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, February 21, 2011

Even Poets Know That Lifestyle Changes Promote Mental Health


By Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

If you want better mental health, change your lifestyle, or look at really good art! Here's a press release from The American Psychological Association on research findings of Roger Walsh:

Lifestyle changes - such as getting more exercise, time in nature, or helping others - can be as effective as drugs or counseling to treat an array of mental illnesses, according to a new paper published by the American Psychological Association.

Multiple mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, can be treated with certain lifestyle changes as successfully as diseases such as diabetes and obesity, according to Roger Walsh, M.D., PhD. of the University of California, Irvine's College of Medicine. Walsh reviewed research on the effects of what he calls "therapeutic lifestyle changes," or TLCs, including exercise, nutrition and diet, relationships, recreation, relaxation and stress management, religious or spiritual involvement, spending time in nature, and service to others. His paper was published in American Psychologist, APA's flagship journal.

Walsh reviewed research on TLCs' effectiveness and advantages, as well as the psychological costs of spending too much time in front of the TV or computer screen, not getting outdoors enough, and becoming socially isolated. He concludes that "Lifestyle changes can offer significant therapeutic advantages for patients, therapists, and societies, yet are insufficiently appreciated, taught or utilized," The paper describes TLCs as effective, inexpensive and often enjoyable, with fewer side effects and complications than medications. "In the 21st century, therapeutic lifestyles may need to be a central focus of mental, medical and public health," Walsh said.

According to research reviewed in the paper, the many often unrecognized TLC benefits include:
  • Exercise not only helps people feel better by reducing anxiety and depression. It can help children do better in school, improve cognitive performance in adults, reduce age-related memory loss in the elderly, and increase new neuron formation in the brain.
  • Diets rich in vegetables, fruits and fish may help school performance in children, maintain cognitive functions in adults, as well as reduce symptoms in affective and schizophrenic disorders.
  • Spending time in nature can promote cognitive functions and overall well-being.
  • Good relationships can reduce health risks ranging from the common cold to strokes as well as multiple mental illnesses, and can enhance psychological well-being dramatically.
  • Recreation and fun can reduce defensiveness and foster social skills.
  • Relaxation and stress management can treat a variety of anxiety, insomnia, and panic disorders.
  • Meditation has many benefits. It can improve empathy, sensitivity and emotional stability, reduce stress and burnout, and enhance cognitive function and even brain size.
  • Religious and spiritual involvement that focuses on love and forgiveness can reduce anxiety, depression and substance abuse, and foster well-being.
  • Contribution and service, or altruism, can enhance joy and generosity by producing a "helper's high." Altruism also benefits both physical and mental health, and perhaps even extends lifespan. A major exception the paper notes is "caretaker burnout experienced by overwhelmed family members caring for a demented spouse or parent."
Difficulties associated with using TLCs are the sustained effort they require, and "a passive expectation that healing comes from an outside authority or a pill," according to Walsh. He also noted that people today must contend with a daily barrage of psychologically sophisticated advertisements promoting unhealthy lifestyle behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating fast food. "You can never get enough of what you don't really want, but you can certainly ruin your life and health trying" lamented Walsh.
For therapists, the study recommends learning more about the benefits of TLCs, and devoting more time to foster patients' TLCs.

The paper recognizes that encouraging widespread adoption of therapeutic lifestyles by the public is likely to require wide-scale measures encompassing educational, mental, and public health systems, as well as political leadership.

Article: "Lifestyle and Mental Health," Roger Walsh, PhD, M.D., University of California College of Medicine, Irvine; American Psychologist, Online First Publication, January 17, 2011.

Lisa Bowen
American Psychological Association

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Anxious, Anxious, Anxious

Americans are anxious, not because of the economy or work stress, but for the following three reasons, or so says Taylor Clark in a article at Slate, and I'd have to agree given the trends I've seen in my practice:

1. Loss of community:

We spend less time in face-to-face interaction and more time in front of plasma displays, creating a second rate substitute for real relationship. People feel more isolated than ever. Here I am, on my computer, telling you that we're all more anxious and should be chatting over coffee, decaf of course, because the high test stuff would get on our nerves.

