The Uncomplicated, Beautiful “Go Hawks”

When I was a kid in L.A., I loved the Dodgers.  It was the era of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Maury Wills (Perranoski, Fairly, Tommy and Willie Davis – if you were there, you know what I’m talkin’ about) – World Series appearances in ’59, ’63, ’65 and ’66 and a heartbreaking near miss in ’62.  Players didn’t make astronomical salaries and stayed with the same team (and city) throughout their careers.  Ernie  Banks died this week and he was a wonderful man who played with grace and joy for an atrocious Chicago Cubs team for his entire professional life.  It was a nice fantasy – that these guys were playing for us and our neighbors.  Of coSeahawksurse, there was its own brand of injustice to this sweet ideal that a 12 year old boy clutched to his heart.  Professional athletes were forced to stay with the same team by a “reserve clause” in every contract and got paid pretty much what the owners wanted to pay them.

Well, the pendulum has swung to the other pole now with whiplash-inducing velocity.  When Alex Rodriguez signed a 2001 contract paying him $25 million dollars per year, he banked more in 2 days than most fans made in an entire year (over $130,000).  The minimum salary for the major league baseball player who may spend most of the year riding the bench is now $500,000. (Who do you know that makes anywhere near that kind of money?  Few, I would guess.) When a contract is completed, they go to the highest bidder – with an annual salary of $8 million dollars not being good enough if they can make $10 million per year somewhere else.  The days when a pro athlete could remotely be considered “one of us” are long dead and buried.  So has my love for following sport waned – only to pick up if the current team, composed of some familiar and some new, big contract guys start winning.  Owners, like Howard Schultz, unload a “civic institution” like the Seattle Sonics on a group that immediately moves them to Oklahoma City because the place they play can’t accommodate wealthy business people and their hunger for luxury suites.  Professional football players are forced to play a game on Thursday night, given just three days rest after taking a beating equivalent to a mugging with a steel pipe.  Why?  More wealth for the already wealthy.  Boy, talk about the corruption of money in American life – look no further than the world of sports.

And then the Seahawks stage a miraculous comeback and land in their second straight Super Bowl, to be played in three days.  I just received an e-mail from a therapist I don’t know commenting on a piece I just wrote for a local therapists’ newsletter and she ended her message with “Go Hawks!”  I had a couple I work with in therapy end their session two nights ago with the same exhortation.  Drive through Seattle or Bellevue and you can’t go more than two blocks without seeing a “12” banner, signifying the Twelfth Man – the team’s fans.  It doesn’t matter if you are black or white, rich or poor or even freakin’ red blooded or blue blooded.  Everyone around here is pumped and an entire civic culture is joined around two words “Go Hawks.”  If Russell, Marshawn, Richard, Doug, Bobby and the rest of the Legion of Boom win on Sunday, strangers will beam with unalloyed joy at one another for weeks afterward.  If Brady and his crew of talented cheaters prevail, the disappointment well be joined, a great ride having been shared.  So for all the corruption of values inherent in modern sports, the gift to a community – of unity around a goal is refreshing, lifting spirits around this region – regardless of politics, station in life or present circumstances.  When it’s all over, weeks or months from now, we can all go back to our old divisions and gripes. For now, though….Go Hawks!

When In Doubt….Do Something

A good friend of mine who is a great fellow and an excellent therapist has this websiteadage  he likes to share: “When in doubt, do something” – meaning that if you are stuck, doubtful about yourself and feeling blue or down, take some action.  Move.  Do something.  It doesn’t have to be a “big” something.  It shouldn’t be a “big” something.  Any move is a gift.  So I had an interesting experience recently that put the proof to that statement and some may find this a helpful story.

I had been feeling down for a while and was having a hard time kicking it.  My website came to the rescue….well it helped me come to my own rescue.

