Welcome to the middle path

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Sporadic photos and notes from a Psyche-midwife, cheerleader, anthropologist--aka clinical social worker in therapy practice. Photos are usually mine except for those of historical events/famous people. Music relevant to the daily topic is often included in a web video embedded below the blog. Click on highlighted links in the copy to get to source or supplemental material. For contact information, see my website @ janasvoboda.com or click on the button to the right below. Join in the conversation.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

GOT TOUCH?: The Oxytocin Connection

My version of an oxytocin molecule-- DaVinci days

Known as the "cuddle drug", the"superglue of relationship", and "the connection hormone", oxytocin is secreted when we love and touch.  It's the chemical catalyst for community.

Studies found that when women gather in community, oxytocin levels increase-- and so does cooperation.  When persons were given internasal doses of the hormone, they were more likely to extend trust to sales pitches-- the proverbial "want to buy some swamp land" type, which has some sinister implications for the misuse of this powerful molecular concoction.  On a more positive note, oxytocin levels jump when devoted women imagine their husbands, or nurse their child.  Increased levels of oxytocin encourage intimacy and bonding by ramping up trust and reducing fear.  Sounds like my kind of drug.

a proposal on Mary's Peak
Lack of touch can stunt growth in babies, increase anxiety in all ages, and decrease calmness, connectedness, and safety.  Remember those terrifically sad pictures of monkeys clinging to the foodless warm terrycloth mom model over the cold wire cage milk-dispensing "mama monkey?".  They'd starve for food before starving for tactile connection.  Traumatized people need touch too, but it's got to be expected and the giver sensitive to tolerance levels.  Hand pats to the shoulder are usually acceptable where a hug would feel threatening.  Some who wouldn't tolerate a hug are ok with therapeutic massage.  When even that level of human touch is too fraught, humans can raise their oxytocin levels by cuddling a non-threatening pet.  In nursing home residents, blood pressures go down and perceptions of happiness increase when therapy dogs and cats are around for pettings.  To avoid the messiness of live animals, Japan is working on fuzzy robots to fill this role.

When circumstances dictate, even self-touch works.  And I'm not even talking masturbation. We rub our own neck, wring our hands, scratch our heads to self-sooth.   Physical therapists teach clients to curry themselves with ultra soft brushes.  It's calming, seems to raise oxytocin levels and desensitizes these hyperalert/tactically defensive folks to accept safe touch.

So get your touch on.  Dancing, petting animals, holding hands with a friend, rocking a baby, yours or anothers'-- not all touch is sexual.  But it is essential.

 More resources:  http://www.reuniting.info/science/oxytocin_health_bonding?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Articulation: When Art Talks for Us

Copyright Jason deCaires Taylor

Say what you will about the evils of Facebook--info junkies like me find much to be loved there.  My last blog was prompted by friend Marilyn W's link to a 9 page NYTimes article
I wouldn't have otherwise seen.  And last night, a Serbian mail-artist posted a beautiful picture of an underwater installation that led me to the website of artist Jason deCaires Taylor.  How could I never have heard of this guy?  I spent a very long time looking at his amazing works.  I am so moved by them.  There is much going on here-- the beauty and poignancy of the models, the interactions of the living environment in the moment, and the inevitable deconstruction/remaking of the statues as nature moves in.  Take a few minutes to visit his website, or view the film below.

We are lucky to have artists who can articulate what we feel but can't explain.  Thank them by visiting galleries, museums and especially by investing in their work.  If you're from the valley, this weekend's a good time to start.  Come to Corvallis's Fall Festival, where over 160 artists will be displaying their efforts.  Stay for the Saturday night dance!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Kids Aren't Alright: The Pressure for Excellence

I began counseling teens while I still was one.  I still do and I still love it.  But the kids I see today are battling different demons.  Perfectionism and anxiety have replaced the semi-angsty depressions and predictable adjustment issues of the past.  Every November and April my answering machine is inundated with calls from stressed out teens and parents.  The timing isn't coincidental.  That's peak pressure period for college decisions, SAT/ACT and  extracurricular events.

When I was in high school, there were maybe two or three "honors" courses.  It was assumed that not all of us would go to college, and for those that weren't inclined either temperamentally or academically, there were reasonable options for making your way in the world.  It wasn't necessarily a badge of honor to go the vo-tech (vocational/technical school) route, but it wasn't a badge of shame either.  And most of those that did made a fine enough living, getting a two to four year head start on building a life while the rest of us chalked up some student loans and debts.  At 25, most were settled into careers whether or not they had a graduate degree.

