A psychotherapist thinks out loud about Being Human, and stuff…

Pro Driving Tips, #3

Hello again, fellow drivers!

Here’s the third installment of my “Driving Tips” series, inspired by our Grandson, Michael’s request for some of the pointers I picked up (often the hard way) during my fifteen years of driving inner city buses, as well as a long lifetime of driving in general. Michael, by the way, just passed his driver’s exam, and is a licensed driver. He says these tips helped. I certainly hope so. He’s precious to us all.

The three tips I’m going to give you today have in common, “space”- as in the distance you need to keep between you and other vehicles on the road. Some of them may be new to you, or not, but I hope they will prove useful. You, too, are precious to somebody.

-When stopped in traffic, always leave enough space between you and the vehicle in front of you to allow you to change lanes without backing up.

This is one not many people think of, judging from what I see out there. In stop and go traffic, or at a red light, don’t snuggle up to the rear bumper of the car ahead. Instead, leave yourself enough room to safely change lanes, if you need to. This one comes in particularly handy when the person stopped in front of you tardily puts on his left turn signal (or shows that he’s going to turn without signalling at all- thus earning a special place in driver’s Hell). If you’re too close, you’re stuck until he moves unless you back up, which is not a good idea. If you’ve left yourself room, you can go around him, traffic permitting. A small, “beep” is permitted, as you drive away, but refrain from single finger salutes, however justifiable. Those often do not end well.

-Whenever possible, do not travel with the pack. Maintain room for unexpected behavior, lane changes, etc, by other drivers.

You might already be doing this, but it’s good to be conscious about it. Some law of physics or another says that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, so it follows that staying away from other objects- mobile and, for that matter, immobile- is a good idea. Traffic permitting, stay out of “clumps” of traffic. Let yourself hang back. Don’t drive side-by-side with another vehicle, if you can avoid it. Stuff happens, and it can happen fast, and you’re likely to come out of it better if you’re twenty feet from the other car, rather than six feet.

While we’re on the subject, keep an eye out for erratic drivers, and stay far away from them. I’m talking about drivers who are having trouble staying in their lane, or who slow down to fifty, and then suddenly speed up to seventy, and then back down again. Chances are good that the driver is impaired, somehow- drugs, alcohol, or just a very poor, distracted driver, and you don’t want to be anywhere near them because you don’t know what they’re going to do, any more than they do. Some people advocate for calling the Highway Patrol, to report an erratic driver; others point out that doing so can embroil you in some legal consequences. Use your best judgement, but give them a wide berth, and if you’re feeling charitable, pray they get home without hurting anyone.

-Allow more follow space than you think you need.

This is one of those “ho-hum” things that you got in Driver’s Ed (do they still teach Driver’s Ed? I hope so.), or had to memorize for your driver’s test. It may seem ho-hum, but I guarantee, there is nothing that will scare the crap out of you like suddenly realizing that there is a wall of red tail lights ahead, and you’ve been following too close.

Do I have to even say anything about tail gating? I hope not, but I’ll do it, anyway: do NOT try to intimidate or “push” the vehicle in front of you by riding his back bumper! I’ve spoken earlier, and I’ll say more, about “freeway warfare”, and it demonstrates nothing more than a lamentable level of immaturity. If you do it, stop it. Thank you.

The best, and generally used, formula for follow space is what’s called the “Three Second Rule”: pick a focal point that is parallel to the car in front of you, such as a building or road sign. You then count the seconds it takes you to arrive at that same road point. If you are under three seconds, then you are following too closely and must ease up in order to avoid a collision, or potential pile-up. Practice this one (starting with knowing what “three seconds” is like); make it a habit.

Note that this is a minimum requirement. Add a second or two for increased safety. Once you get used to it, you will notice that your driving experience is much more relaxed, because you’ve given yourself another few seconds to react to what’s ahead, and that makes a big difference. This one can, literally, save your life.

So, that’ll do it for today. I’m enjoying passing these tips along, and I hope you’re enjoying reading them. Please drop me a line, with questions and comments. I’ll be happy to respond. Remember that we’re here to care for one another, and one of the best ways to do that is to drive safely.

Until we meet again, happy trails to you.   -Buffalo

John Brownson, MFT, (“Buffalo”, to his friends) is a Counseling psychotherapist in private practice, based in Emeryville, in San Francisco’s East Bay. He works with individuals, couples and affinity groups of various kinds, to make the world a better living place.

 

 

Pro Driving Tips #2

“The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we all believe that we are above-average drivers.” -Dave Berry

Last week I began a series of driving tips learned (sometimes the hard way) during my fifteen years as an inner city transit driver, and prompted by our grandson’s request. Circumstances are forcing him to learn to drive for the first time, and I want to do my best to give him the tools he’ll need, when he hits the streets. I thought, as long as I was doing this, I might as well pass these precepts along to the rest of you, in hope that we can all do our part to make our streets and freeways safer for everyone.

I offer them in no particular order of importance; in fact, they are all important- or, at least, useful. Read these over, and I’ll be interested in any responses you make.

Form the habit of using your turn signals, even when you think you don’t need to. Make it something you always do, without thinking about it- AND, don’t trust turn signals of oncoming cars, until their intention is clear.

Our turn signals communicate intention, and clear communication is important, in traffic and everywhere else. Let people know what you intend to do. Whether they’re seeing you from the front or rear, they’ll thank you. That said, you can’t always trust a signal. We’ve all seen the guy driving down the street with his forgotten signal flashing, but no intention of actually turning. Annoying, sure, but also dangerous when he enters an intersection, you think he’s going to turn, but instead he continues straight. Don’t be that guy. Pay attention to your signals, and let people know what you’re doing before you do it. Form the habit, early.

