Sunday, February 24, 2013

Good Little Psychopath

She's a good little psychopath. I'm talking about Jody Arias, the young woman currently on trial in Arizona. Actually she's on trial in the media, as CNN's sister station, HLN is broadcasting much of the trial daily. Arias, who now admits to shooting and then stabbing her former boyfriend, is putting on a clinic in how a pathological personality works. She's arrogant and glib, she turns on the tears, and most of all, she's secure in her own belief that she is in control of everything. So we watch. And marvel at the workings of the pathological personality. It's estimated that one in 100 have that blank look in their eyes. That's a lot of people with no moral emotions. Gone. Missing. Not there. Never been there. Sometimes their victims, those who survive, want to know why? That is they only question they will ask. Trouble is, they can't answer. They are wired differently. They don't experience empathy. They can't make that leap. When we think of this personality disorder, now known as a sociopath, we think of serial killers. We think of twisted school shooters, or rapists, or those that torture, with masochistic tendencies. Does it seem like there are more psychopaths than there used to be? Perhaps it is our ability to recognize them or at least their existence that has increased. They are as deceptive as the human personality can be. They are smooth talkers who find it easier to lie than tell the truth. Polygraphs tests are useless. The psychopath plays on the healthy personality's tendency to trust and believe other people. Years ago, before we knew about some of the more stunning and sensationalized mass murderers, the psychopath could operate with relative ease. In Erik Larsen's acclaimed book, The Devil in the White City, we meet Dr. H.H. Holmes the notorious serial killer who operated in, at, and around the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. With a long history of aliases and a penchant for scamming, deceiving, and ultimately killing his victims, Holmes himself found it difficult at times to understand how people could be so trusting, so gullible, so easily duped. That we want to believe people is no doubt at the core of his incredulity. An assertive yet charming personality goes a long way. As a friend of mine likes to say, "You would buy a used car from this man. There is a caveat, however. Before we start putting labels on people it's crucially important to be certain, or at least reasonably certain that you are correct. Otherwise the consequences are both dire and self-defeating. Often the sociopath will exhibit this lack of empathy early on in childhood. They abuse animals, pets, insects, their playmates, and yes, their parents. "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is a movie that illustrates the latter in remarkable yet frighteningly graphic fashion. In recent years we've learned a good deal about childhood disorders like Reactive Attachment Disorder and Oppositional Disorder. Sometimes children that have been adopted after an early upbringing at an Eastern European orphanage display these qualities most alarmingly. A family member of mine has an adopted son who fints in this category in many ways. Again, it's a complicated disorder that some display and others do not. And that brings us back to Jody Arias. Not an adopted child, definitely a lack of moral emotions. I marveled at her answer to her defense attorney while on the stand. Asked directly if she killed her boyfriend, (after denyng it originally) she had a terse, 3 word reply. "Yes I did." It was as if the question had been did you go to church last Sunday? She's a good little psychopath.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Blood

Today is one of those dark Portland days that drones on with the threat of rain from morning till late afternoon. It's a keep your indoor lights on day. It's the kind of day that makes this city out of the question for anyone with Seasonal Affect Disorder. When the rain comes, the temperature will rise a bit and the aura of threat will end in the comforting sound of rain. It's important to find something illuminated early on when the day is dark. That's a difficult task more often than not. Coffee is warm, smiles light up faces here more than other places. The high pitched voices of children exploring everything at eye level all help. Like the weather all over the country on this day, the polarization in our political thought is profound. Our middle ground is disappearing faster than books in a library. Last night the PBS program Frontline featured a show about the recent Sandy Hook school shooting. Just writing those words is difficult. In a collaborative effort between two local journalists and the award winning investigative broadcast, we were given a bit more detail on the community and the cast of characters. Aside from realities that the Lanza family faced, the Asperger's diagnosis given shooter Adam Lanza, and the amount of guns and type of guns found in the home, something larger stands out. In the aftermath of community response, national response, and international interest, it is the individual response that leaves me wondering. While some are buying guns at record rate, others are ridding their households of all firearms. Completely opposite responses. Gun show attendance is way up as people stockpile armaments fearing that the opportunity to do so is quickly vanishing. Pundits spit out data at even faster rates and all the while we wait. We wait for the next one. The next well armed loner to express anger, confusion, hatred, mental illness, through the barrel of a gun. It really is in our blood, isn't it? We have become the gun culture. We've earned that label and are committed to defending the title, or so it seems. And while the finger continues to point from video games, to violent films, to the availability of assault weapons to mental illness, to the disintegrating family structure, to failing schools, to increasing alienation from a computer dominated society...the people with guns "in the blood" are finding more opportunities to spill the blood and steal the security of an elementary school.

