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?

Looking for The Beauty Part

This is the hardest post I’ve ever had to write for this blog. Last week’s power “outrage” had a couple of Beauty Parts. First, both daughters were in town, and [although it could have gone either way] we found the shared misery of our Second World [if not 3rd] existence bonded us together, rather than pulling us apart. Second, it gave me an alibi for postponing the disclosure of our sad news about Lili, whose DNA test for Degenerative Myelopathy came back positive.

If you’re not familiar with the disease [and we weren’t], a simplistic way of thinking about it is that it’s Multiple Sclerosis for dogs, with some important differences. Unlike human MS, whose etiology is still mysterious [maybe there’s a genetic component, maybe it’s stress-related, maybe it’s triggered by a virus…just follow the stories surrounding Jack Osbourne’s disclosure of his diagnosis], the dog version is 100% genetic. Both parent dogs have to be carriers of the gene, for it to be expressed in the offspring. Our pain & suffering-fueled angry thoughts have been [predictably] directed at Lili’s AKC-registered breeders, who “should have known better,” even though the genetic test for the disease was developed after Lili was born in 2004. Nowadays, though, any breeder who doesn’t test for DM is as unscrupulous as those who don’t test for hip dysplasia.

Those who have read my “About a Bird” post will know that my mother got MS when she was 35 [and I was 10], so I had 25 years’ experience of watching how the progressive numbness of an individual’s [back] legs makes walking tricky, then difficult, and ultimately impossible. Lili is still at the “tricky” stage. She tends to “wipe out” on hardwood floors [especially when in hot pursuit of a cat], but still gallops on grass. The daily walk through the Smithsonian woods is both worrying and inspirational. On some mornings it takes 3 attempts for her to leap into the back of either of our 2 Jeeps; and the other day she landed in a disorganized heap on the grass verge as she jumped out of the car at the school. But [here’s one of the Beauty Parts] she has a “fan club” of laborers working on school renovations this summer; and when they expressed dismay at her fall, she pulled herself together and trotted off smartly towards the woods. So far, she seems to experience no humiliation when she loses her footing [unlike my late mother, and most of the MS patients I have known]. “She just gets on with it,” as the Brits say. That’s the Beauty Part.

The “I am your Pack Leader” power subtext has changed subtly on the cross-country trail. I let her set the pace, sometimes marching in place while she collects herself for the assault on the next steep hill. She often delights me by then going so fast that I have to double-time to keep up with her. Every day that she “makes it through” the woods and back to the car is a beautiful gift. I realize that I have to make contingency plans for the day that she can’t.

What is absolutely clear, at this point, is that [however tricky it is for her numb back paws to negotiate hidden roots & fallen branches, steep inclines & muddy patches] she is having the time of her life.

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Filed under born to run, leading a pack, power subtext

“Just Stop It!”

So said a young woman I see, to her obsessive-compulsive boyfriend, whose prolonged, ritual flicking on & off of a light switch was making them Late for a Thing they had planned to do. To her amazement & delight, he did stop it, at least long enough for them to get on with the day’s agenda. Who knew? 40 years of trying to effect changes of behavior through Socratic reasoning and other insight-oriented methods, and all along I could have done what your Dad [or at least mine] did: sonorously intone the command, “Knock it off!”

Trouble is, as parents & dog owners know, once the Commander has left premises, the proscribed behavior usually resumes.

The hard-to-extinguish behavior that I wish I could peremptorily curb [in myself & those intrusted to my care] is Black & White Thinking: the so-called Cognitive Error of perceiving everything in life as either All Good or All Bad.

Big fans of Stanford biologist Robert M. Sapolsky’s 1994 PopPsych bestseller, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, may quibble with my choice of animal metaphor, since his point is that wild beasts don’t overthink life’s adversities, therefore they produce fewer glucocorticoids, and suffer fewer stress-related illnesses. My rebuttal would be that this particular zebra is a captive of the Los Angeles Zoo [where we took his/her picture]; and if zebra-ear semiotics are anything like horses’, this one was signalling a situationally appropriate lack of joie de vivre.  “Okay, so I may be safe from drought, poachers, and my traditional predators; but, Poseidon! Is this enclosure ever bo-ring! Bring on the lions, already.”

Also, come on, how black & white can you get?

Remember the teenagers’ mantra of the 90s, “…but it’s all good”?  Usually uttered right after their disclosure of a Fairly Bad event or situation? How tempting it was to remark, “Surely, it’s not all good? Not 100% good?” Then, as now, there were also the drama queens, who at the first sign of adversity declared that a situation was “the worst!” Really? You can’t imagine an even more grim scenario? This one takes the cake?

