Monthly Archives: December 2015
Christmas. Shopping. Sigh. A writer is biased towards a book as a gift of choice, but it’s not an easy task, and it’s not getting any easier. As I strolled along aisles of a fantasy book store in Berkeley, and then its companion shop, a comic/graphic novel satellite, I gave my neck a workout, bending it right and left to read spines, recognize names of authors or perhaps be drawn by an eye-catching title. When I was a kid it was the front covers that caught my eye, especially those teasingly magical renditions upon fantasy or sci-fi novels. I remember how disappointed I was by the dense, plodding narratives that didn’t match the promise of the art as far as I was concerned. I abandoned fantasy as a genre somewhere in my teens; now I’m back, searching with discomfort on behalf of the next generation, and thinking the invention of Kindle is a good idea after all.
You see, until recently I’ve been a snob about Kindle; or rather, just an old-fashioned Luddite. Give me a bound volume with a solid feel to it, I’d say, joining other preservationists. Give me a redolent reading space filled with high shelves, with books squashed together in the thousands, astonishing visitors with the collective literary effort of mankind. When I visited the Oxford University library in 2013 a guide said that (once) every book published in the UK found a place in its rooms (meaning, one copy). No longer. As I concurrently understood, there are simply too many titles now being published for such a collection to exist under one roof. This fact is both sobering and healthy, though I don’t spend too much time considering the pros and cons of a more democratic literary landscape, one in which there are more books but fewer book stores. I keep the perspective personal, and thus suppose that while the situation has enabled the publishing of my thoughts, it has also thrust me out to sea, there to drift alongside countless other creators.
My drifting eye stirred my mind: I wondered what I might write that would compete with the fare on offer. I saw one older title, ‘Shades of Gray’, and felt sorry for its author, thinking that if he’d just added the word fifty he’d have been onto something. Finding a teen section, I sniffed haughtily at titles like ‘You Suck’ and ‘Bite Me’. I noted that these books were not Indie contributions; inside, there was evidence of agents and traditional publishers, which made me think that I was getting it terribly wrong, using proper words and aiming at reader erudition. Getting over myself, I found I was even more intimidated when revisiting the sci-fi section. Of course, science has always kicked my ass, knocked down my GPA, and generally lowered the self-esteem. I do not forgive, but I gave the back-page summaries a worthy effort, though old feelings of inadequacy soon arose. As a result, a character born of gene-splicing and artificial intelligence soon left me cold, rendering my effort short-lived. A book proclaiming an XY conspiracy was slightly more compelling, mostly because it seemed a feminist provocation, which sometimes intrigues me.
As ever, I found it necessary at some point to step back, take in the overwhelming volume, and silently ask it for help: Come, good story…come find me.
“Have you found it yet?” This was my wife intruding upon the reverie, thinking we were on a schedule. If that were the case, we shouldn’t have come to a book shop, I was poised to say. I hadn’t, I replied (referring to a kind of book my teen nephew wants), but concealed inefficient method by critiquing the shop’s organization. “I’d forgotten how difficult this was,” I lamented. In the end I cheated by texting my sister and asking her for specific ideas, therefore giving up on inspiration and old illusions. Big sister texted back soon enough, but back-tracked on a previous suggestion, that of a graphic novel series called Saga, which I’d vaguely heard of. It might have porn in it, my sister now worried. Well, I wasn’t quite sure what her standards (as in porn threshold) were, but soon realized that if I were to find a comic or graphic novel without scantily clad women, I’d likely have to find an old Archie comic, or something else with bubble gum fifties innocence all over it.
I did find something, actually: a darkish, yet sexually neutered yarn about witches that looked compelling, and was contemporary in its production. The artwork looked cool, anyway. As I approached the clerk, a middle-aged woman with an air of genial connoisseurship, I felt the irony of selecting a title by an old criteria that hadn’t worked for me. I managed to find humor with respect to the sex barrier, saying, “You know, I think this might be the first time I’ve looked through a magazine or book specifically to see that it DIDN’T feature naked breasts.” I got a laugh plus a feeling of success as I left the store. Mission accomplished, I thought, though I’m still seeking my kind of story.
