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Saturday, November 23, 2013

More Older, Sexy Women Please

I confess to binging on season five of Sons of Anarchy recently.  While I was put off by the orgy of patriarchy, raw vicious sexism, homophobia, white supremacy and fetishization of gang culture, I was captivated and it took a little while (episodes 1-4 to be exact) to pin point what it was.  What compelled me, beckoning my fingers to push the blinking play arrow episode after episode was not the gratuitous fist fights awash in glossy, sexy, hyper-masculinity.  Nor was it the obligatory mid-show motorcycle chase complete with crosscutting camera shots and bass thumping rap music.  And while the Greek Tragedy thematic interplay of love, deceit and betrayal was interesting, what really intrigued me was Gemma Teller Morrow. 

Gemma, played by Katey Sagal, is a wife, a widow and mother of men who have all been president of the outlaw biker club for which the television show is named.  Gemma is the family and club matriarch, she is older, and she is hot.

Sadly, it is still rare to see older women characters in television shows that are not only sexy but also sexual.  Gemma is hot in a white biker mainstream gender normative way to be sure, but she is hot nonetheless.  Gemma has sex and is a sex symbol and it’s not a joke.  She is not nervous or anxious about getting old or being an older woman and she wears her sexuality without apology or embarrassment.  This is not to revel in the presentation of femininity or womanhood in Sons of Anarchy.  The women in Sons, as one might imagine, are relegated to the unfortunately enduring dualistic pure/good or whore/bad roles and are not extraordinarily complex in their characterizations.  These women uphold gender stereotypes and demonstrate internalized sexism in predictable ways.  They manufacture deceit, manipulate and facilitate access to power through their sexuality.     

Women are dominated via a variety of mechanisms including the constant fear of rape and co-occurring mythos about the need to be protected by men (who also assault them).  While violence against women is a staple of mainstream media, it remains uncommon to see older women being victimized or subjugated through sexualized violence.  Gemma’s brutal rape by rival club members occurs because she is viewed as sexual.  Older women are de-sexualized in most media representations and as such, sexual assault or the fear of rape is rarely used as vehicle through which to assert power.   Gemma, as a sexually active and sexual older woman, however, is a body that can be violated and her rape is used to assign her viability as a woman as well as assert power over her and by extension her husband and son.

Despite the machismo, violence and gender provincialism on Sons of I love watching Gemma.  Portrayals of older women characters as sexy, devoid of being a cougar or fraught with aging insecurity remains refreshing.  Gemma is older without a lot of hoopla.  I understand her character is probably too distracted by coke deals gone bad, kidnappings, gun smuggling dramas and the ever constant triage of stoic men-in-danger to worry much about crows feet or lip lines.  I get it.  She has much bigger fish to fry.  I am also well aware that an army of professional make up artists primps her, like every other actress, and that her sexy sans puffy eyes close ups are the result of hours of carefully crafted lighting and an array of cosmetics.  But she rocks her soon-to-be senior status so well and the cinematic poverty of older woman characters is such that I find myself not begrudging her the absence puff, bags or her smoothed over skin.  It remains depressingly novel to see an older woman on the screen that is not either sculpted into seeming perfection that allows her to be “sexy” or relegated to the sexless void of old age.  Gemma is unapologetically older with wrinkles, under arm flab and sun spotted cleavage.

I watched Gemma and found myself reflecting on other bad ass and sexy hot women actors of a certain age.  I want to see more.  That I could recall some women is fantastic but does little to counter the onslaught of youth-beauty focused images flooding media and saturating young (and old) minds with ideals of mis-perfection that encourage anxiety, body dysmorphia and insecurity driven consumerism which make scads of niche diet, exercise and “health and beauty” marketers very rich.  While Gemma and the other female characters in Sons are not offering a radical alternative to normative beauty standards nor providing a counter narrative to the axiom of women—as –objects, it is nevertheless inspiring to see an older woman unashamedly sexual and not digitally altered into an “ageless” perfection. 

