Despite how unappealing it would be to the average person, there’s an advantage to earning your living doing colonoscopies: other than in politics and social media, assholes don’t talk. Another choice for healthcare professionals who wish to avoid conversation is dentistry. It’s hard to talk with instruments camping in your oral opinion factory. But once in a while, bedside manner and all that, your dentist will ask a question, and they’ll pretend to listen for moments before they cram another instrument in your mouth. My new Portland dentist had that moment and asked the classic, “What do you do?”
“I’m retired; I was a marriage counselor.”
“What’s the secret to a lasting marriage?”
“Most marriage counselors will say, ‘communication and understanding,’ but that’s bullshit. It’s acceptance.”
The dentist shoves an instrument into my mouth.
The dentist’s assistant seems to like my answer (but he’s about twelve years old and unmarried): “Yeah, compassion.”
Good try, but by acceptance, I mean neither compassion nor how it may sound, resignation. I mean, it’s the only way longterm relationships—any longterm relationship—can sustain.
As I’ve stated previously, communication, as most understand it, is either biologically impossible (as professed by neuroscientist Humberto Maturana and those influenced by his work) or psychologically and cognitively unreliable (as supported by numerous theories in psychology and cognition). In either case, this means it’s the receiver not the sender who determines the meaning of a message. Yet, since the sixties, better communication has been the Holy Grail of reducing conflict between spouses, parents and their children, business associates, and more currently, the polarized extremes in modern domestic politics.
How communication became the solution to conflict
In the first half of the twentieth century, pioneering psychotherapist Sigmund Freud and his followers focused on treating emotional problems that (he believed) stemmed from cultural sexual repression during the Victorian era. In Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, neuroses developed from internal conflicts—animal instincts (the id) versus culture (the super-ego) in an intra-psychic cage match, with the ego as the referee.
Several cultural changes shrunk Freud’s influence: the birth control pill and subsequent relaxation of cultural sexual repression; the leap in propaganda used in war and advertising that led to the study of communication to deceive;1 the evolution of marriage; and psychotherapy moving from a focus on individuals in internal conflict to individuals in relational conflict.
If the fifties in America was the “silent generation,” the sixties was the generation that would not stop expressing itself. Articles about psychology and relationships escaped from magazines targeted to women to newspapers and magazines meant for all. A new magazine, Psychology Today, dispensed relationships research in popular language.
Interest in communication began to generate scientific research. The social scientist Gregory Bateson attended the 40s–50s Macy conferences on cybernetics (“control and communication in the animal and machine”) and related fields—subjects previously tied to either the interests of war or to basic brain research.
After the conferences, Bateson received a grant to study communication. A trained anthropologist, Bateson hired researchers for his team to study the utterances of schizophrenics in the Veterans Hospital of Palo Alto. When Bateson’s grant ended after ten years, he went on to study communication in chimpanzees, octopuses, and dolphins, but his team and consultants stayed in Palo Alto to found the Mental Research Institute (MRI). With books, conferences, and trainings, MRI became the most influential idea center to train therapists to deal with relationship issues.
In Western cultures, marriage evolved from practical alliances of tribal, national, or household to romantic, and eventually, to best friend. Marriages, once dictatorships, became partnerships, and partnerships need agreements, (largely implicit in marriage), and agreements need communication.
As if marriage didn’t have enough cultural responsibility—its stated and unstated rules and regulations for the right kind of coupling—in modern western culture, marriage has become a prototype for all types of relationships, even business. We’re supposed to relate to everyone as if we’re raising children together.
If not communication, what?
My articles have laid down my belief that because all realities are local to individuals, all incoming signals to our mind must get past border crossing agents so suspicious that little intended meaning is allowed through. Even your most devoted listener isn’t going to understand you. The good news is, regardless, some of us get along well enough to be friends, relatives on good terms, and intimate companions. The bad news is we believe we should get the good stuff in relationships without the conflicts, and that if we only communicated better, we’d understand each other better, and the conflicts could be tossed into the recycling bin and remanufactured into fluffy stuffed animals and Disney animated movies.
