What Delilah Didn’t Understand

This is the barbershop that the Old Man has been frequenting for the last 20 years.  It’s part of a chain, staffed by young women, who move briskly through their work while exchanging pleasantries and chatter with each other and sometimes with their customers.  The main attraction for the Old Man is that he doesn’t have to make an appointment—it’s not a doctor’s office, for god’s sake—and the service is cheap.

He can’t bring himself to call it a hair cutting salon or any of the fancy names people use these days.  The thought of spending $50 or $60 at a salon is repugnant to him.  He knows women who take their little children—like their hair “style” really matters—and bully their husbands into salon treatments.  Not his kind of people.

Since he began to noticeably age, the Old Man has been getting a buzz cut, which is a lot like the crew cuts he got as a boy.  Now he likes them because they are extremely easy to maintain, requiring no care at all, actually, and because they give him the tough look that he favors.  All through the years women have told him they like a softer look.  One even wanted him to put some pounds on his belly.  Talk about repugnant.  But now as then, the Old Man prefers the hard, jaw-and-cheek-bone-prominent look that is highlighted by the buzz cut.

No amount of insight and maturation can compete with the dictates of the old locker rooms, the gatherings of boys and young men that so colored his youth.  The boys were merciless with anyone, boy, girl, or grownup, who showed any accumulation of fat.  They cultivated a hard guy look—Humphrey Bogart, Paul Newman, John Wayne—those kind of men.  Even though the Old Man considered himself sensitive and, as a teenager, often hung out with girls, so they could talk about feelings and books—even though he honored his feelings, he preferred the hard look that betrayed none of them.

As Marci, the hair cutter, neared the end, trimming his eyebrows—“They’re a little bushy, don’t you think?”—and his ears—“That’s what older fellows need”—he makes some faces, alternately hardening and softening his expressions and, making sure the beginnings of a double chin are hidden, settles on one that is engaged but uncommitted.  In that state, a memory slipped into view.

The Old Man was ten.  He’d just finished a race against his friends Kevin and Angelo.  The three of them were the fastest kids in the class and often raced, mostly for the fun of it but partly to show off.  As he walked back from the finish line, he came upon one of the school toughs—his moniker was, in fact, Toughie Rizzuto—beating up on one of the smallest kids in the class.  Without thinking, the still-young Old Man—his name was Sam—jumped the tough and they fought it out.  That meant they pushed and shoved a bit, warning the other not to try anything too bad, and kept snarls on their faces.  There wasn’t a real punch thrown.

But that fight was one of the most important events of the Old Man’s life.  The school was divided equally among Irish, Jewish, and Italian kids, of whom the Italians were the toughest.  When they gathered, they gathered in gangs.  When the Irish and Jewish kids gathered, it was in groups.  The Irish kids lived south of the school.  The Jewish kids, north.  The Italian families lived across the creek, which served as a stern boundary.  No one was supposed to cross the stream into Italian territory.  Or else they’d be beaten up.

But Sam crossed it all the time.  He loved balancing on the trees, like a tightrope walker, that had fallen across the stream during the Hurricane of 1954.  He loved, even more, daring anyone on the dreaded other side to catch him.  Sam figured that he could outrun any of the Italian kids, even Angelo, if need be.  His friends warned him and warned him, but Sam kept crossing the stream into the Italian forest. Angelo knew.  It was a secret and a joke between them.  Maybe a bond between them.

In any case, Sam’s performance that fifth grade day formed and consolidated his reputation among the Italian gangs:  “Don’t mess with Sam.”  And it wasn’t just that Sam might hurt someone.  It was because his willingness to fight made him one of them.  An honorary Italian.

The membership bought him years and years of cover.  It didn’t matter if he talked with girls or that he was an egghead—that’s what kids who studied and went to the “advanced” classes were called.  They kidded him about that but what they were really saying was, “That’s just Sam.  What can you do?”  They didn’t even seem to mind that, even adopted him as their pet egghead, though, with the exception of Angelo, Sam didn’t spend his free time with them.  The adoption was symbolic.

By junior high school, they were together on the football and basketball teams.  No problem being teammates.  That was part of the code that guys lived by.  The teams were like another gang and in that place, Sam and the Italian boys were joined at the hip.

