Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Beachcomber

This being combs beaches. Flotsam from the sea and objects left alone on land provide livelihood if not existence. Lean frame, moderate height, medium fair complexion showing effect of long exposure to sun and wind, of a not unhealthy but not entirely benign sort. Brownish hair, thinning some, a beard mostly brown, a sprinkle of red, invading white. Leather sandals, evidence of long wear. Blue Jeans and a Sears work shirt of the old fashioned kind-- bleached more happily by the wind and solar rays than his own biological hide. Green blue eyes, like the sea.

Walking the evening walk, in the middle of the dry sandy beach, a ways up from the true shoreline. Occasionally eyes turn toward the wet sand, the place where waves roll up, stretch and then fall and die. Now and then skimming the moving water itself. Sometimes, even at the end of a day when the beach teems with people, there is treasure perhaps overlooked by all those mostly looking at each other, or perhaps appearing late after they were already off the beach.

But these late afternoons eyes mostly wander lightly over the dryer sand, recently the home of beach chairs, blankets, coolers, even open sided tents, balloon tired baby strollers. And people-- with objects, equipment, possessions. The evening treasures aren’t hard to recognize, just hard to see. They are human made and human lost—coins, pocket knives, toys, cell phones, cans, and bottles, key chains, bracelets, knives and forks,

Not focusing very intently, keeping in touch with present time and space, aware of the significance and importance of this moment, this place-- the meeting of the land and the ocean, wind and clouds, the unceasing moving energy of the sea, the relative inertness of the land, the beauty of space, the stretching out of time not too filled or clock divided. The comber has no watch.

Tonight’s gleaning about average. 3 quarters, two dimes, a nickel, and 5 pennies. Also a paper back book— The Dispossed-- a Frisbee, and a small pair of scissors perhaps from a manicure set. A small can of tuna fish, unopened. The book to read. Tossing the Frisbee up toward the path out of the dunes so that some child might find or refind it tomorrow. The scissors, good quality German go to the notions store where they’ll likely fetch a dollar. The coins enough for a cup of coffee to go with the tuna fish for supper. Not bounteous, but enough.

Real money makers are rare. A diamond ring once, a few gold wedding bands over the years-- perhaps jetsam rather than merely lost-- a charm bracelet (gold rabbit’s foot, horseshoe, four leaf clover—certainly good luck for the comber) , a $50 bill, s gold cigarette lighter. These bonanzas, bring in enough cash make the rainy days, the winter, the days with nothing found survivable. Occasional other delights. A whole bottle of wine, a Cuban cigar in a mental tube, a small flashlight with lithium battery that works for two years.

Sitting in the sand as the stars appear. Can opener on Swiss army knife opens the tuna fish. Coffee still warm, two bags of little oyster crackers left on the counter by someone who’s had clam chowder and hadn’t wanted the crackers. The tuna delicious tasting like the sea, the crackers sea salty and crunchy. Sleep in the still warm sand, stars overhead, the gentle sound of the waves,

Walking the morning walk, pale yellow softly glowing on the far horizon. Moving with dignity and meaning, but without purpose. Eyes alert, but without expectation. Mind sometimes aware of body sensations, pleasure of picking up and putting down feet, feeling the wet solidness of the sand, enjoying the rhythm of movements, the power of muscles to propel body and mind along the shore. Body pain, too. Aching knees, sore shoulder, cramped belly. Mind sometimes aware of itself—memories, projections into the future, creating problems and sometimes solving them. Sometimes just worrying them along. Mind sometimes breath-ing and soaring on the spirit of the wind.

Three treasures almost at once. Small flotsam crystal vial, tightly stoppered and still half full of expensive perfume. From the sea itself, some mussel shells, shiny black, very similar to one another and yet each distinctly if subtly different. Finally, not tangibly harvestable, a small area just above the horizon, become increasing light and bright, rays of anticipation and energy. Then suddenly a tiny intensely red spot, almost too hot to look at. Growing steadily moment by moment and then violently, gracefully boiling up out of the sea. Sunrise.

Joyful surging of the heart. A pause, arranging the five shells in a circle, thinner ends pointing inward at each other and toward the center. Balance for a moment, then a wave, overreaching all recent ones, splashing over mandala, fragmenting the arrangement and tumbling the shells back into the sea.


For background material on this short story and a guide to understanding it as a suppot for personal change, growth, development and healing, visit my Website:  and use the link to Website Contents, then the link Writing Narratives as Support of Change and then the link The Beachcomber: How This Personal Narrative Has Been of Support (and Hinderance to Change) 

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Truth: The Individual and Society

Sacrifice might be demanded of the individual, but never compromise; for though only society can give security and stability, only the individual, the person, has the power of moral choice—the power of change, the essential function of life.____
Ursula Le Guin The Dispossessed, p. 333

In this psychologically brilliant science fiction novel, Ms. Le Guin raises fundamental questions about the relationship between the individual and the group (society, culture). I understand her to say that they are inextricably bound together and must be in a balanced relationship for a society or an individual to be healthy. The details of that balance are always in tension, complex, mysterious, not fully able to be conceptualized or spoken.

This view is different from the one so romantically expressed by Ayn Rand in her novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Although both authors see the individual as the ultimate source of creativity (and change), Ms. Rand’s heroes , Howard Roark and John Galt, are presented as only hindered by their societies. As I understand her, Rand would just like the group to get out of the way and let the individuals create a perfect world. This is partly why Rand has been such a darling of some American political conservatives –because she also states that wealth can only created by the individual and that the collective, as represented by government can only inhibit the creativity and productivity of the individual. (The development of this philosophical, psychological and political view seems to have been heavily influenced by the suffering Rand witnessed and experienced as “collectivism” {Communism} invaded the world of her childhood.)

