Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 7.1]

Before I knew it, Jonah and I were live-chatting on Gmail every spare moment we could, finding hours in the morning before work, lunch times, and evenings. These conversations were entertaining and stimulating. Apparently, we both had a great need to share and an eagerness to receive. The engagement was intense and mutual. We swapped music with a passion and shared drafts of things we’d been writing. We found that our views on religion were uncannily similar, even though I consider myself agnostic and Jonah considered himself a deist. Regarding politics and classism, Jonah blogged frequently on the topics like a critical theorist would. Even though I don’t give those topics much energy anymore, I agreed with almost every political stance he took.

We discussed psychology, too. However, most of Jonah’s views on that topic came from things he’d read of Freud’s—and Noam Chomsky of all people. Because Jonah respected Chomsky’s thinking and politics so greatly, he had accepted his earlier work in the field of cognitive psychology rather blindly. Ironically, that meant he was one of those people who’d only been exposed to B. F. Skinner through Chomsky, who certainly wasn’t a fan of behaviorism. I tried to open him up to what I do love about Skinner, but Jonah adamantly resisted. The sticking point was around Skinner’s view of free will.

Jonah stubbornly wanted to believe in absolute free will and so refused to consider that the reasons for our choices may be influenced by our past reinforcement histories. Honestly, by this point in my life, I’d learned not to believe I knew anything with 100 percent certainty. I just wanted him to keep an open mind, but I found that Jonah had a quirky way of closing his sometimes, typically when he was unconsciously triggered. In the end, I forgave him for his outright rejection of Skinner. After all, Jonah had a major mental crush on Noam Chomsky. I mean, he carried The Chomsky Reader with him everywhere he went. Admittedly, I found that adorable.

I’ve mentioned Jonah was a wonderful storyteller, and we exchanged our most salient memories and hard earned personal philosophies. Most fun was the cheerful bantering laden with saucy retorts. Brilliant and hilarious, Jonah’s mind whimsically danced all over the place, and I loved the challenge of keeping up or surprising him unexpectedly. The conversation never lulled. His mind was so creative and he had such a rich emotional life, there was an endless well of ideas to tap. Even in between contact, it felt like the conversation was still running. I needed the hours in between communication to reflect and process all that had been exchanged. It was a little eerie to both of us how we seemed to return to the conversation with the same follow-up questions for each other. In an astonishingly short time, I’d gone broader and far deeper with Jonah than I ever had with anyone before. I never knew it was possible to get such traction with another person. I shared things with him I’d never told anyone. He did the same.

To this point, we’d been so caught up in exchanging ideas, neither of us had spoken much of our marriages. I think we were both afraid to taint the exciting vibe we had going, but the subject was inevitable. One morning, we both spilled our guts about it.

Jonah wrote, “I was thinking something last night…Well, in my head, even though we know each other from high school, there’s sort of a weird…I don’t know, like an abyss, or gap or something between that time and now in that you and I are now such completely different people than we were back then. We were on two very separate trajectories moving independently of each other, but towards each other. So on one level, we’re sort of starting from scratch, but at the same time, this thing between us feels ancient, likes it’s always been there. Am I making any sense?”

“Absolutely. I think it’s so true…and so cool.”

“Michelle, I was talking to Amy the other day. We were taking the kids for a walk in the woods. I tried to talk to her about a project I am working on, and there was no interest. None. Just nothing. I mean, she’s never even read my book. I guess I can’t blame her for that. You can’t force things. But still…”

“Wow, Jonah. Part of me wants to say ‘I can’t imagine,’ but, I can. Chris has no interest in anything I say or do. It’s become a huge problem in our marriage. All along, I kept putting myself out there trying to make some kind of connection, but it went nowhere. A part of me feels like we are ruining each other’s lives and it scares the hell out of me. I’ve seen so many people stay in loveless, joyless, sexless marriages only to lose their souls, wither, and become bitter. I don’t want that to happen, but I can totally see how it could.”

“Oh god yes. This married friend of mine who has a similar dynamic with his wife said, ‘You know, sometimes you just have to accept that this is as good as it’s going to get,’ and I suppose I agree. In so many ways, I’ve just sort of walled myself off, created this inner life, like Walter Mitty. And you know, it’s lonely. Well, it was until now…you’re here.”

“Jonah, do you see yourself staying married?”

