Friday, February 24, 2012


Pam and I are raising this granddaughter, who's now closing in fast on her second birthday. That makes us full time inhabitants of interlocking corporate toy, book and multimedia universes presided over by avatars named Elmo, Barney, Raffi, Biscuit the Dog, Bunny-as-in-Pat-the-Bunny, something called Yo Gabba Gabba with its cast of nicey-nice creatures, and scores more.

It is a strange place to find yourself at age 65, patronized, plied with false cheer, congratulated for hitting a touch screen on cue and invited to believe in a world of good faith, good will, and innocent fun where there is no evil, only misunderstanding, and there's plenty of everything to go around, all sung in major keys and painted in primary colors.

It is cloying beyond description, and some of it is really creepy. Barney, for one, should be arrested and his cadre of zombie children set free as soon as their souls have been located.

Disney has turned Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck into a pair of plastic goodie-two-shoes. I sometimes troll YouTube for the old cartoons from the 30s and 40s. My favorite is Moving Day in which Donald and Mickey can't pay the rent and get evicted by a burly sheriff who bitch-slaps Donald. A close second is Orphans Picnic, which Donald and Mickey go to the park with a truckload of unruly foundlings, all clad in identical smocks and caps like little prison inmates.

I suppose I understand why Disney takes a different approach these days. But still, I know we could make things more real for little people, and now and then I run across evidence that smart people are trying. The other day I found episodes of a UK show called Mr. Maker. Each is a workshop on how to use ordinary household materials to do art projects. In the one I watched, Mr. Maker used a paper cup, a powder puff, glue stick and some construction paper to make a funny dog nose with a floppy tongue in one minute flat. That's a useful skill; we might do that ourselves sometime.

Actually, though, Baby E prefers the colorful drivel, which drives out or covers up the better stuff just like processed cheese and flavored sugar water would run off the vegetables and natural fruit juice if we handed her the keys to the refrigerator. It seems we condition little kids to believe that the world is a sweet, friendly, easygoing place where everyone is respected and treated fairly, because we can tell they love hearing it.

Why wouldn't they? We'd like to believe it ourselves. We know in our hearts that our toddlers aren't the sweetie pies they'd like us to think they are. Every one of them carries the full package of human malignancy that makes the world that's really waiting for them a far cry from Sesame Street.

But then we look in their adorable little faces, our hearts melt, and we can't help wanting to pretend that this bunch will be different and if we just keep replaying Elmo's song it might make it so.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Paperback Derider

Got a Kindle as a retirement gift. It was a perfect gift by my definition, something I'd have never gotten for myself but discovered I liked a lot when it was handed to me.

It was the novelty of it that I thought I was enjoying. Turning "pages" by flicking a button. Shopping, buying and reading books on the same device. True, they were imitation books, but still books, and cheaper! It all seemed like good fun.

Then my friend Doreen touted the Song of Ice and Fire series to me. Fantasy isn't a genre I've cared much about, at least not since the Lord of the Rings. But I downloaded A Game of Thrones, and the dungeons and dragons gradually overcame my reservations.

Meanwhile, Doreen was touting the series to Pam, who ordered the whole four-book series in paperback from Amazon. So when I was done with Thrones and ready for A Clash of Kings, I picked up the 2-inch-thick volume to resume my escapism.

It may be the last time I turn to a printed book for recreational reading pleasure, because for me it's no longer pleasure at all. You have to fight a thick paperbound stack of pages constantly for access to the words on them.

It starts the moment you pick the thing up. It's heavy, and you need to keep changing hands with it or your thumb goes to sleep. Keeping it open to your page is a test of manual dexterity. Keeping it open wide enough so you can see the words down the middle is really a two-hand task, and even then you need to keep changing its orientation to the light depending on whether you're trying to see the right hand page or the left. The miserable shadow gutter down the middle is always lurking.

If you're reading late in bed, you have to annoy your sleeping partner with a nightstand lamp. (Whereas my e-reader cover came with a little nite lite.) If your hand or wrist does go to sleep and you drop the book, it loses your place. An e-reader never forgets.

I'm amazed at how short a time it took this technology to deface and destroy my lifelong taste for book fondling. I never gave a second thought to the petty nuisances associated with consuming pulp fiction. Suddenly they're unacceptable.

It reminds me a lot of the time 15 or 20 years ago when power windows in cars became ubiquitous. When they first appeared, they seemed like a frill for people who had more money than they knew what to do with. But after I owned my first set of hands-free windows, I remember getting into a car with the old winder-uppers and wondering who could live like this.

It's a sad admission for somebody who spent his life working in an arm of the publishing industry, but I'm spoiled for print. I know there are those of you out there who say, "I just like the way it feels to hold a book while I'm reading." My response to that is, what are you smoking?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

PrĂȘt a Reporter

This sweet looking guy is Bill Cunningham of the New York Times. We spotted him last Saturday on 57th Street on our way to the park with Baby E, not the first time I've seen him around town by any means, but never before when I was on foot and had a camera handy.

Way in the background you can see a tiny figure, roughly third from right, hurrying away in a camel colored coat. Cunningham had caught our attention as we passed him farther down the street, when he interrupted an earlier conversation to say, "Oh, that guy looks sharp, I've got to get him." He scurried into position and raised his camera to snap the camel-clad man.

