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Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Memorable Lines

By Mark Sherman

Over the years, people have occasionally said things to me so unexpected and memorable that they have become inside jokes for me and my family. I'm sure a similar phenomenon exists in other families as well. Two remarks, in particular, stand out and both go back more than 40 years.

One occurred when I was a first-year graduate student in experimental psychology at Harvard. There were only eight of us, and there was a department tradition that in our first semester each of us would be taken to dinner individually by the distinguished historian of psychology whose name - and I'm not kidding - was Edwin G. Boring.

Dinner would be at the Harvard Faculty Club, a place known for its status and decorum.

Professor Boring was quite old and was beginning to lose it - certainly his hearing and perhaps a bit more. All the graduate students found him quite intimidating, however, partly because he was, in experimental psychology circles, quite famous but also because he had once written a paper saying that graduate students should love psychology so much that they would happily work 80 hours a week at it.

So there I was, just 21 years old, at the Harvard Faculty Club sitting opposite the eminent (but slightly dotty) 77-year-old Professor Boring trying like crazy to think of something to say. It was one of the most uncomfortable hours in my young life and Boring, living up to his name, wasn't helping any.

In desperation, I mentioned the first psychology professor I had had as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. He was someone who had done research with some pretty famous psychologists himself and I figured Dr. Boring would have heard of him.

"Dr. Boring," I said. "My teacher for general psychology was Henry Gleitman."

It turned out I hadn't said it loud enough.

"Did you say Leibniz?" he said, his voice filled with incredulity, which was appropriate since Leibniz, a famous philosopher and mathematician, had died in 1716.

"No. Gleitman!" I said. "GLEITMAN."

To myself I said, Lord, when will this end?

But like many extremely uncomfortable moments, it made a great story, and one that years later I told my wife.

To this day, when one of us says something the other one isn't sure he or she heard correctly, we'll say, "Did you say Leibniz?" and still laugh about it.

The other incident occurred a few years later, while I was still a graduate student. It was 1967, and I was 24. I was already divorced from my first wife - yes, divorced at an age younger than most people marry today. And I had a son.

I was also a psychological mess. From the time I was a child, I was what family therapists call "the identified patient" (that's the family member who carries the burden of a dysfunctional family). But in those days, they didn't have fancy terms like that. I was simply neurotic. Highly neurotic.

Starting at the age of 21, for months at a time, I saw a therapist weekly. I was not making a whole lot of money as a research assistant, so my parents covered all or part of the cost which was, at the time, about $20 a session. That was a lot back then – more than $100 in today's dollars.

After taking money from my parents for this for some time, I felt, at 24, that it was time for me to start paying my own way. I couldn't afford a private therapist, so I went to a clinic. It was at a place called Massachusetts Mental Health and before they would accept you as a patient, you had to go through a number of steps culminating in being interviewed by a number of therapists and interns all at the same time.

I had never been through anything like this before. Seeing a therapist for an initial visit one-on-one was difficult enough, but to face a group of six - all men, as I recall - to try to prove the case that I needed therapy at a sharply reduced rate was particularly disconcerting.

They asked me various questions including why I was there, since I seemed to have had a good relationship with my therapist.

"Well," I said, "my parents have been paying for it and I'm 24 now, so I think it's time I should start paying my own way."

The reply came from one of the older men in the room who actually had a German accent. I can't remember if he had a beard or not, but I remember his accent and will always remember his words. "Perhaps," he said, "this is part of your neurosis."

My neurosis. No one had ever referred to it quite that way.

I knew I was neurotic. Once, when I said to my therapist, "I guess I'm a little neurotic," he said, "A little neurotic?" But no one had ever objectified it like that. I knew I had a family, a car and several pairs of pants; and now I had a neurosis.

They didn't accept me for the clinic and I eventually went back to my therapist. But when I told my brother about the line, we both cracked up. To this day, when I tell him I'm concerned about something, he'll say, "Perhaps it's part of your neurosis."

Yes, but what would Leibniz say?

[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Now I wish I could remember more.....of anything.

Fun to read you on here again, Mark. Love the essay.

For many years I could have used that line about Leibniz after my hearing began to go. I wish I had had something laughable to say when I misunderstood people.

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