Sacred Disorder | Cliff Bostock's blog – 'Finally, I came to regard as sacred the disorder of my mind' (Rimbaud)

‘Uncle’ Frank’s peaceable kingdom

I’m sitting on six or more unfinished posts for this blog, but had to upload these graphics as soon as I saw them. Actually, quite a few more are available on



















I’ve long been fascinated with circuses and carnivals. I doubt that I’m related to the Frank Bostock who founded this turn-of-the-century menagerie circus, but it pleases me to think so. (My grandfather’s name was Frank and  both men were Brits.)

Bostock’s Circus wasn’t  limited entirely to animal acts, but also apparently featured sideshows with figures like this tattooed man. (The marketing for the picture refers to “gay interest.” I have no idea.)













Here’s a shot of the Coney Island arena where the circus was apparently headquartered for a time.
















I like this graphic of Frank from a program for one of his shows. If only my demons comprised such a peaceable kingdom now and then.










Edit: Yikes I just discovered that the above graphic is based on a real picture:














‘I thought I was the only one’

A popular criticism of psychotherapy is that “just talking” is of little value. To some extent, I share that belief. But it’s often a shock of great value to clients to learn they are “not the only one” who grew up feeling different.

When that feeling of difference is accompanied by shame, it can alienate a person for a lifetime. Historically, an obvious example is the situation of young gay people. That, mercifully, is changing.

I like this video for depicting the best response to the recognition of difference. Its implied message is that parents should support and encourage their kids in this regard, encourage them to associate with the like-minded. Yes, the video is idealistic, because it assumes the kid’s difference is positive or at least benign. You don’t want to encourage your young kleptomaniac to organize a kiddy crime syndicate.

The video very much expresses my own experience as far back as I can remember. There was the murky sense of a taboo gay orientation, of course, but I felt different in just about every other respect, too. This drove my mother crazy. She valued normality above all else and she oscillated dramatically between encouragement and its opposite.

A good example was her habit of writing me long letters that she pinned to my pillow when I was a teenager. I remember one that succinctly summarizes their tone. It began with (I’m paraphrasing), “I’m proud that you march to the beat of a different drummer…but.” And then it went on for pages and pages to tell me why I should ignore the drummer.

Another example I’ve written about before was when I won second and third place in a state poetry competition for high school students. I had no inkling of the award, but I came home one afternoon and my mother handed me the competition’s booklet of best poems. The poems were illustrated. One of mine was entitled (oy), “Love Song to a Mechanical Goddess.” It was an angry poem about the girlfriend who had jilted me.

The poem was illustrated with a picture of a jalopy on a trash heap. Yes, the judges presumed it was about my car. My mother handed the book to me, making a comment something like, “This is what life is about. If you choose to be different, you will not be understood.”

The effect of such parenting was to leave me more confused and suspicious than anything else, something I have struggled with my entire life, no matter how much therapy I’ve done. I developed a not-so-helpful defense: I became often oblivious to the effect of my behavior on others, as well as my talents and my liabilities. It doesn’t make aging pleasant.

At one point — after I did a three-week intensive 20 years ago — I asked my mother directly, “Why didn’t you just support me and encourage me, instead of trying to change me all the time? What was so bad about me?” She began crying and said, predictably, that she didn’t want me to be unhappy. But the degree to which she tried to change me suggested something more.

Soon after that encounter, I learned the sentiment was deeply rooted in her own fear of being different — a fear explicitly described in some of her own adolescent writing I discovered after her stroke. I can’t say this changed everything, but it did prompt the beginning of a process of forgiveness. As I often tell clients, forgiveness of others makes us more forgiving — accepting — of ourselves too. But it does not forever erase our conditioned impulses.

So, a video like this moves me. I do remember making exactly the kid’s decision: “I’m not even going to try to become something I’m not.” But I faltered because I really did not feel supported except by a few teachers and sometimes by my grandmother, whose memory still nourishes me. And, in the case of my sexuality, the entire culture informed me I was a sinner, a criminal and a mental case.

