Tuesday, February 26, 2008

When success goes to your head

He was one of the most successful nuts-men on the island. For the uninformed, a nuts-man is a peanut vendor. On this island, nuts, doubles, and corn-soup vendors can be found around every corner. Yet, for a while he managed to achieve a level of success that made him unique.

For a start, everyone knew him. They called him by his signature nickname. He dressed colorfully and attended all public events. Soon he needed to hire other vendors to work for him. Call it corporate expansion. Crowds would chant his name gaily, and his host of minions would toss packets of nuts into the audience, in exchange for dollar bills that passed downward from hand to hand and into their pockets. He became the CEO of nuts. He was sung about in calypsos and was colorfully imitated in Jouvay celebrations. He was even allowed to enter the Prime Minister’s private box. He became a local celebrity, the popular pre-show entertainment.

And one day, at an event where he was colorfully holding court, I purchased a packet of nuts. The nuts were tossed in my direction by a boy who could not be more than ten. Disturbing thoughts of child labor laws haunted as my fingers tore into the packet of nuts. They were cold. I signaled the nuts-man and when he came over, asked if I could exchange it for another packet of nuts because the one I had was stale.

You would swear I had cussed his mother.

He proceeded to berate me loudly. Soon he had attracted an audience, and zoomed in for the kill, reveling in the act of public humiliation. He accused me of telling lies, of talking shit, and not knowing what the ass I was speaking about because his nuts were always fresh, you hear me, always fresh!!

I could have told him that he was full of himself, but that would have been pouring fuel on his fiery fake-rage. I could have said that success was going to his head and that one day his head would become so big that it might explode. I could have but I didn’t. Instead I simply got up, walked over to the garbage can, and pointedly threw the packet of stale nuts inside. Several people around me applauded.

Popular conceptions of the successful entrepreneur include the stereotype of the independent businessman who remains passionately and single-mindedly focused on achieving his goals. And by this definition for a while this nuts-man was indeed a successful entrepreneur.

But current conceptualizations of entrepreneurial success have shifted to an emphasis on relationship. Effective entrepreneurs are now described as having a high level of what is called ‘successful intelligence’, which seems to consist of such traits as creativity, analytical thinking, and the ability to implement ideas in a practical manner.

In other words, successful entrepreneurs never lose sight of the people who work with them or who enjoy their products. And they flexibly adapt and adjust their style of working as their business grows or the environment around it changes.

On this island, nuts-men and their ilk come and go. He will probably never be forgotten. People may recall his heyday when he ruled the stands and was chased by women. But his nuts business has long since been a failure.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Negligence or Stupidity?

I recently attended a seminar on risk management. The presenter works for a company that insures psychologists. He told us many things that were obvious, some of which was useful. Like the fact that most psychologists get themselves into trouble for one of two reasons – negligence or stupidity.

Negligence included not providing appropriate care, such as withholding a client’s information because he or she owes you money. Stupidity included sleeping with clients. Or terminating with clients and then sleeping with them—as if termination was ever a protection against this particular brand of stupidity.

OK, so I get that I can reduce a modicum of risk by keeping my panties on. By avoiding dual role relationships – you know, by not offering psychotherapy to my dentist. And by not using forms of treatment for which there is no empirical basis – such as past-life therapy and hypnotic regression.

All of the emphasis in this seminar was on what I could do to avoid having my clients turn around and sue me. I understand this definition of risk. And since I already wasn’t doing any of the things I should not be doing, the good news is that I have nothing to change.

But how do I avoid getting chopped up with a meat cleaver like Kathryn Faughey?

Since her death, I have found myself wondering what Faughey might have done that could be categorized as either stupid or negligent. And it irks me to even ask this question because implicit within it is a blaming of the victim, which hardly seems just.

Nothing in this seminar told me how to reduce the risks associated with attempting to treat the murderously angry. Notice that I have not assumed Faughey’s killer to be insane, only that he was enraged. And that he was enraged specifically at Faughey. He seemed to want her destroyed. The attack seemed bizarrely personal. If it wasn’t, the poor client who was sitting in the waiting room, and the 70-something year old man who rushed to Faughey’s defense would also both be dead.

I also initially assumed that the killer was a client of Faughey’s. Others thought so too, which is why the courts were going through the laborious process of finding ways to violate her clients’ confidentiality in order to get to that elusive one. Faughey’s manner of death contained a grotesque quality of intimacy that could only be associated with a husband, lover, or a therapy client.

