Friday, October 2, 2015

We Blew It- Guns, Violence, and America

One movie I enjoyed a great deal from my youth was “Easy Rider” by Peter Fonda. Two guys go out in search of Freedom, connection, and a better understanding of their own country and people.

In the end, they realize they have been nothing but a pair of selfish drug dealers, and they missed the whole point all along.

“We blew it",  Peter Fonda’s Captain America says to his riding partner Dennis Hopper.

They thought the problem was with America, or “society” or whatever convenient “them” we all use to rail against in these moments of righteousness.

But in the end, it was them. THEY blew it. 

And in America. It was us.

We blew it.

Yesterday in Oregon was the 297th mass shooting in America this year. That’s more than one a day. 

And what happens? The same stupid head shaking.  The same stupid speeches by presidents and congressmen and politicians, whose speeches do nothing, say nothing, mean nothing.

We can’t have an intelligent dialogue anymore. We have two sides that have lost the ability to listen, to compromise, to reason. We’ve lost the ability to solve our own problems. We’re too invested in being right. All of us. For some taking guns is the most obvious solution in the world. And for every one of those there’s probably someone on the “From my cold dead hands crowd” on the other side. Watch these people talk on Facebook. They usually can’t even get past a couple sentences before their conversation devolves into personal attacks, name-calling, and disrespect.  

We blew it. 

But let me back up a second.

In the early 90’s, I myself was a young community college student in the sate of Oregon. I’d dropped out of school once already. I was pretty good at chugging beer and playing Nintendo, but otherwise didn’t have much of a clue as to what I wanted to do with my life.

I did like being in school though. It gave me a chance to begin to answer that question. Sometimes it takes a while.

Yesterday ten people who were probably at a similar stage of their lives got up in the morning, stuffed some books in a backpack, and went to school to try and figure it all out. 

They had no idea it would be the last day of their lives.

Why would they know that?

I think back and wonder if that could have been me. I would have never eventually grown up, traveled the world, and become a psychologist, an occupation that has allowed me to influence thousands of lives. My family would have been heartbotken, and who knows how this heartbreak may have influenced their lives.

Yesterday all that potential died in those ten students. The world will never know what they might have become, who they might have fallen in love with, or how they may have changed the world.

I’m not going to go into all the arguments about gun control, mental health, and the 2nd amendment here. What’s the point really?

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

I do want to make one point about the way we talk about school shooters. To do so I’ll use the chilling words of yesterday’s shooter.

I have noticed that so many people like [Flanagan] (SC shooter) are alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems like the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.

For one day, because we make these guys celebrities in their deaths, they go from being ineffectual nothings to a Kardashian all of a sudden.

It’s enough to make them shoot innocent people who wanted nothing but to go to school for the day.

Again and again and again.

When the drive for 15 minutes of false and fleeting fame has reached that level of absurdity, then we have reached the point of insanity.

And we all know the definition of insanity, right?

Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

In the meantime, I’ve settled in to my new life in New Zealand. In my heart of hearts, I’d rather live in America, the place where I was born, shaped, and raised into the person I am today. It’s the only home I’ve ever known.

But I can’t live in an insane place anymore. It’s not getting any better.

We blew it.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Steer into the skid

The other day my boss called me into the office and said the words that have been at the beginning of nearly every bad conversation I've ever had in my life.

"Joe we need to talk."

Nobody needs to talk.

"The thing is," he went on. "I've been going over your numbers and feedback ratings from clients, and, well-"

(Bracing for impact)

"The thing is they are outstanding. Like, top of the class outstanding. Really strong positive feedback. So what I wanted to ask was, what's your secret?"

Come again??

After clarifying I wasn't about to be written up or anything, I thought about the question.

"Okay, Here is MY answer as to how to be a good psychologist. By Joe Guse, equire. Ready?"


"Spend like 20 years screwing up every aspect of your life. Rack up some bad credit while you're at it. Burn a few bridges. Let them burn! Let good women exit your life without a word. There will always be more! Neglect your health. Drink too much. Don't exercise. And one day you'll wake up and realize that everything a client comes in with may be something you know something about, because you've screwed up just as bad."

