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What My Brain Told Me

What My Brain Told Me

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What My Brain Told Me

224 pagine
3 ore
Apr 6, 2011


This collection of autobiographic short stories, essays, and poetic reflections is a memorable journey through the writer's most youthful of years. It is a compelling, sincere set of tales told with the humor, joy, sympathy, and exuberance of a family sharing stories at the dinner table.
Apr 6, 2011

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What My Brain Told Me - Thom Kudla





I just want to talk about a good father. … Men need examples and that’s not holy men — all of us are helped by examples. But it does seem that as men we feel better when other men show us that they are man enough to do whatever it is that we have hesitancy in doing. … So it would certainly be a fair question, on this Father’s Day, to ask, ‘What do you know about a good father?’ Now, when I say ‘father,’ I am speaking of one who is the guardian or biological male in your life, who takes you out with them, who teaches you and gives you the instructions to follow. … A good father is more than one who provides shelter, food and body coverage.

– Pastor Williams

My dad was always so strong. I hadn’t seen any weakness in him, from the steadiness of his arm as he caulked our home’s side door to the booming commands of his voice as he told me how to throw a football. He was Hercules to me; he was Einstein to me. He was some sort of superhero capable of extreme feats of strength and intellect, simultaneously, never hindered, never faltering. Serious issues would arise, like our friend’s bout with a brain tumor or my grandma’s death, and my mom would be a nervous wreck while my sisters would be disillusioned, but he would sit there, hands behind head, chuckling – unfazed, unworried, resilient. I admired this strong foundation for our family, this pillar of stability and security. (Of course, it wasn’t until much later that I realized his way of coping with nervousness led to those curious grins and chortles.) Whenever my sisters or I brought home positive school reports, he always pointed to the side of his slightly disproportionate head, eyes and mouth wide with glory, telling us we were lucky to have inherited his superior intellect. He was my intellectual role model in that sense, though it did take me quite some time to see beyond the lack of dynamics and liberalism in the books he read. His stoicism kept me calm, even when I knew in the back of my mind that repressing emotions was ultimately unhealthy. When he told me to ask girls on dates, I said I wasn’t interested, but he kept encouraging me, egging me on like a peer. I took this social criticism seriously until his brother told me what a failure at flirting my father had been. That was fine, though, because he was still all-powerful in my mind. He was all these things to me. And I often thought he believed the same things about himself, especially when I caught him flexing forcefully in front of mirrors or furiously flipping through the pages of dense readings. Then, when I was 14, I realized that he was vulnerable, that he was human like the rest of us, that he also suffered from the fatal conditions of this life.

What he left me – other than the obsessive self-consciousness and the precocious intelligences, or the photographs of joyless smiles and the memories of insecurities scintillating off the basketball court with each awkward dribble, or even the money for a college education in a poor man’s field – was that scar on my fingerprint, that little black dot surfacing from my right index finger’s soft pad as if having been pricked by a sharp pencil. That was the most important thing my father left me with. And I could not have asked for anything more profound.

The day before the surgery, my dad guided me through a tour of our house. He showed me what I had never seen; he showed me what I had seen numerous times but never considered. There was no energy in the house, at least other than our pet dog whose stubby tail wagged in syncopation with her pulsing tongue. Everyone else maintained grim lethargy. My mom kept silent as she balanced her checkbook. Dusty yellow light reflected from the silver chain of her glasses. Her lips jutted out from her plain and flat face in pouted pretense. She didn’t seem to be thinking hard about numbers and accounting. She also didn’t seem to be mad or displeased with anyone. I assumed she was thinking what I was thinking: what was to happen the next day on the operating table. We hadn’t any legitimate conclusion to what we were intellectualizing at that moment, but my dad seemed to know exactly what was to happen.

Sure, he’d say, this may be that cognitive distortion, that fortune-teller error, but I think there’s good probability for this to occur. Cognitive psychology had not given him a better way of dealing with life. It seemed to simply provide him with new labels for things he had always thought about.

