The Lighter Side of Freud

0084Therapy is such a grim business. At least it is stereotyped that way.

Thus, in the interest of a different look at the couch, here is something to consider. I cannot vouch that this therapeutic aid will work as advertised, but I leave it for your consideration: http://www.philosophersguild.com/After-Therapy-Mints.html/

Or, if you are more of a coffee person, this might be just the thing for you: http://www.philosophersguild.com/Freudian-Sips-Mug.html/ Take a close look at Dr. Freud’s comment on the top cup, above. Click on the image if you can’t make it out.

I assure you I’m not on the payroll of the Unemployed Philosophers Guild and do not profit from your purchase of their products. Simply consider this a public service announcement.

Shopping for Confidence

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I found myself in a sketchy part of town, although the people were handsomely dressed. No idea how I arrived. The unsavory, but well-groomed types walking the streets triggered my instinct for self-protection. I stepped into a store of a strange kind. Indeed, all the other businesses were full of commodities and people, but felt empty. This one was empty, yet the atmosphere was different.

“Ah, you found us!” said the middle-aged manager, looking pleased. “You seem troubled, but you needn’t be.”

“I was only trying to escape the — uh — neighborhood, if you get what I mean,” I responded hesitantly.

“Oh, they never come in here. We don’t sell what they want. They all want stuff. Everybody wants stuff. Fools.”

“What do you offer?” I replied. I’d not even looked at the sign in the window before I entered, and there was nothing inside to give away the nature of the store’s wares. No shelves, no showcases; plain powder blue walls, unadorned; furniture consisting of a chair, a table, and a sofa. Oh, yes, there was a large book on the table: The Discourses, by Epictetus.

“I sell confidence and I can tell you need some, young man.” Indeed, I was a naïve 20-year old. How did I become twenty again?

The manager had enough self-assurance for a small army. He stood as straight as a military officer at attention, with a bit of gray in his wavy hair, and the square jaw of a GQ model.

“Confidence? How can you tell I need such a thing?”

“You’re here, aren’t you? The doors don’t open unless you require our help. We had special sensors installed. Cost us a fortune.”

I decided not to ask about the technicalities. He was right of course. I did need fistfuls of bravado. I was doubtful about my future, had no clear idea what being a psychologist might entail, and was uncertain with the ladies. My mother was always reminding me I lacked the good-natured qualities of my younger brothers and my buddies. I offered no rejoinder to her comments about Ed and Jack, but when she brought up my friends I’d reply, “Yeah, easy for them: they don’t live with you.”

“OK,” said the manager. “What kind of confidence would you like?”

“You offer different kinds?”

“Yes. For example, you might enjoy some slightly used self-assurance, only utilized by a little old widow at church on Sundays. We can let you have it for a song. Can you sing?”

“No.”

“Well, then. We market a babe magnet variety which we call BMBM makes you appear taller and better looking. This is our best seller. Or perhaps you’d like political confidence. You know, the kind statesmen use to send young men into ill-conceived wars. Actually, we’re not supposed to sell the product any more because it got a bad name during the first George W. Bush administration. For you, though, I’ll make an exception.”

“How about some general confidence. Something all-purpose, to help me say no, stand up for myself, worry less, make phone calls, give speeches, not care about what people think of me. What do you say?

“Oh, that’s very expensive. Too pricey for you, for sure.”

“How much?”

“Well, first off, you must understand what we are selling. We offer only the appearance of things. So, you’ll still be troubled by uncertainty and anxiety, but nobody will recognize what you are feeling. We call the package fake it to make it confidence.

“What would the real thing cost?”

“Years of your time. You’d have to fail a lot. A lot. Over and over, until you succeed. Courage, too, which we can’t give you. The law doesn’t permit us to sell strength of character. Taking on new things would be required of you. Truth telling is necessary — not trying to fool people. Repressing fake smiles is one of the hardest tasks, along with looking into the eyes of those you talk to. So is recognizing that others are much more preoccupied with their own lives than they are with yours. Maybe the most awful thing of all is realizing you don’t matter in the big picture. People don’t want to think someday they’ll die, leaving ‘not a rack behind,’ as Bill Shakespeare used to remind me. Like I said, though, we don’t sell what you’re looking for.”

