A Hoarder in Spring

Hoarders
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Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol: you want it not for itself, but because it will content your spirit for the moment. –Mark Twain

I have a predisposition to bizarre, out of the ordinary true stories. It is not schadenfreude that compels me to read about or watch TV shows that deal with some deformed corner of the human condition. I find no relief from other people’s misfortune. But I am drawn to them – the way a campfire child already paralyzed with fear begs for yet another ghost story. “Please stop scaring me some more!”

I am uncertain of the genesis of my macabre fascinations.   Perhaps, it started when I read my first “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” paperback book. The stories ranged from the feral child raised by wild dogs to Eng and Chang Bunker, conjoined Siamese twins who each married different women and sired twenty-one kids between them .  (I still wonder what they had to pay for a hotel room).  I recall my magnificent obsession with weird, disjointed cult movies like “Eraserhead” and the 1932 Tod Browning cult classic, “Freaks”  – a horror movie about sideshow performers with names like Half Boy, Bird Girl and the Human Skeleton.

My spouse simply cannot understand my ghoulish predispositions.  She has nothing but empathy for the objects of my fascination and resents their exploitation by the media.  My nighttime malingering around television documentaries that profile people afflicted with exotic and improbable circumstances annoys her to no end.  Despite her scowls of disapproval, I plop down each evening in my great green chair and channel surf scouring the programming horizon line for anything tattooed, incarcerated, insane, disfigured or possessing some bizarre or debilitating condition. There is one show in particular that draws me in like no other. It is simply called “Hoarders”.

Each week, A&E drags its dysfunction hungry viewers into a hard to comprehend docudrama chronicling the lives of psychologically challenged human pack rats whose lives have become so unmanageable that the department of Health, Human or Child Protective Services is in the process of evicting them from a home that is literally consuming its inhabitants with junk.

A certifiable ‘hoarder’ cannot distinguish between valuables and “stuff”.  Hoarders compulsively purchase, collect and accumulate every imaginable material possession – often filling their entire home and yard with useless junk. Some hoarders actually appear normal to the outside world. They are not always reclusive mental patients. Some hoarders just lack the synapses that seem to regulate the emotional and mental connections that help us sort through our needs and wants. In other cases, a trauma, old age or an emotional event may trigger or exacerbate a person’s predisposition to hoard.

The condition of these homes is hard to describe and even harder to imagine.  The rooms are usually uninhabitable, yet the hoarder chooses to burrow among the debris like a hamster.  In one hard to fathom episode,  a woman had over a dozen cats entering and exiting her house through openings created by goats that had chewed holes in her family room wall ….(yes, goats)

To help rehabilitate the hoarder, it is critical to help them solve their own problem by ridding their home of the trash.  They must agree to allow a special cleaning unit to dispose of a large percentage of the debris. Often, the hoarder cannot handle the intervention and becomes despondent, combative or hysterical at the prospects of having their bizarre clotted world dismantled.

Ok, I confess. I am totally fascinated and at the same time, appalled at the living conditions of these seemingly normal people.  Last week, an apparently together thirty-something guy made the mistake of inviting his new girlfriend of six months to see his townhouse. There was just one problem. He was a hoarder.   His bachelor pad looked like the Salvation Army had thrown up all over his house. His soon to be ex-girlfriend wandered his home like a post nuclear blast survivor – – staring with a frozen smile that masked her horror.  Finally she mustered a question, “ How can you live like this? “ I sort of sided with the guy as my college dorm room was not too far from his house.  Who knows?  If I had known him in 1982, I might have borrowed some of his trash until I could accumulate more of my own.

