Sunday, October 31, 2010

Joel Pollak and Political Signs

Here’s how a politically glazed-over, non-political, tea-party-vulnerable blogger pitches a political candidate

On Wednesday afternoon I get an urgent call at the office from a friend, an invitation to Saturday lunch. Shabbas lunches tend to be festive affairs, meaning we all dress up and the food is great, but I'm routinely declining invitations this year because of availus (rhymes with duh-pay-loose, Hebrish for availut; Hebrish being a cross between Hebrew and Yiddish words.  If you're just be tuning in, try not to worry about it).

Technically, being in availus means mourning the loss of a parent for a full calendar year, avoiding parties and new clothes, good times in general. We don't need to discuss the  emotionality, psychological, financial or anything other than the technicality of availus right now, or if I need therapy for such a condition.

Anyway, I ask my friend if she's having other couples over because technically, according to Jewish law, FD and I could go to this luncheon if we're the only other couple in attendance.

But alas, there are two other couples invited. We know one of these couples well, but the other is new to us, and there's something unique about them.  The he,  Joel Pollak, is running for the United States Congress, and the she, the lovely Julie Pollak, is running, too, in a sense, for they are both out there, in that totally non-socially-phobic, confident, supremely intelligent way that tells us they themselves support their place in the universe, their agenda.  They're on speaking tours, kissing babies, charming all of the 9th District with romantic unaffected South African accents.

I have to ask the Rabbi, I tell my friend. This is the kind of thing that requires a little guidance, going or not going, even if it is an exceptional thing, having lunch with a political candidate and his bride, married only ten months.  You learn these things at lunch, and how he proposed, if you ask.

Because generally I feel very removed from politics (mostly out of sheer laziness, not so much hopelessness), and because eeny meeny, miny, moe is the way a person like me sometimes chooses a candidate in the voting booth, I call the Rabbi right away.  I want to go.  Maybe it is time for better decision-making therapy in the booth, time to become more involved in the cosmos.

The Rabbi is out of town, of course, which could be a good thing, or a bad thing.  But my friend, wants to know by evening if we're coming.  Who could blame her! If we turn her down, surely someone else will take our place.  This, too, is a rule of therapy.  If it isn't you, it will be someone else; might as well be you.*

I tell her, We'll be there.  When I get a call back from our spiritual leader another question will surely come to mind, perhaps something along the lines of a new winter coat.  Having worn out my old one last winter, tore the lining, it is not shayich (rhymes with my-lich, hard ch, meaning: becoming, or appropriate), this coat, for a person that others pay for advice.

I'm a little nervous because I haven't been out socially in quite awhile, and the last time we did go out, supposedly a simple Friday night dinner, others joined unexpectedly.  The hosts couldn't exactly throw them out, and it just felt wrong. When you're used to following rules, breaking them kicks at your cognitive sets, messes with your head, and it's not good.

But maybe it was too early, too soon, that dinner, too soon emotionally in the calendar.  Accepting this time, months later feels weird, too, even under these exciting circumstances, so I warn FD that an emergency escape might be imminent, that someone might suddenly remember leaving something on the stove.  He furrows his brow, tells me unconditionally, in a tone he rarely takes, "You can't do that."

There's a psychological rule that if you dread something, expect that it will be annoying, upsetting, etc.,  it is likely that it won't be nearly as bad as you expect it to be.**  In fact it's best to dread things. Dread away! Better to dread, for the more you dread, the less you'll regret it in the end, not having dreaded a possibly dreadful situation. But if it is fairly well-dreaded, the situation, it is unlikely that it will be dreadful at all.And you will laugh at it if it is, for you have predicted it.

The rule is that if you expect less, you will get more.  It is the Satisfaction Quotient taught to medical students at Loyola University Medical School; the credit goes to Domeena Renshaw, MD (psychiatry).  Divide Achievement (A) by Expectation (E) to get Satisfaction (S).  The theory goes you'll be satisfied with any result over the number 1.0, but less than--you're in therapy.

