Light Unto My Lamp

16212711_s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The Diary Of Anne Candid

6009845_s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once, years ago, I was talking with Sarah, a young woman patient, about how to deal with narcissists and other people who are self-referent and blaming of others, and end up making you feel ‘wrong’ for any of your behaviors or personality characteristics that upset them. This led us into reflecting on single-minded family systems (like hers) that offer you two choices: either join us in thinking, feeling and acting ‘our way,’ and thereby be a part of something (ostensibly) wonderful, or have your own (wrong!) attitudes and be all alone.

What a godawful Sophie’s choice, especially for a child, and most especially for a sweet, sincere child who wants and needs connection, and needs to feel a part of things.

Such a connection-oriented child, brought up in such a my-way-or-the-highway family, is at a terrible disadvantage. Desperate to fit in and not be an outsider in her own family, the child naturally (and unconsciously) learns to disregard and disbelieve her own perceptions. As my patient and I continued talking, we realized that, eventually, she was going to have to come up with a strategy for dealing with these types of monolithic people, and systems.

But wait: though Sarah understood all this, on an intellectual level, a strong part of her resisted it. That resistant part of her (the innocent child) still wanted to believe that everybody is basically honest, basically sincere, and wants authenticity and connection as much as she does. Unfortunately, in our culture, that’s called “leading with your chin,” because believing, unquestioningly, in the “good of all mankind,” means that sooner or later, and probably sooner, you’re going to get beat up and dumped in an (emotional) alley somewhere.

Again and again.

Her continuing belief in the ‘goodness of all beings’ led her to believe self-referent people when they said she had upset them (i.e. by disagreeing with them and their ways, or by being herself). Therefore, she ended up in situations repeatedly where, in order to maintain the illusion of a connection, or a working relationship with others, she had to doubt herself and her perceptions.

Result?

Feeling bad about herself, and disbelieving herself, to the point where she sometimes thought she must be crazy. Oh, and did I mention suicidal thoughts and no self-confidence?

I tried again, mentioning gently, once more, that she was going to have to come up with a strategy that allowed her to maintain her own reality with these people; that when other people are lying, or insincere, or totally unable to perceive or value her reality, there had to be a way to detach from their demands, and stop giving them the power to define her.

Well, my pushing finally led to this outburst:

But that’s elitist and snobbish. Who am I to judge them? Besides, that implies that I think I’m better than them.

I tried to explain that, whether she knew it or not, this ‘detachment’ is a function that “normal” people perform, internally, all the time. Let’s say you’re in a transaction with someone and it becomes clear that they’re blaming you for something that’s actually their own doing. You say to yourself, “Hmm, I guess they’re too limited for me to pursue this with them now.” That is, you disengage to some degree, and give up the hope of carrying on a sincere, open transaction with them any further. No, it doesn’t mean you write them off, or that you think you’re ‘better’ than they are – but it does mean that you decide, independently and unilaterally, that they are not able to continue things in a manner that honors your reality.

Once again Sarah said, “But I don’t like that!”

Hmmm. And I responded, “Well, I don’t like it either, but then, do you ‘like’ thinking that you’re a loser, crazy, or wrong all the time? Are you willing to sacrifice yourself, in order to maintain the illusion that you and this person are ‘close,’ or ‘on the same page’? And remember, it is an illusion.”

She looked agitated, and truly dismayed. I could see the wrestling match going on in her mind:

In this corner, representing all that crap Dr. Bernstein is telling me about self-preservation by selective detachment: Kid Change!

And in that corner, representing the innocent child’s belief in the Goodness of All Mankind, and the desperate need to stay connected with others At All Costs: The Denier!

At this point, I could have pressed her to continue processing her feelings about all this, no matter how rational or irrational they might be, but instead I obeyed Bernstein’s First Law of Psychotherapy:

Shut Up And Listen!

And, as so often happens when you shut up and listen, something creative and ‘self-y’ happened. She finally looked up at me, a steely resolve in her blue eyes, and said, “But, what about Anne Frank?”

Well, I remembered that Anne Frank was one of her idols, someone she looked up to as a role model for innocence, authenticity, and a belief in human nature. I wasn’t positive where she was going with this, but I had a pretty good idea that what it meant, roughly, was, “If I accept your proposition that I have to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether people are sincere and safe for me, or narcissistic and toxic to me, that would mean losing my charter membership in the Anne Frank Pure and Innocent Society.”

