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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

When a Clients Get Angry at their Therapist

"Sometimes you say things that really piss me off" my client told me.

What I just said was one of those times. I was flattered. Clients do you a great favor when they tell you they didn't like what you told them.

You've reached a different level of honesty with them.

It is impossible to do "good therapy" without either being profoundly wrong at times, or equally problematic, painfully right. Often, when profoundly wrong, they either don't tell you, or they correct your misunderstanding. Everything about the way they speak to you, when you are wrongheaded, tells you that you missed the mark.

When I'm on target, however, and perhaps something less than "gentle" in delivering my message, I make you angry. Most often, I make you most angry when I'm protecting that side of you that least wants my advocacy, never mind my acknowledgment.

When you are very hard on yourself, dear client, encouraging words like "go easy on yourself" work only for the mildest of cases. These sorts of reassurances most people want and need from spouses or close friends, as a sort of "attaboy!"

In therapy, especially when the destructive self-hatred is very entrenched and resilient, kind words are worse than useless. They encourage that "hateful side" to dig in deeper, convincing you that not only are you despicable, but you are an idiot for picking a useless therapist. After all, therapists are "suppose" to be kind and positive, right? Dr. Kathy may be kind, but does she have a clue? Has she really missed how truly rotten I am?

In situations like this, when the relationship between my client and I are strong, it is time for tough talk. I outline what I see happening: how such an attitude is both protecting my client and preventing him or her from seeing the possibility of change. They have become entrenched in a pattern of thinking or acting that they are now actively holding on to, while claiming they are helpless to do anything differently.

Clients have learned that you don't mind being wrong, and aren't in love with your ideas.

"Pissing off" a client is only effective for therapists who aren't really "in love" with their ideas, notions or (especially) their theoretical models. The most practical advice I ever read, was from Carl Whitaker, a family therapist, who said "Learn to advance and retreat from any position." Needing to be "right" is often the very problem that brings clients into therapy. A therapist compounds the difficulty when they insist on their point of view as being the correct one. A good therapist prefers to be effective, rather than "right." They hold their theories lightly, and always in the service of their clients, not as a weapon to hit them with.

Clients have confidence that you are working with their best interest at heart, even if it doesn't feel like that from moment to moment.

Most people can't possibly trust that their therapist is working in their best interest, except over time and through experience. Therefore, I seldom find myself "pissing off" my new clients. They don't know me, and they have no reason to trust me. They have even less reason to make themselves vulnerable, by saying that I've made them angry. If a client is very angry at me, very early in therapy, it usually has more to do with the client's way of being in the world, than my way of doing therapy. I know myself and the effect my personality has on most people. Most people like me, as a therapist, and I give them very little reason not to, as we begin working together.

Clients learn that you are strong enough to allow them to be angry at you.

Most clients are extremely protective of even ineffective therapists. Most don't want to hurt or offend their therapists, and would rather quit therapy than confess that they are angry at the therapist. Often, in our "4-6 session therapy world," clients hardly know the therapist well enough to develop an opinion, never mind share it. When a client can get angry at you, it usually means they know you well enough, care about you enough, and believe, deep down, that they won't crush you with their hostile emotions. This is usually an excellent sign.

Clients know you won't retaliate.

That comes with trust that develops over time. Many clients come to therapy because they grew up with people who had power over them, and often used it unpredictably, or underhandedly. Learning to be upfront about the impact people have on you, emotionally, particularly people who have a great deal of influence over you, requires some sort of belief that you will be safe to do so, without unpleasant unexpected consequences. \

Often my reactions aren't what they expect. I often thank them for their honesty, or tell them I'm flattered by it. Sometimes, I tell them that they may be even feeling angry because they believe I was "on target." I sympathize that it is one thing to be angry at someone for saying something that made you angry because it was not true. It is even more infuriating when it IS true. I invite them to feel entitled to their angry feelings, while at the same time, watching and mulling over what was said. That's often an unexpected response, but not an unpleasant one.

Clients know you have your own perspective and don't "catch" their emotions.

We often live in a world where getting angry at someone causes that person to get angry back. Such "contagiousness" of emotions is often the norm. Good therapy doesn't work when emotions are contagious. I'm most often curious when clients have strong feelings, and move into a closer relationship with them, rather than respond defensively.

"What part of that got you angriest? What do you imagine I meant by that? Is it true? What did I leave out by saying it that way? Wow. That's really interesting. I never thought about it that way before. No wonder it made you angry to hear me say that. I might have felt the same way, if I took it that way."

People don't often feel flattered by someone getting angry at them, nor do they want to hear more. A more typical response is to attempt to either appease the angry person, or distance from them. Paradoxically, however, anger is an APPROACH emotion. It is often an attempt to bring the person you feel angry at into closer contact, not drive them away. Anger enables us to express ourselves and be better known to the other person when it is done effectively.

I truly appreciate my clients telling me about their emotional state, even when that state is anger, and even when I am the target of that angry feeling.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A New Name, a New Focus

I've decided to start a new psychotherapy practice here in the Hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, after closing one down in the city several years ago. I figured it might be interesting to chronicle it here. It won't be a traditonal practice, in any sense, nor do I want it to be. I don't see the world in conventional ways, so my practice will reflect that.

The new name of the blog, Dr. Kathy, Ink., will be the new name of my practice. I thought of all kinds of other names--ones through which I tried to capture what I want people to link to, about the way I work--but ultimately, I think just being 'Dr. Kathy' captures it.

Kathy is my legal birth name, not a nickname. I always believed that the words "Dr." and "Kathy" fit as well as "oatmeal" and "orange juice" for breakfast. But that's my name, and that's my degree, and I guess it is a description of me, as well. Professional but not fussy.

I hope to keep my practice simple, and local, two traits I've come to value a great deal. I'll start out seeing people in their homes. Sort of a "The doctor is in...your house" kind of thing. One visit to people's houses says more than hours of descriptions about their "lifestyle."

