Monthly Archives: August 2010

Feeling Threatened?

Back in the day, before the advent of the Homeland Security Advisory System [as in “A day without Orange is like a day without sunshine.”], there were other semiotics for indicating that it was time to “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” There were the DefCon levels, whereby [counter-intuitively], DefConOne betokened Doomsday, whereas DefConFive was the Peaceable Kingdom. Since most non-combatants thought it was the other way round, it wasn’t all that useful as a civil defense advisory. In my Naval family of origin, we used the traditional “Go to General Quarters” to signify that we were in crisis mode.

But, whatever you call it, your limbic system usually gets there way ahead of your pre-frontal cortex; and you are already engaging in a [possibly ill-advised] Fight, Flight, or Freeze response, “before you can say knife” [as the English measure it, as compared to the American “say Jack Robinson” unit of time]. Absent an airport Tannoy announcement, what cues the threat response? For most of us warmblooded creatures [including, as usual, Lili the dog], it’s the fur on the back of our neck standing on end. This is most amusingly obvious with cats’ tails puffing out, of course. Yeah, yeah. That’s what I’m saying. In the dualistic parlance of the Mind/Body dance of anxiety, it’s usually the body that leads. [You can search-engine iconic studies from the 60s involving the IV administration of adrenaline, the physical effects of which “undergraduate volunteers” (an oxymoron) were “contextually manipulated” to interpret as either fear or excitement.]

Other physical changes include pulse and respiration rate, as well as increased muscle tension. Those of us in the business of devising ways to “smooth ruffled feathers” often resort to reverse-engineering tactics. Big Pharma, and brewers before them, recommend skeletal muscle relaxants: “How dire can things be, if I’m feeling this loosey-goosey?” Despite the risk of inconvenient side-effects [DUIs, addiction, or respiratory collapse], ya gotta admit, the euphoria that comes with chemically-induced muscle relaxation really beats being told, “Oh, relax!” by an unsympathetic companion. We Mental Health providers try to suggest alternative routes to tranquility: yoga, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation exercises, hypnotic trance induction… “Too New Age-y” complain the uptight. “I can never remember my mantra in a crisis.” So, I try to reverse-engineer the shallow breathing: “Sing!” I command. “Whistle, if you know how!” [Remember my post on Bridge on the River Kwai? The ditty the POWs whistled in the face of their implacable captors, “Colonel Bogey’s March”?] Besides sublimating fear with an inside joke against the enemy, whistling (like singing and humming) normalizes breathing. It is what Behaviorists call an Incompatible Behavior (with the panting that accompanies anxiety).

Recently I have found that singing to Lili is as effective for “standing her down from General Quarters” as the Freeze commands to “Lie down” and “Stay down” are. She just can’t resist coming over and singing along. [It may have to do with the overtones I produce.] Another explanation is that my carefree singing lowers her level of perceived threat: “How dire can things be, if my Pack Leader is so loosey-goosey?”

So, in this picture, is Lili a threat, or threatened? [Well, in the event, neither, since the shadow is cast by her trusted Pack Leader.] But if she were confronting a stranger, the correct answer would be “both.” Next time you encounter a dog who’s “going to General Quarters” [or find that the Wolf in Your Head is howling], you might try a little musical reverse-engineering, yourself.

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Filed under aggression happens, limbic system, semiotics

The Hoon Report

Thanks to the personable young British Formula One racer, Lewis Hamilton [whose shenanigans in his Mercedes-Benz AMG C63 “road car” two days before the Australian Grand Prix cost him a slap-on-the-wrist fine of “just under 300 pounds” for “acting like a hoon”], those of us in the Northern Hemisphere have learned a new epithet, that we can hurl at “aggressive drivers” who set off our limbic system alarms with their risky moves. Mystery shrouds the derivation of this Antipodean term [which originally referred to any “young person who engages in loutish, antisocial behavior,” but has more recently become a “semi-official term” for street drag-racers, as in “Australia considers anti-hoon legislation”]. I have two theories. One, that “hoon” is merely a contraction of “hooligan.” Two, that it comes from the objective case of the Gaelic word toin [as in the Irish imprecation, Pog ma hoin], and so originally meant “ass.” [As in “Quit acting like a hoon, you silly ass!”] Not all that farfetched, considering that the First Wave of “immigrants” to the Land Downunder were predominantly Irish. [If you don’t get the quotation marks in the previous sentence, look up meaning 4 of “transportation” in Webster’s, innit.]

Anyway, here is Fionbharr [Finn to his friends], a San Francisco rescue, to keep not-so-solipsistic-Seamus company in the new place. If Finn were, indeed, writing a blog, it would seem to be coming right out of his hoin, now, do you see?

Back to Hamilton, though, who serves as Formula One’s “ambassador for [its] global road safety campaign and has given speeches in Westminster [Parliament] on the subject.” Through his lawyer, he issued a statement to the Australian court [and the rest of us], that he had suffered “embarrassment, humiliation and distress as a result of the episode.” We’re going to consider if Hamilton has truly “owned his wolf” in a moment; but here’s how it played in court. “Magistrate Clive Alsop said he would not convict the 25-year-old because he was ashamed and remorseful. However, he added that Hamilton’s behavior was unacceptable. ‘This isn’t about somebody’s character, this about somebody in a responsible position behaving like a hoon.'”

But, do yah see, now, Magistrate Alsop, in my book [well, blog], “character” is exactly what this is about? It’s all very well to acknowledge that having one’s car impounded two days before the Oz Grand Prix is “embarrassing, humiliating, and distressing.” That’s being sorry you were caught. It does not address the question: “What got up my nose, that I decided to violate the rules of the road [and the core values of the road safety campaign for which I am a high-profile spokesman]?” As with all the grabbed-from-the-headlines cases I cite, I realize that once the accused has “lawyered up,” the odds of such public self-disclosure lengthen considerably. But we, the mere readers of the story, can ask the up-your-nose question on their behalf [and vicariously, on ours]. For unless “out-of-character” behavior is understood, it is likely to recur.

As with the ponytaail-yanking soccer player in the post “In Hindsight,” perhaps the question does get asked and answered, in private, after the news media have cleared off. Having served a 2-game suspension, that young lady is back playing for the Lobos. Maybe she has done her “wolf work,” and has figured out how, in that aggressive sport, to avoid acting like a Red-Card-level hoon.

As for my boy Hamilton, he won the Belgian Grand Prix yesterday, by “driving safely and keeping out of trouble.” Even though Chris Rock laments that “There is no rehab for stupid,” there may be rehab for acting like a hoon. Let’s hope so, anyway, since we’ve all been there, if we’re honest with ourselves.

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Filed under jekyll and hyde, understanding shenanigans