Light Unto My Lamp

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The Lamplighter is one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s most famous, and most endearing, poems, from his classic, A Child’s Garden of Verses. Stevenson was a sickly child, ‘banished’ to his room, alone, for long stretches of time, away from the society of his peers.

But, here – read it first, and then we’ll talk some more:

                         The Lamplighter

My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky;

It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;

For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,

With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,

And my papa’s a banker and as rich as he can be;

But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I’m to do,

O Leerie, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you!

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,

And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;

And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;

O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!

Lovely, isn’t it? And haunting. You can just picture the young Stevenson, poet and literateur-to-be, the scope of his world reduced to his bedroom and the street outside his window, the endless hours marked by the regular cadence of activity on the street, the coming of darkness, and then, finally, Leerie’s nightly rounds.

Mary Shelley gave her famous novel, Frankenstein, the subtitle A Modern Prometheus, in honor of the godlike miracle of vivification that Dr. Frankenstein performed with lightning. But for the small Stevenson, Leerie must have seemed a modern Prometheus as well, bringing flame, as he did, to the darkened streets of Edinburgh on a nightly basis, magically replacing the foggy murk outside his bedroom window with the warm glow of the flickering streetlight.

And little Robert lay there wondering, probably, if he would ever again leave his room, and maybe, too, about those things a child should never have to wonder about: permanent infirmity, continued isolation, and possibly, death.

What do you do in that kind of situation? You make, by necessity, a ‘world’ of your small world. You watch, and wait, for the rhythmic, the predictable happenings that mark the tedious hours, happenings that assume enormous importance. So much importance that even a (hoped-for) momentary nod from a lamplighter becomes a signal daily event, a blessed pinprick of light in the vast darkness of a child’s loneliness.

Stevenson even immortalized his sickroom ‘world’ in this poem:

When I was sick and lay a-bed,

I had two pillows at my head,

And all my toys beside me lay,

To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so

I watched my leaden soldiers go,

With different uniforms and drills,

Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets

All up and down among the sheets;

Or brought my trees and houses out,

And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still

That sits upon the pillow-hill,

And sees before him, dale and plain,

The pleasant land of counterpane.

Is this a boy who is content to lie in bed, a passive observer of life? Is it even possible to read this verse and miss the longing embodied in the references to the active, daring life of soldiers and sailors, or the poignant irony of Stevenson, in enforced bed rest, calling himself “the giant”?

Growing up, attending various schools, he was eager, desperate, to push his way out of the narrow confines of not only the sickbed, but the boy’s world of Edinburgh that circumscribed his life. He wanted ‘out,’ but then again, he also still prized, and needed, the “pleasant land of counterpane” where he had once lived. Like a prisoner of war who, once released, finds the ‘real world’ too fast, too loud, too demanding, too changed, Robert still clung to the old, the small, the familiar.

But is it possible to hold on to the old, when the world is changing so fast?

Stevenson certainly hoped to: here is an excerpt from his essay, A Plea For Gas Lamps, which he wrote years later, clearly influenced by his continued affection for the fast-fading age of gas lamps. In this passage, he compares the ‘new’ electric lights with his beloved gas:

The word ELECTRICITY now sounds the note of danger. Such a light as this should shine only on murders and public crime, or along the corridors of lunatic asylums, a horror to heighten horror. To look at it only once is to fall in love with gas, which gives a warm domestic radiance fit to eat by. Mankind, you might have thought, might have remained content with what Prometheus stole for them and not gone fishing the profound heaven with kites to catch and domesticate the wildfire of the storm . . . but where soft joys prevail, where people are convoked to pleasure and the philosopher looks on smiling and silent, where love and laughter and deifying wine abound, there, at least, let the old, mild lustre shine upon the ways of man.

So young Robert found ways to prize and treasure his ‘small world,’ but at the same time, I think The Lamplighter shows you that, for Stevenson, watching wasn’t enough: He wanted the power of the lamplighter, too! He wanted to make a difference. He, too, wanted to ‘bring the light.’

But how was he supposed to bridge the huge gap between being a sickly child, confined to his bed, and becoming a force in the adult world, like Leerie?

He wanted to be somebody!

And not just any somebody: his own somebody!

He didn’t ‘just’ want to go into the family business, as he was expected to, although, ironically enough, the family business was ‘bringing the light’: Robert’s father, and other close relatives, were noted lighthouse designers. No, Robert, though limited and betrayed by his frail body, imagined something grander than designing lighthouses. He imagined himself bestriding the ‘big world’ in seven-league boots, running away from his real life as a frail boy in his cloistered bedroom.

It seems clear that young Robert felt the soul of an adventurer stirring within himself, but also that he knew, from early on, that he didn’t have the body of one: an identity out of sync with itself, two warring camps, each insisting on its own way.

But how does one resolve this internal tug of war – something that is far more common than you might imagine? Well, I could give lots of examples from my practice, but let’s use Stevenson as an example. For Robert, an artistic type with a literary bent, one of the ways is to work on the issues by using fantasy.

Is this the internal tug of war that haunted Stevenson? Forced into a small world by childhood illness, trying to make something worthwhile, something memorable, something meaningful, out of his limited resources? Then, as an adult, expanding his world hugely, almost ‘counter-phobically,’ by taking trips – no, not trips: voyages, that were certainly uncharacteristic of people of his time, traveling the biggest of the Big World, with seven-league boots. But was this far-flung travel, this enormous striding of the bigness of the world, the ‘corrective’ that he sought, to his childhood confinement? And finally, in writing of his travels, did he become a symbolic Leerie, bringing that larger, far-flung world to ‘light’ for his readers, illuminating them with tales of his voyages and adventures?

Hear his ‘protest’ of following in the family footsteps, in this poem:

Say not of me that weakly I declined
The labours of my sires, and fled the sea,
The towers we founded and the lamps we lit,
To play at home with paper like a child.

