Number Four, Hold the Onions









One of the small, unsung joys in working with people as I do, is that, maybe a few times a year, patients will get a little gleam in their eye and describe a moment in their life, perhaps from decades earlier, that was special, memorable in some way, or even just representative of a certain place, era, or quality of feeling. These moments don’t have to be big and brassy, or even significant in any traditional way – in fact they often aren’t – but nevertheless, for some reason they resonate with the person, down through the years; they persist in memory, fixed in the amber of emotion, despite all the new and maybe more flashy incidents that flood the river of experience.

And I listen carefully, feeling honored and privileged to be allowed ‘orchestra seats’ to these little-known playlets of memory, lit by the heart from within. There is something remarkable about a mere moment in time that, a lifetime later, can still glow with a quiet, eternal fire.

They’re usually not the ‘main topic’ of a session – far from it. When they arise at all, it’s only incidentally, and spontaneously, as the person is trying to make some other point, or discussing a particular time of life. They’re talking along, and then, suddenly, a change comes over their face – like I say, a warm, suffusing, faraway glow, followed by a little, inward smile, that makes me say to myself, “Hush – here comes something that matters.”

It can be a person:

I was standing on the subway platform in the Bronx, in 1965, I think it was, on the way to my cousin’s house in Brooklyn. It was cold – cold as hell – and I’m stamping my feet to stay warm, and bang, suddenly, out of the blue, I saw this girl – well, not really even a girl, more of a vision. She was so . . . well, there’s no real way to describe her, just that she was the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, but even that isn’t really the point. It was more than that – more like a familiarity, if you know what I mean. Like when people say, “I felt like I’d known her all my life?” Well, it was like that – like she was an angel sent to earth, sent to me, for me to see once, and once was enough. Like a possibility, kind of. Something to shoot for, to aspire to, or to inspire me to believe in things, no matter if it’s cold, or life is hard, or I’m discouraged. And it’s funny, but there are times, when I’ve been really down in the dumps, or feeling like a loser, that I remember her, and it keeps me going, because if she could exist, then it’s like everything’s worthwhile, after all. I know all this doesn’t make any sense, but I wanted you to know.

It can be the mental snapshot of a time and place, like this woman in her fifties remembered:

I was sitting in my third-grade classroom – just a regular day in class. As always, I was sitting in the far-right side of the classroom, in the back, at one of those desks that curves around, and is hinged, so you can fold it up when you don’t need to write?

Well, I told myself, “Notice this exact moment. You’re going to get older, and lots of things are going to happen to you, and you’ll forget all this stuff, so that it’ll seem like it happened in another lifetime. But I’m going to make an agreement with myself: I’m going to look around carefully, and notice this exact moment, at this exact place, at this exact age in my life, and I’m never going to forget it, as long as I live.”

So this is what I remember: we had those blinds that you pull down, over the long, tall windows. And the blinds were pulled down about three-quarters of the way, and the windows were open in the uncovered parts. It was late afternoon, probably close to three o’clock, when school would be out, and you could see the afternoon sun behind the blinds, kind of glowing through the fabric. I was sitting next to Marilyn Brodsky, and she was wearing a green plaid dress with a white, Peter Pan collar. And on the other side was Robert Helling, this boy I always had a little crush on – in fact, I think he’s the reason I decided to memorize that moment, you know, to memorialize him, and how I felt about him. So Robert was there, in his t-shirt and blue jeans and these black grown-up-looking shoes he always wore, which to me, made him a ‘man,’ because none of the other boys ever wore shoes like that – almost like wing-tips or something, and he wasn’t embarrassed to wear something different; it almost made him cool to wear something different and not care. And the teacher was writing on the blackboard, something like maybe an addition problem – I know I wasn’t interested in it, but I memorized the feeling I had, that I still had to pay attention, because if she asked questions about it, and I didn’t know what she was talking about, I would be horribly embarrassed! 

And I also memorized the way it felt being my age – you know, like a little scared all the time, because the world seemed so big, and yet also more excited than I am now, because there was so much possibility in life still to come? So, the fear of the unknown, but also the excitement of the unknown, at the same time – and that’s about what it felt like for me to be an eight-year-old girl, that day in class.

I also memorized the smell: that classroom always had a special smell, composed of chalk dust, and the smell of the cloakroom, kind of a nice, musty smell, and the girl next to me had on maybe some kind of little-girl perfume, or toilet water, the kind of thing a girl would put on, thinking she was being mature, maybe something she got from an older sister or something.

Well, that’s it – that’s the moment I was going to remember for the rest of my life, and so far, I have!

As I listen, I tuck these moments away in my own personal psychotherapy hall of fame, so that they can glow for me, too. Sometimes, they help me, too, just like they helped the original person. And sometimes I can even use them to help that patient, like when Joe was very despondent one day, and I said,”Joe, don’t forget the girl on the subway platform,” and something seemed to shift inside of him, and he simply nodded quietly and said, “Thank you.”

Do you have moments from your life, that are fixed in your mind forever, like still photographs? Moments that maybe don’t ‘make sense,’ but are still there, forever and ever?

Well I do, and I’ll tell you about one of them, but first a little back-story.

Where I grew up, in North Hollywood, a suburb of L.A., everyone lived in tract houses that had been built after the War, on quiet, perfectly-laid-out little streets – nice little streets, row upon row of them, only distinguishable by the kind of tree that was planted next to the curb. We had liquid ambars, that had lots of bristly ‘cones,’ and leaves that turned spectacular colors with the seasons, so that you could almost imagine that we had real seasons.

Well, this particular day – it must have been Fall, because I remember the leaves on the ground – my Mom decided to take us on a little outing. I was a pre-schooler, probably three or so, that magical age when you’re old enough to know a few things, but not old enough to have to know anything. It was unusual to actually be ‘doing’ anything with my mother; most days I spent playing with the guys down the street, all day, and that was the pattern my whole childhood: get up, take off, and come home in time for dinner. But for some reason, today Mom had made plans: we were going to have a picnic at Victory-Vanowen Park – me, my Mom, my older sister, and Libby, the woman next door who had just adopted a baby.

Libby was different than Mom – it’s hard to say how, exactly, through the eyes of a three-year old, but she was somehow softer, more feminine, more girlish, maybe more wounded. Nowadays, I would say, “vulnerable,” but I didn’t know that word then, or need to.

Libby was younger than Mom (almost all the other mothers were, my Mom having had babies ‘late,’ hatching me at 35). But she wasn’t just younger chronologically: the story, as it was passed on to me in dribs and drabs over the years, was that Libby had been an only child, a quiet, sensitive girl who grew up alone. Her parents, whom I met on a few occasions when they came to visit next door, seemed like nice folks, straightforward country folks, no-nonsense and plain, maybe the kind of folks who wouldn’t exactly know what to do with a soft, forlorn little girl.

I remember her Mom, Theresa, a perfectly nice woman, but a woman who would tie a rag on her head, then barrel through Libby’s house, cleaning, mopping and vacuuming with a vengeance: definitely not the ‘woe is me,’ ‘meaning of life’ type, more the ‘please get out of my way, I have things to do’ type. Of course, I could be wrong, but even at my young age, I already had a primitive version of my ‘this is a bad child/parent personality match’ thesis, that would later be the explanation of so many visits to my office. Like I say, I could be wrong, but I felt strongly that Libby had had a rough childhood.

Well, Libby grew up and eventually met and married a guy, Dan, who was also an only child. But Dan was a big, bluff, outgoing guy, a typical salesman type, who traveled, selling, for a national paper bag company, as I remember. He was gone a lot, and when he was there, he expected it to be his castle, his big personality dwarfing Libby’s, as she bustled about to keep him happy, probably wondering, with silent dread, what he really ‘did’ on the road all that time.

So, the most obvious answer for Libby, the lonely, only child in a lonely marriage with a guy who was on the road all the time, was to have a child of her own. And she tried, and tried, and tried. But, as it turned out, she couldn’t have children. So she tried adopting, and it was a long haul, but finally, she got a child to have for her very own: a little boy, Rory. And Rory was a holy terror from the start, a kid we would probably recognize as AHDH today (with an emphasis on the ‘H’), maybe even bipolar, an “all-boy” type who ran Libby ragged, morn to night. Libby would have been an amazing mother to a sweet little girl, but with this kid, she was outgunned and outmanned, her home a battle zone, not the love nest she had hoped for.

I knew, from hearing little thises and thats, that Libby kind of idolized Mom, and our family: I’m sure to her it looked like exactly what she had always longed for, with two sweet kids and a nice husband who was home for dinner every night. I think Libby saw Mom as the perfect mother, an older woman she could look up to, and confide in, someone who knew the score and could understand her troubles.