I know a significant difficulty in trying to support an eccentric kid is that the parents are often challenged to suspend their own values. But, surely, love merits the effort.

Please give the video a look.

Belated Xmas wishes

Diane Arbus, 1963

I came across this lovely image by Diane Arbus a few days ago. I was obsessed with her work back in the ’80s. I discovered her while working on a chapter about sideshow freaks for my ill-fated book, “Good Country People.” She had photographed some of the freaks associated with the same crew I visited in Gibsonton, Fla.

Why is everything in this room shoved against the wall? The Christmas tree reminds me of the expression “backed into a corner with no escape.” Even the gifts seem to be exerting pressure on the tree — not that gift-giving exerts any pressure on us, right? And what’s that behind the top of the tree? A shadow? A burned spot? Does Christmas have a dark side? Surely not!

Overall, the picture feels suffocating to me. But what’s with the large empty space? Maybe an elephant — the Christmas weightiness that we’re not supposed to talk about — just exited the living room. (That would be an elephant dressed as the Grinch.)

Yes, like most of my clients and many friends,  I’ve often found Christmas suffocating.   I’m glad it’s behind us again.





Thanks for the mail

I’ve just been through the nightmare of “migrating” my website and a few posts here disappeared. This was the latest. Sorry for the repetition it causes on Twitter and Facebook.

Hey, y’all. I have received a ton of mail, especially on Facebook, about Creative Loafing’s cutback of my “Grazing” column. I haven’t been able to answer all of it, but please know that I appreciate it.

After 30 years’ affiliation with the paper, they cut my income by 2/3rds with literally a week’s notice. It’s been my intention to write a post on my personal blog about the experience, but I’m waiting until my head cools.

As I reported before, I’ll still be contributing to the paper’s Omnivore blog and writing “Grazing” once a month, for now. The next column will appear in January. I’m also writing some of the “First Look” pieces.

Meanwhile, please feel free to send me money or notice of work available. Remember, most of my writing career has been editing publications and writing about much more than food.

I also continue to see clients in my psychology practice, specializing in creativity-related matters.
I also do psychic readings for cats.

The sweet and strange taste of memories


(This was written for the Omnivore blog at Creative Loafing’s website.)

Trouble with my Mac laptop required that I make a trip to the Apple store at Lenox Square last night. I grew up shopping at Lenox — I think my mother had her own parking space — but I’ve avoided the place like the plague for years. I’d rather wear ill-fitting, out-of-fashion clothes purchased online than throw myself into the black hole of frantic consumerism called Lenox Square.

But I did feel a major wave of nostalgia as I passed the Godiva Chocolatier shop last night. My mother was a fanatical lover of the stuff and it was often stacked on the sideboard of the dining room at Christmas. At that time of the year, she bought mainly pieces filled with liqueurs.

Godiva was then (and still is) instantly recognizable by its gold box. I recall that during my freshman year of college, Mama sent me a big box as the holidays descended. I doubt she would have approved that it became the centerpiece of a psychedelic session with a few friends. We ate the whole box in a few hours, each piece producing synesthetic waves of pleasure.

At that time, Godiva was considered the best chocolate available. But it was also during my freshman year that the candy began to lose its eclat for me. After my friends and I tripped on it, my roommate noticed the empty box.

“You like that stuff?” he asked me.

“Yeah, of course,” I said.

“I can get you all you want,” he said, as if he were a drug dealer.

“How much?” I asked.

“Free,” he said.

I asked him how he would manage that.

“My father is an executive at Campbell Soups,” he said.

“Yeah? And? What’s that got to do with Godiva?” I asked.

“Campbell owns Godiva,” he explained.

I was shocked. The same people who make the watery, weakly flavored soups made the world’s best chocolate! They bought it from the Belgian company that had been selling it since 1926. (And Campbell sold it to a Turkish company a few years ago.)

