CaptCliff’s Restaurant Review of Din Tai Fung

shrimp dumpling
How can I begin to describe an authentic Shanghai steamed dumpling that one does not (God forbid) gulp down or drown in store bought chili oil but instead allows to dance on one’s tongue until it decides on it’s own to release it’s ample flavors of pork, chicken and savory broth? How can I explain the difference between a run-of-the-mill Hong Kong style noodle house or standard Dim Sum palace whether in SF’s Chinatown or Atlanta’s budding Buford Highway and a bona fide heaven-on-earth eatery like Din Tai Fung in Arcadia California?
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Even for a jaded foodie and pseudo Pirate Psychologist such as myself, Din Tai Fung delivers on it’s promise. Practically every dish arrives looking simple, even coy and unpretentious, but then when eaten proceeds to perform perfect pirouettes of taste on one’s pirate loving palate like a Bolshoi ballerina on pointe. Similarly, there is a matter-of-factness about the servers and seating hostesses that borders on cavalier right up until the steaming food is brought to the table. However, now look very closely at your server. She/he is suddenly smiling ever so slightly because she/he knows what’s in store. The moment you bite into a mound of fresh garlicky green beans or shrimp topped pork shu mai there is a palpable culinary awakening afoot. After my first swallow I nearly dropped my chopsticks on the floor in a clatter and bowed in reverence while facing the glass enclosed prep kitchen. Inside, a dozen identically aproned chefs work deftly to cut, roll, shape and stuff the sacred Shanghai dumplings. Like Santa’s helpers in late December they could barely keep up with consumer demand. Also excellent is the chicken fried rice with green onion and dry fried pork chop over steamed rice. Multiple orders of everything is the norm here rather then the exception. A Zagat rating of 26 amid so many competing Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean restaurants and other plentiful food establishments in metro Los Angeles is no small feat. It was also obvious by the long line at the door that diners are willing to fly, drive, surf, parasail and carjack their way to Din Tai Fung for the privilege. I’m not kidding. I think I saw Crips and Bloods seated together at an adjoining table flashing gang colors and making hand signs I interpreted to mean “This is fricking awesome, man”. I would bet it’s the same at Din Tai Fung’s other locations including an outpost in Sydney Australia surrounded by Great White sharks and poisonous jellyfish. Such obstacles will not and do not deter determined Shanghai dumpling devotees. Real food fanatics, much like star crossed lovers are more than willing to persevere and take unusual risks for love… or in this case, lunch.
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To me, it’s quite often the simplicity and compactness of a dish (or even a person) and some initial hint of their special qualities (true essence) that first casts it’s magic spell. I only know that in my world, the domain of clinical psychology, we call that special attribute “total coherence”, a seemingly divine aspect which when nurtured properly and given enough love, attention, and devotion leads to not only greater happiness but total satisfaction. That in a nut shell is what made me surrender my ego and swear an oath of allegiance to Din Tai Fung.  Alas, now I am hooked like some forlorn suitor and Don Quijote-like food junkie who not only dreamt his “impossible dumpling dream” but ended up falling in love and strung out like a culinary crack addict wanting more. Yes I said love.  Love starts in the heart but germinates, grows and finally produces it’s best fruit (or flavorful chao fan fried rice) in a consciously cultivated garden of delight. If my one-of-a-kind brother Neal is correct and life is a “bountiful feast” meant to be fully enjoyed with Zorba-the-Greek like Epicurean gusto, then Din Tai Fung has certainly earned it’s place at the communal dining table. If that sounds a bit exaggerated, exotic, erotic or esoteric then so be it.  Din Tai Fung is all of those things and more. As I fly back to Atlanta I can only close my teary eyes and savor the memories while hoping upon hope that some day soon I, CaptCliff, will sally forth in full pirate Captain garb and plastic swashbuckling sword to once again eat authentic Shanghai dumplings ….at Din Tai Fung.
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Claire Mazer and the Talking Unicorn

Lady and the Unicorn

 

by Cliff Mazer, Ph.D., aka CaptCliff

We live in what’s now called a quantum universe. While that means nothing to most people, to others it denotes something extremely complex and exciting ( typically folks with large brains who enjoy listening to Neil Degrasse Tyson and watching The Big Bang Theory). The rest of us bird-brain types whose lives toil towards the middle of the bell shaped curve have to try extra hard to grasp the significance of quantum mechanics.

