A Basketful of Moms

There are lots of moms out there. You might even have had one yourself. Or more than one.

Here are some to cheer or miss or wish they’d been better:

  • The One Everyone Wants. Loving, supportive, defending us when needed, encouraging and challenging us, too. Always there.
  • The Overburdened Mom. Too many kids, too many jobs, too many issues of her own.
  • The Stepmom. She can be either of the first two, just not the one who gave birth to you. This mother might favor her own kids or accept you as if you arose from her body.
  • The Big Sister Mom. Usually, the oldest sister, especially if you have an overburdened mom.
  • The Nextdoor Neighbor. She might have made you wish she were your own mother.
  • The Favorite Teacher Mom. If you had a winning teacher such as this, I don’t need to tell you how much she influenced and helped you.
  • The Dad Mom. The double-duty father has to take both roles when the mother is absent or ill. He might be a stay-at-home dad when the mother is the breadwinner, too.
  • The Mentor Mom. A supportive guide you find in the workplace.
  • The Role Reversal Mom. She expects you to listen to her and, to some degree, be her moral support and caretaker (long before she gets old). You hear stories from her you shouldn’t hear.
  • The “I Know Better” Mom/Grandma: She won’t accept the second banana, supportive job you’d like her to take with your kids.
  • The Good Mom/Grandma: This lady allows you to grow up whether you have kids of your own or not, and limits her unrequested advice. You are allowed to be an adult, your own person with your own ideas.
  • The Mother Who Played Favorites. Yikes is all I can say.

Well, I’ve probably missed a few, including some of the least admirable, but you get the point. I hope the stork deposited you in the lap of the kind of mother you needed. If not, that you found a substitute elsewhere. An impossible job, for sure, but the most essential one on the globe.

A round of applause to all the best of them and perhaps some kindness even for the rest of them.

And to all of you who are mothers, will be, or wish you could be.

================

The drawing is called Mother and Baby. It comes from a 1923 advertisement for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Please, HEAR ME!

We want to be heard by those who matter to us: known, accepted, cared about. Many people are wanted for particular qualities, but not the whole of them. Often their entirety — their essence — is neither recognized nor understood.

The essence is more than a pretty face, a powerful embrace, a tender or firm hand, femininity or manliness, or a sense of humor. The extent of this elusive thing isn’t sexuality, intelligence, prominence, money-making, the ability to protect, or the capacity to be a capable parent or housekeeper. It is all of these and more.

That which is to be embraced is everything, despite everything. It is their core and voice. We wish to be seen for more than can be seen.

Each of us hopes what we say and feel makes a difference. Not with everyone but with someone. Not at every moment, but often.

No fellow man or woman can fully understand us. Nor can we fathom the extent of our changing selves. Moreover, there is always an element of “seeming” as we move through life and its transforming interaction between who we are in this moment and who we are becoming.

Vision tells us the people standing before us are static, solid, and fixed. In truth, they are blurred, not constant. Time-lapse photography provides evidence of never-ending changes on the physical surface and points to the same ongoing process within. The mirror plays the identical trick when facing it.

Each one of us has had the goal or fantasy of being relevant, not a matter of indifference — not a replaceable part.

An old New Yorker cartoon by Robert Mankoff offers a visual representation of what we don’t want. A woman seated near her husband interrupts him to say, “I’m sorry, dear. I wasn’t listening. Could you repeat everything you’ve said since we got married?”

What explains this failure to communicate, to connect, to be known by someone? What might account for a shortfall in understanding by the person we desire, love, care for, want to be with, want to be close to?

I’m referring to only the ingrained version of this common happening. Everyone gets misunderstood some of the time or falls out of focus and presence.

Here are factors to consider in conversation:

  • The speaker has real limitations in word usage. He can’t explain what he wants us to know.
  • The talker takes too long, circling whatever his concern is, not quite getting to the central message.
  • The pair find it hard to be unguarded in what they say.
  • Body language and facial expression interfere with the intake of words and their meaning.
  • Genuine hearing problems affect the listener.
  • The hearer is a habitual multi-tasker and doesn’t give his complete attention.
  • The twosome infrequently sits face to face in a quiet room when speaking.
  • Differences in temperament, history, knowledge, and gender create a gap language fails to overcome.
  • The infrequency of tender or open conversations increases the danger of big emotions (held back) now overtaking the couple.
  • One or both participants cut each other off.
  • The auditor assumes he received the same memo before, perhaps many times. He takes in the first few words and tunes out, filling in the rest from his catalog of familiar beliefs about the other.
  • One or both are in “attack” mode. The two people engage in accusations, not reflection.
  • Transference from previous relationships interferes with the individuals’ abilities to differentiate this person from someone else.

A match between two people in friendship or love requires maintenance. However, unlike an auto whose oil must be changed and tires replaced, the reasons for the work are a bit elusive.

Let’s begin with the duo’s beginnings. The initial affection and mutual interest tend to be motivated by a few appealing qualities: sexual allure, shared enthusiasms, the feeling of being desired, newness, or a temporary fitness between roles. An example would be one party’s search for a protector and the other’s joy in being appreciated for providing this.

Such attributes outshine and obscure other features of significance about the pair’s interconnection.

