Category Archives: gets right up my nose

"Over a Barrel"


Riding my usual hobby horse today: the double [sometimes, opposite] meanings of certain figures of speech. When you hear the title phrase, do you think “at someone’s mercy,” or “having been rescued from near-drowning, being draped over a barrel to clear the lungs of sea water”? According to all my UK etymological sources, the latter is the first meaning; and it supposedly originated in the States in the 1800s. Only later, in the early 1900s, did it come to mean “being hazed, as in a college fraternity ritual.” Also, supposedly, an exclusively American practice.

Oh, yeah? Well, I’ve just been browsing the British House of Commons debates from 1846 and 1906, concerning punishment by flogging in the Royal Navy. [Actually, I knew about this before, but it’s a trip to read the debates verbatim.] In the former debate, a bill was put forth stipulating that flogging could be legally administered only after a Court Martial [not just at the whim of any officer on board]; and the 1906 bill advocated the abolition of flogging, altogether. Incidentally, the euphemism for a sailor’s being tied to the barrel of a ship’s cannon, in the proper position to receive up to 48 lashes with a cat-o’-nine-tails, was “kissing the gunner’s daughter.” And when someone says of a tight space, that “there’s hardly room to swing a cat,” they are referring to this man-made flayer of human flesh [not a pussycat]. On some ships, though, a milder version of flogging for sailors under the age of 16 substituted a whip of 5 [not 9] strands, without the 3 knots per strand, which was called a “boy’s cat” or “pussy.”

And now, to the [metaphorically] related topics of a modern form of child discipline in America [the Time Out], on the one hand, and invasive medical procedures, on the other. Consider first the aphorism, “A kitchen contractor is a vandal that you pay; and a surgeon is an assailant that you pay.” Partly because of the truth of the first statement, more and more of us opt to Do-the-Home-Improvement-Ourselves; but very few of us opt to perform surgery on ourselves [not even physicians]. So we pay [or at least co-pay] to be assaulted [you know, like, cut open], in the hope that some good will come of it. No matter how much reasoning with yourself you do, about why a given procedure is necessary, there’s no escaping the Big Four irritants: the intrusion, the humiliation, the fear, and the pain & suffering. And what if the procedure doesn’t even purport to be curative, but only diagnostic? [Let your wolf mull that over a bit.]

So, back to Time Out. When a parent says to her/his obstreperous child, “Do you want a Time Out?” I always wonder if they really mean, “Do you want a [mild form of] punishment?” or “Do you want to take a moment to try to compose yourself [with a variant of Zen meditation]?” Is it a threat or a Serving Suggestion? Is it rhetorical [like “Do you want to make a scene?”], or is it Conative? Remember, way back in the beginning of this blog, Jakobsen’s 6 Speech Functions; and one of them was to Give an Order [Even to Oneself]? So, either “Do you want a Time Out?” is a roundabout way of saying “Do you want to pipe down?” or “Why don’t you pipe down?” or even “Pipe down, already!” Trouble with being Conative, though, is that it’s so in-your-face-and-on-your-case. It’s so I-am-the-boss-of-you: so…Packer Leader. [Mull it over.]

When, as a Lieutenant Commander, I used to stand the ER watch at Newport Naval Hospital, back in the day, with my [future] husband, I got to listen to him try to avoid giving direct orders to his patients [even though, as a Naval Officer, he outranked most (not all) of them, especially the drunk & disorderly sailors who made up the lion’s share of our nighttime clientele]. “Why don’t you get up on the exam table?” said he [rhetorically, I assume]. “Cuz I don’ wanna!” replied one under-age-but-way-over-the-limit young man. “Sailor, get yourself up on that table!” the future father of my future children commanded. And thus did an Able Bodied Seaman [a rank, not a diagnosis] begin his ordeal of intrusive, humiliating and painful [but life-saving] treatment for acute alcohol poisoning, for which, given the venue, he was not even charged a co-payment.

You might say that the Navy [and, especially, the ER treatment team] had him over a barrel.

