Category Archives: understanding shenanigans

Wolverhampton Wolves



I refer not to that ancient city’s alliteratively nicknamed football club [officially, the Wanderers], but to the flash-mob packs of masked looters and arsonists, who are the subject of my contempt, yet also of my attempt to understand what on earth has got up their noses this week.

That sociological sage [and, allegedly, appalling father] John Phillips, late of The Mamas and the Papas, wrote these lyrics to “Safe In My Garden” (1968), concerning the rioting youth of that era: “Could it be we were hot-wired? Late one night; we’re very tired. They stole our minds and thought we’d never know it. With a bottle in each hand; too late to try to understand. We don’t care where it lands–we just throw it. When you go out in the street, so many hassles with the heat [hippie slang for the police]; no one there can fill your desire. Cops out with the megaphones, telling people stay inside their homes. Man, can’t they see the world’s on fire?”

The riots he was describing ostensibly arose from the twin “root causes” of an unpopular war [Vietnam] and racial injustice in 20th Century America; yet he posits a very 21st Century “spark” that ignited that summer of burning cities: some kind of subliminal, electronically-mediated GroupThink, that robbed young people of their individual will and transformed them into the mobile vulgus [the wandering mob], wreaking seemingly random havoc, but not getting much satisfaction from it. Pretty prescient, for a guy who died in the Spring of 2001, no?

Many of this week’s unrepentant pillagers, when asked by BBC reporters, what got up their noses to provoke such displays of rage, answered, “It’s a Class War, innit? We’ve got nuffink, so we’re takin’ it from the rich, nar’mean?” Mind you, they all seemed to own Blackberries, on which they BBM’d {“hot-wired”?] each other the list of successive targets, most of which were modest “mom & pop” shops owned by Sikhs & Hindus [not by “rich snobs,” as one boy put it]. So, why the disconnect between the looters’ Robin Hood myth of robbing the rich, and the reality of their robbing the barely-making-ends-meet South Asian shopkeepers?

Well, [pace The News of the World] I blame the UK’s gutter press, of which The Daily Mail is the prime surviving example, whose narrative subtext is “Everyone we photograph is richer, luckier, and more powerful than you, Dear Reader. Envy them. Feel humiliated by them. Cut them down to size, if you get the chance.” That’s right. I blame the media for the mayhem that continues to spread throughout England tonight, perpetrated not by “werewolves” [who spend the daylight hours adhering to the social norms] but by packs of wolfish youths [boys and girls] who declared proudly to daytime reporters, “No snobby cop’s going to tell us what to do!”
Yeah, right. But the cynical editors of The Daily Mail and their ilk are profiting from your shenanigans. Their motto is: “Long live the Class War! [Let’s hope there are still some corner shops left tomorrow, to sell our Schadenfreude.]”

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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, understanding shenanigans

"A cat may look on a king, ye know."


The earliest citation for this egalitarian proverb is 1546 [Oxford English Dictionary], when the king in question was Henry VIII. I was going to apply it to the case, a couple of weeks ago, of the Bishop of Willesden’s snarky Twitter response to the engagement of Prince William [heir to the throne and therefore this cleric’s eventual boss]: to paraphrase,”I give it seven years. The Royal Family are all philanderers. When the wedding date is announced, I’ll be booking my republican day trip to France.” The next day, the Bishop issued a pro forma “No offense intended” statement; but by the end of the week he had been relieved of his public duties.

But that puny piece of lese majesty has since been overshadowed by last week’s riotous assault [by disgruntled students] on Prince Charles’ official car and his current wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, who may actually have been “poked with a stick” through the broken window of their Rolls. [All of us curious cats may look at the now-famous photo of Camilla and the future king, wearing matching WTF facial expressions, under siege.] 182 protesters had been arrested by the following Tuesday, on the basis of CCTV footage.

Can you hear the hoofbeats of my hobbyhorse approaching? Det. Chief Superintendent Horne had this to say about the alleged perpetrators: “There was a stark contrast between scenes in Westminster and homes with crying parents and shocked young people when the police turned up. When they are shown footage of their actions that day some are shocked by the impact of their behavior.” Or to put words in their slack-jawed mouths, “I have no idea what got into me! I’m just not like that!”

