Monday, September 7, 2015

Season to Season

Season to Season

One of the things that really sucks about death is that it's sudden. It's like being called home after playtime is up. You would be told you had to stop playing because dinner was ready. Playtime just happens to be up forever for the deceased person, and there's no home cooking to look forward to. Instead, that person is forever on the sidelines; a spectator who can no longer comment on the game. It's like baseball in a way. We all take turns batting, pitching, catching, fielding, umpiring, and we all have strikes. Sure, we only get three strikes in baseball, but we have multiple strikes in real life. And much like baseball, we have seasons. Some seasons are better than others. Some teams have long-running winning, or losing streaks. Some people are better at the game than others. And then at some point it's time to retire, and pass to the next generation what we've learned. We then become commentators, and hope that others will learn from us.

What the hell do I know? I haven't watched baseball since I was twelve. But, the good thing about baseball is that it never goes away. It'll always be there every spring. For every child that has ever been born, lived, or died since baseball was invented, it will always come back.

I'll tell you what also comes back; jock itch. If you don't treat it right that stuff comes back to haunt you. Athlete’s feet too. Hell, why even bother having toes if they keep itching? Spray'em down, and pray the fungus among us leaves us.

Yet, I digress.

Death is also frustrating. We can't talk to that person anymore; despite what charlatans with crystal balls will tell you. You could spend seven-hundred dollars for a one hour session, and all the psychic will tell you is, “I see this person moving toward the light. The light is in a frame. A metal frame. It's a box. Could it be the light from the refrigerator? Did they die while eating leftovers?”

You'd have better luck calling the President with two tin cans and some string. We can talk to the ether, and maybe we'll get a our own way. When my Uncle Bob died five years ago, I wasn't able to properly say good-bye. He was no saint, but he was still my uncle. I genuinely felt guilty that I wasn't told he was on his deathbed. Had I known I would have flown back early to see him. I'm macho enough to admit that I cried about it. Not heavy sobs, a really manly cry; the sort that Stallone would have done. You know, like the crying he does at the end of Rambo: First Blood.

And then, one night, I was trying to sleep, and couldn't. It was a year after my Uncle had passed away, and I was thinking about him. I closed my eyes, and I could picture him smiling. He was sitting in his tan vinyl chair in his dinning room, where he'd sit and watch TV. And I could hear him whistle the theme from The Good, The Bad, and Ugly. The two things my uncle loved most were Star Wars, and Clint Eastwood movies. He frequently whistled themes from both. I took this as a good sign. It was like my mourning had freed my conscience. Before I left for California, he told me, “Don't forget your Uncle Bob.” I certainly haven't. With a spate of new Star Wars movies coming out, I'm thinking of him more often. That being said, I don't expect a Jedi ghost version of him to show up any time soon.

Death stops young people from growing old. It stops old people from getting older. And while it isn't fair, it is equal. We all hope the umpires at a baseball game are fair. We hope they make the right call. If they don't, we yell at them. We even see the team manager get in on the action. In the end, the umpires are just doing their job, and keeping everyone in line. You can't hold that against them. You can't hold it against death either. It's not a good thing, or a bad thing, it just is what it is. Again, it's not fair, but it's equal. It's equal because we all have to go through it at some time. Playtime ends eventually. How it ends is a combination of circumstance and chance.

What prompted these thoughts of mortality was the death of a young man. A friend of mine from the Bay Area lost her husband. It was an unexpected death. He was on his way home from work, and then experienced a traffic collision. He died soon after. There was no lingering illness. There was no wrinkled old man waiting to get the call from God's switchboard. Instead, he was just a young guy with a career and a family. He had been in the armed services. He was in law enforcement. And above all, he was a husband and father. Then, in a matter of minutes, he was no more. No more physically, but memories of him remain. 

While Ben himself wasn't a spiritual person, his spirit does linger. No, not with those crystal ball people. If one of them shows up I'll fly out there to lay the smackdown on them. His spirit lingers in the memories of those that knew him. While I believe that people have souls, I can't prove it. But I can show you proof of how much people loved him.