There are plenty of people striving to diversify the media landscape for women of all ages.  This includes agitating for more women in leadership positions, the inclusion of women and older women writers and producers in media, more roles for older women as well as creating and supporting alternatives to mainstream media.  There is a great deal of work to be done to this end.  Indeed, the sad reality that forty is considered “older “and older female actresses are mostly celebrated for how youthful they look speaks to the long road ahead.  I want more complicated character representations for all kinds of women and I want a much more diverse array of examples of older (and sexual) women in television and movies.  In the mean time given the absence of older sexually active women characters in movies and TV shows, I will undoubtedly continue my Gemma and Sons of Anarchy binge.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Details on Dying

I died last night

in dreams
I have been told
you can not die
but I did.

An endless tumbling free fall,
emptied me of envy, longing  

fluttering, sensory recollections
well worn, and
overgrown neural pathways
the most mundane details
into the thick night air. . .

soft rustle of wind in the bamboo stalks
I planted outside my bedroom window
fuzzy dog chin nestled in the crook of my elbow
tangy scent of fresh cut grass
spring sun on kneecaps
cool pillow when you turn it over at 4 am
first bite of a zebra heirloom tomato

Life is
miraculous moments
every day

the joy clamoring up my throat when I hear quickening tich tich tich of nails on hard wood as my dog runs to leap in my lap during an afternoon nap

the perfect crooked smile when my friend laughs and does not self consciously cover the scar on her chin

comforting din of overlapping dinner conversations

scent of rosemary on your fingers after running your hand along the bush as you walk by

These events
in the search for happiness, satisfaction, security.
we are told
we need.

Dying in a black dreamscape  
neural fireflies hum
pay attention
to all the unassuming details

summer hailstorm splattering jazz notes
tide pool swirl of cream in morning coffee
warm sidewalk on  bare feet, toes flexed out with freedom
starlings darting through trees, tiny bolts of lighting
the compressed silence of floating underwater
sticky scent of fennel
startled guffaw of delighted little girl discovering how to splatter mud puddles
a cloud shaped like a spine

People say, Make memories!
as if they are not already occurring  
brilliantly before us

I don’t need to

Simply share
in the mundane,
each moment

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Nature Is Dying, Is There a Pill For That?

Our world is heating up. Polar bears are drowning, bee colonies are collapsing, island nations are submerging in acidifying sea water, coral reefs are being bleached, desertification and water security are household words, and dengue fever is making a serous come back.

Have you picked your color?

I am sitting in a brown massaging chair, a rolling machine kneading and digging up and down my spine, both feet soaking in a warm bluish bath. A twenty something woman with ladybugs painted on each fingertip smiles at me patiently. I set down my bottle of Gobsmacked Butter London Nail Lacquer. She nods and I lean back and close my eyes.

Relax. Put your feet up.

The blue footbath water reminds me of swimming in Lake Chabot when I was a teenager. I breathe in and out slowly in an attempt to unwind my shoulder muscles and still my thoughts. Arctic sea ice is melting at an unanticipated and alarming rate. The exposed Arctic earth warms more quickly as it absorbs rather than reflects the suns rays, this in turn, accelerates the release of water vapors which are a greenhouse gas –a deadly system feedback loop.

Walk this way, please.

Ladybug finger lady leads me like a lost puppy shuffling awkwardly on bare feet across a tile floor to a drying table. With a smile and head tilt she directs me to insert my fingers and toes under a purplish light beam. My nails have been sanded, buffed, polished and painted like an old house and looking shinny and new all the layers of primer and base paint need to dry. I wiggle my extremities as they bask in the UV rays. A woman next to me is wearing tan and bejeweled fingerless gloves. She smiles at me and mouths Finger cancer. I smile back not sure what to say, then we both return to clumsily flipping pages of our magazines. Kim Kardashian survived an early and dramatic baby delivery and Angelina Jolie’s son had his iPad stolen while he was playing paintball.