2. Information Overload:

For instance, I've spent hours today combing the Internet for something newsworthy to share but the choices are staggering. Facebook feeds, Google Reader, The Times, Network News, professional journals, Slate, Salon, etc... I get stressed out deciding what to pass along and wonder if it's even worth it. If I'm bombarded, then so are you, and why should I ask you to read something more? Well, because I think you might be anxious and I'd like to ease your mind, which is to say that I'm anxious and write this down to ease my own. Misery loves company, eh?

Which leads us to the real culprit.

3. Our Intolerant Attitude Toward Negative Feelings:

This is what I address every day with the anxious folks I see in my clinical practice who feel so uncomfortable when their just right feeling goes away that they'll do just about anything to get it back, no matter how irrational. I focus on the mindfulness concept of radical acceptance. Anxious feelings are often reinforced by our efforts to avoid them, so much of what I teach involves learning how to tolerate distress.

Of all the articles I read today -- how to improve memory, America's real interest in Bahrain, Rush Limbaugh's tirade against the Wisconsin protesters, villains cast as good guys, low SAT scores for states without collective bargaining, former football players dying plea for brain research, the deficit debate -- I found this to be the most stress relieving. I particularly liked this quote:

Psychologist Steven Hayes, creator of a highly effective anxiety treatment formula called acceptance and commitment therapy, told me that we've fallen victim to "feel-goodism," the false idea that "bad" feelings ought to be annihilated, controlled, or erased by a pill.
I'm interested in Hayes anxiety treatment formula so might blog on that next. Until then, breathe, relax, and talk to a friend, in person.


Or you could watch Mel Brook's High Anxiety.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

If You Want to Fight the Blues, Find Your Blue Zone

My friend Darla posted an article about Dan Buettner's research on what makes people happy, and that, along with an article in the New York Times about how our gadgets keep us chained to the office, got me thinking: how is it that the older, and supposedly wiser I've become I feel more stressed and not in possession of my own life? When will it get easier? The bills keep getting bigger as I, and my family, become more consumptive. After all, we're trying to be good Americans. No wonder it's so hard to breathe sometimes. So here are the five ways to find your blue zone, according to the article Darla sent me, based on Buettner's book Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way:

1. Limit Your Work Week: To do this I'd have to settle for a lower income, which makes me anxious, and I'd have to say no to people who request my services, and that taps into my need to feel needed, my ego, or both. I like the concept so I'll need to figure out how to spend less money. But I don't have enough time, and I'm too tired. But I'm writing this blog. Doesn't that take time? Yes, but this if fun and makes me think I have time. Also, it might mean people continue to request my services. So, the first step: stop writing this blog. Check.

2. Avoid Long Commutes: This one's a no-brainer. It only takes 7 minutes to get to work. In fact, having a commute has made all the difference in my quality of life. For nearly 15 years, I worked out of my home, saved money, yes, but had no separation between work and personal life. However, I had to work fewer billable hours since I had no waiting room, extending the total work day by an hour and a half some days. So for me, no commute meant longer work hours and less income.

3. Don't Skip Vacation: Check. I try to take at least 4 weeks per year. Still, I have to budget for this since I'm self-employed and don't get a paid vacation. However, working with a sharp blade makes for safer, more enjoyable work so it's worth the time and money, and thinking about it gives me immense pleasure. My office walls are lined with art work from past vacations: Italy, Spain, the coast of Oregon, Skaneateles Lake.

4. Enjoy Happy Hour: Now this one's a problem for me since I often work through and past the happy hour. So to compensate, I work out at the gym in a group training class, attend writing groups, play poker once a month with friends (this is new), play golf when the weather permits, play basketball in the winter, and hang out with friends whenever possible, as well as volunteer at TLC events.

5. Find the Right Boss: This one's tricky as I am my own boss. Since I'm not in a position to fire myself (I could work for someone else I suppose), my plan is to keep working on personal growth and development, to be the kind of person I'd want to work with and for. I see my own shrink weekly, to practice what I preach, though I don't tend to preach very much (my wife and kids might disagree), but you get the point. It's good to see things from both sides of the couch, or chair, depending on where you sit.


Now I'll add a few of my own:

6. Develop a Passion: My two passions are poetry and golf, both impossible to master but fun, and meaningful to try. Making room for both is essential to my happiness.

