The last time I saw my mother alive was about a year and a half before her death. I didn’t see her after her death either. We aren’t really an open casket kind of family. We aren’t really a casket kind of family in general. She was cremated. You’re probably wondering why I went that long without seeing my mother. Maybe you’re judging me for it. People try to understand others by thinking of their own situations. Perhaps your mother hugged you and wiped your tears. She made you cookies and took you to scout meetings. My childhood was a little darker.
On the first day of that last visit, my husband, son, and I were sitting in my mother’s tiny, humid living room in South Florida on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. Things were going OK. She was chatting away, as usual. My mom loved to talk.
We were sitting on the couch, across from her cream-colored wall unit, where the TV and her knick-knack collection resided. Mom started pointing to knick-knacks and talking about where they came from. Then, she pointed to three, sad looking, chipped, ceramic clowns on the top shelf and says, “Lisa, didn’t Raul give those to you?” My stomach instantly cramped.
Raul was a guy my mom dated for seven years when I was a kid. He was married, and he was a violent alcoholic. He dislocated my mom’s jaw twice and hit her many other times. Once, when I was about seven or eight, I pulled a steak knife on him and told him to stop hurting my mother. For real. I felt that threatening him with a small steak knife would stop the insanity. It didn’t.
He didn’t just hurt my mother. When I got to be about eleven, Raul started fondling me and kissing me on the mouth, with his mouth open. I told my mother about this when I was twelve. She finally broke up with him when I was thirteen. I’m not sure why it took her a year, and I’m not sure why Raul was not arrested. The only thing I can think of is he was helping with the bills. Money trumps safety, I guess.
I wanted to say, “yes, mother. Yes. That man who beat you and molested me for seven years. That Raul. Yes, he gave me those cheap ass stupid clowns that you insist on keeping and shoving in my face like they don’t make me want to vomit. It’s like you had a lobotomy and forgot reality. Yes. He gave those to me.”
I think Raul knew that he sucked as a boyfriend and a person. He knew, on some level, that beating women and molesting little girls was wrong. I think that is why he was always trying to buy my mom’s and my forgiveness. He was always buying my mom flowers, or some other “I’m sorry” present after a big fight. He bought me stuff, too.
I don’t remember every gift he gave me, but I do remember two of them. One was a blue, obviously fake, fur coat with white trim. I loved it even though I lived in South Florida, where I could wear it maybe one day a year. It was soft and very warm. I felt so grown up in that coat. As an adult, I hate fur coats.
My mom has always loved knick-knacks. I have never understood this as they don’t actually do anything but collect dust. Anyway, Raul used to buy her little ceramic things. I guess he figured that I would love them too, so he bought me three little clowns. For most of my childhood, they were on a shelf in my bathroom. When I moved out, I left them there because I have no reason to want to keep anything Raul gave me.
My mom disagreed, I guess because she still had these clowns on her living room shelf when my family and I cleaned out her apartment after her death. I’m not sure why she wanted to remember Raul or keep these now chipped clowns, but she did. They were the very first thing my husband put in the trash.
This is an excerpt from my memoir. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.
So, in the car we went, with as many belongings as the car could hold. Mom and I made the drive up to Peoria and moved in with my grandmother, her second husband, Pat and his son, Arnold. Arnold was about fourteen at this time and seemed nice. I remember that he paid a lot of attention to me, and I loved this, of course. What little kid doesn’t like attention?
I don’t know how long we lived there before the weird shit started. This is when another obstacle was thrown in my way. I already had living in a single parent home and not having a relationship with my father to screw me up; but now, the granddaddy of all issues came into play. Arnold began sexually abusing me.
Yes, I know that being sexually abused by my teenaged step-uncle sounds like something off the Doctor Phil show, and maybe the whole family would benefit from being featured on the show; but, this was real and was a part of my life for most of my childhood. Since Arnold was home and available, he became my caregiver.
My mother got a job at a hospital in Peoria and my grandmother was supposed to watch me. Sometimes, grandma would need, or rather want, to go out so she would have Arnold babysit me. Since I was young, my memories are hazy, but the episodes of abuse really stand out.
