Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Improv to the Charge: Book Review of The Art of Making Sh!t Up

A yellow sticky note of book's handwritten title in blue background
The first time I saw the program Whose Line is it Anyway? I was immediately hooked on improv. What I liked most about it was that it was funny, spontaneous and free. So when I had the opportunity to join an impromptu improv group at my university residence, I did not hesitate. In a blink, I found myself suddenly on stage doing my own shows of improv (to be honest, we only did a couple of them, but the lessons learned from them would last me a lifetime and we even received a T-shirt for one of our performances!).

In fact, I was not entirely new to the world of performance. In my youth, I had been involved with singing and theater, and I had already had a handful of performances under my belt; I had performed in front of sizable crowds as a member of school as well as youth groups. But when I compare those experiences with doing improv, they somewhat pale in comparison.

In improv, you were not only in the spotlight, but you were literally on the spot. You had to come up with your own lines quick, and they better be funny and make sense and tie in with that the person right before you has just said. Thinking in the moment and trusting that thought and feeling of the moment gave me a new-found confidence in my own comedic abilities. So much so that when I was teaching a few years later and was standing in front of two dozen eyes staring at me, I would profit from those lessons learned within and during my brief stint of improv.

Fast-forward to more than twenty years later. When I was perusing what book to review next, it was a literal no-brainer that I would choose the book that dealt with not only improv, but how it could make you stand out and become no less than a powerhouse. And I eagerly awaited Norm Laviolette’s book The Art of Making Sh!t up: Using the Principles of Improv to Become an Unstoppable Powerhouse in the mail and pounced upon the book whenever I had a moment to spare.

An unstoppable powerhouse, eh? And using a barely concealed expletive right there in the goddamn title? Since I already believed in the power of improv to move mountains and get things done, this was not a hard sell for me from the get-go. But would my prudish ear salvage the onslaught of many other curse words and many examples of cussing? I braced myself and my ears and eyes for what was to come.

If swearing really jolts you, then this book may not be exactly for you. According to its author – and I did not bother to verify it myself but believe it to be true (maybe give or take a word or two) – the word shit is used 108 times in the book. And this does not include a few other choice words, which I shall not reproduce here. But all this actually pales in comparison to certain rap songs or old-school Tarantino movies. In fact, Norm compares swearing to cymbals: They can get your attention if used wisely and sparingly, but if it is constant it would hurt and jar your ears. And, at least for the most part, he does abide by these rules himself.

But is the book any good? I would have to say yes, definitely. Before we get to the practical and useful lessons offered in the book, let us look at its author first. Norm Laviolette has been involved with and has been building upon his brain-child Improv Asylum for many years, a company he co-founded and created out of scratch, and with dedication and constant effort he has turned it into a successful enterprise.
The main thing is that he started his own business at a time where improv was still relatively unknown and rarely performed; it was not the norm (!) like it is today but Norm managed to use his skills both as a comedian as well as a business-man to not only thrive in this business but to also give talks and lectures about how to thrive in the world of business in general. Considering how philosophically and psychologically ripe and saturated the practice of improv is, this does not come as a big surprise or revelation.

For improv to succeed on-stage, there are many factors that need to be kept in mind. Improv is different from plays where you are interpreting a given character and are given pre-written lines to perform; it is also different from stand-up where you can outline and prepare your routine before you go on stage. 

Improv will put you on the spot with very little to work with and you would need to improvise your way through. Put differently, you are left to your own devices and would have to create not only scenes out of thin air but also make the audience have a good time and preferably make them giggle and laugh in the process.

Yet the good news is unlike stand-up comedy for instance, you are not alone. You will have your team mates to bail you out when things are not going so well, when you have temporarily gotten stuck in a somewhat unfunny mode or have hit a sudden comedian’s block and have run out of funny ideas in the worst possible moment. Improv is unique in that regard because your creation will be one of and for the team. Your partners in crime can help you, but for that to work, you would have to cue in and listen to them.

Now most of us, to be honest, are rather bad at that skill: We rarely listen to others. When somebody tells us something, we often finish their sentences either out loud or in our head, and most of the times we tend to get it wrong. The information they give us is given a personal spin in our head or we may distort it to our liking, and in either case, we think we heard them say or mean something that was never really uttered in the first place!

But as Norm puts it, the ability to listen is the most important skill for an improv actor. This does not only include actively listening to one’s colleagues on stage, but it also involves listening to the audience’s suggestions and interests. If you do not listen to either one of them, you will not be on the same page with your fellow actors and that would leave the audience confused. 

When we have pre-conceived notions and do not actively listen to others, we will miss out on vital information that the other person is trying to give and communicate to us. In fact, it is often the lack of listening that leads to the famous and dreaded line in relationships: We need to talk! In most cases when that is said, it might already be too late to make amends anymore.

