Category Archives: what’s it all about?

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?

Walk It Off

Well, now that the Olympics are upon us, this double-edged sword [have you been watching the Fencing? such histrionics! like an Italian opera!] of home-spun advice can be heard all over the shop. Remember back in the day, when a coach’s overheard gruff admonition to an injured-bird-like gymnast provided fodder for a series of SNL sketches, in which the putative “walk-off-able” injury morphed into the Knight-in-Denial scene from Monty Python & the Holy Grail?

On Day One, a BBC Soccer commentator Let The Phrase Begin, remarking of a [possibly histrionic] player, “Oh! He’s down! It looks like a nasty ankle injury! Well, no, actually, he’s walking it off, and he’s back in the match.” No Yellow Card was issued. Perhaps it was a case of Unconvincing Diving [a common occurrence in high-stakes matches]; or maybe it was a case of that well-known [at least Up North in England] medical condition, “Summat and Nowt.” [Translated in a previous Post, “Be Good…” as “Something and Nothing.”] Often, cases of Summat & Nowt respond well to “Walking It Off.”

 

The other day, my sister, a highly-placed Medical Librarian, forwarded me an article recommended by one of the vets attached to her Med School, entitled, “Managing Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs: Ways of Slowing the Progress of This Debilitating Spinal Disease,” posted on September 4, 2008, by Dawn M. Smith.

Even though the alert reader will guess what’s coming, I’ll quote it, anyway. “Dogs with canine degenerative myelopathy benefit from controlled walking…in several ways. Allowing the dog to run around the property or in a dog park does not provide the same benefit, as the exercise is not consistent. A regular walk of a specific distance at a steady rate not only improves muscle tone, it improves brain function.”

I truly believe that Lili’s daily walk through the Smithsonian woods provides her both Physical & Occupational Therapy, during which she “gets smarter” about how to ambulate, despite her numb hind paws. So far, her leap into the Jeep-of-the-Day after a walk is noticeably stronger & more graceful than her initial load-up at our house.

As always, I am grateful to my sister for finding & sending me relevant research articles. In this case, my fear, that I might be inflicting pain & suffering on Lili by asking her, in effect, to “walk [her CDM] off,” was greatly diminished. Further, the humiliating dread, that a casual observer would think of me as that gruff [almost sadistic] gymnastics coach, denying or minimizing a real medical condition, as if it were only Summat & Nowt, has also been neutralized.

After all, we’re not Going for the Gold, here. The only goal is preserving Lili’s quality of life.

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Filed under attribution theory, power subtext, vicarious trauma, what's it all about?

Nostalgia

Do you know the MGMT song, “Kids”? It’s the 21st Century version of Cat Stevens’ “Remember The Days in the Old School Yard.” These world-weary 20-something lyricists [Ingrosso, Goldwasser & VanWyngarden] are reminiscing about their lost youth: “Take only what you need from it. A family of trees wanted to be haunted.” When the howling wind made the trees in the Smithsonian woods creak and groan, I couldn’t get that song out of my head.

Notice the past tense. A few weeks ago, the policy of allowing leashed dogs to transit school property to enter the woods was rescinded. A batty lady very loosely in charge of 3 free-range dogs [whom we had unpleasantly encountered earlier that month] had let her Lab menace a walking party of school children; and now all dogs are banned. Highly inconvenient, since we have yet to find another way into the nature preserve. Highly ironic, too, since we had just been given the blessing of the Smithsonian Police to patrol the woods for hunters, innit?

It’s not only the intrusion of having to find another place for Lili’s daily trek; it’s the humiliation of remembering the time when Lili was the Off-the-Hook bad dog [and I, the bad owner], several years earlier, when she menaced a Vizcla on the school grounds. Ironically (again), just the day before I got warned off by the School Safety Officer, Lili & I met the [always unleashed] Vizcla & her owner in the parking lot, without any drama. After I had loaded Lili into the car, I made friendly overtures to the other dog, who seemed to chagrin her owner by coming over and licking my proffered “paw.”

But now to the heart of the matter. As I have made clear in such posts as “What’s keepin’ ya?” and “The Holy Ground,” our walks in those particular woods have given structure & meaning to my life [Can’t speak for Lili’s existential experience.]; and the prospect that they may be forever lost to us causes me emotional pain & suffering (aka, nostalgia).

Having done this Wolf Work on myself, I knew that the only way out of my anger was to seek out another “family of trees [that] wanted to be haunted.” Before we had discovered the joys of the Smithsonian woods, we used to walk Lili in a municipal sports park [on an erstwhile landfill, now converted to a nature preserve]. It has much to recommend it. It’s about equidistant from our house, but nowhere near a school. The dogs-on-the-leash rule is strictly enforced by park rangers. In previous years a family of Blue Herons graced the wetlands pond. (This year we’ve spotted turtles, beavers, deer, and the occasional snake.) In the past, I had found the paved paths a bit too safe & boring, compared to the rough & ready challenge of the Smithsonian woods. However (hurrah!), the other day I discovered a dirt path leading into some woods on the edge of the park, complete with trip-you-up tree roots & a bluff with a stunning view of a tidewater inlet way below. Reminds me of when I was a kid in Tarrytown, overlooking the Hudson River.

So, see? The cure for nostalgia is…nostalgia. The cure for one Paradise Lost is to find another Paradise (which might one day also be lost), innit?

