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Are You Talking to Me?

Cartoon sketch of a man holding up a square mask to his face with one hand, while he holds another face in his other hand. A pile of masks sits in front of him. Illustration by Earle Levenstein.

Well, we're talking all right, but is it me you're talking to? Or am I so tuned to being the person who's talking to me would like me to be, that it's not until I reflect upon the conversation, that I can truly respond?

Either I was or wasn't being myself.

I'm not reluctant, as you might know, to discuss the issue I have with being myself. It's complicated and totally confusing. I mean, the transition is so smooth, seamless, without any conscious thought, that it isn't until later, when I reflect upon the conversation, that I can respond.

It's sort of frightening to accept that I'm the product of instinct; not conditioning. I knew before I knew what I knew.

No hypnotism, a spell cast, following instructions, one of those scenes in a film: "When I snap my fingers you will open your eyes and feel refreshed; You will not remember a word of what I have said."

Not a function of assessing various personae and selecting one as the most appropriate, selecting the best fit, a suit of clothes, the right tie. No choice involved.

It's instinct. I was born with it.

For me, activated the instant my eyes and ears switched on; an infant; the red flag I saw waving, the alarm buzzing, my immediate awareness that survival was on the table. Life and death. Every day.

Not melodrama. Acceptance. OK. I get the picture, the scene; tinkering with the internal mechanism, reading the signs.

No training; taking a course: Bobbing and Weaving 101.

I just knew.

To the degree that I could read my father's intentions before he knew what he was going to do: what I had to do to respond, before, not after.

I know how odd—to put it mildly—all this sounds, even to me as I talk about it.

Conditioning? Experience? Read the scene, responded to my family dynamic as it unfolded, saw the violence, the chaos, the level of sound, the threats, the potential for the end of life; and adopted a survival tool, a persona, non-threatening, non-confrontational, the voice of reason, a capacity for diversion, for explaining, the interpreter, shifting direction.

To some degree, that all makes sense. I saw; I experimented; I found a program; I used it; it worked; I continued to use it; still do, and pay the price. Not dealing directly with the issue, any issue, essentially changing the subject, the tone, mollifying, not challenging.

Looking around for the exit; an escape route; chit-chatting as I ease my way out the door.

Logical. Rational. Acceptable.


I can still see—literally see—my childhood setting, experience the feeling, see through my child-eyes, know how I performed, read the signals, heard the alarms, stepped in, tap-dancing, distracting, picking up the pieces, soothing the wounded, reframing what I had seen, explaining, rationalizing.

At the same time, I have to marvel at the sophistication of the child I was: the arsenal I developed, the success I experienced…assuming survival is defined as success.

No wonder it would be challenging for me to become the truth-teller, the tell-it-like-it-is straight-shooter, accepting the potential threat to my survival, end of the world as I've known it, accepting unpredictability, a whole new suit of clothes.

Don't rush me.

Testing one…two—

Where was I?

Oh, yes; one…two…


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