But looking back, Sam was pretty sure it was The Fight—way back in fifth grade—that  made his reputation.  He was OK.  He was tough.

For years, maybe decades, that agreement gave him a sense of security.  As an adult, he’d meander through tough city streets feeling safe.  He wasn’t a fighter and couldn’t really defend himself against street kids, who practiced the martial arts every day.  And outsiders might say that he wasn’t that strong, though Sam thought he was.  It wasn’t until he was about 45, when a friend who was a Tae Kwon Do expert told Sam that he wouldn’t stand a chance with a practiced fighter that Sam actually let that reality in.  But even then, he still felt protected somehow by the verdict of the Italian gang in 1954.

With college, Sam’s hair began a circuitous path, possibly in search of the strength he had known as a youth.  During college, it got longer—and longer still during graduate school.  That led to years of long and kinky hair, what was then called a jewfro.  The Jewfro, in particular, earned his wife’s resounding approval.  But even the jewfro eventually fell to shorter hair.  Middle age brought the type of cut that could be brushed and given a part.  That was an intermediary stage.  With each few years, Sam’s grew shorter and shorter until it culminated in its present day buzz cut, which was a short as it could be without making him bald.

When his haircut is complete, he glances at the mirror, squares his shoulders, and energetically walks out of the shop to his “muscle car,” a gray Toyota Camry.  .

 

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Playing God

It’s hard to know how well even the most intimate seeming friends and lovers know one another.  Here’s a story that is as idiosyncratic as they come but maybe there’s a part of it that you can identify with.

Years ago, friends invited me to a play.  Or that’s what they said.  I’m pretty sure they just wanted me to meet the woman who directed the play.  Let’s call her Sally.  Sally was very attractive.  Her work and her world seemed exotic.  It had been a while since I had ventured among artists.  And I took the bait.

The play, itself, had been written by Sally’s boyfriend, that is, her soon-to-be ex boyfriend.  We’ll call him Bob.  At the center of the play was a female robot.  She was very beautiful, winsome and willowy, with long blond hair, dressed in a cinch waist dress that emphasized all of her endowments.  Most important of all, this human-looking robot happily did whatever her “lover” ordered.  When he wanted her company she was there.  When he wanted to be alone, she almost magically disappeared—without a fuss.  She was sexual when he needed that, maidenly when it suited him, motherly when that was the order of the day.  Who could ask for anything more.

This was 1970 and, even then, I knew it was a thinly veiled feminist tale.  Not bad for a guy to write.  But Sally thought otherwise.  She told us that there was no satire here.  This was exactly what Bob wanted in a relationship.  Which was why she had to leave the relationship.  Pretty soon, I learned, or thought I learned, that I would be an alternative model, a man who wouldn’t order Sally around, a man who would take an interest in her, not just how she could serve me.  That fit my self image so well that, like a new actor on the stage, I simply accepted the role.

I don’t remember if Sally and I reached common ground on Bob’s intentions but we did see eye to eye on other things.  We began seeing one another, eventually became a couple, founded a little urban commune, and, after a year or two broke up.  The commune that we had formed was rapidly transformed by Sally.  She had become a player in one of the spiritual orders that had sprung up everywhere in Cambridge during the 70’s.   Soon young followers flocked to our doorsteps, some for short and others for indefinite stays.  They hadn’t exactly been invited but they somehow knew they were welcome.  Sally certainly welcomed them and I, known then as Daddy Ari, presided.  To put it more crudely, I paid the rent and handed out advice.  Before I knew it, we had become a spiritual commune.

Both of us had come off of rough marriages and the commune was meant to serve as a buffer between us, a way for us to be close but not too close.  The strategy worked all too well, and we split up within two years of the spiritual conquest at our commune.   I was relieved but also amazed.  I hadn’t realized that a spiritual practice was so central to her life.  I hadn’t taken that directions seriously enough.  When she had tried to convert me, which was often, I pushed away, first gently, then less so, and, eventually, with a harshness that surprised and upset me.  I used to say that the only way that Sally would accept the authenticity of our differences was for me to get mean, but I hated myself when that happened.

