Does anyone remember those standardized tests they used to give you in school? The ones with the little capsules or bubbles printed in purplish ink, corresponding to the multiple choice questions in an accompanying book, in which you were strictly forbidden to write with your regulation Number Two pencil? The ones titled with ominously official-sounding acronyms (PCEST or JWCTE or something like that), where you were herded into the cafeteria and lectured for an hour about how massively important these tests were to your academic future and the continued funding of the school, and how critically important it was that you fill in the bubbles on your answer card completely and erase your mistakes completely and not write in the test booklets under any circumstances, and how vitally important it was that you return the regulation Number Two pencil to the test proctor or else be branded for life as a petty thief on your Permanent Record? Or was that just in California? Or just my generation?
Anyway, my point in bringing that up, there was always this feature in the Reading Comprehension section of the tests, in which you would read a short story or essay and then choose the most appropriate title for that short story or essay from a list of five titles. And I always loved that part of the test... first because it involved reading comprehension, at which I have always excelled, and second because it involved making appropriate assignments of ideas, which is a lot like accessorizing and color-coordinating, at which I have also always excelled.
And so, with such a training in my background, I find that the dissociation of a title from a post gives me pause... and I think we can all agree that the title of this post, like certain shades of orange or green, doesn't "go with" anything.
Having mentioned Standardized Testing, my stream-of-consciousness suddenly reminded me of a peculiar episode of my youth, which I shall now mine up and share with you.
Once Upon A Time... I think it was in the fifth or sixth grade, I was having one of my "moods" on the day for end-of-year Standardized Testing (we got this crap coming and going, in each grade), and I staged my own personal sit-down strike when confronted with the Reading and Writing portions of the test. One would think that I'd have staged my strike on something I detested, like Mathematics, but apparently I was in a mood to cut off my nose to spite my face. In this writing segment, one was invited, after several pages of bubble-filling multiple-choices, to go outside of the accustomed bubble-filling format and hand-write two short stories or essays of one's own, in order to demonstrate one's writing skills.
And for reasons I wish I understood today, I filled out all of the bubbles in an arbitrary zig-zag pattern and, when asked to write a story about what I did over the previous summer vacation, I wrote (very clearly and neatly in block printing, as I'd been instructed), "None of your business." When asked in the second part to describe my family, I wrote "There isn't enough space here" (which was at least true, there were only a dozen or so lines and my family set-up was fairly baroque with remarriages and custody arrangements by this time); then I spent the rest of the testing period drawing pictures of ladies in Medieval dress.
(Now I know it was the fifth grade, because that's when we first learned about European history, and the ladies' costumes I habitually drew became more historically specific, evolving from generic Disney "princess" outfits to authentic-looking gowns and headdresses inspired by the twelfth-century tapestries and paintings that illustrated our history textbook. I also remember learning how to pronounce "Medieval" properly, as I'd been reading and pronouncing it as "Medevial" up until then, and I recall very clearly that it was Mr. Polton, the Stonewall clone with the mustache and the silk knit ties who also introduced me to classical music and whom I idolized, who corrected me on this point. So, Fifth Grade.)
Well, much to my surprise, the tests were not whisked away to some undisclosed location in Washington DC, there to be fed into an impersonal warehouse-sized mainframe computer and the results stored in some top-secret vault, as I had supposed... I mean, nobody ever gave us back our test scores, no gold stars or report-card grades rewarded our accomplishments, so I assumed it was done off-site and completely anonymous. But no, somebody right there in the confines of Willow Creek Elementary actually fed these things through the Scantron and evaluated the written portion, and the undisclosed test scores were secretly installed in one's so-called Permanent Record before being forwarded on to the state.
So my terse little refusal to play along with the Standardized Testing had immediate and dire consequences: first I was ignominiously called into the principle's office (at Willow Creek, students were summoned to disciplinary sessions by name over the PA system) and asked to explain myself; then I had to go talk to the school psychologist and explain myself again (my answer to both of these well-meaning educators was my patented "I don't know," with which I responded to all invitations to explain my inexplicable behavior... and on a side-note, why do people ask children to explain their own behavior? Have you ever known a child who was capable of analyzing his or her own motives?); and then I was informed that since I failed the Standardized Test I would either have to stay back a grade (which would put me in my little sister's class) or else go to Summer School.
