Christmas Eve

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It’s Christmas Eve.

I’ve been allowed another Christmas Eve.

I never thought I would live past thirty, and yet, here I still am, a hell of a lot of years later. I thought I might end up living under a bridge, and yet here I am, in a house where I can look out my window and see the lights of San Francisco twinkling. To my right, a fire is blazing in the fireplace. Across the room, the Christmas tree lights are also twinkling.

Lucky me.

Of course, I’ve worked hard – real hard – to get the things I have, but I’m not kidding myself: it has a lot more to do with luck than it does hard work. What about the people who are spending tonight, Christmas Eve, in a homeless shelter somewhere? Did they just ‘forget’ to work hard? I think we all know better than that. We had a real nice ham for dinner tonight, and all through dinner, I wondered how many people in the world, how many millions, tens and hundreds of millions, would be flabbergasted to have access to a whole ham for a meal, as much as they could eat. For much of the world, it would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing to have a whole ham for a meal, or a whole turkey, a whole chicken, a whole anything.

Angus sits by my side as I eat, his eyes glued to my every movement, his whole body tense in anticipation of getting a scrap from the table. If he gets a scrap, he gulps it down as fast as he can. And if he gets more than a scrap, he runs off to where he can devour it alone, unseen and unmolested by potential pack-mates wanting their share. And I think to myself, the way Angus operates is probably the way the vast majority of humanity operates: get as much as you can while you can, and eat it fast, so you can live to eat again tomorrow.

The accident of birth: that’s part of what I mean by luck. I could have been born the seventh child of a desperately poor farm family in 1930s Oklahoma. Or in a broken-down trailer park outside of Banning, in the Mojave Desert, my father an alcoholic wife-beater, my mother so depressed she couldn’t even get out of bed.

Would my life be different than it is now?

Of course it would. We give ourselves so much ‘credit’ for what we are, what we have, that we lose sight of how much luck and happenstance play into it all. I lost a child because some guy with ADD took his eyes off the road for an instant and rammed, full speed, into the back of a Ford Explorer that happened to be carrying my son back from a family party in Modesto. But what if that Explorer had left Modesto just five seconds later?

And, on the other side of the coin, how many times have I had narrow misses on the freeway: someone a mile ahead of me skids out and spins around, taking out three other cars up there. By the time I get there, it’s all over, but it could have been me. A patient of mine was almost annihilated by a guy who ran a red light at over eighty miles an hour. Why wasn’t she hit? Because she was too busy checking her cell phone to notice that ‘her’ light had changed to green. That’s how close it was, how ‘lucky’. How many times, as a pedestrian, have you almost been hit by a car? How many times, when driving, have you almost hit another car, or noticed something “just in time” to avert catastrophe?

When I was maybe nineteen, I was driving back home, very late at night, from my girlfriend’s house. I was on the Hollywood Freeway, and made a normal lane change, to my right. Unfortunately, there was a motorcycle there, in my blind spot, and in his mind, I had “cut him off.”

A real big guy.

On a real big motorcycle.

A real scary big guy.

And he didn’t take it too well. He tried to force me off the freeway, cutting in front of me repeatedly and almost making me skid into two other cars. He was shaking his fist and screaming at me to pull over. Well, no way was I going to pull over and let this guy ‘have at me’ at two in the morning on a lonely freeway off-ramp.

And that made him madder. I mean, I could see the spittle flying out of his mouth as he shrieked curses at me.

So he chased me until finally, I reached the off-ramp for my parents’ house. What should I do? If I got off and slowed down, he would certainly catch up to me and do god knows what to me. But I couldn’t just stay on the freeway all night, playing bumper cars with this lunatic. I hoped that if I stayed in the fast lane and didn’t give any indication that I was getting off, then at the last minute, suddenly cut across the whole freeway and ducked onto the off ramp, I might fool him so that he’d fly past the ramp.

No such luck: though I pulled it off perfectly, doing a stunt-man level job, jerking my wheel to the right, cutting across three lanes, and literally flying onto the off-ramp, he stuck to me like glue.  God how I wished I had one of those James Bond cars that could spurt oil out the back and make him skid!

Now I was really scared: I didn’t have the protection of high speed anymore, though I must have been doing close to sixty down near-deserted Oxnard Street. He pulled up next to me and  shrieked and screamed like a banshee, while trying to force me off the road. It’s funny how much can go through your mind in milliseconds. I remember thinking through the whole thing in great detail, as I careened down the street: if I had done what he wanted, and pulled over immediately when it first happened, could I have tried to explain it to him rationally? “Look, man, I didn’t even see you: how could I have intentionally cut you off when I didn’t even see you?” If I had done what he wanted then, could I have averted this whole thing? Because now it was way too late for talk, man: it was obvious that, in his mind, the whole chase had just confirmed his belief that I had done ‘cut him off’ on purpose.

I don’t know what state he was in when it first happened, but now, he was really out to get me – out for blood. It was clear on his face: he was crazed with rage. There would be no ‘talking’ now: he wanted revenge – his own brand of ‘justice.’

Oh no – I could see the light turn red ahead of me. It was a big intersection. I had to stop. Or wait – should I slow down, then suddenly veer off and take a right? Or fake slowing down, and then run the light? No – there was a lot of cross-traffic: I had to stop!

As I slowed down, he pulled up next to me and I could see him yank out a gun, a kind of sick, twisted sneer on his face.

He yelled, “Roll down your window: now!”

All kinds of things ran through my mind: I remember thinking, “This is a busy intersection; could he get away with just shooting me right here, in public?” I even wondered if he might be some kind of undercover, or off-duty, cop: the gun looked like one of those snub-nosed .38’s that cops carry.

Suddenly, I had a plan. To ‘get me,’ he had to get off his bike, didn’t he? He wasn’t going to shoot me through the rolled-up window. So I just waited, looking straight ahead like a guy waiting for the light to change, unable to move until the light changed. Finally, he got off his motorcycle and came at me, the gun in his right hand, yelling, screaming at me in rage: “Roll down your fucking window, you no-good . . .”

I floored it, screaming through the intersection on the last of the red light. Thank god no trucks or buses were coming through, though I do think I remember a very surprised guy in an MG doing some fancy maneuvering to stay clear. Now I could see the biker in my rear-view mirror, gunning his bike like crazy through the intersection, more enraged than ever. My parents’ street was the first right after the intersection, and again I waited til the last minute, then fishtailed my VW bug into a sliding right turn, hoping to see the biker flash by the turn in my rear-view.

Nope – here he came, expertly sluing his handlebars back and forth to keep himself running straight at me.

I had the street memorized, from all the years I had walked it as a kid: it was the thirteenth house up.

Almost there, almost there . . .NOW!

I skidded to a stop at the curb, tore the car door open and sprinted for the front door, fishing around in my pants pocket for my key as I ran. I remember thinking to myself, “Don’t screw around jabbing the key at the lock like a crazy man. Make it work the first time – it might be the only time you get.” I could hear something behind me as I ran, but I couldn’t focus on that – I had things to do. I made it to the door, got the key in the first time, turned it, and pushed.

I was in!

I stood there leaning on the door for a good ten, twenty seconds, panting and trying to get myself under control. Then, of course, it finally occurred to me:

He knows where you live!

My Dad came out to the living room, squinting in the light: “What the hell? What’s all the commotion out here?”

I talked in bursts, my breath still not stabilized: “Guy. On motorcycle. Tried to kill me.” I pointed to the street. “Is he still out there?”

Dad looked through the thick curtains. “Nope – there’s nothing out there now.”

We went out to the kitchen table and I told him the whole story, through ragged breaths. He said he didn’t think the guy would be back, that it was probably a thing of the moment, that when he got wherever he was going, he’d probably rant and rave a while, get drunk, and sleep it off. That by tomorrow, he and his friends would be laughing about how he put the fear of god in some punk kid in a bug.

Well, I don’t know if all that stuff happened, but he never did come back.

And so I lived.