It’s common wisdom that generals are always fighting the last war. Nowhere was this better illustrated than when the Polish Calvary—that’s right, soldiers riding horses—attempted to beat back Hitler’s tanks in 1939.3 Not many years after the end of World War II, pioneering marriage and family therapists were still riding their theories designed to treat individuals into the mire of marriage and family therapy. Previously, because adult relationship problems were viewed as the manifestation of neuroses based in childhood,4 a couple asking for marital help would have been referred to separate individual psychotherapists. Marriage counseling was primarily the domain of the church minister. That era was not far in the rearview mirror when I began my graduate internship in family therapy. I was at best on my own or worse doing battle with my supervisors.
My first experience in private practice (that is, working under my own license) was with a man and a woman, unmarried but living together. I don’t recall much about the counseling other than the sessions were directionless. My lack of training in marriage counseling meant I had no agenda. The three of us talked and after several months, the members of the couple felt resolved, set a wedding date, and we ended the sessions.
The expression goes, fish don’t know they live in water. They also don’t know when their water is polluted and that their health is deteriorating. To couples living in discontent, the discontent pollutes everything in their relationship, conscious or not. By talking together, it’s not hard to remind those who love each other but are going through a bad patch that they still love each other. Any reasonably competent counselor can tip the conversation towards bringing out what got them together in the first place. Eventually, they’re swimming in the reminder of what they like in each other.
Gettin’ some education
Over the next few years, I read nearly every book that came out about marriage and family therapy. I experimented with the ideas, implemented some well and some badly, retained the ones that worked and discarded the ones that didn’t. You’d think after my book knowledge and later experience, I’d speak with authority on how couple counseling works and doesn’t work. Limited authority, anyway. But I don’t. I do, however, have some ideas about how couples work, or don’t, and who benefits from couple counseling and who doesn’t (at least with an unexceptional marriage counselor as I am).5
The following is likely to be disbelieved by many if not most marriage counselors. They can write their own articles.
It’s not complicated. I note three types of couples who make it to counseling.6 The first two come with one or both of them immunized against success in marriage counseling. First, when one of the members has already left the marriage but is coming to sessions to demonstrate that he or she tried. I find it cruel to extend these sessions beyond when the soon-to-be-left partner gets it. Second, when the members of the couple don’t like each other (let alone love each other) but don’t want to be alone. They are the type of couple most likely to end the sessions, quickly. If they stayed, they’d have to face that they don’t want to be together. Last, the couple who love each other but encounter problems when they must adapt to change, typically around job, money, children, and their living situation. I believe it is nearly impossible for a counselor to have success extending a marriage with the first two types of couples, and I could usually tell quickly when I encountered one of them.7
Whether consciously or subconsciously, experts can’t observe action in their domain of expertise without getting drawn in. I can’t help but notice the interaction between the members of couples. What I observe is that couples who’ve managed to stay together for decades are not particularly good at listening to each other or understanding each other. And I cannot assign the success I had in marriage counseling to the clients improving their listening or understanding each other.
(Spoiler alerts ahead)
What I believe creates a lasting coupling is best illustrated by the TV series, Doc Martin. Martin Ellingham is a noted London surgeon who moves to a small fishing village to work as a general practitioner. During the series' ten seasons, his personality ranges from brusque and aloof to Asberger’s.8 (Either the show’s writers don’t know the difference or I don’t.) On the other hand, he’s a brilliant physician who becomes full-on heroic and caring during medical emergencies.
Into the seasons, despite Martin’s best efforts to subvert his happiness and his romance with his-wife-to-be, Louisa, marriage and child come to the couple but not for long as Martin continues to be Martin. His insensitivities grate on Louisa and she becomes fed up and leaves him. Martin and Louisa make a final attempt to rescue their marriage with sessions with a so-called expert psychotherapist, but the counseling fails miserably.9
(Spoiler alerts ahead, really!)
