Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Green Witch of Oz

Entry for 22 February 2009:

Why are witches so often portrayed has having green skin? Last Thursday, we saw the musical Wicked in London at the Victoria Apollo Theatre. The production was amazing: giant clock, animated dragon, smoke and mist, etc., as were the fanciful costumes. The performances were also very good, and many of the songs as well. But it’s the story that I’m still thinking about, Stephen Schwartz’ adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s revisionist version of L Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz:

I read the first two Oz books when I was a kid, and of course the movie version is an American classic, which used to be shown during my childhood at Thanksgiving or Christmas as a kind of popular ritual. Later, I read the original and its 13 sequels to my kids, plus a series of graphic novels by Eric Shanower (now available in an omnibus edition). For my money, the latter are the best of the various attempts to continue the Oz Mythos in the spirit of the originals. I’m also very fond of the 1985 movie, Return to Oz, which I think is better than the original movie.

I loved the gender bending story of the second book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, in which the main character, the boy Tip, turns out to really be the Ozma, the rightful girl ruler of Oz, whose family had been usurped by the wizard in Baum’s (as opposed to Maguire’s) backstory. Even as a kid I realized how subversive this was, and now of course I see it as representing the situation of many transgendering individuals and even the Jungian view that all of us contain both male and female aspects, regardless of which of those is designated as our “true” self. Not bad for a children's book written in 1904!

For some reason, I’ve never gotten around to reading Maguire’s version or its sequels, but have always been curious about his take. So I was fascinated by Schwartz/Maguire's inspection of the duality of good and evil and its reversals and social/psychological construction. In the end, many of musical’s characters are slightly more nuanced and complex than Baum’s originals, although not by much.

But why, I found myself asking afterwards, is the main character, Elphaba (whose transformation into the Wicked Witch of the West the play portrays) …. green?

This turns out to be a complex question. She’s not green in Baum’s original, which would have messed up his elaborate colour scheme for Oz, where green was assigned to the area around the Emerald City. (Actually, the Wicked Witch of the West should have been yellow, the colour of Winkie country.) Instead, the Wicked Witch of the West (WWW) was greenified for the movie version, colourized along with the original silver slippers. (Note: The silver slippers were converted to ruby to show off the new colour film technology, introduced by the 1939 movie, because they would show up better against the famed yellow brick road. Presumably the green skin was a similar issue.)

Really, there must be better reasons for making the poor, misunderstood witch green! This question is not fully addressed in the Schwarz/Maguire version either, although several explanations are apparent: (1) Green is traditionally the colour of envy, and Elphaba is jealous of her favoured younger sister. (2) Elphaba’s mother is seduced by her lover’s promise of a drink of his mysterious and apparently addictive green liqueur (perhaps a reference to absinthe, a toxic alcoholic beverage used by trendy artiste types in the late 19th century), with possible teratogenic effects. (3) There is also an element of political allegory to the Schwartz/Maguire version, suggesting the possibility of indirect reference to American ethnic/racial issues, where green = black. In any case, Elphaba’s experience of colour-based prejudice sensitizes her to the plight of Oz’s sentient, talking animals, leading her to make common cause with them against the Wizard's fascist persecution.

However over-determined the choice of green skin is here, there must surely be deeper reasons for the WWW’s green skin, because she is not the first witch to be portrayed in this way. A quick google image search for "green witch" turned up 12,000 pages, way more than "yellow witch" but not as many as "black witch" or "white witch". The colour green, at least in our culture, seems to carry with it associations to disease (e.g., gangrene), jealousy (as already noted), and evil. But why should this be?

I’m going to speculate that this is yet another example of symbolic inversion, in which something seen as holy in an earlier, suppressed religion is transformed into a sign of evil by a newer, dominant religion. Thus, angelic beings known as devis in the ancient Middle East became devils; while snakes (and dragons), sacred to the mother goddess, because symbols of duplicitousness and evil.

In this case, I'm going to hypothesize that green, the colour of life, growth, and the vegetation deities both male and female, had its original positive meaning inverted into something evil. The Green Man (a mythic, recurrent figure in British folklore), the Green Witch (the subject of a young adult fantasy novel by Susan Cooper), and green magic (as opposed to black or white magic) are all part of this earlier Green Mythos, which was suppressed by Christianity (a sky god rather than a nature goddess religion).

Elphaba’s skin would be green because of chlorophyll, giving her the power of photosynthesis, the original “green technology”, the ability to turn sunlight into energy. Rather than being evil, this deep connection to the life of plants and growing things gives her a fuller appreciation for the web of life. Rather than Wicked, what she actually is, is Wiccan! And this is where the word “wicked” came from in the first place….

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Carmen and Christine Leave

Entry for 6 February 2009 (I wrote this entry a couple of weeks ago, but am only now getting around to posting it):

Another busy week, following a flurry of activity as my two sabbatical guests concluded their visits last weekend and the end of Celtic Connections.