Take spelling tests.  A person correctly spells (A) five out of ten words.  But he expects (E) to get many more than five, perhaps expects to get a ten.  The quotient, Achievement over Expectation, 5/10, one-half, does not cut it, is not above 1.0.

How could anyone be satisfied with only a half?  And it isn't his fault!  Except that this person's expectations were too high.  Better to keep them low.  Expect to get a two on the spelling test (E = 2); that way anything over a two, say even something lame like a five, is golden.  The quotient, 5/2 or 2.5, is higher than 1.0, the not so loneliest number.

Lunch, of course, was fabulous. My friend is up there with Julia Child, although she complains vociferously, indeed grieves that the pumpkin muffins stick to the muffin paper, and she has forgotten the nutmeg. She serves beautifully, we eat and drink, and you know how it goes, talk of many things, including politics.

Joel Pollack, the candidate, can't help but be political, but he is theoretical and philosophical, too, applies the concept of limits to something we're talking about.  He's very into this concept of limits, something that therapists are forever waxing on and on about. After much deferring in the conversation, I can't help but advise him.
"Joel. Use the word boundaries, not limits. Seriously, everyone loves this word now. I'm sure Oprah has done five hundred shows about boundaries."

He listens! He gets it right away!  You see the light bulb.  He is a natural, and if you read more about this guy, you wish that they, the other politicians, all had his personal attention to scientific detail (I quiz him about recycling, natch), his education (Harvard), his energy, integrity, good sense, interest in others.

So lunch was great, and I learned that I should probably get more involved in these matters, politics, blog less and listen to the candidates more, especially if they are bright and promising like Joel Pollack.  Probably many of them are bright and promising, although it is unlikely many bring a copy of the Constitution with them on the circuit, but they should.  This candidate does.

And for the first time in my life, it is happening, no promises,  I am getting a sign for the front yard supporting a candidate.  It had to happen sometime.


*This is a statement dependent upon context, of course.  If someone is passing you a joint, for example, it might as well not be you.

**Just because a person wants to do something, go somewhere, doesn't mean there won't be a layer of dread.  This is one of the many double binds,  paradoxes of the human condition.

Friday, October 29, 2010


Simple and inviting, if not particularly elegant, n'est pas?

FD and I have a few friends, what you might call a little micro-system, a social group in social science language. The guys meet once a week, the women like each other, and when one of our kids gets married, everyone chips in and helps out. Tonight someone drops off paper goods for a dinner party to be given in my home for a couple of newlyweds.

The guy at the doorstep is shlepping in the soda, showing off the paper goods.  His spouse is out of town so he's doing the shopping, or she certainly would.  We have roles in this particular club.

I glance at the offerings, raise an eyebrow, but don't say anything, smile, thank him.  I'm thinking,  There are no dinner plates. But hey!  Maybe I just didn't see them. They must be in the bottom of the bag.

But no. So as FD seasons chicken in the kitchen, a guy thing, he tells me, I'm setting the tables.  Finally unable to contain myself, I cry out:
"There's no way people can eat dinner on a lunch plate!"

FD doesn't quite get my meaning, but when I show him the eight-inchers, he reluctantly agrees. He shrugs me that je ne sais pas or Whatcha' gonna' do lookIt is 11 pm, there is no time to buy plates.  I'll be leaving on a jet plane, won't be at this party, have to get out of town.

"I'm using china," I tell him.  "Sorry to disappoint anyone.  If I were going to be here, there would have been no paper plates, no way.  Not here." 

He shouts from the kitchen. "Forget it! This is a party where we throw everything in the garbage at the end, wrap it up, throw it out.  No dishes.  Please."

I proceed to ignore him, to set the table with an assortment of nice plates, not our best stuff, but nice.  I use the plastic lunch plates our friend brought us as chargers for the soup.

Then I see the plastic cups. "We can't use these."

The cups are about six inches high and will tip with a glance or the first ounce of soda to hit off-center.