Boss- "Jesus, Joe I wasn't looking for a real answer."

BUT. There is some evidence that I may be on to something. Jung said, "It is only the wounded healer who can heal."

I've certainly put that idea to the test.

Also though, I do have some cool handouts. Here is one of them. 

Change, Accept, or Let Go
Which brings us to the title of this essay.

Steer into the skid. Advice I got form my driver's ed teacher many years ago. If you're going to wreck,  don't try and radically overcorrect the wheel. You'll make things worse.

Steer into the skid. 

There's a psychological lesson in here as well. Much of what goes wrong in our lives has to do with avoiding things as opposed to confronting them. And boy do we get good at deceiving ourselves about these things. "I'll start exercising one of these days." "Someday soon I'll talk to my boss." "I'll work up the courage to tell her how I feel."

Which brings us back to the handout.

Change accept or let go. Where we often go wrong is in thinking about things over and over without trying to change them and without being able to let them go. That's called rumination, and it's at the root of a number of psychological problems.

It particularly loves to show up right before we're trying to go to sleep. Or 3 in the morning sometimes.

One tool I've found very helpful is a simple whiteboard. Start by writing one thing down that may help you get closer to solving your problem. Keep adding to your list as you get more confident. It feels good to start checking off those items.

As for me, I'm the proud owner of both a moped and a motorcycle.

I have plenty of skids in front of me. Both on the road and in my life. Lessons are repeated until they are ingrained. Then we forget them again. 
Sometimes we have to learn these things all over again. 

Even us "experts."

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Equanimity- (And how my mother nearly failed me in the 4th grade)

(Latin: æquanimitas having an even mind; aequus even animus mind/soul) is a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind.

Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically.

"Perhaps," the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "What great luck!" the neighbors exclaimed.

"Perhaps," replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

"Perhaps," answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

"Perhaps," said the farmer...

It’s Monday, and today I’m reminded that on Mondays in the 4th grade, we would often learn a new vocabulary word.

Why am I telling you this?

Because my mother was my 4th grade teacher. And do you know what still exists on my permanent record? Two “I’s”. In the 4th grade circa 1980 in America that meant “incomplete.” Meaning, you didn’t quite grasp the lesson kid. Thanks for playing.

I still get a little red thinking about that.

Do you know what I’m not demonstrating when I get a little red? Equanimity. Which is today’s vocabulary word.

It’s a fabulous word really, and many of the world’s major religions have drawn on the definition as a part of their teachings. The Hindus talked about it as a detachment from the ego and a kind of pure awareness about the nature of reality. The Buddhist saw it as an inherent understanding of the transitory nature of reality. 

But that’s a little lofty for our purposes. What does it mean for the average Joe? (You see what I did there?) 

Let’s start with the idea that emotions are transitory. Everyone can probably buy that. At least in principle. But when we’re in the middle of an emotion this doesn’t make any sense at all. Our little feedback system tells us, “I’ve been hurt” or “I’ve been wronged” and then acts accordingly. All of us have a little justice system in our head where we are the supreme ruler, and if we feel we have been treated unfairly, then this must be true.

The ruler has spoken.

When we can take a step back however, we sometimes realize that things aren’t always so black and white. Often it’s pure flattery when we suppose someone has done something specifically to upset us. The truth is people rarely even think about us. Remember this adage and reflect on it. People aren’t against you, they’re for themselves.
Let’s repeat that. People aren’t against you, they’re for themselves. They are acting in accordance with THEIR little ruler. Sometimes this person will be your partner, or your boss, or a friend, and their needs are going to run contrary to yours.

If you have any interactions with other people in your life, this is going to happen to you, I promise.

Which is where the concept of equanimity comes in. It’s about cultivating the idea in our lives that emotions will pass. Always. In every case. Every time.

