Hot Air Rises

imagesPerhaps there is no greater evidence that hot air rises than the election of our current president.   You would think that having been a psychologist for all these many years I would know a thing or two about how that happens, but I confess that although I struggle—I really do—for the life of me I can’t figure it out.

I can explain with greater facility and perhaps a modicum of accuracy how actual hot air rises, even though I have never seen it directly.   But I have seen its effects while flying, and it’s dramatic. The local County fire authorities designate certain days of the month “burn days,” in which farmers can legally set large piles of brush ablaze without sparking the brave men and women who get paid to keep us safe to don their heavy protective gear, put their playing cards on the table and slide down their poles to their big trucks.   Years ago I was out flying on one of those days with my instructor, who thought it might be fun to give me a physics lesson by guiding our rented Cessna over a few of those pyres.

Although the flames disappeared under the airframe, we knew we were flying right over them because, commanded only by the rising heat below us, the Cessna gently rose as we passed over them, then settled back down a few seconds later.

The fact that hot air rises and cold air sinks is one of the keys to understanding many weather phenomena.   The uneven heating of air is a result of the uneven heating of the earth, which absorbs radiated sunlight differently depending on the terrain.   As the earth’s temperature varies, the heat it generates warms the air, and the differences in the air mass’s temperature causes differences in pressure, because the molecules in hot air move faster and expand outward, while cold air is more compact and dense.  Cold, dense air, is “thicker,” and therefore heavier.

I suppose we call people who spout empty phrases, devoid of depth or import, as filled with “hot air,” because their verbiage takes up a lot of space but there isn’t much substance to it, like the air in a hot air balloon.  All that is required for a hot air balloon to take flight is to capture a chunk of air and heat it up.   Off you go into the wild blue.

In struggling to understand just how it is that certain hot-air balloons, such as the one on Pennsylvania Avenue, manage to rise, I have observed that there are some people who are attracted to bluster, bombast, posing and empty rhetoric. Narcissists marry, often several times, so at some point in their self-aggrandizing lives there are those to whom hot air is appealing.

I have known many people over the years who have been filled with hot air. Almost to the person, each of them had very few, if any, friends.   Most of them had significant alimony payments.   Generally, they didn’t care much about having friends, but they cared greatly about the alimony.

The thing is, many people who voted for Mr. T report that they actually like the man, which is astounding to me.   He may be a liar and a thief, but he’s at least a thief you can count on to be a thief.   I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said that a friend is someone who stabs you in the front. Mr. T may lie to you, but you know he’s a liar, and so does he, so it doesn’t much matter.   What matters is the same thing that probably mattered to Melania; if he buys you that diamond ring you wanted, at least you’ll end up with a diamond ring. He may even convince you he has a good heart, and will even take care of you, and that he cares as much about you as he does himself; but if you fall for all that, well then, you’re just naïve and deserve what you get. None of that’s important, after all.   It wasn’t important for all the years Chicagoans supported the elder Mayor Daley.   What was important was that the trash got picked up, the potholes were fixed, and that you got that diamond ring you always wanted.

So if you pay for a ride in a hot air balloon, you expect that when the air inside of it is heated it will reliably rise into the atmosphere, taking you passively suspended in a basket beneath it.   The amazing thing is that, after all is said and done, all that hot air will lift you off the safety of the earth and take you with it.   You will, however, have no power to steer it, so where it will end up, well, that’s anybody’s guess.



Finding Beauty

I recently arrived home from Norway, and in retrospect it certainly has earned its ranking as the world’s happiest place.   When I was there, I found nearly everything I did to be relatively pleasurable.   Rambling around Bergen, Norway’s second largest city (with a population of about 260,000—about a quarter of that in Bergen County, New Jersey), I had my choice of which coffee shop in which to sit and write unburdened by phone calls, all within walking distances over cobblestone streets set in patterns to channel the soft bursts of cleansing rain away and onto a path toward reunification.   I stood on the bow of a ferry cruising quietly down a fjord, surrounded by mountains on three sides inhabited by wisps of human civilization, perfectly chilled by a light drizzle, the experience vitalized by my own chosen soundtrack from my outmoded but capable iPod.

When the iPod’s charge ran out (neither it nor I are capable of holding much of a charge these days), and therefore left momentarily with my thoughts, I wondered if those few people living on the mountainside overlooking the fjord’s stunning depth and placidity took it for granted.   Beauty, by definition, is fugue-like and ephemeral. It is as though each time it is encountered there is a sense of it being the first time.   When it ceases its fugitive quality beauty transmogrifies into wallpaper and becomes merely part of the décor.

