Nature vs. Nurture — Part IV

October 2, 2019

Dear Child, 

You did it again, kid. My heart is broken.

It is the second time in as many weeks that your choices have widened the scars that already existed because of you.  You stole from me, and now you’re moving away.

If there were ever a person I wanted to hate, it is you.  It would be so much easier.

Your mother sent word of your imminent departure this afternoon, and I didn’t receive it until it was time to leave the office. My memories of you – us – nudged all other thoughts on the long drive home today. I cried through three cities.

Damn you for that. 

I entered your life when we were both much younger. Those early years were tough for both of us, and anyone who ever felt they needed to pick a side. But we grew. Together.

Remember our first Halloween together? We convinced your mother to dress you in a more traditional costume, versus the biblical characters that embarrassed you so much. I always thought young Moses, with the basket around your waist, was quite creative and fun. Still, I understood your desire to wear ruby slippers and braided pigtails.

Do you remember sitting in the backseat of the car and giving me directions to the store? They were nothing more than guesses on your part. Though that episode remains among my fondest memories, it was hauntingly telling.

You spin yarn.

The golden versions have happened here and there, such as the time you informed us that you were the only beginner clarinet player to make the All-Region Band, or when you more recently announced that you received a scholarship to attend a distinguished school for aspiring beauticians. Far more often than not, however, your yarns are hued yellow, which is the color of deceit.

I love you. I hurt for you. I’m afraid for you. I’m afraid for me.

I fear that you are beyond the grace of anyone who offers it. I hurt because you keep falling and don’t seem to care anymore about standing. I fear that you have only one more of these emotional blows in your arsenal … except, you won’t be here to recover.

I’m heartbroken, kid. Please don’t take you from me.

Love always,

Dad

Nature vs. Nurture – Part II

The author originally wrote and published this piece in March 2014. 

‘Mom, I’m glad I’m not adopted,’ the little boy said out of the blue.

‘Really,’ she responded. ‘Why do you say that?’

‘Because, if I was adopted you wouldn’t love me as much.’

It had been more than five years since the boy made the transition into his new family. He was about a year old when Child Protective Services placed him with his foster family.

He doesn’t remember the days of crawling around a small government-subsidized apartment as his biological mother and her guests — many of whom she didn’t know — lay sleeping on floors and couches. Though it was one of his earliest sensory experiences, he can’t identify marijuana smoke. Nor has he imagined that drinking straws are also used to inhale the poisonous vapors of scorched methamphetamine.

And he doesn’t recall the hours in court, where attorneys and social workers made their cases on his behalf.

‘Well, you know we love you more than anything,’ the mom said.

‘I know,’ the little boy responded, ‘because I’m not adopted.’

His young memory is instead crowded with Disney characters and Sunday dinners; a cruise ship that he refers to as the boat; a stuffed duck that was his Linus blanket; and pizza bites. Enough pizza bites to float a cruise ship.

The boy’s parents never considered having another child. In fact, they were done with diapers, well-baby doctor visits and school supply lists that included sleeping mats. All of their high-chairs and strollers had been given away or sold at a garage sale. They were ready for vacations and some weekends alone.

But they saw an injustice.

He deserved better than to be left alone or to witness his mother trade favors for drugs. Every child does. This boy, however, was one of the fortunate ones. For certain, his biological mother loved him. But her stronger bond was with her lifestyle. And he’d become a novelty.

‘You know, many people who put their children up for adoption love them very much,’ the mom explained. ‘And the people who adopt them really want them in their family.’

‘I’m just glad I’m not adopted,’ he responded. ‘And I’m glad you and dad love me more than an adopted son.’

In time, the boy will begin asking questions. His parents – my wife and I – will offer him answers. We will be forthcoming and matter-of-fact. That will include letting him know that life happens and that he is our grandson, but really our son.

We will also tell him that we love him with all of our hearts. Forever. And I suspect that he’ll believe us.

Nature vs. Nurture – Part I

The author wrote this post in 2013. It was originally published on March 24 of that year.

The good memories are fading. They were once plentiful.

I entered her life when she was six and witnessed plenty worth recollection. But, the production line one evening … just stopped.

