Neil and the Soul of an Artist

(About a 5 minute read)

Neil was raised in a tiny settlement in the San Luis Valley by artists.  The San Luis — over a mile above sea level, and the largest alpine valley in the world — is Colorado’s poorest region.

Because it’s so poor, the cost of living is moderate, and maybe it’s the cost of living that attracts the artists.  More than 500 working artists make their homes in the Valley.

Yet, because artists are quirky people, it might be more than the cost of living that attracts so many of them to the San Luis.  It could be the miles of open space, for instance.  Or the huge elk herd, the bald eagles and the sandhill cranes.  Or perhaps even the stars — for at night, the sky above the San Luis explodes with the music of light.

Neil’s parents were not religious people but they sent their son to church each Sunday.  When he was 13 or 14, he rebelled.  He told his parents he hated church, didn’t believe a word of anything he heard there, and was a confirmed agnostic.  “Good”, said his mother and father, “You’ve learned everything a church can teach you about life: Nothing.  We could have told you that ourselves about churches, but we wanted you to figure it out.  You can stop going now.”

When Neil turned old enough for high school, his parents decided he needed a better school than the one in the settlement.  So they packed Neil off to live with his grandmother in Colorado Springs and to attend Palmer High.  There, in his first art class, he met Sarah and Beth.  The three shared an intense interest in art and quickly became best friends.

It was Sarah who introduced me to Neil.  Sarah was regular at the Coffee Shop, and the two of us now and then shared each other’s company.  At 16, she was poised, sophisticated, and self-confident.  She liked to flirt with older men, even though she knew, as she put it, that she “couldn’t let it go anywhere”, and she once told me how much I disappointed her because I wouldn’t flirt.  I felt like a killjoy, and wrote a poem about her to make amends.

Sarah, Beth, and Neil spent hours together each day.  They seemed more mature than many kids their age.  For one thing, both Neil and Sarah held themselves much like adults, and all three of them would look you right in the eye when listening or speaking to you.  For another thing, there were seldom conflicts between them, and the three friends were remarkably free from adolescent dramas.

Back in those days, I heard enough adolescent dramas to fill a social calendar.  I had somehow stumbled into the role of confident for many of the kids who hung out at the Coffee Shop.  Sometimes, up to a half-dozen kids a day would confess their woes to me — pretty much one kid after the other.  Yet, I understood their need to talk and never rejected them.

Most of their stories were about sex and relationships, and some of the stories were painful to hear, because there were kids who kept repeating the same mistakes over and over again.  Yet, even the kids who didn’t repeat their mistakes — kids like Sarah, for instance — still seemed determined to make an allotted number of foolish mistakes, for how else do people learn?  I quickly discovered the role of confident was often more depressing than rewarding.

Through-out high school, Sarah, Beth and Neil remained as best friends, but when it was time for college, they parted ways.  Each went to a different university, and while Sarah and Beth stayed in contact with each other, Neil dropped out of the group.

I recall Neil was 22 and back from college when I ran across him one evening at the Coffee Shop.  We chatted for a while and I suggested we go to a restaurant for something to eat.

We ordered beer with our food, and were soon rambling along from one topic to the next.  A few beers into the evening, Neil decided to tell me how he lost his virginity.  “Was it Sarah?”, I asked.  I knew she’d been sexually active from the age of 16, and given their close friendship, it seemed logical to suspect her of having been his first partner.

“Not at all”, Neil said, “I wasn’t ready for sex back then, and I knew it.”

“I’m curious how you knew that about yourself.”

“I don’t make really important decisions up here”, he said, pointing to his forehead, “Instead, I go with what my soul tells me.”  He looked at me quizzically.  “Do you believe we have a soul, Paul?”

I didn’t want to sidetrack us into metaphysics, so I said, “I believe I can understand what you’re getting at.  Do you mean something like your sense of yourself…of who you are…of what’s right for you?”

“Yes!  That’s close!  I knew I wasn’t ready for sex because the opportunities never felt right to me.  None of them passed the soul test.  I didn’t want my first time to feel wrong in any way.”

“Was it ever hard waiting?”

“Sometimes.  Everyone else was having sex, and I wanted to have sex.  I was always horny.  It’s not like I wasn’t.”

“So what happened?” At that point, I wanted him to cut to the chase.

“Last year, I finally met the person I knew was right for me.  We met in a bar, but we weren’t drunk, and everything just clicked.  I knew she was the one.”

“Did you have sex that night?”

“No.  I called her on Thursday, a few days later, and we got together that Saturday.  I wasn’t in a hurry.  I knew it was going to happen.  I took her to dinner, and we went to her place afterwards.  That’s when I lost my virginity.  And I was right to wait. I was vindicated.  It was beautiful, Paul.  It felt perfect and it was beautiful.”

“Was it her first time too?”

“Oh no!  She was 26 last year — an older woman, and experienced.”

“Are you two still together?”

“No”, he said, “We never got together as a couple.  That wasn’t something she wanted or I wanted, and we understood that about each other from the start.  We’re friends now, but we’ve only had sex that one time.”

“I’m very proud,” he went on, “that I waited until everything felt right…until I knew it was right.”

“Not many people do that, Neil.”, I remarked, “Did your parents raise you to consult your soul?”  I had a strong suspicion at this point that Neil’s parents, both artists, raised him to pay careful attention to his “soul”.  It seemed like something artists would do naturally — perhaps even do necessarily.

