Two books that nearly cured me

The subject of how to help family and friends who are enduring life’s unpleasant surprises came up at lunch with friends. We have reached ages at which we had all thought we were through with having to deal with those surprises life has a habit of dumping in our laps, that we had survived it all and could sit on the beach and let the tide take all those surprises out to sea. And drown them.
No such luck.
Grown children and grandchildren produce situations and problems we old-timers are thought to know something about, ways to handle them. In a variation of the lyrics from the song If I Were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof, when you’re old they think you really know. Friends and spouses of friends become terminally ill. Tragedies abound, and as Phillip Roth put it in his novel Exit Ghost, we are all rank amateurs at dealing with most of them, especially death.
At two major crossroads in my life I was nearly cured by two books which I still read once a year, two books which I have given copies of to family, friends, and co-workers for more than thirty years. I say nearly cured because I know my extended family will scoff at any assertion of complete cure.
My guess is that I have given away over a hundred copies of the two books. My hope was always that the books I gave away would help the recipients as much as they helped me. And as I write those words a familiar tingle runs down my spine, the kind of tingle that I get when I start thinking: And who am I to be giving anyone books with the hope that they will help them confront life’s slings and arrows?
But I persist.
Persistence can be a virtue. A few years ago I drove to a new shopping center in North Raleigh to purchase two more copies of the books to give away to a friend. The book store was larger than the House of Books in St. Petersburg, and when I asked the young woman at the information desk where the self-help section was she replied: “If I told you it would defeat the purpose.”
“Very good,” I told her. “How long have you waited to use that one?”
“A long time,” she said. “I’m not sure where I heard or read it, but I wrote it down and hoped one day someone would ask me that question.”
I persisted. And she ordered my copies when I discovered none were on the shelves in the self-help section.
The first book is The Road Less Travelled, by M. Scott Peck, M.D. Fans of Robert Frost will recognize the title of one of Frost’s most beloved poems. My first copy of this wonderful book was given to me by Pete Hampton, the best of friends for many years until his death, way too soon, in an auto accident in 1984. The subtitle of the book is A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth. The book is informed by Dr. Peck’s years of experience as a practicing psychiatrist. The entire book has influenced me greatly; I was hooked by the first seventy or so pages.
In his opening chapter, Dr. Peck’s opening line, he states that life is difficult; that once we understand and accept that statement, that truth, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters. Once we accept that truth we can cease complaining about our problems as though life was supposed to be easy, that somehow the problems we confront only come our way and not to others. When we accept that life is difficult we can freely admit life’s problems do not bedevil only our country, our family, our people, us, me.
The skill we must have to deal with life’s problems, the tools we need, as Dr. Peck puts it, are found in the techniques of discipline. “Without discipline we can solve nothing. With only some discipline we can solve only some problems. With total discipline we can solve all problems.” Solving problems is painful but necessary. Most of us try very hard to avoid problems, sometimes even seeking prescription drugs to help us ignore them. Here is a startling conclusion Dr. Peck reaches early in Chapter 1: “This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness.”
The tools, the techniques of discipline are: 1) delaying gratification, 2) acceptance of responsibility, 3) dedication to the truth, and 4) balancing.
One of several examples of delaying gratification in the book concerns a former patient of Dr. Peck’s, a young financial analyst who complained about her tendency to procrastinate in her job. During her consultations it became clear that on a typical day she would begin by spending her first hour on the tasks she liked handling and the rest of the day on the tasks she did not like. He suggested that she reverse the order – spend the first hour on the objectionable work and the rest of the day on the work she liked to do. “It seemed to me…that one hour of pain followed by six of pleasure was preferable to one hour of pleasure followed by six of pain.”
And so delaying gratification is a scheduling matter. Handle the painful things first. Get it over with. “It is the only decent way to live.”
Note that adolescents who do not learn how to get the hard parts over with tend to become the problem kids in school. Their performance in school is poor simply because they do not work, they skip classes or entire days of school based on a snap decision to avoid the work school involves – the play now, pay later approach; a lifestyle based on impulse.
The second technique of discipline is acceptance of responsibility. We can’t solve a problem if we don’t admit to ourselves that a problem is ours. Another of several examples in the book concerned a woman, the wife of a young military serviceman stationed on the island of Okinawa. She cut her wrist lightly with a razor blade and was referred to Dr. Peck for counseling. She said she wanted to kill herself because she couldn’t stand living on the island. When asked why life was so terrible on Okinawa she said she had no friends, that she lived where nobody spoke English. When asked why she didn’t drive over to where the American wives were to make friends she said her husband took the car to work. When asked why she didn’t drive her husband to work so she could have the car during the day she said their car had a stick-shift. When asked why she didn’t learn to drive a stick-shift she said: “On these roads? You must be crazy.”
