Man Meets Oven

ding dongs







Some years ago, my daughter moved away – from the Bay Area down south to Los Angeles – voluntarily! Yep, she wanted to make it in the music biz, and on the West Coast, the music biz is in Los Angeles. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, she actually LOVES it down there! The nerve of that girl: here, I was born in L.A. and fled to civilization (i.e. the Bay Area) as soon as humanly possible, and now she, having been given a ‘head start’ by being born in Oakland, turns her back on civilization and becomes a heathen – by choice, yet!

Kids: what are you gonna do?

Well, for years I did nothing, other than mope privately and hope she didn’t catch on (yeah, right!). But lately, I got the idea that, dammit, if the mountain (she) wouldn’t come to Mohammad (me!), well, then, Mohammad (me, again) could go to the mountain (I think you know the dramatis personae by now). To wit, I got the idea that by baking her treats, and mailing them to her, I could keep the contact I wanted, and express my love, without being a pill about it (sorry, hon, for De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period, or The Moping Years, as I now refer to them).

And, as it turns out, I’m pretty glad I waited so long: years ago, I would’ve had to actually buy (or actually check out from the library) actual cook books, then actually read them, then actually make the stuff: too many actual steps! Now, all I have to do is subscribe to innumerable baking blogs, check my email once in a while, spot a fantastic recipe, and make it. Easy, peasy, culineezy! Of course, I’m actually not much good, having come to the baking game more than a little late, but then how hard is it to buy a few ingredients, dump ’em in a bowl together, set the oven to 350, shove it all in, and wait?

And the love part? Well, as the Pillsbury Doughboy once said, “Nothin’ says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven!” And, though she and I have had our ups and downs on her (and my) road to growing up, it’s pretty hard to misinterpret, deny, or distort a pecan pie bar, pistachio-coconut bark, or a Maraschino-cherry truffle, right? Woo hoo!

So what’s my point? Adaptation – that’s what. How did De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period morph into all this? Acceptance, facing facts, and willingness, that’s how. As a friend of mine always says (and, major confession: I hate him for it, each and every time),

It is what it is.

Translation?: Reality will trump that pathetic, distorted little ‘personal vision’ of  the world you’re holding onto for dear life, 99.99 percent of the time. And that remaining .01 percent of the time it seems to be working out the way you ‘dreamed’ it?  A fluke, dude: like winning the state lottery – it isn’t a ‘trend’ or ‘magic’ or ‘now my luck has really turned’, or anything of the kind – it’s a fluke, something you should never have counted on in the first place, and never should count on again.

So what are we left with? Reality. I know – you don’t like it. I don’t like it, either – it bites, it blows, it sucks, but, as the newscasters say: This just in: the tail doesn’t wag the dog. You don’t count on Life conforming to your personal ‘vision’; You adjust to Life.

Sorry to break the news to you like this – I wish I could have baked it into a gooshy, homemade, marzipan-creme-filled Hostess Ding Dong and served it to you on a fancy silver tray, but, like a good break-up, it’s easier in the long run just to take the hit all at once.

So, Reality: there it sits, like a big ol’ Great Dane in your living room, drooling all over the carpet and pooping in the hall. What are you going to do with it? Well, once upon a time, Freud had this idea, and he called it Sublimation (or technically, Sublimierung, in German – maybe on the assumption that a spoonful of letters makes the medicine go down?). Well anyway, it basically means this: that a mature (pronounced: mah-tew-ah) person, in the face of frustration (hello, Reality!) does not murder, rape, pillage, pout, moan, fling objects, or guilt-trip others (maybe it was a hint to his Jewish mother?) – rather, he or she “makes the best of a bad situation”, by throwing Reality a bone, rather than kicking it in the slats (then Reality bites, see?). By incorporating Reality into the solution, you can maybe meet some of your own needs, and at the same time allow Reality to gnaw on its soup bone. Result: everybody’s (at least sort of) happy.*

{*Yeah, yeah, I know – sublimation actually has to do with channeling primitive drives into higher-level functions, but listen up: My Blog, My Rules! Now, that’s sublimation!}

Examples, you say? Sure, we got examples:

A couple I was working with (Clive and Vera) came to me on the verge of breaking up. Why? Well, Vera was jealous, insecure, and “possessive” (hey – she said it, not me!), and Clive was handsome, outgoing and friendly. Oh yeah – he appreciated ‘the ladies’ quite a lot, and they certainly returned the favor. Result: when they were out in public or with friends, and especially when they’d both taken on quite a bit of ballast, Clive would be his ‘friendly’ self with all comers, while Vera steamed and fumed from the sidelines, feeling ignored and devalued.

Later on, when they were alone, she would unload on him, both barrels. He, in turn, would fire back, saying that there was nothing wrong with his being friendly, that he had no intention of ‘starting’ anything, or even flirting, with the women he was talking to, that she could damn well take him as he was, and that furthermore, she was an insecure, jealous b-word, who had better get herself together quick, or else. Add booze, stir, and baby, it was, “Fire in the hole!” And that’s the nice version of it, because, of course, I wouldn’t want to upset the delicate sensibilities of anyone out there who still thinks life is a marzipan Ding Dong.

So, what happened, you say? Oh, yeah, I almost forgot (Sorry, I was dreaming about that Ding Dong – talk about primitive urges!). Well, here’s what happened:

First, I looked at him. “You get to be who you are.” He looked happy.

Then, I looked at her. “You get to be who you are.” Now she looked happy, too.

