Category Archives: gets right up my nose

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

Applied Stoicism (Or, Marky Mark Aurelius Was The Man, Man!)

In casting around for ways to cope with Lili’s heartbreaking Degenerative Myelopathy, both emotionally & practically, I recently reread the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius [written ca. 170-180 AD], which are timeless, or very timely. To quote him: “There is nothing new; all things are both familiar and short-lived.”

Inasmuch as Lili’s motto, in the face of rapidly progressing back-leg numbness, ataxia (drunken-sailor gait) & frequent collapses, seems to be: “Keep Calm & Carry On,” I would say she is more Aurelian than I am, at the moment.

For instance, she is my role model for this bit of advice: “Remember, too, on every occasion that leads thee to vexation to apply this principle:  not that this is a misfortune, but to bear it nobly is good fortune.”  I texted that one to my daughter at work, who immediately “got it,” and wrote back, “So, life is how you react.”

He’s very into noticing when humiliation gets up “thy” nose, and challenging it with Cognitive Reframing concerning Locus of Control: “But death certainly, and life, honour & dishonour, pain & pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men & bad, being things which make us neither better or worse.”  You’ve been dealt a rotten hand? Who cares if you deserved it, or if it was just random bad luck? Play the hand you’re dealt, and let the Greek chorus of kibitzers tend to their knitting (to mix a metaphor): “So much more respect have we to what our neighbor shall think of us than to what we shall think of ourselves,” observed the Philosopher King. And, yes, I agree with those who quibble, “Easy for you to say, Your Majesty. Noblesse oblige, and all that; but for us hoi-poloi, in high-density living situations, ‘one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor’ [as Rhymin’ Simon says].”

Speaking of the neighbors, we have gone out of our way [and comfort zone], to explain to ours, what’s up with Lili [not contagious, not painful, “not anyone’s fault”…unless you count her breeders, but let’s not dwell on that]. They have been, without exception, sympathetic and supportive…and grateful that their dogs have been spared Lili’s fate.

But, as Marky Mark would remind us, we’re all on Lili’s journey, even if we’re not as close to the other “shore,” as she is. Therefore, he counseled, “Thou will give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were thy last.” Be like Lili: “Keep calm & carry on.”

 

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Filed under Epictetus said..., gets right up my nose, locus of control

“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

“Thank you.” (For what?)

Before I launch into tales of our latest woodland (mis)adventure, a word about my “file photos” used in this blog. The ones featuring Lili in the woods, unleashed, are either carefully staged, 2-minute photo shoots (after which she is safely back “under harness”), or they date from back in the day, before we realized how foolhardy (and illegal) free-range dog walking in the Smithsonian nature preserve, or other municipal parkland areas, is, around these parts. Since yesterday’s walk took place at the sports park, without an accompanying photog, the scene was re-enacted this morning on our own property (think shooting Pasadena for Westchester County, in MadMen).

After more than a week of glorious walks in the Smithsonian woods during Spring Break, it’s been a tough transition back to the sports park, mostly because there’s so much more dog traffic, even before 8 a.m. I have come to associate certain vehicles with specific “challenges.” The tiny Beemer coupe transports 2 giant Bernese dogs; the green Yukon brings “Murphy,” an irrepressible golden puppy; and the red Subaru brings 3 untamed (often unleashed) “rescues,” whose lady owner speaks to them earnestly (but ineffectually) about “being good citizens” and “observing the golden rule.” My motto has become “(Almost) anything for a quiet life.” I will alter course on a dime, to avoid a snarly encounter with a free-booting dog.

As we were finishing the 1st half of our planned circuit, a silver Range Rover nearly ran us down, pulling into the otherwise vacant parking lot. “No way he/they can catch up with us,” I calculated, so when we got to the mini-woods at the back of the park, I decided we could circle back and walk it twice. At which point, on the crest of a little hill appeared a lovely but unleashed black Lab, who charged down to get up in Lili’s face. To my credit, despite much mutual canine snarling and skirmishing, I did manage to spit out “Oy! Suwate! (hey! sit down!),” which left Lili “boxing her corner” from a sitting position, rather than dragging me off my feet. To my utter humiliation, though, I then let out an involuntary, Hitchcock victim, blood-curdling scream, which brought the Lab’s owner, the Sloan Ranger, into view. He calmly walked up to his dog and said, “Sit,” which the dog did; and he clipped on a leash.

