My Barbaric Yawlp
"I too am not a bit tamed,
I too am untranslatable.
I sound my barbaric yawlp
over the roof-tops of the world..."
Leaves of Grass
I did some disturbing math recently, not as disturbing as the Math Trailblazers curriculum my daughter's school uses, but it was pretty darn close. The problem went something like this: Michael has worked 60% of his life in human services. If it is now 2007 and he was born in 1956, when did Michael enter the field? Answer: A long, long time ago. One thing I've learned over the years is that if you do this work long enough—more than a few hours—you'll make mistakes. If you do it for many years you will make lots of mistakes, and you'll make them for someone else's own good.
All these years later, I can’t quite track the progression from hypothetical musing to holy-crap actual behavior, but however it happened, one bright summer morning in 1993 the majority of our mental health Continuous Treatment Team piled into a borrowed van and headed south to Laurel, Delaware to jump out of an airplane. I wish I could say that we were going to increase team cohesiveness or to break through growth-limiting barriers, but honestly, we were motivated by nothing loftier than, “It would be so cool.” The ride down was marked with the kind of giddiness and exhilaration that can only be generated by people spurred to recklessness by group dynamics. The tone was raucous, the humor black. I laughed loudly and freely but tasted copper in the back of my mouth.
August 1968. My friend Robert Armstrong and I picked our way to through unfamiliar campsites under the Pacific sun. Scout troops from all over Guam and from Japan had gathered for the first Camporee ever held on the island. Both eleven years old, Robert was African American; I was white, much as I am today. I don’t remember why we were on our way to the assembly area or what we were talking about. I don’t remember whether this was the day the monitor lizard invaded our tent or the weekend we got sliced up by sword grass looking for WWII artifacts. I don’t remember whether the rabies outbreak had abated or if it was still in full swing, but what happened as we entered the campsite of the kid with the axe remains vivid to this day.
Over the years I’ve been blessed with great teachers. Paul Fleming, my 12th grade English teacher, taught me the language of classical rhetoric. We would write arguments based on an assigned piece of British literature (“Resolved: Hamlet Was Mad”) and then read the paper in front of our classmates who would then challenge each premise, clause, qualifier, and conclusion. When the class finished with us, Mr. Fleming would begin. In all honesty, I don’t remember particularly liking Mr. Fleming, but I was aware, even then, that he was providing a remarkable educational experience. Mr. Fleming taught a method of thinking and speaking and writing that has served me well my entire life.
In my junior year at the University of South Florida, after taking all the prerequisite psychology courses, including statistics and research methods, I signed up for psychopathology. Finally, I would learn the mysteries of neuroses and psychoses and all the other arcane elements of my major subject. In opening the first class, my professor (Jack Sandler, who would become a huge influence in my life) said, "We won't be talking about neurosis or psychosis in this course. We'll be talking about operant learning and human behavior." What? But I took stats and methods!
I was outraged, but twenty minutes into the first lecture the sky opened. The scales fell from my eyes. I was a born-again behaviorist. Thorndike, Watson, Pavlov, and Skinner had brought us the law, and this man was going to teach it to me. Other prophets would follow: Sidman, Azrin, Wolpe, Baer, Wolf, Risley, Greenspoon, Kazdin, Bandura, Bijou, Lovaas.
I first saw "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in 1975 while I was in college and readily identified with the hell-raising, force-of-nature R. P. McMurphy portrayed by Jack Nicholson. McMurphy represented rebellious individuality and freedom in opposition to the establishment's spirit-crushing conformity machine.
Five years later I was a behavior specialist in a secure facility serving young men with mental retardation who had committed felonies. Barely 22 years old and working in an environment with sometimes alarming levels of violence and aggression, I began to regard Nurse Ratchett with more sympathy.
I’ve noticed lately that, even on NPR, people often use the word regime when they mean regimen. They refer to “vitamin regimes” or “exercise regimes” or “treatment regimes.” This sounds odd to my ear and vaguely disturbing, so I turn to our trusty Concise Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for clarification. It says “The World’s Most Trusted Dictionaries” right there on the front cover.
A regime, according to the OED, is “a government, especially an authoritarian one.” And this is my understanding of the word. In everyday usage, when we say regime, we usually mean a tyrannical government that oppresses its people – that uses the threat of violence to impose its will on the citizenry. So we speak of “corrupt regimes” or “evil regimes” or “military regimes, and we topple governments to achieve “regime change.”