Category Archives: catharsis

My Ducks Are All in a Row

IMG_7102When I began this post, around 2 pm on 15 April 13, I was going to reminisce about this ironic lyric from James Taylor’s 1992 song, “Sun on the Moon,” which I used to play on repeat as I drove to work @ the “Laughing Academy” [Irish slang for Mental Health treatment center] in the early 2000s, as an actor’s preparation for an Improv scene, in which one’s Intention is so robust that it can withstand the onslaught of the opposing Intentions of all the other players in the scene. Sometimes I would also hum “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right…” as I mounted the stairs to my belfry office. Alas, rarely did my Intention prevail; but my belief that I might someday get [and keep] my ducks all in a row for an entire [typically, 10-hour] day never wavered…until the morning of 9/11/01. I did not entirely abandon my striving for Internal Locus of Control; but, like every other sentient being on that day, I reluctantly acknowledged that I was not the Director of my own Improv Scene. Further, I joined the ranks of those who gave up believing that the Director [if present at all] was a Mensch. Nemesis might not be in charge, but his cousin Chaos seemed to be.

I also gave up playing James Taylor’s song, even ironically. Instead, I embraced the [mostly humorless] philosophy of the Stoics, who opined that You are not in charge of your fate, only of your reaction to it. As lamented in “Sun on the Moon,” your pets, your children, and your mortal enemies have Intentions of their own, even though they sometimes impersonate biddable “ducks in a row,” just to lull you into a false sense of command & control.

Around 3 pm my Boston [actually, Cambridge] daughter called, to say that she was “okay, but very freaked out” about the “one-two punch” of explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. She reported that the city was on “virtual lockdown.” All the bridges across the Charles were closed, and public transport had stopped running. She was most concerned about her aunt [Chris’ sister] who had probably gone into work, and whose office was the site of the first blast. As Chaos would have it, there was no reaching her by cellphone to check her status. To spare you the suspense that our family endured all afternoon, we learned that evening that she happened to be in the bathroom during the blast, after which all the occupants of the building were fiercely herded outside [with no opportunity to grab purses, laptops, or cellphones] and ordered to “Clear the area! Go home!” So, without funds or means of communication, she walked the many miles back to her home in suburban Boston, found her “just-in-case” hidden house key, and emailed her most cyber-linked-in brother, who passed the word to the rest of us.

Rather than succumbing to Post-Traumatic Stress, she opted to take her Vizsla dog for a romp in the woods, during which he found a “disgusting smelling” dead creature to roll on, and had to be bustled home for a bath, thus fulfilling his function of providing much-needed Comic Relief. Indeed, that may be one of the most important functions of unbiddable pets & children:  to provide moments of Comic Relief when we are facing the intentional cruelty of our mortal enemies.

Sometimes [often, in my case], a good laugh is as cathartic as a good cry.

 

 

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Filed under catharsis, comic relief, locus of control, post-traumatic stress, Uncategorized

The Avatar Is Gone Away…

 

…but “The Wolf” lives on in all of us.

 

 

LILI  (25 April 04 – 9 October 12)

Thanks for 8 years of love & inspiration.

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“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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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, catharsis, gets right up my nose

About a Bird


Readers of this blog might have the impression that my mother was only a featured player in our family variety show. That flamboyant Rosie was the star. Indeed, when he was present, he was usually the Top Banana; but he would be the first to declare that my mother was the Class Act.

In telling her story, I shall try to resist the cognitive distortions of Black & White [all or nothing] and catastrophic [“This is awful!”] thinking. But it will be hard. Myrna [Deal with it. She had to.] was a precocious pianist, who began concertizing in Ohio and Washington, DC, in her early teens. She won a national piano contest, the prize for which was a scholarship to The Juilliard School of Music [whence she graduated with a Bachelor of Science (!) degree in 1943]. You are given a main mentor there, and hers was James Friskin [a Bach maven]; but Alexander Siloti [Rachmaninoff’s cousin] also taught there during her Juilliard years.

Now, Mumsley [a silly name my sister & I gave her, about the time our English cat got saddled with Ying Tong] was an elfin little creature: 5’2″ with very small hands. This is crucial to the absolutely true story I am about to relate [which I have fact-checked with my sister and the Internet]. One day in 1954, when we were living in Tarrytown, NY, our parents piled us into the wallowing Buick for a mystery tour, to a sprawling country house in a not-nearby-enough-for-me town [possibly Mt. Pleasant, near Valhalla, where Rachmaninoff is buried]. Myrna had been invited by “some Cousins of Rachmaninoff” [we figure, Siloti’s family], to “show them how she did it.” See, Rachmaninoff has been retrospectively diagnosed with Marfans. He was 6’6″ with huge paws, and wrote music for big-handed folks like himself. Now, whether they had heard her nifty 15-minute wartime radio show, or read a review of a concert she gave featuring the Russian giant, they wanted to watch her in action.

