Chapter 1

FALLING CLOSE TO THE TREE

 

At fifteen I started swearing.
It was a man who pushed me to it.
And my dad who taught me how.

My father was a mad scientist. Not crazy mad, but angry mad, or perhaps his anger drove him crazy. Rebelling against everything, he argued incessantly with his Republican father, a radiologist in Sycamore, Illinois, who did quite well for himself after the war.  My grandfather had piled up farmland, invested in agricultural companies, and then hired someone to manage it all.  My father’s mother was born on a farm near Macomb, Illinois, and my father had loved the trips to his grandparents’ farm.

He had been pushed to excel academically, and he played the French horn as well.  His older sister was somewhat put off as she watched him receive excessive accolades and attention, and a rift started between them that widened through the years.

My father was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he had other plans, and he eventually came to despise conservatives of all stripes.  His parents were racist, after all. Rather than taking the stuffed-shirt track, he preferred life outdoors on the Illinois prairie, with the butterfly collection to prove it.  So instead of becoming a doctor, he opted for scientist, and headed to Berkeley in 1959 to earn a PhD in biochemistry.

He had just married my mother, and she was planning to teach English in Hayward, California.  Those years in California were probably the best years of their lives, as I did not come along till 1965.  By that point, they were in Boston, where my father was doing research at MIT. I still like to think I was a bi-coastal production, having been conceived in their minds in California and in the flesh in Massachusetts. Being the first-born garners special treatment, of course, and my first solid food was lobster.

I still like to think I was a bi-coastal production,
having been conceived in their minds in California
and in the flesh in Massachusetts.

Alas, this research stint came to an end, and my father then obtained a professorship at Notre Dame, in South Bend, Indiana.  So I was pulled away from the intellectual, cultural, and economic possibilities of Boston and dragged, kicking and screaming, to the southwest corner of Michigan. My parents found a quaint, red brick house close to the state line, with apple, apricot, and mulberry trees in the backyard.  My brothers were born soon after the move to Michigan.  Looking back, I finally realized that’s why I have blue blood and they don’t—which explains everything, really.

After a few more years of institutional life, my father was chafing against being institutionalized, so he began combing the Michigan countryside for farmland.  At last he found a 500-acre parcel and took out a mortgage in 1976.  His father passed shortly thereafter, and after a big fight with the banks and his sister, he was able to transfer some of the Illinois land to Michigan for a total of 1800 acres. He then gladly quit his job at Notre Dame and became the salt of the Earth—a farmer.  An organic farmer.  And that’s how it all began.

He then gladly quit his job at Notre Dame
and became the salt of the Earth—a farmer.
An organic farmer.  And that’s how it all began.

Oh yes, his mother swore that he was wasting his education, and while it is true that it doesn’t take a PhD to run a plow, he could pronounce the words on the label of widely used pesticides and knew what they meant. Thus he determined that he would forego the use of these substances and go against the grain, so to speak. He decided to focus on raising cattle and just putting them out to pasture, feeding them very little grain at the end. And he threw in a soybean crop for diversity. The local farmers in backwoods southwestern Michigan ignored his lectures, rolled their eyes, and predicted the farm would fail without the requisite pesticides and corn-fed animals.

As I watched him step to the beat of his own drummer, even among the weeds that initially sprouted up above the soybeans, I took my cues from the offbeat rhythm as I danced in the abandoned cabin that was just far enough away from the old farmhouse. I would dance in the driveway after dinner in the summertime, and he would come out, cross his arms, shake his head, and proclaim, “All you want to do is play, play, play.” Is there anything else? Living off the beaten track kept me blissfully isolated from mainstream society. If only I could have stayed that way.

As I watched him step to the beat
of his own drummer,even among the weeds
that initially sprouted up above the soybeans,
I took my cues from the offbeat rhythm
as I danced in the abandoned cabin that was
just far enough away from the old farmhouse.

As it turned out, mainstream society beat a track to my door. At twelve, I discovered the proverbial magazines under my father’s mattress and came completely undone by what I saw. Thus, my dad, the scientist and sex fiend, felt obligated to explain the meaning of these unsettling images to me. Since he was never one for tact, I stood across the kitchen from him, near the doorway, in case I needed to make a quick getaway. Nearing baldness on top, with brown eyes that could bore a hole through a maple tree, my father leaned ever so nonchalantly against the sink, arms crossed over a dirty T-shirt and a pot belly, and methodically described the gory details in the most clinical way possible. He finished with a flourish by exclaiming how beautiful and miraculous it all was. I was appalled, to say the least. Where was Mom? It was just wrong. I left the room believing that sex was a man’s domain, and women did not speak of such things.

Much to my horror, later that year, I began “developing”…and wearing very loose blouses to hide it. My father was against something called a “training bra,” while my mother argued that I needed support. I stood there watching this exchange and felt the blood leave my face. There was too much estrogen in the house for my dad to handle, I guess. I hated that bra too. The additional frontal padding just got in my way when I was running, dancing, and climbing trees. It was even more maddening when the periods started too. It all compounded to cramp my style and become one big distraction.

Nearing baldness on top, with brown eyes
that could bore a hole through a maple tree,
my father leaned ever so nonchalantly against the sink,
arms crossed over a dirty T-shirt and a pot belly,
and methodically described the gory details
in the most clinical way possible.

In conflict over my bodily changes and also witnessing an extreme close-up of the battle of the sexes unfolding between my parents, I developed definite opinions regarding the ongoing war. My mother taught me that women needed to fight to be treated as equals with men, that there was something inherently unfair about the status of women throughout history. Judging from how often my father yelled at her, there was definitely something unfair about her status in her marriage, so I swore I would never become like her. As I sided with her during their arguments, I was defending her against a misogynistic foe.

