NPR Review of LOVE & VODKA by Zinta Aistars

“Worthy of Several Toasts”(***** out of 5)

by Zinta Aistars

Love, science reveals, is really just another form of madness. The brain undergoes similar changes, from the rational into the irrational, and the resulting pheromone chemical soup tastes like insanity.

Dearborn-native (Michigan) and author R.J. Fox would probably not debate any of that. It took all of twenty minutes for him to fall in love with a foreign exchange student he spotted in a line for an amusement park ride. When she returned to her native Ukraine, he followed her, engagement ring in his pocket. And more madness ensued.

In his memoir, Love and Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine (Fish Out of Water Books, October 2015), Fox recounts that initial meeting with Katya and the trip he took to Ukraine a year later to bring her back to the States again—as his wife. His adventures on foreign soil as he works up the nerve toward a marriage proposal and earn the blessing of Katya’s family are both outrageous and hilarious.

Babushka-wearing old women curse him, snarl and chase him, threaten to splatter him with bleach. Well-meaning hosts force vodka on him in toast after toast that he finds he cannot deny, resulting in drunken stupors, cold outdoor showers, and barefoot walks across sharp-edged rocks in his underwear. And so the story unfolds as Fox learns about a culture and a world far different than his own. Within its traditions and people, he finds himself in comical situations, but he also learns lessons about himself, love, and home.

What has remained with him from that mad and maddening journey these many years later, Fox says, “is the immersive experience of being in a whole other world than the one I know. Out in general public, people had a distrust toward me because I was not from Ukraine. This was in 2001, so not too far removed from the Soviet years when Ukraine was the center of missile-building during the Cold War. The distrust—it was the closest to feeling discriminated against that I’d ever known in my lifetime.”

In inner circles of what would increasingly become family, however, Fox found warmth, love, and family connection, not unlike what one would find in any family anywhere, and all liberally christened with yet more vodka. Although the resulting marriage would last only eight years—Fox is now remarried and has two children—he holds his memories of his Ukraine adventure close to his heart.

The memoir is the first publication of a new Ann Arbor-based publisher, Fish Out of Water, run by Jon and Laurie Wilson.

Pipe Dream

The genesis of my writing dream began in a hospital room the summer of 1992, just before my 10th grade “growth-spurt” year. My grandfather was hospitalized yet again, as he had been a significant portion of the last third of his life. One night, after coming home from the hospital, my mom told me that she met the daughter of my grandpa’s “roommate” – a 10th grade English teacher at my school.

“Maybe she’ll be your teacher,” my mom said.

“Yeah, maybe,” I replied.

Not only did Ms. Gautreau become my teacher… she became my lifelong mentor, guiding me through a dream that would culminate with the publication of my first book 23 years later. She is to whom that book is dedicated. And she deserves more than just a dedication page. She is worthy of an entire essay.

The seeds of my future were undeniably sowed in that 10th grade classroom at Edsel Ford High School in my hometown of Dearborn, Michigan. From that point on, every decision, thought, and sacrifice made was built around my writing dream. And thanks to Ms. Gautreau, it was a dream that I never, ever gave up on. Even when everyone else seemed to try and convince me otherwise.

Up until my 10th great year, I really had no idea what I really wanted to do with my life. My grandmother was my biggest influence at the time, but she was determined that her first grandchild was destined for Harvard. As a not-so-subtle hint, she bought me a Harvard sweatshirt when I was 10 – a not-so-subtle hint. (Allow me to point out another family connection to Ms. Gautreau: my grandmother’s long-term boyfriend Chuck’s ex-wife was married to Ms. Gautreaus’s brother. But I digress). Though I wasn’t remotely close to being the smartest kid in class, I was at least smart enough to know that I wasn’t Harvard material. Not by a long shot. But my grandmother never wavered. By the time I got to high school, my GPA (hindered mostly by poor math and science skills) obliterated any outside chance that I could get into Harvard – or any Ivy League school for that matter. I was only slightly above average in the other subjects (but God-awful in math) and I wasn’t exactly a language arts genius in the making (as far as GPA was concerned). In fact, when I took my English placement test for college, I was placed in two remedial classes (math, which was expected…and composition class…not expected!) Surely, there was some kind of mistake, so I begged and clawed my way into the general freshman comp class. And, aced it. (As I did all of my English and lit classes along the way). The only plausible theory as to why I failed my placement test to begin with was my horrendous handwriting. (Then again, I was rejected from my high school’s literary magazine, as well and my submissions were typed.) Though the rejection letter was signed by a student, it was clearly written under the gentle guidance of Ms. Gautreau: “You and the others who submitted are among a special folk that carry with them the guts to take a chance and put your talents to the test…we have to sigh and set some pieces aside. Unfortunately, your work was among these. However, don’t stew over this minor pitfall. Writing is an art that can provide inner sanctum for a lifetime. It is a personal experience and sometimes is meant to reward you and not to satisfy others.”

Fortunately, due to encouraging words of wisdom such as this, these early setbacks did nothing to rattle my resolve. My thick skin was forming.

Meanwhile, my grandmother, who had spent her entire career (50 years!) as a Ford Motor Company secretary, had a grandiose vision that her grandson would not only be an engineer at her beloved company, but would one day take over the reigns (side note: my hometown of Dearborn was not only home to Ford, but was the birthplace of none other than Henry himself). In her defense, it wasn’t like I had a back-up plan. The last time I thought I knew was in the 2nd grade, when I wrote in a report that I wanted to be a doctor. Even though I realized early on that I didn’t have what it took to be a doctor, my grandmother’s influence was so deeply felt, it appeared that my fate was sealed: I was going to be an engineer, despite my disinterest and – more importantly – lackluster skill in all areas remotely related to that particular field.

“It’s just a matter of mind over matter,” my Grandma always told me. “If you put your mind to it, you can excel in math, science, an anything else you put your mind to.” She was right about only one part of that – putting my mind to something against all odds no doubt contributed to my eventual “success” as a writer.

