Saturday, January 30, 2010

J.D. Salinger and Adolescence, Censorship and Fame

The following was originally a comment made to someone on an internet news site who disparaged the talents and influence of J.D. Salinger. This past week Mr. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, died.

Beyond the point of defending a writer who was influential to my years of rebellion and transition to adulthood, it seems important to say that, in order to manage their trip through the potentially dangerous terrain of adolescence, children require vantage points of reflection that represent their experience in a way that is honest, nonjudgmental, and non-condescending. They need to see themselves in the world to enter it confidently and constructively.

The periodic collective ire that J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye produces among those who wish to narrow the range of what our children can see and recognize about themselves as they grow into adulthood has always dismayed me, even though I understand it as inevitable in a world of adults whose own adolescences have often been restricted and narrowed by well-meaning but ultimately counter-productive social forces that create even more dangerous trends and collective actions than they hoped to prevent through censorship.

Regardless of whether you think Salinger's work is the product of genius or not, its worth perhaps can be measured by the very resistance that it produced in those whose ideas about adolescence is stunted and unrealistic.

And one more thing: Salinger spent much of his life resisting the trappings and recognition of fame and celebrity. All kinds of assumptions are made about this without his input. That in itself makes me doubt the veracity of those assumptions and put them down to the worst kind of rumor mongering and envy.

In my work I have met and been privy to the secrets and pain, as well as the joys and great accomplishments, of people from a wide, wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, family systems and levels of community recognition and fame. Beyond some very basic creature comfort issues that poverty creates, I have yet to meet anyone whose wealth and/or fame has had any real impact on the nature or the feelings of satisfaction and meaningfulness of their lives. Often great wealth and fame becomes a hindrance to people looking for connection and meaning in the world.

Salinger's characters, particularly in his post Catcher in the Rye writing, wrestled openly and deeply with these very issues... and for the most part they came to a very personal and workable set of standards for themselves in relationship to recognition and privacy. It is interesting that many of us automatically assume that those who actively reject the trappings of fame and recognition are automatically relegated to the slag heap of the irredeemably neurotic and/or misanthropic. As if the culture that worships and reveres the rare and often jaded lives of those whose every move is spied upon and extrapolated into absurdity has been able to set healthy standards related to who, how and why and when people should be lifted into celebrity and that those who reject those standards, even after watching someone like Michael Jackson be turned into a side-show freak, are somehow unstable and lack a healthy sense of self.

I beg to differ, and differ strongly: the strength and resolve and sense of inner cohesion that it takes to reject the superficial and ultimately narcissistic, seductive, pull of celebrity must be immense and in some ways spiritually transcendent. That Salinger, if we are to listen to and believe his children, was in some ways still a victim of a routine range of human foibles and quirks (and believe me, it doesn't take the absence or presence of fame and wealth to make people chock full of foibles and quirks) only makes him more like us, more a part of the irascible and infinitely individuated miracle of what is human, and how we are connected to the collective mind of what is called the divine.


Developmentally it is the job of adolescents to rebel. Their ability to differentiate themselves from their parents and elders is hugely integrated into how they are able to integrate the necessary individuation into their concurrent socialization as they enter adulthood... a process that generally takes until they have an adult brain at about age 25. As adults it is our job to guide them through this. To think we can protect them by censoring the literature about rebellion, a natural and normal developmental stage or at least an indicator of that stage, is about as effective as an abstinence only program to help them figure out what to do with the new and undeniable sexual urges they are subject to and that their brain development dictates cannot be ignored. In fact, that new sexuality is an inseparable part of that development and the rebellion it entails.

Anyway, for me Catcher in the Rye is the least important writing he did.

You might consider that censorship to an adolescent brain, informal from a parental angle or formal, is like trying to help them lose weight by eating cheesecake in front of them and telling them they can't have any.

As parents we probably will make choices all along, as we should, about what we are willing to let into our children's sphere of influence, but we should be careful about being too rigid about going forward in our efforts to shape their exposures by understanding that our "nos" can automatically increase the status and allure of what we are saying no about. Instead we might focus on being with them compassionately as they navigate this part of their lives, cultivating a relationship of trust so that we can know what they are choosing to read and see; help them integrate it into a healthy rebellion as opposed to one made more dangerous because it has to be done in secrecy and deceit, attributes that come quite naturally to the adolescent brain if attempts are made to squelch instead of guide the rebellion they must do.

