Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What are your Universal Life Moments?

I'm reading a very interesting, highly rated book. I'm reading it because I'm always trying to learn more about writing screenplays, but this book actually has a lot more.

The book is: "Life Story: Finding Gold in Your Life Story" by Jennifer Grisanti.

One of the exercises Jen suggests is to write your five Universal Life Moments are that you can remember.

I decided to write my first major life's traumas and my first Universal Life Moments. I only mention this because 1) I think Jen's book is very, very good. And 2) I think we should look at this as she has indicated.

There won't be a lot of photos in this blog article as I usually do. This is a different kind of article. This is about inside you, and inside me. It's about the past. It's about how that past affects the present. And it's about how we can make use of our past, in our present, to help our future. Possibly in more ways than you would suspect.

My First Major Moments (or Traumas) in my young life:

1 Acquisition of step-Father - Fear

My parents broke up in Spain in 1958. He left. Rather than return to Tacoma, Washington where we had been living. we instead flew, my mother, sister and I, to our extended family in Philadelphia. We needed family. I asked where dad was, when is he coming. Mom just said that he had to work, then she said, he wouldn't be joining us. Ever.

My mother dated. She met and got pregnant by a musician, married him and then moved us back to Tacoma, away from our extended family, to what was to me, nowhere. I loved having an extended family. My Mom's mom, had a large group of siblings. Aunts all over the place it seemed.

Moving back to Tacoma was a mistake in my estimation. On many levels. I did not like my new Step-Father. When they were still dating, he took me on a trip across town one day to get some special reeds for this sax. By the end of the day, I knew I didn't like this guy. I was afraid of him. A child should never be afraid of a parent, especially, a step-Parent.

I knew at four or five that there was something wrong with my new step-father and I begged my mother not to marry him. But being pregnant, she was adamant about it. They married.

2 Birth of younger brother - Jealousy

My little brother was born in 1960. He was five years younger than me. I was used to being the cute, funny one, but he was a beautiful baby, later to have "Beautiful Child Syndrome" handed to him on a silver platter. None of that helped my getting along with him. He was always contrary to me and trying to exert his own personality, but all I saw was him being annoying. Plus he got all "my" attention from then on and was frustrating to deal with and spoiled. Basically, we hated one another.

3 Moving back to Tacoma - Anger, Bitterness, Rebellion

I was born in Tacoma, my mother was born in Brooklyn and taken to Washington state around 11 years of age. After learning how exciting the East coast was, seeing museums there, I had no desire to return to the backwoods of Tacoma, Washington in 1960. I did not like moving out of the big city. I did not like going back to Tacoma where a museum was a room in an old building, compared to a huge museum with moon exhibits and real art.

4 Step-father coming back to family - Fear, Anger, Resentment

When I was in 4th grade, my mother left our step-father and we moved into an apartment, in a rickety old building over a lawn mower sales and repair shop. This meant a new school, new neighborhood. I didn't like the change, but having our step-father gone was a bonus. We lived for a year, struggling along, just the three of us and our mother. I had to carry a heavy open can of oil up a lot of stairs every day for us to have heat in the oil burning furnace in our living room. But it was all worth it. Mom worked nights cleaning the Weyerhaeuser building downtown, my sister was our second mom and times were tough, but I loved it.

Then our mother told us all together one day that the step-monster was coming back. We were devastated. We called a meeting of the kids in the hall closet where we used to play using it as a club house. Our sister was in 7th grade, I was in 4th and our little brother wasn't in school yet. The older two of us discussed while he listened. Then we decided, no step-father coming back. Then our little brother spoke up and said, "I agree." I said, "It's your dad, how can you agree?" And he said, "I don't like him either." I felt very emotional at that moment, and felt sorry for him. I had the luxury of fantasizing about my real father coming to rescue me from this nonsense, but his father was a jerk and he had no such luxury. It was the first time I remember feeling sorry for him or any real compassion.

