Lefty Parent

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Circle of equals

Coop’s Youth Part 6 – Coping Mechanisms

October 29th, 2014 at 12:46

Many of the events of the outside world came into our home on the little twelve-inch black-and-white TV in my mom’s bedroom. As such she tuned in to the 1968 Democratic Convention in late August of that year. As part of her continuing effort to connect with the academic community in our university town, she was getting into liberal politics, particularly around opposition to the Vietnam War. Often her companion watching TV, we both watched as events inside the convention hall were upstaged by the young people in the streets, protesting and battling with the police. I for one was struck by the courage of the kids in the street and felt a solidarity with them, though I did not know if I had the courage to demonstrate so brazenly like that and risk the wrath of the adult authorities.

In one of our sessions watching the TV news together earlier that year my mom had explained to me how Eugene McCarthy’s unusual primary challenge of a sitting president of the same party (Lyndon Johnson) had played a key role in Johnson pulling out of the race for reelection. She had always seen me as “bright” and was always about sharing with me any wisdom or insight she thought she had (sometimes feeling to me more like a lecture than helpful). As such, when Martin Luther King was shot and killed in April, she tried to explain to me what an important voice he had been for black people. And when Robert Kennedy met the same fate in June, she was almost at a loss for words to rationalize the events. I watched the coverage and listened to her analysis, but those events did not grab me like they had her. To me, they lacked context I understood, and were just things happening in the adult world, another planet almost than the one I occupied as a kid.

My mom was more of a work inside the system activist, though her goals were those of the Chicago protesters, stopping the war. With her mantra of always trying to “be effective”, she was concerned that the protesters might be hurting their own cause by damaging the chances of the Democratic party’s success in the November election against Richard Nixon, who had already been nominated by the Republicans. She had been a big fan of President Kennedy, but with opposition to the war her overriding issue, her feelings for President Johnson, his successor, who had sent thousands of young Americans to fight and die in Vietnam, were quite different, notwithstanding his accomplishments in the area of civil rights. She had been a big supporter of Gene McCarthy, the most vocally anti Vietnam War candidate, but had no illusions that he had anywhere near the committed delegates to wrest the Democrats’ nomination from Hubert Humphrey.

I was seeing older high school and college youth in my own hometown wearing the “uniform” of many of the protesters in the streets of Chicago; the long hair, facial hair, tee-shirts and bell bottom pants. I was starting to imagine myself wearing that clothing too and being part of the nebulous “movement” of “peace, love, joy” that the costume represented, but was way too timid to take it anywhere beyond my overactive imagination. At least not yet.

Though I was not ready to don the counterculture mantle, my mom was beginning to develop the skill set and take on the persona of a grassroots political activist. It was certainly a better self-image than divorced, depressed, semi-suicidal, forty-something homemaker. Motivated by trying to keep her sons out of an endless war, and venturing beyond the university academic community that she had been striving to be a part of, she volunteered as a Democratic party precinct chair, a role and responsibility that she threw herself into. She was given the list of all the registered voters in our precinct. Since at the time in Michigan (unlike other states) you were not asked to designate a political party when you registered to vote, one of my mom’s initial tasks was to identify all the Democrats and the other people in our precinct that were likely to vote for Democrats. This involved telephoning people on the list, if possible, or even going door-to-door to try and gather this information.

She methodically worked through the list, identifying each voter with a “D” (Democrat), “R” (Republican), or “I” (independent) or some combination like “ID” or “IR”. She even recruited me to make these canvassing calls and ask people which party they supported. It was tough work for a shy kid like me, being on the wrong end of an occasional call where I got chewed out by someone that their political party affiliation was “none of your damn business”.

Once the potential Democratic vote in her precinct was identified, another key task was making sure they all got out and voted on election day. At about 5pm, three hours before the polls closed, she would go across the street to our polling place in the Burns Park recreation room and check the voter roll for who on her list had not yet voted. Then she would get back on the phone, try to reach these people and make sure they got out to vote. For some of this subset who could not be reached by phone, she sent me out on my bicycle to knock on their doors and deliver the reminder in person. Again I was shy and at times intimidated by this task, but I recall moments of pride after being thanked by someone for the reminder and acknowledged for my youthful civic participation.