“I understand. But are you suggesting if I did all the things you enumerated, took risks, got shot down, perhaps found a cognitive-behavior therapist, fell and picked myself up, looked hard into the mirror, and recognized the shortness of life — if I did all those things, I’d eventually find real confidence — perfect confidence?”

Now, for the first time, the manager frowned. Indeed, he no longer resembled the man I thought he was, a stud-meister of complete self-possession. After another moment’s silence, he spoke.

“Oh, no. Gee. Perfect confidence, what a novel idea. I never considered the possibility. But, no, even after all the labor I mentioned, you can’t attain such a lofty state.”

“Why?”

“Simple. Nothing in life is perfect.”

The top photo is a shopping bag made from recycled materials by Trashy Bags, in Accra, Ghana and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. And, a tip of the hat to Rosaliene Bacchus, a much devoted protector of the environment: https://rosalienebacchus.wordpress.com/

 

 

On Receiving Recognition: Is Attention a Good Thing?

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If you’ve ever wanted attention, this post is for you. Receiving recognition as an adult is meaningless but important. A contradiction, you say? Perhaps not. The wish for the spotlight is like a dry sponge inside of us hungering for a drenching. There are more noble human qualities. Still, attention is intoxicating and addictive. Almost everyone wants acknowledgment, except the master meditators and the Stoics.

The desire for status leads us to do awful things. Other people are used as stepping-stones on the way to greater height.  Accolades have no real value, yet we suffer in their absence. In the latter sense only — the manner in which they capture us — resides their importance. Recognition and prestige are significant on a personal level, but are meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Fame benefits one person and only one; and — the joke goes — lasts 15 minutes. Not much bang for the buck.

The philosophers tell us we are misled if we seek applause, potentially even corrupted by our desire. Better, they say, to be honorable, courageous, and kind than to be well-known. Here is what Marcus Aurelius wrote:

I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.

I now care less about getting good notices than in my youth, but not to the point of total indifference. Should I ever reach full maturity, my ego will be effaced and applause won’t matter at all. Like when I’m 400 years old.

I raise the issue since I am newly honored by receiving the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. I will admit, I was pleased and amused. I know it was offered sincerely by the wonderful blogger Spacefreedomlove. I am tickled because it is one of the fun things bloggers do to entertain themselves, say thanks, increase their readership, and bring a smile. Over analysis of this writers’ chain letter? Perhaps. I am simply grateful for a small tip of the cap from someone I appreciate, as she does me, from our writings and commentary and an ability to make each other laugh and think. She is a peach.

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WordPress reminded me, a few days before, that my blog is six years old. Toilet trained, vaccinated, and ready to start first grade. Earlier in this “career” I received the Beautiful Blogger Award. 

Despite the doubtful evidence of the photo in the top right corner, I was once absolutely beautiful. Way back, I was known everywhere as a stud muffin, trailing crowds of admirers behind me. I had to fend off women with an electric cattle prod. Then I woke up.

Gorgeous or not, I’m sure one of my reasons for blogging is to get attention. Not the only reason, however. I began with the clear idea of leaving a piece of myself (or at least a few electronic footprints) for my children and potential grandchildren. I never had the talent or grandiosity to believe I would transform the world or deposit a permanent mark on the planet. Talent often fuels grandiosity, leading to a vain pursuit of a satisfying level of recognition. Vain because, like money, there are always people with more of it, leaving the seeker bummed out.

I’ve been modest in my aims, in part because I had an early awareness of my limitations, which helped me to accept some things in life. To paraphrase Arthur Miller, we all try to scratch our name on a block of ice during a sweltering mid-summer day. Unlike his Death of a  Salesman character, Willy Loman, however, I don’t care that the autograph is not inscribed in stone.

My grandiosity does extend, nonetheless, to the pleasure I get in giving an occasional speech. The neat thing about oratory is you receive immediate feedback. Even before the applause, you sense whether you quieted the crowd and won their focus. Laughter tells you about the quality of your humor. Tears report back if the heart has been touched.

