Monday, August 30, 2010

The Backdoor to Medical School -- or Anywhere Else Worth Being

One of the most frequently read essays in this blog is Medical School Through the Back Door. Based on a year as a psychotherapy intern and working as a member of a team composed chiefly of psychiatric residents, it relates how they, most of all, changed my life. I often wonder, though, what readers are looking for when they click the link for this story. The title is suggestive of an alternate route into medical school but the essay itself doesn't come with a map.

Reading back over it myself, what stands out is the way my resident and nursing friends adeptly reworded what I considered to be sound objections to attending medical school. I thought they were just being generous in an effort to make me feel better, and then I realized they were teaching me a vital skill. You see, we're generally accustomed to enumerating our personal liabilities and explaining why they prevent us from doing or being what we'd like. My friends showed me that liabilities can become assets if I'd open myself up to possibility.

For instance, the words "too old" were the first out of my mouth back then, followed quickly by the phrases, "I don't have a science background" and "I'm lousy at math." I wish I could create a picture for you of heads shaking in disbelief and verbal responses tinged with impatience and bordering on irritation. "You're older because you've got experience, you can take the science courses you need, and on top of that, all of us are lousy at math -- why do you think we're doctors (rather than engineers, one quickly added)?!"

In the 2003 film, Open Range, Annette Bening's character has a line that gets to the heart of the issue: I know that people get confused in this life about what they want and what they've done, and what they think they should have because of it. Everything they think they are or did takes hold so hard that it won't let them see what they can be. I wasn't trying to be obstinate -- truly, I wasn't. I'd just dressed up my background in clothes resembling limitations so frequently, it took some time to realize how wrong I'd been.

That's the task we all face, by the way, figuring out how to dress up our liabilities so they take on the characteristics of assets. And dressing them up is the thing; some we can eliminate, some we can't. I got the basic science education, passed the math courses, but there wasn't much I could do about the age card. I couldn't afford plastic surgery -- oops, there went a face-lift -- and besides, women like a man's face to have character. So, that left two choices: believe my own bad press or get busy maximizing the advantages of experience.

Reflecting on the kick in the pants given me by my friends, I think their advice boils down to this: take an inventory of all the reasons you think you can't do something and ask what you'd do if none of them existed. Once you've got the answer, then ask how those so-called reasons might actually help get you where you want to go, especially if you can't delete them at the press of a key. Be original. We want to get past the notion that we're too old, too unattractive, too fat, too skinny, too-God-knows-what, to start living. If there is a backdoor to medical school or anywhere else we truly wish to go, this is the place to begin looking.

(Screenplay by Craig Storper, copyright 2003. Creative Commons image by Scott Ingram via Flickr)

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Spy for an Evening

Last night I felt a little like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not in the sense that I've been approached about running for governor of California or suddenly developed a Mr. Universe physique. Being a medical student has headaches enough -- I think I'll pass on politics -- and believe me, I'm light years from looking like Adonis. No, it was Schwarzenegger as Harry Tasker in the film, True Lies, a mild-mannered computer salesman to his wife and daughter, and a spy to the rest of the world. It's the film in which Jamie Lee Curtis utters the line probably every man wishes his wife would at some point in their marriage, i.e. "I married Rambo."

Now, the similarity I felt didn't result from a backstreet run-in with terrorists or a secretive midnight flight to Geneva. It was more mundane than that; it came about when my dance instructor announced we'd be learning the Tango. If you've seen True Lies, you probably have a mental image of Schwarzenegger casually taking the time to dance a Tango with the gorgeous Tia Carrere while his buddies, monitoring his activity by radio, are going nuts because any second he could be discovered by the bad guys.

It made the evening fun, anyway, imaging myself learning skills that might come in handy if I'm ever called upon to serve my country under cover. I know, fat chance -- both of serving under cover and having Tia Carrere as a partner. But the Tango is very romantic and even going through the motions of learning it creates an air of sophistication that made me feel as though I should have been dressed in a tuxedo instead of jeans and sport shirt.

We only practiced the essential steps last night, which means we left out the part where the man appears to drag his partner across the floor. We did, however, include a sensuous move allowing the woman to lean tantalizingly close and then back away, but only so far as your arms will allow. You don't have to be Schwarzenegger, nor does your partner have to be a luscious female secret agent, to appreciate that. I suppose it helps, but there's always fantasy and on the dance floor, imagination can be as good as the real thing.

Even if it only turns you into a spy for an evening.

(Creative Commons image of the Tango by formfactor via Flickr)

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Friday, August 27, 2010

The Too Cool and So Cruel

Cover of "Let It Rock"And I wish I could be as cruel as you; and I wish I could say the things you do; but I can't and I won't live a lie, no, not this time. ~ Kevin Rudolf, Let It Rock

It came as a surprise to me, reading these lyrics this morning, that I'd been learning them incorrectly. I thought the line was, "I wish I could be as cool as you," and, truthfully, I'm kind of disappointed it wasn't. I really liked the image cool evoked, though I suppose it's not terribly distant from the writer's intention. Being cool and cruel can easily go hand in hand.

Interpreting song lyrics is an ify proposition because they come out of a relatively unconscious place to begin with, and even the writer may not know precisely what they mean until s/he's had the chance to live them for a while. I've read posts suggesting Rudolf is referring to the relationship between Jesus and Judas Iscariot, a father and son, or he's echoing Lennon and McCartney's Let It Be. Maybe all three or none at all.

At the risk of taking him entirely the wrong way, I think he's telling us, quite simply, that everything comes at a price and sometimes we only realize it after we've pulled out our pockets and found there isn't a shred of integrity left. We may have tried to be as cool or cruel as those who walk between the raindrops, except we've gotten doused. Have you ever felt that way? Wanted to say things without so much as a by your leave or a polite pardon me to your conscience? Send the old Super-Ego on a well-deserved cruise to the Caribbean while you live on the basis of pure Id -- if it feels good, do it -- and bid responsibility bon voyage at the pier?

Don't worry -- this is just between you and me. I won't tell a soul. No? Okay, well, many have at one time or another, so if this ever should hold true for you, don't feel alone. To be free of moral strictures, to act without consideration, to obtain without cost, to get away with murder. Most of us can't do this and we thank God for it. At the time, we wish we could be unscathed by guilt but later, when we feel loved once again, we're grateful not all our wishes come true.

I do truly believe love is the kiss that breaks this witch's spell. The too cool and so cruel don't know this; broken hearts are never their cup of tea. But if you can't be hurt, you can't love, and if you can't love, you can't live, no matter how much you get away with. This is why the songwriter refuses to live a lie. He's learned, and from him, so can we.

