A Love Story

You’d think your GPS would simplify your life,
make it easier to find your way,
would remove at least the worry of getting lost
from the welter of possible worries that crowd
around you like the exhaust belching from trucks
and buses as six lanes crowd into three
on the entrance ramp to the Tappan Zee.

It’s odd how comfortable you’ve become
with that automated voice,
how by repetition of phrases like
In a half mile make a right hand turn,
its voice has softened to become her voice
and you start trying out names,
soft names like Sophia to soften her even further.

How unlike other women she is.
No criticism or disappointment when your mind
drifts and you miss your turn.
Even when you ignore her instructions
(you’ve been accused of testing a woman’s love),
no intimation of malice,
no attribution of dark unconscious motives,
no references to your relationship with your mother,
not even a change in inflection
as she recalculates your route, never leaving your side.

Still, there was that time you
followed her instructions to your old girlfriend’s
address in New Hampshire, a woman who loved you
as well as you would let her.
Imagining the poignancy of this bittersweet
reunion, absorbed in intimate details only she would
or could remember, you found yourself in a cul-de-sac
twenty miles from where you were supposed to be.
You cursed her and rued your naiveté
in believing you could trust someone
when you heard her say, You have arrived
at your destination. Your route guidance is now finished!

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To Pause

In the still pond
the dark widening pupil
and mirror’s regret

in the shadow
and flicker beyond
the rustle of leaves

in the shudder before sleep
first light
and dream’s retreat

in the space between waves
and the latch’s click
your footsteps diminish

in the distance drawn near
the empty chair
and the ladle laid on its side

for the story between
the impulse and the act
for whatever cannot be taken back.

My Calling

The door to the bathroom is locked.
Behind it my mother with razors and pills.
I am nine and listen on the other side.

My friends are outside playing. I need
to keep watch. I know she wants
to be gone. I want her to stay.

Between my eyebrows fret breaks
ground. It will build its home there
and one day my face will carry

this story. It will have many
versions, all with me listening
on the other side of a locked door.

A Word Told Me

When Brother Stephen said what he said
my face flushed, ears turned red,
and a flightless bird beat its wings in my chest.

He’d asked for our definition of prayer.
My hand flew up, the other boys stared,
their eyes like cockroaches under lights
scurried for cracks in the floor.

In sixth grade I didn’t know my thoughts
until I spoke them.
Smart mouth! my father snapped
before he slapped my face.
No matter how I tried,
my words would fly before I knew it.

Brother Stephen scanned the room.
My lone arm beat the air above lowered heads.
Resigned to his audience of one,
he called on me and I said,
Since God created everything,
to appreciate anything is a kind of prayer.

His eyes widened and a grin
like wind through fescue
spread across his face.
He looked straight at me and said,
You are very ingenious!

Ingenious?

I didn’t know what it meant,
but heard it settle in the grass.
I picked it up
and cupped it close all afternoon,
cradled to my chest,
listened to it rise and fall,
let it whisper in my ear
and took it home after school.

On Injury, Shame and Resentment

I am always struck by how mundane occurrences in life sometimes hold important information about big issues. The other night, playing bridge online, I became ensnared in a relational drama that taught me something important about revenge.

One of the fascinating things about online bridge is that you are usually playing with complete strangers, often from three different countries, sometimes three different continents. The play takes place in real time where it might be three in the morning and your partner is suffering insomnia or three in the afternoon and someone is killing time at their computer at the end of a workday.

Each player posts a profile of their bidding system and the conventions they use so that their partner and opponents have some idea of what their bidding means. There is a “chat” feature where you can comment to the other players between hands as well as a “private chat” feature so you can communicate without the other players at the table knowing.

My partner made what I thought was a bidding error and after the hand was played, I commented to all the other players that I thought his hand was too strong to make the bid that he did. His bid indicated weakness and we ended up losing the contract and points. No one responded publicly but using the private chat feature one of the opponents let me know he agreed and, responding privately, I acknowledged him.

He then sent me another private message saying “playing dumb and dumber.” I did not respond to this but felt drawn into an alliance. On his profile he is listed as an “expert” though I don’t know how one gets this designation and suspect it is self reported. I’m no expert but consider myself a pretty fair player, mostly lacking in experience and instruction in the finer points.

