Blocked in…

For quite a number of days now, I have been getting little reminders. “You haven’t posted anything in X days…” or “Hey, we haven’t heard anything from you in a bit. Are you ok?” This is probably a testament to the fact that I had managed to post more or less weekly since the first of the year; and that there must be at least two people on the planet that read the mad ramblings of my brain. That all came to a rather screeching halt a little over two weeks ago. It was a cluster of events and emotions that ended up creating what might be called THE MOTHER OF ALL WRITERS’ BLOCKS. I literally have a half finished post that I started a couple of weeks ago, and I just felt it going nowhere and my heart just wasn’t in it.

That’s the problem with writer’s block, though. The words don’t come. Even when the words come, they don’t look right. Everything that appeared on the screen just sounded, in my head, like so much meaningless drivel. I know. You all are now saying, “So, how is this different that any of the general crappola that you type out?” Well… it just was. Nothing seemed worth the time and energy.

The problem was that I lost someone dear to me. She was too young and too vibrant for me to understand why someone like her is gone. In truth, all of this year… 2016… has seemed to be a great gaping hole of grieving and rage about loss. It seems astounding to me that the world continued to turn and people went on about their business when all I really wanted to do was stop. While people are watching the spectacle that is our political machine (honestly, it’s a circus I tell you… I may have to join my friend Tess for a big thing of popcorn), are fighting about bathrooms, and watching with feelings of impotence while more and more of civil liberty is trampled by laws that have blurred beyond recognition the original separation of church and state… I’ve been grieving and aching for a time when people seemed to be kinder and happier and able to take a joke. I have been thinking about the loss of talent and gifts of joy that we are now missing because of the people who have left this world just in a few short months. I have been avoiding writing because I was afraid the the voice screaming in my head in anger would flow out my fingertips and keyboard onto the screen in hurtful ways that would only add to the very phenomenon that was agonizing to me.

On top of it all I had surgery. Oh, nothing major, you understand, but as they say “surgery is surgery and there are always risks.” (Don’t you love it when they say things like that? They like to speak in ‘odds,’ too. Do they not know that I make it a personal goal to break curves?!? Seriously, don’t challenge me…) So, along with the demonstration of life being fleeting, I was also required to do the stuff they suggest when you have to have general anesthesia… I had to face my own mortality. That means thinking about what you want done when you are gone: Advance Directives, make sure finances are taken care of (sorta), put things where people can find them. It means talking to people you love and trust to carry out those wishes and then try to convince them that you aren’t “just being morbid” and are instead being responsible… and that you will be OK… that they shouldn’t worry. It’s just a worst case scenario. Except that for most of the people I love and trust… it wasn’t. We had just experienced that direct knowledge that tomorrow is not a guarantee. We suffered a loss that was too soon and shouldn’t have been. Suddenly, I was also a little afraid; afraid that I would somehow cause that pain to someone I loved.

As it turns out, all the responsibility stuff was, in fact, just a precaution. It was good to have it. I’ll hang on to the paperwork and file it, and update it just like I should. And I’m still here… Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing (not being morbid… believe it or not there are probably more than a few people that might wish me out of this world), I am here.

My words, it seems, are still a tad stuck. This is my attempt to get them back out. I’m one of those people who have to push through things. Not everyone is the same. Some people need time to recover. Just give them space and time, and eventually they come back out into the light. I can’t do that. I get stuck. I get stuck so hard that I have trouble finding my way back out. So, I have to push through. I have to force myself to exist in the light and ignore the shadows while they wait to reclaim me later when I least expect it. This is me pushing through. This is me sharing my process. It doesn’t have to be the same as anyone else’s process. If you actually do share this tendency, then, I’m here. I know the feeling, and eventually you push out to the other side. For now, I’m relying on positive posts from people I know and love. I drink in their non-judgmental, optimism like a man dying of thirst stumbling on an oasis. If you are one of those people with hope and optimism that you share, know that I appreciate you (and probably others do as well).

Because for now, I’m still a little blocked in, perhaps a little less than when I started, but still blocked… trying not to get stuck.

Can a tiger change his stripes?

Tiger at Australia Zoo.
Tiger at Australia Zoo.

…Or a leopard her spots? How about the zebra? Or possibly a giraffe?

