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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Dynamic Tension

A Working Theory of Inter-Relational Health

Relationships, like muscles in your body, become healthy with regular exercise. And they get exercise through the process of resolving tension.

This tension is created by differences of opinion or values. Though for tension to actually exist, differing opinions have to be expressed openly and both partners must stand up for those values to some extent.

A healthy relationship, like a healthy body, involves different parts working together and trying to create a greater whole. The experience of creating a "greater whole", sometimes called synergy, is important. It is the primary reward for each participant to continue engaging in the relationship. This process reminds me of studying force vectors back in high school physics class.

Two individual forces (let's call them A and B) combine into an actualized thrust (R). The A and B arrows respectively represent the desire (both the direction and the intensity) of the two participants. The R arrow represents the compromise of those two desires, reflecting both A's preference for an upward direction and B's preference for an eastward push.

Note the angle of separation between the A and B arrows. Perpendicular and acute (less than 90 degrees) angles work well in creating synergistic results. Then contrast with this model:

Obtuse (greater than 90 degrees) or opposite forces will tend to cancel each other out, resulting in frustration and homeostasis. In this image, a weaker force A is mostly opposed by a stronger force B, resulting in a weakened thrust R. This is like the force of gravity opposing the thrust of a rocket. The rocket will win, but gravity will naturally be seen as a troublesome obstacle rather than a valued partner in a dynamic relationship. With opposing vectors, someone has to give up their motivation and allow the other force to guide their relationship path. These solutions are less than ideal... resulting either in stasis or in repression/resentment. And it's important to note that the repression/resentment exists in both parties, even the "winning" one. After all, the "winning" rocket is still likely to resent gravity for weighing down its thrust.

A Positive Workplace Example:
My boss Don and I have slightly different values. His job as a director is to prioritize the well being of the agency. My job as a social worker is to prioritize the well being of each client I work with. My energy is much like the A arrow in the first diagram, and Don's is much like the B arrow. His has more force associated with it since he has more stake in the outcomes. However, he also listens to and has respect for my opinions, so we often compromise on difficult cases and come out with something like the R arrow.

Don and I have discussed this and have agreed that it is part of a healthy working relationship... that we exist with a certain dynamic tension, but that it allows us to both advocate for our positions openly and we both suspect that the result is probably best for both the agency and the client. Without my client advocacy, our workplace might gravitate away from prioritizing the needs of our clients; and without Don's oversight, we might go bankrupt funding every request that came our way.

A Negative Workplace Example:
Our counseling department works in conjunction with our domestic violence department. Counseling has agreed to refuse treatment to perpetrators of domestic violence or to couples when we feel DV is present. Therapy is often suggested for DV perps, but it is not available at our agency. The DV director and I have different takes on what constitutes DV. Her ethics place her far to one side of the social work continuum (in order to offer help to as many victimized women as possible) and my ethics place me near the opposite end (in order to humanize all people, even unhealthy ones, and try to serve them.) I have been overruled on occasion. I have advocated that we treat a couple only to find my recommendation vetoed because our DV director labeled the relationship as DV... I had deemed it simply as unhealthy and mutually unsatisfying. I could make various arguments about how therapy would not endanger either participant since there was not a history of physical violence or of jealousy/blaming/demeaning on the part of the man. But in this scenario, my arrow is rendered impotent by the fact that there is a binary policy in place. You're either in or out, and in this case, the people wanting therapy were ruled out. These sorts of unsatisfying resolutions tend to exist when the angles between the goals of people are too wide... when they are like opposite forces. When confronted with a strong opposite force, I often cede to the power of the other person's values, and am not able to have my values represented in any kind of compromise.

A Famous Theory About Negative Relationship Patterns:
Local researcher John Gottman has made a study of relational health, as it pertains to romantic couplings. He has identified four risk factors (he calls them the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse... since they usually signal the end of the road for that couple) that creep into relationships where dynamic tension is not being successfully negotiated. His Horsemen are Withdrawal, Criticism, Contempt and Defensiveness. Withdrawal has to do with running away from conflicts rather than engaging with your partner when troubles arise. Criticism has to do with sniping at your partner as if they were an opponent rather than your lover. Contempt has to do with expressing belittling or scornful thoughts toward one another. Defensiveness has to do with escalating the conflict by counterattacking whenever someone offers up a complaint.

