A couple of things I’ve learned

I’m nearing the age of thirty-two, which is by far the oldest I’ve ever been. Though I’d hate to suggest that I’m anywhere approaching maturity since I grew up throwing back Ting Soda and reading Mad Magazine, the last several years have led me to internalize a couple of thoughts that you may or may not have found to be true in your own life. I can’t promise they’ll be earth-shaking, but I recall seeing a meme about how some things grow quicker than others, or not all worms turn into to butterflies, or something about a flower. I don’t really remember.

Here now, the things:

Time to ease up on the hot sauce

Here I was as a happy toddler, not knowing that I’d later set sail towards a sea made of Frank’s RedHot and turmoil in the restroom.

I’m sure to get a laugh out of the old-timers in the room when I admit that I’ve gotten to the age where there are things I can’t eat anymore. I’ve always had to be mindful about what all I stuff down my pie-hole, but more often I’m running into foods that cause me more immediate distress than the garden-variety heart attack looming somewhere off in the distance. Case in point: I was first introduced to Frank’s RedHot when I was seventeen and the Subway fast food outpost where I worked brought forth a buffalo chicken sandwich that made heavy use of the stuff. I tried it and almost immediately began taking their slogan, “I put that (splat) on everything,” as a point of personal pride. I poured Frank’s on whatever I could and always had a jug of it in my fridge, unless I’d been to a Dollar General, where I’d settle for a bottle of Texas Pete if I was in a bind.

I kept up my habit for about a decade until it became dramatically apparent that I couldn’t actually eat hot sauce in the astronomical quantities I’d been accustomed to without suffering significant difficulties nearly immediately. My Frank’s consumption wound up rocketing back to earth. At thirty-one, it’s best not to die a fit of dehydration surrounded by broken porcelain and bathroom hellfire, I reason. And rightfully so, I think! More on this later.

Give yourself the credit that you deserve

I quickly discovered that tipping the toy bin over was a lot more fun than actually playing with my grandparents’ toys.

I’ve finally realized that I have a great ability to vacuum up all kinds of information and apply or parse it quickly. But I tend to get overwhelmed at first and get what the Tik-Tokers have popularized as imposter syndrome, instances where I strongly doubt my abilities and skills and become paranoid that my incompetence will be exposed despite abundant evidence to the contrary. It must be a millennial thing, or else it’s something that previous generations hid from public view but still experienced themselves.

During the fall of 2020, I was hired to be a temp quality analyst at a factory that was going to close at some point over the next several months. I’d never worked in a manufacturing environment before, but I had worked for the factory’s corporate overlords before a merger led to challenging headwinds at the plant. Six months after I came on as a temp, I was hired full-time. Six months after that, I was trained to supervise the entire plant, which I did as a fill-in over the rest of my time there.

Here’s the plant I supervised.

The factory didn’t close. It limped on, prompting the operations manager to tell me that there was nothing any supervisor could do to make the plant be more productive than it did during our shifts.

My boss’s intimations did little to boost my confidence, but I knew what to do on paper. Nevertheless, I was a nervous wreck during the first several days I ran the show. Most of my shifts were during the weekend, so there was no auxiliary support- no maintenance supervisor, no quality supervisor, no HR, no one else in operations. My shifts tended to be staffed with about 80% fewer tenured union machine operators and maintenance guys than the rest of the shifts, but eventually I got more comfortable, more confident. It turned out, I became more competent too, as shifts I supervised were 3% more productive by any measurement than those run by the established, full-time supervisors over the same timeframe! That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s about 60,000 more individual products per shift, 5,000 more retail units, 416 more shippers, two more pallets of finished goods, or one additional pallet of bulk products that are in scarce supply, as is. I succeeded.

I was able to accomplish that with eleven total hours of supervisory training under my belt.

Although I wouldn’t have known a polypropylene compound if it came up and swatted me with a rolled-up newspaper, I applied for and got a job as a quality lab technician at a plastics plant just as I began to determine that my tenure at the factory was coming to a close. Sure, I was intimidated during my first week, but I remembered that although I’m conservative when it comes to change, I’m exceedingly capable. I’m happy to say that I absolutely made the right call! One of these days, I’ll fully internalize that confidence and send any negative reinforcement out towards the scrap hopper for good.

I probably won’t play for the San Antonio Spurs

Here I was pouring water on my head with my brother at my other grandparents’ house. Notice that bent elbow. Great shooting form, but I lacked the height to match.

Never say never of course, but there just aren’t a lot of thirty-one year old rookies in the NBA these days. Plus, none of the back-to-the-basket post skills I learned playing for the Cowan Blackhawks in middle school really translate to my fully-grown height of five foot eight. Most of my cousins tower over me. I blame a lack of milk as a child. Speaking of,

Remember the hot sauce? Do the same for dairy

My grandpa and I used to horse around, in his words. Here we are. Afterwards, he’d make us all a milkshake. I never had trouble with those.

