I’m Alright

Watching Rope, a Hitchcock film. Thinking of death and life instinct, as is my wont. Diffused? As Freud wrote. More like blended, intertwined, bonded. Two characters loom over a body they’ve just strangled, their heads nearly touching; their bodies almost inseparable. They are breathless, fearful, yet still excited. One lights a cigarette, like he just came.

I’m alright, don’t nobody worry about me. Why you gotta give me a fight? Why don’t you just set me free. I woke up with those words swimming in my head, leftover from a dream about which I’m still chuckling. My wife rises with me, picks up her thought from the night before, about my aged dad and his chuckling, teasing ways. He mumbles like Popeye, dribbles asides that few around him hear. I’m distracted. He wasn’t in my dream, I say. Jason was. Again. Really? My wife asks, like she’s surprised. It is surprising, actually—the clarity of the scene anyway. It was like the kind of political rally I don’t attend: boisterous, right-wingish, congested with people, specifically people who look ill in mind and body. They’re excessively round, swollen, circumscribed by bad body odor, and with their words they emit bile.

Ostensibly, this is a light hearted gathering, eliciting daisy smiles and cheerleader glee. On stage there’s an entourage of performers surrounding a protected, totemic figure. A pocket of circus freaks, including thwarted dancers treading tiny steps in tight spaces, lumpen musicians protruding brass above heads, consumes a platform. There are tiers to this cake-like riser, as if this band/invading force is atop a battleship that has impaled an arena that is vast yet closeted, spurring claustrophobic feeling. A victorious troupe is onstage, rousing the population with a triumphant song that boasts of something untrue: we’re all alright. For some reason that dreams don’t bother explaining, my back is to the stage, not a part of all this. I don’t wish to be part of all this, I should amend, if I am to accurately, theoretically reflect my conscious mind.

My unconscious friend. Where is he? Oh, that’s right. He’s not here. He’s gone now. But wait, is he here? In coded form, condensed or transformed, repressed but still living in this scene. About this totemic figure on stage: where’s he at? When is he going to show his face, reveal his identity? I see him finally, as I glance over my shoulder at the stage and look up. I am in the front row, like I’d gotten there early (as is my wont), like I’d been eager to attend this monster-truck atrocity. Now I can’t look at all the ugliness I chose. I glimpse the figure’s image through bodies, smiling at me, catching my eye, like he’s spying. He’s also singing, albeit lightly, barely above the crowd, despite being the only one with a microphone. Kenny Loggins. Eighties icon, only just. The song suggests Kenny Loggins, though the figure I see in slivers is a hybrid of Jabba the Hut and John Sebastien, a sixties willow who sang of love, magic and, I don’t know…hippy shit.

What are you looking for? Hard to say, but that might have been the pissy, quarreling question I’d directed at my wife. She is also in the front row, looking down, fussing with her purse, looking for something, attending to a detail I might have overlooked. It may have been important, but it distracted me from something important. Within a compressed, discontinuous moment the Kenny Loggins figure was away from the stage, leaving the arena through a giant door that suggested a fortress. I become excited as I glance around again, regarding the bemused looks of the assembled trolls, the disappointed, professional wrestling crowd of which I was not a part. Me? No way do I belong here, with these people.

I’m alive. I think that’s what I want to say. That’s why I shouldn’t be here, having this dream. It’s not happening. Well, what happens next is the return of the repressed. The guy, the totem, the Kenny Loggins whatever: he’s back; back in black, as Jason might have quipped, singing a different tune. Da-nuh, Da-nuh, Da-nuh: wish I knew how to write the chord sequence. Jay might have known, though he’d have preferred his amendment of lyrics. Fuck chicks, drink beer, do cool thing with the guys, yeah!: the screeching essence of classic rock, he’d opine. Or would that have been me analyzing his bit? That would be me trying to keep up. When he was truly on, Jay’s quips and other jests fell like rainfall. With him, droplets dashed at you, made you laugh and follow along, but were too numerous to retain. That’s one reason Jason didn’t write, actually. He had too much to try and capture in print. Anyway, back to my dream. Kenny L re-entered the arena, dressed in formal black attire, flanked by a posse of similarly dressed roadies. They form a phalanx at the base of the stage, clear a path for the totem to rise again and seize his ceremonial role. Who knows why he left in the first place. Perhaps he was dissatisfied—disgusted even, like I was—by the obnoxious brays, the fascist “We Will Rock You” atmosphere.

Now he is back with dignity, portending a solemn requiem, something that would be in keeping with his status, at last. I waited, I think, in the temporal blur of dream space, for him to ascend the tiers of the battleship stage. At the summit is a cloudy white surface, puffy and smooth, like a parody of cartoon heaven, with brass pillars framing its shape. A bed. Brass of another kind, trumpets, sound out from the bloated figures below. The dancers spread out, find their feet as their limbs come alive and the music swells. Then, at its climax, the totem lays himself down upon the bed and sinks into its mist. A deputy steps up with a speaker and in a moment’s silence as the music lulls into a false ending, he says the following, “And now, ……. (the figure is not identified in the dream) will perform an impersonation of a man in an ICU”. I woke up, laughing darkly. I’m alright, I think.

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Who the f is Sir Walter Raleigh

You know, I think it’s best to remember people when they’re at their best, not as they are at the end: struggling to breathe, to look lively and motivated, like they don’t want to live anymore. He had so much life in him, my father exclaimed, upon hearing the news of Jason. Jason, my friend of over thirty years, passed away last Saturday morning after collapsing into a diabetic coma. He was not at his best, it’s fair to say. He had a habit of not returning calls, of ignoring texts for extended stretches, ghosting me; now he is really ghosting me. He may have wanted it that way, or at least he may have longed for a state in which he might watch others who could no longer watch him. See, he’s no longer on show, displaying his inimitable wit, or his elastic, toothy smile; his shining blues eyes below arched, Jack Nicholson eyebrows. Actually, if watching and listening or reading, he’d frown at this point, complain that he more closely resembled one of his idols, David Bowie (sans the bad teeth), than the guy who threw an axe at a door in that film about the Stephen King novel.

             Jason liked books more than he did movies, even great movies. He also preferred science over religion, though he’d given the latter a good, loving shot, I think, largely because he once met and fell in love with Monica, an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike with an air of Snow White whose sweet nature he found irresistible if not exactly like-minded. He remembered lyrics more than he did melodies; liked football more than soccer, kicking and punching more than wrestling or throwing balls; dogs more than cats, disliked rapists more than murderers, liked pizza more than steak, hard liquor more than beer (okay, not by much), esoteric words, plays upon words more than simply dirty ones; inside versus shared jokes, heroes more than lovers, brunettes more than blondes. To my surprise, he liked me more than he did his other friends. At first, it wasn’t flattering. Despite being two years my junior, Jay affected a superior, big brotherly air from the outset, sort of adopting me when it seemed to him that I was dour and brooding, if smart and therefore worthy of his interest. During our shared twenties, conversations with Jason were dizzying, sometimes marathon efforts, reflecting an array of interests and desires—more his than mine, though I often thought him a dilletante, too easily bored. Compared to him, I was a bamtamweight intellect, but it seemed I was a useful ear and competent foil, managing to spar with him evenly when we bantered. Our back and forth jabs would have few witnesses over the years, but those who did observe our private dialect tended to withdraw, feeling like third wheels. The odd woman or two got in the way of this, which elicited jealousy on occasion, mine and his. Some of these women fell away, moved on in life. The ones that stuck around knew to not devise so-called double dates very often. The result was a friendship that lacked an adjoining circle; a bond and rapport that was too difficult to share with others.

             A memory from our early days captures the essence of us, maybe. When he was younger especially, Jay was insomniac, which was convenient as it meant that I could come over to his house at any time of night, which likewise suited my then nocturnal habits. He lived with his father and older brother, who seemed to keep similar hours, on a hill with a driveway and walking path that speared up toward a doorway that would often be left wide open, as if inviting the neighborhood to enter. This was not friendliness but rather inattention and apathy. I recall one of the first times I gingerly crossed the threshold to their home. Jay had paged me and directed me over, after which I appeared in minutes and stepped inside. I saw a light down a hallway of an otherwise dark residence and heard the soft hum of a television. From above, the silhouetted figure of Bart, Jay’s brother, appeared half-dressed and holding a rifle in his right arm. “Who is that?” he asked with flat menace before adding, “Oh, hey Graeme” with only slightly more warmth. “I dunno” he said when I asked after Jay’s whereabouts. He might not even be home, he suggested. I got it. This was a decidedly femaleless home in which independence and granted space reigned and so no one knew where anyone else was at.

