Tell Me What You “Want” and I’ll Tell You Who You Are

When I ask what you desire, I’m not talking about which menu item you prefer at the restaurant. This essay, instead, considers your most passionate, uninhibited, and selfish side and offers a chance to learn more. I come to praise “wanting,” not to bury it. Last stop before I take you on a roller coaster ride of a part of your nature you might hide from yourself.

What is “wanting?” At the extreme, it is taking, but playful; possessive, rapacious, covetous, but pure. Wanting doesn’t respect every rule. Desire is a thing unleashed: single-minded, obsessed, hungry, spontaneous, irrational. The undiscovered country is its goal.

Adventurers to this land seek new ground. The kind of wanting I’m speaking of lives with abandon and without self-consciousness. It inhabits a place outside the domain of evil or good, so try not to stand in judgement. This creature is feeling-dominated, not word or thought-restrained. Pre-verbal. Desire’s triumph is found in moments of joy and exploration, enough to burst the heart.

Small children possess this jubilant abandon, witness my two-year-old grandson. But I sometimes think we stake their little hearts and then call the corpses civilized.

Desire, at its zenith, is about discovery, about making something new: being alive to the world. Risk is attractive and the downside almost irrelevant. Where others slow down, desire speeds up. More constrained souls, in contrast, seek a fulfillment of duty, a chance to prove themselves by taking on challenges, and acceptance of social rules. Perhaps they are merely afraid.

Desire wants only joy. Sharing of joy to multiply it, too. Yet, in its pursuit of fulfillment (and the evolutionarily-packaged seed it carries), injuries to others can happen. The unknown spouse of a “wanted” married woman (not the kind you find on an FBI poster) can be someone invisible to the desirous one; carved out of the equation, a faceless person who won’t find out and won’t be hurt. Remember, though, no desire, no human race.

I’m not talking about people who intend to injure others, or who see the potential victim and still don’t care. They inhabit a different class.

Some souls submit to risk and adventure only in selected portions of their lives. No one can live there always – too many train wrecks come if you don’t look both ways before crossing the tracks. But, such a life is possible when compartmentalized; though rare is the highly intuitive, curious free-spirit who can keep the boxes separate. Even when they can, existence might become too intense, too high and too low, too painful too often. But the high wire is a place of dizzying delight, addictive perhaps, so don’t think you wouldn’t like it there.

Others, those of a different, more careful nature, only visit their deepest want on rare occasions. The adventurer/angel entity is then unleashed as if by a strange invading army.

You can live a happy life, as much as we are allowed, without uncaged desire. Such a life, however, will have some restraints, a lower ceiling on pleasure. No ecstatic frenzy for you. Almost all of us are conditioned by 5000 years of civilization and nearly as much religious history; by our parents, our teachers, and oceans of indoctrination; by reading, thinking, and all the “thou shalt nots.” The wise ones told us life was about giving up certain parts of ourselves, fair-play, and the pursuit of lofty places and principles: about relinquishment and acceptance and gratitude for a half-cup of coffee. Fifty-percent would be enough, they said. Our sensuality was indicted and shamed.

Most of us call cruising at a lower altitude the triumph of practical wisdom over foolishness. Desire thinks the last statement is a cheat. And if wanting is a large part of one’s nature, surely societal rules pose a greater restriction on them than for tamer souls. The former cannot comfortably be different than they are without denying themselves.

When I was in single-digits I envied my next door neighbor’s toy soldiers. Howie always got better toys than I did. So, I took one, discovering that having the thing was a less satisfying experience than I anticipated. I also felt guilty and, the next time I played at his house, returned the unmissed plastic man-of-war to Howie’s towering pile of tiny inanimate playmates.

My desire wasn’t rational, but mindless. I’d met Freud’s Id inside myself. From that moment, I understood I had this quality in me. Later, I discovered that if you haven’t satisfied your wanting in bed, you haven’t had sex.

Desire still exists post-youth, though buried deep under the weight of responsibility and family; conventional virtue and reputation. No wonder men and women have mid-life crises, do crazy things, dress like they are still young. Everyone wants to be desired. Everyone wants the view from the mountain top occasionally. Some don’t want to descend.

