Category Archives: ambivalence

Seize the Disc [Not the Hand]

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Unlike her predecessor, Lili [whose motto was “Quit trying to make ‘fetch’ happen.”], Emmy’s enthusiasm & talent for catching thrown round  objects was evident early on. We have found that extra-large Kong tennis balls work best inside [since they don’t always end up under the furniture]; but outside it’s definitely the floppy disc [“Flying Saucer”], which she usually catches before it hits the ground, even in high & variable winds. Our one day of serious & unseasonable snow last month made the footing a little tricky; but she was still able to get under it & launch herself a couple of feet off the ground for the midair pick & roll.

As much as she loves to catch things, though, she is still a puppy; and she loves to chew things more. Valuable playtime & owner patience are wasted, while she savagely gnaws her beloved toy, finally yielding to the command “Bring!” then, reluctantly, to “Drop!” and, less reliably, “Sagare” [“Back up”] & “Zin-zin.” [“Stay”]. A test of nerve & will [not to mention, reflex time] then ensues. Will her desire to continue the game override her instinct to seize the disc before I pick it up? Woe betide her, if she inadvertently grabs my hand. [That hasn’t happened in months, luckily.] Even if she grabs the disc, it’s “game over.”  I fold my arms, utter a discouraging word, “Baca!” [“Fool!”], and stalk off back towards the house in high dudgeon. If she manages to get ahead of me and drop the disc at my feet before I’ve gone too far, and then backs off, the game resumes.

My power subtext: “It’s my way or the highway, Little Grasshopper!”

Even with all the adrenaline the game produces, she always comes back in from it a better-mannered dog.

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Many Therbligs expended. Ready for a little nap.

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Filed under ambivalence, leading a pack, power subtext

A New Life Anchor

IMG_3594So here she is: Emmy (as in the television award).  Born on 17 August 2013, she was completely overlooked by us when we started schlepping the 90 minutes to her breeder’s in late August, fixated as were were on the pups of a black “dam” (bitch, to those in the biz).  Although we had paid lip service to wanting a confident & friendly dog this time, we were clearly trying to replace Lili with a black, long-haired clone. Our wise (or possibly manipulative, we have yet to decide) breeder redirected us to the litter next door, saying, “Pat, the puppy I have in mind for you is going to choose you.”photo-60Looking at least 2 weeks older than her litter-mates and already so fuzzy that her kennel name was “Bear,” this young charmer licked my hand, stole my heart, and–in late October–made the tedious but uneventful car journey to our home. All the puppy books with an opinion on traveling music suggest Classical; but little Emmy howled until we found an R & B station, and promptly let Seal serenade her to sleep.

However, this is a blog about the dark side of human and canine nature, of which much will be recounted and analyzed, in terms of what got up various noses. Having gotten Lili @ 4 months, we were unprepared for the exhausting intrusion of a 9-week-old puppy’s physical & emotional demands. For one thing, the relentlessly cold & rainy weather didn’t make the 2-hourly benjo [“bathroom”] trips much fun. Then there was a seemingly endless series of medical issues [none of them show stoppers, as in Return the Pup to Breeder for a “Replacement,” as specified in the useless purchase contract], each requiring the daunting & painful insertion of expensive prescription drugs past her razor-sharp teeth into her gullet. Although they mostly stayed down, they played havoc with her guts. [Think “Carnival cruise” squalor.]

Poor little Emmy, none of that was her fault.  Nor was my initial inability to forgive her for not being Lili.  The more I owned up to my wolfish ambivalence, though, the less power it had over me. By the time we enrolled in Dog Class with our old trainer, I had fallen deeply in love with Emmy [even if I sometimes call her Lili by mistake. After all, like all Irish mothers, I constantly call my 2 human daughters by the other’s name.]. The turning point was an actual fall [to which I am prone, as we all know]. She & I were walking in a park with paved paths on a rainy day, and had just successfully negotiated the second of 2 slippery wooden bridges, when my foot caught on a slight unevenness in the path & I went crashing to the ground, wrenching my wrist & losing hold of the leash in the process. As I lay helpless on the inconveniently deserted path, wondering if I could even walk, much less retrieve my free-range puppy, she rushed over to lick me and whimper her concern & encouragement, just like Rin-Tin-Tin!

