Monthly Archives: March 2012

To "Lose the Plot"


So, here we are again, with 3 shooters (one, as I write this, “holed up but in talks” with the French police), for each of whom the media & the public are trying to arrive at a differential diagnosis: “mad” (in the British sense of the word, meaning: “crazy”) or “bad”? To cut to the chase, as usual, I think the more relevant distinction is between “mad/crazy” and “mad/angry.” But I digress.

Into this quagmire of Anglo-American failure(s) to communicate, I am tossing an old expression [to “go haywire,” from 1915] and a 21st Century one [to “lose the plot”]. Notice, if you will, my choice of the present participle, “tossing” [“used…to express present or continuing action or state of being” Webster’s New World Dictionary, 3rd edition]. When we say an individual “goes haywire,” or “loses the plot,” do we mean to say [pace Sir Bob Geldof] “the silicon chip inside her head gets switched to overload,” and stays in the Overload position? [Notice how cunningly Sir Bob, who knows his English grammar, for all he’s an Irishman, uses/used the ambiguous “gets”? Could be my least favorite tense, the historical present, or could be a recurrent thing that happens with this particular shooter’s brain every Monday, that her chip always gets switched. Nar’mean?] If you were born yesterday, you may not know that the song’s title, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” is the verbatim explanation that a real life school girl gave, for her shooting spree.

Americans who use the phrase, to “lose the plot,” mean [according to the Urban Dictionary], an individual got mad/angry about something and acted out aggressively. The Brits say “He’s lost the plot,” and mean that an individual has gone mad/crazy and is now acting erratically, posing a danger to self & others. Who knows if it’s “an on-going situation,” or it will clear up at sunrise?

Now, I shall use an animal metaphor [as I am always doing, not just this one time]. I was watching the steeplechase (hurdle jumping) racing from Cheltenham [UK] on HRtv the other morning, with my usual attitude of neutrality. “Let all riders & horses survive these grueling contests of attrition without major mishap,” I bid Poseiden. But, in two consecutive races [one for mares & one for male horses] several jockeys “came off” as they went over jumps. Unlike the Santa Anita flat races described in my last post, there were no outriders to wrangle the riderless horses. A few horses carried on jumping the fences, even though they had the option to avoid them and to “run on the flat” parallel to them, if they wanted to “stay with the herd” and cross the finish line. One mare seemed to “figure out” that she could make better time by going around the fences rather than over them; and she gave the front runner quite a challenge. If this had been a scene from a Disney-type movie [like Racing Stripes or Mary Poppins], it would have been easy to attribute the human motive to these riderless jumpers, that they “knew the mission and were going to see it through.” Even so, what was the “mission”? [What was the “plot”?] To jump every fence on the course, or to cross the finish line first? Which horses, then, had “lost the plot”? Or had they all “lost the plot,” when they kept on racing even though they had lost their riders? Cut them some slack, will ya? They’re horses. Herd animals. Born to run with their reference group.

What about these 3 shooters? [There may have been more by the time you read this. I am referring to the Staff Sgt. in Afghanistan, the vigilante in Florida, and the Algerian in France.] Each one of them has been described by those who “knew” them, as “not the sort of person to do such [aggressive] things.” Did they “lose the plot” and “go haywire,” or were they “wild” all along, but no one knew it? Well, folks, we all are. That’s the point of this blog. The specific “irritant” that “got up the nose” of each of these shooters [and led to their acts of aggression] may or may not ever be revealed to us; but it’s a salutary exercise to try to speculate about it. Human behavior is complex, but not inexplicable. To say that an individual “must have just snapped” or “gone haywire,” or [temporarily or permanently] “lost the plot,” is to explain nothing.

After all, these are human beings, not horses. Yet, even the actions of horses are complex [but not random, although we cannot always predict them]. The horse in this picture is one of the wild ones on the Outer Banks, photographed by my 90-something mother-in-law (something of a wild one, herself).

