Friday, May 29, 2009

The Phoenix

I don't recall exactly when the term myth became part of popular parlance for a misconception or outright falsehood, but it's used that way so often one feels almost embarrassed using it any other way. The primary meaning of myth, however, suggests that it is a story concerned more with truth than falsehood.

Mythic tales like Beowulf and the Odyssey tell us about the human condition and communicate themes of love, conflict, loss, and triumph. In the Odyssey, for example, the more fantastic elements such as the encounter with the cyclops are intended to show the extent to which Odysseus will go to be reunited with the woman he loves. It is the story of a soldier's journey home and it tells the tale of anyone who has found themselves far from the person they wish to be and the things that matter the most. It describes a journey of the heart and soul.

Another mythic theme is the story of the Phoenix, the creature that rose to new life from the ashes of its own demise. Many of the films to which I've referred in previous posts are modern versions of the Phoenix myth. The Rocky series depicts a man from nowhere who achieves a dream, falls into defeat, and rises again. In the final installment, his battle is as much with himself, grief, and age, as it is with a younger, presumably more powerful and agile, opponent. Unlike Odysseus, who used cleverness and guile to overcome his enemies, Rocky relies on something within. He is an incredibly deep character who draws upon unseen resources time after time.

Perhaps it's because of the aging Baby Boomer population that film and fiction seem to be taking a second look at the Phoenix in the guise of the older heroic figure. Consider Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Here we find an obviously greying Professor Dumbledore engaged in a battle of Wagnerian proportions with Lord Voldemort who finds himself outmatched.

There really is something to be said for experience. In the fall, back home in Colorado, you can drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park and watch the elk rutting season unfold. Younger, seemingly more virile elk challenge the herd elders for supremacy and the rumble of antlered heads butting echoes across the valleys sounds like canon fire. It's always inspiring to me to see an aging, powerful elk hold the field while all the "boys" have withdrawn in defeat.

Maybe we're becoming more comfortable with myth once again or maybe we're just beginning to realize there is more to a person than appearances. In any case, the essential truth of the Phoenix is, it's never too late until it's over and, like Will Smith's character in Independence Day, "I ain't heard no fat lady yet."

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Shawshank Redemption

You know, I've never read anything by Stephen King all the way through. There are probably those who, upon hearing this, need oxygen, but it's true. I started a novel of his once -- something about a gunslinger -- and got distracted along the way. Then I read through part of Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and realized I liked the movie better, so that was that.

I used to work with a psychiatric nurse who was quite a bit younger than me and she loved Shawshank; it was her favorite film. That, along with a mutual commitment to sleep deprivation, was one of the many things that made our friendship work so well. She used to say, "I'll have plenty of time for sleep when I'm dead," and I couldn't have agreed more. Of course, she was out partying while I was writing a book but the outcome was similar.

You know the story of The Shawshank Redemption, I'm sure. Andy Duphresne is an accountant falsely accused and convicted of murdering his wife. Incarcertated in Maine's maximum security prison, he demonstrates a peculiar tendancy to thrive even in the most dismal of circumstances and against all odds. Upon making good his escape, he leaves money for his friend Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding under a tree in a Buxton hayfield. With the money is a note, encouraging Red to take a chance and follow Andy to Mexico and freedom.

I live near the site of that fictional tree and the significance of it has not been lost on me. It's possible to live in a prison (often of one's own construction) and never know it. You wonder how a person can be so unaware, but they are. The life they've made has bits and pieces of entrapment placed in critical places like the bricks in a prison wall. On those rare occasions when they contemplate a break out, those bits and pieces seem insurmountable.

Why would anyone do such a thing? There are lots of reasons, I suppose. Security, self-doubt and uncertainty, overly-conventional thinking, family upbringing or the absence of models for conceiving anything else. But like Andy, after years of gazing at those who live outside the confines of captivity, something clicks, and they find the courage and a reason to pick up a small rock hammer and start digging. And, like Andy, they may have to crawl through a foul-smelling river of refuse in the process, but in the end, they come out clean.
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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Conversation in the Clouds

I just had the most awesome experience. I took my dog outside for a little "business," and there was still a very light periodic rain falling. You know what I mean, the kind of rain that seems to fall only here and there like widely-spaced polka dots. It was a little chilly, my sweatshirt was almost enough but not quite, and the ground was damp from steadier rainfall overnight. About a dozen wild turkeys were in the hayfield, gobbling to one another and munching a late breakfast.

We paced back and forth up and down the lane, as we usually do, my dog taking note of the magical scents that seem to surface best after a rain. It takes him a while to figure out what he wants to do in the morning. I guess it's his equivalent of bathroom reading.

