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?


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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He’s been on my mind recently. It’s a bit cheeky, I’m sure, to cite him as an influence, especially as a non-fiction work entitled Getting Real About Sex Addiction would seem to have slim relevance to the author of Lolita. Was Humbert Humbert a sex addict? Is that where I’m going with this? Or a sex offender? That’s a more likely assessment, actually; that is, if we’re going there.

A brief, crude biography: Nabokov had a life before writing Lolita, as a writer and revolutionary. He was part of the provisional government that formed after the October uprising of 1917, but quickly became disillusioned with Leninist politics, the later brutality of Stalin. Marginalized and penniless until long after he’d emigrated to America, and later fell out with fellow Soviet-bloc commentators like Edmund Wilson. Before that, he’d produced notable works like The Gift (1938), a novel in part about proto-revolutionist Nicolai Chernyshevsky, and was undoubtedly one of the most talented Russian writers of his generation, which—as many have observed of Soviet politics—will have helped cause his exile, not spared him from it. Though he fled to the US in the 40s, the publication of his shocking novel of an aged literature professor who seduces (or is seduced, depending on your viewpoint) a 12 year old girl was first published in Paris in 1955, and not in the US until 1967. That should say something about the chaste sensibilities of American publishing, juxtaposed as they were by a prurient readership that would make it one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century.

But despite its subject matter, Lolita is not primarily known as an erotic or salacious novel, but rather as a masterpiece of unreliable narration by a literary ironist known for clever wordplay, and wry understatement. The English novelist Martin Amis essayed that Nabokov wrote with a perspicacious eye for cruelty, and above all, that Lolita is a coded study of tyranny, likely an allegory about Leninist/Stalinist Russia. To be sure, if the reader is looking instead for lewd passages, the novel will surely disappoint. Instead, what Lolita offers is a first-person account of seduction and obsession, as told from the viewpoint of the tyrant. Less of a brute than an effete fantasist, Humbert Humbert is an amoral observer, narrating with a detached air, reporting truthfully of events in a general sense, but sparing the reader details, suggesting a distasteful reticence and pretense of civility. In the beginning, we learn the pedigree of the narrator’s hebophilic interest: a long-lost innocent love for a girl named Annabelle, who dies of typhoid at the age of thirteen. HH is candid about the link between Annabelle and Delores Haze (the girl he dubs Lolita), but adds little to sustain consciousness of this psychic link.

Instead, what proceeds is a despairing objectification of the pubescent Delores, who is variably termed the nymphet, the faunet, or just Lolita. Anything but who she actually is. Far from idealized, except in physical terms, HH actually exudes a disdain for the coquette’s gum-smacking, sassy adolescence, and at times acts as if embarrassed before the reader that he’d ever deign to partner such a callow figure as her. His reaction formations intensify as he attempts to play the role of father, following the death of Lolita’s mother. In conversation with a school headmistress, he is protectively heavyhanded, refusing to allow Lolita to participate in a school play, fearful of boys who may be less lascivious than him, actually. Still, what is most offensive about this narrative is not the self-pity of HH but rather the distance the reader feels from Lolita. At no time are we allowed to feel the original Delores. Even as the character finally escapes the clutches of her captor, our attentions and strained sympathy is cornered into the solipsistic mind of HH. As far as we know, we are with him as he writes from within the sanitoriums he mentions only in passing. As much as we may long to know the titular figure, he forces us to think with him, and only him.

And yet, as contemptible as his most famous protagonist is, Nabokov writes in a fashion that is enviably insightful and searching. Having endured the savagery and censoring presence of the communist nightmare, he shows all writers—fiction and even non-fiction scribes—how to write between the lines and tease with his secret knowledge; to avoid tendentious prose, high-hand didacticism, and yet cut into the reader’s heart with cryptic thoughts.  There is no explicit direction in this novel: no “shoulds”; no appeals or morals—no “takeaway” as my patients sometimes ask for. As a reader, one is gripped by human inhumanity, eager to delve into the mind of HH and perhaps hopeful that he and his symbolic antecedents will get their just desserts. Meanwhile, our impression of Nabokov is that he also identifies with the othered and demeaned Lolita, for it seems to us that he will have known all too well a life in the dark, subservient to the macabre wishes of despots. One is left to marvel at how he managed to write so many pages, so many witty, insightful thoughts, and yet reveal so little of himself. That’s the talent of hiding. That’s the talent of a sublime fiction.

