Excerpt from Life is a Funny Old Dog
A POEM BY JOHN LEE
A baby’s pink and shy blue hydrangea
sit like colorful lions guarding
her steps that were made out of
The porch was, as we say here
in the South, wop-sided to
begin with, as much of life down
The whole house sat on these
same kind of stones just high
enough for old dogs and children
to crawl under to play and sleep.
The woman who lived there,
I am pretty sure her name was
an old Shakespearean one—Ophelia
I remember you now in your bonnet.
I remember your kindness to my
frail grandmother. Unlike hers, your
back was built by long hours
chopping and picking the cotton at ten
pennies for a pound.
I have no idea why you came
and visited me this morning
during my writing time but you
have been remembered and you are always
welcome to join me again.
Now for a totally different kind of blog post in a more personal story/memoir format. Part of the reason I’m doing this is because memoir will be heavily discussed in my latest Writing from the Body workshop.
If you like these types of posts, please let me know and I’ll post regularly.
Life is a Funny Old Dog
“A 0.02 average,” the white-haired Dean of Students said with a mixture of sarcasm and disbelief in his voice. He took off his glasses, pinched his nose and rubbed it before looking up from my transcripts. The bookish man with girlish fingers laid his wire-rimmed glasses on the table and looked around the four tables in a square that had been placed in the cavernous cafeteria as a makeshift courtroom that would decide mine and others’ fates who had murdered their chances at a college education.
I sat there at the opposite end of their world, a stranger in a strange land, knowing I didn’t speak their language.
“Can you tell us here why we should agree to let you back in with a record like this?” he said looking at the others but not directly at me.
“Yes sir,” was all I could think of to say at the moment.
“Tell this esteemed body why you want to come back to college. But before you begin I want to say two things. I think I can speak for everyone at this table. First, I don’t think I can ever recall someone with your record asking to be admitted a second time, and second, I can’t believe you can say anything that would convince us of your seriousness and gravitas to seek a genuine education. Now it is your turn, Mr. Lee. We are all ears.”
I was lucky I knew what the word serious meant, but I had no idea what the hell gravitas meant. I sat there thinking that before my Christian days I would have thought what an asshole, but I was bucking for sainthood then and had given up cursing a year before to impress that red-haired Christian girl.
“I want to be a preacher and a teacher. I believe with all my heart that is what I’ve been put on this earth to do, sir.”
Everyone, especially the Dean, looked like I was talking like a tree had fallen on me, as we say in the South, which for you northerners, means talking like I was crazy. The silence was deafening as the corduroy-elbow-patched professors and the two women who wore their hair in a tight bun broke in to syncopated laughter.
“Mr. Lee, I have to hand it to you. That is the most original answer I think we’ve ever heard at one of these, and I think I can speak for everyone here. What a thought—a 0.02 student aspires to be a teacher and a preacher. Well good luck, son. I know you are going to need God’s help because you have got one hell of a job in front of you. I think,” he paused to collect himself and wait for everyone to stop laughing, “We all agree to let you in for a probationary period of two semesters. If you show yourself to be a serious scholar in the making, then you can stay. You really want to be a preacher and a teacher? That’s just the most outrageous and original answer I’ve ever heard.”
I was in to learn this time and couldn’t wait to see what would come next.
I needed the money to supplement the poverty wages I was making as a teaching assistant while working on my master’s degree at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I took a job as a counselor/baby-sitter at what the State called a Center for “emotionally disturbed children” – a euphemism for a holding tank for boys and girls who had been beaten, abused, molested, and generally abandoned by parents that were more emotionally disturbed than their children.
I was twenty-eight and had become seriously interested in Humanistic psychology, with a subscription to the Journal and everything. I’d been reading Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Fritz Perls, and other giants in the field. There was little that was humanistic or vaguely humane about the Center. Behavior Modification was all the rage and was a major contributor to much of the children’s rage – their abuse notwithstanding. The pinning down on the floor or against the wall of a kid who was “acting out” and/or hurting themselves or others, was S.O.P. The Time-Out room was the method du jour of choice if the pinning or withdrawal of privileges did not work. The cold cement, steel reinforced door, ugly yellow painted walls and equally ugly linoleum floor – yeah, that was exactly what those kids needed after being hardened and frozen to death from lack of affection, slaps in the face, or in the case of Genene, hammered on the nose by her father until it sat sideways on her face. Even the social workers and nursing staff was quick to grab an offender and push, shove, drag or throw them into the tiny concrete box.