Friday, February 15, 2013

An Errand Completed

I just finished a most interesting book. It only took 40 years. Truthfully, I bought the book that long ago for a college class. It was no ordinary class either. It was History 176B, the first African American history class at UCLA. Offered by Dr. Ron Takaki, who would later be my undergraduate history thesis advisor, the class was extremely popular and among those enrolled during that 1968-9 term were Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The "B" section of the course roughly went from 1865 to the present. On that reading list was a novel of Reconstruction called A Fool's Errand, by Albion Tourgee. Tourgee's thinly veiled novel was based on his own experiences as a "Carpetbagger" who moved to the state of North Carolina from his native Ohio immediately after the Civil War in 1865. The novel traces the life and philosophy of a Col. Servosse, whose Yankee naivety explains why the narrator continually refers to him as "the fool" named in the title. I read about half the novel while I was taking the class. This I surmise from looking at the underlined passages and a few notes in the margins. But I never finished the book, to the best of my recollection. I had always intended to read the book and now, all these years later, I can finally say I have. It's an important book too. First published in 1879, A Fool's Errandhas had a few incarnations. The copy I have was printed in 1961 as a Harper Torchbook, a series familiar to many history majors. What makes this such an intriguing read is that it combines a history of Reconstruction with a love story, with a feel for just how complex the issue of race relations and sectionalism is in this country. Col Servosse comes to see these issues in all their complexity throughout the course of the novel. He originally buys an old plantation that he and his family breathe new life into while coming to realize just how deep the Southerner's love of the Antebellum South goes. We see the rise of the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate and terrorize the newly freed slaves from voting. We see who is under those hoods and we learn how that disguise was originally supposed to be the a representation of the ghosts of confederate soldiers. "The Fool" comes to realize many things including the fact that the Northern conquerors of the South have come to sell out the black man, who is ill prepared to fulfill the rights and responsibilities of his new found freedom. When I finished the book, all these years later, I realized how the polarization of the country back then is not dissimilar to the political panorama we see today. In fact, this novel might serve to illustrate a deeper understanding of the Reconstruction era, (seldom taught accurately in high school curriculum) and perhaps explain how many of those same attitudes and beliefs survive today in all their foolish glory.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Look, Up In The Sky!

It's a sinking feeling. We've probably all been there too. It's a particular kind of helplessness. And it usually plays out over a long stretch of time. We're talking years here. So what is this I'm introducing here and why am I being so mysterious. It needs a name, but I'm still searching. Just for he sake of this discussion we'll call it emotional blindness. An example is in order. Ever have a conversation with someone you care about that involves a poor choice they seem to have made? Most often it takes the form of a person they've recently met or are dating. Your intuition tells yo that something is very wrong here. Emotionally your friend can't see the reality before their eyes. They can't acknowledge that they may be moving too fast. That the person they find so charming right now isn't really the person they are so infatuated with. Tough call. But sometimes we, like our loved ones find ourselves particularly vulnerable. We talk a good game. We like to repeat that we know what we are doing, that we have no expectations, that we can handle it...we got this. Sometime in the immediate future we may wish we'd have done more to discourage or friend to reconsider the choices they are about to make. Our choices are limited. We can't slap them into reality. We can only urge, plead, perhaps even use humor to make them see the predicament they are sculpting out of false hope and denial. So we sink. Together or alone. It happens to most everyone at some time or another. The only salvation I can offer is that these mistakes in blind faith ofter teach us a good deal about ourselves. As Rilke, the great poet once declared, "Time spent in the difficult is always worthwhile."
II. Been thinking some more about the over use of the word awesome. The irony here is that if everything is labeled "awesome" then very little really is up to that standard. OK, that figures, but it got me thinking further. Maybe for younger generations there really is less awe in the universe. I've heard and read about the loss of wonder. But I'm wondering (pun intended) if that really isn't the case. In this age of instant communication, media everywhere 24/7 and video of every move you make, it's quite feasible that it takes a lot more to induce wonder in the natural world. I saw this quite literally a couple of days ago. I was waiting at a red light on a drive across town when I chanced to see a young man standing by a bus stop. He was fiddling with a small screen, wearing earphones, and looking down. Above his head the clouds billowed in huge celestial whorls. The palate of white to gray to blue black was breathtaking....awesome.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Ditto Master