We went out and told our mother our decision. She was stunned. Unsure what to say for a minute, then she explained  She wasn't making enough money, she couldn't keep going like this, and she needed him to come back because he was a good provider. We said, "We'll suffer, we'll go without food, we don't want him to come back." She was surprised and then a little fearful but got almost angry and said that he was coming back and that was that. This was the second time I had asked her to get rid of him. Once at 5 and once at 9. But he came back. Our grandfather bought us a house and well all moved in with our step-father. We stayed in that house until I graduated High School. It was nice to have a series of years in the same house.

5 Death of younger brother - (completely unexpected) Grief

In 1975, when my little brother was 15 he died of liver cancer. Two years earlier he started showing symptoms of something. His belly got large but he wasn't fat. You couldn't rough house with him, because it hurt him. I was pretty rough and tumble so I figured he was just weird, or wimpy. He started coming home and putting on pajamas. I talked to my mom about it and she blew it off saying he just likes to be comfortable, like her. One day I was on the porch with him and I grabbed him around the stomach and lifted him up and shook him around. This was no big deal and most kids would have actually found it fun. But he always found that kind of thing as taking control away and this time, he got very angry. It became clear that he wasn't just saying he was in pain, but was. I let him down and he had a bloody nose from his anger. I actually apologized.

I went in and told my mother that something was wrong with him. She blew it off but I kept at it saying he needs to go to the doctor. She wouldn't hear of it. Over the next few days I kept at her about it. Finally she saw something that along with my complaints, she said she was taking him to the doctor. After a series of tests they found he had leukemia. Then it was something else. Then finally, it was liver cancer. After about a year and a half of treatment, flying to New York, living in Manhattan, blowing all my mother's inheritance from her father's death, he died in Manhattan in June of 1975.

Twice I went there to live with them and help out. The first time my fiancee went with me. We lived in an apartment next door to Jacqueline Onassis who lived on the corner of 5th Avenue and 86th St. The second time money was running out and we lived in Jersey City across the river, just the three of us. Years later, Anthony Quinn, the actor, bought our floor and made it his condo. Both times I carried a .357 magnum in a shoulder holster. My mother was afraid we'd get mugged and if he got knocked about he would break bones or be killed. No one touched us.

At his funeral, I remember at one point, people trying to talk to me by the car, after it was over at the cemetery. My throat hurt so badly, I couldn't talk. Finally I just got in the car. I couldn't understand my feelings. We always hated one another.

Two weeks before he died, we had a talk, just the two of us. We cleared the air.I remember saying, "You're not so bad." Then he said, "Yeah, you actually seem like a pretty good guy, I didn't realize." We made friends and I wanted so badly to get to know him better.

A few days later, I couldn't take it anymore. I was 19 at the time. What we were going through was horrendous. He wasn't my child, I didn't sign up for this. I wanted out. I couldn't walk into the apartment again and smell that plastic odor of death, of cancer. Finally one day, I just knew I had to get out of there.

This may sound callous, but I had never been able to deal with death well. There was an incident in 4th grade with a baby bird that I found on the way to school. I took it to class, and at recess someone came to me saying to come quick, some boys in the classroom were throwing the bird around. What started out with a broken wing, turned into broken wings, legs, neck... I took it home after school. I was so upset I got my mother to call our family doctor, he was a long time friend of my grandmother's. He was kind and took the time, and diagnosed the bird as basically dead. He said make it comfortable, it won't be long. And hour later it died. My mother made me bury it ("Get it out of the house, you brought it in here, you take it out. It's your responsibility"). I wanted nothing to do with it. But I took it outside, and buried it.

From that day forward, I never had a pet until it died. My little brother and I had a hamster each. I gave it away before it got too old. Dog's I had, got new homes before the end. My ferret that I had for five years, got a nice new home with other ferrets at an old ladies house. My German Shepherd that I have now, is the only pet I've every had that will last it's entire life with me.

So no, I couldn't handle watching my brother die. And I knew it was going to be soon. I told my mother. She confronted me in front of him, egging me on to say why I wanted to leave until suddenly, it became crystal clear, she wanted me to say the words in front of him, "He's going to be dead soon, I don't want to see that happen." I looked at her stunned. I said, "You want me to say it, don't you, you want me to say the words, how can you, he's sitting right there." I hated her at that moment, a feeling I never fully got over.