Sure enough, the dapper fellow appeared a couple of days later in a slide show on Cunningham's what-they're-wearing blog, the topic of which was "tailored men's topcoats." His theme was that guys, or at least the ones who were catching his practiced eye, were abandoning scruffier habits of dress in favor of more "serious", i.e. more structured and stylish, outerwear.

I don't follow fashion news, and I don't even read Cunningham's interesting pieces unless Pam or my daughter Laurel call my attention to it for some reason. But I deeply respect Cunningham for the way he covers his beat, which I'd describe as ordinary people who array themselves for daily life with originality and flare.

He wanders the streets in his own conspicuously style-free garb on his elderly bicycle and looks for these folks and the clothes and accessories that seem to be catching on with them -- hats, bright scarves, leopard skin thises and thats, skirts pleated, biased, longer or shorter than the mainstream is favoring, whatever.

His readers may not follow the trends he spots, but they follow him with fascination. He's influential enough to be interesting to the fashion market, but he holds himself rigorously away from any effort to direct his interest toward a designer, brand or store. At shows, he won't accept so much as a glass of water, let alone any of the favors or goodie bags that are ubiquitous at such events.

From the feature stories about him that appear from time to time, I have the sense that he is highly skilled but unfailingly modest, and that he believes so strongly in the importance and human interest of what he does that he has turned over virtually his entire life to it.

You don't have to share the view that what people are wearing matters very much to feel moved to salute the commitment and integrity he brings to a craft that polls always seem to show is held in generally low regard by news consumers. He smiled cheerfully and nodded when he saw me taking his picture. Alas, he didn't take mine.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Call Me Crazy

I was startled to read this week in the New York Times that psychotherapy is a "now-largely-discredited discipline." The reference was casual and matter-of-fact, as if the description were well settled fact. It appeared in an op-ed piece under the byline of a Gary Greenberg, identified in the author footnote as a psychotherapist himself.

I was startled because my spouse has been training and studying hard for several years to join those "largely-discredited" ranks. I visited a psychotherapist myself for a couple of years on her strong recommendation, and we have talked a lot about her chosen field.

I'm aware that psychotherapy has struggled all its life to establish itself as a science-based treatment. I also know that all forms of "talk therapy" for mental disorders are compared unfavorably in some circles to treatment with psychoactive medications.

But I can't remember hearing or reading anything like a categorical statement that psychotherapy, which at least still has enough cultural currency to be lampooned frequently in New Yorker cartoons, is a dead letter among people who really know the score.

This seemed like quite a headline to me, but it wasn't even Greenberg's topic, just a swipe he took in passing. His real subject was the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as the DSM, a catalogue of the known ailments that plague the human mind and spirit.

Greenberg writes that despite its efforts to present psychic suffering with the medical "rhetoric" used to describe physical diseases that have objective, observable symptoms, the DSM disclaims in its introduction any "assumption that each category of mental disorder is a discrete entity with absolute boundaries dividing it from other mental disorders or no mental disorder."

That sounds very close to an admission that therapists diagnose and treat mental suffering without knowing for sure what they're talking about.

This is not the same as saying that psychotherapists, especially talented or experienced ones, can't help their patients understand and reduce their suffering. But it does seem to mean that practitioners and students don't have a satisfactory common language for the massive amount of information they exchange about their cases and therefore tend to evolve approaches to their work that are highly individual, improvisational and idiosyncratic.

Some of those approaches must certainly be effective with some patients. If I understand correctly, they all trace their origins to the work of Freud, an authentic and acknowledged ubergenius, and the practice of psychotherapy has survived more than a century. Reports abound of cases in which seemingly hopeless psychotics were restored to sanity and went on to raise families, succeed in business and write life-affirming memoirs.

In my limited exposure to such material, however, it does seem that many of those reports are about the same handful of cases. That hints at what I think is a problem for psychotherapy more serious than the uncertainty reflected in the DSM over defining what its practitioners are trying to do or determining how good they are at it. The treatment of an individual patient goes on for years, sometimes indefinitely. So the number of cases that can be handled by any given number of therapists is necessarily limited.

The number of patients is self-limiting too. A patient typically takes to the couch two or three times a week, maybe more. The sessions are expensive and insurance may cover only part of the cost. Patients who work must take time away from their jobs for the sessions plus travel to and from. The number of individuals who can put all this together can't be more than a fraction of those who need help, and my sense is that those relative few are either fairly well-to-do or eligible for subsidies.

And this thin sample of DSM disorders becomes truly rarefied when we're talking about those poster children who achieve miracle cures of their severe psychosis. For them the planets must line up in spectacular fashion. The patient must come from a family with resources to commit him or her to an important institution. The case must draw the attention of a gifted practitioner, who gradually becomes heavily invested in, maybe even obsessed with the case. Both therapist and patient must be compatible in ways that allow them to develop a deep bond. They must both have the stamina to find and stay the therapeutic course that finally gives them victory.

Discredited or not, psychotherapy doesn't sound like a solution for the psychic ills of the 99 percent in the  21st Century.