Am I Racist?

Am I Racist? Of course not.

For over 50 years, since our law school days in the 1960s, when he was the only black and I was the only woman in our law school class of 114, Jack Sherman and I have been professional colleagues and best of friends. We witnessed each other’s children growing up, and now live next door to each other. Skip West, Ken Parker, Jim Johnson, Nate Jones, to name only a few, are other black lawyers with whom I have developed genuine friendships. When we greet each other, we hug, and the loving feelings are real, not pro forma.

And I have other credentials: As director of the Public Defender Office in the 1970s, I hired many black (as well as women) attorneys. I cared about breaking down barriers.

And when President of the CBA in the late 1980s, Inyeai Ororokuma and I, she then President of the BLAC, started The Roundtable, out of which grew the Minority Counsel Program and SWEL.

So, but a few years ago, I, nor anyone else, would ever suggest that I’m racist. But I am.

I’ve taken the implicit bias tests that confirm this. I learned of my preference for lighter skin tones, for the young over the elderly, for men as scientists. Almost by osmosis we internalize prevalent cultural messages. But, now I am on high alert and paying attention. Being aware has paid off. Or, so I thought.

Just days before writing this commentary, my refrigerator died. The cause appeared to be an electrical problem and I was advised to contact Duke emergency services and did so. Within the hour, the Duke van approached and I walked out to greet the driver. A young dark skinned black man stepped out and I offered a welcoming smile, but my heart sank. My unspoken thought? “Damn, he won’t be able to figure this out.” Twenty minutes later, his obviously intelligent analysis was clearly stated. I quickly forgot my fall from grace, until a few days later when I read an insightful article by Byron McCauley, a columnist and member of the editorial board of the Cincinnati Enquirer. It was published on the day the Tensing trial ended in a mistrial. I excerpt only two paragraphs:

“The legal system rightly holds a presumption of innocence for defendants such as Tensing. And the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a high one for prosecutors to meet, as it should be. Yet the continued failure of the legal system to convict police officers for on-duty actions is troubling. How much of that failure represents society’s respect for policing, and how much might, just maybe, represent the taint of racism?” He continued:

“Just the other day, a woman refused to take her assigned seat on an airplane between two African-American men (one of them me). Instead, she elected to be seated at the windowless rear of the plane. I wondered then what type of juror she would make in a case such as Tensing’s.”

I would not have acted as that woman did. My racism is more nuanced, more private. Now you see it, now you don’t. But it is there. Would it arise if I were a member of a jury, judging the credibility of witnesses?

I write spurred on by a June 24th N.Y.Times article by Ibram X. Kendi, a 2016 National Book Award winner and professor of history at American University. Kendi addressed why police officers are rarely charged for taking black lives, and when they are, why juries rarely convict. He traces America’s history from the explicit racism of Jim Crow to what many now consider our “post-racial” society, citing a survey by the Pew Research Center last year that found that 50 percent of whites feel the races are treated equally by the police, compared with 16 percent of blacks.

Kendi suggests that this can change, “……… Killing the post-racial myth and confessing racism is the first step toward anti-racism. Americans can recognize that label as an opening to a just future.”

How could I not follow through and acknowledge my reality if I am to hold my head high?

 


 

 

Narrowing The Divide

Jack Sherman and I meet for lunch every Wednesday, a ritual of sorts, in recognition of a friendship dating back to our law school days in the 1960s. Last month, on a chilly Wednesday afternoon, we were joined by Greg Adams, another friend and colleague of many years. Yet, despite our friendship, I walked away from Greg without speaking when we met at a social event soon after the election, a lapse I wrote about in these pages almost two months ago.

The three of us sat together in a cozy booth, my political adversary and my best friend, and we recalled our many connections. We laughed in surprise when Greg pointed out that Jack had been his constitutional law professor back in the early 1970s. Tensions eased. At least mine did. The two men exhibited none at all right from the start. Denial is their friend?

I now knew, which was unexplored territory for us before the presidential election, that Greg and I lived in separate moral* worlds, a divide artfully described by Jonathan Haidt, a noted social psychologist whose work Greg and I both admire. Haidt suggests that our political positions are mostly unconscious moral intuitions that are formed by early family and life experience. Because of this we perceive very different threats to our democracy. But, unlike those who choose to avoid talking about it, we were at a turning point. We were either facing a permanent breech, a greatly diminished quality of friendship and a widening of the divide so evident across the land, or we could make the effort to reach out and develop empathy and understanding for our different views, and stop seeing each other as the enemy. (Although, I later learned that the enmity I felt, born of my fear of what the future holds, was not shared by Greg at all.)

“What do you see as the role of government?” That was my first question, and I offered my answer before he spoke. “For me, it’s an expanded sense of community, a way for all of us to take care of each other.” Greg’s response perfectly encapsulated our different perspective: “It’s human nature to want to control one’s own destiny. Government regulating our lives denies this, and at the same time is inherently inefficient.” He shared anecdotes, some quite humorous, to support his conclusion.

We touched on many issues: children living in poverty, the minimum wage, the threatened Muslim registry, broaching subjects about which I assumed we differed in important ways. My words were carefully chosen. Without any formal prior agreement we each took care not to be challenging. We listened well and responded calmly. Along the way, we all told funny stories, some with a partisan edge, and the mood remained light hearted. Time ran out with many important issues untouched.

Expressing empathy for victims of tragic events is easy. It’s far less easy when we feel personally threatened, when our moral matrix*, our belief system, is called into question by the left-right divide. Can a genuine friendship survive? But perhaps of broader importance, can our democracy survive if we can only shout at each other or remain silent?

We made a start that Wednesday afternoon. And on reflection, I realize how important that was. Since then we’ve had further conversations and plans are afoot to have others join us. Will this be a true coming together? The emergence of shared values? Perhaps some, for we have already discovered we share unequivocal support for free speech on college campuses and oppose the concept of a Muslim registry. And might we problem solve where we differ? There will be genuine appreciation for the effort, and respect. Of that I am sure. Just a beginning, but an important beginning.

And should we happen to meet informally, I will not look away.

*Terms used by Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of “The Righteous Mind”. See also TED talk interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-_Az5nZBBM.


 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Parents always warned not to talk about politics or religion when the family gathered.

Before this past Thanksgiving, had that advice ever been so oft repeated around the land? Anxiety was high at many tables, some agreeing in advance to avoid any talk of the recent election.

And in the workplace family, large and small, is “don’t ask, don’t tell” the unspoken mantra of the hour?  Plenty of other things to talk about.

Is it brave or foolhardy to break that rule?

A colleague with whom I’ve interacted both personally and professionally over the past thirty years or so, someone who I hold in high regard, both as a lawyer and as a friend, and who I know honors me as well, was approached some weeks before the election with a challenging request. He was asked to sit side by side with another lawyer, also a personal friend and colleague, before a small audience of civic leaders and share their reasons for supporting the presidential candidate of their choice. In advance, they prepared the questions they would pose to each other. This was not to be a debate. Neither assailed the other’s candidate. It was simply an effort to better understand both viewpoints, why their choice would best serve their personal and political values.

An air of friendly camaraderie filled the room both before and as the event drew to a close. Milling about, I heard many expressions of thanks to both presenters for enhancing our understanding of the policies each had endorsed.

But that was then and this is now.

I think it is fair to say that for most of us, the outcome of the presidential election came as a surprise. It seemed the entire country reeled, some in delight, others in dismay, before we caught our collective breath.

Now I hear from many about family members, neighbors and work colleagues, who they suspect or know were for the “other team”, for whom the unspoken rule is avoidance. Life goes on with business as usual. Is the intensity of feelings too great to risk bringing them out into the open?

Haven’t we learned that  “don’t ask, don’t tell” is deadly to the spirit?

My friend, who came out the winner, approached me at a social gathering some weeks after the election and held out his hand in greeting. I took his hand but found I could not speak. I nodded and walked away.

This haunted me. For days I regretted my lapse and felt an apology was in order. After much thought, and a few restless nights, I wrote him a letter to explain my behavior. It was lengthy and heartfelt and ended with the suggestion that we meet for lunch and address both his concerns and mine. He answered promptly and warmly welcomed the opportunity to meet.

Across the land, many who believe that a country so divided will falter, are calling for conversations that bridge the great divide. Has the healing talk begun? So far, I only hear of families torn asunder or relying on superficial banter. In the neighborhoods and the workplace, is avoidance actually saving the day?

My friend and I will share a meal and test that premise. Will the depth of our long history and good will toward each other ease the tension? I’m not without anxiety about this meeting. Will we be able to avoid polarized rhetoric and have a more nuanced conversation? Find places we can come together? I will seek to discover what values we each continue to hold dear. A friend with whom I have shared this plan warns me there will be none. The chasm, she says, is too wide.

For now, I choose to believe that is not the case.


 

At A Loss For Words

My friend was in a quandary, and when he told me what had happened, I joined him in his loss for words. For both of us, our livelihood calls upon our facility with language, but we were at sea.

The story: A few weeks ago my friend lunched with a colleague following a business meeting at which an important matter was being negotiated. No deal had yet been made.. The only woman at the table, who was participating for first time that morning, had raised serous questions about a position taken by my friend’s luncheon companion (we’ll call him Dick), and Dick’s anger, though controlled, had flared.

As they slid into the restaurant booth, Dick remarked, “these lesbians can be relentless.” His comment was made with a jocular, “if you know what I mean” grin. My friend’s response was silence. They ordered lunch and the discussion subject shifted, the derisive comment allowed to simply evaporate without rejoinder.

But my friend’s discomfort did not evaporate, for now, weeks later, we sat pondering how that remark might have been (should have been) countered. We both have friends, colleagues and family members who are gay or lesbian, and we felt offended and angered revisiting that scene. Yet, we were at a loss for the words that might have been spoken in response.

Oh, we had no trouble designing cutting insults to induce embarrassment, or to label Dick a bigot, but he was someone with whom my friend would continue to work. And even if he were not, an aggressive remark which would add to the discomfort of the moment, was not in my friend”s repertoire. Yet, by remaining silent he felt lacking in courage, defeated.

If the goal is to raise consciousness and not to simply confront or demean, which might just harden beliefs and enhance a defensive posture, another approach is needed.

I’ve taken a survey of sorts and asked some friends how they would respond to an ugly remark, a pejorative identity statement, and none had a sound rejoinder that worked, at least from my perspective. Most had experienced similar conversations and also remained silent, often walking away if the setting allowed.

After much thought and some reading (see the fine book identified below), I think I’ve come up with a sound approach.

Bigoted remarks can be addressed with a non-defensive question, simply seeking further exploration of the meaning. The question must express genuine curiosity and be non-accusatory, and asked with an open, non-critical tone, an inflection which sincerely invites a thoughtful response.

For example, “Dick, tell me why you think that’s so?”

If his response continues in the same disparaging vein, at least a conversation has begun, and the way open to a sharing of experience and knowledge. Genuine curiosity would appear to be the key.

On the other hand, Dick might simply answer, “I guess that was a pretty crude remark on my part.” Then a simple, “yes” in response might suffice for the moment, with perhaps a smile as well. That may well signal an open door for further conversation.

……………………………….

(Taking the War Out of Our Words, by Sharon Strand Ellison)


 

 

Just Mumble

Some years ago, I clipped a favorite cartoon by Koren, and I keep it on my desk. It shows two middle aged couples visiting in the living room of one of their homes, with a huge hairy monster looming behind the smiling hosts seated together on a couch. The wife addresses their friends sitting opposite, who are staring at the monster, and says: We deal with it by talking about it.

This is a concept I hold dear, the idea of coping with our demons by talking about them with those we trust, thereby lessening their power to effect our lives. Surely this is the best way to foster understanding and intimacy.

Professionally, I often urge clients to face and perhaps question their fears or concerns about the future, bring them out in the open, and share different perspectives and opinions with friends or loved ones.

So, it was with some surprise that I recently came across some opposite views that I find appealing.

I wish I could, but cannot remember the source of these words I quickly scribbled on the pad I keep by my bed: Curiously, it helped us not to talk things out. Confusion cannot be challenged if there is no finality. In a marriage there is always tomorrow, the apology, the explanation of bad behavior, the kiss.

Weeks later when I gathered up my collection of bedside notes and reread this quote, I realized more fully the wisdom it held. Those whose relationships have survived long term have all probably learned this lesson, to pick and choose which incidents, which thoughts or daydreams, which monsters need to be talked about and which are best left to confusion, to uncertainty, to apology, or just to the kiss.

And here’s another strategy.

When Colbert King, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and deputy editor of the editorial page of the Washington Post was asked about his wife of over 50 years, King commented: We have a mixed marriage, she’s a registered Republican, and I’m a Democrat.

Actually, King and his wife, Gwendolyn King, both held a number of high government positions, he as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Carter administration, she as a Deputy Assistant to Ronald Reagan and as Director of the Social Security Administration under George H.W. Bush.

When interviewed and asked how he handles their disagreements. King, who will soon be 76, responded that he just goes with the flow and added: You have to learn how to mumble if you’re going to keep the marriage going . . . that you don’t have arguments . . . because if you‘ve got to say it  . . . five years from now when you’re about to brush your teeth, she’s going to get the last word . . . I don’t disagree with my wife about anything, I just enjoy the moments.

So, perhaps there are times to throw a blanket over the monster, cultivate confusion, and mumble.

 


 

 

 

 

When There Is No Trust

She sat as if braced for a blow, unsmiling and on her guard. Seated at the other end of my long office couch, he was her reverse image, comfortably relaxed.

It was not until I met with her alone that she gave voice to her anxiety. In despair she said, “he wants this divorce and I don’t trust him anymore”.

Her husband, a businessman, had taken the first step and walked away from what she acknowledged was not a happy marriage. The roles they took throughout their 25 year union were well-defined, he the breadwinner and she in charge at home. They rarely crossed over into the others’ world. He knew so much more than she did about finance, about their finances. How could she possibly negotiate with him, when she felt she could no longer rely on his concern for her well-being?

Trust had been their bedrock, even as their intimacy faded. No longer.

She went on, “I do all the bill paying so he says I have a good grasp of money matters. Not so. He assures me I’ll be fine, but I no longer have confidence in what he tells me”

My response: “Why should you?”

She looked up, surprised.

I continued, “when an intimate relationship ends, trust flies out the window and anxiety sweeps in. Betrayal, broken promises or shifting moral standards, and a partner so well known becomes a stranger. The pain of loss and fear of the unknown dominates the emotional landscape. Then all that’s needed is a spark, a canceled credit card, a barbed letter from an attorney or finding out that a separate bank account has been opened. If there was any residual trust, it vanishes. Being assured that everything will be all right offers little solace”.

She listened intently and asked, “do I need to hire a more aggressive lawyer”?

My response: “that’s one option, although not one I would urge. While the family’s financial status quo is being maintained, I recommend you take this time to collect all the information you need to become stronger and wiser yourself. Then an attorney committed to settlement might well help you figure things out”.

Her eyebrows raised but she was smiling.

To those who’ve survived this early stage of divorce without declaring war and have found their way into a mediation setting, or who’ve hired lawyers who can advocate for them while seeking an equitable settlement, recognizing the need to address the interests of both parties, this is what I say: “let’s just assume that your spouse is untrustworthy. This is your current perspective. You may be wrong, but you may be right. So, why not simply accept the absence of trust, and design a settlement that doesn’t depend on faith. Assert your power to say a respectful “no” to anything that is suggested, until you are ready to say “yes”. Ask for documentation and test proposed solutions assisted by carefully selected experts, lawyers, financial planners. Decide to make no decisions until they are fully informed decisions. Let doubt serve you. No call to be accusatory or disrespectful. Just smart.”

In marriage we expect trust, assume that we’ll always be told the truth and our well-being given priority. That perfection may not always exist, but it’s a reasonable expectation.

When an intimate relationship ends, aggression is not the answer, but trust need not be assumed. Unless and until it is regained.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When an intimate relationship ends, aggression is not the answer, but trust need not be assumed. Unless and until it is regained.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A March Blizzard Remembered In April

Will this year’s mild winter and capricious April weather pass without a surprise blizzard? It happened in March of 2008. Now, warm and cozy indoors, as cold winds buffet my windows, I am filled with memories of another March blizzard over fifty years ago.

My 28th birthday was near as Len and I and our two young sons, six and three, moved into our first home that was not a rental apartment. Although barely settled in, what better occasion to show off our prize, so a party was planned.

When the day dawned, heavy wet snowflakes belied the promise of spring. An unexpected storm, but my Eagle Scout husband was up to the task of greeting our guests with a welcoming blaze in our first ever fireplace.

Minutes after a match was put to the kindling, we knew all was not well. The scent of wood burning, evocative of past romantic campfires, began to fill the house. A delight at first, but soon ominous. Smoke billowed into the living room, little to none drawn up the chimney. As the tiles and mantle began to blacken with soot, doors and windows were thrown open.

I was immobilized. Not so Len. Somehow he wrestled the burning logs into a galvanized tub and carried them to the front yard, now buried in eight inches of snow. Tipping the glowing logs out, great bursts of steam arose, just as our friends arrived on foot from their nearby homes, agog at the drama that greeted their entry into our chilled smoky house.

I’ve often laughed over this memory, but now I’ve been thinking about why this look back brings both pleasure and insight.

Len was always ready to act in a crisis, and it was his nature to be both a protector and a caretaker, which was welcomed by this avowed feminist. The time soon came when he made law school possible for me. For three evenings each week, for four years, he took over nighttime child care. Then once I entered the professional world, he listened to my daily stories of victory and defeat. If I felt unfairly treated, he was ever ready to confront my adversaries, actions this avowed feminist declined.

Len, far less verbal than I was about his own feelings and struggles, was sometimes despondent about his career. A scientist who loved university teaching, he felt thwarted by the ever present pressure to seek research funding. I, the more optimistic, urged him to seek alternate satisfactions.

For me, the purchase of our home symbolized stability and commitment to place. He, possessed of a wanderlust and a lover of the wilderness, remained tentative about urban home ownership in the mid-west. Then came the time when my income, from the career he’d fostered, made possible the purchase of a small two-seater plane in which he frequently flew away to yearned for fishing lakes and mountains. Our home became more of a haven, and remained so until his death in the fifty-third year of our marriage

What is the opposite of losing? It is finding. Lost is the delicate balance achieved with a loved partner which the blizzard memory brings into sharp focus, how we grew to rely on each others’ strengths, compensated for each others’ shortcomings, some passions shared, others not.

Found was the ability to perform a new balancing act on my own, while still protected by the love and promise of safekeeping offered by children and close friends, and warmed by gratitude, renewed by reflections on a remembered March blizzard.


 

Implicit Bias

I have awakened to a new reality. If a year ago I was asked if I harbored a bias, perhaps related to gender or race, I would readily have answered “of course not”. Now I know better, and am wiser.

People in the know, academic researchers in the main, are bringing light to the subject of implicit or unconscious bias, suggesting that we carry, act on, but fail to recognize many biases.

Tests, based on studies with results that have been scrutinized and deemed reliable, (these which I cite developed at Harvard) are available for all at Implicit Association Tests .

An interesting twist: many women, even those who consider themselves feminists, are discovering an unconscious bias against women, and blacks, even civil rights activists, are discovering a bias against blacks. What this makes so clear is how our biases are formed by exposure to values and prejudices in our environment and culture, beginning in childhood. If we grow up in a climate pervaded by negative or stereotypical representations of black people, women, and homosexuals, and which of us has not, our implicit or unconscious attitudes are formed and, though often unrecognized, do influence our day to day actions.

Here is what I found to be a startling example, and a brave admission, that came to light when in 2014, the esteemed journalist Krista Tippett, interviewed Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa:

Desmond Tutu: “I think… that we have very gravely underestimated the damage that apartheid inflicted on all of us. You know, the damage to our psyches, the damage that has made — I mean, it shocked me. I went to Nigeria when I was working for the World Council of Churches, and I was due to fly to Jos. And so I go to Lagos airport and I get onto the plane and the two pilots in the cockpit are both black. And whee, I just grew inches. You know, it was fantastic because we had been told that blacks can’t do this.

…And we have a smooth takeoff and then we hit the mother and father of turbulence. I mean, it was quite awful, scary. Do you know, I can’t believe it but the first thought that came to my mind was, “Hey, there’s no white men in that cockpit. Are those blacks going to be able to make it?”

And of course, they obviously made it — here I am. But the thing is, I had not known that I was damaged to the extent of thinking that somehow actually what those white people who had kept drumming into us in South Africa about our being inferior, about our being incapable, it had lodged some way in me.”

How can we not only unearth the discomforts we would all likely experience as our unconscious biases become known to us, but get beyond them? That becomes the real challenge.


 

 

 

 

An Unquiet Mind

Can simply reading another’s personal history significantly impact our own?

Kay Redfield Jamison’s book “An Unquiet Mind” was given to me by a friend when I confided that a member of my extended family was exhibiting extreme behaviors. I’d begun to wonder whether I was witnessing the normal range of craziness that accompanies the breakup of a marriage, or a serious mood disorder, perhaps of long standing.

Jamison, a psychologist on the faculty of Johns Hopkins Medical School, is an expert on manic-depressive illness. The remarkable twist in her story is that she has suffered with this disorder since her late teens, though not diagnosed or treated for many years thereafter.

Publication of this revealing memoir in 1995, was made by a woman who had previously gone to great lengths to conceal her condition, knowing exposure would likely sidetrack her career. Then, at some considerable cost, she surrendered her privacy. Although “outing” herself was less risky than it might have been, as she was by then a tenured professor, writing about being psychotic and delusional did cause some of her colleagues, although generally supportive, to treat her differently, question her motivation and objectivity. But not for long.

Her book, expected to draw a limited audience, remained on bestseller lists for five months and soon sold over 400,000 copies, proving what great hunger there is for understanding when a loved one goes off the rails, and the ripple effect of mental illness on related lives. Others sought insight to their own troubling behaviors.

Jamison describes a time when although medicated, she was within the throes of the dreadful agitation of a manic state. Her work required she back away from these feelings in order to focus on analyzing research data she was preparing for a publication deadline. She needed to gain control over her irrational distorted thoughts.

Her words describing this effort had special meaning for me:

    “Much as I had done when frightened or upset as a child, I found that asking questions, tracking down answers as best I could, and then asking yet more questions was the best way to provide a distance from anxiety and a framework for understanding.”

Jamison’s method can be a prescription for us all. Even those spared the devastation of mental illness fall into periods of mild or moderate depression and anxiety. For me too, asking myself the right questions, and in this way becoming more self-aware, allays anxiety.

At this advanced stage of life, I’ve figured out which questions to ask, to manage those emotions which otherwise sweep away rational thought, a subject for another day.

=======#=======

 Note: the commentary above was posted once before, several years ago. It recently came back to mind when a young man of my distant extended family began to display extreme and very troubling behaviors, refusing appropriate medication and treatment. The rippling effect of his mental illness on family members close to him are intense. I decided it is timely to describe my own questioning process when faced with anxiety or mild depression and wide awake at 3:00am.

I take paper and pen in hand and write down the answers to the following questions:

——-   What are the recent troubling events now on my mind? (i.e. report of an adult child’s illness, rejection of a friendly overture, a professional misstep).

——-   What emotions have been triggered (i.e. anxiety, sadness, anger, shame).

——-   What thoughts about my life are generated by those events and emotions? (i.e. I’m helpless, unloved, irresponsible, unworthy)

——    In what way are these thoughts irrational or distorted (i.e. all or nothing reasoning, predicting the future without sufficient evidence, plagued by old scripts of “shoulds” and “oughts”), categories so well explained and defined by my reading and study of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

——-   What rational thoughts could replace those that are distorted and generate my anxiety or mild depression? (If having difficulty at this stage, I ask myself this question: if a dear friend brought this narrative to my door, what advice would I offer…..the ideas then flow.)

Then, my writings are set aside for review in the morning, and with thanks to Kay Redfield Jamison and CBT, I go back to sleep.

 A further note: The Hamilton County Public Library (and no doubt other libraries around the country) offers free access to many Great Courses audiotapes, including one on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.


 

When Life Just Happens

Too often it is only after years of sidestepping talk of discontent, that the thwarted desires of partners are openly and seriously explored. Much that might be timely addressed goes unsaid, until it is too late.

Here is the story a divorcing couple recently told. Seventeen years earlier, she’d become pregnant, they married, and she gave up her college plan. He achieved career success, making it unnecessary for her to take a job for pay. As the family grew, they moved to an upscale suburb where the children attended private schools.

Although she yearned to return to serious study, little was said of this as obligations at home and in the community filled her days. After a time he felt trapped in a career he would happily leave, but for the need to support their expensive lifestyle. The immensity and seeming impossibility of their dreams, and their discontent, was only occasionally the subject of aimless late night talks.

Now, with all passion spent, and the decision made to part, they didn’t blame each other for the disappointments they openly discussed, both suggesting: it just happened.

Some years ago, a friend introduced me to a small volume, “How to Get Control of Your Time and Life” by Alan Lakein. It’s one of many books I never finished, but the early pages contained a suggestion I took to heart.

Following the author’s instructions, each year, usually in January, I sit before a blank piece of paper and without allowing any time for rumination, spend just two minutes writing the answer to each of the following questions:

1) What do I want to accomplish over the next five years?

2) What do I want to accomplish over the next year?

3) How would I spend the next six months if I knew I had only six months to live?

I’ve kept my annual lists and from time to time, I look back. Sometimes, with pleasure, I note goals that have been met. Other times, I recognize that year after year the same objective is repeated without much forward movement. My answers to the third question are quite specific but least likely to have been implemented. Denial?

I never share my lists with anyone. But many conversations with friends and colleagues are spawned with my aspirations in mind, and projects designed. Trying to enlist my husband to join me in this specific question and answer process failed. Wasn’t his style. But over the years, my formalizing of goals, long and short term, often led to talk about our dreams and miseries. We gave each other permission and support to initiate change, and many important changes were made.