The first memory of the abuse is sort of innocent. It was night, and I was home alone with Arnold. We were both lying on our sides on the couch in the front room of grandmother’s house. Arnold was lying behind me on the scratchy plaid couch with his arms around me, spooning me. I remember that it felt good to be hugged even though he seemed to be hugging me too tightly. At this point, I still considered Arnold to be nice and I did what he told me to do. Then, I remember seeing headlights reflecting on the wall, from the front window, and Arnold told me to pretend that I was asleep. I wasn’t sure why he was telling me this, but I did what he said.
The next thing I remember is the first time Arnold forced me to perform oral sex on him. Again, I was two. TWO. I was sitting on his lap in the recliner just outside of grandma’s bedroom. The house was small so my grandmother’s room was directly off the living room. I don’t think anyone was home. It was dark. The big old floor model TV was on, tuned in to some 1970’s show. I don’t remember the show, just the noise of the TV and the flickering lights. At some point, Arnold unzipped his pants and showed me his penis. I remember feeling afraid. I had no clue what the thing was. He told me not to be afraid and told me it was nice. He told me to kiss it and then forced it into my mouth. I felt like I was going to choke and I gagged and cried. Arnold got mad at me and pushed me off the chair. He got up and left the room.
Sometime after that, I was alone in the kitchen with my grandmother. While we were standing in front of the refrigerator, I tried to tell her about what was happening with Arnold. Her eyes turned cold and blank and she told me never to talk like that again. I shut up immediately and never said a word about it to her again.
Later, when I was alone in the kitchen, feeling embarrassed and sad, I opened the refrigerator and stuck my finger in the baking soda box, licking the powder from my fingers. It tasted horrible and I never did eat baking soda again, but I did eat a lot of other things over the years in an attempt to deal with the feelings that I didn’t understand and I wasn’t allowed to talk about. I learned to hold things in that day. I got the message that no one would really help me anyway.
“He shouldn’t hit me. You shouldn’t hit me about God, Mamma. You should never hit anybody about God—”
The Conversion of the Jews
I was in my classroom at Bonita Springs Middle School. I taught drama, or at least I tried to. I was horrible at classroom management. School started at 9:35, and it was before my first period class. A kid, Tyler, ran in and said, “Miss Petty, I know it’s the JAPS!!” I was so confused. Tyler was a good kid, and I did not suspect drugs. I thought he was just, you know, acting for me. Then, he turned on the TV in my class, and my jaw dropped. We kept that TV on all day. All I wanted to do was leave and get my son from preschool, but we did not dismiss early. It was the day after my 30th birthday. Suddenly, being 30, wearing a size 8 (which was “fat” for me at the time), and having too many bills for my salary did not matter.
When I could leave for the day, I picked up my son, who was 4 and very much unaware of what had happened. He wanted to have dinner at McDonald’s. After all, they had a playground, toys, and fries. What more do you need in life? I didn’t take him to McDonald’s. We drove through, instead. I was afraid to sit with my son in a public place. I was afraid that some crazy person would walk in with a bomb, or Anthrax (the poison, not the band), or a gun, or something. So, we drove through and ate our fries at home, where I felt safe, but still wondered how far I was from a military base, a power plant, or any possible target for terrorism. I still think like this whenever I go to an amusement park.
I did not show my son that I was afraid. I did not cry. This morning, twelve years later, I finally cried about 9/11. I was watching the Moment of Silence on the Today Show. The screen was split, with people in New York on the left and Mr. and Mrs. Obama, Mr. and Mrs. Biden, and a lot of other people in Washington, D.C. on the right. There was a woman in New York, with brown curly hair; maybe you saw her. She started crying so hard that she had to lean on someone. I thought, “She probably lost someone that day. Maybe it was her husband, or a sibling, or a cousin, or a friend. She lost SOMEONE.” That is when I cried. That is what it is all about really. People are getting killed over differences of opinion. Seriously. People are real. They bleed. They die. We should not “hit” anyone about God or Politics, or anything else.
Now, don’t go getting too excited. This is not a story about how I was raised by a nice gay couple. Nope. I was born way back in the 70’s. Two men were not allowed to get married and adopt a baby. This was REALLY frowned upon back in the polyester and disco era. The only two men who could openly live together back then were Burt and Ernie, and they had separate beds even if they were in a one-bedroom apartment. Nope. This is a story of the two fatherly type men in my life – my never around biological father and my fantastic stepfather.
