Thursday, June 18, 2009


On the birth of My Son

Families, when a child is born

Want it to be intelligent.

I, through intelligence,

Have wrecked my whole life,

Only hope the baby will prove ignorant and stupid.

Then he will crown a tranquil life,

By becoming a Cabinet Minister.

I apologize to the Cabinet Ministers. I hope you are laughing. For it is such a funny poem. I translate it through the oft quoted phrase: The best laid plans of mice and men. Indeed, it ain't easy. It being plural as noted by Sigmund Freud and recently in the New York Times – parenting, like psychotherapy and politics may often be considered impossible. So, I'm voting for a humble father's day.

I encountered the piece by poet Su Tung P'o in a lovely little book entitled Who Ordered this Truckload of Dung? written by Ajahn Brahm. The title itself serves as an apt reminder that despite our best plans, we often encounter the unexpected. Such encounters are not always pleasant. As Su Tung P'o observes, sometimes the unexpected occurs directly because of our best planning. That a monk would choose to include such a poem in a book whose title shifts our attention to Dung is a gentle reminder that in accepting Dung when it arrives in an unquestioning fashion allows working out what to do with the Dung as opposed to questioning how it came to be there.

With every intent to play on associations of dirty diapers, such an attitude is captured well in Wordsworth's line, " The child is father to the man." Although, the line has been read by some as provocative, there is something quite simple about parenting affording a chance for one to find a path to maturity. Fathers' day is about that. Certainly, most children are in possession of more than enough toys. Evidence for such an opinion may be found in that an organization attempting to reduce the commercial onslaught that co-occurs with contemporary childhood exists. So, I am not going to suggest that the gifts should go to the kids on Fathers' day. However, I am suggesting that we take Wordsworth seriously, that there would be no man without the child. To that end, I am reminded of something that I have come to note in my psychotherapy practice: Some consider Fathers' day to be a day in which Dad gets a break; others consider it a day in which Dad is embedded with his family. Such a split between family and self may be considered a variant of the hard independent man on the one hand or the soft dependent man on the other. Such a split may also be found in conceptions of fathering – the hard disciplinarian or the softy. Guys, do we really have to choose such a dichotomy? I think not. There is certainly something to be said about a masculinity that can give and take – simply one that is strong enough not to be brittle. This matters in regard to fathering. An ability to join with family without forgoing strength, but situating strength in a respectful fashion may be considered a central component of mindful parenting. To that end, I am advocating a Fathers' Day in which the gift of fathering is shared. Wordsworth's idea may be considered to have manifested itself in a literal fashion for some fathers, and there is good science suggesting that such relational involvement literally changes one's brain. Supporting the idea that such changes may be beneficial, I find a recent email from a colleague alerting me to a press release indicating that yes, men who are fathers are more inclined to take care of themselves.

It was about 1,000 years ago that Su Tung P'o noted the difficulties and limits found in parenting. I'm not certain that living was any easier then, but folks might not have been confronted with the same level of concern as to what constitutes the boundaries of gender roles such as fathering. Today, living in a world in which not all fathers identify as straight, underscores Wordsworth in an interesting manner. He refers to children not women or other men as being the source of making a man. If being a dad makes a man, just what sort of parent and child interactions are necessary for this to work? Conservative ideas have long been a part of twentieth century theory. Taking such theory seriously seems important at a historical moment in which hate crime based on sexuality is on the rise while simultaneously a movie about the difficulty of being straight is being released. Sociologists Peter Hennen and Susan Ferguson have addressed such gendered anxiety in a recent review of books on men and children. There they note that the concept of naturally derived clear gender roles has been challenged in contemporary culture, and that presently there is good evidence for the existence of a backlash attempting to restore gender to a simpler past. What of good science? Hennen and Ferguson suggest that anxiety regarding a structural change in which power sharing and masculinity need not be mutually exclusive makes sense and hope that we might find work that helps one negotiate tendencies toward backlash. Recently, I had the good fortune to have an essay on Fathering as depicted in the film Finding Nemo included in a book entitled Heterosexual Masculinities. I would like to suggest that not only does this book (yes, I am biased!) afford movement away from backlash tendencies, but also that Pixar has given us much in the way of affording divergent portraits of fathering. As for my take on the loss of Nemo's mom, well that's in the book!

