The Marquis de Carolina

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“They say Caesar was born in a caul. Well, I was born in a Chevy, but it don’t seem like that count for nothin’. He get ‘Hail, Caesar!’ and all I ever get is ‘Hail no!'”

Thus began my association with Curtiss M. Jones, the self-styled Marquis de Carolina, drug dealer, man about town, “love machine,” and pimp extraordinaire. He once described himself to me as “da pimp de la pimp,” and while his “wordiage” (another of his terms) may have run slightly afoul of the style guide, he got full marks for originality, and his meaning, as always, was crystal clear.

Curtiss (“don’t forget that last S!”) was a sometime outpatient in the North Carolina V.A. Hospital I worked at one summer during my training days. He was a Vietnam vet who had suffered a ‘service-connected disability’ during his tour of duty. I still don’t really know whether his manic-depression (now gussied up as ‘bipolar disorder’) was really brought on by what he went through in Nam – he used to say it was, or it wasn’t, depending on his mood and how he felt about me at the moment – but the fact is, when he went away to serve his country, he had a 3.75 grade point average at his inner-city school (he once showed me the report cards, which he’d preserved carefully, like holy relics, in a sealed plastic bag), and was aiming for college, and when he came back, he was a changed man.

This may sound like a crackpot theory, so feel free to toss it out if it doesn’t make sense to you, but oftentimes, when people suffer from psychiatric conditions (bipolar, oppositional-defiant, Tourette’s, even ADHD) that temporarily hijack their ‘regular’ mind or behavior to a raw and more coarsened place, their day-to-day personalities eventually start drifting in the direction of their ‘altered’ states.

Maybe I can explain it this way: let’s say you’re an actor, a person who is normally quiet and unassuming, even reserved, and you win a role in a play, as a rowdy, roistering truck driver. You play this role over and over again, until finally, you find yourself beginning to incorporate aspects of this truck driver into your ‘civilian’ behavior. Your girlfriend says, “Did you just call me ‘Babe’?” Your friends say, “What’s with the Brooklyn accent?” You’re calling AT&T to discuss your bill, and you hear yourself shouting, “I wanna talk to your boss’ boss – now!” It’s not that you’re becoming someone else, really, it’s more that playing that role has pulled out of you parts of yourself that might otherwise have remained relatively dormant.

Well, I think this happens with state-shifting emotional conditions, too. Even if you’re normally a quiet guy, once you’ve stayed up all night long three days in a row, in a hypomanic state, calling everyone you know, yelling at them for hours on end about your plans to save the world – well, it changes you. Once you’ve ‘gone off’ and shouted at the school principal that she’s a “crazy, stupid bitch,” you change. Once you’ve punched out a co-worker because you thought he was listening to your thoughts – you change.

Yes, you revert to your regular self between episodes, but it’s never the same: there’s something lost, some innocence or inhibition, some buy-in to society’s norms, that can never be completely restored to mint condition – a certain figurative loss of virginity, that can never be put to rights again.

And this is what I think happened to Curtiss, during and then after Vietnam. In his hypomanic states, he ‘became’ a certain kind of character – loud, brash, flamboyant, maybe a caricature of people he had known and seen in the ghetto where he was raised – and he gradually became that persona, even in his normal state.

And once he became the Love Machine, The Marquis de Carolina, I think he stayed there because it gave him a kind of shield to put up against the pain of what he had lost: the bright young man on the way up and out of the ghetto, the sensitive, unsure man who had no concept of how to carry off who he really was, into adult life.

And beyond a certain point, it was too late to go back, too late to be that kid anymore, too late to do anything but go forward as the ‘new’ Curtiss, the pimp de la pimp.

We would talk in the little, threadbare office that I – as the punk kid trainee – was allowed to use. He would give me that pimp-ass jive, and I would try to turn things around in a more therapeutic direction. I usually failed. But I always liked him, and I think he at least got a kick out of me.

Well, one day, during free time in the big day room, while the other guys were watching TV, Curtiss grabbed a cup of coffee and came over to knock on my door while I was doing paperwork in my cubbyhole.

“Hey, little chief – what’s the haps?”

“Hey, Curtiss – nothin’ much. Pull up a chair.”

He folded his big, lanky frame down into one of the straight-back, utilitarian chairs that were ubiquitous at V.A. hospitals, and scooted it over to me. “Whatcha scrabblin’ down there, little chief?”

“Oh, just notes. Ideas.”

He cracked open his Zippo and fired up a Parliament. Being a Southern gentleman, of course he offered me one, too, knowing I’d refuse it – then took a deep drag on it and arranged his coffee and beanbag ashtray just so. (God, I miss people smoking, even though I never had the habit myself: there was a certain gentility, a languorous ritual to it all, a kind of ‘styling’ to how you lit up, how you held it, how – and when – you knocked off the ash, even how you stubbed it out, that we don’t have anymore, to our great loss, in my opinion.)

Well, anyway, as I say, once Curtiss ‘set up shop,’ we began. “So, exactly what’s the deal with y’all’s bein’ here, anyways?” (The “y’all” referring to me and my fellow trainee.)

“Oh, it’s just a chance to make a little money, and get some experience over the summer, between classes.”

(Flick of ash, another long draw) “So, what kind of classes you talkin’ ’bout? Figurin’-people-out classes, or how-to-talk-to-people classes, how-to-tell-people-they’re-crazy classes, or what?” He gave one of those wonderful Bill Russell cackles, if you happen to know who Bill Russell is, and if you don’t, you’ll just have to make do with Samuel L. Jackson.

“Well, so far there’s mostly a lot of learning about the history of psychology, a lot of memorizing old guys who were important, a lot of terminology, famous experiments – that kind of thing.”

“What for you need to know all that shit, little chief? That’s not even about crazy people.”

I nodded wearily. “You got that right. But you see, we’re trying to get Ph.D.’s, and a Ph.D. is a research degree: that means you got to know the history of psychology as the science of human behavior – not just all about crazy people.”

He nodded back, skeptically. “So when do the crazy folk come in?”

“Later – next year, after we pass this big test about all the stuff I just told you about.”

“Sh-ee-it, boss.” (Understand – in the South, ‘shit’ is a three-syllable word.) “You got to be kiddin’ me: you mean they put you through all that, before you can even get to the crazy people?” He coolly got a new Parliament going from the glowing end of the old one – like I say, a lost and most wonderful art.

“Yep, that’s what I’m saying.”

Curtiss shook his Afro back and forth sadly. “You got it baaaad, brother.” He thought for a moment. “So, y’all ain’t yet even learned how to be with crazy folk, have you?”

I smiled. “Well, technically, I guess you could say that – yeah. Officially, I’m just sort of faking it until I learn the real deal.” I took a swig of my Coke, and lowered my voice, confidentially. “Now, I’m counting on you to tell me when I fake bad, okay?”

He gave one of his rich, raspy, Parliament laughing-coughs. “Sh-ee-it, little chief – you fake good, for a white boy! Now, you take some of them staffs been around here for years, supposed to know all they is to know about crazy folks: god damn it to hell, they talk to you, it sound like a robot:

‘Hell-lo, Mis-ter Jones. Would you like to share with the group how you’re feel-ling to-day?’ 

We both laughed out loud at his spot-on impression of one of the very uptight staff psychologists.

Then he went on. “And here, you never even studied crazies, and you talk like a human bein’, and like I’m a human bein’.” He paused, thoughtfully. “Shit, little chief, all you been doing is studying, and after this, y’all just goin’ back for more studying.” He rubbed his chin. “You know what, I should set you up with one of my girls – show you some fun, show you what life really about. My treat – what you say?”

I could see he meant it – and meant it as a genuine gift. I was flattered. “No, Curtiss – that wouldn’t work. I’m married, you know.”

He cocked his head, frowning protectively. “She cute?”

I nodded, “Yeah – she cute, she real cute.”

He cocked his head again. “She white?”

I laughed, “Yeah – she’s Hungarian.”

His mouth flew open. “Son of a bee-yitch! I was with a Hungarian gal one night. Heard her on the phone with her Mama once: they talk crazy talk! Couldn’t make out a word of what she sayin’, and I know some Spanish, some Gook, even a little Frenchie.”

“Did you take French in school?” (Yes, my clumsy attempt to shift to a ‘therapy’ mode, but don’t judge me: I hadn’t studied crazies yet, you know!)

His eyes softened and turned thoughtful, as he fired up another Parly and toyed with his lighter. “Long time ago, chief. That was a looong time ago.”

“Like another lifetime, you mean?”

“Like another person’s lifetime, I mean.”

