On Arrogance, Therapists, and Overweening Parents

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Over the years some have accused me of being arrogant, and when it comes to a some things, I guess it might be true, especially if you’re talking about my exquisite taste in the arts or the immense love I have of the sound of my own voice.*

And, yes, especially when it comes to choosing therapists, I’ll admit I’m as arrogant as hell.

For example, a couple of decades ago, my synapses went on the fritz. I lost about twenty pounds in three weeks, and it wasn’t the type of weight loss where people complimented you on your svelteness but wondered if you had shared a needle with the wrong Haitian. “You okay?” they’d ask.

Each afternoon, I’d come straight home from school, climb the stairs to my study where I’d lie on the floor, weep like Niobe, and listen to Peter Gabriel’s Us or the Counting Crow’s August and Everything After.

After all, if you were undergoing a dark night of the soul, what would make a better soundtrack than this:

 

Anyway, one evening after prying me out of fetal position with a tire iron, my wife Judy insisted I see a therapist. The thing is, because of my arrogance, I didn’t want to deal with a therapist who wasn’t extremely erudite. I didn’t care how empathetic, how many Ivy League degrees she had hanging on her office walls, if she and I couldn’t talk about the Compsons of Yoknapatawpha County or the Tyrones of Eugene O’Neil’s A Long Day’s Journey into the Night or Yeats’s interest in the occult, I wanted nothing to do with her.

After all, characters from literature offer a mother lode of archetypal experience in understanding the human psyche, and by my reckoning someone interested in how the psyche works should necessarily be interested in literature. No, I wanted someone like Jung, someone older than I, someone who spoke High German, not someone who rattled off stock phrases like “I think I hear you saying” in a flat Midwestern monotone.

I longed to administer tests to prospective therapists before I chose one, something quick for them to take and me to assess, like 50 multiple choice questions.

Which of the following Faulkner characters has the mind of a three year old?

A. Vardamen Burden
B. Joe Christmas
C. Homer Barron
D. Benjie Compson
E. No clue

The first therapist I tried didn’t hack it at all. Recommended by my physician, this fellow had a mere masters in social work, which meant he couldn’t prescribe meds, so instead of shoveling serotonin jump-starters my way, he’d have me close my eyes and imagine I was flying like Peter Pan from his office to my childhood home in Summerville. The idea was I could re-experience in a new light some of the unpleasant incidents from my childhood that he considered responsible for the harrowing nightmares that visited me about 3 a.m every fucking morning.

So up and off I’d go with my bad sense of direction, flying straight over the Cooper River Bridge, then just above the steeples of the peninsula, taking 61 instead of 26, checking out the plantations on the Ashley River, noting the traffic, wondering if the cars should be an earlier model since I was ostensibly going back in time — all this while the therapist’s meter was ticking, so to speak, at $75 a half-hour.

Then he’d say it’s time to fly back before I had a chance to go get inside my childhood house, before I’d had a chance to relive some wretched Christmas Eve or stumbled-across suicide note. The house didn’t have a chimney to slide in through a la Santa, nor was I, strictly speaking, a ghost who could walk through walls, etc.  I’d be on the roof trying to figure out how to get in when he’d tell me it was time to go.  So I’d take off and head back, and like in real life, the trip back was always quicker than the trip there.

Once again, Judy to the rescue. I told the therapist that my wife was displeased at my lack of progress, and he immediately referred me to the Medical University where I was triaged by a woman whom I wouldn’t have minded being my therapist because she was much older than I, a bone fide psychiatrist with a pleasantly patrician foreign accent; however, she had recently moved to Charleston from Johannesburg and couldn’t practice in the US.

Anyway, I passed the triage, got assigned with a fellow who put me on Zoloft and Klonopin, and even though he and I didn’t talk about Wittgenstein or, for that matter, Raymond Chandler, we did have interesting conversations, mostly about his life, how it felt like to tell someone he had a month to live, etc., and I started sleeping through nights and feeling like my old self again, i.e, like a somewhat angry and pessimistic middle-aged man who held most of the bourgeoise in contempt.

flight

Well, that was 21 years ago, so imagine my arrogance level now, especially when these whippersnapper parents-of-students young enough for me to have taught commence to instruct me about how I should be conducting my classes.

