A common technique in psychotherapy is free association. The patient lies down and says whatever comes to mind. The therapist, if he or she can remain awake, occasionally says "mmmhmmm" or, when feeling particularly insightful, says something more profound, like "yes" or "say more about that."
Somehow, miraculously, this leads to incredible insights by the patient. Not that these insights help him feel better or have a more productive life. But there is something very exciting in finally understanding why you feel so troubled all the time. I mean here it is, all these years you thought it was your cat who was making you unhappy, and now you realize it was your mother. How freeing! Not for you, of course. Your mother died five years ago, so you can't re-establish a good relationship with her. But you and your cat will be able to have a new bond that will be obvious to everyone.
As an experiment, I have decided to do this column by free association. I know there are some wonderful creative ideas sitting in my head, blocked by my own self-censoring. So I am going to lie down and write down whatever comes to mind. I will be both patient and therapist.
Me: Wow, Dr. Mark, it sure is hard to write while I lie down.
Dr. Mark: Mmm-hmmm.
Me: You know, Dr. Mark, sometimes I get really angry that I'm paying you so much money, and all you do is go "Mmm-hmmm." Could you say something different once in a while, please?
Dr. Mark: Yes. Go on.
Me: Thank you. I just had an insight! I'm never satisfied with people's responses to what I say. No matter how they respond, it's never right. I'm so ashamed. You say "Mmm-hmmm" and I object. If you said "Aha," I'd object to that too. Dr. Mark, you're brilliant.
Dr. Mark: I think we're making real progress this morning. Please go on.
Me: It doesn't matter what people say. People are just people. They are doing the best they can. Why do I always expect them to be different? I'll bet some people aren't even happy with all the things I say. I mean I think what I say is fine. But maybe they don't. But that's their problem. I'm okay, Dr. Mark, I'm okay. Aren't I, Dr. Mark, aren't I okay?
Me: Dr. Mark, Dr. Mark, say something. Tell me I'm okay.
Me: Dr. Mark, are you all right? Why don't you talk? Say something. Wait. I know. You want me to go on. Why do I have to ask you if I'm okay? I am okay. I don't have to ask anybody. What do they know anyway? Who cares if everyone else thinks I'm an idiot? They're idiots anyway. That's it, Dr. Mark, I just realized the answer. It's the answer to everything. We're all idiots. Every one of us...But not you, of course. Not you, Dr. Mark. You're smart. You're not an idiot.
Dr. Mark: Yes. Please go on.|
Me: Maybe we're not all idiots. Maybe we're all geniuses. I like that idea better. Of course, if we're all geniuses, you're a bigger genius than most of us...
Dr. Mark: Mmm-hmmmm.
Me: I mean "than any of us." You're a bigger genius than any of us. You're the biggest genius. Your geniusness is so overwhelming that I can barely speak when I think of it.
Dr. Mark: Good. Please say more. Whatever comes to mind.
Me: I just thought about our family dog. I don't know why. I haven't thought about him in years. His name was Ruffruff. Did I ever tell you that, Dr. Mark? Did I ever tell you about Ruffruff?
Dr. Mark: Go on.
Me: Do you know why we called him that? My father thought of the name. When our dog barked it sounded just like "Ruff, ruff," so my dad said, "Let's call him Ruffruff." Me and my brother and sister all got very excited about this. We thought it was a great name. But my mother wasn't that excited, as I recall. I think she said something a little critical.
Dr. Mark: Yes. Go on.
Me: I think she said, "That is the dumbest name I have ever heard, and I've had enough. I'm leaving you." And she left. She packed up and left. I've always blamed the dog for this, but I realize now that there must have been more going on.
Dr. Mark: Mmm-hmmm.
Me: Well, when Mom left, us kids wanted to get rid of the dog. I think we were ready to kill him, or at least bring him back to the pet shop, but Dad said no. He said, "We'll keep Ruffruff. It's going to be a little rough around here with Mom gone, so the name Ruffruff will remind us of that. Get it, kids, get it? Rough, rough." And then Dad became hysterical, as he often did over his own puns. I think Dad lost it a little at that point. When people would call and say, "How are you doing?," he'd sort of bark. He'd say, "It's rough, rough." And he did become very attached to the dog. I think it was a little extreme.
