Home

Women and men and me

Leave a comment

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.

Advertisements

Mysteries of parents

2 Comments

As a child growing up I, like most people I suppose, accepted everything that happened to me at face value, as being the natural and normal order of things. It didn’t occur to me until much later, far into my adult life as I reflected back on my childhood, how strange, indeed pathological, my childhood was. What were my parents really like behind their respective personas? Is it just me who feels this, or does everyone eventually reach a point at which they suddenly realize that their parents were a mystery, or more accurately, two separate mysteries, to them?

My father and my mother were to a great extent hidden from me behind the parental roles that they played. Neither of them had a clue about child-rearing but I think they both tried to play their parental roles as best they could, as they understood them. But they were just roles. My father’s approach to the family was apparently formed by the culturally-pervasive values of his generation in America, in which conformism and keeping up proper appearances were all-important, and the main (perhaps only) role of the father and husband was to be The Boss of the family. The role of women in a family was to be the minions of their husbands or fathers and to be supportive and carry out their assigned tasks. In our family there was little or no sense of emotional bonding or family cohesiveness, largely due my father’s oppressively overbearing and domineering persona, but also, I’m sure, due to the fact that both my father and mother had grown up in families that had very little significant communication or closeness. I think it must be often that human beings who are more or less strangers to each other get thrown together by the forces of chance, by the accidents of marriage and birth, and live out their lives in uneasy familial relationships with people they don’t really understand.

As I said my father was The Boss and he made sure that we all knew it. It was the sum total of his role within the family and in my life. What was most maddening and frustrating about him was that he apparently believed that his own opinions and preferences must have universal validity and thus ought to be shared by all other right-thinking people. He could be shockingly intolerant, and for the most part I felt bullied and harassed by him. I don’t remember him ever saying anything positive about me, or about my siblings or our mother. Nor did he ever offer any words of comfort or encouragement. As a young person I so thoroughly resented his heavy-handed authoritarianism and his utter disregard for my (or anyone’s) feelings, opinions, or preferences that I grew up with a profound distaste, even antagonism, for all forms of authority. But, as with most people who have been bullied, I also grew up with a great sense of empathy for all those who are unrespected and unacknowledged, those who have little or no status and who seem to be overlooked and ignored by our excessively status-conscious social culture. Though I never had the courage to defy my father openly, a quiet but extremely deep wellspring of rebellion was developing inside of me, which would inevitably grow into a lifelong (mostly peaceful) resistance to authorities of all kinds and to conventional behaviors.

My father and my mother were astonishingly different from each other in every way. They seemed to have no interests in common and no real rapport. One of the great mysteries of our family was how they ever became a couple at all. How does this happen?

As for my mother, it took me a long time to appreciate and fully comprehend how extraordinary and interesting she was. She was a mostly quiet person who didn’t draw attention to herself, and she, like most women of her generation, deferred to her husband in all things, at least in those ways that were outwardly apparent. But she was also extremely smart and had an unusually wide-ranging and inquisitive intellect. When I was a young kid I assumed my mother was just an ordinary housewife and mother, but eventually I noticed that there was something unusual about her when I started to take note of her books. She had a lot of them. She had a keen interest in ancient history, the history of religions, Biblical archaeology, the classics of antiquity, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. She also had amazingly wide-ranging interests in literature. She had a tremendous appetite for everything literary, from the classical to the avante-garde. Especially intriguing was her collection of counter-culture, “subversive” literature. She had read all of the Beats, especially Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. She had a great interest in Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. She was fascinated by the Autobiography of Malcolm X. She read contemporary satirists like Tom Wolfe. She was interested in everything, but especially in points of view that were outside the mainstream and that challenged long-established cultural orthodoxies. Underneath her humble housewife persona she had this sharp and rebellious mind. It took me a long time to realize that my mother was a little unusual and that other kids’ moms probably were not knowledgeable about the history of the medieval Church, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the satires of Juvenal, the histories of Livy, or the philosophy of Schopenhauer as mine was.

Much later in my life, in middle-age, I remembered with a sense of awe and also some perplexity those bookshelves of my mother’s. I realized that all along there must have been a much deeper and more extensive mental world going on within her, a world I wished that I could have known better. Of course, we talked from time to time about her literary/historical/philosophical interests, and it was actually during such talks that I felt most connected to her. Perhaps it was her instinctive and habitual emotional reserve that led her into this quiet and solitary passion for inquiry, this lifelong private exploration of the whole world of ideas. I wish now that somehow I could have followed her more in her mental explorations, participated in them more with her.

While my father could be an extremely difficult man, I had very conflicted feelings about him. His lack of regard for me and my siblings and our mother was infuriating, but I came to see that it was not really direct malice on his part but instead a strange lack of ability to see others as complete human beings, probably because of his upbringing and his cultural conditioning that had trained him into such habits of mind. It was like some weird kind of disorder of perception, a huge blind spot in his way of perceiving others that made it impossible for him to see another person except in terms of his own preconceived ideas and his personal likes and dislikes. His own personality imposed itself on everything he saw and experienced in an automatic way, as if it were the most natural thing for him. I have often wondered how a person gets to be that way. What strange forces in his own family and his own upbringing shaped his personality to be like this?