And then, without emotive inflection or evident irony, he said, “Thank you.”

As Lili & I high-tailed it out of the woods and back to the parking lot, I pondered, “Thank whom? For what?” Your dog, for obeying your command? Me, for not berating you for having your dog off-the-leash and out-of-sight? Dunno. Didn’t stop to inquire, although, I no sooner had Lili loaded & locked in the Jeep, than Sloan & Labby materialized in the parking lot, too. (We had double-timed back, so they must have triple-timed.)

Oh well, as the (inescapable, this week) British cliche has it, “Worse things happen at sea.” And what a useful phrase, to add to my repertoire of (power subtext) remarks signifying, “I am not your enemy, but I am not your victim.” Recently I have been coaching my (socially put-upon) patients to try the New Yorker’s universal comeback, “I know! Right?”  But that’s a bit Big Girl’s Blouse [UK slang for girlish], for the guys. Look how well Mr. Just Finished My Photo Shoot for Dunhill’s carried it off: “Thank you.”

I can hardly wait to try it out, myself.

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Filed under gets right up my nose, power subtext

Nostalgia

Do you know the MGMT song, “Kids”? It’s the 21st Century version of Cat Stevens’ “Remember The Days in the Old School Yard.” These world-weary 20-something lyricists [Ingrosso, Goldwasser & VanWyngarden] are reminiscing about their lost youth: “Take only what you need from it. A family of trees wanted to be haunted.” When the howling wind made the trees in the Smithsonian woods creak and groan, I couldn’t get that song out of my head.

Notice the past tense. A few weeks ago, the policy of allowing leashed dogs to transit school property to enter the woods was rescinded. A batty lady very loosely in charge of 3 free-range dogs [whom we had unpleasantly encountered earlier that month] had let her Lab menace a walking party of school children; and now all dogs are banned. Highly inconvenient, since we have yet to find another way into the nature preserve. Highly ironic, too, since we had just been given the blessing of the Smithsonian Police to patrol the woods for hunters, innit?

It’s not only the intrusion of having to find another place for Lili’s daily trek; it’s the humiliation of remembering the time when Lili was the Off-the-Hook bad dog [and I, the bad owner], several years earlier, when she menaced a Vizcla on the school grounds. Ironically (again), just the day before I got warned off by the School Safety Officer, Lili & I met the [always unleashed] Vizcla & her owner in the parking lot, without any drama. After I had loaded Lili into the car, I made friendly overtures to the other dog, who seemed to chagrin her owner by coming over and licking my proffered “paw.”

But now to the heart of the matter. As I have made clear in such posts as “What’s keepin’ ya?” and “The Holy Ground,” our walks in those particular woods have given structure & meaning to my life [Can’t speak for Lili’s existential experience.]; and the prospect that they may be forever lost to us causes me emotional pain & suffering (aka, nostalgia).

Having done this Wolf Work on myself, I knew that the only way out of my anger was to seek out another “family of trees [that] wanted to be haunted.” Before we had discovered the joys of the Smithsonian woods, we used to walk Lili in a municipal sports park [on an erstwhile landfill, now converted to a nature preserve]. It has much to recommend it. It’s about equidistant from our house, but nowhere near a school. The dogs-on-the-leash rule is strictly enforced by park rangers. In previous years a family of Blue Herons graced the wetlands pond. (This year we’ve spotted turtles, beavers, deer, and the occasional snake.) In the past, I had found the paved paths a bit too safe & boring, compared to the rough & ready challenge of the Smithsonian woods. However (hurrah!), the other day I discovered a dirt path leading into some woods on the edge of the park, complete with trip-you-up tree roots & a bluff with a stunning view of a tidewater inlet way below. Reminds me of when I was a kid in Tarrytown, overlooking the Hudson River.

So, see? The cure for nostalgia is…nostalgia. The cure for one Paradise Lost is to find another Paradise (which might one day also be lost), innit?

Meanwhile, during Winter Break it’s been “crickets” @ the old school yard. No children to menace and no authorities to enforce the No Walkies Zone. We may have revisited “The Holy Ground” a time or two; but when it’s term time, we’ll make new memories in “another part of the forest” that graces this Chesapeake estuary.

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Filed under gets right up my nose, transitional objects, what's it all about?

