Pop Psychology

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Pop Psychology: The study of fatherhood.

That’s a joke, but then as far as I can tell, fatherhood is kind of a joke, in our society.

Each child is biologically required to have a mother. Fatherhood is a well-regarded theory, but motherhood is a fact.

—- P.J. O’Rourke

You hear people talking about ‘mothering,’ but seriously, does anyone ever really say, ‘fathering’? Fathers are the distant stepchildren of parenting, the ‘other guys,’ the second bananas. Whereas a new Mom is ‘in her glory,’ Pop is more like, ‘along for the ride.’ While motherhood is seen as a sacred commitment, a holy blessing and a joy forever, fathering is more like, “Hey, buddy – yeah you, the one who’s trying to lam out that back door: get back in here and do your duty!”

While many (maybe most?) young women dream at some point, or at least fantasize, about becoming a mother, I don’t think many young men would describe having a child as a life goal, or a major fulfillment (though it may become that, later). Women frequently come into therapy to deal with their unfulfilled desperation to have a child, or their guilt, loss and even shame about not having had one, but men most often seek help to talk about their ambivalence about having a child, or their fears that they won’t be able to ‘get into’ the whole parenting thing, if they do have one. While women tend to see babies as adorable and endearing, men frequently see them as, well . . . boring.

So then, what exactly is fathering, anyway, other than evidence of (uh oh!) unprotected sex?

I take parenting very seriously. When my wife’s out with her friends, I always try and check on the kid before my second gin and tonic.

— A former patient

Well, the good news for prospective fathers is that the bar has not been set very high. If you can bring in a few bucks pretty steadily, avoid hitting anyone, show up for parent-teacher nights, recitals and graduations, take a few ‘shifts’ at night, drive little people around town every so often, and remember birthdays, you’re probably in good shape. And if you’re actually willing to put in the time to form any sort of real relationship with your kids, well you’re a champ. Don’t panic: I don’t mean drop everything and give up your whole life to ‘bond’ with anyone – just be nice, try to show interest in things, teach people to shave, tell people they’re beautiful.

See – that isn’t so hard, is it?

Oh, and if, like me, you do actually find yourself getting involved ‘for real’ and thinking your kids are wonderful, don’t fight it:  you’re in for the ride of a lifetime! No, it’s not the same as winning your fantasy football league, or getting that big promotion, or making partner, or sinking that two-footer to take twenty-five bucks off that insufferable, gloating neighbor of yours: it’s better.

Look, when most men have a kid, they want to go around passing out cigars, proud that they continued the ‘line’ of Smiths, or Johnsons, or Abromowitzes. It’s like, “Look at me – the stud,” akin to strutting out of a board meeting and announcing to all and sundry, “Dude – I killed in there!”

And then, for the next eighteen years, comes the actual raising of the ‘line,’ and dude, that’s not quite so sexy and studly. You don’t swagger into the office and say, “Whoa, I rock! Three diaper changes last night, and I didn’t smear shit all over myself even once!” And you don’t get high-fives all-around for spending the day driving a station wagon full of writhing little people to a soccer game, a t-ball practice and Gymboree, without losing anyone.

But you do get something else – something that sinks in deeper, and lasts longer, than a momentary flush of manly pride. It’s the realization that, much to your surprise, you actually have the chance to influence an actual person’s actual life. No, not just mindlessly spreading your seed and ‘continuing your line,’ but maybe helping create a better ‘line’ for your kids, and doing a good job, not at work, but at home – the job of giving a little person a decent start in life, and taking pride in them, not yourself.