On the other hand, as maddening and frustrating as he could be, he did have some admirable qualities. He had a great respect for learning and for genuine skill, although unlike my mother he was much more interested in technological and scientific knowledge than cultural. He was scrupulously honest and his integrity was sincere and unaffected. He took on challenging tasks without fear or hesitation. He was generous in contributing his help to his friends and neighbors. He was extraordinarily competent in many skills in which I felt I was, and probably always would be, painfully deficient. He was apparently capable of fixing anything and building anything. He knew his way around the world. He didn’t seem to ever doubt his own ability. He had an amazing ability to take the initiative in difficult situations. What was really awe-inspiring about my father was that he just seemed to assume that he was capable of doing anything that he needed to do, and so he approached each thing to be done with a calm confidence, and he did it. In fact he seemed to know how to do everything except how to get along with and communicate with other people. I was simultaneously awed and infuriated by him. At times I desperately wanted to emulate him and at other times I wanted to be the exact opposite of him. Sometimes these feelings coexisted simultaneously. To say that I felt conflicted would be a great understatement.

My father and my mother were these too strangely mismatched, utterly incompatible people, brought together by who knows what mysterious chance events and random forces. And I, in an agonizingly difficult process, somehow grew up into a weird, awkward amalgam of the two of them, and other strange things as well, perhaps destined to always be incompatible even with my own self.

An anniversary

Leave a comment

It was exactly 5 years ago to this day that my former girlfriend (whom I call Laurie in my book Meet Me in the Distance), in a fit of rage, told me to move out of her house. This is a date which has taken on some significance in my mind, an anniversary of sorts. It marked a traumatic upheaval in my life certainly, although by that point in my life (I was 57) I’d experienced plenty of traumatic upheavals in my life and had gotten through them. But this one was qualitatively different. Much more than the bitter fact of the trauma, I have come to see this date as the beginning of a strange new rebirth, of a new broadening and deepening of my ways of looking at everything: at myself, at other people, and of a sweeping reevaluation of all of my assumptions and values. The beginning of a falling away of my old life and old identity. Sometimes trauma can have the unexpectedly positive effect of helping you to cast off your old, burdensome psychological baggage, which was the case for me.

That day, Dec 5 2010, as painful as it was, set me on a strange, intense, and strangely beautiful path of creative and psychological exploration which has led me here, to the great love of my life, in this beautiful little town, and to this quiet life of peaceful, ordinary human joy and love that I could not have imagined 5 years ago. The difference between the person I was back then and the person I am now is hard to comprehend.

 

Becoming transparent with Sharon Olds

1 Comment

In 1999 things were going poorly between my wife Alice and me. I didn’t know what would happen, but I felt increasingly alienated from Alice, and to some extent alienated even from my own life, from the world. I still tried my best to be good to Alice but it was clear that we were becoming strangers to each other.

Summer. I was trying to find something to do with myself, something that might help me regain a sense of my own identity. I had applied to take a 5 day poetry workshop led by Sharon Olds at the Omega Institute. I had to submit some of my poems along with the application. I got a call back informing me that my application was accepted. I packed up my stuff and said goodbye to Alice, and drove across the state to the little town of Rhinebeck where the Omega Institute was located. The accommodations I stayed in at Omega were rather primitive, one of the so-called dorms. It was a small wooden building of apparently ancient construction. My room just contained a bed and a chair nothing else, and there was a communal bathroom at the end of the hall. But the Omega campus in general was beautiful and elegant. I loved just walking around in it, along winding paths that connected the buildings and went through beautiful gardens, with ponds, trickling fountains, and surrounding woods. All of the people I saw there were friendly, peaceful, and apparently quite happy. Remarkably so. There was a pervasive atmosphere of peace, trust, and friendship. It put in sharp contrast the life back home I had just come from in which there had been such an emotional climate of resentment and anxiety prevalent in our household.

Sharon Olds was quite an interesting person. She was unusually calm and poised, and expressed herself with extraordinary clarity. She was very accepting of everyone. She was also a very careful and keenly attentive listener. She was like a Zen monk or something. Her plan for the workshop was for each participant (about 20 of us) to try to write two new poems each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and present them to the whole group at workshop meetings. For me, a poet whose productivity was usually only about one poem per month, this seemed like an insanely ambitious schedule, but I entered into it gamely.

I quickly found a regular daily routine. I would get up early, go to the little meditation center and sit in zazen for about a half-hour, then go to the dining hall and have breakfast. Then go and find a place to sit outside and try to write a poem. Hopefully I would actually come up with one. Then would be time for the workshop meeting. The group all sat around in a big circle. Each person in turn read his or her poem, and the person to their right would make a brief comment on it, and the person to their left would also comment. That was the workshop routine. Often Sharon herself would comment. When she did I was often amazed at her great perspicacity. She was very accepting of everything and did not criticize, but did point out things she thought were particularly interesting. I realized that what she was trying to do was to create an environment in which people could feel encouraged to be creative and totally free to express themselves without fear of censure of any kind. Sharon encouraged people to express themselves with complete openness. It seemed like an experiment in radical self-expression, certainly not your typical poetry workshop.

