Taking The Blinders Off

After separating from my mother in the 1960s, my father grifted around Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with a string of girlfriends in swanky neighborhoods—Manhattan, Palm Springs, Brentwood and Palm Beach. A lawyer, he engaged in non-contractual legal work negotiating contracts for labor unions.

He eventually bought a coal field on a railroad spur south of Terre Haute, a semi-legitimate business with headquarters in Chicago. He registered the business as Great Lakes Coal Company. Loan guarantees from the State of Indiana paid for equipment to strip and haul the coal from the land. Once he had the equipment financed, he had leverage to obtain bank loans for mining operations.

The price of coal dropped in the 1980s, and when he could no longer make a profit, he shut down the company and walked away from his financial responsibility to the State of Indiana. With the help of a La Salle Street lawyer, he concocted a scheme to defraud the banks holding his loans, starting with hiding his assets in a trust.

I was named one of the beneficiaries as well as the trustee.

My father directed me, as the trustee, to stash $500,000 in a Canadian bank he’d found for this purpose and subsequently to invest $250,000 of the stash with his broker. I signed a lot of legal documents, blinding myself to what the consequences of my own actions might be. He bragged to me and his closest friends how he was getting away with cheating his creditors, the State of Indiana and the IRS. Breaking laws came easy to him, doubled down with the aid of a high-powered attorney. I trusted that he’d keep me from legal harm. I secretly feared he’d harm me in other ways, however, if I didn’t go along with his scheme—by cutting me off, not from his money, but from his approval. That fatherly approval seems to have been an ancestral deficiency, masked as love. It has caused permanent fissures in my entire family and led to my own fits and starts in psychotherapy.

He flew to Las Vegas, checked into Caesar’s Palace and pretended to gamble away his money to provide an alibi to bank investigators for why he was broke. Florida th-11homestead laws protected his property from creditors, so he moved from Chicago to a get-away home in Palm Beach where he could live with his new girlfriend and her little boy.

“I’m done with Chicago,” he told me, “I can’t stand living in a town where a ‘queer black man’ is the mayor.” He’d repeat that forcefully to friends over the phone adding, “There’s nothing here for me anymore.”

When Harold Washington was running for mayor I never heard my father express prejudice or bigotry of any kind about him. But he was obsessed with saving face, not from family and friends, but from future marks. So after Washington won the 1983 election, my father used sudden hatred for the Mayor to concoct a dramatic reason to get out of town before the creditors closed in and exposed him. He seemed to embrace his manufactured prejudice. He knew his wealthy friends would nod in solidarity. And they did.

Perhaps that is the genesis of  blustering bigotry—the need to hide from a completely unrelated truth.

Like cheating your creditors.

I Love Lucy: Meditation on Funny

I Love Lucy: Meditation on Funny

I Love Lucy. The weekly television show from October 1951 to May 1957 starred Lucille Ball as Lucy and her husband, Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo. The naïve, curious, ambitious th-3and untalented I-Love-Lucy sought love and approval through show business and schemed her way into hapless situations that led to trouble for the couple and their friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz. At the end of each half-hour black-and-white show, I-Love-Lucy was forgiven and everyone hugged. From the age of five through eleven I never missed an episode.

 

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amily. Imperfections aside, I-Love-Lucy had everything I wished for my mother – vitality, ambition, curiosity, best friends, fun costumes and love for her family. In 1954 my mother drove past the 1600-seat Indiana Theater on Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute with my 8-year-old eyes peering out the open window from the backseat. Parked curbside, an oversized flamingo-pink tractor trailer emblazoned with the words, Long, Long Trailer promoted the new Lucille Ball-Desni Arnaz movie. “No, you are NOT going to that movie.” My mother and her sister insisted it was not their job to provide entertainment for their children.

nyielding. My mother’s sister, Jean Renehan, was the exact opposite of I-Love-Lucy. Whip-smart, well-informed and organized, her only ambition—to connect to Jersey Shore high society—led her to marry a charming, well-turned-out blue blood alcoholic with a dowry. Always the strongest, most graceful and best-dressed woman in the room, she wasn’t prone to bumbling mishaps—until each cocktail hour separated her from grace. She laughed with others but the only lines she delivered herself were opinionated sarcastic put-downs of those who didn’t meet her standards.