Looking at Sarah’s sad-shading-into-angry face, I also understood that, even beyond Anne Frank, she felt that accepting my ‘proposition’ would, in some sense, mean losing her charter membership in her own family. And the universally sad part is that growing up ALWAYS means, in some sense, losing your charter membership in your own family – and absolutely so when your family is a monolithic ‘cult,’ that requires unquestioning agreement with what has been laid down by the elders.

As a child develops, and his or her uniqueness starts to become evident, a normal family says,

“That’s interesting – you’ve brought some healthy diversity to our ‘stock’.”

Whereas a monolithic family says,

“Kid, you’d better drop those new thoughts and feelings, and quick, or you’re out of here.”

Unfortunately, Sarah’s family was the “drop it, quick” kind, though she had never really ‘claimed’ her knowledge of that fact. Not surprisingly, she had discovered, and clung to, Anne Frank as a symbol of openness and honesty, without fully realizing why Anne Frank meant so much to her.

Anne Frank is, deservedly, a symbol the world over, of how the voice of life continues, even under the most severe repression and ugliness. But she is more than that, as well: her diary is not only the record of a family forced into hiding by the insanity of Nazi repression, but a testament to the struggles of a young girl to say, “I exist!” to the world at large, i.e. a universal teenage girl’s shout-out of existence, of mattering, of uniqueness. Because the whole world had gone crazy, her story is not just the “usual” teenage (or ‘tweenage’) angst played out against her parents, but against society as a whole.

The challenge of a young girl entering her teens is to grow, to expand, to lay the emotional groundwork to eventually push her way out of her family system, and take her place in the big, scary world beyond – and that, as we all know, is hard enough. But in the case of Anne Frank, here is a girl who, at the very developmental moment of gathering herself and all her courage for the Big Push, up and out of her childhood cocoon, was forced Down and In, literally into hiding and secrecy, into an even smaller, quieter, more constricted world, than her normal childhood life.

And so her diary is not just the tenuous confessions and gropings-toward-adulthood of a normal preteen girl, but actually a piercing, heroic, countercoup scream to the world:

I’m alive, damn you!

I’m still here!

I exist! 

You can’t stop me from growing up!

And the ultimate irony is that, if this type of diary had been written by, say, an ordinary Dutch girl of the same era, living out in the open, in a non-persecuted group, it wouldn’t have nearly the same power.

Why?

Because you have to get MAD (even if unconsciously) to force these things out of yourself, to fling the words out there like spears, with abandon and full honesty. You have to be pushed to an emotional place where it almost doesn’t MATTER what you write, or do, or feel. Almost like, “I’m lost anyway – so I’m going to go for it!” My guess, also, is that with the Nazis as a shared family enemy, it probably forced the developing Anne into a more appreciative stance towards her family than she would have had otherwise. There wasn’t the LUXURY of standard rebellion towards family authority!

The diary was not a careful record, or a childish outburst; it was more of a, “Please, Lord, hear my cry!” Not that Anne recognized this, by any means – but the power of the diary is that it is the document of a girl in circumstances that stripped her of all pretense, of posturing, of both preening and self-pity, a girl reduced, like a fine roux, down to her basic essence, and in the case of Anne Frank, that essence carried a magnificent humanness and universality.

And this courage, this magnificence, is what Sarah responded to in the writing of Anne Frank. In lobbing the hand grenade of Anne Frank at me, in the session, she was saying, “I don’t have to face all this!”

She got MAD.

I didn’t say anything, waiting for her to make the next move: after all, it was her ‘show.’ It was up to her to mobilize all that energy and pressure we had uncorked, like drilling down to a gusher.

Suddenly, she stood up, saying, “You can’t take Anne Frank away from me: I won’t stand for it!” and stormed out of the room.

I could have stopped her in a million different ways, but I wanted to give her her head, to let her loose in the world not being scared, not being careful, not caring anymore – like Anne Frank.

This was her break-out moment: hers alone, not to be carefulized, or diluted, by me.

I waited.

The next night, I got a message on my voice mail from her:

Dr. Bernstein, I’m going to leave a message here, but don’t call me back. I need some time to deal with all this – on my own. (Pause) Okay, I think I’m getting it: you’re not trying to take Anne Frank away from me, are you? You’re trying to get me to join her. (Pause) It’s just so . . . so sad, to have to leave my family like this – to, you know, outgrow them, I guess. I thought you were trying to get me to hate them, to reject them, but now I see that . . . that it’s not like that, is it? It’s just sad, but kind of sad-proud, if you know what I mean. (Pause) Okay, that’s all I can say, for now. I guess I’ll see you next week . . . since you’re not a monster, after all (small laugh). Goodbye.