Never be the first vehicle to enter the intersection when the light changes. A traffic light does not magically stop automobiles, so look for the guy who is not slowing to stop. When the light changes, take a couple of seconds and glance both ways before entering. If someone looks like they’re going to come on through, don’t get in their way. 

Yes, to get this out of the way, you may, occasionally, get honked at by some impatient “A” type behind you. So what? Remember the first principle: you’re responsible for your vehicle, and the people in it; he is not. The chances are, though, that whoever’s behind you won’t notice, even if they’re not checking their phone. Most of the time, once you’ve checked, you’ll proceed before the people behind you even notice your hesitation. Every now and then, though, when that guy does come on through after the light has changed, you’re going to feel very, very grateful you were watching.

Only drive one vehicle at a time. You cannot control, hurry or “punish” the vehicles in front of, behind or next to you. Attempting to do so only creates a dangerous condition for which you are responsible.

I know. I say this a lot, but this one is a biggie. So many, often deadly, collisions are directly caused by our attempts to play “Road Warrior”. Taking something done by another driver as a personal slight, suddenly enraged, we decide to “teach him a lesson”, and we start tailgating, or slowing down, if someone is tailgating us (rather than simply changing lanes, when we’re able). We speed up or slow down, to prevent someone from changing lanes in front of us because, even though we know it will make no difference in our arrival time, we can’t let that happen.

Understand, please: the roadway is not a combat zone. Let me do that in caps: THE ROADWAY IS NOT A COMBAT ZONE! Despite what our lizard brain (such as it is) tells us, we are not under attack, just because someone else does something stupid or careless, intentional or not. Let your fore-brain do the driving, the part that reasons. It’ll tell you that the sensible thing to do is to let the other diver go his (or her) way, and to breath a prayer of gratitude that you’re not him. Whatever the situation, you can made it worse by escalating, or you can make it better by just… letting it go, and going safely on your way. Sometimes you’ll have to do a lot of letting go, but it’s the smart thing to do, and you’ll feel better about yourself. So will your passengers.

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-And, that’ll do it for this week. If you have any comments or responses, please share them. I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, whatever your mode of travel, happy trails to you, and be well!  -Buff

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John Brownson, MFT, (“Buffalo”, to his friends) is a Counseling psychotherapist in private practice, based in Emeryville, in San Francisco’s East Bay. He works with individuals, couples and affinity groups of various kinds, to make the world a better living place.

 

 

Pro Driving Tips #1

“Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel.” -Jim Morrison/The Doors

Nearly fifty years ago, smoke from the dumpster fire of my first career still visible in the rear view mirror, I lucked into a job as a bus driver for a large public transit company, serving the San Francisco East Bay. I’m not at all sure why they hired me- the fact that I’d always loved driving doesn’t seem particularly compelling- but, hire me they did, and I spent the next fifteen years driving inner city buses, after which I took early retirement and started the graduate work that, eventually, led me to what I expect to be my final, lasting career, as a psychotherapist.

At first glance, the gap between driving buses and shrinkery seems wide, but I can tell you that driving an inner city bus is, actually, excellent training for a therapist. Perhaps someday, I’ll write a piece on what I mean- but this is not that day.

If you drive in the city, you’ll be happy to know that months of training preceded the day when I actually began to carry passengers, training that has stayed with me to this day, allowing me to drive, nearly accident (or incident) free for those fifty years. (Can you imagine how nervous I am, to be making that statement? The Celtic gods of my forebears knew what to do with braggarts- so, let me just modify that by saying, I’m doing alright so far, thank you.)

I mention this because this spring our grandson, Michael, completed his studies at the University of Portland, and will, this fall, begin his first teaching assignment, as he works toward his graduate degree. And, I mention this, because, for the first time, he is going to have to drive, a skill he hasn’t needed till now. He has asked me to give him “some driving tips”, and, in response, I’ve tried to remember all the things I learned, both on the job, and on the streets, since. I’ve come up with fifteen “do’s and don’t’s” (so far), and it occurred to me that sharing these precepts with my readers might prove useful, and even valuable to you. I’m going to dole them out, three to a post, complete with comments. I’ll give them to you more or less in the order they occurred to me and (with the exception of the first one) not in any order of importance.

As always, I’ll be interested in any feedback, comments or questions you might have. Buckle up; here we go:

  • You are driving the vehicle. With few exceptions, no one else is responsible. Your job is to be prepared, as much as is humanly possible, for whatever might happen.                                                                                                                            -This might seem a little harsh. After all, stuff happens and we can’t be prepared for everything, right? Absolutely true, but my point (to which I’ll be returning frequently), is that we can be prepared for far more than we think, if we form good habits. Almost every unfortunate thing that happens out there, happens because we missed something, ignored something that we would have seen if we’d been paying attention, failed to prepare for what might happen, or were driving too fast. It’s on us. This was driven home (no pun intended) when I had a minor scrape, early on, and I tried to tell the Supervisor about what the other driver did. He stopped me, and said, “You were behind the wheel, right?” Right. “Well, then, you should have seen this coming and avoided it.” Right. Point taken.
  • In traffic, be aware of, and prepare for, what could happen, not what you think will happen- or what you think “should” happen.    This is a biggie. Whatever we’re doing, we have expectations of others, and this extends to the streets. So often, we expect other drivers to do the reasonable thing, just as we would- to not suddenly pull out in front of you; to stop at a stop sign or light, to not stop abruptly for no reason we can see. Most of the time this works…except when it doesn’t. A good driver is always preparing for the other driver to do the unexpected thing, asking herself how she will react when he fails to stop, or suddenly pulls into her path. Consciousness is your friend, (even when the habit becomes unconscious). Be conscious of what the other driver- who might be confused, stoned, drunk; you don’t know- could do, and be ready. Don’t let wishful thinking drive. That woman taking her sick cat to the vet isn’t watching for you. Watch out for her.
  •  Never drive too fast for conditions. This means, even if conditions dictate a speed slower than the posted limit, travel at that, slower, speed. If you cannot safely stop for a suddenly presenting condition- a child running into the street, for example- you are driving too fast. 

