Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Last Midnight

Holding the Punishment Cane, Waiting for Sister or the Governor

No, of course what really matters
Is the blame.
Somebody to blame.
Fine, if that’s the thing you enjoy,
Placing the blame,
If that’s the aim,
Give me the blame.

— Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on that post I wrote about having my fingers broken in the second grade. The vast majority of it is the kind of feedback I expected, although it seems to have been more meaningful to people than I could have anticipated. Whenever people say that something I wrote gave them a chill or brought them to tears, my first reaction (which I generally manage to keep quiet) is to wonder if perhaps they followed the wrong link and read someone else’s blog post!

I also had a couple of very touching blasts from the past, from folks who I barely knew, but remembered that day. One of them, a woman who was in my class, said that my description of the other boy’s smell made her remember it, too. We both wondered how it could be that there was never any visible help given to him. Was the role of the Department of Family Services so different nearly three decades ago?

Another former schoolmate, a couple of years older than me, remembered being in the office on the day I was hurt. Something about it had stuck in her memory, and she felt like reading my post, finally seeing the whole story, made her understand why something about the memory had always seemed wrong.

I heard from an acquaintance who had attended that school for a few years, though not at the same time as me, and who taught there briefly as an adult. Upsettingly, she doesn’t feel like very much has changed there, and that it wouldn’t surprise her to hear that a similarly blind eye is turned to children today.

There was another kind of feedback, though, and my first instinct was to dismiss it. But I heard it enough times that I think it needs to be addressed. I didn’t really consider it until I got a phone call from my best friend.

“Do people really think you should be holding a seven-year-old accountable for what happened?” she asked. “Because more than one person has said that to me!”

And she was right. Via twitter, in Huffington Post comments, on Facebook, and in some private communications, I got feedback that can best be summarized as:

“You say you don’t blame him, but you should. He and his parents are responsible for what happened that day.”

Aside from the fact that I’m not particularly interested in placing blame for something that happened a lifetime ago, I find the idea that I should place any blame at all on a seven-year-old boy appalling. It makes me think of my own son. At six, he’s gotten into … perhaps more than his fair share of trouble at school. He has hit his classmates. Once, he hit his teacher. Another time, he threw rocks at his teacher.

Now, if you’ve read my blog, you know that his behavioral challenges are a pretty big deal in my house. We work with a therapist, we work with the special education department at his school, we’ve taken him to a neuropsychologist, we’re waiting for an appointment with a developmental pediatrician … you get the idea. From all accounts, we’re doing what we ought to be doing, and are working to give him the tools he needs to make it through the day without doing these things. But none of it is his fault.

And none of it was Isaiah’s fault, either. He was a little boy whose most basic needs were clearly not being met. How was he supposed to learn who to be?

The suggestion that his parents are responsible for what happened is a little more reasonable, maybe, but ultimately I think it is also misguided. First, his parents weren’t there when he closed a door on my hand. And second, they probably never heard about it afterwards, either.

That’s not what people mean when they say I should blame his parents, though. What they mean is that if his parents had raised him properly, and met his needs, it wouldn’t have happened. And maybe that’s true, but I think it ignores reality.

It would be easy to blame my sons’ mother for neglecting them. But if I look at her history, I see my sons’ history. Years in foster care. The difference is that eventually my sons were adopted. Their mother aged out of foster care. Who taught her how to live as an adult? Who taught her how to have healthy relationships, how to hold down a job, how to take care of young children? And how was she supposed to take care of my sons while her boyfriend was assaulting her in their home? He spent years in foster care, too, of course. That’s why it’s called a vicious cycle.

Now, I know nothing about Isaiah’s family, but it isn’t very much of a stretch for me to think that their story is probably similar to my sons’ family, at least in the ways that matter. Dysfunction creates dysfunction, and we don’t really create many pathways for people to find their way out without tremendous luck.

Among the folks who are interested in assigning blame, there’s a target that hasn’t been mentioned. It surprises me, because when I think about it, it’s the only place where I can see blame making any sense, or having any possible useful outcome. That target is, of course, the school.