             I ventured down the hallway, heading toward the light, half-thinking this was the politer choice but knowing it was wrong. Jason didn’t really watch television. His father did—incessantly, in fact. Therefore, it was him that I found amid the glowing light, couched in an armchair, watching a military documentary on the history channel. He didn’t seem to know where his younger son was either, but he didn’t seem to mind my sticking around regardless. Actually, had I asked a question about the documentary or else just stuck around for a further thirty seconds, I’d have gotten an impromptu lecture on the uses of the Sherman tank during World War II. Like Bart, Jason’s dad permitted my heading upstairs, and for a moment he seemed to glance in its direction as if contemplating an unprecedented curiosity.

             When I got to Jay’s room I nudged my way in, not bothering to knock because a) Jason usually didn’t answer, and b) he seemed to not care what anyone would see anyway. Once inside, I saw him in the corner of the space smoking, bathed in black light and sat in a quasi lotus position, appearing to commune with something unseen. He softly invited me forward, speaking quietly as if the onus would be upon me to approach him and join his rumination. Entering his thought-in-progress, I gleaned that he’d been listening to a collection of songs over and over again. The current selection was by The Cure, the notoriously morose eighties band whose leader, Robert Smith, had essentialized gothic depression for a generation of listeners alongside performers like Morrissey, who wasn’t on Jason’s playlist. Another song in the mix was “No One Lives Forever”, a mischievous pop ditty by the contemporaneous Oingo Boingo. With his own precise diction and versatile expression, Jay could easily mimic that group’s lead singer, a leeringly clownish Danny Elfman. Then came a Beatles song. “I’m so tired”, by John Lennon, featuring a second verse that sent Jay into peels of delight. “That’s so awesome!” he enthused, regarding one line in a stanza: “And curse the walls to rally, they’re such stupid gits”. Even if he wasn’t quite sure of the second clause, he baritoned it with conviction, this not being the first time he’d ape British slang with glee. But it was the first part that truly stirred him, capturing the hallucinogenic ethos that was guiding Jason’s feverish mind. Yes, we must bring to life the inanimate…rally the walls, and so on. Had I been more sensitive and less pedantic I might have refrained from bursting Jay’s bubble. “It’s not curse the walls to rally”, I said primly. “It’s curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid git!”.

             Jay looked at me blankly. Who the fuck is Sir Walter Raleigh, his eyes asked? “Sir Walter Raleigh”, I repeated, undeterred. “He either invented the cigarette or first brought tobacco back to England—something like that”. Cigarette. “See, it’s in the previous line”, I said, like that was proof of my argument. It took another 4-5 repetitions of the song before Jay begrudgingly admitted that he might be wrong about the lyric. Still, it doesn’t matter, he concluded. His version of the lyric was better regardless—John Lennon be damned.

             Not one to accept things simply for the way they are: that was Jason Stephens. In thinking of him now, I conjure another band and one-time singer, plus a song that was close to both of our hearts. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, a two-part epic from Pink Floyd’s 1975 album (yeah, I had to mention the date, didn’t I Jay?), features melancholic lyrics of tribute for the group’s original singer/songwriter, the mentally wayward yet beautifully-minded Syd Barrett. Beyond words about reaching for life’s secret too soon, the music ebbs and flows, soaring with classic rock guitar one moment, then sliding into eloquent diminuendo the next. My favorite passage is the last section in which a drifting synthesizer floats a final melody towards the piece’s end. Give it a listen. Actually, you might summon it right now from Spotify or whatever, let it serenade you as you read my last few lines on this matter. Pay attention to the last minute of part two in particular. The soft strains wind down the song, sounding like a ghosting soul leaving the stage, and as we listen to the last few bars, we dreamily flatline along with the music, finding rest at the end of our collective breath.

             *Rest in peace my friend. You’ve broken my heart, and you will be missed and unforgotten.

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Out of the Blue

It wouldn’t have been my idea for a yearbook title. Too banal, I’d have sneered had I been a member of Aklan, the body that produced the annual volumes that no one seemed to have brought a copy of. I was snotty then, in 86’. I’m still snotty, but out of the blue I appeared at my high school reunion, the first one I’d attended in 35 years. Out of the blue: I think the meaning was layered. We were out of the blue, as in graduating from a high school whose colors were blue. The other meaning was…well, maybe that was it, actually. Were we really coming out of nowhere, as the metaphor implies? Anyway, fast forward 35 years to the present, to the reunion with blue Acalanes. The first setting of two planned events was strange enough: a tidy picnic area within a park ensconced within a retirement community that portended our shared future. The roughly one hundred-deep residue of our class of 86’ from Acalanes High had gathered with some looking a bit paunchy and slow while others seemed lean and bouncy, pushing back middle-age with new age diets and Peleton vigor. Amongst the women there was a disproportionate wash of blonde hair suggesting a camouflage of grey terrain. The assembled men seemed less defended against age, allowing fringes of salt to pepper the flanks of hairstyles that hadn’t changed much since the mid-eighties.

I have to say that in this respect I hadn’t changed much either. With my own budding paunch and snowy edges to an auburn hairline, I waded into the picnic area, penetrated pockets of chatter, moving freely, glancing about for a recognizable face before hitting a dead end. Actually, the cul-de-sac came in the form of a wide-eyed, friendly figure name Chuck whom I knew to be a one-time football player, which allowed for an immediate point of conversation. That plus the obligatory review of marital status, family stats and career bullet points consumed roughly ten minutes, after which Chuck genially moved on to other reunion potentials, people he knew or remembered more than he did me. That would’ve meant just about anyone, I thought at this point. I was new at this, I declared, and in thinking that I’d exhaust my familiarity within an hour, I’d planned a soft getaway—a discreet sidling away, disguised by a detour to a bathroom that gated the park’s entrance.

It was time to get a drink, the first of many that someone else had generously proffered. There were soft drinks on offer and I had a hand-preoccupying water bottle with me, but with a long hour or so to go, I looked for green or brown glass buried in ice containing a bitter yet smooth brew that would stir a gentle, mind-lubricating buzz. En route to the chest of chilled libations I heard my name being called. It was one of the organizers, an amiable leader when he was thirteen, never mind what he would be today. What was he today? I didn’t actually find out, but Matt had the look and sound of someone who was either a city mayor, head of a board of trustees, or a president of something. Inviting me to don a nametag, he enjoined me in an exchange with someone who also seemed to recognize me, though the feeling wasn’t mutual. John, the second figure, reminded me of one of the guys in my men’s therapy group: shy, taciturn, and a bit awkward, he’d be the kind of guy I will have sat next to in electronics class—not saying much but still doing better than me in that class.

Matt was just like he once was: a chameleon at ease with the full spectrum of high school personalities, from the so-called jocks to the nerds, the troublesome bullies or stoners; the mean-spirited yet popular girls; the decent, diligent, middle-of-the road pack that somehow ended up leading things at my school. As dusk fell, Matt gathered the pockets of alum for a structure of activity. First up would be a quiz about high school and middle school trivia. Unbeknownst to me, the evening would conjoin those who had attended the middle school that fed Acalanes as well as high school alumni, so there would be a surprise or two in the offing. In the meantime, the exercise that privileged the once-involved and therefore more knowledgeable of school folklore proceeded. I didn’t know a single answer to the questions posed, though in keeping with the memory of many classes I took at Acalanes, I’d recognize the answers after they were given to us.

One of the questions pertained to standard awards that were given at the end of school years and then posted in yearbooks. The best-looking couple in 8th grade, or simply girl and boy (don’t know if they were a couple), included a girl I only vaguely remembered, and a boy that I most certainly did remember. As his name was read out, Grant raised his hand to recognize the crowd, his burly frame and bald head fronting a sheepish acknowledgement. Grant would later say to me that he hadn’t taken the best care of his physical life, but truth be told, I’d always thought him humble and wary of a spotlight regardless. The speeches, games and reminiscent mischief continued while I was distracted, thinking I’d approach Grant and ask whether he’d remember me. After all, he and I had not been close friends, and he’d not even known me in high school, so the prospect of a gleeful reunion seemed thin.

But that proved to be irrelevant. Spotting a gap in social movement, I moved toward him, re-introduced myself and began a dialogue that proceeded intermittently over the next two hours, interspersed with an exchange with another unlikely reunion prospect—a guy named Rick—who found himself reflecting on a broken marriage, half-spurred when he learned I was a psychotherapist. During that spell, Grant listened in, adding his perspective, which also featured doses of romantic heartbreak, and demonstrated an adult version of the generous, giving spirit he’d exhibited as a kid. When the opportunity came, I took a moment to observe this to him, and in particular, to remind him, whether he was aware of this or not, that I was one of his peers who was once bullied in a raucous and tense school atmosphere, but felt safer because people like him existed who had the backs of underdogs.  

