Thursday, December 22, 2005

Uncle So-and-so

The following story is sort of a sociological observation of something that any of my friends should be pretty familiar with.

So there’s a certain student named Frank out on the island. Over the summer a certain staff member he took to fishing as an afternoon repast. While talking about “the big one” they would hopefully catch and where might be the best place to do it, a story came up about Frank’s Great-uncle So-and-so who caught a record sized bass some years back. The staff member was incredulous and Frank suggested that some documentary evidence might convince him. So, some weeks later Frank brought out some newspaper clippings with photos reporting his Uncle So-and-so’s record bass catch.

A roughish story about how Uncle So-and-so caught the bass was told among the students. Because of his achievements he was referred to as a sort of hero. So, when Frank was lifting weights someone would jokingly say, “You need to channel Uncle So-and-so’s fishing powers into pressing that bar.” When serving the volleyball, Frank was told to call upon “the power of So-and-so”. At one point there was some discussion of strategies for dealing with crisis situations on the island and someone suggested asking, “What would Uncle So-and-so do?” Later a certain South Park song’s lyrics were changed. “What would Uncle So-and-so do if he were here today? He’d probably catch a bass or two. That’s what Uncle So-and-so would do.” Later people would do Uncle So-and-so impersonations as a comic way of encouraging people to do some thing or critique some behavior. These impersonations were rather odd because the voice would assume Hispanic, Irish, Chinese, or some other completely random and ineffable accents. Eventually people started writing up motivational quotes on the kitchen whiteboard attributed to Uncle So-and-so.

During the Thanksgiving break Frank talked to his great uncle and happened to mention what has been done with his name on the island. The response was an underwhelming confusion. I once attempted to explain it to one of Frank’s aunts and found myself at a loss of words for justifying the experience. There was eventually some talk about how as a group we might eventually interact with Uncle So-and-so should he for whatever reason visit the island, perhaps to go bass fishing. The conclusions have agreed that it would be awkward at the least and I believe this train of thought has led to some diminishing of the Uncle So-and-so comments…. though not an eradication.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Much Ado About Nopium

Once upon a time in a land far far away, there was a kid who was on Penikese Island. He was a self-proclaimed rebel who upon asserting he’ll never comply with the staff’s directions would promptly follow instructions. During a certain two-week period he was so good at his revolutionary compliance that he was permitted to leave the island and visit his home and family for a weekend.

On the trip home from the island he took a bus to South Station in Boston where he transferred to the train. South Station is kind of notorious as a roughish place and, to my understanding, functions almost as a sort of shopping mall for illegal substances. As the clichés would insist, he was a kid in a candy shop with money burning a hole in his pocket. Being more of a recreational drug user than a self-medicator he wanted to know what the flavor of the week was. His curious mind was pleased to discover that it was opium.

Now a couple hundred years ago the streets might have been paved with opium and people might have heated their houses with it. But these days, in these parts, it’s a bit of a rare and foreign treat. So our would-be anarchist picked himself up a bag, and at length he smuggled it out to the island.

Smuggled items from candy, gum, and porno magazines to cigarettes and marijuana are a kind of capital at our school. Though there is a significant trade in such goods, frequently such material can be more useful for establishing alliances and obtaining a form of social dominance. So one day Luke Skywalker shared the baggie of opium with some of his buddies. They smoked it all down and to their confusion and surprise, no one got high.

Later that day a staff member was sitting around during a break talking with the kids about what they did over home pass. Luke talked about parting ways with one of the other students at the subway station and happened to mention “that guy who sells the opium.” A red flag went up in the staff member’s mind and he decided that a little drug test was soon to be in order.

The next morning the boys were all rounded up for a cup peeing party. The realization that their substance abusing antics were about to come to light churned their bowels and demonized their minds. One by one, each student who’d smoked for nothing, made his way to a staff confessor praying that the belated honesty would bring a lighter sentence. One by one they lost their future home passes and received the usual substance abuse fines.

About a week later the drug test results came back to our office. They were all clean. The money, the smuggling, the planning, the smoking, and the confessions were all for nothing. There was no opium, just a piece of cow patty.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Rowing Miss Daisy

One of my students, Miss Daisy, asked me one day to go with him out to what we call “Gull Island.” That may or may not be the official name for the place but it’s a bit of island a very short distance outside of our island’s cove that ceases to be an island whenever the tide is high. Anyway, Miss Daisy told me he wanted to go out there because he’d heard another staff member talk about having taken a couple students out there to check out seals.

I hesitated to go with him on a couple of counts. First off, I’d never rowed out there before (in fact I’d only been rowing on the ocean once) and I didn’t know how long it would take. It seemed unlikely that we could get out there, check things out, and make it back before our usual break time would be over. The other reason I hesitated was because Miss Daisy has the figure of a chopstick and on the last rowing trip with two other guys he alone failed to do any of the rowing.

Anyway, my sense of adventure and curiosity won over and I decided to take him. It was a choice I do not regret despite my fears having been confirmed.

Compared to the last time I had gone out for some fishing, the rowing out bit went quite quickly and easily. We used a smaller, lighter boat that was a lot less work to propel and it seemed the currents weren’t against us as badly as they had been before. We didn’t make the straight line one might have hoped due to a little more paddling on one side than the other but it wasn’t too bad.

When we approached for our landing one could easily tell that it was of the same glacial deposit as the rest of the surrounding islands. It was a very flat lying pile of large sub-rounded stones covered in pine green mats of moss and algae. We brought the boat to a shallowly sloped part of the shore and threw our little anchor onto the rocks themselves and pulled the boat up a little onto the gravel. First glances revealed some large heavily rusted bits of ferrous material that turned me onto archaeologist mode. I started planning to walk over the island to see what I could find but then Miss Daisy says he wants to get back in the boat and leave again.