They will pass. In the meantime we can take an even longer view that we don’t know how our story ends, and we certainly don’t know what each interaction and emotional high or low is trying to teach us. We don’t get to know that in the moment. It’s only later when we get to see how all of the jigsaw pieces actually fit. In the meantime we can begin to try and cultivate this awareness with regard to our emotions as best we can. We’re never going to be perfect at this. But we can try. The first step in any change is awareness. After that it’s putting this awareness into action.

As for me? I’m seeing my mother in one week for what I hope will be a great week in San Francisco. I’ve been excited about it for a long time. So much so that I’m missing some moments of awareness in my everyday life that I should be paying attention to. So, I’ll stop, breathe, and see my clients today and try and stay in the moment. I’ll celebrate the San Francisco moment when that comes, but today is the only today I’ll ever have.

Will be nice to see my mom though.

And who knows, maybe I can even still get that grade changed.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

You ain't ever gonna burn my heart out

Step outside, summertime's in bloom
Stand up beside the fireplace
Take that look from off your face
You ain't ever gonna burn my heart out

Don’t look back in anger- Oasis

Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.

Carl Jung

I was recently approached by a certain media organization and asked about writing an advice column regarding relationships and dating.

I told them they must have called the wrong number.

But let me back up a few weeks.

I was recently in Sydney Australia for a few days and had the time of my life. On my last night I found one of those sing-a-long bars in the city and saddled up. I love sing-a-long bars, (truthfully I treat most bars like this). The singer played the song “Don’t look back in anger’” that I have quoted in the title. 100 drunken Aussies immediately began singing along. Not me though. Although I was a DJ for years, my Amerocentric self didn’t know all the words, so I did that thing where you just pretend to join in on the chorus. One line jumped out at me though.

You ain’t ever gonna burn my heart out.

Such a great line, and as somebody CONTEMPLATING writing a column about relationships, I gave it a little thought.  Broken hearts are probably the most common problem people come in for in my work as a psychologist, and I considered the line in that context. I think we all tend to go into a bit of an emotional spiral at the end of a relationship, and ask ourselves the same kinds of questions. Why couldn’t I make it work? Is there something wrong with me? Will I ever find love again? Do I even WANT to find love again?

This shit can make us all a bit of a neurotic mess. I know from experience.

And not just therapist experience.

I think what happens in those moments is we lose our sense of hope. We invested so much time and energy into a person, and then somehow it all went bad. In the worst of these moments we think, how could someone do that to me? Why is this happening to me? I gave you everything and you threw it away!!

These are normal responses, but not, I think the entire picture.

Over the years as a therapist, (and a failed dater), I’ve cobbled together some things to think about when we are experiencing one of these moments.

1   1. ‘We accept the love we think we deserve.’ This idea (as quoted in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower) has been around for a while. If we have a low opinion of ourselves then we are likely drifting towards relationships that confirm this opinion.

2   2. ‘We train people how to treat us by what we allow, what we stop, and what we reinforce.’ Again, not a new idea, but a very important one. Did your partner make you feel bad about yourself? Make negative comments about your appearance? Say insulting things about your friends and family? If so it is up to YOU to draw the line in the sand about what you feel is appropriate. If you sit passively by you won’t change anything.

3   3. ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.’ Taken from Buddhist thought, and suggestive of the idea that things come into our lives when we are ready for them. Have we recognized our own patterns of self-sabotage? How our own insecurities contribute to jealousy, tensions, and communication patterns? If we haven’t, then the end of a relationship gives us a chance to think about these things and work on them.

And maybe someone HAS tried to burn our heart out over the course of a relationship. If so, we have to take at least some responsibility for bringing that person into our lives in the first place. But even if we have been mistreated, why should the story end with you feeling sad and miserable? Take this time to better yourself. Pick something you want to improve and work on it. Maybe it’s your physical health, or some hobby you have been dying to try, or a place you want to travel.

Your story doesn’t end with a breakup. It might seem like it at the time, but every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

And no, that line doesn’t come from the song “Closing Time”.  It was written thousands of years ago by Seneca.