    – This is about consciousness, again; seems to be a reoccurring theme. As you are driving, you are (because you’re a good driver) aware of conditions: kids playing, construction, rain-slick streets, and factor them into your speed. It’s about awareness, and being prepared for the unexpected, but it’s also about physics. Even if you have good reflexes, the amount of distance it will take for your car to stop, or maneuver around a suddenly presented obstacle, will largely depend on how fast you are traveling. The laws of physics apply here (as they do everywhere, as far as I know). See that your speed allows you to react safely.

    And, let’s stop there, for now. I’ve got about a dozen more- I’ll probably think of a few more, as well- and I’ll parcel them out, every week or so. I hope you find some of this useful. Please let me know, and I’ll be seeing you down the trail- whatever your mode of transportation. Thanks for reading, and…

    be well. -Buff


     

     

     

 

 

 

 

Journaling

 “I write to learn the things I know.” -Anon.

I’ve been keeping a personal journal for nearly forty years- in fact, this June will mark exactly forty years since I made my first entry, on a warm summer’s day, in the living room of a friend’s house in Aptos, California, her dog at my feet. I know the details because that’s what I wrote, a kind of “Testing, testing” entry, to see how it felt. Evidently it felt okay, because I’ve never stopped, through twelve and one third volumes (the latter being the current one), full of hand written thoughts, comments, complaints, fears resentments, expressions of gratitude, memories and intentions- the full gamut of my experiences over four decades.

I had been thinking for years about keeping some kind of record, but (as with so many other things during that fraught period of my life) I never seemed to get around to it. It wasn’t until my friend shared her journaling that I saw how it could be done, with a blank book, easily available at any stationary or office supply store. She gifted me with my first book, I made my first entries and I was hooked.

I want to define what I mean by “Journaling”. When I look for definitions of “Journal”, I see that some sources use the word as a synonym for “Diary”, or “Log”. That’s not how I define, or practice, journaling. Many years earlier I tried a few times to keep a diary, and I discovered that the obligation to make a daily entry quickly became a burden; the failure to make that day’s entry becoming a comment on my inability to meet a commitment, another thing to add to my own self-indictment for general unworthiness- but, that’s another story.

So, I knew that wasn’t going to work. I would fail to make an entry in the little, dated space, and after a few missed days I would conclude that I was a failure at journaling (or “diarying”, if that’s a word), and give up. It was my friend who suggested another way to think about it- another definition of the word journaling: what if, instead of thinking of a journal as a relentless task master who must be satisfied daily with “Dear Diary” entries (and apologies for missing a day)- what if I thought of my journal as a friend who is always there to listen, when and if I have something to say, but demands nothing? What if my friend would be perfectly, non-judgmentally, happy with a small pencil drawing or a water color, with dirty words scrawled across the page with a red crayon or a multi-colored doodle? Above all, what if my journal did not reproach me for making entries irregularly, even if days or weeks went by? That would be a good friend, worth having and keeping by my side- and so I have done.

But, you might ask, of what use is it? Even though we’ve made it easier, why bother? Glad you asked.

First (and to get this out of the way), there is the sort of narcissistic self-regard that most of us have. We love to talk about ourselves, given the opportunity, and a journal is the perfect place to do it- always attentive and willing to listen whenever you have something to say, no matter how grandiose or self-deprecating.

Second, a journal very quickly becomes a book of personal history. We read history to get perspective on the present. What did I do the last time this situation presented itself? What was I thinking then, and how does that compare to what I’m thinking now? Am I happy with that change, or lack of it? What did I do the last time this problem presented itself, and how did that work? What intention did I state, and how am I doing on that? Did I resolve that problem, or is it still hanging?

If you’ve been in therapy, or you’re a therapist (in which case, I hope you’ve also been in therapy), you recognize the above as a set of very useful questions. One of the first things I ask most new clients to do is keep a record of some kind, even if it’s just brief notations of feeling states. What I find is that they will frequently expand that suggestion to include comments on the triggering situation, how they responded and what resulted. In this way, they are able to experience some control over what seemed uncontrollable. By increasing self-awareness their skills will improve more quickly as they gain confidence, and this will happen faster if they are keeping a record.

You may not be in therapy, but I think we all want to learn to live our lives in a better way, and your journal provides the perfect tool. Granted, it can be a little embarrassing to read some of the stuff you needed to express years ago, but embarrassment gives you some idea of how much you have changed since you wrote those words, red crayon or no. You’ll see that sometimes the same issues, with the same responses, come up, over and over; what do you want to do about that? Maybe you’ll see the belief that so often troubled you no longer has a hold on you. You’ll see, perhaps, that some emotional state that felt irresistible has lost much of its power, as you’ve learned to explore it.

And, here’s something to keep in mind: There is a phenomenon called the “End of History Illusion”, in which we believe that, though we have changed a great deal in the past, we will change relatively little in the future- that we have finally become the person we will be for the rest of our lives. As the name suggests, this is an illusion. Ask yourself, if you had believed that twenty years ago, how true would it have been? How about thirty years ago, or forty, if you’ve lived that long? I don’t know about you, but, even twenty years ago, I could scarcely conceive of the person I’ve become since then. I know that I’ve changed because I can read what I wrote, twenty years ago, because I’ve kept a journal. So long as we live, there is no age after which we will no longer change, and your journal will allow you to honor and celebrate that change.

