Post 12: Riddles in the wreckage

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Can there be a train wreck—

—where there’s no wrecked train?


It’s been a strangely peaceful week in Lake World-be-gone, my new home. Spring is really, truly come at last. Now everything springs into leaf and flower. Frogs once again sing their deafening choruses of love in every marsh and pond. From blizzards to bliss—in just two weeks. Nature really doesn’t drag its feet!

Shannon’s strange radiculopathy (No, seriously! That’s still a word this week!) remains unresolved, but far less painful than it was—thanks to batteries of pain killers, muscle relaxers, nerve soothers and steroids—which is a large step in the right direction. Her hand is still numb, however, and her arm and shoulder too weak to lean on. We’ll be seeing yet another doctor Tuesday afternoon, in hopes of finding out what’s really going on there—and why now, all of a sudden.

We’ve had multiple sets of guests this week—right through this morning—all of them enjoyable and interesting company! And way too many delicious meals! I have a new computer—that works! So far. Which makes me very happy. So far. There are new scandals brewing in town—which I may or may not go into further in the coming weeks—depending on what seems safe to air down the line... It’s a very small island.

Beyond these mere tidbits, there is...well, not much to report this week. So, shall we get back to exploring those woods?

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Picking up where we left off...

They say, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” and looking back, it does seem that the limited awareness and understanding of ‘story’ awakened in me as a child caused at least as much trouble as it solved, as I became both increasingly conscious of how much about me needed fixing, and convinced that it could be fixed—if I just tried hard enough, and proved unafraid to know the worst about myself.


As I conceded last week, dawning awareness of ‘story’ and its uses in my own life somehow failed to alert me to the presence or power of other people’s stories—in their lives, or in mine. The results of this rather large oversight? begin with, all my calculations in regard to other people’s behavior—or their reactions to mine—were interpreted by me as reflections on me alone—on my behavior, and my story management—rarely in any self-benefiting way.

As my father had pointed out so clearly to my therapist, I was the one with the problem. My story was the only one in need of adjustment. A view happily endorsed not just by him, but by all sorts of other people around me—for obvious reasons—which only amplified my self-sabotaging miscalculation. I mean, how could so many critics all be wrong, right?

So, if mine was the only story at work and in need of adjustment, then any problems between others and myself, were, virtually by definition, entirely my fault and mine alone to fix. When Mrs. Smith dragged me off to see the principal for scraping my teeth on the fork—or Mr. Leonard blamed my advanced vocabulary for the cutting of my hair by hooligans in class—it would never have occurred to me back then to ask—even silently—‘Hey, what’s your problem?!’ None of them had any ‘problems’ in need of fixing—or they’d have been packed off to therapists too. Right?

Fallacy 1: Anything ‘wrong’ belonged , by default, entirely to me.

And if what normal people brought to the table, wasn’t ‘story,’ then what they brought must be ‘truth’—which, by definition, needs no adjustment. So normal people—ie: virtually anyone but me—were, by default, ‘right’... Which, if we were in disagreement, made me, by definition, ‘wrong.’ Simple logic. RIGHT?

Fallacy 2: Other people are ‘normal.’ And normal people are ‘right’ by default, which, in any disagreement, makes me ‘wrong’ by definition. The only task required is to figure out how I’m wrong—and fix that.

It seems entirely possible to me now that, back then, you could have walked up and poured your coffee over my head, and my only conscious response (I’ll get to unconscious responses further down the page) would have been to wonder what I’d just done wrong—and how to fix it. Nice mouse trap, eh? Of course, all this seemed too obvious then to question even internally, much less discuss with my therapist. As I’ve mentioned before, I was too smart to waste our in-session time with ‘obvious reportage.’ I was much more interested in exploring the countless, still-mysterious issues at work in my mix. 

Really, the only comedy more ingenious than normal life itself is the normal lives of children.


Before we go further, perhaps another snapshot, for clarity?

Toward the end of last week’s confession about my own abuse of a ‘fat girl’ in the local park—years before either therapy or ‘story awareness’ had overtaken me—you may recall I mentioned that just a few years later I’d be the one surrounded by jeering boys in that same park? Well...

There was a boy at my grammar school who particularly liked to poke, punch, trip, shove, tease and generally humiliate me. He was a small, skinny boy and, I now suspect, rather insecure himself, with a secret story likely every bit as sad as, or even sadder than, my own. He may have found in me the only target safe enough to risk asserting his superiority through. Not that I remotely guessed any of that then.

Inevitably, one day in the sixth grade, this demi-bully called me out during recess, insisting I meet him for an after-school fight in that ill-omened park down the hill. Why on earth I or any other boy in history ever actually keeps these appointments is utterly beyond me now—but there we were. I showed up, planning...well, ‘hoping’ anyway—no, really just praying hopelessly that, somehow, I’d manage to punch him back well enough to prove...something to someone. But here’s what happened instead. (And as implausible as this tale will doubtless seem, I swear—on a stack of dead relatives—I still ain’t kiddin,’ even a tiny little bit.)

