Turning Black by Turning White

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My twenty years as a ghetto shrink made me a guest in the world of inner-city Blacks. I miss parts of that world. I admired the rhythm of my clients’ speech, the words they had for things, and the stories they told. They got me started writing fiction because writing fiction is a way of living more than one life at a time. I wanted to sound like them. I wanted to tell stories the way they told them. Turning White was one short story I wrote, back in 2000. It was my way of turning Black.

I submitted Turning White to a literary magazine called New York Stories, published out of LaGuardia Community College, in the heart of it all. The kids at the college said I got it right. Somehow, they thought I captured the experience of an inner-city Black without being anything but White and without my ever setting foot in a Bed-Sty project. It was one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me.

The story got nominated for the Pushcart Prize, which is the thing to win if you’re a writer of short stories. It didn’t win, but the encouragement of it all kept me going with my writing.

I have re-published the tale on Medium. You can read it here.

Bubbles

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In my earliest memory of my mother, I must have been around three. We were at the beach. She had spread a towel out on the sand and was sitting there, doing whatever it was adults did when they sat on the beach in those days.

I didn’t pay much attention to what adults did back then.

I suspect my Aunt Cosette was there because she often was around whenever my mother did fun things. There was probably a transistor radio playing. It was 1960 or 1961, so imagine some early Rock. Seagulls were flying. A horseshoe crab, straight out of the Pleistocene was flipped over and getting an examination by kids. I had a plastic pail and was doing something with it and the sand.

I waded into the water.

This beach was on Long Island Sound. There are no big waves there. It’s a very safe place, as long as a kid doesn’t go out too deep. It’s like a wading pool.

I must have tripped or slipped or just totteled under the water. I had gone out too far, so I went under. When I went under, I saw my hand holding the pail. They looked the same, but strangely different through the water. I looked up towards the sun and I saw the light coming through. They looked different, too. And then there were the bubbles. These bubbles were the last of the air coming out of my lungs. I had never seen bubbles like that before and they were gorgeous. Continue reading

See, Do, Teach

If you think that going to therapy means you can go to a shrink’s office, unload all your problems, and walk away a new man, you’ll be disappointed. You might feel better for a minute, but if you go home and do the same things you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.

Therapy involves learning new skills. The couple who’s coming in for marriage counseling needs to learn to listen and respond differently. The anxious person must learn to relax; the depressed one, how to keep going; and the addicted one, why and how to stop using their substance. Every person must be able to observe themselves accurately and compassionately. The greater part of all this learning occurs outside the therapy hour, far from your shrink’s office.

A surgeon once told me they have a saying in medicine: see one, do one, teach one. Only when you complete all three can you say you know the procedure well enough to do it on your own. See one means you watch someone perform a surgical procedure. When you try your hand at it under supervision, you are doing one. Teach one requires you to explain it to someone else, so they can do it, too.

There’s a lot of wisdom in this method, which can be applied with variations to almost any kind of learning. It’s not enough for me to tell you how you can calm yourself down in sixteen seconds by square breathing, you must do it. Then, it’s not enough for you to do it, you must explain to someone else how to do it. I have often found that I think I know something when I start writing about it, only to be confronted by all the ins and outs of the topic before I’ve reached the end of the page. Teaching someone is how you work out the kinks in a skill and develop real mastery. Then, if you really want to learn something, learn it well enough to explain it to your grandmother.

Learning a new skill in therapy is harder than learning a surgical procedure because you really need to use the skills when you are under extreme duress. You need to learn to listen when your spouse is yelling at you, how to calm yourself when you think you’re going to die, how to go on when you wish you would die, and why and how to stop using a substance when it seems like nothing but the substance could solve your problem. You need to be able to observe yourself accurately and compassionately when you are the most ashamed. That’s hard. It’s as hard as a surgeon learning a new procedure, not on a patient, but on himself, blindfolded, without anesthesia. To be able to learn to do that is going to take more than watching one, doing one, and teaching one. You’re going to have to do ten thousand.

This is where drilling comes in, otherwise known as repeated conscious practice. No one likes to drill, but a musician who hasn’t done his scales will not know how to play. An actor who hasn’t rehearsed does not know her lines. A basketball player who hasn’t shot from the foul line countless times will not score a point when the game is at stake. The idea of drilling is to repeat something often enough so you can do it in your sleep. If you’re ever going to be able to listen when your spouse is yelling at you, listening must be automatic.

If change is ever going to occur as a result of therapy, then most of the work, and the drilling, must occur between sessions. The anxious person must take up meditation; the depressed one, action; and the addicted one must repeatedly choose not to use his substance. Everyone must practice observing themselves accurately and compassionately if they’re ever going to have a chance of doing it when it’s hard.

Stop the Madness

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I have many role models, but two of them are of the negative type: people who have made mistakes I want to avoid. The first is James Nasmith, the inventor of the game of basketball; the second is Thomas Jefferson.

The reason I don’t want to be like Nasmith is not because he invented basketball. B’ball is a wonderful sport. I don’t want to be like Nasmith because he exemplifies something I want to avoid. The tendency to become oblivious to madness. Continue reading

Freud, Explained

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Of all the figures in shrinkdom, Freud is the most revered and reviled, the most quoted and misquoted, and the most influential and ignored. It used to be that every shrink wanted to be like him, now we want to challenge him and be as different as we can. Perhaps this is what he gets from being first in the field. More than anyone, he broke the ground for what has become modern psychotherapy, turning over centuries of assumptions about human nature. We should not be blamed for wanting to see what we can grow on this plot. However, it pays to sometimes go back to first principles and relearn the basics.

It is said that the great golfer, Arnold Palmer, used to start off every golf season by stopping at a country club, asking to see the golf pro, and taking a lesson. Most pros must have been intimidated to have Arnold Palmer as a student, for he was already a better golfer than all of them. Nonetheless, he would insist on a lesson, going back to basics: the grip, the stance, the swing, before going on with his season. He needed to remind himself of the fundamentals.

In that spirit, let’s return to Freud and re-examine the first principles of psychotherapy, many of which have since been distorted. Continue reading