This blog is a look at the person behind the mediation. It contains three stories that shed some light on the challenges I faced in my own life, and the lessons I seek to carry forward in my mediation practice. While much about our past gets lost to memory, some details we remember with exceptional clarity: A word, an expression on someone’s face, an emotion at a specific point in time can stick with us forever, while the surrounding details get lost to time. Like most professionals in healing professions, the struggles of our past and moments of personal growth shaped who we are today. And who we are has a substantial effect on the practices we create, and the mediation styles we develop to help other people through their own moments of despair.
He had been driving for 2 hours, and there was no way he was going to make it in time. There was my dad, driving a black SUV loudly sighing “come on” in a sea of red lights on the New Jersey turnpike. He would make up time by driving 85 miles an hour on the Long Island Expressway, Sports Talk Radio fighting to get a word in over the blaring A/C, and a check for $100 in an envelope on the passenger seat. His destination was Queens, New York and the house I grew up in. My sister waited by the door while I hid under my grandmother’s bed.
He was short on his child support this month so when he got to my house, my grandfather slammed the door in his face. Dad must have pressed the doorbell and held it, as there was a prolonged rattling sound that caused the dog to start barking as my grandfather and my parents had some kind of verbal argument on the doorstep. Somehow, it was resolved, and I was quickly discovered under the bed. Even as a child, I kept my argument clear and concise. Wide eyed and in tears, I said to my mom slowly, “I do NOT want to go.”
With my older sister in the front seat, I had the back row of my dad’s SUV all to myself. I gazed out the window and imagined Super Mario Brothers running and jumping between the telephone wires on the utility poles that lined the sidewalks. Dad loved driving and would often entertain us with voices and characters he made up. He would also throw pennies at other drivers when he got mad, and gave them the finger at the slightest provocation. He saved his best insults for the times he was able to catch up to them at red lights and get them to roll down the window. I don’t think I ever laughed so hard.
We may have eaten lunch, but what I remember was the car wash, because that’s where Murky and Lurky lived. The thing was you got to stay in the car. The soaps were all different colors, and the wipers enveloped the whole car, dropping onto the windshield with a hilarious plop, swishing and spinning and mixing all the colors together while pressurized water shot towards the car from every direction. I loved this more than any movie. How did the water not get in the car? How do the wipers know how hard to clear the water off without breaking the windows? Murky and Lurky, the fictional antagonists of one of my sister’s favorite TV shows, could come get us at any moment. Murky and his sidekick Lurky hated color because it made people happy, and he wanted everyone to be as colorless and miserable as he was.
Gradually, the vacuum vents came on to blow dry the car, a hollow tone that gently subsided as the car wash came to an end. We made it just in time. With the Sun shining through the freshly rinsed glass, I saw my dad’s face reflected in the windshield. Dad wasn’t smiling like the rest of us. There was a Hispanic attendant who was supposed to make sure all the water was wiped off, but my dad had spotted a droplet on the windshield. That could leave a streak. “Waste of money.” He muttered. I learned a new curse word, and we drove the rest of the way home in silence.
It was known as the Blizzard of 2001 in the small college town in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts, where I went to school. The roads were officially closed, and the crosswinds and “black ice” invisible to the naked eye made driving conditions impossible, or at least a very bad idea.
We were two Freshmen in college, having met in a course perfectly titled “Metaphor and Creativity”. She played guitar and wore shirts with peace signs on them. She had an authenticity about her that I really admired – a confidence to have her own personality and apologize to no one for it. To me she always kind of looked like a chipmunk. I was smitten, and rumor had it she was recently single.
As part of the class, we volunteered at a local nursing home for war veterans who were wheelchair bound or otherwise disabled. Most were attentive and kind. We helped them with basic tasks like getting from floor to floor of the home. We played “wheelchair bowling” and watched Robert De Niro movies with them as they chatted about what a “sharp young man” he was. They appreciated our help. We had a few more hours to put in before completing our course, and midnight was our deadline. We reasoned we would be safe in my Volvo and decided to take our chances.
Inside it was bustling as usual, and we joined in their usual activities. After they went to sleep for the night, my classmate and I snuck into the offices and drew pictures on all the notepads telling the staff how much we loved them.
