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February 6, 1996


Ask Dr. Salvo

Dear Doctor Salvo,

As he is constantly on the alert for new and interesting clues to explain the vagaries of the human psyche, 'Possum is not at all disappointed to find them in the most unlikely places or situations. Today he uncovered one such puzzle piece, which may explain some of the current problems we're having with violence among young people. Perhaps the reason is they're being raised in all female households.

The problem, he believes, may not be the absence of a father figure, as many believe. Rather it may be the presence of that postmenopausal female known usually as the "granny," a seemingly harmless creature most well known for its habit of "spoiling" the children.

'Possum, through his own research has observed such spoilage and it appears to be something far more than the benign process we all once thought. In fact it can be both pernicious and abusive.

Luckily the child in question had her father present, which it could be hoped might serve as some form of preservative to retard the spoilage process. I would hate to see yet another youngster ruined, so that on her sixteenth birthday she gets her nose pierced and a tattooed rose placed upon her southern areas. But considering the "granny" influence that is perhaps unwise optimism.

Once a year 'Possum ventures down to the mall and to that fashionable department store, "Tudbury's." This store is devoted to the production of the ersatz sensation of wealth, opulence and decadence among its middle class female customers, so of course it is Mrs. 'Possum's favorite. Needless to say, 'Possum would rather go fishing, but duty demands at least one mall "Tudbury's" stocking stuffer each Christmas.

It is not a terminally bad place to go. Indeed the sales clerks are friendly and they go out of their way to help the few hapless males who blunder in under the influence of whatever seasonal obligation. They seem to understand the easy disorientation we feel, not hesitating to give eager directions for those of us lost in the bowels of a subterranean-appearing floor plan which has no direct entry nor exit.

The trouble is, as always, in the swarms of shoppers, initiates all into the complex "Tudbery's" rituals, who elbow one another aside with nary a grunt nor fare thee well. While they may seem to be ordinary people on ordinary shopping trips this is only a superficial appearance, as I was soon to learn.

So the story goes. I entered the store and wandered until I finally found my way to the one person in the store who could tell me where my particular little gift was to be found, stood in a quiet little line for an half hour, bought the gift and learned there was free wrapping around the corner. Which seemed nice to me, but unfortunately also seemed to draw out the shopping sharks as well.

This learned while waiting in another line. Instead of growing shorter as is the nature of lines where the object is to purchase something, the line grew steadily longer. From second in line I was third, then fourth then fifth.

So I did the natural thing. I asked what was going on. If there had been another male ahead of me I would have gotten a straight answer, such as "Well, this is a store where we all shop in packs like hyenas on the Veldt. So we always leave our oldest, sickest or slowest one here in endless line where they can't get lost and trodden upon." Then he would have laughed and I would have seen the way this strange tribe does business.

Ahead of me was what to all appearances was a sweet old lady, not quite as plump as Barbara Bush, as wrinkled as Zsa Zsa, nor as well embalmed as Tammy Faye. "Here," I thought, "is someone to explain to me how to ever get to the head of the line." She was the businesslike sort you'd expect to see, perhaps as a customer service representative for the Post Office.

So I asked, "How is it that you just appeared here at the head of the line?"

Which was exactly the wrong thing to have asked. The reaction could not have been worse had I asked her whether she, as a zoophile, preferred dogs or goats. Never had I been so abused by a stranger (with the possible exception of the Borden lady in 1976 when I chose to buy a carton of store brand milk -- but that is another story).

Quietly I endured perhaps five minutes of her ravings, when a timid voice from the back of the room spoke up. "Mother is there anything wrong? What's the matter?" It was her son, sitting but ready to spring to her aid.

Once she'd shouted her concerns to him he shrugged and settled back, obviously having heard it all before. All the while the lady's granddaughter, the initial designated line stander, stood by taking it all in quietly. Then she went over and sat by her father.

