Category Archives: aggression happens

An Instrument of Danger?

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Vignette from the Smithsonian Woods: Last Saturday morning Chris & I were walking Emmy (on a leash) on the path to our usual cross-country trail, when a young woman in running gear approached us and asked breathlessly, “Is your dog friendly?” Thinking she might actually be wondering, “Is your dog dangerous?” we muttered vague assurances, which she interrupted with, “Because our dogs are loose in the woods, but they’re very friendly.” At which point 2 small dogs bounded up, the black & white Cocker Spaniel of the pair charging at me (not at our dog, mind) in full Baskerville cry, barking and snarling. Emmy, for the record, was unfazed. As we walked on by, I flung over my shoulder, “Friendly, eh?” To which she flung back, “Oh, he just likes to act big, but they’re both really friendly. You don’t have to be so aggressive!”

So, somehow, in her eyes, merely by owning & operating a 68-pound, mild-mannered German shepherd, we were the Bad Guys. At the time I put it down to the common “pot & kettle” cognitive distortion [“You think I’m bad, look at you!”], or to the semiotics of certain breeds [“all German shepherds, pit bulls, and their ilk are, by definition, dangerous animals”]. If that was where she was coming from, she has legal precedent on her side.

Today’s New York Times tells the sad story of a pit bull puppy and her owner, playing in their front yard, who were shot by 2 plainclothes police officers in pursuit of a drug suspect running into the building where the wounded owner & now dead dog lived. To muddy the waters, a neighbor’s adult pit bull, tethered to a fence, was also playing in the yard. The wounded owner was charged with several offenses, among them, “criminal possession of a weapon, namely, a pit bull dog.” The case law cited in the article dates back to 1956, when a 100-pound German shepherd named Prince “jumped on a pair of officers responding to a dispute.” The prosecutor in the case was quoted as saying, “This is an intelligent and well-trained animal that was ordered to attack the police by its master.” (A charge which the owner denied.) Prince was duly subpoenaed and “brought to court as evidence.” The owner was found guilty as charged.

Maybe it’s a blessing, that our Emmy has not fulfilled her biggest-of-the-litter potential (although her long fur coat does make her look kind of gangsta).  For the rest of our walk, I kept trying to formulate a cogent response to the often asked, always loaded question, “Is your dog friendly?”  Having rejected, “Compared to what?” or “Why do you ask?” as sounding evasive (and therefore defensive), I have decided on the truth: “She is. I’m not.”

Oh, I’ve “got wolf” for sure; but Emmy is not she.

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“Road Dogs”

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“If anybody ever asks us well let’s just tell them that we met in jail.” Recovery by Frank Turner

Elmore Leonard, who wrote Road Dogs in 2009, and died last week, has been my metaphorical Road Dog since 1982, when I left the Navy & moved with my husband Chris back to his hometown, the ritzy [but claustrophobically non-coastal] suburban Detroit town of Birmingham, MI. Back then Leonard himself was still living a few miles East in humble Clawson, MI, and having his trademark “loveable rascal” characters conflate Birmingham & the even ritzier Bloomfield Hills, referring to their denizens as “Bloomingham pukes.” I used to do my grocery shopping over at the Clawson Farmer Jack, hoping to spot my spirit guide Leonard in the liquor aisle, stocking up on Jack Daniels. Never had a sighting, but I took comfort from the fact that of all the places he could afford to live, he chose to stay put: “Hey, my grandkids live here,” he used to say. If Oakland Country was cool enough for “Dutch,” then I could do better with my time spent there, than “just making do and muddling through” [to quote from another Frank Turner song, The Way I Tend to Be]. The young British singer/songwriter Frank Turner is another metaphorical Road Dog for me.

The original meaning of the term, as portrayed in Leonard’s novel, is two people who meet in jail and agree to protect each other from the predations of the other inmates. The social contract of “I got your back, forever, man, no matter what,” is only a Socratic ideal, impossible to keep in real life; and only one “partner” can be the alpha dog…at any given time. Part of the fun of the novel is tracking the shifts in the power subtext between Jack Foley & Cundo Rey. Won’t tell you who winds up top dog. Buy the book.

