Monthly Archives: May 2009

You Bet Your Life


One summer day in Manhattan, young Dick Cavett saw Groucho Marx walking down the street, and overcame his shyness for long enough to blurt out, “Mr. Marx, I’m a big fan!” Without skipping a beat [according to Cavett, whose anecdote this is], Groucho replied, “On a day like this, I could use a big fan.” Well, I’m a big fan of Groucho’s, too. Hands up, if you ever saw an original broadcast [not some archival retrospective] of his iconic quiz show, “You Bet Your Life.” The least important aspect of the show was the actual quiz. It was all about Groucho’s gift for ad libs [many of which had to be edited out before broadcast] and the challenge to the contestants, “Say the secret ‘woid’ and win $100.” A stuffed duck with specs, mustache, and cigar [the forerunner of the Vlasic pickle stork] would drop down on a wire, to show the audience the random word whose utterance would earn far more than correct answers on the quiz. How like life, eh?

Well, the other word [besides the “penalty box” command] that our dog trainer had us choose for ourselves, was the “attack” command. It had to be–as opposed to Groucho’s secret word–unlikely to come up in normal conversation [and so inadvertantly “loose the dog of war”]. He suggested, therefore, that it be foreign. Each of us had to come up with something unique for our own dog, lest we launch the whole pack, while learning to use the command in class. You can just imagine, can’t you? “Bonzai!” “Tora! Tora! Tora!” Ours is the Japanese for “evil.” [You could look it up.]

Like learning to use any weapon responsibly, this training was both technical and philosophical. I was appalled by the insouciant tone of the Drivers’ Ed our two kids received [one in Michigan, one in Maryland], compared to the lugubrious, required-course-in-high-school that my sister and I took in the 60s, where each class began with the call & response: “When you are driving a car, you are in charge of…” “A Lethal Weapon.” I felt compelled to invoke this reality check every time my kids took the wheel…still want to. Well, when we are out with Lili, we are…in charge of a Dangerous [if not Lethal] Weapon. We well and truly must “acknowledge our wolf,” if we are to keep everyone safe. As our trainer points out, dark dogs are usually perceived as male and more vicious than light-colored dogs. [Especially pointy-eared dogs, compared to Lab types.] This puts out a provocative subtext, which the dark-dog-owner must “own” and learn to manage, whatever the “truth” of the matter is.

Now, here’s the ironic thing about Lili. During Agitation Classes [where you learn to deploy the “attack” command] she was a Paper Tiger. The linebacker dude in the padded suit with the canvas “bite me” sleeve would mock-assault me, and Lili would either look away or try to hide behind me. Away from me–just dog-and-dude–her attack response was [eventually] evoked, and then paired with her secret word. She is no Stoic, our Lili. She would not come to the defense of the defenseless, unless she personally felt threatened. In this respect, her nature is all too human.

Lili is not my bodyguard [never thought I needed one, anyway]; but she is my character guide. As a recovering Paper Tiger, myself [“all bark and no bite,” as my husband has been known to describe me], I continue to challenge my hair-trigger amygdala, to see if my alarm in any given situation is exaggerated, or justified. Would I cry “Havoc!” and use aggressive means to defend myself or my family from a Very Bad Person, if all other options had failed? You bet your life.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under aggression happens, lesser of two evils, secret code

Albert Ellis Knew, Too


I promise, we’ll get to the permissible aggression–just not yet. First, we should exhaust [or at least explore] all alternative responses. Albert Ellis, who died on 24 July 2007 at the age of 93, was annoying as hell. Ask anyone who knew him, including the woman he lived with for 37 years, Janet Wolfe. Because he was a graduate of our program @ Columbia, he used to drop by and try to incite us to fury, mostly succeeding. Even so, I feel lucky to have sat in his presence. He is known as the father of Rational-Emotive Therapy, which [I now realize, having come to Epictetus via Tom Wolfe] is based almost entirely on Stoic philosophy. I shall paraphrase him closely [but you must imagination his whiny, nasal voice]: “We talk to ourselves in short, declarative sentences. We say, ‘I am a cat in a sack; and that is awful!’ That is not awful–it is only highly inconvenient.

