For the second time in just over three years, my dad is about to make an emergency trip to the West Coast to deal with shit stirred up by my troubled relationship with Farmer Uncle. At least this time he’s traveling on a week and a half’s notice, not the two or three days’ notice he allowed himself last time.
The 2012 trip was a clusterfuck. Although I was publishing a lot here at the time, I never really even summarized what a hellish waste much of that trip was. All told, Dad probably spent two or three thousand dollars on the trip, not counting food. He was basically driving us around Santa Cruz County in a rental car, which would have been cool if it hadn’t involved a bunch of sudden, unanticipated expenses for him and, for my part, listening to a bunch of frantic handwringing about how I was fucking up at a time when I had not a week earlier fled Oregon in desperation because Farmer Uncle had totally lost it. And now I was sitting in a Vietnamese restaurant in a strip mall in San Jose, being grilled about why I didn’t want to go to graduate school, or walking around on one beach or bit of boardwalk after another, feeling like a zombie. The First Class didn’t sing about these California experiences. Or, oddly enough, about the stuffy-ass English expatriate who got her word into a Scotts Valley free weekly about the proper salutations for addressing various British and American dignitaries (I prefer “that’s rubbish, Tony, and you know it,” but I’m not a prissy bitch who moved to Scotts Valley to lecture the Americans about these things).
So we were driving around from forest to beach to deli to botanical garden to whatever the fuck, and most of the time was too pleasant to remember vividly through the trauma of what were actually only a handful of distressing arguments. It was surreal. Most of the trip would have kicked ass if it had been better planned, e.g., not to conflict with a vineyard work crunch and involve exorbitant short-notice airfares, but the bad parts were hell on wheels for me, and I had only the fuzziest premonitions of when things might get bad again. In one of life’s paradoxes that theoretically shouldn’t be so expensive but in practice has to be, we ended up having Lord Lochforrest over when we came back through Palo Alto on our way out of town. In nearly seven years Lord Lochforrest had literally said hi to each other once over the phone. At times, I had been in tears, assuming that I’d never see him again. It was really just that we’d been out of touch, and he happened to be in Palo Alto on business that night.
Some days later, Lord Lochforrest asked my dad if I was on an SSRI and suggested to him that I get on one. My thinking was fuck no, there’s probably an underlying psychiatric condition at play here but most of what’s going on is that I just spent a week and a half being traumatized by fubar family drama. Plus I’d just seen a dear friend for the first time in seven years. I’d had more than my fill of psychiatrists and psychologists by the age of twenty, so I wasn’t inclined to usher in my thirties with more of that shit. Maybe an SSRI scrip written by an internist with no interest in psychotherapy whatsoever, but nothing more, and in the end I didn’t even get that.
Pride? Stubbornness? Yes. Self-destructiveness? A bit, and I felt bad about that, too. But given the choice between going on psychotropic medication and putting an end to the egregiously bad behavior of Stoner Aunt and especially Farmer Uncle, it was no contest. This was obviously a false dichotomy, but I could tell that my most recent recurrence of bipolar disorder would not have happened without Farmer Uncle’s meltdown and the family train wreck that followed it. I’d had sui generis depressive and hypomanic episodes before, especially in high school and college, ones in which my emotions had come unmoored from stimuli and taken on a life of their own. This was nothing of the sort. I had been freaked out by an incident of unhinged domestic belligerence that had clearly come just short of the threshold of domestic violence, then I had been repeatedly berated for mishandling my reaction to this incident and for various other failings having little or nothing to do with it.
Having spent nearly half of May either trying to calm down or being berated anew about this drama, I wasn’t steady-as-she-goes. Well no shit. I’d just fled an outburst of domestic emotional abuse because it had looked about to turn violent, and I had then been berated for not being considerate enough to my abuser and his wife to chat with them about our common troubles.
My only regret about my handling of my walkout was that when I called Stoner late the first night to tell her that I had left town and wouldn’t be returning, I refused to talk to her about what had gone wrong. Before long, I realized that I had blown a rare window of magnanimity and goodwill on her part. She had seemed humble and sincere over the phone, but I’d been too rattled to trust her, and I wanted only to let her and Farmer Uncle know that I’d gotten out of Dodge. The thing was, she had been indulging in high-frequency fits about health foods for most of the previous week, unusually peevish and imperious behavior even for her, and I was afraid that her goodwill would be fleeting. I fucked up my courtesy call to her, and I started feeling regret about it almost immediately. Then again, when I discovered that she was still in a petty snit over my departure on the Fourth of July, I could tell that my relationship with her wasn’t one that deserved my most saintly patience and magnanimity. She had been stewing in self-righteous butthurt for a month and a half. It was bizarre. I was the one who was homeless and living in a tent. When I had upset Baywatch, at least there had been a good reason for her to get upset, not that I had been butthurtful in the process of fleeing from her volatile husband. I don’t know much about what Baywatch said about me behind my back, although I understand that some of it was unpleasant, but at least she never went grudge-whoring on my ass. Neither did Grandma. There’s a reason why these virtues skipped a generation.
