Certainty is the cage that keeps us safe from curiosity. I've been released from the cage. I am the songbird and I am flying for the window. I know it's closed but I plan on breaking through. – Charlie Coté, Jr. (1987-2005)

Monday, January 31, 2011

Song & Dance

Song & Dance, Houghton Mifflin, 2002
Alan Shapiro

A Review of Alan Shapiro's Song & Dance (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)
by Charles Coté

As in Plato's allegory of the cave, we all face a blank wall when confronted with death, most so when that death involves someone close to us. Poetry may be our attempt to ascribe form to shadow, the closest we come to reality when passing by that fire.

Perhaps chained to their own cave, "The two boys don't suspect / they don't exist." This, the opening lines of Alan Shapiro's Song & Dance, transform to " a record / spinning beneath / a needle," a poignant elegy, the first of many about his brother's death from a brain tumor; the poems in this collection keen in every sense of the word.

The first poem, "Everything the Traffic Will Allow," based on Klea Blackhurt's Ethel Merman tribute, recollects a time when Alan and his brother David performed "There's No Business Like Show Business" to an audience of two, their delighted parents propped on pillows in their bedroom, the boys casting their own shadows in that moment, "just the shade / of a shade."

"Did you ever really have a brother?," one of the many questions posed throughout the book, questions Shapiro answers aslant, questions he seems to ignore, questions with no direct answers, like death, unknowable, and yet experienced in all its brutal honesty. This question, an echo in my own encephalitic cave, "did I ever really have a son?"

In the title poem, "Song & Dance," Shapiro addresses that question of existence and his connection to family, grounded in hunger and the anticipation of food cooking in the kitchen, "the hunger's sweet." He remembers his brother's voice and this helps him answer the question, how I answer the question: I listen again to his singing, sing, and am fed.

These poems are stunning, sensual, empathic and brutal. C. K. Williams calls them "luminous," Mark Doty, "harrowing," and Tom Sleigh, "sensitive and tough-minded." I read them in one sitting and felt the sweet, sad hunger inviscerate me.

In "Transistor Radio," we get "the bloated, stroke-crippled / indigent body" of his grandmother set against the "curvy bright / white trellis carved from cloud" of the roller coaster and "a vast lair / of languid animals, or young gods stretching," young sun bathers listening to music on the beach.

All the while, we embody our own cave of shadows in these poems, and like the body, inhabit a container for the poet's grief, his "pleasure dome / and torture chamber." In "To the Body," Shapiro describes our existential vessel, how pleasure and pain travel the same path. The nerve of it all! We're all trapped and alone, and by this we take comfort in this together, or as existential psychotherapist Irving Yalom says, "it's good to see the other lights bobbing up an down in the harbor at night." These poems, like "wine jars, jewels, and / honey cakes, / baubles and trinkets / in the Sun / King's tomb" all carry our hopes and anguish, like Part One of Gregory Orr's Concerning the Book That is the Body of the Beloved describes:
And so I come to the Book,
Which is also the body
Of the beloved. And so
I come to the poem.
The poem is the world
Scattered by passion, then
Gathered together again
So that we may have hope.

I will return to Song & Dance again and again, like I will listen again and again for the ones I've lost, while I burn and burn in this caloric body, "at once the fire / eating the wood / and the wood that, / burning, eats the fire." I will revel in Shapiro's song, as I do in Orr's, as I do in my own son's, and by that reveling, life will be revealed as it passes by the fire in shadow.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Singing Out: The Revel in Revelation

Having just read Alan Shapiro's elegies for his brother David 
who died from brain cancer (Song & Dance, Mariner Books, 2004), 
I feel compelled to let my son sing out as well. 
Alan's brother was an actor on Broadway, and had a great 
sense of humor, even in the midst of in his own tragedy. 
He "sang out in the revels" as Alan points out in 
"Last Impressions," the last poem in the collection, 
and by that singing, celebrated his life, our life, 
revealing, as all poems do, the essentials of existence.
Look for my upcoming review of Shapiro's book. 
From my son's journal, found soon after he died 
from Melanoma at age 18. While not comedic, 
these sing out their own revelations. 

October 1st, 2005 (The day he died)
What you are is a miracle that has graced my heart for what reason I don't know. The way you live is a lyrical work of art and I can't look away.
November 30, 2004
It’s like blowing in the wind,
the leaves in the fall.
Can’t stop me if I drift,
blending into it all.
But let’s face it, we’re all dying a little bit everyday ‘till we end up back where we
belong. Let’s all dance into our graves.
Certainty is the cage that keeps us safe
from curiosity. I’ve been released 
from the cage. I am the songbird
and I am flying for the window.
I know it’s closed, but I plan on
breaking through.
It’s funny how we call survival a blessing when death would be so much greater.
I’m still waiting for the answers to come falling at my feet. I’ll pick them up and look
them over but all I’m going to see is that no one knows the answers.
April 28, 2005 “Brown and Blue Eyes”
Brown eyes, if you’re listening in there,
I’m sure you’re aware 
that time Is on your side,
but not if you throw it away with regret. 
Blue eyes, if I choose to compare,
you’ll notice I stare. 
You’re everything I needed. Just pull me through.Just pull me through. I promise that I’ll beat it.
Here's Charlie singing Brown Eyes:

September 16, 2004 “Wings”
I want to be the passenger.
Let someone else drive
because I’ve got enough to do.
So girlfriend’s got her wings.
There are better things than
falling in love,
like being loved
and loving someone.
There are better things
than having control:
living out your soul.
Find that someone.
It’s such a difficult burden to carry, but it is also a motivating one. While cancer usually associates with a looming of death, it also provokes a will to live. I am always encouraged by my parents and girlfriend, who have been my greatest supporters since my diagnosis, to fight even when I am exhausted from treatments because I am loved.
March 3, 2004 “Death Cab”
Relying on uncertainties, ignoring
statistics. Using just my fingertips
to measure all the distance
between now and when its over.
Revised April 2, 2004 “Look Up”
Look up, it just might surprise you
I think we’ve found your cure.
Don’t know where we’re going-
doesn’t matter,
Why do we need to be so sure?