And so I went on to become a psychologist.

And so I was able to help a bunch of other people want to live.

Well, the fireplace log is burning low, and some of the lights in San Francisco are even going out, so I’d better go now, because I have to get up tomorrow and have the one more Christmas morning I’ve been allowed – with my children.

The children I had because I lived.

See what I mean about luck?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Little Things

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Little Things that you do,

Make me glad I’m in love with you.

Little things that you say,

Make me glad that I feel this way.

—- Little Things, by Dave Berry, 1965

It’s almost Christmas, and depending on your faith, your hope, and your charity, some ‘big things’ are about to happen: seeing family and friends, decorating the tree, giving and getting presents, making and eating special foods. Are you having turkey, a ham, fancy stuffing, mashed potatoes, Grandma’s famous tricked-out yams, Bubbe’s famous latkes, kreplach, strudel? In our household, I make matzo brei in schmaltz every year on Christmas morning (one year it was even fried in bacon grease; fortunately, Jahweh didn’t seem to mind), and if that isn’t the American melting pot for you, well, I don’t know what is.

All of these ‘big things’ are the traditions that we wait for, look forward to, and even rely on, to make the end of the year a special time for pausing to celebrate family, loved ones, the joy of giving, and the fun of receiving. For some of us, Jesus even manages to squeeze in there – somewhere between the rum balls and the mince pie.

As a sentimentalist, and a traditionalist, I love those old, familiar ways that we revisit together, again and again, down through the years.

But I love surprises, too. The little things that weren’t planned, but seem to happen because, for the holidays, we’ve gotten out of our regular ruts and made way for them. Today, the last Sunday before Christmas, brought a few surprises that I particularly enjoyed:

Figuring out the chords to Georgia On My Mind with my son’s friend, Krister, on my old player piano – the one that doesn’t play on its own anymore, since Angus peed on the electric cord and it dissolved. Krister has been around forever, almost like a brother to Nick, and almost like another son to us. There have been lots of ups and down, ins and outs in our relationship with him over the years, but I’m glad he’s back in the fold. It was especially fun to figure out that E major seventh on the second “Georgia” in the lyrics! (That’s when played in C, by the way: I play everything in C.) And then, when we nailed that whole Edim-to-Dm7 change, whoa, that’s what I’m talkin’ about! And to see Krister ‘pick it up’ and start playing it on his own, with a big smile, well, that’s what I mean by ‘little things.’ Maybe it wasn’t Hoagy Carmichael, but it was damn fine. And afterwards, he and I worked together to string the lights on the tree, and when we plugged ’em all in for the grand unveiling, well, there went another big ‘little thing.’

And then later, we went to see the movie Wild, and it was sort of percolating along, just okay, when, out of the blue, there was an unexpected scene near the end where a little kid sang Red River Valley: wow! Before that, the buttered popcorn was the best thing about the movie; after that – well, that kid kind of sprinkled salt and butter over the whole rest of my afternoon.

After the show, we were walking down Piedmont Avenue, still glowing about the kid in the movie, when a little kid in real life, walking down the street with his Mom, suddenly went down on all fours, started crawling, and yelled, with glee, “Me baby!” Wow, talk about a blast from the past! It took me back to walks with the twins, when they used to put their arms up and cry, “Hold you!” And twenty years before that, when Mhat would do the same thing and cry, “Carry!”

Those little things – man, they really get to you. Unplanned, unexpected, unwrapped gifts from the universe that sneak in under your habits, and your defenses, and put a smile on your face, or tears in your eyes, or just a warm glow in your heart.

And one of the fun things about being a therapist is, I get to hear about other peoples’ little things, too. Recently, a woman about my age, whom I have seen off and on for a long time, told me a story about her father’s last days. While he had a warm heart, he could be, quite frankly, a grinch. Well, my patient and her sister had been taking care of their aging Dad in the last days of his life. One day my patient came over to her sister’s house, where Dad was in residence, in sort of a home-based hospice. Well, Dad hobbled to the kitchen, where they all sat together playing cards and dominoes, as they always had. And as she and her sister had always done, one of them started singing a show tune, and then the other sister joined in.

And as always, their father rolled his eyes in dismay, shaking his head in an, “Oh boy, here they go again” gesture.

But a little while later, my patient looked up from her dominoes in surprise: Dad was singing, too!

He died the next day.

See what I mean? Little things: they mean so much.

Another patient, a young woman who’s simply an amazing person, was having difficulty with insomnia, over a long period of time. Finally, I suggested something that I use to help me sleep – a CD of falling rain, that also has some other sounds of nature, periodically, as it goes along, including a memorable hoot owl about an hour into it.

She said she’d give it a try, so I made a copy of it for her, and we spoke no more about it.

Well, a few weeks later, I asked her if she’d ever used it.

She nodded, “Yes – it helps, sometimes.”

I was pleased, and figured that was that.

But then she looked up at me and added, kind of shyly, “Do you ever make it to the bird?”

Well, maybe you had to be there, but to me, it was just about the most adorable thing ever.

Still, we don’t need to wait for these little things to happen, do we? If we pay close attention to our moments, and have an open heart, we might notice them all the time – kind of like how, when you’re looking for red Volkswagens, you start noticing them all over the place. Sure, some might call it “Mindfulness,” but hell, you can save yourself two hundred bucks for a weekend seminar, and not even have to listen to some boring dharma talk, by just shutting up and taking a good look at the world around you.

How about we just start with the miracle of sight: being able to read this writing like you’re doing right now? The eye is a crazy-fantastic instrument, and it comes Standard on all models!

Or how about noticing the humor in everyday life, like something I overheard at a Chinese restaurant:

A diner asked the waiter, “Do you have long beans on the menu?”

The waiter said, “No, but we do have green beans.”

The diner was pensive a moment, then he nodded approvingly and said, “Well, they’re pretty long.”

Or take something you’re interested in, like gardening, the weather (a patient of mine checks the weather forecast every day – for Paris!), politics, books, or architecture, and make a point of noticing one ‘little thing’ about it every day.

Take baseball (please!), which I happen to love. One of my favorite little things in baseball is a story I read about the 1961 season. For those of you who aren’t baseball freaks, that was the season that Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, of the Yankees, were chasing Babe Ruth’s single-season record of sixty home runs. Well, for much of the season, they were both neck-and-neck, keeping up with the ‘pace’ Ruth had set back in 1927. As the season went on, and they kept hitting homers at a record pace, the whole country sat up and took notice: I’m telling you, women who barely knew a baseball from a football actually knew who Roger Maris was, and how many home runs he had on any given day. I mean, people in foreign countries were checking the totals every day!

Well, finally Maris started pulling ahead of Mantle, who went down with a leg injury, and soon it was just Roger Maris against history, with big headlines every single day on the sports pages:

Maris Hits Another One: 56!

Maris Fails – Stuck On 57!

Well, here’s the thing: Roger Maris was a very private, edgy guy, who had never had this kind of attention paid to him: heck, no one ever had. Every day, hordes of media types crowded around him – in the clubhouse, in his apartment, at his restaurant table – hounding him for details, pressing for answers to impossible questions, nasty, probing questions. Remember, this was before social media, before People Magazine, before the cult of celebrity meltdowns: baseball players had never been subjected to this kind of scrutiny before, and here was this introverted, laconic guy from South Dakota, being analyzed to death, prodded to the point where his hair started falling out.

Every day the same relentless questions came, over and over:

“How’d you feel out there today, Rog?”

“Do you really think you’re better than Babe Ruth?”

“What was wrong with you today, Rog?”

“What makes you think you can beat the record, when the greatest players of all time never could?”

Finally, it was coming down to the end of the season. The Yankees were playing a series in Detroit. Maris had 57 home runs – only three to tie the record, four to beat it. The place was in an uproar every time he came to bat, every pitcher saving his best ‘stuff’ for this young punk who thought he was better than Babe Ruth.

Maris stepped in to the plate. The pitcher prepared to throw the ball, and forty thousand people held their breath.

