Category Archives: sharks and jets

“Road Dogs”

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“If anybody ever asks us well let’s just tell them that we met in jail.” Recovery by Frank Turner

Elmore Leonard, who wrote Road Dogs in 2009, and died last week, has been my metaphorical Road Dog since 1982, when I left the Navy & moved with my husband Chris back to his hometown, the ritzy [but claustrophobically non-coastal] suburban Detroit town of Birmingham, MI. Back then Leonard himself was still living a few miles East in humble Clawson, MI, and having his trademark “loveable rascal” characters conflate Birmingham & the even ritzier Bloomfield Hills, referring to their denizens as “Bloomingham pukes.” I used to do my grocery shopping over at the Clawson Farmer Jack, hoping to spot my spirit guide Leonard in the liquor aisle, stocking up on Jack Daniels. Never had a sighting, but I took comfort from the fact that of all the places he could afford to live, he chose to stay put: “Hey, my grandkids live here,” he used to say. If Oakland Country was cool enough for “Dutch,” then I could do better with my time spent there, than “just making do and muddling through” [to quote from another Frank Turner song, The Way I Tend to Be]. The young British singer/songwriter Frank Turner is another metaphorical Road Dog for me.

The original meaning of the term, as portrayed in Leonard’s novel, is two people who meet in jail and agree to protect each other from the predations of the other inmates. The social contract of “I got your back, forever, man, no matter what,” is only a Socratic ideal, impossible to keep in real life; and only one “partner” can be the alpha dog…at any given time. Part of the fun of the novel is tracking the shifts in the power subtext between Jack Foley & Cundo Rey. Won’t tell you who winds up top dog. Buy the book.

And that’s the social contract between me & Elmore Leonard [and me & Frank Turner]. Their upbeat, offbeat take(s) on life keep(s) my morale up; and my big-upping them to friends [& readers of this blog] keeps their sales numbers up. What my two Road Dogs have in common is an unflinching, sarcastically funny acknowledgement of aggressive impulses: Leonard through his fictional characters, and Turner though his autobiographical songs. They own the wolf.  They make you want to invite it in and try to tame it.  One of Leonard’s recent books, for children, A Coyote’s in the House, is so popular that it is out-of-stock @ Amazon.

Just when we finally got out of Birmingham to move back East in 2000, Elmore Leonard moved across the street from our neighborhood, into Bloomfield Township [not to be confused with Bloomfield Hills, settle down]. His funeral was held at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Birmingham; but his wake was at a funeral home in Clawson. Just in case anyone thought he had sold out and become a “Bloomingham puke.”

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Here’s our coyote-looking one-year-old Emmy, with her new Road Dog, 8-month-old Bentley. They meet in our yard most afternoons, to sort out who’s alpha.

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Born This Way?


This, from last Tuesday’s Washington Post: “Fido won’t sit? Blame his genes.” This slipshod article is loosely based on a study conducted at the Department of Ethology & the Department of Medical Chemistry at 2 separate universities in Budapest, Hungary, entitled “Polymorphism in the Tyrosine Hydroxylase (TH) Gene Is Associated with Activity-Impulsivity in German Shepherd Dogs.” Still paying attention?

For me, the most fascinating finding was that, regarding this herenow gene, there was great variance between different dog breeds. (Which wasn’t the point of the study at all, mind you. They were supposed to be focusing on within-breed differences. Seem to have gotten a little sidetracked, no?) “For example, the frequency of allele 2 is 31% in Groenandaels [Belgian Shepherds to you & me], 0.89% in German shepherds, and 0.73% in wolves.” Got wolf? Yes, I do, near as dammit.

Now, to the weakest link of the study: the operational definition of Activity-Impulsivity in dogs. First they modified the standard parents-kvetching-about-their-kids ADHD checklist to “apply” to owners-kvetching-about-their-dogs. No items from this questionnaire appeared in the article. Trust them, it had great inter-rater reliability. Swell. How about validity? What they call ADHD, I might call hypervigilance [which is what my wolflike German shepherd manifests, ja?]. Or, possibly, Separation Anxiety, which she also has.