Grant was moved. Grant bit his lip, pressed a fist to his chest and then shook my hand, giving me brown-eyed blessing. Hey, if I’ve helped just one person in this…that sort of thing, he said. He asked for a business card, was gonna supply me with a client or two, he hinted. Rick nodded in agreement. The next night, the latter flicked his chin at me, satiated by my serene listening, and asked if I accepted Venmo for the impromptu session about his broken marriage. Of this group, only Grant and John stuck around for a joker in the pack, an eccentric named Eric who came down from the hillside to wax metaphysical with the beery entourage. Whether he’d had a few or more seemed not to matter. Eric had had plenty of beer perhaps, but more especially plenty of life, it seemed, and would spend the remainder of this night and much of the next regaling entrapped onlookers about…well, that would be hard to say, actually.

Having ducked out around ten, I resolved to return the following night, if only to reunite with the reunion crowd, especially Grant, the fraternal, salt of the earth savior from sixth grade, who earnestly requested to meet my wife, who wouldn’t come the next night because she didn’t want to play wallflower, nodding along at platitudes about the bygone pleasures and stressors of adolescent life. So I showed up all alone at the Round-Up Saloon, clutching a copy of my 86’ yearbook entitled Out of the Blue. By this time, I was nervous anew, thinking patterns that my psychoanalysis has called into question: namely, the tendency to expect sophomore efforts at joy to collapse into anti-climax. I figured I’d see Grant again at some point, and maybe connect with one or two from the night before whom I’d sort of recognized but not spoken to. Again, I’d given the evening short-shrift, allocating just two and a half hours before which I’d abscond and head back home. I may have been out of the blue, re-entering the fray of an old ambience with a new middle-aged persona, but this was just like the old me: ever looking for the exit door.

My next dose of pleasure came in the form of Steve, another gentle soul whom I remembered as a gentle soul who resembled a blend of Steve Martin and Rick Moranis from some eighties movie that only those who were teens in the eighties would recall. With Steve I got a proper reminiscence of teenage life, eighties style, with Bay Area centrism. There was mature recollection, a meaningful insight or two about teenage group psychology. This was my kind of talk, I thought—the kind I started back in high school, as a matter of fact. It was in the cuts of the hallways that such talk occurred, or else in the woody barracks of drafting class: I spoke incipient philosophy amid languid senioritis, and played old soul with others who othered themselves from the amoeba circles of popular gathering. Back to the present day: By mid-evening, the replay of aged group dynamics began to pall slightly. There were isolated dyads of stalled conversation, bereft expressions; people wondering in the back of their minds whether something else from back in the day would get replayed. Would anyone get left out before this night was over?

So far, I’d left out the women, and you might admit if you’ve made it this far into this thing that you’ve wondered the same. With all of this male-bonding, mansplaining and woman excluding, like it was all a Drones club scene from a P.G. Wodehouse play, you might wonder where all the women were on this second night of happy reunion. Well, they were there all right, mostly schooled in the center of the bar’s patio, looking huddled and ready to pounce outwards. Above the music, which got steadily louder as the evening wore on, there were bursts of cackle and shriek. The gals: they seemed to have more to laugh about, to point fingers at. With conspiratorial gazes, they peered about the milieu, appearing to scrutinize the wanting males who stood upon the periphery, stroking chins in poses of erudition while others gaped and ogled in dazed awe.

See, the thing about leaving early is not to get out when the going is tough, it’s to quit while you’re ahead. So far, my milk was not sour, I was still ripe and the feeling—a well nurtured and not excessive buzz—was riding the crest of a wave. But I caught the whiff of gender politics in the air, be it the shadow of feminine rivalry or a touch of epater le masculine ego, and I’d not gotten the requisite vaccination for that. Even the women I did speak to at close quarters seemed to be on recess, taking a break from a dense rapprochement. I know. What’s with all the French all of a sudden? Must have been a class I once took that didn’t prepare me for life after high school. Anyway, it was a once Russian but then British (or was it the other way around?) woman who was drifting between packs who gave me an impression of fraught history. Nadeen was the first of two that cast a distrusting eye over the sisterhood, implicating a past unforgiven. She had been shy, soft spoken, Nadeen said. Damn right, I thought. Couldn’t hear a word she said. I didn’t remember her, and no, that’s not because I only remember girls I made out with. That’s what I’d have said had the imputation of not listening to women been directed at me. I never even made out with girls in high school, I might have said.

I would have liked to make out with the last woman I spoke to. Back in high school, I mean, not today. I wouldn’t do that today, buzzed or not. Never. Wait, is my wife gonna read this? I’m not giving the full names, and even the first ones may bring trouble. However, after a group picture with its collective squeezing in, I turned to my right and stabbed a guess at the name of the woman before me. No multiple choice. No sliding scale. No subsequent four years at Cal reflecting the privilege of kids from mid-Contra Costa. Yes, she was remembered, her big bright eyes exclaimed, giving me an A for social achievement. The eyes, my eyes, had not left hers before saying this: there had been no scanning the downstairs for the nametag that spread across the banks of the…you know what I mean. It was eyes up here all the way and I was rewarded with a rich talk about rock and roll, a boozy bout of twenties collapse (hers and mine), followed by our redemptive thirties, then the winning slide into war weary middle age.

Ugh, it was 9:30. Time to leave. Yeah, who leaves this kind of party at 9:30? I do. I do because I’m a good boy, a good man. So, despite permission from you know who to stay as long as I liked, I cut out, taking my monogamous behavior if not quite monogamous thought with me. That lasted for about a minute before my unconscious was betrayed by a policing reminder. My yearbook. I’d left the yearbook somewhere in the mix of the patio, there to be passed around, my gift to the throngs. For a moment I thought to leave it behind, not bother with its rescue. It wasn’t selflessness as much as embarrassment. See, you can’t go back. Not really. Once you bail you gotta keep going, otherwise it’s bad form; shows you don’t mean it, that you can’t let go. I couldn’t let go, so I sneaked in, brushed past folks whom I hadn’t spoken to, then evacuated a second time. I didn’t quite get out untouched. Eric, eccentric, lost Eric, paused me at the door, and while he scrambled for my name he nonetheless spread his arms, proclaiming his indiscriminate, democratic love for an Acalanes brother. I skipped past without a goodbye, just a shallow, 21st century “gotta go”, with a glance over my shoulder at his seeming disappointment. Don’t take it personally pal? That’s what it says in the self-help books that I won’t write but I’ll say it to you now. I’ll be back—I think—five years from now, I was poised to say. Right then, as the buzz was already fading, I needed to get back, back out and drive away. I think I sped.

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A conscience thinly heard

To continue a theme, what I’m suggesting is that this book, this Getting Real thing, unlike most non-fiction perhaps, might actually be read by those who will turn out to be its adversaries, which might be a rare occurrence in our echo chamber 21st century.

The reasons are that my co-author and I are unknown quantities, and secondly, that our book presents ideas that may be objectionable to the vanguard of our profession. No, this won’t pertain to mine and Joe Farley’s supposedly heretical “psychodynamic” take on sex addiction. It won’t even result from our ambiguous adherence to the idea that sex addiction even exists. It might result from our saying little if anything about the LGBTQ community, though at least we use politically correct words like “heteronormative” and “cisgender” to indicate our thinking about such things. And isn’t that enough? says middle America, corporate America, or white America—all quietly hoping that forming committees, re-writing mission statements, re-photo-shopping brochures, and generally paying diligent lip-service is all, ya know…enough.

Anyway, back to why our book, or my chapters at least, might be objectionable to however many therapists and would-be patients read our book. It’s about gender, and by gender I do not mean the zeitgeist gender fluidity/what-does-gender mean discussion. I mean another twist—in subtle, as in here-and-there passages that seek to inject an alternative consciousness about exploitation. Passages about the exploitation of men, I mean, as part of an anti-sex addiction theory.

Here’s the thesis: if men had a consciousness about being used in the ways they are traditionally used, and may still be used if fresh, nationwide infrastructure plans are realized, it might help them not act out sexually, which in turn would probably benefit women if men felt less entitled (consciously or unconsciously) to seek out transient pleasures. I know. Sounds fanciful so far, or unfairly generalized, maybe. I’m also aware that it’s not how things are meant to happen from the point of view of conventional ethics. For example, feminists likely want men to stop acting out sexually—to stop being consumers of porn and prostitutes, for example—because it’s the right thing to do; because it’s compatible with the “do unto others as…” (ya know, that old chestnut) notion that still holds sway as an ethical lever, a fundamental golden rule.