"We're going with glass," I tell him, "not crystal, but glass.  Wouldn't want to upset anyone."  Silence from the kitchen.

The napkins are fine, and they're recyclable. I love our friend's choice of napkins and there are enough to go around, which at first doesn't seem possible.  But they need reinforcement, seem lonely, so we add a second, this one white, tucked inside the first, for effect.

Now.  Do we use the Sam's Club plastic forks and knives? I have service for twenty-six, for sure, in silver-plate or even stainless. It doesn't all match, the silver-plate, but so what? At least when you cut your meat, the fork doesn't break.  The knife works as a knife, not a challenge.

He's asking Do we have any oregano?

I tell him to go outside and pick some fresh basil, he planted it.  I share the difficulty I am having with the plastic-ware.  Exasperated, he gives in.  "Whatever you want! You're the boss. I'm just going to tell them, it's your house."

I won't be around to empty the dishwasher, to sort the silverware, so it's one for the weak side.

"We're going with the plastic. To show respect. But everyone gets two forks, and we'll write a note, A third fork/knife is an option if you break either or both of these."

He smiles, tries to explain to me that most guys, at least the guys he knows, if they find themselves making a dinner party for a bride and groom, are going to be totally lost at table setting.

"You can't help it, dear. You're dudes."

FD does not know that I know this word. He laughs the laugh of surprised.  I respond to this.

"A dude can't be expected to buy stuff for a party and not get something wrong. It's how dudes are. They're just . . ." and I can't think of another word, want to say clueless, thick, but these don't apply at all to our friend who is sensitive, smart, with it. The shopper.   "You're just dudes, is all."

"When did you learn this word? Have you even seen the commercial?"  He speaks of a Pepsi commercial, and no, I have not seen it.

I reveal that years ago a patient insisted that his biggest problem was his dudeness. He needed me to take the guy in there, the male in his head, and cure the blindness, help him do/say the right things in relationships.

"And could you do that?"  FD is fascinated.

"Yes," I admit, a little embarrassed.

The only thing I forgot to tell him, I confess to FD later, is that you start . . . with the tablecloths.


P.S. The tablecloths were fine, truth be known, matched the napkins.  Who would have thought brown would be just right?  A dude, obviously.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Our Humanity

A typical Sunday morning, and I have burned the last piece of French toast, the one with that extra bit of yellow, not quite enough for another whole piece, but enough to make this one really good.

What do you do with a burnt piece of French toast? Do you just leave it there in the fry pan? Do you put it on the serving plate, charred side down, hoping no one will notice? Will anyone eat it? Can you throw it out?

You try the squish of egg, the one hanging off the crust, knowing it is burnt. And it tastes that way.  

Now what do you do? Logic dictates: Throw that piece out. But if you're a waste not, want not kind of person, like some of my green friends, then that's not so simple. You don’t just throw things away.

So you set the disgraced toast tenderly upon the platter with the others, perhaps burnt side up to show respect.

But there is another option, as there are in most things. A person could slide open the silverware drawer, select the sharpest knife, slice away the chaff and knuckle-ball it to the garbage. I choose this option, and predictably my brain rebels.
That wouldn’t have been thrown away in a concentration camp. And here you are, throwing it away.
You might suggest that this obsessing over toast is really about saving and recycling, brought on by my mother's impending move, having to move so many material things out of her house. In the eight months since my father’s death, she has lived alone. We, her children, are herding her into a new living facility, “independent living” it is called. My mother-in-law, still in her own apartment, calls what we are doing the warehousing of the elderly.

We think of it as hedging the odds, safety. And company.

Mother, too, fights the move for as long as she can, and summoning my father's ghost, digs in her heels. Ultimately, to get us off her back, she agrees. As the months of emptiness fill her hollow home, by time the house is sold, she is more than ready to go.

Nothing is easy, and the process demands some remodeling of my house, too, all for the best. I absorb some of her furniture as she down-sizes, and pack things away for garage sales, Ebay on a rainy day. At this point, both of our homes qualify as disaster zones. We need hard hats, seriously.