Now I don’t mean to imply that you’ll become a saint, or that you’ll take boundless joy in missing that Giants game on TV, in order to cart Junior around the world all weekend. No, you’ll still want to do your own stuff, and maybe sometimes resent the hell out of your rug rats for stealing what’s left of your youth, but for every withdrawal of time and energy, there’s a deposit made, that’s even bigger: the knowledge, and satisfaction, that you’re participating in something that’s bigger than yourself, something that’s even (gasp!) more important than the Giants game, that somebody needs you, and that, dammit, you’re coming through for them. And all this is something that’s really hard to explain to a guy who hasn’t had children, or is terrified by the thought of what having children will ‘do’ to his life.

Because you can’t put into words what it’s like to sit there in the stands when your son comes up to bat in a Little League game, and, with tears in your eyes, say to yourself, “That’s my boy!” Or to sit there and watch your daughter, who was scared out of her wits the night before, stand up there and belt out her lines in the school play, and think, “You go, girl!’ Is it too crazy to say it’s almost a religious experience, a spiritual one? I don’t know – maybe. But it’s not far off. Because isn’t religion all about seeing that we’re bigger than just individual blobs of protoplasm, that there are things beyond us, that we’re a part of something much bigger than being John Doe? Well, having kids takes you to those places, those spiritual spaces, beyond yourself.

Yes, I know that most men (including myself) don’t ‘get it’ until they have their own kids: before that, you hear guys talking about their children, and you nod at all the right times, but honestly, it’s like, “Yeah, whatever.” You watch your girlfriend get all excited about her best friend’s baby shower, and honestly, all you’re thinking is, “Please, god, don’t let her come home in a lather about having a baby.” It’s not that you don’t understand, in some abstract mental universe in the back of your mind, what all the hullabaloo is about – it’s just that it doesn’t really hit home.

And then your wife or girlfriend gets pregnant (planned, or not) and you decide to have the baby. And you think, “Yeah, cool – I can handle this,” but it’s still just an abstraction. And you deal with her food cravings, and it’s cute that she wants lobster bisque in the middle of the night, and gets sick to her stomach when there’s a Frito in the room – but it’s all an abstraction. And you feel her stomach when the baby’s kicking, but honest to god, you’re really just kind of humoring her, because it’s not ‘real’ to you, other than the late-night dread about your lost life, which of course you can’t share with that lady with the big belly lying next to you, that brave girl who’s willing to go through all this to bring a new life into the world – a life that is connected to her, not you.

And then the big day arrives. She says, “This is it,” and you race her to the hospital, more worried, in the back of your mind, about something ‘happening’ to her, than the baby itself. And you stand there, dutifully, in your mask and gown, or you sit there in the waiting room, and you act like you’re participating, thinking, this is it – the end of the pickles and the lobster, the end of the  backaches and the swollen feet, the end of the emotional jags and the guilt-trips about not letting her have a baby – but it’s still not about the kid, not really. And if you’re thinking anything, you’re thinking, “Oh god – just let her live! I don’t want to lose her!” and you’re so darn proud of her, for going through all of this for you, for us.

And then it happens: the baby pops out, or is cut out, or is pulled out, but somehow, it gets out of there – that zone that, a long time ago, used to be yours – and you’re so relieved, and proud, that she made it through – that your girl made it through all the way. And it’s still about her, that brave lady who has done this amazing thing, for you, for us.

And then your attention finally shifts to ‘it’ – a baby girl. And that’s when it hits you: Oh My God, it’s a baby! It’s our baby! It’s my baby! I’m a father, and I have a baby! An honest-to-god, real-life baby of our own!

And in that instant, your life is changed, forever.

How? Well, it’s hard to explain, if you haven’t ‘been there,’ but I’ll try. In that instant, you find, or rather you experience, bodily, that you are connected – to all of humanity since time immemorial, to the history of life, to everyone before you. And you are now part of the great ‘fraternity’ of life, too – the club of people who have had children. You are now an initiate into the great mystery of life: like a retired attorney is ‘of counsel,’ you are now ‘of humanity,’ a member in full standing of the chain of human events. You find your eyes filling with tears, and all you can think is, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.”

