Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Welcome to a Record of My Summer Thoughts

Greetings, Blog-pilgrim,

Most blogs are an ongoing flow of ideas and thoughts; this one had a very specific life-cycle, which has come to a close.

It was a summer writing project, from April through September of 2007, meant as a way to continue my learning process during the lull in classes for my masters in counseling psychology. I wrote about anything that popped to mind regarding my two favorite subjects: Culture and psychology. Sometimes they intertwined, sometimes they coursed along parallel river-beds, swelling and receding of their own accord. I was just the happy scribe in the bouncing kayak with a laptop on his knees.

Within, you'll find reflections on my summer reading, from literary spoofs on Moby-Dick to cultural psychology takes on The Dangerous Book for Boys. You'll also find many posts about people with Asperger's syndrome, as I was working at a camp for children and teens with AS -- and loving the heck out it.

Feel free to roam around at will. Isn't that the joy of others' blogs?

Blessings on the journey.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution: 100% Fun

This post is dedicated to Eric Little: Blogger, teacher, inspiration. Rest well, Eric.

This week, the beloved and I finally got to watch the film version of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), adapted from the book of the same name, reviewed here in Thinkulous.

I enjoyed the book very much, and the film did not disappoint. There were a few moments in which I inwardly winced because the script (written by Nicholas Meyer, who also wrote the novel) deviated quite a bit from the book. But these were minor plot points. Generally, he managed to be both faithful and successful, keeping the pace swift and entertaining.

Fine acting from Alan Arkin, as the 30-something Sigmund Freud in the period just before his breakthrough work in psychology and the unconscious. Arkin was just as natural and appealing as could be. Nicol Williamson was electrifying as a strung-out Holmes, throwing himself into the role. Perhaps just a titch over the top here and there, but generally, it only added to the general zest of the movie.

When I first read of the movie, I was stunned at the choice of Robert Duvall for Watson. He's a very fine actor, but, like most big-name American actors of his generation, most adept at playing himself, regardless of the role. I expected him to be the weak point in this film, and he was -- but not by far. He did a very serviceable job, and did not get in the way of people obviously more suited to their characters. He nicely embodied Watson's Victorian, bougoie restraint and propriety, as well as his unbridled affection for his notorious friend. His English accent was noticeably labored, but more than acceptable. In the end, I enjoyed his performance, though I can imagine two or three Brits who would have served the role quite a bit more admirably.

Kudos also to Lynn Redgrave, who plays the French victim of the fiendish plot Holmes and Freud manage to foil (I trust I'm not spoiling anything by sharing that little piece of info). Finally, Joel Grey made a wonderfully craven lackey for the Baron von Leimsdorf -- a respectable turn by Jeremy Kemp.

Good luck finding it -- the beloved is a librarian and was able to requisition a distant VHS copy. From what I hear, there has been no DVD release (this is criminal). But it is worth the search.

Thanks to Eric for his encouragement to seek out this film. He was a Williamson fan.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Autism and Masculinity

Very interesting article on the BBC Web site last week, about research into high levels of testosterone in fetuses that would later become children with autistic traits.

Eight years of research show a fairly high correlation (20% in the world of scientific research is very high indeed). However, it’s just a beginning: The link is only to autistic traits, not the disorder itself, and there is no way to know at this stage whether testosterone causes the traits, or is just correlated for any of a number of possible reasons.

This furthers the interesting hypothesis of the well-known British autism expert, Simon Baron-Cohen (no relation to Sasha) that symptoms of the disorder, such as highly analytic and logical thinking, social isolation, and others, are an expression of male thought patterns in extreme, unhealthy form. He thinks that perhaps the testosterone creates a brain in which this is inevitable. More specifically, Baron-Cohen says...
… the hormone [testosterone] could be affecting the brain through altering neural cell connectivity and chemicals that carry messages, known as neurotransmitters.

The team is now planning to follow up its study to test direct links between autism and testosterone levels in foetuses. The group will use Denmark's archive of 90,000 amniocentesis samples and its register of psychiatric diagnoses.

The work is connected to Professor Baron-Cohen's hypothesis suggesting that autism is a version of the extreme male brain.

He said that although researchers had tested this theory at the psychological level, the new studies meant it could now be tested at the biological level.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Yawning and Autism

An interesting little insight into the minds of autistic children: They aren't susceptible to "contagious" yawns the way neurotypical folk are. Go to this page on one of my favorite blogs, Mind Hacks, to read the summary of an article in the journal of the British Psychological Society, and to get links to the original article.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Gold Beats the Devil

I'm reviewing my pleasure-reading for the last few months (all documented extensively here on Thinkulous; just use the search field above if you want to read more on any of these books) and there is an undeniable theme emerging:

1) Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville: A rollicking story of a man's life-defining adventure, written in highly stylish prose, with historical and philosophical underpinnings.

2) Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon: A rollicking story of a man's life-defining adventure, written in highly stylish prose, with historical and philosophical underpinnings.

3) The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips: A rollicking story of two men's life-defining adventures, written in highly stylish prose, with historical and philosophical underpinnings.

Ah, but then there's my latest read, picked up this week while on a brief vacation on Cape Cod: Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold. It's an entirely different deal -- a truly rollicking... story... of a man.... hmm.

Charles Carter is an Edwardian-era prestidigitator, a card-and-coin man rising through the ranks of the vaudeville and chautauqua circuits. He spends his days in malodorous, musty train cars, dreaming of being a big-time illusionist like Mysterioso, who has an opulent train of his own and a secure spot at the top of the bill every night. Even before this endearing biographical adventure gets underway, Gold foreshadows the greatness in the offing, by way of an "Overture" in which Carter performs in a fantastically ornate theater in San Francisco, and receives President Warren G. Harding as a distinguished guest. I won't spoil anything here.

So far, it's a lovely vacation read. I commend Gold for not attempting overly flashy language; as I've pointed out here in posts on The Egyptologist, that seems to be the most common trap of the middlebrow novelist (a title I apply endearingly, by the way). Gold's prose is quite readable, and, at times, even flows admirably in its unpretentious portrayal of a very pretentious time and profession.

I'm only a fifth of the way in. So far, there's been a wonderfully brisk and engaging exposition, followed by some regrettable pages in which the language and plotting loses some of that crystal clarity. Am I one of the few people who have little patience for sweeping novels that bog down in day-to-day soap operas? There are so many of them. Even my main man Chabon is guilty at times (though rarely).

But I suspect I'm in for the long haul with Gold; I'm having fun. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Egyptologist: Final Report

The Egyptologist turned out to be a good book, not quite delivering on its early promise, but definitely a rewarding read: fun and thought-provoking. At the very least, you'll learn tons about the sate of the art of archaeology in 1922.

The tedium in the second half, which I reported in my most recent post here, was relieved toward the end, when events finally began to break, a new character's perspective was added to the story (via yet more letters), and, of course, I finally found out who was who, and who done what.

"Who was who?" was really the more interesting question. The blurbs on the back of the book, by such luminaries as Gary Shteyngart and XXX, all call attention to the themes of immortality and fame in the book -- the most obvious topics Phillips was exploring, with everyone from pharoahs to academics to small-fry private eyes vying to burn their names indelibly into the pages of time. Indeed, Phillips has a very sure hand when painting people's vanities. Funny stuff.

But I was more intrigued by Phillips' games with the notion of identity. No one is who they seem to be, even after you think you've figured out who they really are. More interesting yet is who they think they are, and what they do because of it. The stories we tell ourselves about our lives, as any narrative-oriented therapist will tell you, motivate or justify our actions, and help us make sense of our past. When that capacity runs out of control, feeding and being fed purely by ego, how far out of joint are the results likely to be? Lives get their circuits crossed, and much disaster -- or hilarity, depending on how mordant your sense of humor is -- ensues.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Expedition Bogs Down

I've been enjoying The Egyptologist (see previous post) by Arthur Phillips, but I have to admit the second half hasn't been as fun as the first. He got off to a rip-roaring start, then settled in to pleasant clip. But by the mid-point, it began to feel like the Pulitzer Syndrome (see my explanatory post here) was setting in, even though his first effort didn't win that prize. It was, however, a huge success, and perhaps no one doing the preliminary reading for the second book had the guts to say, "Uh, listen Art, this is great stuff -- GREAT! But, uh... the second half; it gets a little, uh, slow."

Don't get me wrong, it's still quite enjoyable, and I might still recommend the book (I have to finish it to be sure). The characters are gorgeously drawn, and their language (on display so resplendently in their correspondence, which makes up the whole of the book) is delicious. But I feel like I'm stuck in the exposition section of the book and it's regenerating itself. Perhaps it's the device of using only letters as text that bound him to unfold the plot so slowly; each of the letter-writers doesn't know what the other one knows, and they're on opposite sides of the earth, in the 1920s, before international telephone service, much less email. It's amusing to watch letters cross in the mail, cables (enigmatically brief because of their cost) misinterpreted... but it can only provide the backbone of a story for so long.

Some of the characters might be utter liars, not even who they pretend to be. Some might simply be fooling themselves and wreaking havoc because of it. I'm tired, though, of not knowing and being pulled back and forth. It's unfair after 200 pages to not have revealed even a little of what's what. It's really quite fun for a good while, but then suddenly I find myself skimming whole paragraphs, even pages.