Little did she know that Mom had a few troubles of her own – not that Mom would talk about them, even with Libby, of course: ‘we’ didn’t talk about our problems with anyone, ever. That was low-class, weak and common – a breach of the privacy that we maintained at all times, with all people.

But to be on the receiving end of Libby’s talking – well, that was alright.

Well, I have a feeling that the picnic might have been the result of one of those talks, an antidote to the humdrum of Libby’s life, an anodyne outing that could lift everyone’s spirits and ‘change the slide’, for one afternoon.

But it wasn’t going to be a ‘pack the potato salad’ kind of picnic: nope, we were going to the Orange Suzy, near Sears.

Ah bliss!

Ah joy!

If you’re old enough to remember those ubiquitous Orange Julius stands, well, the Orange Suzy was something like that, with those whipped-orange drinks, made maybe with eggs, that you could get all over the country at the time. But the drinks were the least of it, because they also had these wonderful, fantastic, amazing hot dogs, and hot pastrami sandwiches that would make the angels (the Jewish ones, at least) weep with envy.

And the secret?


Everything was steamed in a special contraption that locked in the flavor and gave everything a moistness and density that couldn’t be matched by ‘conventional’ heating methods.

Now, that was something I was willing to forgo an afternoon with the guys for!

Well, I threw on my uniform – striped t-shirt, jeans and Keds, and we were off. Of course we drove – you always drive in L.A.: if I’m not mistaken, it’s a felony, there, to be caught walking further than the distance to your car.

First stop: the Orange Suzy. Though I was always torn, momentarily, between their great steamed hot dogs and the hot pastrami, I, of course, ordered the pastrami. I mean, put it this way: how could you possibly forgive yourself if you were killed later that day in an accident, and like a damn fool, you’d passed up your last chance to have a Suzy pastrami? You’d have no one but yourself to blame, as you died slowly, in shame, with chili dog on your breath.

If you ate there, everything came in those brightly-colored plastic baskets, but if you were taking out, as we were, the guy just wrapped it up in wax paper and put it in a paper bag (maybe sold to him by Dan?).

I don’t remember what everyone else ordered, but Mom always got “Number Four, hold the onions,” which was a chili dog with shredded cheddar cheese, on a bun, which ran a very respectable second-place on the Suzy sandwich menu to you-know-what.

Laden with our feast, we made our way to the park, which was just across the Sears parking lot from the Suzy. We finally settled down on the grass amid a copse of sycamores, their mottled trunks rising high over the park. Squirrels gamboled in the trees, going about their business with an admirable intensity of spirit.

I reached for my sandwich, wrapped in that yellow-orange wax paper that I don’t think they even make anymore. Then I opened up the paper and just took a moment of devotional grace, inhaling the glorious aroma of the bread, the meat, the pickle, even the mustard.

Like the girl who ‘memorized the moment’ in elementary school, I consciously fixed the scene in my memory: off to my left there was my mother and sister, setting out their food in preparation for our picnic; to my right there was Libby and her young son. I remember Libby’s face to this day, the skin creamy and soft, almost lustrous, like the girls in the Breck ads. And right in the middle of that creamy skin, for once, a small, contented smile.

And I saw, through my child’s eyes, the grass, the squirrels, and most of all, the stately sycamores.

The same sycamores that, five years later, would be the subject of one of my father’s Cub Scout ‘Nature’ merit badge talks, which would earn him the nickname Nature Boy, which would lead to his love of birds, which would lead to a lifetime of birding, and writing about birding. The same sycamores that, ten years later, would witness me running home, my arm a bloody mess, when I tried to sled down the paved ‘wash’ of the L.A. River on a piece of cardboard and ended up shredding my skin on the asphalt all the way down. The same sycamores that, fifteen years later, would be there as I sobbed my heart out to my sister, in shocked disbelief, when my first ‘real’ girlfriend dumped me.

But the day of the picnic, the day I memorized, all was magical: good company, good food, the woods, the squirrels, the rustle of the leaves on the trees, the crackle of the leaves on the grass, and the kindness that my mother had shown to Libby, to get her out of her house, and into that beatific smile, for a few precious moments.

And, looking back, I think that maybe, in my own little-boy way, I was proud of Mom that day. I think that maybe, because of her thoughtfulness, and her love for Libby – well, maybe I kind of felt loved-by-association, and proud-by-association, too.

All I know is that, for that one magic moment, time stood still, and life was good.

I hope that you, like my patients and I, have some magic moments squirreled away, too – some inner pictures that are there when you need to ‘go to the well’ and draw sustenance from it.

And I hope that, like those sycamores I treasure in memory, they stand eternal watch over you.






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

Christmas Eve










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.












      She’s hanging in the Louvre                    She’s sitting in your office chair       




Out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy,
Out in the back seat of my ’60 Chevy,
Workin’ on mysteries without any clues,
Workin’ on our night moves.
Trying’ to make some front page drive-in news,
Workin’ on our night moves in the summertime,
In the sweet summertime.

I woke last night to the sound of thunder,
How far off I sat and wondered.
Started humming a song from 1962.
Ain’t it funny how the night moves?
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose.
Strange how the night moves,
With autumn closin’ in.

Night Moves, Bob Seger

That about sums it up, doesn’t it? We’re all “workin’ on mysteries, without any clues.” You never know what kind of mysteries someone is working on, until you listen, very, very closely. People come to therapy for many reasons, and with amazingly varied expectations. What do I mean by ‘amazingly varied’? Well, try this on for size:

I once saw Jimmie, a guy in his late Thirties, who said, and I quote:

“We just found out my wife is sick. She might have cancer, but they’re not sure yet. Well, the thing is, I’ve never had a problem before in my whole life. Everything’s been easy and just gone great. My family is wonderful, my marriage is perfect, and my career has been a dream. So now, I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?”

Wow. I felt like saying, “Dude – can I touch you? Maybe some of that will rub off on me!”

What actually happened? I explained to him that, while feelings have their own ‘reality’, and are important, they are not ‘actual’ reality, and that you can allow the feelings (e.g. panic) to be there, while still having a larger part of you that is going ahead and functioning in the real world at the same time. A feeling (e.g. panic that his wife might be very ill) is not a true representation of outer reality, but is only what happens when outside information ‘bounces’ off your insides. Therefore, you can say, “Wow, I feel panicky,” at the same time as having a more accurate, ‘larger,’ realistic assessment of the situation (“My wife might be ill – we’ll see”), and these can coexist without the feeling overwhelming the overall picture, or your functionality in life.

He nodded, thoughtfully. “Thanks – I think I’ve got it now.” He paused. “Can I call you if it doesn’t work?”

I said, “Uh, off course – anytime.”

He shook my hand, left, and that was it.

Oh, I did get a brief phone message about a month later:

“This is Jimmie. It worked. By the way, my wife is fine. Thanks.”

Once again: Wow! Maybe I should have touched the hem of his garment! Well, needless to say, Jimmie is not representative of most people’s lives and emotional issues, or else I’d be out of a job today – or maybe a film professor, explaining how Orson Welles revolutionized deep focus, or something. But I really love being a therapist, so thanks for having problems, everyone! (Just kidding.)

But most people’s ‘mysteries’ are a lot more daunting than Jimmie’s. To wit:

How could the father who loved me so much, who was, by far, my best parent, who was the only person who understood me and made me feel loved and seen – also have molested me?

How can it be that so many people who only want power, or to be admired, or money, have contributed so many amazing things to our culture?

Why is it that the only women I’m attracted to are the ones who hurt me?

How come, so often, after I have accomplished something good, I feel like killing myself?

Why does my husband keep having affairs, even though I know he loves me?

Now, these are mysteries – serious ones, the answers to which can really alter lives.

So, what do I ‘do’ when someone comes in with these kinds of tormenting questions? Do I cite chapter and verse of some heavy psychology book I read that says,

“Every time someone says ____________, it means ___________”?

I could: people LOVE this – and that’s why so many therapists can get away with being authoritarian (as opposed to authoritative), prescriptive, and definitive. Many, many times patients have told me that a previous therapist told them stuff like, “When a tree appears in a dream, it signifies the flowering of the unconscious,” or “Yawning a lot is a sign that your creative element is blocked.” Like I said, people LOVE definitive statements like this; one’s psychological life is so difficult to get a ‘fix’ on, that anything specific and definite you can (supposedly!) find out feels like getting a piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

Not to mention, people are paying you to be an expert, to answer the question: What does ____________ mean?” – not to jack around asking them,

“Hmmm – what do you think it means?”

