Monday, July 28, 2008

The Shiva

I always get a little paralyzed here. Probably most people do.

You might know that shiva refers to the seven days of mourning that follow a close relative's funeral. Such a mourner, in Jewish tradition, sits at home, refrains from work and withdraws from the usual affairs of life; but takes visitors, dozens, sometimes, at a time.

Friends and relatives in a community come to visit during the week, even if they're not particularly close to the mourners. Sometimes the shiva is shorter than the traditional seven days. It may last only three days, maybe only one, depending upon the custom. But no matter how long, visitors serve to soften the intensity of the loss; the presence of visitors fills the void. For a little while.

It should be easy to make a visit like this one. A person isn't really required to say anything. All a person has to do is be there, take a seat and listen. In the more observant homes, the people sitting shiva are seated on low chairs, their blouse torn just a little; they face others, those who are not in mourning, who are seated across from them.

Usually someone's talking, not necessarily about the person who passed away, either. It's not unusual to hear people talk about anything but the person who has passed away. And that's okay if that's okay with the person(s) in mourning. Sometimes, as a mourner, you just know that it's going to be a very long week, so you're fine with the light motif, the banter that gives you a break.

It happens to be the three weeks,* an unlucky time for the Jewish people, so when someone passes away during this season we sort of look at one another and say, It's a three weeks thing, and everyone gets it.

But when it's cancer that takes a life during the three weeks, I always go, Nah, it's cancer. And everyone gets that, too. We know that many presentations of the disease are curable, and the survivors, the soldiers, are our heroes. But occasionally, it's not a winning battle, and the fallen become our sacrifice and we respect them even more.

So today I wanted to make a condolence call, but did everything in my power not to go, did an admirable job of sabotaging my time. I found an old chandelier in the basement and since I had a couple of hours to spare, decided that this would be a good time to wash the crystals, even though the thing has so many broken pieces it should probably go to Salvation Army and will.

After about an hour, though, I took the walk over to the shiva house. Slowly. I felt terrible that I hadn't visited her when she was sick. I've known she was sick for almost a decade. I'd walk by her house on any given day and sometimes she'd be sitting outside on a chair and we'd talk for awhile, maybe ten, fifteen minutes, just chew the fat about nonsense. She would ask about my kids; she remembered them, had taught them some twenty years ago.

But I never went in. You know what I mean. I never took that second step of going inside when she wasn't well enough to sit outside.

And boy, I'm so sorry about this. I feel so badly.

Earlier this morning I caught FD for just a second before he went to work, took him by surprise, made him face me as I shouted, "I just hate myself for not visiting her when she was sick!"

He totally understood and shook his head. "I know, I know, me, too. What was wrong with us?"

"We'll you're always visiting sick people. You're in the hospital and they're sick, or they manage to find you if you don't find them. It has to be a lesson for me, is all. This sort of thing just makes me feel like garbage. Had the chance. Let it pass. It'll never be there again. Gone."

I had ten years to do that, visit.

When my daughter heard about the death she said, "How could that happen? Wait a minute! You don't mean this! She was so young! She couldn't be much older than you, right?"

She was sick a long time, dear. Age has nothing to do with it.

So I shuffle along, finally walk through her door. Immediately I sense the atmosphere is light. My neighbor/friend's mother, the woman who has just lost her daughter, looks up at me, catches my eye as I get my bearings. She smiles a smile of confused recognition, one that says,

I'm sure we've met. Who are you?

We have never met. She has other people sitting with her, talking to her. I can see the mourner I know the best, my neighbor's husband, with a chair open right in front of him. He smiles, happy to see me. I sit with him and we talk awhile about how things used to be.

It's funny. We, the visitors, are only there because a person used to be there. A person used to be a part of the way things used to be, but isn't any more. And yet we're talking about grocery stores that are no longer, toy stores that have relocated, and how people used to be so nice in a snowstorm.

And then he inserts her. He says, "She told me that I had to fight her parking ticket for her because I didn't move the car in that storm, so of course I did, I fought it and won, and it's a good thing I did."

And there she is. And I feel better. The light motif is still light, but it's more meaningful.

At some point I see his daughters, young married women with young children, and I talk to them. They're very much about talking about their mother and their loss, and how we must, we simply must find a cure for breast cancer. Someone mentions Mike Dewey, the Texan who has offered $1 billion dollars to anyone who finds a cure. I feel the time slipping away, know I have to get to work, so I say the magic condolence formula that we say to mourners** and ask the younger women, "Where's your grandmother?"

I'm asking about the woman who caught my eye when I walked in the door. She has vacated her seat. I want to meet her, to tell her how much I admired her daughter, how I'll miss her, too. They tell me, "Try the kitchen."

Where else?

So I head there, to the kitchen, and sure enough, the elderly woman with that certain spark, that glint, smiles when she sees me. I recognize the spark because her daughter had it too, that quick way of creating humor, a way of making things light, happy. Humor is communicated through the eyes of these people, the ones with the sparkle in their eyes.

I introduce myself. I say I'm So and So's niece. Everyone knows my aunt in this community, there weren't that many Orthodox families in town when my mother, my aunt, and this woman were girls. Chicago has grown, but the native Orthodox all know one another.

"You looked familiar! I knew I knew you," she exclaims. "And now I know why! You have the family resemblance."

I don't want to disappoint her. I look like my father's side. But it's okay. We shmooze awhile, standing in the kitchen.

"And how did you get this?" I ask, pointing to a sling on her arm. "It's very stylish, but still."

She's coy, lowers her voice, the twinkle is blinding. She says, "Well, I'll tell you the truth. I just. . .I just wasn't getting enough attention on Thursday (the day of the funeral) so I tripped and made them take me to the hospital. I think it was brilliant." She's smiling the smile that caught the canary, making this our little not-so-private joke, and it is, it is really, really funny.

"You go to a lot of trouble for attention. You could go pro."

"I know," she says proudly. "And look! It worked!"

"Except," I correct her, "that you're stuck with a lot of pain for who knows how long."***

"Four weeks, the doctor says. It could hurt for four weeks. I'll need a lot of attention."

"Four weeks if you're lucky!" I cry. "It could go on for six weeks, eight weeks!"

"I told them! I told them this!" she exclaims upon hearing my prognosis, triumphant. "I told them it could go on for eight weeks. Come. Come with me. You have to tell them." She takes me by the elbow, guides me back to the living room where they're sitting shiva.

"Tell them!" she commands, for all to hear, pointing in the direction of her daughter, the only daughter left, the only mourner I've yet to meet. There's a small crowd of women sitting around her but I introduce myself, tell the only daughter left that I'm sorry about her sister.

"Tell her!" the matriarch insists. "Tell her how long it could take for this arm to heal!" She's having a ball. She loves this.

"Are you a doctor?" asks her daughter.

"Not a medical doctor. A PhD."

"That's fine. Even better," the daughter affirms, going along with the script. "So tell me, doctor, how long will my mother need this sling?"

I shake my head gravely. "I don't know. It could be very, very bad. Could be six to eight weeks. Maybe more. Could be years."

No one's got a straight face here, but boy, I'm trying. I shrug. "I would keep a good eye on her if I were you," I say, looking up and to the right, clearly deep in thought.

Then I tell over the condolence blessing to the only daughter left, kiss my new friend and say it again, and leave, always amazed at how these things go.

therapydoc

* You can read more about the three weeks on the Cirque du Soleil post, there are links at the end from bloggers who know the rules.

