My Favorite Thing in the World

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Back when my daughter was, I think, five years old (maybe six), my wife put together this black, construction-paper house (and drew the flower on it, perhaps thinking my daughter would make a ‘cute’ haunted house).  And, while I find it completely adorable, my daughter’s version of a haunted house did her horror-fan dad proud.

house witch cat pumpkin mummy

The witch that inspired one of last year’s decorations, along with a black cat, jack-o’-lantern, and sarcophagus.

As a teen, the kid didn’t want me putting the haunted house out on display year after year, but grudgingly allowed it, so long as it went back in storage with the other Halloween decorations as soon as November hit.  Then, one year while getting out the Halloween decorations, I couldn’t find the house.  I feared that the kid had tossed it, in the same way she had gotten rid of other things she deemed embarrassing during her teen years.

house mummy drac wolf

The flowers, along with the mummy emerging from the sarcophagus, a werewolf, vampire, and a bunch of vicious little roof monsters.

As it turns out, the absence of the haunted house was merely due to the complete mess that is my workshop.  It had somehow gotten knocked to the floor and shoved up under a storage shelf, plywood blocking the house from view.  I went through two Halloweens, not realizing that it wasn’t lost forever, only misplaced.

house red guy

Another view of the witch, cat, and jack-o’-lantern, but with a spider, a version of Frankenstein’s monster peaking out the door, and what I’m assuming is some kind of murdering fiend.

When I finally found it, I was overjoyed. I ran into the house and showed my wife, telling her how I thought it had been lost forever, but it was just lost for a very long time. I’m not sure she understood how excited I was, because “overjoyed” for me is usually just mildly obnoxious–well, mildly in my book at least.  It was a little beat up, as might be obvious from the photos, but in much better shape than it might have been, given the recklessness with which I had treated it.

New Witch

The witch that the house built–or at least inspired.

I got my daughter, emerging from the height of teenage embarrassment at the time, to agree to let me keep the haunted house permanently displayed on the mantle, just to the right of the TV, so, well, it’s at least in my peripheral vision for a while each day.  And so I don’t have to worry about it getting lost in my poorly-organized workshop.

Happy Halloween!

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Happy Birthday to Me—Am I Getting a Present? Am I Getting a Present? Am I…

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

In the few weeks leading up to my eighth or ninth birthday, I remember driving my mom crazy asking her if I was getting a present.

She returned the crazy-driving favor throughout most of that time with vague, non-committal answers. On some level, I’m guessing she thought if she answered my question affirmatively, I would sneak into her room in search of the gift. (I went through a few periods of extreme snoopiness as a child—or perhaps spikes in an overall pattern of snooping). On another level, I think my mom just enjoyed goofing on me—especially when I was being extremely annoying (again, a constant throughout my childhood with plenty of spikes).

I have one photograph of each birthday throughout my childhood. In each picture, I am posing with the cake my mom made (including a number of cool cakes in the shape of animals, people, etc.). In some of the photos, my siblings stand behind me and to my sides, the birthday boy clearly the center of attention. And in some—only some—the gift I received that year is situated next to the cake.

I don’t specifically remember why I became obsessed with the idea of getting a birthday gift, or rather, the idea that I might not get a birthday gift that year. I suspect my big sister had something to do with it—either floating the idea that I was not getting a birthday gift because of what a little turd I was, or letting me know that she knew what I was getting for my birthday—with the certainty that it would drive me mad to think she knew something that I didn’t, and was not about to let me in on the secret—no matter what. Either way, the more I obsessed about whatever gift I may or may not have been getting, the more turdly I became, probably leading my mom to consider the idea of not celebrating my birthday that year or any other for the rest of time.

What is oddest in my memories from that period, though, was my sense of the novelty of getting a birthday gift. That is, what had sparked my obsession with getting a gift of any kind was a feeling that I had never gotten a birthday gift from my mom before. The idea that I might be getting one now was so exciting that I couldn’t deal with the thought that it might not be true. I needed to know if a gift was coming or not, so I could adjust my expectations. What a fantastic thing it would be if I just knew that I was getting a gift! What a crushing blow it would be to expect a gift and get none!