But what happened to the two people seated on my office couch who spoke of their regrets, as they made plans for lives apart? At an earlier time they felt great attraction for each other, and probably shared many values, yet they failed to seriously talk about or support each others’ longings. Their imaginings about a different way of life were defeated before they were realistically explored. What if they had asked each other how steps in new directions might have been taken over the next six months, or the next year?

Perhaps every couple, or at least one partner, should go through an annual assessment of what they wish they could do or be, to see if articulating what one hopes to achieve, might lead to important disclosures by both of them, and support for those ends. Together.


 

 

 

When Talking Is Difficult

As colder weather approaches, I a reminded of the recent winter when my car broke down, which proved to be not only a failure of the mechanism, but of my spirit, at least temporarily. For I felt ill equipped to cope with the decisions that then had to be made. This had always been Len’s domain, not mine.

I managed well enough with the help of friends, and those who towed and repaired with kind tolerance for my ineptitude, but what a stark reminder of the division of responsibility in our marriage. Although we often consulted with each other, decisions about the purchase or repair of anything with moving parts were left to him, interior design left to me. Insurance, his. Kid’s clothing and wellness care, mine. With career decisions, he made his and I made mine. But major concerns, a possible move to another city, a home purchase, a child’s blue mood, were always talked through to resolution. If memory serves me well, our shared values usually made these conversations easy. But not always.

When Len, who piloted his own small plane, began to take our young grandchildren aloft, I developed a twitching eyelid and my sleep was seriously disturbed. We tried to talk about it. He was angry and hurt that I would question his judgment and thought my fears irrational. I thought not, but even if they were, I needed to find a healthy way to cope. We knew this was an issue we had to confront and resolve, but my anxiety and his defensiveness made it a difficult conversation that went nowhere.

Eventually, we sought professional help, and along the way learned a lot about each other and ourselves. The outcome we reached was a compromise which I gratefully, and he somewhat grudgingly, accepted: he would take another pilot along when the grandchildren were passengers.

What the breakdown of my car and these meandering recollections bring to mind is how often both partners approaching divorce maintain that whenever conflict loomed, too discouraged or unable to talk it through, they were the one who abdicated the decider role and simply gave in to the other. The moments most clearly remembered were those when dreams were compromised, eroding a sense of self, thwarting authenticity.

I’m aware of this because on the first day I meet with a mediating pair, I speak with each of them privately and ask how they resolved disputes during their marriage. How did they negotiate? Here is the interesting twist. Often each spouse reports that they were the one who most often capitulated and accommodated to the wishes or demands of the other. Both asserted: “I just went along to get along”. As impossible as this would seem, I think the belief was sincerely voiced.

My friends whose relationships are working well readily acknowledge those areas in which they most likely have the prominent decision making role and those they are willing to leave to their partner. For them, talk is usually easy.  But in a relationship where hope for a future together is ending, self-disclosure feels risky and talking is difficult, and the yearning to better understand the other is trumped by anxiety or disappointment.

Without some intervention, preferably with an experienced counselor, dissatisfaction just grows and grows.  So, of course, the earlier the better.


 

“Forget You”

When my kids were very young, the ultimate put-down they could deliver to each other was “forget you”.

This came to mind when rethinking a mediation session with a high–conflict couple. One felt betrayed, the other misunderstood. The conversation I witnessed was tense, each frequently interrupting the other. Their words assaulted with contradiction, were denigrating, blaming. It was as if the others’ viewpoint had absolutely no legitimacy, their feelings no merit.

By the end of the meeting, I felt like a traffic cop, holding my hand up to silence first one and then the other, so a thought could be completed. Eventually they calmed, tired, and made an effort to comply with my no interruption rule. But by then they were dispirited and eager to leave.

As each in turn had taken control and silenced the other, the underlying message was “you don’t really matter”. Perhaps when an intimate partner has withdrawn their love, this is what we want to believe, but, of course, they do matter, to each other and to their children, the current subject of their bitter discussion.

Had I accomplished anything with my no interruption mandate? Perhaps greater efficiency in addressing the issues before us. But would this intervention actually take them to a place of better understanding? Or agreement? Not likely.

What I need to do, and will attempt when we next meet, is to somehow get them to stand in each others’ shoes, to develop some empathy for what the other is feeling, and in turn, to be understood. If I had a magic wand, this is the gift I would help them give to each other. The future benefits would be immeasurable. Even if only one of them was willing or able to take this step, there would be an important shift in the nature of their negotiation. I am quite sure of that.

The ability to empathize and thereby offer respect to a departing partner (even if continuing to disagree with their positions), and a willingness to honor their past contributions to the family (often privately acknowledged to me), call for words some conflicted partners seem unable to speak to the other. When it is possible, myriad conflicts evaporate. And it is wonderful to witness.

I plan to ask these two to speak as if they’ve exchanged identities, to tell the truth of the other as they know it. Initially it will be awkward, but if they are willing to persist, it will be revealing, even exciting.

Can I accomplish this without it seeming too contrived? Will they resist? Or will they make the effort to imagine what their partner is feeling when repeatedly criticized for past deeds? And will they then be willing to ask if they are on target, to really know the others’ misery and not just their own?

If they can do this, I think they’ll be able to move forward. If not, their children will inherit their pain and learn well from them the art of accusation and blame.

 


 

To Go Slow Is To Go Fast

They had entered my office smiling, an amiable couple in their early fifties. After my introductory comments, I was told that even before deciding to mediate their divorce they had pretty much worked things out. Many agreements were already in place, and I was assured they would make quick work of the issues that remained.

Approaching the end of our second session, Dave, a successful businessman, spoke with authority as he presented the financial plan he had devised for his wife, Kate, for when she would be on her own. Apparently listening, but quiet and no longer smiling, Kate did not react or respond. I invited her comment. She just shrugged her shoulders. So I asked: need more data?

No answer. So I continued: Perhaps you’re feeling apprehensive about what the future holds?

Still no response from Kate.

Leaning forward, Dave turned to me, making no effort to hide his irritation: Wait a minute. You’re putting words in her mouth. She’s fine with this plan. We already talked it over.

At that, Kate came to life:  You don’t know how I feel! I’ll never find a job earning what you say I can earn. Now she was sobbing. Dave sat back, displeased and exasperated. He was a man on a mission who thought the end was in sight.

So, why this breakdown now?

All along I’d been aware of Kate’s struggle to fully understand Dave’s explanation of financial matters that had previously been left completely up to him. Earlier he had pointed out that it was Kate who always paid the monthly bills, suggesting she was therefore savvy about finance. But did this follow? Although her husband treated her with respect and she did not appear distrustful, her anxiety was palpable. Not an uncommon response when the reality of going forward alone is no longer inescapable. And Kate as yet had no job in sight.

Dave’s impatience would not serve him well. That day, as Kate fully revealed her fears about the future, and after some further discussion, he eventually came to realize that unless Kate felt more competent to engage and reason with him, and had employment she could count on, she would very likely turn to a surrogate power source: a lawyer, a gladiator, to do battle with her stronger opponent. That could be a very long journey.

We took time out from mediation for Kate to meet with counsel wise in the ways of settlement, and a financial planner with special knowledge of divorce consequences, to take whatever time she needed to fully understand the deal she was about to negotiate, and to become assured she could successfully manage her financial future. She would get the help she needed, but not from Dave. And the job search would proceed before finality was achieved. Kate would even research the possibility of additional coursework to enhance her employability. It meant a delay of some months while these steps were taken, but she was excited now, still wary but optimistic.

I’ve never been comfortable with the cynical comment that if both parties walk away from a negotiation equally unhappy, a good bargain has been struck. Rather, I think if both are given sufficient time to address their concerns, fully empowered, either alone or with a wise advocate at their side, sound agreements can be reached.

I was confident that before long Kate would find her own voice. And Dave, even if reluctantly, came to realize that sometimes to go slow is to go fast.

 


 

 

Apology: Remorse or Maneuver?

A mediation client recently phoned after a session and politely but firmly accused me of favoring a plan put forward by his wife, displaying a bias, not the neutrality I’d promised.

Although I thought his perception wrong, I knew I had likely contributed to this misunderstanding, so I simply apologized. That seemed to clear the air, and we were then able to listen to each others’ view of what had taken place. Defensiveness fell away, for both of us.

But it could have gone quite differently, for I almost mindlessly, and defensively, responded to him by saying: I‘m sorry you see it that way.

I didn’t do so because of my heightened awareness of other expressions of regret gone awry: a celebrity, a politician or a radio talk show host places foot squarely in mouth and indicts an ethnic group or gender, with evil or foolish intent, and when once again sober or contrite, with great apparent sincerity apologizes by saying: If my words resulted in discomfort or pain, I‘m very sorry.

Responsibility for the incident is thereby shifted away from the speaker and to the listener, who is presumed to be overly sensitive. Not really an apology at all.

Working with people who have hurt each other in egregious ways and decided to divorce, I don’t often hear an apology spoken. When the decision has been made to part, and anxiety about the future is high, perhaps this is not surprising. Yet, I regret this constraint, for expressions of remorse that take responsibility for acts or omissions, can be so healing and open the door to understanding.

Even under less stressful circumstances, in secure times, some can say they are sorry with ease, perhaps even be too apologetic, when for others, the words of regret remain unspoken.

The different ways each of us convey ideas or express feelings is dependent to some extent on ethnicity, nationality or a special dynamic in our family of origin. These are disparities that too often go unrecognized.

The apology also presents an important gender distinction.

Here’s an interesting insight from Debra Tannen, a linguist, author and professor at Georgetown University. She’s written a number of books pointing out the differences between the communication style of most men and women, differences which she observed even in nursery school age children at play. She notes how willing women often are to apologize when things have not worked out well. I’ve noticed that myself, and assumed it simply grew out of women’s greater ability to express feelings, and the reluctance of many men to display emotion. But, according to Tannen, there is more to it than that.

Tannen observes that women tend to focus more on the question: is this conversation bringing us closer or pushing us further apart? Men, on the other hand tend to focus more on the question: is this conversation putting me in a one-up or one-down position?

For women, she concludes, apologies are to be embraced because they reinforce connections, but many men are attuned to the symbolic power of an apology to advertise defeat.

I find this to be a meaningful distinction, although, to be applied fully recognizing that generalizations don’t always fit.

 


 

Anger: Serve You Well Or Do You In?

I’m uneasy in the face of anger. In my professional world, I’ve learned how to manage that of others. But, in my personal world, the anger I feel towards others, or if I am the target, can leave me a bit unhinged. But, not for long.

Therapists have helped so many to recognize and legitimize their anger. For some, depression begins to lift, a new sense of self and autonomy is achieved, all to the good. But for some, who I suspect give up the exploration of angry feelings too soon, a new found acceptance of their angry feelings is worn as a badge of courage, and it can do them in.

Consider this: Husband has been betrayed. Wife has met a new preferred partner. Husband, able to work at home, had fostered wife’s successful career, provided daytime care for the children and kept the home fires burning brightly. (For the purpose of this discussion, who did what to whom over the term of the marriage is irrelevant, for, as is almost always the case, both parties contributed to the relationship deficits.) Husband’s anger is now given free rein, and fuels his days.

In the negotiation setting, anger is frequently expressed, understandably so. This husband angrily rejects wife’s generous financial proposals, born, in part, of her remorse. My cautionary words are met with: my therapist said I have every right to express my anger.

Meeting privately with the husband, I suggest that anger expressed in a therapeutic setting, or to a friend, may well serve a valid purpose, but does not serve him well when negotiating. Whether or not one has the right to be angry is not the point. Reaching a favorable result is. So, I advise: taste the anger, but then become strategic.

My words, not surprisingly, fall on unreceptive ears. A quick turn around appears impossible. I urge a return to therapy with a focus on his immediate situation. It may take months of litigation before he is able to recognize that his angry stance is self-defeating.

On a recent morning, I was wide awake at 3:00am mentally composing a response to a letter received the day before by someone I did not even know. It was originally emailed to a friend (then forwarded to me) criticizing a public affairs event I had a part in presenting earlier in the week. It was belligerent in tone and replete with misunderstanding. I wanted my response to be perfectly stated to artfully put him in his place. But hours later, in the light of day, I decided not to devote any more precious hours to venting my anger, when nothing of any importance was to be gained. I was pleased and even a bit proud of myself to be able let the whole matter fade away.

My personal epiphany actually occurred many years ago when a book by a self-help guru got me on the right track by pointing out that holding on to anger hands tremendous power over to another. The target of anger, in a sense, takes control of your life. That was the last thing I wanted.

For me, acknowledging, but then letting go of anger, and seeking an effective solution to the issue at hand, takes back control and power.

And breathing deeply helps.


 

The Folly of Giving Advice

I’m watching a young family self-destruct. I cast caution to the wind and offer some advice. A foolish move.

The story: Two young physicians are taking part in mediation, ending their five year marriage. They have built a reservoir of misery for themselves and their child. After just one meeting, I thought I knew how they could avert disaster.

He is smart, charming and articulate, qualities that attract, no doubt attracted her. But though soft spoken, he is a very angry man. Now that their marriage is almost over, his anger has taken center stage, sometimes covert and subtle, but often sharp and direct. She says it is what has driven her away, and she sees herself as the victim in their drama.

But when his verbal saber slices the air, as he thrusts, she parries. They are frozen in this dance, and are on the brink of waging legal warfare. Their child is young, so they have many years ahead to play their parts.

My ego gets in the way of wisdom, so in private I give him advice: get therapeutic help. Seek the source of your rage, try to understand and overcome it.

My advice to her: with your ardent defensive reactions to his anger, you’re turning control of your life over to the very man you’re trying to escape. Get some help to figure out how you can change your responses. Don’t live with the hope or expectation that you can best him at this game, or that he is the one who will change.

Neither acknowledges nor attends to what I urge upon them. Just the opposite. She pays no heed and changes the subject. He’s resentful and withdraws. My advice may have been sound. Offering it was not.

I step back and examine my folly, and bring my failed experience to a thoughtful colleague. And she says: you’ve stepped across a boundary and taken on a role that is not yours to play. You can’t change their lives with motivation that is yours, not theirs.

Words I might have spoken to another, but did not speak to myself in my rush to rescue them. They had not come to me for salvation.

Good advice may be a great gift, but giving it in a constructive way is an art. My knowledge of this pair was superficial, their situation far more complex than it initially appeared. An empathic listening connection had barely begun. With meager acquaintance, one cannot know what is best for someone else.

Even with close friends or family members, unsolicited advice is usually an unwelcome intrusion into another ‘s personal life, suggesting that they are not capable of working out their own issues, a lack of due regard. In this circumstance, I should at least have asked whether my advice was wanted, and posed the question in a way that allowed for either a yes or no answer.

There are some things I can do in the role of mediator (not savior), or as a friend or family member, that might be helpful, and which I may still have the opportunity to do with my young clients. I could share my personal experiences in dealing with anger, my own and in responding to that of another, information they could choose to make use of or ignore, but which would not be a show of disrespect. And I could ask questions that would help them  explore possible options going forward and then consider the likely consequences of each path that could be taken. This could take considerable time but it would be time well spent.

In the end, wisely or not, we usually act on what we have come to believe is our best course of action, not on what someone else tells us to do. (Especially not on what a parental figure suggests!)

Best we share our own experience, give of ourselves, not advice, and offer our analytical skills. The rest is up to the listener.


 

 

Empathy Redefined

Empathy Redefined

To gain insight from experience I’ve acquired over the years and then to pass it along, that is satisfying. But, when applying such wisdom to events in my own life doesn’t work, that is sobering.

The wisdom: when another person’s point of view or behavior is problematic or upsetting, quiet the tendency to be reactive and stand in their shoes. Empathize. View the situation from their perspective. As a professional helping others, I can do this in a reasonably dispassionate way. And many times I’ve said: once you empathize, you can sympathize with their point of view.

Not always easy if I’m emotionally involved, but I thought I had even these situations figured out.

An example: My son and daughter-in-law divorced some years ago. I loved her dearly and still do. She lives far away so we only occasionally visit, but we continue to correspond and speak on the phone. Often she shares her concerns with me and our words flow easily, unless she makes a negative comment about my son. I understand, even empathize, but can simply ignore these words if they are written, or remain quiet if they are spoken, and attend to the rest of her message. She is a quick study, so takes my silence into account and we move on, each of us accepting a well-established boundary that only occasionally is crossed, but then renewed.

So empathy works, until it doesn’t.

Here’s what happened: I received an email message from a dear friend who lives some distance away, with whom I’ve maintained a close connection over the years. I consider both she and her husband intimate friends, he a former professional colleague of my husband. But now the wife wrote complaining bitterly about her husband’s behavior and attitude. The tone of her message clearly assumed my alignment with her, seeking both my sympathy and asking for my professional advice. I was upset and resented being drawn into their personal lives in this way and expected to take sides.

My initial reaction was not to respond at all, but soon I knew that totally ignoring her message would be too unkind a rejection.

After mulling it over, I shared my quandary with a trusted colleague: I could not simply accept the wife’s perception of events and offer sympathy and advice without feeling disloyal to the husband, nor was I willing to be drawn into the details of their intimate angst and make judgments about what went on.

As we talked, some new wisdom emerged: I was confusing empathy with the need to sympathize and become an actor in their play. Empathy, a willingness to understand, does not require agreement or even sympathy, only a readiness to hear and attempt to comprehend what someone has to say, not to embrace it. With that distinction clearly in mind, I was able to frame a heartfelt response that was empathic and not rejecting.

A bit wiser now, I stepped back into my own shoes. Taking care of myself, I also asked that I be seen only as a friend, which made giving professional advice to either of them untenable. An important boundary was established.

 


 

Does Love Trump Privacy?

When our youngest child grew up and moved some distance away, I claimed her room and fashioned a space all my own. It was quite small, on the second floor of our home with leafy tree branches almost touching the windows, a nest of sorts. There were times my husband came and stood at the threshold to ask me a question, but he didn’t walk in. He never entered uninvited. It was our unspoken understanding, as natural as breathing, that this was my space alone. Our separateness was respected. This personal background sets the stage for a description of a mediation session in which privacy was the issue.

The couple working with me made it clear they were not seeking therapy, not my skill, but to preserve their marriage by negotiating a specific well-defined concern: In the prior week, without consulting his wife, the husband had installed a lock on his home-office door. She was hurt and angry.

His story: When he was away from home, his wife opened mail addressed only to him. It was nothing of a highly personal nature, but in doing so she learned that his business debt was considerably greater than she had been led to believe. On discovering this, still in his absence, she looked through his desk and files, and eventually explored the content of his computer. When she confronted him upon his return about all that she had uncovered, he was outraged. That’s when the lock went on.

Her story: She firmly believed there should be no secrets between marriage partners, and that she was, therefore, perfectly justified in her actions. He was the one who had much to explain.

The response I addressed to her was spoken without hesitation, or sufficient forethought. With some fervor I said: But everyone is entitled to a zone of privacy.

This statement and my tone surprised them, and myself as well. With hindsight I regret the unprofessional manner in which I spoke. I should have posed some neutral questions to each of them, not been judgmental. Predictably, the issue did not get resolved in my office, and later, when the wife called to cancel their next scheduled appointment, I learned that after further discussion between them, her husband had removed the lock from his office door.

I recalled another client who discovered that her husband had read the journal in which she wrote each morning on waking. She was incensed, even though she’d kept it tucked in her nightstand drawer, readily accessible, and known to him. Her question: How could he not understand that it was for my eyes only?

Will such unwelcome intrusions as these continue to rankle over time? My guess is that insistence on full disclosure, and by some even a demand to know their partner’s innermost thoughts, is more likely to erode than to foster openness and harmony. Are these wounded loved ones likely to become more or less secretive?

Why is privacy so important? We speak of someone “invading” our privacy and the very use of that word suggests a violation of significance. It’s an assault on our autonomy, a piercing of that protective skin we seek to keep in tact (so many words of aggression!). Privacy keeps us safe, free of judgment until we are ready for exposure, and then, only to those we trust.


 

 

 

The Pleasure of Touch

My cat likes to have her ears pulled. Her eyes narrow, and she arches her neck with pleasure as she awaits the next gentle tug. This feline resists being picked up, but curls up in the crook of my arm when I am reading, propped up in bed. She nudges, seeking my touch, and the pressure of her warm purring body is a sweet reminder of the relaxed heft of a sleeping baby.

Some months after Leonard died, one of my younger friends took on the role of caring daughter and gave me an unusual gift, a massage by a therapist she admired. When I told her this was something I’d never done before, she said: everyone needs to be touched, and you are now alone.

I went, and continue to go every now and then, welcoming this time of complete ease and pleasure. The therapist always begins by massaging my feet, and though I only spoke this thought aloud after many months, when her skilled fingers knead these muscles: I wish I had done this for Leonard, especially in his last six months when he was in bed more hours than usual. For this man whose feet were almost always on the go, it would have been a special way to express the sweetness of old love.

It is easier to write of my cat and a masseuse than to write of the sensual pleasures of my marriage, but perhaps there is a point in doing so. For us, the promise of touch was ever present. The gentle pressure of my fingers on the back of his neck as he drove, his hands easing my tensed shoulders as I sat at my desk, holding hands in the movies or nestled together when watching TV. Intimate touching renewed our appetite for life.

Now, alone, though engaged with others during the day, my patterns and pleasures have changed. I enjoy my solitude, but it differs from a past shared with another. Evenings, I no longer watch programs or movies that I suspect will cause me to feel anxious. When we watched together, leaned into each other, no matter how fraught the media coverage, I was safe, moored. Now I check the Internet for newsworthy events the next morning, in the light of day.

Often on Sundays I spend some time rereading a few old letters. His words and his handwriting almost feel like a touch, a lingering memory of the pleasures we shared, which can quite take my breath away. Then I close that door and reenter the present with a sigh, but no anguish, and knowing I can return.

Comfort with touch is tied to family history, and there are those for whom casual touch is foreign, even uncomfortable. Mine was a family in which physical affection was open and easy. Leonard’s family was just the opposite, touching rarely seen. When we were first together, seeking physical closeness I consistently walked him off the sidewalk onto the grassy verge. A lasting joke between us that spoke volumes. I eventually converted him.

Lest this become a maudlin description of an idealized marriage, I also well remember the hours, sometimes days, when we didn’t touch, lay back to back and distant in bed, or silently left the house for a solitary walk. But being deprived of touch inevitably brought us to talking, so much was it the glue of our marriage.

So why write of this? There is wisdom to be passed along. The importance of touch if infants are to thrive is well established. Now studies are proving the same is true for adults. Breaching the chasm of being alone in one’s skin and experiencing pleasure, or giving pleasure, can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones and improve immune function.

So, a reminder for those lucky to have a loving partner at your fingertips: massage their feet.

 


 

To Go Or To Stay?

Anne rummages in her purse but then pauses, smiles, and remembers that she no longer smokes. It’s a tense moment and she wishes she still did. After a deep sigh she says: Tim tells me that he just needs some space and is suggesting we try living apart for awhile. What do you think?

For some months now, I’ve been aware that the marriage of my friends was troubled, although Anne was sure they both still valued their bond. Counseling was rejected, her husband determined to protect their privacy and insisting, not without some bitterness, that he didn’t need to “get fixed”. My cautionary words were: if respectful conversations are still possible, give it more time. Separations usually become permanent.

I realized as I spoke, that although invited to give advice, I had no sound knowledge base for my statement, no actual data to support my conclusion, so I added that caveat.

All of the evidence from my professional life was anecdotal. Those who separated and then reconciled did not end up on my office couch, so my evidence was not only imperfect but also skewed. Yet many of my divorce mediation clients reported having separated for a trial period, sometimes for as long as a year, only to later decide to end the marriage. For many, I surmise, a proposed temporary parting was often a way of letting their partner down easy, suggesting only the need for space, but knowing that their decision to end the marriage was made, and for them was the right one. For others, I believed that the motive was more sincere, a testing time. But what was being tested? Whether solitude was preferable?

I quizzed a friend who had been a Magistrate in the Domestic Relations Court and got another perspective on separations. She commented on the number of dramas that had played out informally in her courtroom where it was revealed that one spouse had asked, even demanded, that the other leave, only to later acknowledge that their real intent in suggesting a separation was to test the commitment of their partner, The departed spouse had then become happier living on their own, and declined to return. A risky request probably made impulsively at a moment of hurt or anger. I too had heard this scenario a number of times.

I shared my personal experience with my friend, for I well remember those times during my marriage when we were both unhappy, though not always at the same time. It was toughing out those difficult days, struggling to understand, and to be understood, that repeatedly brought us to a new and better place. Long walks were taken, sometimes together, sometimes alone. There were tearful but also loving times, because we had opportunities to reconnect with spontaneity. While still together we could reach out and touch, smile, or fix a favorite meal, do something to bridge the gap and then begin again to talk. But I know others within my own family who took a different path, lived apart for a time and came back together.

On balance, I’ve come to believe, even without reliable evidence, that when unhappy partners remain committed and respectful, most problems are best worked out in close proximity, ideally with professional help.

Although I know there are exceptions that prove, or probe, this rule, is it not also true that nature abhors a vacuum? How often does the intimacy vacuum created by a separation get filled with new directions, new confidants, and new connections?


 

 

 

 

 

The Shame of Illness

I have few memories of illness in my family as I was growing up. Minor ailments were barely acknowledged. Sickness was spoken of as something which, with proper living, could be avoided. The illness of others was often deemed psychosomatic, not without sympathy, but with the underlying message of some hidden weakness that should be overcome.

In my husband Len’s final year, I became intimately involved with persistent pain. He was stoical, but when he left the house for an adventure with a friend, I would assist in placing the Parkinson’s meds he needed, to take at set times, in a small pocket container. I noticed when the number of tablets he added for pain relief increased. It made me uneasy.

On our regular visits to physicians, the initial question was often: on a scale of one to ten, how’s the pain? I would be dismayed when Len answered: nine. Compression fractures in his spine were the apparent cause, yet I was embarrassed by his admission.