Her beauty was natural — and a certainty, with striking deep brown eyes and onyx hued hair. She had proven herself on the stage, at the plate, and with her embouchure. But, she had dreams still in waiting.

As a little girl, she was much like any other. She talked about her birthday — months out; she eagerly awaited Santa’s arrival, and she preferred the over-salted gravy and fried chicken strips at Ponderosa Steakhouse to any homemade dish — except for her Mom’s spaghetti and meatballs.

I can still smell the sweat of a young child who spent her day climbing fences, playing hopscotch and racing the little boy who lived two doors down. My memory needs no refreshing to see her blue-on-white saddle bucks peddling and pushing.

I can also hear her whining voice when she didn’t get her way.

‘So, what are you gonna be for Halloween?’ I remember asking that little six-year-old. ‘Power Rangers? Dora?’

‘Mom makes me dress up as a Bible character every year,’ she told me, frowning.

‘Like what?’ I quizzed her.

‘Last year, she cut a hole in a big basket and attached it to my waist. Then she dressed me up like a baby,’ she explained. ‘I was supposed to be Moses.’

‘Well, that actually sounds pretty cool,’ I responded, smiling at the sad pathetic look of a child who was disappointed. ‘What do you say we try to convince Mom to let you dress in a devil costume this year. You could scare every kid in the neighborhood.’

Her eyes briefly widened. An excited smile came to her face. Then both disappeared, as if she had a contradictory thought.

‘Even you won’t be able to talk her into that,’ she said.

‘We’ll see,’ I responded. ‘I mean, the devil is biblical. Yes?’

Though Mom didn’t offer her blessing on the whole devil costume idea, we managed to convince her to construct an ensemble in the likeness of Dorothy, from the Wizard of Oz.

I was a young man who sprung himself into fatherhood after falling in love with a beautiful single mother. I was far from perfect — often expecting too much and other times not expecting enough. I deeply regret that in all the times I told that little girl how beautiful and intelligent she was, we never shared an embrace. We both needed it more than we knew. Yet, we subconsciously avoided it.

Still, she and I made an excellent team.

Once, not knowing my way around the neighborhood, she volunteered to navigate. Snug in her blue booster seat, she shouted directions from the back. Left. Another left. Go straight. Now go that way. We became lost, but we eventually found our way home, with a bagful of soda and candy.

‘I thought you knew where you were going,’ I said over my shoulder.

‘I figured I’d take you on the scenic route,’ she responded, just as seriously as she could.

She would get hers about seven years later.

‘Watch her pitches,’ I whispered through the chain-link dugout. ‘She’s fast and intimidating, but she’s not hitting the strike zone.’

‘Well, I’m swinging anyway Dad,’ she said ‘because I don’t want the coach to yell at me.’

‘Look,’ I responded, ‘you can’t score a run if you don’t get on base. You were swinging at air last inning. She’s all over the place — except where it matters. Let her put you on base. You can probably get a steal and then you’ll be in her head.’

In just about everything I’ve ever done, I’ve played with the odds. In competition, I’ve always tried to find my biggest strength and pit it against my opponent’s most glaring weakness. Sometimes, one’s strengths are lost against an opponent. That first at-bat was one of those times. She just needed to be patient.

‘If she throws one down the middle, by all means — take a swing,’ I pleaded. ‘But she hasn’t placed more than one pitch in the strike zone during any at-bat. Think about it.’

As she stepped from the on-deck circle and approached the batter’s box, I just stood at the corner of the backstop and stared. We made eye contact and I nodded.

Four pitches later, the umpire used both arms to make his loud animated call. She’d struck out. Looking. As she lumbered back toward her emotional coach, we exchanged glances. I could only shrug my shoulders. She had two more at-bats, and struck out swinging every time. She had a strong desire — then — to please.

Though I was trying to help her succeed, I still regret that moment. I’d pitted her against her real teacher. And she gained nothing … except a verbal lashing and some prolonged time sitting on the bench.

