Keep Calm and Carry On

The picture at the top of the page is the Karpman Drama Triangle. You may have seen it if you’re familiar with transactional analysis.

I first saw it in training for a job working with adjudicated youth. At first, I didn’t think anything so simple could be very useful. But a hammer is a simple tool, and so is a scalpel, and over time this triangle and the wisdom behind it became very useful for framing group interactions and helping to resolve conflicts within our counseling groups.

Recently I thought this might be a good time to retrieve this tool from the shelf and dust it off. Used properly it enhances our ability to keep calm and carry on amid the sound and fury of  our times. Never in my life did I imagine that the word “victim” could appear as many times in as many headlines and conversations as it has over the last year.

Let’s be honest now. When the word “victim” first appeared, you immediately shifted toward your default political opinion on this fiercely prosecuted but somewhat loosely defined word. Me too. We are conditioned for this response. But you can relax. The drama triangle is not a commentary on real life victims of malevolence or how we choose to support them. It is a tool for understanding how we subconsciously relate to each other as we play out these roles on the triangle, moving from one to the other, sometimes in a single conversation.

Persecutor, rescuer and victim are archetypes of human experience. We play all of these roles, but we usually stand more often on a particular corner of the triangle based on our early experiences growing up. Sometimes a traumatic experience can leave us stuck on one of those corners for the balance of a lifetime until and unless some internal notion or external force causes us to shift. The goal for anyone who uses the drama triangle – is to get off the triangle.

Habitual persecutors are bullies, and many of these were once victims themselves. Rescuers are the classic co-dependents whose self-esteem is tied to helping (or controlling) someone else.  Victims do not know how, or they have chosen not to be accountable for the choices they make.

The positions just described are our “go to” positions when we engage in drama, but day to day and moment to moment, we can play all the roles on the drama triangle. Here’s a classic example:  Junior comes home from school, drops his books on the sofa and proceeds to head out the door. Dad gets angry and tells him to do his homework first. He persecutes Junior by yelling at him, and Junior plays the victim. Mom attempts to rescue Junior by telling Dad that the boy has been at school all day and needs a break. Junior gets mad at Mom and yells at her to say that this is between him and Dad. Junior is now the persecutor and Mom is the victim. Dad intervenes to rescue Mom, telling Junior that he shouldn’t speak to his mother like that.

When you’re working with angry and dysfunctional people it’s easy to get “hooked” into playing one of the three roles, and so discussions turn into arguments and arguments into fights.  During group sessions  with the kids if we realized that one of our co-counselors was losing objectivity, we had a hand signal like a fishhook to let each other know to take a step back. It helped avoid much frustration and made us more effective in dealing with conflict.

On the larger stage, communication technology has become pervasive, but running counter to its many benefits is the ability now for the whole country, or at least the media consuming part of it, to all be on the drama triangle at the same time. Think of the many ways this plays out in media, as one political party or another strikes out in anger to rescue a diversity of victims. If we’re positioned as victims of the right, or we want to rescue their victims, we attack the right, thus becoming persecutors. If we stand as victims of the left, we do exactly the same.

Another word we see frequently in the news is “protest.” Let’s consider the phenomenon independent of whatever merit or sincerely held belief may be behind it. Protests, especially the ones that take place in the light of  television cameras, when we view them from the perspective of the drama triangle, are often occupied by victims and rescuers who can quickly become persecutors, especially when the counterprotestors appear. Social media is crowded with protesters  who persecute other people verbally because, if we give them the benefit of the doubt, they think they are rescuing someone else. Some are just bullies, and there are scores of victims.

No matter what our political beliefs are, using this simple tool can provide a better chance of communicating with someone who believes differently. It gives us an effective way of framing things that helps avoid unnecessary anger when we realize that we’ve been hooked.

If we’re honest with ourselves, the Karpman triangle can also help us to discover whether a strongly held opinion is something we truly wish to keep, or just a temporary role we’re playing.  It works because in pausing to think about the three archetypes, we are holding up a mirror to reflect our current state of mind. Sometimes all we need to change our minds is a different point of view.

It would be difficult for the nation to “get off the triangle.” Drama causes us to consume media. Billions of dollars in revenue and our entire political system depends on us staying hooked, moving endlessly through our roles.