Sound interesting, but why start now, when there are all these unjournaled years? How about because you’re not getting any younger, and because you are still not who you will become, and the story of that transformation, whatever the duration, will be very interesting- to you, and whomever comes after you. But here’s the main thing, folks: journal keeping is fun. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s cathartic, like talking to an old friend; it’s educational, it’s cheap and easy; what’s not to like?

So, here’s what I suggest: hie yourself down to the nearest office supply store- local, brick and mortar, locally owned, if possible- and pick up a blank book of some kind. You’re also likely to find a selection at your local Walgreen’s, or similar outlet. Decide what feels most like “your” journal- spiral bound or book-like? Lined or unlined? Colored pages or white? Whatever it is, buy it and take it home, as an act of faith. Leave the book, with a pen, out where you can see it. Just let it sit there, if that’s what you want to do. Then, eventually, when you feel the urge, go with it. Pick up the book, open it, write the date and maybe the words, “Hi, there. Who are you?” You may not have an answer to that question for days, but you’ve started a conversation with yourself that may last for years, such that you may wonder how you ever did without it. That’s been my experience, and I truly hope it comes to be yours.

Thanks for reading. As always, I welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. I’ll be back next week with thoughts on some other subject. I’ve got a million of ’em.

Until then, Happy Trails, Pardners, and be well.  -Buffalo

 

 

 

 

 

So. On the first day of this year the use of “recreational marijuana” became legal in California, making it thirty states (and the District of Columbia) that legalize marijuana in some way, and eight states that specifically legalize its recreational use.

The actual coming of this long-awaited day has set off a peculiar, and uncomfortable, conversation between the Self that I was in, say, 1968, and the Self that I am, now.

My ’68 Self- well, perhaps you can imagine him: Full bearded, hair down past his shoulders. Bell bottom jeans riding low on a ridiculously narrow waist, topped with an old, patched work shirt that he found in a dumpster, beads and a nondescript amulet- and patchouli. Lots of patchouli, the smell of the era. The other smell, partly masked by the patchouli, would have been dope, just smoked, or about to smoke it. I smoked a lot of dope then; for that matter, I continued to do so for many years, after.

This version of myself, smoking cheap ragweed with friends, would laugh and talk about a future time we were sure would come, when dope would be legal, and we would no longer go in fear of The Man. More, it would be a time when everybody would get stoned together, and there would be no more strife and war- nothing but peace and harmony, man, because, hey, everybody would just mellow out and groove on each other. We would make wreaths of flowers for our hair and dance in the perpetual sunshine to bands that would always play for free, because bread didn’t matter, and we would sing and make love and all the world’s problems would be solved. All this was assured, if only we could, somehow, make dope legal.

Let’s be generous, and say that this vision of the future was not too well thought out, and we’ll leave our past selves, rolling another doobie and listening to The White Album.

A breath taking fast-forward, and here I sit, fifty years later. Thirty-five years ago I came to realize that the dope I smoked daily had stopped being “recreational” (although it wouldn’t have occurred to us to call it that), and had become habitual. Far from a fun thing, it had become, seemingly, necessary, in order to “deal with life”. I had become drug-dependent, without realizing it. That, in itself, wouldn’t have been a problem- lots of people depend on prescribed drugs to address medical or psychological conditions- but these were not prescribed medications, and they addressed no condition I was willing to admit to myself.

At the time, I was seeing a diminutive therapist, to whom I’ll always be grateful, about an issue that seemed to me to have nothing to do with the dope I was smoking daily. She thought otherwise, and told me I had a “drug problem”. I’ll spare you the account of my rageful, defensive response, our arguments, lasting several weeks, as she gradually, surely brought me to the understanding that my problems had a lot to do with the fact that I was constantly stoned, and that I was unlikely to address them in any effective way until I quit using drugs. At some point (I still remember the scene), I simply had to agree with her, if I was going to be honest with myself, and the next step seemed unavoidable: I had to stop.

Now, a brief cultural history note: in 1985, the year I’m speaking of, a strong wind of change was sweeping the land- at least, the corner of it in which I was living. Throughout my peer group, friends were sniffing the air, shaking their heads and redirecting their lives. It was as if we had, finally, received word that the 60s (and, God help us, the 70s) were over. Friends were quietly, one by one, dropping self-destructive habits, like drug use. We had seen our relatively benign marijuana smoking morph into smoking more exotic (and harmful) substances. We’d seen cocaine become the drug of choice, bringing with it a completely different, unempathetic culture of selfishness and crimes against one another. We saw, finally, where all this was going, as some of our friends went down a very dark road, a base pipe in one hand and an Uzi in the other, and a lot of us decided that enough was enough.

This phenomenon helped my make my decision. I remember telling my circle of closest friends that I was not smoking dope any more, and seeing nothing but loving approval in their eyes, and support in their voices and actions. That was, actually more like thirty-seven years ago (this summer), and it was a major turning point in my life, one I’ve never regretted.

So, to return to my current point, maybe you can get some sense of my ambivalence, my mixed feelings, about the coming of legal marijuana, our old Hippie dream finally coming true. Marijuana was not a benign force in my life. For nearly twenty years, I used it to avoid decisions I should have made, and to deaden emotions I might have felt. They were not “lost” years, but I cannot think of a single way in which dope helped to improve my life, or to set and work toward goals. It didn’t make me a bad person, but it sure as Hell prevented me from achieving what I might, or from seeing pitfalls before I stepped into them.

So, how can I feel the kind of happiness I anticipated feeling, when this day finally came? I’m a Psychotherapist now (I entered graduate school shortly after quitting dope), who has worked, for years with addictions. Shall I celebrate the new-found ease with which people can now buy dope that is far more powerful than anything I ever smoked? One of the questions to which no one seems to have an answer is, how many people will take it up, now that the legal question is settled (this, assuming the regressive forces in the Federal Government do not prevail)? It’s true that few people who wanted to smoke dope had any problem getting it, especially with the coming of Medicinal Marijuana, but now it’s as easy as walking down to the corner to pick up a quart of milk. Shall I celebrate this freedom, knowing that, for some people, it will be a trap?

