Category Archives: intimacy

Practicing intimacy: Intimate communication

Ninth in the series 
Notes on recovery 
Intimacy depends on the quality of communication.
And the first step to raising that quality is by not doing stuff we normally do.
Psychologist Thomas Gordon once famously identified twelve “roadblocks to communication” between parents and children.  It’s a good list to memorize, since each item is essentially a controlling behavior able to destroy intimacy between anyone and anyone else:
1. Ordering or directing
2. Warning or threatening
3. Advising or suggesting
4. Arguing or persuading
5. Lecturing or moralizing
6. Criticizing, judging or blaming
7. Agreeing or praising*
8. Ridiculing or shaming
9. Analyzing or diagnosing
10. Reassuring or sympathizing*
11. Questioning or probing
12. Withdrawing, humoring or distracting
A client with whom I shared this list responded, “What’s left?  Hand signals?”
I sympathize.  We’re so used to these ways of unconsciously controlling each other that it’s hard to imagine doing without them.
But there are alternatives.
I-statements, for example.  Ever notice how any sentence containing the word You tends to make the listener defensive?  I-statements avoid this by focusing on me instead.  I’m confused by what you’re saying, instead of You make no sense.  I’m mad at you, instead of You suck.  Like that.  Which do you think leads to better communication?      
Then there’s feedback, a skill I teach in therapy groups.  Group requires a lot of emotional safety, so to forestall judgments or unsolicited advice members are asked to respond to what they hear by describing only what it made them think, feel or remember.  (When you talk about your anger I remember all the times I lost my temper and how it felt.)   These expanded I-statements not only make it safer for everyone to talk about sensitive issues, they help members get to know each other quickly, and to understand their own reactions and perceptions reactions on a deeper level.
Finally, monologuing is an exercise I teach couples who want to learn intimate communication.  Each partner takes five minutes to list his/her resentments (I resent when you insult my mother) and appreciations (I appreciate when you make coffee so I don’t have to) while the other just listens.  Then they switch roles.  Monologuing’s not meant to settle disputes or solve problems; it’s used to keep the air clear, lines of communication open, and each partner in touch with where the other is emotionally.  It also teaches them to make I-statements, identify feelings, listen without interrupting, and develop empathy.  (I didn’t know you felt that way is a common reaction.) Couples who monologue regularly tell me it becomes a way they can talk safely about almost anything.

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*Yes, items 7 and 10 tend to surprise people.   See here for an explanation of why they inhibit parent/child communication.

 

 

 


The split-level relationship

There are two questions with which you must struggle if you want a healthy relationship:

How can I have you without losing me?

How can I have me without losing you?

You can’t really answer these questions, just struggle with them.

But it’s the struggling that matters.

Why?

Because they represent two essential needs each of us brings to any relationship:

Connection and freedom.

Acceptance by another person, and self-acceptance.

A real partner, and at the same time, a real self.

Most people I know are convinced you can’t have both at the same time.

Most came from families — alcoholic, abusive or otherwise dysfunctional — unable to teach them to balance connection with freedom.

What they learned instead was that having one meant losing the other.  That winning love and approval from parents, for example, meant sacrificing important parts of themselves, like the freedom to express feelings or take care of their own needs.

The family that raised us is where each of us learned our own personal answer to the two questions. And the answer we learned grew into a crucial (though mostly unconscious) part of our basic view of life and relationships, what I call our Plan A.  

Some of us decide, “Since I can’t have both, I’ll have me, and to hell with you.”  Shrinks call this the narcissistic answer.

Others decide, “Since I can’t have both, I’ll have you, and to hell with me.” This is the infamous codependent answer.

So the narcissistic partner says “Me first,” and the codependent replies, “Yes, dear.”

And the two personality types end up together with stunning regularity.  (Remember Archie and Edith Bunker?)

Watching such couples interact, one is struck by their predictability.  In every situation the narcissist finds some way to say “Me first,” and the codependent to reply “Yes, dear.”  It’s as if long ago they sat down and signed a contract.

Which in a way they did.

