Category Archives: magical thinking

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

"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

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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What’s keepin’ ya?


My paternal grandmother Kate grew up on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands across the Galway Bay from mainland Eire, and spoke not only Irish Gaelic, but a West of Ireland dialect of English. Consider her nuanced expressions for the verb to die: if someone kills you, you are “destroyed”; if you drown [see Riders to the Sea] you are “lost”; but if you die of an illness , you “get away.” [The custom on the islands is that your survivors must then “go tell the cows and the bees” of your demise. Dunno why…]

As a 5-year-old, visiting Kate in her final days, I was captivated by the idiom, to “get away.” It made it seem as if each of us is just temporarily tethered here on earth, like a helium balloon anchored by a little weight, one scissor-snip away from escaping the bonds of earth. So, what’s keeping us here? What are those “little weights,” which serve as our Life Anchors?

This is actually [excuse the pun] a heavy Existential question, to be asked of anyone who has attempted [or is contemplating] suicide, or who is coping with seemingly intolerable pain & suffering, and especially those grieving the loss of a loved one. The question is: “Who are your Life Anchors?” Who needs you to stick around, here on Earth? Actuarial studies suggest that if your life partner “gets away,” unless you have other Life Anchors, you are likely follow The Departed, within 12 months.

But here’s the Beauty Part [for everyone but the undertakers]. Life Anchors come in all shapes and sizes, and need not even be human, to keep you tethered. Pets prolong life, as do other individuals who are counting on you. They help you experience your own adverse circumstances as “highly inconvenient,” rather than intolerably “awful.” As the English would say, they help “take you out of yourself.” When my Uncle Dick “got away,” my Auntie Eileen [Kate’s daughter, much to their mutual chagrin], who had always been a cat person, became a Full On Cat Lady, feeding and sheltering as many as 20 at a time. Although they made her [even more] unpopular with some of her neighbors, those cats kept her anchored in life for 13 years of widowhood. Cheap at half the price, innit?

It goes without saying that Lili is one of my Life Anchors, along with my human family. What’s keeping her, in this picture? After all, this is one of two doors she can open from the outside and shut behind her. I’d like to believe that I am Lili’s Life Anchor, keeping her near through bonds of mutual love and loyalty. But it’s more likely her lack of opposable thumbs, innit?

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Filed under magical thinking, object relations theory, transitional objects

Task, Interrupted


Remember the line from George Harrison’s 1966 song, “I Want to Tell You,” (off of Revolver), “I feel hung up but I don’t know why”? Well, a psychologist living in Russia at the time, Blyuma Wulfovna Zeigarnik, did. (…know why George Harrison felt hung up.) When she was a graduate student in Berlin in the 20s, her dissertation adviser, Kurt Lewin (father of Field Psychology, as in “If I don’t get my way, I’m going to leave the field, possibly taking my football with me”) noticed that a waiter who had not yet received payment for a patron’s order remembered it more accurately, than the orders for which he had been paid. “BFD,” I hear you remark. “Why remember a fait accompli?”

Not the point. Why is it, that we do remember (obsess about, have nightmares about, dump cortisol about) even trivial bits of unfinished business?

Here’s an example from last week, that is still intruding on our domestic tranquility, humiliating me for my failure to solve the mystery, and making me fear for my sanity (a bit). A few months ago I read about forage balls for overweight or fast-eating cats. Originally designed for pigs, to simulate rooting about for food in the wild, these plastic globes with adjustable slots must be batted about by the forager, for each ort of food to be released. Zanizbar is fed in a bathroom, which sounds like a bowling alley as he biffs his ball from wall to wall. Napster, however, is fed in a former-bedroom-now-box-room, full of nooks & crannies (as they say in English muffin ads). It’s like an Easter egg hunt each morning, trying to find where he’s hidden his ball. First an orange one “disappeared.” After expending more Therbligs trying to find it than the task deserved, I gave up and substituted a pink ball (that we had bought for Ruth, before realizing that she was too old, blind, and thin, to be required to forage for her supper).

Then the pink ball went missing…along with my skepticism regarding the fairies, who hide objects, just to create chaos. The room, though cluttered, is finite. The door is only shut during feedings, however. Perhaps the balls had made their way to another upstairs room? Believe me, both Chris & I have searched. Maybe they rolled downstairs? Let me check behind the piano, again. We eagerly await the holiday return of our daughters, so we can put them on the case.

Having gone out and spent another $8 on a blue forage ball has not, as hoped, loosened the grip of our compulsion to hunt for the Two That Got Away. We are in thrall to the Zeigarnik Effect.