Ben once resuscitated a woman who'd suffered a heart attack. He was able to successfully keep her alive until the ambulance arrived. That woman is still alive today. He stood by his wife when she had cancer, and various surgeries. He was there when his daughter was born. He was also there when mutual friends suffered a burglary. He was there to give practical solutions to them, and counsel.

Is it fair that a young man dies, and then leaves behind a wife and child? Of course not. He didn't choose for that to happen, it just happened. It isn't fair that a man who was active in life is taken out of the game before he had a chance to retire. Ideally, Ben would have lived to be a wrinkled old man. He would have seen his daughter grow up.  He would have walked her down the isle, after he realized his future son/daugher-in-law was ok. He would have retired from his government job, and settled down with Kethry. They would have had grandkids and cats to keep them company. Instead, they were together for about twelve years of marriage. We should all be so lucky to find someone that stays with us that long.; I sure haven't. But it doesn't stop me, or others, from trying.

Another strange thing about death is that it doesn't feel real at first. It feels like this is all some sort of alternative nightmare reality. You expect to wake up, and find out it was just a nightmare. The reality of it doesn't sink in right away. It takes maybe a few days, or a few weeks. But eventually, it does sink in to your psyche. It's demoralizing, for a while. You'll have your memories of that person, but you won't be able to share new experiences with them.

Yes, we will have loses. Yes, people will die on us; that's nothing new. It's just as much a war out there as it is a game. The question is this, “Do you have what it takes to finish the game?” Are you going to quit before playtime is up, or do you finish the game? You're not going to be good at everything in life. You won't master the game. The game is life, and no one ever masters it. The best you can do is play it. It's a better tribute to a person to keep on playing than it is to give up.

Not all seasons are good. Are you as good as your last game, or your last season? The answer is, “No.” You're as good as your next game, and the game after that, and the game after that. You're as good as you keep trying. You're not as good when you stop trying. Maybe you're as good at the choices you make in life? Maybe you're as good as you try to be? I don't know the answer to that. But the point is that you keep trying. You're not going to win all the time. You won't regret losing. You'll regret not stepping up to the plate. Real losing is not when you don't win; it's when you don't even try to win. Believe me, I know. I've been on both sides of that fence. Nothing reminds us of lost opportunities more than death. So we should endeavor to have as few as possible.

Alright, so Ben didn't play baseball. He played Mech Warrior Online, and real-life swordplay. You'll have to excuse me for not using robots and swords in this essay; the latter of which I highly approve. Baseball came to mind, and so baseball it is. Baseball with robots and swords, no doubt. Ben would have enjoyed that!
Yet, I digress.

Here I am, a man of questionable athletic ability, and I'm writing about life and baseball.

Why am I talking about baseball?

It happens every spring.

Spring happens every year. You can't shut it off. You can't shut time off, and so it keeps flowing forward. Ben's story ended, but it isn't entirely over. He has a daughter that will hear his story. He has a widow that will carry on that story. He has friends that will share those stories with other people. In a way Ben's story will continue because it will continue to be told. The seasons will change. He died at the end of summer. But that will give way to fall. Fall will give way to winter. Before any of us knows it, we'll be back in spring, and then summer. A year will have passed, and we'll still have our memories. No matter how many seasons pass we will continue to have our memories of Ben, and everyone else we've lost. The stories will continue long after we have gone as well. We will continue to play, and finish the game.

I'm sorry I wasn't able to properly say “good-bye” to Ben. I'm also sorry that I didn't get to know him as well as I would have liked. I hope this essay is some source of comfort to us all.

Copyright Riley Joyce 2015.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Go Ahead...I'm Listening."

Psyche opens the golden box...and finds chocolatey truffles! 

I often mark the passage of time with anniversaries of some sort. It can be the date a favorite book was published, or a favorite film was released. Tomorrow marks a different kind of anniversary. I had a session today with my therapist, as I do every week. Every session I have with her is important to me, and is time well spent. 

