Twain argues that we learn to lie the instant we are born. It’s nurture, not nature. In his ingenious way he was able to “remember” his first lie and proffered its occurrence as the moment he unlatched from his mother’s breast for the second time. I wish I had such hubris, even ironically so, to name that moment when everything changed for me…when my innocence was stolen from me.
            Twain’s ingenuity reminds me of a ‘60s tearjerker commercial where the voiceover sings the “South Pacific” anthem “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught to Hate.” This song in particular resonated with me, though I couldn’t tell you why at the time. After the commercial aired, my friends and I would walk around our all-white neighborhood in Scarsdale, NY, singing and attempting to recreate the singer’s deep pathos and knowing deep in our hearts that we would never be prejudiced.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught

            We hated close by. We hated Kimbrough. A new kid in our class. His only difference was he was the only one in our grade whose parents were divorced. We hated him so much that we stole cans of spray paint from Hartsdale Hardware and tagged the foot bridge across the Bronx River Parkway from Scarsdale to Hartsdale that commuters took to catch the Metro-North to Grand Central. “FUCK KIMBROUGH!” “YOUR MOTHER SUCKS YOUR COCK KIBMIE!” And other ignoble, less imaginative, crude appellations.
            It took less than 24 hours for Kimbrough’s step-father to cross the bridge and to undercover who was responsible. Our parents made us buy the grey spray paint this time and repay the store for our stolen goods. Our punishment was to cover our obscenity. The adults expected us to feel shame for our actions, and as I look back, I feel intense shame today, but back then, I felt nothing. It wasn’t long before I stole another can of spray painted tagged my next door neighbor’s stones along his property line with new obscenities: Fuck You, Shit Hear (I wasn’t the best speller), etc. For what I lacked in imagination, I made up with in-your-face, unreflective hubris.
            I chose my own hate, and it was not directly built on what my relatives hatred, but on my own parochial universe. I was far away from Grandfather Joe and Grandmother Zoelette and Papa and Granny and Uncle Ben and Uncle Melvin and Aunt Emmaline and so many others. But their hateful and violent lessons were carried over from Covington and Memphis to Drexel Hill and Scarsdale.
            When I try to track back in my consciousness to that moment when I was born, even without rebirthing guru Leonard Orr’s help, all that I find is darkness, a kind of nihilism that resonates with an Ur-Kirkegaard and Ur-Sartre vibe. It’s pre-verbal. It’s seemed everything I hold onto disintegrated or morphed to become something I didn’t expect or anticipate. I found private and public coping strategies. First, I created fantasy worlds in my room where I would act out all kinds of scenarios. Ironically, one of my favorites was the Civil War. I was always on the winning side. I would also suck my thumb. The pleasure and comfort of thumb sucking lasted all the way into my early twenties. When I was alone, in a safe space where no one would come upon me, I hold a blanket or pillow to my face and suck.
Ironically, one of the objects I loved to hold in my mouth was a miniature reproduction of Giacometti’s “Standing Man.” My parents had purchased the Existentialist artist’s object at MOMA in the 60’s. Rather than being several feet tall, it was a convenient 12 inches and could stand on various surfaces in the living room. I liked this figure because when I put the cold metal in my mouth, it soothed me. Like sucking my thumb, Standing Man’s curved head was the perfect shape to be held between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. The problem was that just like sucking my thumb, I could not carry Standing Man in my mouth like a dog retrieving a paper everywhere I went.
            In public, I had a bolder, more in-your-face strategy. I took inspiration from Uncle Ben, a giant of a man. His favorite phrase to yell at me was, “Buck up, boy! Don’t be such a pansie.” I never was quite the bully he perhaps wanted me to be, but I learned that anger was my friend. It was the Kevlar that kept me safe. I could not get hurt when I was angry.
The rest of the time I walked the halls of Greenacres Elementary School, climbed the monkey bars on the playground, swung on the high swings, rode my new Stingray with a banana seat and sissy bar furiously around the neighborhood with fear in my heart. I knew the world was dangerous. At any moment the worst can happen. I was going to be hurt and could not avoid it. And the hurt would be worse than my elementary school mind could ever conceive of.
            Centuries before, Anselm of Canterbury came up with a definition for God: “Si enim vel in solo intellectu est potest cogitari esse et in re quod maius est” (that than which nothing greater can be conceived” (Proslogion 2).  I operated in a parallel Existential universe where there was no God. Sartre once described Existentialism as, “the attempt to draw all the consequences from a position of consistent atheism.” I constructed my definition of nothingness like this:  fear is that than which nothing greater can be felt. Fear and anxiety were the knife’s edge of existence. All the consequences add up to nothing more than nothingness.
I could never trust my best friends because I knew they would betray and hurt me. It was a chicken or egg dilemma whether my friends betrayed me first or I put them in a position to betray me. I’ll never have the presence of mind to untangle that conundrum. Like an animal that is wounded, the wolves sense vulnerability, smell blood, and so gnash and tear until my heart ripped open.
            I went around with a belief that I am guilty. It was my fault. I was the one who stood up in the back of the truck. I was the one who drank the Co’Cola. I was the one who locked the babysitter in the basement. It was my fault and I should be beaten.
            Under such a rubric for existence, it made sense to hit first. Never take the defensive position. I knew from experience the painful consequences.
David. Chris. John. Johnny.Scott. Eric. Vincent. And on. And on. On. So many, I don’t remember all their names. Some I actually never knew their names. I simply beat them bloody.
I had a winning technique. I would pump myself up with adrenaline so that I never felt pain. I was a master of living with pain. In my thirties I discovered that I had broken my leg sometime in the past. I could remember exactly when it happened. I simply taped my leg and continued the soccer season. I could manage the pain of broken leg while running and kicking. No problem. I knew pain. I knew how to overcome it with more pain.
In fighting, I had a kind of Ur-Mixed Martial Arts style. I would absorb their fists with my arms and shoulders. A Rope-A-Dope without ropes. Without rules.  Biting and kicking allowed. I would step in close where they couldn’t rear back, where their roundhouses and hooks landed with all the force of a pillow fight. I struck short jabs. I wanted blood. I wanted evidence on my fists that I had fought. Bloody, torn knuckles. I went for the soft tissues of the face. Around the eyes. My fists smashed against the fat, cheeky lips covering sharp braces.  Then, I went to my signature move. The Take Down. I would wrap my arms around my opponent’s head and flip him over my hip onto the ground. Bigger boys, smaller boys. It didn’t matter because none were expecting it. Gravel or hard pavement were the best. I’d land hard on their chest, pinning their arms with my body, my legs splayed so they couldn’t flip me back, and holding them in a headlock. I would pound my fist into their face until their eyes were swollen shut, their nose turned sideways, and their lips unrecognizable. Until finally someone from the watching pulled me off.
I fought my best friend, the son of a Presbyterian minister, as we waited for the school bus one morning because someone said I couldn’t beat him up.  I fought the bully on the playground and sent him to the hospital. I fought a boy named Happy because he had a dad and I didn’t. I ripped him off his mini-bike and pounded on him as he lay helpless, nearly unconscious, on the ground until his father came out of the house and stopped me. Later, I learned I broke his jaw.
Years later, in my thirties, Mom told me that she used to get called weekly from other mothers about me beating their sons. She never told me. She thought, Boys will be boys.

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