Category Archives: Personal Reflections

In Search of the Mystical Ravalli Doughnuts

A couple of Fridays ago I had the honor of going on a road trip to Whitefish with Erika Twedt. Erika—who somewhat mysteriously goes by “Twedt” (pronounced Tweet)—is the Director of Development and Alumni Relations for the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences here at the University of Montana.

Twedt and I hit the road at 8:03 a.m. She was on time. I was three minutes late. When these things happen (me being late) I typically blame the University of Montana because classes here begin at 10 minutes after the hour. The University of Montana has trained me to never be able to get somewhere at the “top” of the hour. Of course, I’m often late for things that happen at the bottom of the hour, but let’s not go there. I recall being five minutes late for a psychotherapy appointment back in 1986 and when I apologized, my psychotherapist simply said, “It’s your time.” Good point. Lesson number one: When I’m late, I’m the one who’s late and I’m the one who bears the responsibility and cost.

Not long into the trip Twedt described herself as a “luddite.” So I used my smartphone to figure out what the heck she was talking about.

Merriam-Webster online informed me that Twedt-the-luddite was “. . . one of a group of early 19th century English workmen who were destroying laborsaving machinery as a protest.” She didn’t look like an English workman, but looks can be deceiving. And all this time I thought she was into fundraising and not destruction. But maybe our trip to Whitefish was really to sabotage some cutting edge technology.

It also struck me that perhaps I should hide my phone. But I’m bigger than Twedt and I don’t think she (or really anyone named Twedt) could wrestle my phone away from me—at least not while driving. So I boldly connected with the Urban Dictionary online. The U-B gave me a more contemporary take on luddite: “One who fears technology (or new technology, as they seem pleased with how things currently are…why can’t everything just be the same?).”

Turns out Twedt had a smartphone of her own and she didn’t really look like she was afraid of it; so much for dictionary definitions off the internet.

I soon discovered that Twedt was a pithy quotation machine. And so I pulled out my laptop to intermittently type up and save her quotes. As a luddite, Twedt doesn’t go online (she’s probably afraid to) and so she’ll never read what I’m writing about her anyway. Nevertheless, I offered her informed consent by saying, “I’m going to turn this trip into a blog-post” and then typing her pithy statements into my computer and occasionally reading them back to her. This was my way of being an especially fun person to ride with to Whitefish and back. And since she never said, “You can’t blog about this trip” it appears I have consent to write this.

We were only about 37 miles North of Missoula and nearing Ravalli, MT (not Ravalli County—and this is a big difference), when Twedt said:

“We have extra time. We need to stop here and find the amazing donuts.”

Twedt didn’t really know what she was doing and she doesn’t use technology, so she stopped at a café and we entered together, seeking donuts. Twedt also didn’t realize that I’m a bit of a donut aficionado, if I do say so myself. We entered the café and Twedt suddenly became shy and so because I was suddenly on the hunt for amazing donuts I took the lead.

“Is this the place in Ravalli with the amazing donuts?”

The owner/proprieter simply said, “I wish we had amazing donuts.” Twedt then began shouting at the woman, saying, “I wish you had some ________ amazing donuts too . . . but all you have is some old _______ coffee . . .” and so I had to pull her out of the café and calm her down. Of course, Twedt didn’t really say any of that, but it could have happened. Instead, we just meekly retreated from the café and doubled back south to find the amazing donuts. This is when I started to get nervous because now we were headed back to Missoula and away from Whitefish. Twedt clearly had a thing about donuts.

We made it to the Windmill Village Bakery at 26715 US 93, Ravalli, MT 59863. I’ve included the whole address because if you’re reading this and care at all about the state of donuts in America, you’ll want to plan your next trip around a visit to the Windmill Village Bakery. And I just checked and Yelp includes five different ratings for the Windmill Bakery and they’re all five stars.

We entered. There was an ethereal glazed sugar quality to the air. And then we saw the donuts. These were not donuts. They were full-bodied, take-no-prisoners, make-no-mistake-about-it, I-have-to-get-a-picture-of-this doughnuts. The dough was six feet away from me. Here’s the scene.

Doughnuts 1

Twedt bought nine doughnuts. Because I’m a man and obviously have better judgment and more experience than she does when it comes to things like doughnuts, I only bought one.

Then, under the influence of Ravalli doughnuts, the Twedt quotations (that should be tweeted) really began to flow.

I apologized for making a big doughnut mess in her car, which prompted:

“That’s what this car is for.”

Later, after she was clearly drunk on doughnuts:

“You can’t put a price on a good doughnut.”

I didn’t argue.

Drunken doughnut talk continued for nearly 50 miles. She began free associating to other doughnut purchases.

“The Walmart donuts are surprisingly good.”

I used some Carl Rogers reflective listening. Twedt went deeper.

“I don’t know why I bought the first one.”

And then she began, quite naturally, to share family of origin issues.

“My dad really likes donuts too.”

Maybe there was some unfinished business.

“I’m bringing him to Ravalli when he visits.”

Only so much doughnut therapy can get done on a single trip to Whitefish. We finally pulled into the parking lot for our 11:00am lunch meeting with an incredibly generous woman who is considering a substantial contribution to our Department of Counselor Education. Twedt handed her a bag of four doughnuts. I tried to warn the generous woman not to try to eat a whole doughnut without adequate preparation and then proved my point by not being able to finish my lunch . . . which was precisely the first time that had ever happened in 56 years.

We had a great lunch and conversation.