To use another of my favorite Mancunian expressions, then “What are you like?” [It means “Your behavior is so bad, that similes fail me.”]

My own answer, to the Bishop and to the revolting students, is “You are like anyone else who ever got a snootfull of one or more of the Big Four Precursors: angry.” Was it intrusion? The tuition fees are set to treble in the next few years, meaning that almost all “Uni” grads will incur significant debt. Fear? “How will I ever find a job, if I can’t afford an education?” Pain & suffering? “If the government cuts back on ‘the dole,’ [unemployment benefits], I may not even be able to afford food & shelter!”

But consider the targets of their [and the Bishop’s] anger: the Royals. The ostentatiously wealthy, “Bow-to-me-when-you-address-me,” unelected, Ruling Class.

I’m thinking it was humiliation, that got up their noses. It usually is, when revolution is in the air.

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Filed under aggression happens, power subtext, understanding shenanigans

The Hoon Report


Thanks to the personable young British Formula One racer, Lewis Hamilton [whose shenanigans in his Mercedes-Benz AMG C63 “road car” two days before the Australian Grand Prix cost him a slap-on-the-wrist fine of “just under 300 pounds” for “acting like a hoon”], those of us in the Northern Hemisphere have learned a new epithet, that we can hurl at “aggressive drivers” who set off our limbic system alarms with their risky moves. Mystery shrouds the derivation of this Antipodean term [which originally referred to any “young person who engages in loutish, antisocial behavior,” but has more recently become a “semi-official term” for street drag-racers, as in “Australia considers anti-hoon legislation”]. I have two theories. One, that “hoon” is merely a contraction of “hooligan.” Two, that it comes from the objective case of the Gaelic word toin [as in the Irish imprecation, Pog ma hoin], and so originally meant “ass.” [As in “Quit acting like a hoon, you silly ass!”] Not all that farfetched, considering that the First Wave of “immigrants” to the Land Downunder were predominantly Irish. [If you don’t get the quotation marks in the previous sentence, look up meaning 4 of “transportation” in Webster’s, innit.]

Anyway, here is Fionbharr [Finn to his friends], a San Francisco rescue, to keep not-so-solipsistic-Seamus company in the new place. If Finn were, indeed, writing a blog, it would seem to be coming right out of his hoin, now, do you see?

Back to Hamilton, though, who serves as Formula One’s “ambassador for [its] global road safety campaign and has given speeches in Westminster [Parliament] on the subject.” Through his lawyer, he issued a statement to the Australian court [and the rest of us], that he had suffered “embarrassment, humiliation and distress as a result of the episode.” We’re going to consider if Hamilton has truly “owned his wolf” in a moment; but here’s how it played in court. “Magistrate Clive Alsop said he would not convict the 25-year-old because he was ashamed and remorseful. However, he added that Hamilton’s behavior was unacceptable. ‘This isn’t about somebody’s character, this about somebody in a responsible position behaving like a hoon.'”

But, do yah see, now, Magistrate Alsop, in my book [well, blog], “character” is exactly what this is about? It’s all very well to acknowledge that having one’s car impounded two days before the Oz Grand Prix is “embarrassing, humiliating, and distressing.” That’s being sorry you were caught. It does not address the question: “What got up my nose, that I decided to violate the rules of the road [and the core values of the road safety campaign for which I am a high-profile spokesman]?” As with all the grabbed-from-the-headlines cases I cite, I realize that once the accused has “lawyered up,” the odds of such public self-disclosure lengthen considerably. But we, the mere readers of the story, can ask the up-your-nose question on their behalf [and vicariously, on ours]. For unless “out-of-character” behavior is understood, it is likely to recur.

As with the ponytaail-yanking soccer player in the post “In Hindsight,” perhaps the question does get asked and answered, in private, after the news media have cleared off. Having served a 2-game suspension, that young lady is back playing for the Lobos. Maybe she has done her “wolf work,” and has figured out how, in that aggressive sport, to avoid acting like a Red-Card-level hoon.