Blog post feedback, however, says less and does so later. Even if you get lots of “likes” and comments, average “readers” are said to spend 96 seconds attending to a blog post. I’ve had sneezes that lasted longer. A discouraging statistic, for sure. Inner necessity drives me, but I am not indifferent to being read. I suspect I would not journal forever were the words a secret.

Back to the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. The conditions of the honor required me to post the picture of it up top, nominate a few bloggers to receive the same distinction, and answer the seven questions below. First to a couple of bloggers who inspire me:

Three Worlds One Vision. Rosaliene Bacchus is a fierce defender of the dispossessed and disadvantaged, not to mention our fragile planet. She has lived in three countries on two continents and experienced more than her measure of hardship. She will not make you laugh as a rule, but may motivate you to march in the name of something good.

The Empress and the Fool. I might be the only man who reads about this teacher’s journey through the medical and emotional trial of trying to produce a baby. Her writing is lovely and she is on her way to an offspring. No newborn has ever been more loved ahead of its vault into the daylight.

Now to the seven questions I must answer:

Who is your favorite public figure? This was a tough one. I don’t admire many public figures. That said, I will give you two.

  • Senator Elizabeth Warren. A super bright, bold, sincere woman who seems to say what she believes. Should she make herself a candidate for President, I will reconsider, since that would suggest she isn’t smart enough to refrain from putting her hand in the ultimate political meat grinder. Running for President pretty much guarantees your judgment is poor.
  • Jonathan Kimble “J. K.” Simmons, the big, bad, band guy in Whiplash. He can play any role, from comic to kind to cruel. He is getting his due, at last. However meaningless, it would be difficult for him (or any of us in the same spot) not to care.

What do I like most? After removing love from the picture, classical orchestral music. Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart and many others are on this lover’s list.

Do you follow trends?  I had to look up the 2014 list of trends. Only numbers two, four, and 10 rang a bell. I was afraid to find out what #6 was. I guess that answers the question.

1. Bae
2. Benedict Cumberbatch
3. Turnt up
4. The booty
5. Yik Yak
6. Man buns
7. Kimye
8. Normcore
9. “Frozen” mania
10. Ice Bucket Challenge

What do you do when someone gets angry?
If I’m on my game, I wait. As I ponder, I’m trying to decide what part of the rageful message I can agree with, thereby getting on the other person’s metaphorical side of the table. Confrontation is out. I slow things down and make sure my emotions are in check. If none of this helps, it is best to suspend the discussion for another time or walk away.

What have you loved most?
Without question, my children and my wife, as unlike as those loves are. How remarkable that a thing named love takes such different forms as the love of a spouse and of a child.

Do you have causes?
The Zeolite Scholarship Fund, a college scholarship program I began with seven of my high school buddies in the year 2000. We are in the process of closing down. Everything has a beginning and an end.

What quality do you admire most.
I learn more from those who are honest, critical, and direct with me than those who are kind. Honesty — including honesty with oneself — takes courage and risks disapproval and the loss of recognition. Many self-interested souls get plaudits, but the honest whistle-blower gets forgotten if he is lucky, despised if he is not. Truth-telling integrity is a thing more important than the status I mentioned at the start. So let us finish where we began, although I hope the topic still resonates after you read this. The words are those of T.S. Elliot:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Where and When to Look at the Female Body: Some Guidance for Men from Women

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How should a man admire a woman with his gaze? When do you look, where do you look, how long do you look, at whom do you look? Should you look at all? I have done an unscientific survey by asking advice of several women. They ranged in age from the late 20s to the upper 60s.

The question: “What do you expect a man to do with his eyes when you wear revealing clothing?”

I received unanimous though not precise guidelines. Should your opinion differ, I’d be interested. Here goes:

1. You are expected to look. The gaze of a man is welcome. It affirms one’s attractiveness.

2. You are not supposed to stare. You are not supposed to drool. You are not supposed to exclaim, proclaim, yell, scream, holler or whistle. A personal disclosure: my father almost always was demonstrative as we watched the Miss America competition. This had a pronounced and deforming impact on my little psyche! As an especially curvaceous contestant sashayed across the stage in her swimsuit, dad would blurt out, “Holy Criminy, hung to the gills!” in a half-humorous hoot that never occurred at any other time. I gathered he wasn’t referring to fishing.