“Hell, I don’t know. We’ve done the counseling thing. It helped, but there’s a difference between making it ideal and making it last. We went through a very nasty time with her family, who likes to assert themselves into our lives. A few years ago I found out Amy had been lying about some financial things, which she manages for us mostly. That really screwed things six ways from Sunday, and Amy’s not strong enough to think for herself. Then I found out that she’s been turning her family against me for sympathy. She can be very manipulative. And, I can handle it when it’s just me involved, but she lets them talk bad about me in front of the kids. I stopped letting Anna be alone with Amy’s parents. Amy just seems to care about Amy. She’s kind of cold, unemotional. She cares about how the kids look on the outside, and in her own way, I suppose she cares about them on the inside. But, she doesn’t (or can’t?) connect with them. I mean, she likes to brag to everyone she’s a ‘stay-home mom,’ but then she puts Sam in front of the TV while she Pinterests and Facebooks all day about what a wonderful mom she is.”

“Wow, Jonah. I won’t speak for you, but for me, I believe I married a good person in many respects. And of course he gave me Jax¸ who I wouldn’t trade for the world, but Chris and I are so fundamentally different. I feel trapped in something bigger than me, because Jax is involved. On some level, I believe Jax and I would be better off, than have him stay and suck the joy out of us.”

“Michelle, can I share something deeply personal?”

“Of course.”

“Little Sam is not my own. Both Anna and Sam came from Petri dishes. I have a condition called Microchromal Deletion, which means I have an incredibly low sperm count. I had enough sperm for in-vitro with Anna, barely, but Sam is from a sperm donor.”

“Oh, Jonah. I can’t imagine what you guys went through.”

“Michelle, I’ve never told anyone about that. Not my parents, brother, or best friend.”

“That’s understandable. You probably want him to find out when he’s older and the time is right.”

“Well, I thought that was the plan, until one of Amy’s friends sauntered up next to me in the park and said ‘Wow. How are you handling it? Is it hard knowing that Sam’s not your own?’”

“WHAT??!! Seriously? Someone said that?! So, Amy told people?”

“Uh huh. She’s told just about everyone we know. One of her favorite things to say when someone asks her if she wants any more children is, ‘Sure I do, but Jonah’s too cheap to buy me anymore.’ At 14K a pop, ‘I’m cheap,’ she says. Deep down, I believe she is disappointed in the lifestyle I can afford and would drop me in a heartbeat for someone with more money. Sometimes, when I don’t go along with her ideal, I think she’d be happy to swap me out with any other guy who made my salary, as long as it didn’t rock her status quo. I’m pretty sure she thinks she’s ‘settled,’ too.”

“Jonah, that is wrong on so many levels. I don’t think much of that wife of yours. Can I ask something else deeply personal? Just tell me if it’s none of my business.”

“Of course!”

“Do you and Amy still have sex?”

“No. Not anymore. She hasn’t wanted to in a long time. Every once in a while, she’ll want me to just go down on her. She really likes that. But, she doesn’t want to be intimate in any other way.”

“Does that bother you?”

“It used to, a little, maybe. I realized pretty early on what I signed up for. We’ve talked about separating, but we always come back to agreeing to make it work, for the kids. And, work it is. Her focus isn’t on building deep relationships, it’s on everything, the mostly superficial things, going on around her.”

“That makes me sad. She has no idea what she’s missing.”

“Now, here’s a thought that I had. I keep coming back to that whole inner life thing. It’s a precious thing, it really is, that inner life. In so many ways, over the last eleven years, I’ve just retreated farther into my own head. It’s not a conscious walling her out, it’s just that she has absolutely no interest in being there. I don’t fault her for it. It’s just the way things are. And then comes Anna, and she’s so goddamn much like me—nervy, dramatic, over-the top, quirky…And you know, I tell her an ongoing bedtime story. We read our book story, and then we co-create another story, one that’s all our own.”

“Anna sounds beautiful, precious…What’s your story?”

“There have been a couple. Right now, it’s the story of two girls Anna’s age, and how they find a pet store that sells dragons, unicorns, etc. We make it up as we go along. There have been so many. Part fantasy, part reality. Right now, the girls are on a trip to South America to track down rare and exotic animals for the pet store owner.”

“That’s wonderful! Please say you’re writing this down!”

“I am going somewhere with this. Point being, Anna just eats this shit up. You know, she cares. And she engages on a level that my wife just doesn’t. And she draws pictures of the settings and all the characters we create.”

“That’s magnificent! You are giving that child a truly remarkable gift. No doubt…she will be such an interesting person, too, out in the universe.”

“But, at the same time, she is my child. And one cannot become dependent upon a child, or project our own needs on to them. That is far too great a burden for a child to carry. At the end of the day, I’m not her pal, I’m Dad, the same son of a bitch who tells her to finish the damn broccoli, brush her teeth, and finish her homework. One must respect the boundaries of duty, of course.”

When it came to parenting…Jonah “got” me to the core. And, it scared me to the core.

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