So what do I do? I listen to them, and I listen to myself, over time. And then I share (selectively) what I hear inside, and I ask them to share what they hear inside, over time.

Sounds easy, huh?


Believe me, I want to know the answers to their mysteries, and wish I could just ‘lay it on ’em’ and have their questions resolved immediately (although, yep, maybe then I’d be out of customers and back to being a film professor!), but it most certainly (how’s that for definitive?) does not work that way. By the way, I’m not just goofing around with that whole film professor thing: doing therapy is a lot like art appreciation. You wouldn’t just tear through War and Peace, or The Searchers, or The Naked Maja, and start spouting instant, ‘definitive’ opinions. If you’re a serious art, film, or literature student, scholar, or even critic, you return to the art again and again, over time, going back and forth between the work of art (what is really being presented here, anyway?) and yourself (what does it evoke in me?) – sensing carefully, then comparing, sifting, re-thinking, shifting focus, maybe doing some research, maybe comparing to other works of art: in other words, it takes work, experience, talent, and time, to do a work of art justice.

Sure, maybe you see a movie, or read a book, and all you think is, “I hated it.” Well, that’s fine, for amateurs: nothing depends on it, except maybe your friends not cuing up to see it after they’ve talked to you. But if you’re an art critic, a scholar, a commentator, or a professor, we expect a lot more out of you than, “I hated it.” We want you to dig deep, to tell us things we wouldn’t have thought of on our own, to show us things we wouldn’t have seen if not for you, to put it in a historical context, to compare it to its contemporaries, to work at it. When I read, or listen to, something a professional has said or written about a movie, a book, a piece of music, or even a performance, I want to feel, “Wow – I couldn’t have thought of that; it expanded my vision, my capacity to appreciate, and my artistic sensibilities – in some way.”

Even in sports, we expect our commentators to go beyond what is immediately apparent. When I read Baseball America, or watch MLB Now, I don’t expect to hear, “He can flat rake” (translation: he is a really good hitter), I want to hear, “With runners in scoring position, he has the highest OPB in Cardinals’ history.” You’ve got to tell me something I don’t know!

And for a therapist? Same thing: you’ve got to be a jeweler with a loupe, looking at a stone, not the guy on the street saying, “Nice rock!” Every human being is a truly amazing ‘work of art,’ and it is your job to be a professional-level appreciator, evaluater, and if necessary, restorer, of that work of art. Just like our hypothetical professional art critic, you are not there to spout definitive statements about what is before you, to point out the obvious, or to prate, “You need to change X, Y and Z,” as if the person him/herself hasn’t thought of that already. To do so would be to vastly underrate (and insult) the complexity, the ingeniousness, and yes, even the beauty, of the person before you. That is why, just as in approaching a work of art, the first (and constant) thing you do is, “Shut up and listen.”

You wouldn’t speed-read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and then say, “Duh – it’s about an old guy who’s a miser, and then he changes. Period,” would you? Well, maybe if you were a teenager who had to read it for a class, you might (and plenty of kids I work with have), but even that teenager ‘knows’ that what he did was an insult to a great classic (and yes, those kids do know that).

What you do is this: you ASSUME that there is a richness, a complexity, and much to learn, from the person you’re working with. You ASSUME they can’t just be skimmed and summarized, like a D student does at the last minute with A Christmas Carol. And, like a good work of art carefully studied, you assume that it will reveal its secrets in time, and that there will be worthwhile secrets to be revealed (there always are). You assume that, like Ebeneezer Scrooge, for some reason they have become emotionally constricted, and that, with enough safety, encouragement and ‘fellow-traveling,’ they will open up (like Scrooge) to the joy and meaningfulness of sharing and connection – and by sharing and connection, I mean within as well as without.

Oh, and you don’t look for an ‘answer,’ because there is no answer: what there is, is a process. Yes, in hindsight, you can see that it was a logical, step-wise progression that took you across that wide river, but at the time, it’s just feeling your way along, following the hunches and responses that are the stones you step on, one after the other, until you’re ‘there.’

So, how does someone go from suddenly ‘recovering’ memories of her beloved father molesting her, to rage and disillusionment, to seeking help from others in the same boat, to acceptance, to helping others in the same boat, to being a therapist specializing in child abuse? I don’t know – even though I was ‘there.’ I can tell you that, when treated with the reverence, genuine inquiry and respect you would accord a work of art, my patient went from being relatively unformed clay, to a far more realized work of art. Yes, I could tell you the ‘steps’ we took together, but it would be a meaningless extraction, like trying to tell someone about the thrill of a horse race by showing them a series of photos of the race.

The mysteries therapy patients hold inside resist easy solutions and formulaic approaches: they demand you to be more than you are, so that your patients may become more than they are.

Like reading a good book, the mysteries hidden inside human beings require full engagement and involvement – of the intellect, the heart, the senses, the intuition and more.

So no, I didn’t become a film professor, but I feel like I got something far richer: whenever someone asks me, “Seen any good films lately?” I can smile to myself and think, “Yes – about thirty of ’em.”







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

October, In the Rain









It’s October, in Upstate New York.

Turning leaves.

Raking leaves.

Burning leaves.

And this year, I’ve got a front-row seat for all of it. I’m in Cooperstown, New York. I’m sitting here in my cottage on the shores of Otsego Lake, looking out my window at the lake, through the soft rain that’s been falling all afternoon. Looking at the flame-orange and yellow foliage on the trees – their last, glorious act of defiance, before winter pulls down the curtain on the show. But what a show!

I came here to worship at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s located here because, back in the Thirties, a group of guys got together and decided to say that baseball was invented here, by a guy named Abner Doubleday – a Civil War hero. Well, long story short, but d’ohh, it wasn’t, and everyone knows it. But here’s the deal: whoever thought of locating this thing here in Cooperstown was a genius. I mean, if they needed to say that Christ was raised from the dead in Cooperstown to get the darn thing located up here, it would’ve been worth it. Because this place is so utterly beautiful in the Fall, it’s practically criminal. After seeing all this, I feel like every other burg in America should be arrested for impersonating a small town in Fall, because this is IT.

I mean, if there was an All-Star game for the seasons, this place would have to represent Fall, hands down:

And now, ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together once again and welcome your unanimous selection for the season of Autumn: Cooperstown, New York!

All that Fall stuff, and Americana, too. As far as the Americana part of it all, well, I guess it’s understandable: once Cooperstown was chosen as the site for the Hall of Fame, it was committed to keeping its old-time flavor, and that’s as it should be. I mean, you will not find a McDonald’s on Main Street, or a Wal-Mart, or a Taco Bell. I did find a Price Chopper store, but it’s kept discreetly out of the way, like an embarrassing relative.

So what it comes down to is this: Cooperstown is what we, in our modern cynicism, would call a Theme Park. But is that so bad? Hey, we need Theme Parks! I remember, years ago, when I was on a business trip in Florida and visited Disney World in Tampa. And they had this thing called the World Showcase, and it had areas that were supposed to look like Germany, and France, and they did! I mean, heck, I knew it wasn’t Germany, or France, but it did kind of give the feel of those places, and I enjoyed it. And, in the original Disneyland, my favorite part is the one that’s supposed to look like the French Quarter in New Orleans, and you know what – it does look like the French Quarter in New Orleans, and if you hang out there in the evening, and have a couple drinks, it’s like being in the French Quarter. And no, that’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing.

And for that matter, aren’t our whole lives kind of like a Theme Park? I mean, we decorate our houses to give the ‘feel’ of something or other, don’t we? It’s not like the visitors to our homes actually look around the living room and think, for example,

“Wow, the Bernsteins really ARE the leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement in America: they live a life of aesthetic perfection, because I can see that that special celadon vase with the dragonfly imprint goes so well with that painted tile on the south wall over there.”

And how about the way we dress? Do people actually look at a woman and think,

“Oh my god – she’s the living embodiment of Dior! And she has accessorized so perfectly that it takes my breath away! She must spend all her time in Paris at the feet of the masters!”

I don’t think so. All we really want is a momentary Theme Park: “Oh, yeah, you’ve got the right idea. You go, girl!” That’s good enough for us, right? We’re going for an impression, a ‘feel’, not a full-on identity. We’re, all of us, impersonators, to one degree or another.

And in that sense, Cooperstown really does its job. Baseball, more than any other sport, celebrates and treasures its old times and its old players. Even the casual baseball fan knows something about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Willie Mays: the really famous guys. And the Hall of Fame is a shrine for the casual fan, because it’s about the Really Famous Guys. The average Joe who makes the pilgrimage to Cooperstown wants to look at a plaque, turn to his wife and say, “Oh yeah – I know that guy!”

