Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Benefit of Piano Lessons

One of my most memorable students was from an Eastern culture.  She was very conservative.  Dating was controlled by her family.  I would tease her about the strict rules she lived by.  One morning she announced that she had become engaged to her boyfriend.  He had asked her family and they had consented to the union.  I asked how being engaged would change their relationship.  She seemed to respond in wonder.  “William, we are now allowed to be alone together.”  Almost conspiratorially she went on, “When we were alone for the first time, we held hands.  William, it was incredible!  I felt this warm surge of energy coming through his hand into my hand.  It was magnificent.”  
I was stunned and fascinated by her confession.  There was a reverence in her voice.  This had been an incredibly powerful experience for her.  She was mature enough to appreciate this very special moment in her life.  I felt a touch of jealousy.  Her recounting the experience had an impact on me.    
That night I remembered the first time I held hands with a girl.  I was in 6th grade.  Thursdays at 5 PM I had a piano lesson with Miss Gilbert at the Eastman School of Music.  For the most part, it was tortuous.  Miss Gilbert couldn’t stand me.  The one redeeming quality about Thursdays was Nina.  Nina took violin lessons at the same time as my piano lesson.  Nina had this exotic gorgeous beauty.  Her long brown hair was captivating.  She wore a school uniform, but rolled up the waist of her skirt.   She had big brown eyes and these knee high boots that I will never forget.  And she liked me!  Or maybe she was just taking pity on me.  I’ll never know.    
On one occasion, she and I walked into downtown Rochester together.  While we walked we held hands.  It was my left hand and I can remember the energy I felt coming from her hand.   I don’t know how else to describe it.  It was one of the high points of my adolescence.  Holding Nina’s hand while we walked downtown made me feel euphoric.  While I remember feeling it, I didn’t appreciate what was happening at the time.  Having remembered the experience, it now stays with me.   
When I transferred to the private high school, I didn’t fit in with the other students.  In order to make myself seem bigger, I told them that Nina was my girlfriend.  Within the day, she had denied it, which made me look like an even bigger fool.  
She may have never been my girlfriend, but on that day, on that walk, when we held hands, she was everything I could ever dream of at the age of twelve.  

Thursday, November 2, 2017


How do you figure out your identity when it keeps changing?  Who I am today is different then who I was yesterday.  Each day I have experiences that continue to shape my personality and attitudes.  Some people seem to know who they are from childhood.  Others never figure out who they are.     
Professionally, when people first meet me, they tend too refer to me as doctor.  They do it out of respect for the work I did to earn a Ph.D.  But I always ask them to call me William.  When they question me, I explain that the doctor title was the result of a few years of study and an extensive research paper.  “William” was the result of a lifetime of looking inside and figuring out who I am.  I worked a lot harder on becoming William than I did becoming doctor.  
Repeatedly in season six of Game of Thrones, they ask the question, “Who are you?”   It started me thinking about my own identity.   Who I am is the most important thing I bring to my clients in my office.  If I don’t know who I am, its difficult to help others figure out who they are.  Then again, knowing who you are is important in intimate relationships.  
Growing up I didn’t know who I was.  I was probably as lost as the next person, but that doesn’t make it any easier.  I didn’t have an identity.  I was whatever my parents, teachers and friends said I was.  This didn’t get any better in adolescence.  When I would begin a new relationship, I would immediately lose myself into the “us.”  I didn’t know how to hold on to me, because I was so poorly defined.  
I know what this looked like.  It would be Friday night and we would be deciding what we would eat and I would keep repeating, “What ever you want.”  I didn’t have enough substance to say, “I want Chinese, or Italian,” or anything specific.  I wanted whatever she wanted.  The person that they were initially attracted to got lost.  
It was all about my insecurity.  I wasn’t valuable enough to myself to think that someone would stay with me if I really let them see me.  So I would hide behind, “You choose.  I’m good with whatever you want tonight.”  
Successful relationships are usually found through each person growing and finding out who they are and then being themselves with the other person.  It took me a long time to figure out who I was.  But I know one major contribution.  
I was a Freshman at Monroe Community College.  I don’t remember which class it was, but the professor was taking role.  I responded when he called out my name, “Bill Boylin.”  I had been “Billy” all my life.  I never really thought much about my name.  The girl behind me tapped me on the shoulder.  She was very pretty with jet black hair and beautiful brown eyes.  She looked me square in the face and confidently informed me that I was not a Bill, I was a William.  The name stuck like glue.  It was as if it was tattooed on my forehead.  From then on, I was William.  She was right, that was a significant part of my identity.  To this day I only have a couple of friends who call me “Billy.”  Predominately they are friends from my childhood who knew me when I was Billy.  