I remember thinking that if I ever started resorting to the Time-Out room as a first resort because of impatience, inhumanness, or thoughtlessness that I would quit and flip burgers to make my tuition.
At staff meetings each week the so-called treatment team – or perhaps I should say, mistreatment team – would meet and review each “case” and evaluate the progress, or more often, the lack of progress, convinced their subjects were just resistant to their therapeutic techniques and modalities—Psychologists, “More time outs are necessary.” Social Worker, “No we need to make the points more difficult to obtain.” Psychiatrist, “No higher doses of medication.” Nurse, “No we need to change their medication.” Lead counselor, “So do we all agree?” would ask as she looked at the eight or ten of us sitting in the jury box – I mean, conference table.
“Not me,” was my usual response. This standard objection over the twelve months I was there got to be a running joke with her and the other therapists. They pretty much agreed after hearing my alternative approaches that I was idealistic, naive to proceed as if they were people instead of projects, pets, or problems.
One such problem in their eyes was J. T., a shiny, nine-year-old black boy that was just the kind of case that Behavior Mod was designed for. The wiry, funny kid kept wetting his bed each and every night. “So do we all agree that the electric shock pad is the way to go, except for you John?” said the psychiatrist with a slight note of sarcasm in his voice. Right there was one of the main reasons I couldn’t finish my bachelors in psychology because I couldn’t work up the nerve, or downgrade what little consciousness I had, and attach electrodes to un-emotionally disturbed mice and make them maniacs in a cage. “Here’s what I’d like to do. I want to take J. T. home with me in the evenings for one week and see if my methods will help him stop his bed wetting.” The staff agreed, much to my surprise, and I’m sure it was because it meant one less headache each night and morning.
J. T. was glad to get out of the chaos to be sure. When we got to my house that first evening I sat J. T. down, “So here’s what we’re going to do,” pointing to the guest bedroom. “That will be your room and you will have the mattress lying on the floor.” Before I could finish my sentence he folded his arms over his wiry chest, stuck out his bottom lip and said, “I don’t want to sleep on the bed. I’ll just sleep on the floor.” He spoke really fast for a southerner as if the speed of his protest would ease the embarrassment.
“Is that because of the peeing thing?” I asked.
“I don’t pee,” he fired back.
“Yes you do, and you know what, it doesn’t bother me a bit.”
“Why not?” He seemed really curious since no one at the Center held that point of view.
“Because it won’t be me sleeping in the bed and it won’t be me carrying it outside every morning—that will be you. If you wet the bed, then each morning you can drag the mattress outside and put it on the picnic table to dry and air out.”
Long story short, he urinated on it the first three nights he spent with me. Every morning he grumbled and complained about how heavy it was. By the fourth night it was dry as a bone and he slept as sound as a bear in winter time.
J. T. had to return to the Center at the end of the seven days. One week was all they were willing to risk having the boy stay with the weird, humanistic, pseudo-Jungian counselor with long hair and a beard, and who bad-mouthed Behavior Mod. After all, they were sure the three nights he didn’t wet the bed was just a “coincidence.”
The first night back the bed was soaked. The next morning everyone agreed the shock pad was really the right way to go – well everyone except J. T. and me.
But the straw that broke this college student’s back was after working there for several months, fighting off B.F. Skinner’s disciples and getting frustrated with Pavlov’s children, I found myself doing the unthinkable only months before. Genene was acting out and I dragged her kicking, screaming, and sobbing into the Time-Out room without so much as a humanistic thought in my head or heart. She pushed with all her might against the door I was trying so desperately to close on her.
“Please, please, I’m begging you, don’t leave me alone in here. I’ll be good. I’ll do anything. Please, please, please don’t shut the door,” she screamed at the top of her lungs as snot ran out of her bent, crooked nose. I finally mustered up enough strength to wrestle her in, shut the door, and walk down the hall. Even through the closed door and a hundred feet away, you could still hear her screaming, “Please, please, don’t leave me in here.”
