I finished the last column in Chicago. It’s a nice city, and we walked and walked and walked.
On the first day I was struck by the architecture.
On the second day I was interested in the way people acted in various “public spaces.”
On the third day I was looking for things different from what I’m used to.
There were police officers on foot and in pairs everywhere, but they weren’t armed to the teeth and they didn’t create an atmosphere of oppression.
I made a point of asking for both directions and miscellaneous information, and they were willing to give both. (None knew what a “standpipe” was, though.)
In contrast to the presence of police was an absence of signs advertising massages. I noticed this because I’m kind of old and my feet hurt.
I’d been thinking about this column, I noticed the absence of signs advertising massage parlors, and I associated the subject of massage with what I’d heard my parents say on the subject.
By the time he had used up his three score and ten, I think my father had done and had just about everything he ever wanted, with one exception. He read about a kind of massage that’s given by a masseuse who walks on your back.
He had an image of what it would be like and always described the masseuse as a “small woman.” I say “always” because he mentioned this interest, this fantasy many times. The family had a conversational script:
Someone would say: “massage,” “masseuse,” “China,” “Japan,” “Korea,” “spine,” “vertebrae,” or just “back,” and my father would say: “Bri, when you were in Vietnam did you get one of those massages where a small woman walks on your back?”
“Yes, Dad. Many.”
“That must have been nice.”
I’d say, “It’s too bad you missed hundreds of back-walking massages in Vietnam, Dad, but you would have hated the rest of it.”
Then he would say, “No one’s talking about Vietnam.”
I’d say, “Hmmm,” and then, “If you want to have a woman walk on your back, I could arrange that for you. I’d be glad to.”
My mother would say, “He thinks it would be so great to have a woman walk on his back. He should find out what it’s like. I’d arrange it if I knew where to call.”
My mother wasn’t a large woman, but she was too big to walk on someone’s back.
My father would grumble or growl or go back to his book and I would say, “But when you get a massage, they have you take your clothes off. Are you okay with that Dad?”
He definitely did not want to take his clothes off so a strange woman could walk on his back; it wasn’t a topic open for discussion. So that’s where that particular conversation would always end.
After my father died, I would, of course, ask my mother how she was doing. She would say it wasn’t his brilliant conversation she missed the most.
They had been together for 50 years. Even though she could anticipate 95 percent of what he had to say, she’d claim: “Oh! The other five percent is worth waiting for.” Oh mom, not the Nancy Reagan script, please.
What she missed was “being touched.” I got the sense that it wasn’t necessarily my father’s touch she missed. It was just “touch.”
Once or twice she expressed admiration for Averell Harriman, who, at that time, was either taken or dead. What’s the son of a mother who “misses being touched” supposed to do or say? This is Oedipal territory. I said and I did — nothing.
Some years later, my wife didn’t need to be told her mother needed to be touched; she arranged for a regular massage by a kind, gentle and healing therapist. Those massages had a pervasive positive effect on the quality of life being lived, and we think they extended it.
I arranged for M to come to the law firm to give 15-minute neck and shoulder massages to whomever wanted one.
M sold cards good for three massages and it could be used whenever M came to the office, first on a weekly basis and, later, twice weekly. I got a massage whenever she was in the building.
On two occasions I was with a client when it was my turn and I let the client take my place. On both occasions the clients were soothed and grateful. It was the best thing I could have done; probably the best thing I did for the case. (No, I didn’t include the cost of the massage in their bills.)
The extremely productive, the extremely stressed-out, the extremely driven lawyers always acknowledged the need for a neck and shoulder massage, but they were always under extreme “press-of-business” and too busy to spare 15 minutes.
In other words, the lawyers who wanted, needed and “deserved” this kind of support the most were the ones who couldn’t “do nothing” long enough to get it.
Or maybe they knew that M could be dangerous. At 5 feet 5 inches tall and less than 100 pounds, hers wasn’t a physical threat; it was psychic.
She had a philosophy some would think subversive. She believed one’s life was wasted if one were afflicted by a determination to acquire stuff, especially money. She didn’t preach; this was just her personal opinion based on what she’d seen, especially in her own family.
If the busy, productive lawyers had 15 minutes to spend with M, I don’t know if she’d talk to them the way she talked to me.
Would she tell a guy who was going as fast as he could to go as far as he could get that he was wasting his life? If so, would it have any effect?
I don’t know about them, but it’s the way she talked to me. Oh, she explicitly recognized I would have no sympathy for her anti-materialistic views. That was correct and saved me the effort of forming an opinion. I was right and she was wrong.
That’s what I did all day both at work and at home: form opinions, make judgments, and assert and defend, all the time.
I didn’t have to defend against M’s goofy ideas as she rubbed the muscles in my neck and shoulders; her ideas were lame but her voice was pleasant — even sweet — so I could let it wash over me without attending to its content.
This continued for at least a year, maybe two: M’s rub, her voice and her screwy philosophy. Then our lives were ruined — or at least stirred up.
M stopped coming to the firm. We heard that she thought we were making her sick. She was absorbing our toxic tension and she couldn’t take it anymore.
Not long after that, I was finding reasons and examples showing why the practice of law was okay, but the business of practicing law was not what I wanted to stay signed up for.
M’s influence wasn’t a sufficient condition causing me to leave the firm, but I think it was necessary. M had an even greater effect on one of my partners — and they got married.
I wish I had an office closer to Marty Cohn. I would be infinitely better informed about things I don’t know I don’t know.
I intruded on a conversation in which Marty was pitching the benefit of the recently arrived walk-in massage stations we have in Santa Barbara. You don’t have to anticipate the need for a rub and make an appointment for the next day or the next week. You just show up and walk in when you feel like it.
You don’t have to talk to anyone to express your “needs.” You can’t talk to anyone, because no one speaks English.
You point to a laminated menu to show where, how hard, how fast and how long you want to be rubbed (or walked on). The menu shows the cost of each combination. You can order from cost to service or vice versa.
The massage (or foot rub) will start immediately or momentarily. They have to take your shoes and socks off to do a foot massage, but otherwise you stay dressed. You’re not covered in olive oil when it’s over.
My father would have loved it, and I would have taken him whenever he wanted to go. But I don’t think my mother would have found her Averell Harriman equivalent.
A part of the experience of divorce is aloneness, which Stanford psychiatrist Irvin Yalom lists as one of the four major existential issues with which we must come to terms to be whole adults.
Like my mother, you may yearn for touch, but Averell Harriman is dead.
There’s something about a foot massage that’s intimate without being the least bit invasive. It’s hard to think when your foot is being tended to; during a divorce there is nothing healthier than to stop thinking — and no one will talk to you about their personal philosophy.
Oblique Strategy #39 — Are you re-enacting someone else’s divorce?
— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.