** It's in Hebrew and basically says The place of all comfort should comfort you among the mourners within the gates of Jerusalem. Some prefer to say simply, We should meet at simchas, happy occasions, or You should know no more sorrow, like that's possible, but it's a blessing, basically. All positive shoulds, you should, are blessings in this religion, or can be.

***for who knows how long is a Jewish way of marking time that goes on and on, as it does.

Other bloggers who have posted on shiva include:

Amy Kronish writing about Shiva the movie (who knew?) directed by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz

Patti, not religious at all, but still sitting virtual shiva at Live to Lounge writes about having lost her brother very recently. If you're very sensitive, you may not want to gaze at the banner, nude art alert, consider yourself warned. But say hello, wish her well. Why not?

Oaxaca is interested in comparating religions over at the Bed and Breakfast.

Vesom Sechel , kind of serious, but okay, this is a serious subject, generally, that is.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Is Marriage for White People

The CNN headliner is a good one: Is Marriage for White People?
Dionne Hill quotes statistics (I assume for 2000)
Forty-five percent of black women in America have never been married, compared with 23 percent of white women, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey in 2006. . . .

I am a statistic.
She says.

A CNN video (very good) informs us that in 1910, 64 % of black men remained single compared to 48% in 2000.

Social scientists might opine, regarding this crisis, that yes, there does seem to be a sociological trend. The comparable odds for marriage for black women are less than those for white women, and fewer black men are getting married.

But so what? You are not a statistic. You are a woman. Or you are a man. You are an individual. Group statistics don't apply to individuals.

Ms. Hill continues
I am part of a generation of Americans who are choosing to postpone marriage while they pursue their careers....Among the men I have dated, there were definitely some who were ready for something a little more significant than I was willing to give. Did I drag my feet because I wasn't ready? Or was it because those men weren't right for me? It's debatable and probably a combination of the two.
How honest. How refreshing. Owning it, Dionne.

Even more illustrative are the clips in the CNN video, Black in America.

We hear poet Saul Williams tell us that the most challenging days for black families lie ahead. Men disappear into the streets. Seventy percent of all black children are born to single black female-headed households. I didn't check that statistic, but the Department of Commerce tells us that half of all children in America will spend time in a one-parent family (Zill, 1988; Bumpass, 1990). A challenge, for sure, for all of us.

And Bishop TD Jakes tells CNN that it is very difficult to get a black man to be what he has not seen. The bishop is referring to the roles of husband, father.

Black in America features a black couples counselor, Ronn Elmore (exquisite) who tells us that when a black woman thinks that there is only one perfect mate, that she will stop looking, stop putting herself out there.
Black women are raised to be independent and strong, and men (get it, are intimidated). . . When a man thinks,
She doesn't need my money.
I can't make her laugh.
I can't bring anything to this relationship
There is nothing unique and wonderful that I can bring to her life that she wouldn't have if I weren't there.

Whenever a man senses there's no opportunity (to give), a man backs away.
Read the article and go to the links. I don't do the content justice.

But statistics do refer to groups, not individuals. Divorce, beginning in 1960, rose to fifty percent, but has leveled off. The rate has stayed the same for a few decades, now. Still, no one looks at this trend quite like marriage therapists do. We're keenly aware that if half of all marriages are expected to fail, then half of them succeed, also. Half of all married couples make their relationships fly. Year, after year, after year.

Someone like me will say that therapy helps. Therapydocs talk about pre pre-marital therapy, pre-commitment commitment therapy. Understand yourself. Understand your style of communicating. Know what you need, and go after that.

See if he (she) can make you laugh. See if he (she) can add something to that already very extraordinary life of yours. Watch him (her) in those nascent stages of a relationship before sex (oh, and wait, please do, please wait for that, don't let it turn into that or that is exactly, what it will be). See whether or not you can grow together.

A baker might go with the metaphor, How good is the yeast, really? When you add the water to it, will it grow?

The obvious stumbling blocks, the stuff of that pre-marital therapy or pre pre-marital are the fears, the realizations of catastrophic, seemingly unresolvable issues. Another pair of eyes and maybe they're resolvable. Don't run from them. They'll catch up in the next relationship.

We fear commitment, we fear intimacy. We fear for our interpersonal conflict and fear raising children in a most violent, sometimes amoral society. We fear repeating the mistakes of our mothers and fathers. All good to talk about, work out.

But that being black and single thing? Sorry. It ain't necessarily so.

therapydoc

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Cirque du Soleil




I'm one of those therapists who asks what you liked to do when you were a kid.
















Did you play Hopscotch? Casino and Spoons? Bounce or Fly? Tetherball? Soccer? Did you trade baseball cards? Beatles cards? Garbage Pail Kids? Did you go to the symphony? And I want the context, too, the feelings, who else was there, the good stuff.

The answers blow my mind.

Once a woman in her seventies told me that she wasn't very physically strong as a child. Whereas her sister could lift things, move furniture, mow the grass, run for miles, she was a light weight. She couldn't do anything.

"But surely you could do something for fun," I insisted, thinking along the lines of needlepoint here.

"Oh, sure. I did cheer-leading and baton-twirling. Those kinds of thing."

Marvelous.

"Baton twirling!?!! Do you think you still can do that?"

"Well, sure, about as well as I ever could," she laughed.

There's a story.

A few weeks ago FD said to me, "It's our anniversary. Let's go out. We should celebrate."

Sure, I'm thinking. Mama Mia!

I whisper it. "Mama Mia?"

He lowers an eyebrow. "Streep? Musicals? I think we've been there. We saw that Garrison Keillor musical, A Prairie Home Companion. I don't want to go back."

I knew it. I knew I couldn't fool him into Mama Mia. "Cirque du Soleil?" I meekly suggest.

"Uh, haven't been to a circus since I was ten." He's looking frustrated with me, wants to get to work, his eyes are darting around for his keys, he wants to pack his lunch.

"Yeah, I know. I took the kids all by myself. Once. Once was all I could handle, kids at a circus. But this is no ordinary circus, dear, and there aren't any animals. It's all gymnastics and acrobatics, clowns."

"Maybe," he shrugs. "Find out the time, the cost. Have your people call my people."

Ha.

I go to work, Google Cirque, get a phone number and shoot him an email.
8:00, United Center, Parking Lot K, 2.5 hrs with intermission. Cheapest tickets, $55. We can call it this year and next year's anniversary present, throw in a rototiller. There are plenty of seats available.
He writes back,
Let's go!
I can't wait. But how can I listen to people talk about their problems if I'm going to go to Cirque du Soleil in a couple of hours? And how can I not share that I'm going!? And how can we just go, all by ourselves, not share the experience with another couple?

Then it occurs to me. See if Empath One wants to go. Empath One and I share a suite. She's the one with the chocolate. That would be even more fun, going out with E-1 and R.
FD likes them, too. The thrill is just too much.

I wait for that rare moment that E-1 and I both have a break between patients and wander into her office. "E-1? What are you and your boy doing tonight?"

"Uh, nothing?"

"Wanna' go to Cirque du Soleil? Starts at 8:00. Just in case you're wondering, the three weeks start this Sunday.* This is your last chance to live it up for awhile. FD will pick up falafel. We can eat on the way to the United Center. "

"I made dinner."

"Aw."

"But I want to go!" she cries. "Let me check with R. I'll get back to you."

I go back to work, reflect on the times patients have forgotten to pay me but have enlightened me about their vacations, especially trips to Vegas, home of Cirque du Soleil. I live vicariously through these patients. I have to. All of my vacations are family vacations. Not that seeing the kids doesn't beat the circus any day. And there are some similarities.