Even ancient Romans got the relationship blues. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

And those who were seen dancing

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Some days as a therapist, the world stops to listen carefully. Your advice is welcomed as well thought out and life affirming, and patient after patient informs you how much they appreciate your time, wisdom, and advice.

Today was not one of those days.

Some days you’re the pigeon, some days you’re the statute.

Today I’m covered in birdshit.

I’ll live. On the whole there are more good days than bad.

But it was something that happened after work that provided perhaps my best educational moment today.

It was a woman dancing. Just dancing. There was a little man playing a ukulele on the street, and she had stopped to dance. Wildly dance. Inappropriately dance. It was the middle of the afternoon and everyone else was simply going about their business. Not her though. She had something inside of her she wanted to express, and nothing was going to stop her. Some gave her dirty looks. Others rolled their eyes.

It was then I thought of Friedrich Nietzsche and the quote at the beginning this essay.

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”

It perfectly summed up the moment. Everyone (including me) seemed busy and irritated except her. How dare someone dance in the middle of the day?

I stopped to join her.

As the little man took a break from his Ukelele, the woman decided to take a break as well. It was just as well, I may have been cramping her style a little.

But I did get a chance to talk to her. She was a Maori woman born and raised in Auckland who had seen a lot. Abuse, poverty, alcoholism, and all kinds of suffering and loss. But still she danced. She danced because there was nothing left to do BUT dance. What else could life throw at her? (her words). Yet still she could hear the music while a lot of the rest of us apparently couldn’t.

Of the 100 or so people I saw in that little square that day, she was the only one who stopped and danced. Joyfully. Mindfully. In the moment.

While the rest of us hurried about…

It was a good lesson for me actually. Good, bad, sorrow, suffering, comedy, and tragedy. If we’ve lived at all in this life we’ve probably seen a little bit of all of them.

If we’re still drawing breath however, we still have a choice if we’re going to stop and listen to the music.

So tonight I’ll go home, dust myself off, have a glass of wine, and prepare to do it all over again. A little wiser from having watched a woman dance in the middle of the afternoon. At 7 A.M I’ll get up, hit snooze a couple of times, and get up. There’s a lot more life to live.

Tomorrow I'm gonna remember to listen to the music. 


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A tribute to Bernie Dekker

Picture this.

A man dusts off the old “which way to the beach?” line in a bar. Except there’s no pretty girl. Or muscles.

Those are the circumstances I first met Bernie Dekker. I was new to New Zealand fresh off the boat from America. He welcomed me into the bar with open arms, got me a beer, and made me a pizza.

I never did make it to the beach that day.

But I did stay up pretty late talking to Bernie and his wife Stephanie that night. They told me all about their lives, how they came to open The Wines (Bernie’s lifelong dream) and their travels to America. He showed me some videos of his motorcycle trips to the south island. He had his bar, his wife, and his harley.

He was the picture of a happy man.

Over the next couple of months I returned to The Wines more than once. Often Bernie and I would stay up late into the night talking about different things. I really came to value his advice, his friendship, and his stories about the open road. It was a great introduction to New Zealand for me. As a new guy here I didn’t know many people, and he always introduced me around whenever he got the chance. Not a lot of people would have cared. But he did. He even let me stay in his home after being “overserved” a time or two.

I based my first impressions of the people of New Zealand at least in part on my time with Bernie and Stephanie. I figured if the people were all as nice as this, then maybe I’d come to the right place.

Eventually I left my first New Zealand home in Palmerston North, but I’ll never, ever forget these wonderful people who took in a stranger, showed him around, and welcomed him.

Malcolm Forbes said, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” That was the kind of guy Bernie was. The kind that would give a total stranger the shirt off his back. When I walked in The Wines the first time I was a lost, scared, lonely dude completely out of his element.

An hour later I was one of the guys.

That was the guy of guy Bernie was. The kind that made everyone feel like one of the guys.

If I can draw these conclusions from only a few meetings with Bernie, I can’t imagine the stories those that have known him his whole life must have to tell about him. My guess is they’ll ripple on for a long time though.

So sorry to hear you’re gone Bernie. I’ll always remember you as someone who made a weary and wary traveler completely at home.