I watch one of the employees slip on a white paper facemask. Two teenagers in short shorts and high heel sandals enter and a bell chimes. An older extremely tan woman with gnarled feet and bright orange toes sits across from me reading People Magazine. I feel claustrophobic. I slip my Gobsmacked toes slowly into my flip-flops, wave at Ladybug and ease out the door. My polish is not completely dry and I absently pick at it, wondering about the chemical smell wafting from each nail tip. I look down at my glittery metallic toes. The silver makes them look longer and thinner.

I am on vacation and a mani/pedi seemed a small luxury in a world designed to tell me I deserve many, but the more layers I peel the stronger the scent of toluene and formaldehyde seems to become. A feeling of despair elbows it’s way past the crowd of other feelings in my stomach like teenagers at a Vampire Diaries signing at ComicCon slipping easily to the front of the line. Despair urges me to keep picking and peeling and when I remove the final Gobsmacked and basecoat layers, my nails seem large, naked and vulnerable.

Nature as we know it is dying and nature as I know it will be dead in my lifetime. The anguish this causes me when I think about it is overwhelming. I Google “eco-friendly salons + San Diego” which does not make me feel better. I am pretty sure we cannot consume our way out of global warming. I am also sure that the devastating reality of climate change is overwhelming enough to lure me into wanting carbon credits, green label purchasing choices and organic beauty salons to be enough. I know I am not alone. The reality of our planet’s possible demise looms large and immediate. I want to dissolve into the background noise of foot traffic outside and not think about the eroding shells of oysters in Elliot Bay or the tap water that lights on fire in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

As a therapist, I am a mandated reporter and am trained, educated and ethically bound to respond to emergencies. I am required to report to authorities if I have reason to believe a child or senior citizen is being abused for example. This requirement is a legal one but it is also moral, ethical. Bystanders of all kinds need the skills, support and capacity to intervene when abuse is happening. Knowing what science is telling us about global warming and appreciating that inaction will undoubtedly inflict the burden of climate change on everyone, but will inevitably impact the most vulnerable far more, I have a moral and ethical if not legal and personal imperative to intervene, to take action.

Our daily existence is intertwined with an overwhelming and ever present existential danger that threatens to incapacitate even the most resilient of people. I hope tending to the mental, emotional and psychological as well as environmental and physical consequences of coming face to face with the insecurity of nature, our planet earth, does not amount to the creation of a new diagnosis and subsequent prescription protocol. We clinicians have to get our hands dirty (mani be damned) and that means understanding, exploring and helping people navigate the links between rising rates of anxiety, depression, interpersonal violence, somatic expressions of dis-ease and global warming. Symptoms must be viewed in the larger environmental context in which they occur and the psychological impact of species extinctions, increasing weather related disasters and planetary insecurity must not be minimized or pathologized. Despair is a reasonable response to global warming and given the proper conditions, can motivate people to take immediate action. We therapists and others in healing professions of all kinds must be compelled to be part of creating those conditions by normalizing and naming the mental, emotional and psychological impact of climate trauma on everyone including ourselves.

Self-care, pampering and small luxuries are important for a healthy and balanced life and are not things to sacrifice in the name of environmental awareness and after considering the environmental impact of any self-care we choose it is critical that we make sure to enjoy it. While I will not be lounging in a brown massaging chair in a nail salon anytime soon, I will be doing self-care of all kinds. After all, we have a lot of work to do and I want to on my game.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Just Say No? Is informed consent possible in our current mental heath care climate?

My profession has been coopted. Seduced by the siren of medicalization whose sweet medical-model notes lure my colleges into a diagnostic slumber.  While we mental health therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists amble along in a prescriptive haze, it is easy to dismiss from mind the curious and magical roots of the healing arts.  In our current counseling climate, most people seeking therapy expect to receive and are given a clinical diagnosis. A diagnostic code based on the medical model of illness and disease is necessary in order to bill insurance companies who have situated themselves in the lucrative position of reimbursing clinicians for approved therapeutic services.  While diagnostic codes have become a pragmatic reality for the business of therapy, I fear my field is loosing sight of the exquisitely human, relational and mysterious art of psychotherapy.

