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Posts from the ‘Handling unwanted advances’ Category

Back in the trap

Here’s a string of events: in less than a week, two encounters with the Law; three dead animals (not counting the gull from “Impaired”); one dream of a marriage proposal in the closet; one nightmare about an impossible writing deadline; and an unusual run of clumsiness (bumps and scrapes).

Encounter with the Law 1:

I’m driving home in my coastal town at 11 pm, which means that all the streets are post-apocalypse empty. Big sky filled with stars, but otherwise no lights. Then suddenly, as I’m pulling up to my cottage, my rear view mirror explodes with red-white-blue  lights and I almost lose it, my bladder control, that is. So maybe I did fudge a stop sign back there in my rush to get to the toilet. All cooperation, I put the car in park, grab my license and registration, open the door and step out, and a tall skinny kid in uniform screams out in a shrill voice, “Get back in the car, ma’am! Back in the car!” Easier said than done when you’re about to wet your pants. I get back in the car and roll down the window. I’ve got my niece-the-filmmaker in the passenger seat and  already working this into a scene for her project in progress. The guy’s now standing next to my window and asking to see my papers  and starts the guessing game. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” “No sir, I don’t.” “I pulled you over for two reasons. Do you know what they are?” “No sir, I don’t.” “I’m wondering if you’re driving impaired.” “IMPAIRED?!? Meaning?” “Meaning you’ve been drinking.” “Hardly,” I snap at him. “I’ve got a leaky bladder  and if I don’t get into the house this minute this car’ll be impaired.””Well, ma’am, I don’t know about that, but I’ll try to make this quick.” He hustles goes back to his car to check my papers. I have to make small talk to keep my mind off the rising waters. “You’re new here, aren’t you, sir?” “No, I’ve been here over a year.” “Well, it’s the first time I’ve seen you in the twenty-five years I’ve been living here.” “OK, ma’am. So you kind of cruised through that stop sign back there.” “Yes, sir, I know: it’s on account of my leaky bladder.” “Sorry ma’am. And your license light is out.” “I know, sir. It’s been out since my Jack Russell terrier chewed through the electrical system and we haven’t been able to get it working since then.” “Sorry ma’am. No problem. Just thought you’d want to know, ma’am.” “May I get in the house now, sir?” “Yes ma’am.” “Thank you, sir.” And on that, we parted ways, and the night was once again dark, mysterious, and ripe for metaphysical speculation.

Encounter 2:

I leave my poodle in the parked car, windows open, while I’m in yoga class. It’s early in the morning, and the street is in heavy shade. Ninety minutes later I’m back in the car and the phone rings. “Officer Mumble Mumble: we’ve had a report of a dog in distress in your car. Just wanted to let you know I checked and the dog’s not in distress.” “Thank you, Officer Mumble Mumble.”

Three dead animals:

two field mice in the garden and one fat old mole on the steps to the street. All three are composting now in the compost bin provided by the city and waiting for pick up next Tuesday.

Marriage proposal in the closet (dream):

The New York Public Library has never been as extravagant, as labyrinthine, as I made it out  in my dream. I added several more stories , filled them with amazing, cavernous ballrooms, auditoria in the Moorish style, club rooms , glorious staircases, marble and leather and velvet everywhere, stained glass, marquetry, columns, mirrors, ornate frames, paintings, ingenious connecting passageways, beveled glass… in a word: a dreamscape of enchanting beauty. I am looking for something, running late, and I dash into my room (which somehow is somewhere in  this architectural ensemble), dive into my closet for a change of clothes, and suddenly (!)  a man appears and falls on his knees, and he’s asking me to marry him.

Thrilled and without thinking I say, “YES!” And then I immediately regret it, because I can see  marriage to this  man stretching  into a tedious future of polite pretense,  but it’s already impossible to revoke that “Yes.” And besides, the deadline for the piece I’m supposed to be writing is ten hours away and I’ve only just started it, and I’ve no idea what to say. When I wake up, I feel oddly at peace with the world, especially because the air is fresh and crisp the way it is in the ripeness of summer, promising a very hot day.

And now, to the main attraction:

The telephone call  comes after nearly a month of silence. He wants to know when I’m scheduling ankle surgery  so that he can come and take care of me, as I had cared for him when he had fractured his ankle five years ago. I appreciate his generosity and concern and blame myself for the suspicion that wells up that his offer might not be entirely selfless, but might be motivated by his own agenda. Nota bene: he makes an offer of help. I hear his offer of help as a request for help.But he never asks me for help. So that request might be all in my head only. Or not.