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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, ethology, semiotics

All Bets Are Off


Greek mythology has it, that when Zeus’ brother Poseiden was wooing Demeter, she set him the challenge, “to create the most beautiful animal that the world has ever seen”; and he came up with the horse. As a Navy kid (already familiar with Poseiden as Ruler of the Waves), I knew about his thing with horses by the time my sister & I invested in 2 Cheap Day Return rail tickets, for a Day at the Races at Sandown Park in Surrey, England. At 12 & 13, we were only making friendly wagers with each other; but every time I expressed an interest in a horse, it either threw a shoe, or its rider, or otherwise came a cropper. So I made a promise to Poseiden, which I have kept, never to “have a horse in the race.”

That hasn’t kept me away from racetracks, mind you. When my girls were 6 & 9, I took them by subway to Aqueduct [we were already visiting NYC at the time], where, it being early on a weekday, the only other punters were the Damon Runyonesque characters so endearingly portrayed in the HBO series Luck [filmed at a favorite SoCal track of ours, Santa Anita]. Overhearing my girls’ uncanny handicapping skills [especially the 6-year-old’s], one railbird approached her as we were leaving and offered, “Girlie, I would buy you sodas and snacks all day, if you would stick around and pick horses for me.” We had other fish to fry that day; but similar offers are made to them, every time we go to the races. True to my promise to Poseiden, I keep my money in my pocket & my havoc-wreaking opinions to myself.

Last Saturday, on the 3rd of March, on Big ‘Cap [Handicapping] Day, our family had just arrived at Santa Anita in time for Race 3, when “Muny,” the horse in Post position 3, broke through the gate early, and chaos ensued. As reported by Tracy Gantz in Bloodhorse.com/Horse Racing News, only 3 of the 7 horses “came out of the gate properly.” 3 assistant starters were able to hold their horses, as it were; but “Mr. Bossy Pants,” “Oak Kye Why,” & “Sky Cape,” were off to the races, even though, “before the horses had traversed even half the distance of the race, the stewards posted the enquiry sign.” Meanwhile, back near the starting gate, “Lord’s Minister” had thrown his jockey, Martin Garcia, and “proceeded [riderless] down the hill after the other 3” before being skillfully wrangled by an outrider in the stretch. Both horse & jockey were unharmed [thank Poseiden]; and Garcia went on to win an impressive victory in the very next race.

As “Mr. Bossy Pants” romped home for the ostensible “win,” the huge crowd went silent, as the track announcer intoned, “Hold all tickets, please.” We were standing at the rail, just behind the fancy box seats, not 10 feet from the Luck actor, John Ortiz [later joined by the jockey-commentator-actor, Gary Stevens]; but everyone seemed baffled. As we wandered back into the betting hall, the tote board flashed the message, in huge red letters: “NO CONTEST”; and seasoned punters explained to rookies, “All bets are off. Everybody gets their money back.” One railbird quipped, “Does this mean I get back all the money I’ve lost all day?” Well, no, but “all 7 horses were considered winners for the purposes of multi-race wagers, except for daily doubles.” The only possible loser was “Mr. Bossy Pants” and his connections, who must have felt “they was robbed.”

Now for an analysis of Magical Thinking [which is inherent in the Sport of Kings]. Seriously, do I believe that I have such powerful internal locus of control, that my mere presence at a race meeting was enough to cause all this mayhem? Never mind me, how ’bout all those 3’s? Don’t you just bet a lot of punters played “the 3” in all subsequent races? Both my girls stuck to their usual [intuitive but effective] wagering strategies, with the younger one winning more than her sister, while Chris lost a few bucks. In the last race we stayed for, the 10th, our elder girl pulled herself “out of the whole” by betting the 9-to-1 Irish-bred longshot, “Willyconker,” who won by a neck in a thrilling finish.

As the old Irish joke goes, when asked if she believed in fairies, the country woman replied, “I do not; but they’re there.” Do I believe that a deal I made with a Greek god, more than 50 years ago, helps to bring all horses and their riders “safe home”? Well, now, I wouldn’t be bettin’ against it.

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Filed under locus of control, magical thinking, zero-sum-gaming