I have no idea if Campbell changed anything other than the marketing of Godiva. But after learning of the change, every time I bit into a piece of Godiva, I tasted notes of pink tomato soup. It was similar to the way I came to smell Jungle Gardenia perfume every time I smell Downy Fabric Softener. I used to make out with a high school girl friend in her parents’ laundry room. The two smells are forever associated.

I decided not to tell my mother about the Campbellization of Godiva. For all I know she already knew. In any case, it became a Thing You Just Don’t Discuss and I always tried to give her the gold boxes on special occasions. A few times, I gave her much better artisan chocolates like those made here by Maison Robert, but they clearly never excited her as much as Godiva. So, I stuck to it. It was a lesson in the way taste depends on memory.

My mother had a stroke that left her unable to read, write, talk or walk. She lived about 15 years in this condition. I took her a box of Godiva near the end of her life and her eyes lit up. My mother and I had a difficult relationship throughout my life, to say the least. I was literally afraid of her, but we had finally come to talk regularly a few years before her stroke.

When I handed her this last box of Godiva, she loosened the gold cord and removed the lid. Instead of taking the first piece for herself, she held the box out to me. I took a piece, as did she. Our gaze locked as the sweet chocolate melted and countless good memories rolled over me.

The royals jump the barricade to join the peasants

I find this video amazing in all it encapsulates. It is a demonstration by Occupy Wall Street at Lincoln Center that began during the third act of Satygraha, Philip Glass’ opera about Ghandi.

As Alex Ross, the New Yorker music critic, explains: The protest “was directed not at the opera itself but at a certain disparity between its lofty moral message and the machinery of corporate arts funding.” That’s code for “elitism.” More about that in a moment.

Most striking, Glass came out to address the Occupiers. Police had herded them down the center’s steps, effectively creating a barricade between what looks like the peasants and the exiting royals. But many of those alleged royals ended up jumping the barricade to join the protestors.

Glass, always elegant, limited himself to simply repeating the opera’s last three lines, from the Bhagavad Gita:

When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age, and take visible shape, and move, a man among men, for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again.

Talk about appropriate for our time. And those words are thousands of years old.

What is amazing here, besides Glass’ chilling quotation of an ancient text so relevant today, is the drama of presumably elitist opera goers — the royals — interacting with demonstrators. (I stopped myself from using the words “counter-cultural demonstrators.”) Glass’ appearance was of course in support of the Occupiers and, I assume, was meant to demonstrate that “fine art” itself does not necessarily represent elitist values.

Seth Colter Walls takes up this subject in detail in a post on the Awl, where you can also see videos of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson separately addressing the crowd. Walls writes:

At the Met, the most expensive opera tickets are indeed expensive, but you can stand behind the orchestra section—or even sit at the upper reaches of the house—for less than the cost of an IMAX showing at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 multiplex up the road. This persistent fiction of “elitism,” and contemporary classical music’s supposed inaccessibility, is one of the strongest propagandistic tools ever devised by the titans of corporate pop culture. They would prefer you not ever cost-compare a Family Circle seat to Satyagraha alongisde a 3D screening of Transformers 3.

I found myself cringing at the claim that letting the rest of us stand behind the orchestra section disproves elitist characterizations. (Let them eat cake in the rear of the palace?) But Walls does construct a good argument that, in the absence of a public-arts infrastructure, the opera’s continued existence necessarily depends upon donations from 1-percenters, like the Koch brothers. And nobody, he writes, is making big bucks at the opera.

I remain conflicted about such responses. It’s more than a little noticeable that every time an Occupy event impinges upon progressives’ comfort, they issue kind-hearted, paternalistic advice.

I was shocked to see Frank Bruni and Charles Blow of the New York Times do that a few weeks ago. I wonder if they are even aware that their privileged occupancy of the Times offices unavoidably distorts their vision. It’s not just conservative journalists who lose touch with the commoners.