Well, this may not be what motivates people? People vote for a candidate, choose their politics (including their gender politics), make decisions and generally live life because of what’s in it for them (a patient of mine recently put an acronym to this: WIFM—what’s in it for me?). Supporting wage equity, sex freedom, domestic labor equity, non-violence against women, may all be in the interests of men. Yet many women report feeling jaded by what they describe as the apathy of average men, who don’t appear to join women in their causes, at least not in earnest. So, what motivates them? Or, what might motivate them? Well, one of the truisms I observe is that men are exploited in ours and most societies for their violent or physically rigorous capacities. Perennially, we ask men to don various hard-hats, to act as police, firemen, or military men; to walk on roofs or high ledges, crawl into tight spaces underneath properties; to perform the jobs that incur the vast majority of workplace injuries. To be fair, women are entering fire services, the police, and the military in greater numbers over the last generation, but they comprise only 2% of combat deaths during a largely non-wartime era. Despite the efforts being made by the media, in TV and film, to cast women in action or military roles, men still comprise the vast majority of combat roles, and therefore combat injuries. Yet even this buries the lede of our issue, as fire services, police work, and military service aren’t even the most dangerous jobs in America, according to data. Wanna hear an example of what causes more injures? Fishing. That’s right: fishing. I think roofing is on the top-five most-dangerous job-list, too. Regardless, the point is that men comprise over 90% of workplace injuries—a statistic that has remained stable over the last 30 years. Why? Well, it’s not because men are clumsier.

Also, while some are horrified by man’s brutal physicality, evidence suggests that most are entertained by it. Football players, boxers, athletes of various kinds, mostly male, are our modern gladiators, and beyond their physical prime, they don’t live very long lives. Meanwhile, as I write this blog, the not-exactly-woke Fast and Furious franchise keeps motoring on, with sequel ten or whatever of this hypermasculine icon topping the box office earlier this summer—like, by a mile. My developmental editors (of Getting Real) may not have cared for some of my flippancies on this tangential yet intersecting subject (one passage originally began, “In Roman—sorry American society…”), but they allowed commentary that observed the relative obsolescence of man’s militant ego. We are, after all, nearly fifty years clear of America’s last military draft. The end of conscription, plus the recently judicious use of military services has certainly spared my generation and the two or three since from the kind of decimations that have occurred over history. Still, contemporary politics and world events do not erode what is traditionally valued in the much-maligned masculine ego. Therefore, tall, mesomorphic, tattoo-ridden, six-pack abbed, or plain, discipline-seeking young men remain preferable to many women (perhaps not feminists, though I’m not even sure on that) who covet such men, and who further seem to think that losing weight is harder than gaining height.

Think about it.

If upon thinking you believe my last quip is anti-feminist or misogynistic then you might as well stop reading. And you might as well not read Getting Real About Sex Addiction: a psychodynamic approach to treatment (there, it’s full title), for you will likely think it an annoying distraction from the more important foci of progressive agendas. But for what it’s worth, our book is not anti-feminist. Indeed, if anything, it appropriates feminist/class theory, applying concepts of objectification, for example, to men’s traditional roles as cultural gladiators and performers of physically dangerous jobs. It’s not feminists who are insensible to this. Nor is it average traditionalist women, who tacitly respect men who have always risked life and limb to build infrastructure (or otherwise overwork), and only ask that they (women) be respected in return. Actually, it’s a different faction that is that target of my disparaging insight: menu feminists, as I term them; women who are drawn to mesomorphs because they are handy when heavy objects need lifting, or when there’s danger in the neighborhood, but not so much when dishes need cleaning or a family meal needs to be cooked. These myopic women might read the facts from the previous paragraph and be unmoved, as if they’d just learned data about the number of worms eaten by birds each year. Or, they moan about the self-centeredness of their male partners, observing their inattention to domestic or “intimate” matters, disregarding men who are socialized and (according to oxytocin researchers) perhaps biologically disposed to outdoor environmental cues, whose caring attitudes are therefore indirectly expressed—via the benefits of an occupational life, for example. Not that I’m such a fan of the patriarchal chestnut, “who puts a roof over your head and food on the table?”, but neither am I enamored of matriarchal chauvinists who believe that a feminine way should prevail in a village-like, domestically-centered society, with men perhaps better suited to an outdoor world that such women take for granted.

The second half of my thesis poses the following questions: will men in general continue to think and act as they seem to, pursuing obsolete masculine ideals because they seem to excite many women still, while simultaneously feeling entitled to a level of sexual freedom that is corollary to a life of physical or economic risk, which in turn influences hypersexual behavior plus reactionary entities like sex addiction treatment and theory? Or, will some men become “woke” to an exploitation narrative that does not saturate the pulpits of media or academic institutions: that the promise of sexual and financial freedom (power) entices all too many to cliff edges, war zones, roof tops, bankruptcy or lottery thresholds, or slippery fishing boats. In the future, will men stop emulating their primitive antecedent, the sperm, who charges ahead through the fluid, ever driven to bond with the coveted egg? At a later stage of development, will this lone survivor of that pre-natal quest re-enact the primal drama, ever preparing his body for physical risk, or playing out the death of a salesman, risking a shortened life, just to win the hearts of women, or to get laid? Will men like these ever choose different roles, less risky jobs, whether women will like them for these choices or not.

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The nubile area of study

I can’t remember the last time I wrote a full entry about mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction. If you actually read this blog, you might be thinking that this thing is an elaborate ruse—you know, a pretense of impending publication, designed to…actually, why would we do that? See, the thing is this: this book has been on the cards for two years, and I know—I’ve been writing about it in this forum, or alluding to its impending arrival, for that same stretch of time, roughly. But believe me: the book is—how should I say it—real. We wrote most of it in 2019, then a bit more in 2020; then, upon Covid…well, we had to write some more then, didn’t we? Therapy—all therapy—changed. Ostensibly, we’ve had an interested publisher all this time, a guy (plus a company) who had once published Joe’s mentor, James Masterson. That got us a foot in the door, like a foot in a door to a room with no one in it because everyone’s left the party that’s inside. In “Lost in the rough” (an entry from over a year ago now) I wrote and moaned that this publisher was brushing us off, waning in his interest, wouldn’t give us a contract. Wouldn’t put a ring on it, I quipped.

No matter, it seemed, as of late 2020. In stepped Rowman & Littlefield (who have published books like The Myth of Sex Addiction by David Ley), expressing interest in a book about SA with a psychodynamic or psychoanalytic focus. What followed was a review process which we passed with flying colors and by the end of the year, a contract was in place: the first of mine and Joe’s writing careers so cue applause if you please. Next, the last few months have been taken up with developmental edits plus miscellaneous tidbits, like a quibble about our title, plus the conversational style that I employ for this blog, or the “we” voice that Joe and I needed, thus blurring our literary tenors. About the title, those in charge might have wanted something plainer and less mischievous, though we held out for a title that—I have to admit—sounds a bit like a Bill Maher gag. To cut a long story short, the end of the rainbow is nye. This thing should be out soon…operative word being “soon”. So what? I don’t know. Do you care about sex addiction? Does anyone? Do we, the authors, even care still about this hoary subject; this creepy, nubile corner of the mental health industry?

That reminds me, editors of non-fiction don’t always like metaphors. In our text, I was challenged about using the word “nubile” when there was nary a virginal bride in nearby print. Good job that person left all my war metaphors alone, or else we’d really be fighting. But this touches upon the things I’ve learned I’m supposed to be when writing a psychology book: I’m meant to be more literal, more instructive, more—ya know, helpful. Problem is, we’ve written something different than that—something more interesting than helpful. I know because I kept saying so in the text, in preface to an illustration or an expository passage that was meant to be insightful or interpretative, but not directly instructive. “No shoulds”. That was mine and Joe’s mantra, sort of. It was mine anyway. I didn’t exactly tell Joe what he should write, but he seemed to get with the spirit and not tell readers what to do or what to think either. Good lad, that Joe. He did exactly what he should do: not tell people what they should do.

In the beginning, we had plenty of ideas about what we should do with this book, and from the get-go (strange phrase, that), we knew we’d be saying a lot that was different about this NUBILE area of study: sex addiction treatment. We knew we had things to say about how to treat SA from a novel perspective (the psychoanalytic), which we’d feel free to do because despite what some (too many) claim, there aren’t really standards in this sub-field of mental health. Seriously, if you’ve poked around in a non-sexual way and researched SA treatment, or reconned a few treatment centers or providers, you may have been told that there are gold standards of care in them thar hills where the retreat facilities lie, but it aint so. The condition of sex addiction doesn’t even exist in diagnostic manuals in the U.S., though it sort of exists as far as the World Health Organization is concerned, but even in that globalizing volume it’s being diluted as a concept, being called something else.

Anyway, that’s just the tip of condom on this subject. The bigger elephants in our text and subtext contain all the things that are covered by words like intersectionality and context. Except race. Despite it being at the top of the zeitgeist parade, as in a nearly obligatory subject to talk or write about these days, we are not branding ourselves on the right or wrong side of history with respect to race. Sorry. There was much to write about, and despite seeing a healthy diversity in both our practices, neither Joe nor I thought there was much about race to write about when the subject was already bursting at the seams with…well, that seems like another unfortunate metaphor that an editor might not like. Anyway, sex was the principal matter. Gender was the next most prominent matter: Men and women at war was the matter, because that’s the matter we’ve seen in our practices.

