Category Archives: transitional objects

A New Life Anchor

IMG_3594So here she is: Emmy (as in the television award).  Born on 17 August 2013, she was completely overlooked by us when we started schlepping the 90 minutes to her breeder’s in late August, fixated as were were on the pups of a black “dam” (bitch, to those in the biz).  Although we had paid lip service to wanting a confident & friendly dog this time, we were clearly trying to replace Lili with a black, long-haired clone. Our wise (or possibly manipulative, we have yet to decide) breeder redirected us to the litter next door, saying, “Pat, the puppy I have in mind for you is going to choose you.”photo-60Looking at least 2 weeks older than her litter-mates and already so fuzzy that her kennel name was “Bear,” this young charmer licked my hand, stole my heart, and–in late October–made the tedious but uneventful car journey to our home. All the puppy books with an opinion on traveling music suggest Classical; but little Emmy howled until we found an R & B station, and promptly let Seal serenade her to sleep.

However, this is a blog about the dark side of human and canine nature, of which much will be recounted and analyzed, in terms of what got up various noses. Having gotten Lili @ 4 months, we were unprepared for the exhausting intrusion of a 9-week-old puppy’s physical & emotional demands. For one thing, the relentlessly cold & rainy weather didn’t make the 2-hourly benjo [“bathroom”] trips much fun. Then there was a seemingly endless series of medical issues [none of them show stoppers, as in Return the Pup to Breeder for a “Replacement,” as specified in the useless purchase contract], each requiring the daunting & painful insertion of expensive prescription drugs past her razor-sharp teeth into her gullet. Although they mostly stayed down, they played havoc with her guts. [Think “Carnival cruise” squalor.]

Poor little Emmy, none of that was her fault.  Nor was my initial inability to forgive her for not being Lili.  The more I owned up to my wolfish ambivalence, though, the less power it had over me. By the time we enrolled in Dog Class with our old trainer, I had fallen deeply in love with Emmy [even if I sometimes call her Lili by mistake. After all, like all Irish mothers, I constantly call my 2 human daughters by the other’s name.]. The turning point was an actual fall [to which I am prone, as we all know]. She & I were walking in a park with paved paths on a rainy day, and had just successfully negotiated the second of 2 slippery wooden bridges, when my foot caught on a slight unevenness in the path & I went crashing to the ground, wrenching my wrist & losing hold of the leash in the process. As I lay helpless on the inconveniently deserted path, wondering if I could even walk, much less retrieve my free-range puppy, she rushed over to lick me and whimper her concern & encouragement, just like Rin-Tin-Tin!

On our weekly constitutional up & down the hilly streets of Colonial Annapolis [where the dockside photo was taken], this friendly, well-mannered little girl has many admirers, especially among cops, sailors and delivery men. [She loves UPS!] But an elderly lady made my day when she bent down to hug Emmy [who seems to enjoy that], wheezing.”It’s Rinny! It’s Rin-Tin-Tin! Just like on TV!”

Hence the name.

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Filed under ambivalence, gets right up my nose, transitional objects

Nostalgia

Do you know the MGMT song, “Kids”? It’s the 21st Century version of Cat Stevens’ “Remember The Days in the Old School Yard.” These world-weary 20-something lyricists [Ingrosso, Goldwasser & VanWyngarden] are reminiscing about their lost youth: “Take only what you need from it. A family of trees wanted to be haunted.” When the howling wind made the trees in the Smithsonian woods creak and groan, I couldn’t get that song out of my head.

Notice the past tense. A few weeks ago, the policy of allowing leashed dogs to transit school property to enter the woods was rescinded. A batty lady very loosely in charge of 3 free-range dogs [whom we had unpleasantly encountered earlier that month] had let her Lab menace a walking party of school children; and now all dogs are banned. Highly inconvenient, since we have yet to find another way into the nature preserve. Highly ironic, too, since we had just been given the blessing of the Smithsonian Police to patrol the woods for hunters, innit?

It’s not only the intrusion of having to find another place for Lili’s daily trek; it’s the humiliation of remembering the time when Lili was the Off-the-Hook bad dog [and I, the bad owner], several years earlier, when she menaced a Vizcla on the school grounds. Ironically (again), just the day before I got warned off by the School Safety Officer, Lili & I met the [always unleashed] Vizcla & her owner in the parking lot, without any drama. After I had loaded Lili into the car, I made friendly overtures to the other dog, who seemed to chagrin her owner by coming over and licking my proffered “paw.”

