Sunday, April 27, 2008

New Poems with Self-Critique!

I have not been blogging because my involvement in actual life has increased, aided by the NBA playoffs, in which my Lakers have gone up 3-0 against Denver. I hope there's no letdown for the fourth game.

Meanwhile I will not blog about my slightly improved mood without at least a month behind me.

I can't recall which of my recent poems I posted here and which I didn't and in what form. So consider this a redux of recent works in a more polished (though never finished) form.


Not much of a blog, was it? Today, April 28, is another day. And I'm hungover and bloated from gorging Thai food and drink for the first time in years.

My chief literary correspondent and critic (next to Kathleen) sent me some illuminating critique about my poetry, and to simplify, argued that I needed more passion, as if my intellect were a nail in the tire of emotion. I concur.

I had my poetry labeled "inhuman" long ago at a certain forum. Part of this defect is my deplorable tendency to over-revise many poems, squeezing the juice out of them on the way to "perfection." I've probably ruined more poems than I've helped.

I can't help it--it's searching for the Logos through logos--the ineluctably indomitable, the predictably unavoidable, the kairos moment when time stops and you hold experience in your hand like a baseball.

Squeeze the seams!

Just say "No" to Kilorats,




Because I doubt my being
I drape you in words
like papier mache'
that when you withdraw
I have a hollow to inhabit.

Everyone is Jesus to me,
everyone who leaves
a space to occupy.

Notice how many hollows
letters contain
and the spaces
between words:

Dare you to find me!

Too Many Voices

I've lost myself.
Some mad imposter
puts on airs,
practices smiles,
greets my mailman,
pages through
yearbooks and journals
seeking my erasure.

The angels, in particular
the obese ones
dedicated to pleasure,
laugh, it is their job.
If I could laugh
I might remember.

In my dream
I lead the sheep to safety
only to discover
at last, the joke:
They are all
wearing my face.

Each time I wake
I lose another piece of me.
Out of charity
I embrace what's left.
There was too much
of me anyway,
too many voices, a chorus
of purloined identities.

Valentine 2008

You are a granite waterfall, my love.
Your stone is slippery and sensuous.

I fall into a pool beneath your feet
And lie upon a thousand polished stones.

I look up at the alders overhead
And marvel at how you give yourself to them

Without diminishment, without attrition,
A steady miracle of sacrifice.

Downstream trout fingerlings mouth bits of algae
Because your pounding fed them oxygen.

The vines that weave the cliffs live off your spray.
Bright orange salamanders make their bed there.

A pale succulent grows in your cleft,
Its purple stalk a wand of yellow stars.

Inside the moss-lipped haven of your granite
I hide behind your thundering skirt of water.

Your clarity dissolves all self-deception.
I would not recognize myself without you.

The shelter of trees is never so generous
As your pouring and thinning of yourself

Into the forest air. I kneel and drink
And like the alder rise up satisfied.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Feeling a Little Bit Better; Poetry and Power Lyrics

I haven't blogged in four days and the universe hasn't shifted. My mood has improved up to the point where blogging seems like some kind of external burden instead of a welcome distraction. My operative secret has been pretending to be myself.

Strange how a change in mood changes one's valuation of things; let ethicists debate that.

And they have. The Marquis de Sade: “Everything that is is good.”

Anon: “Happiness is a side effect of right behavior.”


“I don't feel like going out tonight, honey.”

“We need to talk.”

“Not again!”

It's like being a low rent jeweler, stringing these cliche's together into a necklace of tears. Still you see the mood determination factor. Kennedy met with Khrushchev after morphine injections for his back. Jack the Junkie, as history fondly recalls him. How did this affect Berlin, I wonder?

And his wife! Model pretty and model thin. Too bad he preferred the upholstered couches.

I wrote a decent poem in the last year, so I was told by twenty comments at a poetry forum recently, the Gazebo. You want to see it?

Among Schoolchildren

A old man in a brown cardigan
walks a black Chow
on a chain leash
beside a fence
where children throng and
in a supplication of small fingers
reach through galvanized
diamonds of steel,
each clamoring for a touch,
the soft substantial feel
of mammalian welcome:
trusting, dependent fur.

How many would trade
the fence for the leash?

I dedicate this poem to my old friend, poet John Benson, whom I spoke with last night for the first time in years and who is thinking of starting a blog. Tell him “Yes!” One of the brightest and funniest men I've ever known. His son, David Benson, is a poet as well.

I thought of a couple aphorisms:

It is hard to create a literature that captures its time and outlives it.

Great poetry communicates an involuntary experience.

As to the second aphorism above, I'm talking about the book you can't put down, the movie you can't walk out of, the poem that, once you begin it, there's no turning back; you're hooked.

Poetry ought to be that pleasurable. Poetry ought to make that kind of impression. To do that today poetry must strive to be open and concise, colloquial and precise, syntactic and musical, but most of all experientially epigrammatic—a shot of indelible snapshots to shoot up in words.

I have previously written about Logopoetry and Power Lyrics if essays interest you. My point is simple; either we accept that the audience for poetry will continue to dwindle to irrelevant proportions while we experiment and re-invent the wheel, or we fashion a poetry muscular enough, compressed enough, compelling enough to command attention from the multitasking modern mind. (I take some comfort from the Swedes' Retrogardism.)

Here's another of mine that wants to be a power lyric:

About the Bracelet

You sent me a silver bracelet.
"Damn I'm good," it said. I found it
heavy and constricting, painful
in its alien density. (I was forgetting
my body again, how any restriction
burns like handcuffs, even a watchband,
but you know this.) So I hung it
from my key chain. I like the heft
of it there, I like to stretch
my knuckles against its links and feel
the ache of constant use relax.

What if all the righteous faded
by subtle increments to stark transparency
until no one could see them but themselves?
Left to our sordid board games,
would we even notice their absence?
In this scenario you'd have disappeared
before we met. I'm so glad I see you!
And this bracelet, whether it
rings my wrist or jabbers with the keys,
proves you see me, too!

You saw the poor boy in the rich man's house.
You clothed him in your sea-green light.
You kissed him with your coral lips,
sucked poison from his stonefish heart
and smoothed the ragged seaweed
from his brow with patient fingers, saying,
"You are loved, little boy, you are loved."

This one is likely too dense for a power lyric. A power lyric should be more direct, I think, require less of the reader. Here:



Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:
But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.


We milk the cow of the world, and as we do
We whisper in her ear, 'You are not true.'

--Richard Wilbur

Perhaps that one is too riddle-like but I love it.

That first poem of mine ended in sort of a riddle. Hmm...

Here's another poem that approaches my ideal:

The Heaven of Animals

Here they are. The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains it is grass rolling
Under their feet forever.

Having no souls, they have come,
Anyway, beyond their knowing.
Their instincts wholly bloom
And they rise.
The soft eyes open.

To match them, the landscape flowers,
Outdoing, desperately
Outdoing what is required:
The richest wood,
The deepest field.

For some of these, it could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done,
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,

More deadly than they can believe.
They stalk more silently,
And crouch on the limbs of trees,
And their descent
Upon the bright backs of their prey

May take years
In a sovereign floating of joy.
And those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk

Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain

At the cycle's center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.

-- James Dickey

My aforementioned poet friend contemplating a blog, John Benson, turned me on to this poem.

Wordsworth, go fish.

It is silly to put my own work on the same page as Dickey or Wilbur, but in the blogosphere of the cyberuniverse it is perfectly acceptable. I am content if any of these show, however enanescently, how poetry can not only matter but actually attract more readers

Obviously my mood has improved, as I said at the outset, though I do not put my faith in this appearance yet. Thanks to all of you for your encouragement, faithfulness and patience during these last two years. I am not saying it is over; if it holds I may blog about it.


Craig Erick

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Pretending; Norm's Triumph; Botanical Gardens; Poem

This morning I had a dream where I sought to thread three wires, one large and two smaller, through various entry points on my body to places far distant. For example, I opened up both shoulders and threaded the wires down through my abdomen and legs to my feet. The procedure burned. There were many insertions. At the end I was slumped over and I could feel the too-tight pulling of the wires from my shoulders to my feet, causing me to slump over. I was naked. As I walked forward the wires bent my head forward. With my hands clasped before me I looked like Jesus or a convict. I remember being surprised at how easy the wires were to thread, marveling at my skill in discovering the surgical "empty space" all through the body.

The wires reminded me of the new cable wires I plug into my laptop now that I have high-speed Internet at home. The feeling I had during the procedure was one of a necessary torturer; I was not enthused at the procedure but it was something I had to do. I was slightly embarrassed at being so pitiful a spectacle but I kept my head down.

At one point I think Kathleen discovered, or was about to discover, my high-tech flagellations, which would of course have resulted in a scolding and pleading to remove the wires.

The dream can be taken many ways. I'm a slave of the Internet. My depression is actually some strange form of penance I inflict on myself. I miss doctoring. I see myself as a suffering figure, although this suffering was self-inflicted. Nevertheless it required my hard-earned expertise to thread the wires properly.

This is a revised post. Amazing that LKD suggested below suggested three daughters being the three wires, the largest, of course, being Rachel. Who died July 29, 2007.

Mostly in the dream I felt resigned, "like a lamb led to slaughter." A dutiful sacrifice. That's the feeling tone, often the most important aspect of a dream.

Does anyone get up in the morning and sing and proclaim "How Great Thou Art" and revel in morning toiletries with plenty of time to make it to work? Who are these happy, positive-thinking people, and why don't I meet more of them? I think they are rare, and besides, what happy soul would want their buzz diminished by Eeyor? Perhaps they are rare and they avoid me.

I want to be that happy person. For years my ambition has been, my the grace of God, to cheer others up, to be a disciple of joy--in contrast to my sinful nature that tends toward the melancholic. This would be a miracle and in keeping with God's strategy; he made the greatest persecutor of early Christians, Paul, into their greatest apologist. Although Moses stuttered badly, he made Moses his mouthpiece. It's God's way in the Bible to use his servanults in a capacity for which their natural inclinations are ill-suited, so that the power comes from God. One aspect of grace. Remember I'm a Lutheran when I posit this strangities.