So I said, "I have to leave, I miss my fiancee and I can't stay here any longer."

That did the trick. She got furious. We knew the flights by heart, she said the next one was 10AM tomorrow, but she would dive me now, she wanted me out of there. It was a ride now or never. She got him dressed, which was a lot for him. The entire time she was dressing him, she was saying things like "It's the Devil making him do it, it's Satan." He would only answers, "I know. I know." I felt that he knew she was full of it. But I couldn't tell, I could hardly think.

Thinking about it now, some thirty-six years later, I think that he may have been thinking, "Please don't leave me with her", but I also think he understood. He was a smart kid, smarter than his other three siblings. I kept thinking how much it hurt being there. I was unable to deal with the emotions. I only wanted to run.

She drove us to the airport about 6PM. I wandered around. I saw the sun go down, I saw it come up the next day. I tried to sleep about 9:30PM in a chair. People do that in airports all over the world, but a cop came up and said if I fell asleep he'd have to evict me. He asked my boarding time. I said 10. He said well that's not too long. I said, Tomorrow morning. He was surprised and compassionate but said it was a new and I couldn't fall asleep, it was the law.

I only had a few dollars, so I bought a box of NoDoz and a paperback, The Teachings of Don Juan -by Carlos Castaneda. I sat up all night, popping NoDoz, drinking water and reading that book. I finished it in the morning as the sun was coming up outside. So I went out and watched the sun come back up. I was exhausted. Reading that book, that night, in that way, changed me in some ways.

On the plane, I only wanted a few drinks to wash away the exhaustion and the emotional pain. The image of having left them in that apartment, having left him, with a mad woman, was terrible to live with. A woman that was broken by her father having died a few years ago, then her mother, a woman I owed so much to, who all by herself was watching her child wither away. I was her last hope and I was leaving. But I didn't see it that way, not at that time.

My brother died two weeks later. 

The day my mother got off the plane with his casket in the hold, she took me aside before even talking to anyone else, and said, "I want you to know, talked with him before the end, and I wanted you to know, he, and I, forgive you for leaving." I nearly punched her in the face, but I just nodded and walked along with our family, stunned.

I helped carry his casket down the steep stairs at the front of the church with our older brother and a few others. I felt something shift in the casket and for a moment, felt he was trying to get out. At the cemetery, I couldn't talk. We had hated each other for fifteen years and only just less than a month ago, had made peace with one another. We were both finally growing up. But it was too late. We recognized that, that day in Jersey City. Sitting in that small apartment, alone, our mother off on an errand, allowing us to really talk for the first time in our entire lives, maybe since our little meeting of the siblings when I was in fourth grade, and we had decided that we wanted his father never to return to our family. 

But we had no say in that, either. 

My first Universal Life Moments:

1 Death of younger brother - Grief

2 First time standing up to a school yard bully, Marty, in 5th grade - Victory, overcoming Fear. This eventually lead to my leaving that public school and attending the final eighth grade of the Catholic private school my little brother attended from 1st grade through the end. I did one year in Catholic school. That was enough and I went back to public school where it was rough, but people were in general, a lot nicer and easier to get along with, mostly because there were so many more of them and the jerks were lost most the time among the masses of kids.

4 Being picked on in 8th grade by that entire graduating Catholic school class - Standing up against Adversity, Harassment, going Against all odds. I won't bore you with the details but they are pretty good, and written about elsewhere.

5 Crush on cute girl, Jenny in 9th grade - Love, Infatuation, Frustration. She was so cute.  But she was always with a "bad boy". She was worth so much more. I almost got her in the end of 12th grade, but she went back to her boyfriend who was a real jerk. Another story I've told elsewhere. I saw her many years later and she was working at a hospital, had put on some weight, but was still so very attractive in the face. I stood alone with her on an elevator, thinking she looked familiar. I looked at her name tag and indeed, it was her. She gave me a look, curious, but then looked away. I was there visiting my grandmother who was dying and the next day, was gone. I never saw either of them again.