In upcoming blogs, I plan to talk about the logistics of setting up a psychotherapy practice, Dr. Kathy style, decisions I'm making about fee structure, and the kind of people I'm best suited to work with. I want the reader to have a pretty good sense for who I am and what I believe in, so that if they call me to set up an appointment, they know what they are getting into. Forewarned is forearmed, or something like that.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A Letter from a Psychotherapy Veteran & My Reply

You can find the original article By Bonnie Burton here:
A Psychotherapy Veteran's Thoughts on Treatment Methods

In an entry entitled "Psychotherapy Veteran," Ms. Burton writes a number of provocative points that, as a therapist, I'd like to respond to:

Ms. Burton writes: "It didn't take me 30 years to realize that if I say something to my therapist that produces laughter in other people, and my therapist doesn't laugh but instead simply continues to look at me, the absence of a response still constitutes a reaction on the part of my therapist. It's just not the reaction I expected... My friends thought it was funny, so why didn't he? …First, this may come as a shock to some of you, but from many patients' perspectives, the neutral, non-reactive therapist is actually far from neutral, because the absence of a natural reaction to the patient is, in fact, still a reaction."

As the interpersonal school, of which I am quite fond (Sullivan, would argue, it isn't "non-reaction" that is the issue: It is the therapist's capacity to react in a way which does not support the typical behaviors that are causing the person psychological problems. If a person chronically uses humor to avoid painful or difficult material, a skilled therapist catches on soon enough. After laughing a few times, the therapist may point out the defense, and from then on, instead of laughing and being entertained, may wonder aloud why humor is being used by the client at this particular moment.

I agree with her, that if the client has no idea why the therapist isn't laughing along, the therapist may not have explained him or herself adequately. The client shouldn't be left wondering whether the therapist is socially stunted. The therapist should clearly point out that the client IS funny, and that's just the point: the entertainer routine is a defense.

Ms. Burton writes: "What matters isn't how YOU feel; what matters is how WE feel! Now, don't some of you feel just a little bit silly?"

What I find interesting about this, is her assumption that this is somehow 'big news' to therapists. In the last two sentences, she says this is a truism in therapy: "There is one belief you all seem to share regardless of your theoretical persuasion -- that what matters isn't how YOU feel, what matters is how WE feel." All the research she mentions focuses on just this issue: the connection between the client and the therapist. She appears to argue that this is an "either/or" proposition. It isn't.

Ms. Burton writes: "In my own experience of crying during a session, my therapist's silence actually did lead to a new awareness about myself...I have repeatedly found that anytime the tears begin to flow in a therapy session, what I remember first is not how I felt as a child -- it's how I felt as a patient in the "here and now" -- the anguish of feeling desperately alone in the presence of my therapist, and I consequently attempt to push those feelings aside."

According to Ms. Burton, the experience initially leads to a "new awareness" but as therapy progressed, she could no longer connect with her "inner child" but was instead forced to face the pressure of the present-- a feeling of differentiation, a separateness from the other--and an equal pressure to deny that reality.

Ms. Burton writes: "the offer of a tissue might have contaminated and lessened the experience of "reliving" the trauma, my therapist's lack of response also contaminated the experience by exacerbating my pain. What he perceived as a reliving of the original experience was more than that -- it was a combination of reliving the experience AND once again experiencing the pain of psychological abandonment by someone who was supposed to care about me. Maybe a response would have temporarily "removed me" from the past... but I would have also been more willing to go there again in the future."

I don't know what 'brand' of therapy this guy practices, and he might actually believe that "reliving" trauma is healing, I don't know. Personally, I don't believe anyone is actually capable of "reliving a childhood trauma." Too much time has passed and maturation alone changes one's brain. But regardless, she appears to have found the diamond, and has thrown it out because it scratched her. Our relationships with significant others in childhood are a central (but not sole) template used to establish new relationships in the present. For some psychotherapy schools, helping clients become “aware” of these relationships is adequate. However, for others, such as the interpersonal school, experiencing psychological abandonment on the part of her therapist IS at the crux of therapy. In this school, we assume that feeling abandoned by important people continues to happen over and over again "in the real world." It is her reality, her "dream" and "she makes it happen." She essentially “brings her past into the present,” and the present is what gets dealt with.

This is the diamond that she sees as somehow the "fault" of the therapist's paradigm, but it's not. Her willingness or unwillingness to "go [into childhood memories] in the future" is irrelevant therapeutically. It is her current interpersonal experience--her profound disappointment at being unable to be "held" adequately by her therapist when she reveals herself-- that can make or break her treatment. Every parental caregiver at times “drops” the baby psychologically, as does every therapist. No one has a perfect childhood, or a perfect therapist. Therapy is effective when the client gradually realizes that the expectation of a “perfect” parent or a “perfect” therapist is, itself, a problem. While not all of us had families that “did the best that they could,” those of us who grow to adulthood have done so because of our own resilience. Parental limitations didn’t stop developmental growth (even if it marred it) and therapeutic blunders don’t prevent psychotherapeutic growth, either. Hopefully her therapist has the capacity to engage with her around her disappointment in him, and help her tie in these _present_ feelings with earlier experiences.

Ms. Burton writes: "I have had destructive experiences with therapists who became too involved, who lost the ability to separate their issues from mine, and the amount and kinds of self-disclosure in those situations were not at all helpful in my treatment."

Like Goldilocks, the therapists are either "too hot" or "too cold." What she misses is that her _need_ for "just right" is at the heart of the therapeutic process.

Ms. Burton writes: "Perhaps, in a genuine reciprocal encounter, where the therapist reacts naturally while placing the patient's needs above his own, an exploration of how the patient felt when the therapist reacted could follow. This could be the catalyst for subsequent exploration of both present and past relationships. The therapist could ask how the patient might have felt and reacted if he had either remained "neutral" or responded in an unexpected manner, encouraging the patient to engage in active self-reflection."