By actively listening to others, we can also respond to them not only more adequately but also much faster. That is an essential skill needed in improv where you need to think and act fast. This also presupposes not listening to or being sidetracked by your own stream of negative self-talk, whether it comes in the form of criticism, judgments or hesitations. Yes, standing in front of a crowd with nothing in hand will help you gain more confidence. It will also make you realize that you can be funny on the spot and that was one of the most important lessons I gleaned from my brief but very fruitful improv experience.

But in order to get on that stage, there are some other important psychological factors to be considered, such as being ready to and moreover being OK with making a fool of yourself in front of a crowd. This is another gem when it comes to the practice of teaching. We are inherently afraid to appear silly or stupid in front of others, and it is a common and widely accepted fear that many of us share and have in common in addition to the fear of failure.

First off, more often than not, we get it wrong. We think or expect the worst to happen ranging from humiliation to failure, but it is not the case and it was all just in our head. From personal experience, as a student, I would think that I did not do well on a test and would get an excellent grade on it; as a job seeker, I would come home defeated and say they will never offer me the job after that supposedly disastrous interview of mine and I would receive a call the following day; as a teacher, I would think a particular class or semester did not go too well and I would receive very positive and enthusiastic student comments and evaluations, or I would assume that a performance, talk or even article I wrote did not go down well when others would congratulate me for a job well done. And let us not go into details about my past love life where I got things even more consistently wrong.

Add to that the realization that people do not care about it as much as you do. When you do a talk, show or performance, that event is what is most on your mind and you become rather obsessive and neurotic about it. In fact, you fill in, over-exaggerate or superimpose the audience’s thoughts and reactions about yourself. 

In reality, the audience does not care about it as much as you do or as Norm would say, they do not give a shit; in addition, the consequences are rarely as dire and lethal as you imagine them or make them out to be.

Either way, as Norm puts it succinctly, regardless if you had a magnificent or disastrous performance, in the end, the audience would simply go out for beers after the show. But when you manage to control and limit this nagging obsession about what others think or may think about you, then it is the most liberating experience. 

It frees you up to do what you really want to do. All this energy that you wasted on worrying, all these blocks and hindrances that you created out of thin air will be lifted from your psychological shoulders and, lo and behold, you will get so much better at whatever your task is; the more this continues, the more confidence you will gain, so this is the very opposite of a vicious cycle.

Of course, it may seem easier said that done, but there is something precise you can do about it: simply go out and do stuff (Norm uses a synonym for the word “stuff”). For instance, by signing up for an improv class, you are taking the first step towards facing your fear and becoming more independent and liberated from its stranglehold. And as they say, it is easier than it seems, but you would have to start to take a risk and then little by little and gradually increase the stakes.

If you are of the indecisive type – like most people out there – then you can actually practice being decisive. Norm gives an excellent suggestion here. Next time you go to a restaurant, glance at the menu, turn it over and choose something quickly. Do not hesitate, do not worry, do not consider and reconsider or change your mind in the process, but choose one single item that stands out for you.

If you are stuck with something that you do not like, it will not be the end of the world. But it is an opportunity for flexing your decision muscles and for becoming better at making decisions on the spot. And in that sense, you will be not only training to become a better improv comedian, but also a better teacher, business person, or what have you. However, this may not be the best advice for surgeons, pilots or politicians, I am afraid.

Failure is indeed an inevitable part of life, but according to Norm, you need to be wrong to be right. You can increase your tolerance to failure by facing it and becoming immune to it. But it is also essential to accept as a leader or as a creator whenever you are wrong. 

In fact, accepting that you were wrong will open you up to even more opportunities to be right. Instead of repeating the same old mistakes over and over again, you will have the chance to fix the problem once and for all and get it right thereafter. Often the simple admission of being wrong will help you see the solution to the problem that always seemed elusive and slightly out of reach.

Every endeavor no matter how big or small carries with it a risk of failure, but by not shunning these opportunities for growth and by being honest with oneself and realistic about one’s goals and expectations, a lot can be achieved from this process. 

Since the fear of failure and being wrong are two obstacles we put on our own path, they can also be removed by us as well. Ironically, by giving ourselves leeway and allowing ourselves to fail and make potential mistakes, we end up being more relaxed and focused and then tend to get it right in the first place.

A final point about sense of humor needs to be made here. Norm and I have been blessed with it since childhood, or so I believe. Both of us were the proverbial classroom clowns. We would make jokes simply to be funny and never at the expense of others, or so I hope. 

