Tag Archives: Relationships

Chinese New Year




I always celebrate the Chinese New Year. I like being aware of what energies the new totem carries, asking people which year they were born, and what the astrology says about me. And there is a certain excitement with the Lunar New Year, because it means spring is on its way.


I was just out of high school when I learned there was a whole way of keeping track of time by the moon. That always felt like a more accurate way to base a calendar. Plus, I like looking up at the night sky, I like remembering that the power that moves the moon moves through me.

The study of astrology came naturally to me. For decades I did charts for people, and had causal conversations with others. It was always fun, the Chinese Zodiac, in particular.  I liked the perspective that instead of one sign a month, there was one for a whole year. Not the year like we in the West knew it to be, one that started in February, and that made a difference. For instance, my father and mother are born the same year, but he is a Dragon, and she is a Snake. (And they so are.)

The characteristics are there, for sure, with a particular bent for men, and another for women. Men who are Tigers, or Rabbits, or Dogs seem to stand out in my life. A dear female friend is a Fire Monkey, born in the hour of the Monkey. She totally fits the profile. (And is totally looking forward to this year!) I admire the energy of the creative Dragon women, and the active Roosters. My year – those of the Sheep/Goat, well, we are quite the bunch. My graduating class has yet to have a reunion, and we just passed the big 30.

bluemoonsm300Here’s an except from my memoir, A Blue Moon in China, about the time when I was 21 years old and in China having a conversation with an American woman who was 45 years old that I had met the day before. The words come basically straight from the journal I kept while I travelled through China in 1988.

Chapter Seven: The Way to Yangshuo, A Blue Moon in China

“What year were you born?” she asked, popping the pineapple into her mouth.

“I was born in the spring before the Summer of Love,” I said. I liked thinking of it that way.

“Ah, 1967. I knew we had a kinship,” she smiled. “In the Chinese horoscope you were born in the Year of the Goat, like me.” She took a sip of her drink. “Supposedly we are born to love.” She rolled her eyes.

“I know, that’s why I call it the Year of the Sheep. I like the image of a sheep grazing on a green hillside, happy as can be.”

Our year was the only one of the twelve Chinese horoscopes to have two different totems.

“Sheep are vulnerable to predators,” Sherry countered. “Year of the Goat. That suits me better. The surefooted ability to scamper a mountainside, self-reliant. Fits with me always being off on adventure.”


As a special New Year’s Gift, if you order* the softcover of my memoir, A Blue Moon in China, you will receive a little black bag that reads: If you want a vacation, go to Hawaii. If you want an adventure, go to China.

*orders from website: abluemooninchina.com, while supplies last, in continental USA only


The two photos were taken at the Lan Su Chinese Gardens in Portland, OR. I did a reading there while on my book tour. The Chinese character was made for me. You can see a video of it on my youtube channel, only it’s sideways (I don’t know why it came out that way).



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Filed under A Blue Moon in China, Book Tour, China

Santa Fe, a short story


Kathy looked out the window, out across the vacant lot full of weeds, and out to the snow-capped mountains. Seeing them there always startled her, not only that they were there, but that she had an unobstructed view. It was a fluke; the neighborhood was working class poor who barely scraped together enough money to pay the bills each month. Yet here was this unobstructed million-dollar view.

Her eyes focused back in on the patch of land directly across the street. That was in keeping with the economical status of this housing development. It was supposed to be an inviting park for the neighborhood to enjoy, but it wasn’t. It was hardened desert with tough, prickly weeds. The compact dirt was covered in seeds with claws that gripped into one’s skin. The locals called these prya “goat heads;” Kathy cursed them as “satan’s bite” whenever she pried them out of her shoes and blue jeans. There was a swing set placed to one side of the park, but it only added an apocalyptic look to the foreboding landscape. It was a picture of wasted youth left to rust, untouched by the children who stayed away, playing in the street instead. But Kathy didn’t let those painful stickers stop her from enjoying the park. She loved to swing; she loved the feel of her long hair hanging loose and free as she kicked her legs to go higher and higher, then, gripping the cold metal chain, she would lean back, and feel as though she could jump straight into the heavens.

The sky here was all encompassing; ever-present, a dome of blue that felt close enough to touch so high was the elevation of the land. It was almost always without a cloud. Unless the rare storm came through. These monsoons brought her neighbors outside to watch crackle of lighting leading the long gray streams of water across the desert, sweeping in from the distant horizon. The promise of water quenching the dry desert brought with it a celebration. After the torrent passed, the remaining clouds reflected fluorescent pinks and oranges as the sun set. It was a glorious spectacle in which painters tried to capture over and over again. But a colorful canvas could never capture the smell of rain or the sound of thunder. One had to be present and experience it in the moment.

Kathy closed the drapes. The aroma of brewed coffee lured her into the kitchen. She poured herself a mug and sat down at the kitchen table. Today was a special day. It was the day the puppy was to arrive. Marcus, her husband of two years, had come home a few weeks ago full of news that Peter the potter’s hound Bonnie had given birth to a litter of puppies, and they were to have one.

“I’ve always wanted a dog,” Marcus had told her excitedly, dancing around like a little boy, his eyes sparkling at the thought of it. “My father wouldn’t allow us to have one. Now we are going to have a puppy!”

Marcus had headed out that morning in their old pick-up truck to fetch the new addition to their family. Peter and Bonnie lived in a blink of a village high up in the mountains. Bonnie was free to roam and often found herself giving birth. But she was a sweet dog, and her puppies were known to inherit her disposition.

The clock slowly ticked time away. Kathy looked around her home. They had moved in just a few months before. It was the first actual house Kathy lived as an adult. It was a new construction, part of a small subdivision four blocks long. The front windows faced south and sunshine streamed in all day in the winter, and giving the excuse to sprawl catlike on the rug soaking up the rays. To the east were the mountains. At the foot of these was the town center. They lived on the outskirts, outside the inner circle of the Plaza, where the artists converged. The old-timers who lived out their way still kept horses, grew vegetables in their gardens. Their yards were stocked with piles of scrap lumber for wood stoves and old cars for spare parts. They had chickens, too, and every morning Kathy could hear roosters crow. Life in a rural desert still felt strange.