Living in a place for any length of time tends to diminish the attention we pay to its natural beauty, as we get caught up in our meandering thoughts on the drive to and from home.   But it doesn’t necessarily make it disappear, aided sometimes by nature’s reminders. Nature at its most beautiful calls to itself, as seasons change, hay is cut, and poppies pop.   So it is that the few miles’ drive between my home and the closest town to which I live still manages to cause a slight shallowness in my breath and rapidity in my heart rate.   But in that I think I am lucky, and grateful that the slings and arrows of my particular fortune haven’t completely deadened my senses.

Having yet to unpack the resin troll I ashamedly bought in Norway as a souvenir, there is nothing here at home that knows that I have been gone.   I know this place fairly well, having lived here now longer than anywhere else, but other than the clutter and the scarring of the landscape that inhabitation brings, it doesn’t know me at all.   In fact, after I am gone, if left alone to its own devices, it will return to itself, likely outliving me for longer than any amount of time I can begin to comprehend.

Even the people whose lives ordinarily connect with mine won’t know, or barely care, that I have been gone or how, if at all, it has changed me.   I am reminded of the first trip I ever took abroad, after graduating college.   I backpacked around Europe for 7 weeks, and when I returned home my parents didn’t ask a single question about the trip.   I always believed that I mattered to them, my health and general well-being, but whether or not I had been to the arctic circle, seen the northern lights, or was abducted by aliens in the Gobi desert held little interest.   If I had told them I met a nice Jewish girl (I met a shiksa, so I didn’t tell them anything at the time), or was accepted to law school, perhaps that might have rung some bells, but even then I would have had to volunteer the information.

Perhaps they knew, or at least believed, that places don’t change people.   As a teenager, when I told my father that I had a desire to travel, he remarked unforgettably, “Why would you want to do that?   People are the same all over.”

I really didn’t believe my father then, and I don’t now, and I thought that his comment was a way to dismiss or reduce his own shame that at that time he could not afford to send me to college as other middle class families did, let alone support me on a trip anywhere.   I wasn’t asking for a handout, but I knew well that much of his life was consumed with breaking out of poverty, and he likely thought that my wish to travel was an extravagance.

Whether or not we are grateful for where we have come to reside, or if the various textures of our domestic life fit us like a finely tailored suit probably matters considerably less than the landscapes of our human connections.   Whether we are recognized for the hard work we do by our slave masters, worry about our children, or get along with a significant other will likely dictate to a greater extent the degree to which we appreciate the landscape around us.

No, dad, people are not the same everywhere you go.   And, of course, they are.   As was probably always the case when we disagreed, we were likely both right and both wrong—except, perhaps, when you went through your (thankfully brief) Republican phase.   Whether or not people are the same everywhere, places are certainly not, but the degree to which our connection to place changes us is just as disputable.   I suspect it does, which is why some of us seek it, though to a lesser degree than the connections we make of the human variety.   But then, there’s the monastic life to consider….


Wright and Wrong

imgresAll the calculations show it can’t work. There’s only one thing to do: make it work.   –Pierre Georges Latécoère, early French aviation entrepreneur.

When I went to school in Murray, Kentucky, there were plaques around town that honored Nathan Stubblefield, the inventor of the radio.   The inventor of the radio?  I grew up believing that it was Marconi who invented the radio, although later on I learned that the guy who I thought invented the telephone actually held the patent for the radio, good old Alex Bell.

I guess that when it comes to intellectual property and who reaps the benefits of their labor, the game of who gets credit for what is important.   But for those of us who use toasters, it hardly matters who invented them.  What intrigues me, especially as I travel to other parts of the world, is the extent to which nationalistic pride comes into it.

Ask Americans who was the first to take flight, and they will almost certainly say it was one of the Wright Brothers.  Ask that question in France, and they will tell you not only that the French invented aviation altogether, but they will reel off the names of Charles Renard, Henri Giffard and Arthur Krebs—all French of course.  In Italy, they will mention DaVinci, although there is no record of Leo ever actually lifting off.   They will, however, mention Tito Burattini, who successfully lifted a cat into flight in 1648 (but not himself).

In Great Britain, they will tell you that it was Sir George Cayley in 1846, five decades before the Wright Brothers invented the “aeroplane”.  Cayley began drawing pictures of airplanes when he was 10 years old, which was around 1792.

In Germany, they will mention Gustave Weisskopf, who emigrated to the U.S. where he changed his name to Whitehead.  In 1901, a year before the Wright Brothers’ flight, he carried out a controlled, powered flight in a monoplane in Fairfield, Connecticut.   Although a story ran about it in the local newspaper, he obviously didn’t have as good a press agent as the Wrights, so he never made it into the history books.  Or, perhaps, his neglecting to change his first name had something to do with it.

