Breaking the Heart of One You Love

My mother said some memorable things. “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?” was among her greatest hits. Another was borrowed from Groucho Marx: in the middle of a less than scintillating party, she might utter, “I had a wonderful time, but this wasn’t it.” Quietly, of course.

Mrs. Stein proclaimed one habitual belief I never quite understood: “Regret is a painkiller for fools.” I gather she was being dismissive of those who looked back in sadness. Though I never took the statement to heart, I regret little about my lucky life. One old sorrow sticks with me, however.

Breaking the heart of a loved one is never harder than when the one is seven-years-old.

“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend) said he isn’t.”

I had learned long before this, the importance of being honest.

I looked at Jorie, but perhaps didn’t recognize just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.

What I valued, however, was her trust in me. Before I answered, I decided I ought not break her trust.

“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”

I can still envision her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.

This was not the last time I caused pain to someone I love, but was the first time I remember doing so to any child of mine.

Welcome to the real world, honey; the place where things aren’t always as they seem or as we would like them to be. A place where hard reality trumps fantasy; a place where someone who “loves you to pieces” breaks your heart into pieces.

That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead to save this little person from the pain of a message amenable to postponement.

Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was a Socratic dialogue possible — a perfect sequence of questions leading her to the same truth without hurting her so much?

A change of the subject, perhaps, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?

Or, should I have lied? “Of course Santa exists, Sweetie.” And then left her open to potential ridicule of friends, as well as some doubts about whether her dad was trustworthy.

Janet Landman, in her book, Regret: the Persistence of the Possible, likens regret to the dilemma of coming to a fork in the road and making a choice. You walk down the chosen path for a while, before you realize your selection isn’t quite as good as you hoped. “I probably should have gone the other way.”

No matter which road you chose, “the persistence of the possible” is present. Nothing in life is perfect, but in your imagination the alternative remains idealized. Only in your mind – in the world of abstraction and fantasy – does perfection reside: the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect result, the perfect performance of whatever kind.

And, for me, the perfect answer to a simple question.

Sometimes in life no ideal solution is available, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. We never know the alternative from lived experience, nor return to the moment; because, as Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” With the passage of time, the river changed and so have you.

No, you cannot un-ring the bell. No do-overs when it comes to the knowledge of whether Santa is real.

We must live with the inevitable heartbreaks when they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain whether a different road would have made all the difference or none at all.

One can only accept the terms life allows. The metaphorical contract we sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at birth grants no escape clause from hard knocks. Not, at least, while life goes on.

I still wish I could have protected Jorie from the terrible knowledge I delivered on the near-Christmas day; not just about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think back, it isn’t knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, but from the pain of life itself.

Such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also be compensated by beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.

Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.

The good news?

Our love abides.

———————-

The second image is of a Young Ashaninka Girl in an Apiwtxa Village, Acre State, Brazil. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons and the work of Pedro Franca/Ministry of Culture. This post is a reworking of one I wrote several years ago.

Can Therapists be Fooled? What Therapists Miss

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At a recent gathering my wife had an unexpected encounter with a woman who had done us wrong. When my beloved met her eyes and said hello without emotion, the shadowy figure broke eye contact. She looked surprised — taken aback. Ashamed? Shame doesn’t connote self-awareness or guilt, so much as being caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

Who is she? As a teen she’d been a rebellious, angry hell-raiser, the product of a broken home: not divorced parents, but shattered and shattering, sham adults. Time passed and this dark lady appeared to become sociable, energetic, and funny  — an academic failure, but a business success. Failed marriages and friendships revealed that intimacy was a challenge. For all her charm, depression was a life-long battle never surmounted, loneliness her closest companion. A sad story and, I admit, I fell for it. No, that’s unfair. The tale was real enough, but failed to include a description of the shabby baggage she carried.

Madam X is a person for whom truth is only a convenience, like a garment to be discarded when out-of-fashion, not the internal necessity of a more principled life. Honesty is tossed aside like a burned out cigarette. To get what she wants she is unrestrained and unrestrainable.

I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s character Dorian Gray as I think about Madam X. Wilde’s novella describes the protagonist as a beautiful, upper class Englishman whose bloom of youth and stunning features are captured in a commissioned portrait, upon which he makes a wish: to remain forever young while his canvas likeness ages. But the painting becomes a scold, reflecting and reproving his increasing corruption. The art deforms itself to the point that he must place the thing in an attic. Meanwhile, Dorian Gray’s face and stature honor the wish he made by retaining their handsome allure — the internal rot disguised.