Of course I had gotten gifts from my mom before. There was plenty of photographic evidence of me with a birthday cake and a toy—and the physical evidence of those toys still residing on the shelves of my bedroom. Then again, I don’t recall spending a lot of time looking through family photos. In the years since then, the narrative that my sister was somehow involved in provoking the situation caused me to wonder if she had been so insidiously clever as to show me one of the photos of me with just my birthday cake as proof that I did not get birthday gifts. ‘See—there it is! Pictures don’t lie! No gifts for Jonny!’

I need to be clear that I don’t actually recall my sister doing any of the things I suggested. It’s just a bit more comforting to think she was messing with me than that I completely lost my mind speculating about whether or not I was getting a gift—not what the gift may or may not be—just the idea that I may or may not get any gift.

In the weeks leading up to that birthday, I seriously could not recall having ever gotten a birthday gift before. I could’ve gone up to my room, and looked at the toys, and puzzled out their origins. But logic and rationality were not in order. I needed someone in authority to tell me—definitively and right now—was I getting a birthday gift?!?

And after all that torturing of myself and my mother, the sad conclusion to this tale is that my mom wasn’t able to get me a gift that year, or even a cake.

Just kidding.

I got an awesome gift. The Adventure People Sea Explorer set.

doug and mary

Not my photo–and all these years I thought that dude’s name was Doug, not Dave.  Memory is a fickle thing, I guess.

I couldn’t find a commercial specifically featuring that set, but for a strangely simple earworm that haunts me to this day, watch this commercial and try not belting out that one line, “The Adventure People!”, for the rest of the day, or maybe the rest of your life.

Happy Birthday to Me: Camp Pooparazzi

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Mos Eisley Spaceport: You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy…or a more kickass birthday present for an 11-year-old!

After a week at camp...Mos Eisley Spaceport Cantina, where the droids wait outside.

After a week at camp…Mos Eisley Spaceport Cantina, where the droids wait outside.

There’s probably a photo somewhere of this Mos Eisley Cantina playset (and, yes, nerds, that is a blue Snaggletooth figure in there) with me posed proudly behind it. I was going to joke that my mom took the picture of the playset without me because she got tired of waiting for me to get out of the bathroom. You see, I had been at Outdoor School for the previous week and was emptying my bowels of a week’s worth—well, five-ish days worth—of camp food, over the course of several emergency trips to the bathroom.

TMI? Well wait, there’s more.

Anyway, I was going to joke about my absence from the picture, but the truth is, my mom was really cool about letting me stage a scene with my new toy and take a picture of it. Keep in mind that this was back in the days of film rolls, which were a bit spendy to buy and to print, and with no guarantee that the pictures were going to turn out. You couldn’t just delete the file and take another. No, you snapped those precious pictures carefully, over the space of however long it took to complete a roll of 20 or so pictures, then popped the roll out of the camera, took it to the store and waited days for the lab to process them. The stamp on the back of the photo shows that it didn’t get developed until April of the following year.  And, as you can see, I didn’t quite get the focus right.

Don’t get me wrong. The story of the excessive time in the bathroom is true. As I said, it was the week of Outdoor School at Camp Yamhill—meaning I had been away from home on my actual birthday, which fell on a Thursday that year. They brought us home on Friday.

Outdoor School was ostensibly to get 6th graders out into the wild to learn about the miracles of nature all around us—although I can’t remember a single part of the curriculum, aside from a lesson on erosion.  The lesson was memorable to me for what we didn’t learn, or, perhaps for how we didn’t learn it.  the camp counselor took us out on a hike, stopped along the trail by a fairly steep embankment that rose up and away from us, and then emptied some water out of a cup onto the embankment. The small group I was with had no idea what the counselor was getting at by showing us this.  And he got really annoyed when one of our group asked if he could show us again—because the counselor had already emptied all the water out of the smallish drinking cup he’d carried all the way out to this point on the trail.