Where we’re going- it’s a better place
But I can’t say for sure.
Either way, don’t we know it’s for the
better? And there’s no need to
feel so insecure.

The cure is the disease
that brings everyone around you

caring for what they don’t understand,
helping with the load that’s just too heavy
to carry alone.

It’s like a coffin.
We’re all on a handle.
The second it drops is the one
we all fall down.

Don’t cry now.
Don’t cry ever.
Dehydration is far too clever,
empties your eyes and leaves you tired...
Whenever people level with me and say how hard it must be for me to endure these harsh treatments, and that they admire my spirit and strength, I usually want to reply that these treatments are hardly brutal and are all worthwhile if they mean
that I get to spend more time on earth with all the people I love and who have shown so much caring love throughout my life and this treatment. It is almost
impossible for me to refrain from tears every time I think about the incredible
amount of love people have shown me. And if this experience has shown me anything, I think it’s shown me that God encourages us all to love in so many ways, even in tragedy. It’s incredible how many people I don’t even know have
shown me love and kept me in their prayers. Also, as tacky as it sounds, I think that if people could give everyone the love that I have received so gracefully, then the world would be such a better place to live in.
I think, normally, when someone knows that they’re going to die, that the typical thing for everyone else to do is prepare themfor death. I think, in my case, and hopefully any other faithful person’s, that it’s much more appropriate to prepare the others who must deal with the person’s death. I’ll try to leave you with everything
you need. I’ll be taken care of when I get where I’m going.
 JOURNAL ENTRY 9/24/2005

So I was thinking today, after hearing
about Julie Lynch’s sort of self-realization-
coming to terms with life experience, that
I’m not sure what conclusions I’ve come to
about life. I know I’ve learned a lot of
valuable lessons and such over the past year,
but I don’t feel so wise as the people you read
about or hear about that come to complete
terms with life and death and find profound
understanding. I think what I’ve ultimately
found is that there isn’t much that can be
understood-especially when it comes to what
I’m experiencing now. Maybe that means that
all those other guys were just making stuff up
to sound or feel profound, themselves. Cuz I
have to admit, I think I’d feel a little more
complete, myself, if I could bring myself and
those around me to a new level of
understanding- one that would ultimately allow
us to better cope with all this. Maybe I feel
obligated even...
JOURNAL ENTRY 9/27/2005   
* * * last entry
I don’t like feeling pain. I hate showing
my pain even more, though. I don’t like
having people worry about every ache, pain,
or cough I feel. Sure, I am grateful for their
concern, because every once in a while, I do
need help. I just feel like my state of health
affects others states of emotion or happiness.
I wish I could ignore the pain so they wouldn’t
have to see it and worry so much.

Okay, I can’t keep my eyes open any longer.

Cancer, by Brian Moore
(spray insulation and oil on panel, 2005, for Charlie)

Maybe Falling Asleep During Class is the Way to Go?

I just read an article in ScienceNews about a recent study reported in Nature Neuroscience which suggests that the brain handles memory better when asleep than awake. And all these years I thought napping in class was a bad idea, ashamed of all that drool on the desk. So kiddos, next time you're presented with some really important facts in class, take a nap right away, but don't fall too deeply into sleep. You just might do better on your next test.


Saturday, January 29, 2011

My Son the Drug Pusher

Turns out that listening to music releases dopamine in the brain. The more pleasing the music, the greater the high. Since I find my son's music so pleasing, he's my de facto drug dealer. Who knew?

If you don't believe me, check out his music for yourself. OK, so I'm a bit biased.

Find more artists like Alex Cote’ at Myspace Music

(Source: WebMD, based on researcher Valorie Salimpoor of Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University in Quebec, Canada, and colleagues in Nature Neuroscience)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Towed at the Toad

Dear Brian,

No doubt this letter finds you in a sea of demands, wave after wave as apt to boil over you as take you for a fine ride to shore, with its leisurely strolls and happy findings. At this moment I imagine Barb running along the gulf shore in Alabama, soaking in warm sunrise. It’s as likely to get a call from her saying a cold wind blows the rain in fits, a picture of your days perhaps.

Last night I spent a fair evening with Whitney’s father, Ricardo, as I affectionately call him on our boozy jaunts (he calls me Carlos), and his friend Juan, since our wives are retreating together at the Hitchcock’s condo. We figured we owed ourselves this indulgence. Ironically, I had pledged an oath of sobriety for health reasons and, thus, was designated taxi.

Upon our arrival at The Old Toad parking lot, we noticed the attendant’s light on, meaning an extortionist’s fee to stable my steed. However said bandit was nowhere to be seen on such a bleak and rain sodden night. So being men of reason, we falsely assumed a free pass.

Much carefree talk ensued, the consumption of Red Stripe para mis amigos, Coke para mi, and a homely meal of Shepherd’s Pie with British Chips. Upon our sated leave we found my copper steed, my Quest, no longer kept safely in her place. Memories of the hijacked Caravan flooded me like so many drops of rain and I was soaked with dread. Then he appeared, a dwarf of a lad by the name of Fred, unkempt under a purple umbrella, smirking at our fate.

“Are you the owner of the Quest?” he baited. “It was towed just five minutes ago.”

Now the unrelenting downpour turned to what I imagined as blows. I pictured myself choking the fungal mushroomed man. He righteously advised us to call the extortionist's livery to ransom the steed and assured us of his valor, our accusations of perfidy unjust. “I’m just doing my job. I’ve been working my ass off.”

When an appeal went forth to our common ancestry and good will, when I said, “we looked for you to pay our fair share,” he scoffed, “yeah, right.” It was then a shot rang out in the alley and I saw what looked like a crimson stain on Fred’s breast, his eyes wide with fright. To my consternation, upon closer inspection, it was only ketchup and the backfire from an old car.

It was futile to engage our delinquent toady and we hastened to the shelter of the friendlier pub. A desperate call was placed to a mutual friend who bailed us out for the bond of a brew and some brotherhood.

