Night of the Avalanche

I begin this post speaking directly to you; not through some scene from my life, or reflection of a thought, or roundabout story. It’s straight from me to you, and here’s my message: This is the one. This post sits at the apex of the blog “story arc.” [You can pretty much stop reading any posts that come after this one.] If you’ve been with me since the beginning, fantastic! If you’ve stumbled onto this post and none previous, what a great stroke of serendipity this could be, because….

This is the night of the avalanche! 

That’s what it was like one special night in April when a chain of clear and enlightened thoughts tumbled from my head with all the force and weight of an avalanche. 

More than a few times within this post I’ll include words or lines that are references to one or more of my previous 18 posts. I will not pause to point these moments out, because there will be a lot of them, but I will include links on occasion. This post (and this night) is where everything that’s gone before it “links” together like pieces of a puzzle.  

To get us from here to the pay-off, come into my house, come into my head, Tuesday evening, April 21, 2020. Live this evening with me. Many big life-lessons depend the axiom, you have to live it to get it. What stories are capable of doing is connecting us to the lives of others so that we can still learn by living within stories that are not our own. The life-changing conclusions I had arrived as the avalanche ended are revealed to you in this post. Perhaps it’s a longshot, but my hope would be for you to capture something from my story that becomes a piece in your own life’s puzzle.

By the way, every word that I write are my thoughts, [obvi], but when I use the italics, I’ll typically be signaling to you, “this is what I’m thinking.”

Are you ready? Here goes! Right now I am thinking, the avalanche is about to begin.


Cleared For An Edible

I like having a roommate. Simply sharing the space with someone else (provided you get along as well as Derek and I do), adds just enough human connection without being too much. Especially, when you and your roommate have opposite schedules. ;-). Derek is working tonight and out of the house until past midnight. I love it when I have the entire evening to myself.

It’s a Tuesday. I’ve made one of my deluxe veggie sandwiches for dinner. So good. I think it’s the arugula that makes it. Been thinking a lot about the new therapy I started. Sure seems like some freaky-ass voodoo to me, yet I’m still feeling excited to be taking it on. Last night was only my second session with the therapist so there’s nothing much to report so far. Sandwiches are nice sometimes for dinner… so long as they’re hearty enough. The cheese and avocado pack the hearty. 

Clean-up is relatively easy after a sandwich. I put the cutting board and knives into the sink to be washed later. Honestly, I love that Derek sometimes leaves his dishes in the sink; gives me permission to do the same.  It’s almost 7:30, that’s when I’ll eat one 10 mg square of my cannabis-infused dark chocolate. On the nights that are clear for an edible, like tonight, 7:30 always seemed like a good time to take it. I don’t have great reasons for believing this, but I figure I can enjoy my evening and then once it mostly wears off, it will be bedtime. 

One Hour and Counting

An hour and a half later I’m in the basement, moving laundry from the washer to the dryer. So annoying that the doors open in exactly the opposite direction you need them to for making the transfer of clothes easy. I can feel the edible. It kicked in slowly about 20 mins ago. Maybe it’ll be slightly more intense since I had avocado on my sandwich. They say the THC binds better with fatty foods which might make its effects slightly more intense. Who knows? I’m feeling its effects now and just hope I don’t forget my clothes in the dryer because I’m all lost in thought. “Hey Siri, countdown one hour,” I say towards my wrist. “One hour and counting,” she responds dutifully.

My mind has been so busy lately and my stomach upside down. All that stuff with Marianne has been a heavy load. I even thought about not doing the edible tonight because maybe I wasn’t in a good frame of mind for it. 

Last week it worked out okay. I did the same amount, one square, and ended up with an unexpectedly useful result. That’s when the straight and clear answer came to me saying I should sell my house in Austin. Man, if I sell that house, then what? I should really think about that. I grab my little bluetooth speaker from the kitchen and carry it with me. I’d been listening to the rest of The Young Turks while making my sandwich. Now, with the house all to myself, I am ready for some music. The portable speaker is all black and about the size of a 40 oz “tall boy.” Quite often it’s a “Pogo mix” on YouTube that feels right. 

The spring evening is cool in Denver. The front door is open to let in the magic hour’s light; the screen door keeps out the moths, though they always seem to find their way in anyway. I walk to the living room, set the speaker down on the big trunk topped with doilies we use as a coffee table. I then plunk myself onto the couch. I bet I could walk away with at least $350K from it. 

I keep thinking about what that Civilized to Death book had said about how our pre-”civilized” ancestors only worked about 3-4 hours a day. Not even work, really. Hanging out with their friends, cracking jokes, while gathering up some food from the trees or doing other basic tasks. I wonder how having this money could get me closer to that kind of lifestyle. Not the gathering my own food part, but just in general. I do think I would like to have a little garden, however

Do The Math

I look around the living room. Everything is old. I was once sitting in the living room while on a Skype call with my friend Boris, probably in the same spot where I sit now. He saw the decor behind me- old, darkened wood-grain, with thick drapery on the windows -and asked if I was traveling on the Orient Express. That guy sure has an eye for the obscure-but-true observations. What if I use the money to buy my own house. Do I even want to buy another house? If I did, I’d want it to have everything I want.