Dr. Mark: Yes.
Me: You know Dad was a lawyer, and one time he sued the New York Yankees because they wouldn't let Ruffruff into the Stadium. Ruffruff actually had his picture in the New York Times. In fact, Mom called that day. We hadn't heard from her in a while, but she called. She was still not too happy. Dad said, "Didn't he look great in the picture?" I'm not sure what Mom said, but it couldn't have been too nice, because then Dad said, "Well, he's not a puppy any more, so what do you expect?"
Dr. Mark: I'm afraid our time is up for today.
Me: Ruffruff. Ruffruff. It wasn't you. You were just the catalyst.
Dr. Mark: That's it for today.
Me: Ruffruff. Ruffruff.
My oldest son is getting married in June! He and his fiancée have been together for over five years, so I am hopeful and optimistic that they will have a happy and lasting marriage. But I do know that the statistics on marriages in our country are not terrific. Things have been a little better in recent years, but a substantial number of marriages still end in divorce. And among those that don't (or haven't yet), there are many marriages that you could hardly call "happy."
I've thought about this a lot. What amazes me is that, in spite of the obvious difficulty many, if not most, people have in staying married, the principles of marriage, as voiced in the so-called marriage vows, have stayed pretty much the same for hundreds (thousands?) of years.
Let's face it, if a car company made a car with the same failure rate as American marriages, either the federal government would step in and shut it down, or at least it would force the company to make changes in their manufacturing process. And yet we insist on holding on to our clearly obsolete wedding vows, and then wonder why so many of us can't stay together.
Well, someone has got to take the bull by the horns. So I'd humbly like to suggest a few, really minor, modifications to the vows, simply to make them easier to fulfill.
I think one of the hardest, at least for men, is that one about "forsaking all others." You know, the pledge of fidelity. Lots of people have trouble with this one. President Clinton certainly did. His inability to stick with this vow virtually paralyzed Washington for over a year.
My suggestion, to avoid this kind of problem in the future, not only for presidential marriages but for those of ordinary people, is to make a slight change. Instead of "forsaking all others," why not make it "forsaking most others"? Or even "forsaking the vast majority of others." I think it's the "all" that causes the problems.
Then there's the "love, honor and cherish" part. This is already different from what it used to be for brides. Women used to be expected to say, "Love, honor and obey." But in the '60s, a lot of women said, "Obey? Yeah, right!" So soon both members of the couple were saying what the man had always been saying, that is, pledging to "cherish," as well as love and honor.
However, this certainly didn't slow the rate of divorce. The problem is that all that loving, honoring and cherishing seems so easy on your wedding day, when she is in her beautiful gown and he is in his tuxedo and everyone is sitting there crying. It's a whole different story when he's in his undershirt and she's in her sweatpants, and they've been together, bickering, for 25 years.
So why not be more realistic, and pledge what we really expect from each other years later: to be, well, tolerated.
Then there's the "for better or worse" portion of the vows. That's a tough one for many couples. The "better" part is a snap. It's the "worse" that causes the problems, because it turns out that there is often quite a bit of "worse." And why should we be expected to put up with it? I think we should change that part of the vow to say, "as long as things are okay." As for the "richer or poorer" and "sickness and health" part, forget about it. Who wants to think about poverty and disease at a time like this? Let's just can that part altogether.
And, finally, there's that terrifying ending, the part that keeps many a man (and no small number of women) away from the altar. It's that " 'til death do you part" part or the more modern "as long as you both shall live." What a bummer! First of all, it reminds the couple at this wonderful, wonderful moment that even if it does last, it doesn't last forever. And it also says, hey, you may be 21 and 19, you may have no idea what you're doing in your life, you may switch careers five times, but right now, today, you are agreeing that you are going to stay with this person for the rest of your (or her or his) life.
Come on! Let's make it more realistic and change it to something like "for three years, subject to renewal," or even "at least until next Thursday."
I know it's probably a fantasy, but I can imagine some day hearing a minister intone, "Do you, Bob, forsaking most others, vow to tolerate Jane, as long as things are okay, or at least until next Thursday?" and "Do you, Jane,...."
