Category Archives: lesser of two evils

"You can’t handle the truth!"


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, lesser of two evils

Working on a Clear Round


Those of us who have watched our share of televised equestrian events tend to put the sound on “mute,” to avoid hearing this inane, now-you’ve-jinxed-it phrase, which seems to guarantee that horse & rider will knock over the next fence. In the first place [where this “doomed” equine/human team are now not likely to finish], why state the obvious? It’s not a radio broadcast. Anyone who cares about the outcome of the event will be able to work out if all the jumps have remained up so far, or if some rails have fallen. It’s not a judgment call. As for time penalties, there is usually a graphic in the corner of the TV screen, keeping track for the viewers [but not the rider, who has to make an elaborate, on-the-hoof compromise between haste & accuracy, to win this zero-sum game].

Okay, so horse people are “a breed apart,” notoriously superstitious; but so are theater folk. It’s bad luck to wish an actor “good luck” before a performance: hence, the Poetic [as in, “I mean the opposite of what I’m saying”] phrase “Break a leg.” In the UK it’s bad luck to say “Macbeth” [especially if that’s the show you’re in]: hence, “the Scottish play.” My favorite line from the 1947 musical comedy send-up of Irish-American folkways, Finian’s Rainbow, is “Don’t be superstitious! It’s bad luck!”

So, that’s my excuse. I’m a horse-loving, theatrical, Irish-American. What’s yours? Cuz everyone is superstitious about something or other. Black cats? Friday the 13th? Announcing that you’re expecting a baby before all & sundry have guessed, anyway? This latter, culturally supported taboo falls squarely in the “working on a clear round” category. It avoids an air of hubris; of “pride goeth before a fall”; of “counting your chickens before they’ve hatched” [as it were]. We all remember that obnoxious student in high school, usually [not always] a girl, who after every test would set up a caterwaul of doom: “Oh, I just know I failed it!” And the rest of us just knew s/he got an A, maybe even the highest grade in the class, and were less than sympathetic with this ritual of “needless” worry. Ah! But it does not seem needless to the hand-wringer [any more than compulsive hand-washing seems optional, to the compulsive hand-washer]. It is a magical, albeit Highly Inconvenient, attempt to counter the fear of Bad Outcome. Sometimes, as in the post-test-hand-wringer scenario, it is an attempt to counter the anticipated humiliation of getting anything less than a perfect score.

However, and this is the point, these little anti-hubristic peregrinations most of us indulge in are the lesser of two evils, compared with not trying at all. One summer day, while riding hired horses through the Vienna woods, my elder daughter & I overheard our guide ask her young son, “Max, bist du brav? ” [which we took to mean, “Are you brave?” but Cassell’s dictionary translates as “Are you well-behaved, a good boy?”]. Then she directed him & his mount to jump a newly-fallen tree trunk, which they did, after a few false starts, much to everyone’s delight [and our relief]. Now, when we are facing a daunting challenge, where the odds of success seem long, we ask each other “Bist du brav?” If what it takes, to be brav enough to put all our effort on the line, is a bit of “aw, shucks, I probably will make a dog’s dinner of this” lowering of expectations, than so be it.

Whatever helps you to take that leap. [Incidentally, this is the fallen tree described in the “Timber Wolf” post.]

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Filed under crazy like a fox, lesser of two evils, magical thinking

Who Says?


Not only is this a song title from John Mayer’s latest musings on interpersonal ambivalence, Battle Studies, it’s what all and sundry are asking and/or acting out, these days. “The peasants are revolting!” goes the old double-entendre, and so are Army generals, Hollywood starlets, and all the drivers who blow past me daily, on a narrow road clearly marked 40 mph and crawling with police. Sheesh!

In Ireland these days, such behavior would be labeled “bold” [as in “…as brass”], which no longer means brave, but just impudent, shameless, feckless, or insouciant. Is there more of this about, or am I just an old stick-in-the-mud? I blame reality TV, ya know, which gives viewers a false sense that the risk of legal sanction is outweighed by the prospect of fame [and, occasionally, fortune]. Back the the 70s in Manhattan, some of my acting school friends who didn’t have day jobs would audition to be contestants on a quiz show called Jackpot! To make the otherwise boring show watchable, the talent-spotter rewarded the most over-the-top, crazed members of the studio audience by choosing them to [the uncopyrighted equivalent of] Come On Down, and play the game. They shot 5 “episodes” of the show in one day, so the semper paratus acting student bought a hold-all with 4 other shirts, just in case. One of our friends got selected for bellowing “Crackpot!” instead of the show’s catchphrase. He used the video of his 5-show “performance” [during which he “chewed the scenery” shamelessly] as a cheap & cheerful audition tape for the consideration of various theatrical agents; and it got him work.