This was something I had already put a little bit of thought into. I’d want a four bedroom house, with the fourth bedroom set up with its own entrance so I could run an Airbnb like how I’d done it with my house in Austin. The master bedroom would be for me, duh….but the other one, or even two, would be for my roommate. Also on my wish list is a large “extra” room with tall windows all along one wall that faces the patio/garden. I would use the space for meditation or yoga or whatever else I wanted to use it for. Maybe I’d just play my music and dance.

If I sell the house and walk away with $350K, together with my other savings I’d be sitting on a total of about a half-million dollars. Man, that sounds like a lot. I wonder if I could just stop working now. I bet maybe I could. Wait, could I really? Don’t they say you need a million dollars to retire? I know I’ve heard that, or maybe it’s two million now. If I don’t have enough now…how much longer do I need to work until I have enough? Until I’m 65? Really….?! 

A sense of excitement starts to percolate inside my head. My thoughts begin rolling. I stand up to move around. Do I really have to work until I’m 65? Why do I think that? Oh my God! My arms rise up and my hands run half-way through my hair. It’s just like the 8 hour workday thing. I’m only assuming I need to work ‘til I’m 65, but who said that?! Jesus Christ! What am I working FOR, anyway?! I don’t even know. I’m just working. I’m working because that’s what we do? It’s expected. It’s “normal.” Work ‘til 65 or 66 or 70 and then retire. 

This realization is hitting me with unexpected force. How come I’ve never thought about this? Again I think, What am I working FOR!? I have my hands clasped behind my head now, my head is tilted back, mouth open, eyes wide, an expression of disbelief and shock. My eyes get a flush of moisture and start to blink more quickly. I have a feeling that I am emerging from the Truman Show, out from under the dome and into the real light of day. What am I doing here?! Is this why people talk to financial planners and junk? Why have I never done the math? WHY HAVE I NEVER DONE THE MATH?!!!

I’m getting that last one to the party feeling. I feel like a fool. Do other people think about this stuff? My gut tells me most people are just working working working because that’s what we’ve all been programmed to do. That’s been true of me. Maybe I need to check myself here. This feels big! I start wondering if maybe I am inside some cannabis-induced thought-vortex. All these rushing thoughts have me reeling. I pause the music.

Let me run through this again. I try to make all the same mental links. Civilization has handed us a way of life that in many ways is a bill of goods. The 8 hr workday was handed to us. Vacation time off per year- 2 weeks,handed to us. Where is my say-so? These are all pre-negotiated rules of society I had nothing to do with. How can I live on MY terms? Maybe I can; I’ve never done the math. Again, I think about working ‘till I’m 65 and how blindly I’ve accepted this as a stone-cold truth. After this second time through, I think, Oh man, I can see it in my mind. It’s real! 

Confident I am “on the right track,” I mentally race ahead. So if I leave my job, would I have enough money to live on? For how long? If I buy a house, have a roommate, and run an Airbnb, I wouldn’t need that much, right? Here’s the thing about me, I just want what I want. Being able to do what I want when I want to do it, makes me feel good. It’s my thing. Call me selfish, but it’s what I like. And the best news of all is that my wants just aren’t that grand, I don’t think. For example, it’s not like I need money to buy a boat or join a country club- I don’t even like golf and quite frankly find that whole scene off-putting (to put it gently). And if I can get away with not even owning a car, I will. 

What I want is an electric scooter, a quality set of cookware, and chopped pecans on my cereal in the morning. Yes, chopped pecans are kind of expensive. I know, I buy them all the time. But here’s how I think about it… Is my buying chopped pecans going to make a difference in my ability to afford living the life I want? That IS the life I want! Chopped pecans are not going to break me.

I walk from the living room back into the kitchen. I look around and imagine a different kitchen, MY kitchen. I told you about the living room being old and dark? Well, this kitchen hasn’t been up-dated in years. I go into the fridge for a passion fruit flavored La Croix.

The question I am zeroing in on, and the one I should have been asking all along is… how much money do I need for me to have the life I want- a four bedroom house, an electric scooter, quality cookware, and pecans for my cereal…. and still have enough to live on? Will half-a-million dollars do it? My gut says maybe. A feeling jabs my ego that I’ve been a fool for not ever mentally going down this road before. OMG! I’m still incredulous. I’ve never done the math! I’VE NEVER DONE THE FREAKING MATH! 

I Have Options

Ping…Ping….Ping… The alert on my watch goes off. The clothes should be dry. 

I open the door to the dryer and warmth spills out into the basement. Very much still in the elevated state of my cannabis high, it occurs to me how easy it would be to remove the clothes from the dryer all at once, if….. squatting down low, I put my left arm into the bottom of the dryer drum, but to the right of the pile of clothes, I insert my right arm also into the mouth of the dryer, also on the right side, but a little higher up on the drum. Then with my elbows I rotate the drum causing the clothes to tumble into my waiting arms for me to scoop. Whoa! That totally worked! I just invented a new way to get clothes out of a dryer.  