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The Crown

That fifty dollar bill was nothing. Within days I’d moved onto other lost objects—parts of self, displacements, etc. Actually, it had started first as a somatic displacement, a pain in my tooth. Once, I might have thought this a problem of intruding bicuspids, misshapen, arrowing into neighbors, causing a throbbing impaction. Not so anymore. These days I am more teeth aware; I am a woke dental patient, so I sprang from my bed and seized a thread of floss, ready for a thorough cleaning session. No holds barred. I’d need to be like my vigorous hygienist on this matter: be ruthless, slice that string through the gaps and dig into those puffy gums. Even if I pop them open and leak blood, I’ll be better off in the long run. Within hours, the throbbing will subside. Those misbehaving, pain-delivering gnashers will relax, settle down like quieted adolescents.

The dislodging was sudden, expulsive, and shocking. Strange that I saw the offender leave its platform and jump from my gaping orifice, not even striking other teeth on its way out. I heard it land but didn’t see where it landed. I looked down, first into the bathroom sink, feeling pessimistic. My eyes shot towards the hole, wondering if that tinkling contact was upon a ceramic basin and not the linoleum floor below. I saw nothing, but soon transitioned my sight to the beige, dirty ground. Improbably, the broken crown stood out, its bottom face up, pointing at me like it was asking to be rescued. I swore. Then I said “really?” in that incredulous way that’s topical these days, and then swore again. That was before the tantrum, which was before the real tantrum because I hadn’t really done anything wrong. Yet. So far, I’d just been unlucky.

The next day, I duly called my dentist, a happy-go-lucky, confident guy with a healthy paunch and a garrulous turn of phrase. I caught him off guard with my call, which he’d once invited me to make if I ever really needed him. He’d made that invitation about twenty years ago when I first hired him to manage my disordered mouth and I think I’ve made use of his Bat-phone one other time over the years. Anyway, he wasn’t garrulous or happy-go-lucky when he picked up my call. “Hi”, he said uncertainly, after which I gave him the news, the play-by-play. When should I come in? I asked awkwardly. Jesus, I thought. I sounded like I was asking for a date. Regardless, he switched quickly to work persona: “Well, the thing is we don’t want you to aspirate, have it go into your lung”. Jesus, I thought a second time. That prospect hadn’t actually occurred to me. “So…come in soon, then”, I replied stupidly. Denial was displacing displacement.

Still, I relaxed over the remainder of the day, having secured an appointment for the next day through his receptionist. I was confident that my dentist—my guy—would take care of me. He was like a good neighbor, and I was in good hands. Therefore, I relaxed too much. That’s what happens sometimes when you’re feeling good; when it seems that everything’s under control and a return to normalcy seems imminent. Yes, that’s right. You f-up. But let me not other myself. Here, of course, I would be the f-up. No question it was down to me. Talking was partly to blame. I was in the middle of reminiscing with my wife about a moment in time, roughly twenty years ago, when I learned that Stanley Kubrick had died because that’s what I thought when I jogged by a newsstand and saw his image all across the front page of a New York Times. There could only be one reason why, I thought, reflecting upon this memory, my associative mind and…

Oh no

My tongue had just made a sideways maneuver, sliding across the molars on my lower east side, there to perform a sweep of cheese residue. The potato blocks had tasted particularly good this evening—crisp, just the right level of salty; smooth yet not mushy in texture. Smoot but not mushy. That will have been the problem, I soon thought as I dropped to the floor, hoping I’d be lucky a second time. Despite evidence to the contrary, I ran my eyes and hands across carpet, hoping I’d catch a glimpse of that familiar off-white crown, again turned on its head, its bottom facing me a second time. But with each passing moment, a sense of justice and punishment was taking over, hovering over my prostate, pitiful search with a pitiless air. I had a meltdown during which a glass jar was sacrificed to the alter of a wall. Then I unleashed an animal’s bray that—had I thought to persist—might have surged the swallowed porcelain from its concurrent path downward.