The next week, I could feel, the moment she walked into my office, that something was different. Her posture was more erect, her bearing almost regal: she had always been a pretty girl, but now she was close to beautiful. I knew, without her saying a word, that she had crossed her own personal Rubicon; she would never be the same. You know, it’s funny, being a therapist, because at times like this, part of you thinks, “Hey, what happened to my little girl? I’m not ready to lose her!” Loss and growth is hard for therapists, too! But you never say it – you just live with it, and smile.

Well, the first thing she said was, “Dr. B, I never realized that one of the things about Anne Frank that is so perfect is her last name: you know, like Frank means honest? And, in the last week or so, even though it’s taken me a long time to get there, I’ve started to be honest with myself. Well, actually, I’ve always been honest with myself: what’s different is that I’m starting to be more honest with other people, and about other people. So I promoted myself.”

I angled my head at her, confused. “What do you mean, promoted?”

She laughed. “Well, you know how I always felt like Anne Frank was a sister – the sister I never had? But before, I never felt worthy of really being related to her. Well, now I’ve promoted myself to being her sister . . . and, you’re going to think this is crazy, but, secretly, I’ve started a diary, an honest diary – and I’m calling it The Diary of Anne Candid – because that’s my new nom de plume. And that’s what I mean by ‘promoted.'”

Well, Sarah left a short time later to go to college. Her struggles weren’t over, by any means, but they were different. Now, instead of drowning in her troubles, she was swimming through them: I hadn’t made her problems disappear, but I had taught her the Australian crawl.

Sarah got her degree, eventually got married, had kids, and lives a nice life in a Midwestern town.

And every holiday season, she sends me a card, and it’s always signed, ‘Anne Candid.’

And every time I see that name I smile, and feel like I’ve been promoted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Growing, Growing, Gone

poodle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

A Week With The Old Man

7935105_s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

 

 

 

 

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

Route 66, Part II: Almost Human – West Virginia

5602070_s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(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

photo(14)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The Lady in the Leopard-Skin Suit

22394825_s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Man Oh Manhood

1966_ford_mustang_gt_fastback-pic-29863

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is it to Be A Man? It seems to me there are so many competing versions of this puzzle that men (and boys) end up having no idea how to attain the mythical status of Manhood.

Here are just some of the examples that have been held up for emulation in my lifetime:

A real man is a guy who goes down into his basement workshop for hours at a time, to build things, invent things, fix things, and well, just be alone with his tools and his thoughts. Sure, he may not be that emotionally involved with his wife, or in raising the kids, but he’s there, isn’t he? A real man doesn’t need ‘intimacy’, other than sex, right? He takes a quiet joy in noodling around in his ‘man cave’: it’s enough for him, and it oughta be enough for his family, too. He may not be able to remember his anniversary, but dammit, his tools are all organized and properly cared for.

A real man is someone who hangs out with his male friends a lot, drinking beer and watching sports. He can name every Super Bowl champion, in order, and who should have won the Heisman Trophy every year since 1986, in his humble opinion. He and his buds laugh together, have a lot of arcane in-jokes, and practice the male art of teasing each other constantly – all in fun, of course. He is competitive, probably played high school sports until he sprained his damn knee (he still limps around dramatically a couple times a year, to remind everyone). He wants to win. In his mind, he’s the guy in all the pickup truck and beer commercials: though he’s never pitched a hay bale in anger or ridden an actual horse, he considers himself a brother under the skin to every cowboy and rancher depicted wiping the sweat off his brow after another rugged day of taming the elements.

A real man is ‘successful’ – an achiever: a borderline workaholic, he has pushed his way to the top of the business world by being aggressive and understanding the ‘game’. He’s one of the boys, but also his own man. When it comes to choosing between emotion and productivity, well, he knows where he stands: after all, “It’s just business.” He handles his own investments and has an uncanny way of anticipating the market. He’s a great guy, but don’t kid yourself: if you go up against him in a business deal, you might end up with only your underwear to your name.

A real man is a lady killer: he is slick with the chicks and knows his way around a bedroom. He doesn’t allow himself to really get ‘involved’ because there’s always someone else waiting to fall for his charms, and why have one meal when there’s a banquet waiting for you? Sure, he gets along with other men when he needs to, and can talk politics or sports when he needs to, but his main sport requires the opposite sex, and three’s a crowd.

A real man takes care of his family. Sure, he earns good money and takes care of business at work, but he’s also a team player at home who’s there for his wife in every way. He’s also there for his kids: their games, their graduations, their triumphs and their tragedies. He coaches the teams, drives his SUV so everyone gets where they need to be, and is there for those special late-night talks about life. He’s dependable, solid and responsible. His other specialties are lawn care, home improvements and the barbecue. What a guy.