On our weekly constitutional up & down the hilly streets of Colonial Annapolis [where the dockside photo was taken], this friendly, well-mannered little girl has many admirers, especially among cops, sailors and delivery men. [She loves UPS!] But an elderly lady made my day when she bent down to hug Emmy [who seems to enjoy that], wheezing.”It’s Rinny! It’s Rin-Tin-Tin! Just like on TV!”

Hence the name.

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Filed under ambivalence, gets right up my nose, transitional objects

No Teddy Bears’ Picnic


If you’re familiar with Harry Hall’s 1932 recording of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, ” you’re in distinguished company. For more than 30 years, BBC sound engineers used it to check frequency cycles before broadcasts, because of the fidelity of the recording and the wide-ranging pitches of the little ditty. Tell you something else that was wide-ranging: Irish lyricist Jimmy Kennedy’s various attributions of the danger posed by Teddy Bears in the woods. For a supposedly light-hearted children’s song, it’s as full of dark foreboding as a Twilight flick. “If you go into the woods today, you’d better go in disguise…you’d better not go alone. It’s lovely out in the woods today, but safer to stay at home.” And why all the angst? “Today’s the day the Teddy Bears have their picnic.”

I’m not a big fan, never was, of sending mixed messages to children about safety hazards. Seems to me there are enough truly scary things and situations out there “in the woods” to worry about, without setting up “straw men” like picnicking Teddy Bears, nar’mean? But that’s me being literal-minded, rather than Poetic, about it. I’ve read [and recommended] Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment, the point of which is, that Grimm fairy tales [and zombie films, and their ilk] afford a less amygdala-setting-off, more reassuringly metaphorical way of facing our fears.

About 2 months ago, as Chris & I were walking Lili into the thick of the woods, a middle-aged woman [I should talk!], clad in a brown velour track suit which the 80s wanted back, jogged up to us and said, “Better be careful! There are police in the woods!” Intrigued, Chris & Lili forged ahead, while I stumbled behind them [my ankles suddenly turning to jelly from anxiety]. “A dead body? An armed & dangerous felon?” I wondered. What did their presence betoken, that had so freaked out the Lady in Velour? When Chris saw them, he asked “What’s up?” They said, “We’re looking for hunters.” They were U.S. Federal Special Police Officers, from the Smithsonian Institution Office of Protection Services [Did I mentions that “our” woods are a Smithsonian nature preserve?], acting on a tip that hunters had been spotted in the area. So we regaled them with anecdotes of our many encounters with [apparently illegal] hunters in the woods over the years, and they admired Lili, and gave me a business card with their phone & fax numbers, asking that Lili & I be their “eyes & ears” on our daily rounds. “Our office is just around the corner, and we’ll be waiting to hear from you.”

Talk about an official seal of approval! It was as if Lili had been transformed from a ravening beast, to a Deputy Dawg! I may continue to experience fear, intrusion, and even pain & suffering when I trip over a hidden tree root; but I think my days of humiliation in the woods are over.

But what, we wondered, was Brown Jogging Lady so spooked about? Was she a superannuated Hippie, who still regarded the Fuzz as the foe? [This was before OWS, mind.] Had they advised her not to wear deer-colored clothing in the woods during hunting season, or she could get shot?

Like Jimmy Kennedy, she manifested ambivalence about the threat level in the woods that day. I do, too, of course, always dreading my next encounter with Skipper the Unleashed and his insouciant owner. As it happened, the very next day Chris, Lili & I were once again menaced by the appalling pair; and I just happened to drop the name of the Smithsonian Police.

Haven’t seen them since. Still, with other free-range dogs about, newly fallen lumber every day, and muddy footing, it’s no picnic.

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Filed under ambivalence, attribution theory, limbic system

That "Frenemies" Thing


Well, stone the crows, all these years I have been attributing this zero-sum-gaming motto to Gore Vidal; but now I find it, in a 1966 TIME magazine article, falling out of the gob of the hugely successful Broadway producer, David Merrick: “It is not enough for me to succeed; all others must also fail.” How humiliating, to have gotten it wrong! (Although I’m not alone. Others have credited Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan. Do I hear a nomination for Machiavelli?) The article, incidentally, in that halcyon, less in-your-face-snarky era of journalism, was called “The Be(a)st of Broadway,” geddit? Cuz, Mr. Merrick was (ahem) ambivalently regarded by the theatrical community.