As I get older, and deal with more and more responsibilities, I find myself looking back nostalgically at childhood. I tend to think mostly of the positive stuff and the fun stuff, which, of course, I didn't appreciate then. George Bernard Shaw said, "Youth is wasted on the young," and he had a good point. Incidentally, Shaw was only nine years old when he made that statement, showing that he was pretty serious as a child.
It is remarkable how different adult life is from the child's life, but the change from childhood to adulthood does not happen overnight, except in the case of the mayfly, which only lives for one day.
But for human beings, it's a slow process, and we don't even notice when the day comes that we no longer do the things children do -- such as somersaults.
Well, some people keep doing them, like gymnasts. But for most of us, the idea of doing a somersault seems a combination of silly and dangerous. I don't specifically remember my last somersault, but I do remember doing them. I remember that wonderful feeling as I gave my body that little extra push that propelled my legs over my head as I rolled over onto my back. I can't remember how my parents reacted to this, but since I was having fun, they probably disapproved.
Actually, I am sure they preferred having me do somersaults than the other activity I loved to do even more than somersaults, namely, spinning. "Don't do that," my mother would say. "You'll get nauseous." But I don't remember ever getting nauseous. What I do remember was that after you spun around for a while, and then stopped, the whole world seemed to spin. I loved this. I have to confess that I probably did it a little too often. Okay, today I can admit it: I had a spinning problem.
I quickly learned to spin in private. But my parents were very suspicious. There I would be, sitting on the floor giggling hopelessly as my room spun around, and I could hear my mother saying, "Are you spinning again? You know it's going to make you nauseous. You stop that spinning and come out here, right this minute!"
And if I didn't come out, my mother provided what is one of the negative things about childhood, something which you never hear adults say to each other, but which parents say to children all the time. You know, when the parent says, "I'm going to count to three, and if you haven't done such-and-such by the time I get to three, you're in big trouble."
Actually, my parents were very strict, and only counted to two.
"You come out here now," said my mom. "I'm gonna count to two and if you're not out here by the time I get to two, I'm not going to let you listen to the radio for a week."
And she'd start. "O-o-o-o-n-e," she said, dragging it out the way parents do, since they (well many of them, anyway) don't really want to punish their children, but just want to control them completely. I didn't budge. "One-and-a-half," she said, giving me yet another break. I still didn't move. I couldn't. I had overspun. I couldn't get up. "One-and-three-quarters," she went on. Uh-oh, I thought, I think she means it this time.
So somehow I got myself up and staggered out the door.
"I haven't been spinning," I said, as I grabbed onto my mother to keep from falling to the floor.
And talking about the floor, there's another difference between children and adults. Children, but not adults, spend lots of time playing on the floor. And why not? The floor is a great place to play. It's like a table top of unlimited size. The only problem is that sometimes your toys get stepped on or tripped over, and occasionally you get stepped on or tripped over. But everything in life has its dangers. Surely your parents preferred you playing on the floor than in the street.
One day, around 16 years ago, in the midst of a dry spell in my creative life, I decided to do some writing while sitting on the floor in order to see if this return to my childhood milieu might spark my creativity. So I brought my typewriter into the kitchen, put it on the floor, and began typing. And sure enough, I did have an idea, which ultimately became a magazine article.
I was quite excited by this, and asked my wife if it would be okay for me to do all my writing on the kitchen floor. She emitted a string of unprintable epithets in the middle of which I detected the word "no."
I was pretty upset by her response, but a few minutes of spinning was all I needed to calm myself down.
Lest you think my whole childlife was spent in solitary pursuits, such as somersaults, spinning, and playing alone on the floor, let me assure you that this was not the case. I would also be involved in something that, as an adult, I really miss.
I would be sitting there, tired of one more solitary game of Red Barber Baseball or one more spin of the little pointer of All-Star Baseball, feeling that even a somersault wouldn't get me out of my funk, when suddenly, miraculously, the phone would ring, and it would be one of my friends asking if I could come over to play. And so I was rescued.
We adults just don't do this, and maybe we should. Think about it. You're at home on a week-end. You've done some chores, you've looked at the newspaper, you're kind of bored.
The phone rings. It's your pal, Mike, and he says, "Can you come over and play?"
Reflexively, you think, "I'll have to ask my mother." But you don't have to. You're an adult now. Maybe somersaults and spinning might be too risky to your body and your furniture, but you can still play. And Mike's got one great floor.