Might life be better if we were required to wear a meter displaying a measure of our integrity? Color coded, perhaps. White would signal a godlike character, black its opposite, with all of us somewhere in between, depending. Then we wouldn’t need to study others, play the back and forth game of risking disclosures, judging facial expressions and body language, and taking the small but tentative steps of early intimacy.

Relationships are about what we will risk and with whom. Part of the dance depends on our own security, part on our ability to judge the trustworthiness of others. None of us is either perfectly secure or gifted with x-ray perception and an internal lie detector to evaluate the soul of another. Some just stop trusting altogether.

Acceptance of human frailty is the therapist’s Achilles heel. We must think the best of our patients, be optimistic, free ourselves from judgment. We have seen people change and so believe in “possibility.”

Having never seen or felt the bite of the potential masked viper sitting before us, we sit disarmed. He offers us no rap sheet of past iniquity. In a certain sense we are wise innocents who intentionally obscure our own vision: an occupational risk we take on knowingly.

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Therapists also have experience (though not so much as criminal law attorneys and police) with those who don’t play fair, to the point of becoming inured to the usual warning signs. We are prone to be a little stupid or very generous and forgiving (take your pick),  unguarded both inside and outside the office. Not fully, but just at the margin. With time, if the evidence pours in on who the individual really is, we adjust our opinion as necessary, just as you do.

A small number of our clients believe in their own innocence regardless of their history of turpitude. They don’t know the truth of things and are so defended and well-rationalized that even their mirror offers a false reflection. No inward inspection is permitted. The woman in question had been in plenty of therapy, but reported no benefit.

The scary thing is, you’d find her charming, funny, and bright. She might even be generous to you until and unless you found yourself in a situation where her self-interest kicked in and revealed a self unchanged for decades. You might say she lost herself. I’d say, however, Madam X never had a self to lose, only one to disguise. A street fighting sixteen-year-old’s identity was hidden, just waiting for an excuse to emerge and mess with people.

Perhaps you are asking, do I carry continuing resentment? No, though I would not again associate with her. She is too dangerous.

As to retribution, Madam X has been punished enough. Her sentence? To live the life she is living:  a person on the outside of true companionship, capable only of sham friendship. Unlike Dorian Gray, she takes the round shape of a human wrecking ball. Wrecking balls possess no lasting friends. They languish in a junk yard of their own creation, surrounded by the things they have broken and the broken thing they made of themselves.

My knowledge of her sadness lingers. I know the heartbreak at her core and do not wish her worse. Indeed, how nice it might be to chance upon information of something better, more hopeful about Madam X than the closeted life she lives, on the outside of love, honoring only a perpetual undercover assignment of her own making. She was a beautiful child and has her moments still. A dear person is somewhere in there, if only she could find her.

The Jester (or Fool) image comes from a turn of the last century book: Bill Nye’s History of England. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Should a Therapist Give Advice?

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Most therapists avoid giving advice — most of the time. Even so, it is hard not to. Perhaps impossible, unless you are a 100% non-directive or psychoanalytic counselor.

Here is an example of the difficulty. When a profoundly depressed patient comes to you, you would be remiss not to suggest antidepressant medication. Not demand, but suggest.

Or, let’s say he consulted you for your expertise in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). You’d then evaluate him and work out a CBT treatment plan. A workbook of your choice might supplement your sessions together. This and the other details of the program are directive. They are advisory, even if not so stated.

The very “brand” of therapy you choose preempts the patient’s choice of treatment possibilities. Most people come to the first session without a flavor in mind. No practitioner could review all the strawberry, vanilla, and mango varieties for the new arrival. How do you describe a taste to someone who has never tasted? Such an education, taking as long as a semester of university classroom study, would still be inadequate. In actual practice, the shrink might instead discuss a few possible prescriptive approaches, but since the client is probably a therapy novice, he’d rely on the professional to suggest — advice again — which is best.

True, therapists usually don’t go so far as to say, “You must” or “You mustn’t” do that, unless facing a life or death issue. Even then, the phrasing would differ.

Once the goals and treatment approach are determined, therapy proceeds in something like the following way. The Therapist and Patient here are engaging in a Socratic dialogue within a session of cognitive-behavioral therapy:

P: I’m too scared to go to the party.

T: What will be the cost to you if you don’t?

P: I’ll be lonely, but at least I won’t get ignored or rejected.

T: Why do you think you won’t fit in?

P: Because that’s what always happens.

T: On every occasion? Can you remember any time it didn’t happen?