Then, on the way back to Missoula, due to the extra weight from the doughnuts, Twedt’s left rear tire started going flat and we had to stop in Kalispell to switch it out for the spare. Apparently luddites never check their tire tread and Twedt had been driving me up and down Highway 93 on completely bald tires.

We finally hit the road again and I felt safe because if we were hit by a blizzard and stuck in the car for a week, I knew we could survive because we still had four doughnuts in a greasy white bakery bag.

In the end, I had an amazing trip with Twedt, ate an amazing doughnut, helped Twedt work through her doughnut issues, met with an amazing woman for lunch, and was amazed to get back alive. Thanks Twedt—even though you’ll never see this.

Doughnuts 2

On Being or Becoming a Writer (Again)

While I was taking notes on Mary Pipher’s “Writing to Change the World” book, a bug flew in my eye. It was at the precise moment I was typing the following quotation: “When we equivocate we lose an opportunity to build our identities as writers. If you are not doing it already, I advise you to learn to say you are a writer” (p. 76).

Shall I really say “I am a writer!” even if it doesn’t feel quite right?

Or should I be more honest and describe the complete situation by saying, “I am a writer who is trying to write, but I have a bug that just flew in my eye and that’s making it more difficult than it might otherwise be.”

Didn’t someone once say that honesty is the best policy? And isn’t there a story about George Washington honestly confessing that he chopped down a cherry tree that he had no particular business chopping down. Of course that story is a lie and as it turns out Betsy Ross didn’t really sew the first American flag, but she had some fairly effective promotional people who either thought she did or decided to lie on her behalf.

What if I just tell a microscopic white lie to myself? Is that a problem?

Or maybe I just need an agent who will lie willy-nilly on my behalf? I’ve sort of always wanted somebody who would do something will-nilly just for me.

After all, honesty will only take you so far and the only advice my father gave me about being married was that “You don’t have to always tell your wife EVERYTHING you’re thinking.” That’s good advice, except that it contradicts with what Carl Rogers said about maintaining a transparent relationship and how he learned the most from being completely honest with his wife about the things that were most difficult to talk about.

Wouldn’t it be true, however (this, I understand, is how attorneys like to begin questioning the person who has just taken the stand), that lying destroys relationships and can take you to prison where you might share a cell with Piper Kerman. Then again, she wrote a book (Orange is the New Black) that got made into a television show and that’s pretty cool.

It’s very difficult to find clean and straight answers upon which everyone agrees. I’ve noticed this and thought I should honestly articulate this observation.

When I’m doing counseling with young people who have anger problems or who are cutting or who are embracing a negative and unhelpful identity, I sometimes ask them to consider thinking differently about themselves. The technique is a little bit of a knock off of Alfred Adler’s Acting As-If. I don’t ask them to pretend or to tell themselves bald-faced lies, but instead to tell more of the complete hairy-faced narrative truth. For example, when a girl tells me she’s got a “terrible temper,” I suggest and implore and encourage her to capture the WHOLE DARN NARRATIVE and instead tell herself something like, “I believe I’ve had a terrible temper in the past, but I’m working on it.”

Pipher (not Piper) says I should learn to call myself a writer. Obviously that worked for her and she’s been immensely successful and now she’s sharing it as a writing strategy. But what if that doesn’t work so well for me? What if my mantra is that I’m a writer who’s got a bug in his eye and that darn bug is making it terribly difficult, but I’m working on it?

What if I prefer a different hat style?

Here’s what I like instead: “I am becoming a writer.”

I most definitely like that better. I am becoming is a better fit for my tentative always in flux and change and self-reflective in-moderation identity.

I am becoming a writer.

And I hope you are too.

Professional Writing for Us Professionals Who May Not Quite be Writers . . . Yet

This past week I’ve been searching in vain for the origin of my favorite pithy advice to aspiring writers. It may have been Flannery O’Connor or George Orwell or another literary-type who noted or shouted or penned the phrase: “Writers write.”

This nice thing about this advice is that it’s simultaneously very general and very specific and very redundant all at the same time.

But there are also different breeds of writers who write.

While I was at the University of Portland, one of my noon-time basketball buddies was a Math professor. When he wasn’t making fun of his own stutter-step dribble or teaching classes or waxing his 1967 Mustang, he was writing a mathematics text. He told me his writing philosophy—which was really more of a strategy, but then he was a math guy. Every night he wrote one page of his textbook. Just one page . . . and he didn’t go to bed until he had completed this nightly homework. He never said, “Writers write.” He just wrote.

Another one of my Portland basketball buddies was an English professor, writer, and poet. He didn’t talk much about writing, probably because he was too busy reaching in and hacking my arms as I tried to shoot. When I asked him how he thought computers had affected writing and writers (this was the late 1980s), he said he thought there was too much cutting and pasting going on. Lines or stanzas or paragraphs would find their way to places where they didn’t belong. He was a real writer; a literary guy; a pen and paper type. He also wrote every day, but he was too interested in the muse to ever start or stop himself on a clock or a page.

This brings me to my point.

In the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Montana, we have a brand new doctoral-level course on advanced research and professional writing. As a caveat, I should note that we make no claim to be real (aka literary) writers. But that won’t stop us from doing what real writers do and following their advice.

We will write . . . every day . . . and not just because writers write, but also because of what the great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury suggested: “Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.”

We will see what happens. We would like to have very pleasant careers.