Surely I had swallowed it, I’d decided. My lungs? If it had sunk in there I’d be coughing, or feeling a hard pain in my chest. After all, the thing wasn’t small. Actually, it was small but it was…no, I didn’t wanna think about it anymore. After a spell of, let’s say, getting things off my chest, I sat out the rest of the evening, languished on a couch, half-exhausted by my on-my-knees recovery effort; otherwise I was humiliated, thinking I’d blown my chance to undo bad luck. My carelessness, hubris—my premature belief that everything was settled and returned to normal—had served me right, as in wrong. In the morning, I’d have to call my guy, my dentist, and tell him that I couldn’t come in anymore for a simple glue-job. I’d have to tell him that I’d lost a tooth, found it and stuck it back in, and then lost it again, having probably eaten it.

There was one possibility left, though I didn’t want to think about it. But I did it. I even talked about it, to him—my guy, that happy-go-lucky persona, who looked at me with a straight face, a sound, tooth-filled mouth, plus a well-acted, sympathetic air. I have to say he was great about it all. Cheerful, philosophical, looking like an affable shrug was the answer to all problems, he did my job, gave me sound counsel: don’t beat up on yourself. The next day, he’d beat up a replacement piece of porcelain, having unearthed the “digital” record of the four-year old stone he’d stuck in me once before, and which he that day determined to be the missing tooth. “I ate it”, I said haplessly. It sounded worse than “I swallowed it”, but more dignified somehow, like I was owning it, the whole thing. It’s like everything I do, I pretended—it was meant to be.

You might wonder how we talked about the excavation, the discovery, the…whatever else I might call that part of the yarn. I know: how about, “looking through pieces of s—t to see if my tooth is buried in it”. Not your typical blog entry title. We didn’t use those words exactly. We were manly about it, but also gentlemanly. Anyway, time, as in too much time, passed (yes, passed) before “it” was…discovered. Then, finally, something even more shameful, yet otherwise wonderful happened. I’ll try to be polite. I passed…something. Then I walked away, half-aware that my guy had likely done his deed already. Meaning, this passing—it would be too late. This was a day and a half later, after two bathroom trips with nothing yet found. My dentist will have already broken out his medieval burner or whatever and scorched a replacement crown chomper by now. But I didn’t get rid of my waste. I know: gross. But love saved the day. An hour after my…you know, I found my wife back in bed, comfortably ensconced in warm sheets, looking satisfied, as if she’d completed a great task. “I found it”, she declared, beaming. Denial returned to my mind. I was poised to ask, “how?”, but managed to restrain that climactic stupidity. Instead, I walked into the bathroom and found my recovered crown on the side of the sink. It was facing up at me again, this time with attitude, for it had just gone through much more than it had ever bargained for.

Talk about displacement.

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The 50 dollar bill

Where did you go? I can see where you were at one point, laid out upon a desk, preening yet submissive and above all, patient. Then you were truly mine, stuffed into the leather pouch, wedged alongside the runts, the frowning Andrew Jacksons and those pawnish George Washingtons. Seconds later, I was up and away, moving in swift turns, sliding my limbs into a jacket and stepping out in one fluid motion. I said I’d be back to my one and only witness, my retiring wife, couched in mid-evening settlement, absorbed in TV. With the extra bill, plus a few others, there were fleeting thoughts of opportunity for a gratuitous expense, but no time, and not enough imagination to explore desire. Perhaps I’d fill up the tank on the way back, I thought prosaically, thinking of the next day. Saturday beckoned with the freedom of an empty schedule and a dearth of expectation. It would be like days gone when I was a carefree bachelor, living alone and without attachment or obligation. Days off were a chance to disappear: just get in a car and go, wondering how long I could go for without being missed. An early lesson in displacement, such flights remind me now of an Amis witticism. In “Let me count the times”, a compulsive masturbator loses track of his habit, and amid his auto-destructive reverie, he borrows expressions from less shameful vices: “I’m tempted to run away with myself”.