I supposed the years in my life where I brought joy, or at least entertainment, to others, likely exceed my depressive years. But time passes quickly when you're having fun and depression drags on forever, so subjectively it seems the other way around.

Nevertheless I am committed to pretending to be myself. Even my stepson found me verbally irritating yesterday, a good sign. People don't expect me to be quiet; for whatever reason they want me to talk. When I'm depressed I try to avoid talking, naturally. In my present pretense I actually initiate conversations.

And here's a conundrum, easily explained. When I went to my shrink's office yesterday I became progressively more sad, to the point of tears, until I saw the sign on his office door proclaiming that he was ill, which I received with relief. Because the one place I allow myself to weep is behind his door, behaviorally I am already being programmed to weep because of the repeated nature of the experience, just like Pavlov's dogs drooling to the bell. This makes me suspect that in my condition, if you see your psychiatrist too often and let yourself ventilate there, it could impede your progress. Should I tell him he's making me worse?

What makes me better, however briefly, are challenges in the real world. I bought four nearly new tires and had them installed yesterday for a total of $160. That intervention seemed to do me more good than all the medications I take. And yesterday, in a good prognostic sign, I forgot all my medications in the morning. That only happens when you're not thinking about your illness.

Tomorrow I play guitar and sing for "Heart to Heart" in the afternoon, a ministry to the homeless and mentally ill; tomorrow night I serenade the browsers at our Botanical Gardens members' spring plant sale. My fingers should be raw after all that; just hope I don't lose my voice in the evening. I gave Beverly Sills' old voice coach a call but he wouldn't speak to me.

I planted four kinds of heather and a flowering maple in the garden yesterday, hoping they are large enough that the cats won't dig them up.

The James Sisters did bring me a vole this morning, but luckily I had the sliding glass door closed so they couldn't bring it into the house to play. I rewarded Topaz, today's hunter, with a treat, then mystified both of them by tossing the dead vole over the fence into a gully where they will never retrieve it. Kathleen said such inconsistency could screw them up. I said she ought to know. At least a vole is better than the potato bug ("Jerusalem Cricket") they played with in the bathroom yesterday. Since childhood potato bugs are one of the few creatures that cause me a visceral revulsion.

Our friend, Norm Ball, made the top thirty in a recent sonnet contest through Garrison Keillor; the winner was chosen randomly from that group, but at the site you can scroll down and see Norm's poem, listed sixth.

Way to go, Norm! I plan ride your coattails until they rip. Here's the link for "Thornery."

On Tuesday's hike along the coast after work, Kathleen and I saw four whales and some beautiful woodpeckers whose underside wings flashed orange.

When Kathleen was late coming home from work yesterday, I, slightly enhanced, rigged up my Stratocaster and Fender Twin Reverb so I could play it on the front porch. Strangely, it didn't spook the deer. I can't say if they enjoyed it, but playing to the beautiful coast certainly made my musical interpretations much mellower.

I'm leaving now for a refresher tour at the Botanical Gardens, a great place to visit, as I'm a docent who leads tours there as a volunteer. So far my experience has been that the people I've taken on tours were rarely interested in the plants, more often in taking pictures of each other and finding plants they had in their own gardens. I guess my chief function is to keep them from being lost. One tour of old folks I dubbed "the bench tour," since their chief interest was to find the next bench to sit on before we moved on. We never left the front of the garden; there weren't enough benches to go deeper into the gardens.

With that I'll wrap up today's post. Here's another new poem of questionable merit. I was glad Cynthia liked the last one.


You think you're so
goddamned important
as if your being late for work
might undermine
the basic laws of physics,
but when you behold
the flowering apple tree
on the bluff above the lighthouse
you must know you are
neither light nor lighthouse,
just a small figure on a Chinese lantern.

Beyond the headlands
the sun falls through
the low wall of clouds
and gilds the ocean silver
in a blinding horizon of sea.
You could go blind staring at that.
You see the fallacy of your importance?
Try to arrange yourself
at the beginning again
by the flowering apple tree
where your only contribution
was/is assent.

Thine in Truth and Art,

C. E. Chaffin

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Cats and Flowers and a Trip South

As expected, traffic has decreased during the posting of my long short story.

Yes, I enjoy oxymorons. And no, I don't post just to increase traffic.

If anyone finished the story and has an impression or criticism to share, please do so!

I had a discussion with a friend recently who felt that Bob Dylan's obscurity was intentional and a smart marketing tool. I replied by saying I thought Bob did what he wanted, damn the publicity.

Am I that free? No, I still care what others think, probably more in my present state than usual. Admittedly it's a form of slavery, but it's also a big part of the social glue that keeps us from murdering each other.

Meanwhile I have returned from SoCal and my daughters and friends, though I was not allowed to see my grandson by his father (who never married my daughter but was happy to exploit her and vice-versa,). I was so pissed I didn't feel youknowwhat briefly.

I also indulged in a martini competition during happy hour with my oldest surviving daughter, the schoolteacher. She said, "Happy Hour was designed for teachers. Who else gets off by 4 PM?" And here I never knew all the barflies were into education!

Anyway, I learned something. Martinis are not confined to vodka or gin, vermouth, lemon, olives and onions--as long as you put the mixed drink in a martini glass, it's called a martini. Several I sampled were like drinking candy--"Georgia Peach" (in honor of The Masters), "The Gobstopper," "Hawaiian Sunset," "Miami Ice," "Ruby Red," and "Black Orchid" were a few I sampled.

Keturah said "Gobstopper" and "Black Orchid" "taste just like Jolly Rancher candies!" Indeed. Bartenders are way ahead of the new flood of cannabis candies.

(For all you Hillary fans who want to take away my freedoms and impose your protection on me, as in whether I can play lawn darts or drink creek water, be it known that we were on foot and also capable of walking afterwards.)


I did well this weekend by pretending. Seeing my daughters and my oldest friend made it easier to pretend to be myself (entertaining, irreverent and unconventional, sometimes verbally offensive). I fit into the mold pretty well and only came close to tears once. All I ask of others is that they not inquire into how I'm feeling. Don't wanna go there.

One patient of mine used to answer the question as follows: "With my fingers."

I have a couple of new poems of questionable value. Then isn't all poetry of questionable value? Auden said, "Poetry changes nothing."

Memory-wise, I'm still recovering from ECT. Little lacunae, like "Who starred in that movie?" are slowly being filled with information. It's still a harrowing process; as you remember one thing you wonder what other things you have failed to remember (how much of our memory dwells on trivia is philosophically discouraging; we are a concrete race).

Here's a poem that undertakes two common subjects:

Drugstore Flowers

My cats kink and snurl together,
slink effortlessly up the windowsill
and pose, contemptuous of their grace,
as if it were expected,
as if the world held nothing else--
meanwhile destroy my garden,
a two-foot strip around my porch
I dared to punctuate with flowers.
They claw out plugs of drugstore blooms
and leave them baking in the sun.
Mainly they trash the marigolds.
Still I re-plant, water and wait,
hoping the roots regenerate
yet suspect the trauma too severe
for drugstore flowers to persevere.

At first the closing four lines were pentameter, but I converted them to tetrameter, in accord with most of the unrhymed portion of the poem.

Citrus oil, coffee grounds and half-full plastic jugs of water have been advised as cat repellents. They didn't mind the orange peels and sniffed out the coffee grounds with glee. I have only the jugs left to try. But why did they bite off my geranium blooms? Damn cats. Or is it a potato bug, also known as "The Jerusalem Cricket?" The cats killed one today.

Cats and flowers don't mix.

At least the alyssum survive.

Tax day today! Don't forget to contribute to our effort in Iraq!

Did I pass the audition?


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

"Positively Bud": the last 2728 words

I'm undertaking a trip tomorrow to visit my grandson and see my daughter Sarah in her first Shakespearean performance. Not knowing what my computer access will be, I'm posting the conclusion to "Positively Bud."

I hope this was a fun read for those who stuck with it. I am not a natural fiction writer; my fiction tends to be one of ideas. I am not skilled enough to make an audience weep. If I allowed myself an ambition in fiction it would be to provoke debate.


"Honey, I am positively no longer the Bud you knew before my transformation, but I am still positively for this relationship and quite willing to be your husband if you'll have me."

His Howdy Doody grin made her shudder. Should she call one of those de-programming agencies for cult victims? The light in his eyes was too shallow, that was it-- "Happy shiny people holding hands." Shallow light, superficial, as if he'd had a darkectomy. It wasn't human, it wasn't right. How to expose . . .

"OK, Bud, let me ask you this: Do you want to make love?"

"Oh yes, with all my heart!"

"See ya in the bedroom in five minutes."

She stood up in her white terrycloth robe and walked past Bud to the bathroom down the dark hall. The mirror exposed her years and the wine was no help. She looked bloated and wrinkled, an old lady. Practically speaking it was hard to find a new partner at her age, though her income would help. Still her tired body would know for sure. In bed she would know if Bud was still her husband or some golem of Robert Schuler.

Martha had trouble explaining it to Dorothy the following day in the hospital lunchroom.

"He wasn't Bud; he was more adept but less affectionate; he didn't even seem to care if he had an orgasm. He was-- efficient, I had mine; but he was not there-- not that he was a puppet, mind you, but he was so intent on the task and my pleasure that I felt more serviced than anything. I didn't feel special; I didn't feel like his wife, you know?"

"But isn't that better than not getting any?" Dorothy said, laughing. "C'mon, girl, we're not so young anymore. So he's changed; so what. At least he's not that vegetable you described."

"But that vegetable was Bud, I'm sure, and this man is not-- not Bud, I mean. He's a stranger, somebody Bud never was. Bud was a bit of a clumsy lover, but always affectionate. I don't know what to do."

"Why don't you sit back and enjoy it? No doubt he'll return to work soon and your income should improve. What do you care if he's changed?"

"As sick as he was, I loved Bud. I do not love this man. I do not know this man. I cannot live with this man."