He had it all planned out. He left the door to the basement open, allowing darkness to pervade our earthy family room. This darkness from below, from where my dad had gone and remained, overtook what little light of the vibrant sun that accidentally slipped through the motley-shaded browns of our family room’s blinds. My father would not allow clear skies today. In the same vehement voice I had grown to take comfort in, he asked me to join him downstairs, suggesting there were a few new lifting exercises for me to consider on the weight bench down there. I looked to my mom’s tired eyes, their focus and emotion emptied onto the figures of her receipts like tears upon cold shoulders. Was she composed? Or disinterested? Or both? I had not the time to consider such things. My dog’s eyes were playful, hopping from each corner of her vision in anticipation of the next comforting pat on her bushy head. Comfort.

My dad persisted. I didn’t want to hesitate any longer. Besides, I had insisted since middle school that I was a serious lifter. So I walked down into the darkness of the basement, with each footstep seeing more light of the lonely bulb dangling from the ceiling. Upon looking down on the third to last step, I realized for the first time that the bluish-gray basement stairs had no vertical panels between each rung. I was bound to lose balance with such a lack of light, but it hadn’t happened all those times before. What allowed me to walk up and down that unfinished stairwell without troubles and without ever noticing how unsafe it was? As my shoeless feet touched the cement basement floor, contorting to accommodate the rough and rocky clumps of its crumbling surface, I saw the answer to my question in the sole thread of gray hair dwelling just above my dad’s watery eyes, irises sinking below wrinkling lids.

What exercises have you been doing lately? he asked, drained and throaty.

The musty air filled my lungs with yellowish book chapters, moth-ridden clothing, and long-since deceased ant exoskeletons. The basement was never this unsettling. It was difficult for me to breathe out fresh words describing my upper body work when I felt my airways disintegrating into the dankness of the basement. With my mind failing me, I reached for a red and black dumbbell hoping that my body would at least remember. Some curls. Some reverse curls.

Okay, good, good, that’s real good, my dad said, such improper phrasing for a distinguished professional. Did you think to try this one? My dad then spread his body across the bench, his head nearly off the edge, as he held the bell with both hands. He moved it back-and-forth from behind his head to his neck back to eye-level. He had shown it to me before, but for some reason I felt compelled to act as if I had never seen him, or anyone else for that matter, show me such an exercise. As he continued lifting, he offered more directives. In order for this lift to be most effective, you’d need to load up the bell with a lot more weight. He stopped lifting, put the dumbbell softly onto the ground, and then he reached for the bar with jagged rust scattered across its weights on each end. I’m sure you’ve been using this to bench press, he said, noticing my approving nod. I know that’s my personal favorite lift. But you have to keep in mind that the lower body needs a workout too. This bar can help you with that.

Deep knee bends? Toe raises?

Yup, those are both good. There are others you can do at the gym, but for the basement, those two are your best bets. Silence. Reflective silence. He got lost for a second in the weight, his entire demeanor immovable and satisfied as he watched me nervously move the bar to where I wanted it on the bench. He scratched the top of his head and lifted himself to alertness with a contemplative gaze at the small uncovered window at the very top of the brick wall in front of him. Let me show you some important things that you’re gonna have to know some day. I knew there had to have been something else. As though giving a lecture, my father explained himself. I’m going to show you all the things I do around the house in case the surgery tomorrow prevents me from completing such tasks. His tense index finger constantly pushing glasses farther against his face contrasted with the monotony, and the cold robotics of his voice accentuated his bookishness. He walked under the same stairs I feared losing step over and placed a small flashlight between his teeth. The light shined upon the item below the stairs but above his head as he reached his hand up. From far away, it looked to me like he was about to catch a butterfly on a sunny spring day. He grabbed onto something with his left hand and, with his right hand, motioned for me to walk over next to him. My mind still on insects and other wildlife creatures, I thought for a brief moment that the cylinder containing a swirl of fiber-like mesh was some sort of beehive or bird nest. Upon seeing the flashlight’s beam reflect from the transparent plastic surface of the cylinder and upon noticing a black pipe’s continuous tubing interrupted by the nest, I realized that it had something to do with plumbing. This is the water filter, my dad said, showing the cylinder to me as if it were a specimen in a hands-on science class. Always teaching. You’re gonna want to change this about once a year or, if the water starts tasting or smelling sulfuric or metallic, more often depending. You can buy this stuff at home improvement stores. It’s real easy to install. He motioned to imply that the carbon filter can be slipped in and out of the plastic cylinder with ease. Then he decided to get Socratic. Do you know what the purpose of filtering is?