An hour later our brave party rejoined the Quest for a sum of $170. The livery sentry was dressed in plaid flannel and denim, smelled of stale garlic, smoking a cheap cigar. He glared us off the lot while I thought briefly about trampling him with the steed.

On the way home, Ricardo and Juan began plotting Fred’s demise, being highly trained scientists with a penchant for perverse experimentation. Earlier that evening, Ricardo regaled us with a harrowing tale about flares and seagull feathers. You can be assured the planet suffers one less scavenger this day. I for my part am happy to have my Quest back in sight along with my sober wits intact.

In Perpetuity,


Monday, January 24, 2011

In Confidence: A Poetic Review of Jim Tilley's First Book of Poems

Jim Tilley
Buy In Confidence
Rather than write a typical review, I'll share instead a poem I wrote that literally steals phrases from Jim Tilley's excellent first book of poems, In Confidence (Red Hen Press, 2011). Jim's poems are exquisitely crafted and a pleasure to read.

And if you don't believe me, then read

"ON THE ART OF PATIENCE" (Winner of Sycamore Review's 2008 Wabash Prize for Poetry)

Here's my tribute to Jim's book:

by Charles Coté

That to know the universe
    is to see the elegance of his mind,
he might not be a person like you,
    and yet he might be the one

to show you things
    don’t always work out,
the one to make you think
    about the unanswerable,

how to make a brick,
    the act of grasping handfuls
and letting each sift away.
    Swimming in the depths

of his ocean, it quiets
    the blood and brain,
even if things aren’t always right.
    There’s more to the shape of things

than in the picture: being
    in the beauty of figures.
It’s the shape of things that counts.
    If only you were so inclined,

and weren’t other wise
    so thoroughly engaged,
weren’t ogling every big-breasted,
    fat-lipped, wide-hipped girl

you meet, you’d admire his eagerness
    to mate with other types, feel his urge
to belong, to carve plainsong
    into crescendo, a force that draws

you in. You have come to the great sandbox
    again and again. Who could blame you
for wondering? When you sit down
    to write, when you sweep up

a thousand fragments, when you
    send them to him, trying to plumb
what you don’t understand,
    when you wonder why

you made the thing you made,
    the way it casts light
on everyday affairs, he can’t
    help but pity you poor

Daedalus. Just like you find
    a shrink to fix the inner cracks,
you take him in confidence,
    take time to walk together

to the other side, see that
    life is long enough
to hear each other’s song.
    He proves it a different way

than you, each to validate
    a life. You know you would give up
secrets without seeming to,
    less for livelihood than the pleasure

of his friendship. You each need
    both types of darkness, a network
of everything connecting everything.
    Here, the wind is everywhere,

And everywhere, the need
is now.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Guns, Germs, and Steel: A Summary

Here's an informative summary of Jared Diamond's Pullitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, written by Michael McGoodwin:

Michael McGoodwin has a number of book summaries on his website on Ancient and Medieval Writings, William Shakespeare, Post-Medieval English-Language Fiction and Literature, History and Biography, Medicine, Science, Mathematics, and Other Nonfiction Works.

Prologue: Yali's Question

Jared Diamond (JD) has done extensive field work in New Guinea. His indigenous New Guinean politician friend Yali asked why whites had been so successful and arrived with so much "cargo" compared to the locals. JD rephrases this question: why did white Eurasians dominate over other cultures by means of superior guns, population-destroying germs, steel, and food-producing capability ? JD's main thesis is that this occurred not because of racial differences in intelligence, etc. but rather because of environmental differences. He wishes to play down Eurocentric thinking and racist explanations because they are loathsome and wrong. Modern stone age peoples "are on the average probably more intelligent, not less intelligent, than industrialized peoples." New Guineans are "more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is", traits which he attributes to survival of the fittest. Proper analysis of the current standing of various human societies must trace developments beginning before the onset of historical record.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Place To Nest In This Migrant Life

James Scruton

Chapbook Review of James Scruton's Exotics & Accidentals (Grayson Books, 2009)
by Charles Coté

“Tell me again the legend” may be the task of all art, to retell the story of what it means to be human, to live in this life even when it’s for the birds. Who can face the future without looking back? We follow the trails others have taken, the ones we’ve traveled too, and pay close attention to the things we’ve seen and taken along the way, a “Buckeye” perhaps. So much emerges from so little – life passed on in three seeds per fruit. This is the language of lyric poetry, birdsong. We listen to hear our own voice and watch closely, each image distilled and in focus, to discover, as Ezra Pound so clearly said about poetry, the news that stays news.

This is the offering in James Scruton’s Exotics & Accidentals, winner of Grayson Books 2009 Chapbook Competition, what he calls “truth in a nutshell,” and that’s all in the first poem! From “the bur / and thistle of the everyday,” each poem that follows transforms “ordinary things” into gems, or from the last line of the poem “Ordinary Plenty,” each goes “further than they were,” as every good poem must do. This collection is exotic, feathers that flock together in the mind as equal in the heart – sound and sense, a place to nest in this migrant life, to find a voice and fly.

Here’s the title poem:

Exotics & Accidentals

These are your favorites,
the ones here on the off-chance,
each a bird of a different feather.

Even nested they never quite belong,
some note they can’t pick up
in local songs, their habitat re-mapped

beneath them. What strange migration
brings them here, what turn
of wing or weather?

Vagrants, stragglers, escaped
or astray, their names go on your list
as if the one place left to land.

Scruton “takes us by surprise,” to quote from “The Accidental Garden,” and asserts (see “Bird Stories”) that wonder is, “just the ordinary trying to break through.” While in no way religious, though certainly reverent, the collection ends with “Grace,” regardless of any rain, sleet, or snow that may fall, whether “on the just / and unjust alike, asked for or not, / believed in or doubted,” grace to meet a “need so great it must be holy...enough in any wind, any season.”