Throwing Shade


Talk about humiliating! What kind of music have I been listening to for the last 15 years, that I missed out on the idiom, “to throw shade”? Well, obviously, not to Li’l Kim (nee Kimberly Denise Jones), the Bed/Stuy (Brooklyn) rapper, whose 1996 hit “Crush On You” contains the lyric, “I’ma throw shade if I don’t get paid.” Back in the day, the only American rapper I cared about was Eminem [for the arbitrary reason that his hometown, Sterling Heights (Michigan), is where we stabled our horses, Dusk & Owen].

These days I am obsessed with UK rappers, but mostly guys, as heard on BBC Radio 1.

Anyway, the phrase was being bandied about in the middle of the night this weekend, by “tired & emotional” [a euphemism used in the UK press, to avoid libel actions] young people, who couldn’t clarify its meaning just then. “Is it a good thing, or a bad thing, to ‘throw shade’?” I kept asking, to no avail. For the rest of you tragically un-hip, I can now inform you [according to the Urban Dictionary], it’s a bad thing, similar to dissing someone. As to its derivation, their guess is that it comes from that old expression, “to put someone in the shade.” [To outshine them, with one’s wonderfulness.] As used on the Night in Question, I would speculate that it could be a corruption of the German word, Schadenfreude [joy in another’s shame], which (though actually pronounced “shodden froy-deh”) might be transliterated “fro da shade.” [Nar-mean? “Throw the shade,” innit?]

So, who is likely to “throw (da) shade,” and why? Well, duh! Individuals who feel dissed, themselves, are gonna want to diss the disser back, in retaliation. Or…should the disser be unavailable [or too dangerous to diss directly], a proxy target of our aggression [cuz, let’s face it, a diss is an act of aggression] may be substituted. A small example from last week comes to mind. Ruth, the Maine Coon, has made bold [in her 21st year] to usurp the couch pillow [next to me, as I type this] from the erstwhile Top Cat, Zanzibar. She was ruling this roost when Zanzibar came up to roust her [or at least share the spot with her]. The couch is big. They’re small. All 3 cats plus Lili could fit on it easily, with room to spare for a blogger. But Ruth was having none of it. She blasted young Zanzibar with a sustained, foul-smelling hiss [a clear diss], until he backed off, pivoted, and smacked sleeping Lili upside the head with his paw [an act of displaced aggression]. Since Lili is besotted with Zanzibar, she did not appear to feel dissed [perhaps, mistook his bop for a love pat], and, in the event, she did not retaliate.

As noted in previous posts, a diss is often in the eye of the beholder. Think of the last time you felt humiliated by the basking of another in the [often arbitrary] limelight of fame, fortune or admiration, while you have been toiling, thanklessly, in the shadows. Gets right up your nose, nar’mean? A former patient of mine described being on the losing end of Fate’s Wheel of Fortune as, “An existential smack on the snout.” It makes you [or me, at least] want to howl, “Das ist nicht FAIR!” like the Clever Dogs of Austria.

I say, first do the Wolfwork of admitting how angry the [implied or in-your-face] diss makes you feel. Then, try to resist passing on the pain by dissing an innocent proxy [a sleeping dog], rather than the actual source of your humiliation [Ruth]. If possible, throw shade so subtly that you don’t get into trouble for it.

The tree that is throwing shade on Lili in the picture is, alas, in big trouble, leaning as it does perilously close to our house in a time of howling winds & earthquakes. The axeman cometh.

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Filed under aggression happens, gets right up my nose, zero-sum-gaming

Never the Same Woods Twice


Or maybe it is? Pre-Socratic philosophers started debating this point around 500 BC. Heraclitis may (or may not) have said “Panta rhei” [“Everything changes (or, possibly, flows)”], famously declaring that one could never dip one’s toe into the same stream twice. Pamenides, on the other hand, was an early conservation-of-matter guy, declaring “Change is impossible.” There is nothing new under the sun. [Not even the sun.] Wade Lassister set this idea to music in the finale of the 1980 musical & film, Fame: “I sing the body electric (a line lifted directly from Leaves of Grass). I celebrate the me yet to come. I toast to my own reunion, when I become one with the sun.” The song ends cute with the astrophysical & show biz prediction, “and in time, and in time, we will all be stars.”

It’s still a hot topic for Presidential candidates, whether the Earth’s climate is actually, irreversibly changing, or just going through what David Bowie might call one of its cyclical “Ch-ch-changes.” If only we were French, and could simply finesse the argument with a bon mot: “Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose.”