P: Yeah. One birthday celebration, someone came up to me and said he liked my hat. He asked me questions and we discovered we enjoyed the same music.

T: So, is it possible you wouldn’t be rejected or ignored?

P: Yes, but a long shot, for sure.

T: What do you think you’ll need to learn in order to make success more likely?

The conversation (much simplified above) would go on for a while, but a couple things have already been accomplished:

  • The patient has moved from his avoidance of social contact to the more hopeful project of learning something new.
  • Catastrophization has stopped (at least temporarily). P is thinking in a more nuanced fashion, admitting a small possibility of a good result.

What if, however, P gets stuck? Assume everything has been tried to reduce anxiety, yet the next step remains daunting. Say, he wishes to go on a date or a trip alone, but can’t budge. It now becomes hard for the therapist to refrain from encouraging the person to take a big risk.

Yet some guidance shouldn’t be offered by the therapist. Moreover, if offered, the patient should hesitate. Sometimes the advice of financial, legal, and career consultants, as well as therapists and friends, is suspect. All have less at stake than their advisee. For example, an investment professional might profit more from the portfolio of stocks or bonds he is endorsing than those he doesn’t tout. Brokers offering retirement suggestions, in particular, are not usually required to disclose conflicts of interest.

Human communities require trust to function. We approach all sorts of service providers with assumptions, from auto mechanics to massage therapists. A minimal level of unspoken confidence in others must exist for everyday social intercourse and commerce. The default standard for dealing with these unfamiliar people causes us to accept, without thinking, that the relationship has been arranged for our satisfaction. As George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, “we carry (our) fool’s cap (unaware)” of the danger of a naïve attitude. Yet, to be ever-vigilant and suspicious leads of a life of perpetual anxiety and misery, questioning everything.

The counselor or friend laying out a pattern of advice is also in a dangerous spot. In a certain sense, if you push an unhappy buddy or your patient to dump his significant other, you own the suggestion you passed along. Should he come to regret propelling his girlfriend out the door, you are to blame. Worse yet, were the man in distress to ignore this direction and then report his idea back to the lover, the confidant might find himself out the door.

From a therapist’s perspective, P best “own” his therapy, his decisions, and his life. T makes this harder when he becomes like a parent and infantilizes the patient. One mothering mother in any life is usually enough.

Where disclosures of conflicting interests are not required, P is on his own in the jungle. We assume our lawyers, insurance salesmen, and doctors are always putting our well-being first. One counterexample occurs if a physician prescribes medication for which he is being paid by the manufacturer (drug company) to lecture other medical professionals about its advantages. Yikes!

An old Depression-era vaudeville routine demonstrates the downside when an adviser (in this example, a lawyer) acts on your alleged behalf. The sketch appears in the 1945 movie, Ziegfeld Follies. The two-man show is darkly humorous and all too representative of the risk when those at a safe distance push us into a safari to parts unknown.

As this skit amusingly demonstrates, we must always be careful with whom we deposit one of our most precious possessions: our trust.

Take my advice (oops) and watch, Pay the Two Dollars:

Pay the Two Dollars stars Victor Moore as the “little guy” and Edward Arnold as his lawyer.

Trust: The High Hurdle of Therapy

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All relationships are either therapeutic or non-therapeutic. Or perhaps I should say, sometimes therapeutic and sometimes not. A relationship with a counselor is not exempt from this complication. Bloggers in treatment suggest that no other topic so unsettles the soul.

The heart is easily torn. A therapist tries to get inside a patient in a way more intimate than most sexual encounters. The client is expected to strip down before the healer in a metaphorical sense. Remember, our custom of shaking hands derives from the need of two souls to prove they are unarmed — that to be near is not to risk injury. Even without weapons, however, danger is there.

Partners in friendship, love, and therapy make assumptions. Sometimes these unstated beliefs undermine the possibility of understanding and trust. Trust is like a garment made out of words and expressions; actions and expectations. In the space of less than the 50-minute hour, the fabric is woven, unwoven, and back again. By a shift in the body and a smile. By a raised eyebrow and a word well-chosen, poorly chosen, or misunderstood. By silence or its lack. By whether the counselor recognizes the tiniest of tears in the corner of an eye. By whether the patient — gaze downcast and terrified — misses the same evidence she would otherwise observe in the healer.

Too often we expect the impossible of people to whom we are close: that if we are cared for, the other will know what we are feeling and thinking automatically. “He should be able to tell,” we say to ourselves. This belief shifts the responsibility for the achievement of trust and understanding to the other; whether a parent, a spouse, or a psychologist. Sometimes it is reasonable, often not, especially when both parties are adults.