You don’t hear that reference to a woman’s bosom these days. Perhaps dad invented the comment, as he was an avid angler. On the street or in a crowd, however, I never saw my father even look at another woman. He was crazy about my mom.

3. In the company of a lady, no matter your relationship with her, you should not admire other women. Verboten is a twist of the neck or movement of the eyes unless required to avoid oncoming traffic. This rule applies whether you are with your mother, grandmother, significant other, aunt, cousin, sister, daughter, professor, boss, co-worker, senator, or any other female.

4. A psychologically mature woman dresses fashionably. She intends that which is revealed as an enticement, not a spectacle. She wants appreciation, not a proposition.

A few thoughts connected to the title question before I list more guidelines. I offer these considerations so you recognize with whom you are dealing. Think again about the early deformation of my personality as you read this!

In the home of my childhood, only occasional allusions were made to things suggestive of throbbing physical attraction.

Fifth grade brought my eyes in contact with a girl’s legs. Figuratively speaking. One girl in particular. “What is this about?” I asked myself. I found it illogical. Those female underpinnings no longer seemed a simple necessity designed to maintain locomotion and height. The newly acquired attention to a distaff body part was involuntary, not to say alarming. This was the first sign my body was taking possession of my brain. Adult women understand this masculine flaw, but as a kid I had no idea.

The point here is that men have an innate predilection to “look.” Women do it as well, if perhaps less obviously. Nonetheless, revealing display is done with the knowledge of men’s tendencies and how to manage them.

A young man’s attempt at sexual subtlety is undermined (the key focus here being “under”) by the involuntary arousal of a certain body part that makes his interest obvious. There are, however, alternative uses of the same anatomical attachment. An 18-year-old male probably could raise a tent if he lay on his back, hands behind his head, while occupied with salacious thoughts. Alternatively, he might substitute for the English Pointer, a dog breed used in bird hunting. British slang, in fact, refers to young women as birds. The hunt for a mate, the pointy thing … well, you get the idea.

None of this suggests leering is proper or excusable. The mating game, however, does need two players.

Back to guidance, particularly on a date:

5. Do not fondle your smartphone or find its ravishing screen irresistible. No self-respecting woman wishes to compete with inanimate objects.

6. Do gaze into your date’s eyes. This tells her you are paying attention to her speech and her person, not just her equipment. She knows you know there is more to see lower down, but the two of you have an unspoken agreement, at least at first, to pretend otherwise. Besides, the eyes tell you much, including whether life resides inside — a brain, a sparkle, a twinkle, a heart, a laugh, and someone you can love. She will tell as much about you — and in just the same way.

7. Another unspoken truth has to do with whether, when not in this woman’s presence, you spend any amount of time looking at other beauties. Of course you do! Your heart is beating, isn’t it? Never, however, should a wandering eye be admitted, lest you want one blackened. As the very old song says, “I Only Have Eyes For You.”

8. Time changes both form and physiognomy, but your mind’s eye will recall the youthful bloom of your lover. Be hungry in love, first to last. Once out of the public square and past the “first dance,” devour your lover with your eyes. All of her. Beauty is fleeting. She was made to be seen and remembered.

The photo is an untitled creative wallpaper design from http://www.zastavki.com/ The video segment of the 1934 film, Dames, is quite remarkable for the elaborately choreographed scene above, characteristic of the work of Busby Berkeley. The song, I Only Have Eyes for You, was written for this movie by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. The couple in love are Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler.

 

Don’t Pass Your “Use by” Date: The Optimal Calendar of Life

Expiration date

You reach for a product in the grocery. Say, orange juice. You read the label. “Best if used by  ______.” Fill in any imaginary future date you wish.

All of us are a bit like those products. We too have our “use by” dates. No point in trying out for the local football team at age 55. Your skills are past their official, time-stamped point of expiration.

Let’s look at a few others.

Here’s one you probably care about. A man’s hair is optimal at around age 20, for women 25. About 70% of males and 40% of females will suffer some hair loss. The good news here is a South Korean study suggesting such men are rated higher in social maturity than those without this problem. Or maybe it is just the glow from their balding pates that makes others think they have composure and sophistication.