The last episode of the seventh Doc Martin season has the most illustrative moment of what defines a successful coupling. Martin and Louisa, are currently separated. Martin is held under gunpoint on a rural farm because a patient’s wife demands Martin come up with a miraculous cure for her terminally ill husband. After the bumbling sheriff fails, Louisa rescues Martin. In the final scene, they’re sitting and talking on a hilltop on the farm. Louisa realizes she wants to be with Martin regardless of his insensitivities.
You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.
Louisa apparently concludes that (in my words) coupling is not about communication and understanding; it’s about acceptance, acceptance of differences, even differences of how love and caring is expressed. Because our cognitive system can’t grasp another’s version of reality, no matter how much we care for that person, we can’t communicate; we can’t understand. What we can do is accept the differences between ourself and another.
In sessions with couples, I believe the counselor’s main role is to maintain the harmony but leave the lyrics to the couple.10 In the case of the marriage counseling described above, I did not observe increased communication or increased understanding between the partners. I observed a process—being together in words and body language that created acceptance.
(Groom’s name), do you take (Bride’s name) to be your wedded wife, to live together in marriage? Do you promise to love her, comfort her, honor and keep her for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, and forsaking all others, be faithful only to her, for as long as you both shall live?
Do you take this person you found on the Tinder dating app to be your wedded spouse, to live together in marriage (in a four-bedroom house and three-car garage)? Do you promise to love this person, comfort this person, honor and keep this person for better or worse, for richer or poorer, (but define “poorer”) in sickness and health (as long as we meditate together), and forsaking all others, be faithful only to each other (except we each get a free one), until you realize you don’t get just the parts you like about your spouse?
The first version is the traditional marriage vow from the groom side’s from the Book of Common Prayer. The second version is from the book of How to do Your Own Divorce or Find the Right Lawyer.11 The second version is because those Disney movies you watched as a kid never show the after-the-wedding Prince throwing his dirty underwear on the floor and spending the weekend drinking beer and watching TV.
The difference between the two vows: in the second one, you’re unhappy that you don’t get just the parts you like about your spouse. In the first, you’re making a vow of acceptance. Five centuries ago, someone had coupling right.
Propaganda was a big part of pre-World War II and WWII itself and was major ammunition in the Cold War between the Western allies and the Soviet Union block. Advertising took off, care of Edward Bernays who exploited his knowledge of subconscious processes, thanks to his Uncle Sigmund Freud (his mother was Freud’s sister). ↩︎
I use “marriage” as shorthand for any category of intimate couples. ↩︎
Despite myth, the Polish Calvary did not attack the tanks with swords, but they might as well have. ↩︎
While that may be true, it doesn’t mean that a marital rift will be healed from dealing with individual issues. ↩︎
My comfort zone is one-on-one. Marriage and family therapy is conducting and refereeing. I don’t like conducting or refereeing. ↩︎
I’m not referring to troubled couples who don’t come to counseling. For various reasons, usually trust-related from their own history, many individuals have one foot out the door during the entire relationship. ↩︎
The main clue for one or both not being interested in making the marriage work are either petty arguments (with me or their partner) about the details of homework I assign or failing to do the homework at all. ↩︎
Asberger’s Syndrome is out of use in favor of Autism, which is a category too broad without going into clinical detail. ↩︎
I wrote my version of what should have happened. Nevertheless, the failure of the counseling was necessary for the plot. ↩︎
How the harmony is maintained depends on the approach of each therapist. I’m not teaching couple counseling here. ↩︎
There are similar books, but I invented that one. ↩︎
(This is a form of fan fiction, intended solely for educational purposes, that combines events from the Doc Martin TV show, Season 7, with stuff I make up.)
Dr. Rachel Timoney was looking forward to her first session with the eminent Dr. Martin Ellingham. She didn’t know much about him, apart from he was rumored to have abruptly resigned his prestigious position as head of vascular medicine at Imperial College, London. Chance would bring them together for an initial psychotherapy session. Dr. Ellingham (Doc Martin, to the locals) had taken a position in Portwenn, an isolated fishing village on the Celtic Sea. And she was spending a few months in Portwenn, writing and seeing a few patients.
