Monthly Archives: March 2009

The Lone Wolf


Notice how, in the 3 or so mass murder stories on any given day, the neighbors describe the suspect as “a nice guy…kept to himself,” while the co-workers/classmates say,”an odd duck…kept to himself”? These days, of course, mass-murder/suicide has become an equal-opportunity endeavor, although many of the women who do it live in sandy countries, and conceal their weapons under modest, flowing garments.

Are loners born or created? For that matter, are they all destined to commit mass murder? Of course not; but–through a combination of nature, nurture, and proximate events–they seem to be more prone to this homicidal/suicidal urge, than those living securely within the pale of a reference group. Object relations theory posits that each of us faces a Hobson’s choice between two fearful situations: engulfment [being “swallowed up” by another person or by the group], or abandonment [being cast out, to fend for ourselves in the cold, cruel world]. So, what’ll it be–the intrusion of others’ agenda, not to mention their less-than-fresh bodies, into your personal space; or the humiliation, pain & suffering, and fear of being ejected from the group? Most of us reluctantly opt for belonging to some reference group [which is the plot of Freud’s book, Civilization and Its Discontents]. These days, we’ve all seen enough nature shows to know that a shunned animal’s odds of survival are not great. Actuarial statistics show the same odds for humans. Married people, or those living in close extended family groups, live longer than those who live alone. So who opts out, and why?

Interpersonal theorists [such as Searles & Sullivan] believe that first love in adolescence can be a major factor in determining who feels “connected” to others in the long run. If the first time you “lay your cards on the table,” the other party abruptly quits the game [even for some random, external reason, like their family is moving away, or you’re a Montague and they’re a Capulet], you may conclude that they saw something sinister in your cards–that they ran away in horror from you. That you are, in fact, unworthy of love. Shakespeare’s Richard III sums it up succinctly in his opening soliloquy: if I’m too hideous to be accepted as a lover, then I’ll become a villain instead.

Life hands people all sorts of reasons to feel unworthy of love, many of them random and trivial. Color of eyes, hair, skin. Tribal affiliation. Socio-economic status. Marital status of parents. To use an animal analogy, Lili was the only pup in a litter of 10–bred of two AKC champions–to express the recessive gene for long hair, which makes her out-of-standards for “beauty pageant” showing. I don’t know how her dam or her litter-mates treated her; but the human owners of the sire, from whom we bought Lili at 4 months, definitely shunned her. While the daddy dog lolled around inside their house [the “within-standards” puppies having been sold, and the mom dog having long since flown back to her West Coast owners], Lili was in solitary confinement in an outdoor kennel. People who see her unconventional conformation ask, “Was she a rescue?” Yeah, a $600 one. Good thing, as Cesar Millan says, dogs live in the now–not where they were born & weaned.

Human outcasts can kid themselves, like Richard III, that they are not people who need people. However, they are more vulnerable to the predations of recruiters for cults and fringe outfits, than those who are lucky enough to have had their N Aff [Murray’s term for the need for group affiliation] met. In my Wild Side post I spoke of avoiding “aggressive assault,” which may have seemed redundant; but there can also be an assault of “in-your-face-affirmation”–referred to by those who study cult dynamics as “love bombing.” Celebrities get this all the time; but air travelers in the 60s & 70s will remember having been “love-bombed” by saffron-robed, finger-cymbal-playing folk; and all of us have been “lovingly” solicited by prosyletizers at the door and cold-callers on the phone. If we already enjoy affirmation from others, we are less susceptible to the “Join us…consider yourself well in…when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way” spiel, than those whose N Aff has not been met.

If the cult (or website) that the Lone Wolf becomes ensnaired in offers a plausible argument for the acting out of pent-up rage, then the Symbionese Liberation Army gains another soldier [Google it, youngsters], and the rest of us had better stay alert.

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Filed under Freud meant..., object relations theory, reference group, sharks and jets, suicide and murder

Find Your Own Funny Bone


The life you save may be your own. Each of us has a unique sense of humor, although it overlaps with others’ on a Venn diagram of “What’s so funny?” My Occam’s Razor of jokes (biggest laugh for the fewest words) seems to depend on a love of horses and of watering-hole (as opposed to lavatorial) humor: “Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, ‘Why the long face?'” No? Quod erat demonstrandum.