Like everyone else on the planet, I have a biological father. I mean, duh, we all need TWO parents in order to become a person, right? But I use the word “parent” very lightly when it comes to my father. Really, “sperm donor who cheated on my mom and left for good when she was 7 months pregnant” is more accurate. Yep. My mom finally had enough of her husband’s Mad Men level philandering and kicked his ass out when she was full of pregnancy hormones. He left, taking both cars with him. Asshole.
I saw my father about five or ten times in my life. When I was first born he told everyone that I “looked Asian” and that I couldn’t possibly be his kid because my mom was a big ole cheater. Not true. Then, as I grew older, I began to look EXACTLY like my paternal grandmother, his mama. So, he could no longer deny that I was his. He did, however, continue to deny to pay child support, but I digress.
The few times that I did talk to my dad as a kid, I liked him. My mom always told me what a crappy husband he was, and I knew that he rarely visited me, but I still liked him when I did see him. We seemed to share a dry, sarcastic sense of humor. He was intelligent, musical, and a little mystical at times. He read my Tarot cards and told me stories about the ghosts that haunted his house. I found him fascinating and like all kids of divorce, I used to wish that my parents would be back together. It never happened.
The last time I talked to my father was horrible. I was 14 and my mother had just married my stepfather. I was excited because my stepfather was going to adopt me and then I would have the same last name as him and my mom. We were going to be like a “normal” family. Growing up as the lone custodial child of a single mom (my brother lived with my father), I was always chasing “normal.” So, I was THRILLED that my stepfather was going to adopt me. I told my father the good news over the phone one night. He got angry and said, “Well then you’re not my daughter anymore.” He hung up. I never talked to him again. He died the next year, at age 49, of a heart attack in a Denny’s parking lot. I was 15.
At first, it hurt to lose my father, even though I barely knew him. All of the future “should have beens” came rushing through my mind. He should have been there to see me graduate from high school, and college, too. He should have been there to walk me down the aisle when I got married, both times. He should have taken me on vacations to spend time with his parents and his sister and her kids. To this day, I really don’t know his entire side of the family. I thought we had years ahead of us to work through our fucked up father-daughter relationship. We didn’t. To this day, I will not let someone leave or hang up the phone if they are angry with me.
I got out of the “my father died” funk when I realized he really wasn’t ever a father to me. Now, my stepfather, on the other hand, was a father to me. Not only did he teach me how to cook, clean, and not be an asshole, the man taught me that he had my back, right from the beginning.
Before my mom even married my stepdad, he was there for me. Since he was 19 years older than my mom and already retired, he took me to the orthodontist and other appointments when mom was working. So, during these drives in his 1977 HUGE green Lincoln Town Car, we had some good talks. One time, I told him about a boy at school who was picking on me. This boy was calling me “pig lips.” I never really thought much about my lips one way or another, but once this jackwagon pointed out that my lips took up half my face, I spent most of the time trying to pucker inward and hide the majority of my huge lips. My stepdad set me straight.
One day, he sat me down on the couch and put a pile of fashion magazines on the coffee table. He flipped through them and said, “Look at all of these gills (he was from Boston and didn’t pronounce his R’s). They get shots in their lips to make them fullah,” he informed me.
“Well, they’re stupid!” I said with all of the seriousness an embarrassed 13-year-old girl can muster.
He didn’t stop; he kept flipping through the magazines, pointing out the “gills” with full mouths, and telling me I had what women paid plastic surgeons to get. It took me years to believe him. Now that I’m in my 40’s, I’m glad for my pig lips because they look a lot less pruny than skinny lips.
One of the best things my stepdad ever did was teach me how to drink. He had a very liberal policy on alcohol. He figured if you don’t make it a “big no no” then kids wouldn’t want it so much. I think he’s right about that. My stepdad bought me my first drink at one of those private clubs in Boston (I don’t remember if it was the Elks, the Eagles, or what, but you know what I mean). I was 15 and he had just picked me up from the airport. I had flown up to meet him in Boston, where he was visiting family. My mom was going to fly up in a few days. On the way home from the airport, he had to stop by this lodge of sorts and talk to a friend. My guess is it had something to do with betting on something as the man’s only vice was gambling. So, we sat down at the bar to wait for his friend and my stepdad asked me what I wanted to drink.