(Fair use of low resolution image of album cover "Let It Rock" via Amazon; utilized in view of the lack of equivalent non-licensed or limited license images able to clarify and draw attention to the song in question. Album copyright 2008 by Cash Money Records; lyrics by Kevin Rudolf, copyright 2008)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Losing the Fear of Ghosts

I feel ghostly unreal until I become somebody else again on the screen.~ Peter Sellers

We're taught in schools of psychology, medicine, and ministry that empathy entails using elements from our own lives to enable us to identify with persons in distress. If Sellers had been talking about losing himself in a character, I could try relate by recalling the months my life that revolved around writing and editing a book with a best friend. When I wasn't doing either one, I thought, and sometimes dreamed, about them.

But that isn't what he said. He described his life off-screen as ghost-like in comparison to how he felt inhabiting a character. He didn't call it "fictitious," but I wonder if that doesn't apply. It's as though he was saying, I am what has been written and I speak when given words. Not mine, but those of another, and I utter them with passion, humor, and persuasion. Still, I have none of my own, for spirits speak not.

I don't think this represents the typical actor's experience, though not being one, I can only rely on what I've seen and been told by those who are. Nevertheless, most regard the roles they play as interludes of fantasy punctuated by a return to real life. For Sellers, it was the other way around. There was a substance lacking in "Peter Sellers" that he found more readily in Inspector Clouseau or Dr. Strangelove.

I'm not trying to psychoanalyze the man because, for one thing, he's not around to defend himself. But what he said about himself reminds me of what I've observed in narcissistic persons who are between partners. They're less solid, for want of a better term, and certainly less self-assured then when they have a consistent source of admiration. In the absence of someone to mirror or reflect the image of a self -- any self at all -- back to them, they seem anemic, kind of like a vampire on a diet of iron-poor blood.

I think this helps explain why we see a lot of depression, especially in older narcissists who've failed to establish meaningful and long-term relationships. If there's little or no genuine "person-ness" present, it stands to reason that interpersonal dry spells are going to feel rather bleak. It also helps explain why partners often do better when these relationships dissolve. Since they actually possess the resources narcissists value but cannot provide for themselves, partners can function independently; they don't need the affirmation provided by constant mirroring to be real. Perhaps, that's what Sellers was driving at. When filming was over and the cast had gone home, there was no one left to remind him who he was.
(Collective Commons image of "Ghosts of Lake Hume 2" by heritagefutures via Flickr)
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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

An Unlived Potential

I've been reflecting on yesterday's post about the film Avatar and others like it, where the lead character encounters a way of life with which they have little in common and yet, it is in this context they are enabled to grow to mature personhood. One thing that occurs to me is, often as not, these characters also appear out of step with their own world. They try to fit in but something inhibits their doing so fully. Maybe it's physical, maybe it's psychological, but one way or another they've arrived at a point where they're ready for something new.

Not new in the sense one is bored with the same old dull routine -- it's not like that. It's a qualitative newness that alters perceptions and challenges preconceptions. Change is in the air and they're ready to inhale it deeply. You can't think your way into a place like this; it's instinctive and either you're there or you're not. It comes about less by expectancy than by happenstance, and then reveals itself in a manner that suggests it's just been standing in the wings, waiting for us to make room for it onstage.

Another thing I've noticed is, there is always a community involved that views the lead character differently from the way they've viewed themselves. For instance, in Avatar, Sulley identifies himself as having been a "warrior" among the sky-people, and the Na'vi inform him this does not automatically qualify him to be one in their society. It's kind of like coming to medical school with a clinical background and discovering you need to start over at the beginning like everyone else. There are no special cases.

As the process of "becoming" proceeds, I think the community is the key player; it creates an atmosphere of support and appreciation in which lead characters become open and honest. The self-doubt and worry that plagued them in "our world" is worked out like a garment stain scrubbed vigorously on a wash board, and they begin looking peaceful and secure in their unfolding identity.

I realize one could say such communities as the Na'vi are idealized and sure, that's true. But they don't have to be, nor should one necessarily need to go to another planet to find them. Whenever we're around persons who value an indescribable something within us, and that experience makes us want to live up to their vision of us, then we've found a nurturing community. And what they see, we've felt was always there and because no one called or beckoned for it to come out of the shadows, it remained an unlived potential. But in the light shed by the community, it thrives, contributes, and makes us feel we're where we were always meant to be. And we probably are.

(Creative Commons image "Community Balloon" by sebastien b via Flickr)

Monday, August 23, 2010

I'll have an Avatar with a Twist

If you want to see a grown man with tears in his eyes, go to the theater with me sometime when a film involves a cavalry charge. I don't know what it is about them, but they get me every time. They don't have to be banners-waving, bugles-blowing, reenactments of the second movement of the William Tell Overture (the theme from The Lone Ranger), either. Randy Quaid to the rescue in Independence Day will do the trick. In a moment of dire need when hope has gone south and all seems lost, the appearance of help on the horizon turns me into a blubbering mass of cheering.

And that's what happened last evening while watching Avatar for the first time and the animals entered the fray, the cry of hammer-headed rhinoceros-like creatures taking the place of trumpets. I know, I should have seen it on the big screen -- you definitely got that right. But, as usual, I had my head buried in the books and before I realized what was happening, Avatar had departed for DVD parts unknown. I wasn't disappointed, however, and you can be sure I'll have a ticket for the August 27, 2010 release of the director's cut in theaters.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch. Avatar is more than a science fiction flick and certainly more than a morality tale about environmental degradation. It's what I like to call a transformation film. The lead character, Jake Sulley, is a paraplegic former Marine who has been recruited to take his late twin brother's place in an experiment involving avatars on the distant planetary moon, Pandora. Self-described as a drunk and regarded as an intellectual liability by the rest of the scientific team, through the intermediate agency of his avatar, he is exposed to the Na'vi, the native humanoid inhabitants of Pandora.

In the course of learning their way of life, he undergoes the process of initiation that every young hunter-warrior must, in order to become an adult member of their society. Not surprisingly, and reminiscent of John J. Dunbar in Dances With Wolves, Sulley gradually experiences his connection with his former life grow tenuous as he begins to come into his own under the influence of the community.

Sulley's paraplegia, his inability to receive sensory information through his lower extremities, symbolizes the way he and the other sky-people, as they are called, are disconnected from the life of the planet beneath their feet. Preoccupied with mining its resources, they are numb to anything else. Whenever Sulley "returns" to his disabled body, it is a poignant reminder of loss. In contrast, when "in" his avatar, he is free, not only physically, but also emotionally, allowing him to form intimate connections with others and develop his own sense of spirituality.

