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Navel gazing, self-hatred, and Whole Foods: Or, Work, Bitches!

Yesterday I found myself in Carmel IN with some spare time. Living in a small city means a living with a dearth of retail options, especially in the all-important edibles category, so I decided to waste some time and cash at Whole Foods. As soon as I got within a block of the place, I realized I’d triggered my own rage response. The whole parking lot and most traffic heading in that general direction represented one my least favorite demographics: the very privileged sub/urban stay at home mom; she of the Lulumon yoga wear, the Mercedes or BMW SUV, the bleached teeth, the perfect skin, the size 2/4/6 post-baby body, the no-job.

While pushing my sleek black mini-cart around the immaculate store, I muttered to myself about the herd of wealthy, idle, indulged women shopping around me. What I actually said is both irrelevant and was quite vulgar. Suffice to say that when a blond, tan, toned thirty-ish woman in tight black spandex spent a little too long picking through the Honey Crisp apples while I waited for her to move, words rhyming with “hunt” and “twitch face” occurred to me in some fascinating variants. Around that time, a Whole Foods worker bee dropped a very large box of cava on the floor, sending glass, fizzy wine, and noise all across the floor of the store. My ranty concentration broken, I slunk over to frozen foods, and while searching out sprouted dinner rolls, the thought struck me that hating on the burbish baby mommies is probably pretty damn close to an act of self-hatred. I am all of those things, except idle (and blond, and lately, toned).

This triggered a second pass through the wine section.

I’ve always resented the idle rich, possibly due in part to my very work-heavy Scottish/Southern protestant/Calvinist upbringing. How can anyone justify their continued absorption of water and sunlight when not producing anything of value? I mean, really, work IS the whole point, right? Add some wasted youthful years listening to hardcore punk rock, and a definite pique can be raised by overt consumerism very easily.

So I came home, ate some very tasty organic produce, had a lovely glass of viognier, watched a few episodes of Orange is the New Black and went to bed, mostly recovered from my earlier rage party.

This morning, trolling around the vacuum tubes of all human knowledge, I came across a short essay by a young writer on the primal need for creative work(read it here: http://mashable.com/2015/06/09/post-hipster-yuccie/).

Apparently, while I was busy hating on yoga moms, the kids have created a new template for Work. It takes hipsterism a step further, denouncing the outer symbols of anti-establishment sentiment like tattoos and fedoras while embracing the inner hipster drive for self-propelled creative careers.This current trend and struggle is both a lot like, and completely new, compared to the generations of the recent past.

Gen X, once we got off of our collective asses and mom’s sofa, embraced a weird brew of “stick it to the man” and “I like having stuff”. The internet explosion put a good number of us to work in software start-ups, or at least, in decent-paying IT gigs that didn’t make us come home from work smelling like french fries. Looking around at my cohort from high school and college, I think most of us (who had enough social privilege to attend college and make a wide array of life-work choices) have managed to grab at least the brass monkey, if not the brass ring, financially.

What seems less clear is whether or not we’ve made any progress over our Boomer parents in creating work that makes us matter or feel fulfilled at some basic level. The Boomers, of course, struggled mightily against The Man, and then in their late 20’s or early 30’s, mostly caved in/sold out and moved into split level ranch houses to raise us. They started out rebelling against the consumerist and conservative mindset of their WWII winning parents, denounced materialism and corporations, and like us, later determined that having stuff makes life hella easier.

People who are free to choose their work may be a relatively new phenomenon, especially on the female side. Gen X is only really the first generation of women in the US raised from early life to believe that all careers are open to us. The “yuccies” then, are only the 2nd or 3rd generation of Americans with such a wide range of options on view. So, is the preference for creative and self-propelled work a natural evolution of chosen work, obviously made far easier by technology, or is there some other phenomenon at play? Will Gen X be remembered as the last generation of corporate tools in a future of micro industry? Will the wives of executives of the future still choose to be idle?