In the wreckage, my radio -- a two speaker mini-monolith -- is dissembled. It is hard to make breakfast with no one to talk to, so I wrestle with the wires until I hear Krista Tippet, NPR, crooning. She is interviewing a man who grew up fast in a concentration camp in French-Indochina, now Viet Nam.

Xavier Le Pichon* has become a famous geophysicist, the man who discovered plate tectonics, and that the frailties and flaws of the plates beneath the earth are essential elements in living geological systems. His writing is not just theory, but a world view. Frailties and flaws are essential to humanity, too. What makes us weak also holds the keys to our development, our psychological growth, our humanity.

I whisk cream into eggs, captivated.
“Our humanity is not an attribute that we have received once and forever with our conception,” Dr. Le Pichon explains, “rather it is a potentiality that we have to discover within us . . . progressively develop or destroy throughout confrontation with the different experiences of suffering that will meet us through our lives.”
As I set an embarrassingly charred griddle to the fire, Le Pichon waxes on about the plight of the elderly.
“The way to build a society is to integrate people in a way in which they interact,” he says. “Each of them can find out that each of them can have their place, that their life has a meaning; that they are needed by others. So often I found that older people have the impression that they are not useful, nobody needs them, and they opt to . . . go. They opt to go.”
He sighs. He is thinking that under severe mental and physical stress they can lose the motivation to go on living, do not see anything positive about frailty. It is depression he is talking about, the longing to die.

The conversation shifts to the economic down turn. Le Pichon isn’t impressed with the American struggle, the whining, perhaps, something we see as natural, even functional. He might agree that the verbal expression of our pain is good for us, but has another perspective.
“I was in a concentration camp and life was hard. All the babies were dying of hunger, but we were together. . . even under stress if you find a way to create a community that makes sense to your life, then it (your life) becomes extremely important.

My mother was a strong woman. When they would get the message from the Japanese governor of the camp, when he would let us know he planned to shoot most of the people the next day, my mother said, I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. But today you have to learn your lessons, so come.

Who could help but smile? She sounds like a Jewish mother. Maybe strong mothers are all like this. No excuses, not even genocide; what happens tomorrow is immaterial-- today a person should learn. My mother will like this story, my kids will, too.

We get together, me and Mom, as it happens, later in the day. I have picked her up for dinner; we’re ordering Chinese, something she loves. But I want to get to the recycling place before dark. We have collected four huge garbage bags of plastic, metal and paper, and the bags look terrible in my living room. My daughter-in-law, who has popped in to see what’s going on, is about to leave, but she volunteers to stay with Mom for awhile until I get back.

My mother glances over at me, commands her beloved granddaughter, “Go with her."

I make a face. “Why? She likes being with you.”

“It might be dangerous over there. I don’t want you going alone.”

“It’s in the parking lot of a city golf course, Mom. It’s fine. Nothing’s going to happen. Maybe I’ll get hit by a golf cart.”

She thinks awhile. “Okay. But be careful.”

The crazy thing is that after I leave the recycling place, slowly crossing a very busy intersection, I hear the horrible scream of peeling rubber, a horribly loud, pre-horrible about-to-crash sound that I have never heard so near, so loudly before. It is so very, very close to me that I think. . I’m going to die. I can’t believe this.

The screech goes on for probably fifteen interminable seconds. I will still hear it in my head, days later. And then, nothing.

I have pulled over somehow to the right hand lane, and a car of kids, gangbanger-looking kids, smoking, laughing, shoots past me. My heart consumes my attention, beating to get out of here, maybe move to another country, and I’m dizzy, stop to collect myself; determine not to tell anyone. After all. Nothing happened.

Then why do I feel so bad?

The irony is that I have been trying to convince my mother to give up driving. She won’t need a car where she’s going. The community agency takes residents wherever they want to go, even the suburbs, the malls, Old Orchard. I’m a whole five minutes away. But she wants to take her car with her. It is a symbol, something else we want to take away.