But now to the heart of the matter. As I have made clear in such posts as “What’s keepin’ ya?” and “The Holy Ground,” our walks in those particular woods have given structure & meaning to my life [Can’t speak for Lili’s existential experience.]; and the prospect that they may be forever lost to us causes me emotional pain & suffering (aka, nostalgia).

Having done this Wolf Work on myself, I knew that the only way out of my anger was to seek out another “family of trees [that] wanted to be haunted.” Before we had discovered the joys of the Smithsonian woods, we used to walk Lili in a municipal sports park [on an erstwhile landfill, now converted to a nature preserve]. It has much to recommend it. It’s about equidistant from our house, but nowhere near a school. The dogs-on-the-leash rule is strictly enforced by park rangers. In previous years a family of Blue Herons graced the wetlands pond. (This year we’ve spotted turtles, beavers, deer, and the occasional snake.) In the past, I had found the paved paths a bit too safe & boring, compared to the rough & ready challenge of the Smithsonian woods. However (hurrah!), the other day I discovered a dirt path leading into some woods on the edge of the park, complete with trip-you-up tree roots & a bluff with a stunning view of a tidewater inlet way below. Reminds me of when I was a kid in Tarrytown, overlooking the Hudson River.

So, see? The cure for nostalgia is…nostalgia. The cure for one Paradise Lost is to find another Paradise (which might one day also be lost), innit?

Meanwhile, during Winter Break it’s been “crickets” @ the old school yard. No children to menace and no authorities to enforce the No Walkies Zone. We may have revisited “The Holy Ground” a time or two; but when it’s term time, we’ll make new memories in “another part of the forest” that graces this Chesapeake estuary.

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Filed under gets right up my nose, transitional objects, what's it all about?

The Holy Ground


True, full-time Hibernians [not youse who are bein’ Irish just for today, to honor St. Padraig] will know that the so-called “Holy Ground” of the old song [also referenced in a second song on Mary Black’s album of de same name] is not a religious place at all [like, God-save-us-all, East Jerusalem, or Mecca], but the red-light district in the port town of Cobh, in County Cork, from whence set sail many of our immigrant forebears, from the land of green fields and not enough food, to the land of green beer and food galore.

It is, thus, an ironic [Poetic] figure of speech, capturing both halves of the ambivalence which the Irish diaspora feel for their country of origin. For centuries, Eire was [as Dr. Samuel Johnson said of Scotland], “a grand place to be from.” In Mary Black’s song, “The Loving Time,” [the first line of which is, “Reads like a fairytale, cuz that’s what it was.”] it connotes the power of sentimental, romantic love to [temporarily] blind a couple to their [possibly irreconcilable] differences: “…and the Holy Ground took care of everything.” Spoiler alert. The last verse of this bravely wolf-acknowledging song begins, “It didn’t come true in the end. They went their separate ways.” Rather like Old Mother Ireland and Her then desperately hungry, later desperately nostalgic, children.

Suggested reading: Tom Hayden’s [yes, that Tom Hayden] historical and autobiographical book, Irish On the Inside.

So, here’s the point of this post. Any piece of real estate which holds powerful intimations [both sweet and bitter] of actual or legendary happenings, can become “the holy ground” for an individual, a couple, a family, or a tribe. In the Fall of 1957 my father drove through Gate 3 of his alma mater, the Naval Academy, and parked [illegally] in front of the Chapel for long enough to run into the Admin building and report for duty. My usually Stoic mother burst into tears. Was she afraid the Jimmy Legs [the Yard police] were going to ticket our car? Or was she overcome by the sight of the Chapel, where she & Rosie were married in a tiny, wartime service? Turns out the Chapel was a mere synecdoche for the whole USNA mystique, which, to one degree or another, our whole family [along with many others] have come to regard as “the holy ground.” In 1958 my mother dramatically fell ill with MS while walking on the Academy grounds; yet I found myself inexorably drawn back to live and work there, in 1976 and in 2000. And it’s not because of all the rollicking fun to be had there [especially, this last time round]. It’s because of the memories of the good and bad times I had there with The Now Departed [my parents], whose presence [I believed] would feel more palpable there, than anywhere else on earth.

It was, do you see, a Transitional Object [like a Teddy bear, or Alfred the dog, or Ciotogach the cat], that helps one to feel closer to “the ones that we love true,” to paraphrase the song.