"Have it your way, honey, but I think you're making a big mistake. Think of it as a second marriage, something-- don't throw the baby out with the bath water!"

"Sorry, Dorothy, there is no baby-- only this thing, this sickeningly optimistic Howdy Doody-- it's like there's no depth-- no darkness-- no contrast in him; he's all light, but it's shallow."

Dorothy leaned back in her chair, pushed her tray forward. "Honey, you gotta do what you gotta do, but there's a lot of women your age who might just fancy your Howdy Doody over an empty bed."

"You're right in general, but you're wrong in my case. I am a wife, not a statistic. And the man that came out of that brainwashing clinic is not my husband. I'm going to ask him to leave."

"Whatever, Martha, you do what you have to do but you may regret it later. Then we can bitch about it, as always."

"Yeah, as always."

"As always."

"See you on the cardiac floor."

Returning from work that evening she found the house sparkling, Bud in an apron whistling.

"Hi, honey!" he chirped and pecked her cheek. "Let me take your things." He placed her purse and coat on the rack. "Can I fix you a drink?" She nodded. He produced a tray with two gimlets and they sat down on the couch together. "So how was your day?"

"The usual," Martha said. Maybe she could get used to this. No.

"Tell me about the usual," Bud said.

"As if you've never heard it!"

"Tell me again."

She weighed the temptation, knew his responses would be marvelously therapeutic and supportive, saw the long years with this phantom stretch out in a shallow stream, weakly lit, and something in her clunked, like an engine throwing a rod. Something inside her simply ground to a halt. There was no going on; there was no going back. "Look, Bud," she began.


"I want you to move out."

"But why, Martha, what have I done?"

"It's nothing you've done, it's what you haven't done. You haven't given me any indication that you're still human, subject to grief like the rest of us. Every day my work brings me into contact with people in pain, and you would make it into a clown show. It's not a clown show. It's life. Part of you is gone, whatever it is that can admit to suffering. I don't want you like this. If you ever come back to your senses, I'll reconsider. As it is, my decision is final; I want you out by tomorrow. You can take what you need from the savings to get yourself a place until you find a job; you can write but don't call." Tears came, but as Bud went to wipe them she pushed his hand away. "No! I won't have it!" She got up, tossed down her drink, and went straight to the bedroom.

Shortly Bud knocked on the door: "But honey, don't you want to taste my fresh trout almondine?"

"No," Martha said, "but you can bring me another gimlet."

"Right away!" said Bud.

Bud packed up the next morning, whistling show tunes he had remembered only vaguely prior to his rejuvenation. He took their second car, an old Buick station wagon, and checked into a residential hotel. A job as an engineer would not be easy to come by in a short time, so he scanned the want ads for the first available pay check. "Make thousands a month through phone sales" seemed to be the easiest chance. After interviewing, he began his work in a cubicle with an automatic dialer, trying to sell subscriptions to the L.A. Times. As he had been taught, he put his whole self into every appeal, sympathizing with each potential buyer at length about whatever troubled them, dispensing positive thinking tips when he could. After a week his supervisor came to him and asked him what method he was using.

"Method?" Bud said, laughing. "I don't have any method; my wife, in fact, thinks I am mad, so perhaps there is a method to my madness?"

"I'm just curious," his supervisor said, "as you tripled the subscription rate of any other salesperson."


"Really. If this continues, perhaps you might be willing to share your technique?"

"As I said, I have no technique. I try to be a good listener; I point out all the positive things the Times has to offer, even schedules for twelve-step meetings and the like, recipes for housewives, fishing tips. I do spend a little more time with each customer, I suppose, trying to make their subscription a positive step in their lifestyle, that's about it."

"Hmmm. . . . if you say so. But I'm keeping my eye on you, Bud; and keep up the good work!

Several weeks later, as Bud's sterling sales record continued, his supervisor got a call from a local radio talk show that sought to feature phone sales as an issue, and he was asked if he had any representatives to suggest for the debate. He suggested Bud, who soon found himself behind a microphone for the first time in his life.

"Many of you out there consider phone sales an invasion of privacy," the host began, "and I don't blame you. Today we have with us several successful phone sales people here to defend the practice: Bud Rose from the L.A. Times, Dick Kerr from Steam Dream Carpet Cleaning, and Jeff Wilton from Verizon, which may be the ultimate indignity: selling phone service by phone solicitation. Gentleman, what do you say to the charges that all phone solicitation should be made illegal, that it is a fundamental invasion of privacy?"

Mr. Kerr waxed eloquent about first amendment rights while Mr. Milton explained that phone blocking and unlisted numbers were available for any who wished to protect themselves. It was Bud's turn. The talk show host motioned to the microphone and said, "Mr. Rose, what's your take?" Bud laughed.

"Take? It's a good take! I make good money from it. And there are a lot of lonely people out there who would spend hours on the phone with me if they could. I do get the occasional hang-up, but more often than not I become engaged with the person, and after they have unburdened themselves to me I promote all the wonderful things the Times has to offer-- it has to be the best paper in the world for twenty-five cents, it has something for everybody! The movie reviews alone can prevent a person from wasting eight bucks at a theater, which would buy a month's worth of the paper at our discounted delivery rate. We use recycled paper and I personally urge all new subscribers to recycle as well. We're environmentally friendly and full of useful information on everything from romance to the latest in scientific discoveries. I ask myself, "How can one afford not to subscribe?" Television news is shallow and misleading and all the channels are the same; with the Times the reader has complete control over what to read or not to read; and you can always wrap fish in it if nothing else, or use it to protect your table during art projects, like pumpkin carving, or . . ."

"Yes, yes, I can see you are an effective salesman, Mr. Rose (by the way, I already subscribe), but don't you think ringing up perfect strangers for the sole purpose of selling a product an invasion of privacy? First caller, on a cell phone from Reseda-- for you, Mr. Rose:"

"Hi, my name is Jack, and I want to ask Mr. Rose how he can possibly justify his annoyance of people at home with his sales drivel. It's disgusting."


"Oh, I totally agree. It is annoying if the customer isn't interested, but it's rare I get into a conversation where the customer isn't. Where do you get your news, by the way, if I may ask?"

"From the internet."

"And that costs about twenty bucks a month for the hook-up, right?"

"Something like that."

"For half the cost you can get something real in your hands to peruse; isn't that a good deal?

And you can read it in bed, or in a coffee shop, or wherever you please-- you don't have to sit stiffly in front of a screen to get your news, and you can always save articles without the cost of printing them out. Have you ever thought about the advantages?"

"Sorry, Bud, we seem to have lost that caller. Now it's Violet from Inglewood:"

"I just wanted to say that Mr. Rose called me, and I'm a shut-in, and he cheered me up so much that I just had to subscribe. God bless the man! He's a gem!"

"Well, well," the host said, "what kind of magic is this? You planted callers, Mr. Rose?"

"Gee, I wish I were that smart. No, I didn't. I remember Violet, and how her grandchild was suffering with those horrible leukemia treatments; how's she doing?"

"Sorry, Bud, she's been cut off. But how do you remember such things after all the calls you make in a day?"

"It's my job to remember such things. I may be a salesman but I'm a human being first, and if there's any way I can bring a little sunshine into someone's life in the course of my job, by God I'm going to do it, hang the profit. The world is full of lonely people being made even more fearful by the constant siren of the media telling us how dangerous it is out there-- don't eat, don't touch, don't, don't, don't, it never ends . . . I want to say life is beautiful, it's a privilege, every breath is a gift, selling a subscription is just an excuse for me to reach out and make someone's day."

"Sheesh, you sound more like a minister than a salesman."

"You mean there's a difference?" The host laughed.

Not long after the show Bud got a call from the radio show director. "Can you come in and talk?" he said.

"Sure," Bud said.

After an hour alone with Bud the director was convinced he had a talk show host in the making, hang the experience. He offered him a slot at 3 AM each morning for two hours, would he take it? Of course. After a month, due to unexpectedly high ratings, his slot was moved to 9PM. Before long he had secured the coveted drive-time slot of 6 to 9 AM. Though he had not spoken to Martha in two months, he had written her many encouraging letters, never receiving a reply. One morning Martha was fiddling with her AM dial when she recognized his voice. She couldn't believe it.

"Hi, this is Bud Rose. Welcome to another glorious day in this incredible world. Now I want all of you to repeat my mantra for the day, are you ready? 'I feel terrific. I love myself. Life's a wonderful adventure and I'm lucky to have a ticket!' So all you out there down-in-the-dumpsters, you hangdog Harrys and low-esteem Lucys, get ready for three hours of absolutely life-changing, positive talk! I am here to rock you out of the doldrums of doubt, shock you out of the rut of depression, talk you into the love of life and light."

Martha shook her head in disbelief. Her boring engineer of a husband, now a radio celebrity? God, how ironic was that? Was she wrong to kick him out? Did she put too much stock in empathy? No! It wasn't right. That recycled pablum from Norman Vincent Peale was enough to make any insightful person barf. She listened to the next caller.

"Hello, Bud?"

"That's me!"

"Oh God, I'm so excited to talk to you! I can't wait to tell my friends!"

"Just as I'm excited to talk to you. So what's up?"

"I'm up! After what you said to me yesterday, I feel as if my life has taken a whole new turn. Bud, you are the best!"

"Not! I'm the worst! The worst! I'm simply in recovery from wrong thinking, and I'm happy I was able to share a bit of the cure with you. Our next caller is Tom, from Downey:"

"Yeah, Mr. Rose?"

"Call me Bud."

"OK, Bud. . . . I've got this problem, you see."

"Go ahead."

"My wife will only make love to me once a week."


"Yes, and I'm in my twenties, and it's just not enough."

"Only because you make it that way, my man."


"Most single men would be happy to get laid once a week, and here you are complaining about it. The thing to do is maximize the pleasure of that evening, shower your wife with candlelight and roses, pleasure her any way she wants, be totally unselfish, and you will find your frequency may increase. Even if it doesn't, try to put the desire of a whole week into that one night-- and never complain, thank her for being such a good lover, pretend you are courting her every day, treat her like a goddess, and you'll be surprised at how quickly she turns around, or turns over, or assumes your favorite position, as the case may be."