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Quantum theory postulates (theoretically) that there are endless number of “realities” and endless dimensions of probabilistic possibility where infinite versions of ourselves exist in space/time unseen by one another. The people we think we are (like the guy Cliff writing this blog) are only one version of us based on the unique ways our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and experiences have shaped (and been shaped) by our sensory perceptions. In so doing, we continually reinforce what we believe we see, smell, touch, hear, etc.  In other words, most things are “real”, “believable” and “concrete” to us only because we have convinced ourselves of it based on repeated interactions and multi-sensory experiences as well as what is sometimes called “consensual reality” (what others see and together we all choose to believe). This includes simple things like believing that that thing over there is a “chair” or that I just brushed my teeth with what we all probably agree is a “toothbrush”. However, if there was somebody here who had never ever heard of or seen a toothbrush or chair or anything at all like it, he wouldn’t immediately know what those things were and very likely wouldn’t even “understand” or be able to process what he thought he saw  if we showed him those exact objects. Even more remarkable (besides his really bad breath from having not yet discovered toothbrushes or toothpaste) the objects we show him that we take for granted to be chairs and toothbrushes might appear completely different or nonsensical to his innocent eyes and unfamiliar optical lens. In other words those objects might look nothing like what we normally see when we look at a chair or a toothbrush. It’s a tad bit like doing psychedelic drugs like LSD which mess with our brain and chemical receptors just enough to give us a glimpse of what its like to see the world in a vastly different way based on what we know and don’t know already. One advantage to getting glimpses of such “non-ordinary” or altered reality is that it reminds us just how “soft” and malleable so-called “reality” really is.      Of course if you are a very scared, close-minded or rigid person and need the world to be “solid”, “fixed, and familiar” then taking such a drug would probably freak you out or it might just give you a bad headache and nothing else because your brain would use “fuzzy logic” to keep “resetting” things back to what it’s used to seeing and believing.  I imagine if my dad, Robert Mazer, a chemical engineer by training took LSD he would probably just get a slight headache and indigestion, pop a few Tums and go to bed…and not even notice the TALKING UNICORN in his closet that had a number of esoteric ideas to discuss with him about his mother, his childhood growing up in Milwaukee Wisconsin, and possibly God and the Cosmos. I might be wrong about that speculation. It’s just a guess just like it’s my hunch that my mother Claire Mazer (especially if she was still young and vibrant and not the old lady version with multiple hip replacements, painful osteoarthritis, severe bipolar illness and dementia) after taking LSD would begin noticing some interesting changes occurring to the various Native American paintings on the walls of her condo in Longboat Key Florida and about an hour or so later might be seen riding down to the beach on a talking unicorn without any clothes on. I might be wrong about that too but it’s what some would call an educated guess.

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The other day was my mother’s Yahrzeit. She passed away on August 10, 2016.  It’s been a long tough year for me since she died and I don’t think I’ve thought about her or allowed myself to feel the significance of her passing nearly enough. Maybe if I did I would have avoided some of the pointless pitfalls and maddening misfortunes that followed not long after I became a card carrying member of the “Both My Parents are Gone” club. Some of the “stories” we tell ourselves and carry as our “absolute reality” (based on past experience and what we think we saw, heard or interpreted in a certain way) probably need to be reconsidered or even changed. Like our computers, our mental programs require updates and pragmatic “patches” that allow for uncertainty and continued growth. It’s not a good idea to become too rigid, too certain or too absolute about anything, especially in a quantum world. Luckily there will be “billions and billions” of other Carl Sagan like chances to get it right based on quantum probability, serendipity, and the human capacity to see past our ego-based illusions. I say this both for myself and for all the CaptCliff permutations in infinite dimensions who like me are probably stumbling around the multiverse doing many of the same things I tend to do like putting my t-shirt on backwards (again), losing my car keys (look in your hand dummy) and having single socks disappear into some dark matter/black hole located behind the laundry room dryer… again and again and again.

Mom, I hope you had a fun ride on the TALKING UNICORN and please do enjoy the lunar eclipse next week and the Perseid meteor shower tonight and tomorrow. They say it’s going to be absolutely heavenly.   Love, Cliff

 
Unicorn Symbolism ~ Mythology & Meaning. . .  Legend and Lore 
 

The symbolic meaning of The Unicorn is all about Opening up to Infinite Possibilities and that infinite possibilities surround you and are available to you at all times.  Many times we cannot see that possibilities abound, or even exist. Unicorn gives us the “eyes to see” those hidden possibilities, and “the wisdom” to take advantage of them.

Spiritually the Unicorn symbolizes success. If you summon the power of the Unicorn, the Unicorn will give you the blessings to be a success in whatever you choose to pursue.

Unicorn is the symbol of the most magical of all animals! The Unicorn can shift between the visible world and the invisible world easily like walking from the shore of a beach, into the sea for a refreshing swim, and back to the shore to sun itself on the sand.

The ancient myth and lore of the Unicorn speaks of original innocence, purity, grace and mystical healing powers.  To touch or be touched by the horn of the Unicorn can bring total and complete healing.  The healing of the Unicorn brings everything in mind, body and soul into renewed perfect balance. 

 

Unicorn Symbolism:
Unicorn’s Magical ~&~ Mythical Powers. . . 