For a while this summer, every walk in the woods lent support to what Parmenides termed dismissively “the mistaken opinion that things had changed.” In the wake of the earthquake, and tropical storms, many mighty trees had fallen. Some of them, eerily, days later. [Thank goodness for Lili, the “timberwolf,” who in the past has given me a “heads up” of falling lumber, and so allayed my fear of being poleaxed.]

But falling trees have not been the only hazard on our woodland walks this summer. A few weeks ago we were assailed by an unleashed, Hound-of-the-Baskervilles-type dog, who came growling and charging at us, leaving its (oblivious? psychopathic?) master far behind. It was fear that got up my nose, but Lili might have been merely affronted by the intrusion. In the melee of snarls & skirmishes that ensued, I was dragged off my feet (not once, but twice), in an attempt to keep hold of Lili’s leash. Only when I was on the ground the second time, did the other owner speak. “I’ll call my dog, and he’ll follow me,” he said. By now, my humiliation and pain & suffering had banished all Japanese commands from my consciousness, and I was reduced to shouting “God damn it!” to all and sundry. I can vouch for the efficacy of swearing as an analgesic, though [see “Why Keep a Dog & Bark Yourself?”]. On the wings of my adrenaline, we flew through the woods in record time; and only later at home, when the bruises “bloomed,” did I realize that I could have been seriously injured.

Since then, I have “played Backgammon” with the incident, revisiting it in my mind, trying to figure out what would have been a better “Not your victim, not your enemy” response to the situation, to make it stop haunting me. In retrospect, I decided I should have told the owner to grab hold of his dog. [Nar’mean?] I should also have taken off my over-the-shoulder European leash and held it in both hands, for better leverage. Every time I’ve seen his telltale Range Rover illegally parked at the entrance to the woods (where are the police when you want them?), I have rehearsed my “flame-out chart” what-to-do list, ready for action.

Yesterday was the rematch. This time, the owner was strolling even farther behind his snarling, charging dog. Initially, I commanded Lili [in our Japanese code] to “lie down” and “stay”; but when the other dog made aggressive contact, I realized our power subtext was “lame gazelle,” so I just held onto Lili’s leash as she barked and lunged. This time I yelled, “Do you have a leash?” No reply. Eventually, the owner called “Skipper” a few times, and reluctantly the dog left the fray and headed back to its master, only to turn around and make a second sortie. This time I shouted, “Do you have a leash?” until he beckoned Skipper again, and they proceeded on their way.

So, that was my Parmenidian moment: “Nothing changes. You can try to rewrite the script, but you’ll still end up looking (and sounding) like a shrill, histrionic loser who can’t take the heat, while the smug thug with the flash car and the free-range dog looks like a winner.”

Ah, but was it a complete rerun? At least this time I didn’t fall down and get dragged like a rodeo clown; and I communicated clearly that the guy should have put his dog on a leash [which is both the custom and the law in these woods]. So, encouraged, we forged ahead with our walk.

Just as we were cresting the hill where the mid-summer fracas had occurred, I made out the outlines of a tall man and a large dog approaching. But I took the Heraclitian view, that these two were not my old nemeses, that each man/dog encounter was “a different stream,” and that things might turn out differently for us this time. So I put Lili at a “down/stay,” ensuring her compliance by stepping on the leash to keep her there. A totally different man, with a Cockney accent and a huge black lab on a chain, smiled as they passed peaceably by, and said, “I do that, too. I put my foot on the lead sometimes, for more control.”

Heraclitis was right! It’s never the same woods twice.

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Filed under attribution theory, gets right up my nose, power subtext

Hide or Seek?


When you find yourself in times of trouble (you know, terrorist attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, extended power outages), do you want to hide under the covers until it’s over, or seek out the company of others? One day in 1975, while sitting in the back row of an American Airlines jet out of LaGuardia, I had a great view of the port-side engine exploding on take-off. The laid-back voice of the pilot came on, drawling, “Now, folks, those of you on the lefthand side of the aircraft might have noticed a loud bang and some sparks coming out of the engine just now. We’ve shut it down, and we’ll be circling Long Island Sound for a little while, before returning to LaGuardia Airport. We regret any inconvenience this might cause y’all.”