I Want a New Drug: Oxytocin

Therapist and author Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT describes the benefits of oxytocin in this informative article. In fact, her website is filled with helpful tools to improve relationships and mental health.

She writes, "Oxytocin is a naturally occurring neurochemical that  acts like a hormone in our bodies, meaning it crosses the blood-brain barrier and circulates in the blood steam as well as in the brain, to regulate the arousal level of our nervous system.  Oxytocin is released through touch, warmth, and affectionate connection."


In a related post, she describes a simple way to release oxytocin in the brain, to counteract the stress hormone cortisol.

Here's what she says to do:

  1. Sit down in a quiet place, close your eyes and put your hand over your heart.
  2. Take slow deep breaths and conjure up in your mind a person, place or even a pet that represents safety and security. 
  3. Do this for at least 30 seconds.  Notice the feelings in your body.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Ken Mogi in the Wonder Land of Science

"By forgetting how to be curious we are losing something really valuable. Because curiosity is the single most important trait that brought us here today."  —  Ken Mogi

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Poetry that Endures

PBS New Hour Report, 1/4/11: Writer Kwame Dawes has traveled to Haiti over the past year to report on and write poems about people's experiences after the earthquake. Jeffrey Brown's conversation with Dawes continues a series of reports in partnership with USA Today and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

This is an excellent example of poetry as survival, "translating the world into language to make it understandable and so to make it endurable," as Stephen Dobyns says.


The Responsibility of a Writer

Ginger Murchison interviewing Stephen Dobyns

Having had the opportunity, and distinct pleasure to study on two occasions with Stephen Dobyns, I've found this concept, quoted here from an interview he did with editor Ginger Murchison in the Spring 2004 issue of The Cortland Review (TCR), most helpful in my own writing (in bold italics below):

TCR: I remember reading an Edward Leuders poem to my high-school students that defined poetry as "blue taillights on Tyranosaurus Rex." They enjoyed thinking about poetry that way, and it was just as you said—an exaggerated reality of poetry. Given that Concurring Beasts might have its exaggerations, it clearly works from both sides of the page, from poet to reader, and I'm going to ask you, if you will, to read the last five lines of the final poem. I should ask you to read the whole poem, but it's especially the last five lines I want to focus on. Would you do that?
Stephen Dobyns: Sure. It's from a poem called "The Ways of Keys."
Let a dark lantern be placed in the circle
And let me lie down by it, becoming
both entrance and exit of light. Let me
be the door and the lock. Let me
learn the ways of keys.
TCR: There's a lyric moment for you, for the poem and for a young poet's first book. Already, at that point in your life, you had developed a clear position about the responsibility of a poet and a sense of control.
Stephen Dobyns: Exactly. The poem talks about trying to translate the world into language to make it understandable and so to make it endurable, to make it seem less random, and to make the speaker of the poem seem not so much a victim within the world, but to have some control simply by being able to turn the world into language and ideally then open to some greater understanding.
TCR: ...and you aren't just saying—as the poet—that you want the keys for yourself. You are actually handing them to the reader...a gift.
Stephen Dobyns: Right. The speaker here wants to become both the entrance and the exit of light, to have it pass through him.
Full TCR Interview

Gregory Orr

Gregory Orr says it lyrically in one of my favorite poems, available at poets.org:

Some Part of the Lyric  
by Gregory Orr

Some part of the lyric wants to exclude
the world with all its chaos and grief
and so conceives shapes (a tear, a globe of dew)

whose cool symmetries create a mood
of security. Which is something all need
and so, the lyric's urge to exclude

what hurts us isn't simply a crude
defense, but an embracing of a few
essential shapes: a tear, a globe of dew.

But to what end? Are there clues
in these forms to deeper mysteries
that no good poem should exclude?

What can a stripped art reveal? Is a nude
more naked than the eye can see?
Can a tear freed of salt be a globe of dew?

And most of all—is it something we can use?
Yes, but only as long as its beauty,
like that of a tear or a globe of dew,
reflects the world it meant to exclude.
Orr says poems translate experience of disorder as patterned language, the most ordered form of language, or as Emily Dickenson wrote: “After great pain a formal feeling comes.”

Given my own experience with grief and loss, both personally, and in the course of my professional work, I've found poetry to be a great container for the chaos of life. Here's a poem from my chapbook, Flying for the Window (Finishing Line Press, 2008), that deals with the loss of my son to cancer, first published in The Boston Literary Magazine:


This world above worlds is a prairie
of clouds and sun glare.
Below, the smoldering hearths
shed smoke like irradiated hair.

Worth less than his breath
on earth, his song plays in my ear.
Still, I listen. I listen again
for clues, the gift of his verse.

I grow tired, await
the terrible fates.

You see me wear
this blue plaid shirt,
the one he gave me last year.
I play his red guitar.

My son also knew the power of words. We found this journal entry dated April 2004, written a year and a half before he died, while he was in the midst of treatment for his cancer:

Charlie Coté, Jr (1987 - 2005)

Look up, it just might surprise you.
I think we've found your cure.
Don't know where we're going-
doesn't matter,
why do we need to be so sure?
Where we're going- it's a better place,
but I can't say for sure.
Either way, don't we know it's
for the better? And there's no need
to feel so insecure.
The cure is the disease
that brings everyone around you
caring for what they don't understand,
helping with the load that's just too heavy
to carry alone.
It's like a coffin,
we're all on a handle.
The second it drops is the one
we all fall down.
Here's a link to him singing the first five lines in a Fivestar Riot song by the same name:

Find more artists like Fivestar Riot at Myspace Music

Gregory Orr says that poetry saved his life. When he was a child, he accidentally shot and killed his younger brother in a hunting accident. He discovered poetry while in high school and it gave him a way to create some order out of that chaos. He's written a book called Poetry as Survival that explores this idea in great depth. He's also written a powerful memoir called The Blessing.

Dobyns has written what I consider to be one of the best collection of essays on writing poetry: Best Words, Best Order.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Does Brain Shape Explain Why My Dad And I Have Different Political Views?