And that’s where we’ve aimed our bombing raids, especially me. Why? Partly because this element of the text would render it unique, that’s why? You’ll see, especially if you’ve seen already how psychology books are generally written and pitched. Actually, I shouldn’t act like I have the ideal vantage point from which to gauge these things. I really shouldn’t. It’s just that I did do a lot of reading, and not just of psychoanalytic literature, but also of sex addiction books, treatment workbooks or journal articles, etc. That was harder, as those books and articles are harder to read because…nevermind, they just are. Still, what I believe and presented to the reader in our book is the view that most authors in our field write for a readership with presumed sensibilities comprised of progressive, egalitarian, social justice values. We’re not opposed to this trend necessarily, but the point of writing about Nabokov a couple of blogs ago was to signal my own stab at ironic detachment, plus a secondary stab at the sociological assumptions that seem to pervade our profession. This will surprise many readers, especially the professional factions to whom the book will likely be promoted, because they’ll likely peruse “Getting Real” thinking it will be politically correct—that is, largely patronizing of orthodox progressive thought.

But it’s not. And yet, neither is it the opposite, which is why the book might be unique. It won’t be easily pigeon-holed, even by its soon-to-be detractors. We’re here to comment and suggest, not advocate. It’s about thinking, and suspending answers, like diagnoses, because…well, among others things, because we don’t have them.

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A dick move

The thing about hanging out is that it’s not like it used to be. Jeremy and Emma both remember a time, an adolescent time, when certain aspects of their experience will have been similar enough. Meaning, on some things they would relate. After school, on a Friday, say, they’d be allowed to go out, meet a group of friends, and go to a movie. Going to a movie. That’s what both would’ve said to an inquiring, supportive if somewhat suspicious and “protective” parent. Don’t just hang out—that would’ve been the parent’s tacit injunction. Hangin’ out is idle time; it is the devil’s work.

             Jeremy and Emma agreed to hang out on a Friday night. Each was weary from their respective work weeks, yet eager to meet the other: first time “live”. Both had suitably professional yet murky, middle-of-the-road, 21st century jobs. Jeremy was something called an operations manager with a facilities management company. Emma was a platform coordinator for a start-up. When they’d first announced these facts it had been with flat disinterest, like they were comparing specs on an electronic device they’d just purchased through Amazon. That was their first time speaking on the phone, sometime after each had stopped swiping on the dating site in order to…I think the word is gaze, at each other. The talking was more careful than the writing. Once, over text, Emma quipped that while hers and Jeremy’s educational lives were comparable, and their ages and work experience more or less equal, their salaries likely weren’t. Jeremy’s reply had been cautious. “No doubt”, he appeared to concede while being coy, also over text. Over their one and only zoom meeting, he was less reticent, and more openly accepting of Emma’s implications. He seemed to get that he’d better say the right things, evince the right attitude, if this thing with her was to have any legs. Emma was quietly impressed. Jeremy, she decided, was brave. Jeremy, she further summarized, was “woke”.

If Jeremy had tests for Emma they weren’t apparent to her, though she might have noticed that he had noticed the lightness of her examination. After all, he didn’t have to do much to demonstrate correct thinking, and neither did much to demonstrate sublimated passion. The banalities of the workplace had been one topic of conversation so far—a shared affinity for anime was another. Jeremy had a guilty pleasure around video gaming, he affably confessed. Emma, not so much. However, on the question of bad behavior she didn’t leave him hanging entirely, betraying a habit with social media. Jeremy assessed this furtively having heard maybe one too many references to friends whose latest deeds were known via Facebook or Instagram. Neither shared about big stuff, closeted or taboo material. Twenty-somethings from in-tact families peopled with numerous siblings, they’d had their share of problems. Both had been in therapy for stereotypical reasons: Emma had struggled with eating disorder her first and second years of college. Jeremy had spent those same years “talking to someone” about things he looked at on a computer other than video games.

Secretly, they’d both heard the term sex addict from at least one mental health professional. Jeremy’s experience of this had been squirmingly painful. His counselor was bluntly manful about the whole thing, urging his patient to see pornography for what it really is: a life-dulling, women-objectifying monstrosity. Despite that agenda, the air of those sessions was self-consciously “compassionate”. Jeremy felt pitiable as he was warned about the problems of sex addiction: that he’d be at risk of being impotent; that he was contributing to the mistreatment of women; that he’d struggle to achieve half-mooted goals of being a stable, decent, vaguely religious and largely conformist family man. Frowningly uneasy, Jeremy couldn’t decide which consequence sounded the worst. Emma’s take, as in what she “took in” from therapy, had been quite different. She binged and she purged. That was the problem, so she wouldn’t “take in” easily. Regardless, the consequences that she’d been warned about relating to sex were more conventionally urgent: she was in danger, either of getting pregnant in an unwanted away, or of catching an STI; of getting raped, maybe. In her case, religion was invoked, sort of, though the problem there was her persecution via others’ judgements, not the incongruency of her own values with her actions. As for treatment of the opposite sex, it seemed that men were only relevant as victimizers, not as people who might be harmed by anything she did.

As they Ubered together to a restaurant in Bat Guano Plaza, Jeremy and Emma rolled by a group of kids hanging out on a streetcorner that was kitty corner to a mall. The pack of seven or eight were a middle-school-to-high school milieu, hovering in that stage of life wherein sex beckons acoustically. Jeremy and Emma chuckled and pointed, each dredging from memory the familiarity of shuffling movements, the sideways, fragmented exchanges that were nothing like what had been desired, much less rehearsed, ahead of time. Emma gestured at one boy and voiced a sympathetic moan. He’d ill-advisedly brought a back-pack but not a phone, so he looked a little like a refugee from the twentieth century: someone who might stand alone, gazing at a group, bereft when there’s nothing in his hands to play with. He was a runt destined to be left behind by the group; perhaps eaten by a lurking predator. That was Jeremy’s remark, which Emma thought morbid, if just about funny. Over dinner and its strolling-in-the neighborhood aftermath, Jeremy and Emma spoke further of this scene and the memories it had triggered: reflections on youth that each shared verbosely.

They were close to something; close to each other, potentially. Multi-tasking, deploying a work persona and a skill first practiced in settings like middle-school, Jeremy maintained a light if credible interest while plotting how to voice his budding, fragile desire. He fashioned in his mind how to phrase something like, “do you wanna hang out some more, at my place maybe?”. The light was dim. The hot day was ending and the moon, burnt orange as if touched by wildfire, was peaking above a mountain. Emma was strolling more athletically, keeping a step ahead of her date, he noticed with piqued curiosity, possibly consternation. Was she poised to run away, bored by him all of a sudden? Was his half-listening demeanor not nearly as winning or intriguing as he thought it was? Perhaps he should abort the whole hanging out further thing? A quick retreat and re-think: that was in order, he seemed to decide.

Emma laughed. They’d hit a private stretch, several yards before and behind them with no fellow pedestrians. Alone time. Phones were in pockets, not yet summoned for an escapist Uber ride or a shared trip to….the question lingered, the possibilities in play. What did she want? Jeremy fretted. What was she laughing about, he wondered, seeing no hapless kids around to make fun of.

“What?” he asked.

She contrived hesitation, seeming quite confident and pensive. “I dunno…I was thinking about how we talk, what we talk about. I was thinking of sending you a text, asking for a dick pic”.

He wasn’t sure he’d heard her right, was about to ask “what?” again, only in a voice that was shriller. But he knew. There was no denying what he’d heard, try as he might to erase it. Jeremy felt a wave of tension cloud over him. A pressure front stormed in about his shoulders and worked its way down, cooling his feet and then crashing on a pavement beach.

Seconds passed: a pregnant moment in which thought was past its due date. Emma’s head turned away, and pressure re-ignited, further mounting in Jeremy’s chest. He felt a crushing sensation, something familiar if forgotten arising for a second wave. Had she done something wrong? Was this another test? There would be only split seconds left for him to decide what to do…to respond somehow. Nothing said would be a response, but it would be a killer. Something said could induce a variety of effects, all of them better than silence, contrary to what Jeremy implicitly believed.

“Yeah, I don’t think so”, he uttered finally. He’d taken one moment—one more split second—to craft the words, measure his sound. No judgement. No stammering. No affect. A perfect response, he thought—one that would bring matters to an end. No more discussion. The end. The dinner date was over. Emma would soon return home to her apartment, head straight for the bathroom and purge the disgusting shrimp entrée she’d earlier pretended to enjoy. As for Jeremy, well, he would settle in for an evening before his laptop and a spell of “Catherine: Full Body”, satisfied that he would not get eaten on this occasion.