I'm not jealous, seriously. But how do you like that? It's here. Cirque du Soleil has come to me.

So I make some coffee, finish up the day, get on my horse and ride home against the wind. No matter how the wind blows during the day, when I have to ride my bike home, it turns against me. This is life. But I'm going to Cirque du Soleil.

FD has bought the falafel and is popping some corn. I shower up and change, try to look nice, he doesn't notice but that's okay because we'll be inside a circus tent soon!

And the show begins. And all I can think about, while I'm watching, is how my granddaughter would really love the trapeze, and my grandsons would love to try that high wire and the flips and the trampolines, and I'll have to remind all of them, after they see the DVD that I have to buy, not to stack the kitchen chairs way high to the sky or climb on the furniture, Daddy might get upset. And an accident could happen.

And I think about my septuagenarian, the woman who could toss and twirl a baton, who suffered so much depression as an adult, and I wonder about her, if she saw the juggler, oh, how she would love his act!

Click here for an overview of the show. (Warning, if you're not listening to music because it's the three weeks*, wait until after Tisha B'Av to watch these clips. They'll still be here.)

Here's another link to a not so ordinary circus, (no elephants or tigers).

The seesaw or do you call it a teeter totter act that you don't want your kids to see.

And finally, the link to Anthony Gatto's juggling act Unbelievable.

David Shiner, the director of Cirque du Soleil sums up the show in one word. Fun. So if you can catch it, I think it's here until August 26.

therapydoc

*About the three weeks.
Jewish people take upon themselves two fasts that bookend the three weeks, a much dreaded period of mourning. We dread it primarily because fasting in the summer is really hard (no food or water). But we're also afraid of your ordinary calamities. It's not a lucky day for us.

These fasts give new meaning to that Jewish joke, Oy am I toisty. which, if you're nice I'll tell over to you sometime.

Various prohibitions between the first fast, the 17th of Tamuz and second, the 9th of Av (Tamuz and Av are lunar months) include: No weddings and other festive gatherings, no hair cuts (some refrain from shaving), no music, no home decorating, no swimming, no shopping for clothes unless you get a really good deal.

No fun.

So no Cirque.

The three weeks culminate with what is judged by all to be the worst day of the Jewish calendar, perhaps the single most worst day, historically, for the whole world. Examples of events on this day include,
587 BCE The First Temple is destroyed by the Babylonians under the rulership of Nebuchadnezzar.

70 The Second Temple is destroyed by the Romans under the leadership of Titus.

135 Romans conquer Bar Kochba's last fortress, Betar, and destroy his army. The Roman Emperor Hadrian turns Jerusalem into a Roman city.

1290 King Edward 1st of England signs an edict expelling all Jews from England.

1492 Jews are expelled from Spain.

1670 The last Jews leave Vienna, following expulsion orders.

1914 World War I begins (Germany declares war on Russia on August 1, 1914).

1940 Himler presents his plan for the "Final Solution" to the Jewish problem to the Nazi Party.

1942 (5702) Nazis begin deporting Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Everyone knows someone who suffered a loss, a freak accident, on the 9th of Av.

We always worry on this day. More than usual I mean.

And look upwards.

One down, one to go. You can wait to see Cirque du Soleil. It's okay.

For more on the three weeks check out Yutopia and Yid with a Lid

For a couple more reviews on Cirque du Soleil, read Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune and Foreman in Philadelphia

You can get lyrics to the music

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

BlogHer

One of the things about being out here on the Internet, for a person like me, is the fear.

I worry that if twenty, or a hundred, or a couple of thousand people or even more, read what I write, that the odds are pretty good that I'll upset someone. And this doesn't sit right with me, makes me want to pitch the whole thing.

An email conversation with a cousin (Let's call him Mike):

Mike: Great post on the family blog! I love the pictures.

Me: Oh, I didn't post them. E. did. But speaking of blogs, if anyone should write a blog, it would be you. I happen to know that you're a writer and as a rabbi, too, you
actually have something to say. Why don't you read this guy (I link him to a blogger rabbi).

Mike: I KNEW it would be dangerous contacting you!

See? He's scared, too.

Readers of this blog who email me about their problems usually get back a prefabricated answer, although I try to personalize it and will sometimes hypothetical-ize it.

I go into why I can't address personal problems on the blog or by email. I just don't want to get into trouble, you know. Sure, it's lame. No guts, no glory. But people need their own face time with a flesh and blood therapy doc, and that's basically what they hear from me.

Apologetically. I have an entire lecture about pat answers.

Speaking of apologies, validating comments is hard! And here I wrote that entire post about validating what people say. Ugh. I stay up night wondering, honestly, where people have gone. Sorry, sorry, sorry, guilty as always. Please forgive.

But here's another thing. I've never officially linked to BlogHer!

The Unstory

The other day, cruising the blogs, avoiding responsibility, I noticed someone had linked over to BlogHer. Now, two years ago, when I first started blogging, BlogHer was the first website out there that really helped women network with women. Empath Daught had told me how to find it. It was a dot.org at the time, not a dot.com.

Anyway, BlogHer linked back to me, as is her nature, many times, and I never properly thanked her (them, really), not even in the monthly Back 'acha posts.

Total ingratitude. Such an oversight. How these things happen, I don't know. A person gets momentum and sees forward, not back. Wasn't it Bob Dylan who said, Don't Look Back? Why would I listen to him?

But now, well, here's a chance to make up for it. I'm going to direct all of you there! To BlogHer! Even men! Especially men. Sure, why not? At the risk of losing you forever to the many amazing BlogHer bloggers, check them out.

And we'll get to my apologies for not answering email and not validating your comments,and on and on, another day.

Here are only a handful of the women to watch at BlogHer.

Mir Kamin chimes an objection to people who worry about men with cameras around children in bathing suits. Not everyone's a pervert, she's thinking. I'm glad. But what if just one. . .

Lisa Stone I think Lisa founded BlogHer. She's so accomplished she's scary. Reading her bio makes a person proud to be female, related by some speck of DNA.

Nordette Adams tells us about a police officer who lost it in the carpool line. You can read Nordette here. She'll tell you about septuagenarians (a theme, lately) having babies. So it's not all about raging, here.

You think that I talk too much about sex? Find Liz Rizzo at Everyday Goddess and sure, at BlogHer, too.

Just a start. So many more.

therapydoc

Friday, July 18, 2008

Why it's Good to Enmesh Your Children

Okay, so it's never good. But it's not so bad to keep one of them around for awhile either, if it's good for him and if it's good for you.*

Not that I don't like the empty nest, the clean counters, less laundry, spontaneous nights out with FD. Who wouldn't?

The Story

I teach one night every other week on-line for a couple of hours. I monopolize the computer room upstairs during that time, sequester myself from interruptions. Teaching kills the night and exhausts me, only because it's the first time I'm teaching this particular class. I have to prepare, reread, relearn material that has passed me by, research concepts lost to the archives of long-term memory. For the most part it's readily accessible, a pleasant surprise.

But I get nervous about presenting the material. And you know, when you get nervous you get a little physically unglued, a little careless. I'm not the best coordinated individual, so for me, being unglued, isn't going to be a good thing.

What's amazing is that a person can be so graceful on a bicycle (K"H)**, can zip around twelve-year olds, make those turns just right, eyeball the distance between the cracks in the sidewalk, and yet, if there's a tumbler, especially if it's full of water, juice, doesn't matter, I'll find it and knock it over. You really have to watch me if you invite me to dinner.