The therapy relationship is a truly intimate one, involving layers of trust and sharing, and promises of inviolability. But the promises are one-sided. Therapists do their part to take care of and protect their patients. And in doing so, they sometimes expose themselves to risks for which a seminar has yet been invented.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

An immigrant's story

I used to belong to a women’s book club. The women were old enough to be my grandmothers, but welcomed me into their genteel circle. They were the wives of former ambassadors and retired oil tycoons. Despite their wealth, the reading options were remarkably limited. The women sustained themselves contentedly on a steady diet of Jane Austen, followed by tea and sandwiches. I thought of quitting, and confided this to the sexagenarian whom I had met in a bookstore and who had invited me to join her club. She persuaded me that the women would really love it if I introduced them to someone fresh and new; this was why she had invited me in the first place. And so it was that I introduced them to the stories of Alice Munro.

I found myself reflecting on this experience as I read the title story from Munro’s “The View from Castle Rock”. The story opens with the longing of Old James to migrate from Scotland to America with his family. On a visit to Edinburgh, Old James takes his young son, Andrew, up the steps of the Castle, points to an area of land in the distance and calls it, “America”.

Once his dream of traveling to America is realized – that is, the minute he steps onto the boat and is assured that it will indeed take him safely there – Old James discovers within himself an immediate nostalgia for his past. And so he spends the entire journey talking his ancestral history out loud to anyone who would listen. He is a fine oral historian, and he frets over whether future generations of his family will even remember their past.

But Old James’ story-telling frustrates and embarrasses his children; they do not understand how this man who has gone from cajoling and wheedling them into fulfilling his long-held dream of migration, is suddenly nostalgic for the past. But I understand Old James. In the same way that I intuited that while Jane Austen represented a time that I would never know, her writings fulfilled a nostalgic longing for these gentrified island women.

Old James’ son, Walter, is also documenting history, but like a younger generation of immigrant, his focus remains squarely on the present. For the entire trip, he neither dwells on the past nor looks to the future. He describes life as it is unfolding right now. It is not until he sets sight on America that he allows himself to contemplate possibilities. His siblings go through a similar process of awareness of being immigrants in the land of opportunity. Agnes, his sister-in-law, recognizes that she can remain with the limited but kindly Andrew whom she picked for the very reason that he would never leave her, or she could run off with the doctor who delivered her baby in transit. Andrew recognizes that he does have the option to leave. And in America, odd, shy Mary eventually finds herself a husband.

Old James’ history includes men who talked to the spirits. And the spirits tell him that his first grandson, Young James, will not survive in America. Perhaps this is why Munro allows this child to be so vividly alive throughout the story. Migration is a matter of life and death.

Alice Munro is now 76 years old, probably about as old as Old James, and finally ready to document her own family’s history. For many immigrants, this kind of looking back can only occur once they are through with the struggles associated with their family’s survival, once they have overcome discrimination and racism, and have finally gained a sense of belonging.

I am reminded of an uncle who would become very annoyed whenever anyone around him waxed nostalgic. His first question would be, “but would you want to go back and live there?” And of course the answer right now is “No”. But some day I will want to return to that island. It will probably be developed beyond all recognition. But my memories of how it used to be will be intact.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Feminist Sluts

I’ve long been troubled by what I call the Demi Moore brand of feminism. This school of thought basically argues that what defines feminism is a woman’s ability to exercise choice. So if a woman chooses to be a slut, she can still be perceived as empowered as long as being and benefiting from being a slut is her choice and under her control.

I got into an argument over this issue some time ago with a woman on the Internet. I can’t remember which particular slut she was defending but her basic argument was the same – that the woman had chosen to express her sexuality in a particular way and that it was the reality of being able to choose that made her powerful and praise-worthy.

I admit that I don’t get it. Was a time that being considered feminist was antithetical to anything remotely slutty. Traditional feminists have historically condemned anything associated with the sexual exploitation of women, to include pornography, prostitution, and adult/child sexual relationships. They argued that such relationships were based on a power differential that disempowered and invalidated women. I had always thought that the message of traditional feminism was that women could be all that they could be, and not feel that they had to allow themselves to be defined or limited by their sexuality.

So you can understand my surprise over the popularity of “The Girls Next Door”. Three sluts move in with a rich old man who has made a fortune over the sexploitation of women – and they end up hailed as modern-day feminists exercising their right to choose.

Honestly, I thought they were just three common sluts.

But in nouveau-feminism, being a slut no longer means that one has relinquished one’s power to a man. On the contrary, like G.I. Jane, one can build up one’s muscles, endure all kinds of hardships, and end up having the financial last laugh. This business of having the financial last laugh is key. That’s the evidence of choice, of true empowerment.