A real man is a loner, and an expert at what he does:The Marlboro Man; Indiana Jones; Sam Spade. Cowboys, secret agents, loggers, truckers, oil riggers, cops, private eyes, bounty hunters, fishermen and hunting guides. He’s in and out of civilization – he can take it or leave it. If he works outdoors, he masters it: he can build a fire from a piece of lint, keep himself warm at 50 below, and dry in a monsoon. He can find water in a cactus, and survive on weeds, herb and berries indefinitely, unless he decides to snare a rabbit using only his shoelace and a bent twig. If he’s in a truck, he can drive straight on through for three days on just strong coffee and unfiltered cigarettes. If he’s an explosives expert, he can make nitroglycerine dance. He can talk when he needs to, but mostly, he thrives on silence, and on his own. Oh sure, he “grabs himself a dizzy blonde once in a while”, like Detective Mark Dixon in Where the Sidewalk Ends, and of course women like him, but he lives by his own rules, understands his own kind, and moves to his own beat. He’s not a joiner, not really a rebel – just likes going his own way, in his own way.

Need I go on? Do all these guys have anything in common? Hmmm – maybe confidence, and competence? I don’t think any representative sample of Americans would say a real man is weak, or emotional, or needy, or unsure of himself, or bad at what he does. Look at the male movie stars of the classic era: John Wayne, Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Charlton Heston – not a bumbler, not a boob, not a whiner among them. Oh yeah, maybe Jimmy Stewart got away with some stammering, but even he only really cemented his male image when he did a series of tough westerns in the early Fifties.

And today? Well, it still behooves any actor aspiring to superstar status to establish himself as a tough guy once or more: Matt Damon in the Bourne series, Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossibles.  Ben Affleck, Daniel Craig, Liam Neeson, Russell Crowe – all have donned the cape, the mantle, the muscle, the gun or the jock at some point. Even Tom Hanks (today’s Jimmy Stewart) didn’t do himself any harm by playing the title role in Captain Phillips recently.

As a (male) patient of mine once said, rather succinctly,

Women have to be pretty; men have to be strong – that about sums it up.

Does that sum it up? Are we men still basically operating with sex roles from back in the 1940’s, or have men (not just women) “Come a long way, baby”?

Well, what I’m seeing from being in the trenches, doing therapy with modern men, is that they seem to be MUCH less concerned with the “Am I a man?” question, in general, than they used to be – or at least the question as posed that bluntly. Of course men are still, as ever, concerned with achieving success, with making money, with being ‘strong’, but even young men nowadays don’t seem to be attaching those things to yes/no questions about “being a man”, as they used to. But they do wonder what kind of a man they’re supposed to be, and they do wonder if they’ll ever get there.

As a young man I see in therapy recently asked, “Doc, how did you make it through, and do you have any tips for me?”

Well, here’s a brief primer on “How I made it through”, though as the ads say, “Your results may vary”:

My god, I remember when I was young we were bombarded with the question of “Am I a man?” in films and TV constantly: it seemed like every episode of Bonanza, Trackdown, Gunsmoke, or Combat, was about the desperation of some poor slob trying to ‘prove himself’, or failing to prove himself, to a male authority (his father, a superior officer, an employer, or just the ‘guys’), or to a woman. Even the types of TV shows we watched were a dead giveaway as to the male societal imperatives of the time: westerns, detectives, wars, more detectives, more westerns.

So, what changed, and how?

Well, believe it or not, one reason it changed was Humphrey Bogart, and this is why he still stands alone as a special cultural icon among the male stars of the Forties: he was, if not the first, then certainly the best, at portraying a male hero who was flawed, smart, humorous, and most of all, human. He was clearly tough, but that was only part of him: he displayed a kind of wised-up, world-weary, self-deprecating, “Post-War” cynicism in The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, High Sierra, and other films, but he was doing it before the Post-War era. Perhaps it took a guy who was from money (his father was a prominent doctor, his mother a famous book illustrator), but who was at heart just a ‘regular guy’, to have the confidence to be smart but to play it down, resulting in a unique “above us, but of us” persona that still clicks with both men and women. As an actor, it takes confidence to not ‘play’ confident, but to just let your own inherent self-confidence (i.e. as a man) flow through the part, conveying that confidence directly (“show, don’t tell”), connecting to the audience on a deeper level than any dialogue or posturing could accomplish.