As it happens, we were weighing Zanzibar, to calculate his proper dosage of flea & tick meds. He wasn’t in the sack 30 seconds. Also, despite the expression on his face in this picture, out of the 16 cats I have owned, he is the most laid-back, seemingly oblivious to the notion of humiliation. When Napster’s turn in the “sack-scale” came, he was, as usual, overcome with fear. Ruth–the 19-year-old, 5-pound Maine Coon–was soaking up BTUs under one of our few remaining incandescent lights; and because her weight has remained constant for almost two decades, she was spared the intrusion into her nap time. Now, be honest with yourself. Do you enjoy public weigh-ins? What gets up your nose about them? Realistically, only jockeys, pugillists and military personnel are likely to face the pain & suffering of job loss, in connection with avoirdupois. Let’s say your doctor hectors you, “If you don’t lose some weight, you’re going to die!” You can reply with the words of Epictetus: “When did I ever say I was immortal?” So good old Dr. Ellis would have you reason with your aroused amygdala, in the face of an impending weigh-in, “I may have put on a couple pounds; but that is not awful. It is only highly inconvenient.” Thus, you should experience less anger, dump less cortisol, and spare your body additional adipose deposits. [I must say, Albert was a trim fellow.]

As with this trivial example, so with much of life: the Stoics and their modern descendants, the Cognitive-Behavioral Theorists, would have us believe that the acting out of aggressive impulses can–and should–be avoided in most instances. We cannot control other people’s actions; but we can strive to control our own emotional reactions to them. My favorite adjunct professor would ask rhetorically, after making a seemingly absolute pronouncement, “Always?” and then answer his own question, either “Always,” or “Not always.” So, Epictetus, Tom Wolfe, and I would answer, as to whether we should always maintain our equanimity, “Not always.”

Oh, yay! We sometimes get to resort to violence! [“Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.”] When? Epictetus offers one specific circumstance: one must never “ignore cries for help from a friend under assault from robbers.” Less specifically, he opines, “Just as a target is not set up in order to be missed, so evil is no natural part of the world’s design.” Hmm. That seems to cover alot of territory. Since we’re supposed to love and accept the “Natural,” but hate the “Unnatural,” anything any one of us finds “unnatural” could be considered “evil”; and we’re allowed to oppose it, with violence, if necessary. This is where Cows, Pigs, Wars & Witches would point out to our ancient Greco-Roman philosopher, that what is “unnatural” is largely a matter of geography. There is–and has been, since way before Epictetus was teaching–a variance in climates, native flora & fauna, and resulting folkways, that inform one’s beliefs as to what is “natural” and “unnatural.” We can’t all be Mediterraneans, ya know.

So, alas, we are back to “When in Rome, do as the Romans…unless you are Greek, and despise the Romans…” This is where ethologists point out, we evolved with an amygdala for a reason–to help us [and those within our reference group] survive. Sometimes, the amygdala is not simply “barking mad”–to be overruled by reason, cognitive reframing and Stoicism. Sometimes, the right thing to do is cry “Havoc!”

Leave a comment

Filed under body image, Epictetus said..., pro bono publico, reference group, stress and cortisol

Tom Wolfe Knows


Yeah, we all know Tom Wolfe can do social satire; but until I read A Man in Full I didn’t know he could do chilling urban anthropology [Note to Self: Try not to go to jail in Alameda County.], Stoic philosophy, and more compelling redemptive narrative than Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment. I shall quote from the chapter, “Epictetus Comes to Da House.” Our hapless hero, Conrad [picture Steve Buscemi], through a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, finds himself locked up in the Santa Rita pokey [in all senses of the word], clueless how to survive. N Aff [see “The Lone Wolf” post] is the only code of conduct, and Conrad can’t find a reference group. He gets the “wrong” book sent to him–The Stoics instead of The Stoics’ Game–but discovers that Epictetus [an ancient Greek, sold into Roman slavery by his parents, who when freed became a philosopher] knows a thing or two about enduring unfair captivity. When Conrad is cornered by a Very Bad Man whose aggressive subtext is clear, he channels the wisdom of Epictetus [who says we all must die of something, sometime, but we can try to do it with our character intact]. To his own chagrin, Conrad slips into the idiom of an “Oakland homey,” [when in Rome, and all…] and tells the bully, “Hey, brother, look! You a number in here, and I’m a number in here…see…and I ain’t tryin’a disrespectchoo none…I ain’t tryin’a sweatchoo none, play you none, dog you none, or get over on you none…so ain’ no cause for nobody be playin’ me or doggin’ me or runnin’ a game on me, neither.” To find out what happens next, buy the book.

