In Search of a Rescuer: Where Erotic Transference and Politics Intersect

Most of us have hoped, early or late in life, for someone to “make it better.” Children want this when they fall. They need to believe instant magic is possible, and often it is. A smile, a hug, or a kiss can be enough. We are social creatures looking for connection, sensual and emotional.

When illness is serious, medical professionals are asked for their form of hocus pocus. Those people possess specialized knowledge. The name for it is “health care.” A proper physician communicates his expertise, but the care, as well.

Those with injuries to the soul seek a specific category of treatment: psychotherapy. You might be the perfect physical being, beautiful and whole except for the unseen pain of twisting emotion and turbulent thought. But, you ask, how much can another human do when no surgery or potion fixes what isn’t working?

Should the attempt to help succeed, admiration for the one who helped tends to follow. Sometimes before aid occurs.

The idea of a protector is potent and easily sexualized. “Someone to Watch Over Me,” the old Gershwin song goes. There are moments in life when we call out for such a knight or sorceress to summon the daylight.

The problem, though, is that life’s manufacture of dilemmas doesn’t stop. The factory assembly line can be unkind. Joys and sorrows are randomly generated. Nor does love offer a permanent cure-all.

The nourishment given by passionate and abiding affection helps with many problems, within limits. The lover (or potential partner) can offer only one hand when you find yourself in the soup of struggle. The other he needs to keep himself afloat. Lasting sorcery available 24/7 is in short supply.

If the therapy client searches for a deliverer or a romance in the counselor’s office, desire gets in the way of the best the therapist can provide: for the patient to rescue himself with expert and sensitive help.

The doctor’s assistance does not demand his becoming a brawny stretcher-bearer throughout the client’s life. Instead, the latter learns to take on present challenges and get past his past to make his way.

To do so, our wounded hero must allow (in small doses) uncomfortable emotions access to his heart. Similarly, he begins to permit uneasy topics and memories admittance to his thoughts. Taking responsibility for recovery requires behavioral changes, too; actions he hesitates to try. New and more workable ideas will disentangle the ones binding him if he recognizes their mirage of false security and unties them.

Some argue there is a benign supernatural healer in an afterlife, but I don’t know anyone who claims he now walks the earth. Some of us do, however, mistake mortal beings for more than they are. Thus, no matter the gifts of the therapist, he is not, by himself, the answer.

Current politics reflects this problem. Close to half of the United States thinks they’ve found their savior, a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Nothing short of a no-holds-barred holy terror will save them, they believe.

The other 50% hopes a nobler protector is yet to come. The latter group has been disappointed in people with names like Mueller and fears there is no other metaphorical wolf-slayer at hand.

Here, as well, many who wait and dream make the same error as some counseling clients. The hoped-for wizard in the office is like the fictional Wizard of Oz, just another man. The heavy lifting of well-being will require the muscle of those who lift themselves. The psychologist might suggest a path and a pace, display encouragement and understanding, but no more.

Neither a passive role in counseling nor remaining inactive until election day will accomplish a rescue, whether it be from personal despair or a case of national turmoil.

In 1867 John Stuart Mill put the governmental situation this way:

Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

It is often quoted in these words:

The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

Whether the worthy man or woman is a therapy patient or a nervous citizen in a shaky republic, he is tasked with principled action to effect the change he wants.

Postcard and letter writing, marching and registering voters, phone calls and donations wait for us only for a while. Energy enacted creates its own source of energy, confidence, hope, and a sense of control: steps in the defeat of passivity, dependency, and worry.

Walt Kelly’s old Pogo comic strip told us “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

If the cartoonist were working today he might prefer this, a remedy of which each of us should remind ourselves:

I have met my rescuer and I am he.

November Anniversaries

This week brings two anniversaries to mind, not of the wedding kind.

A birth and a death, both. A man I knew well and one I never met. I’ll concentrate on the former.