The response to this news at home was mixed... while my stepmother (who was called "Mom," in contradistinction to my mother who was called "Mother") was always glad for an opportunity to get one (if not all) of us out of the house and out of her hair during the summer months, there was the shameful stigma of "Remedial" attached to this one... this was no benign day-camp or educational activities program, this was the School of Failure, and no self-respecting codependent mother or step-mother cares to have it known that any of the children in her care are Failures.
It was especially irksome that it was The Smart One who got sentenced to Summer School (regular readers might remember that fifth grade is also when I was given an IQ test and scored a 98, which is just a skosh below an average adult's, and had been shoved into an accelerated learing program)... for if this was the kind of thing that happens with your Smart child, what terrors might one expect from the Strong children? (The future eventually revealed the answer to that question: teenage pregnancy. My popular, sassy, athletic sister and step-sisters were all mothers by the age of sixteen.)
I actually kind of enjoyed the experience of Summer School, though, once I got used to the physical strain of having to ride my bicycle (it was a metallic-orange Huffy three-speed with white rubber grips on the handles... amazing, the things I remember when I let my mind wander) two or three miles through Downtown Concord to the distant junior-high building in which Summer School was held, instead of just traipsing down the block to my accustomed elementary school, all in the inhospitable heat of a Diablo Valley summer.
The bicycled commute gave me a lot of time alone, which I adored, and there were a lot of shops and strip-malls along the way between the school and home, in which I could browse freely after school (honesty compels me to admit that I also shoplifted a little, pocketing a succession of those adorable little round tins of French hard candies from a Rexall drugstore). The classes themselves were terribly easy, since they were geared toward remedying illiteracy, and I was already as literate as your average adult; so I pretty much tuned out and spent the whole schoolday wrapped up in my own thoughts and fantasies and costume-designs.
But a situation rife with pitfalls was presented to me after a couple of weeks of this: my step-aunt, who lived right across the street from the distant junior high in which I was attending Summer School, took six week's vacation to Ireland; and since I was already right across the street all summer long, I was given the responsibility of walking, feeding, and cleaning up after her dogs while she was gone; two weeks later, I became friends with another boy in my class (whose name I think was John, but I'm not sure), a dark-haired elfin creature who was as inclined toward trouble as I was.
Now let's understand that I was only eleven years old, was known to have behavior and authority problems, and had never had any kind of unsupervised responsibilities before... I mean, Mom didn't even let us stay in our own home alone, so I had no idea how to deal with the tantalizing privacy and heady freedom of having exclusive access to a private home inhabited only by an ill-bred pair of shar-pei dogs. I had furthermore never had a male friend before, nor any kind of friend of my own who did not come already connected to my family through my sisters or the neighbors. The combination proved fatal.
John was a compulsive liar with behavioral problems and an overdeveloped devious imagination, just like me... but unlike me, John was good at lying, and had a talent for compelling people to actually carry out the things he dreamed up in his twisted little mind. John was the legendary Bad Influence type, and I was all too willing to be led. I think, too, that I had a sort of protosexual crush on John; I remember being fascinated by his large faunish green eyes, wanting to touch him, being curious about his body, and being confused by this fascination and want and curiosity. At eleven years old, your sexual identity starts firming up, but your body is not on board with the actual sexual need that directs your yearnings, and this can be a very confusing time.
Before John came along, I had gone through Pam's house with an overpowering sense of curiosity, and a very sketchy sense of right and wrong; aside from snooping through all of her drawers and cabinets, I helped myself to an unnoticeable few of the rather large collection of Bicentennial silver dollars in her jewelry box, dressed up in her clothes and put on her makeup, and ate every piece of candy she had in the house. But with John's deviousness added to my own, our wicked ideas fed off of each-other and grew exponentially, then were carried out with absolutely no regard for consequences.
One afternoon, I remember, John started crying out and writhing with sham but convincing pain, claiming that his bionic leg was malfunctioning... and I was gullible enough to buy it, my predilection for fantasy and my fondness for hunky Lee Majors and glamorous Lindsey Wagner overriding any voice of common sense that would have advised me that bionic limbs were the stuff of televised fiction; I "helped" him by unplugging Pam's telephones and binding his leg with the wires as he directed, in hopes that the magnetic properties of the wires would balance the surging electricity in John's leg. He went home with the wires on his leg, and it never occurred to me that Pam might miss them.