As far as Farmer Uncle himself was concerned, ignoring Stoner Aunt’s frankly third-party role in the blowup, I probably should have asked the police to inform him of my departure through a sort of reverse welfare check. This option didn’t occur to me until just now; I was totally fucking rattled in the heat of the moment. There would have been several advantages to involving the police. It would have been an opportunity to document erratic behavior on Farmer’s part that fell short of domestic violence but could easily have veered into domestic violence in an instant. It would have helped me establish any additional untoward behavior as part of a pattern and made it much easier for me to get a fair police or judicial hearing in the event of follow-up harassment. A police visit would have put Farmer on notice that it would be not only inappropriate but also legally risky to concern-troll me with unwanted calls to my cell phone. He tried this twice in the week after I left town; I only returned the second call because Dad had been there, and I immediately regretted it because I ended up telling him to mind his own business when he asked me where I was, upsetting us both.
I felt bad about upsetting him because I’m not a sadist, but I was dealing with a fucking wackjob who had recently put me in fear for my physical safety in the course of emotionally abusing me for reasons I couldn’t fathom, and now he was bugging me to see how I was doing. It’s quite simple: if he was concerned about my emotional welfare, he shouldn’t have ruined it in the first place by showing me such wanton emotional belligerence and instability in a combined domestic and workplace setting. If he was wondering why I wasn’t taking his calls, it was because he had been an inscrutable fucking maniac in my last interactions with him days earlier. Whether these calls were disingenuous harassment or (more likely) just emotionally volatile dipshittery intended to atone for previous emotionally volatile dipshittery, I had a real problem on my hands. His concerns or other feelings about me were immaterial. I had to refuse or cut short any unwanted phone contact from him, period. I couldn’t allow someone who had had such an epic meltdown right in front of me to bug me over the phone at a time when I was trying to shelter myself from his wild behavior.
This was where the gaslighting started in earnest. Dad has repeatedly told me either that there’s no way Farmer Uncle would have gotten violent with me that afternoon or that I must have done something to provoke him. This just isn’t true. I had never in my life seen Farmer in such a state of anger towards me. It lasted for something like half an hour before he left for the farm, and from everything I could see it did not let up.
What provoked it, proximally at least, was my calling him out for being a weaselly shithead about whether or not I should put on shoes. I had asked a straightforward question, and he had given me a crooked answer. The tree pruning job he wanted done was next to a compost pile. He must have known that, but he didn’t tell me where the hell we were working until we got there. While we were having lunch with Stoner he acted like a fire had been lit under his ass to get the job done and he was going to become more and more impatient and temperamental by the minute if it were delayed. That is, I had the feeling that he’d get pissed off at me for deciding on my own to put on my boots after he had told me that I wouldn’t need them.
I couldn’t fucking win. I got pretty unpleasant myself, but this was at a time when Farmer was already starting to lose it. Telling me that I had made the decision to walk across the compost pile after he had told me explicitly that I didn’t need shoes and had made this job out to be the most time-critical one of the season was disingenuous bullshit. Going into a pressurized rage that looked like it might erupt at any moment just because I had called bullshit on him for being an asshat to me was intolerable. In a truly professional setting, as opposed to our weird quasiprofessional domestic setting, his behavior would have constituted workplace harassment or something close to it. No reputable and responsible grower or middle manager in the skilled trades would retain a line supervisor who acted like him. His attitude was the kind that could get people injured or killed on higher-stakes jobs or start a fight with subordinates in any setting. (There are, of course, many disreputable and irresponsible growers, especially on larger ranches; I’ve worked for some.)
As to the notion that I had provoked Farmer that afternoon, I had been working for him and staying with him and Stoner for most of the late winter and spring, on top of the weeks to months at a time that I had spent with them in previous years. Farmer had become visibly annoyed with me in the winery or vineyard from time to time, sometimes for good reason, sometimes just because he was an asshole. In the former situations, I had backed the hell down. In the worst of the latter, when he had gone all low-rent Socratic on me over some stupid shit on the press line where he petulantly insinuated that I had done something wrong but wouldn’t say what, I had told him, “Look, I didn’t come to Oregon to be analyzed.” He had then wandered off to fume for a bit, and save face, I guess, because it looked like he had gotten the message that I’d drive back to Pennsylvania without notice if he kept that shit up. I would have left with a clean conscience, too, because he was just being a gratuitous asshole and he knew better than to treat me like that.