One year when my girls were fairly young I gave up saying “Never” and “Always” for Lent: “You never clean your room!” became, “A lot of times, you don’t clean  your room.” [Far more accurate, and less humiliating for all concerned.] As gratifying as the ensuing Peace & Harmony was, it was difficult to sustain. We humans are wired to dichotomize: friend or foe? Am I the fairest of them all, or the ugliest? Do I feel “On top of the world,” or “like Hell”?

May I suggest 2 antidotes to Black & White Thinking? One, print & post this visual mnemonic of my LA zebra. Two, in response to adverse situations, try to Find the Beauty Part: the small, positive aspect that makes it “So it shouldn’t be a total loss.” This basic premise of Stoic philosophy helps counteract the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” [which want to get up our nose and produce rage & glucocorticoids].

At least in your head, you could try to replace the [usually inaccurate] absolutes of “This is the best” or “This is the worst,” with the words of that modern-day Stoic philosopher, Larry David, “This is pretty, pretty, pretty good.”

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Filed under black and white thinking, Epictetus said..., semiotics

“hooked on the sound like it’s nicotine”

This apt metaphor comes from the current BBC Radio 1 hit, “Make Peace Not War” by the BritRap DJ, Skepta (known to his Nigerian-born parents as Joseph Junior Adenuga). I highly recommend its addition to your MP3 player, if only for the addictive hooky sample, “Everybody Dance, Now.”

As you may have guessed, the nicotine addict pictured above is not Skepta, but my own dear, long-since departed father (known to his Irish-born parents as “Red,” and to his shipmates as “Rosie”). Indeed, this picture comes from the official Naval book, U.S.S. WALKE, Korean Cruise, October 1950 to August 1951. What’s he like, eh? While everyone else in the book is pictured in uniform and smiling, the editors chose to let the Executive Officer’s inner wolf flag fly: “The Exec…If you felt you’d been [on deployment] too long, if you weren’t completely happy with your work, if you had any little problem at all, you just brought it in to this kindly old soul. He knew just how you felt.” [Note the use of the Poetic Speech function.]

A propos Memorial Day weekend, I will quote further from the book: “At 0740, June 12, 1951…a heavy explosion. In one stunning moment the full agony of war came home to us. In that moment 26 shipmates lost their lives and 40 more were wounded. Out of disaster came heroism and determination. The wounded were brought to safety and then we saved the ship. In the ordeal that followed a good ship became a great one…and the WALKE and the men who sailed her lived to fight again.”

One is tempted to say, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it, North Korea!” However, alas, it was Rosie, and many of his fellow Americans, who did the smoking; and this post is yet another attempt to understand why.

The research I will quote comes from an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, published on 17 June 2010: “Nicotine Addiction,” by Neal L. Benowitz, M.D. He begins with the usual grim statistics. “Cigarette smoking remains a leading cause of preventable disease and premature death in the United States and other countries. On average 435,000 people in the United States die prematurely from smoking-related diseases each year; smoking causes 1 in 5 deaths. The chance that a lifelong smoker will die prematurely from a complication of smoking is approximately 50%.”

So, what gives? Are all those smokers (including smart, brave, stoical Rosie) just Crazy Like a Fox? Maybe. “The pharmacologic reasons for nicotine use are enhancement of mood, either directly or through relief of withdrawal symptoms, and augmentation of mental and physical functions.” Wait, what? Don’t tell your “Kangaroo” [aka attention-challenged] children; but Benowitz cites lab animal & human research studies suggesting that nicotine improves concentration and adherence to task. The evidence is more compelling [and also ethically distressing] in the rat studies, since one would presume that the rats are responding only to the cholinergic effects of the nicotine, not to the learned social cues and expectations so exhaustively explored on MadMen.

To totally simplify his neuroscience-speak, the initial chemical effect of nicotine on the brain is to increase available dopamine [leading to a sense of calm well-being & “in-the-zone” mental/physical performance]. But soon the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (known to their friends as nAChRs) become desensitized, “demanding” ever higher doses of nicotine, just to forestall (in rats) “anxiety-like behavior and the release of corticotrophic-releasing factor (CRF) in the central nucleus of the amygdala.” Aha! Our old nemesis, the howling wolf [amygdala, yah?] is flooded with toxic CRF, resulting in (unaccountable) fear (aka anxiety), and pain & suffering. No wonder those in nicotine withdrawal are so cranky!