“A screwdriver,” I said, being sarcastic and not really knowing what the hell a screwdriver was.
He ordered it for me, and the bartender actually gave it to me. I drank it. Now, this was not the first time I ever drank alcohol. It was the 80’s and there were these things called wine coolers that high school kids could somehow get from stores who sold to teens. I’ve got lots of stories about wine coolers, but that is for another blog.
After that, my dad let me have drinks here and there. On New Year’s Day when I was 17, I came home from a sleepover with my friends. I told my parents about how one of my friends had drunk too much and barfed. I had not had any alcohol at all, so I held her hair. My dad immediately went into a lecture on “how to drink.” Here are his rules:
Stay away from the “dahk” stuff. (Dark stuff — Whiskey, dark rum, etc)
Stay away from the sweet stuff. (No froo froo drinks)
Don’t Mix. (That one is pretty self-explanatory. Stick with the same drink.)
Pace “yahself. Just keep a little buzz.” (Don’t over do it.)
Have some “watah.” (Stay hydrated.)
The man was right. I got all the way through college and young adulthood without barfing from drinking. I was 31 the first time I puked from alcohol, and that was the first of only three times. The three times that I have gotten sick from booze have been because I broke one or more of the drinking rules.
My stepdad was not only a great father to me, but he was an amazing grandfather during the short time that he was in my son’s life. After my son was born, I went back to school to get my Master’s degree. My mom and my stepdad babysat my son. They took him everywhere with them, to the mall, to the grocery store, everywhere. My stepdad even let my son “help” him build a trellis. Unfortunately, my son’s time with my stepdad was too short. He died when my son was 3.
Father’s Day is always kind of tough for me because I don’t really have a father anymore. I do have lots of wonderful men in my life who are fathers. First of all, there’s my husband, who, like my stepdad, took on the role of stepfather to my son. Then, there’s my son’s biological father who has maintained a good relationship with our son even though we live several states away. He also always paid child support, unlike my father. Last but not least, there is my father-in-law, who is a kind, warm, and friendly man. He would have to be; he raised my wonderful husband.
Here is my husband with his dad.
So, we’ve talked about me enough. What are you up to on this sappy Hallmark card holiday weekend? Leave me a comment. I love hearing from you.
One of the things that a lot of people, including myself, love to complain about is their imperfect childhoods. We sit on many a couch in many a therapist office talking about it. We seem to blame our parents for a lot, and our mothers usually take the brunt of that. So, to get away from that Freudian way of thinking, I would like to share with you some of the great things my mom taught me.
Mom taught me to dress nicely when going to the hair salon. If you dress like a slob, they will think that is how you want to look. Actually, my mom has always dressed nicely to go anywhere. There were no sweatpants and Crocs on her.
Mom told me it is better to be slightly underdressed than really overdressed.
Mom pushed me to go to college. After high school, the last thing I wanted to do was go to school. I wanted to nap, read, and cuddle kittens. I still just want to do these things, but now I do them with a master’s degree and an online job.
Mom moved to Florida before I was born. My father got a job there, and even though they were not getting along, she decided to make the move with him. I’m glad she did. This enabled me to grow up with people of many cultures and religions.
Mom taught me to tip generously. She tips everyone, even the cashier at Wendy’s.
Mom taught me to make a family out of friends. My mom was never one of those “blood is thicker than water” folks. She taught me that if someone did you wrong, even if they were family, it was ok to get them out of your life.
Finally, Mom taught me to treat myself sometimes. My mom was not a saver. She would rather have the better product than the cheaper one. This is a trait I have inherited. It is why my husband is in charge of our money. : )
I learned a lot of great things from my mom. These are really just a few of them. Let me hear from you in the comments. What are your favorite lessons that you learned from your mom?
