Growing, Growing, Gone

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

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

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

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

Fifties party-cool.

Yeah – me, neither.

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

My first successful intervention.

Cock-a-doodle-doo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angostura bitters.

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

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

Open the Door, Richard!

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

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

He was what?

He was ab-nox-i-cated.

He was what?

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

He was what?

Well, he was just plain drunk.

Well alright, then.

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

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

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

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

end of the trail

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things – well, they change.

And people? Well, they change, too.

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

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

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

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

Open the Door, Richard!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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.