Category Archives: locus of control

My Ducks Are All in a Row

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Musta Bin Slipped a Mickey, So

As readers of the Oxford English Dictionary [or Google, even] will know, a “Mickey Finn” was a knock-you-for-a-loop potion, made by the addition of chloral hydrate to your already alcohol-based drink at the South Chicago saloon of one Michael [Mickey to his friends] Finn, more than a century ago. The better to bundle you off to the back room and relieve you of your valuables. When you came to in the ally, still dazed & confused, you were likely to be wondering, “Whatever was in that last drink I had?” To which your long-suffering Loved Ones, once they had scooped you up from the Drunk Tank at your local Cop Shop, would reply, “Only a guess, here; but I’m thinking it would have been alcohol.”

 

At which, your inner wolf would begin to howl: “Oh, the humiliation (of their false accusations)!” Not to mention, the pain & suffering of the drug’s after-effects, the intrusion of being man-handled by both barroom thieves & contemptuous cops. Worse still, if you really hadn’t drunk enough alcohol to account for the nausea & dizziness, and the amnesia for the night’s events, the fear that you were losing your marbles (not just your money) would have you raging.

Luckily for Chicagoans & [more commonly] out-of-town visitors, said Mickey Finn was arrested, convicted & jailed in 1903, leaving behind an eponymous, external locus of control, oft-invoked exculpatory explanation for apparent shenanigans. I like it much better than “The Devil made me do it,” as long-time readers of this blog will know. These days, the Mickey tends to range from (nefariously slipped) Rohypnol, to (self-administered) prescription sleep aids, such as Ambien. As in Old Chicago, though, skeptical First Responders’ first response is often, “So, how much did you have to drink?” [Then, as they are taught to do in First Responders’ class, they double the amount stipulated.]

But what if, like me, you are stone, cold sober; but you still feel like someone slipped you the Proverbial? Back in early June I placed my order for a replacement car for “Foxtrot,” my beloved [but increasingly unreliable, expensive-to-repair] Jeep turbo-diesel. With Lili in mind, I wanted something with ample head [ear] room, lower to the ground [for when she can’t leap anymore], but with enough traction to handle our Alpine road in foul weather. I chose a MINI Countryman All4, in Oxford Green with a black roof, which was going to take 8 weeks to build & ship down the Danube & across the Atlantic. I named it “Mickey,” because it was bigger than MINI & green [like the Emerald Isle, so].

I loved it on sight; and configured the back seat area as Pope-mobile for Lili [who still prefers to scramble into the trunk of our old Grand Cherokee & splay her ears like Yoda, since there is less headroom for her back there]. However, every time I drove it, even for a 15-minute run to the Safeway, I emerged like a drunken sailor, hardly more steady on my pins than poor Lili is these days! Highly motivated to understand, and manage, this situation-specific, inner-ear-on-the-Fritz problem, I began with my default setting: “Must be psychological.” Was this me vicariously “suffering” the early-stage symptoms of degenerative myelopathy [which my mother had & Lili has]? If so, why did the symptoms clear up so fast, after the ride? Was this the return of the bane on my youth, severe car-sickness? Then why did it only happen in the MINI [not in our wallow-y old Grand Cherokee, or in Chris’ sporty little Benz sedan]?  Aha! Maybe it was that obnoxious “new car smell,” I speculated; and thoroughly swabbed down the whole interior with boiling water. No joy. Then, 3 days in to my ambivalent ownership, I awoke with a vivid memory of Sean [our salesman] opening the “bonnet” to show me the battery and fluid reservoirs, and muttering under his breath, “It’s so slimy! I don’t know why they spray it with that protectant. It’s under the hood, after all.” So at 5 am that morning, there I was, swabbing the engine block with boiling water, until the sheen [and neuro-toxic goo] had disappeared.  As did my symptoms.

Hurrah! Not “all in my head.” Not “losing my marbles.” I had just been Slipped a Mickey by the MINI dealership. I wonder what’s in that spray.

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Filed under attribution theory, locus of control, vicarious trauma

All Bets Are Off


Greek mythology has it, that when Zeus’ brother Poseiden was wooing Demeter, she set him the challenge, “to create the most beautiful animal that the world has ever seen”; and he came up with the horse. As a Navy kid (already familiar with Poseiden as Ruler of the Waves), I knew about his thing with horses by the time my sister & I invested in 2 Cheap Day Return rail tickets, for a Day at the Races at Sandown Park in Surrey, England. At 12 & 13, we were only making friendly wagers with each other; but every time I expressed an interest in a horse, it either threw a shoe, or its rider, or otherwise came a cropper. So I made a promise to Poseiden, which I have kept, never to “have a horse in the race.”