I suppose some might accuse director James Cameron of a lack of subtlety, creating a film with parallels to Native Peoples in this country. But in a twist of fate, Avatar has the "Indians" winning and the "White Man" sent packing. Not everyone liked that when the film was released, despite its popularity, but it does no harm to play with history and consider alternative endings. As a matter of fact, it might even help us reflect on our actions and become more adept at acting with the future in mind. Now, wouldn't that be a real twist?

(Creative Commons image of Avatar iPhone Wallpaper by xploitme via Flickr)

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bipolar Disorder in The Informant!

PhotonQ-Pre Screen of The Informant
Creating a realistic visual representation of mental illness on film has not always been Hollywood's strong suit, but I think it's getting better. Having a sophisticated audience that expects more than theatrics, helps. While The Informant! is, strictly speaking, about Mark Whitacre's corporate whistle-blowing while a vice-president at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), it also gives us an interesting look at bipolar disorder (formerly manic-depression).

What usually comes to mind, when this condition is mentioned, is alternating cycles of depressed, and then manic, episodes. In truth, as with other types of psychopathology, bipolar disorder can be manifest in several ways, such as mostly depressed with rare and mild manic phases, or predominantly manic with little observable depression.
Matt Damon plays Whitacre, who becomes an informant in an FBI investigation of price-fixing. Over time, Whitacre himself is accused of price-fixing and money laundering and comes under investigation. Throughout the film, we're treated to an ongoing stage whisper, a monologue in which Damon addresses the audience, revealing his character's thought process.

Prone to grandiose delusions, Whitacre imagines himself as the only person sufficiently and uniquely qualified to take over as CEO of ADM once his superiors have been removed because of their illegal activities. Portrayed as someone whose "internal power generator" is switched on a little too high, he goes through a period where he sleeps little, spends unnecessarily, and becomes so entranced by the investigative process that even the FBI question his motives.

Initially, I wasn't at all certain about Damon's character, because of the way he lies so frequently and convincingly. By the end of the film, the lies have become so interwoven and convoluted, not only were the other players confused, my head was spinning. Ordinarily when one sees that kind of thing, they think "narcissistic" or "antisocial" personality traits, but Whitacre doesn't come off as either of these. It's not as though he knows the truth and wants to deliberately deceive, as much as he sees himself as the author of a grand drama, making up the storyline lie by lie as he goes along. And honestly, I think his delusions eventually get so complicated, half the time even he doesn't know he's lying.

Near the end of the film, the judge in the case against Whitacre determines bipolar disorder has had nothing to do with the charges brought against him. I think this reflects the difficulty many have believing that someone can act like this character does, and not be in complete control of their faculties. Their behavior is goal-directed, seems intentional, and it is, but it's based on a mental rearrangement of reality that has little connection with the experience of the rest of us.
The Informant! is a dizzying account that spans several years in Whitacre's life when the stresses generated by his employers and worsened by investigation, combined with undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder to induce manic behavior. It's a tragic story in a lot of ways -- Whitacre ends up in prison and is released in the final scene -- but it's also fascinating to see how his condition co-opted his better judgment. It's a film well worth seeing, but be prepared to feel out of breath while trying to keep up with the main character.

(Creative Commons image of a PhotonQ pre-screen of The Informant!by PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE via Flickr)

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Where the Wind Blows Free

Coyote in Yellowstone National ParkNow, let's see, what was that I said about not usually writing about politics? I must have gotten on a roll the past four days -- surprised even myself. Well, enough of that. Time to turn this young man's fancy toward something else for a change. Oh, I heard coyotes last night in the wee hours before dawn, a whole pack from the sound of them, yipping and yowling in the trees behind my house like a group of college students at a frat party.

You'd think, coming from the West, I'd have seen a lot of them "out on the lone prairie, where the coyotes howl and the wind blows free," as the old ballad goes, but I haven't. I only recall seeing one and while our acquaintance was brief, it was also deeply personal. I was living in Southern Colorado at the time, and driving home one afternoon a gray-brown streak on four legs darted across the highway in front of the car ahead. The driver swerved and tried to miss, but it was too late.

I pulled onto the shoulder and approached on foot, then took her by the legs and pulled her from the traffic lane. She was unconscious, breathing shallowly, and it didn't seem right to leave her to die alone. There wasn't anything I could do -- as far as we were from town, she'd have been gone before we reached the emergency vet clinic. She had a head injury and though it didn't appear severely traumatic, they'd have likely put her down, anyway. So, I waited with my hand on her side the few minutes until the end.

I'm soft-hearted where animals are concerned, I know, but I think of her when I hear distant relatives in the forest. Most human-coyote contacts aren't so intimate as the one that afternoon along the highway. They're a nuisance to some and a threat to those who raise small animals for a living. And, honestly, had she been conscious, I doubt my company would have all that welcome. But she didn't have much choice in the matter and neither did I. It was one of those times when all you can do is wait and offer comfort in those places where the wind blows free.

(GNU Free Documentation image via Wikipedia; Lyrics to Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie are in the public domain.)

Who You Gonna Trust?

Did you know the whole Viet Nam war was fought over a bet? A bet that Howard Hughes lost to Aristotle Onasis? ~ Jerry Fletcher

In the 1997 film, Conspiracy Theory, Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson) is a cab driver by day and author-publisher of a newsletter entitled, conveniently, "Conspiracy Theory," by night. If he seems a little paranoid at times, it's because he was recruited by a secret organization that uses mind-control techniques to train assassins. With the help of one of his potential targets, he escaped the clutches of the bad guys, and now they're looking for him. Pair this storyline with a rocking jazz sound track and Julia Roberts, and you've got a great, entertaining two hours ahead of you.

Despite his apparent craziness, Jerry has a proclivity for being right about the connections between what an average observer would consider random events. His personal experience has taught him that conspiracies can be found under our very noses, one of them involving Howard Hughes, Aristotle Onasis, and Viet Nam. Now, obviously, this is Hollywood, but Jerry's thinking betrays a reality-based concern, namely, that armed conflict could be engaged capriciously, leaving our loved ones to pay the price.

Such concerns are a predictable response to the kind of uncertainty that is increasingly associated with decisions contemplating military force in recent years. Despite the upsurge in patriotic fervor following 9/11, for example, mixed feelings were expressed about pursuit of war in Iraq. I mention this, not to call that strategy into question, but to point out how, even in the aftermath of a direct attack on this country, "we the people" weren't in complete agreement on the appropriate course of action.

I don't think this indicates we've somehow grown "soft" or ambivalent about how to act when threatened or abused. Rather, I believe it's the natural outgrowth of an awareness that simplistic solutions are rarely the correct ones for complex situations. Furthermore, there are very few superpowers anymore, and the fact is, some behaviors aren't really that acceptable if you are one and impulsiveness is close to the top of the list. It is rightly expected that a nation which has risen to the status of being a superpower should be capable of exhibiting self-control and acting wisely -- even like a gentleman -- within the international community.

