31 December

Gus And His Bailey Chair: Learning That Words Hurt

by Jon Katz
Frightening People

One of this morning’s messages caught my eye, it was from a loyal and long-time reader and follower of the blog.

“It is with great fear and trepidation that I send you this information that is well intended and hope that  you read it as such.” This nice woman had talked to her daughter, a veterinary student, about Gus’s disorder and her daughter had told her about the Bailey Chair, something I never heard of a few days ago and hear about daily now.

The woman thanked me in advance for not tossing her off my blog for writing me. I want to say I am not angry with her in any way. She is clearly a good-hearted person who just wanted to help. I was horrified by the fear I sensed in her message. Is that who I am?

Over the years, I have written frequently – and quite often in what I saw as humor – about the people who shower me with unwanted advice and who cross what I consider to be the boundaries of my life as an author, who likes to make his own mistakes and learn his own lessons.

Sometimes I need advice and sometimes I take it, but not from strangers online, and not when I am making complex and intensely personal decisions, in this case with my wife and our vet.

The writer E.B. White was a great inspiration for me when I started the Bedlam Farm Journal in 2007. An author and New Yorker writer (“One Man’s Meat) who bought a farm in Maine and wrote about rural life. I wish I could write like him, but cannot.

But he encountered something I have struggled with for years in a different way.

He was taken aback by the mail he received, by the demands on his time and space raised by the volume of his correspondence – people were touched by his writing about life on a Maine farm, and also about his love of dogs and other animals. They gave him much unwanted advice and rattled his sense of privacy, and  expected a certain kind of grateful response.

In frustration one day, he wrote a column in which he pleased for patience and understanding from his readers: “There are 10,000 of you,” he wrote, “and only one of me.” He struggled to be patient and accepting of the intrusions and demands on his once private and inner space. It was a struggle he never quite mastered or figured out.

His pleas, he wrote later, were ignored, and he realized his effort to draw boundaries was a hopeless effort doomed to fail.

He decided to deal with the wave of personal and sometimes intrusive mail in a different way. Sometimes he ignored it, sometimes he answered as best as he could. He did not criticize people for writing to him.

I am learning the same lesson. Life does not always go the way you want it to go, and acceptance is the pathway to spirituality and peace of mind. White wrote that many of his readers were terrified of angering or displeasing them, and he decided that he didn’t care to frighten the people who read his writing.

This morning, I got about a dozen messages (many more last week) about Gus and his struggle with megaesophagus. Most of the letters and e-mails were written to inform me about a custom-built chair called the Bailey Chair, which  requires the afflicted dog to sit upright in the chair, and which has a table piece in front of it. The idea is to use gravity to pull food down through the swollen esophagus (which is a muscle) and into the digestive tract.

When Gus was diagnosed, our vet told us rsight away about the Bailey Chair, and I went online and read about it. There are dozens of links to sites that build the chair or write about it.  I wrote about it at least a half-dozen times and have mentioned it almost every time I’ve written about our efforts to deal with Gus’s megaesophagus.

I link to a Bailey Chair every time I write about it so that other people can learn about it as well as me. I am a published author, which means I can be vain and narcissistic by definition, and I admit it irritates me to be told about things i have written about in great detail. Okay, so many people comment on what I write without reading it. Suck it up.

I also truly am dumbfounded by people who know I don’t want this kind of stranger-driven advice from strangers I do not know,  but who blithely and regularly ignore my feelings and send it along anyway. I cannot imagine beginning a letter to someone with the words “I don’t you don’t want my advice, but here it is.” I  don’t get it.

But I am not a King, and what is in my mind is rarely in the minds of most other people. And social media promotes the idea that we are all friends and digital lovers, it just takes a click. It is a profoundly incestuous medium.

(All week, I have been getting waves, Emojis, clocks, cut photos and drawings and e-greetings to mark the New Year, I must have gotten 1,000 of them over the weekend. When the Revolution comes I hope they come for Facebook Messenger first.

I don’t understand how anyone could read or absorb them, another challenge of staying sane in the Facebook world. There are 10,000 of you, but only one of me. There are hundreds of thousands of you, but only one of me.

I know it’s my own shortcoming, or perhaps my own swollen ego,  but as the author of nearly a dozen books about dogs, and someone who appreciates vets and listens carefully to them and writes about them,  it would be somewhat inexcusable if I didn’t know about the Bailey Chair.

