A Paean to First Love

What hour took you that day, that fourth Wednesday of January in 2017? Where was I? Was I sitting through a boring meeting sorting out policy issues? Was I driving home exhausted, listening to debates contentious political issues on NPR and rethinking my decision to remain in a high profile health care position at age seventy-three? Or was it later as I tried to keep the peace between my four and seven year old granddaughters while preparing their dinner of sliced tomatoes, beef and rice, and yogurt, and hoping that the promise of dessert would keep the mayhem to a minimum until their mother returned?

How could it be that the enormity of your last breath faded into eternity before reaching my senses so many miles and decades away? And what mystic force drew me to my computer on a rainy afternoon five weeks later and led my fingers to type your name and the word obituary? Running late for the play, I found myself reading the words once with disbelief, twice with an aching teenage heart, and a third time with tears that no one could possibly understand.

I skimmed over your accomplishments listed one by one, more reminiscent of a resume than a tribute to the vibrant young man who stole my heart in 1961. Your devoted companion, three fine sons, five enchanting granddaughters, a dear sister (I remember you telling me how much you loved her), even nephews and cousins, all dutifully named. Were they there at the end? I have to believe they were. You were too precious to me not to be a million times more cherished by the ones who were truly in your life.

Your loved ones know nothing of me, nor the grief I feel. Yet I too caught glimpses of that courageous man who fought on as his life and body progressively diminished, often quite literally, throughout an arduous and determined battle against diabetes. Ordeals made bearable by your impish humor—writing me after your second amputation that you used to be six foot four but now were four foot six!

They know nothing of those months we spent together so many decades ago, these people who shared a lifetime with you and are trying to make it through each day, hoping their grief will lessen with time but perhaps grateful that your ordeals have come to an end.

Our writing brought us together. You penned more than a half-dozen novels, well-crafted, filled with romance and suspense. I discovered them online in 2008. I had written two novels myself, the first bearing the back story of our romance at Stanford—I, the naïve freshman dreamer and you, the charming, seasoned senior. Degrees of Obsession was an apt title for a paean to a first love that refused to fade and, in fact, ultimately had no replacement. I searched further and found what I believed to be your home address and mailed my fictitious version of our romance to you. Within days your name popped up in my email inbox, causing the same palpitations that had seized my heart forty-seven years earlier. I had a trip to Southern California already planned and we met soon after.

You greeted me at your door in your wheelchair, the body of that handsome, virile young man I had known hidden behind a beard and infirmity but the magnetic eyes and alluring basso voice still recognizable. We exchanged a few sweet nothings and then you wheeled your chair chose to me and drew me into your arms so that I could smell the scent of that special cologne that you always used, the musky one created by that haberdasher in Beverly Hills. You had dabbed in on knowing that it would take us back to our beginnings and for the first time I heard from your lips the true story of our parting. How after I had made a suicide gesture and was forced by Stanford officials to tell my parents, that they had called the University and demanded action. How you had been hauled in by Captain Midnight, the campus cop, for a three-hour inquisition and had been told to never speak to me again. How they threatened to keep you from graduating and going on to law school if you defied their orders. And worst of all, how these despicable actions on the part of my family had left you with a lifelong impact that was eons beyond the broken heart that I had endured.

What a gift that was. Knowing, after all these decades, that you had loved me after all. An unforeseen resolution to the agony of unrequited first love that few are privileged to find, told in an embrace filled not with the fumbling passion of youth but with the grace and forgiveness of age. I thought with amazement how brave you had been on that one occasion, sitting on the hood of your white MGA, the gray wool sweater I had given you on your 21st birthday draped around your shoulders on a hot June day, and calling me over. And I, on the way to the Anthropology class we mutually shared, caught up in the pique and heartache of a rejected eighteen-year-old turning away, giving up that one in a million chance for reconciliation. But even then in your sweet honesty, you explained that had I made a different choice, I might not have fared better, that your road as a husband had often been a rocky one.

So here are the EXCERPTS FROM MY NOVEL that tell our story, from my point of view of course, for those out there who care to read it, as told through the voice of my protagonist, Dr. Charlie Pedersen. I called her “Charlie” because it was the nickname you gave me. I called you “Danny”.

The excerpts are taken from my romantic suspense novel entitled Degrees of Obsession. Watch the book trailer.