More, I read that major corporations are angling for a piece of the multi-billion dollar action, writing and passing regulations, through their surrogates, that will, in short order, force the smaller, independent growers to the margins of the business. In a twist of irony that must make the gods howl with laughter, these “mom and pop” growers, if they cannot (or will not) raise the capital to make themselves legal, will become “illegal growers”, who will then be hounded by exactly the same police forces they faced before legalization.

So, here I sit, on a Friday afternoon. Since the first of the year, especially on weekends, there is a line snaking out the door of the “pot store”, a few blocks away; the foot and car traffic has become a problem for the neighbors, who are having (I read on a neighborhood email list) to deal with people ducking into their front yards, or sitting in parked cars, to light up. Marijuana smokers (or eaters) are not violent people, nor are they likely to commit any crimes, other than those of omission, but, still, these are problems the locals didn’t ask for.

On the whole, I am for personal freedoms- counterbalanced with responsibilities, sure, but let’s start with freedoms. I voted for marijuana’s legalization, partially because of this belief, and also because, somewhere not far under the surface, that Hippie, with his beatific smile, is still there, passing a joint around among his friends. Maybe that’s what I thought we could return to, but it looks like it’s going to be some other version of what follows the long awaited Day That Dope Became Legal.

Thank you for reading. As always, I appreciate your comments and thoughts. I’ll see you next week, with… well, whatever occurs to me in the meantime.

Until then, Happy Trails to you, and be well!    -Buffalo

 

Religiosity

“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take”. (A prayer my grandmother taught me when I was about three years old, to be followed by the names of people I wanted God to “bless”.)

My people were not religious.

By “My people”, I mean the people who raised me- largely my maternal grandparents, Hal and Faye Coffey. I am told that my father, whom I never knew, was a devout Catholic, and my mother, who became a part of my life when I was a little older, became a Catholic when she married my second step-father. For awhile, what proved to be a half-hearted effort was made to convert (or at least introduce) me to Catholicism, but it failed to take. (Actually, that’s not entirely true. I was deeply impressed by the theatricality of the Catholic Mass- the old, “real” Mass, that is, with the “bell, book and candle”, and the Latin chanting and the incense and, especially, the guy up there in the blazingly white outfit, running the show. I suspect this led to a misbegotten first career as an actor, and a later stint as a middling Pagan Priest. Got to wear the robes, and everything!) But, I digress.

I spent my first ten years or so, in a home in which religion was simply absent. My people were not anti-religious; they were just areligious- the subject never came up. This is puzzling for several reasons. First, my grandparents both came from areas that could certainly be considered part of the “Bible Belt”: Alabama (on my grandmother’s side), and then the Oklahoma panhandle, before they married and came North to Nebraska early in the 20th Century. I visited that part of Oklahoma, several years ago and, honestly, if I had to live in such a brutally inhospitable land (speaking of the environment, not the people), I would, I’m sure, be a deeply devout believer in some kind of Deity, if only to give myself any edge I could.

Second, I’ve been told that my grandfather, several times removed, was a Methodist Circuit riding Preacher. This, of course, can work to either insure reverence on the part of descendants, or to insure it’s absence. Who knows? (Parenthetically, I’m also told- by my mother, just before her death- that I have a full-blood Cherokee back there; gender unknown. Since the Cherokee were centered around Alabama, before they were force-marched to Okalahoma, via the “Trail of Tears”, I’ll always wonder about that connection, and if it’s the reason my Grandmother’s family- the “Webbs” came West. My mother didn’t know, and she almost didn’t tell me at all. She said it had been the “family secret” all of her life, a shameful thing. She was still ashamed when she told me, which saddens me. Societal change almost caught up with her.)

So, yes; religion was oddly absent from a family that might have been expected to, at least, be “socially religious”- dressing up for church on Sundays, with a church supper and singing after, under the trees. I say “absent”, but that’s not entirely true. I have faint memories of some kind of “Grace” being said, before Sunday dinner (usually fried chicken- the best I have tasted, to this day), and my grandmother did teach me a little prayer to say, before I went to sleep, each night. I’ve quoted some of it, above. I feel her love whenever I say it, as I occasionally do, blessing her name.

That’s about it, though, and I have a few theories (absent access to anyone older than myself; somehow it’s come to be that there are very few people older than myself) about why that might have been.

First, my grandparents were survivors of the worst financial depression in American history. As I mentioned, they had left the land in Oklahoma before it turned to dust, but, starting in 1929, nearly everyone suffered to some extent. I gather they survived by dint of hard work- in fact, I might say that hard work, to the exclusion of almost everything else, was their religion. To work was to survive. Born in 1936, long before the coming of World War II changed everything, I learned quickly that work was more important, took precedent over absolutely everything else. It was a painful lesson that I’ve spent a lifetime trying to overcome.

Second- and I know this is reaching- my grandparents’ roots were in Scotland and Ireland. I don’t know when, or under what circumstances, they left (speaking here of my Mother’s side; my recently-found sister, Mary, can tell you every move our father’s side- also from Scotland- made, and when), but, somehow I doubt if the move was impulsive. More likely they were driven by desperation and despair; we do not leave the land of our birth idly. It’s well known that simply being a Celt will give one a spavined attitude about Deity, and I doubt my forebears were exceptions to the rule, whatever their professed religion at the time.

