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.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

In Memory of Joe

         After fifteen years of working in an adolescent psychiatric hospital, I transferred to a substance abuse program.  There, I met Joe Doucette.  We became great friends.  Joe was a great person and a brilliant therapist.  He started the family program at Conn. Valley Hospital years before I arrived.  The family night program that he started eventually had a total attendance of 50,000 people, over the course of a couple decades.  I remember watching him run those meetings. As a therapist, he was an artist. It was fascinating to watch him do therapy with one hundred people at once.  He touched thousands of lives.  When I met him, I realized that we thought the same way about substance abuse treatment.  He taught me how to work with addiction and the family.  We spent lots of time working together, but we also got together outside of work to play.  I remember how excited he was when we got an article about our work, published in a professional journal.  He was a great friend to me through all those years.  He never got the credit he deserved for making that program work.  I don’t think he ever felt that he got recognized for his abilities.  He knew that I believed in him.  I will forever be grateful that we crossed paths.  I want to give one example of how I benefited from his wisdom.
         I was working with a young, intellectual drug addict.  He professed to use drugs to stimulate his thinking.  He thought the drugs took him places he might otherwise not go.  He worshiped drugs.  However, he knew they were dangerous to him.   He decided to get clean.  His family came in to help and we held several family sessions.  His mother was sure she knew the problem.  According to her, no matter how often her son got clean, there was one girl that he could not leave alone.  They would get together and use drugs. 
         The son described the girl with reverence.  He believed they were soulmates.  They understood each other.  He believed their using drugs brought them to a deeper connection.  The girl was as intelligent as he was and they were magnetized to each other.  But he heard our warnings that she would bring him down.  He found a new resolve to stay away from her and not use drugs. 
         After the holidays I got a call from his mother.  Her son remained clean for several months then he had met up with the girlfriend and they had started using together.  He had overdosed and died.  Would I see her again to help her mourn?  We met the next day.
         She brought in a picture album.  We talked as we went through the pictures.   She knew she wasn’t responsible for her son’s death but she felt responsible.  We talked about what she did and didn’t do.  I helped her get out from under some of her regrets and I gave her permission to mourn as long as she needed to.  It was a very sad meeting. 
         Several months later, a young woman was admitted that caught my attention immediately.  She was attractive and profoundly intelligent.  Her insight was deep and impressive.  Within a couple of days of seeing her in groups, I felt a strong pull to help her.  
         One day in group, she started talking about her boyfriend that had overdosed when he was with her.  She talked about trying to save him and watching him slip away.  As she talked, she provided enough details that I knew who the boyfriend was.  This was the infamous girlfriend of my previous client.  There was something about this girl and her relationship to my client that fueled a compulsion to save her.  It was as if I was caught in a spell.  I had seen this in other staff many times over the years.  It was at that point that I knew I needed more input.
         I went and talked to Joe.  In addition to being a dear friend, I respected his skills as a clinician.   He knew recovery, he knew addiction, he knew people and he knew me.  He listened quietly while I told him what I was experiencing.  When I was done, he just starred at me for a minute before he began. 
         “William, during the next week, I want you to spend more time with her.  I want you to talk to her whenever you get the opportunity and then we’ll talk again in a week.” 
         I was surprised that he didn’t tell me to stay away from her.  That would have been the standard recommendation.  But his suggestion sounded terrific.  I went about talking to her whenever there was an opportunity.  My experience was an eye opener.  The more I got to know her, the more I realized that she was crazy.  She wasn’t crazy in a psychotic way, but her logic didn’t make sense.  Her thinking was upside down.  I found it a total turnoff and realized that my delusion of saving her was gone. 
         When Joe and I again talked he just smiled.  After that we never talked about it again.  He brought me through a dangerous experience.  I’ll never forget his wisdom and guidance.    I am forever in his debt.  He touched many lives and made the world a better place for it. 
         I never got to say goodbye to him.  That was my fault and I regret it.  But I wanted to write something that would honor him while demonstrating his therapeutic wisdom.  Goodbye Joe, I miss you and will always remember you.