My parents didn't talk to me about college, though there was an assumption I'd go.  There were no late night marathons of form filling, or many of homework for that matter.  I went to school-- most days-- and did the work, and graduated, and went to a college 25 miles from my hometown mostly because my sister broke her neck that summer (she's fine now, BTW-- no thanks to me transporting her home from our day at the lake in the back seat of a VW bug).  I'd thought I'd be going to Iowa, but KU worked out fine, and I learned from some great profs and from immersing myself fully in what I wanted to learn.  Maybe it helped that I'd known I wanted to be a therapist since I was 12 and had some great local mentors.  But on the whole, a lot of my learning occurred outside of the classroom-- from volunteering at a crisis center, working as a psych ward aide, working with the sexual assault response team, and reading like crazy.

I was an exception.  Most kids don't know what they want to do when they grow up, and that's just fine. It's developmentally quite appropriate.  The benefit of a liberal arts education is supposed to be to expose people to all kinds of things, so they can decide-- decide what sets them on fire, and where their individual strengths are.  I think my high school served that function, and I knew I loved biology but pretty much sucked at math, and I loved social sciences and did well there.  My course was set and it was fine with me.

Now, I see kids under immense pressure to know in advance what they want to do for a living.  They seem less concerned with vocation (from voca-- get it?  Voice.  A calling, not a command) and more with how to get into the Right School and earn money.  I don't think there's anything wrong with the latter.  But there's a whole lot wrong with how we tell kids they need to go about it.  We've raised a generation of kids thinking that self-worth is based on GPAs, AP classes, extracurricular activities that "count" (read: look good on the college application) and getting into the Right School.  We've reduced intelligence to IQ scores, and success to academic achievements.  What good does it do to get to Harvard but be so emotionally wrecked you cannot sustain an intimate relationship, sleep at night, or find any peace and pleasure in the life you lead?  To graduate from the Right School with $100K plus of debt and little prospect of finding a decent job, with decent hours and pay, that also allows you to have a life?

And the big lie is now there are hardly any jobs anyway.  Most young people today are not going to have the standard of living their parents had.  They aren't going to get going on careers as young, or even earn livable pay with benefits for the most part. Apprenticeships for teens are gone. Vo-tech is gone.  Even community colleges require minimum standards in English and Math that will deny some very bright students the ability to complete a 2 year degree.  And 2 year degrees are barely acceptable for jobs that pay minimum wage.

When I worked in a community counseling center in southeast Texas, I had clients who could barely read or write but who made adequate incomes to raise families and buy a home.  They were mechanics, or worked in oil fields, or raised cattle.  They were smarter than me by far, but today most of them would be unemployed because of minimum standards for jobs. The workforce has changed. The requirements don't seem to have much to do with the actual jobs in many cases.  I see bright people stuck in low-end jobs not because they lack experience or ability but because they lack a degree.  I see very competent 40 somethings being supervised by 26 year olds who have no real idea what they are doing, but they do have an MBA.  I see 25 year olds with master degrees working as waitresses because no one wants to pay them for what they DO know.

And I see way too many 16 and 17 and 18 year olds torn up because they aren't completely sure already what their paths should be.  Doing 5 hours plus of homework a night.  Who don't know how to socialize, play or be curious.  Who have no idea what it is to simply ponder and putter.

I'm not blaming the parents-- I got sucked in too.  In the whole No Kid Left Behind testing marathon, we ditched the kids completely and went for the scores.  We were told these were the most critical  fill-in-the-blank (years/tests/elasticities/applications/choices) our kids would make; and if we let them slack, their failure would be our fault.  We would have hamstrung their future.So we pushed and nagged them into frenzied versions of midlife adults completely undone by premature decision making.

There is something very wrong here.  And it is up to us, the adults, to put it back in order.  The kids don't sure as hell don't have time.  They are too busy being tutored, cramming for tests, writing entrance essays and worrying about getting accepted to the Right School.  Grown-ups are going to have to do what grownups are meant to do, and take care of them.  Teach them kindness, curiosity and balance.  Teach them to live with failure and imperfection.  Remind them that many of their heroes took various paths to greatness.  And even remind them that the definition of greatness is considerably debatable.