There are many writing genres and styles and venues. It can be confusing. There are blogs and grant proposals and professional journal manuscripts and book chapters and emails and books and magazine articles and personal journals and the letter you should be writing to your mother. There are also many places to publish and many more places for not publishing. Right now I have at least 50 unfinished and unpublished blogs and commentaries and journal article manuscripts and books on my computer. This work is sitting and waiting for renewed inspiration or focus or time. I fear that I’m violating Annie Dillard’s advice on whether to hold ourselves back or break free. She wrote: “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

Speaking of hoarding, we don’t plan to keep this writing experience all to ourselves. And this brings me to my point (again). All who read these words may participate. Here are two examples of what you can do:

  1. You can read these blogs and provide commentary or critique. For example, shortly after posting the blog, “The Long Road to Eagle Pass Texas” my wife and co-author informed me that I had made a glaring grammatical error. If you read that post and can identify a grammatical error, please offer up your feedback. You can email me directly at john.sf@mso.umt.edu or post on this blog.
  2. You can write a guest blog. Everyone in our real (not virtual) class will have this assignment. As long as the blog focuses on writing or the helping profession or both and you’re open to feedback, please submit. I will assign it to a doctoral student for review and if it makes it into this blog, you can count on an incisive, but perhaps grammatically-challenged introductory comment from me.

In the meantime, just read . . . intensely . . . and write . . . even if only for yourself . . . and struggle with the muse like a wrestler or dancer or whatever metaphor fits best for you here.

Reformulating Clinical Depression: The Social-Psycho-Bio Model

At a 2007 Mind and Life Conference at Emory University, I had the privilege of watching and listening as Charles Nemeroff, M.D., presented a professional paper to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. [As my older daughter would likely say, Dr. Nemeroff is a very fancy biological psychiatrist.] Nemeroff noted, with some authority, that we now know that one-third of all depressive disorders are genetically-based and two-thirds are environmentally-based. Following this statement, Nemeroff continued to discuss the trajectory of “depressive illness,” focusing, in particular, on findings linked to mice with early maternal deprivation and related findings regarding trauma and depression. His conclusion was that, for some individuals (and mice), the brain is changed by early childhood trauma, while for others, the brain seems unaffected. Interestingly, at that point in the conference the Dalai Lama interrupted and there were animated interactions between him and his interpreter. Finally, the interpreter directed a question to Nemeroff, stating something like, “His Holiness is wondering, if two-thirds of depression is caused by human experience and one-third is caused by genetics, but that humans who are genetically predisposed to depression have to have a trauma for the depression to be manifest, then wouldn’t it be true to say that all depression is caused by human experience?” After a brief silence, Nemeroff responded, “Yes. That would be true.”

Most of us have heard about the biopsychosocial model in contemporary medicine. Below I’ve included some information about its origin (this info is adapted from a 2009 Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy Article; you can find the whole article here: http://www.coping.us/images/Sommers_Campbell_2009_EBP_for_Kids.pdf).

In his 1980 call to medicine, Engel (1980; 1997) encouraged adoption of a biopsychosocial model of health and illness. Despite this recommendation and the increased use of ‘biopsychosocial’ language among non-medical practitioners, medicine has demonstrated little movement toward embracing a biopsychosocial perspective (Alonso, 2004). To some extent, the Nemeroff-Dalai Lama interaction illustrates medical professionals’ tendencies to formulate mental health problems as disease states even when their own data are contradictory. At the Mind and Life Conference, Nemeroff continued to present his illness-based depression formulation even after conceding environmental causality of depression (Nemeroff, 2007).

Although we (Sommers-Flanagan & Campbell) generally advocate medicine’s biopsychosocial model, we see utility in a slightly more radical reconceptualization of depression–especially among youth. This belief rests upon knowledge about the etiology, course, and treatment of depression, equivocal data regarding antidepressant medication effectiveness, potential developmental and medical dangers associated with short- and long-term SSRI use, research on child development and trauma, and our own clinical experience (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 1995a; Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2007). In short, instead of a biopsychosocial model for understanding and treating youth depression, we believe a social-psychological-biological approach is more consistent with current scientific and clinical knowledge.

A Social-Psycho-Bio Model of Clinical Depression

All humans are born into pre-determined social and cultural settings, which directly influence emotional, psychological, social, and biological functioning and development (Christopher, 1996; Sue & Sue, 2013). Although space precludes complete articulation of the social-psycho-bio model, we describe the major components below.

Social-cultural components. Many cultural factors contribute to children’s emotional and psychological development. For example, in the United States, babies are often born to socially isolated mothers living in poverty. These mothers may also be depressed themselves and have little community and governmental support (Goosby, 2007; Knitzer, 2007). In contrast, more communal and supportive cultural settings place less of a parenting burden on individual mothers, thus possibly decreasing depression. It’s likely that different degrees of cultural support to families and children translate into different degrees of relative risk for depressive experiences in children.

Recent research affirms diverging cultural assumptions about depression etiology. Whereas South Asian immigrants viewed depressive symptoms as stemming from social and moral influences (Karasz, 2005), European Americans attributed depression to biological influences. These cultural formulations or expectations likely influence medication or psychotherapeutic efficacy. Although biomedical researchers emphasize genetic contributions to depression, an individual’s depressive predisposition may be strongly influenced by overarching cultural factors. Given Nemeroff’s admission that depression is rooted in human experience, it seems appropriate to us that depression formulations lead with social and cultural, rather than biological factors.

