I am not—I think I am not—afraid of dying.
~William Maxwell, Nearing 90
. . .
Missing cat, panic, braindead, fruitflies, envy. Problems.
As a psychotherapist, I worked for years to help people solve their problems. Then I learned that, according to Buddha, we all have 83 problems. Everyone: Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, even the Dalai Lama, though he doesn’t seem to mind. And, this Buddhist parable goes on to say, if you solve one problem another will inevitably take its place. Eighty-three. If I had known this before I took up psychotherapy, I might not even have started. Or I might have understood that my job was not to help solve problems, but simply to help. In any case, when I gave up my practice after twenty-five years, I did not give up my interest in problems but I did take a new approach. Now I collect them. It’s easy. I ask, and people give them to me. One woman even wrote out in longhand her list of 83 problems and sent it to me in the mail.
A. Alopecia, apepsia, arthritis, apnea, athlete’s foot, asthma, acne. These are medical, afflictions of the body. Aspergers, Alzheimers, agoraphobia: afflictions of the mind. Alcoholism: your choice. Things which can be diagnosed* are usually accepted as problems, conferring upon their sufferers sympathy. Usually—see Alcoholism. But I have also collected ambition, angst, ankles, ants; more ambiguous problems which may engender something other than sympathy.
Once, when I was in Oms, France, and terribly homesick, I spent a sunny afternoon on a sweet little concrete patio watching cartoonishly large ants pick up chunks of salami and carry them into the heather, pausing only for antennae discussions with ants marching the other way. I was so grateful for those industrious, beautiful ants. They grounded me; they calmed my heart. In the morning, I even watched them from bed with binoculars. You could say ants saved me.
So I love ants. When my daughter, Chloe, complains about the ants in her driveway (not even in the house!) I have to fake sympathy.
*Italics denote a problem. For some readers italics are the problem. In any case, some of these problems have been collected and some have been designated by the author, my choice. But one can start to see everything as a problem; it depends on your mood. In the course of revision, I had to do some radical de-italicization. Feel free to debate, or to add italics of your own, in your mind.
B. Bicycle messengers; beauty; body.
Bush, Do-You-Miss-Me-Yet-George W.
Remember him? Randi asks. (Randi is my ex-office mate.) Do you think George Bush was actually insecure? Yes, Randi, George was insecure, I say. I am opinionated. Randi isn’t sure. I say, Oh, come on. The reflexive combativeness, the bombast, that smirk. Those minesweeping eyes vigilant for ambush. Those rolled up sleeves, those hands on hips, Randi says. (Randi calls us TOHB’S, pronounced toobs: Trained Observers of Human Behavior.) The leather bombardier jacket. Compensation, we say in unison. Ever watch him take a swing at a golf ball? How he tries to laugh it off? He didn’t experience his insecurity, so he didn’t have to suffer from it. We did. Beware the unconscious leader, Randi says.
Bullies, boredom, blahblahblah.
C. Can’t: think, cry, come. Can’t feel my toes.
Clicks, from my brother Bruce: No, listen, he says. Seriously. My car does this thing where it won’t start. I try it, click. But it’s intermittent; it starts, it starts, it starts, then for no reason, it clicks. I took it to the dealer and they couldn’t find it—if it doesn’t click for them, they can’t fix it. The next day I had to try it over twenty times, click, click, click, click, click. When it finally started I drove directly to the gas station and he said it was the battery, which he replaced, and it started fine. For a few days. Then, click. I feel like my car is the enemy, he says. I can’t sleep with it lurking in the driveway waiting to defeat me. I don’t know what to do. I tell him I can’t help him. Cars are a problem.
Cowards. Caterpillars. Cats.
D. Death. According to Buddha, Number One Problem.
We don’t even like to use the words: to die, death, dying, dead. Instead, we say croak, pass, go over, breathe your last; give up the ghost, kick the bucket, cross over Jordan, join the angels, hop the twig, meet your maker, depart this life, reach the finish line, transition to the next phase, peg out, bite it, flatline. You are done, called home, expired, released, laid to rest, no longer with us, taken by God, on the other side, pushing up daisies, six feet under, terminated, rubbed out, cashed in, snuffed. You are no more, you are singing with the angels, you are sleeping with the fishes, you are cooking for the Kennedy’s, you are gone to your reward; translated into glory, gone to the final resting place, or to the world beyond. You have bought the farm, transcended this life, found everlasting peace, crossed over into campground, shuffled off this mortal coil, left this world, left the building. The big sleep…should something happen. The race is run. May you rest in peace.