As for my boy Hamilton, he won the Belgian Grand Prix yesterday, by “driving safely and keeping out of trouble.” Even though Chris Rock laments that “There is no rehab for stupid,” there may be rehab for acting like a hoon. Let’s hope so, anyway, since we’ve all been there, if we’re honest with ourselves.

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Filed under jekyll and hyde, understanding shenanigans

Who Says?


Not only is this a song title from John Mayer’s latest musings on interpersonal ambivalence, Battle Studies, it’s what all and sundry are asking and/or acting out, these days. “The peasants are revolting!” goes the old double-entendre, and so are Army generals, Hollywood starlets, and all the drivers who blow past me daily, on a narrow road clearly marked 40 mph and crawling with police. Sheesh!

In Ireland these days, such behavior would be labeled “bold” [as in “…as brass”], which no longer means brave, but just impudent, shameless, feckless, or insouciant. Is there more of this about, or am I just an old stick-in-the-mud? I blame reality TV, ya know, which gives viewers a false sense that the risk of legal sanction is outweighed by the prospect of fame [and, occasionally, fortune]. Back the the 70s in Manhattan, some of my acting school friends who didn’t have day jobs would audition to be contestants on a quiz show called Jackpot! To make the otherwise boring show watchable, the talent-spotter rewarded the most over-the-top, crazed members of the studio audience by choosing them to [the uncopyrighted equivalent of] Come On Down, and play the game. They shot 5 “episodes” of the show in one day, so the semper paratus acting student bought a hold-all with 4 other shirts, just in case. One of our friends got selected for bellowing “Crackpot!” instead of the show’s catchphrase. He used the video of his 5-show “performance” [during which he “chewed the scenery” shamelessly] as a cheap & cheerful audition tape for the consideration of various theatrical agents; and it got him work.

These days, in the lyrics of the Scouting for Girls song, “Everybody wants to be on TV.” As an erstwhile student of Sociology, I could make a connection between the dearth of actual Day Jobs, and the fantasy of “quitting [one’s] Day Job” (to become rich & famous); but it’s belaboring the obvious. My actual point is a more universal, psychological one. If virtue [observing the speed limit, graduating from college, obeying one’s Code of Conduct] is not rewarded, it is less likely to occur. In situations where the fear of punishment for Engaging in Shenanigans is outweighed by the humiliation of having Done the Right Thing and still gotten a Bad Outcome, stand by for more Shenanigans.

This is Lili, boldly ignoring my command to jump over a barrel to my right. Although it is high summer again, the picture is from 2 years ago, before we had truly appreciated that You Get What You Reward, and You Reward Disobedience by Letting It Slide. Silence gives consent. These days, this seemingly trivial moment of noncompliance would be met with, “Oooy! Ali Oop!” followed by a heartfelt “Yosh! Ichibon Inu!” [Good! Number One Dog!] as she completed the jump. Not a contract for her own reality show, mind, or even a high-value treat. What Lili and the rest of us need, to keep on doing the dorky Right Thing, is for our masters to notice, and acknowledge, our efforts.

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Filed under lesser of two evils, understanding shenanigans

Are You Gaslighting Me?


By 1994, when Victor Santor published his creepily serious book, Gaslighting: How to Drive Your Enemies Crazy, the term had come to mean “a form of intimidation or psychological abuse in which false information is presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory and perception.” Most Americans will associate this with the 1944 film Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman & Joseph Cotton, which was a remake of a 1940 UK film of that name [later released in the States as The Murder in Thornton Square], based on the 1939 West End play Gas Light, which opened on Broadway in 1941 as Angel Street, starring Vincent Price in his debut role as a Baddie, where it ran for a record-setting 1,293 performances. In a real-life attempt to gaslight American movie-goers [“British version? There was never a British version.”], MGM arranged to have the negative & all the prints of Thorold Dickinson’s 1940 film destroyed [but he surreptitiously made a print for himself and squirreled it away].