These days, in the lyrics of the Scouting for Girls song, “Everybody wants to be on TV.” As an erstwhile student of Sociology, I could make a connection between the dearth of actual Day Jobs, and the fantasy of “quitting [one’s] Day Job” (to become rich & famous); but it’s belaboring the obvious. My actual point is a more universal, psychological one. If virtue [observing the speed limit, graduating from college, obeying one’s Code of Conduct] is not rewarded, it is less likely to occur. In situations where the fear of punishment for Engaging in Shenanigans is outweighed by the humiliation of having Done the Right Thing and still gotten a Bad Outcome, stand by for more Shenanigans.

This is Lili, boldly ignoring my command to jump over a barrel to my right. Although it is high summer again, the picture is from 2 years ago, before we had truly appreciated that You Get What You Reward, and You Reward Disobedience by Letting It Slide. Silence gives consent. These days, this seemingly trivial moment of noncompliance would be met with, “Oooy! Ali Oop!” followed by a heartfelt “Yosh! Ichibon Inu!” [Good! Number One Dog!] as she completed the jump. Not a contract for her own reality show, mind, or even a high-value treat. What Lili and the rest of us need, to keep on doing the dorky Right Thing, is for our masters to notice, and acknowledge, our efforts.

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Filed under lesser of two evils, understanding shenanigans

"Keep a Civil Tongue in Your Head!"


Did you hear about the [latest] set-to between the Australian actor Russell Crowe and a member of the media [Mark Lawson of BBC 4]? There’s an audio clip, if you’re interested, with expletives prissily deleted. During an interview @ the Cannes Film Festival, the mercurial actor took great umbrage at Lawson’s [repeated] observation that he heard “a hint of an Irish accent” in Crowe’s Robin Hood, and ultimately walked out, in medias res. Apart from mild [Poetic] sarcasm, when Lawson asked him if the accent had been “more northern English,” [to which Crowe retorted, “No. I was going for an Italian, yeah. Missed it? F@#k me. Anyway…”], he used the Referential speech function. Nothing went airborne except a few Emotive phrases. Wolf held in check, compared to past form.

More to the point, what do we think got up Crowe’s nose, about the attribution that he sounded slightly Irish? Humiliation of some sort, one gathers. His bio says he spent his youth pinging between New Zealand & Oz; and that apart from one indigenous ancestor, his heritage is [like most Anglo-Antipodeans] Welsh, Scottish, English and (ahem) Irish. Much was made of the film’s efforts to be more historically accurate than previous versions, and a dialect coach was mentioned. Was there an implied slur on that person’s accuracy or efficacy? Or on Crowe’s capacity for mimicry? Or was the presenter insinuating that the actor was playing Robin Hood as a crypto-Fenian [out to overthrow the English monarchy]? I’d go see that film, now.

“Anyway…” [to quote Crowe], here’s the point of this post. Which would you prefer: to be told something offensive, or to be told a lie? The Indigenous American expression for the latter, is [for a European incomer] “to speak with forked tongue.” After several incidents in which East Coast tribes of Indians were schmized into “peace talks” with colonists, only to be massacred, they came to fear them, having before only resented their intrusion.

For my part, as much as it angers [humiliates] me to “get panned by the critics,” it is far more infuriating [as in, frightening] to be deceived. When a dog is barking at you, or a horse is pinning its ears, you know just where you stand with them [if possible, out of strike range, until their limbic system has chilled]. When poor old Russell was being interviewed by a presenter “notorious for being oleaginous and obsequious,” how could he tell if the guy loved the movie or hated it? Especially if, rather than just giving him a thumbs up or down, Lawson made himself obscure, with a forked-tongued, passive-aggressive. a propos of nothing “question” about “a hint of Irish.” Like Lili would have, Crowe rose to the bait and barked. But he didn’t bite. He chose to disengage, to leave the field; but as he departed he was still trying to clarify whether Lawson had intentionally dissed him or not: “I don’t get the Irish thing, by the way,” he murmured, as he left the room. Now, that was civil enough, wasn’t it?