Here we see more of the rub, the bind she (and all clients, perhaps) demand of therapists: Act naturally, but place my needs first. While she argues that the client's feelings are of paramount importance, she also wants a "genuine reciprocal encounter," and this is the paradox that starting therapists become so confused about. It is problematic interpersonal relationships, and a person's reactions to them, that bring our clients to therapy in the first place. For a therapist to truly "act naturally" would offer the client "more of the same."

Therapists of the interpersonal school can point out to Ms. Burton that we, as people, are no different from subatomic particles: We change as others interact with us. It DOES matter how therapists feel and it DOES matter how clients feel. Together, we try to do what has been called "The Impossible Profession." Impossible, perhaps, because we try to model a different way of being with our clients--an "abnormal" or "non-socially acceptable" way-- and we warn her up front that that's what we'll be doing.

Good therapists "act weird" and the disclaimer at the start tells clients what to expect. We'll interrupt her in mid-sentence. We'll ask her to repeat what she just said several times. We won't hand her a tissue or we'll cry along with her. We might find her joke funny, but not laugh. We aren't being disingenuous by not laughing. Our impossible profession expects us to understand that her charm and wit, while entertaining to us at a cocktail party, may be interfering with her establishing deeper friendship ties. It might be stopping her from feeling vulnerable with us right now, and we don't find that limitation funny.

TV and films love to poke fun at "wacky therapists" acting "weird" in social situations. It certainly can be an occupational hazard to not "switch gears" when we are ‘off duty.’ The real world is not the therapy hour, and people have a right not to be "analyzed" without permission. We also have a right to be ourselves when we aren't working. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

We should warn her that if she had left other therapists for being "unsympathetic" or "disappointing" her, she might be tempted to do the same thing with us. It is being "genuine" to tell her that if she gets angry at us for not appearing "sympathetic" or "engaged" she should do the "socially unacceptable" thing and tell us. We tell her that it is likely that the more skilled we are, the more profoundly we are likely to disappoint her. In other words, we have to somehow tell her that as she continues to be herself, and do what she does in the outside world, she will more than likely feel intense reactions to us. She might get angry. She might be hurt. She might want to leave therapy because we are "uncaring." When this happens, and we say this early in the therapy, we ask only one thing from her: be curious about yourself and your reactions to us. We tell her this is a difficult task. It is hard to "watch yourself" have intense feelings. It is hard not to blame someone else who appears to be "causing them." We say this up front, and we remind her of it again, when these feelings arise.

I will give you an example of this from my own psychotherapy practice. When a client told me how his illness enabled him to avoid doing the unpleasant, I told him "It is quite likely that you will want to use your illness to avoid coming here, too, when things get tough." Some time later, after a particularly difficult session, he came in and said "I was going to call you and tell you I was sick and couldn't make it. Then I remembered what you said, about using my illness to avoid confronting things, like what we were talking about last week. I wanted to say I was sick to avoid it, just like you said I would." Some would call that "therapeutic insight." I call it "curiosity." He could see himself doing a typical behavior and decided to change it to see what the change might bring him.

Repeating the same behaviors or having the same reactions to different important people in one's life doesn't just happen in therapy. At the beginning of my relationship with my husband, when we were both idealizing each other, I told him: "There will come a time when you start seeing me acting just like your ex-wife and I'll start seeing you like my ex-husband. It is unavoidable. We can't help but create each other in our own image." His response was: "That will never happen. You are nothing LIKE my ex-wife." But around the seventh year, the "magic year" for so many couples, he had just that thought after an argument: "She's just like my ex-wife." My words came back to him. At the time, early in the relationship, he thought I was crazy for saying that. He couldn't imagine it. I told him, however, that I was no fortune-teller in my predictions. I just understood that we can't escape being ourselves. The best we can do is learn to make corrections.

Learning to make corrections is never an easy task or a steady course. It isn't uncommon for a person in therapy to "feel worse" at some point. It is a matter of good clinical judgment whether this is a sign that something is going wrong or something is going right. It may be that at the very moment Ms. Burton wants us to ask if we are doing “something wrong” that we believe therapy itself is being most effective. Of course, it could be the wrong thing for the client, and checking in with the client from time to time is good common sense. But if "feeling worse" is part of a more positive process of coping with anxiety, then learning to manage it effectively is also important. Sometimes "helpful" doesn’t feel "warm and fuzzy."

If the therapist has done a good enough job of introducing what therapy is all about, here is where they point out that sometimes "helpful" feels “awful” and anxiety provoking. Like Ms. Burton, I think that clients should always have the final say when to stay and when to leave therapy. But I disagree that clients’ "feelings" should always be the arbiter of that decision, unless it's accompanied by an equally strong dose of curiosity. Like a good teacher, who neither bores the students to sleep nor creates so much distress they don't learn anything, a good therapist creates both a sense of dis-ease and curiosity. The dis-ease comes when the client does the same thing she's/he's has always done but no longer gets the same reaction. The curiosity comes from a basic trust in oneself and the feeling of mutual respect you sense to and from the therapist. If a client repeatedly fails to see an empathetic connection in their therapist's eyes when they are feeling totally emotionally exposed, they would have to be "crazy" to stay in therapy. On the other hand, challenging the therapist's reactions in this situation can be profoundly impactful to both.

As I've said before, most of us remain who we are for our lifetime, and therapy helps us make minor adjustments to better enjoy being that way. Therapists are no different. In my own case, I really want to be liked by other people. But as a therapist, I am more invested in being effective, than in being liked by my clients. Of course, I want to be both, but when push comes to shove, I'd rather earn my income and be effective. Being liked is a personal weakness of mine that I need to guard against when I put on my "therapist hat." Also, in everyday life, I prefer to rely on my intellect, rather than my emotions in figuring out situations. I “think” rather than “feel” my way around. This too, I need to adjust for as a therapist.