Back up in the living room, I spread out all the clothes on the couch and start my folding routine. Lay out the shirts first. I reach for a gray cotton work shirt. Where could I buy a house like I’m thinking? There’s more avalanche coming. Disregarding money for a second, I wonder…..If I were able to not work, and lived in a 4 bedroom house with the roommate and the Airbnb, where would I really want to live? I like Denver, but I’ve travelled a bit and honestly would not consider Denver to be one of the “great cities of the world.” 

More lightbulbs start going off. 

Oh my God! I have my hands back up to my head. If a half a million is somehow enough for me to live on and I don’t have to work any more, I could live anywhere. I wouldn’t be tied to a job! I could live ANYWHERE!  The proverbial bolt of lightning is knocking my socks right off. I think, if I were starting from scratch. Where would I live? Like…what city? What country? My mind has gone full global tilt. I think about my experiences traveling the world and all of the cities I visited: Quito; Santiago; Auckland; Hangzhou; Istanbul; and a hundred cities more.  

The US is going down, I’m convinced of it. Government corruption is beyond repair and will not be stopped by Trump, Biden, me or anyone else. I swear I tried. Late-stage capitalism sets the rules, our media is complicit, money has taken over every branch of government. This is not the America I was born into. It’s just not. And it’s only going to get worse from here, at least for regular schmoes like me. If America ever recovers from this mess it won’t be in my lifetime. But I don’t have to live here, do I? I could totally live in another country.

With this money, I have options.

I’m Leaving You Baby

In the blink of an idea, the turn has been made. With the same rational and pragmatic certainty I felt when I knew I should sell my house in Austin, I suddenly know I am going to leave America. Excitement around what this means for my life has my body moving and stretching, as if I am warming up for a big game. I pretzel my arms in front of me and feel the stretch through my shoulders and back. Oh my God, this is big! I bend my body at the waist and go all the way to the floor, rising a moment later with my arms outstretched to the sides. I am expanding.  

What would it be like to live in another country? The impact of this idea quickly reverberates. I have a pretty good chunk of my life left to live, at least another 25 years. I lived 55 years here, could I not live the next 25 somewhere else? There’s nothing stopping me, right? I have no family, no relationship partner to negotiate with. I do have options. I speak English and my Spanish is not too shabby either. 

No longer am I marching down the corridor of civilization that had kept me compliant all my life…. I DO HAVE OPTIONS!! 

The Final Poetic Confluence

That was it! I’d thought it through and come out the other side; the avalanche has settled. But it’s sure stirred up a lot of dust. I didn’t know everything, but I knew on that night that I wanted to make a new life for myself outside of America. I knew I wanted to start living life on my own terms. 

The very next day, I called my friend Vanessa in a rush. Give me Tim’s number. What’s his number? I need to make an appointment with him as soon as possible. Tim is the financial planner Vanessa had been trying to get me to have a conversation with for a while. As soon as she shares with me his contact info, I place the call. He doesn’t pick up so I leave a message. I send him a text, too, for good measure. A few minutes after that I call my real estate agent friend in Austin. Mike, I want to sell the house. I’m ready. What do we need to do? 

I feel the rush and it doesn’t stop for days. In one night I have set myself on a trajectory where so many, many things would be new. New house, new city, new country, new neighbors, friends, furniture, food, parks, radio, street signs… it would ALL be new to me. Depending on where I end up, I could potentially even be surrounded by a new language- one that is not my native tongue.  

And what of all this course of therapy I have committed myself to? This is the coup de grace, the pièce de résistance, the ultimate in poetic confluence– The thought that I might also, in some very key way, be a new me, psychologically and emotionally “cleansed” of burdens I’d carried for a lifetime, was too pure a merging of events to dismiss without excitement. Things happen for a reason is back on the board.

Let’s go! Let’s GO! LET’S GOOOOOOOO!!!!

Breeding Ground for Suicide

My dad was coming in hot, not just from the warm, humid coastal air, but because I interrupted whatever he was working on; that’s all it took to make him angry. Or, was it because I was wasting gasoline by letting the mower run after I had finished? Who knows? Everything made him angry.

The lawnmower I used to cut the grass at our bay house was loud and I had to shout over it to get his attention. I couldn’t turn it off. I had just finished cutting the grass and there was no way to turn it off; it had no off switch. 

Being both depression-era cheap and a super-skilled handyman, my dad cobbled things together well-enough to work, though they might lack certain “luxuries,” such as a lawnmower having an off switch. 

He approached me almost running, with large impatient steps. How do I turn it off? I shouted again over the aggressive noise of the mower I stood behind. My dad came in close and jerked the handle away from me. He then turned the mower and shoved the whole thing into some high grass a few feet away, killing it immediately. 

Geez. I didn’t think of that. Why didn’t I think of that? I was 13 and already accustomed to my dad’s incredible ability to be impatient. But it still came as a shock to me every single time. Okay, I didn’t think of that, but why does my dad have to get so mad? Why can’t he just be a father? If that’s what it means to be a father, then I don’t ever want to be one. 