This may, in fact, be a theme in Catcher in the Rye... it certainly is in Franny and Zooey although from an opposite angle... Franny and her world being something of an opposite perspective from Holden Caulfield’s in the processes of rebellion and the outcomes. Franny internalizes rebellion more and Holden externalizes. Franny's parents and family facilitate it in their own endearing if in some eyes “neurotic” way, while Holden's become more punitive.

And if it's the historical, potentially dated, aspect of the writing that puts you off, in that it seems to you to encourage rebellion without the kinds of consequences that the modern world seems to levy, I would think that kids would be even more gratified and relieved to know that these issues are universal and timeless to adolescents. It would be like dissing Oliver Twist and refusing to allow poor children and orphans to read it or refusing to read it to them because it is out of date. Why do you think shows like "Grease" and "By Bye Birdie" still get a significant amount of air time in high school drama and music departments (if they even HAVE music departments left)?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Real Ways to Go Into an Unsure Future

Let’s face it, there’s a lot to be worried about…

“I have these moments
All steady and strong
I’m feeling so holy and humble
The next thing I know
I’m all worried and weak
And I feel myself
Starting to crumble….”

-- Dan Fogelberg

Let’s face it, these days there’s a lot to be worried about.

In fact, though I don’t have any figures to prove it, I would wager that among the only growth industries left in the country a few have some connection to increasing levels of dread and anxiety and loss. To pretend or behave otherwise may be tempting, but ultimately not helpful.

Certainly, in times like these, we can be attracted to and overwhelmed by those almost delusional, and most definitely absurd, claims that riches are ours if only we maintain what is a bizarrely packaged and described “positive attitude”: consult our crystals and our new “positivity” gurus, and invite affluence in. No wonder ads and claims for such things are growing like weeds.

While maintaining a level of positive regard for what we are capable of is not to be sneered at, there is a level of the unrealistic that is seductive but ultimately disappointing and even addicting in these claims that flood the media waves and those opportunistic self help info-mercials during rough times. Still, with or without them, we must push forward… we must persevere.

Still, we must go into our futures with our sense of meaning and purpose intact, in spite of losses that, for many people, increase daily and are measured in sometimes extreme and heartbreaking ways. No amount of ungrounded positive thinking will change this.

Nor perhaps should we try to force a positive spin on happenings that range from loss of income and home to the tragedy of the event of chronic illness or the death of close loved ones. Even the constant barrage of negative news about our government servants that seems to place them in a range from inept to purposefully malfeasant adds to the ingredients in a recipe for a sour soup that we have little choice but to eat. It is fed to us daily and may often directly relate to our own very personal losses.

So how do we go forward? How do we keep our sense of self from faltering into unrelenting despair and clinical depression? How do we count our blessings when they are being smothered or stolen? What is the recipe for keeping our heads above water, appreciating the shrinking part of the happiness pie that is ours, and refraining from passing on an intolerable level of gloom to those who are close to us and who are passing through their own dark times? How do we create and maintain a small light in this tunnel of dark?

I’d like to propose a few ways that might help.

These are not the tricky self-spin invitations into the inane world of cheap public relations sloganeering that so often infects self-help discourse. These admit and hopefully guide one through the grief of bad times, while using that grief to start to build a new structure of meaning. Because, often, what we have lost will truly never be regained; because often we must work hard and traverse an empty cold field after a series of losses before we even start to recognize and appreciate the way life presents us with reasons to go on: a deeper meaning, even love, to rely upon… a realization that what helps us persevere is always with us and will not forsake us even in the worst of times.

In fact, I’d propose that if what we have placed great meaning and purpose in has abandoned us, it may serve us better to come to a more workable, deeper understanding about what it is made of; it may serve us better to recreate it rather than try to force it, leaks and all, across the deep rough water of the difficult periods in our lives.

1) When you are scared of the future due to things beyond your control do a quick life review.
a. What has helped in past difficult periods of time?
b. How does this rough time measure up to those past times?
c. What deeper, even spiritual, wisdom did you gain?
d. How much can you trust yourself based on your past?

2) Can you actively devise a method to help yourself refrain from judging your pain and just focus on feeling it without the multiplying effect of guilt or shame?