To further prepare me for a career as an engineer, my grandmother signed me up for high school engineering workshops at Ford, which required me to wake up bright and early on several Saturday mornings. For a teenager, there’s nothing worse. Not even a potential scholarship waiting for me at the end of the rainbow made up for that fact. Because I knew I had no legitimate shot at them. In fact, these workshops did nothing to inspire me (unless you count being inspired to do anything but engineering). In fact, I was completely bored, disinterested … and confused.

Mind over matter.

And my mind was made up. Engineering did not matter to me.

Yet, despite this minor detail, my grandmother continued to believe that somehow, against all scientific reason, I could train my mind to both like and excel in math and science. If this were the case, it wouldn’t have been a matter of science. It would be magic.

My experiment in engineering coincided with my 10th grade year, which paved the way for Ms. Gautreau to come to the rescue and teach me the true meaning of following a dream with every ounce of your heart, mind, and soul. Her unbridled faith in my ability to succeed as a writer and filmmaker has kept me focused on my dream every step away and through every pitfall along my path. Despite a cavalcade of wholesale life changes I have encountered in my life, there has always been one constant: my dream…and the teacher who made it all possible.

Following years of elementary and middle school misery, there are actually two teacher heroes that came to the rescue, one of which I had the year before and through the entirety of high school: my band teacher, Mr. Otto (affectionately referred to as “Uncle Otto”). From that time on, I no longer felt ostracized by my peers. It didn’t take long for my entire social circle to be made up entirely of fellow band geeks. I had found a home. As I wrote in an article for the school newspaper: “Whenever I need to seek comfort or help, all I have to do is walk through the band room, and someone will be there for me. There is a back hall with couches, where band and vocal members meet in the morning, for lunch, and after school. When I enter the back hall, I feel a sense of relief, like the way I feel when I walk into my home.”

Mr. Otto is quoted in that article as follows: “Band has a special unity. They look out for each other, get the job done. Teamwork and family describe best what it’s like to be in band.”

So even though I found a safe haven and refuge in the band room, I found my soul in Ms. Gautreau’s classroom. I not only felt at home there…but at home with myself. And that truly made all the difference.

Along with Mr. Otto, I had Ms. Gautreau for the remainder of my high school years, which included 10th grade English, creative writing courses, and film studies. In fact, it was in her creative writing class that I began writing my first screenplay – an adaptation of Robert Newton Peck’s Soup on Ice; a gift from my grandma when I was a little boy.

To put it succinctly, Ms. Gautreau epitomized everything that a teacher should be. From an instructional standpoint, her lessons were always engaging and inspiring. However, far more important than any lesson she ever taught me was the fact that she helped me discover myself…and never stopped believing in me. By extension, I have never stopped believing in myself. I should point out that she was the only teacher who recorded any notes on my progress report: Progress report: “Contributes to class./Is a pleasure to have in class./Shows interest and desire to improve./Assumes responsibility/shows initiative.” I hope she realizes how much of an impact such a small gesture had on me. So teaching often goes.

Ms. Gautreau not only inspired me to pursue my dream, but has greatly influenced my teaching “day job”. Though I can never come even close to reaching her level of greatness (my dream ironically prohibits me from the being the selfless teacher she was), I strive to do everything in my power to emulate her teaching style, with the sole mission of encouraging my own students to latch on to dreams of their own…and never let go.

Aside from the constant encouragement to pursue my dream, Ms. Gautreau went above and beyond her job duties. When I was her student, she would frequently give me press clippings from various magazines and newspapers (New York Times and The New Yorker in particular) that pertained to writing, film, or baseball. I have saved every single one of them. Now, yellowed and tattered, they comfort me like a tattered security blanket. The clippings extended well beyond the walls of my high school. I still get them till this day, twenty years later! The epitome of life-long learning.

At least once a year, Ms. Gautreau and I get together to watch an Oscar contending film and to chat. And with each visit, my creative juices are recharged and I walk away feeling like I can conquer the world. When we get together (usually around the holidays), she usually hands me over a giant manila envelope filled with accumulated clippings. Sometimes, she sends them in the mail. Or e-mail. Recently, she joined Facebook, so now “clippings” get directly posted to my wall. Her presence in my life is greater than ever before.

Though Ms. Gautreau is now happily “retired”, she certainly hasn’t quit teaching. She currently teaches writing courses for senior citizens who realize that it’s never too late to discover their voice. And of course, there is no doubt her influence will continue to live on in the hearts of every student she has ever inspired. I hope that in my own small way, her legacy lives on through my own teaching (despite the limitations my dream puts on it). I remember how disappointed I was when she retired the year before I did my student teaching. Initially, I felt like I missed out on a golden opportunity to truly become the young Padawan to her Yoda. But I later realized, the power of her force everything was already buried deep within my soul. As it always will be. There was nothing left to learn.

I can pinpoint the precise moment when my dream truly set sail. And it all comes down to a blue notebook. My holy grail. Like most English teachers, Ms. Gautreau required students to keep a journal. Several times a week, we would either have to respond to a specific prompt, or write wherever our pubescent muse took us. Our notebooks would be turned at the end of each quarter for feedback. I didn’t really know what to expect. In fact, I probably wasn’t even consciously thinking about it. But when I got my notebook back the first go around, the margins were filled with numerous brief, witty comments that outweighed any letter grade (which was an A+, by the way). Even though many of her comments were usually one or two words, this written “conversation” provided the spark of inspiration I so desperately needed. And it made me feel excited about writing in a way that I had never felt before.

Suddenly, life was full of possibility.

And my dream was born, as this passage indicates:

“By wanting desperately to become a successful Hollywood filmmaker, I put myself at great risk. I believe in myself, however. I know I can do it, but it will be no easy road. While pursuing my dream, I look for inspiration wherever I go. I get most of my inspiration from Ms. Gautreau…I have never been told that I can’t make it, but I have been told that it is just a pipedream and that I have no big chance (not because of lack of talent, but because of the odds). Well, I’ll show them. Somebody has to make movies, right? Why can’t I be one of them? Life is all about taking risks. It is those risks that happiness is most commonly found.”