My dad would have been 108 had he lived another 19 years. When I think of him, it is not as a man near life’s end, but the middle-aged version. Perhaps that’s because he was 35 when I walked on stage, and never less than 40 during my school days.

I think of the challenges he faced getting a job in the Great Depression and his wartime service in the army. I recall how hard (and how much) he labored to make a living for his three boys and our mother. I witnessed how the responsibility was like a machine-lowered ceiling pressing down on him.

Milt Stein was a sweet man. My brothers and I saw him express that affection to my mother with tender words and embraces. She occupied his world. We were satellites circling a planet named Jeanette.

How might one celebrate his memory?

I could revisit the video interview I did when he was about 75.

No, too weighty. Moreover, the four-hour recording won’t fit my schedule right now.

I might arrange one of his favorite hot meals and uncap a lava flow of ketchup on top of it, as was his habit. My mom, you see, was not a master chef.

Another possible homage would be to stir a creamer in my morning coffee as he did, for what seemed like minutes at a time, almost long enough to wear his metal spoon to a nub.

The bell-like sound echoed too early and too long inside our two-flat on Talman Avenue. You knew dad was home — so announced the clanging — as it did that by 5:30 AM he’d be off to his job at the downtown post office.

If I had the urge to go to Chicago’s Loop today, a visit to the main library would serve as a symbolic honor. He borrowed books there and read novels and the Sun Times on public transit to and from work.

My memories take me to all these places and more: to excursions on the elevated train beginning at the Western stop, to trips on the #11 Lincoln Avenue bus, to Riverview Park’s high-rides, and Cubs games at Wrigley Field.

In the bag full of a lifetime’s remembrances, those ritualized, repeated events stand out. One such repetition occurred at the baseball contests. We understood the drill, though Milt Stein never failed to remind his boys of an essential feature.

The relative poverty of dad’s childhood required continued focus on the dearness of a hard-won dollar, even as time moved him away from the economic challenge of America in the 1930s. Thus, this man told his three sons we could each have only “two items” on our day at Wrigley.

Mom packed us all lunches. Corned beef on rye bread was typical, maybe a banana, too. But if we wanted ice cream or a Coke or a hot dog, my father limited us to any two of these, not more.

Ed, Jack, and I thought the restriction unreasonable, but we’d never experienced want. Our sire got categorized as a miser. Only years later did I recognize his limitations offered protection against a future when food might be a question not of how much, but whether we’d have any.

This little story leads me to salute Milton Stein’s 108th birthday anniversary the way he’d have advised. I intend to shop at the grocery, especially those aisles filled with all the goodies I likely wanted on a day at the ballpark in, say, 1959.

You know what I’m going to do, don’t you?

I’ll buy just two items.

—–

The top image is a sign of The Four Candles, a Wetherspoons pub in Oxford named after The Two Ronnies comedy sketch. Matt Brown is the author. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Can the Honeymoon be Saved? The Ultimate Relationship Challenge

If someone tells you what love is, do not believe him.

Thus having given you good reason to ignore me, I shall pretend you’re still reading and provide a possible answer.

First, I’m writing about being “in love” and “swept away,” not a sedate, loving, and less ecstatic attachment. More the honeymoon than the place down the road where engines slow and the fire truck in charge of routine overtakes the couple and douses the flames. Here the dead hand of habit makes an unwelcome appearance.

Before I get to how to forestall that undesirable event, let me speak more about it.

Madness describes the state of new love — “the full crazy.”

Some call it obsession. The idea of the other floods your being with face, form, touch, scent, voice, intelligence, and laughter. Sex, too.

Love makes the world new: everything sparkles. Perception is enhanced, like the change from black & white to colorized, 3-D.

One day ago, you were a sleepwalking, beclouded person. With the sunrise of a new romance, each day is broken open the way a child attacks the gift wrapping on his Christmas presents. You come alive to what it means to be alive.