How to self-adjust? I might be more inclined to allow myself to say something "unlikable" or to "tear up" at an emotionally powerful story. In contrast, a therapist that tends to be overly emotional might want to 'shut off the spigot' more often than is comfortable for them when they are working with emotional material. This is one way therapists "self-correct." Some might argue that this self-adjustment is phony and harmful to clients, but I don't agree. We all have "personalities" and a therapist's capacity to "use themselves" in service of the therapeutic relationship is what separates the beginner from the seasoned clinician. Knowing ourselves and having a capacity to use that knowledge to benefit the therapeutic relationship is a powerful teaching lesson.

What she is describing as good therapy is practiced within the interpersonal school: The therapist doesn't "reward" problematic behavior by "acting naturally." They don't "get angry" when the client "does something anger-provoking." But they do explore the client's reactions to the encounter, in the here and now. Abused children sometimes provoke a parent who was physically abusive but reforming by saying "Hit me, don't you love me?" It is a difficult but essential therapeutic mission to not respond in kind (getting hurt or angry when the client is insulting or angry) while at the same time reinforcing the notion that the therapist is indeed invested in the client. A therapist, who is capable of differentiating at that moment, truly doesn't feel angry or upset at the client. But if your client’s way of connecting to people is by getting angry with them, such a response seems like “indifference.” They essentially ask: “Don’t you care enough about me to get angry back?”

The more complicated is the situation where the client _has_ become a master at finding and exploiting the area where the therapist actually _does_ get angry. To deny the feelings are disingenuous. To express feelings aloud may or may not be therapeutic. In either case, the therapist needs to gain perspective and process both what is happening inside them at that moment, as well as what might be happening with the client.

A therapist may say "Wow. What you just said made me really angry. Was that your intention?"

How the client reacts to this statement is a goldmine to the therapist. Should the client deny it, and the denial appear genuine, the therapist has a chance to look into their own psychology for better self-understanding or bring it up in their own supervision. If the client denies it, but the therapist doesn't believe them, the therapist can comment on what were the physical signs: "Your voice sounded pressured when you said it, and now I notice that you are talking loudly and rapidly. It was the way I heard your voice last week when you said you were angry at your boss. Were you aware of that? Do you mind if I point that out to you, the next time I hear it?" No incident by itself is significant of anything, and, if the denial continues, the therapist should drop it. Behaviors like this will repeat, if they are part of a larger interpersonal style.

Ultimately, skilled therapists are masters at noticing. Their best tools are their own thoughts and reactions, and, as Carl Whitaker once said, “their willingness to advance or retreat from any position." While I can't speak for Ms. Burton's therapy, I can say that a collaborative relationship between therapist and client remains the cornerstone of good therapy. However, collaboration doesn't imply equal areas of responsibility. We get paid large sums of money because therapists are asked to impact people's lives in significant ways. We receive years, sometimes decades of education and supervised training. And, as people, we choose a particular school and way of practicing that is unlikely to be randomly picked. We chose it because it suits our personality and because we believe it works (at least for us).

While it is true for some therapists that instead of 10 years of clinical experience, they have one year repeated ten times, this hopefully is not the norm. It is true that one tends to repeat what has been found successful in the past. Perhaps that is what Ms. Burton's therapist suffers from when she asks "Can we do something differently?" and he answers "No, I'm being consistent." On the other hand, consistency is exactly what some clients need and do not want. They use a variety of maneuvers to avoid feelings, or have a “duck and run” strategy when “people get too close.” It is always uncomfortable when a therapist holds up a mirror to our chronic self-defeating behaviors. For some clients, when faced with this discomfort, they plead: "Let's do something different" but this might not be what is in their best interest. While connecting with a client is essential to success, pleasing them at every turn is not.


Those of you involved in mental health will appreciate this humor:

Nazareth Carpenter Being Held On Charges Involving Underage Mother

Bethlehem, Judea - Authorities were today alerted by a concerned citizen who noticed a family living in a barn. Upon arrival, Family Protective Service personnel, accompanied by police, took into protective care an infant child named Jesus, who had been wrapped in strips of cloth and placed in a feeding trough by his 14-year old mother, Mary of Nazareth.

During the confrontation, a man identified as Joseph, also of Nazareth, attempted to stop the social workers. Joseph, aided by several local shepherds and some unidentified foreigners, tried to forestall efforts to take the child, but were restrained by the police.

Also being held for questioning are three foreigners who allege to be wise men from an eastern country. The INS and Homeland Security officials are seeking information about these who may be in the country illegally. A source with the INS states that they had no passports, but were in possession of gold and other possibly illegal substances. They resisted arrest saying that they had been warned by God to avoid officials in Jerusalem and to return quickly to their own country. The chemical substances in their possession will be tested.

The owner of the barn is also being held for questioning. The manager of Bethlehem Inn faces possible revocation of his license for violating health and safety regulations by allowing people to stay in the stable. Civil authorities are also investigating the zoning violations involved in maintaining livestock in a commercially-zoned district.

The location of the minor child will not be released, and the prospect for a quick resolution to this case is doubtful. Asked about when Jesus would be returned to his mother, a Child Protective Service spokesperson said, "The father is middle-aged and the mother definitely underage. We are checking with officials in Nazareth to determine what their legal relationship is.

Joseph has admitted taking Mary from her home in Nazareth because of a census requirement. However, because she was obviously pregnant when they left, investigators are looking into other reasons for their departure. Joseph is being held without bond on charges of molestation, kidnapping, child endangerment, and statutory rape.