Suddenly, Roger stepped back out of the batter’s box, and looked up at the sky.

What was he doing? He was taking a ‘mindfulness’ moment to look up at a flock of geese, flying in formation, high over the stadium. Here was this young country boy, under the fiercest media pressure of all time, and he had the presence of mind to step out and take the time to watch a flock of geese.

Now, that’s my idea of a beautiful ‘little thing’!

Yes, Roger Maris did go on to break Babe Ruth’s record, though when he did it, the Commissioner of Baseball decreed that he hadn’t ‘really’ beaten the Babe’s record, since that year, the season had been expanded from 154 games to 161. Oh, and by the by, it turns out the Commish, a former sportswriter, had once been Babe Ruth’s ghostwriter!

But they couldn’t take away from Roger Maris that one, small, beautiful moment that he had taken for himself, and that’s my favorite ‘little’ memory of that famous season.

So, you can take seminars, pay gurus, spend weeks at a time in silent retreats, or turn around in circles while chanting your mantra, but eventually, it all comes down to taking the time, every day, to look up at a flock of geese, or notice a little kid who wants his Mom to carry him, or join your daughters in singing show tunes, or listen to my rain CD.

So come on, people – if you pay close attention and don’t miss a moment:

Maybe we can all make it to the bird!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Growing, Growing, Gone

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When I was a kid, my Uncle Rowe, my Mom’s younger brother, was the one who brought news of ‘worldly’ things to my immediate family. He was the one who was single, and therefore ‘out there’ in the contemporary world. Oh, my parents were out there too, but in the way squares are out there:

Dad was a court reporter, who hung out with attorneys ‘after hours’ at L.A. watering holes, a fact I could verify because my room was right next to the front door, and being a night owl, I was always up late, hence hearing him fumbling with his keys at the front door, then making multiple stabs at the keyhole.

And Mom – well, her ‘out there’ was getting lost in her classical records, and reading her books.

But my uncle was different. He was single. He went to parties. He wore stylish clothes. He smoked. He drank. He drove cool cars, like that snazzy red Triumph TR3, with the cut-down doors, so you could sit in the passenger seat, going 75 on the freeway, and reach out and touch the ground if you wanted to – provided you didn’t mind losing a finger or two. He was the one who once brought a young rooster to our house at 2:00 A.M., on his way home from a party. A party where, according to him, they’d had a lot of fun making the chicken smoke and drink.

Fifties party-cool.

Yeah – me, neither.

Oh well – I ended up ‘adopting’ the chicken, and kept him as a pet in the backyard for years. I called him Irving, and as far as I know, he never smoked or drank again.

My first successful intervention.

Cock-a-doodle-doo.

Uncle Rowe was also the first man I ever knew who was a good cook – no, a great cook. Like most men who actually cooked in those days, he wasn’t just an everyday, throw-some-bacon-and-eggs-on-the-table cook. No – he had ‘specialties’. Fifties-era specialties. You know, like scalloped potatoes. They weren’t good, they were knock-your-socks-off good. And like all his specialties, they had secret ingredients. There was always a secret ingredient, that he would never reveal to the women of the family. I mean, they’d ask, alright, but they’d just get that Mona Lisa smile and a change of subject, for their trouble. I can’t remember his other specialties, but if you were asked to his place for dinner, you were in for some fine eating.

Nothing predictable at his table. Nope, none of that Swiss steak and mashed potatoes stuff for him, with green beans boiled until they were mush. No, it would be steak, but with some kind of fabulous mushroom sauce on it, that brought the party to your taste buds. Or if it was lamb, it wouldn’t be that yucky, muttony slop with the weird gelatinous membrane on it, that my Mom made, that made you shudder and want to wash your hands for a week. No, it would be rack of lamb in sherry, with some kind of brandy plum pudding they never even would’ve dreamed of at Bob’s Big Boy – my gold standard for fine dining at the time.

Oh yeah, in keeping with his cool image, he lived in one of those sexy cantilever stilt houses in the Eagle Rock hills, overlooking all creation. I loved it, but of course, my father, who considered my uncle his arch-enemy (i.e. for the affections of my mother) always had to call it,

“That goddam crazy-ass, cockeyed shack of his. Every time you sneeze, you expect the whole damn thing to come tumbling down the mountain.”

Not that it matters anymore, but once I did corner my uncle and demand the secret ingredient for his scalloped potatoes. I think I needed to know, once and for all, that there actually was a secret ingredient, and that the whole ‘secret ingredient’ thing wasn’t all just an elaborate hoax he’d perpetrated on the family, laughing to himself the whole time.

Well, he did tell me. And there really was a secret ingredient, all along. I’ve never told a soul before this, but now that he’s gone, and his distinguished record as a fabulous chef is safe for all time, and his secrets buried with him, I feel that it can be told:

Angostura bitters.

Shhhhh!!!!! I still feel guilty spilling the beans, so please don’t tell anyone. So now, if you’re ever on a “Cheat Day” on your low-carb diet, and you’re scarfing down scalloped potatoes, you can smile genially at your host while thinking to yourself, “Haha, I know a way to make this even better – but you don’t!”

My uncle also brought us the ‘news’ from the outside world about the latest popular songs. Sometimes he even brought us the 45s, so I could put them on my little turntable and listen, again and again. He liked the mainstream hits, like Shrimp Boats, and The Tennessee Waltz, but he also seemed to get a kick out of the novelty hits that were so ubiquitous in those days – things that a kid like me could also laugh along with. Things like Raggmopp, How Much Is That Doggie In The WindowThe Naughty Lady of Shady Lane, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Beep Beep, and my favorite at the time, because it was the craziest one of all:

Open the Door, Richard!

I mean, how could a little white kid living in North Hollywood not like a song with ‘call-and-response’ lyrics like,

I met old Zeke standin’ on the corner the other day – that cat sure was booted with the liquor.

He was what?

He was ab-nox-i-cated.

He was what?

He was in-e-bri-a-ted.

He was what?

Well, he was just plain drunk.

Well alright, then.

My uncle had dogs, too – he always had dogs. Well, technically, dog, singular. He was a serial dog monogamist, is what he was. When I was real little, I think I remember an Irish setter, a cocker spaniel, then an Afghan hound. Then, when I got older: we struck royalty. And by royalty, I mean a smallish standard poodle named Cocoa. Sometimes you just ‘know’ there’s something special about a dog. If you’re a dog person, you’ll know what I mean. Is it intelligence? Stance? Something in the eyes – an alertness, a noticing? Whatever it is, Cocoa had it. He was devoted to my uncle, and vice versa. I don’t mean he growled whenever someone other than my uncle approached him. Far from it: he was courteous, affable – to a point, accommodating – if need be, not overly possessive, and civil – as required.

But when it really came down to it, Uncle Rowe was his guy: Period.

He was regal, without being aloof, superior, without being a snob about it, cool, without making you feel bad. He could do tricks, and do them easily, perfectly, but unlike most performing dogs, with Cocoa you always felt it was more of an ancillary parlor skill, like Orson Welles also being good at magic, or Bill Clinton playing the saxophone. Somehow, you felt that when he did one of his tricks, he was stooping to your level, humoring your low tastes, but always, always, of course, with good grace. Sure, he had the whole gamut of de rigueur Fifties dog tricks: sit up, beg, shake, roll over, play dead.

But he also had a few more, high-tone, out-of-the-ordinary tricks in his bag, too, like the famous, poignant depiction of an Indian’s last ride, known as End of the Trail:

end of the trail

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, my Uncle Rowe would say, “End of the Trail,” and Cocoa would pose JUST LIKE THAT, I swear to God; it would almost bring tears to your eyes, like if a mediocre stage impressionist was going along, doing his Jimmy Cagney and his Edward G. Robinson, and then suddenly slayed you by dropping into Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I mean, it was like Cocoa actually got into character as he laid out into that iconic pose.