In any case, it seems my grandparents (or their parents; impossible to tell), somewhere along the line, jettisoned whatever faith they may have had in a benevolent deity and, lacking an acceptable alternative, just dropped the whole thing. Whether it was a gradual letting-go or a moment of epiphany, followed by a spiritual “Thud”, I have no way of knowing at this remove. but they never took it up again. My grandfather’s funeral was held under the auspices of the Benevolent Order of Elks, and my grandmother’s, I’m told, was similarly secular.

So. Given all of the above, it is a wonder to me- although perhaps it shouldn’t be- that I have spent my entire life searching for that which is “worshipful”. (The origins of the word “Worship” mean, “of worth”, or, “That which is worthy”.) The search has led me through some strange and wonderful places. For many years, as an actor and director, I worshiped at the altar of Dionysus- a sometimes fun, but always unpredictable god. I’ve worshiped Mommon, like most of us, and I’ve danced with Goddesses and their consorts, but, always, I’ve been looking for The Thing that “believers” of all stripes say they have- though I’m more inclined to believe those who say they have it sometimes, and that, imperfectly.

These are thoughts that lead me into realms of speculation that may call for another entry. For now, I’ve said what I set out to say about the curious (to me) lack of religious observance in my childhood. I need to think more about how this lack, in some way, led me to a lifetime of questioning. If I have any more to say about it, I’ll do a follow-up.

For now, thank you for reading this. I’m always interested in your feedback and questions. Remember, as Ram Dass once said, “We’re all just walking each other home”.

Happy Trails to you, and be well.    -Buff

 

 

 

“Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree, putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes- some have got broken- and carrying them up to the attic. The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt, and the children got ready for school. There are enough left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week- not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot, stayed up so late, attempted-quite unsuccessfully- to love all of our relatives, and in general grossly overestimated our powers.” 

W. H. Auden. “For The Time Being”.

It’s the first week of the New Year, and here in the San Francisco Bay Area we’re experiencing a welcome bout of gentle, soaking rain, falling from an endlessly grey sky.

My mood is just as grey. The holidays have come and gone like a great, honking clown parade, full of tubas and flung confetti, and now… what? What to do with ourselves in this Waiting Time- as we wait for the return of the light and warmth? Traditionally, it’s a time for digging in- for stories and warming drinks, for tending the fire and mending that which needs repair. These are mostly metaphors now. Our binge-watched stories come from Netflix and Google, our fire is purchased from our local gas and electric company, and our mending? What have we to repair?

Although we usually use it in the sense of “fixing” something broken, our word, “Repair” comes from the Late latin: repatriare- “To return; to go home again”, and that seems a perfect usage for this time of year: to return to ourselves.

Whole libraries have been written about this season being appropriate for self-reflection and meditation. There is something about the long, dark night that causes such thoughts, whether we will or not. Sometimes this is experienced as what’s called “Seasonal Affective Disorder”- moodiness, lethargy, mild depression- and pathologised, with various treatments suggested, but I think for many of us this is also about a disinclination to do what the Dark Time seems to demand: to go within, take stock, read the signs and see who you are at this point in time- to go home again.

Our culture, by and large, opposes self-reflection. Billions of dollars and person-hours have been spent to provide us with the largest array of distractions ever known to humanity, lest we fall into unhealthy brooding- and I have to make a distinction, here, between true depression, which is a serious condition, and simply feeling unhappy because we don’t know what to do with ourselves. What to do, while we’re waiting for the Light?

What I want to suggest is that you use this time to repair within yourself. What have you been putting off because you don’t have time, or because it seemed impractical or your friends wouldn’t understand- or, because it frightens you? Now, in these dark months, there’s time to turn to those thoughts and feelings, befriend them, learn their names, bring them into the light, perhaps imbue them life.

That’s what I’m doing, right now. For most of this year, encouraged by friends and readers, I’ve hovered on the edge of resuming this blog. I’ve struggled with the thoughts that I’m not smart enough, informed enough, literate enough (or that I’m merely clever), to write a blog post again. Ironically, I’m intimidated by my own earlier blogs, posted a few years ago. Jeez, that guy could write. He really had a way with words, and he had something to say. I wish I was… Oh, that’s right: I am that guy.

So, I’ve decided to Hell with it. I’m going to repair to my neglected writing persona, and perhaps repair my confidence. I’ve committed (since, clearly, waiting for inspirational lightning hasn’t worked), to sitting down every Friday afternoon and writing something. I’m not without ideas- in fact, I have a notebook full of them. I will do my best not to write about our cat, who is adequate as a cat, but, in truth, not all that interesting. As the column’s title suggests, I will try to write from the viewpoint of a mental health professional, but as a glance at my previous entries will attest, that can take me pretty far afield. You may have some curiosity about what a Psychotherapist does, and how we do it. I like demystifying that stuff; it actually helps me get clearer about what I do and writing about it was one of my original motivations for blogging.

In any case, here’s my first offering, in a year or two, and there’ll be more. I’ll appreciate any feedback or questions. Let’s get through his dark time together, and see what the spring brings. I’m hoping, at least, for a better season for the San Francisco Giants- but let’s leave that for another time.

Until we meet again, happy trails to you, and thanks for reading.

-Buff

 

 

 

“I think Heaven will be like a first kiss.” -Sarah Addison Allen, The Sugar Queen.

I would like to invite you to participate in what I hope will be an interesting experience for all.

For years, I have kept a personal Journal, and over the last few years I have entered several versions of what I’ve called “Visions of Heaven”. What I mean by this is not so much the traditional Heaven as described by most of the Western religions traditions, but, rather, “Heaven” in the sense of “Paradise”- that is, the best place you can imagine. What Henry James once called “The Great Good Place”, in his short story of that name.

What I invite you to do is imagine yourself in the best possible place you can think of. I would like you to be as specific as you can- to fill in details about what the place feels like. Where are you? What scents are carried on the breeze? What is the weather like? What textures and colors do you feel and see? Who else is there, if anyone is? What are you doing?