While as a child growing up in a strict and disciplined school system in Bavaria, I had to temper my funny bone so that I did not get into trouble and still succeeded in my academic endeavors. For me, academia was intrinsically motivating and rewarding, so there was no specific or painful sacrifice for me. Nonetheless, I was able to keep my sense of humor intact; it comes out very once in a while in my conversations and writings, and hence this blog has been given the absurd twist.

In Norm’s case, they led him away from academia, which was not his thing to begin with. He says that he has applied “life hacks” to make it through school, which is essentially a euphemism for lying and cheating. He did not finish his university, and he blames his French course for the missing credit. Ironically, this reviewer is a French instructor, so I feel slightly (but not overly) guilty for his academic demise.

But in Norm’s case, being funny was the thing, and he was able to turn it into a blossoming career. Now he has written a book about it, and he has also traveled around the world, everywhere from China to the United Emirates to teach the principles of improv to diverse people across the globe. It certainly took guts, effort and persistence to turn his dream and passion into reality, but he has done it, and he is here to tell us how and why.

It may seem ironic that business leaders also flock to his lessons, but then again, it makes perfect sense. It is my impression that a sense of humor is often frowned upon by employers. This stems from the mistaken notion that if you are funny, you may get involved in funny business. But a sense of humor is not mutually exclusive here. You can indeed be funny but take your jobs and responsibilities seriously. 

In fact, having a sense of humor will make you even better at whatever it is you are doing, whether it is teaching, acting in improv or being a business leader. This could be even applied and extended to surgeons, pilots and politicians as long as they keep it measured and do not go overboard. 

So think about adding a bit of humor here and there to your daily life and whatever profession you are practicing; eventually you might be even motivated to sign up for that improv class in your community.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Future Promises and Challenges of AI

Robot taking off a face mask

My interest in and passion for Artificial intelligence must be spanning over a decade now, but in comparison I have written very little on or about the topic. The problem was that despite continuously reading about the latest trends and development and while considering and reconsidering ethical issues and implications regarding this budding new technology, I was missing some relevant data and pieces of information. That was filled in beautifully at the Space Centre’s Cosmic Nights event I attended recently.

This was my first time attending the event, and I was lured in quite easily and effortlessly by its enticing title AI The Changing Face of Technology as well as its illustrious line-up of renowned experts, in particular Dr. Kevin Leyton-Brown, the Director of UBC’s Centre for Artificial intelligence Decision-Making and Action (CAIDA).

It was my first visit to the Space Centre, but I enjoyed its various parts and programs from trying to guess what responses were given by humans versus machines as a brief and subtle introduction to the Turing Test to a fun and interactive trivia section that included references to robots and popular films and culture building up to a planetarium show that combined robots with space technology and provided details and information about the physically and psychologically straining and exacting Mars Settlement Project.

But from an academic point of view – and academia being my bread and butter or rather wine and cheese - the highlight of the evening was the talk with the somewhat bland title of “Artificial Intelligence: The Journey so far, and the World in 2029” by Dr. Kevin Leyton-Brown. This well-spoken and humorous computer science expert adeptly tackled the potential upsides as well as downsides of AI technology and most of my blog post is based on information gleaned from his lecture.

The Frankenstein Complex: The Uprising of Robots

One of the biggest fears concerning AI is often named The Frankenstein Complex. When given a positive spin, this can simply be perceived of the student outperforming the master, but in its more negative sense, it implies that the creation has turned against its master, just like the monster / life that Frankenstein created slipped out of the scientist’s control and went against his desires and wishes.

This struggle between human and artificial minds has been depicted predominantly in sci-fi literature and movies. This ranges from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with Hal taking active control and rebelling against his human masters to the dystopian world of Blade Runner (1982) in which androids run amok. More recently, we also have emotional and ethical entanglements, whether it is dealing with a robot boy propelled to become human by the love for his mother as in Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) or a female entity as a man’s love object in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013).

Then, there is of course, the collection of stories I Robot  by sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov and his proposal of the three laws of robotics, which stipulate that a robot may not injure a human being, that it must obey the orders given by human beings and finally that the robots must try their best to protect their own existence. 

Evidently, the laws try to ensure protection by highlighting the higher status and position of the master human so that overthrow and rebellion do not occur. Yet despite the proposed safeguards, scientists and laypeople alike are particularly nervous about the appearance and existence of a super-intelligent artificial entity sometime in the near or far future.

The Transition from Narrow to Broad AI

There are two ways of perceiving AI: It can be either narrow and weak or broad and strong. Essentially, narrow AI tackles what it is programmed to do. It could consist of playing chess games or help factories and companies speed up production. It could help detect fraud or use face recognition as a means of increased measures of security. 

Yet with each passing day, the narrow line gets a bit wider as AI manages to get more and more skilled at doing specific tasks. For instance, the early chess programs like IBM’s Deep Blue could occasionally be defeated by the very best human players, but then it evolved to Komodo, which is virtually unbeatable.

