Category Archives: stifled wolf

Why the short leash?

In a much earlier post [“Tie Me Kangaroo Down”], I quoted Robert Frost’s view, that following rules [in that instance, the rules of rhyme & meter in poetry] can actually be as appealing as the siren song of anarchy. “Freedom,” said Frost, is “moving easily in your harness.”

Evidently, Trenton Oldfield’s course in Contemporary Urbanism @ the LSE didn’t cover that line of country. His website, “Elitism Leads to Tyranny,” discusses civil disobedience techniques, one of which he demonstrated this afternoon @ the 158th Boat Race [commonly known as the Henley Regatta] between Oxford & Cambridge, which he disrupted by swimming right underneath the oars of the Oxford boat, which had to stop, to avoid beheading him with an oar. When the race was resumed, a clash of oars left the Oxford boat one rower short; and the Bowman, Dr. Alex Woods, tried to exert the Therbligs of two men, but in vain.  The Oxford boat lost & Woods collapsed in the boat. He is currently listed in “stable” condition @ Charing Cross Hospital.

So, well done, Trent! Your civil disobedience managed to cock a snook at those 16 Elitist rowers and avert Tyranny, good & proper. At this writing Mr. Oldfield is under arrest on the minor charge of disrupting public order.

Last Saturday, my elder daughter & I were longing for the short leashes which the order-shouting TSA personnel insisted that we take off her cats Seamus & Finnbar, as we passed through the x-ray machine @ San Francisco International Airport, each of us clutching a squirming cat in our arms. When [what are the odds?] both of us were selected for the anti-terror profiling exam which includes having each hand swabbed for explosive residue, my younger daughter assumed her Lacrosse goalie stance, prepared to catch any feline anarchists.

Let us apply the What’s Up Your Nose analysis to these 2 events. I’m guessing that Trenton Oldfield feels personally humiliated by those young men fortunate [talented?] enough to attend Oxbridge universities and exert themselves for all to see on the River Thames. Will he also be disrupting crew events @ this summer’s Olympic games, one wonders? Oldfield’s intrusion angered the sports commentators, even before it led [indirectly] to the pain & suffering of Alex Woods. Plenty of anger to be getting on with there, then.

The TSA’s seemingly vindictive choice of the 2 least likely terrorists in our cohort was prompted by what? A cat allergy, causing pain & suffering? Then surely it would have made more sense to bustle us through, rather than make us hang around for an extra 15 minutes. A sense of intrusion, that it is Southwest’s policy to let cats travel in the cabin, instead of the baggage hold, like most other airlines? For our part, the intrusion, humiliation, and fear of cat loss led to an almost irresistible need to vent our anger through sarcasm; but we both managed to keep our snark “on a short leash.” I was actually quite Zen about it, knowing that my younger daughter had our backs. But it was with great relief that we finally put each cat back on a short leash & thence into their under-seat carrier bags, for the 2 flights that brought them to their new home in Boston.

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Filed under attribution theory, power subtext, stifled wolf, therbligs

Trademark Bandanna


The week the of the Challenger disaster, in late January ’86, was made more horrific for the students & staff @ the College of the Holy Cross (in Worcester, MA)–where I was, improbably, a Visiting Professor–by 3 factors. The female teacher-astronaut on board was considered a beloved local girl, so the loss felt intensely personal to many. That weekend, my most promising student in Intro Psych died in a freak skiing accident; and the next day the head coach of a varsity team hanged himself. All of us on the staff, being familiar with the phenomenon of The Contagion of Suicide in Institutional Settings, held many impromptu class teach-ins, as well as individual crisis interventions; and, miraculously, the loss of life stopped with the coach.

I thought about that long-ago, macabre week at ‘Da Cross, on 12 September ’08, when the death by hanging of David Foster Wallace (whom his Claremont students, among others, referred to as DFW) was reported. Our daughter didn’t have a class with him, but some of her friends did–sitting in an empty classroom, wondering where on earth he was…whom to ask…when to bag it, and just go on to “the next destination on their maps,” as DFW would have put it…not knowing that he had decided to “eliminate [his] own map for keeps,” as he euphemizes suicide in his mammoth [1079-page] 1996 novel, Infinite Jest.

No matter how Existentially live-and-let-die we Mental Health Providers think we are, most of us see suicide as a Bad Outcome, a Postponable but Irrevocable Solution to a Temporary Problem, and often a Provocation to Others to Follow Suit. [The caps are in honor of DFW’s writing style, since I deplore his untimely end, but find myself enthralled by his big ol’ book.] On the last day of our visit to Claremont this week, we were trolling around bookstores, in search of the latest Pynchon novel, and Dorsey’s Atomic Lobster, and similar light fare, when our kid hefted DFW’s two-and-a-half-pound tome onto the pile, and said, “It’s time.”

Back in our hotel room, while she crashed out for a power nap, I did my let-the-fairies-pick-the-page method of literary sampling (used to great effect in my college days, by all us cognitive ‘Roos, who had no hope of reading the assigned “book a night” from front to back). DFW’s iconic read was just crying out for this method, often having been referenced in other Hipster Lit, as in “Let’s get totally stoned and see if we can get past page 70 of Infinite Jest.” So the fairies chose page 348, and I dove in, and woke our kid up with my raucous laughter. (We had to go by me my own copy that night, for reading on the plane.)