National pride, I suppose, is primarily an extension of the instinct to protect one’s own tribe.   Without tribal identity one vanishes into the whims of those who seek to conquer. Whether it is a good thing or a bad thing most likely depends on the outcome, and the question of who gets hurt in the process.

In reading the history of the development of the atom bomb, for example, it seemed clear that national pride had little to do with getting there first.   Getting there first was imposed by the circumstances, but those who labored to split the atom did so more out of the spirit of the challenge than out of tribal identity.

I have been fortunate enough to know a few inventors, and none of them invented out of national pride.   They did so because they had a creative instinct, a love affair with solving problems cleverly and doing things better.  Money and credit are often secondary motivations.  National pride seems to come into play more by those seeking to find a way to attach themselves and their identities to the cleverness of the inventors they celebrate.   I may not have invented Swiss cheese, but you can rest assured it must have been another Eastern European Jew.  We invent everything.

What is most important is the spirit of invention itself, a spirit that has resulted for the most part in prolonged lives with less suffering.   That is noble, and that is the thing to be nurtured.

Happy Holidays

Just a quick note to wish you all a happy holiday season, and to thank those of you who subscribe to this humble blog.  I returned from a productive back to back outing to Mexico and Vietnam, jet-lagged and now flu-ridden.   Grateful for a body that (hopefully) heals itself, grateful for the kind words of encouragement many of you have written me over the last year of this blog.  I hope to entertain you more in the coming year… May you have many healthy, fulfilling years to come.

Istanbul and the Armenian Genocide

imagesAlthough the Armenian genocide at the hand of Ottoman Turks occurred almost exactly 100 years ago, I have avoided coming to Turkey partly because of feelings similar to those I had when first traveling through Germany in 1975.  Back then, as I felt the gentle swaying of the train and watched the beautiful German landscape slip past me, I couldn’t help but imagine myself being shipped off to a camp to be gassed, my lifeless body then piled in a mound with so many others who shared my fate.  Even though that occurred 30 years after the holocaust ended, as a 21-year-old I couldn’t help but feel the fear that echoed inside me through the generations.  Now, in Turkey, remembering stories of the murder of more than a million Armenians as the world looked away, I know the feelings that I share with my Armenian comrades are irrational; it is not as though the Turks living here today had anything to do with the behavior of their progenitors nearly a century ago.

In the book of Exodus we are told that the sins of the fathers will be visited on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.  Somewhat mysteriously, future generations bear the weight of their ancestors’ sins.   But that is certainly not to say they are responsible for their sins, as Ezekial clarified:  The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son.  The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

For many, apologizing for the behavior of ancestors seems altogether silly.  But for others, it is an essential part of a healing process.  In spite of the flak he received for it, when Bill Clinton apologized for American slavery, some healing occurred.   When Tony Blair apologized for the Irish famine, when the Pope repented for the behavior of the Catholic Church during the holocaust, when the Japanese prime minister apologized for the Second World War, some healing occurred.

Years ago, when teaching a family therapy course at Antioch, I discussed the Armenian genocide in class.   Afterward, a student came up to me and mentioned to me that she was Turkish.   In fact, her father was a Turkish ambassador.  She told me that I should be aware that there is also a Turkish side to the story.  Ever since, I have honestly struggled to learn the Turkish side of the story, just as I have struggled to understand the roots of the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust.  There may be explanations, but I really don’t know that there ever can be an “other side” to genocide.

Healing occurs because genuine apologies make the world a safer place.  Safety comes when we know ourselves and take responsibility for the harm that we are capable of perpetrating.  Or, in the words of the great philosopher Charles Shulz, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Now, sitting on the terrace of my hotel room, overlooking the Bosporus on a warm, sunny spring morning in Istanbul, I think about the kindness, generosity, and sweetness of the four new Turkish friends who chose to spend their hard-earned day off with us yesterday.  One of them proclaimed in a discussion about the enmity that resulted after 9/11 and the subsequent backlash that “terrorism has no religion.”

In six days from now elections will be held that will likely keep Turkey’s president in power.   It is unlikely that this government will reverse its policy of selective memory and move toward truth or reconciliation.  That is sad, but eternal optimist that I am, I can only hope that over time governments will come to better represent the kindness and compassion of the people they govern.

 –written in April 2014 while in Istanbul on my way to Armenia




The Most Annoying Word


In a survey of over 1,000 people conducted at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY, 39% of people age 60 or over rated “whatever” as the most annoying word or phrase used in conversation, coming in as the clear front-runner over second-place “like.”  Whatever.

