Monthly Archives: November 2009

Gratitude


No doubt, most gatherings of family, friends & invited strangers seated around the table on this Thanksgiving were given an opportunity to express their gratitude, either individually or collectively, either sincerely or flippantly [depending on the group demographics]. Whatever was identified as a cause for giving thanks, the very act of doing so [according to Martin Seligman and other mavens of Positive Psychology] did the “thanks-giver” good.

In fact, the more unfortunate and hard-done by an individual is feeling [like Lili on the Penalty Box Rug], the more beneficial it is, to “Accentuate the Positive” [as the lyrics of a Depression-era song advised]. Irony is almost unavoidable, and totally okay, in this exercise. Such as, in the genre of joke that ends “…unless you consider the alternative.” [Usually, being dead.] I wonder if there is, even now, a jolly japester fashioning zombie & vampire jokes in this vein…

As part of my dawn get-ready-to-face-the-day routine, while zoning out for 50 minutes of aerobic exercise [in the convenience & privacy of my basement, for which, I give thanks], my iPod playlist includes at least one tongue-in-cheek [but also sincere] “gratitude” song. For years, it has been a song off of The Holloways’ album, So This Is Great Britain? [“Generator”], the refrain of which is, “May I remind you that you don’t live in poverty? You got your youth, and you got food in your belly.” [Well, c’mon, folks, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad, nar’mean?] These days, it tends to be a song off of Paolo Nutini’s 2nd album, Sunnyside Up [“Pencil Full of Lead”], which is a Dixeland-meets-Gilbert & Sullivan-patter-song enumerating the things for which the diminutive Glaswegian son-of-a-fishmonger is grateful, featuring the chorus, “I’ve got food in my belly and a license for my telly.” I feel the BBC should be grateful that young Poalo makes the payment of Britain’s mandatory TV & radio license fee [of 139 pounds, 50 pence, Sterling] sound so fabuloso, with every refrain.

Beyond any metaphysical benefit daily gratitude bestows upon the thanks-giver, at the corporeal level, it blocks the production of cortisol and encourages the production of endorphins. I find it a helpful antidote to the 4 horsemen of what-gets-up-my-nose, on any given day. “It’s 5.15 in the bleedin’ morning, and you’re alive & able-bodied enough to be down here working up a sweat.” [There! Intrusion and pain & suffering neutralized, with one co-ordinate clause.] “While I’m busy here in “the bike room,” Lili is having a barkfest at Arnold, her neighboring German shepherd, thereby adding some joyful chaos to the morning.” [Boom! Intrusion and humiliation re-framed and diminished.]

I could go on, but you get the idea.

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Filed under Epictetus said..., limbic system, stress and cortisol

"In hindsight…"


I am somewhat reluctant to pick on her, maybe because of her team’s name, but today’s quotation in the NYTimes from a suddenly notorious college soccer player is exactly what I am on about, in this blog: “I look at it [the replay of her controversial, but mostly un-carded game] and I’m like, ‘That is not me.’ I have so much regret. I can’t believe I did that.”

Remember, way back in one of my earliest posts, I recounted the retrospective musings of two female college applicants, who had been caught doing the same antisocial deed. One made a sincere attempt to understand “what got into her,” to provoke her to violate her own [and society’s] code of conduct. The other simply offered the Werewolf Defense: in so many words, “I have no idea. That is not me.”

To which I would reply, were I speaking to either that long-ago applicant or to today’s Girl Gone Wild, “That is, potentially, all of us, kiddo. Especially if we are unwilling to ‘do the wolf-work’ of reviewing the regrettable event, until we come to understand what got into us [up our nose].” If you look up accounts of that fateful game, you will see several clues, as to what “got up the nose” of this young athlete. In one instance, which led to her most aggressive response, her opponent executed a crafty “crotch grab” [as one sports reporter terms it]. Let’s do the wolf-work, shall we? Ya got yer intrusion, possibly yer pain, and I would guess some humiliation goin’ on. Three precursors to anger, delivered in one, surreptitious movement, probably not visible to the ref. Maybe not even illegal, if seen. The point of this exercise in wolf-work is not to justify the player’s angry reaction, but to understand what prompted it. Not for you or me to understand it, sportsfans. For the suspended player to understand it, herself. So she doesn’t have to go through the rest of her life like a werewolf, crying “That is not me.”