Marcus had suggested Santa Fe as the place to settle down and begin their life together. Neither of them had ever been here before. On their honeymoon road trip across country, they drove into town one day and found a place to live. They were transplants from a cosmopolitan city. Romantic notions enticed them there, believing this fringe art community would be the place to do something unique, special, impactful on society. What that might be Kathy still didn’t know.

Kathy and Marcus had grown up in Chicago and their new friends came from all over the country. It was a gathering of neo-hippies into the desert, fellow seekers of some intangible purpose for life, of some sort of an answer for their reason for being alive on the planet. She knew it was the bright sun by day and the sky full of twinkling star by night than attracted them here. She wondered if the landscape full of sweet sage and pungent pinon was what held them captive. The wind blew in the expansive sense of freedom, of anarchy, of personal responsibility, and of self-expression. The elevation intensified the sensation. But the bewitching elements seemed to affect everyone different. Some people soared like the eagles, finding their passion and following their bliss. Others went crazy, as if ghosts thrived in the thin atmosphere, haunting them, taunting them until they were driven to jump off a bridge.

What happened to a person when they live where the sun loomed so close a T-shirt can be worn cross-country skiing? When a person moved from crowded cities to a state where the entire population is less than that of a typical suburb?

Space. Space to breathe … to dance to one’s own tune with arms open wide, twirling around without fear of collision. But with that space, Kathy was discovering, came a disorientation, a restlessness, and a recklessness. She felt it within herself. And Marcus certainly seemed to be experiencing something of that nature. He seemed unhinged, lost without the towering sides of skyscrapers defining and restricting his existence, without the crisscross of boulevards and highways. There was no road map in this open land, no paths laid out to follow. Everyone had to decide where they wanted to go and how they wanted it get there. Most often making it up as they went along, like setting out on skis after the snow covered the fence line. You could go anywhere you wanted, but it was up to you to decide where that was to be, and breaking a fresh trail required considerable effort.

Kathy sighed. She knew she had taken the easy way out by going to college. At least there she had a focus, her goals were laid out for her: finish this homework, complete that class. But Marcus had decided to be an entrepreneur, to live the American Dream. He had spent the last couple of years trying one idea after another, but only succeeded in creating one bad scenario after another. Kathy couldn’t understand what was driving him. Why wasn’t he pursuing his art? He was consumed with being in business for himself. It didn’t even seem to matter what that business was. Maybe that was the problem, she concluded. Nothing he was working on was truly a passion for him.

It would be hours before Marcus returned, maybe all day. Peter was a man of few words, and Marcus liked to talk. Kathy relished the time alone. Her mind began to drift into thoughts about her marriage and, then, about her life in general. The sudden biological urge she was experiencing recently brought her animated visions of children. It was only natural: she was 24 years old and married now. Her body was ready, and on the outside it looked like her life was in place to start a family. Kathy shook her head sadly, she heard her best friend’s voice still echoing in the room from a recent visit: “You are going on and on about having a baby, while at the same time you are going on and on about how unhappy you are in your marriage.” Mary had popped the bubble on her rose-colored dream of a happy little family complete with a baby bouncing on her knee.

Mary was right, of course. She always was. As the eldest of six, Mary had a way of saying it like it was. There was never time to sugarcoat a situation in her mind: see it, say it, and move on. There was something very calming about her direct approach; one didn’t have to second guess or assume what Mary thought; she just said, but somehow she did so in a very mothering way.

Kathy poured herself another cup of coffee, trying not to spill the hot liquid as she walked across the new pale beige carpets to the couch. Set against the cream colored walls, the monotone effect of the room was a soothing, neutral backdrop to the colorful drama of her everyday life. Most of which she could do without, she decided, but couldn’t do anything about. Marcus had a way of needing constant approval and constant attention, and yet, try as she might, nothing she did was enough or was the right thing at the right time. The difficulty came with that she was expected to fix everything and make it all better. She blamed his parents really; his mother in particular. She babied all three of her children, catering to their every whim, even serving them breakfast in bed. It was too much to follow and Kathy fell short on a daily basis. Typical, she laughed to herself. Don’t all psychologists end up blaming the mother? And to think she wanted to be one herself!

The afternoon sun began to fill the room. Kathy set her coffee down and stretched out to enjoy its warmth against her skin. It was pure luxury.

Mary’s visit earlier that week had rattled Kathy. They had been sitting at Kathy’s beloved kitchen table, a classic 1950’s chrome piece with a turquoise enamel top embedded with gold stars sparkling. She had found at a garage sale, and now cherished. The table somehow represented the promise of a settled life and a happy home, conventional and simple, pearls and pumps. In that fantasy the road maps were inherited by the previous generation; roles, defined; goals, set. Kathy laughed at her naivety, as if filling her home with certain objects would make a fantasy come true. But that picture was an out-dated, impossible dream today. The world was different, at least for two people with an artistic nature on a spiritual quest.

Mary’s voice came through once again. “When did you first notice that something was wrong?” Mary had asked.

“It started at our wedding.” Kathy admitted sitting across from Mary. She could feel herself cringe at the memory of it all.

“Your wedding?” Mary repeated, “What happened?”

“Well,” Kathy began slowly, fingering the top of her mug, avoiding Mary’s probing eyes, “You know how the bride and groom are supposed to dance the first dance?”

Kathy caught Mary’s nod out of the corner of her eye, “Go on,” Mary urged gently.

“The band had started to play. But Marcus was nowhere in sight. I walked around everywhere looking for him. Finally I found him hiding on a porch. I told him it was time for our first dance. He recoiled from my touch and snarled: ‘I’m not embarrassing myself in front of everyone.’ I felt a shock to my soul, to the very core of my being. One of the things we loved to do was dance together.”

“Oh, honey,” Mary reached out and touched Kathy’s hand.

Kathy looked up, trying not to cry, “I had to go back alone. Everyone was looking at me. Luckily a dear old friend rose to the occasion. We danced the first dance, then the second. Finally everyone got up and we danced the night away.”

“Did Marcus ever join in?” Mary asked.

“Yes, eventually,” Kathy replied, “but by then I was already feeling timid and questioning what I had done.”