One of the surprises and challenges of grasping the “being” of the mate is the continual unfolding we go through as we proceed through life. Only a stone statue untouched by wind, water, or pollution remains unchanging.

Existence means transformation. In the best circumstances, this enables the possibility of growth.

A step toward improving our relationships is understanding that none of us are the same as we were. The partner, therefore, must attempt to “know” you — a living, developing, wavering soul moving through unending alteration — while he engages in a motion of his own and tries to understand himself anew. If the pair of friends or lovers can discover their nonsynchronous “becoming,” the endeavor to retain, recover, and recognize the companion may lie ahead.

Each of us loses his way at times. Still, much is possible if we recognize one of the greatest opportunities to be found in the search for friendship and love: to discover another who takes on the lifelong task of fondness, forgetting, and generous acceptance of human frailty, the better to become aware of another being who intends and attempts the same.

No wonder our delight when we come close to this closeness.

———-

The first photo is called Couple Talking by Pedro Ribeiro Simões of Portugal. The second is a A Reading & Conversation with Scholastique Mukasonga. The Moderator was Odile Cazenave. The photo was taken at the Boston University Center for the Study of Europe. Both of the images were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Ten Lessons I Learned in 2020

I don’t have resolutions for the New Year, except to savor the tender moments and the beauties of the earth. Let me bathe in the snow and the rain, with the sun, the children, the grandkids, and woman in the moon. I want to take the people for whom I care and hold them close.

I’d put the sunny days and the loved ones in the fridge to preserve them as they are, but their warmth is what I seek.

Our loved ones are precious because they are temporary, as are we all.

Lessons:

1. To succeed in the job of appreciation, I must forget the thought of appreciation and embrace feelings alone.

The past year reminded us of the role of fate, fortune’s game of daily roulette.

2. “Normality” before the pandemic turned out to have been a piece of extraordinary luck. We showed our faces without thought. Kisses and hugs were commonplace. Custom required handshakes, congratulations, a pat on the back. Shoulders to cry on came without risk.

Now the delivery trucks throw heartbreak on our doorstep along with Amazon merchandise. The latter needs to be ordered; the former comes free of charge. The unwanted product cannot be refused, nor the unhappiness returned.

We will survive as our brave forebears did. Each of us is the beneficiary of their courage, wisdom, and ingenuity. No wonder the Chinese venerate ancestors, those survivors of war, famine, poverty, and discrimination.

3. Applaud them. Add the grocery personnel and the ballot counters, the grape pickers, and every person who works in a medical office or hospital, laboring past the time their eyes water and PTSD steals their joy.

4. Attend to the lonely. Do not mistake their quiet for well-being. As a bereaved woman says in Italo Svevo’s As a Man Grows Older, “The dead are dead, and comfort can only come from the living. We may wish it otherwise, but so it is. It is the living who have need of us.”

And we of them.

We’ve made mistakes. So long as we live, we can reach out, be kinder, and recognize our shared destiny as part of humanity’s brotherhood. And while showing forgiveness, don’t forget to forgive yourself.

The Bible, among other sacred books, speaks to our times:

I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.
Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come:
As fish are caught in a cruel net,
or birds are taken in a snare,
so people are trapped by evil times
that fall unexpectedly upon them.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 and 12.

Yet, nets are like the rest of the world: imperfect. Escapes occur. Our parents and those before them found a way. The ingenuity and effort of medical science worked its miracle this year. Hope still has a place.

What else did I learn from 2020?

5. Irrationality is both inevitable and evident in the mirror if I do not turn away. No matter, too many maintain the righteousness of their scrambled power to reason.

6. Recognizing a past decision as “the big mistake of my life” is an easy game to play, an impossible one to win. Yes, there are missed opportunities, words unspoken or misspoken, and lost friendships. But…

7. Remember this: when we look back, we do so from a changed perspective, toward a bygone moment and place in our lives. Wisdom teaches us no one is gifted with visionary prophecy. Forgiveness also extends to the self.

8. The decisions you made before today were those of a younger soul, fitting well or ill for the time and all the conditions preceding them. Learn from the past but don’t obsess over it.

9. I can reflect upon those errors that still, at a considerable distance, appear as errors. If mending is possible I will try.

10. For now, here is what I can do: make the best decisions befitting the time, my loved ones, and the circumstances of the present.

The day is short. I must seize the day before the day ceases. Fate waits for no one. Good or bad, he must be embraced, either to display my appreciation or to wrestle. This much is within my power.

————-

The record cover needs no introduction. I chose it for the title. The photos following it are of uncertain origin. As suggested by the calendar in the first of these, they appear to date from the middle of the twentieth century. The final piece of art comes with this explanation on Wikimedia Commons: “This image represents self-love in diversity. Its purpose is not just to help oneself but others. In order to accept and appreciate others, first we must love and accept ourselves.” The creator is Elawaltmarie.

The Things Unsaid

Wise words come from many places. Whether the pictured quote is Arabic, Chinese, or Mongolian in origin, Ted Chiang rephrased it this way:

Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.*

Since I’m not an archer or a time-traveler, I’ll take a crack at the first of these, the words we say or leave unsaid. Some prove necessary or useful when uttered. Others fall flat, pass unnoticed, or enlarge misunderstandings. Still more cause injury.