Clearly this young woman could not accept any responsibility for her problem.
The third technique of discipline is dedication to the truth. If we learn to stick to the truth we see reality and not falsehood and illusions. Dr. Peck describes our view of reality as a map we use to “…negotiate the terrain of life.” If our map is accurate, we can get where we want to go. We are lost if our map is wrong, old, outdated. The world is in a constant state of change, and so our map needs to be redrawn from time to time.
Dr. Peck describes a young patient whose map was out of date. Disappointed time after time by his parents’ broken promises, he came to adulthood with a map that misinformed him about reality. His outdated map told him not to trust anyone, not his wife nor his friends and co-workers. He mistakenly transferred his parents’ failures to his relationships long after he was no longer dependent on his parents.
An important anecdote from the book neatly illustrates further the degree to which Dr. Peck’s young patient was using an outdated map. After several schedule adjustments and accommodations on Dr. Peck’s part, the young man proposed that he would call late on Monday afternoons to confirm whether he could make a Monday evening appointment. When Dr. Peck said he was unwilling to set aside Monday evenings on the chance that the patient would be able to come, the patient said that Doctor Peck was being unreasonably rigid and cared nothing for him and therefore could not be trusted. Doctor Peck: “It was on this basis that our attempt to work together was terminated, with me as another landmark on his old map.”
The fourth technique of discipline is balancing. In this section Dr. Peck describes balancing as “…the discipline that gives us flexibility.” Using anger as an example, the discussion notes the reasons for anger and the analysis that goes into our use of anger. “To function successfully in our complex world it is necessary for us to possess the capacity not only to express our anger but also to know when not to express it.”
In another example drawn from experience with a patient, Dr. Peck describes a young woman who was amazed to learn the differences between men she should not associate with at all, men she could spend time with but not invite to her bedroom, and men she could allow into her bedroom. Before therapy she had operated with an unbalanced approach by which she either let all men into her bedroom or no men into her life at all, “…bouncing between degrading promiscuity and arid isolation.”
This brief summary is wholly inadequate to the task Dr. Peck set for himself with his wonderful book, which is why I bought and gave away so many copies to family and friends I thought would be helped by his wisdom. The reader will simply have to get his or her own copy for the complete story.
The second book is Transitions, by William Bridges, PhD. My worn copy includes two subtitles on the front cover: Making Sense of Life’s Changes and Strategies for coping with the difficult, painful, and confusing times in your life.
While Dr. Bridges’ book is also one I read annually, has been no less a help to me, and is a another I have given to a few dozen people over the years, it is more difficult for me to summarize. The difficulty may lie in the nature of the subject; that is, transitions involve endings, and many endings are very unpleasant.
Transitions contains two parts, an epilogue, notes, and an index. Parts I and II each contain three chapters. The book is chock full of literary references and practical examples from Dr. Bridges’ experience as a consultant on human development and the originator of transitions seminars.
Transitions is a wonderful gift to those who have experienced change in their lives; namely, all of us. Changing careers, marriages, neighborhoods, cities, and so on – all changes most of us handle poorly and in many instances don’t know we handled them poorly. Dr. Bridges has given us methods to understand and deal with change and at the same time learn about ourselves.
In Part I, The Need for Change, the book describes Americans as having always been in transition. Our early ancestors began with migration, taking a trip to a new land, a new continent. But letting go of an old situation is the norm in nature. It’s nature’s routine to exhibit down time and bustling transformations, times when everything just slows down and time when “…the eggshell cracks, the branch blossoms, the tadpole’s tail shrinks away, the leaf falls, the bird molts, the hibernation begins.” Although the signs are not as obvious for humans, the cycles of transition are the same. “They are key times in the natural process of self-renewal.”
Dr. Bridges describes those cycles as the transition process in Part II: “…1) an ending, followed by 2) a time of confusion and distress, leading to 3) a new beginning….” The second of those cycles is also referred to as the “Neutral Zone,” the often bewildering period between the ending and the new beginning. What makes this book so valuable, among other things, is how Dr. Bridges teaches the art of using the Neutral Zone productively, in a way that can help heal the damage that an ending has caused before attempting to move on to a beginning before one is truly ready for that beginning.
Transitions covers the process and makes sense of it all.