And so it was. In that moment, on that day, standing next to the junky lawnmower with no off switch…. I made my decision. I would never be a father.


No House of Horrors

Since beginning this blog I have visited my childhood home on Creekwood many times. I’ve comfortably tucked myself underneath the baby-grand piano in the formal living room as my father ran through the playlist of songs his fingers had memorized. He never learned to read music, but somehow possessed the ability to “play-by-ear.” He said he picked it up while in the Air Force, stationed in England during WWII. I could never comprehend the concept of playing by ear. You mean you just hear a song and then sit down and play it? Yes, I know it’s a little more than that; nonetheless, this is not a gift he passed along to me. 

I don’t think he knew how many times I crawled underneath that piano while he played, and marvelled at the little velvet hammers as they pounced upon the long steel strings inside its belly. It’s a lovely childhood memory. I wish I had more of them.

What’s amazing to me is just how relatively close to center my early upbringing was. There were no alcohol-fueled episodes of physical abuse, no child molestation, no cages, no torture chambers, no material for a future Netflix documentary. The dysfunction in my childhood home was the product of two parents living inside their own blind spots. My dad couldn’t see that his burst of anger went off like stun-grenades at our feet. My mother never figured out why her second marriage (to my dad) looked so similar to her first. I mean, I suppose it was an improvement….. my dad never physically abused her. 

Figuring out my dad’s explosive anger had few clues. I once asked my aunt (his sister), why he was like that. She said their mother was a “pushover” and whenever little Bobby didn’t get his way, he would throw a tantrum. It would seem he had great success with this strategy as a boy and kept up the behavior into adulthood. I readily admit this is pop-psy 101-level analysis, but it’s all I’ve got.

I might never have recognized how the angry, controlling nature of my dad was like a toddler’s temper tantrum, were it not for one particular incident. I was 23 when I lucked into purchasing a small house only a few miles north of downtown Austin. The simple 2-1 house built in the 50’s had been hastily painted white with yellow trim. I later re-painted it a color closer to periwinkle. The house didn’t cost much, mostly because it sat directly beneath the flightpath of every plane that landed at the old Austin airport. Believe me, it was a day of quiet celebration when Mueller was relocated to Austin-Bergstrom International and the bone-rattling roar of planes flying over my house stopped for good. 

The house didn’t come with a garage, which was so dilapidated the city required it to be torn down before the property could be sold. Building a new detached garage myself was the first major solo handyman project I’d ever taken on. Growing up, I was put to work on many of my Dad’s projects, and paid whatever the going child-labor rate was at that time. But this project was my own. One weekend, my dad drove from Houston to Austin to visit and to give me a little help on constructing the garage, which at that point was about 90% completed. We ended-up in a disagreement about where to add a side door. Yo! This was my garage, my project; I could put the door wherever I wanted. Though, I did have totally valid reasons for wanting to put it along the east wall. My dad simply disagreed for his own set of reasons. 

Once he knew he wasn’t getting his way, my dad released one final expression of his frustration and anger by quickly throwing something that wasn’t there at the ground with both arms. He didn’t crinkle up and start crying, but something about his quick and jerky movements reminded me of the temper tantrum you might see from a 3 year old. Now when I think back to all the hundreds of times my dad stormed out the back door after fighting with my mom, slamming it loudly behind him, I see a child unaccustomed to not getting his way. 

One time he slammed the door as our cat was crossing from outside to in. The final two inches of Towie’s tail was severed in the exchange. I am thankful this incident with the cat occurred prior to my birth. Towie, with the oddly shortened tail, was the cat I grew up with. He was my earliest best friend and the comfort I sorely needed to counterbalance a house too often filled with turmoil and tension.  

You Knew Who He Was Talking To

As hard as I try, I simply cannot figure out how my dad ended up so horrendously bad at parenting. He was a smart guy. How did this happen? I have to conclude he must have become the parent his own father was- stern, no nonsense, sit-up straight, no-elbows-on-the-table, and it’s May I, not Can I. In one of the few reflective conversations I ever had with my father, relatively near the end of his life, I asked him what his father used to call him when he was a kid. Was it Bobby, Bob, Robert, Rob, Robby, or some other endearing nickname, like Bobberino? My dad thought for a moment and said he didn’t remember his father calling him anything in particular. “When he looked at you…” my dad mimicked a serious face, like a bird of prey spotting a field mouse, “…you knew who he was talking to.” 

My dad almost never talked about his father. That tiny glimpse into my grandfather’s personality was all I had to go on. However, if the apple indeed doesn’t fall far from the tree, I grew up seeing much more of my grandfather than I ever deserved.

Patty Ann and Nancy 

One solid clue to my mom’s permanently broken heart came out quite randomly when I once asked her to name the one person in her life (besides her mother) she’s been closest to. She responded with a name I’d never heard her say before in my life- Nancy McFaddin. Super-puzzled, I asked, Who’s Nancy McFaddin? My mom tells me that her and Nancy were best friends from between about 8 and 12 years old. That’s all she said. It took me a couple of years to piece together the bigger picture. Here it is….