Being something of a teacher’s-pet-type, I really wanted to be able to answer the counselor’s questions. But also being of a perfectionistic bent, I didn’t want to offer up mere guesses that may have been wrong. I finally said something, in response to him asking me a direct question. That led to him asking me follow-up questions. But I just didn’t know the answers. I hadn’t read up on erosion prior to the hike, and wasn’t particularly familiar with the concerns involved. Ultimately, exasperated at our lack of inquisitiveness and inability to follow the lesson as he presented it, the counselor just told us the answers we would need to fill out the worksheet on erosion that we had brought along in our camp folders.

To be sure, I have scads of memories of the week—just not about the stuff we were sent out there to learn.

For instance, there was the terrifying moment when, during dinner one night, they announced the birthday girls and boys for the week. Those few of us were supposed to go up to the front of the dining hall and stand there while the rest of the campers sang “Happy Birthday.”

I froze, despite the heat of a deep blush rising in my face.

Painfully shy, even around most of my own classmates, we were at camp with sixth graders from multiple schools—people I had never met before, and would experience only for a few short days, and in a largely cursory manner. My tablemates urged me to go bask in the attention. One of the female counselors came around in an effort to weed out the birthday campers. But the counselor from my own cabin, who went by the name “Lightning”—a name I had previously associated with a horse from Nebraska—quietly waved her away and shot a look at my tablemates, with the message to leave me be. I was immensely grateful in that moment—until a sense of regret crept in at my deliberate avoidance of what was supposed to be a fun and kind gesture by the camp organizers.

But there were plenty of things I dove right into.  We made “hobo stoves”—unthinkably unsafe tin-snipped coffee cans, with cardboard tightly rolled into tuna cans and set ablaze—to cook hamburger patties.

There were the camp crafts, and camp games—and, hey trendsetters with more energy than me, if there aren’t already adult Capture the Flag leagues, somebody needs to get on that.

And then there was Alan—a camper from another school who landed in the same cabin I was assigned—the mighty brown pelicans (all the cabins were named after endangered species)—and who almost immediately got into an argument with one of my classmates. That escalated into a physical fight by Tuesday, which resulted in a cabin-transfer for Alan. The loyalty of sixth-grade boys being what it is, I, of course, painted Alan as the villain in the situation. But regardless of my perceived need to choose sides, it was alarming and confusing for me to see two complete strangers develop such an immediate and intense animosity for one another, over essentially nothing, and hang onto it with such energy.

There were the camp sing-alongs including the camp theme song, which, as far as I remember, consisted solely of repeating “Camp Yamhill” over and over again at varied rhythms and pitches.

In perhaps the ultimate shot at provoking horrible embarrassment in the campers, each cabin group had to take turns performing skits on different days. We, the brown pelicans, did a skit so profound and accomplished that I can’t remember a single thing about it—aside from various cabin members arguing about the details of the skit until the absolute last minute—details still undecided as we took the stage in a swirl of hushed, urgent, and contradictory orders given by multiple self-appointed artistic directors. ‘Thank God,’ I thought, ‘we are not being graded on this.’

And there were the campfires each night—where I frequently caught myself staring through the darkness at one or the other of two crushes, there faces illuminated by the yellow-orange light of the fire, as acoustic-guitar-toting counselors led us in songs. I’m guessing we sang classic rowboat songs, like “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” and rounds of “Row Row Row Your Boat.” But the song we sang at camp that stuck with me most as I reached the landmark of wisdom that is age 11, was Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game.” A counselor or two would sing the various verses, campers joining in on the chorus:

“And the seasons they go round and round

And the painted ponies go up and down

We’re captive on the carousel of time

We can’t return we can only look

Behind from where we came

And go round and round and round

In the circle game”

…which would be a lovely and poignant place to end this post if I didn’t feel obligated to point out that, not actually knowing the title of the song, or the correct words, for years I sang that last line as “The circle again” as well as substituting “captured” for “captive.”

Also, I still haven’t explained that bathroom situation.

So, on the first day of camp, shortly after arriving and heading up the hill to get settled in our assigned cabins, I walked across the open space to the communal bathroom. Multiple other boys were cycling in and out. I procured a stall and began to relieve myself. A sudden commotion interrupted the peace of my flow, as an eruption of shouting, laughing, and the banging and slamming of the (lockless) door rocked the stall adjacent to mine.