Inside the cliché ring of jeering boys, this lad and I circled—each likely wondering why the fuck we’d volunteered for this—until I, (believe it or not), decided to take the initiative. I lunged forward to throw a punch at him and start getting this over with. My fist was heading, fast and right on target, for his nose. Like shooting potatoes in a barrel—sure score—when, suddenly, I ‘imagined,’ in vivid, viscerally experiential detail, what he was about to feel—physically—when my fist connected: the ringing impact, the explosive injection of pain, the crunch of cartilage, the gush of blood. Like a gruesome slow-mo movie in my head. And my fist veered—of its own volition—well wide of his face. Missed his head completely—at very close quarters. It seemed to surprise and confuse him so much that there was ample time for me to pull my arm back and launch a second punch straight at his face again while he stood there with his mouth half-open. But again—as if inhabiting his face rather than my own—I felt his pain before the punch had landed, and my fist flew—reflexively—well to one side of his head. (And yes, you Book of Joby readers, I did have the devil do this very thing to Joby as well. There I go, looting my own life again...)

Well, my opponent needed no further encouragement. Realizing that his luckiest day ever had just arrived, he shoved me to the ground, jumped on top of me and, clearly suffering none of my peculiar disability, began gleefully punching me in the face. “Give up!?” he yelled at last. Oddly, I had no trouble saying, ‘No.” Again and again. Punch! “Give up?” “No.” Punch! “Give up?” “No.” Punch! “Give up?” “No.” ...

I don’t know how many more times this broken ‘call-and-response’ was repeated before a few of the guys around us began to feel a little queasy, or just decided this was too sick, and pulled him off of me still deprived of my formal surrender. Without further comment, I got up and took my bruised and battered face home, leaving all those real boys to scratch their heads and glance at each other for clarification of the proper protocols in such a highly irregular situation. I clearly hadn’t been afraid of being punched—or even of the pain. I had only seemed afraid of punching him. What the hell did that mean—and where did it leave either of us?

Ironically, after much boyish philosophizing, it was apparently decided that my challenger’s behavior had been excessively—if not disgustingly—cruel and ‘cheap-shot,’ though I was never quite clear about how, exactly. And, a few days later, the poor lad came around to my yard literally crying that all the other guys hated him now, and I was his only remaining friend. ... Yeah. I’m confused too. Still.

But the point is this: by the time I was in sixth grade, so deeply ingrained was my conviction that I was ‘the one at fault’ allowed—if not even required—to take pain, but never to give it, that even in a fist fight provoked entirely and without clear cause by the other guy, I could-not-bring-myself-to-cause-him-pain—could not, it seems, even clearly separate his pain from mine. I was then, and am now, unaware of any conscious decision not to hit him that day. My arm made that choice—without consulting me. Reflex beyond conscious will.

Weird, huh?

Which is not at all meant to suggest that I’ve caused no one any pain—then or now. Oh yes I did—and do, all the time. Anything skewed out of true that badly will cause the bearer, and those nearby, pain—in all sorts of unanticipated and unusual ways. If anything, causing pain by trying way too hard not to cause pain can be uniquely excruciating—for everyone involved. But I’ll likely get back to that in some future post. Right now, let’s not lose track of my little comedy of errors. ‘Cause here’s where the consequences of my fallacy get even funnier:


As I became more and more focused on examining only my own story for defects and compulsively adjusting myself, I more and more frequently ‘fixed things’ about myself that hadn’t been broken—which is to say, broke things that had been working fine (like Apple does these days with every iOS update. ... Maybe I should have a talk with them. Are they, perhaps, unaware of other people’s stories too? ... But I digress.) Learning to change things for the better by adjusting my own story had done nothing to warn me that such adjustment might as easily change things for the worse. What do I mean? Well, imagine driving down a city street in busy traffic, swerving erratically, again and again, to avoid obstacles or hazards that weren’t where you saw them.

Comedic consequence 1: Fixing every ‘problem’ by adjusting my story even where it was really someone else’s story that required adjustment caused me to become wrong where I hadn’t been before.

By the time I’d reached sixth grade, I was already navigating life like Mr. Magoo, guided by the unthinking assumption that people reacting to me were actually reacting to ME. It never crossed my mind that they might be reacting instead to their own stories about me. Only in the past decade, (quite possibly because of being married to Shannon), have I finally come to recognize how frequently we are rewarded or punished by others as much or more for what they imagine about us as for who we actually are, or what we have actually done.

By way of example, just look at the lives of celebrities—who experience an industrial-strength barrage of this dynamic almost continuously. They are rewarded or punished very loudly, nearly every day, by vast herds of ‘audience’—mostly for whatever that audience and the celebrity’s own handlers have most recently invented together about who the celebrity ‘is.’ No wonder so many of these poor avatars eventually validate their audience’s worst suspicions by becoming whatever has been projected on to them, if not something even worse. A lifetime spent attending the world’s most amazing party—as your own invisible friend—might do that to any of us.