It’s not just hot sauce I can’t stomach anymore. I’ve never been a big milk drinker, and was once actually chided for eating my cereal dry by the father of a friend who’s house I’d stayed the night at when I was about twelve. “In this household,” he roared from the breakfast table, voice rising and milk dribbling down his chin, “we eat our cereal wet!”

A chat with some co-workers a couple of months ago allowed that memory to burble to the surface, and I got the craving for a bowl of cereal- my first in years. If you grew up watching cartoons on Saturday, you’ll know how the sordid affair ended: Cereal gone, I hated to waste the milk left in the bottom of the bowl, so I poured in some more Honey Bunches of Oats. Then the opposite became true, so I added more milk. Pretty soon the box and the jug were emptied in a Dionysian convulsion of piggishness.

I was punished for my overindulgence a few hours later when I woke up in an agonizing frenzy of cramps that led me to remain homebound for the rest of the day. Plans were canceled, lives were uprooted, and the earth stood still. Or so I thought, but suffice it to say that the next twenty-four hours were deeply unpleasant! One of my friends, a victim of my terminated arrangements, grew up with a parent who described episodes such as what I experienced that day as having the go-bloots, because, well, they made him go “bloot.” Can you imagine?

“In this household,” he roared from the [censored], voice rising and [censored] dribbling down his [censored], “We get the go-bloots!”

It’s not just drinking a quart of milk at a time that’ll ruin my colon these days. Even a mortal portion of cottage cheese slopped next to a frozen Banquet homestyle patty will set me ablaze for hours. Arrivederci, dairy.

My story is mine to tell

My cousin Bryan and I are pictured jumping on the guest bed at my Grandpa’s house in Fort Wayne. This was taken around the time my life started becoming complicated.

I’m going to be uncomfortable for a few minutes, so read this quick: I had a horribly lonely childhood. Even if people my age actually did share my interests, I wouldn’t have been able to communicate them effectively since I suffered from a succession of ear infections as an infant and toddler that impacted my ability to hear, interpret, and repeat dialogue properly. It actually resulted in a debilitating speech impediment that made me completely unintelligible to most outside of my immediate family. Through a lot of effort, my therapists and I were able to gradually transform “unintelligible” to simply “humiliating,” “embarrassing,” and, finally, “non-existent” by the time I was a freshman in high school.

It was incredibly alienating. What’s more is that I think my inability to effectively communicate verbally limited my ability to advocate for myself. During my elementary school years, I was sexually abused by two older relatives in positions of authority. To make matters worse, my dad and I also had a relationship fraught with years of physical and emotional abuse that I think stemmed from my inability as a child to conform to what his idea of what it meant for me to be a man.

I don’t know why Dad fixated on the idea that I would die by the time I turned thirty. It sounds absurd now, but the fact -not the notion- that I’d be deceased shortly after my thirtieth birthday took root as early as my seventh birthday when Dad first started ingraining it into my head. I lived the rest of my life in fear, and that certainty strongly impacted how I approached my twenties. I didn’t do anything really reckless, but I certainly lived with abandon.

My family in late 1990. I’m the infant being cradled by my mom at the top left next to my grandma. We were happy, it seemed!

Despite it all, I really struggled after Dad died in 2011. In the months leading up to his unexpected death, I thought we’d finally connected as adults over something he assured me was on the up-and-up. That wound up not being the case. As I tried to make sense of my new world, I did some writing. I was honest. I was brutally honest. I was both hurt and hurting, and probably shouldn’t have published what I’d written, but I made my thoughts public on social media anyway. The feedback from some of my family was intense. It was so intense, frankly, that I’m sad to say I think I’ve carved a permanent crevasse between some of us.

I’m not sure if that was a mistake to own, but regardless, I own my story, just as you own yours. Owning your story is a matter of self-advocacy, setting boundaries, and putting any internal nature/nurture debate to rest. After all, read any novel: side characters of varying importance will come and go, serving to advance the plot of a story for better or worse- a plot that, right now in my own autobiography, is pretty boring as I sit here and process words into my computer while sucking down a Pineapple Coconut Body Armor.

Facing your fears head-on turns out to be an effective way of overcoming them

My brother John and I at our “art table” playing with Matchbox and Hot Wheels.

My mom and stepdad took us to Chuck E. Cheese in Castleton when I was seven or eight. I was terrified of the robots that sang and danced on stage every twelve minutes or so and remember being particularly horrified by the glassy eyes of the pizza chef drummer Pasqually whenever he’d turn his gaze towards me. After we got home, I dreamt that I was Paul Bunyan and that I hacked Mr. Munch’s entire Make-Believe Band into smithereens with my broadaxe. They bled motor oil, as I recall.