This is not to say one should be a pushover or easily intimidated, but the character of a nation is as important as that of an individual. Who we are as a country, the variety of values we embrace, and our willingness to show restraint in anticipation of those times when action is necessary demonstrates not only trustworthiness and reliability, but genuine strength. It's a question of who you gonna trust. We anticipate seeing these qualities in our friends and the world has a right to anticipate seeing them in us.

(Creative Commons image by alvy via Flickr)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Changing Face of Victory

While we're on the subject of Iraq, I would be remiss to let yesterday go by without a word. What was significant about Tuesday, August 17, 2010? On that day, the last units of American combat troops left Iraq, hopefully, for good. We still have 50,000 on the ground, training the Iraqi army, but the women and men whose task it was to engage in battle are on their way home. One soldier was heard, shouting, "We won!"

When I heard the news, I couldn't help but contrast it with the American departure from another war zone. I was in seminary and over lunch a new student with whom I'd become acquainted mentioned he'd been a teacher in Viet Nam, and barely escaped the North Vietnamese takeover in one of the final airlifts out of Saigon. The scene he described was desperate and heartrending -- parents were begging soldiers to take their children to America while they remained behind. I often wonder if he had nightmares and wouldn't be surprised if he did.

Something nags at the back of my mind about using the word "victory" to describe our involvement in Iraq. Maybe it comes about from applying such terms to declared wars with identifiable foes and undeniable outcomes. World War II for example, resulted in our two great enemies becoming two of our greatest allies. Perhaps I'm missing the point, but it's not obvious to me that we've achieved this in Iraq. And that's due, to a certain extent, to the structure of Iraqi society, in which ethnic, rather than national, identity tends to predominate. You can't support one group without alienating the others, nor do they seem able to arrive at common goals. I have an idea it's something we didn't fully anticipate.

All this leads me to wonder if we're not witnessing the changing face of victory. If we can leave a war zone without doing so by the skin of our teeth, as in Viet Nam, does that now constitute "winning?" Can we expect more then the retention of our national pride? Once more, this is the problem inherent in situations that not only begin but end ambiguously. At what point can you declare them to be truly over? Are they ever?

I think time will show the psychology of the Iraq war has been characterized by projection and displacement. Projection because some are prone to identify oppressed peoples as the modern equivalent of our 13 colonies in 1776. Without examining the structure of a society and its capacity for self-government, they presume people will function in the same way as our forebears, and like it or not, this may not be true. Displacement because, unable to locate and punish the specific perpetrators of 9-11, our wrath was transferred to a more accessible target deemed blameworthy. As a psychological defensive strategy, displacement makes us feel better, but it doesn't eliminate what triggered our feelings to start with.

I don't know what history will say about the past eight years, but it will be an interesting read. We'll take sides, debate, and dispute until we're blue in the face, but unless we figure out how to live in a world that doesn't necessarily work like we're accustomed to thinking, we could easily create more problems than we solve. As I said two days ago, the international community has lost much of its blackness and whiteness, meaning we have to become more adept at visualizing the gradations between shades of gray. Those who can do so, and do so well, are the ones to whom everyone else will turn for leadership.

(Creative Commons image of Sailor Kissing Girl by Michael of San Diego via Flickr)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Unnecessary Uncertainty and Presidential Politics

Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...Image via WikipediaAs a follow-up to yesterday's post, I've been thinking how the most recent presidential election in this country could be viewed as a shift with respect to social ambiguity. Anytime society undergoes change, ways of thinking and living will be challenged and our responses can range from open opposition to mild resistance, from moderate acceptance to enthusiastic embrace. That's pretty much a given.

In this country, the election of a president tends to be a marker predominantly indicating how registered voters (those who actually do vote, that is) feel about the direction society is taking. If things seem too uncertain or there seems to be too much departure from established norms, the trend will be toward conservative candidates. When change is in the air and people are feeling optimistic about new ideas, we favor liberal candidates.

If voting behavior can be taken to suggest comfort or discomfort with ambiguity, and if by my quick calculations, approximately 2/3 of the past 60 years have been under relative conservative presidential leadership, in general voters have preferred to lean towards certitude rather than incertitude. In other words, faced with changing social norms as a result of greater prosperity, multiplying avenues of self-expression, and the growth of a better educated and more sophisticated population, voters preferred someone who promised to slow or, perhaps in some cases, try to halt the rate of change.

2008 was a pivotal year because it resulted in the election of a candidate who represents a unique response to ambiguity, even more so than one might expect from "liberal" leadership. For one thing, he embodies it: Barack Obama is an individual of mixed racial heritage. As such, psychologically speaking, he is a transitional figure and not solely in a racial sense. He represents a willingness to look at ambiguity realistically and deal with it as an essential element in the make-up of the world community. Not in a radical sense of complete departure from our history and heritage, but a tempered response -- more than a baby step, less than a leap.

The fact that the children of Baby Boomers took such an active role in his election should tell us something. Issues that troubled their parents have little reference to their experience. They know nothing of the Cold War or duck and cover, November 1963 isn't a part of their collective consciousness, and their first car may easily be a BMW. The atmosphere in which they were raised was already fraught with change and they've adapted without a second thought. For them, the election of a Barack Obama would seem as normal as daily life.

Now, obviously, not everyone nor every young person, became his supporter and our national response to social and cultural ambiguity remains divided. And that, too, is to be expected. But what I think matters and will find its way into history is his potential to help us find effective ways of coping with uncertainty in a world that we sometimes fear has outgrown and moved on without us. Political considerations aside, I think his election represents a desire to proactively step into the currents of our time and make a difference in where they take us. They're going to flow anyway, we may as well learn how to swim; the alternative is to be swept along and for me, that spells unnecessary uncertainty.

(Collective Commons image via Wikipedia)

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Green Zone: Losing Black and White

Green Zone (film)Image via Wikipedia I don't get into politics a great deal in this blog, as you know, but having watched Green Zone starring Matt Damon last night, it's difficult to refrain from commenting. Green Zone takes place in 2003 Iraq, and follows a MET (Mobile Exploitation) team in the search for WMD -- weapons of mass destruction. Loosely based on the real-life experiences of soldier Monty Gonzales, who led a MET team in Iraq, the film dramatizes the frustration and confusion associated with trying to locate the stated reason for being there in the first place.

A noticeable difference between the Great Generation and subsequent ones, is the kind of war films produced. If you take a look at many that came out of World War II and Korea, the good guys and bad guys are clearly delineated, there is a strong note of American patriotism, and there are no moral gray areas -- black is black and white is white. To a certain extent, I think these films represent not only the mindset of that generation, but the nature of the particular wars they depict.