I should add that I had such an overweening belief in my own powers of reason and persuasion that I convinced myself that I would be able to convert her.  She would understand that differences were good.  A pluralistic universe was the world at its best.  I explained my own Existential philosophy and budding Buddhist beliefs.  All to no avail.  My failure didn’t really shake my belief in myself, though.  It just convinced me that her defenses were impregnable.  And, of course, it didn’t occur to me that mine were, too.

Our break up seemed amicable.  We were, after all, amicable people.  She according to her Sufi code and me according to my psychologically-based values.  We shared the sadness of it all, though neither of us was too sad.  Sally continued to nurture her community and I went off to another commune, this time filled with urban intellectuals who I imagined would be more simpatico.  They weren’t.  My four year old daughter summed up what eventually became our shared assessment this way: “They be’s mean to me.”  But that’s a story for another time.

A couple of years later, Sally invited me to a theatrical extravaganza, as “cosmic celebration,” that she had created and staged in Boston’s Armory.  At the center of the armory she had used scaffolding to build a multi-level structure.  At the first level, there were saints, at the next, angels, and so forth, though I can’t really remember all of the gradations, based on their nearness to divine realization.  There must have been a hundred players.  At the top, sat God.

Sally asked me if I would be willing to sit atop the structure, atop the moral and spiritual universe, and play God.  Since I didn’t believe in God—and Sally knew this very well—I was a little skeptical about the request and asked what lines I would have.  What would God say?  “Nothing,” said Sally.  “Your job would be to sit in divine silence.”  While there is something appealing about “divine silence,” I declined the role.  Still, I remembered how uncompromising I had been when we were together and worried that I was being a bad sport.

After some time and considerable reflection, it occurred to me that this silent, beatific role was the one she had wanted me to play all along.  Wise, mute, and endorsing.  She had listened to my psychological insights, my philosophical ramblings, my political rants, but she had probably only tolerated them, maybe enjoyed them once in a while.  I wanted communication, respect, maybe even to be known.  I wanted the power of my ideas to win the day.  But, again, I had missed the point.  Had I wanted her to be a robot?  God, I hope not.  But it’s hard to avoid the realization that I did want to mold her to a vision of what my good woman should be.  Or, at least, how the woman for me could be.

And I began to see what Sally wanted, too:  A strong, overarching presence, godlike and watching over her.  Who wouldn’t want that.  At the time, I didn’t understand, no less sympathize.  I just knew that the imagery that informed her man made me uneasy.  So I returned to my distance.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure that we never knew one another, never knew why we really came together, and certainly didn’t understand why we had broken up.

A Usable Past

As in many families, mine fought to determine the lineage of each of its three children.  It was decided that I was my father’s child.  I was said to look and act like him and to have cornered a large share of his genes.  My brother was my mother’s child and my sister was a shared treasure.  My parents may have initiated the selection process but, almost from the start, others joined in—aunts and uncles, friends and business associates.  Everyone had an opinion.  “No doubt,” they said, “Barry is just like his father.”

My place on the paternal side of the ledger was established early, often, and powerfully.  If I or anyone objected to the genetic coding, for instance, we were scolded and told to get in line: “You’re blind,” they intoned.  So it was with my siblings, even though it was clear that we all shared characteristics and influences from both parents and their extended families.

I may have been fifty years old when I looked in the mirror and decided that I didn’t look anything like my father.  I didn’t act that much like him, either.  In fact, my mother seemed more familiar to me, but my brother wasn’t ready to concede his place, even though he had inherited many of my father’s traits and would have loved to claim some of the currency of being the first son.

Researchers tell us that we have amnesia for life before the age of three and a half and that the memories we have from that time on are clearer and stronger when our parents help us to organize them.  They take the fragments of our own memories and weave them into a coherent story—like the story of how I would carry on my father’s intellectual aspirations.  Even what we experience as our private memories are really collective creations.

The stories we create are not random but purposeful, and in this sense, and odd as it may sound, remembering is also purposeful.  That purpose varies from time to time and, of course, person to person.  But each person and each time includes purpose.  Some people paint sentimental pictures to comfort themselves in the present.  My father and his sister, for example, were abandoned in early childhood by their tuberculosis-plagued mother, and painted a highly romanticized portrait of her almost saintly kindness and generosity.  By painting her that way they virtually created the mother they needed when they were alone and lonely—and in addition, painted a less shameful picture to the world.