7. Resolve Conflict: It's important that I maintain peace and harmony in my closest relationships so I do my best to keep lines of communication open to deal with disputes that might arise. I don't want to hold a grudge because it's corrosive to my relationships and health.

8. Shake Your Money Maker: I'm happiest when moving my body, keeping the weight off, watching what I eat and drink, and staying generally fit. Oh, and I do like to dance from time to time. Having a healthy sex life with my sweetie doesn't hurt either. OK, TMI.

Here's a kind of blue zone poem I wrote some years ago that was published in FREE LUNCH:

I think in denim,
blue cotton thoughts
that float like shirts
on nylon lines.

I fly on a blue
denim seat,
three-thousand feet
above the sea.

I am rolling on blue
waves that toss in a blue wind.
I hear them in my veins,
oceans of blue under my skin.

The watch I wear has a face
that keeps blue time.
In the glass I see mine
reflected, a visage of blue lakes.

Your turn. What puts you in the blue zone?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Supply and Demand: The Economics of Marriage


I just read a provocative interview at Salon with the author of Spousonomics, Paula Szuchman, an editor at The Wall Street Journal.

Paula Szuchman

The book is co-authored by New York Times reporter Jenny Anderson.

Jenny Anderson

Here's their "logic" about marriage, some of which that turns common beliefs about marriage on their head:

1. You don't need to explore "feelings" to get at the basic motivations that result in conflictual situations in marriage.

2. Sometimes it makes more sense to go to bed angry since exhaustion usually leads to escalated, and irrational conversations especially since people hate to lose and will keep at it despite diminishing returns. Well-rested people are more clear-headed.

3. Schedule sex and don't back out of it, meaning it's important to plan for it, especially at times when you're not exhausted. Don't wait for it to be "romantic." In other words, lower the cost of sex and increase the demand.

4. Be transparent with one another rather than mind readers. You don't expect your business colleagues to read your mind.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mining Orr

Gregory Orr's Aesthetic:
Poetry’s value and purpose — to connect us to the essential aspects of our own emotional and spiritual lives.

We translate our crises into language — give it symbolic expression…array the ordering powers our shaping imagination has brought to bear on these disorderings.

The act of making a personal lyric shifts the crisis to a bearable distance to the symbolic but vivid world of language, and actively does so. We shape this model of our situation rather than passively endure it.
Orr shot and killed his younger brother in a hunting accident when he was age 12. Two years later his mother died at age 36 after a routine hospital procedure. In 1965, he worked as a Civil Rights volunteer in the south, was abducted at gun point and held in solitary confinement for 8 days.

These disordering experiences gave him a terrifying sense of how fragile human life is, how easily and quickly people can vanish. He lived with the burden of guilt and anguish. His parents in their own despair could not console him and they never spoke of the hunting accident.

His high school librarian and honors English teacher introduced him to poetry. He wrote a poem that changed his life.

He says the awareness of disorder generates in the human mind a spontaneous ordering response of the imagination.

Isak Dinesan wrote that “any sorrow can be borne if it can be made into story…”

Richard Wilbur wrote, “My first poems were written in answer to the inner and out disorders of the Second World War and they helped me, as poems should, to take a hold of raw events and convert them, provisionally, into experience.” (“On My Own Work,” 1966)

Orr desperately needed to write about the deaths of his brother and mother. Stanley Kunitz’s “The Portrait” showed him “something lucid and wonderful could be made out of dismaying personal material,” that he, too, “might bring language and shaping imagination to bear on the specific and agonized circumstances of [his] adolescence.”

As the old proverb says, “…the willow that bends in the wind survives; the oak that resists, breaks.” We survive disorder when we let it enter, when we open to it, rather than resist or deny its power and presence. The ability to open up is akin to Keats notion of negative capability.

Orr’s poems shimmer and I call them “secular incantations.”