At one point, as he investigated what turned out to be the right spot, I heard a brief but determined little shower of raindrops in a tree just about fifteen feet away. At first I thought this heralded the onset of our becoming drenched, but the shower stopped as suddenly as it started and never came near us.

As we walked back to the house, I imagined the sky having a conversation with the rain clouds: "Oh, so you need to go out and rain? That's fine -- wait! Wait, there's Beggar and his dog...move a little to his left, will you? A little more...just a little...there! That's good. Now, watch his reaction after you drizzle: he's going to just love this."
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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mother Nature's Son

It's another early morning and I think Mother Nature has determined it's her job to help me prepare for board exams. I say that because she has consistently gotten me out of bed well before the alarm clock for several days running. It's funny because I've never been a morning person but around 6:30 there is enough light diffusing through the windows that my slumber is interrupted. Either that or it's the cat cruising for attention or the dog sprawled over me, generating enough heat to melt ice cubes.

Whatever the reason, I'm up and enjoying the quiet solitude. The sky is still a vague greyish-blue (remember, I'm color-blind and pastels are murder for me) but I can just make out a tinge of sunlight on the tips of the trees in the hayfield. It's chilly out and there was a frost warning last night reminding me this is Maine and the latitudes are a little northern, after all.

The dog just walked into my study and looked at me as if to say, "What are we doing up at this hour?" then dropped in a heap by my chair. He's willing to keep me company but only so long as he can sleep through it. The cat has ensconced himself in the north window and is engaged in a staring match with a chipmunk outside on a fallen log. I'm on my second cup of coffee and starting to feel human.

Canadian painter Leanne Cadden writes about emotion as prayer and I think she may have hit on something. She regards emotion is an active, rather than merely responsive, force and says, how we feel creates the environment around us. What we can't put into words is nonetheless a kind of communication that nurtures spirituality. I think it suggests we may influence the course of life without even knowing it.

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Monday, May 25, 2009


Memorial Day used to be less personal for me. Often, it was an opportunity to make the trek over the high mountain passes from Denver to the Western Slope and visit family in late May and early June when the peaks are still snow-covered and marmots (woodchucks to Mainers) are just starting to creep out of their burrows, rub their eyes, and yawn, muttering one to another, "You snored all winter."

But Viet Nam altered the holiday's innocence, and once you start down a road you may not be able to turn back quite so easily. It's that way with a lot of things but, thankfully, though difficult -- damn difficult -- it doesn't have to be impossible. My cousin's husband was a helicopter pilot who was killed in the boundary-less jungle somewhere between South Viet Nam and Laos. He's buried at Ft. Logan National Cemetery in Denver and I found his name on the traveling Viet Nam memorial last year.

I was in my early teens at the time and had only met him once but the reality of his death and its impact on my family became more acute when it was my turn to register for the draft. My friends and I watched the drawing that year with held breath. I thought I had a fairly high number, but my margin of safety vanished quickly. Finally, like a roulette wheel ticking down, the ball dropped into place three spaces beneath me.

Uncle Sam apparently decided this nephew needed an education rather than military service, and I was given a deferment to finish high school and attend college. Over the years, however, because my father was a Disabled American Veteran (it was an injury rather than a wound incurred in the final days of WW-II), I spent quite a bit of time on one base or another, learning the ins and outs of Veteran's healthcare.

Memorial day came home to me in 2001 and I'm not talking about 9/11. My father passed away the previous late autumn and like my cousin's husband and now, my dear friend and coauthor, Dr. Lynn Smith, he was buried at Ft. Logan. They say a man never truly becomes a man until his father dies. I believe that's true. Until then, if he's fortunate enough to have a father who loves him, dad is always there. We make decisions on our own, we're responsible, we may even raise a family, but there's a change that occurs when a father dies and it's not until then that we finally begin to grow up. It's universal in my experience; I've never had a man who has gone through the loss of his father disagree with me.

So, there I was, on a cold day in November, with my father's flag-draped coffin immediately in front of me, while an honor guard showed him honor in slow motion. I'll never forget the moment one of them placed the carefully folded flag in my hands and saluted. I met his gaze and nodded. Seven rifles fired three times and a buglar sounded Taps. I looked over my shoulder at the rifles stacked as though at bivouac and realized I'd brought my father to rest among those with whom he'd served. Since then, I've never been able to hear Taps or see a military funeral, even depicted on television, without tears.

Memorial Day isn't a holiday for picnics, games, and visiting family -- not for me at least, not anymore. Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, on this Day I'm really standing among thousands of white marble gravestones, the mountains to the west, with wind blowing over the grass.

And Taps is being played somewhere in the distance.