“What? We just got here.”

“I know, but it hurts my feet to walk across these rocks. I guess I shouldn’t have left my sandals on the beach back at the dock.”

“I guess not. Well just give me a second to look around anyway.”

I look longing down at a bit of the island that is of sand rather than gravel to walk on. I walk around, searching the ground for a couple of seconds when my student makes some exclamation. “What the @#$% is that? Is that some kind of bird, or is it just a rock and I’m seeing things”, he says pointing at a large rock about 50 meters out from the opposite shore of the island we’re standing on. It was pretty large, gray, and had big white splotches as if it had been the resting spot of a thousand gulls. Then suddenly it flexed. The top third of what I had presumed a boulder was in fact a seal.

Now, in coming from the desert I know exactly jack about the ocean and the stuff that lives in, on, and around it. Consequently I know perhaps diddly about seals. Either way this seal seemed to be about three times the size I expected them to be. Desiring to not chase it away I crouched down, shushed my student and whispered that we might ever so quietly and slowly work our way across to the shore near the seal to get a better look Unshod, Miss Daisy refused but suggested that we row around to the other side. This irritated me because by walking the distance would be so much easier to cross. Furthermore, there would be no way for us to approach unobtrusively by boat making a great deal of noise and motion in the water with every stroke. Seeing that the trip would otherwise be a waste and remembering the ease of our arrival I finally agreed. Continuing to look around before leaving we count something like 15 seals poised on rocks or swimming around. Lamenting as I frequently do, that I’ve not yet bought myself a digital camera, we re-launched and started making our way to the seal side of the island.

As we started to approach them from the west those on rocks flopped into the water and began swimming around, keeping their distance. Through later conversations it occurred to me that this decision might have been a bit rash and unsafe but we decided to row the boat out towards the middle of a big circle the seals made swimming around. While we moved in on them several dived to reemerge behind us. It was during this phase of the game that we got the closest we did to any of them, which was probably about 20 meters. It was all not quite as exciting as I might have liked but it was kind of cool. It was also a bit of a trip to realize that these things were easily big enough to tip us if they were so inclined.

Anyway, having about exhausted our current opportunities at this point and with the hour waxing late I decided it was time for us to start back home. We move along the shore of Gull Island alright and then break for a bit of open water between Gull Island and the cove of Penikese. It was about here that we’re rocked by a wave in a way that makes me uneasy. I look to my right and see a wave coming for us that’s about as tall as I am sitting in the boat. I reiterate, I’m ignorant when it comes to boating in the ocean. Perhaps I needn’t have but I became quite concerned. Then the wave hit us. Not feeling comfortable with the way we rocked I decided to row us so the bow of our boat faced the incoming waves. (I later found out that my student decided to rock the boat with his body when the wave hit significantly exaggerating the effect. Turns out that the effect had made him feel nervous about it as well.) With the next hit we didn’t rock so dangerously but I could see that these had not been isolated. We were going to need to just move as quickly as we could to get where we’d be protected in the cove. I told Miss Daisy as much and as soon as I felt balanced I turned us and started paddling for speed.

It was actually a simple matter. We moved quite quickly and the waves didn’t seem to hit us as hard. And then we started the home stretch. So far on the trip, I’d had some problems with Miss Daisy’s rowing. He liked to drag to get us to turn instead of paddle. This was annoying when we were (at least I was) trying to make time to get in for our regular schedule. On top of it, he would drag on the wrong side of the boat making us veer even further in the wrong direction. He would also paddle on the wrong side for getting us to straighten out our course. When we were able to start going straight, I would get in a strong rowing rhythm we would make some distance, then I would look around to find that we were turned in the wrong direction again. Miss Daisy had either quit paddling or wasn’t strong enough to keep up. Sometimes when this happened, being a bit fatigued I decided it would make sense for me to rest while Miss Daisy paddled on his side to straighten us out. This of course didn’t work. Every time I rested Miss Daisy decided it was extra time to add to his relaxation. At the end I would do the work of both, turning us back to straight and moving us forward. After I don’t know how many loops and 90+ degree course corrections, I started paddling both sides to almost ignore the effects of Miss Daisy.

Eventually we arrived. Having so easily rowed out, I miscalculated the time it would take for us to get back and we were in fact late. My two school students stood waiting on the dock for me to get back making jabs at the quality of our serpentine boat path but not at all disappointed for the excuse to miss a few minutes of school.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Seconds, please?

The last week I spent on the island one of our students was putting together all the last minute stuff he needed for his graduation. One of the requirements is something we refer to as "master chef." A student complete's his master chef by planning and preparing an entire meal one night. Our soon-to-be-graduate planned to prepare a meal of meatballs and pasta.

Now this kid is kind of shy in an odd sort of way. He doesn't like being the center of attention. He also has a self-efficacy kind of issue. The self-efficacy issue has a real impact on his math performance. Despite his capabilities he insists that he can't do anything and consequently refuses to try. This is a pretty common disease among math student's. In the case of his cooking, he is unwilling to eat his own work. So when he was planning his master chef he was determined that he would not eat his own food. At the same time he was really not excited about being around to get any attention for what he'd done; fear of failure/success etc. So as soon as his dinner was done he ran up the hill to take care of the chickens and hang out, waiting for dinner to be over.