That girl and I almost got married.  We were deeply in love.  We did get engaged after we finished college.  But I wasn’t ready.  It would have been a disaster, because I didn’t know who I was and I was still too immature to maintain a relationship.  Another step in figuring out who I was happened when I realized I wasn’t ready to get married.  We talked and ended the engagement, but not without fighting and tears.  She helped me in figuring out who I was.  All those wonderful relationships I had as a young man each contributed to my discovering my identity.  
                 Today I have a pretty good idea who I am.  I'm just not sure who I will be tomorrow. 

Monday, April 24, 2017


Having had a great experience at Syracuse U. doing telephone crisis counseling, I joined a similar organization when I got to grad school.  I started the Masters in Psychology program at SUNY Geneseo in 1973.  Upstate New York was the home of the suffragettes and Susan B. Anthony.  At that time, our culture seemed at the height of liberalism and feminism.  Char was an undergraduate but the Director of the Telephone Crisis Counseling program at the school.  She and I worked together to teach the skills needed to be on the phones.  She was pretty, petite, insightful with beautiful long brown hair.  
Char gave me my first lesson in systems therapy.   After a training seminar a number of us went out to eat.  Char and I had barely started our conversation when she turned to me, her eyes got thin and almost accusingly she said:  “You’re the younger brother of a brother, aren’t you?”  She had a confidence and an authority in her presentation.  I had no idea how she knew this.  She proceeded to give me my first lesson in family therapy.  She explained how my personality signaled my placement in my family.  She showed me how behavior is tied to the family of origin.  This may have been the beginning of my love for family therapy.    
Char was in an open relationship when I knew her.  On a couple of occasions we ran into each other when we were both single.  It was a time of romance and love without the necessity of trying to maintain a relationship.  The morning after our second encounter she sent me a bouquet of flowers.  It was the one and only time that someone sent me flowers.  It was a very loving thing to do.  Initially, I was confused by the gesture, being that I’m a guy.  It seemed upside down, that she was sending me flowers.   But I quickly came to accept her message.  

Char taught me about the family and how the dynamics affect the people.  She taught me that feminism meant I didn’t have to follow gender stereotypes, I could define for myself who I am and who I want to be.  Finally, she gave me a lesson in love.  

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Mrs. Bottsford's School of Dance and Etiquette

Every Friday night over 200 youths attended Mrs. Bottsford’s School of Dance and Etiquette in East Rochester.  In addition to learning the Fox Trot, the Cha Cha, the Mexican Hat Dance, Rock ‘n Roll and the Waltz, we were taught etiquette and the proper way to conduct oneself in public. There were many kids from elite families.  I was from the other side of town, but at that age, nobody cared.  From 6th grade through 9th grade I was trained by Mrs. Bottsford and her dance instructor, Ms. Leonard.  There were two important issues that were relevant on Friday night.  First, I was very popular with Mrs. Bottsford, because my brother had been there and he always did everything right.  Therefore, I was often picked to demonstrate a new dance step.  This was not only embarrassing, but extremely intimidating.
The second thing to know is that I had discovered girls.  Actually, I was totally girl crazy.  At Bottsford’s I had discovered the most beautiful Ginny Summers.  She was pretty and sweet and I had a crush on her.  Because I’ll never be able to forget her or her name, I used her name in my novel, Bedlam.  I used to try and position myself to dance with her as often as possible.  We were only allowed to dance with a particular girl once, before excusing ourselves and moving on to someone else.  I knew she liked me, but I had competition.  Gerald Barney (also a name from Bedlam), was much handsomer than I was.  I’m sure she liked him better.  
The dance hall was a huge futuristic room.  It was beautiful, with a wooden doomed roof like a modern indoor swimming pool.  There were actually two dance floors.  When you first entered, on the upper level was a small dance floor, maybe 30 x 30 feet.  Then, down several steps was the larger dance floor.  The lower dance floor must have been half the size of a football field.  Sometimes Mrs. Bottsford would pull out select children to give her ‘special’ lectures to on the upper level.  I was always included in these lectures.  
We had been dancing for 15 minutes or so when I succeeded in maneuvering myself to dance with Ginny.  When the music ended, I escorted her to a chair, bowed and then sat next to her for social conversation.  Mrs. Bottsford appeared on the upper level of the dance floor.  Instantly, the room fell silent, which is an amazing accomplishment for a room full of 14 year olds.  “A young lady has arrived to join us.  Is there a young man who can escort her to the dance floor?”  While maintaining great posture, every guy there tried to shrink.  She may have been a most wonderful young lady, but at 14 years old we were all scared to be singled out.  It did not help that she was unattractive.  I know that’s superficial, but that’s who I was.  Mrs. Bottsford repeated her request.  She wanted someone to volunteer, but no one was offering.  Then I heard the words I dreaded.  “Mr. Bollin.”   She always pronounced my name incorrectly.  I think she was trying to make it sound fancier, more uppity.  “Mr. Bollin, will you come and escort this young lady to the dance floor?”  I had no choice. 
Following proper etiquette I stood up, faced Ginny and bowed.  I turned and started my trek to the stairs.  Walking the length of that floor with almost 200 kids watching was frightful.  Inside I was shaking.  In my mind I had to think about every step, the swing of my hands, holding my head up high and having a smooth gait.  It only took me a few seconds to reach the stairs, but it felt like an eternity.  I smiled at Mrs. Bottsford as I started up the stairs.  There were probably only 5 or 6 steps, but I wasn’t to make it to the landing.  Just before the last step, I tripped.  I fell on my face and slid back down the stairs one step at a time.  I remember the clunk, clunk, clunk as my body returned to the bottom.  
The laughter only lasted a moment.  One look from Mrs. Bottsford and complete composure was restored.  But the damage was done.  This reinforced my belief in how inept I was.  I had demonstrated my incompetence to Ginny and the entire class.  Shortly, after this I had a war with my mother and was allowed to quit Mrs. Bottsford’s School of Etiquette and Dance.  