(Creative Commons image of Ft. Logan National Cemetery via Wikipedia)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Crack of Dawn

"It's five o'clock this morning and the sun is on the rise," to borrow a line from John Denver. I really hadn't intended to be up this early when I shut off the light last night, so this is more accident than design. I was dreaming about the correct drug treatment for diseases like "fish finger" when consciousness rescued me from reliving my professor's Robin Williams imitation for the umpteenth time.

Speaking of morning, I love the old television commercial that depicts a young guy coming home for Christmas, quietly opening the front door, his arms laiden with wrapped packages. There's snow on the ground, it's probably 40 below and he's clad only in a sweater and muffler. Excuse me for a minute, this is a description of a coffee commercial and mine has just finished brewing -- be right back. Ok, where were we? Oh yeah, so it's cold but he's warm because he's got Christmas gifts and a muffler. Works for me.

As he quietly shuts the door behind him, we see his adoring little sister standing at the top of the stairs and calling, "Peter, Peter!" He sweeps her up in his arms and suggests they wake everyone else up. The next scene? You guessed it, Peter and his sister are brewing Folger's coffee! I'm being facetious; it really is an endearing storyline and proves once again that Norman Rockwell sells.

Thinking about Rockwell (aren't you glad you couldn't sleep either so you could be up reading my rambling?), as a kid I discovered his work in a volume of American artists and became really fascinated with his images. Partly it was their realism and partly it was the way I felt looking at them. It was like peering through a window at another world, watching its inhabitants jump in the old swimming hole, have Thanksgiving dinner, and sometimes go to war, yet they could not see me.

I love windows. Old single-paned windows like the ones that open out from the hayloft of my barn, large picture windows, small bathroom windows -- any kind of window. Walls without windows make me want to get out the saw and go to work. There's a whole world outside and it's not enough to know it's there, it needs to be seen and brought home. Windows are optimistic, they show us possibilities. All we need to do is go after them.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tee Totalling in the Afternoon

It was a bit early in the day for beer, after all, it was only four o'clock -- in the afternoon. Most of the others had imbibed since nearly noon but he delayed, knowing what would happen once he started. "I went to a lobster (pronounced lobstah) fest last night," said a friend, "and someone had to drive me home, as usual."

His reticence for drinking didn't stem from sworn sobriety, just the simple fact that he couldn't hold his liquor. Oh, he remained socially-acceptable, unlike the heroine of the Country song, "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off," but he slurred his words and smiled stupidly. Usually, he managed to make it through half a beer before he said anything he regretted but on an empty stomach, it was anyone's guess.

He politely passed on Heineken, wistfully turned down a brown British ale, and happily said, "No thanks," to Budweiser decked out in designer labels. It was simply too early and sooner or later he'd have to drive. Later on, he'd wonder where he got his genes and which relative was having the last laugh in heaven at his expense, but for now at least, he could enjoy the company of friends without wishing a hole in the ground would open beneath his feet.

Why, yes, I did go to an end-of-the-year barbeque today. Whatever tipped you off?
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Friday, May 22, 2009

King, Warrior, Magician, and Lover

I mentioned in yesterday's post that I used to teach masculine psychology and someone asked how that differs from ordinary psychology. I suppose you could say it's about what makes men tick. In that respect, the only difference is the focus. But having said that, there's more.

Instead of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, we talked about images of masculinity that are common cultural elements worldwide. C. G. Jung called these images "archetypes" and by that he meant, more or less, an unconscious template that influences conscious behavior. Our discussions focused on four particular archetypes, i.e. King, Warrior, Magician, and Lover. I'll try to give you a Reader's Digest version of these.

The King refers to a man's ability to order his life and nurture others. A well-developed King considers the consequences of his actions, accepts responsibility for his failings, and encourages his children to become their own best selves. The Warrior describes the energy of achievement and it is essential if a man ever hopes to accomplish anything of lasting value. The man in touch with the Magician is reflective and self-aware. Finally, the Lover gives passion to life and enables a man to dream.

There is no doubt one can find other ways of thinking about the male psyche, but images such as these help clarify traits and behaviors -- they get us "out of our heads" and into real life. They also help men visualize the kind of person they wish to be while confronting who they are.

In tribal cultures, the process of initiation into mature manhood brought these archetypes to life. We still have initiation rites though we call them by other names, e.g. graduation, bootcamp, and so forth. Ironically, our modern initiation rituals don't always result in persons who embody the fullness of the King, Warrior, Magician, and Lover archetypes. Women (yes, there are feminine counterparts to each of these) and men may seem adrift, uncertain, or bland. Disordered lives are fertile ground for addiction. On the surface they look fine, beneath the facade lies chaos.