“Very much so.”, Neil said, and he went on about that for a while.  But I wasn’t really following him at that point.

I’d begun to feel the beer and my mind was wandering back to the days when Neil was in high school and I was something of the neighborhood confident for a third of the kids at the Coffee Shop.  Neil had made the decision that was right for him and come out shining.  All in all, his story was one of the best I’d heard then or now, and I felt grateful to him for sharing it with me.


This post was originally published July 7, 2008, and was last updated April 23, 2017 for clarity.

Suzanne and the Nature of Abuse

(About a 7 minute read)

I’ve heard models described as vacuous airheads, but that doesn’t describe Suzanne unless someone can be both a vacuous airhead and an intelligent, creative, buoyant, and artistic woman.

I believe she was all of 14 years old when she first modeled lingerie for Victoria’s Secrets, the catalog and store company. She couldn’t have been much older because I met her when she was 16 and she was no longer modeling by then.

Over the years, Suzanne has revealed a persistent talent for getting fired from employments, so I strongly suspect she was no longer modeling by the time we met because Secrets had refused anything more to do with her. She’s not a vacuous airhead, but she is dysfunctional.

The story I’m prepared to tell you today concerns Suzanne, Victoria’s Secrets, and her abusive boyfriend. I’ve already introduced Suzanne and Victoria’s Secrets, so I’ll turn now to the boyfriend.

Meet Jeff*.

He’s one of those males who prey on women much younger than themselves. Jeff is 20 years older than Suzanne, and very few women his own age have ever sustained an interest in him. Jeff can be charming. He can be witty. He can be exciting. He can sweep a naive and inexperienced girl off her feet. Yet, most women see the looser in him. So Jeff has learned to specialize in the young, naive and inexperienced women he has some chance of getting.

Once he gets them, he doesn’t know what to do with them. He turns the affair into a drama, the drama into a tragedy, the tragedy into a nightmare. When you take some fish out of the water, their colors at first fascinate, then fade. Latter, the fish begin to stink. Any girl who lands Jeff sooner or later learns that in a relationship, he’s a fish out of water.

Young people almost invariably overestimate the odds in their favor of significantly changing someone, and especially they overestimate their odds of changing a lover. Maybe that’s because they are always being told by their parents, preachers, and teachers to change themselves, and so they assume it actually works when you tell people to change themselves.

In truth, the only person likely to change someone is the person themselves. And even then, seldom, if ever, is a person capable of a fundamental change: It’s not in the nature of water to become stone, nor of stone to become air.

In the few years Jeff and Suzanne were together, Suzanne wanted two things, both absurd. She wanted to change Jeff against his nature. And she wanted her own nature to bloom. The latter was absurd because Jeff had her under his thumb and was abusing her emotionally, psychologically, and physically. No one blooms under those conditions. At best, they merely endure.

If you yourself have seen a few abusive relationships, you know they are all alike, except for the details. The only detail of the relationship between Jeff and Suzanne that surprised me was that Jeff apparently never tried to keep Suzanne from seeing me.

I’m clueless why he didn’t. It’s a classic pattern of abuse that the abuser tries to prevent his victim from having any friends who are outside of his influence or control. But through much of the time she was with Jeff, Suzanne saw me almost daily. It’s true she seldom associated with me in Jeff’s presence, but we spent hours together while he was at work or off somewhere else. That sort of thing normally doesn’t happen in an abusive relationship.

Suzanne would look me up almost every day. We’d then go to a coffee shop, a movie, the mall, “The Well” — which was her favorite nudist resort — or we’d go hiking, or drive around Colorado for a few hours. Whatever amused us.

Once, we even went to Victoria’s Secrets. That was three or so years into Suzanne’s relationship with Jeff. That day, we’d gone to the mall.

When we were passing the Victoria’s Secrets store, Suzanne wanted to go in. The racks, of course, were full of lingerie, and Suzanne excitedly asked me to choose three sets for her to try on. She then took me back to a dressing room where she stripped and modeled the sets for me.

Christmas was a month off, so I asked her a lot of questions about each of the three sets, including which one felt the most comfortable — if I’m going to give lingerie to a woman, it damn well better be comfortable, especially at Victoria’s prices.

Looking at a young nude woman is at least as fascinating to me as watching a beautiful sunrise. Yet, I’m not usually more than moderately attracted to most young women’s sexuality. Their sexuality is more likely to depress me than to stimulate me, although I’m not quite sure why. At any rate, I certainly do not make a point of telling young women they aren’t all that sexy to me — I have my life to protect! So that day I told Suzanne, “This is a lot of fun for me — watching you model that sexy lingerie. If I’m having so much fun, think of how much fun it would be for Jeff! Why don’t you bring him out here?”

Suzanne didn’t answer immediately. When she did answer, her voice had gone strange. There was a tone in it I’d never heard before. In a way, it was a little girl’s voice. But perhaps it only sounded like a little girl’s voice because she was having difficulty controlling it. She said, “Jeff wouldn’t like it. If I did this with him, he’d call me a slut.”

We fell into silence. Then she began taking off the last set of lingerie in order to get back into her own clothes, but she was trembling.

When you abuse a woman, you prevent her from being true to herself. At it’s core, that’s what abuse really is — it’s unnecessarily preventing someone from being true to themselves.