I really like my website.  I worked hard on it and get nice complements.  A great designer named Stephan Laenan who lives near Portland put it together for me.  I gave him content, he designed it…but once in a while there were tweaks I wanted to make and I didn’t know the first thing about how websites are put together.  It was aggravating, since I was totally dependent on someone else who rightfully charged me for his time.  Last year I bought an Idiot’s book on HTML and CSS (how you create the code to make a website) and after reading it for a few weeks, I was so cross-eyed that I had to put it down – defeated.  Then a month ago,  a lawyer friend of mine was telling  me how he created his own site and I thought, “Well, if he can do it……..” so I checked a bunch of books out of the library and suddenly had this “Ah-ha” moment and figured out how to make all the changes I wanted.  I dove in and over the next week updated everything I wanted updated.

I absolutely felt a spring in my step.  A big weight was lifted from my shoulders and I found that things that had been aggravating me only the week before weren’t so important.  My mood absolutely shifted because….well, I did something.  (And really, it’s not a big deal to learn about website coding, even for a tech dweeb like me.)

Remember the McDonald’s Coffee Case?

Back in the 1990’s a New Mexico jury awarded Stella Liebeck more than $2.8 million against McDonald’s because she spilled hot cocoffeeffee on her lap.  This has been brought up to me many times over the years as proof of the dangers of frivolous personal injury suits.  “She sues because she is burned by hot coffee?  Ridiculous.”  A new documentary is on Netflix called Hot Coffee which explores the case and its aftermath.  I invite you to take this short quiz to see what you know about this case:

1.  Stella Liebeck was: (a) A 16 year old girl (b) A 32 year old mother of 3 (c) A 79 year old widow.   Answer

2.  When the accident occurred, Stella was: (a) Driving (b) In the passenger seat of the moving car (c) In the passenger seat of a parked car.  Answer

3.  The temperature of the coffee was: (a) Over 180 degrees F. (b) Around 120 degrees F. (c) Around 150 degrees F.  Answer

4.  Stella Liebeck’s injuries were mainly: (a) A painful rash on her thighs which lasted for a month (b) Third degree burns on 6% of her body (c) Painful blistering on her thighs and buttocks: Answer

5.  The case went to trial because: (a) McDonald’s offered to pay her medical bills, but she thought they should pay punitive damages (b) McDonald’s offered $250,000 but she wanted $1,000,000 (c)  She asked for payment of her medical expenses and lost income (about $160,000) but McDonald’s offered only $800.  Answer

6.  Had McDonald’s been given any notice that hot coffee may be a problem? (a) About as much notice as you and I have that hot coffee is hot (b) A couple of people over the past 5 years had been burned (c) McDonald’s had received about 700 complaints of burns from excessively hot coffee.  Answer

The point is:  READ ON

The Little Things

I went out to my car last week and found the rear window smashed and two things taken from my back seat – an empty briefcase and aLock.3 ratty old Jansport backpack with my gym stuff in it.  “They” did it in the middle of the night. (Don’t you want to find out who “they” are?…your own personal “they’s”)  Anyway, while the briefcase was well worn and nice, my biggest sense of loss came from the theft of my combination lock.  I remember years ago when I opened the packaging and read that the combination was 28 -2-8.  C’mon!  It just can’t get any easier than that….and I loved my combination lock.  I felt so lucky to have picked it out.

Martin Seligman, one of our greatest psychologists, has long studied happiness.  He has been striving for years to develop an approach to mental health treatment which transcends the age-old medical model of diagnosis of a “disorder” and then working to eliminate the “disorder.”  Seligman wondered why we can’t move above the baseline of functionality, into the realm of happiness and well-being.  This notion has captured the enthusiasm of a large segment of the mental health community.  Just note the surge of people incorporating “mindfulness” into their practices.  Mindfulness is both a way to ease stress and internal pain and a path to affirmative well-being.

So what does a combination lock have to do with Seligman and positive psychology?  Well, one of the most important tools for achieving well-being is appreciation.  Cultivating a sense of appreciation for the good in our lives cushions us against the deeper dismay which will always accompany loss.  Also, appreciation buoys our spirits in the day to day.  One of Seligman’s best exercises is the “Three Blessings.”  Each night before you lay down to sleep, take a notebook or piece of paper and write down three blessings of the day just ending.  This will train your mind to be alert to both the big and the little things which we can appreciate in life.  These little things can be a pleasant exchange with our partner or a friend; the burst of life in the leaves that are unfolding as Spring arrives; the wag of our dog’s tail because we are really, really loved; the good feeling from not eating something we know isn’t good for us; a great movie we just watched or the bike ride we completed.  Nothing should be taken for granted.  We live in a world which may often seem bent on eroding any sense of well-being.  We can keep that force at bay when we embrace the little treasures.

