I always love a conversation with Blake Boles. We never fail to get into interesting territory. He recently interviewed me for his podcast, Off Trail Learning, and that episode is embedded below. The topic is the challenges of freedom in unschooling. Unschooling is a libertarian (meaning focused on, valuing, and providing freedom for the student) educational style which is at the center of my long-time second home and family, Not Back to School Camp. If you are interested in unschooling, Blake’s podcast is a good way to learn about it. Check out his interviews with Grace Llewellyn of NBTSC, Dev Carey of High Desert Center (“On the perils of goal setting”) and Liam Nilsson of Endor (“Who should unschool and who shouldn’t”). I aimed my interview at joining in on their conversations.

I wanted to call this post “advice for taking and passing the LMFT exam” but it turns out, having passed last week, that I don’t have much advice to give. The problem is that the ways the exam is hard are not things you can prepare for. I’ll describe that situation, for what it’s worth, then describe the process of taking the test, and give the few pieces of advice I can offer. Take that advice with several grains of salt, though, because when you pass, they don’t tell you your score. I have no idea if I passed with flying colors or barely scraped by. For reasons I’m about to get into, I wouldn’t be surprised either way. I really can’t say if I over-prepared and rocked it or underprepared and got lucky.

The material you have to know is not that hard. With a few exceptions, it’s the same stuff you learned in your grad school program, the same stuff you’ve been drilling in your internship. The test is hard mostly because the writing is terrible. Have you ever read something that has been passed through several languages in a translator program, then back into English? That is how the questions, and especially the answers, read. Most of them. They often barely make sense and some of it is complete nonsense. I doubt they used the translator trick, so it may be that they looked up the most obscure synonym for each word and then garbled up the grammar a bit to top it off. I would be ashamed to be associated with the writing of that exam. I do not consider it an ethical way to make an exam difficult. Unfortunately, that is the situation.

The second reason it is hard is that you have to read and comprehend all of that garble at lightning speed. I read at a slightly above average speed with high comprehension and I had twelve minutes left at the end to review my marked questions. Twelve minutes left at the end of a four hour test.

So that’s my first piece of advice: If you’re a slower than average reader, see what you can do for special accommodations on time, and definitely if English is your second language. I don’t know what’s available in that way, but look into it and take what you can get.

The third reason is that it’s just difficult to sit and concentrate that hard for four hours without stopping. Your body will hurt, if it has that tendency. If you have body or pain issues I would look into what accommodations they have to offer.

—-

The process of taking the test: I took mine in Riverside, so this may vary, and because you have to take the ethics exam right away now, you probably know all of this stuff already. You can skip this and the next paragraphs. PSI, the testing company has a suite in an office building. You walk into their lobby and the staff signs you in, takes your photo, and you wait a bit. The staff is very nice and professional. There is a rack to hang your coat and you can get a locker. (The PSI materials say that you don’t get a locker, but you can.) They let me take my migraine meds in on a tissue, but you can’t take anything else. I wished I’d worn a long sleeve shirt because it was a bit cool for me and I couldn’t take my sweatshirt in. They provide a pencil and scratch paper. You sit in one of fifteen or twenty cubicles with a PC computer, mouse, and keyboard. It’s pretty quiet. They offer you earplugs but I didn’t need them, and I’m pretty sensitive to noise. You run through some instructions and practice questions to get the hang of it. It’s pretty easy. Then you start the test and have four hours to finish 170 questions. That’s less than 90 seconds per question. There are three or four counters at the top of your screen, counting questions, up and down, and time. I can’t remember if the timer counted up or down or both, but I remember it being pretty easy to use. I would occasionally multiply my number of questions answered by 1.5 to make sure I was on track to get through every question. For example, after answering question 40, I could check that I was well under one hour into the exam. You can take breaks whenever you want, but the clock won’t stop. I took two breaks. The first was about a minute, to eat a few bites of a date bar I left in my coat pocket, about an hour and a half into the exam. The second was to pee, at about three hours in. That took five or six minutes, because the bathroom is down the hall and the staff has to escort you. I’m glad I took the breaks. I imagine that seven or eight extra minutes at the end of the exam would not have been very useful after hours of low blood sugar and holding pee.