A few years ago, I came across a study which reported that many people are ashamed to talk about pain, whether it be a passing headache or something more chronic. The finding was that those persons who made the effort to describe their pain, in some detail, were better able to thereafter cope with the pain. I suspect this relates to emotional pain as well.

Not too long thereafter, I had a scare, arising from a routine physical. An ultrasound was ordered, followed by an MRI. Then, of course, a week of waiting for results.

I made the decision to share this information with no one, rationalizing that any disclosure was premature. But my facial expression belied this determination, and when a close colleague asked why I seemed so distracted, my story poured forth. The next day I told other intimate friends. That evening I emailed my kids, giving them the details.

The reduction in stress was palpable.

Soon the reassuring news came that all was well.

Why the initial reluctance to tell anyone?

Was I shamed by an old parental message that illness was in some way a punishment for wrong doing? What better defense mechanism than hiding this moral flaw, not being the person “mother wanted us to be”?

The study results, and my own experience, hopefully have silenced my childhood script that illness is somehow shameful, and to be denied. Unexpressed fears, and pain, can loom larger than life. Giving voice to them not only opens the way to receive loving support, but lightens the step and makes it easier to breathe.


 

 

 

 

An Unrealistic Expectation: Fairness

It is wonderful to engage with someone who has worked their way out of despair and become optimistic about the future.

The enthusiastic woman I met with was preparing a counter-proposal for her husband, after completing several months of obviously useful therapy. She had given up lamenting the past and was facing her impending divorce with newfound courage, determined to convince her soon-to-be former spouse to amend his most recent proposal for support.

The story: this wife had earned a library science degree a decade ago, but now that her status as the stay-at-home parent was ending, she had a new career goal, one that required a return to school. To implement this plan, her husband would need to contribute to her support for a longer period than he had offered.

Her plea to him some months ago was: before the kids were even born, we agreed that I would leave work and stay home full time, to give them a good start. Now it’s only fair for you to pay for my return to school.

His response at that time was: true, that was the agreement we made, but it was never contemplated that you would switch careers. The fair thing is for you to help bring in income now.

When fairness is the goal and each party asks the other “to be fair”, what they really are saying is: if you saw the world as I do, then you would agree with me. Since you don’t, you’re unfair.

Pleas for fairness typically fall on deaf ears. Bargaining for subjective concepts of fairness simply pushes people further apart, less likely to reach agreement. The conversation ends. So, when you know where you want to go but keep tripping up along the way, it’s time to take a different tack, to be strategic.

This newly empowered woman was no longer stuck in the fairness trap. Still legitimately negotiating to meet her self-interest, here is what she now said to her husband: would you be willing to consider this: I know I could return to work in the library, but with additional training, I could achieve a far better salary and feel a sense of real satisfaction in my work. If this is something you’d be willing to help me accomplish, I’d be willing to commit to paying a portion of the kid’s future college tuition, as you’ve been asking.

Maybe we all regress to some extent when life is turned upside down, and as a child might whine, with the stamp of a foot, insist: it’s just not fair.

But, once it is clear what it is you want and why, the strategic approach is to state what you are willing to offer in return, for example to say: if I offered you ABC, would you be willing to consider giving me XYZ? This latter approach has the added benefit of suggesting an interest in consulting on the solution, which acknowledges that the other person has a position worthy of respect. A genuine show of respect always keeps the conversation moving forward.

And a reciprocal offer trumps a plea for fairness every time.

 


 

When Speaking of Love

A phone conversation ends in my presence. The final words spoken: I love you.

These three words have become a ubiquitous sign-off, often to a child, or a spouse or a partner. There must be a generational divide, for such farewells (except possibly when whispered) were rarely heard in my youth, or even in my middle years. And they leave me feeling somewhat disquieted, uneasy.

And then I silently chastise myself for my cynicism. I even wonder at my own awkwardness when I sense I’m expected to echo these parting words from a dear friend, and I remain mute.

But here is my quandary: Doesn’t saying the words: I love you make you feel a little crazy if just hours earlier you were greatly annoyed because once again your spouse failed to meet you on time, or if moments after you speak the words to a child, you display what seems like irrational anger at a disrespectful remark?

The actor and playwright, Wallace Shawn, spoke for me when he said: The difficulty of saying “I love you” is that it presupposes that you know who “I” is and that you know who “you” is.

Exactly my point. The scenarios are infinite. Who “I” am keeps shifting and who “he” or “she” is does as well. Which is the real “you”? Which are the true feelings? Isn’t it safer to avoid the routine sign-off so as not to later meet ambivalence head on?

But now at long last, I’ve gained a new slant on these three oft spoken words of parting. I chanced upon an interview of Matthew Crawford, author of a new book: “The World Beyond Your Head”. I must paraphrase his comments as best I remember them: Consider someone who is suffering from sadness, discontent, boredom or annoyance, say she is a wife who is feeling this way about her husband. Yet she says “I love you ”on retiring every night. She does not say this as a report on her feelings. It is not sincere, but nether is it a lie. What it is, is a kind of prayer.

This really helps me. If it is a ritual which allows one to act as if some state of affairs were true, even though the words spoken at that moment are without authenticity, and the words are an expression of a hoped for reality, I can buy that.

These three words are rarely spoken by me in an offhanded way, although sometimes they are written, and then meant most sincerely. I, after all, was married to a man named Larsen, whose ancestors came from a northern land of short days and long winter nights. I fondly recall the day he turned to me with a wry smile and asked if I’d heard the one about the Norwegian farmer who loved his wife so much, he almost told her.


 

Just Don’t Ask

There are times when personal experience informs the professional practice. This is the story of one of those times.

My husband was of Norwegian descent. He wrote with eloquence, but except when teaching or working with his students, he was a man of few words who could comfortably go for long periods without speaking at all. In the early years of our marriage, I was often unsure whether his silence conveyed unhappiness. So I would probe, ask a question, and then another, but at these times his sparse responses served to close not open the door to understanding.

I talked of this with a psychologist friend. Her response: you need to learn some new dance steps. Stop asking questions. Just tell him something about yourself, only a few sentences, and make no accusations. See what happens.

It worked. A brief back and forth began and he shared a few important words. The next day, my new steps were repeated and a bit more disclosure followed, and we both were more at ease.

Recently the occasion arose to offer this wisdom to another.

The newly separated father and mother seated on my office couch came in to address his accusation that their seven-year-old daughter was being turned against him. Despite his efforts to engage her in conversation, she was unwilling to talk with him in any meaningful way. He believed this was all his wife’s doing.

First we deconstructed the usual conversation father and daughter had as she climbed into his car when he picked her up at school at the start of his assigned weekend.

He: Hi sweetie, how was your day?
She: Fine
He: Learn anything new?
She: Not much.
He: Any good friends in your class?
She: Um hum.
He: So, play with them today?
She: Yes.
He: What sort of games?
She: Oh, just stuff.

Now frustrated, he would shut down, angry and hurt, and they rode along in silence until reaching his home where his daughter would shower affection on the dog, turn on the TV and cuddle with her pet. He felt the outsider. This conversation dance would repeat many times during the visit.

Bringing to mind my past experience with a sometimes silent partner, I suggested: Try this: Stop asking questions. Just talk about yourself, nothing too profound and not accusing or in any way critical. Maybe talk about what happened to you earlier in the day. But no questions.

He was smiling upon return for their next visit to my office and reported: Amazing! Picked her up at school. No questions. Told her about the pizza I had for lunch, made with anchovies, which I hate, and what a time I had dislodging them from the layers of cheese. She told me about the yucky salmon patties served in the school cafeteria and how one of the boys started tossing them around and got into trouble and that she knew his older sister who was stuck up. So, I told her about a woman in my office who was stuck up, and she asked why I thought people got that way. We had a great talk.

Hard to know what this youngster’s feelings were when she left school with her father instead of returning to the parent with whom she was perhaps more comfortable. What subliminal message did she carry from her mother? Did his being the one who left their home feel like abandonment? Did she wonder if she was at fault for what had happened between her parents? No easy way for a seven-year-old to address these issues, even for herself. Was closing the door on his questions a perfect defense against revealing a confusion of emotion?

No monumental disclosures were made, but tensions eased and the possibility for real talk was there again.

So, refraining from asking questions of those who are withdrawn, young and old alike, and telling your own story, may be the best step to take.

 


 

The Throwaway Line

I did not realize anger was in the room until they were walking out the door. A step ahead of her, looking away and with an edge to his voice, he said: It’s time for you to just get out.

Was I meant to overhear these words? I wasn’t sure, but they surprised me. Only moments before, as their first mediation session ended, they had reached an agreement to postpone the decision about which parent would remain living with the children in the marital residence. In my presence, they concurred that for the time being they would both remain under the same roof.

For fifteen years these marriage partners had struggled to draw closer. Now, the husband’s unrelenting bout with depression tipped the balance and appeared to be the catalyst for their mutual decision to end the relationship.

During the first hour we all met together, and they were amiable and calm, nodding and smiling in affirmation as each spoke. This negotiation would go smoothly, or so I thought.

Then I met alone with each of them during our second hour. With chagrin, the husband revealed that over the past year his wife had literally turned her back on him, even cringing at his touch. He knew it was time to move on. I asked about counseling, but although he’d sought treatment for depression, now they both rejected that path. He was sure that with autonomy would come the return of his emotional equilibrium.

The wife’s immediate concern, spoken in confidence, was her husband’s outbursts aimed at their troubled adolescent son. She feared that when she was no longer present to step between them, their belligerent exchanges would escalate.

The comment he made as they left my office, almost as an aside, confused me. On its face it made no sense, a perplexing contradiction of how they had presented earlier. The situation was not as it seemed, both of them on their good behavior, but in turmoil just below the surface.

I’m no stranger to an apparently casual but cryptic message that actually carries import. My husband’s oft spoken throwaway line was usually addressed to my back as I worked in the kitchen or sat at my desk: I’m going for a walk.

Was that an announcement or an invitation? Unable to read his mind, I would nod, silent but hurt, feeling excluded. Over time and after some difficult conversations, I learned to ask: On your own or do you want company?

He usually did. But not always. When he returned from a solitary time away, he was often ready, even eager, to talk things over. His earlier statement, as he turned to leave, was more than a casual aside. Obliquely it let me know that either companionship was being sought or that he needed to mull over an as yet unspoken concern. An important though unclear message when, for whatever reason, more direct communication was difficult. For the two of us, ever seeking a balance between connection and autonomy, this somehow worked.

My clients are not seeking a way to come together but a way to part. When they returned a week later, I asked the husband to clear up the meaning of his hostile parting words. It opened the door to important stories and even provided an opportunity for each of them to empathize with the depth of the others’ disappointment.

Throwaway lines. Spoken into the air as someone is walking away, offhanded and ambiguous. Attention should be paid.

 


 

Standing Alone

My college professor brother often spoke to me about his graduate students struggle to make important decisions about their futures, and how the stress of indecision took its toll. One common plight: take the not quite right job, or continue with their education and incur more debt? Rather than make a choice they might later regret, too many drift, not realizing, from my brother’s perspective, that rarely is there only one right answer, and that even wrong decisions can be dealt with and corrections made. Still in their twenties, most of his students stand alone in the face of uncertainty.

So different from my experience. When I consider the significant choices I made on my own, once outside the immediate orbit of parental influence, I can think of only two. First, at seventeen: where to go to college. Then, at twenty: whether to marry.

Once married, and for the next fifty-three years, I made virtually every major choice in concert with someone equally invested in my future. Not that the issues Len and I faced were thus made simple, but each decision had a shared impact, and we knew we could fall back into each others’ comforting ways if things went awry. And that made a difference.

Now I’m once again making decisions on my own, but comfortable doing so, drawing upon a lifetime of experience. Not so for most young people today who postpone serious personal commitments and remain independent far into their twenties or even thirties, called upon along the way to make important choices without much major decision making experience.

So, my brother would tell his students these two simple stories from his past:

His first paying job, when he was only fourteen, in the 1940s, was sorting potato chips. Hard to imagine in this automated age. He was told to grade the chips as to quality and size, pushing each into one of four separate bins. During early days on the job, he repeatedly approached his boss, unable to decide on the proper category for a particular chip. He was told: Bruce, you are simply going to have to make these decisions. So, he did, without any negative ramifications.

Many years later, with a recent PhD in hand, he worked in a physics laboratory in Princeton, N.J. and took part in the interviewing process for a new hire to join his research team. He approached his superior and urged the selection of a particular candidate, only to have his choice rejected. He persisted, arguing the merits of his favorite applicant, and his boss was finally worn down and said: OK, but I’m telling you here and now, Bruce, you will have to take full responsibility for this decision.

My brother agreed. He reasoned: if this guy works out well, I’ll get all the credit. If he doesn’t, what’s my boss going to do, go to his superiors and tell them he turned the hiring decision over to someone else? Not likely. At worst he would be told he’d made a bad call. That was a risk he was willing to take.

These stories, and the conversations they generated with his students, was his way of encouraging them to get their feet wet in the responsibility waters, wanting to assure them it’s not nearly as frightening as it seems from dry land.

Since my brother’s early decision-making days, and my own, risk analysis has been elevated to a science of sorts. Will it help these young folks who stand alone leave the edge of the future abyss and choose next steps? Perhaps, but how nice it would be if there were loving arms to break a fall.

 

 

A Bittersweet Gift

The room was crowded. We’d never met before, but when she learned about my work with divorcing couples, she made her way to where I stood, and after a brief introduction, in a derisive tone she said: I think divorce is far too easy these days. People are so self-centered they don’t even give a second thought to destroying a family.

Her words suggested a bitter personal history. I opted not to respond to the challenge and moved off, ending a conversation that had hardly begun. Perhaps I should have stayed to talk, for my experience belies her remark. I know well that the decision to end an intimate relationship is always complex and emotionally wrenching, especially when children will have their lives turned upside down.

Many ponder, sometimes for years, whether they should stay together for the sake of their children. Some, of course, do, and may successfully weather a difficult time, or simply accept a life lived without a loving intimate relationship. Others, often after seeking professional help, reach a different conclusion.

A question, usually asked by the partner for whom the decision has already been made, is: what example am I setting for my children if they rarely witness any expression of love or affection between parents living in a sea of unhappiness? Or worse, living with pervasive conflict, a child’s loyalty repeatedly, if tacitly, sought.

I recently completed mediation sessions with an emotionally mature couple who, after counseling and much thought, decided to end their marriage. It was a melancholy time, particularly for the partner less ready to move on and away, but both struggled to keep their focus on the stability they hoped to provide for their children amidst the sea change in their lives. As they negotiated, they compromised on some significant financial issues, avoiding what might otherwise have taken months, or even years, to resolve at the courthouse.

They were still living under the same roof, and tension had been high in their home, with none of the mending moments of intimacy enjoyed in the past. Yet, most of the time they managed to maintain civility and respect, particularly in the presence of their children. Early on in the mediation process, they’d consulted with a psychologist to devise the best plan for telling the children about their decision, and devise ways to help them adjust to the changes to come.

As we prepared to part at the end of their final hour with me, I commended them for their efforts and said: In today’s world, the likelihood is great that when your children are older, they’ll engage in a number of loving committed relationships before they decide to marry, perhaps some of lengthy duration. A marriage may later fail. You have modeled for them how an intimate partnership can end with caring and dignity, and how parents can continue to provide loving protection for their children. One day yours will be able to bond with another with added courage to be true to themselves, with security born of knowing that their parents worked through the most difficult time of their lives taking good care of the ones they continued to love, and even each other. Saddened, but not destroyed. What a wonderful, if bittersweet, gift you’ve given them.

They left with somber smiles and tears in their eyes.


 

 

Invisible

Friends question why I am once again talking about opportunities for publishing a book. Striving to be truthful, I answer: to avoid becoming invisible.

They object, especially those who are younger, not wanting me to feel diminished by growing old. They would like to talk me out of this concern. But they cannot. For I’m a realist, and know that aging eventually brings a retreat from center stage.

One particularly close friend pursued the point and asked: do you mean invisible as a woman or in a more general sense?

And I responded: both.

As women grow older, we accept a measure of invisibility. Advancing beyond the ever-expanding stretch designated mid-life, it threatens in earnest. We walk down a sidewalk and male heads no longer turn, no eye contact sought. But with family and friends, and professionally, we can continue as vibrant, seasoned, and more accomplished players, years after feminine allure has faded somewhat. Not a bad trade-off.

Only a Pollyanna would insist that nothing has changed, the step slows and maintaining sound bone and muscle is an ever-greater challenge. Many hours are spent in developing future plans, with the knowledge that even the wisest plan may go awry.

For me, both work and writing keep the stage lights on. And recalling memorable experiences, both personal and work related, exploring and crystallizing their meaning and crafting a story, offers a new role, a revival, a second act. Is this a universal dream for those growing older, to pass along what life has taught? And even a dream for the not yet so old?

What apparently I’ve failed to communicate to those dear friends who seek to reassure me of my continuing relevance, is that becoming less visible is not all bad. So here’s the good news for me, which will eventually be true for them:

I’m no longer burdened by ambition. Though eager to continue to enhance my ability as a mediator and as a writer, I have no more mountains to climb.

Skills developed over so many years of professional practice allow me to serve the needs of clients caught up in distressing times with calm assurance. Advice sought by younger colleagues bring expressions of gratitude that warm the heart.

Volunteer projects of past importance have been taken over by a new generation, and I’m permitted to enjoy the role of spectator, without committee or leadership responsibility, leaving me free to move in new directions and preserve precious hours for my own design.

Never again will I wear uncomfortable shoes.

The clothes in my closet are classics, by my own definition. Being in tune with fashion matters not at all.

Without guilt, I no longer attend social events I think will be tiresome.

Now responsible only for my own timetable, I can talk with a friend for hours, even in the middle of the day, should we choose.

I’m no longer a consumer of anything other than consumables. (Not entirely true as I am part of the Apple world.) Simplicity of want allows for greater focus, and the time to become technologically savvy.

I don’t have to pretend so as to be perceived in a favorable light, don’t have to hide who I really am. Invisibility has morphed into transparency.

Less visible, perhaps, but not marginalized, only centered.


 

Marital Espionage

The very air is replete with news of computer hacking, some massive in scope sending everyone to check their account balances, and other invasions equally upsetting to those whose intimate lives are exposed. It’s impossible not to be ever more aware that our personal zone of privacy may be compromised. I resist becoming hyper-vigilant, but know there are times to be wary. And one of those times is when a personal relationship is crumbling.

The story: My mediation client, John, had been betrayed by his wife. Yet, he sat before me smiling, eager to tell me that he now knew that Jan, his wife, had bought a plane ticket and would soon travel to Texas to meet her childhood sweetheart. Had she told him this? No. But he knew.

John worked as an I.T. specialist. After Jan moved out of the family residence, he’d obtained software originally designed for parents to keep tabs on their children’s internet explorations, and used it to surreptitiously tap (hack) into her email. Upon making this disclosure, he quickly reminded me that he was revealing it to me in confidence, as promised by our mediation contract. It put me on high alert.

I said: You’d best consult with your attorney, John. You may be committing a crime.

His smile faded, and I knew he would follow my advice.

This seventeen-year marriage had unraveled. Although John earned far more that Jan did as a preschool teacher, he thought he now had found the ammunition he needed to avoid paying alimony. He would soon learn that his premise was flawed, but more importantly at that moment, the way he’d been collecting his information was a time bomb, for him, and possibly for me. In some circumstances, it is also a crime not to report a crime.

When John returned for our next session, he asked to meet with me privately and soberly divulged that indeed, according to his lawyer, it could well be that his past actions were criminal. Chastened, he assured me that his sleuthing was over, that he would no longer read Jan’s email. But how could I be sure? He might in this way even invade the privileged relationship between his wife and her attorney, if email was how they were communicating, and likely it was.

Perhaps I should have taken more time to think things through, but on the spot I told John that unless he disclosed his breach of her email account to Jan in my presence, so she could take protective steps, mediation would end.

His immediate response: No way.

He feared his now estranged and angry wife would seek revenge by reporting him, or use the threat of disclosure as a bargaining tool. These were reasonable concerns and I could not mandate his confession. So, I decided to terminate our mediation sessions.

With Jan back in the room, I told them both that I didn’t think their support issues would best be addressed in mediation. Jan was compliant. I assured them I would call both of their attorneys and describe the agreements they had already made for the design of their parenting plan, and ask their counsel to manage settlement discussions regarding support.

John’s attorney already knew the score about what had taken place. Jan’s did not, and I was not free to be explicit with him. When we spoke the next day, I decided to weave into our conversation that I’d recently spoken with an attorney who urged all of her divorcing clients to change their email address and password and that I thought this a reasonable precaution. Silently I hoped that he would advise Jan to do the same. I needed to walk a fine line, wanting to say just enough to protect Jan’s privacy, while upholding my contractual and legal obligation to maintain John’s confidentiality.

Far from a perfect solution.

For those of us who’ve picked up computer skills only as-needed, but have no advanced literacy in this new language which daily becomes more essential to the business of life, legal and ethical challenges emerge like the tips of icebergs in uncharted waters. It is chilling.


 

 

The Unobserved Life

The Unobserved Life

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How many of today’s young are first stirred to shared sexual arousal in cars? For my generation this was often the case, for these were the years before coed dorms, even before the pill. We were able to slide across the bench-like front seat, whether moving or parked, and snuggle close. No bucket seats or cup holding consoles to form a barrier.

But, this brief essay is not about sex. It’s about private space, the unobserved life that cars offered then, and in some important ways may still.

Some years ago, I was reading Richard Ford’s novel, “The Lay of the Land”, when shock-jock Don Imus made front page news with his mean spirited verbal assault on a young women’s sports team. For those like myself, who had never been part of the Imus audience, a window opened on this brand of controversial and often offensive talk-radio program. Many expressed surprise on learning that hundreds of thousands of listeners made these commentators a lucrative source of advertising income for the broadcasting networks and earned these uninhibited boy-men millions.

But first, back to the book. Ford’s everyman protagonist, Frank Bascombe, is a realtor. In his car, either alone, or with colleagues or clients, he conducts both business and many meaningful personal conversations (often with himself) when driving the New Jersey countryside.

Ford’s query was: Why do so many things happen in cars? Are they the only interior life left?

And my query: why the popularity of the cadre of shock-jock radio personalities?

Many attempts have been made to analyze the audience of those angry white (mostly) men who celebrate insult. They don’t simply provide the eroticism of a Lenny Bruce or a Hustler type display of blatant sexuality, although sexual innuendo is pervasive. Specific groups are targeted. Women, blacks, and gays are those most often denigrated. Now Muslims?

One explanation for their popularity made sense to me. This is the rationale: time was when gathering to share sports talk or gossip at the office water cooler, or to ogle nude pinups in the back room, also afforded an opportunity to exchange the latest sexist or racist joke or slur. Even the surreptitious pat on the rump. Perhaps for some this was innocent fun. For others it was a way to assert their power and status as superior to those being ridiculed, workplace behavior which at least until the 1980s went unchallenged.

Then when women employed outside of their homes achieved a critical mass, behaviors previously acceptable were called into question. With the backing of supportive men, receptive legislators and the concurrence of jurists, the definition of sex discrimination, as experienced in the work setting, was expanded and the word “harassment” entered our common vocabulary. The term “politically correct” was also born and bespoke a new standard, received with delight by some and with a cynical sneer by others.

So, to return to the analysis I found persuasive: it is suggested that many of those tuned into drive-time radio, listening to mocking racist and sexist put-downs, while resenting society’s new rules, were happily unrestrained, and free to guffaw or gloat in the privacy of their cars. For except in their cars, radio was usually a shared family (observed) experience.

But today most of these radio shows have moved online. No FCC restraints. All that is needed for those drawn to vulgar jokes and aggressive talk is a headset and a downloadable podcast. No doubt some do actually wince at times, but all so engaged are once again secure in their unobserved life.

To me it seems a sad and lonely adventure. Nowhere near the pleasure of being unobserved snuggling in the front seat of a car.


 

Troubling Fantasies

Even when alone, I can almost hear the sharp intake of breath I share with others on learning of a teenage suicide. How harrowing it must be for parents who suspect or know of their child’s confusion or anguish about their sexuality, or of their being the object of bullying or of internet sexting. Fearing the threat of exposure, or of what has already become known or disseminated, may tip the emotional balance and court disaster.

Over the years, I’ve experienced the suicide of two friends, and a very dear relative, but their actions were taken as adults. After the shock, and sometimes a sense of failure for not having offered some critical word or action, one comes to accept a well-considered mature decision, as hard as it is to contemplate the desperate sadness or physical pain that provoked the act. But can there ever be acceptance of the young having taken this path?

What now comes to mind is that time almost twenty years ago, when our family court was rocked by two teenage suicides, one following the other by only months, their parents locked in War of the Roses combat. Shocked and saddened, a colleague of mine was galvanized to action. The result: the expert from out of town was invited to come and steer us in some new directions. Our collective sorrow led us to seek greater understanding about children experiencing this traumatic time of their parents’ divorce.  We yearned for knowledge that would draw us back from hell and into the light.

Neil Kalter, a research psychologist and author of “Growing Up With Divorce”, addressed a large group of lawyers, mental health professionals, and virtually all of the Court personnel, judges, magistrates and parenting specialists. Some things he said that day, I continue to repeat to most of the parents I meet with, usually on the very first day of mediation.

He said: all children of divorce experience two fantasies.

I remember being surprised that this well regarded social scientist was willing to be so universal in his approach. Taking note that divorcing parents eventually separate, he described the fantasy that follows the departure of a parent in this way: children who have only experienced a home with both father and mother present, fantasize that if one parent can leave, what’s to keep the other parent from leaving? The fear imagined is of complete abandonment.