I’ve heard this a million times. Well, maybe not a million, but a lot. It has been said to me whenever I say something unpopular, which is often, I guess. I’ve been told that I “certainly don’t mince words” and several other clichéd ways of saying “please, just lie to me.” I really don’t understand how honesty, something that used to be valued, became the least common denominator. People would rather have some fictional version of reality than the truth, I guess. I have always found that annoying. I just say what’s on my mind. I’m surprised that I am so straight forward as I learned very early in life to hold things in.
When I was two, we lived with my grandmother and step-grandfather for a bit. When none of the other adults could watch me, my thirteen-year-old step-uncle babysat me. He also forced me to perform fellatio on him. After weeks of this, it finally dawned on me that this just wasn’t right. He had told me not to tell anyone, but one day, when I was standing next to my grandmother in front of the refrigerator, I decided to say something. I thought that my grandmother would certainly put an end to all this. In a way, she did because she ended any talking about it. She got angry at me when I stumbled through my two-year-old version of what was happening. She didn’t wonder where I got the vocabulary to talk about a penis going into my mouth. It was 1974. There was no internet and porn wasn’t widely accessible, at least not to toddlers. Instead, she assumed I was just talking trash. Grandmother told me, “We don’t talk like that!”
So, I didn’t. We eventually moved out of my grandparents’ house and I never spoke of what happened, until it happened again.
I was quiet about it for five years until I was seven going on eight and decided to speak up again after a particularly terrifying night with my step-uncle. When I finally told on him, again, my big brother asked me why I was lying. He was 17 at the time and should have beaten the shit out of someone who was raping his sister. But no, like most people, he didn’t want to deal with the truth. Since I did not receive any counseling or medical care after this episode, I assumed the rest of the family didn’t want to hear it either. They simply couldn’t handle the truth. It was easier to just not talk about it. So, I didn’t.
The other day, I was unfriended on Facebook for being honest. This person had posted something like, “If you are always saying ‘just being honest’ people hate you.” I commented that I really didn’t care if my honesty offended others. The person told me that my friends probably didn’t like me, or something to that effect, and unfriended me. When I noticed she unfriended me, I said “okeedokee” to myself and went along with my day. This was a writer I had never met in real life, so it was no big loss. Even if it was someone I did know in real life it would be no big loss because a “friend” who tells me to stifle myself is not a friend.
I am grateful that this particular former Facebook friend posted what she did and unfriended me. She inspired me to take another look at how I have been communicating. I figured out that though it may seem like I have no filter, I have been holding a lot in, and that’s not good. Holding everything in gives me stomachaches and headaches, and it gives me horrible writer’s block. Every time I go to write something honest, I stop myself. No more. I intend to finally finish that memoir I have been procrastinating on. I’m going to be honest, and that may piss off some people, but I’m not sure I care.
“You’ve been wearing those same pants all week,” Dickhead (not his real name) said to me in front of everyone in the hallway right after sixth-grade math. Until that moment, I had a crush on him. I looked into his smirking face and hated him and his dark good looks.
“Um, no I haven’t. I have a couple of different pairs, and anyway I washed them.” I stammered, trying not to cry. This was total bullshit, as I had only one pair and we did not own a washing machine. We took our clothes to the laundromat once a week. My dad, whom I rarely saw thanks to divorce and his lack of interest in his own children, had just bought me a pair of dark blue Jordache jeans. I was so excited that I wore those jeans five days in a row, a big middle school no-no. So, instead of having “the Jordache look” I probably had the Jordache smell. No amount of Love’s Baby Soft could cover that up.
Dickhead and the others laughed at me as I walked away, turning red and feeling embarrassed about having only one pair of designer jeans. This was worse than the time I got my period on my chair in science class. I marched down the hall, staring straight down at my Trapper Keeper and trying to suck the tears back into my eyes. This is when I realized that I was poor.
I’m surprised it took me that long, as our little family (just mom and me – my brother lived with my father) had received government cheese twice. It wasn’t bad, really. It was just a big block of American cheese. Also, I had taken some cold baths by candlelight when our electricity had been turned off due to non-payment. If the free cheese and cold baths hadn’t tipped me off, I probably should have realized we did not have money when we had to move into a two-room efficiency apartment with no kitchen. We did dishes in the bathroom sink and cooked dinner on a hot plate. We ended up staying only for a weekend because the landlady got drunk and hit on my mom. The apartment was attached to the landlady’s house. My mom borrowed some money, and we moved back to our two-bedroom, two-bathroom place somehow.