Since that has become the norm, the AI industry has spread into other more complicated areas and scenarios ranging from checkers to Go and video games and even extending to games of poker. Poker games are more complicated than chess games as they involve not only strategy but also guess work, speculation and of course bluffing. 

In this case, it is more difficult for AI to crack the game as it is not so much about the plays and cards that are visible, but covert cards and manipulative plays often lead to wins in this type of game and competition. While it seems a given that computers would reign the world of chess – it is a game that would be natural for computers to excel at - it would be a somewhat different issue when it comes to manipulating and bluffing to gain the upper hand as in the case of games of poker.

Yet all of this is now possible because the skill set of AI has grown dramatically, not unlike Moore’s law and prediction that computer skills and abilities would increase exponentially over time. Our smartphones are more powerful than the best computers of old and now each of us (at least those who sport newer iPhone models) are even able to use face recognition, something that was unheard of a few years back. I was even told that my Vivino app not unlike Google images uses algorithmic image recognition software to find potential matches to queries.

As a result, AI is rising up to meet new challenges and because of its continuously growing impact and influence in society, more and more people are signing up for and flocking to this field. Enrollment in university programs and courses have sky-rocketed and many are not only interested in the field but also see it as a lucrative career choice for the future. It is decisively too late for me to switch careers now, but I can at least do whatever it takes to keep afloat with these technological innovations happening right under my nose and feet.

One of the upcoming changes but also challenges would be self-driving cars. Experiments have been rather promising despite certain occasional and necessary missteps and hiccups. However, there is a certain double standard here as it seems that humans are easily forgiven an accident or two but people and media pounce upon any errors committed by Artificial Intelligence. 

But the fact remains that due to its inherent dangers, autonomous cars are more complicated and there are a host of factors that need to be considered before they can be launched on a global scale. Dr. Leyton-Brown believes that there will be imminent success for automatic hauling trucks as the highways tend to be more predictable than city streets; chaotic city traffic including maniac drivers during rush hour combined with unruly bikers, rebellious jay-walking pedestrians and variable weather conditions still pose many challenges for self-driving cars.

For autonomous cars to become a full-fledged ubiquitous reality, AI must be complex and broad enough to make difficult decisions ranging from traffic to weather conditions. For it to work successfully, AI must be moving away from simple programming to what is known and referred to as machine or deep learning; put differently, AI needs to be able to become more autonomous and independent by being (almost) able to think for itself.

The Economic Impact and Potential Threats of AI

All these changes and development will have economic impacts and consequences, but the situation is, according to Dr. Leyton-Brown, not as bleak as many make it out to be or want us to believe. AI will not come and replace all our jobs, but certain professions will be affected more than others. If you are active in specific professions, your future may not be too bright. Dr. Leyton-Brown jokingly claimed that he would not advise his son to enter the trucking business or start training to become a radiologist, for that matter.

In fact, AI will generally change and replace lower-skilled jobs. Any tasks that are repetitive in nature could be easily and simply replaced by machines and computers. In fact, Dr. Leyton-Brown believes that the assembly line was an invention that essentially considered and regarded humans as robots, and now in turn these actual robots would be indeed much better at replacing humans trying to act as robots.

These types of jobs and tasks of similar ilk will be handed over to machines simply because they will be much better and faster, hence much more productive at them than their human counterparts. Humans tire and need breaks to rest and eat, but machines will be able to work tirelessly even through the night. They will also not complain about working conditions and will not ask for a raise in salary, so from those standpoints and from the point of view of the employers, it makes sense that machines are often preferable to humans.

Due to powerful algorithms and processing power, AI will also work best when it comes to providing consumer choices. Whether this is in the advertising and marketing business or whether it is about choosing ideal and inexpensive travel arrangements and hotel accommodations, AI will be much more efficient, effective and less error-prone than humans. As a result, travel agents and call centers will be in peril as they simply cannot live up to the impossibly high standards set by computer technology.

Yet many other jobs will remain untouched by AI as the human touch is an integral part and of paramount importance to them. Health care, for instance, will be for the most part unaffected by these technological advances. People would not want to run to a robot for a diagnosis of their ills as they would like to share their medical issues with a (hopefully) knowledgeable, experienced but also caring medical professional.

On the other hand, radiologists whose jobs consists of processing data and information to detect anomalies could be replaced by the skill set of better trained and equipped AI. The latter would be able to compare and contrast healthy images and scans from those that pose potential health risks and problems in a much faster, more accurate, more detailed and expansive manner than humans possibly could.