At 13 years old, my mom (known then as Patty Ann) left for school one morning… without a clue she would never see her own mother again. When she came home that afternoon, strangers were going in and out of her house. She was told her amazing mother, the closest, dearest, most loving person ever in my mom’s young life, had died suddenly….of a brain aneurysm, she learned later. The strangers helped my mom gather up a few belongings before sending her to live with an aunt. [I told that story previously as part of an excellent earlier post, Smoke ‘em If You Want to Live. It’s relevance here is even greater.] 

Patty Ann had her heart crushed at 13 by her mother’s sudden death, putting the axiom things happen for a reason on extremely thin ice. For what possible reason would that have been? It was a random twist of fate with consequences that would echo loudly into the next generation. And, if the abrupt loss of her own mother wasn’t enough for young Patty Ann to bear, she also lost her best friend that same day. As the authorities whisked my mother away to live with her Aunt Lou across town, Patty Ann Nichols never saw Nancy McFaddin again. 

Imagine my mother’s state of mind that night. I picture her as a 13 year old girl, spending her first night at the cousins’ house; she probably had to share the bed with one or two. When bedtime came around and the lights went out, I see my mother staring ahead into this strange new darkness, too filled with shock and bewilderment to close her eyes. Her body might have felt numb on the outside while boiling with alarm on the inside. In her head, beneath her red curls, the part of the brain that functions as “protector” delivers a new set of instructions to her entire nervous system. Those instructions tell her subconscious and all its minions, whatever you do, don’t allow Patty Ann to get close to anyone ever again….because that’s dangerous.

This incident from my mother’s past explains why I don’t remember tears coming from her eyes after Tommy, her 19 year old first born son, committed suicide in the garage of our house on Creekwood. I didn’t see any tears either when her second-born son committed suicide 40 years later. And if I had died before her, not a single tear would have been shed for me either. For all her life she remained numb on the outside, numb on the inside.    

Patricia Breaux was the best mom she knew how to be and she did a million things right. I also have no doubt she loved me…as much as her heart would allow before needing to hold back enough to keep safe from harm. 

If I describe my mother as “disconnected,” now you will understand. And if the true meaning of love has been a mystery to me these first 55 years and remains a mystery for whatever’s left, now you will understand that too. 

I Was The Witness

The avocado green clock on the kitchen wall says 7:22. The little hand went past the 7, and the big hand is on those little marks past the 20, looks like two of them. It’s 7:22. Not that hard. For my brother Bill, despite being almost a full 2 years older, it was hard….practically everything was hard. But this is not the story of how my brother was dumb, or even slow. It is the story of my dad’s goddam inability to have an ounce of empathy for his own son and what that lacking did to him. The anguish in my brother’s face when he tried to say what time it was but didn’t quite get it right, was something my day had no patience for. 

As I write this blog, my mind is going back in time, back to that lime green and avocado late 60’s kitchen with the formica countertop, back to the breakfast table where we typically ate as a family, back to the memory of us little boys, probably 4 and 6… learning to tell time. Me, with my strawberry blonde crew cut and my brother with the same in light brown. I’m trying. I’m trying so hard to zoom inside my father’s head, to be him as he “teaches” his son to read the face of a clock. I just can’t fathom it. Trying to put myself in my father’s shoes isn’t working. My brother couldn’t read the face of a clock, but my father couldn’t read the face of his own son.

My brother is clearly distressed at not getting it. My father, caught up in his own impatience and frustration, the man who intuitively played the piano by ear, will not stop the emotional abuse until Bill runs from the room crying. I am left as the witness. The feeling within me is smug satisfaction and a touch of confidence to be able to pick up on things so quickly. Honestly, I find my brother’s inability to get it unrelatable, but mostly….I feel grateful for not being the one in the line of fire. 

I received my dad’s harsh treatment at other times, but had one clear advantage my brother didn’t; I was an observant learner. Not for the piano, unfortunately. But for other things. My mom told me how as a toddler I would stand in my playpen and quietly watch the room. Not fussing, not playing with my toys, just observing. There is no doubt my brother had equal ability to learn as I did. What he lacked was someone to help him learn in a way that was a fit for him. 

There is a perilous and (I think) dubious story my mom once told my brother. I didn’t hear it first hand; he relayed it to me later. She said Bill was a happy baby. But around 18 months old he got sick and had a high fever for a couple of days. After that, he was never quite the same. Even if the story is true, based on everything I know… I highly doubt it was the fever. Those were the days of, Don’t baby him. And, Let him cry himself to sleep. Worst baby-book advice EVER!!!  When a child is in pain, comfort them. Let them know they are safe and cared for. Doing the opposite breeds a child (and later an adult), who sees the world through a lens of negativity and mistrust. 

Take this premium-add advice from the man who has no children- if your child is in pain, comfort them. Please… comfort them to their core.

