Archive | December, 2005

To Sir, With Love

And as I leave, I know that I am leaving my best friend
A friend who taught me right from wrong
And weak from strong
That’s a lot to learn
But what can I give you in return?

“To Sir With Love,” Lulu

I read this Anne Lamott story this morning, and I laughed out loud. Her story (about apologizing to someone who’d clearly wronged her) is a familiar one to me.

It was years ago when a friend in AA first told me of a popular 12-step saying: “You can only clean up your side of the street.” Meaning, no matter how egregious the action on the other side of the street, you still have to clean up your own and it’s not very productive to point out someone else’s huge piles of steaming dung. Well, since my friend was an admirable human being, I paid attention.

This is a lot more difficult than it sounds – and also a lot easier. Because once you let go of your need to blame someone else, and you accept the responsibility for your own crap, life gets simpler. “Oh, that’s really not my problem,” you tell yourself. And you feel lighter for it, because it’s easy to see the benefits of cleaning up your own act.

I do subscribe to this as my standard. Some days, I make only painfully slow progress, inch by inch. Sometimes I backslide. Other times, under a real emotional crunch, I make some spectacular leaps forward. (Like a trauma team nurse, I seem to work much better under the most extreme circumstances.)

But it makes other people nuts to watch it, especially when there seems no rational reason in the world to take your eye off the outrageous wrong someone else has done to you and concentrate on whatever part you played in the mess, however it may pale in comparison.

I was in this long relationship once that was, well, pretty awful. His was a virtual EPA Superfund site on his side of the street; in comparison, my side looked like one of the white marble stoops in South Philadelphia that the little old ladies come out and scrub every day. I mean, you could do brain surgery on my side of the street, relatively speaking, and still be reasonably confident of maintaining the sterile field.

He was mean, and aggressively thoughtless. (Not all the time, of course, but mostly.) He wasn’t (as I once told him, to his great shock) a nice person. He was a pathological liar and cheat who believed his own lies; most people don’t have anything in their toolbox to prepare themselves for an extended gig with that kind of deception. I know I didn’t.

And yet. I found myself playing head games, trying to control and manipulate him. (Competing on his field, as it were.) It took a while for me to figure out there was something about him that tapped directly into a badly fucked-up part of me. I finally understood I had a chance to clean out that part of myself that was, in my own way, as needy, nasty and manipulative as he was.

So he’d do or say these truly awful things and we’d fight. And then I’d apologize for the part I played, however minor it might have been. He’d always gravely accept my apology, never once acknowledging his part – I mean, never.

It made me feel better, but it drove other people nuts. “That’s just crazy. This asshole did that to you, and you’re apologizing?” my friends would say. “No wonder he never changes.”

Well, they had a point. (After all, he never did change.) But I wasn’t really trying to clean up his act; I was consciously cleaning up my own. And I can honestly say that as painful and seemingly self-destructive as this relationship was, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Because I finally saw with great clarity where I was dumping my own 55-gallon drums of toulene and benzene, nurturing my own blooming patches of rank, toxic algae.

As humans, we have this certain endearing tendency to gloss over our own glaring shortcomings by changing the subject to someone else’s. Look, over there! (This tactic is especially popular with ex-spouses, for instance. And Republicans.) Being in relationship with someone toxic can be a really good excuse to pat yourself on the back because hey, you’re not that bad.

There wasn’t a damned thing I could find in him that I couldn’t also find traces of in myself. (I’m a Jungian, remember?) He was a frightened, desperate child who would do whatever he thought he had to do to protect himself. And like me, he saw attackers everywhere.

Because of what I saw in him, I changed. His presence in my life was the strangest kind of gift and the benefits were nothing conscious on his part. But still, he was that catalyst and I doubt anyone else could have made a dent in me. I think of him every time I hear “To Sir With Love” – which irony would be lost on him, I think.

And I wouldn’t take back one single apology. Nope. I did those things, I own them. The things he did don’t cancel that out.

I’m no longer in that relationship, and I don’t have a whole lot of your standard happy memories to pull out and ponder, yet I’m quite grateful I had it. He was, without exception, the best teacher I’ve ever had. And if I’d been with anyone less narcissistic, less infuriating, less outrageous, less of a barbed-wire compound with AK-47s, less of an absolute asshole, I never would have gotten that cosmic joke.