For example, at lunch, the other day, one of my colleagues started bitching about a parent who actually texted her after a 9th grade weekend retreat to complain that little Bartholomew or Bianca had declared the retreat was the worst trip the sweet darling had ever been on ever. My colleague texted her back photos of beaming kids looking as if they’d were being filmed in a soda pop ad.

I told her I thought that was great but added that I would have handled it somewhat differently, would have engaged in some dialogue before sending the photos.

Mom: . . . the worst trip my sweet darling has ever been on ever!

Me: You are, Mrs. X, familiar with the philosophical school of existentialism, aren’t you?

Mom: Huh?

Me: You know, the movement started by Kierkegaard, embraced by Nietzsche, espoused by Sartre and Camus.

Mom: What does this have to do with anything?

Me: Well, it has a lot to do with everything. Existentialists posit that each individual perceives the world through her own unique perspective and therefore ‘reality’ is relative. Because your Portuguese water dog lacks the optical cones and rods to perceive your sweater is red, to him the sweater is gray, but your reality is no more legitimate than his, and let’s not forget you can’t hear the high frequencies that he perceives, but that doesn’t mean his reality is more legitimate than yours.

In other words, although this may have been the worst trip ever from B’s perspective, it might have been the greatest trip C has ever been on — or as Hamlet puts it, “There’s nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so.”

Therefore, I suggest you and B bond together by reading Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus. “ And in the mean time please enjoy these photos from the retreat.

Have a nice day!

Like, I say, I can be arrogant when it comes to some things, but I’d arrogantly like to think my arrogance is better than that mother’s arrogance.


* But, hey. I’m not arrogant about the things I suck at, like my inability to find my car in a parking garage or remembering the person’s name I was introduced to 30 seconds ago.

Deserts of Vast Eternity

TIME.2No one’s left to answer the questions I have about my first memories, scenes that take place in the gas station/house of my maternal grandparents in the year 1954 or 1955.

World War II has been over for ten years now.

I am two, maybe three. My grandparents, my aunt, maybe my uncle, live in a building that’s part commercial enterprise, part domicile. It’s not a home — or even a house – but the Station. What should be the front yard consists of a narrowing triangle of concrete featuring an island of gas pumps, the apex of the triangle marking the fork where Highway 78 splits into West 5th North Street and Richardson Avenue.   Diesel smells hover as cars swish by night and day, day and night. Out back, a wire fence encloses a treeless dirt yard where an unfriendly German Pinscher prowls.

No nature boy, I-and-I.

It seems at the time of these first memories that my mother and father are living at the Station, too. The upstairs, if subsequent recollections are correct, consists of one ark-like bedroom that has two or three beds and a stand-alone sink. There must be a bathroom downstairs, but I don’t remember it.

My first memory ever is of my parents’ leaving each morning. I descend the steep stairs terrified I’ll fall. I lead with my right foot, step after step, right foot first, until I’m about four steps from the bottom. Then I leap into my father’s outstretched arms, and he slings me around in circles. I don’t want my parents to leave me, but they do, and I spend the rest of the sibling-less day in the domestic section of the building while my grandfather pumps gas or fixes flats and my grandmother works the counter cash register. I can remember feeling sorry for myself as I sat sideways on the bottom step with my knees up. I remember thinking that the day would never end.

Of course, it did, and the one after that, and the one after that . . .

At two-and-a-half, I’d experienced fewer than a thousand days, so in that frame of reference, a day looms large. Now, I have weathered approximately 22,630 days, 1,885 full moons, 62 Christmas Eves. Yet, even though my frame of reference of a day has shrunk 2,000-fold, the days – especially, the weekdays  — still seem long.

Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock . . .

But not the years — the years zoom past like cars on a freeway.

Blink, just like that I’m engaged to be married and attending a party with my mother during her 25th high school reunion weekend. My former classmate Emma Jo Mellard is there with her mother as well. We make small talk, comment on time’s winged chariot’s terrifying swiftness.

Blink. I’m swinging my sons in circles above my head.

Blink. I’m looking at a photograph on Facebook of members of my high school class who attended a 45th reunion last weekend (just hours ago I was at the 40th it seems).

These classmates are wizened, unfamiliar, old.

O what shall I do with this absurdity –

O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,

Decrepit age that has been tied to me

As to a dog’s tail?