Sometimes it comes out in ways that are large enough and important enough to easily describe. Like the woman whose husband prevents her from developing her musical genius so that the world looses a classical pianist. But much more often, abuse comes out in ways that are harder to see, such as when a woman trembles in a dressing room because her lover will not, or cannot, accept her sexuality whole and complete, just as it is, without condemning it.

Those harder to see ways are as criminal as the other. You don’t need to beat a woman to abuse her. You can just as well kill a person’s sense of themselves, their self-esteem, their self direction — by a thousand tiny cuts.

By the time I met Suzanne I was too old and had seen too much wickedness to harbor any fantasy that I could reason with her into leaving Jeff. I knew she was confused beyond reason, frightened into uncertainty, blinded by her feelings, and emotionally dependent on him. So, I did the only things I thought I could do, which were never that great nor enough.

For the most part, that amounted to just accepting her for herself.


*The Jeff in this story should not be confused with the Jeff in 50 Shades of Jeff: Profile of a Promiscuous Man.  The two “Jeffs” were very different people in almost every way imaginable, although they knew each other.

Note: This story was last updated on April 20, 2017 for clarity.

The Gifts of AL Remington

(About a 4 minute read)

It was difficult to beat Al. I think I only did it once. Or, maybe, I didn’t. Maybe I just came close. He was strongest in the endgame.

If you let him get that far — and it was hard not to — he had you beat.

Al said he learned chess when he was in the army, stationed in Greenland, with nothing else to do but his job and learn chess. By the time I met him, he was in his 60s, still enthusiastic about the game, and the man to beat at the Coffee Shop. He was a gentle man, reserved, modest, but exuding an air of dignity and confidence, much like a good father or grandfather. In his 60s, he drove a dark blue Cadillac on wet days and rode a Harley when the sun was out.

One day I discovered the Coffee Shop didn’t purchase the chess sets it had on hand. It was Al who did that. He would search garage sales for abandoned sets, buy them, and bring them to the Shop. He had to do that over and over again because people would loose pieces. But he didn’t mind. It was his hobby.

I think it must have been Al who got “everyone” — at least a third of the regular customers — playing chess. There were always two or three games going back then. Half the regular customers were kids and most of the kids were taught the game by Al. That is, someone else would usually teach them the basic moves — then Al would teach them the art.

Not just the art of chess, but other things too. He taught kids how to win graciously, how to loose without animosity, how to be fair (he’d spot the less skilled players a piece or two), and even how to keep a poker face. He never lost his temper, he was always encouraging, and he taught values. For instance: There wasn’t a kid at the Coffee Shop Al disdained to play, nor one he disrespected.

Several of the adults who hung out at the Shop were uncertain characters, but not Al. One man, Tim, was only there to proselytize the kids for Christ and had no other point in befriending them. Another man, Jeff, in his mid-thirties, was obsessed with getting laid by teens. A third man, who called himself Attila, dressed immaculately, neatly trimmed his white beard, and pretended to have wealth and connections. He would come every day to the Shop with his son, who he’d named Khan, and who was 15 and had lost his spirit. Attila would speak about Khan as if Khan wasn’t present and sitting right next to him: I’ve never in my life heard a more verbally abusive father. Unlike those characters, Al cared for the kids.

Al never told you he liked kids, but he did. He’d surely raised enough of them: Four biological children, two or three adopted children, and a number of foster children. I figure teaching them chess was Al’s way of raising up the Coffee Shop kids. He spoke to me several times of his belief that playing chess developed good, solid thinking skills. But he never quite said he considered himself on a mission to help the Coffee Shop kids. Saying something like that wasn’t Al’s style.

Al died at his home a couple years ago at age 72. I read his obituary to discover he was a minister. He hadn’t spoken of that; had never proselytized me; nor — so far as I know — had he proselytized any of the kids. I guess that wasn’t his style, either. Instead, he just served others.

Nowadays, I drop by the Coffee Shop once or twice a month. The kids Al and I knew have grown up and moved on. No one today plays chess. The adults sit with adults and the kids sit with kids. Maybe that’s the way people feel it should be.

I was reminded of Al earlier today by a comment Ordinary Girl left on another post. She mentioned how adults stay away from kids for fear of being thought creepy. That got me to thinking of how Al, born in 1933, belonged to another generation — one that had a stronger sense of community and wasn’t so set against mixing the ages. Yet, I wonder how kids are supposed to grow up with few adults in their lives?

Are they supposed these days to learn what they need to be a functional adult from Hollywood, the entertainment industry, and advertising? It seems to me we too often leave kids these days to be raised by the media.

Somethings we can only learn from another person. Things we cannot learn from a book, a movie, the television, popular music, or a video game. Somethings we must learn through our interactions with others. And some of those things that can only be learned through our interactions with others are very important. I discovered when I hung out with teens that many teens had what struck me then as a thirst to hang out with adults. I suspect they needed encouragement, insight into themselves, support, and affirmation, among other things. Those are not things we easily get from a book or movie.

Yet, it’s not a one-way street. I believe there can be tremendous benefits for an adult to having kids in his or her life. For one thing, watching a new generation grow up, seeing it go through the same things you once went through, can give you an invaluable perspective on life and a profound acceptance of your own aging.

I’ve come to believe any society which separates the generations will sooner or later pay a price for it. It even seems to me unnatural. I doubt any previous society has headed as far in that direction as ours. And, to me, it is all part of the larger break down of genuine community. It seems our societies are becoming increasingly fragmented, and I am unsure where that will eventually leave us. I rather hope Al’s generation is not the last to mix ages.