Scans of 90 students' brains at University College London (UCL) uncovered a "strong correlation" between the thickness of two particular areas of grey matter and an individual's views.

Self-proclaimed right-wingers had a more pronounced amygdala - a primitive part of the brain associated with emotion while their political opponents from the opposite end of the spectrum had thicker anterior cingulates.

Read Article

Conservative vs. Liberal Debate

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Zebrafish on the Anxious Brain

Scientists recently discovered that disrupting a specific set of neurons in the habenula prevents normal response to stressful situations. The habenular nuclei have been shown to be involved in many functions, including pain processing, reproductive behavior, nutrition, sleep-wake cycles, stress responses, and learning.
Scientists trained larval zebrafish to swim away from a light in order to avoid a mild electric shock. Fish with a specific set of neurons in the habenula that are damaged displayed signs of "helplessness," and showed indications that they were more anxious than normal fish, being startled easily by non-harmful stimuli. The zebrafish brain is similar to the mammalian brain, suggesting  that malfunction of the habenula is a possible cause of certain anxiety disorders in humans.

It may be possible to use direct stimulation of the habenula as a way of treating some types of anxiety disorders in humans.

So I guess looking at fish really does relieve stress.

(Source: SiFy News, based on a study was published in the journal Current Biology.)


Are You a Master or Disaster of Marriage?

World renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, John Gottman has thirty-five years of breakthrough research on marriage. He describes the Masters vs. Disasters in Marriage. He and his wife Julie Schwartz Gottman co-founded The Gottman Relationship Institute and are the authors of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, among other helpful marriage enrichment materials.

The Four Horsemen Disasters:

1. Criticism: stating the problem as a defect in the character of the partner 
2. Defensiveness: warding off a perceived attack with blame-shifting or whining
3. Contempt: any statement made to a partner from a superior place, insults, name-calling
4. Stonewalling: listener withdrawal, tuning out, elevated heart rate

The Four Horsemen Masters:

1. Gentle & Responsible
2. Curious & Interested
3. Respectful
4. Open, Honest, & Self-soothing

Every relationship experiences conflict and alienation. Repairing is a key factor with Masters. "I'm sorry. I blew it. Can we talk about it?" The quality of friendship and response of recipient is important as well, along with a sense of shared meaning and purpose.

The ratio of positive to negative interaction is significant as well (5:1), as the following video explains.

Important to have five positives to every negative. Gottman's ratio.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Are You the Marrying Kind?

There have been dramatic changes in our views on marriage and family life as highlighted in a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in association with TIME Magazine. Here's the Executive Summary of the finding with the full report available online (Pew Research Survey):

The transformative trends of the past 50 years that have led to a sharp decline in marriage and a rise of new family forms have been shaped by attitudes and behaviors that differ by class, age and race, according to a new Pew Research Center nationwide survey, done in association with TIME, complemented by an analysis of demographic and economic data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

A new “marriage gap” in the United States is increasingly aligned with a growing income gap. Marriage, while declining among all groups, remains the norm for adults with a college education and good income but is now markedly less prevalent among those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. The survey finds that those in this less-advantaged group are as likely as others to want to marry, but they place a higher premium on economic security as a condition for marriage. This is a bar that many may not meet.

The survey also finds striking differences by generation. In 1960, two-thirds (68%) of all twenty-somethings were married. In 2008, just 26% were. How many of today’s youth will eventually marry is an open question.  For now, the survey finds that the young are much more inclined than their elders to view cohabitation without marriage and other new family forms — such as same sex marriage and interracial marriage — in a positive light.