Others tell stories of harsh and painful childhoods to illustrate the difficulties they have had to overcome—or to justify the limitations they feel in the present.  By inheriting my father’s mantle, I could virtually own for myself the horror of his upbringing, and this story supported me as I struggled, feeling like a poor boy from a poor school during my first years at Harvard.

It’s not that we are inventing these stories out of whole cloth, and it’s not like we are trying to deceive anyone.  We believe the stories we tell in creating what Van Wyck Brooks once called “a usable past.”  And we learn to overlook where the stories diverge a little from memory or credibility and to weave the discrepancies back into the story.  For instance, I never thought that my childhood difficulties rivaled those of my father but I did come to believe that his problems showed up in his parenting, which in turn means that, in some way, I shared his childhood.

Even though we feel the stories we tell about ourselves are highly personal, even individual, other people’s stories are woven into them.  And large cultural themes make their way in, as well.  There is hardly an American, for instance, who has not been influenced positively or negatively by the Horatio Alger narrative about going from “rags to riches.”  We all judge ourselves according to this tale, even if we have just stayed in place.  Hence the pleasure we take in telling the story about rich people: They are born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple.  We, on the other hand, have had to earn our keep.

In traditional societies, there are ritualized ways of telling our family histories in order to create a sense of continuity and connection.  You see that in the Bible, where Adam begat Seth and so on down the line.  And there are often specific individuals in each community assigned to do so.  In modern society, we have neither the rituals nor the designated story tellers and must do so ourselves.

In fact, it’s possible that our lack of a clear path backwards as a way to explain the present, combined with a vague and general sense of social isolation, are the reason for the current mania over genealogy. Websites like Ancestry.com and TV shows like Finding Our Roots have emerged to remedy the holes created by lost rituals.  According to an ABC News report, “genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the United States, after gardening.”  Ancestry.com, alone, has over two million users and recently sold for $1.6 billion.  It seems we are all in search of a past to enhance our lives.

We may be looking backwards so much because we, as individuals and as a society as a whole, have lost faith in the future.  I don’t think that ours is a forward-looking culture.   Better to find a sentimental or proud connection to the past.  The search for our roots can build pride and confidence, but I don’t think that people are taking the next step: truly translating their heritage into a usable past, one that points energetically and optimistically in the direction they need to go.

As for myself, I believe that distance and old age have finally freed me from my family competition.  I can put aside that story about who I am and where I come from.  I don’t experience the “forces” of history, familial and societal, as strongly as I once did.  I am a person with many influences, yet distinct in myself.  Sometimes, standing alone feels less sturdy but it also feels more free.

Loving Yourself by Loving Others First

One day, a long time ago, when my friend John and I were building a house in New Hampshire, he walked into the room where I was reading.  I looked up and there he was in all his glory: work boots, blue work shirt, rolled up sleeves and big forearms, high forehead with hair on the verge of receding.  A look of perpetual determination etched into his face.  When he saw me, John smiled and I smiled back. I liked John and took a simple pleasure in the relationship, , working hour after hour, side by side, cutting those posts and beams.

I was struck by how I liked John in a simple, unqualified way, and wondered why I couldn’t like myself in just that way.  Why couldn’t I be a really good friend to myself?  And do that consistently. At that time, this seemed like an insight of the first order.  If we could like or love ourselves in the relatively uncomplicated way we like our friends,  if we could rid ourselves of some good measure of self criticism, our lives would be so much more relaxing and satisfying.  Me, being me, I immediately tried to turn the many positive feelings I had for others inward and onto myself.  The goal was to take the focus off what was wrong with me, to minimize the critical voice within, and to love myself.

I teased out qualities I liked in others that I might apply to myself.  I was curious, adventurous, fun, trustworthy, honest, authentic.  At least I thought so.  But turning those qualities inward was like trying to apply paper to ice.  They didn’t stick.  Or they didn’t penetrate.  The effort was neither believable nor soothing.  I was who I was, the same complicated, sometimes difficult guy I had always been.