It didn’t take me long to realize that “I love to write because it allows me to escape the chaos of everyday life and relax. I take pride in my writing and if someone else doesn’t like it, I don’t get mad. I just work to improve it until it is as good as I can get it. I prefer to write light hearted comedy-dramas that make people good. I find that combining tears with laughter works good in any film. To me, making a person feel good about life is the best cure for anything. To me, literature is the best way to relax, whether you’re reading it, or writing it.”

The true impetus and value of this notebook came to light after Ms. Gautreau’s father passed mid-way through the year. While attending a viewing at the funeral home, she introduced me to her family with great enthusiasm:

“So you’re the one with the journal!,” one of her family members proclaimed. I felt like a supertar! As it turned out, Ms. Gautreau had shared my notebook with her family in the hospital’s waiting room. It was a tremendous feeling and it was at that moment that I knew right then where my destiny lay.

As Ms. Gautreau told my hometown paper, The Dearborn Press & Guide in an article that came out after I published my first book, “His journal was magic to read…I can still remember the delight and the wonderful quirky observations he would make about life and the wonderful, unique ways of articulating his ideas.

“He had this dead-on, droll sense of humor,” she continued. “He would always spot the absurdity of life. He was always the guy who was willing to go out there and take a chance, take a risk. But at the same time I think he was very honest in his own heart.”

Meanwhile on the homefront, my dream wasn’t exactly a greeted with open arms. The general consensus of my family toward my dream fell along the lines of: “It’s just a hobby,” (Bobby’s Hobby!) or “it’s only a pipe-dream.” It wasn’t so much that they didn’t support me. They just didn’t encourage me. Or is there any difference? But let me get one thing straight: I couldn’t ask more loving, generous parents and am extremely grateful for all they have done for me and all they continue to do (you know, like keeping me despite being an oopsie daisy and staying together to raise three children, despite my dad being just days out of high school upon my birth). In some ways, their ambivalence toward my dream only added more fuel to the fire. And made me want to prove them wrong.

In the meantime, I just had to accept that “Bobby’s Hobby” was never going to be taken seriously. And with Ms. Gautreau’s guiding light, I was determined to prove their doubts wrongs (and for over 20 years, they were right). Even though it took that long, I never once doubted that it was only a matter of time. Just how much time was a whole other matter. Sometimes, I wonder how long I would have stuck with it if I knew how long it would actually take. I certainly never would guessed it would take as long as it did. The longer it took, the harder it was going to be to turn back. You don’t put that much time into something, only to turn around with your tail between your legs. Fortunately, there were always enough clues (contests, optioned scripts, publication of short stories, etc.) along the way that I was at least on the right track. That I wasn’t time on something I had no business trying to get involved with. As long as I kept trying, there was always going to be a chance – or at least more of a chance than somebody who never tried at all. In essence, it came down to one basic principle: my dream was never a matter of if…it was always a matter of when. No matter how many setbacks. It was this mindset that allowed me to freely sacrifice so much of my free time and social life over the years. My dream always lay ahead like a lighthouse beacon surrounded by a dark, stormy sea. I just had to follow one simple rule: “Never give up.” It’s no surprise that my daughter learned to say “Daddy doesn’t give up” at the age of two. My dream is that my children will follow their own dreams just as daddy did, despite the frustration that is bound to result.

From the time my dream was hatched in Ms. Gautreau’s classroom, I have done everything in my power protect it at all costs. I have directed most of my prayers toward it. In fact, every major decision has revolved around my dream, including my decision to become a teacher. After toiling around in the media business after college, I couldn’t resist the allure of summers off and frequent breaks. I even spend my planning period writing, rather than grading or making copies because it is when I know I will be at my creative peak for the day.

Though I never once considered throwing in the towel, I would often wonder if I was doing enough. Or I would ask myself why was I still in Michigan, rather than Hollywood? A decision I still regret from time to time, until I remember that had I moved out there, I wouldn’t have my two beautiful children (though I would possibly have two different children, so I thereby lament the fact that I never got to meet the two children I would have had if I had moved west. Or perhaps I would have none at all?). The best outlook to assume is that I am right where I am supposed to be.

Before I got married, whenever I felt the urge to follow my heart to Hollywood, I convinced myself that I could still make my dream come true…from the comfort of my parents’ couch. And since I stayed home for college, my parents had grave concerns that I would spend his weekend nights sitting at home on the couch writing. Not only were they were worried I would be single forever, they were worried I would be single and sitting on their couch forever.

Writing my life away…

It wasn’t that I didn’t have any friends (this wasn’t elementary school after all!). It was just that I was under the spell of my dream. Though I could certainly see understand their concern, it was ultimately through writing that I fell in love (which in turn, ultimately made my dream come true).

Flashforward to Y2K: I was on the cusp of receiving my English degree and working part time at Ford Motor Company (thanks to my grandma’s connections) – but not as an engineer as she had envisioned: I was working in public relations, writing promotional materials for the Ford Research Laboratory. Although I had fallen short of Harvard, at least I fulfilled her other wish: working for old man Henry.

However, with graduation looming, I was at a crossroads in my life. Since it was clear that Ford would not be offering full time employment anytime soon, it was time to get serious about my future. So I decided to apply to the top graduate film programs and cast my fate to the wind. If, by some miracle, I got into one of the top programs, my decision would be made for me.

But life had other plans.

For my final spring break, I headed to Hollywood to take some film workshops, including Robert Mckee’s famous Story seminar. Little did I know my own personal Hollywood story was in the making.

My trip began with a fateful encounter with one of my childhood heroes while waiting at the gate for my flight. I spotted a man sitting across from me whom I was pretty sure was legendary Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson.

“Is that Sparky Anderson?” I stuttered to the gate attendant.

“Yes, it is,” the attendant replied. Now that I knew for sure, I headed over to my boyhood idol, trying to keep my nerves under control.

“Mr. Anderson?”

