Sunday, January 16, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 238: Biomythography - Note 15, Not Now

A Biomythography - Note 15
by Secret Hippie

Yes, Now

It was the spring of 1987. The underbrush in the woodlands around me had turned green. The tree branches above hung bare but they had started to bud. White, cabbage butterflies had made their first appearances. Girls in the neighborhood were trying out skirts despite the blustery day. Some of the guys strolled into their yards in their shirts, no jackets. One of them kept his jacket on with a collar up against the gusts of wind.

I drove up past a few houses in my car, a metallic blue Mustang, with a young woman by my side. I'd been living Western Massachusetts for a few months. This was only the second time I'd had a woman over as a guest. In this case, she had invited herself to my apartment. She had insisted. I'd felt embarrassed by my place although it was nice, a room in a house that I shared with a former college hallmate. He had decided to settle in town.

He was dating someone local. Now maybe I was, too.

"This place is bigger than I thought!" The young woman gave me a sly smile as we strolled through the front door. "Nice kitchen. You kind of talked it down."

My roommate, Michael, strode up with a smile.

"Who is this beautiful lady?" he asked. Sometimes he could be awkward but, more often, he was genial and charming. He seemed pleased that I was starting to have a social life at last. As a roommate, he worried about me.

Soon after I made introductions, Michael got a call. He had started two small businesses. They kept him constantly on the phone. In fact, he was the first person I knew to own a cell phone. He kept two cars leased, each with mobile phone consoles. When he took his call, he waved goodbye and wandered through the living room into one of his offices. That's why he rented an entire house, so he could run his businesses. Immediately, the young woman took me by the arm and asked to see my room.

"Huh. Mattress on the floor." She put her hands on her hips as she stood in the doorway. "But how is it?"

"It's a futon," I replied. It had been my major expense upon my arrival in town. "I kind of like it."

With a smile, she threw herself against it. She pounded the pillows for good measure. We fooled around for a while, flirting and more. Then she asked me to get up and lock the bedroom door. When I returned to the futon, we got more involved.

I didn't have much sense of time passing. Mentally, I was occupied.

So it came as a surprise when Michael burst into the room. He stood there, mouth agape, for less than a second.

"Not now, Michael!" I yelled. And I raised my left arm to wave him away.

His face turned beet red. He stepped back and closed the door.

"Hah!" Fortunately for me, the young lady laughed. "What was that about?"

"Later." I put both hands on the futon again. "Later."

Although I felt focused on the fun we were having, later eventually arrived. I put on a fresh shirt, pulled up my pants, and meandered out to the kitchen to get some water.

"Sorry!" Michael strode up to the sink next to me. He was trembling. He could barely hold his phone.

"It's fine." I had already forgotten the interruption. If he hadn't reminded me, I might not have thought about it. "Sorry if I shouted. I was, um, surprised."

"Normally, I do knock. You probably should lock the door, though."

"I thought I did." I mused over my glass of water. For a moment, it felt like the glass had been dirty. Maybe there was something wrong with the water. After a few seconds, I realized that actually I was having a problem with the air. "Michael, what's that smell?"

"Oh." He took a deep breath. "The house was on fire."

He had burst into my bedroom in a panic. He'd meant to scream that we needed to evacuate. Instead, he saw naked bodies, got embarrassed, and left. That meant he had to do something about the fire. He had been running around, frantic, unable to think straight or find an extinguisher. His red-hot cheeks and the fact that I and the young lady were busy - and not listening to him - made him reconsider.

He had seen flames from the electrical panel. They were spreading to the window sill. But he had a fire extinguisher somewhere in the house. He knew he did. His embarrassment proved stronger than his fear or panic. It made him search again. This time he found it.

Over the span of a few minutes, I got the whole story. I'm still not sure of the cause of the fire beyond that it was in the wiring panel.

I leaned back against the kitchen counter. We looked at each other for a moment.

"I put it out," he said. It was an understatement.

Later in the evening, I tested the latch on my bedroom door. In his initial panic from the sparks and flames in the cellar beneath us, Michael had pushed through the strike plate without noticing. The lock bolt had shoved the plate forward. He hadn't ripped it out of the door frame but it was a close thing. The wood had splintered. I unscrewed the strike plate and screwed it back in so that it worked again. The door never latched quite right after that, though.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 237: Biomythography - Note 14

A Biomythography - Note 14
by Secret Hippie

Fear of Heights

When I was five, I fell out of a dogwood tree.

When I was six, I fell out of a locust tree. That's what comes from climbing trees and rough-housing in them. The next spring, in my front-yard willow, I fell so far and hit so hard that I lay there on the ground for a minute. No one had pushed me. I had just slipped. My body tingled. The back of my head ached and I watched swirls of color in the corners of my vision. My friend, Joe Wood called my name. He clambered down from his branch. Eventually, his younger sister Rebecca jogged over. My younger brother ran up to look at me, too. I hopped back to my feet, embarrassed.

"Can I play?" my brother asked.

"Yeah, but let's not climb the dumb tree," said Joe. "Let's find something else."