In the final third of the book,Trillipush interprets a very long set of hieroglyphs (not hieroglyphics, as he points out), and the resulting text goes on for pages and pages, doing nothing to move the plot forward. Oh, I get the idea: Phillips is doing a little reverse psychoanalysis, in which Trillipush uses the mytho-historical figure of the Egpytian king to vent all his inner frustrations and secrets. Clever and fun for a few paragraphs, but nothing new gets revealed. A little of this goes a very long way.

What keeps me reading is, of course, the desire to see the mystery solved. With all the excess, there's still a pull to find out whodunit, or, more aptly, who's fooling who. Also, there's still some good flavor left in Phillips' frothy concoction, even after pouring on too much sugar for too long. But he'd better move it along. His character Trillipush wowed his creditors into investing in his expedition with promises of a huge discovery of gold artifacts and historical insight. Phillips made a similar promise with considerable brio at the beginning of The Egyptologist. By now, both creditors and reader are getting impatient.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Dangerous Plot for Boys

Greetings, friends. I feel the need to hail you because it's been so long between posts; days at a time. Life is a whirlwind here in Thinkuland.

Charles McGrath has an interesting article in last Sunday's Times about The Dangerous Book for Boys. (See my post on the book here.) It seems Disney has contracted with director Scott Rudin ("The Queen" and "School of Rock") to produce a movie based on the book. Hard to conceive, really. I liked the book, myself, but come on: A Rudyard Kipling poem and a piece on how to make a paper water-bomb hardly seem like blockbuster material.

McGrath points out that the book's not nearly as dangerous as it makes itself out to be, since "there is less stuff to do in [it] than to read about." True, though making a vinegar-powered battery might be as dangerous as we can hope for from today's plugged-in, tuned-out lads. (I spent the summer with 50 of them, and getting them to put their GameBoys away for more than five minutes -- even in favor of interpersonal games they really loved -- was a continual struggle.) And besides, dangerous or not, a vinegar battery is still pretty darn cool.

But like McGrath, I'm skeptical of the movie, and I enjoyed the plot line he predicts:
A dad who, worried that his son is becoming a softy and a wuss, buys an under-the-counter copy of a mysterious Edwardian tome and forces the boy to listen as he reads aloud from it. “Don’t swagger,” he says, quoting Sir Frederick Treves. “The boy who swaggers — like the man who swaggers — has little else that he can do. He is a cheap-Jack crying his own paltry wares.”

Pretty soon the two of them are off in the woods together, killing rabbits, talking Latin, reciting Kipling and, safely away from women, companionably breaking wind. Junior ties knots, makes flint arrowheads and recites the rules of Rugby while Dad — Pater, that is — sucks on his pipe and lectures the lad about cold showers and avoiding “beastliness.”

Meanwhile, Mom has bought a book of her own, a home-repair manual, and has set about changing all the locks.

Friday, August 17, 2007

My Latest Read

Well, Friends and Romans, with my intense summer job over, my attention has finally been turning to other things. What with all the personal changes in my life creating a tsunami of a to-do list, I headed to the beautiful local library the other day looking to walk away with a fun, engrossing read, to substitute for the vacation I need. (Said library being a descendant of the first free children's library in the U.S., no less.)

On the way out of the house, I grabbed a worn scrap of paper on which, months ago, I’d scrawled the name of a book and its author. Somehow, it had survived the blizzard of papers crossing my desk in the intervening time. While I had no memory of who had recommended the book or why I thought it worthy of remembering, I usually have the devil’s own time finding a book I want to read (for reasons too lengthy to go into here, though perhaps I’ll post on this later and invite some suggestions.) So, I thought I’d look it up. What did I have to lose?

Now, I’m sure that, after that interminable introduction, you’re one step ahead of me, sweet reader, and are waiting for me to reveal the name of a book which, with barely a hitch in my step, I plucked from the burgeoning stacks of my local lending establishment, checked out with beads of anticipatory sweat dotting my fevered brow, and which I have been reading ever since, clawing my own shirt with pleasure at the astonishing plot twists and sparkling turns of phrase. That’s why I write this dotty blog in the first place, you see, is for people like you – yes, you -- who (heaven help you) think like I do, who keep me on my toes, who reward my humble, over-wrought efforts at cleverness with embarrassing heaps of indifference.

Well, now, if that’s what you’re thinking (about the book, that is), then, ha! That’s where I’ve got you.

Well, okay. Actually, you’re right.

If you’re looking for a bracing read, a ripping yarn, a wicked sense of humor, writing with the kind of style that’s just plain gone out of style in the last 30 years (with one or two shining exceptions), then, gentle subscriber -- oh, fair and loyal verbophile! -- make sure you read The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips.

(Talk about burying the lead.)

I guess it was the hot ticket a few years ago (published in ’04, it was), and, in fact, was Phillips’ sophomore jaunt, after the best-selling Prague, which you can bet your sweet little cell phone/PDA/text messaging/push-email-reader I’m going to check out next.

It’s clever and entertaining. It reveals the many (too many) secrets of its labyrinthine plot via two separate sets of letters, sent to two different people, 30 years apart. This device gives Phillips the chance to take his stylistic chops out on the open highway and unwind the engine to about 124 mph, because the two correspondents write very differently. Which is the kind of thing that could drive me batty and lead me to heave the book through a closed window, if Phillips were any less talented. As it is, I love the approach.

The only other author who pulls off this kind of dangerous nonsense with such verve and panache is my primary contemporary literary luminary: one Michael Chabon, my main man, my Karl Rove, the clean-up power hitter in my library line-up, who, even when he goes wrong, can do no wrong in my eyes. (Like most, I didn’t love Summerland, but didn’t I finish all 500-plus pages, now, and draw out the scarce drops of nectar from that half-wilted flower?)

Phillips – so far, and the chunk I’ve read so far seems fairly predictive – is no Chabon, though he clearly is aiming his Taw marble into the same artistic chalk-circle. He’s very good, and that’s saying a lot. But a very good cyclist can either choose a fairly off-beat event and work towards ruling it, or he can enter the Tour de France. If he does the latter, he just has to know up front that he’s going to lose every time to Lance Armstrong.

Coming in second in the Tour rocks pretty dang hard – and so does Phillips. So far. I’ll keep you posted.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Carl Rogers Pumps his Fist

Interesting article in the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday by Laurie Abraham: Can This Marriage be Saved? Abraham followed a couples therapy group for one year, and provides an insider view on both the interactions between the participants, and the therapist's thought process. I liked the thoughts and personality of the therapist very much -- she's well-educated, but at her best when she lets her instincts guide her and her quirky personality shine through. I find the same approach works for me, but I haven't had her years of experience to prove that it's safe (and more effective) to go that way. Reading about experienced clinicians at work is often helpful.

There are a few interesting segués in the article, and I wanted to call out one regarding what the literature has to say on the nature of an effective therapeutic relationship:
Investigators have repeatedly tried to single out specific "therapeutic factors" that can distinguish good therapy from bad, and the only unequivocal winner is what's termed a "positive therapeutic alliance," meaning the client feels that the therapist exhibits qualities like empathy and support.

Jay Efran, a psychologist and emeritus professor at Temple University who surveyed the last 25 years worth of trends in therapy in an ambitious recent article (...) has another idea about what makes for an estimable therapist. He suggests that therapy boils down to a facility for conversation and therefore is a creative and contingent act that does not lend itself to formulas. "The profession has gotten itself into a bind," he told me recently, "because it wants to be seen as a science and it wants to collect money and it has made this category mistake of thinking it provides treatments for diseases and not just conversation or community or human contact or offering new slants on life."
In school, I've had the point in the first paragraph drilled into me so many times I can't count. It's one of the foundations of the humanistic approach that Carl Rogers, a founding father of modern psychology, first defined. And it feels right on to me. (Note that there is a silly, 40-year-old myth related to this which holds that therapists are simply trained to either a) say back to you what you've said to them, or b) gush vague, unexamined supportive statements. Neither is true of a good therapist, regardless of his or her theoretical background.)

The second point seems to me simply to take point number one a giant step further. It may be stated just a little too loosely for my taste, but the gist, again, feels right to me. And while I can hear my more scientifically-oriented friends in the field (and the HMOs, and their panels of well-paid MDs) groaning loudly in the background as I type this, there is a boat-load of truth in this quote.

Thinkulous readers know that I'm a big fan of what science can tell us about our minds, emotions, and behavioral patterns. Neurological breakthroughs in the last 20 years have taken our understanding giant steps forward. Social scientists blaze wide swaths of fascinating new information, cutting through the vast forest of ignorance about our inner workings. I adore reading this stuff, and I try to integrate it into how I approach the field.

At the same time, I've always believed that science, art and mystery are not only highly compatible (in this and any field) but are actually three parts of one whole. What I know, and what I've yet to know that I know, flow together indistinguishably and create my unique approach to clients and clinical situations -- the art. Heck, they create me. And while I adore what science can add to that picture, there isn't an argument in the universe that will convince me that science is any more important than mystery, intuition and subjectivity. We're talking about the mind, about emotions, about self-hood. If it isn't subjective, we are, by definition, off track. How could we possibly quantify why certain people are healing to be around?