At the end of the beauty aisle, passing all sorts of hand-crafted, micro-brewed, super special non-toxic organic merchandise, I had to wonder how a person with endless choices could forego all of them and choose instead to consume rather than contribute, to buy rather than to do. Certainly Calvin would condemn the idle yoga mom to hell in a chai soy latte cup. Maybe it’s the choice to matter only in reflection, in servitude to others that pisses me off so violently. The inertia, the unmet challenge of DOING, the missed opportunity to make is something like refusing to accept lottery winnings, or maybe it’s my own frustration at still be “employed”, even in a relatively creative job, that grates.

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Pictures of the Depths of the Soul: Prostitution, Poverty, & Progress

Recently, famed photographer Mary Ann Marks died. Ms. Marks spent her career travelling to places most people fear, to photograph people most of us prefer to ignore, or shun, or simply pretend don’t exist.

Some of her most powerful images (see her website:http://www.maryellenmark.com/books/titles/falkland_road/index001_falkrd.html ) were of children in the sex trade. The link above will take you to her axiomatic 1978 collection of photos from prostitutes on Falkland Road in Mumbai, where prostitutes literally live and work in cages. Her work led to the 1981 documentary of the same name, which in turn led to much outrage and clucking of disapproval in the West.

Lest we get comfortable thinking our own country doesn’t have Falkland Roads, Mary Ann went on to photograph street children in Seattle in 1983, titled “Streetwise”. It also led to a documentary on the issue, and also to much indignation by liberals like myself, who tend to get outraged by social injustice. Comparing the poorest and most benighted children of the two cities makes for a fascinating romp through culture, colonialism, and capitalist history, to action.

Out of curiosity, I searched online to see if anything much has changed about either Falkland Road or the street children of Seattle since the books came out. In Mumbai, real estate prices are skyrocketing, making finding a decent place to live almost as difficult and crazy-making as in Manhattan (for a great analysis of the impact of commercial change in the city over the past 20 years, see Mehta’s “Maxiumum City”). Even previously shady areas like the one surrounding the Red Light district are being bought up by newly-rich capitalists for office space, car parks, and apartment towers. Apparently, even the old, poor, and long-shunned Falkland Road is being squeezed by progress. In fact, within a decade it’s likely that the cages prostitutes have occupied since the late 1800’s will be gone. Relocated may be a better word.

Although India has made enormous economic progress in recent years, very little change has happened so far in the struggle to end the deepest sort of child poverty. It is very common to see young children in India’s biggest cities walking about near traffic, barely dressed, sometimes accompanied by either young mothers or older sisters, begging. Unlike here in the U.S., most of these child beggars aren’t scammers. Most are truly homeless, undocumented, and nearly impossible to track or count. India does now have improving maternity hospitals, but large numbers of very poor (and especially rural) women still give birth at home. Without a solid, working infrastructure for registering home births, many of the poorest people in India do not have birth records, which means they’re invisible to the state. Even though it is possible to register births long after the fact, homeless people, prostitutes, and other members of the very bottom register of society don’t always do so.

All of this means that the Indian government really has no idea how many people it has, in spite of tons of work going into counting people. There are simply bigger problems on the governmental agenda- like lowering the astonishing maternal mortality rate, which is finally falling due to large-scale comprehensive efforts in many states. Recently, the Indian congress considered a bill to legalize prostitution, which is already somewhat legal, and make it more of a standardized commercial venture. The bill failed. In India, it is legal to exchange sex for money, but not to act as a pimp, madam, or trafficker, or to own or operate a brothel. Interestingly, it’s specifically forbidden to sell sex within 100 yards of a temple or school.

Looking at Seattle in the years since Mark last photographed homeless kids, many of whom traded sex for money, we can see some change. The city has created multiple shelters and hotlines for kids on the streets to access for help. These folks do heroic work, and doubtless save many kids from a permanent (and short) life on the streets. However, due to money problems (budget cuts and increased need for services), the 800 or so people sleeping in shelters every night only represent a fraction of the whole.

Just like India, the U.S. has a hard time quantifying how many homeless kids it really has. Some homeless kids are undocumented immigrants. Many are not reported missing by parents, so they never get counted as runaways. It’s easy to tell that India’s homeless teen/sexual exploitation problem is vastly larger than that of the U.S. A quick walk around any part of Delhi or Mumbai and then New York or Chicago or Seattle can tell you that much, even though the U.S. is really good at hiding these things, the amount and level of poverty is pretty obvious at face-value.