I’m going to store today and will myself to pick a lock with my birthday as a combination.  I’ll tell you how it goes.

Beautiful Ireland

We just returned from a 10-day stay in beautiful Ireland.Ireland   I had been there years ago during the waning days of a failing marriage and didn’t like the place at all.  Just goes to show how important state of mind is!  This time, my wife and I joined our 21 year old daughter and traipsed around Dublin and the Southwest and I fell in love with the land and its people.  Being away to another culture allows a wonderful insight into our own and America shines brightly through the Irish lens.  So many came from the island to the U.S. – particularly during the catastrophic potato famine of the late 1840’s (which wiped out about 1/3 of the 8 million population through starvation or emigration.  In fact, Ireland has never reached its pre-famine population!).  Hardly a person we spoke to failed to have relatives in this country.  Gracious, full of humor, delightful poetry in their expression and extremely friendly – a visit is like immersion into a warm human bath.  Yet, there is a vein of pain which runs through the Irish heart and history.  The oppression of the huge power (England) just to the east, that imposed laws which prohibited, upon pain of death, the open worship of their faith and allowed Protestants to move to the island and confiscate the land and property of the rural farmers under the policy of “plantation” – the depredations of Oliver Cromwell hundreds of years ago – the multiple uprisings seeking freedom and autonomy which were brutally put down – this was the same oppressive power that the American colonists rebelled against successfully.  Looking at the U.S. from Ireland, you see an extremely optimistic peopleireland.6 and a wealthy, wealthy land.  You can make it in Ireland, but if you make it in the U.S., well, you have made it!  I have spoken with immigrants from places like Russia and they repeat the vision of this country as having a basically optimistic spirit.  Visions which will remain include the Irish field, with plots defined by chest-high rock walls; the greenest of green grass grazed over by large flocks of sheep; occasional ruins of 400 year old (or older) castles or monasteries as you  drive from one rural town to the next; pubs, like Dick Macks in Dingle, where I walked in on a bachelor party of about 30 guys crammed into this tiny space raising their Guinness’, standing on tables and benches and singing at the top of their lungs or the traditional music jam in a Doolin pub with a fiddle, guitar, two flutes and a guy who played accordion like a god and was better as the night wore on and he got increasingly smashed; the Book of Kells which is adorned with the most beautiful inscriptions and monastic art (with scores of ways to depict in art different letters – like the letter “d” for example).  We are so young – they are so old.  Perhaps most importantly, it was revitalizing to go away for just a couple of weeks and return refocused and refreshed.  It’s good to be back with our memories and the fun and interesting work ahead.

Emotions That Are “Hardwired” (Part 2)

neurons.2Research neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, has been studying the anatomical basis of emotions for many years.  It has been a challenging task for many reasons.  For one, the scientific community has not been in agreement as to what comprises an “emotion” – whether they exist at all and, if so, how to describe them.  Another question is raised by those who claim (passionately I might add) that emotions are environmental and not inherently physiological.   This is not what Panksepp has found.  In fact, he has been able to identify 7 different brain circuits which correspond with discrete emotional responses.  Further, he provides us with extremely reasonable ideas about the evolutionary basis for the development of each of these emotional circuits.  While he freely concedes that there may be more to be discovered in the future, those which he identifies at this stage are:

  1. Seeking: This is the drive to explore the world – to gain stimulation and sustenance from the environment.  Interestingly the nerves’ receptors for the neurotransmitter which is most associated with this behavior (dopamine) are severely compromised or destroyed by the use of drugs such as cocaine, which explains the incredible lethargy after prolonged use and the need to keep snorting or smoking in order to maintain a baseline of alertness.
  2. Rage: Panksepp found that anger is a primary emotional experience, as it is put into service when the animal is being constrained.  It is a natural reaction to the experience of being cornered and, indeed, his representative picture is of the hissing cat backed into a corner.   This is different from the anger we often describe as our reaction when a lover hurts our feelings or betrays us.  The difference is interesting and worth further thought and discussion.
  3. Fear: This is a basic self-protective mechanism.  Our brain is programmed to protect us and get us the heck outta there when we are faced with threats to our existence.  It’s the old “our ancestors split when they saw a saber-tooth tiger roaming close-by.”  What Panksepp also observed, interestingly, was that when this circuit was chronically and continually activated, the organism lapsed into a state of anxiety – which, then can be defined as the low level, continuous expression of the fear circuit.
  4. Nurturance:  This is the classic maternal care circuit.  When it is stimulated, the body produces a load of oxytocin, which has been called “the cuddle hormone.”  It is also true that this circuit is activated, and we are bathed in oxytocin, when we are feeling close and loving to a partner.  The evolutionary basis for survival of the species is pretty self evident, here.
  5. Rough and Tumble Play:  Panksepp observed the animals in his lab spontaneously engaging in such play.  It is the expression of a physiological need to experience joy.  He associates human laughter to the activation of this circuit.  The evolutionary value of the play circuit is more speculative, but Panksepp suggests that it may facilitate basic socialization.
  6. Lust:  The drive to seek out and find a mate is perhaps the most fundamental evolutionary imperative.  Panksepp describes many, many courting rituals and other behaviors which are reflective of the stimulation of this circuit.

Panksepp has been able to generate these emotional responses, from rage to fear to sexuality, by stimulating discrete parts of the brain with mini-electrodes.  This would seem to add proof to his theories.   The seventh and final hardwired emotion really forms the basis of the couples therapy I do and I will leave that discussion to the next post.

What it Means to Have Something “Hardwired” (Part 1)

neurons.1 Listen to psychologists talk and you will often hear about how some behavior or attitude is “hardwired.”  It’s a pretty descriptive term – particularly since the brain is an organ characterized by electrical circuits.  For another example, just consider the most popular adage among neuroscientists over the past dozen years or so, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”  It suggests a certain immutable permanence in ways we think or act.  Consider all the incredible identical twin studies in which they are separated at birth and meet decades later to find that they are wearing the same color, are married to women with the same name, pursue the same career and have named their children identically.  One great example involves two brothers reunited after 39 years.  Each was incredibly fastidious and detailed – compulsively neat and orderly in every respect.  They were both completely convinced that their character was a function of nurture rather than nature.  The first was asked why he was like that and he replied, “My mother is the reason!  She was exactly the same way and I was raised to be compulsively neat.”  The other replied, “My mother is the reason!  She was so disorganized and such a slob that I had to be this way just to survive.”

Among the researchers who have been studying the brain’s inherent (“hardwired”) character is a man named Jaak Panksepp.  His work with animals is incredible.  One fascinating observation he shares in his book Affective Neuroscience – The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions involves the problem they had with rats who were very distressed and active after their cages were cleaned by a certain lab tech.  After some investigation, they found that the tech had housecats and some of the dander was carried with him to the lab.  What is fascinating is that these rats were born and bred in the lab.  They had never seen a cat in their lives….nor had their parents or grandparents.  They had been separated from actual exposure to a natural predator  by many generations.  Still, they reacted strongly to the scent of the cat.  That’s one great example of being “hardwired.”  What is even more important for us, is that Panksepp has found that certain emotions are hardwired into our brains.  This will be the subject of a later post.

Vive la Difference

Many years ago, John Gray, made a mark (and a gazillion dollars) with his hugely popular Men are from Mars, Women are from Venumanandwomans.   Between its hardcovers (and I recall it being in hardback for a long, long time – well after most personal growth/self help books had gone into paperback) Gray talked about the many fundamental differences between men and women.  For years after its release, I listened to experienced marital therapists dismiss him and his book as overly simplistic.  While there may be some truth to that, I think it’s hard to ignore the reality that the two sexes do seem to process the world differently……as a general rule.  There are always going to be exceptions to these rules, but some things do seem to be gender related.  One example is the way women often prefer to talk things out.  If something has happened in her life, she wants to be able to talk it through, being pretty confident that she can come up with a solution herself as she airs out the experience.  He, on the other hand, likes to drive for solutions.  Any problem raised is an invitation to come up with a solution.  When one person interacts with the other, the solution-seeker may get frustrated by the continued recounting of the problem, while the problem-discusser is frustrated by the other’s quick-cut to a solution.  It feels like she’s being shut down.  Well, we are lucky to have this problem described and solved in a two-minute YouTube video.  If you have not seen this yet, enjoy.