Part of what makes understanding hard (even if we do not assume the other owns a crystal ball) is a question of access. No one else can get inside our head. We have knowledge of ourselves, or what we think we are, in the bright light of the mind. We possess an internal and effortless but utterly precise grasp of our own meaning. Yet for all the clarity available on the inside, our counterpart is in the dark, far from the possibility of direct observation. He cannot see within us, only the outer disguise and armoring. He may consult the dictionary meaning of our words and interpret our expressions and movements, but not more. Relationships die when the other is obtuse and insensitive, and also when too much is expected.

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No one is a mind reader. The job of comprehension leading to trust is a duet, not a solo performance. Like all good performances, it takes rehearsal. Repeated rehearsal.

Therapist and patient, when they are well-matched and both working hard, spin a spider’s web as the session begins. The fibers are fine, almost invisible. With time, the net grows. If strong enough and recreated session after session, the strands thicken and better bear the weight of personal disclosure. Yet they still can be torn and retorn.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. All of life must be tested and resilience can only grow out of disappointment. We live in a world of unreliability. Nothing is permanent and yet we seek permanence. So we weave the web — together. With familiarity, the strands are more easily rewoven when a rift develops. Confidence grows. A safety net seems possible.

Remember, this is an act of becoming, not of being. There is no “one and done” here. Repetition, persistence, and continued effort despite the fraying of hope are required.

Nothing above absolves the therapist of the need for finely tuned sensitivity, laser-like focus, and dedication. He must do his best to recognize messages often disguised; must take care not to injure. Nor does this free the patient from taking incredible risks to reveal herself, even though her history says revelation and vulnerability will result in a terrible end. Tearable of the thing we call trust, and terrible to the heart and body.

The most damaged of clients want to be known, but are afraid to be known. They are frightened to show themselves to anyone. Thus, their coded messages are misunderstood. Nonetheless, courage is essential. The unfairness of having to take one more risk carries no weight. They must do so repeatedly. Their healing is otherwise impossible.

Perhaps therapists should recite a disclaimer to the most damaged patients at the outset of treatment:

I want to understand you, but I am imperfect. I will not make a clean catch of everything you say. You might have to repeat or rephrase. You will test me, but I am helpless without your willingness to trust — to help me help you. This is asking a lot. I apologize, but there is no alternative. I will disappoint you, but I am earnest. We must keep trying to weave a beautiful fabric, like a magic carpet. One that will help carry you until you can fly without the support of a tapestry to bear you aloft.

The careful reader will be struck by how many visual metaphors I have used in this essay. I’ve tried to achieve your understanding by reference to what can be seen. In so doing, I have also been underlining how difficult it is to express oneself by abstract words alone. Put differently, how challenging is the therapeutic task of achieving understanding.

In the fairy tale, Rumplestiltskin, a miller’s daughter is said to be able to do the impossible — spin straw into gold. Such is the goal of therapist and patient, both at the wheel. They too must weave. Without even straw. They hold only the memory of pain on one side and a strained, always imperfect empathy on the other. Gold of a different kind — understanding, trust, and healing — can come of their teamwork.

Is this only a fairy tale, too?

Not if you have seen it happen.

The top photo of a spider web on a pasture is the work of Nijeholt. The second image is a Magic Carpet created by איתמר סיאני. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Whatever Became of Miss Pancake?


Most of us are prone to judging people by what they look like or how they sound — how they pose and shape themselves for the camera of our perception and insight.

Many clever people can put on a good “show” and lead us to believe that the surface of things really does suggest something stable, decent, and worthwhile below the sight lines.

But, as Miss Pancake’s story suggests, sometimes what you think you see isn’t what you get.

The foundation underneath the surface makeup may not be nearly so pretty.

Indeed, outer beauty can suggest a fantasy, something that is very much “made up.”

Miss P was born in 1927, the youngest of her parents’ four children, both immigrants from Eastern Europe.  Along with many other Eastern European Jews, they saw America as a land free of the most obvious forms of anti-Semitism and a place of great economic opportunity. Her father, as the story goes, traveled to the USA in 1912 from Rumania, after a brief stop in England.

Only one problem: he missed his boat to the USA. Its name? The Titanic, or at least, that is what he told everyone.

He went by the name Leo. A tall, dashing, easy-going man with a wicked smile, able to speak at least a little of several languages. His wife Esther was quite a contrast: homely, stocky, with a prematurely lined face; an argumentative woman who never mastered English and never met a person she could trust.