Leave a comment

Filed under gets right up my nose, power subtext, semiotics

One-Trial Learning


The American philosopher-turned-behavioral-psychologist, Elwin R. Guthrie (1886-1959), challenged other Behaviorists of his time, by declaring: “A combination of stimuli which has accompanied a movement will on its recurrence tend to be followed by that movement.” BFD? You’re missing the “heaviosity” of his premise. Unlike Pavlov [Big Daddy of Classical Conditioning] or Skinner [BD of Operant Conditioning], Guthrie was the BD of Associative Learning. No reward need be given, said he, for a movement to become “cued” by a stimulus. Forget the all the use of High-Value-Treats to reward the desired response, advocated by dog trainers, or the symbolic reward, the clicker [which betokens to the dog that a treat has been earned, redeemable at a later time]. According to Guthrie, it only takes one coincidence of stimulus and movement, for the two things to become forever paired. Boom! Done! [Pavlov’s dogs had to have many pairings of sub-lingual meat powder with a bell, before the bell alone elicited drooling.]

To the extent that Guthrie’s theory is true, it is not altogether good news. In college I was riding shotgun in my roommate’s car, when a motorist failed to observe the Stop sign at an intersection, and plowed into the side of the car. Having caught a glimpse of his not-slowing-down car in my peripheral vision [the cue], I crouched into the fetal position recommended for airplane crashes [the movement]. Nevermind that my addled hippocampus had applied the wrong transport safety tip [and I consequently suffered gory-looking but superficial facial abrasions that I would have avoided, had I remained sitting upright]. To this day, 4 decades later, when a I see a car approaching an intersection “too fast to stop,” I have to fight the reflex to cringe. It doesn’t happen when I am driving, mind you, just when I am riding shotgun; but this One-Trial Habit [as Guthrie called it] annoys the hell out of whoever is driving “Miss Crazy.”

Let’s do the wolf-work. It is humiliating to them, that I appear not to trust their driving skills. Further, my sudden movement is both intrusive (sometimes blocking their view of the other car) and frightening (since it betokens a “clear & present danger,” rather than a remembered danger from long ago).

Guthrie’s own recommendation, to diminish the power of a problematic cue/movement connection, was called Sidetracking. One must endeavor to discover the initial cue, and then deliberately associate a different [incompatible] movement with it. Alrighty, then. What’s incompatible with cringing? Why, sitting upright (as I should have done in the first instance), with my forearms resting on my thighs (rather than covering my face). Unfortunately, whenever I abruptly assume this crash-test-dummy position, it is almost as alarming [therefore, annoying] as the cringe. At least it doesn’t obstruct the driver’s view. In recent years, I’ve taken to wearing sunglasses while being driven [avoiding harmful UV rays, you know], behind whose dark lenses I close my eyes when a car rushes up to the Stop sign. I also contrive to sit in the back seat whenever possible, where I am blissfully oblivious to the threat of reckless drivers. I am unflappable in taxis, even in Manhattan.

Not all instances of One-Trial habit formation are as trivial as my intersection cringe, however. The cue/movement nexus might account for the intractability of various substance addictions. Today’s New York Times has an article speculating that Adam Goldstein [aka DJ AM], may have relapsed into drug abuse because of filming a documentary in which a young woman injected herself with heroin. An individual’s first use of an addictive substance is likely to occur in the presence of others who are using the substance. According to Guthrie’s model, the cue [of others shooting/lighting/drinking up] will be forever associated with the movements one made, in connection with the first use of that substance.

Nor need the cue be visual. Even in 1960s Britain, the sound of an air-raid siren sent survivors of the Blitz diving for cover under a table or bed. The whiff of that certain food you ate just before you got sick can, years later, activate your gag reflex. The song you were listening to when that false love in high school broke up with you can still make you cry, a lifetime later.

Yesterday, while making his weekend rounds at two DC hospitals, my husband discovered that his car had [at least temporarily] “died,” and he came home in a rental car. Lili, who was awaiting the return of her beloved master, saw the intrusion of a strange white vehicle in the driveway [the cue], which set up a barrage of histrionic barkitude [the movement]. Even when her master emerged from the rental car, she could not stop herself from barking at it. Just now, his arrival in the cue vehicle again sent her into a reflexive barkfest, despite my commands to her to assume a position [presumably] incompatible with barking [“Foo-say!” Lie down!]. When the UPS truck cues Lili to bark, she has learned the incompatible movement of sending herself down to the basement [where she can’t see the offending vehicle]; but apparently this weekend’s “combination of stimuli” [strange car, beloved master] presents a more difficult cue to Sidetrack.

It was Guthrie’s contention that “excitement facilitates associative learning,” making the cue/movement connection even stronger. Lili is very excited whenever her master comes home.

To be continued.