Just about to start the class, the students are chiming in on the computer, and I'm pumped. This material is difficult. I know they're clueless, and it's a huge challenge for me to try to make it all sound easy and accessible. One student is missing. I ask, "Does anyone know where . . is? She can't miss tonight's class and pass the final." The final is in two weeks.

My phone rings. The house phone, the type that has a telephone cord. You may not know what these are, telephone cords. I reach for the phone (we called these receivers), thinking maybe it's the student. The cord is tangled, so I yank at it a little and bam! Eight ounces of water, about an inch of pomegranate juice, if you must know, all over me, the floor, papers, computer cords.

But luckily my son has picked up the line downstairs. He hears the following:
OMG, I just spilled an entire glass of water all over the place. Hold on.
I look at the computer screen. The students are frozen in space, waiting for instructions, surely stifling their laughs. Nobody's saying anything. I'm hopelessly hooked up with a headset, my notes are on my lap. There are books everywhere and the water is creeping to its lowest level on the floor.

I tell the person on the phone I'll call him back. It's not the missing student. In an instant my son materializes, several towels in hand. He's bending down, taking care of the spill. We exchange looks. "You're so wonderful." I whisper. "Thank you so much." I hand him the empty plastic tumbler (you learn to use plastic). "Uh, can you bring me a refill? Water with ice?"

He's good. Moments later, another accident, ready to happen.

Let him go? Are you kidding?

Bottoms up.

therapydoc

*Remember that I try to be funny so don't take everything I say literally or seriously, okay?

**(K"H) stands for kineyin hara, (rhymes win-Mayan-tore-uh) a Hebrish, Yiddish, who knows what, really, expression that wards off the evil eye to prevent what you just talked about from ever happening or to protect you or someone else. Everyone should do this type of hocus-pocus. Very good for the anxiety.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

As Good As I Once Was



Not X-rated, but it's got a little content, so think twice if you don't like flirtation in the barroom.

Jack recommended this one for my father, a follow-up to that last post. Roll over Schubert.

Here are the lyrics, also a little dicey :)

As Good As I Once Was

She said, "I've seen you in here before."
I said, "I've been here a time or two."
She said, "Hello, my name is Bobby Jo
Meet my twin sister Betty Lou
And we're both feeling kinda wild tonight
and you're the only cowboy in this place
and if you're up for a rodeo
I'll put a big Texas smile on
your face"
I said, "Girls,"

[Chorus]
I ain't as good as I once was
I got a few years on me now
but there was a time, back in my prime
when I could really lay it down
and if you need some love tonight
then I might have just enough
I ain't as good as I once was
but I'm as good once as I ever was

I still hang out with my best friend Dave
I've known him since we were kids at school
last night he had a few shots
got in a tight spot, hustlin' a game of pool
with a couple of redneck boys
one great big bad biker man
I heard Dave yell across the room
"Hey buddy, how 'bout a helping hand."
I said, "Dave,"

[Chorus]
I ain't as good as I once was
my how the years have flown
but there was a time back in my prime
when I could really hold my own
But if you wanna fight tonight
guess those boys don't look all that tough
I ain't as good as i once was
but I'm as good once,as i ever was

I used to be hell on wheels
back when I was a younger man
Now my body says, "You can't do this boy"
but my pride says, "Oh, yes you can"

I ain't as good as I once was
that's just the cold hard truth
I still throw a few back, talk a little smack
when I'm feelin' bullet proof
so don't you double dog dare me now
'cause I'd have to call your bluff

I ain't as good as I once was
but I'm as good once,as I ever was
may not be good as I once was
but I'm as good once,as I ever was


Thanks Jack. I'll pass it along.

therapydoc

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Denial of Aging

We joke that I'm a little accident prone. I always say that it's a statistical thing. If a person is active, there are more opportunities for accidents. But for awhile now, in my mind, I've wondered if it's really the denial of aging.

And the denial is either genetic, or human nature, or maybe some of us learn to be this way from our fathers and our mothers. Either way, I have to wonder if it's one of those transgenerational things.

The Stories

(1)

It rained last Thursday, but the day started out sunny so I stole that window of time and rode my bike to work. It was worth it, as it always is. Only a three mile ride, the exercise wakes me up (and the anxiety, you have to make sure you don't get killed, riding a bike). And there's no more beautiful city than Chicago in the sunshine.

But of course, by evening the rain came in as predicted. I had a text at 6:00 from FD.
Can I pick you up?
Well, sure. I left the bike at the office, hopped into his car.

Then Friday I took the car, saw patients. When I finished for the day, I walked the bicycle outside to stick it in the trunk. This is a drill. I've done it a thousand times, lifted the old ten-speed, placed it inside, just right. The move is unconscious. We don't have a van so the procedure does take a certain panache.

Left hand beneath the bicycle, right lifting from above, the bike slides in as usual. As I remove my left hand, the bike drops unexpectedly. My reaction is what one might expect, #!@#$%&#, the list of expletives exhaustive.

I know that this is no ordinary boo boo, and that FD is there for me, but at this hour of the day on a Friday I also know he's working like a madman to finish up and get going, and I'm on my way to pick him up, anyway. So I don't call him.

But it hurts like never before. Maybe childbirth. I don't know. The ski accident doesn't compare. I get scared, look at the hand. I'm a righty, so I'm thinking, this isn't the end of my life. Be a big girl. Get to a 7-11 and get a cup of ice. Looks like only one finger, maybe two are suffering the damage for everyone.

There's a line at 7-11. It's Free Slurpy day. I get a cup of ice, stick Fing in and take it out pretty quick. This isn't working out, it's too painful. Good soldier, I put it back in, keep it there. A couple of religious kids are in front of me, trying not to stare. As one of them checks out I say to the clerk, "I just have a cup of ice." He smiles and waves me away, like, what a nut, paying for ice. But there's a cup here.

I pick up FD who resolutely scolds me. "Why didn't you call me?! You don't ice digits! You can cause an infarct, break a blood vessel, ala frost bite."

"Take the wheel and shut up," I say, always the grateful and pleasant patient.

He ha scolded gently, of course.

So the color kept our interest, first black, then eggplant. The pain dissipated in a couple of hours and in 24 Fing wasn't anything but a curiosity. Three days later it's no longer numb, so maybe it's all good. It bends. No break. Just a smashed digit, maybe you noticed, didn't stop me from blogging the other day.

(2)

Then Sunday I go to visit my parents after work with Little One. He's home and has a pre-college engineering internship, a plum that he deserves because he bothered to apply. He's probably got some engineering genetics. FD tinkers, and my father, without a college education, became a chief engineer on a ship in the Navy. Everyone came to him, all of the other engineers, when they couldn't figure things out. All this because he couldn't speak English and went to Crane Tech, instead of a typical liberal arts high school.

I've heard his stories a thousand times. Ordinarily on a visit like this, my father would have regaled my son with one or two of them. But today he's working on the water. The bathroom sink has a drip.

My father built his house in the burbs, designed it. He drew up the blueprints, and served as contractor on the job, chief architect, chief engineer. He built my grandparents' house, too. When he bought land, he made sure it was on the high ground. So we never flooded. Other people did, we didn't.

These are things engineers think about.

Anyway, Little One and I are in on a water crisis. Dad can't turn off the water in the bathroom, the valves and the pipes are too tight. He has to go into the basement to turn off the main valve and his heart's not so good and my mother has arthritis. You can see where this is going. He's out of breath but he's not giving in.