In contrast, thoughts upspoken might best remain inside oneself, the better to fade like a penciled note long exposed to the light.

Should at least a few of your unexpressed expressions be released from their internal exile? Could they build you into a person who must be taken into account instead of one whose desires remain unknown or dismissed?

What to do? I offer some less than perfect guidance. Anyone who says he always knows when to speak and when to keep silent is a wiser soul than I.

Become assertive enough to say what is essential.

If you endure persistent fear of harming another, you will converse little or turn expert in conversational trivialities alone. Many who dread causing injury doubt the worth of their opinions and their way with words, expecting rejection of the message or themselves.

Most of us have our own default settings, a baked-in tendency either to say things or keep silent on delicate subjects. Developing the capacity for direct speech shouldn’t be sidestepped in a world of voices ready to cut you off and talk over you. The courage to speak when others hesitate offers the opportunity to develop a commanding presence.

Unless you wish to invite anonymity, you must say to some segment of the world, “Here I am, deal with me.” By doing so, you claim a sense of yourself.

The ability to convey sensitive words face-to-face will, at least, give you a choice of whether and when to verbalize, rather than leaving you capable of silence alone.

Expect to fail.

No one engages in successful communication at every opportunity. Conversations falter more often than we’d like.

Within the past year, a friend told me I was the single person in his life who expressed difficult truths he needed to hear. When I asked his permission to comment on sensitive matters, he encouraged me. A complaint about himself from his work supervisor caused him to ask for my opinion.

The gentle fellow didn’t believe anyone in his group of family, friends, or parishioners would provide a frank answer to the workplace accusation involving his personal hygiene. He wanted to know whether I detected the problem. No one else could be trusted, he said.

“No,” was my response, “I notice nothing offensive.”

I do not doubt either his decency or the gratitude he offered on multiple occasions. Months later, however, I expressed an unrequested piece of advice, mild, I believed, concerning Coronavirus precautions. He became angry, not because of political differences. The relationship fractured though I did not trade barbs, no matter his earlier thanks.

I’m not suggesting on which side right or wrong fell in this formula for unhappiness. My point is these are complex matters, the results of which aren’t always predictable or desirable. Yet humans still must speak.

The danger of holding things in.

The weight of unexpressed emotion grows as our anger, sadness, and injury accumulate, piling up and piercing us like broken slabs of sidewalk. For those who continue to bear this distress, psychological collapse becomes a risk. Costly methods of coping take the pained individual in a destructive direction. These include substance abuse, endless self-distraction, and flight from much potential social contact.

In the worst cases, the silent suffering spills into depression or momentary but outsized rage. Small things tip the balance. Witnesses won’t know about the unmentioned insults leading to explosive dyscontrol.

Ironically, the one who quietly bore the painful injuries gets labeled as “the one with the problem.” When asked why they didn’t speak earlier, such patients told me they “couldn’t find the words” to convince the offending party of his error and injustice. Too many described them as too sensitive.


There are no guarantees with words. No alchemist or sorcerer provides aromatic potions of syllables capable of filling the air with just the right inflection, volume, rhythm, and order of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Nor can we buy the perfect facial expression with which to deliver those sounds, the ideal amount of eye contact, an untrembling voice, and steadfast self-assurance. Stores sell no commodities to ease our most important and intimate communications, not even mask and costume shops.

One of the finest spontaneous public speakers I ever knew never mastered the art of saying the difficult things I’m describing. Occasional private verbal explosions resulted. Then his words lost the measure and eloquence his formal audiences heard.

Though none of us are at our best when internal passions bubble over, the need to recognize and reduce inappropriate anger is essential.

Self-expression can be more important than achieving understanding.

Some things need disclosure despite unlikely comprehension by the listener. You must stand up for yourself. The most dramatic examples from my practice came when newly decisive and brave abuse survivors confronted their abusers. Their triumph was in overcoming their fear. Whatever the words, their essence was this:

You won’t admit what you did, but you will never do that to me again. I won’t let you.

Conclusion.

Those of us who have forgiving friends or lovers are lucky. We receive acceptance and affection despite our less than stellar moments — the rash “spoken words” that “will not come back” among them. The survival of our relationships depends on our display of the consideration these kind hearts offer, recreating ourselves to become as forgiving as they are.

We live in a season of unusual sadness. Disease statistics tell us future opportunities to communicate with dear ones are not ensured. Endearments must not be postponed. The moment commends us to reach out to the estranged, including some of those we have injured or who have injured us.

Our intimacy and contentment depend on it.

—————

The last two images are the work of Laura Hedien, with her generous permission: https://twitter.com/lhedien

The first is of the Narrows at Zion National Park in December 2020. The second 2020 photo displays a Sunset in New Mexico.

* From The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang. Thanks to Phil Zawa for his introduction to this dazzling short story.

“The Best Meal I Had All Day” and Other Words of Wisdom

Emmanuel Terry, my Uncle Manny, is remembered by my brothers for something we heard from him whenever he came to dinner.

