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The psychic

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[1984]: I met JoEllen at Help Line. She was another of the volunteers there. I didn’t know her very well but she seemed likable enough. She was in her 50s, a genial and gentle person with a direct, penetrating gaze. She was unpretentious and had a whimsical sense of humor. She also had a reputation as a psychic. She herself didn’t make a big deal out of her supposed psychic ability, and in fact very rarely mentioned it, but other people at Help Line believed that she had such ability. Actually no one else made a very big deal out of it either, everyone acted like it was just one of the things that was characteristic of her, one of many characteristics a person might have, like being a good golfer or having great taste in clothes.

Every once in a while, sometimes at a Help Line party, JoEllen would agree to do psychic readings for whoever wanted one. At such times she would dress up in a gypsy sort of costume, but the costume was intended in a whimsical spirit and she didn’t really take herself all that seriously as a real fortune-teller. At one of these events, a Help Line party at the home of one of the volunteers, I had JoEllen do a psychic reading for me. I think it must have been at the suggestion of one of my Help Line friends, as I’m sure I was too shy to initiate it myself.

While everyone else was partying elsewhere in the house JoEllen was in a back room sitting on a cushion. She was dressed in some kind of robe and had her hair tied up in a red scarf, and had many copper and silver bracelets all over both forearms that made tinkling sounds when she moved. She invited me to sit on a cushion in front of her. She was relaxed and confident, as if sitting on that cushion in that room was the most natural place in all the world for her to be and she had all the time in the world to just sit there. She sat quietly in front of me with her hands in her lap and her eyes closed for what seemed a long time, though it was probably only a couple of minutes. Her face assumed an expression of thoughtful concentration. Then she spoke.

“You are very unusual,” she said. She paused, seeming to search for the best way to formulate her thoughts. “What I am sensing is an unusual spirit, the spirit of a person whose heart is committed to a higher world, a person who has the soul of a monk or a priest.” She paused again, apparently in great concentration and searching for the right words. “But a monk or a priest who is not afraid of getting messy and who has decided, for whatever reason, to live an un-monklike and un-priestlike life among ordinary people.”

I didn’t quite know what to make of this. JoEllen didn’t really know me very well, and yet there was something about what she said that struck a very deep chord in me and gave me an uncanny feeling of recognition. Was it because I wanted to be the kind of person she described? Or was it because I was afraid of being such a person? I wasn’t sure.

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Help Line

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[1982-1984]: Looking back on this experience so many years later it seems an odd and uncharacteristically bold thing that I did, to join this telephone crisis counseling service, Help Line, as a volunteer. At the time I just felt the need to take on a challenge of some sort, because I was tired of my usual routine and felt “stuck,” needing to change my life somehow, and I also hoped that by taking on something challenging I might learn more about myself.

So I plunged rather recklessly, as it seems to me now, into this new adventure. It did in fact turn out to be a significant learning experience. I learned something about principles of good communication, and I learned how terribly vulnerable people can be, and that people’s true inner lives are generally very different from their public personalities. Help Line changed my way of looking at people. Up until then I’d never really thought about what people are like underneath their outward appearances, but after getting so many calls from people pouring out all of their secret sorrows and fears, people suffering and often deeply in conflict with themselves, I came to have a greater intuitive feeling for what human nature was, for the great complexity and difficulty of the inner conflicts that almost all of us carry around with us.

When I was on my shift in the phone room I felt I was part of a huge web, composed of the invisible inner lives of all the people in the city, people confused and not knowing what to do about themselves. What must drive a person to call up a total stranger on the phone and talk about his or her personal problems? Even though just a very small percentage of the population of the city actually called us I had the feeling that they must be representative of the general population. I wondered if maybe there was really no one who was well and happy after all, but that all were secretly suffering in some way or other. We were all in it together, whether friend or stranger, talking, listening, needing help, trying to help.