Mary was taken to the Bethlehem General Hospital where she is being examined by doctors. Charges may also be filed against her for endangerment. She will also undergo psychiatric evaluation because of her claim that she is a virgin and that the child is from God.

The director of the psychiatric wing said, "I don't profess to have the right to tell people what to believe, but when their beliefs adversely affect the safety and well-being of others - in this case her child - we must consider her a danger to others. The unidentified drugs at the scene didn't help her case, but I'm confidant that with the proper therapy regiment we can get her back on her feet."

A spokesperson for the governor's office said, "Who knows what was going through their heads? But regardless, their treatment of the child was inexcusable, and the involvement of these others frightening. There is much we don't know about this case, but for the sake of the child and the public, you can be assured that we will pursue this matter to the end."

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Winding Road

This free-style essay came from the writing prompt: "Look at something around you in a new way." Here are the results. Other than typos, it was written as you read it.

I live on a hilltop. It is cold in winter, and we have a long, winding driveway that ices up and is slippery. In the spring, the melting snow creates streams of water that create crevices in it and the moister causes the gravel to part under the weight of our car. In the summer, the carefully chosen and laid gravel cannot withstand the demands of the weeds, which grow up through it, even without the benefit of soil.

But there is another side to my driveway, when I take a second look. It curves so delightfully, and gracefully, hiding our home from view of the street. It is such a natural extension of the end of our long street, that tourists will often mistake it for the road itself, and drive up it, to be surprised by our house at the end. It is long, I say nearly ½ mile, or so it seems to walk it, and so it graces our entrance delightfully.

The weeds that grow all around it can also be called by another name: Wildflowers. After their ugly weedy starts, they display beautiful flowers that encase the auto’s travel, and mine as well, if I walked it. And if I walked it, which I seldom have, I would see a peek into our woods, and a patch of raspberry bushes, and a dining table for elves, leprechauns and fairies. I know, of course, that the huge rock table was actually put there by our “Country Wizard Extraordinaire,” Russ, who put in our driveway, but that is who actually accomplished this Herculean feat, with power equipment.

Who was the muse that caused him to decide that an outdoor dining table was needed in that spot? The elves, leprechauns and fairies of course. They whispered into his ear that April day, and told him exactly where to set it: “Under that tree, just to the right, and put large boulders in front of it to the side of the driveway, to protect it from sliding cars. We don’t want to be disturbed by sliding cars while we dine…” They supply their own chairs, until I can see clearly enough to know what to do: Put some of the wild ginger plants there, and let them make fine comfortable seating.

Blindness often invades me. Instead of fairy tables and wildflowers, I see weeds and ice. It is a blindness of a city person who has lost touch with her country roots. Let me be clear: I was born in Boston, and lived in the city or suburbs most of my life, but I do have country roots when I see clearly. I spent summers in campgrounds and the ‘country’ with my father’s mother, with horses and chicken coops and dirt roads. And my deeper roots were in County Clare, Ireland, where the dirt was the kitchen floor as well as the driveway, and the large hearth with a peat fire cooked the food. With city eyes, I could see the poverty of thatched roofs and tiny windows and bedrooms. With my blindness removed, however, I could see the fine stone fencing that encased the ‘ladies garden,’ and the fields that kept the neighbor’s horses, and the complete enchantment of a land that Cromwell complained contained neither the water to drown a man, the trees to hang him nor the soil to bury him.

It did have a form of a Sunday promenade, the formal name of which escapes me, but a ritual of sorts that brought neighbors visiting other neighbors. They would come, and sit, and drink tea and catch up on the news: a baby that was to be born, a barn that needs to be repaired, the birth of a goat, a stubborn mule that knocked down a fence. These kinds of rituals aren’t done anymore by my Clare cousins. “Y’ don’t know if you might walk in on them when watching a favorite Tellie program…” And you can’t call them, because these cousins don’t have phones or the neighbors don’t, or both. They’ve gone blind, you see.

Down that driveway carries my car, and it speeds past the berry bushes, the wildflowers and the enchanted dining table. As we whiz down the road, we also go by the river that actually bubbles and runs swiftly like its name. I am blind in my car as I am watching the road or engrossed in thoughts that take me far away from the beauty of what surrounds me. I think only of the distance to travel to town, to be again in asphalt and heat and fumes from distant Ohio factories that settle in the Valley below me, and into the warmth that brings early flowers in spring, but ungodly heat in summer.

It takes me only three days back in the city before the buildings seem all too close, the people too many, and the traffic too noisy. There, in this discomfort, I start to get a clearer vision. I see my driveway entrance, and my wildflowers in summer, and even the ice in winter that hangs like icicles on Christmas trees. I long for the long stretches of meadow in all seasons that show me, in winter, what the phrase “blanket of snow” really means, or why in summer, “make hay while the sun shines” is actual advice, and not just a saying.

City people blindly cut grass short, and put it into plastic bags to be picked up by workers in trucks, but here we grow it long before we cut it and roll it up for the animals to eat in winter. There is a chaotic loveliness to the country, a dirty practicality that tourists, like myself, years ago in Ireland, see as poverty or worse. There is a winding, careless, ‘you aren’t in control even if you think you are’ reminders in the country of just how vulnerable we humans are. We keep backup sand and shovels half way down the driveway for slide-outs, or black sunflower seeds later in the winter that serve as welcome-back bird food as well as traction. We keep carelessly piled wood that feeds our furnace if the ice kills the electricity. We have dirty dogs and dirt driveways, and weeds and bumps, that city people see.

But after three days in the city, I no longer see any of that. All I see, and all I long for, is the magic of the solitude and fairy tables and wildflowers that come with the long and winding road I call my home.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

September, The Start of the Year

I love summer. I love walking around buck naked, I like gardening, I like a lot of stuff about it.

But the real start of any year in my world isn't January. It's September. I think one knows if you are oriented toward being an academic if the approach of September brings you new ideas, a desire to read stuff, a reminiscent fondling of your books. That's what September does for me.