Leo, a Chicago house painter who was hospitalized and nearly died during the 1918 influenza epidemic, made a good living in the 1920s when money was easy to come by and as easily spent. But he was also unreliable, alcoholic; an embarrassment to his kids when he was loaded. Still, a funny, voluble, charming sort of inebriate, never mean-spirited. And always warm and affectionate with children.

The Great Depression was the ruin of Miss Pancake’s family. Nothing unusual there, since 25% of the country was unemployed. Failed banks, bread lines, “hey buddy, can you spare a dime?” Our heroine might have remembered the terror of bill collectors coming to their door and everyone inside pretending not to be home. At some point Leo couldn’t take the unhappy household anymore and left for Winnipeg, Canada, where he had some relatives, conveniently forgetting to take his wife and children along.

But Esther was tenacious and knew that Leo was her only meal-ticket, even if the meals he could buy were now pretty meager. She followed him to Canada, where Miss P’s older siblings remembered the fear that their classmates had of someone from Chicago, the city of Al Capone and his friends. Eventually, they returned to the USA with Leo coming along for the ride.

Esther was the powerhouse of the family. She could brow-beat her husband Leo, who never made a decent financial recovery from the loss of his painting business and whose alcoholism was always an easy target. And his late night carousing left the four children as fair game for Esther’s mix of claustrophobic love, suspicion, and withering criticism as she played one child against the other, leaving them all unhappy.

In spite of it all, little Miss P grew to be a beauty. Tall and leggy, buxom, with full lips and a toothy smile, she was quite a dish. You can see the beauty queen above as she looked in her hey-day.

But as the last one left at home when all the other children had moved out and gotten married, Esther held on to her like grim death. No one was ever “good enough” for her, at least according to her mom.

Miss P was witty, bright, and could play men to show her a good time. She worked as a legal secretary in a big deal La Salle Street law office for a wealthy and prominent Chicago lawyer at a time when such a job had a measure of prestige, before women had much access to the practice of law or medicine beyond being helpful to a male who did.

Miss P. could be generous, even if that devotion always had strings attached. She played the role of confidant to many of those she targeted, eagerly attentive until she figured out how she could use the information they were revealing to her — a tactic she had doubtless learned from her suspicious and manipulative mother.

So long as her beauty and charm lasted, Miss P enjoyed the company of well-to-do men who would shower her with gifts. But, as the bloom came off the rose, her life became stranger and stranger. For a number of years she continued working as a legal secretary. Finally, she decided that there were other ways to make a living than working for an employer who expected you to show up every day and collected your Social Security and withholding taxes.

At some point she was also hospitalized at a state psychiatric hospital with a diagnosis of Paranoid Schizophrenia. She was a reluctant patient, to be sure; not patient enough to wait for a medical discharge, she escaped through an open window.

By now Miss P had alienated all but two of her relatives, both nephews.

She would sometimes promise them that when she was gone they would inherit her estate, but it was hard to imagine that she had much of one. Nonetheless, they extended themselves to her out of their sense of obligation and good will more than any anticipation of a posthumous payoff; when she got cancer on her nose and sometimes needed help in getting to the doctor, they were there for her.

It is hard to characterize what Miss P then did for a living, but scamming people comes to mind. It seems that this took several forms. Variation One involved buying articles from one store, presumably on sale, and then either reselling them for more than the purchase price or returning them to another store in an attempt to retrieve the retail, non-sale price. Eventually some stores wanted no part of her business, having gotten wise to her scheming.

Variation Two required her to buy used merchandise or find things that others had discarded. I’m not sure to what extent this depended upon her ability to “dumpster dive,” but I’d be surprise if she didn’t claim some goods this way. Then she would run advertisements in places like The Reader, a free weekly newspaper that permitted ads she didn’t have to pay for.

On one such occasion Miss P sold some used stereo equipment that didn’t work to someone who, understandably, thought it did. When he called to complain and wanted a refund, she retorted, “Who do you think you’re dealing with? This isn’t Marshall Field’s!”

Variation Three had to do with her residence. Although she often rented apartments, sometimes she lived in the lobbies of posh hotels, washing up in the ladies room and sleeping in the lobby chairs, while her goods remained in storage. Again, eventually some of the establishments got wise to her.

Perhaps the most lucrative variation, however, might have been various nuisance law suits she filed against alleged “wrong-doers,” including the multiple land-lords she had over the years, perhaps against physicians who treated her, as well. These sometimes resulted in significant settlements.