They were a good team, Rowe and Cocoa: Rowe was a little, fast, Mickey Rooney kind of guy, full of jokes, always moving, always on to the next thing. When I got a little older, I didn’t even like to be in the car with him driving, because he drove just like he lived: it was all herky-jerky, stop-start, and impulsive.

But Cocoa? He was a whole different matter: he was like Jeff Markham, Robert Mitchum’s private detective character in Out of the Past, when Kirk Douglas (his potential employer) was sizing him up:

Douglas: “You just sit and stay inside yourself. You wait for me to talk. I like that.”

Mitchum: “I never found out much listening to myself.”

Cocoa was like that: no wasted motion, no panic-moves, just do what you have to do and move on; a confidence and sense of self we could all aspire to. And, like I said, that regal quality, that grace, that you don’t run into too often in life, and when you do, you don’t forget it.

But Uncle Rowe – if you met him at a party, you’d laugh and say, “He’s a kick.” Always ‘on’, always the life of the party, always up on the latest, always bringing the news. And the sad thing was, as I grew up, I outgrew him. Yeah, I know, being the quiet, ‘deep’ type, given to meditation, cogitation, the dark side and all that jazz, I guess it was inevitable.

See, the good thing is, if you’re the ‘growing’ type, you’re always growing. And the sad thing is, if you’re the ‘growing’ type, you’re always outgrowing, too. Of course, “They” don’t tell you that – They don’t tell you much of anything, in fact. You just stumble onto it yourself, mostly. “They” tell you that if you’re a good boy and mind your Ps and Qs, it all turns out great. But the truth is, Life, with a capital L, is painful, too, and sometimes, cruel.

Things – well, they change.

And people? Well, they change, too.

And it hurts, sometimes, when they change – even whey “they” is you. Because every coming means a leaving; to find a new vista, you have to leave the old one behind. Yes, I know, I’m the one who’s always quoting, “Make new friends, and keep the old; one is silver and the other’s gold.” And that’s true: IF you can. I guess it depends on what you mean by “keep”: sometimes, it means you keep old friendships going for the rest of your life – and if you possibly can, please, please do, by all means. And if you can’t – well, then “keep” means respecting, treasuring, always holding a place in your heart for what someone gave to you, when you needed it, and what they received from you, when they needed it. You don’t “flush” someone, as a patient recently said he was going to do with all thoughts of his (soon-to-be) ex-wife; even if what happened with someone turns out to be hurtful, you try and honor them, even if only for the lessons you learned from them.

But, like I say, if you’re the ‘growing’ type, if you’re a truth-seeker, if you’re committed to lifelong learning about who you are and why you’re here on earth, you are going to outgrow a lot of people and situations, especially if (like me) you ‘started’ from a place, and a family culture, that was way out of sync with your true nature: it’s inevitable, unavoidable. But that doesn’t mean you ‘flush’ the old: yes, in a lot of cases it means the old ways, and the old people, won’t work for you anymore, and you may go through this cycle several times in your life – a current patient calls it ‘weeding’. Yes, it’s weeding, but, you see, weeding can be done in different ways. You can go along, ripping up the offending vegetation viciously, tossing it aside without a thought, except to loathe it for being in the way of your new plans, or you can do it mindfully, respectfully, seeing it as ‘all in the game’ of gardening, or in the case of your life, all part of the process of becoming who you are, and finding your way.

So yes, I know, now, that my Uncle Rowe was not ‘my type’, not someone I would hang out with a lot, at this point in my life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t treasure him and all that he gave me, at a time when I desperately needed it, needed ‘alternatives’ to the cult-like strictures of my family, needed a more relaxed attitude towards life, needed possibilities of ways to be, that weren’t in lock-step with my parents’ views of things, needed permission to appreciate, value, and laugh along with, the pop culture of the day, then and now.

So, I say to all of you, you who are sitting out there afraid (and guilty) to grow, afraid to change, afraid to believe in your own ‘differences’, afraid to vary from what has been laid down, in your particular subculture, as ‘gospel’, afraid to be a little crazy, a little fun, a little wild – to all of you, I say,

Open the Door, Richard!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Private Wisdom

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Ralph Waldo Emerson had this to say about the giving of advice, and the drive within each of us to offer it – thinking, as we do, that we are offering a wondrous gift:

Although this garrulity of advising is born with us, I confess that life is rather a subject of wonder, than of didactics. So much fate, so much irresistible dictation from temperament and unknown inspiration enters into it, that we doubt we can say anything out of our own experience whereby to help each other.

All the professions are timid and expectant agencies.

The priest is glad if his prayers or his sermon meet the conditions of any soul; if of two, if of ten, ’tis a signal success. . .

The physician prescribes hesitatingly out of his few resources, the same tonic or sedative to this new and peculiar constitution, which he has applied with various success to a hundred men before. If the patient mends, he is glad and surprised. . .

The judge weighs the arguments, and puts a brave face on the matter, and, since there must be a decision, decides as he can, and hopes he has done justice, and given satisfaction to the community . . .

And so is all life a timid and unskillful spectator. We do what we must, and call it by the best names. ‘Tis little we can do for each other.

We accompany the youth with sympathy . . . but ’tis certain that not by strength of ours, or of the old sayings, but only on strength of his own, unknown to us or to any, he must stand or fall.

That by which a man conquers in any passage, is a profound secret to every other being in the world, and it is only as he turns his back on us and on all men, and draws on this most private wisdom, that any good can come to him.

Or, in perhaps less lofty terms, I offer this delicate observational plum, from a former patient at the Memphis V.A. Hospital, circa 1971:

Hell, Doc, you may think you know everything, but when it comes to me, you don’t know shit.

And to think, he knew that without ever reading Emerson!

But we all know it, don’t we, without having to consult Emerson, Freud, Dr. Phil or even Dear Abby; we all know that, when it comes down to us, other people, no matter how smart they are, don’t really know shit.

When I, as a therapist, have to write something about what I ‘know’ on my website, or on a referral site, or to a potential new patient, what do I say?

That I know all about relationships, mood disorders, substance abuse, career issues, loss, life transitions, and a long laundry list of other things that people struggle with? That I have a tremendous amount of experience with almost any issue that might come up?

Or that, when it comes to your life, your experiences, and what keeps you up in the middle of the night, I really don’t know shit, but that I promise to listen hard, respect you, and try my heart out, and that, together, maybe we can chase some of the shadows away and put you on the path to a better life?

Which would you rather hear? Right: you want EXPERTISE, not the old college try, don’t you? I mean, when you’ve got a mysterious skin rash that’s been making your whole life hell for months, and you finally haul yourself off to Dr. Whitesnow, the (expensive) dermatologist, for help, you don’t expect to hear,

“Dude – that’s gotta hurt!”

Hell, no – you want him to fix the ‘affected area’ with a gimlet eye and start rattling off fancy-sounding terms and unpronounceable potions that will fix you right up, don’t you? You want sureness, exactitude and precision. I mean, that’s how we tell we’re in the presence of a pro, isn’t it? We want white hair, a deep voice, and a little, knowing chuckle as the Doc says,

“Sure, son – seen it a million times, and every single time, it’s been Dermaticularis Aureolitica, commonly known as High Mountain Rash. Have you been on a ski trip within the last six months?”

And you slap your head and say, “Oh my god, Doc – of course, now it’s all so clear: it all began that weekend we went up to Mammoth. But how did you know?”

And he chuckles again, benignly, as he peers at you over his half-glasses. “Son, when you’ve gotten your medical training at Harvard, interned at Johns Hopkins, are a Lifetime Fellow of the International Dermatological Institute, have an Endowed Chair in Dermaticularis Aureolitica, and are the Director Emeritus of the American College of Rashes and Bumps, you just know.”

You’re feeling better already. “So, you think I really have this, this, uh . . .”

“You can just call it D.A. if you want – we do. And yes, that’s definitely what you have, son.”

See – that’s what we want: expertise, advice, certainty, for god’s sake!