If you have any time left, you can go back and look at questions you marked. I had time to look at a few and changed one answer. Then you finish. They make you click “yes” on a few versions of “Yes, I understand this will end my test and I can’t go back” before ending, so you can’t end the test accidentally. You walk back out into the lobby, grab your stuff, and get your results. I think if you fail they tell you your score, but I’m not sure. There is also the possibility that the BBS is re-analyzing how the exam is performing and you won’t find out if you passed for another month or so. That happened to me for my ethics exam, and it’s much nicer to know immediately how you did. I was in a bit of a daze after the exam and walked around the roads near the test center for a while before I felt like driving.

——

To prepare for the exam, I bought the Therapist Development Center’s MFT Clinical Exam package and did their 65 hour (versus 110 hour) track. I can’t say how it compares to Grossman or AATBS because I’ve never seen those packages. I can say that I used a Grossman practice-test package to study for the ethics exam and passed, but I’m pretty sure that I spent too much time studying that way. I basically tried to reverse-engineer the test using the practice tests plus the legal statutes and CAMFT Code of Ethics, which took a long time—a little over 70 hours of dedicated studying. The TDC package helped me avoid rabbit holes and working too long. TDC’s 65-hour track took me 68 hours to complete, plus I did an extra eight hours of study on the DSM-5, having been trained exclusively on the DSM-IV-TR. I made two outlines of the DSM-5, one of timeline information, like how long you need symptoms for each diagnosis, and one for age limit information. (I put those up here and here.) I also spent about four hours reading (and rereading) the CAMFT Code of Ethics, California statutes, and legal/ethics articles from CAMFT’s Therapist magazine archives.

Again, I have no idea how I would have done without studying that way, but I went in feeling as well-prepared as I could have. I barely studied the last couple days before the test because I felt like I knew the material. I remember thinking, “If I don’t pass, I’m not sure what I will do for the next four months, because I already know this stuff.”

So I can recommend the Therapist Development Center material. The extra DSM study didn’t help me that I remember on the exam—the TDC coverage would have been enough. I could probably say the same for the Code of Ethics and statutes reading. I don’t recall the test getting very nit-picky about any of that stuff. That’s not how they made the exam difficult, though I would have preferred it that way. Even if it was extra studying, I feel good about having done it. We MFTs should know that stuff cold.

That was likely the last multi-hour multiple choice exam I’ll ever have to take. I’m fine with that. Now it’s time to focus on setting up my private practice!

I drove my youngest brother and his new wife from my parents’ home to the airport this morning, bound for medical school, out-of-country. It was a nice scene, sentimental in a heartfelt way. Hugs all around, my mom crying, and my brother, too. When I got home, my mom said he reminded her of Bilbo Baggins, all cozy and comfortable in his home, dragged away to confront a dragon. That feels right. Or destroy a Death Star.

On the way back, it hit me that we lacked a ritual for sending him off. I suppose what our culture has to offer is the going-away party. We didn’t do that. We had a few nights, informally talking about hopes and fears in our parents’ living room, which was good, but it would have been good for all of us to have more of a ritual. My own leaving home twenty-some years ago was even less acknowledged–my best friend and I packed all of our possessions into the back of my truck and moved hundreds of miles away early in the morning, before anyone was awake to say goodbye. They knew we were going, of course, but no sendoff. My brother may have preferred it low key, of course; we also dropped their marriage license off at the county building on the way out of town with no other ritual attached to that major event.

In these moments I wish that our culture was more prescriptive. You have a going away party when you go away. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want it, because it’s not just about you. It’s about the family and the community who are losing you. Cultural prescriptions have their downsides, of course, but in our freedom- and individual-oriented culture we lose sight of the benefits: emotionally satisfying communal markers of major life events, phase transitions facilitated and eased, powerful rituals of induction into new freedoms and responsibilities, the strengthening of “us” as a family and community and culture. Real family and cultures don’t just exist. They are subject to entropy. We continually remake them with each acknowledgement, with each bond strengthened.