Another afternoon, we both dressed up in Pam's nicest party-dresses (the sort of lacy-chintzy Little House on the Prairie dresses that were popular in 1979) and put on her makeup, then walked boldly down to the Rexall drugstore (where I'd been shoplifting the French candy tins) and bought gum with stolen silver dollars. Another time we tried to see how fast we could ride our bikes indoors without having an accident... which turned out to be not very fast at all, I immediately lost control of my bicycle and slammed it into the wall of the bedroom hallway, punching a fair-sized hole in the plaster. And these were just the crimes for which I later was punished; we got up to something illicit every single day after walking and feeding the dogs.
Well, when Pam came home from Ireland, there was hell to pay. I didn't like Pam very much, I thought her an overbearing frustrated prig who covered a meanness of spirit with a veneer of saccharine sentimentality and wooly-minded piety; but nobody deserved what I did to her house. I mean, this poor woman goes off for a nice vacation and comes home to disabled telephones, a hole in her wall, evidence that her clothing and personal things had been rifled through, and a missing wealth of commemorative silver dollars and chocolate.
My stepmother, whose sister this was, who had expected kudos and thanks for lending her stepson to the enterprise of dog- and house-sitting while her little sister was gallivanting on foreign shores, suddenly had to bear a load of shame for which she was simply not prepared... not that she really had to feel shame, mind you, but Mom was a textbook codependent who consistently felt things because she expected herself to feel them, and who was in every way a slave to the deep and unexamined expectations she harbored in her heart and projected on everyone around her (like the expectation that an eccentric and troubled eleven-year-old boy would suddenly and without training be able to house-sit unsupervised).
The shame I felt, myself, was amazing. I admitted to the theft of the silver dollars, but lied about the hole in the wall, saying I'd tripped over one of the dogs and broken through the plaster with my arm (which wasn't much wider than the bicycle tire); but the missing telephone wires forced me to admit to John's presence and my humiliating gullibility in regard to the "bionic leg" episode; John's parents were then dragged into it, and John folded immediately under pressure, spilling everything so that even crimes which left no evidence (like our drag excursion and some mean things we did to the dogs) were made known. Suddenly all these people knew what I had done, they all knew what a perverted, destructive, idiotic little freak I was; and they were not people I could simply avoid in the future, they were Family and I had to see them all the time.
The ensuing punishment was the most severe I had ever experienced. My shamed and enraged stepmother spent a solid two hours screaming and yelling at Daddy in their bedroom, working him into a frenzy of violent indignation and anger on her behalf and then loosing him into my room to spank me (if left to himself, I imagine Daddy would have grounded me and made me pay for the damage); and with my hysterical screaming (I always started crying long before the spanking started) following so close on the heels of Mom's hysterical screaming, the pants-down belting he'd intended quickly went out of control and turned into a furious whipping that really qualified as child-abuse. The next day, my buttocks were literally black with bruises, and there were welts all up my back and down my thighs, as well on my hands and wrists where I had tried to block the blows.
Daddy was simply shocked by what he'd done, and I don't think he looked me in the eye for months after that; I was shocked by the unfolding consequences of what I'd done, and spent a lot of time actually thinking about it alone in my room, something I'd never done following on the consequences of an action, and really came to understand why what I'd done was wrong and how I deserved the consequences, or at least brought them on myself. I wonder if Mom was shocked, or vindicated, or what. She passed away a few years ago, so I'll never know.
The beating wasn't the extent of my punishment, by any means: for the rest of the summer and well into the school-year, I wasn't allowed to watch television, visit Grandmother, play with any of my toys, or leave the house unescorted for any reason except school; my pittance of an allowance was forfeit and I was Pam's personal yard-slave every day after summer-school, performing hours of heavy grunt-work on what seemed like several acres of untamed forest, in payment for the hole in the wall; and all the time I could feel the disgusted eyes of Mom's entire extensive family on me at every gathering that summer, of which there suddenly seemed an inordinate number.
And so at the end of summer, when I was sitting painfully on my still-tender tuchus (I had been literally unable to sit down for several days, and it hurt for weeks afterward) in the cafeteria of the distant junior high, re-taking the Standardized Test, it was extremely fortunate that they gave me different topics to write on: "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" and "All About My Family" would have made for some pretty hair-raising essays.
I don't remember what I did write about, but I'm pretty sure that my stories were purely fictional, and that they were excellently and carefully written in neat block letters with perfect grammar and punctuation.