That November, though our state of Michigan went for Humphrey, Nixon won the election by a fairly large volume of the state by state winner take all Electoral College vote (I was learning about the Electoral College in civics class), though a less than one percent plurality of the actual vote. Arguably George Wallace’s third-party candidacy as an opponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 took a number of white votes away from Humphrey, particularly in the South. I remember this reinforcing my mom’s prejudice against “Southerners”, who she stereotyped as provincial and uneducated.

With the end of the convention and Labor Day, it was again as always my least favorite time of the year, the muster of all us kids back to school, and particularly me back to the dreaded Tappan Junior High. I longed for a way out of having to go to school each day and present myself, ever vulnerable to an askance comment or look from one of my less charitable peers or a disapproving teacher, in eight classrooms or other school venues each day.

It was just too much for a shy kid going through puberty, one with delusions of grandeur to boot. At some subconscious level I wanted to be a star, and anything less than that was a total disappointment. With so many other peers surrounding me in every venue at school, there was always someone better than I was in any and every particular area. If I could just somehow have been given the time and opportunity in each one of my classes, before diving into the curriculum, to develop a one on one relationship with my teacher and each of my fellow students, so they could appreciate the unique person I was and I them, then I would have been way more comfortable. Or if I could have had just one set of classmates, like elementary school, maybe I could have established some sort of friendly rules of engagement with all of them at least by mid year. Since by that fall there was only a handful of kids and none of my current teachers I had been able to develop that sort of relationship with, I was primed for discomfort, in eight different school venues per day.

As in the previous two years, each of my eight classes a day were about forty minutes long. Most involved the day in day out routine of sitting in a seat at a desk and passively listening and taking notes, occasionally maybe volunteering or being put on the spot for a voiced answer. It almost did not matter what the subject was, they were all out of any real context that would have made the learning stick beyond (if we were fairly studious students) the test. Even a civics class, which was about the legislative and political process which I was really becoming interested in, was taught in a boring generic way with charts and tables documenting processes to be regurgitated on the tests. None of my teachers inspired or engaged me with their dog and pony show with the curriculum. And on the rare occasion when some presentation or class discussion actually got real and engaging, the forty minutes would be up before you knew it, the bell would ring and you had to stop pondering and move on, rather than continue something with real grist to it.

Most disappointing was my English class. I somehow had gotten the same teacher, Mrs. Peterson, who had taught my eighth grade English. Last year’s curriculum had been grammar, which she had approached in her signature repetitive worksheet fashion. Ninth grade English was supposed to be about having a close encounter with profound works of literature. But here she was up in front of us again, sitting in her seat drilling and killing an otherwise compelling literary work like Anne Frank’s narrative in The Diary of a Young Girl.

Like last year, the exceptions to this rigmarole came mostly in concert band and gym class. Most of the time was spent playing our instruments together, which even if not that good musically was at least active and collaborative. I generally enjoyed the team sports we often played in gym class, but disliked intensely the sessions where we were required to demonstrate some individual skill in front of our “coach” and fellow students. Also the sessions in the pool where we continued to be encouraged to swim nude, not something I was comfortable with around thirty other peer’s seemingly unfriendly eyes and with our clothed “coach” supervising our activities.

After being subjected to this environment for two years already, despite the occasional respite from band or PE, forty weeks a year, this third year of more of the same was a burden that was beginning to suffocate me and make me long for some way out. My ankle injury the previous May, that had been an excuse to stay home from school the last four weeks, had provided just enough relief to get me out of eighth grade still somewhat in one piece. But now in the fall of my third year at Tappan, the thought of what lay ahead for me the next forty weeks was becoming too much to take! I was becoming debilitated.

It certainly did not help that my mom was showing real signs of fraying apart as well. She continued to smoke cigarettes, and would continue to send me with a note to the local Food & Drug store where they knew her to buy her a pack. She continued to call my dad late at night and rant and vent about the hopelessness of her life and that it was his fault, finally hanging up and sobbing herself to sleep in her bedroom with a shared wall to mine. She continued to struggle to pay our monthly bills, usually with me in attendance as she spread them out on her bed and was tried to keep some composure at the overwhelm of it all. And now that the weather was getting colder she was starting to get more colds and other respiratory ailments.