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Put on your stage face and keep the show rolling

Well, the talk happened. Some said it was good. The ‘talk’—it was good. The video slide presentation: not so much.

I felt comfortable the morning of, waiting in the wings of the stage to the “Creativity and Madness Conference” (that’s right—not the Bat Guano jamboree), chatting with a woman who would soon talk at length, detailing her life, her family, her recovery from addiction, name-dropping all the people who had saved her life. Sounded like she owed a lot to a lot of people. Me, not so much. We took a selfie. I thought that would do it. I’d wanted a few moments to myself. No matter, I soon thought, thinking I was alright, that I’d prepared well enough for my “Dr Strangelove” presentation; that I deserved to relax, indulge a garrulous conference attendee and wait patiently for my moment under the spotlight.

All was good as I started. I didn’t even need the videos for the first twenty minutes or so of my presentation, so I was free to orate about Sigmund Freud, give an overview of his career and theories, then spin a funny bit about a would-be You-Tube channel devoted to Freud and psychoanalysis. It was the opening gimmick of my presentation-wide motif: “Dr Strangelove in the 21st century”. I remarked that the 1964 black comedy had once asked its audience to laugh at the horror of nuclear war, but added that this was neither unique nor the ultimate in unthinkable laughs necessarily. Alluding to Freud’s Totem and Taboo, I offered that a great comedy about cannibalism or incest has yet to be realized. Showing off my knowledge of cinematic history, I suggested that Chaplin had done something similar to Stanley Kubrick with The Great Dictator; that Robert Altman had contributed black comedy with his thinly-veiled Vietnam protest-pic, MASH.

I brought up pictures of the main cast, made fun of General Jack Ripper, Buck Turgidson, Major King Kong, President Merkin Muffley, and the eponymous Dr Strangelove. I spared the character of Mandrake from ridicule, describing him as an everyman, a hero, or at least a kind of therapist, trying to penetrate Ripper’s disturbed mind. I roasted the minor character of Bat Guano, then added that for years I hadn’t known what bat guano is—just thought it a funny pairing of words. Then I was schooled: oh yeah…bat shit crazy, I finally learned. Little did I know that I was foreshadowing my foolishness in these moments. I indulged the “women of resilience” theme of the conference, pointing out the sexually objectified role of Miss Scott, plus observing her denial—her internalized misogyny, apologists might argue. I transitioned to a brief discourse on master Kubrick, celebrating his surrealist genius, and reflecting upon his Freudian bent: that his films observe man’s obsession with order, the pretenses of civilization, but tell stories in which that order invariably collapses. Think of HAL from 2001 as an example.

All was well in my life of order. Noting Mandrake’s holding of “temporal reality” I noticed that I was about twenty minutes into my talk, and about to detail Mandrake’s drama with a portable radio—his displacement of anxiety onto a thing, when I had my own drama with a thing. The video. The first video, of Ripper schooling Mandrake about fluoridation and then implying that it caused his impotence, was frozen in neutral, unmoving, and therefore failing to entertain. Have you ever turned an ignition to start a car only to feel its deadness? Nothing was happening with the video. It wouldn’t start, and this not starting thing was happening in front of two hundred people!

I don’t remember what I felt, for I think feeling was deferred. “I need some help, I think”, I uttered haplessly, gesturing to the AV man, a confident and casual twenty-something who quickly stepped onto the stage to assess my problem. The conference organizer, a genial patriarch, also stepped up to oversee matters and direct, Kubrick-like, the correction of disorder. The moments blurred, especially as the techie stepped offstage again to replace my laptop, only to reveal a minute or so later that no internet connection could be found by his device either. I skipped past denial, somehow taking in the news that my videos—all ten-to-fifteen minutes worth of film clips—would not be shown, and that my presentation of “Dr Strangelove in the 21st century” had been undone by this century’s signature technology, and that the crowd would be at the mercy of my oratory, not the great acting from the film itself.

For several more moments I was struck dumb, but I found my voice soon enough when the conference organizer took to the mic and seized time to make program announcements. No way! I thought. I had an impulse to kick him offstage, like Pete Townshend once did to Abbie Hoffman at Woodstock. Fortunately, another impulse took over. Serendipitously, I recalled a skit-in-progress about Mandrake and Ripper that I thought I wouldn’t have time for, and instead of collapsing in shame due to the cataclysmic glitches, I took out my prop cigar, stuck it between my lips, and told the audience that I’d give ‘em a real “live” show. I might have interrupted the organizer, but at that point I didn’t care. I had nothing to lose as I launched into a bit that mocks the Ripper thought process and transfers the drama to an imagined hijacking of vaccine-shipping aircraft in a modern scenario. Hilarious, several said later. The audience laughed and applauded when I was done with that and, buoyed for the remainder of my time-slot, I simply took my time with the remainder of the material, ad-libbing here and there.

Somehow, I made it to the finish line without falling short of my allotted time to an embarrassingly significant degree. Initially, as I hopped offstage, I was something in between numb, satisfied, and cynical. Technology had let me down, or I had failed to manage it. Regardless, either truism had at least diminished my presentation about a film that is arguably cinema’s greatest satire about the failures of technology. How apt, the organizer quipped, beating me to the trite joke. I was too embarrassed to laugh at my own misfortune or foolishness. Anyway, the rest of the conference transpired with flat yet modest interest. With the energy of anti-climax, I sat through the last presentation, an impressive non-malfunctioning, video-filled profile of jazz singer Nina Simone, who was let down in her life by racism, by men (another motif of the conference), by society as a whole but by Mississippi in particular, but not by her own instruments of music or any other technology, I thought enviously.

Perspective. I sighed, knowing I lacked perspective. I sighed, knowing I was still in a public space, inhibited from expressing my true emotion, which may have been hard to pinpoint anyway. Did I want to cry? I should have. This opportunity to talk about a pet love in the context of my work, psychoanalysis, had been long-awaited and sought after—my day on stage had been a dream come true, to invoke another trite saying. Therefore, I had reason to desire perfection, even if fate, irony or its analogue, aptness, were to prevail. Perhaps someone would, or will, delight in the connections, see the glory in the failure; the shining truth amid the glitches.

The woman who bent my ear prior to the talk hung around afterwards and kept popping up to offer support and more solicitation. Later that day, she was at the airport, getting on the same flight as my wife and I, heading to the first hub of our two-part journey. Regarding my presentation, she was kind, complimentary, and self-effacing, observing that I’d managed something (the improv) that she couldn’t have pulled off had the same problems befallen her. She affected astonishment, was hyping me to onlookers, even TSA agents who stolidly heard our conversation as they poked at our bodies and belongings. The woman was a character, I’ll give her that. She knew how to mingle, to engage, and amid the patronage of my efforts, she knew how to self promote. Before our flight, we continued to chat, speaking mostly about her, I noticed. She wanted to show her art—acrylic paintwork mostly—that was abstractly expressive about trauma and recovery from addictions. She was verbose, as many “in recovery” are, but she was earnest, and despite the feint air of manipulation, she seemed authentic.

However, things got messy as we prepared to board. She was in pre-boarding, which meant she’d be getting on first, about a hundred people ahead of us. She’d save us a pair of seats, she declared, which seemed unlikely given how full and “first come first serve” the flight seemed, but she was willful and persuasive, so the prospect at least seemed plausible. As my wife and I reflected upon our comparative passivity, we also mulled over the offer. We tentatively accepted the plan, despite our tacit recognition of fatigue and the shared desire to withdraw, perhaps nap for a portion of our journey. That unsaid plan was indeed realized, partly due to another glitch—a glitch in a system at least, if not of a thing. When we got on the plane, we saw that the woman had managed to save two seats for us. Her leg was aggressively stretched over a row of three, and as I stood next to her, poised to set down, she looked like an ardent protester who had staged a sit-in.

Unfortunately, there was a problem. An equally officious flight attendant was directing me elsewhere to store our bags, and wouldn’t let me set my valuable (if malfunctioning) laptop down by my feet as the seats next to the woman were in the first row. Quickly, I made a decision, and with apologies I said to our would-be companion that our plan wasn’t to be. She stretched out her hand with a grim look of blessing. She was letting us go, though not without a smidgen of attitude. She might have thought ill of me in that moment—that I just don’t fight enough, or something, for what I want. That might be true, though I fashioned a different meaning, one that reinforced the values of passive acceptance. Just like me, I thought, of her and of the situation. Best laid plans, and so on. Roll with it. Put on your face. Let it slide. Move on. Let us inventory the cliches, and if nuclear war, climate change, pandemics or racial war all beckon, as my talk was meant to convey, or if friends lose homes in wildfires, and if an old colleague can lose her life in a car accident, let me learn to live with imperfection.