So, the Bogart persona was already part of our cultural currency by the Fifties – but who took the baton from there?

Well, James Garner, for one. I remember it was a HUGE deal when Garner portrayed the title character in the TV Western, Maverick. Why? Because, significantly (for the time) he used HUMOR occasionally, he acknowledged his own fallibility, and he backed down discreetly when the situation demanded it. Network poohbahs fretted and stewed mightily about whether the American public would, or could, possibly accept such a ‘weakling’ as the lead in a major show: well, they underestimated the American public (no surprise there), because it was a big hit, and forever changed the rules about what a male was supposed to be. And amazingly, he was still basically a ‘tough guy’, and, more amazingly, he still got the girl! And don’t think we little boys weren’t watching and (unconsciously) taking notes: imagine that – now you could be funny, you could be smart, you could even have a questionable occupation (gambler, in this case), and still be a real man! This laid the groundwork for our generation later accepting and appreciating more complex, more layered, and softer ‘tough guys’, including Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and countless others in music, films and other aspects of pop culture.

And speaking of pop music, I distinctly remember being stopped in my tracks at hearing these lyrics in Six O’Clock, by the Lovin’ Spoonful:

And I could feel I could say what I want,
That I could nudge her and call her my confidant,
And now I’m back alone with just my shadow in front,
Six o’clock, six o’clock…

Wait a minute: did he just say,

I could nudge her and call her my confidant… ???

What the hell! First of all, you didn’t treat girls like that – they weren’t friends! They were the adversary in the eternal game of cat and mouse (i.e. sex), not friends! You didn’t ‘nudge’ them, you “got over on them”, and if you ever did use someone as a ‘confidant’ (which you wouldn’t), it certainly wouldn’t be a girl! And you certainly didn’t ever hear the word confidant in a rock song! Here was a purportedly normal guy, nudging girls, treating them as confidants, and wanting to talk about his feelings? Wow, just that one stanza in a popular song told you things were changing, and fast.

Speaking of women as confidants, how about this exchange on the subject of ‘being a man’:

In probably 1969 or so, I was attending UCLA, and somehow normal classes were cancelled on account of our protesting the war in Vietnam (yes, that really happened). So, instead of attending class, we met every so often in the teaching assistant’s apartment in Westwood, and discussed the fate of the world, or the world of fate, or whatever else came up, seeing as how most of the class was stoned anyway. Well, at one point it was decided that we would split up into teams of two and canvass houses in Westwood (actually, a rather tony suburb, totally unsuited to be a college town), and “educate” the local populace about the War and how terrible it was. I believe this was for actual course credit, though I have no memory of what class it was, or how talking to the good people of Westwood educated us about History, or French 2, or Modern Jazz Studies, but I digress. So this young, attractive female classmate and I set out one morning to change the course of world history, one mansion at a time, armed with a sheet of paper with talking points, if anyone actually opened a door.

Well, I’m pretty sure at the previous so-called ‘class meeting’ we had discussed gender roles, or some such thing. Anyway, as we walked, I got onto the grand topic of “Being A Man”, and began discussing with her quite openly (was I treating her as a confidant?) some of the issues I, personally, had been dealing with on this topic. I talked about what constituted being a man, how different I felt from a lot of the guys I knew, and what it all meant. Or something like that.

But what I do remember is this: at one point, as I rattled on, earnestly presenting my dilemma, she stopped abruptly, faced me, and said:

Do you have a penis?

My jaw dropped six inches. I tried to focus my mind, and square what I thought I had just heard with what I couldn’t have just heard. Finally, I managed to squeak:

Pardon me?

She repeated, very slowly, enunciating distinctly like a teacher in a special ed class:

I said, Do you have a penis?

Well, there was no way out of it now: she had actually said what I couldn’t have heard, but did. I licked my lips, looked down and sort of stammered, looking around like I might get caught:

Uh – yeah.

With that, she nodded confidently, and said:

Then you’re a man.

I suppose you’ve heard the phrase: Man proposes and God disposes? Well, this gal disposed. And having disposed, she immediately turned on her heel and started walking again. The conversation was over. Done. Finis.

There was nothing to do but catch up to her and go on with the day’s agenda. It never came up again, nor was there anything whatsoever in her manner to indicate that anything out of the ordinary had happened. She had spoken and it was over – that’s all. And I never forgot it again: I was a man – period. End of topic. Maybe my kind of man, but a man, like any other possessor of said organ. I had inalienable rights to manhood from that moment on, granted in perpetuity, and irreversibly, by some cute girl on my Vietnam-education-stroll team. Period.