Benowitz is not a big fan of [comparatively inefficient] nicotine-replacement delivery systems [such as gum or trans-dermal patches]. He believes in shielding the nAChRs from the depredations of nicotine in the first place. Short of psychosurgery or serendipitous Traumatic Brain Injury, however, no such nicotine-eluding technology yet exists.

Like a hooky song you can’t get out of your head, once you take “Nico” on board, you may have a “shipmate” for life.

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Filed under crazy like a fox, limbic system, stress and cortisol

“Offensive and tasteless”? Moi?

Well, I did ask. This wasn’t a random insult flung at me as I walked the streets of SoHo in the rain. If it had been, my not-your-victim-not-your-enemy rejoinder would have been: [in New York] “Yeah, that’s kinda what I was going for”; [in London, channeling my Irish grandma] “Aww, go on wit’ yez!”

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I have been a member of The British Psychological Society since the 70s, and therefore a regular reader of their monthly periodical, The Psychologist, which makes the following blandishments to its readers: “We rely on your submissions, and in return we help you to get your message across to a large and diverse audience….The editorial team are very supportive, and it is a great way of communicating your work and opinions to other psychologists.” So, I decided to be brave & shoot an email to the Managing Editor, briefly describing my blog’s premise & purpose and embedding my new web address. That was last Monday. On the Wednesday morning, just before heading off to work, I received the following reply:

“Hi, Unfortunately our work internet categorises it as ‘offensive and tasteless’ and therefore won’t let me view it! Shame, it sounds interesting. Cheers, Jon”

To say that “I was gobsmacked,” is probably the kind of offensive & tasteless [hereinafter abbreviated to O & T] term to which the bps [their own abbreviation] objects; but I was. I deployed every amygdala-mediating technique written about in my blog, to avoid a road accident on my way to the medical center [where I work. Not the ER. Let’s not over-dramatize]. Later, I phoned my sister, the head librarian @ a Med School & hospital, to ask her what manner of firewall my blog may have hit; and she sent me an article about Filtering by Statistical Classification computer programs [FSC], which are used “to determine what content is or is not acceptable.”

Hurrah! A way out of my humiliation, at having been summarily dissed & dismissed as an O & T purveyor of filth! My wit & wisdom had simply been lost in translation, by an Artificial Intelligence language analysis program which was stymied by my [over]use of the Poetic Speech Function. All that quoting of rock lyrics and slang expressions…the literal-minded computer program just couldn’t cope. For a New York minute, I even considered changing the title of my most recent post…until I remembered the dictum of Epictetus. All we have in this life is our character. If we start selling out to avoid the censure of others, we will lose that.

So, I sent the editor another email that afternoon, explaining my “lost in translation” theory, and assuring him that, although I wrote about the dark side of human nature, my intent was pro bono publico. In the silence that has ensued, other ways of viewing “what went down” in the original email exchange have occurred to me. After watching the latest episode of Sherlock, “Scandal in Belgravia,” I realized that my high-frequency use of humiliation and, to a lesser extent, pain & suffering, might lead an FSC program to conclude that mine was an S & M website. Well, at least that removed any temptation to alter what I’ve written. Without the 4 precursors of anger, no GotWolf blog.

Then I took my own advice: “Consider the source,” and found out the following things about the Managing Editor.  First of all, and rather trivially, he was a Boy Scout. Therefore, presumably, if he had really found it a “shame” [kind of a Freudian slip, I’d say] that the “work network” wouldn’t “let” him view my blog, which he thought “sounds interesting,” he would have been resourceful enough to stroll down the road to the nearest Internet cafe and borrow a hipster’s laptop for a few minutes, to check out my website for himself.

Second, and more salient, his own Award Winning 1999 Doctoral Research is entitled “Bullies – Thugs or Thinkers?” To quote from his Abstract, “The public, the media, even psychologists: all have a tendency to stigmatise and pathologise individuals involved in threatening behavior as psychologically and socially abnormal or deficient. But is bullying a pathological behavior found only in a minority, or is it in fact a common identity choice actively chosen at certain times because it makes sense in certain social environments? Are the children involved inadequate, or could they be considered socially competent…even superior?”

I wonder if anyone from a certain Presidential campaign reads this blog?  If not, “shame.” They might find today’s post “interesting.”