I know that I benefitted from those Friday evening lessons.  I still have great posture, I always try to be a gentleman, and I love to dance.   But tripping on those stairs was one of those defining moments of my youth.  It represented my clumsiness and inadequacy.  It took  over a decade before I had any semblance of confidence in myself.  Even now as an adult, I know there is always the possibility that I could fall on my face again.  

Thursday, September 8, 2016

All Babies are Buddhists

Carl Whitaker, MD, once told me that all babies are Buddhists, because they feel they are one with the whole world.  Because of this the most important lesson we learn from children is intimacy.  They have an infinite ability to tolerate intimacy. 
It’s 4 A.M.  You are exhausted and sleepy.  Your tiredness almost hurts.  But you are willing to be up, because your baby has cried.  You are holding it in your arms.  It is a joy to have this private moment together.  This is on-demand feeding in the middle of the night.  There is a stillness at this time of night.  There are hardly any sounds in the house.  There is just the sucking, slurping sounds of your infant.  The sucking is rhythmic, but there are rest periods every few slurps.  And your baby is watching you; actually, more like studying you.  He/she is looking into your face, examining everything about you.  You are being watched and memorized.  You may look down at the cheeks as they suck away at the bottle, but your eyes are drawn back to the eyes that are watching you.  Eventually, your hands are touched by the babies little hands.  They hold onto your fingers.  You can’t help but look at the little dimples at the knuckles.  They are captivating.  
It’s just the two of you in the whole world.  There is no place to hide.  This child sees you as you have never been seen before.  This is an intimacy like none other.  Without any words, there is a communication between the two of you.  As the two of you watch each other, the bond grows.  
Sometimes the sucking starts to slow first.  Sometimes the eyes start to get heavy.  You can see them fighting sleep.  The sucking slowly stops.  Thinking they are done, you start to pull them away.  Then, the sucking starts again with renewed vigor.  The eyes open again, as if to say, “I’m not ready yet.”  
Eventually, the baby falls asleep.  These few minutes may have been the most peaceful moments you have had in your life.  Certainly, they are the most intimate you may have ever experienced.  
Did you have this experience?  If you did not, you missed out on one of the most beautiful experiences in life.  If you did, you will remember the love you shared at 4 A.M.  Children provide an unparalleled opportunity for intimacy.  It is perhaps their greatest gift.  