It really mattered to me.

You were one of the good guys…

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Tripping Billies

So why would you care
to get out of this place?
You and me and all our friends
such a happy human race

Eat, drink and be merry
for tomorrow we die

Dave Mathews Band-Tripping Billies

That it was everything. It was my life - like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.

How wild it was, to let it be.

Cheryl Strayed- Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Sometimes I go back and reread these little essays and think, Jesus man lighten up a little. I hope this one is a little more fun. It certainly was for me to live it.

But to back up a second. Let’s talk a little bit about Dave Mathews. I met him back in 99’. He came and played at a bar I was managing on St. Patrick’s Day. He was a cool guy and it was great fun. But I was never really THAT kind of fan. The dude that has all the bootlegs and spins in a circle during the 8 minute guitar solos.

Still though, it was the 90’s and they were on the top of their game. I particularly came to love “Tripping Billies” after I heard a story about the origins of the song. According to the version I heard, Dave and some friends were on a beach and he took some hallucinogens for the first time. That night he had one of those rare transcendental moments you hope will never end after hanging out the whole night on the beach by the campfire with his friends. It sounded like such fun. Tripping Billies.

I’ve had some of those kinds of moments myself. Big roaring fire. Great friends. Some dude in a ponytail playing a guitar, (there’s always a dude in a ponytail with a guitar.) Lots of beer. Lots of fun. They were in fact some of the best memories of my life when I was a young guy in my 20’s working in five different national parks. When I thought of those great times I called them my “tripping billie” days. I never forgot them.

Sadly, it’s been a long time since I’ve had one of those moments. I always wanted to have another one though. Dozens of them if I could actually. Sure I can’t party like I used to, and a big night out has its consequences. Still though, I used to spend whole summers like that.

Sometimes you just don’t realize the most significant moments of your life while they’re happening…

And yet, sometimes, if you keep yourself open to the signal, the universe spins its way back to you again.

This weekend I had one of those moments on the wild west coast of New Zealand. It’s just 45 minutes out of the big city, but it might as well be the other side of the world. Crazy big waves, and massive rocks, and weird surfers who look like the bad guys in the movie Point Break. It’s pretty awesome.

So after closing the little bar down the other day, I just wandered out to the beach and laid there for a while. It was a full moon and the stars were out and my mind was buzzing.

And then, just over the horizon, I heard something. Something like a guitar. I wondered for a second if I was time traveling. Or hallucinating.

But no. It was a guitar. And more than that it was someone playing the Grateful Dead, (is there any better campfire music?) I followed my ears until I found the sound. I instinctively looked around for the familiar ponytail. There it was! There was also a bunch of people in tie-dyes and assorted hippie garb sitting around the fire singing along. At last I had found them again.

The tripping billies!!!

What was a chubby guy in a polo shirt to do? I didn’t exactly look the part, but then again, I never really have. I’ve had a checkered career after dark to say the least, but miraculously never have gotten a tattoo or owned a shirt with Bob Marley or Che Guevara on it. I’ve just kind of let my depravity speak for itself..

So I wandered in, singing the words to “Sugar Magnolia” as I did. Two things bring back memories like nothing else, the things you smell, and the music that you hear. I smelled campfire, (and some other things, use your imagination), and heard the familiar sounds of the Grateful Dead.

I quickly found some people to talk to. One particularly inspired guy in dreadlocks was delivering a monologue.

“What if man, like this was the edge of the universe, and we’re just, like right now, pushing against it, making it bigger and more spiritual all the time?”

I had a few logical answers to that query, but in that moment, I forgot all about logic.

“Right on man” was the appropriate answer, and it was the one that I gave him.

So we sat and listened to music and had some great laughs until the sun came up. It wasn’t just like old times. These were new times. And they were fantastic.

Maybe I WAS pushing the outer edge of my universe a little bit.

I did get the ponytail guy to play an old song for me though.

It went-

So why would you care
to get out of this place?
You and me and all our friends
such a happy human race

 Cause we're tripping billies...