Many of the calls were low-urgency, being mainly requests for information,and many more calls were from people who were troubled by relationship and communication issues such as problems with a spouse, partner, child, parent, or sibling, and who were looking for someone to talk it out with. On such calls I tried to take a (hopefully) common-sense approach and try to help the caller see his or her situation more clearly, to bring them back down to reality and try to get them to focus on what was really going on. As a volunteer one had to resist the temptation to be overly directive and try to “fix” the caller’s problem. Only a very few of the calls were of a crisis nature and those could be challenging, such as the fellow who called, drunk and upset, and said he had just found out that his wife had been having an affair with a friend of his. He said he had a gun and was planning to kill them both. Fortunately I was able to talk him down from this and let him see for himself that this was not a good idea.

I only did Help Line for three years, as it eventually did start to become too routine and a little wearisome to me. But they were good years, years of personal expansion and learning for me. I helped some people and I made many friends among the other volunteers. I learned that I was not as neurotic and screwed-up as I thought I had been, that I was, though somewhat troubled and awkward, basically okay, as was everyone. And that everyone was essentially incomplete and searching, sometimes desperately, for the missing parts of themselves. I felt more connected to other people. I came to have a lot of respect, even a reverence, for people’s vulnerable souls.

To enter the dark marriage

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[1982-1983]: I was living in Pensacola, working as a programmer and still feeling aimless and disconnected from other people, as I had in fact all my life. I had been seeing a counselor at the University of West Florida, a gracious and kind young woman named Susan who had a wisdom far beyond her years. One of the things she told me in the course of my many sessions with her was about the importance of being open to trying different things in my life, so that I could find out for myself which things worked out well for me and which things didn’t. She said it was important to keep the spirit of experimentation alive in one’s life so as to avoid getting stuck in a stagnant life. This meant being unafraid to meet new people and to have new experiences, even if you have to push yourself a little bit outside of your comfort zone (actually I never really had a comfort zone, so for me to push myself to do something that made me feel a little uncomfortable was not much of a stretch). In other words it’s unwise to try to stick to playing a safe game all the time. This advice rang true for me, and I took it to heart. One of the things I decided to try, which seemed quite bold to me at the time, was to volunteer at a local community mental health center as a volunteer telephone crisis counselor. I thought it might be an interesting learning experience. I took the training class and then I started doing it, taking the calls, and it turned out to be a fascinating, though sometimes challenging, experience. I learned a great deal about human communication in the course of doing this volunteer work and I developed some great friendships with my fellow phone counselors. The volunteer group even became like a family to me.

Eventually I had enough experience in phone counseling that I was asked if I’d like to lead a training group of new volunteers. I did, and one of the people in my first training group was Diana, a divorced mother of three kids who worked as a data-entry clerk at the Navy base. She was clearly very smart and talented, with an engaging wit and a charming smile, and I thought she liked me. After the end of the group training I called her and we went out on a date.

Over the course of a few dates I became increasingly impressed with Diana’s brilliance and creativity. We always had interesting things to talk about. It seemed sad to me that she had been relegated to such a stupid job as a data-entry clerk, just entering numbers into a computer screen all day every day, when she obviously had a great deal of intellectual and creative potential.

Whenever we were together our conversation seemed to take on a life of its own, drawing both of us into it, with an energy and momentum that carried us along. It was a close and engaging rapport such as I’d never experienced with anyone before. Diana did mention at one point that she used to be under the care of a psychiatrist, when she was going through a period of great stress after her previous husband had left her for another woman. I wasn’t at all put off by this revelation, in fact I felt an increased admiration for her because she had been through some difficult life challenges and had overcome them. After all, I too had suffered a great deal of emotional difficulty in my younger life so I felt that I could relate to her troubles. We were two kindred spirits, two people who had been through a lot of emotional crap and had (mostly, I thought) overcome it.

So we became a couple. In the course of our dating though I started to notice a few things about Diana. She was mostly very positive in her outlook and in her emotional demeanor, but every once in a while she had attacks of acute anxiety and depression. Sometimes she became very upset about her job, sometimes she was upset about her kids, but sometimes she was upset for no reason that I could see. It was also clear that she still had a lot of emotional distress about trauma from her past, especially her two ex-husbands who had both dumped her, and about the death of her father.

