Category Archives: therbligs

Somebody’s Baby

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This post is a companion piece to two from early 2011: “Big Love & Other Oxytocin Myths” and “Just looking for some touch.” Whereas the “Big Love” post pictured my elder daughter walking with me through the Muir Woods outside San Francisco, here she is at our Maryland breeder’s farm, holding Emmy @ about 5 weeks old. IMG_1412

And, whereas in the earlier post our younger daughter was pictured currying favor with one of our horses, back in Michigan, here she is, several Yuletides ago, cradling Zanzibar, the cool cat she had adopted from the prison town of Chino, California, but then brought him home to live with us, realizing that he deserved more degrees of freedom than a college dorm room would afford him.

Aside from showing off my beloved babies in Madonna-like poses with two of our furry babies, there is a topical psychological point to this post.

Have you, perhaps, been as infuriated as I am, at the mother of the 2 alleged Boston Marathon bombers, who, even in the teeth of her younger son’s admission of guilt, continues mulishly to proclaim his “angelic” innocence? “What’s that all about?” as they say in Boston.

It’s about that pesky neuro-peptide, Oxytocin, folks. As the astute Dutchman, Carsten De Dreu [et al.] demonstrated, the more you perform nurturing acts for your “baby,” [human or furry], the more Oxytocin your brain produces; and the more you experience “in-group love” and “out-group hate.” Black & white thinking ensues. Her baby boys could do no wrong. Ever! The nefarious “out-group” is conspiring against them.

It’s an easy cognitive error to make, if you have expended many Therbligs in the loving care of a vulnerable creature. I spent last night rushing the gastro-intestially tormented Emmy outside every 30 minutes, from dusk until dawn. Not only am I punchy, I’m love-drunk. How nobly she bears her suffering! How hard she is trying to “do the right thing, in the right place” [not altogether successfully]. At the moment, she is too weak to be naughty; but when she does eventually recover and put a paw out of line, I’m likely to spin it as someone else’s fault.

Probably, that feisty clown, Zanzibar, who loves to provoke her.

Sound familiar?

 

 

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Filed under attribution theory, black and white thinking, therbligs, what's it all about?

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

"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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"Can a leopard change its spots?"


Rhetorical questions get right up my nose. [Just for fun, notice how many RQs I sneak into this post, and how annoying they are.] This famous RQ is from the Old Testament prophet Jeramiah [13:23], who prefaces his animal metaphor with what these days would be called a racial slur: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin?” In both cases, one might be moved to reply, “Why would he even want to [change]?” [Jeramiah’s answer would be, to avoid the destruction of Solomon’s temple, silly! Go read his whole sarcastic, “Now you’ve gone and done it, and you’re gonna get it!” rant for yourself, if this isn’t ringing any distant bells from your Judeo-Christian-Islamic upbringing.]

Ever since I was assigned my first patient in 1971, the leopard-spot-changing question has dogged me. [Remember this variation on the theme of an old joke? Q:”How many psychotherapists does it take to change a lightbulb?” A:”Just one; but the lightbulb has to really want to change.”] Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels a little bit defensive about the efficacy of The Talking Cure. In this month’s issue of The California Psychologist, there’s an article with the subheading, “Psychotherapy is Effective!” Here’s what various cited outcome studies have “shown” it can do: “provide symptom relief and personality change, prevent future symptomatic episodes, enhance quality of life, promote adaptive functioning in work/school and relationships, [and/or] increase the likelihood of making healthy and satisfying life choices.” Not to mention buying a little time, when your colleagues, constituents & the media are baying for your blood. Nar’mean?

How do you suppose most of these studies determine whether the desired outcome has been achieved? Why, by self-report questionnaires, mostly. “After 10 sessions, I can definitely see my spots fading!” Got any methodological problems with that? Remember the principle of Cognitive Dissonance? [The more Therbligs/money/effort you invest in achieving a goal, the more likely you are to believe that you achieved it.] That’s why, explained our grad school profs, “no-cost” psychotherapy hardly ever “works.” “Charge ’em at least fifty cents, if you want ’em to change,” they advised. [The APA Ethics Committee is constantly chasing its tail, as to whether barter is a therapeutic form payment. “Taking it out in trade” (as the lewd British euphemism has it), is definitely not, and is punishable by loss of license to practice.]