No matter the food he ate earlier, our gathering lacked completion until he said, “This was the best meal I had all day!” He smiled and we grinned at what became a necessary secular benediction at the evening’s conclusion.

Though we took his words as a joke, we might have better understood them as a true expression of appreciation, a thanksgiving for the feast and comradery of the moment.

Well before such festivities, Mr. Terry endured the Great Depression of the 1930s, psychiatric hospitalization, electroshock treatment, and service overseas in wartime. Late in life, he suffered the death of his wife, my Aunt Nettie. He knew loved ones and joyous reunions should not be taken for granted.

Uncle M. smiled a lot when we were together, drinking in the companionship and enjoying the laughter we all shared. And, yet, I am the inheritor of a few philosophy texts he read. Too bad I never thought to ask him what in those yellowed pages mattered to him.

Did they contribute to his gratitude?

This brings me to a friend (I’ll call him K), who is entering his 75th year on the planet, a bit longer than Manny achieved. On his birthday, the pandemic doing its worst, he wondered what he might wish for beyond the loving expressions of his children and friends.

While talking to his son-in-law a solution evolved. He planned to bestow some small benevolence on someone he didn’t know. But who, how? Close contact with people would risk lives, both his and the other.

K wasn’t deterred.

My buddy realized an acquaintance in another country might be useful in the endeavor. One owns an eatery in a city where bars and restaurants are open. He chose an establishment over 4000 miles away.

This longtime friend placed a call and asked the proprietor to serve a drink to every person in the place. His confidant would charge the tab to K.

The barkeep honored the anonymity desired by the benefactor of all the strangers. Thus the task was done.

My comrade suggested I take some similar action myself. I told him I would and, also write about his random act of kindness.

Perhaps you enjoyed a beer on my friend, but probably not. I’m guessing if he could have fed the world he would have. None of us can.

We can only do our small part.

Like Uncle Manny, K is a wise man and a grateful one.

It is no accident that these characteristics go together.

Such people make us better than we are.

———-

The adults flanking the young man at his bar mitzvah celebration are his Uncle Manny and Aunt Nettie. The gentleman seated at the right is George Fields. Yes, I am the boy in the middle. It was the best meal we had all day.

When One Person in a Relationship Changes

I discovered the social challenge of moving from one group to another in sixth grade.

First, let me situate myself. I was part of the post-World War II “Baby Boom” generation, a group for which the world was unprepared. Chicago’s school system, like others, discovered children like me flooding the narrow hallways of buildings used by our parents.

Why so many? The youthful soldiers returning from Europe and the Pacific attempted to retrieve lost time along with their young wives. My father’s letters across the ocean spoke to both his desire for my beautiful mother and the offspring they hoped for.

I’d spent the past year and a half in an overcrowded classroom shared with students one semester ahead. When my younger cohort came time for advancement to the level the older kids were completing, our teacher asked me if I wanted to “skip” that term.

Paul Friedman gave me this chance to proceed into seventh grade without finishing sixth. Thanks, Mr. Friedman, wherever you are.

The opportunity sounded fine to my parents and me, in part because I got along well with those a half-step up. The phrase “double promotion” applied to my more than ordinary educational boost.

Over the summer, I continued to hang around with my longtime, same-aged buddies, but Autumn turned out to be different. From the first day of class on Tuesday, September 2, 1958, the alteration, like a temporary shadow hovering over my life, greeted me with a frown.

I saw Lloyd and Roger, my old pals, talking, but when I tried to insert myself into the conversation, they acted aloof. Of course, I didn’t use that word, one absent from my vocabulary, but it described my puzzlement at the unsocial “distance.”

Continuing efforts to recapture our previous camaraderie produced the same result in the next few days. With no choice, those friendships faded as I found a place among my older classmates.

Life offers far more significant but somewhat similar challenges. Beyond moving out of your current neighborhood and going to new schools, think of changes in your profession, status ups and downs, leaping ahead or staying behind in terms of income, etc.

A daunting hurdle occurs when someone dependent on alcohol or drugs ends his addiction. Friends accustomed to joining him in drink or drugs say, “Oh, it’s only one drink” or “Come on, do you think you are better than me?”

If the newly sober fellow continues hanging around with the users, his sobriety is in danger. He has two problems now: abstinence from substances and finding new friends.

A political commentator, Kurt Bardella, describes leaving his occupational affiliation in 2016: the Republican Party. His writing doesn’t provide the most common answer to the question liberals ask, “Why do Republicans still work for Trump.” Rather, he speaks to the 1958 version of Gerry Stein’s experience on the playground. Here’s what happened to him when he left “the team.”

Candidly, I had no idea where my next paycheck was going to come from. I lived off my credit card. Fell into debt. The professional network of Republican operatives, consultants, and lobbyists I had spent a decade of my life in Washington cultivating was now gone.

Bardella no longer fit in. Changing religion might generate the same kind of exclusion. This also reminds me of something my mother uttered more than once as I grew up: “What will people think?”

In Bardella’s case, his professional and relationship community became unavailable to him. No other workplace niche existed for political operatives and conservative spokespersons who, like this man, self-emigrated.

Even such things as happiness and unhappiness can complicate relationships when they are not shared. If you are leaping forward in your career and an old buddy finds your glee overbearing relative to his modest success, one of you might decide he has tolerated enough.