How randomly can a place become “the holy ground”! Not for its intrinsic beauty, or bounty, or balmy weather, or enlightened folkways; but because it is the repository of memories, of Us interacting with [ambivalently] loved Others. When you’re in it [as I learned early, in my peripatetic Navy childhood] it’s often hard to believe that you’re going to look back on a place with nostalgia. I spent my first two months in England [now, the holiest of my “holy grounds”] squinting at ViewMaster reels of the Naval Academy and weeping for what was lost. Who could have imagined that, one day, I would be using Google Maps to take virtual rambles round my beloved English “home place” [as the Irish say] of Stoke D’Abernon, where Ying Tong the cat was regarded with such ambivalence [mostly, negative] by all the neighbors.

Speaking of rambles, I am wise enough to know that the South River woods [in which Lili once again warned me of a suddenly-falling-but-this-time-without-audible-warning, 30-foot tree trunk, not 20 yards ahead of us, on today’s walk] will be added to my list of “holy grounds” [if I am not struck down by falling lumber first].

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Filed under ambivalence, pragmatics, semiotics, transitional objects

What’s keepin’ ya?


My paternal grandmother Kate grew up on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands across the Galway Bay from mainland Eire, and spoke not only Irish Gaelic, but a West of Ireland dialect of English. Consider her nuanced expressions for the verb to die: if someone kills you, you are “destroyed”; if you drown [see Riders to the Sea] you are “lost”; but if you die of an illness , you “get away.” [The custom on the islands is that your survivors must then “go tell the cows and the bees” of your demise. Dunno why…]

As a 5-year-old, visiting Kate in her final days, I was captivated by the idiom, to “get away.” It made it seem as if each of us is just temporarily tethered here on earth, like a helium balloon anchored by a little weight, one scissor-snip away from escaping the bonds of earth. So, what’s keeping us here? What are those “little weights,” which serve as our Life Anchors?

This is actually [excuse the pun] a heavy Existential question, to be asked of anyone who has attempted [or is contemplating] suicide, or who is coping with seemingly intolerable pain & suffering, and especially those grieving the loss of a loved one. The question is: “Who are your Life Anchors?” Who needs you to stick around, here on Earth? Actuarial studies suggest that if your life partner “gets away,” unless you have other Life Anchors, you are likely follow The Departed, within 12 months.

But here’s the Beauty Part [for everyone but the undertakers]. Life Anchors come in all shapes and sizes, and need not even be human, to keep you tethered. Pets prolong life, as do other individuals who are counting on you. They help you experience your own adverse circumstances as “highly inconvenient,” rather than intolerably “awful.” As the English would say, they help “take you out of yourself.” When my Uncle Dick “got away,” my Auntie Eileen [Kate’s daughter, much to their mutual chagrin], who had always been a cat person, became a Full On Cat Lady, feeding and sheltering as many as 20 at a time. Although they made her [even more] unpopular with some of her neighbors, those cats kept her anchored in life for 13 years of widowhood. Cheap at half the price, innit?

It goes without saying that Lili is one of my Life Anchors, along with my human family. What’s keeping her, in this picture? After all, this is one of two doors she can open from the outside and shut behind her. I’d like to believe that I am Lili’s Life Anchor, keeping her near through bonds of mutual love and loyalty. But it’s more likely her lack of opposable thumbs, innit?

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Filed under magical thinking, object relations theory, transitional objects

Plot-twists in Your Storyline


Okay, so you’ve faced the fact that something unforeseen, unintended, and probably unfortunate is going down in your life. Well spotted. Now what?

Anger, is what. Anyone who says otherwise isn’t telling the truth, or paying close enough attention. It is what to do with/about the anger, that I want to address…right after I declare how angry I am at two Post-modern Antipodeans from the 70s, White & Epston, who rebranded the ancient & universal practice of chronicling the ups & downs of the story of one’s life, to try to make sense of it [to answer Alfie’s (1966) question, “What’s it all about?”] as “Narrative Therapy,” as if it were their intellectual property. Mostly intrusion is up my nose, about this narrow redefinition of what almost everyone does, every day (even if they’re not in psychotherapy): tell someone [even if it’s only Dear Diary] wha’ happened today, in a narrative format. Nar’mean?

“What did you do at school today?” ask the concerned parents.”Ahh, nuttin’. We just had oral review.” It’s still a narrative.