Monkey Inn night ~ Berkeley Early Sixties ~ where music and mayhem were born

monkey-inn-barOne of my fondest memories from my wacky sophomore year at Cal Berkeley in 1962-63 was chugging $1 a pitcher beer at the Monkey Inn on Thursday nights. Proof that it cost $1 a pitcher is right there on the wall behind the bar in this photo. 25 cents a mug and a guarantee of 5 mugs to a pitcher. Such a deal! My three roommates and I would hop into my 1959 Morris Minor and drive the mile or so from our off-campus digs in a Parker Street duplex just off Telegraph Avenue. This was the year before Sproul Hall and the Free Speech Movement, so frat parties, beer kegs, and panty raids were still in. And I had in hand. not a fake ID. but a real CA driver’s license saying I was 25 that I’d obtained by taking an actual driving test and dressing “older”. Later my mother, viewing a Berkeley police report when I went temporarily AWOL would see a reference to a certain Karen Veazie AKA Karen Scott Billings and would exclaim, “My daughter’s not a criminal!”

Today I decided to do an internet search and see if I could find any reference to the Monkey Inn in that day. And, boy, was I surprised!

bill-erickson-trioThursday night was indeed Monkey Inn night. The superb Bill Erickson jazz combo: Frank Goudie (clarinet), Jimmy Carter (drums), Bob Mielke (trombone) and Bill Erickson (piano) held sway Thursday nights at the Monkey from the late 50s up through 1962. Do I remember the music? No. I called my best friend, and she didn’t remember it either. Just the beer and the frat boys (mostly the bad boy Betas AKA Beta Theta Pi’s or the notorious Fijis AKA Phi Gamma Delta’s). Needless to say our little quartet from Parker Street did not represent the prim. round-collared, pearl-bedecked sorority girls of the day.

I found an account that said it was a beer and pizza joint near the Oakland border that was a rough UC Berkeley student hangout with sawdust on the floor and, “fraternity guys out on their first beer benders. It got pretty rowdy sometimes.”  I guess no one noticed that there were at least four “girls” out on their first benders as well. The account added that the musicians rarely sounded happier than when playing primarily for themselves, and only secondarily for a mostly indifferent college crowd. Must be why we don’t remember the music.

karen-and-mary-louBut when I read about what happened the next year, I was even more astounded. By 1964 my best friend and I (I’m the tall one!)had returned to La Jolla where we had grown up and found a minuscule apartment under the front stairway of a Spanish mansion across from the famed Wind ‘n’ Sea beach. I attended the 3rd and 4th of my undergraduate schools (yes, Berkeley was school number two after a freshman year at Stanford, but I finally went to grad school, got a Ph.D., and was a therapist for 40 years and still work in the mental health field at age 73–so there!). My best friend got a totally cool job at the new Saks Fifth Avenue store in La Jolla.

Meanwhile back in Berkeley, a new band, known as Blue Velvet, arrived at the Monkey Inn to perform in the Spring and Fall of 1964. Formed by John Fogerty, Doug Clifford, and Stu Cook at El Cerrito High School, Blue Velvet played instrumentals at the school dances, and later backed John’s older brother, Tom Fogerty. They also played at frat parties at Berkeley. I had no clue that we came that close to witnessing the beginnings of Creedence Clearwater Revival. One historian remembers listening to what was to become CCR at the Monkey Inn and having peanuts and beer for dinner.

There is even a mention of the Monkey Inn during the 1964 Sproul Hall events: It is difficult to reconstruct what happened next, for later campus reactions to the events left few people willing to talk about their roles in the affair. Dean Rice believes that three groups of male students converged just outside the Bancroft-Telegraph entrance to the campus. One group apparently came down from Channing Circle, another from Larry Blake’s, a popular fraternity drinking place, and a third from the Monkey Inn, another beer-drinking spot popular with fraternity members. (These are hearsay reports, rather than firmly documented descriptions.) An aside, Larry Blake’s was certainly our second most favorite venue for finding beer and boys.

In 1968, the Monkey Inn moved closer to campus, to the corner of University and Shattuck Avenues. The new club at 2119 University was called The New Monk. It had local rock bands headlining on weekends, but most of the time it was just a beer and pizza place for college students. In the middle of 1971, however, The New Monk started booking higher profile club bands. Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders played there on June 4 and 5, 1971, and then again on June 26 and June 27.