We offer to help, so he takes Little One downstairs and they turn off the water. Turn on the water. Turn off the water. All because there's a drip in the bathroom and the valve under the sink is stuck and he can't take things apart while the water's running, and when it's not, the hardware doesn't cooperate.

The drip is driving my parents crazy. I think I posted about bathroom drips on the My Cousin Vinnie review. The movie has a good scene, a good example of healthy marital conflict. You have to see that movie just for the drip scene alone.

At some point Dad has to sit down and catch his breath. We're sitting around the kitchen table picking at cashews and almonds, and I suggest my plumber. Dad is predictably miffed. You use your plumber.

Foot out of mouth. He settles down, tells a few stories. The two men discuss cosigns and me and mom gossip a little.

We get ready to go and Dad says, "Leave me the name of that plumber." I find Paul under Plumber in my contact list and jot the number down for him.

"FD could help you, too," I offer.

"He's got no time for this. I can do it myself."

"Okay."

But that valve, I guarantee, is 58 years old if it's a day. So maybe he'll have to call the plumber, I'm thinking. We take off. Little One has to go to a barbecue. Life goes on.

Monday evening I call the house. Dad answers. He's really cheerful.

"Is the water fixed?" I ask.

"Huh?"

"The water. The drip. Is it fixed?"

"Oh yes!"

"What did you do, take the faucet apart and put it back together again?"

"Exactly. I had to make a part, so that's what I did. That faucet was old. They don't make them anymore, you know. So I had to improvise. I went down to the basement, found a bigger part and threaded it and it works just fine now. Good as new."

"You're amazing." And with that, my chin hits a button and we're disconnected.

Mom calls me back. This is a long conversation for me and Dad. We don't want to push it.

"So you have water again and he fixed it! That's great," I exclaim.

"Yes," she says proudly. "He should have called a plumber, but you know him. He has to do everything himself. Your father sat at the table, exhausted, with his head in his hands. He'd been working on this all day, and he was so tired. He said, 'I can't do it.' I've never seen him give up on anything. I felt so bad for him.

"And then he brightened up and said, 'Do you have any string?' And I said 'No, but I have thread,' and he said, 'Lemme' see.'

"So he took the thread and played around with something in the basement, came upstairs and fixed it. Quite a guy, your father. Of course, I had to be there all day to support him, you know, couldn't just walk away*. And I couldn't do anything without water. It was terrible."

Now ordinarily, I would say that he's off his rocker, my father, that he could have had a heart attack (G-d forbid) and had no business working on a plumbing job at 87, almost 88 years old.

But I see the value in this, don't you? There's real value to proving you've still got it, you can still do it, even if it's painful.

For some people, the No pain, No gain thing is a life force, something that just won't quit. The drive in the person is the person, and it won't quit.

So why in the world, I ask myself, would I?

copyright 2008, therapydoc

*This is what I call holding the flashlight.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Art of Validation

I think you know that a couples therapist generally directs the traffic.

I'll say, "Talk about this." Or "Yes, go there; talk to her about that."

So people will be talking and I'll be listening and thinking, wondering where it will all go, and inevitably I'll hear one of the partners reflexively shoot back those fighting words:

"Yes, but. . "

This is a call to pandemonium, although it can start out quietly. Yes, but. . . generally means the listening is over, the race to communicate has begun.

I'll have to interrupt and exclaim, "No, foul! Don't do this! No Yes, buts. These are dysfunctional. Yes buts. . . are dysfunctional."

Nobody wants that, to add to the dysfunction, so couples listen up to hear the following lecture.

Lecture #379, THE ART OF VALIDATION or WHY YOU SHOULD USE ALL OF YOUR EMOTIONAL ENERGY TO HARNESS YOUR WORDS AND NEVER SAY, 'YES BUT'

Saying Yes, but. . . invalidates the other person. It's as if the listener hasn't heard the speaker, yet disagrees anyway. Validating, by contrast, is the process of saying, I hear you, this is what you said, . . .I get it.

After that, it's okay to disagree.

But by jumping to Yes, but one doesn't prove he or she has really heard anything. And people want to be heard.

And worse, there's absolutely nothing in the Yes of Yes, but, that says to the speaker that the listener is even interested in the speaker's thoughts.

The word yes all by itself is like, Uh, huh. It's a nod. If the nod is immediately followed a dismissive personal monologue, or worse, a defense, then rather than feeling validated, the speaker thinks the "listener" has been working up that defense while feigning listening.

To make a person feel heard, to validate someone, you need more than a Yes, but and your spin on the subject.

It would be different if all you're talking about is food. A person asks, "Would you like garlic bread?" and the other responds, Yes, but only one piece. This communicates a desire for garlic bread, one piece. Nice, clear communication. In this case, Yes is Yes, I want some garlic bread. Crisp.

But when someone's trying to communicate about something less tangible, perhaps a feeling or a problem, it's not going to fly if the listener lobs a Yes, but.. which sounds a lot like a So what.

It's as if the listener would like to say, My feelings are the ones that matter here. Listen to me if you don't mind, listen to me now that you've finally stopped talking. I thought you never would.

Nice.

That now familiar phrase, It's not about you, comes directly from communication theory. Communication and family therapists have been saying this gently for over fifty years, It's not about you, dear, to couples in relationship therapies.

This whole area of communications theory, validating people's feelings and words, is really about seeing the meta-messages, the messages about messages. If I don't validate, then I don't give the message that I've really heard, I haven't taken in what you've said. And healthy relationships, believe it or not, really are about give and take.

The fun is really in the giving for mature adults. Both give, both get; parochial school fund raising without the glitter. But we're not talking about money, here, we're talking about intangibles like service, smiles, time, love.

When it comes to communication, when a person speaks, he's giving his thoughts. A partner listens, takes them in. If the listener doesn't take well, the giver is deprived of the giving, which is an insult, a returned gift. Unopened.

So taking well is the key role in communication, once your partner has found the courage to communicate something important to you. Once that happens, everything hinges on the taking. This is why therapists always push couples to validate what one another says, to communicate reception.

Validating what you hear is the thank you note of communication. It's an art, but an easy one. The art is in the expression, how you look at the other while talking; how you look when you talk. It's in the eyes, the mouth.

You don't have to agree at all with what someone is saying to do this, validate well.

Last week FD and I saw the new Indiana Jones movie. (WARNING, MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS) We shared our feelings about it. He said he liked it.
"You liked it?"

"Uh, huh. Did you?" He's curious.

"Too many bugs."

"I know. But I kind of liked them." He looked at me like, You forgive me for that, don't you, for kind of liking the bugs?

I pause, raise an eyebrow. "The snake didn't scare me," I say as a peace offering, a joining statement.

"That was a fine snake. Excellent use of the Harry Potter theme."

"It was. I felt it helped me get over the first Indiana Jones movie, not being afraid of the snake. And I really liked the ET theme."

"You liked that? I thought it a little too corny."
See? Not a single Yes, but. . .

But it doesn't really illustrate the art of validation very well. Recreational intimacy generally doesn't require all that much validation.

Validation is important, indeed crucial, when people are sharing their innermost thoughts about things that matter to them.

A person shares something meaningful, a fear or a sadness, perhaps. If the listener indicates, with either body language, words, or both, that he or she really appreciates what's been said, then there's an immediate sense of connectedness, closeness. Good vibes. It feels like applause, such respect for the other person.