It’s very hard for me to imagine that the teachers were not aware that I was being harassed. Did they really never see him push me, or hear him taunt me? Did they never see him pin me to the wall, or spit in my face? That’s hard for me to believe.

Maybe I’m more interested in placing a little blame than I thought I was.


Goals Update: Week 5

A pretty good week, though not for writing!

1. No blog post yet this week, but I’m working on a followup to the one about my fingers and second grade bully. It’s about blame, accountability, and a concerning message that’s in been in some of the feedback I’ve received.

2. Novel progress was very small this week. Blame the launch of Guild Wars 2. I’m not even going to pretend to feel bad, because:

3. The diet is going well. In my first week, I lost five pounds. I’m aware that it’s not representative of what I’ll see going forward (nor would that likely be healthy) but it tells me that I followed the plan properly, did the right stuff, and am totally on track. Also, it’s totally 14% of my goal.

4. Exercise. I’ve been thinking of trying something like the Couch to 5K plan. Has anyone else tried this?

Goals Update: Week 4

A pretty good week:

1. Blogging. A super week. I’m really happy with my post this week, and thrilled with the amazing image I found on Flickr. Also, my piece about my fingers was featured on Huffington Post Gay Voices, which feels awesome.

2. Novel progress. Not bad. Three thousand words this week.

3. Weight Loss. I joined Jenny Craig this week, and am on day five of my first week of their diet. So far, so good. I’ve been really good about sticking to the meal plan, and the food isn’t bad. It’s better than I thought it would be, and although I’m eating a lot less than I’m used to, I’m not particularly hungry. (Hmm, could there be a hidden piece of wisdom there?)

4. Dermatologist. This is still a freebie until the end of September when my first appointment comes up.

5. Hair. Definitely time for a haircut. I still need to figure out a plan for what to do longer term, but I think that’s going to have to wait until after I’m working with the dermatologist. So I’m going to remove this goal from the goal updates for a while, since if it’s boring me, I’m sure it’s boring everyone else, too.

6. Exercise. Hmm … does shampooing the carpet count? Because I had to do that three times this week! Jordan, who hasn’t had a bathroom accident since May, has peed on the carpet three times, and twice he tried to hide it.

Goals Update: Week 3

This week’s post needed an extra day! Explanation below:

1. Blogging. A solid post this week, and I’m very happy with it. Additionally, I have something neat to talk about regarding my blog, but I’m going to hold off for a few days. I don’t want to jinx it.

2. Novel progress. Uh oh. This was not a good writing week. One thousand words. No excuses, I need to do better next week.

3. Weight Loss. Progress! This is the reason I didn’t post this yesterday. I chickened out on making an appointment, but this morning I called Jenny Craig and made an appointment to go in to a center on Monday.

4. Dermatologist. This is still a freebie until the end of September when my first appointment comes up.

5. Hair. Getting a little unruly again, but still ok.

6. Exercise. Nope. Didn’t happen. Well, does going to the YMCA for my son’s swimming lesson count? It’s hot enough sitting in that pool room that I might sweat off some pounds!

This is the Story of a Scar

I’d like to warn you up front that this post contains some violence that might be upsetting.

Yesterday, a few folks that I follow on twitter were posting brief stories to the hashtag #storybehindmyscar. My first reaction was, “Well, I don’t really have any scars that have stories.” But then I thought about it a little more, and there’s a story that deserves more than a tweet.

When I was four or five, I got a scar on my right leg, halfway between my knee and my ankle. I tripped on the brick stairs outside my best friend’s house. I was running because she had a new kitten I couldn’t wait to see. That scar is nearly invisible now. I can still find it if I look, but probably no one else can.

This spring, my son Jordan scratched the back of my right hand, leaving a small scar. I wrote about this in an earlier post about my son and his rages. This scar bothers me for a whole host of reasons, but none of them have to do with it being a scar.

There’s a third scar, though. A real scar. I hadn’t really thought about it in a long time, but thinking about scars brought it back.

When I was a little boy, my great aunt, who was always like a third grandmother to me, used to say, “Mark has such beautiful long fingers. He’s going to grow up to be a pianist.”

Her sister, my grandmother, would smile and respond, “Or a pickpocket.”