Kalter suggested that we tell our clients about this and urge them to reassure their kids, who rarely speak of this fear, that despite their separation, both parents will always be there for them. And these comforting words should not be spoken only once, but repeated often during the difficult early days, and beyond. Each time I think about this and mention it to others, I’m surprised anew that it was not more obvious to me before that day, but it was not. Do parents of gay youngsters offer this support?

The second fantasy Kalter described was far less easy for me to understand. And it was this: children of divorce blame themselves for the divorce.

I remember thinking, how, or why, can this be? Perhaps, I thought, this might be true of adolescents, acting out in negative ways as they push away from childhood, but otherwise it made little sense. Well, I’ve become a believer, for as I tell parents about this, I often see them nod their heads in sad acknowledgment.

The father of a seven year old once told me he overheard his son tell a playmate: if only I had done my homework, my parents would not have split.

Almost funny, if not so sad.

Most divorcing parents agonize over the impact on their children and seek to assure them that they are not blameworthy. But these days, children of divorce, however difficult their transition to parents living apart, are not likely to be shamed by their peers. What a much greater challenge to somehow build a protective shield around a youngster who fears being exposed to public humiliation.

Do they also fear abandonment and blame themselves?


 

Permission Granted

Have you ever called upon a friend or loved one to talk over a decision you were considering, only to later recognize that at some level you were actually seeking permission to take a step that was out of step with the expectation others may have had of you? Or when you were reluctant to disappoint or even shock those you hold dear? If so, I think this is a good thing, a benefit of true friendship, and sometimes also the reward of consultation with a trusted adviser.

Here is what brought these thoughts to mind:

The woman with whom I was having lunch was a nurse, specially trained as a geriatric care manager. I sought her out to talk about her work and she shared this view: We are so conditioned by the “shoulds” and “oughts” of the culture, religion and the times in which we were raised, that sometimes we need to be given permission by another to make the wise rational decisions to best care for ourselves and our loved ones.

     She told me about her experience with her eighty-eight year old father who was hospitalized for over two weeks and not expected to survive, but he did. His clear instructions: if this happens to me again, no more heroics, too much pain and too much expense. Just let me go.       

She was quick to respond and reassure: But, I’m not ready to let you go.

      Her father’s answer: This is not your decision to make.

      She realized he was not only stating his wishes, but also giving her permission to carry them out.

My naïve question about her father: But didn’t he have a living will?

He did. But her professional experience taught her that despite properly executed living wills, when confronted with end of life decisions, the designated decision maker is frequently unable to act in accord with the legal document, is immobilized. Permission must still be granted.

Another example: A sixty-eight year old woman, the sole caretaker for her eight-eight year old mother, entered the care manager’s office saying: I hate my mother.     

Despite a childhood endured with this alcoholic abusive parent, and a troubled distant relationship with her as an adult, when her mother could no longer live independently, the daughter felt she had no option but to provide care in her home. Both were miserable. The advice given: The obligation to honor a parent presumes having been honored, as a child and as an adult. The mother was moved to a nursing home. Permission granted.

And another example offered by the care manager: she had attended a conference for fellow professionals who were addressed by a renowned Rabbi educator. He suggested it was time to reconsider the concept of adultery. His shocked audience was then told of a seventy-two year old man whose wife, two years earlier, had suffered a major stroke that left her both physically and mentally impaired and resident in a nursing home. He sought and found the companionship of another woman, but denied himself the fullness of the relationship he desired. Permission was granted.

The “shoulds” and “oughts” of life are programmed into our DNA, or so it seems. There are times when the greatest gift a friend or counselor can bestow is to sanction our setting aside restrictions and obligations we have internalized, but which no longer make sense.

Even with the wisdom of years, permission must still be granted.

So to my dear children: If and when the time arrives when I am no longer able to care for myself, utilize my long-term care insurance to keep me n my home or to house me in a decent facility, not in your home. If you don’t live nearby, only occasional visits will be just fine. If you are close by, once a week will do. And should I no longer recognize you or treat you lovingly, just check on me once in a while. Permission granted.


 

 

A Fairy Tale

This is a story only made simple in the telling, but complex as the reality unfolds.

I met my new mediation clients as they entered the office. Their smiles were broad, no sign of the apprehension usually seen on the faces of those who arrive to unravel the fabric of their marriage.

As they became comfortable seated on opposite ends of my long couch, she said: It’s hard to believe we’re here. It was supposed to be happily ever after.

I smiled, for I too grew up loving fairy tales.

After the preliminaries, he said: We just want to be fair to each other. I want her to be financially secure and she wants me to be able to start a new career.

They glanced at each other with approval, conveying gratitude for their mutual understanding. Then they sat forward eager to begin work.

I asked her: what does financial security mean for you?

She: Well, being able to stay in the house with the kids. We both want that.

He nodded, and I asked him: Will that be possible if you leave your current job?

He: Sure. By drawing on her share of my retirement account and supplementing that with what she can earn, they’ll be able to stay put for quite a while.

She, appearing confused: Wait, that’s not my plan. That’s not fair.

He: Why not? What about being fair to me?

I’d not yet heard their full story, but I knew that another myth would soon be proved false, another fairy tale forsaken: that they would agree on what was fair.

Their plans no longer meshed. Although they shared many values, there were some they did not share. It was already clear that what one thought would be a fair outcome, was not close to being fair from the perspective of the other,

I offered my view that seeking a mutual sense of fairness when a marriage is ending is an ever-elusive goal, one best abandoned. Puzzled, they sat back, disheartened.

I wanted to reassure them but not create false expectations, so told them that I urge mediation clients to adopt a flea-market mentality. Finding an item you wish to purchase, you ask the dealer: How much?

And if told the price is twenty dollars, you don’t say: But that’s not fair.

You might offer to pay ten dollars and then settle for fifteen. The deal is not struck by arguing the fairness of the price, but by reaching an acceptable one.

Trying to convince someone to agree with your sense of fairness when their values (or perceptions) differ from your own, is futile. The key to success is to probe the positions your negotiating partner has taken and try to fully understand each others’ underlying interest in achieving a stated goal. Why is it important to her to remain in a home now too large and expensive? Why is the immediacy of his leaving his present job important? That conversation will unlock the imagination.

I know they will soon develop many options to consider.

Sooner than planned, she may seek to provide some additional income. He may postpone leaving the job, while looking for another. They may decide to sell the house after all.

When I tell this story to a friend, she chides me for being cynical.

I respond: Not cynical, but pragmatic.

She persists: Fair is when you’d call it fair if you were in the other person’s shoes. That’s achievable and worth striving for.

I’m unconvinced.

To  yearn for fairness, that may be a good thing, if it promotes compromise. But to expect agreement on what a fair outcome would be is folly. Realistically, there is no such thing as objective fairness, except perhaps in tales from the Brothers Grimm.


 

The Thoughtful Question

I often share meals with close friends. The talk is our sustenance, the food incidental. And the conversation flows, unguarded. We are skilled players of the verbal ping-pong that carries us forward, inquiring and learning about the other, disclosing what is important about our lives at that moment, Ours is a dance with the steps so practiced, there is no need to be mindful about the questions we pose. We risk little, even with a misstep.

But consider different settings where this is not so, when a question asked without sufficient forethought turns a conversation awry:

The cardinal rule taught in law school is to never interrogate a witness in a courtroom without knowing the answer in advance. The temptation can be so great. One last probe to emphasize the essential winning point: “And why is that Mrs. Jones?” Then a response issues that surprises and wipes out earlier testimony.

But that is the courtroom where the choreography of words spoken is critical. Need this be so in our personal lives? In our professional lives? Is the art of asking questions so important? In mediation sessions, as I observe the impact of the questions the parties ask each other, and the responses to those that I pose, I’ve come to think it is.

When negotiating, or even just conversing with a loved one, a question can either bring someone to a desired destination or evoke a defensive response that creates a barrier, sets the players apart, and prevents, or at least postpones, a positive outcome. And mindfulness is especially called for when there is tension in the air. Is the inquiry, the tone of voice, even the quality of eye contact, free of criticism or judgment? Experience has taught me that when I’m simply reacting without much thought, without consideration of the goal I’m seeking, opportunity for agreement, or an intimate connection, is often lost.

The distinctions can be subtle. Here are some suggestions:

Ask: Can you tell me more about that? (open, accepting)
Not: Do you really believe that? (veiled belligerence)

Ask: Would it be helpful for me to explain my reasoning? (respect, consultation)
Not: Do you understand my point? (intelligence called into question)

Or in a more personal vein:

Ask: Feel like talking about what happened last night? (an invitation)
Not: Isn’t it high time we talked about what happened last night? (command performance)

If a professional or intimate relationship is troubled, and discussion of an important issue avoided, — either fearing a negative reaction which will only make things worse, or because embarrassment impedes honesty — consider first saying: we need to have a difficult conversation.

The respect shown by not taking another unaware, offering even just a moment to prepare, may set the stage for willing consideration of the issue at hand, There are times when both conversation partners will be off balance. Just acknowledging this at the outset can avoid a defensive response, or a closed door.

And here is another rule it might be sound to consider: Some questions are best left unasked.

Do you think these pants are too tight?
How many calories in this banana cream pie?
Do you still love me?


 

Pass The Salt

As our mediation session ended and he rose to leave, Mark turned to me and asked: So, can we now tell our daughter what we’ve decided?

I mirrored his smile, recognizing the relief he felt following a tense hour of talk, and his wish to cement the agreement he and his wife, Ginny, had just made about how they would share time with their daughter once they separated.

I said: Sure, but remember you’re telling her, not asking.

Unlike in years long past when most mothers were full-time parents, and fathers relatively uninvolved, these two were fully engaged in their careers, and both played an active role in the life of their ten-year-old daughter. They were of one mind about the wisdom of ending what had been an unhappy marriage, but both feared a loosening of the bond with their child that sharing time might bring.

Mark had suggested that they simply ask their daughter to choose a plan. Ginny, wisely in my view, argued against this. Although to many parents this seems a sound approach, a few present the question to their child purposely seeking to undermine the other parent, anger winning out over reason. Then the child’s response in their favor is proudly presented, even quoting the specific language used, and conflict is fueled as the other parent cringes at the hurtful phrases attributed to their son or daughter. For example:

“She says she’d be scared to stay with you and won’t be able to get to sleep.”                   “He told me that he would much rather just stay at my house all the time.”

When I hear such taunts, I quickly interject: Best take those comments with a grain of salt.

But most parents ask with good intention. Then they are comforted by an apparent special alliance sought by the child. A neutral listener would readily recognize the child’s need to please each parent, if indeed the quoted remark is even accurate. Very likely it is not.

During mediation with Mark and Ginny, I told them about research findings reported some years ago in The Journal of Experimental Psychology. The conclusion: that adults are likely to remember incorrectly whether information was offered spontaneously by a child, or elicited through questions. And perhaps even more telling, adults are likely to confuse specific statements they made themselves, with statements made by the child.

Dr. Maggie Bruck, a psychologist and McGill University professor, had 24 mothers with preschool children take part in a study in which the children spent 20 minutes playing in a room without their mothers present. Then the mothers were taped interviewing their children about their play.

Half the mothers had been told the research was focused on mother-child conversations. The other half was told they were participating in a memory experiment and should try to remember the conversation with their child as accurately as possible. Three days later all the mothers were tested.

Even the mothers who were warned ahead of time, often incorrectly attributed statements they had made themselves, to their children. And all were unaware of how many questions they had asked to elicit information. Repeated questions, even to an older child, suggest, and often evoke, a sought after response.

I don’t assume malevolent motives. To some extent we all hear or elicit from children what we want to hear. But healthy skepticism is particularly warranted about the reported words of children caught in the middle of parental conflict. Pass the salt.


 

Solitude

August approaches, the month in which Leonard died. Each year it is a time of looking back and summing up, a time that used to bring me low. Less so with each passing year, as gratitude overtakes the sadness of loss.

How many of us ever seriously contemplate the likelihood that when older we will spend  years living alone?

Long ago I read May Sarton’s “Journal of a Solitude”, a chronicle of her year of self-imposed isolation after an important relationship had ended. She described in great detail how she spent the days, her grieving and then her renewal. I loved that book and still remember the pleasure of vicariously sharing her daily experience. At the time, I was so completely engaged with my growing family and work life, such solitude could only be imagined. Now, it is here, though not by choice.

Or is it?

When friends, or even family, invite me to join them for more than a few hours of socializing, I decline. Even if little else is on my calendar that could not easily be put off, for I know that I will not willingly give up the solitude promised by time to myself.

I moved from my childhood home to the college dorm and on to marriage without missing a beat. Children, law school, the practice, life with Len. There were rarely moments, even if temporarily alone, that were not spent preparing for the next work or family activity.

So, I did not give serious thought to this time. The empty nest was never entirely empty. Even during my husband’s last months, I didn’t allow myself to imagine being without him. Life was the studied placement of one foot in front of the other. Goals were pursued, moments of reflection dealt with the present.

Now, for twelve years, I’ve been living alone. I find it quite a remarkable, even wonderful time of life. Are there anxious moments? Of course. Are there times of intense yearning for my past love? Yes. Occasional waves of grief wash over me, but I now know they will recede in time, usually with the coming of daylight.

I surprise even myself with how much I treasure my solitude.

Would that be so if I did not continue to engage with clients and colleagues, often share meals with close friends and wake many mornings to find a new email or text from a distant child? Likely not, for the human contact I have is a cherished part of my life, and always will be.

And I’m well aware of how my experience differs from those who are widowed or divorced in their middle years. Carrying on in the absence of a loved one, especially if feeling rejected, must be daunting, at least for a time. Then, I imagine, the need to start anew and build a different future fills the days.

Years spent living alone are ahead for many. For most, is the thought not even allowed to enter consciousness? So it was for me, to only later discover that this time of life affords an independence of spirit never before known, a time to live without pretense, completely authentic, a time to be savored.

I know not everyone finds my destination, this peaceful place. A more troublesome past might harbor demons. I feel such gratitude for those who loved me so well that solitude is a reward, rather than a sentence, and offers time to occasionally look back and distill and put into words that which seems worth passing along.


 

Insulted

Every media source and social network is reporting on the extended work life anticipated by the boomer generation as they approach what used to be an assumed retirement age of 65. Some seem eager to continue working, to recoup retirement portfolio losses, or simply because they’ve hit their stride in a fulfilling career. I’m with them, and frankly happy to have their company, not to feel like such an outlier. The thought brings back to mind what happened to me on a windy March day a few years ago.

I was then living downtown. Walking home from my office, I met two young lawyers with whom I had a passing acquaintance. We paused on a busy downtown corner waiting for the traffic light to change. They were empty handed and carefree, dressed in sweats. I carried a briefcase, my heavy winter coat open to the warming spring air.

We smiled in greeting and one of them said, in a jocular tone: Bea, you still working?

I answered: yes.

Then the other said: Come on, it’s about time you packed it in and got out on the golf course.

The light changed. Side by side we crossed the street. They walked on, and I turned toward home, saved from having to respond. In the days that followed, I chewed on their words as a dog might worry a bone. Every friend I chanced to talk with heard about this insult.

But why did I think it was?

After much thought and conversation, I came to see their remark as friendly needling. Would it have been an irritant if I were not already sensitive about my age, expected to retire, to move over. Is that the message I chose to hear? Not play golf, but get out of the way? I think so.

My husband joyfully retired at the age of 63, after thirty years of college teaching. Disillusioned with a university administration that valued successful research grant applications over skilled teaching, he contentedly entered a new phase of life and spent the next fifteen years engaged with family, our household, and trips to wilderness fishing spots he could reach in his small plane. I happily continued practicing law.

Both Len and I were raised by parents who became parents as stock markets crashed and the Great Depression followed. Len’s father yearned for retirement to escape from the crushing physical hardship of his blue-collar life, longed to fill his life with music, travel and raising beautiful flowers. My father, also having risen from poor beginnings, joyfully gave up the competitive business world to enjoy leisure, to listen to music and read.

Our mothers never really retired, Len’s offering daily care for each new grandchild she could hold close, and mine, an artist, was still seriously painting just weeks before her death at 89.

Dare I generalize from this small sample?

Perhaps those of us who are in control of the work we’ve chosen to do, answerable to neither productivity demands or the discordant values of a system we no longer share or feel able to influence, can cheerfully soldier on, fulfilled by bringing to bear competence learned over a lifetime.

And after all, aren’t the eighties the new seventies?


 

Threatened By Fantasy

I wish I could think and write more intelligently about adult pornography. The very word pornography looms large on the page or when spoken, and is rarely mentioned in mixed company, even among good friends. I’ve read position papers by some well known academics, women for whom it is an unmitigated evil, but the very existence of an industry that draws in many billions of dollars a year reflects a demand these authors do not address, except to seek censorship. Does prohibition ever work?

Admittedly, my vantage point is narrow. The few films I’ve actually seen, I found seriously wanting, without a context that would provide women, at least, with any sustainable interest.

In the 1970s, my public defender years, the Courthouse was my bailiwick. From the sidelines I followed the criminal trials of the producers of pornographic films (after all, we do know it when we see it), some notorious. Eventually, as juries began to return not-guilty verdicts, prosecutions dwindled, and in 1975, the VCR arrived in the market place and theatergoers retreated into the seclusion of their homes.

The shift to the internet offers viewers even greater privacy, until discovered.

Pornography enters my present world when it is seen as a factor contributing to the disintegration of a marriage. But as a cause or an effect? Listening to the stories some wives in mediation tell about their husband’s internet exploration, I still don’t know.

What is clear is that for some women it becomes a defining issue, convinced that their partner’s vivid fantasy life weakens the marriage bond, and believing that their own desirability is called into question. Unable to talk of this together, the intimate dance that brought them together is now in reverse, and she withdraws to a self-imposed isolation. Had he reassured her, would the outcome have been different?

Not for some, for whom the issue is a moral one. Their upbringing or religious belief affords them absolute clarity of judgment, allowing for no accommodation, a position that must be respected, even when not shared. But for many, their partner’s clandestine and solitary involvement, evokes concern that what is viewed creates a yearning that erodes commitment. Is that true? Is that inevitable?

Because open discussion of this taboo subject is rare, I have little knowledge of those couples who successfully address the issue with a counselor, or those where the viewer’s interest is not condemned, may even be joined, or simply treated lightly, tolerated, or just ignored.

The conversations I have with the husbands in mediation, the accused watchers, are typically brief and superficial. They’ve been “outed”, are somewhat embarrassed, but neither deny their interest nor make excuses, unwilling to submit to an inheritance of guilt. In all respects known to me, they are honorable and healthy men, supporting their families, devoted to their children. Their exterior life in the community is openly on display. But their interior fantasy life allows them to secretly travel wherever they wish, until now, when they are met with rage or sullen silence, accusations of perversity, and find their family falling apart.

About more familiar fantasies, I can think and write intelligently. There is probably not a married person alive who has not, in their interior life at least, envisioned the “what ifs?” What if I’d married someone else? What if we separated or divorced? What if in ten years I live with regret for having missed important opportunities? What if I seek some major changes in my life right now, and give them primacy over the accepted patterns that have developed in my marriage?

I remember some of those times when the “what ifs?” were on my mind, and times I imagined my husband asking himself similar questions. Some of those moments were scary.

But those daydreams turned out to be healthy, even if unsettling. For eventually we talked. They provoked change, small steps that gently shifted established ways, or even major moves that altered life’s course.

These are speculations we can honor, whether enticing or frightening, whether about intimacy, a job change or even global disaster, and when one day comfortable doing so, a conversation can begin. Is that also possible in the realm of explicit, deceptively idealized sexuality?

Is porn inevitably a destructive force? May it also bring important questions into the open? If, rather than unwavering judgment, a more nuanced discussion could be had, without blame assigned, might changes then be made to improve upon the reality, the fantasy world accepted as just that?

Or is that a fantasy?


 

The Art Of The Deal

My older brother and I maintained a close connection through long meandering phone conversations every other week or so. We’ve lived a significant distance apart since leaving our childhood home, and meet infrequently.

As we talked, we sometimes unearthed childhood memories, and told stories which the other never heard, or had forgotten. So I marveled when I discovered our similar ways, especially when they were unlike those of our parents.

The remembered incidents I’m about to describe came to mind when we compared notes about the incredible amounts charged for medical tests, compared to the lesser payments ultimately made by insurance carriers in apparent satisfaction of the provider’s bills. Then my brother spoke of his internist telling him of breaking his leg while skiing in Vermont, and later receiving a large invoice from the “out of network” hospital where he’d been treated. The doctor called and bargained with a financial administrator there, until they concurred on an acceptable sum.

My bother and I agreed that while we might have sought an explanation of such charges, we would never have thought to negotiate a lesser cost. Out of embarrassment or ignorance?

This brought to his mind two stories about our parents in times past.

My mother’s story: with my brother in tow, he about thirteen, she was shopping for a dining room table at Macy’s (already a NYC institution in the 1940s). She selected one that came with six chairs, and then noticed two identical chairs set aside in a corner. Said my mother to the salesperson: I’ll take this dining room set if you throw in the two additional chairs. (My brother recalls wishing he could disappear.)

Said the saleswoman: Madam, Macy’s does not bargain.

My mother suggested that the saleswoman consult with the buyer, and not long after, she returned and said: Madam, Macy’s bargains.

The purchase was made.

My father’s story: again back in the 1940s, he and my mother had invited a few friends to be their guests at an upscale restaurant. At the end of the meal, when the waiter presented the bill, my father discovered he’d forgotten his wallet. He spurned the offer of others at the table to pay in his stead, and took out his checkbook (before credit cards).

The waiter told him that checks were not acceptable. So my father asked to speak with the manager, who soon approached, and with curt assurance said: Sir, this restaurant does not extend credit.

My father glanced down at the table, now covered with the remnants of the meal just consumed, and responded: Sir, you already have.

His check was accepted.

Despite these fabled tales known to my brother, like me, he paid most bills without question, and never sought to negotiate the price of an item he was purchasing except, of course, for cars and real estate, when to bargain is the expected dance.

Our parents lost their home to foreclosure in the aftermath of the market crash of 1929. My brother was six and I was three and somehow they protected us from ever feeling deprived during the hard-bitten years of economic struggle that followed. Is this why they did, and we don’t, bargain?

With these new stories in mind, I’m wondering if my long gone parents have taught me something new. Perhaps they’ve given me the courage to now engage in the art of the deal.


 

 

 

A Failed Effort

My professional failures stay with me. Wakeful at 4 a.m., I conduct the postmortem.

The case began when a mother petitioned the Court to terminate the Plan she and her former husband had been following as they shared the task of raising their 8-year-old daughter. For years these parents had been working well together and their daughter was flourishing.

Then a disturbing event tipped the balance.

The father had remarried. His daughter and new wife gradually became acquainted and formed a comfortable bond. But, one evening there was a troubling exchange between his wife and daughter. He promptly phoned the child’s mother and asked her to come promptly and get their daughter. In haste, the mother drove over and picked up the frightened youngster. On the trip home, she heard a tearful story: the step-mother had been drinking and when a glass of milk was spilled at dinner, she’d lashed out at the child, verbally, but excessively.

The next morning the mother shared this story with members of her family. She was strongly urged by her sister and her own mother to immediately call her lawyer and do whatever was necessary to prevent such an event from ever happening again. Days later, she did just that. Soon after her motion seeking sole custody was filed with the Court, both parents were referred to mediation, and a week later they arrived in my office.

Now more calm, and in a problem solving mode, the mother knew well that even if she were awarded sole custody, her daughter’s visits with her father, although lessened, would continue. The child’s exposure to his new wife would not end. Father, in turn, offered evidence that both he and his wife took this lapse very seriously. She had reentered a counseling program, had apologized to the child and expressed sincere regret. In the weeks that followed, there had been no further incidents, and the youngster seemed relaxed, as eager as ever to spend time in her father’s home.

When the mother and I talked privately, another reality also became clear. Her greatest assurance that her daughter would be protected in the future, was her former husband’s earlier decision, reacting so quickly to call and seek her help. Should there be another troubling event, would he likely turn first to her again if she went forward with Court action seeking to deprive him of his status as a joint custodian?

Our discussion in mediation continued and both parents explored additional ways to enhance their daughter’s future well-being. The father had already scheduled a family therapy session. He talked of how hurtful it would be to feel disenfranchised as a parent. The mother was understanding and seemed to recognize the damage likely to be done to their parenting relationship if she entered a public arena with allegations of fault and poor character. There was even tentative talk about the mother and step-mother taking steps to become better acquainted.

So, was the custody litigation dismissed? It was not. I urged a return to mediation but it was refused.

The mother’s family maintained their pressure on her to proceed with Court action, calling into question her devotion to her daughter if she did not, and her need to meet the expectations and approval of her own family won out.

No one makes decisions in a vacuum. We seek the support and acceptance of our “constituency”, friends and family. Agreements need to be developed with this in mind, and in this instance I had not given that enough consideration. Although aware of her family’s initial involvement in her decision to seek legal redress, I had not focused on helping the mother develop strategies for sensitizing her family to the likely consequences of bitter and prolonged litigation. Now everyone was poised for combat. The youngster was even to meet with the Judge in chambers.

It is so easy for extended family and friends to hold onto a winner/loser mentality without fully understanding the ramifications of parents undermining each other publicly, and in the eyes of their child.

I chalk up this experience for future use. But it still feels like my failure.


 

Suffer The Silence

How readily we blame others when our conversational styles don’t match. I used to be a master at this.

For me, thoughts translate into speech with virtually no time delay. But when I talked with my husband, especially if saying something I thought important, frequently I was met with silence.

Then it took me but a nano-second to question the reason for his lack of an immediate response. Was it anger, or boredom, or even worse, disdain? And in the instant it took me to speculate about his possible motives, there seemed a purposeful lack of eye contact as well. So, need I even say, I faulted him for this communication impasse?

I learned early in life, by observing my mother, to respond to rejection (for this was how it felt) by receding into silence. My loved one had also learned well how to protect himself at such times. In response to my pointed withdrawal, he might studiously refocus on something he was reading, or quickly react to a welcomed interruption, the phone, a child, birds on the feeder.

