Play Don’t.


(The following essay will be featured in my next book, due out later this year. If anything, let this serve as a sneak peak as to how awesome it’s going to be. I have big things planned for the CDP for the remainder of the summer, but this will be my final straight-up essay until the book is published. Please enjoy.)

When I was around the age of 10, my mother grew exhausted with our almost-daily screaming matches and took us both to see a therapist. Although I never asked her the exact reason for this, my assumption was that she chose therapy in an attempt for us to learn a little more about each other on a deeper level, and try to form some sort of alternate connection, instead of engaging in a constant battle of manipulation and passive-aggressive superiority. All I knew for sure was that I got the day off of school, so I was in without objection.

There was one moment from that day that sticks out more prominently than anything else; a memory I may never forget. The therapist gave me and my mother each a can of Play-Doh (she got a blue can, I got a red one), told us to sculpt something that reminded us of the other person, and explain our reasons why. This seemed like a decent way to open up and share feelings that were currently buried under a pile of baggage and clever wordplay. A chance to complement each other without feeling like we were somehow conceding victory in our Cold War.

Mom went first; she molded an adorable Teddy Bear. Round little ears. Bulbous nose. Hemispherical mitts. It looked like a fluffy, blue Teddy Graham. She then went on about how much she loved and treasured me as a son, how she’d do anything for me, and so on and so forth. She broke into tears expressing just how much she cared about me; it was a very touching and heartfelt moment.

Then it was my turn. I produced a cherry-red, foot-long, coiled snake.

Could you tell us why you made a snake?” the therapist gently inquired, quite certain that she had stumbled upon a demon seed.

Well…” I stammered for a moment while I crafted my story. “Well…whenever me and mom fight, it’s…it’s like…um, THIS!

I then proceeded to mimic the snake obliterating my mom’s Teddy Bear representation of me. I had the snake bite off the round ears. I made it tear apart the hemispherical mitts. I coiled it around the bear’s midsection and squeezed the entire works together in my hands, forming a wad of mutilated, blue-red hamburger. I then slapped the entire works back onto the therapist’s desk and pounded it flat with my fists.


The therapist’s pencil holder and picture frames vibrated across her glass desk like an air hockey table as I put the exclamation point on my impromptu production. It was quite the performance. It was also the first and last time I ever saw a therapist with my mother. She has never once brought it up.

I know what you’re thinking. That was a frightening, worrisome and heartbreaking tale about a mother desperately attempting to establish a bond with her vile, degenerate, cursed son. I completely understand where you’re coming from, but please listen, as I have a confession to make. A confession for the you, the reader, but mainly a confession for my mother.

I’ve never been artistically inclined, and the logical fact of the matter was that I didn’t know how to make anything but a snake with Play-Doh. It was all I could construct. At the time, I was too embarrassed and insecure to admit this creative lapse to the therapist or my mother, so I just made the only thing I could and bluffed my way through the rest of the session. I didn’t mean a word of it, I was just too superficial and petty to admit that I sucked at Art.

And so it goes. It took me a long time to realize that my lifelong struggles with anger and emotional manipulation were never even close to the lifelong struggles I’ve had with vanity, ego and constant attempts to ward off public humiliation. While my mom and the therapist saw an angry kid pummeling the living shit out of a wad of modeling compound (and incorrectly affirming their theories about me), I had my own personal revelation concerning my deepest fears of embarrassment and pride, flaws that nobody knew I had. I learned something important about myself that day; unfortunately, everyone else in the room merely thought I was destined to become a serial killer.

In short, I’m really, really sorry, mom. I never thought you were a snake. I just didn’t know how to make anything out of Play-Doh that showed how much I love you.

8 thoughts on “Play Don’t.

  1. That was a great/sad story. Your true feelings were confined by the wrong medium. If the therapist would have asked you to blog about it, things would have been different.

    A good friend of mine had a really rough time in elementary and junior high and, as he tells it, the school counselor was going to “fix it”. One of the tests she gave him was a Rorschach Test. Of course, he knew what the counselor was up to and his answer was things like “I see a pile of dead puppies.”

    Ah, therapy.


  2. Awww, what an adorable kid. In that picture you look just like my youngest nephew…he was practically Satan incarnate as a toddler. (I have some…interesting…stories about my suister's family) 😀

    First rule of kids: They *aren't adults* and as such, can't relate to the world and everyone around them the way that adults have learned to in order to deal with their emotions. Kids can't communicate the way grown-ups can, and they are taught that “negative” emotions are bad. So they learn to hide and repress things like anger and frustration and sadness, and that's how they become jaded adults with emotional disorders. I try to let my son be sad and have him go sit and think about what's really bothering him before we talk about it, even if the actual reason makes no sense to me, because expecting him to pretend to be happy when he's not just doesn't seem healthy. But I also try to teach him how to handle being angry and frustrated, so that it doesn't get bottled up but also doesn't manifest in inappropriate ways. Anytime I hear someone say that parenting is easy, I immediately become suspect of their parenting. It's not rocket science, of course, but you're raising a complicated little person, and that is fraught with unanticipated challenges. But the rewards can be pretty awesome.

    (You owe your mom a hug, by the way)


  3. HOSS – Thanks, man. It took a long time to realize where my frustrations really lied. Not surprisingly, this was around the time I began to write, which really allowed me to be as introspective as possible.

    I also love it when all-too-intelligent kids know they're being manipulated by counselors, and essentially play them for humorous purposes.

    MAUS – I always get that whenever the childhood photos come out: “You look really cute…and totally evil.”

    Thanks for sharing your story. For years as an adult, I would remember back to stressful times in my childhood, and remember how mature and adultlike my inner emotions and feelings were, but just not being able to verbalize it in a way that wasn't childlike. I think that's the source of most tantrums; the feelings of children are just as mature as yours or mine, but not possessing the intellectual capabilities to project these emotions is enough to drive anyone insane.


  4. In my mind, as I was reading that story, it was a grown-up version of you with the Play Doh, which made it that much more entertaining.

    If this is a sneak preview of the new book, I can't wait.


  5. Sadly, CDP, most adults aren't able to verbalize their emotions any better than kids. Or, if they are able to, they don't take the time to. It doesn't take a great leap of logic to realize that we think in words, so if we don't take the time to put our feelings into words our brains aren't going to be able to adequately process them. I think emotions are validated by the process of putting words to them because the words themselves are communal: we all agree on the meanings of them. So by putting words to our emotions we're in effect lessening the isolation of the emotional experience and making our individual feelings into a shared human experience, which goes a long way toward allowing us to work through them. Suddenly it's not, “I'm an individual person experiencing this nebulous blob of emotion alone,” but, “I'm a part of the greater whole of humanity and I'm currently feeling X, Y, and Z, which are shared emotions as evidenced by the fact that other people know what I mean when I say X, Y, Z.” Yanno?

    Huge congrats on getting the book to the editor. I always like to envision my authors sitting on a fabulous deck overlooking a scenic back yard and sipping a favorite wine (or whiskey on the rocks) when they finish submitting chapters to me. It's special to be a part of that achievement for them. Enjoy the relaxation while it lasts!


  6. JT – As an adult, I meet creative frustration the same way. Nothing's changed. Thanks for the kind words, too.

    HONEY BEAR – That was a really beautiful paragraph. I read it four times. You may have indirectly explained just why writers write.

    Oh, and my 'editor' is actually my 'wife,' so let's not get all crazy with the back slapping just yet. 🙂


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