But you do have a favorite joke; and if you don’t, you are advised to get one–in fact, to lay in a large supply of them (along with the water, canned goods and flashlights that FEMA wants you to cache). Finding the funny in a rotten situation is the most universal form of sublimation (which is the highest order of ego defense, don’t you know). My Dad’s tiny G.I. edition of Max Shulman’s comic novel Barefoot Boy With Cheek was credited with saving lives in the Pacific Fleet during WW II, since it was memorized and recited verbatim among the watchstanders, keeping them awake and relieving both boredom & fear, through laughter.

An inside joke is a powerful defense against an adversary’s attempt to make a person feel like a victim. Remember the tune the PoWs whistled all through The Bridge on the River Kwai? It’s called “The Colonel Bogey March,” dating from WW I, to which Britons during the Blitz had made up rude lyrics concerning the genitalia of Hitler and his henchmen. Not even everyone in the movie audience was in on the joke, as the men whistled their defiance to their Axis captors. It makes the film much funnier, if you know the “secret code,” which, of course, all the actors did, sometimes making it hard for them to “put their lips together and blow.”

When the code is so secret that only one person knows it, that speaker (or whistler) is often dismissed as “just crazy”; but my psycholinguistic studies of the speech of schizophrenics and those with dementia, suggest that the person may be “crazy like a fox“–a New York figure of speech, meaning that there is method in his/her madness. Roman Jakobsen (there will be a quiz later, so take notes) divides all human utterances into six speech functions. You can give (or request) factual information [Referential speech]. You can clarify what you meant to say [Metalingual]. You can express strong emotion [Emotive]! You can give orders (even to yourself) [Conative]. So far, so boring, yeah? Here comes the good stuff. In order to make sure that the other party is listening to you, you must engage in a certain amount of Phatic speech, “You know? Well, let’s see. No kiddin’? Uh…” Wanna know which diagnostic category of people use the Phatic speech function least? Paranoid schizophrenics. Never underestimate the value of “Uh…”

The final speech function is the basis of all humor: Poetic speech. We use it when we believe that to give “just the facts” will get us killed (or at least, in alot of trouble). So we put it in code. We sing it, or say it in a put-on voice or accent, or exaggerate, or say the exact opposite of what we mean, or (if we are really dorky) use “air quotes.” If our intended audience doesn’t “lol,” we say, “No, but seriously…” and develop flop sweat. Often, but not always, the hidden message inside the bottle of Poetic speech is “I am so f&#king ANGRY!” When our audience gets the message and laughs with us, we all neutralize some of our rage: release endorphins, fight the build-up of cortisol, and avoid turning into werewolves.

So, how does Lili the dog come into this treatise on humor as an antidote to anger? Dogs are court jesters, for whom human laughter is a powerful reinforcement of whatever behavior they just did. Our dog trainer was constantly rebuking dog owners in our class, who giggled nervously when their dog committed a transgression, “Don’t laugh! You’ll only reinforce the behavior you’re trying to curb!” When the dog does something permissible but funny, we can laugh to our heart’s content. (We can also watch dogs on YouTube, where they can’t hear us laughing at them.)

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Filed under comic relief, phatic communication, pragmatics, secret code

Take a Walk on the Wild Side


Just back from our (almost) daily trek on the high school’s Cross-Country course through the local woods, to teach Lili who’s pack leader. A rough start, as we passed by the fenced-in Girls’ Lacrosse field, and someone’s bored little brother rattled his sabre (well, Lacrosse stick) at Lili, dragging it along the chain-link like a film noir rabble-rouser, and roused her. A 2-second burst of Japanese “redirection” on my part brought her to heel, and we were off into the forest. On the path back out we encountered a couple with two barking Dachshunds and a Lab, so I leashed Lili up and we passed by without any display of aggression (not one raised hackle) on Lili’s part, while the guy shouted to the yapping dog in his arms, “Oh, just shut up, Lily!” (What are the odds?)