Note: Al was a grand- or great grandnephew of Frederic Remington, the painter.

50 Shades of Jeff: Profile of a Promiscuous Man

(About a 14 minute read) 

Jeff and I had an oddball relationship.  We were not truly friends, we certainly were not enemies, but we were more than casual acquaintances.

We met at a coffee shop where we were both daily customers.   Luke introduced us one afternoon.  I noted that Jeff was a handsome, rather short man, with a somewhat deep, slightly husky voice.

A few minutes later,  a couple of people walked up to Jeff with one of them saying something along the lines of,  “Jeff!  You’re back in town!  When?”  Luke promptly took advantage of Jeff being distracted to take me aside a few paces. He whispered, “He’s always carrying. Just so you know.”

“What does ‘carrying’ mean?”

Luke very briefly looked surprised and then whispered again, this time slowly, “He conceal carries a Beretta 9mm pistol in a holster strapped under his left arm.  You will never see it, but never forget about it, because it’s always there.”  I nodded and then we rejoined Jeff, who was no longer distracted.

About a quarter hour later, Jeff said something to Luke that I no longer recall, but in response to which Luke laughed loudly and said, “You’re a sick, sick man, Jeff.  But we all love you!”

It was the first time I ever heard that cliché and so I thought Luke was being witty but serious; and it stuck in my head as a first impression of Jeff: Something was wrong with the man, but he seemed well liked.

I soon enough learned that Jeff saw himself as some sort of pick up artist.  He had a little two or three sentence long speech that he told anyone at the coffee shop who’d listen.  The part I remember went, “I lost count of the number of women that I’ve slept with at 200 women.  When I reached 200, I thought, ‘Why should I count anymore?'”

One night during the summer I met Jeff, I was sitting on a park bench at two in the morning one night, enjoying my insomnia by savoring the night air,  when two teens jumped me without either one of them making even the least discernible effort to politely introduce themselves beforehand, an appalling lack of manners that I found rather alarming at the time.

I suppose they wanted money.  Unlucky for them, I miraculously mucked my way into somehow gaining the upper hand. They fled down the street, and I –without really thinking it through — instinctively chased them for a few yards like an idiot before realizing that they were both faster than me and — after all — still outnumbered me.  I decided not to tempt the Goddess of Luck, Spontaneous Erections in Men Over 80, and Durable Chinese Goods any further.  Besides, my usual policy is to back out of any confrontation unless I’m forced to fight, then I try to fight like a wildcat and just as dirty as river mud.

The next morning I woke up with a gorgeous black eye.  When Jeff saw it at the coffee shop later that day he asked for the particulars.  I told him the story and thought it would end with that.  But Jeff wasn’t content.  “Can you tell me anything, Paul, anything to identify them?”  I described the kids as best I could recall.  Jeff pressed for more.  I couldn’t recall anything more about their looks, so I speculated about their habits, “They’re most likely local kids and night owls, Jeff.  So I bet they hang out at the Denny’s”.   That seemed to satisfy him.

A day or two later, Jeff had some news for me.  He had decided to indulge himself a bit of good old-fashioned vigilantism.  Reminding me of my speculation that the teens were night owls, he gone to the Denny’s in the wee hours of the morning.  As it happened, he’d overheard two teens talking about encountering an “old man” [Author’s note:  “OLD man”? The nerve!]  in the park the night before.

Jeff waited until the teens left the restaurant then followed.  Presently, the two split up, most likely on their way to separate homes.  Jeff trailed the boy he’d overheard claim credit for “popping one right in the prick’s eye”.  He caught up with the unfortunate boy, attacked him, reduced him to the ground, and then jerked and twisted the boy’s right arm up and in way that Jeff knew was pretty sure to rip tendons.

“I want to make this clear Paul.  I didn’t do it for you.  I did it because this is my town.  My town, my home, and I take it personally when someone messes with the quality of life around here.

“By the way, I watched which hand he used to pick up his soda glass at Denny’s.  I wanted to make sure I tore up the correct arm — the arm he used in punching you.  He won’t be punching anyone else with that arm for a few weeks now.”

That night I myself went to the restaurant.  I wasn’t looking for the teens, I didn’t think they’d be around after what had happened.  But there he was: His arm raised up in a cast.  As I passed his table he looked up at me, “Is it over?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s over”, I said, feeling an improbable empathy for him, “It’s done if you’re done.”  The boy nodded and assured me he was done.  I secretly hoped Jeff thought it was done, too.  If he didn’t, I aimed to have a word with him.

Jeff and I didn’t start hanging out daily with each other until a few weeks later.  It soon seemed to me that he had an opinion on nearly everything, and that he delivered his opinions authoritatively, as if thinking himself equally well-informed on all subjects.  I seldom more than half-listened to him.  Still, I wasn’t in the habit back then of avoiding people, and Jeff always came over to sit with me when he saw me at the coffee shop,  so we spent considerable time together for awhile.

His single most intense, sustained effort to get his opinions across to me came about due to a miscommunication.

A couple days before the incident, Becky had introduced me to her younger sister, Theresa, who was visiting from Los Angeles.  Theresa was an erotic dancer so drop-jaw, stop-in-your-tracks gorgeous that a bad night for her as a dancer was to earn only $1000 in tips.  She was also, I thought from the moment I met her, obnoxious.

I tried to hide my instant distaste for her, which was almost solely based on her use of the word “darling” when first addressing me.   But Theresa picked up on my feelings.  Instead of firing back at my momentary insanity, however,  she much more reasonably decided to simply change my mind.