“Yes?” he replied.

I offered my hand. He shook it.

“I am so happy to meet you. I am a big fan,” I said, before congratulating him on his recent induction into the Hall of Fame.

I thought for sure that he would brush me off, but instead we chatted for a few minutes about the Tigers and their upcoming season. I then offered him my pen and steno pad, which he signed on the first page: “To Bob. Thanks for being a great baseball fan. Sparky Anderson.”

He shook my hand and I returned to my seat, where I waited to board. I might as well have been on Cloud 9. The next and last time I saw him, I was heading down the aisle in search of my seat. Sparky was seated in first class, already asleep and I realized that I just had the rare privilege of seeing a Hall of Fame coach in repose.

When I finally located my seat, I scribbled in my journal: “My trip’s off to a good start already. Perhaps it’s an omen.” How little did I know how much of an omen it truly was.

The workshops I was attending were on opposing weekends, leaving me with plenty of time to be a tourist and ponder whether I should roll the dice and move out west, or remain in my comfort zone back in Michigan.

And then came March 7, 2000.

The rain-soaked day (in fact, almost my entire trip was rain-soaked. I quickly learned that L.A. had a rainy season) began with a dream tour of The Price is Right, which had been arranged through a family friend of Ms. Gautreau (even though I would have much preferred if this contact was able to place my scripts in the right hands, this was a close second).

I should probably point out that I had a rather unhealthy obsession with this show … due in part to the fact that I had come to associate this show with being unhealthy, accompanied by chicken soup with crackers, chamomile tea and gag-inducing cold and cough syrup. And standing there, on the set, it was as though I walked right through my television set, just as I dreamed of in a fever-induced daydream. As I wrote in my journal, it was as though “I had stepped foot on sacred ground.”

I was taken aback by how small the studio was. It was as though I was standing on a miniature replica of the set – not the actual set itself. There was no way it could possibly be this small. But it was. Even the Holy Grail itself – the Plinko! board seemed too small to be real, not to mention the Showcase Showdown wheel. I asked her if I could give the wheel a test drive, but was told that CBS has a strict policy against spinning the wheel unless it was during game time. Beggars can’t be choosers. Years later, I got to attend a taping of the show – just a couple of years before Bob Barker retired. Since I was in attendance as a guest of a CBS employee, I would not be permitted to have a chance to “Come on down!,” but both experiences were the next best thing.

As magical as my Price is Right encounter was, it would pale in comparison to what happened next. After the tour, I debated whether or not to head to Universal Studios on the account off the damp weather, before ultimately deciding that a little rain wasn’t going to hurt me. So I took a $80 cab ride (which caught me totally off guard). Though I immediately regretted by decision, it would turn out to be the best $80 I ever spent.

After wandering the park for awhile in a melancholy daze, I spotted an attractive woman who also appeared to be by her lonesome on the Terminator ride. I lost sight of her and then later spotted her entering the E.T. ride. We were both eating peanut M & M’s. So I followed her in (making me a quasi-stalker). As fate would have it, we would ride together. We struck up a conversation and I learned she was an exchange student from Ukraine, living in Mississippi. Twenty minutes later, we were going our separate ways, with contact info in hand.

We became pen pals. At first, we started writing one another. First monthly. Then weekly. Then daily. E-mails soon became instant messages. Perhaps most importantly, she had read all of my scripts, showing more interest in my writing than anyone ever had in my life with the exception of one special teacher. Before we knew what hit us, we had fallen in love…through writing. Before long, our love blossomed until it was too big for even distance to contain us. Just over a year later, I headed to Ukraine with an engagement ring in my pocket.

Following the most amazing, magically surreal experience of my life, in which every moment felt like the coolest independent film ever made, I immediately got to work on a semi-autobiographical screenplay based on this experience, in the cold, dark shadow of 9/11.

A few years later, I optioned the script to a producer (for a whopping $1.00). My dream was finally coming true!

But then it didn’t.

Following extensive, excruciating re-writes, the script became more and more fictionalized, but I was willing to go along with whatever changes the producer suggested. But then the producer suggested that the location of the script get changed to Asia, on the account of potential Asian investors that he had waiting in the wings (somehow, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive cowboy comes to mind). Fortunately and unfortunately, the producer abandoned the project and the option expired. My script was an orphan again. And I was devastated. The rug had been completely pulled out from under me. Though I had fallen to my lowest point, I wasn’t willing to give up the ghost. Drawing upon the wisdom of the bestselling self-help book Who Moved My Cheese, I … moved my cheese and set screenwriting aside and try my hand at prose. At first, I felt like I was abandoning my dream. But then I realized, my end goal remained the same. I was just seeking an alternate route; I would have to enter Hollywood through the backdoor.

No longer bound by the constraints of screenplay structure, writing prose was an incredibly liberating experience. I was therefore able to go back to the original draft of my script and resurrect previously cut scenes. Furthermore, the script was essentially a skeleton outline, so all I had to do was add meat to the bones. The biggest challenge was to learn how to write prose that didn’t read like the sparse choppiness of a script. By the same token, the brevity of screenwriting also came in handy. It was just a matter of finding the proper balance. Over time, I got into the groove. And thus a book was born.

Sadly, around the time I was completing my book, my marriage had begun to unravel. And I would be in denial if I didn’t admit that my writing had a lot to do with it. If you marry a writer, know that writing will be your spouse’s mistress. Perhaps, the best advice I could give any writer is not to marry. It only ends up hurting people.

During the last couple of years of my marriage, there was a lot of pressure to stop writing. To abandon a dream that clearly wasn’t ever going to happen And at one point, I did. For the sake of my marriage. And I had never been more miserable in my life. I never felt more incomplete. I felt like an addict without a fix. When I’m writing, I never feel more alive. A literal high. In fact, I usually feel more awake and full of energy on the heels of a late night writing session than I do on a full night’s sleep. So once I lost that lifeline, I unraveled. Dear God, did I unravel.