There's a movement afoot.  I'm hoping to bring the movie in the trailer below to Corvallis, and to talk to parents about how we can advocate for our kids to have a childhood instead of an entrance exam.  Please take a minute to watch the video below.  It should break your heart.  Want to help?  Send me a note.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

More nonscents

Went today to hear the venerable Sam Keen, author of so many fine treatises on the human condition I can barely bare to pare it down to a favorite.  I first heard of Dr. Keen in the way way back, maybe through the CoEV Quarterly.  He's a philosopher, academic, poet, Eagle Scout (youngest in Delaware history!) and Johnny-come-lately trapeze artist.  Now 80, he is brilliant-sexy, about the only kind of sexy I seem to notice.  He waxed on for several hours and I filled up a moleskine with notes.  I'll be doling out gleamings from this wisdom-packed day for weeks to come.  But tonight it is late, and I've just returned from the quarterly wine-tasting/food gathering with my sweetheart's colleagues.  I surprised myself when I approached this plethora of smell memorials with some hard-core denial.  Within minutes of seeing the plates and plates of tastes and all those carefully selected french wines I was in tears. 9 gourmet cheeses I could not smell.  Elegant plates of muskmelon and nectarines drizzled with...who knows...and blueberries and rosemary; it might as well have been a plate of Red Delicious-less appple slices covered with jujubes for all the scents I could make out of it.  Wine after wine was presented with labels going on about terroir, and as far as I could tell  they could have been subtle different off-brands of weak kool-aid.  I spun into sadness and went for a walk and tried to pully my ass up from its deep crevasse pity party.

Isn't that a bit how grief is-- we put it off to the side and go back to the daily, only to be yanked by our petards each time we re-remember our loss and how it has changed the predictable?  I am making progress, truly I am. I am working hard hard hard on getting into textures. I now love salt and sugar  and chili paste and fat, which I never did before when I could actually taste food.
But I don't like it. Tonight I just wanted to taste the 47 textures and sensual pleasures of that one late summer perfectly perfumed nectarine.  Instead I need to accept it being the pleasant, in the most banal of the word, piece of fleshly texture that it is.  It'll get tolerable.  It already is, most of the time.  But when I get a new experience of the not-smelling world, it's a tiny and sharp death I want to resist.  There's a loss of common language and experience I haven't figured out how to bridge.  A guilt over not having any idea why this wine is interesting, knowing a dear friend picked it out especially to please us. A chagrined anger that everyone is having so much more out of this experience than I can.

It'll shift.  It already is starting to shift. Like my fellow anosmiacs I am  very into texture in foods now.  But I haven't transitioned out of the disappointment that this is all I'm going to get.  I look forward to that peace.

Sam Keen talked today about vowing to sit with discomfort until it resolves. Literally sit down, and look at the feeling in curiosity and compassion until it transforms.  I remember advising an angry Muslim to do the same once, and quoting him Higher Evidence on the wisdom of this exercise straight from the Prophet's mouth as written in the Koran.  It's good advice:  stop doing/craving/fuming/crying, and just sit until you figure something out.
So I am sitting, and writing too, and waiting to come to that place of serenity about that which I cannot control or change.  Waiting for the wisdom, or the acceptance that is not approval but a compassionate acknowledgement of what is, whether I like it or not.

But for the time being, each new experience of a smell memory that is now gone is a bit of a punch in the gut. What a lesson.

I hate it when I am resisting my lessons.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Defective Terrorist

Another September 11th is over.  Despite reports of "increased internet chatter", there were no 10th anniversary attacks, only sighs of relief and disbelief that it's been so long since "everything's different now."

We do what we can to hold onto our structures-- our belief that life will continue on a fairly reasonable, mostly predictable path.  We have to.  Otherwise, how could we ever kiss our children or sweethearts goodbye in the morning as they headed for school or work?   We'd be doing no one good to cling each time, wailing, forcing them to peel us off their legs, on the off chance it's our last meeting on this earth.  After all, the odds are high we'll be seeing them again in a few hours, nagging at them about some annoying behavior, or just carrying on with a mundane evening.  And life will go on, pretty much as it has.  

For the 2800+ people killed ten years ago by a few misguided idealists/sociopaths/terrorists, life didn't go on at all.  Had they some prescience to know it was to be their last day on earth, they might have played their cards a little differently.  Taken the kids to breakfast.  Skipped the morning report.  Hell, maybe not gone to work at all. But that sort of insight usually only comes as hindsight.  And it makes no sense to act on it in foresight:   nothing would get done if we "what if" d ourselves into terrorized paralysis each day.  
It boils down again, doesn't it, to that middle path--living each day as if we will live forever or possibly die.  We muddle through it the best we can.   We forgive ourselves our trespasses and try like hell to love our enemies, or at least to understand them so we don't go mad.  We try to simultaneously remember and forget our own mortality, so we can cherish/bear being alive.