Merry Christmas

Fox News is again awash with outrage over the “War on Christmas.”  The latest installment has Megyn Kelly proclaiming that Santa Claus and Jesus are indisputably white.  While I am hard pressed to have sympathy for anything broadcast on Fox, I must admit to a sadness that “Merry Christmas” has morphed into “Happy Holidays.”

I’m Jewish and as a kid I loved Christmas.  I believed in Santa with all my might and when told he was fictional, my little heart broke.   I was in a choir and year after year I experienced great joy in singing those lovely carols about the silent night and three kings of orient.  Christmas was a time of joy all around me.  There was honest good will and magic was in the air.  It wasn’t a solstice celebration or the big holiday at the end of the year (that coincided with Hannukah).  It was Christmas.   Christmas is  the holiday of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s  character transformation and the vindication of the goodness of James Stewart’s George Bailey.  Of all the holidays in the calendar, Christmas  is the only one that celebrates man’s essential kindness, charity and warmth.  It is the holiday which honors the birth of the Prince of Peace, and, indeed,  peace permeates our homes and spirits.  So I am inclined to say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays.”  ( And while we are at it, how about Bill O’Reilly and his comrades shower those of us who secularize the holiday with a little “peace and good will toward men.”)

Life of Pi and Therapy

This from a message to an old friend:

Neil, you’re in my thoughts this morning for two reasons.  First, I am listening to my Telemann Pandora station and I will forever appreciate your turning me on to him those many years ago.  Second – we saw Life of Pi yesterday.

 Years ago you went on and on about how much you loved that book and I tried to read it but could not get too far.  It wasn’t grabbing me.  So last week, thinking I wanted to see the movie, I picked up the book again and loved it.  I didn’t quite get the part about making you believe in God until the night after I finished it, I was putting together a dinner for some friends the next night and Mark l was over helping out (he was visiting from So. Cal. for a week) and he had just seen the movie.  We compared one to the other and suddenly I got what Martel was trying to say.  I started talking about how I was so swept up in the story until he became blind and then came across the other guy on a boat that the tiger ate and I thought, “Whoa…wait a minute.  That is pretty incredible.  (It was left out of the movie.)  The whole part before that was very detailed and you could absolutely get how it could all actually occur.  But another boat in the middle of the ocean?  And then, of course, the meerkat island.  Suddenly I began to feel differently about the story – I lost interest because I didn’t find it credible any longer.  Then at the end he tells this very troubling story and he lays it all out for you (and of course there are those little bones on the boat) .  Which story do you want to believe – neither is provable.

I think it is also relevant to therapy work.  People come in with such worries and hopelessness about their future.  But just as with Pi’s story, the future is unknowable and unprovable.  Clearly, when people come in and talk about a future of loneliness or loss or failure their present is wracked with anxiety and they are preoccupied with their distress.   If a person has some faith in the future, trust that they can be content and satisfied, their present distress abates considerably.  So, just as with Pi, which story do they want to believe?

The movie was a bit of a let down from the book, insofar as the basic theme above is concerned, I thought.  The book format allowed Martel to create a very credible story of how Pi was able to survive – and the whole early parts about animal behavior was essential to that task.  So, with the exception of the island, you could believe that story…well I could believe that story.  Ang Lee didn’t have the time or space to make the survival story as credible, I think.  But my oh my was that a beautiful movie.  I think it is the most enchanting cinema experience I have ever had.  It is watching an absolute master at his craft and an impeccable use of 3-D.

Anyway, just thinking of you on this chill, foggy, still and beautiful Northwest morning.