How many of us find it totemic, that she was playing for the Lobos?

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Filed under aggression happens, gets right up my nose, jekyll and hyde

About a Bird


Readers of this blog might have the impression that my mother was only a featured player in our family variety show. That flamboyant Rosie was the star. Indeed, when he was present, he was usually the Top Banana; but he would be the first to declare that my mother was the Class Act.

In telling her story, I shall try to resist the cognitive distortions of Black & White [all or nothing] and catastrophic [“This is awful!”] thinking. But it will be hard. Myrna [Deal with it. She had to.] was a precocious pianist, who began concertizing in Ohio and Washington, DC, in her early teens. She won a national piano contest, the prize for which was a scholarship to The Juilliard School of Music [whence she graduated with a Bachelor of Science (!) degree in 1943]. You are given a main mentor there, and hers was James Friskin [a Bach maven]; but Alexander Siloti [Rachmaninoff’s cousin] also taught there during her Juilliard years.

Now, Mumsley [a silly name my sister & I gave her, about the time our English cat got saddled with Ying Tong] was an elfin little creature: 5’2″ with very small hands. This is crucial to the absolutely true story I am about to relate [which I have fact-checked with my sister and the Internet]. One day in 1954, when we were living in Tarrytown, NY, our parents piled us into the wallowing Buick for a mystery tour, to a sprawling country house in a not-nearby-enough-for-me town [possibly Mt. Pleasant, near Valhalla, where Rachmaninoff is buried]. Myrna had been invited by “some Cousins of Rachmaninoff” [we figure, Siloti’s family], to “show them how she did it.” See, Rachmaninoff has been retrospectively diagnosed with Marfans. He was 6’6″ with huge paws, and wrote music for big-handed folks like himself. Now, whether they had heard her nifty 15-minute wartime radio show, or read a review of a concert she gave featuring the Russian giant, they wanted to watch her in action.

At 5 years old, and already dreading the drive home, I was morose…until the Cousins let fly the parakeets. Talk about chaos! As Myrna was playing, a bird alighted on the temple of her glasses, and stared her in the eye. Trouper that she was, she just kept on playing. “Open your mouth,” invited a Cousin. “He’ll check your teeth.” Myrna smiled, but kept her jaw clenched. When the command performance was over, a Cousin asked if we had a cat. Rosie piped up, “Yes, but we’ll take another, if you’re offering.” “Actually, we were going to offer you ‘Pretty Bird’ [the avian dentist]; but you have a cat.” “We’ll make it work!” assured Rosie; and home we drove, with a blue parakeet, who withstood the aerobatic maneuvers of Chip-Chip the tabby tom [whom you have yet to meet], and later of Alfred the dog, for 6 years, without mishap.

When Myrna was 35 [and I was 10], she got Multiple Sclerosis. The English still call the most rapidly-progressing type [which the cellist Jacqueline du Pre had] “galloping.” Mumsley had “cantering” MS. She continued to play publicly for another 10 years, although she required a wheelchair by then. She died 3 months before my first child was born, at 61 [my age now].

Because she was a Goody-Two-Shoes, teetotalling, sweet-natured person, it is tempting to reduce her life to an ironic cliche: “Virtue is its own punishment.” My sister’s & my fears for her led us to many impatient [angry] outcries of “Oh, Mums-ley!” As if we could shout her back to health. But she never lost patience with us, and not often with herself. She remained the mistress of the deadpan one-liner. The last time I saw her, my in-laws were visiting and she was listening, as always, to the classical music radio station. “Oh, I just love La Traviata!” enthused my mother-in-law. “How ’bout Il Trovatore?” rejoined Mumsley.

A Class Act.

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Filed under catharsis, comic relief, Epictetus said..., limbic system

Ciotogach (Kithogue)


I’ve promised my daughters that one day we will turn the story of “Kithogue, the War Cat” into a proper book; but until then, she’s going to illustrate Peckham’s point about the value of chaos in uncertain times and situations. Mostly, I’m going to let Rosie’s letters, written from his little ship, the USS Vammen (DE 644), during the Korean War, tell the story, with a bit of mise en scene commentary from me.