I would be guilty both of abuse and idiocy if I didn’t know what a Bailey Chair was after being told my dog’s life could be endangered by his defective esophagus, which controls his ability to eat and digest food. I wonder why people would think me so lazy or blind as to not know things like this,  (don’t leave a dog in hot car with the windows closed)  when knowing these things is literally how I make my living.

In my young life, I was often called stupid and treated like I was dumb, so perhaps I am just too sensitive to the suggestion.

As it happens, we are  not getting a Bailey Chair.

___

 

What is interesting about the letter I received today is that the writer knew – and stated herself – that  I didn’t want this advice and she was clearly frightened to give it to me. She was afraid do it, so I hope task her why she did.

It is one thing to disagree with people and argue about boundaries – this is an important conversation for anyone who writes online to be having. It is another thing to scare the wits out of them.

But I think I didn’t really realize how powerful some people think my words are, and how frightened they are of my using those words to attack or criticize them. For them, it is just not a fair fight. I have always believed we are all responsible for our own words, and that I have every right to define my boundaries and identities.

But i just didn’t grasp how powerful my words are to many. I just do not see myself as a powerful person.

. I value my privacy and identity, I have worked hard for both, but my discomfort with using my words to scare people is more important to me than getting unwanted advice. Nobody who writes me in good faith – no matter how misguided I might feel they are – should feel fear and trepidation about sending me a civil and well-meaning message like the one I got today.

What I take from this is that I can continue to raise the question of boundaries and privacy and dignity online, but I cannot continue to frighten people.

Like E.B White,  one of my literary mentors and guides, I  realize that my frightening and scolding people doesn’t work. It’s a hopeless task in the digital age, when everyone feels entitled to remark on everyone else’s life at any time, and when the reigning ethic on social media is that if someone puts him or herself out there, the bullseye is on their back, and they forego any right to privacy, identity, or conventional boundaries.

This is the way it is, and I can be the problem or the solution. I don’t wish to frighten anyone with my words, and I apologize for failing to grasp their power. When I argue with someone, I presume we are equals, and that we can be candid and direct with one another. That is sometimes true, most often not.

There is an imbalance of power between a published author who uses words to make a living, and someone out in the ether approaching someone they see as  a kind of celebrity and authority figure whose words and persona can be very frightening.

My irritation at getting a message like this is minor compared to my sorrow and unease at using my words to frighten people. That is just not who I want to be.

I am sensitive to my identity, I have worked  hard and fought for it, and an important part of identity is taking responsibility for my life, not turning my decisions over to other people. It is my job and Maria’s  and our vet, to treat and diagnose Gus,  not anyone else’s. It is my job to care for my dog and l earn what I need to know. If I need help, I know where to go to get it.

I am responsible for me, you are responsible for you. Please don’t take on my troubles because I share them with you. That is the boundary by which I l have learned to live.

If you tell me you don’t want unwanted advice, I will respect you and your dignity and not give it to you. For me, it is as simple as that, the end of it, no matter how crazy I might be. No means no.

But it is not as simple as that, I have learned.

My approach isn’t working, not if if frightens people. Time to change.

i asked Maria this evening if she found me frightening.

She looked up a bit shocked.

“No!,” she said. “Why do you ask?”

“Because it seems that some people find me fearsome…”

She burst out laughing. I can tell you the woman I live with is not frightened of me in any way. Today,  I went outside in the cold for too long and was turning blue, and she grabbed by the collar and ran me right into the house.

“No,” she said, “they are not afraid of you, they are afraid of your words. When you go after someone, even if you mean it to be humorous, it can be very frightening to them, especially if they have been reading your books and blog for some time. They know what you can do with words…”

I was very careful in responding to the woman who wrote me that message about the Bailey Chair. First, I thanked her for writing me. Then, I said i knew of the chair and didn’t want one, and I added I appreciated her concern for me and for Gus. I skipped my usual ranting about unwanted advice and assured her that i was not angry with her.

She wrote back and thanked me for being gracious, she said she was busy and hadn’t had a chance to read the blog in the past few days. I have no idea what she learned from the exchange, but I know what i learned: words can hurt and frighten people, and I have more power in these exchanges than they do.

I felt good about that.

My goal in 2018 as a blogger and write is not to frighten anyone, apart from my own sometimes disturbing life and demeanor. I can keep some of my powerful words to myself, or as the Roman General said, carry a light sword.

An interesting idea, for me, and honestly, a new and fairly deep one for me to consider. Above all, I don’t wish to be a source of fear, there is cable news for that.  I think I will follow E.B. White’s lead and ignore the messages that bother me, and graciously answer the ones written in good faith.