Viet Nam was the first truly ambiguous war of the 20th century, though some may argue the same for Korea. But unlike Korea, Viet Nam was more divisive than unifying. Not only from the standpoint of anti-war sentiment, but because there was no undeniable justification for American involvement. The popularity of films such as Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Apocalypse Now, reflect the attitudes of a generation coping with war in a world that was losing its sense of black and white.

For a while, 9-11 looked like a rebirth of Pearl Harbor values. But the context was wrong. Unlike America up to December 1941, isolationism wasn't the dominant political voice in 2001. We weren't coming out of economic depression and our recent history included military intervention in Kuwait. We hadn't been minding our own business only to find ourselves thrust onto the international scene against our will. Furthermore, the enemy wasn't specific in the same way as Germany and Japan. This time we had a tribal conflict on our hands with an elusive enemy who could be anywhere.

And that's the dilemma we face in the 21st century. The old reliable categories are too rigid to adequately classify incoming data. The message of Green Zone is, no one knows precisely what's going on; it's all too new. In the aftermath of invasion, neither the Iraqis nor the Americans could resolve the chaos resulting from the instability accompanying the removal of an oppressive regime.

Some critics have described Green Zone as anti-war or unpatriotic. Frankly, I think it does a marvelous job of clarifying how murky war has become. It reveals the kind of Machiavellian machinations that have necessarily characterized our approach to armed conflict since Viet Nam. In a world where ambiguity rules, the old rules don't apply, and as a result, the players all jockey for power. In short, Green Zone is an image of us and while it's not a pleasant one, it's nevertheless an accurate one.

(Fair use of low-resolution image of copyrighted film poster from The Green Zone used to identify the film in question. Copyright presumed to be held by Universal Pictures.)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Losing Sight of Truth: The Book of Eli

Have you ever seen one of those mega-churches on television? You haven't? Oh, you've got to -- if for no other reason than to stay current on cultural trends. And in the name of culture, let's play with language for a second. Mega comes from ancient Greek and translates as (no surprise here) "big." But when we use it as a prefix, we usually mean something that's really big, and that describes the mega-church -- it's the kind that gives new meaning to the word huge.

I'm not going to mention names, tempting as it is, because I don't want someone from the Universal Church of Televised Numerical Superiority to show up on my doorstep with a Writ of You-Have-Been-A-Bad-Boy. Let's just say some are so big they look like indoor football stadiums and have to practically pass out binoculars with the morning bulletin in order to see the minister.

Please understand, I'm not trying to be offensive, it's just that empire-building comes to mind when I see these programs now and then, and that strikes me as alien to the nature of church as a community of faith. Now the reason I'm bringing this up today is because empire-building is a theme played out in the 2010 film The Book of Eli.

In case you haven't seen it, The Book of Eli takes place thirty years after a war that resulted in pretty much universal devastation. Earth and sky are colorless, the landscape is barren and windswept. Survivors live however they can, some having turned to cannibalism. In this milieu we encounter Eli, portrayed by Denzel Washington, a man with singular purpose: he has an extremely rare book -- the last copy of its kind -- that he wishes to get to an unnamed, unspecified location somewhere in the western United States.

In the course of his journey, he arrives at what could be loosely called a "town," seeking a charge for the battery on his i-pod, a remnant of life before the war. As it happens,
Carnegie (Gary Oldman) the town's most influential person, has been searching for the very book in Eli's possession, convinced it has power and the one who wields it will control the growing, illiterate and impressionable populace. And he wants to be that one.

Eli, naturally, refuses to give him the book and conflict ensues. Eventually, Eli escapes, aided by a woman who has found him to be a man who may be trusted, something as rare in her world as the book is to the entire Earth. While we get glimpses of it's identity, only near the end does Eli name it, a King James version of the Bible. To save the woman's life, he gives the book to Carnegie, little good that it does him since it's written in braille, a language Eli has apparently learned and no one else remembers.

Eli is a pilgrim, and the woman becomes a disciple. He has a spiritual strength that she first experiences when he prays over their food, but he neither advertises nor seeks notoriety because of it. He's an ordinary, run of the mill person who has a vision to which he is determined to remain true.

The place where Eli and the woman finally end up is a library of sorts located on Alcatraz Island. It's ironic that one of the world's most infamous prisons is the source from which civilization will be reborn. He dictates the entire thing from memory before dying and it becomes the first volume issued by Alcatraz Press, much as the Guttenberg Bible was the first volume ever produced on a printing press.

The Road (see 8/9-10/10) is a film about hope; The Book of Eli is ultimately about faith and devotion: Eli's to a vision, the woman's to Eli. It's also about contrasts. For Eli, the message of the book is, "Do unto others more than you do for yourself." For Carnegie, it's a means to an end: dominance and control over the minds of the vulnerable. Eli dies having fulfilled his purpose, Carnegie dies in despair. Eli found meaning in his journey and the words he memorized, Carnegie lost everything and gained nothing.

Too many times we hear of ministers who have managed to build an edifice and watch it crumble at their feet because they gave in to greed, lust, or narcissism. Do unto others gets lost in the passion to do for self. Even Eli admits he'd gotten so absorbed in getting the book to the West that he momentarily had forgotten to live by it. It is easy to become so enamored with the trappings of faith and the semblance of spirituality, that one loses touch with its essential truth. And whether it be religion, politics, or the realm of interpersonal relationships, truth is the one thing that matters above all.

(Creative Commons image of Eli by scriptingnews)

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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Changes in Attitude

Diagram of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.Generally speaking, and I am speaking in generalizations, preoccupation with a sense of personal identity came into vogue with Baby Boomers. For the most part, the Great Generation seemed more secure with the presumption of identity than with its pursuit. Having endured the true economic and social hardships of the Depression and then diving headlong into war, for them life was, quite honestly, simpler or at least, more straightforward.

Issues of survival usually preclude examination of the deeper ones related to meaning and purpose, as Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs graphically illustrates. Concern for self-actualization, though not always, tends to follow after more basic needs have been met, and is not the typical company of economic hardship and war. Having said this, it's important to point out that the Great Generation also produced Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, as well as a host of works by reflective thinkers and psychologists.

That's why I say, in general, because there are always exceptions. Nevertheless, the average member of that generation seems to have been able to move into career and family without a great deal of interior discussion about who they were and what they were about. Because of their care and sacrifices, Boomers were free to take a closer look at life and ask questions that appeared superfluous to mom and dad.

I think this was one of the major contributing factors to the generation gap between Boomers and their parents . And this is why I mentioned yesterday that I didn't believe Field of Dreams could have been filmed in 1945. The idea that one had to discover "who" they were and think about relationships that people took for granted was a completely foreign one. Why look for an identity that ought to be self-evident? It wasn't merely a matter of language, it was an entirely different mindset.