Gottman acknowledges the need for conflict and tension (even praising it at times) but identifies underlying problems in the way those tensions are resolved. He suggests that empathic communication techniques, healthy respect for the collaborator, having a touch of humility, flexibility and willingness to participate in the process are vital to the positive outcome case examples. And suggests that bad outcomes are a result of, or at least associated with, the four Horsemen.

But what happens when relationships feature opposite (neutralizing) force vectors? Good communication skills still don't resolve the situation satisfactorily, because only the one party is able to successfully get what they want, or move in a direction that has any appeal. The other person is screwed. The DV director and I may have all these positive attributes but that doesn't mean a happy solution is available for our conflict. And we may not express any contempt, defensiveness, withdrawal or criticism toward one another... in fact, I think we respect each other as professionals and as people... but because of the opposing nature of our vectors, a mutually positive solution is not accessible.

I think Gottman's research fails to take into account the damning nature of opposing vectors. The appeal of synergy (of unexpectedly positive compromises) is so powerful, that we naturally seek out these gratifying types of interaction; and we seek out relationships that offer lots of these compromises. So I guess I'm arguing that finding great relationships has as much to do with basic compatibility as it does good will, effort or commitment. Finding another person whose values sync up for a number of synergistic compromises seems more important to me than having a relationship that's free from Gottman's Horsemen or filled with good communication techniques.


Forgivable and Fatal Flaws

I introduced CC Rider and some work friends to the double dip last weekend. We met down at the MegaloPlex and saw two new, highly regarded films (Juno and Charlie Wilson's War) for the price of a single ticket. We lost one little bird to exhaustion, but the core four stuck out the mini marathon.

Juno is full of self-conscious attempts at hipster cred. The first half of the movie hardly features a single straight line; everything is an exercise in cooler-than-thou slang. Ellen Page, as the titular Juno, attempts to topple Thora Birch from Ghost World (who had previously deposed Christina Ricci) for the Indie Goddess crown. She's an artist, she has strong opinions, she has an alienated humanitarian affect, she's into cool music and isn't afraid to wear black or tell grown-ups where to stick it. But had that been the point of the film, critics would have rolled their eyes instead of swooning.

The second half redeems the film's overexposed style. The supporting cast radiates human warmth. Michael Cera, playing the same character Michael Cera always plays, is so damn adorable that he could serial murder half of Ohio and everyone would still love him. Juno's parents and friends queue up winsome scene after scene, providing the safety net for Ellen Page to do her reckless rebellion act. But after strutting around like Holden Caulfield for the first half of the movie, Page has to expose all her vulnerability and pain in the second reel. I won't give you any spoilers, but this is where the movie shines... with a poignant ending that will almost make you believe in love again.

I walked out of Charlie Wilson's War feeling fully entertained. Both movies had flaws, but also strokes of genius. I generously gave both 4 stars out of 5. But something kept bugging me about CWW. The more I thought about it, the less comfortable I felt with its glibness.

Aaron Sorkin, also the engine behind The West Wing, wrote a smart, sexy script. It's full of political intrigue, back door dealings, and power plays settled more by wit than brute strength. We get the thrill ride of imagining a world where the history of the Cold War was being written by a drunken, womanizing Texan. And the film oozes better than average performances from a host of better than average actors (except Phillip Seymour Hoffman who I will not damn with faint praise; the man is outstanding.) Overall, there's a lot of fun to be had with this recipe.

This film suffers from an agonizing fatal flaw however. It does concede the point that America screwed up by not helping the Afghanis rebuild after their successful war against the Soviets... and even tries to tack on a touching ending where we see an increasingly red-eyed Charlie trying to convince political allies to spend a few million on building schools for the survivors in Afghanistan. But this is crap. Not because it isn't true... it IS true that 9/11 could have been prevented with an ounce of prevention in parts of the world that we exploit. And it's probably even true that Charlie Wilson advocated for those programs. It's crap because the film just spent two hours showing us how sexy and exciting warmongering can be. It just gave you an adrenaline ride about how deft political maneuvers lead to shooting down Russian assault helicopters... all while watching a rippling American flag in the background and feeling secure in the knowledge that the Russians were the evil empire.

This sort of tactic reminds me of Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven... an epic warfare film that tries to make the point that war is bad. This feels hypocritical to me... don't try to tell me war is bad after titillating me with two hours of exciting battle footage. Similarly, Mr. Sorkin, don't try to tell me we should have a kinder, gentler foreign policy after showing me how exciting it is to engage the gears of war. You're a liar Mr. Sorkin, and I will destroy your movie by taking back one star. You reached for meaning without believing in that meaning yourself. Now your film can rot with all of Tom Hank's other films: In three star oblivion.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Good News for Optimists!