Well, we ate his food and it was of course pretty good and some people wanted seconds. Our rule on the island is that no one gets seconds without getting permission from the person who prepared the meal. The students started asking what to do about the fact that the chef was up the hill. Someone came up with the suggestion that we would have to go out and ask him. The idea was further refined that we should do it all together.

When most of the boys had nearly finished their food in preparation for more, the lot of us walked out the door and lined up. From the rear of the line it looked like a hundred boys each with his plate in his right hand. Arriving in the presence of our esteemed cook someone called "Present Arms!" In near unison the boys standing in a line all extended their plates in a sort of salute. In similar military fashion the request "Permission to have seconds, sir," was made. The cook clearly a little embarrassed and yet smiling assented, and the lot returned.

I tell this story because to my mind it's a little bit funny. More importantly, it was one of the few truly nice things I've seen the boys do for each other that was also positively received. It's a credit to the kind of kids we have out there now.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Has anyone ever heard of anything like this?

What a church can do with their money.

The implications of this sort of thing are kind of amazing. I hope to hear what you think.

P.S. Let me know if this link breaks. Thanks.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

E-mail - Links

Greetings. This is the pseudoquarterly call for e-mail listing or web site linking.

If you are interested in getting an e-mail whenever I post, or if you have a website or blog of your own that you would like me to link to just respond here or e-mail me at



We recently had a student graduate from our program. It was the first real graduation of any kid who I actually worked with and had a relationship with. This particular kid had a bet with one of our staff that he could go a whole day "as a Mormon" as they say. According to the bet this meant that he couldn't swear or drink coffee on that day. The loser of said bet would wear a skirt for a day.

Well let it be said we had a really polite student that day who obligated a staff member to don cross-gender attire. The staff member however repeatedly "forgot" to bring a skirt to the island. So, as a last ditch guarantee of seeing my student receive satisfaction my graduation gift to him was the skirt you see in the picture. I wanted to get a worse one but it was kind of hard to find exotic skirts in men's sizes for three dollars or less. Ungrateful that I didn't pick out a miniskirt, he still threatens vengeance for my foul deed.

Monday, August 01, 2005

A Rousing Game of Basekeekball

When you isolate a small group of organisms from the larger population in such a way that genes do not transfer back and forth between the small group and the parent group the smaller group tends to evolve relatively quickly due to amplified effects of genetic drift. Random chance has a greater over-all effect on a smaller isolated group than a larger. This causes small variants, sometimes rare in the larger population, to become popular and dominate the smaller group.

This is analogous to what can happen on an island where are group of boys are unable to exchange materials and ideas with the larger population. Little oddities find expression where they might not have normally. In the sporting world of the island a recent example is the game of basekeekball. As you might have guessed basekeekball is a mutant version of baseball. The mutation results in swapping out the baseball for a foursquare or kick ball. Consequent trait differences include getting out on the first strike and being hit by the ball while running bases. The pitcher is to bounce the ball once before it goes over the plate. If the ball hits the plate after one bounce then the batter is out.

It is a game that the staff members have come to plague. First there was the guy who seemed to have a thing against the island fowl. First he hit the ball into a goose then into a Guinea hen. Then he tried to kill one of the chickens. Later on another staff hit the ball such that it burst open and we had to find a replacement. Then there was me and yet another staff member who collided on third base when I moved to tag him out. His occipital and my patella were a bit tender for the next couple of days. I spent the rest of the game limping around trying to field and run bases. This proved to be a little bit of a problem because of the menace the boys could be to the game as well.

The typical island sporting event involves a lot of superficial and yet intense taunting and insulting of other people regardless of team affiliation. During one game our current beta and one of the other students got into it quite a bit. The beta was taking much greater offence than warranted by the comments especially since they weren’t directed at him. He screamed out calling one of the offenders a b-word that gives everyone an itch. (Sorry, I deserve to be shot for that one.) The so caninized and feminized individual walked out into the field to do something about it when I grabbed him to restrain him but due to my painful leg couldn’t hold him. So… he got in a shot or two before other staff members could get across the field and break it up.

This assaulting student doesn’t seem to deal very well with failure in the basekeekball arena. In previous games when his team wasn’t doing so well he would run off on long walks and then eventually come back to get pissed and leave again. In one particular game he was tagged out at second base in a fashion that landed him on his back on the ground. His ego being more injured than his body he faked a severe joint dislocation rendering his arm paralyzed. Periodically he would point to his collarbone on the so wounded side of his body and claim that it was bulging out more than normal. It of course was quite symmetrical with the other side. With his fake injury he left the game but came back when it was his turn, wanting to bat. My colleague playing on his team forbade him on account of his paralysis. “If you can’t move your arm, you can’t bat.” The boy threw a bit of a fit about it but wasn’t yet prepared to come clean on what was up.

After the game, in the staff office the wounded youngling asked to receive medical attention for his arm. He said he still couldn’t move it. We told him to try to move it anyway. As he did, he discovered magically there was no pain. And lo and behold, he could move his hand freely too. It was great.

One of the things that keeps me going: if the kids aren’t making much progress, they’re always doing something hilarious.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Island Spiritual Director

One of my coworkers recently jokingly suggested that I be hired into such a title and it may not be all that inappropriate where I’ve bizarrely found a new role as the resident Buddhist dharma instructor. Now we all know that I’m not really a Buddhist. But somehow in terms of religion I find much freer expression as a Buddhist than a Mormon.