One well-recognized marker of mental health is flexible thinking. Practitioners spend a lot of time fostering in our clients a balance of healthy empiricism and risk-tolerant acceptance of the unknown. If the field of psychology doesn't admit pretty soon that the dynamics of pscyhological healing are at least somewhat unquantifiable -- while also unmistakable -- are we then practicing what we preach?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

It's All Over but the Clean-up

Well, friends and Romans, the seven-week journey of my summer job is nearing landfall. It’s all over but the clean-up. (That happens on Monday.)

We started with a full week of training, and then spent six weeks teaching theater games and making films with kids with Asperger’s Syndrome. This is an approach to teaching them social skills – the key deficit for people with Asperger’s, the one that all of them have in common to one degree or another. And an amazingly effective apporach it is, based on the gains I saw during the summer.

They know they’re there to learn social skills (and most, though not all, know that they have Asperger’s). But that’s essentially forgotten, and pretty quickly. The games are fun, and there are dozens of them, so each camper has at least two favorites. We played many of them each day. They get to be hams, to have their intelligence challenged, and to use their imagination nearly all day. In the moment, there’s no awareness going to “Hey! I just made sustained eye contact!” or, “Hey! I just conveyed real feeling with a loud tone of voice!” Or moved their bodies in coordinated ways. Or employed rapid, flexible thinking.

All these apparently small achievements are monumental for Aspies.

After they’ve played the games 20 times, it begins to sink in unconsciously that they are capable of initiating a full connection with another person (or entering a new environment, or doing all sorts of things that previously frightened them) and that good things will usually result. How wonderful is that?

There are many social pragmatics programs out there, and from their popularity, I’m inferring that they must be at least somewhat effective. But from what I’ve read (and heard from satisfied parents on the last day of camp), none of them pack that vital X-factor the theater games do: The gains in social skills come directly from the goals of the activity itself, which just happens to look like a fun game – not a “program” or a “lesson.”

Yet there are dozens of games (and more being created all the time, all over the world), and each targets a different set of social skills. So, they can be craftily combined to target specific kids, or to achieve carefully chosen group goals.

As you can tell, I’m fairly excited about the gains I saw kids make in six short weeks.

And it was both exciting and heartbreaking to see our teens – both the macho, crass, aggressive ones and the awkward, sweet, retiring ones – run up to us and give us hugs and good wishes and good-bye cards. We all milled around at the end of the day; no one wanted to say good-bye. When that last kid (who happened to be one of my favorites) got in his bus, we counselors looked around balefully, shrugged our shoulders and silently headed for the rooms to clean up.

(Of course, there was a wrap-up party last night, and it was boisterous -- a great way to blow off all that pent-up poignancy.)

It was a grueling summer session, five hours of intense contact a day with kids who often can barely stand 10 minutes of such (not to mention the hours of paperwork every day). But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. We made a difference in their lives – and they sure affected me pretty deeply. My favorites will be on my mind for weeks, I’m sure.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Autistic Girls Essentially Different from Autistic Boys?

If you've been enjoying my many earlier posts on my work this summer with teens with Asperger's disorder, I have a nice link for you. The New York Times Sunday Magazine has an interesting article on the gender differences within autism, focusing especially on Asperger's patients.

Now, it's been a mother of a week, and I'm supposed to be resting today, so I'm not going to launch into one of my usual psychology screeds right now. I need to get outside and enjoy the gorgeous summer day, and try to do as little as possible today.

I'll just say that the piece appears basically well-balanced. There are exceptions; in the seven weeks I've been working directly with kids with Asperger's, I've seen various examples that contradict some of the generalizations the author makes about boys or girls with the disorder. But even she admits that the field is still making up its mind about the larger facts on gender differences. Those points she does state firmly seem reasonably well substantiated. Moreover, the questions she raises are quite interesting and have important implications.


Thursday, August 2, 2007

Freud Pumps His Fist

I'm a bit foggy tonight after nearly finishing the fifth of six weeks straight with my campers with Asperger's. (Today was a most victorious day, by the way.) And I'm up extra-early tomorrow in order to be able to take them on their weekly field trip. So tonight, a quick link to a really interesting article in the Times claiming that the unconscious drives our daily actions far more than we think. A tip of the Thinkulous hat to Goat Rope blogger El Cabrero for hipping me to this article.

I can just see old Freud coolly releasing a cloud of cigar smoke, and saying, "Well, duh!" (A rough translation from the German.)

Herr Sigmund may have named the concept over a century ago, but it's only recently that science, that stodgy older sibling, is grudgingly admitting that psychology was right all along. Some key 'graphs:
On the way to the laboratory, [participants in a recent study] had bumped into a laboratory assistant, who was holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot or iced coffee — and asked for a hand with the cup.

That was all it took: The students who held a cup of iced coffee rated a hypothetical person they later read about as being much colder, less social and more selfish than did their fellow students, who had momentarily held a cup of hot java.

Findings like this one, as improbable as they seem, have poured forth in psychological research over the last few years. New studies have found that people tidy up more thoroughly when there’s a faint tang of cleaning liquid in the air; they become more competitive if there’s a briefcase in sight, or more cooperative if they glimpse words like “dependable” and “support” — all without being aware of the change, or what prompted it.
Like a lot of academic psychology, the implications of the new research are far more interesting than they are practical. That doesn't stop me from gobbling them up...

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Horseplay and Sensory Integration

The boys in my group of Asperger's campers wrestle with each other quite a lot.

We allow a little horseplay in our room, under well-defined parameters. We basically have to. These are 16- and 17-year-old boys, most of whom have ADHD along with their Asperger's. If they sit mostly still during games and meetings, we let them grapple a little during the less structured times, as long as they keep their distance from others, and keep it reasonably safe.

However, there's another piece to it beyond, "boys with ADHD will be boys, times two." Many Aspies have sensory integration issues, and they are often almost literally "going out of their skin." If you've heard of Temple Grandin's discovery that certain animals and autistic people both calm down when they feel pressure against their bodies, you have a very general idea of what this means.

In moments of sensory overwhelm younger Aspies might flop on the floor and pile bean bags over their own bodies. If they're 16 or 17, and too "cool" to do that, they'll wrestle. (Some have other self-soothing mechanisms, but space doesn't permit me to detail those here.) It does get annoying, because some of them cannot sit still for more than 15 or 20 seconds at a time. While others are trying to have a quiet meeting, or do acting games, they'll be twisting each others' wrists, fingers, elbows, and so on. It looks a lot like the old "boys will be boys" behavior, but underneath, there's more going on.

We try to walk the line between letting them self-soothe and keeping the group attentive and cohesive. It gets very, very tiresome sometimes. But if I ever doubt their genuine need for it, I just look at the happy smile of one particular camper who is perpetually trapped in a head-lock or full-nelson, pretty much all day. He complains the whole time, but without it, I think he would actually drive himself, and us, even more crazy.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Dangerous Book for Boys

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This week my extremely thoughtful betrothed bought a present for me. I've been working like a dog both on and off the job, and she wanted to lift my spirits a bit. She also knows I am very friendly to the psychological school that says that boys are currently having the "boy" squeezed out of them left and right. (I've recommended Michael Thompson's excellent documentary, Raising Cain, before, and I'm doing so again).

With all those thoughts in mind, she went out and got me The Dangerous Book for Boys, by Conn and Hal Iggulden, a couple of Brits who were tired of the "sit still in your seat and, by the way, no recess for you" trend. They teach a wide range of boy-oriented skills, tricks and history, most of which has been left by the wayside years ago.

I'm of two minds about the book. Most of me loves it. It's definitely a fun read. I'm already practicing some sleight of hand coin tricks, and planning to build a battery out of quarters and vinegar-soaked paper on the next rainy Sunday afternoon.

On the other hand, it's also strongly biased towards the scientific and physical-toughness aspects of masculinity and away from the artistic. Sadly, the book is also a little bit sexist. It would have been better not to mention girls at all than to have the one entry on them, out of dozens, consist of a bunch of flirting tips like "give them flowers" and "listen to them." Useful thoughts -- but highly limiting. If the Igguldens had simply focused on boys and not opened this can of worms, I could more easily celebrate their biased approach. It doesn't bother me in the least that the book is directed only at boys; it pleases me. My fiancée clearly wasn't offended, either.

For better and for worse -- and it's both -- the book could have been published in 1965. Which is one reason it may be read more by guys my age than by our sons. (With that said, when I have one, I will give him this book -- along with a bunch of reading that delights in the softer side of life).

I do fondly remember my days launching model rockets and shooting corks out of bottles filled with baking soda and vinegar. The Igguldens cover similar fun and bracing territory, such as:

    - How to build an electromagnet
    - Well written short bios of explorers and inventors like Robert Scott and the Wright Brothers
    - Writing in invisible ink
    - Dozens of fun Latin phrases and their translations
    - The U.S. naval flag code

I'm working my way through, dreamily remembering the days I spent poring over similar compendia lo, those many years ago -- and how I used those manuals to memorize cool facts, build things, and blow up stuff.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Real Psychological Thriller

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Just finished a fun 1970s addition to the Sherlock Holmes lore: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, by Nicholas Meyer.