But, even if a paying leopard really wants to change its spots, can it? How much of brain function is “hard-wired” [as neuro-scientists used to like to say], and how much is “plastic” [as they like to say, these days]? Turns out, the more the patient and the therapist believe in the plasticity of brain function, “the more positive change is observed.” Even if they insist on calling it “rewiring.”

These days, I regard “a good therapeutic outcome” as “changing a leopard into a snow leopard.”

And I hate RQs because they are at best intrusive [a big waste of time, since they promise an answer which they don’t deliver], and at worst humiliating [since, like Jeramiah, they imply, “Schmuck, you should know this already!”].

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Filed under gets right up my nose, murky research, pragmatics, therbligs

On a Wild-Goose Chase


It’s probably not what you think it is. In the 16th Century, as if horses didn’t have enough to do already [what with pulling plows & carriages, carrying warriors into battle, or on hunts for wild boar, deer, or foxes], they were ridden [for sport & for wagers] over the fields and stone “fences” of England, in a variety of contests of speed, agility & endurance. The Steeple Chase [also called the Point-to-Point] involved racing from one church steeple to the next. In the Paper Chase, directions to the next “point” on the route were written on pieces of paper [like a treasure hunt]. More arcane than these was the Wild-Goose Chase [used as a metaphor in 1592 in Romeo & Juliet], in which the lead horse is the “alpha wild-goose” who chooses the route, which all the others must follow in the chevron formation of geese in flight. Since the interval between lead “goose” and the others must be maintained [in an apparent race of attrition], the enterprise became a metaphor for “a fool’s errand” [a futile waste of Therbligs], since the only way to beat the “goose” in pole position would be for it to fall at one of the fences. As in modern steeplechases [such as the Grand National], however, many fewer horses finish the race than start it, so it’s a Schadenfreudelich, Survival-of-the-Fittest wager the punters are making.

What a great concept for a reality TV show, no?

Most mornings, Lili gets to engage in a more literal wild-goose chase, charging the flock of insouciant, poo-dropping Canada geese who congregate on the school playing fields, and sending them off in a honking, airborne chevron [possibly just to the nearby golf course]. The school groundskeepers love this, as do the kids out for PhysEd [who whoop and applaud, and shout “It’s a wolf! It’s a bear! It’s the Goose-anator!”]. Haven’t heard the last moniker much, since the Fall of Arnie, though.

Unlike the English sporting event, no animals are harmed in the making of Lili’s morning show. The geese do not seem to experience her intrusion as awful [after all, they come back again the next day]; just highly inconvenient. Her efforts could be viewed as futile, in that they offer no permanent “goose-anation.” This is not a trivial matter for the keepers & users of airport runways, as Sully the Hero of the Hudson could tell you. Indeed, many airports have hired wild-goose-chasing dogs, since that high-profile [but not uncommon] bird-strike incident.

The mission [as they say in government-speak] is “on-going.” Win some, lose some. [Supply your own triumphs and disasters from this month’s headlines.] Disasters cause pain & suffering to their immediate victims, fear to the rest of us [that we could be next], intrusion [of additional security measures] and humiliation [that we can’t seem to find a “fool-proof” fix for the given threat]. No wonder the wolf is howling!

But, if we can focus on some of the triumphs, we might believe that our efforts are not futile. Our personal wild-goose chase may not be a “fool’s errand,” even if it must be “repeated, as necessary.” Our Therbligs will have not been expended in vain.

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"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

A Sudden Loss of Traction


Dontcha just hate it when you’re walking down your (conscientiously shoveled) driveway at dawn to collect the papers, and you execute an impromptu slapstick routine on black ice: the lawyer’s often lucrative “slip & fall” (if there’s anyone to blame for it, other than Mother Nature)? Let’s do the Wolf-work. In my case there was a certain amount of pain & suffering (only bruises, though, where there could have been a broken hip bone). If there had been witnesses at that early hour, I would have been humiliated, especially as I struggled to regain my footing on drier ground. (In the event, I opted for the 2-feet-of-snow, overland route back to the house). Had I actually broken any bones, there would have been the intrusion [inconvenience, at least] of a holiday trip to the ER and the subsequent hassle of schlepping around on crutches. But, most insidious of all, I now have a fear of falling again, and not being so lucky next time. On our holiday trip [you should excuse the expression] to the Great Lakes region to see family, I doddered around the icy streets & sidewalks like an old crone, eliciting only impatience [not assistance] from my Loved Ones.