Rachel Timoney was once considered a prodigy in her field. Nine years ago, at age 23, she was granted a doctorate in psychotherapeutic theory. Her research had gained a moderate bit of fame, even getting into a few newspapers at the time. Even she knew that being highly regarded as a psychotherapy expert at age 23 would be beyond stupid. Mathematicians do breakthrough work at 23. Physicists do breakthrough work at 23. Even those in the arts do breakthrough work at 23. Counselors do not do breakthrough work at 23. There are certain things you can learn through experience, only, and if anything, those gifted in academia have typically sacrificed life experiences to excel in studies. There’s an age between infancy and senility that someone can become a good therapist, and it ain’t 23.
In the years following receiving her doctorate, Timoney has worked on living up to her reputation. She’s done well, but from what she knew of him, she believed that having Dr. Martin Ellingham in therapy would be a novel challenge. It proved to be that.
Seconds after he sits for their initial session, Martin informs Timoney that he expects she’d diagnose him as having attachment disorder. (Timoney notes silently that Martin describes himself as if he were a third party.) Martin explains that he was “an unwanted, unloved child” and gives a brief account of his upbringing by his cold and self-centered parents. (Later, Timoney would recount to her mentor that if Harry Potter had Doc Martin’s parents, rather than sacrifice their lives for his, they would have swapped him to Voldemort for a MacDonald’s breakfast coupon.)
Martin makes it clear that he is aware of his interpersonal shortcomings. In discussing his marital difficulties, he accepts the entire blame. Responding to Martin’s depiction of his life, Timoney comments that he is as blunt with himself as he is with others. Martin had never considered that and feels his body relax into the thought.
At the close of the session, Timoney suggests that it’s rare that one member of a couple is the sole source of conflict and asks that his wife Louisa come for an appointment.
Dr. Timoney learns from their session that Louisa is an accomplished, articulate Portwenn schoolteacher. What Louisa is not, is eager to be in the session. She makes cracks about Timoney’s youth, implying that Timoney is inexperienced and naïve. Louisa contends that her marital problems are entirely due to Martin’s deficits in sensitivity, and that he should (as the English say) get them sorted without her involvement.
Responding to Dr. Timoney’s questions, Louisa states that her parents were “fine, normal as you like,” moments later adding that her mother abandoned the family when she was 12, but “I didn’t really need a mother by then.” And, by the way, her father “spent some time in prison” when she was a young child. After listening to herself describe her childhood as normal as you like, with reluctance, Louisa agrees to attend couple counseling.
In Martin and Louisa’s first couples session, Louisa begins with an account of their relationship. Louisa describes their awkward courtship: boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy marries girl, girl has baby, boy loses girl. If it were a TV show, Louisa explains, it’d be the usual get-them-to-watch-the-next-season stuff. But it’s not a TV show.1 Martin and Louisa don’t stay apart because of contrivances. They don’t miss a reconciliation because one of them is seen hugging an attractive stranger who turns out to be a sibling, while viewers yell explanations at the TV screen. Their problem is straightforward and never-changing. As much as Louisa wants to be with Martin, she’s constantly frustrated by his interpersonal limitations.
As Timoney has learned through her training, struggling couples often have repetitive interactional patterns that result in seemingly irresolvable conflicts. Commonly used interventions or experiments (as she prefers to think of them) can be used successfully with many couples. For example, have them experiment with a small (but designed to interrupt) behavioral change in the middle of a pattern of conflict. Or, if one or both members of the couple believes that conflict is bad, and have no way to deal with anger and resentment other than to withdraw (after all, avoiding conflict worked for their parents, right up to the divorce), the therapist can design a practice for successful conflict resolution.
As we shall see, commonly used interventions don’t work for everyone. And they do not for Martin and Louisa. Their pasts have left Martin with a limited repertoire of behavior and Louisa with small boundaries of trust. Their situation calls for a specialist, not a general practitioner. Timoney attempts three homework experiments that fail:
(1) Homework: Timoney has figured that Martin and Louisa have problems with physical intimacy, they are told to hug three times a day, while stating something nice about each other.
