My grandfather, Robert Greyling Pike, died last night. He was 98 years old and one of the best people I’ve ever known. I’ve spent the day feeling sad and talking with my family.

I sat down tonight to write a tribute and remembered that I have written about him several times in this blog. I just went back and reread it all and there is not much to add, so I’ll link to those posts and paste in yesterday’s journal entry, written just after I’d said my last goodbye to him. He was in hospice with end-stage Parkinson’s and I was leaving for a two-week trip. I knew I’d never see him again.

*About the links below: if you just read two, read the asterisked two. The others are a bit more peripheral, especially “Violent Storm.” [And sorry about the missing photos in these posts. Photobucket is holding them ransom for $400.]

January 11, 2009: Grandpa Bob Walking Slow *

January 22, 2012: A Violent Storm on the Beaufort Scale

January 28, 2012: Happy Birthday, Grandpa Bob! *

September 7, 2013: Goodbye, Joyful

March 20, 2014: Goodbye, Rollie

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

I’m on a United Airlines flight to SFO, currently above the Antelope Valley, heading back to NBTSC for the 19th year. I said my final goodbye to Grandpa Bob this morning, after playing him the Moonlight Sonata for the last time. He didn’t respond, but I think he could hear me and understood. I told him I was sad that I wouldn’t see him again but felt completely fine about him dying whenever he’s ready. I told him that he’s been an inspiration for me to learn new things all my life, to do things my own way, to focus on how I can help others and be useful, to nurture family connections, and to have fun. I said I hoped he was comfortable and peaceful, and that I hoped he was having good dreams and got to see his brother and all the other people he missed. I told him I loved him and kissed him on the head. It seemed like maybe he wanted to say something as I was leaving, but that’s beyond him now.

I’m amazed that he’s still alive. He’s had no food or water for over a week now, and I’ve only seen him move to wave and say hi to Margo or to try and take his oxygen tube off, and not even that in several days. Such a strong man! And he bore the whole process of enfeeblement with such grace and good humor. I get grouchy when I get a cold. He never got grouchy even on his deathbed. It’s something to see and something to think about. The strength of his body makes me wonder if there was something we could have done differently, that if so maybe he could have lived for a few more years.

But he was ready to die and he made that very clear weeks ago. And I don’t feel sad for him at all–I feel sad for us. I feel sad about never seeing him again, his sweet glee when he sees Margo, his little jokes. I feel sad about all of his experiences and knowledge disappearing from the earth. I feel sad that Margo won’t remember him. I feel sad that his capacity for joy, from watching a good movie, or listening to me play piano, or eating one of Maya’s birthday cakes, is disappearing. And that loss makes the world a little less wise and loving, and joyful and interesting.

GBob w little Nathen

Grandpa Bob teaches me something, mid-1970s. Photo by Steve Lester.

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Around Christmas of last year I stopped listening to podcasts. That was a big change. Prior to Christmas, I listened to podcasts during all of my breaks, walks, exercise, chores, errands, and commutes. Whenever I wasn’t interacting with someone or studying for my marriage and family therapy licensure exam, I was listening to podcasts.

I love listening to podcasts. I heard someone say that this is the second great age of radio, and I agree. I wasn’t there for the first, so I don’t get a vote, but I suspect that this one is better. Listening to podcasts, my days were full of super high quality radio shows: stories, lectures, news, analysis, entertaining, educational, emotionally moving, on demand, whenever, wherever. It was wonderful.

Once I set the date for taking my LMFT exam, though, I also started thinking about starting my private practice. Despite a private therapy practice being my fond desire for over a decade, despite having worked hard all that time to prepare for this moment, I started to feel anxious. That anxious feeling helped me realize that I needed to ditch the podcasts and focus on my own thoughts and plans. I’ve studied for exams my whole life, and I can do it with podcasts in my life. Starting a business is new and a big deal for me. I needed to hear everything my brain had to say on the topic, wrap my head around all the options, give myself mental space for it. Podcasts were taking up almost all of that space. A lot of mental problem solving does happen behind the scenes, so to speak, in parts of our brains that do not report directly to our conscious awareness, so a lot of problems are best solved by concentrating hard for a while and then completely taking your mind off of them for a while, maybe by listening to a podcast. The set of problems I’ve been working on are not like that. They require no burst of inspiration, just continued concentration. For example, what should my informed consent form have in it? I need to read and understand the relevant laws and ethical codes, read through my notes, look at the various examples I’ve collected and are available online, and write one. My task is thoroughly and effectively integrating and using existing information, not solving or creating new problems or solutions.

I started listening to podcasts in 2006. I had a broken heart and needed help derailing some persistent, not-useful thoughts. It worked wonderfully. My mind could trace the grooves of great thinkers and storytellers instead of loop unhappy thoughts. The only side effect was learning a ton. I listened to easily thousands of hours since then. My Planet Money listening alone totaled more than 150 hours of learning about economics. By the time I quit, I was listening to almost every episode of over 20 podcasts. (See the full list below.) Podcasts on so many different topics made for lots of great cross-referencing of information in my mind and generated lots of good questions. Quite a bit of what I’ve written about in this blog started off with my attempts to bring two or three podcast narratives to terms with each other.

Quitting means learning less overall, but more deeply in one area: casting a learning net that goes deep but much less broad. I’ve been reading business articles, buying malpractice insurance, looking into potential office spaces, figuring out insurance panels, working on a marketing plan, making a budget, learning about bookkeeping and taxes, and on and on. When I take my now silent walks or drives I can watch my thoughts working through these topics and take note of any new clarity, priority, or question. The only problem is that it’s boring. With podcasts I was almost never bored. Without them, it’s very common. I’ve experienced way more boredom in the last few months than in all of my last ten years combined.