I’ve inherited Nana’s sense of humor. And I’ve always liked my hands. I don’t have a lot of features that I consider particularly attractive, but I’ve always loved the way my hands look. Or looked. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I found the unexplained rashes on my hands so unpleasant. I’ve always talked with my hands, and when I felt like they were unpleasant to see, I tried to hide them. Don’t worry, this really isn’t going to get all Johnny Tremain on you.

It’s hard for me to believe, looking back, that it started so early, but when I was seven, in the second grade, I had my very first bully. His name was Isaiah, and he used to torment me for “acting like a girl.” I remember that he used to pin me to the wall by placing one hand on either side of my shoulders, forcing me to look at him while he gave me “advice” about how to act more like a boy. Sometimes he would spit in my face. I don’t remember there ever being any consequences. I remember how strongly he smelled when he would force himself into my face, like urine and sweat and clothes that desperately needed to be washed. My parents used to tell me to try and be nice to him, because his parents had a hard time taking care of him.

We went to a small Catholic elementary school, one classroom for each grade. Four rooms upstairs, and four downstairs. Outside each classroom, in the hallway, there was a row of hooks where we hung our coats, beneath a shelf where we kept our lunchboxes. At both ends of the hallway there was a staircase, with big, old wooden fire doors on swinging hinges.

One day, I was getting ready to go outside for recess. I hated recess because Isaiah used to torment me, so I was always as slow as I could be getting my coat and going outside. My last name was alphabetically last, so my hook was the last one before the stairs. Right next to the fire door.

On this day, I did something thoughtless and stupid. I leaned one hand on the door frame while I grabbed my jacket. It’s something I see my own sons do occasionally, putting their hands in a door frame where it might close on them, and I know that my reaction to seeing their hands in danger has frightened them. When I see their hands on a door frame, I panic, and I scream, and I pull them away. Last summer, I used a stick to show my older son what can happen to a finger in a door, and begged him to never put his hand on the inside of a door frame.

So there I was, getting my coat, oblivious to the danger my hand was in.  I saw Isaiah’s face appear on the other side of the door. He smiled a fake smile. It was the same sneer that he made every time he found a new way to tell me how much he hated me.

Then, he put his hands out and threw his body at the door, slamming it closed as hard as he could.

I don’t remember what happened next. I don’t remember the door actually closing.  I don’t remember what his face might have looked like when he saw what happened. I don’t remember the pain of the door’s impact on my fingers. I don’t remember Isaiah bringing me to the nurse’s office.

The first thing I remember is sitting in a chair in the nurse’s office, my hand, on fire, raised above my head, and blood pouring down my arm.

I remember my dad arriving. He worked just half a block away, and was there almost immediately. I remember seeing all of the color drain out of his face. I remember the nurse, making my dad sit down for a moment, to be sure he wasn’t going to pass out.

I remember Isaiah bringing my coat and my lunchbox to the nurse’s office, and I remember her thanking him for being a thoughtful friend. I wanted to tell her that he wasn’t my friend, that he had closed the door on my hand, and that he had done it on purpose, but I didn’t.

I remember riding in my dad’s car. I remember telling my father, “Please don’t take me to the doctor! I want to die at home, not at the hospital!” (It’s ok to laugh, that quote is really funny.)

I remember laying on the table, and telling the doctor that I wanted my dad to stay in the room with me. She smiled at me and told me that she didn’t think my dad would be able to stay in the room without getting sick, and that she needed to be able to pay attention to me, not my dad. I remember a large needle in my hand, and the pain going away. I remember trying to see what the doctor was doing, but one of the nurses had me turn my head away.

“Sweetheart,” she told me, “you don’t want to watch.” Instead, she asked me questions about school, about my brother, probably about anything she could think of.

The middle finger and ring finger on my left hand were broken on the last knuckle. The nails were shattered about halfway down, and had to be removed. I cried when the doctor told me they had to take off my fingernails, and she promised me that they wouldn’t be gone forever, and would eventually grow back.

My fingers were a bloody mess for a while, and changing the bandages was painful. The cloth would stick to the jagged scabs, and I could feel my pulse throb in the broken fingers. But, just like the doctor promised, eventually the nails grew back and my fingers began to look like fingers again.