In all the versions, our heroine notices that the gaslights on the lower floor of the house intermittently go dim [indicating that someone has lit up a gaslight in the attic]; but the complicit housemaid [Angela Lansbury in the MGM flick] denies that anyone is upstairs and she denies that she notices the downstairs lights dimming, at all. It’s another case of, “Who ya gonna believe? Me, or your lyin’ eyes?”

Apparently, humans can’t resist this form of Poetic deception, often rationalizing it as “just a bit of fun.” According to my Dad, each Junior Officer, upon arrival at his first Pacific port of call, was gaslighted in the Officers’ Club, thusly. The Newbie would spy his first gecko, peering down at him from one of the corners of the room, point to it and say, “Oh, look! A lizard!” As one, the Old Hands would turn variously to every other corner of the room and say, soothingly, “Yes. I see it. Of course I do.” “No! Really! Over here!” the Newbie would insist; at which the Old Hands would all switch their gazes to another [gecko-free] corner and reiterate, “A lizard. Yes.” Of course, the wheeze would only work if there was only one gecko in the room. A log was kept, of how long it took for “the penny to drop.” And don’t you just know, the ex-Newbie was the most enthusiastic gaslighter, when the next Junior Officer arrived.

Why do we humans feel the urge to deceive? Probably, for the usual reason we resort to Poetic communication: because we reckon that the truth will get us in trouble. The Baddie in Gaslight fears his wife will dime him out as the murderer, so he seeks to turn her into an unreliable witness. The Old Hands seek to assuage the humiliation of their own Newbie cluelessness, so they ritually pass on the pain to the new Newbies. This is especially likely to happen if there is the perception of scarce resources [such as available females, or supplies, or even space] in the area, into which the Newbie has unwittingly intruded.

Turns out, we’re not the only creatures who engage in intra-species deception, as Jakob Bro-Jorgensen reports in his recent article, “Male Topi Antelopes Alarm Snort Deceptively to Retain Females for Mating.” [First of all, that title is far too high-concept to get green-lighted as an MGM film. I’m thinking, Don’t Be That Schmized Gazelle!] Quoting here, “male antelopes snort and look intently ahead if an ovulating female begins to stray from their territory [which] suggests to the female that there is danger ahead…[such as] lions, cheetahs, leopards [or] humans…the snort and intent look were a false call…and there was no danger nearby.” The article asserts, “This type of intentional deception of a sexual partner has not been documented before in animals. Previous studies have shown that animals do deceive each other but mainly in hostile situations or to protect themselves.” Bro-Jorgesen ponders “why females keep responding to alarms at all”; and concludes that “females are better off erring on the side of caution, because failing to react to a true alarm could easily mean death in a place…full of predators.”

So, here’s my suggestion, whatever your species happens to be. If you begin to suspect that you are being gaslighted, ask yourself, “How might the [would-be] gaslighter benefit from the deception? What’s up his [or her, let’s not forget Angela Lansbury’s shenanigans] nose, anyway?” If you come up clueless, you always have the option of reading the power subtext back to the other party: “Are you gaslighting me?”

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Filed under ethology, power subtext, semiotics, understanding shenanigans

"What Was I Thinking?"


My currently fave BBC 1 radio presenter, the young-but-sage Dubliner Annie Mac, was hosting a Bank Holiday Weekend show, reading texts from listeners recounting their shenanigans. “Annie, I woke up in a wheelie bin [trash can on wheels] this morning,” wrote one reveler. Annie deadpanned this response: “Now, what made you think that was a good idea? Surely, you would have been more comfortable, lying face-down on the lawn. Ah, well, you’ve survived it; and now it’s an anecdote.”

Brilliant! Here’s why I love what she’s done there. Without appearing to be goody-two-shoes preach-y about the perils of demon drink, she has deftly imputed internal locus of control to the texter-in. Rather than focusing on how he came to be so “trashed” that [presumably] his so-called friends decided to “bin” him, she [Poetically] implies that the decision to pass the night in a garbage can was his; and questions the wisdom of that. Under the rubric of “If you can’t be good, be careful,” she points out that he could have lessened his pain & suffering by stretching out, in the recommended Recovery Position, on some soft grass. [Coincidentally, last week the Manchester Guardian ran a feature on 10 common, potentially lethal, misconceptions about rendering first aid; and one was to “lay a drunk person on his/her back.” Several show-biz fatalities were cited, as evidence that this is a Bad Idea.]