Asking somebody to give up on something you put in so many years and sacrifice into is just about the most selfish thing you can ask someone to do for them. Quitting would mean everything was all for naught. It would have been one thing if I lost all faith in myself. But my faith never wavered. Yet, I wanted to do what I could to spare my marriage. Consequentially, it destroyed it. It is perhaps no coincidence that for most of this period, communication with Ms. Gautreau was at it lowest peak, short of an annual Christmas card. In fact, it was the longest stretch I had gone without seeing her. I wasn’t even conscious of it at the time. But looking back, it is no coincidence that it paralleled at this point in my life.

Though broken, I wasn’t completely beaten. And then I started writing again, but did so secretly. I was a closeted writer. A painful, daily reminder that the person who once shared in my dream – who I fell in love because of her support of my dream – had forsaken me. So after trying to hold on as long as I could, I pulled the plug after eight years of marriage. And just like that, I was left with an unpublished book about a love story that no longer existed in reality.

The craziest thing about this was the fact that my divorce – as tragic and painful as it was – wasn’t my lowest point. It was the period when I had stopped writing.

When I first fell in love, I wondered if my Hollywood dream was only a ruse by fate to lead me to my soul mate on that fateful, rainy day at Universal Studios. I now realize that falling in love was actually part of fate’s grand plan that would lead to the book that would later make my dream finally come true. With no shortage of sacrifice, pain, and tears from two people, who once upon a time promised live happily ever after.

Five years later, my book was published. And as exhilarating and magical the experienced has been, I would be remiss to ignore the bittersweet melancholy that has accompanied me on this journey. On one hand, with every revision, I got to re-live my life’s most amazing experience over and over again. It is as close to time travel as the human mind can get. At the same time, these memories are soaked in regret when I think about how it all ended. And though I take comfort in the knowledge that this life-altering experience will live on forever in the pages of my book, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to the regret of not sharing in this experience with her by my side. No matter how many book signings I have done and no matter how many copies I will ultimately sell, there will always be a deep, melancholy hole in my heart.

When the time came to write a dedication, the choice was simple: I knew I couldn’t dedicate it to my ex-wife. And I certainly wasn’t going to dedicate a book about my ex to my second wife. So it was only fitting I would dedicate it to Ms. Gautreau – the person who most made this publication possible. In an e-mail to her, I wrote:

 

“I never even had to deliberate my decision to dedicate the book to you. And seeing your name on the dedication page was almost equal to the feeling of holding the book itself for the first time.”

I sent her the first copy of my book along with the invite to my book launch (which fell on the eve of her 70th birthday). And here is what she wrote:

Dear Bob,

 

Who knew that that shared room with your grandfather and my father in residence at Oakwood Hospital would lead to such connections?

To find your book in the mail after returning from Japan was pure delight.

The dedication gave me a thrill shiver and goose bumps.

I never anticipated such an experience.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH!

This old gal is very touched and pleased!

Looking forward to seeing you soon.

 

All the very best to you and yours,

Anne

 

Consequentially, one of the most joyous moments of my life was being able to introduce Ms. Gautreau to the packed house at my book’s launch party at Literati Bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor. That very moment was the culmination of every ounce of sweat, blood, and tears shed over the past 20 years, going all the way back to the moment that an awkward, directionless boy first entered that 10th grade classroom, only to exit with laser beam focus.

The next day, Ms. Gautreau wrote this on a Facebook post:

“Bob, you were surrounded by autograph seekers after our launch; so I want to let you know how touched I was by your remarks. I felt as though I were going to burst into tears when you offered your kind remarks to me. Your reading was the best. I have attended a helluva lot of readings over the years. Yours hit all the right notes. The audience was enchanted and enthralled, tickled and touched. If I had ever had a song I would have wanted him to be exactly like you. I marvel at your keen-quirky mind, your self-discipline, your willingness to be a risk taker, and your sheer determination. BRAVO! Also, it thrilled me to be inside a NEW independent bookstore. It tickled me to see a younger couple risk starting a new publishing company. It delighted me to see people scrambling to find copies of your book down on the first floor. Finally, I hope lots and lots and lots and lots of people realize that your novel would make great Christmas gifts. ALL THE VERY BEST TO YOU FOR A GREAT SUCCESS!”

As the above comments demonstrate, as long as I live, her influence will always be felt through the deepest reaches of my soul every time I put pen to paper. Or fingers to keyboard. No matter how much further my success carries me and no matter how many setbacks I must endure, every brick of my future will be built upon the foundation that Ms. Gautreau laid down for me.

I will conclude this essay dedication with a Christmas card from 2004 that encapsulates everything that is great about this guiding light in my life. On the envelope to the card were two rubber stamped Shakespeare quotes: “This above all; this thine own self be true.” Along with “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

Inside the card, in her own magical handwriting:

 

“Continue to create. It’s significant energy, important to counterbalance the forces devoted to destruction on the planet. The creative process is necessary, meritorious and precious.

All the best, Anne.”

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Four Foxes, One Hound blog

 

 

Down with OCD

Looking back at my childhood, I am 99.99% sure I had undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder. And though under control, there’s doubt I have it as an adult. As I think about my strange, childhood behaviors, I can’t help but wonder: how did this affliction untreated? Was everyone too focused on my speech impediments? Surely my parents noticed me making sure that that every Kleenex box was perfectly aligned and straight 30 times a day. Or, did I simply do a great job staying closeted about it?

Though my undiagnosed condition has been a sometimes a cumbersome, debilitating hindrance, I have learned to embrace it. In fact, I am convinced that my obsessive compulsiveness stems from the same part of my brain that fueled my obsessive devotion to a dream that a less obsessive person might have given up on. After all, rebounding from rejection after rejection is much akin to doing the same thing over and over and over until something gives. Because eventually, everything finds its place. The planets will be aligned. And wall will be right with the world.