More than a few of my patients worried their friends would grow weary of their degree of misery. They dared not exceed what they believed was an acceptable length and level of unhappiness. While they tended to overestimate the likelihood of rejection, I must admit it was never zero.

One might say the larger the discrepancy in the level of happiness, success, and misery between two friends, the greater the chance of a tear in the social fabric binding them. Part of relationship survival requires walking not too far ahead, nor falling too far behind. Some amount of self-censorship is also needed.

Fitting the pieces of your personal life into the jigsawed spaces of another’s existence isn’t a fully acknowledged human task. The good news is, most of us get at least passing marks.

We are complicated creatures, don’t you agree?

With all the encouragement we receive to be independent and tough enough to take on criticism, there are limits to this commonplace advice.

When my mother asked, “What will people think?” she displayed a wisdom one shouldn’t always ignore.

——-

The two photos are from my time in Minnie Mars Jamieson School. They show my third-grade class followed by my graduating class. I am lucky enough to remain friends with four members of the latter group: Ron, Jim, Steve, and Neil.

No prizes if you can spot me, though I am present in both pictures. Of course, the “High Potentate” of the Zeolites won’t have any trouble. Apologies for the inside joke.

Prisoners of the Male Gaze: The Complications of Beauty

Beauty confers a sense of self. Associated words include youthful, vigorous, alive, sensual, fertile, attractive, and more. Don’t forget the capacity to draw the gaze of others.

The splendor of these lucky ones seems to spin the steering wheel behind our eyes toward them. This is the first quality to register on the observer, the one preceding all other human characteristics. In the old days, the watcher called such a creature “a looker.

Every internal talent informs the male of its presence later, if at all. The problem for the gorgeous one is whether anyone pays attention to all those extras. She might be brilliant, tender, empathic, funny, technically adept, generous, strong, persistent, hard-working, athletically-gifted, brave, and more.

Even when she is, the shadow cast by her physical features can make her wonder: does anyone know or care what is inside “the package” or do they just want the outside?

The gift of the allure of the flesh is double-edged. If the lovely one believes she has nothing else to win credit and attention, she is more likely to be grateful for what is offered. The world praises her for what strikes the eyes, and, for a while, little else is required.

But for anyone who is more than what can be photographed or painted, she cannot be aware of the extent of her dependence on (and imprisonment within) the pretty picture she presents.

While beauty lasted, many of my female patients couldn’t be sure whether the deepest level of their qualities broke through their dazzle. Reassurance from their lover or a friend or a therapist didn’t help. If they were beautiful but unlucky in love, they wondered the cause. For some, the passage of time and the specter of fading loveliness represented an enemy.

Visible aging afforded the only way to discover if the audience cared for more than an exquisite profile. Who wanted that?

De Mura: Wisdom or Nobility. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Wikimedia Commons

A counselor works with snapshots taken days apart. Most often clients enter our field of vision once every week or two.

More obvious natural changes are recognized by those lacking such regular access. Longer periods between sightings are greater: several months or years.

Even so, sometimes I observed the youthful bloom vanish in a space smaller than one cycle of the earth around the sun. For others the gift never disappeared within the period of meetings continuing for a number of years.

Those who embraced the transformation fared best. The evidence of the passing years extended more opportunity to be valued for the human attributes they’d worked for, the entirety of their true self. Here was their essence in total, not the decorations and the frosting on top.

The few facial lines magnified the intelligence and wisdom of their appearance. The externals now told me a different story:

I know some things about the world. I am more than I used to be, not less.

For the most admirable of them, this was not an insurmountable loss. My memory of their initial impression on me blended with the current aspects of their presence.

They retained elements of their younger incarnation but added to them. Their enhanced humanity was obtained from roads they visited, the knowledge and values fashioned by experience, and the endurance now traced in the skin-deep marking of time’s hand.

My long paramount concern about the personalities of these aging but ageless beauties furnished me a perspective that made the diminution of some peripherals beside the point. From the start, I beheld all their revelations and the courage evident in so doing. Perhaps, too, the gradual decline in my own hormone-driven chemical mix made a difference.
The whole of them was, as in the best of the remainder of humanity, flawed but extraordinary.

For those who never enjoyed the mixed blessing of head-turning angelic charm, the news, I thought, was positive as well.

For a number, their physicality now met the comely ones somewhere near the middle when it came to the world’s attentional focus. These ladies were not less remarkable and had to contend in a different manner with the never bountiful male gaze.

The finest of all these women, survivors of the man’s world into which they were born, created something more than the earlier version of themselves. If the pleasing and the plain now had the confidence to be indifferent to swiveling heads or their absence, I imagine they might have taken the stage to say,

Here I am. If you wish to accept me for who I am, not what I am, welcome. For the rest of you, your attention is not required. Go in peace.

——-

The top photo is a Nine-year-old boy’s face, Margarita Island, Venezuela, by Wilfredor.

Should You Trust Your Gut?

Trust your gut, they say. This is commonplace advice, sometimes even offered by therapists. I ask you, though, dear reader, to consider the world. Should those who are trusting their intuition, their instincts, their fervor-driven sense of righteousness continue to “trust their gut?”

