My Best Chance For A Normal Life

In sixth grade, the most beautiful girl in my class at Pacific Union College Elementary School, Cindy Anderson, dropped a note on my desk asking me, “Would you like to go with me?” Here was what I wanted most. I yearned to connect with Cindy. After I read her note, I was flooded by emotion. I felt high. I didn’t know how to respond. So I viciously teased Cindy for the rest of the school year. Why did I turn down what I wanted most? I have to figure this out.

I began fifth grade in January 1977 at Avondale College Primary School. I knew we were moving to California in May. I was excited.

My other excitement in fifth grade came from girls paying attention to me for the first time. Ever since I entered school in second grade, I’d had an interest in girls. It turned into a lump in my throat and a longing in my heart in third grade. I liked this solid freckled redhead Debbie Hick, she just seemed so capable, but I did nothing about it.

In fifth grade, this chubby girl had the hots for me. I responded the only way I knew how, by teasing her, by leaving tacks on her seat, and when that was not enough, by kicking her.

I remember getting tacks and putting them pointy side up on her seat and wincing when she sat on them and she yelped in pain as the tacks drew blood. Other kids saw what I did. I suspect the chubby girl knew.

Then there was the time she got close up and I started kicking her and she said to me through her tears, “One day you’ll know what it is like to love someone who kicks you.”

I think she cursed me.

Normally, I had to bike home at lunch time to eat with my step-mother, but there was a time at school that year when I was free and sitting on the grass with other kids and this girl, perhaps Wendy Leach, started flirting with me. I was embarrassed and awkward and probably hostile. The sun was shining and she was talking about kissing me and I think I just got out of there.

In May, my parents and I moved to Pacific Union College (PUC) in the Napa Valley. I began sixth grade in September of 1977. My father walked me to school that first day and told me to work on my listening skills and to not argue with people, advice that he would repeat over the next 15 years.

In those first heady weeks of school, people didn’t know I was a loser. My place in the social pecking was not set. I was interesting.

At Avondale, my place in the social pecking order varied from the bottom (where I started out in second grade when I still peed myself) to the middle (when I left in fifth grade). I usually become more popular with time in a place.

One’s social rank is obvious. It’s not some abstract label. It’s a reflection of whether or not people want to be around you. If everyone excludes you, you might as well die. Social ostracism and humiliation equal death. Status is life.

I noticed some big changes when I came to PUC. At private school in Australia, none of the girls were allowed to wear make-up. At PUC, the girls wore make-up, notably Lip Smacker, a fruity gloss that made their lips shine and smell like strawberries or watermelon or vanilla. Strawberry was my favorite flavor for milkshakes and ice cream. I just wanted to get in on those shiny fruity American lips and lick the strawberries.

In Australia, the other kids had body odor if they smelt at all. In America, people were perfumed (except for my dad who thought it was unhealthy).

In Australia, there was abundant corporal punishment. I got hit by my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Mazzaferri, more than any other kid in the class but one (Willy). I was proud of my defiance but hated getting hit. I imagined, however, that it gave me prestige. I saw myself as a great rebel, a chip off the old block.

In Australia, kids had to wear school uniforms. In America, you could wear what you wanted.

In Australia, spontaneous emotion was discouraged. If you waxed enthusiastic, you were accused of “raving like a Yank.” In America, you could express your feelings and wouldn’t necessarily get mocked for it.

In Australia, it seemed that only the mentally ill got counseling. In America, it seemed like regular folks were in therapy and that affected the way people spoke. I got the label of “insecure.” Nobody used that kind of psychological language at Avondale.

The other big difference between my schools was that in Australia, the girls rarely made a move on the boys. In America, the girls were sometimes bold.

At my PUC school, we had dividers between our desks. One day, I watched Cindy Anderson, the most beautiful girl in the class, a tall classic brunette with a Jane Seymore like beauty (or perhaps she was more Kate Jackson or Jaclyn Smith) with long hair and a great smile and a sense of humor and sweet social skills, approach my desk and drop a note on it. No one had ever dropped a note on my desk before. Even if the note had been blank, it would’ve felt like a major social advance for me.

