Attention jockeying, humor and forgiveness

April 2, 2018

To quote Albert Finney’s memorable quip in A Good Year, and Russell Crowe’s recap of the line in the same film, “Timing” is the secret – to comedy, to success, and I would argue, to persuasive delivery of informative messages, to effective hand-offs, and to common courtesies.


It can be a matter of waiting one’s turn to talk, taking a breath in time to respond punctually to a question, juggling multiple conversations at once adroitly across multiple live channels, or jockeying successfully for attention in the decision-making process when delivering actionable intelligence, complex evidence assessments, or public service announcements intended to compete effectively with the currency of “ad culture” in the media mix.

Humor is a sort of quality criterion in evaluating one’s timing in communication – good timing is sometimes pointed enough to be funny, and never takes the air out of the room, so to speak. And to the extent that attention jockeying is intrinsically rude (politically aggressive in the game theory of the attention economy), the comedic value of good timing elicits forgiveness for having presumed on someone’s patience by having one’s own views to air.

Bad timing is a running joke in 2017’s captivating comedy of errors Easy Virtue, and the ease with which the everyday supplies plausible openings for such errors is charmingly illustrated in the domestic life of this film’s hilariously ordinary aristocratic family. Bad timing, one might say, is par for the course. “Good enough” timing is the difference between leaving shock waves of irritation in one’s wake everywhere one goes, and not having ruffled anyone’s feathers much.

Good timing, in my experience, takes considerable and continuous effort in itself. But good timing, in communication of whatever sort, might be the difference between exercising influence and “pissing in the wind” – between successful networking and lone wolf syndrome – between a recipe for failure and success.

Can “good timing” be taught? Is it a moving target, an index of competitiveness in a “nature red in tooth and claw” attention economy of cultural norms in prosody and panache? I find it challenging but learnable, and believe it is at least somewhat related to perspective-taking and listening skill/effort, as well as strategic breathing habits. I also find it totally contingent, dyadic, multiply inflected with cultural overtones and race/class-conflict baggage, and in tension – all conversations, I feel, boil down to the competitive “question and answer” badminton rhythms of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead on some primal level.


Breathing habits have a habitual character, a performative, musical and mimetic dimension, a personality of their own.  But flexibility and clairvoyance in sensing when it would be best to breathe is surprisingly important in achieving good timing, in practice, especially when there are multiple speakers or conversations taxing one’s attention at once. The breathturn, as Paul Celan put it [Atemwende], helps decide how emphatic, receptive, conditional and considerate we sound when we express ourselves with a given tone of voice, word choice and level of strain/volume/articulation/etc.

The search for one’s turn to breathe, one’s turn to speak, one’s turn to pause, one’s allowance of time to answer a question – this is not a contemplative endeavor, however profound the consequences might be. Everything is now, now, now. Live in the now, we are told. What perhaps we should be told is, choose your timing carefully, constantly, reflexively, and before it’s too late!


Hand-offs as “stand offs”

March 25, 2018

A friend of mine was ribbing me about our awkward hand-offs at work earlier this week and, by a slip of the tongue, referred to them as “stand-offs” – a fitting malapropism, I felt, so I took a moment to write it down as food for thought.


I just finished a grim little paperback about machismo in the narco-banditry-dominated mountains of Mexico yesterday, and the last two chapters really took the wind out of my sails as a vicarious adventurer exploring the bleak corners of the obscure. One endorsement on the book’s cover promised “characters straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel” – but the modern view of those historied mountains was a bit less romantic than a Western novel.

The awkward truth about the drug trade seems to be that it barely pays at all unless you’re really good at killing the competition and stealing their loot – an ugly portrait of the life choices of the hardscrabble growers and dealers hooked on the Mexican version of gangster rap, dreaming of bigger AKs, more terrified girlfriends, and the opportunity to snort a generation’s worth of savings in cocaine while getting most of one’s calories from booze.

I mention this because there were so many real-life Mexican stand-offs to be had in the writer’s journey documenting this wasteland of macho excess and drug-induced paranoia. The writer, in fact, had to be about as charming and disarming as anyone can be, just to keep casual encounters with strangers from escalating into life-or-death confrontations.

Perversely, his story taught me a lot about de-escalation, hospitality and charm. One of his cardinal rules was not to hurry your way into, or out of, conversation with anybody. Exchange pleasantries, keep it informal, play it by ear. Listen. Very carefully. For innuendo, uneasiness, mistrust, any sign of negativity. Always adapt instantly to signs of danger.