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Professor's Obligation

By the fall of 1975, I had completed the academic course work for my masters degree.   The thesis proposal had been approved and I had collected the data.  Subsequently, I moved to Connecticut for an internship in Psychology.  I would start my internship and write my thesis in Connecticut.  By November I sent my first draft to my major professor.  I knew she wasn’t happy with me.  She had recently divorced, had let me know she was angry at me for breaking up with my girlfriend before we left school and she was angry with men.  I was still shocked when I received her reply to my first draft.  Essentially it read like this:  “I received your paper.  I was extremely disappointed by the quality of the work.  I am now convinced that you will never be able to complete the research adequately and therefore you will not graduate.  The amount of effort that I would have to invest for this to become viable would be astronomical.  Therefore, I am quitting your committee and sending this letter to all the other faculty.”  
I was devastated.  For about three hours I felt hopeless.  Then I had the thought that this was my thesis not hers.  If I kept working on it and improving it, I would eventually graduate.  With hope renewed I wrote another professor that I respected and asked him to be my committee chair.  I sent along a copy of the paper.  
In response, Ray Wolfe, Ph.D., sent me a critique of my paper.  It contained a huge list of changes that had to be made.  I went to work.  I made the changes and sent it back to him.  My internship flew by with my sending revisions to him and Ray responding with recommendations.  
Three weeks after the internship ended, my mother was murdered.  It was a horrible time for me.  Mourning my mother dominated my life.  Over time, I again started working on the paper.  It took me 17 drafts before I was approved for my oral defense.  The defense of a thesis is an intimidating experience.  It is called a defense because it is the faculty’s job to attack the research.  I knew that I would face a hostile faculty.  Upon entering the room, I heard one professor say how this was going to be like “wolves descending on sheep.”  There were thousands of ways that my research could have been improved.  During those two hours I heard every one of them.  Eventually, it came to an end and I was asked to leave the room.  After their discussion, I walked with Ray back to his office and he told me that I had passed.  He had actually secured enough votes for me to pass before the defense.  He hadn’t told me, so that I would experience the full impact of defending my research.  He was right, I certainly felt it.    
As we set down in his office, he began to disclose his experience.  When he received the draft from me, with the request to be committee chair, he didn’t know what to think.  He had received the letter from my original committee chair.  He didn’t think the paper was that bad.  But when I changed the paper in response to his critique, he knew that I was being a student.  If I was capable of being a student, he had the obligation to be a professor.  
Then he told me an interesting story.  He told me that in the history of science there was only one major contribution that had not been the result of a student, working with a mentor and then going beyond.  Evidently, there was a nobleman in England who started studying physics.  He took some classes, but generally educated himself.  He eventually wrote a paper regarding Quantum theory and sent it to Oxford and Cambridge U.  It was so deep and complicated that none of the scholars that read it knew what to do with it.  Eventually, it reached Albert Einstein at Princeton.  He responded that this man had made the next contribution to understanding Quantum physics.  They should award him a doctoral degree.  

I have been blessed with great mentors throughout my career.  They have each contributed to my career as a psychologist and psychotherapist.  But I wanted to acknowledge Ray Wolfe and what he did for me.  My career could have been derailed back there in Geneseo had Ray not lived up to his obligation to be a professor to someone who was being a student.  

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Learning About Love

In the early ’60’s my family joined the golf club down the road.  My father wanted to play regularly, and the club had built a swimming pool, so it seemed like a no-brainer for my parents.  The entire family spent much of the summer at ‘the club.’  I was at the pool most days.  I hung around the pool during the summer and made some great friends.  I found and lost my first serious girlfriend at the club.  My parents also made some close friends.  I was often included in many events.  As a result, I was able to observe how couples treated their partners, interacted with others and expressed their love.  
My parents were sitting at the bar talking with Bonnie, a close friend of theirs.  They were all having a good time when Bonnie started getting a little flirty with my father.  
Bonnie put an arm on my father’s shoulder, looked at him and said, “Gene, I think you and I will have to have an affair.”  She clearly meant it as a joke.   
My mother’s entire face changed.  Her eyes narrowed.  Her face seemed to darken.  Her lips tightened.  She gazed at Bonnie.  With great sincerity she very slowly, quietly and deliberately spoke:  “Over my dead body!”  It seemed like time froze.  I know Bonnie froze.  Then she quickly made a joke of it, so that they could move on.  The moment was over.  
There was something very primal about her claiming my father.  He belonged to her and nobody would be able to get near him until she was dead and gone.  She was letting Bonnie, my father and anyone around know that she loved my father enough to fight for him.  The moment changed from fun to serious so quickly, it had a huge impact on me.  The message to me was that you have the right and a responsibility to protect your marriage.  

I saw this  again at my father’s wake.  My mother stood by my father, lying in the coffin, the entire time.  She later told me that she was going to protect my father up until the last moment.