I'm not sure when my fear of heights started. It may not have begun with that fall. Heights had caused me prickly sensations and fits of panic before. But about a year after the big willow tree fall, which was followed by falls from playground equipment, I started to get a sort of terror about heights. At that point, I was only eight and didn't know that I could do anything to fix the problem. I had to tough it out, as far as I could tell.

What made the problem seem sort of serious, even at eight, was that I could see my trend. I understood that the phobia was getting worse, year to year. When I was nine, I could climb the lowest branches of trees. By the end of that year, I stopped. I didn't tell anyone why - but I knew the reason.

At ten, I climbed up the ladder on the high dive at the pool and almost passed out over the concrete. I steadied myself, grabbed the aluminum bars tight with an adrenaline rush and visions of death, and pushed on. Maybe that's why my body waited until I reached the end of the diving board. There, I froze up and dropped like a rock. As if from a distance, I heard a loud smack. A spark of electricity lit my body. I was in the water. I could move again.

Burning with shame, I turned over onto my stomach and swam to the edge of the pool. I expected lots of pointing and laughter but only my younger brother was doing that. The lifeguard, in contrast, had turned rigid in his chair. The woman who had been chatting with him stared at me in open-mouthed dismay.

"You okay?" he called. He scowled as he noticed that my limbs wouldn't quite obey me. I had to take a second try at climbing onto the deck.


"Right." His lips looked pale. "How about you don't go on the diving board for a while?"


I'd always loved bouncing over rocks or scrambling up and down muddy slopes next to a stream. By the age of eleven, I couldn't walk across the fallen trees over the water. I had to crawl across like a baby. My terror of heights was starting to get in the way. Soon, even standing on a tree stump made me dizzy.

This was getting intolerable. I knew I had to do something.

At the age of thirteen, the act of hopping over a foot-high rock was uncomfortable. My anger at myself over it had reached new depths, too (not heights, I guess). I had been getting worse for years and had thought about trying to do something but still, I hadn't.

At home, I'd read about exposure therapy. In the psychology textbooks of our family library and in the science and education magazines on our table, there were paragraphs, sometimes whole pages, about how therapists coached their patients to touch spiders or to ride in elevators. There was even a paragraph on therapy for acrophobia. I decided that exposure was the solution.

Visualizing New Heights

My start was not impressive. Mostly, I lay down and imagined being up high. Later in the process, I stood on rocks and pretended they were tall and unsteady. My commitment level was good for a thirteen year old but my real-life exposures, my self-hypnosis sessions, and my other forms of practice were as inconsistent as you might expect from a teenager.

Sometimes, I would be trying to fix myself but get jolted out of the process by someone who would ask me why I was standing on a rock or stump. I never had an answer. Usually I would mutter something evasive like, "Just wanted to," or "Why not?" or "Nothing, dummy." Then I'd step down and never repeat it around them again.

My visualization sessions were important because my exposures were so inconsistent. I didn't know it, but the process would take me six years. I'm sure it would have been faster if I'd been competent at the method. Nevertheless, it produced enough good results in the first two years that I started working at other problems in parallel.

I used the same visualization techniques on basketball, karate, emergency responses, and on letting go of desires. Of course, I actually practiced the sports, the tense situations, and letting go of desirable possessions, too, so the real-world experiences were essential. Visualization helped, though.

Hmm, I said six years. But after five, maybe a little less, I had no more functional problems with my fear of heights. What I wanted, in my sixth year of exposure, was a celebration. That’s how my self-imposed therapy ended in a static-line parachute jump.

Making the jump felt over-the-top, even to me. But it also felt completely right.

Letting go of desires was fine, my paralysis in clutch situations had been replaced with a lean into them, and I could walk on a balance beam. And jump from an airplane.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 236: Biomythography - Note 13

A Biomythography - Note 13
by Secret Hippie

Deciding To Be The One

The decision to have a purpose in life is not the same as a decision to take responsibility for others. When I made the latter choice, it was about becoming 'the one' in my own internal terminology. It was a determination about family, at first. Then it became more.

Family History

The decision started out with my awareness that I had to become a wage slave for the family. It wasn't an instant realization. I was reluctant to admit it. But the choice to go along with the concept seemed inevitable and it gained strength from my awareness of family history.

On my mother's side, three sons of the Stocketts sailed over to America in 1658 to claim their land grant from King Charles II. Two of those brothers died. One lived on with some success. In the next generation, three sons grew to adulthood. Two soon died. That again left one to carry on. The Stocketts kept dying, as a lot of American colonizers did, but they also kept having enough children to maintain themselves and spread out. In the line I'm descended from, however, they lost their family farm to taxes.

That meant my great-grandfather and grandfather spent their generations getting by with less. My grandfather had things especially tough, since he had epilepsy. At the time, epilepsy was treated like a contagious disease, so he found himself often shunned. And he went 4F in the draft. But that was okay. It meant that he could work in the shipyards during the war. For a while, he could afford a family. When the war ended, though, the Navy let go of their 4F men (along with the shipyard women) and my grandfather immediately became desperate for work.