Serialized books & movies, cliffhanger season-enders on TV, crossword puzzles & that Japanese number game I can’t even pronounce, much less get into, all rely on this powerful need for closure. Oddly enough, “difficulty sustaining attention in…or finishing…tasks” is listed as the hallmark symptom of Kangaroo Brain (as I fondly refer to my ADD); but clearly, there is a missing qualifier here: “assigned (tasks).”

For the interrupted tasks that we assign ourselves, there is no “forget-about-it.” Just ask Lili, at the window, as she awaits the next sighting of those interloping Goldens, whom a locked front door prevented her from interdicting this morning.

You’ll have to excuse me, now. I’ve just thought of another place to look…

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"Gotta split."


Remember the Object Relations Theorists? (No? Well, I guess it’s a case of “Out of sight, out of mind.”) These guys cannot be accused of “circling the lamppost” to discover the whys and wherefores of human behavior–they go way back into the “dark alley.” Some, like the Kleinians, go back up the birth canal, to “study” a baby’s in utero experience. [How? By doing Regression Therapy with grown-ups, to help them “recall” these early times.] The Beauty Part? Who could ever disprove such personal, pre-verbal memories? [A twin, I suppose. There’s a dissertation topic, there.]

Others observe actual babies–tracking their eye movements, their facial expressions, the various vocalizations they make–not unlike ethologists’ studies of other primates, dogs, rats, or wolves. In both kinds of research, there is alot of inference going on–alot of projection of the observer’s thoughts & feelings onto the subjects under investigation. Don’t you just bet? So, caveat legens.

You are an infant, lying in your crib in your nursery, down the hall from your parents’ room. [This is in 1940s America or Western Europe. That’s how it was back then. None of your Family Bed sleeping arrangements, except for the very poor.] You have already cried several times, and your Good Mother has shown up, to do the needful–feed you, change you, rock you back to sleep, whatever. The last time you cried, however, your Bad Mother showed up–with lightening bolts coming out of her head! That was scary! [Fear] Now, you need Room Service again. How can you possibly risk the reappearance of Bad Mother? Maybe you’ll just try to hold out a little longer, but Oy, veh! The pain & suffering you’re enduring! It shouldn’t happen to a dog! So you develop a Las Vegas philosophy: “Life is a crap-shoot. It’s even money each time, whether Good Mother or Bad Mother will show up. I’m feeling lucky, so here goes. ‘Baby needs new shoes!'” This early defense mechanism, wherein necessary-but-sometimes-angry-people are split into two people [one Good, one Bad], is called Splitting.

In the best of all possible childhoods, more often Good Mother shows up, than Bad Mother; so that by the time the kid is a toddler, he is brave enough to do a little research of his own. What if, while he’s hanging out with Good Mother, he reaches up and tries to twist her lips off? Unless she has read too many books on child rearing forbidding her ever to say a discouraging word to her child, she will eventually–having endured her limit of pain & suffering at the hands of her beloved offspring–turn into Bad Mother, right before the toddler’s very eyes, and tell him to “Knock it off!” If she believes this mild rebuke will scar him for life, she may try to hang in there and display the patience of a saint. This makes the toddler think, “It’s no use. I’ll have to inflict more pain,”which he will then do, in the name of research. On the other hand, if the books mother has read suggest giving the toddler [and herself] a Time Out, and she flees the room to compose herself, when she re-enters as Good Mother, the toddler will be none the wiser; and he will take longer to give up the defense of splitting. In the best case scenario, Bad Mother stays onscreen with the kid and allows him to charm her back into Good Mother, by telling her “Sorry,” gently patting her aching lips, and so on. Variations on this experiment must be repeated daily for about a year, for the kid to “get” that Mother is “two, two, two Moms in one” [sometimes in a good mood, sometimes in an angry mood]. In the worst case scenario, if Bad Mother appearances far outnumber Good Mother ones, the kid will never have the courage to try the lip-twisting experiment, and so will have to keep the primitive defense of splitting, with everyone he encounters.

This rather far-fetched theory became plausible to me with my first child case @ the Psychological Counseling Center @ Columbia. A 5-year-old girl I’ll call “Sonya” kept complaining to me that I had just ignored her in the corridor, before each session in the playroom. Reluctantly, I came to realize that she was making the same “mistake” my boyfriend [another grad student in our class of 12] had–to find me interchangeable with the only other shicksa in our year, Grace. In the interests of psychotherapeutic progress, I persuaded Grace to stand beside me in the corridor, for “Sonya” to compare & contrast us, saying stuff like, “See? Grace wears Gloria Steinem glasses, and I don’t. She’s wearing corduroys and I’m wearing a long skirt. See?” Then “Sonya” and I went to the playroom, where I expected to experience the joys of a child who had given up splitting. “That was so cool, how you stood beside yourself like that!” she said. [It’s not a one-trial learning kind of thing.]