This was a journey made possible by the unflinching hospitality of strangers who could’ve been killed for extending their help if their guest had been mistaken for a DEA agent. A journey demonstrative of the extremes in resourcefulness, openness and presence of mind needed to simply put strangers at ease.

In the hospitality industry, hand-offs between customer service front line staff and actual, irritable customers are a lot more likely to escalate into stand-offs than hand-offs among staff members. But that Freudian slip touched on an underlying continuity between these two inflections of interpersonal micro-encounters.

Hand-offs can be defined as moments of workspace-time in which interpersonal encounters take on a tension along the following lines:

A tells B, ‘now it’s your problem, here’s what I’ve done so far’

B looks at A and thinks, ‘do I tell A what I really think, or just shrug?’

And that opportunity to give feedback, ask for clarification, comment on tone of voice, or what have you contains within it a microcosmic battlefield. The politics of the attention economy are the stakes. To ask A (or B) to listen to detailed instructions or respond to a line of second-guessing concerns is to attempt a coercion. Will it work? Will it have consequences? For whom?

I dwell on this because hand-offs are a leading cause of medical errors (intervention research in this area is promising). But these micro-encounters and the attendant micro-aggressions interwoven in the fabric of cooperation, tension, and collegial joking around are layered, fluid, subjective, dynamic – in a word, difficult to dissect.

What is called for on all sides, I think, and not just in the health services, is an ongoing commitment to work on having the presence of mind to be adroit, disarming, considerate, persuasive, and a good listener at all times – not only at work but even in our roles as customers, patients, friends, and in the home.

Machismo, inattentive and blustery, irrational and ingrained in our animal nature, is always going to try to get the upper hand when we’re not careful. But machismo is for dinosaurs and drug cartels and period films – this is not the material a better future is going to be made of. May it come to play a lesser role in our lives.


Somedays with Salman Akhtar

March 13, 2018

“Someday” and “if only” fantasies have a certain universal appeal, and are probably part of our cultural programming thanks to the happily-ever-after cliché in children’s books and movies. But the darkest periods of my life have been characterized by a sheer fixation on these two sides of the same coin, a useless vacillation between nebulous, passive optimism and black, backward-looking resentments to the exclusion of a normal, functional ideational field, the tenacity of which can only be described as pathological. So it was with great relief and a sense of wonder that I encountered Salman Akhtar’s chapter on the origin and character of these specific fantasy types in the book Beyond the Symbiotic Orbit.

Of the catatonic sense of expectation at the extremes of “someday” fantasies, Akhtar quotes an observation of Karl Abraham’s (1924): “Some people are dominated by the belief that there will always be some kind person – a representative of the mother, of course – to care for them and to give them everything they need. This optimistic belief condemns them to inactivity.”

Is this true love’s kiss? The ultimate knight in shining armor fantasy? Is this person “sleeping beauty”? Or is this no more unnatural than the boyish best-friend fantasies of Pushkin, Doestoevsky and Lermontov, dreaming of Achilles and Patroklus, reading Schiller in Russia? Is this about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Or is this merely about striving to find, or make, a better world somehow?

watership down

Margaret Mahler, a leading separation-individuation theorist, argues (in Akhtar’s paraphrase) that one of the underlying mechanisms here is “a temporal displacement from past to future of a preoedipal, preverbal state of unity with the ‘all good’ mother of the symbiotic phase.” Akhtar links this pathology to early life events abruptly separating mother from child around the age of two. This is the age of separation and rapproachment phases in the mother-child symbiotic orbit, and this is the critical process that has been interrupted in individuals with pathological “someday” fantasies.

Just as happily-ever-after is a normal vein of wishful thinking, “someday” pathologies are typical of a wide range of personality disorders, according to Akhtar. He describes how a narcissist will industriously work to realize this impossible dream, while a borderline individual turns to infatuate attachment disorders and drug abuse to make the leap, and a paranoid individual fixates on obstacles in the path to realizing the idyll. A schizoid manifestation, he writes, is to “adopt a passive stance in which they are constantly waiting for a magical happening, a windfall, a chance encounter with a charismatic guru, or a sexual explosion of idiosyncratic transcendental connotations.” Emphasis mine.

Akhtar sees “if only” fantasies as a variant on “someday,” characterizing patients entertaining this version as follows: rather than pursue or await this “someday,” “they lack all interest in the future. They are constantly wringing their hands over something that happened in the past. They focus their attention on this event and insist that ‘if only’ it had not taken place everything would have turned out all right. Life before that event is glossed over and idealized.”