 
Unicorn brings the gifts of:
all possibilities, wisdom, and the clever pursuit of dreams 
 
Unicorn totem brings the magic of:
Magical Manifestation, Summoning of Dreams, Calling Upon The Universe For All Answers
 
Unicorn spirit animal brings the energies of:
transmutation  (passing through of boundaries ), spiritual sight ( to see past all ego based illusions, until the deep truth is revealed ), manifestation ( to bring all that you imagine into reality
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The Musée de Cluny, also known as the Musée national du Moyen Âge, is housed in one of the oldest buildings in Paris, a former townhouse whose construction started in 1334. Yet beneath it is something even older: the ruins of Gallo-Roman thermal baths believed to have been used by 3rd-century boatmen.
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Inside the museum is a vast presentation of medieval life through sculptures, furnishings, stained glass, and manuscripts. The most significant objects are a group of Middle Ages tapestries known as “The Lady and the Unicorn.” Woven from wool and silk, five of the tapestries fixate on the five human senses, with a woman interacting with a unicorn, as well as a lion and sometimes a monkey. For example, in the “sight” related tapestry she holds up a mirror to the unicorn which looks at its gaze, possibly admiring its beautiful reflection. In “touch” she has her hand on the unicorn’s horn.
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The sixth tapestry remains more of a mystery with its text ”À Mon Seul Désir” (“To my only desire”) interpreted most frequently as a personal declaration of independence or purity. No matter the meaning, it’s hard to escape the charms of the strangely captivating unicorn as it confidently poses through the scenes.
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Bags of Balinese Dicks

 

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The Balinese people are a sweet, kind, artistically inclined populace. They paint, sculpt, carve wood, dance, and mass produce thousands of colorfully decorated penises for the tourist trade. Yes I said penises. I cant say I know for sure the cultural or religious significance of these ubiquitous phallic symbols. Nor do I know why foreign visitors need so many cock shaped bottle openers in various sizes and colors but nevertheless they hang prominently and sometimes quite realistically in the stalls of many local venders throughout Bali. Maybe it’s a fertility thing or maybe like in Imperial Rome they’re just meant to ward off bad luck and counter the “evil eye”, Kinnehora! Either way it’s quite a startling sight seeing pasty white tourists in beachwear and lobster red middle-aged Aussies shlepping down the main streets of Benspasar carrying a bottle of  sunscreen in one hand and a bag of Balinese wooden dicks in the other.

 
Of course, CaptCliff with his non-stop creativity, custom pipe craftsmanship and entrepreneurial spirit couldn’t help but see a business opportunity. I decided to engage in peace pipe alchemy and thus fill an existing opening in the art marketplace. I would turn lewd Balinese bottle openers into one-of-a kind smoking pipes for my growing peace pipe collection in Atlanta. While the other foreign tourists and hotel guests were being relentlessly accosted by street vendors to buy cheap novelty items and tourista crapola that they really don’t need at open stalls and markets, I would relentlessly accost the same Balinese vendors and sell them the Chinese made fidget spinners I bought for $5 at a Sandy Springs garage sale the week before. Mission accomplished for 12 zillion rupiah ($35) to the first Balinese stall vendor I spoke with! I told him they were “one-of-a-kind” American fidget spinners…even tho there were 6 of them all exactly the same and they said “Made in Hong Kong” on the bottom of each box. My Australian muse Debbie prefers the word “bamboozled” or “swindled” to “accosted” but whatever….Then I bought a sample pack of small Balinese bottle opener penises from the same guy including a much larger anatomically correct black wood penis which I made him throw in for free at the end to sweeten the deal. My idea was to take my bag of Balinese dicks back to the resort hotel and figure out how to extract the cheap but firmly installed metal bottle opener part off the balls/”berry” end of the twig and berries item without causing a catastrophic injury to the wooden shaft. Breaking the shaft would have been somewhat akin to what can and does occur occasionally when acrobatically-inclined young people engage in excessively vigorous sex acts including the notorious “reverse cowboy” sexual intercourse position. Being a sex therapist as well as a legendary artiste ( solely in my own mind) I know that penises don’t actually break in two but wooden reproductions very possibly could. Luckily this is not my first rodeo in either arena so I knew what had to be done. Plus I am also a vasectomy survivor who went through the surgical procedure many years ago and suffered no ill effects besides recurrent PTSD nightmares involving my testicles and somebody else’s ginormous Freudian landscaping shears.  Unfortunately I hadn’t thought to bring any of my specialized wooden penis bottle opener extractors or Black and Decker power tools on vacation with me. On the other hand, the housekeeping staff at the hotel have a standard policy of always asking guests, “Is there anything I can do to help you, sir?”  I admit to hesitating for only about three seconds and then “plunging in” so to speak. The irony and “bent” humor of having a sweet earnest young man and innocent Balinese housekeeper named Saran fetch a pair of pliers and do battle with the metal end of a large black wood dick in front of the resort swimming pool and health spa was almost too much for me… so of course I filmed the whole thing for, well, posterity.  
Here it is:
 
Video to be uploaded (as soon as I find a technologically proficient Balinese teenager to do it)
 

 