The all-time nadir hoarder story involved a woman whose toilet had broken three years earlier and had solved for this problem by wearing adult diapers and tossing them into an adjacent room – where the stack had now grown to eight feet tall and blocked the door.  At this point, I made a low squeal of disgust.  I looked up and realized my youngest son was watching over my shoulder. We were temporarily united in our revulsion and both decided that cleaning the cat’s litter box was child’s play compared to removing the mummified carcass of a cat from under a two-year crush of junk. As the cleaner lifts the dead cat with a shovel from under some shelves, the hoarder brightens momentarily, “Oh, that’s where Twinkles went off to…”

At this point my son turns away in disgust.  I hear him distinctly mutter, “I want to go clean my room.”

I begin to worry.  Could I become a hoarder? I have always attached great sentimental value to things and my office is cluttered with an odd menagerie of toy soldiers, books, baseball cards, old Sports Illustrated magazines, maps, paintings and well, just stuff, lot’s of valuable stuff.

Fortunately, I am married to an anti-hoarder. Each spring, she throws open the windows and gets a crazed look in her eyes.  This pre-purge game face is all business and it appears just before most of our possessions are given away to the Goodwill or Salvation Army.

I am usually handed a broom, list of chores and a hefty bag, and forced to confront the detritus that we have accumulated over the prior year.  Her goal is simple:  shed items like winter weight – – ridding our lives of things that have long since become empty mementos of our past.  As master and commander of our ship, it is her prerogative to rid from our lives any inanimate objects that slow our forward progress.

The spring clean initiates each year usually after some disgusting encounter in the boys’ bathroom. I can hear her debating upstairs with the children about old toys, stuffed animals, clothes and books.  In the end, she always prevails and the first snowflake of what might have become a hoarder’s avalanche innocently melts under her resolute stare.

I am next in her crosshairs.  I am rarely successful defending against her cleansing blitzkrieg.  She would rather die than become even a junior hoarder. We wrestle over a stack of Military History magazines and an old set of stereo speakers. Hey, I might need those some day. My partner moves stealthily toward my closet.   I move to intercept her.

“I’m going to toss those shorts that you wore last week to baseball.  They are a little “too” short.

As usual, I am offended but also embarrassed.  Somewhere along the way, I lost my sartorial sense of what a man with my physique can now wear without looking like the blond cop in dolphin shorts on Reno 911.

” I think they look fine.” I say defensively.  “They are running shorts.” She just smiles that ” I am doing you a big favor” smile and continues to rummage through my workout clothes, gathering up torn and undersized shirts and shorts.

“I am sure someone else could use these. What about this shirt?” It is a tie dyed Grateful Dead shirt replete with skeleton wearing a crown of roses. ” When did you last wear this ?”

“Um, probably 1985”, I say incredulously.  “That shirt is a classic!”

“Jerry Garcia is dead.”

“Bob Weir is alive and I can probably sell that on EBay for $100!”

“That’s a great idea!”

Just then my son walks in and asks me to go outside and play catch with him.  Forever being haunted by Harry Chapin’s ” Cat’s In the Cradle”, I have never refused a child’s request to play anything in seventeen years.  I am trapped.  I leave her alone in my closet.

She smiles, waiting for us to leave.  I have been too busy defending my Dead Head shirt to notice all the other things she has targeted for Goodwill while we are playing outside.

You see, she knows there is a little hoarder in all of us.  And she is determined to keep it that way.

Fear and Footsie on Metro North

I don’t have a fear of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

– Woody Allen

Every time I board the Metro North, I ritualistically choose the window in the two passenger aisle.   Inevitably, a Talmadge Hill or Glenbrook commuter crosses my 38th Parallel invading my personal space. We sit, silent sardines packed in the belly of an iron beast rattling toward the city.

As I drift between my blackberry and a depressing NY Times, his leg shifts and brushes mine.  He mumbles “sorry”, not wanting me to think he did this on purpose. I retract my leg quickly as if electrocuted.  Later,  he falls asleep and his foot is touching mine.  I must shift my shoe but not so quickly that he wakes and thinks I have some sort of “problem”.  So I wait for the proper moment and then, ever-so-slightly, break contact off with his interloping foot.  My new window seat position has my back slightly turned to the aisle and my legs are now bent to the window.   By the time we arrive in Grand Central, I am hunched over like Golem protecting his “precious” ring.  Yes, it’s just another exhausting morning for this mild neurotic.