Since I’ve reviewed restaurants for so long, I’m painfully aware of the absurdity of dining like Marie Antoinette while millions of American children don’t get enough to eat. But issuing guilty statements in that respect — Bruni has done plenty of that — isn’t enough. Philip Glass made a poignant statement before the Occupiers and then disappeared. Does that reduce his protest to rhetoric? I certainly wouldn’t advocate not staging his operas, anymore than I’d shackle brilliant chefs and force them to work in dungeon kitchens.

Obviously, I’m conflicted.

The Awl link also includes an audio clip from the third act of Satyagraha. Maury D’Annato of Parterre, who was also on the scene and is an Occupy supporter, described his experience of emerging from the opera:

Inside, we had seen messages of, alas, hope and change, alongside political imagery bearing little resemblance to anything in the last three decades. The mood at the end of the opera is one of nostalgia, of optimism beaten almost out of existence.

Thus they jumped the barricade. The scene is virtually a parable. If you don’t do anything else, please listen to Glass in the video above. He appears around 3:00.

An unearthed poem

Diane Arbus: Flower girl at a wedding (1964)

I’ve been going through my files lately and came across this (kinda-sorta) poem I wrote  8 years ago or longer. I decided to post it here (a) to keep a record of it and (b) to remind myself how indebted I am to James Hillman, who died a few weeks back. The repeated phrase, “the wound is the eye,” is a direct quote from him and the allusions to the myth of Persephone are consistent with his approach to the psyche. It needs work, but here it is:

There was no flower on our table
and this seemed quite usual.
Even when I found the rose,
it was too coral, too ripe, too soft, too full
of a glow that reminded me of melting Popsicles –
a color that is supposed to be calming but,
by its very insistence that I relax, agitates me.
“Calm down,” I said to the bathroom mirror.
“It is only a rose.”

So it was too with the thorn.
It had been removed from the stem but it lingered like a ghost –
an animated absence that pricked my solitude.
In such moments, you turn and you hope it is an angel.
Is it?
You hope it’s not an impersonator – one of those hungry ghosts
that occupy the bardos of insatiable desire.
Here, invisible stranger, devour my heart. I am this awful flower.

Having fetched the flower, I had to resist destroying it
or returning it to another table
or doing something insane.
I could have mutilated the petals and strewn them
on my soup, eating them like garnish.
In Paris I did eat a tagine of pounded rose petals
and my entire body woke up. I couldn’t stop smiling.

But in Avignon I went to a perfumery
where a woman placed a drop of rose essence on my wrist
and I sang a bit of “La Vie en Rose” and she laughed and
the cat curled about my ankle and when I looked down
I saw that it had one eye and – you know what? – both my eyes filled with tears.
“It’s always like this,” I said to my friend. “Half-blind.”
My friend said I was too sentimental, that my memory was harsh.
“I am easily seduced by the wound of romance,” I growled.
I couldn’t walk the streets of Istanbul, there were so many starving cats with worms crawling in their eyes.
The wound is the eye.
The wound is the eye.

I did not eat the table flower but I held it to my nose.
Nothing to take in.
That absence too tore my flesh, my heart where the gods live.
I became the crack in the ground where Persephone was abducted
while she picked flowers in the sunlight. The dark hand was on me.

We left. On the street, where it was cold,
I saw him: a man with wrenches dangling from his belt loops.
“Can you remove a thorn? Can you loosen my throat and fine-tune my heart,” I wanted to ask. “Can you give me a warranty on the repairs you make?”

Turning from him, the angel shadowing me,
I wondered who that was.

“Who decorates himself with wrenches?”  I wondered.
Not the lady of Avignon who opened my eyes to my animal blindness
with a sweet fragrance.
It must be the abductor. I turned. He disappeared.
I smelled death, decay, on the invisible hand
that brushed my cheek.
The eye of my heart opened.

“Love – even  fleeting eros – may be blind,”
I thought,
“but so is justice.” 
I repeated this to myself all the way back to the hotel.