Even though we don’t have any Falkland Roads in the U.S, with teen prostitutes living in squalid cages on public view, we still have a serious problem. The fact that the richest country on the planet has ANY homeless, unaccompanied children (which is different from homeless families, also a terrible tragedy, but not the same) is an abomination. And, of course, it’s not just a big city problem. When I look at Mark’s photos from Seattle in 1983 (here: http://www.maryellenmark.com/books/titles/streetwise/300E-032-024_stwise_520.html) I see scenes that are familiar from the place where I live now, and every other American city I’ve ever lived in.

Ultimately, to end the horrors of both Falkland Road and the homeless kid problem here, we’re going to have to actually believe in the inherent worth of human life, including female life and gay and transgender life. That’s an awfully lofty and long-term goal, I’m afraid, even though both Hinduism and Christianity call for equal treatment of all humans. I don’t think I’m personally able to make a dent in that one on a global scale. However, when I look at Mark’s photos from 40 years ago, I see something that IS possible. Mary Ann was able to photograph prostitutes and homeless kids because she treated them as the children of god they are. Because she treated them with care, she was able to capture their experiences on film, and thereby remind the world that these people exist and deserve our care.

I’m not much use with a camera, but I can treat people as human, and I can demand that the world remember.

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Dispatch from the front lines: A week in Head Start

I spent a rather frantic week in Iowa last week. I know, that does sound sort of paradoxical. I’ll explain: I was collecting the last bits of data for a study I’m conducting in a collection of Head Start spots in Iowa. This required a lot of riding around town, zipping through various schools and agencies with a formidably energetic and connected special education interventionist, plus a good deal of running around (literally) behind preschool teachers begging for interviews. It was a grand time. We have some good-looking data, which we’re hoping shows the promise of a play-based intervention we’ve been using for eons but haven’t ever bothered to quantify before.

In any case, while running to and fro last week, I had some remarkable moments with preschool students and teachers.

  • A miniature United Nations (one boy from Somalia, one from an Arabic-speaking middle eastern country, and one White U.S. born) of preschool boys managed to agree on and build a huge tower of blocks, and did not fall into cultural divisions when it all fell apart.
  • The terror! A three year old boy expressed great horror at the “yellow spider” his teacher drew on the white board. The fact that she called it a sun made little impact.
  • The tenderness and care children can take with each other when taught how to do so.
  • Enormous numbers of smiles and hugs that greeted us in every place we visited.
  • Surprise when I found a man(!) working as a teacher in one of the rooms. The children clearly loved and respected him, and he clearly reciprocated.

At the end of the week, all worn out from getting up and down from the floors of various classrooms, running around town, and investing great amounts of energy and worry into the examination of raw data, I was once again reminded how important Head Start is to the educational system in the U.S. Head Start is celebrating 50 years this year. It was one part of the vast War on Poverty instituted by President Johnson in 1965, and is arguably the most successful of the programs begun then. It’s certainly impacted the greatest number of poor Americans of any of those original programs.

In more recent and less charitable years, HS, along with every other educational or human services-oriented government endeavor, has met with funding cuts and reductions in support by politicians. We’ve had a period of austerity of compassion for about 20 years, off and on. Head Start has demonstrated its importance hundreds of times over 50 years, including studies that show better educational outcomes in adulthood for kids who went than for those who didn’t. But these programs are expensive, according to our current batch of elected officials. Never mind that the entire budget of Head Start is less than some of the line items including in the defense or federal prisons budgets, it’s still been a target for cuts lately.

Just this week, Pope Francis moved Oscar Romero along the path to sainthood, and he had a little chat in his office with a liberation theologian. Liberation theology has been unfashionable for about 30 years now due to its emphasis on possibly communist ideas like helping the poor and needy. Although His Holiness isn’t an elected official in the US, I’m hoping that the return of the Vatican’s attention to the poor and least signals a larger cultural sea change in the gaze of the public, from the austere and uncharitable Bush II years to a more pro-people focus redolent of the 1960’s, except with data and technology.