Do you know their names? Count Columbus and Marco Polo among them. Explorers like Scott of the Antarctic. The Homeric heroes, horse-taming Hector and Odysseus, sacker-of-cities. We need such brave dreamers, the ones who want to look behind the door, the ones who will become astronauts.

How much can one live with wanting? How much can one live without? For those high in desire, in risk-taking, free by nature, Icarus is a model to be emulated, a spontaneous young man using his wax wings to reach the sun, not a damned fool crashing to earth when the sun’s heat melts them.

Religion and society try to inoculate us to our baseness, if that’s what it is, but the untamed creature is still present, and may agree to adopting a different form: athletic competition in hope of fulfilling the want of the chase, the win, the trophy, the sensuality and exultation of the vanquished opposition; or, the rat race (because we are part-time rats, climbing over others) and wielding raw power. Perhaps even simple things like buying something you say you “can’t live without.” Here, in this last tame example of desire, is the ultimate domestication of the beast within.

You can’t be a man and a wild animal all the time, but you can’t be a man without greeting the animal you are. The ladies have him inside too, though their historic cultural prohibitions are even greater than for men. They are, therefore, less well-accepted when they exhibit their creaturely side.

If you think of yourself as a virtuous person and actually are pretty good (two different things), you are ripe for someone else’s taking and the awakening of your own wanting. Then it is like an explosion, an irresistible force that can only be resisted by a team of stallions pulling you away.

I’d say most people don’t even know they are missing anything, so accustomed are they to the socialized forms of desire. The creature is drugged to sleep. Why don’t we admit to this? Perhaps because it associates us with the animal world. We want to think we are better, deserving of a heaven that doesn’t even admit pets. We fear losing respect, hesitate to hurt others about whom we care. We fear losing our self, the person we “think” we are, the best self we can be.

Beware. Too much denial is dangerous, too. The precincts of quiet desperation house those who have never lived.

Few can sustain high-wire wanting happily. Craving is never but momentarily satisfying: they go on craving after a period of rest. The constant seekers must find other adventures. The soul is restless, also a part of their nature.

You say you don’t recognize yourself in this? Don’t knock yourself out to search for the unimaginable part. I’m not here to upset your steady, unruffled life. But it is there.

Some of you might call it crazy. If it is, there is a sublime craziness to it, not made for planet earth but some purer, loftier realm, free of judgment. A place where you can eat all the candy you want without losing your taste for more or getting sick; and give away handfuls to your friends, who will love you for sharing your bounty: the bounty in yourself.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote:

My candle burns at both ends;

   It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –

   It gives a lovely light!

The poster up top is from the famous movie, A Streetcar Named Desire. Next, is Joanbanjo’s photo of a Roman Legion from the Museum of Lead Soldiers in Valencia. Finally, Bruegel’s depiction of The Fall of Icarus. If you can’t find him, Icarus is in the water just below the boat on the right side of the painting. Surely, this placement of the title character is a comment on the indifference of the world to his calamity. The soldiers photo comes from Wikimedia Commons, the Breugal from Wikiart.org/ For those of you curious about exploring an analogous, but not identical person to the one I’ve described, investigate Meyers-Briggs personality configurations on the net, especially the one identified by the initials ENFP.

When Being a Therapist Means Saying You are Sorry

We all try to understand people. Counselors and personality experts use formal systems for the job. The therapist begins with lists of human characteristics, a bit like a Chinese menu – beef, chicken, pork. If you fall into one column or another, you are given the name at the top. Not fish or fowl, but introvert, extrovert, narcissist, schizophrenic, etc.

These systems all tend to put people into a box they fit imperfectly. We therefore add other words as qualifiers to make the label more precise. Kind of like saying a person is not merely “tall,” but “muscular,” or “slender” or also has “a winning smile.” Still, they are all generalizations and even the one with the dazzling teeth isn’t grinning all the time.

Our boxes are not made of corrugated cardboard or wood. They come from knowledge and experience, imagination and instinct. Without using them to “place” every person we meet, we’d be like small children, unable to make sense of people, neither responsive to their needs nor capable of securing our own.

On occasion the categorization strategies don’t come close to making the human world comprehensible. Not all labeled people and their motives are well-captured by name tags. They are more complex. Those individuals don’t quite think the way we do or feel the way we do, making our comprehension of their nature harder to achieve. Our effort at understanding another, too often based on how our own minds work (or we think they work) can fail. Therapists share this experience of failure with everyone else. Less often, we hope.