And so I slowed my pace and heard the wrenches fall on a sidewalk littered with yesterday’s flowers.

I hoped to be just if I could not be lovable.

CL cuts back ‘Grazing’ after 20+ years

I received bad news from Creative Loafing today. The new editor has decided to discontinue my “Grazing” column, which I’ve written over 20 years. The reason was financial, according to dining editor Besha Rodell, who was given the task of informing me.

I may be writing a monthly version and will likely continue posting on the Omnivore blog.

This comes at a time when my (unconventional) psychology practice has also severely dipped. Before this news, I was already poorer than I’ve been since my 20s. So, I’m looking for work — part-time, freelance or full-time.

I’ll be writing more later.

If you compulsively shop on the Internet, you need help

James Hillman complained frequently that psychology has become “de-souled” through medicalization. This actually began almost as soon as Freud published his first work.

Freud knew that in order for his theories to be taken seriously, they had to be scientific in their presentation. But privately, he admitted his work had more in common with the humanities than science.

It looks like the American Psychological Association is, 100 years later, finally rebelling against the medicalization that has increased hugely during the last 10 years, supposedly because of advances in brain science — despite no conclusive evidence that, for example, a personality disorder originates in neurological defects.

The issue is gaining lots of attention now because the American Psychiatric Association has completed writing the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). The DSM is the Bible that mental health professionals use to diagnose their clients and plan treatment.

The new edition lowers the criteria for diagnosis of many mental disorders and creates a handful of strange new ones (like compulsive shopping and Internet addiction, as I cited a few years ago). It pathologizes ordinary behavior like depression while grieving. It is so warped that the American Psychological Association has started a petition opposing its publication without further review.

Many other organizations, including the British Psychological Society, have supported the petition. Even the chairman of the committee that wrote the last version of the DSM writes in support of the petition.

The petition is prefaced by an open letter that details the many concerns the new volume has provoked.  Read it here.


Thomas Moore reflects on Hillman

Thomas Moore, most known as author of the best-selling Care of the Soul, has a wonderful piece on the Huffington Post about James Hillman.

Moore, as he explains, was Hillman’s colleague (or, arguably, his protege) at the Dallas Institute. I interviewed him not long after Care of the Soul was published, but I was already quite familiar with his work. Before going mainstream, he published two fascinating books. One, The Planets Within, was based on his doctoral dissertation about Marsilio Ficino, the Renaissance thinker whose work in astrology could be regarded as the West’s first move toward psychological practice.

The other book was Dark Eros, a study of the work of the Marquis de Sade. One reviewer described Moore’s intention this way: “He exposes the psychological and imaginative implications of torture, violence, and victimization.” Considering America’s network of prisons around the world, where torture has become routine practice, maybe the book is ready for a broader audience than its original target, psychotherapists.

I was surprised, after reading these rather edgy books, that Moore would write a book like Care of the Soul, which I found kind of sappy. I recall that during my interview, I asked Moore a very rude question. “Haven’t you basically rewritten James Hillman’s work to make it more accessible to mainstream readers?” I asked (I’m paraphrasing).

Not surprising, I guess, Moore was offended. But I still feel that’s largely true. One difference, though, is that Moore (like Robert Sardello) maintains an interest in spirituality while Hillman’s work dwells on soul as something pointedly different from spirit.

I often wondered if watching Moore’s books hit the best seller lists motivated Hillman to write more “accessible” books like The Soul’s Code and The Force of Character. Hillman certainly deserved as much attention as Moore, but these late books did not come close to the sublime and revolutionary thought and writing of his earlier work.

EVENT PLANNED: The Dallas Institute of the Humanities and Culture will celebrate its 30th anniversary, Nov. 10-12, with a conference entitled “Longing for Beauty.” As it happens, Thomas Moore and Robert Sardello will be part of the conference in which Hillman planned to participate too. You can learn more about the conference here. It will include a tribute to Hillman.