I get the idea — the intention — of those who believe wisdom is discoverable in the body, its sensations, and instinctive tendencies. They think you may be in danger of working against yourself, not honoring your personal truth. You have dismissed or discounted something within to which you should be listening.

Whoa.

The data on the subject suggests hesitation. Not that you will always be wrong when relying on your feelings, nor right if you evaluate possible future action in a more analytic, rational way. Rather, the “gut” provides worthwhile direction in some situations, while in others better guidance leads to questioning its message.

Before we go deeper, let’s summarize both sides of the argument.

PRO TRUST:

Each of us is the product of the long evolutionary chronicle of our ancestors. The qualities helpful to their survival and procreation are wired inside of us, their descendants. Necessity often demanded quick decisions with few comparable memories upon which to tap. Our existence as 21st-century humans proves the excellence of many of their actions.

We all possess an internal sense of ourselves unknowable beyond the boundary of our skin. This personal state is informative. We need to honor its wisdom.

In many instances, we have no books to consult, no time to find scientific scholarship applicable to the present decision confronting us. Besides, abstract ideas can’t tell us if we should date person X, try to make friends with individual Y, or talk back to parent Z.

MAYBE, MAYBE NOT:

Few of us avoid mistakes in judgment. For instance, our first impression of a bright or attractive acquaintance often causes us to believe he is also superior in other, unseen ways. Only time and additional contact reveal the truth. A swift, positive, global opinion is called a “halo effect.”

The choices made at a “feeling level” discount how emotions can lead us astray. Think of the occasions when love, anger, revenge, or fear has led to worsening your troubles.

Homo sapiens are poor affective forecasters. The research of Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues demonstrates a tendency to underestimate our emotional resilience and durability when imagining our reaction to life’s disappointments. Put another way, we are lousy at deep-seated, unthinking predications of our well-being in the months and years ahead.

The divorce rate supports the same notion; so do the common, but erroneous, expectations of a wonderful life following a giant lottery award. The optimistic assumption of a large, lasting boost of happiness delivered by children over the course of the time they live with us is generally incorrect, as well.

THE CONCLUSION:

The simplest answer on trusting your gut, your feelings, or your instincts is this: the matter depends on the quality and quantity of your previous exposure to situations like the one in which you find yourself.

Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein* looked at how and what experts learned while practicing their profession. The “gift” or “sixth-sense” required years of particularized employment in the field.

As the first author wrote in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, two conditions are necessary for acquiring the skill endowing people with this kind of savvy:

  • an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable

  • an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice

Gary Klein described how this applies to firefighting commanders. How do they know, he wondered, what decisions to make on the spot without comparing options in a systematic and time-consuming fashion?

They could draw on the repertoire of patterns they had compiled during more than a decade of both real and virtual experience to identify a plausible option, which they considered first.

They evaluated this option by mentally simulating it to see if it would work in the situation they were facing…. If the course of action seemed appropriate, they would implement it. If it had shortcomings, they would modify it.

If they could not easily modify it, they would turn to the next most plausible option and run through the same procedure until an acceptable course of action was found.

Master chess players have this capacity — this intuition — to size up a chessboard in mid-game, almost at once. Anesthesiologists do, too. The regularity, orderliness and limited nature of the countless cases they have encountered provided the prompt feedback on their performance needed to “become” intuitive.

The outcome of the contest or the surgery graded their choices straight away.

What does this tell us about our own ability to come up with instinctive, “felt” decisions in everyday life?

Much hinges on what our exposure has been to the kind of circumstances offering immediate success or failure from which to learn. We lack the thousands upon thousands of contests played by a grandmaster or the uncounted number of patients over decades of training and work as an anesthesiologist.

Such examples of expert, rapid grasp of the essential features of an event pertains to the part of human experience governed by clear cut guidelines or rules. The physician makes use of his remembered storehouse of biological, physiological, and chemical science. The Chessmaster retrieves his internal archive of permitted movements of the chess pieces and the results of past strategies he and others employed.

Human relationships, in contrast, have more variables, unknowable psychological dynamics, no access to what another person is thinking or sensing in the moment, or a complete history of his life. They are not orderly.

A political pundit or a stockbroker faces a task every bit as daunting and unpredictable. Kahneman says any claim from them of extraordinary intuition is “self-delusional at best, sometimes worse.”

Having said this, I doubt you shall give up on your hunches. Remember, though, the information you receive about the adequacy or error of your choice of friends and lovers, for example, often is delayed and equivocal.

Some people are good to be around one-on-one and not in a group, trustworthy in fulfilling our routine expectations but not all, pleasant in the short run but not for long.

Most of us are permitted but a slice of time with individuals we believe we know well. Full understanding might take years of both talk and observation, however. Their secrets and private behavior leave us ignorant of their darker corners.

In summary, I’d suggest you hesitate when you are told to “trust your gut.” Other than those moments when delay is impossible, many problems give you the luxury of getting advice, reflecting on patterns of comparable past encounters, and recalling your own default tendencies.

The latter might include your basic optimism or pessimism, inclination to approach or avoid, extraversion or introversion, toughness or vulnerability, etc.