6 Summer crush - Infatuation, loss. I stayed with my cousin in Philly one summer after 7th grade. We hung around, literally, the girl next door. She was Jewish. Cute. He shoved us in the basement and locked us in until we kissed. He said it was all too obvious where things were going between us and we just had to admit it. It didn't happen but we kept growing closer. On my return home at the end of summer, I broke up with the girl I was seeing, thinking I'd have the girl on the East Coast (but how?). After about a month, I started to realize my situation, realization of my situation. I know did not have either girl. But it was interesting to see how I valued a girl that I had greatly valued, once I valued another girl, more. A very strange experience. I remember wondering why I did what I did, how strange it all way.

7 Late to work because of romantic tryst with a girl- Anger, Hurt, Justification. There was a girl in my home room class in High School, from 10th to 12th grade. She was attractive, Italian and different, kind of classy, I loved how she moved and that has been a theme through my entire life, movement, is important. She saw me picked on by the few guys from the football team for three years. She saw my patience with them. She would talk to me but nothing much really. She was dating a guy in the Air Force. Seemed like all the High School girls were dating a guy at either the Air Base or the Army Training Base.

She got married to the guy. Her wedding night was him getting on top, drunk, finishing for himself and going to sleep. She realized she had made a mistake pretty quickly. So she moved in with another girl. Some how we ran into one another and she invited me over before I went to work one day. I worked at the drive-in theater where my brother had worked, my sister and now I was working. I had gotten to Snack Bar Manager. Our step-Father worked there as Assistant Manager. Some of the kids from my High School worked there.

So I stopped by and met her room mate, a very attractive girl. She left and we were alone. We had some beer, listened to music, she told me about her failing brand new marriage, how he went back to his main base clear across the country. She asked if I remembered that one day in home room at school. She was in the classroom when I got there. It was just her and I. She was reading. One of the football players came in. He kicked my chair for the millionth time and I finally had it. Mostly because he had again humiliated me, but this time in front of a very attractive female I had feelings for.

I had fought in Karate tournaments when I was younger. I wasn't scared of him, I just didn't want to get in trouble. I had a job, a car, I was good. I'd had enough fights in school growing up and hundreds of fights in my dojo. He kicked my chair, I stood up, face to face and said, "Go around next time, there is no need to kick my chair, don't, do it again." I could see him wilting. His friends weren't around. He stood up to me, threatened me. Our observer was holding her book, stunned, concerned and curious about what I would do.

He offered to fight me. I said fine. He said after school. I said, I'm not pissed off after school, no, here, right now. I knew then I had him. If he fought me, he'd get kicked off the football team. He backed down. Which is good for him. Because I would have won. I would have picked up a chair and beat him senseless. I was pissed! Years of their harassment was boiling up all on his head. I think he knew it. As I sat down, I locked eyes with our observer and I slightly shook my head, embarrassed at being forced to exhibit such juvenile behavior. I could feel him, trying to get past my chair, carefully, I could hear his feet sliding. The next day, when he came into class, he carefully passed my chair. He had come in late, but tried not to make what he was doing obvious to his friends who sat directly behind me.

So told me about how she felt that day, watching what I had done. She said at that moment, she reflected on all the times she had seen me getting harassed by those guys and knew then that I wasn't afraid of them, I just didn't want any trouble, that I had something inside they didn't, and she found it attractive. I was feeling pretty good about myself just about then. Here was a woman I never thought I would ever have a chance with, and because of her suffering through years of home room with me, and her husband being such a dirt bag, I was having a chance as not just dating her, but sleeping with her.

It quickly went from her in jeans to her in a negligee. She was on top of me at one point on the couch in the living room, under the front window. It was hot and heavy. She wasn't, my breathing was. We were making out pretty heavily. Then she panicked. And left the room. I laid there, confused. Then she came back out. Sat and we talked. Finally she asked if I would have gone for it. I said, yes, of course. She said, really? Like she couldn't believe it.