“It must be weird to feel that disconnected from your old life, and your old identity.”

He took another deep drag, contemplating the holes in the acoustic ceiling tiles like a sailor searching the stars for his bearings. “It used to. Now – I just . . .”

“Just what?”

“I stay away.”

“You mean, from the memories? The way things used to be?”

“From the whole thing.” His right foot started beating fast time. “I got my girls, I got my V.A. check, I got this place, I got a place to live, I got every fuckin’ thing I need.” His voice was suddenly defiant, steely.

He was smoking fast now – hard, his zippered Italian boot pounding time on the dingy linoleum of my cubbyhole. I could feel his anger flare, and I knew he’d hit a wall – we’d hit a wall. I scrambled for a way to ‘reserve’ the emotional space we’d just shared, keep it safe and available for future reference, like those report cards in their plastic bag.

I watched him for signs, but his face was a mask now. And a shield like that can’t just be peeled back like Caesar’s caul.

He suddenly turned to me, that big, jive “Marquis de Carolina” smile pasted back on the mask, and said, “That’s it, alright, boy – we gotta get you laid, before you go on back to where you came from, and all that studyin’.” He pulled out his “little black book” and read, as he flipped the pages, licking his fingers studiously between flips. “Sophia? Naw – too black. Maria? No – too ugly. Carrie? Yeah – she the one for you, little chief. Smart, and pretty – and she likes to talk a lot, like you.”

He looked up at me. What we did before, what he let me see, was gone baby, gone. “What do you say to Carrie, boy?” My lack of enthusiasm pained him. “I am doo-in’ you a favor here, boy! You need some action, before they turn you into a sci-en-tiste, little chief.”

I felt sad. I felt like crying. I was only beginning to learn myself as an ‘instrument,’ learn myself as a young therapist: I had the capacity to feel other people’s feelings directly, especially if they didn’t want them. My body collected unwanted feelings like some people collect stray cats. Of course I didn’t know this then – I just felt sad, guessing that maybe it was because I had failed in helping him. He was right: I hadn’t yet studied being with ‘crazy folk,’ and had no idea, really, what to do even with my own ‘stuff.’ I was awash in his rejected emotions, and in my own confusion about what had just happened, with no way to right the foundering ship.

I must have been staring straight ahead like a dope as I felt all this, because suddenly I heard his voice saying, “Don’t feel bad, little chief. For a guy who ain’t studied crazy folks, you do good – real good. I just know, some day, you’re gonna be a big chief.” His eyes went to the ceiling again, his hands fishing his shirt pocket for his Parlies. He paused, licking his lips, then cleared his throat. “See – it’s, uh, it’s just that, for me, it’s too late, little chief. You got here too late, is all.”

I’m pretty sure I had tears in my eyes, and I think I heaved one of those stifled sighing-sob things, the kind that’s not crying, but not not, either. His eyes were glistening, too as he flicked them at me. And in that moment, we knew each other. I saw things in him that he didn’t want to know, and he saw things in me that I didn’t even know I had, yet. It was deep – something beyond patient-therapist, beyond black and white, beyond V.A. hospitals. An instant in time, but forever.

He turned to leave, the big smile back, and gave me a little half-salute. “Later, big chief; the Marquis, he got to go.”

I lifted my Coke in his direction. “Hail to the Marquis!”

I thought about the Marquis and me all the rest of that afternoon – the magic of it, the specialness of that one moment we’d had – and I wanted more. I knew I was gifted – to feel things, to know people, to see who they really were, but I also knew that my gifts were raw and undeveloped. I had a lot more work to do, to make that magic happen again and again, but moments like this made me want to hurry up so that I wouldn’t be “too late” the next time.

After work, I locked up and walked to the parking lot slowly, through the heat and humidity of the North Carolina summer. I got into my car and headed for the tunnel and home. On the way, I watched the people in the cars around me, looking ordinary and normal. But I knew better now. What were their secrets? What were their shields? Was I ever really going to be good enough to be a big chief?

As the rush-hour traffic came to a halt, my eyes fastened on the old, beat-up green car in front of me. It had that familiar ‘bow-tie’ logo on it, the letters spelling out ‘Chevrolet.’

I smiled, remembering the Marquis’ story about his birth, and thought to myself, sometimes even a beat-up old Chevy can be a pretty classy ride.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Light Unto My Lamp

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

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

                         The Lamplighter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I was sick and lay a-bed,

I had two pillows at my head,

And all my toys beside me lay,

To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so

I watched my leaden soldiers go,

With different uniforms and drills,

Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets

All up and down among the sheets;

Or brought my trees and houses out,

And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still

That sits upon the pillow-hill,

And sees before him, dale and plain,

The pleasant land of counterpane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wanted to be somebody!

And not just any somebody: his own somebody!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hear, in this poem,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please be with me.

Please notice me.

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

Take me with you!

And, maybe even,

Get me out of here!

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

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

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

Why?

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

That’s WEAK!!

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

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

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

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

We just didn’t notice.

Oops.

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

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

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

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

Need I go on?

Busted!

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

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

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

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

Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

A Week With The Old Man

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

Why?

Because what it meant for me was only one thing:

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

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

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

The Zoo?

Declassé.

Disneyland?

Horrors – mindless idiocy, for the great unwashed.

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

Well, you get the idea.

I know I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, maybe, I was going to find out.

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

Look out world, here we come!

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

Not a very auspicious beginning to Hell Week!

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

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

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

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

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

“But Dad, I found out they deliver!”

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

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

Checkmate!

“Fine – what’s the goddam number?”

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

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

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

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

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

I grinned, “Right!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the hell!

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

“Dad, what’s a Mai Tai?”

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

“Yeah – what is it anyway?”

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

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

“What the hell – where?”

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

“Oh yeah?”

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

“What – you wanna go there, or what?”

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

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

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

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

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

No, Dad!

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

“What the hell!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For one instant, we were just regular guys together.

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

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

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

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

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

He seemed startled, flustered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the hell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

My Own Little Canoe

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It was my second job as a psychologist. Well, technically, my first-and-a-halfth.

First came Carmel, and the Behavioral Sciences Institute, but whew, that’s a story in itself – or maybe a gothic novel.

But after that came two part-time jobs, close together: my gig for an outfit providing hospital-based outpatient alcoholism treatment, and the one I’m talking about now, seeing people on an EAP contract. As in ‘Employee Assistance Program’ – a benefit a lot of big companies offered, wherein their employees were entitled to two, or three, or five outpatient visits to a mental health professional per year, for any reason.

Of course, they were also ‘entitled’ to be compelled to visit that mental health professional, either with or without their immediate boss, to work out personal or interpersonal issues that were affecting their work performance: otherwise known as shape up, or ship out.

Well, so here was the deal: the client saw you for the two, or three, or five times, and at that point they had the choice of saying, “Adios, muchacho – it’s been swell,” or continuing on, courtesy of their own wallet. After a few months of this, my schedule was pretty-well filled with people who had elected to continue seeing me ‘on their own hook’; by then, I was not really of much use to my boss as an EAP counselor. In effect, I was running a full (low fee) private practice, under their roof. Of course, the boss got a significant cut of what I was making, but that wasn’t the purpose of the place being there. We were supposed to be available to provide EAP services to covered employees. Available for real, not theoretically!

Well, the boss noticed that I seemed to know what I was doing, and I’m pretty sure my immediate boss, a pretty amazing ‘older’ lady (in her Fifties, maybe?) put a bug in his ear, saying I was a comer who could help them out as Clinical Director, or some such capacity. In effect, this was going to be the therapy world’s equivalent of the cliché I’ve seen a million times in my office: the tech nerd who is smart, a good worker, and doing a great job, so they want to kick him upstairs and make him a Manager (i.e. of people, not machinery or data or processes). And the nerd has no capacity, or more to the point, Interest, in riding herd on the five, or ten, or a hundred, complicated, unmotivated worker bees that would be ‘under’ him. The big bosses can’t understand why he doesn’t want ‘advancement’, or power, or a Good Boy sticker pasted on his forehead.

Well, as I say, that was pretty much the situation when our Mr. Big invited me to lunch at a nice restaurant. Now understand, I had barely met this guy, and normally, he wouldn’t have invited me to anything, anywhere, for any reason. So I figured either I was going to get fired, or more likely, offered ‘something’.

I knew the drill: I was supposed to coo over my expensive entree, be very flattered, and nod my head up and down while polishing off my chocolate mousse. (I don’t think they even ‘had’ tiramisu in those days. Don’t forget, America at that time had just graduated from a choice between jello with a glop of mayonnaise on it, or marshmallow ambrosia. Oh sure, in movies there might be Baked Alaska or Cherries Jubilee, but that was in movies, or the Stork Club, not lil ol’ Piedmont Avenue.)