Cheap and Effective or Toxic and Ugly?


This week we’re going to give you something to think about besides politics, though for some, this issue, like all issues, can be political. This problem will be with us long after whatever media circus currently occupies our pixelated collective consciousness.

Seth McLamb is a young father, an outdoorsman and an engineer with a background in environmental studies. His generation will discover to what extent we have erred in soaking our environment with persistent chemicals, and his concern in this letter is the widespread use of herbicides along roadsides and rights of way. As if to add further credence to his concerns, a very recent study found that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is contributing to the demise of the honeybee.

“I am writing to address the recent spraying of herbicides on roadsides by the NCDOT and power line right-of-ways by the BRMEMC. I have degrees in Environmental Sciences and Mechanical Engineering from NC universities. In the “Answer Man” column in the August 15 edition of the Asheville Citizen Times, the NCDOT’s Division 14 Engineer was quoted defending the practice of spraying roadsides as part of an “integrated vegetation management plan.” Driving along roads in Tusquittee and Fires Creek it appears that spraying has been the only part of that plan to be implemented. Dead vegetation hangs limp along the roadsides making it very difficult to enjoy the natural beauty of our area. Highway 64 going over Chunky Gal Mountain is the same.

“Considering that one of the primary reasons that people (and their money) visit Clay County is to take in the breathtaking views and experience our piece of untouched wilderness, leaving swaths of dead and dying vegetation along every roadside in the county fails to nurture the natural beauty of the mountains that we live in and makes for poor long term economic planning. Within the overarching scheme of negative economic impacts, we can consider lower property values, fewer jobs (e.g. NCDOT and BRMEMC clearing crews), reduced vacation rental revenues, lost restaurant sales, and decreased boutique shop incomes as very real potential outcomes. Many of the people who choose to vacation in Clay County come here on recommendation from friends or family members who have already visited our beautiful county and some of those folks end up buying a home here, extending their economic contributions indefinitely. Spraying herbicides along roadways and powerline right-of-ways will make this season’s visitors less likely to return next year and also less likely to recommend our county to a friend. Not to mention the poorly studied long term environmental impacts of the chemicals being sprayed along many miles of roads and power lines in western NC and north GA. The current practice of calling chemicals “safe” until proven otherwise is misguided and dangerous.

“I urge the residents of Clay County to contact the NCDOT Highway Division 14 office and the BRMEMC to voice your concerns about the widespread spraying of herbicides in our county and the impact it will have on your livelihood and your quality of life. The beauty of our county is our number one resource and we should not settle for vegetation management practices that detract from Clay County’s appeal to visitors and residents alike.”

Seth W. McLamb


Falling Leaves, Gathering Memories

Spring cleanup on the farm is a fine thing, full of energy and anticipation, but I prefer the fall, mellowed by reflection and slowed by caution for that undiscovered yellow jacket nest and the snake looking for a place to soak up the morning sun. Autumn cleanup is subject to the welcome interruption of having to stand perfectly still while the wind catches falling leaves, plays with them like a cat with a string and discards them just as abruptly.

Fall is a favorite book in a series. We read it more slowly and savor it because we don’t want the story to end. Some passages we read over and over until they are committed to memory: Coffee on the front porch on a crisp morning; crunching leaves under deep blue skies in crystalline air;  stars, more visible at night, and unlike the winter skies, you can enjoy the view without shivering.

September ripens and Joe Pye, jewel weed and iron weed are slowly replaced by goldenrod and aster. We pause to watch hummingbirds jousting around the feeder as they tank up for their long journey south. We don’t want them to leave, but the nights grow colder, the flowers fade, and one day soon our valiant little friends will hover one last time by the window as if to say, “Thank you,” and “See you next year.”

Fall cleanup this year began with a neglected little corner of the farm which had collected brambles and dead branches, a half wild area at the bottom of our driveway with cherry trees, sumac and locust. Memories gathered there also.

It was there long ago that my dad an I setup a bee yard. He said that the hives would catch the morning sun there, and the bees would discourage curiosity seekers from entering the barn just beyond. In his later years he would bring a chair and sit near the entrance to the hives to watch the bees coming and going. He could gauge the health of the hive by the traffic, and determine what plants they were working by the color of the pollen on their hind legs.