I know, however, that I was pretty mellow and deferential prior to the yard work blowup. If Farmer and Stoner didn’t think that that was mellow enough or something, they said nothing, and had said nothing to me about my personality somehow being fucked up in the preceding months and years. For my part, I had said nothing to them about their vile shouting matches, mainly because I wanted to stay out of the fray, but then again, nothing that I had done around the house was on the same behavioral plane as screaming bloody murder at one’s spouse about trifling disagreements every fifteen minutes. I intended all along to get the hell out of Dodge if Farmer ever turned on me the way he had routinely turned on Stoner in the winter and spring of 2009, but I didn’t expect him to do that. Then he did, over that fucking tree branch and compost pile, and not three hours later, I had cleared all my shit out and was rolling south. The point was that it didn’t matter what I had done to annoy the two of them because Farmer had come totally unhinged and lost all sense of proportion in his dealings with me that afternoon. There had been incidents months or years earlier in which I had briefly gotten openly angry with Farmer, but I don’t think he was responding to these, and if he was, he was out of his fucking mind. Within the previous week I had done some of the most grueling to date for him, digging up and moving stones during a rainstorm to prepare a vineyard nursery bed, and he had been quite impressed. Now he was suddenly a raging petty shithead over a fucking three-minute pruning job.
There was no good explanation for this ugly turn. This was irrational, incoherent, disturbed behavior. Dad didn’t see it; I did. It was probably worse by a long shot than anything Dad had witnessed from Farmer Uncle, since it was by far the craziest behavior Farmer had ever directed my way. But I know what I saw that day, and I know that it was fucking ugly and out of control. I say that Farmer could easily have gotten violent with me because he was openly enraged and behaving erratically, having been set off by my calling bullshit on him and walked off a yard job. I feel like I’m wandering into a quagmire of subjectivity and relativism to argue that third parties shouldn’t question a person’s claims that domestic violence was imminent, but in this case Farmer was operating on one of the shortest fuses I’d ever seen with anyone, and without any identifiable stressors that could rationally give rise to that level of anger.
It was distressing and a bit offensive to hear Dad insist that Farmer would never get violent. When I stepped back beyond teh feelz and tried to look at it rationally, it was scary; Dad was making excuses for a chronic emotional abuser who had nearly gotten violent with me at home. This is some of the worst behavior possible to downplay. Conversely, it’s some of the worst behavior possible to exaggerate or make up for personal advantage, so it was something about which I would not and did not cry wolf. I can think of four other times in my adult life when I felt in greater physical danger from another person’s belligerence, and thankfully I never came to physical harm in any of them, but in all of them I came close. So, yes, Farmer’s behavior that afternoon was some of the craziest I’ve ever seen from anyone. Maybe he wasn’t actually crazed enough to get violent with me for backsassing him, but he sure looked it, and a punk has to feel lucky to give someone like that the benefit of the doubt.
The most recent incident that has my dad flying out on short notice involves wanton, coldblooded emotional cruelty towards me on Farmer Uncle’s part. First, some background: I ended up homeless following the yard work clusterfuck because Farmer and Stoner wouldn’t take me back in, even though I was working on their farm again. They acted like I hadn’t put up with a whole lot of their unconscionable domestic acrimony in order to make my housing arrangement with them work and had turned into a treacherous, selfish asshole out of the blue. Their peevishness and belligerence weren’t just the ebb and flow of marriage. If their marriage is typical of anything, marriage is a morally inferior institution to divorce. And it should not have been incumbent upon me as a bystander to intervene. For one thing, I wasn’t sure that it would work, and if they (especially Farmer) had drawn me belligerently into the fray I probably would have called the police, violence and threats or not. For another, reasonable people of goodwill simply do not act like that three, four, or five times a day for days on end. They just don’t. I was caught in the crossfire between a belligerent maniac and a conniving shrew.
It was one thing for them to treat each other like that in my presence, but quite another for them to draw me into the fray by guilting me into having a conversation about their behavior. That would merely serve to give them an opportunity to make excuses for themselves, deflect blame onto me, and humiliate me for not being emotionally resilient enough to come through their marriage unscathed. If they want to back down and stop being vile, they’ll make that decision on their own without my input, and they’ve done exactly that on a number of occasions in the past. But damned if I’m going to take the blame for not having the assertiveness or ego strength to stand up to them when they were acting like total wackos and I was dependent on them for my room and board and was flying by the seat of my pants in reaction to their mutual emotional abuse. Their being abusive shitheads to each other in front of me and poisoning home life for all of us was their fault, not mine for being too much of a pussy to stand up to a couple of manipulative wackos who might have turned on me and who had a long history of going from pleasant to ugly in seconds when called out on their inappropriate behavior.