To my dear brother, Ben: Welcome to your new adventure. I could tell how deeply you feel the sacrifice of leaving and I know we feel the sacrifice of losing you. What you are going to do for the next bunch of years will be a sacrifice, too. But it will also be an adventure, and we will all benefit from what you do out there. Take care of yourself and come home when you can.
Love,
Nathen

bnr-psp-2

 

 

Like many people, I looked at Nate Silver’s model for the presidential election outcome daily for the last six months. I hoped it would calm me down. It didn’t. I was not calm because his model was predicting somewhere between pretty close and extremely close the whole time, unlike during the 2012 election. Here’s what it looked like on election day–the blue line was the probability that Hillary Clinton would win and the red line was the probability that Donald Trump would win:

538-graph-election-day

A lot of people seemed to have looked at this and decided that Trump had very little chance of winning. That’s not what it says at all, and I think this points to a problem with our math curricula.

We could and should but do not have any kind of grasp of probability by the time we graduate high school. We need the education, because our brains have trouble taking base rates adequately into account. (See the second blurb here for a little more information.) We spend a lot of time learning algebra, which is for a normal person useful only for internalizing arithmetic and for the general brain workout, but we spend almost no time learning about probability. So we have an electorate swung in part by those living in genuine fear of being killed in a terrorist attack, which is a near-zero percent probability, and by those who were blasé about Trump’s chances of winning.

Basic probability is not hard to learn. Any teenager of average intelligence and a week of Dungeons & Dragons under their belt could have told you that Trump could easily win the election. The worst his chances ever got were about the same as rolling a 1 on an 8-sided die. It’s not great odds, but you don’t bet the life of your character on it, much less the fate of your whole game. And that’s the worst it got. It looks like he averaged around the chance of rolling a 1 on a 4-sided die. That happens a lot. Give it a try.

I’d love to see algebra classes replaced entirely by statistics classes, but I’d settle for replacing the first two weeks of Algebra I with an intro to dice gambling. The idea that knowing how to factor polynomials is more important than a real grasp of probability is hurting us.

I took a year-long break from news, starting in the spring of 2015, on the advice of my doctor, to reduce stress. It helped a bit, and I needed the help. I was working on the last of my hours for licensure in a stressful environment. It was worth it to give up my standing as a good citizen who keeps up with current events.

Then, a year later, I decided to listen to the back episodes of my main news sources, Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square and KCRW’s Left, Right & Center,* figuring that old news should be less stressful and that my good-citizenship could use some updating.

I found that old news is almost infinitely less stressful than new news. It is also, of course, significantly less interesting, probably through the same mechanism. But the main lesson for me was about spin. Listening to pundits and guests talk a year ago about the news, I realized that they are constantly making, or at least implying, predictions. Maybe every third declarative sentence is a prediction. And from the vantage point of a year later, it is clear that these extremely intelligent, well-informed people are very, very bad at predicting the future. Predictions with no predictive value are just spin, an attempt to create the future by moving the narrative in the direction of your ideology.

That news is largely spin is not a major theoretical revelation, but it has been a big deal to me experientially. It reminds me of the first time a press release I’d written appeared, with only minor edits, in a newspaper under a reporter’s name. I’d known from my publicity classes that 80% of print media was rewritten press releases, but seeing my words there in print, looking so official, I felt my brain shift: Just about every thing you read exists because someone else has a vested interest in your thinking what they want you to think. And the same goes for words spoken on news shows.

So after catching up on news and realizing this, I very nearly went off it again. How is it useful to listen to all this spin? It takes up a fair amount of time that could be spent reading or studying. Or, I thought, maybe I’d search for a news source that offered no “analysis,” just descriptions of events. Eventually I decided/rationalized that I’d be missing out on the most entertaining few months of news in my lifetime, so I stayed in it. To temper the stress, I’ve added some much nerdier sources, mostly FiveThirtyEight Elections, Vox’s The Weeds, and The Daily Evolver. It helps to have people talking about data, statistics, policy, and theory.

Maybe I’ll go back off news after the election. Maybe all media for a while. We’ll see.