That being said, most of us would shudder at the idea of having robots provide childcare. Robots would certainly be able to offer security and safety, but that is not the only reason we drop off our children at a daycare. When we leave our children at a day care, we want them not only to be safe but also to be in an emotionally safe and caring environment where they can learn and explore culture and society as well as engage in human interaction. This is an area in which robots would not be able to thrive and could not possibly replace humans.

The same can be said about education in general. Although translation services are going to be significantly improved with AI – goodbye to the challenging and arduous task of ad hoc simultaneous translations – and grade computation will be facilitated by the use of relevant and effective software, AI would still not be able to provide cultural information or individual feedback to students, at least not in the sophisticated manner and measure that well-trained and effective teachers and instructors are capable of. So, thank God, education is a field that ought to survive the onslaught of AI.

Similarly, counseling and psychotherapy are not careers, which can be easily taken over by automatons. They are based on empathy, understanding and personal experience as well as tact and feeling that will elude robots no matter how well they are programmed. Coaching whether it is regarding sports or more broadly life, will also be closed off to AI. In all these professions, the human touch is essential and absolutely necessary for those endeavors to be successful.

What would happen, however, is the fact that AI – not unlike technology since its inception - will provide us with even more freedom and free time. Routine tasks will be taken over and will fall under their domain. This means that we have more time and resources to focus on other more complex tasks. Basically, this would mean more free time for all of us and the opportunity to advance knowledge and skills by using technology to do tasks we did not want to engage in in the first place.

Nonetheless, the main threat of AI is tied with government and military expansion of missile range and capabilities. There have already been many advances that may be in the best interest of a given country, but they are definitely not in the best interest of humanity. Drones are not only able to “see” hidden or concealed weapons like AK-47s on humans, in cars and buildings, but they have also been programmed to make autonomous decisions, such as attacking them under certain circumstances. Killer robots, robot soldiers and autonomous aircraft all pose a danger because although machines are more precise and accurate, they lack the complexity of a human being, especially when it comes to ethical judgments or on the grounds of empathy and understanding. 

But before we panic over super intelligence, and have nightmares about AI taking over the world, we ought to also consider the fact that such super intelligence can also be used to our own benefit. It can provide us with novel information about how to save the climate or deal with famines, water shortage and overpopulation, while it also has the potential to offer peaceful and productive solutions to all of us and not only the parcel of land that we call our home. As usual and not surprisingly, it all comes down to how we use and harness the prowess and powers of technology alongside our underlying incentive and motivation, whether we choose to use it to the benefit or detriment of humanity.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Psychologically Speaking: An Interview with Dr. Carla Marie Manly

Photo of smiling psychologist in a red sweater
Over the past few years while I have been researching my book on how to deal with anxiety and lead a happier and healthier life, I have had the pleasure to read various insightful and informative books on this topic. But up to now, none of them has resonated with me to such a degree as Carla Marie Manly’s Joy From Fear.

Her book immediately stood out for me as her approach is quite similar to mine: She embraces and applies the psychodynamic view to uncover previous as well as continuing moments of trauma. By dealing with one’s past, the baggage and issues that we - to a large extent unconsciously and often chronically - carry around, one eliminates many of the root causes of anxiety.

Moreover, her focus on destructive fear is helpful and constructive; by pinpointing the negative thought processes and patterns that we often, despite ourselves, hold onto, we can better identify doubts and hesitations and halt them in their tracks. 

That nagging self-critical voice, often a remnant and introjection from parental sources, does not only feed our fears but it makes them thrive. And yes, there are benefits and positive aspects to fear since it can potentially lead the way to engaging more fully and more joyfully with life itself.

After reading Dr. Carla’s book, I really wanted to reach out and contact the author to feature her on my blog. Many writers are certified psychologists and give relevant advice and good counselling, but in Dr. Carla’s case, it felt not only personal but also genuine and heartfelt. 

It comes as no surprise that one of the words Dr. Carla uses to describe herself is integrous. This denotes a person who acts and lives with integrity, and it was the exact impression and feeling I got from reading her book filled with knowledge, insight, and practical tips.

However, before you get to know her thoughts and ideas firsthand, I would like to make a brief detour on my experience of the field of psychology. Psychology has been a lifelong interest of mine, and I have now become more invigorated with it ever since the personal acceptance and application of psychoanalytic theories. 

What used to be observations about human nature have become useful digging tools to understand and discover myself and to ensure that I am more in tune with who I really am deep inside, not who or how I or others think I ought to be.

In the past, there were other fields that would help me, but somehow or other, they would fall short. Music, literature, and movies have been my constant companions, and that shall never change because art makes us explore who and how we are in a beautiful and exemplary fashion. 

