Log in

No account? Create an account

John Palcewski's Journal

Works In Progress

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
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.

  • 1
I really enjoy your writing. It’s excellent! I especially love the yin and yang mingling and mending in both of your characters. On a lighter note – aren’t all relationships a bliss? They never get simple and cute, do they?

One question though. James seemed to know right from the start what he was getting himself into; nonetheless he got involved with Dr. Joan. Isn’t it a little masochistic on his part?


The key to James's behavior is that he was, above everything else, a writer. He knew from the beginning she'd make a good story. Plus he believed that it's better to stay in a relationship longer than you should, just to avoid the mistake of leaving too early. He wanted to be absolutely sure.

I knew from the moment I shook Victor's hand that he and Joan were not sleeping together.

Honestly, why does he care?

He doesn't to adore or even respect Joan. He certainly doesn't seem to act territorial of her... all the questioning and asking about other men seems in stark contrast to everything that is James narrates and seems to feel about her.

When the relationship started James was quite drawn to her both as intriguing fictional material and as a potential life partner, but she immediately rebuffed his territorial designs, told him that his seeking commitment made her uncomfortable. All along he tried to break through her terror of intimacy and her mental gymnastics. Now, toward the end, he's seeing her more clearly. But he wants to be absolutely sure, so he decides to hang in there for just a while longer.

looking forward to reading the next bit tomorrow

I really hate to make light of your work, but I couldn't help but wonder.

Could Joan have been in some sort of Dominant/submissive relationship with Todd? Now THAT would be a twist in your story! Prim, Proper, and all too Perfect Dr Joan in leather and lace, chained to a wall. *giggles*

An interesting thought, but then I imagine that a dominant/submissive thing brings some sort of mutual pleasure to the participants. Whereas what Todd was doing to Joan had echoes of her demanding father and she was perpetually unhappy trying without success to please him.

I'm laughing about your Dr. Phil references on the body language. HE is the big charlatan here, not Victor !!

Is Victor really that good that he can get Dr. Joan to pay him $250/visit? Obscene!

Re: Doctor, Doctor!

in p/analytic terms handing over a wad of cash is part of the therapy because it signals to the patient that they are investing/valuing the treatment. This is also why the patient has to pay even for sessions which s/he cannot attend.

Convenient, isn't it?


Forewarned is forearmed

I really enjoyed this. May the forces that guide us preserve me from falling for someone like Joan!! I haven't analysed it, nor do I want to, but for some reason I find her repellent. I'm not surprised james pours himself a scotch. I feel like shouting at him, No James, get out of there, don't get sucked in!

Re: Forewarned is forearmed

As the relationship unfolds, James is starting to see that Joan likely never will consent to be his life partner and that the differences between them--intellectually and ethically--are more profound than he first imagined. Being an optimist to his core (a photographer who uses a soft filter to erase his lover's sags and wrinkles!), he's hesitant to move too quickly to a breakup.

So, you admit you used her, as fictional material, from the beginning. I think you got off on the power play, NOT giving her a second chance... a hawk in sheep's clothing, hunt-and-pecking her heart out in secret, petty revenge.

I saw a raptor devouring a rat's intestines atop a lightpole, once, but it was much too far away for me to be able to see its actual heart.

In secret? Except perhaps toward the end James confronted Joan directly with the disagreements he had with her, and he gave the relationship many, many chances before he finally realized the poor woman--permanently locked as she was in a struggle with father and intimacy issues--was incapable of participating in a loving partnership.

As for getting off on power plays, Susan Sontag reminds us that "to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed", and "there is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera." And yet James used a soft filter to mask Joan's physical imperfections.

Petty revenge? Which painter, photographer, poet, or writer throughout the history of art has NOT used a partner as a subject?

Re: Partner as Subject

Are you sure James didn't use the soft filter simply to make it easier for himself to enjoy?

I'm not sure how I'd feel if my life partner chose to "edit" my features like that.

(Except when the digital filter effects make it look like pop art or sunbursts or whatever.)

However, I can't agree it was "noble" or "kind" for him to soften the images; it's too controlling for that.

I enjoy your work, but there's something about it that deeply provokes me... You riposte and repost quite admirably, however, which alters my view of the text.

Re: Partner as Subject

Are you sure James didn't use the soft filter simply to make it easier for himself to enjoy?