I loved Diana but I felt frustrated and helpless at these times when she was in such emotional difficulty, and of course I wanted to help. Unfortunately I was at a loss as to what I could do to help her. In my naïve and idealistic romantic way I hoped that my presence in her life would be an emotionally stabilizing and positive influence, and that in time she would learn to relax and enjoy her life. After all she was obviously very intelligent and so it must become clear to her eventually that there was really nothing to be upset about, right? So I thought. I thought the natural way of things was for us to inevitably become closer and to be joined by a bond of understanding, and that certainly took a certain amount of time to develop so I had to be patient. Sometimes Diana’s responses really puzzled me though, such as the times when she became fearful because I had expressed a liking for a book or a movie or a work of art that she didn’t like or didn’t understand. Her anxiety response seemed out of proportion to the thing she was anxious about.

As things went on, there were a few times when I would find Diana sunk into such profound despair that it actually scared me. At these times she would sometimes blame her depression and anxiety on her job, which was tedious and stupid for sure but then most people probably work at tedious and stupid jobs, don’t they? So it seemed to me. Sometimes, and with increasing frequency, she blamed, with a great deal of accompanying rage, these deep dark moods on her kids. I found this to be especially disturbing because I thought this blaming of the kids was completely undeserved, and furthermore no mother should have such hostility toward her own kids.

But Diana could also be charming, warm, witty, and full of enthusiasm. Everyone who met her liked her. I was probably the only one other than the children who knew of the other aspect of her personality, the strange dark depths of her. All along I kept expecting that she must eventually come to a point where should would be able to relax and just enjoy her life. But her “episodes” continued. We had agreed to marry but I was developing some misgivings about it. I felt a great sense of responsibility and commitment to my fiance. I couldn’t abandon her. Yet I had the growing feeling that I might very well be heading into a very difficult, and maybe even disastrous, situation. I was committed and felt that it wasn’t possible for me to change the path I was on. I was like a train on a track heading toward something that might or might not turn out to be a wreck, but there was no turning back.

A few days before we were to be married, feeling great anxiety about the coming marriage and in need of some kind of reassurance, I called a woman a knew named Leah, a friend (in whom I had no romantic interest) and fellow volunteer from the crisis counseling service. I asked her if she would take a walk with me. It was early spring and the weather was clear, cool and very windy. We met in downtown Pensacola and walked down South Palafox Street down to the pier that goes out over Pensacola Bay. I can’t remember now what Leah and I talked about but I think it was probably nothing of any great importance. I was very anxious about my relationship with my fiance and the upcoming marriage but I don’t think I talked about that. I think I just made small talk. What I remember most was a beautiful day of brilliant sunshine, and the winds whipping up whitecaps in the bay as we walked, and pelicans hovering in the wind over the pier, and that for a little while I was in the presence of someone who simply cared about me and respected me. That was all. Nothing big and deep, it was just a matter of being with a good person who allowed me to be myself. But just to be in the presence of such a friend was an enormous comfort to me. I never forgot it, after the marriage to Diana and the terrible divorce that followed, and even after all the subsequent bad relationships and painful breakups, so very many sad experiences, all down through the years. It’s strange how some very small and apparently insignificant act of caring can stand out large in one’s memory after so long a time. After all the years of sorrow I would still remember that brief walk in the sun and the wind.

Women and men and me

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From early in my life I thought there was something very strange and perplexing about male attitudes toward women. I found this troubling. Even as a young kid in my teens I noticed, in hanging out with my male peers, that much of their talk was about ridiculing girls and putting them down. Why was that? Among all these young guys there was certainly a great deal of talk about sex, accompanied by all the absurd bravado typical of teenage males. At that age all of my male friends were certainly naïve about sex but they tried very hard to act like they weren’t, and almost all of their sex talk was combined with disturbingly contemptuous dismissals of all of the girls they knew. I wanted to understand what was going on. I felt like a social outcast and I was trying hard to learn to fit in with my peers and to be a normal person, but I felt confused and out of touch, as if I were a stranger in a foreign culture I had little understanding of. The social world I was trying to fit into was bizarrely paradoxical. I could see that my male friends desired women, but at the same time they despised them. That made no sense.