Meanwhile, during Winter Break it’s been “crickets” @ the old school yard. No children to menace and no authorities to enforce the No Walkies Zone. We may have revisited “The Holy Ground” a time or two; but when it’s term time, we’ll make new memories in “another part of the forest” that graces this Chesapeake estuary.

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"Stuck in a Moment"


This meditation on the U2 song, which David [“Bono Vox”] Hewson has called an after-the-fact, imagined suicide intervention for his late friend, INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, is dedicated to everyone who has developed a de novo case of Seasonal Affective Disorder this winter. [More snow forecast for this evening in the DC area, tra-la.] It is also about the Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker’s concept of functional fixity, which Corsini defines [in The Dictionary of Psychology, 2002 ed.] as “the opposite of…creative thinking.”

Consider the not-awful-just-highly-inconvenient intrusion of this prolonged spate of foul weather on Lili’s customary, daily ramble-in-the-woods. Until this weekend, the snow in the forest has been up to 3 feet deep, swallowing up the feet [and legs] of all but the snow-show-clad. The first time this happened to me, I was alone with Lili, who was off-leash but skittered over on the frozen surface, merely to bark her encouragement [impatience?] at me; and I began to fear that I would be Stuck in the Moment until the Spring thaw.

Resisting a $100 investment in snowshoes, I began searching for alternative venues for Lili to run, which were both [relatively] safe & legal. When school was canceled, the plowed parking lots were viable, except for some tricky, hard-to-see patches of ice. A couple of days we slogged through 2 feet of slush on the paved path in a local recreational park. [By the way, why all the empty parked cars in the lot? Surveillance or shenanigans?] One day we bored ourselves silly, running up & down our own cul-de-sac street, incensing all the neighbors’ penned-up dogs.

A few brilliant, but not-really-legal venues occurred to me, such as the covered parking lots @ work, the Mall, or Whole Foods. I reconnoitered them with Lili in the car; but the hostile semiotics of the security guards were discouraging. One evening at the almost deserted medical center parking structure, the golf-cart dude pulled up and asked me, “Is there a bomb scare, or something?” [Lili’s semiotics aren’t all that benign, either.] To avoid further humiliation, if not actual arrest, I loaded her up and drove slowly away.

So, there you have it, from one who prides herself on her non-linear, out-of-the-box problem-solving skills. Apparently, my amygdala has been so freaked out by the logistical challenges of this unprecedented spate of snowy weather, that it has hog-tied my hippocampus. [Note the paucity of posts in February.] Finally, this weekend, with a partial thaw and Chris at my side, we ventured into our beloved woods again. It wasn’t easy or pretty, but it was a necessary journey. It restored limbic balance, as well as hope, that “this time will pass.”

And even if Bono didn’t get to save his friend’s life with this song’s belated argument against despair, he has helped me “get myself together” this winter. Now there’s a guy not much given to functional fixity, d’ya know?

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Filed under limbic system, semiotics, what's it all about?

Plot-twists in Your Storyline


Okay, so you’ve faced the fact that something unforeseen, unintended, and probably unfortunate is going down in your life. Well spotted. Now what?

Anger, is what. Anyone who says otherwise isn’t telling the truth, or paying close enough attention. It is what to do with/about the anger, that I want to address…right after I declare how angry I am at two Post-modern Antipodeans from the 70s, White & Epston, who rebranded the ancient & universal practice of chronicling the ups & downs of the story of one’s life, to try to make sense of it [to answer Alfie’s (1966) question, “What’s it all about?”] as “Narrative Therapy,” as if it were their intellectual property. Mostly intrusion is up my nose, about this narrow redefinition of what almost everyone does, every day (even if they’re not in psychotherapy): tell someone [even if it’s only Dear Diary] wha’ happened today, in a narrative format. Nar’mean?

“What did you do at school today?” ask the concerned parents.”Ahh, nuttin’. We just had oral review.” It’s still a narrative.

But let’s say what your 5th-grade class did today was study the oyster, including the requirement to eat one [which your personal & family culture proscribes], and you refused, and were sent to the Principal’s office, occasioning humiliation and fear. As you tell your narrative to your parents, they have the power to influence the storyline, for better or worse. “That’s outrageous! How dare they impose their parochial, regional folkways on a Navy kid! We’ll send a note of protest to the Principal, insisting that you be exempted, without prejudice, from eating a mollusk.” Or…”What makes you think you can defy your teacher? When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Want to guess how the narrative unfolded for me? It was huge! It became a leitmotif of my storyline. My parents backed me to the hilt, and no mollusks were consumed [by me, or, indeed, any other squeamish classmates].

As we mature, we sometimes have to “become are own parents,” and back ourselves to the hilt, in the face of criticism, adversity, and unfortunate plot-twists. That is, we need to recall earlier chapters in our narrative, when intrusion, humiliation, fear and pain & suffering were neutralized [made “all better,” or at least ratcheted down to a tolerable level], against all odds. If those instances don’t readily spring to mind, then look harder for them. If they hadn’t occurred at all, you wouldn’t be here now.

This is my Manhattan cat, St. Chuck [1974-1983], whose own storyline included a series of [at least 8] life-threatening plot-twists and miraculous comebacks. He was my loyal companion through a doctoral dissertation, 6 years of Naval service, and the transitions to married and civilian life. As this stop-action photo suggests, the leitmotif of his narrative was fear, which he overcame in his final years…which is a story for another time.

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Filed under gets right up my nose, locus of control, transitional objects, what's it all about?

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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