Blink.

A Rural Funeral

Funeral ProgramWhat they call Main Street in Jackson, South Carolina, isn’t what I would call a street — it’s more like a road running through farm fields, past a row of handsome houses standing on generous lots subdivided from what was once a pecan grove. The only businesses I saw: some type of mechanical repair shop with a hand-lettered sign and a defunct “Super Market.” There appear to be more churches in Jackson than businesses, at least on Main Street. We’re talking the Deep South, the Bible Belt, country music, V-8 engines, spiritual people.

I was at Jackson to attend the funeral of my first cousin Debbie, Uncle David’s second daughter, and although as a youngster I asked God to bless Elaine, Debbie, Pamela, and Scarlet each night as I recited “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” we rarely got together in childhood and virtually never in adulthood, unless we were visiting the terminally ill or, like yesterday, laying a departed family member to rest.

For whatever reason, my branch of the Moore clan isn’t close — even my siblings and I don’t see each other often — so it isn’t surprising that I can count the memories of visiting my cousins on one hand. However, when we did get together, we had a blast playing pick-up sticks and softball or listening to German-born Aunt Maria play her accordion. We simply enjoyed being together because there’s something about blood, about seeing hints of your features stamped on someone else, knowing you have sprung from common roots.

Elaine Ackerman Moore

Elaine Ackerman Moore

Roots like our irascible great granddaddy Luther Moore (“I’m deaf and blind so there’s no need to come up and talk to me!”), our sweet great grandmama and great granddaddy Ackerman, whose daughter, our grandmother, the beautiful Elaine Ackerman Moore, died before we were born and for whom my father and Uncle David mourned for the rest of their lives.

Blood, like they say, is thick.

Perhaps the most memorable event of our cousinhood occurred when Mama sold Uncle David a pony my father had bought and tried to keep in our backyard in a subdivision not zoned for farm animals. This pony was the equine equivalent of Homer Jo Roberts, Summerville’s town bully, who once punched 24 different people one night at the Curve-In Pool (I was one of them) because, as he later said by way of apology, “ Whiskey and beer don’t mix.”

This pony kicked, bit, brayed. I doubt John Wayne would have the courage to put a saddle on him. More problematic was the pony’s penchant for busting out of the make-shift fencing Daddy had erected by nailing some 2x4s to trees in our backyard. This transformation of our backyard into a farm helped to solidify our status as not-ideal neighbors (we also had tied to a tree in the backyard a wingless Ryan PT-22 airplane that we had to crank once a week to keep the engine from freezing). Neighbors were particularly unhappy when the pony got out and trampled their flower beds or deposited unsought fertilizer on their lawns.

So, Uncle David to the rescue. He drove from Jackson to Summerville with a horse trailer and relieved us of the nightmare, or, if you will, night-pony, whose behavior seemed to have improved remarkably the next time I saw him in Jackson safely enclosed behind well-constructed fencing.

I learned at her funeral that my cousin Debbie was a devout animal lover and had left behind two beloved dogs, Smoky and the Bandit. I already knew of her generosity because when Daddy was dying, she took off work and stayed for days with Mama. While she was there, she fixed mama’s broken washing machine and rewired the utility room. Debbie was a first-rate mechanic who could repair anything, who could replace the floor of a trailer, who could hold her own working beside anybody.

However, until yesterday, I had no idea of the breadth and depth of Debbie’s generosity. I learned it through reminiscences delivered during the service by her nephews, a niece, and a co-worker. I learned of material gifts galore and also of the gift of time devoted to others, the gift of love bestowed.

For example, when one nephew had to sell his beloved yellow Camaro, Debbie insisted on buying it herself so she could, unknown to him, leave it to him upon her death. I learned of her extraordinary work ethic, her meticulousness, her courage in butting heads with authority figures (a Moore trait for sure), her stoicism in enduring with grace the ravages of cancer.

I also learned of her sense of humor, an attribute that she kept right up to the very end.

For example. during her last week on earth, she was helped out of bed into her wheelchair, donned a wig, and when the nurse came in, Debbie asked her what she had put in her IV bag.

“Nothing special, just the regular.”

“Well, look what it’s done,” Debbie said. “Whatever it was, It made all my hair grow back.”