And all of this avoidance, our disconnect, could be complete in less than a minute.

It took me about twenty-five of my married years, and a bit of professional help, to figure a way out of this communication quandary. Happily, in other respects we were doing well.

The problem that actually drew us into counseling was my insomnia (and a twitching eyelid), when Len began taking our young grandchildren flying with him in the small plane he piloted. My speculations ran wild, vividly picturing emergencies that could befall them high in the sky. Attempts to talk about this failed miserably.

Here is what I later learned: Some people, and clearly Len was one, seek more time than others to process their thoughts before committing them to speech. Perhaps some day scientists will identify the very neural connections that govern such differences, but for whatever reason, whether innate, cultural or simply due to parental modeling, it’s important to recognize and honor the reality that there are many different communication styles. The blameworthy motivations I had long been assigning made no sense.

With this new understanding, I would still carefully choose my times for significant conversations, when there were no obvious distractions and we could talk for a while. The best time for us was breakfast at a restaurant or traveling in a car in easy traffic. When I started an exchange of importance to me, after speaking, I simply remained quiet. I no longer asked rapid follow up questions in pursuit of an immediate reply. Nor did I pout. Several moments might pass, sometimes even an intervening comment made (by him) about something appearing on the landscape. But, I still waited.

A meaningful answer always came.

The lesson was eventually well learned: suffer the silence.
. . . . . . . . . .
Note: Len agreed to take a pilot friend along when flying with the grandchildren.


 

Swimming With The Tide

I am often the oldest person in the room.

But if I happen to be with a contemporary, an initial judgment is quickly made: are they “with” the technology or avoiding it?

Being senior to everyone else at a dinner party I attended a few years ago, I was seated next to the guest of honor, a Federal Court Judge visiting from another state. I’d been told she was 70 and expected to meet someone sedate and reserved. Not so. Her very first question as she turned to face me was: Do you have an iPhone?

I do!

Hers was already in hand, and with obvious delight she said: I’ve got to show you my newest app.

Equally unrestrained about telling her personal story, she spoke of her immigrant family’s struggle and her own path to such high status. We saw clearly her determination to remain a relevant force on the Bench, willing to question traditional views.

I too am resolved to not get left behind, but how do those of us who are the parents of baby boomers, adjust and grow and still maintain our equilibrium, as social mores seem to change almost as much, If not quite so rapidly, as the technology. Here are some facets of my journey:

Small black and white television sets were just starting to appear in living rooms when my generation came of age. Sentimental family sit-coms and romantic movies set the standards for our marriages. No women “at work” except for Katherine Hepburn. And Spencer, so long suffering.

Enter Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and MS magazine and law school.

So much TV and movie fare is marketed to the young, the population most closely monitored by advertisers, is often dizzying. Those growing up in the computer age have mastered the speed of online games, and thirst for fast paced entertainment. Perhaps the population bubble of aging baby boomers, at least those still in consumer mode, will cause something of a slowdown? In the meantime I’ve given up gathering news from a TV screen. I read the print press or online, at my own pace and with selectivity. I avoid and believe myself immune to the quickened beat of entertainment, but am I?

A movie classic I may watch, even an Academy Award winning film, now seems to move along so ponderously. I often give up before the end, wishing I could fast forward, not the film, but the script. Has the impatience of youth invaded my brain uninvited?

And, in what other significant ways have I joined society’s new order, jettisoned long held values? My sexual awakening (accompanied by delicately coded parental warnings) preceded the development of the pill. Values born of fear as much as morality were sorely tested when as parents ourselves we were thrown headlong into the confusion of raising adolescents during the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. I well remember how we and our friends struggled with the decision of whether our young adult children would be allowed to share a bedroom with a partner when returning home for a brief stay. Today, if a grandchild brings a loved one to visit, the separate bedroom issue is a non-issue. The discomfort will not even be there. So, I’m coming along.

Except in one respect, the use of crude language. No adjustment there. That is still chalk breaking on a blackboard. Thankfully my younger colleagues, and my family, defer to my tender sensibilities, at least in my presence. For this, I thank them.

But the Judge, she swore like a sailor.


 

An Ethical Quandry

Sometimes when reading, I come upon a phrase so delightful, I jot it down to savor it at another time. It may perfectly describe a place or depict an emotion I have known. I momentarily yearn to make it my own, all the while fully recognizing it as the creation of another writer’s talent. Is my fantasy the seed of plagiarism? Even some of the mighty have fallen. These meanderings lead me to a story.

Last year a friend called to request a favor. Her daughter had drafted the required college application essay. Would I be willing to read it over and make editing suggestions? Of course.

I remember well asking my mother, when I was quite young, to review something I’d written. When she pointed to some misspelled words before offering the hoped for praise, I snatched the paper from her hands. My retaining this memory of something that happened so long ago, confirmed the wisdom of my friend seeking help for her teenager from someone unrelated.

Days later I sat with her daughter at their dining room table. We were only slightly known to each other, so there was some discomfort, but little tension. I read her essay and it brought tears to my eyes. She had written about attending the wedding of an older cousin some months before, and then learning of his sudden death just weeks later. The joyous event, with the coming together of family from many parts of the country, was followed closely by the tragedy of an early death, and another coming together at the funeral. She wrote about life’s uncertainties, and her need to recognize and value what was precious to her, and taken for granted.

The structure was awkward in places, and certain words over used, but it was, in essence, simple and beautiful. I suggested the reordering of sentences, the removal of some phrases, and some different word choices. In the end it seemed quite perfect. We were both pleased. I thought little more about it until months later when my friend called to report that her daughter had been accepted at her chosen college, and I was gratified.

Then just weeks later, I read an article by Randy Cohen, an ethicist I admire, who used to be published weekly in the NY Times, responding to a question about whether a teacher should help a student seeking editing assistance with a college application essay. Unequivocally, Cohen said no.

For just a moment, I wondered whether I had participated in a fraud. I choose to think not, but I’m not sure.

Virtually every book published contains a credit that lauds the author’s editor (and new best friend). Writers, thereby, appear to be more accomplished than they are, and no doubt reap the financial benefits of another’s skill. Lawyers routinely place their names on briefs written, in large part, by associates who remain unidentified. How many judicial law clerks go unnamed? True, book editors are acknowledged, and the brief writing practice is well known, and I was not. But are there any college admissions officers who are unaware of the assistance given to applicants, all sorts of coaching along the way?

I comfort myself with the knowledge that I in no way altered the substance of the essay. I think if asked again for this kind of help, I would accede to the request.

But an ethical question is presented, if not the consummate answer.


 

Soul Mates: Myth or Reality?

I shared dinner at my home with a friend I’ve become close to in the years since the death of my husband. She never knew him, but I often spoke to her about him, about us.

On this evening, I showed her a collage of photos taken at different stages of our marriage: in our college years, with small ones on our laps, family vacations, and after our children were grown and we were once again on our own. As with most family photos on display, they show us smiling, attractive children, arms entwined, all of us happy together.

She commented: You two were soul mates, weren’t you?

I was surprised by this, and don’t remember my response, probably just a somewhat hesitant nod. We had also been talking about her marriage, which seemed fine overall, but on this night her words were tinged with disappointment.

Weeks went by before we met again. In the interim, I thought often about her use of the term “soul mates,” and was troubled. Not a phrase I would ever have used.

For over fifty years, Len and I were loved well by each other, most of the time. But we were not soul mates, as I understand the meaning of this new age term: being the totally compatible perfect other half, fated to be together, intimates speaking the same language.That was not our reality.

In his absence, and missing him so, it is the better times that are most often brought back to mind and talked about. But I didn’t want my friend to look to us as an ideal for comparison, against which she might find cause to be discouraged about her own marriage when they were cycling through a trying time.

I needed to tell her that the ideal is a fiction.

Michelle Obama has done this well. Untold articles are written about the Obama marriage. Pictures of them holding hands and smiling are beamed to every corner of the globe. How my admiration for her grew on reading a 2010 NYTimes Magazine article in which both she and the President were candid about unhappy interludes: “The image of a flawless relationship is ‘the last thing that we want to project,’ she said. ‘It’s unfair to the institution of marriage, and it’s unfair for young people who are trying to build something, to project this perfection that doesn’t exist.’ ”

As the years went by, Len and I came to accept that many of our interests were not shared. We set aside the romantic dream that somehow we could be all things to each other. Over time we became more autonomous as we alternately fostered each other’s careers and longings. Our mutual attraction, respect, and our growing family, this was the glue that carried us through the difficult days.

Most often when we were out of sync, we muddled through on our own, all the while struggling with very different communication styles (a special debt of gratitude is owed to Professor Deborah Tannen for writing “You Just Don’t Understand”). But occasionally, a therapist was enlisted to offer a different lens, a new perspective. Invariably, confronting unhappiness brought us closer.

Now, looking back, it’s tempting to generalize from our personal experience when friends comment on or ask about our long successful marriage. But respecting the unique personalities and circumstances of others, I desist. It suffices to say we were lucky to have met, to have shared a determination to problem solve, and to have had a love that carried us through the scary times.

But we were never soul mates.


 

How Dare You Ask!

A fable: On a lovely fall day, they drove away from the city, admiring the leaves turned crimson and gold. But the thoughts of our players were on a soon to be enjoyed romantic interlude at the Cozy Country Inn. Jan and Joe had been seeing each other for a few weeks, and the time seemed right for greater intimacy.
Their instincts were true. Their liaison was passionate and satisfying.
The next morning, they entered the dining room feeling optimistic about their future, born of their new closeness. Over blueberry waffles they talked:
Jan: So, tell me more about your job.
Joe: You mean what do I do, day to day?
Jan: Well, what do you earn?
Joe was silent and raised his hands to his chest, palms outward in the universal gesture of: back off.
 They traveled home in silence.
An exaggeration? Perhaps, but perhaps not.
Why is it so difficult, even with an intimate, to talk about money?
Except for close family, I have few friends with whom I talk freely about our finances, what we each earn and what we have accumulated. I’ve inquired of others and learned that most have even fewer confidants for such talk, some not any. Even family members are often kept essentially in the dark, and know better than to ask. And if someone does pose a question, doubts arise.
What is the questioner’s motive?
Will I be judged inadequate, unworthy?
Will I build a false expectation of largess?
If she earns more than I do, will I be diminished in her eyes?
We comfortably talk about the money of others, often scoffing at those who’ve accumulated millions and continue to relentlessly strive for more. We ask: when is enough enough? Money doesn’t buy happiness, or so we reassure each other. But we do not turn to our conversation partner and ask about their finances, unwilling to risk undermining an ego, theirs or our own. Personal talk about money is the ultimate taboo.
Does what we earn or own define our intrinsic worth in the eyes of others? Is that the essential fear? 
It is easier to share in the exquisite privacy of the sexual realm, and reassure both ourselves and our partner of the potential for mutuality, and of our value to the other, than to expose our ability to compete for dollars, judged by the external standards of society. Then our ego strength is in the hands of others, the fickle marketplace. So we hide?
The moral of the fable: The one gleefully stripped bare in the bedroom, in the counting room must be afforded ample cover.


 

When Argument Is Futile

Although Dave and Jayne mutually decided they needed the intervention of a mediator, once seated in my office they ignored my presence. Their conversation quickly became an argument, their voices raised and strident. After a time I interrupted and asked: has this worked for you in the past? Do you manage to change each other’s minds?

They responded in unison: never!

As their marriage crumbled over recent months, their lives had spiraled out of control, their teenage son a reluctant bystander. Now his grades were in free fall.

A friend had referred Jayne to a doctor who diagnosed their son as having attention deficit disorder and prescribed medication. But Dave had grown up with an aversion to the use of any drugs, particularly those he saw as “fooling with the brain”. He believed the problem was psychological, and he urged that all three of them enter family therapy, or at least have their son work with a psychologist.

Jayne had no faith in Dave’s approach, and was derisive about talk therapy and’”shrinks”. She trusted the doctor who made the ADD diagnosis, and had spoken with other parents who described their child’s miraculous turnaround on medication.

When I asked, both acknowledged that they were echoing beliefs held by the family in which they had grown up, although on this day they were armed with internet research supporting their divergent views. Neither gave the other’s data even cursory attention.

The question: would they be able to give up their determination to change the mind of the other and agree on a plan to rescue their son? If not, would they have to let a judge decide? This was a path dreaded equally by both.

Although we may reject some of our parent’s convictions, how often do we discard the viewpoints we adopted when young, in light of later life experience? Do we discount as exceptional the evidence that doesn’t fit with our basic assumptions? Often, I think we do.
We took a break for coffee, and when calm they agreed to try a more pragmatic approach:

First we reviewed their present circumstances. Even if restating the obvious, this placed them firmly in the here and now. I said:
You’re both still hurt and angry, just beginning to heal.
-Your son is struggling to keep his head above water in school.
– So far, you can’t agree on a plan, but you’ve each developed some possible strategies.
– And you’ve decided not to turn the decision over to the Court.

Next we considered their choices and the possible consequences. The discussion that followed was less blaming and with fewer references to the past. Eventually they developed these options:
– Dave agreed to meet with the doctor Jayne had chosen, if she would join him to talk with a psychologist he selected. She consented.
– Jayne suggested a joint meeting with their pediatrician, always trusted in the past. Dave agreed.
– Jayne had already met with their son’s teachers but offered to go again, with Dave.

We talked about where these steps could lead if both were committed to listen with an open mind. Either might change their view and proceed with the choice of the other, or not. But in any case, they would have more data, have heard it together, and been able to ask questions of the “experts”.

So, a plan was in place.

The actual solution: Jayne decided to avoid the delay needed to schedule and keep all these appointments, and agreed to start family counseling right away, and Dave agreed that if after three months their son was still struggling with school, medication would be given a try. After family counseling began, they met with the doctor Jayne had seen, and with their pediatrician.

Conclusion: Once recrimination about the past is set aside and the futility of argument is recognized, this process can work for many:
– clearly state the current circumstances which must be faced
– develop possible choices for moving forward
– analyze the likely consequences of each choice

Sometimes, as with Dave and Jayne, just going through these steps can cause a shift from impasse to movement.


 

Nothing But The Truth

My eyebrows lift as my friend says, “I can tolerate anything but being lied to.”

Noting my skeptical glance, her irritation shows. Honesty, as an absolute, has been a topic of contention with us over the years, she regarding my outlook as far too tolerant of those who fail to tell the truth, or even those who hide behind ambiguity.

My belief is that most people, including those of essentially good character, lie when the stakes are high enough, especially if the ends appear to justify the means. She was a Bill Clinton fan, until he was trapped by the blue dress. Since, she has never forgiven his failure to tell the truth, even though she readily forgave his sexual transgressions.

I decide to probe, put her convictions to a test. I ask, “ would you hire a professional who believed it ethical to perpetrate an important deception?”

Her quick response, “ of course not.”

My question was a set-up.

I told her I’d heard about a study done some years ago by Dr. Victor Freeman (when he served as a Research Fellow at Georgetown University Medical Center). Freeman surveyed 167 doctors, internists from around the country, and asked, “if an insurance company initially refuses to pay for a patient’s medically indicated treatment, is it ethical for a doctor to lie to get the coverage authorized?”

Forty-five percent of those asked, answered “yes” and, not surprisingly, the more potentially life-saving the coverage, the stronger the support expressed for lying. The results underscored the fundamental conflict that many doctors have with insurance companies, particularly in markets where there are severe constraints.

It’s not hard to place myself in the shoes of a physician willing to practice deception, if they saw no other way for their patient to receive medically indicated treatment.

So, I asked my friend, with a certain smugness, “which physician would you select to treat a loved one?”

Her lips stretched tight and she said, “not fair.”

But, hardly a moment passed before she rejoined, “and you, would you hire a lawyer who acknowledged regularly practicing outright deception?”

I was silenced, for I would not.

So, now it is my stance that calls for an explanation if I am to support the distinction posed: Does securing a patient’s physical well-being trump the social or financial advantage, or even the liberty, that deception might yield for the lawyer’s client? Even if the illness was not life-threatening and the threat to liberty great?

Apparently so.

Food for thought, and further discussion.


 

Fear That Does Not Fade

When I decide to write about violence between intimate partners, my heartbeat quickens and I am tempted to stop. I’ve never been subjected to physical intimidation, so don’t fully understand why I so readily insert myself into the picture painted for me by others.

As a mediator I have to provide a safe setting, one in which both parties feel empowered and able to speak freely. To assure this design, I always talk with each person alone on the day of our first meeting. One question I ask is a veiled one: How did you resolve disputes during your marriage? The most common response: I just went along to get along.

Not often, but on occasion, grievous assaults are disclosed.

My initial thought, which I never speak, is: if this was happening to you, why didn’t you leave? Many others must actually have posed this question, for without prompting, excuses often follow:

I knew I could handle it.
The children needed their father.
He would have lost his job.
I didn’t want anyone to know.
He was going through a bad time and promised it would never happen again.

Oddly enough, the speaker of the unspeakable remains calm. Practiced? I too appear composed, and am actually relieved and ready to accept these reassurances so as to end this discussion and move on. In fact, over the years I have successfully concluded a number of cases in which threats and rough treatment were reported. I took at face value that the past could be set aside, perhaps not forgiven, but forgotten.

Now, I know better, and I ask myself how many of those prior agreements were motivated by fear?

For today, I am better schooled and wiser about the lasting impact of being the target of purposely inflicted pain, of living in fear of an intimate partner. Now I know I must look behind the superficial responses, and when I do, the anxiety, theirs and mine, appears anew. I no longer listen passively to the rote explanations, but press for details and this is what I hear:

We were on a Sunday drive on a winding road and I asked him to slow down. His arm swept across the space between us and he broke my nose.
We were in the cellar examining the furnace which had gone cold. I checked the sticker and noted the inspection was overdue. He broke my arm.
After crushing my cell phone underfoot, he stood in the doorway and wouldn’t let me leave the room.
He hasn’t struck me in years, but the day after I told him about my promotion, he attempted suicide.

Now I probe: are you still afraid? Do your friends know? Are you in counseling?

In almost every instance, residual fright is admitted and tears flow. And except in rare cases where significant therapy and the passage of time have provided new strengths, my skill as a mediator cannot overcome the power imbalance generated by enduring fear.

Mediation must end.

I’m told those who grow up in a home where there is raging and coercion, often seek to connect with a controlling partner. Perhaps this is so. But when they are finally ready to leave, there must be an advocate present to assure a safe escape and a well reasoned settlement, forged in a secure setting, free of fear.


 

Secrets Are For Telling

” Secrets are never kept. Everything eventually becomes known.”

These words surprised me. They were spoken by an old friend to whom I’d been describing the plight of a family I’m close to, in which secrets are eroding the relationship of mother, father and adult daughter.

The couple I spoke of was ending their unhappy marriage. Their adult children had been told, and although disheartened, they were buoyed by the caring, respectful, even loving way their parents were making plans to keep the family well connected. While they each moved on to separate lives, they voiced no recrimination or placing of blame. Protective of their privacy, friends and family were simply told, ” we’ve just grown apart”.

Late one evening the husband wrote an e-mail to his wife detailing his distress about her infidelities over the years, kept as a secret just between them. His message contained no rancor, just disappointment and sadness, while remembering things he continued to value about their past.

She sent a reply e-mail, expressing remorse for having hurt him, and told of her sadness.

Some days later, their out-of-town daughter arrived for a visit. Before leaving the house to pick up some groceries, her mother asked her to access a neighbor’s recipe sent by e-mail that morning. Directed to her mother’s computer, the daughter found not only the recipe but opened the e-mail messages her parents had exchanged days before. These secrets were out. But later, rejoining her mother, she said nothing about this breach of her parent’s trust.

That evening, she told her father about her discovery, and made known her anger and disillusionment with her mother. But she committed him to keep her confidence, adamant that her new knowledge not be divulged, fearing her mother’s reaction.

The family, already in a delicate balance, now seemed poised for disaster, privacy boundaries crossed, their previously presumed open communication with each other shut down. A hidden bond between two family members excludes and distances others. And in order to maintain secrecy, the truth has to be distorted.

Did the husband’s initial e-mail, by its very writing, suggest some intent to reveal the previously undisclosed reason for the divorce? Was the daughter’s detection, when sent by her mother to access the recipe on her computer, accidental? My friend thought not, and confirming his point said, “secrets are for the telling”.

I questioned that judgment, as we talked about what had been concealed in our own families. I told him that I often write in a journal, especially when troubled. Writing helps me sort things out. But, I insisted that what I write is private, without any covert plan for disclosure. His response, “Oh, really, and then do you destroy or save what you have written?”

I save. Never consciously thinking about future discovery.

High profile politicians most visibly prove the point, leave a letter to a new soul mate where a wife can find it, pay for furtive sex with a check or traceable bank transfer, meet for an assignation with the press hard on their heels. Believing themselves to be invincible, or an invitation to exposure?

We keep some secrets in the sincere belief that others will be hurt more than ourselves in the telling, to the benefit of no one. But by turning a truth into a secret, is it always a truth we wish could be known? Is it only if we are known, secrets and all, and then accepted, or forgiven, that we feel loved for who we really are, or were?

Do we hide, all the while wishing we could pop-out like a jack-in-the-box and be greeted with approval, no longer keeping the lid on?

So, if the box is wound, the music plays and the catch is released, well, accidents happen. Right?


 

Magical Thinking

A friend tells me: “I had been thinking about a former college roommate not heard from in years, and moments later she phoned. Amazing, isn’t it? ” (Meaning: my thinking about her precipitated the call.)  My eyebrows rise and my smile is indulgent. But really I’m impatient with those who see a mystical plan where all I see is random coincidence. I am a realist, not superstitious.

But, there is a disconnect.

The story: For many years my husband piloted his own small plane. I was never a relaxed passenger, and after a number of years of pretending otherwise, I ultimately decided to remain on the ground when he was aloft.

As adults, our sons accepted invitations to take trips with their father, and I found that my small plane anxiety extended to them. They had young families at the time, but their wives offered no objection. I thought I had no right to intrude on their plans.

So, I purchased substantial life insurance policies insuring each of them. Of course, there was a rational aspect to this, but secretly I knew this was really magical thinking at work. I comforted myself with the belief that once the insurance was in place, the odds greatly increased that they would come to no harm.

Almost daily, new brain imaging research is reported locating a specific area where a particular thought process occurs. Recently I read about the locale of magical thinking, my sometimes secret nemesis. Experiments with college students showed how easy it was to elicit such thoughts in well educated young adults .

Quoting the article: “In one instance, the researchers had participants watch a blindfolded person play an arcade basketball game, and visualize success for the player. The game, unknown to the subjects, was rigged: the shooter could see through the blindfold, had practiced extensively and made most of the shots. On questionnaires, the spectators said later that they had probably had some role in the shooter’s success.”

One researcher, a psychology professor at Princeton, was asked why people create this illusion of magical power. Emily Pronin responded: “I think in part it’s because we are constantly exposed to our own thoughts, they are most salient to us, and thus we are likely to overestimate their connection to outside events.”  Gloria Keinan, a professor at Tel Aviv University, who has also conducted research on this subject, reported: “Magical thinking is most evident precisely when people feel most helpless.”

All makes sense. Protecting my adult children is quite beyond the control I had when they were small, but the yearning to do so remains. My magical thinking offers comfort. I wonder how many others who see themselves as rational at all times, covertly seek similar comforts, and avoid “stepping on the cracks . . . . .”

Although it is unsettling when my beliefs don’t guide my behavior, almost as if one part of my brain is master over another, my irrational self was unwilling to tempt fate.


 

A Thoughtless Greeting

It used to be at forty, then fifty, now maybe even fifty-five, before women start to notice that no one is noticing. Add an additional ten years for men. Most of us make peace with advancing invisibility as we age. We can take pride in what we’ve become, what we’ve learned, what we are still able to achieve. Then, surprisingly, even a small stab can deflate a well-earned sense of self.

Here’s my story:

I am visiting a new doctor, a well-reputed specialist. The waiting room is crowded, many of the patients are past middle age, some very elderly with another in attendance. The office staff exudes efficiency and a friendly ease.

Before long I am ushered into a small examination room, one in a row of six or seven. Eye drops are administered and some basic questions asked by an assistant, my answers noted for later review by the busy physician. A smile, a magazine and a not too long a wait is promised, and I am left alone.

Soon I become aware the doctor is in the examining room next to mine. He is talking to someone about the process of reapplication for a driver’s license which has lapsed, the tests to be anticipated, how to avoid likely obstacles. I conjecture that the patient is hard of hearing as the doctor’s voice is raised. But his tone is gentle, unhurried and indulgent. The listener’s responses are barely audible.

I find this doctor’s caring way heartwarming, and appreciate the sensitivity with which he addresses the elderly patient who I assume is vulnerable and confused. I will praise this kind doctor, soon, when we meet.

He knocks and enters, smiling, and with his hand outstretched in greeting and says: “Hello, young lady, how are you doing?”

I feel diminished, categorized, even disrespected. I am not young. “Please, doctor, do not call me ‘young lady’. This strips me of dignity. Young women are 35 and under. You can use my full name, or no name at all.”

But these words, although screamed, are unspoken. I simply say: “Hello.”

My rehearsed words of praise for him are swallowed.

I have lived many years and value the richness of my experience. Joy, and sadness, both in good measure, and good health, allow me to look to the future with optimism, accepting the deficits of aging, if somewhat grudgingly. But I want my status recognized, not made a foolishness.

Did he view his manner of greeting me as a kindness, or was it simply thoughtless ineptitude? And does it matter in the larger scheme of things?

Yes, it does.


 

Mindfull Questions

When I talk with a close friend or a colleague, our conversation flows unguarded. We are skilled players of the verbal interchange that carries us forward, asking questions, learning about the other, disclosing what is important about our lives or work at that moment. Ours is a dance with the steps so practiced, there is no need to be mindful about the questions we pose. We risk little, even with a misstep.

But consider different settings.