In the interests of trying to fit in I made a few half-hearted attempts to join in the male sexual banter, so generally contemptuous of women, that I heard going on around me, but it didn’t feel right to me. I felt very much an oddball, clunky and out of sync with the male culture but also, in time, with the whole American culture that seemed so often to foster inhumane attitudes. It seemed that a great deal of what passed for normal social behavior just consisted of various ways of putting other people down and of aggrandizing oneself.

Later in life I encountered a lot of casual sexism in many of the places I worked, such as when I was a sailor in the Navy, certainly, and later as a civilian in workplaces that were predominantly male. Eventually I realized these behaviors were the natural result of male sexual insecurity and its accompanying labyrinthine psychological complex of interrelated fears and resentments. There is a great sadness at the heart of it, the sadness of alienation. I definitely had such insecurities myself but I just couldn’t bring myself to join in with contemptuous treatment of other people, whatever their gender. So I resigned myself to always being something of an odd person. Looking back on my experience I regret now that I never had the courage to confront the sexist rhetoric (and other expressions of bigotry) when I encountered it among my peers.

And I still feel, as I have all my life, that a large part of what’s commonly accepted as “normal” human behavior makes no sense and is not only inhumane but also ultimately self-defeating. For some reason it’s always been my nature to be a kind of social outlier, standing a little bit outside of the normal world of people, looking in and trying to figure out what the hell is going on in there, and why it is that people do the things they do.

Onboard

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[1973-1977] The ship was monumentally huge but inside it everything, with the exception of the hangar deck (where they stored the aircraft), seemed crowded and cramped. Most of the passageways were narrow and in many of them you had to duck your head to avoid bumping into pipes and conduits that passed overhead. So as soon as I reported on board I started to feel claustrophobic.

Life on the ship consisted of long, long hours of tedious work and crushing boredom. When I was not working there was really nothing to do so I just worked a lot, sometimes even more than the usual 12-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week at-sea work shift. As a neophyte technician in the ship’s data processing division I started out as a card-punch operator, basically just a tedious data-entry job, but was soon promoted to computer operator. Since there was really nothing else to do besides work, to amuse myself in my spare time I learned programming by reading Navy manuals, first assembler language and then COBOL.

When we were at sea the incoming work load for the data processing division was often more than our little group of technicians could handle, even with the 12-hour shifts. I worked extra hours trying to keep up, especially if there was a particularly urgent job in the works, which was often. I became used to functioning on not quite enough sleep and being chronically fatigued. When we were at sea I lost the sense of being a human. Most of the time I was like a machine, focused only on doing the work and not caring about anything else. I felt completely cut off from the world. I was probably suffering the psychological symptoms of prolonged sensory deprivation from working so many long hours for many days (sometimes weeks) without respite, in cramped and crowded conditions without seeing the sun or the sky. There was nothing to look forward to. For me it was all about just trying to get by from one day to the next. The guys I worked with were a very mixed lot. Some of them were pretty smart guys and some of them were appalling, at least at first. There were men who had spent time in prison for armed robbery, there were drug dealers, pimps, and some who seemed to have some serious mental problems. But in time I ceased to make distinctions among them, because there was simply no point in doing so, and I just accepted everyone for what they were.

I complained a lot about shipboard life, all of us did. But there was another side of it for me. I think that in a way it was what I secretly wanted, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I was 19 years old and still suffering from the long-term effects of my father’s bullying and psychological abuse. I was alienated from my father but more importantly I was also alienated from myself. I felt a profound, instinctive urge to try to escape from my own life. Being on the ship was actually an ideal way to do that. I had indeed escaped from my life into something strange and difficult. I was no longer the person I had been, and I wasn’t sure yet who the new person was that I was turning into.