Let’s notice how much Phatic speech Conrad uses. Always a good idea, when addressing strangers, or those acting strange. A young boy’s Phatic communication once saved my life in Boston. I was on the escalator at the Back Bay train station, wearing a long, flowing muffler, when I heard the cryptic words: “Goy Lee! Goy Lee! Ya skaaf! Ya skaaf!” I deciphered this as: “Girlie! Girlie! Your scarf! Your scarf!” I then realized that I was the “Girlie,” about to do an Isadora Duncan [choke myself by getting my muffler caught in the machinery]. I yanked the flowing tail up, and shouted back, “Oh, yeah, t’anks a million, dere!” [When in Boston, and all…] If he had just yelled, “Ya skaaf! Ya skaaf!” I’da been none da wiser, an’ needin’ a wake, surely.

Also notice that Conrad is putting out the “subway subtext” [see the “Walk on the Wild Side” post]: “I am not your victim, but I am not your enemy.” Who knew, when my acting friends and I were busy devising this cool-as-a-cucumber response, that Epictetus had been there and done that 2000 years before us?

As valuable as witty ripostes and/or Stoic replies are, in the face of aggressive provocations, they do not always serve. There are, sadly, times–in my opinion and even that of Epictetus–that the appropriate response to aggression is aggression.

That’s for another post.

Leave a comment

Filed under aggression happens, Epictetus said..., phatic communication, reference group

Through a Glass, Darkly


This Biblical allusion dates from a time when glass was so cloudy that it obscured, rather than clarified, an image seen through it. It is a good metaphor for the value of the Metalingual speech function [as in, “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”]. In the “Dog Eat Dog” post, I presumed to “know” what the guy in the elevator really was talking about [which I called his “subtext,” like the English translation at the bottom of an Ingmar Bergmann film]. It was just my guess, based on his “semiotics” [words, voice inflection, facial expressions and body language]. Figuring out what the other guy is actually trying to say is not rocket science–in fact some rocket scientists can’t do it very well at all. The Austrian whose name is now associated with the “syndrome” of the interpersonally challenged [Asperger], called it “Severe Engineer’s Brain.”

Dogs [also cats, children, and “clairvoyants”] are naturals at discerning the other guy’s subtext. The less fluent you are in the speaker’s language, the more you pick up on other clues about the message. As a born quidnunc [literally, Latin for “What now?”]–known in other cultures as a Busybody, Nosey Parker, or yente–I have always loved to listen in on fellow travelers’ conversations on public transport, as if trying to figure out the backstory of a movie already in progress, with extra points for “foreign language films.” It has helped in my work with Paranoid Schizophrenics, who [dedicated readers will recall] use lots of Poetic speech, in order to make themselves obscure.

The way you “know” you have successfully “cracked the code” of a schizophrenic’s obscure utterance, is to humbly [I try to channel Capt. Columbo, “Jeez, I’m just guessing here, but…”] offer a possible “translation” of their cryptic remark. If you’re wrong, they smile enigmatically; but if you’re right, stand by for mayhem. [I learned the hard way, to be closer to the door than my interlocutor, when “going for the whole phrase, Monty (or was it Vanna?).”] There’s nothing a schizophrenic likes less than a clairvoyant, lemme tell ya. I put “know” in quotation marks, because no earthly soul can know for sure what another one really means–sometimes, not even the speaker.

So, how does it work with less obscure speakers, in everyday life? One option, which I took with the guy in the elevator, was to assume I caught what he was pitching, and respond to his [presumed] subtext, by replying [in my subtext], “Exercise is a non-zero-sum game, pally. Lighten up.” If I didn’t want to guess at his meaning, I could deploy my favorite Michigan response: “What’s yer point?” [Unfortunately, the subtext of that remark is almost always hostile, so it’s not great for elevator conversations.]

Whatever you would have said [including nowt], it is a skill worth practicing, to become a quick subtext reader and “writer.” As we all know by now, I tend to favor the comic retort; but other options work just as well. To be continued in the next post…

Leave a comment

Filed under pragmatics, secret code, semiotics

Dog Eat Dog


Lili is “on vacation” this week, chillaxing at the Ashram while we visit our “other” daughters in Chicago and SoCal. She’ll be back next week. Meanwhile, meet Napster and Zanzibar, both rescue cats–as different as night & day, in nature and life experience. Napster came to us as a kitten 9 years ago, joining two old biddie female cats, and immediately assumed the omega position in the “pack.” [He’s a ‘fraidy cat.] Six years later, after the passing of one of the old cats, young Zanzibar came out of the West, fresh from a gig in Chino, California–charismatic, affable, and totally alpha.