I do think that in regard to themes of fathering, Pixar has been hitting it out of the park. Nemo is not the only film to showcase the need for an engaged understanding between father and son. In the movie Cars, the protagonist Lightin' begins to mature under the tutelage of a mentor – Doc. Currently, the movie UP is occupying center stage. Here as in Cars, the father is a surrogate father – and as in Cars – the father is substantially older and a single parent. In each case, the father character is reluctant to parent, but is unable to say no – that a loving attitude breaks the father's heart open and he relents. In UP the viewer is shown in multiple ways that desire for one's own quiet adventure simply does not work. To that end, I am reminded of the oft quoted John Lennon – life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans – from the song Beautiful Boy.

Lennon and Su Tung P'o are in harmony on this one. A wise parent knows that intelligent plans can be troublesome. Yet, we have to risk trouble and let life happen. This is what engaged parents do every day. As the English pediatrician DW Winnicott noted about mothers – there can be no child without a mother – let us hold the same standard for fathers. Further, let us on Fathers' day pause and remember all fathers with us and not who are separated from their children due to war. May we know peace.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


As we come upon the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his work On the Origin of the species, I find myself thinking about fitness and its psychological implications. I notice that my own implicit sense of adaptation entails being on point and being engaged. However, engagement is a complicated experience. Simply, where does one's focus land? Is the fittest the one who engages a goal without relenting or has a capacity to rest? Here, I am reminded of the classic tale of the tortoise and the hare. Our rabbit does rest and runs hard too. Yet, this haphazard fashion results in loss while the gentle persistence of the turtle affords a victory. In that regard, the pressure that the turtle feels – the gentle push of "slow and steady wins the race" – doesn't quite have the punch I first experience when I hear "survival of the fittest." So why is it that the turtle not only survives, but thrives in this lovely fable? What might evolutionary theory have to say?

According to Terrence Deacon, a professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics at UC Berkeley, the fitness ideal of an unrelenting drive of "never give up" as necessary to success if not fitness itself may not be all that it is cracked up to be. Deacon is interested in what happens when such pressure is absent. To that end, he suggests that when the pressures of the environment that I think of when I imagine some early giraffe straining to get leaves that are just out of reach are absent, that unexpected and synergistic effects might arise. In this regard, I hear him saying not only that when leaves are in reach and plentiful that giraffe's have it easier, but that when we are not stressed we can be creative. Now the rub, as a highly creative coffee drinking species, far from being an exemplar of fitness, Deacon sees what has been called a "degenerate ape".

Maybe this is overstated – degenerate ape indeed. True, there are couch potatoes. But, there are also athletes and monks. Currently, our television affords a reminder that includes spin off books singing praises to the spirit of get up and move to those resting on the couch. The computer also applauds such efforts for sedentary members of the point and click set. The sheer intensity of such reality based programming leads me to wonder if it is a manifestation of some sort related to a correlation between a poor economy and poor health. If only the DOW could shake its groove thing! Yet like the bear of Wall Street, I find myself thinking about the longevity of the turtle in comparison to the flashiness of that loser of a rabbit. The turtle, I think inhabits the space in which pressure has lifted. Unlike the stressed out rabbit, the turtle does not crash. The turtle demonstrates an even handedness that I think renders the rabbit in degenerate terms. The only thing degenerate about the turtle is a lack of the stress and tension. It may be that an ability to not be the reactive rabbit but a steadfast turtle who can tolerate a shifting world without a hyper-vigilant response might well be a sign of fitness or a mature fitness. We can lead our lives like the erratic rabbit. However, the turtle also appears to enjoy a good race, and we know that exercise helps mood and longevity.