Reasonably Tolerable

When a child is abused it is always unjust. Always, always. It is a universal injustice. By this I mean anyone of any age can see it and feel it. It can even be acknowledged by the abuser, but they first must escape the cell walls of their own abuse in order to see it. My brother Bill was not granted an ounce of empathy from his father for simply being a regular little knuckleheaded boy- no hitting was required for this most insidious form of abuse. The impatience of my father led to Bill being scolded, belittled, and yelled at from a very early age. The injustice made Bill angry inside. Then this anger was given its own target. Me. 

On nearly every front, we were the typical white American family. We lived in a predominantly white middle-class neighborhood on the southwest side of Houston. We lived in a 3-bedroom, 2-bath brick house on Creekwood, and enjoyed such luxuries as both a formal living room and a family room. We ate evening dinner together as a family, sometimes went on family bike rides afterwards, and from time to time played some pretty typical family games. We had a pool table that converted to a ping-pong table in the garage and sometimes played badminton or croquet in the backyard. 

Being two years apart in age, Bill and I often played games against each other. For whatever magical reasons of fate, I tended to be a little more skilled than my brother at almost everything. I had no understanding at the time about how this must have reinforced the conditioning my brother was receiving in spades from my dad; to feel inferior, stupid.

This could be an unnecessary aside, but I feel compelled to tell you that for all his angry parenting, (aside from 2 or 3 spankings with a belt) my father never physically hit us in a moment of anger. He also never called us names to put us down. These were lines he would not cross. Between being impatient and angry, he was a reasonably tolerable and occasionally charming man. [I have deliberately worked in the phrase “reasonably tolerable” because that was my dad’s favorite way to respond when anyone asked him how he was doing. He was always, “reasonably tolerable.” Sounds as though he was perpetually damning himself with faint praise.]

Through the Croquet Wicket and Into the Swimming Pool

At 5 years old to my brother’s 7, we sometimes played croquet in the backyard. It always seemed I was a step ahead of him. His temper flared whenever he would miss a shot and his wooden ball would not go through the wicket he intended. However, something more was revealed by the rubber-tipped mallets and colorfully painted wooden balls. There’s a play in croquet where if your ball strikes your opponent’s, you get the chance to knock it away in any direction you want. I distinctly remember that whenever Bill got the opportunity to drive his saintly little brother’s ball to kingdom come, he would relish it and knock me away with all the fury he was physically capable of unloading. 

I was so young, and yet to this very day I can easily recall the anger bred into my brother’s nature by circumstance. Even at 5, I was becoming scared of him already. If I touched his croquet ball with mine and had equal opportunity to slam it to the far reaches of the yard, I would not give it my all. Seeing Bill get even more frustrated and angry wasn’t the game I wanted to play. I knew it would only be turned back upon me later. I was intimidated.  

Years later, Bill and I, along with several other kids around our 12-14 year age range, were splashing around one evening in an above-ground swimming pool at the house of a friend to my mother. We were jumping in and out of the pool, throwing nerf footballs around, playing Marco Polo, the usual kids stuff. Even after dark we continued playing. A mercury-vapor outdoor lamp provided plenty-enough light for us to keep swimming into the night.

At some point I was in the pool horsing around with Bill and he pushed me underwater. There would be no story here if he had pushed me under and then let me freely bounce back up. But this is not what happened. With his greater size and strength, he pushed me down but then held me there, keeping my head underwater. My butt was at the pool’s bottom and I wasn’t able to get my legs underneath me to push upwards against the pressure of his body weight. I cannot say how long he held me down or how near I was to literally sucking water into my lungs, but I can tell you I was nearing panic mode. I had experienced my brother’s dark side since the days we used to play croquet in the backyard. From back then to this moment years later in the swimming pool, I had endured my brother’s wicked bullying. But never before did I feel my life was being threatened.

When he finally let up and I thrust into the air, I was choking and coughing out water. My sinuses were burning from the chlorine that had entered. Why did you do that?! I yelled towards him. WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?! I demanded. My brother backed his body away from me towards the other side of the pool and never said a word. His eyes looked left and then swung right, never towards me. Not a single word.

The Sultan of Darkness

On my world travels in 2014 I visited a real-life Sultan’s palace in Yogyakarta on the island of Java, Indonesia. Sections of the palace were open to the public for tours. One grand hall we walked through contained much older paintings, then black ‘n white portraits, and then more modern-era color photographs of the line of Sultans that had ruled the region for generations. 

Not a single Sultan throughout the ages was depicted with even the slightest hint of a smile. I asked the guide why that was. She explained that, as rulers of their people, the Sultan had to maintain an air of seriousness. A smile could be interpreted as a sign of weakness or vulnerability. 

Find any photograph of my brother Bill from about 10 years old and on, and you will not find a smile. My brother was not a Sultan in Indonesia. His motivations for not showing the world a happy face were not to demonstrate his confident power but rather his feelings of powerlessness. A smile could be interpreted as a sign of strength or invincibility….or worse yet, happiness. Bill possessed none of the above.

The light within a person shines outwardly through their smile. My poor brother Bill had no light to shine. 