Their complementary answers to the two questions probably account, in large part, for why they felt attracted to each other.

In any case, the vast majority of couples I see for couples counseling follow this pattern — so many that I felt the need to give them their own name.

I call them split-level relationships.

Split-level relationships work for a while, but almost always break down.  Eventually one or both partners realize they’re not getting what they need.

Codependents usually notice first.  When that partner is female this can lead to the syndrome called the Walk-Away Wife.

But narcissists tend to be unhappy too. They often complain of loneliness, lack of connection to their codependent partner, or an absence of respect or affection.  They may feel impatient, frustrated, irritated, resentful. Sometimes they drink, drug, overeat, rage or cheat, and then feel bad about that.

All this happens because split-level relationship is inherently unhealthy.

Familiar, sure.  Comfortable, even, in the way the predictable may come to feel.

But not healthy.  The unbalanced answers on which a split-level relationship is based simply cannot fill the emotional needs of two adults.  So both partners end up feeling deprived, often without understanding why.

What does recovery for such a couple look like?

Put simply, a sort of role reversal.

Codependent partners must develop courage and practice standing up, asserting themselves.  Narcissistic partners must develop empathy and practice stepping down, giving instead of grabbing.

Easy?  No.  Not easy for either of them.

Just necessary to life on the same level.


The tribe: Expectations

 

Most people feel anxious in group without really understanding why.

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Personally I think it’s because, on some deep level, the group reminds us of our family of origin.

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And we expect it to treat us just as our family did.

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So tell me.  If this group were your family, what would you be expecting now?

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To get hit.

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To get humiliated.

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To be told to shut up.

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To be ignored.

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Pink?  What would you expect?

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All of the above.

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Jeez.

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So you all have good reason to feel anxious in this room.

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But I have to ask Pink:

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How’d you work up the courage to even come here?

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therapist 15

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Two beers, half a pizza, and a Vicodin.

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* * *

  

Group therapy. 

In Hebrew. 

“Hello, this is Fear Management. 

“My name is Moni, and I too have a phobia. 

“I have a fear of shouting. 

“You know, a, h, h, h, exclamantion mark, ‘ahhh’!

“At this point I suggest we all tell about ourselves…” 

 

Excerpt from the Israeli TV show “Ktzarim”:  Five troubled people (that description includes the group leader) meet for group therapy.  In Hebrew with English subtitles (2:22).

 

* * *

 

Overheard at the House:

Eventually, and every time, I used to drive my current partner insane with my hang ups and he broke off the relationship….

So I decided only I could change and needed to put my – sorry to be blunt – infantile behaviour aside and choose blind trust, no matter the outcome….

Result: I came to accept that my life is my life and not dependent on anyone else for survival or safety – and in a way I was going to be alone, with or without a partner: it’s part of the human condition….

 

Come. 

Join the conversation

Monkey House.

Because we’re all monkeys on this bus.

 

 

 

 

 



The Tribe: Validation

 

You all know me, but not each other.  So let’s find out what you’re doing here. 

Why did each of you join this group?

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Come on, be honest.  Why are you here?

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It was your idea.

It was your idea.

It was your idea.

It was your idea.

It was your idea.

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My idea?  That’s the reason?

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Pretty much.

Pretty much.

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Pretty much.

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Hm.

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Well, needing to please your therapist isn’t very therapeutic.  Maybe we should rethink this.

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What if we cancel groupHow would you feel?

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therapist 11

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Come on, be brave.  How would you feel about stopping right now?

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Yippee.

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Yes.  Yippee.

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Yippee also.

 

 

 

Me too.

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Ditto.

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Huh.  Now you’re all smiling.  

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You better be careful.

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Someone might mistake you for a group.

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* * *

 

 

About validation

One of the most important emotional skills is the skill of validation.
It is a skill because it can be learned.
Whether it is or ever will be part of the academic or corporate measures of emotional intelligence, I really don’t know.
But I do know that if you want to have better relationships with people, the skill of emotional validation is extremely useful.
The relationship will be better because with more validation you are going to have less debating, less conflicts, and less disagreement.  You will also find that validation opens people up and helps them feel free to communicate with you.
In fact, if there is a communication breakdown, if there is a wall between you and someone else, it probably has been built with the bricks of invalidation 
Validation is the means of chipping away at the wall and opening the free flow of communication.

