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June 17, 2014

45 years ago I was being prepped for the next 4 years of my life. My family had purchased a large semi-Victorian house in downtown Buffalo, New York. Absent divorce, which was a social billboard screaming “FAILURE”, my mother opted to remote me from Westchester to be with my Buffalo college-attending brother – I am guessing to give her an alternate universe to our Mad Men 1960’s crock pot of alcohol and screaming.

She did not know the previous owner, while a doctor, had devolved into a source of drugs for local addicts – and his death was not well-announced in the addict community, so 3AM visits were not uncommon for our first year of occupancy.

Altho 5 years older, my brother had settled into a life of making money, occasionally attending classes and self-medication. So in the 6 week intervals when my mother went back to her default life in suburban New York I was the cook, housekeeper and laundryman.

Virtually every meal in my mother’s absence was Swanson. Every errand was on my bike or via Niagara Frontier Transit, as my brother was “out” (one way or another).

This is not a Burroughsian tale of absurdity in upbringing – it is a tale of extremes. When circumstances demand extremity, humans gradually make the extreme normal.

Total devotion to a fully flawed family was unquestioned, even given extreme circumstances. The extremity of outcomes was due to extraordinary compensations to make extremity invisible to those around us.

No one knew my Wall Street Lawyer dad drank 2/3 of a bottle of Vat 69 Scotch before 7:30pm, having started at 6:30 after coming home every day on the 5:38 Hudson Line train out of Grand Central. The collateral extremities followed suit. My sister left prep school one month before her graduation. “The boys” were “going to school” in Buffalo.

Extremity was necessary – as survival, when desperate, is not helped by circumspection.

So inhabiting a shell in a neighborhood in transition was not a choice for anyone involved – it seemed an inevitability if the few frail human contacts we had were to be maintained. It was wartime: we were hitting the beach.

But in this post Father’s Day week, where the internets are flooded with fondness for fathers, I, and I am sure many others, have no idea what the nostalgia feels like. I have to feel my father’s 6 weeks alone every 12 for 4 or more years were a deathly silent cell of undeniable consequence no vat of scotch could temper, but we never spoke of it, or much else, in the ensuing 15 years until he died.

We survived with extremity: my mother’s extreme cyclical runaways in a 600 mile exit strategy every 6 weeks – in either direction, to either destination- from rage in Westchester, from the confusion of parenting in Buffalo. The extremity of my brother in living inside his room and altered mind. So I found a balancing extremity – football.

I had never, ever, done anything athletic, so my body was adolescent, soft and fat.

But football could be a focus that was incontrovertibly “right”. The equivalent to our pre-Buffalo weekly escape to St Barnabus Episcopal Church in Irvington, NY, that was no longer necessary for my mother, because she had a regular 6 week respite in downtown Buffalo.

But football was extreme- effort, pain, mockery, failure and soreness swathed in Absorbine Junior and hot baths. But I had found a place. I could fail, fail, and fail again, embarrass myself in excruciating incompetence and still be part of something.

Like armies, religions, and political parties devotion often means more than the value of a devotee’s gifts.

Extremity in Iraq, in church, in devotion to a fabulous Merlot has a hard wired appeal that humans will sacrifice their bodies, minds and money to support and live thru.

Devotion is rewarded, I became less embarrassing and found a place in a tiny school, on a smaller patch of mud and grass. My 4 years of extremity in urban evolution, transferred seamlessly into extremity of academic discipline of 5-year degree architecture school at the angry, defensive second-choice Ivy, Cornell. While that school was ranked #1, my year the architecture school admitted 140 and graduated 38 on time: either you could cut it or you left one way or another.

What others in my class might not have known was that that danger zone of extremity was old school for me. I had been in a place where you survived or…you really did not know what might happen.

Extremity is everywhere, but some is lauded and some is deemed “incorrect” by those who have the luxury of being circumspect.

For the poor deluded folk who find a place in football, religion or architecture, the freedom to be in a place you can understand, with like minds, can be enough when survival is in question.

Extremity saved me, it probably harms others: but achieving circumspection is not a conceptual exercise for most: it involves surviving some radical risks…and for me, Buffalo.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. jon saltzberg permalink
    June 17, 2014 11:30 am

    I admire your stamina in risking incompetence in sports; when I tried (I who had no athletic ability at all), I couldn’t take the teasing and verbal abuse from my teammates, so I gave up, except at volleyball, which I honestly liked. In one of your sentences above, you say your body was “soft, adolescent and fat…” And why is it wrong for your body to be in that place? maybe that condition isn’t a preference, but it isn’t a wrong.

    There”s a beautiful book by a woman named Caroline Knapp, a now deceased alcoholic, called Drinking: A Love Story, which on one level is a look at a woman and her struggle with alcoholism, but on a deeper level is a look at what it means to be human, to be a woman in today’s society; her writing is phenomenal. She, too, tries to unravel the minutiae of her relationship with her parents, why they did this, why they did the end, you can spend years trying to deconstruct your relationship with your family; maybe what matters in the end is acceptance and forgiveness for being alive; I love you, but I know there are whole spheres to your existence, your personality I’ll never understand.

    But like the writer Norman McLean says, “You can love someone completely without completely understanding them.” I believe that.

    One last quote, which I think is cool, “You can’t think your way into right action, you can only act your way into right thinking…”

    Be well, and may G-d bless you and yours.

  2. Doug Brown permalink
    June 17, 2014 2:11 pm

    Duo……You are an amazing husband, father and friend to so many because of what you went through growing up. I can understand it was hell experiencing it at the time and only wish those of us around you knew what was going on so we could have improved some part of that time period for you. I apologize for my naivete. You were a great classmate and friend in spite of what was happening around you.

  3. Charles E. Jylha AIA permalink
    June 18, 2014 11:52 am

    Thanks for sharing…give you a man hug…their are others out here with similar stories…it took me a 1/2 hr. to keep my comment short…God be with you.

  4. November 7, 2014 2:34 pm

    people bump into this piece every day…there are things that connect the broken

  5. August 27, 2016 6:42 pm

    I bring up this matter of objectives and priorities as a result of this not solely has
    a huge connection to our health but it IS our health.


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