Even with all of these blaring clues, the poverty did not hit me until I became a middle school fashion outcast. Everyone had designer jeans, and I got made fun of a lot for not having the proper clothes. My father, during one of his rare moments when he remembered he was my father, had taken me to Burdines in his little MG convertible to buy the jeans the week before Dickhead called out my poor hygiene. I was THRILLED about the jeans, obviously. Today, they sell Jordache at Walmart, but back in the early 80’s they were only at Burdines or Macy’s or Jordan Marsh – places where poor people didn’t shop.
Shortly after this, at Christmas, my mom’s boss bought me a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt black denim jeans because my mom could not afford them. I had seen the commercials and just had to have them. So when my mom’s boss asked her what I wanted for Christmas, she told him. He didn’t know what size I was, so he just grabbed a pair at Jordan Marsh and told my mom to exchange them. Of course, the pair he gave me was size “tall and skinny.” I have always been size “short and stout as the little teapot.” After I exchanged the jeans and got the right size, I was able to rotate my pants throughout the week. I even got a pair of Sergio Valente jeans from my mom, but I hated them because they had pink threading. My mom has always loved pink. I prefer black.
When I was in eighth grade, two amazing things happened. First, the county changed the school boundaries. This enabled me to leave McNichol Middle where everyone picked on me, and start attending Olsen. On my first day at Olsen, I met Hillary, a super nice girl who introduced me to all her friends. I finally had NICE friends who were not mean to me. Hillary also helped me dress better. She told me I needed to get Guess jeans and huge EG socks. Hillary also taught me how to layer my tank tops to match my layer socks. She helped me with my eye makeup so that I didn’t look like Ozzy Osbourne pretending to be a raccoon anymore.
The second amazing thing is my mom met my step-dad. Until then, my mom had been super protective of me. I wasn’t allowed to do much. My step-dad encouraged her to let me hang out with my new friends. I went to the mall, to the movies, and to the beach like a normal 13-year-old Floridian. My step-dad also liked to shop. He would bring me home Guess jeans and other cool things from Macy’s. I had the right clothes and the right friends. Life was finally coming together.
I still got picked on by some kids for being chubby, having pimples, crying in math class (I’ve always loathed numbers) and sucking at every team sport ever played in middle school PE. I still had bad hair days because I insisted on having my hair chopped into an 80’s do, against Hilary’s advice. Overall, though, eighth grade was a big positive turning point. I didn’t even wear my Jordache jeans anymore. Guess was WAY cooler.
“Think about what things mean.” This was my advice to my son as I drove him to his little slice of hell — school. That particular day would be more hellish than usual as he had both his Geometry and Science final exams. Like me, he would almost rather have a colonoscopy, including the dreaded prep, than be forced to learn math or science. I felt for him, so I offered him the words of advice that got me through high school math. Mr. Scott said them almost daily. Whenever he would write a super long equation on the board and look out at sea of confused dog looks, he would simply say, “Think about what things mean.” This simple philosophy has gotten me through a lot more than math.
Mr. Scott was my favorite teacher even though he taught my most hated subject – math. I had him for Algebra in ninth grade, and again for Integrated Math my senior year. As a teacher, he was the perfect combination of firm, professional, and funny. He knew his subject, but he didn’t just stand there and drone on and on about variables and the order of operations. No. He always kept our attention, even if he had to wear a dress.
Yes, I said a dress. No. Mr. Scott was not a drag queen, not that there’s anything wrong with that. He was a Vietnam veteran with a permanent five o’clock shadow who usually dressed like a gas station attendant. I’m serious. He had a bunch of gas station attendant shirts with his name, Frank, on the front. They were from all different stations. I used to sit there and try to imagine where he got them. He couldn’t have just ordered them on Amazon because it was 1987 and Amazon, or the Internet, or laptops, or iPhones, didn’t exist yet. No. He would have had to work at all of the gas stations to get a shirt. Either that or he toured the country finding gas station attendants named Frank who needed some extra cash. No matter how he got them, I wasn’t sure why he wore them. Maybe it was to remind himself that no matter how horrible high school students were, teaching was still better than pumping gas. (Young people, gas station attendants used to pump people’s gas for them.) Whatever the reason, he wore them almost daily, except, as I mentioned, when he wore dresses.