The next day, she invited me to breakfast at Becky’s house.  I went, Theresa cooked a delicious breakfast for me, and I left in honest admiration of her clever “hash browns diplomacy”, and also feeling rightfully guilty for having put her to it.

Later that morning, I was sitting at a sidewalk table with Jeff and three other men when Theresa walked by, dressed for the summer weather in a tank top and tight pair of shorts.  When she saw me, she burst into a huge, friendly smile, waved, and called to me by name.  But she didn’t pause, and instead kept on walking.  Every eye at the table followed her receding figure raptly.  Then, once she was well down the street, every eye almost at once turned to me.

“How do you know her?”, someone demanded.  “Can you introduce me?”, someone else laughed.

Without thinking through the impression my words would make, I answered the first question, “That’s Theresa.  She’s a new friend, I just met her.  She made breakfast for me this morning.”  I looked around.  Everyone had knowing smiles on their faces, and some were nodding approvingly.

“She’s just a friend”, I said.  Someone mumbled, “Sure”, and there were a couple short laughs.  I decided to remain silent and thus dig no further down in the hole I’d made for myself.

Jeff had remained silent through all of it.  But the moment the last person at our table save him and me had left, Jeff stood up, removed all the chairs from the table except our own (“So we won’t be interrupted”, he mysteriously said), and then sat down opposite to me.  Leaning forward, he demanded with unusual intensity, “Truth!  Did you two fuck?”

“No!”, I was a bit pissed he’d even ask, but I added, politely enough, “I’m voluntarily celibate, Jeff.”

“Voluntarily. Celibate.”  He slowly repeated, while looking at me like I’d just then told him “roses make great lawnmowers”.

Jeff then launched himself into what can only be described as a two hour pitch directed at selling me on becoming a pick up artist.  I simple zoned out, leaving him to ramble on while I enjoyed the beautiful weather.  Today, I don’t recall a specific word of what he said, but I do remember the passionate intensity with which he spoke.

From the day forward, he seemed to feel a need to save me from my incomprehensible celibacy.  I sometimes thought he was behaving like an Evangelical preacher who can’t restrain himself from proselytizing atheists, and that I was the king of atheists to him.

One thing Jeff never did is tell anyone who he slept with.  Even if the woman herself openly claimed she’d slept with him  — and a few did — and Jeff knew she openly claimed it, he would refuse to confirm it.  I once, and once only witnessed Jeff “pick up” a woman.

I’ve come across websites that teach step-by-step methods for picking up women.  Jeff’s approach was nothing at all like theirs.  Sometimes those sites recommend that you attack a woman’s self-esteem in order to tear her down psychologically and thus make her vulnerable to your advances.  I think Jeff would have reacted to those sites like he once reacted to my telling him I preferred to be celibate.  What I witnessed  was Jeff doing the opposite of what those sites recommend.

Watching him was, to an extent, like watching a chameleon change colors.  I stated earlier that Jeff usually came across as opinionated and perhaps even arrogant.  Normally, he would talk to both men and women that way.  But all of that dropped like a mask the moment Jeff got serious about someone.

Suddenly, he was the woman’s favorite brother, or her most trusted confidante, or her most down to earth friend, or her oldest friend, as comfortable to be with as worn shoes.

Moreover, Jeff did nothing that came across to me as “making an effort to impress”.   He seem  to put his ego aside and was instead attentive to the woman.   He displayed unforced, effortless curiosity about the woman and an easy-going respect for her.

It was quite the tour de force, and it reminded me of an extraordinary salesman I once knew — a man who had broken 100 year sales records for a Fortune 500 company that he’d worked for — and who had mentored me when I was relatively new to sales.

Over the years, a small number of women  — maybe five or six — have either mentioned to me, or at least hinted to me, that they slept with Jeff.  Only one of those women had a wholly negative view of him, claiming that Jeff had gotten her pregnant.  Jeff himself claimed that he’d had a vasectomy, and he was rather proud that he’d “never left any unwanted bastards in this world”.  One woman spoke of him as if Jeff was some fondly remembered, but hopelessly crazy friend that she kept at arm’s length.  Another confessed to me that she thought herself “superficial” for wanting sex with him, but she loved it anyway.  The rest, so far as I can recall now, had wholly positive views of him.

Did Jeff really sleep with “hundreds of women”?  Naturally I don’t believe that for a moment.  But for various reasons, I suspect that Jeff slept with more than his fair share, as they say.  Yet, despite the women in his life, Jeff was a fundamentally unhappy man.

In addition to his little speech about the number of women he’d slept with, Jeff had another little speech he seemed to have memorized from repeating it so frequently to so many people.  “I’m giving myself until the day I turn 45 to get myself straightened out.  If I still cannot hack anything but a twisted, fucked-up life on that day, then I’m going to put an end to it.  One way or the other, the mess I’ve made of my life is going to be over.”

I never knew whether to take Jeff seriously or not when he’d say that.  I knew almost nothing at the time about the psychology of suicide.

What did Jeff mean by his “twisted, fucked-up life”?  I think it’s most likely he was referring to two things at once.  First, Jeff seemed unable to keep a steady job.  Mostly he did  piecework for people, such as painting their house.  There were often long periods between one job and the next.  I knew Jeff to now and then go for a few days without food, or to live in no more than his pickup truck for up to months at a time.  And I know from remarks he made to me that his instability bothered him.