No Escape Without Scars

The various stories I bring to you in this blog intertwine and overlap, just as they are within my psyche. You have learned that I once had two brothers, and that now both are gone by their own hand. If the thought, How did Gary turn out so “normal?” …ever crossed your mind, it may not cross your mind a second time after reading this blog. You see, the suicides you have read about [t] [b] are not the story. The toxic conditions within that seemingly ordinary brick house on Creekwood were a breeding ground for suicide. That’s the story. So how did I escape?

Perhaps through the luck-of-the-draw I escaped any predisposition towards suicide myself. However, my own wounds from the breeding ground are now the scars I wear behind my eyes. I am discomfortable in relationships. I am alone in this world without a single family member alive. I don’t know what love is. I am not sad, not depressed (which has to be a good thing, right?), but I am surely missing out on something. The person I could have been is still in there somewhere, and I’m running short on time to find him.  

Psychedelic-assisted freaky-ass voodoo somatic therapy is up next. Don’t move a muscle.

Freaky-Ass Voodoo

The rage burning inside my brother emerged through his hands as they wrapped around my mother’s neck. She was saying his name in strained protest, “BILL! BILL!” …as if trying to make contact with the little boy that was, not her violent 15 year old teenage son that backed her up against the wall at the end of the tiny hallway.

I stood nearby, paralyzed. My own experiences with Bill’s “mean-streak” rendered me useless. I was afraid of him, pure and simple. He was unpredictable, much like my father. Not knowing what someone is ultimately capable of leads to a belief they are capable of anything.

Our brains have a magical way of switching off the electrical wiring that sends power to our muscles during sleep. This grants us the freedom to dream of running or flying, frisbees or footballs, angels or demons, all while lying still in our beds. But on occasion, the dreams in our head are so intense, the emotions behind their creation so strong, they sneak past the gatekeepers and cause us to lurch in our sleep. Many, many times it happened that I awoke in the night with my body fully tense, only to realize I was having yet another dream where my fist was swinging directly towards my brother.  

What if I had been strong, brave, and fearless enough to throw an arm around his neck from behind and yank him backwards, off of his feet, off my defenseless mother? We might have crashed into chairs, lamps and tables while fighting inside the confines of our small apartment. I may have ended up bruised and bloodied in the exchange, but I could have stopped the assault and sent a clear message that the days of being afraid of him were over. 

But that’s not what I did. I stood there in shock and threw another layer of hatred for my brother onto the pile, and swallowed another dose of fear for myself.

Only in my dreams did I ever throw a punch.


How to Change My Mind

Back in January of this year, even though I had not done any psychedelics in over 30 years, I was feeling a renewed sense of excitement about their potential. After that chapter on psychedelics in the book Civilized to Death, my interest in the topic was reincarnated in this matured man’s body. I told a coworker I was learning some really cool new stuff about psychedelics from a book. He thought I might also like a very specific, almost 3-hour long, Joe Rogan podcast with some so-called “expert” on psychedelics- an ethnopharmacologist. I know I’ve already mentioned the Joe Rogan Podcast several times in previous posts, but at that point in time- January of 2020 -the one my coworker suggested I check out was the very first Joe Rogan podcast I’d ever listened to. I count it as a 2-fer… I finally got exposure to Joe Rogan, a bona-fide cultural phenomenon, plus, his interview with guest, Dennis McKenna (a person I’d never heard of before in my life), was marvelously fascinating. [Link]

That Joe Rogan podcast led me to listen to another of his with best-selling author, Michael Pollan. A few days later I began reading Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind. If you don’t know Michael Pollan, he’s a popular author of several books that have become big-time cultural influencers: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is perhaps the most famous among them. From there I launched into a second book on psychedelics called, The Explorer’s Guide to Psychedelics. Books, podcasts, articles, Netflix specials, YouTube videos…all about psychedelics. I was totally geeking out on information about psychedelics from every source imaginable and it’s blowing my mind. The only thing not happening was me actually doing any. But that’s coming. 

All of this new information, I can sum up for you as follows:  When done in the right setting and with the right intention, psychedelics offer most people astonishingly positive benefits. It’s just a plain simple FACT at this point. The jury is in. All legitimate debates are over. There is no way psychedelics should be illegal in the way they are today. Through smartly controlled clinical channels, they should be legally available to everyone who thinks they might benefit from them. [No, I do not believe we should add LSD to the public water supply.] 

It’s the testimonials that are irrefutably convincing. Did you know a stunningly high percentage of people who do psilocybin (magic mushrooms) in research studies end up calling it one of the 2 to 3 most important experiences of their life?! Read Michael Pollen’s book How to Change Your Mind, and you’ll see some of what I’m talking about. 

Who Doesn’t Like a Shortcut?

One of the things I pick out of this abundance of information is the term “psychedelic-assisted therapy.” Hmmm, that sounds interesting. I wonder if they have that around here. I google the phrase and add  “Denver” to it. A few clicks later and I’m on a clinic’s website, watching a video, and learning more about this compelling new method of therapy that involves the use of psychedelics. Interesting!