In addition to the aforementioned Kleenex boxes, I obsessed over everything from the corner of a video game cartridge label peeling off, to a smudge mark on the cover of a comic book. The one thing that drove my family the most nuts was my insistence on making sure the bindings of my books never got bent. They knew better than to open a book of mine. Anytime somebody would attempt to open up one of my books, or (in rare instances, loan one of my books to someone), I would issue one simple, panicked caveat: DON’T BEND THE BINDING!

Though some of my OCD tendencies have faded over time, proper book care has not. And it’s just my books that I worry about. I cringe at the sight of any book binding abuse. If preserving a book’s binding means not being able to open it up more than half an inch and straining my neck in order to read the words on the page, then godammit, the book ain’t opening more than half an inch. And don’t even get me started on bent covers.

Here are some of my other ODC quirks over the years (and more reasons why I had such a tough time making friends):

 

1st grade: Obsessively staring at my digital Casio watch so much so, my parents had to take it away.

 

4th grade: Feeling the need to constantly clear my throat to make sure my voice box was still working

 

5th grade: The aforementioned straightening of Kleenex boxes.

 

6th grade: Crashing my R/C monster truck into a basement wall and then obsessively trying to tape it back on.

 

7th grade: obsessively putting sidewalk chalk over a bleached out portion of a Simpsons T-shirt.

 

The list can go on and on. Over the years, I have saved insignificant items from dates, ex-girlfriends, and even random friends, including candy wrappers, uneaten candy still in wrappers, ticket stubs, and napkins from dates, etc. It’s a wonder that I’m not a hoarder. I have come dangerously close. Fortunately, three women have made me get rid of things at various points in my life: my mother. And two wives. Especially whenever the time had come to move. I still have a box of love letters from my high school girlfriend stored into the deepest recesses of my basement. In fact, I have dozens of boxes spanning multiple eras of my life. Someday, the R.J. Fox historical society is going to really appreciate this fact.

My hoarder tendencies became magnified tenfold once I had children. God forbid my wife throws away a small scribble my son or daughter makes on a crumpled up piece of paper.

My undiagnosed condition still rears its ugly head in all areas of life:

I overly-obsess checking e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc. – no matter how busy I may be (and especially when I am writing). Then there was the time I re-painted a door over a dozen times attempting to cover up a small pockmark that was made after attempting to sand bumpy paint before it was completely dry. No matter how many coats of paint, the pockmark remained. I obsessed over it once I sold that house. And continue to obsess over it from time to time.

Every now and then, my OCD over small things lead to even bigger problems. Take, for instance, a recent incident involving an old pair of tattered gym shorts. (My inability to get rid of clothes – no matter how worn or old – is a side effect of my OCD). These particular shorts were navy blue, with a small a strip of white at the bottom. While re-surfacing our blacktop driveway, a small drop of black coating landed right on the white spot of my shorts. It drove me absolutely crazy that these old, raggedy shorts were now tarnished. In a frenzy, I whipped up a solution to the problem: bleach! Of course this would work. White on white! After dabbing a bleach-soaked cotton ball on the black spot, I laid the shorts upon my bed to dry, thinking that the wet part wouldn’t penetrate through my bedspread. Not only did it leave a bleach stain far larger and far more noticeable than the little black spot on my old pair of shorts, the bleach didn’t work (though in my defense, it was definitely more faded). Three years later, I still obsess over this incident and an endless others just like it. As much as I realize nothing can be done to change these things, my mind still acts as though it can.

Though I realize none of these obsessions really matter in the end, I think I much prefer living in a world where everything does.

 

I Need Juice

There is nothing that makes me cringe more than the thought of a needle entering my vein. A needle into flesh is one thing. They suck, but they don’t make me pass out. Stick a needle through my flesh and into a vein …well. Shit. I’m getting woozy just thinking about it.

Ever since the age of 12, I have either passed out, or have come close to passing out during multiple blood tests over the years. I’m not talking about gallons or even pints of blood. I’m talking a single vial, which means that it is completely psychological – well, for the most part.

As a result, I can never donate to a blood bank. Despite feeling guilty, the fear of passing out overshadows everything out.

Most of the times I have passed came on the heels of having to fast the night before. Low blood sugar is to blame for this. In fact, I have passed out from low blood sugar on numerous occasions that didn’t involve a needle at all. Like in church, which isn’t nearly as embarrassing as having to stop someone from giving me oral sex as the swirling clouds of gray clouded my brain halfway through the act (or, in an hot tub on my honeymoon in an even more involved act).

Though passing out has been far and few between in recent years, whenever my doctor prescribes a blood test, I still cringe. When (if) I finally summon the courage to go, I make sure that I have juice and a granola bar ready to go the very second the needle leaves my vein – especially when fasting is involved.

I have also found another strategy that works during the act of blood renewal. I simply ask the nurse to talk to me the entire time to keep me distracted (though, I learned to always clarify that this does not mean talking about drawing blood. Talking about it only makes it worse!)

As I mentioned, I don’t always need blood drawn to pass out. The only surefire to avoid this is to 1.) eat breakfast first thing in the morning and 2.) always have a mid-morning snack within reach at all times. Though I try to keep my glove box stocked with back-ups, I usually forget to refill my backup supply when it runs out. Fortunately, my wife is pretty consistent at bringing along snacks for both the kids…and for me whenever we leave the house – especially in the morning.

Though I have only passed out a small handful of times after breakfast, there have been countless times that I entered what I call the “grey zone” within an hour or two after I eat. And even though I usually don’t pass out, getting lightheaded is a common occurrence and usually accompanied by a massive headache, which often leads to a migraine, which often leads to vomiting).

The peak of these experiences occurred around the ages of 12-17. On numerous occasions, I hopped into the shower before breakfast, only to be visited by shades of gray, at which point I would scramble out of the shower, just barely managing to put a towel on, mustering whatever energy I had left to yell out: “I NEED JUICE!”, at which point I would crawl toward my bedroom, with my junk exposed through my loosely wrapped towel and lie in bed, waiting for my mom to bring me a glass of orange juice. By the time she entered my room with juice in hand, I was too close to the brink of passing out to care that my junk was fully exposed. With barely enough strength to sit up, I would gulp my juice until I would break into a cold sweat and color filled my world once again.

