‘Unconditional Conditioning’ by Maddy Isenbarger


Love is a subject so conceptual and subjective it’s nearly impossible to articulate, like the universe, or Björk. The word alone tends to bring to mind a nauseating, picket-fence couple that oozes heterosexuality out of their tiny pores, whom I’ve been force-fed via Nicholas Sparks over the span of my life. It is infuriating to me that this is the primary image of “love” that has been cattle-branded into my hippocampus, because there are so many infinitely cooler ways it shows up in life.  For example, should you take a moment to consider someone who cares for you unconditionally, odds are it’s a parent, a pal, or a pet. (Cats still want us to pet them even after seeing us do shit like examine our own assholes with hand mirrors, and if that isn’t love, NOTHING is.) I myself am not exempt; I see my father’s teary eyes after every and any minute accomplishment I’ve ever achieved. His most recent birthday letter also comes to mind; it reads, “Since your first minutes on this earth, you changed my life for the best. You let me understand true love. I miss you when you’re gone.” The very same man is responsible for triggering my fight-or-flight response more times than I can count on two hands. Talented, no?

There was the time I was seven, and decided to explore my budding entrepreneurial skills with a lemonade stand. I was joined by my sticky, but admittedly adorable toddler sisters who, quite frankly, were no help at all. It should be noted that before this point my dad made a routine of reminding me how to handle strange men via episodes of Deadwood (TV-MA): in a firm and clear voice say, “NO,” and when that doesn’t work, simply jab your fingers into the eye socket of your choosing, make a hook, and pop out his eyeball. And yes, I’m aware a classic kick to the balls would suffice, but my father lives for theatrics, so eyeball. Those reminders began to fester when a silver van pulled up with a comically-stereotypical unsavory character in the driver’s seat: red flag number one. The scraggly stranger asked if I would bring the juice to his window, because he hurt his leg and didn’t want to get out: red flag number two. My tiny voice broke when I declined his request, and that would have embarrassed me had I not been near fear-induced paralysis.

I stared into his eye sockets and considered what they would feel like.

The man looked at Melanie and asked if she wanted to go for a ride around the block: red flag number three. At this point I was very aware of the state of my own eyeballs, which had grown similarly to that of the Grinch’s heart.


As predicted, that didn’t really have much of an effect on his agenda. The van shifted into drive, prompting me to instinctually start dragging my tiny sisters by their tiny wrists up our horrendously long driveway. I didn’t look back once, but I could hear the van’s tires on gravel pursuing us. It wasn’t until we had made it onto our back porch that I noticed my dad, now sitting up in the passenger seat, absolutely beside himself with laughter. He managed to muster up a, “You passed,” before he started cackling again. I, on the other hand, found the whole ordeal rather upsetting.

There was the time I was twelve, and he set off the fire alarm at 2:00 am on a school night to see if I would look for my cat before leaving the house. (Fail.)

There was the time I was fourteen, and he cut the power while I was home alone, put on a ski mask, and pretended to be an intruder. I grabbed a softball bat and locked myself in a closet. He revealed himself before I called the cops, but not before I pissed my pants. (Semi-pass?)

There was the time I was seventeen, a senior in high school, and had hormonal rage essentially seeping out of every orifice. Our house was in the middle of absolute nowhere, and I liked to go for walks down the deserted roads with my headphones in, listening to music obnoxiously loud, and hoping to blow out my ear drums before another extended family member asked me what my plans were post-graduation. Each time I was about to leave the house my dad would remind me to take my pepper spray. He had put one in each of our stockings that Christmas; standard yuletide cheer and all that. I didn’t like carrying it around my wrist because it would rhythmically bump into my hip while I was getting in my groove, so I ignored him. I had made it about a mile from home when Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” came on shuffle and I lost all contact with my physical surroundings. In my head I was rocking out on a double bass, but I came hurdling back down to Earth when an unexpected hand was placed over my mouth, and I was yanked into a pickup truck. In hindsight it couldn’t have been more than ten seconds before it became clear this was another simulation, but in that short time frame I found that the amount of sweat the human body can produce when faced with its own mortality is quite astonishing. The truck came to an abrupt halt, and I heard a familiar voice say, “That’s how easy it is.” Interestingly enough, that moment doubles as the happiest I’ve ever been to see my dad’s face, as well as the only time I’ve ever screamed “YOU’RE A FUCKING SOCIOPATH” in said face.

In a bizarre way, those mildly to moderately traumatizing tests were a true testament of my father’s love, although I realize they probably had more to do with him entertaining himself than anything else. That being said, my dad has only ever wanted me to be healthy and happy, and if he legitimately believed repeatedly terrorizing me within an inch of my sanity would be in my best interest, is that not an extraordinary act of love?  I cannot say I understand a love that capitalizes on ridiculous romantic expectations and the longing for my “other half,” but I have felt love from my sisters, who trust me with their burdens and look to me for support. I have felt love from my mother, who shares my ornery sense of humor and wheezing laughter. I have felt love from my father; through his proud tears, sincere letters, and simulated kidnappings.

To his credit, I have not been successfully taken, or severely maimed thus far, so that has to count for something.

Maddy Isenbarger is finishing up her degree in Film Studies, and just trying to stay alive long enough to hold hands with Frances McDormand on day. You can find her screeching into the abyss of the World Wide Web on Twitter: @maddymoiselle.

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