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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, lesser of two evils, limbic system

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.

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

"He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother"


Couple of fun facts, before I get to the point. [What’s new?] The Hollies released this song in the UK in 1969 (featuring Reg Dwight on piano); although Neil Diamond [him again?] recorded it before that, but didn’t get around to releasing it until after the Hollies’ version was a trans-Atlantic hit. Reg (who got paid 12 pounds Sterling as a session musician for the Parlaphone version) is now better known as Elton John. [If you knew all that, you’re a Geek, no matter how Field Dependent you are.]

Now to Desmond & Penny, who were born to different mothers, but adopted together from the Rancho Cucamonga Animal Shelter. If you’re a film buff [or just know about Boys’ Town], you will recall that the song title is taken from the motto of that once all-boy (now co-ed) Kid Shelter in Nebraska, made famous by the Spencer Tracy flick, Going My Way. So, Poetically speaking, the aphorism means, “I do not regard or perceive my fellow Boys’ Town inmate as a burden, but rather as my dear brother, whom I carry because I can.” In the cats’ case, however, it is literally true that Desmond [the exotic-looking striped & dotted male] weighs less than Penny [the black female], although they eat the same amount. If they were horses, one would say that Penny was a “good keeper,” whereas Desmond was a “hay burner.”

Alas, with cats, dogs & humans, being a “good keeper” is no longer regarded as a Good Thing [except in the 3rd World, where it keeps you alive in times of famine].When our daughter & her apartment-mate anthropomorphize their cats, they have Penny saying, “Does my brother make me look heavy?” In our East Coast menagerie, the two “hay burners” (Ruth, the 6-pound Maine Coon cat & Lili the 71-pound German Shepherd) have long, fluffy fur which disguises their ferret-like thinness [until they get wet]. Not so, shorthaired Desmond (whom his vet declares is “just fine-boned,” not unhealthy).

So, here’s the point. The vexed topic of Body Mass Index (for our pets & ourselves) seems to be a no-win proposition. The range of “just fine” seems to be a moving target; and failure to hit the bullseye leads to humiliating glances & remarks from the general public, and/or alarming remarks from healthcare providers. If one is a child or a pet, it can also lead to the imposition of a special diet [to promote weight loss or gain], which in turn can lead to the pain & suffering of various forms of eating disorder. For instance, when our vet urges us to feed Ruth bigger helpings, the food ends up [quickly “recycled”] on the floor. When she urges us to cut back on Napster’s serving size, he whines at us like Oliver Twist, until we relent and give him “some more.” And, as previously noted, these 4 irritants lead to anger & the production of bad-for-the-body cortisol.

So, my first bit of advice to those who have what is currently called Poor Body Image, is to adopt your body as a rescue pet. [I know, sounds kind of Out There, but after all, I am at least a part-time Flake.] Even though the vet decrees “Feed Ruth more,” and “Feed Napster less,” I take her [expensive] advice as a Serving Suggestion, and temper it with common sense and compassion. I make subtle course corrections, not Draconian changes. If I were you, and I had been given the “shape-up-or-be-shipped-out [possibly, on a stretcher]” ultimatum, I would strive to be as kind to my “pet” body, as to any of the animals in my care. I would forget about “Best in Show,” and set my sights on “Getting Better. Trending in the Right Direction.”

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Filed under black and white thinking, body image, lesser of two evils, stress and cortisol

Solipsism


Briefly, to lay the groundwork for a longer post on Field Dependence, here is Seamus, when he was a (rescued) kitten in Philadelphia, enacting the philosophical notion that one can only know one’s own mind. That the rest of the world might only exist as a product (figment?) of one’s own imagination. If Seamus wakes up, we might all go poof!

Currently, grown-up Seamus lives in Chicago, “imagining” the rest of us.

In psychology solipsism has been regarded, variously, as a psychotic delusion (a form of megalomania) or merely as an unattractive character trait (as in, “It’s all about me. Welcome to ‘The Me Show.'”)

Until the next post, just for fun, make a mental list of the people you’re aware of, who regard you [and the rest of us] as mere bit players in their Big Show. Could be a politician, or a movie star, or even someone in your family. [In a family setting, this person is often referred to, jokingly, as “King/Queen of the Universe.”] We all know someone solipsistic. Could be they’re just crazy like a fox.

Next time, we’ll consider the alternative.

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Filed under crazy like a fox, lesser of two evils, object relations theory