Now, a short diatribe on the clinical meaning of “ambivalence” (as opposed to the “street” meaning, of “I hate his guts!”): “simultaneous conflicting feelings toward a person or thing, as love and hate” [Webster’s, 1988 ed.] Not, “as fear and loathing,” nar’mean? To illustrate this point in therapy sessions, I hold out my hands in the “supplicant palms” position, and intone, “On the one hand, ya-dah-ya-dah. On the other hand, la-di-dah.” I then say, “There are very few things or individuals in our lives, about which we humans are not ambivalent.”

Oh, but how we hate to admit it! Even to ourselves. So, hurrah for the new portmanteau word, “frenemy,” which captures the both-hands [simultaneously positive & negative] feelings which we can sense in others [but only bald-faced truth-tellers, like Merrick & Vidal, will acknowledge in themselves]. We’ll know that this brave willingness to admit to ambivalent feelings, about even our Nearest & Dearest, has made it into mainstream consciousness, when “to frenemy” someone becomes a transitive verb in Facebook parlance.

The next post will deal with the ways people avoid Owning their Inner Wolf [as in, acknowledging that another’s success can stir feelings of humiliation that they got the “prize” we wanted, and even fear that there won’t be enough “prizes” to go around].

Meanwhile, here are Seamus & Finn, locked in some sort of close contact. Is it a hug or combat? That’s easy. It’s both.

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Filed under ambivalence, zero-sum-gaming

The Holy Ground


True, full-time Hibernians [not youse who are bein’ Irish just for today, to honor St. Padraig] will know that the so-called “Holy Ground” of the old song [also referenced in a second song on Mary Black’s album of de same name] is not a religious place at all [like, God-save-us-all, East Jerusalem, or Mecca], but the red-light district in the port town of Cobh, in County Cork, from whence set sail many of our immigrant forebears, from the land of green fields and not enough food, to the land of green beer and food galore.

It is, thus, an ironic [Poetic] figure of speech, capturing both halves of the ambivalence which the Irish diaspora feel for their country of origin. For centuries, Eire was [as Dr. Samuel Johnson said of Scotland], “a grand place to be from.” In Mary Black’s song, “The Loving Time,” [the first line of which is, “Reads like a fairytale, cuz that’s what it was.”] it connotes the power of sentimental, romantic love to [temporarily] blind a couple to their [possibly irreconcilable] differences: “…and the Holy Ground took care of everything.” Spoiler alert. The last verse of this bravely wolf-acknowledging song begins, “It didn’t come true in the end. They went their separate ways.” Rather like Old Mother Ireland and Her then desperately hungry, later desperately nostalgic, children.

Suggested reading: Tom Hayden’s [yes, that Tom Hayden] historical and autobiographical book, Irish On the Inside.

So, here’s the point of this post. Any piece of real estate which holds powerful intimations [both sweet and bitter] of actual or legendary happenings, can become “the holy ground” for an individual, a couple, a family, or a tribe. In the Fall of 1957 my father drove through Gate 3 of his alma mater, the Naval Academy, and parked [illegally] in front of the Chapel for long enough to run into the Admin building and report for duty. My usually Stoic mother burst into tears. Was she afraid the Jimmy Legs [the Yard police] were going to ticket our car? Or was she overcome by the sight of the Chapel, where she & Rosie were married in a tiny, wartime service? Turns out the Chapel was a mere synecdoche for the whole USNA mystique, which, to one degree or another, our whole family [along with many others] have come to regard as “the holy ground.” In 1958 my mother dramatically fell ill with MS while walking on the Academy grounds; yet I found myself inexorably drawn back to live and work there, in 1976 and in 2000. And it’s not because of all the rollicking fun to be had there [especially, this last time round]. It’s because of the memories of the good and bad times I had there with The Now Departed [my parents], whose presence [I believed] would feel more palpable there, than anywhere else on earth.