I’ve met only a few unique people in my life despite having more in-depth human encounters than most. These few burst any categories in which we place them. Usually, however, the boxes work well-enough or better. Indeed, many times they are spot-on.

Everyone outside the doctor’s office, however, is at risk of resorting to stereotypical, pejorative labels, condemning those who are different because they don’t understand them. The labeled crate becomes a confinement of accusation and punishment. Look around: nationalists of all countries transforming races and religions and different national groups into imagined monsters.

It makes the world less scary to do this. Life is simplified into one pile of good people and one pile of evil people. The individual doing the sorting is never in the evil stack.

Being a therapist means you must be humble and open to those who can be difficult to categorize and sometimes, just plain difficult. If you are over-matched by the task of grasping and managing the therapeutic relationship, maybe you should make a referral from the start. Usually, however, you don’t realize your understanding is flawed for a while. By then a referral will not be simple. No matter the desire to do good by the patient, your rejection is likely to sting or devastate. The client came to you for repair and you made him worse.

Some counselors will keep the same box and keep using their failed understanding to treat the person. Some try to jam the client’s body into a differently labeled container and still treat him, even when box #2 doesn’t work either. Most will try to learn more, be humble, and look for a right-sized carton or no box at all until things are clearer. None of these tacks is sure-fire, but I favored the last one when I was in practice, often with the help of a personality test.

The therapist in all such situations confronts his own limitations. He needs modesty before he can achieve mastery. He needs to acknowledge his errors. He needs to figure out what is best for the patient while keeping his brain from exploding a little from the frustration and the fear he won’t be able to handle things.

Not all of us can do this in therapy or in life, and no one does it all the time with those for whom we care and those we care about.

If you’ve read the black on white scribblings I seem to endlessly produce (to my own astonishment) you know I don’t offer too many simple answers. Like you, I keep trying to understand this thing called life that appears so simple on the surface and no one ever fully gets right.

Life is a squirmy creature. You believe she is in your grasp and one second later she wriggles away. You think you are the master of yourself until your lack of mastery can’t be ignored. People don’t fit into a carton, and life – of all things – oozes and leaps and bumps against any enclosure we attempt to put it in.

Our boxes, as essential as they are, can injure people around us and limit our own understanding: understanding of the complexities of our fellow-man and our ability to be understanding, comforting, and kind.

The irony is that our use of boxes puts us in a box, too.

The moral of this story is to acknowledge the artificiality of labeled cartons and know they are also needed to get through the day. And then, perhaps, drink a glass of wine and accept the universe as it is.

No wonder religious faith is so appealing. The idea of “giving control over” to a benign, all-powerful, all-knowing being is consoling for those who can. For others, myself included, the wine will have to do. And tomorrow you will find me, not at a wine bar again, but back at repairing and enlarging my boxes, fashioning some new ones perhaps, trying to make them work as well as they can.

To be our own best selves, therapists or not, at some point we awaken to the guidance so easy for every one of us to forget.

Each box should be labeled “Handle with Care.”


The top photo is called Box Loading and is the work of Surya Prekash, S.A. The second image features U.S. Troops Surrounded by Holiday Mail during World War II, ca 1944. It comes from the Smithsonian Institution. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Good Man is Hard to Find: Remembering Bob Calsyn

Life is a funny thing. It had been a while since I thought about Bob Calsyn, my old graduate school friend. But then I recognized that a post I wrote five years ago was getting visited more than usual today. Clearly, the fifth anniversary of Bob’s death on September 21, 2012 isn’t going unnoticed. He deserves notice and remembrance. I’ve not known a better man.

Memory has a different place in our lives than in ancient times.

The pre-literate Greeks of Homer’s day could not apply the balm of eternal life to their troubled psyches. They had no notion of the heaven Christians believe in, no sense of reincarnation such as Hindus expect, no Muslim vision of paradise, no anticipation of a reunion with relatives and friends who had predeceased them. Instead, death led to a trip to Hades, the underworld, where existence was a pale and not very attractive shadow of earthly life, not something to be eagerly awaited.

Bob would not have liked Hades. He lived for the sunlight, not the shadows.