At 5 years old, and already dreading the drive home, I was morose…until the Cousins let fly the parakeets. Talk about chaos! As Myrna was playing, a bird alighted on the temple of her glasses, and stared her in the eye. Trouper that she was, she just kept on playing. “Open your mouth,” invited a Cousin. “He’ll check your teeth.” Myrna smiled, but kept her jaw clenched. When the command performance was over, a Cousin asked if we had a cat. Rosie piped up, “Yes, but we’ll take another, if you’re offering.” “Actually, we were going to offer you ‘Pretty Bird’ [the avian dentist]; but you have a cat.” “We’ll make it work!” assured Rosie; and home we drove, with a blue parakeet, who withstood the aerobatic maneuvers of Chip-Chip the tabby tom [whom you have yet to meet], and later of Alfred the dog, for 6 years, without mishap.

When Myrna was 35 [and I was 10], she got Multiple Sclerosis. The English still call the most rapidly-progressing type [which the cellist Jacqueline du Pre had] “galloping.” Mumsley had “cantering” MS. She continued to play publicly for another 10 years, although she required a wheelchair by then. She died 3 months before my first child was born, at 61 [my age now].

Because she was a Goody-Two-Shoes, teetotalling, sweet-natured person, it is tempting to reduce her life to an ironic cliche: “Virtue is its own punishment.” My sister’s & my fears for her led us to many impatient [angry] outcries of “Oh, Mums-ley!” As if we could shout her back to health. But she never lost patience with us, and not often with herself. She remained the mistress of the deadpan one-liner. The last time I saw her, my in-laws were visiting and she was listening, as always, to the classical music radio station. “Oh, I just love La Traviata!” enthused my mother-in-law. “How ’bout Il Trovatore?” rejoined Mumsley.

A Class Act.

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Filed under catharsis, comic relief, Epictetus said..., limbic system

Virtual Backgammon


Yes, I admit it. I am a Luddite, but not a Troglodyte. Until last Sunday I regarded computer games [especially the one which spends electricity, merely to spare the player the Therbligs it would take to shuffle and lay out an actual deck of cards] as a waste of time and resources. Not any more.

I direct your attention to a BBC on-line [see, I do use my MacBook for more than word processing] article, posted on 18 Oct 09: Virtual Reality Tackles “Shell Shock.” In it, the Beeb’s medical correspondent, Fergus Walsh, describes the successful treatment of 30 [out of a group of 40] US military personnel diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, following several tours of duty in Iraq. Alas, the 30 who responded well to the treatment were thereafter sent back to Iraq, or on to Afghanistan. But I digress…

The [non-radioactive, non-pharmaceutical] treatment was developed by Albert Rizzo, of the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, and is based on the X-Box game, Full Spectrum Warrior. We’ll get to the [literally] whiz-bang features of the current treatment soon, but first, back to Vienna.

If you recall my original “Backgammon” post, Freud used that game metaphor to describe the capture and imprisonment of one’s “soldiers” at the scene(s) of particularly harrowing “battles” in the course of one’s life. Lose too many troops [which he conceptualized as psychic energy], and you become unable to “soldier on.” His therapeutic model encouraged the traumatized individual to revisit the distressing events, recalling them in as much detail as s/he could manage, with the goal of “liberating the hostage soldiers” [regaining psychic energy]. In the actual game of backgammon, one has to throw a specific dice score, to move a “soldier” off the bar, and allow him to complete his journey home to safety [“bearing off”]. Why did this psychotherapeutic treatment take so long [or not work at all]? Resistance. Having survived [sometimes, just barely] a traumatic event, who would want to “go there” again? The Jack Nicholson censor in the mind tells the would-be recollector of a trauma, “You can’t handle the truth! I’m not going to let you remember what really happened back there.”