From the various yells, I quickly discerned that a classmate—the occupant of the next stall over—was now the subject of a sneak-attack photo.  The horror!  Captured on film in the act of pooping!

At that very moment, already wary of having to use public restrooms as a general rule, and arguably allergic to the very thought of actually sitting on a public toilet, my sphincter closed itself off to business for the remainder of the week, lest any other bathroom paparazzi (pooparazzi?) turn up.

Now, the human body can do some amazing things, especially when prompted by fear. I have no recollection of feeling any ill effects over my defecation-avoidance scheme. It’s possible I may have made my way to the toilets once or twice during low-traffic times. Being a teacher’s-pet-type generally meant an absence of suspicion when requesting to use the bathroom.

Still, I was way off of any regular routine I may have had, so much so that by the time I made it back home, despite my tremendous joy and excitement at receiving the Mos Eisley Cantina playset, what may have been the best gift that year–well, for at least a few hours–was immediate access to a full bathroom, complete with a locked door, as my sphincter re-opened for business with an hours-long, albeit sporadic, inventory liquidation.

Ahh…memories.

Bed of Snakes

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Sleep fell away and I knew something was wrong.

Grogginess held me down.

Pain. Tingling pain in my feet.  I moved my legs, and the tingling turned to stabbing.

Awake enough now to see it was definitely nighttime, the nightlight somehow making things scarier—casting just enough light to intensify the shadows.

I was frozen, a panic starting to take hold. If I moved, the pain intensified. Or did it?

Try again.

Yow! Bad idea. But what? Oh good grief! Snakes! It had to be snakes! If I moved, they would bite!

I had to get away, but how to avoid more bites? If I stayed, things would certainly get worse. But I already knew I couldn’t move without provoking more bites.

I could call out, but who knew what that might provoke? Might I only draw some other family member into danger? And what if they were all similarly under siege–nobody to help?

Stay absolutely still.

With one burst of energy I could be free of the bed and flee the snakes!

This would have to happen just right.

I prepped myself, trying to control my breathing, trying to work up the courage.

I had to go.

Go now!

Pitching off the blanket, I swung my feet off the bed and rolled out, narrowly maintaining my balance as I landed and staggered forward.

The snakes, wholly imagined, the memory real?

The snakes, wholly imagined, the memory real?

Stabbing, tingling pains in my feet, uncooperative legs and rubbery knees conspired to create a lurching journey across my bedroom and out into the hallway. I had no idea if the snakes were at my heels, or if more were in wait along the path.

Afraid to look down at my feet, certain of the terrible mess they must be. I staggered on until—dad!

I huffed and sputtered an incoherent explanation, grabbing at my feet.

Startled awake, he rose slowly and turned on his bedroom light. He crouched to examine my feet briefly. Each touch was tingling torture. But, he pointed out, there were no bite marks.

Scooping me up, he carried me back to my bedroom, despite my panicked insistence that it was a death trap, teeming with snakes. He flicked on the lights, prompting only mild stirring from the siblings who shared the room with me, and who were in their own, possibly snake-infested, beds.

The light revealed no additional snakes.  Perhaps they were all confined to my bed, although there were plenty of other hiding places.

I could not believe the sense of calm dad had as he approached my bed. I wanted to be released, to escape out of there. He had no idea–just marching right into it.  With me in one arm, gravely limiting his ability to respond appropriately to threats, dad reached for the blankets, peeling them back in one grand gesture that caused them to puff out like a parachute…revealing…nothing but my sheets, my stuffed toy dog, and my Teddy bear—or, rather, my Cindy bear. Oh, the pangs of guilt at the realization I’d left them behind to be devoured by snakes.

But where were the snakes? I looked wildly about. They must have moved to other hiding places!  Were they under the bed, coiled and ready to strike away at dad’s feet?

Dad set me down on the bed, again pointing out that I hadn’t been bitten. He surmised that my legs and feet had fallen asleep. The fading of the tingling sensations bore out that conclusion.

Dad pulled my blankets back into place, tucking me in, despite my insistence that I had truly been in danger. He flicked out the lights, and before long I was out again.