Early caretaker-child interactions. Early caretaker-baby interactions appear to stimulate depression development in very young children. The best example of this comes from studies of maternal depression, which demonstrate that mothers’ depressive behaviors influence their children’s own emotional suffering and other neurological changes (Ashman & Dawson, 2002). This evidence for a direct effect of caregiver behavior on children’s neural activity and possible brain development supports the social-psycho-bio model.

Child trauma. Garbarino’s (2001) statement, “Risk accumulates; opportunity ameliorates” (p. 362) suggests that repeated trauma in the absence of support or opportunity can deeply damage children. Trauma typically occurs within a social and cultural context, and without requisite support and opportunity, it can initiate cognitive, emotional, and social pathology. Sufficiently intense trauma may also produce lasting “psychic scars” (Terr, 1990). Additionally, early childhood trauma drains children and adults of meaningfulness (Garbarino, 2001). There is little doubt about the powerful contribution of trauma to the development of clinical depression and other mental disorders.

Psychological/cognitive development of depressive symptoms. Considerable evidence supports a cognitive model of depression in adults, and to some extent, in adolescents and children (Kazdin & Weisz, 2003). The pioneering work of Aaron Beck (1970) emphasizes that personal experiences lead individuals to acquire specific negative beliefs about themselves, the world, and the future (i.e., the cognitive triad). Although empirical support for the cognitive triad’s contributory and maintenance roles in depression is strong, these belief systems do not rise autonomously within the psyche. Instead, as Beck notes, these deeply ingrained beliefs are learned vis-à-vis interpersonal experiences.

The development of schemata or internal working models. Theorists spanning analytic, neoanalytic, cognitive, and attachment perspectives have proposed concepts that can be described as schemata or internal working models (Ainsworth, 1989; Glasser, 1998; Morehead, 2002; Young, Klosko, & Weishaar, 2003). Although each theoretical perspective articulates the concept somewhat differently, all involve development of a psychological pattern of repetitive automatic beliefs and expectations. These beliefs and expectations, which implicate the self, the world, and others (or objects), generate repetitive behaviors and affect. A cognitive schema or internal working model arises from early social interactions and may contribute to depression and other emotional and behavioral maladies. From a behavioral perspective, depressogenic working models involve early maladaptive reinforcement contingencies, which must be unlearned before one can acquire more adaptive behavior patterns.

Regardless of theoretical orientation, the internal working model concept forms the foundation of many psychological interventions. For example, it clearly underlies CBT and interpersonal therapy (IPT), two evidence-based practices for treating depression in youth (Kazdin & Weisz, 2003). Essentially, internal working models or schemata include internalized early experiences, and they constitute the “psycho” component of the social-psycho-bio model. When positive, adaptive, and healthy early experiences predominate, internalized working models buffer or immunize the individual against stress and trauma. When critical, negative, and maladaptive experiences predominate, schemata can predispose an individual to acute, chronic, or recurrent depressive episodes.

Neurological (brain-based) manifestations of depression. In addition to social, cognitive, emotional, and motivational experiences, current and recent research has identified cortical functioning correlates of depression. These correlates include neurochemical changes and neural activity, which can be observed via Positron Emission Tomography or functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Typically, brain imaging studies in animals, youth, and adults are presented as evidence of biomedical or biogenetic causal factors of depression. In the social-psycho-bio model described here, we suggest that neural changes are natural and inevitable correlates of internalized depressive life experiences. Because we are all biological organisms, observable neural changes associated with clinical depression should come as no surprise. It is important to note, however, that brain changes represent a physical phenomenon correlated with depression; these changes may or may not be causative.

Individuals with more extreme, recurrent, or chronic depressive experiences are perhaps more likely to evidence neurochemical states that add to or maintain depression. Again, we view this as a natural biological process. In some circumstances, this state might require a biological agent (or medication) to be used in combination with psychotherapy to facilitate depression recovery.

Our social-psycho-bio model advocacy does not exclude biomedical contributors to depression. Instead, it identifies biological manifestations as correlates of social and psychological dimensions of depression. This argument has been articulated before, but without much success. We attribute the failure of this view to the din of medication marketing and a cultural orientation toward quick fixes. In fact, we are all biological creatures with intricately interconnected brains characterized by dazzlingly complex electrochemical communication. The search for fMRI and PET scan differences between depressed and non-depressed individuals represents a logical and natural development in our understanding of depression as it exists within the whole person. Although neurochemical changes might maintain depression, it is not necessarily the case that neurochemical factors (or the vernacular ‘chemical imbalances’) initiate depressive processes. Indeed, these neurochemical changes are just as likely to be consequences of depressive conditions. Based on this depression re-formulation, we believe that it would be appropriate to initiate antidepressant medication treatment as an adjunctive approach if previously attempted experiential interventions, including exercise, dietary adjustments, and psychotherapy failed to achieve desired effectiveness. Further, conceptualizing neurochemical changes as depressive correlates rather than causes, lead us to agree with others who maintain that medication treatment should be considered a palliative and not curative treatment (Overholser, 2006).

[Again, please note that much of the preceding is adapted from a previously published article in the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy. The article was titled, “Psychotherapy and (or) Medications for Depression in Youth? An Evidence-Based Review with Recommendations for Treatment.” Citations are available in the original article.]