At last the hemorrhage of line breakers came to a close (or perhaps the rest of her tag team were otherwise occupied). So I got my little present wrapped, while she still stood there mumbling into the air, plotting revenge and going over my imagined evils for all who cared to listen.

On the way out I stopped by her son to give my bit of apology and offer condolences. His little girl sat quietly beside him as he patted my arm. I thought to warn him, "perhaps she's a bit too much of a bad influence for the little girl." But the look in both their eyes told me they already knew so I said nothing more.

I would hope this young father, and those others like him, would think twice should they decide their marriage to be too dull or restraining. For if they leave the children, then who is there eager to take their places? Janet Reno in drag?

'Possum



Dear Possum,

So good to hear from you again, and to know that your keen anthropological eyes are still closely observing the foibles of the tribes in this remote region. I am amazed that your patience held up throughout the waiting ordeal -- I would have been tempted to wrap that gift myself. Still, in our bloodless bottom-line economy, any sign of generosity in the great consumption machine should get a brisk positive response, so we should follow your lead and get in line for anything or service that is free.

I would add, "Before you brave the line, furnish your mind with a book, some nonsense poems, something for the mind to feed upon, so that you don't go mad and get press gauged into the staff of the store you're trying to out-wait." Some customers disappeared in a line in Mobile and turned up weeks later in Tucumcari. They denied all knowledge of how this came about, but I strongly suspect the H.H.V.K.S. (Howard Hughes Voluntary Kidnap Service) A few words about this noble and eleemosynary institution are in order: Before he died, raving, poor H.H. noticed many times that some people became "mentally ill" just because of bad luck. (The world's worst disease.) Then they became stuck in a place and time unyielding and ungiving to their efforts to escape -- they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. After careful (and secret) review of his case by The Committee, a deserving and consenting person would suddenly disappear. He might never reappear, or openly take up residence in the San Blas Islands. This has grown to be a favorite because the language in these islands has no words for TIME, or MONEY. Just being there will heal up most wounds of the psyche.

Now how did I get off on San Blas? It was the word anthropology.

Back in the 50's and 60's I had the good luck to come under the tutelage of one Ray Birdwhistell. He was a former ballet dancer who became an anthropologist in order to study how different people communicated thru posture, stance, gesture, movement -- body language. This was a partly new science and he called it Kinesics. It may still be around, but has kept a low profile and the founder is now dead. Still, he left behind some observations.

He made a film of a man on board an elevator with 5-6 women and showed clearly that they were the aggressors. The man gradually shrank into a comer, looking harassed, while his fair attackers looked quite comfortable. Another of his films studied the movement of a man at a sale, surrounded by women in a shopping frenzy. He looked fairly calm, as to his expression, but the feet, legs and arms wree in constant motion to ward off, retreat, repel boarders, and look inoffensive. Films of this sort were studied by the kinesics experts in slow motion, and the response of at least two parties at a time were examined as a unit of communication. Once again the aggressors were the women -- this was discovered after a hundred hours study of a few minutes of film.

Several anthropologists joined the study, including Margaret Meade and her latest husband, also an anthropologist, Gregory Bateson.

We became so giddy with success that we thought we could tell how schizophrenia showed up in foot motion. Worse yet, we fancied we could spot the "schizophrenogenic parent," usually the mother, of course.

Just a few years into the 60's, kinesics began, like psychoanalysis, to fade away. It really hadn't told us much we could use. We early students in the movement still recall with affection that a girl who keeps brushing her hair off her ear (on your side) is making a pass! Ray Birdwhistell, who said he was always falling in love, i.e., every day, also cheered us on with the news that the girl who crossed her legs and pointed the sole of her shoe at you -- was available. The girl who aimed her armpit at you was very available. And so on.

What happened to the fun in psychiatry? We have reached Freud's longed-for stage in which each mental illness has a physical locus, and can be treated with a specific medication. Well, almost. We are now calling in the clowns.

Cheers,
Salvo


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