Without this, people sometimes look for intimacy outside of their primary relationships. And it's not always a good thing. We want to be taken seriously. We want what we say to "take." And we like applause.

Validation is, Thanks for sharing; thanks for your opinion. You're saying. .

The words are repeated back, word for word if possible.

So what you're saying is. . .

I believe what you mean is . . .

And you throw in a healthy serving of empathy, the real gift. I can see why you'd say that. I see where you're coming from. You must feel . . .(horrible, happy, scared, etc.)

Your partner matters. You've said, "You're smart, thoughtful, deep."

Lecture's over.

Now. Repeat all that back to me.

copyright 2008, therapydoc

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Single Jewish Female Seeks. . .

Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match
Find me a find,
Catch me a catch
Matchmaker, matchmaker, look through your book
And make me a perfect match.

For Papa, make him a scholar,
For Mama, make him rich as a king,
For me, well, I wouldn't hollar
If he was as handsome as anything!

Lyrics are from the Broadway show, the movie, Fiddler on the Roof.

I have a friend who is a matchmaker for Orthodox Jewish singles. It’s not an easy job. She says there is a shortage of available men in the Orthodox Jewish singles world. The men marry late, take their time to get ready for marriage, and when they do finally get around to it, it's a "buyer's market" and they marry younger women, women barely out of their teens.

Meanwhile, those in their mid-twenties or older are passed by, as yet another cohort of still younger women becomes available every year, and the cycle continues.*

They're having a hard time finding their perfect match and it gets exponentially harder after the age of 23. This is a cause for alarm for some, and I am not exaggerating, not today. Ours is a serious culture. We don't play around in relationships. Men and women date as if they're looking for a spouse, not just a lover, because indeed, that's what they're looking for.

They have time to figure out the "loving" part (sex). They figure they'll stay married for a good fifty, sixty, seventy years. They can figure it out.

In the Orthodox world, it's marry first. Then jump into bed. I know, sounds bizarre. But wonderfully different, wonderfully bizarre. They're my people. I make no excuses. No, it's not 100%. Not every Orthodox young adult waits for marriage to have sex. We even hear of an occasional lovechild, now and then.

But for the most part, dating really is a job interview, exactly as Tamar Snyder reminds us in Friday's Wall Street Journal (see House of Worship, Weekend section, Single Jewish Female Seeks Stress Relief). Most Orthodox kids don't even touch one another before marriage, and we have rules about touching after marriage, too. Do people break rules? Sure. But they do it quietly. Usually. If at all.

Ms. Snyder is concerned, like my friend the matchmaker, that the system isn't working. There aren't enough men to go around. Those who are around are very picky. Women in their mid-twenties have to be anorexic or wait for a miracle to get the right guy to take an interest in them.

And many men, my son tells me, aren't terribly skilled socially, having waited for late adolescence or young adulthood to begin to date. So it isn't easy for them, either.

The relationship therapists and sociologists in New York are trying to resolve the problem, but are getting nowhere fast. Your average twenty-something single Jewish woman goes to a matchmaker, but the shadchan is fresh out of matches. The younger girls get first choice and are engaged at nineteen, married at twenty, sometimes to the first man to take them to the Hilton lobby for a Coke.

You might say, Why are people still using matchmakers? Isn’t this a little silly?

Well, no, not really. It seems to work for some people. Some people get exactly what they're looking for. They know everything there is to know about their catch ahead of time, or their parents at least try to find out everything there is to know. And they're happy.

So when it works, it works. And in my opinion, when it works, it works not because a couple is head over heals in love with one another, or madly sexually attracted to one another, although they can be; it works because they are sure that they are compatible, that they will meet one another's needs, that they will be good to one another and raise a family, should they merit one.

It's when there isn't a match, when there's a blueprint that's simply unavailable, when aren't any matches around, no pairs of pants or proper lengths of skirt, that the system finds a bottleneck of beautiful, available women who are ready to get going on a family, but can't.

Too many single dancers at weddings with tears in their eyes. When is it my turn?

Sometimes it doesn't work because the match itself doesn't work. Ms. Snyder seems to indicate that many of the "perfect" matches don’t take. It used to be that they did take, most of them, that people got married and stayed married in the Orthodox Jewish world. But now divorce statistics are on the rise in this community, according to best guesstimates.

Nobody's really measured this, however. The guessers are guessing out of their hats. Where I live in and work, one of the larger Orthodox communities in this country, this isn't happening. I don’t see it, this higher divorce rate.

I do see rushed engagements and I see more broken engagements, and sure, some divorce.

But so what? We believe that the book of divorce (Gittin) was written before the book on marriage (Kiddushin). The Old Mighty created the solution before the problem, the cure before the disease.

You already know that I think pre-marital therapy should be a prerequisite to commitment. People who don't even date before they're 18 probably should get pre-pre-marital therapy to get some insight into their own relationship style and how their personalities will play out in future relationships. I guess I would prefer that solution to divorce.

To many of you, it must seem that people who don't even officially date until they are almost adults are from the Mesozoic Age, dinosaurs. How in the world do they occupy their time? They don't call us The People of The Book for nothing. The Orthodox world is one of learning and good deeds. People are busy.

And yet, we shouldn't generalize too far, assume that all Orthodox Jews don't date during adolescence, don't touch, that they don't flirt at pizza parlors or go to movies or bowling alleys, that they don't drink or smoke pot, for that matter. As in every human behavioral phenomena known to man and woman-kind, there's much variation.

Yet there's little variation in this shidduch (matchmaking) world. This problem of demographics is something of a trend. The matchmakers complains about it, the journalists and sociologists are on top of it. It would be nice if someone would go to the source. Get data from the matchmakers. Study the whole population of matchmakers. How many could there be?

Anyway, if the New York relationship docs and sociologists can't think of a solution to the problem, it's certainly a real chutzpah for me to offer one.

But consider the following.

Orthodox Jewish women are a minority of a minority. Only two percent of the American population is Jewish.** That's all. Of the two percent, approximately 10% are Orthodox, six hundred thousand. So maybe sixty thousand are Orthodox Jewish women in their twenties, and perhaps half of these are looking for men, most of whom are already taken. I guess

Assuming that the Orthodox do not want to marry interracially, that they prefer to continue their traditions, that which makes them different, I propose that they they open themselves up to dating Jewish people who are not Orthodox. There are no laws against this.

The objections are predictable. Young women who have spent their entire lives in parochial schools, who have learned the intricacies of Jewish law, the Bible and the Holy writings, who are well-versed in the thoughts of the giants of Jewish philosophy, who have deeply immersed themselves in their culture prior to beginning secular professional or para-professional education, will not want to spend their married lives with someone who breaks the laws they hold sacrosanct. It couldn't work.

But...

Some might be interested in a certain catch, a certain find, an individual who is willing to join them, someone who has never had, but might want that rich, protected, colorful, meaningful lifestyle of the Orthodox. This someone would like the texture, the special clothes, the sounds, the special words, the feel, the emotional pull of an ancient, yet ageless culture, a community so concerned for the continuity of their heritage that it values, still, the services of a matchmaker.