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Out of the Ashes I Rise

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Out of the ashes I rise. I am preparing for a two week trip to Bali on Saturday to meet a pen pal from Melbourne.  Son #2 (Eli) has taken electric sheep shears (rented from the Tool Shed at Home Depot) to my entire old man hairy body and created a large mound of …you don’t even want to know. Even the dog won’t get near it. Let’s just say there’s a sweet child with cancer somewhere that will soon be fit for a large Jew-fro made completely from authentic Baby Boomer back hair. That’s right. Baby got back (hair). Eww.
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The beard is newly dyed (Just for Men, Light Brown). I was told to do this body prep ritual because the Balinese are unusually kind, soft-hearted, gentle and spiritual people. The very sight of an older White Man with copious back and shoulder hair scares them unnecessarily and reminds them of a nameless mythical creature said to haunt their dreams.  Apparently the demon looks a lot like the weird looking bat thingy in “Jeepers Creepers” that kills obnoxious teenagers and uses their severed heads as spare parts for it’s totally hideous body. In my case the beast has the body of an aging social worker and the head of a Jew-bu Pirate/biker wannabe with  hearing loss and tinnitus. Now if only I can find my dozen prescription medicines, my fungus creme and the Japanese product my SF friends gave me that when put in the toilet in an amount as minute as a single drop masks the odor of anything from human excrement to a rotting fully dismembered water buffalo….not that I’m planning on doing anything strange with a water buffalo in Bali. It’s just that my mother Claire Mazer always said there are two things human beings cannot and should not consider living without: extra paper towels and a fully functioning bathroom fan. I agree with her completely and try to live by her wise counsel. If you’ve read my recent “CaptCliff and Tinkerbell” blog then you have seen and heard me at my very lowest. Now it is time for me to rise to the occasion.
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Thanks to CaptCliff’s psychological near-death experience (see previous blog) and  proprietary “Dumpee, Divorce and Depression Diet (DDDD) I have once again lost 10 lbs and while not exactly “sleek” or svelte my nipples appear to be drooping somewhat less than usual. As a scientist and sex therapist I’m also aware that looking down on ones “manhood” (called “foreshortening” in the sex therapy business) like many other self-evaluations represents nothing more than an artifact of ones limited perspective . Hell, the same thing may be true about our view of the world and of ourselves at any given moment in time. Life is truly bigger than the sum of it’s parts. Hence, I don’t want to “foreshorten” myself at this important life stage. I am getting a little sick of myself but there’s not much I can do about that.  Summary:  Maybe there is still hope and time enough to do as Tom Robbins the author said , ie. “it’s never too late to change your childhood”
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Regardless, I CaptCliff, faux Jewish Pirate, web blogger, peace-pipe maker, compulsive home remodeler, therapist (who sometimes can’t fix his own psychotherapeutic toilet)…aka Cliff Mazer, Ph.D., prepare now to “sally forth” to Denspasar Bali, a flight of over 22 hours from LA. It is an airplane marathon that I hope to survive by 1) not being seated next to a morbidly obese person with bad gas and 2)  self-administering a variation of the Michael Jackson sleeping cure (minus the death, grisly tabloids photos and funeral). As the song goes in the movie (and show) Bye Bye Birdy……….”I’ve Got a Lot of Living To Do”. The video below tells you everything you need to know….
Bye Bye Birdie:     https://youtu.be/rS38PiZ2-RA
             
Peace Out My Loyal Peeps. See you on the backside Balinese style.
Tom Robbins relevant quotes:
 1)  We waste time looking for the perfect lover, instead of creating the perfect love.
 2)  We’re our own dragons as well as our own heroes, and we often have to rescue ourselves from ourselves.  (I keep forgetting #2 and then remembering it but on the other hand I know plenty people that never seem grasp that concept at all).     
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Emess: The Unvarnished Truth

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  • When I think of being REALLY honest (truthful) with myself and with others I think of the Yiddish word Emess. Two sources come to mind: 1) my mother who always said “It’s the Emess”, when she either told the truth, lied, or didn’t know she was lying and completely made shit up out of thin air (confabulation) and 2) from the late great comedian Lenny Bruce who would tell the most outrageous and unbelievable stories, while swearing all the time that they were absolutely true. And–they WERE! Poor Lenny, toward the end of his unfortunate life became a Lenny Bruce comedy routine himself, a sad, not very funny, one. During his criminal trial for obscenity, he jumped up as an undercover cop was describing his stand-up routine and tried to inject Emessness into the proceeding by yelling “I object! He’s stealing my routine and not paying me for it.” One laughed and cried at the same time. Lenny became a quasi- scholar of the Law and it’s often unfair and unjust application, and worshipped (with tongue in cheek) its linguistic complexity as it was destroying him. As he pored through legal tracts and page after page of its overcomplicated legalese jargon, he remained in awe of its apparent “Majesty”.

The essence of EMESSNESS is often total ridiculousness and absurdity underneath the garb of seriousness. Its the “stuff” in life that makes you drop your head in disbelief and mutter to yourself, “I can’t fucking believe this…”   It’s a concept liberally sprinkled throughout the best Coen Brothers movies, especially ones like, “A Serious Man”.