I’d become “them” – the enemy – and I knew if I stayed at the Center one day longer, I would lose the little consciousness I’d collected with much effort, and perhaps, my soul as well.
I walked back to the little prison, opened the door, and saw the twelve-year-old girl lying in a fetal position. I opened the door slowly, sat down in the doorway, keeping the door propped open with my body.
“I won’t leave you in here alone.”
“You promise?” she said wiping the tears away.
“I promise, and I’ll never put you in here ever again.”
“Thank you, thank you, you fucker,” she said half-smiling, half-testing, and half-teasing, hoping it was the truth, but almost sure, it was just a trick.
I sat down with her for about ten or fifteen minutes and then escorted her back to the group, and gave each of them a hug, and walked to the main office and told them, “I quit.”
The wind is different tonight.
The leaves on the trees move easily.
Summer rain cleans the horses
grazing the wet grass in the pasture
across the road.
I saw lightning for the first time
in months. It looked like a ragged
tuning fork, and I felt the thunder
roll through my body.
Today, in a house a hundred miles
away I saw my father for the first
time in ten years.
He sat beside me with his bare shoulder
against mine as we looked at a map.
Years ago I would have wanted more to
happen and felt a disappointment,
but this meeting moved easily.
A part of me – the part that always wanted more
felt cleaned. The lightning comes
down in straight lines and then
separates into its tines. A tuning
fork is like that too.
We talked about mileage; then
he showed me the peas he’d grown in his
This is the most affection I am going
to get, I thought.
Today, this amount of affection was finally enough.
The Flying Boy Letters: Responses and Replies 30 Years Later
Letter # 31
June 29, 1990
White Bear Lake, Minnesota
I just finished reading I Don’t Want to Be Alone. As usual, I was so anxious for help that I only read the last half. I’m inspired. It was exactly what I needed. Now, the work begins. I want the end result so bad. I hate codependency. Yesterday when I heard my dad’s voice, I felt angry again even though I’ve forgiven him.
As my lover sleeps and I think of the emotional abuse of each and every day, my heart saddens for my child within me. She’s been hurting for 43 years. It’s time to care for her now. Your book will help me do that as I re-read and follow through.
I must tell you that as I once again walked directly to the self-help book section at the bookstore, your title jumped out at me. I picked it up, read the back cover, then I looked at your picture to surmise whether or not your face “looked” full of wisdom, or at least whether it “looked” like you had more info than I. It was the first time I ever threw the book back on the shelf as fast as I could. All of a sudden, it felt like a tornado inside my head. Why did I react so intensely with that book? This is where guilt took over. I “scarefully” picked it up again. “Hum,” I thought, “maybe it’s time to face reality.”
I’m sure I’m ready, but I’m scared to follow through. I pray that I can learn quickly. I need to heal and I’m over-anxious now that I’ve read your book.
Thank you for getting me started.
I’m Over-Anxious Joan
Dear I’m Over-Anxious:
I’m glad you found I Don’t Want to Be Alone (Flying Boy II), my second book with Health Communications, Inc. Like many of us who know anxiety all too well, you started in the middle just so you could hurry up and get to the end of the book to see how things turned out for Lucy and I.
You say in your letter that when you heard your dad’s voice, you felt angry again, even though you’ve forgiven him.
Well, by now you probably have, but you probably hadn’t when you wrote this letter nearly 30 years ago. Let me explain what I mean. As a counselor and rogue therapist, I have asked hundreds of clients and workshop participants: “Have you ever forgiven a parent or spouse?” The answer runs something like this: “Oh, thousands of time;” “Many times;” “I have to forgive them every day;” and so on.
See, most of us were taught we were supposed to forgive people without walking through the door into the anger room. We were also taught and told nice girls didn’t get angry, or that anger was a negative emotion, or that we’re not really feeling anger at all—that “anger” is just fear, sadness, and abandonment that has been covered up. So we become prematurely nice—not authentically nice—because we are holding on to so much anger. I realized that until I felt my feelings of anger, frustration, and disappointment, I couldn’t fully forgive anyone.