Check out the guy in the upper right corner for an example of the glare and, perhaps, what social maturity is supposed to look like. I’m confident about the former, but suffer occasional doubts about the latter.

Grip strength peaks between 26 and 35 for men, remaining close to the peak through the early 40s. Women achieve optimal performance from 18 to 25, but also retain much of their power into their early 40s. In other words, folks, you can arm wrestle effectively into middle age.

The average man’s hair begins to gray around 30, five years later for women. For what it is worth, I remember finding white hairs when I was 12, so don’t take any of these numbers to heart. We are talking about people in general, not you in particular.

The best time to acquire a second language is arguable. Some say 11 to 13, unless you’d like perfect pronunciation, in which case you need a faster start.

Want to run a Marathon? Twenty-five to 35 seems to be the interval of best performance for those who make a long distance career. Only up for a mile? Then 31 or younger is likely to be the sweet spot. Aerobic capacity declines, as runners and trumpet players are aware.

If you hope for a life in ballet, the experts recommend study beginning in the 7 to 11 range. Injuries shorten careers. Most who reach the stage retire in their 30s.

A baseball player has been thought to peak around 27, although newer research suggests 29, with a gradual falling off in performance.

Bad news, men: the fastest and firmest erections are evolution’s gift to 18 year olds, who are either impressed or embarrassed, the latter when the expansion arrives spring-loaded, instantaneously, and evident with your trousers on in public. I’ve seen surveys saying a woman’s sexual prime is around 28, while others locate the years from 30 to 35 as the all-around ideal.  If, however, you ask females in their 50s or 60s when they had the best sex, one study identifies the average answer as 46. A woman’s comfort with her own body appears to be an important variable in sexual satisfaction. A mate’s proper attention is still another.

How about the fertility question? After 30, research points to a three to five percent annual decline in a female’s capacity.

The historical data on hearing problems is compromised by the increasing city background noise exposure and the unthinking action of too many who listen to loud music, “live” or by inserting tiny speakers in their ears.

Should you go to symphony concerts, you might see clear plastic shields on stage to minimize the auditory damage to the musicians themselves, especially those seated near brass and percussion instruments. A number of players wear ear plugs at peak volume moments. Twenty percent of all Americans report hearing loss, with some decline beginning at about 18. By age 65, one-third of Americans are afflicted.

A personal anecdote: When I was in fifth or sixth grade I was paired with a clever girl in a game of “spin the bottle.” She began our session alone by asking a question:

Gerry, did you know the most beautiful girl in the world is deaf?

No.

What did you say?

Back to the list. Google describes collagen as “the main structural protein found in animal connective tissue.” The gradual loss of this temporally diminishing substance produces facial wrinkles, reduced skin suppleness, and sagging (jowls). From the mid-twenties we lose about 1% to 1.7% of collagen per year.

Musical training (not specific instrumental instruction) is recommended to begin before age 9. Actual practice on an instrument, if you are to be a performing artist, should start between six and nine.

Famous neuropsychologist, Ralph Reitan, has said anything intellectually challenging is best done before 40. Of course, he was talking about the decline of higher order brain capability.

You can take all of this in several ways. Yes, life is short and some abilities are shorter still, at least if you intend to compete with the champions. We don’t all age in the same way and a few football players remain near the top of their game into their late 30s, despite the notoriously short careers of most of their counterparts.

Many people also defy the averages by learning what might be called “the tricks of the trade.” In other words, we become wise about life, relationships, and career skills. Many discover we can work around shortfalls with our remaining talents. Gratitude for the life we have makes an enormous difference. We generally think less about losses as time passes and happiness depends on what we are thinking about.

Medicine extends certain capacities, pun intended. Botox smooths things out. Creams to increase collagen are available.

I suppose the best advice is to “go for it,” whatever “it” might mean to you, when relative youth is on your side. Recall, though, symphony conductors don’t stop performing until they drop and are considered newbies in their 30s. A good many are terrific into their 80s.

If I’ve spurred you to act with urgency, do remember one thing: make haste slowly. In Aesop’s famous race the tortoise beat the hare.