Emmis or Emess simply means The Truth, the Real Truth. I’m not talking about “Revealed Truth,” like some Kabbalist or Biblical Fundamentalist. Or even some kind of “Eternal Truth,” just the plain, easily verifiable, often bizarre truth about the real world and all the absurd situations we encounter. Of course that includes all the nutty contradictory people in it, like ourselves. Real honesty and outspoken truth telling is something often talked about and valued but rarely realized.
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Borrowed from another blog here is a good example taken from my favorite source, the aptly termed “weird news”. There was a case many years ago in Miami Beach, which involved a bartender calling the police to complain about an unauthorized person using a “private women’s bathroom.” In response three PLAINCLOTHES officers rushed to the locale, and two of them broke down the door to the toilet stall, with guns drawn. The occupant then bolted and was shot and wounded. He then sued the establishment. The above-description only reflects the plaintiff’s side of the story–which is obviously not a real Emmes.
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First, the place is Miami Beach, well known for its gayness…..not that there’s anything wrong with that. Was the plaintiff (a former NFL football player) barred from the premises for being Gay or not Gay, Hetero or something else far more “fluid”–and why was he in the ladies room? If the only complaint was that of trespass, why three armed cops? All in PLAINCLOTHES? Did any of them bother yelling the simple word “Police” prior to or during the bathroom break-in? Or, is this Syria or Afghanistan , where everyone just takes his or her chances? Why shoot the guy? Was he a known drug dealer, or nearly as dangerous, a former player for the Miami Dolphins with concussion syndrome?  In short, what’s the Emmes behind the Apparent Emess?

 

This case is a paradigmatic example of Emess-ness and I choose it only because the real Truth is often ludicrous and elusive–and some people such as myself absolutely revel in ludicrousness and contradiction. Translation: Life and truth are often complex phenomena but most people prefer to resolve complexity by reflexively going along with own prejudices, self-centered interests and biased perspectives (one side of a multi-sided coin) or even worse based solely on a simple but pronounced (rather than profound) FEELING…… Feelings? Nothing more than feeling?  Summary:  raw unfiltered emotion is not usually recommended as the very best way to do business, elect an American President or judge someones innocence or guilt……and yet we all do it, practically every day of our lives, and often without ever looking back to see if maybe we made a big “boo-boo”. There’s actually a lot of boo-boos out there….. some worse than others.

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CaptCliff and His Phily Girl/Tinkerbell With Brass Knuckles

 

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A Crazed Psychologist Explains Why Things Are So Crazy

 