She was still questioning her decision to marry Marcus. That her judgment may have been so totally erroneous gnawed at her confidence. There had been early indications that her choice may not have been a good one, that underneath Marcus’ charm demonic forces were ready to attack her. Demonic? Kathy sat up. Suddenly, she felt vulnerable and cold, startled by that choice of word. Where did it come from? It was extreme, yet accurate, she admitted. Marcus’ attacks always took her by surprise, knocking her sense of self so off balance she couldn’t respond in the moment. Instead she found herself rendered speechless. This from the man with whom she had promised to spend her life with. He didn’t seem to like her. Frankly at times it seemed as though he hated her.

“It’s bipolar behavior,” Mary had told her that same sunny afternoon.

“What does that mean?” Kathy asked.

“It’s the jumping between two extremes, like love and hate. Bouncing between feeling elated and depressed. Highs and lows.” Mary said.

“It feels like one part of him loves me and another part hates me. I never know which part I’m going to get. The problem is that I love him; I want to be with him.”

“You mean, the fun him, right?” Mary countered. “You don’t want the side of him that is so mean to you, do you? Or lays around sulking in a deep depression, always demanding?”

“I don’t know.” Kathy shamefully admitted as she got up from the table. She went to fill the kettle for more hot tea. The sound of the water from the faucet silenced their conversation for the moment. Mary waited, quietly watching Kathy’s movements. Her steady gaze felt unnerving.

Kathy turned to question Mary, “What does it mean when you say: for better or for worse?”

“Not abuse,” Mary said.

“He doesn’t mean it.”

“Mean what?!?” Mary asked. “To hurt you? Emotional and psychic abuse counts.”

“He can’t help it,” Kathy could hear herself almost pleading for Mary to understand.

“Okay,” Mary’s voice softened, “I’ll give you that when a person is manic depressive, it is thought to be a chemical imbalance in the brain. But my point is that the way he attacks you, the words he chooses are intended to belittle you and you end up always questioning yourself.” Mary’s voice sounded angry. “You have lost trust in who you are because he is always cutting you down. It is not ok to let yourself take the abuse!” Mary slammed her hand down on the table. Kathy was startled by the intensity of emotions Mary was showing. “Look, if he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong, he’ll just keep doing what he’s doing and taking no responsibility for his actions. And you let him! You just roll over and take it, as if you deserve it. You don’t! No one does!”

Yet, Kathy felt this deep-seated sense that not only did she deserve it, but somehow it was her responsibility to stay and help, to make it better, to do everything she could. She was his wife. Though it did occur to her that that might be the problem. Before the wedding they dwelled in the bubble of being “in love,” of just being happy to be together without a care in the world. It was all light and simple. And it still was – half of the time.

Outside the afternoon sun was beckoning her. She made her way out to the fresh air. The strong odor of horse manure mingled with sweet sage. It was cool, yet warm, another one of those oddities living in the high desert. She made her way to the swing set and sat down. Soon she was spinning in little circles, finding joy in the winding and unwinding. Round and round she went, until the motion ceased, and she was still again.

She felt as though everything wrong or bad that happened was her fault. Deep inside herself she felt a dark void, a blackness, an empty pit. She had felt that way her whole life, as far back as she could remember.

Kathy looked out to the horizon. The mountains had lost their dimension. There were no shadows. They looked flat, a dark tone of purple, cut out against the blue sky; they didn’t look real.

Was her marriage real? Kathy wondered. They had had an informal ceremony by a Justice of the Peace. She shook her head at the irony. Marcus had proposed over the phone, in an off-handed way. He had gone on a “life-altering trip” overseas. While he was away, he decided it was time for them to be together in a formal way. His call came through as a total surprise for Kathy. Her fear of irrevocable decisions was abated by a voice that said: You can always get divorced. Now she was faced with the prospect of divorce, and that was an irrevocable decision.

The wind rustled through the dry, sharp grass; the desert was beckoning. She suddenly felt the need to go for a walk and got up from the swing. She stepped carefully through the barbed-wire fence and found herself in the open land. She felt a rush of exhilaration. The ground was rocky, but she didn’t care; she felt protected in hiking boots and blue jeans. Here and there, cacti grew with their long, spiky arms stretching up and out toward the blue sky. In the spring these very hostile beings sprouted flowers, as if to say: yes, even that which hurts can still bare beauty. Some of the plants were dead, left with only their skeletal spines exposed to harden in the harsh elements.

“I want to buy all this land and put in roads and build a hotel,” Marcus had said to her one day.

Kathy didn’t want to see it. She liked the romance of the old ways.

“Everything changes,” he stated. “And I want to be rich.”

“I guess so,” Kathy said. I guess so echoed through her mind. Marcus had changed. He had gone from an artist, expressing himself through paint on canvas, to a man focused on the almighty dollar. Gone was the man who wanted to see the world, and now replaced by a man in search of validation in as close to the conventional world as he could possibly tolerate, his own boss in a business venture. Kathy had asked him once why the change had happened. “I became a husband,” he told her, like it was totally obvious and expected. It was as though he believed being a husband carried with it a paradigm that didn’t allow him to be an artist. She didn’t know what to say in response. He always spoke with such assurance and authority. Perhaps his idea of how a husband should act and be in the world over-ruled who he actually was.

Kathy scanned the desert before her, shielding her eyes from the bright sun. A stray dog hunted up ahead; his nose followed the scent of a rabbit, in the vain hope of catching his dinner for the night. Kathy crouched down and watched the dog. His large, thin shape and gray-white coloring reminded her of Lucy, the first family dog.

Kathy remembered the night Lucy had become part of the family like it was yesterday. It was in the dead of winter, with the kind of cold that cuts through the layers of coats and sweaters, right through the skin to the bone. Her younger brother had given the stray some of his sandwich. That was all it took. Lucy followed him home from school and stood at their side door. Her father was away at a meeting, leaving her mother alone to deal with three distraught children, tearfully begging for mercy for the very dirty, determined dog shivering in the cold, night air.