Rand’s View is much simpler than LeGuin’s, and perhaps more satisfying upon initial encounter. It is also one-sided and out of balance. It is clear to me that wealth is always a social construct and cannot be created by an individual outside of a social context. A man can have in his possession a cubic yard of gold. The worth (or is it value?) of the gold is determined by what others are willing to pay for it and their having something to pay for it with (something that is wanted or valued by the person in possession of the gold). (Of course, the gold possessor may just like having a big gold cube in his cave--living rooms don’t exist without a group culture. In that case the gold might be valuable {or worth something} to him, but it is not wealth.)
Shevek, Le Guin’s “Hero”, is a physicist and, Le Guin makes clear that in her view his creative achievement in his field is both an individual one and a collective one. There is no physics without a community of physicists, without a language of physics, without a history of physics thinking and development. But only one man is the source of the creative “synthesis” (or fountainhead of creation) that moves that history to something new that innovates, changes things.

It is clear that Le Guin believes that groups seem to inevitably move toward restriction of freedom, conservative inhibition of change and innovation and that the individual has to take the responsibility and consequences for his or her creative innovations—for the truth that they discover/create. This view is similar to Rand’s.
We can’t create anything without the conceptual linguistic community but only the individual can really use those tools to articulate new truths. Shevek comes to realize that the rules of thinking (logic in the larger sense, mathematics) can lead him to truth within the system of reasoning and number, but the usefulness of the truth depends upon its acceptance by the community of physicists and people willing to test it empirically and practically.
Le Guin’s view is systemic and spiritual (because meaning is not merely rational or material in her view) Rand’s view seems to be entirely rational/materialistic as evidenced by John Galt’s long speech endorsing what he understands as the Aristotelean view of reality: to whit, “A is A”. Le Guin’s view is also constructionist and existential because she indicates human beings create their world through thinking about it and talking about with language. This view is also put forth in her Novel, The Telling. Language is not an individual creation. Human languages are born out of communication between individuals within groups, and they grow and develop within human societies.

Most broadly conceived, science is the search for truth that can be consensually validated and mutually agreed upon. The particular rules about what constitutes scientific procedure or evidence is itself a subject of inquiry and discussion, a human construction. If truth in physics lives in this tension between individual and group thought, how much more so for the field of psychology?

Physics had to accept Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminancy, which seemed to imply that we can know about what the group of atoms is doing but not the individual atom; this was followed by even less rigidly “materialistic” physics (particles that go in and out of existence, anti matter, the relativity of time and space (the tradition within which {the fictional, of course} Shevek creates and solves problems).

Most “scientific” psychological research has been based upon a statistical model, in a way mirroring the Heisenberg principle that we can know something about a group, but not an individual. Although I know very little about it, modern physics doesn’t appear to me to be heavily based on statistics—and in fact the most important experiments in physics seem to rest on single cases where something either can be observed to happen or not (for example the bending of light in a gravitational field).

When I went to graduate school a lot of scientific psychology consisted of research carried out with animals as subjects. This was partly based on the notion that the study of behavior can be used to build up a full psychology of people, which I believe is utterly false. It is not that the biological/body foundations of human existence cannot be explored and understood in the context of our relationship to other animals, but human existence is something else entirely and requires its own psychology which has to be radically different than studies of other animals . This is true because what is unique about humans is not our behavior, but rather the psyche, the inner world that influences that behavior. This creates the difference between behavior and action (which has to do with the meaning that is associated with the behavior). We are not likely to learn much about human existence (and its potentials) by building up from smaller units that exclude what is basic to that existence—namely an inner world of ideas, feelings, images, goals, intentions, time, etc. We can’t study that inner world without data, but the most important data is often linguistic data—what people say (or write) about existence. This is what differentiates human action from animal behavior.

As Le Guin writes, there is no human action without a past and a future—and these are conceptual/linguistic realities which human beings create and which become the necessary framework for our existence. Other animals do not have a past and future other than as human beings conceptualize time in relation to them. They do not conceptualize it for themselves. (Jean Piaget, the developmental episttomologist/psychologist saw the cognitive aspects of what he calls sensory/ motor intelligence in the behavior of pre-verbal children; but he is very clear about the limitations of this system and what enormous impact the development of language has upon thinking—and therefore of the world the child inhabits).

To be valid our science of the psyche must include the psyche (the inner world of people) and it must give us an understanding and ability to influence individual human beings in human ways. By necessity this includes issues of meaning, value, ideals (truth beauty and goodness) as well as our behavior, our social life.

I am not envisioning at the moment what a “science” of human psychology would be like, other than that it must include the basic dimensions alluded to above. The search for consensually validated or agreed upon methods of arriving at truth and agreement is still what I think we ought to mean by the term science—and nothing more. And psychological science will have some very different dimensions than other science, because human beings are radically different than other phenomenon (we aren’t just phenomenon).
This throws us back into the dilemma that Shevek faces—because his truth is in some sense created individually by him in relation to standards he understands (logic, mathematics, consistency, etc). However, to be useful, to be “knowledge”, these “truths” have to be understood and accepted by others. But this cannot mean that their truth is limited to the dumbest and least educated person, or, in his case, every non-physicist, or every not- understanding physicist. Shevek has to be open to being disproved or even superseded, but he has to have the courage and take the responsibility for the consequences, the personal consequences for him, of standing up for the truth that he has arrived at—and relinquishing that truth only when he is satisfied that it has been found wanting according the criteria he understands. Even if he is wrong, his task is to stand up for the truth as he sees it.
Copernicus collected evidence that the earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around. Since this view was not accepted by others, and since the church threatened to (or perhaps did) excommunicate him because of his interpretation of his data, Copernicus publicly renounced his conclusion. He was not willing, publicly, to endure the consequences of standing up for his truth. It appears that he didn’t renounce his truth privately, within himself, and eventually, the group accepted his evidence and conclusions. I don’t know enough of the history of these events to know if Copernicus’s public renunciation of the heliocentric view retarded or actually hastened the acceptance of his views.
I relate all of this to current debates about best practice and evidence based practice in psychology. Individual psychologists are under pressure from the collective (immediately our own professional organizations, more remotely and perhaps causally, insurance companies that seek to influence the services they pay for) to use evidence based practices. Some of us question whether the science that leads to these collective opinions about what research shows to be best practice really enhance or optimize psychological services such as psychotherapy.
It is clear that the same forces that operate in the realm of psychology, have distorted medical research and practice, which in some sense is more tightly bound to the physical reality of body. A wholisitic (holistic) view of health, which even medicine is beginning to consider, is certainly essential for psychology (foundationed in all of the arguments I have put forth above as well as many other lines of reasoning and evidence)
The” truth” statements which “evidence based practices” represent come out of various institutions—research labs, universities, journals, which are collective efforts of individuals. But these are individuals who are highly integrated into a cultural setting and often are not very self aware in relation to the limitations in their own ways of seeking truth. Nor are they usually sensitive to how much the institutions to which they are loyal are embedded in a culture whose truths are biased toward the materialistic, toward the statistical (group rather than individual), toward the simplistic rather than the simple (Ochams Razor), toward profit, toward narrowly defined self interests.