Yet as a child - and to anticipate and give a prelude to my answer to Dr. Carla’s question at the end of this interview - I was fascinated with religion, particularly anything related to the Gospels. Jesus was the perfect embodiment of how we should be, act and live, and back then I had what many would call faith.

However, as a young adult, that faith gradually eroded and gave rise to doubts. Those doubts were temporarily assuaged by the field of philosophy. Where there was previously unwavering and blind acceptance, I began to partake of my own share of the forbidden fruit by questioning everything and attempting to reach logical answers to my doubts. That worked to a degree, but it did not satisfy my soul either.

It is only in recent years and with the personal discovery of depth psychology that I am fully embracing psychology as the definitive path to take. Oddly enough, this also creates a curious cycle since my faith has also increased. It is less a faith in a force outside of myself but rather a light that is within and shines through me.

To put this in Dr. Carla’s wise words:

You will smile, knowing that you have gained your integrity and that you stand in the truth as you know it to be. You will shine with an inner light that comes from loving yourself, from radiating the beauty that was once held in the dark cave of fear.

Put differently, the truth shall set you free. My interest in Zen Buddhism has also revived while my fascination with Jesus has not abated; yet my beliefs cannot be contained in nor be constrained by specific organized religions. Admittedly, my outlook is mystical in nature, and I had certain glimpses of it during childhood where and when the seeds must have been planted.

But enough about me: It is with honor and delight that I present to you, clinical psychologist and compassionate writer Dr. Carla Marie Manly:

Interview with Dr. Carla Marie Manly

1. What do you do for a living? Why

I make my living as a clinical psychologist. Although it’s not the most lucrative field, it is my passion to spread mental health awareness and help others free themselves from the chains of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

2. What three adjectives would you use to describe yourself? 

Soulful, strong, and integrous.

3. What’s something that has always amazed you as a child? Does it still amaze you? 

As a child, I was amazed by the delights of nature.  To this day, I am captive by nature—from flowers, trees, and fruit to the vastness of the ocean and thunderstorms.  I sense that, even as a child, I knew that nature offered a space for play, wonder, healing, and grounding.

4. How would you personally define psychology?  

To me, psychology is the ever-changing realm of discovering and understanding the interplay of human thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.

5. Why did you choose psychology over say history, philosophy or political science, for instance?  

The world of psychology is fascinating to me—it is the foundation of who we are as human beings.  Yes, we have our physical bodies, yet a healthy physical body is nothing without a healthy mind and spirit.

6. What can psychology do and not do for us? 

I believe that psychology can do so much for us if we realize that it is a science that must constantly adapt and morph (as with all areas of life). As well, I believe that psychology must not allow itself to get stuck in polarizing thought or assertions, for the realm of psychology is as vast as the constellation of human experiences.

7. Why do you think people are so suspicious of psychology? 

So many people think that psychology is not a “hard” science, and I laugh at this.  In every field—including the “hard” sciences—there is a sense of evolution and growth.  Whether we look at medicine or other sciences, what was once thought to be “certain truth” continues to shift and expand as our knowledge grows.  It’s unfortunate that some people chose to attempt to elevate their own beliefs or professions at the expense of the vital realm of psychology.

8. Who is your favorite psychologist, and why? 

Carl Jung, a psychiatrist, contributed so much to the world of psychology.  From bringing forth archetypes, mythology, and the power of nature to his wise, soulful insights on many mental health issues, Carl Jung’s work is incomparable.

9. In today’s world, technology has become part of everyday life. Do you think that computers are capable of thinking and / or feeling? Could they fall in love? 

We certainly have taught computers to think by programming them to mimic human behavior.  In the same way, computers are being taught to express feelings.  Being taught how to express or mimic a behavior, however, is far different from actually feeling or thinking of one’s own accord.  As such, I think a computer could be taught to express “falling in love,” but it seems that even this would be the result of having been programmed to love. 

10. Do you have a catchphrase? If not, what would it be?  

My catchphrase:  I measure my strength by my ability to know--and remain true to--my goals and values.

11. Now it’s your turn: What would you like to ask me?  

Dr. Carla’s question for me: What is your greatest dream or dreams in life?  Was this a childhood dream?  If not, what was your greatest dream or dreams as a child?

What a great question! My greatest dream as a child was to become a writer. I started writing my first story in Grade 2 in the German language. 

We had just arrived in Germany the year before and I went from not being able to speak a word in the language and not being able to write in any language to composing a story about a friendly ghost that haunted a family. I had not been acquainted with Casper back then but had heard of the Canterville Ghost, I think.

My main reason for writing back then was to achieve fame. I wanted to be welcomed and well-received by everyone and had felt inferior growing up as an asylum-seeker in a traditional German town. 