I remember sitting on a large towel beneath an umbrella on Long Beach Island, just minutes from our home. While her mom and I fought off gulls who wanted our sub sandwiches, she introduced herself to other little girls — and boys — and invited them to play. Like a good cold-calling salesman, she accepted ‘no’ with grace and quickly moved to the next potential customer. Within minutes, usually, she would be surrounded by the laughter of other children.

No matter how out of tune she might have been, she continued to sing. And sing. And sing. She was adorable in her perseverance. And innocent.

Somewhere along the way, the songs began to fade.

The beautiful outwardly friendly little girl began to withdraw and see herself in a negative light. She began to hunger for more esteem from her peers but seemed puzzled on how she would accomplish it. She began to want more along materialistic lines. Unrealistic yearnings such as living in the town’s most expensive neighborhood.

Those desires quickly turned to hard cravings.

Once a little girl who befriended inspiring counterparts, she had gradually become attracted to a different crowd. This new group could best be described as lost. Outsiders. Drawing flies. They were neither athletes nor musicians. And they were far removed from being academicians.

Despite that none of her new chosen peers had a single hobby or nary a desire to attend college in a few years, she attached herself. They accepted her, she explained to us, and made her complete. Had she lost sight of her wide acceptance during the previous 10 years of going to school? Would she go from colorful to drab? Why?

A couple of years passed us by, during which lies became more frequent than the truth. We tried to welcome her friends into our home, if for no other reason than to know who she was admiring and trying to emulate. Someone, we felt, had a stronghold on our daughter. But, she was careful and calculating. We met very few of her acquaintances.

Throughout that time of letdown and disappointment, one thing never waned — her work ethic.

I gave her my old Honda Civic. She could install her own stereo, decorate it with bumper stickers or even use those hideous strawberry-scented Christmas tree air fresheners. But, I made sure she knew that my name was still on the title of ownership, in case she thought about getting into trouble.

She used that car to take herself to school, and to two jobs. While her grades left a lot to be desired, she stepped from her newly updated comfort zone and acted in a school musical. The recently tapped group of friends were still kept mostly hidden from us, but we saw progress with our daughter.

As she looked into the mirror, she began to discover her beauty again. She ate well and worked feverishly. She seemed content and acted the part very well in much of her life. Her mother would get another chance at establishing a strong bond. Maybe I would too. Our little girl was coming home again.

Nature. Relentless nature.
It was a Saturday night. Our son was lying on his bed playing a handheld video game. Our youngest daughter slept soundly in a bed a few feet from her older sister’s. The dog was inside and it was time to turn off the lights and lock the doors.

‘Hey!’ My wife yelled down the hallway. I was in bed, relaxed and flipping through TV channels. ‘Come here!’

‘Jesus H.!’ I yelled back. ‘I’m in bed!’

‘I need you in here!’ she yelled back. I could hear the shakiness in her voice.

Frustrated that I had to climb back out of bed, I quickly threw on a T-shirt and made my way down the dark hallway, toward the light of the girls’ bedroom. What in the hell could she want with me? And why couldn’t she just come to our bedroom and ask for it?

As I rounded the corner, I saw our oldest sitting on the edge of her bed. Her eyes were wide open and dilated. Catherine stood beside her first child, her own eyes big. I could sense that she wanted to release some sort of primal scream.

Instead, she produced a lightbulb with the screw-cap broken off and filament removed. In her other hand was a short red straw and a cigarette lighter.

Our little girl had found contentment … in the form of pseudoephedrine, battery acid, and ammonia. Meth.

The little girl who became a protective big sister a few years before was now sucking the exhaust of boiling toxic chemicals — just feet from where her little sister dreamed of her own birthday parties.

The little girl who once played dress-up and looked like Dorothy on Halloween was now killing her heart and brain with stuff meant for clearing drains and stripping wax from dirty floors.

The little girl who had once memorized the books of the Bible — in order — was now meeting people in the church parking lot to make exchanges. Wadded up cash for poison.

Moving on
After three attempts at inpatient rehab facilities, a child taken away from her, a couple of jail stints and a life now with someone who has even less ambition than her, that little girl is still addicted. Her DOC (drug of choice, for those who are fortunate enough to have avoided such vernacular) has changed through the years.