My first whiff of this change came while listening to Joshua Waitzkin on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Waitzkin is a former world champion in both chess and tai chi push hands, and a compelling speaker. At one point he says, “I like to cultivate moments of silence in my life,” and I had to stop the tape. I thought, “That sounds wonderful! That sounds useful! That sounds like something I’d like to do. But I never do that.” More recently I read Cal Newport’s Deep Work (thanks to Blake Boles), in which he sings the praises of boredom. He says that resisting distraction, remaining bored, is like calisthenics for the mental muscle you use to do the difficult, focused, high value work that he calls “deep work.”

I’m sold, at least for now. I’m cultivating plenty of moments of silence and I’m doing a fair amount of deep work and benefiting from it enormously. It’s great to feel and be productive. But I can feel the tension. Integrating what I catch in my broad net is a big part of who I am and what I have to offer my clients and community. My choice is clear when it’s between listening to podcasts or launching my private practice effectively and efficiently. But once it’s up and running (and paying the bills) I’ll be listening again, though I hope with a better sense of when I’ll benefit by turning them off to take a silent walk around the block.

—————-

Complete list of podcasts as of 12/25/2016:

99% Invisible – Great stories about how human design effects our lives and culture. Interesting but also often inspiring or moving.

Bulletproof Radio – Dave Asprey interviews interesting people about biohacking. He does a fair amount of self-promotion, but his guests tend to be good and he presents some really interesting ideas. I was listening to about half of his episodes. If you want to check one out, go through his archives and choose a topic you’re interested in.

The Daily Evolver – I really miss this one. Jeff Salzman analyzes current events from the perspective of Ken Wilber’s integral metatheory. It’s often political, and he’s a rare optimistic voice on the progressive side. My favorite episodes, though, are when he interviews Keith Witt, an integral psychotherapist. Check out whatever he’s posted most recently with Witt. Those episodes are called “The Shrink & The Pundit.”

The Ezra Klein Show – A wonderfully nerdy political show with great interviews that go deep. 

Fareed Zakaria GPS – Intelligent current events analysis each week, from a world-centric perspective. I miss this one too. 

FiveThirtyEight Politics – Nate Silver and his team bring much needed data and data analysis to current events and news. 

Freakonomics Radio – Relentlessly counterintuitive findings from economics. 

Hidden Brain – A good psychology podcast from NPR.

Imaginary Worlds – Eric Molinsky talks about sci-fi and fantasy world building in popular culture. If you’re a fan, check out his series on Star Wars.

Invisibilia – Another psychology podcast, very engaging.

Judge John Hodgman – My comic relief podcast. John Hodgman hears and rules with wisdom and hilarity on real disputes.

Left, Right & Center – Weekly political analysis from a liberal, conservative, and centrist. This show taught me that political analysis is all about outcome-irrelevant learning.

Longform – Good interviews with authors about writing. 

The Memory Palace – Fantastic, very short, poetic, moving episodes about historical events, usually on a personal scale. So good.

More Perfect – Fascinating stories about US Supreme Court decisions.

The New Yorker Radio Hour – This started off as interviews with New Yorker writers about current articles, and has morphed into more of an art/culture/politics variety show. I preferred the former version, but it’s still really good, as one would expect from The New Yorker.

The New Yorker: Poetry – Short episodes in which Paul Muldoon hosts a poet who reads two poems from The New Yorker, one of their own and one by another poet.

Off-Trail Learning – My friend Blake Boles interviews alternative-education thinkers and doers, often focused on unschooling. Check out his interviews with Dev Carey and Liam Nilsen. (He also interviewed me recently, if you are particularly interested in me.)

Planet Money – Short stories about and explorations of economics and the economy. You learn and are entertained. Check out “The No-Brainer Economic Platform,” about the six things that all economists agree on, and “The One-Page Plan to Fix Global Warming.”

Revisionist History – Malcolm Gladwell tells stories in that fascinating way he does, only on a podcast. Check out his episode on the song “Hallelujah.”

Seminars About Long-Term Thinking – The Long Now Foundation presents authors and thinkers talking about their ideas from the perspective that “now” is a long time—the last 10,000 years and the next 10,000 years. It’s fantastic—one of my favorites.

Sound Opinions – Pop/rock record reviews and conversation.

TED Radio Hour – Interviews with TED speakers on a theme.

This American Life – The prototypical podcast. Great stories.

This Week in Microbiology – Three microbiologists discuss recent microbiology research. It’s super nerdy and good. I loved keeping up with developments in this exploding field.

The Tim Ferriss Show – Author Tim Ferriss interviews very interesting people. Tim’s access is astounding and his knowledge base is wide enough that he can have interesting conversations with anyone. The theme is deconstructing top-level performance, but topics are all over the place. Chances are he’s interviewed someone you’re interested in, so look in his archives and start there.

Vox’s The Weeds – Very nerdy and very good political analysis. These folks are actually reading the original documents—laws, reports, policy papers, etc—and it shows. Outcome-relevant learning in political analysis.

Waking Up with Sam Harris – Some of the most interesting and inspiring conversations about science, philosophy, and spirituality that I’ve come across. Unfortunately, he also puts up a lot of episodes about Islamic terrorism, which are boring and quite skippable once you understand his perspective on the topic. His non-terrorism political rants tend to be quite interesting and often surprising, and it’s just lovely to hear him tear into Trump. I’d advise starting with an interview with one of his scientist or philanthropist guests, though, maybe “The Light of the Mind,” about consciousness with David Chalmers.

You Are Not So Smart – Each episode is about some facet of faulty thinking, why we fall for it and how to fight it. Clever and fun.

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.