I’ve seen this question a lot recently, and it started me pondering, as I often ponder. The question is usually rhetorical and refers to the fact that people do not change their intrinsic character, any more than any of the wild creatures aforementioned could change their coloring and markings as dictated by their genetics and evolutionary path over time. There are just certain things that we expect cannot be changed, and that question is generally meant to trigger our thoughts towards an individual and their past behaviors. What that question says to the person listening or reading is that the subject in question acted or embodied certain traits in the past and that they will continue to carry those markings for the rest of their natural life.

But is it true? This is what I’ve been thinking about since the last time I saw this question posed in a pithy internet commentary upon a particular public figure of the current events. Do events of the past always dictate the same actions in the future? Or more pointedly, can a person ever truly change?

By the assumption of the question, that answer would be decidedly, No. To a certain extent, I can actually go along with this. As a professional in the mental health community, we are always taught that the best predictor of current and future behavior is past behavior. This is one of the tenants of risk assessment. It is a bylaw of behavioral science. It tells us that a person who chose violence as their solution to any life problem will likely fall back on the same solution when presented with a problem in future. That tells us that an individual is more likely to choose the same coping mechanism for each negative experience (regardless of the adaptive or maladaptive nature of that coping mechanism).

For risk assessment, it is tried and true. It is a good way to make sure no one overlooks a potential for harm to self or others. On the other hand, for other predictive reliability, it does a disservice to any person who wants to change their circumstances. By its very nature, the assumption says that no creature can ever change. That goes against the whole idea of growth. It says that no human being can ever adapt, learn, or express themselves in new ways.

As a therapist… and a person who has made some significant efforts in my own growth… I’m calling bullshit. And I’m not even going to apologize for the language.

Not only that, but for those of a spiritual nature, and the church… that is a serious bummer. That means that no one can truly repent. I’m not going to get into that whole predestination argument again. That is just 1) not really my thing, and 2) will take way longer than I had intended in this post. However, I will say one thing about it. To truly repent (by certain definitions) the admonishment is to Go and sin no more. If the tiger cannot change its stripes, that’s just a waste of breath. If the behavior and emotion is like the tiger’s stripes, it will never change and thus, there can be no true redemption or penance because they will just do it all over again. And… we just traveled further than I intended into that religion thing. The point I was making is that if change is impossible, then why even try?

And… that is what brings me to my next key point. Physical attributes are fixed, constant… or relatively so. For all intents and purposes, physical features, like the tiger’s stripes or the leopard’s spots stay pretty close to how they started. Granted, we have a remarkable amount of science and surgery to make physical features less of a permanent fixture than perhaps ever in the history of human vanity, but for the majority of people, aside from minor fluctuations in size and tint of skin and hair (possibly eye color if we count contacts), the physical attributes stay pretty close to factory specifications. Your nose and ears are going to stay pretty much where they started. Without significant intervention, all those features are going to be defined by the code written in your DNA and combinations of the chromosomes of the contributing parental units. Most of the actual appearance of such is dictated by genetics and (without the assistance of chemistry or surgery) environmental factors.

To a certain extent, I will even grant you that some behavioral, emotional, and intellectual attributes are also founded by some genetics and environmental factors. There are factory settings in the operating system, so to speak. But that is where it stops. Human beings have a greater potential for choice and growth in their cognitive functions than they do in their physical attributes. To say otherwise is to negate the purpose of teaching, counseling, coaching, or guiding. It also demeans the efforts of the person who chooses to better themselves by the use of learning, introspection, spirituality, or counsel.

People learn from experience. They also learn from observing others. They learn from failure as well as success. And they can grow…

People can change. I fully believe that. I believe that any person who chooses to do so can grow and change and become better (or worse). Behavior, emotion, action, and knowledge are different than the physical stripes that define the external appearance. They may manifest to indicate character and personality as much as the plumage of a bird announces its purpose and message to others, but it is more changeable, and we have more choice.

Do I think that we should never be wary and aware of the past behaviors and choices of any given person? Well, no, of course I’m not saying that! It is always wise to examine the full profile and history before coming to a conclusion of what any individual will choose to do given certain circumstances.