Orr's Bio from Poets.org:
Gregory Orr was born in 1947 in Albany, New York, and grew up in the rural Hudson Valley, and for a year, in a hospital in the hinterlands of Haiti. He received a B.A. degree from Antioch College, and an M.F.A. from Columbia University.
He is the author of nine collections of poetry, including How Beautiful the Beloved (Copper Canyon Press, 2009); Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved (2005); The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems (2002); Orpheus and Eurydice (2001); Burning the Empty Nests (1997); City of Salt (1995), which was a finalist for the L.A. Times Poetry Prize; and Gathering the Bones Together (1975).
He is also the author of a memoir, The Blessing (Council Oak Books, 2002), which was chosen by Publisher's Weekly as one of the fifty best non-fiction books the year, and three books of essays, including Poetry As Survival (2002) and Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to the Poetry (1985).
He is considered by many to be a master of short, lyric free verse. Much of his early work is concerned with seminal events from his childhood, including a hunting accident when he was twelve in which he accidentally shot and killed his younger brother, followed shortly by his mother's unexpected death, and his father's later addiction to amphetamines. Some of the poems that deal explicitly with these incidents include "A Litany," "A Moment," and "Gathering the Bones Together," in which he declares: "I was twelve when I killed him; / I felt my own bones wrench from my body." In the opening of his essay, "The Making of Poems," broadcast on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, Orr said, "I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive."
In a review of Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved from the Virginia Quarterly Review, Ted Genoways writes: "Sure, the trappings of modern life appear at the edges of these poems, but their focus is so unwaveringly aimed toward the transcendent—not God, but the beloved—that we seem to slip into a less cluttered time. It's an experience usually reserved for reading the ancients, and clearly that was partly Orr's inspiration."
Orr has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and two poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2003, he was presented the Award in Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was a Rockefeller Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Violence, where he worked on a study of the political and social dimension of the lyric in early Greek poetry.
He teaches at the University of Virginia, where he founded the MFA Program in Writing in 1975, and served from 1978 to 2003 as Poetry Editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. He lives with his wife, the painter Trisha Orr, and their two daughters in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

How To Write Like David Foster Wallace

Here's how I wrote like David Foster Wallace following the directions at http://www.kottke.org/09/03/growing-sentences-with-david-foster-wallace:

Charlie wanted to play ball, but he sat on the couch.

It was a typical Monday night, Charlie wanted to play ball, but his knee was busted and he needed to sit on the couch.

It was a typical Monday night, Charlie wanted, more than ever, to play ball, but his knee was busted and he needed to sit on the couch.

It was a typical Monday night, Charlie wanted, more than ever, to play ball — his wife and children exclude him from the couch on Monday night to watch Heroes — but his knee was busted and he needed to sit on the couch.

It was a typical Monday night, Charlie wanted, more than ever, to play ball — his wife and children exclude him from the couch on Monday night to watch Heroes — but his knee was busted and he needed to sit on the couch, the kids still playing video games in the other room, his wife surfing the Internet.

It was a typical Monday night, Charlie wanted, more than ever, to play ball — his wife and children exclude him from the couch and each other on Monday night to watch Heroes — but his knee was busted and he needed to sit on the couch, the kids still playing video games and listening to music in the other room, his wife surfing the Internet.

It was a typical wintry Monday night, Charlie wanted, more than ever, to play pick-up ball — his beautiful wife and teenage children exclude him from the slip covered hand-me-down couch and each other on Monday night to watch another inane episode of Heroes — but his middle-aged, worn-out knee was busted and he needed to sit on the undersized couch, the kids still playing video games and listening to classic rock music in the other room, his wife surfing the Internet.

It was a typical wintry Monday night, Charlie desperately wanted, more than ever, to play pick-up ball — his beautiful wife and teenage children maliciously exclude him from the slip covered hand-me-down couch and each other on Monday night to watch another inane episode of Heroes — but his middle-aged, worn-out knee was busted and he needed to sit on the undersized couch, the kids still absent-mindedly playing video games and listening to classic rock music in the other room, his wife surfing the Internet.

It was a typical wintry Monday night in mid-February, Charlie desperately wanted, more than ever, to play pick-up ball at Salem Church with his buddies — his beautiful wife and teenage children maliciously exclude him from the slip covered hand-me-down couch, one that used to belong to his father-in-law, and each other on Monday night to watch another inane episode of Heroes, the show about perky twenty somethings with freakish powers — but his middle-aged, worn-out knee was busted after dislocating it two weeks ago while running the fast break and he needed to sit on the diminutive couch, the kids still absent-mindedly playing video games and listening to classic rock music on Pandora.com in the other room, the one Charlie renovated four years ago, and his wife surfing for the best air fare to Spain on the Internet.