One particular Halloween (See, I told you he wasn’t a drag queen.), I remember walking into his class on the second floor of the old 600 hall at South Broward High School and almost walking right into his magic wand. That’s right. Mr. Scott, Frank from the Shell station, was dressed as Glinda the Good Witch from the Wizard of Oz. I couldn’t help but laugh all the way to my seat. He just stood there and looked at me like, “What?” I took my seat expecting an easy day of not really doing math. I was wrong.
Mr. Scott began class by walking carefully across the classroom in his sparkly shoes and shiny dress, and pointing to the board with his wand. He called on me, of course, and said, “Lisa, what is the quadratic formula?” I looked at him like he was nuts, but he insisted that I say the formula out loud while he grabbed a piece of chalk with his wandless hand. I’m happy to say that I got it ALMOST right. I forgot to say “the opposite of” before I said “B.” I’m sure at age 41 I still know MOST of the quadratic formula because of this experience.
I never grew to love math, but I sure remembered it better after watching a man with a five o’clock shadow in a dress teach it. Over the years, Mr. Scott donned many costumes, some of them dresses and some of them more masculine, like when he was Vince Fontaine in the school’s production of Grease. No matter how he was dressed, he always took the time to slow down and show us HOW to think about what things mean.
I kept that in my head during the SAT and I actually scored higher in Math than in English. (Note: I ended up becoming an English professor.) I kept thinking about what things meant through college, marriage, caring for a baby, a divorce, a new marriage, moving across the country, and a host of other experiences. Basically, whenever I was getting frustrated or taking things too seriously, I would stop and think about what things really meant. Usually, they weren’t as bad, or as serious as I thought, once I really THOUGHT about them. Sometimes, all I needed to do was put on a sparkly dress and laugh. That always helps. Thank you, Mr. Scott, wherever you are.
This may come as a shock to those of you who don’t know me very well, or do not find me amusing, but I spent ten years doing stand-up comedy. I was a comedian, or a stand-up comic, not a “comedienne” as some people liked to call me while patting themselves on the back for being so knowledgeable. Unless you are someone who refers to your female doctor as a doctorette, and I hope she does many painful medical tests on you if you do, there is really no reason to call someone with ovaries a comedienne.
Comedy was more of a hobby than a career as I stuck to the state of Florida and ventured into Georgia once. As a parent, I didn’t feel that the life on the road necessary for a full-fledged comedy career would be appropriate. I could not look my son in the eye and say, “Mommy would rather entertain drunk people than watch you grow.” I’ve met many comedians who have done just that, and more. Knowing that my son is more important than any career is just one life lesson that I learned from doing comedy. Here are the rest:
You truly can’t judge a book by its cover.
Some comedians try to judge an audience by the age of the people, or the race or nationality. They are the Archie Bunkers of comedy. I just told my jokes. They were real jokes that everyone could relate to. I’ve seen many older crowds laugh at vibrator jokes. A lot of comedians like to complain about a “rough audience.” As Jerry Seinfeld used to say, “It’s not the crowd; it’s you.” When we bring our preconceived notions, we bomb, on stage and in life.
Not everyone will like you.
Sad but true, no matter what you do, there are some people who just won’t like you. I’ve had hundreds of successful shows, but two very bad ones. Both bad shows occurred in more rural cities. I learned that I am a “city folk” kind of comedian. I didn’t bomb because the rural crowds were too rough, or bad. I bombed because I just couldn’t reach them. Like other mortals, I don’t achieve common ground with everyone.
Nothing will take you down faster than fear.
I’ve done many open-mike nights, both as a beginner and as a more experienced comic. I always cringed when a new comic would get up on stage and tell the audience about his stage fright. No! No! No! Fear is not funny, nor useful. To be successful, nervous energy must be used to, well, energize. Showing fear turns you into a wildebeest in the center of a pride of hungry lions.