Failure: While it’s true that Martin is not a toucher, he does like holding Louisa. In this case, the not touching was an effect, not a cause of their psychological distance, and the homework just creates additional awkwardness. To add to the awkwardness, Louisa never thinks of anything positive to say to Martin.
(2) Homework: Because Martin is a control freak (affirmed by both Martin and Louisa), they are told to have an outing in which Louisa is in total charge. In theory, this will help balance their relationship.
Failure: Louisa decides on a picnic to the beach, where Martin is uncomfortable with the random elements of a beach and a picnic, but sets out to give Louisa a normal family outing. The outing is eventually interrupted by a medical emergency that Martin must attend to.
(3) Homework: Martin and Louisa did not have a typical courtship, that is, they didn’t date. Timoney suggests some conventional courtship outings. Martin and Louisa plan a restaurant date.
Failure: In just minutes spent at the restaurant (because of yet another medical emergency that requires Martin), Martin and Louisa experience the whole of their relationship awkwardness.
There’s a smorgasbord of reasons why these homework assignments were doomed. Leave room for dessert:
First, two of the assignments were exercises to get Martin and Louisa to engage more. That’s more, not better. More, not different. There wasn’t anything in these exercises that would help them engage better.
Second, each assignment was bound to make Martin feel even more awkward and more vulnerable. Martin’s increased awkwardness exacerbated the very things that Louisa finds unattractive in her husband. That is not a recipe to increase intimacy.
Third, characterizing Martin as a control freak is simplistic. He’s compulsive — habitual and tidy, beyond what most consider practical. But he’s not trying to control the behavior of others; he’s trying to control his environment in which other humans happen to be present. Being habitual and tidy is a common adaptation for those who have dealt with psychologically chaotic circumstances, especially in childhood. Even more significant, as Martin desperately wants to be with Louisa, she has the most meaningful control, control over his happiness. Martin is in control of nothing beyond his medical practice; he’s the most psychologically fragile person in Portwenn.
Fourth, Timoney misses an opportunity (which I’ll explain below) to cast Martin in a more positive light, which could have contributed to a major improvement in their relationship.
In Timoney’s mind, if her tried-and-true conflict-resolution schemes don’t work, it can’t be her fault. She salves her shrinking-ego (pun intended) through the time-tested technique of blaming her clients. After Martin and Louisa inform Timoney that they won’t be returning, she tells them that they’re “one of the most challenging cases I have ever come across.”
Dr. Timoney gets a Mulligan (in golf, a do-over)
(Up to this point, I was following the TV script. The rest is my contribution.) After Martin and Louisa decide to end counseling, Rachel Timoney feels relief, guilt, and regret — relief that she won’t have to watch herself struggle with her work, guilt that she feels that way, and regret that she did not help her clients. Timoney decides to confer with her old professor. Sure, he’s past his prime. He babbles too much, repeats himself, but now and then, he still conjures some inventive advice.2 But before she calls him, Timoney has a WTF moment. She knows what he’d say. Instead of calling her professor, Timoney contacts Martin and Louisa, apologizes for her last remarks, and states that she has some fresh ideas. Surprised by the apology, they agree to give counseling another try.
Anticipating the call to her professor, the conversation Timoney had with herself exposed that her interventions reeked of this worked in the past, so why be creative? She was being lazy: the experiments were designed with the relationship in mind, but not with the people in the relationship in mind. While couple counseling can counter interactional patterns that lead to relationship problems, that doesn’t mean you can ignore the distinctiveness that individuals bring to relationships.
Couples Therapy: it’s not just for couples anymore
Timoney notes that Louisa was right; she should have started with Martin. But not because he’s the one who needs to get his problems sorted. Despite the notoriety that Timoney got for her research, she forgot to implement her own hard-won knowledge. What her research yielded3 is that, when engaging in couple counseling, confronting a resistant client is rowing upstream.