To me, though, they aren’t the same. I look at the fingers on my right hand, still straight and perfect, and I know that’s what my left hand was supposed to look like. To me, the fingers on my left hand are bent and crooked. The nails grow at a funny angle, too wide and then too narrow, and there’s a spiderweb-shaped scar on the side of one finger. A few times, I’ve asked people if they have noticed. The answer is always the same — if they look closely and compare my two hands, they can see the difference, but they would never have noticed if I hadn’t asked.

The only time I think about Isaiah is when my mother mentions seeing his name in the police log in the newspaper. It’s clear that she still feels badly for him, the angry little boy in the dirty clothes that smelled like urine. Sometimes I want to say, “You know, he assaulted me and slammed my fingers in that door. I could really go through the rest of my life without ever hearing you say his name again, and that would be fine.” But I don’t think she would understand, so I don’t say it. Instead, I listen politely to a report of his arrest for drunk driving and think about that day in the second grade.

I don’t really blame him for what happened. My sons were neglected, too, and I hate to think about what their lives would have been if no one had stepped in to remove them from that situation.

Before today, I hadn’t really put this whole story together in my memory. I knew it had happened, and I knew how cruel he used to be toward me, but somehow I hadn’t drawn the connection between his increasing hostility and aggression and his eventual violent outburst.

Maybe I can stop looking at my scarred fingers as a defect. From now on, I’m going to try to view them as a reminder that I made it through those dark years that were just beginning when Isaiah slammed that door on my hand.

If I could go back in time, I would tell that little boy — seven year old me, who kept a My Little Pony in his backpack so that no one would see it — I would tell him that one day, twenty-three years later, his partner will take that bloodied hand, slide a wedding ring over that broken finger, and become his husband.

And at least on that day, in that moment, a scarred finger couldn’t have been any further from my mind.

Week 2: Goals Update

Here’s this week’s scorecard for the goals:

1. Blogging. Two posts this week, so I get full credit here.

2. Novel progress. 4000 words. Not as awesome as last week, but definitely progress.

3. Weight Loss. Oh, is this goal still here? Punt!

4. Dermatologist. Do I get points for writing that whole post about it? No? Well, that’s ok, because I totally called and made an appointment. So there! End of September, if you’re keeping score at home.

5. Hair. I did go get a haircut this week. No real progress on looking like a super fun cool guy, but at least I don’t look like Doc Brown. (For a couple of weeks.)

6. Exercise. Nope. Didn’t happen.

That looks like 4/6 to me.

Only Skin Deep

Franck Juchaux, BIOalternatives, France
I’ve mentioned a few times that I dread the dermatologist, and that I think my negative attitude toward the profession deserves a blog post of its own. Don’t worry, there will be no dermatological horror pictures in this post. That photo up above is skin cells, and it’s as close as we’re getting.

First, you need to understand that I am descended from two families with bad skin. My mother had really problematic acne when she was young, and my dad’s family is full of recurring rashes and psoriasis and allergic reactions. So no one should have expected that they might get together and have children with beautiful skin. It just wasn’t in the cards.

When Austin and I were first talking about adoption, we both joked (is it still a joke if you’re actually completely serious?) that since we wouldn’t be genetically related to our children, there was actually a chance we could end up with some good-looking kids who would grow up to be traditionally attractive adults! And it does seem to have worked out that way. Our kids are pretty good-looking, and they might end up with that social advantage.

My first experience with bad skin came in the sixth grade. Every couple of weeks, our class would receive a visit from a science enrichment teacher. She’d go around the elementary schools in the district doing little extra science projects with classes. And one week, we made molds of our teeth. But instead of using whatever it is that dentists use to take impressions, we used Play-Doh. Actually, it wasn’t even Play-Doh, it was a generic version. So we had these little plastic trays, and we put Play-Doh in them, and then bit down on the Play-Doh.

It turns out that I am allergic to whatever red dye is used in generic Play-Doh. So once the molds were on the shelf to dry, and we’d moved on to math, I started to itch. A lot. And pretty soon I was in the nurse’s office, covered in hives. Sixth graders, I would like to take this opportunity to point out, are really sympathetic when that effeminate boy with no friends is covered head to toe in a rash.