In any case my new friend continued to comment to me privately from time to time about errors being made and I took it as good-natured griping. A hand came up where I was the declarer. This means that my partner and I had won the contract and it was my responsibility to play the hand and see if I could succeed in securing enough tricks to make the contract. Although I succeeded at making the contract, I played poorly and missed out on extra tricks and extra points. After the hand I commented privately to my newfound friend “I really played that hand poorly!” To this he responded with the question, “Do you know what’s really amazing?”
I said “No. What?”
He said “That you are completely unaware of how stupid you are!”
To this I reflexively responded “Thanks for that!”

I’ve learned from childhood experiences of being bullied to initially try to defuse hostility but I was really stung. While we played the next several hands, I found myself concentrating and playing better. I also scrutinized the “expert’s” play, pointing out errors and reminding him that my partner and I were beating him and his. He responded by claiming his partner was making stupid bids. This was unfortunately true but I taunted “So it’s three stupid people and you!”

Shortly, I left the table to go to bed but was troubled by what had transpired. I couldn’t understand why this had gotten me so worked up. People who pride themselves on their intelligence and are quick to point out other’s foibles are ubiquitous in the online bridge world. There’s also a significant subset of people drawn to bridge with extraordinary math skills who seem somewhat socially inept. Many times I’ve laughed off the evidence of this sort of behavior and sometimes, I’m not proud to say, found it sadly entertaining.

But with this person I wanted to hurt him back, to humiliate and shame him. In short, I wanted revenge and it made no sense to me. The more I thought about this, the more an unwelcome awareness dawned on me. I wanted to feel I was just the aggrieved party and certainly this man’s behavior was at the very least boorish. But what began as a niggling discomfort nibbling at the edge of consciousness, crystallized in my mind. I wanted revenge because the entire experience had shamed me. What I found and find shameful was that I allowed myself to engage in and, at some level, enjoy a secret liaison with this man at the expense of other people. As long as I thought myself a member of his “in club” of smarter than the next guy bridge players, I was more than happy to participate or, at least, silently endorse his criticisms. Only when he informed me that I was not a member of the “select” did I challenge and ultimately turn on him.

This is an admittedly trivial matter but it feels somehow instructive. The dynamics of injury and revenge are complex but I am convinced the desire, even the need, for revenge is mediated by shame. In my case it was the shame of complicity and had virtually nothing to do with any objective harm. Time and again when we examine closely the narrative of victims who remain traumatized we find evidence in their experience of this sense of complicity in the unfortunate events they have experienced. Victims of childhood sexual abuse are often kept silent by the threats of their perpetrators but they also sometimes remain silent because of the shame associated with their sense of complicity. It might be that they felt in some way favored by the perpetrator or betrayed by their own bodily responses to the abuse.

Perhaps the inconsequentiality of the encounter is part of what made it possible for me to deconstruct the experience and see it and my role more clearly. When the kind of cruelty this man exhibited is expressed in more destructive ways with more real injury done to the victimized, finding the kernel of shame or complicity at the heart of the aggrieved’s need for revenge is harder to see.

But without the awareness of shame or complicity, the cycle of injury and revenge is likely to continue and escalate. If we could have reflected on our own shameful behavior in our history and in our dealings in the Middle East, the impulse to revenge disguised as justice that has driven our reaction to 9/11 would have led to more thoughtful and nuanced responses. But our denial was too strong and the revenge we meted out has led to a reciprocal backlash.

The truth is that a person who is unable to experience and acknowledge shame is a dangerous person and especially so if that person happens to be a man. In our culture to acknowledge the role one has played in something going badly is a kind of cultural or political suicide. Among our political leaders and the way the press and the opposition responds to evidence of perpetration or complicity in a failed endeavor reinforces the natural inclination to denial. I say natural because shame does not feel good. But it is necessary to becoming a good human being.

