Monday, December 31, 2012

The Republic Of Doom

There’s a lot of it to go around these days, the doom. Lots of people these days go through their lives in a state of impending doom. Financial doom; medical doom; economic doom; social doom; climate doom; religious doom. I should be more comfortable with this situation than most people. The recorded history of my life is the story of impending doom.

I moved early in life to a state of alertness for impending doom.

If you looked at my life as an outsider you would be forgiven to think that I had a peaceful, happy childhood. There was no poverty in it. I attended good schools, at least an outsider would think that they were good schools. My family would appear to have been a stable, prosperous nuclear family. I had friends and lived among them for most of every day, playing sports and games and riding bicycles and climbing trees, all of the normal features of a boy’s life. Peaceful and happy is not the way that I remember it.

I woke up in the morning to doom. In my family, we spelled doom “M-O-M.” My mother was a mercurial presence in the house. Her moods were varied, and extreme. Getting off to school without some kind of outburst was the first relief of the day.

Then there was the doom of school. By the second grade I had run out of the two or three nuns that had sweet temperaments. After that came a series of embittered women who more or less took out their frustrations on their students. Some were merely depressed; others were actively vicious. We were routinely knocked around, screamed at, and threatened with either corporal punishment or the fires of hell. We were made to eat soap if we were overheard in our habitual use of bad language. The worst of it was that if some of our parents, notably my mother, found out that we had been punished for something at school, we got a beating at home too. Mutually enhancing doom.

Returning home from school was the most stressful time of the day for me. There was no telling what I’d walk into when I opened the door to the house. Maybe my mother would be peacefully sitting on the couch watching TV; maybe she’d be waiting for me, already red in the face and screaming. As I got bigger, in those moods she’d take off a shoe to hit me with that, or bang me with a TV tray like a professional wrestler swinging a folding chair. Usually it was not clear exactly what I was getting hit for. I learned a life-long habit of looking at the floor and waiting for the storm to pass.

My early friendships were rich in doom as well. I was sixteen before I found any friends that were worth the title. I was a dreamy, sensitive boy, and the youngest in my class, and none of these things were valued in my town. I was always out, and always played with the other boys, but there was always an element of high anxiety about it. There was a lot of fighting in those days, the establishment of a clear pecking order was somehow very important. I don’t know if you’d call it textbook “bullying,” maybe just “being picked on.” Whatever you’d call it, it was part of everyday life. The boys were constantly making fun of each other, always pushing each other around. I have said, in my town we were always getting hit by our parents, and hit at school, and left to our own devices we hit each other. For the sake of complete honesty, neither were the police loathe to knock us around.

Back home again, to see what mom was up to. She would probably have started drinking by then, which was a mixed blessing. Being a little bit lit might make her less likely to go off, but then again, it might only serve to fine tune her triggers. Very early on my father virtually stopped coming home from work. He maneuvered himself into a position in sales, and he spent over twenty days every month on the road, marketing whole power generating stations and doing whatever else he did to avoid the chaos in our house.

Is it any wonder that, to this day, my favorite part of every day is the sleeping hours, when the world quiets down and people can generally be trusted to leave you alone?

I graduated from high school just as the Vietnam War was gearing up. That was a goodly dose of doom right there. A generation in the cross hairs, for those years teenagers couldn’t win for losing. There were people who hated you if you went to war, and others who hated you if you didn’t. Most people over twenty-five or thirty hated anybody with long hair (even on girls, long, straight hair was “hippy hair”). People now look back on the 1960’s like it was all some kind of party, what a misconception! The Civil Rights battles; the constant threat of nuclear destruction; race riots; the war all over the TV news; the assassinations. Think about 1968 by itself: in February the TET Offensive in Vietnam, when it became clear as a bell to everyone that the war was a total mess; Martin Luther King getting shot in April; riots in several major cities; Bobby Kennedy shot; the Democratic Convention with all of the associated riots in Chicago; 500 kids a week getting killed in Vietnam. If there were ever a “Year of Doom,” I’d nominate 1968.

For many children, doom just gets under their skin and stays with them for life. This is true for many poor children, and it’s true for many minority children, and it’s true for lots of children whose lives look wonderful from the outside. That was my experience. I still live with doom, see doom everywhere, expect it. Sometimes it’s real; sometimes no doubt imagined; sometimes I’m sure that I bring it on myself.

I’m not complaining. I’ve done okay, things could have been much worse. I’m very grateful for the way that things have turned out. But the doom, it hurts.

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