But I digress (Sorry – food’ll do that to me). So, I’m eating my chocolate mousse and pretending I’m interested in talking with him about the A’s, or the failure of democratic processes in America, or something else earthshaking, when he finally got to it:

“Gregg (at least he didn’t say, Young Man) – there’s something I want to talk to you about. Something that could be important to your future.”

“Really?” (at least I didn’t say, “Shoot, podner”)

“Yes – and it could be important to our future, too.” (‘Our’ of course, being his company, the royal plural now having been stretched all the way out to the likes of me.)

I nodded. (But did not bat my eyelashes coyly or curtsy – I do have some pride, you know. Besides, as you may recall, I was still working on that mousse.)

“We would like to offer you the position of Clinical Director.”

(Pause for piccolo trumpet solo, a la Penny Lane)

God, I hate disappointing people! Especially on a full stomach.

I cringed, flinched and very likely, began imperceptibly melting towards the floor. Mr. Big was smart: he could tell the difference between a joyous heel-click and a full-body cringe. He immediately went into his wow finish:

“Gregg – in LIFE (sorry – but that’s the way I heard it), you can be in a Big Canoe, or you can be in a Small Canoe: now, which one do you want?”

Oof – the mousse was on the move, in my guts.

Not that I felt confused, or flummoxed or anything – just bad for him, and afraid of his reaction.  I took a deep breath:

“Mr. Big – I’m sorry, but none of that stuff matters to me, as long as it’s MY canoe.”

There, it was out. I was a non-responder, a non-striver, a non-corporate, a type B, a lover not a fighter, a loner not a mingler, a goddam introvert, and a stain on the stainless steel of his shining dreams.

Please, don’t shake your head slowly in disappointment and total-not-getting-it-ness, Mr. Big!

He shook his head slowly, in disappointment and total-not-getting-it-ness.

The mousse was on the move again.

“Gregg, I don’t think you’ve fully understand what I’m offering you here.”

Oh god, was he really going to go there? I mean, I’d already shot my wad with that ‘my canoe’ crack: why do people always insist on not taking a hint, on forcing a sledgehammer into your hand, then making you hit their thumb with it?

“Mr. Big, it’s not that I don’t understand, and, I might add, appreciate, what you’re offering me here, because I do. It’s just that my dream has always been to have a private practice.”

His eyes kind of clouded over. He looked like he was the guy in charge of doling out the state lottery winnings, and I had just said, “Nope – I don’t want that million dollars in cash you’re trying to hand over to me – now step back so I can slam the door in your face.”

Lord I’m one, Lord I’m two, Lord I’m a thousand miles beyond my comfort zone, stranded in the no man’s land of his disappointment, anger and willful non-comprehension.

No, please – no PLEEZE, don’t play the “You’ll be sorry” card! Did I say PLEEEEZE???

“Gregg, maybe you need to think about this a bit longer. Talk to your wife. Think about your children – your future. Because I’m afraid that if you don’t consider this wonderful opportunity more seriously, there will come a day when you’re going to be very, very sorry.”

NO, that did NOT just happen!!

Umm . . . Yes, that DID just happen!

I mean, dude: my wife, my children, my future – my sorry, raggedy-ass, never-was, had-a-shot-but-blew-it FUTURE, for chrissakes!

Please don’t make me pick up that hammer again.

Gangway! Mousse, coming up!

I couldn’t believe it: forced to take up the hammer, again! I mean, my god, who was I, John Henry?

Hammer, in five, four, three, two, one . . .

“Mr. Big, I really don’t need overnight to think about it. I know, right now, that I have to respectfully decline your generous offer.”

“Ah, but that’s it, isn’t it? You don’t even know, yet, WHAT my offer is, do you? I mean, I know you’re not the ‘money type’ (author’s note: zing!), Gregg, but I’m talking about security here – financial security that could do things for your family, now and for a long time to come . . .”

(Mousse on the loose! My kingdom for a Tum!)

” . . . Sure, you have your own, you know, dreams, and I respect that – I really do (author’s note: read, ‘your own tiny, little, pathetic dreams’) – but we can really build something, here, something that can do a world of good for this whole community, not just . . .

(Author’s note: projectile vomiting is not just for the very young . . .)

” . . . not just, let’s face it, for the small, elite (zing!) group of well-to-do upper-middle-class white people (zoing!) who seek out, and can afford, private, long-term psychotherapy (author’s note: kabing, kachoing, bing, bing, bing, TILT!) . . .

No, not the dreaded Elitism Card!

Yep, It was the old one-two:

1) You don’t care about MONEY, you freak, even though it could buy bowls of gruel to feed your malnourished, orphaned children and your poor, bedraggled wife, who creeps around the house in her faded, frayed frock, feebly dusting those orange crates that pass as living room furniture!

PLUS:

2) You don’t care about THE MASSES, either, you reactionary snob, you, who would callously leave the homeless, in their miserable millions, to their insanity, their undiagnosed adjustment disorders, and their untreated childhood traumas!

Shame!

Shame!

(Author’s note: repeat every few seconds, as needed.)

And, he wasn’t finished: “And, don’t forget, just because you’ve been able to assemble a small practice under our roof here (zing!), that doesn’t mean it would be a snap to get a full-time private practice going. I mean, where are your referrals going to come from, if you don’t have the benefit of a built-in referral source, like us (kazoing!) and you’re out there, all on your own?

(Dramatic pause)

“Besides, believe me, I know lots of people who’ve been out there in the wilderness for years, and are still struggling just to make a bare living at it. You want to think about that, too – you and your family want to think about it, that is.”

(I guess the mousse doesn’t need any introductions, by now.)

Or, at least that’s how I heard it. Now, I’m willing to concede that, somewhere between the mousse and the apres-dejeuner coffee, it’s possible that he may have pled his case in a slightly more restrained tone. Okay, so maybe he did leave out the part about the money, and the masses. And he might, just might, have forgotten to mention that part about the orphans, or the frock.

But I’m pretty sure he did say that stuff about the canoes.

And I’m pretty sure I did say my stuff about the canoes, too.

Oh, and I’m pretty sure the part about the mousse backing up on me was mostly true, too.

Food’ll do that to me.

In the end, I did agree to think about it overnight, to talk to my wife about it, to go down on my knees in prayer to Jahweh, to hit all the stations of the cross, to offer up my firstborn, to toss the bones, and lo, go unto the desert and seek counsel amongst the stately Joshua trees and the withered yucca.

I guess you want to know how it all came out.

Well, despite my sincere quest for guidance, my answer was still ‘No’. I mean, sure, the Joshua trees laid into me pretty good about the orphans and all, but on balance, it was pretty clear to everyone that, as a reactionary elitist, and an uncaring plutocrat, I needed to follow my (teeny, tiny) dream about creating my own private practice.

I’d like to think that, in the years I’ve been in practice, I have done some small good for a few worthy souls, in my reactionary manner, though I never did find out how the Masses managed to struggle along without me: one of the great unanswered mysteries of my life, I guess. I’ve got a theory that I wasn’t really as indispensable to Mr. Big as I thought I was, and ditto to the Masses, but that’s all just unscientific speculation, of course, subject to review.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot: I didn’t have mousse for a long time after that, either. Of course, it eventually gave way to tiramisu anyway, so it wasn’t as hard to pass up as you might think. But I did forgo it when offered, as a sort of penance to the injured parties. Again, I hope it did some good, but again, there’s no real way to know.

I could ask the Joshua trees, I guess, but after they turned against me on the orphans deal, I don’t know as I could really trust them to be objective again. But like I say, that’s all subject to review, too.

Besides, I sort of like tiramisu now anyway, though with my chronic acid reflux nowadays, it can have a tendency to back up, too – like its late-lamented brethren.

And sometimes, when I toss and turn at night, I doubt and question some of those old decisions I made with such finality.

Not too much, but enough to get me watching an old movie in the middle of the night.

Life’ll do that, you know.

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

The Dark Has a Life of Its Own

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It was a dark and stormy night.

Okay, that’s cheating, but only a little.

It was early evening, to be precise. And it was stormy, but that came later.

Jason was my last patient of the day, my 7:00, that Wednesday in November, but it already looked like midnight. There’d been something brewing in the sky all day, complete with dramatic gusts of wind, heavy clouds covering, then uncovering, a weary sun, and occasional raindrops spattering my office windows. As a veteran of Oakland weather watching, I thought to myself cynically, “Threats – just threats.” Real storms in Oakland almost always come when you’re asleep, and stop in the early morning. In Oakland, you don’t say, “Wow – it’s raining,” you say, “Looks like it rained last night.” So I figured we’d be teased for a few hours yet, then the real thing would cut loose in the wee small hours of the morning.