The cardinal rule taught in law school: never interrogate a courtroom witness without knowing in advance what the answer will be. The temptation is there. One last probe to emphasize the essential winning point: And why is that Mrs. Jones? Then a response that surprises and wipes out gains earlier made.

But, if on the courtroom stage the choreography of words spoken is critical, need this be so in our personal or professional lives? Is the art of asking questions so important, requiring us to be mindful and deliberate?

Often it is. The manner in which a question is posed can evoke a positive emotional response, an opening up, or just the opposite, a resentful apprehension. Here are some of my hard learned lessons, which often I must relearn.

When negotiating, seeking to bring someone toward a desired destination and avoid a defensive response that prevents, or at least postpones agreement, the tone of voice of the inquiry, even the quality of eye contact needs to be free of all criticism or judgment. The distinctions can be subtle.

Ask: Tell me about that (open,accepting). Not: Do you really believe that (veiled belligerence)? Ask: Would it be useful for me to explain my reasoning (respect, consultation)? Not: Do you understand my point (intelligence called into question)?

When a professional or intimate relationship is troubled, and discussion of an important issue has been too long avoided, either fearing a negative reaction which will only make things worse, or because embarrassment impedes honesty, before the question is asked, consider saying: we need to have a difficult conversation.

Offering another even just a moment to prepare, the respect shown by not taking one unaware may set the stage for willing consideration of the concern at hand. For those times when both conversation partners may be off balance, just acknowledging this at the outset can avoid a defensive response, or a closed door.

A new addition to my repertoire is a question I pose to myself. If a particular event triggers anxiety and disturbing thoughts flood my brain with a prediction of fearful outcomes, I ask myself, and take the time to slowly ponder: what would I say to a trusted friend who told me the very story in which I am actually the star player? Switching to this role of advisor, I find that I can offer a useful perspective (to myself). I do not dismiss the concern, but test my imaginary friend’s reality by seeking specific evidence for the fears that have been aroused, and then speculate whether a distorted thought process evoked what may well be erroneous conclusions. Reason is restored.

And here’s another rule it might be sound to consider: Some questions are best left unasked:
Is this dress becoming?
Think I’ve put on weight?
Do you still love me?


 

“Forget You”

When my kids were very young, the ultimate putdown they could deliver to each other was “forget you”.

This came to mind when rethinking a mediation session with a high–conflict couple. One felt betrayed, the other misunderstood. The conversation I witnessed was tense, each frequently interrupting the other. Their words assaulted with contradiction, were denigrating, blaming. It was as if the other’s viewpoint had absolutely no legitimacy, their feelings no merit.

By the end of the meeting, I felt like a traffic cop, holding my hand up to silence first one and then the other, so a thought could be completed. Eventually they calmed, tired, and made an effort to comply with my no interruption rule. But by then they were dispirited and eager to leave.

As each in turn had taken control and silenced the other, the underlying message was “you don’t really matter”. Perhaps when an intimate partner has withdrawn their love, this is what we want to believe, but, of course, they do matter, to each other and to their children, the current subject of their bitter discussion.

Had I accomplished anything with my no interruption mandate? Perhaps greater efficiency in addressing the issues before us. But would this intervention actually take them to a place of better understanding? Or agreement? Not likely.

What I need to do, and will attempt when we next meet, is to somehow get them to stand in each other’s shoes, to develop some empathy for what the other is feeling, and in turn, to be understood. If I had a magic wand, this is the gift I would help them give to each other. The future benefits would be immeasurable. Even if only one of them was willing or able to take this step, there would be an important shift in the nature of their negotiation. I am quite sure of that.

The ability to empathize and thereby offer respect to a departing partner (even if continuing to disagree with their positions), and a willingness to honor their past contributions to the family (often privately acknowledged to me), call for words some conflicted partners seem unable to speak to each other. When it is possible, myriad conflicts evaporate. And it is wonderful to witness.

I plan to ask these two to speak as if they’ve exchanged identities, to tell the truth of the other as they know it. Initially it will be awkward, but if they are willing to persist, it will be revealing, even exciting.

Can I accomplish this without it seeming too contrived? Will they resist? Or will they make the effort to imagine what their partner is feeling when repeatedly criticized for past deeds? And will they then be willing to ask if they are on target, to really know the other’s misery and not just their own?

If they can do this, I think they’ll be able to move forward. If not, their children will inherit their pain and learn well from them the art of accusation and blame.


 

Borrowed Clothes

I delight in my Sunday morning ritual. I forgo the usual exercise routine and return to bed with coffee, my cat and the New York Times. But last week, as I hefted the paper onto my lap, I felt a gentle giving way of the fabric at my elbow. It wasn’t because this iconic newspaper was so weighty, but because my sleepwear is threadbare. It used to belong to my husband, Len.

I alternate between wearing the light blue and maroon pajamas he used to wear and have a clear memory of buying them. We were together at a large department store. Although still robust in many ways, Len’s legs were no longer taking commands from his Parkinson’s compromised brain and he rode in a wheelchair, his overall health in steady decline. Our eyes were wide open, but somehow purchasing new clothing was a way of challenging fate. We sustained each other with every touch and at times like these embraced normalcy, pretending there was no end in sight.

Within weeks after Len’s death, I packed up almost all of his clothing and took the collection to Goodwill, keeping only some favorite shirts and the pajamas.

A number of the shirts I’ve kept have leather elbow patches I attached a long time ago, and on some the cuffs have begun to fray. But it is the pajamas, worn nightly, that may be on their way out. I will not give them up easily, for with all of this borrowed clothing I have become something of a cross dresser, cloaking myself with fond memories of the intimacies we shared.

As I write about wearing Len’s clothes, I consider why it is that today women can wear men’s clothing without comment or scorn, no raised eyebrows, while men borrowing women’s styles would immediately raise questions about their sexuality. Do men take a step down when they soften their appearance in any way? While women in men’s garb take a step up? For in my long-ago high school days, it was the fashion for girls to wear out-sized men’s sport coats paired with pleated plaid skirts, bobby sox and saddle shoes. And in the romantic movies of that time, which were rife with innuendo, risqué or adventurous females wandered yawning and barefoot from the gentleman’s bedroom attired in his shirt and apparently little else.

Was a statement being made? As World War II was drawing to a close and women had little choice but to relinquish the important roles they’d filled working on the home-front, replacing men who had marched off to war. Rosie the riveter wore slacks to work. Were the teenage daughters of mothers who had moved into the workplace, if only temporarily, borrowing the power clothes of men a full two decades before Betty Friedan picked up her pen and the second wave of the woman’s movement was launched?

And in the seventies and eighties, when professional women began to enter the marketplace in ever increasing numbers, did they take a step up by trading shapely garments for the cover of severely tailored suits, a visible claim to the authority and power previously ceded to men?  And now, having arrived and more secure in their own right, the feminine figure is again on display, occasionally even a hint of décolletage in the boardroom, and in the Court room. What is that about? For me it is a humorous puzzlement, remembering my early days in Court when even well-tailored pants suits were not allowed.

But with my borrowed clothing today, it’s quite simple. No political statement, just sweet moments of remembering his presence.


 

Small Talk

I avoid most large social occasions, explaining, or complaining, that my tolerance for idle chat, small talk, is low.
           The friend with whom I shared this view on a recent afternoon as we strolled to our City’s Convention Center, nodded in silent understanding. We were headed for what we knew would be a crowded event and I expected it would call for considerable insignificant chatter before the program began. So, already I was looking forward to the time I could retreat and have the remaining hours of the day be of my own design.
          There was every good reason to be in attendance at this grand gathering honoring eight career women for their major achievements and contributions to our community, for these were people I genuinely admired. Yet, as we wove our way through the arriving crowd and found our assigned table, if I had been asked, (which my more extroverted companion did not ask) I likely would have pontificated that talk should either be intimate and disclosing or purposeful. All else a waste of precious time. My mantra.
         But even before luncheon forks were lifted, I surveyed the festive crowd and took note of how many of those in attendance, including my companion, seemed to be really enjoying greeting and chatting, and seeking to discover connections when introduced to new acquaintances. Thinking about it after returning home, and in the days since, this gave me pause. Should I reconsider my negativity? Was I the one out of step, missing the point? Discounting and avoiding something of value?
          These thoughts brought to mind notes I’d made some time ago after reading about a surprising research finding. An experiment was conducted with law students. Each was paired with another student at a distant school, given only a name, phone number and a set of facts presenting a fairly complex problem to be negotiated during a long distance call. Half of the group at each school was told to conduct a brief (no more than three-minute) conversation on the day before the telephone negotiation session was to take place. In this initial call, they were not to refer to the facts of the case in any way, but simply make small talk, get minimally acquainted, talk about the weather in their respective cities, if they chose, but nothing particularly purposeful.
         Data was later collected from both groups on the settlement success rate of those who had had insignificant friendly conversations the day before, and those who had not. The rate of successful settlements was much higher in the “small talk” group.
         Revisiting the results of this study, I thought back to my idle conversations of the afternoon, and wondered about their impact if those with whom I’d exchanged banter were to meet soon again, with a particular goal in mind.
          In his most recent book, Beyond Reason, Roger Fisher (of Getting To Yes fame) and his co-author Daniel Shapiro, both of the Harvard Project on Negotiation, address the emotional components, both positive and negative, which can be used to advantage, or avoided, when seeking to negotiate agreements. They give significant importance to “affiliation”, the building of personal connections, reducing personal distance with one’s negotiating partner. This is what seemed to have happened with the brief casual exchanges of the law student group with the greater success rate.
          As we were leaving the Convention Center, gliding smoothly along on elongated escalators, I noticed one of my close attorney friends in what appeared to be animated friendly chatter with another attorney who for many months has been her negotiating counterpart in a very difficult dispute. I don’t know how much time they’ve had for idle talk when attending meetings around massive formal conference tables. For now, I’ll hold out some hope their small talk may make a difference. I’ll find out. I may have to shift gears, stop complaining and improve my affiliation skills.

The Shame of Illness

Minor ailments were barely acknowledged in my family as I was growing up. Sickness was spoken of as something which, with proper living, could be avoided. The illness of others was often deemed psychosomatic, not without sympathy, but with the underlying message of some hidden weakness that should be overcome.

In my husband, Len’s, final year, I became intimately involved with his persistent pain. He was stoical, but when he left the house for an adventure with a friend, I would assist in placing the Parkinson’s meds he needed in a small pocket container. I noticed when the number of tablets he added for pain relief increased. It made me uneasy.

On our regular visits to physicians, the initial question was often: on a scale of one to ten, how’s the pain? I would be dismayed when Len answered: nine. Scans had shown that compression fractures in his spine were the apparent cause. Although I was silent, I was embarrassed by his admission.

Then, a few years ago, I came across a study which concluded that many people are ashamed to talk about pain, whether it be a passing headache or something more chronic. However, the findings of the investigation were counter-intuitive. Those persons who made the effort to describe their pain in some detail were better able to cope with the pain.

I suspect this relates to emotional pain as well, and I had the research in mind when I was consulted by a young friend whose husband had suffered a mental collapse. The man she dearly loved had become a stranger to her, and was resisting treatment.

I asked whether she had talked things over with family and friends. She had not. Remaining hopeful that somehow her nightmare would reverse itself and all would be set right again, she was protecting their privacy and avoiding the embarrassment of disclosure. And, she reasoned, she did not want to worry her family before her own future plans became more clear.

My suggestion was that she not put off sharing her story. If asked about future plans, she could simply express uncertainty about what lay ahead.

I told her about another friend who, some years ago, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Within hours she began to tell those who were close to her. I remember being surprised, in part because I suspected my own reaction would have been just the opposite: to tell no one until it became essential that I did so. Upon hearing her news, many rallied ‘round expressing concern and support. That outpouring of attention and care buoyed her well-being. A valuable lesson learned, and now shared.

But, some years ago, at a routine physical, I had a scare. An ultrasound was ordered, followed by an MRI. Then, of course, the wait for results.

Despite my friend’s experience and my advice to another, I made the decision to share this information with no one, rationalizing that any disclosure was premature. But my facial expression belied this determination, and when a close colleague asked why I seemed so distracted, my story poured forth. The next day I told other intimate friends. That evening I e-mailed my kids, giving them the details.

The reduction in stress was palpable.

Soon the reassuring news came that all was well.

Why the initial reluctance to tell anyone?

Was I still responding to the old parental message that illness was in some way a moral flaw, not being the person “mother wanted me to be”?

Well, there is bound to be a next time. The study results, and my recent experience, will hopefully silence my childhood script that illness is somehow shameful, to be denied. Unexpressed fears, and pain, can loom larger than life.

The marvelous truth is that by being self-disclosing to friends and loved ones, we invite others to be equally disclosing when their need arises. It’s a gift to ourselves and others to be able to share bad news as well as the good. We send the message that we will be there for them when it is their story that needs to be told. And, in the meantime, it lightens the step and makes it easier to breathe.

Speaking of Love

A phone conversation ends in my presence. The final words spoken: I love you.

These three words have become a ubiquitous sign-off, often to a child, but  also to a spouse or partner. There must be a generational divide, for such farewells (except possibly when whispered) were rarely heard in my youth, or even in my middle years. And they leave me feeling somewhat disquieted, the same unease I experience with every passing: Have a good day.

Inwardly, I chastise myself for my cynicism and also wonder at my own awkwardness when my response is expected to these parting words from a dear friend. I usually smile but remain silent.

I was married for so many years to a man who rarely said, but did write those words from time to time, and admittedly I saved the letters and the cards that came with the anniversary flowers. But not being told by my spouse that he loved me rarely gave me much pause, for love was conveyed by both of us in so many wordless ways. The absence of the spoken phrase was not of much import.

But as a sensitive relationship topic, it is pervasive. Witness the number of stand-up comedians and television sit-coms that deal with the apparent inability, or great difficulty, of males to put those three words together in consecutive order when talking with a loved one face-to-face.

Some years ago, I made note of a remark by the stellar actor and playwright, Wallace Shawn. He said: The difficulty of saying I love you is that it presupposes that you know who “I” is and that you know who “you” is. A thought provoking comment.

Does saying the words I love you make you feel a little crazy if just hours later you find yourself greatly annoyed because once again your spouse has failed to meet you on time, or if moments after you speak the words to a child, you display what seems like irrational anger at a disrespectful remark? What if these words of endearment spoken in the morning, are followed by your partner bringing a friend home for the evening without advance consultation, and you have neither the energy nor the inclination to be entertaining.

The scenarios are infinite. Who “I” am keeps shifting and who “he” or “she” is does as well. Which is the real “you”? Which are the true feelings? Is it safer to avoid the verbal commitment and not later have to meet ambivalence head on?

If the words are spoken too often, do they lose their meaning? Or do they serve as an important reminder, especially in the bad times? Does saying those words come more easily to those of different heritage? Do the French, do the Italians, speak more freely of their love, and if so, does that mean they are indeed more sincerely loving, or less?

A world of questions. I can only conclude that for some the words bring discomfort and for others great pleasure and reassurance. And for many they may have lost all special meaning and become as proforma as simply saying “good-bye”.

By me, the words are rarely spoken, though sometimes written, and then meant most sincerely. I, after all, was married to a man named Larsen, whose ancestors came from a northern land of short days and long winter nights. I fondly recall the day he turned to me with a wry smile and asked if I’d heard the one about the Norwegian farmer who loved his wife so much, he almost told her.

Change That Did Not Just Happen

This is a true story about a courageous lawyer who forty years ago, at a time when bigotry was still disguised as the natural order of things, refused to accept the status quo.
In the mid-1960s, the man I write about was a partner in a medium sized Cincinnati law firm. Although at the time I shared many of his beliefs and values, I did not know him, nor share his legal acumen, or his courage.
We lived in the same neighborhood when this story began. I’d heard a lot about the controversy into which he boldly stepped, as it was actively followed by local newspapers for several years, and was a daily topic of conversation, pitting neighbor against neighbor.
Here is what occurred: In 1964, Robert O’Brien, a Unitarian Minister, sold his house on a desirable tree shaded street to a black family, a first, since ours was then a middle-class exclusively white part of town. The purchaser, Dr. Nelson Perry, had been hired to be a faculty member at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine. Accompanied by his wife, Agnes, and their three children, our community was surely the most reasonable place to settle, in close proximity to the campus and many hospitals. Reverend O’Brien was vilified, the leaders of his church besieged with angry calls.
There were neighbors who welcomed the Perrys and those who responded to their presence with hostile acts. But it was an incident surrounding their youngest son, Mike, a fifth grader, which caused the greatest stir. A classmate invited him to be his guest at Clifton Meadows, a private club to which many residents belonged. This is where many of our children, both members and their guests, learned to swim.
Joan Seaman Robinson, the parent who accompanied her son, Jeff, and the friend he’d brought along for a swim, was not allowed to take Mike past the entrance to the pool. Not easily put off, before leaving she insisted on speaking with the Club manager, who told her that Club policy did not permit Negro guests, a stance that was subsequently confirmed by a vote of the Trustees, and later by a majority vote of the entire Club membership. A white-guests-only policy was formally adopted.
History lesson: These events took place some fifteen years after President Truman integrated the armed forces, ten years after Brown v. Board of Education, six years after the color barrier was removed at our local Coney Island’s Sunlite pool (following wide-spread and highly publicized demonstrations and arrests), and one year after the assassination of JFK. Voting rights legislation was enacted in the year that followed.
Word of the pool incident quickly spread and sides were taken.
A personal story of my own: My family, Len then an Assistant Professor of geology at the University, did not belong to the Club, as we spent our summers in Montana where Len taught and studied the origin of mountain ranges. Some years before the Perry’s arrived, we had moved with our young brood to a quiet cul-de-sac, and were warmly welcomed. Then, about the time Mike Perry was turned away at the pool, a neighbor of ours invited all of those who lived nearby into his living room to tell us of his decision to sell his home on the “open market,” code words denoting that it would be offered for sale without the standard non-white exclusion.
The reaction to his announcement was explosive. For over an hour vitriolic language and warnings of reduced property values filled the air. The angry shouts directed at the host shocked me into silence, Len as well. I did not, nor did anyone else, speak up in support of the homeowner, who subsequently changed his mind. Len and I walked home that evening feeling sad, but impotent, and frankly frightened by the level of rage expressed. Yard-side talk was hushed in the days and months that followed. A year later I entered law school. Fair housing legislation did not pass until four years later, in 1968, one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Until the Mike Perry incident, the fact that Clifton Meadows was for whites only was so unremarkable, there had been no need to state the obvious in writing. When the Trustees adopted a formal policy banning Negros as guests, some were benevolent and accepted that the Perrys might be fine people, but insisted that they were exceptions to racial type.
Those of good will were not completely silent, but most expressed their disapproval to like-minded friends in the privacy and safety of their living rooms. Repeatedly heard was the suggestion that “these things take time.” There were exceptions. Judge Gilbert Bettman, outspoken in his opposition to the discriminatory policy, stood for election to the Board, but was soundly defeated.
So, segregation triumphed. And several years later, the Perrys moved to another city. But the crisis did not dissipate. If anything, tensions escalated. There were parents who would not allow their children to play with the children of those who’d taken the opposite side. Eventually forty member families (who came to be known as the “furious forty”), having failed in an attempt to change Club policy, decided to resign in protest. That decision further defined the role of the man of courage I describe.
After his graduation from the University of Cincinnati in 1942, he served in the Pacific as a captain in the Marines during World War II, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1948. In the spring of 1968, he stepped beyond his advisory role for the “furious forty” and with a U.C. Professor of psychology as the named plaintiff, filed an action in the Federal District Court, challenging the white-guests-only policy. But Clifton Meadows was a private club, not a public accommodation, so victory was certainly not assured. Yet, ultimately a Consent Decree was negotiated prohibiting discrimination against any guest on the grounds of race, color, religion or national origin. Two Board members later changed their minds and filed to set aside the Consent Decree, unsuccessfully. They then appealed to the Sixth Circuit, which affirmed the trial court.* The fight had lasted five years.
Perhaps some readers have guessed that the man I honor is Art Spiegel, who bravely stood up against the odds in his quest for justice, long before he was appointed to the Federal Bench. In a memoir written some years ago he explained how his own early experiences with anti-semitism led him to fight on behalf of others:
“I had experienced incidents of prejudice or persecution which made me have doubts about myself and which created strong, ambivalent feelings: on the one hand, to feel that something was lacking, to accept being a loser, not to try to succeed or win with a maximum effort because of the fear or expectation of failing or losing, yet, on the other hand to be angered and to be challenged to rise above the insults and prove my worth.”
How many of us can identify, with regret and perhaps shame, those times we could have spoken out but remained silent? Even if few of us today would choose to live in a neighborhood not open to all, or choose to swim in a pool that limited access to whites only, it wasn’t always so. For many, the 1960s are but a dim memory, if a memory at all. But the time of which my story tells is significant when taking the measure of this man.
Before the history of the change-makers fades, attention should be paid to those who stood up courageously to challenge the injustice of the status quo that “decent” people in Cincinnati accepted without question, less than 40 years ago. Change does not just happen.

*Allinsmith v. Funke, 421 F.2d 1350 (6thCir. 1970)
Note: An article published by the Vanderbilt University Press in 2004, written by Michael H. Hoffheimer, Professor of Law and Mississippi Defense Lawyers Association Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Mississippi School of Law, enhanced my recall of these events.The Hoffheimer family lived across the street from the home purchased by the Perrys. Mike H. became a close childhood friend of Mike P., both fifth graders at the time.

Valued Only In The Marketplace: Part II

In this commentary I revisit a story I told some time ago. But the ending has changed.

After living in the same home for over forty years, I moved twice, each time to less space, requiring the jettison of many belongings, retaining only the essentials and our most treasured possessions. Len and I were least willing to part with the artwork we’d collected over more than fifty years. Some pieces we gifted to children and friends, but those with greatest meaning still surround me and lift my spirits.  Many have a story to be told.

One such painting is by an artist of some note living in the northeast. My mother studied with him in the 1960’s and a close friendship developed between them. I admired those of his works that hung in my parent’s home, beautifully executed impressionist oils. Some had a haunted quality, understandably, as they derived from the suffering and losses of the artist’s family during the holocaust, and his later return to the remains, the reminders.

As the years went by, his work was displayed in well-established N.Y.C. galleries and sold for ever more substantial sums, greatly enhancing the family’s income, his share soaring well beyond his wife’s salary as a teacher.

I followed the advancing career of this man each time I talked of the art world with my mother. Several books of his work were published. But, after a visit of his family with my mother in the mid-1980’s, he then sixty-seven, I learned that none of his paintings were any longer being offered for sale.

This is the story I was told: The artist had been diagnosed with a serious illness and given a poor prognosis. His response to this grim news was to make a pact, just with whom I’m not sure, that if his illness was arrested and his health restored, he would never again sell another painting. Even before his ominous health forecast, he had begun to question the negative impact of commerce on his own and the work of others, thinking that free of “the market” he could explore wherever his art (or muse) might lead. He decided he would only make gifts of his work, to the museums and schools that sought his donations.

His health was restored. He continued to paint, his work ever more evolved, but never again to be sold.

Some years after my mother’s death, my husband and I were traveling through upstate New York and decided to visit the artist’s home. We were warmly greeted and soon shown into the climate controlled storage facility in his basement. It was filled to overflowing with what appeared to be well over a hundred canvasses, the collection of more than a decade. A remarkable feast for our eyes, but seen only by those who traveled to his modest country home.

As we talked, we learned he had offered his paintings to museums and universities previously eager to have them. Some accepted, but most did not. Puzzling. Apparently, because his paintings were no longer being exhibited in galleries and sold as in the past, at exalted prices, their value was called into question.

What I had to ask: Is it that one’s labor has no meaning unless it is validated by the marketplace? At least in this case, so it appeared.

But there is an addendum to this story. This week I googled the artist, now in his nineties, and learned that his grandchildren had prevailed upon him to display his works online, on a website they created and manage. They are not for sale, but in 2006 an agreement was reached with a Foundation whereby all of his past and future work would be owned, administered and ultimately dispersed.

The Internet and his grandchildren offer a different answer to my question.

The Allure of Self-Justification

Inadvertently, or thoughtlessly, I so angered a colleague that she ended our phone conversation by abruptly hanging up.

I can’t remember another time when someone’s anger played out in this way. Dazed, unbelieving, the dark screen of my phone in hand, I tried to replay the back and forth talk. But except for a phrase or two, at that moment I could not. Something she said had evoked my laughter, which she took as a lack of respect for her, and she said just that. Then despite my quick brief apology, she said a firm goodbye and broke the connection.

I had placed the call with a specific goal in mind, to change my colleague’s thinking about advice she’d given to one of my mediation clients. I considered my position so well reasoned, this hardly seemed a daunting task. But it was. She found no merit in my perspective, and presented her own. I then refuted her thinking as she did mine. Neither of us asked thoughtful questions of the other, only critiques. Until finally, my laugh, and the abrupt ending.

After a few moments I turned to other tasks, unsuccessfully. So I phoned a friend who I knew would lend both her support and humor to my rant, and help me analyze what had just taken place. She was reassuring, concluding that the other’s angry manner was wholly uncalled for, and urged that it simply be disregarded. That was calming, for a time, and eventually I turned to my evening’s planned diversions and put the matter out of mind.

But the morning light brought an unease I could not put aside.

Why was so much tension injected into a call that began with a friendly exchange, both of us expressing appreciation for our renewed contact? As we talked, the difference in our viewpoints expanded. We became adversaries. Did either of us seriously listen to what the other had to say, really try to understand? I had to acknowledge that I had not. If I had, would she have done the same? I’d allowed the consultation I sought, to seek options for resolution of an issue, to evolve into a reckless debate.

I began to see clearly how I had then succumbed to the allure of self-justification, how easy it is to blame another when a conversation goes awry.

By mid-morning, I emailed a sincere apology for my role in the donnybrook, reaffirmed my respect for her, and suggested we get together for lunch, for a more relaxed exchange.