Naturally, I took this as my cue to begin cracking wise to my fellow back row passengers, in an effort to provide a little comic relief and team-building. Trust me, I was hilarious; but did any one of them make eye contact, smile, or even lift their shoulders in the Phatic, “I know, right?” gesture signifying “I heard you, but I don’t want to get into it right now”? Nary a one. The young man next to me was underlining his textbook so intensely, that his pen tore the page. Others literally pulled their blankets (remember airline blankets?) over their heads for the duration of our half hour flight, back to a foamed runway flanked with a contingent of firetrucks. You know when a stand-up comic is losing the crowd and asks, “Anyone here from out-of-town?” I figured these stiffs were all just visiting from Cincinnati (the flight’s putative destination), since no self-respecting group of New Yorkers could have resisted my schtick. They would have joined my improv and tried to top my gallows humor with their own zingers, ya know?

It’s easy to guess what was up their noses, though, right? Fear of crashing; and, who’d a thunk it, the intrusion of my banter into their silent recitation of the Act of Contrition (or whatever).
I, on the other hand was feeling humiliation, that my attempts to Find the Funny in the situation were Not Well Received; and the pain & suffering of feeling All Alone.

That’s what’s so sad about last week’s contretemps with Billie Joe Armstrong on Southwest. The airline whose best feature had been its cabin crews’ ability to Find the Funny in every situation, and transform nervous strangers into a jolly group of Fellow Travelers, became known as the Uptight Enforcers of a Strict Dress Code (No Saggy Pants Allowed). What a somber little half hour flight from Oakland to Burbank that must have been, after the obstreperous Greenday frontman was frog-marched off the plane. Did any remaining passenger have the moxie to crack wise to his fellow row-mates, I wonder, or did they all just hide themselves away in their paperbacks and iPods?

Good thing the fuselage of that plane didn’t deconstruct like a sardine can, right? (Or a wild goose wasn’t sucked into the left engine, as happened to us, back in 1975.) It would have been every man for himself.

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Filed under comic relief, gets right up my nose, reference group

What’s your point?


Lately I’ve been asking the “What’s up my nose?” question about an insidiously lovely song by Ed Sheeran [currently #3 on the BBC 1 chart] called, innocuously enough, “The A Team.” As the [you should excuse the expression under the circumstances] “addictively” catchy lyrics clarify repeatedly, it is the “Class A team” to which the heroine/victim in the song belongs [meaning that she is fatally attracted to drugs classified in the UK as Class A, such as crack cocaine]. I badgered my visiting 20-something daughter about 2 aspects of this song. Why, when it seems to glamorize, without irony, lethal drug abuse, is it so popular? [Because it’s beautifully written, played & sung.Very few listeners downloading the song are thinking critically about its message.] And why, when such glamorization is as old as the opera La Boheme [and its current iteration Rent], does it make me so angry? As it happens, I was doing all this heavy “wolf-work” a week before Amy Winehouse’s untimely death.

Before I deconstruct my “issues” with Ed Sheeran, let me draw your attention to an editorial in yesterday’s NYTimes, entitled “Addictive Personality? You Might be a Leader,” by David J. Linden, “Professor of neuroscience @ Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the author of The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods,Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good.” [2 fun facts about the author & then my critique of his research: before joining the Johns Hopkins faculty, he worked for Big Pharma; and his father is a high-profile “shrink to the stars” in Santa Monica, CA.] The burden of his argument, taken from the animal & human research of others [some of it, decades old], is that “addicts want their pleasures more but like them less.” This he attributes to “blunted dopamine receptor variants” in these individuals.

Point of order. As its title suggests, this is a very informally written Pop Psych book [not a peer-reviewed journal article]. How large was his human sample size? In the NYTimes, he cites mostly anecdotal evidence concerning famous dead guys [such as Baudelaire, Aldous Huxley, Winston Churchill, and Otto von Bismarck]. How do we know that these “I can’t get no-o satisfaction” folks are actually getting less satisfaction from their “cocaine, heroin, nicotine or alcohol” than their peers are? Just guessing, here: he asked them? [Or the researchers who actually carried out the studies did.] And the addicts said [in a variant of the old Irish joke], “This blow is terrible, and there’s not enough of it!”

And don’t even get me started on Theory of the Mind, which posits that we can never truly know another individual’s experience, so how can we possibly know that we liked the drug less than the Man on the Surbiton Omnibus [British legal term of art for “the average guy”] did?

