The Critics Among Us and Those Who Raise Us

The standard method to make a child to dislike himself is to contrast him with a sibling, one alleged to be superior in behavior or personality. It takes a kind of misbegotten skill, however, to use the technique on every one of your offspring. The destructive parent tells son X he isn’t as well-behaved as his brother Y. Meanwhile, the mom or dad complains to Y that he isn’t as smart as X.

“Try to be more like X. I’m only saying this for your own good.”

Both end up disliking themselves and their competitor, not knowing the other receives the same treatment.

Therapists, were they loathsome enough, might put such caretakers on commission, since they drive droves of the walking wounded to an eventual meeting with a counselor.

Ah, but wordy wickedness was practiced even in ancient times. Some parents unknowingly model their actions after the Greek god Momus, so foul he was expelled from Olympus, the gods’ heavenly home.

Aesop included Momus in a couple of his fables. In one he presides over a competition between a man, a bull, and a house. This ungodly judge gave no trophies, finding fault with them all. The man’s failure was to hide his heart, causing Momus to claim he could therefore not evaluate the merit of his makeup. The bull fell short because his horns included no eyes, the better to guide him whenever he charged.

My own favorite, however, was the umpire’s indictment of the house. The god of blame found the residence lacking in the wheels needed to avoid difficult neighbors. Momus might have a point here.

Critics also attract their own critics. A world famous musician on the downside of his career gave the local music scribes a name: eunuchs. Why? “Because they can’t do it.” Meaning, in his case, they wrote in complaint of him because they lacked his musical talent to perform.

The player’s bitterness revealed one of the dangers of being the target of denigration: becoming like the person who castigated you.

The “eunuch” example is odious. The extremity of such word-use is the point. Exaggeration is valuable to those who wish to damage; injure in an indelible, lasting way. We can all remember personal examples.

Who do verbal abusers and bullies aim for? Those weaker (children, subordinates) and the targets who betray their vulnerability, terror, or timidity by facial expression, downcast gaze, words, neediness, or posture. These are the preferred victims, though anyone will do. Protest their sarcasm and they’ll say you can’t take a joke.

Rise higher and you encounter a few jealous backstabbers. Fall down and you serve some as a doormat. But don’t discount life’s frustrations as a driver of lashing out under pressure. Almost everyone has a boiling point.

The right criticism is worthwhile. Corrective instruction and rigorous expectation by a mentor or supervisor are both necessary and inevitable. One only finds resilience in taking on that which is painful and challenging. If we received 24/7 adulation and applause, whether inside ourselves or out, the world of excellence would be beyond us.

Still, one must distinguish between those whose words can help or spur us on and the people intent on our obliteration. When you have been raised by folks who pretend the former, but shoot for the latter, confusion follows. Life requires us to identity disguises. False friends display affection so long as we are of use, not longer.

With therapeutic guidance it is possible to improve at ferreting out adversaries, the wolves clothed as sheep or protectors; those who vilify and believe your weakness is their strength.

Remember, no one is so fine a judge of character as to be foolproof. Disappointment and hurt contribute to the price we pay for love and participation in the human group.

Some flee from appraisal and keep out of range of the quiver full of arrows we all carry at times. Here is the best argument not to run, captured in the last line of a quote from a Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel.

“The opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

He did not survive the murder of family and friends to die inside, but to live with people, many of whom were kind.

—–

The first two photographs, both taken on May 24, 2019, come from Shasta County, south of Redding, California. The first is by Angela Walfoort, the second by Monica Leard. The final image is the work of Hans Hillewaert: Angola at Dawn on the Kunene River, seen from Epupa Falls, Namibia. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Learning Who You Are

We reveal ourselves to ourselves by our actions more than our words. That is, if we choose to observe. Not all of us do and none of us look all the time. Instead, we disguise ourselves to ourselves, perhaps as much or more than we do with others.

Maya Angelou said, “When someone (else) shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Yet we often fail to accept the behavioral evidence of our essence. The reality is there, waiting in plain sight, waiting as long as we take.

A dream summoned such a truth-telling college moment not thought of in decades. My grandson’s recent fascination with battling dinosaurs served as a backdrop, too; the kind of metaphorical identification a man my age discovers in those extinct beasts.