 

 

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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, Epictetus said..., pro bono publico, semiotics

“Make a Beast of Myself”

Sam McTrusty & his 3 bandmates from Twin Atlantic [who can be heard currently on BBC 1’s A Playlist] have not only written & sung a “sticks in your head all day” song; the dreamlike video [available on YouTube] is a perfect Got-Wolf-Yes-You-Do metaphor. Filmed [according to the quid nunc Leave a Comment-ers on YouTube] in Berlin, despite all the English graffiti on the buildings, McTrusty walks [stalks?] in slow-mo down the streets of a litter-free [a tip-off it’s Germany] middle-class neighborhood, appalling most, but not all, its denizens. A Border Collie is unfazed, as are a blind man & 3 random stoners, leaning against the wall. When [in sync with the lyric, “The crisp white collar is on us”] the Polizei show up in a Beemer, the copper does not arrest our hero, but rather offers him a safe passage through the freaked-out onlookers.

The hook-y chorus captures the struggle between our hero’s humiliation-fueled aggressive impulse & his attempt to neutralize it through humor: “I wanted to laugh it off, and I want to forget that I got caught. And I wanted to laugh it off, make a beast of myself and kill them all.”

The specific source of his humiliation is not spelled out.  To be all pedantic about it, apparently a girl he cared for got “hooked on the bottle,” even though he “warned her she’d fail.” Despite his effort to act/feel cool indifference about this, he got “lost in the lava, I care, I care.” Now her shenanigans have wrecked their relationship: “You know, you know, it’s the end of our sweet universe.” So, add the pain & suffering of this loss, to the humiliation already up his nose, you know? Now the rage of his “inner wolf” is about to blow like a volcano; and the bystanders, picking up on his aggressive vibe, man, have got the fear.

But, rock fans, here’s the Beauty Part. In the arc of the video’s story, he does not make a beast of himself; he just sings about it! Whether Sam McTrusty, or only the character he plays in the vid, ever actually felt this angry about a love lost to “the bottle,” through owning his “inner wolf” and then transforming it into a funny/sophisticated/compelling act of creation, he avoided acting out the mayhem he sings about. He also has given his audience a cathartic outlet for their own wolf-inciting heartbreaks; and, I hope, he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, catharsis, gets right up my nose

“Thank you.” (For what?)

Before I launch into tales of our latest woodland (mis)adventure, a word about my “file photos” used in this blog. The ones featuring Lili in the woods, unleashed, are either carefully staged, 2-minute photo shoots (after which she is safely back “under harness”), or they date from back in the day, before we realized how foolhardy (and illegal) free-range dog walking in the Smithsonian nature preserve, or other municipal parkland areas, is, around these parts. Since yesterday’s walk took place at the sports park, without an accompanying photog, the scene was re-enacted this morning on our own property (think shooting Pasadena for Westchester County, in MadMen).

After more than a week of glorious walks in the Smithsonian woods during Spring Break, it’s been a tough transition back to the sports park, mostly because there’s so much more dog traffic, even before 8 a.m. I have come to associate certain vehicles with specific “challenges.” The tiny Beemer coupe transports 2 giant Bernese dogs; the green Yukon brings “Murphy,” an irrepressible golden puppy; and the red Subaru brings 3 untamed (often unleashed) “rescues,” whose lady owner speaks to them earnestly (but ineffectually) about “being good citizens” and “observing the golden rule.” My motto has become “(Almost) anything for a quiet life.” I will alter course on a dime, to avoid a snarly encounter with a free-booting dog.

As we were finishing the 1st half of our planned circuit, a silver Range Rover nearly ran us down, pulling into the otherwise vacant parking lot. “No way he/they can catch up with us,” I calculated, so when we got to the mini-woods at the back of the park, I decided we could circle back and walk it twice. At which point, on the crest of a little hill appeared a lovely but unleashed black Lab, who charged down to get up in Lili’s face. To my credit, despite much mutual canine snarling and skirmishing, I did manage to spit out “Oy! Suwate! (hey! sit down!),” which left Lili “boxing her corner” from a sitting position, rather than dragging me off my feet. To my utter humiliation, though, I then let out an involuntary, Hitchcock victim, blood-curdling scream, which brought the Lab’s owner, the Sloan Ranger, into view. He calmly walked up to his dog and said, “Sit,” which the dog did; and he clipped on a leash.

And then, without emotive inflection or evident irony, he said, “Thank you.”

