Monthly Archives: January 2010

Janus, the Gatekeeper


As the month named for the Greek god of “Shut it!” draws to a close, here’s a meditation on knowing when to say “Enough, already!” An article in the LA Times this week reports the results of an Australian study [through whose methodology one could drive a “ute,” but, oh, well] published in Circulation [as in cardiovascular, not newspaper] asserting, on the basis of subjects’ self-report of their hours spent watching telly in one week [What if it had been this week, and the Australian Open Tennis Tournament was on? S’truth!], that those who watched more than 4 hours per day were “18% more likely to die” than those who watched under 2 hours a day. So, what, if you have no access to telly, you’re going to live forever? Outta sight!

Their point was meant to be that prolonged sitting leads to poor circulatory health. “Switch the bloody thing off and go walkabout!” Sound advice, even if not convincingly proven by their data. I have another theory, having to do with the content of the programmes [it was Oz, after all] watched. In the photo accompanying the news release in the LA Times, a guy was doing a vigorous workout at the gym, while viewing a widescreen telly tuned to a 24-hour news channel. Was this a wry editorial decision, on the part of the newspaper of record for the TV & movie capital of the world, to undercut the message that telly viewing precludes exercise? Pretty cute, if so. Also, it’s grist for the mill for my alternative theory of what’s hazardous to one’s health: 24-hour news channels. All that vicariously traumatizing news, infinitely looped, ineptly analyzed, spun, repeated [you should excuse the expression] ad nauseam: it’s a major producer of cortisol [which the researchers did measure in their 4-hour-plus subjects, and lo, it was sky high].

I’ll wager that 4 hours spent watching comedies, well-made dramas, or sporting events [including horse racing, which produces adrenaline, not cortisol] would be much less toxic than 4 hours of looped news. Wonder if the researchers asked their subjects to list shows by name, or even by genre. Some great data-mining to be had, in them thar hills…

Whenever my clients complain of insomnia, I advise them to reduce their intake, not of caffeine, but of TV news. It is designed to hook you, to instill Fear Of Missing Out in you, to compel you to keep watching. I suggest substituting a cooler medium [in the Marshall McLuhen sense], such as newspapers [or online news sites]. They are less “in your face.” They give you the option to skim, or even [gasp!] skip, cortisol-agenic news items. To be the gatekeeper of your vicarious trauma. To say, “Enough, already!” and get back to your own, possibly less distressing and certainly more relevant, life challenges. I’m not saying you should care less about the calamities of your fellow earthlings. I’m saying you should watch less.

It’s not too late for a New Year’s resolution…

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Filed under confounds, murky research, stress and cortisol, vicarious trauma

Move It or Lose It


How’s this for a high-concept article title? Not mine. This one, hot off the press from the Proceedings of The National Institute of Sciences: “Running enhances spatial pattern separation in mice.” A research team headed by David J. Creer in Baltimore & Timothy J. Bussey @ Cambridge University studied adult mice [3 months old] and “very aged” mice [22 months old]; and determined that adults with nifty, blue plastic, saucer-shaped exercise wheels in their cages [which they ran on, for up to 12 miles a day] enjoyed “synaptic plasticity and hippocampal neuro-genesis,” and could do a touch-screen task [to “find Waldo,” as it were] much better than their “sedentary” comrades.

Sadly, exercise for the aged mice did not significantly improve their task performance, mainly because they couldn’t quite grasp what the cockamamie task was, in the foist place! Still, a little run on the wheel, what could it hoit? [Why I’m giving the alta cocka mice Brooklyn accents is anybody’s guess, since they were actually living in “Bal’m’re”–don’t feign incomprehension, those of you who have watched every episode of The Wire–hanging out at the National Institute on Aging.]

So, let’s extrapolate the findings [the way the BBC news release did] to humans. It may be that, not only is vigorous exercise good for “tying down cognitive Kangaroos” [so that they can sit still and focus long enough to learn stuff]; it may actually encourage the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus [thereby benefiting both Kangaroos & Clydesdales].

Gives a whole new meaning to the term Scholar/Athlete, no?

Now, here’s what I propose for a follow-up study. Let’s re-test those 3-month-old smarty-pants rodent/athletes when they are 22-month-oldsters; and see if they retain their brainey-ness. How very cool it would be, if they did.

I wonder what the human equivalent of 12 mice-miles a day is…

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Filed under born to run, limbic system, murky research

What’s keepin’ ya?


My paternal grandmother Kate grew up on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands across the Galway Bay from mainland Eire, and spoke not only Irish Gaelic, but a West of Ireland dialect of English. Consider her nuanced expressions for the verb to die: if someone kills you, you are “destroyed”; if you drown [see Riders to the Sea] you are “lost”; but if you die of an illness , you “get away.” [The custom on the islands is that your survivors must then “go tell the cows and the bees” of your demise. Dunno why…]

As a 5-year-old, visiting Kate in her final days, I was captivated by the idiom, to “get away.” It made it seem as if each of us is just temporarily tethered here on earth, like a helium balloon anchored by a little weight, one scissor-snip away from escaping the bonds of earth. So, what’s keeping us here? What are those “little weights,” which serve as our Life Anchors?