~ From “Emotional validation: Introduction” at EQI.org.

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Visited

Monkey House

yet?

 

  

No?

What are you waiting for?

 

What’s Monkey House?  Read this.

Then click here to join the conversation.  (Go to “Do you need to register a new member?” at the top.)

We’re asking, “What’s the most difficult control issue you’re facing now?“

A recent exchange:

Hi Bert and Members, 
       Cutting through the fear barrier of speaking out.  Here goes: 

       My control issue:  wanting validation as a person, in an individual sense.
       Always, no matter what the situation, I’m pushed to the outer, disregarded, invalidated and not included, the invisible factor engulfs.  As much as I try, 30+ years of trying, same result.  I can do my job, very well if I may say so myself, and yet everything/everyone stays out of arm’s reach to the point of utter loneliness. Smiley

        Thanks Bert And Steve.  After reading your blog for nearly 6 months, I’ve become aware of how the issue of control infiltrates so many aspect of our lives while recognizing both the healthy and unhealthy aspects of control. Smiley

 

Hey, David.  Thanks for cutting through. Smiley

Odd you should mention validation.  That just happens to be the title of our next Monkeytraps post (due Sunday 5/13.)  It’s also a subject on which we both have thoughts.

Steve:  The need for validation is legitimate, inescapable, and the biggest damn monkeytrap I know, since it forces us to try — endlessly and in countless ways, not always conscious or healthy — to get what we need from other people.  And as with most forms of control, the more of it you need, the less you seem to get.  It’s also why having at least one reasonably healthy relationship is more or less essential to happiness.

Bert:  God, I hate needing validation.  I grew up hungry for it, so hungry that I used to avoid relationships just to avoid being disappointed.  That didn’t work, of course, since it was like starving myself in order to avoid food poisoning.  Eventually I had to take the risk again with people.  A pain in the ass, people, but also the only game in town.

 


Session 22: Bull (part 2)

bert

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Remember when I complimented you on developing some empathy?

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Yeah.

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I may have spoken too soon.

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What the hell is “empathy,” anyway?

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Awareness of another person’s feelings.

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And I lack that.

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Apparently.  But it’s not your fault.

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bert.

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You’re a man.  Most men are trained to be emotional dunderheads.

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“Dunderhead”?

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Emotionally stupid.

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How does that happen?

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Well, we teach men to ignore or hide their feelings…

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bert

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…so they can go to war and go to work and do other stuff that feelings tend to interfere with.

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Because big boys don’t cry.

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Exactly.

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bert 10

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And once you lose touch with your own feelings…

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bert (11)

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…it’s hard to be sensitive to anyone else’s.

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Like a wife’s.

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Yes.

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So she’s right.  I am insensitive to her feelings.

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So it would seem.

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Now I feel like a jerk.

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I wouldn’t say that.  Just think of yourself as…

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bert (15)

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…a bull in a china shop.

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(To be continued.)

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* * *

Want more?

Having spent half his life trying to find fulfillment outside himself, he awakens to discover that it has not worked. For the first time in his life, a man may turn inward for answers.

He may begin to realize that his unhappiness is not caused by his failure to find the right woman or the right career, but by who he is and the way he is living his life.

Rather than blame others, he may ask, “How have I caused this to happen? Perhaps I need to change and develop greater self-awareness before I can have a healthy relationship or a satisfying career.”

This is a very difficult and courageous step for a man to take. Having successfully mastered his life on the outside, he is now forced to acknowledge that he needs help to explore difficulties encountered in his inner life.

From Real men do therapy by Jerry Magaro.

* * *

Most men grow up with an emptiness inside them.  Call it father hunger, call it male deprivation, call it personal insecurity, it’s the same emptiness.