He had never been able to afford a house or land. He had moved onto a patch of his uncle's property that no one was using. It was separate from the rest, which was good because this was the uncle who was cruel to everyone. He killed kittens, apparently just to put children in their place about their pets, and he killed his eldest son by pushing him off the roof during an argument. He had influence in town, too. Taking his land by simply squatting on it, even when it was left unused, was a risk.

My grandfather felt he had no choice. He built a house on the vacant lot by raiding the town dump for lumber and parts. Then, for years, he flattered the rest of the family as much as he could. He named his eldest son after the murderous uncle to whom he was indebted. Eventually, he got a grudging approval to live there. He continued to raise his family and farmed the neighbors' land because they weren't using it.

For a while, he got a job with the phone company. That was great but they kept sending him to work during storms. He followed orders because he was epileptic and everyone was sure he couldn't get another job. As a result, he repeatedly got hit by lightning while up on the poles. The first three times, he got away with it. Finally, he took a bolt so strong that it knocked him off the pole. The company retired him. My grandfather supported eight people in his house living on one disability income. Naturally, he kept farming. It was the source of most of their food.

So my mother grew up in decent circumstances. She had a home, enough to eat, and a large family. True, her father opposed her going to college. He said he couldn't afford it for a girl and that seemed likely enough. My mother's parents had also arranged a marriage for her when she was a child. To their surprise, she refused the marriage. She applied for scholarships, instead, and managed to get so many that she could return the ones she didn't need and still go to college. So she left Annapolis for good. When she graduated from University of Maryland and got a job as a teacher, she attained a genuinely middle class life for herself.

That was a significant achievement. Her siblings followed, too. Her entire generation took the family in a positive direction. They got back to an ordinary level of prosperity.

On my father's side, we never learned much about the history. We know that his Irish grandfather, George Earl Gallagher, came to America near the end of the famines in Ireland. He had an American child, my father's father, and then died at the age of forty-three. His son remarried late, fathered two more children, my Aunt Jenny and my father, and died at the age of forty-two.

June Pond Light, my paternal grandmother, grew up in an orphanage before her marriage. When she left, she lived in Philadelphia for a while. Then she married and became a Gallagher. She discovered that her husband had divorced his first wife. Since he was Catholic, his church didn't recognize the divorce. That meant Robert Gallagher, my father, and his sister Jenny, weren't recognized by the Irish side of the family. They refused to talk with June or her children, so our Irish history was lost. In addition, my father's younger brother Jack, always their mother's favorite, inherited everything from her - the English money, such as it was. Other relatives mentioned it to me on a few occasions, always bitterly, and that's how I knew. In their ways, both of my parents had descended from several generations of not inheriting anything, often because there was nothing to be had. They were the people who did not get the house. In some cases, they did not even get the tea set.

Why the One

It was in that context that I read books about how successful people achieved their status. In nearly all of them, they started from stable, upper middle class or wealthy, owning-class families. Those families provided the springboards for their dive into success.

When the time came to make my decision, I understood that I probably couldn't achieve a high level of material success. But maybe, just maybe, I could still be 'the one,' that is, I could become the somewhat anonymous and dependable provider for a family. I could accumulate enough advantages for the household that someone in the next generation might succeed better in material ways.

At first, I thought this meant I had to,
  • grow the clan
  • watch over it
  • protect it
Soon I saw that it meant accepting I would be a person who gets taken for granted, who is a wage slave, dependable and thoughtful of others. The 'one' may number more than one, of course, since there could easily be a handful in a family - really, there should be - but each one of them is someone to whom a grandmother can go for help, to whom cousins and nieces and nephews can get guidance, and to whom caretaker chores may be given, whether for child care or elder care.

It is an ordinary decision.  Many people make it.  But I felt it was lacking in my immediate family.  And every tribe needs members who take on responsibility for others.  Maybe, in fact, it is the sort of ordinary decision that separates long-lasting families from broken homes.  It is a decision that extends into professional life because it can lead into a career.  The consequences can spill over into hobbies because, apparently, taking responsibility is a habit.  You can find yourself banging a gavel for the Loyal Order of Water Buffalos one day, wondering why it happened. 

Taking responsibility will, likely enough, affect your group of friends.  After all, sometimes even among casual acquaintances it's necessary to make the decision to be responsible, to gather people together, to feed them, to look out for the weak, to assist the strong, and to make the group a success.

The group's success might not belong to 'the one.'  It won't be seen as yours.  You might not get credit at all.  That's what happens in groups.  Sometimes the youngest grandchild goes out to take the bows as a famous artist even though most of her success is due to her grandmother.  It happens.  But her grandma is not a child.  She does not demand attention.  She made her decision to be 'the one' long ago.  She can bask in the success of others, nowadays.  And sometimes those others will understand, just a little, that they have depended on people who decided to be responsible for them and their welfare.

Those people made the decision to care and to act on their caring. For an entire lifetime, everyone around them feels the benefit.