Kathy could well remember her father’s tone of disapproval coming through the phone, and her mother’s face turning red at the injustice of it all. Looking back, Kathy could see how trapped her mother must have felt, pinned in on all sides by a situation she had done nothing to bring about. She herded the three of them to bed, simply saying: “We’ll see what happens.” Kathy was sure now that she was silently cursing her father’s unreasonable ways.

According to what was now family tales, when he pulled into the driveway late that night, the next door neighbor caught his attention with a sharp rap on her kitchen window: “You’re not going to leave that dog to freeze to death, are you?” There was nothing he could do, but give way to the force aligned against him. Kathy was sure the image of the dog lying there dead in the morning was more than he was willing to face. After her mother gave him a piece of her mind, she bathed the dog who was soon named Lucy. The pathetic creature sat still while being scrubbed clean, knowing she had won the war. Kathy came to love that dog and her gentle manner. Many times she cried the tears of a sad, lonely child, finding solace by holding Lucy close. She had become her best friend. She told her secrets and felt protected in her unconditional love. She had held her as she was dying.

Kathy sighed as she stood back up. What was she hoping for with the arrival of the puppy? That suddenly everything was going to be okay or somehow make sense? Was Mary right? She just wasn’t sure.

It difficult to make a clear decision and know what was the right thing to do. Her heart was conflicted. She didn’t like how Marcus treated her when he was in one of his many moods, but then he would come to her with love and wrap his arms around her. She would melt. She loved to be nestled up against him; she loved the smell of his skin, the touch of his body, the glimmer in his eyes when he looked at her. They laughed together and had fun. They could talk about art, politics, and shared an interest in other cultures. But then he would become cruel, verbally lash out at her. These thoughts chased around, rambling, contradicting, melding, repelling. It was exhausting. She felt like screaming.

The stray dog finally caught the scent of a rabbit and was off running. A hawk flew overhead. Kathy paused to listen to the sound of its wings as he soared through the air, circling around again. She stepped back through the fence.

“Now what?” she asked herself. She knew nothing, but to know nothing must be the beginning of something, she reasoned.

Yet loving a man who could not be pleased or satisfied was a burden beyond words. The heaviness wore her spirit down. Kathy felt in her bones that it was her duty to make it all better, to do everything she could to make him happy. Deep down inside she felt she could, and therefore should, do just that. She would worry about herself later; she wasn’t that important. Kathy stopped dead in her tracks. A chill went down her spine. Where had this thought come from? She wasn’t important? Kathy felt the tears roll down her cheeks as she ran back to the house. Her whole being wanted to crawl into bed, hide under the blankets and disappear.

She pushed open the door. The house was quiet. Only the ticking clock disturbed the peace. Kathy gave into her sorrow, her distraught, and ran into the bedroom, pulling the quilt over her head, sobbing. Until she couldn’t cry anymore. She lay curled up in a ball praying for guidance. In time, Kathy heard a gentle voice say to her: “Forgive yourself for everything you think you have done wrong. Everything was going to be alright. One way or another it would all work out.” Kathy was determined to believe it would. “There is nothing to fear,” the voice went on. The wisdom told her she was loved; she just had to love herself. Kathy lay still, allowing the words to penetrate her being. After awhile, she rolled out of bed, went into the bathroom, and splashed water on her face. She looked at herself in the mirror. The woman staring back, with puffy red eyes, smiled. She did matter. She had to take care of herself. She wasn’t sure how, but the answer would come. One thing she knew was that the puppy wasn’t going to fix what was at the heart of the problem. In a flash, her next move became clear. She had to leave the house, her marriage, and Marcus returned. She knew she would fall in love with the puppy and hide behind its affection. She would hold onto to the dog for dear life, while hers slipped away.

As if guided by an unseen force, Kathy grabbed a bag and threw in clothes, books, and her jewelry. Tears streamed down her face, blurring her vision as she looked around at the home she loved and was leaving. She had to get out before she was trapped. She knew it in her bones: it was now or never. She pulled the front door open. A coyote howled off in the distance, welcoming her in the unknown.


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Blame it on the Bucket List, Part 1

My cell phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number. I answered anyway. To my surprise it was a friend of my friend’s, a respected artist known by the name, Wisdom. I was jarred, immediately on alert. Wisdom told me he’s not one for drama, “Normally I wouldn’t call… but Keith and I were talking on the phone and he stopped making sense.”

I grabbed my bag and shouted I had an emergency and bolted to my car. My speed was hampered by the winding mountain road – and by the four door sedan I was driving. The drive felt like forever and a second. I pulled up and braked so hard, the tires skidded on the gravel. I jumped out and ran for the door.

The heat of the day was searing and dry. The sun was bright overhead.  The house looked foreboding. I was afraid to look inside.

I entered the room. It was dark.  And quiet. The usual noise of television was missing.

In the shadows I saw him. He was on the floor leaning up against the bed. His legs were straight out, his torso tilted to the right. Drool pooled up in the folds of his faded flannel shirt. But it was his eyes that caught me by surprise – they were full of mischief. He saw me and said, “Hi. I fell. I can’t get up.”

I ran next door for help. I was in luck, he was hanging out with his friend, a paramedic. He took over, asking the questions that are now so routine for treating strokes.  “What time is it?” he asked. Keith blurted out, “333.” That was his favorite number. The paramedic shot me a very concerned look, it was noon. I sighed relief, somewhere his consciousness, the purity of his being, was there. I studied his face; it was glowing with innocence, the bright-eyed look of the Fool.

The ambulance roared him away. I followed behind wondering what this next bit in my life was going to look like in my life, as my hair whipped in the sharp wind as I sped down the highway. The temperature must have been 100.

I felt calm as I crossed the parking lot toward the overhang of the emergency room entrance. This was a familiar sight for me, part of the landscape – my mother worked as a medical technition drawing and analyzing blood. I grew up walking through the automatic glass doors opening wide, into the bright lights, past the receptionists, straight to behind the scenes like I ownded the place. And this time I was ready for a battle. I knew he couldn’t stay, he didn’t have health insurance.

The air-conditioning was a relief. The attendants asked me questions. I said I don’t know and kept walking.  I went through a swinging gray door. Straight ahead the grey-blue privacy curtain around Keith’s bed was open. The drab neutrality was soothing.