I just finished John Ronson's ThePsychopath Test.  He's the author of Men Who Stare at Goats, later made into a love-it-or-hate-it movie.  In his latest book, he investigates the idea that the socially conscious-less (estimated to make up about 1% of the population but causing much of  the trouble for the rest of us) are neurally atypical.  Something's funky in their brain.  They're the polar opposite to the Troubled Trifecta folks, at least when it comes to degrees of empathy and sensitivity.  According to researcher Bob Hare, author of the checklist the title references, psychopaths just don't feel what the rest of us feel or worry about the consequences.  Human suffering-- hell, most emotions-- don't compute.  Others who are undone by emotions seem weak or crazy to the sociopath.  Ronson says a sociopath might view a gruesome murder photo as you or I would ponder a particularly difficult Sudoku-- intriguing, a puzzle to be solved, but there's no humanizing impact.  It was reassuring to hear him mention that readers who worry a lot they may meet the criteria for psychopaths are pretty much automatically safe from inclusion in the category.  

The mirror neuron research mentioned in the last post is probably involved.  Sociopaths truly aren't feeling what the average person feels; if feelings matter at all, it's only on an academic level. And lacking that emotional connection to others, it really is all about them, and what they want in the moment.  That's why they can rip off their grandmother without blinking, or repeat a behavior that caused them great personal inconvenience in the past.  They may express regret in the moment of being caught in a misdeed,  but they aren’t good social learners, having no emotional anchor for the memory.  The lesson’s lost on them.  Strong memories are stored via physical protein links, created via emotional reactions linked to physical experience. That's probably not happening with these folks.  Structural differences in the hippocampus, seat of memory and learning, have been observed in brains of sociopaths-- lesions, atrophy, other grim defects.  

Like other genetic differences, psychopathy has some evolutionary advantages.  Sociopaths tend to be superficially charming, articulate and persuasive.  Small wonder they are over-represented in populations of politicians and executives. Power and the resources it brings are aphrodisiacs for many, and ensure the spread of those genes.
Ronson's book doesn't seem to glamorize sociopaths, but his premises do suggest their behavior is less consciously willful than one might like to believe. What if it is true that some people are born lacking in the capacity for empathy and social learning,  and it is no more their choice than if they had been born blind, or without a limb?  These "first degree" sociopaths are no less harmful than who become remorseless through experience and trauma-- such as kids who have had the love beat out of them.  Containment (jail) may be a necessity.  Punishment, however, is unlikely to do much more than satisfy our own need for revenge.  

Sept. 11th and sociopaths seems a pretty reasonable association, but what's my point?  Maybe it's about learning to love, or at least have compassionate curiosity about our enemies.  I am curious about how anyone can do so much intentional evil.  I want to understand it.  I also know that my desire to do so is part of that human desire for more predictability and less anxiety.  And that my desire is unlikely to strongly impact my outcome, but it's the best I've got.

Check out Ronson's book if you have a chance. It's an easy read, a good combination of meat and sweet. He's a humorous writer, charming self-deprecating in a less-neurotic-version-of -Woody-Allen sort of way. 
I don't know that there are many conclusions in to be found there.   In fact, it seemed to end in a "I've got a deadline to meet" sort of way.  But it's thought-provoking and entertaining, could spark some great conversations.  I hope you'll give it a look. Then tell me some of your thoughts about it.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Movies Worth Watching: The Help

It's been an unusually hot week in the valley, and seeking air-conditioned respite we looked for the longest movie playing at local cinema.  The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett's 2009 bestselling novel, clocks in at 137 minutes, so off we went.

It was time well spent.  The story centers on three women living in Jackson, MS in the early 1960s .  Two are  African American maids; the third an idealistic white aspiring writer recently graduated from college.  Skeeter, (played by a wide eyed actress Emma Stone) comes back to her hometown to find her childhood Mammy absent and her cancer-stricken mother concerned only with her impending spinsterhood.  Witnessing the cruel injustice her high school girlfriends dole out to their hired help, and on the hunt for a story, she decides to interview the poorly paid domestic staff and find out how they feel about raising other people's children and being forced to use outside toilets. Actresses Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis play the maids who tell their story despite the real physical and financial threats it will pose to them.  (Editorial note: the director seems to have a fascination with elimination--  there are prominent scenes and references to peeing and defecation.  Freud would have a field day with that). 