That hasn’t kept me away from racetracks, mind you. When my girls were 6 & 9, I took them by subway to Aqueduct [we were already visiting NYC at the time], where, it being early on a weekday, the only other punters were the Damon Runyonesque characters so endearingly portrayed in the HBO series Luck [filmed at a favorite SoCal track of ours, Santa Anita]. Overhearing my girls’ uncanny handicapping skills [especially the 6-year-old’s], one railbird approached her as we were leaving and offered, “Girlie, I would buy you sodas and snacks all day, if you would stick around and pick horses for me.” We had other fish to fry that day; but similar offers are made to them, every time we go to the races. True to my promise to Poseiden, I keep my money in my pocket & my havoc-wreaking opinions to myself.

Last Saturday, on the 3rd of March, on Big ‘Cap [Handicapping] Day, our family had just arrived at Santa Anita in time for Race 3, when “Muny,” the horse in Post position 3, broke through the gate early, and chaos ensued. As reported by Tracy Gantz in Bloodhorse.com/Horse Racing News, only 3 of the 7 horses “came out of the gate properly.” 3 assistant starters were able to hold their horses, as it were; but “Mr. Bossy Pants,” “Oak Kye Why,” & “Sky Cape,” were off to the races, even though, “before the horses had traversed even half the distance of the race, the stewards posted the enquiry sign.” Meanwhile, back near the starting gate, “Lord’s Minister” had thrown his jockey, Martin Garcia, and “proceeded [riderless] down the hill after the other 3” before being skillfully wrangled by an outrider in the stretch. Both horse & jockey were unharmed [thank Poseiden]; and Garcia went on to win an impressive victory in the very next race.

As “Mr. Bossy Pants” romped home for the ostensible “win,” the huge crowd went silent, as the track announcer intoned, “Hold all tickets, please.” We were standing at the rail, just behind the fancy box seats, not 10 feet from the Luck actor, John Ortiz [later joined by the jockey-commentator-actor, Gary Stevens]; but everyone seemed baffled. As we wandered back into the betting hall, the tote board flashed the message, in huge red letters: “NO CONTEST”; and seasoned punters explained to rookies, “All bets are off. Everybody gets their money back.” One railbird quipped, “Does this mean I get back all the money I’ve lost all day?” Well, no, but “all 7 horses were considered winners for the purposes of multi-race wagers, except for daily doubles.” The only possible loser was “Mr. Bossy Pants” and his connections, who must have felt “they was robbed.”

Now for an analysis of Magical Thinking [which is inherent in the Sport of Kings]. Seriously, do I believe that I have such powerful internal locus of control, that my mere presence at a race meeting was enough to cause all this mayhem? Never mind me, how ’bout all those 3’s? Don’t you just bet a lot of punters played “the 3” in all subsequent races? Both my girls stuck to their usual [intuitive but effective] wagering strategies, with the younger one winning more than her sister, while Chris lost a few bucks. In the last race we stayed for, the 10th, our elder girl pulled herself “out of the whole” by betting the 9-to-1 Irish-bred longshot, “Willyconker,” who won by a neck in a thrilling finish.

As the old Irish joke goes, when asked if she believed in fairies, the country woman replied, “I do not; but they’re there.” Do I believe that a deal I made with a Greek god, more than 50 years ago, helps to bring all horses and their riders “safe home”? Well, now, I wouldn’t be bettin’ against it.

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Filed under locus of control, magical thinking, zero-sum-gaming

"Lean Toward the Sunny Side, but Don’t Overdo It"


Readers of this blog might expect this to be a post dissing the latest article from the Science section of the NYTimes, but no! This is the title of an inane article from the Business section [of the NYT], from September 23rd, so there. Its author, Alina Tugend, has combined a 2007 article by Profs. Puri & Robinson of Duke Business School, with Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman’s 1995 book, The Optimistic Child, adding contradictory [undated] “findings” from Prof. Sweeny of UC-Riverside and Prof. Phelps of NYU, to make rather a dog’s dinner of the topic, The Efficacy of Optimism. Her high-concept title says it all. Her experts would all [probably] agree, that [to use her own metaphor] being a bit more like Winnie-the-Pooh than like Eeyore [more optimistic than pessimistic] is often [not always] a better strategy for success [at least, in financial affairs, getting hired & promoted, and in managing stress while waiting for test results, whether academic or medical]. She has the grace to point out that all the research she cites was published long before our current all-bets-are-off economic predicament.

Quibbles about murky research and comparing apples to oranges, aside, she kinda has a point.

The Duke biz-whizzes were trying to say that both wild optimism and profound pessimism often result in an individual’s doing a whole lot of nothing: the Pooh bears, because everything will be all right anyway; and the Eeyores, because no personal effort will make things turn out all right anyway. One could say that both character types manifest external locus of control. Enter a more resilient character [Who, Piglet? Or maybe Tigger because of his bounces…], who is Cautiously Optimistic. He believes that most circumstances are temporary, not permanent (Where have you heard that before?), and that his personal efforts might affect them, thus manifesting internal locus of control. This character is willing to expend Therbligs galore, in the guarded hope of Good Outcome. He knows that Life offers no guarantees of success, but he likes his odds.