Yes, there is a fantastic library, which is a fabulous resource for the hard-core guys: the writers, the researchers, the people who are sitting up nights obsessing about  OPS+, and the research facility also houses a staggering amount of memorabilia, artifacts of the game, that tell the story of baseball in the objects that have been associated with it. Rotating group of these artifacts are on display in the ‘museum’ of the history of the game that you can walk through at your leisure and ooh and aah over: baggy old flannel uniforms, tarnished trophies, the battered catcher’s mitt that Mickey Cochrane once used, the cap that Casey Stengel wore at a Yankees’ old-timers’ game, the bat that Babe Ruth leaned on when he said goodbye to us forever.

It may seem childish to ‘outsiders,’ but to anyone who loves this beautiful old game, these are holy relics.

But back to this lovely little town and looking at the lake through the rain. This little town’s job is to be Evocative, and evocative, even if it’s only ‘theme park’ evocative, is wonderful. It reminds me of a movie I saw a long time ago, called Bachelor Party. Nope, not the Tom Hanks one. Definitely not the Tom Hanks one. The 1957 one – one of those ‘prestige,’ social commentary jobs, written by Paddy Chayevsky, that were so prevalent in the Fifties, with Don Murray, E.G. Marshall, and Jack Warden. At one point, one of the characters tells the story of going out with a woman who asks him, “When we go to bed, please, just say you love me.”

So it’s kind of like that for me here: I don’t care if the people who work in the cute little diners and shops on Main Street actually aren’t wonderful human beings in their ‘real’ lives, whether they forget their kids’ birthdays, cheat on their taxes, or sometimes shoot up something stronger than aspirin; I just want them to LOOK LIKE they’re nice people, so I can get into that evocative space that this place is all about. I want to float along Main Street and pretend, if I feel darn well feel like it, that I’m back in the 1950’s, or even the 1900’s.

Just SAY you love me, Cooperstown!

So I went and saw a life-like statue of Ted Williams, I genuflected to Stan Musial’s bat from the 1946 World Series, I rubbed the bronze plaque of Babe Ruth (I noticed that Ruth’s is the only one that is  worn absolutely smooth, from decades of spontaneous affection), and I even listened to Abbott and Costello’s ‘Who’s On First’ routine once again.

And now I’m back in my hotel room, looking out at the lake, and the rain, and thinking. I’m thinking about how, in some ways, we are all impersonators. Yes, we admire those Hall of Famers because they actually got out there and DID it, in the big-time.

But real life isn’t that simple, or substantial: a lot of life is about how we’re SEEN, and how we’re seen matters to us, a lot.


A therapist lives with the issue of perception all day long:

How is the patient seeing me?

How does the patient see the therapy?

How is the patient seeing himself?

How does the patient feel about his life?

Because there is very little actual difference between the life of a person who is severely depressed, and the life of the same person when he/she is feeling ‘better.’ The difference is, mostly, perception. Are you actually functioning much better, in real terms, when you’re feeling good about yourself and your life? Are you actually doing a better job at work, functioning more maturely in your relationships, making more money, being a finer human being, making the world a more worthwhile place?

No, not really.

You just feel like you are. But that makes all the difference.

After all, on Monday, a patient might feel like a loser, a failure, and a bum.

On Tuesday, he starts taking Prozac.

The next Monday, he comes in beaming:

Life is good.

I am worthwhile.

I look forward to each day.

What happened? Did he have a spiritual awakening over the weekend? Did he find a four-leaf clover? Did Jupiter align with Mars? Nope – he started taking a little round pill before bedtime each night, and he feels differently about himself and his life.


Why is it that one person, with terminal cancer, can feel calm, settled, and appreciative of life, whereas another person, who is perhaps privileged, healthy and in the prime of life, can feel desperately miserable and tortured?

Because it is not so much what is going on in the patient’s life, as it is his or her relationship to what is happening. What a therapist does can be very complicated, steeped in convoluted theory, and infinitely challenging, but it all ultimately boils down to two basic tasks:

1) Teaching the patient a new way to ‘hold’ the facts of his life.

2) Creating a safe place for him to do so.

Each and every therapist will accomplish these things differently, and differently with every patient, but the success of the therapy will primarily hinge on these two jobs.

And how do you accomplish those two jobs?

Ask me later.

Right now, I’ve got a lake to watch.







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

Sleepy Town Awakening








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.


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?


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









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.


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.”


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.

Route 66, Part II: Almost Human – West Virginia









(Note: please read Route 66, Part I: For the Long Haul, first)

Culture shock is such an overused term. Besides, it is wholly inadequate to describe what I found when we finished our marathon journey on Route 66 and pulled up into the front yard of the Smiths. Yes, I said the Smiths. You see, where I came from, everyone but everyone was named Sherry Brodsky, or Max Leibowitz, or Marla Epstein. Am I making myself clear? I mean, in my world, I was the only one who was at school during Yom Kippur, being a ‘half-caste’, you see. We always celebrated Christmas, with the tree, the presents on Christmas morning, and all the trimmings – I never saw the inside of a synagogue my entire childhood. But my whole neighborhood was Jewish, my school probably eighty percent Jewish, and my name – well, what are you going to do?

But hell, my Mom was all-WASP, all the time, and certainly no Jewish mother. She was more of a cool cucumber than any of my friends’ parents, careful always to keep emotions, and emotional ‘displays’ to a non-embarrassing minimum. She didn’t hug, she didn’t yell, she didn’t argue, she didn’t cry – whatever was going on went down into the undertow below, to be guessed at by whomever had upset her in some untold way.

So, to me, Jewish meant warmer (good) but overwhelming (bad), whereas WASP meant icy cool (bad) but non-abrasive (good). And then we arrived in Williamstown, West Virginia, where I met the Smiths, and my Uncle Tom.

We pulled in to the gravel driveway and my Uncle Skeet ran out to greet us. Imagine that – I had an uncle named not Leo, not Max, not Irving – but Skeet! Skeet Smith. Or Skeeter, for ‘short’. Later I figured out that this was a regional nickname meaning ‘mosquito’, that is, a little guy. But he wasn’t a little guy to me – he had a big ol’ smile, a ready hug and a funny way about him that you just couldn’t not like. Now I knew what the expression ‘salt of the earth’ meant. Though nobody else ever said it, that I know of, I somehow immediately knew he reminded me of Will Rogers, the down-home, unofficial humorist ‘laureate’ of America in the Thirties: the crinkly smile, the dancing eyes, the genuine aw-shucks manner he affected, while seeing through you down to the bone. Or if you ever saw The Rockford Files, you might remember who Noah Beery, Jr. is: same thing. Honesty, realness, warmth and a big wink, all in one folksy package. Skeet Smith didn’t have a disingenuous bone in his body. Now, this was a kind of WASP-iness I could get to like!

And his wife, Aunt Naomi (pronounced more like “Nay-el-mah”), my mother’s sister. Another one who had a lot more acceptance than judgment. She was big – real big. Think of Jane Darwell – Ma Joad, in The Grapes of Wrath, if you’re a movie person. But like Ma Joad, she was an earth mother – unpretentious and caring. And like many women who have been heavy most of their lives, and have therefore mostly let go of personal vanity, she was not posturing or brittle. A big woman with a big heart.

Theirs was a home you felt at home in right away, as opposed to my house, where you always felt everything was on display, even (or maybe especially) the kids. As usual, being my reticent, shy and observing self, and being in a new and foreign place, I mostly stayed to myself, not really connecting too much with anybody, but I felt comfortable, and at ease.

It was summer, but a different summer than I was used to: the air was ‘close’ (a new word for me) a lot of the time, and the skies even broke out into rain (my favorite) every so often. It was hot and ‘sticky’ – another novelty for me. We didn’t do sticky in L.A. We also didn’t do ‘outdoors’ in L.A. very much, other than playing ball with the guys in the street, or on the playground. Not with the whole family. Here, most of summer life took place outdoors, and what an outdoors: they had a big, big yard. My cousin Susan had a horse – named Mabel. Imagine that: a horse! There was a cat named Fancy, and some kind of a little terrier named Missy. Uncle Skeet would raise his hand and say, “Missy sing!” and she would give out with some kind of caterwauling that was hilarious.

The summer game was croquet, and Skeet played the ‘course’ with genius and virtuosity. He could make his ball hunt the wicket like it was pulled by a string, and if he wanted to, he could knock your ball clear into the next county.