But, uh oh, now he says, “However, there’s often a psychological component to these things. So to be absolutely sure, I’d like you to see a colleague of mine, Dr. Schleppinger.”

Oof!

Did he say, Psychological Component?

You mutter, “Sure, Doc,” imagining you’re going to be sent to someone who maybe has a sub-specialty in the Low To Mid-Mountain Rash variations of D.A. or something. No problem. But then he hands you a business card:

“Leo Q. Schleppinger, Ph.D. Consulting Psychologist.”

Oh shit – here we go! I must be a real mess if they’re bringing in the witch doctors! I thought I was going to be treated by experts, not some clown who’s going to ask me when I first started liking girls, or what it felt like when my pet rabbit died when I was five. Am I going to have to look at ink blots and tell them this one looks like my Uncle Fred – the one who always wore ladies’ hats? Am I going to have to ask my mother whether my first word was boo boo? Damn it to hell, I came here for expertise – for advice, not mumbo jumbo!

So, you dutifully nod and tuck the card away in your shirt pocket, thinking, maybe it won’t be that bad – maybe he’ll do hypnosis or something, or some ‘technique’ that’s over and done with in three visits, like your friend Hap, who stopped smoking with that guy who just ‘put him under’ and told him he didn’t need cigarettes anymore.

Yeah, that’s it. You think, maybe I can ask him to help me sleep better, while he’s at it, or stop snoring, or lose weight. Hey, this might not be that bad after all: three sessions and I’m a new man! He’ll just wave his fingers in my face like in those old Abbott and Costello movies, put me in a trance and say, “Rash, rash, go away – come again some other day,” and bingo bango, it’s gone!

You call the guy and set up an appointment for Wednesday at 6:00. You have to leave work a little early, but it’s okay – you told your boss you have an allergy appointment. You know, like with a real doctor. Heaven forbid anyone finds out you’re going to a nutcracker! But, nutcracker or not, you smile to yourself: wait till they see the slim me, the rash-free me, the good-night’s-sleep me.

The new me!

By Wednesday late afternoon you’re walking on air. It’s hard to even concentrate on your work. You think, “Gee, I wonder if it’s like at a cafeteria: just point to the stuff you want, and it’s done! One from Column A, one from Column B: stop snoring, lose weight, feel happy all the time. Hey, maybe he can make me want to go to the gym again, like I used to! As I do my reps, I’ll chant, “Advice! Expertise! Hypnosis! Advice! Expertise! Hypnosis!”

Wow, by this time next year, I could be ripped!

The traffic’s miserable. It’s a rainy night and suddenly everyone’s a student driver. And you’re starting to get a little nervous. Heck, that cream the Doc gave me is already helping my D.A. – why the hell do I have to go to a head-shrinker anyway? Just so Dr. Whitesnow can cover his ass, in case I have a nervous breakdown and sue him? In case the rash, in one patient out of a million, is actually an early sign of an impending meltdown, and I’m the one in a million? Did the Doc see something that he didn’t tell me? Something that made him think I’m actually going off my rocker? Something that cries out, “Have this guy put under observation, quick!” Something that you only pick up if you’re the Endowed Chair of the . . . what the heck was it again – The Fellowship of the Pimple, or something? Damn, now I can’t even remember a conversation I had just a week ago. Am I losing my memory? My mind? My mind and my memory? Wait, maybe that’s good: if I can’t remember anything, I wouldn’t remember that I went out of my mind, would I? Maybe I’ll end up one of those happy lunatics, content to sit and fill in coloring books in the day-room of the Shady Grove Home For The Mostly Gone. Would my wife come to visit me, or would she take up with that neighbor that’s always giving her the eye – what’s his name? Herb, Hubie, Harv – dammit, I can’t even remember my wife’s future lover’s name anymore. Herk, Howie . . . Oh yeah – Joe. Well, I was close, wasn’t I? I wonder if this Schlossinger guy can bring my memory back? But then, would I even want to remember going crazy and losing my wife? It is Schlossinger, isn’t it? Oh no, here we go again: Schlepperdink? Schlerdenbaum? Hell, what’s the difference, as long as it’s Advice, Expertise, Hypnosis!

With a start, you snap out of it and see the sign: Midtown Professional Building. That has a nice, solid ring to it, and that helps, some. Doesn’t it at least show that this guy is accepted in the company of other professionals? That they’re not ashamed to be seen with him, or at least not ashamed to pass him in the halls once in a while? Or do they even see each other in the halls? Do they eat together? Do they compare notes, and laugh, over meatloaf and mashed potatoes?

I just saw this guy who couldn’t even remember my name! What’s more, he couldn’t even remember the name of his wife’s future lover! Can you believe that? He came in for a rash, but we all know a rash like that is just a big red danger signal, flashing: Stop Me Before It’s Too Late! Say, pass me those rolls, wouldya?

You sit in your car in the parking lot, watching the rain make its way down your windshield, thinking, “Should I even go in? If he thinks I’m gonna sit still while he prods and pokes around in my mind, only to make fun of me over meatloaf, well he’s got another thing coming! He can take his Psychological Component and . . .”

But then cooler heads prevail (seeing as how you’re now under observation as a split personality), and you decide, fair is fair – at least give the guy a chance to actually abuse you, before you hit the panic button and count him out. And Dr. Whitesnow said the guy might help, and after all, he has a full head of white hair, so he should know: give the new guy a fair shot. I mean, he might not be that bad: maybe he’ll confine his lunch comments to tamer stuff, like the ink blots and Uncle Fred. I mean, maybe the other guys at lunch won’t even want to hear about some guy’s rash, while they’re trying to eat, right?

You scan the impressive name board in the lobby: Samuels, Sapperstein, Schaum – yes, there it is: Schleppinger! He’s right up there with the legitimate doctors, so he can’t be that bad, can he? At least he’s got his name up there on the fancy board, in the company of decent people. Let’s see – Room 444. Not too low, not too high – that’s good. Didn’t your high school locker number used to be 444? That’s a good sign. Hey, maybe this whole thing will pan out after all – especially if I get ripped.

You enter the elevator and push 4. You ride up, and the doors open. Not bad – they have carpeting on the floors, not too worn, not too garish or anything, just regular-looking, like decent people might have. Of course, he probably didn’t do the decorating himself, but still, it doesn’t do any harm either: decent carpeting goes with decent people, doesn’t it? You bet it does!

On the way down the hall, you repeat your mantra: Advice, Expertise . . . and dammit, what was that third thing again? Gotta hide that memory loss – that’s a dead giveaway. Oh yeah – Hypnosis! See – I’m fine!

The waiting room’s okay. At first all you could see is Vogues and Elles, but then, thank god, you root around and find a couple old Sports Illustrateds under the pile: you grab one of ’em, quick, and make sure you’re reading an article on the Detroit Lions when the door opens.

“Mr. Quigley?”

You put down the magazine (making sure the Lions page is still open and visible). “Yeah – that’s me.”

“I’m Dr. Schleppinger – pleased to meet you.” He offers his hand. Older guy, looks like maybe once upon a time he had a body, but if he’s doing self-hypnosis for his own gym workouts, it sure isn’t working. But all in all, not bad – no beard or anything, no sandals with socks or anything else suspect, if you know what I mean. For a second you consider going to a quick fist-bump to mess with him, but that’d only look weird. Gotta be careful. Firm handshake is best: keep it simple.

You’re ushered into one of those offices where you can’t tell if the guy’s a shrink or an anthropologist. Couple of weird masks on the wall, some Navajo-lookin’ blankets here and there. No pictures of Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, that’s for sure, but we’ll let that pass. He may not have an endowed chair, but at least he’s got a Barcalounger.

“So, Mr. Quigley – what can I do for you?”

You go blank. Think, think: you can’t show that memory loss right off the bat, you fool! What’s my doctor’s name, for the love of god? Say something – anything!

“Uh, that guy – you know, the one with the white hair, says I’ve got D.A., and I’m here for my Psychological Component.”