But here’s the Beauty Part. Despite my loss of footing & dignity & confidence, I followed Dinosaur Barney’s advice, and [mostly] “kept on keeping on.” [I did beg off one side-trip in Michigan, which I felt was an icy road too far; and was chided for being a Chicken Little, since the snow had stopped by then.] But this is just a concrete example of the metaphoric [Existential, even] Loss of Traction, which is what I plan to discuss…right after a brief linguistic digression. Why is it, that the Tar Macadam form of paving [with which our road & treacherous driveway is sealed] has come to mean “Airport Runway or Apron,” when actually, said runways & aprons are never sealed with Tarmac, but instead are bare, slightly corrugated concrete, said corrugation intended to prevent a Sudden Loss of Traction by landing airplanes,?[Although it doesn’t always work, just read the newspapers this week, if you can get down your driveway to collect them.] Nar’mean?

It is my clinical [and personal] observation, that the holiday season causes [or worsens] an Existential Loss of Traction for many people, as they anticipate having to recount the triumphs and spin the disasters of their past year, in written [Christmas letter] and oral “examinations” [visits with the family]. Remember that inane but haunting Band-Aid [for famine relief, not slip & fall injuries] anthem: “And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?” What if your answer is: “Not as much as I had intended, when I made my New Year’s resolutions”? Humiliation, is what, pal. It can lead to an acute loss of self-efficacy [as the English, they who first landed “on the Tarmac,” have termed it], in which it seems as if no amount of Therblig expenditure will yield the hoped-for results, so why even bother?

I was remembering the last line of the 1966 English film, Alfie, in which our cheeky Cockney anti-hero, having blithely bedded [almost] Anything with a Pulse throughout the story, finds himself dissed & dismissed by proto-cougar Shelley Winters, for a younger man. His response has become a UK cliche to express a sudden loss of existential traction: “What’s it all about? Nar’mean?”

Using some concrete skid-recovery strategies as [metaphorical] paradigms, the next post will offer some suggestions for regaining traction. Meanwhile, this is Lili, on Christmas morning, having figured out a strategy for moving forward on iced-over, deep snow: “Run like a jackrabbit, skimming the surface, until gravity wins and you crash through to the snow beneath. Repeat.”

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Filed under gets right up my nose, therbligs, what's it all about?

"Climb Every (effing) Mountain"


Did you know that the actor who starred in the movie version of The Sound of Music, Christopher Plummer, found it so insufferably mawkish and goody-two-shoes, that he referred to it as “The Sound of Mucus”? Fact. The “mountain” depicted in this picture is really just a hill on our daily woodland walk; but, even though I do 50 minutes of aerobic training at home each morning before tackling this “ascent,” it always leaves me dizzy and gasping for air. [Humiliation in addition to a brief bout of pain & suffering.] So, why do I do it? That’s an Existential question, for another post. How do I do it? I apply the Premack Principle.

This is one of those robust, game-changing, life-enhancing concepts I learned about in grad school [back in the day], that has been completely watered down, in modern textbooks. Here is Ray Corsini’s definition, in The Dictionary of Psychology (2002 edition): “David Premack’s contention that given two behaviors with differing likelihoods of occurring, the behavior more likely to occur may be used to reinforce the less likely behavior.” [Yawn]

Here’s how we learned it: “Faced with two tasks, one of which is short & simple, and the other of which is long & complex, an individual is more likely to choose to do the short, simple task.” Our example for teaching this to our Intro Psych students @ USNA was to ask them, “During which two weeks in the academic year are Midshipmen’s belt buckles the shiniest?” Answer: “During the Pre-exam Reading Periods of 1st & 2nd semester.” Why? Because, faced with the tasks of Brasso-ing one’s belt buckle or studying for an Electrical Engineering exam, one will choose the simple but gratifying task of banishing tarnish from a belt buckle (and any other other metal surface) first. (Then, polishing one’s shoes…)

So, here’s the power of this principle. In order to increase the likelihood of tackling a long & complex task, you should “Premack” it into short(er), simple(r) little steps. If a grown-up says to a kid, “Pick up your room,” (and it’s not a scene from a Disney movie), the likely result will be…not a picked up room, I’m tellin’ ya. If the grown-up says, “First, gather up all the used towels in your room,” it will be (more likely to be) done.