I opened it up with a pounding heart and read, “Would you like to go with me?”

I was flooded with emotion. This was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me. I was high. I was sailing above my problems because the most beautiful girl in the class wanted me.

I was immobilized by the intensity of my longing for Cindy. I was frightened by the prospect of attaining what I wanted most.

I wasn’t close enough to anyone to talk about what had just happened to me.

I wanted to say “Yes!!! I want to go with you”, but I feared that was a step over the precipice into an unknown world of human connection.

I have to figure out why I didn’t say yes to Cindy Anderson because this same reticence plagues me to this day when I can receive what I want most.

I think that the main reason that I didn’t say yes to Cindy was that I had no model for love. Due to my father’s constant controversies, my mother’s fatal cancer and my step-mother’s depression, my home was a cold sick place. My older brother and sister left as soon as they could. Nobody liked being home, not me and not my siblings and not my parents. We all wanted to be somewhere else. We were all happiest when we were away because none of us came from a good home and all of us felt best off when we were distracted. My dad had his work, his Christian evangelism. That always came number one for him. My step-mother was out of her mind half the time because of hormonal imbalances. I had no healthy role models for how to relate to others. My dad was a flame-thrower of the Christian gospel, spraying it far and wide like napalm and keeping himself at the center of church controversy and us on the edge of the precipice of ostracism. My step-mom tried to hold things together.

My dad was a martyr for Christ, an automaton for Jesus, a machine for the gospel, a robot for the divine. He appeared to have no needs because he felt embraced by God’s love. My step-mom, on the other hand, seemed like endless need. Women were frightening to me because of this. I feared that they were all need.

I tried to imitate my dad. I would deny need. I would discipline myself to do great things. I would be another Protestant martyr, a man for all seasons.

When I was offered ice cream on a hot day, I’d say no, even though ice cream was what I wanted more than anything. I preferred to put other people in pain rather than to please myself. I was more invested in hurting others than taking care of myself. I thought about suicide because it seemed like the most hurtful thing I could do. I was always plotting vengeance at my enemies. My dad had enemies because he was a preacher of the Gospel. I had enemies because I was equally righteous.

I learned how to make others miserable by inflicting misery on myself. I modeled my father’s martyrdom for the cause.

The central story of my Protestant upbringing was that God came to earth to martyr himself and that we should do likewise. Growing up, I didn’t learn much about enjoying life. “I don’t give a cracker for this world,” my father would say. He didn’t bother with hobbies and pleasures. He was all mission. Everybody he met was just fodder for Christ.

I had no model for saying yes to what I wanted. I had no road map to human connection. I had no example to emulate. I only knew sickness. I only knew how to antagonize others so that they would keep their distance from me and I’d be less vulnerable. I’d be less exposed. I wouldn’t be found out as an emotional cripple.

So what was I scared of with Cindy? I was flooded. When a car is flooded, it will not start. When I am flooded, I can not start. What frightened me? That if I said yes to Cindy and became close with her, all the misery and rage I had locked up inside of me would pour out in an frightening way. I was frightened of my need. I wanted to be strong like dad but I was weak like mom.

Crying was a big sin in my home. It meant you weren’t right with God. If you knew God loved you, why would you cry? On the handful of occasions that my father spanked me, he said, “I will hit you twice as long if you cry.” So I learned not to cry and I learned not to admit negative emotions. Who needed the reprimand?

If I said yes to Cindy, I feared what was out there. I feared that my floodgates would open and that I would cry like a baby and I’d lose control and I’d get hit twice as hard for twice as long. I feared I’d become this aching gaping grand canyon of need.

In the moment I read the note, I set sail on a river of emotion and it went on and on and on as I numbly went about my day.

I kept the note. It was a token of an ordinary world I had yet to find.

So what did I say to Cindy? Nothing directly. I just teased her unmercifully for the rest of the school year and I teased the boys who hung out with her.

Then, near the end of the year, imagining that my teasing had been witty and entertaining, I dropped a note on Cindy’s desk asking her to go with me. She replied, “No!!!!!”