To sir with love

And as I leave, I know that I am leaving my best friend
A friend who taught me right from wrong
And weak from strong
That’s a lot to learn
But what can I give you in return?

“To Sir With Love,” Lulu

I read this Anne Lamott story this morning, and I laughed out loud. Her story(about apologizing to someone who’d clearly wronged her) is a familiar one to me.

It was years ago when a friend in AA first told me of a popular 12-step saying: “You can only clean up your side of the street.” Meaning, no matter how egregious the action on the other side of the street, you still have to clean up your own and it’s not very productive to point out someone else’s huge piles of steaming dung. Well, since my friend was an admirable human being, I paid attention.

This is a lot more difficult than it sounds – and also a lot easier. Because once you let go of your need to blame someone else, and you accept the responsibility for your own crap, life gets simpler. “Oh, that’s really not my problem,” you tell yourself. And you feel lighter for it, because it’s easy to see the benefits of cleaning up your own act.

I do subscribe to this as my standard. Some days, I make only painfully slow progress, inch by inch. Sometimes I backslide. Other times, under a real emotional crunch, I make some spectacular leaps forward. (Like a trauma team nurse, I seem to work much better under the most extreme circumstances.)

But it makes other people nuts to watch, especially when they’re convinced there’s no rational reason to take your eye off the outrageous wrong someone else did and concentrate on whatever part you played in the mess, however it may pale in comparison.

I was in this long relationship once that was, well, pretty awful. He had a virtual EPA Superfund site on his side of the street; in comparison, my side was as pristine as one of the white marble stoops in South Philadelphia that the little old ladies come out to scrub every day. I mean, you could do brain surgery on my side of the street, relatively speaking, and still be reasonably confident of maintaining the sterile field.

He was mean, and aggressively thoughtless. (Not all the time, of course, but mostly.) He wasn’t (as I once told him, to his great shock) a nice person. He was apathological liar and cheat who believed his own lies; most people don’t have anything in their toolbox to prepare themselves for an extended gig with that kind of deception. I know I didn’t.

And yet. I found myself playing head games, trying to control and manipulate him. (Competing on his field, as it were.) It took a while for me to figure out there was something about him that tapped directly into a badly fucked-up part of me. I finally understood I had a chance to clean out that part of myself that was, in my own way, as needy, nasty and manipulative as he was.

So he’d do or say these truly awful things and we’d fight. And then I’d apologize for the part I played, however minor it might have been. He’d always gravely accept my apology, never once acknowledging his part – I mean, never.

It made me feel better, but it drove other people nuts. “That’s just crazy. This asshole did that to you, and you’re apologizing?” my friends would say. “No wonder he never changes.”

Well, they had a point. (After all, he never did change.) But I wasn’t really trying to clean up his act; I was consciously cleaning up my own. And I can honestly say that as painful and seemingly self-destructive as this relationship was, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Because I finally saw with great clarity where I was dumping my own 55-gallon drums of toluene and benzene, nurturing my own blooming ponds of rank, toxic algae.

As humans, we have this certain endearing tendency to gloss over our own glaring shortcomings by changing the subject to someone else’s. Look, over there! (This tactic is especially popular with ex-spouses, for instance. And Republicans.) Being in relationship with someone toxic can be a really good excuse to pat yourself on the back because hey, you’re not that bad.

Yet there wasn’t a damned thing I could find in him that I couldn’t also find traces of in myself. (I’m a Jungian, remember?) He was a frightened, desperate child who would do whatever he thought he had to do to protect himself. And like me, he saw attackers everywhere.

Because of what I saw in him, I changed. His presence in my life was the strangest kind of gift and the benefits were nothing conscious on his part. But still, he was that catalyst and I doubt anyone else could have made such a dent in me. I think of him every time I hear “To Sir With Love” – which irony would be lost on him, I think.

And I wouldn’t take back one single apology. Nope. I did those things, I own them. The things he did don’t cancel that out.