Keith was sitting upright, his legs rocking back and forth freely like a child. His bare chest hooked up to machines. His arms punctured by IVs.

I walked to the cold metal railing and stood beside him. He was beaming. A glow was literally coming from his entire being. He looked like a new born baby who delighted in just being.

“I want to go home. I’m all better.”

“If you can get up and walk out of here, I’ll drive you home.”

Curiosity replaced anxiety, I wanted to see how he would handle this particular crisis in his lifetime of physical ailments.

I went to get a nurse to free him from wires and needles. A nurse came over, I explained. She shook her head with a sad expression, she understood and didn’t like it was that way.

My companion swung his legs around, put on his pants, shoes. He pulled his shirt on as he stumbled, with focus, out of the room, bolting for the door.

I thanked the nurse and ran to catch up. I felt surprised and not surprised.

He was already out the second glass door and turning toward the parking lot by the time I went past the attendants. They shouted at me for his billing information. I shrugged and pointed and said, “I’m sorry but I have to go.”

As soon as we got home, he laid face down on the bed and said, “I’m just going to go to sleep now.” I told him okay and went outside to call in reinforcements, convincing him to go to the VA. I knew they would take care of him. He was a Marine.

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Orgasms & Bonding: An Academic Paper by me (posted for the fun of it)

 Is Orgasm Sufficient to Create an Emotional Bond?