And so it is that I am trying to wrap my mind around a new feminism that is able to embrace figures like Paris Hilton [an independent business woman!], Demi Moore [Ashton is her boy toy!], and Madonna [she sang on a cross!] as feminist heroes. What do they have in common? They worked hard for the money and are fully in control of it.

I suspect that this might all have started with Camille Paglia. I think she got us all confused, what with her strident self-promotion as an antifeminist feminist and antiliberal liberal. When she first burst on the scene, Miz. Paglia accused the women’s movement of betraying women and alienating men. In a 1995 Playboy interview, Miz. Paglia compared stripping to “a sacred dance of pagan origins”. She said that the money men stuff into G-strings is actually a “ritual offering.” That modern professional women hate strippers because sluts could outweigh all of their hard-won accomplishments just by flashing their tits and ass. She felt that “women should be free to choose”. “I want a revamped feminism”, Paglia once famously declared, “Putting the vamp back means the lady must be a tramp.”

Well Paglia’s dream has come true. We now have a new generation of independently wealthy feminist sluts who have become the models to which many girls now aspire. Is this really all that we can be?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Impostors among us

I will never forget my first week of graduate school. We sat in a circle, ten men and three women, and shared our previous clinical experience. Some talked of having volunteered in homes for the aged and the battered. Others boasted of handling crisis hot lines and rescuing abused children. Me, I had only done an undergraduate degree in psychology. Whatever experience I had that could be remotely categorized as clinical had come about as part and parcel of doing that degree. I had no extracurricular feats of accomplishment of which to boast. So I sat there wondering if the program had made a mistake by letting me in, asking myself if I really belonged there, feeling like a complete fraud.

It was with relief that I discovered the writings of Joan Harvey and her elucidation of the impostor phenomenon among high-achieving academic women. Harvey noted that despite their many achievements, many academic women feel like fakes, convinced that their accomplishments are actually due to luck and chance. Many live in fear of being unmasked as frauds.

It also helped to figure out eventually that most of my classmates had largely been bullshitting. You don’t spend so much time together without the truth coming out. Faced with the anxiety of having to tell our stories, most had embellished, had taken pedestrian undergraduate exposure and presented it as evidence of advanced clinical brilliance.

Researchers have documented a fascinating gender twist on this impostor phenomenon. It turns out that women who score high on measures of 'impostorism' tend often to be more motivated to compete. Men however appear more likely to avoid competing in those areas in which they feel vulnerable. In other words, feeling like a fraud often motivates women to try harder. The same impulse appears to trigger an avoidance response in some men. Men don’t ever want to appear weak or incompetent.

This explains a whole lot, doesn’t it? :D

But what about those individuals who are true phonies? You know the type. The ones that stay up all night cramming for an exam but then declare that they did not study at all. Or the ones who spend hours getting dressed for an occasion and when you pay them a compliment, respond dismissively, “what, this old thing?”

A recent New York Times article on this issue noted that pretending to be a fake may be a social strategy used to lower performance expectations. It helps to take the pressure off.

I thought of this as I was watching the Tennis Channel recently and heard yet another top female professional tennis player say that she had prepared for an important match by telling herself [or was reportedly told by her coach] to "just go out there and have fun". Yeah right, I thought, that is exactly what you are doing when there is a million dollars on the line. It’s a lie, a piece of deliberate fraudulence intended to lower the pressures of performance.

True impostors, it turns out, are those individuals who take false humility too far and pretend not to have abilities when they do. Or who pad their resumes so thoroughly that they have no business getting the job and are unable to perform when required to do so. Do you know any such people?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A winning plan

It frustrates my daughter that I always lose at tennis. To be honest, sometimes it frustrates me too. Given how well I play - and I do play well - you’d think that one of these days I would win a match. But I never have. Sure I’ve won games here and there, but an entire match? Forget it.

I have over the years insisted that I was simply not a competitive person, but in my heart I know this to not be true. I am very competitive. I would have to be to have enjoyed the many and varied successes that I have - outside of tennis.

But success in tennis eludes me. And this despite years of coaching that have resulted in a massive forehand, a wicked backhand slice, excellent volleying ability, lobs that you’d have to be a six-footer to reach, and a serve that is by all reports quite decent.

Needless to say, I have been quite the mystery to my coaches over the years. During lessons, I play exceedingly well. I do not exaggerate. I am a knock-up champion. And I also enjoy myself thoroughly. Tennis is my personal therapy. On a tennis court, I am stress-free, liberated, and happy. If you saw me play during a lesson, you would beg me to be on your tennis league. That’s how awesome I look.