To sum up, Akhtar remarks, “In the ‘someday’ fantasy, future is idealized, leading to hope, optimism, and a search for ideal conditions. In the ‘if only’ fantasy, past is idealized leading to nostalgia, self-pity, and a certain kind of self-righteousness.” He points out how often these two fantasies operate “in tandem” – and this is exactly how I have experienced them.

Reading about this phenomenon from a safe place has been truly empowering. Dashing a dream that has held sway for too long feels like breaking a piggy bank – inside is only a little residual energy now, because these fantasies have been in remission for months now, but it still feels good to break it. After an expensive stint in talk therapy that felt interminably iterative, just peeling back layers of an onion without getting any closer to the cathartic transition, I’ve finally hit upon the analytic insight I was looking for in Laing, Freud, Rank, cognitive behavioral theory, you name it. Reading Laing in depth probably helped lay the groundwork for understanding Akhtar’s meaning, but I’ll say more about that later, when I’ve had a chance to watch the new David Tennant movie, Mad to be Normal, about Laing’s controversial but influential career in psychotherapy.

The most important take-away for me has been that it’s not just me – that under certain circumstances, this kind of thought process is organic and predictable. In fact, my parents – one a narcissist, the other borderline – may very well both have it, in a different form, in their own private lives. This brings me closer to understanding and feeling for them, in spite of everything.

There is much that sounds familiar here – “chronic restlessness, unstable emotions, vacillating relationships, unrealistic goals, excessive self-absorption, defective empathy, egocentric perception of reality, impaired capacity for mourning, inability to love, sexual difficulties, and moral defects of varying degrees” in all the personality disorders, and “unstable mood, impaired capacity for ambivalence, intense oscillations of self-esteem, poorly integrated identity, difficulty in maintaining optimal distance in relationships” in the sequelae of an interrupted separation-individuation process. These thick descriptions paint a much more three-dimensional and fully human picture of my parents than the stilted caricatures they usually take on in my imagination.

Listening to Maria Callas, too, opened up a secret language of operative connotation in my memory of my mother’s conversational rhythms that told me more than words could how important her years as an opera student were to her personality development. That sounds so clinical to say, but it is only in the context of the clinical gaze that I’ve found the safety to look at “us” as a mother-daughter pair and not mere cats in a bag, scratching at each other to get out.

Rapproachment may be impossible, but I can’t afford to be ignorant of who this person who dominated my life for so long really is. Unfortunately, we are at an impasse in the rituals of forgiveness – she denies having done  X and I refuse to forget. Nussbaum’s vaunted prescriptions for “unconditional love” feel alien to me, as if they don’t apply here.

What I can do, however, is extricate myself from these unrealistic and futile pendulum swings between “someday” and “if only” in favor of  healthier coping strategies.

Many thanks to the filmmakers behind A Dangerous Method for, indirectly, prompting me to explore the insights of the psychoanalytic tradition, of which Akhtar’s work forms one small part.


Anger as food and the gods

March 5, 2018

After a long hiatus, I am hoping to get back to blogging regularly again. I’ll start with one of Martha Nussbaum’s newer titles in philosophy, Anger and Forgiveness. I haven’t finished it yet, but here I only need to discuss the first few chapters.

Why am I reading about anger? I distinguish my favorite actresses from the pack on this criterion more than any other, for their facility with anger in performance. Qorianka Kilcher in Shouting Secrets, Elizabeth Banks in The Next Three Days, Vanessa Redgrave in Coriolanus, Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth.

Why not some other strength? Perhaps because this one is so unusual in a woman. Not in real life, certainly, but in a screen acting career.


In the director’s commentary track to Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes is right to congratulate himself on casting Vanessa Redgrave in spite of her initial reservations about taking on the wronged mother’s role. Hers is the most explicit and profound line in the play:

“Anger’s my meat; I sup upon myself,
And so shall starve with feeding.”

Screenwriters often deny actresses access to much anger, especially when they have an ‘opposite number’ to adorn with their presence. Going straight to the heart of an outburst with convincing aggression, and making that move compelling without stripping it of ugliness, is rare. My Week with Marilyn builds up a vivid image of the alternative career track – an inwardly-collapsing vortex of vapid smiles enervated by wispy flights of fancy, all coif and no claws. What would capture my imagination, in contrast, would be to see Seneca’s Medea, quoted in the act of thrusting her children over the ledge (by Martha Nussbaum): “Do you acknowledge your wife?”

But is anger nourishing? Nussbaum finds it intrinsically unhealthy. Why then is it such a mark of distinction in a woman’s theatrical career, in my eyes?