As I consider these matters, and as I write the above, I am aware that I many of my earlier experiences and biases and predilections have led me to be a minimal reader and consumer of primary source psychological “scientific” (academically sanctioned) research. I am committed to changing this so that if I am able to present at least some outline of what I think psychological science and research might look like when it includes full dimensions of human existence, it will not be done in ignorance of more specific details of how at least some sample of current psychological research is being carried out. I hope that I will find more reliable and useful guidance from it than I have in the past.
I do find that these biases lead me to a question as I make an effort to renewed objectivity about the usefulness of current psychological research. Is there good, scientific evidence that “scientific” psychological research has clearly contributed to the improvement of human welfare? I can offer some rational argument that it is has been harmful in certain ways, but this grows in part, out of my above alluded to biases and predilections. Which doesn’t mean I am “wrong” in my conclusions, of course. Hopefully, more about this later.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Meaning and Time

I am an atheist who prays. I believe there is no God in charge of our daily lives and daily events in the world. I entertain several creation myths and believe they are all equally true--Evolution and the creation story in genesis are two of my favorites. I believe we humans have to experience our lives as meaningful in order to live. I believe that we have to create our own meaning--collectively and/or individually. My prayers are those of thanksgiving and pleas for support when I am feeling really scared or experiencing myself as espeically powerless.

I believe that individual human existence ends at death. I believe that the only way we can conquer death is through the experience of meaningful activities that give us timelessness.

Almost every Monday this summer I walked along the Schuylkill River about 3/4 of a mile from my apartment. I took along a net and a bag or two. I fished bottles and cans and plastic bags and styrofoam cups and plates and a couple of T shirts and several flip flops out of the water with my net, and used my bags to carry them to the trash cans located along the bike/hike trail that runs along the river.

I also fished out balls--baseballs, soccerballs, undersized basketballs, rotting nerf balls of various sizes, handballs, (no ping pong balls), several footballs (not round), and many many tennis balls of various colors. Also 2 dozen plastic fishing bobbers of various sizes and 2 rubber duckies.

I kept the balls and bobbers and the rubber duckies. I collected them on a shelf in my apartment entrance way and wondered what I would do with them when fall came.

Mostly the hour that I spent harvesting bottles and cans and balls every Monday was timeless. No rushing, no worrying, no hurrying, no past no future, just presentness. I did have to practice letting go of thoughts related to wanting balls more than cans, rewarding myself by letting myself collect balls after fishing out a certain number of bottles and cans.

Years ago, I would not have been timeless in this activity for, even if no other worries or thoughts of present and future came to steal the present, I would be drawn into thoughts about pollution and pollutors and self righteous indication and anger at those who dirty up the river. I probably would give some of my serenety to depression--hopelessness and powerlessness about changing the world.

Now I accept that I am a pollutor even though I don't throw cans and bottles away on the street or in the water. I accept that I am no better than anyone else and that I have my defects and failures that are at least as serious as those who litter.

I really don't know if we can save the planet from our polluting. We might. We might not. What I do know is that I can take 30 bottles and cans out of the water this Monday Morning and this little bit of the Schuylkill river looks a little cleaner.

I find this meaningful. And the activity timeless. While I am doing it, there is no death, only the enjoyment of these present moments.

see more at

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Parallel Universe?

This morning I received an email from a friend who is living in Japan. The subject bar said,"Parallel Universe"? The only content was a link to a website that had a headline and story reporting that one of the NFL teams had forfeited a game when the co-captain realized that flipping a coin raised the existential problem of meaninglessness for him and he could not continue with the coin-toss calling or the game. (if our whole season is determined by chance, what purpose does it all have?)

I was about to face my own Sunday morning challenge to Meaning as part of my six month encounter with the New York Times Company. The external problem is that I am not able to encounter the actual New York Times in the manner that the New York Times Company and I contracted for, although I keep my part of the bargain by paying the bill every month.

The larger ironical aspect of the situation (and perhaps irony usually points to a situation where meaninglessness is breaking through into awareness) grows out of the juxtaposition of the fact that the New York Times Company is in the Communication business and produces one of the best (reasonably reliable, well written, concenred with ethics if not always ethcially outstanding) "commuications" --its newspaper-- with the fact that communicating with the company has been for me, ultimately, an exercise in meaningless--(also known in some existential circles as absurdity--as in the absurdity of life).

One level of absurdity is related to the following facts. Last winter I subscribed to the Times--to be delivered to my apartment in Philadelphia on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday Mornings. (I can remember living in Miami and not being able to buy the Sunday Times til Sunday afternoon; I remember living in Austin, Texas, and not being able get the Sunday Times til Wednesday--in those days being damn glad to get it at all).

For about six weeks, I recieved the morning paper on Fridays and Saturdays, but never on Sundays.