And that’s the social contract between me & Elmore Leonard [and me & Frank Turner]. Their upbeat, offbeat take(s) on life keep(s) my morale up; and my big-upping them to friends [& readers of this blog] keeps their sales numbers up. What my two Road Dogs have in common is an unflinching, sarcastically funny acknowledgement of aggressive impulses: Leonard through his fictional characters, and Turner though his autobiographical songs. They own the wolf.  They make you want to invite it in and try to tame it.  One of Leonard’s recent books, for children, A Coyote’s in the House, is so popular that it is out-of-stock @ Amazon.

Just when we finally got out of Birmingham to move back East in 2000, Elmore Leonard moved across the street from our neighborhood, into Bloomfield Township [not to be confused with Bloomfield Hills, settle down]. His funeral was held at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Birmingham; but his wake was at a funeral home in Clawson. Just in case anyone thought he had sold out and become a “Bloomingham puke.”

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Here’s our coyote-looking one-year-old Emmy, with her new Road Dog, 8-month-old Bentley. They meet in our yard most afternoons, to sort out who’s alpha.

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“Offensive and tasteless”? Moi?

Well, I did ask. This wasn’t a random insult flung at me as I walked the streets of SoHo in the rain. If it had been, my not-your-victim-not-your-enemy rejoinder would have been: [in New York] “Yeah, that’s kinda what I was going for”; [in London, channeling my Irish grandma] “Aww, go on wit’ yez!”

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I have been a member of The British Psychological Society since the 70s, and therefore a regular reader of their monthly periodical, The Psychologist, which makes the following blandishments to its readers: “We rely on your submissions, and in return we help you to get your message across to a large and diverse audience….The editorial team are very supportive, and it is a great way of communicating your work and opinions to other psychologists.” So, I decided to be brave & shoot an email to the Managing Editor, briefly describing my blog’s premise & purpose and embedding my new web address. That was last Monday. On the Wednesday morning, just before heading off to work, I received the following reply:

“Hi, Unfortunately our work internet categorises it as ‘offensive and tasteless’ and therefore won’t let me view it! Shame, it sounds interesting. Cheers, Jon”

To say that “I was gobsmacked,” is probably the kind of offensive & tasteless [hereinafter abbreviated to O & T] term to which the bps [their own abbreviation] objects; but I was. I deployed every amygdala-mediating technique written about in my blog, to avoid a road accident on my way to the medical center [where I work. Not the ER. Let’s not over-dramatize]. Later, I phoned my sister, the head librarian @ a Med School & hospital, to ask her what manner of firewall my blog may have hit; and she sent me an article about Filtering by Statistical Classification computer programs [FSC], which are used “to determine what content is or is not acceptable.”

Hurrah! A way out of my humiliation, at having been summarily dissed & dismissed as an O & T purveyor of filth! My wit & wisdom had simply been lost in translation, by an Artificial Intelligence language analysis program which was stymied by my [over]use of the Poetic Speech Function. All that quoting of rock lyrics and slang expressions…the literal-minded computer program just couldn’t cope. For a New York minute, I even considered changing the title of my most recent post…until I remembered the dictum of Epictetus. All we have in this life is our character. If we start selling out to avoid the censure of others, we will lose that.

So, I sent the editor another email that afternoon, explaining my “lost in translation” theory, and assuring him that, although I wrote about the dark side of human nature, my intent was pro bono publico. In the silence that has ensued, other ways of viewing “what went down” in the original email exchange have occurred to me. After watching the latest episode of Sherlock, “Scandal in Belgravia,” I realized that my high-frequency use of humiliation and, to a lesser extent, pain & suffering, might lead an FSC program to conclude that mine was an S & M website. Well, at least that removed any temptation to alter what I’ve written. Without the 4 precursors of anger, no GotWolf blog.

