House Calls To Shut-Ins


Sometimes, the the best things you can do while you’re on the road are things you would ordinarily do at home anyway. In our nation’s capital over 4th of July weekend, we delayed a side-trip to Annapolis because we could not tear ourselves away from this year’s epic Wimbledon men’s final (which lasted over five hours including rain delays). We had no choice but to just sit there all day on the couch, glued to the wide-screen TV.

McEnroe was beside himself in the booth, and it was clear that this was one for the ages. Afterwards, when he went down to the locker area to interview the players, McEnroe was completely lit up by what we had all just witnessed — the ferocious and transcendent quality of the tennis on display, even up to the bitter end. He was gushing like a little kid.

Eventually he asked Federer, who was ever-gracious in defeat (one gets the impression that Federer and the equally gracious Nadal actually like and respect each other) if there was any consolation in knowing that he had just participated in what was arguably the greatest final in Wimbledon history. Federer smiled a kind of sick, sad smile and I don’t even remember what he answered. But in any case it was clear that the real answer was “no,” that there was no consolation at all in fighting that hard only to come up a whisker short.

And I thought of the many equivalent sporting events I’ve seen over the years, and I’ve always had the exact same feeling as Johnny Mac — that when you play in one of those it should offset the disappointment of losing. It should be more than enough just to have engaged in such a thrillingly high level of competition. That’s certainly how I would feel if it were me. (I am perhaps a bit too comfortable in seeing things from the loser’s perspective.) But of course to the Federers of this world, it’s not nearly enough. Champions play to win; it’s part of what makes them champions. Yet another stunningly obvious life-lesson I had never quite figured out before.

To help me sort it all out later, I was thankful for the company of Harriet The Spy:


And to top it all off, an aptly themed romantic melodrama from the Nightmares playbook.


The Nightmares

Hear the glasses clinking in the air
When I reach for one, well it’s not there
I light the room with candles one by one
I’ll burn a lot more things before I’m done

I was stranded, a dirty roadside
Stuck out my thumb and caught a ride
Ended up in an old saloon
The ceiling fans whirled me across the room

They sang, all that’s left of you is just a little perfume
All that’s left of you is just a little perfume

Well, I heard you were asking Danny how I was
That’s very kind, thank you very much
I do the crossword puzzle in the New York Times
But I can still remember different times

I was frightened, a dirty roadside
Hit my knees and there I cried
Later on I was in your room
The bottles on the dresser played forgotten tunes

They played, all that’s left of you is just a little perfume
All that’s left of you is just a little perfume

All that’s left of you
All that’s left of you dear darlin’ is the smell of your perfume





17 Replies to “House Calls To Shut-Ins”

  1. One thought to add to the mix. Passage of time. ‘Perfume’ captures this a bit. But the question to which I often come back is, “Why does time heal wounds?” Why does the magnitude of the emotional response to loss attenuate over time? We get distracted? We get neurally fatigued revisiting the loss over and over? The negative feeling is so aversive that neural plasticity allows for a rewiring of the synapses associated with the pain? It happens with physical trauma, why not mental too?

    Sports analogies aside, we all know what happens to a team when they begin to “accept losing.” Phil, your statement regarding your own comfort level at “seeing things from the loser’s perspective” is a bit unfair (to you). It’s the difference between being a player and being a spectator. Perhaps this is why emotional loss is more profound…no spectating in that case…everyone’s a player. And if not, that alone provokes sensation of loss (shut-ins shut-out, if you will).

    And why, even after time has passed, can the loss be re-lived so thoroughly and effectively (lesson 1: The Balkans). What is UP with the passage of time, anyway?

  2. Well, to address the second part of your comment first (and the very provocative first half perhaps not at all, heh-heh):

    I wasn’t merely being hard on myself. I was also trying to signal the larger point that not all of us lead our lives with that champion’s hunger to win — and that that’s not always a bad thing. (I know this potentially gets into questions of self-sabotage and fear of success — your teams that “accept losing” — but that’s not what I’m talking about here.)

    Winning is great, but for some people, it really is incidental compared to whatever it took to get there. (I’d rather my team lose a close game than win a blowout, and my all-time favorite Mets team remains Bobby Valentine’s ’99 heartbreakers.) That some other people take little pleasure from a journey if they don’t reach their intended destination was part of my post-Wimbledon epiphany. (Duh!)

    When I think of the athletes who really appeal to me, it’s always the gifted but fleeting fuckups and headcases. Give me Sprewell and El Sid any day over Michael Jordan and Roger Clemens — those latter kinds of guys do literally nothing for me. (And let’s not even get started on bands…)

    As for the passage of time — I have read piles of physics books and I don’t even really understand what time is, let alone its effect on human memory and emotions. I do like your analogy to physical trauma. And it is interesting, if what you say is true, that even after the cortex has finally succeeded in papering over a tragic loss, its echo remains stored in the amygdala, as devastatingly clear as the day it occurred.