So here’s the end of the story. In 1992 I began work as a psychologist at a Bay Area Kaiser. During my first week of work, my boss, the Chief Psychiatrist, took me to a luncheon event. We got to talking and discovered that we were at Berkeley at the same time. Then he asked if I ever went to the Monkey Inn on Thursday nights! He told me he and his Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers never missed it. My life flashed before my eyes as I frantically searched my memory and hoped against hope that I hadn’t cozied up to him at the bar or even worse! I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw not a hint of recognition on his face.

After my internet search, the Monkey Inn has become even a better memory for me. It is now the home of La Peña Cultural Center promoting social justice, arts participation and intercultural understanding. We’ve all come a long way, baby!

The nature of GOODBYE – a poem

good-byeGOODBYE starts as a word
shot from the lip
penetrating reluctant ears
ripping through soft tissues
creating internal wounds
more felt than seen
leaving a bloody splatter of rejection
upon the soul

GOODBYE registers in the brain
as an alien thought
a foreign invasion
a disruptor of dreams

GOODBYE leaves a residue of grief which
pollutes the present
sullies the past and
relegates the future to a
rubbish heap of
broken promises

GOODBYE repels all attempts to
breach its impregnable walls
with reason or
understanding or
new beginnings

GOODBYE remains dormant
a chronic infection
that lurks in every cell
waiting to break out into
tears and wailing

GOODBYE has no antidote
nor immunization
to protect humanity
from its sting
but fade it can
and fade it will
as seconds tick away to
minutes
hours
days
weeks
years
until a new hello
seems possible

An invitation to share your thoughts

writing meditationI do a daily writing meditation each morning. First I chose a passage or two from one of my daily readers or other 12-step literature and re-type the passages so that they sink in. Then I write my own responses. I have done this over many years and sometimes I like to go back and read what I wrote about the passages in prior years.

This year I’ve decided to start afresh and just write in the present without plowing through the past, thinking of it only as the compost that allows me to grow and bloom in the present and not feeling it necessary to stick my hands back into the muck.

In the tradition of anonymity I will not cite which 12-step program the following passages are drawn from, yet fully acknowledge that they are the published words of others and not mine.

I share them today because they have special meaning to me and so encapsulate the struggles I have had since childhood adjusting to this imperfect world we all live in. I’ve highlighted the thought in each that most struck a chord with me.

share thoughtsPerhaps you would care to share your thoughts if one of these passages has special meaning for you.

Passage One
choicesLive and Let Live reminds us that we cannot control the actions or decisions of other people. If someone chooses to end a relationship with us, that is their right. If we’ve ascribed to the belief that the success or failure of our relationships is solely our responsibility, we may blame ourselves when a relationship ends. We can remind ourselves that each person played a part in the relationship. If a relationship ends, that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily at fault. Whether or not someone wants to be around us, we are still worthy of love and respect. Just because we don’t choose to end a relationship doesn’t mean we don’t have any choices. We still have the power to choose how we will respond. In the past, we have punished ourselves or assumed our role as victims. We don’t have to see ourselves as victims anymore. Today we can choose to be around healthy people who want to be around us.

Passage Two
pain teachesDo not consider painful what is good for you. My reaction to things that were “good for me” was one of pain. Today I know that pain puts me in touch with what I need—something from which I have cut myself off in blind obedience to habit. What pain tells me today is that I have to change. I am willing to examine old ways of thinking.

Passage Three
maturity-is-the-ability-to-joyfully-live-in-an-imperfect-world-quote-1People have disappointed you, hurt you, and let you down by being imperfect. Can you let go of the idea of perfection and accept reality, loving people just the way they are? Love the imperfect people around you. Love your imperfect self and your imperfect world. For if you cannot love life the way it is, you will suffer from eternal loneliness. We all live in an imperfect world, surrounded by imperfect people. The ability to love yourself and those around you is a gift from God that enables you to live fully, bravely, and meaningfully in an imperfect world.