Then I took my own advice: “Consider the source,” and found out the following things about the Managing Editor.  First of all, and rather trivially, he was a Boy Scout. Therefore, presumably, if he had really found it a “shame” [kind of a Freudian slip, I’d say] that the “work network” wouldn’t “let” him view my blog, which he thought “sounds interesting,” he would have been resourceful enough to stroll down the road to the nearest Internet cafe and borrow a hipster’s laptop for a few minutes, to check out my website for himself.

Second, and more salient, his own Award Winning 1999 Doctoral Research is entitled “Bullies – Thugs or Thinkers?” To quote from his Abstract, “The public, the media, even psychologists: all have a tendency to stigmatise and pathologise individuals involved in threatening behavior as psychologically and socially abnormal or deficient. But is bullying a pathological behavior found only in a minority, or is it in fact a common identity choice actively chosen at certain times because it makes sense in certain social environments? Are the children involved inadequate, or could they be considered socially competent…even superior?”

I wonder if anyone from a certain Presidential campaign reads this blog?  If not, “shame.” They might find today’s post “interesting.”

 

 

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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, Epictetus said..., pro bono publico, semiotics

“Make a Beast of Myself”

Sam McTrusty & his 3 bandmates from Twin Atlantic [who can be heard currently on BBC 1’s A Playlist] have not only written & sung a “sticks in your head all day” song; the dreamlike video [available on YouTube] is a perfect Got-Wolf-Yes-You-Do metaphor. Filmed [according to the quid nunc Leave a Comment-ers on YouTube] in Berlin, despite all the English graffiti on the buildings, McTrusty walks [stalks?] in slow-mo down the streets of a litter-free [a tip-off it’s Germany] middle-class neighborhood, appalling most, but not all, its denizens. A Border Collie is unfazed, as are a blind man & 3 random stoners, leaning against the wall. When [in sync with the lyric, “The crisp white collar is on us”] the Polizei show up in a Beemer, the copper does not arrest our hero, but rather offers him a safe passage through the freaked-out onlookers.

The hook-y chorus captures the struggle between our hero’s humiliation-fueled aggressive impulse & his attempt to neutralize it through humor: “I wanted to laugh it off, and I want to forget that I got caught. And I wanted to laugh it off, make a beast of myself and kill them all.”

The specific source of his humiliation is not spelled out.  To be all pedantic about it, apparently a girl he cared for got “hooked on the bottle,” even though he “warned her she’d fail.” Despite his effort to act/feel cool indifference about this, he got “lost in the lava, I care, I care.” Now her shenanigans have wrecked their relationship: “You know, you know, it’s the end of our sweet universe.” So, add the pain & suffering of this loss, to the humiliation already up his nose, you know? Now the rage of his “inner wolf” is about to blow like a volcano; and the bystanders, picking up on his aggressive vibe, man, have got the fear.

But, rock fans, here’s the Beauty Part. In the arc of the video’s story, he does not make a beast of himself; he just sings about it! Whether Sam McTrusty, or only the character he plays in the vid, ever actually felt this angry about a love lost to “the bottle,” through owning his “inner wolf” and then transforming it into a funny/sophisticated/compelling act of creation, he avoided acting out the mayhem he sings about. He also has given his audience a cathartic outlet for their own wolf-inciting heartbreaks; and, I hope, he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

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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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"You can’t handle the truth!"


Back in the less politically correct turn-of-the-20th Century, there was a cartoon with the following caption: “Leading cause of adult illiteracy: CATS.” In our household, Zanzibar (pictured here “censoring” the New York Times) often makes it difficult to read All the News That’s Fit to Print. It’s fun to attribute to him the Jack Nicholson motive of shielding his lily-livered owners from the Inconvenient Truth.

Alas, as libel lawyers grow rich demonstrating every day, just cuz it’s printed don’t make it the truth, innit? [See all my previous posts under Murky Research, to bang home this observation.] Every morning I do a side-by-side comparison of articles in the NYTimes & Washington Post, which 2 “reliable sources” often use the same photo for a given story, yet recount Rashoman-like variations of the “facts.” Then I go online and use the Manchester Guardian as the tie-breaker, especially for reportage on American politics. As the not-untainted-erstwhile-NoW-editor, Piers Morgan, put it on Chelsea Lately the other night, the Brits don’t have “a dog in the race.” [A slightly more humane metaphor than the American “dog in the fight.”]