Individuals whose childhood prevented them from doing the “terrible twos” research necessary to integrate the Two Faces of Mother into one person–capable of both positive and negative emotions–are those with a tendency for Black & White thinking. [Very little chiaroscuro on their projective test answers.] They tend to regard someone new that they meet [especially a potential Significant Other] as “Perfect,” right up until the first time that the person puts a foot wrong–at which point they become an “Evil Doer.” Do you see where I’m going with this? Human beings are not either Perfect or Evil Doers. They’re light & shadow, a little of both. Just like Dear Old Mom.

By the way, many authors of books on dog training have characterized the emotional make-up of a dog as “part wolf, and part toddler.” A little of both.

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Filed under black and white thinking, ethology, magical thinking, object relations theory

"Hidden Idiot"


Back in the early 60s, when a computer took up a big room, a family friend of ours was working on a subset of Artificial Intelligence called Machine Translation, between English and Russian. (Quelle surprise!) With formal speech, it did well enough; but it “choked” on idioms, such as “Out of sight, out of mind” [which it rendered “hidden idiot”]. Even as a kid, I took exception to the linguistic inference that being out of one’s mind was the same as being an idiot. [Surely, that would be “out of brain”?]

Let’s consider the aphorism, itself: “Out of sight, out of mind.” Piaget and his followers did clever experiments to demonstrate at what age a child develops Object Constancy–the belief in Things Unseen [such as a high value treat, first out there in plain sight, then covered up by a cup]. Until this cognitive stage is reached, life is one big magic show, where objects randomly appear and disappear. [For some of us, the magic show is still in town, featuring tricks with our keys.] [If you are Irish, you realize that the Fairies have taken your keys; and that They will return them, in Their own good time.] A game which is thought to hasten the development of Object Constancy involves a Kindly Grownup pretending to vanish behind a handkerchief, and then suddenly reappearing, with the incantation “Peek-a-Boo!” Playing the game too soon in a baby’s cognitive life is likely to provoke tears of fear–sometimes at the “disappearance,” sometimes at the “reappearance.” It becomes clear that the kid “gets it,” when he puts on his own magic show, by “hiding his eyes” with his hands and saying the magic words. What is less clear is whether he thinks he has made you, or himself, vanish. The first is just dumb [but we do it all the time–it’s called denial]. The second is just crazy [except when Irish grownups do it–and it’s called magical thinking].

Magical thinking, of course, is an accepted part of many other cultures. Think voodoo, think bending spoons with your mind, think predicting [or causing] the next card to be dealt at BlackJack. It’s not an Altogether Bad Thing. It often gives us the courage to attempt risky [but necessary] endeavors, such as to fly jets [where it’s called “The Right Stuff”] or to run into burning buildings [where it’s called Fire Fighting]. It also, alas, gives teenagers and young adults carte blanche to engage in all manner of hare-brained and hair-raising activities, because of a belief in their immortality. “The laws of physics, logic, and probability do not apply to me.”

Pseudocyesis [false pregnancy] is often attributed to magical thinking [even though it occurs frequently in dogs, cats, horses, and goats]; whereas its opposite–pregnancy denial–is, so far, documented only in humans. In either case, the body mimics most of the signs and symptoms of the desired condition–whether that is to be with, or without, child. A bizarre case of the latter is in the news this week, in which a “caring mother” of two teenage boys has now confessed to the killing at birth of 3 subsequent babies [two of whose corpses she stored in the family’s deep freeze], allegedly without her husband’s knowledge of any of it. How could he be unaware of her pregnancies? She “didn’t show.” I can just about buy that. There is medical precedent. How could she maintain the persona of a “normal” wife and mother for 4 years, knowing that she had stashed the incriminating evidence right in their house? My guess is that she used a combination of denial and magical thinking. There is no jury, but the judge’s verdict is still “out,” as to how culpable this woman is. Astonishingly to me, her husband has already been exonerated. Infuriatingly to me, he admonished the judge, “You should not try to understand us.”

The fact is, we all use denial [Do you fly? Do you drive a car? Do you drink water?]; and most of us use magical thinking. [If I promise to donate $20 to the SPCA, Napster will come home.] At the brain level, I believe that both defenses are useful in calming amygdalar alarm [but at the cost of reality testing]. Sometimes, that cost is very high.

Incidentally, the “hidden idiot” in the picture is not Lili. It is myself, hiding behind the tree on her right. [See my sleeve?] As readers of the post “Crazy Like a Fox” will know, I was anything but “out of [Lili’s] mind,” as she launched herself up the hill to find me. Unlike the woman in the news story, Lili has a highly developed sense of Object Constancy, and knew I was just playing “Peek-a-Boo” with her.

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