Our topic today is zero-sum-gaming: the perception that all endeavors in life–not just hockey and beauty pageants–yield one winner [and a bunch of losers]. The amygdala is a big player here, ever on the alert for the Big Four threats to our sense of well-being. Let’s visit the luxurious Fitness Center at the Drake Hotel at dawn, shall we? Spoiled by two decades of in-home exercise equipment, where the dress code is casual [no threat of humiliation] and long-established family schedules assure no waiting [intrusion] for one’s machine of choice, when staying at a hotel I always try to beat the crowd by being the early bird. So, at 0-dark-hundred I am alone, halfway through my usual routine, grooving to an eclectic [some would say eccentric] set of songs on my iPod, eyes shut, when I sense the body heat of another, on the nearest elliptical [there being no less than 7 others he could have chosen]. I have no fear, except for his welfare, given the audible signs of his pain & suffering. [Will I have to administer CPR?] I try to imagine his motives in choosing that particular machine. [“Of all the ginjoints in all the world…”] Need for affiliation? For affection? For affirmation? As I finish, so does he, whistling his way into the elevator, then remarking, “That’s not even half of what I usually do. I had a late night. I’ll come back this afternoon and do a real workout.” Of course! It is a zero-sum game! Although I am probably 20 years his senior–and female–I am the only game in town; and he is playing to win. So, trying for the unilateral disarmament [“Why can’t we all just get along?”] option, I reply, “Hey! At least you showed up and showed willing. We are both to be commended for our efforts, at this early hour, don’t you think?” [No, he does not.] “I’ll do better this afternoon,” says he. [Subtext: I’m guessing he does not mean “better than I did this morning,” he means “better than you.”]

This time, I was amused; but how many times a day do I–do you–engage in equally petty zero-sum-gamesmanship? Everything can become a contest: “I am a nicer person than you.” “Oh, yeah? Well, I am more aware of my inner wolf than you.” What contests of “wonderfulness” do you enter, on a regular basis? [We can’t all be Miss Congeniality.] I’m not saying, don’t enter. Just notice that you’re in, and ask yourself, “What do I win, if I win?”

Zanzibar has been a tonic for Napster. They happily play-fight all the time, and sometimes double-team old Ruth, who is pushing 20, and not amused. However, they must be fed in separate rooms, or Zanzibar would leave the other two starving. He is also Lili’s best friend, licking her ears when she is asleep and allowing himself to be herded when she is awake. They seem to have devised a fragile non-aggression pact. If a cat and a dog can do it, folks, can’t we?

1 Comment

Filed under pro bono publico, semiotics, zero-sum-gaming

"Hearthrug!"


Jus’ like ol’ Rhymin’ Simon says, “Detroit, Detroit got a hell of a hockey team.” In honor of whom, today’s post will use a sports metaphor. Our dog trainer left two commands to the discretion of the dog owner. The first, today’s topic, was to be in English [not Japanese], so that visitors to one’s home could easily use it [without consulting the cue card of Japanese commands we hand all who enter here]. We were to designate an area in the home as the Penalty Box, to which the dog would be sent, briefly, for incidents of “unnecessary roughness” [to borrow a sports term]. No G-water would be served there, however. In our household, typical infractions include: too vigorous herding of our 3 cats, too emphatic barking at intruding neighborhood dogs on our property, and–most egregiously–challenging guests who have been designated by the Management as “Welcome.” A second guest-challenge results in being tethered, by a longish leash, to the hearthrug area, and commanded to “Fuse” [pronounced Foo-say, lie down]; and a third challenge results in being sent off to the “locker room” [her downstairs dogroom, which is larger and more comfortably furnished than either of my kids’ college dorm rooms].

The hockey metaphor is apt, because no one in this household is kidding themselves that Lili subscribes to a policy of absolute non-violence. There is presumed in hockey to be a certain degree of “necessary roughness” [euphemized as “checking”] that is part of the game. I grew up hearing droll Midshipmen at Dahlgren Hall hockey matches chant, “Impede him! Impede him! Make him relinquish the puck!” Likewise, another old chestnut from Coronation Street is “Why keep a dog and bark, yourself?” The English telly dog trainer, Victoria Stillwell, advises that when one’s dog first barks to announce the approach to one’s home of a non-resident, one should say “Thank you!” [in our case, “Arigato!”], since that is what dogs were bred to do. Only if the dog carries on barking after being thanked, should s/he be corrected.