The next thing I knew, we were back at it again only this time, I was on top. It was going to happen. Except for two things. One, I was late for work and it was getting later; my step-Father was going to know, I was going to be in a LOT of hot water and this, wasn't worth the grief I would get (yes, I know now that it would have been, but I didn't know then). The second thing was that I felt she was jerking me around. And that made me angry. I wanted her to know how I felt when she got up and went to her bedroom.

I resent ever being, or feeling jerked around, someone taking control from me for their own selfish benefit. Not that she was doing that, not at all. I only perceived she was (because I was an idiot). We were making out, I was getting her top off, doing what you do at a time like that, she was breathing heavily, getting very turned on. Then suddenly, I stood up and said, "Well, I have to go to work. I'm late. Thanks. I'll talk to you later." HAH! I got one over on HER. (God I'm such a damn fool).

I was in pain too. For the next few hours. I got to work, got chewed out and that was that. I didn't go back to see her. A Year later.... I was sitting in a car with a friend outside the High School (her apartment had only been about two blocks away on a quiet side street). Suddenly, she pulls up. We all greet and we get in the car with her. We talk. Our friend leaves. I'm alone with her, the first time since that night.

I said what you say at a time like that. I was single, was she? She laughed (this was the second time this had happened to me with a girl who got their revenge in being able to tell me No like this). She asked if I meant, us, maybe the two of us getting together. I said, yes. She laughed. Then told me she had joined the Air Force, the best thing she ever did. She was dating a General, had dated a Colonel. She had officers wrapped around her finger. Why would she want to date me when she had all that.

I had nothing. I apologized for our last meeting and wished her good luck. That night before, I had perceived that she was jerking me around, when she was only being herself, responding to being a good Catholic Italian girl, wanting more out of life than a jerk one night stand husband; and I had misperceived her and treated her badly. Because of my own screwed up self esteem. Because I thought she was trying to do something to me, when she was just living her life and I was over thinking things. That is one of those events that I will regret the rest of my life.

It is so easy to make a mistake in judging another because of our own screwed up outlook on life.

So those are my first major life's traumas and my first Universal Life Moments. I think you can see in the stories I told you just now, that you recognize some of those elements in your own life. Those moments are what Jen is referring to in Universal Life Moments. Understanding these will allow you as a writer to dig deep and flesh out your characters, your scenes and stories with far more universal and therefore deeper appeal. But it is also useful to you as a person, as a thinking, emotive Human being.

The nuances of my stories are mine, and unique to my experience. But those elements that you recognize, that are evocative to you as things you had yourself experienced, either the girl that you let go, or the major life event that you completely screwed up, or that screwed with you, these are the things that are universal to everyone.

It is useful to know that others have lived these kinds of things, and that you are not alone. It is useful to know that you have lived through these things, and to write it out, to examine it, think about it, put them in prospective and perhaps, in some way, let go, or try to better incorporate it in to your life.

Sometimes things like this can fester just beneath the surface of you consciousness and eat away at you all through your life. I just watched a very interesting episode of "Simmons Family Jewels" where Gene and Shannon Simmons (Gene of Kiss rock band fame) go to a Marriage Boot Camp. After decades together and Gene living the Rock and Roll guy's dream, having the Playboy Playmate of the Year and the Rock band touring and the groupies, he has finally decided he owes it to himself and his girlfriend to make her his wife. But first she wants him to make some changes, in himself.

They go through a series of emotional and psychological drills with other couples that Gene had never imagined he would end up going through. And it did start to evoke change in him. And just as importantly, after all the years of lies and infidelity, even though they were not married, in her too, because she had a lot to let go of if they were going to make it.

Say what you will about Gene, his family, or their show, this one episode, in my estimation, makes their entire show worth it. Others should watch that episode and consider such a boot camp for their own marriages or relationships.

In the end, I would suggest reading Jen's book. Or just run through the exercise I have described and exemplified here for you. You would find it rewarding. You might find it in a way, life saving.

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