An ode to life as it is

cheeriosticking items off my list
picking popcorn from aging teeth
polishing up health policies
affecting thousands
popping cheerios into hungry mouths
cleaning up spilt milk
plopping exhausted on my couch

 

cameliasfinding joy in life as it is
winter camellias in rosy bloom
carried to school in pudgy hands
a warm sun drying sidewalks slippery from drenching rain
friends doing more than expected
kind words here
good thoughts when needed
even when not

crocusthankful for hints of prayers answered
before they are even lifted up
a new relationship springing up
like a purple crocus breaking through
freezing snow
bringing forth the hope of
spring as my life slides into
its own winter

wisdomallowing each moment to elapse
with no regret and
few expectations
asking only for
willingness
a sense of wonder and
wisdom

Readers picked their poison and the winner is…

degrees kindle

DEGREES OF OBSESSION has it all—juicy romance and heart-pounding suspense. Best of all, it shines light on the fears, follies, and fantasies that drive the choices women make and on the love that redeems them.

DEGREES OF OBSESSION by Karen Stephen

A landslide victory ~ 452 copies (74%) downloaded

vs. 160 (26%) for MOTHER TONGUE: LINGUA CORSA

OBSSESSIVE LOVE vs. POLITICAL INTRIGUE 

The numbers don’t lie. Stalking trumps assassination, intrigue in Los Angeles and La Jolla wins over mystery in Corsica, a 50 year old psychologist pursuing her old college flame outflanks a 32 year old attorney using her mother’s native tongue to infiltrate a Corsican separatist group, and nostalgia run amok outshines a passion for justice.

TRAILER FOR DEGREES OF OBSESSION

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Conversations with people who are not there

imaginary friend on benchmy life has been spent having
endless conversations with people
who are not there

redoing real conversations that
went wrong
rehearsing future conversations that
won’t happen
at least not with those particular words
futilely expecting others to say words
I have put on their lips

making up both sides
as I do when writing fiction
where outcomes are almost always
in favor of the protagonist
that fascinating character who is
some better version of me

Imaginary friendfearful of real conversations
the shy five-year-old inside
still trembling in fear
in a corner of my PhD mind

trying to make life
turn out my way
believing I can control others by
my thoughts
just as nuts as those meth addicts I saw
who thought the FBI was talking to them on
their television
and I’m the helper
the sane one?

what if I refuse to have these
conversations with people
who are not there

I feel as though a big sink hole will
open at my feet
making life even more
treacherous
tentative
troubled

some of these conversations are filled with
dread or desperation
some are flights of fantasy
those even worse because
my “reel” life
will never measure up to
my “real” life

Illlustration of two children talking

stop bingeing on junk thoughts
build courage to have
real conversations with
real people
keep the “reel” conversations
in the can

just for today
no conversations with people
who are not there

Riding the my-will train

riding the my-will train to a
destination of my own creation
located nowhere on reality’s map
rocketing down the wrong track
hoping to pull a magical switch and
end up where I want to be

train stopwhat I need to do is pull the emergency cord
bring this insanity to a lurching stop
would I ride a real train to the
wrong destination
again and again
year after year
bewildered when I arrive
finding no welcoming arms
no expected outcomes

yank on that red cord
tell the conductor I want off
run to the station master
ask for direction from the one in charge
who knows all the best routes
including the one created just for me
take a few short trips at
his suggestion
regard it as an adventure not a
chore

smokey trainget off the train to self-destruction
head safely in a new direction
even if I have to wait in the station
be patient and let that
smoky false desire chug on by

read the wisdom of ancient passengers
scratched upon the walls
plato’s advice that
time will change and even
reverse many of your present opinions
refrain, therefore, awhile from
setting yourself up as a judge of the
highest matters

or elizabeth barrett browning
whom you greatly admire
a woman of letters and love who scribbled
God’s gifts put a man’s best dreams to shame

Does rejection really hurt?

broken heartWe talk about having a “broken” heart or “wounded” spirit or “hurt” feelings when we experience a significant rejection in love. Why do we use words that are the same as those that describe physical pain or injury? Is looking at Facebook photos of your ex with his new love equivalent to spilling a scalding hot cup of coffee on your lap?

My inquiring psychologist side decided to research this question, and I came across a study published in 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. A group of investigators compared brain activity generated by intense personal rejection with brain activity caused by intense physical pain.