Keeping me out of it included not talking to me about it, and I appreciate that they generally refrained from adding insult to injury by trying to justify their behavior to me. Farmer Uncle fucked that up a few times in the spring of 2012 by indicating that this bullshit was how marriage was, which was a bit like Charles Cullen saying that serial murder is how nursing is, but these incidents were fairly short-lived. Farmer and Stoner have a disgusting habit of fishing for compliments for their shitty behavior, and a three-way talk about their domestic discord would have invited exactly that. The point was, either back off from the emotional abuse or don’t, but do not under any circumstances take aim at me. The yard work fuckup was the first time Farmer Uncle earnestly turned on me.
Anyway, I ended up homeless, and these fuckers started making fun of me for it and rubbing it in my face. Mind you, I was back at the farm and working again three and a half weeks after walking out on them, having barely recovered from all the drama. Now Farmer was acting all smug again, like we were buddies and he was being generous for letting me camp in squalor in his property in exchange for my doing heavy farm labor. I couldn’t very well challenge him on this because he’d probably go asshole on me for being ungrateful and causing him butthurt. As fall set in, they’d have me over for dinner and their friends would be giving me advice on staying warm in my tent on 25-degree nights, and I figured that Farmer and Stoner would blow head gaskets if I inquired about crashing with them since, you know, it’s kind of fucking cold right now.
Versions of this shit were still going on in the fall of 2013, a year and a half after the great butthurt. They must have been thinking that I should cave in and get an apartment or room in town, even though I had repeatedly told my parents that I would only be settling in California since I had no interest in relinquishing California residency or getting stuck in Oregon. When I wasn’t camping out at the farm or staying in the drafty-ass winery building, trying to stay warm with the half-rotten, waterlogged firewood he had provided, Farmer started asking me where I was staying. These questions were either tone-deaf or passive-aggressive. He and his wife had barred me from staying at their house in one of their outbursts of low-class social dysfunction, and now he was concern-trolling me over a housing problem that he had aggravated and was doing jack shit to remedy.
This brings us back to the most recent incident of deliberate emotional cruelty that I described above. I recently spent a few days suckering vines for Farmer Uncle. He started butting into my lodging arrangement again, not taking my vague and curt responses as a hint that I didn’t want to talk about it. I got upset about a bunch of things having to do with the farm, Farmer Uncle, and my troubled work history, so I called Dad to talk things over. He then called Farmer and told him not to inquire again into my lodging arrangement. Farmer held his peace the day he got the call. The second day, he asked me, very calmly and deliberately, “so, have you found a place to stay locally yet?” I went stone silent, paced around a bit, and looked back at him to see him half-laughing and half-smirking at me. I told him, “After my dad talked to you about that? Don’t fuck with me like that!” He kept laughing, then said something like, “All right, I know. It’s none of my business. I shouldn’t have asked you that. I’m sorry that I asked you where you’re staying. I shouldn’t do that. Thank you for all the work you’re doing.”
These were some of the most insincere, calculating comments I’ve ever heard him make to anyone. He was deliberately provoking me. There’s no doubt in my mind. I’m pretty sure he was also getting his jollies by defying an explicit wish of his older brother and investor just for the fun of it. He did the same thing when my parents confronted him about openly drinking behind the wheel when I was riding with him.
The next day I got a text message from Dad: “I talked to Farmer Uncle this morning. He expressed his regret that he slipped up and asked you too much about your living arrangements. I hope this mistake didn’t derail things.” The problem was that the last inquiry was no “slip-up” or “mistake.” It was deliberate as hell. When I told Dad about this, he insisted that I must be misconstruing Farmer’s intent, that I often misconstrue people’s intent and attribute nonexistent malice to them, etc. But I wouldn’t put it past Farmer at all to express false contrition for a deliberate provocation. That would be no more insincere than what he had done to me the previous afternoon–when, by the way, I had just come in from the field soaking wet after working for close to two hours in a rainstorm. He’s just the kind of lying dirty schmuck who would feign contrition because he had been too aggressive in calculatingly abusing his unpaid help and might be facing a labor crunch.