The official summer treat of the Smith house was homemade ice cream, and Skeet Smith was the Babe Ruth, the Jascha Heifetz, of the ice cream maker. I would go with him to the ice house to get rock salt and dry ice, and he would pack it all into the big grinder and let me crank till my arm just about fell off. Then he would laugh and take over, whirling that thing like it was nothing, all the while keeping up a stream of good-humored commentary that made me feel like a person, not a kid, like a family member, not an outsider. And when we were done, and it was served: ahhh – the gods wept with envy!

It was a long time ago, but I’m pretty sure I remember sleeping in the screened-in porch at the back of the house. In my mind, it was my personal fiefdom, at least for the duration, and I loved it. What I do remember is this: I found a 45rpm record that had Anything Goes on one side, and I’ve Got You Under My Skin on the other, and I about wore that thing out, I played it so many times. Like the porch, it felt like mine – my own little secret. Who would have thought I would discover Cole Porter in Williamstown, West Virginia? I never talked about it, and no one ever noticed, or if they did, they never asked me about it. In fact, I’ve never mentioned it to anybody until now.

At home, all the records (except the weird kid stuff like King Thrushbeard and funky Burl Ives or Danny Kaye) belonged to Mom. At some expense, she’d had a very high-tech (for the time) Hi Fi installed in the area behind the living room, where she could play all her opera and classical LPs during the day – it was important to her. I think it reminded her that she was more than ‘just’ a housewife, marooned in suburbia, like some landlocked cetacean.

But this little record, and this guy Cole Porter, was my discovery – all mine! And like the trucks, and the trains, and the broasted chicken, I reveled in it, coveted it, secretly, as a small building block of my shaky and scattered identity: something, some one thing, I could call my own, had found on my own, that had nothing to do with “the way we are”. In my family, there was no place to not be part of wewe took in the whole universe, and to defect from we meant — well, you just didn’t want to go there. It didn’t need to be said: it was our way or the highway, but the highway was, and is, unthinkable to a child.

But back to the ice cream. Peach ice cream. Sometimes strawberry, maybe, but what I remember best is the peach: hot, sticky weather, croquet, and then, blessed, cold peach ice cream, a la Skeet:


And then there was my Uncle Tom, who never married (and probably never dated) and lived with my grandmother, his mother, and had all his life. He had suffered some pretty severe health problems for much of his childhood, and most likely it had taken him out of the mainstream so far, for so long, that, combined with his innate shyness, it was too much to overcome to try to fight his way back in. He was smart, quiet, reserved, wry, and slyly funny, if you got what he was talking about, which was sometimes a little bit on the odd side. Finally, a relative whose mind I could relate to, at least a little bit. That helped, to have one like that. No, I definitely wasn’t the type to never marry – in fact, I was the type to marry as soon as possible, and for life, if possible, but I had the same kind of mind, and wit, and the ways of the born observer, and appreciator.

But Tom was too quiet, and too shy, to be a real role model – in fact, he was a role model for what might happen to me if I allowed myself to sink into my shyness too far, and thus he inspired me, albeit unintentionally, to stay on the path of a ‘normal’ social life. Thanks, Thomas!

But what I’m really getting at in telling you all this – and what’s relevant for all of us – is that with my ‘immersion’ in West Virginia life, I started understanding that these were ‘my people’, too: yes, I absolutely was the “Jewish kid” (of sorts) from North Hollywood, and I’m proud of that, but I was also ‘of’ these other people, these lovable, loving and gentle people of the Ohio River. And now, with a broader cultural framework to draw from, I could cast my net wider – I could stretch out and embrace all of my cultural background: instead of feeling neither/nor, I could become both/and.

Yes, it would take me a long, long time (and a lot of therapy) to put this complex, unique jigsaw puzzle together, because I eventually had to figure out how to be my own ‘role model’, but the extra time, and work, was worth it: by being a complex person, with boots in several cultural ‘worlds’, one is able to partake of, and appreciate, the whole banquet that life has to offer. I don’t have to just ‘choose one from Column A’ – I can mix and match in all kinds of creative ways. And it has enabled me to relate to all kinds of therapy patients, as well – I have a personal understanding of being in the mainstream, and of being an outsider; of being a minority, and a majority, of being quiet and reserved, and outgoing and warm – of being lots of things at the same time.

I think I was a blob when I hit West Virginia – by the time I left, I was on my way to being almost human.

Of course, the downside of complexity is that nobody ever knows what movies I’ll like (!), but consider this: the most treasured professional compliment I ever got was from a woman I had seen through a very difficult, and very self-destructive, obsession with a man. When she finally came out the other end of this harrowing episode, she was telling me one day that she appreciated how, though we are very different people, I was able to ‘stay with her’ through hell and high water.

I said, “I hope you could feel how much I value you – no matter how different we are.”

She said, “Gregg – you could make a wall feel right at home.”

Well, the old hymn says, “It’s a gift to be simple”, but I’m here to say, it’s a gift to be complex, too. So thank you, Route 66, thank you Uncle Skeet and Aunt Naomi, thank you, Uncle Tom, and thank you, Cole Porter.

I couldn’t have done it without you.







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

Fuel For The Heart










Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine,

I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine.

A million tomorrows will all pass away,

Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today.


Many years ago, probably 1966 or ‘7, when I was a student at UCLA, my girlfriend, who was outgoing and socially at ease, and therefore the polar opposite of me, was on The Colloquium, I think it was called: some kind of Student Council, or Guidance Committee, or Student Council Guidance Committee, or – well, you get the idea. She was “in leadership,” as chambers of commerce like to say, whilst I, her eyes-downcast, shy, unsure consort, could barely get it together to be in followership. Anyway, the Colloquium had a yearly “retreat”, undoubtedly for the members to get together and Colloquy up a storm. I, as the consort, was invited along for the ride – a bus ride, as I remember, sports-team-style, with everyone crammed together for optimal bondage and fermentation.

Where did we go? I have no idea. What did we (or rather, they) talk about? I have no idea. Were there breakthroughs, grand hatchings of world-changing ideas, comings-up-with of new dimensions in human colloqui-izing? No idea, for in that era of my life, I was mostly on the Bernstein Plan: fade into the woodwork and hope nobody notices you, or far worse, calls on you, causing potential shame and humiliation, beyond that which was already in place, aplenty.

So, what do I remember?

Only this: on the way back home (yep, my memory skips the entire Colloquipalooza itself, though I’m sure it was groundbreaking and historic), music was playing on the bus, or wait, maybe we were all ‘group-singing’ (bondage and fermentation – remember?) the song, Today, by John Denver. It’s actually rather a nice song, and if you click on the link (go on, you scallywag, you!), you can watch the New Christy Minstrels performing it, and see and hear for yourself the Anita-Bryant-hair’ed, hands-prettily-clasped-in-lap’ed, Sunday-frocked girls, and the suit-and-tied, Ivy-League-hair’ed, pink-cheeked boys harmonizing it, altogether a pre-Hippie folkie vision of Purity, Goodness and Earnestness.

Anyway, you can imagine sitting there in the bus, having spent the weekend Doing Good, as we sang our little hearts out together like Methodists or something: sure, I’m mocking it a bit, but the fact that I still remember the goose-bumpy feeling of it forty-eight years later says something.

After the singing, I remember I sat there on the bus talking to a much older, white-haired couple, about “the state of the world”. We talked for quite a while, which was unusual for me with older people at the time, and, as I recall, we touched on most of the standard (but important) issues of the time: proto-environmentalism (“conservation”, in those days), why do there have to be wars, what’s happening to the world anyway, can non-violent resistance work – or will it take revolution, the military-industrial complex, commercialism, and all the rest.

As we pulled in to the UCLA parking lot, and wrapped up the conversation, the old guy extended his hand to me and said,

You’re a very mature young man.

I remember I wondered at the time, ‘Does he mean it?’ Or was he just trying to offer a little encouragement to a young, kind of lost kid who was basically an okay guy and in political agreement with him? Now I realize that it doesn’t matter, because I ‘registered’ his remark forever: here I am, almost a half century later, repeating it. Looking back on that young man who was me, I see that, to ‘him’, it meant, “Maybe I’m not that bad,” so whether the old man ‘meant’ it or not is irrelevant: it had found its mark, and I would always have it in the woodpile of emotional encouragments stacked deep in my soul, to draw on, during the freezing weather of my future. Fuel for the heart.

1973: I was a psychology grad student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I was a bit more self-possessed than in my teens, but not much: each year there was a make-or-break test we had to pass, or be asked to leave the program. I had friends who had washed out, or been in the process of washing out, for years. It wasn’t pretty, and it ruined a couple of friendships, when I ‘made it’ and they didn’t. I’m not blaming the school: that’s probably the way it was everywhere at that time. Kind of like the Marines: they used the emotional pressure partly as a weeding-out tool. If you couldn’t ‘cut it’, you didn’t have it in you to function professionally as a psychologist: if you did – well, you were part of The Few, The Proud.