For example, familiar with the fact that I’m a marital artist our clinical director asked that I teach the boys some meditation techniques to help work on their stress reduction requirements in the school. So far I have taught them a couple of forms of meditation including Zen meditation and Shambala meditation as describe by Chogyam Trungpa. (The Holy Mother Eph knows about this book.) It has produced mixed results. A couple of kids I recommended it to have used it and have seemed to think they were getting something out of it. At least one of my students is too mentally lazy to put enough effort into it for him to get jack. The others who have not really used it have avoided even learning how. I think there is something about it that frightens them from trying it. Maybe they see themselves as too cool for it or something.

Part of my motivation for teaching meditation came from a conference I went to where I attended a lecture on something called, “dialectical behavior treatment.” It is a treatment that has been used successfully with people who have borderline personality disorder. I took the lecture because I think that some of our kids are in fact borderline and they mentioned that part of their therapy involves mindfulness exercises inspired by Zen meditation. I think the meditation is a good thing for people with all kinds of problems because the meditating person is forced to look inward and become more aware of how their own minds work. In cases of emotional dysregulation and impulse control it allows them to learn new behaviors for responding to their emotions. By being more observant of their own minds they acquire the power to choose behaviors that contradict their feelings or their initial reflexes to events. I also believe it requires them to use their prefrontal cortex in ways that it doesn’t usually get used and thereby actually develop the part of their brain that is involved in higher order decision making.

If anyone happens to know anything about dialectic behavior treatment I would love to hear from you.

Anyway, back to the Buddhism thing: You may or may not realize this but there is a tendency for educators to be relatively liberal politically. One of the things I’ve noticed a lot about people who would classify themselves as liberal is there is a very strong trend in the way they interpret their religiosity. It seems that they (and unfortunately it seems like almost everyone right and left does this these days) allow their political views to dictate their religious views for them. What this means among the trendy lefties out in this part of the world is usually a rejection of any form of organized Christianity that adheres to any kind of doctrine and frequently means associating one’s self with Buddhism but not actually committing to profess Buddhism as their religion. As my buddy Jed has cited, “I consider myself more spiritual than religious and I really like to put out because I think men respect that.” That kind of blah blah blah. Anyway, because I too associate myself with Buddhism but haven’t committed to it as a religion but have committed myself to living in a Buddhist monastery I’m the local monk.

One particular guy I work with frequently engages the Buddhism conversation with me, which is cool. Sometimes it is simply me regurgitating something my Zen master has said. But a few weeks ago there were a couple of instances where he interpreted things I said in a Buddhist sense where they weren’t necessarily intended to be. It may be that I’ve internalized some Zen teaching to the point where it is a part of my personality and so it just comes out but I don't know. Either way, I’ve found that at any moment I can unintentionally become the unqualified dharma instructor teaching through parables and casual interactions the path of illumination.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Two Tales of Boats

Some folks have heard Tale One before by telephone or what have you but not all. I thought it might be good to document it anyway. Also it may be interesting to do a little compare and contrast with Tale Two.

Tale One:

One day while in the middle of class Marcus who was supposed to be doing either vocational or kitchen work came into the school house and expressed a great deal of depression and frustration with being stuck on the island. He made some threats to try and leave the island and basically said he couldn’t take being here. He left the school and one of the school kids, Julius, asked if he could go counsel with the despaired. It is not infrequent that the boys can help each other through their problems better than a staff ever could. There’s something about the authority divide that can inhibit a lot of communication and reception of ideas. Considering this and the fact that Julius is a relatively mature and positive leadership figure among the boys I agreed to let him go counsel his friend.

I returned to working with my other student on his math. After a few minutes Julius came running back to the schoolhouse to alert, “He’s doing it! He’s taking a boat off the island!” The school is very near the area where we used to keep to boats on the beach and I knew that was where the launching would be taking place. Somewhat incredulous that this could actually be happening I jogged rather than sprinted to the beach and found Marcus pushing one of the rowboats across the sand towards the water. My initial response was to simply stand between the boat and the water and then hold the boat so he couldn’t push it any further. I started trying to talk him through the situation but Marcus got angry and walked around to push me off the boat and fight me off. Preferring not to wrestle him to the ground or box with him I formed another plan and stood out of his way.

He continued to push the boat down the beach and into the water. As soon as he put the boat in water he hopped in. Standing on the shore, I then grabbed the stern of the boat and tried to get a solid stance leaning away from the water. Marcus then tried to row but the boat wasn’t moving. I had it adequately anchored. In frustration Marcus got out of the boat and went back up to the house.

Tale Two:

There was another student who thought to escape Penikese by boat. This guy’s plan was a little more elaborate than Marcus’s.

The island has a bit of a hill shape and the main campus of the school is on the east side of the hill. Near the top of the hill we kept a couple of larger heavy wooden boats chained to each other. Mr. Betsy and his assistant Angus slipped one of these boats from the chain and over the course of an unknown number of days hauled it down to the west side of the island where they hid it in a place for convenient and secret launching.

Now with our students it is not infrequent that there are boys that when they start on our program, have a really hard time dealing with a lot of stressors involved. The work is physically hard. They are immersed in a new social environment where people are all living very close to each other. They are usually being sized up and placed on the primate hierarchy. When they are going through this stuff sometimes they run off and hide somewhere on the island to try and cope.

So on the fateful night Mr. Betsy was sitting talking with one of our staff about a task in as little time as it took the staff member to turn to another student and back, the kid was gone. For several hours it was thought that Mr. Betsy had just hid himself somewhere on the island. It was then that our office received a call from the police alerting them to what had really happened.