 
 I think most people would agree the world is pretty crazy right now.
I’m not referring to traditional forms of mental illness or psychiatric disorders but a more insidious cultural phenomena displayed by a deeply divided and highly polarized nation, an anxious self-medicating populace and a morally confused  citizenry. Other indicators suggest that people at various levels of society and economic strata are profoundly troubled and have begun to question the historical mythology about America including it’s inherent goodness, greatness and stature as a “beacon of light” for others. As a role model nation, the USA may be losing its luster. Somehow the beacon of light thing is getting progressively dimmer and as a country we may have to accept ourselves as having lost our way in the dark forest of what once was called our “manifest destiny”, a suspect concept itself. Generally speaking there is a lot of “free-floating” anxiety going on and a pervasive sense of foreboding that is still short of what might be called profound “doom or dread”. It’s more like a generalized form of anticipatory anxiety. Like many other things psychological in nature it’s uncertain whether sufferers of this existential pre-dread sensation are even consciously aware of this cultural virus , spreading affliction or understand it’s source. Regardless, large questions loom in the collective American psyche. Who are we now? What is going on?? Where are we headed? Is the United States washed up as a superpower? Are we no longer a globally respected model of  freedom, plurality and  democracy? These are just a few overarching questions about our identity and self-image that pertain not to any random individual that might seeking professional help but to a weakened and more neurotic nation even as the majority carry on with daily routines, plans for the Holidays, take selfies and update social media accounts. But who will be the country’s therapist?  
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To some observers that which is wrong simply boils down to a deficit or decay in baseline morality, as if the nation’s 14 k golden “moral compass” has broken or gone missing along with its Jiminy Cricket-like conscience reminding us what is “right from wrong” (an important component of legal sanity). Others contend that societal norms related to acceptable social behavior (the stuff that guides rational decision-making and keeps us from behaving like cavemen) are either absent or in transition due to a changing modern world and melting pot culture. Some critics see this as the direct result of adding too many immigrants (legal and illegal), different religions with clashing ideologies, and fundamentally incompatible racial-ethnic groups to the Founding Father’s original recipe. Regardless of the reasons, there is an overpowering sense that something is wrong in Camelot and while political parties and TV pundits point fingers and argue aloud who and what’s to blame, signs of this societal sickness continue to grow and even show. Put bluntly, if social issues and psychological problems were toxic fumes and the country was a a coal mine, the canaries would probably be dead already.
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As a Clinical Psychologist in practice for almost 40 years and as a cultural critic, it’s scary to have to admit that it’s gotten so bad (in terms of a general perception of unhealthy thinking, stress-related conditions and overall maladaptive behavior) that its difficult to say exactly who or what’s the very MOST crazy. The fact that relatively few people in power or so-called authority figures seem alarmed enough to do anything proactive about it may be what drives me the most crazy.  
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As a psychotherapist, I feel less like the guy with his finger in the “dam of the deranged” that’s sprung a leak and more like Chicken Little the crazed handyman tasked with fixing an already crumbling hen house made of ash and toxic asbestos. On the subject of toxicity, it only takes cursory research and a few keystrokes to realize there are way more published books and magazine articles on toxic work environments, toxic marriages, toxic pollutants, and toxic politics than there are on the social ills that result from living in a highly toxic culture. In fact, I couldn’t find anything very substantial or comprehensive on the topic in the professional literature either when I google search “toxic American culture”. That seems kinda crazy to me too. Maybe I’m the crazy one…..
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Certainly from media reports (both mainstream and alternative) it sounds like there are more “bad hombres” running loose and totally unhinged than combined flavors of Baskin Robbins and Ben and Jerrys ice cream. The phrase “another senseless act of violence” seems to show up practically on a daily basis. Trying to keep up with all the viral videos of incomprehensible antisocial acts and bonkers behavior or just remembering the name of this weeks mass murderer or suicide bomber is becoming impossible even for a seasoned psychologist and  information junkie such as myself.  Perhaps the head honchos in Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry in Bethesda, Maryland, Washington DC, or wherever they keep the gold standard for sanity and insanity have quietly thrown in the towel. Even they can’t seem to keep tabs on all the new and different mental and behavioral disorders crammed into the latest editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) and (ICD) International Classification of Diseases. 
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Unfortunately I don’t have a single all-encompassing explanation for the explosion of irrationality and off-the-wall behavior occurring in many sectors of society. It seems that no place is safe from random encounters with lunatics or bad seed behaving individuals. It’s even more crazy-making to hear neighbors or friends of the IL (identified lunatic) interviewed later saying, “He seemed so normal…he was pretty quiet and used to mow my lawn for free, etc.” This disparity in perspective includes the broad range of overtly disturbed or psychotic people and plain old regular folk who snap and melt down like cheap candles in a pile of gas soaked rags right next door to in Suburbia USA. Luckily in my neighborhood they make reasonable allowances for me. I believe I’m referred to as the “sort of funny bald shrink who thinks he’s a pirate” and “the bald guy who takes his trash cans up to the street in his bathrobe”.  Do they really HAVE to mention the bald part every time? The good news is that many of them also bring their kids over to see my pirate basement.  Certainly, the Internet, social media and 24-hour cable news haven’t been of much assistance in helping people to remain calm, sane or civil in these stressful times. Furthermore, for all it’s Steve Jobs hype and “interconnected” gobbledygook, the information revolution may actually do more harm then good when it comes to providing the support, safety and security that is shown to mitigate mental illness (see website at bottom). Ditto for the digital age having  failed to keep it’s utopian pie-in-the-sky promise of transforming sedentary gaming addicts and technology consumers into “healthier” and happier human beings. In reality it’s more like a mash-up of Wall-e, Westworld and Halloween 3 online and outside. Finally, as far as I can tell NOBODY (including myself) is getting the doctor recommended 7-8 hours of “deep restorative sleep” every night. That alone is probably a bad sign.
 
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Let’s put the topic in historical perspective. In the past, when most of the population worked on farms or in factories, people were too busy or too tired to develop insane conspiracy theories or wacked-out delusions involving Jodie Foster, Vince Foster or Foster Grants. Plus, if you brought that kind of crazy thinking up at the family dinner table your mother (Ma), father (Pa) or grandmother (Granny) would wack you hard with a large wooden spatula… or worse. With more discretionary time on our ever-evolving hands and texting thumbs the industrial revolution and current information age have made it possible for millions of Americans to plunk themselves down in a cheap chair from IKEA and consume large quantities of caffeinated energy drinks and packaged honey buns from the local gas station to watch 1000 televised channels of shallow entertainment, reality TV shows, and informercials selling shiny objects. Who really wants or needs 285 hunting knives or samurai swords in 15 different colors? Don’t tell me. I don’t really want to know….altho I suspect many of those people live in Florida.  Those who prefer to stay “well-informed” may now choose between highly polarized politically prejudiced TV news programs (can you spell “cognitive dissonance”) occupied by bombastic pundits, life-sized barbie dolls and desperate stand-up comics. What’s with that weird combination of so called “talent”? Who’s bright idea was that? Science aficionados such as myself are pretty much relegated to pseudo-science documentaries about Mermaids, Bigfoot, and Ancient Aliens…or some combination thereof.  
 
