27 November, 2008

Role model

I am sitting here and pondering whether I can even write this blog. Wondering if it is inappropriate, or what the consequences of publishing it may be. My guess is that the consequences are non-existent, for a variety of reasons. One reason is that I doubt it will ever get back to the subject of the blog that I have actually written it. And another reason is that my relationship with the subject is so limited, that I am not sure that writing this could make it any worse.

I am not even sure why I want to write it. But let me tell you what I'm thinking.

My brother is 18 years older than I am. We have the same parents. So he's not a half-brother. We never lived in the same house, though, other than for a few months in 1979 or 1980, when he moved back to Boston after a brief stint on the West Coast with his wife. In fact, my bedroom as a child was his bedroom, because he moved away to college just 1 month before I was born. Interestingly, we would go to the same college as one another, and we shared memories (separated by 18 years) of the same pizza place, run by the same old man, Mr. Bell, at Bell's Pizza in Amherst. One time, he came to visit me in Amherst, and we actually went to Bell's together. That stands as one of my fondest memories of my relationship with him, because it really brought to light how two people could be from different times, but still have this bond of shared experience through something as simple as a slice of pizza. I should note that pizza is so important to me, that I do not take the connection lightly!

The similarities between he and I do not go much deeper than the shared parents, and the love of Bell's pizza. Well, add to that a tendency to yawn loudly (which I am sure I learned from him), a good sense of absurd humor (which all three siblings share, and presumably acquired from our mother), a love of some of the same music from the 60's and 70's, and a flair for captivating an audience with dramatic storytelling. And I guess, also add to that a tendency toward depression, and the feeling that we don't know what we want to do with our lives, and possibly a disappointment and disillusionment that life is not easier than it is (no matter how easy it may be). But that latter topic will be something I come back to as we continue here.

Oh yes! And add to that the fact that we both made a trek across the country, at approximately the same age (28 or 29) to settle in Seattle. Heh. So perhaps there are many things we share in common with one another!

But we grew up in different generations, and I really think that had a massive impact on the way that our lives have gone. My brother grew up in the generation of JFK, and Vietnam, and the Beatles, and drugs and hippies, and free love. And I grew up in a generation of Ronald Reagan, and polo shirts and barracuda jackets, and Huey Lewis & The News.

Though we grew up with the same parents, we apparently grew up with different parents. Because Mom and Dad in their 20's and 30's were not the same people as Mom and Dad in their 40's and 50's. My brother recalled to me stories of my parents yelling at each other and arguing so intensely that he and my sister would hide in the closet together because they were scared. I am not sure if any of this is true, or if he is perhaps recalling one argument that stuck in his memory, and became the template for how he recalls his parents. My sister can't corroborate that story, but she also doesn't deny it.

My brother was 18 years old in 1968. And as you might imagine, this was the height of the Vietnam War. And as unluck would have it, he apparently had a very low number in the draft. And for those of you who are not familiar with the concept, a low number is not good. My brother had been very close with one of his first cousins (my Dad's sister's oldest son). This cousin was in Vietnam, and (if I am not mistaken) it was just a few months before I was born that he was killed when his helicopter went down. I cannot imagine what this tragedy did to his family.

One thing was certain. And it was that my brother was not going to Vietnam. No matter what. And I obviously don't know the details, but as far as I know, moving to Canada was absolutely an option being considered. But ultimately, many doctor appointments I think eventually led to some type of diagnosis, either flat feet, or migraines, or who knows (possibly hypochondria), leading to him being let off the hook from the draft. So he did not go to Vietnam.

And I don't blame him. I do not say this on the basis of it being fair that he not go while others did go. In fact, if I really think about it, I am not sure why I say it. But I just don't blame him. I don't know what to say about it. Is it patriotic to kill or die for your country? Probably. But is it virtuous to be patriotic? There's a different question altogether. And I don't profess to know the answer, though I suppose I betray a bias by asking the question.

I don't have a completely clear picture of what was going on in his life during my early years. Though I understand that he was in Amherst until at least 1972, and then I'm not entirely sure, but no more than a couple of years after that, he moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to work on a Master's Degree, in either psychology or social work. We visited him there once, when i was maybe 6 or 7 or 8. He was dating some girl named Marcia, and I remember not liking her because she had a perm. You could tell already that I was going to be shallow and superficial even at that young age. After that visit, my memories of him are few up until around the time he got married. I remember him owning a yellow Volkswagen Beetle. I remember him owning a baby-shit brown Volkswagen Rabbit. And I don't remember much else. I had no idea what he was doing for a living, though I guess at some point he was doing social work. I also seem to remember that he was a restaurant manager (maybe at a Victoria Station steakhouse?) and that at one point I think he worked in a plant store. I really don't know.

Then in 1979, I guess it was, he got married. Shortly after that, he moved with his wife to Seattle, where he was going into business with a friend. It was some sort of furniture sales. I am not sure why he decided to do that, or what was supposed to make it such a great opportunity. Maybe it was a desire to get 3000 miles away from home, which I can certainly understand. When he moved to Seattle, there was no Microsoft to speak of, in the sense that we know it to be now. And my guess is that the Eastside was probably total sleepy-town. The only "big business" in Washington would be Boeing. I don't remember if it was one year, or two years that he lasted here in Seattle before it didn't work out. I think it was partly his wife wanting to be closer to family and also something about the weather. It is funny, reflecting back, that when I was first thinking of moving out to Seattle, my brother was trying to describe it to me, and he said it was "just like a little Boston". And that's hysterical, because Seattle is so much larger than Boston, and more sprawling now, but I guess back in 1979, things were different.