Changing the leopard's stripes is what the men I worked with were all about and their drive and commitment to the process was wonderful to behold. It's what Dr. Rae Crane was about in Medicine Man. It may take a lifetime to achieve, but look at it this way, we all end up the same way, so why not end up better than we might have become otherwise?

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Thursday, May 21, 2009


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I taught masculine psychology using segments from film to illustrate key points. Ok, I'll be honest, it wasn't all that long ago and it didn't occur in another galaxy, but the rest is true. I was interested in the way contemporary film depicted situations involving conflict, loss, growth, and transformation and experimented using various scenes as springboards for discussion.

As it turned out, it was a very effective tool because it allowed us to actually see a situation unfold and in many cases, it was extremely evocative. In a discussion about the role of fathers in parenting, we viewed scenes from Field of Dreams and at one point, nearly all of the men were wiping tears. These great guys were literally hungry for something to help them become better husbands, fathers, and men. They wanted to experience reconciliation in their relationships and within themselves.

One of the things I've noticed is, there are a number of films that depict male characters trying to cope with failure, right an old wrong, or achieve something personally meaningful. Rudy, The Natural, Invincible, and The Ghost and the Darkness, come to mind immediately.

Films depicting female transformation, however, aren't as common and that's unfortunate. Norma Rae and Fried Green Tomatoes are among the best, as well as John MacTiernan's Medicine Man with Lorraine Bracco and Sean Connery.

To tell the truth, I think Medicine Man may just be the best example I've ever seen and I'll tell you why. In this film, Dr. Rae Crane (Bracco) is a biochemist who journeys to the Amazon Basin to find elusive scientist Dr. Robert Campbell (Connery). When she arrives, she is a woman of the city, competent, smart, and wise in the ways of the corporate drug industry. As the story unfolds, she finds herself in conflict with Campbell, the environment, and her beliefs about herself.

As much as I'd like to outline the story for you I'm going to resist: it's too good and you should see it for yourself. What I will tell you is, she comes to new awareness of who she is, not what others have made her out to be. She is admirable, courageous, and eventually connects with her own strength to make the choices of the heart. If you think I love this film, you're right. I hope you will, too.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Chocolate and Peanut Butter

Well, I mixed my metaphors yesterday but fortunately, the outcome seems more like chocolate and peanut butter than a young boy and green vegetables. I wrote about a deep yearning and then described it as something with which I wished to negotiate. A reasonable question would be, "If it was something you truly wanted, why would you try and run from it?"

The short answer is I thought it was unobtainable. Aristotle said, "Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities." I certainly thought becoming a doctor in mid-life, especially after having spent a lifetime in liberal arts with no science background, was a probable impossibility. That's why, when the desire appeared on my radar, I thought it was more reasonable to compromise than take a leap of faith.

So, I pursued and obtained an admission to a doctoral program in psychology and was about to begin classes when it occurred to me: this is like marrying the girl next door because she's convenient instead of the one across town that I loved, and then spending the rest of my life trying to turn the one into the other. If I knew anything at all, it was I couldn't do that either to the girl next door or to myself.

The fact is, I had arrived at the convergence of Robert Frost's "two paths in a wood," and something told me it was now or never. The price for staying on the well-trodden path was more than I could afford. Sink or swim, live or die, come heaven or hell, it was time.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Telling the Tale

A couple of months ago someone asked me about my story. I proceeded to describe the series of events that led to medical school and, in retrospect, my response reminds me of an alcoholic I worked with in treatment. Whenever I asked about his drinking, he recounted his tale as though he was speaking at an AA meeting. He'd told his story so often, he didn't know how to think about it in any other way.

We all do that to a certain extent, I suppose. It's like a verbal shorthand that allows us to get at the heart of the matter and avoid what we fear are the boring details. While it serves us well at cocktail parties, it really doesn't reveal our interior process and I think that's what this person was really asking me about.

I honestly think it came down to yearning. There was something in me that yearned for a life I'd never had. Call it what you will, desire, ambition, the grace of God -- all I know is, I felt pursued by something that refused to show any mercy. My efforts to offer it a deal were ignored. Logic and common sense were useless. You almost have to have been there yourself to really imagine what I'm describing.

It was like wandering through a desert and encountering someone who offers you a drink of cool water. You're not certain if they're a mirage -- you've seen those before and don't want to be disappointed again, but the water looks so good and you're so thirsty. Finally, desire overpowers uncertainty and you reach out your hand. It's not about courage or the willingness to take a risk so much as it is surrender. And, to your amazement, the act of surrender is the truest experience of victory you've ever known. That's what it was like, that's my story.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

The Women in My Life

When I think of the women I've dated, it occurs to me I've really been fortunate. Most of them were women with pageant titles, believe or not. Let's see, there was Miss Understand, Miss Interpretation, Miss Calculate and the most memorable, Miss Take and her twin sister, Miss Taken. Believe me, you never want to take those two out at the same time -- I learned that the hard way.