I would say, and still say to the people I work with, “Why don’t you feel your anger, experience it, express it, and get to real forgiveness just once and finally?” Then, once your anger has been appropriately expressed, you are able to interact with that person in the present, even a parent or lover, and you are feeling a primary emotion (not a secondary one as most therapists have been taught) and you will not unload the ancient baggage of the past on to someone in the present.
Now here is one more thought about anger before I go to other parts of your letter. Many men and women don’t want to let go of their anger at someone because anger is the only fine thread or coarse rope that we use to stay connected. We are afraid if we let go of our anger, we will watch them or us just drift off into space.
The truth is that if we’re still using unfelt, unexpressed anger as connecting devices, we’re only creating an illusion of connection. Forgiveness, and perhaps love, build a much stronger bridge to people than the frayed rope of anger.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are such egregious abuses that some have experienced that may not ever be forgiven, and that is right in its own way.
Remember this: anger is for getting out of stuck places, i.e. jobs, marriages, families, etc., and grief is for having been in a stuck place for so long.
I love how you said: “…once again I walked directly to the self-help section at the bookstore”—I tried to put up a tent in that section years ago because I wanted to live in the self-help aisle for the rest of my life. “…and your title jumped out at me. I picked it up, read the back cover… It was the first time I ever threw the book back on the shelf as fast as I could… I carefully picked it up again. ‘Hum,’ I thought, maybe it’s time to face reality.”
This reminds me of the time a woman who attended a workshop of mine years ago said she would like to show me a copy of The Flying Boy.
When she handed it to me, it was in 2 halves, torn right through the middle. She said, “This is the copy I gave to my husband five years ago. He immediately looked at and read the back cover, and then took it out to his workshop where he took a saw and cut it in half.” I understood immediately, and then she reached in her bag and pulled out another whole intact copy and said, “This is a copy he bought for himself and wants you to sign it.”
Thank you for writing,
The Flying Boy Letters: Responses and Replies 30 Years Later
Letter # 12
September 11, 1990
I just finished your book, The Flying Boy, and since I am one, I thought you might be able to provide to me advice regarding a specific issue I’ve been confronting—and one you’ve confronted.
First of all, I found your book immensely thought-provoking and enlightening. I share many of the traits you discovered. I’m 41, never married, no male friends, etc., and yet I’m well-liked, professionally successful, and handsome. I’ve been working in therapy for years on these and other issues, with some success, but not enough.
Recently I’ve been focusing on my relationship with my mother, which seems similar to your relationship with yours, but I’m stuck. My therapist is encouraging me to feel and express my anger at my mother. She was very dissatisfied with my father, who was lazy, selfish, distant, etc. My mother enlisted me in her campaign against my father, and I joined wholeheartedly. I saw my mother as victimized, the “good parent,” whose life was made miserable by the bad parent, and so I did whatever I could to compensate for my father’s inadequacies. This amounted to never wanting anything, never making any demands on my mother, being as “good” as I possibly could be—in short, doing whatever I could to please her.
The problem is, I now feel as if I’m not entitled to anything. I’m always trying to please the women in my life, and while I generally succeed at that, I don’t feel comfortable and satisfied, and so I leave them.
But here’s the specific problem I need help with. How do I feel angry at my mother? I can’t seem to do it. I bought her act hook, line, and sinker, and whenever I think of her, I feel sad and sorry for her. To feel angry at her seems heartless and ungrateful. After all, she always told me how she sacrificed for me for me and how hard she worked for me. I understand what I should be angry at her for; I believe I have a right to be angry at her—but I can’t seem to feel it. When I try to, I feel bad and I imagine her mournful face looking so hurt by my anger. She died of cancer when I was 16, and that makes it even harder.
My therapist believes it is crucial that I feel and express my anger at my mother and I agree. But right now, I simply can’t.
Thanks for your book, and I hope things are going well for you.
I Can’t Get Angry at My Mother
Dear I Can’t Get Angry at My Mother,
Man, do I get you, and as they say now, “I feel you, Bro.” But really, I do. I was able to feel my anger and rage at my father about the time you wrote this letter. I knew he verbally, emotionally, and psychologically abused me. But Mom – she was a saint – or so we all thought back then.