 The online universe may not be all that much better than the aforementioned “boob tube”. Access to the world wide web and the “internet of everything” (which includes the dark web and more pornography per band width than insects per millimeter of dirt) probably does have more to offer “content-wise” that is relatively constructive. It also makes it possible for more people as well as different types of individuals to connect including those who were previously isolated, disenfranchised or just plain alienated from the mainstream. Isn’t that a good or even great thing? Well, not necessarily, because now really sick and twisted Homo Sapiens like the serial-killer Hannibal the Cannibal Ed Gein (the prototype for Leatherface) who was safer for society stuck on his dilapidated pig farm in Wisconsin is also able to reach out and form like-minded social groups, web forums, and “meet and greet” events. Starbucks Coffee, home-made jerky and (real) “finger foods” anyone? Connectivity also allows these formerly isolated and demented individuals to listen to paranoid podcasts with “shock jocks” acting like know-it-alls and scientific authorities on topics ranging from the 9/11 “hoax” to alien abduction to verified sightings of Martian lizard men in Obama’s Oval Office. Crazy people often only need one other lunatic to agree with their nutbag thinking (or radical/violent philosophy and attached 550 page rambling manifesto) to convince themselves of it’s absolute merit. In other words, we all need to learn how to lovingly tell certain friends and acquaintances, “Um, sorry but that’s fucking crazy”. 
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All I can guess is that “epigenetic” changes in the human brain, meaning active mutations in the neurological and cortical structure are now occurring as a result of living in a continuously stressful, topsy-turvy and crazy-making world…one in which “up is now down” and down seems to have no bottom. Good examples would be college students violently protesting AGAINST free speech on university campuses, “trigger warnings” on classical literature, and groups of otherwise sane individuals (including certain elected officials) believing it’s “understandable” and socially acceptable to bodyslam a news reporter and then blame it on Obama…or on something in the water.
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HOW CRAZY IS MADE:  If you allow me to expand on my only slightly LESS paranoid theory (Disclaimer: CaptCliff’s theory currently lacks definitive empirical support or a well-replicated double-blind peer-reviewed study and published academic journal article) let me put it this way:  if the goal is to manufacture more unhinged crazy dangerous people in society, first you bombard the entire population 24/7 with offensive and psychologically damaging sound bites and computer bytes of stress-arousing emotionally disturbing news including traumatizing and/or empathy-habituating videos depicting random violence, the decapitation of innocents and children, recurrent episodes of road rage, suicide, etc. Then you add an overarching social climate characterized by fear and anxiety, status-seeking narcissism, general mistrust of others who are different and excessive conformity to overly insular values and authoritarian leadership (rather than humanistic, compassionate, cooperative or consensual cultural value and imperatives). Finally you eschew education both for young people and adults that promote critical thinking, interior growth (within the self), self-awareness relating to social-emotional intelligence and introspection, and basic skills for coping and psychological resilience. Hey, did I remember to mention rampant drug and alcohol abuse? Did I happen to include the over-utilization of legal and illegal psychoactive prescription medications that are often addicting, grossly under-supervised, mood-altering and rife with serious physical and psychiatric side effects? They are a big problem too….. a really big problem or as Donald Trump would say (one thing I actually do agree with him about) a “really really tremendous problem”. 
 
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Over time, the inevitable result of all the above and probably at least a dozen other significant but still unmentioned factors such as thousands of young traumatized war veterans with PTSD returning to society without jobs, adequate follow-up help or effective treatment is a crackpot/crock pot recipe for societal disaster. At the very least these internal changes and external stressors may be promoting a kind of rapidly reproducing meme or cultural virus in the form of pathological social behavior/mimicry and psychiatric disorders that are neither quiet or primarily internalized (like say clinical depression usually is). Those with psychiatric and pharmacological expertise say the worst thing helping professionals can do is “energize” or “give legs” to a severely depressed person. What that means on a practical level is that a depressed person who may be considering suicide or violence is generally safer depressed in bed until he/she starts to feel better than they are jacked up on Paxil, Prozac or ANYTHING ELSE which if not properly supervised might trigger a suicide attempt or murderous rage.  Now insert “radical religious ideology” or “super crazy delusion” or “dangerous political belief” for Paxil or Prozac.  Rather than suffer in silence, this type of wired, fired, emotionally disturbed and culturally conditioned individual (who is walking around with a REALLY bad motherboard in his head) wants his name in lights and trending on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Put another way, due to the basically antisocial nature of his affliction (either genetic, acquired, or both) he will desire his self-propelled and self-controlled psychophysiological “detonation” (literally or figuratively) to be videotaped for posterity and  live-streamed over the internet.
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Many people assume (at least at first) that unusually violent acts and brutal crimes including mass murder are associated with longstanding clinical psychoses, gang or drug cartel related criminality or extremist religious ideology, ie., just another treatment resistant schizophrenic dressed as a ninja, radicalized Islamic terrorist or intoxicated illegal alien with a long rap sheet. In reality, however, it often turns out to be someone unexpected who is either around 23 years old, minimally employed, a “drop-out dreamer” or solitary gamer and/or internet addict who just broke up with his girlfriend or a married mid-life white guy who rather than just have an extra-marital affair or buy a red sports car decides to pick up a shotgun and use it on someone. Even later it’s revealed that he was “kinda nice but a little weird”, kept to himself a lot,  was socially unpopular, somewhat of a “nerd” or “loser” (by societal standards of success) and perhaps a “bit idiosyncratic” in his primary interests. We ( the helping professionals) pull out our diagnostic manuals and start to think maybe Aspergers Syndrome /autism spectrum disorder with unusual aggressive or depressive tendencies, conduct disorder, antisocial personality, undiagnosed or untreated schizophrenia or bipolar mania. However, the possibly bigger problem is that off the radar and unbeknownst to most people these same individuals “primary interests” have increasingly become obsessions like learning how to make a nail bomb, collecting an impressive cache of automatic weapons and reading up on the current world record holder for mass murder (all at the expense of much needed therapy, yoga class, league bowling, craft beer tasting or any other far healthier social pursuit). More often than not they have experienced rejection, humiliation, and a loss of their once important dream of personal success, belonging, and fulfillment…yeah the American dream thing. The final outcome is someone inexplicably blowing up a packed music concert full of innocent teenaged fans, randomly shooting a completely helpless elderly man, a nightclub full of gay and straight people, beating a sleeping homeless person to death with a claw hammer, or for some god-forsaken reason murdering their entire family and then committing suicide …all while live-streaming it on Facebook. Now that’s what I call REALLY CRAZY and unfortunately I think we have something to do with it. Before you take that the wrong way what I mean is we need to “wake up” and get better at helping ourselves and others around us including those people outside our personal “bubble” of experience and expertise. In my opinion, we shouldn’t be relying so much on well-meaning professionals like myself or even so-called “esteemed” psychiatrists with prescription pads, Big Pharma connections, and another new atypical antipsychotic drug to “cure” our emotionally disturbed, psychiatrically struggling, and/or socially stunted kids. The same is true about believing there is some reliable professional fix for alcoholism and drug abuse at any age.  Yes all of these off-kilter emotionally disturbed people need professional help and affordable treatment but they also need a kinder, healthier and more balanced CULTURE to live in. That would begin with us all recognizing what is physically, socially and psychologically TOXIC to human beings. For starters I”m pretty sure being deployed in combat at the age of 19 or 20 years old (especially if one is already psychologically vulnerable and who isn’t?) is generally toxic to mental health. It’s impossible to be fully “prepared” or vaccinated for extraordinarily violent and traumatic experiences of that sort. Then these brave young men and women return to a country that is very busy arguing over everything, playing silly games on their “smart” phones, and watching shows on TV with names like “Survivor”, “Naked and Afraid”, and “Fear Factor”. Imagine what they (combat vets) think of that after having their legs blown off by an IED or having watched their best buddy bleed out in Afghanistan. That would certainly make me kind of crazy.
 