Even as marriage shrinks, family— in all its emerging varieties — remains resilient. The survey finds that Americans have an expansive definition of what constitutes a family. And the vast majority of adults consider their own family to be the most important, most satisfying element of their lives.
Here is a summary of the key findings of the report:
  • The Class-Based Decline in Marriage. About half (52%) of all adults in this country were married in 2008; back in 1960, seven-in-ten (72%) were. This decline has occurred along class lines. In 2008, there was a 16 percentage point gap in marriage rates between college graduates (64%) and those with a high school diploma or less (48%). In 1960, this gap had been just four percentage points (76% vs. 72%). The survey finds that those with a high school diploma or less are just as likely as those with a college degree to say they want to marry. But they place a higher premium than college graduates (38% versus 21%) on financial stability as a very important reason to marry.
  • Is Marriage Becoming Obsolete? Nearly four-in-ten survey respondents (39%) say that it is; in 1978 when Time magazine posed this question to registered voters, just 28% agreed. Those most likely to agree include those who are a part of the phenomenon (62% of cohabiting parents) as well as those most likely to be troubled by it (42% of self-described conservatives). Despite these growing uncertainties, Americans are more upbeat about the future of marriage and family (67% say they are optimistic) than about the future of the country’s educational system (50% optimistic), its economic system (46% optimistic) or its morals and ethics (41% optimistic).
  • An Ambivalent Public. The public’s response to changing marital norms and family forms reflects a mix of acceptance and unease. On the troubled side of the ledger: Seven-in-ten (69%) say the trend toward more single women having children is bad for society, and 61% say that a child needs both a mother and father to grow up happily. On the more accepting side, only a minority say the trends toward more cohabitation without marriage (43%), more unmarried couples raising children (43%), more gay couples raising children (43%) and more people of different races marrying (14%) are bad for society. Relatively few say any of these trends are good for society, but many say they make little difference.
  • Group Differences. Where people stand on the various changes in marriage and family life depends to some degree on who they are and how they live. The young are more accepting than the old of the emerging arrangements; the secular are more accepting than the religious; liberals are more accepting than conservatives; the unmarried are more accepting than the married; and, in most cases, blacks are more accepting than whites. The net result of all these group differences is a nearly even three-way split among the full public. A third (34%) say the growing variety of family arrangements is a good thing; 29% say it is a bad thing and 32% say it makes little or no difference.
  • The Resilience of Families. The decline of marriage has not knocked family life off its pedestal.  Three-quarters of all adults (76%) say their family is the most important element of their life; 75% say they are “very satisfied” with their family life, and more than eight-in-ten say the family they live in now is as close as (45%) or closer than (40%) the family in which they grew up. However, on all of these questions, married adults give more positive responses than do unmarried adults.
  • The Definition of Family. By emphatic margins, the public does not see marriage as the only path to family formation. Fully 86% say a single parent and child constitute a family; nearly as many (80%) say an unmarried couple living together with a child is a family; and 63% say a gay or lesbian couple raising a child is a family. The presence of children clearly matters in these definitions. If a cohabiting couple has no children, a majority of the public says they are not a family. Marriage matters, too. If a childless couple is married, 88% consider them to be a family.
  • The Ties that Bind. In response to a question about whom they would assist with money or caregiving in a time of need, Americans express a greater sense of obligation toward relatives—including relatives by way of fractured marriages– than toward best friends. The ranking of relatives aligns in a predictable hierarchy. More survey respondents express an obligation to help out a parent (83% would feel very obligated) or grown child (77%) than say the same about a stepparent (55%) or a step or half sibling (43%). But when asked about one’s best friend, just 39% say they would feel a similar sense of obligation.
  • Changing Spousal Roles. In the past 50 years, women have reached near parity with men as a share of the workforce and have begun to outpace men in educational attainment. About six-in-ten wives work today, nearly double the share in 1960. There’s an unresolved tension in the public’s response to these changes. More than six-in-ten (62%) survey respondents endorse the modern marriage in which the husband and wife both work and both take care of the household and children; this is up from 48% in 1977. Even so, the public hasn’t entirely discarded the traditional male breadwinner template for marriage. Some 67% of survey respondents say that in order to be ready for marriage, it’s very important for a man to be able to support his family financially; just 33% say the same about a woman.
  • The Rise of Cohabitation. As marriage has declined, cohabitation (or living together as unmarried partners) has become more widespread, nearly doubling since 1990, according to the Census Bureau. In the Pew Research survey, 44% of all adults (and more than half of all adults ages 30 to 49) say they have cohabited at some point in their lives. Among those who have done so, about two-thirds (64%) say they thought of this living arrangement as a step toward marriage.
  • The Impact on Children. The share of births to unmarried women has risen dramatically over the past half century, from 5% in 1960 to 41% in 2008. There are notable differences by race:  Among black women giving birth in 2008, 72% were unmarried.  This compares with 53% of Hispanic women giving birth and 29% of white women. Overall, the share of children raised by a single parent is not as high as the share born to an unwed mother, but it too has risen sharply — to 25% in 2008, up from 9% in 1960. The public believes children of single parents face more challenges than other children — 38% say “a lot more” challenges and another 40% say “a few more” challenges. Survey respondents see even more challenges for children of gay and lesbian couples (51% say they face a lot more challenges) and children of divorce (42% say they face a lot more challenges).
  • In Marriage, Love Trumps Money. Far more married adults say that love (93%), making a lifelong commitment (87%) and companionship (81%) are very important reasons to get married than say the same about having children (59%) or financial stability (31%). Unmarried adults order these items the same way. However, when asked if they agree that there is “only one true love” for every person, fewer than three-in-ten (28%) survey respondents say, I do.
While you might argue that marriage is not obsolete, these findings do highlight significant shifts in our cultural views about marriage and family life that are quite revealing.

Full Pew Report

Time Magazine Article

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Difficult Conversations

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen presents what I consider the clearest and most practical principles on how to resolve conflict, whether it be in business, social, or intimate relationships. The book comes out of The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, a university consortium dedicated to developing the theory and practice of negotiation and dispute resolution.

The authors note that there are in fact three conversations going on when people discuss what matters most:
  1. The What's Happening Conversation – where issues of fact, values, points of view, intentions, blame come into play. They point out three traps to avoid: The Truth Trap, The Blame Game, and The Intention Invention. To counter these and be more effective in communication, the authors recommend exploring each others story with curiosity, identifying how each contributes to the conflict, and focusing on impact instead of intentions.
  2. The Feelings Conversation – where deeper emotions lurk underneath but are rarely identified, and often acted out, sometimes denied.
  3. The Identity Conversation – where issues of rejection, abandonment, and inadequacy, to name a few, are often triggered, where an individual feels threatened or judged as bad, unacceptable, worthless. This conversation often fuels the most entrenched, and escalated conflicts.
This is one of the most helpful books I've ever read and I recommend it to my clients all the time.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Poetry/Flash Fiction Contest

Many Mountains Moving poetry/flash fiction contests this year have been extended; the deadline is now Feb. 13, 2011. Still relatively few people have entered this year though the prizes went up to $500 in each genre. They generally publish many of the poetry finalists as well, and with the entry fee you would get this very great new issue for free. Printable guidelines here:


Many Mountains Moving: a literary journal of diverse contemporary voices got a very nice feature review at Newpages.com:


Why Skepticism Is Useful

Don't trust every study you hear. In an article by John M Grohol PsyD at PsychCentral, he takes issue with an article in The New Yorker by Jonah Lerner that suggests the scientific method is dead. Grohol, taking the lead from ScienceBlogs writer PZ Meyers, asserts that science is not dead, and gives reasons that are well established in the scientific community for why sketchy research results are allowed to go public. He lists seven, and I quote:
  1. Regression to the mean: As the number of data points increases, we expect the average values to regress to the true mean…and since often the initial work is done on the basis of promising early results, we expect more data to even out a fortuitously significant early outcome.
  2. The file drawer effect: Results that are not significant are hard to publish, and end up stashed away in a cabinet. However, as a result becomes established, contrary results become more interesting and publishable.
  3. Investigator bias: It’s difficult to maintain scientific dispassion. We’d all love to see our hypotheses validated, so we tend to consciously or unconsciously select results that favor our views.
  4. Commercial bias: Drug companies want to make money. They can make money off a placebo if there is some statistical support for it; there is certainly a bias towards exploiting statistical outliers for profit.
  5. Population variance: Success in a well-defined subset of the population may lead to a bit of creep: if the drug helps this group with well-defined symptoms, maybe we should try it on this other group with marginal symptoms. And it doesn’t… but those numbers will still be used in estimating its overall efficacy.
  6. Simple chance: This is a hard one to get across to people, I’ve found. But if something is significant at the p=0.05 level, that still means that 1 in 20 experiments with a completely useless drug will still exhibit a significant effect.
  7. Statistical fishing: I hate this one, and I see it all the time. The planned experiment revealed no significant results, so the data is pored over and any significant correlation is seized upon and published as if it was intended. See previous explanation. If the data set is complex enough, you’ll always find a correlation somewhere, purely by chance.
Conclusion: Don't let shoddy research methods give science a bad name.