Love is foolishness and wisdom, silliness and joy, slavery and escape. The bewitched circumstance is so perfect that we make the arrangement a 24-hour cohabitation and risk killing it. “More” is not necessarily better. In a world where we adapt, adjust, do the laundry, and pay the bills, the mundane moves in and makes it a threesome.

Love is falling, but believing you won’t hit the ground. Reason plays little part. Friends question your judgment and warn you. Even astute ten-year-olds witness your rolling eyes. They fear for your safety. Unsolicited words of advice make abstract sense but appeal to a brain taking a smoking break.

This state of euphoria is heedless of tomorrow. One cannot imagine the emotion fading, the beloved aging, troublesome relatives, and quarrels over money. Intensity and gratitude are all.

Whenever amour is the real-deal, you are changed, enlarged. The personal, permanent passport of your existence gets stamped with the name of another, a human possessing an addictive flavor.

Thought alters. You conceive anew what is possible in life because you experienced a sliver of the impossible.

Love, when authentic, inflates your humanity, the capacity to give to another, and the knowledge that the world possesses mountain tops of rapture and well-being. No wonder an abrupt end to this journey rips your insides out.

This glorious condition rarely lasts. Time tends to mold the relationship into a different shape of love. The rip-your-clothes-off, rhapsodic fervor becomes more episodic, a tune you notice less often, assuming it is played at all. Heretofore unseen personality incompatibilities intrude.

The arrival of children enriches a marriage, but also stresses it. For most duos, the grinding of frenzy gives way to the rubbing of friction and familiarity.

Sometimes the marital pair discovers a challenge in their conflicting motivations. People live for love, for the kids, for money and objects, for fame, to live-on in artistic or scientific works, etc. Moving in tandem over a lifetime requires lots of coordination, tolerance of the other, and sacrifice.

Being crazy-in-love doesn’t demand much except a shower and a fresh set of clothes. A life together does.

Much writing offers guidance on perpetuating the enchantment. The list of suggestions includes effort, imagination, surprise gifts, date nights, sexual experimentation, playfulness, and remembering why you fell in love. Kindness, apology, and respect are essential, as is an absence of condescension. The therapist, Esther Perel, believes infidelity with the consent of the mate can also enhance the marriage, though I have doubts.

For the candle of courtship to remain lit, both parties must grow and transform. They otherwise offer nothing new to their partner. Boredom out of the bedroom is a killer of passion within it. While renewed love is not so effortless as the new kind, recapturing a time when you were an explorer to an undiscovered country is worth another safari.

Sensitive conversation is required. Some people listen only to fashion a reply. Instead, the husband and wife must hear to understand.

The wise pair benefits from balancing time together and apart, hours without the spouse, and solo interests as well as activities they share.

If the lovers do not bring fresh ideas into their interactions, nearness becomes a dreadful repetition. Each might take comfort knowing every thought before their companion thinks it, but dullness makes an extramarital affair appear enlivening.

I know a magician, a specialist in racing with the moon when not nursing the rabbit in his hat, who conjured a way to keep marital bliss rolling forever. The plan requires the sweethearts to live in different cities and meet every few weeks, traveling back and forth, sometimes to places beyond their homes.

Habit wouldn’t play any part, but a vacation atmosphere of excitement and adventure would. No children were offered a role in the trickster’s equation. He recommended regular phone calls, however. The wizard guaranteed a “Saturday Night Date” aura to every encounter, no matter the place and time.

Of course, few have the resources or vocation to permit this. Moreover, the urge to join together — the want for “more” — still presents an ever-present risk.

Relationships change like everything else in the world. Youthful newlyweds are endowed with a spark but don’t yet possess the history awarded by age alone. Nor do many of us realize the one-we-can’t-get enough-of lacks the magic to make us whole. That heroic task is a never-finished solo assignment.

The clock takes away but also gives. If grating and the sense of imprisonment in a two-person chain-gang are what remains of the dyad’s past ardor, these souls missed a great opportunity.