When faced with that most onerous and complex of tasks, “Finish your doctoral dissertation,” my classmates & I resorted to all manner of short & simple tasks, such as finishing the NYTimes crossword puzzle, or at least filling in all the S’s for the plural clues. This was mid-70s, mind you, when a search of the relevant literature meant hunting down journal articles by pawing through tomes of indices, and then reading the articles on microfische…oh, it exhausts me even to tell you. So, I would Premack it: “I’ll sit in the library, scribbling on my little index cards, until I have filled 10 of them, and then I’ll rest from my labors (for the day). I’ll come back tomorrow and do 10 more.”

That’s how I get up the hill each day. I Premack it: by keeping my eyes steadfastly fixed on each day-glow-orange-painted tree root, like the rungs of a ladder, just a short distance apart; and avoiding looking up the hill, to see how many, many more “rungs” are left ahead of me. [Also, to distract me from the agony of so many expended Therbligs, in my head I “sing” a song of non-lexical vocables, such as “Nana Window” or the “Ying Tong” song.]

So, do ya see, this could be a strategy to keep from being consumed by the Zeigarnik effect. “I’ll think of 3 new places to look for those missing forage balls. I’ll look, and then I’ll rest from my labors.” (That is, I’ll move on to something completely different, also on my list of self-assigned tasks.) Between the push-me-pull-you of Premack & Zeigarnik, I get a surprising number of things done each day, especially considering that I am a cognitive Kangaroo. Not everything, mind you. But there’s always tomorrow…

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"Tie Me Kangaroo Down"


This Rolf Harris song was a big hit in the UK in 1960, as well as my personal anthem [since by then I had figured out that I was a cognitive ‘Roo, who needed to “rein myself in” during school hours]. Can’t resist quoting the timely [and prescient] first verse: “Watch me wallabies feed, mate…they’re a dangerous breed, mate.” Those Tasmanian poppy farmers [well, their parents] had been warned.

This is Dusk, a 16hh QuarterHorse [8″ shorter than Owen]: failed race horse [didn’t like being loaded into the starting gate], successful “A” Circuit Hunter/Jumper [though how they ever got her into a horse-trailer to haul her to all those shows is anybody’s guess], and set in her ways, by the time we owned her. If you’re interested in her pedigree, her sire was “Mr. Clabberdoo” and her dam was…a number. [I mean, literally–no name, just a number.] So claustrophobic was “Miss Clabberdoo” [our barn name for her, when she was being stubborn], that she often refused to come in from turn-out [in a boring, dirt–not gorgeous grass–paddock], to her lovely, warm [in winter] or cool [in summer] stall to eat her delicious food…until dusk. Stable lads galore would humiliate themselves by saying, “Oh, you guys just don’t know how to wrangle a QuarterHorse. I’ll get her in, in no time,” only to spend a fruitless hour coaxing, then chasing, then cursing this otherwise “nice” horse [a term of art that means talented]. Think of the intrusion [total waste of time and Therbligs] her silliness caused everyone at the barn. I finally figured out how to outfox her, based on the common practice of lungeing a feisty horse [having it run in circles, in alternate directions, bucking at will, on a long leash-type thingy called a lungeline] to dissipate all that pent-up recalcitrance. I would walk to the center of Dusk’s paddock and mime the actions of having her on a lungeline, schmizing her into cantering clockwise in a big circle, then counter-clockwise, until she would get tired, walk over to me, nuzzle my neck, and allow me to clip on a short leadline and walk her inside. [This could take up to 15 minutes, but it always worked.]

So, that is how you tie your Kangaroo down, mate. At a physical level, most cognitive ‘Roos are restless creatures, who need to exhaust themselves with a spot of aerobic activity, before they can “buckle down” to the task assigned by The Man. Sometimes [not always] fear and loathing of confined spaces has to do with the loss of liberty to “go walkabout.” If the legs can’t go, at least the mind is free to wander. In my culture, this is called being “away wit’ da Fairies.” It is not (or wasn’t, when I were a lass) pathologized–bemoaned, yes; rebuked, even–but mostly regarded as an inconvenient foible, to be outgrown or outfoxed. In England I was lucky enough to live in a stone-cold house [no central heating], so that a hot, strong cup of tea was a welcome part of breakfast. Then my first class of the day was Physical Training, where we scampered around a cinder track [usually in the fog] until exhausted. What a perfect way for a Kangaroo to get ready to “buckle down” and get schooled. To this day, I begin [almost] every morning with a 50-minute aerobic workout, followed by a strong cup of tea. To quote my younger daughter, it helps me to “linger at the gates” (of the Fairies’ realm), without actually slipping away.