In one early example, Dr. Bridges describes a young woman who came to his seminar on transitions for help with her newborn son. “I’m not sending him off to college,” she said, “just trying to get used to having him.” And so she presented the seminar with a request to forget endings and focus on beginnings, turning the natural progression of the cycles backwards and leaving out the Neutral Zone. Once she realized what she had done, realized that she had left a part of her life behind, she lamented: “How come nobody talks about that? They congratulate you on your new life, but I have to mourn the old life alone.” She and the others in the seminar discovered that every transition, whether to something for better (e.g., promotion) or for worse (e.g., divorce), begins with an ending.
A good place for an ending, with the hope that the reader will consider these wonderful books for help if and when need be. They are timeless gifts from two gifted authors.

Advertisements

Magic Lessons

Magic Lessons

Patrick Brendan Murphy, my mother’s father, came to America from County Cork, Ireland, as a teenager. He told all his grandchildren one Christmas Eve that the inhabitants of ancient Irish ring forts dug tunnels to crawl into when they were attacked. When the attackers reached the inside of a ring fort they found an empty dirt floor. They’d run to the outer walls ready to launch spears and arrows at fleeing Irishmen, only to see fields as empty as the ring forts. In an early demonstration of Irish wit, the people who took those tunnels from the forts would pop up from out of the dirt a few hundred yards distant, wave at their tormentors, and waggle their treasures over their heads while they did a little jig, and then they’d disappear back into the earth. And that’s how leprechauns got started: giving magic lessons.
Everyone else knew Michael Healy was a leprechaun, that he could dance with gold as his partner and beckon you to join in, only to disappear long before anyone caught on to his magic. I took an early dislike to him, but it didn’t last.
His classroom for magic lessons was the Dew Drop Inn in South Chicago, a 63rd Street bar and pool hall with as much ambiance as its name, which insiders always shortened to just “The Drop.” It was the kind of place that grows in big cities like mold on cheese, only you can’t scrape it off and save only the good parts. The politicians hired family and friends with degrees in urban planning, but 63rd Street ignored them and thrived as a warren of booze hangouts, eight to the city block on some stretches. At The Drop you could shoot pool, exercise one or two more muscles than it took to hold your elbow together during the voyage of drinking glass to anxious lips. Six pool tables were spotlighted like stepping stones to the back door. A row of high-backed stools with swivel seats, enough for a small gallery of onlookers, lined the back and side walls. Huge ashtrays were emptied once a month. Leftover light from neon in the windows and weak fluorescent tubes over the mirror behind the bar lent small disguise to dusty bottles and desperate faces. A tired television set provided the other light by the bar; each pool table had its own low-hanging light just over the center of the table.
I sought the simplest of games, eight-ball or cutthroat, avoiding games that demanded more skill. My mere presence beside a pool table inspired a certain eagerness among the regulars, who were nearly always anxious to praise my
progress and potential with wide smiles while folding my dollars into their pockets.
But, thinking I was improving, I persisted. Cradling my glass of beer in one hand and my hustler’s wooden case in the other I gave it my casual stroll from the bar to the pool tables. I had rescued the case and the three-piece pool cue at Kline’s Sporting Goods, the same Kline’s where Lee Harvey Oswald had purchased his rifle through the mail. While I examined a few pool cues, I had asked the sales guy if he’d gotten any mail orders from Dallas lately – for rifles with telescopic sights. He wasn’t amused.
The way it worked at The Drop, if you hung around long enough, and if you didn’t look like a cop who let his beard grow for a couple of days, who thought not changing his clothes or not taking a shower after some garden work would make him look like he fit in, eventually you’d get a game. I set my case on the floor next to the wall and climbed up on a chair to study the two closest pool tables.
On my right a high stakes game attracted some attention from the regulars. I’d seen Skinny Brown work his own brand of magic a few times. This time he was playing some downtown suit at ten bucks a crack and doing quite well, judging from the circles of sweat on the suit’s shirt and the way Skinny would miss a shot now and then to keep the suit thinking he had a chance. Skinny flashed me a grin and let the suit win a game right after I sat down.
A few games and a few less ten dollar bills in the suit’s pocket later, there appeared this new guy hanging around looking like he was waiting for the suit to surrender. Sometimes you just react to the way somebody looks. He had on a shirt made out of shiny blue stuff that fit him loosely, a soft-looking brown leather jacket that would cost me four paydays, neatly creased tan pants, and spotless brown loafers. He was much shorter than my six-two, maybe five-eight, and had a smooth, round face with a wide mouth, a too-large nose, and black hair so stiff and shiny it looked like he brushed it back with two pieces of buttered toast. His tired-eyed, indifferent expression and his slow way of moving told me that he knew he was real slick.