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Sabbath’s Indecent Theater

Life is fragile. Such a cliché. It’s something we take for granted. Also dull and yet true. Next, it seems true that we are selectively moved by events, as life is proven fragile everyday, only recently it hit close to home, sort of.

I could act out on it, exhibit another truism; another banality. I could displace onto other stressors, lurking and ominous, and wholly plausible. The latest pandemic scare, the so-called Delta variant, is disheartening because it emerges upon the heels of progress. Hadn’t we thought we’d turned a corner? Seriously, hadn’t most of us gotten vaccines, observed the number of cases plateau? Everything was opening. I’d gone back to my office, invited a few patients to come in “live”. Spring had turned into summer. The sun was out and it was time to play again, in groups even.

Ugh. Are we going backwards? I know I don’t like change, and I can tolerate plateaus of varying kinds. But I thought I was okay with the past, except for that I thought I was done with. My routine hadn’t changed much, I must admit. My interior life of daily analysis, reading, work, as in listening, sprinkled with oratory, hasn’t changed much. Next week I’ll be amongst a crowd, indoors, speaking to an assembly. Not a good idea, I contemplate? I don’t wanna cancel. It’s a risk I wanna take…I think.

Do I wish I could be like Micky Sabbath, the devilish yet down-and-out protagonist of Philip Roth’s Sabbath Theater? Over the last several weeks, I’ve envied some of his exploits, if not so much his fate. My experience of this novel has juxtaposed against my spring revisiting of Nabokov, and specifically Lolita, whose detached, erudite yet hebophilic narrator, Humbert Humbert, annoyed me with his elaborate denials, his tiresome reaction formations. I’m not sure what I was thinking. I’d first read Lolita in my 20s, long before I’d ever worked with sex offenders. Did I think my skin had thickened? Did I think my reactions to character, if not so much the details of sex, had changed that much? Micky Sabbath has induced a quite different experience, and he is an opposite to HH: a sort of noble savage, living mid-century 20th century, straddling wars and social movements, having lived a deceptively humble professional life as—get this–a puppeteer, and hitting his peak as a kind of circus freak in 1950s Manhattan, but gaining special notoriety for his “indecent” fingering; his generally lascivious, masculine gift.

Frankensteinish, living out a late middle age in the early nineties (and latterly set in a small New England township), Mickey’s story is largely told via flashbacks, as the reader learns about his life of pleasure and loss, plus that of the long-suffering women in his life: of his lusty Croatian mistress, Drenka; of his first wife, the actress Nikki, perhaps overwhelmed by Mickey’s toomuchness, whom he privately claims to have murdered after her never-resolved disappearance (signifying that he may not be above a crime passionale); of his second wife, the simple-life coveting, recovering alcoholic, Roseanna.

Mickey Sabbath: a backwards ascetic, described by Roth as a monk of fucking, an evangelist of fornication. The unapologetic pornography of Roth’s prose stands in contrast to the glib, avoidant phrasing of Nabokov’s character. With Mickey, we have a muscular, disrobed, phallic yet vulnerable beast, moving like a predator but eliciting concern because he is not otherwise a power player. As the author states, he has simplified his life and, unlike most womanizers, he doesn’t fit his fucking around more pressing concerns; he fits other concerns around his fucking, as if it were life’s raison d’etre. In today’s parlance, he might be termed a polyamorist, and possibly a sex addict, but one who might credibly argue that he does not fit the profile of either type: that of an objectifying narcissist with a case of closeted misogyny, for example. Instead, Mickey fits the alternative, declining yet ever lingering model of a man whose libido is simply excessive; whose desire for novelty, or perversion, or appetite to love women who are for the most part consensual, seems insatiable.

He does not exploit. On that point he is clear and especially defiant. A committed non-monogamist, he proclaims that he is deformed only by a society that demands infidelity, and challenges his mistress’ hypocrisy for demanding fidelity of him while cheating on her husband. However, he turns the tables on that score. Paraphilias? Certainly. Grieving the loss of Drenka from cancer, he masturbates in the cemetery, and comes on her grave. A voyeur and fantasist, he’d once offered to give up other women if she’d suck off her husband twice a week, all because “it would excite me”. Or, he revels at the prospect of urinating on women, and their reciprocating with their “warm juices”. Unlike Nabokov, Roth does not deflect from gory details, hoping to hide behind decorum. In this way, Mickey Sabbath curries sympathy, like a last man standing, doubly erect. A one-time puppeteer, and master of what was once dubbed “indecent theater”, Mickey skated by for most of his life, playing the role of the “dirty man”, the grinning satyr that adorns the book’s cover. With his sinewy, innate sexiness, it would seem that he’d titillated and aroused much more than he’d offended—that is, until the late 80s when, upon teaching workshop on the art of puppet theater and then supervising students individually, he disgraced himself by sexually harassing a girl forty years his junior.

Aging (into his sixties), jobless, penniless and arthritic, he presents to the reader as a hapless dependent, yet with the reader’s approval he may yet assert his individuality as he tells his back-story. In reading Sabbath Theater, I was aware of a solemn biography, of a character reminiscent of a Bellow protagonist, or an Amis lecher—of a man skirting dignity and drifting towards a wayward and lonely end, perhaps bringing to mind any one or all of the high-profile, disgraced men of the post-MeToo era. Throughout the novel, death hovers, firstly because of Drenka, as a point of focus—but also with a touch of family history. Early, for example, we learn that Mickey once had a brother named (appropriately enough) Mort, who had fought in WWII as a pilot and died at the end of 1944, shot down by the Japanese. We further learn, or at least divine, that the doomed Mort had been the favorite of a doting mother who otherwise neglected Mickey and sunk into depression after his brother’s death. It is reasonable to presume that Roth intended something like an Oedipal play within his novel’s subtext, and that a once neglected Mickey Sabbath has acted out over the course of his life an insatiable need for female substitutions.

Don’t take life for granted. Recently, I’ve had cause to think this bumper sticker wisdom due to some bad news: a one-time colleague, a supervisee, mother of two and a wife, was killed in a car accident that made local news. I’m shaken. It happens everyday, this kind of thing. It’s just that I knew her and could imagine her living her everyday life, going about her practice among other things, and then taking a vacation, unaware of the cruel fate that awaited. I’ll be going on a vacation soon, thinking I need some rest from a life that is generally lacking in risk. And I’m not even in disgrace…yet. For now, I plan to write more, spend some time reading novels like Sabbath’s Theater, whether they are salacious and brimming with life instinct, or else droll and sinister, like Lolita. I guess I’ll keep doing “live” things, and taking everyday risks, like getting behind the wheel of a car. Despite the horror, I’ll have a dirty thought or two, I guess, and let my dreams do their thing, to excess or not. Meanwhile, I’ll hide a bit in daytime, try to live simply. Or wear a mask, anyway.

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Strangelove is back on

It was about three months ago that I heard from the organizers of the Bat Guano jamboree. Previously, I’d been informed that the latest event, set for August in San Jose, was again on hold—the result of an uncertain road back from restrictions, lockdowns, etc. Now it’s back on, as life with all of its so-called normalcy, is back on. Therefore, my talk on Dr. Strangelove is back on, only it must be updated once again, this time with more nuances than I could have imagined previously.

Yeah—hyperbole. Not my thing, except when I’m stuck for a line that will catch the pithy truth. I’d almost said forget it. Did I want to resurrect a now three-year old presentation, squeeze it in between seminar schedules of my analytic training program? Have it interrupt the head-long (slight sarcasm here) path of Getting Real About Sex Addiction towards publication?

Of course I did.

Firstly, my ego wants me on stage talking to an audience, not just writing a book or essaying on this blog thing. Secondly, I’d presented at this conference before—in 2017, on the subject of Tommy, the rock opera—so I was familiar with its genteel and professional atmosphere, the boomer demographic that would welcome a treatise on sixties icons. Thirdly, this was a chance, finally, to talk about one of my favorite movies of all time, and to do so through the lens of psychoanalytic theory. I’d done that with my Tommy talk also, but less effectively, I think, having not quite integrated my Masterson/Klein material into the mix of Who biography. I further cluttered that presentation by trying to say too much in a single hour, which rendered me pressured, my “performance” at times stilted. That is, all except for the bit where I swung my arms windmill style, aping Pete Townsend as I played a recorded track of “Pinball Wizard” for the crowd. After the talk, some said they wanted to hear more music (and less of me, perhaps), so this time I’m determined to not make the same (kind of) mistake. Therefore, I got clips—film clips—set to illustrate what I have to say about Strangelove’s message.