There is always room for compassion.
I will never forget this one drunk woman at a Friday night show. She was the worst heckler that I had ever had. She would not shut up, not for me or the other comics. I hammered her with everything in my STFU arsenal. Still talking. When the headliner was on stage, at the end of the show, she finally got quiet. That’s because she was in the bathroom barfing. My first thought was, “serves her right.” Then, I remembered how horrible it is to puke and I thought about what a rough night she had ahead of her. So, when she came out of the bathroom, I took her to a table in the back and got her ginger ale and crackers. The other comics thought I was nuts. She’s probably a perfectly nice person when she’s sober, and she had probably had a horrible week at work or something. We all screw up.
You don’t have to be sexy to be successful.
Comedians come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Some are gorgeous and some, well, not so much. Being funny is not about being sexy. I’ve only known one comedian who was both. One. Being successful at comedy depends more on how quick you can think than how skinny you can be.
It’s good to know what is going on the world.
Comedians make fun of the world around them, so, clearly, they must actually pay attention to the world outside of their homes. By world, I mean everything not just Snooki’s hair. In the real world, it is also good to speak intelligently about things that matter.
I think everyone should do comedy, at least once. There are so many things to learn, and there is no better feeling than being DONE with a public speaking gig. After 10 years, public speaking doesn’t bother me at all and it is most people’s number one fear. Do you believe that? How could anyone’s number one fear be speaking into a microphone to a crowd of people who are there to listen to you? My number one fear is frogs. They are slimy, they boing at you and they do not listen.
I recently served a two-month grand jury term. In addition to learning that there are a lot of trashy people in my town, I learned that I am a coward when it comes to parallel parking. Every Wednesday, my jury days, I would get to the court over an hour early so I could park in a real parking lot. If I didn’t get there early, there would be no spaces in the lot and I would have had to, gulp, park on the street. Confession: I’m 44 and ½ years old and I do not know how to parallel park.
I learned to drive in South Florida, Hollywood to be specific. Back in the day, in Hollywood, I never had to parallel park. Even the street meter parking in the down town area was diagonal pull in parking. Every place I ever wanted or needed to go had a parking lot.
I got so little practice with parallel parking when I had my restricted that I failed my first try at getting my regular driver’s license. When I attempted to park between the two poles, as instructed, I backed into one of the poles. The screechy old woman who was administering my test screamed, “You failed!”
That was my final straw with her. She hated me from the moment she got in my driving instructor’s small Toyota. The license examiner had me press the horn and it made a pathetic, sick frog noise.
“I could fail you for that horn!” She yelled.
My heart immediately started beating faster. “It’s not my car. It’s my driving teacher’s car,” I told her. I could tell by her face that I probably shouldn’t have talked back. Oh well. Too late.
After that rough beginning, it’s no wonder I failed the test. After I banged into the pole, the examiner had me drive back to the license office. I shook the whole way. When I pulled into a parking space in front of the office, I got out and got in the passenger seat. I started crying as soon as I shut the door. My instructor told me not to worry about failing. He assured me we would try again in a week or so, at a different license office.
True to his word, a week later we went to a different driver’s license place in Fort Lauderdale. This time I got a youngish, around 30, man. Since this office was smaller than the other one, the actual driving test took place on neighborhood streets rather than a driving course. So, there were no poles when I had to parallel park. There were also no other cars because everyone in the neighborhood parked in their driveways. Parallel parking was easy with nothing to hit.
After I aced parallel parking, I did a crappy, off road three-point turn. The examiner still passed me in spite of that turn. He even had “safe driver” added to my license. Honestly, I think he just had a creepy grown man crush on me. During the test, he told me I was pretty. He also asked if I had a boyfriend. I didn’t say anything about that to my driving instructor or my parents. I was just so happy to have my license, and to not have to parallel park ever again.
Since that day, I have not parallel parked unless there were no cars on either side and I could just pull in. Whenever I make plans with friends, I tell them to pick a place with “real parking.” If all else fails, I valet park or park really far away. I hear there are cars that can parallel park for you. Until I have one of those, I won’t be attempting any street parking when there are actual cars parked within a block.