Let’s use the wolf [up-your-nose] model to explain the same thing. By definition, the traumatic event was frightening. If a major injury was sustained, there was pain & suffering. Often, the trauma involved the sudden intrusion of hostile individuals or their devices of destruction. Less obviously, but saliently, there may have been humiliating circumstances [such as a momentary loss of nerve, or loss of continence]. When the amygdala is thus aroused, the hippocampus is deprived of blood. Therefore, the brain’s most direct information-processing site is “off-line” during the traumatic event. Victims of violent crime are notoriously bad at picking their assailant out of a line-up. Back in college, I was a very weak witness during my deposition for my roommate’s totalled car lawsuit: unable to remember the make of the car that hit us, or even the make of the car we were in! [Luckily, the guy settled out of court, just as our case was called.]

Guthrie’s One-Trial Learning model is also relevant here. The complex stimuli of a traumatic event [the cue] may be followed by an evasive movement [as is my case], or by an aggressive movement, or by a catatonic freeze. When I was a VA Psychology Trainee in 1973, working with veterans “fresh out of the jungle” [of Vietnam], the most commonly cued movement in our clientele was aggression. Assaulting a stranger who accidentally brushed up against you from behind would get you arrested in a New York minute, back in the day. The best explanation the assailant could offer the judge was the non-specific, “All-of-a-sudden, I was back in Nam.” [Just like, all-of-a-sudden, in that shotgun seat, I am back in Durham.]

In 1999, Rothbaum et al. modified an X-Box wargame to treat a 50-year-old Vietnam vet, who had been suffering flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms since that war. Their hope was that Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy would overcome the patient’s resistance [or limbically-induced amnesia], allowing him to re-experience, in a safe and controlled setting, the traumatic events that had held him hostage for 3 decades. Once the memories were recovered, the conventional therapeutic work of processing the information and assisting the patient to “handle the truth” could begin.

As the lead clinician in the current San Diego study says, “Our different senses are very powerful cues to our memory.” Therefore, as well as tailoring the sights and sounds to re-enact the individual soldier’s traumatic event(s), the Virtual Reality program adds realistic motion [such as vibrations and sudden impacts] and smells: burning rubber, cordite, garbage, smoke, diesel fuel, Iraqui spices and what is euphemized as “body odor” [but was more likely ordure]. The subject’s heart rate and galvanic skin response [both measures of anxiety] are constantly monitored during the 30-minute VR sessions, to “keep it real,” but not so real that the original [fight/flight/freeze] movement is triggered. Then an hour of debriefing and talk-therapy ensues. The entire treatment consists of only 4 once-weekly sessions.

Just think of all the Therbligs such a treatment method could save the government! More importantly, just think of all the “hostage soldiers” it could “liberate” from their traumatic war experiences.

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"It would have made a cat laugh…"


“or a dog; I’m bid to crave an audience for a frog!” This first citation of a common British idiom [meaning, “so ridiculous, it would coax a laugh out of an improbable source”], is from The Queen of the Frogs, the last of 176 plays written by James Robinson Planche, in 1879. Besides turning French fairy tales into satirical comedies for the London stage, he was the father of the English costume drama. [Helpful for 19th Century “Kangaroos,” don’t you know.]

Now, back to what makes a rat laugh [according to Jaak Panksepp and his merry pranksters]. Before I tell you what, I’ll tell you how he knows [that a rat is laughing]. He uses the Mini-3 Bat Detector [made by the Ultra Sound Advice company, of London]. Cue the Pied Piper, in historically accurate costume. I’m not making this up. Laughing rats [also cats, dogs, primates, and human children] emit ultrasonic vocalization patterns (USVs) at the frequency of 50 KHz, which Jaak calls “chirping.” [This is in contrast to “long-distress” USVs @ 22 KHz, which express negative emotions, such as fear, “social defeat,” or anticipation of pain & suffering.] So, how do you make a rat laugh? Tickle him [or let him self-administer cocaine]. Seriously. And how do you bum a rat out? Mix cat fur into his cage bedding [or take away his blow]. Whom shall we call first: the Nobel prize committee, or PETA?

While you’re pondering that, you should know that these rats have no personal experience of cats as predators; but even one cat hair in their cage freaks ’em out. Panksepp opines that lab researchers who own cats skew rat-study data all the time, due to this overlooked fear factor on their clothing or person.