First they explained that pain is registered in two different areas of the brain. The affective quality of pain (“That’s unpleasant!) is registered in the dorsal anterior cingulate (dACC) and the anterior insula (AI). This area also is activated by a feeling of social rejection. But the real bodily or somatic perception of pain (“Ouch!”—the brain part that makes you wince and reach for the vicodin when you are physically injured) is registered in the secondary somatosensory cortex (S2) and the dorsal posterior insula (dpINS), which we wouldn’t expect to be affected by purely emotional experiences.

Their research method was simple. Take 40 people who felt intensely rejected as a result of recently experiencing an unwanted romantic relationship break-up and give them two tasks. The Social Rejection task was to look at either a head-shot of the ex-lover and think about their specific rejection experience or a head-shot of a friend of the same sex as the lover and think of a recent positive experience with him or her. The Physical Pain task was a Hot trial with a noxious thermal stimulation delivered to their arm or a Warm trial with a non-noxious thermal stimulation on their arm. The subjects rated their “feeling” experience on each task on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the most painful. Their brains responses were studied with a functional MRI to see what brain areas were activated during each of these four trials.

So here is the surprising outcome. The ratings for both the Social Rejection and the Physical Pain tasks were equivalent with severe physical pain and intense rejection rated exactly the same. And, as expected, both the head shot of the ex-lover and the Hot trial produced activity in the affective or “That’s unpleasant!” part of the brain. But, both also produced activity in the “Ouch!” part of the brain. Conclusion: intense rejection is actually perceived as physical pain by our brains.

It is interesting that the “Ouch!” part of the brain is also activated if we observe another person experiencing physical pain. The researchers thought it would be interesting to explore if, for example, a parent watches their child experience rejection if this would also register in the “Ouch!” part of the brain.

So, what does this mean in terms of recovery from a “broken heart”? First, we need to be kind to ourselves and know that our experience is real and, in fact, is equivalent in terms of our brain’s response to a very severe physical injury. And, as the study showed, we can re-experience that level of pain by simply looking at a photo of the ex-lover or thinking about the rejection experience. Intense ongoing physical pain can interrupt sleep, create or worsen depression, and even lead to suicidal thoughts and plans. It can disrupt our relations with our family and co-workers. Chronic pain sufferers tend to reach for the alcoholic drink, the vicodin bottle, illicit drugs, or gallons of ice cream to take the edge off their pain. So do those experiencing intense rejection.

What are the solutions? We can look to how we help chronic pain patients. Part of my current job as the Mental Health Clinical Director for a large health plan is to develop strategies to help our members manage pain safely. We recommend therapists who can teach them how to look at their pain differently. How to think about “managing” their pain instead of getting rid of it. We offer them relaxation and meditation skills to lessen the pain without turning to addictive drugs, even the prescribed ones. Did you know that there is a opioid epidemic in our country—that the death rate from opioid overdoses is skyrocketing even when people are taking correctly prescribed doses? I recently put two and two together and figured out why I headed for the codeine bottle (prescribed to me as a teen for menstrual pain) when I didn’t get asked to a school dance. It actually worked to soften the pain of rejection.

A recent WordPress blog that I follow at thefallingthoughts.com entitled BREAKUP 2 MAKE-UP included many other helpful reframes for those suffering the pain of rejection. I particularly liked the bit about crying your eyes out but the next day don’t repeat the same thing—after all, we don’t laugh at the same joke twice. I also enjoyed the advice that everything has an expiration date—even relationships. I wouldn’t eat a can of spoiled tuna. I look at the expiration date and throw it into the garbage. When life reminds me of a long-expired relationship, why in the world would I want to dig in, thinking it will taste okay? It’s actually going to turn out about the same as holding on to resentments. It’s like taking poison and hoping the other person will die.

Ethan Kross, March G. Berman, Walter Mischel, Edward E. Smith, and Tor D. Wager. Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011, April 12, Volume 108(15), pps. 6270-6275

The garden path

garden pathshe tippy toes down garden path
mid fragrant hedge of self-deceit
his idle words writ on the net
form stepping stones beneath her feet

she stops to browse a wall not hers
photos of his other life
a stunning bit of azure silk
the glint of diamonds on a ring
shout wedding day
in deafened ears

a look content upon his face
at family table fed with smiles
slows her merry made-up pace
turns hopeful moments into miles
of unfulfilled and foolish chase

she grabs the dagger by the hilt
and draws it from her broken heart
her wound will heal if given time
and a willingness to part
with journeys down that garden path
that leads to nowhere from the start