Does the phrase, “like a child” jump out at you, like it does me?

I hear, in this poem,

“I’m no f________child! I’m not weak!”

He wants us to know that, although he didn’t do the ‘right thing’ and follow his father in the lighthouse business, he is not a nothing, not a failure.

There was an enormous displacement, and discontinuity, in scope, that his life spanned: shut-in, to world-wide traveler. Was this the split, the disjunction, that so haunted him, the basis of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? That enormous gap between the small world and the big world, that lay inside him, yawning and unbridgeable? Did he wish that it were possible to bridge that gap by taking a magic potion?

Did he say to himself, as many, many of my patients have said to me,

Can’t you just knock me out and give me something, so I wake up changed?

Well, that is what Dr. Jekyll did, isn’t it? The fantasy of getting to the ‘other side’ just by taking something – kind of an alchemy by ingestion. Well, what were Stevenson’s alternatives? There was no psychotherapy, no real way that personal help from another person could bridge that gap. So what could he do? The well-known ‘Geographic Cure’ was an obvious attempt to get there. This tremendous yearning is even on display, very clearly, in his most famous writings: what is the plot of Treasure Island, after all? A young boy is basically ‘transported,’ willy-nilly, into a pirate’s life! He (as the character Jack Hawkins) goes from the Small World of an ordinary boy of those times, into the Big World of swashbuckling adventurers, from the ‘good boy’ world of young Robert Stevenson, to the ‘bad boy’ realm of a buccaneer!

But let’s go back to The Lamplighter for a moment, to the time before this child, Stevenson, lost his innocence, and when those yearnings were right out in the open, for us to see. What is he really saying in this poem? That he is lonely, clearly. That the nightly coming of the lamplighter is a boon to him, and something to hold on to, to look forward to, clearly. But there is more here: he is saying to the lamplighter, isn’t he:

Please be with me.

Please notice me.

Let me ‘apprentice’ with you, the art of lamplighting (and therefore, be my bridge to the big world)

Take me with you!

And, maybe even,

Get me out of here!

And that’s what we all want, isn’t it? A way to magically be transported (with care) to the adult world? The irony of psychotherapy is that, while most psychologically ‘healthy’ people already know, and assume, that they have to make use of other people in order to “get there from here,” most psychotherapy patients have learned, somewhere along the line, that it is THEY who are ‘deficient,’ that somehow, they just have to get it together, try harder, snap out of it, concentrate, stop fooling around, face facts, stop dreaming, get with the program, and BUCK UP!

What they don’t know is that it takes HELP from other people, to do this. That’s why they come in (reluctantly) to therapy and say, “Tell me what to do,” not “Help me.” They want explanations, shortcuts, techniques, or maybe at worst, pills, to ‘get there.’

What they don’t want is an actual relationship (ick!) with another person (eeewww!).

Why?

Because, as we all know (All together now, big breath – now hit it):

That’s WEAK!!

There now, don’t you feel better, getting it all out?

Cue the marching girls! Cue the brass band! Cue Stars and Stripes Forever! Because independence is the American Way! Not needing is the American Way! Flying solo is the American Way! Doing it on your own, by your lonesome!

And needing? Shoot – that’s just .  . . just . . . well, it’s just plain Communism! Weak-kneed, bleeding heart, sob sister, boo hoo, poor me, pity party, oh-dearie-me-I’ve-got-the-vapors Communism!

And here’s the ultimate irony: for all our jingoistic, teeth-gnashing, fire-breathing, gun-toting, saber-rattling defiance of England, the ‘Mother Country’ we broke away from; for all our proclamations, declarations and disputations, we (like all rebellious children) ended up a hell of a lot like our ‘parent’ after all, in the things that matter.

We just didn’t notice.

Oops.

What is it you see all day long, from therapy patients who have ‘sworn’ to be totally different from their parents, and from patients who divorce one person, and swear they’ll never, ever, hook up with anyone ‘like that’ again?

Exactly: the rebellious son of a cantankerous, controlling father takes up a defiantly ‘alternative’ way of life, grows his hair long, wears outlandish clothes, and then proceeds to become a cantankerous, controlling ‘alternative’ man.

And the woman who will never, ever, marry a man like her short, long-haired, uninvolved alcoholic plumber ex-husband, ends up marrying a tall, short-haired, uninvolved alcoholic stock broker.

And America, the country that shouted long and loud that it wanting to be nothing – nothing at all – like its stiff-upper-lip, don’t-talk-about-your-problems, keep-it-private, act-like-everything-is-okay-even-if-it-kills-you, look-fate-in-the-eye-and-spit, don’t-let-’em-see-you-sweat ‘Mother’ England, ended up . . .

Need I go on?

Busted!

So, what can we learn from the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson, that we can put to use here, on ‘our side of the pond’? Well, it’s not very sexy, but is it too much to suggest that running away (i.e from the ‘Hyde’ parts of ourselves, and from our lives) doesn’t work? That, while we are fascinated (understandably) by Treasure Island as an adventure story, it’s not really much of a model for life? After all, we Americans have our own Treasure Island, don’t we? I mean, isn’t ‘our’ own American archetype, Huckleberry Finn, really just Treasure Island on the Mississippi?

Running away makes a compelling story line for a book, but it’s the relationships, not the geography, that make these books, and our lives, truly memorable and rewarding.

Because it’s not running away that really lights our lamps – it’s running TO.

And, when Stevenson died, in far off Samoa (“I’m NOT home in bed!”) he requested his poem, Requiem, to be engraved on his tombstone:

Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

And what does this scream? “I’m a hunter; I’m a sailor; I traveled far and wide. I’m not a little boy, lying in bed at home: I’m a man!” It not only sounds more like an epitaph for John Wayne, it actually was recited by John Wayne in a war film, in an impromptu memorial for a lost Navy comrade. But it’s clearly what Stevenson wished for himself –  the more empowered, more uninhibited man he felt stirring inside himself, and that he wished he could embody, or at least unleash at will (paging Mr. Hyde!).