It was, do you see, a Transitional Object [like a Teddy bear, or Alfred the dog, or Ciotogach the cat], that helps one to feel closer to “the ones that we love true,” to paraphrase the song.

How randomly can a place become “the holy ground”! Not for its intrinsic beauty, or bounty, or balmy weather, or enlightened folkways; but because it is the repository of memories, of Us interacting with [ambivalently] loved Others. When you’re in it [as I learned early, in my peripatetic Navy childhood] it’s often hard to believe that you’re going to look back on a place with nostalgia. I spent my first two months in England [now, the holiest of my “holy grounds”] squinting at ViewMaster reels of the Naval Academy and weeping for what was lost. Who could have imagined that, one day, I would be using Google Maps to take virtual rambles round my beloved English “home place” [as the Irish say] of Stoke D’Abernon, where Ying Tong the cat was regarded with such ambivalence [mostly, negative] by all the neighbors.

Speaking of rambles, I am wise enough to know that the South River woods [in which Lili once again warned me of a suddenly-falling-but-this-time-without-audible-warning, 30-foot tree trunk, not 20 yards ahead of us, on today’s walk] will be added to my list of “holy grounds” [if I am not struck down by falling lumber first].

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"I’m wild again, beguiled again…"


Lorenz Hart’s original lyrics to the hit song of the 1940 musical Pal Joey, “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered,” were so risque that Bowdlerized [watered-down, Disney-fied] phrases are usually substituted, to mollify modern, Tipper Gorean sensibilities. Even if you are familiar with the song, bet you haven’t heard this opening gambit, sung by a girl, already: “After one whole quart of brandy, like a daisy I awake, with no Bromo Seltzer handy…” [Talk about “Tried to make me go to rehab, but I said ‘no, no, no.'”]

Sportsfans, I tell ya, simply pretending that you have no wolf [no temptation to behave recklessly and regrettably] doesn’t stop your wolf from going wild. Beguiled, we’ll get to in a moment.

When, in another part of the forest, I used to interview young people whose misuse of alcohol had come to the attention of the authorities, I encouraged them to recapture their [pre-bust] enthusiasm for their beverage of choice. [See the post, “Crazy Like a Fox.”] To cut to the chase I would ask a young man, “Tell me what’s better about an evening spent with Ethyl.” [Young ladies were asked about an evening with Fred. As in Mertz. Nar’mean?] Protestations of “Nothing! Nothing was good about it! It was stupid! I was led astray by my so-called friends,” were dismissed as unhelpful stonewalling. Until any of us can look back on our shenanigans from the Crazy Fox’s point of view, as “seeming like a good idea, at the time,” we are none the wiser about what makes us tick, and no less likely to try it again.

Even when granted amnesty [or confidentiality], though, most of my “drunken sailors” were initially reluctant to “go there”: to let the Crazy Fox explain what it was trying to accomplish. The heroine of the Rogers & Hart song goes there. She tells us she is wildly, hopelessly attracted to an off-limits guy, so she spent the night with Fred [a quart of brandy]. Her Crazy Fox beguiled her into believing that Fred would take her mind off Mr. Wrong, at least temporarily. The song is a morning-after lament: “Well, ‘going wild’ didn’t work. I’m still bewitched, bothered & bewildered by this guy, only now I have a hangover, too.” I’ll let you look up the original lyrics, to find out if she ever wises up, or comes to a bad end.

Trouble is, insight into the Crazy Fox’s motive comes at a cost: humiliation. [Sometimes, also pain & suffering.] Not everyone is prepared to pay that price, until all other options have been exhausted. How ’bout a bit of denial? “I’m just not like that.” Or rationalization? “I don’t have to try to understand this, because it’s a one-time-deal, not a pattern.” Or projection? “I didn’t start this. S/he did provoke [beguile] me.”

Recommended reading: the mid-section of DFW’s Infinite Jest, featuring the AA meetings.

Imagine what Lili & Zanzibar are saying in this picture. Actually, there were no shenanigans going on here, for once. Peaceable kingdom. But doesn’t Lili look guilty of something?