When he ran Mr. Betsy launched the boat and began to row his way out into Buzzard’s Bay. After a bit, what he was actually doing sort of percolated into his mind and he started to get scared and row himself back. Unfortunately, despite his rowing he was not moving towards the island. He had been caught by a strong current and was being swept further out into the bay.

We don’t really know how long any of this took but, we do know that eventually a boat out of Cuttyhunk, the island closest to Penikese, found the drifting rowboat and basically rescued the kid. Mr. Betsy told them that he’d been washed out from a harbor on mainland but they didn’t really believe him and called the police to inquire. He was turned over to the cops who got in touch with Mr. Betsy’s parents and he was eventually returned to our school. It was said that this was the only time since the school was founded in the mid-seventies that a kid escaped the island by rowboat. Maybe that’s because all the other boys have been smart enough to know they could die. Maybe.

As always, all these names are code. Duh.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Enlightenment and Attachment

I'm gonna try something new here and have a bit of an essay. If you think it sucks let me know and I'll never do it again... or something. Maybe I'll improve it.

My Zen Master says that to become enlightened you have to have an empty mind and cut thinking. Now what he means by this is not that you should have a mind with nothing in it. Instead it means having a mind that is empty in a way that gives it room enough to fit the whole universe. He says that in order to accomplish this you have to avoid and get rid of attachments. Attachment to something can cause you to think about it in a way that it takes up too much room in your mind and prevents you from being open to receiving enlightenment.

Developmental researchers have demonstrated that the way we form attachment relationships in our childhood has a big influence on our attachments in later life and in turn how our children form attachments. Through studies involving separating toddlers from parents for a time and reuniting them there are maybe three major ways that humans can form attachments. The first is when the child has an emotionally responsive parent who uses consistent non-verbal cues and consistently meets the child’s needs. In the resulting attachment the child is both stressed by the parent’s absence and is easily comforted by the parent’s return. This is considered to be a “healthy, secure” attachment.

Another version of attachment is regarded as “dismissing.” A child forms this kind of attachment when they have signaled needs to a parent who has generally failed to respond. In this case the parent does meet the child’s basic needs but fails to satisfy certain emotional needs. This process results in attachments where individuals establish no expectation that their needs will be met and so, in separation or reunion basically no stress or comforting is evident. These type of adults tend not to remember any details of their past attachment relationships particular during their childhood.

In the third version of attachment the parent’s response to the child’s needs is inconsistent and frequently involves the parent superimposing his/her mental state onto the child’s. For example the child could be having a nice day and the parent alters the child’s state by being overly upset about something when interacting with the child. These are the folk who are distraught when abandoned and are not easily comforted on being reunited with an attachment figure. These adults tend to frequently dwell on attachments of the past and allow the associated emotions to intrude on the present.

It has been shown that the brain requires some kind of attachment in order to develop properly. I have one student and an adopted little brother who are both diagnosed as having a fairly severe disorder regarding their attachments. This condition is the result of children who are so neglected as to have had even their basic needs unmet in infancy. It also frequently involves abuse. They tend not only to not care if the parent is around or not; they are resistant in the extreme to bonding with anyone. Whenever they get a sense that someone is starting to bond with them, their individualist adaptation leads them to unconsciously sabotage the attachment.

To use my student as a sort of example, he was once asked if he would be willing to never again see his best friend if he were offered a large amount of money in exchange. He said that he would say “goodbye” and do so easily because the relationship holds little value. In fact, the insecurity of being in a relationship would make the offer of money like getting paid to not endure torture.

To consider the potential for each of these to achieve enlightenment it is quite clear that the third type is in a very difficult position. They have a tendency for attachments to reemerge as negative experiences throughout life. Thereby these attachments consume the void that should become one’s mind. In some ways the fourth instance may seem the best except that where these individuals are not attached to people and tend to avoid such attachments their survival instincts are in full swing and they tend to form very strong attachments to satisfying physical needs: food, temperature, sex, etc. My student for example became a porn freak without ever looking at any. Those of the dismissive type are not too far off except for the fact that they tend to develop a strong sense of self-reliance and become obsessed or attached with work and career. It may be the best route to enlightenment through abolishing attachments is to start with healthy ones.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Drama Queen

Since my last writing I’ve been to a bit of an educational conference that has made me somewhat more inclined to be merciful and less critical of the drama queens in my life. Something was explained about emotional dysregulation and people acting out on very real feelings. The existence of those feelings may not make sense to outside parties. It is in this respect that the attention seeking drama queen behaviors are not necessarily as manipulative and evil as they most likely seem.

Anyway, I will still illustrate the drama queen.

This kid is one of our lowest ranking folks on the social hierarchy and was even more so when he was early on the island. Hence, he didn’t have much of a relationship at all with the other boys. One of the most popular kids was one day kicked off the island. He was a kid with a lot of close friends among the boys and the day he left a lot of people were pretty upset. However, the drama queen was new enough to the island he really hadn’t bonded with anyone yet and certainly had no special ties to the abolished child. Despite this, the most emotionally distraught individual was the drama queen who made the biggest scene in terms of how unfair it was that his super close friend was being run off the island.

A common recurring behavior of the drama queen is to display wounds that have involved bleeding. Every cut, knick, scrape that ever leaked the red liquid becomes something to show grown-ups as if the wounds should elicit a concerned response. One day the 100x magnification of this behavior could be seen when one of the other boys threw a rock and plunked the drama queen in the head. Drama queen fell to the ground under the blow and had quite a bit of bleeding from his lacerated scalp. It was a painful and disorienting wound, I’m sure. However, the hamming seemed to amp up gradually the further we got from the event. First there was the “I’m too stunned to apply pressure to my own bleeding wound.” This was followed by what I could have sworn was exaggerated sobbing. This came in conjunction with “I’m gonna kill him the next time I see him.” This is a reasonably predictable sentiment but really not plausible for this kid and seemed expressed more in acting than in true rage. All of his efforts seemed to come to fruition as a glowing pleasure emanated while the nurse cooingly cleaned and dressed his wound.