It would be years after The Flying Boy came out before I, like you, felt I had to take my mom off the cross and off the pedestal, and even she knew this at the time, saying one day on my then-farm in Asheville: “When are you going to work on me the way you did your father? I know you must have some anger at me.”
Man! Was she right. Like you, I saw her as a victim who sacrificed so much to stay with Dad, and I sacrificed so much to be her surrogate husband, counselor and confidant as we proceeded to alienate Dad, and to a degree, demonized him for his alcoholism and being a poor husband and parent.
When kids replace childhood with adult behaviors as early as you did, and I did, we grow up too fast and stay children and childlike too long. Like you said, you feel “not entitled to anything and you [and so did I] always try to please women,” hence the name I gave them, “Flying Boys.”
By the way, I got this title from reading and article on Robert Bly, the recognized father of the Men’s Movement back in 1981. In it, he told a story probably from Grimm Brothers about a woman who took her boys out in the woods so she could have them all to herself. Eventually the “boys” knew they had to leave their mother and so she turned them into swans. As I read, I knew I was a swan boy, and so I came up with the name Flying Boys.
So yes, I did my “mother work,” but the anger was so buried in me, and so deep that my therapist at the time had to use extreme measures—dynamite—to blast me open, using a jackhammer to break me out of denial, and then a chisel and hammer to chip away the residual rage that had been in me for decades of feeling sorry for her and realizing I had a right to finally feel both grief and anger.
You say your therapist is encouraging you to feel and express your pent-up rage at a woman who you loved and lost to cancer when you were sixteen, but when you try, you “imagine her mournful face looking hurt by my anger.” As I’m sure you intellectually know, your mother was a complex person with both good and bad aspects or traits, but you say you simply can’t, and you’re requesting help. This is what I did and this is how I’m grateful to say I’ve helped more than a few men get to this undesirable feeling.
You see, what I came up with is that at 38 to 40 years old I had to work on my Ghost Mother—this is the mother at 19 when she birthed her son (My God, a 19-year-old!). She was still a baby raising a baby, but it is that young, green mother I had to get angry with. It was the twenty- and twenty-five-year old that turned me into a premature adult. It was this woman that I had to get angry at – not the then-60-year-old mother who existed at the time to whom I was expressing my anger. My anger was for the young woman who allowed my father’s abuse to occur towards me and who smothered me herself – not for the aging woman living in Florida.
So what I’m saying is yes, your mother died, but it is the ghost mother that still haunts. It is the Ghost that has to be fully exercised and exorcised out of our bodies and our brains, so we can finally grow up, see her as a flawed human, and finally let her go.
Begin by imagining that you are taking the fact that she did the best she could, putting it in a box, and put that box in the closet. I’ve taught for a long time that all parents pretty much do the best they can with what they have. This sentiment still exists—it’s still true, and you still can have those feelings—but putting it aside right now will help you get to work. Then, if you have pictures of your mother when she was young, take those pictures and post them around your rooms and talk to that woman, because that’s the woman you’re still carrying around with you, and the Ghost Mother around whom you need to express your anger. With these two techniques, hopefully your anger will begin to surface. It may be helpful to remind yourself as often as necessary that your mother, who did the best she could, is not being hurt by your expression of appropriate anger. When the anger does come, express it, and keep expressing it until you feel you are done. When you feel done, then you take that box out of the closet, open it up, and now you’ve got “she did the best she could,” but you’ve also gotten angry at her, and then you put those two together. When you are able to express your anger, and combine the woman who faulted you with the understanding of all the ways that she did right by you, you will have a stronger, more complete, and more authentic relationship with this woman who was all too briefly alive during your lifetime.
Another possibility is finding somebody who does psychodrama therapy, and having this person pretend to be your mother so you can express the things that you wish to tell your mother. Role playing and dramatization can sometimes bring forth formerly unexpressed emotions. Remember, you are not hurting your mother; you are healing yourself.
Now for the men like me whose old mother is still alive at 86, this woman and I finally found a friendship that is functional and even fun. So if we let go of our ghosts, feeling everything that has been repressed in our bodies and souls, there is a great possibility of talking and interacting adult-to-adult.
So now you’re an aging man like me and I bet you finally got to your rightful, righteous rage and anger, and I hope you got all the benefits that come with that.
Take care and thank you for writing,