One more incident further cemented my claim to manhood, and again, it had nothing to do with any manly behavior on my part, but rather a particular coincidence. During my days at UCLA, I had a job as a delivery boy for a printing business on Sunset Boulevard near Vermont (if you’re an LA kind of person). My job was to hustle finished jobs out to various business all over town, but mostly in Hollywood, then pick up new ones and hustle them back. I remember Petersen Publishing as one of the main clients – they’re the folks who published Car Craft, Motor Trend and most of the other high-class auto mags. I drove my own car, which was a requirement of the job – a red 68 VW bug, the one that stalled out at unpredictable times after I had run it for a while. Very unpredictable times, and the word ‘stalled’ doesn’t begin to measure the malignancy of this car’s engine and its appetite for fiendish torture. I suppose it goes without saying that, every time I brought it in to the German mechanic, he said, “Nein, I cannot help you – never once does it doing zis zing when I test-driving it.”

Scheiss.

This is the car I bought after the black Renault Dauphine gave out. The Renault was the sad little family car I ‘inherited’ after I lost my brand new, cherry-red 66 Mustang fastback four-speed. I lost it because my Dad and I had an agreement: if I lived at home while I went to UCLA, I got the Mustang. If I lived at the dorms, he got it. Well, I started out at the dorms. but the dorms didn’t agree with me, mostly because my roommate was some super-rich male bimbo from Lake Forest, Illinois who liked to brag all the live-long day about having gone to New Trier High School – supposedly some kind of swell dump that was the high school equivalent of Harvard. He and his sockless Weejuns were always off to Brooks Brothers, or the Beverly Hills Hotel, or some fabulous restaurant to stuff his fat face with caviar, or baked Alaska, or whatever rich people who go to New Trier eat. So, I ended up living back at home after that first gruesome quarter in the dorms, but it turned out my father interpreted our little agreement to mean that, once I left home, he kept the Mustang whether I moved back home or not. C’est la vie, or rather, “That’s life in the big city,” as he used to say.

Merde.

Well, anyway, this particular day the Beetle was actually running pretty steadily, as I sailed off down Wilshire, I think it was, to bring somebody’s precious Dead Sea Scrolls to them in a timely manner (everything was always “Rush”, which never seemed to bother Earl Van Wormzer, the head printer, who had a red, bulbous alcoholic face that looked like an enraged pin cushion, and always took his elaborate time about everything, except his fast-as-lightning surreptitious nips at the vodka bottle all day long).

Where was I? Oh yeah, zipping down Wilshire Boulevard with my cargo of print ads. Well, I was stopped at a red light somewhere around Fairfax, enjoying my luck at having a still-running vehicle, when I happened to glance to my left and saw something familiar – a cherry-red 66 Mustang fastback. With my father sitting at the wheel, grinning at me and nodding to himself. I know it sounds crazy, but somehow, I took it as a papal benediction of my manhood: here we were, the two Bernsteins – Men at Work in the big city. Like I say, it sounds crazy, but I truly think that, before that, he thought of my ‘life’ as something figurative, something that happened in a realm other than reality, a series of theoretical occurrences taking place mostly in unnamed classrooms, that produced A’s or B’s, but not substantive corporeality.

But now, I had been seen doing a Real Job, and even more, a Real Job that not only existed in the same physical work world as His Job, but that existed outside of his ken, and demonstrably in the Real World of Men.

Crazy, all right, but something changed after that: he couldn’t deny that I had somehow, behind his back, squeaked into being a Man:

I worked, therefore I was.

Childhood’s End.

So, how does somebody become a Man? I don’t know: mine involved listening to the Lovin’ Spoonful, a penis claimed on the streets of Westwood, and a chance meeting in traffic.  It happens in unpredictable, crazy bursts of events that, somehow, mean things, in ways you can’t know beforehand, but always know forever after.

One minute you’re a boy, stuck on the near bank of a wide and wild river, longing for the big time. The next minute you’ve made it across, and there’s no going back.

Well, I hope my story helps someone out there make sense of it all.

Just know this: at the right time, it’ll happen, and you’ll be ready for Life in the Big City.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Blue Star

13784957_s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence.

Me: So – what happened?

Silence.

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

Silence.

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

Silence.

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

Give that lady a Blue Star!

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Part Baby

Man Holding Up Baby

Years ago, when my younger son was maybe seven or eight, we were watching some classic old Chip and Dale cartoons together (yes, on a scratchy old VHS tape!) that we had seen many times before. We were laughing a lot, glancing at each other during the ‘good’ parts. After the cartoons were over, we were quiet a while. Then, he looked over at me, very thoughtfully, and said, “Are you part baby?”