My subsequent ventures into the uncanny valley proved to be equally terrifying. To this day, I’ll have nightmares for two weeks if I sit through an entire showing of Ex Machina or worse, accidentally back into one of Wal-Mart’s autonomous inventory-trackers. But I’ve found comfort in gaining exposure to things, whether it’s learning to run an entire factory in eleven hours, or buying and restoring two Showbiz Pizza robots of my own and placing them mere feet away from the bed to which I retreat on a nightly basis. I didn’t intend for it to come to this arrangement, but the addition of a cat and a tortoise to the household meant clearing space in the living room for their provisions.

It’s disarming to wake up and see a six-foot-tall gorilla leering at you with eyes the size of billiard balls at two in the morning, but I’m slowly getting used to it. It’s more alarming that his eyelids keep popping open after I shut them every night, come to think of it.

There are a lot of things I’d tell the seven-year-old version of me, Disney’s The Kid style. Probably third or fourth on the list would be that old pizza robots are pneumatic, not hydraulic. Ted, if you’re reading this, a couple of whacks from Paul Bunyan’s axe will absolutely destroy these things, but the most you’ll hear is a loud hissing noise. There will be no oil.

Who I am today isn’t who I’ll be tomorrow

I’ve left a small imprint on the world ever since I was introduced to a paintbrush in this photo. I’m still here!

I’m not trying to toot my own horn any more than I did in the segment about running the lid factory, but I’m resilient. Despite the struggles of my childhood, I never really wanted for any essentials. Overall, I had a loving and supportive family who, despite a handful of bad apples, did everything to indulge my pursuits and avocations as a kid. That being said, I was miserable most of the time. At nineteen, I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I don’t know whether the doctor’s conclusion was accurate, but I do know that I’ve struggled with intense periods of desolation, despondency, and depression for most of my adult life, along with periods of obsessive mania. Though they’re omnipresent, suicidal thoughts don’t really phase me anymore. It’s all just there. It probably always will be.

Well, to hell with it! I’m here too.

Ever been drunk? Me neither, but imagine you woke up one morning after a night on the town and remembered that you’d done or said something so irredeemably stupid while you were three sheets to the wind that you had no choice but to shrink into a minuscule cocoon of shame and opprobrium. To me, that guilt is what depression feels like. It’s powerfully degrading to inherently struggle with a problem that creates a whole that’s mostly out of the ability of my family, friends, and loved ones to significantly help me out from. But that’s where the bolded platitude at the top of the segment comes in handy. Tomorrow will be a good day. If it’s not, the next day will be, or the day after that. The idea of being someone I won’t be tomorrow follows a rolling schedule. It’s flexible.

I’m still here, and I’m still productive!

I feel pretty good today, but things might change tomorrow, or a week from now. Thankfully, the rolling schedule applies as long as I emerge from the cocoon. I’ve done it every time, so far, so there’s no reason to expect I won’t do it again. Today, at least, here I am! I’m here, in person, in the flesh, typing this blog right this second. I’ll own my successes and failures with the understanding that no one’s perfect, but that most everyone is the complicated result of a complex chain of influences, interests, input, and motivations.

I’ll have a couple more insights as I keep rolling. but as long as I keep all of these things I’ve learned in mind and limit the hot sauce and milk, I think I’ll be okay. After all- I’ve got a ton of cool stuff to write about!

3 thoughts on “A couple of things I’ve learned

  1. A couple of thoughts. First: Being able to run an entire plant with minimal training is a monumental achievement. Learn to tell that story well, both in elevator-pitch (<= 2 minutes) form and in long form. For a long time, this will be wicked impressive to people who interview you for jobs.

    Second, any of us who have esoteric interests, hearing/speech challenges or not, family abuse or not, will find childhood to be lonely. Mine sure was because I had absolutely nobody to talk to about my interest in cameras. I also didn't line up with that classic 1970s masculinity, either, which worried my dad no end and caused him to try to conform me to that mythos, which only frustrated him and alienated me. We all have to be who we are, full stop. There's no mental health until we start to do that. One great thing about this modern age is that on the Internet, you will find your people. For those of us who are, frankly, weird, this is a life changer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the feedback! I’m glad I’m not alone in thinking that about my experience running the factory. I’ll work on the story in both formats.

      To your second point, I very much appreciate that perspective. I’ve been a lot happier since I’ve been leaning into my interests so much more than I knew how to as a kid/teenager. Hoping to continue it!


  2. It takes a good measure of bravery to share deeply personal experiences with the world at large – far more than I am typically able to muster in my writing.

    As we get older, we gain experience and perspective and (hopefully) become more comfortable with who we are. No individual person is “normal” because normal is only created by the process of taking lots of us and eliminating all of the individuality.

    And it’s been a long time since I could tolerate hot sauce.

    Liked by 1 person

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