In a more positive vein, she did continue to reach out to be part of a larger community, to find female friends to share with, to kiss a few toads looking for a new male life companion. She was getting involved in politics, which opened up a large community of activist people to her. They were probably a better fit for her “let’s not just talk about it, let’s fix it” attitude than some of the liberal academic community that frustrated her as all talk and no action. But it was like she was building herself on one end, during the days among the larger community, while falling apart on the other end, alone at night in her room.

I witnessed all of this without generally feeling comfortable discussing it with my mom in our sessions together, me in the rocking chair and her sitting on and ever shuffling papers on her bed, whether bills or notes or whatever else was on her agenda of the moment. For whatever reason I was not comfortable broaching the subject of her overall well being with her. At one level I was still mad at her for continuing to hold such rage against my dad. It also pushed my buttons that she struggled so much in her own self-esteem, doing or saying anything and everything to convince friends and acquaintances that she was special, was a star (what I secretly longed to be as well).

So though I would listen, and make runs for her to buy cigarettes, I knew these were her problems and not mine. And I had plenty of my own thank you very much! But I would somehow show her that I could cope better than she could, and in some perverse comparative passive-aggressive way, her failures, her capitulations, made me feel at least temporarily better about myself. I was still way too ego involved myself to be fully sympathetic to her and her condition, though my continuing witness of her struggle as a fellow human being was continuing to slowly shift me.

Looking back, I think an indication that I was coming apart under the strain of things was that I decided to quit doing my paper route, which among other things was my source of my own money to buy the games, paperbacks, comics and record albums that intrigued me and were the grist for my creative mind. With school and homework and finding subs when I was sick or went away for a weekend with my dad, it was a daily responsibility that weighed on me. Plus with the autumn weather getting colder and inclement, it was an effort to push myself out of the house each week day after school and on the weekend days when I just wanted to play and vegetate. For some reason I don’t recall what was the final straw that caused me to stop. Perhaps it was my friend Stan deciding to stop his adjacent paper route, since we often collaborated to do them together. For whatever reason, some time that fall I gave it up.

Stressed and demoralized by school and my mom’s tenuous hold on things, plus getting in the habit of staying up late either reading books or just thinking and worrying about my situation, my normally strong immune system began to be compromised. Like her, I was now catching every cold or flu bug that was going around. Not having any real desire to go to school I was starting to stay home any day I felt the least bit under the weather, and thus missing a significant number of days at school. My mom, who was in the throes of her own depression and generally respected my judgment on my own decisions was not about to veto and push me out the door. Plus when she was not feeling up to snuff, she was happy to have some company at home to commiserate with.

The biggest bright spot in my life that fall was that Stan and I continued to be friends. We shared a continuing intellectual exploration on several fronts. In the world of sports and sports games, Stan had gotten a couple very interesting new board games made by a company called Strat-o-matic, and like the Big League Manager Baseball game Stan and I had played together all summer, used cards representing each of the pro players from the previous season.

I was learning that a really good simulation board game, whether military, sports, or something else, was built around a well designed game system. The science and art of a good game system was to be as simple and intuitive as possible while simulating as many of the strategic and tactical complexities of the real thing.

So Strat-o-matic Baseball used the same statistic-based player cards as Big League Manager Baseball, but added a significant additional element to represent the unique capabilities of the players – batters and pitchers. The batter’s player card was a table with three columns labeled 1 to 3 and eleven rows labeled 2 to 12. Each cell within the 3 x 11 matrix represented a different possible outcome from the player’s at bat – a single, double, triple, home run, walk, strikeout, ground or line out to the infield, fly out to the infield or outfield – all based on the player’s stats from the previous season. The pitcher’s card was a similar array of outcomes with the rows also labeled 2 to 12 but the three columns labeled 4 to 6. The at bat outcomes on this card represented the ability of the pitcher, with a great pitcher having significantly fewer hit outcomes in the cells on their card.

The at bat between the batter and the pitcher would be resolved by rolling three dice. The first die rolled would indicate which column would be referenced, 1 to 3 would be on the batter’s card and 4 to 6 on the pitcher’s. The next two dice would be added together to reference one of the eleven rows that would be cross-referenced with the column to indicate what happened – hit, walk or some sort of an out. This way this simple but elegant system could represent both the abilities of the batter and the pitcher in determining the outcome of the at bat.