One typical wintry Monday eve, mid-February, Carlos in desperation, more than ever, wished to disport a game of pick-up ball with his melior amicus at Salem Ecclesia — his pulcher uxom and teenage filius usually exclude him, malevolently, from the Dacron-covered hand-me-down Broyhill, one that used to belong to his socer, and congregate with each other against him on Monday night to watch another inane episode of this generation’s cult hit, Heroes, a show about perky twenty something’s and their freakish powers — but his middle-aged, worn-out articulatio genu, busted after traumatic bifurcation of the femur and tibia two weeks ago while running the shirt’s fast break, wanted to sit on the family’s diminutive Broyhill, since the kids, absent-mindedly playing Nintendo’s Super Mario Cart, listened to Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love on Pandora.com in the den familia, the place Carlos deconstructed four years ago, and his uxor surfed mindlessly for USAir’s best air fare to Barcelona on the Internet, to celebrate 25 years of marriage.

Having done this exercise, I can safely say I still write nothing like David Foster Wallace.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Hold a Grudge, Lose Your Mojo

Bitterness is like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die, and it's not good for your sex life. Just read a case study at PsychCentral that illustrates this point. So don't let the sun go down on your anger if you want to be up for your passion.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Dear Lantern, Dear Cup: An Interview with Kazim Ali

Kazim Ali

After reading Kazim Ali’s essay “Faith and Silence” in a past issue of The American Poetry Review, Charles Coté interviewed Kazim Ali by phone about his lyric poetry and most recent book, The Fortieth Day (BOA Editions, 2008).

Coté: Reading these lines from The Fortieth Day — “Would you choose to know what he is choking on or what he is trying to say?” or “is it possible the entire universe is scrap metal / for meditation or never-ending revelation?" or "should I draw the spirit / as a lantern or a cup?" — the reader is confronted with questions that have no clear answer.

Ali: The poem "Double Reed" gives a good example of this, with the second line in each couplet winking back at the first, or is an opposite of the first. In the poem "Pip", about the orphan in Moby Dick who is abandoned on the water, he wants, and does not want, to be found. He doesn't know what he wants.

Coté: That's what's so psychologically and spiritually true about these poems. I want to be found, and if you find me, I might feel stifled or suffocated.

Ali: That's exactly right! In this world do you really want to be found? "Should I ask for my thirst to be quenched or for unquenchable thirst?" In fact, you don't really want either.

Coté: Is that dialectical inquiry a poetic method for you?

Ali: I had a vague notion of opposites but did not consciously construct the book that way. At a much later date I re-read the work and see concordances I try to heighten or diminish. There's that line "should I draw the spirit / as a lantern or a cup?" then later on in the collection "Dear Lantern, Dear Cup."

Coté: I think of opposites more as dichotomies, but the dialectical expresses itself in both/and, both existing together, containing paradox and connection.

Ali: And there are things that want to transform it to each other. For example, in the poem "Ornithography", the broad narrative being a bird that has hit the window, shattering it, and a person is there to sweep up the glass with a dustpan. He's resistant to doing it for fear of finishing the act. Instead, he looks at the broken window, the body of the bird, the shattered glass, and sunlight coming through. He sees in that frame the entire universe. That is the meditation, and yet the narrative is suppressed.

Coté: Your poems are very lyrical in that sense.

"Ornithography" has a line that intrigues me: "Are you still, though all broken —" and several couplets later, this single line: "of dust and light and broken glass." That seems like a couplet that belongs together and yet is broken far apart, that seems to enact what's happening in the poem. Was that a conscious choice?

Ali: Yes, it absolutely broke off with that first line.

Coté: And then it's picked up again in that second line further in the poem, "of dust and light and broken glass." You've got the word broken in both lines and it's a broken couplet.

Ali: In both instances, those lines broke off from what surrounded it in the poem and would not be repaired. In terms of intention, that's a pure accident.

Coté: It's hard for people who are narrative-minded to find access to these poems. For me, you have to revisit them.