Evanston, Illinois, around 1967.

My buddy Alan invited me to join him at a friend’s apartment. Alan knew M fairly well. The latter would create the circumstances for revelation.

He lived in a modest abode typical of university students. Unmatched furniture, well-worn area rugs, a clean but not spotless space. M, himself, was more imposing: perhaps six-feet-tall, strapping arms hanging from broad chest and shoulders. Overall an impression of hearty, radiating physical strength, but also apparent good cheer.

The clock did not threaten. No school the next day. The three of us laughed a lot and we drank. This small group formed a rough triangle sitting on the floor a few feet from each other.

I do not recall what brought me M’s displeasure. An idle comment? No matter, he was pissed. The M of robust build. The M who overmatched me by maybe 40 lbs. of muscle and loads of menacing intensity.

The formerly amiable fellow wanted my apology, demanded it.

I tried to explain what I meant by the unfortunate utterance, misaligned with the meaning M took from my words.

M insisted again, fueled by his liberal ingestion of alcohol, he more than me.

I repeated the attempt to find the right nuance, the right cover; terms reflective of what I intended, not what he understood from my language. Back and forth, back and forth we went.

M warned of the cost of my continued failure to give him satisfaction. My teeth were now in danger of disassembly, rearrangement, and extraction by a non-licensed dentist of sorts — who was out of sorts. A man whose fisted hands resembled mallet heads, like crude surgical instruments powered by entwined steel cables extending from his shoulders.

Now you recognize why my grandson’s recent fascination with smashing toy dinosaurs together evoked this memory.

Being a reasonable young man, knowing myself no match for M in brawn and recklessness, you might imagine I capitulated: gave him the confession he stipulated in whatever words the bloke preferred.

You’d think so.

I didn’t.

I could tell you my intransigence was a matter of pure principle, since I want to think myself a principled person.

I could say I was brave, but a lofty philosophical stance and courage don’t explain my noncompliance.

Rather, I couldn’t do what he asked. It wasn’t in me.

This is the way I am made. I take no extravagant credit for it most of the time. It’s kind of similar to being almost 5’9″ — my height then and now — an unchangeable thing. Like the length of my human fabric, the behavior was fixed. I wasn’t made to apologize for a statement I didn’t regret.

If my child’s life were at risk, I’d have been flexible. My children were then not even a twinkle in my eye.

Fighting for a principle over nothing of importance is, I might argue, foolish. Masochistic, too. No careful reasoning prepared me for the moment, nor did time permit.

Longtime friends witnessed many changes in me, qualities I worked to alter, insecurities and fears among them. Not everything is amenable to transformation, however. In fairness, I never wished to lose the capacity just described once I found it. While this peculiar talent can manifest in the ill-advised form presented here, it appealed enough to my self-concept to retain it, consistent with who I wanted to be.

Thus, in a situation recommending a different way of being I revealed to myself who I was. But two other players took part in the drama, don’t forget. They also disclosed themselves, one in a manner far more commendable than anything I did or didn’t do.

Let’s go first to my antagonist, M. The host betrayed himself as a belligerent drunk. To fact-check this, a few days ago I talked with Alan (my companion in this adventure) and Harmon, someone who knew M longer than Alan; also a precious old friend to me, but not present at the drink-a-thon. By graduation neither one wanted anything to do with M because of his growing addiction and the anger it stoked.

On to Alan. The final member of our ill-matched triumvirate showed an admirable quality as rare as it was necessary to me.

As M’s rage moved toward climax, Alan said something to him designed to stay the impending explosion.

Alan was not M’s physical equal. Though the tallest fellow in the room, my friend is slight and unathletic; a man at home with books and Bach, not fist fights.

The back and forth shifted in Alan’s direction. At some point one of them hit the other, on the shoulder I’m guessing since I can no longer remember, and the other returned the blow.

To my surprise and relief the rising column of red in M’s eyes, like a thermometer’s mercury, started to fall. We left soon after, with all our body parts still attached. I’m pretty sure I thanked Alan as I drove him back to his place, but did so again this week. M could have dismantled him instead of me.

This comrade of more than 50-years told me he recalled feeling responsible for putting me in the situation. Not everyone risks his own body as he did.