This seems like enough for me to turn off the television, shut down the laptop and get outside. However, it's not always as easy as Nike's – Just do it. We often turn the television back on and watch someone else attempt to lose weight. What of our own motivation? In September of 2008, I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by Robert Kegan, Ph.D. Kegan is a Co-Director of the Change Leadership Group, and he addressed the difficulties found when trying to change – anything. Like many a good speaker on motivation, Kegan led a group of several hundred in an exercise about change. Over the past year, I had come to tire of my complaining about lack of exercise in one too many peer conversations. In Kegan's exercise, I began with pen and paper and in dialogue with the person seated next to me to examine my competing commitments to exercise. I work and have a family. Woops. Life is complicated. Getting back in shape was going to require not only thinking outside the box that had become my life, but changing that box without breaking it.

I know a lot about fitness. After all, I used to take long mountain bike rides when I lived on the west coast. In graduate school, having moved east, I took up running and yoga with weight training. I hadn't really had to reflect on the fact that I stopped biking because of the time it required to get a work out similar to what I found in running and weight training. That time bind had been easily solved. Especially with the help of good community, it was practically easy for running to find its own place in my life. I did not have to reflect on what allowed me to evolve or change my best practices. Yes, I realize I've shifted from speaking about evolution in biological species terms to psychological individual terms. That is an occupational hazard.

When I found that my ability to run consistently was threatened, I began to feel a bit, well rabbit like. Kegan's exercise revealed to me that there was good reason for this. After all, I'm motivated for work and family life to go well. I also like to do other stuff besides break a sweat when I have a few minutes. I wasn't certain that I could find a solution. I certainly did not yet have the calm of the turtle regarding my feelings about my being out of shape. Acceptance was not easily forthcoming.

One thing I like about psychoanalysis is that it clearly states that our motivations are multiple and that in everything we do there is compromise. To that end, being a psychologist helped quite a lot. I didn't expect to find an easy feeling of turtle grace before acting. I knew that would only come later, and that such experience would ebb and flow and require care if such a flux was to be maintained. So, I began taking this long view of the turtle seriously while slowly making small changes. I began to think that I could actively shift the 'selection pressure' I felt in my daily life. I remembered reading in Runner's World some years back about the benefit of cooking in advance. So, I put a freezer in the basement to store good food cooked in advance. I found my old orthotics, and made an appointment to get them tuned up. I found an old chin-up bar and mounted it in a door frame. I wasn't certain what else I was going to do. However, I continued to believe that I was moving in a direction that would make change possible, and like the turtle - allowed uncertainty to be a companion without becoming anxious and erratic like the rabbit.

So, while enjoying that my son had discovered that he could browse the stacks on his own at our local library, I began flipping through a copy of BookPage one afternoon this past winter. I wasn't looking for an exercise book, but there it was – a book about short duration exercise. In addition to some easy cynicism, this piqued my interest. I ordered a copy. I was a little disappointed to find that the book's target audience was soccer moms who work. While I am a parent who works, um, I'm a guy – looking good in a little black dress simply wasn't one of my goals. Back to being a psychologist again: I hear clients talking about Michelle Obama's arms, and I even found myself thinking that although he is a guy too, that Pete Cerqua was smart to market his book to women. I've read enough work by Carol Gilligan and I also live on this planet. The argument that women are simply more relational and less rigid is commonly found. While my own interest in gender theory is apparent, it was trumped by my own need for survival. I know the odds – women get depressed and seek treatment – men drink – was that a beer in my hand or my running shoes??! A simple binary of degenerate ape or turtle left me thinking that this was no time for gender essentialism or workout rigidity.