And leave it to my family to immediately begin making fun of me for my distress mantra: “I NEED JUICE!” (because I had no shortage of people making fun of me at school). In fact, not only was my family making fun of me, they thought I was only doing it for attention, like my incessant sleep talking, or the time I woke up in the middle of the night with all of the lights on in my room and my bed positioned perfectly in the center of my room (moved from against the wall). For what it’s worth, I solemnly swear in this NON-FICTION essay that this is all truth.

The strangest incident occurred when I collapsed on the bathroom floor during one of my pre-breakfast showers. Upon seeing me passed out on the floor, she passed out, too, resulting in a minor neck injury that took months to recover from. Of course, nobody believed me that I passed out for real. They thought I was only faking it and that my mom, on the other hand, had passed out from fright, and that I was too driven by guilt to admit it.

And then there was that dreadful Easter Sunday in middle school in church. Though I had eaten breakfast, it consisted of nothing but Easter candy. During the sermon, I began to feel woozy and thought I was going to vomit. En route to the restroom, I was overcome by a wave of darkening gray and then collapsed in the vestibule. Next thing I knew, I was being held in the arms of a large bald man, who happened to be the father of a classmate.

On the heels of this holy encounter, my doctor sent me for a four-hour glucose tolerance test to determine my blood sugar level. This test consisted of not only fasting the night before, but consuming mass amounts of an orange-flavored glucose-syrup each hour of the test. I passed out during the first round, thus ending the test. The needle wasn’t even out of my arm yet. I woke up to the pungent smell or ammonia in my nostrils. At least I had a diagnosis: I was hyperglycemic.

So despite a medical reason for crying out: “I need juice!”, it still (till this day even) hasn’t stopped my family from making fun of me. Fortunately, despite a few close calls, it’s been several years since the last time I passed out.

But as long as there is no shortage of granola bars and juice on this planet, I know that in the end, I’m always going to be okay.

 

 

 

Lovable Loser

R.J. Fox

I am not an athlete. I never was and never will be. Don’t get me wrong: I love sports and it’s certainly not for a lack of trying that stunted my athletic prowess. “Natural” athletes are born with two balls between their legs and one ball in hand the moment they climb out of the womb. However, having a father with absolutely no interest in sports doesn’t bode well for one’s athletic development. My mother at least watched sports from time to time (despite not being an athlete herself), but she certainly didn’t teach me how to play sports. Then again, nobody taught my two younger sisters and that didn’t stop them. Being short for my age certainly didn’t help. Nor was being the last in my class to reach puberty.

I never stood a chance.

Like most kids, my sports “career” began in elementary school gym class. It didn’t…

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The Righteous Brother

When I was in middle school, my father nicknamed me “the righteous brother”. And it was not a compliment. Nor was he referring to one-half of the famous singing duo of “Unchained Melody” fame. And it was certainly not a way to earn any street cred. Some might see this as a compliment. It was in reference to my annoying and judgmental tendency to preach morality to my two younger sisters. I was also a tattletale. And though I prided myself back then on my high horse of morality, I would be amiss to say that I didn’t have an ulterior motive: getting my little sisters in trouble.

It was bad enough that I had to endure getting made fun of my peers. But my own family? Though I later learned to embrace being the black sheep of my family, at the time, I just needed to accepted for who I was. And that wasn’t always the case.

Of course, being a “righteous brother” had its upsides: by the time I got to high school, I didn’t have a curfew like other classmates because I was always home early enough not to warrant one (fewer friends = less time for late-night hijinks). In truth, my straight-laced “righteous” behavior had less to do with morality and more to do with being afraid to get in trouble.

I was, for lack of a better word, a pussy.

My cowardice emerged at a very early age. There is even photographic evidence to prove it. Exhibit A: I was just short of turning one and I’m being held in the arms of a clown at my hometown Memorial Day parade. The look of abject terror on my face says it all. In fact, it is a look that suggests something much more sinister (though, on second thought – in my defense – who wouldn’t be afraid?)

Exhibit B: This same look of fear is duplicated over several photos taken on the lap of Santa and the Easter Bunny. Santa is scary enough. The Easter Bunny’s soul-piercing black eyes and inanimate expression is even more frightening. Most kids grow out of this by the time they are five or six. I was still showing fear well beyond that (and , on a semi-related note, the fact I still believed at the age of 12 tell you all you need to know).

Exhibit C: I am just shy of three. My hands are held tightly over my ears as tears stream down my face. The source of such abject terror? … a kite, flown by my dad in the parking lot of the church behind our house. I was scared of the flapping sound it made in the wind.

As I got older, my phobias increased, extending to lighting matches, bees, basements, and routine blood tests (of which even the smallest amount has caused me to pass out).

Despite living the life of a certified wuss, there are a few scattered moments where the righteous brother showed signs of unrighteousness. Grant, it was often accidental. Some could write volumes about such rebellious behavior. I just need a few pages. Although these instances are far and few between, it is my hope that sharing them could perhaps earn the slightest modicum of street cred (of which the first step is to probably avoid using such pompous words as “modicum”):

 

Tearing it Up

Lying to cover up a crime is the oldest trick in the book. However, when you are raised Catholic, lying to get yourself out of trouble only leads to a downward spiral of endless guilt. I learned this lesson in the first grade after intentionally stomping all over a classmate’s steno notebook when nobody was looking. I didn’t even know whose notebook it was, yet, for forces beyond my control, I noticed it on the floor and felt compelled to destroy it. Mutilate it. Tear it to shreds. After the crime was discovered, the victim was brought to tears. She was one of the best students in the class and her destroyed notebook meant page after page of lost work. As much as my conscience was dictating me to do otherwise, I remained mute, even when the teacher pulled each of us into the hall one by one in an attempt at coaxing a confession out of them. I feigned ignorance. But inside, I was already burning in hell. It was my first “crime”. And even though more crimes were yet to come, I still feel guilty about it till this day. Once a Catholic …

 

Playing in the Street

When I was five, I told my two-year-old sister to stand in the middle of the street. It wasn’t a matter of not knowing any better… nor was it a matter of me attempting to kill her (at least, I’m pretty sure I made sure no cars were coming) . My motivation was to get her in trouble. All it managed was to get me in trouble. Within seconds of her entering the street, my parents had burst out the front door and scooped up my sister out of harm’s way, as my grandparents watched from the porch. I remember the wooden brush against my ass. I remember crying. I remember my grandfather being so upset by my scolding, that he and my grandma left. Though I don’t condone hitting a child with a wooden brush, a hand, or any other object for that matter, I certainly don’t condone telling a toddler to stand in the middle of a street. Having small children of my own makes this episode even more cringe-worthy. This incident also sparked my first grounding – one week without friends, which was not that difficult for somebody with no friends.