In that instance, my father was like a magician, disappearing the snakes with the sweeping flip of the sheets; or perhaps like Saint Patrick, driving the snakes from the island of my bed.  How had he swept away such evil with so little effort?

***

And that, dear reader, is a rather embellished version of what is not only my first (narrative) memory of any sort, but also the only memory whatsoever that I have of my father. As with almost any memory, especially early, unclear ones, I have no idea what percentage of it, if any, is real. Assuming even some portion of it is real, I was not even three years old at the time it took place. This I know because my father died a week before my third birthday, when a young man ran a stop sign in the tiny, Nebraska town where we lived, crushing my father’s rather poorly-engineered car.

As I write this, it’s the anniversary of that day. Had my dad not been taken from us on that day, or any time in the interim, he would be in his 80s now. Earlier this year, I had intended to (finally) commemorate his birthday, rather than to remember him on this more somber occasion. But, after checking the date, I neglected to write it on the kitchen calendar, and it slipped my mind in the great wash of trivial things that are forever plaguing all of us.

Of course, when the bulk of your remembered experience of a person is the loss and absence of that person, forgetfulness isn’t all that unusual a tribute.

At any rate, the memory of the foot-biting bed-snakes–real or imagined or somewhere in between–is the one thing I’ve clung to about my father throughout the years—that I went to him in a moment of confused terror, and that he set things to right.

That’s not a bad thing to hang onto.

Happy death-day, pops.

The Horror of the Straws –or– Reduce, Chew, Reuse, Recycle

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

It was a hot day in late spring when Tim (probably not his real name) came jogging up behind me, slowed his pace to match my walk, and invited himself over to my house.

Tim’s request was unusual for plenty of reasons. For one thing, I didn’t really know him at all. He was in a different fifth-grade class than me and we’d barely spoken to each other outside of, maybe, a game or two of four-square or wall-ball at recess.

His family had arrived in town sometime after the start of the school year, and would be gone before the next school year was out.

He offered no explanation for his sudden interest in my companionship. I had no particular plans, nothing I had to do until dinnertime, or after, depending on which job was mine that night—setting or clearing the table, or washing the dishes. Still, I didn’t know how my mom would react to me brining home a classmate I had never spoken of, without having gone through the usual dance of informal invitations and phone calls between parents—the kind of parental back and forth that would eventually drop off either by dint of establishing an ongoing familiarity with the friend, or by the friendship falling away completely.

So, by way of trying to avoid any awkwardness at home, I asked Tim if maybe he should go home first and ask his mom. He answered only that it was fine with his mom, implying that it should be just fine with my mom, as well. He provided no tangible clues as to his home life. Had he already asked his mother before he left home in the morning? Was his mother out working? Did she just let him roam free? Was he avoiding someone or some situation at home—or wherever it was that he was actually supposed to be?

Tim’s self-invitation felt like an imposition. And yet, I didn’t want to be rude or leave a classmate hanging if he really was in need.

But I was in uncharted waters. I had never just brought someone home before, unannounced, without asking permission.

My mom’s reaction was one of curiosity more than anything. ‘Why are you bringing home some kid I’ve never heard of?’ may have been the direct question she wanted to put to me. But after the introductions, she took a similar approach to mine: “Does your mother know you’re here?” and “Do you need to call your parents and let them know where you are?”

Tim denied any such need, and the notion that his mother might be at all concerned.

There may have been further pressing, or boundaries set, like my mom asking for Tim’s home phone number so she could make a call, or insisting that he call home, or maybe saying we had an hour to play before x, y, and/or z needed to happen, necessitating Tim’s exit.

Whatever the case, and whether or not there was ever any go-ahead from Tim’s parents, he was sticking around for at least a little while.

I went forward with my just-home-from-school routine—turning on the TV for some cartoons, and heading to the kitchen for a snack. The default snack for years was two Graham crackers and a Daffy Duck glass full of chocolate milk—made with Hershey’s Instant chocolate powder. Sometimes, I’d really mix things up and add peanut butter to the crackers, but usually I would just dunk the bare Graham crackers in the chocolate milk.

After school snack, or frightening faux pas?

After school snack, or frightening faux pas?

Tim accepted when I offered him the same.