That failure got me thinking, though.  Had there been ways that I’d actively improved my feelings about myself?  Sure.  The most striking effort took place when I was in the eleventh grade.  For a few years, I had had a difficult time socially.  I wasn’t shunned but I wasn’t so well liked, either.  As I pondered my dilemma, it occurred to me that people would like me better if I liked them. Not such a profound idea, I’ll grant you.  I mentioned it to my mother who thought it ridiculous. “You can’t change yourself or others,” she declared definitively.  But I had an idea.

The first thing I needed to do was to figure out what was most likeable about each potential friend—and not just superficially.  What qualities, I wondered, would they like noticed in themselves.  What part of their character might even have been unnoticed or unappreciated by other teenagers,  yet be important to them?.  Like being a kind person, a determined person, a soulful person.  My attention had to touch something deep and, maybe, partly hidden.  And it had to matter that a person like me noticed.  I was intense and determined.  The fit was as important as the character traits.  Only then might the relationship grow closer.

This approach worked in a way that trying to love myself failed.  I did grow closer to the guys on the football and basketball teams, who liked being seen as tough and kind, to the girls who liked talk with boys, not just other girls, about feelings, and to the nerds, who thought no one saw them. When our relationships revolved around these exchanges, they grew stronger.  And this is the approach that has guided my relationships ever since.

The most sustained period guided by my eleventh grade insight was the thirty odd years that I served as a therapist to individuals, couples, and families.  To create what we used to call a “therapeutic relationship,” I didn’t take the generally prescribed course of neutrality.  Instead, I aimed for loving relationships.  I knew that I needed to find a way to love even the most difficult patient if I were to be admitted to their inner sanctums, if I were to be permitted the privilege of making suggestions to them.  In a nutshell, my theory of change, went like this: connect with the best in people, then bring it out more and more into the open—and guide people on how to let those loving, enabling, strong qualities touch all the rest of who they were.

It may be clear how this approach helped my patients, but how did it help me and my desire to like myself better?  The answer is simple: It put me in touch with the best in myself.  Day after day, being a therapist required me to be deeply caring and consistently helpful.  Love and competency were linked each minute of my working day.  I would be focused on others, not on myself. Focusing on others with a desire to help placed me squarely within my values, squarely within my best professional capabilities, and squarely in relationship with people.

Let me put it another, topsy-turvy way.  I had positioned myself to succeed in my lifelong effort to make good friends with myself.  All I had to do was to work diligently at my craft.  I made friends with myself by being a good friend to others.  In that position, I felt calm much of the time. It was an almost meditative calm. I sometimes pictured myself as a Buddhist teacher.  It was also the type of calm that comes from highly concentrated attention to goals that stretched my ability.  My patients were not easily changed.  They wanted to feel better but rarely wanted to change.  To help them feel better in sustained ways, they needed to change.  And I could try, each day, to help. To do that I had to focus on them, not on me.

I am not suggesting that everyone become a therapist.  God forbid.  A world full of helpers would be beyond boring.  I am suggesting two things: first, that we can all position ourselves to love and help others in ways that also help us forget ourselves, that help us stop being self conscious and self-critical.  I have always been this way with friends. John is no exception.  My children and grandchildren also draw my positive attention.  Students, mentees and colleagues have generally elicited the same.

Here’s my second point: We live too much in a “me first,” narcissistic culture.  The basic idea is that you need to love yourself, take care of yourself, pamper yourself.  That’s as far as many cultural prescriptions go.  Some go further: If you love yourself well enough, you will be more capable of loving others.  Maybe.  But, in this narcissistic culture, I’m not sure you’ll be so inclined to love others or to put them first.  I believe that this is an unsuccessful and somewhat immoral strategy.

What’s more, the emphasis on self love, doesn’t prepare you very well for loving others. When your learning agenda focuses on self love, you only build up experience with one person.  When you learn to understand and love many others, you build up a diverse world of experience, because, like my eleventh grade friends, each requires specific insight and specific action strategies.  You build up a much greater range of loving capacity.

In short, I want to turn our culture’s approach to self love on its head.  Don’t focus on yourself.  Don’t pamper yourself.  That won’t do the trick.  The most effective approach leads through loving others.