 

Hooking Up: Two Play That Game, and Not Just on Campus

Hey. Here’s a piece Rylee S-F wrote that articulates some of the work and thinking we’ve been doing together as a father-daughter team. The focus is on male sexuality. Give a big shout-out to Rylee for getting this in the Connecticut Review and please reblog, like, and please make the world a better place by helping promote some sensible thinking about boys/men and sex. Thanks for reading! John SF

The Long Road to Eagle Pass Texas

Hi.

I’m re-posting this because today, exactly one year since I made my long trek to Eagle Pass from Montana . . . I’m back again. The drive was just as long as before, but I’m back because the folks in the Eagle Pass School District are pretty darn fun to hang out with. And so here’s the original post from last year:

 

It’s a very long way from Missoula, Montana to Eagle Pass, Texas.

Just saying.

This epiphany swept over me after the early morning Missoula to Denver flight and after the Denver to San Antonio flight and right about when, after driving from San Antonio in a rental car for about an hour, I finally saw a green mileage sign that said: Eagle Pass – 95 miles. I just laughed out loud. And even though I was all by myself, I said, “It’s a long way from Missoula to Eagle Pass.” This is just a small taste of the profound thoughts I think while traveling alone.

But time and space are relative and so I entertained myself by listening to a radio station, en Espanol. Given that I have the Spanish vocabulary of a toddler, I was quite delighted with myself when I discerned that I’d tuned in to a Christian radio station. The repeated use of the words, palabra, familia, and Dios helped me make that revelation. I also monitored the temperature via my rental car thermometer and happily observed that the outside temperature never rose above 104 degrees during my drive from San Antonio to Eagle Pass.

I like to think of myself as navigationally skilled; then again, it’s also good to remind myself that denial is more than just a river in Egypt. What I did manage to efficiently find were the Texas road construction crews. Getting to my hotel was harder. I had planned to use my internet telephone GPS, which would have been a great idea had there been internet access in Eagle Pass. This prospect began dawning on me when I passed the sign saying: Eagle Pass, pop. 26,864. At that point it was still unclear to me exactly how the Eagle Pass School District (conveniently located on the Rio Grande River) decided to have me come from Montana to do a full-day Tough Kids, Cool Counseling workshop. But, given that I’d never been to Texas before and they happened to want to pay me and then they decided to purchase 45 copies of Tough Kids, Cool Counseling, I found myself faced with an offer I couldn’t refuse.

And so, I decided to engage in a bit of disoriented driving, while studiously avoiding the bridge to Mexico. I finally found a man from India at a random hotel, who spoke English in addition to Punjab and Spanish. He was kind enough to let me use his Internet because he’d never heard of the hotel I’d booked. Then, a few wrong turns later and following an episode where my rental car transformed itself from an automatic into a manual transmission, I finally made it to the bargain Microtel hotel where they obviously take the term “micro” very seriously. Staying there required that I change into my secret Ant-man identity, thereby shrinking my expectations for Internet access, pool length, fitness facilities, and room into the size of an ant while retaining the physical strength and intellectual functioning of an adult male (I should note that I intentionally selected this hotel because it’s relatively green and was happy with my choice, despite my lightly mocking tone). The good news was that Taco-Morales was right across the street and I got to experience some authentic fajitas and red rice at prices an ant could afford.

The next day, in a coffee-free state (there are no Starbucks in Eagle Pass), I found my way to the Eagle Pass Junior High library (home of the Eagles—what a surprising team name!). That was when I discovered how they’d chosen me as their School Counseling Workshop leader. As it turns out, Montana Street is just a block or two from Eagle Pass Junior High and so they had apparently thought I lived right there ON Montana Street (and not IN the State of Montana). . . which is probably why they chose to pay me a flat rate and let me cover my own travel.

But very soon I discovered everything wonderful about Eagle Pass. I got to spend the day with Mr. Salinas, Ms. Gutierrez, Mr. Lopez, Connie, Karla, Luis, Toyoko, three women named Dora, and just enough School Counselors to scoop up 45 copies of Tough Kids, Cool Counseling. This was a group with immense compassion and dedication to making the lives of their students better. They teased me, laughed at my jokes, gently corrected my Spanish mis-pronunciations, asked for me to sign their books, and treated me with mucho mas respeto than I could ever deserve. By lunchtime they began talking about when I’d come back (I gently suggested January instead of August for my next visit). After lunch, Luis beat me at the Hand-Pushing game (I was depleted and distracted from all the energy it took to keep intermittently changing into an ant-sized person to fit into my hotel). However, one of the three Doras made an excellent volunteer for my mental set riddles (thank you Dora, for demonstrating in front of your peers that, in fact, learning can happen).

In the end, I return from Eagle Pass with renewed and sustained faith and hope in the human race. The big hearts and amazing dedication of the Eagle Pass School Counselors was inspiring. Thank-you Eagle Pass, for helping to expand my world. . . while simultaneously shrinking my expectations for hotel accommodations.

Sweating my Way through Charlotte, North Carolina

As my sister likes to say, “we’ve got excellent pores in our family.” By “excellent” she means to say that our pores open up and leak like the Titanic. One time, way back when I was teaching at the University of Portland, I didn’t let enough time pass between playing noon-time basketball and lecturing in an Introductory Psychology class and ended up sweating so much that my glasses fogged up.

And so you can imagine how much my pores enjoyed being in Charlotte, NC in August.