Leave a comment

Filed under gets right up my nose, limbic system, post-traumatic stress

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under catharsis, gets right up my nose, limbic system, post-traumatic stress

"In hindsight…"


I am somewhat reluctant to pick on her, maybe because of her team’s name, but today’s quotation in the NYTimes from a suddenly notorious college soccer player is exactly what I am on about, in this blog: “I look at it [the replay of her controversial, but mostly un-carded game] and I’m like, ‘That is not me.’ I have so much regret. I can’t believe I did that.”

Remember, way back in one of my earliest posts, I recounted the retrospective musings of two female college applicants, who had been caught doing the same antisocial deed. One made a sincere attempt to understand “what got into her,” to provoke her to violate her own [and society’s] code of conduct. The other simply offered the Werewolf Defense: in so many words, “I have no idea. That is not me.”

To which I would reply, were I speaking to either that long-ago applicant or to today’s Girl Gone Wild, “That is, potentially, all of us, kiddo. Especially if we are unwilling to ‘do the wolf-work’ of reviewing the regrettable event, until we come to understand what got into us [up our nose].” If you look up accounts of that fateful game, you will see several clues, as to what “got up the nose” of this young athlete. In one instance, which led to her most aggressive response, her opponent executed a crafty “crotch grab” [as one sports reporter terms it]. Let’s do the wolf-work, shall we? Ya got yer intrusion, possibly yer pain, and I would guess some humiliation goin’ on. Three precursors to anger, delivered in one, surreptitious movement, probably not visible to the ref. Maybe not even illegal, if seen. The point of this exercise in wolf-work is not to justify the player’s angry reaction, but to understand what prompted it. Not for you or me to understand it, sportsfans. For the suspended player to understand it, herself. So she doesn’t have to go through the rest of her life like a werewolf, crying “That is not me.”

How many of us find it totemic, that she was playing for the Lobos?

Leave a comment

Filed under aggression happens, gets right up my nose, jekyll and hyde

Gingerism Is No Joke


Centuries before those wiseguys, Trey Parker & Matt Stone, wrote Episode 911 of South Park [“Ginger Kids,” which was first aired on 9 Nov 05], individuals with red hair were the objects of fear & loathing, as well as assault & murder. The ancient Egyptians used to sacrifice them regularly, “for good luck.” In Medieval Europe, red-haired individuals were feared as vampires. In Czarist Russia they were all regarded as insane. Frank McCourt wrote that in the Limerick of his youth, redheads were assumed to be of Protestant [Scottish] descent, and therefore hated. In the UK in 2003 [2 years prior to South Park 911, mind you] a 20-year-old youth was fatally stabbed in the back “for being a Ginger,” according to his assailant.

When Rosie received solo-tour orders to Shanghai, 3 months into Myrna’s pregnancy with my older sister, they made a red-haired-girl contingency plan, to “give her a name with its own nickname reference to her hair color,” to spare her Rosie’s fate. In the Chicago of his youth, red-haired children were jeered, “Redhead, gingerbread, 2 cents a loaf.” Thus, in the fullness of time, his shipmate [“Blood” Doner, speaking of onerous monickers] handed Rosie a telegram: “Baby Virginia Darling.” Rosie wired back, “So it’s a red-haired girl; but why the Southern middle name?” [His idea of a little joke.] As often happens with babies, Ginger’s flaming red hair fell out, grew back in blonde, and then morphed into a subtle bronze, like an old penny, not a new one. [For rufus boys, the head-’em-off-at-the-pass name was Russell, so they could be called Rusty, ya know. These days, apparently, it’s Rufus.]

So, what is up with all this ancient & modern “gingerism” [as the Manchester Guardian dubbed this form of discrimination, in 2003], anyway? I shall now [color]blind you with [some genetic and social] science. The rarest of hair colors, red is the result of a [recessive] mutation in the MC1R gene. Because it is highly correlated with pale/freckled skin, it offers the survival advantage of higher absorption of Vitamin D [a protection against Rickets] It is expressed in 13% of the Scots and 10% of the Irish. [Not all of dem, d’ya see, now.] It is “very common” in Ashkenazi [European] Jews. [Think Woody Allen.] Currently in the US, [natural] red hair is found in “2 to 6% of the population.”

Professor Cary Cooper, a British psychologist, opines that redheads are a convenient target of malice, because they are “a visible minority, not protected by law.” Without presuming to know their motives, I speculate that Messrs. Parker & Stone chose “Ginger Kids” for their parable about baseless prejudice, because they had no idea [at the time] that “gingerism” was a real problem. They might just as well have chosen sinistrality [left-handedness, with which red hair is significantly correlated]. Nevertheless, their lack of response, so far, in the face of recent Facebook-mediated, South Park inspired “Kick-a-Ginger-Day” assaults among middle-schoolers, is not very Menschlich [stand-up], in my opinion. Their disclaimer, that no one under 17 [unable to discern Poetic Speech reliably] should have watched the episode, misses the point.