But you can’t just jump out and ‘be somebody else’ – it takes a foundation, a continuity of self, to actually be the man Stevenson envisioned himself to be. Fortunately, these days we have psychotherapy and other means of obtaining help from others, to assist us along that trail from child to adult, and from chronological adult to true adulthood. So let’s really rebel from England, and be a people that embrace not only independence but all parts of ourselves, and our fellow human beings as well.

Because while in books you can be transformed magically from a child in a sickbed to a cabin boy on a pirate ship, in real life it takes hard work and help to manifest your inner buccaneer.

So set sail on your own bold voyage, get all the help you need from the wise and the adventurous, and raise high your own Jolly Roger. Yo ho!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Sleepy Town Awakening

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So here I am in Cazenovia, New York. Things are old here. Real old. I mean, San Francisco barely existed before the Gold Rush, and L.A., where I’m from – well, anything more than fifty years old, they either tear it down or slap a plaque on it. But here – there are lots of buildings still standing from the 1700’s, and there are no plaques, shrines, or ceremonies associated with them: they’re not ‘marketed’, they’re just, well, there.

As you may remember from my old blogs, I like old things. I like old things a lot. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let me take a minute here and go in my favorite direction: backwards.

A long time ago (well, an L.A. long time – say ten or twelve years), I somehow got involved with a real estate investment outfit that said they would help you find the ‘hot spots’ in the country, places where big things were happening, or were just about to happen.

For a fee, of course.

Major hot spots. For a fee. What could be bad about that, right?

Well, it turns out that, according to these heavy hitters, Upstate New York, and particularly the Syracuse area, was going to go nuts, I mean just explode, in a supernova of development. Big stuff. I’m talking major malls, big stores: Wal-Marts, Schmall-Marts, Tall-Marts, hell, All-Marts, if you catch my drift. So, being the kind of prescient investor who has his ear to the ground for big doin’s like this, I ponied up the dough and jumped right in.

You know, kind of like the Gold Rush: you can’t lose.

Well, somehow, and I don’t even remember anymore how, I ended up buying a small apartment building in Cazenovia, New York. I mean, it’s kind of near Syracuse, right? Well, what I mean is, if you look closely at a map, with a magnifying glass, you’ll see that it’s in the Greater Syracuse Sphere of Influence. Or something. I mean, I promise you, it is there. There’s even a college there, called (wait for it) Cazenovia College. Actual people actually go there and everything.

So, I bought this place and waited – you know, for the supernova.

And waited.

Well, it should have been a tip-off to me that I’m the kind of person who, if I get in a supermarket line, I actually curse the people ahead of me, because as soon as I get in the line, someone at the head of the line is guaranteed to forget their credit card, or decide they don’t want half of what they brought up there, or need a price check on some recondite item that simply cannot be found anywhere in the store, after ten or fifteen minutes of intense checking. I am actually called Price Check Bernstein in certain quarters, because where I go, Price Checks follow. But I don’t usually talk about it openly. Anyway, the point being, it should have been a tip-off.

I’m not actually sure, but I think that after I bought this place, Syracuse not only didn’t grow spectacularly, but had the city equivalent of a price check. I mean, it did nothing. Somehow, Sam Walton must have heard that I was involved, and passed the word on to all his big-store buddies, to drop all their major plans for the area, and leave it flat.

So, I’m using this space to issue a blanket apology to the entire Greater Syracuse Area: it was me, guys, that popped your balloon – it was me, all along.

Yes, I ruined Syracuse.

Whew, it always feels better to make a clean breast of things – you know, like an amends.

Man, I can breathe again.

Okay, so the point being that I ended up with this little apartment building in Cazenovia, New York. That I’ve never seen. And eventually, I got this nice couple, who live in town, to manage it for me. And eventually I sort of got over my disappointment about the whole thing, and settled down to accept reality for what it is, which is that I am Price Check Bernstein, who owns a sort of cute little apartment building in Cazenovia, New York.

And when people ask, “What the hell – why Cazenovia, New York?” all I have to do is say, “Aw, it’s a long story,” and they give up, right away.

See, it’s not that hard, once you get used to it.

So, there it is. It’s over and done, and I own it. End of story.

Except for one thing: I’d still never seen it. So, I got this idea: how about going to see it? You know, Autumn in Upstate New York, plus I could see stuff like Niagara Falls, and maybe sneak over to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, another nice little town not far from Caz (that’s what we insiders call it, you know).

You know, like visiting a nice old uncle you have somewhere, except that it’s a nice old apartment building.

So, I made my plans to fly to Syracuse. Whoops, two plane changes. Well, that’ll be no problem, right? I mean, what could go wrong?

So, I don’t have to go through the whole Price Check thing again, do I? I mean, by now, we all understand the immutable rules of the universe, and that one of them is that, if I’m involved, things MUST go wrong. If you read my last blog posting, you know most of the details anyway, so either go read it now, or just move on to the rest of the story, like those people who say, “Just tell me the good stuff,” which I’m not one of, but I do understand, especially in this case.

Though I can’t promise that it’s ‘good stuff’. You’ll just have to take your chances. I waive all responsibility: your results may vary.

So, a lot of bad airplane stuff happened, but that’s over now, and I have now seen Niagara Falls, too (and no, they didn’t stop falling when I got there, thank you!), and then I was on my way to Cazenovia (that’s in New York, in case you’re the type that skipped the whole first part of this).

And shoot, Cazenovia turns out to be Gorgeous. I mean, everywhere you look there’s leaves (the good, deciduous kind, not the blah evergreen needles we have in the Bay Area), and lakes, and beautiful rivers, and old things. Yeah – old things, which I happen to like, in case you skipped everything above, like the disrespectful skimmer that you are (but I’m not judging you, you understand – we can’t help our disabilities).