"You're sure?"

"Absolutement. Our next caller is. . . ."

Martha turned the radio off. Adjusting the rear view mirror momentarily, she looked at her worry lines. Absent-mindedly she found herself digging in her purse for the crumpled brochure from The Institute for Positive Living. She fingered it pensively as she pulled into the hospital, ready for another day-- good, bad or indifferent--then angrily stuffed it in the trash as the sliding glass doors parted, welcoming her to the world of white tiles and fluorescent light.

Bud Part 13: Bud and Martha after the Party

No commentary today. Two or three more days and we'll be done with the story.


"Great party!" Bud said. Shall I do the dishes?"

"Sure, go ahead," Martha said. "But you don't get it, do you?"

"Get what?"

"How you insulted our guests."

Bud looked puzzled. "I didn't mean to insult anybody-- I just tried to promote a more positive outlook on some of their problems."

"But can't that be done with some tact?"

"Tact is often a code word to permit commiseration with the miserable," Bud said.

"Is that a saying from the Institute?"

"Yes, and a very useful one I might add. I would rather be tactlessly positive than tactfully negative."

"Have it your way, then," Martha conceded. "But you won't end up with many friends."

"I prefer to think of it this way: I won't end up with many negative friends, and who needs them anyway?"

"Does that include me?"

"That's up to you. I have no intention of leaving, but if you can't stand me I wouldn't blame you if you did."

"Great," Martha said, "I put up with a depressed zombie for a over a year and after one month's treatment I'm too negative for him! Don't I get any credit?"

"Well, not really, dear. I know you did the best you could, but due to your ignorance you were mainly an accessory to my depression. You coddled me too much. You acted as if I couldn't help it. And in doing so, though well-meaning, you helped me stay there."

"That's it!" yelled Martha. "I want you out of here tomorrow, you-- you ungrateful bastard! I was the one that got you to that institute in the first place-- I should have just let you rot in your chair!"

"I'm sorry you feel that way, but it's understandable. Perhaps when you've had some time to think about it you'll reconsider. Otherwise I'll be happy to move out."

Bud slept on the couch that night, dreaming of oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar. Martha sat on her bed with her reading lamp on, sipping cheap Merlot. She couldn't concentrate on William Styron's Darkness Visible, a book her friend had recommended as a means to understanding Bud's depression. Tears welled in her eyes; occasionally she rubbed any sign of betrayal away. Twenty years of marriage had come to this: Bud was brainwashed and now she, compassionate nurse and long-suffering wife, was the enemy. The enemy, the naysayer, the emotional ankle weight. How did Mrs. Norman Vincent Peale get by? The thought almost made her laugh. The Merlot burned a little.

On the wall hung their wedding picture; she remembered when Bud was Bud; he wasn't a whiner, but he used to complain often enough to be human. And now? Now he was Dr. Pangloss on steroids! Would his enthusiasm pass? Should she forgive him and wait for the programming to wear off? Surely there must be means to a compromise; the new Bud was better than Bud depressed, but not by much. His optimism made her feel . . . guilty, as if her least complaint were a mortal sin. And how much thanks had he given her? She turned off her reading lamp and rolled over.

She woke to the smell of bacon frying. Fresh flowers were on the dining table. Bud was cooking and humming to himself.

"How are you today, my love?" he asked.

"A little hungover," she said.

"Over easy?"


She filled her coffee mug and went to the dining table, began scanning the paper. Advertisements were everywhere, promising a new life, a new hairline, a larger penis, less cellulite, improved energy. America seemed a giant drugstore, a tonic salesman barking from the back of his horse-driven wagon filled with miracle cures. Bud slid her breakfast beside her and kissed her on the cheek. She began eating mechanically, afraid to make eye contact. He waited quietly until she finished. She didn't have to work today. He took her empty plate, sprayed it, stuck it in the dishwasher. So considerate. But . . . .

Sun through the window, dead leaves, the fine-needled green of their Norfolk pine. Beauty, ugliness, ugliness in beauty-- it wasn't black and white, was it? Some dance between the two? What was it in the Bible-- "this treasure in earthen vessels" or something? Bud grinned at her from above the dishwasher. What darkness was in her, so he thought, was the enemy. Her would-be savior walked around the table and sat on her right, making her left, sinistre, tenebre.

"How were the eggs?" Bud said.


"I'm still here."

"I know."

"So . . .?"

He seemed almost normal this morning. Was he acting? She ran her fingernails through her gray roots, took a deep breath.

"So, I hope last night was some kind of bad dream," she began.

"Last night? I've already forgotten about it. Clean slate every day. Only way to live. 'I protest, I die daily,' quoth the Apostle Paul. You were saying?"

"God, Bud, you are so impossible! We had a fight last night, yes?"

"If you say so. I prefer to characterize it as a positive communication gap which naturally induced strong emotions in the hope of better relations."

"Jesus! You-- I mean, I threatened to kick you out if you didn't come down off the mountain, so to speak, and here you are, still spouting New Age clich├ęs. I don't know what to think."

"You are what you think. Right now you are ambivalent, a frequent precursor to a positive decision that you no doubt will arrive at soon."

"Listen to me, Bud, this is important: Are you going to continue to act crazy, insult my friends, be insufferably positive about everything or what?" Can this marriage be saved?

"Honey, I am positively no longer the Bud you knew before my transformation, but I am still positively for this relationship and quite willing to be your husband if you'll have me."
His Howdy Doody grin made her shudder. Should she call one of those de-programming agencies for cult victims? The light in his eyes was too shallow, that was it-- "Happy shiny people holding hands." Shallow light, superficial, as if he'd had a darkectomy. It wasn't human, it wasn't right. How to expose . . .

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Bud Part 12: A Welcome Home Party

In today's excerpt Bud, recently graduated from the Institute for Positive Living, interacts with old friends at a "welcome home" party, managing to offend some with his new outlook.


"You don't get it, do you? A month ago you couldn't get out of bed and now you act like the world is your oyster!" She sobbed again. "I can't take it-- it's too drastic a change. It's like I'm suddenly married to someone else!"

Bud sat down and held her hand tenderly. "But you are married to someone else," he said. "Would you prefer the blob in the chair?"

"I don't know," she said. "Just give me some time to adjust. By the way, I've invited a few of our friends over Friday night for a welcome home party. I hope you don't mind."

"Mind? I'm delighted."

"Good. I worked swing shift last night so I'm going to bed."

"Would you like me to join you?"

"No thanks. I've been sleeping alone for so long, even when you were in the bed, that I wouldn't know what to do."

"OK dear, I understand, but just consider the invitation open. I really want to make love to you!"

Martha got a horrified look on her face and fled to the bedroom.

The routine of work comforted Martha for the next several days. Co-workers asked about her husband. "He's much better, thank you," she said without elaborating. Meanwhile Bud was a virtual dervish of activity, gardening, painting, cleaning, and mailing resumes to every conceivable computer firm. He made dinner and even washed the dishes-- there was virtually no housework for her to do except the wash. Soon it was Friday evening and the party was upon them. Before the guests' arrival she sat down with Bud for a talk.


"Yes, dear."

How was she going to put this? There was no good way to say it. "When our guests come tonight, do you think you can tone it down a little-- I mean your positive thinking? Maybe talk a little less or something, nod a little more?"

Bud looked at her with chagrin. "But how can I? This is me now. I'm not some computer program you can turn on or off. I'm a human being, loveable and unique. I just have to be myself."

"But Bud, remember, these people have not seen you in a long time and they haven't gone through your training. I just don't want you sounding like an Amway salesman at a horse show, if you get my meaning."

"I'll do my best," Bud promised, "but to quote Popeye, 'I yam what I yam.' If this causes you embarrassment you're more than welcome to make excuses for me or just ask me to leave."

"But you're the reason for the party!"

"Then I guess you're stuck with me, dear."

As the guests arrived, Bud was solicitous in collecting coats and handbags. He greeted everyone warmly: firm, double-clasped handshakes for the men and light hugs with a peck on the cheek for the women. He exclaimed how marvelous they all looked and how glad he was to see them. Martha was relieved that no one seemed offended by his enthusiasm.
As they settled in for drinks, Bud found himself talking to Gerri and John. "So how's it going, guys?" he said innocuously.

"As well as can be expected," Gerri answered.

John toyed with his drink. "You know about our daughter, Katy."

Bud searched his memory. He nodded understandingly.

"She's seventeen now and her cystic fibrosis is worse," John continued. "She just got out of the hospital a week ago." Bud saw the pain etched on their faces.

"Most of them don't live much beyond twenty," John added.

Bud nodded wisely. "I know it must be difficult for you," he said, "but think of the closeness this illness has brought you with your daughter. I bet you don't have that kind of intimacy with your other children."

"You know, we don't," commented John. "That's a blessing we need to be reminded of."

"Yes," Gerri said, "and it takes a special person to see that."

"Thank you," Bud said gravely. "How are things otherwise?"

"Well," said Gerri, "we think Grandma is getting Alzheimer's. She's not so bad yet but she's becoming very forgetful. We took away her car keys and now we're concerned about leaving her alone."

"Ah, yes, Alzheimer's disease," Bud said. "It's very common and so little understood. But one positive thing about it is how forgetfulness adds spice to one's life. Just think: a hot fudge sundae might taste like the first one you ever ate. And you can watch your favorite videos over and over just like they were new releases. Every day can be an entirely new day, full of surprises. And sex can be like the first time, every time!"

Gerri gave an abashed look at John, who frowned back. Martha swept to the rescue and asked if they'd like their drinks refilled, sending Bud to the bar. "Did he say anything strange?" she whispered.

"Nothing too terrible," John said, "though his take on Alzheimer's disease might be considered unusual by some."

"Thank goodness!" Martha exclaimed. "I think he's just taken this positive thinking too far. Here he comes."

Bud returned with the glasses as Martha announced, "The food's ready!"

As the guests lined up at the buffet, Bud found himself between Irving and Diane. "How you guys doing?" he said.