The second thing you might find ironic.  In the time I knew him, Jeff fell in love with three or four women in widely spaced succession.  Each time, he tried to make a life together with her.  Get a place, keep a job, practice monogamy; that sort of thing.  It never worked out for him.  I think the longest relationship he ever had with someone he loved lasted less than six months.

Jeff took the breakups hard.  And whenever he spoke to me about them, he blamed himself.  The sad irony, of course, was that the guy who could get all the women he wanted could not keep even one.

Jeff hanged himself on his 45th birthday.  Either on that day or very near to it, so far as I can recall now. There was a memorial set up for him at the coffee shop, with a jar for donations that would go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.   For a couple weeks to a month afterwards, people brought him up in their conversations, saying for the most part the usual things that people say after someone kills themselves.  Then, the conversations about him dwindled in number, faded into time, and he became rarely spoken of.

 

Guilt and Shame: Are They Useful?

Guilt is a useless emotion.

— Jiddu Krishnamurti

Some years ago, a few of us were sitting around the coffee shop pretending to have a conversation about passing dogs.  You know, one of those days when no one seems able to think of something better to talk about:

“There’s a dog!”

“I see.  Quite a dog!”

“It looks happy…”

“Quite happy.”

“A Labrador.”

“Or a mix.”

“Wow! That babe coming down the sidewalk. She’s gorgeous! Flat out gorgeous!”

“True, but she’s not a dog.”

Things went on like that for about three-quarters of an hour before someone said, “I’m ashamed to be wasting time talking about dogs.”  Half of us nodded and mumbled, “yeah”, so I decided then and there to destroy the conversation, for in chaos is renewal.  “Shame is a useless emotion, ” I pronounced, “Same as guilt.”

Everyone fell silent and looked at me.  So, I put on a distracted look — as if I had totally forgotten the matter and was now fascinated by the sparrows flitting by.  I wanted to know if anyone was interested to pursue it.  In a moment, I had my answer: “You can’t just say something like that and not explain yourself.  What do you mean?”

The resulting conversation was a lively free for all in which some of us spoke at once, and all but one or two of us had an opinion.  But I don’t suppose any of us were really thinking about it — we were just tossing out our convictions and preconceptions.  Still, I managed to take away from that conversation the lesson that some of us place a lot of faith in guilt and shame.

We think shame and guilt — especially guilt — are reliable guides to whether or not we have done wrong.  As one person put it, “Guilt is my moral compass.”  And someone else said, “People who don’t feel guilt are psychopaths, and psychopaths can’t tell right from wrong.”

I think my friend apparently thought a failure to feel guilt made you a psychopath.  But psychopaths have other characteristics besides a failure to feel guilt.  For instance, they do not feel empathy, and they tend to blame others for their harmful behavior, among other things.  That is, anyone who does not feel guilt is not by that fact alone made a psychopath.

Now, people sometimes distinguish between shame and guilt.  Accordingly, we feel shame when:

  • Someone accuses us of violating a moral standard.
  • We believe we bear significant responsibility for the violation.
  • We believe they are within their rights or otherwise justified to accuse us.

Guilt is very similar, but does not rely on someone else accusing us.  In effect, we accuse ourselves.  Thus, we feel guilt when:

  • We believe that we have violated a moral standard.
  •  We believe we are significantly responsible for the violation.

To date, I have only heard one reason given for why shame and guilt are useful emotions.  Namely, that they are reliable guides to what is right or wrong.  I have several problems with that notion, but I will only bring up two of them.

First, I think all morality is ultimately arbitrary.  It’s true that I might posit an overriding principle or value — such as human well-being — and then logically derive from that principle or value a coherent set of morals, but that does not negate the fact my coherent set of morals is ultimately grounded in an arbitrary decision that one principle or value shall override the others.  Yet, if that is indeed the case — if all morality is ultimately arbitrary — then the moral standards I might feel shame or guilt for violating are ultimately arbitrary.  Thus, I cannot rely on my feelings of shame or guilt to reveal values that are ultimately any more objective than any other values.

Second, I was reminded of that coffee shop conversation today when I read D’Ma’s post, “Every Time I Fail“,  over on her blog, Gullible’s Travels.  In her post, D’Ma talks about the Christian notion of guilt she was raised with, and how difficult it has been for her to escape feelings of religious guilt, despite her rejection of Christianity:

Even doubting as I do, even having relinquished inerrancy and even divine inspiration, even realizing that belief in the God of the Bible is probably nothing more than believing in the Tooth Fairy, when I see these images and hear the words to songs like Feel the Nails the guilt and shame wash over me anew and I have to remind myself that I don’t crucify Jesus every time I fail.

I recall friends who, somewhat like D’Ma, became non-theists only to now and then still feel guilt for sinning against the Christian God.  Shame and guilt are frequently of the past.  They are often outdated.  We change.  We grow.  But all too often, our shame and guilt do not.

For those two and other reasons, I do not believe shame and guilt are useful emotions.  People have told me they are reliable guides to right or wrong.  But it seems to me they are — at the very best — no more reliable than anything else, for it seems to me all values are ultimately based on arbitrary decisions.  Moreover, they can be out of whack with our more mature values.  That is, we can feel shame or guilt for violating moral standards we no longer hold.  In either case, they seem to me useless emotions.

Yet, what do you think?  Are shame and guilt useful?  And if so, how?