The story takes place well after the era of the last episodes by the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Watson is happily married and has been prevented from adventuring with his old friend Holmes by his growing private practice and new home life. He hasn't seen him in some time. One night, however, he finds out that the world's greatest detective has descended into a terrible state, including a raging addiction to cocaine (which was legal in England in Victorian times).

It seems there are precedents in Conan Doyle's work -- stories in which Holmes dabbled in the drug even while in his prime. But now, it's got him in its demon claws, and he's descended into near-madness. In desperation, Watson turns to the one man in all Europe who might be able to help: A young firebrand doctor in Vienna who's been doing work with cocaine; a fellow named Sigmund Freud.

Oh, joy! Two of my favorite subjects -- detective stories and psychology -- in one book! The prose is fairly enjoyable, though a bit purple at times, especially considering Meyer's ill-advised conceit that the story was actually written by Watson (née Conan Doyle). Meyer also messes around a bit with the masterfully established Sherlockian back-story, and it often rings a bit tinny. There are a few wince-able moments, but generally, it's very fun summer reading. It was delightful to make Freud's acquaintance in this much more accessible (albeit highly apocryphal) manner for a few action-packed days. There are lots of lovingly detailed scenes of old London and Vienna, and a climactic railroad chase that makes today's Hollywood car chases pale terribly by comparison.

A passage towards the end nicely sketches the connection between two of my favorite subjects. Watson addresses Freud with awed respect, after the latter uncorks one of the more towering of the revisionist theories Meyer plants in the book (which I won't spoil here):
"You are the greatest detective of all." I could think of nothing else to say.

"I am not a detective." Freud shook his head, smiling his sad, wise smile. "I am a physician whose province is the troubled mind." It occured to me that the difference was not great.
It's fun to watch these two legends, however fictionalized, try to impress each other with their well-matched mastery of, and all-consuming passion for, their fields. In novels, at least, those fields don't difffer all that much.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Albert Ellis: Great and Controversial

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The great Albert Ellis died on Tuesday. He made a huge contribution to the field of psyhology -- and outraged professionals and lay-people around the world.

He was one of the founders of what eventually became cognitive behavioral therapy. He believed our past is important, but doesn't affect us as much as we affect ourselves through our unconscious thought patterns.

The Boston Herald (which I usually avoid) ran a pretty good summary of his life here.

During my year-long Theories of Psychology course at grad school, we watched a film in which one (brave) woman underwent one session each with three giants of the field: Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Ellis. My classmates were utterly turned off by Ellis' blunt, no-nonsense style, and the professor did a lot of eye-rolling and winking. I was the only one who said, "I don't think I'd want to work with this guy long-term, but if I could get six sessions with him, I bet I would be a happier man."

I'm definitely not a pure CBT therapist (too many great approaches out there to lean on just one), and Ellis' personal style is not for most people. But the field is tremendously more effective because of his work. And hey, Ellis was a "Take Me or Leave Me" kind of guy, and frankly, that's kind of refreshing in a psychotherapist -- or anyone.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Theory of Mind

First things first: It's still survey week at Thinkulous. I'd love it if you helped me out by taking the survey via the link at the top-right-hand side of this page.

Interesting post recently on Mind Hacks, one of my favorite blogs (part of me is a huge psych geek). Since I've been writing about this recently, I thought I'd post an excerpt that explains theory of mind rather well in a brief way:
People with autism or related conditions are often poor at both deception and recognising deception in others. It's not always the case, but it's quite a common attribute.

Baron-Cohen's article explores what we know about some of the differences in autistic thinking, and what might be so different that an effective understanding of deception becomes almost impossible.

He argues that a key skill is 'meta-representation', the ability to think about other thoughts, imaginary scenarios or abstract principles in yourself or others.

The key is that it's not just thinking or imagining, it's being able to think about thinking or imagining.

When this specifically involves thinking about what other people are thinking, understanding their perspective, it is often called 'theory of mind'.

You can see why this is a key skill in deception. You need to have a theory or understanding of what the other person is thinking or is likely to think, to work out how to hide the real state of the world from them.
I recommend the post and much of the site to those who like to explore why and how we think and feel what we do.

Monday, July 23, 2007

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Boys' Psychology and Asperger's, Pt. II

Yesterday's post outlined the general ways that Asperger's and boy-code behavior. We also met camper Will, a sensitive, highly literal-minded Aspie who, by dint of his defecits, gets hit even harder by the boy code than most.

(To reiterate: All persons are fictional composites here.)

Envision now a highly boisterous game of keep-away, involving seven campers and three counselors. Will – a good athlete – is in the middle, and, at a blatantly easy opportunity, fails to gain the ball.

Now, Camper Evan is in high spirits (the more so because he is one of the boys exchanges teasing quite good-naturedly, and there’s a lot of that going on with his friends at the moment) and he quickly calls out in a playful way, “You suck, Will!” Things are happening fast in this moment, and, though he’s quick physically, processing delays prevent Will from making any interpretations to counteract his natural literal interpretation (though he’s quite intelligent).

In other words, Will simply knows that, “Evan just told everyone very loudly that I suck.” And that’s all he knows.

Confusion and shame almost instantly slam Will like a big ocean wave, followed quickly (faster than his delayed thoughts can mediate) by anger and fear. I think you have the general idea of what follows; space doesn't allow for details.

I want to reinforce here that what Asperger's kids go through socially often varies only in degree from what neurotypical kids go through. I can admit that I had many moments like the one above while growing up. However, Aspies go through more extreme versions of social distress because their unique characteristics make them more apt to experience social awkwardness or cruelty. The situations and attendent emotions might feel familiar, but don't let that fool you. Aspies are different.

I’ve probably raised more questions with these posts than I’ve answered. I would have to write a bona fide academic paper to thoroughly address all the issues. I mainly wanted to describe how interesting it is that the code of neurotypical boys comes into play so directly with our campers, too – yet with a twist that can make it all the more confusing and damaging.

Boy's Psychology Applies, Regardless of Asperger's

(All names in this post are fictional, and all case examples are composites.)

I’m working this summer at a camp that has found a very fun way to teach social pragmatics to kids who have Asperger’s Syndrome (go here for all related posts). Yesterday marked three weeks in – the half-way point. The group seems to have taken a step forward this week, as various individuals come out of their shells and get more comfortable.

Others, in my group and elsewhere, are still suffering. Some of that derives from their inability to understand typical boy’s behavior. One of the deficits that defines the disorder is an extreme literalism in all interactions. When this literal quality runs up against the kind of teasing and rough-housing to which boys have subjected each other from time immemorial, you can imagine the results. Even high-school-age boys end up deeply wounded and permanently on the outside of social acceptance.

(I focus here on boys because I’m very intrigued by boys’ psychology, and because boys are the overwhelming majority in the Asperger’s population, and thus at our camp. We have one girl in our group of nine campers, and some groups are all boys.)

I’ve said elsewhere (and it has been seconded in learned comments on one of my Asperger's-related posts) that just because someone has Asperger’s doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a personality separate from the disorder. Our teenage boys curse, wrestle, and insult each other in every offensive flavor their considerable creativity and intelligence can generate. American boys (as a vast but viable generalization) have always found it easier to connect with each other in this manner than to express direct, non-ironic affection for each other. Call it sad, call it fun. Call it all-American, or call it oppressive cultural gender role influence. Call it what you will, but it is real and prevalent. And many Aspies end up on the painful end of the exchange, because they simply can not get it.

About this literalism: Let’s say camper Will asks me when we’ll be going outside, and I casually reply, “In half an hour.” If 31 minutes go by, Will immediately, loudly protests my violation of my word. There are other Asperger characteristics at play in that interaction (inflexible thinking, rule-bound behavior), but literalism is a big one.

Keep in mind also that Will has entered our highly rambunctious camp group after 10 or so years of relentless teasing of a much more vicious sort, at the hands of truly mean boys at school. They find his other Asperger traits (a speech defect, or obsession with favorite topics, or slow mental processing time) easy fodder – and then zero in all the more cruelly when they find out Will can quite easily be deeply wounded. By the time he arrives at camp, he often takes any comment as a sword through the heart, much less one that – heard literally – contains clearly negative language directed at him.

Tune in tomorrow to find out what happens when Will’s literalism runs up against boy-code behavior.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

Galway Kinnell

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Tao of Therapy

Things are progressing well at the camp I work at for kids with Asperger's Syndrome. (See previous posts, and this one will make more sense.) Once again, I've learned that the relationship can do most of the work of healing.

Many years ago, Carl Rogers astutely and repeatedly insisted that people basically will heal themselves when they are in the context of a healthy therapeutic relationship. Subsequent research has strongly supported this; the school of therapy used affects the outcome far less than the qualities of the professional in the relationship (as perceived by the client).

During the first week or so of camp, I was, Thinkers will remember, a little distressed by all the obscene language, digusting references and endless physical wrestling. (Not that we wanted to outlaw all of this behavior. A little of it in teenage boys is to be expected.) Today, incidents of that kind are less frequent, and eager participation is up noticeably. Some of this probably flows from kids getting used to the new people they were suddenly supposed to hang out with five hours a day for six weeks in a row. Also, one of the prime instigators was going through a medication change and might now have settled in with his new prescriptions.