The top image is the symbol for pharmaceutical product expiration date 7.2011. The author is Politikaner and it is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

No Free Lunch: A Sunny Tale from the Dark Side

Neptune

 Free Pre-Paid _________!” That is what the envelope promised. On a slow day any sign of a jackpot makes my blood race.

Unfortunately, the blank wasn’t blank. The word “Cremation” filled the space. The blood stopped racing. This was about the finish line.

So nice to hear from you, I thought to myself. I imagine there are people who get mail so rarely even the prospect of a free cremation makes them feel cared about. I am not one such.

As a senior, you receive this sort of “pre-sorted” mail. The Post Office is going under water with the cost of delivering cheap advertising. But I think the sender had a different notion of the phrase “under water.” More like drowning or not coming up for air. Ever.

They call themselves the “Neptune Society,” named after either the Roman god of the sea, or the planet most distant from Earth. I suspect they mean the latter, since cremation is a long trip in one sense and a short distance in another. Distance from life, I mean.

I’m not going to give you their address and phone number or website. I don’t intend to promote their business and have no association with them. No “satisfied customer” am I. Were I, I’d have trouble commenting on how they perform their work. You can take the latter statement from the point of view of the deceased or the bereft. Either way, you don’t watch them do the job unless you ask. I’m not sure who would want to.

The sealed envelope looked back at me. The word “Free” still beckoned. Thin, manilla, not quite square paper; not at all remarkable. No epic resided therein. I opened it.

“Dear Gerald,” the salutation read. Too personal already. I was born in an era of Mister and Miss, doctor and sir and madam. Some languages honor relationships by having formal and informal modes of address. In Germany, I’m told, people make a big deal about going from the formal mode of address, “Sie,” to the informal word for you, “du.” The mini-celebration includes clinking of glasses and sharing a pint.

I prefer “Gerry” anyway, but don’t tell them or I may start getting mail with my nickname.

The letter covered two sides of a single, small, folded page. The bold letters in the middle said:

Simple, Economical and Dignified…

It just makes sense!

Note the end of the second sentence. Another exclamation point, as in the Free Pre-Paid Cremation! come-on. The letter was full of them. I, Gerald, was also told about a “special code” reserved for me — ME! — on their website. Right. All codes are “special,” including those that assume, as P.T. Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

The letter further stated I was “…under NO obligation.” Relief flooded my sensory organs. Not under water and not obligated. Two of my favorite states, right after euphoric and joyful.

Side two included the following:

Like we said: “Cremation just makes sense.” If you are not interested in spending your family’s inheritance on embalming, caskets, vaults, markers, fancy funeral homes or cemetery property, then we have the answer!

I have an alternative, illegal I’m sure. Cellophane or a plain brown wrapper. In my community we recycle garbage, so this one — and I do mean the Gerald one — should definitely go in the oversized “recycling” can and not the regular garbage container.

I neglected to mention the two non-bold words appearing below the Free Pre-Paid Cremation!” lettering on the envelope, in a smaller font: “Details Inside.” Those words sounded ominous, as in “the catch.”

A second page announced the bait and switch in the upper left corner of what the author called a “confidential data card,” the same size as the letter:

WIN

A PRE-PAID CREMATION

The point being the good folks at Neptune, whether on another planet or at sea, hoped I would send them the card and participate in a drawing. They also wanted my phone number, doubtless to listen to their pitch of all the reasons “It just makes sense.” No exclamation point.

Neptune assured me, as the word “confidential” implied, “no information (about me) will be released,” placed not too far from the name of last month’s winner of the cremation sweepstakes, “Eddie Munoz.” I think I must not understand the word “confidential.” Or “information.” Or “released.” Or else they really did mean me alone, not poor Eddie.

I have nothing against cremation, but the idea of sweepstakes to win free ones seems a little creepy. Perhaps I’m being a bad sport in advance, figuring I won’t win if I enter. So, to prove to you I’m an OK guy, all my good wishes to the winner.

Here’s to you, Eddie. You deserved your victory. You are the better man. Look for me undersea, or on another planet, or on the other side. No cellophane wrapper required.

The photo of Neptune was taken in August, 1989 by Voyager 2. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Love and Commitment: The Termite Solution

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Randy (not his real name) had a bad relationship history. Oh, he had plenty of relationships, but everything fell apart as soon as he and his lady friend lived together.