But be careful about euphemisms. Euphemism can signal denial.
If I could talk to Buddha, I would tell him that, in a complete turnaround, my mother on her deathbed became sweet, willing, generous, funny (well, she was always funny), helpful, tranquil, lovable, loving, and hopeful. Hopeful. Her turnaround, her death, changed my life; it made me a better person. Of course, it wasn’t my death.
E. Eggs: who knows how long they’ve been out there?
Eavesdropping. My husband and I were driving to the pub for our Thursday night pint and I was kvetching about a dear, difficult friend when my phone butt-dialed her. Four times. She eavesdropped. She finally called me back to tell me. I was stricken, until she mentioned that at first she wondered if I was mad at her but then she thought I must be complaining about my mother-in-law. But eavesdropping is a great way to collect, so I do it. People on cell phones give it all away: Sherry’s ridiculous torpedoes (Whole Foods); Robin’s humongous rock (Nordstrom); I love you but I’m not in love with you (Voila Bistro); Do YOU have my driver’s license? (SeaTac Airport); Fucking bullshit fascist hoops they fucking make you fucking jump through. (Medgar Evers Community Pool Women’s Locker Room); Give-it-to-me-give-it-to-me-give-it-to-me, baby. (Kinkos). This kind of eavesdropping is irresistible, and also unavoidable. But eavesdropping on your wife, your teenager, your neighbor, your co-worker, or your law-abiding citizenry, is a problem.
F. Fuck, fucking, fucked. I refer to the word, not the activity.
Don’t say fuck. Fuck is a problem because of its effect. People experience this particular word, as well as other four-letter words of Anglo-Saxon extraction, as an assault. Once you say fuck in casual conversation, never mind formal discourse, you have agitated listeners, signaled disregard for propriety, called into question your thinking as well as your judgment, sewn seeds of hostility, inserted unwelcome, perhaps unwholesome, thoughts of sexual activity, and severed sympathetic connection. Your line of reasoning will be buried in dirt. Don’t say fuck.
Except sometimes. Sometimes fuck is exactly the right word. When you’re in a tight spot, ‘we’re fucked’ lightens the load. Fuck can make you laugh. And fuck may be the only way to join with an otherwise alien culture (the 22-year-old gnarly boarder who rescues you, granny, from the precarious snow ledge you cling to after your fall from a chute you had no business skiing). The only way to provide the punch in a punch line, to give yourself a bit of naughtiness, especially if you are female and getting on in years, to express misgiving, as in wtf, or excitement, passion, despair.
One time, when I was seventeen, I slipped into my parents’ bedroom after a date and I found my mother alone in their bed, drinking. Hi, I’m home, I said. Your father is out fucking some other woman, she slurred. My mother did not swear. This word told me everything about how bad things had gotten.
G. Greed, greedy greed.
The letter g, gone from participle and gerund. Dolly Parton’s abandonment of g—Darlin’!—is adorable. Tommy Lee Jones can do it and sound smart. My beef is with those guys who drop g’s in that fake dumb way. Since you will only go the route of sounding fake dumb—folksy—if you believe you are smarter than the rest of us, dropping your g’s signals condescension. You think we don’t get it? The worst offenders? Not those previous presidents, not those sports-radio-talk-jocks, but those therapists. So I’m feelin’ a little angry that you just threw my ashtray at me. Are you willin’ to talk about that? Not only fake dumb, fake calm. I’ve heard it more in male therapists. Maybe they worry they have a little dominance*, aggression, and competitiveness to disguise.
Genius, no fake-dumb about it. According to my-father-the-rocket-scientist, everyone else was stupid. The religious were stupid—just kidding, he meant unschooled in science; the rich were stupid—just kidding, he meant lulled by money into lack of ambition; and the Democrats were stupid—just kidding, he meant stupid. Chuckle chuckle.