The life of the pre-literate Greeks was painfully short. Even at the turn of the last century, around 1900, the average American survived only about 50 years. The brevity of our time above ground was certainly known to the ancients.

Greek literature and philosophy point to two driving concepts that motivated those men. (And I speak of men only, because women were extraordinarily disadvantaged, seen as having almost no function other than sex, companionship, rearing children, and producing domestic handicrafts). Honor and glory were what men sought. Honor tended to come in the form of goods, precious metal, slaves, concubines, and the like; in other words, mostly material things or things that could be counted or displayed or used.

Sort of like today, perhaps you are saying to yourself. In our world, honor is conferred by status and material things, too – the size of your house, the amount of money in your bank account, a trophy spouse, the car or cars you drive, a gorgeous vacation home, etc.

Glory (the Greek word kleos) was another matter. It took the form of reputation or fame continuing beyond death. And, since there was no written word, you and your accomplishments had to be sufficiently great to generate discussion, song, and story once you were gone. No one was going to write a book about you, since there was yet no Greek alphabet.

The point being, Bob deserved more than a little of the old-style glory. Telling you his tale once again is the best I can do and the least I can do.

As you might imagine, I have lots of feelings today. If you read this post before I hope you will take another look. And, if you haven’t, then his admirable life will be a fresh experience for you. For those of you, especially my female readers who have been disappointed with my gender, perhaps Bob’s life will give you a bit of hope to keep looking. Regardless, maybe knowing him a little will make you a better person, as knowing him a lot made me. Here is the link: Bob Calsyn

Alone

Loneliness is a desperate thing and a thing desperately hard to capture in words. But when the wish for connection becomes reality, the heart trembles …

We are isolated for several reasons. What happens in our head is unique. Intimate communication is a struggle. We are surprised at the blunt instruments words become. The indefinable essence is too often lost, subject to the way we sound, our facial expression; and the auditor’s capacity to listen. Without his ability to identify some likeness between his experience and our own, the effort is futile.

Nor do we even fathom ourselves fully. Messaging cannot deliver a meaning unknown to the sender. The most insightful among us still are trapped looking at themselves from the inside, unable to escape a claustrophobic perspective – unable to discern the unconscious. Meanwhile, the vantage point from outside is second-hand news, told to us, but not known by us.

Self-knowledge is imperfect, not comprehensive. Humans accept obvious motivations and easy explanations to explain themselves to themselves. Who even considers the many causes of a simple task like deciding to grocery shop today? Hunger, scheduling, a sale on peaches, your child’s request for a particular food, a friend’s comment about a good meal, a cooking show you watched, or all of these? We admit, at least, that love is inexplicable, our heart a mystery.

Hope of connection lives, nonetheless. The desire for understanding overpowers the complications. And sometimes hope is fulfilled.

Dostoevsky, the great Russian novelist, understood this. Two characters in his masterpiece The Idiot – a towering achievement in reckoning with the complexities of personality – express their separation from the mainstream of society.

Dostoevsky presents an embittered young man, Ippolit, within weeks of death; who himself believes he will never be understood, yet strains to be heard, recognized, and accepted:

In any serious human thought born in someone’s head, there always remains something which it is quite impossible to convey to other people, though you may fill whole volumes with writing and spend thirty-five years trying to explain your thought; there always remains something that absolutely refuses to leave your skull and will stay with you forever; you will die with it, not having conveyed to anyone what is perhaps most important in your idea.

The novelist’s title character is a casual friend of Ippolit, a saintly and open man named Prince Myshkin. Ippolit and Myshkin, despite their differences, both want connection.

The following narrated passage recalls a time when the young Prince was in treatment in Switzerland. Expressing himself was then a particular challenge. He led a life alone, separate, cut-off:

Once he went into the mountains on a clear, sunny day, and wandered about for a long time with a tormenting thought that refused to take shape. Before him was the shining sky, below him the lake, around him the horizon, bright and infinite, as if it went on forever. For a long time he looked and suffered. He remembered now (years later) how he had stretched out his arms to that bright, infinite blue and wept. What had tormented him was that he was a total stranger to it all. What was this banquet, what was this everlasting feast, to which he had long been drawn, always, ever since childhood, and which he could never join. Every morning the same bright sun rises; every morning there is a rainbow over the waterfall; every evening the highest snowcapped mountain, there, far away, at the edge of the sky, burns with a crimson flame; every ‘little fly that buzzes near him in a hot ray of sunlight participates in this whole chorus; knows its place, loves it, and is happy’: every little blade of grass grows and is happy! And everything has its path, and everything knows its path, goes with a song and comes back with a song; only he knows nothing, understands nothing, neither people nor sounds, a stranger to everything and a castaway.