The Vatican seems an odd place for a revolution against greed and repression to begin, much like Iowa seems an odd place for a vacation. Let’s not count either one out just yet.

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Self-regulation, toxic stress, and Baltimore.

On first sight, you might think that the title of this article leads to one of those four-part pictures from Sesame Street entreating you to decide “Which One of These Things Doesn’t Belong”. Actually, all three of the subjects in the title do go together, it’s just uncomfortable to confront that knowledge.

So, let’s break it down.

Self-regulation is a set of skills that stretch between the domains of cognition, emotion, and and behavior that allow adult humans to make good, prosocial, rational, decisions even under stressful conditions. This group of abilities is based on healthy brain development in the early years, which is fueled by good-enough parenting, and the meeting of the basic physical needs of food, water, and shelter (there is some debate about which is most damaging to forfeit, and the front runner may be the parenting). When things go right for a baby, s/he develops the capacity to regulate her own emotions, thoughts, and actions well enough to fit in socially and survive to adulthood. When things don’t go well, self-regulation may be delayed or halted in one or more domains. A kid or adult with crap self-regulation abilities might appear hostile, aggressive, violent, smart-mouthed, withdrawn, anti-social, hyperactive, lethargic, or unfocused. Other things can cause those behaviors, but quite often, self-regulation is the real culprit, especially when kid is exposed to what’s called toxic stress. Here is a recent research brief about this little combo, read it if you want more depth that a blog post can provide: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/resource/self-regulation-and-toxic-stress-foundations-for-understanding-self-regulation-from-an-applied-developmental-perspective. It’s fascinating.

Toxic stress is different from everyday stress in terms of frequency, intensity, and duration. Most people have some aggravations, annoyances, and frustrations every day. Folks with toxic stress have catastrophic, life-threatening, chaotic, terrifying stress every day, all day. Toxic stress is a nightmare for anyone trying to develop or maintain mental and physical health. There’s a mountain of evidence about ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and the nasty things too many of those can do to a person over time. Check out the ACE home page for the numbers: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/

Lastly, Baltimore (and Ferguson, and North Charleston, etc. etc.).

The (White) police have been shooting up Black folks again. That this happens isn’t news to most people. That it is continuing to happen so often and that so many local jurisdictions haven’t done anything to assess or change the systems that set up the circumstances that foster these murders is shocking. For Black and brown people living in places with a high load of toxic stress, that’s the last straw. Toxic stress is literally poisonous. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol and other stress hormones cause the kidneys, heart, and lungs to overwork. Soft tissues like veins and arteries wear out early. In childhood, people exposed to too many ACEs face an uphill battle towards mastering self-regulation in all three domains. Regardless of gender or race, a person growing up amidst toxic stressors develops self-regulation later and less broadly than the same person would in a more safe and stable place. When an adult with a high toxic stress load and low levels of self-regulation is attacked, threatened, or in a hostile-seeming situation, he or she is more likely to react with violence and aggression than a person who lives somewhere safe.

This is not to say that adults shouldn’t be held responsible for damage they do while enraged. However, in places with high levels of toxic stress, no one should be surprised when the proverbial shit hits the fan when yet another citizen is murdered by the police. One of many reasons that the death of Walter Scott in South Carolina and Freddie Grey in Maryland provoked such extremely different reactions from the public was the response of the people who were perceived to be in charge. Although both cities have high levels of toxic stress, the officer who killed Scott was immediately arrested and fired from the force. In Baltimore, no arrests have been made, no announcements from the authorities have been made about suspending the officers involved, and it seems to the citizens there that no one cares. Both cases are obviously tragic and have provoked anger and grief in their respective communities.

In Baltimore, people who are already tired of not mattering have been reassured that they don’t. In North Charleston, it seems that the police force has found a way to communicate to its people that they do matter. When you’re already up against a wall, the last thing you need is someone to shove you up to it harder. That’s when people, many of whom are already short on patience, break. The limbic system essentially stops asking the upper levels of the rational brain for input, and action takes over from reason.