Our little girl’s goal in life gradually changed from attending law school to acquiring prescription anti-anxiety pills, marijuana, K2, bath salts and crystal meth, when available.

Though her eyes don’t tell the story that they once did, we remember the little girl and beautiful young lady that she once was. We cannot help but to recall the laughter and fun. The blowing out of birthday candles and the sprint from the school bus to the front door. The beach.

Oh, how we long to be guided again along the scenic route.

Free gifts? Imagine that!

I can’t help it. I read from a grammarian’s perspective.

More than 45 years after I put together nouns and consonants to read the word Donut, I digress almost every time. Knowing what I now know, it should have said Doughnut. After all, those rings began as …. dough.

These days, the phrase Free Gift really bothers me.

I shop for deals just like the next person. I totally get a thrill when my purchase yields a bonus, such as the opportunity to receive something else for nothing or the chance to buy something additional at a discount. In the retail world, those bonuses are known as GWPs (gift with purchase) and PWPs (purchase with purchase).

But free gift?

Since when is a gift not free?

Sure, there are certain people in our lives who expect some return on their gift. And there are those of us who feel like recompense is necessary upon receiving something. But when a retailer offers a free gift, what does it really mean?

For those of us with some marketing background, such ridiculous language is evidence that the retailer thought it best to write their own marketing copy. Or, they went with the lowest-bidding marketing firm. Either way, it was a terrible idea.

I had the misfortune of a tight friendship with an occasional Estée Lauder pitch-woman back in the day. Sure, she was nice and I love her dearly. But damn her for teaching me the GWP and PWP meanings, which haunt me to this day.

Coincidentally, a quick check of the latest Estée Lauder advertisements reveal an apparent lowering of its marketing bar with a high jump onto the free gift bandwagon. Never mind that the company also offers free samples, and free shipping and returns — true retail benefits.

What’s next in the marketing world of vernacular tomfoolery?

Added bonuses? Free trials?

But, wait! If you call within the next 10 minutes of this (randomly broadcast) commercial, you’ll learn that we’ve already bought into such double-edged marketing shenanigans.

If ever we deserve a free gift, it is now. But hurry. Such offers are only available for a limited time.

I’m a telemarketer

I’m a telemarketer. This is not something that makes me proud, and certainly not something I intended on doing. When I was twelve, I didn’t look at my parents and announce, “Forget being a doctor or attorney. Nevermind being an architect or physicist. When I grow up I want to cold call businesses and ask them if they need insurance.” 

Prior to being a telemarketer I had naively (arrogantly) assumed that anyone who would phone complete strangers for a living must have zero education. Or perhaps they had education but made some poor choices which led them to this very sad job. Regardless, I found telemarketers intrusive at best and rather pathetic as worst.

And now I am one. An educated (I have a master’s degree from a well respected NYC University) telemarketer. What led me to telemarketing was a series of, as Lemony Snicket would say, unfortunate events: putting my career on an eight-year hiatus to stay home with my kids, cancer diagnosis and treatment, then needing full-time employment ASAP because of a divorce. 

I had standards though. I would never call someone’s private residence. At least, that’s what I told myself to lessen the sting of calling random strangers all day. However, I was quick to find that calling businesses is merely one step above calling someone’s home. People are busy at work and already have the insurance I sell. As so many people have told me when I call, “If I wanted your insurance, I would call you.”

I am expected to make 75 calls a day: The more calls I make, the better likelihood of a sale. It’s a numbers game. I’m supposed to call each business every other week. This means twice a month I call in the chance they suddenly decide to use us – in the hopes the person who makes the decisions about insurances has changed.  Or, magically, the person who has been avoiding us for years suddenly decides one morning to answer the phone and give this pesky telemarketer their business. 

The boroughs of Manhattan are the worst; Nassau and Queen Counties a form of audiological torture. I knew New Yorkers were rough, but cold calling them for insurance releases a whole new side of this already aggressive humanity.

I’ve been threatened (“I don’t ever want to hear your voice on my phone again, is that clear?”) demeaned (“I would never work with someone as low as you,”) and messed with (“this sounds fascinating, tell me more” and then hanging up while I was explaining). I cry less than I used to, but some days I still get a sinking feeling in my chest before each dial.