My signal light lit up, telling me Jason had arrived. I went out to the waiting room and there he was, punctual and buttoned up as always, in his regulation uniform: white dress shirt, blue blazer with those mock-nautical, brass-looking buttons, grey slacks, and maroon loafers. I could say, “Hail, the young executive, circa 1959,” but I won’t because I’m not catty, so let’s forget I said anything, okay?

Meow.

(Oops, sorry, that just slipped out.)

Actually, my cattiness (okay, I admit it) had a purpose: to alert me that there was something in me that responded, negatively, to Jason’s ‘perfection’: his precise punctuality, his creased-and-starched, never-varying haberdashery (sorry, but that’s exactly the word for it), his reserved, reined-in manner. I know it’s not proper diagnostic terminology, but let’s face it, the guy had a stick up his ass, dude.

Go tell that to your DSM.

I’m kidding around, but it’s kidding on the square: as a therapist, you use these feelings to tell you things about the people you’re working with, and my feelings were telling me this guy was marching through life like a shiny toy soldier – “all hat and no cattle,” as Charlie Finley used to say. We had been meeting for several months already, but somehow he’d always managed to hold me at arm’s length, with his spit-shined correctness and his short-leashed emotions.

Yes, he had originally come in because his marriage was falling apart, and for a few sessions there, he seemed like he was up for doing some work, but soon enough he ‘got it together’ and said he had reached some kind of peace with his wife’s leaving him.

“Peace” – that’s what he called it. He seemed so logical about it – too damn logical – and that left his rational shell firmly in place, blocking the entrance to his feelings, like Cerberus.

Hearing him tell it, it was hard to understand why, and how, a wife would ever leave such a wonderful, kind, thoughtful and dependable husband as Jason.

She’d had an affair with one of his “best friends,” and then, when Jason found out, she announced that she was leaving him. Imagine that! She has the affair, and with his best friend, no less – and then she says she’s leaving

The nerve! The chutzpah! The effrontery! The unmitigated something-or-other!

Or at least that’s how I felt at first. But eventually, as we met and talked about it many more times, I began to feel something was missing from his explanation of the whole thing, and maybe, just maybe, my intuition was filling in the blanks.

Perhaps I was beginning to see her side of it. Maybe she’d ‘had it’ with his vanilla niceness and his starched front. Maybe she got sick of his coming home at exactly the same time every night, setting his classic briefcase down in exactly the same place, and saying, “Hi, dear – how was your day?” If there ever was such a thing as a Stepford Husband, this guy was it. You wanted to put a whoopee cushion under him, throw down a banana peel, or shake his hand with a joy buzzer – anything to get to the real human being under all that cotton batting he was all wrapped up in.

Understand, that’s not all I felt about him – I actually liked him, or maybe the ‘him’ I could sense underneath, but this feeling of being fed up with his ‘act’, of being held at arm’s length, was getting stronger and stronger. But how was I going to get under his shell, how was I going to make contact with the boy underneath – the anger, the hurt, and maybe even the joy, trapped within?

As I led him into my office and closed the door, thunder boomed outside, and the rain began a steady patter on the windowpanes. As I may have said in this space before (a hundred times?) I love rain, and particularly this night, I welcomed it as a friend that could sit in on the session with me, and maybe provide me with a little companionship, if not a few much-needed tips on working with my enigmatic patient.

Jason’s voice suddenly interrupted my little reverie: “Oh my goodness – I didn’t even bring a proper umbrella or a topcoat. I’ll get wet.” As he talked, he smoothed the (imaginary) wrinkles out of his pants, looking dismayed.

Something about his tone was so petulant, so . . . fussy, that it was hard not to laugh. I mean, really: a ‘topcoat’? It’s not the 1940’s, and we’re not in New York City, bro! And understand, he had an umbrella – one of those compact jobs that you can swing along by the black plastic loop – the only kind I’ve ever had, the kind you grab quick from a crate at the CVS after it’s already been raining for days, use twice, and then toss until next year’s one rainstorm.

But then, I don’t have any fancy flannel pants or pseudo-nautical buttons to protect.

Just sayin’.

Meow.

So where were we? Oh yeah, Jason bemoaning his lack of proper umbrellery, and me sitting there so frustrated, I wanted to run through the streets yelling, “Topcoat!” over and over until I felt better. No, not really, but you get my drift, which is that there is a purpose, and a use, for everything you feel towards your patients.

We talked, as we always did, about his business fortunes, the people he had to deal with, both up (his demanding, narcissistic boss), and down (the unmotivated, excuse-making managers he had to try to motivate). Blah, blah, blah – nothing ‘live’ was happening, as usual. I tried all my tricks (which I can’t share, of course, because they’re classified), but here is an interaction from that session that will give you the flavor of trying to ‘get in’ on this guy:

Me: So, when you had to fire Joe, what was it like?

Jason: (Wan smile) Oh, just another day at the office.

Me: Really – that’s all? I thought you liked Joe.

Jason: Oh, I do – or that is, I did, but you can’t let these things affect you.

Me: Hmm . . . What does affect you? (He said nastily, deliberately trying to bait the patient.)

Jason: (Looking outside, at the steadily increasing rain) Wet clothes, for one.

Me: Wet clothes: that’s it? (More baiting)

Jason: No, that’s not the entirety of ‘it’, but tonight that’s certainly on my mind.

Me: What about what’s on the inside?

Jason: (Laughing) Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about that getting wet.

Okay, do you see what I was up against here?

And then something happened.

Now, the storm was really getting fierce. Rain was lashing the window so hard that we could barely hear ourselves talk. Thunder would crackle, grumble, then explode in waves of vibrations that made me understand why Washington Irving heard the gods playing tenpins.

And then the lights flickered, flickered again, and went out.

My office is in an old building with a 1940’s electrical system. The lights often flickered like this, flashed out for a moment, then back on. I waited, waited, but it was still dark. Well, c’est la guerre, I figured: Jason wasn’t the type to wing it, or do anything unusual, so I figured the remaining half hour of the session was a write-off tonight.

I made a perfunctory offer, just for good form. “Well, I could light the candle over there on the bookcase, but . . .” My voice trailed off.

“No. Please, I want to stay.”

I could hardly believe my ears. “Uh, okay – I’ll just see if I can find the matches . . .”

“No. No candle . . . just us.”

What the _____? Had someone put LSD in my water? My mental wheels spun, trying to make sense of it. I’ve got it! It was his way of avoiding the whole issue of what I was going to charge him, or not, and rescheduling, or not. This way, he could duck that conversation, and maybe get through the next half hour with no pressure being put on him.

Right?

Wrong.

“Things are happening – inside, that I don’t want to walk away from.” Pause. “I want you here, with me.”

Wow. That was some good acid! Or else something was really happening here. I tried to shift gears, emotionally, and create a ‘space’ for some kind of intimacy. This time, the storm really did provide an assist: just listening to the pounding of the rain, and the crack of the thunder, helped me settle down into the moment, ready for whatever was to come.

Silence.

“You said things are happening, inside. Could you say anything about that – anything at all?”

“I really don’t know. It’s flickering in and out, like the lights were. It’s just . . . something, that I remembered, from a long time ago.”

“Well, just keep breathing, and try to be with it – be willing to be with it. Think of it as a scared child, that needs to know it’s safe, before it can come out.”

“Yeah – yeah, that seems right. There’s a lot of fear in there – so much, that . . .”

“That what?”

“That it was worth living in a cave for the rest of my life.”

(Sounds of crying)

His shaky voice went on. “I . . . I think the dark’s helping.” (Pause) “Like, the fact that I’m hidden, that you can’t see me, is helping.”

Actually, I could see him fairly well by this time, although not his facial expression. “I understand. Just keep breathing and making it safe for that part of you to come out.” (Pause) “I’m with you – and him.”

“Okay – I’m trying.”

“I know – you’re doing great.”

Silence.

(Note: My body, my ‘insides’, felt completely different now: not angry, or put off, or catty, but honored, invited, dedicated, committed, involved, engaged – grateful.)

“It’s . . . it’s my brother. . .

(More crying)

” . . . He’s my idol. He’s all I had. My father and mother, they had each other. They didn’t need us, they didn’t want us. Their life was . . . perfect. They didn’t need us.” (Pause) “Did I already say that?”

“Yes, but let’s not worry about that. Keep going – about your brother, your idol.”