You can’t believe that just came out of your mouth.

He leans forward, brow knitted. “Excuse me, Mr. Quigley. Did you say the D.A. referred you? Is this in reference to some legal matter?”

You’ve got to do better this time. You take a deep breath. “No, no, Doc. It’s this rash that I got while I was skiing. He says it’s Dermococcus Auroriata, or something, and that I’ve gotta be checked out for a nervous breakdown.”

Now he’s leaning back, scribbling notes furiously. “Have you been hospitalized before?”

“Yeah, I had a real bad strep when I was in college, and, well, they thought, you know, just for precautionary . . .”

“No, I mean for your psychiatric condition, Mr. Quigley.”

You panic. “What psychiatric condition? Look, Doc, you’re just supposed to check me out for the D.A.”

“What does the D.A. have to do with why you’re here?”

Now you’re getting mad. “It’s the whole reason I’m here, man. There’s nothing else wrong with me but this rash.” You roll up your sleeve to show him the red bumps up and down your arm. “And if you want to laugh about this over lunch – well, so be it.” That’s tellin’ him!

“Why would I laugh about it over lunch?” He stops scribbling and puts down the pad. “Look, Mr. Quigley, maybe we’d better start all over. Why are you here to see me?”

“Didn’t you already talk to Dr. Whitesnow? I thought all you guys were thick as thieves.”

“Look, Mr. Quigley, whoever Dr. Whitesnow is, I’ve never met him, or talked to him. So let’s just pretend I know nothing about your case, especially since I don’t know anything about your case. Now let’s just take it from the top. Please calm down and tell me why you’re here.”

“Now you’re talking. That’s the first thing you’ve said that makes any sense at all.”

“I appreciate your confidence. Now, if you’ll just tell me the whole story, from the beginning.”

Okay, so here’s the deal . . .”

You fill him in on how the rash was making your life a living hell, the visit to Dr. Whitesnow, about D.A., then about the dreaded Psychological Component. “So you see, Doc, what I want you to do is basically the same kind of stuff they did for Hap, but including the rash.”

“Who’s Hap?”

“My neighbor, who was hypnotized out of smoking, by one of you guys. I’m sure you must know him – I can’t remember his name.”

“And I would know him, of course, because we’re all thick as thieves?”

“Well, sorry about that one. I just meant . . .”

“That’s okay, Mr. Quigley, but the fact of the matter is, I’m not the kind of thief that does hypnosis.”

“Then why am I here?”

“I thought you were here to get help with your rash.”

“Well, I am, but if you don’t really even know how to do anything . . .”

“Did Dr. Whitesnow tell you I do hypnosis – or that that’s what you need?”

“Well, no, but . . .”

“So your knowledge of psychology comes mostly from Hap?”

“That’s not exactly what I . . .”

“Are you willing to talk to me about what I actually do, and how it might help you? You know, kind of get a second opinion, other than Hap’s? I mean, especially since you’re already here and everything.”

You’re calming down a bit. This guy’s kind of a nut, but not really a bad nut. It couldn’t hurt to stick around and hear him out, could it? “Sure, fire away.”

“Is it alright with you if I ask a few questions first? Sometimes I like to find out a few things about the patient, before I start offering solutions to his life – you know, even if only to keep in fighting trim.”

Maybe this guy’s alright, even though he doesn’t really know how to do anything. “Look, Doc – I’m sorry I shot my mouth off before. I guess I was pretty nervous about this whole thing. I mean, a Psychological Component can’t be a good thing, can it? And I’m sorry about the meat loaf, too.”

“I can let the meat loaf go, if you can let it go that I’m not thick with Hap’s hypnotist.” He stuck his hand out. “Deal?”

You shake hands. “Deal.”

Forty-five minutes later, you walk out feeling a lot better, though you can’t imagine why. The guy didn’t do anything, really, didn’t say anything, really. He didn’t even do any of the Big Three: no Advice, no Expertise, no Hypnosis. Kind of a fraud, but a nice fraud – the kind of fraud you don’t mind coming in to talk to again.

You do come in again to talk to him, a bunch of times. It comes out, somehow, that you’re a pretty angry guy (who knew?), that you resent the hell out of your wife (that’s what she always said, but you always thought she was a damn liar), and that you hate your new boss – you know, the young punk they brought in to replace the old, ‘good’ boss; the new kid with an attitude, who said he needed to ‘get to know you better’ before he knew how to work with you. Yeah sure – let’s get together and bake crescent rolls, kid! Imagine the nerve! The stupidity!

Well, anyway, after you talk to this Schleppinger guy a while, you find out a few things about yourself: you never talk to anyone, never trust anyone, and treat your whole life like it’s fifteen rounds with Mike Tyson.

Like I say – who knew?

And worst of all, no Advice, no Expertise, and no Hypnosis – what a gyp. But the guy was okay after all, you think to yourself: the rash is gone, and I don’t even mind my boss so much anymore, especially after Doc S. suggested I tell him I’m willing to try and talk it through – no, not baking crescent rolls or anything, but you know, just kind of getting a fresh start. And my wife – she says I should have done this years ago, that I’m acting like a human being again. She even told me to tell the Doc, ‘Thanks.’ I mean, the wife and I even started having . . . . well, you’re all big boys and girls, you know what I mean, right?

But the thing I never could figure out was – what took the Doc so long? I mean, why didn’t he just bring in the heavy artillery right at the start: you know, Advice, Expertise, Hypnosis? Why beat around the bush, bobbing and weaving all that time, when he just could have hit me with his best shot, right off? I don’t think he’s the type to just drag it out for the money – no, I don’t believe it’s that. I still don’t get it – he could have just told me off right at the beginning:

“You’re being an asshole – stop it!”

You know, something like that – something direct, so I would have known where I stand right away, instead of pussyfooting around the truth, playing ring-around-the-rosy with me all that time.

I still didn’t get it, so on our last session, I asked him, straight out: “Hey Doc, you know I really appreciate everything you did for me and all. But I just want to ask you, how come you didn’t just come out and tell me right away that I was angry, that I was holding my wife at arm’s length, and that I was being unfair to my boss?”

His answer made no sense, but I’ll tell it to you anyway, just for the sake of completeness.

Well, at first he started quoting Emerson at me, something about “profound secrets” and “private wisdom” – you know, the kind of crap you’d expect from a guy like that. No offense, but you know what I mean: I wanted a real answer.

Well, I cut him off, quick, and said, “Look – can’t you just cut the crap and answer me, in the most plain English you can think of, why you didn’t just tell me all about myself, right off the bat?”

Well, he nodded slowly – you know, like it was gonna kill him to speak English. Then he just shrugged and said,

“Who knew?”

See what I mean? Kind of a nut, but like I say, a good nut. So, the whole thing worked out pretty good, in the end.

Oh yeah – except for one thing:

I never did get ripped.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

A Week With The Old Man

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The Big Day had arrived: the day my mother and sister were off to Camp Osito for the week, a Girl Scout camp where god knows what was supposed to happen: Mother-daughter bonding? Being steeped in Girl Scout lore? A week of someone else cooking for you? Some kind of proto-Girl Power? I didn’t know then, or now, and honestly, didn’t really care.

Why?

Because what it meant for me was only one thing:

A Week With The Old Man – just me and him.

Yeah, yeah, I wasn’t kidding myself: the part of the deal that involved me was the lop-end of all the planning, not the point of it. The point was for my mother and sister to go off and do their Girl Scout thing. The part that involved me was a left-over – a left-over that, if he thought about it at all, probably had the Old Man muttering to himself late at night, “Son of a bitch – what the hell am I supposed to do with a damn kid for a whole week?”

You see, we didn’t do things ‘together,’ he and I. We did things as a family, mostly impelled by my mother, and mostly ‘educational’ outings: The County Arboretum, Descanso Gardens, maybe a Mission or two, Griffith Park Observatory, and like that.

The Zoo?

Declassé.

Disneyland?