But enough of other people and their dark woods. This post is supposed to be all and only about me, yes? Nothing here to do with others. Certainly not. Heavens to Betsy, no. Moving on...


These fallacious frames had another, even funnier consequence:

Convinced that the source and solution to all problems resided almost exclusively in myself, I probably didn’t act ‘wronged’ at all whenever the Mrs. Smiths and Mr. Leonards of the world voiced one of their bizarre accusations. Being so earnestly determined to know and confront ‘the worst about myself,’ I likely responded to virtually any accusation by acting guilty. And even when I did deny a charge, my ambient assumption of fault would likely have rendered my much more convincing unconscious cues, non-verbal ‘tells,’ facial and body language, to shout, ‘guilty as charged!’

A-hah!’ my accusers must have thought, ‘Just look at him squirm! I knew it! That little rat knows he’s in the wrong just as well as I do.’ I fear this may still be happening today—more often than even I guess.

Comedic consequence 2: Solving conflicts by adjusting things about myself that had not been broken only served to validate and empower the false stories others projected onto me—by making them truer!


And, finally, we arrive at the unconscious elements, and perhaps most unhelpful effect, of this skewed perspective: While my conscious mind—in conscious conversation with so many superiors, critics, and prognosticators—had been assembling this whole big, toxic magic trick behind my own back, somewhere deeper in my unconscious mind, I knew it was all neither true nor fair. And so, far below the surface, I was more and more at war with myself.

There is an old, often-cited vaudevillian routine in which the villain twirls his mustache, and tells the hapless heroine, “You must pay the rent!” To which our penniless maiden replies, “But I can’t pay the rent!” The villain insists, “You must pay the rent!” ... “But I can’t pay the rent!”...and so on until she ends up, somehow, leaping across a raging ice-flow. The conversation behind my eyes—and, more often than not, behind my own back—was much the same in those days. The villain of ‘conscious construct’ intoned, “You must accept the blame!” The hapless hero of ‘unconscious truth-sense’ replied, “But I’m not really to blame!” “The whole story depends on your acceptance of the blame!”  “But I know I’m not to blame!” “Things can only go worse for you if you do not accept the blame—” nauseam.

By sixth grade, then, there were two of me—constantly at war within.

One fought in defense of the story I had pieced together from evidence provided by therapy, fantasy adventures, religion (whose potent influence I will deal with in a later post), and, last but really not least, my family’s own encompassing behavior and mythology. That story, for all its self-sabotaging aspects, offered me the best—perhaps first—promise of ‘control’ I had ever encountered. It was, in many ways, a rather hopeful, very well-intended story, based, unfortunately, on some pretty toxic misunderstandings and/or misrepresentations, depending on how you parse things. 

Meanwhile, the other me fought in defense of what it had known deeper down to be true all along—that I was a scapegoat, for my family, and for pretty much anyone else who came along in need of one. This me, sadly, had far less apparent control to offer me, entangled, as it was, in a larger, family and societal story that had never belonged even primarily, much less solely, to me, and would never be solely mine to navigate or fix.

One me was hogtied by its lies, the other by its seeming lack of power over—or even relevance to—the currents in which I was caught. And, of course, neither of these selves was very articulate or visible in more than vague, ghostly ways to my conscious self.

And, by sixth grade, these two selves were firmly and appropriately fixed in a strangely double external life as well: the fairly pleasant, well-behaved, not unattractive boy, who dressed very neatly and got reasonably good grades, and the strangely disturbing one who talked too much, often to no one in particular, never seemed quite ‘all the way there,’ cried too frequently, was despised by other boys, and gave everyone the willies for...well, no clear reason anyone could put their finger on. The seemingly happy, charming, gifted, well-liked and respected family everyone ‘knew,’ and the sobbing, angry, barely-surviving-ourselves family that no one but us suspected. AND again, not OR. All AND.

I am still sorting out today this mystery of a long, slow, and strangely elusive train wreck—without any visibly wrecked train. None of my family was overtly sick, or addicted, or violent, or ugly, or getting divorced, or even crazy—overtly. Nothing identifiably horrible was happening to us. As I’ve acknowledged in earlier posts, my life, my home, and my marriage today are all marvelous and healthy too—on so many levels. And yet, there is still this strange ‘double exposure’ to my existence, in which almost nothing has moved discernibly forward in nearly a decade, and 2am finds me climbing up and up through endless branches of dark foliage without reaching the sky... The landscape I inhabit today is amazing and marvelous—and strewn with rubble—miles and miles of it—to the horizon—in which I remain still mired somehow, ‘waiting for permission.’ Yet, step even just a few feet farther back—and the train looks fine again, chugging cheerfully, if uneventfully down its track... So why and where from, all this rubble?


Next week, I’ll leave the flower-spangled marshes of my childhood at last, and show you around the dense, exotic jungles of my adolescence and young adulthood for a while—in search of further clues to my train wreck sans wrecked train. What we see there should be...well, even stranger, at the very least.

Until then, cyber companions, thanks again for coming along!

See ya next week.

Mark Ferrari8 Comments