The snow piled up outside the nursing home as it started getting late. We stretched and reclined on the couches in the lobby, head to head, chatting about our eccentric professor and his militant approach to reading poetry and other works of fiction. One time he spent an entire day demanding the class explain to him why we thought it was funny when someone in a movie fell off a boat. “Because they’re actors.” We explained. “He didn’t really hurt himself.” Our professor shook his head and delivered a stone-faced reply, “You’re dead on the inside.”
I had never seen the dynamics of a successful romantic relationship in person. My parents were divorced shortly after I was born, and my grandfather, who was married to my grandmother for almost 50 years, passed away when I was 9 years old. The only men in my life were loud and crass. I didn’t even know how to shave or fold a tie until YouTube videos came out in 2005. And I certainly did not know how to approach or talk to women. Somewhere in my brain I was still a child on my mother’s lap, and even across years of adolescence and through two feet of snow in the blizzard of 2001 I could hear with clarity the hope in my mother’s voice as she gave me her words of advice, “Don’t be one of those men.”
Long before I learned that FOO was an acronym for Family Of Origin, before thought journals, and assertiveness workbooks, and insights into identity and becoming my own man, the stars aligned in that perfect moment at the home for war veterans. And I rejected myself without ever taking a chance.
I drove her home and we hugged in the snow. I drove back to my dorm and sat motionless in the far corner of “Yellow Lot Parking”. With no voice, no mentor, and no ideas about what was happening or why, I sat like an empty void holding the place where someone was supposed to be.
I went to law school because I wanted to be like Arthur Kinoy, the virtuous civil rights litigator and courtroom warrior who fights for the little guy, the bullied or the exploited. My first job out of law school seemed perfect – litigation attorney at a small, idealistic plaintiff’s firm that represented anyone who got fired because of discrimination.
My excitement was quickly overshadowed by the realities of litigation. Clients were wrapped up in lawsuits for years. Attorneys made the mistake of being so sure they were going to win, they would advise the clients that they should not settle at the last minute under any terms at all! And then they completely lost, with the client getting nothing but a lifetime of resentment and a series of attorney bills to show for their efforts. I was disillusioned with the work itself, but the telling moment occurred when the office tech guy had a birthday.
He had recently returned from a vacation in Thailand where he picked up small gifts for everyone in the office, including a keychain with a guitar on it for me, as we had chatted once about music. For his birthday, there was a meeting where everyone gathered around as the owners of the firm handed him a box with a ribbon. After much buildup and anticipation, the tech guy opened the box and found a small, cheap comb that they got as a joke because he was losing his hair. I saw his face drop and my heart sank. Others were laughing too hard to notice. He smiled politely, and with a discrete “thank you” he looked down and went back to work. It was obvious to me that they hurt his feelings. And even worse, they had no ability to realize it.
When I was called into the boss’s office a short time later, I thought I knew what he was going to say. He had a recurring gripe with my refusal to underline the names of cases in my written briefs. It was my petty act of passive aggression as I knew that for some reason it was really important to him. I just would not underline the names of the damn cases. Usually I would get a reminder, but this time, he had had enough. “Josh” He said, “You are an example of someone who went to an extremely prestigious law school, but who knows nothing about practicing law. If you want to tell people you quit, feel free to do so.”
I went back to my desk and ruminated on the futility of our dissatisfied clients, the heartless attorneys and the complete absence of what my psychology classes would have called “emotional intelligence”. I stared at my poorly folded tie, my keychain with a guitar on it, and a half-written brief with objections to some attorney’s questions. A pretty far cry from Arthur Kinoy, I thought. With a certainty I had never felt before, I took out a legal notepad and slowly wrote, “This is NOT where I belong.”
I had no idea what would come next. But I did know that in getting fired from a place I didn’t belong, I learned who I was not. I had never heard of family mediation, but even though I didn’t know its name, I finally knew what I was looking for. Leaving that office for the last time, I took my first step towards becoming the person I authentically am. A person with hope. A man with perspective. And a family mediator who ended up exactly where I belong.