    Various experiments with rodents, monkeys, even sheep, have led to a number of speculations about the role the neurotransmitter oxytocin has in pair-bonding, sexual behavior, social memory and support, and stress coping (Neuman, 2008).  Correlating subsequent behavior observed from hormone manipulation from experiments on animals to humans is proving too simplistic.  However, these initial experiments serve as important preliminary evidence into investigating its cause and effect.  The three types of voles (prairie, mountain, and meadow) have two distinct patterns of pair-bonding and of social interactions.  The prairie vole behaves monogamously, while the mountain and meadow voles are promiscuous.  Noting these differences with one species provoked inquiry into why that may be the case.  The difference was determined to be due to the varying degrees of oxytocin present in each subtype: the prairie voles showed higher levels than the other two.  It would make sense that a prairie vole living in wide open plains and vulnerable to predators, would have adapted biologically to favor receptors that facilitate trust and sociability.  It would also follow that to do so in pair-bonds creates micro-clusters of interactions.  For the purposes of this paper, though, the jump from the mating patterns of voles to the prediction of emotional bonding in humans exhibited as partner attachment or social behavior, will be regarded as premature, as the current research into the effects of oxytocin on human behavior is proving to be contradictory.  
    If when the neurotransmitter oxytocin is released into the bloodstream during an orgasm it facilitates an emotional bond or sets the stage for a monogamous pair bond, what is the essential quality of this bond?  It may not be love, per se, though Janice Hiller (2004) does define love as a neurochemical phenomenon, so perhaps it is.  For what is love but a feeling or emotion, and what is a feeling or an emotion but a complex interaction of neurons following a path of least resistance to a receptor ready to precipitate a behavior.  And it is in our behavior that the outward appearance of a bond, or partner attachment (Fisher, 1998), becomes apparent.  
    The neuropeptide oxytocin has entered into mainstream awareness as the potential key for affectionate partner attachment (Fisher, Aron, & Brown, 2006) and positive social interaction  (Campbell, 2010; Neuman, 2004).  Indeed, the observable behavioral changes in voles do indicate this peptide hormone plays a part in pair-bonding and affiliation for social interaction.  Oxytocin, once released into the blood stream, has both a central and a peripheral effect on the human body.  The central effect of oxytocin is that it works as a neuromodulator when this hormone is released through the hypothalamic pun and goes into the limbic regions before entering the brain stem (Landgraf & Neumann, 2004).  Its peripheral effect, stemming from the pituitary gland, acts to stimulate uterine contractions during labor and excretion of breast milk during lactation.  It is partly due to the connection with breast-feeding, and its calming affect on the woman, that has lead researchers speculate on its effects with bonding.  That idea is in line with the hypothesis behind the attachment theory: a bond is formed between a breast-feeding mother and the newborn infant.  Also, there may be a connection with the release of oxytocin and orgasm as studies on humans have shown plasma levels of oxytocin increase during orgasm in men and a high base level of oxytocin for multi-orgasmic women (Burri, Heinrichs, Schedlowski, & Kruger, 2007).  The same study showed that the simple act of hugging produced an increase in plasma oxytocin levels for men, thereby supporting its role facilitating affinity in affectionate bonding.  A world of speculations and postulations has opened up from these observations and correlations, but as we know, this does not mean there is an actual causal relationship.  There are inherent limitations preventing definitive conclusions to affirm this effect between oxytocin and pair bonding: we can not simply inject a dose of oxytocin into a human brain as we can into a vole brain.
    According to the Affective Primacy Hypothesis (Zajonic, 1980), to form a love bond, the love has to be communicated, i.e., each person has to know it is there.  How is this communicated?  Oxytocin has been shown to have an effect on the ability to trust and create a feeling of empathy (Campbell, 2010) by activating mind-reading abilities (Domes, Heindrichs, Michel, Berger, & Herpetz, 2007).  Indeed the external administration of oxytocin has shown an increase in verbal exchanges among partners, even during an argument (Ditzen, et al. 2009).  Trust and intimacy are interdependent, and the ability to “read” one’s partner to predict their needs is a crucial factor to sustaining a long-term relationship (Neff & Karney, 2005).  There is no doubt that communication styles affect the quality of a relationship or attachment, and knowing that one is loved allows a person to feel secure and relaxed, thereby creating a bond that enables true intimacy.  Cassidy (2001) sums it up by expanding on the definition of trust itself: the sense that the relationship is solid, the awareness of what one actually wants, the trust in oneself, and the trust in the other.  
    A securely attached person embodies these qualities of trust (Ainsworth, 1972). Yet only approximately 60% of the adult population displays this characteristic.  So what about the other 40% of adults who display behaviors of anxious- ambivalence or avoidance?  Does the release of oxytocin during orgasm attenuate these tendencies?  And what about the 20-30% of women who do not experience orgasm (Harris, Cherkas, Kato, Heiman, & Spector, 2008), or men with erectile dysfunction?  Does it follow that neither of these groups form positive emotional bonds?  I should point out that many of the women in the Harris, et al., study were experiencing marital difficulties or were not in a relationship.  This study also revealed a high correlation between emotional instability, demonstrated by high anxiety levels, and the inability to achieve orgasm (Harris, et al. 2008).  Although there are a variety of psychological and physiological factors involved in erectile dysfunction (Levay & Baldwin, 2009), stress and anxiety certainly do play a large role.  If oxytocin is the stress reliever it is reputed to be, then wouldn’t administrating a dose of oxytocin be the answer to these woes?  
    Alvares, Hickie, and Guastella (2010) noted an important component of the desire to be a part of a social circle, and its correspondence to levels of oxytocin: these effects were dependent on the quality of the precipitating social encounter.  When the social cue was encouraging, cooperation ensued after the release of oxytocin into the bloodstream, whereas if there was an element of uncertainty within the context of the quality of social inclusion, the presence of intranasally administrated oxytocin in both men and women did not reduce the state of stress.  This concurs with the idea that human behavior arises from within a psychological context, and that the effects of oxytocin are highly conditional to those psychological states (Hiller, 2004).  
      If patterns of attachment are created when one’s preconceptions from past experience set up paradigms of recurring patterns of behavior, as both Bowley and Ainsworth have proposed, and as many others have noted, then these are the psychological states which may influence the workings of oxytocin on one’s physiology.  In other words, the quality of an attachment is dependent on the expectations a person has before the release of oxytocin, of particular concern here before the orgasm.  The connection between a perceived threat of loss and ensuing anxiety is well known (Bowlby, 1980), and a person who is in a state of constant worry, from fear of rejection or abandonment, is certainly approaching their partner in a state of uncertainty.   
    Taylor, et al. (2008) found high baseline levels of plasma oxytocin in women, both young and old which seemed to correlate specifically to relationship stress.  If the woman was in a partner attachment, this relationship stress was conveyed as a feeling of distance from her partner, of being unable to trust and open up to her partner.  In short, the stressed woman conveyed feelings of anxiety.  There were also indications that these elevated oxytocin levels were shown in women not in a relationship.  Interestingly enough, it was also shown in woman either experiencing estrangement from their mothers or grieving the loss of a pet.  What is not known is whether an influx of oxytocin from an orgasmic release would contribute to a feeling of calm and openness to social connection, as it also not known if these woman were experiencing orgasms or not.  
      If desire is a combination of psychological and physiological responses, particularly for  women (Basson, 2003) (but also for men as evidenced in erectile disfunction studies), then what happens when the psychological precepts are those of anxious-ambivalent attachments or of  avoidant attachments?  Does an orgasm override these tendencies to block secure attachments?  Or does the attachment occur, but then either become manifest in total preoccupation and obsession with the partner or become repressed so as not to be consciously acknowledged?  And further, does gender make a difference?
    The psychological states of mind a person is experiencing, such as those displayed in the attachment theory, may be the key for the subsequent effects oxytocin has on the bond.  The study Birnbaum, Reis, Mikulincer, Gillath, & Orpaz, (2006) conducted reveals some pertinent evidence to support this claim: within the context of a relationship, both men and women demonstrated a decrease in maladaptive behaviors following sexual relations.  The key, though, did seem to be the quality of mindset prior to coitus.  If the mindset was positive, the interactions followed suit, but if it was not, then the opposite was true.  This correlation was most evident in partners who demonstrated anxious attachment tendencies.  In those who were avoidant, their tendency to regard sex as a separate entity continued to be evident (Birnbaum, et al., 2006).   While it can be safely assumed that, unless there was an erectile dysfunction, an orgasm occurred during coitus for the man, what is not known, is whether the women in the study experienced an orgasm during coitus.  According to the statistics gathered by Taylor, et al., only 36% of women are considered to be highly orgasmic, while 16% of women have never had an orgasm.  Granted, this study was geared toward older women- – mean age of respondents was 50, but these statistics may hold true across all age groups.
    Palk (2010) has looked at “state effects” at the time of sexual involvement, and has determined that people self-select into certain relationship types: some for sex, some for love.  His postulation that the quality of a relationship is determined by the mental mindset at the time of sexual involvement reinforces the findings of Alvares, et al. (2010) on oxytocin and subjective responses.  Birnbaum, et al. (2006) suggest that people with avoidant attachment tendencies are more likely to engage in casual sex.  Stinson (2010) has noted that people with secure attachment tendencies do not readily participate in the hook-up culture, and that the avoidant and anxious characteristics of others tend to become more pronounced in that culture.  Faley and Shaver (2000) even go so far as to claim that a relationship does not indicate an attachment.
    Avoidant attachments often work in such a way that no matter what the underlying truth of  the emotion may be, there is a pronounced tendency to deny that truth.  Fisher, et al. (2006) makes the case the sex drive is distinct from both romantic love and partner attachment, therefore a person who is avoidant may engage in sex, even have orgasms, but the act is purely physical; they have detached themselves from any further emotional possibility.  Many studies have shown that highly avoidant people are less likely to fall in love or be interested in long-term relationships, while highly anxious people tend toward using sex to keep their partners from leaving them and yearn to merge with their partner (see Birnbaum, et al. 2006, for full review).
    Oxytocin has been shown to have a direct relationship with estrogen (Taylor, 2006); it needs estrogen to synthesize (Hiller, 2004).  Could this indicate that women are more susceptible to emotional bonding from an orgasm than men are?  Zajonc (1980) has proposed that women use sex as a means of creating bonding.  But does it work?  Do the men they have sex with bond with them?  Since men reach orgasm more frequently than a mere 36% of the time, are they also bonding emotionally with the women they are engaging in sexual relations with?  Hiller (2004) has stated that the oxytocin release for a man does indeed affect a sense of closeness.  The levels of plasmic increase of extraneously administered oxytocin remained high in men for about 80 minutes following their orgasm (Burri, et al. 2007).  This temporary emotional bond, experienced as the oxytocin is circulating through the blood, may simply be the hormone’s calming effect, and not something that creates a sustained secure attachment.  
        I find myself cautious about disregarding the potential effects of oxytocin on emotional bonding, especially for women who display anxious-ambivalent tendencies.  Due to the random occurrence of an orgasm, when it does occur, a woman might mistake the pleasurable feeling to indicate a love for the man.  Unless he can give her the constant reassurance she needs, e.g., he may be an anxious- ambivalent himself and respond in kind, she could find herself at the losing end of an avoidant’s game playing.  Men, in general, are known to play more games than women (Hendrick & Hendrick, 1991).  If a sense of trust is created by the release of oxytocin and the man is experiencing a sense of peace from his own orgasm, the woman may find herself even more vulnerable to rejection than if she had not experienced an orgasm.  She may be at an even greater risk for forming an inappropriate emotional bond, as studies have shown that administered oxytocin decreased fear in situations of betrayal, presumably by decreasing activity in the amygdala (Campbell, 2010).
    Those who are avoidant may have enough autonomy to remain emotionally stable, although if they are intent on using sex as a physical release only (Birnbaum, et al., 2006) with oxytocin’s effect on reducing fear, they may find themselves emotionally attached and in an active fight to resist the intimacy aroused.  And if, as Oberzaucher & Grammer (2009) noted, men tend to overestimate their sense of control in unfamiliar situations, then a relationship that began as a hook-up and then progressed to casual sex (friends with benefits) at the eleventh encounter (Palk, 2010) with reoccurring orgasms with the same person, an avoidant may find themselves experiencing a cognitive dissonance.  That may not lead to a dismal end if their partner is either in a secure attachment pattern, or is another avoidant who understands autonomy and negotiation. This would allow the partners to bond on a cognitive level rather than an emotional one.
    My conclusion is nurture rules the day with regard to how we humans actually do form our attachments, and nature plays a supporting, yet potentially dangerous role depending on one’s true intentions, motives, desires, and needs.  Perhaps what we might now learn from the voles is to be content with different mating patterns, and to know ourselves well enough to self-select into the pattern we want.  Those who have secure attachments may be like the prairie voles, at peace in their pair bonds and social interactions.  Avoidant attachments may be seen in the mountain voles, off on new adventures and seeking out novelty, moving from one vole to another.  Perhaps the meadow voles are caught in the middle and are anxious and ambivalent.  
    The preliminary results concerning the effects of oxytocin released into the blood stream, whether from an orgasm or intranasally, are not straightforward enough to be definite, but what behavior across the spectrum of human nature is?  One thing I have concluded about oxytocin is that it seems it can have a powerful effect, though it may be for only a short period of time. Perhaps if oxytocin is released upon simple affectionate touch, as well as during an orgasm, these intimate caresses may be the key to forming a sustained secure attachment.  I would suggest longitudinal studies could be done to inquire upon this effect.   As far as  emotional bonding occurring, it would seem oxytocin does indeed exert an effect, but the nature of its quality seems to be context-specific.  It does not appear to be as simple injecting oxytocin into the human brain and converting a promiscuous person into a monogamous partner, if that is what one wants.  At least, not yet.