Let’s do a little wolf-work. [Way] back in the day, aggression against the rufus was prompted by fear: of vampires and lunatics. In Limerick [if McCourt’s red-hair-means-you’re-a-Prod association is right], the anger stemmed from the intrusion and humiliation that Irish Catholics felt/feel at the hands of their Scots-Irish [British] overlords. The common association of red hair with a short temper may prompt others to dread that a red-haired person is more likely to inflict pain & suffering [although the scientific evidence suggests that they are, themselves, more sensitive to (thermal) pain than others].

What I wanna know is, what about redheads got up the noses of Parker & Stone, and their media outlet, Comedy Central? Their current silence has the whiff of Unacknowledged Wolf.

Leave a comment

Filed under attribution theory, gets right up my nose, semiotics, sharks and jets

A Sudden Loss of Traction


Dontcha just hate it when you’re walking down your (conscientiously shoveled) driveway at dawn to collect the papers, and you execute an impromptu slapstick routine on black ice: the lawyer’s often lucrative “slip & fall” (if there’s anyone to blame for it, other than Mother Nature)? Let’s do the Wolf-work. In my case there was a certain amount of pain & suffering (only bruises, though, where there could have been a broken hip bone). If there had been witnesses at that early hour, I would have been humiliated, especially as I struggled to regain my footing on drier ground. (In the event, I opted for the 2-feet-of-snow, overland route back to the house). Had I actually broken any bones, there would have been the intrusion [inconvenience, at least] of a holiday trip to the ER and the subsequent hassle of schlepping around on crutches. But, most insidious of all, I now have a fear of falling again, and not being so lucky next time. On our holiday trip [you should excuse the expression] to the Great Lakes region to see family, I doddered around the icy streets & sidewalks like an old crone, eliciting only impatience [not assistance] from my Loved Ones.

But here’s the Beauty Part. Despite my loss of footing & dignity & confidence, I followed Dinosaur Barney’s advice, and [mostly] “kept on keeping on.” [I did beg off one side-trip in Michigan, which I felt was an icy road too far; and was chided for being a Chicken Little, since the snow had stopped by then.] But this is just a concrete example of the metaphoric [Existential, even] Loss of Traction, which is what I plan to discuss…right after a brief linguistic digression. Why is it, that the Tar Macadam form of paving [with which our road & treacherous driveway is sealed] has come to mean “Airport Runway or Apron,” when actually, said runways & aprons are never sealed with Tarmac, but instead are bare, slightly corrugated concrete, said corrugation intended to prevent a Sudden Loss of Traction by landing airplanes,?[Although it doesn’t always work, just read the newspapers this week, if you can get down your driveway to collect them.] Nar’mean?

It is my clinical [and personal] observation, that the holiday season causes [or worsens] an Existential Loss of Traction for many people, as they anticipate having to recount the triumphs and spin the disasters of their past year, in written [Christmas letter] and oral “examinations” [visits with the family]. Remember that inane but haunting Band-Aid [for famine relief, not slip & fall injuries] anthem: “And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?” What if your answer is: “Not as much as I had intended, when I made my New Year’s resolutions”? Humiliation, is what, pal. It can lead to an acute loss of self-efficacy [as the English, they who first landed “on the Tarmac,” have termed it], in which it seems as if no amount of Therblig expenditure will yield the hoped-for results, so why even bother?

I was remembering the last line of the 1966 English film, Alfie, in which our cheeky Cockney anti-hero, having blithely bedded [almost] Anything with a Pulse throughout the story, finds himself dissed & dismissed by proto-cougar Shelley Winters, for a younger man. His response has become a UK cliche to express a sudden loss of existential traction: “What’s it all about? Nar’mean?”

Using some concrete skid-recovery strategies as [metaphorical] paradigms, the next post will offer some suggestions for regaining traction. Meanwhile, this is Lili, on Christmas morning, having figured out a strategy for moving forward on iced-over, deep snow: “Run like a jackrabbit, skimming the surface, until gravity wins and you crash through to the snow beneath. Repeat.”

Leave a comment

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

Plot-twists in Your Storyline


Okay, so you’ve faced the fact that something unforeseen, unintended, and probably unfortunate is going down in your life. Well spotted. Now what?