Now I’m getting shit from Dad for pulling no-call-no-shows on Farmer. But I’ve only ever done no-call-no-shows on shithead supervisors who have just poisoned the well. Farmer had been talking to my dad about putting me on payroll, but not to me, so his sick stunt the other day looks like some kind of test. He’s throwing his weight around again, and I’m disinclined to show him bottomless magnanimity. I was never there for him to test my patience or loyalty or some shit. I was never there to persevere through deliberate workplace harassment while he toyed with the idea of finally paying me, contingent upon my being enough of a supplicating bitch or assertive manly man or God knows what that has fuck-all to do with running a vineyard.
Can you imagine running a real business that way? Ignore the mooching and the excuses for not paying the help and assume that everyone is on payroll. Now, think about the owner deliberately asking his most skilled and experienced employee the most provocative question possible after being explicitly warned to steer clear of that very subject, a question that has absolutely nothing to do with core operations, and asking it at a time when there’s a backlog of time-critical work to be done.
It’s no wonder that Farmer Uncle is running his farm into the ground. His deliberately pissing me off for shits and giggles the other day is on top of his allowing Bad News Bubba to live in the shower room and Mr. Crapper to hang around the property, the two of them inadvertently luring in thieves, brawlers, and other truly unsavory characters they know from the neighborhood. It’s a managerial and social nightmare. My putting up with Farmer’s harassment and continuing to work for him would constitute moral hazard. Even if there are good reasons to stick to it–the exercise, the experience–returning to a chronic lowballer mooch in the face of deliberate, gratuitous provocation says, “Okay, buddy, I’m a servile little bitch, and you’re allowed to be as much of an asshole to me as you like without it affecting your business in the slightest.” The other way to approach it is to say, “You want to fuck our relationship up? Well, consider it fucked up. But don’t blame me for my own workplace harassment, and for the love of God don’t try to draw a moral equivalency between workplace harassment and a no-call-no-show the day after a blatantly deliberate incident of workplace harassment.”
I’m in a bad spot either way. I told Dad that I felt terrible about getting into such a codependent relationship with Farmer, and he responded with an incoherent argument that all relationships are codependent because people make tradeoffs over behavior they don’t like in order to maintain relationships with people they love. But that isn’t codependency. Codependency requires that the entanglement be pathological, as mine was with Junior Bear, or as mine still is with Farmer and Stoner and the farm. Most people don’t stoop to the level of making calculating provocations about the one subject they’ve been told not to bring up just in order to show dominance like a goddamn bull moose at rut. Most people who have any other options at all don’t, I suspect, wouldn’t put up with that sort of behavior if they became the targets.
But my professional options have been limited, in large part because I got stuck around the farm and ended up in a position in which an antisocial narcissistic blood relative was my most relevant professional reference. Thank God I finally have backup references who aren’t emotional abusers and know what the fuck they’re doing as growers and businessmen. And I’m glad that I didn’t have to list Farmer as a formal reference in order to get commercial work elsewhere, since he’s a moral embarrassment and I do not like to be associated professionally with such people. Even so, the work tends to be really sporadic.
There’s another really ugly specter looming on the horizon, on top of Farmer Uncle fucking up my professional life and running a farming business into the ground on one of the best growing and marketing sites in the state because he has to be a belligerent narcissist. I’m hoping to have children, or maybe stepchildren, and I’d like to get on with it sooner rather than later. I’m 32, and I’m worried about the idea of having my first child at the age of 45 or 50. One of my worst worries about having children at this point, however, is that Farmer Uncle will intrude into their lives in an untoward way. He and Stoner are childless. Earlier in their marriage they argued about childrearing; he wanted kids, she didn’t, but they agreed to stay together and stay barren. Now he’s taking it out on me. He has a sort of honorary daughter who has told me that he used to haze her, too, and of course he’s been a raging shithead to his wife too many times to count.
But I’ll be damned if I’ll allow him to visit his evil on the next generation on my watch. I’m operating on the assumption that I’ll either have to shut him out of my children’s lives entirely or be ready to bring the full force of the law down on him at the first sign of untoward behavior. If I have children, I won’t be able to trust him around them. Look at what a thug and creep he’s been to me. I have to assume that he’ll fuck with them in order to fuck with me by proxy, and that he would be more inclined to go after my children in this fashion than after most other people’s kids because there’s so much bad blood between us and he hasn’t really, truly been able to have his way with me.
Farmer Uncle is the one who chose to stay with a woman who insisted on being barren. That’s his bed to lie in, not mine. If he thinks he fucked up by not ditching her or knocking up some chick on the side who was receptive to children, that’s his regret to nurse–on his own. I won’t be bringing children into the world or into my family in order to give him additional proxies to manipulate and abuse, and he’ll have hell to pay if he so much as tries.
I don’t entirely know how he has never become even a minor black sheep in the family. The Aliens are screwups and mooches, but they have nothing on him for immorality.