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 segu├ęs 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.