I hope you're chuckling, because that's my intention this morning. Truthfully though, I have known a former Miss Texas and once met a former Miss America, but I dated neither. My luck can be counted on to only take me so far. The other "pageant winners," however, I admit have been like Lay's Potato Chips: you can't have just one.

This is not to say I haven't learned anything from my experiences with them. For one thing, they've taught me about my own limitations. I don't always get things right (don't tell anyone, ok?). They've shown me that I need to be patient while they date around (sometimes that's a relief). And they've reminded me again and again that a little humility goes a long way -- especially when you're hanging out with the twins.

There are times when I've thought I've finally gotten to the place where I can make better choices about the company I keep. I can break up with all of them at last and do just fine, thank you very much. And then, darned if I don't find myself looking through my Little Black Book of Beggar's Foibles and call one of them up again. Dr. Phil would give up his gig on Oprah for a chance at me, I've no doubt.

But I'll keep trying, rest assured, and maybe someday these ladies will decide I'm just not all that much fun anymore. Uh-huh. Now, where did I put that Little Black Book? It must be around here somewhere...

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

No Joke

The great comic actor, Charlie Chaplin, once said, "In the end, everything is a gag." I suspect he was referring to the process he went through in making a film, but truthfully, I really don't know for sure. Nevertheless, it makes me think about comments I've heard, i.e. what if life is really one big joke? All I can say to that is, I hope not.

This is not to say I'm Mr. Humorless. It's just that there are so many things that are light years from funny. I'm thinking, for example, of a four year old boy who crowded between me and the scones yesterday at Whole Foods. He was being a "helper" as he opened the glass door to the pastries for his mother. The little guy was so serious and I appreciated his mother taking him seriously. It's easy to inadvertently trivialize the acts of childhood when, to the child, they are anything but "cute." It made me think of the commercial, "for everything else there's MasterCard," but this is priceless.

And then, there's the mid-morning sun trying to wend its way through the clouds and light rain. What was a mass of green grass and forest ten minutes ago out my window is now a collage of tones that, to my red-green color blind eyes, looks like a prospector's pan full of gleaming sand scattered with flecks of gold.

I'm streaming Colorado Public Radio this morning (, specifically, KVOD. At the moment, they're playing a Bach or Handel contata with brass accompaniment. It's the kind of piece that makes you think the composer must have stood at a window gazing at heaven and then tried with all his might to translate the vision into music.

I suspect when someone calls life a joke, they're referring to the helplessness they feel in the face of the magnitude of suffering with which we all are confronted. As if some cosmic comedian tossed this mess together like a salad and then stood back to watch us wallow in the oil and vinegar. I can see how someone might feel that way, but I always come back to things that are so joyful, so intensely hopeful, so very real, and I realize there are some things that are simply too good to be a joke.

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

A couple of weeks ago, Michael J. Fox's television special, Adventures of an Incurable Optimist aired on ABC. I've always loved his acting and the film Doc Hollywood is a favorite of mine. As you know, Michael has Parkinson's Disease and it is evident in the involuntary movements he makes little effort to hide. What is striking is his refusal to allow his disease to determine the course of his life. As far as he's concerned, Parkinson's is something with which he has to cope but it's not him.

I've worked with patients who almost seem emotionally attached to whatever condition they have. It becomes their focus, part of their identity. This is certainly not the case with Michael. It would be fair to ask, is he in denial? Is he simply avoiding reality? I don't think so. I think his attitude is one of the best examples of radical acceptance I've ever seen.

Radical acceptance is a term used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy to describe an active, conscious acceptance of what is. The difference between radical acceptance and a more passive surrender to fate can be described like this: Two persons are standing in a tunnel and the light at the end really is an oncoming train. There is no escape, no way out. One turns, crouches down, and covers his head and waits for the inevitable. The other, a practitioner of radical acceptance, stands facing the train and shouts, "Come on, I'm ready for you, give me all you've got!"

Barring a cure or at least a much more effective treatment derived from stem-cell research, Michael's condition will worsen over time. Parkinson's is characterized as an unrelenting, progressive disease. The train is coming and Michael refuses to abandon hope, throw up his hands and say, "What the use?"