By implication, she suggests that the reveler might now be having a bit of retroactive fear [as in, “Bloody hell! I could have died from that!”] and humiliation [as in “Bloody hell! I just told an audience of millions how stupid I am!”]; but she reframes his shenanigans as a Lucky Escape: an event not to be repressed or dissociated [as in, “That was not me, I’m not like that.”], but to be told and retold, until the ostensibly Crazy Fox’s behavior is understood well enough to answer the question: “What was I thinking?”

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Filed under crazy like a fox, locus of control, understanding shenanigans

"I’m wild again, beguiled again…"


Lorenz Hart’s original lyrics to the hit song of the 1940 musical Pal Joey, “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered,” were so risque that Bowdlerized [watered-down, Disney-fied] phrases are usually substituted, to mollify modern, Tipper Gorean sensibilities. Even if you are familiar with the song, bet you haven’t heard this opening gambit, sung by a girl, already: “After one whole quart of brandy, like a daisy I awake, with no Bromo Seltzer handy…” [Talk about “Tried to make me go to rehab, but I said ‘no, no, no.'”]

Sportsfans, I tell ya, simply pretending that you have no wolf [no temptation to behave recklessly and regrettably] doesn’t stop your wolf from going wild. Beguiled, we’ll get to in a moment.

When, in another part of the forest, I used to interview young people whose misuse of alcohol had come to the attention of the authorities, I encouraged them to recapture their [pre-bust] enthusiasm for their beverage of choice. [See the post, “Crazy Like a Fox.”] To cut to the chase I would ask a young man, “Tell me what’s better about an evening spent with Ethyl.” [Young ladies were asked about an evening with Fred. As in Mertz. Nar’mean?] Protestations of “Nothing! Nothing was good about it! It was stupid! I was led astray by my so-called friends,” were dismissed as unhelpful stonewalling. Until any of us can look back on our shenanigans from the Crazy Fox’s point of view, as “seeming like a good idea, at the time,” we are none the wiser about what makes us tick, and no less likely to try it again.

Even when granted amnesty [or confidentiality], though, most of my “drunken sailors” were initially reluctant to “go there”: to let the Crazy Fox explain what it was trying to accomplish. The heroine of the Rogers & Hart song goes there. She tells us she is wildly, hopelessly attracted to an off-limits guy, so she spent the night with Fred [a quart of brandy]. Her Crazy Fox beguiled her into believing that Fred would take her mind off Mr. Wrong, at least temporarily. The song is a morning-after lament: “Well, ‘going wild’ didn’t work. I’m still bewitched, bothered & bewildered by this guy, only now I have a hangover, too.” I’ll let you look up the original lyrics, to find out if she ever wises up, or comes to a bad end.

Trouble is, insight into the Crazy Fox’s motive comes at a cost: humiliation. [Sometimes, also pain & suffering.] Not everyone is prepared to pay that price, until all other options have been exhausted. How ’bout a bit of denial? “I’m just not like that.” Or rationalization? “I don’t have to try to understand this, because it’s a one-time-deal, not a pattern.” Or projection? “I didn’t start this. S/he did provoke [beguile] me.”

Recommended reading: the mid-section of DFW’s Infinite Jest, featuring the AA meetings.

Imagine what Lili & Zanzibar are saying in this picture. Actually, there were no shenanigans going on here, for once. Peaceable kingdom. But doesn’t Lili look guilty of something?