As Lili & I high-tailed it out of the woods and back to the parking lot, I pondered, “Thank whom? For what?” Your dog, for obeying your command? Me, for not berating you for having your dog off-the-leash and out-of-sight? Dunno. Didn’t stop to inquire, although, I no sooner had Lili loaded & locked in the Jeep, than Sloan & Labby materialized in the parking lot, too. (We had double-timed back, so they must have triple-timed.)

Oh well, as the (inescapable, this week) British cliche has it, “Worse things happen at sea.” And what a useful phrase, to add to my repertoire of (power subtext) remarks signifying, “I am not your enemy, but I am not your victim.” Recently I have been coaching my (socially put-upon) patients to try the New Yorker’s universal comeback, “I know! Right?”  But that’s a bit Big Girl’s Blouse [UK slang for girlish], for the guys. Look how well Mr. Just Finished My Photo Shoot for Dunhill’s carried it off: “Thank you.”

I can hardly wait to try it out, myself.

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Filed under gets right up my nose, power subtext

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

To "Lose the Plot"


So, here we are again, with 3 shooters (one, as I write this, “holed up but in talks” with the French police), for each of whom the media & the public are trying to arrive at a differential diagnosis: “mad” (in the British sense of the word, meaning: “crazy”) or “bad”? To cut to the chase, as usual, I think the more relevant distinction is between “mad/crazy” and “mad/angry.” But I digress.

Into this quagmire of Anglo-American failure(s) to communicate, I am tossing an old expression [to “go haywire,” from 1915] and a 21st Century one [to “lose the plot”]. Notice, if you will, my choice of the present participle, “tossing” [“used…to express present or continuing action or state of being” Webster’s New World Dictionary, 3rd edition]. When we say an individual “goes haywire,” or “loses the plot,” do we mean to say [pace Sir Bob Geldof] “the silicon chip inside her head gets switched to overload,” and stays in the Overload position? [Notice how cunningly Sir Bob, who knows his English grammar, for all he’s an Irishman, uses/used the ambiguous “gets”? Could be my least favorite tense, the historical present, or could be a recurrent thing that happens with this particular shooter’s brain every Monday, that her chip always gets switched. Nar’mean?] If you were born yesterday, you may not know that the song’s title, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” is the verbatim explanation that a real life school girl gave, for her shooting spree.

Americans who use the phrase, to “lose the plot,” mean [according to the Urban Dictionary], an individual got mad/angry about something and acted out aggressively. The Brits say “He’s lost the plot,” and mean that an individual has gone mad/crazy and is now acting erratically, posing a danger to self & others. Who knows if it’s “an on-going situation,” or it will clear up at sunrise?

Now, I shall use an animal metaphor [as I am always doing, not just this one time]. I was watching the steeplechase (hurdle jumping) racing from Cheltenham [UK] on HRtv the other morning, with my usual attitude of neutrality. “Let all riders & horses survive these grueling contests of attrition without major mishap,” I bid Poseiden. But, in two consecutive races [one for mares & one for male horses] several jockeys “came off” as they went over jumps. Unlike the Santa Anita flat races described in my last post, there were no outriders to wrangle the riderless horses. A few horses carried on jumping the fences, even though they had the option to avoid them and to “run on the flat” parallel to them, if they wanted to “stay with the herd” and cross the finish line. One mare seemed to “figure out” that she could make better time by going around the fences rather than over them; and she gave the front runner quite a challenge. If this had been a scene from a Disney-type movie [like Racing Stripes or Mary Poppins], it would have been easy to attribute the human motive to these riderless jumpers, that they “knew the mission and were going to see it through.” Even so, what was the “mission”? [What was the “plot”?] To jump every fence on the course, or to cross the finish line first? Which horses, then, had “lost the plot”? Or had they all “lost the plot,” when they kept on racing even though they had lost their riders? Cut them some slack, will ya? They’re horses. Herd animals. Born to run with their reference group.

What about these 3 shooters? [There may have been more by the time you read this. I am referring to the Staff Sgt. in Afghanistan, the vigilante in Florida, and the Algerian in France.] Each one of them has been described by those who “knew” them, as “not the sort of person to do such [aggressive] things.” Did they “lose the plot” and “go haywire,” or were they “wild” all along, but no one knew it? Well, folks, we all are. That’s the point of this blog. The specific “irritant” that “got up the nose” of each of these shooters [and led to their acts of aggression] may or may not ever be revealed to us; but it’s a salutary exercise to try to speculate about it. Human behavior is complex, but not inexplicable. To say that an individual “must have just snapped” or “gone haywire,” or [temporarily or permanently] “lost the plot,” is to explain nothing.