Symptoms have been rearranged into diagnostic checklists categorized to codify evidence-based practices developed to treat mental disorders, the list of which has expanded decade by decade.  This mental health manifest destiny, we are assured, empowers patients and enables practitioners to use the most scientifically advanced treatments possible.  We are barreling headfirst down the mental-illness-as-a-brain-chemical-imbalance-disease path and I want us to slow down and take a break by a waterfall or in a sunny spot to give us time to contemplate if this road will truly take us where we want to go.

I am concerned the mainstreaming of medical modalities to treat mental illness may be making us crazy.  Or, more alarmingly, is pathologizing reasonable responses to human experiences.  The quest to mold mental illness into a brain disease model has been motivated by multiple social and political forces.  Treatment and profit, once engaged, have married in an opaque market driven ceremony and my profession is doing a celebratory prescriptive waltz. 

Mental illness does exist. Medication is one of many viable treatment options.   My worry is that this one viable treatment is expanding in every direction to the exclusion of other possibilities and to the detriment of all of us.

As a therapist, I am regularly asked to give a diagnosis or make an educated guess about whether or not someone needs medication.  When a client asks me if they should take psychiatric medication because they are depressed or anxious or worried they are bi-polar because they experience ups and downs in mood, a tiny mental health seraph urges me to scream, Hell no! This brain chemical imbalance theory supports fictional disorders designed by a cadre of big pharma sponsored psychiatrists and has absolutely no currently credible medical evidence to back it up and the medications themselves are toxic and deadly!  Another therapist seraph sits on my shoulder and whispers the stories of all the people whose lives have been saved by psychiatric medication.

I am not anti-medication, nor am I an advocate of the Just say no! approach.  I like drugs.  I have taken drugs to treat illness, heal from injuries and trauma, alter consciousness, connect with people, disconnect from the chaos of life, and sometimes just to have a good time.  I am by no means anti-drug.  I am, however, a steadfast advocate of empowered and informed choice.  I am concerned that informed choice is being coopted under the banner of consumer choice.  The psychiatric medication-marketing machine is just too big, too strong, too wealthy and too invested in the medical model for other theories and treatments to be accessible in any mainstream manner.

Mental health treatment is now almost synonymous with a mental health diagnosis and more alarmingly, with a psychiatric medication treatment protocol.  Increasingly, a mental health diagnosis is a required component for services such as having your insurance cover therapy, accessing counseling through a mental health agency and participating in some state funded programs.  School children, for example, receiving supplemental support services often face compulsory conditions: they must obtain a diagnosis and take any prescribed psychiatric medication in order to receive services.  Typically there are no other treatment modalities available.  The brain chemical imbalance disease model has become the only treatment available for many people.  That this is happening when the scientific evidence for a brain chemical imbalance theory is slim to none is disturbing.  There are no blood tests, or any other actual tests, that can prove definitively that someone has a brain chemical imbalance or a mental illness.  The philosophic roots of psychology are being ripped out from underneath our profession.  The relational importance of healing work is becoming a radical outlier.  This concerns me.

People should be involved and engaged in their healing.  In order to do this, we need to be informed, not coerced by science and it’s mental health proxies.  Informed and engaged consent is not unlimited access to direct-to-consumer psychiatric medication advertising.  As a mental health therapist, I continuously struggle with how to support my clients in making informed decisions about medication.  Informed consent is critical.  The massive amounts of pharmaceutical industry messaging that floods professional offices, personal homes, consumer advocacy groups, university research programs and media outlets is staggering.  No other mental health treatment modality has as much professional and cultural influence as the pharmaceutical industry.  How then, is informed and engaged consent possible?