Throughout my life I’ve never been shy or unwilling to seek out therapy; meaning individual counseling, talk-therapy, group therapy, psychotherapy, life-coaching…whatever you want to call it. I’ve mostly found it helpful. But can we all please admit it’s also kind of a huge pain in the ass? It’s expensive, it takes up your time, it makes you sad, and progress is typically so slow it can take years and decades to materially improve your life. 

I know I’ve got stuff to work on, and I’m even willing to share it with you. But I’ve also had the thought that working through all my issues simply isn’t worth it. When I weigh it all out, I have to consider the fact that my particular “-isms” are not debilitating. All in all, I’m in a pretty good place now. So why would I bother? 

Because… psychedelics appear to be offering-up a shortcut. Yo! I’m no fool. If there’s a method of therapy out there that can replace a decade of weekly visits to a therapist, with 3 – 4 months of work…? C’mon, I gotta find out more. 

What Is My -ism

The psychological rabbit hole runs deep with everyone and I’m no exception. But I think I can give you a quick summation of what my problem is. Y’all ready for this? Sitting down? Hand over open mouth in scared anticipation?

I don’t get mad. 

Yes, that’s it. I don’t get mad. Booooo, you say? Oh ‘poor baby?’  Wait! Hear me out. Let me tell you why this is a problem. Getting mad has a far happier counterpart called feeling joyful. It turns out that if you can’t feel one, you’ll struggle to feel the other. The part of the brain that generates emotions regulates them as a set. If one goes down, they all go down. Anger, happiness, fear, sadness, love, these are all the basic emotions we start out with…. because we are human. When I tell you I don’t get mad, I’m also saying I don’t feel happiness, fear, sadness, love, etc. …at least not in the same way most people do. No, I’m not a robot. I do feel enough of these emotions to know what they are, but overall, I navigate life with all the worst… and best emotions tightly reined in. 

The truth of this dawned on me in a funny way also back in January. I went to a yoga class one Friday afternoon. At the close of class the instructor said something about having “joy in our hearts.” This made me do the Gary smirk. I couldn’t relate to the phrase. Later that same evening I met up with friends at a bar/restaurant. Because I’m generally not graceful in social settings, I bring up the yoga teacher talking about “joy in our hearts,” and how I couldn’t figure out what that even means. As I’m talking, I’m also looking at my friends around the table…looking for some nods. You people feel me, right? Amiright!?

But nobody nods. Nobody seems to know what I’m talking about. They’re looking at me like I’m the oddball for not knowing what joy in our hearts means. Oh SNAP! I am the oddball.   

Convulsion in the Lazy Boy

As I watch the video from that Denver psychedelic-assisted therapy clinic I’d found on the Internet, it starts getting a bit freaky. The sincere, matter-of-fact doctor that narrates the video explains their therapeutic approach this way: The body and the mind are not separate entities, they are integrated and must be healed together. My own analogy is that they are not two scoops of different flavored ice cream on a single cone, body and mind are the chocolate-vanilla swirl from the soft serve dispenser- completely intertwined. The doctor explains that if our minds store trauma and memories from our past, by default, our bodies participate in that storage. 

Psychedelics are utilized as a tool in this type of therapy to help patients access psychological and emotional “injuries” that lay buried within their nervous systems. Injuries of this type quite often occur in childhood when danger is present but the option to run away from it does not exist. In order to cope with the everyday, trauma gets sealed away within our biology as a means of protection. If we can dig these traumas up as adults, we are better able to process them in a safe and healthy way.

The freaky part of the video is when we see a patient wearing an eye-mask, lying back in a lazy-boy recliner, and experiencing this phenomenon in real time. Suddenly, the patient starts moving his legs like he’s running within a dream-state. He’s fully on his back so his legs are thumping on the foot-rest of the recliner; he is visibly in distress. This goes on for about 20 seconds, then the man starts tensing up his whole body. A second later he crests some invisible emotional hill and immediately begins to relax. “There, he’s made it through,” voices the doctor. 

The doctor explains that the patient, an ex-marine who served in Afghanistan, was working through his PTSD. What the video let’s us witness is the soldier mentally, emotionally and “physically” revisiting the site of the extreme high-stress, traumatic event; in this case an exploding IED. As he re-experiences it in this controlled way, with the aide of a trained therapist and the measured assistance of a psychedelic, he is then able to, in a sense, “release it.” He is able to shed it like a snake breaking out of its unwanted skin.

Okay, the clinic, the website, the doctor’s credentials, they all look legit… but what the hell?! This is some freaky-ass voodoo shit for sure, right?   

I’m intrigued by this innovative method of therapy but also extremely skeptical. A little deeper research finds the main guy that pioneered this type of what’s called somatic therapy. Hmmm, still seems legit, but no way, right? The next thing I do is ask my PhD friend Becky to check this quack out. Dr Becky’s day job is doing social science research at a university. If anyone can sniff out a quack, it’s Becky. 

It takes her a couple of days to research and get back with me, but when she does her conclusion is…it’s legit. WTF!

Stay tuned…. and I’ll soon tell you first-hand all about the freaky-ass voodoo somatic therapy.

But next up…we visit the breeding ground for suicide.