I listen carefully to the tone of his voice (formal, guarded) and the context of the conversation in which the offer is embedded (the chronic concerns with finances and love), and I am drawn again by the familiar impulse to hear his offer as a request for help and then to jump in and help. And at the same time, I am aware of a contrary impulse to back off, followed by the fear that failure to help might have terrible consequences, and that, in turn, leads to the thought that one should always help when one notices the impulse to help in oneself. In this explosion of emotions and thoughts, I apologize for having to cut the conversation short because I am about to be locked out of my yoga class.

It takes me 45 minutes to calm down, even with the guided breathing and the familiar moves of my practice. I can’t breathe. My body aches. My mind keeps slipping back to the conversation and tries to figure out what really happened in that conversation and what is the right response. And for the rest of the day, I bang my head against car doors, closet doors, the edges of tables, cabinet doors. Things are beating up on me and telling me, in the words of Ferlinghetti, “What’s on your mind? What do you have in mind? Open your mouth and stop mumbling.”

Here’s what I have in mind: I am not a service station.



Dear Dr. Self,

I seem to be collecting more than my share of “crap” (pardon the naturalism) from old boyfriends and various members of my family: people who feel entitled to sling their opinion about everything from my weight and hair to the way I handle money and time. What can I do to put an end to these intrusive and I think destructive onslaughts of allegedly well-intentioned feedback? I ‘m not so narcissistic as to think that the criticism is not deserved. I’ve managed to mess up my life in various ways over the years. But I’m tired of defending myself and justifying myself to people. I don’t assume to critique their every step, so what gives them the right to assume I need to be constantly set on the straight and narrow? Some days I feel like a green horse in a dressage class: constantly corrected. What am I doing wrong?

Sick of Feedback





Dear Ms Sick,

You know what you’re doing wrong: you’re asking for it, and you’re getting it. Stop asking for feedback already! Sure, you may not be actually sending out questionnaires to your family and ex-s, but your behavior invites feedback. My experience tells me that people who are constantly being corrected are living in ways that cause other people problems or worries. In other words, something about your behavior chronically gets in the way of other people’s ability to function anxiety free, or free of anxieties produced by you. Take care of your own stuff, make sure you are meeting your responsibilities, keeping your word,showing up places on time, paying your bills, and you’ll find there won’t be any more complaints. Ever hear the phrase ” living an irreproachable life?” That’s what you should aim to do. Make a list of all the things and behaviors for which people reproach you and use it to check up on yourself. I’ll bet you within two weeks you’ll have cut down the negative feedback by 85% and within six months, you’ll be wondering why nobody’s on your case. Report back to me in six months: I want to know how it feels to be “beyond reproach!”

Dr. Self

The phone

Thank you, Innocenzo Manzetti, Antonio Meucci, Johann Philipp Reis, Elisha Gray, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, for having laid the tracks for my Blackberry phone. Without  your genius for tinkering and your bold imagination, I would not have been able to connect with a dozen people today ( and I might have gotten a lot more done on this tedious project I am obliged to do by virtue of the fact that I am a citizen of the US; namely, file my taxes). I still have no idea how a telephone — land line or digital or cellular or IP— works and don’t have the patience to plow through the explanations.

I do have very distinct memories of the phones in my life. The first one in our family appeared  in 1953, in Italy, in the San Giovanni district of Trieste.

It was a black, wall-mounted model like the one above, and we had it installed to the right of the kitchen door, in the corridor that ran like a spine down the length of the apartment. It was up rather high, over my head, and I had to stand on my toes to reach the receiver. It rang with a piercing, shrill shriek that instantly triggered the adrenal glands to spurt adrenalin. Every morning, after his first espresso of the day, my father called his best friend, a radio announcer by the name of Martin, for a leisurely chat. He would stand in the hall way in his “wife-beater”  and tan shorts, his new belly (which he proudly  called his PANCIA) stuck out, and the two of them would strategize topics for broadcasts. Then he would go into the kitchen and run through a number of voice-tuning exercises to establish the day’s pitch.  My mother used the phone to call us home for dinner when we’d be playing at the stadium which my girlfriend’s parents managed. I didn’t use it much, except during my sleep walking episodes, when I would grope under it, looking for something, and then stumble back to bed, oblivious of what I’d been doing.