The ad could read like this:

Single Jewish female seeks to marry single Jewish man who

is ready to settle down with one woman, just one;

who wishes to learn about and possibly practice Judaism as his great-grandparents probably did;

who will respect his partner's need to practice her religion as she wishes;

who will not insist upon touching her before the wedding, except with his gaze, unless she agrees to this;

who will not bring non-kosher food into their home and is willing to ease into not eating food that is forbidden;

who is interested in prayer because he believes in the Old Mighty and wants to confide in Him/Her, perhaps more often than on a need to know basis.
Perhaps this is already happening on singles websites, this blending of the lines, the lowering of the curtains. Being Orthodox has special commitments to observance that the rest of the Jewish world might consider obsolete, and yet, so tempting.

A couple could date and then decide how they will observe the laws of family purity (our rules on sex), the Sabbath, the laws of kashrut (keeping a kosher home) and how they will continue to educate themselves and their children.

They could discuss all of the rules of the religion on dates. And they could talk about other things, too, like what they like in one another, what they're looking for in a partner, what they have to offer one another. Or politics.

Perhaps given a little education, a pleasant introduction, the less observant might want to marry the more observant, might want to choose this life, this Orthodoxy that seems to please some, stress others, but has, for so many years, ensured the continuity of a people.

It makes little sense for women who are having trouble finding a match, to categorically exclude the rest of the men in their tribe from an already markedly short list of men.

There's no commitment in dating, and this is the first place to talk about one's self, one's ideas, ambitions for the future, children, etc. They would have to agree, would want to agree on certain rules, for sure, before marriage, the stuff of future arguments, perhaps. But arguments for the sake of Heaven, right?

It could be that people might find they have more in common with one another than they think.

I don't know. Maybe it's crazy talk. But I would think that a population such as this, people who want exclusive partners, who have never had a partner before, who want to carry on traditions and raise families, should be considered prizes. They have so much to teach, and their partners, so different than themselves, would have much to teach them, as well.

Crazy, I know.

They tell me I live in Disneyland.

Here's a scene from Fiddler.


therapydoc

*My son, upon reading a draft of this post remarked, "Not all of young men have it so easy, not at all." But it is the women who lament the loudest.
**Oh, and you thought Jews are everywhere. This is what it means to be a minority. If you took a random sample of Americans, it is statistically improbable that you would find a Jew in your sample (p< .05).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Golf

We took a drive out to see the family in the 'burbs last Sunday, and had hardly hit the watermelon when my nephew came home very tired and sweaty from his golf game. Kids in their twenties look gorgeous even when they're tired and sweaty.

I'd been having a bad back week, nagging 3 Advil aggravation, so I asked him if he had any spare clubs. Hitting golf balls is a nice way for me to stretch out, work through the muscle strain, an occupational hazard when you sit in an office for hours on end. But I don't have a set of golf clubs.

Which is silly, really, because there's a driving range all of a mile away from my house, and my father and my father-in-law (OBS) each took turns teaching me how to swing a club when I was young and showed some promise. It's one of those things you either take a liking to or you don't, but since it took in my case, this hankering to hit the ball, for their sakes I feel, I should be hitting golf balls every so often.

So I asked my nephew if he had an extra six or a seven iron collecting dust in the garage. I thought I'd give it a try, take a walk over to the driving range later that day, spend five bucks and hit a bucket of balls. Stretch out.

But there are no buckets anymore. Crazy. You buy a card and stick it into a machine and the golf ball rises on cue from the Astro-turf, complete with tee. You lose the stretch you get bending down, putting the ball on the tee. That's 48 bends a bucket, I mean card, lost.

Bored yet?

Do you think it's a boring game?

Honest, I wouldn't know, having never played, never made it past the golfing range, unless you consider Par King (the one with the windmill) golf. But I do see that there can be some real psychological benefits to the sport.

Obviously, to play golf you basically stroll around on parkways, probably whistling. Not all of us, not those who can't whistle, and certainly not people like me, who never made it past the driving range to a genuine golf course, but real golfers.

Wait! Since I don't really play, maybe I can't really write about the benefits of the game! The best I can do is tell you how it feels to hit a golf ball, put that baby up there in flight, watch as it soars 150 feet, or is it yards, except for those times that you don't, when it dribbles three feet onto the Astro-turf in front of you, and you're embarrassed and have to make a decision, one that you make when no one is looking:

Is retrieving a ball you can reach cheating? Stealing?

The therapy:

I used to tell people that anger management is about two things.

(1) muttering, as opposed to yelling, and
(2) breaking stuff at the recycling center.

Muttering is obvious. The energy that would go into swearing or saying something less than kasher,* is still channeled to the lips, but the product is almost inaudible. A person can still use the same facial expressions and words, even, but no one should actually decipher what he's saying. This can still infuriate a partner, however, so it doesn't always work, in which case Think it, don't say it, is the rule, and rethink that, own some of the problem.

Recycling is one of the lesser known interventions in anger management. Ever since the city of Chicago took over the recycling business with blue bags for our cans, bottles and WSJ's (Wall Street Journals) fewer people have had the inclination to smash wine and beer bottles at recycling centers. Recycling centers still reign, however, in the suburbs, featuring imposing iron bins for paper, glass, and aluminum recyclables. There used to be a good one in Evanston.

You can either drop your recyclables into the bins or you can hurl them. No one cares if you hurl an empty bottle of wine or a mayonnaise bottle with all of your might, as long as you hit the inside of the bin safely.

So hey. It's good for the environment. We're into green.

In the sixties we used Styrofoam bats for anger, which by the way, are not recyclable. People with anger issues were assigned sword fights, Styrofoam bats and swords for duels, or they smashed pillows to get their anger out.

As you know, I recommend that people keep their toxic anger to themselves, keep it in, or express it creatively, perhaps nicely, safely or not at all. Bats, even Styrofoam bats, are out. Smash your pillow if you must, but the actual physical enactment of rage probably needs to be toned down, not jacked up.

But recycling! Who can object to recycling?

Still. Maybe learning to think before we talk is a better way to channel anger, listening to words in our heads before saying them aloud. Or better, write them down. Write the letter, don't send it, then write it again. And don't send it.

The expression of anger tends to get people hurt, which is why we've recommended assertiveness all over this blog. You don't need to disrespect people. There's enough bad karma in the world. The family is there to support us, not to bring us down. If you feel like flexing verbal muscle, buy a dictionary. Get better words.

Theoretically, that other way to channel anger isn't so bad. Battling it out in Styrofoam, hurling wine bottles into a recycling bin, even, might I suggest, hitting a few golf balls, can be a fun way to displace, rather, discharge negative emotion. And it's good for the back, hitting golf balls. Or it's bad for the back, depending upon your back. I guess if you're lousy at golf, however, and get frustrated easily, then hitting golf balls defeats the purpose.

We see little children discharge their feelings during play, and what are we, if not big children? Little kids will smash crayons onto their coloring books when they're frustrated, usually for attention. They'll break the whole box. They don't care.

I tell parents that it's good to get kids to talk about their feelings, but it's just as important to teach them to channel arousal, to teach them to run, and skip. Jump. I think it tires them out, too, like hitting a bucket of balls, I mean a card, tires me out.

It's good to mentor kids, to teach them to distract from their negative feelings with gross and fine motor skills, especially if the skills require a little concentration. Bozo's Grand Prize Game is a good one on a rainy day, and it's cheap. The kid tosses ping pong balls into buckets. We used to pitch pennies, try to hit the sidewalk cracks when we were kids. There were fewer shows on television. As soon as kids are engrossed in these types of activities, they forget about smashing crayons.

Their parents can talk to them about their feelings at bedtime. The first order of business for children at any age is to learn to play well, to be a good sport. For most of us it takes practice to get good at anything, and patience.