Dad and I had many conversations in that bee yard. Some pieces of land just seem to be conducive to conversation. Under a big maple tree at the edge of that space Dad would visit with his friend, Jack Dayton, our long time county commissioner, when Jack was in the valley. In the late afternoon the cool breeze from the mountain would flow down an old woods road, through the mountain laurel and under the tree where the two old friends met to revisit their younger days.

Years ago when the road bank at the edge of this plot was bare, I would occasionally find an arrowhead after a rain. Finding an arrowhead gives one pause, especially in the fall, when the signs of change and decay are inexorable. Thousands of years ago someone spent hours to fashion a tool to feed a family, most likely with no thought at all that someday far into the future his creation would be someone’s curiosity or trinket.

What, if anything, will remain of our creations of plastic and particle board, even 20 years from now? Every year there is less of the Americana of the southern Appalachians. The old houses and barns, personal creations of oak and chestnut and heart pine, more durable than what we build today, sink slowly to the ground to disappear forever.

I’ve been asked on occasion why “you people” don’t clear away your crumbling old barns and buildings. The simplest answer is that “it’s none of your business.” But if anyone really wants to know:  Old things hold memories. If we’re lucky enough to stay on the land, there comes a day when the calendar and the ache in the joints tells us that it isn’t prudent to climb a ladder to nail the tin back on the roof. We would pay someone to do it, but money is tight on a fixed income.

It doesn’t bother us much, though we sometimes long for the old days when the old barn was new. There is a kind of quiet dignity in decay. It is as natural as the falling leaves, and the old things that make way for and nourish the new. This will happen without any effort on our part to hurry it along.

Yes, old things and old places hold memories, and not every corner needs to be cleaned up right away, and not every piece of ground has to look like a golf course. The modern world wants everything to be neatly cropped and categorized, and so effective is our masking of the real with the virtual that we have forgotten that chaos and decay are as natural as the changing seasons.

Leaves fall; barns fall more slowly. Trees grow where there were once fields and the bulldozer of modern life turns the forest to field once again. Time turns the bulldozer to rust.

These thoughts all occurred in the time it took the sun to move beyond the limb that was shading me, and I had to smile, remembering my grandfather who would interrupt his morning routine to simply stand and look at the mountain. The old hive stands got cleared away, the brush was piled and the grass mowed. All traces of the old bee yard are gone now, but the memories remain.




The Intelligence Test


A useful definition of intelligence is the ability to adapt to and thrive in one’s environment. Multiple studies have shown that intelligence is declining worldwide. Multiple studies have also shown that humans are getting smarter.

The question of intelligence is a a good example of the challenge in finding truth in the age of information. If you’re not too concerned about truth, just pick a study that agrees with what you want to believe. On the subject of intelligence,  I’m undecided.

I do believe, however, that the researchers who decided humans are getting smarter never tried to assemble a metal building using the instructions provided in the box, and the humans who wrote and illustrated those instructions were not included in that study.

After some time, days, actually, the number of which I prefer not to mention, we are the proud parents of a fully assembled metal building. It is dry and secure and pleasing to the eye.  We put it together with no loss of life and very little loss of blood. We did it in spite of the instructions.

Thank goodness for those classes in logic and statistics I took in college. Who says you never use anything that you learn in school? Without those classes I might not be able to recognize a situation where two or more conditions are “mutually exclusive.” I’m thankful also for classical mechanics, which holds that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.

All of these concepts came into play during the assembly of our structure. First, the mutually exclusive. The framing square and the tape measure said that the building frame was on the square. The spirit level said the floor was level. The marketing company for the metal building said the parts were manufactured to strict tolerances. But the holes in the decking did not line up with the holes in the frame. Or they did, until they didn’t, and when they didn’t they were not even close. Somebody was lying, and I don’t think it was the framing square.

In physics, Pauli’s exclusion principle states that two electrons cannot occupy the same quantum state simultaneously. Classical mechanics and common sense teach us that if two vehicles try to occupy the same parking space at the same time, there will be a collision. The instructions said to put bolt X into hole Y, but I couldn’t do it. There already was a bolt in that hole, because three pages ago, the instruction manual most assuredly said to put a bolt there.