Some hours later she replied: Apology accepted. . . having an extremely rushed week with complications . . . I will call you to schedule lunch. Thanks for your message.

Here’s what I know: We see the issues under discussion very differently, perhaps do not even share the same values on these points. But we can certainly come to better understand and respect each other’s viewpoint, even if we cannot agree. Next time I will really listen, and probe for understanding. Perhaps she will mirror my approach. Perhaps not.

We just might develop some creative solutions. And even if we don’t, I’ll be at ease.

Just Being There

There are times when just being a silent presence, or even the promise of being present, makes a difference. For instance:
……………

As a mediator, sought out by troubled partners, I sometimes find that my wisdom seems all but superfluous.

They are parting ways. Making the decision took many months, but at the end both acknowledged that efforts to change and please the other failed. In preliminary phone conversations each told me that the blaming was over, but important financial decisions were yet to be made. They had tried, sat together at the kitchen table and talked over coffee. But as he probed, she fell silent. Their efforts to reach common ground evoked old miseries and tensions. So, they decided to come and sit with me.

Just my presence in the room, a safe place, released the conversation previously withheld. I directed the verbal traffic, turning first to one, an eyebrow raised at the other, but I remained silent and took notes, as new understandings were reached. I added barely a word here or there, nothing of substance, and quite on their own they talked through their issues and the road forward cleared. The earlier promise of civility, made by both to each other, was kept.

My being there as their sounding board, listening to the ping-pong of their earnest conversation, somehow helped to keep them in check and respectful, provided a structure and placed boundaries on their discourse. My very presence, offering but a hand gesture now and then, allowed them to listen, and really hear what each needed to say.
………….

I sat by the bed of a dying friend who was in and out of consciousness, by turn calm and agitated. Waiting until she opened her eyes and met my gaze, I asked her if there was anything I could do for her. She told me she’d written but not yet delivered a check for her son’s birthday. Could I see that he received it? Of course. Did I imagine that she then eased as we just continued to hold hands until her husband returned? I was comforted just being there, and think she was as well.
………….

Garrison Keillor tells a story about the years he attended Lake Wobegon High School. He had a storm home. Some residents of the town volunteered to provide emergency shelter during the cold winter months. Each youngster was assigned a specific house to go to in the event a blizzard made it impossible to get to their own home in the countryside. He told of the many times he walked past the house selected for him, picturing the people who lived there, who he did not know, hoping one day  he’d be welcomed as part of their family for a day or two. It never happened. But Keillor talked warmly of that safe place, imagining how it would have been, an offer of hot chocolate, a crackling fire in the hearth as the wind howled outside, and he with them, cozy and secure. He said his troubles were more bearable just knowing he had a storm home to go to.
…………..

At times, a friendly non-judgmental person listening in on a difficult conversation provides the gentle restraint that keeps the talk from being derailed by emotion.

Our dearest friends offer to be present should a crisis arise, or at a lonely time. They may never have to be called upon, but how comforting when these words are spoken: Be sure to call if you need me.

They promise to be present, to open their door.

We all need the assurance of a hand to hold, someone to just be there, a storm home.

They Will Take Another Look

My fantasy: a conversation with each of the Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Since it is make-believe, I will be insightful and articulate, not restrained by awe. The question I’ll ask is: can you be free of bias, old messages, when deciding a case where race or sex discrimination is alleged?

This is a daydream, so there will be no equivocation, and they will each start their response with the same word: Absolutely.

The storytellers among them may then talk of how they became sensitized, by a wife, or more likely a daughter, or perhaps an African-American colleague, and will describe how their consciousness was raised. For many years now, the evolving civil rights and women’s movements have reeducated all of us.

I believe the Justices will speak with sincerity. The State and Federal Court Judges in my own community would surely answer the question in the same way. Perhaps to a confidante some might admit to a residual bias that surfaces in their personal lives. Never on the Bench.

But they would be wrong, even the Supremes. Either lacking in self-knowledge or too well schooled in P.C. I know this because even though I would choose to deny harboring prejudiced thoughts, it is true of me as well, and readily admitted to by my most liberal friends, when willing to be forthright. Biases instilled when we were young, born of a parent’s disdain, or fear of the stranger in our midst, can be reasoned away, but rarely entirely erased.

So, at important moments we need to be reminded, and the presence of someone outside our own group (those we grew up with as equals), provides that reminder.

The nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor is making us take another look, and ask a legitimate question: does it really matter that she is a woman, and an Hispanic? I think so.

Justice Scalia, interviewed by journalist and author Juan Williams, said of Justice Thurgood Marshall, “He wouldn’t have to open his mouth to affect the nature of the conference and how seriously the conference would take the matter of race.”

A 2005 study by Jennifer L. Peresie published in the Yale Law Journal found that the presence of a female judge on a three-judge panel significantly increased the probability that a male judge supported the plaintiff in a sex discrimination or sexual harassment case. In fact, she found that “panels with at least one female judge decided cases for the plaintiff more than twice as often as did all-male panels.”

In another study presented in the Columbia Law Review last year, authors Adam B. Cox and Thomas J. Miles found a similar effect in voting rights cases. Their research concluded that when a white judge sits on a panel with at least one African American judge s[he] becomes roughly 20 percentage points more likely to find a voting rights violation.

So, the very presence of someone different at the table, whether in the kitchen, the corporate boardroom or in Judicial Chambers, makes a difference.

Departing Justice Souter made the point well: “Anyone who has ever sat on a bench with other judges knows that judges are supposed to influence each other, and they do. One may see something the others did not see, and then they all take another look.”

The New Black

Champagne corks popped. The mood was festive in my home when we gathered last Saturday evening to celebrate a friend’s retirement and the election of Obama. The invitations went out three weeks ago, when only one of these events was certain, the other nervously hoped for. We were eleven in all, ranging in age from mid-fifties to late seventies, black and white, some friendships of long-standing, some new.

After a time, the conversation grew serious and this question was posed: One year ago, how many of us would have believed the election of an African American as President possible? None of us. Even when the polls turned positive, there was the looming threat of the “Bradley effect” to narrow or erase the point spread. Bias was a reality even if denied, hidden. Then, overnight that fear became a fiction. New York Times science reporter, John Tierney, asked: Where have all the bigots gone?

Theories abound. Most often heard is that the downturn in the economy aroused a self-interest that trumped prejudice. The war. Some (I among them) choose to believe that McCain’s cynical choice of Palin alienated many, men and women. So, what seemed impossible happened.

Along with the political pundits, social psychologists offer enlightening data. Here’s one recent research design: Two strangers, diverse pairs, black and white, Latino and Asian, black and Latino, come together in four sessions, each an hour long. Scripted questions are asked that invite self-disclosure, such as: would you like to be famous? If you could change anything about how you were raised, what would it be?

In the second session, the pair competes in a timed parlor game.

In the third, they talk about why they are proud to be part of their ethnic group.

And finally, one helps the other, who is wearing a blindfold, navigate a maze.

The new relationship formed, which often becomes a lasting one, almost immediately results in a lowered score of prejudice, using a number of programmed measures. But this is not the surprise.

Professor Art Aron, a social psychologist at Stony Brook University, who developed this study with his wife Elaine Aron, reported that these instant relationships not only built trust between the experimenting pair, but also significantly reduced anxiety during encounters with other members of the second group, as gauged by stress hormone levels in saliva.

Building on what is referred to as this “extended-contact effect”, Aron studied some 1000 new students at Stony Brook and found that simply being in the same class with interracial pairs who are interacting, can reduce levels of prejudice in those who are merely bystanders.

And another heartwarming result: awareness of these extended-contact test relationships significantly diminished negative bias toward the other group among each test individual’s close friends. Quoting Aron: it travels like a benign virus through an entire peer group, counteracting subtle or not so subtle mistrust.

Multiply that response by all of those who made connections in the campaign, person to person or online. It became a wave across the nation.

Lest you would now like to wipe the Pollyanna smile from my face, I’m well aware that all the bigots are not gone. And I’ll add another quote, without attribution, for I’ve forgotten where I read it: gay and Latino is the new black.

The Price of Incivility. Who Pays?

I’m a devotee of contemporary fiction, but I’ve been revisiting Jane Austen. The return to the exquisite prose of Pride and Prejudice, and a society devoted to, even obsessed with, social etiquette, serves as a welcome respite from some modern media that jars my sensibilities.

This sharp contrast between genial spoken exchanges and the offhand and sometimes crude phrases of today, came to mind when I was asked to write a commentary for my local Bar Association about civility, so often said to be in decline.

As a woman of a certain age, I questioned whether my observations would have validity for men, or for younger women raised with the same assurance afforded sons, that the world is potentially their oyster, and on their terms.

But, with that caveat, I ask: does the decline in civility between lawyers really matter? Are clients less well served? Or are our shifting social mores and the broad acceptance of a more candid and direct way of speaking, simply benign evidence of a new, less mannerly age? Perhaps upsetting for those of us with expectations born of past reality, or mythology, but of little consequence?

I thought back on those times in my legal practice when I was faced with overly aggressive or insensitive rejoinders, thrown off balance when talked to rudely or disrespectfully. These experiences left me feeling exposed, embarrassed. Possibly even shamed.

The first occurred when I was still a law student in the late 1960s. I sat in the conference room of a prominent firm surrounded by a five man committee of the Bar charged with determining if students were fit to join the legal profession. My essay on why I chose law had earlier been submitted. The well-known attorney seated at the head of the table with my file open before him, held it up and said: Hubby write this for you?

My quiet response: No. (P.C. had not yet been born.)

Fast forward. I stood before a Judge known to be mean-spirited. A plea bargain had been negotiated, and my client was present for sentencing. Although I was a novice at the bar, in a calm strong voice I put forth his better qualities, the sound reasons for his release on probation. The Judge smiled down at me: So, counsel, if he’s such a fine fellow, I suggest you take him home with you.

I was speechless. Embarrassed for him and myself.

A more current incident: I sat across the desk from opposing counsel to discuss the complex valuation issues in a difficult divorce case. My presentation was detailed, carefully researched and well reasoned. No smile this time as he spat the words: This is completely ridiculous, ludicrous!

Did I calmly ask for his reasons? No, again I was momentarily silenced. And when I did respond, I’d lost my focus.

So, what’s happening when incivility is in the room?

Lest the reader conclude that it is only sexism at play here, many times as a mediator I‘ve witnessed the male response to a belligerent comment, sarcasm or threat. First the briefcase is abruptly snapped shut, and then as he rises from his chair these words: Fine! I’ll see you in Court.

Even if I can bar the door and keep the conversation going, the mood in the room has changed, darkened, muscles tensed. And positions hardened.

The underlying message of offensive words, whether they are aggressive, insulting or insidious innuendo, is: you are not worthy of my respect. Sometimes artfully disguised behind a congenial smile, they penetrate the boundaries we all establish to protect our unique private vulnerabilities, the delicate balance we maintain in every adversarial or unequal setting.

Civility welcomes what is best in me, without the protective armor that blocks intelligent intercourse. The offender, a bully of sorts, perhaps is really the fearful one, the verbal thrust of apparent strength a way of hiding weakness. Or the sarcasm an attempt at diversion from the inability to address the issues.

Faced with incivility, we feel attacked and the fight or flight reaction takes over. Neither response is conducive to reasoned progress being made on a client’s behalf.

That’s who really pays the price.

Too Much Talk?

Chatting with friends over coffee on a recent evening, I abruptly changed the subject. I have closed the door on S.P.  With the very mention of her name, muscles tighten, my heart rate speeds, my breathing becomes shallow. I’ve decided to withdraw from this aspect of the political conversation. Too much talk to no good end.

And to my surprise, recent scientific studies validate my stance.

Only a week ago, on the very day I was completing the final edit of a commentary about the benefits of self-disclosure, with the underlying message that talking with trusted friends about one’s worries and feelings is a positive thing, my newspaper reported current research on the negative aspect of excessive talk. At first, a counter-intuitive theory that startled me. But I read on.

Psychologists have termed the daily, lengthy problem-dwelling talk between adolescents, “co-rumination”. They talk, they text, obsessively discussing the same issue. The conclusion: that this often leads to increased anxiety and depression, among girls far more than among boys who, no surprise here, tend to talk less.

Amanda J. Rose is a researcher in the field of adolescent psychology, and a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri. Last year her latest published study, in the journal Developmental Psychology, stated: “When girls are talking about their problems, it probably feels good to get that level of support and validation, but they are not putting two and two together. Actually this excessive talking can make them feel worse.” Not putting two and two together. Not working on solutions. Just commiserating with each other.

And not just adolescents. Today the buzz about S.P. has become a national wringing of hands. Albeit not universal misery. There is joy in the land as well.

Sarah Kershaw, the New York Times reporter of this too much talk phenomena, cites a related mental hazard psychologists call “emotional contagion” or “contagious anxiety” in which one person’s negative thoughts or anxiety can affect another’s mood. She references research showing that people who live with others suffering from depression tend to become depressed themselves. Is this what is happening, but on a much larger scale? I’m struggling to swim out of this miasma by keeping my focus on ways I can have some impact on the election outcome.

So, please, do what you will for the candidate of your choice, but spare me any further talk of S.P.

Three little monkeys sitting in a row come to mind.

The Gift of Self Disclosure

The message left on my phone: Could you find time for an early breakfast? I need some legal advice.

From the tremor in the voice of my young friend, I could tell that something was wrong. We met the next morning, and without preamble she told me that her husband had suffered a mental breakdown. This man she dearly loved had become a stranger to her, and was refusing treatment. Frightened by his mood swings and bizarre accusations, she had left him and moved into the home of a colleague from work. We discussed options, personal and legal. The nervous movements of her hands belied her effort to appear calm.

I asked whether she had talked things over with a counselor, friends or her parents and siblings, who lived some distance away. She had not, and urged me to keep her confidence. Remaining hopeful that somehow this nightmare would reverse itself and all would be set right again, she was protecting the privacy of her marriage, and avoiding the embarrassment of disclosure. Nor did she want to worry her family before her future plans were clear.

Understandable, but I gently questioned her putting off sharing this difficult time with trusted friends and family. Couldn’t she simply express uncertainty about what lay ahead? An insightful person, as we talked she confessed that her silence was, in large part, a way of avoiding revealing something that seemed shameful, both the nature of his illness and her desertion.

Her tears brought the memory of my own past secrets kept too long before the telling.

I told her a story of another friend who, many years ago had been diagnosed with breast cancer, when cancer still carried a stigma and was often borne in silence. Within hours of the diagnosis, she told all of her friends and family. I remember being surprised, suspecting my own reaction would have been just the opposite, to tell no one until it became impossible not to do so. But I learned a lesson from the way she reacted, for upon hearing her news, many people rallied round expressing concern and support, and that outpouring of loving attention buoyed her sense of well-being. The telling brought the comfort of connection with others, dispelling the loneliness of fear.

My friend nodded as she listened, even showed a faint smile, but remained worried as she imagined the reaction to her news. She promised to call again in a day or so, and to consider meeting with a therapist.

The marvelous truth is that by being self-disclosing with close friends and loved ones, we not only secure their support, we invite them to be equally revealing.  Quite literally, it is a gift, to be able to share the bad news as well as the good, sending the message to others that we will be there for them when it is their story that needs to be told.

But, Of Course, He Wasn’t Thinking

 I own a wooden carving that hangs on my office wall. It is a face, eyes wide open. Splayed across the face is a hand with elongated fingers which cover the eyes, but the fingers are spread just far enough apart that the eyes are only partially obscured, conveying the sense that they can see while hidden from view, or are hiding from the view. It artfully portrays hypocrisy, pretending not to see or know what is actually going on right before our eyes, or within the core of our being.

I often glanced appreciatively at this sculpture as I followed Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, and do so again with the news of John Edward’s fall from grace. It was carved in 1992, long after public disclosure of the sexual adventures of Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy, members of a rather exclusive all male (so far) club, joined by other presidents, and some president wannabes. Then there are the governors, and senators.

We’ve always liked our heroes handsome and physically appealing, but with a chaste public persona, knowing well that when the aphrodisiac of power is added to the mix, the players are primed for dangerous and sometimes disastrous liaisons.

Most pundits predict that John Edward‘s career as a leader is over. But is it?

By noting that he is one among many, I don’t suggest his behavior cannot be faulted, but simply recognize it for what I think it is, a presumed immunity from judgment for one who has risen so high, and mundane human frailty.

Understandable, up to a point.

Surrender to passion, which even if never completely forgiven, or forgotten, by the partner betrayed, can be understood. But thoughtfully making a decision in the cold light of morning is quite another thing. If he wasn’t thinking the night before, what was he thinking when the decision was made to proceed with the campaign, knowing that the time bomb of likely discovery was ticking?

Putting the election at risk, his own, or that of the candidates whose policies he supported, and apparently disregarding the impact of public disclosure on the wellbeing of his loved ones, is harder to comprehend. Yet for me, empathy is still possible when I consider the pain both he and his wife must continue to suffer over the tragic death of their son, her serious illness and other unhappiness they may share. Seeking to be self-protective is a universal human response. He is berated for the folly of believing that the secret could be kept, but we only know of the failures of secrecy. Cover-ups that have succeeded may indeed be legion.

To the surprise of many, given time for the roiling seas to calm, Clinton’s post-Monica rating with the public actually rose rather than fell. Did his weaknesses offer a measure of acceptance for our own? Is this the model Edwards used, thinking he could survive if later discovered? Believing that one day he too could seek redemption and be forgiven, not just by his wife.

What are our hidden thoughts when we view a flawed but otherwise admired celebrity?  Some are forgiving, as Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards appear to be. Supporters are understandably angry and feel let down. But so many are quick to publicly assess Edwards as no longer a person of worth. How many voice disapproval, judge him harshly, all the while pretending not to see who we have been or might one day be? Is this the real secret?

When discussing Edward’s with a close friend, she asked me whether my husband had been faithful. I paused for a moment, a bit surprised by the question, but then answered easily: I believe he was, but like Jimmy Carter, I’m sure there were times “he lusted in his heart.”

A Missed Opportunity

I had an unusual experience last week. In honor of the remarkable life lived by a former high school classmate who recently died, I, along with three other old friends of his, spoke to an audience of young people now attending the same school. Looking back on that occasion, I realize I missed an important opportunity.

The only woman on the panel, I decided to comment on how the aspirations of boys and girls differed when I was in high school in the 1940s, and to mention and pay homage to two of my high school teachers who caused me to wonder whether my future was actually as limited as I then assumed it was.

The men with whom I shared the platform, a doctor, a lawyer and an architect, all had made major contributions to the public good. From their earliest days, they could answer the ubiquitous question: and what are you going to be when you grow up? Perhaps when very young they said fireman or policeman. Was I ever asked the question or was there no need to ask a little girl? But had I been asked as I entered my teen years, what might I have answered: teacher? nurse? And, of course: wife and mother. They, in teen years would likely have said: doctor, lawyer or architect. We looked at our place in the world differently. I knew no women lawyers, architects or doctors.

The message I received from my parents and the world around me in those pre-college years was clear:

•    Be smart and get a good education, for you may have to support your family if          your husband dies or falls ill.
•    Be good, which meant no sex before marriage.
•    Be pretty, and don’t act too smart, so you can attract the right man and marry by          twenty.

These early messages were not easily discarded, and I married at twenty.
In my mid-thirties, as the mother of three, I was swept along by the 1960s woman’s movement and entered law school. But when quizzed by friends about how I would use a law degree, this Perry Mason devotee responded: well, if I were a man I would practice criminal law.

Was this personal story I told my young audience meaningful as anything other than a history lesson?  Do girls today see themselves standing on equal footing with their brothers? Is the message now the same for sons and daughters?

•    Be smart and get a good education.
•    Practice safe sex.
•    Attractive people get ahead faster and go further in life.

With hindsight, I missed an opportunity to pose some important questions:

Are young people today contemplating how in the years to come they will balance a career and raising children? Are they thinking through and talking and talking and talking to their future life-partner about the parenting role each will play?

Are they reading the stories that appear each day that glorify women who’ve decided to abandon careers and stay home to raise their families? And do they then ask themselves the what ifs . . . ?

And do they know the less frequently told stories about women, more numerous by far, who are left to essentially raise children on their own?

Perhaps this was not the occasion for me to pose these questions, yet I regret not doing so. I hope someone is asking them whether being on equal footing in their teens carries a promise of balanced lives when children arrive.

And not just asking the girls.

She Stands By Her Man

I’ve followed Elliott Spitzer’s fall from grace, and carefully read the details in the national press. I prefer to think that my interest, as a lawyer, is due to the complexity of the legal issues, not the curiosity of a voyeur. But intriguing questions do arise about his motivation, beyond the excitement of furtive sex. To be caught? Assume he’s invincible?

Even more puzzling is why the women I know, and those who write op-ed columns and blogs, are so critical of his wife, of all of the wives who stand by their man, put on the powder blue suit and pearls, and usually say nothing, as a husband confesses to sexual misdeeds.

Are those who denounce her simply projecting, imagining the anger they would feel if in her place, and feel thwarted by her apparent passivity? But even allowing for that, the wife receives almost as much censure, scorn, as the straying husband. Why?

The suggestion is made that her behavior is demeaning to all women, that she somehow strips herself of person hood, becomes his foil, gives his behavior legitimacy.
They ask: What message is she sending to her daughters? Tacit approval of their father’s actions? That she is willing to be a docile victim? Or worse, that she is the one at fault? Not a good enough wife or he would not have strayed?

I share none of these judgments of a wife who agrees to be part of the public tableau. I assume that in each case the reasons are different, unique to the relationship in that particular marriage, and her own personal history. She’s entitled to privacy and the benefit of the doubt. And time to heal, supported by her sisters, not vilified.

These were my thoughts in the days immediately following the Spitzer drama. I urged friends to simply respect the choices she made.

But then the story took a turn.

In the week after the resignation, when the dust had begun to settle, former staff, no longer loyal to their boss, talked to mainstream reporters about Spitzer’s frequent uncontrolled rages, directed at supporters as well as adversaries. Some former colleagues were named, others quoted without attribution. In detail, they described meetings with then Governor Spitzer, and earlier when he was a prosecutor, at which he often became so angry he reddened and loudly spewed forth obscenities, maligning those who had not performed exactly as he wished. The picture drawn was of a man seeking total control, but out of control.

This is in many ways more disturbing than his need for risky sexual adventure. Can it be that such furious raging is limited to his professional life? That doesn’t seem likely. Was this what his wife was subjected to behind closed doors? If so, this is a different ball game.

I draw a sharp distinction between a wife freely deciding to publicly display loyalty to a husband who has fallen because of sexual misadventures, and support which is the consequence of undisclosed intimidation. Being smart, sophisticated or rich does not preclude dread generated by past experience of overpowering fury, even if no physical violence followed.

Obviously, I cannot know, and these thoughts are built on inference. But now I wonder if such is the case. If so, I hope friends are speaking up and offering her a path to safer ground.

Desperate Measures

A caller sought advice which in the moment I could not give. He told the following story: Four years earlier, during a time of marital separation, he sought solace in the arms of a sympathetic coworker. But within days they abandoned their brief affair, she not wanting to place her marriage at risk.

Later he and his wife reconciled, and during an intimate moment he disclosed this misstep. Now, years later, again separated, their divorce action was pending. His soon to be ex-wife was demanding an excessive financial settlement and threatened, if thwarted, to tell all to the husband of his former friend. He was in turmoil, imagining painful, perhaps irrevocable, consequences.

This left me in a quandary. The issue of extortion, which I deem this to be, has never  arisen before.

Then, oddly, within days of this call, a colleague conducting a mediation in another city, also sought advice about coercion. During a session, an ex- husband, seeking to end his long term support obligation, issued a challenge to his former wife. He possessed documentation that established her prior knowledge that a former coworker, who was also a close friend, had breached the trade secret policy of her employer. She had never disclosed what he now threatened to reveal. Although no known harm had come of her silence, she feared her disloyalty would damage her reputation and likely imperil her job.

After considerable thought, my suggestion for both victims was to first consult with legal counsel. Perhaps a letter sent to each of those seeking financial gain by intimidation, questioning whether they were aware of the criminal nature of their proposed actions, would be a sufficient deterrent.

Yet, even if dissuaded for now, this pressure could be renewed at any time, perhaps in more subtle fashion.

And if not deterred, then what? Call their bluff? Are bullies closet cowards?

Or capitulate?  Accept the financial and possible job loss?

Or try to understand the motivation for the desperate measures being taken? Could the threatened party step back and with genuine interest question why such scare tactics are being used? Explore compromise? Or is this sheer folly?

In an ideal world, would it not make sense to become a truth teller and take back personal power? Is this the only secure ending? Give the friend who had preserved her marriage the option of maintaining the secret, or not. Would the employer understand, even respect the conflicted loyalty of a valued employee, when belatedly told of the failed espionage?

Each possible course of action carries risks difficult to weigh, but taking responsibility for past actions wrests control from the unprincipled aggressor. Even if a high price to pay, untroubled sleep the reward.

Why Marry?

The divorce rate is declining. Good news? Or a reflection of the reality that fewer people are getting married? And why should they?

Friends have posed that question. Not young people, but middle aged and beyond, in committed relationships. They listen to what I say about the legal protections afforded those who marry, but really want to talk about the more intangible benefits, or deficits. Will marriage strengthen or put their treasured relationship at risk? Will their bond become a resented bind?

Having married over fifty years ago when this question never surfaced, I usually opt for marriage. Romanticism? Perhaps.

A vivid memory: Just a year or so after we married, I walked alone across campus in a wintery drizzle. Len had been remote for a few days and I, only twenty years old, assumed it was because he was unhappy with me. I was flooded with fear and dread, not for the loss of our love, but wondering how I could possibly tell my parents that our marriage had failed.

When our children were young, even if one of us was sometimes dejected, thoughts of divorce were kept at bay.