I would ask you to go beyond generalities, like “A world without hatred”, desirable as they may be, and selfishly, pleasurably put yourself in the picture of a perfect place, at a perfect time, dictated only by your need for absolute satisfaction and happiness.

I think you’ll find that, for a variety of reasons, this will not be as easy as it might, at first, appear. Most of us are taught what we should want, and it is difficult for us to allow ourselves to access (much less write down) what it would be like to be truly contented. The Puritanism that is one of the cornerstones of our country’s foundation views with suspicion most things relating to satisfaction, insisting that we must strive, always. In this exercise, we put striving aside (unless that is your idea of Heaven), and imagine Perfection. Make a deal with your ever-vigilant Critic: you’ll return to your every day tasks in a few minutes, and when you do, you’ll be better for this little time out. Happens to be true.

I think the best way to do this is to make some time and sit with it, like a meditation. Start with a general place and situation- a beach, a mountain top, a message table- and then, patiently, allow yourself to fill in details, as I’ve suggested above. Slow your breathing, and let your body relax into it. Remember that, since this is all about your imagination, you can change any detail at will, now or later. You’ll find that the closer you get to your ideal, the more relaxed you’ll feel. When we imagine ourselves as happy and contented, our mind and body come along for the ride. You’re actually (as a side effect) doing yourself some measurable good, as you sit and breath, think and feel.

What I hope you’ll do is try it, and, if you wish, share your experience, and your own “Good Place” with us all. To prime the pump, here is what feels (right now) like the best of the several visions I’ve imagined:

                                                                                         ***********************************************************

A Vision of Heaven

I am sitting on the veranda of a cabin, situated somewhere on the North Coast. The Pacific Ocean is a five minute walk away, down a little path to the left, and I can faintly hear the breakers, when the wind is right. It’s a warm day, in the 80s, but I’m shaded on the veranda, and the soft, gentle breeze, carrying the scent of dried grasses, is pleasant.

My chair is comfortable, and next to it is a table on which I’ve placed a plate containing a few chunks of nice cheese, some crackers, and some cured olives. There’s a bottle of some earthy California red wine, and a half filled glass, from which I sip, now and then. There’s also a little boom-box, carrying a Giants’ game; they’re in contention this August; one run up in the sixth inning of a great pitcher’s duel. The volume of the radio is turned down very low, so I can hear the breeze, as it moves the long grasses in the meadow the cabin overlooks.

I’m watching a redtail hawk, working the meadow. It’s been at it for the last ten minutes or so, gliding gracefully, scarcely moving its wings, from one end of the field to the other. There are what I suppose to be a couple of hawks roosting nearby, and they tend to work this field about this time every afternoon. attracted by the updraft from the sunwarmed earth.

I cut a piece of cheese, put it on a cracker, and wash it down with a sip of the wine: a perfect melding of tastes. It would be nice to go inside and take an afternoon nap, but the game is too close, and I want to see how it comes out, so I sit and watch the hawk (who will move on to another field soon, if he doesn’t turn up a mouse), and think drowsy thoughts. After my nap, I’ll probably walk down to the beach, to watch the sun set. For now, there’s nothing to do but feel the pleasure of complete relaxation and contentment, watching the hawk and hoping the game doesn’t go into extra innings- although, that would be nice, too.

                                                                                ************************************************************************

-So, that’s what I mean. Just a moment, a perfect moment in time, in the most perfect setting you can imagine. I’m alone in mine, but yours may be populated with anyone (or anything) you choose. The fun of the exercise is the process of building the moment, bit by bit, trying this and discarding that, until you have achieved what feels like perfect satisfaction. That may change, as you revisit it. That’s fine; let it. It will grow more and more real for you with passing time, as you add details and spend time there.

You can, of course, return to this place, this Good Place, as often as you wish, whenever opportunity presents itself. It is your place. No one can find fault with it, or modify it in any way; it is entirely yours. You may find yourself imagining unpleasant things that could happen there. When that happens, remember that you have complete control; nothing happens there that you do not create.

If you choose to take some time to do this, I hope you will share it with us. I’d love to hear not just what your vision is, but also what the experience of creating it was like for you. Whether or not you share it, I hope you take the time, and that the experience is a good one. It may tell you some things about yourself and, who knows, it may even give you some ideas for how you can make changes in the physical world you come back to. That’ll be up to you.

In the meantime, I wish you Happy Trails (the happiest you can imagine), Buckeroos, and be sure and write!

I don’t like GPS systems.

GPS systems tell you, in the dulcet tones of your choice, one thing: how to get from where you are to where you’re going. If you don’t think about it much, that sounds like all that needs be said. We don’t get lost, we don’t waste time, we achieve our goal, which is to get there, right?

Perhaps.

But, there are goals and there are goals, and in a larger sense, being instructed only in how to get to a specific point robs us of much useful experience. For Example, what lies beyond my path? What interesting things and experiences lie a half mile from the route I’m following? What interesting options exist that, were I looking at a map, I might find attractive? What sudden flights of fancy never take wing, because I am unaware of a park or building or geological feature that a map would show me, just off the (usually) certain path dictated by my GPS? I don’t know, and I probably never will know, unless I’ve looked at a map of the area, and maps (I’m told) are becoming things of the past. People are forgetting (or never learning) how to read them, how to orient themselves to the area, thus reducing themselves to a pathetic level of helplessness, should their electronics fail, or mislead them.