But I think that the biggest factor of all was simply time -- spent in a group that is framed around fun, creative activities and mutual respect. We counselors work quite hard to respond to the campers in a positive way, looking for the campers' strengths in any situation, no matter what they do, or, for that matter, don't do.

They have seemed to begin to understand that we mean it. They're so used to being ostracized for their different behavior (unusual tone of voice, pedantic speech patterns, obsessions with one particular interest, physical awkwardness -- all visible in many teens, butfar more so in most Aspies). Perhaps they were simply pre-empting our expected criticism with negative behavior, to maintain a sense of control of the social situation, a sense that is rare for them. They come to us already bruised, and perhaps if we continue to handle them with care, they'll flourish even more. Time will tell.

I experienced a similar curve at my internship at the college counseling center this year. I charged out of the gate determined to make a difference in my clients' lives -- in a brief 10 sessions at most. By half-way through the year, I realized that, while I was having a positive effect a reasonable amount of the time, I was putting out way too much effort. When I relaxed and trusted the intelligence and instincts of the person sitting across from me -- and, most of all, the process of the relationship -- clients actually improved more quickly and effectively. And *they* were the ones, appropriately, who did the work, although I might instigate it here and there, or keep it on track.

It's certainly not the same thing as laying back. In some ways, I'm more tuned in more of the time using this approach. But it's a relaxed alertness. I love this discovery (even the second time around), because it means that I don't have to do anything other than what comes naturally to me in order to be helpful. I listen, I reflect or comment or react, I give respect, I am honest and genuine. And they see that, feel that -- and start acting the same way, especially toward themselves. And that, of course, is when the improvements really start, and are most likely to last.

Chuckle of the Week

"Me? I was born into the Hebrew persuasion, but when I got older, I converted to narcissism."

Woody Allen, Scoop

Monday, July 16, 2007

Grief vs. Depression: Over-medication Redux

Eric has once again sparked a new post with his comments on my rant this Sunday in favor of antidepressants. He agrees that depression still retains a stigma today, and causes a level of suffering, that merits more attention from health care professionals, rather than less, as popular opinion seems to hold.

(Speaking of popular opinion, I Googled the CNN story that sparked my first post, and found quite a lot of tripe, most of it quoting one silly anecdotal story in the article, about a woman whose life was supposedly damaged by a careless prescription.)

But Eric includes an interesting proviso:
I don't know if meds should be prescribed for people suffering emotional tragedies, such as the death of a loved one[...]

Grief is a good example of a disorder which might inspire over-medication. This is also, sadly, a question I have already faced more than once in my young career. Let's look at it.

By the standards of the field, prescribing for bereaved patients is questionable, at best. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the clinical touchstone for the field, says that grief and depression look very much the same, but aren't.

However, the DSM specifies that, if the symptoms of grief continue for more than two months, or are extreme (suicidal thoughts is one example), then the subject might be suffering from depression. At this point, we can presume that professionals are justified in investigate this possibility, and possibly prescribing accordingly.

The book describes examples of extreme symptoms fairly carefully. And it is that kind of care, built into the handbook for the field, that strengthens my conviction. If health practitioners simply apply the basic standards of the trade, combined with their own common sense, there will be very little over-medicating. Then the bandwagoneers could turn their considerable energies to figuring out how to resolve the war in Iraq. Everybody wins.

Some might say that I am assuming too much common sense on the part of all health care professionals. But it's only what should be assumed.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Depression: Don't Trash the Meds Along with Big Pharma

Nice article on CNN last Monday reporting that anti-depressants are now the most prescribed drug in America. Trying to be balanced, they quote one doctor saying,

"Depression is a major public health issue," said Dr. Kelly Posner, an assistant professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. "The fact that people are getting the treatments they need is encouraging."
and another one saying,
"Doctors are now medicating unhappiness," said [Dr. Ronald] Dworkin. "Too many people take drugs when they really need to be making changes in their lives."
Not surprising – the controversy will continue to rage for a long time. I gave a lecture a couple of months ago about popular misunderstandings regarding depression. I’ve heard many lay people say that we are over-medicating our population. I agree there’s some of that going on – doctors writing prescriptions because a) it usually makes befuddling and distressing symptoms disappear, and b) they get so many gifts from the pharmaceutical companies that it profits them to prescribe such medicines.

Nevertheless, I believe strongly that we still attach a stigma to depression, and because of that, the incidence of that disorder is vastly under-reported. Even with under-reporting, the numbers are towering. In any given year, between 20 and 25 percent of Americans experience a major depressive episode (the National Institutes of Mental Health cite the low number; some independent sources lean toward the higher). Their suffering is painful and relentless.

I’m a holistically oriented person and therapist, and I love the stories of those who have successfully pulled themselves out of hard emotional times by their own efforts. But depression is a disease, and in most people who experience it, it affects the body, the brain, the mind and the spirit in profoundly cruel, and progressive, ways. (I recommend Peter Kramer's comprehensive book, Against Depression on this point.)

I’m not entirely comfortable backing medications produced by questionable pharmaceutical companies. And no, we shouldn’t be throwing pills at patients the moment they feel down. But I’ve seen depression at work, and I have seen the medications be amazingly helpful. (Especially in combination with talk therapy – a proven formula. Frequently, medication can be reduced or eliminated after such a course of treatment.)

Jumping on the popular bandwagon of condemning medications is just another way of saying “Snap out of it” – the kind of treatment that has exacerbated mental illness since time immemorial.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Group vs. One-on-One: Being Aware of Lenses

I've written a few posts about my new job working with teenagers with Asperger's Syndrome. Today, yet another insight dawned on me on the drive home. I've worked in the human services with people in groups before, but never in a psychological setting like this, and of course, the experience is bound to give rise to a few realizations.

Today, I realized that some of my campers aren't too terribly different in age and functionality level from some of the clients I had this year at the university counseling center where I interned. Then I realized that those same campers would look radically different to me in that dyad format.

Since the university is small, I occasionally had the chance to observe my clients interacting with their friends around campus. Occasionally, I was quite surprised to see someone behave quite differently than I expected. Folks I had worked with at the counseling center who were polite and eager-to-please sometimes behaved quite differently with a group of their peers. By the same token, when we counselors have a one-on-one conversation with any of the campers this summer, they almost always come across much more intelligent, kind and aware than they present while in the group.

Though we are taught this in school, it's coming home to me now in a three-dimensional way. As I grow as a counselor, it'll behoove me to bear in mind the settings in which I don't get to see the client. It's often in their day-to-day relationships that folks experience their psychological distress most acutely. If I only see them one-on-one in a quiet room with a professional atmosphere, I need to do a lot of translating while they give accounts of their daily lives.

By the same token, if I only see them working it out within the bump and bustle of group dynamics, I might miss the graceful intelligence or glowing generosity hiding within their quieter heart of hearts.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Now Entering the Swampy Middle-time

I have to admit, for all my high-minded posts lately about how enlightened I want to be in my approach to my campers, who all have Asperger's Syndrome, or something similar (but a few of whom are also just annoying teenagers), I'm not doing very well walking the walk.

I know they might be reaching out for connection through their oppostional behavior, pseudo-violence, and inappropriate or profane language. I know that being a teen is hard, and that being a teen with a disorder that makes you even more "weird" than typical teens feel is even harder. I know that I would be better off "going with the flow," (as I wrote about so elaborately on Sunday) and letting them blow off steam, and come around to us on their own terms.

See? I know a lot of wise things. And I also know that, by the end of the day, it's all I can do to keep myself from yelling my head off at them. They do wear me down.

It's great to remember that various of the less trouble-making kids have taken some wonderful and visible steps forward in just the 10 days since we started. Certain parents have written high praise for we counselors in their responses to our daily notes. And also... tomorrow's another day.

On a more global note, I never cease to be impressed by the difference between knowing all about a disorder intellectually, and actually being in the room day after day with someone who has that disorder. Some of the differences sneak up on me; some have to be pointed out by more experienced counselors, or the clinical director. But when I step back, sometimes I feel the forcefulness of their difference in a tangible way.

I hope I will always feel fascinated and delightfully challenged by such differences.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Williams Syndrome and Big Brains

For all you psych geeks, I recommend a very interesting article on Williams Syndrome in this week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine. WS starts with some missing genes, which leads eventually to “a love of company and conversation combined, often awkwardly, with a poor understanding of social dynamics and a lack of social inhibition.” Williamses (as they call themselves) also have congenital heart problems which lower their life expectancy; they also suffer from a lack of spatial awareness.

The author, David Dobbs, branches off from the syndrome itself, and into various interesting implications. Of course, researchers are drooling over the possibility that genes might directly cause or prevent certain behaviors. That’s the kind of find that people spend whole careers seeking.

In one fascinating, lengthy segué, Dobbs outlines recent research on why the human brain grew so much larger than that of our forebears over the millennia. It has been assumed for many years that the purpose of the larger brain was greater facility at hunting and tool-making. This new research suggests the brain grew in order to allow humans to develop language, which was needed to help us navigate the complexities of ever-larger communities of fellow humans.

From the Darwinian perspective, bigger brains, and the language they made possible, allowed us to both to fulfill our basic longing to affiliate with others, and, at the same time, assess the level of threat those others posed within the confines of the group.