They moved back to Boston, and it was at this time that they spent a summer, and then some, living in the downstairs of my parents' house. I only recall that this was not a great time. I don't think he was particularly interested in associating with me, and I seem to recall my parents telling me that I needed to give him space and show them privacy, or whatever. They didn't even have a door to their room, because it was the family room, so I can only imagine how awkward that was for everyone. Not sure what he did for next period of time, but I do know that he had his daughter in 1983, and that around that time, he moved to New Hampshire, and started teaching school - either high school or junior high school. That went on straight up to around 1990, with another child coming along in 1988. He was doing very well as a teacher, and was popular with kids, and from what I can tell, he was effective as a math teacher. The one thing I do remember was that he was not satisfied with the politics of the school and of the education system in general. He would talk about this with us at family occasions all the time. He did not think that "the powers that be" knew what they were doing, and he apparently had a tendency to make that feeling known. This, he undoubtedly got from my mother, because she was much the same.

Around 1990 or 1991, he got to a point where he decided he wanted to do something different with his life, and to some extent, I think he wanted to finish unfinished business. When he'd been younger, one of the things he'd considered was becoming an attorney, but for one reason or another, he did not do it when he was young. So at age 40 or 41, he decided it was time. So. The way he decided to do it (with a 7 year old and a 3 year old) was to go back to school, in Boston, full-time for 3 years. This was a huge challenge for his family, and a bit of a risk. But he did it. And he did quite well in school, and passed the bar easily. As I understand it, he'd never wanted to practice in a big law firm, but wanted to be self-employed, having his own practice. And this is what he did. And again, as I recall, he did primarily family law, and minor types of misdemeanor stuff like drunk driving, etc. Never criminal. And I am not sure if he did divorce or not. He did this for a short time - not sure if it was 1.5 or 2, or 3 years. But what I am sure of, is that he decided he did not want to continue in law, after this short time of practicing.

Not sure if there was any interim period, but he eventually went back to teaching high school again. And he did this for another big block of years. Not sure if it was 10 years, or fewer. He taught through my niece's graduation (from the school where he was a teacher). And he taught until just before his son's graduation, when things started to go wrong. I really know little of the details, but (again) as I understand it, he started needing more and more personal absence time, to the point that he at one point needed to take a leave of absence. Ultimately, I guess his employment was becoming unreliable enough that he either resigned or was asked to resign from his position. I honestly cannot remember when this was, but I could probably do the math. I am pretty sure his son is about to turn 21. And this probably occurred during his senior year of high school, so that would be about 4 years ago. And my brother hasn't worked since. The reason, I guess you would say is either depression, or inability to cope, or I don't know what. But it's certainly accurate to say that he has been depressed and he has been unable to cope during these years. Lots of different treatments, both pharmaceutical and psychological, have been attempted, but he just seems to slide from one treatment to another, always drifting between two states of existence: "The new medications seem to be helping" or "He seems to be having a really hard time lately". And it's always one of these two things. He stopped coming to most family events, or at best his plans to attend are not known or confirmed until the last minute. It got to the point that his wife was coming to our family events alone. Efforts to communicate with him via email have been largely unsuccessful. Recently, he somehow managed to be granted "disability" and receive money from the government. This, I think, is bad, because it is (as he put it, too) "a significant disincentive" to him actually doing anything resembling working again.

I don't really know what the future holds. And I don't really understand why any of this happened. And I feel sorry for his wife, who (perhaps because of her beliefs, and perhaps because she's an incredibly decent human being) has decided to stick with him (and earn a paycheck) through all of this. I feel sorry for his kids who grew up in the presence of someone who I would say was rather self-centered, and not a fantastic role model. I feel sorry for him, because his inability or unwillingness to pull himself up by his bootstraps and do something productive has marginalized him into an existence than simply cannot be very much worth living.

And I guess I feel a little bad for myself. Because I really did look up to him when I was a kid. And I kept hoping that he would be my "big brother" but it never really happened. I know that he loves me, and I know that he's probably proud of me, deep down inside. But I never really heard that interest or concern from him, like I had imagined a brother would have. In fact, I often felt like he went out of his way to not ask me questions about many things in my life. My education, my relationships, my work, my music. Almost felt that he resented me, at some points. On one occasion, we'd been talking about music, and my brother (who had never, and still has never seen me play guitar) said to me: "I am sure that if I had just applied myself more, I could have been as good of a musician as you". And I found this strikingly hurtful and bizarre, because he didn't even know what "as good as me" means. And the sad fact is, the reason I have got what I've got (and I don't have particularly high self-esteem myself, but I am learning to accept what I've accomplished) is because I did apply myself. I did "do what's hard" at least some of the time. It's true that a lot of things came easy to me, and I feel fortunate for that. Maybe the same wasn't true for him. But I have made some choices in my life, so that I do not feel horrible about myself. And there are definitely times that I feel like I am teetering on the edge of "checking out". Sometimes the only thing that kicks me in the ass, and makes me come out of those lows is to think about my brother - and realize that the only difference between those of us who make the best of things, and those of us who give up is just one thing: NOT GIVING UP! It's that simple. There is no magic. No rocket science. No silver bullet. Life is not easy, but it's not impossible.

I feel like I still hope for him to get his act together and do something that makes him feel better. And I believed in my heart that it needed to be something like volunteering for a cause that he thinks is worthy. The best way to start to feel value in the world is to do something selfless and try to make the world a better place. But he's not done that yet. He's in a prison of his own making.

I am not sure if I will ever stop hoping for him to become my role model.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe he plays the role of what could-have or might-have-been for you, too... if you didn't "do what's hard."