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

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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.