As a parent, I felt honored – like I had just been handed my Daddy diploma. But beyond that – I wondered about the question itself. Are we part baby?

We grow up fast, racing pell-mell to become adults, desperate to put ‘childish things behind us’ and prove ourselves, frantic to show the world that we’re not babies anymore. But does acting like adults, make us adults? Does something get lost in the rush? And what is an adult, anyway?

To most people who are beginning therapy, being an adult means being serious, not being needy, being independent, financially and emotionally, being able to ‘make it in the world’, being able to stand up for themselves, being a success, being strong. And to a certain extent, all these things are laudable goals in our society.

And for the same reasons, getting into therapy is a last resort for most people. Why? Because it ‘means’ (to them) they are not independent, that they are needy, that they can’t make it on their own, that they’re not a success, and that they’re weak – that they are not all those hallmarks of adulthood that I just ticked off above. And so, they come into therapy like a guy entering a pornography store or a girl going in for an abortion: squirming, ducking, cringing, uncomfortable, not wanting to be seen, embarrassed. Their whole attitude is, “Get me out of here, doc!”. So, when I basically say, “Sorry, but we have to get you in to here,” well, you can imagine the reaction.

Most people go at their lives (and their therapy, at first) like they’re skippering one of those Everglades airboats – skimming the surface of the water at top speed, bound for somewhere (‘adulthood’?) fast – moving, moving, anywhere but here. Then, they wonder why their lives don’t feel meaningful, their relationships fulfilling, their jobs worth going to.

Today, when I went outside to let Angus (my dog) into the backyard, I watched as he joyously raced into the yard, sniffing carefully around all his familiar haunts (checking his email?), leaving his calling card at important way stations, barking his hello, or his challenge, to the neighbor dog, surveying his kingdom. He was at eye-level to the world, he was of the world, close to the earth (‘terrier’ meaning just that), even in the earth, when he dug down to explore, or to make a comfortable lying-in place, as he always does.

I took a minute to look around me, and noticed, for the first time, a hollow in a tree near the back gate. In the span of a moment, a whole host of things went through my mind. I remembered how Boo Radley, the ghostly neighbor in To Kill a Mockingbird, left things in a tree hollow for Scout and Jem. Kids are at eye-level to the world, too. They notice things in the natural world: a butterfly, a smooth stone they can throw, or collect, a shrub they can hide in, a good place for digging. I also thought about how, in my early thirties, when I used to ride my bike a lot, I was surprised that I noticed things that I missed completely when I drove by in my car – noticed them and cared about them: the slow rise of a hill, the kind of trees in each neighborhood, the dogs in the yards, the potholes in the road that became familiar, pretty places to stop along the way that I looked forward to.

I even thought about a patient of mine who obsessed about what present to give her two year-old niece for Christmas. For weeks she went back and forth: A doll, if so, which one? A tricycle, if so what kind, what color? A dress, shoes, a matching outfit? In the end, she decided on an expensive toy, and wrapped it up carefully in ‘just the right’ box and paper. On Christmas morning, she could hardly wait to see how her niece liked the new toy. And what happened? The child tore open the package, threw the toy aside, and played all day with the wrapping paper and two kitchen spoons she found on the floor.

So, what is it we lose in the race to adulthood? It seems to me there are two ways to ‘move’, experientially, as a human being: deep, and laterally. As a child, we are like Angus, going deep all the time: we live in the moment, we notice the little things, we are in the world, and of it. We still have ‘intimations of immortality’, as the romantic poet said, “trailing clouds of glory” from the time before birth, when we were one with mother, one with the universe. We get hungry, we eat; thirsty, we drink; tired, we sleep; curious, we explore; need mother, we cuddle; need to be alone, we play on our own, with great concentration, wiping off Mom’s kiss haughtily when she intrudes, cluelessly, on our one-person universe. We feel our feelings, and let them show, not worried about how it looks, or whether it’s cool or not to laugh, to cry, to want, to need, to want to go go go, or crash and sleep for hours. In other words, we go deep, partaking of what the day has to offer, fully, unselfconsciously, openly, wholeheartedly.

