January 9th, 2005

The Masculine Ethos

Joan seemed edgy when I arrived at her place about two and a half hours before our appointment with Victor. I wasn’t feeling exactly relaxed myself. I helped myself to a glass of scotch, and settled into the plush chair by the fireplace.

“Since we have some time on our hands, we might talk about an important issue,” she said.

“What important issue?”

“Your sexual jealousy.”

“Fine,” I said. “Let’s discuss it.”

She sat on the couch, and she leaned forward, rested her forearms on her knees and clasped her hands. As it happened, I’d recently caught a Dr. Phil TV show on the subject of body language. Dr. Phil had said when a person leans forward and clasps hands like that it means he or she is greatly interested in engaging another person in an intimate conversation.

“It’s clear to me,” she said, “that my men friends are enormously threatening to you. And I’ve been wondering—what in the world does that have to do with what’s happening between us? I just don’t get the connection you keep making.”

Before I had a chance to respond, she said that for too long we’d been avoiding this sensitive topic. Which reminded her of the analogy of the elephant in the living room. In a dysfunctional family everyone sits around and pretends the huge animal isn’t actually there, even though it’s dropping huge turds onto the carpet.

I cringed at her odorous exaggeration. But nevertheless I said, “Go on.”

“I need to assure you that while Victor plays an important role in my life at the moment, he is not your rival. He can’t ever be, because I do not—can not—think of him sexually. It’ll just never happen. You need to accept that reality and put aside your chronic jealousy. Which, despite your hating to hear me say it, is pathological.”

“Go on.”

“You’re so very good at sophistry, putting together long passionate speeches, creating elaborate but inappropriate cause-effect sequences that are merely transparent attempts to justify your irrational thinking. You keep throwing the blame on me, when it’s your own behavior that you need to examine.”

“Give me an example of my justifying irrationality.”

“All right. I’m thinking of how you always react to my colleague and mentor, Todd. Instead of saying to me, honestly, that you’re worried he and I have been sleeping together, you instead come at me sideways and call him a charlatan. Argumentum ad hominum.”

Sideways? Well, Joan had a lot of those terms, which sounded to me like the sort of psycho-babble you might encounter in Popular Psychology. That word—like the others she used—had a shining slick surface, but in fact was mushy, imprecise jargon.

“Didn’t you mention that during those three or four weeks you spent in the Canadian wilderness you and Todd shared a tent and sleeping bag?” I asked.

“Yes, and what of it?”

“And weren’t there sweat lodges? And skinny dipping in the lake?”

“Yes, there were.”

“So what’s so irrational in my assuming a healthy attractive man and a healthy attractive woman, cast for a long time in that isolated situation, would do what comes so naturally?”

“Even if we were sleeping together, why is it necessary for you to call him a charlatan?”

“Perhaps because that whole Allentown School District thing he’s peddling has a phony ring to it. Especially that part about him getting you up at dawn, snapping his fingers at you. Like, you damned well better listen to DADDY. Or you’ll be punished.”

We went over these themes a few times. She kept telling me I had nothing to worry about, that the only rivals I had were in my tortured, paranoid imagination. But the more she argued, the less I believed her. And the more I talked, the less she wanted to hear.

She looked at her ladies’ Rolex. “It’s time to go,” she said.

* * *

Victor was in his late twenties or early thirties, much younger and innocent-looking than I expected. He wore an open white lab coat over pale blue designer jeans, and a brass-buckled belt made of woven strips of leather. Also a dark brown sweater. Hair pulled back in a pony tail. Bright white teeth, and an engaging, wholly non-threatening smile.

After Joan introduced me Victor invited us into his studio, or clinic, or whatever he might have called it. A great number of white plastic bottles lined the shelves of one wall, each presumably filled with natural herbs or vitamins. A plastic replica of a human skeleton stood in a corner, supported by a stainless steel stand. Two large framed lithographs showed a detailed frontal and back view of a man's dark red musculature. In the middle of the room was a cushioned narrow platform covered by a wide strip of white paper fed by a spool beneath one end. At its other end was a strange looking padded square with an oval hole in it. I imagined that’s where a patient put his or her face when lying belly down for Victor’s deep body massages.

Victor made a big show of opening up three metal folding chairs he'd gotten from the closet. We sat down.

“So what shall we talk about?” he said brightly.

I was about to say something but Joan chimed in. “Maybe it would be useful if James were to relate to you a vision he had not too long ago in Fairmont Park.”

“What vision?” I said, perplexed.

“The hawk. Remember?”

“Oh, yes, of course,” I said.

“That sounds verrrrrry interesting!” Victor said.

I painted a detailed verbal picture. Victor listened carefully. I elaborated on the cold wetness of the place, standing out there in the light rain beneath a filigree of black tree branches, feeling my hands and feet gradually getting numb, unable to move because I was wholly absorbed by that big hawk eating out the bright red steaming heart of a squirrel.

“Joan tells me you are a writer and photographer,” Victor said.


“So you are, like the squirrel, a solitary worker.”

Victor went on to compare my daily scribbling to a squirrel’s busy gathering of nuts, accumulating a rich supply of nourishment to last him through the coming winter. Everyone knows writing is a long, tedious process. And like a squirrel I’m patient. And industrious. Determined. Tireless. All of which are such admirable qualities.

“Oh, that sounds so much like you,” Joan said.

Jesus! I suddenly got the feeling I was in the middle of a set up. Something these two had previously cooked up together. Dr. Joan and Dr. Victor, by pure happenstance, are of exactly the same mind when it comes to this chap James Stephens. This fellow with the sexual jealousy issues. This self-deluded wretch, so fond of rhetoric and inappropriate cause-effect sequences.

“I’m curious,” I said.
“About?” replied Victor.
“Your directing so much attention to the squirrel. It was the hawk who delivered the message.”
“But the squirrel, too, had something to say.”
“Perhaps, but not as important as what the hawk told me. Let’s examine him for just a bit.”

Victor didn’t miss a beat.

“Very well. Let’s see. Hmmmm. The hawk is aggressive, a hunter. He flies high in the sky, his sharp eyes taking in all he surveys. He’s powerful, fearless. You might say he represents the masculine ethos.”
“Yes, that’s precisely what I thought.”

Victor leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head. I knew right away what that move indicated, because Dr. Phil’s TV program had covered it too. Victor wanted to assert his dominance, control, and to show us his superiority.

“Perhaps the problem you’re experiencing in your relationship with Joan,” he said quietly, “is that she wants to see more of your hawk and less of your squirrel.”

That brought a smile to my face. “I don’t doubt she does.”

I could have added that nevertheless Joan gets her nose bent quite out of shape when, in response to the problems she shares with me, I immediately barrage her with hawk-like “solutions” rather than just listening. But that would have been too much of an inside joke.

After a few more turns around this particular track it finally was time for Joan to open her purse and extract some new $50 bills from her wallet. She counted out five, which Victor accepted, his white teeth flashing in a big smile.

I knew from the moment I shook Victor’s hand that he and Joan were not sleeping together. So from my point of view the whole thing had been a fabulous success. And worth every penny of her hard-earned money.