I am certain I am not alone in my garden of odd peccadilloes. In fact, it is every psychotherapist’s raison d’etri to crawl like entomologists through the jungles of our minds catching and examining the strange paramecium that wriggle in the darkness of our subconscious.  The Metro North seat mate contact thing is just one of the many odd little habits that I carry around with me like a tattered blankie. The root cause of my personal defects may never be diagnosed.  Did my mother inhale too much foot powder during her pregnancy.  Perhaps it is a more deeply metastasized problem arising out of my childhood. Perhaps it was the infamous 1971 Brussels Sprout Affair where my no-nonsense father made my brother eat dog-saliva coated sprouts after he caught Tom shoving them into the maw of our normally dependable canine disposal.  Was it having a Democrat and a Republican for parents?  Whatever the reason, each of us occasionally dredges our dark mental swamp where weird little ideas and notions swim in seclusion.

Things get interesting when peccadilloes morph into phobias. It is also the DNA of human comedy.  Some irrational fears that I have encountered among friends and relatives include: an anxiety over hot liquids, distress about drains, dread of dark windows, concern over clowns (it is real and called coulrophobia), or just a freaking strange obsession when someone with socks touches your feet when you are also wearing socks. There are others I can personally relate to:  a fear of the basement, fear of elevators, aversions to taking one’s pulse or even so much as having a vein under surveillance.

My father has lived for years with Bolshephobia ( fear of Bolsheviks ).  The aversion resulted in an intense dislike of Democrats, or anyone who ever uses the terms ” redistribution”, “fair” or “equal”. He is terrified of politicians from Northern California.  Growing up, we oftened accused my mother of having intensely irrational fears.  She had a visceral aversion to sleep overs at friend’s homes when only a teenaged sibling was babysitting.  She had hives over our attending rock concerts, riding motorcycles, hitchhiking or coming home with a girl with body tats and an ex-boyfriend who had the mailing address – Prisoner No. 95435, San Quentin, CA. How paranoid can a parent be ?

Phobias often plague the rich and famous.  Most are familiar with the chronically misophobic billionaire Howard Hughes who spent the last several years of his life locked naked in a Las Vegas penthouse apartment that was sanitized hourly and meticulously monitored. Less known, is the famous hexakosioihexekontahexaphobic – artist Marc Chagall who feared goats until, on the advice of his therapist, he confronted his demons by painting his horned tormentors floating harmlessly while being subdued by cherubs.

Yes, many suffer from a strange brew of irrational fears:  Soceraphobia : the fear of parent in laws.  The fear of Germans?Teutophobia.  Tuetophobes tend to also fear personal trainers and engineers.  Pogonophobes have a great fear of people with beards.  Bearded ladies are often used to treat this condition as this mental double negative can snap someone out of their anxieties or in a few rare cases, make them jump out of a third story window.   Lachanophobics are normally under the age of 12 and fear vegetables.  Selenophobics possess a deep fear of the moon.  I do recall a selenophobic event after a college frat party where I was absolutely certain the moon was following me.  No matter which way I turned, it was after me.

I have actually invented a few clinical terms for my own private peeves: kareokaphobia – the fear of singing in public.  Teshaphobia – fear of John Tesh music and purgaphobia – the fear of shopping with one’s spouse.  Many men suffer from Stamaphobia  – the fear of being asked to carpool to a birthday party in Stamford.

Angst, paranoia, needling fear — are all merely symptoms of being human.  Psychotherapists and psychologists have financed many a ski trip to San Moritz mining the diamonds of anxiety that are littered across the acres of our subconscious minds. In the end, Woody Allen, Monk, Jack Nicholson and a more open society have made it ok to be a tad neurotic.  Everyone sees the world through their own unique looking glass.  My kaleidoscope sees beautiful colors, odd shapes and the occasional shadow created by fractured perspective.