Let me go further: what’s the matter with getting lost? Sure, as we’re told, all who wander are not lost, but how about the experience of getting lost and finding your way back? Rick Steves, the travel guru, speaking of Venice, recommends that visitors deliberately allow themselves to get lost, because that’s how unexpected, frequently wonderful, things happen. The same can be said of any geographical location: it’s the unexpected experiences that give us stories we’ll tell for years, and GPS is the enemy of the unexpected. In fact, that’s its purpose. It’s for the goal oriented, single minded person who cares little for his location in any larger sense than the street or road he’s traveling- for another quarter of a mile, then he will turn left onto another street he knows nothing about, a street about which he will experience little and learn nothing because he has eyes only for the signs that correspond to his instructions.

Our GPS creates a tiny bubble in which we move, like a horse with blinders (Google it, kids), deliberately unaware of the interesting, sometimes unforgettable possibilities surrounding us, just beyond the little path dictated by the voice of our GPS.

The solution? Next time you are going someplace, dig up a map of the area- the city or state through which you intend to drive. Learn (or remember) how to find your destination on the map, and then look at the map to see how to get there. I will bet you a modest amount of cash money that you’ll discover something interesting, off what would have been your path, that might be worth a side trip.

Even if I lose my bet, you will have used your brain, your cognitive, problem solving skills, to find your way, rather than letting a machine decide what’s best for you, and that seems to me to be a good thing. I’m not a Luddite, but it seems to me there is such a thing as becoming too dependent on the damned things. If you can’t find your way from where you are to where you want to be, you’ve given away too much, or so I believe. Take it back, before you start seeing maps in antique stores, sold as curiosities that no one any longer knows how to use.

Thus endeth the sermon. If you have anything to say about it, I’d love to hear from you.

In any case, Buckeroos, be kind to one another, and I wish you happy, interesting and, above all, self-determined trails.

Sometime after I achieved adulthood, a few years ago, I came to realize that there are some propositions that do not need refuting- that is, there is no profit in debating them, because they are so self-evidently wrong headed that debate is unnecessary. The assertion that some races (or genders) are inferior and, therefore, fit only for slavery doesn’t need to take up our time, and I don’t think the belief that our planet is only six (or ten) thousand years old (based, as it is, on faith, impervious to reason) needs to be given room in any conversation of which I want to be a part.

The more I think about “The Abolitionist Project” (see my previous posting for details), the more I feel it fits into this category. Raising objections, points with which to refute their premise- that a world without physical or psychological pain is desirable and attainable- seems like cheering one’s own pitching skills, because I am able to hit the side of a barn with a tennis ball; the difficulty lies in supporting the suggestion that such a state of existence would be desirable, not in refuting it.

I’m experiencing, in this cold, wet weather, some uncomfortable joint pain. Further, throughout most of my life, I have been given, infrequently, to bouts of depression- black moods, lasting a few days, in which nothing seems worthwhile and (as the DSM blandly puts it) I find no enjoyment in what are usually pleasurable activities. Now, what fault can be found with the introduction of a world from which such unpleasurable experiences are banned? Is not such a world, rather, a highly desirable thing?

I don’t think so. I am not fond of even mild suffering (and I should admit that in my long, and so far blessed life, I have never experienced the level of physical or psychological pain that life is capable of throwing at us), but, in the case of my physical pain, it is functional: like a toothache, if the pain reaches a certain level, I will hie myself to a Doctor and explore its causes. It may prove to be something that must simply be borne, but…maybe not. It may be that my body is trying to alert me to a situation for which there is a remedy, without which it will worsen. In such a case, I will have my pain to thank. Until we become entirely bionic (which I gather is part of the Hedonist’s vision), we need the warning system that is our pain; we, literally, cannot live without it.

The benefits of psychological pain are more subtle, but no less compelling. In my opening piece on this subject, I quoted Carl Jung, who said, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering”. Catchy, but what is meant by “legitimate suffering”, and what is its value?

I’m wading into very deep waters, here, in which pool I sense far greater minds than mine, but I’m willing to say, for the sake of our argument, that “legitimate” suffering is that unavoidable pain which comes with the condition of being human. The question of whether it is desirable is irrelevant. Shame, loss of love, fear of change and death- these, and a host of others, depending on our environment, are unavoidable and survivable. They come with the territory. Fine, but what makes them desirable?

Answering that question only raises a further, larger question- but, one thing at a time. I am content with noting that, as my friend, Allen Young pointed out, we learn and grow because of pain. Pleasure plays a large part, too, but our life’s avoidable pain tends to act as a “herding agent”: we move away from the source of pain, toward relief. So, we learn, most of us, what causes us to be accepted by our society or our family, and, painfully, what does not. We learn not to pick up a hot pan with our bare hands. We learn to look where we’re walking and to read the label on the bottle. Pain teaches these things. “Experience is a dear teacher”, wrote Ben Franklin, “but a fool will learn from no other”. Unhappily, I suppose, we are all fools, in one way or another. Painful experience can remedy that, too.

I’m grateful to Allen, too, for pointing out a further benefit: If pain is banished, what becomes of compassion? Of what use is empathy, and the exercise of that heart’s opening which relieves suffering and allows us to grow as human beings? Certainly, we can share another’s happiness, but is this experience as essential to our Spiritual Growth, as experiencing compassion, and forgiveness?

I can’t answer that question; I only know that any definition of humanity to which I subscribe includes “suffering” as an essential ingredient- and, yes, it finally comes down to this: if you remove physical and psychological pain, you redefine what it means to be human. Machines, so far, do not suffer; that is their advantage, such as it is. Human beings do; such as it is, that is our advantage. I am comforted by my belief that this fact cannot be changed, and I feel- yes- compassion, for those who would deprive us of that which defines us in so many ways.

I feel compassion, yes, but I do not wish them luck in their endeavor. Quite the contrary: I gift them, if I may, with the pain of frustration and disillusionment. My wish may return to me threefold, but, in this case, it will be worth it.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments, and thank you for your continuing support and interest.

Until we meet again, Buckeroos, happy trails to you!