(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2011)
So this guy goes to see a psychiatrist and after fifty minutes the psychiatrist says, “I think you’re crazy.”
And the guy says, “Hey, wait a minute. I want to get a second opinion.”
And the psychiatrist says, “Okay, you’re ugly, too.”
My father was a child psychiatrist. Until I was eight or nine, I had only vague notions of what my father’s practice consisted of. I knew he had a playroom adjacent to his office, and in that playroom there were board games and a sandbox and dolls and trucks and other cool things for kids to play with, and I knew my father wore a suit and tie when he interacted with these kids, and that he was sort of a doctor.
So this guy with a chicken on his head goes to see a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist says, “What’s this all about?”
And the chicken says, “I don’t know. I woke up this morning and there he was.”
When I was in my forties, a childhood friend invited me to lunch with him at his mother’s house. After lunch, I called my father to let him know I’d be dropping by a little later. While I was on the phone with my father, my friend’s mother said, “Tell your dad he did a wonderful job with Marvin, and thank you.”
So I say into the phone, “Dad, Iris says you did a wonderful job with Marvin, and thank you.”
It turns out that Marvin, my friend’s younger brother, had gone to see my father a dozen or so times when he, Marvin, was seven and suffering from insomnia and sudden outbursts of rage. This was before the widespread use of drugs in psychotherapy, so my father treated Marvin with talk therapy and play therapy, and Marvin began sleeping well and his rage outbursts mostly went away.
Until my father was in his seventies and near the end of his time as a practicing psychotherapist, he rarely spoke about his clients to me, and he certainly never spoke about anyone we might know. I later found out that my father treated a number of my classmates, but I did not know this at the time of their interactions with him.
Thus I was mightily curious to know what my father had done to help Marvin, a person I knew pretty well. My friend said, “Marvin never told me.” My friend’s mother said, “I think they played cards and talked. Your father is a miracle worker.”
So when I got over to my father’s house, I said, “Dad, what did you do to help Marvin?”
My father sipped his coffee and frowned as he tried to remember back thirty-some years to his time with Marvin, and then he smiled and said, “Oh, yes. He had two much older brothers. They played Monopoly and cards and all sorts of games with him, but his brothers were merciless and never let Marvin win. No matter how hard he tried, Marvin couldn’t win, and he was so terribly frustrated that he began to act out, and he had nightmares as I recall.”
“So what did you do?”
“Well, as his mother told you, we played cards and Monopoly, and he talked about how he hated his brothers, and…I let him win.”
So this guy goes to see a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, my wife thinks she’s a refrigerator.”
The shrink says, “How long has this been going on?”
And the guy says, “Oh, about a week now, and I can’t sleep.”
“That’s only natural. You’re worried about her.”
“Well, it’s not so much that,” says the guy. “But she sleeps with her mouth open, and you know that light that goes on when you leave the door open? Shines right in my face.”
My junior high school brought together kids from two elementary schools, so there were lots of new kids to get to know, and the inevitable question of what my father did came up. And I will never forget my shock when I told a guy that my father was a psychiatrist and the guy replied, “Oh, a head shrinker, huh?”
“A what?” I said, dismayed.
“A head shrinker,” he repeated. “A shrink. Ugga bugga. Witch doctor.”
When I asked my father about the term shrink and the witch doctor reference, my father explained that there were many people (in 1960) who still thought psychiatry was hocus pocus nonsense. He said that many people thought that when a person went to a psychiatrist it meant the person was crazy; and many of my father’s patients were so ashamed about coming to see him that they did so clandestinely.
So these two psychiatrists are having lunch together, and one of them says, “Man oh man, I was having breakfast with my mother yesterday and I made the most incredible Freudian slip.”
“Oh, really,” says the other shrink. “What happened?”
“Well,” says the first shrink, “I meant to say, ‘Mom, will you pass the butter?’ But instead I said, ‘You bitch! You ruined my life!’”
We often wonder, my siblings and I, what our lives would have been like if our father had treated us and our mother as he treated his clients, with kindness and patience and compassion and acceptance. But we will never know, and that’s life.
So this priest is sitting in the confessional and a guy comes into the booth and sits down on the other side of the grill and says, “Bless me father for I have sinned.”
“I’m listening,” says the priest.