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Filed under ambivalence, understanding shenanigans

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

Costume Dramas & Playing Against Type


Cheer up, hippophobes (or others simply missing Lili). She’ll be back in the next posting. Meanwhile, meet my late Uncle Dick’s Arab gelding, “Burrack.” In 1976, just as I was being measured for my Naval Officer’s uniforms by a skeptical little tailor at the Ft. Hamilton induction center in NYC [“They’re letting you in? With a back like that?”], Burrack and Uncle Dick were suiting up to re-enact battles from the 17th Century English Civil Wars between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads. Alas, although Uncle Dick’s “type” [as in “know it and love it”] was completely Cavalier, The Sealed Knot re-enactors only had an opening for a Roundhead. Not to worry. Before he joined the RAF during WW II, Uncle Dick had attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, whose philosophy of acting is anything but Method. “Get your costume and make-up right, and the character will follow,” could be their motto. So, instead of the long, curly locks and frilly collars worn by the followers of King Charles I, Dick donned an early-Beatles-puddingbowl-style wig and the austere, Puritan gear of a Roundhead, and played (very convincingly) against type.

But what about poor little Burrack? Like most Arabs, he is only 15hh high (4″ shorter than Dusk), and Uncle Dick (like my elder daughter) was over 6′ tall. [Just look at my feet dangling below his belly, and imagine how absurdly incongruous Dick might have looked on his trusty steed.] Well, he didn’t. Years before joining “Oliver’s Army,” Dick & Burrack were regular winners at Dressage events all over England, beating out the statuesque Warmbloods and their riders. I was never lucky enough to attend one of their horse shows (although I did see them do a battle re-enactment); but my guess is that once Dick-the-actor put on his Dressage “costume,” he assumed the persona of a Lippizaner rider and “sold it” to the judges and on-lookers, who forgot to notice Burrack’s “sportsmodel” size.

Well, that’s what I did for my 6 years on active duty in the Navy–put on a “costume” and “sold” the Clydesdale persona to my masters. [Incidentally, despite my bespoke tailor’s dismay at my scoliotic back, he made me the most flattering, perfectly-fitting jackets, skirts and slacks that I’ve ever worn. Hence the Cockney joke: “I’ve got a hunch…” “Not to worry. I know a good tailor.”] Fortunately, as a shore-bound member of the Staff Corps, unless I was the Officer of the Watch (about every two weeks), I was allowed to go home at night, take off my uniform, and resume Kangaroo status. In 1970s Annapolis, military personnel were widely despised by the townsfolk; and I had insults [and objects] hurled at me, while wearing my “Blues.” If I returned 15 minutes later in my civvies, with my long curly locks down [no longer up in the regulation bun], the same snide people would greet me cordially, apparently not making the connection between my two personae.

My biggest challenge was to try to maintain my Clydesdale-ness when directing Midshipman plays in the evenings, since often I and they had changed out of uniform for rehearsals. I didn’t always succeed; and my inner ‘Roo would usually emerge in tandem with my Wolf, when I was angry about how the show was coming along. Of course, the Mids were delighted, since many of them were crypto-‘Roos, too, just trying to “maintain” until graduation. My ignoble excuse, when one of my ‘Roo/Wolf outbursts was overheard by a higher-ranking Clydesdale skulking in the back of the auditorium, was “I’m from New York.” [My beloved Masqueraders were quick studies, and soon would say it on my behalf, if they spotted the Clydesdale before me: “She’s from New York, sir.”]

When our younger daughter was called out for ‘Roo-related shenanigans at school [about which we were then called up], we would threaten her [idly]: “If you don’t buckle down, we’re going to send you to a plaid-skirt school!” In Detroit, private schools were too expensive, and parochial schools were too crowded. Ironically, when we moved to Annapolis, she chose to spend most of her high school years “in uniform,” and graduated from a plaid-skirt school. For most of us ‘Roos, putting on the “costume” of a Clydesdale is like strapping on a (safety) harness that we have chosen to wear, which is just restrictive enough to remind us to “keep on the straight & narrow” while it’s on, though we look forward to that moment of liberty, when we can “throw over the traces,” let our hair down, and zig [or zag] again. The better an actor you are, the more convincingly you can play against type; but it’s easier to get into [and maintain] character, when you’re performing in a costume drama.

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Filed under non-linear thinking, semiotics, sharks and jets, understanding shenanigans

"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