Ironically, while Boomers can likely be credited with coining the term "issues" and experiencing them with respect to personal identity, meaning, and purpose, I think Generations X and Y will have an easier time of it than we did. The reason is, they had our parents for grandparents. While we were busy rebelling against the Silent Majority, our children naturally became its students, and just as naturally accepted many of the values held by their grandparents that we were so quick to reject.

As a consequence, to the extent Boomers encounter a generation gap with their children, it may seem oddly familiar. Coping with this turn of events depends on how well we've reconciled ourselves with the worldview of our parents. If we're still fighting old battles, dealing with children could be troublesome. But if we've attained a measure of peace with the older generation, relating to the next one's changes in attitude could turn out to be a whole lot easier.

(GNU Free Documentation image via Wikipedia)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Parenting and the Lightning Thief

I was watching Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, last night when I began wondering what stories like this say about parents. I don't want to give away too much of the plot in case you're unfamiliar with either the books or the film, so suffice to say, among the things the lead characters have in common is virtually the complete absence of one parent, sometimes mother, sometimes dad. It's acutely felt and evidenced by a woundedness or incompleteness the characters act out.

The theme of being orphaned or partially so and children forced to be on their own, isn't the peculiar property of Percy Jackson. It appears in the Harry Potter series, Superman, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and numerous other tales. Dickens used the device in Great Expectations and David Copperfield. In Jungian parlance, the orphan is an archetype that permits children (and adults, by the way) to envision themselves living and, perhaps, accomplishing great things independent of parental control. Mythologists see this as a key factor in the hero's journey, another archetypal image of growth and development.

In some cases, the heroic orphan is oppressed or abused by caregivers as in Cinderella and, once again, Harry Potter. In others, we see them experiencing complicated relationships with parents -- Rudy and Field of Dreams come to mind. In all of these stories, the children experience longing for the missing parent(s) and go through a process that ultimately leads to mature adulthood, often symbolized by marriage and having children of their own.

We could talk all day about the implications of the orphan archetype and its impact on the psychology of children as well as adults. That describes what I've found on the web, researching this topic, which tells me I'm either completely off base or I'm hitting on something relatively new. And that is to say, we're drawn to this motif because we've become uncertain about parenting since the latter half of the 20th century.

A person could probably count the contributing factors several times on their fingers and toes, but the upshot is, we don't live in the same world as my parents and replicating their parenting style in a new one is problematic. Furthermore, judging from conversations I've had with many of their generation, we think about relationships with our parents to a greater extent and at greater depth than they did about theirs. I don't believe Field of Dreams could have been made in 1945; very few would have understood the reason for it.

As a result, in the attempt to make sense of our confusion about being adult children of parents, having children of our own and raising them in the context of cultural change, we turn to myth and try to relive the fantasy of the parent-less child. To the extent we feel estranged from or misunderstood by our parents, we identify with Percy Jackson and his friends. Having had to find our own way or believing that we did, we feel like Harry Potter, whose idealized parents he saw in the Mirror of Erised (desire spelled backwards).

There was nothing wrong, by the way, with Harry's looking in the mirror unless it led him to do nothing beyond wishing and hoping for what he could never have. It's the same with us. Eventually we have to take the image of what we long for and translate it into something real, making ourselves more capable, more fit for parenting in the midst of change. In that case, a little "mirror time," which is what all of these stories can enable, may really be quite useful.

(Creative Commons image entitled The Lightening Thief by Cayusa via Flickr)

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Variety of ancient apples from the Val di Non;...I just did something in mid-afternoon that I haven't done in quite a while: close a window because the breeze was chilly. I've also noticed the apples hanging from the tree next to my garage are darkening from Grannie Smith green to a closer approximation of dark Delicious red. They're a variant of ancient apple and the crop isn't quite as impressive as last year's, but the signs are unmistakable. There is an equinox in the offing.

We've probably got plenty of warm days ahead, but mid-August in these northern latitudes isn't too early to start thinking about autumn. The brewers, I notice, have started releasing Halloween ales and my local grocer has put all of his summer items on clearance. Late season wild flowers -- asters and goldenrod -- are blooming, the latter to the chagrin of my hay fever. The only chain saw I've heard lately is mine, but I'm sure it will be joined by a chorus fairly soon as my neighbors start thinking about cool nights and warm fireplaces.

I like the change of seasons and especially the time leading up to it and then immediately following. I enjoy transitions -- maybe that's what drew me to psychotherapy. Because, for the most part, those who want or need therapy are immersed in moving from one phase to another or trying to manage changes that feel out of control. In a lot of ways it's like helping summer find its way into fall or winter into spring, and seeing how someone turns out on the other side.

Many times I've been surprised; the person who began is very different from the one who finishes. In some cases, it's almost as though I scarcely know them since all that has been scraped away interfered with the person beneath the distress and pain. Seeing them afterward, it's almost hard to believe they were ever someone else, but they were and now winter or a miserably hot summer has come and gone. And up here, we're glad to see them go because there's always something good waiting just up the road.

(GNU Free Documentation image via Wikipedia)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Playing Home Improvement

Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse at 117 Willi...

Yesterday evening, I think I broke my toe -- the littlest one on my left foot. I was involved in a project, had been walking around barefoot because of the heat, and wham! the footstool and I met with a crash and explicative that sent the dog running for cover. It hurt like anything and at first I thought I'd merely jammed it. An hour later, I wasn't so confident, so I did what any good medical student would, namely, got out the first-aid tape.

I realize I could have gone to the emergency clinic but they'd suggest an x-ray, then tape the offended appendage to its neighbor and offer me an ibuprofen. Apart from the imaging, I could do that just as well and cheaper. Sure, an x-ray would reveal whether it was truly fractured, dislocated, or merely badly bruised, but the treatment would be the same in any case, so why bother? I manipulated it gingerly and it didn't seem out of joint, so it was either broken or bruised. If it turned black in a day or so, my test results would be in.

Today it's sore to the touch and I've instructed it to limit unnecessary movement. Through the tape I thought I heard a muffled, uh-huh, so it seems we're on the same page. My dog recovered more quickly, coming back into the room with tail wagging to provide support. He didn't offer to inspect my toe, however, and for that I was grateful. His late brother was definitely a doctoring kind of dog and he'd have never let me rest until he'd thoroughly examined, sniffed, and licked my foot from stem to stern. If I pulled away, he'd simply have waited until I settled down, and begun again, eying me as if to say, "Do you want me to fix this or not?!"