I want to get out my plaid skirt, but I don't own a plaid skirt. I want to buy new sweaters, even though it is too hot to wear them. I want to sharpen my pencils, organize my book bag, and get ready to learn something.

Fortunately, being an academic, I can do all these things. I can buy new books and deduct them from my taxes. I can do literature searches and mark them with yellow highlighter. I can investigate new computer programs that allow me to organize a ton of quotes and references for articles I haven't even conceived of yet.

If all of these things sound as appealing as a dental cleaning, don't go into academia. The biggest rewards I get from teaching is the learning I do myself. My learning style is a "Converger" meaning that I like to perceive information abstractly and process it actively. I want to test theories, apply common sense, handle information and see if it works. I don't like to be given answers, because I'm too distrustful to believe it just because someone said it.

As a teacher, I want to give my students the skills they need in life. I use a lot of movies because it is a great way to get across complex ideas quickly. My favorite question really is: How does this work? or more exactly "How does the World work?"

I live close to a college town, and this time of the year brings a ton of new students to the many colleges in the area. While summer is a sleepy time here, and traffic is light, the fall brings a crush of cars, a collision of older adolescents and toni parents with carefully applied make-up and clean clothes. We locals know that they don't really live around here. We know anyone who looks like that is either coming to a college reunion or dropping off or visiting their kids. Even though they fill up the restaurants and make getting around more difficult, I love to see them come. I like to look into the faces of their 18+ kids, and try to imagine just what they must be making of this life transition. Are they scared? Are they delighted? Have they applied themselves studiously and are anxious to dive into their chosen careers?

They are all very clean and organized looking now, but I know that over time their looks will change. Their clothes will get wrinkled. Their hair might be more outrageous. Their sunglasses will look odd or piercings will appear. Even 'dress up' will be a little less dressy, and most of their shoes will be comfortable most of the time. In other words, they will begin to blend in.

My constant questioning about how the world works, my love of documentaries that 'teach me something,' and my natural laziness to dress up almost ever, allows me to blend in to this college scene too, although my age clearly sets me apart from it. I love the way college-aged students-- really all college students--are tossed together and end up saying "What the fuck?!" It is easy to be an angry progressive these days. It is delightful to live around people who are questioning why things are the way they are and what should be done about it.

Being an adjunct professor is about the best job ever, as far as I'm concerned. I've been an Associate Professor and a College Administrator, and these roles place way too much "tar" on my feet. I have things to teach, and I just want to get right up close and teach them. I don't want to sink deeply into academic bureaucracies, advocate anyone's 'viewpoint' except my own.
I want to be like the college student, him or herself, a free agent struggling with just how much I can be myself and get away with it. It is that pull of "fitting in" and "being your own person" that comes up for me again, now close to 50.

That's probably why I like September so much. Once again, I get to learn new things, and try to get across a confusing message to students who take my course: I want you to disagree with me, you don't get punished for that. And I also want you to work hard and come to class and do the readings. So yes, I do have classroom power and I do make demands. And I make them because that is my role: to teach you something I know. And one of those demands invites you to test out the role of having your own opinions and disagreeing with me. That's how I learn and grow. I learn and grow from people offering their own ideas, once they've come to understand mine. My job is to have the ideas and to clearly present them to you. Your job is to understand them and then to make them your own by rejecting some, clarifying others, accepting a few more. It isn't the ideas themselves you have to accept as "truth." It is the process of thinking.

I am fond of the line that states “Thinking is one of the hardest things people can do. That’s why it is done so rarely.” If, at times, a student find herself frustrated, confused, or anxious, and she doesn’t immediately look for someone or something to blame, I consider that she's made great progress in understanding the often contradictory theories I’m trying to teach. I know it is easier at times to just be doctrinaire. "Just the facts, Professor." No. Don't take my word for it. Dust off a few books, and find out for yourself. It's September. It's the month for learning new things!

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

For the Love of Dogs

People are crazy about their dogs, and I know why: Dogs look after their humans. It is the opposite of what most people think. Most people think that humans “own” dogs and “care for” dogs, and dogs hang around naked, don’t work, and expect free handouts. That is just the kind of stupid human perspective that would never occur to a dog. Dogs don’t see the world in that way.

Since humans were first around, dogs have been hanging around them, and from a dog’s point of view, it hasn’t been easy. Dogs are exceedingly flexible, and as the saying goes, are loyal and true. They really are. While in this culture when we live in major cities, there is little dog opportunity to show it, but it is true none the less. And they like to work and would do so if given half a chance.

I love reading stories about dogs. I once read a story about this village in which the people are starving and naturally, the dogs are more so. When a villager comes across a dog eating anything at all, they assume the dog has stolen it and beat it viciously. Nevertheless, these dogs still hang around and alert the villagers to the approach of lions. That pretty much sums up a dog’s basic nature. A human’s basic nature, too, I suppose.

Another story I like is one about a woman who credits her dog for saving her life when she was about to commit suicide. She had lost her handsome, talented son to a tragic accident, and after weeks of laying in bed in severe depression had decided to overdose on pills. That day, her dog started to act strangely. For weeks, he had laid beside her quietly on the floor, expecting very little. This day, however, he knocked over the table that had the pills on it, brought her shoes to her, then his leash, and whined and moaned until she could stand it no more, and in a state of utter annoyance got up, got dressed, and walked him. He had a destination in mind, and he literally dragged her there. The rest of the story is a bit of a blur, but I believe her son was a runner, and he took her to his running track, and she saw the image of her dead son, blah, blah, blah, and decided to live. My point is this: a non-dog owner would see this as a dog that had enough of lying around and wanted a walk, and a woman who gave it great meaning. A dog owner, however (or the more politically correct term “dog companion” or “dog guardian”) would understand the woman’s conviction that the dog saved her life. Dogs, from the very start of their relationship with humans have learned to read them emotionally very well. And this incredible dog empathy is the reason why humans invest literally millions of dollars a year in the world on dog toys, dog treats and the like.