(Through intermittent sobs) “How could he? How could he?” (Pause)

“How could he — what?”

(Wracking sobs) “I can’t say it. I can’t say it . . . out loud.”

I gave him some time and space to work with it, but he was silent. Then, I tried something. “Could you write it down?”

“What – in the dark?”

I smiled to myself –  it was poignant how his usual persnicketyness was still present – even now. “Well, I have a flashlight – maybe you can write it down for me. Then we’ll turn it off again, and go back to the dark.”

“Uh — okay.”

I went to get the flashlight out of my drawer, grabbed a writing tablet I had on my desk, and brought them to him.

“Here you go – here’s a flashlight, and a pad. You just write whatever you want.”

He took what I handed him, and said, “Turn around.”

“You mean, right now?”

“Yes – right now.”

I turned my chair around to face the door, and waited.

Over the incessant rain, I heard more wracking sobs – it was heartbreaking. It made me feel a fierce protectiveness towards him: suddenly, I wanted to hold him, rock him, fight off anyone who threatened him.

“Here.”

I heard something fall at my feet, then looked down and saw a ball of paper lying there. I realized he must have written something, then crumpled up the paper and thrown it over my head.

I heard him sigh, hard. The sound told me what this must have cost him.

I picked up the paper. I wanted to respect his ownership of this moment. “Do you want me to read this?”

There was a moment of silence. The only sound was the whipping wind rattling the window frame. Then, he said, “No – not now.”

I started to turn my chair around.

He held up his hands. “No – don’t turn around. I’m leaving. After I’m gone, you can read it.”

I knew we had at least ten minutes left in the session. I was afraid he would leave and never come back. “Are you sure you need to go? I don’t want you to . . .”

“I’m leaving, Doc, but I’ll be back.”

He had never called me Doc before. But even more, his voice quality stunned me. It wasn’t prissy, or careful, but rich and somehow, confident.

He paused, throwing his coat over his shoulder carelessly as he got up. “You know – this is the first time in my whole life I ever felt like a man.” He crossed the room in strong strides, threw open the door, and was gone.

I know it’s crazy, but I sat there and felt like I had just watched Clark Kent transform into Superman. I was curious about what he had written, but somehow I knew it almost didn’t matter anymore. Something had torn loose inside of him, like adhesions from a scar breaking free, and he would never be the same.

I got up and went to look through the window at the parking lot behind my office. The storm was still in full fury, and it was magnificent. I opened the window wider, and felt the rush of wet, sweet air hit me. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, hungrily.

Then I remembered the ball of paper I was still holding in my hand. I uncrumpled it and held it up to the faint glow of the parking lot lights. In strong, block letters, it read:

NO MORE!

For an instant, I thought it might mean, ‘no more’ of our sessions, but I knew better. I knew that, in some way known only to Jason, it meant ‘no more lies’. I also knew there would be lots more work to be done, but at that moment, the details didn’t matter: we had made a beginning, and I knew, absolutely, that we would see it through, together.

I stood there looking out the window for a long, long time, grateful for the gift of my profession, grateful for Jason’s trust, grateful for the storm that had turned out to be my ally, after all.

Finally, I gathered up all of my things, put on my jacket, and walked down the back stairs to the parking lot and my car. I opened up the car door, but then stood there one more minute, taking in the majesty of the storm, the beauty of all that had happened, and treasuring that I got to be present at the true beginning of one man’s real life.

And you know what?

I felt like a man, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

The Goner, Part II: Blowing Out the Speakers

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(Note: Please first read The Goner, Part I: Whistling Through the Grass)

The summer weeks drifted by in Asheville: group therapy, botanical rounds, the cockroach and raccoon wars, loving a neighbor’s puppy named Shane, doing individual therapy sessions, hopes borne out with some patients, hopes dashed with others, teaching my wife how to drive a stickshift in the Blue Ridge Mountains, claiming my gifts, accepting my limitations, crossing back and forth through Beaucatcher Tunnel, work and home, heat and humidity, summer rain, lessons, lessons, under the hot Southern sun . . .

A new patient arrived: Victor. A Vietnam vet. His diagnosis: Depression. I don’t know why, but I gravitated to him. Make no mistake – all patients are not treated the same. Not that all don’t get the benefit of everything the program has to offer, but sometimes you take a special liking to, or a special interest in, a particular one, and spend “more time than you’re getting paid for,” as a supervisor once put it, in his care and treatment. Such was the case with Victor.

He was a big, likable guy, a heavyset bear of a man with a deep, resonant voice that you noticed right away. Paul Robeson’s voice came to mind – and William Warfield, maybe Billy Eckstine, but for obvious reasons I wouldn’t have made any of those particular comparisons to Victor’s face. White guys from Mississippi don’t like that.

I scheduled some individual sessions with him, and we talked of all kinds of things: the wife he still loved (she had left him for another man while he was in ‘Nam), his lonely childhood (an only child of a drunken mother and a father who was on the road all the time), his own drunkenness and addiction to pills (he had kicked both years before, “on his own”), and most devastating of all, his loss of the guys he called ‘the only family I’ve ever known’ – the platoon that was annihilated by the Viet Cong, all but him.

Victor was the first person I ever heard say, “I wish I had died instead of them,” and really mean it. He explained, “The dead get to rest. I have to face hell for the rest of my life, because aloneness, and life without The Goners, is hell.” That’s what he called them – The Goners.

I thought about that, and thought I could understand it, a little. I had never suffered a significant loss of a person in my life, but I could see what he meant about the dead ‘getting the best of the deal’, in that their struggles were over, while the living had to go on and face life without their loved, and lost, ones.

But what about that peculiar phrase, The Goners? For some reason, I felt I needed to file that question away for later.

In the meantime, I tried to talk to him about the things he did have to live for.

What about other women?

He would shake his head sadly, and say, “For me, Joanie was the beginning and the end.”

Subject closed.

New friends?

“What’s the point? You let people matter, then you just lose them, and it’s worse than never having them in the first place.”

Subject closed.

Work?

“I’m an electrician. I do my job. I go home. What else is there to say?”

Another one bites the dust.

Finally, I mentioned his voice.

“You’ve got quite a voice. Ever done any singing?”

That got a small smile. “Singing? Sure – when I was a kid, in church. I was a soprano. Then, my voice changed.”

“It sure did.”

He really smiled, for the first time ever. “Now I’m a bass – like Daddy.” He grinned, proudly.

Hmmm – were we finally onto something? “Daddy?”

“Yeah, you know – my father.”

I smiled, “Yeah – even a Yankee knows what ‘Daddy’ means, Vic. It’s just that I never heard you talk about anyone before – anyone other than Joanie, or The Goners – with any feeling. I guess your Dad meant a lot to you.”

He pursed his lips in thought. “He meant everything to me.” He paused, his eyes moving as he searched his past. “He used to sing.”

“To you?”

“He sang all the time – in church, everywhere.” He paused, his eyes lighting up, head nodding proudly.  “He used to blow out speakers, you know.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sure – a really powerful, deep bass can do that, you know.”

“No – I had no idea.”

He was quiet a moment. “But he also sang, special – to me.”

“How do you mean – special?”

“At night, in my room.”

“Like, bedtime songs – lullabies?”

“Not lullabies. Just anything: popular songs, hymns, gospel – you know, church.”

I smiled. “Yeah, I know gospel has something to do with church.” I paused, considering. “Would you sing for me?”

He did a double-take. “What – right here?”

“Yes – right here.”

He looked at the closed door. “Is that okay?”

I did my best Edward G. Robinson. “If they come to arrest us, I’ll take the rap, see?”

He looked down, clearing his throat. “Well, I don’t really sing anymore. It’s kinda like, when Daddy died . . .”

“The songs went with him?”

“Um hmm.”

“So, you don’t really feel entitled to do it on your own?”

“I don’t know about that – I just haven’t done it.”

“Would you do it for me? I’d be honored.”

He looked around again, like we were up to something illicit. “What do you want to hear?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know – maybe some of that hymn and gospel stuff you were talking about?”

“Like, what hymns?”

“I have no idea – I’m just a Jew-boy from California.”

That earned a rumbling laugh. He looked down and cleared his throat again. “Okay, then”

He began, timidly,

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever,
Flowing by the throne of God?

Now, he really gave it his all – his voice molten gold:

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river,
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
That flows by the throne of God.

He looked at me. I nodded, “Keep going.” He continued through the verses, belting it out, body swaying, his eyes closed, and ended with,

Soon we’ll reach the shining river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver,
With the melody of peace.

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river,
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
That flows by the throne of God.

By god, I almost converted, right there on the spot!