“I can drive,” she says. “I can drive.

“I know. But it’s such a hassle,” I say, not kidding. “And city traffic isn't suburban traffic. It is life-threatening, being on the road these days. There's a reason for those insurance premiums.”

“But I need my independence. I don't like the thought of relying upon you to drive me around."

And then she says it, "I don’t want to be a burden.” Which infuriates me.

“Burden!?” I blurt out. “You don’t want to be a burden? Let me tell you what’s a burden. Me worrying that something will happen to you, or to someone else, while you’re behind the wheel. Now that's a burden. Worrying that I’ll have to deal with your pain and suffering. Worrying about the financial stress of two or more lawsuits that I won’t have time for.

"And let’s not forget," I continue, voice rising, "people will whisper, behind closed doors, What was wrong with those people? Why didn’t they take away the keys? What were they waiting for?" The tirade ends.

She is silent.

This begs an evolutionary solution, a humane solution, one that determines our humanity. But it seems to me, to evolve, to be humane, we both have to stay alive.


Dr. Le Pichon

* You can get the download of the interview on American Public Media
On the website we learn that Xavier Le Pichon and his wife raised their children in communities of the disabled and mentally ill. He is professor emeritus at the Collège de France in Aix-en-Provence, resides at La Maison Thomas Philippe, a retreat for families struggling with mental illness.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

My Generation

For better or for worse, the new TV show, My Generation, is canceled.

As it turns out, this is a tremendous sociological coup for everyone, the cancellation of My Generation, a show marketed by ABC in such a way that a person of acute sensitivities and sensibilities did not need to see.

Watching the show was not on my to-do list, did not make it to Google Alert, did not even rate a  'don't forget to record this one' on a napkin, but someone told me it was already legend, had a huge following, which I guess, in the end, it did not.

A couple of weeks ago I took a walk and passed a bus stopped at a stop light.  And on that bus,  splashed across the entire length of the vehicle, drawing one's eye in such a way that nobody can look anywhere else but, is an advertisement that hypnotizes in the way that the Calvin Klein underwear ads once did, perhaps need not anymore. The riders, human faces of all sorts, excellent faces, staring at us or into Iphones only a foot above the ad, framed in cloudy but in the right light, decipherable glass, are insignificant. (This is a process statement for those of you who study process in your family therapy or psychology classes, laced with content for those who ventral process).

The enormous face on the ad, in a knowing pout, is a seductive brunette.  
You may have his hand, but I have his heart.
The caption is a glorification of the art of seduction, validation that partner-capture is okay, indeed it  is a competition, who knew, and may the best woman (sure, it has to be a woman, perhaps the networks first mistake) win.

Nobody could like this I'm thinking, knowing that that's not true..

But, you might think, if a person is in a good marriage, rests comfortably in a safe, secure, supportive relationship, the best of all possible s-words, and the r-word, why then, how can, a bimbo, threaten this? More to the point, why be sickened by a media event that explores relationships like this? Shouldn't someone draw attention to the fact that all marriages are vulnerable because people are human? 


There are marriages that are secure and solid, safe, the rubber bands so thick that the literal death of a mate does not affect the integrity of the relationship, not in the mind of the survivor. And then there are the rest.

It is the rest that we need to talk about, if only for awhile, and no, we're not going into everything, not even talking about abusive partners who cheat and brag about it, or mentally torture, or suffer huge character deficits (AA language) or as we way in the biz, personality disorders that will take forever to turn around.

When one partner opens the marriage, even covertly, with no intention of hurting the other, perhaps, for this is usually the case, but the other finds out, for the other inevitably will find out, there is permission, a big fat letter from an unapproachable court, no appeal,  a din, (Hebrew, rhymes with tin) a judgment, that this is something that we do in this relationship, we have sex with others. The seemingly irreparable crack is reparable, but the scar remains.