She left my school after sixth grade and I have no idea what happened to her.

I kept acting out of hostility for much of my life, but never again did the most beautiful girl in the class ask me to go with her. Cinema Paradiso is my story. “When a Sicilian boy is mesmerized by the movies at his local theater, he befriends a projectionist who tells him to leave home and pursue his dreams.”

During the summers before seventh and eighth grade, I spent many an afternoon in the PUC pool playing keepaway games with the girls. We each paired up with someone. My girl was Jeanie, this amiable chubby blonde. We’d toss the ball back and forth and playfully tackle each other. It was all an excuse to touch. I, however, wasn’t so playful with my tackles. I was rough. I grabbed her hard and dunked her. I couldn’t relax into touch because my primary experience of that sensation was violence. I was beat by my parents and I was beat by other kids. I didn’t know how to be nice.

Because of the trauma of his childhood, my father is a tense man. His step is heavy and his touch is unpleasant. He hates to be hugged, particularly by women other than his wife, and he is not comfortable physically displaying affection.

I had the most beautiful seventh grade teacher in the world. She looked like a movie star. She was blonde and curvy and she wore sunglasses. I wanted her to touch me but whenever she did, I flinched until she got the message to cut it out.

After I got into my 20s, I had a lot of lovers and learned to enjoy the body. Seduction became an addiction that led me to 12-step work.

I sometimes dream that if I could have only said yes to Cindy in sixth grade, my screwed up journey would not have happened. All those barriers that have blocked me off from other people and that still exist to this day, if I could have only shed them with Cindy, I would’ve been on my way to an ordinary world.

If I could’ve said yes on that afternoon in sixth grade, if I could’ve dropped a note on her desk that said, “How do we do this?”, we might’ve started talking. I might’ve learned how to connect. The barriers might’ve fallen down and the tears might’ve flowed and we might’ve built something, such as our own Moonrise Kingdom.

What if I could’ve told someone in sixth grade that my home was a horror show? That I had never seen love? Was it possible between a man and a woman? Women seemed to me like endless whirlpools of need. I hated them.

If I could’ve talked to Cindy, I might not have needed to seduce as many women as possible and to spend 12 years in the trenches of the porn industry. I might’ve learned something that sustained me for life.

Jeff* emails:

I don’t know what kind of crap your therapists have been feeding you, but as a friend who has experienced similar emotions, I’m gonna give it to you straight. Ready?

Rainy is NOT precious to you! What you are holding on to is the fantasy you’ve built up around Rainy, which bears little resemblance to her then, and certainly no resemblance to who she is now. This fantasy of her and your other girlfriends was created by you to punish yourself for your perceived inadequacies. You tell yourself, “If I had only been this way or done this or not done that, I’d be blissfully married to the perfect woman – Rainy – with 2.5 kids, a white picket fence and a dog named Shlomo”. Of course, Rainy would convert for you and change her name to Geshem.

Wake up, Luke! It’s not about them. It’s about you. You have to change the way you look at the past. Right now, you’re expending so much time, energy and emotion dwelling on things you can’t change that you’re wasting the precious time you have left. Twenty years from now, will you be sitting in front of your computer, blogging to whoever will listen about the years you wasted kvetching on FB about the previous 20 years?!

You need to look at the past as a “learning experience”. Nothing more. Learn from your past and try to avoid making those same mistakes in the future. Forgive yourself and move on, vowing to be and do better tomorrow.

According to Kaballah, the reason why we need to sleep and why the sun rises every morning is because every day is supposed to be like being freshly reborn. A new day with new opportunities. Yesterday was the past. It’s only important to learn lessons from so we can more wisely make decisions that affect our present and future.

Get out of your rut. Stop living in the past and live for now and your future. Of course, you’ll probably make mistakes along the way. Say or do something you’ll later regret. But that’s what life is about. You’ll forgive yourself and move on, realizing that nobody is perfect and we all have crap in our lives we need to deal with, no matter how cute our FB postings may seem.

Now get out there and LIVE YOUR LIFE!

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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