* Unless you are a counter like me, you probably did not notice, but we have now reached 83. And we are only part way through the letter “G.” But remember, Buddha did not say 83 problems in total, he said 83 problems per person. The total is infinite. Buddha also claimed there was an 84th problem, as universal as death. It is the only problem with which he can help: our desire to not have problems.
H. Hiccups, haste, hostility, holidays, hellfire. (I sometimes had to question the sincerity of my respondents—“hellfire” from a happy gay man at Octoberfest?)
Hobbyist. My neighbor Robert, who polishes his wife’s limos across the street from my garage/studio every day, called my artwork a beautiful hobby. Now that is the worst thing you can say to a serious artist and I bristled (covertly. I love Robert.) But then I thought about it. I thought about work and identity.
Happiness, habits, handkerchiefs, hysteria, my haircut. Head lice—it’s not funny.
I realized that, as an ex-psychotherapist, I still have a certain response to problems—other than writing them down, I mean. I help, I try to solve. I can’t help myself. And it’s great. I feel useful, and I get to stay out of the deep end. My point: now my problem-solving is more like a hobby. Hobby: “favorite pastime or avocation;” “activity that doesn’t go anywhere,” i.e., done for its own sake, for the love if it. It may be that if all your work is hobby, and beautiful, you have found a state of grace.
I. I squander my thoughts, I can’t commit to anything, I hoard.
I—meaning you, meaning me. Ego. A problem. Individual rights, entitlements, achievements, accumulation, consumption. Sharing is difficult. Getting in line, taking turns, helping out, blending in, are difficult. I becomes me me me. But the ego in the I is also humanity’s transcendence. Without it, we do not get Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” Picasso’s “Guernica,” Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
Inertia, indecision, something icky on the toilet seat.
Invasives. When I suggested reintroducing California condors to the eastern slope of the Cascades, the biologist in the family looked long-suffering and said, I don’t think that would be compatible with the ferruginous hawks we’re trying to re-establish. I did not press my case, though California condors had lived on the Eastern slope of the Cascades until 150 years ago, until the human invasives eradicated them.
Infinite Compassion. I saw the Dalai Lama at a conference on compassion. He said love is biological (protection) and anger is biological (protection). (The compassionate psychologist panelists did not appear to appreciate the anger part.) If you take birth as a human, he said, it is good to keep love 24 hours a day and anger only occasionally. If you take birth as a turtle, you don’t need love, only anger. He thought this was very funny. He said he might come back as a turtle.
J. Jesus. Jesus is not the problem. What Jesus said, what Jesus did, what Jesus stands for, is not the problem. Ditto the Prophet Mohammad.
K. Kudzu: it ate my shed, the abandoned barn, my pasture and my wood lot. You don’t want Kudzu. You don’t want any non-indigenous plant or animal that adversely affects the habitats it invades (see invasives.). Milfoil, zebra mussels, Mediterranean snails, starlings, sea squirts, tansy ragwort, thistle, pampas grass, scotch broom, English ivy, eucalyptus Himalayan blackberry.
One time, squeezed into a little bedroom awaiting the birthday boy at a surprise birthday party, I whispered to a friend how much I loved her little eucalyptus tree. A woman pressed up against my back hissed that eucalyptuses crowd out natives, burn like dry straw, and are a blight on the face of the earth. (Tell koalas that.) She meant I should not love eucalyptuses. But how can I not love eucalyptuses? Eucalyptus means picnics in Griffith Park, bare feet on slippery leaves in sandy canyons with my brothers, sun. It is not the eucalyptus tree’s fault it thrives in California, where it was brought by entrepreneurs hoping to make a killing with this quick-growing tree. (It grew quickly all right, but too knotty and twisted to make railroad ties.They brought the wrong one.)
By the way, biologists revere natives—GOOD—and detest invasives—BAD. It is black-and-white for them. I admire biologists as much as I admire anybody, but I find their position problematic. The banana slug that overnight mows down my tender row of romaine is a native but I will have to be a much better Buddhist not to kill it. Of course, I’m not native to Seattle. I’m from California.
L. Love, lack, loss, limits, landfills. Lipstick: every time—every time—I find a color I like, they quit making it.
Liars. My personal Number One Problem.