I call armed with scripts – an algorithm of how to respond to their responses. Happy with their insurance? Then I say this. Recently switched and don’t want to switch again? Then I say that. It’s dancing through the raindrops – if I get that far. Most often I am hung up on or sent to a general voicemail, which is equivalent to a verbal shredder.

I speak with dozens of receptionists (or as we call them: gatekeepers). Some are akin to highly trained offensive linemen keeping callers like me from speaking with their superiors. When I ask to speak with a specific person, Nassau County gatekeepers are notorious for simply saying, “No” and hanging up.  

Despite the number of businesses I have called, I have made very few sales. I stumble over my words when I finally get the correct person on the phone, shocked they’re even listening. I’m also bracing myself for the impending hang-up, insult or quickly deciphering which script I should use in response to why they’re not interested. 

My manager tells me I need to shrug it off, to not take these people personally. So basically I need to possess some attributes of a sociopath. There is nothing natural in calling complete strangers and after being treated poorly, hanging up and immediately calling another one. 

I dial on, trying to meet my quota, hoping I make a sale, though I have found making a sale doesn’t thrill me as much as kind people do.

 

The end of the world is near! (Thanks to social media.)

The first time I heard the end of the world attributed to social media, was from a grouchy old man in a barbershop. He was at least in his seventies and bragged about his track record of never answering his rarely charged flip-phone.

I mistakenly – and respectfully – dismissed his claims. But, golly gee, it turns out the surly senior was quite the soothsayer.

And it’s not because of the hordes of people who have suddenly gained courage behind the safety of their keyboards. Neither is it the unruly political discourse over the mass media’s issue du jour. Not even the slew of unending food photos (of which I’m guilty of posting) has contributed to the earth’s doom and gloom to the level of the real culprit.

It’s T.M.I. people. (That stands for too much information for that handful of people who still speak an actual language.)

Just during the past week alone, my social media timelines have announced patients of high blood pressure, heart stents, tonsils and stomach issues that were due to alleged food poisoning at the local Ground Round.

But that’s not all.

I’ve been subjected to countless photos of middle-aged people trying to recapture the bygone popularity of their high school years. Of course, they’ve had plenty of surgeries since the days of honest-to-goodness genetics and dietetic choices. And they now have the available credit for cheap blingy sandals and those tiny trite stick-ons upon their freshly pedicured toes.

None of us are fooled. We know you’re having hot spells … and that you’ve just gone through your most recent divorce. Why try to hide it? There are more than a few of us who are right there with you at the free blood pressure machine at the drug store. The whole hot mess is funny — and sad, at the same time.

I understand the need to tell one’s story. After all, I’ve shared many love letters to my wife, recipes from long-gone ancestors and complaint letters about my children being forced to sell for the school PTA.

But I’ve never felt compelled to mention that I had ‘bubble gut’ in the process. Neither have I caved and revealed the truth about the boil on my inner thigh. For the record, I’m not claiming any such intestinal or dermal disorder now, but would it bother you if I did?

Based on what I’ve witnessed on social media, I just don’t think most people would be affected.

So, you made your mom’s meatloaf and took a picture. Fantastic. But why did you feel obliged to mention that your dog left two piles on your doorstep after inhaling the leftovers?

Now, about your keyboard courage and your politics…

How has that worked out for you? Have you convinced anyone from the other side? And, would you say that in person? Let’s be honest here, folks … as honest as your bad day at work or your 20th low-light selfie in three days.

While we’re at it if I were to see you in person and ask about you, would you really tell me about the migraines that leave you with just enough energy to update your social media status? Would you really have the nerve to detail your most recent root canal? Or the flesh-eating bacteria that attacked your left elbow after a weekend trip to the beach?

Turns out that old man was right. He came from an era when people didn’t share information that involves the bowels of any mammal … or the details of one’s stomach virus.

We are so doomed.

And, for the record, I’m in agreement with one all-to-common social media dispatch: I’m also sick of you being sick. Take a pill already. Go outside and get your steps in, for crying out loud.

Lord, take me home. Please.