But we had 27 years together after our last chick flew off. Every marriage is subject to the shifting sands of cultural change. The changes in the 1960s and 1970s were profound, titanic. I know there were moments when our marriage felt like a cage, but was that cage the structure that roused us to do the work to weather the storm?

Would we have found a way to meet each other’s needs anyway, even if not married? How can I really know? Happily, the love and joy was always greater than the angst, and we kept our balance.

I’ve asked friends in their fifties and sixties, some married, others not, why they chose the path they did.

Said one: We gave it serious thought and at first planned to marry, but in the end we knew that even though our love and trust was complete, trying to jointly manage some aspects of our lives as a married couple could cause serious conflict. Now, fifteen years later, the vows we exchanged over the kitchen table are just as enduring as if recorded at the courthouse.

Said another: We knew we wanted to openly declare our love and commitment to each other and celebrate that with our friends. Marriage was the right answer for us, and we never considered another course.

Said another: Wonderfully happy in my relationship, I agonized over the decision to marry, knowing I would first have to shake off the wrongheaded model of marriage handed down to me by my father. I finally did.

When young, my generation had no such choice. If we wanted to be together, it was either marriage or scandal. Now boomers have entered their middle years, having come of age during the sexual revolution, encouraged by many a pied piper to openly defy parental values. Even the majority who reentered the mainstream will likely feel free to shape their love relationships to their own design.

I suspect for most women, the evolutionary pull for the protected nest, and gravity’s pull of aging, gives the marriage proposal a certain import, even if the offer is declined.

And I suspect that for most men, resisting the evolutionary pull to impregnate far and wide, actually offers greater freedom to relax and focus on a satisfying union.

Purveyors of “family values” may rail at the erosion of the marriage rules, but the genie of free choice is smiling, and will not willingly slide back into the bottle.

Significant Memories

Still pondering the idea of writing a book, I look for expert advice, and what I find goes beyond my immediate quest.

Susan Rabiner’s book*, written as an instruction for prospective authors of serious nonfiction, poses this question: why is your work important? In her view there must be an “argument” presented, not simply the reporting of research conclusions, or a story told.

If the question she poses cannot readily be answered, she urges the writer to recall events of their youth that forecast the adult, memories of those times that ignited the passion for what is being written about now. Recapturing those memories, Rabiner proposes, will define what motivates you today, provide the “argument” for writing the book.

And, I wonder, for life?

If important transitions are ahead, from one role to another, a new job, retirement, a book, what direction makes sense? I asked a friend what childhood memories pointed to his future outcomes.

This was his answer:

“My parents always stressed that I must do the right, the just thing. If ever given too much change by a merchant, no  question, it must be returned. Trying to recall a specific memory takes me back to the fifth grade. A girl in my class, somewhat an outsider, was accused by the teacher of some bad act that I knew she had not committed.
With self-righteousness only a fifth grader could muster, I approached the teacher’s desk and asked, ‘Miss Jones, do you believe in the ten commandments?’ She said that of course she did, so I went on, ‘Do you know the one about not bearing false witness?’
That night I told my mother about the encounter. She was mortified, and promptly called the teacher to offer an apology for my behavior.’Oh, but he was absolutely right,’ was the teacher’s surprising response.
The story became a family classic.”

The player in this drama, a man now in his early sixties, grew up in a small town, was a leader and excelled in school. As we talked, he was able to bring forth more early memories of encouraging others, and himself, to do the “right thing”, to meet his need for justice.

After college he entered a major urban law school and on graduation, was hired by a prestigious firm. Assigned work crafting and closing on contracts for corporate mergers and acquisitions, he found he had neither enthusiasm nor belief in his competence for these tasks. When a senior partner proposed he take on a firm pro bono project, helping with the organization of an inner-city heath clinic, he eagerly accepted and was immediately fully engaged with the people, doctors and nurses, and their mission.

Soon after, he left the lucrative law firm job. For many of the years that followed, he worked to develop programs providing legal representation for the disadvantaged, giving voice to his zeal for righting wrongs.

I’m learning about myself in posing this question to my friends. As they bring to mind how certain early events shaped their essence, their destinations, I do so as well.

I’d never before thought of using important memories in this way, to analyze the “argument” for what is being written, to inform the future.

. . . . .

*Thinking Like Your Editor: How to write great serious non-fiction

Nature or Nurture?

Gloria Steinem, the ever engaging feminist now in her seventies, challenged my generation to wake up, and open doors long closed to women, the right to make their own choices, personal and professional.

In June, Steinem was the commencement speaker at Smith. The next day, this excerpt was quoted:

“In my generation, we were asked by the Smith vocational office how many words we could type a minute, a question that was never asked of then all-male students at Harvard or Princeton. Female-only typing was rationalized by supposedly greater female verbal skills, attention to detail, smaller fingers, goodness knows what, but the public imagination just didn’t include male typists, certainly not Ivy League-educated ones.
Now computers have come along, and “typing” is “keyboarding.” Suddenly, voila! — men can type! Gives you faith in men’s ability to change, doesn’t it?”

What a hoot! So, we’re all alike after all. But, apparently we’re not.

For the past thirty years, feminists (I among them) insisted that socialization alone is determinative of men’s and women’s skill development, and therefore, choice of career. If someone suggests otherwise, a biological or genetic trait that differentiates the intellectual capabilities of men and women, they are at risk. Witness the long slide of Lawrence Summers, from the pinnacle of Harvard’s Presidency, when he suggested that women might be less well suited for scientific endeavor. A furor ensued. A resignation. Thoughtful responses were hushed.

Yet today, parents committed to raising children free of sexual stereotypes, describe the differences they witness between their young sons and daughters as very real, almost from infancy. They buy their two year old girls trucks and fire engines, and they still drift to playing house. They allow, even encourage their young boys to play with dolls, and they still end up pointing their G.I.Joes at each other, simulating gun fire.

Socialization? Well, maybe.

But, enter brain imaging and other advanced explorations of the human body. Prenatal exposure to differing levels of hormones is currently of great interest to the many researchers seriously asking why aren’t more women in science?* Males appear to have superiority in spacial reasoning, women greater talent for language.

As the only woman in my 1969 law school graduating class of 114, it’s easy to stand on the nurture side of the line, but I think we need to wait and see, and take a less defensive stance, as we watch the balance between biologically preordained and socially imposed characteristics play out.

I hope we continue to recognize and question institutional bias in hiring and promotion, but welcome the inquiry, and refrain from demonizing the messenger.
. . . . . . . . .
*Why Aren’t More Women in Science?: Top Researchers Debate the Evidence
by Wendy M. Williams (author), Stephen J. Ceci (editor)

The Risks of Optimism

I am an optimist, most of the time. But recent research suggests that optimists are less good predictors of future outcomes than their depressed bothers and sisters. So, what meaning does this have for me, and my fellow enthusiasts?

Here is what Daniel Kahneman, an economics professor at Princeton and a recent Nobel laureate said, commenting on mistakes made by overly optimistic executives:

“People assign much higher probability to the truth of their opinions than is warranted . . . a natural inclination to exaggerate our talents is amplified by a tendency to misperceive the causes of events. The typical pattern is for people to take credit for positive outcomes and to attribute negative outcomes to external factors, no matter what their true cause.”

I thought this a valuable insight, clipped it, and put it aside. Then the failure of a mediation I was conducting brought it back to mind. The husband was a successful business executive, whose actions and statements were seen and heard by his wife as blaming and threatening. His wife, a musician, perceived herself as the victim of his intimidating ways, and in our sessions emotionally withdrew, unable or unwilling to assert her own interests.

I described this dynamic to my professional colleagues, by way of explaining the failed outcome, for I had terminated mediation when it became clear that the husband’s bullying ways, and the wife’s retreat to tears and silence, made their negotiation problematic.  Now I was asking myself whether my decision was wise.

Kahneman suggests that one way to improve on decision making would be to systematically analyze mistakes, although he thought this was unlikely to happen with business managers, suggesting they would resist adopting procedures that would be threatening to them.

My colleagues and I love to talk about our successful outcomes, especially if a case presented unusual challenges. And we frequently consult with one another when faced with a difficult case and suggest alternative strategies, but seldom do we devote much time to systematically analyzing our failures, except to note the external causes.

I can often identify my mistakes.

I am comfortable apologizing for them.

But little time is spent seriously considering how I might have handled situations differently. Too much discomfort in that?

Perhaps CEOs with an eye on the Dow Jones believe they must avoid disclosure of mistakes, lest the value of their stock decline. But my asking what did I do wrong and how might I have done this differently, is an analysis my colleagues and I can keep quite private.

So, I’ve even decided to step across the boundary from my professional to my personal life and pose the same questions when my optimistic plans go awry.

Be Kind To Imus?

Studies suggest that the characteristic most prized by women, in a current or prospective partner, is kindness. Makes sense to me.

When my children were very young and walked home from school, I remember occasional stories they told about a bully who bedeviled another child along the way. I also remember that my response invariably included the phrase: there’s just no excuse for not being kind. And then my question: I wonder what happened to him to make him so mean? Contradictory messages, perhaps.

Many years later, my daughter told me that every time she passes someone asking for a handout, those words echo in her mind, and she is guilt ridden if she simply walks on (so she doesn’t, and neither would her father).

So, must I feel kindly towards Don Imus?

I know of him only from recent news coverage. Nor have I ever listened to any of his brother shock-jocks, but recently I’ve read quite a bit about these angry white men (mostly) who epitomize unkindness.

An attorney representing Imus is about to file suit against CBS for $40 million, claiming his dismissal violated a clause in his contract that called upon him to be “extraordinary. . . irreverent . . . and controversial”. His lawyer also points out that a delay button was in use, which allowed the producer to block offensive words before they were broadcast, and that neither CBS nor MSNBC used it. Imus was a significant financial asset to these stations, until he wasn’t.

When the furor first arose, I wondered if the firing of Imus might have a sobering effect on other entertainers of his ilk, and if talk radio laced with raunchy insults would fade, but apparently quite the opposite is true. Harsh and crude expressions of rage continue on many radio stations unabated.

As extreme as my position may be on kindness, so too is my almost unequivocal support of the First Amendment and my opposition to censorship, unless the speaker is generating a “clear and present danger” (i.e. shouting fire in a crowded theater).

Was not the decision to take Imus off the air an economic one, when public outrage resulted in major advertisers pulling away? I think this is exactly how such decisions should be made, in the marketplace of ideas. Imus not only became a public relations nightmare, but a financial liability.

If Imus knocks on my door, he will be invited in for coffee. I’d like to better understand why unkindness is his chosen path to fame and fortune. Is it all just shtick or the essence of the man?

A Gender Divide?

Not too long ago, it was thought divorce would make election to public office unlikely. Apparently neither McCain nor Kerry was tainted (although both former wives offered their support).

   Now with Giuliani in the political swim, his divorces, and his widely publicized affair with his present wife while still married to another, is raising eyebrows and questions about the likely impact on the electorate.

Will Gingrich’s recently acknowledged affairs, even with his mea culpas, do him in? Having led the presidential impeachment charge, perhaps he has tripped over his double standard.

A pundit now suggests: adultery is the new divorce.

It would seem all we know with some certainty, is that power is a potent aphrodisiac, and the threat (or lure) of seduction is ever present. Is the electorate becoming more accepting of human frailty, as personal lives become ever more public? Perhaps we endorse those with susceptibilities we can recognize in ourselves. Was that not part of the Bill Clinton phenomena?

A display of vulnerability may even become the new macho, a man able to show his feminine side seen as more complete.

But will we offer forgiveness without regard to gender? Could a woman admit to sexual transgressions, or even serial monogamy, and still be acceptable as a candidate or a CEO?  I doubt it.

Do most women of high achievement, either in politics or the boardroom, even allow themselves to expose their feminine side, or are they called upon to be more “manly”, display toughness in order to succeed. (Hillary Clinton seems to be on this path).

Linda Obst, author of a book about life in the world of movie making, wrote of sometimes having been brought to the brink of tears as she navigated the competitive business world still largely controlled by men. She said: I hate crying. It scares men, and I don’t blame them, because they’re afraid you’ll turn into their wives or daughters or worse, their mothers.

Is that it? She concludes women seeking powerful positions have to develop and always maintain a thick skin just to survive.

Most of us are cared for from infancy by women we are dependent upon in our formative years, women who appear, at least to young eyes, as disciplined and above reproach. Is that what we then require of women who seek a leadership role? Whereas social delinquency on the part of men offers vicarious pleasure?

Until they want to become the big daddy.

Tears

I had breakfast last week with Barack Obama. A thousand others joined us. The huge hotel ballroom was filled, white tablecloths, delectable pastries and fruit, glistening goblets and hot coffee.

The crowd was in a good news mood, ready to cheer and be cheered up. And they were not disappointed, as with a calm demeanor, he spoke of what he believed could be achieved, projecting optimism. Something in short supply with each day’s strife-ridden headlines.

But it was something that happened before he spoke that made the event truly memorable. I wonder if he knows what took place as he waited in the hallway behind the stage, out of view. If not, I hope someone tells him.

As at any political rally, a parade of notables first took brief turns at the microphone. The final speaker introduced a youngster of 16 to sing the Star Spangled Banner, without accompaniment. We all rose to our feet as she reached for and adjusted the microphone. Then, taking a deep breath she began with clear, bell like tones. Her voice was strong, well paced and assured, despite her youth.

What happened next likely echoed the experience of everyone in the room. This hymn of patriotic allegiance begins easily enough with the opening “Oh say can you see…” but soon calls for a dramatic shift of vocal range, as “and the rockets red glare” comes into view, when many of us silently allow those close by to carry on. Our brave soloist reached that point and abruptly stopped singing, unable to hit the high note for “glare”, both hands rising to her face in apparent shame and dismay.

The crowd was already standing, listening at attention, and at this pause in the soloist’s rendition, as if on signal, barely missing a beat, the audience picked up the thread of the song and loudly sang forth, in whatever range they happened to find comfort. As the anthem was ending, the rich tones of our young soloist were again heard, leading us, amplified by the microphone in her hand.

What followed was equally moving, a standing ovation offered to the brave young woman who stood before us smiling, receiving, we all hoped, our loving admiration in sufficient measure to wipe away her embarrassment. A spontaneous outpouring of such heartfelt encouragement.

This shared display of empathy and concern moved at least four at my table to unabashed tears. I was among them, knowing this was an experience I would long treasure.

Unity and compassion was in the room, even before the speaker came through the door .

Letting Go

 “I just held on to his tail, the dog did all the pulling”, a not very funny joke remembered from childhood. It came to mind as I talked with the adult daughter of an old friend.

Her beloved companion of over twenty years, a philosopher of international reputation, had recently died. They had both a professional and intimate relationship, though never married. Little material wealth accumulated, but his library was significant, including the books authored by him, researched and edited by her.

Now members of his family were disputing her right to keep the books, and receive the copyrights. His last Will, revised often in his final years, was inconclusive.To her considerable distress, she was embroiled in Probate Court litigation she could ill afford.

As we talked, it was evident the legal issues were complex and the outcomes anything but predictable. My experiences as a mediator for family members engaged in contesting a Will, had allowed me to witness the intensity of the need to prove, too late, that “mother loved me best.” Rational solutions, compromises, were repeatedly and tearfully disdained.

So, I probed. Was there significant monetary value at issue? No. And of the vast library, ownership of only 250 books were in dispute, those made more prized by his handwritten notes in the margins. The sentimental value of these volumes was considerable, and she wished to be able to republish those that went out of print, so sought the copyrights.

Anger and resentment over the litigation, anxiety about the cost and the outcomes, and the presence of these unwelcome players in her life, colored her days and nights and intruded on both her mourning and her efforts to move on. Would this also effect her physical well-being?

So hard to know when to just let go and look to the future (even without some cherished belongings and entitlements), and honor the loved one in other ways. Can one measure the toll of possible years of combat, against the peace which might be achieved by simply opting out of the fight?

A successful author in her own right, a memoir was already begun, a loving effort which will have great meaning, for her, and for those who followed and revered the cherished partner.

What about sending this message to family members who are now adversaries: We all loved this man in different ways. I request ownership of the library we shared, and would value the copyrights, to be able to perpetuate his work. But, I will no longer devote resources or energy to this strife. Do what you think fair.

In the midst of hostility, stepping back and assessing alternate choices, and the likely consequence of each choice, may be the smart way to decide whether to stop holding on
to (or pulling) the tail.

A Present

Here is my holiday gift to my readers, inspired by many friends who say they are planning to spend time between now and the New Year uncluttering their lives, reclaiming the peace of organized surroundings.

My gift? A proven plan, undertaken some years ago by my husband and myself, in a home we’d lived in for over forty years.

I had read an article profiling a young author of high acclaim. The interviewer commented on how orderly her home was, even though she had two young children. The author drew from her shelf a book titled “It’s Here Somewhere”, by Alice Fulton and Pauline Hatch. I got the book from the library.

The promise of the cover blurb: This practical handbook shows you how to deal once and for all with chronic clutter. Are you tied of those organizational binges where you shuffle stuff from one room to another and just end up with a neater mess?  Then let this book show you the secrets of putting your home in order and keeping it that way.

Here, in a nutshell, is the plan.

Assemble four large containers and label each clearly. Designate the first “keepers”, for those mementos that have special meaning, but no use, like your children’s old report cards. The second box label “give away”. The third “garbage” and the fourth, “to be filed”, for insurance policies, or the warranty for the coffee maker.

Do one room at a time. Enter with boxes, and move clockwise from the doorway. Pick up the first item you find and do not move on until you make the decision whether to return it to its original spot, or into which box it goes, asking yourself the following questions:

Do I like it?
Do I use it?
Do I need it?
Do I have room for it?

Len and I started in his study. After several hours on our clockwise journey, we reached high noon, planning to get to three o’clock the next day. I think we believed that once we were done, we’d actually be able to see the future more clearly.

Did we keep going throughout the entire house. Well, no. But, upon completion of the study, we were positively euphoric, and deserving of all manner of additional pleasures. Perhaps some of you will be more dedicated to the goal and persevere, others may trip over the labeled boxes for months to come.

And some will likely relax and revel in the chaos, holding (clinging?)to the premise that disorder is the sign of a creative mind.

Reese and Ryan

 I don’t quite understand why we’re drawn to read about the private lives of celebrities. May not subscribe to People Magazine, but often it is the waiting room choice.

In what is apparently a “first”, two popular gossip magazines (Life Style and In Touch) were published simultaneously a few weeks ago, each featuring on the cover one partner of a divorcing celebrity couple. Each story purported to present their chosen star’s reasons their seven year marriage is ending. Their passion for each other was reported just months before.

On one cover appeared Reese Witherspoon, on the other was Ryan Phillipe.The question: how will their separate new stories, the he said/she said, be told?

If their different versions delve into the complex causes for the disintegration of their relationship, and don’t simply dwell on Ryan’s alleged liaison with his latest co-star, they may offer the reader more than voyeurism. An appreciation for the complexity of any relationship breakdown, instead of a simplistic view, is instructive.

What has become clear to me, given the opportunity over the years to hear many personal accounts of failed intimacy, is that the “truth telling” by each partner, despite  presenting very different pictures, can be both honest and accurate.The parties, along with family members and friends who are “taking sides”, may deny the validity of the other’s perspective, but a disinterested observer can often see how both viewpoints could well be true, just not a shared reality.

Although I know nothing of Reese or Ryan, there are likely not just two sides to their  story, but as many sides as could be fashioned from facets of the individual histories  both brought to their partnership.The popular press too often only presents the titillating story of sexual wandering, while beneath the surface of revealed infidelities, volumes could be written. Hopefully, the magazine wars will illustrate this well.

How often do our old scripts, the expectations born of early experiences, become known to our mate? Of some, the author is aware, while others are so far beneath the surface, they remain unknown to either partner. Unknown, but not without impact.

The message: do the hard work to become self aware and learn how to share insights with a loved one, at the beginning and along the way. This can be a successful venture even after a relationship becomes troubled, especially if pursued with the aid of a well regarded professional. No easy task, but whatever the outcome, such a valuable journey of discovery. A lasting connection is likely _____ if a reasonably good choice was made in the first place.

But, I Didn’t Know . . .

In our youth, did we all pose the question: if you had the chance to steal a million dollars, knowing you could avoid being caught, would you? Does the social contract depend upon the risk of discovery?

The drama of the Hewlett-Packard spying case is beginning to unfold. The indicted CEO, and company counsel, present the defense of ignorance, that although they contracted for the investigation, they did not micromanage it. They allege no knowledge of any illegal means used to invade the privacy of board members and journalists.

This brings to mind the fatally flawed maxim: don’t ask, don’t tell. Avoid the risk of discovery. A misguided policy for the Armed Forces. Wrong too for corporate America?

Anticipation of plea bargaining hangs in the air.

At the bottom of the chain of authority, is the hired sleuth who misrepresented himself (pretexting) to phone companies, to obtain calling records of those suspected of leaking information to the press. He is, no doubt, the most vulnerable person charged. And, the most likely to cut a deal? Query: which of his employers had knowledge of his methods? Did anyone ask? Who did he tell? Who did they tell?

Robert Proctor, a Stanford professor and a technology watcher, at a press interview in August, described the increasing resistance on the part of corporations to investigate when things go wrong. One example: The College Board’s SAT exams produced mistaken scores on more than 5000 tests? No significant investigation followed. Why?

The short answer: investigations can result in assigning blame and provide ammunition for lawsuits.

“There is a lot more protectiveness than there used to be,” said Proctor, who is shaping a new field, the study of ignorance, which he calls agnotology. “It is often safer not to know.”

Outside the courtroom in which the Hewlett-Packard defendants were arraigned, the lawyer for Mr. Hunsaker, the corporate counsel, said his client’s defense is based on a good faith belief that the investigator’s conduct was legal. But, an email message has surfaced that Hunsaker is said to have written, in response to a note from his investigators saying that a ruse had been used to obtain phone records. He wrote back that he “shouldn’t have asked.”

To quote the prosecutor, “it sums up the case in a single sentence.”

Few are so naive as to believe that this spying venture is unique to Hewlett-Packard. Will a new social contract evolve from these criminal prosecutions? A new balancing act to protect both group confidentiality and privacy?

Hopefully, not “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Just In Case or Just in Time?

From two very different sources within the past week, I came across what was, for me, an illuminating concept. Here is a brief summary of each.

A newspaper item told of a remarkable development in medicine. For patients with chronic medical problems, monitors are being implanted in the body and also placed at the home bedside, so that their medical team can receive real time information about heart rate, kidney function, weight, etc.

On receipt of this data via the Internet, doctors communicate with each other, and promptly take steps to stabilize their patient. Such timely care, provided for the patient at home, prevents many hospitalizations.

V.A. physician Adam Darkins pointed out that instead of prescribing medication in a particular dosage, “just in case” it may be required, medication choices and dosages are ordered or adjusted “just in time”, as the need is actually manifested.

Just days prior to seeing that news feature, I read a fascinating article, shared with me by a law professor friend. The author,Tracy McGaugh, delineates the different learning styles of the generation now making up most law school faculties, mainly Baby-Boomers in their mid-forties to early sixties, and the student body, Generation Xers in their early twenties to early forties.

When the Boomers were learning how to learn, before the technology revolution, the standard educational approach was to acquire information that might be needed sometime in the future, “just in case” learning.

But Generation Xers, exposed as very young learners to the technology explosion, developed the skill of sorting information into:

1) that needed now
2) that definitely needed later, and
3) that they could find later, if needed.

“Just in time” learning.

This “just in time” approach is proliferating.

Academic librarians are adopting a “just in time” approach to acquisitions.

Businesses are adopting a “just in time” approach to employee training.

What next?

Those seeking to not be left behind, must shift gears and learn to scan and filter the vast amount of information offered each day, and then spend time honing Internet search skills, rather than attempting to commit new material to memory. Access recent findings, as needed.

Although initially somewhat disorienting, there is also something liberating about this approach, especially as memory becomes somewhat less reliable. In fact, it’s just in time.

Hello Sports Fans

As one who never follows sports teams, or even the individual performance of sports heroes, I find the sports pages of newspapers compelling.

The human interest stories often read like Greek tragedy.

This past Saturday, the Philadelphia Phillies sent Brett Myers to the mound the day after he had been arrested and arraigned for assaulting his wife. When Pat Gillick, the general manager, was asked why he did not push Myers back in the rotation, he answered with candor, “I think it was in the best interest of the club. He’s our best pitcher”.

I hope the presumption of innocence comes to everyone’s mind, but here the presumption was strained, as the assault took place on a public street, in the presence of strangers. Witness Courtney Knight told the Boston Globe: “It was disgusting. He was dragging her by the hair and slapping her across the face. She was yelling, “I’m not going to let you do this to me anymore.’  He had her on the ground. He was pulling her, her shirt was up around her neck.”

Myers, when asked about the incident, is reported as apologizing only that “it had to get public.”

N.Y.Times reporter, Lee Jenkins, interviewed Kim Gandy, president of N.O.W., who offered: “It’s disappointing that the Phillies didn’t consider Brett Myers’s status as a role model when they decided to play him in this game. It sends such a bad message to kids who watch sports. When someone who has just been arrested for assault is the starting pitcher, it seems like there are no consequences.”

I too wondered about the wisdom of the decision made. But, the newspaper story continued: “The crowd at Fenway Park, treating the  game as a referendum on domestic violence, booed Myers every time he walked on or off the field.” So, as it turned out, there were consequences, given full voice, heard by all the kids and adults watching the game.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The AP reported, a day or so later, that Myers would take a leave of absence. Specifically, he is quoted as saying, “First, while I dispute that the facts are as alleged, I recognize that my behavior was inappropriate and for that I apologize. Second, I recognize that the incident created an embarrassing situation for many people, including my wife and family, my teammates, the Phillies organization, and fans, and I am very sorry for that.”

I know that for many, offering a heartfelt apology, accepting responsibility, is difficult. But should not the word “inappropriate” be stricken from the language?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
His wife posted his $200 bail.