“I’m eighty years old,” says the guy, “and I’ve been married for sixty years and never once cheated on my wife. But yesterday I’m sitting in the park and this beautiful young woman approaches me and says she’s got a thing for older men and would I like to come to her apartment. So I go with her and we have fantastic sex for hours and hours and hours.”
“Heavens,” says the priest, taken aback. “How long has it been since your last confession?”
“Oh, I’ve never confessed,” says the old man.
“You’re Catholic and you’ve never confessed?”
“I’m not Catholic,” says the man. “I’m Jewish.”
“You’re Jewish?” says the priest, flabbergasted. “So why are you telling me?”
“Telling you? I’m telling everyone.”
I am Jewish, though I didn’t know I was Jewish until I was twelve. When my mother was growing up in Los Angeles in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s she was twice stoned by gangs of kids when they found out she was Jewish. Her parents changed their name from Weinstein to Winton in the 1930’s so they could get housing and my grandfather could get work more easily. Thus my mother learned to erase any overt traces of her Jewishness, married a non-Jew, and vociferously denied that she was Jewish for the rest of her life.
So these two cops are driving along and they see a nun walking to town. They know that the only nuns in the area live in a cloistered nunnery and never ever come out except in the direst emergencies. So they pull up beside the nun and one of the cop asks her, “Sister, anything wrong?”
“Indeed,” says the sister, nodding gravely. “The mother superior is terribly constipated and sent me to town to get her a laxative.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” says the cop. “Can we give you a lift?”
“No, thank you,” says the sister, averting her eyes and continuing on her way.
A few hours later, the cops are driving that same part of their beat when they see the same nun walking back to the nunnery, and she does not appear to be steady on her feet. As they get closer, they see she is obviously drunk. They pull up beside her and the cop says, “Sister, you’re drunk. I thought you were going to town to get the mother superior a laxative.”
“I did,” says the nun, slurring her speech. “And when mother schuperior sees me, she’s gonna shit.”
My parents were alcoholics, but they did not appreciate jokes about drunks. Call it a coincidence, but my brother and I became avid collectors of jokes about drunks, and we took extreme pleasure in performing these jokes when we knew our parents were listening.
So there’s a rabbi living in New York City and one day he wakes from a dream and distinctly hears God say, “Rabbi Feinberg, go to the small Arkansas town of Redfern and carry on your work there.”
So the rabbi gives up his life in New York and moves to Redfern where there are no Jews. Having no money and no way to build a synagogue, the rabbi arranges with the Baptist minister to use their church on Saturday mornings. And every Saturday he carries out the duties of his office in an otherwise empty church.
One Saturday as the rabbi is preaching in the Baptist church, there comes a great storm and it rains so hard the town begins to flood. The Baptist minister comes rushing in and says, “Rabbi, sorry to interrupt, but they say the river could overflow her banks and seriously flood the town. Come with me to safer ground.”
“No,” says the rabbi. “God sent me here, if he wants to save me, he’ll save me.”
So the Baptist minister leaves and the river, indeed, overflows its banks and the town is soon four-feet deep in water. The Baptist minister returns in a rowboat and says, “Rabbi, get in. The upstream dam is about to break and the church will be entirely underwater.”
“No,” says the rabbi. “God sent me here, if he wants to save me, he’ll save me.”
So the Baptist minister rows away and the water continues to rise until it is up to the rabbi’s chin, at which point the Baptist minister returns in his boat and says, “Rabbi, please. Get in the boat or you’ll drown.”
“Nay,” gurgles the rabbi. “God sent me here. If he wants to save me, he will save me.”
Well, the Baptist minister reluctantly leaves, the water rises over the rabbi’s head, and he drowns.
Shortly thereafter, the rabbi arrives at the pearly gates, pushes past St. Peter and storms into God’s office.
“Why did you let me drown?” he cries. “You sent me to that town, so I went. I did everything you asked of me. I, your devoted servant, Rabbi Feinberg. So why did you let me drown?”
“For goodness sake, Feinberg,” says God, with a mighty shrug. “I sent the boat twice.”
My father was a fierce atheist. I tried to follow in his footsteps, but in my early thirties I had the first of several experiences that made it impossible for me to deny the entirely mystical nature of my life. Eventually, I got over my aversion to the word God, and now I use it synonymously with Nature, Universe, and Tim Lincecum.
Todd Walton’s web site is underthetablebooks.com