Notice the character’s reference to a fly. He is quoting his young friend Ippolit, the man near death, the one struggling to be understood. And in this moment, the Prince recognizes his own sentiment. Dostoevsky continues:

Oh, of course he could not speak then with these words and give voice to his question; he suffered blankly and mutely, but now it seemed to him that he had said it all then, all those same words, and that Ippolit had taken the words about the ‘little fly’ from him, from his own words and tears of that time. He was sure of it, and for some reason his heart throbbed at this thought …

At such moments in the mountains – in the empty spaces of life – we wait for the voice of another to utter our thoughts, intuit our mind, touch us by understanding our sentiments. It is as close as one can come to escaping the solitude of the human species, finding a soul who matches us at least a bit, at least for a time …

Those most desolate among us, those most cut-off, quietly despair of finding such a witness: one who not only sees, but understands. The inhabitants of hope’s waiting room are on every street, in every therapist’s office. If they persist – as they often do – the moment of hope’s fulfillment is transcendent.

As William Blake wrote in Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour.

The first image is William Blake’s Ancient of Days. Next comes Jean-Jacques Henner’s Solitude. These are both sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Finally, a photo of Cadillac Mountain in Arcadia National Park.

When Life Laughs at You

The details are a problem. Spare yourself the details. No good comes from the details.

Except, perhaps, when they help you free-up your life and recognize the grand experiment offered all of us: the opportunity to remake ourselves by caring less about those same selves.

OK. You’re still reading? You really want to know the details?

Here they are.

I am in the middle of the crusty stage. Never heard the phrase? Here is the proper placement of this particular life plateau:

  • Youth
  • Middle age
  • Crusty stage
  • Old age

The crustiness is not the kind in a good piece of French bread. The temporary condition finds your face dry, red, and raw: the expected side-effect of a dermatologist’s handiwork to keep the skin on top of its game. Not cosmetic, but medical. A good outcome is predicted. I’ll be out of the crusty stage soon.

The story improves from here, although I must relate a few more details.

Better yet, I’m going to tell you what I learned by passing through this small period of discomfort; and what you might learn, too.

The procedure left my face painful, slightly swollen, and itchy for some days: a bit mask-like. The treated skin gradually flaked off and the rosy, sunburned toastiness faded. Lots of moisturizer and other unguents made my presence shiny. I was a beacon of reflected light in the half-dark.

I considered exposing you to a picture of myself in, what I can only call, the “full crusty.” I may be shameless, but I decided not to inflict this on you. Should you be grateful, just send a donation to your favorite charity.

The question was, while I was fully into this fullness – unable to put a good face on things, Halloween-ready two months too soon – “What am I going to do with my visage?” Several possibilities presented themselves. I could …

  • hide, kind of like The Elephant Man.
  • curse the hearing-impaired, indifferent gods.
  • concentrate on the pain of the first couple of days.
  • observe it.
  • obsess about the slowness of the healing process.
  • petition the authorities to make Halloween earlier, in which case I’d be able to save on a costume.
  • shroud the mirrors in my home.
  • focus on how I was getting better and better.
  • ignore the condition and occupy my mind elsewhere.
  • count myself grateful compared to those worse off.
  • worry what others might think if they saw me.

I could learn from it.

Notice how many ways we can make ourselves miserable. Instead, I decided to treat my face as the subject of an experiment.

The first two days offered restrictions: stay out of the sun lest I become some version of Dracula in the daylight. On Day Four, however, my kids, son-in-law, and  grandson visited. The adults were slightly unsettled, the two-year-old took my appearance in stride. I was still grandpa.

Day Five offered the real experimental possibility. My semi-annual dental exam gave me the chance to create some high-pitched screaming in public (not mine). Then I needed to pick up new glasses, where the patrons at Lenscrafters would scan me through their own fresh pair and surely say, “This can’t be right. I liked my vision better before. Refund please!”