So I met the nice couple that manages my place, and the nice couple took me to the nice place – and it was really, you know, nice. And I’m even gladder that I own it, now, even though Syracusapalooza didn’t happen and Sam Walton shot me down like that.

It doesn’t matter, anymore: I’m happy with what I have.

Really.

So, having some time, they took me on a short tour of the Village (Caz is a village, not a city or town – in fact, there’s a little place just up the road that actually officially calls itself a Hamlet, imagine that!), and the whole place is gorgeous, though they kept saying, “There’s not really much to see here.” So they took me to see Chittenango Falls, which, though no Niagara Falls, is a very cute falls indeed, and I didn’t even have to wear an embarrassing pink plastic Breast Cancer Awareness raincoat thingy like they make you wear at Niagara Falls. And the leaves were spectacular, and the little Chittenango River was pretty darn cute, and Cazenovia Lake is very darn cute, and I can definitely see why it’s a bedroom community for people who work in Syracuse, because it’s a lot darn cuter than Syracuse, so there! (We Cazenovians have to stick together, you know.)

But that’s not all of the good stuff. Nancy, the woman of the nice couple, asked me, when I was on my way here, if I wanted her to set me up at one of the “really nice inns” they’ve got here in town, for the night. I figured, why not? The worst it could be is a little, dorky, embarrassing dump with fake-everything, right?

Wrong!

I am staying at the Brae Loch Inn, and dude, it’s just about the most beautiful, amazing place I’ve ever stayed in my life. And not only is everything not fake, nothing is fake! It’s old, but ‘real’ old: the furniture in my room is honest-to-god antiques, the bed is one of those fabulous canopy jobs that you see in magazines, and not one of those fake-sweet Laura Ashley-oid canopy jobs, but a real one. The carpet is thick, wool and handsome – the real deal.

And, I kid thee not – there is an honest-to-god working fireplace in my room! As in, you light a match, touch it to the log inside the big hole in the wall, and boom, you have a god’s honest FIRE, right in your own bedroom, that you can sit and moon over till all hours, or even moon over from your own bed!

The restaurant is all dark wood and antiques, and the food is fabulous. I guess people have known about this place for a long time, because I saw autographed pictures of a lot of my old film noir ‘friends’ all over the walls in the restaurant and bar. I can’t remember who, exactly, but I’m pretty sure I saw Ed Begley there (that’s Senior, dude, not Junior: yeah, the fat guy who always played shady police chiefs). And by autographed, I mean personally autographed, to the owners of this place. Like, they actually drove all the way up here just for this place – as well they should.

So here I go again: I set out to go on this kind of nerdy little trip, and I found a new ‘home’, that I would want to come back to, again and again. I mean, Jeez, I’m writing this with all the lights out in my room, except the fire blazing before me! And, not to sound like an ad or anything, but in a few, minutes I’m going to bed in my honest-to-goodness canopy bed, which by the way has an honest-to-goodness Tempur-pedic mattress, and lie there in luxury and watch the fire die down, with visions of roast duck with plum sauce and chocolate lava cake swimming around in my head.

So, do you remember in American Graffiti, when John Milner, the coolest guy in town, who drives this boss ’32 Ford, gets stuck driving ‘the strip’ with Carol, a pre-teen MacKenzie Phillips, in his car? And man, he’s humiliated, and starts putting her down. But then, in a move of sheer genius, she says, “I’m gonna tell everyone you raped me, unless you say, ‘I take back everything I said about Carol. She’s not grungy, she’s bitchin’.” And she makes him say it.

Do you remember that?

Well, ahem, here goes:

I take back everything I said about Cazenovia, and especially about the Brae Loch Inn. It’s not grungy – it’s bitchin’.

So the whole thing turned out to be a supernova after all, but not a Sam Walton supernova. A quiet supernova – my kind of supernova.

Excuse me – I have to go poke at the fire a little bit, like you do when the fire’s actually doing fine, but you want to remind yourself that you’re the Lord of the Manor, who has to keep the home fires burning properly all night, to keep all the vassals and serfs and stuff warm.

And I am the Lord of the Manor, except the manor is this cute little apartment building on William Street in Cazenovia, New York, my ‘home’. And we don’t need no stinkin’ Wal-Marts, or Tall Marts, or All-Marts, either – we got buildings from the 1700’s, and real antiques, and a real lake, and a real waterfall, and real people, too.

Sam Walton, eat your heart out!

Oh, and one more thing. Just a friendly tip, but never mess with small-town people around here, and here’s why: they’re tough, and they stick together. They shovel snow, they drive on ice, they stack wood, and they don’t complain about winter lasting five months.

And listen to this: When I went to check out from the Inn, I casually said to the lady at the front desk, just as idle conversation,

“Wow – I came here because I had never even seen my property – just a little place I own, here in town. And my property manager said, ‘Hey, maybe you’d like to stay at a real nice Inn we have here in Caz.’ And I thought, ‘Well, it’ll probably be dorky, but what the hell.’ And then, this place turned out to be really amazing!”

And she said,

“Oh, Nancy must be your property manager. You probably own that cute little place down on William Street. And by the way, our bartender is one of your tenants.”

Whew! See what I mean? Don’t mess with ’em, because in no time flat, you’ll be surrounded, and big-city boy, you’re goin’ down!

 

 

 

 

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

In The Zone

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One does not have to stand against the gale.
One yields and becomes part of the wind.

— Emmanuel’s Book

 

Well, here I am, stranded at SFO (that’s the airport, not ‘So Fucking Old’, smart-ass!), the first day of my big trip. I was supposed to fly to Syracuse, with stops in Phoenix and Philadelphia. Not ideal, but hey, it’s still a vacation, right?