Carmen Mateu, an intense, energetic Spanish woman from the University of Valencia, had been here, with a bit of a break in the middle, since September. Her sabbatical project was developing an empathy training module for psychology students in her CBT-oriented department. (Carmen herself is trained in Gestalt therapy and is committed to Emotion-Focused therapy, having done two previous sabbatical visits with Les Greenberg.) She spent much of her time with us, visiting our various counselling courses, interacting with tutors and students, learning about how we do empathy training. It was very interesting to be able to see our courses through her eyes, as she marvelled at the depth and intensity of the training we do and in particular the attention we pay to personal development and supervision. She and I worked on developing a research program for her carry out on her return to Spain, including both measure translation/development (including Strathclyde Inventory and Therapeutic Relationship Scale) and testing the empathy training module she’s been developing. Over her 5 months with us, we had many stimulating and entertaining discussions. It’s been quieter this week, but I miss her energy and passion.

The second visitor was Christine Fox, a former colleague from the University of Toledo and an expert on Rasch analysis, an advanced psychometric method. Several years ago, while I was still at Toledo, Christine and I had been partners in crime in our largely successful attempts to subvert my clinical psychology grad students and colleagues’ traditional ways of doing and thinking about psychological measurement, culminating in our 2006 Psychological Assessment paper on the SCL90R. Christine came here to carry forward a continuation of that research using some data collected by colleagues in Aberdeen, as well as to provide input on our measure development research at Strathclyde. It was good to get to know Christine better, and we found her to be intense, direct and outspoken in her own way; during the two weeks she stayed with us, we continually entertained by her charmingly idiosyncratic perspective on life. And she and I got some very interesting science done: Among other things, we found evidence pointing to the possibility that the SCL90R might do almost as well using a 2-point absent-present (0 vs. all other ratings) scale, vs. its current 5-point scale. This tickled my love of irony, as it suggests to me that the title, “Symptom Checklist 90-R” might not be a misnomer after all, because using it with 2-point rating scale really would make it a checklist rather than a traditional self-report inventory with a typical 5-point rating scale.

At any rate, by Sunday, both Carmen and Christine had left, leaving us feeling a bit empty and in recovery mode from the intensity of it all, but at the same time enriched by the intersection of their lives with ours.

Caledonian Sleeper to London

Entry for 20 Feb 2008:

On Wednesday night, we took the Caledonian Sleeper down to London. We got there about 23:00, found our tiny cabin with its two bunk beds. Shades of my childhood: Diane made me take the upper bunch, but the ladder was more flimsy and the head room more limited, and once the train started moving it was more difficult to manoeuvre up and down.

The Caledonian Sleeper looks old and a bit funky. The engines still say “EWS: English, Welsh and Scottish Railway” on the sides. It turns out this was the largest rail freight company in the UK, until it was bought out a few years ago by a German company. This piece of information explains a lot, because it means that the Caledonian Sleeper is essentially a freight train for people, hauling the string of tiny berths through the night, joining up the Glasgow and Edinburgh trains at Carstairs, taking 7 hours to cover a distant that current trains now travel in a bit more than four hours, rumbling sedately south through the darkness with its human cargo.

Our steward was a woman with a Slavic accent. She checked us off her list and asked us what we wanted to drink with our breakfast and left us. The train started off, so gently that it was a first difficult to tell that it was moving. I tried to work on my process notes form the client I’d seen earlier, but was too tired and gave up. Nevertheless, I had trouble sleeping and woke frequently, what with the strangeness of the setting, the noise (we were in the second berth from the end of our car, where it’s apparently noisier), the narrow bed (made up tightly so that it felt even narrow and shorter than it was), and the cares of the week. This was not great, because I’d had trouble sleeping the previous night, in my own bed at home.

At quarter to seven, too soon for us, there was a strange rhythmic tapping on the door, apparently the sound of metal keys or a pen on the metal door. The steward opened the door, thrust two sacks of food at us, and wished us good morning.

After that, we got up and I went off to teach all day at Metanoia, a private therapy training institute in Ealing (a western suburb of London), while Diane explored the British Museum. We met up at Victoria Station, grabbed a quick bite to eat and went across the street to the Victoria Apollo theatre to see Wicked.

After that, we took the tube back to Euston station and caught the Caledonian Sleeper back to Glasgow. This time we were prepared for the close quarters and a bit further from the end of the carriage, where it was significantly less noisy. Also, I untucked the duvet and discovered that there was in fact enough leg room. We slept much better this time, although 7am still seemed to come pretty early.

I felt pretty good when we got home again, good enough to go out for a 6 mile run. However, it all caught up with on Friday afternoon, and I struggled to keep alert for the research supervision meetings I had all afternoon. Three nights of short sleep and intense activity had finally caught up with me, and strong tea was required to get me through.

This trip to London left me feeling somehow enlarged, as though we’d expanded our capacity to function in the UK. I suspect that the sleeper is a bit of an acquired taste, but it’s good to know how to get a decent night’s sleep on it, and I will try it again in the future. It beats the hell out of getting up at 4am!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Canal in Winter

Entry for 8 February 2009:

Although we didn’t get hit with snow as much as the rest of Great Britain, it’s been a cold, wintry week in Glasgow, and, unusually, a bit of the snow has lingered even here, while the hills around the city glisten white with snow. At the beginning of the week, the Monday Parttime Course team cancelled the rest of the day at 3:30pm and sent our students home while there was still light to navigate the treacherous roads.