             I’d go away with myself, but only for an hour or two. That’s how long it would take to feel lonely and bored; that the idea of dropping out was not as good as it would seem from within the traps of everyday life. Nowadays, there’s less of those feelings, what with everything in my life packed in, sardine-like, wearying me like an anesthetic. But when the week’s finish line approaches, I indulge the old thoughts, think of an open road and a stretch of travel time wherein the sun is out, casting a spring-like glow upon a light journey. There is little fatigue in this vision—rather, I conjure a breezy sigh and a relaxed glance at landscapes that pull me into their rainbow promises. That 50 dollar bill would have paid for that, I later thought as I fumbled through the lesser bills, searching for the missing note. Disconcerted, I paid for a half-tank with the remaining funds, thinking the prima donna of the pack would turn up later. Recalcitrant, it would be hiding on that desk at home, still preening and thinking itself important. Or, with troublesome mischief, it may be ensconced in one of my file boxes below my desk, having dropped down from the back of the desk’s wooden cliff.

             But I distinctly remembered placing it in my wallet! Oh well, I thought, driving back after that last appointment, at first relatively unperturbed, just glad to be done with that last hour of a fourth ten-hour day in a row. When home, I’d have a quick look through clothes and the piles around my desk area—one or two sets of papers, plus the pockets of my jeans, and the jacket that I’d deftly slid into an hour or so earlier. I’d already given these places a cursory look, but had found nothing. No problem. The bill was simply being difficult. So, it would call for a bit more effort, would it? It would thumb its nose at me, still thinking itself all that, I guess. When I returned I stepped into my home office, thinking this would take but a minute. The last messy piece of unresolved business from a long day would be tidied up and I would then be free to release; as quickly as I’d moved earlier, I’d find the bill, chide it for hiding from me and giving me a hard time. Then I’d slide out of my evening wear and find a nook in a couch in which to recline and then surrender myself to the weekend.

             Still no bill. By this time I was starting to escalate my pace, letting my blood pressure rise, becoming more hasty in my search methods. After about ten minutes I’d looked through that wallet about a half a dozen times. Having done so, I was intimately familiar with the odd tears in its linings, suggesting a replacement would be due when all this is over. But I can’t buy things like that if I lose things like 50 dollar bills, I heard myself thinking. That’s the neurotic in me: it thinks that happenings like this are the thin end of the wedge; or, that oversights, mistakes like this are just too cruel, too unjust and brutal to bear, somehow. Fifty dollars! That can buy, like, a lot of…I don’t know, this is just not acceptable, regardless. And yes, I was thinking something like this as I kept looking at that wallet, inspecting its slithered openings, thinking that a crisp note could insinuate its way inside one of the holes and disappear, teaching me a lesson about carelessness. Meanwhile, I was on first name terms with a piece of lint that I kept molesting within the right pocket of my jeans. The coarse cotton lining contrasted with the smooth, impeccable surfaces of my work jacket, whose unsullied silk seemed to call out with a mocking rebuke: “don’t blame me, there’s nothing to see here”.

The day would end with no result, portending a sleepless night, a dreamless rest. It wasn’t that I needed that lost bill. As I calmly inventoried material reality, I reminded myself that I was okay—that my wife and I were financially settled; that it had been a good year, despite the torrid changes brought on by Covid; that loss and misplacement were an aberration; that on the whole, I was on top of things. But I don’t like mysteries, especially those of the mundane kind, with little but a trite warning behind them—the start of something big. The questions nagged: how could it have slipped out from the leather pouch and not taken others with it? Might I have set it down somewhere and forgotten the action? Had there been more time than I realized between actions, and had I in fact taken it out, spent it on something illicit that I have done well to repress. No, I don’t think so, actually. I know what my thoughts were and where they went. I just don’t know what happened to the thing-in-itself that displaces them.

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The Snake

Was it a gopher snake or a rattler? The man didn’t know, and initially, his question was delayed, subordinated to a frightful reaction. The man’s utterance was ambiguous. A half-bray, choked by inhibition, was matched by his physical response, a brusque step backwards. I didn’t see any of this. Listening, imagining the scene and its meaning, I waited, my patience countered by an ever-muted eagerness. “Are you okay?” I asked, half-thinking the problem was simply a matter of the line. The phone was always cutting out during sessions, and during those with patients who amid Covid prefer their sessions while walking amid nature, the competition from distracting sounds, the elements of nature like the enveloping sound of wind, or the glitchy, tenuous, un-natural features of cell phone technology, are often letting us down.