Anger, is what. Anyone who says otherwise isn’t telling the truth, or paying close enough attention. It is what to do with/about the anger, that I want to address…right after I declare how angry I am at two Post-modern Antipodeans from the 70s, White & Epston, who rebranded the ancient & universal practice of chronicling the ups & downs of the story of one’s life, to try to make sense of it [to answer Alfie’s (1966) question, “What’s it all about?”] as “Narrative Therapy,” as if it were their intellectual property. Mostly intrusion is up my nose, about this narrow redefinition of what almost everyone does, every day (even if they’re not in psychotherapy): tell someone [even if it’s only Dear Diary] wha’ happened today, in a narrative format. Nar’mean?

“What did you do at school today?” ask the concerned parents.”Ahh, nuttin’. We just had oral review.” It’s still a narrative.

But let’s say what your 5th-grade class did today was study the oyster, including the requirement to eat one [which your personal & family culture proscribes], and you refused, and were sent to the Principal’s office, occasioning humiliation and fear. As you tell your narrative to your parents, they have the power to influence the storyline, for better or worse. “That’s outrageous! How dare they impose their parochial, regional folkways on a Navy kid! We’ll send a note of protest to the Principal, insisting that you be exempted, without prejudice, from eating a mollusk.” Or…”What makes you think you can defy your teacher? When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Want to guess how the narrative unfolded for me? It was huge! It became a leitmotif of my storyline. My parents backed me to the hilt, and no mollusks were consumed [by me, or, indeed, any other squeamish classmates].

As we mature, we sometimes have to “become are own parents,” and back ourselves to the hilt, in the face of criticism, adversity, and unfortunate plot-twists. That is, we need to recall earlier chapters in our narrative, when intrusion, humiliation, fear and pain & suffering were neutralized [made “all better,” or at least ratcheted down to a tolerable level], against all odds. If those instances don’t readily spring to mind, then look harder for them. If they hadn’t occurred at all, you wouldn’t be here now.

This is my Manhattan cat, St. Chuck [1974-1983], whose own storyline included a series of [at least 8] life-threatening plot-twists and miraculous comebacks. He was my loyal companion through a doctoral dissertation, 6 years of Naval service, and the transitions to married and civilian life. As this stop-action photo suggests, the leitmotif of his narrative was fear, which he overcame in his final years…which is a story for another time.

Leave a comment

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

Caged Beasts


Even if you don’t live in the DC area, you are no doubt aware that we here are waay past “Winter Wonderland,” and into “Wonder When It Will Ever End?” Let me count the ways this heinous weather pattern has gotten up all our noses. Intrusion: we are all under house arrest today, no matter how many hours we have already spent shoveling our driveways. Fear: as the howling winds threaten to blow our tall, spindly trees onto our house [and maybe even our heads]. As I write, we have so far been spared loss of power; but thousands have not, and are already enduring the pain & suffering of no heat, no light and [here in the countryside] no water. But, as usual, it is humiliation that seems to have turned the area’s no-ruder-than-most drivers into what-are-they-thinking-damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead suicidal/homicidal maniacs. As today’s [soggy] Washington Post Op-Ed article put it, “The snow has fallen, and the flakes are on the road.”

Unlike folks in, say, Michigan, who have grasped through years of trial & error [and no-fault collisions], the humbling fact that 4-wheel drive vehicles are not laws-of-physics-defying Batmobiles which can overcome anything Mother Nature can dish out, these Mid-Atlantic road warriors…have not. Yesterday, for a change, it wasn’t even actively snowing; and I witnessed 3 harrowing collisions, not to mention many flip-overs, all involving SUVs. They “didn’t spend all that money on an all-weather’ vehicle, to wuss around at half-speed just cuz of a little snow!” It’s loss of face they can’t abide, not loss of traction.

Meanwhile, this Winter of Our Discontent has taken its toll on Lili, who is used to her daily one-hour constitutional, featuring brisk trotting and exuberant running. Chris & I found one plowed section of road on the school grounds [about 100 meters long] over the weekend, and ran her to-and-fro between us like a yo-yo, commanding her, “A so ko” [over there] and “Oy i [d]e” [come to me], until [like the old mare, Dusk] she slowed to a walk. No such cleared road exists in our county today, however, so it’s plow through the 4-ft-deep snow in our yard, or pout on the porch, for our caged beast.

So far, I must say, she has maintained her “good sense, good judgment and self-control,” better than most of the snow-bound humans around here have. [I figure, it’s because she is dealing with less humiliation, innit?]