—–

*I don’t mean to pick on GPS or LR&C, by any means. (Though I do consider LR&C a perfect example of outcome irrelevant learning.) They are both really good shows, and intended to be analysis of current events, not just descriptions.

I knew that you loved me since I knew what love was. You always took great care of me, showed interest, were available, warm, firm and encouraging. And I could tell that you were great parents as soon as I got to the age that my peers started complaining about their parents. I rarely had anything to add to those conversations. I loved you and respected you too, but I was of course ignorant of just how lopsided our relationship was.

Two months ago,  when Margo was born, this deep, strong glow of love and devotion gripped me, and I thought, “Oh my God, Mom and Dad felt like this about me!” It’s been a major shock to and reorganization of my emotional system, that all this time you have had this in your hearts for me. It’s been on my mind during every interaction with you since then.

It’s a sad, almost tragic, part of human life that children have to be ignorant of the intensity of their parent’s love. I suppose it might be too much to bear for us as children, especially if it came along with the knowledge of how much it takes to provide that safe and safe-feeling life. But we stay ignorant into adulthood until we have children of our own, long after we could handle that knowledge, long after we need it, really, to understand who we are and where we come from.

So almost forty-five years of ignorance precedes this letter.  Sorry about that! But mostly, thank you. I learned how to love from you, since the day I was born. Thanks for how deeply and effortlessly I love my daughter!

Nathen

Fam of 3

Dad, Mom & me, 1971. Photo by Stan Zarakov

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Me & Margo, 2016. Photo by Reanna Alder

Day One

Dear Baby,

You don’t have a name yet but it’s looking like you will be Margo. Your mama has been liking Margo best for a couple of months now, though mostly calling you Hepsibah when you kicked from inside, or had hiccoughs. Your grandpa Papap likes Michelle (maybe he’ll sing you the Beatles song some day) and your cousin Oliver wants Rose, and actually called you Rose today a couple of times until his mama told him to stop. “But she’s so pretty and Rose is such a pretty name!’

It seems strange to name you. I know I’ll get used to calling you Margo, or whatever we name you, and that you will come to define that name for me in time, but right now, you are just you. It’s simple. And it makes me think that we become limited by our names. I think it takes a lot of work to get back to being simply you, the organism that lives and breathes, eats and shits, smiles and cries.

You are tiny and have a lot of black hair, for a baby. You are so cute that I cry whenever you smile and a lot of the rest of the time, too. I’ve seen it a bunch of times so I know it’s true, but it’s hard to believe that you will get even cuter as you chub up and develop more agency and social awareness.

You are calm and sleep a lot, so far. I’ve been carrying you almost all day in a skin-to-skin sling and you’ve been awake maybe 30 minutes. You wore your mama out last night, nursing and cuddling. She’s pretty beat up from giving birth to you, all sore and achy and tired. Wounded.

Being around you is letting me have new experiences of things I’ve become so used to, like gravity, the slightly out of tune sound of my piano, the sound of the mockingbird outside, the lines and colors of this new little house your mama made, the feeling of a breeze, the sound of wind. Beautiful.

Day Five

Dear Baby,

You are lying asleep on your Nana Honey’s chest in her living room. I am typing on the couch next to her as we talk about your name. It’s your middle and last names that are the hardest. Maybe your generation will have figured this stuff out by the time you have kids. Luckily, your mama is in charge of naming you, since you’re a girl. That was our deal.

This is your first real separation from your mama. She’s at the hospital right now, getting some help. We’re all hoping that she’s home soon, maybe before you wake up.

You are doing great, healthy, beautiful, strong. And very well loved. You met your uncle Cory this morning, and his girlfriend, Emma. They held you for the first time, and so did your uncle Sam and his girlfriend, Aly. Your grandma Nana Honey is holding you for the first time right now, for the last hour. They all love you like crazy. Me too. I love you like crazy.

Day Seven

Dear Margo,

I wish I’d had more time to write. So many precious moments with you and your mama that now I won’t remember and so you’ll never hear about them.

Your mama is having a tough time. She’s been in a lot of pain from some complications. She went to the doctor again yesterday.