Hey, wait a minute. If understanding people and bonding with each other gives the greatest edge in competitive selection, we therapists ought to end up passing on far more genes than anyone else, right? Woo-hoo! Finally a social advantage to being a geek!

The Real Self

I was just down by the lovely pond a few blocks from my house, at eight a.m. on a sunny summer Sunday. I did a little stretching, and then sat silently on the big rocks that stand up from the shallows. I closed my eyes, and began to listen to the wind make the leaves rustle each on each, and the water rhythmically lap the edges of the shore.

Eventually, through a process so subtle (and so outside the terms of today’s acceptable conversation) that I can’t describe it here, I reconnected with a Self that knows, by the nature of its very existence, that all my work and effort, all my worry about others’ perception of me, and all my concern about the future, are simply chimeras.

I’m not, of course, saying I don’t want to achieve anything in this life. In some wonderful ways, I’m more ambitious in my early mid-life than I’ve ever been. I am saying that things can be so much more easily achieved when I attend to the winds of Life in each moment, and set my sail in accord with them. It may seem like a detour in the moment, but any sailor will tell you that, to progress against the wind, you have to tack – that is, defer to the very wind that appears to be blowing against you. (For another look at this concept, I recommend my friend Cabrero’s post from this past week.)

What’s more, goals can more easily be achieved when I let the total circumstances of life (including the crucial “still, small voice”) shape and influence those very goals. Perhaps I want to help one of the kids in my group at camp progress beyond infantile perseveration on scatological humor. The very first, and most important, question is, Does he want to do that, too? Or is this just my knee-jerk reaction to his behavior? What might his actions and words be telling me that I haven’t heard yet? Is there perhaps some other area in which he does long to mature? This requires that I let go of my smaller personal preferences, in favor of aligning my actions with larger principles in which I believe more firmly, such as “Some part of everyone wants to grow in a positive direction.” The same dynamic of attending, then attempting applies to my career, my relationship with my fiancée, and everywhere else in my life.

This principle is not just some exotic eastern export, by the way. Yes, the Buddhists do treasure it, calling it non-doing, and it is also at the very heart of the Tao. But you can also find it in a well-known passage of the Bible (I Kings 19: 11-12). Here, God appears to Elijah not in the popular, dramatic forms of earthquakes and fires, which turn out to be empty roaring, but rather as a "still, small voice."

Of course, this approach requires that I let go of all that societal stuff about success in the eyes of others. The kind of achievements I’m talking about don’t garner the limelight in our current world, attached as we are to self-made people amassing wealth, enormous celebrity based on shallow achievements, and endless, endless rivers of material objects. Maybe these are the 21st century versions of the empty earthquake and fires. Don't get me wrong; I get as excited over a shiny new computer or car as the next guy. I’m only trying to describe here the kind of energy I have to put every single day into keeping what is real at the top of my awareness.

As I write, I’m aware that this post veers away from the intellectual tone of most of my blog. And that’s alright, because that, in itself, is an example of what I’m describing here. I probably am not doing my readership statistics any favors by writing about non-doing as opposed to, say, the new iPhone.

But I felt my larger Self strongly this morning, and after reminding me for the 937th time that I will be freer and happier if I let go yet more of what other people think, it whispered in my ear, “Why don't you go write about what underlies all your other posts, for once?"

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Top This Top Ten!

It''s late Saturday night, and time and energy both dictate a light, enjoyable post. So, the reliable fall-back: Let's do the iPod Shuffle! I wasn't so crazy about my last ten, but today's really represent some of my favorite artists. So let's get started:
Peaceful World - John Mellencamp
I put Mellencamp in the same class with Sheryl Crowe and Tom Petty: Reliably good roots rockers. I like about 10-12 of each of their songs. They might not make me think, but they are reasonably well-written, feature deep grooves, and their voices have that perfect rock'n'roll timbre.

Raining in My Heart - Buddy Holly
What can be said about a grand master? Holly started so much, and created so much, before dying so young. Always perfect. Period.

A Prayer - Suzzy and Maggie Roche
Gorgeous song off the Zero Church project. There are three on there that really grab me. If this doesn't give you goosebumps, you are a sociopath, and should proceed directly to your neighborhood psychiatric hospital.

Spider Web - Joan Osborne
Yes! One of the funkiest and best-written songs on my 'pod. Listening to this is like digging in to a huge scoop of coffee ice cream. With sprinkles.

What if We Give it Away? - R.E.M.
A bookmark in the pages of my halcyon days, when I was discovering how arty rock could be. And so was Michael Stipe.

Rumours of Glory - Bruce Cockburn
You probably don't know this song, and all I can say is, I am SO sorry for you. It includes much that made Bruce one of my role-models, back when I was writing songs full-time.

C is for Cloe - Stephen Bennett
A composer of near-perfect guitar instrumentals. I can listen to one album over and over. They simply make me happy.

Love in Flames - John Hiatt
Definitely not my favorite Hiatt song. But as far as his work in general: On my bad days, his songs makes me feel like being human is actually OK, and maybe even kind of hilarious. On my good days, I want to start a blog just about my favorite Hiatt songs. Except it would be all exclamation points.

My Wave - Soundgarden
My number-one-all-time-favorite ANGRY song. When I really can't take it anymore, I move the furntiure aside, put this on the stereo with the big speakers, and whip the volume knob all the way to the right. Look out.

Hoodoo Voodoo - Billy Bragg & Wilco
Haven't been able to make myself like any other Wilco albums (though I definitely haven't tried enough of them), but I love Tweedy's voice, and pairing him with Bragg -- and then both of them with Guthrie's lyrics -- was a great move. I love quite a lot of that Mermaid Ave. album.
¡Buenas noches, amigos musicales!

Perseverating on perseverate

In my previous post on teenage boys with Asperger's Syndrome, I mentioned the psychological term of art, perseveration.

Eric astutely picked up on it, and posted this comment:
I find that word "perseverating" fascinating. Claudius tells Hamlet that his mourning for his father is unnatural: "To persever / In obstinate condolement is a course / Of impious stubbornness, 'tis unmanly grief..." Within 50 lines Hamlet goes into his most "perseverating" soliloquy, in which he keeps returning to the same thought--his mother married his uncle too quickly--like a dog biting at a wound. "Talking about one topic over and over" indeed.
I agree with Eric: There's something potent about that verb. For one thing, it carries the feeling of the action it describes; an almost onomatopoeic effect. Often, when writing about psychology, I tend toward everyday language, unless I'm writing for school. It's less pretentious and more comprehensible. But I felt in this case that the lovely technical term adds to the reader's understanding.

In delving a bit deeper, I verified what I have long suspected: The psychological field seems to have coined the verb. We all know what perservere means -- to continue against opposition or difficulty. But perseverate removes the opposition, and replaces it with an internal drive, an obsession, really (in both the colloquial and clinical senses). Webster's 10th Collegiate says that the term in question first appears as a verb in 1910 -- smack in the peak period of Freud's career. I formed a hunch thatan early psychiatrist can be credited for the useful mutation. Later, I found a Merriam-Webster Word of the Day post that confirmed this hunch. Score one for getting a masters degree. Now to find a way to pay my rent with etymological hunches...

Finally, for those still hankering, a fairly useful definition from

1. Uncontrollable repetition of a particular response, such as a word, phrase, or gesture, despite the absence or cessation of a stimulus (...)
2. The tendency to continue or repeat an act or activity after the cessation of the original stimulus.
A tip of the Thinkulous hat to Eric for adding the dimension of the Hamlet references, and for inspiring this bit of etymological perseveration.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Is It Asperger's, or is it Boys Being Boys?

I’ve been posting a bit about the lively kids with Asperger's Syndrome that I'm working with this summer. One of the challenges in our group is that there are two kids bent on aggravating the counselors and discovering our limits – and theirs. Cursing, repeatedly introducing inappropriate topics, and wrestling and play-fighting ad infinitum.

There are numerous interesting questions here. First is the issue of whether and how their disorder influences their misbehavior.

Sometimes, it seems clear that they’re just being teenage boys. I’ve read some great literature on the cutting edge of boys’ psychology, and seen some great documentaries. (I highly recommend Michael Thompson’s lively film Raising Cain as a basic primer on the subject.) To sum up only one sub-theme in a crude way, we need to let boys be boys much more than we are (within reason and in thoughtfully considered ways). They are being squashed by the school systems, standardized testing, and increasing gender discrimination. Generally, I agree.

In this light, our boys’ behavior needs to be allowed to the limits of the counselor’s abilities to tolerate it (and as long as everyone is safe and not unduly offended). Our clinical director has suggested this very approach, and she knows these boys from previous years. She feels that if we let them range a bit, they’ll settle down and start focusing on their own. She’s seen it happen with them before. We tried this approach today, and, though it’s too early to tell, there were promising differences.

Then we get to the Asperger’s angle. Features of the disorder include getting stuck talking about one topic over and over (perseverating), inappropriate comments that “typical” people sometimes find shocking, and an inability to conceive of other people’s points of view. My impression is that these problems aren’t at the heart of the misbehavior. At least one of these boys is extremely smart and pretty high-functioning. I think he might even be using the Asperger’s profile as an excuse to repeat behaviors that he knows will annoy people.