Finally, I looked at both of them. “But if you want to stay together, you have to work together.” Now nobody looked happy, except me, of course. (Trade secret: it’s a lot better being the one without the problems than the one(s) with the problems – but don’t tell, it would just hurt people’s feelings.)

So now what? You see, the real trick of doing therapy with couples is in understanding that most couples approach it as a kind of court of last resort, or to be more precise, the therapist as Final Arbiter. In each person’s eyes, the therapist’s ‘job’ is to tell him (or her) that he is right, right, right, and that the other person is wrong, wrong, wrong: that’s why they’re really here, here, here – to see the Final Arbiter. Of course, you also have to understand that, impressive as your new title may sound, you only have power in somebody’s mind as Final Arbiter if you agree with him (or her): if you don’t, well you’re soon stripped of your title and cast out among the bulrushes to eat hyacinths.

But enough inside information – let’s get back to Vera and Clive. So, sitting there glaring at me, they had crossed the first Rubicon of couples’ therapy: giving up on the Final Arbiter. Their plan having failed (thanks to me), I was now On My Own, in the Slough of Unfairness – for, you see, a human being in couples therapy who has given up on the Final Arbiter now shifts desperately to the Fairness Doctrine, that is, that while the therapist may not agree with him (or her), the therapist at least does not blame him (or her) for ‘Everything‘. (Note – it’s always Everything: there is no ‘some part of it’ at this stage; if you’re ‘bad’, you’re all the way bad; if you’ve caused something, you’ve caused Everything. Why? Don’t ask me – ask Freud, if he’s not too busy sublimating.)

At this point, Clive says, “I’m not changing – I am who I am.”

I say, “No problem.”

Vera, somewhat alarmed that I’m not going to make Clive change (damn, I must have left the Change Button at home) says, “Okay, so I’m jealous, sometimes, a little bit. But, I can’t change either – and if he doesn’t change, well . . .”

I smile, confidently. “No problem.”

What the f___?  If the Final Arbiter bit is out, and the Fairness Doctrine has been sent to the bulrushes, what’s left? As it happens, the last resort is What Works.

“Guys – here’s how I see it: Clive, you’re a gregarious guy (proud smile), and it’d be a shame to make you change that (besides, I’ve left the Change Button at home, but they don’t know that), and Vera, you want, and deserve, to feel Special (proud smile – that sounds a lot better than Out-of-control, jealous b-word), so here’s what I propose: Clive, when you’re, shall we say, mingling – and as we know, you’re not flirting (head nod) – why don’t you make it a point to include Vera in some way? You know, just put your arm around her, or nod to her, or make a reference to her while you’re talking, so she knows, and everyone else knows, you’re with her? Is that too much to ask?

Clive: I don’t have to stop being outgoing?

Me: Nope – not a drop.

Vera: See ! I told you . . .

Me: Nope – not a drop. Let it go: nobody’s wrong here, nobody has to change who they are. Clive gets to be exactly who he is, but, since you’re together, he has to work with you on your jealousy issue, instead of resenting you for it. You see, he’s operating on the assumption that if you trusted him, you wouldn’t be jealous (Clive nods), but that’s not true: your jealousy is there whether you trust him or not. You just want to be included, and acknowledged, in his socializing with other people (Vera nods).

(Insider information: at this point the Final Arbiter and the Fairness Doctrine have both been sent to the showers, and What Works has come in to pinch hit. They’re still a little uneasy about it all, waiting for the other shoe to drop, for me to say someone’s ‘wrong’, but I don’t, and I won’t: it’s about What Works, not Who’s Wrong, and What Works has just hit a ringing double to the gap.)

Vera: (Suspiciously) And what do I have to do?

Me: What you have to do is not hang back and pout while he’s talking to other people. You have to stay around, instead of ‘testing’ him by withdrawing, so that, when he does his homework, you’re there to receive it.

Vera: Hmm – okay, sounds reasonable.

Over the next few sessions, Clive and Vera gradually shift from suspiciousness to relief: imagine that – this son of a bitch (Me), who couldn’t even play Arbiter properly, has come up with a Plan – a plan that doesn’t require confession, degradation or groveling, but merely Cooperation toward a common goal – a decent, functioning relationship. Our subsequent sessions are mostly about monitoring The Plan, modifying it as needed, answering questions about specific instances as they arise, and most fun of all, incorporating variations THEY come up with, as they get into the spirit of it.

In a later session, Clive says, “I’ll tell you one thing: it’s good to feel, for once, that I can do something right.”

Nodding, Vera responds, “And it’s good to feel like I’m not always the crazy lady.”

And I add: “There was never anything ‘wrong’ with either one of you: you just needed to work together instead of blaming each other.”

Granted, this was a situation that turned out to be relatively non-toxic, though keep in mind, when they started therapy, they were one step away from some serious violence. What if Clive actually had been coming on to other women, had been having affairs? What if Vera actually had slashed the tires of a woman he was talking to innocently, put sugar in her gas tank, and sent her a death threat? (I’ve dealt with all of the above.)

Sure, there are much more extreme, and uglier, situations a therapist has to deal with, all the time, but the principle’s still the same: you can’t just “have what you want” in life, regardless of consequences, and expect things to work out. You can’t just say, “I am what I am, take it or leave it,” and not eventually run into the buzz saw of Reality, whether as a parent, a spouse, a Little League coach, an employee, or President of the United States.

But if you learn to adapt, to let the little things go, to change your tack when the wind blows from the northeast, you can have a pretty good life, without giving up who you are.

And if you get really hard up, you can always come over to my house:

Line forms on the left for marzipan Ding Dongs!







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