Considering the nature of his injury a concussion seemed not unlikely and it was decided that he needed to be seen by a doctor. This was on a Friday so he just took the boat back to the Cape with us. As we just started to head out the drama queen closed his eyes for a second wincing in pain when one of the other staff told him to not go to sleep because that can really complicate a concussion. Within a few seconds the drama queen leaned back as if about to nap when the staff shook him and repeated that he shouldn’t sleep. So, as the boat ride went on, the kid would make more and more fuss about pretending to sleep and getting pissed when the staff person would shake him to make sure he didn’t. He clearly relished the fact that he could get someone to respond to him every few seconds. After a while the other staff went out on the outside deck and the actress faked sleep again. I didn’t shake him awake. I just ignored him. And after the critical few seconds of “oh my gosh he’s falling asleep” wore off he gave up and stopped playing at it.

These are some of the most intense examples. The more day-to-day business from this kid is to act like he needs more help on his schoolwork than he does, throw exaggerated hissy fits over nothing, voluntarily “help” with things you really don’t want him to do, etc. But writing of this kid and considering the way these behaviors recently felt to me like someone scratching a chalkboard, I feel inclined to make a brief soapbox about how a kid gets to this point.

I mentioned in the princess post how it is understandable that so much of what is considered bad behavior from adolescents is simply a form of communication where in kids are trying like mad to get people they should have attached relationships with to acknowledge they do in fact exist and do in fact matter. Kids who might end up on the island don’t get this sort of acknowledgement. When they do it is usually in the wrong way meaning abuse. A lot of them don’t even really have attached relationships.
Sometimes people look at all the stupid, irresponsible, risky, and otherwise deviant things that adolescents do and impulsively criticize them. Instead I like the saying of President Monson in the Priesthood Session of Conference last October that young people need less criticism and better examples.
* On the island we want to build relationships with kids. Then when their emotional needs are met they will want to change on their own. I think that it works. Last week I saw marked improvement in both princess and drama queen. It could be a temporary change but I like to think I’m seeing the fruit of what we do.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Princess

I was planning to write this bit in on my last week off but didn’t manage it. It turned out to be okay because this week gave me a lot of fodder for writing this up.

It may or may not seem strange to talk about hardened criminal adolescent boys as princesses and drama queens. However, in the last few weeks I’ve seen so much behavior that cannot be described otherwise. It is actually pretty pervasive, this princess-ness or drama queen-dom among the boys of Penikese Island. It kind of makes sense in that many of these guys are here with behavioral disorders because they haven’t gotten their needed allotment of attention etc. growing up. Consequently they often do things based on how much people pay attention to them, and their egos are particularly fragile. To illustrate I will describe some of what has gone on with the two boys I think most typify the concepts of princess and drămă queen.

The princess has a rather high opinion of his own appearance. He is very particular about the state of his “do rag.” (sp?) He was once observed looking at a photo of himself that didn’t turn out very well. He was going to burn it but changed his mind because as he referred to himself in the third person, “Adonis
*, is just too beautiful.” This last week Adonis was quite proud of his outfit coming out the island. It constituted of a Lakers jersey and a pair of blue jeans with purple and yellow bands on the legs and pockets. (For those as ignorant as I, the Lakers wear yellow and purple.) It was the matching aspect of which he was most proud and I was most brutally mocking. Where I’m from, teenage boys are supposed to ignore such things and leave color matching to girls.

The princess Adonis is also very clever at spinning reality in such a way as to make you think he must be the most awesome person in the world. Should you ever play a few games of pool with him he will not only remember but also vigorously assert that he beat you many more times than he actually did. In my case I grant that he is a bit better at pool than I am. But due to luck, circumstance, whatever, I’ve managed to scrape by winning about half of the games we’ve had. Curiously though, the princess has only recently started to allow that I’ve beat him once. Another example came up this last week. In a bid for attention the princess invaded the staff sleeping quarters to lob bits of cookie dough at one of the other staff members. Refusing all requests to leave of his own power the staff present determined to perform “a restraint.” (That’s code for man-handling a kid or physically moving the kid to solve some kind of problem. There’s a lot of technical hoo hah about restraints but I’ll spare you for the moment.) Basically what happened was the two guys tried to wrestle him out of the room. He’s a big kid and resisted a lot so I helped them out. Anyway, even before the restraint was over the princess began reinventing how the whole thing went down. In each telling he framed himself in increasing terms of glory. “No what really happened was, I was restraining you” etc.

The princess is also not very good at taking criticism. He is clearly above the paltry needs for correction. To paraphrase They Might Be Giants I’ve said “Is it not enough that we get to walk in the glow of his majestic presence?” Examples of this include throwing fits when getting feedback on his math assignments and smashing lantern chimneys when reminded to do certain kitchen work.

Anyway, this is long and probably boring so… I’m going to give the drama queen installment some other time.

* This is a code name. I use it to protect the identity of someone who will never be affected by the publication of this blog.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Place v2.0

So I have at long last gotten myself out of the barn. I still have a few bits waiting down there to haul out but for the most part I’ve relocated myself to the town of Brighton, which is kind of a suburb of Boston. It sets between Boston University and Boston College a little closer to Boston College. The public transportation set up here is pretty awesome. I have a train station about a block away and the bus that goes to church stops right in front of my place.