However, the clinical director made a good point yesterday. The boys might just be trying to connect with this behavior. This relates to a deeper deficit in Asperger’s people: The inability to make social contact in the ways you and I take for granted. Now we might be getting somewhere.

It’s very possible that the boys are using this behavior in a sort of self-soothing capacity. Aspies usually find everyday human interaction impossibly confusing. But ticking off an adult is a fairly short, predictable process, which they internalize every time we say to them “Stop that!” (It also has the secondary gain of making the kid look cool in others’ eyes.) In other words, the inner equation might read, “I feel edgy -->I can’t take the edge off by talking to someone in a typical way (because I’m an Aspie)-->I curse/hit my friend/get scatological--> authority figure reacts negatively -->this predictable response from my action makes me feel more secure because I am more in control of my environment.” The content of our response might be negative, but that barely registers.

Now, it’s possible many non-Asperger’s kids have the same motivation for their misbehavior. But Aspies have a lot of extra need to control their environment. Through their eyes, it is always, always going haywire on them.

Just some thoughts on Day Three. I'm sure they'll change with seasoning.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Asperger's Teens are Also Just Teens

As many of you know, I'm in the process of earning a masters degree in counseling psychology. Along these lines, my new job involves teaching social skills to young people with Asperger’s Syndrome, via theater work. Before I started, I knew a little bit about the disorder itself, and the people who deal with it. I learned a lot more during training week (and all the reading that led up to it). But nothing can prepare one for the infinite variability of real people.

My students are all teenagers, from 15 to 18. I’ve lived with them only five hours a day for a mere two days (and a bunch of talking and writing about them before and after each day, as part of the job). What has struck me more than anything is the same thing that stood out when I started my internship at a college counseling center this past school year: People are people. With disorders, without disorders, these kids are basically typical teens. They are warm, smart, funny and talented. And they are exasperating, underachieving and worrisome. Sometimes all in the same kid. Sometimes all at once.

It’s been very poignant to watch them quickly divvy up into cliques. Each kid is falling into patterned teenage behavior that serves the purpose of identifying them to the larger crew: “I’m a cool kid. You can’t touch me.” Or, “I’m hilarious and over-the-top; I’ll do anything goofy to get your attention.” Or, “I’m mature. I don’t notice the offensive things you do, so don't expect me to join in.”

The particularly difficult thing is to watch the “cool” kids. First of all, they are, of course, anything but. Moreover, though, every once in a while, a little fissure appears in their veneer, and what peeks through is an eager little kid (much littler than the age they are trying to act) who just wants to play. One of our projects in our brief time with them (the summer session lasts only six weeks) will be to see if we can help those young people to let out their inner kid, before society gets them to squash it for good.

That’s a pretty good description of how I want to approach them. I’ve already slipped into a more parental, finger-shaking mode, and I know very well that will just put us on opposite sides of a six-week war, with no winners. We don’t want to represent “society” to them. We want to help them at least take another step in learning who they are, and bringing that wealth to each interaction out in the world.

More thoughts on this anon.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Sentiment Versus Art

I do apologize, noble readers, for the lags in air time on Thinkulous lately. I've been swamped in training week and the first week of a new job. It's been very interesting and extremely tiring. Add wedding planning to the mix (and a couple of other logistical flare-ups in our lives), and you have the infrequent posting habits of late.

I did finish Gilead (previous posts here) and was richly rewarded for my efforts. I debated with myself long and hard whether this book was sentimental -- a damning term in my family's cultural lexicon. I've decided it's not. That term, in my mind, refers to a work that evokes emotion in order to make the reader (viewer, listener, etc.) feel s/he has witnessed something powerful. Usually, the emotion is pleasant, but it doesn't have to be. Sentiment, in this sense, carries connotations of crassness, lack of subtlety. Hallmark movies. Etcetera.

Gilead did indeed invoke a lot of emotion at a few key points (though far more often, it provoked deep intellectual musings). But the feelings were complex, and they were a product of a believable character and an authentic story line. Sentiment is manufactured. Genuine emotion is evoked through artistic quality that powerfully reflects some part of my experience of life -- and often offers some new insight into that experience.

Gilead starts out looking like it's headed for sentiment. It ends up firmly in the camp of high quality literature. It does this without giving in to the modern novelist's greatest crutches -- far more prevalent and pernicious these days than sentiment, in my view: Depressive pessimism or excess irony.

It's a warm, affirming novel that faces, struggles with, and ultimately embraces the ugly points of life. Don't miss it.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

"I'm testing the air. I like it, but it doesn't like me."

I've been deep in a week-long intensive training for my summer job this week, so posts have been a tad lighter. So, I wanted to weigh in this morning quickly. To unwind a bit last night, my betrothed and I watched one of my favorite movies of all time: The Philadelphia Story. It was at least the fifth time I've seen it (and there will be many more, assuming a reasonably lengthy life-expectancy), and it hasn't paled a bit. Some lines are only the better for knowing they're coming.

This would be my desert-island DVD (in the comedy category, at least). I could watch Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant crack each other up for the rest of my life.

And a special tip of the Thinkulous hat to Ruth Hussey, as Liz Imbrie. The towering talents of the big-name co-stars had overshadowed her considerable contributions before this viewing. She most certainly had knife-edge delivery and spot-on timing.

I'll have to go back to some of George Cukor's other movies, especially the Hepburn/Tracy ones. I've been thinking of renting one of those for a while now.

C. K. Dexter Haven: I'm sorry, but I thought I better hit you before he did. He's in better shape than I am.

Macaulay Connor: Well you'll do!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I Have Wandered to the Limits of my Understanding

"I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I've scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life. Night and light, silence and difficulty, it seemed to me always rigorous and good."

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

This paragraph pretty neatly outlines an essential aspect of my personality so I thought I'd lead with it, by way of illustrating Marylinne Robinson's considerable chops. The woman was undoubtedly called "good with words" by her high school classmates. Gilead is eminently quotable. Yet this kind of pronouncement is also thoroughly in character for the hero of the book, who lives and breathes theology and philosophy, and is, after all, a preacher.

I have to hand it to Robinson on the subject of voice. I have had to remind myself numerous times that Gilead was not written by an elderly gentleman. There have been a few times when her own world-view seems to peek through, but mostly, she nails the word-choice, thought processes, emotional responses, and personal interests with uncanny precision. I have the strong feeling that I know John Ames.

Of course, that kind of insight is at the heart of the book. It's a fairly psychological story. There are no chapters; as mentioned in a previous post, it's written as one long letter. And Robinson mostly makes that work very smoothly. Though she weaves in a pretty good plot element that definitely keeps me reading, Robinson seems most interested in slowly unveiling, in loving yet unflinching detail, the inner life of this thoughtful, ethically meticulous man as he prepares to die.

While Ames' letter ranges from earthy sadness to elegiac celebration, it never becomes hopeless or depressive. He leans toward stoic Midwestern understatement, which in itself comes under Robinson's finely-ground lens -- but never explicitly. Reading carefully, I am rewarded with layered insights into the man's strengths and challenges.

This is not to say it is a perfect book. But more on that anon. I should finish it before critiquing further.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Another View of the Apostle Paul

With his projection of Jesus as the literal son of God, Paul shattered the rabbinical monotheistic concept of God as the all-pervading presence of the universe. After the Jews had won their thousand-year-old battle against anthropomorphism and relegated such things to mythology, he revived not only God the physical father, but God the physical son. It is understandable that the rabbis turned against him with contempt and anger.

Howard Fast, The Jews, Story of a People

If you are at all stirred up by this short excerpt, I can only say: Read the book. Fast lays out a hair-raising picture of Paul as the father of institutionalized anti-semitism, laying the groundwork for 2,000 years of atrocities. I'm neither endorsing nor refuting his view here. I am, however, saying it is worth understanding. It's fascinating and challenging.
Here are the promised pics from last Friday's New Bedford jaunt. Check out the original post to understand the context!

Cheesy antique store with a name you have to love

The infamous ship-shape pulpit in the Seamen's Bethel (yes, the chapel really existed in Melville's time, though the pulpit did not -- see related post)

The pew Melville sat in before he undertook his whaling voyage. Also note the scary cenotaph (commemorating the deaths of men at sea) noted in the sermon described in the chapter called "The Chapel"

"Any Human Face is a Claim on You"

"They say an infant can't see when it is as young as your sister was, but she opened her eyes, and she looked at me. She was such a little bit of a thing. But while I was holding her, she opened her eyes. I know she didn't really study my face. Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I'm glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. Boughton and I have talked about that, too. It has something to do with incarnation.... Any human face is a claim on you, because you can't help but understand the singularity of it..."

Marylinne Robinson, Gilead: A Novel

Saturday, June 23, 2007

New Bedford: Was That Ishmael Across the Street?

My betrothed and I had the day off together yesterday (how nice), and decided to nip down-state a ways to visit New Bedford and see a bit of Melvilliana. Since I just finished Moby Dick a couple weeks ago (see all related posts here), I thought it would be fun.