Randolph was almost — almost — the perfect boyfriend, up until the moment of cohabitation. He was tall, handsome, thoughtful, considerate, funny, and generous. Randy made a good living and made time for anyone he loved.

But living together was a wholly different and painful experience. He joked that his family had come from Slobovia, a fictitious country of his own invention, and that was why he was called a slob by some, at least regarding his spacious and expensive apartment.

Randy claimed that his family came from “Upper” Slobovia — the Slobovian nobility — and therefore became accustomed to lots of servants picking up after them. When the revolution of the “Lower” Slobovians finally came, the family fled the country in order to survive, but discovered that they had lost the ability to do the housework. Thus, he explained, he came by his messiness honestly. It was all a joke, of course, one that got stale pretty quickly.

Nor was it consistent with the fact that Randy kept his clothes clean and crisp, his shoes shined, and his personal hygiene tip-top. It was all the rest that went to hell, which his girlfriends always thought they could change about him. None succeeded and so he became relationship shy, at least to the extent of ever wanting to make a permanent residence with his romantic partners again.

He simply could put up with more clutter, more clothes on the floor, papers in piles, and the occasional cobweb in a dark corner than the more fastidious and beautiful women whom he dated.

Randy was about 35-years-old and looked a bit like Richard Gere at that age when I met him and his girlfriend Jill in relationship therapy. Jill reminded me more of Laura Linney in The Truman Show: blond and pretty, but not drop dead gorgeous. More of a healthy, attractive, girl-next-door type than a seductress.

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When we started, Randy told me that he really loved Jill, or so he said, and it was clear that she was crazy about him. Jill (not her real name either) was not a cleanliness nut or obsessive compulsive, but she was neat, didn’t like piles of books and papers or CDs growing like some in-home land-fill.

This young, accomplished, and very pretty lady wanted her bathrooms hygienic and the mess swept away before their friends began to think that his apartment was actually a larger than normal room of a teenaged boy. Nor did she desire to be a slave to keeping up the house cleaning. Randy needed to do his part. She couldn’t just leave the dishes in the sink in the evening, which was Randy’s habit, home and away, when he spent his nights with Jill. Order was important to her and Randy was indifferent to it except regarding his work and his appearance.

The man realized that he was at risk of losing his girlfriend once again, which was a good start to treatment. He was still leery of moving in with the woman he loved, but said he’d give therapy a try. It wasn’t until I’d seen photos of “ground zero” taken by Jill that I understood why, despite his other fine qualities, Randy’s mini-Slobovia was a relationship-killer. The Slobovian told me that he would put everything he had into this process, because he knew Jill was something special.

We’ll see, I thought to myself. Talk, as we know, is cheap.

We made a behavioral contract that both of them signed involving various tasks and elimination of clutter. Certain activities that Randy enjoyed were contingent on his fulfilling the contract and he agreed to forgo them unless he kept his part of the bargain: things like watching movies with Jill, going to concerts, and the like were forbidden unless he did. The contract worked briefly, but after a few weeks it was clear that Randy was still Randy. He’d found other things to fill his time and so wasn’t sufficiently motivated by the deprivation of the fun stuff he had put aside.

Neither one wanted to give up sex, at least while there were other possible therapeutic interventions that might work, so my suggestion about making sex contingent on the cleanliness and order of his apartment was dropped for the moment.

I’d noticed the apparent contradiction between Randy’s grooming and his messiness around the house. Indeed, he was even more fastidious about his appearance than I first realized. He got, and could afford, a weekly straight-razor shave at a high-end, specialty barber shop, where his hair was also trimmed regularly. He always wore patent leather shoes except when lying about the house or playing sports, the kind that dazzle the eye with their shine and that most of the rest of us only sport at our daughter’s wedding to complement a rented tuxedo. His finger nails were even manicured with some frequency and he had a monthly deep-muscle massage.

As you might have gathered by now, Randy lived the life he wanted to live, a life most of us can’t afford, and had a more than healthy dose of self-love, something all of us need in a smaller amount. If Randy’s narcissism could be measured by the cup of a typical morning coffee, he’d have three cups to everyone else’s one or two.