But if you don't care about winning, really, if all you're after is hitting that sweet spot ten times out of forty-eight (is that so much to ask?) and you like practicing, then you're still in trouble.

You're going to have to drive out to the suburbs to borrow more clubs.

therapydoc

*kosher or kasher can mean clean in certain contexts, or appropriate.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

That Catastrophic Expectation: Cut-offs

If you don't remember what this is, I'll remind you. Sometimes there's something that's driving your anxiety, turning the motor unconsciously or consciously. It's whirring around in your head, that worst possible outcome, the catastrophic expectation.

If it concerns the outcome of a relationship, it can be the elephant in the room, the thing you don't talk about. One of the elephants. Most of us have a few elephants to feed daily. There have to be elephants if we tread carefully with people. There are many things we don't talk about to avoid conflict or because we fear rejection or intimacy.

I like them. They're cute, they take up very little real space in the living room, and although they do threaten to step on our heads if we wake them up, we usually let them sleep. When they wake up we deal with them. We have to.

If you're a mother-in-law it's very obvious what your catastrophic expectation might be. Try rejection, abandonment. There's a fear that your in-law child will take your son, your daughter away.

Kidnapping.

A therapydoc like me sees it happen. We see situations where one side of the family can suck in an adult child and his or her spouse, sometimes infantilize them, own them, buy them monetarily or emotionally, or worse, poison them against the other side. One family of origin can be perceived as truly toxic and dangerous to the other, and sometimes it is. You have to protect your kid. This is the rationalization.

On the other hand. You don't kidnap. It's a huge crime.

We family therapists have a rule. Avoid cut-offs. We keep relationship doors open, try not to let them close. Surely it's inevitable in certain cases, that the doors close. The courts rule this way only after a small army of experts have determined that this is in the best interest of the child.

This only happens rarely, permanent door shutting, if family therapists are given the time, and it can take years, sorry, to work the magic. But even then sometimes the door is shut, and next come the accusations, parental alienation for one, and all kinds of threats. It can be scary.

More often, family therapists hear about doors that are open too widely. Too many people have keys to the house and they don't always call before they come to visit. It can be a little weird, sometimes, seeing a mother-in-law or even your mother at your table having coffee if you didn't know she was coming. This happens.

Sometimes you don't want to look out the window to see Dad mowing the lawn.

When the doors are closed, locked or triple locked, family therapists try their best to make sure parents and grandparents still meet with their children and grandchildren, still get together to talk about things, to see one another, often at a neutral place, like a park or a StarBucks. This is very hard on families, when it gets to this. But it can be done. It's a process, healing, and takes time.

Therapists know that sometimes children do need a little mental break from parents, a little time off. This is hardest on the parents who feel left, vacated. It's hard to feel a child's need for space. It's hard not to take it as rejection. What is it, if not rejection?

Ah, time for healing, working at relationship repair. Surgery time. Hopefully the therapist is working at both ends, or consulting with someone on the other end.

If someone like me is a part of this sort of intervention, and it's rare, believe me, there's a letter or a call from the child to the parent, even a meeting if possible, that explains the situation, a discussion that isn't blaming, one that says,
Think of this as me needing to run away, needing to be on the North Pole for a little while, in a cell-free zone. It's temporary.
The goal is, We'll all be in touch soon. You won't lose your children. Your grandchildren will know you.

Sometimes the logistics are negotiated in the process. The child puts it in writing. You'll hear from me. I'll call you on Sundays, around three.

These are extreme situations, at least they are in my practice. The more common situation is that in-laws are psychologically healthy; they're not drug addicts, they're not in prison; they're not sociopaths and they are careful in life, about what they do and what they say. Or they think that they are. We have to work with or around them in any case.

Parents don't want to be rejected by their kids. They know that their young marrieds are hard at work at acquiescing to one another, pleasing one another, accommodating, keeping the peace, or at least they hope so.

In-laws know that in the quest for a peaceful, happy marriage, that they themselves might be the card that's tossed back into the deck if they say or do the wrong thing. That's the catastrophic expectation.

The story:

I let my guard down.

My daughter-in-law is here visiting with my son and their little one. And it's hot outside, really hot. And the Rac isn't feeling all that great and she's uncomfortable, never really wanted to go downtown in the heat, which is where we are. We're in the underground garage, wondering how to get to Millenium Park and how, once we're there, we'll meet up with the others

I'm stressed because I know Rac isn't feeling well and I just want to get to where we can sit down. We find our way up to the sunlight. The heat is disorienting. Rac makes a suggestion, "Isn't the fountain this way?" And because I'm not thinking, somehow, I say You don't know what you're talking about.

This stings her, but she doesn't say anything. I'm thinking I was inconsiderate, that it was the wrong thing to say, but by now someone is talking to me, giving me directions, and it's so hot and I forget that I insulted her.

Until. The next day, the next faux pas, something else I say upsets her. She's upset there's no runner on the stairs and I say, "I'll get to it. It's not so simple, getting a runner for the stairs." But my tone is a little sharp. She doesn't let the second slip go.

She looks me in the eye. "I have to talk to you about something."

This is never a good thing. When she confronts me, it's me she's going to discuss, our relationship and and I'm really worried about the confrontation.

I think, This is it. She'll never visit me again. She hates me. She needs space. She's going home to her family in another city and she's taking my son and granddaughter with her, the one who now loves it when Bubbie shings, who wakes up and says, Where's Bubbie? She"s the one who tells me, doesn't ask, insists when I talk about how she's getting back on that airplane, You come, too, you come on the aiwpwane.

So Rac and I sit down on the sofa, put up our feet. My son has taken his granddaughter outside to play. The house is silent.

"So what's up?" I ask.

And she tells me. I'm mortified, of course. I remember saying it, You don't know what you're talking about. I give over my rationalizations, apologize sincerely. I do totally respect her, especially how smart she is, how talented, what an amazing mother she is (and patient spouse). I never meant to hurt her feelings or snap at her, so I say all or maybe most of this. I had thought she meant Buckingham Fountain, which is way out of the way, and I always referred to the Millenium Park fountain as the waterfall why, I don't know. I didn't want her to walk a single step farther than she had to so . . .

And as I'm talking and she's responding, I begin to lose it, and tears are welling up as they tend to do under stress and she doesn't understand what the big deal is, really, because this is nothing to cry about. She just doesn't want me speaking sharply to her, which, by the way, isn't my habit to begin with, but we generally don't see ourselves honestly, right, and what if it happens again? We all have to watch what we say, can't ever be too careful, really, and blast that heat, anyway.

No big deal, Mom, just thought you should know. I didn't want to resent you for it, hold it in, and all.

Assertive. Not aggressive. We're good. Why are you upset, therapydoc?

And I tell her about the catastrophic expectation, but I first tell her that I know, I know in my heart she would never do this, reject me this way. I tell her I know this because I think she'll be insulted just hearing I'm thinking this because she's never given me reason to think this way, never, ever intimated such a thing. It's totally in my head.

But Hey, Sweetie, you have to live in my world, hear the things I hear, see the things I see, to really see why I think like I do.

And in that moment, in that confession of the fear, it dissipates, the abandonment anxiety. It dissipates just a little, but enough.

Today, I'm pretty sure, while her Mommy chills with a good novel, we're going to be building some castles in the sandbox that FD made for her, just for her, with new sand and real cups from the kitchen, and sure, the ubiquitous plastic sand toys you buy at Target.

They're here for one week, friends. Be patient with me if I don't return your calls.

therapydoc