Next they conducted a 4-task individual test for 104 dog & owner pairs, with a female experimenter present. (1)”Spontaneous activity.” Dog on leash with owner [not giving any commands] for 1 minute. [How many leg movements did the dog make?] (2)”Separation & play.” With owner “hiding” behind a nearby tree & dog tied to another tree, the experimenter tries to engage the dog in a game of tug-of-war. [How active was the dog?] (3)”Lying on the side.” Owner commands the dog to lie down, then has it lie on its side for 30 seconds. [Does the dog obey?] (4)”Approaching the owner.” While experimenter holds the dog on a leash, the owner “hides” behind a tree. Then the dog is let off the leash and given the command “Go!” back to the owner. Now, get a load of this! The more quickly the dog returns to its owner, the more “ADHD” it is! Seriously.

Who knew the Hungarians placed such a premium on taking your sweet time when summoned by “the boss”?

Ooh! So, would they then predict that wolves [with an even lower frequency of the TH gene] would return to their pack leader even faster than our dog Lili? [Which I would have thought had survival value…] Wolves must be “ADHD” as all getout.

Notice that nowhere in the study was “Sitting on command” assessed.

May I suggest that you henceforth take the “Science News” section of the WaPo with a grain of salt? As they sing in Porgy & Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

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The Uncanny Valley


This highly technical term, coined in the 70s by the Japanese roboticist, Masahiro Mori, could just as well be the title of a Hollywood horror flick, nar’mean? What Mori-san meant, though, was that sudden dip in a graph measuring the “appeal” of humanoid robots, that occurs when The Thing looks both Too Human, yet Not-quite Human, and the observer gets freaked out.

Dr. Christian “Jeepers” Jarrett’s article, “The Lure of Horror,” in the Halloween issue of The Psychologist, tries to account for the apparent predilection among current cinema-goers [it’s a British journal] for being freaked out. Despite what you might gather from the weekly Box Office grosses listed in The Hollywood Reporter, not everyone craves creepiness. In fact, it’s mostly males aged 6 to 25 who really dig “trips” to the Uncanny Valley. The rest of us get quite enough of that eery sensation, thank you very much, from our nightmares, hypnogogic illusions [in that twilight state between sleep & waking], and the weird coincidences of everyday life.

The concept predates modern film-making. Freud & his contemporaries were writing articles about Das Unheimliche [the Uncanny] in the early 1900s, pondering the scariness of dolls with missing eyes [remember the cartoons of Orphan Annie?], clowns, and anyone hiding their face behind a mask [or veil]. The limbic explanation, then and now, is that we vulnerable mortals need all the visual cues we can get, to determine whether a stranger poses a threat or not. If we think someone is PLU [People Like Us], and suddenly the mask slips, to reveal that they are [gasp!] non-PLU, our visceral response may be so dramatic that we get vertigo.

Back in the day, when I was a VA Trainee, I was interviewing a young “woman” veteran, to assess whether the first government-funded sex-change operation would increase or decrease his/her suicidal acting out. I had lived in Greenwich Village, the mecca of glamorous transvestites; but the individual before me looked and acted more like an Amish farm girl. When I asked about an incident from adolescence, the person’s voice, body language and facial expression morphed into the 16-year-old boy he had been; and I nearly fell out of my chair. It wasn’t scary; it was uncanny. We both had a good laugh about it, and carried on with the interview, in the safe surroundings of the Manhattan VA hospital. As a transsexual individual trying to live a “normal” life in 1970s NYC, however, the uncanny feelings my patient evoked in macho men often turned violent. [ See The Crying Game, not so much Tootsie.]

In this regard, Jarrett reports a startling finding from my least favorite research tool, the fMRI. 40 subjects watched creepy clips from scary movies and also boring clips from the same films. The researchers expected the amygdala to light up during the creepy bits; but, no, the intracranial wolf did not howl. What lit up were the “visual cortex, the insular cortex (a region involved in self-awareness) and the thalamus (the relay centre between the cortex and the sub-cortical regions).” I hate to admit it, but this is heavy. It suggests that members of that coveted demographic, males between 6 and 25, do not seek out horror films to get scared. They are there to get schooled. They are practicing [in what they are quite aware is a safe, pretend setting] vigilance. They’re getting good at discriminating the PLU from the non-PLU, innit?

Their motto is not, “Jeepers, creepers!” It’s “We won’t be fooled again.”

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Big Love & Other Oxytocin Myths


My husband snapped this photo of me & our firstborn enjoying a stroll through the Muir Woods redwood park this Valentine’s weekend, exactly 30 years after he & I walked the same path. Everybody say, “Aww,” cuz that’s the last sentimental sentence in this pseudo-science-debunking post.