And when the extra-marital relationship has petered out, the other woman, the other man gone, the thrill, the glitter in abatement, the fissure might still fizz, crackle, and the jury is out, if either partner will now feel free to indulge in extra-marital relations, for this is only beginning, a new marital norm, and sometimes there's no stopping this boulder of a rolling stone.

You may have his hand, but I have his heart?! #


The Post Script:  The truth is that most marriages survive infidelity, with or without therapy, and some defined as open marriages seem to work out quite happily.  We're dying to hear more about these.  It is the subject of much hard work in marital therapy, repairing relationships that have cracked under the strain of too many intimates, and it only takes about a year for both partners to feel that the marriage is on the mend, barring those severe character defects mentioned above, and a lack of desire to change them.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

It's Not You, It's Your Bedbugs

It’s hard for me to relax, you know, sit and watch teev, read the newspapers. But Saturday mornings I catch up with many of these, newspapers, a week’s worth of WSJ, even if it’s just to scan the headlines. When you skim it all on a Saturday morning before shul (rhymes with bull, Yiddish for synagogue), you reduce the odds that whatever you read will upset you.  There's just not enough time.

Today, however, by the time FD and I catch up after our respective jaunts into the community, I'm still upset from what I have read, and greet the poor guy with
Did you read that incredibly insensitive piece in the Wall Street Journal about bedbug phobias?
He has not.

And it is likely that you have not either. It seems that my favorite newspaper is reaching to satisfy the populist psychological appetite, which is fine, the more the merrier; the reviews of academic findings can be captivating.  A new regular, Jonah Lehrer, for example, specializes in decision making, reminds us that if decision making is hard for you, it is because you are actually mature.  You see all kinds of alternatives, lots of gray.  Gray is something we like, the people of my cloth.  Lots of gray, lots of leeway, as much as we can live with.

And I like that he recommends (this week, Kant on a Kindle) that we read things that make us think.  He differentiates between processing with the ventral route versus the dorsal stream. Chick lit readers go the ventral route, it is correct to assume, don't like to have to reread many sentences.  Those who prefer Kant, however, flex the dorsal muscles, mixed metaphor not mine, don't spleen me.

Anyway, Amy Bonnaffons passed her editors with a tongue-in-cheek dig at variants of both Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and other serious anxiety disorders, phobias.  She writes a Dear John letter to her ex, Mark, technically a Dear Mark letter, page 13, section A.

The piece, I'm sorry, doesn't belong in a newspaper that professes serious journalism and a mission, apparently, of psychological edification of its readership. Tongue and cheek is fine*, but when it comes to being cheeky about disabilities, not.

Ms. Bonnaffons writes:
Dear Mark,

This is really hard for me. My hand is shaking as I write. . . Mark, I don't think we should be together anymore. It's not you—it's your bedbugs.

I know they've been gone for six years, but since you told me about your 2004 infestation I can't get it out of my mind. . .

You have to be patient with me. Yes, it was perhaps excessive to require your grandmother to wrap her sofa in plastic before our visit and to put on that hooded poncho and face mask before I hugged her. . .She has so many health problems already that she might not notice a little itch here or there. . .

I won't even ride the subway anymore. Who knows who might have sat there before me? It's exhausting to commute on foot every day. . . especially when I need to sidestep constantly in the more crowded areas to avoid accidentally brushing up against a stranger's clothing. . .

You get the idea.  Is this funny?  It isn't for those of us who have treated people who suffer with these thoughts, behaviors.  Can you imagine having a germ phobia and reading this?  It could be that Ms. Bonnaffons really does suffer from obsessive thoughts, and that she has compulsive behaviors that are dysfunctional, so dysfunctional that they distance her from others, obliterate her potential for intimate relationships.

I doubt it, somehow.  But it's my job to tell you, Amy, it happens, and funny, it isn't.

*For an example of fine, in the same paper, on page 11, section C, by Joe Queenan suggesting that bloggers deserve stimulus money. If the government forks a few bucks our way, we’ll surely buy “more IPads and Droids, netbooks, and tickets to see Pavement.”

What's Going to Be with Our Kids?