Yes, long romance always finds its way to conflict. But shared challenges, mutual support, tragedy endured, joyous memories, acceptance of shortcomings, pride and love for offspring, aligned values, and countless moments of tenderness compensate for the diminished presence of the enkindling thing that brought their hearts together.

The lucky older couple has encountered the absurdity of life as a team, sometimes in laughter, sometimes in tears. In the best of cases, their love is now different, in part because of what they lost, in part because they have transcended the honeymoon.

=====

The images above in the following order: The Family by Gustav Klimt, Upward by Paul Klee, White Line by Kandinsky, the Red Balloon by Paul Klee, and Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne (aka In Fronto of a Door) by Modigliani.

 

When Beauty Interferes with Your Life

A therapist learns more about private lives than almost any other professional. Such knowledge informs him of the double-edged nature of many glorious qualities.

Take beauty.

Take beautiful women.

The upside of their charm is well-known: admiring glances, an expansive range of potential suitors, the possibility of marrying into a superior status. People who will do more for you, show you great kindness, pick up what you’ve dropped, and make exceptions for your failings because you dazzle them with bright eyes, a smile, and the symmetrical proportions of your face.

The genetic wheel of fortune blesses some of us, sideswipes others. One does nothing to earn this. Gifts of intellect, athletic talent, and disposition are subject to random distribution, but none more nakedly evident than how you look.

What of the downside of this accident of birth? As the Greek myth of Prometheus relates, we must be wary of a gift received from the gods. Here are a few observations about those complicated presents. One cautionary note: these remarks do not fit every one of those who make men look twice:

A number of the gorgeous ones become accustomed to the unearned advantages bestowed upon them. Some believe they needn’t develop other facets of themselves: education, tenderness, social intelligence, or financial independence, etc. Life demands less, so they give less.

An additional factor contributes to their confidence in a seemingly permanent entitlement. Few can grasp the reality of future unwanted changes to their physicality.

All of us believe advanced age is our destiny, but the idea is an abstraction. The magic mirror, like the one possessed by Snow White’s evil stepmother, reflects an everlasting prime. Time stretches when a rose is in bloom. Its alteration is imperceptible. A different life is unimaginable.

Perhaps we survive as a species because aging long remains at a distance, beyond the horizon, an affliction without application to ourselves.

An enchantress wonders about something else, at least early on: why does he love me? Everyone thinks about the reasons for another’s affection, but a beautiful woman confronts the plausibility her pulchritude alone is paramount.

Along with the power conferred by her sexuality, she regrets that her lover values her without knowing her. Perhaps she is an objectified prize to be displayed beside his most conspicuous trophies; as a testament to his worth and his victories in a chest-pounding macho competition.

The totality of the female as a unique, self-created, moral, emotional, perceiving entity might be obscured by the man’s singular focus on her arresting face and form. The woman’s periodic dismay at the irony of being “unseen the more she is seen” betrays the existence of an invisible depth.

The fetching lady is like a bejeweled well, so breathtaking and artistically constructed on the outside no one thinks to examine what is inside.

I met movie-star-beautiful women whose personalities, wit, imagination, generous humanity, and brains were more impressive and magical than anything else about them. And yet the floodlight of their externals blinded far too many who were already blind to the possibility something more was more important.

If a damsel’s charms are also long-lasting, females share the tendency to discount her strengths.

I recall treating a gynecologist whose appearance suggested early-20s though she was 45. Upon acquaintance, patients did not believe she was a doctor.

Once persuaded, a minority continued to question whether her medical experience justified trusting her. The physician’s presence confronted them with the contradiction between what she was and what she appeared to be.

To the extent one retains youthfulness and allure, an evergreen body postpones the portion of maturational instruction a fading flesh provides. How one adjusts to its transformation and the changing reactions of others to its metamorphosis influences everything else.

Aches and pains aren’t fun, but they are informative. Prolonged youthful skin plays the trick of extending the period in which you can act as you did in your chronological springtime.