Late Night Thoughts (February 27, 2011)

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ATTORNEY:  Doctor, how many of your autopsies have you performed on dead people?
WITNESS:     All of them…  The live ones put up too much of a fight.

Disorder in the Court

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In the West, we are taught that we can change ourselves by an act of will.  If only we will hard enough, long enough, we will bring about the desired change in ourselves.  But is that true?

In America, at least, there is a billion dollar self-help industry that seems largely based on the premise we can, unlike Sisyphus, someday roll the stone of change all the way to the top of the mountain without it slipping away from us — without our constant, eternal backsliding.  For isn’t that what willing ourselves to change most often, most frequently, results in? In backsliding?  In two weeks of willful effort followed by the stone slipping from us to roll back down the mountain?

There are exceptions.  There are times willing ourselves to change really does result in permanent change.  But in my experience, it is usually a petty change that can be brought about that way.

Is there some way, besides willing, of bringing about change in ourselves?

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From a  conversation at The Coffee Shop:

VINCE:  “Thank the Lord I’m a Buddhist!”

PAUL:  “What do you look for in Buddhism?”

VINCE:  “I’m into Zen.  Some people don’t think that’s Buddhism, but I’m into koans.  You know, ‘What’s the sound of one hand clapping?'”

PAUL:  “Yeah, I’ve heard….”

VINCE:  “They’re short.  That’s what I like about them.  Some religions are too long.  You don’t get much out of those religions because they’re too long.”

PAUL:  “Too long?  I’m not following….”

VINCE:  “You fall asleep.  I’m devout.  Every night, I study the koans.  I get a six pack.  Lie in my crib.  Read koans.  I used to be a Christian and read the Bible, but I’d fall asleep or I’d get wasted in the middle of a verse — it’s too long.”

PAUL: “So….”

VINCE:  (Impatiently) “So you can’t expect to be enlightened if you fall asleep in the middle of the verses, man.”

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Paula called from Utah one night.  She wanted to visit the Springs for a couple weeks and could she stay on my couch?

A few days later, she showed up with one piece of luggage and a dozen plastic sunflowers.  The sunflowers, she said, were something she always lived with.  Then she distributed them around the room her couch was in.

She was easy to get along with.  She laughed at my jokes, complained about nothing in life, and we traded off chores:  One night, she cooked Buffalo wings and I washed the dishes; the next night, I cooked a casserole and she washed the dishes.   It went on  like that.

We talked a lot.  She told me of one summer when her older brother urgently fetched her into the yard of their father’s house to show her how thunder will roll from the mountain where the Ute woman died.  Another evening, she asked me to read to her from my book about whales.  And, on three or four evenings, we invited mutual friends over to party with us.

For two weeks, she slept on my couch and told me she’d feel better if I kissed her goodnight.  It struck me that she kissed so softly.   She liked waking up to classical music on the radio.

Before she left, she told me in a wondering voice, how over the past dozen days,  she had witnessed three of the Twelve Apostles, reincarnated on earth for the Second Coming, pass through my home as my guests, and that she was wondering just who I was.

I asked her then in my gentlest voice whether she knew she might be ill.  And she replied she always thought it might be a possibility, and that back in Utah, she saw a therapist — an old Indian woman who was both a therapist and a spiritual teacher, too.

“Are you taking any medication”, I asked.   She replied she didn’t believe meds could be effective in her case, given what she might have, but she was taking some vitamins at the direction of her therapist.

A day or two later, she moved on, but not without leaving me her dozen sunflowers for some reason that she never explained.

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People sometimes seem to be living out roles written by hands long ago and far away from them now.

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“The other day, I was looking at a George Washington quarter.  I could tell that George’s most famous words must have been, ‘In God we trust’.  And that made me right proud of him for a moment, but then I noticed he didn’t seem to be wearing any clothes.  So I gotta ask: What kind of man trusts in God so much he doesn’t wear any clothes?  I’m not entirely sure now Old George was getting all his coffee beans ground.  Know what I mean?”

— Overheard in a bar

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Some time ago, I went to a poetry reading.  About 20 participants showed up.  Unfortunately, it became apparent most of the poets were unprepared to read or recite their poems.   Some of the poems were rather good, too.  And I don’t think laziness entirely explains why so many poets were unprepared.

It seems most of us do not think of poetry as a performing art.  A written art, perhaps.  But not something we compose — like we might compose a bit of music — to be performed.   And perhaps that explains why so few poets showed up that night having first practiced reciting their poetry.

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It is in the night that our thoughts can become our hunters by pursuing us.

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Late Night Thoughts (February 20, 2011)

There are few noises at this hour.   A car passes in the distance.  The house creaks.  The furnace starts.  I have not heard a dog bark in hours.

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…”It is really annoying when people, particularly those in positions of power, can’t even be bothered to take the trouble to lie well.” — Yves Smith.

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…To oppress a mother is to oppress a democracy, for it is mothers who teach the value of democracy to their children.

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…It seems what’s happening in Wisconsin is part of the class war in America that’s been going on for sometime now.  As Warren Buffett pointed out, the war was begun by members of his class, and his class is winning it.

Unfortunately, if rich billionaires like the Koch brothers win the Wisconsin round in the class war, that means they will have managed to break the Wisconsin public service unions.  And if they manage to do that, then the Democratic party will be left as nothing more than a paper man in that state.