I didn’t doubt my ability to become a good therapist, eventually, with the right help, but the program wasn’t particularly geared to people like me: the ‘good ones’ were supposed to go on to become academics, researchers, ‘scientists’. As we went on, and my classmates seemed (at least, to me) to become more involved in their research, to spout more jargon, and to talk of finding positions in academia, I felt more and more like a fish out of water. I didn’t give a hoot about my dissertation, statistics, or reading deadly dull journal articles and books that seemed designed to impress colleagues, rather than shed light on human life. I didn’t want to know about “learned helplessness”, “cognitive dissonance”, or the primacy effect: I wanted to know what to do when someone feels their life is meaningless, why some people grow from grief while others collapse under it, and how to connect with people who were different from me.

I felt my adviser was disappointed in me for not being enthusiastic about behavior therapy, and sometimes it seemed like the professors were more involved in their internal squabbling with each other (“When he first came here, he never approached me for guidance, not once, so the hell with him!”), and their own personal problems, than they were in producing the next generation of decent, human psychologists. Again, I don’t blame the school – I was an idealistic, romantic kid who was probably slated for a lot of disillusionment, no matter where I went to school.

Then, a ray of light came into my life: it turns out there was a ‘breadth requirement’, which decreed that you had to take at least a few classes out of your ‘field’ of concentration, in order to ensure that you were, if not a Renaissance Man, at least not a Dark Ages Man, oblivious to anything not in front of your nose.

Joy! I took the first film appreciation class of my life, and I’m pretty sure I was probably not very rewarding to the poor teacher. A sample of one of my ‘critiques’ of an artsy art film: “This film was a one-hour exercise in mental masturbation: I could have gotten much more out of an hour spent in actual masturbation!” – to which the response was a very great many savage red pencil marks. But that class was my first realization that film could be treated as a legitimate art form (kind of like what Freud and Jung did for people), and the beginning of a lifetime of appreciation and enjoyment.

And the other ‘field’ I gamboled in for a semester? Poetry. Well, actually I don’t remember a lot about it, other than the fact that the other students (grad students in poetry, I suppose) seemed to be operating on a different level than I – a much higher level. Specifically, I remember sitting in class trying to puzzle out The Emperor of Ice Cream, by Wallace Stevens: While the other students seemed to be spooning it up like a big sundae, I’m afraid I sat there with brain freeze.

But this I do remember: I was talking to the professor, a remarkable and highly-honored man (I believe he won the Professor of the Year award at U.T. several times running), during his office hours, about this or that, and he suddenly started out to say something, then stopped, abruptly.

Somehow, I had a feeling it was important. “What did you start to say?”

“Oh – nothing.”

Despite my shyness and lack of confidence, I had an intuitive feeling about this, and pressed him. “Please – tell me.”

He blinked a few times, in indecision, then seemed to make up his mind. He cleared his throat. “I honestly don’t know if it’ll be helpful or not . . . but, well, it’s just that, uh, I think you’re the brightest student I’ve ever had.”

I stopped breathing. For one thing, I had been a total boob in his class, contributing nothing to the conversation: if I was the emperor of anything, it was melted orange sherbet. I tried to discredit the statement: after all, this was Tennessee, not Harvard. And besides, what would he know about me, or anything else, anyway? But, much as I tried to negate him, that dog didn’t hunt: this guy was special – he didn’t get that Professor of the Year thing for nothing. He could hold his own at Harvard or anywhere. I knew my major professor was a friend of his: maybe they had talked? But my major prof didn’t think I was all that big a deal, anyway, so that didn’t make any sense.

My mind continued on though, trying to discredit, negate, and nullify:

Oh, I get it: he knows I need a little shot in the arm, and this is his way of administering it. That’s why he hesitated so much: he’s a decent fellow, and so it took him a while to make up his mind whether a lie for a good purpose was justified.  That’s why he’s such a good teacher: he knows how to motivate people, how to inspire them, and this is what he decided I needed.

We didn’t mention it again, then or ever. He seemed uncomfortable with having said it to me, like something you do that’s out of character, and then have to live with. I guessed it was possible he might have meant it, that his hesitation might have been because he was afraid it would ‘go to my head’, but I would never know.

What I do know is that that one little sentence has stayed with me for the rest of my life. It has buoyed me through some very hard times, when I thought I was stupid, a loser, a lightweight, a dope. When I’ve been put down by people who thought they were superior. When my ability, my talents, my credentials have been questioned.

Two little statements, from decades ago:

You’re a very mature young man.

You’re the brightest student I’ve ever had.

True? False? Well-intended ‘manipulations’, or sincere statements of truth? It doesn’t matter. I took them and ran with them. And I don’t mind saying that there were times when I clung to those statements, and others like them that I have filed away, deep inside, like a drowning man to a life ring.

And now that I’m the ‘elder’, and in a position to do this for others, I never hesitate to bestow laurels of encouragement, in my professional life or otherwise. I doesn’t cost you anything to compliment someone on something that’s true, or acknowledge them, whether it’s minor or deeply meaningful:

You have the most interesting sense of humor.

You have a real soul.

It’s so unusual to find someone with a sense of personal ethics.

To have gotten as far as you have, coming from your background, is remarkable.

So, if you’re an elder, or in a position of authority, or just realize that someone looks up to you, don’t waste the opportunity to say something positive, something for that person’s ‘woodpile’ against the winter winds. Don’t assume “it’s obvious,” because it isn’t.

So often I’ve had couples come to me for help and one person says, “I need to hear some words of love or appreciation sometimes,” and the other person says, “Well, I’m sitting here, right? That should be enough!” No, it’s not enough! Patients have often told me about kind words, encouraging words, personal words, that a teacher, or a neighbor, or a friend, said to them many years before, that have sustained them in the face of despair or loss or failure. Despair, loss and failure: those are obvious. Love is not obvious. It’s fragile – it needs to be expressed, manifested, and nurtured like a hothouse flower.

So, today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine, open your mouth and let out some of that love you’ve been hiding inside. Just look around you: someone you know is dying for someone to believe in him or her, dying for a little encouragement.

Don’t wait.

Today is the day.

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

Blue Star










Driving back from a fishing trip with my son, when he was maybe 10 or 11, I was playing some CDs I had made from my iTunes library. As usual, it included an eclectic mix of everything I like, from oldies to newies, from jazz to pop to rock, from Forties novelties (One Meatball), to the Weepies and Ray LaMontagne. He sat in the back quietly for the most part, probably rolling his eyes at most of it, although, having hung out a lot with me for most of his life, he does have an appreciation for my ‘old stuff’. I mean, how many kids can instantly recognize Robert Mitchum, Lauren Bacall, or even Whit Bissell, for god’s sake?

Well, as I say, we were driving along on the approach to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, and a song came on that I threw in because I had been checking out doo wop groups at the time: Blue Star, by the Mystics.

As the song ended, I heard from the back seat, “I liked that one. Could you play it again?”

Hmmm, I wondered what was going on. I mean, I could always rely on a laugh from the funny stuff, like Spike Jones, or those crazy ones by Louis Jordan – like, Caldonia! Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?, or Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?, which we had heard, and loved, in the old Tom and Jerry cartoons we used to watch together.

But beyond a basic shared appreciation of good music, our tastes diverged greatly. I mean – rap, hip hop, metal, techno, emo, schmeemo?  I’d rather be beaten with a sharp shillelagh, thank you.

“Sure,” I said, and set it up to play again. This time, I listened more carefully to the lyrics, while shamelessly checking the rear view mirror a couple of times:

Blue star, blue star…
Blue star that shines above,
You are the star of love.
My love is far away,
With all my heart I pray:
Oh, blue star, shine upon the one I love tonight.

The other stars all know,
 Just why I love her so,
And I will surely die,
If you don’t hear my cry,
Oh blue star, shine upon the one I love tonight.

In my dreams I see,
Her sweet lips are kissing me;
When I wake at home,
She is gone, and I’m alone…

Oh blue star, hear my plea,
And bring her back to me,
If you will tell me when,
Then I can live again,

Oh blue star, shine upon the one I love tonight.

And here’s what I saw behind me: he was in a kind of faraway, dreamy trance, a look I recognized immediately, and remembered well – the “Will I ever find my true love?” trance. It exists in a teenage half-life, somewhere between hope and despair. I mean, we all want the Blue Star’s help in pointing out the right one for us, don’t we? Sure, the song was outdated, the chords mundane, but the subject matter, and appeal, were, and are, timeless.