An old guy everybody called Stump slept in the chair next to me. He woke up and wiped his mouth with his sleeve, looked around, and gave me a gentle poke with his elbow. “How long’s the Leprechaun been here?” he whispered.
I pointed to the slick one. “Him?”
“Yeah.”
“A few minutes.”
“Watch your ass with the Leprechaun,” Stump muttered. He eased himself down and shuffled off toward the back door.
Skinny let the suit win another game, then told him he had to be somewhere else. After a few heated words about giving him a chance to win his money back, the suit left. Skinny drained a beer and left a few minutes later. The Leprechaun moved to the open table, drew his cue from his case, and looked my way.
“Michael. Michael Healy,” he said.
“Jack Burke.”
“How’d you do, Jack. They call me The Leprechaun. Now and then.”
His brogue reminded me of listening to my grandparents. He waved his hand over the pool table.
“Care for a game?”
“I don’t play for money with people I don’t know well,” I said.
“Just so, Jack. And wise. How ‘bout just ticklin’ a few for fun then, just for the hell of it?”
“Why not?” I said.
He moved like someone on stage, a magician, gesturing and smiling, wanting you to look everywhere but at his hands.
“Watch this wizardry now,” he said. “The Leprechaun is dancin’, handin’ out magic lessons. Watch closely so’s you don’t miss a thing. Don’t be lettin’ your eyeballs wander, and don’t blink, or you’ll be left to wonder what all the ooh’s and aah’s are about.”
Some of the others at The Drop had gathered to watch. Michael Healy was very good. He would make a shot no ordinary player, certainly not me, would even recognize as possible. I made a few shots, even ran off five in a row once, but Healy was incredible.
I excel at hindsight, perhaps blindsight, ignoring what is clear to everyone else and figuring things out when it’s too late. I watched Healy operate and play to the swelling crowd, and my initial dislike melted away. The man had style.
After his performance we found stools at the end of the bar. I bought the beers and he steered the conversation. I’m not the type that makes dozens of friends, but thought I was good at it when I knew I should try. What I really wanted those days, what I was hungry for, was savvy. Street smarts. I yearned to be a winner for a change, and the longer we talked the more I began to worry that my envy hung like a sign with blinking lights on my chest: I want to study, to learn your magic; I want to be like you. I was certain that there were secrets to be learned, magic that would unlock the treasure chest without having to go through the trouble of earning the key.
Everyone liked Healy, or so I thought. I am older now and I’ve decided that if it all happened today I would recognize the relief in their eyes, hear the
unspoken gratitude when he directed his cleverness away from them and toward me.
A few weeks into my time as his student the Leprechaun was buying me another beer with my money. He told me that he made his living by finding people and things that were separated; that he was paid for putting them back together.
“And here I thought you made your living shooting pool,” I said.
His eyes narrowed and he gave me a wave of dismissal. “You got more smarts than that.”
“Just kidding,” I said.
He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke past my shoulder, staring at me in that way he had of making me think he was changing his mind about my basic worth as a human being. “There’s no real money in pool, laddie. Sometimes I put separated people together; sometimes it’s a person and a thing. People pay dearly for my services. You get the picture?”
“You a cop? Insurance guy?”
“Do I look like somebody’s slave?”
He did not. Over the rim of my beer glass I looked at him and imagined my boss taking him behind a closed door to tell him a black leather jacket, black shirt, gold tie, blue jeans and loafers were not appropriate for the office.
His eyes completed another quick survey of the room before returning to mine. “Well now, it’s a sure thing you’ll starve if you try to make a go of it as a pool shark.” Appreciating his own joke with a grin, he put a small pile of twenty dollar bills on the table and tapped them with his finger. “I need a favor if you’re interested.”
“What kind of favor?” I said.
“Pick something up, take it to a place, make a hundred.”
“Pick up what? Take it where?”
“Better you don’t know the what just yet. The where is a wee office downtown and a few other places. There are a few people who wouldn’t necessarily take kindly to seein’ a package cradled under this arm of mine,” he said, moving his arm as though he were about the give the cue ball a tap. “You know nothing about it. They don’t know you, you don’t know them. Just a simple pickup and delivery. Like I said, puttin’ someone and something together. A hundred. Like magic.”
I was interested, especially in the hundred.
Over the next few weeks the favors became more complicated, but I didn’t care. I was making a bundle, spending most of it on ladies, clothes, and pool. Looking back, the clues were right in front of my face the whole time. I just didn’t want to see them. Like I said, I excel in hindsight and blindsight. I was too busy congratulating myself on having more good times and especially on finding my pockets bulging with the results of Healy’s magic.