But then, with crackers and glasses in hand, we crossed the kitchen to the silverware drawer. I set my glass down, slid open the drawer, and…

There they were…to the side of the silverware tray…the straws.

Something's definitely not right here.

Something’s definitely not right here.

Now, the entire time I was growing up, I don’t think my mother ever paid for a package of drinking straws. It was just a wasteful expense as far as she was concerned. After all, straws are basically unnecessary for drinking, except in some very limited circumstances—like being ill and having difficulty sitting up to take a drink. Besides, restaurants give them away for free.

These were not ideas I ever remember my mother speaking. I have a vague sense that she told us if we really wanted drinking straws, we could keep the straws we got from restaurants, and wash and reuse them. That’s what we did, afterall. It seemed reasonable enough to me. After all, this was the era of the original Krazy Straw—people washed and re-used those all the time.

Saving and re-using straws was a more daunting task than one might think, though. We very rarely went out to restaurants—only for some birthdays and other special occasions, or when Grandpa decided to treat us all to Friday Night Fish at the Chuckwagon buffet. And aside from a cross-country car trip in the summer of 1977, fast food was mostly kept out of our diet. So, no steady supply of straws was to be had.

On the day that Tim invited himself over, the supply of straws had become quite decrepit. And, well, a big part of that is because I tended to chew on them as I drank my chocolate milk and watched my cartoons. Still, until they were cracked and unusable, we would wash them and send them back to the drawer.

Covering up my crimes of mastication would take some quick thinking. So I did what anybody would do in that situation—I blamed my little brother for the chewed straws–‘Some of the straws are messed up.  My little brother chews on them sometimes.’

Crisis averted. Or so I thought.

But as I sought out two reasonably functional straws, Tim shrieked, “You share straws?!?”

I can still clearly picture the look of terror and disgust on Tim’s face. If you can imagine what Leave-it-to-Beaver-era Jerry Mathers would look like if I’d just handed him a straw and a live guinea pig, picked up my own straw and guinea pig and said, “Here, this is really good—just go like this” and then jammed the straw through the guinea pig’s eye socket and started sucking out the contents of its skull as it squealed, writhed, and died—that’s roughly what Tim looked like in that moment—eyes bulging in fright, ample, freckled cheeks twitching around a scowling mouth.

Well, you're getting there, Jerry. But we need more terror, more disgust!

Well, you’re getting there, Jerry. But we need more terror, more disgust!

I can’t remember anything that took place beyond that. I’m sure there was a moment or two of profound awkwardness.  And then I’m guessing we went to the living room where Tim drank his chocolate milk without a straw. I probably passed on the straw, too, since I’d just learned it how monstrously disturbing it was to drink through a previously-used straw.

Tim and I probably eventually went up to the room I shared with two brothers, and picked over the toys. We may have gone out to shoot baskets in the driveway, or sat at the game table in the living room drawing pictures. Whatever the case, Tim’s sharp reaction to the straws numbed me to any other occurrences for the rest of his time there.

My mom’s only comment on Tim’s shock at the used straws was a deadpan, “They’ve been washed.” But, again, I don’t remember if this happened in the moment of Tim’s freak-out, or if it happened later, as I was describing his reaction to her (and undoubtedly questioning if there was something terribly wrong with us).

At school the next day, Tim tried to call me out for reusing straws, as I passed him and a few of his friends on recess. Tim’s attempted insult—roughly, ‘Hey, I went to his house, and you know what? He shares straws with his brothers’–failed to land. The other kids did not react. Perhaps Tim just didn’t paint a particularly effective picture of the insanity involved. Or perhaps they were all so dumbfounded, they couldn’t think of a proper response to demonstrate their disgust. I walked on.

I suppose I should have held on to the non-reaction of the other kids as the takeaway in all this. But memories have a way of forming around the moment of impact and maximum anxiety, not the moment when that anxiety should have evaporated. Although, at the time, given the extreme nature of Tim’s reaction, I was convinced that the lack of reaction from the others was a silent acknowledgment that, yes, I was a damnable freak.

And perhaps I am a damnable freak—but certainly not because of anything I’ve ever done with a straw…or at least not for anything I ever did with a straw while I was in elementary school.