When positive masculine energy  — a male mode of feeling — is not modeled from father to son, it creates a vacuum in the souls of men.  And into that vacuum demons pour.

Among other things, they seem to lose the ability to know how to read situations and people correctly.

Richard Rohr, in From wild man to wise man: Reflections on male spirituality.


Session 17: Guilty

Bad day at work.

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What happened?

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Boss yelled at me.

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And how do you feel?

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Guilty.

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Why’d the boss yell?

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Having a bad day, I guess.  He’s like that.

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So why do you feel guilty?

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I don’t know.

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That’s not guilt you’re feeling.   

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It’s not?

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No.  It’s anger.  Internalized anger often feels like guilt.

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It does?

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Sure.  Anger’s like poison.  If you don’t spit it out at the person who hurt you, it eats away at you and feels like guilt.

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I don’t know about that.  I’ve always been a pretty guilty person.

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4I see.  Tell me, what’s your boss like?

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He’s an asshole.

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How big an asshole?

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Big.

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Big?

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Enormous.

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And how’s it feel, working for an enormous asshole?

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I hate it.  I hate him.  I hate my job.

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th12

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Hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate.

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therapist (13)

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bert (14)

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How you feeling now?

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Better.  Much better.  Not guilty at all.

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Does that always work?

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When the guilt comes from internalized anger, pretty much.

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bert (17)

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By the way, how’s your marriage going?

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bert (18)

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* * *

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Parable

Two monkeys meet in the mountains at sundown.

Each is alone, having been separated from his tribe.  Both are tired from trudging for days through the rocks.

But monkeys are wary beasts.  So for a long time they stand motionless, eyeing each other suspiciously.

Finally the tireder of the pair gets tired of this too. 

“Oh, screw it,” he says, and sits down in the dirt.

The other watches him for a moment, then sits down as well.

They look around at the dirt, the rocks, the huge sky, the sinking sun.  Finally their eyes meet.

“What’s your name?” asks the first monkey.

The second monkey scowls.

“What’s yours?” he replies.

They fall silent.

The sun’s lower edge touches the horizon.  The air chills. 

The first monkey reaches into his knapsack and pulls out a cigarette lighter.  He scratches together a tiny pile of twigs and pushes the lighter into the center of it.  The twigs catch.  A small flame appears.

“Got anything to burn?” he asks.

The second money is leaning towards the flame, but the question stops him.

“Do you?” he answers.  He places a protective paw on his knapsack.

The first monkey sighs.

The sun sinks below the horizon.

Now it is dark.  Dark in the mountains is especially dark.

“Oh, screw it again,” says the first monkey.  He reaches into his knapsack and brings out a small lump of something wrapped in cloth. 

“This is a secret,” he tells the other.   “I never show it to anyone.  It’s embarrassing.  But I guess it’s better than freezing to death.”

He unwraps a stinky old fish head. 

A rotten smell fills the clearing.  First Monkey swallows hard, then lays the fish head carefully atop the pile of twigs like an offering.  

It catches fire.  Flames leap up. 

The smell disappears.

Second Monkey now looks embarrassed.

“That’s not so bad,” he says finally.  “I can beat that.”

He reaches into his knapsack and comes out with a medium-sized lump, also wrapped in cloth.

“Really?” First Monkey smiles.

Second Monkey nods, unwraps his fish head, swallows hard and lays it on the fire.

Again a bad smell fills the clearing.   The second head catches fire.  Again the smell goes away.

The monkeys inch closer to the flames.  They reach out their paws.  Overhead the moon starts its climb across the sky.

“You got more, I hope,” Second Monkey says.

“I do if you do,” replies First Monkey.

Both giggle.

And so the night passes, hour after hour, fish head after fish head, each larger and more fragrant than the last, until both knapsacks are empty and the fire burns on without feeding and the sun peeks up over the mountains in the east.

“I’m Sid,” mutters Second Monkey suddenly.

“I’m Barry,” replies First Monkey.  “Pleased to meet you.”  

Moral:

Nobody on this bus but us monkeys.


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