Ali: Good that you mention that. That point has been a criticism in several of the reviews: the one in the Publisher's Weekly said some of these poems are a little “slight” because they don't have a mooring in the physical world. I think that's a more conventional view of poetry. Not every poem needs to tell the story of the quotidian life. Take Dickinson's "I felt a funeral in my brain." Is that poem good because she's at a funeral or because it's doing a spiritual meditation? Katie Ford has a new book out called Coliseum which is very philosophical, about the ruin of society but is grounded in the literal ruin of New Orleans, what happened there, and why it happened. It was not an act of God but a conscious underinvestment in infrastructure that caused the levee to break, not the storm per se. Things do happen in the world. There are phenomena to which a poet has some moral responsibility to address, but I think the way we view those phenomena as being addressed is somewhat limited if you say every poem must have narrative. It's just not the case.

Coté: Another line in your collection, in the poem "The Far Mosque", the last line - "a person is only a metaphor for the place he wants to go" - came as a great surprise. What can you say about the place you wanted to go in this collection, or the place you found yourself going?

Ali: Let me say first off that the poem "The Far Mosque" was a reflection back on my book The Far Mosque. I didn't want a poem with that title in the first book. There's no poem called “The Fortieth Day” in my new book but I want to write that poem.

I think The Fortieth Day was my effort to understand the place that I want to go as where I actually am. So here I am, on the fortieth day. There's a line something like this: "On the fortieth night we’ll understand that the storm is never going to end and there's never going to being anything else than what we have right now."

Coté: Now what's the "89th question", referring of course to another poem in the collection? I'm working on number 88, so I'm very curious.

Ali: I think it's a question of superfluity. It's a version of "a million and one." The Fortieth Day is a specific period of time, taken from myths and legends. The 89th question is a metaphor for a long period of time, the idea that I've been asking myself question after question.

The whole point of human existence, that we are and then are not, is so terrible. Obviously there's no answer.

Coté: I think there's something about the process of actively dying, knowing your dying, that speeds up the process of developing wisdom, if you're open to it.

I liked what you wrote in "Autobiography": "why do I believe what I was taught?" I wrote in the margin, "I believe every poet unlearns to learn again."

Ali: For me, it was a conscious effort to try and write an autobiography. I have such a cultural imperative towards silence about my own life, the idea of shame being attached to being gay as well, because I was raised in a Muslim family. As liberated as we are, as much as we learn about the world, we still are so shaped by our family experiences. That poem, as cryptic as it is, is probably the most lucid for me. I was just asking myself, "Why do I believe what I was taught? Against all human logic, why do I believe what I was taught, still?" At the end of the poem, in order to even write the poem, I have to confront the question, "Am I a self, an individual separated from everyone else, or not?" This started as a much larger autobiography but then I thought, "That's the entire poem." The whole point of an autobiography: "Is there a self to be saying all this stuff?" No.

Coté: Then I think, if there isn't a self, why do I have to show up for work tomorrow?

Ali: I know! I know! It's all so philosophical.


Kazim Ali is is the author of two books of poetry, The Far Mosque (Alice James Books), winner of Alice James Books' New England/New York Award, and The Fortieth Day (BOA Editions, 2008). He is also the author of the novel Quinn’s Passage (blazeVox books), named one of "The Best Books of 2005" by Chronogram magazine, The Disappearance of Seth (Etruscan Press, 2009), and Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities (Wesleyan University Press, 2009).

He is an assistant professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College and teaches in the low-residency MFA program of the University of Southern Maine. His work has been featured in many national journals such as Best American Poetry 2007, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Barrow Street, jubilat and Massachusetts Review. He teaches at Oberlin College and the Stonecoast MFA program and is a founding editor of Nightboat Books.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Spring Breaking

This poem was inspired by my wife's visit to her sister in Maine, one spring, told to me one morning at breakfast.

by Charles Coté

Springtime freeze and thaw in the state of Maine meant
skating over black cracks in ice that moaned
an eerie strain on the lake.
    It followed my edges.

Sometimes I’d see green-frozen bubbles;
think a leviathan had come to life,
yawning hungry for me after all that time
    asleep on the lake.

I imagined loose chunks of ice; would I fall
headlong over these tombs to an icy grave?
I looked through the glaze and saw what was thawing:
    the dreams of my lake life.

(Published in Blueline, Volume XVIII, 1997)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Clinical Assessment: Holden Caulfield

My friend Steve who teaches English in a Pittsburgh High School asked me several years ago to read Catcher in the Rye from a clinical perspective. I presented the following assessment to his students to give them a psychological profile of Holden Caufield's character. The process was fascinating and increased my appreciation for J. D. Sallinger's classic novel. Of course this is a highly speculative assessment and I hope it provokes some debate.