The ship

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After boot camp I went to Navy data processing technician school in San Diego. This was in the summer of 1973. Microcomputers had not yet been invented and computers, even the simplest ones, were huge machines that took up entire rooms. Almost all data processing was done using punched cards. I learned how to operate a card-punch machine to enter data and how to use a card-sorter and a card interpreter (which read the holes in the cards and printed the text meaning of the holes on the cards). I also learned how to operate a primitive shipboard computer called the Univac 1500.

At the end of data processing school we students had the opportunity to request, with no guarantee of our choice being granted, what duty station we’d like to be sent to. My first choice was Naval Air Station, Keflavik, Iceland. I had been thinking that I’d rather not have to go to sea and so shore duty would be preferable if I could get it, although you might very well ask why I had joined the Navy at all if I had an objection to going to sea. I have no answer for that. Apparently at the time I joined up I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. Anyway I thought I was being clever by choosing a place like Keflavik, Iceland because I figured a place like that was probably someplace that NO ONE wanted to go, so if they saw I deliberately chose the place they would certainly pick me to go there, right? I felt confident that they would send me to Keflavik, so much so that I went to the base library and started looking up what information I could find about Iceland, which turned out to be a fascinating country. I even tried to learn a few words of the Icelandic language.

When my orders came I was mightily disappointed to see that I was not going to Iceland after all. I had been assigned to the USS Saratoga, an aircraft carrier whose home port was Mayport, a small town on the northeast coast of Florida near Jacksonville. Although the ship’s home port was in Florida it was at that time undergoing a long overhaul and was in drydock at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia.

I reported to the ship on a very hot day in late summer, walking through the grimy, sooty, gray shipyard feeling ridiculous in my bright white dress uniform, with sweat dripping off of me and struggling to carry my seabag containing all my uniform clothes over my shoulder. I found the ship in its drydock berth. I had never seen anything that big before. It was a vast dark gray monster, resting on enormous blocks in the drydock. There were many men working on the hull in various places, accompanied by smoke, steam, the glare of many welding torches and the sounds of loud machinery and grinding tools. I walked along the pier adjoining the ship for a while before I finally found the place where I could come aboard. I climbed up the ramp and stopped and showed my military ID card and my paperwork to the officer of the watch. I knew I was beginning a new phase of my life, probably a very strange and difficult one, and that I was entering a world to which I really did not belong, not at all.

Into the Navy

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I was on active duty in the U. S. Navy from May 1973 to May 1977. I had not originally intended to join the military. In fact when I was young I had always had a great aversion to all kinds of authoritarian institutions, especially the military which I vaguely imagined to be like my father only on a much larger scale. But the real world was not inclined to adapt itself to my personal likes and dislikes. Back then the Vietnam War was still going on and even though the Pentagon had just begun a long, slow process of troop reduction in Vietnam, the fact was that they were still drafting people into the Army. And at that point it was hard to tell how much longer the war might go on. Though the American military forces were supposedly drawing down in Vietnam, it seemed quite possible that the inscrutable, shadowy military leaders in the Pentagon might change their minds and decide to go back full force into the war again. Who could tell what might happen?

I turned 19 in 1972 and became eligible for the draft. At that time they were drafting young men according to a lottery system. A date was picked at random and all the 19 year old men who were born on that date and who eligible to be drafted were called up into the Army. Then a second date was picked at random and all the 19 year-olds born on that date were drafted, and a third date was picked, and the process continued until the Army had acquired its needed quota of new soldiers. They actually picked the dates by drawing little slips of paper out of a rotating drum, and you could watch the process on television.

My birthdate is July 21. When the next draft lottery was held after I turned 19, I was of course keenly interested in the results of this lottery because more than anything I did not want to go into the military, to which I felt a profound antipathy. The lottery was held and my birthdate was the fifth one picked. My heart sank when I learned of this. I knew I was going to be drafted, it was inevitable. I broke the news to my father, who seemed irritated and impatient with me as if it were somehow my fault that my birthdate got picked in the lottery.