The aperture of the guy now seated next to me on the Metro North? I am not sure what he sees.  I only wish his foot would stop touching mine.

Monsters Inside of Me

Varroamilbe
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Why do they lock gas station bathrooms? Are they afraid someone will clean them?” Anonymous

Growing up in the era of “Walk It Off” parenting, I was never allowed to get too in touch with my hypochondria. Occasionally, I might get my hands on a National Geographic magazine that would feature Amazon explorers, tribes that had never been touched by the outside world or an expedition into the heart of darkest Africa.  To properly frame the perilous nature of uncharted corners of the world, the articles would relate the hazards associated with indigenous people, nasty flora, unpredictable fauna and myriad microscopic predators that could all kill a man – often in bizarre and horrific ways.

I did not just want to know about the 1000 ways in which I could die – – I wanted to witness them.  The fact that most of these diseases, parasites and insidious bacteria were transmitted through unclean drinking water, monkey bites, and unnatural encounters in dark, forbidden places did not matter to me.  I was certain these germs were lingering everywhere.

These were the days before Purell and the bathroom at the local Shell gas station seemed the perfect breeding ground for microscopic predators waiting to hitch a ride home on an unwashed hand.  The public restroom was an essential pit stop for any kid on a long bike ride from home. I tried to hold it to avoid the dimly lit, gray tiled stall that seemed to radiate filth.  Truthfully, I’d rather risk getting caught in the bushes but sometimes nature left you no choice. I was fairly convinced that Lenny, the grease monkey who changed oil and pumped full service gas, had contracted some kind of brain parasite using his own bathroom.  Perhaps it was the fact that he always called me “Bubba” regardless of my repeatedly telling him my name was Mike. It might have been his perpetually filthy hands or his facial tic that would whip his head sideways as if a naked super model was riding by on a unicycle.

I did not appreciate just how microphobic I had become until I “stole” a free venereal disease pamphlet in the local pharmacy, went home and committed it to memory and then proceeded to contract the disease over the course of the next 24 hours.  I rationalized I must have picked up the STD from the Shell station toilet seat – even after using the wax paper seat cover that would always stay in place and then float away mischievously just before you sat down.  I distinctly remember my mother suffocating her laughter as I came clean about my condition.  She suggested that if I did not scrub so aggressively with the Dial soap, I might not have the “burning “ sensation.  I dialed down the Dial and things did improve.  However, I was wary. I understood this ancient scourge could incubate for years and lead to insanity.  Just ask King George III.

Things only got worse after seeing the movie “Hawaii” with Julie Andrews and Max Von Sydow where people stricken with the dreaded tropical disease leprosy were forcibly relocated to the island of Molokai.  The initial symptoms of leprosy might be as simple as a slow to heal lesion or cut.  My scraped knee that would ripped back open each week when sliding improperly in baseball might as well be a motel with a big neon sign saying “ vacancy “ to any tropical disease.  Before I knew it, my fingers would be breaking off on my pencil in geometry class.

Just a few months later, the film Papillion debuted with Steve McQueen starring as the convict determined to escape from French Guyana’s Devil’s Island.  In a particularly disturbing part of the prison escape adventure, Papillion attempts to enlist the help of a local leper colony to make his escape from captivity.  The head leper was grotesquely afflicted and eager to test Papillion’s willingness to accept the lepers as equals in exchange for their assistance.  “ Care to have a smoke?” The leper asks as he hands the Papillion the cigar he has just been smoking.  As Papillion takes the smoldering Cuban, he notices that the leper’s finger has come off and is clinging to the cigar.  As only Steve McQueen would do, he unflinchingly takes a deep satisfied puff.