Recurrences of hives were pretty rare, since 12-year-olds don’t spend a lot of time with red Play-Doh in their mouths. But it wouldn’t be long before my skin would find new ways to torture me.

In junior high, I started to get acne, just like everyone else. Mine was maybe a little worse, but we were all teenagers and we all had acne. What we didn’t all have was the weird thing that started happening with my hands.

In the late fall of seventh grade, one day my hands started to itch. For a couple of days, they were just itchy. Then, the itch turned into a rash. The rash turned … pretty gross, and pretty soon my hands were covered in a rash of little fluid-filled bumps. They itched, and they hurt. Holding a pen or turning the pages of a book was really uncomfortable.

Of course, my parents brought me to the doctor. They prescribed creams, and put me on steroids. My parents wanted to know what was making my hands do this. Was I allergic to something? The answer from my pediatrician and the dermatologist was clear — this was caused by stress and anxiety.

I believed the doctors. And I believed that it was, then, entirely my own fault. My parents wanted to know what, at thirteen, could be causing me stress or anxiety. Here I was, a kid who didn’t have any friends at school, who was tormented on the school, who was getting spit on during the bus ride home, and who often arrived home from school only to burst into the tears I had been holding back so my peers wouldn’t see me cry. I couldn’t tell my mom, “Well, everyone hates me because I’m gay,” so I didn’t say anything. I knew that I was alone in this.

Soon, the gross rash would start to go away. The little fluid lumps dried out and popped, and then all of the skin on my hands would dry up, get hard, and fall off. My hands were cracked and bleeding, the skin was tender and raw. I had thought that the rash was bad, but the rash going away was even worse. And I was pretty convinced it was all because I was gay. If I could just stop being gay, people would like me, and I wouldn’t be stressed, and this wouldn’t have happened.

It took about a month, and then my hands were fine again. The skin was maybe a little bit delicate, but I was kind of a delicate kid. It didn’t hurt anymore, at least.

Until the spring, when it happened again. Exactly as before. First a rash, then the bubbles, then the cracked and bleeding hands. About a month, and then it was like it had never happened.

It began to repeat like clockwork. Once in the fall, once in the spring. Every year. I called it “my hand thing,” because none of the dermatologists I saw seemed to have any name for what was happening to my hands. But over the course of the next few years, and a few different dermatologists, the answer was always the same. Whatever was wrong with my hands, it was caused by stress and anxiety.

And how could I say that they were wrong? I was literally a puddle of stress and anxiety. I did begin saying to dermatologists that it seemed strange to me that I was stressed and anxious all the time, but my hands only reacted to stress and anxiety at the end of fall and the beginning of spring. More than one dermatologist basically told me I was imagining a connection between the seasons changing and my hands exploding. The only connection, they assured me, was stress and anxiety.

In some ways, it was reassuring, because as I went through high school, things started to get a little bit better. I started to have a small circle of friends. I came out of the closet, and my deep secret shame didn’t feel as secret or shameful anymore. But my hands were the same.

So for twenty years I put up with this awful hand thing. Every fall. Every spring. I could pinpoint exactly when it was going to happen. The first really cold week in the fall. Bam. The first unseasonably warm week in the spring. Bam. I stopped bothering with dermatologists, because the steroids and the creams didn’t seem to do anything.

Then I happened to have my annual physical, at the age of 33, at the same time as my hands were doing their thing. My physician asked about it, and I told him the basic outline, like I’ve told countless dermatologists and physicians over the years.

“Well that’s ridiculous,” he said. “These fluid-filled bubbles on your hands are a histamine reaction. Do me a favor. In the fall, when it usually happens, try taking claritin for a few weeks. See if that has any impact.”

And it turns out that if I take a claritin every morning when it first gets cold in the fall, my hands are fine. Twenty years. Twice a year, every year. Painful, bleeding hands for a month. Fixed by a claritin.

So you’ll forgive me if I’m a little distrustful of dermatologists. But I did call this morning and make an appointment with one. Hopefully they’re better at treating acne in 34-year-olds than they are at treating acne and painful skin conditions in teenagers.