Nussbaum deploys such vivid imagery sparingly in her treatise. She quickly puts to grass the daemons with whom she introduces her book, the “hideous” ancient Greek Furies who hounded survivors of blood feuds as tenaciously as Hamlet‘s Ghost, exhorting an infinitely reciprocal accounting in blood – revenge, always revenge. But her conceptual exposition of anger, its flaws, and their refractory reproduction in the scaffolding of conventional wisdom on forgiveness is compelling and of practical importance.

Giving anger’s definition in terms of the content of the experience, Nussbaum refers us to Aristotle and decomposes his definition as follows:

  • Anger is at a slighting or down-ranking (e.g., by injury or insult)
  • Of the self, people close to the self, or one’s “circle of concern” (no indifference)
  • Wrongfully done (as opposed to an innocent accident)
  • Causing the agent pain (whether direct or sympathetic, physical or psychic)
  • Involving a payback wish (“retribution”)

She argues eloquently that this final criterion of what makes an emotion an angry one necessitates a philosophical rejection of anger – explaining that except in a status-obsessed world in which reversing an upset in pecking order is the be-all end-all of existence, this payback fantasy is worthless, as it does nothing to alleviate the pain or right the wrong or undo the past or improve the future prospects of one’s circle of concern.

She then ties this preoccupation with status, account-keeping and retribution into the formulaic “dance of forgiveness” extracted by the injured party, drawing on a rich handling of the Judeo-Christian confessional tradition for an etiology of the conventions we see in self-help books today for victims learning how to move through their anger. She moves on to deal extensively with one of my mother’s favorite books, The Dance of Anger, sympathetically and critically examining the therapeutic process in working with dyads where anger has become entrenched.

Ultimately, Nussbaum puts forward a radical rejection of both anger and forgiveness, even unconditional forgiveness, in favor of “unconditional love”. There is a problem here, however. Anger is incident-oriented, whereas love is person-oriented.

Nussbaum spends the second half of the book, which still lies ahead, elaborating on social justice applications of an alternative to anger which she terms the Transition, and defines as the forward-looking but incident-provoked emotional reaction going as follows: “How outrageous! Something should be done about that.”

In this way, she acknowledges the signal value and social fecundity of moral outrage, which she foreshadows in her introduction with a vignette about how the Greek gods domesticated the furies. Quoting Aeschylus, she describes how Athena strips these daemons of their hideousness, denies them access to human flesh and physically buries them under the foundations of the city, as so much fertilizer for the civil courts and political justice system.

This brings to mind Cavafy’s Growing Strong:

“He who wishes to strengthen his spirit,
must abandon reverence and submission. …
He will not fear the destructive act;
half the house must be torn down.”

Indeed, in an interview about portraying a serial killer taken by Alix Lambert for the anthology Crime, actor Michael Rooker is quite explicit about the connection between violent aggression and flourishing:

“With Henry, I saw it as nourishment. He’d see someone he’d like to consume and he’d go and take them and do what he wanted. He needed to nourish his spirit. His spirit, of course, was this flawed worm-in-the-brain kind of guy. When he was hungry, he ate. I love food, so it was a perfect handle to hook onto.”

Is this orality, the love-hate of infantile narcissism? Schizophrenia expert R.D. Laing emphasizes how preternaturally quiet in infancy his patients were, in contrast to a more well-adjusted infant’s “lusty crying” for the absent breast. Can infantile aggression, then, be a needful launching pad for some future psycho-social adjustment process?

I don’t have the answers here, but I want to close with a vignette from Richard Grant’s magnificent Sierra Madre travelogue, God’s Middle Finger. His early predecessor in the Sierra Madre travelogue genre, the Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholz, had also survived adventures sojourning with the cannibals of Queensland, and I will quote Grant at length in summarizing his disposition towards the natives.

“”What a misfortune it would be to die without having seen the whole world,” he wrote as a young man, shortly after dropping out of seminary school… In 1880, at the age of twenty-nine, he sailed to Australia to collect zoological specimens for the University of Chiristiania in Oslo and begin his self-appointed studies as a field ethnographer. He ended up spending four years in the Australian bush, one of them with a group of aboriginal cannibals … Mostly they preyed on other cannibal tribes, killing and eating men, women, and children alike. White people didn’t taste as good, they said, but the Chinese were delicious.

“Lumholz plied them with tobacco, for which they would do anything, and kept them in constant fear of his revolver. At first he was disgusted by their taste for human flesh and finally irritated because they talked about it so much.”

I like that account of Norwegian table manners at a cannibal convention.