Let us apply this principle to the barking dog in our head [the amygdala]. It was “bred” to warn us of potential danger. [It’s just trying to keep us alive. Give it a break, already…and maybe some G-water.] Upon first noticing our hackles rise, we should be grateful. It means we’re alive and taking notice of our surroundings. Now, let’s assess the threat: pain & suffering, or just fear, or an annoying intrusion, or our old nemesis, humiliation? At this point, the barking dog should “belt up,” so we can start dealing with the situation.

But, what if it doesn’t “belt up”? What if it winds itself up into a frenzy of over-the-top, adrenaline-fuelled fury? Well, then, we need our own personal command to send it to the Penalty Box. [Coincidentally, in Cognitive Therapy, this is often called “Thought Checking.”] Here’s where the Emotive Speech Function can help. Back in the day, well-brought-up English boys were trained to say “Rats!” [as opposed to an actual oscenity or profanity], whereas girls were encouraged to say “Crumbs!” These quaint bowdlerisms are fun to collect: “Crikey!” “Gor blimey!” “Gordon Bennet!” Whatever the outcry, the meaning–to others and to oneself–is clear: “rush of blood to the head” [amygdala]…”am about to flee, fight, or freeze”…”need to chill.” Interestingly, although being told by another person to “chill” or “relax” [melded these days into “chillax”], only increases one’s sense of humiliation, telling oneself “You must chill!” is often just the ticket, to drain the adrenaline, stop flailing around, and start dealing.

Personally, these days I tell myself “Hearthrug!” [Incidentally, I have never had G-water. It might be vile. I just notice it’s what the Red Wings drink, while chillaxing in the Penalty Box.]

Leave a comment

Filed under aggression happens, leading a pack, limbic system, pragmatics

"Yoshi!"


In high school we put on a Sigmund Romberg operetta which included a cynical little ditty about Being Good: “Always do what people say you should. You never can be happy, child, unless you’re good. I did what I was told. I was as good as gold. And I know I shall be happy, cuz I am so good.” If sung sarcastically enough, it always brought the house down.

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I recommend Romberg to modern fMRI researchers on altruism. The most frequently cited study involves 19 graduate students [in good health], who voluntarily participated in a study in which a radio-active isotope was “introduced” into their bloodstream. They were given a starting “float” of $128 each, which they could opt to keep or to donate [some of] “anonymously” to various charitable causes. The headline finding of the study was that [gasp!] the same part of the brain lit up when a participant gave away money, as when they received it. I call “Sampling Error!” I would like to see this result replicated, using 19 [or 190] randomly selected people, from all walks of life, including, oh, for instance, the have-nots. I put it to you, that these volunteers were no more “a cross-section of humanity,” than the folks who answer the phones for a PBS pledge drive. It takes a certain level of altruism to agree to go radio-active, not to diagnose or treat a serious health problem of one’s own, but simply to “further theoretical knowledge about in-born altruism.” Don’t you think?

More to the point, these volunteers were all 20-Somethings, already “in the zone” for having an up-and-running Pre-frontal cortex, as well as millions of stored memories associating Being Good with Getting a Reward. Why does Lili shut open doors? Out of save-the-earth’s-resources Green-ness? To make herself feel like a [very specialized] service dog? I believe she does it because I took the time [10 minutes] to lay down neural pathways in her brain between the command “Shimaru,” her shutting the door, the praise word “Yoshi!” (Good job!), and a small ort of dried lamb lung. Now, she need only be intermittently reinforced with the morsel of food [or even just with praise] to keep the behavior in her repertoire. Mostly, we mark and reinforce all kinds of pro-social behavior, simply by telling her “Yoshi!” And, folks, she’s just a dog, not a graduate student.

I’m saying, I think the 19 so-frequently-cited subjects [just listen for it, next pledge week] were all sub-vocalizing their personalized version of Romberg’s “So Good” song, right up there in their cerebral cortex; and the reason their Reward Center lit up when they were Being Good was because of a conditioned response. Yikes! That makes me sound like a Behaviorist! [Which I’m not. Well, only on the weekends.]

This stuff matters, because the ugly step-sister of fMRI research on Being Good is research on what used to be called psychopaths, suggesting that there are neuro-anatomical [perhaps even genetic] differences in their brains, that predispose them to anti-social behavior. This is chillingly reminiscent of eugenics, if you ask me; and much of it is based on the same methodologically flawed research design as the 19 Altruists study.

I believe that experience is at least as important a determinant of behavior as DNA. If it isn’t, why even bother to lay down neural pathways rewarding Good Deeds? Why ever say “Yoshi”?

Leave a comment

Filed under murky research, pro bono publico