The movie draws a heavy-handed but powerful portrait of the racial tensions and inequities of the times. 
Set in the days just prior to the March on Washington, there are multiple references to Jim Crow laws, including a reference to the Mississippi code declaring that no white child shall have a school text previously handled by a black child.   It's not perfect.  The Help seems to reinforce stereotypes even as it rails against them, and some of the dialogue and plot twists are pretty over the top.  It's typical Hollywood, and probably Oscar material.  You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll feel slightly manipulated.  But like a Cliff Bar or a gummy vitamin, sometimes we need these sorts of simple disguises to get the important stuff into us. This is recent history, folks.  And as much as we'd like to think racism is behind us, we have to have laws to convince people to treat each other as human beings.

I lived in SE Texas from 1985-1993.  Moving from a liberal college town, I was astounded at the degree of openly expressed racism.  When we looked for housing, the agents talked about the "exclusivity" of the neighborhoods and balked when I told them I would tell my husband Tyrone that exciting news. A few miles to the north, in the hometown of the Grand Dragon of the KKK, the government's efforts to integrate were snuffed out as one black family after another was moved in and then ran out.  The only African Americans at the country club were the minimum wage workers.  And when I asked what the preschool would be doing to celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday, I was told that the curriculum was full, because "it's community helper's month."  They were unmoved when I said I felt Dr. King was a most excellent example.

Racism persists today, although for most educated Americans it is not considered publicly acceptable. A recent study found a significant gap in grant funding for African American scientists-- unexplained by education, achievement or experience.  And if you've stomach enough to read the comments section of online news websites, you'll find stereotypes, bigotry and calls for violence against minorities that are hopefully much over-represented.  Racism is at this point mostly institutionalized and subtle.  It requires a higher level of internal investigation and vigilance to acknowledge and redress than the more blatant segregation of past years.  It takes courage to stand up for injustice, and wisdom to understand the fear and ignorance behind it.  It's important to keep the conversation fresh, and The Help does that.  Go see it.   And then go talk about it a while.  Maybe have a revelation, and make a commitment to not let slide that innocent, kind of funny joke that perpetuates the problem.  Befriend an "other."  Don't forget or ignore the cruelty  and courage of which all persons are capable.  Show up and Stand Up.  

Related blogs: 
Darkeness Cannot Put Out Darkness
Sermon: The People That Scare Us

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On the bedstand: Print Surfing

Im a died in the wool info junkie.  Print works best for me; TV is too intrusive and I like to make my own images, especially if they are going to be disturbing (ie news).  As a result of temperament or neurological quirkiness, I print-surf the way others channel surf.  I like to read and I love esoteric tidbits.  When I was a kid I spent a summer reading the Encyclopedia Britannia and the subsequent school year boring the pants off any one within earshot.  I also loved Ripley's Belive it or Not, World Almanacs, my mother's lurid Nursing textbooks (esp. infectious diseases-- elephantitis and testes do not mix well) and my father's collection of psych books (Fritz Perls's In and Out of the Garbage Pail was a favorite, maybe because like the ID textbook, it also had pictures.)

I usually have 6 to a dozen mostly-non-fiction reads in rotation next to my bed.  Here's a peek from one weeks's playlist.

The Emperor of Scent, by Chandler Burr.  Part investigative journalism, part academic muckwrecking and part fawning biography, the author delves into the world of the brilliant mind of perfumophile/scientist/madman Luca Turin and his hopes to shake up acadamia with a new theory of olfaction.  It may sound dry-- and I expect it was, for some-- but there's human drama aplenty.  And to this recent anosmiac, the immersion into the world of smells and Turin's vivid word-pictures describing them were welcome Nose Porn. Chandler's a great writer.  I can't vouch much for his scientific scrutiny pedigree but it all made sense to me, and his ability to weave an intoxicating sentence inbtween the lengthy descriptions of chemical coding and how molecules vibrate their way into olfactory experience was fascinating, even if loudly decried by the Shape Theorists.

For a nov
el introduction to Anosmia, local author Keith Scriber's new book The Oregon Experiment starts with a scent scene-- rising mint in the air on a dark night drive.  The protagnist's wife is a Professional Nose (perfumeir) recovering from anosmia.  It's a side story but an important one.

 Escaping my current obsession I read