In the event, only the dental assistant noticed, the dentist and office staff treating me as they always do. This either means that my regular appearance was already brutal, or they absorbed the big picture of me being me, kind of like my grandson. I vote for the second possibility.

Next stop was to pick up my glasses. Again, no crowds ran shrieking into the parking lot once I stepped into the mall. No fists were raised, no refunds requested. The experiment ended much as I expected: attention was not paid. If my countenance had grabbed some eyes? No matter. Well, OK, being chased by a shouting, torch-bearing mob would have been trouble. Fortunately, the Boy Scout in me brought earplugs.

“Always prepared” or “Be prepared,” the Boy Scout Motto

Buddhists talk of “non-self.” No soul. Nothing permanent. They state that a belief in a “self” is one of the causes of suffering. This turns the “Me, me, me” of the West’s competitive juggernaut on its head.

I could have said this turns the view of what is important in life on its face. If you have no face, no self, you have no face to lose.

Western philosophy and people like Martin Heidegger put the problem differently: we are beings for whom “being” is a question. If we think about our being, including the impression we make, self-awareness is a challenge, something our animal friends are free of.

We are far too preoccupied with our “selves.” Some say self-awareness is a disease. Or can be.

Worried about others laughing at you?

Life will laugh at you. The universe will laugh at you. Count on it.

Laugh back.

Take it from a man in the crusty stage of life.

The top photo, Breads, is the work of fir0002 at flagstaffotos.com.au/ The second image is called Two Papier-mache Masks in the NYC Village Halloween Parade, authorized for posting on Wikimedia Commons by parade director Jeanne Fleming. The 1916 German scouting manual, “Allzeit bereit,” was made available to Wikimedia Commons by Mediatus.

Dealing with Daily Indignities

One does well not to dwell on the routine indignities of life. That said, I shall relate a minor one, freshly issued last week from the Indignity Assembly Line, Chicago Division.

It is a man vs. woman story. I play the man.

Typecasting.

I walked into the Adams Street entrance to Symphony Center in downtown Chicago at about 1:15. Lovely, sunny day, temperature about 80-degrees Fahrenheit. The concert would begin at 1:30. I wanted to go to the men’s room before the music began.

A long line slithered its way down the narrow hallway. The ladies’ room queue, of course. A few feet before its entrance was a male facility with no line. I turned left to enter the anteroom to my gender-appropriate W/C.

A short, trim woman, perhaps 70-years-old, stood in front of the door to the men’s room proper. I imagined she was waiting for her husband, though most partners do this by standing outside the anteroom, not within it. As I stepped in, she planted her feet and stretched out her arms as far as possible to block my way. An American football linebacker would have been impressed by a stance signaling her determination to stop me. Moreover, she was not wearing a helmet. In other words, no push-over.

“You can’t go in.”

“Excuse me?”

“There is a woman inside.”

“Oh.”

Not being an idiot, I gathered the reason had to do with the daisy chain of ladies a few steps away. I wasn’t in a rush, so I waited. The thought occurred to me, however, that the guardian might have directed her friend to another one of the many washroom facilities in the building. Or, if the trespassing lady were in urgent need, she (without assistance) could have gone to the door of her restroom, reported her distress to those nearby, and received the consideration my wife tells me is commonplace under such circumstances. These were among the many thoughts I had as I waited, coming and going in an instant.

A frail, white-haired man, bent forward with the weight of perhaps nine decades, walked slowly around me, his mission the same as mine. He probably didn’t recognize I was waiting to enter myself. The female guardian stopped him with a somewhat less aggressive stance than she took with me. I imagined the woman figured she could impede his forward progress with less effort, kicking him to the ground if necessary, or blowing him down like a big, bad, she-wolf.

He was given the same directive. He, too, would have to wait. Or else.

The assumption, of course, was that we were not in immediate need. Maybe the doorkeeper heard no grinding teeth, saw no crossing of legs, perceived no agonized distress in either of us, overheard no barking bladders. Neither did she ask.