When I showed up at the Ice Cream Social on Tuesday evening I was sweating so much that I was sure everyone was thinking, “Great. It’s the night before he’s scheduled to speak and our keynote for Wednesday morning is ALREADY having a panic attack.” [It’s funny how self-consciousness about something like sweating can suddenly turn on my psychic powers, because I’m pretty sure I was able to accurately read everyone’s mind at that Ice Cream Social.] But really, it wasn’t that terrible because I only had to retreat to my room to change my shirt once during the 20 minutes I spent at the Ice Cream Social.

Note to self: When visiting high humidity regions, always pack clothing that doesn’t accentuate my excellent sweating ability of my pores.

But the real point of this blog post isn’t my personal struggle with perspiration—despite the fact that writing about my sweating is, I’m sure, intrinsically interesting as well as cathartic and desensitizing. The real point is to do some flat out bragging about the Communities In Schools of North Carolina (CIS-NC) programs.

If you don’t know about the Communities in Schools organization, you should. In North Carolina this organization includes an amazing staff with boundless positive energy that they direct toward dropout prevention. If you click on the link to their organization you’ll find a cool website with excellent information http://www.cisnc.org/. Here’s their mission statement:

The mission of Communities In Schools is to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life. We are part of the national Communities In Schools network, which is the leading dropout prevention organization in the country, and the only such organization that is proven to decrease the dropout rate and increase on-time graduation rates.

I have to admit that before I arrived in Charlotte, I was skeptical about their claims of being “the only organization proven to decrease the dropout rate and increase on-time graduation rates.” This skepticism came from two sources: (1) decreasing drop-out rates is just extremely difficult for everyone, and (2) I’m skeptical about everything. But, after being with the ABSOLUTELY AMAZING administration and staff of CIS-NC for only a few hours, it was clear to me how and why they’re able to help students succeed. Here are a few things I learned.

  • Not only is the staff positive, energetic, and funny, they’re also smart, savvy, and fully dedicated to improving the lives of young people.
  • They utilize a rational balance of evidence-based approaches in combination with approaches that are designed to meet the unique needs of individual schools, staff, students, and settings.
  • They operate using the “5 Basics of Communities in Schools.” These common sense AND evidence-based principles include:
  1. A one-on-one relationship with a caring adult.
  2. A safe place to learn and grow.
  3. A healthy start and a healthy future.
  4. A marketable skill to use upon graduation.
  5. A chance to give back to peers and community.

In addition to all that, I learned that their staff is sensitive, supportive, and compassionate. After all, when I delivered the keynote, they nodded and smiled (showing their listening skills), laughed at all of my jokes at exactly the right time (laughing with special vigor when I did my exorcist voice), and gave me lots of positive feedback for the rest of the morning.

Now it’s up to me to determine if they were just being especially kind to their sweaty keynote speaker or whether they really enjoyed the presentations. I’m hoping for the latter.

What I Learned About Male Sexuality Today

Learning is cool. As Rylee and I work on our boys and sexual development project, we get to do lots of reading. Even better, lots of the reading is about sex.

As you may recall, last week Rylee and fell in love with Cordelia Fine’s Myths of Gender. Today, I had a different experience reading a 2007 book titled “7 Things He’ll Never Tell You {but you need to know}” written by Kevin Leman, a psychologist and “New York Times best-selling author.”

Here are a few of “Dr.” Leman’s comments and tips . . . combined with some clearly spiteful commentary from Rita and Rylee.

“The wise woman realizes that a man is wired to want things now. [Rita stops me here and says, “Wait. That’s me! I’m the one who wants things now!] And she will realize that a man who is constantly thwarted in his desires will begin to look for gratification elsewhere.” (Leman, p. 35)

Right now I’m thinking about raspberry pie. If Rita doesn’t get it for me NOW, I’ll be looking elsewhere . . . I hope she recognizes that. This is pretty good stuff. No more thwarting . . . or else! [Rylee says, “Or else you’ll get it yourself.”]

Then he says:
“. . . men . . . are not relationally centered. They identify more with things. They are visually stimulated by looking. That means whatever your guy sees is imprinted on his mind. So if he sees a sexy woman in a red dress on the subway, he may see that same woman in his thoughts again later that night, a week later, even a month later. . . . Men, on the average, have 33 sexual thoughts a day” (p. 104)

Oh my, 33 sexual thoughts a day. And how many sexual thoughts a day does a woman have. He doesn’t really address this directly, but at the end of the book he has a little quiz and one of the items goes like this: “How much does a man think about sex? . . . 33 times as much as you” (p. 177).

This is a serious math problem. And so if Rita has 5 sexual thoughts in a day, it means I’ll have 165? Now we’re talking!

On p. 106, Leman writes: “It’s been said that women need a reason for sex. Men only need a place. Men really need sex and are designed to need sex, to think about it, and to pursue it. A physically healthy married man cannot be fulfilled without it.” (p. 106) [Rylee says: Only for married men? What about all those monks? No fulfillment for them?]

Hmmm . . . sounds like sex is pretty important for guys. No fulfillment . . . period? Nothing else is fulfilling? Well, I guess if I’ve got 165 sexual thoughts in a day, maybe there’s no time to think of anything else fulfilling. Even though this isn’t really all that consistent with any other psychological theories, especially existentialism, I guess if Dr. Leman says it, it must be true.

And here’s the coup de gras . . .