I still have a few video tapes on a closet shelf. The chances I'll ever watch one again are slim. It's still possible, but hardly worth the effort. Yet, some of the films or bits and pieces of news stories about Apartheid in South Africa or many of the videos I used in my introductory psychology class are just too important to be tossed away. At least it seems that way to me. Today, most of the video material in classrooms comes from You Tube. I haven't seen a tape or even a DVD used in a classroom in the last half a dozen years. Everything is available on line. And that's a good thing. It opens up so many possibilities. Too bad so much energy has to be expended resisting standardized tests and all the waste that comes with that before some engaging multi-media curriculum can inspire and motivate more reluctant learners. I've been thinking about all the media changes in the last 30-40 years. Not only do they make a teacher's job easier, they open up worlds. This is not going to be a rant about the good old anything. Yes, kids today have never seen video tape in a classroom let alone a movie projector. Yes, laptops are replacing books. Yes, most writing is done at the keyboard. That is as it should be. The tragedy comes when many teachers can't focus on how to best use these wonderful resources because of the pressure related to "achievement" and "performance" and of course test scores.
Sometimes I like to recall a typical day in the life of a teacher from say 1975 as opposed to 2013. That's a neat 38 years. Copies today are usually made on a Xerox machine of some kind as opposed to the ditto masters of old. No more typing, correcting errors with a razor blade. Gone are the ink (fluid) stains on hands and clothing. No more wet, faded copies. I always had a problem with the fact that some kids would get the dregs- unreadable copies. No need for movie projectors, broken films (patched with a bit of Scotch tape) No waiting to get the video material on the exact date you need it by. No more "I already saw this film..." And most importantly, no limit to what you bring into the classroom. Well, you know what I mean. Case in point: I'll never forget the first time I used video tape of a news event in my International Relations class. Something happens in Europe or China and you've got instant footage. It was huge. Imagine trying to teach a current affairs class and depending on a few dated films. It's often lovely to be in the middle of a revolution and realize it. My classroom video library grew in a few years to hundreds of documentaries, pieces of news footage, interviews with major players, and geography lessons as the map changed. Of course this challenged teachers to use these materials in new and effective ways. Most excellent teachers use video material in small segments with much student interaction.
The computer came into the classroom roughly around 1994. Schools were wired shortly thereafter and everything from grade books to traditional research changed. Again, I believe for the good. Returning to the typical day from then to now will yield other insights about the impact of technology on the public school classroom. That will follow in these pages. I suspect it will reveal some incisive and unexpected consequences about human behavior and the world to come.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Banner Year

She got it right. Oh not the halftime show at the Super Bowl. Beyonce was great, sure. But something else. Something that probably very few people took notice of or even cared about. Alicia Keys got the anthem right. If Mrs. Taylor, my elementary school music teacher, had been alive to see the spectacle, she'd have heartily approved of Alisha's rendition. She may have enjoyed the slow drawn out version. Or not. My guess is that after hearing so many versions for so long she'd have enjoyed the talented and classy Ms. Keys. But her praise would have been directed specifically at the way she sang the last line and the way she sang the word "bann-er."
Mrs. Taylor came into my 4th, 5th and 6th grade classes every Thursday. As a designated soprano, I along with my classmates, would dutifully sing such grade school classics as "The Erie Canal" while she strummed her auto harp. A hulk of a woman with a pot belly and a penchant for sucking her teeth, Mrs. Taylor combined equal parts fear and inspiration. And we sang. Boy did we sing. We sang weekly, we sang at school assemblies, we sang, in a manner of speaking, these songs all our lives. But there would come a time in every lesson with her that Mrs. Taylor would ask us if we happened to see the baseball or football game televised the previous weekend. In those days it was one game a week on TV. She'd then proceed to tell us how whomever was selected to sing the national anthem got the word banner wrong. All too often the singer sang "Oh say does that star-spangled ban-an-er yet wave...." "It's not ban-an-er, it's bann-er," she'd implore. Then she'd whip out that auto harp and madly strum the section of the anthem in question. "Bann-er...bann-er...bann-er, not BAN-AN-ER. She'd be fairly red by now. She was very much in ernest. This was serious business and you'd better get it right or Senator McCarthy would come after you. Well, maybe not that serious, but we heard this tirade every week. She won. Mr. Taylor won. I can never hear the national anthem without waiting for the singer to say the magic word. That's why when Alicia sang it at the Super Bowl, the ghost of Mrs. Taylor sat watching with me. Alicia got it right. Was it ever in doubt?