Is the circularity of Linden’s argument making you dizzy yet? If you are an addict, there’s something wrong with your dopamine receptors. [Not your fault, you poor victim.] To quote one of my favorite famous dead guys, the comic novelist Evelyn Waugh [who wrote brilliantly about alcoholism in Brideshead Revisited], “your brains is all anyhow.”


Is this supposed to mean that everyone with this genetic variant is doomed to substance addiction? Back in the 70s there was a controversial theory that sought to “explain” [excuse?] alcoholism as the result of a genetic variant that metabolizes ethanol in the [poor victim’s] brain more slowly than in your man on the Surbiton omnibus’ brain, storing it as a morphine-like substance. [Thus, alcohol addiction was actually morphine addiction; and we all know how to “cure” that, right?] Studies suggested the prevalence of this gene variant in certain ethnic populations [such as my own, the Irish]. It’s not our fault! We’ve got a disease, innit? What? Like an allergy? Like a peanut allergy? Jeez! Well then, let’s just avoid peanuts. Or, mutatis mutandis, alcohol.

What’s my point? What’s up my nose, about Messrs. Sheeran & Linden? The fear, that by ceding locus of control over what we choose to ingest [by mouth, nose, or vein] to an “accident” of our brain physiology, we are condemned to fulfill the dark prophecy that “anatomy is destiny.” The humiliation, that we have no option but to follow our noses to the irresistible substances that we crave, even though they will [glamorously or sordidly] kill us.

As the Brits would say, “Blow that for a game of soldiers!”

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Filed under confounds, gets right up my nose, locus of control, murky research

"Can a leopard change its spots?"


Rhetorical questions get right up my nose. [Just for fun, notice how many RQs I sneak into this post, and how annoying they are.] This famous RQ is from the Old Testament prophet Jeramiah [13:23], who prefaces his animal metaphor with what these days would be called a racial slur: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin?” In both cases, one might be moved to reply, “Why would he even want to [change]?” [Jeramiah’s answer would be, to avoid the destruction of Solomon’s temple, silly! Go read his whole sarcastic, “Now you’ve gone and done it, and you’re gonna get it!” rant for yourself, if this isn’t ringing any distant bells from your Judeo-Christian-Islamic upbringing.]

Ever since I was assigned my first patient in 1971, the leopard-spot-changing question has dogged me. [Remember this variation on the theme of an old joke? Q:”How many psychotherapists does it take to change a lightbulb?” A:”Just one; but the lightbulb has to really want to change.”] Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels a little bit defensive about the efficacy of The Talking Cure. In this month’s issue of The California Psychologist, there’s an article with the subheading, “Psychotherapy is Effective!” Here’s what various cited outcome studies have “shown” it can do: “provide symptom relief and personality change, prevent future symptomatic episodes, enhance quality of life, promote adaptive functioning in work/school and relationships, [and/or] increase the likelihood of making healthy and satisfying life choices.” Not to mention buying a little time, when your colleagues, constituents & the media are baying for your blood. Nar’mean?

How do you suppose most of these studies determine whether the desired outcome has been achieved? Why, by self-report questionnaires, mostly. “After 10 sessions, I can definitely see my spots fading!” Got any methodological problems with that? Remember the principle of Cognitive Dissonance? [The more Therbligs/money/effort you invest in achieving a goal, the more likely you are to believe that you achieved it.] That’s why, explained our grad school profs, “no-cost” psychotherapy hardly ever “works.” “Charge ’em at least fifty cents, if you want ’em to change,” they advised. [The APA Ethics Committee is constantly chasing its tail, as to whether barter is a therapeutic form payment. “Taking it out in trade” (as the lewd British euphemism has it), is definitely not, and is punishable by loss of license to practice.]

But, even if a paying leopard really wants to change its spots, can it? How much of brain function is “hard-wired” [as neuro-scientists used to like to say], and how much is “plastic” [as they like to say, these days]? Turns out, the more the patient and the therapist believe in the plasticity of brain function, “the more positive change is observed.” Even if they insist on calling it “rewiring.”

These days, I regard “a good therapeutic outcome” as “changing a leopard into a snow leopard.”

And I hate RQs because they are at best intrusive [a big waste of time, since they promise an answer which they don’t deliver], and at worst humiliating [since, like Jeramiah, they imply, “Schmuck, you should know this already!”].

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Filed under gets right up my nose, murky research, pragmatics, therbligs