People lie. I know that. But I look at liars the way an ophidiophobe looks at snakes: with fear and loathing. So much fear and loathing, in fact, it is as if this creature cannot exist. It becomes exotic. It fascinates. John Ehrlichman, Oliver North, Ronald Reagan, Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton, Jeffery Skilling, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales—I watched them all. Their dissembling was entirely transparent, yet their demeanor remained righteous. Apparently, lies no longer exist. Because there is no such thing as facts.
Lost keys, lost love, lost track of my life.
Not all lies are equal. Look at the language. Many words for the lie are mild, even whimsical, like humbug, twiddle-twaddle, taradiddle, flim-flam, clap-trap, cock-and-bull, lip-homage, mouth-honor, eye-wash, window dressing, moonshine, mare’s nest. Some reek with the lie’s bad faith, like perjury, forgery, mendacity, double-cross, falsehood, fraud, deceit. And some words rely on context to measure the lie, like exaggeration, equivocation, invention, guile, cajolery, flattery, fable, yarn, hypocrisy, pretense, evasion, farce, dissembling, distortion, cant, canard, subterfuge, quackery, flattery, sham, insincerity, dissimulation, bosh.
What kind of lie is the non-answer?
M. My mother. Reported by many as their Number One Problem.
Motherhood: my kids ruined my life. Then they say they were joking.
Moods, mean people, mold, masculinity.
Meat: I think cooking meat is just beyond me.
This from a man slumping into the kitchen after checking the steaks on the new gas-fired barbecue. A man whose father melted the side of the garage with his new gas-fired barbecue at the first meeting with the prospective daughter-in law, causing quite a lather in mother, father, and son, though not in the prospective daughter-in-law, who did not care about the meat, really, though she wished she weren’t such a bother. Still, that father insisted on firing up his barbecue on the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and every Sunday afternoon—with his lips compressed and his shoulders tensed—for thirty-odd years, though he never got it right. Even when the meat turned out, he suffered.
This suggests the meat problem is genetic. But there are things more important than meat, or moaning about meat. Like doing the right thing, or trying to do the right thing. Like honoring your father. I married the man.
N. No willpower, no heat, no sex, no tomatoes, no newspaper, no money, no rain, no hope.
For many people, just the word No is a problem, unless the question is, do these pants make me look fat? Except Joan. Joan said, No problems. I have a steel door, like those huge doors on gothic cathedrals with a bunch of brass rivets and heavy round handles? And I keep all my problems behind that door. I throw them over the wall or something. I don’t want them—why would I open that door?
Never lived up to my potential, nothing to devote myself to, nostalgia.
Joan reminded me of Sherry, who said her only problem was to Be Aware of God in Every Moment and Still Be in the World. I was astounded: she lived alone, could not make her rent, had no retirement, no prospects, no plan, and she was looking at sixty.
O. Outrage (theirs, mine).
Out of: ideas, clean socks, luck.
Obsession: she texted me 48 times in, like, fifteen minutes.
Occupation—another number one problem in my collection.
Overwhelmed by problems. There is something comforting about Buddha’s 83 problems, a leveling effect, as if we are all dealt the same hand. But this does not seem true. I can see that every life contains suffering. But in equal part, every life? Life is unfair seems more true. Fair or not, I am experimenting with managing my 83 problems—and limiting rumination—with a strict list. Only 10 per day. For example, today my problems are my neighbor’s morning glory, not enough time, the light fixture in the bathroom, email, the other neighbor’s vine maples, my dog’s teeth, finding a new shower curtain, returning wrong-color paint, finding the AAA statement, the downstairs closet. See, I’m not even thinking about my son’s substance abuse, his marriage, one grandchild’s anxiety, my mother-in-law, my daughter’s slide into postpartum, the pain in my fingers, the smell downstairs, how long my money will last, how I looked in the mirror this morning, a dying friendship.
P. Photographs. Some images cannot be erased.
One photograph depicted naked brown men, stacked, on a dirty cement floor, heads shrouded in black pointy hoods resembling the white hoods of the men of the Ku Klux Klan, though the men of the Ku Klux Klan were never, by their own bylaws, brown men. One photograph depicted naked brown men with naked buttocks in the air, unprotected, exposed, poised for derision, or intrusion. One photograph depicted naked brown men forced to masturbate in the faces of other naked brown men as American soldiers grinned, or took pictures, or passed by without notice. One photograph depicted a naked brown man cowering, trying to protect his legs and his genitals from three lunging, snarling German shepherd dogs, dogs eager to do their duty with the naked brown man, barely restrained by laughing American soldiers. Some were bloody. One was dead, a naked bruised body in a body bag with ice on his chest. One naked brown man was being dragged by a dog leash around his neck, dragged on hands and knees across the dirty cement floor, dragged by a grinning female American soldier, thumbs up.