In 2001 she soon expected to be between apartments and asked one of her nephews to pick up several suit cases, presumably all her worldly goods that weren’t deposited in a storage facility, and to hold them until she was settled in another rental unit. He dutifully did so, bringing the suitcases to his suburban home.

Several weeks later, however, when she asked that the goods be returned, Nephew #1 relied on Nephew #2 to deliver them. Miss P claimed that two suitcases were missing. A manipulation? A delusion? Who could tell? Phone contact with Nephew #1 didn’t jog her memory about the number of pieces of luggage she left with him, nor cause him to confess to the charge of theft that she was leveling against him.

Given how far gone she was, by now she probably believed her own preposterous story.

It wasn’t too many days before a police car appeared in front of Nephew #1’s home. Miss P was in the back seat. The officer rang the bell, only to find her nephew’s wife alone at home. He questioned her about the allegations and was satisfied that nothing untoward had happened, confiding to her that Miss P was, in fact, a pretty strange bird.

The officer wanted to leave, but the alleged criminal’s spouse insisted that he first search the premises, to satisfy himself and Miss P that nothing of her’s was in their home. But the beauty of paranoia is that evidence or its absence counts for nothing. Our heroine simply believed that whatever had been stolen from her had been sold before she and the police arrived.

Still, you’d think that with the police’s failure to find anything, Miss P would have been at a dead-end.

No one got off so easily once Miss P had targeted him.

Later in the year, claiming indigence, the Circuit Court of Cook County waved the filing fee that normally would have been required of Miss P to file suit against her relative. With Nephew #2 in attendance for the bench trial along with Nephew #1’s wife, Miss Pancake claimed $1200 in damages for the personal property that she alleged to have been “wrongfully detained,” namely, “two marble tables, one statue, nine pieces of luggage, one carry-on bag; and clothing.”

She lost.

Twelve days later her motion for a new trial was denied.

The judge in her suit was her next target. Our beauty queen completed a form entitled “Request For Investigation of a Judge or Associate Judge” that she submitted to the State of Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board. In it, she alleged that Judge Good (certainly not a good day for him):

…has a disability. He cannot read or has eye problems. He should use glasses. Also, he (sic) is known by Daley (Center) employees that he never reads evidence. He just judges people by appearance only.

Incoherently specifying various abuses she suffered at the hands of the judge, including being discriminated against as a senior citizen, she complained that the judge had stated in open court that

…he liked the defendant because he was rich. Then, he also (said,) “Boy, lots (of) money.”

Two years later, no longer able to sue Nephew #1, Miss Pancake sued his wife over the same property, with the same result, although this time Miss P’s kinsman hired an attorney in the hope of ending the repeated confrontations with his aunt once and for all. This time Judge Plenty, obviously sensitive to the plaintiff’s peculiar and disjointed communications, requested that she be assessed as to her capacity for self-care by the Cook County Guardian’s office.

Nothing came of that assessment, other than, I suspect, a good deal of nervousness on her part at the possibility that she might lose her independence.

A month later, our inexhaustible protagonist consulted a private attorney of her own in an effort to continue the pursuit of her personal property, but that man wrote her to say she had no case, and that (having failed to persuade Judges Good and Plenty) she had exhausted all legal remedies with any reasonable likelihood of producing the compensation that she was seeking.

And that is the way Miss Pancake’s relationships with her family ended.

No contact with anyone ever again.

Time passed.

Nephew #1 would read of her death in the obituary column of the Chicago Tribune. A little investigation revealed that she had become a ward of the state and died of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Who would have thought that the story of the beautiful and clever Miss Pancake would end this way?

The moral: don’t judge a book by its cover, candy by its box, or a pancake by its package.

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The photo just above is of Good & Plenty candy, taken by Glane23, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to Make Yourself and Those You Love Miserable

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It is easy to find on-line guidance to a better life. But the recommendations contained on those self-help web sites (and in books that aim at the same audience) have become almost too commonplace to make any impact.

The remedy? Something that is just the opposite: a list of suggestions on how to make yourself and others miserable. Of course, I’m not wishing that you follow these directions. Rather, I’m hoping that some of you who might yawn at still another list of “things to do” to improve your life, will be struck by the things you already do that make it much worse.