Due to the influences of substance-abuse treatment and early family therapy, confronting clients became fashionable in the 1970s. When parents brought a child for treatment, they were told that the child’s behavior was usually a symptom of a dysfunctional marriage and poor parenting. A child client became labeled as the identified patient; the real patient, the parents were told, was the dysfunctional family, with the unspoken (and sometimes spoken) message that the parents were at fault. While confrontation made for dramatic teaching videos — therapist as action hero — the approach too often chased away the clients.4 After all, if the clients were willing to face their own problems, there wouldn’t have been all those identified-patient children in the first place.
Given the above, Timoney decides that the best course is to hold off on working directly with the relationship. As both Martin and Louisa feel that the major relationship problems lie with Martin, to avoid needless friction, Timoney opts for one-person couple therapy, the other leg of Timoney’s research.
Timoney (as have many before her) found that a change in one member of a couple can have a profound and positive effect on the relationship. Timoney knew that therapists have been practicing one-person couples therapy for decades, but have been intimidated against stating so by the family therapy mafia, who define family therapy by who comes to the session. That’s silly and never should have happened. Many family therapists apparently never moved past Piaget’s concrete-operational stage of development: once family therapy moved from the psychodynamic model to systems theory, it should have been obvious that if the client lives in a family, all therapy is family therapy.
Therapy with Martin
In discussing goals with Martin, he agrees that he would like to become more comfortable — fluid is the word agreed on — in his interactions with Louisa and with his infant son. He wants to make sure that he doesn’t recreate the relationships his parents had with him and with each other.
The experiments with Martin commence:
If you live in a cosmopolitan area where men commonly wear business suits, or you have watched episodes of Mad Men, you’ll notice that the men always unbutton their jackets when they sit and button them when they stand. A well-tailored suit jacket has no give, so a buttoned jacket pulls at the waist when the wearer is seated. Timoney jots this in her memory because it provides an inroad into a subtle experiment.
From the time he rises to when he retires for the night, Martin dresses precisely the same, in a suit with the top two buttons fastened on his three-button jacket. And you’ll observe that he never unfastens his suit jacket buttons, even when building a sandcastle with his son on the beach. A change in dress will give Martin the experience that nothing catastrophic will happen if he changes one habit.
In order, over several weeks:
To help Martin have the experience of overcoming a compulsive habit: (1) Timoney asks Martin to unbutton his jacket whenever he sits. (2) Next, she has him leave his jacket unbuttoned all day. (3) Last, she asks Martin to buy and wear casual clothes on his non-office days (presumably, the weekend). While change in one habit may seem trivial, the experience of that change can be a dramatic confidence builder.
To help Martin expand his repertoire of interpersonal responses and range of affect, Timoney exploits Martin’s desire for an enhanced relationship with his son: As stated, above, it’s obvious that Martin wishes to be involved with his son’s upbringing in a manner that sharply contrasts with how he (Martin) was raised. But he needs instruction and encouragement. While Martin gladly holds and bathes James, he does not exchange facial or noise expressions. We can assume that Martin’s deficit is a result of being neglected in infancy, that no facial expression mirroring took place between Martin and his parents.
(1) Timoney asks Martin to exchange facial and noise expressions with James. As James has learned to smile from his mother, Martin has the opportunity to both initiate and respond. (2) Rather than exchange hugs (as above), Timoney asks that Martin and Louisa trade smiles. (3) Timoney asks Martin to progressively expand his gestures of relationship beyond his son and wife. First, smile at his aunt (the one other person for whom he has affection), then his receptionist, then patients. This mildest demonstration of affect can teach him to better interact with others.
Marital grad school
After the above experiments, Timoney asks Martin and Louisa to come in together, once more. The experiments yielded a larger shift in their relationship than expected. To Timoney’s surprise, Louisa discloses that when she first met Martin, he was more outgoing and considerate. While never the life of the party, he was sensitive and generous to many in Portwenn and is acting that way again.5 Timoney realizes that she had made an assumption that Martin had always been this inhibited in his mood, sensitivity, and affect. Not learning otherwise was a rookie mistake.