There was a knock at the door.

Victor flinched.

I said, “Yes? Come on in.”

The door opened, and two nurses poked their heads through a crack in the door, timidly, one head on top of the other. “Is everything alright in here?”

I nodded. “Everything is great in here.” I looked at Victor, then back at the nurses, asking them, “What did you think?”

The one on the bottom had her hand clapped over her mouth. They both had tears in their eyes. The one on top said, “It was just . . . just so beautiful.”

Victor looked alive for the first time since I had known him. Something had happened – it doesn’t matter what, or why, or how, only that it happened. A spark of life had been struck. Now it was my job to keep that spark alive.

I continued to meet with him, and, while he was still depressed, it seemed he had turned a corner and stepped out onto the street of life. There was only one thing I still wanted to know, and I waited till our last meeting to ask him. Maybe he’d be willing to tell me now.

“I know you don’t like to talk about the War, but could I just ask you one thing?”

He drew in a breath, hesitating. He still didn’t want to go ‘there’, but he said, “Okay – what is it?”

I had earned my one question. “Why do you call your platoon The Goners?”

He smiled. “Oh, is that all? That one’s easy.” His eyes did that moving-back-and-forth thing again, searching the blackboard of time. “When I was a kid, and my Daddy came home, which wasn’t often, he used to play soldier with me all the time. And whenever I would ‘kill’ him, he would clutch his hand to his heart, spin around, say, ‘I’m a goner’, then fall down.

“So, every time he had to leave home again, it became a regular thing that I’d say to him, ‘Guess you’re a goner, huh?’ And he’d say, ‘Yep – I’m a goner, boy.’ Somehow, it made it easier.

“So, when the guys were all killed, I just took to calling them The Goners – like, they were with Daddy, somehow.” He looked at me, but not really at me. “I guess it makes it easier.”

I nodded, and stuck out my hand. “Thank you – I appreciate it. I think I understand, now.”

Little did I know that, thirty years later, I would ‘borrow’ his father, and the platoon, to make it easier for myself when Brett died.

Oh, before I get back to Brett, there’s one more thing about Asheville, and it’s in the nature of an ‘amends’. While we lived in Asheville, the older, nice guy, Bob, whom I mentioned earlier, was wonderful to us. He ‘had us over’ to his lovely house for dinner, did everything possible to make me feel welcome, talked with me patiently about my doubts and questions at work, and even laughed at my dumb jokes sometimes.

And yet, there was something sad about him, something very human. Maybe he was a self-questioner, a self-doubter, like me? I don’t know. I didn’t know, then, that ‘old guys’ were human, too, could need companionship, too, could be lonely, could doubt themselves. I just know that, on my last day at work, on my way out I glibly said to him,

“I’ll be in touch.”

He immediately replied,

“No, you won’t.”

Not like an accusation, or anything of the sort – just straightforwardly, like a statement of hard-won truth. It took me momentarily off guard. People aren’t usually that direct, or that honest. I think I shrugged it off at the time, and continued my merry way down the hall.

So, for the record, and to my shame, I just want to say that, Bob, you were right. I was a boy in a hurry – to get my Ph.D., to grow up, to get paid, to earn respect, to ‘make it’. I so wish that Botanical Rounds, that your generosity toward me, that the South, had taught me to slow down and let my heart put down roots in life, sometimes. I know it now, but I didn’t, then.

And I’m sorry – I’m the one who missed out on the privilege of a continued relationship with you, Bob – I’m the loser. And now that I’m an old guy, I know that age has nothing to do with it: I think you recognized in me a fellow traveler, and wanted to know me longer than my three-month ‘hitch’ in Asheville. Maybe at the time I couldn’t imagine an older guy actually wanting to know me, or finding genuine companionship with me – I didn’t think I had that much to offer.

But now that I’m older than you were then, I see that when a soul connects with another soul – age, or race, or gender, or background doesn’t matter much at all; sure, maybe those superficial similarities make it easier, but if the actual connection isn’t there, those things don’t make up for it. The connection is the precious part – and I let a true connection fall by the wayside when I failed to follow up on our friendship.

Maybe somebody reading this now will learn and realize that truth, and think twice about letting a special connection lapse.

That’s all I can offer you now, Bob, but I am offering it, with all my heart.

(Next: The Goner, Part III: Mission Accomplished)

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

Route 66, Part II: Almost Human – West Virginia

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(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:

Ambrosia.

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.

Route 66, Part I: For The Long Haul

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Won’t you get hip to this timely tip,
When you make that California trip,
Get your kicks on Route 66…

Route 66, by Bobby Troup (who lived for a time in North Hollywood, one block over from our house, with his wife Julie London).

We drove across the country almost every summer when I was a kid – from Los Angeles to West Virginia and Ohio, where my Mom’s relatives lived. When you left the city, things changed some, but by the time you left California, things changed a lot. No, not like nowadays: there were no Red States, no preening redneck patriotism, no strident gun lobbies, no divisive Fox News rhetoric.

There were only country people, and country people then were mostly kind, generous and helpful, and when they weren’t, it was because they had things to do: morning-to-night things that 9 to 5 people know nothing about. Running a farm, working the land, watching the weather, and tending to farm animals, you don’t live by the clock, don’t take regular breaks, don’t have paid vacations, and don’t often have time to sit and gabble with strangers. You have your hands full trying to get by, survive and maybe put enough aside to see you through the next drought, or flood, or bad market.

So, once we were past the California line, the scenery changed, but the people, mostly, didn’t. It was different, but marvelous, and I loved it: to me it was the all the variety that was America, come to life. I was living Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, before I had ever heard of Whitman.

The wondrous and frighteningly hot Mojave Desert:

Mirages (“Daddy, I think I see a lake over there!”)

Shimmering heat waves

Those funny tubular swamp coolers people used to have on their car windows

The burlap water bags hung in front of radiators

Dipping paper towels in water, then folding them and pressing them to your forehead, just to get a little relief

“Last chance for gas!” signs at the few-and-far-between service stations (“Daddy – what if we run out of gas? Do we have enough water?”)

Curios – yes, two-headed snakes, calves, and other misbegotten middle Americana, there for the looking. We didn’t have curio stands in North Hollywood!

Navajo Indians, tending their sheep, selling their turquoise jewelry and their angularly beautiful blankets

Q: Mommy, how can they do anything here? It’s too hot!

A: They do it anyway.

Q: Well then, why don’t they just leave?

A: Where would they go? This is their land.

And for the first time, I began to understand how people could have a fierce connection and loyalty to their ‘land’, their place on earth – no, not because it was easy, or lush, or perfect, but precisely because it was forbidding, because they had to work so hard to exist there, had to sacrifice and sweat, to make it – to endure. I saw how there was a kind of pride in all these things, a feeling of ‘we did it, dammit – and we’ll keep doing it’ – a feeling we didn’t have in North Hollywood, where the hardest thing about the physical environment was the smog burning your lungs at the end of a long summer day playing with your friends. This was long before I (or anyone else) knew of the concept of cognitive dissonance, which explained, ‘scientifically’, why having to work so hard for something makes it all the more valuable.

And the staggeringly flat endlessness of the Great Plains:

Mile after unimaginable mile of planted crops. Waving wheat, tall corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and all the others I couldn’t identify but had been planted by somebody, helped along, fretted over, brought along with infinite care and patience. The big machinery: massive tractors, threshers, cultivators, harvesters, operated by men who sat alone in them, stoically, for hours and hours, quietly doing their jobs under the hot summer sun.

We thought our backyard was enormous, and for North Hollywood, it probably was: the total area behind our house was maybe a hundred yards by thirty, populated by ants, Jerusalem crickets and horned toads when we moved in.

But these ‘backyards’ were like entire states: mile after mile of flat land, far as the eye could see, all planted with something, all needing tending, all subject to the whims of nature. It gave a kind of scale to things that we didn’t have at home – a scale so grand, a space so big, that it made even a boy think about things like life and death, creation, the purpose of things, time, what we are doing here. Or at least it did me, but then of course, I was always The Dreamer – the one who sat in his pajamas and watched the world go by, wondering, always wondering . . .

The middle of nowhere. A train goes by:

Q: Mom, where are those people going?

A: I don’t know.

Q: But don’t you wonder?

A: No, not really: we’re on our vacation now. What they’re doing is none of our business.

Q: Are they okay?

A: What do you mean, okay?

Q: Are they moving away from somewhere because they had to? Are they all together, or did they get separated?

A: I’m sure they’re fine – and besides, that’s not our worry. We’re fine, and that’s what matters.

Q: Mom – are they Okies?