"Fine," Irving replied, "especially since we're getting a free meal."

"Glad to hear it. How are things at home?"

Diane gave a worried glance at Irving. "Well there is Brook-- we've had some problems."

"What sort of problems?"

"Drug problems," Irving said with a finality that attempted to close the subject.

"Sorry to hear that," Bud said. "But what a character builder! Some of the strongest people I've met are those who've overcome a drug problem!"

"Yeah, well she hasn't overcome it yet," Irving said angrily. "In fact, she just OD'd last month for the third time."

"Third time's a charm," Bud said, grinning. "Maybe this time she'll get it. And if she really wanted to kill herself she would have done it by now so these are probably just 'cries for help.' She's telling you how much she values your support."

"Yeah, well I wish she'd send me a postcard instead," Irving fumed, and turned his back on Bud to load his plate. His hands were shaking with rage. Martha spotted it and asked for Bud's help in the kitchen. He didn't seem to notice he'd offended anyone.

So the evening progressed, Martha occasionally asking her guests' indulgence for Bud's comments, he cheerful throughout, never meaning to give offense. When the guests were gone they sat down together over a cup of coffee.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Rambling Monologoue; "Bud" Part 11

I favor Memphis in the men's NCAA final. In most of these games the best athletes win. Kansas has good athletes but I think Memphis has better ones.

In the women's final I'll take Stanford over Tennessee, though Tenessee has more experience.

For the NBA title, I favor San Antonio vs. Boston with Boston winning.

So much for my hoops Nostradamus interlude.

Recently the usual diurnal depressive pattern has reversed in me: I feel better in the morning and worse at night. Yesterday morning I got involved in "Birthday Alarm," a program that will automatically download your address books and allow you to send inquiries about your friends' birthdays, so you can send them a free e-card on their special day. By evening, after I had received several notes from folks who weren't comfortable sharing the information, I was embarrassed and ashamed that I had gone out on such a limb in the morning. I don't think I'm "rapid cycling," I'm just depressed, though not as bad as I have been.

I admire the shit out of my brother-in-law because he's always busy. And how do you get busy? You start by doing tasks at hand and just continue, and then the habit of motion becomes easier, downhill...on the other hand, I don't like the feeling of being driven, a feeling that has accompanied most of my years--something always pressing from behind, telling me I haven't done enough--actually, that principle is still operative in me, and no doubt my failure to be more engaged in some ways feeds my depression by frustrating my drivenness. Yet all in all, the busier one is, the better one feels. Anything that takes us out of ourselves is better than being alone with ourselves. (This does not include activities like theft and murder.)

Speaking of sociopaths, their sense of privilege and entitlement is something almost to be envied; since others are objects for them to use, since other humans are essentially beneath them--dumber, weaker, etc.....their feeling of superiority is well established. But I have heard from forensic psychiatrists that as sociopaths age they often become hypochondriacs--their narcissism of dominance over others yields to a narcissistic concern with their own physical health, concern with every ache and be fair, in prison they don't have enough to distract themselves from themselves, and being grouped with other sociopaths it must be difficult to bullshit bullshitters.

Given Bud's transformation below, is there a resemblance to sociopathy in his new attitude? Certainly his wife, Martha, doesn't think him normal. But who cares about normal when one can be happy? And is the ultimate value of our society "feeling good?" Certainly depression can drive one to endorse that value or state above all others. Moral choices still occur for the depressed, and I haven't noticed that my values have changed because of depression, but I think if my mood were normal I would be more apt to help my fellows. For now I volunteer to lead music on Fridays at a program for the mentally ill and homeless, and I volunteer at the Botanical Gardens where I sometimes lead tours. What else? I cook and make Kathleen's lunch and do some gardening, though the cats have been cruel to my flowers. I play on the Net. I read story-driven novels. I go for hikes. I pay the bills. I talk to friends and sibs on the phone. I watch a lot of basketball. I am hardly the example of productivity. But at least I'm not catatonic.

Today I'm facing a whole deskful of bills and mail to be opened and dealt with. I've avoided it all weekend but I may have to buckle down and face it today. Most of the bills are just notes from clinics and hospitals telling me that they've billed my insurance, or notes from my insurance saying how much they're willing to pay. They arrive in duplicate and triplicate, and often the insurance doesn't pay what it advertises. It's a giant, dysfunctional mosaic, our medical system as it exists. A single payer, universal health care system is a requirement for a western democracy--unless you'd rather waste money bailing out Wall Street firms and greedy folks who undertook mortgages they could never afford without refinancing when their homes quickly appreciated. Too bad they didn't. Now politicians want to rescue them. These upper middle class mortgage holders--aren't they more likely to vote Republican? And yet only McCain has resisted proposing to rescue them.

And remember, when presidential candidates propose something, they are powerless. Their proposals must be approved by congress, no small feat. We tend to forget this in the rhetoric. A president can propose and later enforce legislation, but he can't approve it; his only real legislative power is the power of the veto, which can be overridden.

And when did the burden of actually proposing legislation fall on the president? No doubt it mushroomed under FDR. He gave us hope; the war reinvigorated our industrial base. Strange that a war could bring us out of a depression, but that relates to Keynsian economics. As long as things are being produced and purchased, whether Pet Rocks or Pershing Missiles, it doesn't matter--the getting and spending, the economic cycle, is independent of the product. Who needs an SUV? Who needs a lawn ornament? The economy does. To the economy it doesn't matter if we sell widgets or weed. Getting money circulating is the whole idea. To be a good economic citizen you must be a good consumer.

At the top end of the economy, on Wall Street and in investment firms, faith is equally important. Whether one believes in the long-term health of the economy or not has everything to do with the Dow Jones average and prosperity on paper. And strangely, the stock market can do well when the indicators are bad and vice-versa--based on the faith of the investors. At the top of the economic pyramid is a confidence game, why economics will always be a soft science. When the money moves to gold and bonds, you know the market is going down. When real estate goes bad, the market usually goes up. This is because people with money have to put their money somewhere besides under a mattress. The people who really make money, as Tom Wolfe pointed out in Bonfire of the Vanities, are those who collect a fee every time other people move their money from one vehicle to another. The government knows this well, from sales to estate taxes. Even income tax charges a fee for the movement of money from an employer to an employee.

If money moves too fast, however, dreaded inflation occurs. We can't have prices skyrocketing because of sudden demand. Speaking of which, remember the inflation of the late 70s, blamed on OPEC prices? Why is there no crisis in inflation now, with the sudden increase in oil prices? I'm sure there's an answer, and some inflation is occurring--the cost of transport demands it--still there's no crisis and I wonder why. The real crime of the economy is no increase in the real income of the middle and lower classes for years, while the rich just get richer moving their capital from one vehicle to another. The divide between "have" and "have-nots" is simple: the "haves" have earned, or saved, or inherited, or stolen enough money to have their money making more money than their wages could. The rest of us just live hand-to-mouth, with inadequate retirement accounts if we have them and a vague hope that Social Security will be solvent when we hit 65.


"Positively Bud" Part 11: Further Reunion with His Wife

"Felt? You felt the way you conceived it. Feelings are just the results of our mental interpretations. That's what I've learned at the IFPL."

"I see. But could we discuss this another time? I really am tired from driving out here and I'd like to nod off for a while."

"Sure, honey, sleep all you want. Sleep is a wonderful restorative to our natural energies. Can I do anything to make you more comfortable?"

"Yeah-- just shut up for a while."


The dirt road gave way to a mountain highway and as Martha snoozed Bud drank in the scent of the pine forest. Suddenly he heard a loud "pop" followed by the sound of tire rim on asphalt while the car fishtailed. He cautiously steered over to the shoulder as Martha woke.

"Bud? What happened?"

"Oh nothing, honey, just a flat. I'll have it fixed in a jiffy."

"Nothing! My God, on this narrow two-lane we might have been killed, or gone off the edge. What do you mean, nothing?"

Bud eyed her with amusement. "My dear, be thankful! First, the blowout occurred on a straightaway, not a curve. Second, this brief stop gives us a chance to stretch and enjoy the scenery. And lastly, isn't it good that we discovered a defective tire safely? Now we can replace it. I'll get the jack out and you just make yourself comfortable."

Comfortable? How could she be comfortable with this lunatic lecturing her on the benefits of a mountain road blowout? Suddenly she wanted a cigarette. She hadn't smoked in years.

Meanwhile Bud cheerfully went about replacing the tire, enjoying every minute of his labor. He put the shredded radial in the trunk and announced they were fit for travel, though the spare was only good for fifty miles. They would have to stop at a tire store on the way back. "Ugh," Martha thought.
Bud stopped at the first tire store he saw. The salesman inspected all his tires. "Looks like you need a radial to match the rest," he said. "The others look OK."

"What do you mean, OK?" Bud asked. "Are they safe? Are they good? Would you trust your own mother on a set of these?"

The salesman took off his cap and scratched his head. "What I mean is the others might be good for another ten to twenty thousand miles."

"That's not good enough for me," Bud said. "I want my tires to be perfectly safe. Give me four."

"You're the boss," said the man.

"Darling, you want to go get a bite to eat while they're fixing our tires?"

"Sure," Martha said wearily. They strolled over to a nearby coffee shop. Inside the air-conditioned haven pink booths of naugahyde surrounded dark tables. The waitress brought them menus, dog-eared and ketchup-stained.

"Anything to drink?" she asked. "Yes, coffee," Martha replied. "Just water for me," said Bud, smiling.

"Just look at these menus-- they're filthy," Martha said.

"Not filthy-- just well-used," Bud explained. "They bear witness to a popular restaurant that just can't replace their menus fast enough because of the vast number of patrons who must come through here."

"Right." Martha rolled her eyes.

"Feel like breakfast?"

"Sure, it's hard to ruin that."

Martha's biscuits and gravy tasted as if they'd been made from sawdust and Lipton soup mix. Her sausages were nearly incinerated, and the over-easy eggs were hard. Only her toast was passable, though there was only jelly and no jam.

"How's your food?" Bud asked.

"Just look, it's terrible."