It was about this time that my knee started to itch again.  The scab had healed but just one unclean cut and I could be easily transformed into one of those legless guys who pulled themselves around on skateboards begging for quarters. My mother once again intervened to explain that the incubation period for leprosy was three to five years.  If memory served, she was quite certain that I had not been in the tropics during my third grade school year.

Years later, I realized that my older brothers had much to do with my bacteriophobia. It was always the same scenario – – a summer campfire and a tall tale about the guy who became a zombie from tsetse fly sleeping sickness. Or he might describe the sad life of Jo-Jo, the Wolf Boy, afflicted with hypertrichosis also known as “the werewolf disease”.  Yet, the most indelible of all stories involved the dreaded intestinal tapeworm.

As the fire cast ominous shadows across my brother’s concerned face, he whispered. “You know how they would they would get rid of your tapeworm’s in the Middle Ages?” He would ask rhetorically with his face screwed into a grimace of false empathy.  “They would starve you, and then make you sit on a chair covered with honey.  The tapeworm would roar out starving for food and then five guys would pull and pull and pull.  If they got it all, you were cured.  If it broke off, forget it.”

Yes, it was very gross.  And yes, from that point forward I ordered well-done meat, compulsively washed my hands and refused to visit any country that had not been independent for at least 50 years.  My sib’s hyperbole included the description of a record-breaking 34-foot tape worm taken out of a man in the Philippines.

I suddenly began to suspect that our refrigerator was a youth hostel for killer microbes.  Raising boys had my mother permanently behind on household hygiene with our Frigidaire serving as the greatest living monument to this fact.  We were trained to check the expiration date on any perishable food item– lest we get a mouthful of lumpy milk, fuzzy gray piece of bread or cheese wedge with great blue mold spores blooming like spring forget-me-nots. She did her best, but it was a losing battle attempting to clean up behind four thoughtless primates.

In a brief and paranoid span of a week, I began to hint at the lack of sanitation in our house.  As she wiped the counters with the sponge that smelled an old Gym sock, my mind’s eye saw our eating space as a massive Woodstock of breeding bacterium.  She would have been better off just wiping everything with a raw pork chop.  “ I heard you can catch a tape worm from eating off a dirty counter top.” I said with my most official sounding voice.  “ Hmmm” was all she said, absentmindedly continuing to load the dishwasher.  “I heard a kid from Pasadena got one that was 25 feet!” “ Really.” Again, no reaction.  “Yeah, and they had to tie him to a tree and starve him.  They put a jar of honey ten feet away and during the night the tapeworm crawled out to get the honey.  They caught it and it’s going to be in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”  That got her.  “Michael, who have you been talking to?”

I survived my Andromeda Strain childhood somehow despite the imminent pandemics of flu – swine, bird and Spanish influenza as well as legionnaire’s disease, AIDS, Hantavirus and Ebola. Years later, in his book, Guns, Germs and Steel, award winning author Jared Diamond confirmed just how close to death I was sharing that most of the world’s pandemics initiated as a result of people living in proximity with animals. Apparently, dogs came with ringworm, tick bites and rabies.  The cat was memorialized by singer Ted Nugent for his ability to afflict a person with Bartonellosis also known as Cat Scratch Fever.  I shuddered at the millions of microbes we must have ingested as we handled rats, turtles, lizards, gerbils, hamsters, snakes, birds, rabbits and guinea pigs. As more evolved warm-blooded hosts, I was amazed that we did not become a hotel for hidden organisms.  Perhaps, all the nitrates and red dye #2 we consumed in hot dogs neutralized the sexual reproductive capabilities of the germs.

In my late forties, I had more or less subdued the demons of my mysophobia – fear of germs. However, society has changed.  The world has become flat and the numerous filters that once spared our adolescent minds from the media blitz of fear and loathing have been stripped away.  The media cannot wait to rub your nose in these terrible afflictions.  If it bleeds, it leads. Even educational channels have sold out to our fascination with stories of the bizarre.