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…The other day, I noticed an advertisement that claimed the Bible was, of all the world’s wisdom literature, the most profound.  Now, I’ve heard that claim made before in various ways and places.  But, I confess, I have never understood why anyone would make that claim.

As wisdom literature, the Bible seems to have been often surpassed. And not just by many of the ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, or Chinese authors.  But also by more modern authors.

To give some of the Biblical authors credit, though, their concern for social, political, and economic justice was remarkable for their time, and — thankfully — very influential on the West.

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…There seems to be a sense in which almost all complex, hierarchical societies — even going as far back as to the origin of complex, hierarchical societies some 5,500 years ago — have been scams.   Moreover, it’s been the same scam perpetrated again and again.  And, in essence, that scam has been to fool the masses into believing the society’s elites have the backing of a supernatural order.

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…There are many people in this god-drunk town who cast their blurry vision on science and declare that it, too, is a religion.  The last drunk to tell me that declared, as his reasoning, “Religions are based on beliefs. Science is based on beliefs. Therefore, science is a religion.”

By precisely the same “logic”, “Cats are furry.  Dogs are furry.  Therefore, dogs are cats.”

But, even if his reasoning was logically valid — which it is not, unless dogs are cats — what would not then become a religion?  Indeed, even one’s overwhelming desire to take a shower after hearing him espouse his drunken  “logic” would, according to his drunken  “logic”,  become a religious act.

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Just now, a motorcycle started up, then sped off.  In the day, it would be just another cycle.  But in the night, it seems a story in itself.

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…Humans are natural born cartographers.  We make maps of the world, which we call “beliefs”.   It’s what our species does.

Sometimes, our maps are more or less accurate.  And sometimes, they are fantasy maps, like the ones we made as children to show where a pirate’s treasure lay buried in our backyard.

The accuracy of our maps often matters less to us than the fact they are ours.  Because, for most of us, our maps are something we think of as us.

Now, when we fall in love, she sooner or later challenges our maps…

And, if our love survives those challenges, there’s a chance that our love is true.

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…Tonight, I came across in a faded notebook a line from a poem I once wrote to a woman: “No one has made me wish / To face with grace the challenge / of her morning breath like you, Joelle.”   And consequently, reading that line, I had a sudden and abrupt realization of precisely how it is that I have managed all these years to remain celibate despite the occasional woman who’s now and then been interested enough in me to even read my poems.

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…Once I saw a Seven-Eleven that was closed.  Locked up and abandoned.

Since everything inside the impossibly dark store windows was in place and intact, I eventually concluded it must be a clerk who didn’t show up for work.  But I at first thought: “Not even a president’s death can close a Seven-Eleven. It must be something.  It must be big.”

Perhaps there is inside all of us a thing — a strange, hard thing — that now and then longs for an event so big it will close even the world’s Seven-Elevens.

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…When I met Becky she was in her 30s and would now and then do something completely spontaneous: Always some little thing, but it was an attractive quality.   Even in a city, birds from a branch put to air like her.  So, though they live like the rest of us amongst the concrete and noise, you can see how those birds are beyond the artificial world we have created for them — how they are still native to the earth and sky.  Some people are like that.

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…So far, I have found only three things with power to redeem the human condition: Love, work, and play.  And of those three, love is the greatest.

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…Brett called to invite me to lunch the other day  (Brett was 15 the year we first met at the coffee shop.  I was perhaps 40 or 42).   So, we met at a tavern where the beer is watery, but the food is good, and I enjoyed talking with him so much the time slipped past on rabbit’s feet.

At some point in the afternoon, after we had exhausted half a dozen topics, Brett said he suspected the reason quite a few kids had hung out with me years ago at the coffee shop was because I was for the most part nonjudgmental.   So I told him that was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard from a fellow human, if indeed he was actually human. So, I thanked him for confirming a suspicion I’d had.  Then, being an insufferable old fart, I told him a story he’d already heard at least twice from me, and one he probably didn’t want to hear again.

After we had parted for the evening, I reflected on the fact that Brett had certainly been one of the most intelligent people at the coffee shop, and very likely one of the wisest.  Yet, it had never been any one thing that led me to those conclusions.  Like a stream of gold dust, Brett is someone who stands out from the crowd not for any one big thing, but for the cumulative impression made on you by a thousand glittering details.

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…My second wife had a taste for dresses by Ungaro.  Is Ungaro still around?  That Italian knew how to make a woman wearing silk look like a nude.

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…This night, for the first time in ages, I recall once a woman and I spent nearly two years laughing together.  No, she was not my wife, but a co-worker.  We worked together in the evenings, and we’d spend every moment we could with each other.  Then, when I moved on to a day job, I still dropped by her workplace in the evenings to laugh with her.

One day, I invited her out to a movie.  But by the time she got to my place, it was too late to catch a show.  At a loss for much else to do, I tried nibbling on her ear.  Consequently, two years of laughing together led to her having three explosive orgasms: The best in her life, she told me.  After that, you might think she’d be happy.

Yet, somehow, by the next day, she had translated everything — all of it — into guilt and regret.  “You must think I’m a slut”, she said, “because I slept with you on our first date.”

“No, I feel as if I’ve been courting you for two years”, I said, “Besides I’m in love.”

“Even if you don’t think I’m a slut”, she said, “When I saw you this evening, it made me think of myself as a slut, and then my heart sank to the floor.  I can’t see you again.”  And she meant it.

It was much later I realized that, despite our rapport, only one of us had been in love.

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It is almost dawn.