You might consider alternative interpretations of what you confront and estimate the potential benefits and costs of imagined ways of dealing with whatever is ahead. Don’t forget to ask yourself what mood you are in and whether you are hungry! The influence of temporary states such as these might be significant.

If it makes you feel any better, well-trained counselors with untold hours of experience shouldn’t always “trust their gut” either.

There is lots of research on this, too!

——————–

The painting, Freedom from Fear, derives from Wikimedia Commons and is described this way:

The Four Freedoms is a series of four 1943 oil paintings by the American artist Norman Rockwell. The paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—are each approximately 45.75 inches (116.2 cm) × 35.5 inches (90 cm), and are now in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The four freedoms refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union address in which he identified essential human rights that should be universally protected. The theme was incorporated into the Atlantic Charter, and became part of the charter of the United Nations. The paintings were reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post over four consecutive weeks in 1943, alongside essays by prominent thinkers of the day.

Following that image I’ve placed a photo taken by Staff Sargent Craig Cisek of the U.S. Air Force. It shows a firefighter spraying water during a simulated C-130 Hercules plane crash. The image is also sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

*Conditions for Intuitive Expertise: A Failure to Disagree

Surviving in a Moment of Helplessness and Closed Doors

Before I present an unconventional way for you to think of your value, I must acknowledge your pain. I imagine your circumstances may be far worse than my own.

Those like myself are fortunate. My immediate loved ones don’t suffer coronavirus (fingers crossed), I am in no financial distress, and we enjoy continuing nearness to each other in our small bubble.

For every other pampered hostage to the pandemic/recession, however, heartbreak abounds. According to the CDC, over 40% of U.S. adults surveyed in late June “reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition.” If all the world’s disquiet could be piled up in blocks of cement, it would reach higher than Mt. Everest.**

The world is overweight with pain.

We commonly define ourselves in terms of what we can “do.” Making a living often confers dignity. Status matters to those who make comparisons. Union with hands, cheeks, lips, and bodies have fueled desire for as long as man has been man.

How then does one hold oneself together when money is short, pride in social standing absent, health is imperiled, and touch means staying in touch rather than touching?

You are, in fact, already taking action of extraordinary worth.

First, you are surviving. For reasons you understand about yourself, you retain a portion of hope or a sense of responsibility for those closest.

Contrast your mortal state to that of a god for a moment. In the West, we think of any deity as an eternal being who is all-powerful and all-knowing.

This leaves humanity the possibility of displaying qualities absent in an invincible and omniscient entity who can’t die.

Think about danger. Bravery is possible because we are at risk of physical or emotional harm. The ever-present chance of adversity constructs the platform to display courage.

Man’s creaturely situation requires the choice to endure and persist. Misfortune happens, and its visit is not always brief. The Stoic philosophers believed this allowed each person to demonstrate “greatness of soul” by withstanding “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as Hamlet described his own tribulation.

To the extent hope is an idea, you have created it. Moreover, my guess is you are amid (or can recall) such woes as Shakespeare put into Hamlet’s life. You know the experience of bearing what appears unbearable, including depression. If you did not, you wouldn’t now be reading this.

Your survival at this moment is a tribute to your character and worthy of applause. I offer you mine. If, with time, you can do more, then do so. Enlarged strength is the residue of a series of small actions.

For now, remember the last eight words from the sightless John Milton’s poem, “On His Blindness:

They also serve who only stand and wait.

—–

The top image is Meeting on the Beach: Mermaid by Edvard Munch, sourced from the Munch Museum. The second is Hope II by Gustav Klimt, sourced from Wikiart.org/

**Perhaps the most distressing finding in the CDC bulletin is this: “The percentage of respondents who reported having seriously considered suicide in the 30 days before completing the survey (10.7%) was significantly higher among respondents aged 18–24 years (25.5%), minority racial/ethnic groups (Hispanic respondents [18.6%], non-Hispanic black [black] respondents [15.1%]), self-reported unpaid care-givers for adults§ (30.7%), and essential workers (21.7%).”

How I Discovered Girls

They’d been invisible before. Girls, I mean. Then something out of this world happened.

I began to notice them.

Females.

Aliens from another planet, yes, but charming ones previously distinguished only by dress and laughable athletic ability.

Now — not until now — did we all see each other for the first time, them and us.

We’d been told this might happen and viewed TV programs in which the strange awareness descended, like fairy dust, upon fictional young men. The event itself, however, existed somewhere in an absurd and distant future beyond contemplation.

All the pedestrian maidens became beguiling at once. They possessed an unfamiliar, magnetic quality absent the day before. Their presence mattered.

I can pinpoint the moment the world changed for me. It occurred in fifth grade at Minnie Mars Jamieson School, a bizarre name even in the ’50s.

Many of our teachers, antique past imagining and unmarried, betrayed no hint of sexuality. Curious, I asked my father how I came to be.

I planted the seed.

That’s a quote.

My brain buzzed. Dad’s farming background must have been a family secret.

The beginning of a real answer arrived in class when I discovered my eyes drawn to legs. Not any pair of lower limbs, but the appendages of Sharon M.