There was even one heated exchange that ended with my father telling me that if I kept up with the song and dance bit, he couldn’t see me as being qualified for anything except prostitution. I was about fifteen at the time. See, he had to keep everyone under his thumb; we were only pawns in his game of domination. It was as if he had children just so they would work for him. But there was no way I would let him suffocate me; I had to prevail over him any way I could until I gained my emancipation. Men were indeed the enemy, so I vowed I would never marry.

We moved from a white, small town to a more “integrated” small town nearby when I entered high school. My friends from the white town felt sorry for me and told me that I was going to a scary place. The school was located along the route of the Underground Railroad, and the descendants of some of the first emancipated African Americans were still living in that town. My parents were decidedly liberal and liked the idea of sending their kids to an integrated rural school. Very shy at first, I blended in eventually and made friends with kids from both sides of the tracks.

I never had the guts to sit in the back of the bus with the bad boys, being known as a “nice girl”—a dreaded label if you wanted to be part of the in crowd. There was this stuck-up blond girl who got on the bus after me, and I would watch her sit sideways in her seat, batting her eyes at the right times, fixing her Farrah Fawcett hairstyle, and putting on yet another coat of mascara like she was getting ready for the Homecoming Parade. For some reason, she and I never became best buddies. Besides, I was too distracted by my nervousness around the boys, being at once attracted to, afraid of, and repelled by the opposite sex. Sinking down in my seat, I buried my nose in a book or meditated on the wind blowing through the trees. Then I would try to render infinity into words. Emotions just drying up and blowing away seemed tragic to me. There had to be a way to capture them. So I chased after the wind. And due to the nature of the wind, I had my work cut out for me.

I never had the guts to sit in the back of the bus
with the bad boys, being known as a “nice girl”—
a dreaded label if you wanted to be part of the in crowd.

Running and biking long distances became what I did to avoid being trapped in the house with my family, and I did it every day, year-round, running farther and farther away. The road beckoned me onward, and there was always a new route to investigate. While my two brothers were out in the fields, learning about planters, plows, and cattle, I was always planning my next escape. They tried to bike with me a few times at my coaxing, but they always turned back while I kept going and going. Out there on an organic island, music and books became my world, as singers and authors existed on a higher plane and were much better company than anyone I knew, even in the abstract.

My need to run away led me into track during my freshman and sophomore years. Every day starting in March, the track team would gather, composed of the fast black girls, the super jocks, and the distance runners. I was the only girl who actually ran the nine miles around the adjacent lake with the few boys who could handle that distance. They were all two years older than I was. Thirty years later, I biked around that same lake with a seventy-six-year-old billionaire. I just barely beat him. His girlfriend turned around.

The cliques in that little high school of around five hundred consisted of the jocks, the cheerleaders, the geeks, the populars, the farm boys, and the misfits. So lunch at school was usually an apple while sitting outside the door of the school. The school’s food was not good, picking which crowd to sit with was impossible, and of course I was always trying to lose weight. I wound up being a cheerleader, but only befriending one of them. I dated a very conceited senior geek at one point, went out a few horrible times with a football player, and hung out with a handful of the misfits who were kind of crossover geeks.

At that time and in that area, there was not much drug use—at least none that I knew about, but that’s not saying much. The football player on whom I had a terrible crush may have known much more about this, but like I said, I was a “nice” girl, not someone who would get in on something like that. He was very cute though: sandy hair, mischievous blue eyes, in prime condition, and well, just a player, of course.

Yes, I was a cheerleader—Yay!! Go team go!! It was a girly thing to be, yet sort of athletic, and it made me feel like I belonged somehow. Plus, there were the very stylish blue-and-white uniforms to twirl around in. That was not enough for me though; I also squeezed the pom-pom squad into my maniacal mix of extracurriculars, which was rather bold of me, since the pom-pom squad was all black girls. Yet they accepted me and even let me choreograph whole routines and do my solo spinning in the middle of it. That was my specialty: spinning to a fast beat and then regaining my equilibrium immediately. So impressive. Pretty crazy they were. Or I was.

Yes, I was a cheerleader—Yay!! Go team go!!
It was a girly thing to be, yet sort of athletic,
and it made me feel like I belonged somehow.

It was the early eighties and such tremendous hits were out, such as “Fame” and “What a Feeling” and, along with the onset of MTV, all the Madonna and Michael Jackson hits. I relentlessly practiced the choreography from “Thriller”. The song “Maniac” from the Flashdance soundtrack became part of my daily dance routine in the cabin. But Mozart was there too. Both seemed quite fitting.

The group of misfit/geeks became the theater gang, and we performed in such major works as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Annie Get Your Gun, and Whose Life Is It Anyway? Shakespeare had never been done in that town, but we pulled it off with rave reviews. The little troupe of thespians became my clan, and that’s where I met my high school sweetheart. He was into chivalry: he wanted to be an actor and was drawn to Camelot, the Renaissance, et al. But his chivalry came across as chauvinism to me. Looking at me with deer eyes and a clownish face, he didn’t understand why I didn’t want him to carry my books or open my locker for me.

What was so hard to understand? Was I not perfectly capable of doing those things for myself? I wasn’t one of those overly feminine and precious girls who enjoyed having men do everything for them and being protective and all that crap. Considering myself on equal terms with any man, I did not see why he should he be overburdened while I was empty-handed.

No athletic woman can pretend to be helpless.

He never pressured me into any sexual acts, and I was far too repressed to even venture toward any unmentionable regions. We would just do some soft-core making out. In the midst of one of our sessions, he whispered, “Marry me. Let’s spend the rest of our lives together.” I just figured he liked making dramatic statements for effect. After all, he was an actor. In 1984, he went off to New York City, and I entered the University of Michigan.