I used to think that offering a space for clients to reflect on their values and beliefs about medication was enough.  Not any more.  Not in the face of medical-model-brain-chemical-imbalance marketing madness.  I can no longer in good conscious simply say, there are many options and medication is one.  The influence of big pharma sits between me and my client luring them with the sirens song of clinical trials, brain imaging photos, late night heat to heart infomercials and bouncing yelling mascots.

I don’t have a mascot or MRI machine. I do however, have the power to speak up and share my concerns about where I see my profession heading and the damage I believe is occurring in the name of scientific, psychiatric progress.  If I remain silent I am, in effect, colluding with an out of control, profit driven industry that has obtained seemingly unregulated access to and control over psychiatry, psychiatric research, psychology and mental health counseling.  I worry that we are pathologizing reasonable responses to complex human experiences and that countless normal behaviors are being diagnosed and treated with medication.  I fear this is creating a mono-social-psychological cultural landscape in which a vast range of human behaviors are equated with disease.  We need radical provocateurs, daring visionaries, audacious artists, outspoken healers, courageous warriors, brilliant loners, mischievous misfits, obsessive mechanics, insomniac bakers, anomic urban gardeners, wildlife saving savants and every other wild child, quiet adult, party animal and solitary scientist.  Nature abhors monoculture.  We are learning this lesson in devastating, bee colony collapsing ways.  Humans are incredible diverse and it is our differences that make humanity possible.  Just as different crops nurture, feed and sustain one another, we pollinate humanity through difference.  

Psychiatry and psychology need to widen, rather than narrow, the enormous range of acceptable normality in behavior, personality, and psychological constitution and embrace both the science and the art of healing.   It will take serious effort to counter the cultural influence of pharmaceutical driven care so that multiple treatment modalities are widely accessible for the general public and that the craft of healing work is recognized as being viable even as it eludes scientific verifiability.  Consumers, clients and clinicians will need to continue to collaborate, speak truth to power, support seemingly “radical” alternatives, mainstream multiple healing modalities, challenge science to research towards collective good, and organize in solidarity across different therapeutic approaches, fields and professions.   

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Dreaming in Dance: Relationship Rumba

I sit in the dark, wedged in row twelve, aisle C, seat sixteen, my legs crossed tightly and I wait.  The audience is suspended in blackness; the single center stage spotlight with the number eight filter falls faintly on the middle five seats in the very front row.  I watch the people seated there 

One man leans forward, tightly coiled as if he’s going to spring from his seat at any second.  The woman sitting next to him picks lint off her black scarf, occasionally patting her grey hair piled loosely in a bun at the nape of her neck.  The woman on her right is motionless save a slightly tapping forefinger in an otherwise still hand resting in her lap.  Next to her, a young man in canvas shorts, long sleeve t-shirt and silver Asics running shoes, fidgets all his extremities, crossing and uncrossing feet, legs, arms and hands.  The final man in the row wears sandals and I see his toes curling tightly and then stretching, toes fanning out with an impressive amount of space between each toe. He must do yoga. 

A woman in row ten muffles a cough with two cupped hands placed tightly over her mouth.  Someone else shifts and their shoes sound as if sand is being rubbed into the floor.  It seems as if everyone is holding their collective breath, as if all fifty of us are exhaling with extreme caution. The air feels like the low pressure before a summer storm.

A lone man on stage stands in the white pool of light, one arm arched over his head, each finger dangling precisely towards the floor. The other arm is folded tightly around his torso.  The veins in his forearm pulse slightly. Otherwise, he is perfectly still.  It is impossible to detect his breathing.  He has stood this way forever.  We, the audience, continue to wait and pretend we can be as still as he can.

Three dancers enter from behind the audience, descending from each of the three isles, they storm the stage.  Their arms move wildly, popping shoulder joints to flick forearms, wrists, fingertips in crashing waves.  Feet rolling, knees angled assertively to the sides, they suck in all the air and exhale it back in silent thunderous clouds.  They form a small circle around the lone man who has not moved.  They kick, step, pop knees up in high jumps and land soundlessly.