This  happened on nights of the full moon, when the lunatics in the asylum shrieked, moaned, howled, and cried. This was the same asylum that in 1973 would  play a pivotal role in the adoption of the “Trieste Model” of mental health by the World Health Organization. In 1961, five years after my nocturnal wanderings under the telephone had come to an end,  a remarkably humanitarian psychiatrist named   Franco Basaglia undertook a revolutionary experiment in the asylums of Gorizia and Trieste by introducing a culture of collective social responsibility for the insane, opposing the policy of exclusion that had characterized the treatment of the insane in Western Europe, and ended with the closure of the asylums.

Basaglia was horrified when he visited the asyla in Gorizia and Trieste and saw the inmates locked in cells, tied down to beds,rolling in their excrement, weeping. He was convinced that their plight was caused as much by psycho-physiological factors as by the environment in which they were incarcerated, and set about experimenting with eliminating the conditions which were standard operating procedure for dealing with the demented. In 1978  largely thanks to Basaglia’s pioneering work, the Italian government passed Law 180 outlawing insane asylums.

While this legislation was being enacted, I was deep into my first year of teaching at a small liberal arts college and relying on the telephone to keep in touch with my family, fiancé, and friends and mentors. I had access to two phones, both table models, one in my office, and one in my studio apartment.

We had been relying on the phone to keep the family intact during years when my father was gone for long periods of time building up his career.The ringing of the phone spelled anxiety, because my father was always tense and stressed, and whatever he said to her — which I didn’t hear — usually put a crease between my mother’s eyes and lines on her forehead, and made her fidgety and nervous with us children.

When I turned  16,  the phone became a key player in my  social life. It was a touch tone desk model like the one above and it sat on the pale grey chest of drawers in my parents’ bedroom off the kitchen in that dismal town where my parents taught at one of the great Land Grant universities. One of the people I talked to on that phone was a member of the ZBT fraternity next door to the apartment house where we lived.

Weekends the ZBTs threw raucous keg parties whose main goal was getting  drunk to the tune of The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” and screaming, howling, and shrieking like the lunatics in Trieste. The moon’s phases didn’t play a role here. Understandably, my father had to be persuaded to let me to go to a formal with this ZBT fellow on the condition that I be home by 10 pm. My date swallowed and agreed.    We had just enough time to pose for a formal photo against a floral arch  and dance a couple of times before he had to take me  home. We walked out while the brothers and their  dates were still arriving.  I was mortified, of course. After that, the “relationship” limped along another month or so. The poor fellow phoned a few more times  but I stopped returning his calls.   I was busy “talking” with a high school senior and a college man with a big nose and a passion for diving off the high board. Both had the hots for me , which was terrifying and exciting and  baffling.

I spent hours with them on the phone, talking about absolutely nothing. My arm went numb and the receiver in my hand got  slick with sweat from I  trying to think of something to say with the added strain of having my parents hovering in the background and my father  ready to fly off into one of his rages because I was not working on chemistry. So, in retrospect, that Midwestern phone was for me an instrument of torture.

To this day I loathe long telephone calls. With a passion.

I’ll skip over the string of phones that umbilicated me to subsequent boyfriends on various continents and cities.There was always a lot of drama around these phones: the thrill of getting the call. The distress of not getting the call. The infuriating and maddening busy signal. The cresting jealousy that went with an unanswered call. The frustration of aural presence in the absence of skin contact. The overheard phone call from another woman. The “gotta run” phone call. The phone call that marked a turning point, when his voice came from some hollow place where heart had been a day before, and you knew there was nothing you could do to bring back the warmth. It was gone and no amount of sobbing and pleading could fix what was broken.

The phone turned into an instrument of exclusion about seven or eight years after the DYNAtac became commercially available in 1983. In fact, I hold the cell phone responsible for a lot of the mischief and heartbreak of those years when the man in my “BIG relationship” started having affairs. He’d disappear for hours  on end into his study or the garden or the bathroom and I’d hear him laughing and hooting and I’d try to catch a word or two and try to figure out who he might be talking to. I really think that the security of the cell phone — the fact that he knew I couldn’t get on the other line and eavesdrop — made it possible for him to carry on  and exclude me more and more from his intimate life. If I had to name  a single OBJECT that was consistently destructive to our relationship, I’d have to say it was the phone, in all the evolutionary incarnations through which it passed in the course of our twenty-five year relationship.

A few years after the wrenching denoument of that love story,  my new Motorola RAZR carried me into a new relationship that lurched and stumbled and skated and flew and floundered along on the Blackberry, Skype, the  i phone, and a succession of Mexican, Italian, Russian, and Lithuanian telephones. A lifetime of phones.