Well, not exactly never. If the paper wasn't delivered by 8:30 I was permitted to call the New York Times Company, wade through the muddy waters of their phone answering menu, keying in all kinds of information which a few minutes later (or many many minutes later) I would have to provide again to a person on the line for "verification purposes". Then I had the choice of asking for a credit to my account or for the paper to be delivered by 2:30 PM. Sometimes it was delivered Sunday afternoon, but not always, and I didn't always receive the credit on my bill that was promised in case of non-delivery (but I really didn't want my money back, I wanted my paper).

I guess my first level of encounter with meaningless and absurdity grew out of my awareness that 1. the Times delivery network had my real address (on Fridays and Saturdays) and 2. that my neighbor right down the hall got his Sunday Times every week before 8:30. I couldn't understand how those two facts could be true--the New York Times (company) knows my address and they do deliver papers on my floor on Sunday. Why didn't I get mine? Even after all these months, I don't know how to make sense out of these facts.

After several weeks of exploring this issue with representatives of the Times, and encountering their apparent inability to solve the problem, I gave up and cancelled my subscription, with the compnay, by my rough estimate, owing me perhaps $10-$20--you have to pay the regular rate even if you have to call them and get the paper late (see below)--not to mention the time I wasted (and the time and money the New York Times Company wasted, although not the people who work at managing their home delivery, because some of them wouldn't be employed if there were no problems with delivery, I guess).

Since, my neighbor continued to get his paper, and I continued to feel envious (this touching on my inferiority complex and my underlying existential anxiety about who I am--not helped by people on the phone who keep asking me to verify my identity), I got a new idea.
I started a new subscription to the Times, this time only for Sunday. I assumed that if there were difficulties in getting the paper under these conditions, there would be a rigourous purity to the reality of the situation and that it might be confronted more easily and actually solved. When they were solved I then could add back the Friday and Saturday paper.

I was right about solving the problem of getting the Sunday paper, only unfortunately it was finding a solution through restricting variables that seemed to work, not that the new, second, subsription itself didn't include the problem. That is, I didn't get the Sunday paper delivered by 8:30 Sunday morning, but again had to call up every Sunday, after 8:30, and usually my paper was delivered by 2:30 on Sunday afternoon. One Sunday, I told to my story to a "subscription manager" named Wanda who answered the phone in Miami Florida (see reference to that city above) who insisted that she would get me a paper that day and that she would fix the problem. I was very skeptical, but in fact, a paper was delivered to me about an hour later that Sunday and the next Sunday morning there was a paper outside of my door at 7:15 when I went to look for it. This continued every Sunday for the next three weeks. I called her and left a message in Wanda's voice mail box thanking her for her help and congratulating on her impressive exercise of power.

(Another of the four existential challenges we all face is the issue of powerlessness and I certainly had a wonderful opportunity to work on this issue also in this encounter with reality of the Times. I might have started writing about that challenge if my friend hadn't sent me the link to the story on meaninglessness).

I know. I know, I should have been content with this "victory" and let myself and Wanda live with savoring our successes.

I really like the Saturday crossword puzzle (one of my less self destructive compulsive, anxiety reducing activites and which I have perserved after giving up several other more destructive ones), and so, I decided to take what I assumed would be a small risk. I changed my subscription to include the Friday and Saturday papers. Since the compnay had solved the problem of getting me the Sunday paper, which was where the problem was in subscriptions number one and two, and since they had no trouble getting me the Friday and Saturday papers during the period of Subscription number one, I thought it unlikely that there would be a problem during subscription number three. (And if there were a problem, I assumed that it would be with Friday and Saturday, and, even though I like other parts of the paper those two days, I could get the crossword puzzle from the internet, free as a Sunday subscriber--assuming I had to cancel the Friday and Saturday parts of the subscription).

My estimate of risk was wrong. The week after I enlarged my subscription to include Friday and Saturday delivery, I received both of those papers, but not the Sunday paper. I have recived no Sunday paper before 8:30 A.M. in the six weeks since I began subscription number three! Sometimes, I have gotten the paper Sunday afternoon--once I got two copies, but they were both delivered to the desk on the first floor of my building and I didnt' find out til Sunday evening, once I got a paper on Monday--but it was missing the magazine section and the news of the week in review. I have never got a credit for any of the missed papers.

Although these facts themselves clearly might challenge many people's sense of living in a meaningful world and having a meaningful life, they do not represent the most serious assaults on meaning in the situation. Remember, I write blogs as an exercise in self narrative and the issue here is how do I handle challenges to my maintainence of personal meaning in an often absurd world. I have to continue to the second level of my experience of this situation to show the full challenge to my belief that we live in a world, a culture, that has coherence and meaning (and can function at basic tasks that it sets itself, like delivering objects to a certain time and place with some regularity if a person is willing to pay for the service, the price that is asked.)

As I indicated above, if the newspaper is not delivered to your door by 8:30 AM you are permitted to call the New York Times Company and exercise your "rights". Unfortunately your rights at that point do not include having the delivery that you paid for so that you can read the paper in the morning.

The people on the phone were always at least superficially polite (sometimes in a corporate kind of way, sometimes genuinely warm after the initial run through of their trained responses) and always apologetic and reassuring that the problem would be taken care of and I would get the paper soon. The second level of challenge to meaning has to do with my dawning realization that the New York Times Company has a system related to delivery that 1. doesn't work and 2. that the people involved in its management really aren't in charge of it, or don't understand it themselves, in its reality. For me this is a more serious challenge to my belief that our world has meaning.

At first, I thought that the people I was talking to really knew how the distribution system worked and simply wouldn't tell me. In other words, when I asked them, how could it be possible that I could get the Friday and Saturday papers and not the Sunday paper (since thier frist responses were that they probably didn't have my correct address), no one ever gave me an answer. I began to believe that really they didn't know. Their job was to take calls about non-delivery, and notify some distributor who would then fix the problem. They didn't need to know what caused the problem, nor to make sense of the problem, nor how to solve the problem. Their idea of solving the problem was simply to make a note in my file that I didn't get delivery and to notify the distributor that I didn't get a paper, ask that a paper be delivered to me, and note that the distrubtor shouldn't let this happen again.