A Drive Down Memory Lane

Parque Villa-Lobos

This afternoon, we went to a cookout at my brother’s house. It’s actually the first time I’ve been to his condo since he and his wife bought it last year. Usually, they come to us. Or more accurately, they come to my parents’ house, and that’s ten minutes from us. It just ends up being easier for everyone.

But today, we took the back roads and went through a town and city that I almost never go through. It’s the city where my sons lived with their mother, and where they were in foster care. We drove past a school with a playground that my older son remembers. We drove past a street that made me nudge my husband’s shoulder and whisper, “That’s the street with that daycare.” As in, that’s the daycare where our younger son was assaulted.

My husband didn’t know the location of that daycare, I realized. I only knew which daycare it was because our older son pointed it out to me, back when we used to drive through this city. I don’t think he knew about what happened to his brother there, but he certainly knew that it was his brother’s daycare.

We had a nice time with my brother, his wife, and her family. The boys had fun, and my sister-in-law’s father(who is the father of three girls) was excited to get to play with some boy toys. The boys were shockingly well behaved.

On the way home, we took a slightly different route. I don’t think the boys really have negative associations with the landmarks on our first route, but I can never really be sure. But on the way home, we drove by some landmarks that brought back memories for my husband and I.

“Do you remember the playground over there?” he asked.

And of course I do. It’s the playground where we first met our sons, on a playdate with their foster moms. Andrew was much more interested in what he was having for snack than meeting some “new friends,” but Jordan, who wasn’t really even speaking yet at the time, wanted me to hold his hand so he could drag me around the playground.

“I think you can rest assured that as long as I live, I will never forget that playground,” I tell Austin.

Now it’s my turn to point out a landmark. “That’s the Dunkin’ Donuts where we stopped after meeting the kids,” I say.

We both remember it because we got in the car to drive home after our playdate, but we were both shaking so much we had to stop. So we pulled into the Dunkin’ Donuts and sat there until we calmed down a little.

One more landmark? I’ve been writing this blog for a year, and this is my 42nd post. Not quite up to my goal of one decent post per week, but not as far off as I thought.

Need a laugh? I looked at my search terms. After terms you might expect, like “geek gay” “gay dad” and “gay geek dad,” my next most popular search term is “spy kids gay.” Apparently, people wonder about whether the spy kids are gay, and think maybe I have the answer.

Week 1: Goals Update

It’s been one week since I wrote that post about setting goals for myself, so I thought it might be fun (and keep me honest!) if I posted an update on my goals. Here goes:

First, updating the blog regularly. I will call that one a success. A couple of days after my post about setting goals, I wrote a piece about why I have no first amendment concerns with Boston’s mayor saying Chick-Fil-A isn’t welcome. I think a blog post a week is a pretty good goal. (And let’s be honest, much more than that, and I would very quickly run out of things to say.)

Second, progress on my novel. Huge success! I wrote 8500 words this week. That’s definite, unqualified progress.

Third, losing weight. Not so good. Looked up information about Jenny Craig, since Consumer Reports rated them highly. Thought about calling, but totally chickened out. Instead, took the kids to Burger King to celebrate Chick-Fil-A appreciation day.

Fourth, the dermatologist. I thought about why I hate dermatologists so much, which still probably deserves its own blog post. But no actual progress on that one. (And that’s a shame, because this goal is really a freebie. If I call to make an appointment, I will probably have a three-month wait, during which time I still totally get credit on this goal.) But no credit until I actually make an appointment.

Fifth, my hair. Totally avoided getting a desperately needed haircut, and I look like a mad professor. But I will totally be forced to go get a cut tomorrow, since we are going to a cookout and I would be too embarrassed to go looking like Doc Brown from Back to the Future. (Could I call it cosplay?)

Sixth, exercise. I checked in at the YMCA twice on Foursquare, which sounds great. But I was totally there to bring my four-year-old to swimming lessons. Maybe I got some exercise-y vibes, though.

So the tally is 2 yays and 4 nays, but I’m actually feeling pretty good about it. Writing 8500 words was huge, and more important to me than most of the rest.

Let’s see how these goals are shaping up next week.