If you accept that you, and everybody, has 83 problems and will always have problems, how do you keep from giving up?
What is the benefit of naming problems?
Has therapy made our problems better? Worse?
Would a person be lonesome without her problems? Bored?
If you do not think about your problems, where do they go?
Are your problems better—more valid, sad, shocking, profound—than mine?
Why does it make one feel better to hear about someone else’s problems?
How do you maintain compassion when someone’s problems seem self-made, self-sustaining, and damaging to others?
If you believe that massive world problems—flood, famine, war—will always exist, and that one person’s efforts cannot ease these world problems, what do you do?
How can the Dalai Lama giggle when asked about China?
R. Righteousness. Righteousness has led to polarization, name-calling, retaliation, stalemate, distortion, abuse of power, war. But passionate people tend to be righteous. Some of them I admire. Perhaps it is righteousness plus power plus insecurity plus no capacity for empathy that makes it deadly.
Religion. During an interview about the restoration of native prairie grass at her stunning ranch in Crawford, Texas, Laura Bush was asked, gingerly, if she ever felt guilty about having so much. Well, she said, I am grateful every day. But I also know that every single person in the world can go outside and enjoy God’s beauty just as I do. I question that.
The Dalai Lama said religion has failed us. He said its effect, at best, is limited. He snickered; he said he was just a poor monk. But we must use our common sense, he said; we must use our intelligence! We must look to science for answers to the terrible, man-made problems we now face.
Regret. This from a 66-year-old man whose life-threatening cancer is miraculously under control: I know I should be happy. But the funny thing about dying—or almost dying—is that it made me realize I’ve been an asshole all my life. How can I change all that?
S. Sentiment, hackneyed: “When I am old, I shall wear purple.” That just pisses me off (spleen).
Sorrow. My problem is not the death of my child; my problem is this terrible sorrow.
What can be done for the broken heart? In the newspaper, we read about people seeking comfort through retribution (sometimes mistaken as closure) but what kind of comfort does retribution provide? And what happens a year later? We don’t read about that. Religion tells us forgiveness provides the only true comfort; love thine enemy. People on their deathbeds exhort us, time and again, that love is all that matters. But I wonder if forgiveness for terrible injustice is one more unattainable state. And yet, without it the heart dies, as if corroded by poison. I read about a family in Eastern Washington, devout Mennonites who lost their five children in a horrific car crash. The father of those children and the driver of the pickup that crossed the center line and hit their van head-on were hospitalized in the same small hospital, and the father initiated a visit while they were both in rehabilitation. Now, five years later, the mother and father have two little children. They see the other driver regularly, and they try to help him out. They say it is hard sometimes, but they pray. Forgiveness is a practice, not a feeling.
T. Time—too much, never enough. From my oldest friend: It goes fast, doesn’t it? We did not know, could not have known, that she would die three years later, at age 70, of a sudden, devastating septicemia.
Trains. A slender fourteen-year-old stands on the shining steel track. She laughs, she flips her arm, she rakes her fingers through wavy red hair. They are not supposed to, but kids cross these tracks all the time to get down to the beach. Had she simply stopped to finish a story? When do they see it, her girlfriend, the two boys? A neighbor grilling steaks on his deck saw it. The girl’s house is almost on top of the tracks. Her mother made it to the scene as the aid cars screamed up. But didn’t she hear it? is what everyone said, stunned and bewildered. Wake up, baby. Please wake up, is what the mother said, her nose pressed into the girl’s neck. I read about this in the paper. This mother had been my client. I called and left condolences with the person screening her calls. I sent a card. Then I waited, anguished. I did not know what to do. My rulebook said that since she was no longer my client, I should let her contact me. It felt wrong, and still I waited. Seven years later she called me. When I told her how sorry I was, sorry for her loss and sorry that I didn’t do more, she waved me off. Then she said the kids had been warned a million times not to cross those tracks; it takes only four seconds for a train to hit that spot after coming around the bend. (When she threatened to sue, the county fenced it.) She told me that stuff in the paper was bullshit, it made her mad. She never said wake up baby. She resuscitated, even though she knew her daughter was dead. And she made the EMT’s resuscitate, for two hours they resuscitated, until the father could get there, until she was ready for them to stop. She said it was the least she could do.