 

Hoser

It was one of those hot, glorious dog days of summer. I was playing in the front yard with a hose, when I spotted our neighbor Mr. K. approaching down the street in his car. For reasons I will never be able to fully decipher, I had the sudden impulse to spray him with a hose right through the open window of his passing vehicle. I managed to time it so that the point of impact of the hose coincided with the arrival of his friendly wave.

Upon impact, he quickly slammed on his brakes and started scolding me.

“What in the hell did you do that for?!” he said, wiping the water off his face with a handkerchief.

I stood there like a helpless mute, hose still in hand.

My mother ran out to see what was going on. She apologized, took me inside, and proceeded to scold me even further. I had no ill feelings toward the man whatsoever, yet, I felt compelled to spray him with a hose.

 

“Do me, Baby!”

If you are struggling to seem cool, don’t try to gain your classmates’ respect by telling them that your sister’s Cricket doll says “Do me, baby.” Even if you are telling them this because you think it will make you cool, even though a.) it won’t and b.) you don’t even know what “do me” means. For those that don’t know who Cricket is, Cricket was similar in concept to Teddy Ruxpin. For those who don’t know who Cricket or Teddy Ruxpin is, they are both animatronic dolls that play cassette tapes inserted into their ass – like Chuck E Cheese characters on a smaller scale. As the tapes play, their eyes and mouths are programmed to move along with it. Neither one them – or anything of their ilk – say “Do me, baby.” This led to my first and only time that I was punished in school. And it resulted in me getting a stern warning from Mr. Brusco – our cigar-chomping principal. I also had to write a note for my parents that said: “Today in school, I told my classmates that my sister’s Cricket doll said “’Do me, baby.’” It will not happen again. And I am sorry.”

I kept my promise. And Cricket still lives at my parents.

High Balls, Wrestling, & Jell-O

 

For a span roughly around the ages of 5-10, I would frequently goad my cousin Tony into wrestling matches at holiday functions at my grandparents’ house. To paint a better picture of this matchup: I was a skinny, weak toothpick and Tony was…well, beyond “husky”. Without fail, Tony would agree to wrestle, only to then promptly pummel me. Like clockwork, I would scream for help, at which point Tony would get scolded. The frequency that this scenario played itself out was on par with Charlie Brown, Lucy, and a football. I would promise not cry for help, yet sure enough, I did. Every time.

One time, around the age of 10, I found a new way to get Tony into trouble. A new “football” so to speak. While standing at the pop and booze table, I convinced Tony to let me make him a high ball “just like Grandpa.” Though we were accustomed to “Jr. Highballs” (Squirt and cherry juice), I decided to add a splash of whiskey to Tony’s drink (not mine). When he were caught, everyone immediately blamed Tony. Nothing he could say could convince them that innocent Bobby had anything to do with it.

However, I would later get my due punishment when I decided it was a good idea to fling a spoonful of Jell-O and Cool Whip at Tony’s face. Somehow, only I found the humor in this.

 

Take this Gift and Shove It

It’s probably not a good idea to show your appreciation for a Christmas gift from your beloved Godmother by shoving it onto the floor because it was only a sweater when you were hoping for a toy. What a prick.

 

911

If I could impart any wisdom to my children, it would be to avoid “friends” who think it’s a good idea to prank call the police. Notice the quotation marks I used on “friends”. True friends don’t put all the blame on you, even though you were the unwilling accomplice who actually tried to talk them out of their stupid little prank. In the end, the police showed up and promptly escorted me back home, where I was issued a prompt warning. I didn’t even attempt to explain my role in the situation, out of fear that my “friends” would retaliate. In other words, I was less afraid of getting in trouble with the law than I was facing retribution of my “friends.” The only other time I would ever get in trouble with the law (aside from the occasional speeding or parking ticket) was being interrogated by the FBI for being a possible terrorist suspect following a late-night film scouting expedition on an industrial island in Detroit.

 

Sucker Slap

After enduring several years of bullying, the time had come to take a stance. However, my stance consisted of a half-assed, weak slap (or, more specifically, a mild graze) across my bully’s cheek while he was chomping on his bologna sandwich in the school cafeteria. His immediate reaction was to laugh, then continue eating his sandwich as though nothing happened. The dozen or so witnesses also laughed. Adding insult to injury, this incident prompted even more teasing by my bully. At least I tried.

 

 

My American Pastime

R.J. Fox

It is no surprise that during the same summer I became a baseball junkie, a game was born bearing my name. I was 13. Where I lacked in athletic ability, I made up for in creativity, leading to what alliteratively and affectionately became known as “Bobby Ball”. It is a name synonymous with both losing. And hope.

On the surface, Bobby Ball is much akin to Wiffle Ball. For starters, it uses a Wiffle Ball bat. However, instead of a Wiffle Ball, Bobby Ball uses a deflated rubber ball, halfway between the size of a baseball and a softball. It makes use of ghost runners and bean-outs. Its purest form is one-on-one, however, multi-player Bobby Ball certainly has its advantages. At its core, it’s the baseball equivalent of one-on-one basketball. First one to 21 runs wins – or, when age or brevity is part the equation – 11.

From a…

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