So you had your first two attachment ruptures, as we call them in my profession, and oh, were they heartbreaking for you and me. Your uncle Ben and auntie Beca work in the ER and hospital and told us it’s crazy to bring a healthy baby in there, just don’t do it. So you stayed home with me both times, and it was rough. The first time was about three hours, and you slept for the first hour and a half, on your nana’s chest. Then you woke and wanted, needed, to nurse. You did swallow some of the pumped breast milk we had but that was not comforting at all. You just cried “Ngaaaaaaaaa, shudder, ngaaaaaaaaaaa!” over and over. I feel so sad thinking about it. We held you and made you as comfortable as possible, but that was not enough. Eventually I put you in our skin-to-skin sling and danced some Charleston and Lindy with you and you fell asleep pretty quick.

That was two days ago. Yesterday went a little better. Your mama was gone almost as long, but I fed you the pumped milk before you got upset, so you ate more. I’m learning your words and understand “hungry” and “going to poop” (which sound like “ngaa” and little grunts, respectively) but it’s quite clear that “hungry” really means “I need milk from my mama’s breast with her skin and heartbeat and loving arms, not a finger to suck on and not milk from a spoon.” You like my skin and heartbeat and loving arms, too, and my singing, and the lullaby I play you on the piano, but not to satisfy “Ngaaaa!” The sling and dancing were helpful, nice and snug against my skin, with Charleston pulse, and you fell asleep a little while before your mama got back.

Despite her pain and those ruptures, you and your mama are bonding great. She loves you so much and cries about it every time she tells me. When she’s in pain and needs help, the thing that helps her the most is remembering a time in Florida, when she was swimming in the ocean with you in her belly and became overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment and her love for you. I remember her coming back to our apartment and telling me about it and bursting into tears, saying “This baby is with me, and will stay with me, and we’re going to get to swim in the ocean together and I’m just so happy…”

I’m so in love with you. I love every little wiggle and expression. I see your face when I close my eyes. It is obvious to me that you are the most beautiful thing that has ever happened in this world, even when you look like a tiny and disgruntled fat man with hiccoughs, which you do sometimes. Yesterday I had to go to Walmart for some iodine. I dislike that place intensely. It’s so ugly and depressing. I tried three other places first but no one else had it. But I walked into Walmart, bracing myself for the ugliness, and thought, “I have a baby daughter at home!” and proceeded to find and buy my iodine with a light heart and a spring in my step.

There is so much more to tell you, but I need to make your mama breakfast.

Love,

Papa

Day Nine

Dear Margo,

I’m tired for days and your mama is more tired. We have a lot of help available from our families but I’ve been mostly keeping them away so she doesn’t get worn out by social activity. It’s the people you love the most it’s hardest to send away so you can nap. It looks like she’s going to be OK, though. We’re all sure of that now.

Right now you and your mama are napping. Your grandpa and grandma are helping out in the house, putting up blinds, doing laundry—you generate 2-3 loads of laundry a day, which is mind-boggling. I’m trying to work out how to get that laundry water onto trees instead of into the septic as soon as possible. I’m taking a break right now, down in the cabin which used to be our bedroom and which you will likely remember as your mama’s sewing studio. It’s 102 degrees outside, a real late-spring heat wave.

You can almost roll over already. You can get right on to your side. I think that’s remarkable. I’d like to look up developmental milestones and see.

I’m thinking about how if you ever read this letter, it will be as an adult. If you are my age by the time you read it, I will either be dead or have lost most of my memories. In any case, our relationship will have become at least to some degree, though against my sincere wishes, complicated by life, compromises, confusions, resentments. It’s not that I don’t expect a good, solid, loving relationship with you, but I’ve seen life happen, and it gets complicated.

I want you to know and believe to the bottom of your heart that whatever complications we have developed, that it is not your fault, that you were born purely good, purely lovable. Right now, at least up until your ninth day on earth, that is so clear to me, and my love for you, my care for you, my devotion to you, is complete, easy, and uncomplicated. It is only my own limits and the limits of this place we find ourselves that can mess that up. I wish we could both remember this until we die.

Love,

Papa

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