Only a chunk more time passed before the men’s room opened to release its cheery occupant. She appeared unconscious of our presence. She began chatting with her buddy as if nothing remarkable had happened; as if she makes a habit of visiting whatever w/c suits her. The newly “relieved” woman did not look ashamed. Just unconscious or entitled or needy of immediate conversation with the she-wolf, to whom she began speaking.

Neither one of them thanked us. You are not thanked if you are invisible.

No other men entered and I quickly joked with the older owner of a Y chromosome that we had just witnessed the fall of the last bastion of male supremacy. He responded that it could be worse. We laughed. Both of us had experienced worse, for sure. I love an entertaining story and here was my daily allotment. More than adequate compensation for the short wait.

Matinee concerts have their own demographic. The audience tends to be old – really old – not within a discus throw of working age. Women outnumber men by a huge margin. Several reasons: many of the women are widowed, some of the more able-bodied men are still working, and other men are either watching sports on TV or yelling at kids to get off their grass. In other words, doing man stuff.

Indoor plumbing stations are of particular importance to us humans, a unique part of our mental space.

Earlier in life, when we were engaged in toilet-training, they’d been a battleground and a place where “accidents” lead to ultimate triumph. Once we are old enough to gauge storage-tank-capacity, we don’t think about them much. A little later, most of the time spent inside has to do with working on our appearance; chisel, sandpaper, and spray paint in hand.

Somewhere around middle age, physical changes cause men to notice the locations of the facilities more, think about ingesting less caffeine (because it is a bladder irritant), and the mental space I mentioned gets larger. We can no longer take for granted that will-power will prevent us from “peeing ourselves.” When the bell rings signaling the symphony players have five minutes before they must be on stage, the stream of male musicians waiting to take care of their nether regions can resemble a conga line.

As the older man in the men’s room said, “It could be worse.” It has been worse, much worse. It will yet be worse and also better, depending on the moment. Such is life.

Someone will cut you off in traffic, jump ahead of you in queue at a store, clobber you with their backpack, perhaps not even knowing anything happened.

Bigger personal indignities exist. You will, for example, get older and become less physically attractive. Your body will demand more maintenance, more stretching, gallons of sunscreen. As my primary care physician told me years ago, when I asked why my left knee meniscus tore, “things wear out.”

Or, you could be like the teen-aged version of my mom, who lived with her parents and three siblings. There were times, she told me, when five of them were awaiting the sixth to exit the smallest room in their apartment, to replace the person on the throne. The frustration built until finally, someone used the nuclear option, yelling:

“Break it off and get out!”

A younger woman with whom I’ve recently become acquainted tells me she can still do the splits, a different kind of evidence things could be worse. More power to her. On the best day of my life, I couldn’t do the splits. The only splits I ever thought about were banana splits.

I am not talking here about war and peace, revolution, obstruction of justice, climate change, flood, hurricane, corruption, tax fraud, marital infidelity, or the like. I’m not talking about financial disaster, homelessness, or malnutrition.

We don’t think much about it, but nearly all of us in the Western World have indoor plumbing. Mozart, whose music I heard at Symphony Center on the day in question, used a chamber pot.

The frail, white-haired, 90-year-old man had it right.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. You won’t get those 30-minutes of grumbling discontent back.

Have a banana split instead and drown your sorrows.

The top image is  of a Pink Bunny-Shaped Roadblock , near Narita, Japan; a 2010 photo by Hopefully Acceptable Username. The second photo is a Replica of the Capitoline She-wolf, Palazzo Senatorio, Rome. It is the work of Jebulon. Finally, a 1942/43 called Men’s Room Marines won’t Win This War  It came from the Office of Emergency Management. War Production Board. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Curse of Being Average and How to Flourish Anyway

FIRST, THE BAD NEWS: you are not permitted to be average. There is a rule. Surely you know this, even if the requirement is not written. It just “is.”

We think of the rule as a “curse,” one of life’s biggest problems, even if not much discussed. We therefore try to disguise our “averageness,” overcome it, hide it under a sofa.

When it doesn’t fit we get cosmetic surgery, tutoring, and take courses to improve our college entrance exam scores. Or lift weights, get tattoos, use makeup, wear fine clothing, comb-over a receding hairline, and rent the right apartment in the tony neighborhood. We even cheat on tests.

