Not long ago a new Monkeytraps reader sent me an email asking, “So where did Bert come from, anyway?”
I took that as an invitation to repost Bert’s story of his own birth, which originally appeared here in 2011 in two parts under the clever title “Bert’s born.”
It’s a little long. But Bert likes to tell it because, well, it’s about him. And as we say, scratch a codependent, find a narcissist.
Steve was born in 1950.
Me, I’ve no idea when I was born. I do, however, remember my first public appearance.
It was on Steve’s first day of kindergarten.
Actually no, it was Visiting Day, the spring before kindergarten started, when kids visited for half a day to get their first taste of public education.
Steve has vague memories of the classroom — bright banks of windows, colored plastic chairs, fingerpaintings on a corkboard, voices rattling off the walls — but no clear memory of how he felt. Not hard to deduce, though, given what happened.
Walked in, froze up. Stood rooted to the tile floor like a stump in a stream, while the other kids bustled and flowed around him.
After a few moments the teacher called the kids over to her desk, and they clumped and moved obediently in that direction. Except Steve, who stayed rooted.
He was shy kid, inexperienced, insecure, especially in new situations. This was certainly one of those, and he found himself flooded with feelings he had not expected and could not begin to control.
At which point, Ta Da, I took over.
“Go to the corner,” I whispered.
Piled there beside the coat rack was a stack of oversized building blocks, hollow wooden cubes painted bright colors.
“Take down on the blue one,” I told him.
“Put it on the floor.”
“Sit on it,” I said.
“Now don’t move,” I said.
He did, staring blindly ahead.
The teacher came over. Nice lady, print dress. Soft voice. Steve never saw her face because he was staring at her shoes, which were brown.
She said something to him. He shook his head. She said something else. He shook his head again. She waited a moment, then walked away.
We spent the rest of the morning together there in the corner. First we sat perfectly still and tried to be invisible, convinced that if we moved or even breathed loudly someone would notice. After thirty minutes it became clear the nice teacher was content to ignore us, and we began to relax. The roaring in our ears died away. Our hands warmed up. We looked around at the room. We watched the teacher playing with the kids. We watched the kids playing with each other.
After another hour this got boring.
I noticed him eyeing a triangular block, off to one side. It was yellow.
“If you put that behind you,” I whispered, “you could lean back on it.”
The idea of reaching for the block and becoming visible scared him all over again, so we argued about it for a while.
I can’t remember how I changed his mind. But eventually he bent his upper body sideways, grabbed the yellow block and slipped it behind him. Then he leaned back and waited for someone to notice.
He found this interesting.
Maybe this place was more tolerable than he thought.
Ten more minutes passed.
“You could put your feet up,” I whispered.
He stood and reached for another block.
The next block Steve reached for was red. He placed it on the floor in front of the blue one, sat down and put his feet up on it. Feeling highly visible, even daring, he waited for the room to react.
The room ignored him.
“More,” I muttered.
He found a yellow block next, and put it beside the red one. Then he found a green one and put it on the other side.
He made a line of blocks, a little wall. Then sat nervously down to await developments.
No one in the classroom noticed, or if they did, they didn’t let on.
He went on building. He made a second tier of blocks, and then a third. When he was done the little multicolored wall rose to his waist and enclosed a small triangular space that felt oddly safe and protected. He sat back down and examined the wall happily. It felt like some sort of achievement.
I think Steve wants to add something here.
Coming to mind is a passage from a Hemingway story. It’s about a traumatized war veteran making camp in the Michigan woods. “Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it.”
Yes. It was that sort of achievement. No small thing, creating safety for yourself in a dangerous world.
That’s about it for my story. Nothing else interesting happened. We stayed behind the wall until we went home.
So why did I tell you this?
Well, I’m introducing myself. As I told you last week, I’m Steve’s inner monkey. The part that seeks control. The part that tries to protect him by changing reality, transforming it into something more like what he wants, or needs, or prefers. You just saw me at work.
But I’m also introducing the subject of this blog, which is not a simple one. Control is a slippery fish.
I’ll let Steve have the last word on that:
For a long time after I began examining control I didn’t distinguish between the simple impulse to control and the addiction to controlling. I saw it as a problem, not a solution. A confused attempt to avoid discomfort or pain. Trying to change realities beyond their control seemed to be the main way people made themselves (and others) sick, exhausted and miserable.
But it’s more complicated than that. Controlling is defensive, sure. But it’s adaptive too. Building that block wall may have cut little Steve off from the class, but it also gave him a way to stay in the room.
So controlling can be both irrational and necessary, avoidant and creative. A problem and a solution.
As Bert says, a slippery fish.