Any of us might wish for this blessing, but wisdom is acquired not only by exposure to events and the passage of time. Sages achieve enlightenment, in part, by adjusting to alterations in the package containing their soul.

A significant number of good-looking members of the fair sex find relationships with their same gender comrades challenging. Rivalry for the male gaze creates unease among possible friends. Would-be chums and colleagues hesitate to stand in the shadow of an apparition more magnificent than the hanging gardens of Babylon.

If these captivating creatures get divorced, married women guard the home turf against the temptation they represent. Dinner and party plans leave the insecure wondering if they would do better not to invite a Trojan horse into their walled dwelling place.

The signs of seniority and declining loveliness inevitably arrive, even when late to the game. The loss of a man’s instinctively turning head is still a loss, however long the delay. Grief is enlarged when self-concept is too dependent upon the vanishing thing.

Comparisons can’t be escaped. For one who caught every eye, she not only measures her effect on neighbors and friends but judges her current self against what she was.

If you are beautiful, you are aware of the downs and ups of nature’s largesse. A sense of well-being is enabled by gratitude for whatever one has. Those women who hang on to their appreciation of the whole of themselves will handle both their sexual objectification and its departure as well as possible.

When considering the beautiful, do remember that the higher they climb on the list of bathing beauty winners, the farther they must fall into the water.

While no one escapes gravity, some qualities defy it. Shoot for the stars with whatever excellences best define you today.

—–

All of the images above are sourced from the Art Institute of Chicago. The first is Three Beauties of Yoshiwara (1793) by Utamoro. Next comes Madam Pampadour (1915) by Modigliani, followed by Dorothea and Francesca (1898) by Cecilia Beaux. Finally, Two Sisters (On the Terrace) (1881) by Renoir, Bust of an African Woman (1851) by Charles Henri Joseph Cordier, and Celestial Beauty from 8th century India.

Are Therapists Ever Really Irreplaceable?

Counselors offer conventional wisdom to solitary, long term patients who are attached to them:You have grown, and that growth will enable you to meet new and satisfying people. I’m merely the first person who understands and affirms you. I won’t be the last.

I shared this with those whose attachment to me was substantial. Some doubted my words. Now, at a distance created by retirement, I’m less sure which of us was right.

For those who said I was wrong, I’m more than a little late in offering an affirming message in response to their concern. The belated acknowledgment is double-edged good news. The confirmation of your fear means you never found another person in your life who understood you enough, saw you clearly, and deemed you worthwhile.

Am I giving myself credit for insightful, redemptive compassion no one else duplicated? It is not as if I didn’t work hard to understand. It is not as if I didn’t recognize qualities that had gone long unseen and unappreciated. Many healers do this, however. I was not unique.

But, I was singular in several lives because I was their psychologist.

Clinician and patient encounter each other at a challenging juncture. The latter’s life is like a coin tossed above the crowd. Will it land heads or tails? If the therapist is a figurative fair wind, he tips the spinning silver for the better in an unrepeatable moment.

To the extent such an instant is a decisive one, perhaps the client will never meet another like him in a similar, poignant, and needful time. Whenever life is fraught after the treatment concludes, he might look back on past psychotherapy as an oasis worthy of an expensive return ticket.

Alternative paths exist. Not every person who enters counseling becomes so attached to the purported wise man sitting opposite him. Even among those who did bond before its conclusion, multiple people perhaps now provide more fulfillment than a therapist. Those relationships extend to meals together, bus rides, weekend evening plans, and physical intimacy. None of these occur in the patient/doctor range of interaction.

Nonetheless, the doc can be a hard act to follow for several reasons.

For a significant number, the healer made an indelible impact, perhaps an imprint. Remember what you learned about imprinting? Some birds and mammals will attach to another creature, not even of their species, who arrives during a critical, brief period: a moment fertile for bonding.

The right counselor at the right time with the right kind of intervention might be a bit like this.