If you know someone who is (or should be) in a 12-step recovery program, this part of the book is the most accurate (yet hilarious) depiction of the ambivalence People in The Program feel about The Program, that I have ever read. I may, eventually, circle back to page 1; but for now I’m just pressing on, towards page 1079. In a 1996 Salon interview, right after the book’s original publication, DFW said he had tried to write “a sad book,” since he had already tried funny and ironic. Asked about the inclusion of so many AA scenes, he said he meant for them to “stand for the lostness and what you do when the things you thought were going to make you OK, don’t.”

In the many postmortum articles since his suicide, much is made of the fact that he had taken an arcane, hardly-ever-used-anymore anti-depressant for 20 years, until the toxic side-effects got too bad. Reportedly, when he stopped, his depressive symptoms returned with a vengeance; but reinstating the drug did not help. How prophetic, then, his phrase, from 12 years earlier: “what you do when the things you thought were going to make you OK, don’t.”

Before dipping into his book, I speculated that ol’ DFW had suffered the consequences of a “Stifled Wolf.” That his unacknowledged anger got turned in against himself, and took him out. Tell you what, though, his fictional characters are All Wolf, All the Time, especially in the AA scenes (which is what makes them the most hilarious part of the story). Twelve years is a long time between “howlings,” though, if–as everyone who knew him says–he was Meek As a Lamb in person. He would give various explanations for the wearing of his ubiquitous, trademark bandanna, including “to keep my head from exploding.” If only, if only, he had allowed himself to channel some of his raging AA characters into his real life persona, to risk offending others, to unwrap his huge head and let some steam escape…

Well, let’s not make that fatal mistake, ourselves. Let’s acknowledge our inner wolf, and every now and then (when we’re where it’s safe, as safe as an AA meeting, where they can’t kick you out for what you say, no matter how outrageous), let’s untie the bandanna, and howl at the moon like a wolf, and realize, with relief, that our head didn’t actually explode, after all.

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Filed under ambivalence, comic relief, stifled wolf, understanding shenanigans

"Why Keep a Dog and Bark, Yourself?"


Another Mancunian aphorism, meaning: “Why do the thing you pay (or feed) someone else to do for you?” We now launch into a world of pain & suffering, the “fourth irritant,” which has received short shrift in this blog, so far. Since I [Lieutenant Commander Kangaroo] am at the helm, we shall first make a short detour…to the Orient.

Have you heard about the “Bow-lingual” Dog Bark Translator? It purports to analyze your dog’s utterances, and assign each of them to one of 6 mood states: “happy, sad, frustrated, on-guard, assertive, or needy.” Since, of course, it comes from Japan, it offers the dog owner (“just for fun,” the distributors insist) Japanese “translations”: a phrase to capture each of the 6 canine moods. Since, by coincidence, we have trained Lili to respond to Japanese commands, wouldn’t it be fun to find out what she is saying back to us, in Japanese? [Not $213’s worth of fun, I feel.] Just within the past month, though, she has begun to make this new, yodeling sound on her way to the hearthrug “penalty box,” for over-the-top “barkitude” at intruder dogs on our property. My own translation of it is the adolescent’s plainsong chant of protest, “Mah-am!” It’s not exactly defiance–more of a minority report on the unfairness of the sanction. [It’s a struggle not to laugh when she does it.]

Now, back to pain & suffering. Three cheeky chappies @ the University of Keele, in the UK, wished to study the “point” of swearing, in response to pain. Their research design was so cute, that it merits some attention. Undergraduates were recruited for a (supposed) study of “the degree of stress that various forms of language elicit during tense situations.” [That’s the dullest phrase in the NeuroReport article, I promise.] Each subject was asked to list “5 words you might use after hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer,” as well as “5 words to describe a table.” Only those who listed at least one obscenity were included in the experiment. They ended up with 38 males and 29 females. [Already, we’re doing sociology & anthropology, no?] Each subject was tested twice, in randomly assigned sequence–once while repeating the first expletive they listed, and once while saying the ordinally corresponding “table” descriptor from their other list. The pain & suffering inflicted was [a maximum of 5 minutes of] their hand submerged in a bucket of ice water. So, guess under which condition each & every subject endured pain significantly longer–expletive or furniture adjective? Not surprisingly, swearing out loud is “hypogesic.” [It lessens pain perception.]

But why? The boffins from Keele are a bit baffled. The best they can do is surmise that it has to do with amygdalar arousal. Therefore, we armchair researchers can feel free to kibitz. What if there had been a third test condition, besides obscenity & Ikea cataloguery? What if the contestants had also been asked to list 5 Emotive (but genteel) outcries [you know, like “Rats!” or “Crumbs! or “Bother!”]? How do we know that such polite but vehement expressions of dismay are not equally hypogesic? [I don’t believe it for a minute, mind you; but it would have made the study’s findings more robust.]

Many dog training books assert that when a canine launches into a prolonged bout of “barkitude,” he is producing endorphins, and therefore rewarding himself with a powerful–some would say addictive–stimulus/response loop, that soon has little to do with the original cue for barking. [The UPS truck is long gone, but the stoner dog is still “self-medicating,” man.]

Maybe that’s what a human yelp of obscenity evokes in the brain: a lovely hit of endorphin, which makes the icy water much easier to handle. If so, and if the yelp is prompted by amygdalar arousal in response to pain & suffering, then (shock, horror!) maybe the amygdala is Not All Bad. Maybe, like most things found in nature, it’s a double-edged sword. And so, too, [until someone does the “Crumbs!” variation on the Keele study] is the occasional, appropriate human bark of (insert expletive).

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Filed under confounds, murky research, pain reduction, stifled wolf