After the morning workshop we broke up for lunch, then after lunch I found another place to sit and work on trying to write another poem. Then the group got back together again for the workshop circle. After that I had dinner in the dining hall, then after dinner took a brief swim in a beautiful lake, then spent about a half-hour sitting in the sauna with some of the other Omega participants. After showering I went to the little cafe and had a soft drink and read a book for a while. It was a pretty full day.

So each day was like this. Everything was luminous to me. I felt each day intensely, I was dazzled by everything I saw and heard and felt. It was like my body was full of electricity. I had left my old life behind completely, as if I had suddenly been propelled out of my old life with tremendous energy. Sitting in a garden at Omega, in the brilliant sunshine, striving to write a new poem within just a couple of hours was an experience of strangely joyous struggle. And with everything I experienced throughout the day I imagined I had become transparent, and all the light of the world could pass through me, and everyone could see everything that was in me. I had no secrets from the world, and the world had no secrets from me.

At the end I had to go home, but I was different. I could no longer lie to myself and pretend that Alice and I had a good relationship when we really didn’t.

In search of connection

Leave a comment

I’ve been reading a great book on the neurophysiology of the emotions, called The Archaeology of Mind, by Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven.  It’s a fascinating and enlightening book that illuminates how our psychology is dependent on an underlying substrate of “hard-wired” neurological emotive systems, which are actually common to all mammals.  But one chapter of the book in particular I found to be particularly interesting from a personal point of view.  That’s the chapter on what Panksepp calls the PANIC/GRIEF brain system, which is the neurophysiological basis for what is commonly thought of as “separation anxiety.”  In the process of describing the functioning of the PANIC/GRIEF system, Panksepp goes on to talk about the crucial importance of children receiving loving care, including affectionate touching, from their parents as they develop, as this is crucial to healthy brain development.  And this is not only important for human children but for all mammals, as has been demonstrated in many psychological experiments.  For example, rats who are isolated from other rats from birth will inevitably develop severe anxiety and other affective disorders.  Reading this made me think about my own childhood and upbringing, and the subsequent difficulties I’ve had for most of my life.  I was raised by parents who were never affectionate toward me. This is probably because both of them came from dysfunctional families that were lacking in affection.  I grew up experiencing an utter lack of connection to other people, as if I lived alone in a world of my own.  I also suffered chronic anxiety, at times almost debilitating, for most of my life.  As Panskepp points out in the book, this is typical of children who were raised in a family in which affection was lacking. Most such children suffer serious emotional disorders, possibly for their entire lives, as a result of being starved for affection in early childhood.  So when I look back on my own long struggles to come to grips with my emotional issues, I see my own pathological emotional development, as problematic as it has been for me, as the totally natural response of my developing nervous system to the environment in which I was raised.  It has taken me a very, very long time to overcome that and to get a grip on my own emotional life.

All my life I felt I was searching desperately for something but didn’t know what it was.  After decades of struggle I understand now that what I was searching for all along was connection.  To feel connected to other people, to meaningful activities, and to the world at large.  Connections are intangible but they are crucially important, in fact they are the very substance of one’s life.  It’s vital to pay attention to them and to nurture them.  I count myself very fortunate now to have a life with lots of great connections, to my wife, to my friends, to my relatives, to my creative work, to the town in which I live.  A life filled with connections is a full life.

House of sadness, house of love

Leave a comment

This is the story of a house.  It was a small and pleasant place, right off of Highway 366 in the little community of Varna, just east of Ithaca. The best thing about it in my opinion was that the back yard bordered on a vast expanse of natural land, owned by Cornell University, which had been set aside as a nature preserve. It was idyllic and beautiful there, with wooded hills, hiking trails, and a beautiful creek that was ideal for swimming on hot summer days.

Unfortunately the house came to acquire a great deal of sadness. My wife and I bought the house in the late spring of 1996. By 1999 our relationship had deteriorated painfully and we separated, with me moving to a small apartment for a while. Eventually I bought out her share of the house, she moved out and I moved back into it by myself. I fell in love with another woman named Laurie, and we eventually had a traumatic breakup. Then I became involved with yet another woman, Jill, whom I loved and who moved into the house with me, only to have that relationship come to a painful and bitter end about a year after she moved in.

I had been so fond of the house and its connection to all of the beautiful natural lands nearby, but as a result of my experience I came to feel that the house had become too filled with sorrow. After Jill moved out I imagined, just walking around the house or the yard, that I could feel the weight of all of the accumulated sorrows that had passed through there. For me the house had become too suffused with sadness and I could not escape it. Finally I sold the place. Whereas once I had delighted in that house, I had come to be profoundly weary of it.

The house is now owned by a lesbian couple with kids, dogs, and cats. These ladies have done an amazing job of remodeling the house, doing almost all of the work themselves. I don’t know them well but the impression I get is of a happy and loving family who are enjoying their life together in that house. I am so pleased that that place, for so long a house of sadness, has finally become a house of love after all.