Most patients — if they continue to work on themselves — will encounter new people who evoke as many positive emotions as the old psychotherapist. Still, these relationships are about both people, not so much about the client alone.

Trust develops in different ways inside and outside the clinic. Within the office, it is carefully orchestrated and permitted to be gradual. The room holds the possibility of becoming almost holy because faith (in another mortal, not a deity) enshrines the place.

In contrast, routine contact in the real world provides riskier opportunities to achieve confidence in another. The restaurant, workplace, and movie theater do not resemble sanctuaries. The ethical guardrails of the cloistered healing space are absent.

An impatient civilization puts down hurdles to closeness not everyone can overcome. Moreover, even best friends and mates do not hear all of the secrets some clients hide in the shadows.

Therapists do and, because they do, they double as confessors. They listen to the sins and inadequacies the client believes about himself. By bearing witness and accepting the reported frailties and flaws, the counselor frees him from the weight of the insecurity and doubt he carries.

Regardless of the wonders of a new friend or love, those companions cannot always be so focused on you as a person who gives professional guidance. This is true despite a weekly, clock-governed hour or two of purchased attention.

Indeed, the hour’s brevity and artificiality assists in creating the uniqueness and makes such focus possible. Where else in our busy, routinized adult experience does anyone get this?

There is a potential erotic quality present in the consulting room too, adding another level importance. Secrets are involved. Providers make appointments in advance, like a date.

The eager sufferer thinks ahead to these future engagements, considers what he wants to say, hopes to feel something soothing and enlivening.

Other competitors for the healer’s time exist (families, friends, spouses) as do additional “suitors” (other patients), and the troubled one worries about termination (aka getting dumped) just as we do in romance.

Experiences in the consulting room, as confined as they are by professional borders, remind us of impassioned events in our history. Perhaps the reminders come because we find ourselves talking about such past times and resurrecting dormant feelings. The memory of exposing one’s inner life to a psychologist lingers for many of those who allow this lowering of their defenses.

The ghost of the therapist might reside in the remembering mind as does a first love. Youthful friends, too, occupy a place in the heart to the end of many lifetimes. You passed with them through the same moment in history in the same place, experiencing like challenges and the same people in your shared world.

Wartime buddies, as well, understand things no one else fathoms. Nor should we forget the long-married, aged couples who are so molded to the other that they pass away close in time.

The sharing of something important, formative or reformative, is present in all these intimate contacts.

Intensity is a determinant in what can seem irreplaceable in such connections, whether with parents, childhood and adolescent friends, lovers, wartime comrades, and counselors. Similar ties are elusive.

I do not wish to understate the chance you will meet people who “get you” after you depart psychotherapy. Still, I now believe the possibility you may not is higher than I did before.

Each of us, no matter the losses we have had, must search to find new people who can become precious to us. Risks are required. The tightrope of homo sapien interaction offers no safety net, but we are a resilient species.

While many candidates for intimacy exist, if the task were comfortable, the patient would have been embraced by numerous such people before entering the mental health clinic.

Happiness is not a constant. Counselors do not erase the demands of living, including the filling of our social sphere. At their best, however, they empower you to identify and enhance the capabilities inside you to surmount them.

Even for those who profited from therapy and still lack fulfilling nearness, that satisfaction may yet occur. Our emotional lives never can be flash frozen. Children and grandchildren grow or move away and make their own families. Friends die or seek work elsewhere. Conflict with those we love is not always avoidable.

The cemetery is full of irreplaceable people who must be replaced.

Aristotle believed a person who did not require human connection was either a god or a beast. Thus, our quest for an essential other is a part of our nature.

You are not alone in your need to take on this challenge.

Many, many are looking.

They may be looking for you.

—–

The paintings reproduced above begin with Man with a Pipe by Joan Miró. It is followed by three works of Edvard Munch: Self-portrait in Bergen, Young Woman on the Beach, and Woman Looking in the Mirror. The final image is The Mask with the Little Flag by Paul Klee.