By the way, I'm saddened to learn that psychology studies are rife with potential error given the small, homogeneous samples (n=20). So, dear reader, be skeptical when you read about so-called scientific findings, even ones I post here, and keep these points in mind. 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Chin Music: Sarah Freligh's SORT OF GONE

As a former sportswriter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and one of the first American females at that, Sarah Freligh writes so convincingly about the life of fictional baseball pitcher Al Stepansky, I’d bet that men from all over the country who’ve ever played the game will wax rhapsodically about their own by-gone days on the diamond once they’ve read her book. If the best poets write the reader’s life, as asserted by poet and novelist Stephen Dobyns, then Freligh is one of our best poets. And you don’t have to be male or a baseball player to appreciate and read your life in these poems.

But I’m an American male, and hell yes, I played ball. Might have made it big too, like my uncle who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm system, or my distant relative Napoleon Lajoie, Ty Cobb’s rival. Lajoie’s in the Hall of Fame. Sure as the Cubs might have won a World Series, I might have made it, and like my late father-in-law who knew the entire 1932 Cubs World Series line-up, I kept hoping. For most, life is more Cub than Yankee. Who remembers Kiki Cuyler and Gabby Harnett next to Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig; Lou Warnke over Lefty Gomez? Exactly.

My big moments in baseball are more bear than bull, hitting 4 for 4 in a high school game my father attended, both rare events, feeling elated and proud, a naiveté. Dad, aren’t I a good hitter? You’re good, Son, but I was better. Slap! Or there I am, pitching a no-hitter in the first inning against Lockport, in May, when the game gets called on account of snow. That’s Buffalo, and I never pitched again. The rest can only be described, à la baseball innovator Bill Veeck in The Hustler’s Manual, as self-inflicted wounds.

Yes, baseball leaves us more Cub than Yankee, more Grimes and Grimm than Babe and Iron Horse; it makes poet-philosophers of us all, or in my case, a psychotherapist, which surely explains why I’m a Cubs fan, because like Charlie Brown, I worry about how the losers feel.

About baseball and life, former Yale President and 7th Commissioner of Baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti was right when he wrote in “The Green Fields of the Mind” (Yale Alumni Magazine, November 1977),

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in spring, when everything else begins, and it blossoms in summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face fall alone.
This is what we find in Sort of Gone, Sarah Freligh’s first full-length poetry collection (Turning Point, 2008), and more importantly, her protagonist, smart-ass jock Al Stepansky from Buffalo, though I picture Lackawanna with its dreary smoke stacks and blackened bricks overlooking the Niagara River. Does anything but the likes of Stepansky come from such a place? Probably so, but we don’t care, caught up as we are in the trials and triumphs of this fragile, cocky pitcher as he makes his way to the Bigs, as he’s broken in by his alcoholic father’s chin music the day he receives his first mitt, in “Lesson,”

Time you learned something,
his father says, finishing off

his first pint of the day
and there will be more,
…Before dinner they play
catch in the street, shin-deep
in snow. No coats. We ain’t girls,

his father says, though you throw like one,
walks back to Al, slaps
him across the face with his callused
hand, says Son, that’s how the ball
should sound when it hits the glove.
That’s the sound Freligh makes throughout the collection, a hard slap on leather from the heat and sliders of Stepansky’s life, before, during and after his seventeen years in the majors. And Al has been hit, plenty. We feel it in the language of Freligh’s poems, especially in the “No Hitter” cycle, four poems that anchor the book, anchor Al, reveal his character, and so doing, tell us something of ourselves. Like when Al comes close to perfection, his Gloria in excelsis deo, his Gloria Dombrowski, his gloria in a whorehouse deo perfection, in “No Hitter, Ninth Inning,” the last poem in the short cycle.

We learn about our need for hope, however futile, how humor and diversion provide relief when no relief is warming up in the bullpen, and we’re standing all alone atop our little mound, because like pitchers, we’re all dying out there. Why else are we so consumed with sex, the hoped-for bliss where anything’s possible, like Al’s screaming fans compared to schools of fish that get away? We all want to catch the attention and adoration of another, and our minds never stop churning, for better or worse, on our way to the top, only to find the inevitable slide on the other side, and that’s when the story deepens, gets most interesting, when Al begins to fess up to how The Show really goes, how it ends.

And if it ends well, we get wisdom. If not, we get Al all washed-up, reliving his too brief moments of glory, a most entertaining guide to spiritual awakening. I’ll take Stepansky’s curveballs, screwballs and splitters over a Sunday sermon any day.

Reading Sort of Gone put to mind something famed baseball essayist and fiction editor for The New Yorker Roger Angell said, I felt what I almost always feel when I am watching a ballgame. Just for those two or three hours, there is really no place I would rather be. Indeed. A few hours with Stepansky is time well spent.