In 1953 Vincent du Vigneaud synthesized the so-called “pro-social” neuropeptide, Oxytocin (OT), for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1956 [but not for Peace]. Until the 21st century, researchers mostly studied the effects of this hormone in nonhuman mammals, concluding that it facilitates labor and lactation. From whence, it was only a short anthropomorphic leap of logic, to conclude that OT acts like a maternal love potion, cementing the mother-offspring bond, at least until the young can fend for themselves. Having witnessed at an impressionable age my cousin’s pet mouse giving birth and then eating all of her young that we were not quick enough to rescue from her, I can tell you [as they say Up North in England], “It don’t necessarily follow.” Apparently, the amount of OT sufficient to induce labor & delivery is not always sufficient to guarantee maternal feelings [let’s say, behavior] towards her progeny. Anyone who raises livestock is aware of this, and has one or two “foster mothers” on hand, to “adopt” the rejected newborns. Those who work in neonatology or “foundling” rescue have seen this occasional failure of Oxytocin to vincit omnia in humans, as well.

Nevertheless, OT has lately been hailed by [mostly European] neuroscientists, as the “Love Hormone” for shy, fearful and/or autistic humans, now available as a nasal spray [talk about “Gets Right Up Your Nose”], at least for research purposes. In April ’05, Kosfeld et al. [from Zurich] proclaimed “Oxytocin increases trust in humans.” In December ’05, Kirsch et al. [from Germany] reported “Oxytocin modulates neural circuity for social cognition and fear in humans.” By April ’10 Hurlemann et al. [from Bonn], in the article “Oxytocin enhances amygdala-dependent, socially reinforced learning and emotional empathy in humans,” began, “OT is becoming increasingly established as a prosocial neuropeptide in humans with therapeutic potential in treatment of social, cognitive, and mood disorders.”

Oh, yeah? Show me the data. More to the point, show me the methodology. The slender bough from which all these “findings” hang, is the Multifaceted Empathy Test: a self-administered computer instrument, on which a subject first categorizes a series of photos [happy, sad, or angry], and then rates [0 to 10] “how much you feel for the person in the photo.” With and without OT up your nose, double-blind. Seriously? Why not just ask subjects to rate Facebook pictures? “Would you ‘friend’ this person? Now, with OT up your nose, would you?”

Did I mention that trans-nasal Oxytocin is chemically similar to MDMA? [Google it.]

Let’s hear it for the Dutch [Carsten De Dreu et al., June ’10, Amsterdam], who used a slightly more real-world scenario, involving a game of strategy, allocating wealth [10 Euros] to Self, the In-Group, and/or the Out-Group. [Not unlike the contentious bail-out of debtor EU nations by (ahem) the Germans, nicht wahr?] They use wonderfully evocative terms, like “in-group love” and “out-group hate.” Here’s what they found: “The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict Among Humans.” Absent OT up their nose(s) the (male) subjects mostly opted to keep their Euros to themselves. With a snootfull, though, they would sacrifice their Euros for the good of their in-group, especially if it “hurt” the out-group. Conclusion: OT “drives a ‘tend and defend’ response in that it promoted in-group trust and cooperation, and defensive aggression (including protectionism and preemptive strike) against perceived out-group threat.”

Sound familiar? Sounds like Circle-the-Wagons, Jets-versus-Sharks, Small Love [not Big Love] to me. Next time, a discussion of how OT gets into the bloodstream [other than via a nasal spray].

Hint: Consider the old English expression, “to curry favour.”

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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.

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

Bronx Cheer


When my father got back from the Korean War and we moved to New York, I was 5 [and my sister was 6]. In what would be called these days, an effort to “bond” with us, he made up for 3 years of lost parenting time by teaching us to play chess and cribbage, and to use a logarithmic slide rule. [Look it up, you Young Ones; and keep the Internet handy, cuz more historical references will follow.] We also got into [radio broadcasts of] baseball. My mother & sister [both Cleveland natives] were Indians fans, while Rosie & I were all about the Brooklyn Dodgers. My enthusiasm outstripped my accuracy, as I raced around the apartment shouting, “Come quick! It’s ‘Dike Snooder’ at bat!” [Also a big fan of “Pee Wee Weese,” I was.] Our parents were fairly ecumenical about whom we could support: Anyone but the Yankees.

My father’s motto was: “Rooting for the Yankees is like hoping for King Faroukh to win at roulette.” At the time Rosie coined this bon mot, the penultimate King of Egypt [aka “The Thief of Cairo”] was reckoned to be the world’s richest man, yet notorious for pilfering valuable artifacts from other heads of state whom he visited [including Winston Churchill]. Thus, our contempt for the Yankees was based, even in the 50s, on the egregiously “uneven playing field” that overpayment of their players created. Baseball, after all, was supposed to be a metaphor for the American Dream: a meritocracy, not a plutocracy.