Perhaps what we needed for our metal building was an archaeologist rather than a physicist. An archaeologist can find a bone chip in a hole and somehow reconstruct a skeleton. They can translate dead languages, and from the faintest scratchings on stone, tell the history of a nation.

Our instruction manual did resemble hieroglyphics in places. The spidery illustrations were almost ephemeral, and ready to dissolve in a drop of perspiration. The grammar and sentence structure of the book did not match any language known to us. It reminded me of the classic tome, “English As She Is Spoke,” which is a Portuguese-English phrase book written by a man who did not speak English, using a French to English dictionary as a reference. “He burns one’s self the brains. You hear the bird’s gurgling? The field has by me a thousand charms!”

Yes, intelligence may in fact be the ability to adapt to one’s environment. At least, the longer you can stay in your environment, the better the chance that you might learn something. I didn’t have a set of reasonable instructions. The parts and the guide holes did not all adhere to Euclidean geometry. But I had a drill, and a set of high speed bits, and I improvised, adapted and overcame.  I didn’t walk away from that building feeling any smarter, but after several days of bending and twisting and lifting and drilling and squinting, and climbing and wrenching and cussing, I walked away feeling stronger.





The Value of Advice

Everyone has a right to an opinion, but nobody is entitled to one. Opinions are worthless unless formed by reason and informed by fact. A worthwhile opinion takes effort.

This is one of the reasons why we rarely give advice. Advice is usually an unwelcome visitor, and even when invited, it is expected to be an agreeable guest. People who ask for advice are usually hoping instead for validation.

Recently, however, someone did ask me for advice, and since it seemed a sincere request on a subject that was well researched, I decided to comply. The question was a very old one that has been researched for millennia but never fully answered. The question was, “How do I find my perfect mate?”

That’s not a direct quote, but it contains the essence of the actual question I heard, and I hope that you laughed as much when you  read it as I did when I heard it.

Nevertheless, the question has value, and I don’t mean the value of the profits made by online dating services that claim to be able to answer it.

Let’s get right to it, and we’ll begin by addressing the conventional wisdom of popular culture, which often conflates passion and codependency into a Top 40 simulacrum of “love.” These relationships have their value and all are worthwhile if only to spark the twinkle in an old man’s eye. Sometimes we need know our extremes to find our balance.

But popular culture offers little that is useful for finding that long term, self sustaining relationship.

We hear a lot about “chemistry” when we talk about relationships, and a chemical attraction is an important component. But chemistry also offers an excellent metaphor for the philosophically minded.

Chemical bonds are primarily of two types:  ionic and covalent. In an ionic bond, one side of the pair has a positive charge and the other a negative. One gains an electron and one loses. “Opposites attract,” says popular culture. “He completes me,” croons the singer. Think of salt when you think of ionic bonding. Salt is easily dissolved in water, and ionic bonding is the weakest of chemical bonds.

In a covalent bond, two neutral atoms begin to share electrons. The shared electrons form a new orbit that extends around the nuclei of both atoms, and a new molecule is produced. Carbon forms covalent bonds when a diamond is produced. “Like attracts like and repels unlike” says ancient wisdom.

In popular culture, perhaps only a Sheldon Cooper would write a love note composed of chemical equations, but you can see what we’re driving at. The relationships that don’t last have their value, but they are destined to dissolve by virtue of their codependency.

The strongest relationships are covalent. We meet the best people when we are satisfied with our own company; when our actions are not compelled by need.

Experience, however, compels me to say that this advice, while useful, will rarely if ever be taken. It may only be useful in retrospect.

An elderly friend of mine, while not a chemist, was a very wise man who gave me essentially the same advice, but in a practical application. He said, “Do the things that you love to do, and that’s where you’ll meet the people you’re supposed to meet.” In my own life this bit of wisdom has proven it’s worth again and again.

“Do the things you love and that’s how you’ll meet the people you’re supposed to meet,” I told my young friend. His reply was, “But I love to stay home and read.”

Well, we haven’t exactly solved the challenge of finding the perfect relationship, but perhaps we have demonstrated the value of advice.