Written “At Sea, August 11, 1952,” the first letter describes how he came to bring a cat aboard, on the last day before sailing from Hawaii to join his battle group in the Pacific. While visiting friends, “I made the acquaintance of a small kitten estimated at about 3 months old, and tentatively identified as a girl. What with one thing and another, she is now living in the cabin with me and eating wardroom mess cooking with no apparent harmful effects. She is not entirely housebroken. I have adopted a wait-and-see (and clean up) attitude. When we are in Midway, I will acquire a lot of sand, the island being entirely composed of this stuff, and see if her efforts cannot be localized. She spends a good part of the day playing in this typewriter. When I press the outer keys she bats at the inner ones as they come up and hit her in the nose. This pastime of ours has been observed by a few of the crew and, presumably, reported to the rest. However, I am still treated with all due respect; and cat (who at the moment is nameless) and I shall probably continue to play this damned fool game.”

For awhile he and the crew just called her “Neko-san,” (the Japanese for addressing a cat); but he decided the black marking on her back looked like “a lobster’s left claw,” so named her “Ciotogach” (which is Irish for left-handed). No surprise, I suppose, that this was also one of Rosie’s childhood nicknames, since he was a South-paw. By the way, does she remind you of any other cat who has appeared in this blog? [One whom he acquired, thinking it was female?]

“Sasebo, Japan, 22 Sept., 1952” After a spell of off-shore bombardment along the North Korean coastline, the ship was back in its Japanese homeport, making ready to go back out. “I must tell you about the night the cat fell overboard. One of the officers had brought her back a ping pong ball. She had been playing with it in the wardroom, batting it around like a soccer ball and having the time of her life. About the time the movies started, someone opened the wardroom door and she managed to bat the ball out into the forward passageway, she right after it. From there, it went out on the main deck and forward to the foc’sle. She hopped right after it and got so engrossed in her game that she went right over the side between ourselves and the USS Marsh. The bow sentry heard the splash and then heard her yelling in the water. He ran aft along the side, keeping track of her as she drifted aft. She was yelling bloody murder so loudly that she could be heard over all the din of the movies. One of the men got a flashlight and shone it down in the water between the ships. She was swimming furiously and had the sense to swim into the beam of light if she drifted out of it. Another man got a swab [mop] and lowered himself down between the ships, with another man holding him by the feet. He was able to get the mop end of the swab near the cat. She swam to it and hung on for dear life. The swab was passed back up to the deck with the cat still clutching it, and we pulled the two men up. They decided they would have to give her a bath to wash the oil off her. Eventually, three big officers were able to overpower her and get her clean again. They dried her off and got some warm milk in her. She acted a little more demented than usual for an hour or so, but somebody found another ping pong ball, and she went right back to the game. This experience has given the ship a new sense of unity. Everyone aboard is concerned with the cat’s welfare now. She plays all over the ship and with everybody. If she gets too close to the side someone will grab her and put her in a safe place. If she walks into wet paint and gets stuck, as she did, someone will rescue her.”

“Yellow Sea, 4 Oct., 1952” This time, in the midst of battle, with a typhoon brewing. “Yesterday we nearly lost the cat again. She climbed up some rigging until she was perched in the whaleboat falls near the top of the boat davits, out over the side. About this time we turned into the wind so the carrier could launch planes. She was finally seen clinging to the ropes of the boat falls for dear life, with her fur streaming back in the 35 knot wind and, of course, hollering. One of the stewards climbed up and rescued her. I hope she stays alive until we get back to the States.” [She, and the rest of the ship’s crew, did.]

There are lots of other “Ciotogach” stories, like when the Rear Admiral visited the ship, and ordered that the “f%#king cat” [who was clinging to the seat of the steward’s pants, howling for turkey] be fed first. Talk about the sentimental Muscovites! No one aboard “her” ship, it seems, was able to resist that cat’s agenda. Yes, she was often an intrusion, but also a welcome distraction from the fearful experience of fighting in an underfunded [sound familiar?], unpopular, no-win war.

Although they remain “non-reg[ulation],” I am willing to bet that some cats [and even some dogs] are currently serving aboard our Naval vessels deployed in the Gulf, offering their shipmates the gift of chaos.

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Filed under comic relief, object relations theory, transitional objects

Man’s Rage for Chaos


Morse Peckham’s argument, in his 1969 book by this title, is that artists periodically save [their particular] civilization, by introducing chaos into a culture that has become too rule-bound and brittle to survive. To use my current parlance, every now and then, the Kangaroos [with their iconoclastic, outside-the-box, zigging & zagging] save the lock-stepping Clydesdales from collapsing under the burden of their hide-bound rules.