When we moved to the UK, and the British tried to label me a “Yank[ee],” I would [rather cryptically] respond, “How dare you! I was always a Dodgers fan, until dey left Brooklyn, da bums!” The only part of this they grasped was “bums,” which was rather a rude word for a 12-year-old girl to be using, in those days. When I went to Duke, and a “Magnolia Honey” would remark, “Whah, you mus’ be a Yankee!” I would give her the same retort, leaving her baffled, as well. Ah, the power of the Poetic Speech function! Keeps ’em guessing.

So, anyway, why do we sports fans [even those of us who don’t have a wager on the outcome], get so worked up when our team loses? The Manifest reason is, “Cuz we was robbed!” [The umpire was sight-challenged or corrupt. Add your own conspiracy theory here.] But the Latent reason [as in, “What gets up our nose” about the loss] is often humiliation as the victors litter Broadway with mountains of “ticker tape” [which long-forsaken paper product is as passe as the slide rule]; but also the intrusion of Farouhk-like wealth on one side, to “buy” the outcome. [A casual glance at the jubilant NYTimes headlines this week might have you wondering, were they talking sports or politics?]

There’s nothing more infuriating than a fixed contest [especially when it doesn’t go in your favor]. Rosie always used to stomp around the house in mock indignation while watching the Miss Universe Pageant. “It’s all rigged, I tell you! It always goes to an Earthling!” [Talk about da bums…]

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Timber Wolf


Before we consider the genius of Maurice Sendak [in the next post], let’s hear it for the amygdala [which I am usually offering readers tips on subduing, or at least bending to their will]. If you look up “timber wolf,” you will see a photo of a black wolf, who looks quite like Lili [except Lili’s ears are bigger and shaggier, like an over-the-top stage version of the wolf in a melodrama]. Since she is my totem to represent the amygdala [and I am feeling particularly grateful to her, for alerting me to falling branches in the woods, this rainy season], I shall henceforth regard her as my “Timber! wolf”: a niche-market service dog who warns its owner of a very specific [hopefully, rare] hazard, thereby inspiring confidence during woodland walks.

Speaking of (actual) service dogs, this week’s New Yorker has an article entitled “Man’s Best Friend: Scratch and Sniff,” describing the ability of several dogs in the K-9 Unit of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, to detect the presence of contraband cell phones in prisons, by “scent.” It’s a heartwarming article [unless you are incarcerated in New Jersey, Virginia, or Maryland], but here is my favorite bit. I shall quote, as the article does, K-9 Officer Mitchell: “All our dogs right now are German shepherds or Labs. We did try one golden retriever, but we had to fail him out. That dog was too easy going. He’d come into a room on a search and just lay down. We sent him back to the Seeing Eye dog center in Morristown, where all our cell-phone dogs came from. That golden was a lover, not a fighter.”

So, what breed of dog are you? What is the default setting, in your amygdala? Do you tend to “bark” at the first whiff of threat? Do you, instead, high-tail it outta there? Or do you go into the deer-in-the-headlights freeze? And, anyway, which limbic response do we think that golden was displaying, lolling around on the cellblock floor? Is that the laid-back form of freezing? [Gives “Chill out” a whole new meaning.] To use an Australian animal metaphor, in the choice of a K-9 partner to sniff out the dodgy stuff, it’s a matter of “horses for courses.” [By which a racecourse punter in Oz means to say, if the bobtail nag is a good mudder, and the track is listed as “sloppy” that day, bet your money on her; but if the track is listed as “fast,” bet on the bay. No worries, mate.] So, if a dog is limbically wired to bark at a perceived threat, it is a better bet for contraband detection, than one wired to run away or freeze [or loll, even].

In fact, all dogs [and horses, and people] are capable of all 3 limbic responses. It’s just that one response is more typical or characteristic of any given individual. Here is where I invoke our acting school aphorism: “Know your type, and love your type.” I love Lili for her vigilance [even if she issues many false alarms in the course of a day]; and I know that my limbic wiring is closer to hers, than to the 2 hippy-dippy golden retrievers next door. My goal is not to “change breeds,” but to become the best German shepherd [or even Timber wolf] I can, by lowering my incidence of false alarms.

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