Much to my joy of discovery and love of systems, Stan had also gotten the Strat-o-matic football game employing a similar system. Strat-o-matic Football used a similar approach, taking the type of run or pass play called by the offense against the formation set by the defense and completing the play by rolling the three dice and looking either at the result on the offensive player’s card (carrying the ball or receiving the pass), or the defensive player’s card (in the area where the play was executed. It simulated the strategy of the choice of offensive play versus defensive formation, the relative abilities of the players involved, and that element of luck and random unpredictableness.

I remember being struck by the beauty of the logic of these game systems, like I had been struck by some of the systems that were used by my military board games. This was the sort of inspirational encounter with systems theory, outside of any formal education, at my own direction on my own terms, that would help lead me twenty years later to make my living as a systems analyst.

I had a particular fascination with football, a forbidden fruit of sorts for me. Though never a major focus of my own athletic endeavors, it had always been part of my life. Both my mom and dad were athletic and comfortable playing team sports. They had actually met each other when he was a sports reporter covering the local ametuer tennis tournaments that she was winning as a young adult. They both encouraged me to play all sports, and both would throw balls with me – baseball and football – when I was a kid. They both were huge fans of the local University of Michigan Wolverines football team and I had inherited that parochial hometown loyalty. They both loved watching Michigan football games on TV or listening to Bob Ufer’s frenetic and zealous play-by-play (“Another Meeeechigan touchdown!”) on the radio. My dad liked watching pro games too, and I watched with them and began to learn the game under their tutelage.

Given all that, when I started to play pick-up football games with other boys in the park, my mom sat me down and specifically forbade me from playing tackle football, in either any organized league or pick-up games. She said I could be seriously injured playing the tackle version of the game and it could ruin my whole life. She was so passionate about this prohibition that I mostly abided by it, though I resented her at times imposing her will on me in this way.
And the few times I asserted my independence and illicitly played a pick-up tackle game beyond her knowing, the gangly kid that I was, I took enough of a physical pounding that her logic seemed more sound.

Still I enjoyed playing touch football, and continued to develop a real interest in the game as a spectator of both college and particularly the pros. It was always a way to connect to my dad, who as the one-time sportswriter, was captivated by what the TV show Wide World of Sports used to promo as “the human drama of athletic competition”. That past summer my mom had briefly dated a man who was a local sportscaster and had given her a big coffee table book diagramming some of the key football strategy, which had fascinated me. That fall, playing Strat-o-matic Football with my friend Stan added significantly to my knowledge as a student of the game.

Beyond sports, Stan also exposed me to a more sophisticated view of American culture. Starting with turning me on to the introspective musical poetry of Paul Simon, Stan also suggested I read the book he was reading, Manchild in the Promised Land, an autobiographical story by Claude Brown of the author’s difficult childhood and adolescence growing up as a black kid in Harlem, and engaged in stealing, alcohol consumption, truancy and gang wars. I can remember discussing various chapters of the book with Stan, either when I spent the night at his house or he helped me babysit for my neighbor’s young kids. Though I had the privilege of a middle-class white kid, I resonated with Brown’s at times lurid tale of trying to survive and develop one’s moral compass in a difficult world, though my world was difficult in far different and tamer ways than his.

Beyond Brown’s book I was constantly reminded by the Motown contingent of my Greek chorus on the radio that there was a more difficult life outside my whitebread middle class world just 45 miles east of me in the poor neighborhoods of Detroit. That fall the big hit song on CKLW was The Supremes’ “Love Child”. It was a poignant tale of a young woman whose boyfriend is pressuring her to have sex with him. She tries to tell him that though she loves him, they need to wait, because there is no way she is going to risk having a child without a father in the household, which had been her own fate.