I have three dogs that I have the good fortune of living with most of the time, because I work out of my home. I have a large lot of land, and have invested a lot of money running an invisible fence around several acres of it, to give the dogs a lot of open space. I consider it a dog’s paradise, but of course, I could make it even more appealing if I were less ‘human focused.’

Dogs see things from a dog’s perspective, and while people have written volumes on it, all of the writings are usually from a person’s point of view, even if they try to write from a dog’s perspective. We can’t help it. A lot of it talks about the dominance relationships of dogs and how we humans have to establish our dominance with the dogs we live with. That’s because we humans are obsessed with our place in the pack, and that’s what we focus on in our dogs. There are even books that give you the “inside tips” on how to establish your dominance by doing things like eating first and never letting a dog on your bed because the higher the sleeper the greater the dominance. People sometimes make me sick.

First of all, a dog isn’t stupid. They know who fills their bowls every day, and who has access to the food, and who picks the timing of the feedings. However, while a dog isn’t stupid, the same can’t be said for a lot of people who live with dogs. They do a lot of crazy behavior that confuse the dogs: they act very capriciously, and as a result they end up with “bad dogs,” and need so-called ‘dog experts’ to help them out. Like that show I saw once about the British Nanny who comes out and straightens out a family in a week, it is the parents that need straightening out so the kids can behave. It is the same thing with dogs.

Dogs each have unique personalities, likes, and habits, although they can be very flexible and forgiving if their human(s) take the time to understand. First off, I believe all dogs like to have a job and they like to be appreciated and loved for doing their job well. If you want a bad dog, give it nothing to do, and then hate it when it thinks up its own job to do that you don’t like. People want to own these highly intelligent dogs and then leave them all day, unattended, and wandering around the house looking for something to do. Then, when the dog does find something, like chewing the leg of a chair, or a shoe, or creating a large hole in the ground, they are yelled at or worse. The dog has been waiting all day to see his or her human, and keeping itself busy, and then, the moment when the human they’ve been waiting all day to see comes home....WHAM! No warm greeting. No “I missed you so much” which of course is what the dog says the minute they see the human. No, they get yelled at, or worse.

Then, the dumb human says “My dog is a pain in the ass.” Still, even when the dog should really ignore or hate the owner for this incredibly insensitive behavior, they don’t. The dog just tries to forget about it, and let by-gones be by-gones.

I repeat: Dogs need a job, and if they are left alone all day, they need, at least as puppies, to be given a crate, water, and a few toys or bones to while away the time. Dogs can be exceedingly good at waiting.

My first husband believed that that was a dog’s job, to wait, but I don’t think so. I believe your average dog has two jobs that intertwine: to protect the property and to look after their human or humans. Some dogs really like to focus on just one human, and are called “one man dogs” or some such thing. They don’t make good family dogs, because they can’t keep the idea of all those people being their responsibility in their heads. They aren’t “family dogs” and shouldn’t live in families.

Other dogs see the whole world as their “families” and make lousy watch dogs, except when they bark excitedly at the prospects of seeing anyone new, including the burglar. Don’t get a dog like that if you want to be exceedingly special to just one dog. They will love you as much as the next guy.

Dogs have personalities, and my three are no exception. I have two German Shepherd Dogs, one from the “German” line, and one from the “American” line. The Germans take their dogs very seriously, and expect any good dog they breed to be a “working” dog. This means that they can do the things that a working dog does, like track, follow orders, and protect. And, by the way, the name of the breed IS German Shepherd Dog, to distinguish them from the guys with the sheep, apparently. They are one of the few breeds that have the word “dog” in the title. Maybe the only one, I don’t know.

German Shepherd dogs are on a list of dogs the insurance companies have to exclude you from getting insurance, because they are considered ‘dangerous.’ They are dangerous to the insurance companies, because when other people are bitten by the German Shepherd dog, the companies have to pay for the law suits. This makes sense if you are an insurance company. If you are a German Shepherd dog, however, which is a “family” type dog, you have to know who is in your family, and this can be very tough, especially in the city. Ok, maybe you introduce the dog to your mail carrier and repair guy and housekeeper, and the dog knows these humans are okay. But what if there is a substitute mail carrier that walks through the fence? What’s a dog to do? And while most Shepherds are excellent with children, what about that bratty 12 year old who sneaks over the fence with a stick, and tries to hit the dog? Should the dog just ignore the territorial encroachment and belligerent aggression?

If you are owner of one of these “barred breeds,” don’t expect any help from the law. Dogs are treated like, well, dogs, according to the laws in most states. Bears and other wildlife have more rights than dogs do. Birds can sing as loudly and as long as they want, but even in the country, if a dog barks more than twenty minutes it can be “arrested.” Dogs aren’t allowed to wander and visit friends in the neighborhood without getting arrested either, even if they are doing no harm.

One of my dogs, Malaka, was arrested recently, for visiting his girlfriend down the street. We didn’t know Malaka had a girlfriend, and we were surprised he had broken his “invisible fence.” The neighbors, on the other hand, knew all about the illegal tryst. They found the love affair harmless and cute, as Malaka is the largest Shepherd I’ve ever seen, and his paramour was a small black and white mongrel. They enjoyed strolling down the lane together and doing other things that dogs do when in love. Nevertheless, we never knew of this secret life, as Malaka always came when called, and we assumed he was just in another part of our rather large yard.