"So's mine," Bud agreed. "So now we know one restaurant that we definitely won't visit again, an advantage to any traveler, and particularly myself since I have to come back up here to visit."

"For what?"

"For maintenance and monitoring. They have a spouse's group, too, if you'd like to come."

"No, thanks. I don't want anyone messing with my mind."

"That's like saying I don't want a dentist messing with my tooth."

"I don't think so," she said. Bud's attitude grated on her like tree branches on a window. Why couldn't he just bitch with her about the lousy food like a normal person? As they left she felt Bud's tip was overgenerous.

"Why punish the server for the cook?" he said. "And oh yeah, I need the credit card for the tires." Fifteen minutes later they were on their way.

"Can I see the receipt?" Martha asked. Bud handed it to her. "$360 for one tire? Are you kidding me?"

"No dear, I bought four new tires. The guy said the other three tires had some life left in them, but why chance it when one purchased at the same time had a blowout? Best to have the best tires. An excellent investment in safety."

Right, and a terrific drain on our already scarce resources. But he did have a point-- maybe if he'd discussed it with her. She used to leave these car concerns to him before his illness.

When they arrived at their modest two-bedroom home Bud could not contain himself. He ran to the roses, sniffing them with joy; he got down on his knees and smelled the grass, luxuriating in its green resilience while blowing a few dandelion puffs to the wind. After garaging the car, he sped to the backyard for more. Nasturtiums, hydrangeas, impatiens and the giant yellow marigolds-- the fig tree in the corner-- the brickwork he'd done long ago around the sculpted Bermuda grass and the covered patio he'd built. The birdbath needed cleaning so he immediately hosed it out and left fresh water. Then he came in through the screen door to find Martha hunched over the kitchen dinette, crying. Bud gently put his hands on her shoulders and asked,

"What's the matter, baby?"

"You don't get it, do you? A month ago you couldn't get out of bed and now you act like the world is your oyster!" She sobbed again. "I can't take it-- it's too drastic a change. It's like I'm suddenly married to someone else!"

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Bud Graduates from the Institiute for Positive Living

Today Bud graduates and is reunited with his longsuffering wife, Martha.

Last night I had a lovely dinner with artist/poet/disability advocate Pat Jones, her husband, Richard, and their beloved son, Taylor. After watching Kansas dust North Carolina, wine, pizza and dessert, we jawed about many litnet friends, from the late Ron Jones of Avatar to Paul Stevens of Shit Creek Review. Pat and Richard have a beautiful house with a view of a creek emptying into an ocean cove.

Three days ago in an undepressed moment I saw a doohickey in a planter on Main Street that I had to have. Called a "Rainbow Triple Spinner," by WindGarden of Premier Kites, it now adorns my lawn. Composed of three wheels of increasing diameter on an axle, each with a black rim and nylon cloth spokes in a prism of colors. The wheels hang out from a central pole, whose "keel"--a triangle of fabric-- catches the wind and causes the supporting shaft to turn inside the stake in the grass 360 degrees. If you stare through the three wheels while they're turning fast, the whole thing looks bronze. When it slows you see all the colors again. I tried to put a link in here to a picture of the gadget but their site only allows retailers to access it. The silly little lawn ornament, for a mere $32.00, has given me moments of joy.

Now for Bud, who settles for happiness:


Stick-figures from the holocaust with pipecleaner limbs, eyes bulging, bones tenting skin, were being shoveled into a mass grave. SS details scooped the corpses in like refuse. The photo chilled him.

"What do you see, Bud?"

He took a deep breath and tried to believe in his own words. "I see the corpses of those who endured torture now relieved by blessed death."

"Excellent, excellent, you're catching on fast. It's not that difficult, is it? These poor people had no chance of recovery and death was their only release. Even the Germans seem tired of the spectacle in this photograph, as if they wished they didn't have all this work their fanaticism created. And remember, without the Holocaust, the Nation of Israel might never have been recognized by the major powers. So their deaths were not in vain."

The next picture was of a bird with a broken wing. "I see a bird who needs to learn how to get along on the earth," offered Bud.

"Good. Learning to live with limitations. Overcoming the challenge of being grounded. Excellent! How about this photo?"

A classic mushroom cloud erupted from the Nevada desert, savaging the atmosphere with sheets of light.

"What do you see?"

"First of all, the demonstration of the benefits of nuclear power so many of our cities depend on. And then the successful deterrent which has kept the peace since the Second World war."

"You're coming along just fine. Now I want you to go to your own table and pick out some photos and write your interpretations on a piece of paper. I'll check on you in a while."

Bud was pleased with himself. He sat down and began rummaging through a variety of photographs. He found one of a man who'd been hanged, still dangling by the rope. "Nice that the law of gravity is so reliable," Bud wrote. Then a beached whale. "Best to eliminate those members of a species whose navigational abilities are suspect so that succeeding generations don't suffer their genes." A picture of clear-cutting in a virgin forest. "Not enough meadows in the forest to sustain a wider variety of life. Creating meadows through clear-cutting helps nature's diversity." A junkie shooting heroin. "Nice that a drug exists which can completely take away one's pain." A smoggy sky over Los Angeles. "Pollution is but a small price to pay for increased mobility and prosperity. Besides, the sunsets are lovely."

Presently Mrs. Claiborne came by to review his work. "Good, Bud, outstanding. How do you feel about these pictures?"

"Great," Bud replied. "They didn't get me down at all."

"Why should they get you down? They have no power over you; they're just pictures. Your interpretations find in them the inspiration you can find anywhere, no matter how challenging our circumstances, don't you agree?"

Bud nodded.

"It's so simple, isn't it? Life is neutral and our minds assign the meaning. Positive meanings are just as easy as negative meanings to cultivate, and besides, they make you feel better, right?"

"Right," said Bud. Mrs. Claiborne gave him a twinkly Mary Poppins smile.

As the days progressed to weeks Bud became a model student of The Institute for Positive Living. When afflicted by blisters after a day hike, he was eager to point out how his skin had attempted to protect his feet from further damage by erecting stress cushions. In group therapy he became adept at instructing newcomers in the preferred world view. His meals improved as well, since he had developed the courage to ask for what he wanted. And when combined with the personal fitness program administered by Larry, Bud found the dark cloud of depression had lifted so gradually he hardly noticed. He was not aware of any sad or anxious feelings, only feelings of expectation and awareness. He was eager to test his newfound skills in the outside world, eager to return to his wife and to work. After thirty days he was pronounced ready for discharge.

After good-byes to staff, he waited in the glistening white foyer with his faded blue gym bag and a faint smile on his face, feeling slightly wistful about leaving. But he was confident his new interpretation of life could sustain his positive feelings now through all circumstances, come hell or high water. And he couldn't wait to share this breakthrough with Martha.
He saw her arrive in her gray Corolla, trailing a cloud of red dust. It was a hot day and she looked weary as she trudged to the entrance. Having been already discharged, Bud bounded out the door, grabbed Martha, set her on the car hood and gave her a long kiss. When their lips parted Martha looked at him through teary eyes.

"Bud? Is that you? You haven't done that since we were dating!"

"I know! Isn't it wonderful? I can't wait to get home and start my life over again."

Martha eyed him skeptically. "Isn't there someone we should talk to about discharge?"

"No, it's all been taken care of. I got the papers right here. Why don't we jet? I'll drive."

"Are you sure? You know it's been a while."

"You never forget how to ride a bicycle," Bud said with confidence. Then he opened the passenger door for her, reminding her to buckle up. He dashed into the driver's seat, backed up, and took off up the dirt road. Martha sat in amazement and dabbed at her eyes with a Kleenex.

"So how was the drive out, honey?" Bud asked.

"Tiring and hot."

"So you had a chance to overcome fatigue and increase your natural tolerance for uncomfortable weather? How wonderful!"

Martha looked nonplussed. "Huh? If you want to put it that way," she said.

"What better way to put it? Do you have a better way to put it?"

"No, Bud, your way is just fine. It's just not how I felt."

"Felt? You felt the way you conceived it. Feelings are just the results of our mental interpretations. That's what I've learned at the IFPL."

Saturday, April 05, 2008

A Poem; Positively Bud, More Therapy

I wrote a poem, despite my recent aridity. I don't know what to make of it, but here it is:

At Least

My beard reflected in the glass door of the library:
salt and dandelions, the white fuzz.
I never thought I'd get this old.

Youth cannot imagine mortality's attrition.
In its Dr. Pepper commercial
the gum is always fresh and everyone's a virgin.

Still, the greater part of life is dimunition.
From 25 to 75 it's downhill. The body knows
but the mind may not face it until 50.

If then you accept your growing impotence
and avoid an angry showdown with your pride
you might age gracefully.

At least try not to be ridiculous
like the man with the ill-fitting toupee
worthy of its own hunting season.


Positively Bud Installment #9

"How about your mother?" Troy continued.

"She was sick a lot with headaches, you know. She never seemed very happy. Always going to doctors. You were afraid to ask her for help because she seemed sick and frail, yet she outlived my dad. I can't remember her laughing."

"Did she cook for you?"


"Did she wash your clothes, mend them, and keep house?"

"To the best of her ability."

"So your poor frail mother with her chronic headaches nevertheless loved you enough to overcome her illness for your sake and cook and clean and do the wash?"

"Well, I guess so."

"Either she did or she didn't."

"She did."

"Then she must have loved you very much. Your mother loved you."

"But it doesn't feel that way."


"Because I was afraid to ask her for things, afraid to be a burden to her. It was like an unspoken rule that she was exhausted, on her last legs so to speak, and we were not to upset her."

"So what? She had limitations, but she loved you the best she could. Your mother loved you.
Say it!"

"My mother loved me."


"My mother loved me."

"How much?"

"A lot."

"Enough that she consistently overcame her own frailties to take care of you. She loved you a lot. Say it!"

"My mother loved me a lot!"

"How does that feel?"


"How does that feel?"


"Repeat after me: 'I am special because I am unique. I am lucky because my father and mother loved me."

Bud did so, and the strange sensation of a visceral optimism came over him again.