During my 6 enchanted years living in Manhattan–one in the Village, 5 on the Upper West Side–similar power negotiations played out several times a day, mostly involving two-legged parties (although a very cool Sociology prof at Columbia sometimes walked his two pet wolves, Romulus & Remus, down Broadway). I loved Lou Reed’s ode to the more colorful performance artists among us. The Sugarplum Fairy was sometimes spotted roller-skating in and out of the deli on 72nd Street (before [s]he made it big at the Apollo). Countless trips on the not-so-velvet-underground from grad school Uptown, to the VA hospital on East 23rd Street, to acting school in Midtown, and back home after midnight, gave me The Knowledge (a cognitive map) of the city, as well as priceless insights into how to avoid (or lessen the odds of) becoming the target of aggressive assault by strangers. My acting school girlfriends & I would swap stories and tips for how to project the most useful power subtext in confrontations with dodgy dudes in tight places: “I am not your enemy, but I am not your victim.”

Common street hassle of the day: “Gimme a cigarette!” [His power subtext: “Are you my victim?”] Savvy response: “You know, I don’t smoke, and neither should you. I can give you the name of a great stop-smoking clinic. Would you be interested in that?” [Your power subtext: “Not your victim, not your enemy. My amygdala is not aroused by your sabre rattling, so my hippocampus can make up as much of this do-gooder spiel as it takes to bore you, until you lose interest in me as a mark, and move on.”] The preparation my friends & I did for such verbal skirmishes included telling each other what “got up our nose(s)” about street hasslers: intrusion and/or fear. After awhile, we reckoned that our power subtext was so “I am not threatened by you,” that even to be auditioned for the victim role was a source of humiliation.

In the playing field, Lili let the little boy “drive her wild.” So I reined her in (verbally) and we did an hour of close-order drill on our walk through the woods. [My subtext: “I am your master. I trump your amygdala. Unless I give you the attack word, stay cool.” The payoff came when we encountered the three canine street hasslers on the path, and Lili, following my lead, just walked on by.

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Filed under gets right up my nose, leading a pack, limbic system, secret code, semiotics

Hayfever

When our younger daughter went out to Southern California for college, she and her East Coast classmates learned to check the daily UV-ray Index like a horoscope, and to plan their sun exposure accordingly. Back here, many consult the daily Pollen Count, to predict how much Kleenex (or antihistamine) will be needed. Likewise, using the “What’s likely to get up my nose today?” model of Anger Management, it often pays to be forewarned.

Having lived in the D.C. area several times in my life, I have come to expect that driving the Capital Beltway will provoke my anger. Obviously, I know I’m not unique in this. Just observe your fellow motorists on any badly-engineered, heavily-traveled road, and you will sense barely-controlled rage. But the irritant is not the same for every driver. For some it is the intrusion of all the other cars clogging up the artery–“Is your journey really necessary?” For others it is the humiliation of being cut off by that Beemer-driver-with-a-sense-of-entitlement. Some are enduring the pain & suffering of having skipped that pre-journey trip to the bathroom. For me, I came to realize, it was fear. Not the most confident driver, myself, I imagined the Beltway as a nightmarish rink of Bumper Cars, with everyone hellbent on bending fenders. With my amygdala in alarm mode, I would ping among the “F-triad” of not-so-great responses (flee, fight, or freeze). It’s a wonder I never had a Beltway accident, isn’t it?

So, now, armed with insight and foresight, just as I approach the ramp to the ringroad, I say (out loud, so my whole brain can hear me), “Fear!” This gets the wolf in my head to quit howling, thus enabling my pre-frontal cortex to inhibit sudden braking or swerving, and my hippocampus to reality-test about just how homicidal/suicidal my fellow motorists seem to be. (Usually, not very. Not since they caught the Beltway snipers.) I also play raucus rock music, to which I sing along, thus allowing a harmless discharge of excess adrenaline. That’s how the model works.

So, next time you’re facing a heinous car journey, try asking yourself, “What could possibly get up my nose?” It might be any one–or a combination– of the Big Four irritants; but by calling them out, you could keep the wolf from howling (amygdalar arousal) and the werewolf from prowling (going ballistic with road rage).

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Filed under aggression happens, gets right up my nose, limbic system

Something’s Up Your Nose…So What?