Here goes:

  • Regularly compare your material and financial circumstances to others, especially to those who are doing better than you are.
  • Make a list of all the people who have wronged you over the years and try to remember exactly how awful they made you feel. Think about those who owe you an apology. Forgive no one. Let no slight be too small to dwell on it.
  • Carry on a vendetta. Stay up late at night planning and plotting how you might get back at people. Stay angry. Let all your hatred out in blistering, profane, and cowardly “flames” behind the mask of the Internet.
  • Give your children gifts rather than your time. Set no limits on them. Then wait until they are teenagers and wonder why they are depressed or rebellious.
  • Curse the darkness, the winter, the cold, the rain, the frailty of the human condition, and all the other things that you can’t change.
  • Get impatient with the people who are walking in front of you at a snail’s pace, the couples whose bodies and shopping carts block the entire grocery aisle, and the slow progress of the check-out line at the store.

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  • Make no contribution to the betterment of humanity. Assume an attitude of entitlement. Figure out how to avoid work. Idle away your time. Ask “what your country can do for you,” not “what you can do for your country” in opposition to JFK’s 1960 inaugural address admonition.
  • Forever rationalize your dishonorable or questionable behavior or deny it altogether, even to yourself.
  • Persuade yourself that you need to wait until you feel better before you do the difficult thing that you have been postponing. Keep waiting, even if the time never comes when you believe that you can take action.
  • Do not let conversation with your spouse or children get in the way of watching TV. Keep the TV on most of the time, most importantly at family dinners. If possible have a television in every room.
  • Ignore the beauty of a spring or summer day, the newly fallen snow, and the cheerful laugh of small child. Stay in-doors as much as possible, year round.

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  • Allow yourself to be upset by overpaid, under-performing athletes who doom the home team to continued failure. Yes, Cubs fans, this means you!
  • Treat emotions of sadness, tenderness, and hurt as your enemy. Push them away and thereby alienate yourself from yourself. Curtail grieving and try to deaden your feelings to the point of numbness.
  • Work up as much hatred as possible toward opposition political parties. Listen to every talking head who wants to whip you into a frenzy.
  • Expect justice and fairness in all things.
  • Drink too much, drug too much, and spend every extra minute on the web or playing computer games instead of having direct human contact with someone who is in the same room with you. Further distract yourself from your problems by watching TV and listening to music. Escape reality.

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  • Keep using failed solutions to your problems even though they haven’t worked in years, if ever.
  • Behave in mid-life the way you did as a young person; or, if you are a young person, behave the way you did as a child. Do not reflect on or learn from experience which might teach you something new.
  • Use others instrumentally. That is, value them only in terms of what they can do for you. Lie, cheat, betray, and steal from them if that serves your interests. Then wonder why people mistrust you.
  • Spend as much time as possible worrying about the future and regretting the past, rather than living in the irreplaceable moment.
  • Aim low. Avoid the disappointment that comes with high expectations. When the going gets tough, quit.
  • Train yourself to be a miser. Practice selfishness. Hold on to your money as if you expect to live forever and will need every last cent. Make Scrooge from A Christmas Carol your hero.

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  • Judge others less fortunate than you are by using the phrases “he should have known better,” “he didn’t try hard enough,” and the like. Assume that all people deserve whatever misfortune befalls them. Disdain compassion, but remain puzzled when others call you heartless.
  • Indulge in every available excess: unprotected sex, food, spending, smoking, caffeine, etc. Don’t exercise. Ignore medical advice and, even better, avoid going to your doctor. Treat your body badly and then wonder why it betrays you.
  • Be sarcastic, passive-aggressive, and indirect whenever you are injured rather than looking someone in the eye and expressing your displeasure in a straight-forward fashion.
  • Avoid facing things. Give in to your fears, anxieties, and phobias.

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  • Don’t let anyone know you well. Believe that your vulnerabilities will always be used against you. Keep social interactions on the surface. Eschew intimacy and maintain your distance, thinking that this is the best way to avoid personal injury. Trust no one!
  • Assume that the normal social rules regarding fidelity to friends and lovers don’t apply to you. Hold on to a double-standard that favors you.
  • Insist on having your way. Don’t compromise. Don’t consider others’ needs or wants. Assume a position of moral superiority, self-righteousness, and arrogance in things religious, political, and personal.
  • Do everything others ask of you. Rarely say “no.”
  • Try to control people and events as much as you can. Don’t go with the flow. Micromanage. Hover over others. Repeat complaints to them incessantly. Remind subordinates, friends, spouses, and children of small errors, even if they are ancient history.
  • Make no significant effort to better your life. Depend on others to take care of you and make all significant decisions for you. Be a burden.
  • Raise all your children exactly the same way even though it is obvious that they are not all the same.
  • Imitate vampires (who have no reflection in the mirror and therefore keep their mirrors shrouded) by never really looking hard at your own reflection in the looking-glass. That is, never take a frank inventory of your strengths and weaknesses or the mistakes you’ve made. Be like the evil queen in Snow White, whose only desire was that the mirror would tell her that she was “the fairest of them all.”
  • Whenever you talk with someone, wonder what they really mean, pondering the possibility that they find you boring, stupid or physically unattractive.
  • Feed yourself on gossip more than food. Delight in talking about others behind their backs.
  • Value beauty, appearance, reputation, and material success over integrity, knowledge, kindness, hard work, and love.
  • Try to change others, but do not try to change yourself. Take no responsibility for your life circumstances, instead blaming those who have stymied you.
  • Stay just as you are regardless of changing life conditions. For example, if wearing warm clothes worked for you when you lived in Alaska, continue to wear them when you move to Arizona in July.