I feel kind of shivery-naked all of a sudden, having relived all of that through the writing. I certainly had no idea that when I opened a stream of consciousness by typing La La La La I Can't Hear You La La La La in the Title field that I would end up remembering in excruciating detail the train of consquences set in motion by my silly whim to blow off the Standardized Test. And now I feel like I just yanked an old arrowhead out of my flesh: kind of relieved, extremely pained, and entirely shocked.
I don't think I've thought about any of those events since I did my first Fourth Step nine years ago, and I certainly didn't remember it then in such dazzling detail, even down to a visual memory of John's dark-green eyes and the purple belt-marks on my hands.
And I'm afraid I make Daddy, and even moreso Mom, look monstrous in this story; Mom is dead and can't defend or explain herself, but I think Daddy understands and accepts that he wasn't a very successful parent; nevertheless, I have forgiven them both, understanding that though they should have done better, they did the best they could with some singularly difficult material, and I certainly did nothing to ease their way.
In other news (how do you segue into a chatty personal update after such lurid confessions? Just brazen it out, I guess) my Depression is whacking me pretty good this week. My burst of cheer and energy earlier this week was indeed a manic swing, which by Tueday evening had me completely exhausted and unbearably grouchy; on Wednesday I felt okay, I balanced out almost to normal as I started swinging back down into a depressive state; but the last two days I have felt utterly miserable, lethargic, heavy, and emotionally fragile, like I'm going to start crying any moment.
Making matters worse, I had some dental work done last week, and the temporary crown is on wrong, I think... I've had a terrible but intermittent toothache all week, which for some reason seems to get worse at night when I'm trying to sleep. Depression, toothache, and lack of sleep make a nasty combo.
I have decided that I have definitely come to the time where I have to have medical attention for my depression. My reasons for avoiding it (prodigal money-management practices and a rabid case of Terminal Uniqueness) have been completely outweighed by the suffering I have experienced and inflicted on others these last three weeks. When I was writing to my friend Becky last week, I had a sort of Moment of Clarity, and became inescapably convinced that I need to start therapy and antidepressants as soon as possible, despite the sacrifice I will have to make in my budget and my pride; I have since taken steps to obtain membership in an medical program so that I can have access to a physician and a pharmacy.
Unfortunately, these steps cannot have immediate results. Kaiser Permanente does not move with lightning speed, to begin with, and they definitely don't fall all over themselves offering their health-plan to single buyers, being more interested in administering more lucrative employer-paid group plans. So by the time I get my application through, start paying for my benefits, and get to see an actual real-live doctor in order to get a psych referral and then a prescription for antidepressants, the antevernal depression in which I am currently enmired will be long gone.
On the other hand, my allergies will probably be roaring away at full throttle by then, so I can deal with that, instead. And then when my anteautumnal depression, or one of my many less-severe unscheduled depressions, will turn up eventually and can be dealt with in turn.
[UPDATE 9:45 pm: I just got an email from Kaiser, and my application was approved! As long as I pay my premium immediately after I get the statement in seven-to-ten business days, I'll have medical coverage starting on April 1! YAY!]
Well, darlings, I think I have spent enough time writing in this blog today (it's a quarter to six as I make this hopefully-last-edit... nope, another run-through with changes at five to seven... and one last typo-sweep at seven-forty). I have some writing for work to do, and I would like to get back to work on Worst Luck ASAP.
I have been plugging away at the next scene, in which Danny meets the other two main characters, and I have been struggling a bit. I have written a good deal this week, in fact the scene is almost finished, but all of the dialogue and description I've got down seems so awkward and cumbersome. It needs editing, at the very least, and may call for a complete re-think.
But I feel accomplished, anyway, working on my fiction instead of letting it slip to the wayside while I waste my life in front of the television. I'll let you know when I'm finished tweaking about with this scene and get it posted.
[UPDATE 9:45 pm: Oh, screw it! I finished out the scene, cleaned up some of the problematic parts, and posted Chapter 2 Part 4 just now, for your consideration and perusal... it's still a little cumbersome, but I want to get on to the next scene and the rest of the story. I feel so prolific today! At any rate, I don't feel like crying when I'm writing about Danny and Valerien and Marquesa stuck in an elevator.]
In the meantime, have a lovely day! If not on your own account, then do it for me, and the rest of us unmedicated depressives who are incapable of having one today.