I think he didn’t mind so much the idea of me joining the military but he was against me going to war in Vietnam, which he thought was a war that had no purpose. He himself had been in the Navy in the South Pacific in World War Two and was proud of his Navy service. He wasn’t opposed on principle to going into combat but he thought to go into combat and be placed in danger for no good reason, such as in Vietnam, was stupid, which was one of the very few things that he and I agreed on.

I decided to look into alternate types of military service, something not in the Army. Hopefully there would be less, perhaps even NO, chance of going into combat if I joined the Air Force or the Navy. I talked to an Air Force recruiter and a Navy recruiter. I got the impression that the Navy perhaps had better service schools than the Air Force so I picked the Navy, foolishly not stopping to consider that this meant that I would probably have to go to sea. When I signed up the recruiter asked me what type of technical specialty I wanted to go into. At the time I was becoming curious about computers and data processing, having taken just one elementary course in data processing at the local community college, so I chose the Navy Data Processing Technician school. This became the start of my “career,” if you could call it that, in the computer technology industry, from which I finally retired in 2015.

But first I had to go to Navy boot camp, and get through it, a prospect that filled me with dread. I entered Basic Training at the Naval Training Center, San Diego, in May of 1973. I was terrified. I was a severely neurotic kid, so riddled with chronic, generalized anxiety I couldn’t think straight, scared of everything, and with serious psychological issues concerning authority. I didn’t really understand authority, it felt alien and irrational to me and basically antithetical to my nature. I had serious doubts about my ability to function in such a system as the U. S. Navy. Would I have some kind of breakdown, go completely bonkers when subjected to the pressures of living and working within this (to me) strange and illogical authoritarian system? On the surface it would appear to be no big deal. Navy Basic Training consisted of a lot of marching, and going to classes where we learned about how the Navy works, things like military etiquette, conventions of shipboard life, firefighting and damage control, first aid and other practical topics. Of course we also were subjected to a great deal of harassment and verbal abuse from the trainers, especially from the company commander, a petty officer first class, a rednecky kind of guy who spoke with a lisp because he had lost his two front teeth (according to him in a bar fight in Puerto Rico). He was blustery and impulsive and gave off an impression of barely-contained violence. He screamed at us a lot. I was genuinely frightened of him. I thought he might be crazy and that there was a possibility he might actually kill me. I wondered, does the Navy know that they have this crazy nut working as a boot camp company commander? We recruits were screamed at pretty much all the time, and it was difficult for me to deal with it. At one point I even approached the company commander and asked him if I could get put out of the Navy because I was not psychologically fit for it. He declined. I think he actually took pity on me at that point and, uncharacteristically for someone I had taken to be a neanderthal and a savage, took the time to explain to me why it wouldn’t be possible for me to get out of the Navy. At that point he actually seemed, momentarily, like a pretty sensible person.

Much later, after boot camp it was explained to me by other Navy people I met that the kind of psychological tricks and the techniques of intimidation that were practiced on the recruits by the trainers were intended to break down the recruits’ resistance and make them more pliable and obedient, eradicating any tendencies toward individuality that might lead to rebellion. I could understand that from a strategic point of view, although it also seemed obvious to me that some of the trainers got a certain amount of sadistic satisfaction from treating the recruits like shit, and that didn’t really seem like discipline to me. It just looked like sadism under the guise of discipline. Much later in my life I came to see that sadism masquerading as discipline is a common theme throughout our American culture, in fact it seems to be a longstanding American tradition.

Looking back on that boot camp experience after so many years, I see clearly how laughably absurd it was, how very stressed I became over something that was really just a lot of trivialities covered over by a thin facade of bluster and tough talk. I can see that what they actually did to us was not so awful, but they made us think that they were doing something awful, or were about to do something awful. It was mostly about trying to scare us and intimidate us. It was just a game after all.

It took me a few years to realize that there are many similar games going on in various aspects of our society, and that we should try to be alert and recognize them for what they are. Eventually, though it took me quite a while, I learned to stay mentally disconnected from such games and let them go on around me without my participation.

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