This is actually [excuse the pun] a heavy Existential question, to be asked of anyone who has attempted [or is contemplating] suicide, or who is coping with seemingly intolerable pain & suffering, and especially those grieving the loss of a loved one. The question is: “Who are your Life Anchors?” Who needs you to stick around, here on Earth? Actuarial studies suggest that if your life partner “gets away,” unless you have other Life Anchors, you are likely follow The Departed, within 12 months.

But here’s the Beauty Part [for everyone but the undertakers]. Life Anchors come in all shapes and sizes, and need not even be human, to keep you tethered. Pets prolong life, as do other individuals who are counting on you. They help you experience your own adverse circumstances as “highly inconvenient,” rather than intolerably “awful.” As the English would say, they help “take you out of yourself.” When my Uncle Dick “got away,” my Auntie Eileen [Kate’s daughter, much to their mutual chagrin], who had always been a cat person, became a Full On Cat Lady, feeding and sheltering as many as 20 at a time. Although they made her [even more] unpopular with some of her neighbors, those cats kept her anchored in life for 13 years of widowhood. Cheap at half the price, innit?

It goes without saying that Lili is one of my Life Anchors, along with my human family. What’s keeping her, in this picture? After all, this is one of two doors she can open from the outside and shut behind her. I’d like to believe that I am Lili’s Life Anchor, keeping her near through bonds of mutual love and loyalty. But it’s more likely her lack of opposable thumbs, innit?

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Filed under magical thinking, object relations theory, transitional objects

Plot-twists in Your Storyline


Okay, so you’ve faced the fact that something unforeseen, unintended, and probably unfortunate is going down in your life. Well spotted. Now what?

Anger, is what. Anyone who says otherwise isn’t telling the truth, or paying close enough attention. It is what to do with/about the anger, that I want to address…right after I declare how angry I am at two Post-modern Antipodeans from the 70s, White & Epston, who rebranded the ancient & universal practice of chronicling the ups & downs of the story of one’s life, to try to make sense of it [to answer Alfie’s (1966) question, “What’s it all about?”] as “Narrative Therapy,” as if it were their intellectual property. Mostly intrusion is up my nose, about this narrow redefinition of what almost everyone does, every day (even if they’re not in psychotherapy): tell someone [even if it’s only Dear Diary] wha’ happened today, in a narrative format. Nar’mean?

“What did you do at school today?” ask the concerned parents.”Ahh, nuttin’. We just had oral review.” It’s still a narrative.

But let’s say what your 5th-grade class did today was study the oyster, including the requirement to eat one [which your personal & family culture proscribes], and you refused, and were sent to the Principal’s office, occasioning humiliation and fear. As you tell your narrative to your parents, they have the power to influence the storyline, for better or worse. “That’s outrageous! How dare they impose their parochial, regional folkways on a Navy kid! We’ll send a note of protest to the Principal, insisting that you be exempted, without prejudice, from eating a mollusk.” Or…”What makes you think you can defy your teacher? When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Want to guess how the narrative unfolded for me? It was huge! It became a leitmotif of my storyline. My parents backed me to the hilt, and no mollusks were consumed [by me, or, indeed, any other squeamish classmates].

As we mature, we sometimes have to “become are own parents,” and back ourselves to the hilt, in the face of criticism, adversity, and unfortunate plot-twists. That is, we need to recall earlier chapters in our narrative, when intrusion, humiliation, fear and pain & suffering were neutralized [made “all better,” or at least ratcheted down to a tolerable level], against all odds. If those instances don’t readily spring to mind, then look harder for them. If they hadn’t occurred at all, you wouldn’t be here now.

This is my Manhattan cat, St. Chuck [1974-1983], whose own storyline included a series of [at least 8] life-threatening plot-twists and miraculous comebacks. He was my loyal companion through a doctoral dissertation, 6 years of Naval service, and the transitions to married and civilian life. As this stop-action photo suggests, the leitmotif of his narrative was fear, which he overcame in his final years…which is a story for another time.

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Filed under gets right up my nose, locus of control, transitional objects, what's it all about?

First, Face It, Head-on


By “it,” I mean your loss: of traction, of your wallet, of a Loved One, of your reason for living, whatever. Remember Driver’s Ed, especially those of you from a cold climate? The most counter-intuitive thing to learn [and to convince yourself to do, in the actual situation], is to “steer into a skid.” [Also, pre-ABS, don’t stomp on the brake pedal, just “feather” it.] Yeah, yeah. You’re less likely to “fishtail,” or even “spin right round”; but, by definition, you’re heading in the wrong direction! “Just for a moment, until you regain a bit of forward motion again,” the instructor soothes. Turns out, the same paradigm applies when you’re flying a single-engine airplane and it stalls. Intuition shrieks, “Pull up!” but your instructor says, “Point the nose down, to pick up air speed [and let Bernoulli’s principle lift you up].”