3) What have you enjoyed in the past day or week that has delivered you for a time outside your grief? Can you duplicate it? If not, can you look forward or cultivate openness to another time in which something similar might occur?

4) What jobs do you absolutely have to do today that relate directly to the source of the loss? Can you schedule a time for that work and stick to that schedule?

5) Assuming there are a number of ways to cry (some sob, some do not shed tears but feel it in their bodies, some need space to shout and be angry) do you think you’ve been able to do enough of it to help heal?

6) How much time do you need to make for people?
a. How much aloneness helps?
b. How much aloneness reinforces your feelings of isolation?
c. Who can be trusted and relied on?
d. Who has proven to be a fair-weather friend?
e. Who makes you laugh?

7) What activities are soothing without turning into damaging crutches or addictions? If you have a history of addictions, how can you get support for and maintain your current level of recovery?

8) What spiritual practices (and I interpret the term “spiritual practices” very very broadly) feel empty or lack connection to your current predicament? Are you willing to let them go at least for a time? Which spiritual practices, new or old, assist in the deep tasks of inner reconciliation and healing? Are there people or places that facilitate or encourage those spiritual practices? When and how often do you plan to share time with those people in those places doing those things?

9) Can you devise a simple, quick way to keep track of and measure your progress through your difficult time? Marking a calendar on a day to day basis with a simple three level measurement system (G=good, M=medium, B=Bad) or keeping a journal of short entries specifically about your progress can be a help as time goes on.

10) Assuming that you have always been able to traverse bad times in your life without the professional assistance of a coach, counselor or therapist, when would you know that you might benefit from such an intervention? And if you have benefitted from such professional help in the past, when do you think you would seek it out again?

Many of these ways are not pat activities or answers that claim to solve or fix a part of life that is difficult, sad and seems not to have easy solutions. I propose that is largely because, sometimes, life is not fixable or solvable in that way. To pretend otherwise is dishonest and can multiply the nature and difficulties inherent in these dark times. We are often simply unable to see far enough into our futures to know what will happen, nor are we blessed with any magic keys that unlock the problems inherent in a life that is inextricably attached to other lives, other circumstances and streams of events that we truly have no control over.

Sometimes the challenge is just to ride the terrible roller coaster as best as we can.

I am more than willing to arrange for exploratory coaching sessions to discuss these things further. We can start with a conversation that my list above has brought to the forefront and then decide if more sessions would be helpful. Look elsewhere on this blog for contact information or send me a message via the comments to get in touch.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Guest Contribution for the New Year: Franklin Abbott

Franklin Abbott is a psychotherapist and poet who lives in Stone Mountain Georgia. We have been friends for over twenty years. We first met during a Men and Masculinity conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The conferences were a series of well attended gatherings for connection, education and transformation of men and interested women. They were sponsored by an organization of pro-feminist men who were working hard to come to new concepts and actualizations of what being a man could mean and be. The organization was good at everything but finding a name for itself and it changed it's name too many times for me to keep up. Franklin and I were both poets. It was an organization that, in those years, valued poetry and gave us substantial audience for our work. I think this is a beautiful way to welcome in the New Year without unrealistic hyperbole about resolution, but one that does not side-step hope and the power of self actualized personal growth. --- B. Vance


That's the way life is --
Falling over seven times
Getting up eight
-- Japanese kotowaza/folk poem

It was a normal day in Fall. I was sweeping the walkway behind my house while my friend Martha Ham was getting her luggage ready for the ride to the airport. Maybe it was my new shoes, maybe the leaves had stayed too long on the plank I was sweeping but my feet went out from under me and I fell sideways on my left hip and landed with a dull thud. No one except the birds and the squirrels saw me. I picked myself up, dusted myself off and continued sweeping.

I know how to fall. I can't remember where I learned or who taught me. Maybe some forgotten P.E. teacher in a long ago gym class first explained it was better to fall without struggle. This has come in handy since I lack normal coordination and depth perception.

I tend to move slowly and deliberately to avoid hurting myself and so far, knock on wood, I haven't broken anything. Another Japanese proverb states: Even monkeys fall out of trees. When I was a little monkey, seven or so, I did fall out of a tree. I had a puncture wound in my left thigh that required stitches. I can still remember what it looked like to be sewn up though I can't remember the doctor. I remember after the fall my little brother pulled me home in a wagon. The only "ambulance" (knock on wood twice) that I've ever ridden in.