I don't know how Wanda solved the problem of getting me my Sunday paper during the period of Subscription number Two. She either couldn't or wouldn't tell me, and perhaps she was just lucky when the several subscription managers on previous Sundays hadn't been. (I do believe that they sent the notices, because at least some times I got the afternoon delivery; and when I checked the following week, there was always a note in my file, indicating that I had called with a problem and that the "appropriate" steps were taken. Perhaps Wanda's Son-in-Law had a job in Philadelphia delivering the newspaper. I wish I had been able to get in touch with her directly again about the problem with Subscription number 3, but actually I wasn't even supposed to have her voice mail number and I never could talk with her directly.

After two weeks of the problem during Subscription number 3, a subcription manager whose cousin wasn't in charge of delivering the New York Times in Philadelphia, realized that this problem was more than run-of-the mill--and therefore not likely to be responsive to her routine "solutions"-- that is notifying the distributor. She called in a Subscription Supervisor.

Jody, the subscription supervisor, has not only been polite, she has done something almost unimagineable to me after my vast experience as a consumer and provider making phone calls to companies--she called back the next week to check on the problem and every week since she was called me about my "case". Not only that, after two weeks of failing to solve the problem, she notified the district subscription manager, who actually called me two weeks in a row in the middle of the week to tell me he was monitoring the situation and that it would be solved. Again, neither Jody nor he told me how it was possible that I could get the Friday and Saturday papers and not the Sunday paper, especially in view of the fact thtat I was regularly getting the Sunday paper under Subcription number two, until I re-added Friday and Saturday under subscription number three. I don't know if they knew how it could happen or not, but they didn't tell me. They also weren't able to solve the problem.

Something interesting did happen after this district subscription manager had been called the first time (on Sunday). A few minutes later I got a call from a "local" distribution manager. He was polite and promised to get someone to bring the paper to me quickly and he was willing to reveal that he actually worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which is, apparently, in charge of distributing the New York Times in Philadelphia. He said something which made it sound as if, when I changed my subscription, on "his" list I was switched from Sunday to Friday and Saturday delivery (it did seem likely that the New York Times didn't make this error--since they had immediately charged my account for the added deliveries under subcription number 3 and their records reflected the switch to that kind of subscription on the date I requested it). None-the-less this Philadelphia Inquirer manager assured me he could fix the problem and that I would have no problems in the future, but that if I did I should call him and he gave me his personal extension. I did call hm back later that day when my paper didn't show up--and it turned out that he had actually arranged for the paper to be delivered twice--but since that was the Sunday these papers weren't brought up to my apartment, I didn't know it. In the two subsequent weeks, that I haven't gotten the paper, he has not answered the phone when I called on Sundays and he hasn't returned my calls. (Perhaps he has been fired. I would guess that the Inquirer is delivering the Times because of its own dire financial condition, which may have something to do with why the arrangment apparently doesn't work. All speculation on my part, of course. I also speculate that the New York Times may be printed by the Philadelphia Inquirer for Philadelphia delivery. Underlying reality in our culture has gotten more and more complex and counter-intuitive--aren't the New York Times Company and The Philadelphia Inquirer Company competing in the Philadelphia market? Isn't competition in the market place what makes our capitalistic system work?).

This week the District supervisor from the Times' Company didn't call midweek to check on last week's delivery, as he had promised. Perhaps he has been fired also. I think it more likely that he has had to face his own powerlessness to solve a problem which is probably within the range of authority and responsbility of his job description, so he is either using denial or having an existential crisis of meaning and powerlessness himself.

The above paragraph may be completely true, but there is another slightly more challenging (for me) possiblity as well. This morning, faithful Jody called me again to find out if my paper had been delivered. I told her "no" and that I had decided to give up and cancel my subscription again. Jody as always been extremely polite and apologetic (not as warm and human as Wanda, but clearly doing her job, including trying to keep customers happy, to the very best of her abilty). According to what I imagine is corporate policy she asked me if there was anything she could do to get me to change my mind about cancelling. I said "no". then I said, "yes. Cancel my subscription, arrange to get me the paper on a regular basis and I will be happy to start paying, retroactively, from the week I get all three papers". Jody responded that it was not within her power to arrange delivery if there is no current subscription. She said if I ever changed my mind and wanted to renew my subscription that I should feel free to call her and that she would try to make sure that I got the paper. I told her that I would never subscribe to the New York Times again and probably I'd never read it.

(I cancelled my subscription to the New Yorker when they had a picture of Barak and Michelle Obama on the cover looking like Arab terrorists; I did sneak a peak at a couple of cartoons one week in an airport magazine rack, but other than that I have kept my pledge of non-support to such tastelessness, and what I consider very poor judgment on the part of a magazine that I treasured in many ways).

There have to be consequences for actions and inactions on the part of people and businesses. And especially information carriers.

Later in the day, another thought came to me. I'll bet that both Jody and the district manager by now know that the New York Times Company does not have the capability of getting me a paper on Sundays. The corporate policy, or perhaps for the security of their jobs, they are never permitted to say that, so that in fact they will keep saying that they will solve the problem as long as the customer is willing to keep calling, going through the automated menus, waiting for someone to answer or return their calls, calling again to get credit for missed papers. In this game, the customer has to quit so that in that way it becomes his fault (for giving up, when in fact the problem was "certainly" going to be solved). Maybe Jody and the district manager really did believe every week that the problem was going to be solved next week (although their never telling me what actually needed to happen to solve it, adds to my skepticism on this point). I believe that it was in their interest (or the interest of the company) to make me the quitter.

Now for the personal part. I used to get very angry when confronted with situations that challenged my sense of meaning. Ditto for when I felt powerless. I became self righteous and judgmental and often very negative in my speech to the people representing those realities which were evoking a sense of powerlessness and meaninglessness in me.