The glamorous bit is that my room happens to be in a church built a little over a hundred years ago which has been converted into a Buddhist temple. To be specific it is a Zen martial arts temple. The organization is called “Shim Gum Do” which is Korean and translates as the Mind Sword Way. The primary martial art practiced here is Shim Gum Do, which is a sword system where training is done by forms with a bokken. They also teach an empty-handed system called “Shim boep” which means the methods of the mind. For myself, I have begun training with the sword and I am quite enjoying it.

I am frequently asked about “the monks.” In this case there are no traditional monks as I knew them in Korea. That has to do with the fact that this is more a Zen martial arts school than a Buddhist monastery. The monks here are all martial artists and right now include our founding master Kim Chang Shik, and five white people. We have a sort of community living situation where we share certain amounts of the temple maintenance work, take turns cooking, train together, etc. Only the founding master has a shaved head.

I have a private room that sits next to (actually was constructed within) the main training room called the Dharma room that used to be the chapel. So, my room has a stained-glass window and a sort-of relief cast in plaster of a choir I think of as the Levites. There is a baby depicted in the cast with nasty grimace on his face.

If you like you can check out the Shim Gum Do Association website at

Friday, February 25, 2005

Extra Work

Greetings folks. There has been a bit less of me up here lately due to the fact that I've been covering on the island for some other folks and haven't had a chance to sit down and write.

A handful of interesting things to consider regarding activities on the island of late. Certain students' behavior has been making a glorious downward spiral and it has forced interesting new social circumstances most saliently on myself but also on one of my coworkers. The kids were caught smoking. They got fined, which is the standard consequence. This somehow turned the staff (first the other guy, then me) into "snitches." This struck me as odd because "snitch" is a term I'm used to being reserved for students who rat to staff. But either way, the two easy going folks doing their jobs became most hated persons 1 and 2.

Anyway, after the first smoking problem event, only one particular student was caught, fined, and absolved of his home pass. A form of guilt and glory-seeking led two other students (previous accomplices to the crime) to deliberately make a scene of smoking in front of staff making a jolly big crew of kids who've destroyed one of our major carrots to encourage rule keeping behavior. This "f*** it" attitude led to the next morning's smoking event in the school house, the one where I became the bad guy. This was all before I began my shift covering mania. (Oh yeah, I also forgot to mention the stand-off on the dock. Oh the stories!)

It was the next Monday to Wednesday where I covered and the real hatred came out and there were the genital exposing events. I might have covered the whole week except that Wednesday I met with some neuroscience folks at Boston University (a great and glorious story I may tell another time.) So then began what may be refered to by some as the week resembling Hell, or "The Abyss" if you are Gandalf. The week could be represented as one crisis after another. One crisis was a student threating people with knives from the kitchen, then an axe in the yard. Then we had the kid who lit a fire of rubbing alcohol in the schoolhouse who upon realizing he would be fined for it pulled the smoke-pipe off of the fireplace and said he was going to fill the school with smoke and kill us all. This was followed by the kid trying to escape the island in a row-boat. All of this sort of petering out into a general state of discontent. One kid was hauled from the island to go to jail. (Another long story.)

A likely assessment I heard was that we have a lot of kids on the island now (8!!!) so the two to one student - staff ratio wasn't getting these kids enough attention. So when each kid would have a crisis they would get all the attention, someone else would feel the lack and in turn have his crisis. (Oh, did I forget to mention the one defecating his trousers?) Anyway, Friday came. I stayed for the weekend shift. And suddenly it was three days of nice, normal, happy behavior. A lot of it had to do with the kid being hauled away. Both the fear of "this could happen to you" as well as his behavior being the source of a great deal of tension. But the weekend went smoothly, gloriously. It was all kind of surreal.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

All the New Dudes

First off, I want to apologize for the fact that this post is not as organized or thematic as I generally like to make them. The last couple of weeks have been relatively momentous but... I don't know, so I'll just tell the story.

Three new guys on the island and one leaving. One of the kids, the Napoleonic kid I mentioned in my last island report, it was decided that our program might not be the right one for him. (That is to say we decided to arrange for him to be kicked out.) There were a great many problems with his behavior but, more importantly all of our treatment plans for him were being sabotaged from his home. The threat of getting kicked out had interesting effects on his behavior. They represent something quite common to most of these boys. Given certain conditions for not getting kicked out early on he began with an attitude that he was going to meet the requirements. However, in his decision making processes he consitently betrayed his stated intentions until a point of crisis arrived. When the difficulty (yet existent possibility) of succeeding in the goal reached a certain level, the boy determined that the whole thing was hopeless. Deciding that it was hopeless he let his behavior run in exactly the wrong course.

The three guys who've showed up: I'm finding that most of the kids when they are new and not yet secure with the situation tend to have pretty good behavior. They aren't comfortable enough to take more risks than they've already taken by just going to the island. Nonetheless, compared with the kid leaving, the kids coming are to me a breath of fresh air. There are of course many problems but they seem a lot more manageable from a sort of teacher type perspective.

The first of the three to come out is a kind of pot-head or at least that is how he presents himself. A lot of it may be due to the fact that he's on a plethora of medications, something someone referred to as a chemical restraint. Sleeps a lot. Hasn't been a stellar student in the past but for my money he's demonstrated the capacity to be. Imagine Brandon Rogers NOT on speed. (That's a joke.)