Likewise, the first [and hardest] thing to do when something bad happens to you, is to face it, already. Boy, doesn’t limbic arousal mess wi’dat? Like making the whole thing play out in slow-motion, so that you can kid yourself, “This is just a dream sequence. I’ll wake up in a minute.” I did that when my purse was stolen in London in the ’70s [even though I had lost 3 wallets to pickpockets during my years in Manhattan]. As usual, that time distortion thing has some survival value, allowing you to postpone overwhelming panic [loss of blood flow to the hippocampus] long enough to complete your Flame Out Chart protocol. What’s that? Actual pilots of actual jet planes have a laminated list of steps to take, in case of an engine flame-out [since most jets make lousy gliders & Bernoulli’s principle cannot help them overcome gravity]. It’s written down, because some panic is likely to trickle through to the pilot’s amygdala in that situation [Right Stuff notwithstanding], causing Highly Inconvenient memory loss for “What’s the first thing to do? And the second?” The Naval aviator euphemism for that is “Having a bad day.”

So, assuming you’re not in charge of a disabled aircraft–but still, not everything’s going your way–if you can get yourself to face the bad news real time [not just after the fact], your trusty hippocampus will be able to help you through it: by remembering previously learned recovery protocols, or devising a new one on the spot.

When I faced the fact that my footing was gone for good on the black ice, and I had entered the slo-mo phase of my debacle, I remembered my acting school class [which Chevy Chase must have aced] in safe-but-convincing-stage-falls: “twist to the side, knee, hip, extend arm to protect head, boom.” That’s just how it went down, on the day.

As they say about airplane flights, “Any one you can walk away from, was a good one.”

More of this next time. Meanwhile, this is West Coast Penny, visiting the East Coast for the holidays. Can you tell whether she’s looking away, or facing you, head-on?

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Filed under Epictetus said..., limbic system

A Sudden Loss of Traction


Dontcha just hate it when you’re walking down your (conscientiously shoveled) driveway at dawn to collect the papers, and you execute an impromptu slapstick routine on black ice: the lawyer’s often lucrative “slip & fall” (if there’s anyone to blame for it, other than Mother Nature)? Let’s do the Wolf-work. In my case there was a certain amount of pain & suffering (only bruises, though, where there could have been a broken hip bone). If there had been witnesses at that early hour, I would have been humiliated, especially as I struggled to regain my footing on drier ground. (In the event, I opted for the 2-feet-of-snow, overland route back to the house). Had I actually broken any bones, there would have been the intrusion [inconvenience, at least] of a holiday trip to the ER and the subsequent hassle of schlepping around on crutches. But, most insidious of all, I now have a fear of falling again, and not being so lucky next time. On our holiday trip [you should excuse the expression] to the Great Lakes region to see family, I doddered around the icy streets & sidewalks like an old crone, eliciting only impatience [not assistance] from my Loved Ones.

But here’s the Beauty Part. Despite my loss of footing & dignity & confidence, I followed Dinosaur Barney’s advice, and [mostly] “kept on keeping on.” [I did beg off one side-trip in Michigan, which I felt was an icy road too far; and was chided for being a Chicken Little, since the snow had stopped by then.] But this is just a concrete example of the metaphoric [Existential, even] Loss of Traction, which is what I plan to discuss…right after a brief linguistic digression. Why is it, that the Tar Macadam form of paving [with which our road & treacherous driveway is sealed] has come to mean “Airport Runway or Apron,” when actually, said runways & aprons are never sealed with Tarmac, but instead are bare, slightly corrugated concrete, said corrugation intended to prevent a Sudden Loss of Traction by landing airplanes,?[Although it doesn’t always work, just read the newspapers this week, if you can get down your driveway to collect them.] Nar’mean?

It is my clinical [and personal] observation, that the holiday season causes [or worsens] an Existential Loss of Traction for many people, as they anticipate having to recount the triumphs and spin the disasters of their past year, in written [Christmas letter] and oral “examinations” [visits with the family]. Remember that inane but haunting Band-Aid [for famine relief, not slip & fall injuries] anthem: “And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?” What if your answer is: “Not as much as I had intended, when I made my New Year’s resolutions”? Humiliation, is what, pal. It can lead to an acute loss of self-efficacy [as the English, they who first landed “on the Tarmac,” have termed it], in which it seems as if no amount of Therblig expenditure will yield the hoped-for results, so why even bother?

I was remembering the last line of the 1966 English film, Alfie, in which our cheeky Cockney anti-hero, having blithely bedded [almost] Anything with a Pulse throughout the story, finds himself dissed & dismissed by proto-cougar Shelley Winters, for a younger man. His response has become a UK cliche to express a sudden loss of existential traction: “What’s it all about? Nar’mean?”

Using some concrete skid-recovery strategies as [metaphorical] paradigms, the next post will offer some suggestions for regaining traction. Meanwhile, this is Lili, on Christmas morning, having figured out a strategy for moving forward on iced-over, deep snow: “Run like a jackrabbit, skimming the surface, until gravity wins and you crash through to the snow beneath. Repeat.”

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Filed under gets right up my nose, therbligs, what's it all about?