And for me as his Dad, it told me this: my boy was growing up, and soon he would want and need lots of things that I could not give him. Of course, he would have hotly denied any of this, with a snort; he probably wasn’t even consciously aware of it. That’s why it was so moving and poignant to me – the innocent sweetness of that unselfconscious look, at the very dawning of a new era of life.

Ever since then, I can’t listen to Blue Star without the emotional memory of that moment welling up inside me: that’s the power of connection, of meaning through caring. A song that was mundane and trite, became special to me, because it touched something in him.

And this same process also happens, and frequently, in my therapy practice. I get to witness those magical, dawning moments – moments that, sometimes, only I am aware of. And then later, when the feelings and thoughts are more accessible, I get to share them with their authors – and I do mean authors, because I see the development of a self (consciously or not) as a beautiful, artistic act of creative courage.

Why courage? Because daring to care again hurts, when caring always ended in pain before.  And it hurts to want, when wanting always led to shame and frustration. And it hurts to grow, because leaving the familiar always invokes fear — and guilt. It hurts to need, when needing always meant ridicule, or emptiness. And it’s hard to wish, when wishing always meant a slap in the face, or failure.

In the series Band of Brothers, about paratroopers in World War II, their slogan is “Currahee”, which we are told is an American Indian word meaning “We stand alone, together.” That makes sense: When you are doing something frightening and new, whether it is jumping out of an airplane into the midst of the German army, or opening the emotional scabs that are crippling you, you need help: not to do it for you – because you have to do it yourself – but to ‘stand by’ you as you do it, to hold a safe space for you, to be an experienced ‘Sherpa’ to help you to trust the experience, let go of old ways, and take the plunge into the new.

So what are these Blue Star moments? They are turning points. To a layman, they might seem ordinary, but to one who knows what to look for, they are magical:

A young male patient had been holding me at arm’s length for several months. Finally, one day we had this conversation:

Me: You know, James – I don’t bite.
James: I know.
Me: Then what’s the problem?
James: They don’t call me that, you know.
Me: Call you what?
James: James.
Me: What do they call you?
James: Different things.
Me: You mean, like, it depends on . . .
James: Yeah.
Me: So, what do I get to call you?
James: I’m thinking about it.
Me: ‘Thinking About It’? Sounds like an Indian name.
James: Very funny. Okay then, I guess you can call me Jay Jay.
Me: Hmm, Jay Jay. I’m honored.
James: You should be.
Me: I am.
James: And what do I get to call you?
Me: How about Gee Gee?
James: Asshole – okay, I’ll settle for Dr. B.
Me: Fair enough – you got it, Jay Jay.

And after that, I was always Dr. B, except when he wanted to tease me, and then he would put his head down, shoot his eyes up at me, and with an impish grin, call me Gee Gee.

Now, that was an honor. And a Blue Star moment. (Actually, the real Blue Star moment was the word ‘Asshole’: you don’t call a holding-at-arm’s-length therapist Asshole. When he first said it, I had to restrain myself from jumping up and giving him a fist-bump.)

Another example: a woman I worked with long ago – very strong-willed, very loud, very brash, and very opinionated, who, not surprisingly, was in conflict everywhere in her life. She was the CEO of a small company she had founded, a service company that depended on good will from its clients to survive. But she was constantly getting into disputes and arguments with the clients, mostly about meaningless details that she could have let go, but didn’t.

And most of all, she always had to ‘know’ the one right answer, the one right way – her way – to do everything. This was her idea of ‘strength’ – she saw people who weren’t as sure as she was, as weaklings and saps. She had also lost many good employees, due to her overbearing manner and refusal to back down in disputes – disputes which she caused, and which didn’t leave any room for a resolution which allowed the other person their pride or even their emotional space.

Our sessions would often take the form of a ‘test’: she would bring up a problem, such as why employees were leaving, or why clients didn’t renew their contracts. My ‘test’ was that I was then supposed to supply an answer – an answer, that is, that didn’t involve her changing her own behavior! This is what it was like:

Marsha: Why am I the only one who takes on any responsibility at work? I mean, there are a million things to do. Why is it so hard for people to just put down their damn coffee cup and dive in?
Me: Are you saying they don’t do anything?
Marsha: Oh sure, if I stand there over them with a whip and tell them word for word what to do, they do it. But it shouldn’t have to be that way.
Me: So, they don’t do anything on their own?
Marsha: Well, you’re actually catching on: for a minute there, I thought you were deaf.
Me: No – I’m pretty sure they can hear you all the way down the hall. Has it ever occurred to you that your employees are intimidated by you, or that they are afraid to do things on their own, for fear that you’ll criticize them?
Marsha: Criticize them? Now why would I do that, if they actually got it together and did something without my standing there with my whip?
Me: Well, one reason could be that they might not do it your way.
Marsha: You mean the right way?
Me: Um hmm – and what is the right way, Marsha?
Marsha (smirking):  My way, of course!
Me: The defense rests.
Marsha (shaking her head in disgust): Well, once again, you haven’t come up with a single workable idea to help me deal with the employees – or the clients.
Me: I’m just saying, if you gave them a little running room, a little more leeway, they might feel more empowered to do things on their own without fear of criticism.
Marsha (shaking her head No): Nope – you still don’t get it: if they would show a little more initiative, a little more intelligence, maybe I could back off and trust that things wouldn’t go to hell in a handbasket as soon as I walked out that door. But no such luck: they just sit there like Henny Penny and gabble on their cell phones like kindergarteners all day, unless I stand over them and hand-feed them the next task, and the next, and the next.
Me: I did give you an idea.
Marsha: You call that an idea? That’s no idea: that’s yesterday’s coffee grounds.
Me: I guess you’re going to have to stand over me with a whip, too, to get any decent work out of me.
Marsha: You got that right.
Me: Well, sometimes I might not have an immediate answer that meets all your criteria. But that doesn’t mean I’m not trying, or that what I’m doing won’t help you, maybe in ways that you can’t see right now. There are ways of knowing that aren’t about giving right answers.
Marsha (mocking): Oooh – deep thoughts!

Well, it went on like that, week after week, her testing me, and me ‘failing’, until one dark, rainy day, when she came in, looking totally exhausted, and flung her wet umbrella down at her feet.

Me: What’s going on? You look all done in.
Marsha: I am.
I sensed that she needed to have some time with her feelings. We were silent for a few moments, then I spoke again,
Me: Feel like talking?
Marsha (with a deep sigh): I’m tired – just so tired, of always being the one on the spot.
Me: You mean, like having all the responsibility?
Marsha: Yeah – keeping everything on track. (another sigh) But – what if it wasn’t me: would the world come to an end?
Me: I don’t think so.
Marsha: That’s good to know, because I don’t have anything left in the tank.


Me: So – what happened?


Me: Is there something . . .
Marsha (beating her hands down on the chair arms): I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know!


Marsha (Sighs again, then glances at me with an unfamiliar, almost childlike look): Can’t I just not know, for once?
Me: Of course – there’s still a place for you here, and in the world, whether you know or not.
Marsha (crying): Can’t someone else just take over for once?


Me: They could if you’d be willing to stand back from the wheel and let them steer for a while – and accept that their course might not be identical to yours.
Marsha: As long as we’re going in the right general direction, I’m too tired to fight anymore.
Me: Sounds like the captain is growing up.

Give that lady a Blue Star!

She later realized that she had learned something from all the times I had ‘failed’, but was still there for her: that I was still providing something, and that my not always ‘knowing’ didn’t mean I was weak, or that I didn’t care; there are things beyond ‘knowing’ that a human being can provide.

And still later, she learned that when her critical, demanding father ‘quizzed’ her at the dinner table every night, she felt that the only value she had was in giving the right answer. And she learned that she wasn’t the failure, he was, for only valuing that one thing about her.

And for Gee Gee (aka Dr. B)? He had the joy of welcoming an honest-to-god human being into the world.

So, the next time you’re listening to a friend’s problems, or looking in the mirror and wondering if you’re worthy, or driving along with your kid in the back seat, don’t wait for miracles: if you look closely, you’ll see that a Blue Star is already shining upon the one you love.













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

Please Remember Me









Today, I heard another one of those “Where have you been all my life?” songs on the radio. I tracked it down and found it’s called Dante’s Prayer, by Loreena McKennitt, who has apparently been around forever, with me being shamefully ignorant of her amazing voice, her soul and her talent. So, now that I know, I want you to, too. I know it’s annoying when you’re trying to skim along through someone’s writing (mine, in this case), and they (me, in this case) insist you stop and do something, but this gal has major soul, and I really encourage you to follow the link below and actually listen to the song first before going on. Furthermore, listening to the song will be good ‘practice’ for you, in slowing down and actually being PRESENT for a few moments. Being where you are, when you are: what a concept! (Aren’t therapists obnoxious?) Okay, so here is the link, and I’ll see you on the other side.

