Sunday, June 09, 2002


Jeff and I were cruising an actually pretty nice shopping center in Edgewater, New Jersey, where, on Friday, we had our first Target experience. Truly America is a wondrous and strange place: a discount department store embracing Stephen Sprouse, whose electric neon clothes I coveted and even stood in line to buy in the 80s, now reinvented as a guy who does peppy, slightly ironic Americana. Target is a nifty store, at least this one is: ferociously well organized, if slightly under air conditioned. Baskets everywhere, things decently labeled, sales force zapping each other messages across walkie talkies. A salesguy sighing as he repeats that he cannot sell the sales model of some patio furniture off the floor. But he holds his ground. Target should be running the war on terror.

But the ghost of Manhattan, as usual, is my father, who I think about nearly every day, but especially around that Hallmark-inflected fake holiday, "Father's Day." To get a quick and dirty picture of my father, imagine Gene Hackman as flaky patriarch Royal Tenenbaum in the movie "The Royal Tenenbaums." Dad was an eccentric lawyer like Hackman's character, and had a near-identical fashion sense. Thankfully, he did not bail on his family. Dad would have loved Target, with its wry distancing from the actual experience of shopping, and the endless rows of stuff by designers who would have held their noses in this store 20 years ago. He would have laughed his ass off. Postmodern architects making toasters! And us buying them. What a hoot!

Here's where the ghost comes in. What I've been thinking about lately is my semi-addiction to self-help tapes. Tony Robbins, Susan Jeffers, Belleruth Naparstek, and my current fave, Byron Katie. And the old standby, Shakti Gawain. One of the basic tenets of affirmations is that you first must identify the negative voice that is putting you down. You know, "You're fat. You're no good. What makes you think you can do that?"

Then, once you've identifed the voice, you rassle it to the ground and replace it with positive messages. You can do it. You have a beautiful body. You're fabulous.

Ironically enough, I first started using affirmations and visualizations when my father was dying of brain cancer in 1984, and they didn't work so hot. My father's fear, his emotional impairment thanks to the brain tumor, and his Irish Catholic upbringing always seemed to turn whatever affirmations we used into a single concept: It was Dad's fault. He had given himself the cancer. If he'd been a better person, it would never have happened.

I think my dad wasn't the only person to experience this emotional boomerang, but I was so desperate to give him any kind of hope, I just kept working with him, day after day. Not long after, people like Joan Borysenko and O. Carl Simonton, leaders in this movement, began apologizing left right and center for the guilt trips they unwittingly laid on people like my dad. This apology was a useful thing, but it didn't always stop people--people I always seemed to chat with in my food coop---from asking me, in a very patronizing tone of voice, "Why do you think your father GAVE himself the cancer?"

I never slugged any of them. I asked them to consider that however powerful the mind/body connection might be, for instance, there's is this funky thing called biology, and natural selection, that might be bigger than all of us. More recently, I've learned that about half the dogs in the world eventually suffer from far, we haven't seen a lot of dog blaming. "Why do you think Scruffy gave himself the lymphoma? Was it unfulfilled bone burying potential?"

I'd point out that for the four years before my dad's cancer, he'd completely turned his life around. He'd gotten sober. He'd helped tons of alcoholics. He'd gone to Europe with my mother and even made a kind of peace with his own mother before she died. In short, if you could pick any time period in my dad's life when he was less likely to "give" himself cancer, this was it.

But still, people would persist. We humans are so fucking arrogant sometimes. We so want to believe that we can wish our way out of the natural world. I really wish I'd spent less of my time creating images of superhero white cells pummeling cancer cells with my dad and more time just giving him a massage. Or bringing him ice cream just talking to him.

Which may explain why I have such trouble with affirmations to this day.

End of Rant, part one.


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