At the heart of our defensiveness and justifications of clearly untenable policies is an inability to acknowledge the shame about whatever role we have played in creating the problem those policies are designed to address. This defensiveness is not surprising because shame is not naturally self regulating. When a child is disciplined by his mother, the negative feeling is not circumscribed by the situation or circumstance. The acute suffering of childhood comes from the experience of being cast out of the Garden of Eden of the parent’s love, an intolerable banishment. It is one of the central tasks for parents to discipline their children (initially, for the child, experienced as shame) and then to contextualize the experience. “You are not bad for wanting ice cream before dinner. Once you’ve eaten dinner, you can enjoy ice cream.”

Without the contextualizing influence of the caregiver, there is the danger of the child becoming stuck in the shame state where their identity forms around the feeling of being bad. The child concludes “I am bad!” Of course, there are those parents who attribute badness to the child. “You little pig always wanting more ice cream!” or the parent who simply indulges the child’s whims. Both of these children are likely to face immense challenges. In the first case they live with the intolerable experience of feeling bad about themselves and the entire DSM (diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders) is filled with the outcome of living with that experience. In the second case the child is left to be disciplined by people or institutions that have no stake in their well-being. If a parent refuses to discipline their child, the child will inevitably be disciplined in a less fair-minded and thoughtful way.

But the experience of shame is global and overwhelming. To become a good human being we need a lot of practice contextualizing and, thereby, regulating it. My reaction to my bridge playing nemesis was pretty measured but I can tell you the feelings were intense. In the absence of the distance enforced by the online nature of our encounter and the work I’ve done to regulate shame and the impulse to revenge, things would have been different. Sadly, I can identify and relate to the primitive sense of retribution that terrorists claim as justification for their actions.

Or perhaps it’s not so sad in that the only way to be restored to our common humanity is through our ability to understand the experience of our enemies that spawns such hideous behavior. Those who have already succumbed to the impulse for revenge in the name of Mohammed, homeland security, national identity or whatever may be lost to us forever. But by acknowledging our own culpability and/or complicity in creating the problem, there is the chance to reach those of our enemies whose desire to end the madness outstrips their desire for revenge.

The next time I went on the bridge website there was a message from my cohort/nemesis. He wanted to let me know yet again that the reason he and his partner did not do well was because “my partner was stupid!” I let him know that I was aware his partner had made mistakes. I said “The truth is we all make mistakes but the way you behaved was mean spirited and that is not the case for everyone. Perhaps you should spend some time looking in the mirror rather that looking for other’s foibles.” I have not heard back.

Next Shot

The most important shot in golf is the next shot.

Ben Hogan

One of the ironies I’ve discovered on becoming the father to grown children is that the lessons I tried to impart in their younger years seem to come back to me from them as I have aged.

I was delighted when my youngest child, Meghan, began to take an interest in golf. In addition to the pure enjoyment of her company and the bond the game creates between parent and child, I would finally have someone to help remove the guilty sting of the inordinate amount of time I stole from my family to pursue my obsession.

Of course, I did not know at the time part of her motivation was to get my wife interested in golf. Meghan, who was the last at home, worried, as youngest children do, that her mother and I would not have enough in common to keep us together when she was no longer around. I only found this out years later once it became clear to her that Eileen and I were reasonably secure and stable empty-nesters.

In any case I introduced Meghan to golf by bringing her with me to a golf lesson. The pro I was working with at the time was a truly eccentric genius who loved teaching kids and I know that first golf lesson still sticks in her mind 15 years later. It was immediately apparent she had real talent. Being the youngest among intensely competitive type A characters bequeathed on her healthy aggression often hidden in the personalities of young women. From the beginning she swung with the kind of abandon I only saw in women who played professionally.

One day shortly after we began to play together she asked, “Dad, can we play golf tomorrow?” For some reason I did not immediately say “Yes!” though, of course, that was the answer but instead embarked on the following Socratic dialogue.

“Meghan, if I say the word “baseball” does that tell you anything about the game of baseball?”
“Sure dad, there are bases and a ball.”
“And if I say the word “basketball” does that tell you anything about basketball?”
To this she pondered for a moment before answering “Well yeah, I guess the hoop and net are a kind of basket and there is a ball.”
“And how about football?” I persisted.
To this she replied “Of course dad, there’s a ball and you kick it.”
Finally I queried “If I say the word “golf” does it tell you anything about the game.”
Now she was stumped and looked at me quizzically.
I said “Right, Meg! There’s nothing in the name of the game that tells you anything about golf. So from now on whenever you want to play golf with me, I want you to ask “Dad can we go play some next shot? because that phrase actually has something to do with and begins to describe the game.

