This is the text which inspired the story I performed in a Story Slam a couple of years back. The theme was “Risk.” Here’s a video clip of the presentation (sorry, it’s sideways, but then again, so am I).
One more time, John, I catch ya one more time and I’m gonna break your hands.
I went to my room and imagined my hands being broken by my father, and what that would mean. My hands were my second sight, my access to projections, and if I couldn’t use them I couldn’t escape.
Escape, when I was a kid, was necessary. My house was often a combat zone, fueled by drugs, booze and gambling. The epic battles between my mother and father could lay any nervous system to waste, and I usually escaped through books, but then I discovered playing with my hands. Which looked something like this:
(demonstration of handplaying)
I can’t really see anything anymore, but back then the images and voices were so vivid, and I’d go into a happy trance hanging out with cartoon characters like Scooby Doo, Shaggy, Barney Rubble, Droopy Dog.
Walking around the house, hands flailing, voices flying, completely unreachable, my parents thought there was something wrong with me, or that, god forbid, I was a retard. Back in the day, retard was a common putdown in my neighborhood.
You’re eating soup on hot summer day? What are you a retard?
You still take baths? What are you retarded?
You play with your hands? You. Must. Be. A. Retard.
At first my mother and father hoped it was a phase, that I would grow out of. When it continued, they feared that their son might indeed be brain-damaged, after all my mother had gotten into a car accident and fallen off a horse while pregnant with me (though not at the same time). And so began the scare tactics to normalize me. Shame-based stuff like straight up aggression: One more time, John, I catch you one more time…
Yet the threat I most feared: Dr. Caldwell. The monster my parents conjured, Jaws to my swimming, or Boogeyman to my insomnia. Dr. Caldwell allegedly ran an institution for special kids, for the mentally defective. And if I didn’t stop playing with my hands they’d be forced to send me away to live there, on Caldwell’s Island of Misfit Toys. (Which, ironically, is where I wound up living by choice when I moved to Taos).
I tried to play with my hands in secret, on the down-low, but always got caught, and the scene would repeat itself: Ohp, that’s it, we’re calling Dr. Caldwell, the phone picked up, numbers dialed, me screaming and pleading to never do it again, and so it went. no matter what, though, I couldn’t stop because my Imagination felt so much more like my real home than my actual home did, and my hands were how I got there.
One special episode comes to mind, when I was able to take my younger sister with me. It was Christmas Day, and there had been a blowout coke-party the night before, and my parents were dead to the world. My sister and I were waiting by the tree to open our presents, and it kept getting later and later, until we were on the other side of noon. To occupy my sister, I told her I would take us both to Oz, and began playing with my hands. Even though I’m pretty sure she didn’t see what I saw, she could feel it, she loved the sound effects, and the whorlygig of my hands. We escaped into Oz, together, for a little while, and it felt good to bring someone else into my imagination, especially someone who didn’t look at me as a future psychotic.
In a sense, playing with my hands morphed into writing and storytelling. There’s a great Quentin Tarantino quote: I’m making movies for me, and everyone else is invited. I love this idea of an open invitation for a shared experience. And I have to say that my parents now have a different perspective on “hand-play.” They understand that it was part of a creative process, that it was a child’s necessary means of survival. My father now sends me posts that celebrate and affirm the weird and freaky people of the world, and has told me that he looks up to me for doing things my own way. I think the Dr. Caldwells of the world, real or imaginary, are the demons and fears that we face in doing what we love, what is necessary for us as individuals, and that it’s a risk worth living for.