Horrors – mindless idiocy, for the great unwashed.

Education: that was her big thing. One day, an oval metal trashcan suddenly appeared in my room, with the pennants of Ivy League universities plastered all over it. Uh yeah, I got the hint. We watched Omnibus on Sundays (yep, the one with Alistair Cookie); the Leonard Bernstein specials for children (“This is an oboe, kid”); College Bowl (“For twenty points, what color is the Dartmouth pennant on Gregg Bernstein’s trashcan?”); The Twentieth Century, with Walter Cronkite; You Are There (“Hurry – they’re doing a recreation of the Dred Scott case!”).

Well, you get the idea.

I know I did.

And where was my Dad in all this? Going along, mostly. My mother was “in charge of the kids.” Once, years later, I asked the Old Man why he wasn’t more involved in raising us – in knowing us. His answer:

“All that was your mother’s department.” (Pause) “She used to be a teacher, ya know.”

Gee, how flattering to be called “all that.” And as for my mom, the teacher, I’m not sure she ever really made a distinction between home-schooling and raising kids. They were pretty much one and the same in her book.

Anyway, back to The Big Day, and The Big Week. Wow, I thought to myself – a whole week, alone with the Old Man, maybe seeing the parts of him that he had to keep under wraps around Mom, maybe learning a few tricks of the trade of being a guy, maybe getting a few risque stories out of him, some inside stuff about old girlfriends, a wild tale or two – you know, finding out what he would do if he wasn’t in Family Man mode all the time. I mean, what did I know? Maybe he’d always wanted to be an acrobat, or an electrician, or a traveling salesman. I mean, who was this guy, my Dad?

I did know a few stories about the ‘old’ Old Man: I knew that he used to be a reporter for a news service, assigned to the sheriff’s office (that would be Sheriff Biscaluiz, if you’re an L.A. type), that he used to hang around City Hall a lot with other reporters, presumably waiting in a scrum for murder cases to break – and that was in the days when being a reporter was a cool and romantic thing (just watch movies from the 30’s or 40’s). I knew the one self-deprecating ‘reporter’ story he often repeated, usually after a few drinks: when he was at the courthouse, covering the infamous Sleepy Lagoon trial, he spied Anthony Quinn (who was there to support the Mexican-American defendants’ rights), then confidently walked up to him and said, “Hello, Mr. Romero.” Of course, being the Old Man, he also said that he and ‘Tony’ ended up having a few pops in a local bar together, and laughing the afternoon away.

Hmm, let’s see, what else? I did know that he used to work in a factory that made freeway signs. I did know that he bused tables at a sorority house to put himself through UCLA (wow – major possibilities for stories there!), and that he saw Jackie Robinson play UCLA football (“That son of a gun would take the damn ball from the quarterback, then go back, back, back, until he had the whole defense back there chasing him, then he would take off like a shot and circle around ’em and race for the goal line all alone!”). And I knew that he used to bus tables at a fancy beach club in Santa Monica, and at the Cocoanut Grove, too, where one day Jack Teagarden heard him fooling around, singing, and told him he could ‘make it’ if he was willing to do a few things, like move to Chicago and change his name. Neither happened, so there went his chance to be “the next Tony Martin,” who, the Old Man informed me, was actually a Jewish kid from “Frisco” named Al Morris, who was married to Cyd Charisse, who Dad always thought was a hottie. Gee, to think I could have had Cyd Charisse for a Mom! I bet she wouldn’t have insisted that we watch Omnibus! Oh well . . .

So, I kind of knew Dad 101, but how much more there must have been to learn!

Now, maybe, I was going to find out.

My Mom and sister drove off, to their wonderful adventure. But I was sure it wasn’t going to compare to my adventure, right here at home. Father-son stuff. Man stuff. Grown-up stuff. Cool stuff. It was all there waiting for me. Here, away from Mom’s pernicious educational influences, we’d be ‘batching’ it, just the two of us, turned loose to fend for ourselves and strut the high life.

Look out world, here we come!

So, what’s the first thing that happens, bright and early the very next morning? I get a “son-of-a-bitchin'” (direct quote) eye infection. Oh my god, here we were all set to kick over the traces and set the world on its ear, and I, like a damn punk kid, have to come down with a son-of-a-bitchin’ eye infection! I awoke with my eyelids stuck together, green crud all over the place. It was the first time I’d ever even heard the word ‘pus,’ and wouldn’t you know, on its maiden voyage it picks my eyeballs! Man, I was a mess. It took a couple minutes of warm compresses just to get my eyes open, and even then this miserable green crap was running out of ’em like crazy. Okay – off to the doctor we went, Dad muttering “What the hell?” (his favorite expression) under his breath the whole way. The first act of Life as a Man, with Dad, and here I go all hors de combat on him.

Not a very auspicious beginning to Hell Week!

We picked up some kind of prescription goop at Edwin’s Pharmacy, and came home so I could smear it on my face, and lie in state on the living room couch. The Old Man had a way of making even martyrdom sound macho: he took one of his famous white handkerchiefs out of his pocket, dipped it in warm water, and handed it to me with a gruff, “Here, you can go ahead and use this, dammit.”

As I lay there like a beached whale, trying not to use my eyes for anything in particular, trying not to groan too much, he paced the room like a caged panther. He didn’t need to say, “God damn it to hell – here I am stuck with this kid for a whole week, and now he comes up with this!” for me to know he was thinking it.

I tried to think fast: how could I salvage this thing before it went completely south? I had an idea – something that he would like:

“How about a Mike’s pizza?” (Mike’s Pizza being where our going-out-for-dinner expeditions fixated for all time, after we had finished our Bob’s Big Boy phase. For some reason, I always ordered tamales at Bob’s Big Boy, famous for their great hamburgers. What the hell!)

The Old Man turned his face to me, lost in contemplation. “Ah, hell, I don’t know – I don’t want to drive all the way down there.” He had done it: he had successfully transformed my suggestion from something for him, into a favor to me. But ah, I wasn’t done yet, because, living so close to the ground, kids pick up a lot of stuff that grown-ups don’t have time to notice, such as:

“But Dad, I found out they deliver!”

I had him on the ropes now. There was no way he could get out of this one, without going full-on martyr and either making fried matzoh or opening a can of chili, the only two things he knew how to put on the table. Neither of which could compare to pizza. He cast about for a way out, but he was cooked. All he could manage was a feeble, “You think so?”

“Yeah – I know so.” And now the clincher. “We could get those rolls, too – you know, the ones that you like?”

Checkmate!

“Fine – what’s the goddam number?”

I quickly got up, found the yellow pages, and pried an eyelid open long enough to blearily make out the digits of my salvation. I played his own game, tottering to the phone and blinking dramatically as I tried to focus on the dial, while croaking, “Want me to call for you?”

He bit. “Nah – nah, I can do it. Gimme that thing.”

We were home free. He dialed and waited, skeptically, ready to have them say they didn’t deliver, proving that,”What does a kid know anyway?” It didn’t happen. He ordered, they delivered, and it was delicious. We were sitting dutifully at the kitchen table, where Mom always insisted we eat, when I played my last card.

“Hey, Dad, I think The Untouchables are on now.” (It was his favorite TV show, as a Chicago Prohibition-era boy, especially now that The Honeymooners was off the air.) Haha – butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth!

I waited, while he grabbed another roll and chewed on the roll and the idea. Suddenly, he grabbed his plate and his Brew 102 and barked, “Hell – why not? We’re on our own, right?”

I grinned, “Right!”

Hell Week had begun!  We had broken free of Mom’s orbit. Could buttered popcorn be far behind?