The day turned out to be full of surprises, some great, some not. The first was that the famous Whaling Museum (located at 18 Johnny Cake Hill – top that address) was closed. It seems the president of Portugal was visiting the town this random Friday afternoon, and various worthy tourist sites were closed. (We checked the Web site before coming, but, sadly, missed the small warning text that was posted. The visit was likely an homage to the large population of Portuguese in New Bedford.) This was, without a doubt, a let-down. The museum looks to be very good. The visitor’s center did have a neat scale model of a whaling ship of nearly the same vintage as the Pequod, though, so all was not lost.

The town itself looks a bit depressed, like many functional seaport towns. If you’ve been to Gloucester, Mass., you have the general idea. Many empty storefronts, lackluster antiques stores with a few dusty baubles in the window, and a hundred convenience stores. There are some local employers, mostly branches of national concerns such as phone companies and banks. And your usual nicely renovated mill buildings, etc., two-thirds filled with professionals of various stripes. The whole thing has a certain down-at-heel charm, but you walk around feeling a bit concerned, as you would for an aging uncle who was an interesting conversationalist on certain topics, but generally seemed like he just might be going slowly to seed.

We stopped at the Seamen’s Bethel, where Father Mapple preached fire, brimstone and stormy seas in the famous chapter from Moby-Dick. It was interesting, humble and well-kept. The prow-shaped pulpit is right there at the front of the church, but we found out that it was not originally part of the building. That little feature sprang whole from Melville’s prodigious brow. However, visitors were so disappointed after traveling to New Bedford and not seeing the ship-shaped pulpit, that the church was basically forced to put one in. It works, in its own weird way. We also sat in Melville’s pew, and read some of the cenotaphs commemorating sailors who’d died at sea – also noted memorably in the book.

From there, we wandered down to a 19th Century schooner docked in the harbor. We were hoping to roam the deck a little, as we’d been told might be possible. We found the same bored police presence in front of the boat that we saw at the museum. Presumably, the officer was protecting the site for the absent foreign president (not due in town for two hours). He sullenly honked his horn and waved us off, without even opening the window of the car to speak to us. Does this town really rely on tourism for income?

The saving grace of the day was the Whaling Museum Research Library. This is housed in a separate building, a relatively easy walk from the other sites. The betrothed is a librarian, so, needless to say, we both have warm feelings toward such institutions. Our esteem was not wasted. Unlike most other places in town, they welcomed us, despite the fact that they were closing at 4:00, and it was 3:55. Lovely editions of Melville abounded, of course, along with antique ship’s logs, scrimshaw, and whatever other exhibits the small (but appealing) space would allow. I overheard two librarians discussing a 19th century ship’s log detailing a very successful voyage to Java, including entries for all kinds of quirky expenses.

Best of all, I waylaid a head librarian just at closing time and managed a short talk with him. I asked him if he had a background in maritime history before working there, and a wave of righteous anger rose to the surface. “No,” he replied, color rising in his face, “I had 24 years of schooling before I arrived here, and not one course of study on maritime history!” With his knitted brow and sharp tone of voice, at first I thought he was angry at me for some reason. But he was just extremely chagrined at the way that part of our history is ignored in the public curricula. "This was a maritime nation up until a certain point in the 19th Century!" he said. Walking to the car, the betrothed and I agreed that we had loved his passionate anger on behalf of quality education. Had the museum been open, we probably would have missed this little treasure of a library.

Later, we slid down to the spit of land just south of town and caught some sun for an hour on a small, pretty beach that was all but deserted (this was the other saving grace of the day). We had a decent seafood dinner, walked the pleasant, middle-class seaside neighborhood a bit, and pointed the car toward Boston.

I’ll post pictures as soon as we get them off the camera.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead

As promised, a report on the other non-work-related book I’m reading. I’ll try to keep this one brief, I promise.

In January, 2006, Marilynne Robinson published Gilead, only her second novel in 25 years. (She also produced two non-fiction books during that time.) The first, Housekeeping, won the PEN/Hemingway award. Not bad, but this one topped it; it won the Pulitzer.

Valerie Ryan, from, did a pretty good job laying out the premise:

The narrator, John Ames, is 76, a preacher who has lived almost all of his life in Gilead, Iowa. He is writing a letter to his almost seven-year-old son, the blessing of his second marriage. It is a summing-up, an apologia, a consideration of his life. Robinson takes the story away from being simply the reminiscences of one man and moves it into the realm of a meditation on fathers and children, particularly sons, on faith, and on the imperfectability of man. The reason for the letter is Ames's failing health. He wants to leave an account of himself for this son who will never really know him.

I’m on page 65 of 247. As I understand it, most of the plot is yet to come, but I really don't mind one bit. I read it before bed, and it’s well-suited to that. Robinson’s prose is simultaneously highly crafted and clear as a mountain stream. On the page, Publishers Weekly said “Many writers try to capture life's universals of strength, struggle, joy and forgiveness—but Robinson truly succeeds.” This is true. Robinson keeps away from sentiment. When Ames marvels at this mysterious world, he steers me right into his own sense of wonder and joy, and I have found myself with tears in my eyes a couple of times already.

There are various other themes woven in, including a lovely one on Ames’s grandfather, a larger-than-life abolitionist who fought in the Midwest during the Civil War. The history that’s revealed thereby is quite engaging.

Stay tuned for more on this rewarding book.

I Need Blogging Advice

Two things I’m finding difficult as I approach the start of my third month as a blogger. I wonder if all you blog-doggies have any tips you’d be willing to share?

  • Finding blogs I like: I did find a few, early on. (See my blogroll, to the right on this page). But I’m having trouble finding any more. Tried Technorati blog search, Google blog search,’s blog search. Each with many different search terms. Have tried the links on other folks’ blog rolls, but given that I only have a few faves, there’s not much there. With well over a million blogs out there, I know there are some I want to read. How should I go about finding them?
  • Generating audience: I have tried the basics: Dropping comments on blogs I like (this is limited because of the problem listed above). Registering with Technorati. Creating multiple tags for every post. What else should I do? Stuff that really works, not something you need to do a million times, and then you start to see results.

I know two months isn’t a very long time, and an audience grows slowly (and then all at once). I also am aware that I am still finding my focus for this blog, and upcoming life changes might create even more shifts. I’m just wondering if there’s anything I can be doing to help it along.

The Other Greatest Story Ever Told

In addition to the interesting reading I’m doing for my summer job (which starts next week), I’ve also got two very interesting books going on the side. I’ll write about the first today, and my next post will be about the second.

I’ve decided that it’s time for me to gain at least a working knowledge of the history of the roughly 150 or so generations of Jews before me. The political, religious, economic, and social forces that shaped them as a people.

I started somewhat randomly by going to my terrific little local library, and picking a history that seemed eminently readable. If I turn out to be very interested in the topic, I will turn to heftier tomes later.

I am about 70 pages into Howard Fast’s book, The Jews: Story of a People. It’s enjoyable, and moves relatively quickly. It’s fairly factual, reflecting Fast’s years of research on the topic. That’s not to say it isn’t biased. Any history will be. And Fast has his Leftist background, which bleeds through a bit here and there. If I stay on my toes, I can parse out the ideology.

I could write pages inspired by what I’ve learned so far, but perhaps I’ll just post a couple of early thoughts inspired by the story of the birth and rise of the only thing like a Jewish empire we’ve ever known – in the time of David and Solomon:

1) We did not start in luxury.

The very first members of my family line lived 24/7 in a barren, broiling desert, pushing a few bony goats around and eating nothing but their milk and cheese. They had, basically, nothing to their names. For a stretch of relief every few generations, they volunteered themselves into slavery for neighboring countries, which owned all the lush, perfumed hillsides laden with fruit that Jews could see but not touch.

2) Chosen, maybe. Hawkish, definitely.

Maybe it was the generations of slavery. Maybe it was the endless goat milk. But once Moses actually gathered and identified us as Jews, we rallied round the flag of Yahweh as a full-on standard of war. Oh sure, when all we had was our wooden shepherds’ crooks, we were very accepting of our fate. But the philosophical outlook went out the window the moment we laid eyes on the Hittites’ new horses, chariots and iron swords. We said to ourselves, “Hey, we may be goat drovers, but there’s a boat-load of us, and if we got us some of those serious weapons…”

Next thing you know, we were blasting up the hillside toward the Philistines and Jerusalem and anywhere else we could get our hands on. If you look at David and Solomon through the lens of realpolitik, you see foreshadows of land-grabbing Roman emperors. I mean, Solomon built whole cities just to store the grain needed to feed his armies of mercenaries.

I don’t condemn the empire. Those guys had the memory of utter poverty very recently in mind. I can understand the age-old desire for each generation to do better than the last. Furthermore, there's evidence that, in those days and that place, if you didn’t conquer, you were conquered – period. And, though recent evidence disproves some of Solomon’s vaunted wisdom, I’m sure the two rulers did some good for the people.

It’s just hard to be reminded yet again that things are never as simple as they seem in story-books. Like the Bible.

So, we were hawkish, much like the Israel of today. It's sobering to think that the much more familiar, heart-warming (and longer-lived) identity of Jews as a persecuted people who love justice, scholarship and a really well-turned joke came much later, when, perhaps after too much excess, the kingdom came crashing down around our ears, and the Diaspora was forced upon us.