Not being an essentialist, I lead with my enjoyment of core and cardio. I began to play with an integration of Cerqua's program with my yoga knowledge base and found a ten minute routine that I could do three times a week on the days "I don't have time to exercise." Although I had read about single set strength training before, I was suspicious that this would not amount to anything. I did not see any other options that were forthcoming. As I began this program, a colleague started a team - Psychologist's for healthy habits through a local program – Shape Up Rhode Island. The program's foundation is time spent walking, and with the arrival of a pedometer and a journal, it was time to lace up my running shoes. Making the commitment to track each step for a few months made a difference. First, it showed me that on long work days, I was sedentary. Ugh. My weekly workout began to look like this: core routine three times a week, running and weight machines once a week, and two other runs – preferably outdoors with use of my chin up bar after running. In total I was exercising three hours and thirty minutes a week. The thirty minutes of core work spread out over three days afforded glue that left me feeling that the benefits of my short runs over very few days wasn't lost. The proof of course was in the pudding – in addition to gaining upper body muscle mass and improving as a runner, I lost 10 pounds in three months.

I feel lighter and happier. Not too many weeks ago, I went out for a run on a Sunday. I had forgotten that the Cox Sports Marathon would pass through my neighborhood. Yet there were these two guys with red flags around the corner from my house. I noticed them before the front runners arrived. By the time I found time to lace up and get out for my own run, mid packers were running by. I went out for my usual five miler, and found that about 20 minutes of my route overlapped with the marathon course. I knew from having run a marathon just what these folks were up to, and I enjoyed their company for the two miles that my route overlapped their course. Running with these marathoners rendered feelings of having found myself amidst a festival of life – a life in which the steadiness of the turtle finishes the race. Another marathon had come and gone – this one, I hadn't run – but it had afforded its own quiet victory – not quite the strong satisfaction I remembered from crossing the 26.2 line in 1999, but a– more a gentle reminder to keep pushing – slowly, but pushing nonetheless.

Later that day, while shopping for a pair of Croc's for my son at our local shoe store, I happened to notice that my favorite running shoes were on sale. They are still waiting as my older pair (same shoe!) continues to have some mid sole cushion, but after the upcoming 5K this weekend, I plan to begin breaking them in. Let's hear it for the turtle and survival of the fittest.

Friday, May 1, 2009


It’s the second weekend of Jazz Fest in New Orleans, and 2009 marks the 40th anniversary for this two weekend long frolic of good food and music. In the internet age, one can even watch the fest live, online. However, if you want to eat, best get on an airplane. One could easily be led to think that post Katrina, the living is again easy. Yet not everyone shares this opinion. Such disparity is unavoidable to me up here in Rhode Island where I have recently been invited to view New Orleans from a perspective far afield from the Fest. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased to be able to attend a local theatre that puts on risky stuff, does it well, and asks professional members of the community – myself included - to speak on those events – for continuing education credit no less. Still, some crawfish bread would be nice! In more ways than one this blog entry might best be considered a meditation on an old cliché: You simply can’t have your cake and eat it too. That said, finding that a store near my office is carrying some of Louisiana’s finest helps me cope with being across State lines during the Fest. What I want to address however in posting an excerpt from my talk on the play “A Streetcar Named Desire” is not so much about the relief good food and drink afford, but about the manner in which Tennesse Williams asks his audience to follow the despair of trauma.

An engagement with despair seems such a part of New Orleans as may also be seen in the recently published, The Sound of Building Coffins, a novel in which the author is candid about the promise of rebirth and redemption. While Jazz Fest offers some of the best redemption going from an engagement with despair, my hope in posting this is to underscore the idea that in turning to revelry, we don’t forget care. Further, that if we can situate despair without shutting it away, then revelry becomes a practice that is not escapist, but leads to what may be called rebirth. To that end I am reminded of the characters often encountered in childrens' stories – Shrek and Cinderella for example. These characters represent what is disavowed or shuttered due to being deemed ugly. Fortunately, these stories also tell of a journey in which what is neglected and considered monstrous finds its way into a place of recognition and acceptance – both Shrek and Cinderella find love. In these happy endings we are quietly reminded not to neglect what is disavowed. The story doesn’t end as well in Streetcar. How it will end for New Orleans is still being written.