So, now the dog and I will attempt a truncated version of our daily walk, him wondering why we're going so slowly and me hoping he'll do his business quickly. If it goes like the last time -- oh, yes, I've done this before under similar circumstances -- in a few days we'll be back to our normal pace. In the meantime, I've got to learn to wear shoes while playing "Home Improvement." Tim Allen I'm not and this business of hobbling around is for the birds.

(GNU Free Documentation image via Wikipedia)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

In Excess of Survival

There once was a man named Job. He was a good man and over the years, accumulated everything that mattered to him as well as to most of us -- family, financial security, health -- until one day the roof caved in and through no fault of his own, he lost it all. His friends commiserated with him, saying "Life has dealt more harshly with you than one should have to bear -- curse God and die." I don't know whether they wearied of witnessing his spectacle or of hearing his lament, but it's easy to talk about death when it's not at your doorstep. Job refuses and asserts he will continue to trust, no matter what.

I'm thinking about Job this morning because I've finished The Road and I think I know why the father refuses to give up on living and why he insists on the same from his son. It's because you never know what may be coming next. "We have to keep going," he says, on almost every page. He's not a merciless taskmaster, they rest when they can, often when the son wishes. But he's a determined one and he reminds himself it's because his son will die without him. And that is true.

There are times when the father wishes he was already dead because there is neither rhyme nor reason to go on except that this is what they must do. It's wet and they need to camp; they're hungry and have to find food; they're in danger and he must protect his son. It doesn't make sense and when they nearly despair of going further, they discover an oasis that almost seems as though it was left, just for them, by an unseen and unknown traveler who knew they'd come this way.

Life does that to us. Leaves provision when none is expected and where many fail to look. We believe we're starving and perhaps we are, but one does not always live by bread alone. McCarthy tells us it's more than the life of his son, it's the charge given him by his wife to care for their son. He gave his word and in the darkness his words and the spectre of his wife come back to haunt him. What are we doing this for? asks his son. I don't know, he replies, but we have to keep going.

Ultimate meaning and purpose are unclear, but dying is not an option. The father tells his son I don't know what we'll find when we get to the coast, but we have to get there. It's an answer to the age-old question of why we're here. We may not know why, all we know is we are, and what we do in the meantime has significance because we're alive and that's sufficient reason to keep going.

The hope McCarthy describes is not the namby-pamby, pie in the sky by and by kind that whispers sweet nothings in your ear because it's impotent to deliver the goods. I'm not sure his characters ever use the word. But throughout the story they retain the belief that they're the "good guys" and like physicians, have sworn to do no harm. However they come out by the end of the road, they're coming out clean.

Integrity and fulfilling one's moral obligations are recurring themes in McCarthy's books and in The Road he declares they have an importance in excess of survival at any cost. What appears as weakness has unmeasurable strength. We may feel as though we've been thrown into an unpredictable and meaningless chaos where dog-eat-dog is the rule because resources are limited and anyone who believes otherwise is a fool. The Road tells us there are better ways to live and those who choose them will not be disappointed.

(Creative Commons image entitled "The Road" by petar_c via Flickr)

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Lately I've been reading Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel The Road. Ordinarily, one waits until finished with a book to write about it; I've tried but there's something that, this time, won't wait. The setting is the future -- not so distant that cars, trains, and ships are obsolete, not so near as to be unbelievable. The world is post-apocalyptic. We don't know what has happened except to say that civilization as we know it is a memory most would prefer to forget.

There may have been a nuclear war, an asteroid may have struck the earth, it's hard to say. There is ash everywhere and scarcely a living thing besides. The lead characters, a father and his young son -- how young, we're never told, but too young to survive on his own -- are traveling on foot to an unnamed coast. Their belongings in knapsacks and a shopping cart, they live as best they can off the waste that surrounds them.

McCarthy is hardly a transparent writer and what he wants to say is as difficult to determine as the ash-laden air is for father and son to breathe. You have to pick it up along the way in bits and pieces, a fragment of life here, a gleam of light there. And what I think may be only what I'd say, my own predispositions interposing themselves onto his poetic prose. And that may be the way he wants it.

What I see is a father who would likely have ceased living but for his son and a son who would never have survived but for his father. Days without food and nights in the cold. No reason to hope and even less to hope for and yet the father refuses to allow either of them to give up. The boy sees things no one should and yet he wants to share what they don't have with one who has nothing.

I'm forty or so pages from the end and how it will end is anybody's guess. I don't think it will end in death. It might, but I doubt it. McCarthy has these two pulling through at the expense of no one else. What the father would have held back, the son gives away, and together, they render their lives humane. I think Camus would have liked this story. A desolate world wearing the face of irrationality, and in it father and son keep each other going, and even if it seems they're going nowhere, one way or another they'll get there together. Call me crazy, but I call that hope.

(Creative Commons image of The Road by Pickersgill Reef via Flickr)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Casting Robert Redford

Chaplin in character in the 1910sImage via Wikipedia
A few years ago, I came across an online game, "Who would you like to portray you in a movie about your life?" If there are to be flashbacks, obviously that means you'll need multiple actors to cover your bases, but assuming that's easily done, who would you have in the title role?

I've thought about this myself, more as an exercise in self-examination than anything else. Those times when I'm feeling so foolish I'm certain I must have woken up with egg on my face, it would have to be Charlie Chaplin, someone who could turn walking down the street into an occasion for laughter. And sometimes that's all it takes or so it seems.

When I think I've got my act together, my mind runs to Kevin Costner, Harrison Ford, or a younger Robert Redford. What these actors have in common is an ability to be boyish and playful, yet mature at the same time. They've all played characters who've been kicked around by life and yet managed to remain hopeful. A guy who is available to others because he knows what it's like to have been on his own. Not that I'd lay claim to being that kind of person, but it's something worth aspiring to, you know?

In any case, my choice would definitely not be someone who's never fallen flat on their face or has only known success. Like anyone, I suppose it would be nice to be viewed as having always gotten things right, but that's so far from the truth as to be comical. Actors have to be able to identify with their characters and one who doesn't know how to screw up would have a hard time with me.

Nor could it be someone who's "pretty." I know, I mentioned Redford, but he's not a Ben Affleck or Matt Damon. Place either one of those in the lead and everyone will accuse me of lying for sure -- everyone except my mother. Thanks, mom, I love you, too. Anyhow, I picked Redford because I learned my lesson about him the hard way. Back in college a sweet young librarian mentioned one day that I looked like Jon Voight. I blushed and thanked her, replying that I knew another student who strongly resembled Redford and for some strange reason, she suddenly lost all interest in me. Well, I'm definitely not making that mistake again.