Leave a comment

Filed under born to run, gets right up my nose, limbic system, stress and cortisol

Snakes & Ladders


David Lodge [one of my fave English authors] begins his 1980 novel How Far Can You Go? with a 1950s university student weighing the pros & cons of attending a mid-week evening church service. Aside from the expenditure of Therbligs, and forgoing more frivolous diversions with less conscientious college friends, there is the danger that holier-than-thou self-congratulation will result in a Net Guilt Gain! The author likens this hazard to the children’s game of Snakes & Ladders. Just when you think you’re ascending to the Moral High Ground, oopsie-daisy, your Pride occasions a Fall from Grace. Nar’mean?

When he chose this metaphor, I wonder, did David Lodge know that Snakes & Ladders is based on the 11th-century Hindu game Moksha-Patamu, devised to teach children how to express the 5 Virtues (while avoiding the 12 Vices), in order to reach Nirvana? [No, not the band.] Note that in the original game, there are more than twice as many “snakes” [ways to fall] as “ladders”; whereas in the UK and American versions, the ratio of “snakes[or “chutes”] to “ladders” is 1:1. [Think 7 Virtues & 7 Deadly Sins.] Wanna know the Vices the Hindu version features? [They are listed in this order in several sources. Could it be, from venial to mortal?] “Disobedience, Vanity, Vulgarity, Theft, Lying, Drunkenness, Debt, Rage, Greed, Pride, Murder, Lust.” Guess you wanna hear the Virtues now, innit? “Faith, Reliability, Generosity, Knowledge, Asceticism.” [Reminiscent, somehow, of Jonathan Haidt’s 5 Moral Spheres model, from the post, “Crime & Punishment.”]

Now, back to real snakes. In the Fall of 1984 we were living in Holden, Massachusetts [near Worcester, about which, don’t get me started; talk about ambivalence (mine), talk about a sense of moral superiority (theirs)]. “We” being self, husband Chris, 9-month-old Baby Girl, and the gifted hunters, Stella [Ciotogach-looking one] & Stanley [with the white goatee]. Chris was off being a [jolly good] Fellow @ UMass Med Center; Baby Girl was napping; and I was doing laundry in the basement on a rainy day, with Nobody’s Fool Stella keeping me company. I gathered that Sodden Stanley had popped through the catflap, because I heard a dong! as he landed on the dryer. Also, I felt his wet tail wrapping around my bare ankles. Hang on. There he sat, staring into middle distance, on the dryer…while the black snake he had brought in ascended my leg.

So, limbic system on Full Alert, I screamed, shook the serpent off, ran upstairs and donned my Wellies, ran back downstairs brandishing a golf club [no, I am not Swedish], onto which I “charmed” the snake, and thence threw it into a wicker basket, which I deftly flipped over, thereby trapping it. Unabashed Stanley was clawing at the basket, wanting to play with his “prey,” so I grabbed him and ran back upstairs to call Chris, “insisting” that he come home “right then” and “deal with” the snake. “But, you’ve already dealt with it,” he quibbled. “Just keep the cats out of the basement, and you’ll be fine.” “Nooo!” I wailed. “I’m afraid the snake is going to get out, climb up the stairs, and hurt [the baby]!” [I may be part horse.]

Having clearly exceeded the speed limit, Chris arrived shortly, flipped the basket over, bashed the snake with the golf club, saying “There!”; hopped back in his car, and returned to the hospital.

Poor old snake! Wrong place at the wrong time. [In Stanley’s line of sight on a wet Wednesday.]

Chris and I both lost many karmic points that day. Yet, search as I may, I can’t find my crime on the Hindu list of 12 Vices. I can identify what Got Up My Nose, though. Intrusion of an unexpected creature [not even a furry one] into my home and onto my person. Fairly far-fetched fear, that the snake would glide up the basement stairs and under a closed door, to strike at my baby [even though it had been so gentle with me, that I mistook it for my cat]. But, most shame-making, the humiliation of not being taken seriously by my husband. As if I were some [gasp!] Drama Queen, or something.

Chris would no doubt say that he displaced his Rage [at my intrusion on his workday, and possibly the humiliation of being regarded as a hen-pecked husband by his fellow Fellows] from me, onto the hapless snake. No wonder, 25 years later, he helped the young snake on our driveway to live another day. After all, if reincarnation is true, that could be you or I, Next Time.

Leave a comment

Filed under aggression happens, gets right up my nose, lesser of two evils, limbic system

"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!”].

Leave a comment

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