I am doing much, much better. My awareness of the larger situation--that the people I talk to on the phone are as powerless and facing absurdity just as I am--and they are as human and worthy of respect as I am--never fails for more than 10-20 seconds at a time. For me, this now seems like a long time, because living outside of my own authority, giving up my sense of meaning and my power, is quickly in my consciousnes and it is painful. Out of the 30 or 40 phone calls which I must have had with various representives of the Times, I know there was one, and there may have been two, when I had no lapses into anger and self righteousness. In that one or two calls I remained, the whole time, calm, serene, centered, curious, good humored, polite and considerate of the person I was talking with,

The habit of forgetting who I am, of losing touch with my own power, my own authority, my own sense of purpose, my own humanity and compasssion is very strong even after so much work and after so much success in weakening it. I am grateful that I have come this far. I am accepting of my ongoing imperfection. I am decdicated to continue to do my best to deiminish this bad habit even more.

I am not even bitter when I consider the possibility that the reality is that I was forced to be the one to give up in this situation, with the implication that I should have more faith in the New York Times Company to honor its committment to me. In fact, I am proud of myself for surrendering to the reality, after having gotten about as much practice as I can from this situation of challenge to my serenity and centeredness if the face of absurdity and powerlessness.

One final point. This is support of writing personal narrative--as a part of maintaining mental health, or meeting existential challenges, or keeping balance in one's life. After my subscription termination ( more properly: resignation;surrender) I thought of writing this essay for my blog. Clearly this is an exercise in support of meaning creation. This story is not about how bad the New York Times is, or about what terrible shape our country, our culture, out society is in. This is a story about my individual struggle to create meaning, to keep balance, to live in serenity, to document for myself my own growth and its processes and value. Even if no one else were to read this essay (well perhaps you will, Loyal Arlee: thanks), writing it helps me to let go and helps me to know I didn't waste time (nor did the New York Times Company waste my time). Even though I failed to achieve my goal of having The NewYork Times delivered to my door that goal, I did succed in my more important tasks of growth, development and healing.

Al, thanks for sending me the link.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


This Blog site supports using life narrative in support of change, growth, and a happier life.

When I say that we create our existences, in part, by the stories we tell about ourselves, this does not deny my belief in the autonomous power of the psyche.

That is to say that my experience of myself and of other people, including people I am close to personally and those whom I work with professionally, leads me to believe that our will is not fully or always in charge of our life.

How to bring our will into balance with our total Existence--which I think of as having Body, Mind, and Spirit aspects and into balance within our Mind (or psyche) which I think of as having Feeling, Thinking and Willing aspects--is a challenge for all of us.

Our Psyche or Mind seems to develop a mind of its own, sometimes separate from our awareness and our will. This has both positive and negative consequences. The psyche can be a source of healing energy and movement without our having to will it to be so.

For fuller discussions of these matters visit my Website

A few weeks ago I was working with a client who was trying to make a life decision--not in a life-or-death situation--but in relation to an action that was important to him. He experienced himself as deeply conflicted about the matter and he experienced himself as paralyzed. His will was of no help in making the decision. As I helped him to articulate the two horns of his dilemma, I began to think that I was hearing internalized aspects of his mother and father battling within him. I concluded that the intensity of the conflict was not because of his own judgment about the matter, but related to opposing life and self outlooks he had learned from his parents. These beliefs and attitudes were still alive and active in his psyche and were being activated by his facing the life situation which confronted him.

My helping him to become aware of these aspects of his paralysis helped him to make a decision and begin to move forward, although it did not entirely free him from the power of these internalized parental imagoes which seem to have autonomous and conflicting power within his psyche.

Strangely enough, I found myself facing a very similar internal situation last week and I feel free to write in more detail about my own experience so that it might be illustrative and helpful to others.

Reading Ursula Leguin's Earth Sea stories has added a hero to my life. (I think I'll write a blog about the place of Heroes--not hoagies-- in the development of personal narratives as part of our psychological growth). Ged the wizard goes on a journey to confront his shadow--first he had to realize with support from someone else that he had to stop running from what was chasing him and chase it. On a sparse and foreign shore he is given a small boat in which to complete his journey. In payment for the boat, Ged removes the cataracts from the eyes of the man who gave him the boat allowing the man to regain his sight. The man told him to rename the boat the Look Far and to paint eyes on her prow so that the man's thanks could look out from the blind wood and keep him from rock and reef.

Soon after reading this story, I became aware that I actually live on the water and that I could conceivably have a small boat. Not really being a Wizard, I began searching the Internet for a craft which might be small enough to fit into my apartment or some nearby storage space and which I could easily transport down to the River.

Eventually I found what seemed to be what I was looking for and I sent a down payment for the collapsible dinghy to the man who manufactures these boats in Canada. I was pleased and excited, and while I still had some problems with storage and transportation to the water to solve (I purchased a wagon which I think will get the Look Far, Look Deep down to the Schuylkill), I managed to quiet my fears and keep alive my sense of adventure and hunger for the experience of being able to be on the water.

And then, I began to get messages of delay from the man who was to be making the boat. His chief molder had a family emergency, a part needed was not available. The time for shipping crept beyond the outer limits of the time "promised", and I found some surprising doubtful thoughts arising in my mind.

I found myself reviewing the evidence that I had which had led me to Pay-Pal the money to this man in a foreign country, 3000 miles away, whom I had never met and really knew nothing about other than what he had told me. I suddenly began thinking how possible it might be that I was being scammed and that no Look Far, Look Deep was being built and that I had already thrown away the money I had sent as a deposit. Furthermore, I knew the time would come in the not too distant future when I would have to send another equally large payment in the same manner over the same electronic path and still without having any tangible evidence that my boat had existence other than in my mind.