Sadly, Meghan’s interest in the game peaked when she left for college. Ultimate Frisbee, young men and the rigors of an Ivy League education at Cornell left little time for golf. Though we still played the occasional nine holes when she was around in the summer, most of her involvement with golf was as a caddie. Her knowledge of the game, her high professional standards and personal dignity made her an exceptional caddie, one sought out by many members of the golf club in our hometown.

You would think a degree from Cornell in International Agriculture and Rural Development would lead to a better job than manning the cash register at the local gift shop for minimum wage but Meghan graduated in June 2008 and the economy had collapsed. Much as she wanted her caddie days to be behind her, she badly needed the money.

As it turned out her bad luck was lucky for me because she was available to caddie for me in the senior club championship in July that year.

A good part of my golf career was an exercise in frustration in that I often came close to winning but rarely succeeded. Never the most talented player, I prided myself on my intensity and refusal to quit but the truth is I lacked confidence and somehow that always seemed to show itself under pressure.

To defuse the natural tension that precedes a tournament I told myself having Meghan on my bag for the 36 hole stroke play event meant I was in a no lose situation. Regardless of the outcome, we would enjoy each other’s company. Obviously, that was not just a psychological ploy but also true. But, once the tournament began, it did not seem to be working.

Driver, nine iron to 15 feet on the first hole and three putts for bogey. 6-iron to 30 feet on the second hole and three putts for a bogey. Routine pars on the third and fourth holes and a five wood to 20 feet on the fifth hole. So far I’d hit every fairway and every green. I lagged the downhill 20 footer to 2 feet above the hole and missed the tap in. Another bogey. Though my frustration was building, I managed to lace a four iron to the uphill par 3 sixth hole onto the green but on the wrong side of a huge mound that bisected the green.

Unlike the other 5 greens I had hit, this was a truly challenging birdie putt, one anyone would be pleased to two putt. It broke right to left up the steep slope and then hard left to right down the far side of the elephant’s back buried in the middle of the green. In order to get it close you had to just crest the top of the hill and risk the ball coming back down to you but I judged it perfectly. I struck the putt firmly and it crept to the apex of the hill and wobbled over the top, gained speed and slipped past the edge of the cup no more than 2 ½ feet directly below the hole.

I was left with a perfectly straight uphill putt but after 3 three putts in the first 5 holes, my confidence was shaken. I tried to convince myself otherwise but a familiar tightness crept into my chest and I missed it! Now steam was coming out of my ears. Six holes, six greens and four over par! I was storming off the green with my head down towards the seventh tee when Meghan handed me the grip end of my driver before she hurried out to fore caddie. I grabbed the club and pulled away but she held fast to the club head. I pulled again but she wouldn’t let go. At this I finally looked up at her and she said “Dad!”
I said “What Meg?”
More gently now, she said “Dad.”
I said “What Meghan?”
She just looked at me and said “Next shot.”

It’s funny that I can remember those first six holes so well yet can’t remember much about the remaining 30. But I remember vividly that moment with Meghan and the feeling it gave me, one of immense pride in her mixed with gratitude and a kind of deep calm. The tightness in my chest dissolved into warmth. If I had played any role in producing such a splendid and wise young woman, I could not possibly be the failure my foibles at golf led me to believe. That I am vulnerable to such emotional tyranny is a long story and I’m grateful to golf for giving me a safe place to exorcize those demons. But my deeper gratitude is to Meghan for providing me with such a memory.

This event took place many years ago and Meghan has moved on to a fine career in the non-profit world. I would like to report that I have overcome the challenges to my confidence golf seems to continually present. Sadly, I am still a work in progress in this regard but I continue to draw on the lesson Meghan taught me, the one I tried to teach her when I introduced her to golf in the first place.

For the record I went on to play two over par for the next 30 holes and won the event going away.