Moreover, I wanted to use my fame for good. I wanted my words and thoughts to have weight and impact and be able to use my voice to help those in need. Although part of this dream was fueled by an inferiority complex, the other part wanted to help others and make the world a better place. 

And I am still trying to do that. It is also probably the unconscious reason why I decided to become a teacher, to get married to a nurse and to start this blog ; )

If interested in Dr. Carla Marie Manly, you may find out more about her services, work and practice as well as her published works and writings by visiting her website at

Monday, August 5, 2019

The Philosophical Dog: The Art of Racing in the Rain Movie Review

A man and his dog in a speeding red car
When I received a screening invite - my very first one for that matter - for the upcoming film The Art of Racing in the Rain, I was quite thrilled. This email message stood out from all the other interesting and tempting book review and current news requests I receive on a daily basis, and most of which I am unfortunately forced to turn down or postpone due to my own time restraints and constraints. In fact, reading books is a wonderful activity, but it is also rather time-consuming as I would be slowly working my way through up to three books at a time. Movie reviews, in comparison, are a much easier and quicker process since I can merely watch a movie over the span of a couple of hours, then reflect and later write on it.

Upon seeing the official trailer, I felt somewhat discouraged. This did not seem my type of movie as it is about a dog who wants to become a race car driver. Even though there were some noteworthy movie stars attached to the project, such as Kevin Costner as the voice of the aging dog Enzo and the amazing Amanda Seyfried, what got me most intrigued about the movie was the participation of filmmaker Simon Curtis, whose previous sensitive and touching Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017) I very much liked, a film that should not be confused with the partially animated Christopher Robin (2018) by Mark Forster, which incidentally I enjoyed in equal measure.

The other reason to accept the invite was my son’s fondness for dogs. I encouraged him to come and join me for the advance screening, but he is as usual a bit hesitant when it comes to watching movies since they usually make him cry; this one, he told me after watching the trailer, seemed to be on the sad side. To sum up, because I had never attended a pre-screening before, and I liked the director attached to the film and due to my son’s boundless and unwavering love and appreciation for dogs, I decided to accept the invite.

I am very glad I did because as it turned out, the trailer did not do the film justice. It had played out as what I would normally consider not-my-kinda movie, but in the end, it ended up being my type of movie, at least in certain ways and manners. From the get-go, I was impressed with how sensitively and rather confidently the movie used film techniques to grab and drag us into the movie. The hovering music that included some well-chosen George Harrison tunes, the sad but wise words of the dog Enzo (oddly enough Kevin Costner in one of his more memorable roles), all of that immediately impressed me. I was also glad my son had not come along with me because it played out to be more melancholic than comic.

The movie had its share of flaws: there were problems with the pacing and flow as well as the lines given to the humans, which felt often wooden and trite as if the actors were merely going through the motions and not feeling or experiencing what has happening to them. But the shining star here was Enzo, the philosophical dog. When he figuratively opened his mouth, his humor and pearls of wisdom seemed surprisingly genuine and heart-felt. This was in fact quite a feat since it must have been very difficult to make a movie that was made entirely from the point of view of this admittedly cute dog.

This is a literary adaptation of the best-selling book by Garth Stein and although I have not read the book myself, I kept thinking whether the movie was perhaps trying to follow the book a bit too closely. On celluloid, we can easily empathize with the canine protagonist, but the other characters, the humans, felt a bit aloof. But somehow, Simon Curtis managed to pull it all off and make me feel genuinely moved at the very end of the film.

I will not deny that this movie hovers very closely - and at times dangerously - around tear-jerking territory, and the pacing and editing that give it a random episodic feel did not help much in the matter. Yet somehow the film does not fall into the trap of tearjerkers; instead, like the underdog driver in the story, it carefully circumvents that slippery road and manages to earn its tears. The plot is emblematic and rather predictable for the genre, but a surprising line here and there makes it swerve into a slightly different and a more interesting and novel direction.

I am certain that any other director would not have had the sensitive touch to make this project work. But when the movie ended, I felt I had gone through a beautiful experience that I was very glad to have been part of. I appreciated the fact that I was in the movie theater watching a movie I would not have considered if it were not for the given sets of circumstances outlined earlier. Furthermore, here is the review that came about and came to life only due to and because of that screen invite.

Interestingly, at the beginning I was forbidden to review it until a given date and time. I am of course fully compliant with the rules but as a novice to this domain, I found it rather curious to have a limited gag / embargo imposed upon my critical voice. Also, we were told at the very beginning of the movie that we were not allowed to use any cellphones with the warning that if we did, we would not only be immediately escorted out but might potentially have our phone confiscated in the process. Certainly, all of this only increased my interest and curiosity, and again, I fully complied with all the rules and conditions.