After all, these are human beings, not horses. Yet, even the actions of horses are complex [but not random, although we cannot always predict them]. The horse in this picture is one of the wild ones on the Outer Banks, photographed by my 90-something mother-in-law (something of a wild one, herself).

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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, ethology, semiotics

All Bets Are Off


Greek mythology has it, that when Zeus’ brother Poseiden was wooing Demeter, she set him the challenge, “to create the most beautiful animal that the world has ever seen”; and he came up with the horse. As a Navy kid (already familiar with Poseiden as Ruler of the Waves), I knew about his thing with horses by the time my sister & I invested in 2 Cheap Day Return rail tickets, for a Day at the Races at Sandown Park in Surrey, England. At 12 & 13, we were only making friendly wagers with each other; but every time I expressed an interest in a horse, it either threw a shoe, or its rider, or otherwise came a cropper. So I made a promise to Poseiden, which I have kept, never to “have a horse in the race.”

That hasn’t kept me away from racetracks, mind you. When my girls were 6 & 9, I took them by subway to Aqueduct [we were already visiting NYC at the time], where, it being early on a weekday, the only other punters were the Damon Runyonesque characters so endearingly portrayed in the HBO series Luck [filmed at a favorite SoCal track of ours, Santa Anita]. Overhearing my girls’ uncanny handicapping skills [especially the 6-year-old’s], one railbird approached her as we were leaving and offered, “Girlie, I would buy you sodas and snacks all day, if you would stick around and pick horses for me.” We had other fish to fry that day; but similar offers are made to them, every time we go to the races. True to my promise to Poseiden, I keep my money in my pocket & my havoc-wreaking opinions to myself.

Last Saturday, on the 3rd of March, on Big ‘Cap [Handicapping] Day, our family had just arrived at Santa Anita in time for Race 3, when “Muny,” the horse in Post position 3, broke through the gate early, and chaos ensued. As reported by Tracy Gantz in Bloodhorse.com/Horse Racing News, only 3 of the 7 horses “came out of the gate properly.” 3 assistant starters were able to hold their horses, as it were; but “Mr. Bossy Pants,” “Oak Kye Why,” & “Sky Cape,” were off to the races, even though, “before the horses had traversed even half the distance of the race, the stewards posted the enquiry sign.” Meanwhile, back near the starting gate, “Lord’s Minister” had thrown his jockey, Martin Garcia, and “proceeded [riderless] down the hill after the other 3” before being skillfully wrangled by an outrider in the stretch. Both horse & jockey were unharmed [thank Poseiden]; and Garcia went on to win an impressive victory in the very next race.

As “Mr. Bossy Pants” romped home for the ostensible “win,” the huge crowd went silent, as the track announcer intoned, “Hold all tickets, please.” We were standing at the rail, just behind the fancy box seats, not 10 feet from the Luck actor, John Ortiz [later joined by the jockey-commentator-actor, Gary Stevens]; but everyone seemed baffled. As we wandered back into the betting hall, the tote board flashed the message, in huge red letters: “NO CONTEST”; and seasoned punters explained to rookies, “All bets are off. Everybody gets their money back.” One railbird quipped, “Does this mean I get back all the money I’ve lost all day?” Well, no, but “all 7 horses were considered winners for the purposes of multi-race wagers, except for daily doubles.” The only possible loser was “Mr. Bossy Pants” and his connections, who must have felt “they was robbed.”

Now for an analysis of Magical Thinking [which is inherent in the Sport of Kings]. Seriously, do I believe that I have such powerful internal locus of control, that my mere presence at a race meeting was enough to cause all this mayhem? Never mind me, how ’bout all those 3’s? Don’t you just bet a lot of punters played “the 3” in all subsequent races? Both my girls stuck to their usual [intuitive but effective] wagering strategies, with the younger one winning more than her sister, while Chris lost a few bucks. In the last race we stayed for, the 10th, our elder girl pulled herself “out of the whole” by betting the 9-to-1 Irish-bred longshot, “Willyconker,” who won by a neck in a thrilling finish.

As the old Irish joke goes, when asked if she believed in fairies, the country woman replied, “I do not; but they’re there.” Do I believe that a deal I made with a Greek god, more than 50 years ago, helps to bring all horses and their riders “safe home”? Well, now, I wouldn’t be bettin’ against it.

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Filed under locus of control, magical thinking, zero-sum-gaming