In the movie Resurrection, Ellen Burstyn plays a woman who, as a result of a near-fatal accident, develops spiritual powers. At one point, she goes ‘back to the farm’ where her father – a hard, flinty man – is dying. He doesn’t give an inch, emotionally, until just as he is dying, when he begins to experience his ‘passing,’ and he suddenly breaks down and sobs, “The light . . . oh, my.” Well, a baby is like that. I have friends who say their first acid trip was like that, back in the Sixties – that it changed everything, from then on. I wouldn’t know – my only ‘trip’ ended with a desperation to come back to normal life, and a bad neck-ache for the next week.

But your concept of being a father, at the moment you see that baby girl, changes forever. It’s not what you thought, anymore: not just a series of obligations, or that you have to share your wife, or getting no sleep for the next two years, or giving up your basketball games on Saturday. Sure, it might ‘mean’ those things, technically, but it’s suddenly so much more: it’s that the baby is part of YOU, part of US, that you WANT to do things for her, that you identify with her. It’s that what happens to her, happens to YOU. It’s that how you act, now affects HER.

I didn’t have to go to Vietnam –  my bad back spared me that particular honor. So I’ll never know how I would have acted ‘under fire.’ But I wondered about it. And I think most boys think about that at some point in their lives, seeing war movies, playing video games, listening to older guys talk about their time in the ‘service.’

But I do know this: when I caught sight of my son Brett, at age three, just as he ran headlong into the surf at Sea Ranch, on a stretch of beach that was marked, “Dangerous riptides,” I ran for all I was worth and jumped in. Now mind you, I don’t know how to swim, don’t like the water, don’t even like hot tubs. But all that didn’t matter: I ran like a man possessed, jumped in the water and paddled and kicked for dear life. I could see him up ahead of me, tumbling around and around in the undertow, tossed up and then sucked down, again and again. I prayed, “Please, God, if you’re there: please help me – not for me, but for him!” It didn’t matter that I didn’t know how to swim, that I was half-drowning, myself. I was like a crazy man. All I could think was, “My boy is in trouble! I’ve got to save him – got to!” Finally, I reached him, and slung him on my back, trying to keep his head above the surging waters. I staggered, gasping for air, pushing for all I was worth against the weight of the surge that was trying to pull us backwards toward the open sea.

Finally, I was able to drop down on all fours, and with him on my back, crawl laboriously forward towards the shore, rocks and sand grinding into my knees with every move.

At last, we made it, me and my boy, my Brett who was part of me – the best part. We lay there panting for a few minutes, then he, being Brett, got up and dashed off to his next adventure, with a little glance backward that said, “My Daddy!” And in that moment, I knew I would have done just fine in Vietnam, and much more than that, that in saving my boy, I had become more of a man. I was part of the earth in a different way, part of the human race in a deeper way.

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a God who listens to the prayers of desperate fathers, but in that moment, as I watched my boy race away, I felt that if there is a God, it’s somehow all tied up with love and devotion – because being a father forces you to get your mind off of yourself and look beyond you, beyond all of us, and be a part of something big, something that has no end.

I stood up and brushed myself off. I saw the boys up on the bluff, kicking a sparkly soccer ball back and forth, and set off to join them – so thankful, in a new and deeper way, for the grace of being a father.

And then, suddenly, like one of those big breakers, it hit me: all along, they were raising me!

I couldn’t get the smile off my face all afternoon.

Fatherhood: it’s no joke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Christmas Eve

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It’s Christmas Eve.

I’ve been allowed another Christmas Eve.

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

Lucky me.

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

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

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

Would my life be different than it is now?

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

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

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

A real big guy.

On a real big motorcycle.

A real scary big guy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost there, almost there . . .NOW!

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

I was in!

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

He knows where you live!

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

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

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

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

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

And so I lived.

And so I went on to become a psychologist.

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

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

The children I had because I lived.

See what I mean about luck?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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.

Please Remember Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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