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  • Don’t forgive yourself. Maintain the most perfectionistic and demanding moral and performance standard even if you are not a brain surgeon. Stay up at night castigating yourself over every imperfection, no matter how small.
  • Make a list of all the things that are wrong with your life, all the opportunities lost, every heartbreak, and the physical features and bodily changes that you don’t like. Stew in your own juices. Salt your wounds. Pick at your scabs.
  • Take everything personally.
  • Permit friends, family, and co-workers to walk all over you. Do not stand up to them for fear of causing offense and disapproval.
  • Discount your blessings. Concentrate on the dark side of life.
  • Never even consider going into psychotherapy. Assume that this is something only for those who are weak and that anyone who needs to grapple with emotional issues in counseling demonstrates a failure of will power and logic.

With thanks for the inspiration for this essay to Dan Greenberg and Marcia Jacobs, co-authors of a very funny, but ironic book entitled How to Make Yourself Miserable.

The top image is Grief by Edgar Bertram Mackenna. The video frame that follows is from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural speech. The next image is Sommerblumenstrauss by A. Gundelach. The following photo by Andygoodell is A Jack Rose Cocktail. The fifth picture is of two children in Bangladesh by Nafis Kamal, while the sixth is called Chicklet-Currency courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. After the image from Disney’s Snow White, is a 1911 photo of Enrico Caruso, the great Italian tenor. All but the Snow White frame are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Christmas Story: Telling the Truth and Breaking the Heart

Was she seven years old? I don’t remember my eldest daughter’s exact age when she asked the question:

“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend in school) said he isn’t.”

I had learned long before this, the value and importance of being honest.

I looked at Jorie, but perhaps could not see just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.

What I could see, however, was that she trusted me. And, in the few moments before I answered, I quickly determined that I could not break that trust.

“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”

I can still see her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.

It was not the last time that I caused pain to someone I love, but I think it was the first time I’d done this to any child of mine.

Welcome to the real world, honey; the place where things aren’t always as they seem or as we would like them to be. A place where hard reality trumps fantasy; a place where someone who “loves you to pieces” tells you something that breaks your heart into pieces.

That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead; something to save this little person from the pain of a message amenable to postponement.

Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was there a possible Socratic dialogue — an artfully crafted sequence of questions leading her to the same truth and not hurt so much?

Could I have tried to change the subject, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?

Or, should I have simply lied? “Of course there is a Santa, Sweetie.” And then left her open to the potential ridicule of friends, as well as some doubts about whether her dad was trustworthy.

Janet Landman, in her book Regret: the Persistence of the Possible, likens regret to the dilemma of coming to a fork in the road and making a choice. You walk down the chosen road for a while, before you realize it isn’t quite as good as you had hoped. Eventually you conclude, “I probably should have taken the other path.”

It really doesn’t matter which road you choose. Nothing in life is perfect. But in your imagination the alternative remains idealized. Only in your mind, in the world of abstraction and fantasy, does perfection reside — the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect result, the perfect performance of whatever kind.

And, for me, the perfect answer to a simple question.

Sometimes in life there is no ideal solution, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. And, of course, we never know what it would have been like to choose the other road at that precise moment. Because, as Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” Meaning that with the passage of time, the river has changed, and so have you.

No, you cannot un-ring the bell. No do-overs when it comes to the knowledge of whether Santa is real.

We must live with the inevitable heart breaks, whenever they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain what would have happened had we lived it differently.

Ultimately, one can only accept the terms life allows. The contract we (metaphorically) sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at the moment of our birth allows for no escape clause from hard knocks. Not, at least, while life goes on.

I still wish I could have protected Jorie from the terrible knowledge I delivered so innocently that day, not just the knowledge about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think about it, it isn’t the knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, it is from the pain of life itself.

But, such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also have the compensations of beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.

Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.

The good news?

Our love abides.