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Filed under ambivalence, understanding shenanigans

Trademark Bandanna


The week the of the Challenger disaster, in late January ’86, was made more horrific for the students & staff @ the College of the Holy Cross (in Worcester, MA)–where I was, improbably, a Visiting Professor–by 3 factors. The female teacher-astronaut on board was considered a beloved local girl, so the loss felt intensely personal to many. That weekend, my most promising student in Intro Psych died in a freak skiing accident; and the next day the head coach of a varsity team hanged himself. All of us on the staff, being familiar with the phenomenon of The Contagion of Suicide in Institutional Settings, held many impromptu class teach-ins, as well as individual crisis interventions; and, miraculously, the loss of life stopped with the coach.

I thought about that long-ago, macabre week at ‘Da Cross, on 12 September ’08, when the death by hanging of David Foster Wallace (whom his Claremont students, among others, referred to as DFW) was reported. Our daughter didn’t have a class with him, but some of her friends did–sitting in an empty classroom, wondering where on earth he was…whom to ask…when to bag it, and just go on to “the next destination on their maps,” as DFW would have put it…not knowing that he had decided to “eliminate [his] own map for keeps,” as he euphemizes suicide in his mammoth [1079-page] 1996 novel, Infinite Jest.

No matter how Existentially live-and-let-die we Mental Health Providers think we are, most of us see suicide as a Bad Outcome, a Postponable but Irrevocable Solution to a Temporary Problem, and often a Provocation to Others to Follow Suit. [The caps are in honor of DFW’s writing style, since I deplore his untimely end, but find myself enthralled by his big ol’ book.] On the last day of our visit to Claremont this week, we were trolling around bookstores, in search of the latest Pynchon novel, and Dorsey’s Atomic Lobster, and similar light fare, when our kid hefted DFW’s two-and-a-half-pound tome onto the pile, and said, “It’s time.”

Back in our hotel room, while she crashed out for a power nap, I did my let-the-fairies-pick-the-page method of literary sampling (used to great effect in my college days, by all us cognitive ‘Roos, who had no hope of reading the assigned “book a night” from front to back). DFW’s iconic read was just crying out for this method, often having been referenced in other Hipster Lit, as in “Let’s get totally stoned and see if we can get past page 70 of Infinite Jest.” So the fairies chose page 348, and I dove in, and woke our kid up with my raucous laughter. (We had to go by me my own copy that night, for reading on the plane.)

If you know someone who is (or should be) in a 12-step recovery program, this part of the book is the most accurate (yet hilarious) depiction of the ambivalence People in The Program feel about The Program, that I have ever read. I may, eventually, circle back to page 1; but for now I’m just pressing on, towards page 1079. In a 1996 Salon interview, right after the book’s original publication, DFW said he had tried to write “a sad book,” since he had already tried funny and ironic. Asked about the inclusion of so many AA scenes, he said he meant for them to “stand for the lostness and what you do when the things you thought were going to make you OK, don’t.”

In the many postmortum articles since his suicide, much is made of the fact that he had taken an arcane, hardly-ever-used-anymore anti-depressant for 20 years, until the toxic side-effects got too bad. Reportedly, when he stopped, his depressive symptoms returned with a vengeance; but reinstating the drug did not help. How prophetic, then, his phrase, from 12 years earlier: “what you do when the things you thought were going to make you OK, don’t.”

Before dipping into his book, I speculated that ol’ DFW had suffered the consequences of a “Stifled Wolf.” That his unacknowledged anger got turned in against himself, and took him out. Tell you what, though, his fictional characters are All Wolf, All the Time, especially in the AA scenes (which is what makes them the most hilarious part of the story). Twelve years is a long time between “howlings,” though, if–as everyone who knew him says–he was Meek As a Lamb in person. He would give various explanations for the wearing of his ubiquitous, trademark bandanna, including “to keep my head from exploding.” If only, if only, he had allowed himself to channel some of his raging AA characters into his real life persona, to risk offending others, to unwrap his huge head and let some steam escape…

Well, let’s not make that fatal mistake, ourselves. Let’s acknowledge our inner wolf, and every now and then (when we’re where it’s safe, as safe as an AA meeting, where they can’t kick you out for what you say, no matter how outrageous), let’s untie the bandanna, and howl at the moon like a wolf, and realize, with relief, that our head didn’t actually explode, after all.

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Filed under ambivalence, comic relief, stifled wolf, understanding shenanigans