You think that I don’t feel love
But what I feel for you is real love
In other’s eyes I see reflected
A hurt, scorned, rejected
Love child, never meant to be
Love child, born in poverty

I started my life in an old cold run down tenement slum
My father left, he never even married mom
I shared the guilt my mama knew
So afraid that others knew I had no name

This love we’re contemplating
Is worth the pain of waiting
We’ll only end up hating
The child we may be creating

Afraid, ashamed, misunderstood
But I’ll always love you

Diana Ross, like Petula Clark and Martha Reeves (of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas), had that precise bell-like voice, and all three women’s lyrics spoke to me like the knowing older sister I never had, reassuring me but also speaking the truth. Ross and Reeves in particular, in their song narratives, gave me insight into the unique struggles of women in a world dominated by men and their stories. Insight that was helping me begin to appreciate my mom’s own struggles, and begin (just begin) to make my peace with my iconic bigger than life parental figure.

With the last wintry days of November, and the climactic football game over between the local University of Michigan Wolverines and their archrival Ohio State Buckeyes, and Hockey Night in Canada on the TV Saturday nights, my brother and I shifted our sports focus to Hockey. Neither of us were very good ice skaters, despite the creation of an outdoor rink each year just across the street in Burns Park. So unlike baseball, football and basketball, we had never played the game ourselves. Still, following our dad’s sportswriter pedigree we made ourselves students of the game, and focused our fandom and collective creative minds on our table top hockey set we had gotten for Christmas the previous year. It had a two by three foot rink with the players maneuvered forward and back along tracks by metal rods that you twist to pass and shoot. It became the new focus of our creative imagination play.

We had already spent a fair amount of hours over the past year playing the thing, and like all our other play, we wove a fantasy world around it. It had started with each of us creating our own imaginary professional hockey team, based on our growing understanding of the game watching HNIC on our mom’s little TV Saturday nights. My team was the “Cooperstown Cats” and his the “Petersburg Pipers”. We both came up with names for each of the players on our squad, actually two sets of players reflecting the fact that hockey teams had several “lines” of players that were substituted in and out every few minutes of play. So for example, my “A-Line” center was “Steve Scimitar” and his “B-Line” comrade was “Sonny Star”. Each player had his own personality, athletic ability, style and personal back story on and off the ice. My team’s coach was the legendary former hockey great “Kitty McBee” (inspired by our big black cat Midnight) and the team was owned by “Manfred J. Sedgwicks”, a cigar-chomping old-school sport franchise owner who happened also to be a cat, thus the team name.

My brother’s team, had its pantheon of bigger than life players as well. We actually created an entire league, two divisions of five teams each, each team with two lines of named players with all their varying abilities, peculiarities and so on. Since my Cats were in one division and his Pipers in the other, our two teams would invariably meet in the championship, a best-of-seven series. This league evolved over several real years, each of its “seasons” corresponding with the NHL hockey season, with his team invariably facing mine in our imagined championship. The other teams in our league were fully realized as well, with team names and city locations, “A” line and “B” line players, and personalities, egos, back-stories, scandals, you name it. Inspired by taking Russian in school, I had peopled my “Charleston Scarlets” team with Russian named players (predating the many Russian players on the Detroit Red “Army” Wings of the 1990s).

I even made a trophy for the winner of the championship series. I glued a domino to the bottom of an inverted small bathroom Dixie cup, painting the domino silver and the cup a deep blue. I called it the “Silver Domino”, aptly enough, our own Stanley Cup.

We spent many hours through that winter on either side of our tabletop set, collaboratively creating our narratives of imaginary players, games, teams and league. We were imaginary athletes, coaches, owners and sports writers; playing, documenting and analyzing the game, birthing our own fanciful stories of “the human drama of athletic competition”, hockey style. Fantasy was our refuge from school, our mom’s depression, and the other difficult and unfulfilling aspects of our current lives, and at least we now had each other, and had mostly moved beyond sibling rivalry.

But even the real world coming into our home through mom’s little TV set seemed almost imaginary on Christmas Eve, when the national news carried images and voices from the Apollo 8 spacecraft successfully orbiting the moon and beaming back amazing images of our planet, a faraway ball of light hanging in the darkness of space. And astronaut Bill Anders quoted Genesis from the Bible…

We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you…

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

I did not believe in this God or any other deity, but did believe in the human imagination and with it the ability of our species to reinvent itself and make this world a more compelling and fulfilling place to live. And I wanted to somehow figure a way some day to contribute to that effort.

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