Last week I mouthed off at the bar that the dominating New England Patriots would lose a game before the hapless Miami Dolphins could win one. They both had perfect records up to that point (13-0 and 0-13.) My theory was that it is harder to be absolutely awesome than it is to be absolutely awful. Surely the perfect Pats would botch one game on their way to the next Superbowl... but I didn't figure miserable Miami to be capable of beating anyone. I was sure they would grind out an 0-16 season.

But yesterday, a miracle happened. The Patriots continued their predictable pursuit of perfection (outplaying the Jets) but miserable miasmatic Miami inexplicably won... beating Baltimore for their first win of the season. Woe to the Ravens... losing to an 0-13 franchise has got to hurt. But good news for all of us! Apparently, it's actually harder to absolutely suck than it is to absolutely kick ass! I don't know about you, but I think this is reasonable cause to feel just a little bit rose-colored today. Even Charlie Brown kicks a field goal now and then.

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Furniture is leaving the apartment. Along with a rug. The hardwood floors have reemerged. The rooms feel more spare... like the echoes and shadows have been given sway. Falling asleep at night is strangely difficult... it's tempting to assist the process with two fingers of Scotch. I try to read instead. Reading puts me to sleep like nobody's business.

I need to start a list and scan Craig's List for replacement apartment filler. And consider which art will graduate from storage onto the walls. And which plants will come back home from my office window. And what music should be in heavy rotation.

I need to remember to eat. Saturday I only realized I was starving after I started getting stomach pains about 4 o'clock. I need to remember to turn on the heat. And feed Loupe. And water plants.

Meticulous list-making and scheduling activities for all my countless hours seem like good ideas. Focusing on art projects and self-improvement. Go running. Play sports. Make music. Finish my movie short. Reclaim ownership of my apartment. Refurnish. Get my LICSW credential. Check in with friends and loved ones. Update my blog.


Monday, December 10, 2007

Monday Morning LOL

In case you were wondering, "What sort of thing would make John spew coffee at his monitor this morning?" I give you this answer. Read the article and you'll know. Hat tip to Brandon by way of Sam for the link. (And btw, it was the final line on page 3 that actually caused the "spewing".)


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Belgian Beer Revisited

At our last Full Belly event, we sampled four Belgian beers. In researching the selections, I drank a LOT of different beers and settled on four that I thought reflected a good variety, excellent quality, and were affordable. That last criterion limited me significantly. So in the last week I've tried a few more expensive brews. And while paying $5 for a bottle of beer seems excessive, it's really no worse than paying $5 for a drink at a bar. One of the Belgians I tried, Delirium Tremens, self-promotes as being voted the "best beer in the world!" After trying it, I might have to agree. This stuff is amazing... and the holiday version, Delirium Noel, is pretty damn good too.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Posted Live from Nedra's Party

The first rule of being lame at a party is to borrow someone's computer so you can update your blog. The first rule of blogging is to go back and edit for spelling and content later.

I came here directly from dinner at the 611 Supreme. And we went there directly from the theater where we had just seen The Golden Compass, which was full of pleasant surprises. My biggest fear, having read some of the reviews and clamorous complaints, was that they would strip the shockingly anti-Christian content out of the storyline. The GC and its companion books of the Dark Materials trilogy are brilliant fantasy fiction partly because of the brave theological stand they take. They focus on a villain far more real and terrifying than Lord Voldemort... Pullman instead takes steady aim at those among us (hint... it rhymes with matholic murch) who would ask us to sever ourselves from maturity, sin and human complexity. I didn't find the cinematic version to be bowdlerized at all. Far from it... it's almost as incendiary as V for Vendetta... or at least it will be (hopefully) once the series is finished.

I have only two real complaints... the story feels incomplete and audiences will no doubt have to wait until next Christmas for the second chapter. And secondly... they need to turn the cheese factor and the volume down about 2 notches on the soundtrack.

Secondly... while eating dinner and talking about the film, Diane and I also discussed No Country for Old Men... which she had just seen as the first half of a double dip at Pac Place. And... drumroll please... I think I have a satisfying interpretation for the film at last. I've been bothered with my last review (in which I dismissed the film as a curmudgeonly rejection of the modern world.) I felt like I was missing something, and I actually invited someone to disprove me in the post. Today I struck upon a theory that makes much more sense to me... and gives me a chilling new possibility to ponder.