Rats Under The Floor

It was early Sunday morning and the coffee was good, so we had another cup and lingered over a slice of pumpkin bread.

Not many years ago we would have read the Sunday paper. Comics first,  then the headlines and the sports page.  On a rainy day, a good novel was always at hand, or a tech journal in earlier years, or even a magazine.

Today we sit with glowing screens and the whole world is at our fingertips, should we choose to reach out. When we do reach out,  we don’t often reach very far.

Back when we read the newspaper, we read it through. Maybe not front to back, but we read it all, eventually. We agreed and we disagreed with what we read. Sometimes we were moved by emotion and sometimes to action. There was always something inside that we could use.

Today we do what UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield calls “skim reading,” and multiple studies from San Jose State University tell us that the new normal is a form of word spotting. We read the first sentence and then browse through the rest of the material looking for key words.

When we gather information this way, we fail to develop or to maintain the ability to grasp complexity; we fail to develop empathy with the author or the principle characters and we lose the ability to perceive beauty as it is revealed by the written word.

Research done by Tami Katzir at Haifa University found that damage done by skim reading can show up in children as early as the fourth grade. The advantages of literacy are not transferred genetically – they are gained by the activation of neural pathways. Therefore, for older readers, it’s a matter of “use it or lose it.”

Unfortunately the transfer of the written word is now dominated by short bursts of information found in texts and tweets. Even “lengthy” articles on some of the most popular websites often consist of a column of various tweets pasted between an opening and closing sentence or two.

It doesn’t help the cause of literacy that many of us now only read from sources that agree with our  preconceived notions. With a newspaper, we have to make a physical effort to turn the page away from the article that disagrees with us. We can slam a book down on the table. There is a tactile sensation from a magazine. Agree or disagree, we are impacted, influenced, perhaps even challenged, but in pixel reading, a click or a swipe is sufficient to remove the offending thought. The distractions are endless,  and the sanctity of our comfort zones is maintained without effort.

For many, however, that safe space is merely a retreat or an attempted escape from accountability, and when comfort becomes tedious for the descendants of hunter gatherers who ride roller coasters and watch horror movies, reality television and nightly news, we need look no farther than social media for a dose of drama. (And drama is very addictive.) Social media, where everyone has an opinion, but few facts; where information is abundant, but truth is scarce.

Don’t get me wrong. There is  benefit to be found in social media. Friendships are discovered and maintained; good conversations happen. Family ties are nurtured and loneliness is assuaged. Humor is shared, and ideas, music, and art.

But politics came to nest in social media like rats under the floor of a restaurant, and now we are infested.  The rats gnaw through the insulation of our wiring, and the smell gets in everything. It makes people sick, angry and afraid, and misery loves company.

You know it does. How many times have you opened up Facebook to another tragedy, another disaster, an insult, an injustice or an outrage? You know that person, the one who, like the six o’clock news, seems eager to find every bad thing that happens and share it with you. You’ve been that person too,  and so have I.

We’ll take this moment to remind ourselves again that we, alone, are the ultimate curators of our experience in life, and that includes social media and everything else that solicits our attention.

Back home, the coffee was cold and the news was all bad. Too many memes had crossed the threshold of consciousness to share the misery and outrage and remind us exactly who was responsible for it. We decided quite abruptly to curate our experience of Sunday.

A peaceful drive through the mountains ensued. We had great conversation over a nice meal, without the benefit of phones. We saw four generations sitting happily at one table and an elderly couple holding hands.  We made someone laugh that was having a bad day.

Back home the meadow was alive with honeybees, bumblebees and hummingbirds. Partridge pea, Joe Pye, Ironweed and Jewelweed were in full bloom and the sound of water falling on rocks in the stream was the best kind of music. The breeze from the mountain whispered hints of Fall. Pages turned with every step we took, telling stories mysterious and astonishing. All of it was information we could use.



Beware the Jack-in-the-Box and Other Road Hazards

We have some practical advice for you this morning. It is the distilled wisdom of  many hundreds of thousands of miles traveled on the highways commuting, towing and hauling.

It comes at a time when the veneer of civilization that covers our civil society has grown thin in places, and the roadways are beset by an unusual number of, well, we can’t print what we sometimes say when we encounter them on the road, but for the purposes of this discussion we’ll refer to them as “organs” and “orifices.”