Actually, maybe because I am not quite yet over 60, I don’t find “whatever” disturbing.  In fact, I actually like it.  And “like” doesn’t bother me much either.  To me, “whatever” has a lilting, poetic quality, and while some may find it dismissive, I find it a charming way to remind the listener of what is important in life.    Maybe that’s because being dismissive is not something to be dismissive of.    Saying “whatever” at just the right moment reminds the listener that life is too precious to spend it worrying about the corporatization of the world, the subjugation of particular groups of people, or the price of tea in China.   “Whatever” can be thought of as a vocal cue to detach from one’s ego, perhaps a quick and dirty form of meditation that can save us from having to spend 20 minutes twice a day doing the real thing.

I might actually consider silently repeating the word “whatever” as a method of reducing blood pressure.  Now there’s a study for you.

That is not to say that there aren’t words that get me really tweaked.   At the top of my list is the word “issue.”  I don’t mind the word when it is used to describe the location of a particular magazine article, or even the result of two people spending some happy time together, but I have a real issue with using it because people are somehow afraid of saying they have a problem with something, or God forbid may actually have a conflict.   For some reason, it is now more acceptable for people to have “issues” than problems, worries or concerns.

Try these two next sentences:  There are several other words with which I also have issues.  Or:  There are several other words that irritate me (or get my goat, bother me, annoy me, etc.)   Which do you prefer?   And yes, I am also bothered when people say “oftentimes,” a totally useless expenditure of syllables (they could just as well have said “often”).   It is one of those words that I think people say because they want to sound more intelligent but backfires on them.   The more often they use the word the less intelligent they sound.

Now, please don’t get the impression that I am holding myself out in any way to be a verbal virtuoso.   I frequently (oftentimes!) use words incorrectly, partly because I want to learn and hope those better-educated people around me will correct me, which they sometimes do.   A good friend is someone who will tell you when you are screwing up.

Undoubtedly, there are many intelligent people who will oftentimes have issues with what I am saying.   It is fine; my judgment of you will be wrong and it will be fleeting.   Whatever.



Sleeping in Security, Waking in Happiness

images-2 With apologies to Coleridge, behavior analysts are capable of “all things great and small.”  You might recall the story of Skinner covertly conditioning a hand waving response in a Freudian nonbeliever at a meeting in the psychology department at Harvard.  In case you haven’t heard it, Skinner was attending a faculty meeting when a guest psychoanalyst was criticizing behaviorism. Skinner wrote a note to the colleague sitting next to him, saying something like, “watch while I condition a hand-waving response.”  Each time the analyst gesticulated with his hand, Skinner smiled at him.  Sure enough, after a while, the analyst was waving his hands wildly.

If behavior analysts have the skills to covertly condition a hand waving response, teach a child with autism to talk, teach me how to tie my shoes (I need a refresher on this one), and keep people awake at nuclear power plants, then certainly we have the skillset to contribute to making the world a kinder, more peaceful place.

Behavior analysts, and psychologists in general, have often tried to extend their reach and apply their knowledge not only to the lives of one human at a time but to humanity as a whole.

Montrose Wolf, one of the pioneers and creators of the term “applied behavior analysis,” moved to Kansas primarily because it was there that he was given the opportunity to create solutions for problems of segregation and poverty.  Skinner, whose shoulders Wolf and other behavior analysts stood on, wrote “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” (and perhaps “Walden Two”) in order to address societal ills, and psychologists from nearly all disciplines have typically expanded their focus from the individual to society at large, often toward the waning years of their careers.

Not long ago, a conference entitled “Behavior Change for a Sustainable World” took place in Ohio; behavior analysts from around the world met to discuss how they could use their skills and knowledge to combat climate change and other threats to a sustainable world.

Most behavior analysts I know are overwhelmed with the challenges of helping even just a handful of children, as the rest of us are often bogged down daily with the tasks of caring for our families and ourselves.   So it is only for the purpose of inspiration that I present to you these thoughts:

22 years ago, while under house arrest, Myanmar’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize, a prize she could not claim until just a year and a half ago.  When she finally appeared before the peace prize committee, she gave one of her typically extraordinary speeches.  (You can read it in its entirety here.)

When referring to the international plight of refugees, Suu Kyi said the following:

“Ultimately our aim should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, a world in which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace.  Every thought, every word, and every action that adds to the positive and the wholesome is a contribution to peace… Each and every one of us is capable of making such a contribution.  Let us join our hands to try to create a peaceful world where we can sleep in security and wake in happiness.

Aung San Suu Kyi