But we humans have more degrees of freedom than lab rats, many of us. What other stimuli (besides tickling & coke) might make us laugh? The ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato, thought they had the definitive answer: a feeling of superiority. According to this cynical lot, all human hilarity arises from Schadenfreude: delight at another’s humiliation. Hmm. Maybe for grown-ups. Not so much for human babies and other young mammals [who are suckers for the tickling]. Heroditus [484 – 425 BC], used historical vignettes to explain how tears of joy can so quickly turn into tears of sorrow. [How the USVs can drop from 50KHz to 22 KHz, in the blink of an eye.] He tells, for instance, of Xerxes, who is kvelling over his fleet at a regatta at Abydos, then suddenly becomes all verklempt; and when his uncle asks him,“Boychick! Was ist los?” Xerxes says, “In 100 years, all these people will be dead, and no one will know how powerful I am!” Solipsistic, much?

In 1979 psychologists Efram & Spangler posited that all tears [whether of sorrow or joy] occur during the recovery phase of limbic arousal. “All tears are tears of relief.” Miss America cries because she was so afraid she would lose. Mourners cry [according to these guys] because they are so glad that the bells are not (pace John Donne) tolling for them.

Back to our putative laureate, Panksepp. He would assume that all tears [whatever the frequency of our USVs] contain cortisol: that the relief we are experiencing [whether we label ourselves “over-the-moon” or “down-in-the-dumps”] is, whatever else, neuro-chemical.

Personally, I’m saving up for a Mini-3 Bat Detector, to find out what makes a dog [like Lili] laugh. And meanwhile, I suggest we all take careful note of what makes us laugh and/or cry. I just know there are more triggers for mirth than tickling, blow & Schadenfreude. Tell you about some of them next time, yah?

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Turn On the Waterworks


What’s the good of crying? [That’s not a rhetorical question.] Sir Henry Maudsley (1859-1944), a neurologist and psychiatrist who took care of shell-shocked Australian soldiers during World War I, knew the answer: “Sorrows which find no vent in tears may soon make other organs weep.”

Ancient Greek dramatists knew it, too, staging tragedies so shockingly blood-thirsty [remind you of a current genre?], that audiences were guaranteed to have a good, cathartic cry. Today on the Beeb [BBC radio 1, that is], as Trueblood makes its UK debut, a group of media mavens were asking each other, “What is this current fascination with vampires and such?” One pundit opined that “in times of economic distress, people need an outlet for their own misery and fear, so they give themselves a socially acceptable reason to weep and wail.”

Cue the Possibly-Mad-Scientists. My personal fave is Jaak (not-a-typo) Panksepp [originally from Estonia], who coined the term “affective [pertaining to the emotions] neuroscience.” He studies the vocalizations of animals, such as rats, and has found that they wail with distress and laugh with delight. [Today’s post is no laughing matter. Later for that.] So, guess what familiar substance is found, in significantly elevated levels, in the saliva of wailing rats (inasmuch as they do not shed tears of sorrow)? CORTISOL. It’s also found in the tears and saliva of crying humans, folks. Talk about catharsis!

So, when Lili makes that keening noise as she is sent [or, these days, sends herself] to the basement, for the misdemeanor of barking at the UPS guy, an analysis of her saliva would likely show a whole lot o’ cortisol, which she cleverly lets “Duck” [her comfort stuffed animal] absorb, as she holds him in her mouth. In a few moments, she regains her composure and is back upstairs, happy as Larry [an Australian idiom, meaning “very happy”]. Very few of Maudsley’s wartime patients were Happy as Larry, one gathers.

How lucky for Lili (and Jaak’s rats, and human children), that society permits them this low-tech method of ridding the body of toxic cortisol. How unfortunate, that when grown-ups (especially men, or women in non-traditional jobs, such as the military) weep, they are humiliated with labels such as “weak,” “manipulative,” or “suffering from a Mood Disorder.” Recent research purporting to demonstrate that weeping only makes men more distressed [especially studies using my least favorite research tool, the fMRI], have been critiqued as culturally-biased. The subject’s (radio-active) brain is registering the anticipated, negative social consequences of crying, not a “hard-wired” neuro-chemical consequence. The brain of a male actor anticipating an Oscar nomination for his convincing on-screen crying [I hypothesize] would look very different in such a study, from his brother, the Marine Corps Drill Sergeant.

Which reminds me of a harrowing but invaluable class in our acting school, in which male & female students alike had to produce real tears on cue, for a grade. In keeping with the school’s Method Acting approach, no artificial means of lacrimation [such as onion juice on one’s fingertips, or a tack in one’s shoe] were permitted. The actor must Prepare: conjure up a powerful, tear-jerking memory, and use it as the spigot, to Turn On the Waterworks. Just imagine the endorphin hit which follows the [male or female] acting student’s right-on-cue crying jag. Talk about tears of joy!

Which we will, in the next post.

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