This weekend, we flew up to Boston to watch our elder daughter expend Therbligs galore, in her first ever half-marathon. Since her previous sporting triumphs have involved rowing boats over water and riding horses over fences, she and we were Not Sure of the Outcome. Her stated goal was to avoid being scooped up by one of the “Lame Gazelle” wagons that hounded the back of the pack of 7000 runners. My secret goals were that she avoid humiliation [however she chose to define it], and that she not incur an injury resulting in chronic pain & suffering. To counter my fear, I willed myself into a mindset of Cautious Optimism.

And it worked! My biggest challenge, as we scuttled from the 3-mile point to the 7-mile point, was the intrusion of desperately needing a restroom [which a kindly native informed me I would find at the boathouse in the park]. By the time we had found a legal parking spot (What are the odds?) on a side street not far from to the Zoo, just in time to see her make her way down the home stretch into the stadium, we were all in floods of joyful tears.

Meanwhile, remember Ruth [our spindly 21-y.o. Maine Coon]? Having spent the last few years as a howling Banshee on the top floor of our house (like a feline Mrs. Rochester from Jane Eyre), she has decided to venture down (into the realm of the Big Dog), just Looking for Some Touch, which I am giving her every few minutes, as I type this blog. Somewhere in that tiny cat brain, the fear of the dog is trumped by the Need for Affection; and with Cautious Optimism, she expends the Therbligs to get her arthritic 5-pound body downstairs and onto the couch, where purring (not howling) ensues.

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Filed under locus of control, murky research, therbligs

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

"I Believe I Can Fly"


Are you familiar with R.Kelly’s 1993 Grammy-winning R&B song? If you flew Northwest in the 90s, you heard it as part of their pre-flight informational video, apparently designed to spare the cabin crew the Therbligs it takes to perform the safety spiel, which [up until last week] bored everyone but rookie passengers. On several flights I was on, the song caused nervous laughter and wisecracks: “Oh they believe they can fly? How strangely not reassuring!”

My fellow travelers were engaging in Poetic speech, as was a youth [at the foster care agency in Detroit where I consulted], in response to a certain card on Murray’s Thematic Apperception Test. The decidedly literal-minded and unhip lady who had administered his psychological test battery wrote in her report, “The subject began to sing a song, to the effect that he believed he could fly.” She thought he was delusional. I [her supervisor] thought he was quick-witted, creative and funny. After a brief lecture on psycholinguistics (and particularly, Pragmatics), my opinion prevailed.

Funny old phrase, though, innit? TAT creator Murray, himself, spoke of the “Icarus Complex,” defined in The Dictionary of Psychology [ed. Ray Corsini, 2002] as “a desire to be important and gain fame and fortune, but paired with a tendency to not succeed, in part because of refusing to try or giving up too quickly.” Okay, Test Lady and Murray, which would you have us do? Take a leap of faith into the wild blue yonder, and hope our feathers don’t melt in the sun’s heat, or shut up and obey the laws of gravity?

My father had at least two things in common with singer/songwriter Robert Kelly. He was born on the South Side of Chicago, and he believed he could fly. For high school credit, he and some classmates got to go over to nearby Midway Airport and learn to repair and fly the Sopwith Camel of a WWI flying Ace. Rosie [known more prosaically as Red in his pre-Naval Academy days] was the most promising pupil; and the Ace hatched a plan for him to become the youngest American to fly solo over an ocean. Therefore, on Easter Break of 1936 [after the 16-year-old had earned his pilot’s license] the two of them flew the biplane down [in fuel-limited hops] to Florida, and waited for good enough weather for a flight to Cuba. Time ran out before the skies cleared; and they despondently “puddle jumped” their way back to Midway, not having succeeded in their quest. [As NASA has learned to its cost, you can control alot of things, but not Florida weather.]

“Nevermind,” thought he, “I’ll go to the Naval Academy and become a Marine Aviator.” But on Service Selection night in December of 1941, the flight school quota for the top 10th of the Class had already been filled by the time his number came up; and he was consigned to the “Black Shoe Navy” [as Surface Warfare was called, then and now]. So, on his 61st birthday [geddit?], he renewed his private pilot’s license, bought a Cessna, and once more took to the skies.

The next post will consider the case of a private pilot with 20 years’ experience, who suddenly experienced an in-flight Panic Attack, and no longer “believed he could fly.”

This is a picture of Lili (who turns 7 next week), taken several years ago, when she joyfully “flew” over obstacles with the greatest of ease. Now, she has to be asked to do so; and sometimes she “dogs it” by leaping beside [not over] the barrel. C’mon, Lili! Even in dog years, you’re not 61 yet.

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Filed under locus of control, magical thinking, pragmatics, therbligs