But let’s say what your 5th-grade class did today was study the oyster, including the requirement to eat one [which your personal & family culture proscribes], and you refused, and were sent to the Principal’s office, occasioning humiliation and fear. As you tell your narrative to your parents, they have the power to influence the storyline, for better or worse. “That’s outrageous! How dare they impose their parochial, regional folkways on a Navy kid! We’ll send a note of protest to the Principal, insisting that you be exempted, without prejudice, from eating a mollusk.” Or…”What makes you think you can defy your teacher? When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Want to guess how the narrative unfolded for me? It was huge! It became a leitmotif of my storyline. My parents backed me to the hilt, and no mollusks were consumed [by me, or, indeed, any other squeamish classmates].

As we mature, we sometimes have to “become are own parents,” and back ourselves to the hilt, in the face of criticism, adversity, and unfortunate plot-twists. That is, we need to recall earlier chapters in our narrative, when intrusion, humiliation, fear and pain & suffering were neutralized [made “all better,” or at least ratcheted down to a tolerable level], against all odds. If those instances don’t readily spring to mind, then look harder for them. If they hadn’t occurred at all, you wouldn’t be here now.

This is my Manhattan cat, St. Chuck [1974-1983], whose own storyline included a series of [at least 8] life-threatening plot-twists and miraculous comebacks. He was my loyal companion through a doctoral dissertation, 6 years of Naval service, and the transitions to married and civilian life. As this stop-action photo suggests, the leitmotif of his narrative was fear, which he overcame in his final years…which is a story for another time.

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Filed under gets right up my nose, locus of control, transitional objects, what's it all about?

Ciotogach (Kithogue)


I’ve promised my daughters that one day we will turn the story of “Kithogue, the War Cat” into a proper book; but until then, she’s going to illustrate Peckham’s point about the value of chaos in uncertain times and situations. Mostly, I’m going to let Rosie’s letters, written from his little ship, the USS Vammen (DE 644), during the Korean War, tell the story, with a bit of mise en scene commentary from me.

Written “At Sea, August 11, 1952,” the first letter describes how he came to bring a cat aboard, on the last day before sailing from Hawaii to join his battle group in the Pacific. While visiting friends, “I made the acquaintance of a small kitten estimated at about 3 months old, and tentatively identified as a girl. What with one thing and another, she is now living in the cabin with me and eating wardroom mess cooking with no apparent harmful effects. She is not entirely housebroken. I have adopted a wait-and-see (and clean up) attitude. When we are in Midway, I will acquire a lot of sand, the island being entirely composed of this stuff, and see if her efforts cannot be localized. She spends a good part of the day playing in this typewriter. When I press the outer keys she bats at the inner ones as they come up and hit her in the nose. This pastime of ours has been observed by a few of the crew and, presumably, reported to the rest. However, I am still treated with all due respect; and cat (who at the moment is nameless) and I shall probably continue to play this damned fool game.”

For awhile he and the crew just called her “Neko-san,” (the Japanese for addressing a cat); but he decided the black marking on her back looked like “a lobster’s left claw,” so named her “Ciotogach” (which is Irish for left-handed). No surprise, I suppose, that this was also one of Rosie’s childhood nicknames, since he was a South-paw. By the way, does she remind you of any other cat who has appeared in this blog? [One whom he acquired, thinking it was female?]

“Sasebo, Japan, 22 Sept., 1952” After a spell of off-shore bombardment along the North Korean coastline, the ship was back in its Japanese homeport, making ready to go back out. “I must tell you about the night the cat fell overboard. One of the officers had brought her back a ping pong ball. She had been playing with it in the wardroom, batting it around like a soccer ball and having the time of her life. About the time the movies started, someone opened the wardroom door and she managed to bat the ball out into the forward passageway, she right after it. From there, it went out on the main deck and forward to the foc’sle. She hopped right after it and got so engrossed in her game that she went right over the side between ourselves and the USS Marsh. The bow sentry heard the splash and then heard her yelling in the water. He ran aft along the side, keeping track of her as she drifted aft. She was yelling bloody murder so loudly that she could be heard over all the din of the movies. One of the men got a flashlight and shone it down in the water between the ships. She was swimming furiously and had the sense to swim into the beam of light if she drifted out of it. Another man got a swab [mop] and lowered himself down between the ships, with another man holding him by the feet. He was able to get the mop end of the swab near the cat. She swam to it and hung on for dear life. The swab was passed back up to the deck with the cat still clutching it, and we pulled the two men up. They decided they would have to give her a bath to wash the oil off her. Eventually, three big officers were able to overpower her and get her clean again. They dried her off and got some warm milk in her. She acted a little more demented than usual for an hour or so, but somebody found another ping pong ball, and she went right back to the game. This experience has given the ship a new sense of unity. Everyone aboard is concerned with the cat’s welfare now. She plays all over the ship and with everybody. If she gets too close to the side someone will grab her and put her in a safe place. If she walks into wet paint and gets stuck, as she did, someone will rescue her.”