Except my morning flight got . . . hmm, don’t even know exactly what my flight ‘got’, but it was definitely announced on the loudspeaker, and definitely official – something about ‘air traffic’, ‘delays’, ‘full’, and, in a much louder voice, “No hotels, in either San Francisco or Philadelphia.”

Okay, Chief: got it. No hotels, on account of you cancelled, delayed, and screwed up my flight, which you admit is your fault, but which you also admit is not your responsibility, as in NO HOTELS, ANYWHERE.

Got it: actually, I consider myself lucky that you didn’t extend the ‘no hotels’ ban to my whole LIFE. Well, maybe you will if I’m not a good boy, so I just quietly got out of line (and by ‘line’, I mean the 40 minutes I spent standing in the “since we screwed up the first leg of your flight, therefore your connecting flight will be screwed up, too, so you have to stand in line to change that, too” line), and retreated to the inconspicuous black vinyl seat bank on the outer fringes of the Main Generic Area, in the entrance area of the terminal, before you even get to the security checkpoint – the area that is so generic, so blah, and so unvalued that the Authorities can’t even be bothered with Security, or Inspections, or Sterile Areas, or even gradations, such as First Class, Commercial, Purple Plush Club Members Only, or Purple Plush Club Hopefuls Only, and we all know that any area that doesn’t even have Gradations – well, who would holler on it? (If you’ve never seen Guys and Dolls, you’re excused from getting that reference, but if you haven’t even HEARD of Guys and Dolls, rectify it immediately, or I’m going to impose a Gradation on your sorry ass, and you might never make Plush.)

So, (in keeping with our musical theme here):

A lovely day in SFO,

Had me blue, had me low;

I viewed the Round Table with alarm,

The Generic Fringe Waiting Area had lost its charm.

Oh, before I move on, just a short announcement: I’ve already spent some of my unexpected ‘bonus time’ reading the long-awaited Baseball America Top Prospects issue, so if you ever want to know how Rafael Devers (HT: 6-0, WT:195) edged out Tyler Kolek (HT: 6-5, WT: 260) for top honors in the Gulf Coast League this year, give me a buzz.

And for you normal people, I’ll try to keep the rest of this post a little more mainstream. Not that I’m implying that ‘mainstream’ means ordinary, banal or standard-issue, you understand. I just mean that there are probably quite a few of you that really couldn’t care less that, despite the fact that, Tyler Kolek “stood out in high school for his enormous frame, terrific arm speed and devastating mid- to high-90’s fastball,” and that he’s a “solid athlete with surprising body control,” sadly it must also be reported that, “His command and control can waver, and he does throw across his body.”

Poor kid, imagine that: reduced to throwing across his body, and such a nice, enormous body, too.

Well, we’re going to have to leave Tyler to his second-place finish and his unfortunate body mechanics now, because we have other things to attend to.

Frustration.

There: how’s that for mainstream?

We want things, we plan for things, we look forward to things. And then, they don’t happen.

Like, say, oh, an airplane trip.

We dread things, we plan to avoid things, we positively loathe things. And then, they do happen.

Like, say, oh, a flight being cancelled for vague reasons, standing in a long line for nothing, or ending up in the Generic Fringe Inconsequential Seating Area for a whole day of your ‘vacation’.

Stuff like that.

Well, there were several reactions on display in plain sight this morning, by people in the same boat as I, which were observed, noted, and culled by your obedient Observing Eye, and they went like this:

1) A middle-aged Asian woman, who stepped out of line dramatically, held her hands to her head, dialed her cell phone, and wailed to the unfortunate on the other end, in a smashing British accent: “It’s uttah chaos heah! Insanity, insanity, I say! Incredulity!”

Okay, so that’s the ‘Losing It’ option:

“It’s all fucked up, and I give up!”

Yep, we all recognize that one, loud and clear:

Utter victim.

I give up.

It’s all over now, Baby Blue.

That approach doesn’t really have much to recommend it, on the whole, although it does have one hidden side benefit: It makes other people feel a little superior. A few of us fellow stranded travelers kind of rolled our eyes at one another, in a subtle, respectful way, of course, presumably thinking: “Gee, lady, it’s not THAT bad. Some of us are able to maintain a bit more perspective than that – such as me, for example.”

2) Okay, then you have your “Cool Guy” approach. And that one would go something like this:

“Dude, chill. None of this matters in the grand scheme of things. Hey, I just remembered, there’s a gal named Bambi in the Flight Room over there who serves majorly strong daiquiris. I’m gonna go check her out: any takers?”

This guy is, hmm, just a bit out of touch with reality. I mean, he gets points for chillosity, but he’s the kind you don’t want to be on the receiving end of, as in the poor business partner he was going to meet in Philadelphia, who will probably receive a vague, boozy call much later tonight, saying, “Didn’t make it, but it’s all good, bro.”

Oh, by the way, we rolled our eyes at him, too.

We do that a lot, us normals.

And felt superior, too.

We do that a lot, too.

So, what’s the right answer? Like most of Life, it’s probably good old, “something in between.”

Examples?

3) Well, the German guy, who was my comrade-in-arms by then, who just blithely went ahead and took the flight to Philly, knowing that he had blown his connecting flight, fully aware of the dreaded “NO HOTELS” ruling, and took his chances of trying to snag a connecting flight on the other side, sometime, somehow. I guess he was ‘chill’ with possibly hanging out for hours in the Philly airport (maybe it has a better Generic Fringe Multi-Purpose Area than SFO?), and besides, he could always pass the time speaking really fast German to his girlfriend, or whoever it was he kept calling with witty, vaguely anti-American, Social Democratic updates.

4) And me? Being the overall more risk-averse type (yes, I stand accused of wearing classic loafers by a patient of mine, and plead guilty, with a side of stodginess), I elected to stay here, buy red-eye tickets for tonight at 10:00 (and ultimate, sleepless-in-Syracuse arrival at 9:00 A.M.), and, in the meantime, make a home for myself, here in the Outer Fringe Non-Threatening Vinyl Seat Area.