What if We Could Erase Painful Memories?

Why is memory this way? Why isn’t it content to hurt you once? Why must it remind you of all the times you’ve been hurt before?

If this doesn’t sound familiar, you have been asleep for a while.

Our hearts are given as hostage when we love. The kind of love doesn’t matter: children, friends, romance, and more. Our core is at risk when we treasure books and eyes fail, or music and hearing dims, or running and knees collapse.

Think of our loves as on loan from a magical library. This institution specifies no due date for the materials checked out.

Are we fools because the absence of a precise cutoff allows us to believe our possession is secure?

Perhaps someone already grabbed the object of our desire off the shelf. Will waiting help, hoping for the item to be returned?

You say rapture is yours? Then, suddenly, the library police snatch it away. No warning. No time to prepare. Maybe an accident robs you of your mobility or another love of a lover. No aid for this, no higher authority to whom you can appeal.

The officers provide only cruel compensation: a hole inside. The happiness of what remains begins to leak, the substance of life tunneling down the bottomless sink. Food doesn’t taste right, jokes don’t make you laugh, sleep gives no rest.

You climb in and reach for what is moving away. Or lack even the strength to lift you arm, open your hand, and try.

Oh, but shards of the remembrance cut, edges slow to depart.

Where is the repair shop when you need it, something to fill up the hole, smooth the jagged places? A replacement for “one of a kind” now gone? No second hand stores carry it, no reseller offers the missing part. A proprietor says they have something like it. You know they don’t.

What if you could simply forget you’d ever had the precious commodity, as if a surgeon removed an unwanted scar?

The top quote comes from Mem, by Bethany Morrow. The novel deals with some of the implications of memory erasure, also treated in the 2004 movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Outside of fiction, scientists envision a possible future including electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), brain implants, or other methods to treat PTSD by deleting disturbing memories.

The researchers make an assumption: the stinging, sorrowing, traumatic remembrances are distinct, limited, and not integrated with the rest of you. Not all troubling events fit into this tiny package, however.

Stop for a moment.

Would you sign up?

Many questions can be expected to arise if such a tool comes to the hospital nearest you. How would the doctor measure whether a memory is terrible enough and fenced-off enough to qualify for medical vanishing cream? Would the emotion disappear along with the recollection or might one experience the trauma without the reference to what caused it?

How would a forgotten past allow us to learn from our mistakes? Some amount of pain is both inevitable and necessary for human development.

What might such experiential carve-outs do to our humanity? How might we relate to those who remember the event, but didn’t use the medical white-out?

Could the richness of life and our capacity for empathy — our moral growth and resilience — diminish with a too ready instrumental “end (to) the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?”*

If the technique were extended to matters of romantic heartbreak, would the wonder of love vanish too? Might our species turn reckless once assured that losses needn’t last past our next doctor appointment?

Remember, taking something away doesn’t add anything back. Would these scrubbed souls become like white boards without the written names and meanings of the people who were once our “everything?” Does spotlessness await or just mindless?

For now we must weather the bad luck and pack an umbrella. Perhaps go to a therapist or seek the drug dispensers, insurance approved or otherwise. We count on time to pass so we no longer count the time “since” and “after.”

I wish we were guaranteed a puddle remover for the rain and a hole closer for the drain. At least they tend to get smaller.

Gratitude for what abides offers consolation, though hard to summon with speed. New people, new tasks, new beauties beckon. Acceptance, too, is instrumental in healing, another job needy of practice and patience. Religion helps some find solace.

To me, the essential lesson is to live with urgency. Not stay up nights wondering when the librarian will demand the book back. Rather, to be exhausted by bedtime for having embraced the fullness and possibility of the sunlight. If, by evening, the tale of your life is claimed, the desk won’t be piled high with regret.