“Sex is the great equalizer in a man’s life. If he meets with the accountant and is short on funds for his income tax or he got a bad job review, coming home to a willing wife makes it all better. It’s amazing what things great sex can cure for men—everything from viruses, bacterial infections, impetigo, chicken pox, the flu, and most importantly, any problem in marriage. For example if he has a fight with his wife and later that day they have sex, all of his issues are gone. They’ve resolved themselves. The problem is that for the other half of the relationship—the female—the issues aren’t resolved until they’re talked about!” (p. 107)

So sex cures the chicken pox. [Rita says: “But only for men?”] I say I wish I’d known that last summer when I had the coxsackie virus. [Rita says, “Like that was gonna happen.”] [Rylee says: “So women can cure men by sacrificing themselves to whatever disease a man has.”] [Rita says, “Women are true healers.”]

See, you learn something new every day. And sometimes it’s actually useful . . . or true.

A Sneak Peek at the Boys and Sex Project

This summer I’m working on a writing project with my daughter Rylee on boys and their sexual development. This is a draft of an excerpt (aka sneak peek) from a chapter focusing on myths of male sexual development. Check it out. Like it if you like it and provide constructive feedback if you don’t. Thanks. Here we go:

We all should know better.

We should know that it doesn’t make good sense to use animal behavior—observations of fruit flies, rats, hamsters, sheep, and other animals—as an explanation or justification for gender-based human behavior. Unless we’re a fancy scientist who can maintain clear objectivity, using animal behavioral models to help explain why boys and girls and men and women behave the way they do is too subjective, self-serving, and risky. But when it involves humor and irony and helps us make a point, resisting this temptation is very difficult.

What Happens When Rams Watch Porn

On a sunny morning in late June, I (John) received a porn ping about Gary Wilson’s TEDx talk titled, “The Great Porn Experiment.” Wilson is an adjunct faculty member at Southern Oregon State University. He’s also co-host, with his wife Marnia Robinson (author of Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow) of the “Your Brain on Porn” website. Wilson’s areas of interest are neuroscience, pornography, and internet porn addiction. In his work he emphasizes the negative neurological and physical consequences of internet porn addiction.

Given all of the above, I was unable to suppress my curiosity and immediately clicked on the link. I was immediately transported to that amazing internet dimension where I could watch and listen to Gary Wilson tell me about The Great Porn Experiment.

Less than 90 seconds into his TEDx talk, Wilson wandered away from talking about humans, moving to something that he obviously found much more interesting—1960 research data on the sexual behavior of rams and ewes (male and female sheep). He stated: “Mother nature likes to keep a male fertilizing willing females as long as any new ones are around.” [He then began discussing a graph of the “minutes to ejaculation” for rams with either the “same old ewe” or with fresh new ewe partners].

Wilson continued: “In that top line, the ram, he needs more and more time to mate with the same old ewe. But if you keep switching females, the bottom line, he, well, it’s just not the same (audience laughter). He can get the job done in two minutes flat and get the job done until he is utterly exhausted. This is known as the Coolidge effect.” (We’ll get to the story about the Coolidge effect later; for now we’re sticking with Wilson and his sheep story).

Reflections on Ram-Ewe Sexual Behavior

Okay. After less than 2 minutes of Wilson’s TEDx talk (ironically, about the same amount of time it took the rams to “get the job done”), I could no longer focus and had to turn off the video to reflect on my thoughts and feelings. I found myself both intellectually stimulated and emotionally annoyed. Intellectually, I began wondering if perhaps it’s perfectly normal and evolutionarily natural for me to find females—other than my wife—more sexually stimulating. I wondered if maybe I should want to behave like a ram and ejaculate every 2 minutes with a new sexual partner (preferably human) until I’m exhausted—because, after all, that’s apparently what Mother Nature wants. Although this sounded intriguing, I instantly decided that due to the sexual partnering messages I’ve gotten for 50+ years through the media, for this arrangement to work, I would need to have the new available sexual partners be supermodels with no pores who are solely interested in my personal sexual stimulation and gratification (with no lingering conversation required subsequent to my 2 minute ejaculations).

Why is it that Wilson’s TEDx talk annoyed me in less time than it takes male sheep to move on to a new partner? Well, because of the amazing processing skills and speed of the human brain, I can formulate my answer to that question even faster than I can click a mouse. My annoyance rose up because there are so many things wrong with taking a research study on the sexual behavior of sheep and generalizing it to humans that hearing the story produced a negative emotional reaction. And what makes this even worse is the fact that I support Wilson’s conclusions (too much internet porn is bad for male sexuality and sexual performance), but lament his intellectual methods.

An Alternative Interpretation (or Are Human Males Only Interested in Ejaculation?)

Let’s start with one, among many, alternative interpretation of the 1960 sheep sex data. If you recall, Wilson noted that the rams “needed more and more time to mate with the same old ewe.” The way he stated this implies that the ONLY or EXCLUSIVE goal in this sexual situation is for the ram to ejaculate. Funny thing: I shared the research results with my wife and she suggested that perhaps the ram felt more comfortable, less anxious, and was able to therefore last longer with his regular ewe-partner. Perhaps they lingered together because, although ejaculation may have been one of their goals, the process of their ram-ewe lovemaking was enjoyable in-and-of-itself?