"Great!" said Troy. "That's enough for this morning's session. Before this afternoon I want you to write, fifty times each, 'I am special because I am unique. My father dearly loved me. My mother dearly loved me. And I love myself.' OK?"

"Sure," Bud answered, his voice betraying a nascent enthusiasm.

Larry entered the room on cue. "Next on the agenda, my man, is some interpretive art therapy. Follow me."

They wound their way through several corridors until they entered a large rectangular room wallpapered in daisies whose long blue tables were strewn with magazines, posters and pictures, whole and in pieces. A cheerful, matronly woman with a gray bun stood at the head of the room. Several patients were thumbing through pictures at tables, intent on their work.

"I'll leave you here for now," Larry said and left.

"Hello, Mr. Rose. May I call you Bud?"

"Why, yes," he replied. The therapist looked like an overstuffed and graying Mary Poppins, silver reading glasses perched on her upturned nose, with a variety of brown and red moles on her neck which Bud thought could pass for art.

"I understand you're new to our program, so I'm going to give you a little individual attention this morning. Please join me at my desk." She motioned him over to the head of the room and sat across from him with an indulgent smile.

"What we do here is try to change your basic interpretation of reality," she said. "We begin with pictures. You tell me what you see and feel, and then I'll explore with you some alternate ways of seeing, OK?"

"Sure," Bud said while the singsong mantra played through his mind: "I am unique, unique, unique, my father loved me, my mother loved me, I am unique, unique, unique."

"Here's the first picture." She slid a black and white photograph across the desk. "What do you see?"

Bud saw a dog, a large tan boxer, freshly run over in the middle of the street. A truck was parked at an odd angle just off the curb and a man in a blue uniform, presumably from the truck, was bending over the injured dog. "I see a tragedy," Bud began, "a terrible accident. The man didn't mean to run the dog over and now he doesn't know what to do."

Mrs. Claiborne clucked. "You don't have to see it that way, you know, dear. Think of it this way: a dog with an irresponsible owner who let him run free without a leash was put out of its misery by an accident. A caring truck driver ministers to the dog and demonstrates human compassion. It is good that the dog died, otherwise he might have suffered more at the owner's hands. And the driver knows perfectly well what to do; he's about to call the pound to pick up the animal. The impact was too sudden to be painful. The accident will make the truck driver an even better driver, and he'll have an interesting story to tell his family that night. How do you like my version?"

"You have a wonderful imagination, Mrs. Claiborne."

"Hogwash! I have a limited imagination. But I have disciplined myself to put the best possible construction on things in the interest of mental health. Here's a second picture."

The notorious picture of Bobby Kennedy's assassination stared up at him.

"What do you see?" Mrs. Claiborne asked.

"A horrible tragedy," Bud said. "The death of a man who brought hope to many at the hands of a fanatic."

"Now, now, Bud, you're the one with the good imagination. What you see is the last successful assassination attempt on a president or presidential candidate. Reagan was wounded but survived. There has not been another tragedy like this in many years. And you know why?"

"No, why?"

"Precisely because attempts like this one gave rise to greater security precautions for all candidates. We have Bobby Kennedy and Sirhan Sirhan to thank for our genuine improvement in protecting notables. With this next picture I want you to try to see things more our way."

Friday, April 04, 2008

Positively Bud: More Therapy

My friend John in Grand Rapids, Michigan, called me this morning to complain about my story being serialized and requested I mail the whole thing to him. I was happy to do so until I discovered I had lost his e-mail address. If you're reading this, John, you'll know to send it to me.

Today's post appears unusually long because of all the dialogue, but it is no more than a little over a thousand words, the usual dose I'm administering at present. And today marks the midpoint of the tale.



When he woke Larry stood in his doorway. There was no sign of Ken or his things.

"Where'd Ken go?"

Larry smiled. "The staff felt it would be better if a newcomer wasn't exposed to someone so negative, so we moved him."

"Oh," Bud said with secret relief. "Where'd you move him to?"

Larry laughed. "Some place better for both of you. You don't need to know. Breakfast in fifteen minutes."

When Bud entered the mess hall he could smell coffee and bacon frying. Larry motioned him away from the other patients to an empty table, then pushed a bowl of cold oatmeal across with a spoon and a napkin and a glass of water. Bud tried to look as if he appreciated the food, but his brain whispered eggs and bacon. Staring at the glistening gray mound of oatmeal he felt angry. He began to eat it, though, smiling between bites to impress Larry. But after the third bite he just couldn't stomach it. He put his spoon down.

"Larry?" he asked.

"Yes, Bud?"

"Do you think I could have some milk and sugar with this?"

"Why, of course. Anything else?"

"Yeah-- could you heat it up, please?"

"No problem. Be back in a jiffy."

What if he'd asked for bacon and eggs? Better not press his luck. At least the oatmeal would be more palatable now.

After breakfast Larry led him back to the interview room, where Troy sat twirling a paper clip, looking as smooth as a mannequin. Maybe he was one.

"Good morning, Bud!"

"Good morning, Troy."

"How was breakfast?"

"Better than yesterday."

"How come?"

"Larry was kind enough to heat my oatmeal and bring me sugar and milk."

"Why on earth would he do that?"

"I guess because I asked him."

"You asked him?"


"What a concept! What happened when you were in the box and you asked for water?"

"Somebody brought some."

"Right. Though you suffered for a day before you asked. Do you like suffering?"

"Not particularly."

"What does that mean? Do you or don't you like to suffer?"

"No, I don't like to suffer."

"Good. Did you bring your assignment?"

"Yes." Bud reached into his back pocket and brought out a creased square of folded paper. Troy read it over.

"Unique-- good; special because I don't know who I am? Hmmm . . . special because I find it hard to feel special at all? Hmmm . . . This needs some work. Let's start with the positive answer-- you are unique?"

"Well, that's what I put down since no two people are alike."

"So you rationalized this positive answer although you don't necessarily feel unique, am I correct?"

"Well-- yes."

"Do you believe you are unique?"

"I guess so."

"You guess?"

"No, I believe I am unique."

"But you don't feel unique, do you?"


"So what do feelings have to do with it? You either are or you're not. Are you unique?"

"Yes. "

"Good. How does it feel to be unique?"

Bud thought for a moment. "No different."

"But you believe you are unique, thus special, of special value, irreplaceable? How should this feel?"

"Why, good, I suppose."

"That's right, you feel good because you're unique, don't you?"

"I feel good because I'm unique," Bud parroted back.

"Good. Repeat after me. 'I feel great that I am the only one like me.'"

"I feel great that I am the only one like me."

"I am special."

"I am special."

"No one can replace me."

"No one can replace me."

"Good! That's a beginning. How do you feel now?"

"I feel good because I am special," Bud said.

"How good do you feel?"

"I feel very good."

"How good do you feel that you're special?"

"I feel terrific!" Bud yelled, and the strangest sensation overtook his body, as if this affirmation filled him with a palpable energy, and the beginnings of a natural smile started to elevate his cheeks.

"You are terrific!" shouted Troy, "and what's more, you're smiling about it! Isn't that great?"

"That's great!"

"Good. So let's ignore these other reasons you jotted down since they're not so positive, OK?"

"Sure," Bud agreed.

Troy stood and started pacing with his hands clenched behind him. "I do, however, need to praise you for discovering your first reason. It was excellent, Bud."

"Thank you."

"So tell me about your father," Troy said without transition.


"Never mind, just tell me about your father."

Bud paused to collect his thoughts. "My father was a distant and demanding figure," he began, "who punished us with rather brutal whippings from which I still bear scars on my back. Nothing was good enough for him. For instance, one time I was five minutes late for dinner because of a baseball game and he took me in the garage and whipped me, then made me sit through dinner without crying. He was a cruel man and when he died it was almost a relief."

Troy stared at him. "How could you possibly be so negative? Don't you know many kids don't have a father at all?"

"Yes, but--"

"And can't you see that your father had high standards and sought very hard to enforce them, which expressed his love and dedication to you? Were his whippings consistent?"

"Yes, for the most part."

"So you had a loving father who was a consistent disciplinarian and you have misinterpreted all this through your egoistic nonsense to paint him as some sort of brutal taskmaster, now haven't you?"

"Well, I'd never really thought about it like that.."

"Right! Why look at your father's virtues when you can pity yourself for a difficult childhood! Repeat after me: 'I love my father, he did the best he could for me, I honor his memory.'"

"I love my father, he did the best he could for me, I honor his memory."

"How does that feel?"

"Weird-- fake."

"But isn't it true? A father who didn't care wouldn't take the time to discipline his children.

Your father loved you very much, didn't he?"

"Well, I guess . . ."

"Don't guess-- he either loved you or he didn't. Did he love you?"

"My father loved me the best way he could."

"Good, but shorten it up."

"My father loved me."

"How does that feel?"


"Say it again!"

"My father loved me."


"My father loved me."

"Good!" Are you special?

"I am special because I am unique."

"And your father loved you."

"My father did love me."

"How does that feel?"


"Really good?"

"Terrific!" Bud yelled despite himself, and felt again a warm surge of confidence in his breast.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Positively Bud Part 7; Group Therapy, Continued.

"Yeah, just like Oral Roberts says," Ken cracked. Bud began to laugh at the sarcasm but quickly quieted when he noticed no one else did.

"The messenger does not invalidate the message," Eric shot back. "If a TV preacher tells the truth, why not listen to him?"

"But who says its the truth? Just because I put a positive spin on things why does it make it any more true?" Ken said.

June cut in. "Perhaps the word 'truth' is a misnomer here. I'm not interested in what's objectively true, but what makes me feel better. And imagining a positive future sure feels better than dwelling on a negative one."

"What's bugging you, Ken?" Troy asked.

"Oh, don't you see it's all fairy tales, all self-delusion. We're deluding ourselves into being happy here, but the foundation is as slippery as man's imagination. It's what Kurt Vonnegut called "foma," or comforting lies. No one can bear to see life as it is so we make up myths to feel better. Who says feeling better is better? Who says feeling bad is bad? What's wrong with feeling bad?"