The next few days came as close as I ever came to bonding with the Old Man. As was his wont, he was still playing the martyrdom game, and never quite admitting that he was actually having any fun, but we at least established a companionable ‘household’ of sorts. He was the kind of guy who had to be the Alpha Male, and that kind of guy, while being a good sport and all, and great company, always remains on some level aloof from, and wary of, other males. I knew he had always considered me a rival for Mom, something which she, in her own weird way, kind of encouraged – much to my regret. The resulting family dynamic was something akin to how a male lion tolerates his own sons for a while, knowing that eventually, they either have to leave or be driven out. So I knew my ultimate ‘fate’ (i.e. exile) was sealed, no matter what I did, anyway, but the great thing about Hell Week was, Mom wasn’t there, so at least for the moment, it was safe for him to hang out with me.

And I think that, at least for those few days, he let down his guard enough to see, maybe for the first and last time, that I was a ‘regular guy’. He still kept things moving, though – leery of finding himself stuck in the house and actually having to relate to me, person to person: that was asking too much!

It helped, too, that day by day, my eyes responded to the goop and I could be more of a running mate and less of a caretaken liability. Praise the Lord, we could now develop our own ‘family values’ and drop the ‘education’ crap that always hovered over the house like a tornado warning. I think we went to Traveltown, a place for kids in Griffith Park where they had old railroad passenger cars, locomotives you could crawl around in, pulling levers and turning wheels, a fire truck, and even a “Jap Zero” fighter plane from World War II – the kind that made mincemeat of Pearl Harbor. What a wonderful place for a boy to dream, and best of all, you got to touch things! Now, that was my idea of education!

One night we went to see The African Lion, a Disney movie with amazing (for then) and intimate close-ups of lions in the wild, incredible vistas of Africa, and buttered popcorn!

Finally, we were down to our last evening. It had been great, but I think we were both ready to be done with canned spaghetti and fried eggs. After all, even the Darling children could only live with the Lost Boys for so long: eventually, you want your regular life back. But I still had one more item to spring on the Old Man – the one I had been saving for a special time like this. My friends down the street were always going out for dinner to a Polynesian joint down on Ventura Boulevard, called The Luau Lounge. For some reason, I had become obsessed with getting there, somehow, before I died. I pictured a tiki hut, hula girls, spears and shields, luscious ribs smothered in special sauces, roast pig steaming in a deep pit covered with palm leaves, pineapple slices all over the place, and those fancy drinks with the toothpicks stuck in ’em. Wow – heaven!

But getting the Old Man there? A place that was unfamiliar, with ‘crazy’ food? I mean, shit, it wasn’t Bob’s Big Boy or Mike’s Pizza.

What the hell!

I knew I would only have one shot at it: if I muffed it, well, there would go my chance to do something ‘wild and crazy’ – it was a cinch my mother would never go for it. Nope, it had to be Dad, and it had to be Now. I don’t know what we did that afternoon, but I could tell he was getting impatient about this whole routine, and wanted his wife back. How could I appeal to him? Wait – I had it:

“Dad, what’s a Mai Tai?”

“What the hell – you mean those crazy drinks they have in the Islands?”

“Yeah – what is it anyway?”

“Ah hell, I don’t know. What’re you asking about that stuff for?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I just heard the guys saying they had a taste of one at this restaurant – and it was great.”

“What the hell – where?”

“Ah, you know – that place down on Ventura. The tropical place. They said their Dad said the drinks are the best thing on the menu.”

“Oh yeah?”

I had started the wheels turning: hmm, he could throw back a few under cover of doing something for me. Yeah – that works.

“What – you wanna go there, or what?”

“Sure, Dad – I wanna go there. Would you take me? It is our last night . . .”

He nodded, thoughtfully. “Aw, what the hell. Sure, kid.”

Yes! Tropical maidens wouldn’t be the only ones being sacrificed tonight: the Old Man was going to sacrifice himself on the altar of Being a Good Father, and it would only be fair to compensate himself with a few strong ones – all in the name of good parenting, of course. However, it wouldn’t be any of that “sissy shit” – it would more likely be a 7 and 7 – or three.

Well, we did go to the Luau Lounge – and there were spears and shields, pineapple slices, and ribs dripping with sweet and sour sauce. No hula girls or pigs in pits, but then you can’t have everything. I don’t even remember what we ordered, but I know it was good. I do remember that we ate with our hands, and that no matter how we wiped them with our white linen napkins, they were still sticky. But I’m not sure the Old Man noticed or cared, as three 7 and 7’s had loosened him up to the point where I was half-shushing his story-telling, so that he didn’t bother the neighboring diners. I won’t say he was three sheets to the wind, but he definitely had a good bit of sail up, and a brisk following breeze.

Finally, a cute tropical waitress brought us some little finger bowls and rolled-up towelettes for our hands, and the check, in a brown leather folder with palm trees embossed all over it. I was just reaching down for my much-needed finger towel with the soap powder sprinkled on it, as the native girl bowed and prepared to leave, when . . .

No, Dad!

The Old Man picked up the little rolled towel and stuck it in his mouth, with a big chomp.

“What the hell!!”

His booming voice bellowed out over the whole restaurant. A little old lady next to us jumped out of her skin, her mouth a frozen ‘O’, her eyes wide as saucers.

The native serving girl cupped her hand to her mouth and whispered to Dad, “Is towel – use for finger.”

You remember the part in Christmas Story, when little Ralphie goes into an other-worldly state of aggression, gets the big bully Scott Farkas on the ground, and beats the hell out of him? And it’s fun until Ralphie finally snaps out of it, and everyone looks at Scott Farkas’s eyes and starts backing away because they know there’s gonna be hell to pay?

Well, that’s the way the Old Man’s eyes looked.

You don’t humiliate the Alpha Male and get away with it.

But I couldn’t help myself: I started smiling, then giggling, then laughing out loud. If I was going to get killed, I might as well die happy. Then the Old Man started to smile, and pretty soon he, too, was laughing, “God damn it – I thought it was a blintz or something!”

We laughed and giggled all the way home. Something had happened that could never be taken away from me: for one instant, we were just two guys, hanging out. For one instant, I wasn’t a ‘rival’ for Mom. For one instant, I wasn’t the kid who had all the advantages he never had. For one instant, I wasn’t the ‘over-sensitive’ brain that intimidated him. For one instant, I wasn’t the kid he never had any idea what to do with.

For one instant, we were just regular guys together.

Of course, by the next morning it was all gone – for good, pretty much. Even when I got older, he never could really hang out with me, because there was always that ‘thing’ there – that maintenance of Mom’s upright world that he felt obligated to, the need to be the guy in charge, the need to be one-up, the need to give and never receive, to be strong and never weak.

Many years later, they drove up from L.A. to visit us in the Bay Area, and he and I ended up going out to eat together. After we finished, the waitress brought the check, and he, as always, reached for it.

I said, “Dad, let me pay this time – you’re my guest.”

He shook his head and reached. “Nah – I got it.”

I said, “Dad – did it ever occur to you that sometimes, by accepting something from me, you could be giving me something – something more important than the dinner tab?”

He seemed startled, flustered.

I went on. “Like that time you tried to eat the finger towel?”

He went blank for a minute, then kind of nodded slowly, confused.

“Dad – you were human, then. Just a regular guy. I was proud of you – and proud to be with you.”

He dropped his eyes for a moment. I could see it was too far back to reach, too far from where he was now, all these years later. But something shifted. With a grunt he pushed the little tray with the check on it over to me. “Okay, then – go ahead and pay, if it’s important to you.”

Was he hurt? Embarrassed? Lost? Or just frustrated? I’ll never know – we never talked about ‘stuff’ with each other. We never really connected. Like he said, Mom was in charge of “all that,” though, in truth, she was less connected than him, more remote, more fragile.

I paid the check that night and thought to myself, why can’t people just talk to each other?

Why couldn’t he ever just say to me, “I never knew what the hell to do with you.”

Why couldn’t I ever just say to him, “I love you, you big lug – just be yourself.”

But for one night, so many years ago, we broke through all that. For one night, I had a Dad. For one night, I was a son. And for one week, we had a good time, and we laughed and laughed.

Why can’t we all go out to the Luau Lounge together, make fools of ourselves, then laugh our heads off on the way home?

What the hell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.