So, there you have it:

The Four Major Ways.

(Or,at least, if I ever publish a Guide to Frustration In the Airline Cancellation Line, I will call them The Four Major Ways. You’ve got to have catchy phrases, and definitive categories.)

Are there any others? Possibly, but our exhaustive research team didn’t turn them up this morning, so you’re stuck with these, just like I’m stuck in the General Purpose Outside Lands Zone.

So, is any one way better? Hard to say.

Maybe a part of me wishes I was Mr. Cool: and I do wonder, a little, whatever happened with Bambi and the daiquiris (sounds like a doo-wop group). But do I really want to be Mr. Cool? Nope – I don’t want to miss out on that much functionality, though I do like crushed ice quite a lot.

And Ms. Panic? Not very appealing, though a part of me wishes I could off-load some of the responsibility I live with every day, just throw up my hands and, for once, say, “I can’t, I can’t,” (or, rather, “I cahn’t, I cahn’t”) and have someone bail me out (without anyone judging me, of course, which is pretty unlikely, thereby negating the whole plan).

On to our friend the German. “Sally forth unto the breach!” you would cry, as you threw yourself, heedless, into the ticketing maelstrom of Philadelphia Frenetic International Airport, or whatever it’s called. But hell, I bet they don’t even have crushed ice, or Bambi: brotherly love, indeed!

And that brings us to the only sane approach to airplane apoplexy: calmly detaching from one’s now-unrealistic plans, calmly making other, realistic plans, and spending a delightful day sampling the joys of the Genre-Neutral Omni-Task Whiling-Away Zone, as I did. I mean, where else would you have the opportunity to watch a young woman do mortal battle with her blue suitcase, actually taking out one item at a time, and then jumping up and down on it repeatedly, in hopes of getting it to close on the one-less-item mass within? And what was she going to do with the growing pile of extracted items?

I never got to find out, as at a certain point in the proceedings, her boyfriend came along and yelled at her,

“Jennie – what’s going on here?”

I thought, Hey, dude – we’re in the middle of something here! Do you mind?

But did he listen to me? Not a bit. He poked her in the ribs and said, “Grab that shit and let’s go!”

She did, and they did.

Well, thank god, because otherwise I’d have had to obey that command being broadcast all day long to us ‘regulars’:

Please help us keep the airport a safe place. Maintain contact with all bags and luggage. Please report any suspicious activity. Thank you for helping keep our airport secure.

Jeez, that’s a lot of responsibility for us regulars. Suspicious-activity monitoring can really take it out of you.

And that’s not all:

Betty Lewin – Betty Lewin, please dial 2424 on any of the airport’s white courtesy telephones, for an urgent message.

I mean, an airport-sitter’s duties are never done. I wondered, in vain, if Betty ever did as she was told, and retrieved that life-defining message. My god, they might have been trying to tell her that she’d just had a baby!

James Mahaffey, James Mahaffey, to Gate 41, Please!

Jimmy, Jimmy – there it is: your call to The Gate of Dreams. Around here, they say that Gate 41 is lucky – very lucky.

The Loudspeaker commands, and having commanded, moves on:

Brian and Nita Gomez, to a courtesy telephone, please.

And when you get there, please take turns talking, you two: courtesy, courtesy. Probably no big deal anyway: they didn’t even specify the phone color, for god’s sake! Or that it was ‘urgent’, right? I mean, you pick up on these things when you’ve been around a while.

Hosted smoking areas can be found on the walkways outside the terminal area: smoking in the terminal area is prohibited.

Wow, cool: what is a Hosted Smoking Area? Does that mean Lauren Bacall greets you in a slinky gown, pops open a gold-plated cigarette case, offers you an unfiltered Lucky Strike, and says, “You know how to smoke, don’t you? You just open your lips – and suck.”

What’s that – you say it’s actually ‘Posted’ Smoking Areas? Well that’s a damn shame, you guys; you’re missing out on Lauren Bacall! Sure you don’t want to rethink this whole Hosted/Posted thing?

Well, night has come to the Zone. A pink buttermilk sky shimmers above a massive bank of heavy, grey clouds (that’s above Terminal 1, for those in the know), the red lights have been turned on all along the Southwest runways, and the night shift has come to the Zone’s very own Round Table franchise. The night shift people seem nice, too, I guess, but I had gotten used to Joan and Dorie. I don’t know, they just had a way with a mini-pizza – it’s hard to describe.

Another thing: the night passengers aren’t as peppy, as chirpy, as the morning crowd. Maybe they’ve spent the whole day bucking the slights, the frustrations, the disappointments of a long day in the Outer World, a world I wouldn’t know much about, anymore. It’s hard for me to remember, now, what it’s like ‘out there’. Money worries? Relationship failures? Traffic jams? I don’t know – I’d just be guessing. I mean, I’ve got the white courtesy phone, suspicious behavior, ticketing woes, and unmanned baggage to deal with in here, dude. Like the song says, “You’ve got your troubles, I’ve got mine.”

Well anyway, the night people are more mellow, more subdued, like they’ve been around a little, if you know what I mean. If the morning chirpers’ theme song is “Up, Up and Away,” then the night crew is more “One For My Baby,” and that’s for me, baby:

Set ’em up, Joe,
I’ve got a little story
I think you should know . . .

What’s that – you say they’re calling my flight?

Uh, okay, just give me a minute. It’s hard to leave my little world here: The Round Table, the announcements, the drinking fountains, the characters, the cleaning crew (shout-out, Jose!). The way you can just sort of sit and observe, be there and not there at the same time. Like I say, it’s hard to describe, but . . .

Flight 255, to Philadelphia, now boarding, Gate 21!