onsense. Rick Steves has recorded three different videos of the Iberian Peninsula’s Rock of Gibraltar with its infamous native monkeys. Like I-Love-Lucy, the monkeys’ obsessions get them in trouble and make people laugh. Tourists move in to pet the comical wild animals and in the blink of an eye the monkeys snatch hats, purses, lunch, keys – anything to engage the unsuspecting humans in a game of hide and seek.

incompoop. Donald Trump is the I-Love-Lucy of American politics. He announces thpreposterous schemes, gets himself in trouble and we create punch lines to make ourselves laugh. When TrumpCare passed the House of Representatives, he tweeted, “ObamaCare is dead,” and threw a victory party at the White House. It looked like he actually believed the nascent bill became law. Late-night comics played Schoolhouse
Rock’s “Just a Bill” to show the fabulist President how a bill becomes law. Unlike I Love Lucy, this is not a TV series we can turn off.

uck. The sloth is named after the human vice because it is the very definition of inactive and lethargic, two characteristics totally foreign to I-Love-Lucy. Sloths spendUnknown-2 most of their lives hanging upside down in trees. Their fur houses moths, beetles, cockroaches, fungi and algae. I recently heard about a service that will deliver a sloth to people who want to hug them. Eww. Do they know about the fur? God bless the sloth-huggers who embrace these imperfect funny creatures as I did with I-Love-Lucy.

Acting Against Type

Acting Against Type

Sitting in my church pew for the last 45 years I’ve heard from time to time that characters in the Old Testament are types of Christ. For instance, the Jonah story — spending three days and nights in the belly of a whale before the big fish spat him out on the beach is a type of Christ because the tale is a foretelling of Jesus spending three days in hell after he died, then emerging from his tomb onto the shores of Christianity. I don’t know why all this typology is necessary to connect the Old Testament to the New or, for that matter, what it has to do with me.

Grandpa Bill Burke

I suspect looking to the past to explain the present is a natural phenomenon, one we’ve used to nail each generation’s stake in the Oregon Trail of human history. Christian typology fortifies this grand obsession. Just as actors fruitlessly try to escape typecasting by choosing roles that are opposite their types, we cannot escape the age-old pull of seeing signs of our type in those who’ve gone before us.

A cousin named Barb Violi found me a few years ago through FaceBook. My father had spoken of his sister once or twice, but  he never mentioned she had children, or that he visited them in Memphis from time to time. When I visited Barb for the first time in her home in Omaha last month, she shouted, “Oh my God, you look just like Grandpa.”

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Barb Violi with Zoe & Louie

Looking for signs of my type in them, I was hungry for Barb’s memories about Grandpa and our other relatives. There were a few similarities in the dead forebears but nothing like that of Barb herself who is a rabid Democrat, cultivates indoor geraniums, loves her Scottish Terriers, swims and rides her bicycle and has art-covered walls. Her yard is full of birdhouses and flamingo planters. We are the same type

Barb told me our grandmother’s name was Katherine. My father was the type who kept secrets. He’d never mentioned her. She was killed in a car accident when he was a toddler in Terre Haute. My son unwittingly named his daughter Katherine with no knowledge of his great-grandmother’s name. My father’s father, whose looks I favor, had a girlfriend, Stacy, whom my father secretly visited in Indianapolis. My father named his youngest daughter, my sister, Stacy. My mother, who was an east-coast snob, couldn’t have known the connection because she would never have stood for naming Stacy after anyone connected to my father. Barb disclosed that most of my father’s relatives were not the drinking type. My mother found non-drinkers the ultimate in lower life forms. The only thing lower: Midwesterners.

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The Midwest

I keep looking for some ancestral typecasting to blame for my body shape, my alcoholism, my arthritis, my murderous thoughts. Jesus and Buddha both taught that we are who we are in the moment, unyoked from the past or the future.

Adhering to this spiritual axiom requires me to act against type.

Casper the Holy Ghost

Casper the Holy Ghost

The Holy Ghost appeared to me in the first grade on the day our Catholic school nun taught our class about the three persons of the Trinity.  My shimmying skin signified Casper the Friendly Ghost had floated into our classroom with his new, deeper nature as the Holy Ghost’s doppelgänger. A 1950’s cartoon character, the bubbly, happy, peaceable Casper tried desperately to befriend humans because his fellow ghosts were too sinister.But the poor guy terrified most people even though his spirit was warm-hearted and affable. Now he was one of the persons of God. And I needed Him.

