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The Narrative Method Online Magazine

  • Writer's pictureShari Foos (she/her)

Changing the Channel

Core Concept: Sounds & Signals. The essential elements of communication. Together, words, sounds, body language and facial expressions shape the meaning of everything you express. Your ability to recognize their interdependence is essential to understanding.

There are things you study in school that require concerted memorization and reinforcement, and then there are those life lessons that get instilled in you without a word of explanation. For me, that was body language, which I learned at the feet of my father, who got a kick out of psychological torture. Not that he understood himself or the knowledge he imparted. He was undiagnosed, but clearly had paranoia in addition to the characteristics of a sociopath.

My father’s life was not a happy one. He hated the world and resented the burden of his family. At 13 when his father died, he was the youngest boy and apparently the least important. He was forced to quit school to support his immigrant mother who spoke no English. And he was the one the army sent to the front lines. Nobody expected him to return and when he did, his things were gone.

He didn’t trust anybody. If I said my friend’s mom invited me to stay for dinner or I was hoping to make it into the school play he’d remind me, “Nobody gives a shit about you, Shari.” Everyone was out to get him. Even Milton, his buddy from the army and his only friend. He hated him too.

He was ashamed that my mother made more money than him from her job as a secretary, and we were forbidden from telling anyone that she worked. He liked to say, “I work easy.” He’d get up early and go into the garage to mix his chemicals into an industrial soap powder. I typed the invoices in the kitchen before school. “100 pounds of Sparkel Cleaner @21 cents/pound = $21.00.” He loaded the trunk of his Chevy with 100-pound drums of the stuff, making it sit low and bounce like a low-rider. Then he’d drive around the county, delivering it to pork stores and bakeries run by immigrants whose English was worse than his.

My journey to school was in that same low-riding Chevy, inundated with the stench of cheap cigars and the drilling sounds of sports radio. There was rarely a ride without incident, whether a fight with another driver or a fight with me. I stared out my window, wringing my hands and counting the minutes until he dropped me off in mutual silence, broken by the slam of the door, which marked another day of not listening, not learning and not doing my homework.

He only worked a half-day, so he was always there when I got home. I tried to tiptoe upstairs, but he was on alert. “Hey Lightning, get over here!” “I have to go to the bathroom,” I call back between clenched teeth, buying time. He’s yelling up at me. “I said, get over here!” “What do you want?” The silence says he’s amping up. I know I’m trapped but I can at least enjoy a moment of belligerence.

Resigned, I go to pay my fealty. He’s flat on his Lazyboy, feet pointing upward like stop signs, watching TV, the Sports section of The Newark News covering the opening of his giant boxers. Beads of sweat form above his lip, brown teeth revealed in a snarl. “Change the channel!” he commands. “And get me my cigar.” I hold the wet, half-smoked stogie between my fingertips and snarl back at him. Then I spin around, threatening the wall with a clenched jaw and red-tight fist. I hear him breathing more rapidly so I pivot back slowly and produce a calm face. As I turn the knob, I sneak a look back at him. He’s distracted – time to move! My fiddling with the rabbit ears turns into an absurd and frenetic modern dance. My back can feel his temperature come down.

I credit my father with teaching me to read bodies and faces and breath and sounds, precious tools that he unwittingly helped me develop. And as I look back today, older than he was when he died, I am still tending to his story and the residue I live with. Yet these memories have compelled me to understand myself and others so that we can overcome the negative messages and trauma that life stamps on each of us.

My father gave me life and for that I’m grateful. Because of him and the longing he instilled in me, I have had a wonderful, winding road to here. And despite the odds, I have learned the truth about myself and what it takes to thrive emotionally. We just need to be seen and appreciated through the common language of love.


Shari Foos

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1 Comment

Unknown member
Feb 16, 2023

So sorry you experienced your undiagnosed father, like you did, but had you not been changing the channels for him, would we have you?

My mother also has never been diagnosed. Now add a life of Alzheimer's to that! Not a nice mix.

"Your mother is a sociopath!" Exclaimed a therapist. I had just discovered the same thing by reading up on people like her. Never knew that before, and I'm in my 60's.

Life is so interesting...

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