So, are you Clydesdales getting any of this? Like Dusk, cognitive ‘Roos resist time and space constraints. But they can learn to become their own “wranglers,” by putting themselves on a virtual lungeline and getting all the bucking [of the system] out of their system [also known as “doing the Wolf-work” of figuring out what’s likely to get up their nose about acting like a biddable beast of burden], before reining themselves in for long enough to get a productive day’s work done. Robert Frost had a series of exchanges with Carl Sandberg, who wanted Frost to give up the constraints of rhyme and meter, and join their contemporaries in writing verse libre. Frost remarked, famously, that it would be “like playing tennis without a net.” Less famously, he added, “True freedom is moving easily in your harness.”

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Filed under born to run, ethology, gets right up my nose, non-linear thinking, therbligs, understanding shenanigans

The Lame Gazelle


Back in Manhattan, back in the day, when my acting friends and I were working on our “Not your victim, not your enemy” subtext schtick, there was an iconic TV documentary, with gory but memorable footage of cooperative hunting by African big cats at a (real) watering hole. How did those cats choose which animal from a herd to attack? No doubt to conserve Therbligs, they went after the lame gazelle. This image became our metaphor for how NOT to present oneself, whether in a Midtown watering hole or an Uptown subway train.

At the most concrete level, it meant not hobbling ourselves by wearing oh-so-high heels, if we were taking the Shoeleather Express any further than a waiting taxi. [Millenial women, I’m talking to you. Pack a pair of flats in your handbag, for a quick getaway.] This was a no-brainer for me, since I had gotten over the glamour of stilettos as a young teenager in London, when my heel wedged itself into the wooden tread of a Bakerloo escalator (8 years before my “Skaaf” escapade in Boston, yet).

At a more controversial level–in that Age of (alleged) Equality of the Sexes–it meant not trying to keep up with the lads, drink for drink, at the watering hole. The slightest unsteadiness on one’s feet, and the “prey” subtext is hard to override, whatever one’s actual state of inebriation. [Another good reason to leave the stilettos to fictional New Yorkers.] A glib remark–such as the British cliche, “Oopsie-daisy! Worse things happen at sea!”–helps, though, since it implies that one is not humiliated by one’s gait. It also is quaint and eccentric, implying that one might be a bit “Doo-lally” (crazy), which no self-respecting predator will pursue, if there is other fair game in sight. [Ethologists have speculated that this avoidance of erratically-behaving prey may have evolved as a protective mechanism against sinking one’s teeth into a rabid animal.] So, it is a fine line we walked–act crazy, not drunk–but we got the hang of it. As we had learned in acting school, actual drunks try very hard to appear sober and do everything more slowly than normal, whereas meshuggahs tend to do everything like a Marx brothers vaudeville routine.

One night, while co-starring in an Off Off Broadway production of Picnic in a theatre so bijou that it had no hot water, I decided to wait until I got home to take off my stage make-up. I was on the Uptown IRT local, getting [puzzling] predatory looks, when we went through a tunnel, which turned the train window into a mirror; and I saw my reflection. [Remember in the Disney cartoon, Aladdin, where the Robin Williams genie channels a Bravo-channel designer and asks our hero of his get-up, “Now, what are we saying?” A line much used in raising my two girls, I must say.] My subtext said either “female with low self-esteem” or “female impersonator.” To override these two subtexts, I addressed my fellow travelers in a loud, theatrical voice, “Hey, everybody! Did any of you catch our production of Picnic down in the Village tonight? We’re there all week!” The hunters averted their gaze. “She’s in a play,” they muttered to one another. “Yeah, yeah. Good for you, there, sweetheart. Break a leg.” No longer their potential victim…nor their enemy, unless I started spouting lines from the play.

So, here is Ruth, giving you her impression of decrepitude. For going-on 20, she is quite spry, and still a good hunter. She allows herself to be included in the male cats’ horsing around, but just let Lili try to herd her, and you’ll see who’s whose victim. Although she is a purebred Maine Coon, she is all fur and bones, no weight at all! Still, her self-possession and longevity are a reminder to us all, “Don’t be the lame gazelle!”

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Filed under ethology, power subtext, semiotics, therbligs