I’m just saying that people can change. The circumstances and experiences of their past can impact and influence that change. People can choose to grow… or they can choose not to…

So, remember that the behavior of the tiger is not always defined by the stripes they’re showing…

Cat Gravity and other magical thinking…

It dawned on me, as I was having one of my days when motivation is in short supply and excuses against productivity and movement are overflowing, the mind has incredible ability to overpower any physical assets or need for assertion. No matter the desire to get done “the things,” it seems that the brain can come up with a plethora of suggestions that undermine any willpower with whispered hints of anything more pleasant than the task at hand. As if by magic, hands will of their own accord shut off alarms, and eyelids will remain firmly in place drawn over the windows of the soul to bar any of the outside world and intrusive reminders of “the things” that must be done.

While I am fully aware of the physical needs of the body for nourishment and rest, I am also sadly not a woman of means that can afford to ignore “the things” and so the occasional force and will must be utilized to push aside the wee devil upon my shoulder that says “You don’t really need to do that now… it can wait. Sure you can sleep until your second alarm. No one will know you didn’t go to the gym…” The insidious influence is even more powerful after a month long death march of quarterly analysis and audits during which travel was a constant and sleep was a distant memory. Seasonal allergies do not help either. In any case, it seems that my body and willpower need little coaxing to leave the tracks of my normal healthy routines and productive lifestyle to transform me into a slug… or a furniture tuber… whatever your choice of moniker, slovenly inactivity become way too attractive.

One of the most devious of the paralyzing agents in my life is the creature who decided to make our home his own about four years ago. The feline (dare I even call him this, because I still feel that he is not quite of this realm) appears to be a normal 10 pound gray tabby. However, looks can be deceptive. After literally letting himself into our home and staunchly refusing to depart, he has become known to most as Gray. Sometimes Gray Kitty or Gray Cat. His full name (finally revealed after a few years) is The Gray Wanderer Dragonsbane, Demonspawn of the Forge… aka The Mighty Toehunter. He has grown quite fond of social media and occasionally shares his thoughts (#TOTTH). He has also mastered the “art” of taking selfies (something I have never managed to do with any skill… see The Unfathomable Idea of the Selfie). I bring up the Gray one as an illustration because every once in while he has this astounding ability to immobilize my body and mind to the extent that I feel powerless.


The beast rarely takes the role of the lap cat, but when he does… It has the magical ability of removing all desire to move, stand, or engage in productive activity. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon a multitude of times. The presence of the mighty master of the domain has rendered me helpless and powerless to respond to instant messages, the need to shower and get ready for various events, or even to respond to the demands of my bladder.

I can bench press the weight of a small adult, but I cannot seem to lift or otherwise remove a 10-pound demonic cat from my lap, enabling my further progress on daily tasks and responsibilities. I would be more baffled by this, but I did read, a good many years ago, a short explanation of this almost magical power of felines. It was called The Theory of Cat Gravity and it was by an artist/author named Robin Wood.


The explanation was so remarkably thorough and yet simple. It was possibly the greatest cat-physics-theoretical contemplation I had encountered since the Buttered Cat Array. The Theory of Cat Gravity states that cats convert energy into gravity and mass and transfer that same force into any particular individual on which they elect to take their rest, thereby increasing their own mass and gravitational pull of the earth upon their physical form, overriding their normal physical abilities to move and more importantly… get up. Thus, any individual who has a cat curled in their lap has a perfectly reasonable explanation for why they sat on the couch for an hour longer than they were supposed to… and that is why I was late to my appointment. My apologies.

The unfathomable idea of the “selfie”…

I hate pictures of myself. Honestly since the very first one taken (to my knowledge) that was dubbed by the entire family as “The Frog,” I have been quite aware that photogenic would never by an adjective included in the inventory of my personal traits. Without fail, I will be the one caught in mid-sneeze, awkward position, yawning, with a peculiar-looking bulge, or any of a variety of unflattering positions when a shutter (analog or digital) opens and shuts.

Therefore, I developed a habit that some find completely frustrating and annoying. If I actually notice a camera (or phone) pointed in my general direction with purpose, I would immediately adopt a facial expression much like that Milo Bloom, Bill the Cat, or any of the myriad of other characters in that cartoon strip when presented with something rather disgusting. With my features screwed up in a deliberate approximation of Quasi Modo on a bad day, I would face the lens. When the pictures came out looking horrid, no problem… I meant it to look that way.  It wasn’t a happenstance of poorly organized genetic material and my own natural unattractiveness. I had made an effort to look that bad.