On Resentment, Writing and Repair

To teach her children about forgiveness a dear friend had her children collect several stones and write on each stone a word to remind them of someone against whom they held a grudge. Each child put the stones in a backpack and carried their backpack on a hike. From time to time they stopped and were invited to remove a stone from their backpack and leave it on the trail.

It is hard to make any declarations about my relationship to my parents. I can say my mother abused me and it would be true but not truer than that she loved me desperately. I can say I could never be close to my father because I so feared him and that would be true but not truer than my memory of his stubbly cheek and his rank aftershave when he let me jump into his arms at the end of his workday.

Even now that they are dead these many years who they were to me and who they are keeps changing. In writing about them I realize I have wanted to fix them in my memory, to make them characters in my story, to know them once and for all and, in that way, to bury them.

In some ways it’s hard to believe they are gone and at the same time that they existed at all. Could memory and imagination create such changes in people who were once real? I, of course, understand that my experience of them does not define them but it has shaped me so profoundly, I think I am owed some license in how they will be remembered.

Why couldn’t my father just have been the imperious self absorbed jerk who deserved the contempt of his military school classmates? I understand the way they seem to have felt about him. But when I saw the evidence of their disdain in his high school yearbook, I couldn’t help but hate them and want to comfort the pain he never showed and perhaps never felt. He was not just cut off from me but from himself. I want to believe caring, for him, must have seemed too big a risk.

His violence towards me created a template in my personality of fear and aggression shot through with my relentless need to please. Not surprisingly, I gained favor with other older men in need of an acolyte. I courted and left several till I found a man even more hurtful than my father. The approval I gained from the kind and generous men who took an interest in me seemed unearned. But when I met Frank, I sensed his approval would mean more. The wound from my father’s mistreatment must have created in me an emotional divining rod for the darkness of other men. In any case I found it in Frank. It seems odd that I can almost forgive my father but feel nothing but enmity for Frank whose approval I so assiduously sought out before he turned all his vicious paranoia on me.

It makes sense to me that I would be a threat to my father, a challenge to his manliness; a foil for his posturing that betrayed his unacknowledged insecurity. I don’t blame myself. I was only a child and an indefatigable, emotionally intense one at that: a poor fit for a man who wanted to be left alone, a man who, if he were to have children at all, was not cut out to be the father of six.

I can forgive my father because he had so much skin in the game. In the distorted or perhaps accurate way abused people think, I believe his violence toward me is evidence of caring. I want to believe his own intense emotionality was so unfamiliar to him, so much a threat, that it came out at me. I can forgive that but I still harbor resentment that he never took responsibility for it. I finally gave up on him when a few years before he died, he refused to acknowledge his violence against me, claiming I was confused.

Of course I am confused but not about that, only about what it means. A son means so much to a father that crazy behavior makes a kind of sense. It doesn’t make it acceptable, just understandable. But I was not Frank’s son, only his patient and protégé and I can’t understand or forgive his treatment of me. Or is it that I can understand but refuse to forgive? After all, his own son was an abject failure. I was the good son working tirelessly for his approval, shielding him from attack, forgiving his frailties. Of course, it’s embarrassing to look back and see how slavishly I courted his good opinion but that does not make it easier to understand why he so strenuously withheld it. I refuse to accept that it was precisely my slavishness that led him to attack me after finally winning his approbation.

To think of him disintegrating into psychosis after having praised my good work so lavishly, suggests a kind of helplessness in him at odds with my experience of malice. I don’t want to think of him as vulnerable. I don’t want to consider the possibility that post polio syndrome was ravishing him. I don’t want to imagine my love for him was more than he could bear. I don’t want to think of the little boy he was, shortly before contracting polio, being scolded by his father for claiming “Dad there are millions of butterflies in the meadow!” Being shamed in that reserved and hyper rational Puritan way by his father’s repeated question: “There are how many butterflies, Frank?” I don’t want to believe that my unabashed pleasure at his hard won praise triggered resentment in him over never getting that kind of praise from his father or mentors. To think of him that way would begin to melt my resentment, to open my heart to him once again.

But I can’t help myself. For me the sequence of the stones in the backpack has been reversed. I can’t write about my resentment without creating the opportunity to let it go. I’ve been carrying these stones for too long. Only by naming them will I be able to put them down.