In Streetcar Named Desire, Stella’s sister Blanche Du Bois comes to New Orleans to stay with then pregnant Stella and her husband Stanley. Unbeknownst to Stanley and Stella, Blanche’s husband has committed suicide after being confronted by Blanche in regard to his sexuality. Following his death, Blanche has lost her job as a teacher due to her own sexual acting out with a student. She arrives, traumatized, and becomes increasingly symptomatic caught in her own mental illness and the unstable dynamic that is Stanley and Stella’s relationship. The play ends with her sister, Stella sending Blanche to a mental hospital after Blanche’s being raped by Stanley. The hospitalization of Blanche allows Stella to ignore what is hideous about Stanley, and in turn Stanley and his friends ignore Blanche’s tragedy as they continue a game of five card stud while she is carted to the hospital.

Mounted as a play in 1947 and becoming a movie in 1951, Streetcar is not a fairy tale by a long shot. It has been considered an American Tragedy. That it was written when America emerged from World War Two places it in a noir valence, challenging the sunny side of the street that typifies the optimism that is central to the American Psyche. To watch the play, post-Katrina, at a time when we are at war and in an economic crisis is to wonder if the spirit of Jazz Fest can lift our spirits to song. As Cinderella rides off into the sunset with her prince, is it possible to imagine Blanche attending Jazz Fest? Jazz Fest itself is certainly complicated. As its corporate identity grows, some wonder how it will continue to engage local culture. Fortunately, pace Cinderella the Ponderosa Stomp is no pumpkin and locals are playing at the Fest.

Is it possible to stay engaged, not forget, and like Josh Charles singing ‘Let the healing time begin’ might we find song in the face of hardship? Charles, like any good bluesman knows I think, how to situate trauma like a true doctor. Last Sunday during Jazz Fest, Charles posted to twitter that Etta James was singing “I’d rather be blind.” Indeed, seeing is not easy. Simply, the ideal bluesman or woman does not deny what is painful, but embraces loss head on – knowing ‘having cake and eating it too’ is a fantasy - that if one is to eat cake, one is confronted with an empty plate. Facing this demands security in the face of lost pleasure.

Are we, like the characters in Tennessee Williams’ play who resume a poker game as Blanche is institutionalized tempted to abandon, forget, deny – mask our care in attempt not to witness the trauma of our contemporary life. Why not? We like to be optimistic and focus on fun. The popular phrase, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is an affirmation of pleasure without consequences – a philosophy that one can have cake, eat it, and ignore the empty plate by moving on - A call to forget care. The plate was disposable??! Word! In this regard, the setting of New Orleans is perfect for the play Streetcar Named Desire.

People have been calling New Orleans “The City that Care Forgot” since at least 1938, when the phrase appeared in the New Orleans City Guide produced by the Federal Writers’ Project. When I first heard this phrase, I thought it referred to the decay of the city in which poor streets, failing schools, and a high crime rate were considered normal. Later, I began to wonder if the phrase was a play on tourist stereotypes in which one is asked to forget their cares and embrace debauchery. It was only much later that I began to consider how these two lines of thinking were related. My dictionary reminds me that care is first considered a suffering of mind akin to grief, and such suffering relates poorly to debauchery and neglect as each attempts to deny or avoid grief. It is pretty obvious that this has something to do with Tennessee’s play, but what does it have to do with desire – a conscious impulse toward something that promises enjoyment? It occurs to me that there is an inherent tension between care and desire. On the one hand desire promises pleasure, while care tips its hat to suffering. Situating care in the face of desire might be considered something that each of Williams’ characters is not well versed, and that this deficiency is at the heart of their difficulties.