What I learned most profoundly is how much I had missed by not really knowing Debbie. Watching her nephew Steven manfully deliver an eloquent, heartfelt eulogy, I felt love manifested palatably in that sanctuary. The entire funeral from start to finish underscored the power of love and faith (something I certainly lack). How moving to hear Debbie’s brother-in-law Jeff sing to the accompaniment of his own guitar a medley of “Amazing Grace” and “My Chains Are Gone.”

On the front of the program for Debbie’s funeral are the words “Love is my gift.” How fitting.

The Parakeets’ Funeral

1957-Ford-Station-Wagons2Way back in the early 1950’s, when my consciousness slowly awakened and started taking note, you couldn’t drive up to a gas station in your spanking brand new Ford station wagon and fill her up yourself. No, when you pulled up to the pumps, you were met by a worker in overalls who would not only provide you with fuel, but also check your oil, fan belt, and tire pressure. He would clean your windshield, take your cash, and bring you your change.

My mother’s parents owned such an establishment called the Nation Station and actually lived in its confines. When you entered the front door, you encountered a white-washed wooden counter and a cash register; behind the counter a sheet-like curtain separated a space where tires were stacked, and beyond that was a door leading to three rooms, a hallway with steps, a “living room,” and a kitchen.

Those steps led steeply up to the bedroom — I only remember one – a cavernous barn-like space with a sink that stood out in the open. There my ornery Scots-Irish grandfather, a bantam rooster of a man, as ruddy as a crake, would apply frothy cream with a brush and shave himself with a straight razor that he would snap shut with authority when the ritual was over.

Red-Necked Crake

Red-Necked Crake

The sleeping arrangements were peculiar — a less decorous narrator might call them perverted.   I don’t remember where my grandfather slept. My grandmother slept with my aunt Virginia, who was only six years older than me.*  A ratlike (redundant?) Chihuahua named Perfidia also shared the mother-and-daughter’s bed. Why they would name a dog the Spanish word for “faithlessness” is beyond me.  “Here, faithlessness!  Come faithlessness!”

I do know why “Fiddy” slept in the bed with them, however. It was for medical purposes: Chihuahuas were supposed to be good for asthma, which periodically plagued my grandmother, sometimes resulting in stays at brown-bricked, one-story Dorchester County Hospital. I can see her now, encased in an “oxygen curtain,” gasping for breath.

In addition to Perfidia, my aunt kept two parakeets whose whistling provided a sonic counterpoint to Fiddy’s high-pitched yelping. They resided in a cage near one of the windows and spent the long, long, days of my fifth year pecking at bells and suet (and, of course, defecating).

One day, when Virginia got home from school, she discovered to her horror that both of the birds were drenched and behaving oddly. She went into a frenzy — and for good reason. My toddler brother David had right before her arrival given them a “bath” with a Black Flag insecticide sprayer. Of course, Virginia directed her inchoate rage at David rather than her bedmate mother who had left the poison within a toddler’s reach.

il_fullxfull.298559756We have no idea what David’s motives were. They could have been altruistic (the birdies looked like they needed a bath, though in that case mangy Fiddy seems a more rational target.) At any rate, I’m fairly certain David didn’t make the connection between spraying the insecticide and killing its recipients. Though I might not be giving him enough credit. Virginia could be pretty mean.

So I stood around and watched the birds have spasms amid the Euripidean howls from Hecuba Virginia.   There was nothing anyone could do. How much does a parakeet weigh? What antidote was there? Eventually, the spasms ceased. The soon-to-be uncolorful birds lay still on the newspaper lining the bottom of their cage.

No doubt the Station sold cigars because Virginia had used a cigar box for the birds’ coffin. Behind the Station (whose front yard was a slab of triangular concrete narrowing to the intersection of two highways) was a small area with one fairly substantial tree. Beneath it Virginia dug a hole and buried the gauze-wrapped birds side-by-side like Abelard and Heloise.   Dirt thumped upon the lid of the cigar box, Virginia said a few words, and a marker was erected.

She told me that in a few months we could dig them up to see their skeletons, but thankfully, we never did.

My Uncle Jerry and Jack Delk in front of "The Nation Station" in the 1950's

My Uncle Jerry and Jack Delk in front of “The Nation Station” in the 1950’s


* Though grammatically incorrect, “me” sounds so much better then “I.”