Peckham traces the progression of stylistic changes in music, poetry, painting & architecture; but [for reasons to be revealed in a future post], I’ll just recap his musical musings. Let’s use J.S. Bach as our exemplar of the Baroque era [1600-1750]. Are ya bored yet? Hang on, there are going to be wild dogs later. Mozart will be our guy from the Classical era [1740-1810]; and Beethoven will represent the Romantic era [1810-1910]. So, Peckham opines that each of these guys broke [some of the] the rules of the preceding era [as did their fellow poets, painters & architects], in ways that helped the people of their era(s) to roll with the changes [brought about by scientific discoveries, political unrest, and such like]. Nar’mean? The melodic line of their tunes got progressively smoother, from Bach, to Mozart, to Beethoven; and the rules of society got progressively looser. [To quote Cole Porter, “In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. Now, heaven knows, anything goes!”]

And now to the subway-riding wild dogs of Moscow. Seriously, you owe it to yourself to look up this story, which appeared in [shock!] the online version of the UK tabloid, The Sun, this week. Under the Soviet system, ownerless dogs sought shelter at factory sites in Moscow, and mooched their food from sentimental Muscovites. After the fall [of the wall, ya know], the factories were relocated to the suburbs; and the dogs trotted after them, for a warm place to sleep. But the food source was still downtown, so the dogs learned to ride the Metro to their old pan-handling spots, like Gorky Park. According to Dr. Andrei Poiarkov, of the Moscow Ecology & Evolution Institute, the dogs travel in packs, and amuse themselves by waiting until the subway doors are just about to close, to jump on. [“Last one in is a sore-tailed mutt.”] Now here is the Peckham part of the story. In the still photos and the video, it is apparent [to me, at least] that the human commuters enjoy their canine fellow travelers. They are standing, smiling indulgently, while the dogs sleep on the seats. In the video an old Russian Wolfhound is walking down the escalator, weaving among the standees on the stairs; and someone whistles to him softly, all on one note. Nothing. Then [as I do, to give Lili the “jump” command], he whistles a 3-note melody; and the dog sits down on the escalator stair. [He gets up again pretty quickly, mind you, and resumes his walking.]

So here’s my point. Many Russians are having a stressful time, post-wall-fall, especially economically. The old rules of “obey & survive” don’t apply anymore, and the new rules are…as yet, unwritten. That’s a source of fear for some. The wild dogs provide comic relief. [That old juxtaposition of an animal in an unexpected venue, gets us every time.] Their presence on the Metro seems random [chaotic], yet they move with the precision of a drill team [order]. In fact, thinking back on all the animals in my past and present, I think what they always bring is the gift of chaos.

Here are our 3 cats, in harmonious repose, not in one of our daughters’ [frequently] disheveled rooms, but in the Master Suite. [Napster, the black cat, is trying to use a dark pillow as camouflage. Don’t be alarmed at his apparent size & shape.] Who cares if it looks like a New Yorker cartoon from the 1920s? It’s not a photo shoot for Architectural Digest. Loosen up, will ya?

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Filed under comic relief, ethology, non-linear thinking, pro bono publico

Bronx Cheer


When my father got back from the Korean War and we moved to New York, I was 5 [and my sister was 6]. In what would be called these days, an effort to “bond” with us, he made up for 3 years of lost parenting time by teaching us to play chess and cribbage, and to use a logarithmic slide rule. [Look it up, you Young Ones; and keep the Internet handy, cuz more historical references will follow.] We also got into [radio broadcasts of] baseball. My mother & sister [both Cleveland natives] were Indians fans, while Rosie & I were all about the Brooklyn Dodgers. My enthusiasm outstripped my accuracy, as I raced around the apartment shouting, “Come quick! It’s ‘Dike Snooder’ at bat!” [Also a big fan of “Pee Wee Weese,” I was.] Our parents were fairly ecumenical about whom we could support: Anyone but the Yankees.