Enjoy what?

I'm not sure how I'd feel if my life partner chose to "edit" my features like that.

Well, I suggest it depends on what you look like and how old you are. If you’re a cute, fresh-faced undergraduate female (which I suspect is the case) you likely require no editing, hence you’d naturally feel offended by any alteration whatever, ‘cause you’re picture perfect just the way you are. If however you’re middle-aged or old, you likely would not be very happy with a sharp print that reveals your pores, freckles and zits, and those drooping purplish bags under your eyes, and the permanent frown marks between your eyebrows, and the creases that pull down the corners of your mouth into a permanent scowl, and that loose wattle of yours that wiggles when the wind blows. No, you’d likely prefer a much softer look. Unless you’re a man, in which case you probably wouldn’t care one way or another.

(Except when the digital filter effects make it look like pop art or sunbursts or whatever.)

Digital filter? What’s that? I thought we were talking about the glass thing you use in an enlarger when making a print from a negative.

However, I can't agree it was "noble" or "kind" for him to soften the images; it's too controlling for that.

In the three-sentence paragraph that describes James’s darkroom manipulation the words “noble” and “kind” do not appear. Controlling? Are you suggesting that to avoid the charge a professional photographer must do absolutely nothing with his images? And what would you expect a portrait painter to do? Every brush stroke he or she makes is “controlling.” I guess he or she’d be obliged to not do a portrait at all.

I enjoy your work, but there's something about it that deeply provokes me... You riposte and repost quite admirably, however, which alters my view of the text.

I must confess what provokes me—or to be more precise, annoys me—is carrying on a conversation with an “anonymous” figure. With a few mouse clicks you can get an overview of my entire literary and photographic career, as well as where I live, and what I ate for Christmas dinner. You? Your IP ( says you're posting from Cambridge, MA. Beyond that, all I know is that you’re a lurker, hiding in the shadows. I won’t ask why.

Re: Partner as Subject

Enjoy looking at? Pleasuring himself to? What did you think I mean?

I was quite tickled you'd think I was a fresh-faced undergraduate. But don't you see? If I were, then I'd already have a cute user name and a bubbly animated icon, and I'd simply be repeating the "Poor James" and "Gee, I like your writing" comments that so often appear in this space.

Actually, I do like your writing. Obviously.

What more do you really need to know about me? Do you need a name? How about the Mighty Zorn of Zorna -- or the Golux? Or the Lorax? Sure, I'm posting from Cambridge. You're posting from Italy. We had turkey for Christmas... ooooh, now you really know me.

Do you remember in the early days of the Internet you didn't have to provide your name, rank and serial number, and people wouldn't get annoyed with you for that? Do you need to see a list of my interests? What possible good -- or control -- or comfort -- does that provide?

On to more fun topics... not being a techno geek, I lack the correct phrasing for the digital camera terminology. It's not my camera. But there are these cool settings where with the touch of a button you can turn your subject into what looks like a pop art painting, or a photographic negative, etc. It's fun to play around with.

The "noble" inference comes from my reading where James uses a filter to soften the features, as though that were some kind of a kindness to Joan. He makes a really big deal out of it, in the text, like he's doing her a favor.

At least a painter doesn't say what's on his mind when he's deciding to include or exclude her pubic hair, for example.


Take care. Have an espresso for me.

Re: Partner as Subject

The "noble" inference comes from my reading where James uses a filter to soften the features, as though that were some kind of a kindness to Joan. He makes a really big deal out of it, in the text, like he's doing her a favor.

Only 65 of 22,000 words of the story are devoted to the filtering of Joan's photo. That's .002 percent, hardly a big deal. James merely casually reports he did the manipulation. He's a professional photographer and he isn't embarking on "some kind of a kindness" in the process of enhancing a portrait. Which process has absolutely nothing to do with one human's attempt to control another. Control is an issue you keep bringing up, which suggests it's your problem, not James's.

On the one hand you say you like my writing. Thanks you, glad that you do. On the other hand I feel a hell of a lot of anger and hostility lurking between your lines.

Do you need to see a list of my interests? What possible good -- or control -- or comfort -- does that provide?

You remain in the shadows, lurking. And here comes the word "control" again. I remain annoyed by anonymous lurkers.

  • 1