Have you ever met a person who prefers mediocrity? Who shoots for a pedestrian education at a run-of-the-mill school; or wishes he’d come from lackluster parents? “My dad is more average than your dad!” is not heard on the playground. We don’t want an undistinguished job at an average salary in an unremarkable town.

Why do so many worry about this? A few reasons:

  • There are no more small ponds. That is, you can’t easily be a “big fish in a small pond,” a standout in a village. TV, the internet, and the global economy make comparisons with the best people worldwide inescapable.
  • Many others are trying to “pretend” they are not forgettable. We often compare ourselves – knowing our personal deficits all too well – to the surfaces and self-reported glory of those who aren’t always honest in portraying themselves.
  • Life isn’t fair. The Theory of General Relativity had already been invented when you were born. Doing it a second time gets you no points on your score sheet. Nor can you split the atom or invent the steam engine.
  • We tend to compare “up.” We might remind ourselves that we aren’t at the bottom of the scale, but are more inclined to make comparisons with those we believe are “better off” and more worthy.
  • Much of the First World encourages the lie “you can be anything you want with enough effort.” Tell that to the guy who can’t tie his shoes but expects to compete in professional basketball or the lady who fails high school algebra and still wants to win a Nobel Prize in Physics. The media singles out the one person who triumphed over astonishing odds as an example of what is possible, not the tens of thousands who did not. We believe the media.
  • All of us have been transformed by evolution. Our ancestors succeeded in producing offspring who survived. Being above average tended to help in finding healthy mates and outmaneuvering bad guys. We instinctively aim for the same goals.
  • There is no escaping the bell-shaped curve. Think about intelligence. Assume all people fit into the bell-shape below. As one moves to the right of the tall vertical line marked 100, you find those higher in IQ (intelligence quotient). Moving from 100 to the left, the IQ scores get lower. Fifty-percent of all people fall below the arithmetic average of 100. Yikes!

THE GOOD NEWS: Being average doesn’t consign you to life’s landfill. If you don’t believe me, read The Invoice.

You have not only the inherent worth of your humanity, but whatever contributions you can make to society, friends, and family, even if those acts are not recorded in the history books. By the way, my contributions won’t be there either.

Be the best you can be, which in some areas may be above average, in others not. Giving maximum effort is within your power, even if sometimes you will only get a mediocre result. Such is life, no matter what you are told.

Be defiant in the face not just of worldly injustice, but nature’s random assignment of physical and intellectual gifts. Rip your life from Mother Nature’s hands and remake the internal qualities still in your control.

I have watched some of those gifted in the unequal genetic lottery – people of towering intellectual firepower – sink under the weight of a self-imposed desire to be “great” in the judgment of the world. They are like the mythological Icarus, who thought he could (and should) fly close to the sun, not remembering his wings were made of wax and would melt. Icarus fell to earth.

Some journeys are just too dangerous and difficult for all but a tiny few. Some journeys are not necessary unless your make them so. You can enjoy most other trips as long as a rarely achieved destination is not one of your requirements.

Near the end of our days most of us keep our own score – or no score at all. “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,” as William Bruce Cameron wrote.

If you are preoccupied by the placement of your face on the totem pole of life, the higher the better, you may be missing some things: the appreciation of experiences good and bad, what you can learn from failure and the different lessons taught by success; the value of friendship and love, the taste of food you prepared even if you followed a recipe, the wind in the trees, the smile between you and a stranger, a good novel, laughter …

You cannot make yourself grow six more inches, but you can change your character, make yourself proud of yourself because of your virtue and acts of kindness or fairness, emotional generosity or courage. We must accept some of our limitations. Socrates, still discussed over 2400 years since he died, was said to be a homely, penniless man. He was not concerned. He also married a woman who wouldn’t stop criticizing him. He wasn’t much concerned about this either. Be like Socrates but marry better.

If you stop condemning yourself for “not measuring up,” then you will have more time to enrich your humanity. The loftiness of your character is in your power. If you become an honorable person who demands basic decency of himself, not just others, you will have accomplished something beyond price or rating.

As Queen Elizabeth II said, “the upward course of a nation’s history is due in the long run to the soundness of heart of its average men and women.”

The top image is called Daruma by Soen Kogaku. It is sourced from Wikiart.org/ The Bell-Shaped Curve comes from IQ Test Labs.