What difference does radical acceptance make, one might ask, since he may very well be run down by the "train" anyway? Maybe not much until, like Michael, you're standing in the tunnel. And then it makes all the difference in the world.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Falling Down a Hole

There is a story I love that goes like this. A guy's walking down the street and without warning, falls into a big hole. The walls are so high and steep he can't climb out, so he begins to call for help. A priest happens by and he shouts, "Hey, Father, can you help me? I'm stuck down here!" The priest stops, writes out a prayer, drops it down the hole and walks on.

The next person by is a doctor and our guy calls out, "Hey, Doc, can you help me? I'm stuck in this hole." The doctor stops, writes out a prescription, drops it in the hole and walks on. Finally a friend comes along and the guy says, "Hey, Joe, it's me -- can you help me out?" Joe stops and jumps into the hole. Our guy says, "Oh, this is great, now we're both stuck!"

Joe replies, "Yeah, but that's okay because I've been down here before and I know the way out."

I've always felt a little sheepish as a minister and future doctor that both my career paths fail to "get it" in this tale. And of course, the story is intended to demonstrate that isn't our social role, but the consciousness of our own vulnerability, that makes us healers. I may have mentioned this in a previous post and if so, forgive me for repeating myself -- my friends will tell you I do that from time to time -- C. G. Jung said, "Only the wounded healer heals."

What he meant was, it's the conscious awareness of our own pain that renders us effective with others. In a culture that values strength, capability, and invulnerability, this is ironic, yet, true. One of my closest friends reminds me, "You can't really be a good grief counselor until you've lost a parent." I can't speak for anyone else, but I know my own effectiveness as a therapist increased exponentially following the death of my father.

It's not always what we know or who, but where we've been and what we've been through, that counts. More importantly, that we don't try to hide who we are and what we've experienced. I'm not suggesting we should wear our lives on our sleeves. We all know someone who's far more interested in being noticed for their pain than helping anyone with theirs. But between avoidance and flamboyance lies the quiet memory of what it was like down in the hole. If that doesn't motivate us to grasp someone else's hand, nothing will.

(Reference: Story paraphrased from The West Wing, Episode 32 "Noel," written by Peter Parnell)

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Apples, Turkeys, and a Coyote


You know it's spring in Maine when the apple blossoms start to appear. I guess their alarm clock went off last night because the ancient apple tree next to the house was brown yesterday and it's dappled white today. I expect it will be in full bloom by Saturday and it should be a sight to behold.

I've never had apple trees though I dreamed of them as a kid. There are trees in this part of the country, or so I'm told, that were planted by the legendary Johnny Appleseed. I don't know if this is one or not, but it's a nice little tidbit of Americana.

The interesting thing about the apples produced by this tree is, at first they just taste lousy -- or at least to me. Now, I admit, I'm a Gala fan and I like the Jonagolds, but once we get a good freeze something happens and these ancients turn into something incredible. I guess they're late season apples but whatever the reason, it's worth waiting for them to ripen.

Spring up here is also a time when the wild turkeys reappear. You can see the males out in the hayfield, showing off their plumage. The other day I watched one walking rather stately near a group of hens who seemed more interested in lunch. I imagined the conversation going something like, "There's Earl again...males!"

There was also a lone coyote trotting across the pasture yesterday. It was the first time I'd seen one here though you can often hear them late into the night. He, or she, was an unexpected treat.

Springtime on the farm in Maine. Makes me feel like Thoreau.

(Creative Commons image of Johnny Appleseed by Swadifari via Flickr) 
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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Random Morning Thoughts

I have a friend who is adept at writing random thoughts on her blog, The Blog of an Everyday Tourist, and it's a technique I've never employed. But this morning a couple of things are on my mind and so, here goes. The first is about a concert I saw late last night on PBS. Jacob Dylan and the Gold Mountain Rebels at the Desmond Tutu Center in New York. The youngest son of the Dylan, this guy has got talent. I'm not sure I can characterize his music: folk, alternative rock, and sometimes plain old rock and roll. Now and then there's the echo of his father's offbeat approach to rhyme, but he's taken his upbringing in his own direction.

Listening to this younger Dylan, his voice is like a confluence of Bruce Springsteen and himself, with his father's highlights thrown in for good measure. The mix of his own acoustic guitar with electric lead, bass, and drums as backup creates a sound that is appealing and engaging. After the first few measures I was intrigued, drawn in, and now here I am, writing about it. On August 15, he's in Freeport, Maine for an L.L. Bean summer concert and I hope I'm not on-call at the hospital because I'd like to attend. His website is and you can listen for yourself. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

The second thing that's on my mind this morning came to me while pouring a second cup of coffee. It's unmistakable how couples resemble one another the longer they are together. You're at a party and meet a husband and wife who've been married 50 years. They not only look like one another, they behave like one another: they use similar metaphors and verbal twists. Maybe it comes from being together day in and day out, but their individuality is altered over time and begins to reflect the character of the partnership.