A: That’s enough: now, be still and enjoy your own trip.

Eastward we pushed: Barstow, Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Amarillo (god, Texas went on forever!), Oklahoma City, St. Louis. License plates to watch; roadkill that was a user’s guide to the fauna of south-central America (Could I make a coonskin cap of that raccoon we just saw? What’s an armadillo anyway?); regional cuisine (except we didn’t call it cuisine then, just hick food) – I became fixated on ‘broasted’ chicken for some reason, that and chicken-fried steak, yumm!); the clothes changing from cowboy hats and bolo ties to bib overalls and tractor-brand caps, to slacks, button-up shirts and Fedoras.

And, all the way across the big country, in their rolling majesty – the semi trucks: citizens of nowhere, rumblers-through of everywhere. Oh yes, the big rigs, the semis, the long-haul boys. Now, they were something to fire the imagination of a small boy! Just the names: Mack, Freightliner, Peterbilt, Kenworth, and the names of the hauling outfits, that you saw over and over again till you knew the logos, and the slogans, by heart: Navajo (“route of the blue-eyed Indian”), P.I.E. (Pacific Intermountain Express), Consolidated Freightways, Ringsby, Yellow Freight, Transcon – they became my friends and traveling companions all along Route 66.

Sometimes the drivers waved to me, and sometimes, when I was very lucky, they honked their horns, and smiled down at me. Why did they do this? It took me a while to figure out that, unlike the adults in my world who didn’t seem to need anything, these guys were lonely – even my childish waving, though I’m sure it was annoying at times, was a sign of humanity for them. Imagine that: I had something to offer an adult!

Of course, like most small boys, I was fascinated by trains, too, especially the sleek-looking ‘streamliners’ that flashed past on their way from one coast to another. And sometimes we had to stop at a crossing while an endless succession of rail cars rattled past us. My Dad was impatient, as always, probably anxious to get on to our night’s destination, but I, with a small boy’s relation to time, could revel in it, enraptured by all the different types of cars, with names – Great Northern (with that cocky mountain goat prancing on the sides), Santa Fe (“All the way, with Santa Fe!”), Southern Pacific – that became familiar after awhile, betokening the romance of faraway places and never-to-be-met strangers, and of course, my endless questions, which by now I had learned to keep to myself: Where are they coming from? Who is shipping this stuff, and where, and why? Why is it needed in one place and not another? What’s it like to be an engineer? Do their families miss them? How do they decide when to blow the whistle, and how many times?

But trains, though magnificent, and fascinating, were of such a scale that they seemed to be from another solar system, whereas ‘my’ trucks, and my truckers, existed down here in my bailiwick. Truckers existed in real life: I could see their frustration, and commiserate with them, as they struggling at a snail’s pace up the hills, as lines of angry cars passed them, each one watching for oncoming traffic, then zipping out into danger to get by; and then, on the downhill side, playing truckers’ Russian roulette, as they balanced the need for speed, to make up the time they lost on the uphill, with trying to avoid going out of control and plunging to disaster – their gears grinding viciously, their brakes hissing like angry cats.

Now, this was a connection with being a man I could actually conjure with! For at least a year or so there, when my parents, or anyone else, asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, I would say proudly, “Gonna drive a diesel pruck (sic).” In fact, I think my parents only asked in order to hear me say that. And of course, it was unspoken, but clear, that plying such a lowly trade would be beneath me – beneath us. What they didn’t hear, or pay attention to, was that, hidden in my answer lurked some pretty clear hints about who I was and what I actually would go on to do when I grew up.

Like truck driving, psychotherapy is “long haul” work, requiring consistent, sustained effort over long periods of time. Semi drivers, like therapists, are entrusted with a precious cargo, a cargo they have to ‘see through’ to the end of the line, and mostly alone.

There is no boss sitting there looking over your shoulder, no fixed set of rules telling you exactly what to do each minute: it’s up to you to get the job done, in a way that works for you and the client. It takes personal dedication, and perseverance, to do the job well – no one is there to tell you that you put in a half-ass effort on a particular day. Also, like a trucker, it’s up to you to ‘entertain’ yourself during the long haul, to keep it fresh, rather than fall prey to boredom, dullness or lack of involvement in the task, to see it not as endless repetition, but ever new, ever different.

I watched the truckers when we would stop to eat or rest. How they joked with each other, flirted with the waitresses, told ‘war stories’ about road life, and swapped gossip and news about other guys, other truck lines, their bosses, their equipment, road conditions, best routes, and best places to eat, or pull over and catch a few winks. Like sailors, they had their own jargon, and their own network of news and information. I came to understand that, while they were solitary, cut off and isolated in some ways, in other ways they were privileged insiders in a world all their own.

And that’s how it is with therapists, too: sure, everyone knows, basically, what you ‘do’, but they don’t know at all what you really do. It takes another therapist to understand what it’s like to listen for hours, to have it be ‘about the other person’ all day long, to sustain your interest, your involvement, your dedication, to improve your skills and hone your craft not because it’s required, but because it matters to you to do the best job possible. Like truckers, therapists have to take inner pride in ‘getting the load through’, in a timely manner, undamaged and in good shape.

And best of all, now I don’t have to wonder, Where are those people going, and why? They come right into my office, sit down, and tell me.

So, to all the people who asked that little boy what he was going to be when he grew up, I actually gave you the right answer, folks, if you listen with your heart and squint a little:

Gonna drive a diesel pruck!

Our cross-country trip down Route 66 rolls on in the next installment:

 Route 66, Part II: Almost Human – West Virginia.

 

 

 

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

Fuel For The Heart

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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.

The Lady in the Leopard-Skin Suit

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I was four years old, walking down the beach, feeling my feet sink into the soft sand with every step. I had never heard of ‘walking meditation’, and wouldn’t for many years, but that’s what I was doing. It was a typical Los Angeles beach day: hot, hot, hot, and crowded, crowded, crowded. My family – my parents, sister and I, had come here for the day.

Mind you, I hate water, always did – hate its unpredictability, its danger. I hate to swim – still do – and can’t, really, despite lessons as a kid, lessons as an adult. It’s pretty simple, really: I sink. I mean, when one of Nature’s Major Elements tries to warn you repeatedly like that, you should listen, right? Case closed.

My father was a whole different story. As soon as we got there, he did what he always did at the beach: put on his brown and yellow trunks with the sailfish on them, and run straight for the water, diving in with total abandon and swimming straight out to sea with strong, confident strokes. I wished, at four years old, that I could be the way I saw him then: strong, brave, at home in the world. I still do, sometimes, but now I realize there are different kinds of strength, different kinds of bravery. But that’s a story for another time.

My mother, also, did what she always did: set out the blankets and the food, and looked askance at the ‘neighbors’. She had a thing about ‘the great unwashed’ being in proximity to her, especially when in public. At the movies, she always said it was guaranteed that the guy who plopped down next to her reeked of garlic, or had a smoker’s hack, or mumbled inanities to his wife, loudly, throughout the show. So, having set up our temporary beach bivouac, she did the Proximity Scan: all clear, for now. Being an observant fellow, I of course had learned my lessons well: the world was unsafe, overwhelming, untrustworthy and coarse.

What do I mean by ‘coarse’? I mean Mark Halpern’s mother driving me and the guys down to the Channel 5 studios to watch Zebra Man annihilate The Hypnotizer, until the Hypnotizer finally maneuvered into position to ‘hypnotize’ Zebra Man’s hand to the ropes, leaving him free to pummel the beejeezus out of Zebra Man, while grown men on all sides screamed their lungs out in crazed bloodlust. Now that was ‘the world’. We didn’t do things like that.

Of course some people (mostly relatives) other than us were okay in my mother’s ‘book’, but then their okayness floated in and out like the tide: sometimes they were ‘in’, sometimes ‘out’, and as it was hard to keep up with her social tide tables, I think I just played it safe and decided that all ‘outsiders’ were not to be trusted – that way, I didn’t have to keep readjusting to their fluctuating status. If I just held everyone at arm’s length, I was safe.

But back to the beach. As much as I hated the water, water took second place to my worst fear: Getting Lost. Getting lost meant being separated from the herd, and when you’re a prey animal, in a predator’s world, that’s a bad thing. Well, things were going alright: my Dad had returned from his swim (Catalina and back?), Mom was pretty well settled – so, finally, sequestered on Bernstein Island, temporarily safe from all possible danger, I could finally relax on the blanket and watch the waves go in and out. God, there were a lot of people! God it was hot! I eyeballed the shoreline: gee, it looked kind of fun to be down there, at least getting your feet wet. No harm in that, eh?