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Campbell, A., (2010) Oxytocin and Human Social Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology     Review 14(3), 281-295. doi: 10.1177/1088898310363594
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Abstract: Orgasms & Bonding

I wrote an academic paper titled: Orgasms and Bonding for a college course called Human Sexuality.

Here’s the Abstract.


My interest in the inquiry into whether orgasm was sufficient to create an emotional bond was sparked during a lecture in which it was declared there was a ‘predictable bond’ between the two events.  As I have not observed this to be the case, particularly within the context of sexual relations outside the parameters of a monogamous relationship, e.g., sex with prostitutes, hook-ups or casual sex (regardless of its duration or frequency), not to mention the frequency with which adultery has been reported to occur, up to 76% for both men and women (Symons, 1979), I began my research.  My aim to substantiate the claim of this predictable bond led me to the neurotransmitter oxytocin.  As I first read the literature, I surprised myself by conceding that the simple answer may well be yes: the release of oxytocin during orgasm showed considerable evidence for creating emotional or pair bonding.  But these claims were primarily deduced from experiments with animals; humans are far more complex creatures, and thus a simple answer of “yes” to this question cannot suffice.  (Though, alas, such simplicity would save some from a lifetime of either yearning for secure attachment or avoiding the possibility thereof.)  This paper looks to examine to what extent the physiological functioning of the human body affects the nature of an emotional bond or attachment, given that there are extenuating factors in play, in particular those of Ainsworth’s (1972) patterns of attachment: secure, anxious-ambivalent, and avoidant.

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A Bit of Fun: My Essay on Eddie Murphy’s RAW


In 1987, Eddie Murphy released his movie, Raw. It was simply the stand-up routine from his most recent tour, but Murphy was at the top of his game in the world: he had become the most successful black entertainer of all time (a title which he still holds to this day.) Although I personally prefer not to see a person as a reflection of the color of his skin, I concede that as an influence of society it has substantial bearing. Eddie Murphy could well be seen as the king of the urban people, or perhaps, more aptly, the tenured jester, secure enough in his position to say it like it is and call out our behaviors for all their absurdities, hypocrisies, and contradictions: our prejudices. It is not a fluke Murphy has the power of our attention, he earned it through command of his talent and genius. He brilliantly conveys profound reflections of society and astute perceptions of relationship dynamics while making us laugh at ourselves. We know he speaks the truth. And no one is safe of his pantomime of stereotypes, he hits every demographic equally, including himself, though with varying degrees of intense potency.

On the surface, the writings of Raw may not feel like an aggressive catharsis, but it is my sense that the underlining motive and drive for Murphy himself is the release of anger and pain from a recently felt heartbreak. The choice of opening the movie with the song, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, reveals his mindset. It is as though he is using the routine to say to the unknown woman, ‘I offered you everything, I would have rolled over and been your puppy dog if you had treated me right.” He, then, shows us his humble roots with a look into his childhood. He tells us where he came from is as though he is saying, “I am one of you so listen to me.”

The opening sequence sets the stage for his influence to persuade us. He is a god, surrounded by a protective entourage. He makes his entrance as a silhouette revealed into a form exuding sexual prowess. He knows it and uses it; he has our attention: women want him and men want to be him.