* * *
On one of those windy January nights when I was wondering why anyone would choose to live in Chicago, I dropped myself into the driver’s seat of Healy’s dark blue Cadillac. He had given me the keys and an envelope to deliver to an office on Randolph Street downtown. The Caddy cut through the wind and I cruised down Western past Gage Park to Archer, catching every green light and checking the mirrors. Healy never failed to warn me about the cops, about getting stopped in his Cadillac.
“If you do get stopped,” he said each time he handed me the keys, “do what they want and call me right away. Call me before you do anythin’ else as soon as you know the cops are gone.”
When I asked why, he just grinned.
“There’s plenty of Cadillacs out there, but only one of me and one of you.”
Another clue I ignored.
I’d been to the Randolph Street office twice. It was in an old-timey building with an elevator that had two doors and one operator. As you got into the elevator the first door was quiet and fancy and solid; the second door was a noisy metal accordion folding thing like a fence you could see through even when it was closed. When the elevator wasn’t stopped at your floor, the fancy door kept you from falling down the elevator shaft. The operator was a troll who sat hunched over the controls as though you were trying to learn how to run the elevator so you could steal his job.
The troll stopped the elevator at my floor, the fifth. The hallway smelled like a small convention of smokers had just stubbed out a few dozen cigarettes. The smoke was still hanging in the air and I tried to fan it away from my face by waving my hand.
When I reached my destination things did not go well.
The first door opened to a room that could only hold one chair and two or three other people as long as they didn’t want to sit. I stepped into the tiny room and held out the envelope to the guy sitting in the chair, a guy I’d seen there before. He was taking a nap, his newspaper clutched to his chest. I’d seen that before too, so I leaned over and tapped his folded arm with the envelope.
“Hey fella, got a delivery,” I said. Nothing. I gave his arm another tap, then nudged his shoulder. Still nothing. I gave his shoulder another nudge, this time a little harder. He leaned over so much I grabbed for his arm to stop him from falling to the floor, then jumped back and let him fall when the newspaper came away from his blood-covered chest.
I felt the side of his neck. No pulse. I stepped over him and reached for the doorknob on the second door thinking maybe I could open it, just put the envelope on a desk and get out of there. I tried to listen before opening the second door, but my heartbeat drowned out everything but the clatter of a small fan that rested on a shelf on the back wall. I pressed my ear to the door. No sound other than the fan and my heart thudding against my chest. I opened the door slowly, remembering that I was supposed to bring Healy something in exchange for the envelope. As the door opened I heard a sound like bird wings fluttering behind me. Next thing I knew I was eyeball to eyeball with the dead guy and peeling my face off the floor. I got out of the building as fast as I could, tripping on some part of the dead guy but still making my way to the stairs. No elevator for this trip.
The envelope was gone, and when I stumbled into our meeting place so was Healy. I found a pay phone and tried to call him. No answer. I drove the Caddy to my place, went in, and splashed my face with water. I covered the lump on my head with a hand towel I had packed with a few ice cubes.
I sat in my new easy chair and thought about driving the Caddy back to where I had picked it up, but before I got back up the cops were at my door. They knew where I had been. It didn’t take them long to tell me they would try to get me a deal if I didn’t stick to my lame story about getting hit on the head while trying to do a favor for a friend.
“Did you happen to notice the body on the floor?” one of the cops said.
“I didn’t see a body.”
“What was in the envelope you dropped off?”
“I don’t know.”
“What were you supposed to pick up?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where’d you get the car?”
“Friend loaned it to me.”
“What’s your friend’s name?”
“Frank. Frank Johnson.” I said, giving them the name Healy told me to use.
“Are you really that stupid?” The cop took a deep breath and let it out. “Ever hear of a guy named Dell Maloney, calls himself The Leprechaun?”
“No.”
“Kevin Borland? Michael Healy?”
“No.”
“Son, we got witnesses say you knew this Michael Healy, Leprechaun or whatever, hung around with him, worked for him.”
The cops explained a few more things. The lawyer they gave me explained a few more things. They all knew more than I did.
I have plenty of time to study now. We are let out for meals and short times outside when the weather is good. But I wish I could find out more directly from Healy. I still think he knows things I should learn. I spend hours each day trying to remember old tricks, trying to learn more magic, but without time with the Leprechaun I worry that none of it will be enough to make me a winner. After all, Healy disappeared and I am still here counting the days and weeks and months until there are no bars on my door and I live in a place where there is more than one window.
The Leprechaun’s knows more magic and is long gone. Dug himself a tunnel and is out there somewhere dancing with the gold.
* * *