I felt fear creeping into my body and when I decided to call the boat maker and three times got messages saying that his number could not be reached as dialed, the fear invaded by whole body and began taking over my existence. My stomach churned, I felt nauseous, my body felt as if its temperature was rather rapidly moving from cold to hot and back to cold again.

I began working to soothe myself, reminding myself that I had talked to the boat builder on the phone for quite a long time before I ordered the boat, that I liked his voice and what he said. I know that there are con-men in the world that can fool anyone, even a trained psychologist like me, but I had felt a lot of confidence in this person's sincerity and his being who he said he was. I reminded myself that his website seemed perfectly in harmony with his business as he described it. I reminded myself that I had gone looking for him, he had not solicited my business. I reminded myself that my judgment has been quite good in my life, that I am not easily taken in. Finally, I reminded myself that this was not a life and death matter. At worst I would lose some money, and although it would be a real loss, I was spending the money on something that was not a necessity and that the worst consequence would be that I wouldn't get something I wanted, not needed. I would be disappointed (sad and angry) and I would not have these feelings forever.

In spite of all this soothing, which worked fully at the cognitive level--I stopped most of the worrying that I had been doing--my body staid full of turmoil and emotion. Not as intense, but the fear had not disappeared. As I was letting myself continue to be aware of these sensations and feelings, I became aware that I knew all along, that the thoughts that evoked this fear had been spoken by several years departed mother. The words--"How could you send all that money over the Internet to someone you don't even know? You are being foolish. You trust too easily. You shouldn't be buying a boat anyway. No wonder you don't' have enough money to retire"--all of these are her words and when I listened carefully I realized that I heard them in her tone of voice.

I also realized that in part her words were aimed not at me directly, but at my father. My father, perhaps partly in reaction to my mother's extreme caution, fearfulness, avoidance of risk taking, lack of valuing of adventure, was--overtly-- fearless, overly trusting, seldom cautious, adventure loving. They were often at war about these matters, and perhaps had not too bad a balance in their joint life because of the over-caution of one and the under-caution of the other.

In me, they exist as an internal war, that when engaged brings about fear and a sense of paralysis. Until I actually exchanged some more e-mails with the boat builder and heard what seemed like plausible explanations for the delays and apologies for not communicating more regularly and his reassurance that his phone was still connected and his giving me his cell phone number as an additional back up, I wasn't sure if I would really be able to send the rest of the money, without some kind of "proof" of he existence of the boat. And would I take a bill of lading from the shipping company as proof? And if not that, what?

The fear passed, I didn't feel doubt, I was again excited about the prospect of actually getting the dinghy. I let let go of the disappointment that it would be later in the summer than I had hoped.

When the boat builder wrote me an e-mail saying that he had to have my Social Security number to give to the customs agent who would be getting the approval to import the boat into the United States, my mother "went crazy" again. This time, I had very little visceral reaction, not much feeling, but I could clearly hear her voice--"You see, now he wants your Social Security number. He is going to steal your identity. You can't send your Social Security number to someone in a foreign country you've never met. You are not just going to lose the money for the boat, he is going to steal everything. Don't be stupid, just cut your losses and don't send anything more. Or, go get the boat yourself, it will be worth it so that you don't lose everything you have."

I listened to this tirade much more peacefully this time and began speaking directly to my mother. "Now Mom", I said, "I will be cautious and I will find a way to communicate my number to the custom's agent rather than the builder, but beyond that I am willing to take this risk. I want that boat and I don't believe I am in the clutches of a identity thief. It is all going to be alright. I am going to get the boat I want and I am not going to lose all my money. Why don't you help me solve the problem of where I am going to put it instead of worrying about the money?" I could hear my Dad in the background quietly saying, "I always wanted a boat of my own, I am so glad you are going to get one. You're not going to be cheated."

I don't yet have the boat, but according to all the electronic sources she is on the way and I am about to send the money.

What was surprising to me in all this is how much reality and power my parents still have inside of me. They are both dead and I spent many years in therapy working on achieving a great deal of psychological independence from their neuroses which they shared with me and my own which I developed partly in relation to them and partly all on my own. In the process I battled overtly with them, as a teenager, as a young adult and even into my middle age. At some point that external battle ended, in more than a truce, and we were able to claim our love for each other in spite of the pain we had caused each other and our ongoing fundamental differences as people. I have reaped so many rewards from the positive aspects of their love for me, and I was fortunate enough to have gratitude for that before they died so that I could share it with them, and I still have it today.

Yet, some of the negatives still remain, as legacies, as remnants in my psyche. They are autonomous, the operate at times without my awareness, and at times beyond my own will. I am, thankfully, not at their mercy most of the time. I have resources that balance their negative influence and I can make use of the legitimate caution my mother passed on to me (I should have reviewed the evidence for my trust, I should have had caution in whom I sent my social security number). I can also make use of the trust and love of adventure my father bequeathed to me (I am glad I am getting a boat at age 70; I expect to find joy in the access to adventure it will give to me. I will experience my connection to my Dad and his love of the water as I row and sail up and down the Schuylkill).

Since I am not a wizard I cannot magically write my warring parents out of my life story (even Ged had to confront his Shadow and incorporate it--he couldn't magically obliterate it). I can write a story which includes their ongoing place and autonomy (with by grace and hard work, now limited power) in my psyche. I can then recognize them when they make their presence felt and work with them to achieve the best possible results for myself. that's the best I can do.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"I know this much is true"

Wally Lamb's Novel, I know this much is true, offers strong support for writing personal narrative as a source of healing. The novel itself is written in the first person and thus it represents the (fictional) character's (Dominick) efforts to write his own life story and to find the meaning in his life. He struggles with twinship, mental illness, death, abuse, love, absence and loss of love, parenthood and parentlessness, anger, self destruction, sexuality, culture, religion....and all of the other issues that challenge us to combat meaninglessness and create meaning.