U. Uncultivated souls, uncontrolled urges.
Unlimited choices. Research shows that a person’s number of choices is inversely correlated with happiness. More choice equals less happiness.
Underwear: I have to go to Nordstrom’s today to buy new underwear. Even thinking about it makes me tired.
This problem might sound petty. But this woman suffers from lifelong bouts of depression exacerbated by childhood sexual abuse. She hates her once-beautiful body, thickening and slumping with age, and she is married to a difficult man who uses sex—and her fear that she is unlovable—in a coercive way. Not that she uses these troubles to get sympathy. These are my observations. So I try not to judge. The underwear, the malaise of shopping at Nordstrom’s: it’s a metaphor.
V. Vermin: gulls, crows, and rats. I only give rats a problem designation because I like gulls and crows, though if I were consistent, I would call none of them a problem, because they all try to take care of garbage generated by humans. Or I would call all of them problems because of their work as disease vectors. But then they’re a curb on human overpopulation.
Victim. Drink too much? Gambling problem? I wish my Mama would have loved me, the blues artist R.L. Burnside moans.
W. Warming, global. My friend John-the-zealot declares there are no longer personal problems. None. Only GLOBAL WARMING.
Wishful thinking. Bad in a sailor. Once, on a trip across the Mediterranean, I puked for twelve miserable hours because the captain of our sailboat took the best possible interpretation—in fact, better than possible—of the projected weather forecast (25-35 knot winds and a Beaufort scale, meaning seas, of 4.5-7). He claimed they exaggerate, and after some imaginative number-crunching, showed how conditions could be perfect for a bracing, one-in-a-lifetime sail. He forgot to mention the shifting winds. Wistful wife, wimpy husband. Which caused confused seas, so that we pitched not only up-and-down but side-to-side and all around in the gale-force winds and ten-foot waves, which besides making me sick unto death, attempted to sweep the captain and my husband off the stern. Alas, that their jacklines held.
Willfully incompetent in-laws. No, only GLOBAL WARMING.
X. X -therapist, -husband, -president. It is difficult to be an ex. You have so many habits to confront, things to change. You may not know how to act in many situations. You may behave poorly.
Y. Yelling. My mother always yelled at me and now I can’t stop yelling at my kids.
Loud display, even of positive feeling, seems to be unattractive and unwelcome, especially if the person yelling is female and getting on in years.
Yes: I might have said yes to one too many Top Pot doughnuts. (Cf. uncontrolled urges.)
Yearning. Robert Olen Butler tells us there is no fiction without yearning. The character must yearn for something or, no matter how well the story is written, it will be flat. Uh oh. I thought yearning led to disappointment and envy. In fact, very early on, I stripped myself, not only of yearning, but most feeling. I became excellent at rising above, making do, not caring. Who could tolerate a steady state of dashed desire? But Robert Olen Butler is talking about fiction. And anyway, I have been padding feeling back on. I really want a new house.
Z. Zen. Not native.
Student: “Not even a thought has arisen. Is there still a sin or not?” Master: “Mount Sumeru!”
The idea, I think, is that if you tangle with nonsense, your brain will take a leap and free itself from the chains of logic. But what is the purpose of the abandonment of discursive thought? Does it lead to being in the moment? To acceptance, the solution to the 84th problem? Zen koans don’t help me; they make my stomach tighten. I wish the Dalai Lama could have helped me. The Dalai Lama laughed about his teacher’s yellow whip when he was a five-year-old Dalai Lama-in-training, saying fear helped him learn. Ah. The Dalai Lama laughed about death. Ah. (But be careful about sharing the good news that we are all going to die.) But the Dalai Lama did not say a word about zen koans. For that, we’re on our own.
“83 Problems A-Z” first appeared in the Jabberwock Review, vol. 33.2, Winter 2013.