The spherical object sits atop a glass coffee table between myself and my patients, apparently inert save for the qualities Maggie, Ray, and Joe assign to it, and which they absorb. Maggie, my regular ten o’clock on a Wednesday, gives the object a forlorn glance whenever she feels stuck in thought. Briefly, it seems there may be inspiration in its translucent green, or refuge in its fetching diamond patterns. Soon her eyes move away, tracking mid-morning light spearing in from the East. Maggie notes the illusion of choice.
Others make a tactile move. Reaching for the object, Ray sometimes remembers that despite paying for the hour, he is a visitor and therefore asks permission to handle my belongings. “What is this?” he more specifically asks, a fraction of a second before an entitled, if gentle seizing. “It’s an orb,” I say proudly. I found this thing in a consignment store about five years ago, and was struck then by its occultish mystique; its compelling, Kubrickian appeal. Placing it center stage in my office, I imagined it might pique interest, or perhaps graze the unconscious, stirring wonder of an alien presence amid frenzied thoughts about self. Ray appears to envy the undisturbed demeanor of the orb, thinking it a symbol of coveted stolidity. I’ve known him to study it in detail, gazing about its every inch as if determined to see inside to discover secret contents, like a way of being. Like many objects that remind of childhood, the orb is shiny and promissory of concealed riches, a garden of delights within. In such memories, I think the world is like Christmas morning: made up of rainbow pastures ever beckoning yet beyond reach, teasing with magic, and not yet disappointing with empty spaces, the residue of a dull, grown-up’s contrivance.
Maggie says she gets lost when she “spaces” on objects like the orb. Her purpose is escapist, she declares ambivalently. The orb, the seductive toy, compels rumination: a speculative inventory of its details; an imagined backstory as to its production, even its merchandising. Upon hearing my tale of discovery and purchase, she cooed like I’d just described the story of an abandoned animal rescued by me. Had Maggie found it, the orb would have spurred a poem, and thereafter a ceremonial place in her heart. In session, after frozen minutes contemplating the orb’s essence, Maggie’s foiling of herself is complete: she has forgotten something, the terrible thoughts and then feelings that search for release, only to find a dead end doorway. Sometimes I envy the orb also, though not in the sense of wanting its qualities; more in that Kleinian, spoiling the object sense of the word. At these times I want rid of my cursed ornament and its solipsistic, self-blocking evil.
Joe on the other hand satisfies the repressed urge, performing that which I can’t do myself. And he does it ingeniously: without conflict, self-consciousness; without giving it a moment’s thought, bless him. He doesn’t even ask permission. Slumping on my couch, his slovenly adolescent frame stretched out, he grabs at the orb on his way down and begins a gifted juggling act as part of a session norm. Over the course of fifty minutes he intermittently tosses the orb from one hand to the other, ignoring its aesthetic value entirely, instead focusing upon the action; the soothing, mind-and-body organizing action. For Joe, the object is a baseball substitute, which is in turn a sublimation of something, but isn’t any longer since Joe got kicked off the team for smoking too much weed. But hey, repression doesn’t really work, I say encouragingly. “Damn right,” he replies, a little too pumped by the notion. I clarify that defenses, like people, aren’t meant to be perfect. “Right on,” he says after a seemingly thoughtful pause—a pause which breaks his rhythm, causing the orb to sail beyond the unadapting reach of his left hand, descending like a breaking curve ball towards the perfect glass of the coffee table. A moment later I am shaken by the cracking sound of impact, the vision of a spiderweb pattern now spread over splintered glass. “Oops,” says Joe, looking inert.
**this story is a fiction
Fewer words from me this week, more quiet satisfaction. And so, a guest blogger of sorts. I’ll read along Affirmation at last
A great review of my novel, ‘The Situation’ about the picaresque adventure of a young man left for dead in more ways than one
Fewer words from me this week, more quiet satisfaction. And so, a guest blogger of sorts. I’ll read along
Affirmation at last
So let’s tie the dog story in with that thing about neuroplasticity, the previous blog essay. Recall that according to the likes of Daniella Schiller, retriggered memories can be ‘reconsolidated’, that is re-scripted or deleted if, during a critical period, a subject is given either a protein-blocking agent, or is presented with new data that contradicts a conditioned response. Other researchers Gorman and Roose interpret that the timing of interventions must therefore exist in proximity to reactivation of traumatic material, as the Schiller experiments imply.