Warning: Spoiler Alert (seriously folks.)

The story of NCFOM revolves around two parallel characters who never exactly intersect. Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem coexist like binary stars; their gravitational fields causing a mutual orbit without any contact. But I wasn't quite sure how to interpret one pivotal scene. The biggest climax of the film comes when Jones goes back to a hotel room that serves earlier as a "scene of the crime". We see Bardem waiting in the dark of the room and Jones nervously come inside. This is where we expect a showdown between the ultimate goodguy and the ultimate badguy... but instead nothing happens. The camera cuts away and we follow the two characters going about their lives with no apparent consequences to their meeting... in fact, it feels like they didn't actually meet at all.

A primary conceit of the film is that the audience has to fill in certain blanks. Early on, a character notices that a quarter is from 1958 and someone says that the quarter is 22 years old. Thus we know the film is set in 1980... other than that, no one mentions what year it is. Late in the movie, Bardem's character kills a woman in her home. We don't get to see what happens. We have to piece it together based on the fact that he checks his boots when he walks out the door. We know from earlier scenes that he is conscientious about having blood on his boots... thus we know he actually killed her. Clearly the Coen brothers have set up a movie where you have to be observant and infer what happens during certain missing scenes or solve little puzzles to make sense of the narrative.

But the biggest gap is what happens during the big showdown when Jones goes into the hotel room. WTF actually happens there?! It seems impossible to infer such a huge gap in narrative. But today I struck upon an elegant solution. I don't know if everyone else already figured this out... or if other critics have already postulated this theory... but my new thought is that Bardem's sociopath gets the drop on Jones's old sheriff character. Having easily overpowered him, Bardem falls back on one of his tricks... the coin flip. The movie is actually bookended by scenes featuring a coin flip. Call it correctly and Bardem lets you live... call it wrong and you're a dead man. For whatever reason, Bardem's character enjoys letting things unfold based on a random chance. If Jones flips the coin and calls it right (which results in Bardem letting him live)... it would explain two major things: 1) How Jones and Bardem wind up just going along their separate narrative paths after their showdown, and 2) Why Jones is radically shaken after this point... after this he is intently focused on his own mortality and ready to retire. I don't know if this is what McCarthy or the Coens intended... but it makes sense to me.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Shoe Ownership

This morning I wore the browns. They had fallen out of favor... I don't know why. Once I finally got the black GBX's to feel comfortable, I had taken to wearing them to work almost exclusively. And on weekends I've been wearing tennis shoes or basketball hightops. I had fond memories of the brown Rockports. They seemed very comfortable... the kind of shoes I would wear when I visited a major European city and wanted to walk the streets until I fell over with exhaustion. And yet they had sat unloved for the last two months... until today.

I confess to being ambivalent about footwear. I used to think you only needed two pairs (one formal and one comfortable.) I scoffed at women and their public desire to own vast walk-in closets lined with overflowing shoe racks. But now I find my own shoe collection to be spilling out of its allotted space. I have slippers, two pairs of runners, two pairs of basketball shoes, tennis sneakers, and two pairs of (aforementioned) oxford lace-ups. I'm beginning to question who owns whom in this relationship.

I also used to think that it's normal for a pair of shoes to take a few weeks to break in. Shoes are made of pliable stuff, and sometimes it takes them a while to adjust to the contours of your feet. Once they're broken in, they feel like a second skin... but they sometimes give you blisters first. It was like that with the black GBX's. I almost sent them back, but instead I gave them a second chance. I kept wearing them, and sure enough, they feel great now. They hug my feet in all the right ways.

So I was shocked today when I found that the brown Rockports felt terrible. They were weird: too flat and too wide. They pinched at the top but my toes flopped around like fish in a barrel.

Then it occurred to me: Perhaps shoes don't adjust to our feet at all. Perhaps our feet adjust to our shoes! Maybe all this time that I thought shoes needed to be "broken in"... really it was my feet being broken. Maybe those blisters should have tipped me off. I wasn't winning this war... the shoes were. They would force their contours upon me, and like an old-fashioned Japanese bride... my feet would sacrifice their natural shape in order to please their master. Maybe my feet had adjusted to the GBX's and would take days (or weeks) to reform to the requirements of the Rockports?

So I ask you... do I own my shoes... or do they own me?