We learned differently when he didn’t come. He didn’t come because he was in Doggie Prison, as a convicted Dog Roamer. That was his crime: Roaming. And, because he never leaves the yard, or so we thought, he didn’t have his address on his collar, so the dog officer didn’t know who to call. It finally got all straightened out, and he came back, and we updated his invisible fence battery, but my point is the same: deer and bear can roam freely, and even steal your food and eat your shrubs, but they get no jail time. Shoot them for doing it, however, and you will. You can’t shoot wildlife without a license, but you can shoot a dog for being “menacing” on your property, and you can have him put to sleep if you believe he is “menacing” to you repeatedly, even if he is on a leash and never bites you. Kill a chicken, and a dog is dead meat. Literally. One bite of fresh chicken meat and the dog gets a lethal injection.

As I said before, dogs have personalities and some like other dogs, some don’t. Some prefer the company of other dogs to humans, and I don’t blame them. Most dogs prefer to be around other dogs because dogs act sensibly and frankly, humans don’t. My other Shepherd, Greta, never liked other dogs very much, until she met Jack. She loves Jack, and it is a very unlikely pairing. Jack is an 11 pound Coton de Tulear, while Greta is 75 when she slims down. While she hated Malaka when she first met him, and tolerates him to this day (only his towering size saves him from utter annihilation), she took to Jack almost immediately.

Jack is her kind of dog. He is absolutely fearless as only a puppy can be, but it is more than that. Coton’s were once wild on the Island of Madagascar, and therefore had to live by their wits, while the American line of German Shepherds were bred for their beauty. In other words, Malaka is too dim for my girl, while Jack is quick and spry. Jack outfoxes her, and she admires him for it. They play endlessly, while Malaka pines away in the corner. Greta will attack Malaka if he dares come near Jack, so he just avoids him, even letting Jack eat his food if I don’t intervene. Malaka is a broken man.

I have seen Jack take flying leaps off our bed and onto Greta’s back, all with no harmful effects. He runs after her, biting her stomach and knee caps until I pity her. Still, she patiently plays tug of war with him, even giving up a few steps in his direction to keep him hopeful and involved, before claiming her ultimate victory. She likes the game, and will “play tug” for a long time, pretending she is into it sincerely. Jack, on the other hand, could care less about winning, and cares more about playing. When she does claim the toy, Jack just bites her muzzle, her legs, her chest, her ears, as she’s walking away. It is usually enough to re-involve her in the game. It isn’t that he’s completely disinterested in winning, however. He’s just crafty. He’ll grab it back the minute she isn’t looking. He knows his own toys, too, and loses his mind if she steals them and won’t give them back. I’ve seen him pee on her bed to get even: a dog equivalent of graffiti. Or swearing, I suppose.

Out of doors, Greta has the advantage of speed, while Jack is smaller and therefore more agile. He does this weave and dodge through the bushes, and in one spot, a barrier to keep water out of the basement prevents Greta from proceeding in the chase, but not Jack. She has had to figure out from which bush he’ll reappear again, and continue the chase. It is endlessly amusing, as only a good dog game can be.

In Frisbee play, Jack knows he can’t outrun her for it, so he hides in the tall grass, in her likely return direction, and pops out as she passes to try for a sneak grab. Malaka has long since learned not to grab for the Frisbee, even if he’s able to, because he’ll get a terrible beating by her. But Malaka resents this condition, so as she runs for it, he’ll often hip chuck her on her return trip to us. Hip chucks were bad enough. Now, Greta has to contend with a “Jack Attack” as well, poor girl.

One thing humans fail to understand about dominance is that dog dominance is a constant and exhausting process for the head dog. Like the worried Chief Executive, the dog in charge has to not only keep things running, but also reminding the others who is in charge. It isn’t just size and strength that gives one the title. It is the intense desire, and that is what Greta has: The desire to lead, but unfortunately, it takes its toll. As the dog kingdom has expanded, so has her responsibilities. Now she has two dog bowls to steal from, instead of one. Now a whole new set of toys to covet. Now a new boy who vies for the affection of her preferred human. A little guy, too, who can sit on laps and sleep on beds.

This week, she has a new challenge, and I think she’s handling it gracefully: My friend Jassy, has come to stay on vacation, and brought her dog, Ziggy, a Shit-zu/Maltese mix. She’s keeping up her job of trying to steal Ziggy’s gated food, and snarling when the puppy tries to steal her Frisbee, but frankly I don’t think her heart is in it. She has Jassy to contend with, who is naturally nervous about a 75 pound dog snarling at her 9 pound snuggly. Also, Greta’s natural exuberance is a danger to Jassy, whose legs are wobbly from pain. Jassy calls Greta “a vexation to the spirit.” Greta would call Jassy “that woman who yells at me” if she spoke at all. Greta tried to get on Jassy’s good side, by running up to her, rubbing against her, etc, but it is a set of unfortunate efforts. The more Greta approaches, the more she gets yelled at. To make matters worse, from a dog’s perspective, Jack has taken to Jassy, and the feelings are mutual. Jack will enthusiastically jump onto Jassy’s lap, licking her face, snuggling into her, and Jassy speaks warmly and reciprocates. Greta looks on from a distance, with a worried look. While she recognizes that “you can’t win the heart of every human,” it lowers her status as Jack take another homosapien out of the running, by claiming it for his own.

The only thing that evens the score just a bit is that Ziggy is also displaced when Jassy shows Jack affection. For Malaka’s part, he has decided that his only way to win back some self-respect is in the desperate attempt to dominate Ziggy. This has lead to his further isolation, as his attempts are met by extreme displeasure by all the humans. While still cold consolation, he continues to be fed before the little ones, and continues to run faster than the little ones, as well. Still, I know in the world of dogs, he’s on the bottom, so I give him as much love and affection as possible. And, on a brighter note, Jassy does find his slow moving, gentler approach more endearing, and will give him affection on occasion, when he isn’t being mean to Ziggy.

How dogs ever manage to live with humans and remain in such good spirits is beyond me. The politics are incredible.