Many couples have trouble in their relationship because they had no models of a good marriage. As both Martin and Louisa had parents with poor marriages, this could describe the experiences of both. However, some react the opposite of what you’d expect. Rather than stay away from marriage because they experienced poor models, they idealize what a good marriage would be like. Timoney asks each of them what a normal marriage is like. After some discussion, both admit that, while they have fantasies of a normal marriage, they guess that no such thing exists. Timoney states that fantasies of the extreme, positive or negative, usually get in the way.
Wrapping up: In their solo session, Timoney had suggested to Louisa that, given her background of abandonment by her parents, she (purposely) married someone who would leave her. As we find out, Louisa believes the exact opposite, that Martin is the most dependable and loyal man she’d ever meet. Given her background of abandonment, it’s easy to see that she picked Martin, not because he would leave her, but because he wouldn’t. If in early sessions, Timoney had made a better effort to bring this to light, it could have changed the context of their marital relationship. If every time Louisa glances at Martin and sees not someone who has a limited range of sensitivity and affect, but someone who loves her without reservation and will always be there for her and their children, Louisa’s entire attitude towards their marriage could shift.6
In the final session, Dr. Timoney, Louisa, and Martin discuss the wide variety of successful marriages. They conclude that Louisa chose Martin for his loyalty, and Martin chose Louisa because he saw in her that he could get the warmth and connection he desired.
Last year, my wife and I moved from Edmonds, Washington to Portland, Oregon to help with our newborn grandchild. At least that’s the explanation I put out. The real reason? I was scared to go out at night in Edmonds. I was afraid I’d run into the notorious gangs of dentists, lawyers, accountants, and the most chilling of all, the “lords of Edmonds mean streets,” the financial advisors. How else can I explain my continued practice in martial arts that I took up at age forty-eight? Yet, even with martial arts training,1 I was still intimidated by the ravenous hoards pushing their way to an eighty-dollar filet mignon. Hence: to Portland.
In truth, statistically, the most dangerous thing in my life would become the drive to the dojo, but after watching a documentary on the grace of Aikido,2 I wanted some of that. Unlike the Sundance Kid, I’m not better when I move, but I wished to become better when I move. Seven years in Aikido ended when the dojo closed. Two years in karate ended when my daughter could drive herself to the dojo. For the last fifteen years, my wife and I have pursued the more gentle-on-the body art of Tai Chi.
“Oh, my-my, what a sensation”
—the Beach Boys
In a nearby Portland park, we initiated our then ten-month-old granddaughter into a new sensation. Nana (Joan) sits Nova on her lap, arranges the infant’s extremities for safety, and wheeee down the park slide. The one-second adventure is Nova’s first thrill of speed.
At my age of ten (years, not months), we visited the relatives we left behind in Chicago. My family took our first ride on a commercial jet. The acceleration on takeoff was so thrilling that for years I anticipated another jet ride for just those seconds.
As thrilling as those rides are for Nova and were for me, it’s more fun when you’re the driver not the passenger, that is, when you get to control the speed that gives you thrills, such as when I learned to ski (badly), and when I pretended I was a race-car driver in the sports cars I owned in my early adulthood.
In infancy, our caretakers tend to our needs and fulfill our desires. But they fulfill our desires only as they see fit. Nova’s smile informs us that she likes the ride down the slide. Her kicking and screaming as we put her back in her stroller informs us she’s displeased that she has no control over when the sliding fun ends.
When Nova gets a little older, she’ll get to go down the slide by herself, and she’ll get to speed down the sidewalk on her trike. The older she gets, the more control she’ll have over speed and other sensuous thrills. Perhaps, she’ll take up a team sport such as soccer or an individual sport such as her big brother’s rock climbing or her mother’s martial arts.
Calvin and Hobbs
When our kids were ready for chapter books, Joan and I created our own bedtime-story habits. I read our son adult books and his younger sister, young-adult books. Joan read our daughter newspaper comics and our son, from Calvin and Hobbs books.3
One day, we found Adam sitting on the couch reading through a Calvin and Hobbs book on his own. He had realized he had learned to read by following the words in the book. Could he read, or did he just memorize the words in the one book? The answer came when he picked up the nearest novel in sight and began to read Jurassic Park.