During the movie, I noted that one of my fellow theater goers was consistently glancing at his phone to check the time; he did not seem very thrilled about the film, which did at times feel a bit slow, I must grant. But my only negative - albeit somewhat humorous - experience, the thorn and brunt of it, was the woman sitting beside me who kept exclaiming something that sounded along the lines of wooshee, wooshee whenever there was a close-up of the dog.

This would not have necessarily bothered me if it had occurred merely once or twice, but there were many close-ups, and she did so consistently and right on cue. Notwithstanding, when the movie ended and the lights went on, I felt elated and immediately hoped, there shall be more screening invites coming my way. And that could easily include movies that are not generally considered my type of movie to begin with!

Saturday, August 3, 2019

The Fruits of Labor: Fall to Grace

Adam and Eve in Eden with Eve offering him an apple
In the beginning, Adam led a perfectly idle life. He would stretch out on the pasture soaking the sun while lazily eating fruits and berries from the trees and hedges. He would eat of all the fruits that were permitted and gave no thought or heed to the forbidden or disallowed ones in the outskirts of the garden. He never thought twice about disobedience, and he utterly lacked curiosity for anything outside of his purview.

Nor did the woman Eve - assigned to him by the Father - arouse any inklings of curiosity or interest. To him, she perfectly blended in with nature, as if she were one of the animals grazing the fields or a piece of fruit dangling from a tree. Why he needed a companion after all was beyond him, but such wonderment crossed his mind only sporadically and served no purpose. There was neither past nor future, but nothing but a present stretched out along the endless horizon. He was not reliving the same day; there was only day and the day was and is and would always be only to-day.

UNTIL Eve brought him pieces of the forbidden fruit plucked from the hidden corners of the garden. Adam, who knew nothing but mindless obedience, did not think twice; he instinctively partook of the fruit given to him by the woman created in his likeness. The fruit tasted no different from all the other fruits of the garden, but it had a strange effect on his mind and vision.

Suddenly, the light that had gently and peacefully enveloped them became bright and almost blinding. The chirping of birds and crickets that would lull him to sleep on many lazy afternoons sounded distorted and on edge. Everything that used to be in harmony was out of sync. In his confusion, he looked onto Eve, his other half, but she was not herself but beside herself.

For the first time, he noted her body was shaped like a fruit. She was not after all made in his likeness, but he liked what he saw and was also afraid of the communication of his eyes. This image of her was beyond beauty was beyond anything any man had ever seen before and these sensations flowed through his body like waves of anger, passion and shame. As she noticed his strange appetizing and hungry gaze, she quickly covered herself with a fig leaf, and so did he.

And yet, moments later he wished to uncover himself. Except things would never be the same again. The act was done, and it was irreversible. For the first time in his long life, he felt regret, but joy and anticipation also flooded every nerve of his body. He started naming all the surfacing emotions one by one not unlike the way he had given names to each and every creature that crawled and walked on the ground. And yet, no more were they docile and servient creatures, but they began to eye him with suspicion and mistrust.

And then he had her, his very own forbidden fruit. It came at a cost: eternal and irrevocable expulsion from the lands of Eden. But this did not bother them. He wanted to be with her, and she with him, and it did not matter where, provided they were there together. Although the Father called it a curse, they secretly named it a blessing.

They were free to roam in a way they had never been free to roam before. They began to toil and harvest the land they were given. It was meant as punishment, but they both considered it to be the most beautiful place they had ever set eyes on. As he stood in the fields, laboring daily, he felt the scorching sun on his sweaty brow, and it felt good. He stood there upright, wiped his brow and felt pride in their accomplishments. There it was their very own orchard filled with fruits of various kinds.

But the most surprising fruit was the one that gradually grew within her womb. And before they knew it, there was a creature not unlike them but much smaller and much more tender than anyone could imagine. They took care of him as he grew up on fruits, berries and soft words, and soon enough and much too soon their offspring was carelessly and joyfully playing in the fields as if it was the garden Eden herself!

Another creature arrived via the same aqueduct and with each day, as their happiness grew, so did those beloved creatures. It was not always peace and calm, and they ended up having more and more fights, spouse with spouse, parents with children, and children with children. They became the first and foremost dysfunctional family, the blueprint of all families to emerge. Yet they also had love, an abundance of it. He never strayed from their side until his final day.

On that late evening, he lay in a bed of tall grass and flowers on a hilltop bathed in the slowly setting sun. His wife was sitting beside this aged man, the dreamer with his wildly flowing white mane. With eyes closed, he imagined all the fruits of their labor, the trees, the plants, the flowers growing and evolving and continuing to grow and evolve for time immemorial. The birds fluttered around him and sang their hymns and odes to beauty.  A shroud of calm and bliss descended upon him. And he smiled. It was good.