Lili’s vet referred us to the other kind of Vet, a former Marine, who trains dogs using Japanese, because it becomes the secret code between dog & owner, avoiding that Robert De Niro, head-tilting, “Are you talkin’ to me?” beat between command & response. Like the dog trainer icons on TV, our guy teaches that owners must become the Leader of the (Wolf) Pack, always “walking point” or “taking the con,” in situations where a dog may sense a power vacuum and decide to make a command decision, as to who may or may not pass without a hassle. The dog owner must get the dog to understand, “I’m in charge here. If I say ‘friend,’ don’t you act out ‘foe.'” But constant vigilance is exhausting, so would-be pack leaders adopt labor-saving tactics. The first: Let sleeping dogs lie. The second: Watch for signs of arousal, and prepare to react. Lili’s long, fine back hair stands up like a porcupine’s spines when she is aroused, cuing her designated pack leader to take charge and either permit or disallow a display of aggression.

The parallel response sequence for humans is, first, to acknowledge aggressive arousal. Next, to identify its source; and then to decide whether the situation merits an aggressive response. New fMRI research shows that when the brain’s alarm center (amygdala) is “lit up,” it prevents blood flow to the problem-solving & memory center (hippocampus) and to the “look-before-you-leap” center (pre-frontal cortex). Just by naming the irritant (“Fear!” or “Intrusion!”), the flow of blood can be changed, to help a human to avoid a reflexive acting out of anger and to start working out an alternative response. In other words, we humans would do well to ackowledge our “inner wolf,” to get savvy about the warning signs of its arousal, and then to engage in the parlor game of “What just got up my nose?”

The alternative is to become a werewolf: to be overtaken by unacknowledged (therefore alien-seeming) aggressive impulses, to act them out impulsively, and later to protest, “I don’t know what got into me! That (antisocial behavior) is just not who I am! I’m a better person than that!”

Oh, really? I suggest spending more time observing what stirs up the neighborhood dogs, and less time rejoicing in humans’ degrees of genetic separation from them.

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Filed under aggression happens, gets right up my nose, leading a pack, secret code

"What’s she like, eh?"


Growing up as a Navy kid, always just passing through, obliged to travel light, I took to collecting figures of speech–especially animal metaphors–along with my menagerie of stuffed animals. England in the early ’60s was a particularly rich hunting ground: “Get them, swanning about!” “Don’t try to weasel out of it!” “Listen to me, rabbiting on!” “He just wolfed down his dinner!” “She just catted up on the pavement!” I could go on like this till the cows come home…

Back in the States, in collegiate Animal Houses, young people were busy horsing around, pigging out, or bird-dogging another’s girlfriend (thereby qualifying as a snake-in-the-grass). These examples are all negative attributions, whose underlying belief is that a human’s “best behavior” should be angelic, rather than beastly. The field of Ethology begs to differ, finding ever more examples of animals behaving in ways heretofore believed to be uniquely human. Many species demonstrate altruism for vulnerable members of their “reference group”; and recent studies have confirmed dogs’ intolerance for favoritism, and primates’ capacity for premeditated stone-throwing.

It is my view, after more than three decades of clinical practice, that humans deny their “animal” urges at their own peril–especially their urges towards aggressive (antisocial) behavior. Ever since the publication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the notion of a wolf-man has become a common metaphor for a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing hypocrite, whose conscious persona is self-righteous, but whose unconscious antisocial behavior is acted out–when the moon is full, or the keg is empty. “Who knew?” the shocked neighbors of the homicidal maniac du jour are inevitably quoted in the media. “He/she seemed so nice.”

In several clinical settings, civilian and military, I have been the designated “Wizard” (a Marine Corps term), to whom hapless individuals, who have violated their own (or society’s) code of conduct are sent for Anger Management counseling. I began with a current theoretical model that holds that anger is a secondary emotion, arising in response to a primary irritant–most often either humiliation or fear. To use a Cockney idiom, something you do “Gets right up my nose!” My animal metaphor for this was our purebred but long-haired German Shepherd, Lili–the runt of a litter ten–who was oh so meek and mild at 4 months, but by 6 months showed signs of what dog trainers call “fear aggression.” As my “Angry Young Men” [not all young, not all men] Group pointed out, humiliation and fear aren’t the only irritants. There is (the tort lawyer’s bread & butter) pain & suffering; and there is (Lili’s pet peeve) intrusion. She’s tall, dark & shaggy–occasionally mistaken for a wolf–fearing only the vet. What gets right up her nose is the intrusion of other dogs and/or delivery vans into “her” territory.

[To be continued in the next post…]

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Filed under aggression happens, ethology, jekyll and hyde