Okay, I gotta leave you now – my chariot awaits.

Gosh, I guess I’ll never know what happened to Jennie, or Betty, or Jimmy, or Brian and Nita Gomez at that courtesy phone, will I?

But, as it turned out, it was a privilege to share a Zone with all of them, and with Jose, with Joan and Dorie – you know, the whole gang.

Hey, looking back, it seems like I actually dealt with all that flight-cancellation frustration a lot better than I even imagined.

So, on second thought, it turns out there are actually FIVE Major Ways!

Well, I guess I’ll see you in Syracuse.

Unless that airport in Philly proves to be a little too intriguing, of course . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Man Meets Oven

ding dongs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some years ago, my daughter moved away – from the Bay Area down south to Los Angeles – voluntarily! Yep, she wanted to make it in the music biz, and on the West Coast, the music biz is in Los Angeles. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, she actually LOVES it down there! The nerve of that girl: here, I was born in L.A. and fled to civilization (i.e. the Bay Area) as soon as humanly possible, and now she, having been given a ‘head start’ by being born in Oakland, turns her back on civilization and becomes a heathen – by choice, yet!

Kids: what are you gonna do?

Well, for years I did nothing, other than mope privately and hope she didn’t catch on (yeah, right!). But lately, I got the idea that, dammit, if the mountain (she) wouldn’t come to Mohammad (me!), well, then, Mohammad (me, again) could go to the mountain (I think you know the dramatis personae by now). To wit, I got the idea that by baking her treats, and mailing them to her, I could keep the contact I wanted, and express my love, without being a pill about it (sorry, hon, for De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period, or The Moping Years, as I now refer to them).

And, as it turns out, I’m pretty glad I waited so long: years ago, I would’ve had to actually buy (or actually check out from the library) actual cook books, then actually read them, then actually make the stuff: too many actual steps! Now, all I have to do is subscribe to innumerable baking blogs, check my email once in a while, spot a fantastic recipe, and make it. Easy, peasy, culineezy! Of course, I’m actually not much good, having come to the baking game more than a little late, but then how hard is it to buy a few ingredients, dump ’em in a bowl together, set the oven to 350, shove it all in, and wait?

And the love part? Well, as the Pillsbury Doughboy once said, “Nothin’ says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven!” And, though she and I have had our ups and downs on her (and my) road to growing up, it’s pretty hard to misinterpret, deny, or distort a pecan pie bar, pistachio-coconut bark, or a Maraschino-cherry truffle, right? Woo hoo!

So what’s my point? Adaptation – that’s what. How did De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period morph into all this? Acceptance, facing facts, and willingness, that’s how. As a friend of mine always says (and, major confession: I hate him for it, each and every time),

It is what it is.

Translation?: Reality will trump that pathetic, distorted little ‘personal vision’ of  the world you’re holding onto for dear life, 99.99 percent of the time. And that remaining .01 percent of the time it seems to be working out the way you ‘dreamed’ it?  A fluke, dude: like winning the state lottery – it isn’t a ‘trend’ or ‘magic’ or ‘now my luck has really turned’, or anything of the kind – it’s a fluke, something you should never have counted on in the first place, and never should count on again.

So what are we left with? Reality. I know – you don’t like it. I don’t like it, either – it bites, it blows, it sucks, but, as the newscasters say: This just in: the tail doesn’t wag the dog. You don’t count on Life conforming to your personal ‘vision’; You adjust to Life.

Sorry to break the news to you like this – I wish I could have baked it into a gooshy, homemade, marzipan-creme-filled Hostess Ding Dong and served it to you on a fancy silver tray, but, like a good break-up, it’s easier in the long run just to take the hit all at once.

So, Reality: there it sits, like a big ol’ Great Dane in your living room, drooling all over the carpet and pooping in the hall. What are you going to do with it? Well, once upon a time, Freud had this idea, and he called it Sublimation (or technically, Sublimierung, in German – maybe on the assumption that a spoonful of letters makes the medicine go down?). Well anyway, it basically means this: that a mature (pronounced: mah-tew-ah) person, in the face of frustration (hello, Reality!) does not murder, rape, pillage, pout, moan, fling objects, or guilt-trip others (maybe it was a hint to his Jewish mother?) – rather, he or she “makes the best of a bad situation”, by throwing Reality a bone, rather than kicking it in the slats (then Reality bites, see?). By incorporating Reality into the solution, you can maybe meet some of your own needs, and at the same time allow Reality to gnaw on its soup bone. Result: everybody’s (at least sort of) happy.*

{*Yeah, yeah, I know – sublimation actually has to do with channeling primitive drives into higher-level functions, but listen up: My Blog, My Rules! Now, that’s sublimation!}

Examples, you say? Sure, we got examples:

A couple I was working with (Clive and Vera) came to me on the verge of breaking up. Why? Well, Vera was jealous, insecure, and “possessive” (hey – she said it, not me!), and Clive was handsome, outgoing and friendly. Oh yeah – he appreciated ‘the ladies’ quite a lot, and they certainly returned the favor. Result: when they were out in public or with friends, and especially when they’d both taken on quite a bit of ballast, Clive would be his ‘friendly’ self with all comers, while Vera steamed and fumed from the sidelines, feeling ignored and devalued.

Later on, when they were alone, she would unload on him, both barrels. He, in turn, would fire back, saying that there was nothing wrong with his being friendly, that he had no intention of ‘starting’ anything, or even flirting, with the women he was talking to, that she could damn well take him as he was, and that furthermore, she was an insecure, jealous b-word, who had better get herself together quick, or else. Add booze, stir, and baby, it was, “Fire in the hole!” And that’s the nice version of it, because, of course, I wouldn’t want to upset the delicate sensibilities of anyone out there who still thinks life is a marzipan Ding Dong.