Much of the focus will be on General Jack Ripper, the character who launches a nuclear attack on the old Soviet Union, believing the communists responsible for worldwide water contamination (fluoridation), which Ripper blames for his sexual impotence. Don’t all wars begin this way? Anyway, I present a scene or two depicting Ripper’s pathology, alongside a Peter Sellers Stan Laurel-like character who attempts to dissuade general nutjob from realizing his vengeful plan. The plot point is a spring-board for a mini lecture upon death instinct ala Sigmund Freud, followed by a slide or two about Object Relations Theory, and in particular the theories of Melanie Klein as they pertain to infantile neurosis, and the process of splitting as a psychic defense that keeps separate the internalized good and bad objects of our minds.

I reference these ideas to explain why Ripper can’t take in the empathetic presence of Sellers’ Captain Mandrake character, or why he can’t bring himself to take corrective action after he appears to express remorse for having launched the attack. He’s at war with his internal objects, I offer, and like many others, before and since, he can’t really bring himself to admit wrongdoing or seek redemption. Instead, lost in a split between good and evil, and feeling defeated at the hands of an ambiguous enemy, he commits suicide. In my talk, I imply that this characteristic is the corrupted core of many political or socially prominent figures, as well as more famous characters from literature (I’m thinking of Javert also from Les Miserables), which partly explains the lingering relevance of Strangelove.

There are other enduring features of the film, of course. I also touch upon themes of obsession: sexual and technological obsession; the delusion of characters who live in an enclosed and solipsistic world, oblivious as to how their actions will affect humanity, and juxtaposing their unconscious wishes about time (we will live forever, and our machines and systems will never fail!) with odd, time-bound concerns. Examples include General Turgidson’s promise that he’ll marry his secretary while he’s busy at the war room; or, Major Kong’s speech to his crew ahead of the bomb mission, which promises promotions for each and every one of them—as if that will matter in a post-holocaust world.

What I proclaim, and what I’ve been set to proclaim for two or three years, is that Strangelove was uniquely audacious to ask its audience to laugh at the present-day horrors of 1964. Two months after the assassination of JFK, and just two years after the Cuban missile crisis, it was surely a sensitive time to be laughing at what was most ominous about the cold war. In preparing this talk, and indeed, in suggesting that Strangelove was “as relevant as ever”, I was barely conscious that this was not quite true of our time…at the time. After all, despite the ubiquity of real-life Rippers and Turgidson’s in our mad men world, I couldn’t quite say (climate change notwithstanding) that we were staring down the barrel of an imminent, world-impacting danger.

Then Covid came along and literally halted my talk. I mean that its previously projected debut, in Charleston last year, was cancelled. Instead, like everyone else, I scrambled to buy toilet paper, come to grips with concepts like social distancing and lockdown, and prepared to use Telehealth tools (my I-phone, Zoom technology) to see patients for…how long was it gonna be originally? A month or two?

Denial

I now get to weave into my talk that as much as Strangelove’s characters are in denial of their horror, we have likewise been in denial of ours. The analyst Glen Gabbard, writing in a recent issue of The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, observes that the world is in the grip of another plague. Death is everywhere, but many citizens have continued to open their shops as usual, go on vacations, and insist that they are free to do as they like. For many others, life is on hold. The passage of time is crushingly slow. One feels stuck. Diets are forgotten. Alcohol intake increases. Hugs disappear. As we collectively wait for Godot, perhaps wondering what our part in all this has been and may continue to be, we return to a semblance of normal, and so among other things, my “talk” is back on.

Wildfires will soon be back on. Hurricanes will be happening. That climate change thing, destined to have our present-day Strangeloves re-thinking that absurd mine-shaft plan, is on the horizon. And as we quietly register the passing of 4 million across the globe from Covid, we may even find ourselves quoting the Turgidson character: we’ve had our hair mussed.

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Coffee, dinner, or a hike

Hey, I’m Ray, bustin’ in here with my say. About dating. I don’t know. What’s the deal with hiking? Why do so many profiles say, “I’m into hiking”, with people offering that as, like, a first date? I don’t think anyone’s really thought this through.

See, it’s not that I’m lazy or that I don’t like nature, or just hanging out while walking. My shrink says that the thing about hiking is similar to being in a car. You don’t look at each other. Then he goes on about non-verbal communication, how that’s more stressful. That’s true, actually, though I find talking trouble enough. It’s like a first session, I told him: if he’s not on his game he won’t ask the right questions, show enough interest, or worse, he’ll ask a question that shows he wasn’t listening, like the time I asked this guy how his wife was doing after he’d previously told me she died. Doh! Yeah, good thing the onus was upon my shrink to talk right the first time we met. Me, I just had to show up and be myself. I never thought I had to impress him.

But I digress, got off the path of what I was saying, which is what can happen when you’re on a hike, which is why I’ve got a problem with this whole hiking trend. So, it’s safer, says the shrink. As in a car, you’re flanking each other, or you’re walking in a line, one behind the other. Don’t have to look at each other, see anxiety in the other’s eye. I get it. But it’s a commitment. Seriously, a hike—on average, what people call a “hike”—is not just a ten-minute jaunt around the neighborhood. It’s an hour, or two, in a park, on an open field, or a plain, in the woods, or some shit like that. Safer? Yeah, not if you’re with some creep intent on stabbing you out of sight or earshot. How about that kind of safety, especially for women? Anyway, even if it’s not dangerous in that way, it’s still a problem of commitment.

Take me. See, as you might guess, I’m apt to say the wrong thing from time to time, offend people. And that’s easier to do than ever these days. So what if you’re on a hike, in the middle of a field or somewhere, and not at the beginning or end of the hike but right smack in the middle, and you say something that the other person thinks is shitty like…oh, I don’t know…I can’t remember all the wrong things I’ve said. I can’t keep track. I say ‘em everyday. On a “hike” you’re stuck. You’re in the middle of nowhere, still in earshot with no buffers as you turn tail and walk away. That wouldn’t be me, of course. I’d be the one standing in the field, holding out my hands maybe, calling out, saying “what’s the problem?”

See, a coffee date is easier, has more exit routes, more buffers. By that, I mean you got the gentle buzz of the shop, or just that fact that there’s people around so you’re less likely to call out or hear some smack being called out to you. Or, if you wanna get out without a fight, you can just quietly edge away, make an excuse, say you gotta be somewhere. Coffee? That could be any amount of time: fifteen minutes? A half hour? Three, if you’re hitting it off. Me? I had one date that lasted five minutes, though not because she left. On that one I bailed, pretended I needed a bathroom, then I slipped out. I’m not proud of it. That was shitty, I guess.

But that touches on another thing: catfishing. You know what catfishing is? Everyone does. My shrink didn’t, which was a change—me schooling him, I mean. He knows everything. He knows about gaslighting, which is a term my ex used to use, saying something about what I did to her. I didn’t get what she was saying. She didn’t talk properly. Or I didn’t listen. Who knows? My shrink says the latter is probably true, as he thinks I don’t listen; I don’t “take in” as he puts it. Well, I took that in, I suppose. Still, I told him about catfishing, the problem of people—mostly women, from my point of view—not being who they say they are, or more specifically, not looking like they looked in their profile pictures. Take this woman I went on a date with, and not a coffee date or a “hike”, but a proper date—like a dinner date.

I selected this place that wouldn’t have been a problem had she looked like her goddamned picture. It was called—get this—“Fat Lady”, or it had those words in its name. You’d think the managers would’ve thought through that one, but no matter. It’s a good place. Good food. Anyway, on this date, our first date, I get there first and I’m waiting in the front area, looking out for her. When she walks in she gives me a big smile, walks up and gives me a hug. It took me a moment to react because at first I didn’t recognize her. I mean, there had to be at least a twenty pound difference—maybe thirty—between image and reality. But we sit down, have a meal and talk, and in the dimmer light of the restaurant I’m thinking that she looks kinda cute, and the conversation isn’t bad. She’s asking more of the questions, which is good. Towards the end, she’s asking if I wanna hit a bar afterwards. I gotta admit, she was doing more of the groundwork, and I was feeling alright. I’m not sure what was going on with me exactly, but then she did this thing, said something that threw me off my game.

My game. My shrink and I talk about that concept too. My game, his game; everyone’s game. Well, I fumbled, made a mistake. No such thing, he says. Words are actions too. They reveal the unconscious, and also what is conscious. Was I conscious? I don’t know. She remarked on the restaurant name, said it was weird. I think she was relaxed by that point, didn’t know what she was saying. I know I didn’t, so I said something wrong. I smirked, I guess, and said “seems about right to me”. She set her drink down, her smiled at once ghosted. She reached for her bag, signaling her departure, though she didn’t leave at that moment. She just got quieter. The room quieted just a tad also, as if everyone in the room had heard me. By the front entry there was a logo, a cartoon image of a fat waitress holding a plate. Even she seemed like she was shaking her head, giving me disapproval.

I should’ve gone on a hike.

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