I had a very busy schedule in the latter part of the week, giving the last of the three doctoral level Advanced Research Inputs to a group mostly consisting of the second year Counselling Psychology students, plus a tutor from the University of Teeside in the Northeast of England. So I didn’t get a chance to run until Saturday morning.

I went out for my Saturday long run with some trepidation, fearing a repeat of the time last December after the ice storm when I pulled my back trying to keep from falling on the canal path and Kelvin Walkway. Thus, as I came down Clevedon hill and onto the canal path, I was busy watching the ground surface. After a bit I looked to my left, and was startled by see, for the first time in my experience, that the canal had almost entirely frozen over and was now covered in a light dusting of snow (just as the path I was running on was). It glowed, except for a few places that were still unfrozen near the reeds along the edges. Wow!

As I ran along the path, still watching my footing carefully, I marvelled at this. It gave the place a magical, mysterious feel, which was enhanced by the fact that we’d just read the previous evening about the history of the canal. I’d been assuming that this canal had been built in the 1830’s and 40’s, the same era of canal building as in America. Not so! It was built 50 years earlier, completed in 1790, and was considered to be a wonder of the age. The Kelvin Aqueduct, where the path turns temporarily to ankle-twisting cobblestones as the canal goes over the River Kelvin, so impressed people at the time that they wrote poems praising it! (And so they might, it’s really an impressive piece of architecture.) I found myself looking again with new respect at the old stones of the wall to my right and the engineering of what is today known as the Maryhill Lock Flight, but which was originally colloquially (and grimly) referred to as “Botany Locks” (supposedly because people faced the choice either working on the canal or going to Australia). “This thing is old,” I said to myself in my jejune American way, “practically as old as my country.”

And so I ran along through the frosty morning, with the sun trying to come out, noting the little unfrozen sections by the locks and under and to the west of the Ruchill and Nolly bridges (“under the bridges!” I marvelled to myself), where the ducks and an occasional swan had taken refuge. I wondered where the grey herons had gone. (To the River Kelvin?) It being Glasgow, occasionally, I’d pass a bottle that someone had pitched out onto the ice, and just above the last of the Maryhill Locks what looked like a can of paint.

I turned around behind Firhill Stadium (where Partick Thistle are based) and headed back. On a quiet bit of the canal, above Maryhill Road, I passed a man out walking his black terrier. He had just stopped to light a cigarette when his mobile phone rang. As I ran past, I heard him say, “Ach! It’s gorgeous up here!” As I heard these words, the whole canal took on that glow again, and I nodded to myself. Magical!

Afterword: And last night, I dreamt that I was walking, nervously, on the ice of the canal, as it began to crack and break apart. Then this afternoon, more serious snow came into Western Scotland, dumping a couple of inches in Glasgow and much more in the Highlands. Once again, it looks like the rest of Great Britain are going to get the worse of the storm. Winter really seems to mean it this year!

Monday, February 02, 2009

Charlotte and Karl Bühler Award

Entry for 2 February 2009:

We learned last week that Division 32 of the American Psychological Association, also known as the Society for Humanistic Psychology, is giving the Counselling Unit the Charlotte and Karl Bühler award for 2010. The award letter indicates that this award is given to an institution, and an individual associated with an institution, that has made an outstanding and lasting contribution to humanistic psychology. The Society for Humanistic Psychology established this award in order to recognize the important role played by key organizations in the development of humanistic approaches to psychology, psychotherapy and counselling.

A bit of historical background: Charlotte Bühler (1893-1974) and Karl Bühler (1979-1963) were important forerunners of modern humanistic psychology, linking Gestalt Psychology with Maslow, Rogers and others. Before they left Austria in the late 1930's to escape fascism and came to the USA, Charlotte pioneered humanistic education and Karl made important contributions to the psychology of language.

The following is the list of previous recipients. Note that this is the first time this award has been given to an institution outside of North America.

1991 Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Thomas Greening, Editor
1992 Saybrook Graduate School, Stanley Krippner
1993 West Georgia College (now State University of West Georgia)
Psychology Dept., Myron Arons
1994 Sonoma State University Psychology Department, Art Warmoth
1995 Duquesne University Psychology Department (no one individual was
named; David Smith, former Chair, accepted on behalf of the faculty as a
1996 Not Awarded
1997 The Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, Amedeo Giorgi
1998 The University of Florida Psychology Department, Arthur W. Combs
1999 Not Awarded
2000 The Focusing Institute and Eugene Gendlin, Ph.D.
2002 Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Robert Frager, Founder and
2003-2008 Not Awarded
2009 York University Psychology Department, David Rennie

As founder of the Counselling Unit, Dave Mearns has agreed to accept the award and present a lecture (or as we would say, an "input") at August 2010 meeting of the APA in San Diego. However, I think he would agree that the award really goes to all the dedicated staff and students who have worked and given their all to the Counselling Unit over the past 17 years!