The second of the three new guys was just previously in a program in Magna. Yes, that's right. Magna, Utah. The place is called Vista and from what he said it sounds pretty awful. Someone might check it out for me. He ran away from there and they put him in the U's mental hospital up in Research Park near Fort Douglas Cemetery if you know where that is. Anyway, he's a great kid so far. Much more mature than I'm used to dealing with out here. Actively involved, hardworking, even volunteering in every part of the program.

I've been made the advisor to the third kid. That means I'll be in charge of helping make sure he meets all the graduation requirements for the program and so forth. There is something about him that kind of creeps me out a bit. He reminds me a couple of kids from the ancestral village. These were kids who had serious issues of substance abuse and physical abuse in their homes. The sign was a slightly awkward means of trying to be ingraciating. There is also a certain fragility to the body and an intangible quality to facial expressions. He's told me of certain anger problems but I think they are founded in some form of anxiety. He is definitely a little over anxious.

Anyway, all the new people have an interesting effect on the kids we already have. For one, they are not getting as much attention as they used to so... they are acting out in some ways to get some. Also, they have different behavioral patterns that are dampened or intensified where they have things respectively uncommon or common between them. All in all I expect a good effect. It seems some infusion of some more positive attitudes.

Due to libraries and timed internet use you will have to wait for the story of my week off island. There's my teaser trailer.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Letter to Anonymous

Greetings Anonymous,

I should like to respond to your comment. It has not to this point occured to me that the picture I paint of my life on the island here would not come off as a very good thing. In fact it is reasonable to wonder why in the world anyone would want to do this. But somehow, for me the events I've so far written about have been to me more descriptive than evaluative.

I am having a good time. Part of what's good about it is that it is a real challenge.

I had a conversation with someone who used to work here recently. He was telling me about how he was trying to help one of the program's graduates get a job. He had already set him up with some good work before but the kid had flaked out on it. So this former staff member's wife asked him why he did all this, why he bothered. His words were, "to give him a chance."

Giving these guys a chance is about all we can do at this juncture. So that's what we do. Give them a little separation from the kinds of things that usually get them into real trouble so they have time and space to learn what they need to function in the so-called real world.

There's a lot about it that is like doing missionary work. The simple fact is that no person can be forced to change anything about themself except to some extent by nature. The kids are growing up and there is a body of research that indicates the development of the brain's architecture continues well into the late teens. This will force some changes on the boys' behavior. However, we can do nothing to force them.

The result is that you sympathize with undeveloped perspective, rejoice in small changes, plant seeds when you get a chance, and hope for the best. Building relationships is pretty important in all of this. A kid doesn't confide if they don't trust you. If they don't feel like you care, the seeds you may scatter will fall on hard ground. So you earn their trust. For a lot of these kids trust have been a rare thing in their lives where they've been abandoned by parents, their friends have led them into crime and have left them to deal with the consequences alone, and their teachers and social workers have demonstrated that the paycheck really is the only reason they care about them. That is assuming teachers and social workers actually do care.

So doing this job feels kind of like being a life-line. I get to help create a path to a better life for these guys if they will choose it. But whether they choose it or not, the path is there.

Maybe that is kind of an answer.

I think all the negative stories is another part of the answer of why I'm having a good time. I am most at heart an anthropologist. These kids' behavior fascinates me. Seeing what they do and learning about the hows and whys of it is why I started this in the first place. The idea is that by learning more about them better ways of helping them may emerge.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

As the island turns... or something.

This last week on the island a couple of experiences sort of stick out.

One of our kids speaks frequently and braggingly of elements of his life off the island. He talks a lot about his sexual practices. He also talks a lot about drug use and related phenomena. All of this can build an impression that he has by whatever force been pushed into roles that are quite adult if not mature and that he himself has this degree of maturity. But this same kid one night this last week asked to be tucked into bed and told a bedtime story. There was a bit of jocularity in it but, at the same time he really did appreciate it. The experience sent him into a long explanation about how he feels like the program is affecting him and what he feels like he needs to get from it. The insightful explanation also revealed unsatisfied needs in the Maslowian sense, the kind of things that should have been met much earlier in his life.

Another of our kids... As I've been working with and watching him he has developed a perspective on the universe that is quite odd to me. All things must predictably go his way. He seems to be the case which is traditionally called spoiled...maybe. For example, he has a very strong habit of ordering people around. It doesn't matter who, why, or what about if he thinks something should be done he orders it. And I say orders it in the sense that nine times out of ten he yells the order in a most hateful condescending tone of voice. When he doesn't get what he wants 99 time out of 100 (this may be to generous) he uses explitives to vilify the person who refused to comply. A new experience for him is playing ping-pong, since the school recently obtained one. Having never really played it before, he isn't very good. In fact he's the worst of any I've seen play on the island. So, he consistently loses. Now the normal person who takes up a new game and plays against experienced players expects to lose and learn something about playing it. Not with this kid. He knew before he began that he must be able to win without trying. This belief has led to the most interesting tantrums at the table. His commands and orders have extended to ordering his opponents to not play according to their ability. In effect: "Stop hitting the ball back and scoring you f***er." This kid also has the belief that it is perfectly reasonable to ask other people to do for him things that he is perfectly capable of himself.

"Throw a log in the fire."
"Because it's going out."
"So, why don't you do it? You're standing as close to the wood as I am and I'm doing something."
"I don't care. Just do it."
"If it's so important to you, do it yourself."
"F*** you!"

This kind of thing has occured with so many things. "Tie my shoes." "Get my jacket." "Rack up the pool balls."

It will be interesting to see how long it will take for refusals to culminate in his getting a clue.