Psychosocial History

Patient is a 17 year old male, the 2nd of four children from a wealthy family in NYC. His younger brother Allie died at the age of 10 on July 18, 1946 from Leukemia when Holden was age 13.  An older brother named DB is a screenwriter and lives in Hollywood. The younger sister Pheobe is now age 10 and lives at home with both parents in an apartment in NYC. Father is a successful corporate attorney whom Holden describes as "touchy" and his mother is a homemaker whom he describes as "nervous" and "hysterical."

Substance Use:
Holden admits to being a heavy smoker. Prior to intake, he had an episode where he became severely intoxicated from drinking scotch. He admits to drinking whenever he can convince a waiter to serve him even though he is underage. "I can drink all night and not even show it," he says.

Holden lives with a wealthy family in NYC and has attended several of the most exclusive boarding schools in the country, most recently, Prencey Prep in Augerstown, PA. Expelled in December due to poor academic performance, he was failing 4 subjects with the exception of English in which he excels. Holden was also expelled from three prior boarding schools for similar reasons, saying, "I didn't exactly flunk out or anything. I just quit, sort of." Prior to his most recent expulsion, he described an incident where he lost the fencing team's equipment, resulting in significant social ostracization. This may have triggered traumatic memories about an incident that occurred when he attended Elkton Hills, when a fellow student committed suicide after being shunned by classmates. Holden was a witness to this young man's death.

Concerning his family's wealth in comparison to others, Holden states that he feels guilty.

Tending to view others with suspicion and disdain, Holden says most people are "phonies." He often has a hard time seeing the good in others, and that he has a low opinion of himself at times saying, "I'm a moron."

Prior to leaving school, he reports starting a physical fight with his roommate over a girl. The roommate gave Holden a bit of a thrashing.

As for his religious beliefs, he describes himself as a "sort of atheist."

Holden describes several incidents in the past month that appear to be instances of derealization. He reports, "I felt like I was sort of disappearing."

He says he often acts as if he's 13 years old, about the age when his younger brother Allie died, and imagines talking with him, idealizing this brother as “50 times as intelligent” as himself and the “nicest member of the family.” He considers himself the "only dumb one in the family,” and idealizes all of his siblings. Holden had an emotional breakdown the night his brother died, breaking all the windows in the garage, resulting in a brief hospital stay to treat his wounds. His parents wanted him to receive psychoanalysis at that time but did not follow through. Thinking about his brother's baseball mitt gives Holden pleasure and he wrote a composition about it for his roommate. However, the roommate rejected the paper and Holden tore it up out of anger.

Because "everything always stayed right where it was," Holden likes museums, suggesting a possible struggle with accepting the significant changes in his life. "Certain things they should stay the way they are,” he says. “You ought to be about to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone."

Saying he doesn't see much point to the way most people live their lives, Holden shows signs of low motivation and despair. He often fantasizes about running away to a place where no one knows him, where he won't have to interact with people. Ironically, he seems very interested in engaging people in conversation and can become quite animated, even fixated on certain ideas. Friends and family often say he speaks too loudly, that he says the same things over and over, and that he has a very negative outlook on life. He continually says things are very depressing and terrible.

He reports decreased appetite.

Often lying to relieve boredom, Holden says, "once I get started, I can go on for hours if I feel like it." He admits to being very sarcastic. It’s difficult for him to find pleasure in activities saying "almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad." To him, Christmas "didn't seem like anything was coming." He admits to frequent crying spells over the past several weeks. He reports that he never cares too much when he loses something and says his younger sister told him "you don't like anything." When pressed by her to think of something he liked, he talked about the classmate at Elkton Hills who committed suicide and his deceased brother Allie.

Occasionally engaging in compulsive actions, he calls it a nervous habit when he turns the cold water on and off repeatedly when in the bathroom. However, this may be more indicative of restlessness and impulsivity. He admits to engaging in attention-getting behavior saying, "I'm an exhibitionist,” reporting that he will often do things "all of a sudden -- for no good reason" when the mood strikes him. He admits to lighting matches as another nervous habit.