Alan revealed himself.

Had my ally not intervened, whatever number of teeth I put under my pillow at day’s end would not have earned compensation from the Tooth Fairy.

She, I’m sure, doesn’t reward anyone of college age who should have known better.

——-

The top reproduction is Paul Klee’s The Bounds of Intellect. The next three are Egon Schiele’s Self-portrait (1916), the Seated Boy, and his Self-portrait in a Shirt. Finally, Paul Klee’s Battle Scene from the Comic, Fantastic Opera, “The Seafarer” and Joan Miro’s The Escape Ladder.

Be Careful Who You Mess With

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Stewart had a way with words. You pretty much had to if your name was Stewart Slonimsky and you were the nerdiest kid in your class. He was a little bit of a lot of things you didn’t want to be: a little bit awkward, a little bit overweight, a little bit short, a little bit shy, and a little bit funny-looking because of his coke-bottle-thick horn-rimmed glasses.

Kids made fun of his name early and late. Even in the first few grades the boys would mock him as he walked by. Small groups made a sibilant “ssssssssss” sound under their breath, imitating the S.S. initials that Stewart’s parents Steve and Sonia Slonimsky stuck him with. It was just loud enough for Stu to hear it, but not loud enough so that teachers and other adults would catch on. Then, when TV taught everyone the meaning of “SS,” Hitler’s Schutzstaffel corp of war criminals, Stewart would get lots of “Heil Hitler!” shouts on the playground, as the bullies shot their right arms out at him in the Nazi salute.

Stewart’s superior brain saved him. As time passed he learned to disarm his oppressors with a few words. When Dominic Dallessandro, all brawn and no brains, gave Stewart a hard time, Stewart nicknamed him “Dim Dom” and threatened something worse, ending Dom’s taunts; and when Frank “Julie” Julianovich did the Hitler SS thing, Stu called him “Family Jewels,” and alluded to inadequacies pertaining to his sexual equipment that got big laughs even from “Julie’s” buddies. Yes, Stewart had perfected the art of flaying his opponents with his tongue, inflicting injuries greater than any physical harm they might threaten him with. By the second year in high school no one messed with Stu anymore.

Ironically enough, Stu was a passably likeable person if you were on his good side, willing to help if your homework was too challenging. But the praise he got from teachers and the admiration of his intellect from his peers went to his head. By the last two years of high school, Stewart could be fairly described as rather full of himself. His opinions sounded like proclamations from on high. Fools were not suffered gladly. If you didn’t have as much brain power as he did, Stu could be disdainful and dismissive, rarely willing to give you the time of day; the kind of kid who, just with a look, communicated “I can do something really hard and you can’t.”

My friend’s parents kept his ego pretty well pumped-up. Both were graduates of the University of Chicago, an elite school known to attract people who were both super-bright and rather odd. Humility didn’t come easily to them and they believed Stewart was just as special as they were. Moreover, mom and dad Slonimsky talked publicly about unconventional ideas that, for the 1960s, were pretty shocking. One dinner at their home featured a discussion of nudist colonies and “free love.” Mr. Slonimsky even asked me what I thought about the latter. The only thing the 16-year-old virgin version of myself could say was, “You mean it usually costs something?”

As I said, most instructors were enamored of Stu. He made their classes exciting and, if the teachers were smart enough they enjoyed the intellectual repartee he triggered — the back and forth jousting between people who see things from different and novel angles. All this only encouraged his willingness to offer ideas that no one else dared to utter.

An English class essay topic gave Stewart’s imagination free rein. We were required to write about anything that “would make the world a better place to live.” It was the kind of question that one heard asked to finalists in the Miss America Pageant. The teacher was Miss Elvira Thompson, a throw-back to the nineteenth century who had clearly given up even the pretense of teaching creatively some years before. She was hardened, straight-laced, priggish, close to retirement, and obviously hated her job. She looked a little bit like this:

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Predictably for 1963, most kids wrote about nuclear disarmament, better race relations, a cure for cancer, and the like. But not Stewart. We knew something had happened when Miss Thompson made an announcement as a prelude to handing back the papers, just a few minutes before the end of our next class.