Recently, my brother alerted me to a new Animal Planet television show called, “Monsters Inside of Me.” Ever the helpful sibling, he had pointed me back in the direction of my childhood fears.  I tuned in one evening just in time to watch a young American afflicted with botfly larvae (literally crawling out of his back) and a woman whose brain had been infested with maggots from eating raw pork. The show went on to describe how fast these flesh eating, blood sucking, brain damaging, and lung leeching parasites can kill their hosts.  Worst of all, it was all happening in America.  (My theory was they all used the same restroom at a New Jersey roadside rest stop. Those bathrooms, I’m telling you are killers.)

I now try to stay away from Animal Planet but it calls to me at night. The organisms are once again on the creep and coming to a theatre, hospital and public restroom near me. I must be ready.

And the weirdest part of all is my knee – – it’s started itching again.

A Little Romance

Courting-Couple-at-Midnight--Post-cover--1919-...
Image by x-ray delta one via Flickr

 

A Little Romance

 

Men are like a fine wine. They all start out like grapes, and it’s our job to stomp on them and keep them in the dark until they mature into something you’d like to have at dinner” Kathleen Mifsud

Men and woman have a different definition of what “romantic” means.  To psychologists, a romantic state is an endorphin and dopamine fueled experience – – a neurochemical “matrix” that allows us to see things as we want them as opposed to the way that they really are.  Romance’s accessories are lighting, old movies, alcohol, nostalgia and anywhere in Europe.  Men, generally do not get high marks for being romantic.  They are “explicit “creatures, and much further down the emotional evolutionary chain.  Men, like Pokemon, evolve in stages.  Most start in the “Pig “stage, a sort of larval state where everything is about them.  They eat, sleep, make noises, don’t call back and tell their friends everything that happened on your date. In time, life punishes this behavior and men move to the “Clueless“ stage.  Cluelessness is most commonly characterized by the statement, “what did I do? “ Clueless men take a three day trip with their college buddies every year and always come home too tired to take out the trash. Finally, after dedicated coaching and nights on the couch, men begin to walk erect and enter the “Considerate” stage.  This final stage is fragile and highly vulnerable to regression back to Clueless or even Pig phases.  Maintaining the Considerate stage requires years of marriage, therapy or the ability to admit to at least three Pigs that you cried during the movie “Brokeback Mountain”. Pigs can sometimes pose as Considerates.  However, they inevitably get caught.

There are documented records of an even higher stage called “Romantic” but it seems no male has ever been able to truly stay in this position.  It is a bit like climbing Mt Everest and being over 22,000 feet.  It is a death zone where no one can survive. Remaining in this zone too long begins to psychologically damage a male.  Binary brains cannot function with open ended questions such as “what are you thinking “and “who would you have married if you did not marry me?” Romance by its sheer nature is built on the seemingly conflicting virtues of spontaneity and meticulous preparation.  Therapists refer to it in metaphoric terms such as “setting the table” or “playing the mood music”. Men generally fail to understand the concept of playing mood music.  Men are rap musicians and clanging gongs.  They are overt, direct and venal.  Men march out to the windy plain and fight the enemy until the death.  Women, on the other hand, are folk musicians and piccolos.  They prefer to move stealthily, never engaging in direct confrontation, slowly winning a war of attrition through relentless passive aggressive behavior.