I’m no longer in that relationship, and I don’t have a whole lot of your standard happy memories to pull out and ponder, yet I’m quite grateful I had it. He was, without exception, the best teacher I’ve ever had. And if I’d been with anyone lessnarcissistic, less infuriating, less outrageous, less of a barbed-wire compound with AK-47s, someone less of an absolute asshole, I never would have gotten that cosmic joke.

What I’m playing

I didn’t pay attention to the weather reports for the past few days, but when I woke up this morning, I knew from the absence of street noise it had snowed – two or three inches.

I wandered over to my old Yamaha guitar and tried to pick out all the words to this song, written during the long hard winter of early 1999. (Of course right after I wrote it, we had several mild winters with little snow. Oh well.) I remember playing it at a February gig the next year where the audience members were still in shirtsleeves.

Anyway, it’s called “First Snow This Winter” and the songwriters I really respect tell me it’s my best one:

Tonight I watched the snow come down
By the halo of a streetlight
The traffic muffled by the icy white
Oh yeah, I thought of you
Wished you were here to hold me
You’re such a locked-up box
Sometimes I told myself I might be the key
And then I’d scold myself
For believing I could ever see inside you

The first time we made love, you held my hand
Such a tender thing, it almost made me cry
I got scared and pushed you away
Baby, I don’t mean to do it
I really don’t
I use my words like weapons
But I hold them out in front so you will see
That the only one I ever mean to hurt
Is me

Tonight I watched the snowflakes falling
Turned the dark sky white
I watched the people driving
They all have a place to go tonight
Oh babe you know I thought of you
Even though you don’t want me to
You’re not such a mystery
Sometimes I wonder if I might hold the key
And then I doubt myself
For believing I could ever see inside you

That last time we made love, you held my hand
Such a tender thing, you know it made me cry
I got scared, pushed you away
Babe I never mean to do it, I really don’t
I use my words like weapons
But I hold them out in front so you will see
That the only one I ever mean to hurt is
Me.

Copyright 1999 S. Madrak

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Under the Mercury retrograde

By on December 2, 2005 in My So-Called Life

Some days, despite all the things that happen, I’m just in love with the world – or maybe because of them.

It all started when my friend Cos called. Now, since her fiance moved in, I don’t talk to her much and see her even less. “When are we going to do something? When will I see you?” I said.

“By the time I got done driving around all day, I just want to come home and see Sid,” she said. “I’m really tired.”

“When was the last time you saw me?” I said.

“But I don’t wanna drive,” she said.

I told her to quit whining. Then we worked out a compromise: I would take the train to the station near her house and she’d pick me up. Simple, right?

Wrong. I took the wrong R8 train – the one to Lansdale, not Chestnut Hill. (The mood was less grim, due to a jolly group of office workers who’d had their Christmas luncheon today and were puzzling out loud over a list of anagrams.) I stayed on the train, thinking it would merely become the other R8 – but somehow, it became an R1. So I got off the R1 and took another train back to 30th St. (my boss, who’s a train freak, would be so proud) – which is not enclosed.

Not only was the Chestnut Hill West train not for another half-hour, it was running ten minutes late, anyway. Since 30th St. has outdoor platforms, I was freezing. Finally, I gave up and took the R7 home instead because, well, it showed up two minutes later.

There were two adorable little girls on the train – one black, one Asian. The little black girl was dressed in a very puffy lavender fake-fur coat and hat, and she kept peeking out from behind her mother’s arm (which was holding an infant in a baby pack), smiling and waving at the little Asian girl. The other little girl just kept laughing, bouncing up and down on her mother’s lap.

The lavender puff-ball girl and her mother got off at my stop. Mom had a huge diaper bag slung across her back and was trying to hold her daughter’s hand as we made it down the station steps. “Would you like some help?” I said.
She gratefully agreed, and I took her daughter’s hand.

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Tell the lady how old you are, Lianna,” her mother said.

“Two,” she said, bashful.

“Two?” I said, mock-incredulous. “You’re so big, I thought you were three.”

“No, I’m two.”

They were met at the station by the little girl’s aunt, who scooped her up in her arms. It made me smile, all the way back to my car.

I loved my day today.

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