The yearning for “mastery,” and by that, I mean attaining and maintaining a skill that brings independence4 starts at the breast (or substitute)—the umbilical cord has been severed, and I’m hungry—and lasts throughout life.
We associate learning with school, and school with children, and we associate learning with practical needs such as reading. But most learning has no obvious utility, and we could go about our lives just fine without. To pay the bills, we could learn law or plumbing and spend the rest of our time watching Netflix. If I cared to acquire only practical knowledge, I’d forget training in Tai Chi and study the manual that came with our new computer disguised as a washing machine.5
But there’s no difference between baby Nova and me. She didn’t recently learn to walk because she foresaw soccer in her future, and I don’t train in martial arts for self-defense or for the health advantages promoted in the Harvard Medical Journal. We both pursue mastery for its own sake because we’re humans and that’s how our species evolved.
Despite the years of training, I’m not good at martial arts, but I think I could hold my own against the older accountants and financial advisors. ↩︎
I saw the documentary seventeen years before I started to train in Aikido but my intention persisted. ↩︎
When she learned to read, our daughter read the Calvin and Hobbs books on her own. ↩︎
Mastery is used in two ways: competence, which is how I’m using it, and excellence.↩︎
Seriously, I doubt a Google engineer could understand the Miele manual. ↩︎
On a flight, seated behind a teenage girl, a novelist was having a get-off-my-lawn moment. With the click sound enabled, the girl tapped away on her iPhone. Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap… The nonstop cadence of the taps meant she could not be texting back and forth with friends. As the girl tapped away the entire flight, the novelist’s irritation dissolved into admiration and, finally, revelation. The girl was writing a novel.
I enjoy reading about how authors write and their opinions on the correct creative process. There’s no end of advice on how it should be done, which varies from “write every single day at the same time in a quiet space set up for only writing” to “write when the baby’s napping” or “take advantage of when you’re standing in line at Starbucks.” Or, if you’re on a jet at cruising altitude, stuffed into a tiny seat with no leg room, thumb tap on your iPhone.
Outlines and Notecards
In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.
I have a hunch my “dumbbell English” 1 class teachers felt the same way about me as Twain felt about the Parisians. Two attempts to pass a remedial English class at my community college resulted in grade F.
The goal of the class was to teach essay writing. We were instructed to begin our essay by making an outline and to take notes from our research on lined notecards. To produce the essay, we were to create an outline on which our notes would be distributed and transformed into prose. Voila (I know one more French word than Mark Twain did)—your essay.
Does anyone write this way? When I attempted an outline, I lasted as long as I would in the ring against Mike Tyson in his prime (or even on his deathbed). In retrospect, I believe most students created the outline after they wrote their essays, but at the time, I blamed myself for my failure.
Long motivated to become a licensed counselor, but aware of my academic deficits, I negotiated an academic path so I had to produce just two essays to get a master’s in clinical psychology. My undergrad degree was in applied art (which I’m terrible at), and my master’s was ninety-percent counseling internships with the “classroom” devoted to supervision. The downside? My writing woes plagued me well beyond those remedial English classes. My insecurities about writing contributed to my failure to complete my PhD.
My academic days ended long ago. In the meantime, computers and word processors came along to minimize my deficiencies in organizing and maximize my enjoyment of thinking on a screen and illustrating those thoughts with wordplay.
I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.
When I start to write, I don’t have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come. I don’t choose what kind of story it is or what’s going to happen.
So much for the expert writing advice to “have a plan.” My teachers’ instructions on how to write an essay presumed there was one best way (or, perhaps, just one way, as we were given no alternatives) to approach a writing project. And these instructions assumed that my brain works the same as theirs. There has to be a better way to nurture the abilities of a varied group of learners. Flannery O’Connor wrote before there were word processors, but some of us need more help.
Those classes were colloquially known as “dumbbell English,” and I failed my first two attempts. Four years later, at a different community college, I finally passed English 1A, so I could enter my junior college year. ↩︎