I remember reading The Fall by Albert Camus in college. I should probably re-read it given how unlikely it is that my 19 year old mind grasped much of what the French existentialist was talking about. I know it had something to do with the fall from grace, somehow connected to the Bible story of the Evil One tempting Eve to tempt Adam in the Garden of Eden. I remember a Sunday school argument over whether she used an apple or a fig. I knew from the mild form of Christianity I was brought up in that the fall resulted in original sin and that I was by dint of birth, a sinner. I was thinking of none of this when my hip hit the ground. I was soon driving Martha and myself to lunch and then her to the airport. I wasn't sore and when I checked later I wasn't bruised.

It took several days for what happened to manifest in odd ways. I was going to the Gay Spirit Visions Conference in the mountains of western North Carolina where I would be a featured speaker. I was going with friends Roger Bailey and Cal Gough and I asked Roger to drive as I was feeling shaky. The conference was celebrating its 20th anniversary and I had keynoted at the first conference so I was brought back as a piece of living history. I had prepped for the presentation with Bob Strain and we would mix music, poetry and reminiscence in our morning with the gay spirit brothers. Despite a wonderful massage, my hands were still shaking, my balance was off, my brain was a little foggy and I felt like a Coca Cola with no bubbles. I adjusted my presentation buoyed by Bob and the delicious energy of the hundred plus men who gathered with us. As the conference progressed so did my shakiness making feeding myself an awkward chore in the cafeteria. Back home I had a terrific Thai massage by a man I met at the conference and after an afternoon at the office gave a reading for my new book, Pink Zinnia, at Outwrite. I know I appeared nervous as my hands were shaking. Like at the conference I could hardly sign my name. The next day I was better and the day after that

I went to the kung fu chiropractor at my gym. Though petite, she is a take no prisoners manipulator and one chop to my left hip and I heard an amazing pop as my pelvis relocated. Within twenty four hours I was fine, balanced, coherent and I could write legibly!

The nanakorobiyaoki (fall down seven times, get up eight) proverb has been pinned to the wall by the door going down a flight of stairs into my garage for a number of years. It has taken on new meaning. I know there will be a time to fall and not get up. That happened to several of my friends who died this year, one a little younger, four not too much older. Part of the price of surviving is to pay tribute to the fallen. I learned this lesson young back in the bleak years of the AIDS epidemic when I couldn't count the number of friends and colleagues lost to the virus. 2010 will bring more losses. Mortality, mine and that of all living things, is inevitable. I don't have any sway over that variable. What surprises me is that at 59, I can still lose innocence.

Like everyone I know I was and am impacted by the loss of physical and financial security brought home by the events of the last decade. As cynical as I can be at times I am still mourning the loss of the American dream. As hopeful as I feel about the change of administrations and the election of our first African American president, I have lost something that I can't get back, a naive belief in inevitable progress. Things will not always get better and better. I did not believe that with my intellect but it was deep inside me.

My Venezuelan friend Alejandro invented a word: believance, a cross between belief and observance. I had a believance in the American dream that was as strong as my believance in original sin.

So, a new year is here and a new decade to boot. I have lots to be thankful for including, thanks to my fall, the ease with which my fingers are now moving over the keyboard.

I am loathe to make resolutions for the New Year. One of the gifts of getting older is making peace with who you are. I will not learn a foreign language, a musical instrument, run a marathon or organize my files in the year to come. My mentor and friend the poet James Broughton would often say that the two things we need more of are praise and gratitude.
Praise be it for All Creation or the waiter who brings my food is something I will endeavor to give more of. And gratitude, well that brings tears to my eyes, despite all that I have lost and we have lost, I am grateful for such good company on the journey as I have.
And I am grateful - nanakorobiyaoki - having fallen down seven times to have gotten up eight.

Franklin Abbott
3 January 2010
Stone Mountain

I am happy to supply references for the talented folks who helped me heal from my fall:
Tom Clephane, Bill Hufschmidt, and Dr.Marina Harris.
An interesting website on Japanese proverbs is .
For more information on Gay Spirit Visions: .
For more information on Outwrite (and to order Pink Zinnia):