My plan then was to get Randy to agree not to go to the barber, not to get the weekly straight-razor shave, not to wear his patent leather shoes, and to forgo manicures and massages until he did the weekly chores that would make his apartment look less Slobovian. I think this would have worked, but while we were still negotiating the details (with expected reluctance from Randy) something external intervened.

Between one of our weekly couple sessions Randy discovered that he was not as much the king of his castle as he thought. An infestation of termites had been discovered on the window sill of the hallway. Once this was verified by the landlord, Randy was told he would have to vacate the premises for three days while the exterminators did their job. Randy would be compensated for his required hotel stay, but before he needed to vacate, the property manager decided that since all the occupants would be out of the building, it was a perfect opportunity to do some remodeling which was expected to be finished in “not too long” a time.

Well, if you’ve ever had remodeling done, you know that “not too long” should be translated as “way too long” or “much longer than we promised.” Randolph also had concerns about what kind of poison might be used to kill the termites, and whether it would really be a wonderful idea to return to his place after just three days and risk contaminating himself. Moreover, he usually worked from home, and thought the renovation during the day time would make his work impossible. He talked about this with Jill, who graciously, but with a little trepidation, invited him to stay at her small apartment for as long as it took.

It took six or seven weeks, a period that tested both the lovers. Could Randy respect Jill’s desire for neatness and order? Would the two of them get into fights over it? Or perhaps they would find that her place was simply too confining and that he was cramped by a space much tinier than his own?

Something pretty remarkable happened. Randy saw, close up and every day, that Jill was doing everything she could to accommodate him and make his unexpectedly long stay pleasant for both of them. He knew that Jill was a teacher, but had never seen her do the tutoring she always did on Thursday night. The man observed the woman’s way with her struggling students, her patience, the manner in which she made work into play; but with a steady hand that ensured the work would be understood and completed, fun or not.

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Randy tried hard to change his ways and realized that he had been too self-involved all along with the women he had known. The phrase he had used in his younger days — that “A woman is like a bus. If you miss this one, there will be another one along in ten minutes” — certainly didn’t apply to Jill. He was used to the attention of attractive women and the (for him) never-ending line of them waiting for the chance to know him. He realized, too, that he didn’t want to know any other women ever again; that Jill was his one and only.

One day, at our weekly therapy session with the couple, he said, “I know that I will age and Jill will age and that there will probably be other younger women available to me. Some might be richer or poorer in some ways, but I won’t ever meet someone who has as good a heart as Jill — who loves me as much as Jill, who makes me a better person, and whom I love as much as I have come to love her.”

Randy returned to his apartment and to the lease he had signed months before and lived out the time there until his obligated stay was fulfilled. But he was neater now and he didn’t require much encouragement on that count. He wanted to do it because he saw himself more clearly, saw his selfishness more clearly, and wanted to please the woman he now knew was the love of his life. They then searched for a place together and were expecting to move in when therapy ended.

Still, as a therapist you never know. All the old axioms apply: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” or “Time will tell” seemed to fit this circumstance the best. I was, as I usually was in my therapeutic career, pretty sure, but not certain that things would work out for Randy and Jill. As it happened, they sent me a note about a year later, thanking me and saying that their life together was better than ever. And, in another few years I received a referral via their recommendation of my services to a friend. She was told by them to report to me that they were still doing very well. Randy had permanently surrendered his Slobovian citizenship and now there was a little one in the home.

Therapists only succeed when their patients want to change more than the therapist wants them to change. As the old joke goes, “How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?” The answer is “One, but the lightbulb has to want to be changed.”

Counselors, in other words, can’t do everything, but we can do some things. Still, I never had a case quite like this one. Narcissists rarely have the kind of epiphany that Randy had. And there is more that made this special, because it was not even Randy or Jill or I who had to play our parts, but termites that made it all possible.

The top photo is not of the couple described in the essay. It is called After the Kiss: James Cospito and LiAnne Cospito at the Brookly Art Project Meetup, October 1, 2009. The picture was taken by See-ming Lee and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by russavia. The second image is Laury Linney, taken at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival by gdcgraphics. The final picture is a Bus taken from the AIGA Symbol Signs Collection commissioned by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. Like the other pictures, it was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.