Social critic, Alfie Kohn, might argue that I have the right attitude towards the sport
of tennis, that the fact of my complete enjoyment of it should be the only thing that matters. His position is probably best outlined in his very first book titled “No Contest: The Case against Competition”. In it Kohn writes, “the more closely I have examined the topic, the more firmly I have become convinced that competition is an inherently undesirable arrangement, that the phrase healthy competition is actually a contradiction in terms.” Kohn believes that competition is an extrinsic motivator that sets up conflict between doing well and beating others. He believes that people should strive for a sense of competence and focus on their own accomplishment, not on doing better than others.

I wonder if he plays tennis? We’d make a happy mixed doubles team. We would l
ose repeatedly to the likes of Bud Collins [b. 1929] and Dodo Cheney [b. 1916], but heck, we would be so psyched up on intrinsic motivation that we could care less.

Some psychologists believe that anxiety is the underlying problem for people who cannot win at sports. Too little anxiety and one underperforms because of indifference. Too much, same result, but for a different reason. When anxiety becomes excessive, one loses grasp of one’s abilities. Take for example the student who spends weeks studying for an exam, but the minute the test paper is placed before him, he goes completely blank. Ask him what is 2 + 2 and he’d have no clue. Anxiety has crushed his focus. And like me, he may cope by feigning indifference, and pretend that winning doesn’t matter. But it does.

The solution to an inability to compete in one sphere is to first recognize the many spheres in which you do compete. And succeed. If you were truly indifferent to competing, you would be a complete loser. I am not.

The next step is to make yourself compete. Kohn is right, doing well is inherently pleasing. But winning sometimes requires beating the other person. There’s no getting around that. And the only way to win is to compete.

So I have joined a new tennis league. They saw me in practice and begged me to. We play twice a week. And when I finally get past my anxiety and win a match, you will be the first to know.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Why I don't want Obama to win

Don't get me wrong. I think the guy is brilliant. He is insightful, courageous, funny, and inspirational. I think that he is a great leader and has the makings of a fantastic President. He has convinced us that despite America's divisive and racist history, it is possible for a Black man to transcend race and get people to believe. And in this month dedicated to celebrating black history, I know that somewhere Martin's soul is happy.

At any other point in history, I would have have been more pro-Obama than Oprah. At any other time, I would have joined the campaign and handed out buttons. At any other time, but now. I believe that Obama is running for president at the wrong time. And he has a very good chance of winning. But I do not want him to.

Is there a right time for a Black man to run for president? Yes. When the country is at peace. When the economy is good. When jobs are available to be had. When taxes are being invested in improving the infrastructure so that people are not afraid to drive over bridges across massive flowing rivers. When education and health care are more affordable. And when the distinction between immigration and illegal entry is not being deliberately blurred so as to treat all immigrants badly just because they happen to be black or brown.

I wish that these were the conditions under which Obama was running for the presidency. And no, I am not saying that I want him to have it easy. Of course not. Being president is a damn difficult job. Look how much George Bush has aged and he has spent less time actually on the job than most. The responsibilities of being President of the most powerful empire in the world are awesome. And yes I believe that Obama is up to the challenge. But I am not supporting him.

Why? Because I believe that the current administration must be held accountable for cleaning up its own mess. Hillary Clinton recently made the quip that it took a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush and that it would take a Clinton to clean up after the second. It was probably her best moment and I won't be surprised if she wins the Democratic nomination. And in any other point in history, I might have considered voting for her. But not now.

I don't think that any Democrat should ever have to clean up after a Bush again. Republicans have to accept responsibility for the state of this country. We are undergoing an economic recession even though the media seem afraid to confirm this. While markets topple in far-flung countries whose economies are linked to ours, we go along pretending that everything is alright at home. While soldiers continue to die or be maimed for life in a war that few believe in, our media keep us more informed about Britney Spears. Daily more and more people find themselves homeless because of a housing market that exploited people's natural desire to own their own homes. Many Katrina victims are still unsettled, unhoused, uncompensated. Drugs continue to flow across the Rio Grande. Meth continues to destroy lives.

I do not believe that the Republicans really want to win the next presidential election. If they did, they would have found candidates far more qualified and attractive than Huckabee. Or McCain. To quote Jon McEnroe, they could not be serious. Don't believe me? Then explain to me why else Giuliani made such a half-assed attempt at running for presidency. Damn, he didn't even wait for the corpse of his campaign to be cold before rushing to throw in the towel.

My only explanation for the pitiful roster of options the Republicans have been able to cough up is that they do not really want to win. They do not want to have to make the types of unpopular decisions that will save this country. They do not want to tell us to band our bellies and grit our teeth because there will be tough times ahead. No, they want out. Let the Democrats do the dirty work, and get blamed and hated for it.