That’s a good segue to our first recommendation, which is:  Don’t take anything personally. While it’s true that for some people the automobile suggests an illusion of empowered anonymity similar to social media, an illusion which can reveal the more unpleasant aspects of a damaged psyche, many of the people acting like idiots on the highway, really are idiots.

For some the condition is more or less permanent but there are also many for whom  an almost immediate lowering of intelligence occurs when entering a vehicle. They don’t mean to single any one person out for abuse, it’s just that they’re not very smart, and for many the effects of medication, intoxication and cell phone distraction are indistinguishable from stupidity.

Sometimes it helps to forget for a moment that there is another human being behind the wheel of vehicles crossing over the center line or pulling out in front of you or changing lanes unexpectedly. Think of that vehicle as simply an inanimate but dangerous obstacle that needs to be avoided, and give it plenty of room. You wouldn’t get angry at a tree that falls across the road, and thinking of other vehicles as being devoid of human consciousness can help you avoid unpleasant feelings. (This is most important if you travel frequently, since you will often encounter drivers devoid of consciousness.)

It’s above my pay grade to explain why, but sometimes when you’re traveling a distance on an interstate, you will encounter idiots traveling in packs. Packs of idiots are the scourge of every long distance traveler. I think it has to do with some kind of natural attraction for each other shared by drivers who take things personally.

It probably starts with one stupid or selfish maneuver. Someone is following too closely and the car in front speeds up. Someone fails to yield the left lane. Someone insists on going first and unnecessarily passes someone else who also insists on being in front. Someone really bad at the risk versus reward assessment thinks that shaving ten minutes off of a trip is worth risking her own life and the lives of everyone else she passes while she weaves from lane to lane.

Unfortunately, traveling the speed limit exposes you to a higher number of packs of idiots. You can see them approaching in the mirror. The simplest thing to do is to stay calm and maintain your speed while the pack eventually passes you. Beware the sometimes overwhelming impulse to join it.

In heavy traffic it is often difficult to escape a pack of idiots,  and sometimes packs take on really unpleasant and even dangerous tones. In this situation it might be best to pull over or take an exit. Get a cup of coffee or top off the tank. Allow the dangerous pack to get a few miles ahead where it will eventually dissipate.

The next piece of advice is specific to rural areas like ours. I’m sure you’ve seen it often. I call it, “The Jack-in-the-box syndrome.” You’re on a long straight stretch of highway. There are no cars in front or behind you, and in the distance you see a car waiting to pull out onto the road. You get closer and closer until, at the last possible moment of safety (including the hard braking that you do) the car pulls out. Hopefully it enters the opposite lane but all too often, it deposits itself in front of you in order to travel 30 in a 55 mph zone.

It’s hard not to take that personally, but it’s necessary, and it’s vital in our area to be alert for such vehicles. A simple mnemonic device may help. When you see that car in the distance, begin reciting “Around, around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel, the monkey thought ’twas all in fun, ‘POP’ goes the weasel!” The extra bit of readiness may just save you some brake lining.

Another phenomenon familiar to local drivers is what I like to call “The Tractor Beam effect.” You’ve heard of tractor beams if you ever watched Star Trek:  An invisible beam of magnetic or attractive energy that reaches across space to pull at another object.

The tractor beam effect is often caused by organ and orifice drivers or by unconscious drivers who follow too closely. There are twenty cars lined up on the highway. You are maintaining your safe interval, but you look in the mirror and see the spinach in the teeth of the driver behind you. The tractor beam is engaged and you are forced to slow down, so you instinctively hit the brakes.

(This is a cautionary tale for urban drivers who visit our area and are accustomed to daisy-chain driving. We’re not in such a hurry here. You can’t push a rope, and you can’t push a line of cars. Back off.)

I hope these suggestions are helpful. Remember, don’t take anything personally. Think of other vehicles as dangerous inanimate objects. Avoid packs of idiots. Beware the Jack-in-the-box. Back off or experience the tractor beam effect.

Oh, and one more thing for some of you local drivers:  The Post Office is NOT the entrance to Ingles.