  3. I understand that you (the spectator) would rather see your team lose a taut psychological thriller, but you know from reading countless interviews that players would rather lose a blowout…afterwards, it’s all giggles and laudatory comments. They lose the thriller and it’s all, “it hurts, dear god how it hurts. We’re devastated” if you will. I don’t disagree that the journey is as important as the destination, often more important (see Huck Finn), but obviously the result is not inconsequential. So, when you compare Spree and Jordan…be honest, would you feel the same way if Jordan was a Knick? Was there anything more spectacular in your sporting life than Gooden in ’85? Now, what if he’d been pitching for, say, the Cardinals, well, you see where it goes from there. I can tell you, after years of hating Jim Edmonds, he looks pretty good to me right now.

    As for the time part…a maternity room joke revolves around the idea that if women didn’t forget how much it hurt to have kids we’d all be only children. And if we couldn’t get over having our heart broken the first time, would we take that journey again, even when we know it will probably happen again? Devastation can rely upon the incidental act, but it can be even more profound when it occurs as a consequence of failing to learn from history.

    Your statement re: the amygdala is reasonable. I like the echo in the amygdala, and I agree…cortex is all about wallpaper and breath freshener. The skeletons are stored down low waiting and stinking (see Science Times piece on smell and the limbic system).

  4. In the real world, this conversation could obviously go on for a while, and I’m kinda sorry we’re not having it on your perfect patio. A lot to think about. So I’ll just say two relatively quick things —

    First, I think being process-oriented/outcome-oriented is a continuum, and people are distributed all across it.

    And second, while I completely agree that winning is not inconsequential (Gooden in ’85 was mind-blowing, and I admire Federer & Nadal too, for that matter), I am serious when I say that Jordan & Clemens do nothing for me — they are cold, corporate cartoon figures, like the human equivalent of midtown office buildings. I’m grateful they never played on any of the teams I try to care about.

  5. As I’ve said before, I regret the medium and am more than a little ashamed to have a hard time cutting posts short.

    I admire your disdain for the corporate types. Not sure why I don’t hold that against the star athletes any more than I would hold adultery against Picasso, or addiction against Johnny Thunders.

  6. Maybe wounds lose their sting with time to make up for the fact that pleasures lose their savor with time. It’s the Devastationalist Offset.

  7. I am partial to any view of the universe that posits equal-but-opposite analogs to all of its myriad forces. Still, what you describe might better be referred to as the Anti-Devastationalist Offset, since one of the symptoms of acute Devastationalism is a pronounced immunity to the restorative effects of time.

  8. How could a Devastationalist ever be sure of being immune to the restorative effects of time? Maybe he just needs a little more time.

  9. Very true, a Devastationalist couldn’t be sure. A larger dose of time might indeed bring about the desired results. (Certainly, I’d like to believe that.) But, then, there are also terminal cases, those who succumb before time has had a chance to achieve whatever results would be forthcoming.

    By the way, you never answered my email about the crab-house conversation…?

  10. Dr. Newton:

    Two questions: time heals wounds faster than it reduces pleasure savoring? and the Devastationalist syndrome (disorder?): chronic, acute, both, or neither?

  11. Well, sure — Devastationalism can be chronic, acute, low-grade, 48-hour, hereditary, late-onset, fatal, in remission, etc…all flavors.

    As for the first question, that’s Danny’s…er…Dr. Newton’s theory. He’ll have to answer it.

  12. Weren’t you were referring to the effects of time on Devastationalist emotional states — though I guess that’d be more like Dr. Einstein, wouldn’t it? In any case, it’s still Danny’s question, his theory.

    (And as you allude, I already cast my vote for equal-but-opposite! But of course, the universe is a holistic construction — healing effects and savoring effects may balance out, but not necessarily in any one being.)

    It sounds like maybe you have an answer to your own question?

  13. Unfortunately most of us (me too) spend our time coming up with the wrong answer. Perhaps it’s ok, tho, because most of us ask the wrong question to begin with. Does that make us right?

  14. Determining right and wrong is a little bit above my pay grade. (And no doubt different for every individual.) All I know is you have to keep asking questions, and test your tentative answers through engagement out in the real world.

    (I still suspect you had further thoughts on the previous questions…)

  15. Sorry to come in so late. I was under the impression that Nightmares had never released recordings of their set. I used to have the Baseball Altamont 7-inch, but I saw them many times and well remember their many deathless tunes. Thanks for sharing Perfume which has haunted me for over 20 years, having only ever heard it played live.

    Amazing thank you. I want to be more like you.

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