Obsessed about certain ideas or people, he says this often annoys others. He seems particularly obsessed about a former girlfriend named Jane Gallagher, that his roommate dating her made him so nervous he nearly went crazy. Concerning his anxieties, he says, "when I really worry about something, I don't just fool around. I even have to go to the bathroom when I worry about something. Only I don't go. I'm too worried to go. I don't want to interrupt my worrying to go." He says he could hardly keep his voice from shaking when speaking with his roommate about Jane.

Incidentally, Jane was the only other person he ever showed his brother Allie's baseball mitt too.

He admits to suicidal thoughts saying, "I felt so lonesome, all of a sudden. I almost wished I was dead" or other times wanting to commit suicide. He denies any serious intent or plans.

A week prior to intake, and prior to returning home from Pencey, Holden left school without telling anyone and spent several days in NYC. During this time he rarely slept, did a lot of drinking and engaged in potentially self-destructive behavior. For example, he hired a prostitute though he did not follow through on engaging in high risk sexual behavior. However, he was nearly assaulted by the prostitute’s employer over a dispute about payment.

He says he has trouble concentrating when depressed, saying he talks "sort of loudly" to his deceased brother Allie when he gets really depressed. He says he hates everything, "living in New York and all. Taxicabs, and Madison Avenue buses, with the drivers and all always yelling at you..." Others tell him he "shouts" when he complains about these things though this seems to puzzle him. It appears that Holden shows signs of significant irritability and possible mood instability, perhaps the beginnings of mania. He says peers complain that he jumps from one subject to the next. A college friend recently accused him of being fixated on immature and inane thoughts. This same friend told Holden to keep his voice down, suggesting pressured speech, and recommended Holden see a psychoanalyst to deal with the patterns of his mind.

Holden is 6' 2" and prematurely grey on the right side of his head suggesting exposure to significant stressors in his life, most notably the death of his younger brother and the suicide of a classmate. He grew 6 1/2 inches in the past year and nearly contracted TB. Other than this, he appears to be healthy. Prior to intake he describes symptoms of insomnia and panic like symptoms, diarrhea and nearly passing out.


Capable of Independence, Expressive/Articulate, Intelligent, Physically Healthy, Supportive Family

Defensive, Distrustful, Impulsive, Not Motivated to Change, Poor Judgment, Very Narrow Interests


Axis I
296.20    Major Depressive Disorder, Single Episode, Unspecified
V62.82   Bereavement
300.02    Generalized Anxiety Disorder
296.90    Mood Disorder NOS
314.9      Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder NOS
313.81    Oppositional Defiant Disorder
V62.3     Academic Problem

Axis II
301.4    Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder
Axis III
No diagnosis
Axis IV
Educational Deficit: School Suspension, Family Conflict: Death of Loved One, Relationship Conflict: Peer Group Conflict

Axis V
Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) Current:     50    Prior: 60

Presenting Problems:


Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Academic Underachievement
Low Self-Esteem
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Suicidal Ideation/Attempt
Grief/Loss Unresolved
Chemical Dependence
Primary Treatment Provider:  
Charles E. Cote, LCSW

Saturday, February 5, 2011

This Ain't Rocket Science (or Fuel for the Teenage Brain)

Please educate your darlings about the negative effects of alcohol and pot on the teenage brain. New research reported in Daily Health Report confirms that teens are at risk of brain damage with early alcohol and drug use. And I quote:

"A study at Harvard Medical School discovered that individuals who started smoking marijuana before turning 16 and used it frequently, also performed the worst on a test of the ability to change mental responses based on situational changes."

Remember this commercial?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Come Out Of That Hole This Winter And See Your Shadow

Therese J. Borchard, author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes and a blog with the same name, gives 10 depression busting tips in an article at PsychCentral

Here's her list:

1.   Watch the sugar
2.   Stock up on Omega-3s
3.   Give back
4.   Join the gym
5.   Use a light lamp
6.   Wear bright colors
7.   Force yourself outside
8.   Hang out with friends
9.   Head south.
10. Take up a project and challenge yourself.  

I'm happy to report I've done 8 of the 10, my favorite being #9, an annual trek to South Florida for the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Upon my return to much snow, little light and frigid temperatures, I found a pair of brand new cross country skis leaning against the wall. So now I have a good way to accomplish #7 and #8.

What works for you? Please comment.