Tomorrow marks three years that I've been working with my therapist. Over that time I've learned a lot, and grown a lot. And so has my therapist. We've learned a tremendous amount from each other, and will continue to do so for a very long time. The lessons I learn from my work with her enable me to live a fuller, healthier life. They also help me to have relationships with others, and myself. 

And so to mark the occasion, I did what I always do...

I wore the same clothes that I wore to our first session. The same blue-striped polo shirt, and tan trousers. I no longer have the same shoes, but that hardly matters. The idea is that I present myself how I originally appeared on our first session. I think the idea behind that is not only do I associate my therapist with that wardrobe choice, but it's the idea that those clothes connect me to a moment in time. It's a moment that can only be regained in memory. The recollection is potent because it carries emotional significance for me; just like anything we talk about in therapy. But what is of greater significance is that moment connects me to someone who has a profound positive effect on my life. It marks a turning point from pain and isolation, to self-worth and acceptance. 

It also opened the doorway to one of the most profound professional relationships I've ever had. My work with Julie has taught me what a healthy, caring relationship is like. In doing so, I have learned to carry these lessons to other areas of my life; work, education, my creative pursuits, and of course my relationship with Emily, my girlfriend. It has also reinforced a desire to pursue behavioral health as a vocation. I can't think of a better tribute than the desire to follow in my therapist's footsteps, and bring healing to others. 

Here's to many more years of conversation, work, patience, and caring! 

And I should note that Julie didn't remember how I was dressed for our first session. It wasn't until a year had passed that I reminded her. I said, "And guess what I'm wearing today?"

When she saw what I wore, she then exclaimed, "Are you wearing the same clothes you wore on our first session?"

"Yes," I replied. 

"You have such a memory for detail." She said. "I would never have remembered that." 

I also remember the floral print dress that she wore to our first session. And the perfume she wore. 

I also remember the weather. It was 80 degrees outside, and I was concerned that I'd sweat too much, and smell up the joint. So I used some sort of body spray, which I still have; the name of which shall remain nameless. But it's so strong, it can be used as mace (that should give you a clue as to what it is). Since then I've switched to Old Spice. Partly because I like the scent, but also because Emily loves it. Again, this shows how scent is tied to memory. 

But that's another story, for another time.  

Text copyright Riley Joyce 2015.  

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Love is Work

One of the great sins of our culture is that we are taught to equate love with a perpetual state of bliss. The truth is that it can be blissful. It can also be be very difficult. In other words, love isn't easy. Love is work. It requires a lot of work from both partners.

Love is a verb.

It always was a verb.

If the pop songs and movies are to be believed, then it would be a pure feeling, without action. It can be given freely. It can be experienced at any time. But it cannot exist without work.

I recently realized that the physical, fun parts of love are the easiest. Kissing, making love, holding hands, cuddling; those are the easy parts. The more difficult parts are what love really is about. As my therapist put it recently, “My definition of love is staying together when the shit hits the fan.” And yes, the shit will hit the fan frequently. So much in fact that you want to invest in air conditioning instead. But it is through adversity that on can build strength. When you multiply that by two, then the the strength is doubled. A relationship is made stronger not just by the adversity, but by how the two people in that relationship overcome that adversity. I liken it to steel in a forge. The act of smelting—heating and pounding the iron, will temper it. The result is that it will become unbreakable. We are not taught this by our parents, or by our teachers. Instead, we are taught to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and bin the whole thing if it isn't perfect. If that were the case, then none of us would learn anything.

I should point out that there is a difference between adversity, and abuse. If a partner is trying to hurt the other partner, and hurt them needlessly, then a line must be drawn. All couples will argue. Oddly enough, that is the most insignificant part of adversity in a relationship. The most significant part is how the couple works through that adversity. And if one partner does accidentally hurt the other partner, how do they patch it up? The answer is that they need to talk to one another. They also need to respect one another, even when that respect is inconvenient.