Skeptical analyst Richard Tuch challenges this finding, suggesting that the material of analytic patients is too complex to be modified by such behavioral techniques.
So let’s look at my shaggy dog story and identify the different elements that seem relevant to the issue: the CS or conditioned stimulus; the conditioned response, or CR; the observed outcome of an informal effort to reconsolidate. To recap: a car rolls down a slight incline, bumping into another car because…well, we’re not sure why, but it seems as if a dog had something to do with it. You see, a taciturn Doberman had been sitting in the driver’s seat at the time of rolling, so I speculate that the animal had inadvertently dislodged the car’s emergency brake, thus sending the vehicle on its way. When the owner (not ‘driver’—the distinction was important to her) appeared minutes later, she seemed concerned, but more defensive than, say, remorseful about the accident, or relieved that the misadventure hadn’t caused more harm.
My friend, another therapist, tried to intervene on this latter point, timing his explanation of averted consequences about as proximately as was possible to the accident, the putative trauma. But was it the trauma? What actually happened in this scene, and did it lend itself to things like reconsolidation of new data, contradicting a conditioned response and so on. It didn’t appear so. As I’ve previous written, the woman in question appeared to bristle at my friend’s sober counsel, rejecting it on what I sometimes describe as ‘process’ not ‘content’ terms. Meaning, her response—‘I don’t need to be counseled’—seemed not so much a rejection of an observation (the ‘someone could have been hurt’ truism), but rather of my friend’s prerogative to make the point, regardless of its validity.
In this instance, it seemed important to consider not only the timing of an intervention, or even the nature of the intervention (a confrontation versus, say, an empathetic overture) but firstly, to consider what exactly had been stirred in the woman. Not that I’m feeling critical of my friend—what he said was necessary for someone to say—I’m merely interested in a different phenomenon. By my passive and thus detached observation, it seemed from the outset that the woman was far from horrified by the disastrous possibilities of her car rolling down a hill. Initially at least, there was no sense that she would thereafter feel afraid to get in her car, or park it elsewhere, or even leave her dog in the car unattended. Immediately, she seemed more concerned with the matter of blame: whether she was being cast as the driver versus the owner; whether she’d be held responsible for the apparent damage to the vehicle her car and dog had lightly struck. If I were to guess I’d say she was embarrassed at being the center of negative attention, the object of suspicion, perhaps ridicule, due to the absurdist nature of the scene. Her backstory—or trauma, if you like—likely had little to do with car accidents, much less tragedy, but rather a memory of public humiliation, entailing a dressing down by righteous figures, perhaps more commonly male. That’s my guess.
And so it seemed that my friend’s intervention failed—partly because of its timing, I suspect (she might have been open to instruction later)—but more pertinently, because the experienced and therefore salient trauma material was not contradicted by the intervention, because it did not constitute ‘new’ data in the sense that is being discussed. If the negative memory is about humiliation and blame, then the CS—being criticized, especially by a man, or a stranger—perhaps reconsolidated old data, rather than introduce a cautionary tale about driving or concern for others, the putatively intended ‘new’ data. Therefore, a CR—defend oneself—was readily enacted and was, if you like, reinforced by the ensuing interaction, though in my opinion, the woman’s reaction was inflected more by her projections than by reality, which again, analysts would cite as complicating factors which…wait, I think I know what you might be thinking.
Are we over-thinking this?
If you really think this then you should probably stop reading my blog, and don’t even bother with my books, because you will often think this of me. Anyway, I wonder if the woman will re-visit this episode, perhaps talk it over with someone she trusts; someone who might, in turn, instruct her as my friend did, to which she might say, “That’s what this guy said, who saw what happened”—in response to which an astute and curious listener might begin a different process, introducing a new layer of data. See, that person might ask, “And what was that like? Did it stir anything up for you?”