Move! Do something!

This is what I hear when I watch them.  The lone man remains motionless.  I don’t know who I should root for.

A ballerina leaps across the stage, all legs and long arms with fingers that seem to stretch for miles, dark hair piled tightly in a neat bun on the back of her head, a red tutu unraveling behind her as she leaps, legs stretched impossibly straight, across the stage. 


I notice a mime who has somehow made it to front center stage and is silently screaming.

Earlier that day my husband and I were arguing about what it means to really listen.

Would it have been a better argument if we could communicate this way? Me, popping, rolling and chin jutting to make a point about the importance of clarification and reflection while he twirls, kicks and summersaults across he living room in rebuttal: You don’t have to reflect to listen.  Would we end up in flailing versions of West Side Story, a Jets vs. Rockets: Communication Miscommunication Breakdown! Would we listen differently? Discover new perspectives?  Would we see one another anew?

The mime is gone. 

How does he do that? Just appear and disappear?  The other dancers have left as well.  The lone man remains standing in a white pool of light, one arm arched over his head, fingers dangling towards the floor. The other arm folded around his waist.  After a few moments, I realize his arms are reversed and that if I’m patient enough, I can see the slight rise and fall of his abdomen. 

I reach over for my husband’s hand.  I will not be pirouetting through the living room to tell him that he does in fact, need to learn how to validate my feelings more.  But I can try.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013


grassy hillside bare
toes squish
gain purchase
dark brown earth.
Upturned red worms
seek darkness.

Ten fingers
clumps of crabgrass
boy pulls himself
pushes off
mossy stump
runs down
arms spinning
snorts of air
jumps sideways
dodging invisible foes
wind draws tears
down cheek
muddy red t-shirt
frayed edges
clings to slim torso

he runs
climbs ancient oak tree
griping shreds of bark
ten fingers encircle 
long, sturdy limbs
he jumps,
pumping legs
flings himself in the air. . .

Stop that, Brian! It’s not safe. Get over here.

His mother
worry wearing thin
puckering peach-tinted lips.

walks over
plunks down
on a brightly colored square of plastic
designed for easy assembly
so ten tiny fingers
will not get caught.

folds in on himself
swings his legs off the side of the bright plastic cube
absently kicking
his mom returning to her paperback

Ten baby chickens
snuggled inside
high metal wall
watering tub home
under heat lamp waves.

Personalities, silent
make startling proclamations
when ten baby chicks
are released
into the yard.

Let the real sun
which has made a welcome April appearance
warm them.

White tiny ball of feathers
jumps from my hand
flaps wings
lands on
sweet summer grass
dashes right, left
chirping like a car alarm.

Grey one,
dark streaks
smudged eyeliner
reminds me of Flock of Seagulls.
She runs
directly to the highest point
caws loudly.

Orange baby chick
neat white, brown and tan spots
sports shinny black tail feathers clumped together
a blunt triangle
like a rudder propelling her
dashes madly,
stops so suddenly
you can almost hear the cartoon screeeech!

Black baby chick
red and green undertones
that shimmer in sunlight
runs in circles
flaps her wings

Grey and silver chick
stretches each wing methodically
flaps one then the other

Brown and black baby chick
pecks at a blade of grass that arches
over her. 
She is determined. 
She rests.
Begins again.
Finally, snatches the tip mid-hop.
Triumphant, she scoots off
pecking at an ant carrying a cracker crumb.

Sun dims
shadows cool air,
one by one
I place them back
inside watering tub home.
They collapse
a collage of colors
clustered under
amber heat lamp light.
They do not run or chirp
They do not scratch cedar chips
do not stretch wings.
They fold in on themselves.

I watch ten baby chicks
silent in a safe contained tub.
I remember
hold dear
rowdy, loud children
grass in hair
dirt on face
laughing madly as they climb
with reckless abandon
to the edge of tree limbs
swaying under the weight
as they climb, climb, climb.