A central aspect of the novel is a personal narrative written by Dominick's grandfather at the urging of a priest who believes that he might find healing and personal redemption from the writing and from discussing his writing and life with the priest. Domencio puts off writing his life story for many years after the priest suggested it, and he completes his narrative just before his death. The story itself is full of self justification and pride, much of it in relation to things that Domenico might well have been ashamed of. One imagines that if he had written the story earlier and if he had worked with it, for example by discussing it with the priest, he might have found the transformation and healing he was in need of and perhaps seeking.

As it is, the narrative he wrote becomes a central aspect of the healing of his grandson and namesake--Dominick--who eventually finds the lessons he needs for his own growth and healing in his grandfather's story. The novel is long (and wonderful). Most of us don't have the time or talent to write this kind of full life story. And, while each of our lives is rich and complex, Dominick, as a fictional character is given more challenges and more dramatic challenges than most of us. Dominick's grandfather also has a life that is more dramatic and externally complex than most, but his narrative is much shorter.

We don't have to write novels, or even 75 page narratives, to participate in the growth and healing that writing autobiographical stories can provide. Short vignettes, little pieces of our lives considered one at a time, and in relation to one another can be a powerful vehicle for self transformation. Reading helps, too.

I invite you to write short narratives of your own and post them as comments here. Better yet, start your own blog and write your personal stories there. Link them here so that I and others can read them and grow with you.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dream: The Gray Goose

A few weeks ago I had a dream. The actual visual imagery was not as vivid or powerful as in many of my dreams, but the verbal and then tactile/kinesthetic experience was very clear. I was in a sled race in the snow. The sled seemed like the sort that would be used with a dog team, but I have no memory of dogs in the dream and it seemed more that I was pushing the sled (which was perhaps reddish orange in color and which now, several weeks later reminds me in color and structure of the Golden Gate Bridge [which I was planning to walk across as I usually do in visiting San Francisco where I was to go the week after the dream]). At some point, I turned off the main trail to take a break and perhaps drink some water. I then heard a voice say—“Keep going, there is something you need ahead”. I did keep on for quite a while, although I was beginning to worry about being out of the race for so long and falling behind. I eventually came to a small lake (again the visual imagery is not powerful), but the voice said something like “There, catch that goose. You need her”. I was surprised, but I went to the edge of the lake and managed to scoop up this rather large grey bird. The voice then said, “Hold her tight. Don’t let her get away. Tuck her under your jacket.” I did all this, still bewildered. The voice then said, “Now she’s going to show you some affection, just relax and accept it”. At that point, I felt the goose stretch her neck a little and she began rubbing her beak gently on my neck and cheek. If the voice hadn’t prepared me for this and given me an interpretation of it, I probably would have found it mildly unpleasant and disconcerting or annoying, but as it was, I was able to experience it as something (mildly) positive. I then thought or said, “I have spent too much time away from the race and I am going to lose.” The voice said, “No you need to have the goose with you. She will be of help. When you get back to the race, you will be at the top of a big hill. With the goose’s help you will be able to make it directly to the top of the next hill and you will not have to go down into the valley. This will put you ahead in the race and it will give you a chance to win.” The next moment, I was indeed, on top of a high hill, my sled was perched on the summit in front of me and I was both holding onto the sled and clutching the gray goose tightly, still under my jacket. I seemed poised to take off for the crest of the next hill in the distance in front of me (again the visual imagery was not very vivid or clear) and then I woke up.

Two weeks later, having returned from the visit to San Francisco to see my son and grandchildren and my first ex-wife, and having told the dream to them, I was reading some novels my son had given me. The heroic, nature, masculine themes in these novels reminded me of some heroic/romantic books written in the 1920’s by James Oliver Curwood, that my father had introduced me to as a child. I had purchased a few of these books on the internet in the past few years and re-read them. I decided to send one of these to my son and I looked at them on the shelf and eliminated three of them for various reasons and decided to send him one called “the Valley of Silent Men”. It was about an adventure and love story in the Canadian Wilderness in the 1920’s as were most of Curwood’s novels. I decided to quickly read the book once more before sending it to my son. I was astounded to read, about 2/3’s of the way through the book, after the hero has been rescued by the woman he falls in love with, she speaks of the three major rivers of that part of Canada—and she says “The Athabasca is Grandmother, the Slave is Mother, and The Mackenzie is Daughter, and over them watches always the Goddess, Niska, The Gray Goose. The Gray Goose blood is in me, Jeems. I love the forests”. Throughout the rest of the novel, the hero calls his Love his gray goose, his Niska. (I did some research on the internet and discovered that in some very obscure Canadian Indian language the Canadian Goose is indeed called “Niska”).

A few weeks later I have remembered that my mother told me that as a toddler she called me the “spruce goose”, because I had a long neck and I reminded her of Howard Hughes’ giant wooden aircraft (which flew only once). The press called it the spruce goose, a derogatory name which Hughes hated. He named it the "Hercules".

I am still working on understanding and integrating the messages of this dream into my consciousness and life. It did suggest to me that I might yet complete some of my life tasks if I recognize the help I need and hold onto it tightly when it appears. That help might keep me from making an unnecessary and perhaps time- wasting descent into the “valley”, and the time and effort saved might keep me in the race. (I also had an association of an experience that occurred in Austin Texas during the year I was riding my bike everywhere and almost never got into a car. On my way home from campus there was a Creek, at the bottom of a ravine between two steep hills. To get home, I had the joy of soaring down the hill as if I was flying; followed by the very challenging task of pedaling up the steep incline on the other side. After a time, I realized that I was letting the fear and worry that I couldn’t or might not get up the hill, destroy my ability to live fully the moments of joy in racing down the hill toward the creek. It became an exercise in letting go of concerns about the future to stay in and enjoy the present. I was able to do this, by taking away any expectations or goals about the trip up the other side. I gave myself permission to get off and walk my bike up to the crest if it was too hard to pedal up. My experience of this nightly journey changed dramatically and the lesson as always served as a model to help me let go of worries about the future that destroy the enjoyment of the present.