So, what happened, you say? Oh, yeah, I almost forgot (Sorry, I was dreaming about that Ding Dong – talk about primitive urges!). Well, here’s what happened:

First, I looked at him. “You get to be who you are.” He looked happy.

Then, I looked at her. “You get to be who you are.” Now she looked happy, too.

Finally, I looked at both of them. “But if you want to stay together, you have to work together.” Now nobody looked happy, except me, of course. (Trade secret: it’s a lot better being the one without the problems than the one(s) with the problems – but don’t tell, it would just hurt people’s feelings.)

So now what? You see, the real trick of doing therapy with couples is in understanding that most couples approach it as a kind of court of last resort, or to be more precise, the therapist as Final Arbiter. In each person’s eyes, the therapist’s ‘job’ is to tell him (or her) that he is right, right, right, and that the other person is wrong, wrong, wrong: that’s why they’re really here, here, here – to see the Final Arbiter. Of course, you also have to understand that, impressive as your new title may sound, you only have power in somebody’s mind as Final Arbiter if you agree with him (or her): if you don’t, well you’re soon stripped of your title and cast out among the bulrushes to eat hyacinths.

But enough inside information – let’s get back to Vera and Clive. So, sitting there glaring at me, they had crossed the first Rubicon of couples’ therapy: giving up on the Final Arbiter. Their plan having failed (thanks to me), I was now On My Own, in the Slough of Unfairness – for, you see, a human being in couples therapy who has given up on the Final Arbiter now shifts desperately to the Fairness Doctrine, that is, that while the therapist may not agree with him (or her), the therapist at least does not blame him (or her) for ‘Everything‘. (Note – it’s always Everything: there is no ‘some part of it’ at this stage; if you’re ‘bad’, you’re all the way bad; if you’ve caused something, you’ve caused Everything. Why? Don’t ask me – ask Freud, if he’s not too busy sublimating.)

At this point, Clive says, “I’m not changing – I am who I am.”

I say, “No problem.”

Vera, somewhat alarmed that I’m not going to make Clive change (damn, I must have left the Change Button at home) says, “Okay, so I’m jealous, sometimes, a little bit. But, I can’t change either – and if he doesn’t change, well . . .”

I smile, confidently. “No problem.”

What the f___?  If the Final Arbiter bit is out, and the Fairness Doctrine has been sent to the bulrushes, what’s left? As it happens, the last resort is What Works.

“Guys – here’s how I see it: Clive, you’re a gregarious guy (proud smile), and it’d be a shame to make you change that (besides, I’ve left the Change Button at home, but they don’t know that), and Vera, you want, and deserve, to feel Special (proud smile – that sounds a lot better than Out-of-control, jealous b-word), so here’s what I propose: Clive, when you’re, shall we say, mingling – and as we know, you’re not flirting (head nod) – why don’t you make it a point to include Vera in some way? You know, just put your arm around her, or nod to her, or make a reference to her while you’re talking, so she knows, and everyone else knows, you’re with her? Is that too much to ask?

Clive: I don’t have to stop being outgoing?

Me: Nope – not a drop.

Vera: See ! I told you . . .

Me: Nope – not a drop. Let it go: nobody’s wrong here, nobody has to change who they are. Clive gets to be exactly who he is, but, since you’re together, he has to work with you on your jealousy issue, instead of resenting you for it. You see, he’s operating on the assumption that if you trusted him, you wouldn’t be jealous (Clive nods), but that’s not true: your jealousy is there whether you trust him or not. You just want to be included, and acknowledged, in his socializing with other people (Vera nods).

(Insider information: at this point the Final Arbiter and the Fairness Doctrine have both been sent to the showers, and What Works has come in to pinch hit. They’re still a little uneasy about it all, waiting for the other shoe to drop, for me to say someone’s ‘wrong’, but I don’t, and I won’t: it’s about What Works, not Who’s Wrong, and What Works has just hit a ringing double to the gap.)

Vera: (Suspiciously) And what do I have to do?

Me: What you have to do is not hang back and pout while he’s talking to other people. You have to stay around, instead of ‘testing’ him by withdrawing, so that, when he does his homework, you’re there to receive it.

Vera: Hmm – okay, sounds reasonable.

Over the next few sessions, Clive and Vera gradually shift from suspiciousness to relief: imagine that – this son of a bitch (Me), who couldn’t even play Arbiter properly, has come up with a Plan – a plan that doesn’t require confession, degradation or groveling, but merely Cooperation toward a common goal – a decent, functioning relationship. Our subsequent sessions are mostly about monitoring The Plan, modifying it as needed, answering questions about specific instances as they arise, and most fun of all, incorporating variations THEY come up with, as they get into the spirit of it.

In a later session, Clive says, “I’ll tell you one thing: it’s good to feel, for once, that I can do something right.”

Nodding, Vera responds, “And it’s good to feel like I’m not always the crazy lady.”

And I add: “There was never anything ‘wrong’ with either one of you: you just needed to work together instead of blaming each other.”

Granted, this was a situation that turned out to be relatively non-toxic, though keep in mind, when they started therapy, they were one step away from some serious violence. What if Clive actually had been coming on to other women, had been having affairs? What if Vera actually had slashed the tires of a woman he was talking to innocently, put sugar in her gas tank, and sent her a death threat? (I’ve dealt with all of the above.)

Sure, there are much more extreme, and uglier, situations a therapist has to deal with, all the time, but the principle’s still the same: you can’t just “have what you want” in life, regardless of consequences, and expect things to work out. You can’t just say, “I am what I am, take it or leave it,” and not eventually run into the buzz saw of Reality, whether as a parent, a spouse, a Little League coach, an employee, or President of the United States.

But if you learn to adapt, to let the little things go, to change your tack when the wind blows from the northeast, you can have a pretty good life, without giving up who you are.

And if you get really hard up, you can always come over to my house:

Line forms on the left for marzipan Ding Dongs!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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