Also, love requires a certain level of responsibility. It requires that the partners are each responsible for their own actions. While past experience may color their decisions, they have to treat their present relationship as new ground. Your current partner, or spouse, is not the same one you were with before. You are both old creatures entering into a new land together. The journey is the same, but the choices is different. Sometimes it'll be smooth. Other times, the road will be like you're trying to drive in fresh mud after a rainstorm. You may feel like abandoning the car, and just walking home. But if you do that, it'll take a lot longer to get home. For that matter, you might never get home. And so ditching the car just because it is stuck is not only a waste of a fine car. It's also a waste of time.

To continue with responsibility...

I think that sometimes people allow what their parents did to influence how they treat their partners. Or , how their partners treat them. It can be used as a catch-all excuse for any kind of bad behavior. A partner might say, “Because my mother had a bad temper, I have a bad temper.” Or, “Because my father drank, I drink.” Yes, that may explain where the habit came from. But it doesn't excuse it. Ultimately, the person has to take responsibility for their actions. This isn't always easy, as it requires one to be self-critical, but in a good way. While criticism from others can be hurtful, it is devastating when we see it in ourselves.

As Joe Strummer of The Clash once said, “The toughest thing is facing yourself. Being honest with yourself, that's much tougher than beating someone up. That's what I call tough.”

He's right. It is much tougher than pounding on anyone. Beating someone us is much easier than you'd think. Confronting yourself is far more difficult than anyone would imagine. I think that's why so many people are terrified to go into therapy. They aren't so much afraid of rejection. They are more afraid of what they'll learn about themselves.

In much the same way a partner might not confront what they did to upset their partner. They might just assume that she's being a “bitch,” or he's an “asshole,” and leave it at that. In reality, it's a matter of one, or both, not wanting to own up to their faults. And so any catch-all insult is used to relieve the burden of getting to the root of the problem. It doesn't help either partner; either the offender, or the offended.

Love isn't about how often you have sex. It's not about how long you can have it either. It is about how determined both partners are to care for one another. If your partner is sick, will you help take care of them? If they are sad, will you just be there for them? And if they are royally pissed off at you, will you still be there for them? As Julie, my therapist has remarked, “When you are angry at a partner.” Yes, you can love someone very much. You can kiss them passionately every day. And you can go to bed after making love for hours. But the very next day, you might be extremely pissed at them. Or, they may be extremely pissed at you. It comes with the territory. Again, this is about how the couple patches things up, rather than how they tear them apart. If the relationship is strong, and both partners really do love one another, they will work to (if you'll pardon the expression) clean up the piss.

Enough of these scatological metaphors. Usually those don't come into play unless children are involved. I don't have children, but from what I see, and smell, a lot of human waste is cleaned up. But that's another story for another time.

Love is about accepting the imperfections of the other person. As John Legend sang in All of Me, “All your curves and all your edges. All your tiny imperfections.”

That's a big part of it. Your partner won't always be in a good mood. You have to accept that. They won't always be in a bad mood (at least I hope not). You have to accept that as well. They will experience a whole range of emotions, just as you do. How they express those emotions is just as important as the emotions themselves. It is essential that both partners realize that what they are feeling in that moment is what they are feeling; either positive or negative. As Rilke once said, “No feeling is ever final.”

So that brings me to what love really is about.

It is about dedication. It is about deciding that one should stay with a partner, and care for them. It is ultimately everything two people can experience together; kissing, sex, marriage, dating, cuddling, sleeping, holding hands, arguing, making-up, she wants floral wallpaper, you want plaid, she isn't in the mood, you are, and the lawn needs mowing!

It is about the good, the bad, the sexy, the irritating, the offensive, and the unexplained. It all forms one big picture of a grand experience that only humans can have. Yes, it is difficult. But without that grand adventure life would be pretty pointless. You can't choose who you love. But you can choose how well you love. 

Though I think Freud will pretty much full of it, he did say one thing that was true.

When asked, “What is the meaning of life?”

Freud replied, “To love, and to work.”

For once in his cigar-smoking-mommy-obessed life, he was right. Just about one thing. But that one thing he was right about. Life is about loving and working. And loving is about work.

Text copyright Riley Joyce