I scanned the distance from my parents to the shore: not that far, as the crow flies, and I definitely was going to be the crow on this run. Maybe a hundred feet there, a hundred feet back:. Sure, I could do it, easy. Besides, they’d be right here watching me, though at the moment Mom was absorbed in a book and Dad was – well, Dad wasn’t responsible for ‘the kids’. Once, years later, when I was in the initial righteous flush of therapy and confronted him about not being available or ever doing much with me, he said, in all earnestness: “Well, your Mom had been a teacher: I figured she should take care of all that.” Hmm, nice to be relegated to ‘all that’, but back to the beach.

I mentally measured off the distance again: if I went straight there, didn’t move, and came straight back, I should be okay. After all, the shore wasn’t going to move in relation to my parents, and the same went vice versa (yep, I actually thought that), and if there wasn’t a massive act of god (I had seen hurricanes on TV, and heard about earthquakes) I should be alright.

I stood up and started walking. The sand seemed to pull me down with every step. Uh oh. Of course, I had seen Ramar of the Jungle and knew what quicksand could do (“Help – give me your hand!” “No, it’ll pull me down, too!”), unless you were a gorgeous jungle girl or Ramar himself.  But, as I went on, I  started to relax and enjoy the way the sand gave with my every step. It was like walking on the moon, or Mars, maybe: this was kinda fun, like being an explorer. I made it down to the beach. The waves weren’t bad, kind of unpredictable how high they were going to come in, but what’s the worst that could happen? Getting my legs wet, but that’s no big deal. Granted, it felt a little weird to have the sand give way under me even more now, when the water came in, but what’s that, to an explorer? Ramar had nothing on me.

The gulls wheeled overhead, a friendly escort. Hmm, what if I just walked along the shore for a while? What if I just looked down and followed my feet, like I used to do on the way to school? I could try to stay in a straight line, even though the undertow was always trying to pull me down and toward the water. Heck, I’m strong, I can do it: one, two, one, two . . .wow, this is amazing: I feel free, almost hypnotized, like the Zebra Man’s hand. One, two, one, two . . .I’m doing it, I can stay in a straight line if I keep concentrating . . .shutting out everything but my feet . . .wow, I wonder if the Zebra Man even felt The Hypnotizer hitting him when he was ‘under’? One, two, one, two . . .I’m free, free, free . . .

A cloud passed over the sun, breaking my trance. Gee, how long have I walked? I turned to the shore, looking behind me hopefully – nope, nothing was familiar. Deep breath. Okay, I’ll just turn around and retrace my steps – I should be able to see where I . . .nope, all washed away. I swallowed my panic. Well, all I did was walk along the shoreline, right? I’ll just do the same thing in reverse. Eventually, I should see them on my left. What if I don’t? I pushed that away. All I have to do is turn around and march. I was tired by now, but that didn’t matter: I had to get back, somehow. Seaweed swirled around my feet, tripping me up, but I kicked it away, angrily, and plodded on. Take a few steps, look to my left. Take a few steps, look to my left. Nothing, no one I knew, just hordes of strangers, laughing, shoving, having a great time. It was like Laughing Sal, the maniacal funhouse woman that populated so many scary old movies I stayed up too late to watch on the sleazy local channels: she laughs and laughs, oblivious, while desperate things – murders, betrayals, beatings – are going on.

Gotta keep walking. No, don’t watch your feet this time. Gotta stay alert, gotta keep going, gotta keep watching. Don’t cry, don’t panic – none of that baby shit, you got too much to do, boy. Walk, walk, walk . . .

“Are you okay?”

What? What’s that? I looked up, unsure who had spoken. I scanned the faces: all strangers – and everybody knows, “Don’t talk to strangers.”

“Little boy – are you okay?”

There she was: a lady. Kind of fat, kind of old, but she looked pretty nice. She had on a funny swim suit – a, what-do-you-call-it, from the zoo, a leopard-skin suit. What was I supposed to say? I froze.

“Come here – I won’t hurt you.”

I remembered the witch in Hansel and Gretel. No – somehow, the leopard-skin suit cancelled that out. No, this was a ‘regular’ lady, and she was holding her hand out. Hmm, when does “Don’t talk to strangers” not apply? There was nowhere to appeal for a ruling.

Then, like a flash, the thought came, “I wish she was my mother.” Even in my panicky state, I felt guilty toward my mother. How could I think a thing like that? I pushed it away, along with the panic, and waited, a rabbit in the high beams.

She walked over to me, clearly seeing the panic in my eyes, panic that, somehow, I could now afford to feel. I started shaking, and realized for the first time that I was cold.

She pointed up, toward the shore, to a funny little house of some kind, and beckoned me to follow her.

Oh my god – the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel! I can’t go up there, I’ll get trapped and god knows what she’ll do to me! I looked around in panic.

Suddenly, something in me snapped. Wait a minute, I had a whole new slant on this thing: I was lost, right? On my own, right? Well, godammit (thanks, Dad!), that made me an orphan, a hobo, a wanderer, and a tough guy, didn’t it? Hell, I’m free, ain’t I? I can make it! I can live off seaweed, garbage, little things in shells, right? I mean, the whole beach is lousy with people loading up on all kinds of food, isn’t it? They can’t eat all of it, can they? A guy could live pretty good at the beach – tons of people come here every day, don’t they, and all of ’em bring food, don’t they? Hell, a guy could live off the land! I mean, Jungle Girl did it, didn’t she? Even Hansel and Gretel were doin’ okay, until they met the witch.

She came closer and took my hand. I froze, half-expecting her to cackle, “Come with me, Deareeee.” But she just winked at me, pointed up toward land and said something about a ‘lifeguard’, whatever that was. Lifeguard? Did that mean my life was in danger? I mean, as far as I knew, I wasn’t actually sick or anything – why did I need a lifeguard? Besides, I was a hobo now, a man of the road. She can take her ‘lifeguard’ and . . .

“Sweetie, there’s a man up there who will help you.” I let her lead me up the dune. Having accepted the touch of her hand, I was a scared little boy again. I actually remember thinking, “Well, there goes my life on the road.” I fixated on the leopard-skin suit all the way up the hill, and followed her up the steps to the funny house.

Inside the little shack was not a gingerbread nightmare at all, but just a young, tall blond guy named Norm. I mean, Norm? He couldn’t be that bad! The lady handed me off, smiled at me kindly, then started down the steps. Suddenly I wanted to stop her, to hold onto her for dear life – she was my lifeline, after all, my ‘panic-mother’, and in those few minutes since our meeting I had somehow formed a whole new idea of what ‘outsiders’ could be: kind, nice, helpful, with a warm smile and a leopard-skin suit. Suddenly, “different” was okay. But she was gone, for good.

Later, when I watched episodes of The Lone Ranger, and the recipients of his good deeds said at the end, “Who was that masked man, anyway?” I knew exactly how they felt.

And when Jimmy Durante ended his act with the famous sign-off, “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are,” I got tears in my eyes, for the same reason.

“What’s your name, sonny?”

Norm’s steady, not-overly-concerned tone brought me back from wherever I had been.

“Gregg.”

“Where do you live?”

“Norf Hollywood.”

What’s your religion?

“Uh – Christif?” (I knew about the Holocaust: better to play it safe. I mean, Norm was a blond. And besides, I had a right, being only half Jewish.)

Well, my parents did come, eventually (I guess they had heard about lifeguards, too, from somewhere), and eventually, the whole episode kind of devolved into a family joke, featuring The Lady, my near-miss stab at religious affiliation, and, more seriously, the answer to the question: “Why doesn’t Gregg like the beach?”

But for me, it was much more, and this I didn’t talk about with my parents, or anyone else, ever. Walking along that beach, following my feet, and then later that day, in my short-lived career as a ‘hobo’, I’d had a glimpse of freedom: I realized that, at least theoretically, if I could find a way to survive on my own, which could include help from other people, I didn’t have to worry anymore about getting ‘lost’, or of losing my parents. I could make it in the world, and stop worrying all the time. True, it was just a glimpse, but sometimes a glimpse is all you need, to tell you there’s something out there to shoot for.

And I also learned how powerful it is, in this life, for one person to help another. I knew what the kindness of one Lady did for me, and how it felt, and I wanted to do that for other people who were ‘lost on the beach’. I’m not afraid of their lostness – I know all about it – and I’m willing to wade in and do something about it, unafraid that they’re going to “pull me in, too”, because I know  a secret: helping them pulls me up, too.

I know what it is to care for people, and if someone cares for you, you’re never really lost.

So good night, Lady in the Leopard-Skin Suit, wherever you are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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