In much the same way, the many thousands of victims of domestic violence, childhood sex abuse, social media bullying, drug addiction, drug overdoses, suicide, suicide-by-cop, and even the much despised suicide bombers often never had a chance to learn how to handle the uncomfortable truth that modern life is complex, unpredictable and that emotional pain, loss, trauma, tragedy and failure are inevitable. Helping others to learn how to better deal and cope with reality (rather than reality TV or Hollywood distorted versions of reality) is the name of the much better game we should all be playing.
 
Sadly, some of these troubled and highly disturbed people don’t get a second chance to “come back” (like in the violent video games) and never get to know that others in the real world can learn to be more loving, more compassionate, more present, less judgmental and overall better (humane) human beings. Rather than argue politics or point fingers we could learn to give hugs and truly listen with empathy and genuine compassion EVEN if we disagree on a number of major issues… like politics or religion.  I keep saying this but I’ll say it again. I’m 63 years old going on 64. I’m a Clinical Psychologist with a Ph.D………but I myself have a long way to go in improving on most to all of the things I just mentioned. I keep catching my mind making reflexive judgements and self-serving conclusions. In my fear, anxiety and anger I catch myself (usually after the fact) falling into the trap of blaming, inflaming, shaming, and defaming (the so-called bad guys) rather than reframing the problem. I keep forgetting just like after someone waking up from a vivid dream with obvious and important meaning that is GONE like fairy dust (or the quantum stardust we are all made of) in less than 5 minutes. Unfortunately, it’s often gone because I reflexively turned on the morning television news, immediately checked my iPhone for messages or opened my precious laptop (god forbid if it’s not already fully charged) to get on Facebook to argue politics or attempt like a flaming narcissist (or failed stand-up comedian really) to get more “likes” for being clever…as if I’m 13 years old and not a 63 years old Chicken Little Jewish guy in a fluffy bathrobe and Pirate costume going on slightly decrepit. 
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Summary: Once again I apologize for my inability to ever be succinct. I tried. This time just hear my personal plea. Help me (and help one another) to get outside of our ego-centric selves, our electronic addictions and our ingrained “habits” (which includes how we choose to think) that are progressively blunting our empathy, our authenticity, and our essential humanity. Not to pick on China but I don’t want to end of like the Chinese people who watch with indifference while people get run over multiple times and then continue on with their day (see video below). While I may still be awake from last night’s dream (for some reason it had frogs in it…whaa?) I know I will still probably forget. Help me to NOT forget what I am trying to say about our toxic American culture. I don’t want to be another numb or narcissistic “numbskull” (my father’s word) who has lost the ability to see the healthy forest of our future from the troubled traumatized trees of today.  Things gotta change and I promise you there’s no magic red or blue pill to fix this. 
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