“Men always want to be a woman’s first love – women like to be a man’s last romance.”   – Oscar Wilde

The fact is if romance was a shirt, men would buy ten of them and be out of the store in five minutes.  Men don’t generally like ballads or love songs by Cole Porter.  They hate poetry. Walt Whitman?  Uh….wasn’t he…? ……Not that there is anything wrong with

that.! Shelley, Keats and Yeats? Weren’t those the names of the girls on Charlie’s Angels? Guys don’t want a soul mate, they want a cell mate. Guys want to be John Belushi in Animal House smashing the guitar of the guy with the goatee reading poetry and singing ballads on the stairs.  For some men, romance is as simple as having the lights out while watching Charles Bronson in “Death Wish”.  They can’t understand the difference between The Newark Marriott and Auberge d’Soliel in Napa Valley, except that one is a lot more expensive and has a smaller pool.  These men are the target demographic of the floral, greeting card and confection industries on Valentine’s Day.  Red roses, a Whitman Sampler and a beautiful card and you will be Charles Boyer.  Wait, wasn’t he a third baseman for the Milwaukee Braves?  

Marriage is the process of finding out what kind of person your spouse would have really preferred – Anonymous

 

Lack of romantic IQ is an age old liability.  The Greeks had myriad words to describe the many facets of love – – Eros was perhaps the most applicable word for romance and passionate love. In Southern Europe, many men are born “Considerate” and sometimes attain the highest evolutionary form of “Romantic”.  However, this only applies when they are courting a mistress or college student backpacking for the summer.  Across the Southern Mediterranean, men have a reputation for being hopeless Romantics but regression is always around the corner.  It is quite a different story in Northern Europe where being romantic is still synonymous with wearing a clean pair of underwear.  

 

The great question… which I have not been able to answer is, “What does a woman want?” — Freud

 

In the 19th century, there was a brief surge of estrogen in the cosmos in the form of the Romantic movement which encouraged impulse and intuition over repetition and reason.  Men liked the part of romanticism that encouraged them to be reckless and unaccountable. Men felt more free to read poetry, enjoy art, and pick petals off daisies while on a picnic in the country.  However, the Pigs began to worry that they were being overrun by the Clueless and the Considerate.  No one was showing up for hangings, bare knuckle fist fights or helping to break up local picket lines during labor strikes.  The bars were empty in the middle of the week. The Pigs started a rumor that anyone who read poetry was indeed a Communist.  This quickly led to a massive peer pressure regression known to many historians as “The Great Backslide of 1898”.  With Romanticism dying, the bell curve of behavior was more balanced, The Pigs breathed a sigh of relief.

 

However, society has continued to evolve.  Pigs are increasingly chastised for their misogynist views.  The Clueless attend classes with their partners and use “I“ phrases for sharing how they are feeling.  Considerates understand that relationships are a zero sum game and one is always in danger of being in a deficit position.  These men are beginning to realize that a little romance is not life threatening.  It may require watching a movie about far away places or star crossed lovers caught up in epic conflicts that conspire to keep them apart.  It may mean sitting outside listening to John Mayer music float gently on a warm summer night.  Romance means appreciating intrinsic beauty whether it is found in a lingering glance or a spontaneous kiss.  Considerates are finally grasping what Gable and Lombard had going.  They appreciate sunrises and sunsets.  They understand even the most ancient ember can be rekindled and that romance is its oxygen. They see integrity in monogamy.  Some even recognize when another man is a Pig, although this is a very advanced state of Considerate.

 

Valentine’s Day is framed with sepia sentiment, devoted nostalgia and stories of lovers whose words, music, and deeds transcend time. It targets the Clueless, occasionally snags a few Pigs and is supported by legions of Considerates.  Valentine’s Day for most men is a compulsory 24 hour chick flick.  For women, it is another chance for their partner to show a modicum of romantic intelligence and perhaps evolve.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

 

I am a chronic worrier.  I even get worried when there is nothing to worry about.  At age eight, after reading a pamphlet at the local pharmacy, I was convinced I had venereal disease.  I think it is genetic.  My father is convinced if the Bird flu does not get him, the Chinese economy will brings us to our knees and he will be dishing fast food in a Mandarin restaurant within ten years.  My brothers and other men I know suffer from a similar chronic anxiety syndrome.  It does not matter that 99.9% of the time, the most dramatically catastrophic scenario that we have built up in our head does not occur.  It could happen.  And if it could happen, I must do everything I can to hedge against this possibility. 