There is I think, something traumatic about Stella’s indifference to the radio that has been thrown out of her window, and Stanley’s anger that killed the radio in the first place. However, it is Blanche’s longing for a gentleman who could help her deny that she lost a gentleman and genteel life that is at the center of this play’s narrative. Blanche’s wish to undo trauma by denying it is found in her diagnoses itself – her nerves broke. Blanche tells Stanley, I hurt him the way you want to hurt me – and she embodies a manic enactment of epic fornication – the crime of her late husband in a confused attempt to forget. Too soon, Blanche is undone by Stanley’s screaming of Stella’s name – calling him a wild animal – as she wishes to deny her own identification with wildness in reaction to her husband’s infidelity. In raping her, Stanley starkly enacts a narrative along the lines of, that while Blanche might run, she cannot forget. When Blanche says to Stanley’s friend Mitch that sick people have such deep sincere attachments, it is clear that she is sincerely stuck, and she hears the gun shot of her late husband’s suicide again – a traumatic flashback leading her to tell Mitch how she attempted to fill herself with strangers. For her part, Stella can laugh at the flying radio but not at rape – is it the presence of a baby that engages her care?

Blanche relies wholly on the kindness of strangers – hoping for a transformative engulfment in which her agency is forsaken and bestowed. Mitch tries to give this. Stanley desires it too. Stella, cynical in regard to the desire for attachment knows it is a fantasy. I wonder how the psychiatrist in this play conceptualizes Blanche’s desire to forsake agency. Simply is she seen by her doctor as a welfare subject in need of a paternalistic care or as an active individual who may be capable of reconstituting herself? My experience of the play is that Blanche is viewed as chronically disempowered and will not be engaged in what may be considered an ethics of care. Whose dream is this?

Mary McCarthy disliked the play and felt that Tennessee’s work was in bad faith. One interpretation of what McCarthy saw is that Williams may have unintentionally expressed his own trauma in the play. We know that he lost his mother at age five, and was neglected by his father who was from a southern family that had squandered generations of wealth. Furthermore, while working at his father’s shoe factory Tennessee became attracted to a man named Stanley, and suffered a nervous collapse when the man married. Art continues to imitate life in regard to madness as his sister due to having a lobotomy was lost. When he lived in New Orleans – he wasn’t a native – he had a male lover who wanted a long-term relationship, and was reportedly distressed that Tennessee went cruising nightly in the city. Writing in the New York Times days before the play opened on Broadway in 1947, he describes allowing it to rain through the windows of his hotel room as he could not tolerate success – he goes on to describe the patience of the management as inexhaustible and considers such security of success to be a kind of death – if true security is an ability to tolerate a threat – he sadly confused security and success with the loss of tension. In this, he was quite close to his characters.

Considering that our country’s character has been considered optimist, American tragedy is something that could be called ironic. Some have noted that when the hero is seen to suffer from psychopathology that we move from the tragic to a genre of horror. In this we are left with a hero who is deserted by the crowd – abandoned as monstrous. We might ask if we have been alienated by the playwright. Simply, do we watch this play with the detachment of a voyeur who stands outside the fray in which horror occurs, or possibly with the detached amusement of a tourist who could be seen through the 1970’s and 1980’s, photographing a streetcar in the New Orleans French Market proudly bearing the name "DESIRE" – a possible moment of identification due to the safety of its fiction and temporal distance? Or as those who work with trauma note, doe we risk identification with what is horrific in attempt to dialogue and thereby transmute what appears monstrous?

In that regard as a citizen and a clinical psychologist, I find myself thinking what does being a witness ask of us? The completed suicide of 11-year-old Massachusetts native Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover who hung himself on April 6 of this year following taunts that he was gay is a stark reminder that sexual identity often remains wound up with traumatic intolerance. Geographic terrain offers yet another trauma when building levees doesn’t fall under the category of shovel ready. Tonight Dr. John who is publicly promoting efforts to reopen what was New Orleans’ main public hospital is playing at House of Blues with his band the lower 9, 11. On his latest albumCity That Care Forgot, he sings, “Baghdad got mo power on than my sweet home new orlean.”

History simply can’t be hidden by the desire to do so. Indeed, the game is five card stud. Is it possible to stop playing, making a space for healing and continuity? Good New Orleans theatre has shown a tendency to ask this question with startling clarity.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

first post coming soon

I'm working on a post related to an upcoming talk to be given May 1 for my first blog entry -- see the link below -- look forward to posts on psychology related to literature, culture, children, work related issues, and the practice of psychotherapy.