So, here's my question: how many people actually think about their potential life partners and say to themselves, "In fifty (or however many) years, I want to look like them?" I'm not sure I've ever seen a question like this in all the how-to-find-and-love-your-one-and-only books. I think I can say with confidence I've never heard a marital therapist suggest it as criteria for a successful relationship. As a matter of fact, I've never even thought about it myself quite like this.

For all the infinite reasons we hook up, pair up, link up, fall in love, maybe become engaged and marry, it occurs to me that it might be a good idea to take a long look at this someone and ask ourselves, what is it about them that makes me want to look and act like them when I'm old and grey. Because it's going to happen. Barring unforeseen circumstances, someday people are going to notice that we resemble our partners.

In some cases, asking the question might just be the reality check one needs to turn around and run the other way. Or it could just as easily lead to confirmation. I know, how many people are even remotely inclined to think this way when they're "in love?" Ironically, that's just the time when we need to think about it. Anyway, it's a random thought and one that I sincerely hope results in a dialogue. Let me know what you think. Am I just caffeine-deprived or have I really hit on something?

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Personality and the Enneagram

Personality is big these days. Witness the proliferation of online matchmaker sites that base compatibility on, among other things, an evaluation of personality traits. Over the years a number of ways of examining personality have surfaced, some more user-friendly than others. Leary's Interpersonal Theory and the Five Factor Model, for example, really require specialized training to use effectively. Others like the Keirsey Temperament Sorter are available "over the counter," in popular formats.

The Enneagram is one model that I've used over and over and have come to genuinely appreciate. It is based on the idea that we all have certain character flaws, some of which are predictable and can be attributed to personality type. What I mean is, we all have ways of dealing with other persons that are more or less functional. What is a strength in one context, taken to extreme in another can be damaging. The Enneagram associates these flaws with character structure which is then divided into nine subtypes.

It is a fairly nuanced approach that allows for the kind of overlap that some systems neglect. In addition, it has a strong interpersonal element which makes it especially useful for understanding how we get ourselves in situations that we'd have liked to avoid. It also shows how personality traits can function rather like "drives" that strongly motivate frequently unconscious behaviors.

There are a number of books available that discuss the Enneagram from various perspectives. The one I have used mo
st often is Richard Rohr's Discovering the Enneagram. While Rohr's book has a decided spiritual emphasis which may appeal to some and not others, overall I think it's a very fair-minded discussion of the basic principles of the Enneagram. In any case, if you're interested in learning a bit more about yourself, this certainly a great place to start.

(Creative Commons image by Grace Commons via Flickr) 
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Thursday, May 7, 2009

D-Day in the Forest

It is a rainy day in Southern Maine. Not that this is a bad thing; it's a good thing, actually, because the fire danger has been pretty high lately. But it also means the poison ivy along the edges of the road is getting more than its share of nourishment. I've decided to declare war on the poison ivy this year and next week's sun will signal D-Day.

It's nothing personal; I don't have a history of itchy-scratchy sleepless nights because of a chance encounter with the weed. It's more a matter of boundaries. I'm willing to let it keep the deep forest -- I'm only interested in the roadside and a path into the trees. I'm not asking for everything, just a little safer bit of something. That's fair, isn't it?

I would have been willing to use detante, but that means dialogue and the poison ivy hasn't been responsive when I've broached the subject of a shared living space. It just sits there and stares back at me: the old silent treatment. I even offered it a deal: I don't kill you and you don't infect me. The silent treatment once again.

Really, it's my dog's fault (when in doubt, blame someone else!). When we walk, he likes to do his business off the side of the road. Now, we could just walk around the house, around and around and around until he's done what he needs to do and then head off down the middle of the road. But try explaining that to him. The road doesn't smell like other dogs; there's no D-Mail to check. Blacktop is boring.

So, you see, I'm at the end of my options. Like it or not, it's time for "General Patton" to draw his ivory-handled spray gun and go to work. It's not going to be pretty; I may miss a few but I'll get the majority. Who knows? Maybe the survivors will pass the word and next year will be different. Now, who am I kidding?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Surprise, surprise!

There are some things that shouldn't be missed. The running of the 2009 Kentucky Derby is one of them. If you didn't see it live, do as I did and go to and view the recording. You're going to see a horse come from so far behind the rest of the field the camera couldn't include him in its view. He was so far back that for the first half of the race, the announcer only mentioned him once and, even then, almost as an afterthought. His trainer drove him the 23 hours to the track.