“Class, usually I don’t like to single out one student for special comment, but this is an exception. One of you has written an essay so different and unorthodox that everyone in the class should know of it as an example: an example for you not to follow. It is possibly the worst paper of its kind I’ve had the displeasure to read in 40 years of teaching.”

Thompson took a deep breath and paused, her face contorting as she searched for adjectives disgusting enough to describe her visceral reaction to the essay. Apparently, words failed her. She began to pass the papers back to us and then said, “Mr. Slonimsky, see me after class. The rest of you are dismissed.”

I waited outside the room for Thompson to finish with him. We walked to lunch together, though Stewart looked like he’d already eaten it — eaten something really unappetizing. His expression was blank and his skin, never full of color, more pasty than usual.

“What happened?”

“She said that she thinks I’m sick, crazy, and disturbed; actually, the sickest, craziest, and most disturbed student she has ever had. She said it’s the most offensive paper she’s ever read. She wants me to go to a shrink.”

“What could you have written to get her so upset?”

Slonimsky looked straight ahead and jammed his left fist toward me. I extricated the crumpled paper from his hand. At the top of it, in red pencil, was the grade: F-. I started to read it as we sat down to lunch.

SOMETHING TO MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE TO LIVE

by

Stewart Slonimsky

I believe the world would be a much superior place in which to live if every school, office building, home, park, and recreation area were equipped with a masturbation machine. The device would resemble a Coca-Cola dispenser from the outside. It would be self-cleaning and self-sterilizing. Once having inserted the price of $1.00 in coins into the machine (and depending upon your sex, height, weight, and age) you would then insert…

Stewart interrupted me and began to sputter.

“See! She didn’t like it. She didn’t even get to the part about it relieving frustration; lowering the rate of mental illness, venereal disease, and divorce; minimizing violence and cutting down on out-of-wedlock births and abortions. She ignored the fact that it would make the world a happier place! What’s with her, anyway? She probably thinks masturbation is a sin, makes you go blind, and crap like that. I mean, look at this: all these big red ‘Xs’ after the word ‘insert.’ A lot of nerve she’s got!”

I could not argue with Stewart. No one could ever successfully argue with Stewart. Doubtless, there was something worthwhile about the idea. But expecting Miss Thompson to appreciate it, a woman who probably hadn’t permitted herself a sexual impulse since before the Great Depression, represented a big misjudgment. That was Stewart. His ideas, he thought, were self-evidently brilliant and everyone should accept them without any hesitation.

Stewart’s parents supported him, of course. They even complained about the teacher to the principal. But, those were the days before parents felt empowered to make demands and engage legal counsel. Miss Thompson was on her way to retirement by the end of the year anyway. Elvira Thompson survived and so did Stewart, who was already seen as peculiar if brilliant by his classmates. He wasn’t required to go to a psychiatrist in the end. But every so often Stewart would comment at lunch about “that bitch Elvira Thomson.” He didn’t forget and he didn’t forgive.

I lost track of Stewart after graduation. We went to different colleges about a thousand miles apart. He proved to be an engineering and technology guy. I was more into psychology and history.

If you do some research you will discover that Stewart was ahead of his time when he wrote his essay. A number of manufacturers do make masturbation machines today. They started about 20 years after Stewart first had the idea, with crudely assembled rubber hoses and vacuums that were converted from floor-model home vacuum cleaners.

In thinking back to that time, I actually searched Stewart out on the internet. It turns out the Stu had the last laugh. He became an inventor and made a fortune. As you’ve probably guessed, one of his products is indeed a masturbation machine, although much smaller, portable, and less public than the “coke machine” version he first wrote about. It looks pretty sleek, actually. On the side of it there is the picture of a sexy and alluring woman, the sort of female, I suppose, that a man might fantasize about “in the act” of using the device.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot to mention that the machine has a name. It is called the “Elvira T. Dominatrix Masturbation Dream Maker: Pleasure Dome Model.”

In case you are wondering, there is no “Stewart Slonimsky.” What you’ve just read is a work of fiction. The top image is Berlin Masturbation Machine art exhibit, 3/27/11 by user:Ctac. It is followed by Head of an Old Woman, probably a nurse, ca. the third or second century B.C; artist unknown, photographed by Jastrow. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.