I wish I could close this little rant with some smiley sentence about things getting better. I am glad that Science has now empirically validated how important early environments are to healthy adult development. I am grateful that interventions for schools and clinics are in the works to help stressed out kids learn to self-regulate earlier and better. I’m left wondering if any of it matters.

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Revisiting the sham of culture: Public school edition

Last night in our training clinic, I watched one of our grad students conduct an intake interview with a 17 year old who was recently expelled from school. The idea of expelling kids from school makes me ill to start with, so I watched with a grumpy face. As the session unfolded, I only felt more angry and irritated. This 17 year old kid told the grad student that he was being expelled over, “a lot of little stuff” like tardies, disrespecting teachers, not doing work, etc. I’m not naive enough anymore to buy that story without checking it out with the school, but it was still disturbing. It could be true.

To complicate matters another step, this particular kid is Black, big for his age (athletic big, not fat big) and wore his hair shoulder-length and braided. He spoke very quietly, even after his great-grandmother, who is his guardian left to return to the waiting area. I could easily imagine this guy could scare the crap out of a teacher without really trying, just by being so tall and muscular. But being scared of a kid because he looks like he could tackle you with one arm doesn’t make it ok to throw him out of mainstream society.

[Didn’t you know that’s what expulsion is? Read more here: http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/expansive-survey-americas-public-schools-reveals-troubling-racial-disparities]

I know the U.S. government in general, and the states in particular don’t quite comprehend the problem, but it’s really pretty simple. Here’s the deal, in a simple geometry-ish proof:

1. There is a strong relationship between school failure and life failure (e.g., going to prison).

2. Some kids are at much higher risk than other kids for school failure. We know who they are. We’ve known this for decades (poor, black or brown boys, little to no adult support at home, bad neighborhoods, toxic stress, abused, neglected, and generally stressed out kids).

3. We know that when kids in #2 are given certain types of early and frequent intervention, they are much less likely to fail at school.

4. If they don’t fail at school, they have a hell of a lot better chance at staying out of prison.

5. If they don’t go to prison, they can get jobs. If they work, they pay taxes.

6. If we spend a little money now on those interventions in #3, we will have greater tax revenues in the future.

7. Investing in appropriate educational interventions for stressed out kids literally pays off.

QED, asshats in office. We need intervention for stressed out kids. We need it early. We need it often. We can not wait.

Back to the kid in my opening paragraph. I really hope he comes back. He said he would, but in my experience, it’s about 50/50 with adolescents in trouble who live with folks who aren’t their parents. Great granny looks like she’s about 80. I don’t know that she has the energy to make him get his act together. The kid seemed interested in doing things differently, but also seemed very doubtful about being able to make it happen. I fear we’ve lost this one, mostly due to this dubious expulsion. It’s way past time to stop expulsion.

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Academic guilt, work/life balance, and chasing time.

I really love the twitter and facebook feed, “Shit Academics Say”. It’s always accurate and nearly always funny. The image above this post was brazenly stolen from the facebook feed. This week, the humor is a bit too accurate. I’m winding down yet another 6 day work week (which should be seven if you count the exam I just wrote for tomorrow’s class) and wondering how long I’ll be able to keep chugging along apace.

I went back to grad school to get a PhD after getting burned out with direct therapy work. It’s a tough gig. I had a real mission to go out in the world and build up some damned good counselors to work with kids. I’ve definitely done some of that- I’ve had a lot of very talented students over the years.

However, when I take a step back and have time to sneak in some reflective thinking (usually while I’m waiting for a big data package to load or while I’m stuck in an airport), I ask myself if the academia thing is measuring up. At my current joint, I’m being forced to teach four graduate courses a semester, along with program direction, a boatload of clinical supervision hours/week, and of course, somehow I’m supposed to be writing while I keep all of the other plates spinning- and I’m not even getting into the service requirements.

Is it worth the bother?

In monetary terms, no. I’ve never been very motivated by financial gain, but when I calculated my actual hourly wage given the average number of hours I work per week, I did throw up a little. The university doesn’t MAKE me work 60 hour weeks, but if I don’t, plates begin crashing to the floor quickly. And what plates are ok to drop? I feel a deep obligation to the students to educate them adequately for their careers as counselors, so the teaching plate must spin. It’s embarrassing to show up to committee meetings not knowing what’s going on, so that one can’t drop. Publishers get peevish if you miss your deadlines, so the books have to happen, as do the research outcomes, because no one wants to go through IRB twice for the same study.