In fact, if ejaculation is really the only goal for human males—as it appears to be for sheep—then masturbating to internet pornography seems an appropriate venue (and unless my editor snips out this comment, I’d be inclined to suggest that sex with sheep may also be in play). However, it seems that based on 21st century coupling behavior, most human males are also interested in establishing and maintaining sexual and intimate relationships with human females (while some are interested in sexual and intimate relationships with other human males). Alyssa Royse, a freelance writer, Seattle-based sex educator, and Good Men Project, noted that, similar to Wilson, the popular culture also has emphasized that when it comes to sex and intimacy, human males are perhaps more ram-like than may be desirable. In a post on the Good Men Project website, she wrote:

I could go on and on, but that point is that popular culture sets up this idea that men are sexual predators who need to resort to trickery and cologne to fulfill their one and only mission, which is sticking their penis in a girl. (Alyssa Royse, http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/the-danger-in-demonizing-male-sexuality/)

Royse is observing that popular culture also seems to project the idea that males are more ram-like than human.

Seriously . . . What If Human Males Were Like Wilson’s Rams?

Like Wilson, many scientists, journalists, and people on the street fall prey to the temptation to generalize observations of various female and male animals to human gender-based behaviors. Despite the fact that we (both John and Rylee) think that generalizing the results from sheep research to human males can be silly, we also believe it’s important to take these possible generalizations and implications very seriously. Consequently, we will now look closely at and deconstruct Wilson’s sheep-based generalizations to determine just how well they fit humans. Based on the initial 2 minutes of his TEDx talk, here’s our best effort to take his message and translate it into human male sexual behavior:

  • IF a human male happens to have a frontal lobe the size of a ram and therefore cannot consider the pleasure or interests of a partner or future implications of impregnating multiple females . . .
  • AND IF a human male is in the rather unusual and remarkable situation of having several willing human females available. . .
  • AND IF the available and willing human females happen to have the ample breasts, long legs, plump red lips, full lashes, and lack of pores that human males have been conditioned to find attractive . . .
  • AND IF a human male has no moral or social or health inhibitions about sexual behavior with multiple partners
  • AND IF, like our ram brothers, a human male has repeated ejaculation as his ultimate and exclusive goal . . .
  • THEN it would be highly natural (as deemed by Mother Nature) to ejaculate every two minutes with a different woman until reaching a state of exhaustion (presuming the human refractory period—during which a second ejaculation isn’t possible—cooperates and that the human male doesn’t fall asleep after his first ejaculation).

Another way of making the point we’re trying to make is to say: There is very little serious, relevant, or helpful take home message (for humans) from this research on rams and ewes. However, despite its minimal relevance for humans, these research results may be very serious, relevant, and helpful for rams and ewes, scientists who study rams and ewes, and ranchers who want to breed rams and ewes.

My New Favorite Book (for now) and Why I Love Quiche

In elementary school in the 1960s, my reading almost exclusively included comics. I didn’t just love Captain America, I wanted to BE Captain America.

Unfortunately, I was in high school in the early 1970s, when reading books was apparently in disfavor. We used the SRA Laboratory Reading System and the only real “book” I recall reading in all of high school was “The Andromeda Strain.” Of course, the problem was likely partly due to my preoccupation with athletics over academics, but that’s a different story.

What this means is that most of my book reading has occurred after 1975, which is when my football buddy Barry and I read, “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.” The problem with that was that I happened to like quiche . . . a lot . . . and consequently, rather than questioning my sexual identity, I began questioning what society tells real men that they should do and not do.

This leads me to my book pick of the week.

As some of you already know, I’m working on a writing project related to sexual development in young males. This work led me to discover the book “Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine, Ph.D. Dr. Fine is a psychologist in Australia and has written an absolutely awesome book that slices through many of the silly connections people are making between neuroscience and gender. For example, as an opening to chapter 14 “Brain Scams,” she wrote:

“My husband would probably like you to know that, for the sake of my research for this chapter, he has had to put up with an awful lot of contemptuous snorting. For several weeks, our normally quiet hour of reading in bed before lights out became more like dinnertime in the pigsty as I worked my way through popular books about gender difference. As the result of my research, I have come up with four basic pieces of advice for anyone considering incorporating neuroscientific findings into a popular book or article about gender” (p. 155).

You’re probably wondering, what is her excellent advice for those of us considering writing in this area? Well, I’m resisting the temptation within my male brain to type out her advice, other than her fourth piece of advice, which reads: “Don’t make stuff up.”

But that’s exactly what many writers are doing. Here’s an example I found recently. It’s titled, “7 things he’ll never tell you” and written by “Dr.” Kevin Leman. He wrote, “Did you know that scientific studies prove why a woman tends to be more ‘relational” than her male counter part? A woman actually has more connecting fibers than a man does between the verbal and the emotional side of her brain. That means a woman’s feelings and thoughts zip along quickly, like they’re on an expressway, but a man’s tend to poke slowly as if he’s walking and dragging his feet on a dirt road.” (pp. 5-6).

Of course, this is sheer drivel . . . or as Dr. Fine might say, “He just made that up.”

Or as I might say: He’s really just talking about himself here . . . and it’s likely caused by the fact that he didn’t eat enough quiche growing up.

So what’s the evidence? If we look at one of the best relational factors upon which women are supposed to be better than men–empathy–what does the research say?

Well, as it turns out, using the best and most rigorous laboratory empathy measure available, empathy researcher William Ickes found no differences between males and females in seven consecutive studies. And then, when he did find differences, he found women did better only in situations where they are primed by “situational cues that remind them that they, as women, are expected to excel at empathy-related tasks.” (Fine, p. 21).

Anyway, it’s late and I’m going to stop writing . . . but not before I put in a link to a Cordelia Fine speech you can watch online. Here it is:  http://fora.tv/2010/10/02/Cordelia_Fine_Delusions_of_Gender

Now I’m off to bake myself a quiche.