“Yellow Sea, 4 Oct., 1952” This time, in the midst of battle, with a typhoon brewing. “Yesterday we nearly lost the cat again. She climbed up some rigging until she was perched in the whaleboat falls near the top of the boat davits, out over the side. About this time we turned into the wind so the carrier could launch planes. She was finally seen clinging to the ropes of the boat falls for dear life, with her fur streaming back in the 35 knot wind and, of course, hollering. One of the stewards climbed up and rescued her. I hope she stays alive until we get back to the States.” [She, and the rest of the ship’s crew, did.]

There are lots of other “Ciotogach” stories, like when the Rear Admiral visited the ship, and ordered that the “f%#king cat” [who was clinging to the seat of the steward’s pants, howling for turkey] be fed first. Talk about the sentimental Muscovites! No one aboard “her” ship, it seems, was able to resist that cat’s agenda. Yes, she was often an intrusion, but also a welcome distraction from the fearful experience of fighting in an underfunded [sound familiar?], unpopular, no-win war.

Although they remain “non-reg[ulation],” I am willing to bet that some cats [and even some dogs] are currently serving aboard our Naval vessels deployed in the Gulf, offering their shipmates the gift of chaos.

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Filed under comic relief, object relations theory, transitional objects

Tame Thing


My parents may have been avant garde, in using Ying Tong [the Wild Thing] as a “therapy pet,” to break my cycle of paroxysmal coughing; but earlier still [in 1956] they got Alfred [the Tame Thing], to gently awaken me from my frequent nightmares.

My father’s name was Alfred, but his family called him Red, and his Naval Academy moniker was Rosie [by which he was known for the rest of his life]. Bestowing his unused name on our new puppy, he joked that Alfred-the-dog “could sign checks while (Rosie) was at sea”; and thereby hangs a tale. During the Korean War, my father’s ship [a Destroyer] was catastrophically damaged [either mined or torpedoed], and the initial news reports listed Rosie among the dead. We found out the next day, via cryptic telegram, that he was alive. In fact, he had been instrumental in saving the ship [he couldn’t swim]; and was then given a command of his own [a Destroyer Escort, which, years later, “starred” as the USS Kornblatt in the film Don’t Give Up the Ship]. Meanwhile, when Rosie finally got some shore leave in California, between deployments, we went to visit family friends in Hollywood, just in time for an earthquake! Not a huge one, mind you; but it made a lasting impression on my young [3 or 4-year old] psyche.

From then on, I was prone to nightmares [especially when my father was about to deploy] in which earthquakes and explosions at sea were combined to harrowing effect; and I developed a nifty knack for the Hitchcock-victim-scream, thereby waking up the whole household. When I was turning 8, an Academy classmate of Rosie’s, stationed with us in Newport, had a purebred Cocker Spaniel who had just had 3 puppies; and we got Alfred, whose job it was to keep watch over me by night, so that the rest of them could get some sleep.

Some years later, when both our family and Alfred’s dam’s family had moved to Annapolis, we took him to see his mother, who barked with disdain and chased him into the Bay. By then it had become clear that Alfred’s sire was not her usual purebred Spaniel mate, but Dusty [a mix of Chow, Spitz, and Husky, who could apparently scale a 6-foot fence]. What a sweet-tempered dog he turned out to be, though. More significantly, he served as a Transitional Object for me [a living teddy], to stand in loco paternis, when his namesake was away at sea. He had hybrid vigor and lived to be 18, spending many of those years interacting with the bellicose Ying Tong, whom he never stopped trying to befriend.

So, this is a second answer to Sendak’s question, “How do children survive?” When their parents are physically, emotionally, or otherwise unavailable to protect them, children rely on the comforting presence of animals [imaginary, stuffed, or real] to help them through the rough stuff.

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Filed under object relations theory, post-traumatic stress, transitional objects