And then what happens? A million little things, in a million different ways. We are told we are bad, wrong, crazy, selfish, stupid, too this, too that, not enough this, not enough that. As we get older, we are told we have ‘things to do’: watch your little brother, do your chores, do your homework, don’t bother Mommy, clean up your room, practice the piano, don’t do what the other kids do, why can’t you be like the other kids, be good, be right, be nice, be kind, be strong, be pretty, be enough. But most of all: Grow Up! Be a Big Boy, a Big Girl. Then later (and these come fast and furious): be cool, be hip, be desirable, do well, get good grades, stop fooling around, get serious, get a job, get a better job, make money, find the right person, get married, get a house, get children, make more money, get a better house, get more serious, take care of business. Get with the program!

And the result? We don’t have the time, or encouragement, to ‘go deep’ into life anymore. We lose touch with the moment, with our feelings, our needs, and we ‘get with the program’. Now, we have to move laterally. We need change, variation, newness, differentness, a jolt of some kind. We need the ‘new’, in order to feel anything. We need more, in order to have anything. We rev the engine, and honk the horn, and curse the other drivers. We’re impatient, driven, tapping our toes and bobbing our heads as we move, move, move to the next thing, the next better level, trying to keep up, not be left behind, stay with the herd. Now, we can only achieve a ‘jolt’, a faint echo of ‘going deep’, by drinking a couple glasses of wine, a couple shots of Jim Beam, using marijuana, meth, cocaine, MDMA, hash, speed, by misusing sex, by obsessive exercising, buying the latest this, having the newest that. We have to move, move, move, because we can’t stop and appreciate where we are anymore. We’re jaded, stunted, blunted, sated, blah, and “whatever”.

In short, we’re gone. Elvis has left the building, just as Elvis had so clearly left himself, by the end.

And how do we find our way back? We begin by doing the very opposite of what we have done to ourselves, what we’re used to. We start by Stopping. Learning to Pay Attention again. Breathing. Noticing. Being, not Doing, hopefully in an encouraging environment. There are many such opportunities in our culture, though none of them are being hammered into us by major corporations, or splashed up on billboards, or listed in People Magazine’s 100 Sexiest list.

Psychotherapy is only one of these, but it happens to be the one I have devoted my life to, and the one I used myself, so I can only speak knowledgeably about that one way. For many patients, psychotherapy in effect becomes the answer to the question: How do you cure adulthood?

Re-learning (or learning for the first time, in many cases) how to go deep, and how to re-connect with the child, takes a safe place, a safe person, and a willing participant. Though it is ‘natural’, it is hard – all change is hard. People often ask me, “Is this going to work? I can’t afford to pay for something that’s not going to work.”

“Well,” I ask them, “how much time, effort and money have you put into what you have NOW? And, did you get your money’s worth?”

It is fitting that ‘getting better’ is called recovery, because for most people, it means literally recovering lost powers, lost parts of the self, and lost capabilities, and integrating them back into the personality, putting them to good use again. For many people, therapy becomes the first time they “really laughed” in forever, really felt strongly about anything, really fought for anything, really cared, really cried. I heard a poem yesterday, that actually was the inspiration for this whole posting:

You must walk on the valley and mountain,
For days, for months, for years,
Then at last you might come to the fountain,
At last, to the fountain of tears.

The author is recognizing, appropriately, that for most people, most ‘adults’ (especially men, in our society), it takes work to get back to the capacity to cry. You have to be able to feel to cry, to respond, to something sad, or moving. That is actually the true meaning of the badly ill-used word responsibility : The ability to respond.

For many people, it takes a tragedy, a shock, loss, or crisis to jolt them back on the road to themselves. The break-up of a relationship, an auto accident, being fired, being rejected, getting in trouble with drugs or alcohol, a health crisis, the loss of a parent, spouse, friend. These and many other things can force us to question our values, and our value, to feel we are lost in life, to feel we don’t have a life, or one worth living. These things are sad and tragic, but if we use them to get back to ourselves, they are pain with a purpose.

What people can achieve in therapy is what I think of as reaching back, extending a hand back to clasp that of the child, to ‘complete the circuit’ of human capability that is lost by ditching the child in one’s frenzy to grow up. True maturity is not being only childlike, or only adult, or only independent, or only dependent: it is having the full range of human capacities in your quiver, with the ability to respond fully to all situations, with a minimum of artifice or self-consciousness, trusting in your body’s responses without embarrassment or shame, having the ability to dive deeply into the richness of the moment, in your own way.

And that is what my son meant when he asked me that question. I was there, with him, in the moment. Did it mean I was a child? No – because I have worked hard to embody all the things that make up a human being, and I hope I have succeeded, at least somewhat, in recovering my wholeness, just as I help my patients to do.

So, in that precious moment, I felt that I really could answer my son, and with some pride, “Yes, I am part baby.”

What would your answer be?

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