             “Is that a gopher snake?” The man’s rhetorical question, arriving within seconds of his first comment—a protracted version of something like “whoa”—was for his own edification. The fascination suggested a modicum of knowledge, for he was already determining the absence of danger. The fairly large reptile, situated amongst some dry brush across a trail carved over time by feet rather than machines, was not making the signature sounds of a dangerous predator. It had moved but hadn’t otherwise been aggressive. Its sideways darting action, according to the man, had been enough to deter approach. Learning. The man emitted a nervous laugh as he stepped away, soon to resume the process that is ever more uncertain, his analysis. Breathless, walking faster, he marked time by wondering aloud about my experiences of snakes. Not much, I was inclined to say. I’d barely heard of anything called a gopher snake, for example. Otherwise, I brought to mind mythological associations, plus discussions at an analytic society that lamented the stereotyped image of serpents in general; the disregard of their expansive, cross-cultural meanings. In mine, snakes have meant temptation, seduction, and in this scene that association, or something close to it, was prevailing for me.

             Distraction. The prior subject had been distraction, plus—allusively—the man’s tentative commitment to analysis. We’d talked about the couch before, long before Covid hit, when sessions at my office had been the norm, not sessions by phone in the background of naturalistic settings. During this fraught period, I’d stayed at my office, sat in the same chair, albeit with less disciplined stillness, gazing at the same office walls and unchanging art, feeling alone and vaguely envious. My patients, like this one, were not just obeying “lockdown orders” or later recommendations by the CDC, or even my cooperation with those same authorities. They were making choices of where to be when speaking their minds, and simultaneously deciding upon variations of repression: how to take one’s mind off things. The couch. “The couch”, I reminded, after the man recovered his breath and asked after the prior subject of discussion. With little or no sense of irony—not yet, anyway—he stuttered back to the topic, asking me to take the lead, remind him of his former thoughts also; to guide him. 

“Get back on track?” I said drolly, which cued a laughing recognition. Where is he? He understood.

             The man remembered the walls of my office, the blank white space interrupted by unchanging artwork. He admitted that nature offered more variety to his roving eye, his stimulation-seeking mind. He soon associated to the reasons for his treatment: that other reason that his eyes wander, seeking distraction. It had been this tendency that got him in trouble, brought him to my lesser stimulating lair. A typical night: he and his spouse would be at a restaurant, dining and having a pleasant experience, conversing easily, enjoying a good meal. At some point, a woman would emerge from an adjacent space, perhaps entering the dining area from a restroom or from a waiting area. The man would glance in her direction and—inwardly at least—utter “whoa”, thinking the woman was his type. His fantasy. Within an instant of that thought he’d be machinating, managing the unspoken, half-digested dilemma: how to steal another look while concealing the act from his wife. He MUST look again, he thought half-consciously. Consciously, before his wife, and for the most part with me also, he MUST NOT look again. Defensively, in sessions, he’d often turn to a point of debate. His wife, unlike myself or his 12-step sponsors, had been and was still the more likely witness to his wayward masculine gaze, but as a long-suffering eyewitness to such incidents, was she the most “objective” observer of his habits?

             On the couch he might contemplate this scene, these events that actually happened on several occasions, though now the memories recede into the background, dismissed by latter day wishes. He’d prefer to not think about such painful memories. Better to move on, hit the trail, so to speak. The couch is still. It forces subjects to lie down, even, portending sleep and the arrival of dreams, or their retrieval. The subject, as in the patient, is drawn inward by this device, this hoary tradition of psychoanalysis. The answers: they are inside, not in the environment, we think. Who is we? “We” is…doesn’t matter. I agree. That’s what matters. I’m trying to get patients to agree also, and they do for the most part, in theory anyway. “It’s true,” says the man in a cheerful voice, evincing an agreeable air. He is quieted now, his startled encounter with the wild over. His well-defended, good-humored, studied urbanity is back, ready to think with me, be reminded of his purpose. He recalls points made some time ago, before the material reality of the last year compelled a change in our process. “There are indeed less distractions in your office, on your couch. To see the mountain outside your window I’d have to twist my neck, strain to see it”.

             “Are you that desperate to look outside?”

             He laughed again. “No”, he eventually said, perhaps unsure. What did he want to say? What is he supposed to say? A dilemma. He affected neutrality, the cover of matter-of-fact observation. “Just not much to see in your office, that’s all.”

             “No snakes?”

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