A day earlier I held an attitude of indifference to their attachment to a female body. They helped those creatures move, nothing more. The skirt-covered supports propped them up and hung down under their chairs as a necessary accessory for their feet, I supposed, if I considered the question at all.

Legs now sent other signals. Moreover, to my astonishment, I managed to decode the message without a magical incantation or a foreign language translator.

Sharon presented me with other fresh features if you count a cheeky gleam to which I was now awake. Nature endowed her with wavy, thick brown hair, an all-season, creamy almond complexion, and symmetrical, softly pleasing facial turns and twinkles that distinguished her from her friends.

When I looked (and I spent more time looking), my eyes perceived colors not present in the muddy, gray, khaki world of boys.

Sherry, a nickname she preferred, brought me turquoise, baby blue, and bisque. The angular, rectangled, straight-lined male domain remained arid, sandpapered, and dusty in contrast.

How did I come to understand she also fancied me? Were notes passed in the classroom? Did one of her buddies whisper, “Sharon likes you?” In any case, we recognized we wanted to connect.

My girlfriend told jokes, too. She delivered the first at a party thrown by Mary Lynn D. Soon enough we began a kissing game called “Spin the Bottle.”

I’m told this entertainment has lost favor since the ’80s, so here are a few details. All the players sat around in a circle. When your turn came, a soft drink bottle placed in the middle of the ring was spun until it pointed to a lass.

The two of you went into something approximating an oversized closet or spare room to kiss. Sherry tried to create the mood once we got there:

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

No.

What did you say?

I believe Sherry took the lead in much of our time “going steady.”

One afternoon we went to a movie together, chaperoned by my mother, who sat a small distance away. Friendly fingers soon encroached upon my head and ran themselves through my hair. Yes, I once own hair rated first-class, may each strand rest in peace.

After the date ended, mom made some comment to me about Sharon and her “aggressiveness.”

Another time I went to my girlfriend’s house to receive dancing instructions from her and, rather more, from her older sister.

I’d guess Sherry soaked up whatever she grasped about dating etiquette from watching this sibling entertain young men in the family living room.

Just a hunch.

My female-preoccupied interest hibernated for a few years, something Freud called the latency period, in which you are believed to forget any suggestion of being a sexual being. Some guys are so skilled at the misremembering process they begin to behave like they arose from chickens, hatched from an egg.

Fast forward to the last couple of years at Mather High School. Now, these mating matters become significant.

Friends brave enough asked each other how to talk to the fair sex. The blind leading the blind.

We also discussed sign language. How did a dating newbie detect a 16 or 17-year old’s interest? I realized later your pursuit of someone on the distaff team was often sufficient to direct her surveillance your way.

The girls, many of them, marked the time, eyeballing their land-line residential telephones, waiting, wishing, and hoping for them to ring. When they didn’t, the young women wondered, “What’s wrong with me?”

They disclosed their covert shame years later, long after graduation.

All genders carried invisible membership cards in a secret society of hidden insecurities. We suppressed the self-doubts so well, each of us had no idea we belonged to the same club or that such a clique bound us together.

Personal uncertainty was evident on the occasion of my first call for a date.

The sole family phone resided in our kitchen. In the sixties, at least in my working-class neighborhood, two phones would have been an uncommon luxury. No internet nor iPhone yet existed, and my across-the-alley neighbor Jerry and I had long since abandoned two-tin-cans and a long string to communicate.

I wanted to launch into the dating pool after school. My target, the tall, slender, blond CB, would be home. An exceptional student, I figured she’d be studying.

The phone stared at me. Trying to be the hard guy, I glared back. Some amount of time elapsed. Maybe five minutes or 15, perhaps much more. The clock time mattered not, eternity would have been shorter.

The staring contest continued until I admitted defeat.

Much later, I understood this as an early lesson in the importance of “getting things over and getting over things.” Though I didn’t then own the insight to explain myself to myself, there was no need to endure the suffering more hesitation would have inflicted.

Man up, do the hard thing and be done with it. Let go of the misery you create. I still believe this.

The conversation wasn’t long, and CB said yes.

My place on the manhood ladder moved one rung up.

Funny to remember the anguish. Those kinds of contacts and much else became a pleasure beyond pleasure.

I must have puzzled all this out because I managed to produce two children with one of the pretty females I met later.

No masterful advice on the subject shall I offer you. If you enter the game, you find your way. Persistence tends to work most of the time. No matter your doubts, you can partake of blissful beauty, fireworks, and melding with another’s generous heart.

How do I know this?

A stork didn’t deliver you to your parents. Your mother didn’t lay eggs, either.

You come from one female and one male who implanted the seed.

My goodness, dad was right!

_____

The above images, in order: 1. Portrait of Silvia Kohler by Egon Schiele. 2. Photo of Sharbat Gula, an Afghan teen, that appeared on the cover of National Geographic Magazine in June, 1985. 3. Peter Behrens’s The Kiss. 4. An undated photo called School Cafeteria, from the Adolph B. Rice Studios via the Library of Virginia. 5. Two Sisters (On the Terrace) by Renoir, from the Art Institute of Chicago. 6. The First Whisper of Love by John Douglas Miller, from the Art Institute of Chicago. 7. The Author at age 16 or 17, photographed by Steve Henikoff.