 

Once I have settled on my anxiety du jour, I have this little movie theatre in my head.  It seats one person.  When things go bad at work or one of the children gets sick, the little man in the projection room goes down to the archive room and pulls out a metal canister with a label on it – Horror Films.  The titles are familiar – How I Lost Everything, The Great Plague of 2006 and my favorite, From The Top of The Mountain to Under a Bridge in a Box.  The flickering film always plays out the same way – – I lose whatever it is I hold most dear to me and end up walking around Central park clutching a bag of string asking anyone if they have seen my car. 

 

I guess the panic reflex is nature’s way of getting your attention.  You end up doing extraordinary things when you are fearful.  You overachieve.  You cram 10 lbs into a 2lb sack. You work until all hours getting something just right.  You go for days without much sleep – – you focus on the task at hand.  You also become pretty selfish.  It’s all about you.  Perhaps if your buttons are really pushed, you might lie, cheat or steal.  In our town, that does not mean you would knock off a convenience store but perhaps you might finesse the edges of the truth or not be the kindest or most thoughtful person. You know, the person you see yourself as when you sit in church ? 

 

It’s interesting to me that a society that has so much seems so fearful ?  Is it because the media pipes us daily images of the chaos that reigns in certain regions around the world ?  Is it that many of us were children of a generation that dug bomb shelters in their backyards waiting for the big one and are still waiting for the Reds to fulfill their master plan ? 

 

In Organizational Psychology, I remember being educated on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  The basic levels of the hierarchy – food, shelter, clothing were the building blocks of a behavioral and socio-economic pyramid that eventually led to an apex where one became “ self actualized “. In being self actualized, a person was essentially free of the worries associated with finding food and shelter and was free to ponder the deeper issues in life and the cosmos.  The self actualized person seemed to me to be a sort of cross between Hugh Heffner, replete with robe and slippers, and William F Buckley with Barrons at his left hand and Tolstoy’s War and Peace at the right.  A self actualized person was independent, all knowing and of course, affluent. 

 

My professor never really mentioned fear and affluence being bedfellows.   It is strange seeing those so seemingly immune to the vagaries of a life that happens only to other people, not acting like emancipated pillars of society but instead capable of petty, selfish and highly self interested behavior.   It seems so interesting that affluence turns out not to be an enabler of self esteem, character, or courage, it just obscures the lack of it.

 

Most men do not refer to these issues as causing “fear”.  We were brought up by a generation of dads to pound through fear like a fullback sniffing out the goal-line.  We call it “anxiety”, “stress” or “dog-eat-dog “.  In a society that judges the ends more than the means, the more you accumulate, the more one feels the need to patrol your borders to ensure you protect it.  Ironically, when we are too busy patrolling we are cut off from the real world that desperately needs us – – our kids, our community, our world.   

 

We consider ourselves “blessed” as we survey the beleaguered citizens of Iraq, the destitute in the gutters of Bangladesh and the crucified in Darfur.  We assume that abundance is a sign of divine approval.  Yet, I wonder if affluence also makes one more afraid and as such, makes it that much harder to see the forest of mankind through the trees of self preservation.  

 

Happiness is wanting what you get instead of getting what you want.  Joy is watching those you love find happiness.  It doesn’t say much in that quote book about affluence other than to be careful as it may become the snare that snags the foot of one’s soul. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take the house over the cardboard box every day of the week – – my lead soldiers won’t fit in the cardboard box.  Yet, to those that much has been given, much is expected. 

 

My good friend and mentor once said to me, “Mike, the day you realize it is not about you, is the day you start changing the films in your projection room.”   My pastor Gary Wilburn reminds us that through serving others, we can find ourselves and be free from fear. 

 

I have to keep remembering that because they are about to start the movie Saw IV and I am one of the stars…