Yet, even if we are in a newspaper-free zone [like a hotel, where all they offer is The USA Today], our dear little heads do Zanzibar’s job for us. We edit incoming data heavily. We say to ourselves, “I don’t wish to know that!” and either block it, forget it, or distort it. The clinical terms for the first 2 defense mechanisms are denial & repression. The 3rd is called PR.

This morning Lili & I got to the sports park early enough that we had the place to ourselves. “Good-o!” thought I. “No worries about fraught encounters with other dogs. We’ll just enjoy the gorgeous morning.” We had completed half the circuit when we met a leashed terrier mix & his owner, so I put Lili in a down-stay to let them pass by. I was succeeding in being Lili’s Pack Leader, until the man asked, “How are you today?” When I replied, “Fine,” Lili sprang into action, dragging me across the path, so she could bark & lunge at the now-also-barking & lunging terrier, as I profusely apologized. Oy! Such humiliation I suffered! More than 7 years of daily training exercises, and I still can’t reliably control my dog. So, as we pounded the pavement even faster, to “burn off” my anger (and, possibly, Lili’s), I formulated a face-saving, fact-bending “press release,” for the next time Lili shows me up in public: “Sorry. She’s a rescue.”

Then I could imagine Jack Nicholson sneering & Zanzibar sprawling, and I pulled myself together. Amended press release: “Sorry. She’s a work-in-progress.” [And so is her owner.] I had just loaded Lili back up into the Jeep, when the terrier & owner reached their nearby car. He gave me a not-at-all-condescending wave [completely neutralizing any residual humiliation] and his terrier (perhaps noting that the fearsome wolf-like beast was safely locked up behind metal & glass) gave a farewell bark & lunge display.

The truth is, every dog & owner partnership is a work in progress. I think I can handle that.

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No Polar Bears’ Picnic


It’s been such a freakishly mild winter, so far, that I plumb forgot to put Lili’s snow boots on this weekend, for our walk in the Smithsonian woods. Here she is with Chris, just before [and after] flinging herself down on her stomach, to dramatize, “Large, painful snowballs have formed in the impractically luxuriant fur between my toes; and I can’t walk another step until you pull them out!” What was up her nose was unmistakably pain & suffering.

What was up my nose was the humiliation of having, through my silly mistake, inflicted needless discomfort on my trusting pet. What was up Chris’ nose was the intrusion of having to stop so often to perform the snow removal ceremony on Lili’s paws. “Tatsu” [to get her to stand up from her flung-down-dog position]; then “Su wa te” [to get her to sit down]; then “Gimme a paw” [well, you get it…].

And so as we made our halting way through our beloved woods, I chanted in my head Albert Ellis’ mantra [“This situation is not awful; it is only highly inconvenient.”], until we encountered our old nemeses: the girl with the unleashed retriever. Figuring that Lili’s limbic system was even more lit up than usual, Chris dragged her off the path into the trees, where she barked & lunged, embarrassingly but harmlessly, as the runner and her [short-haired] dog passed by, unhindered by snowballs between the toes, apparently.

But, as they say in the UK, worse was to follow! A few hundred yards later, we encountered an older woman running [sine cane]; and Lili gave her the full bark & lunge routine, just for nothing. The lady, whose limbic system was the least aroused of any of us, remarked cheerfully, “He’s lucky to be wearing a warm fur coat on a day like this!”

Later, on the ride home, Chris remarked, “I was afraid Lili would pull me off my feet back there!” [Welcome to my world, even when it’s only muddy underfoot.]

So, what’s it all about, then? Despite daily training exercises, to gain mastery over the howling wolf in Lili’s head [and, ahem, mine], we are still very much a work in progress. But wallowing in humiliation about it only adds fuel to the limbic fire [and more resulting anger]. The best thing to do is to use the cheerful lady in the woods as a role model: to Keep Calm & Carry On.

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