My original first grade at Stone Ridge Academy of the Sacred Heart in Washington DC was interrupted by illness. I didn’t learn about the Holy Ghost until I got to my next first grade in a parochial school in Terre Haute Indiana. I was happy to repeat the first grade so I could be with my younger sister and best friend, Erin.

Third-gader Mara, my older sister, teased me relentlessly about flunking first grade in front of her friends – and what would have been my friends if she hadn’t poisoned them against me. I prayed that my one new friend, Casper the Holy Ghost,would scare Mara away from tormenting me.

I never had any trouble with the Trinity. Catholics bless themselves by making the sign of the cross, tapping the head, heart and each shoulder, while reciting “In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” The concept of the Trinity was and is still simple – three persons in one, just like a cross. For the life of me I don’t know why theologians are always trying to explain it. Perhaps they didn’t have Casper to guide them in the first grade.
I dressed as Casper at Halloween –  many kids still do. My mother wasn’t the least bit interested in dabbling in children’s holidays, much less making costumes. But my Casper costume was a cinch. As long as I didn’t cut holes for my eyes, she let me drape a white sheet over my head and Erin, in her hobo costume, led me around trick-or-treating. Mara, in her I Love Lucy outfit, ridiculed us surrounded by her pack of friends.

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I started collecting Casper the Friendly Ghost comic books in 1952 when I was six. By the time I was ten I had them stacked up alongside Superman comics in my closet. One day I came home from playing baseball and Mara had thrown away my comic book collection. She said it was time for me to grow up. The slick odor of those mistreated keepsakes haunted me for a time but the quivering feeling of Casper’s friendship and protection eventually evaporated.

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About that time Catholics started using Holy Spirit instead of Holy Ghost. The only image I had of the Holy Spirit was an inanimate white dove hanging open-winged over statues of Jesus. He certainly didn’t look like he needed friends. I slinked away from the Holy Ghost until years later when He fell into my own spirit and turned my old fear of Mara into forgiveness. She’s still scary. But not to me.

Vampire Portrait

Vampire Portrait

The portrait represented my not-surprisingly-sad six-year-old self. People told me as far back as I can remember that I looked sad. Some would even ask why I looked so sad. How does a small child answer such a question?

The oil painting, a three-by-four foot gothic with a gilded oil-rubbed frame looked like an antique. I have a vague recollection of my mother taking my two sisters and I to the artist’s home in Washington, DC, where we had moved for a few years after World War II. We all sat for separate portraits. Mine was the only one the artist completed before my father ran out of money. The artist gave them all to my mother nonetheless and it was one more reason for me to feel superior to my two sisters – my portrait was the best.

I was painted from the waist up seated in a mahogany armchair. Dressed in black velvet with a rounded white lace collar, I held a doll similar to the one my father gave me when I had to stay home from school with the mumps. He bought her in the gift shop of the hotel where we lived when we were evicted from our home. The painting’s forest green background mimicked the dark green velvet of the doll’s coat.

Our family moved around the Midwest for many years before my mother left my father in 1960 – Terre Haute and Indianapolis, St. Louis and Clayton, Chicago and Lake Forest. Those childhood portraits made it through all the evictions, storages and moving vans until I finally got married and my mother gave me my portrait. I hauled it through my own two marriages, divorces and geography. Wherever I hung it, someone inevitably asked who was that sad little girl. I once wanted to rid myself of it when a friend said, “It’s your heirloom.” And so I brought it to a new home in Chicago, where I returned after a stint in Washington, DC during the Bill Clinton years.

My home of 15 years is the first condominium where I’ve had a storage locker. I don’t have a lot of storage items. I figure if you can’t wear it, sit on it, or hang it on the wall, there’s no point in keeping it. For a few years my sad childhood likeness laid in darkness in the basement next to some pictures of my grandchildren and a large suitcase.

Then one day, I needed the suitcase for a two-week trip to San Sebastian, Spain with my California friend Cappi Quigley. I thought I’d bring the portrait upstairs while retrieving the luggage. I couldn’t find the keys to the locker’s padlock so I asked Marcel the building engineer to meet me in the lobby with a bolt cutter. We descended to the basement where Marcel unlocked the steel door to Locker Room B. We located the locker assigned to my condo unit.

The padlock was gone and so were all the contents of the locker.