If I have frightened anyone with my words in 2018, I will fail. If I can manage to write about this with humor and grace, I will have succeeded.

19 Comments

  1. This is an admirable goal for 2018, Jon. You have an amazing ability to make a point in a humorous way, and when you do that it is very effective. I can’t help but believe that some of the really nasty emails you have unfairly received over the years hasn’t at times sharpened your tongue and shortened your sense of patience. I loved this piece you wrote. It demonstrates your willingness to always try to be a better you. Good for you! And thank you! Happy New Year 🎊🎆!

    1. Thanks Pamela, this dialogue has sharpened my skills and been good for me, and I love writing humor, even though I see many people are not familiar w ith it and dont like it…I hope I never stop trying to be a better me and since I have so much further to go, I’m optimistic I’ll never stop and thanks for the message..

  2. I feel you have succeeded at humor and grace. You own your problems and work on them. You cant own other people’s problems, they have to do that themselves.
    Go forward into tomorrow!
    Cara

    1. Tanks Cara, this is exactly what i hope to do, and it is also the challenge of this medium for me. When my dog is sick, I share it, but I am not turning it over to anyone else to solve and fix. Same with my many other problems. I think this medium promotes the idea that we can share or take over or solve the problems of other people. I really dislike that, sharing my problems is not the same as giving them away. I don’t think this issue is resolvable, the tide of the Internet is moving rapidly towards the idea that we have the right to tell other people what to do and solve their problems for them. I will never succumb to that, but I am trying to be more accepting of it, and I believe this is a good and important issue to talk about. I don’t want to be scaring people, but I also don’t intend to give up the boundaries I need to set around my life and work..It will never be resolved, I know that, but is still good to talk about and thank you..

  3. I think it is the power of your words and the bluntness of your delivery that makes people feel they should not try to approach you…however, the concern they feel forces them to take a chance of being ridiculed or gruffly rebuffed…I once made that mistake and actually was brought to tears over your reply, although it could have been a life or death matter …

    1. Thanks Donna, my idea is to try to be better every day, and I fail as often as I succeed, perhaps more..this dialogue has been good for me, even though I realize it will never end…

    2. I am not looking to bring anyone to tears, and I have no memory of your approaching me with a life or death matter. I should say I don’t believe Facebook comments or any online comments are the place to bring life and death matters, that is not my purpose or role here. I think people are responsible for their words, and since I do tend to be blunt and direct – I get lots of messages every day, some quite aggressive, that is the nature of the internet- I need to be more careful. But I will be honest, I am not made of crystal, and I think people who want to comment have to be less sensitive also, if they want to talk to me and challenge me. I don’t hold grudges and have a good thick hide, and I respect a civil argument. I have no idea really, who you are or what you are like, so I tend to treat all people equally. The best answer (apart from life and death matters, which should not be brought to me in that form) is for you to say what you want, and for me to answer you when I can, thoughfully, directly and more softly. I don’t have a lot of time for nuance, and space is short. And since I don’t know you, I have no way to gauge how sensitive you are and previous little time to estimate. Perhaps we both can be a bit more mindful of the limits of the medium. Since I don’t know what you are referring to, I can’t in good conscience apologize. I am allergic to drama and and don’t react well to it, you probably know that, and thanks for posting this, I appreciate it.

  4. One of the stupidest children’s rhymes ever: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

    Au contraire. The other adage “The pen is mightier than the sword” speaks the real truth.

    Words may not cut the skin, break the bone, but they can and do kill the soul.

  5. Thank you for your clarification about your boundaries. There have been times that I have wanted to comment, but did not want to intrude or offend.

    1. I wouldn’t wish for you not to comment, nor do I wish to get offended by well meaning people making well meaning statements.. I think you should comment when you wish, and I will honestly (and hopefully gently) tell you how I feel..I think the answer isnt for people to avoid commenting, but for me to be softer and more patient in my responses..and thanks for writing..