My father’s motto was: “Rooting for the Yankees is like hoping for King Faroukh to win at roulette.” At the time Rosie coined this bon mot, the penultimate King of Egypt [aka “The Thief of Cairo”] was reckoned to be the world’s richest man, yet notorious for pilfering valuable artifacts from other heads of state whom he visited [including Winston Churchill]. Thus, our contempt for the Yankees was based, even in the 50s, on the egregiously “uneven playing field” that overpayment of their players created. Baseball, after all, was supposed to be a metaphor for the American Dream: a meritocracy, not a plutocracy.

When we moved to the UK, and the British tried to label me a “Yank[ee],” I would [rather cryptically] respond, “How dare you! I was always a Dodgers fan, until dey left Brooklyn, da bums!” The only part of this they grasped was “bums,” which was rather a rude word for a 12-year-old girl to be using, in those days. When I went to Duke, and a “Magnolia Honey” would remark, “Whah, you mus’ be a Yankee!” I would give her the same retort, leaving her baffled, as well. Ah, the power of the Poetic Speech function! Keeps ’em guessing.

So, anyway, why do we sports fans [even those of us who don’t have a wager on the outcome], get so worked up when our team loses? The Manifest reason is, “Cuz we was robbed!” [The umpire was sight-challenged or corrupt. Add your own conspiracy theory here.] But the Latent reason [as in, “What gets up our nose” about the loss] is often humiliation as the victors litter Broadway with mountains of “ticker tape” [which long-forsaken paper product is as passe as the slide rule]; but also the intrusion of Farouhk-like wealth on one side, to “buy” the outcome. [A casual glance at the jubilant NYTimes headlines this week might have you wondering, were they talking sports or politics?]

There’s nothing more infuriating than a fixed contest [especially when it doesn’t go in your favor]. Rosie always used to stomp around the house in mock indignation while watching the Miss Universe Pageant. “It’s all rigged, I tell you! It always goes to an Earthling!” [Talk about da bums…]

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Filed under aggression happens, power subtext, secret code, sharks and jets

Tame Thing


My parents may have been avant garde, in using Ying Tong [the Wild Thing] as a “therapy pet,” to break my cycle of paroxysmal coughing; but earlier still [in 1956] they got Alfred [the Tame Thing], to gently awaken me from my frequent nightmares.

My father’s name was Alfred, but his family called him Red, and his Naval Academy moniker was Rosie [by which he was known for the rest of his life]. Bestowing his unused name on our new puppy, he joked that Alfred-the-dog “could sign checks while (Rosie) was at sea”; and thereby hangs a tale. During the Korean War, my father’s ship [a Destroyer] was catastrophically damaged [either mined or torpedoed], and the initial news reports listed Rosie among the dead. We found out the next day, via cryptic telegram, that he was alive. In fact, he had been instrumental in saving the ship [he couldn’t swim]; and was then given a command of his own [a Destroyer Escort, which, years later, “starred” as the USS Kornblatt in the film Don’t Give Up the Ship]. Meanwhile, when Rosie finally got some shore leave in California, between deployments, we went to visit family friends in Hollywood, just in time for an earthquake! Not a huge one, mind you; but it made a lasting impression on my young [3 or 4-year old] psyche.

From then on, I was prone to nightmares [especially when my father was about to deploy] in which earthquakes and explosions at sea were combined to harrowing effect; and I developed a nifty knack for the Hitchcock-victim-scream, thereby waking up the whole household. When I was turning 8, an Academy classmate of Rosie’s, stationed with us in Newport, had a purebred Cocker Spaniel who had just had 3 puppies; and we got Alfred, whose job it was to keep watch over me by night, so that the rest of them could get some sleep.

Some years later, when both our family and Alfred’s dam’s family had moved to Annapolis, we took him to see his mother, who barked with disdain and chased him into the Bay. By then it had become clear that Alfred’s sire was not her usual purebred Spaniel mate, but Dusty [a mix of Chow, Spitz, and Husky, who could apparently scale a 6-foot fence]. What a sweet-tempered dog he turned out to be, though. More significantly, he served as a Transitional Object for me [a living teddy], to stand in loco paternis, when his namesake was away at sea. He had hybrid vigor and lived to be 18, spending many of those years interacting with the bellicose Ying Tong, whom he never stopped trying to befriend.

So, this is a second answer to Sendak’s question, “How do children survive?” When their parents are physically, emotionally, or otherwise unavailable to protect them, children rely on the comforting presence of animals [imaginary, stuffed, or real] to help them through the rough stuff.

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Filed under object relations theory, post-traumatic stress, transitional objects