Uh, to filter out the bad stuff in water.

He laughed under his breath. Sure, it filters out ‘bad stuff’ like chlorine and other bad tastes and smells, purifying the water. But there are filters for many things. Here’s another example. My dad walked to the massive metal rectangle by the nearest wall. It had a large rumpled tube flapping out of its side like an accordion made of foil. He pulled a screwdriver out of his shirt’s pocket protector, unscrewed the corners of one of the sides of this metal box, and then proceeded to lift out a thin screen of blue fuzz. This is a furnace filter. It does a similar thing, but with air instead. It catches dust, microbes, fungi, some gas, and all kinda other nasties in this electrostatic filter so that the air and heat we get across the house is fresh and good enough for us. This is washable and permanent. You should clean it every 3 months. I have instructions right here if you ever need them. He handed me a short booklet from the tiny wooden table near the furnace. I shook his offer off with my hand, overwhelmed with the thought of having these new responsibilities as of that day. He put the filter and cover back on the furnace. He dragged his feet toward a strange metal box imbedded in that same wall. This, he began, swiveling the door of the box open with dramatic and drawn-out control, is the load center where all the circuit breakers are. Doing the wrong thing with this stuff could be a catastrophe, so I suggest you consult an electrician. I cracked a smile and shook my head in disappointment. But, if you have guts like I do, then you’ll figure out which breaker is assigned to which outlets and from there you’ll turn it off or on to reset the circuit and solve your problem.

I caught a glance of the inside of the load center’s door, and it had all the information I needed pasted right on there. He then closed it quickly. I didn’t tell him that he made it sound like a more difficult and impressive achievement than it really was. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t tell him that. It just seemed appropriate to keep my mouth shut. Once back upstairs, though, I felt a bit more talkative.

How do you feel about the actual air conditioning and heating interface?

The thermostat?

Yes, my dad confirmed, pride in me, his son, seeming more like jealousy.

I got a good handle on it.

This is a newer one. I may need to show you a few tricks with it.

I followed him to the thermostat where he began showing me certain new features in this particular thermostat. My sister, still in her comfortable sleeping attire, a Nirvana T-shirt and baggy gray pajama pants, approached me with her hands up in the air and her head shrugged out over her neck. As he worked the interface, my sister asked him what he was doing. I explained in the exact same words he used to explain himself to me.

That’s ridiculous, she said. The surgeon seems really confident. I don’t know where you’re coming from here, Dad. My mom yelled something in an enthusiastic tone, some incredible bit of gossip she just heard on ET. I figured it was her way of getting my sister off my dad’s case. I wasn’t really sure why she wanted to do that. Maybe he did need to hear how ridiculous he was being. Regardless, something did hit him, because he started fumbling through the thermostat’s controls with nervous uncertainty. His frustration revealed itself in sweat traced on the digital screen of the thermostat and a face reddened with what I imagined to be a dooming sense of failure.

Well, this is brand new, he said, so I’m not sure I know all the new features of this thermostat. There’s an instruction manual in the kitchen drawer under the microwave that you can look at if you ever need to. He didn’t

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