Right away he reveals his heart by paying respect to the man who made it possible for him to be where he is today – Richard Pryor. Murphy tells us he is human and didn’t come out of a void. He had a role model, just as he has become ours. So there it is: Murphy is real, not raw, and, then, he tells us what is really on his mind: he almost got married; almost being the operative word.

To give the context for Murphy’s rational to marry in the first place, it is necessary to recall what was happening in America at the time. In the late eighties, two pertinent themes in particular give rise to his tirade and what he claims is his fear. The first is the advent of AIDS into mainstream media awareness. For the two decades prior, popular attitudes toward sex had been opening up. Birth control released women from fear of unwanted pregnancy and drugs like cocaine and poppers created an environment of free-for-all promiscuity. Up until Rock Hudson died from AIDS in 1985, the topic was behind the scenes, among homosexuals, intravenous drug users, and from blood transfusions. Even though he was gay, Hudson’s death brought AIDS to the front cover of People magazine. And Murphy took note. It was time to stop partying and settle down with one woman. “I am a realist,” Murphy states emphatically.

The second major movement was women entering the white collar business world of men; they had been, until then, kept out of the professional world en masse. Now women were educated, ambitious, and successful. In conjunction with this shift, women who had experienced the poor end of the stick after a divorce were turning it about and making sure they were taken care of. Too often they had been left with nothing and no real means to give themselves what they had had financially while married. Herein lies the key to the demise of Murphy’s best laid plans of marriage and monogamy.

And so it begins, Murphy has moved through some good routines imitating Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Michael Jackson and an assortment of gay men, making sure we know the man standing before us knows his art while he makes his way to the crux of the matter. “I almost got married last year,” he tells us, and turns to face us with the truth about AIDS as a reality: casual sex is “a game of Russian Roulette.” It becomes about the simple task of finding the ‘right’ woman, someone to take him out of the game. He tells us straight up that she has to be intelligent, which is important enough to him to say twice, as well as pleasing to the eye. Then tells us his nightmare, Johnny Carson’s face on the cover of a magazine with the headline: “Half.” Murphy wants his prenuptial protection from gold diggers; he is afraid of the vindictive nature of women. And rightly so, so we laugh. We see ourselves in his portrayal. We know the perils of love, money and sex mixing, whatever level and dynamic it plays out on.

He beseeches women to be fair, to not be greedy. There is an underlying sense of anger in his tone toward this theme. It is as if his woman refused to sign on the dotted line and it hit him so hard in his heart that he is telling us he offered her the world and it wasn’t enough. His choice of opening song tells us all he wanted was sex, just treat him right. And, Murphy is reeling from the rejection. Murphy knows where women’s attitude is coming from and he is well aware who he is as he tells us, “I’m a target.” His safety net from random death is gone and his success may well be what stands in the way of marriage; he is afraid of divorce. And one could easily deduce that he is not happy about it.

Murphy then brings it “to the ‘hood.” He starts to talk to how women play with men and how easy men are to play with. He starts to talk about women joining in chorus with Janet Jackson’s battle anthem: “What have you done for me lately?” He goes on to call out the games women play. The picture he depicts of women’s motives and behavior is skewed, twisted up, and not flattering. For all his re-enactments of gays, Italians, celebrities, and the common man, his portrayal of women is the most harsh. It is as though he is angry women have ‘the power of the pussy.’ Murphy is relentless in his characterization of the insidious and manipulative nature of women. “Let’s just call it a Pussy Trap,” he says, and warns men not to get caught in it. He reminds men that they can take back control; that women love sex and use it to get what they want. Men can do the same. He tells men as soon as they “make a women come real hard,” the power has flipped. Once they have that, men are free to do what they want: to treat women badly, to be cold and distant, to have other women, basically, to pay women back for all the games they’ve played; all they have to do is say “I’m sorry.” Murphy sets up the new battle of the sexes, but with a warning, treat her right or “she will go out and fuck another man.” He defines the terms for what to look for in a mate: “Find someone just as fucked up as you are and settle down.”

Twenty three years later I ask myself what has been the social influence of this film on a generation of urban men and women and their struggle to relate to each other. What has the effect been on those who considered him an authority? Have these become our new heuristics? The idea that women are bitches out to get what they can from men? That “all men fuck other women,” that they are “low in nature,” and “have to do it, it is a man’s thing.”

I see this paradigm played out today. I see it in the paradigm of being ‘single’ as defined by men: no ring, no commitment. I see it in jaded women who seek revenge for perceived wrong-doings, cathartic in their frustration with aggression. I see it in women who take a defensive stance, possibly out of necessity, to take care of themselves, and to not let anyone run them over. I see it in jaded men, understandably wary of women as women can become a bit crazy. If what Murphy said is true, men resent women who withhold sex, and “he don’t like you anymore, but he still wants to fuck you,” it is no wonder there is anger. For how do we know what is real, or is it all a game? It looks to me like the stereotypes Murphy insightfully offered as a warning became, in fact, a model of behavior, rather than as a mirror of change. Perhaps because he made it funny, we didn’t see it happening. It was all a joke.

What else does Murphy tell us? Its a dangerous world out there for sex. To be careful. He brought the taboo subject of AIDS to the people. Unfortunately, he only preached monogamy and not putting on a condom. Had he done so, maybe more would have listened. For as we know, if it was cool for him, it must be cool for us. Even if we get what he’s saying all backwards and wrong.

I know the influence of Raw for myself. I didn’t want to be the bitch he portrayed. I didn’t want to play games. I struggled with the concept men were “out to get as much pussy as possible.” But, for me, it never felt right to use sex as a weapon or tears as a means of manipulation. (I’m too much of a romantic for that.) I felt Murphy’s pain and agreed with the idea, at least, of a prenuptial. I listened to when he said, “a man’s ego is easy to cater to.” To this day, I adhere to this script given to me by the man who became my ideal for a man, a man who wants to fuck, not make love, for better or for worse. And, yes, I made a note to myself to not be shy, and to eat a steak at dinner.

From the archives: Essay by Elizabeth Pilar

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