Foreshadowing Al’s fate, the collection’s title poem lets us know this is a story about sex and death, that ancient theme we’ve come to expect in literature, and Sort of Gone has good fun with it, despite the tragic moments. In the poem “Sort of Gone,” we learn of Al’s teammate at the moment of his dismissal from the team:

Tommy’s locker’s bare of everything but
last month’s Playmate—Miss May, a string
of pearls threaded through her black bush—
taped where the team can reach up, rub

her boobs for luck. Tommy, who once told
a reporter he sort of believed in extraterrestrials,
believed that Jesus had been an alien—how
else could he walk on water? A rightie

with a lefty’s head, said the story. Tommy,
just out of the shower when Skip squinted
through the gloom of steam, asked to see him.
A dozen bare backs turned ignorant out of respect

or fear. Now, looking at Miss May they think
of Tommy, remember how nuts he was,
laugh until their guts ache, forgetting
that one day they’ll all be sort of gone.
Given all this extraterrestrial angst, Freligh gives us Jesus as cabbie to the fates. Here’s an excerpt from “Your Life Until Now”—
…though His son’s the one you picture behind the wheel, a lit
cigarette dangling from his lips, chauffeur’s cap askew,
Where to, dude? He says, a yellow glow behind Him…
a Jesus who becomes
…just another guy soldiering through life,
marching through sorrow and loss like the rest of us…
What will Al do when he’s no longer in The Show, no longer the man, Al! Al! Al! poking staccato holes in heaven through which angels / will fall, Gloria in excelsis deo… (“No Hitter, Ninth Inning”)? As his post-game answer to reporters regarding his thoughts on the mound suggests, Nothing, except to eventually sell Cadillacs and dream of his return to baseball. We find out in “After Seventeen Years, The End,” he will buy a round for the house just like his old man. Same hands and face, all hot air and promise.

Everything comes around in Sort of Gone, and one might reasonably hope for a better outcome, for Al to settle into a life he can have rather than indulge those dead men making trouble, his memories as novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes them, the epigraph to Freligh’s poem by the same name.

Sort of Gone is not about reason, but instinct and passion. After the shocking death of his longtime catcher Boonie, in “The Math,” only Al tries to explain what it’s like / to be alive, to wake up to the sun / of another long day without, and you’d expect him to say Boonie, but instead we get the surprise of a ball game to play in. We all need such a game, and the tragedy of Al’s life is that he can only look back, like so many do who turn their back to the future, since what else can we know but where we’ve been?

This is the life of the American hero given us in Sort of Gone, or perhaps anti-hero, who saves us when he loses his power to save himself, and by that loss (should we call it a sacrifice?), gives us all we need; or as an unknown poet-philosopher once said, “As ripples in the sand… organize and formalize the dust which is dust, so the diamonds and rituals of baseball create an elegant, trivial, enchanted grid on which our suffering, shapeless, sinful day leans for the momentary grace of order.”

Let’s all raise a big plastic cup of Bud to Al and all we aspire to be,


Who or What Can You Trust?

People who feel powerful feel less risk when pulling strings, or slot machine levers, provided the one or thing being pulled looks human. Not so for meeker souls who don't like their odds and believe they'll come up short either way.  A recent New York Times article, "Feeling Powerful and Taking Risks," by Alex Mindlin, reports on "a study to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, conducted by Sara Kim and Professor Ann L. McGill of the University of Chicago that pursues this inquiry into the murky crossroads of risk and societal status."

So the implication is clear, if you don't want to be manipulated by people who feel powerful, start looking like a copier, a voting machine, or maybe a car salesman. Maybe you can think of better ideas.

Just kidding about car salesmen.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Writing Prompts

Here's an excellent resource for writers from Redactions editor, and poet, Tom Holmes. If anyone knows of others, please let me know.

Tom Holmes is the editor of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics. He is also author of Henri, Sophie, & the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex (BlazeVOX Books, September 2009), After Malaguena (FootHills Publishing, 2005), Negative Time (Pudding House, 2007), Pre-Dew Poems (FootHills Publishing, 2008), and Poetry Assignments: The Book (Sage Hill Press, 2009). His work has also appeared on Verse Daily.


In Your Face Google!

Facebook is now the most visited site on the web, surpassing Google in 2010, and also the most searched word with search engines. Sharon Gaudin reports the following at Computerworld:

"Facebook, which had a flood of good and bad publicity last year, grabbed 8.93% of all U.S. visits between January and November 2010. Google, which had been in the top spot in 2009, slipped to the No. 2 position with 7.19% of all visits, Hitwise said.

The analytics firm also reported that Yahoo! Mail came ranked third with 3.52% of all visits, while the main Yahoo! site was fourth with 3.3%. YouTube rounded out the top five with 2.65% of all site visits."
Still, Google's numbers are impressive. Gaudin also reports that U. S. users spent 4.1 million minutes on Facebook as compared to 39.8 million on Google.

Related story: my son is playing a video game and expressing loud, colorful frustration at wasting an hour of "work" because he pressed the wrong button and hadn't saved what he'd done before. I asked, Work? It's a video game. He said, You're one to talk dad. You blog all the time.

Well played son. Well played.

For those of you new to Facebook, you'll want to watch this instructional video:

Here's a British take on Facebook, and it's brilliant!

And finally, the darker side of Google:

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Executive Functioning and Forgiveness

Turns out that people with higher executive function have a significantly larger increase in their forgiveness of original transgressions than those with low executive functioning, but only when the offense is most severe. Individuals with higher executive function also showed lower levels of rumination. They found that the level of an individual’s rumination explained a significant portion of the association of executive function and forgiveness.

Executive function is made up of a collection of higher order cognitive processes, some of which allow an individual to multi-task, think abstractly, and inhibit potentially inappropriate behaviors.

The study was conducted by the Department of Developmental Psychology, Utrecht University, Utrecht, the Netherlands and the findings released in 2009 and presented in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 98, Issue 1, January 2010, Pages 119-131.

Special thanks to Brainna Schuyler for the summary of this study.

And if you're in Red Bank, NJ on January 10th, you can attend a lecture on forgiveness by Michael Posnick. That's where I got this sweet picture.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Would You Be a Good Samaritan?

If our brains are soft-wired to to show empathy, then why aren't we more compassionate? Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence shares some reasons why, though of course, it's always good to be a bit skeptical because, hey, life is complex and we're all addicted to over-simplification. Still, I find this talk interesting. What's your take?

While you enjoy your New Year's Eve celebration, take some time to show someone else that you care.