And this is what has made me feel completely at sea about the phenomenon of the “selfie.” First of all… who does that? That word. Selfie. Really? Adding an “-ie” to the end of the world making it cute? Smaller? More acceptable that you are totally taking a picture of yourself… by yourself… with your own arm… um… I’ll come back to this…

Granted, it is a modern phenomenon because we now have technology where you can actually hold the device away from your body and snap a picture so very quickly. Imagine trying this with some of the original cameras. Aside from needing the strength of Sampson, you would also have to take off the lens cap and hold the thing perfectly still for … how long? Just not feasible. And yet… they existed. These selfies of another era. Painters even did it. Some of our favorite memes have been created using the self-portrait of Joseph Ducreux, apparently in the guise of a mockingbird (seriously, how is this the guise of a bird?).


He wasn’t the only one, either. Many of the old masters used their own likenesses to paint images, get facial anatomy correct, couldn’t get anyone else to sit for them, pure vanity… who knows? But they did it. The first cameras not only required to person taking the photo to be at the camera itself to remove the covering lens cap, but also hold up the flash powder tray. Occasionally, it even required more than one person to accomplish a fine portrait, but the equipment did improve, become mechanized, and photographers became untethered (which may not be a word) from the camera itself. The first photographers, once they had figured out a device to do so managed to take their own portraits with the aid of remote buttons on cords. Eventually, the cameras came with timers, some analog with clockwork and then evolving to digital. The timers would allow the photographer to come around to the front of the lens and take their position before snap, the shutter opened and shut.

So, what is the point? Well… the self-portrait isn’t new. It is just called by a different name because it seems that we cannot leave language in the descriptive without giving it a nickname. Selfie instead of self-portrait. Well… in truth, not many of these could be considered a portrait. It is rather denigrating to the idea of portraiture.

There are, in my opinion, good reasons for taking a selfie. These reasons include proving you were somewhere, showing off a new hairdo, glasses, etc; or taking a remembrance photo of yourself with others when there are no convenient passersby to assist with capturing the moment. Also, in this day in age and with cameras and phones being light and easily slipped into a pocket, no one really wants to hand over their very portable technology to strangers. It just follows that with the absence of extra people to take the shot and technology capable of allowing self-portrait, selfies are the result.

And now we come to the parts to astound and confound my logic… There are people who absolutely seem to have made selfies a new career. They take pictures of themselves ever moment of every day. They take pictures of themselves in a variety of activities and in a variety of costumes. They take pictures using full length mirrors. They take pictures using something called a selfie-stick. They film video tutorials about how to take the “perfect selfie.” Like Narcissus, they appear to be enamored of their own visage to the extent that it is their primary activity of daily living. This is where I tend to veer off from the trends. I see no sense in this, other than pure and unadulterated ego. Granted there are some absolutely breath-taking individuals out there in the world, but they appear to much less advantage (in my opinion) when they also share this stance. While I do not believe in false modesty, vanity and superficial self-adoration is a huge turn-off. Why do people actually feel the need to take and share so many selfies? Is it desire for attention? Is it that they like their own appearance and want to look at it? Is it that they feel that the aesthetics of their own face is a benefit to the well-being of others…?

I don’t know. I know that I have never felt this to be the case for me. As I said, I am one of the least photogenic people on the planet. The “good” pictures of me can pretty much fit into a letter-sized envelope and wouldn’t take more than standard postage to mail. Other acceptable pictures of me are made so by the addition of other individuals who are not only dear to me but usually more pleasing to the eye.


That being said, a further obstacle to my joining the ranks of the selfie­-stickers and self-portraiture aficionados… I suck at selfies. I do. It’s true. I’ve never mastered the proper angle or the face contortions that approximate a supermodel (or more likely Mike Myers in the Sprockets skit on SNL). Truth be told, the cat is much better at it than I am (seriously, the cat that lives here has managed to take photos of himself on my phone and they look much better than anything I’ve attempted). There is no part of me that relishes having multiple pictures of my own face on my own phone or available to the public. I recognize that there are “different strokes for different folks.” So, I suppose if that is your thing, then by all means, pucker up and tilt that head at just the right angle… but I must say, I still find it all completely unfathomable.