  6. Hi Jon,
    Thanks for sharing all of this. One of the things I most appreciate about your writing is that you share your humanity with the world by making your self reflection public. It helps me to better reflect on my own life. I, too, hesitate to post replies or comments to things you have shared – not out of fear but, like the person you replied to, because I am usually too busy to have read enough to feel I understand enough of the situation to offer anything constructive in response. Maybe that is the true crux of the matter- most folks are too busy. People want to respond / contribute but may not have the whole story. However, as the pace of modern life continues to accelerate, they feel compelled to just say something in order to contribute and move on. Perhaps this is not the case, but these are my thoughts and I wanted to share. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Karen, I think this is a very useful and helpful discussion to have, and I especially appreciate your thoughtfulness and sensitivity..Your thoughts are valuable and thanks for sharing them with us…This has turned into a rare thing on the Internet, a civil and very helpful conversation, and this is exactly what I hope to provoke when I write about how we interact with one another online..Unwanted advice will not kill me, and it does not offend me, I am really arguing for the right of all of us to set some terms and boundaries for sharing our thoughts in public…You have been very helpful.

  7. Greetings Jon and Happy 2018!
    I admire your honesty very much! This dialog may have reached its pinnacle of value, but, I can’t help but contribute my thoughts: I agree that words can be very hurtful and you are very cognizant of that. In your defense, not that you need me to defend you: throughout the years of writing your blog, you have kindly requested time and again for readers to not give you advice. In that regard, I interpreted the “fear” that the writer of the Bailey Chair letter was feeling as her consciences response to your request not to give you advice. Despite her well meaning intentions she knew she not honoring a request you had made clearly and consistently over the years. It reminds me of the fear of getting caught with my hand in the cookie jar. My conscience reminds me that I’m doing something I know I shouldn’t be doing. I have some experience with hurtful words and can be quite fearful of a number of things in this life, but, you and your words, my dear Jon Katz, are certainly not among them. The fact that you acknowledged the writers feelings, whether you are responsible for them or not, makes you the better man. Thank you for reading this for all that you do to make our world a more wonderful place!

    1. Thanks Brenda, a very thoughtful and helpful message, I have read it carefully and you have me thinking and I thank you for that. I appreciate it very much. I especially like your empathy all around.

  8. Here’s to 2018 and to the people who graciously join you in the Army of Good…who sometimes may offer you caring suggestions, or who may not because they do not want to offend you. Happy New Year Maria,Jon and all loving creatures!

    1. Thanks Kathleen, I guess I sometimes seem offended, but the truth is I have a very thick hide, it is almost impossible to offend me..I raise these issues of boundaries not to be outraged, but to provoke discussion about how this new technology affects our lives and interactions.it is a very invasive and sometimes insensitive medium…Boundaries are important and respecting others is important. I should respect others, and they should respect me. Getting offended is pointless and lazy in my mind, and I don’t care to be someone who frightens people. Getting people to think is the point, and that is not always easy…Thanks for the Army Of Good, the joy of last year and hopefully this one.

  9. I happen to love your candor and have stated that often. I truly appreciate is the sense that I am looking through a clean lens, seeing a true, un-doctored picture of a life as it is experienced. That is the “gift’ of you and the blog, and that gift also includes the times I feel buffeted by your gruffness, the times I read something and say “ouch” because even I can see you might be over-reacting to some harmless advice simply because you didn’t want any advice. But, those instances aren’t deal breakers for me, I like, actually, I need to have my sensibilities challenged! No, I wouldn’t want to change a thing; when you seem a bit rude, I am assured of your humanity. I always read your comments within a much wider context, the bigger story, like the love you share with Mansion residents, the refugees and immigrants, the animals, your loving relationship with Maria. So even if something you say makes me wince, it’s just a momentary thing, It’s real, just like you are real. I do appreciate your raised consciousness and new sensitivity but not because I think, “boy it’s about time” or because you intimidate me, I appreciate it because it is coming up as yet another honest telling or view into the ever unfolding story of your journey. I just hope you go on writing freely, you know not to sanitize things.I doubt you will ever succumb to some affectation! And then there is the understanding that some people will always be offended or feel slighted because of their own expectations. In other words, you can’t please everyone and there will always be those who react inordinately no matter what you say or how nicely you say it. One more wonderful honest blog. Thanks so much. I am praying for you all on the farm. May you be safe and warm and I sure hope we have a reprieve from this cold.

    1. Very thoughtful message, Patricia, I appreciated it and found it useful. I will never sanitize the blog, and thanks for keeping me honest about that, I will try to speak more softly and with an awareness that everyone out there is not like me, or perhaps does not quite get me. But I promised when I started the blog that it would be real and honest and that is always on my mind, to pull back on my ideas would be a betrayal…And it is true, online you can offend people just by showing up…Thanks for the message…I like to think that on the blog people get the good Jon Katz or the bad Jon Katz, but they always get the real one..that’s the idea anyway..Happy New Year to you..

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