Your library card might appear battered by then. Look carefully, though, and recognize something else. Good use was made of your time and the invitation to enter a wondrous place called the globe. I mean the bounty offered there: books and relationships, work and sport, nature and laughter and fulfillment from striving to repair the world.

In a place where everything is borrowed and brief, Andrew Marvell’s centuries old advice, To His Coy Mistress, still applies:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

——–

The second image is Erased de Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg.

*Excerpt from the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, Scene I.

Finding Your Father in Yourself

It was a strange meeting, but there was a symmetry to the event. A circle closed, like the earth coming round the sun for a new try at the thing called a day. The father coming round the son, too.

How could he? My dad died 19 years ago.

Death is a vanishing, an evaporation of substantiality, an empty place. I no more see my author as a breathing, touchable creature looking back at me. He won’t tap on the bottom of the always necessary ketchup bottle at supper. Milt Stein’s eyes will never sparkle delivering jokes he can’t tell, nor a rare tear reappear for a last bow.

So I thought, until he showed up on Father’s Day, 2019. A strange meeting, as I said.

Shopping with my wife I spotted a set of adhesive, black, cloth mustaches hanging from a shelf.

“Buy me,” the product whispered. Little persuasion was necessary. I figured my eldest grandson would get a cheap boost of happiness. The pint-sized person is easy to please just by showing up. His smile alone juices my serotonin, too. Market this small man if you can and he’ll replace antidepressants.

When we arrived at his home two days later I grabbed W, who reminds me often he is “a big boy.” My little descendant is almost four and, indeed, sizeable for his age. An outgoing spirit who loves to laugh and read, with a specialty in all things dinosaur. A strong personality like his mom.

“I got you something, W.” The lad couldn’t wait. The fake facial accessories were opened right away. The largest attached to my grandson’s upper lip, another clung to my own.

My youngest daughter photographed us. A baseball cap covered my broad expanse of scalp. The picture of me was not me, however.

A revenant appeared, a ghost. Did you hear the door creak? My father snuck in and emerged from the pixels.

More snapshots got taken with my grandson. My wife, daughters, and brothers all remember dad. They concurred in my transformed likeness.

“Rain or Shine” Milt Stein was present. Here was a man who claimed fame for pitching every day, the make-believe star hurler of the Chicago Cubs. Here materialized the indefatigable and reliable husband and sire he made himself into.

The family joke-of-a-story never failed to amuse us. Had my wife and I created a male child instead of our wonderful girls, we intended to name him Rainer. The old man knew our plans.

I wear baseball caps a lot, but the addition of the facial, felt, fakery did its magic. Dark mustache added, baldness subtracted, I was he. That and no longer being the younger man I look like to myself most of the time. Research suggests we begin to think of ourselves as 15 years below our step on the chronology ladder once we land on the rung marked “Middle Age.”

Unlike me — his oldest son — dad retained a decent head of hair all his life. Somewhere near 60 padre added to his masculinity with a mustache. I must have asked him why, but don’t recall the answer.

The additional hair favored him, so he displayed himself to the world this way for the last 30 years or so of his life. His three boys, Ed, Jack, and I, remember him in this post-prime, but still genuine version.

I now live with my father, I suppose. OK, we all do, but I mean in a new way. He is nearby externally as well as inside. With a few adornments I am a visible reincarnation of him.

Perhaps I’ll go out and acquire several more top lip appendages for those moments I wish my father close-at-hand again. I’d stand before the mirror, of course.

If I have the urge to reach forward the whole enterprise would collapse. Too full of unfulfilled emotion, something life inevitably acquaints us with. But if I could peer straight ahead, smile, and sense a bit of the warmth and love he brought me, then … well, then …

Fill in the blanks however you desire. Maybe your experience would be different. Anyway, this Father’s Day was memorable and surprising.

Go shopping. Buy whatever speaks to you. Bring a camera. You never know who you will meet when you get home.

——-

The top photo of Jeanette and Milton Stein was taken around 1990, the year of their 50th wedding anniversary.