America feels to me to be on the brink of possible catastrophe. It's kind of like that satellite that is hurtling through space, silently screaming its way to earth, even as I type. We have no idea where it will land and what kind of damage it might do. But while it's still up in the sky, we'll all just go along merrily in denial, pretending that it is not there.

Well I am through pretending. I am afraid. I am afraid of an enemy that I do not understand, one whose nest we have stirred up and which I believe will one day retaliate. I am afraid of a future I cannot see. And I do not want the first presidency for a Black man (or a White woman for that matter) to end up coated with the grime of disaster.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Hike

It was his first hike. The rest of us had been hiking for years. I had been doing so since I was 15 and had discovered this way of escaping my family every Sunday. When you are 15, finding healthy ways to get away from your family is not easy.

No, I'm wrong, it was not his first hike, but his second. He had come the preceding week, alone. It had been an easy hike, for beginners. And he was so enamored by the experience that he decided to return the next week with his family. And his gun.

He showed off this gun, proudly. It was a new semi-automatic. I could tell from the faces of some of the other hikers that they were not pleased. We were a peaceful group; we had always assumed that there were bandits in the hills, but our philosophy was that if we didn't bother them, they probably would not bother us. And until that day, that was true.

But there was more to displease us than the gun. He had brought his wife, fully made-up, in a skirt, and sandals with heels. His children were dressed slightly more appropriately. As a family, they seemed ill-equipped for a 10 mile hike.

For a while, I walked with one of his sons. We were hiking towards a waterfall that I knew well, but from a direction I did not know at all. And so when we got lost, we decided to walk out to the beach and ask for directions. When we re-entered the forest, we ran into his father. He was bleeding profusely from a shoulder. Upon seeing his son, the father became hysterical and started screaming his name.

I will never forget that scream. To this day, if I make myself think of it as I am doing now by writing this story, it raises the hairs on the back of my neck. Incoherently, the father told a story about being accosted by bandits, about shooting and being shot, about his wife escaping and hiding, about the group being splintered and scattered and traumatized.

I won't bother you with the details of how we made it out of the forest alive. Suffice it to say that several of the men had to take turns carrying the wife on their backs because she had twisted her ankle running in her fancy heels. Apparently the bandits had found the gun display to be too irresistible. When he refused their request to hand it over, they shot him. The group then scattered in all directions. It took us hours to find each other, to calm down, to re-group, and to take turns toting their bags, and the wife. The return hike was silent, faces grim, sweating, unhappy, traumatized.

Because I was no longer 15, my family had no say in whether or not I was allowed to continue hiking with this group. But I knew intuitively that if I did not keep my weekly date with the rain forest, I would never hike again. We had already planned to spend the next weekend in the forest. We wanted to see the giant leatherback turtles lay their eggs. We had already picked a remote spot on the north coast of the island, one of the non-touristy beaches that you could only get to by boat, or by hiking through the forest.

That Saturday morning, we met in our usual spot. Only three of us showed up, one a brand new member whom I had previously invited and who was coming on his very first hike, motivated by the possibility of becoming my lover. The rest of the group never appeared. They had scattered, were splintered, still traumatized.

That is how trauma affects many individuals. People instinctively avoid, they dread facing the source of trauma, they become emotionally blunted. Some have nightmares, from which they wake up screaming. Some become hypervigilant, and start seeing attackers everywhere. Some lose all memory of the trauma. Others find that they cannot forget it.

Research now shows that it matters little what the nature of the trauma involves. Rape victims, soldiers returning from Iraq, and plane crash survivors share a common spectrum of reactions, the hallmark of which is a desire to avoid any reminders of the traumatic experience, a tendency to re-experience the trauma despite all efforts to avoid it, and an effort to cope by blunting oneself emotionally. More than likely this is what happened to the rest of the group. I assume this based on the fact that they never hiked again. And this is how the experience may have affected me had I not consciously decided that I would not become afraid of my beloved rain forest, that I would not avoid it, that I would accept as I had always accepted that there were bandits in the hills and that if I didn't bother them, they probably would not bother me.

And so I went back into the forest, and spent a platonic weekend with two men, one of whom eventually became my lover. And that weekend, Praise Jah, the bandits did not bother us, and we in turn neither tempted nor bothered them.

And, for the first time in my life, I was privileged to witness the amazing sight of giant leatherback turtles wading to shore, digging holes in the sand, laying their eggs, covering them up protectively, and journeying wearily back into the water. We did not bother them.