{{This space reserved for you, the beautiful, conscious and conscientious reader, to slow down and make room for what Ms. McKennitt went to all that trouble to do for you.}}

This song was apparently inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which McKennitt was reading while on the Trans-Siberian Railroad (yeah, I’m a regular passenger on it, too – I just don’t brag about it. Not!). While it’s above my pay grade to do an in-depth exegesis of how the song relates to The Divine Comedy, I fortunately found a personal story that somebody posted about attending a concert by McKennitt that will do just as nicely. Apparently she told this story at the concert, by way of introduction to the song. While transiting Siberia, the train stopped regularly so the passengers could get out and purchase food from local vendors along the line, the train not having a dining car or food service available. They had exactly twenty minutes to get their food and get back on the train. There was an attendant on the train who looked particularly glum throughout the day, as the train stopped, and passengers got off and did their thing, then back on. At first, McKennitt assumed that maybe her demeanor was just a reflection of Russian culture.

But one time, as McKennitt got back on the train and saw the attendant, she gave the glum lady some of the food she had bought, and was rewarded with a sudden smile of surprise and gratitude. Loreena wondered if anyone else had ever taken the time and care to consider the woman, as she traveled back and forth across the vastness of Siberia, mile after mile, year after year. McKennitt was struck by the smile, and hoped that during the woman’s dark moments, she would stop to remember McKennitt’s act of kindness, and it would return the smile to her face. And in that moment of connection, the song was born, and the plaintive refrain, Please remember me.

And, in your dark moments, whom do you ‘remember’? And do you ever wonder who remembers you? As a therapist, I get to hear the real story (not the one for public consumption) about who really mattered, who made a difference, in the lives of my patients. And some of the answers would surprise friends and family members: a remembered pat on the butt from a coach, a nod from a teacher, a fishing lesson from a neighbor man, a kind act by a stranger, can literally make the difference between life and death. And sometimes I even get unexpected ‘appreciations’ of me that are kind of stunning in their way. For instance, one day a young man I had worked with for years, and had never particularly voiced his feelings about me, suddenly said,

Gregg, I’m going to see you till you die, and after you die, I’m going to find a medium who can contact you, and then I’m going to see you through her, for as long as I can. 

No, I don’t intend to see him till I die, and no, he doesn’t literally mean that – he’s just expressing a feeling – but how many people are able to do work where they get to hear something so moving and beautiful, to have the gift of working with people at that depth, to be a team with someone who would say that to them? I mean, “How sweet it is” to work with people, walk beside them, and believe in them.

But back to Please Remember Me: I know the song stayed with me, because a couple of days after hearing it, I was taking a walk with my ear buds in my ears, trudging blithely along, and a song by Van Morrison came on: Have I Told You Lately That I Love You? Suddenly, it all came together and hit me like a ton of bricks: I should be saying ‘I love you’ to God, or whatever force made us all, who has given me, and all of us, so very much. I actually teared up, right there on the street, and felt ashamed for having taken so much for granted, without giving any thanks in return. I tilted my head up (He is ‘up’, right?) and said,

 Oh my God (like, literally – not OMG!) – I haven’t even spoken to you for months, maybe years – I’m so sorry and ashamed for having ignored and neglected you, and taken you for granted. Thank you so, so much for all you have given me – and all of us. I promise not to forget that fact, and you, for so long again. I love you.

And I wondered how many times, how many years of my life, have gone by with my not even thinking to give thanks and appreciation, to the Creator, to Creation, to Life, for everything. All the times I partook of glory, both the little and the big, but didn’t give back: a beautiful song, a sunset, the rain (my all-time favorite weather), people that do and say amazing, surprising things, the people I love and who love me. How many times did I take these things for granted, instead of stopping and letting them sink in, good and proper, then offering my thanks for all that is given?

Well, back to my walk. I thought my ‘prayer’ (or whatever you want to call it) was over, but I discovered it wasn’t. I went on, addressing Whoever’s In Charge:

And now that I actually think of it, I also wanted to say thank you for ‘letting it go’ that I never gave you back even a word of thanks, and for understanding, for being patient, and for not making a ‘big thing’ of it, even though, now that I give it a second’s notice, it IS a big thing. So thank you for that, too.

Oh, I know there are infinite ways to give thanks to you, and I guess my way has been trying to be a good person, mostly – busting my ass to be the good parent I never had, to be a good husband, a good friend, and a good therapist to my patients. But now, somehow, those don’t seem enough – like they are just the regular ways of being, stuff we all do routinely, and damn, you must have noticed all along that I was skating.

Well for what it’s worth, I’m going to try to make a habit of noticing and giving thanks to you whenever I can – no, not going to church or tithing or reading the Bible – those are all fine, but they’re not for me, and I know you know that, so you’ll understand I have to do it my way. I’m no Holy Joe, god knows, but then I’m no heathen, either – just an oddball who can feel things deeply without all the window dressing of choirs and sermons and stained glass. For me, it’s enough that when I say I’ll try, you know I ‘mean it’, because you know All.

And I’ll also work on not hating you anymore for taking away my son, which I still maintain is one of your all-time screw-ups, and no, I’m not one of those Pollyannas who says “God works in mysterious ways” and lets it go; nope, I don’t let it go that you did that – not to me, but to Brett (my son), of all people – the most joyous person I ever met. You were wrong there – real wrong.

I remember very well when I saw the movie Open Range, there was a scene where the ‘bad guys’ kill Mose, one of Robert Duvall’s cowboy traveling partners, a very lovable guy, who was ‘family’ to Duvall, and kill their trail dog, too, whom they all loved dearly. After the gravesite is prepared, and both are in the ground, it’s time for someone to speak over the grave. Duvall’s second-in-command says to him, “You wanna say some words?” (i.e., as boss of the outfit). Surprisingly, Duvall says, “You wanna speak to the Man Upstairs, go on and do it – I’ll stand right here and listen, hat in hand. But I ain’t talkin’ to that son of a bitch. And I’ll be holdin’ a grudge to Him for lettin’ this befall a sweet kid like Mose.”

Well, God, since this was the first movie I had seen since the death of my son, that scene hit me like an atomic blast, and to say I ‘understood’ would be small potatoes indeed: I more than understood – I’d LIVED it, and that is exactly the way I felt about You, God – or Allah, or Yahweh, or whatever you’re calling yourself this year. I hated you, and I wasn’t nice about it either.

So, God, if that’s way off base to you, I am sorry about that, but I can’t be honest with you and not tell you about it: I guess that’s about the closest I can come to ‘confession’, but then as a lapsed half-Jew, maybe I get a pass on that one too. 

But you do so much more than kill people: for example, you were the one who gave Brett life – so how can I hate someone who gave me my son, even though he took him away? Sure, that is ‘mysterious’, and even a little crazy-making, as we say in the psychology racket (but of course you know that, having created everything, including the psychology racket). So maybe when you screw up (like killing Brett), you’re trying to teach us acceptance, and forgiveness, and big-heartedness, by us having to learn to forgive you, to notice, and admit, that you do so many wonderful things that aren’t screw-ups: could it be that you do these things on purpose, to give us a chance to learn, and expand our hearts? I don’t know – I suppose people who study the Bible or the Koran or the Upanishads have already thought up this concept and talked it to death, but for me, it’s the first time it’s occurred to me, so there’s a minor miracle for ya, that, maybe, I finally gave back to you, after you handed me so many miracles over the years, including the years themselves. And, if you didn’t do it on purpose to teach me forgiveness and acceptance – why, I’m just going to go ahead and use it that way, anyway: so there!

Again, sorry if I’m insulting you – or confusing you. Well, as Doyle Lonnegan said in The Sting, “Ya folla?”

Ah hell, I know you do. (sorry about the ‘hell’)

Oh boy – I can see you sitting up there saying “God damn – that guy can talk”, and you’d be right. I know that, in the Bible somewhere, you said, “Be still, and know that I am God,” so I am actually going to shut up now and just say,

Thank you. Thanks for sending me Please Remember Me, and that Van Morrison song, too – sorry it took me two tries to get it. So, even though I reserve the right to hate your guts sometimes, for you-know-damn-well-what (you’re just gonna have to work with me on that one), I want to stop right now and say, I’ll remember You.

Thank You, from the bottom of my heart, and I’ll be back – often.







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