So, what’s left on the choice chooser? 1. Work long crazy hours. 2. Disappoint self and others.

Not much of a choice. I imagine that #2 is largely a by-product of the personality types common in the academy: compulsive, high self-monitoring, success driven, altruistic overachievers. It might be interesting to parse some of that in terms of early life psychohistory, but that’s not my mission today. Today I’m wandering about trying to decide how to decide the worth of time spent (this is the kind of sentence that ends up on “Shit Academics Say” because no other person would write such a thing).

As Mary Oliver said, we only get one wild and precious life. How we allocate the small quantity of hours within it is an enormous decision, worthy of a great deal of reflection and debate. I’m still working internally on the whole repotting idea; does it make more sense to try and reinvent myself outside of the academic context completely, or to try and talk sense into the admins at my current place of work so that the gig is survivable? Many pieces and parts join together to make this a complex and ambiguous situation, one that I won’t probably have a great answer to anytime really soon. Writing about these inner dialogues can help sort the reasonable thoughts from the nutty propositions, but mostly, it’s a matter of finding time to reflect and consider. I think I’ll start that today with the rest of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, where she equates attention to prayer.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

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Book review: Four Ways to Click, Amy Banks (2015)

Amy Bank’s first book, “Four Ways to Click” (2015) New York: Tarcher/Penguin, distills the wisdom of the magnificent Jean Baker-Miller’s theories, infuses them with a new dose of relevance and importance via recent neuroscience findings, and pours out information written for a general audience.  Dr. Banks, who is also a practicing psychiatrist, had some help from professional writer Leigh Ann Hirschman making these ideas come across in such simple and basic language, and I’m very grateful for that. I’ve been at a few training sessions Amy has led over the years, and I always leave feeling like my brain has over-indulged, much like my tummy feels right after Christmas dinner. Her ideas are brilliant, and in this new format, even normals like myself can get a firm grasp on them.

True to its title, the book breaks Dr. Miller’s Relational-Cultural theory (RCT) ideas down into four basic bites: Calm, Accepted, Resonant, Energetic (CARE for short). Each of the four bites,which she calls pathways, has its own chapter, where Amy explains what brain and nervous system parts have to engage to make that bite happen. She also tells us what emotional and behavioral symptoms emerge when that part is out of whack.

Two other key components of this book are the “3 rules for brain change” and a self-scoring assessment readers can use to determine how well balanced (or not) they are with the four basic relational pathways (The CARE parts). The three rules aren’t new to anyone who’s been reading the newer neuroscience books, especially the applied texts. The rules all relate to basic science about neuroplasticity, or what it takes to create new automatic or default thoughts and behaviors. It really boils down to the fact that you have to practice – a lot- to make changes permanent. It’s nice to have the brain science explained, although telling readers to practice a lot would be ok, too.

The self-assessment is pretty handy. It doesn’t purport to be psychometrically sound, which is fine, since it’s not being used as a true diagnostic tool. I was surprised that there doesn’t seem to be (unless I overlooked it) any reference to Liang,et al and the Relational Health Index, which has been around for several years and is quite similar to this scale. Amy’s CARE Relational Assessment is tailored to fit within her framework, while the RHI is designed to fit under the more broad RCT frame. I don’t know the back story on this part of the book, but it does make me scratch my head a bit. The RCT world is small and deeply connected. Amy took pains to thank a lot of people in the acknowledgements section, but the RHI team aren’t there.

I found this little volume (it’s only about 300 pages, with the index, notes, table of contents, etc.) to be very accessible, and I imagine that clients who have at least a 10-12th grade reading level would find it interesting and helpful. I read most of it while waiting for an oil change to be completed, and found it very engaging. I’m encouraging my graduate students to pick it up as a good resource to recommend to their clients who are struggling with out-of-whack neural/relational pathways. It’s a nice introduction to how the brain influences and reflects our relationships, and understanding that interplay can be a life-changer for clients.