This isn't the story of a horse that was expected to win. This is about a horse that would finish the race as he began: in last place. But somewhere along the backstretch, something began to happen. The Horse from Nowhere started gaining ground. As the field rounded the final turn, the announcer excitedly described the leaders, first one then another, and only as horse and rider suddenly emerged along the rail did he shout, "Mine That Bird come now to take the lead..."

The odds were 50:1. Who in their right mind would risk $1000.00 to win $100,000.00 on a relatively unproven horse? To all appearances, he didn't have a chance. Not a snowball's chance. It would have made as much sense to take that thousand dollars and use it to light a post-race cigar. But not only did Mine That Bird win, he won by the greatest margin of victory since 1946.

It might have been the track -- it was wet and he might be a "mudder," to put it in racing jargon. The kind of track that slows other horses is just right for him. The longer races of the Triple Crown may be his undoing. Then again, it just might be that Mine That Bird is a horse with more talent and nerve than anyone imagined and the Kentucky Derby is just the beginning. I hope so. I hope he proves that you can come from nowhere and beat the odds. I hope he shows us all that achievement isn't about expectations or reputation: it's about drive and desire.

It's about heart.

(Creative Commons image of Mine That Bird by Jerry W. Lewis via Flickr)

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Drums Along The Mohawk

This morning I was sitting in front of the tube with a cup of coffee, trying to wake up, when I happened upon the 1939 John Ford film, Drums Along the Mohawk, with Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert. The setting is upstate New York in 1776. Fonda marries Colbert and they travel by covered wagon to his farm near the Mohawk River. As the story unfolds, Colbert alternates between hysterics and courage, growing into her full self on the Revolutionary frontier. Fonda is a farmer who becomes a hero (naturally) in a battle with the British. Despite the predictability it's a fun film, especially if you like the classics.

At one point, all of the neighbors gather to help Fonda clear the trees from a plot of ground and I couldn't help but imagine that must have been what it was like here, just about 230 years ago, with the founders of this Maine farm. I may be wrong, but I doubt the hayfield was open ground ringed by trees as it is today. My guess is, they cleared it tree by tree, pulling stumps one by one with a team of horses or oxen. Hollywood may have gotten this one right.

I like history and the Revolutionary period in America is one of my favorite subjects. A wise relative, most likely my childless maternal aunt, gave me a copy of the Golden Book of the American Revolution when I was about seven and I've been hooked ever since. She used to call me "Sport," and she was the kind of aunt every boy should have.

Film is a chronicle of American History. Now, it can be argued that it's really a chronicle of the filmmaker's view of American History and that's true. But filmmakers are products of their time and they can demonstrate prevailing trends in thought and perspective. In 1939 Germany was driving into Poland and America generally wished to avoid becoming embroiled in another European war. It was the same year James Stewart as Mr. Smith, went to Washington, John Wayne galloped across Monument Valley in Stagecoach, and Clark Gable's Rhett Butler uttered the first swear word on film, telling Scarlet, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn." And, of course, Dorothy visited the Land of Oz. We were looking back and our eyes were fixed on home.

Maybe our tastes have become more sophisticated and technology more tantalizing with the advent of CGI, but those older films show us something about the way we were (no pun intended, for fans of Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand). Tempting as it may be to find the newest release on Redbox, a little time spent on Turner Classic Movies instead can be an eye-opener. Since you've already paid for cable, why not?

Photograph by the author, copyright 2013, all rights reserved.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Hobbies? You Must Be Joking.

I had an interesting experience today. During an orientation meeting for planning third-year hospital rotations, I was asked whether I had any hobbies. Now, ordinarily, that might seem like a completely harmless question and under any other circumstances, I would have been able to come up with at least a few. But today, with the pressure of end-of-term exams looming, the idea of having a hobby struck me as almost humorous.

As anyone who is either a medical student or late-life graduate student knows, having free-time activities is important for maintaining some semblance of sanity. At the same time, the idea of having anything that even looks like "free-time" is more of a fantasy than reality. The truth is, taking time for a hobby feels more like stealing because there is always more studying to do.

So, here I am, a time thief, writing instead of studying. Parents face a similar dilemma because, once they're returned home from work, their evenings are absorbed by after school activities, homework, laundry, and bed-time stories. Not that anyone begrudges our children for this, but it's still one of the facts of life. And once the kids are old enough to drive themselves, we wax lyrical about the days when they weren't. Or maybe we become wistful now and again.

I don't have a solution, really. I just know that stolen moments with a novel in the bathroom are better than none at all. And if I study more effectively because I've spent some precious time writing, then it pays off in the end. Anyway, that's what I tell myself. I hope I'm right.
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