"If feeling bad isn't bad, then why did you agree to come here, Ken?"

"'Cause I don't like feeling bad, and I was sick of it. I hate feeling bad."

"Could we say then that feeling bad was bad for you?"

Ken thought for a moment. "Yeah, experientially. But my experience is subjective. Who can say ultimately whether the experience is bad?"

"What other lens do we have to view reality than ourselves?" Troy asked. "Why bother yourself about objective truth when your subjective truth is so painful? Aren't you really just begging the question? Maybe you're addicted to depression. Maybe you like it."

"Maybe I do," Ken admitted. "But what's in it for me?"

"How about escape from responsibility?" said Eric.

"Or protection from life's unpredictability?" June said.

"Or the satisfaction of self-pity?" said Lisa.

"I don't know," Ken said, "I honestly don't know." He slumped in his chair, exhaled a long sigh and stared at the floor. Bud wanted to put his arm around him, tell him he was not alone-- but he was terrified of doing anything that might call attention to himself and he didn't know if the action would be interpreted as pampering.

"Hey, Bud isn't it?" Eric asked.


"How you doin"?" Eric's broad, aboriginal nose and narrow green eyes with their long, dark lashes made his glance mysterious. His full lips curled up at the edges in a Buddha-like smile. Instinctively, Bud didn't trust him.

"Fine," he replied, taking as neutral a tone as possible.

June eyed him suspiciously. "That's a safe answer. Don't you feel safe?"

"No, as a matter of fact I don't feel very safe here. You're all strangers to me and I don't have any reason to trust you."

The group broke out in applause. "Honest answer!" "Way to go, Bud!" "That's how everyone feels at their first group!"

"Have you visited the box yet?" Eric asked.

"Yes, I believe so."

"How did you find it?"

"Ahh-- very educational."

"Damn straight. Sometimes it takes a shock for us to appreciate the little things."

"Yeah, I'll never think of water as a little thing again."

"Or light or food," Eric said.

"Or a pot to piss in," Bud added.

"That's all the time we have for tonight," Troy announced. "Another counselor will see you tomorrow night. Meanwhile you are all excused for the remainder of the evening, except for a one-page assignment due tomorrow morning, entitled: 'I am special because---.' Good night."
Bud exited as unobtrusively as possible. He lay back on his bed and wondered at his comment: "Or a pot to piss in." When had he responded that quickly? Or with humor? In two short days some spark of himself was returning. Unbelievable.

Ken entered the room, sat on his bed and wiped his glasses. "So how'd you like group?"

"It was an experience."

"Yeah, an experience in insanity. I look at those long-timers and fear they've just been brainwashed and traded their humanity for feeling better. They treat me like a heretic. They don't want their covers pulled. Life does suck, and to tell yourself it doesn't just to feel better seems childish to me. Why not just face the darkness? Why not just walk through the terror of our unpredictable existence without trying to change the vacuum within? How do we know that isn't a greater kind of courage than this positive thinking pabulum?"

Each word that escaped Ken's lips struck Bud like a blow. He feared his newborn hope was about to be strangled in its crib.


"Yeah, Bud?"

"I really can't handle all this negative stuff you're saying. I just got here and I want to get along. I don't want to seem unfriendly or anything, but could you just keep your opinions to yourself for now? I'm not strong enough to handle them yet."

Ken ran his hand through his thin red hair. "So you want to join the ranks of the brainwashed Pollyannas? Go ahead. I'd rather be human." And with that Ken flicked his bedside light on and curled up to read.

Bud moved to the little brown desk in the corner, took out a sheet of paper and wrote at the top: "I Am Special Because--" and drew a complete blank. I am special because-- I'm in this place? No. Because I suffer from severe depression? No. I'm not special. Nothing special about me. Maybe leave it blank. No, gotta try.

What could he say that was uniquely positive? Unique-- yes. I am special because I am unique. No two snowflakes alike. He wrote, "I am special because I am unique and there's no one else like me." Good. But who am I anyway? Yes. "I am special because I don't know who I am," he wrote. That's two. How many did they expect? "I am special because I find it very hard to feel special at all." There-- a little bit of Ken's realism. He folded the paper up and put it in his back pocket, laid his jeans over the chair, then turned down the covers, flicked off his light and fell asleep.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Positively Bud Part VI: Bud Begins Group Therapy

I got some nice comments on my video through e-mail; it seems since I started serializing this short story, no one sees fit to comment here, which is fine--I just wish I knew if anyone was actually following the story.


"Positively Bud" Part VI

Bud luxuriated in a long, cool shower with frequent swallows from the stream. He lathered and shaved and afterwards dressed in his best chinos and a golf shirt, combed his sparse gray hair straight back and walked to the mess, cradling his hunger.

The mess hall was empty except for Troy sitting in a blue-and-white rugby shirt and tennis shorts looking marvelously tanned. He sat on the bench of a long rectangular table with a bowl in front of him and a glass of water.

"Hi, Bud. How was your shower?"


"You must be very hungry."

"I am, I am."

"Well here's your first meal." Troy shoved a large bowl of cold oatmeal in front of him with a spoon and a glass of water. Bud paused for a minute, surveying the gelatinous gray mound that confronted him, cognizant of his life-long hatred of oatmeal. How could they have known that? And there was no milk or sugar. Should he ask for them? That might be perceived as a criticism. If he didn't it might be interpreted as a lack of self-esteem. In the end his hunger silenced the debate so with a rictus smile he began to shovel the bland pabulum into his mouth, occasionally taking a sip of water to thin it to gruel. With pretended gusto he scraped the bottom of the bowl and did not look up at Troy until he was finished.

"How did you like it?" Troy asked.

"It was wonderful," Bud replied.

"Would you like more?"

"No thank you, I'm quite full now."

"Is that a pleasant sensation?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact, it is."

"Glad to hear it. You may wash your dishes in the sink over there."

Bud did so then returned to the table. He said nothing and Troy said nothing. The silence stretched out like a deserted highway until he felt obligated to say something.

"So what do we do now?"

"What would you like to do?" Troy asked.

Like to do, like to do. Preferences without implied criticism. "I'd like to go back to my room and lie down for a while since I didn't sleep so well last night."

"Very well. Group therapy is at 7:30 tonight and your attendance would be appreciated. I'll see you then."

Bud lay down on his covers, grateful for food and drink and air-conditioning. His only worry before dozing off was that he might miss group therapy if he didn't wake in time. But that last worry, frightening though it was, couldn't keep him awake any longer, and he dropped into a deep sleep.

He woke fuzzily to someone rocking his shoulder.

"Bud, wake up. Time for group."

Someone stood over him, hairline of receding red, freckled, forty, thin, blue-eyed and frail-appearing, with a round face that looked like the air had been let out of it, wearing gold wire-rimmed spectacles.

"I'm Ken, your roommate. You don't want to miss group."

Bud hauled his frame to a sitting position and put his face in his hands. He felt like he'd just fallen asleep.

"Here, get up, I'll show you the way."

Bud forced himself to his feet and followed in a fog behind Ken to the meeting room. A circle of orange molded plastic chairs with chrome legs was half-filled with strangers except for Troy. Docilely he followed Ken to a chair. He looked at Troy, who did not so much as acknowledge him. The whole group was silent until the large school clock on the wall struck 7:30. Then Troy began.

"I am the counselor taking group tonight. For those of you who don't know me, my name is Troy. The rules of group are simple: you can talk about anything you want and anyone else can talk back. This is the one place where your distorted versions of reality are allowed, however perverse. From time to time I, or one of the group members, may make a therapeutic attempt to change your misperceptions, but you are welcome to resist such suggestions as much as you want. I want to begin by going around the circle and introducing ourselves. Please state your name and the number of days you've been here, starting on my left."

"Ken, eight days."

"Bud, this is my second day." He heard someone whisper "fresh meat!" to muffled chuckles.

"Janine, two weeks."

"Eric, twenty days."

"June, thirty days."

"Armando, four days."

"My name is Lisa and I've been here three weeks," announced a young blonde, brushing her straight hair from a mousy face.

Troy eyed the circle. "Who would like to begin tonight?" Silence. "If no one volunteers, I'll pick someone." Silence. "All right, Armando. How are you doing?"

Bud watched Armando's olive-black eyes drink in the room as his jaw tensed and his receding chin trembled.

"Better than when I came in," began Armando.

"How so?" asked June.

"I don't know-- I don't feel quite as down anymore. I think things are beginning to change for me."

"You think or you know?" said June.

"I think. It's hard to trust the process, you know, I'm so new here and I've been sick so long-- I'm just beginning to grasp some of the concepts they're teaching us here."

"Like what?"

"Like trying to frame things positively. You know, the glass is half-full or half-empty kind of stuff."

Eric interrupted. "Why would you imagine a glass that was only half-full to begin with?" he demanded. "That's negative. My glass is full," he said.

"And mine is overflowing," June added.

"I see your point," said Armando.

"Are you asking for our approval?" said Eric.

"No, I just meant . . ."

"Your approval must come from within," Eric reminded him. "How do you feel about yourself? How do you feel inside?"

"Unsure," replied Armando. "Nervous. Is that OK?"

"Is it OK with you?" June asked.

"Not really. I would like to feel calmer."

"How would you do that?"

"I don't know. Can anyone help me?"

Suddenly the room burst into applause. "He asked for help," Janine noted. "What a positive step!"

"Way to go, Armando."

"That's the spirit!"

Armando smiled in spite of himself. "Thank you."

"Who can tell Armando how he might feel calmer?" Troy asked. Eric raised his hand. "Go ahead."

"Armando, you will only feel calmer when you believe you are calm. Right now you are nervous because you think you are nervous. What's the difference between anticipation and anxiety? Merely the object of your expectation. If you expect something bad, you experience anxiety; if you expect something good, you experience anticipation. You are in the mental habit of expecting something bad. To free yourself from this trap simply imagine something good is going to happen to you."

"Yeah, just like Oral Roberts says," Ken cracked. Bud began to laugh at the sarcasm but quickly quieted when he noticed no one else did.

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