(Public Domain image of Charlie Chaplin via Wikipedia)

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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Bringing Out My "Best Behavior"

The problem with writing about chivalry is I don't know what to say about women. About how they should behave. Partly this is due to not being one, I'm sure, though I recall well what my mother and some of the elder women of my youth said about it. Short skirts aren't ladylike, a woman who drinks like a man is looking for trouble, women who swear like a sailors are uncouth. Things like that. More social commentary than advice, prompting me to consider carefully who I brought home.

As a consequence, I think my education was somewhat incomplete when I entered the big, wide world on my own as a seminarian. Overall, my impression was, if I acted like a gentleman, a woman would respond by acting like a lady. In other words, she'd be the genuine article -- appreciative, pleasant, and truthful about herself. Women will be the first to tell you, this isn't always the case, just as it isn't with men. Chivalry may cover a multitude of sins, just not all of them.

What I've learned over time from those I'd stake my honor on their being both women and ladies is, they possess a sense of themselves that is unmistakable. I guess you could say they're conscious of the impression they make and endeavor to make one that engenders respect. To put it another way, they have been women who knew themselves and were confident in their knowledge of what was important to them.

In their presence, whatever our relationship, they brought out my "best behavior." I wanted to be a gentleman because it seemed the only appropriate response to the quality of persons they were. Language that might "slip" in other contexts became the occasion for an apology, whether it was necessary or not. In situations where standing when one entered the room would have been out of place, I still felt self-conscious not doing so.

I guess what I'm driving at this morning is, both ladylike and gentlemanly, while behavioral by observation, go much deeper. The character of Eliza Doolittle, from My Fair Lady, depicts how one can learn the skills to fit into polite society, but as Henry Higgins discovered, there was so much more to her than he imagined. She was a lady long before she looked the part. It was his vision that needed alteration as it sometimes is also ours.

(Creative Commons image of Eliza Doolittle, Covent Garden, by Micheo via Flickr)

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Heart of a Gentleman

Yesterday was one of those nearly intolerable Maine summer days that make me wonder if I've time-warped back to Boy Scout camp on a tolerable summer day in East Texas. With a dew point near 70 degrees, it was so humid I thought we should rename the town, Fort Sauna. There was a fort here once, back in the day -- archeologists have uncovered evidence of it -- so the name is not completely off the mark, it's just that no one calls this part of the country Fort Anything, anymore.

Since it was so muggy, I decided dinner would be best followed by frozen yogurt, the kind with all the flavor and none of the fat, so I drove up to the local grocer for a barrel or two (not quite, but I felt like it). As I was preparing to leave for home, I noticed a young couple walking toward a pickup truck in the parking lot. Now, this being the eastern fingertip of rural America, trucks are as plentiful as tourists at the beach on Memorial Day Weekend.

He was tall, maybe six feet or so, and she was diminutive and slender, a Mutt and Jeff couple as my mother used to say. Both were in jeans and T-shirts, the local non-dress uniform for off-duty hours, and if this was date night, it spelled a movie and pizza at home. Yesterday's post was fresh on my mind and as they got to their truck, I noticed him opening the passenger side door and waiting with a smile while she climbed in.

Sure, the door was locked, but he could have gotten in the driver's side and reached over to unlock it, allowing her to stand there in the heat and humidity. But he didn't; instead, he was considerate and took care of her before taking care of himself. I have no idea about their relationship status and it doesn't really matter. What he exemplified was the generosity that lies at the heart of being a gentleman.

When a man is adequate unto himself, when he has sufficient ego-integrity that he doesn't need to rely on others to compensate for his own character deficits, he is capable of giving of himself freely, without expectation of return. I realize I could be accused of reading too much into gentlemanly behavior, but I really believe it does come down to the willingness to put someone else first. That's the essence of the message we're sending when we hold a door, assist with a coat, or take out the trash without being asked. There is enough of "us" to go around, we don't have to keep it all to ourselves.

(Creative Commons image of Mutt and Jeff by mghode1 via Flickr)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

If Bono Can Do It...

"I don't think there's a qualifier, but if there were, it would say that the attributes of 'young' and 'good-looking' are strictly optional. Any man who cares about his wife/girlfriend/s.o. and shows it in concrete ways, is a 'pearl of great price,' and will find that taking out the trash can drive her into a romantic frenzy." ~ EHC

One of the "rules of engagement" frequently overlooked by men in the attempt to relate to the opposite sex is the rule of consideration. There was a time, not too long ago, when men were a little uncertain in this regard, not wishing to diminish a woman's own power by doing for her what she could do for herself. Good intentions notwithstanding, I've rarely known a woman who was not appreciative of a man being genuinely and honestly considerate.

I realize this sounds old fashioned and it probably is, but that doesn't render it a fossilized entry in our behavioral vocabulary. I've witnessed numerous occasions where Mr. Got-It-Made-in-the-Shade has ended up looking like a fool in comparison to an ordinary guy who knew how to treat a woman like she was special. Being a gentleman sets you apart and it does so in a good way. Even if men don't happen to notice, women do.

So, how do you proceed? To begin with, when taking a woman out, open her door, both when she's entering and exiting the car. If Bono can do it (photo), well, you get the message. A woman might act a little confused or self-conscious at first, but don't worry, she's probably not be used to having someone do this for her. Most guys don't, especially after they've dated a while or they've moved in together and he's starting to act like he's dad and she's mom without even realizing it.

Hold the door for her anytime you're entering a room or building. Help her on and off with her coat before dealing with yours. Pull out her chair when dining out -- or even at the home of friends, for that matter. Walk on the street-side when strolling down the sidewalk together; it's a sign of respect. Resist the temptation to think you're ever passed the point where you need to be polite, because once you do, you're flirting with taking your partner for granted. If there's any no-no you want to avoid like the plague, this one's it.

Sure, there may come a time when she'll open her own car door out of convenience, in haste, or because she doesn't want you to feel like you always have to do it for her, but surprise her occasionally. Furthermore, being a gentleman ought not be limited to those times when a man is courting. He will go a long way toward creating positive regard for himself if he's polite with coworkers and women in general.

Now, the key thing to remember is, consideration has to be genuine. It should be the natural expression of who you are as a person. It's not something you do because you have to or to get something in return. I mean, yes, I think it's safe to say a guy's going to come a lot closer to a kiss on the first date if he's considerate, but we're talking about being a gentleman and gentlemen aren't polite for the sake of what they can obtain. Consideration is its own reward.

Finally, being a gentleman among women and men doesn't make one a stereotypically "nice guy." Niceness is fine but gentlemanliness flows from an inner strength. It reveals a quiet, confident self-possession and self-awareness that not only women, but also other men, find compelling. It shows up when you least expect it, like for example, when you take out the trash -- without being asked.

(Creative Commons image by dpnash via Flickr -- a word of thanks in acknowledgment to EHC, a loyal reader who offered the quote beginning this essay.)
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