Monday, August 31, 2009

Stincken, Elliott & Leijssen (2009) Published

Entry for 25 August 2009:

Five years ago, I was having a really hard time at my previous job, and as a way of getting some space from departmental politics, was offered the opportunity to work for 8 weeks a year for two years as a guest professor at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KUL), in Belgium. My old friend Germain Lietaer was retiring and they needed someone to teach a course on psychotherapy, help supervise a couple of their PhD students, and help strengthen the research component of their parttime Person-Centred-Experiential (PCE) therapy postgraduate course. We arranged that I would come 4 times a year for two weeks at a time, and that I would teach the course partly as a distance learning course. There then followed a rather crazy schedule in which on top of my teaching at the University of Toledo, I kept sloping off to Belgium where I had this other life.

Among other things, I started studying Dutch. For one of the visits, Diane and Kenneth came along, and we all did a privately-tutored two-week intensive course in Dutch, during which we would have long arguments about grammar and syntax and theories of language learning. I guess you could think of it as a peculiar form of Extreme Family Vacation.

One of things I worked on over those two years was the development of a protocol for an empirical single case study requirement in the PCE therapy course. Nele Stinckens was (and is) the director of the course and we began working together on this project. Nele is very organized, bright Flemish psychologist with a puckish sense of humor and a strong sense of herself. She asked one of her clients to be a demonstration case study and provided a professional example of what we were asking the students to do. I did a presentation on one of my case studies (the client with the bridge phobia; the write-up has also just been published). We worked with the students to help keep them moving and to help them deal with their stuck places, of which there were many. We presented our ongoing work at several conferences, and eventually wrote it up. This is the article that emerged out of that collaboration and my two years at KUL. It is a real pleasure to see it appear in print.

Abstract: The goal of the Leuven systematic case-study research protocol project is to stimulate practice-oriented research in order to bridge the gap between research and practice. In this article we give a progress report of the project, in which a set of Dutch-language research instruments was created and tested with postgraduate trainees in Person-Centred/Experiential therapy at the University in Leuven (Belgium). We begin by presenting the general framework for the protocol, including the three major domains of therapy process, therapy outcome and client/therapist characteristics. Then, we give an overview of the quantitative and qualitative instruments used. We explain how the project has been implemented in the postgraduate programme. To evaluate the success of the project, we analyzed the answers of our trainees on a questionnaire. We give an overview of the clinical cases involved and the variety of research questions that have been formulated in the individual case-studies. Finally we discuss the value of this pilot project.

Reference: Stinckens, N., Elliott, R., & Leijssen, M. (2009). Bridging the Gap Between Therapy Research and Practice in a Person-Centered/Experiential Therapy Training Program: The Leuven Systematic Case-study Research Protocol. Person-Centred and Experiential Psychotherapies, 8, 143-162.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Kenneth Moves into Little Italy

Entry for 20-21 August 2009:

Our plane had just landed in Detroit on Wednesday evening, when Kenneth phoned to say that he too had just landed in Detroit. This was strange because he was supposed to be flying to Cleveland by way of Chicago. It turned out the airport in Chicago was closed because of the thunderstorms, a frequent complication of summer travel in the American Midwest. His airplane was running low on fuel and had therefore been diverted to Detroit. Now he needed to get the rest of the way to Cleveland for his work meeting the next morning. He persuaded the airline to let him get off the plane in Detroit rather than going back to Chicago to spend the night in a motel.

We hurried rearranged our plans and dropped Diane off in Toledo, while Kenneth and I drove on to Cleveland, trying to keep ahead of the thunderstorms. About halfway to Cleveland, they hit us from the south, with a drama display of horizontal lightning that arced across the night sky again and again. Then the rain came lashing down and the driving become slow and nerve-wracking. Another night drive, the third this week! Eventually, we reached Kenneth’s flat in Cleveland, where I slept fitfully on the couch in the living room.

The next morning we began the process of moving him into his new place, only a few blocks from where he and some friends have been subletting for the summer. Crossing Mayfield, the heart of Cleveland’s Italian community, we went down a side street until came to the little house they are renting for coming school year: One story in a neighborhood of 100-year old brick and frame 2-story houses; white paint over brick, with a somewhat lumpy geometry and an odd sky-light; I think they picked it because it was near the university, inexpensive, and had no downstairs neighbors to bother with Dance Dance Revolution.

After we moved most of his stuff over, Kenneth left for his work meeting and I helped one of us housemates, Py, move some of her stuff. The landlord, Jeff, was there, so I asked about the history of the house: Italian immigrants started moving into this neighborhood in the 1880’s, he said. Many of the houses originally had storefronts with little shops in the front. The front of the three structures on this property used to be a bakery, he said, and so apparently the back house was where they baked their breads, cakes etc. Kenneth and his friends have moved into an old bakehouse! Nowadays, Little Italy is chock-a-block with Italian restaurants and little tourist shops and galleries, but this quiet little side street is a mixture of older people and student rentals. Jeff said that the University and its hospital are what is keeping the neighborhood alive, while much of nearby East Cleveland has become pretty blighted.

After wandering around the neighborhood taking pictures for awhile I went back to Kenneth’s sublet and waited for him to come back from his meeting. There then followed a bout of flat cleaning as Kenneth and Py collected their remaining things, sorted, tidied and cleaned. After pizza, Kenneth and I drove back to Toledo, into the setting sun, for yet another night drive (number 4!).

The next morning, we rented a van to bring Kenneth’s favorite blue chair, a desk and various bits back to Cleveland. Partway there, Kenneth owned to being a bit nervous about this move: it feels like being responsible and out on his own, he said. That’s primary adaptive anxiety, I said somewhere in the conversation, perfectly appropriate when facing unknown new circumstances. This is a big year for him, his last year at Case Western; it is his Time of Choosing What he Will do Next. I’d love to be a bit closer to him geographically over this time, in order to watch and support his process more fully, but we will just have to make do with phone calls and our time at the holidays. I didn’t cry this time, after we unloaded the van, hugging and wishing him luck before he went off to another work meeting and his final year of college. But as I drove the now-empty white U-Haul van back to Toledo, it did feel as though we’d both turned another page in our stories and weren’t sure exactly what would come next.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Krypton Wedding Anniversary

Entry to 18 August 2009:

Last week, the day before we left California, was our 36th wedding anniversary. It's been a good run and worth celebrating, which we did. I think it would a very good idea to use elements to mark anniversaries. Thirty-six is the atomic number of Krypton, one of the more obscure noble gases, named the “hidden element” because it is such a rare component of the Earth’s atmosphere and is therefore relatively difficult to collect. Although it does not form bonds easily with other elements, it does do so, which I will take as a good sign. It is not to be confused with kryptonite, Superman’s nemesis.

It's also always worth looking at the significance of the number of the anniversary (or birthday). This is certainly a tradition in my family. From a numerical point of view, thirty-six is very agreeable, with no less than 8 factors: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 12, 18, indicating that a lot can go into it and that it can be derived in many different ways. There are different ways to get there; I think my favorite is 2 X 2 X 3 X 3 = 36. It is a number that is both simple and complicated, just like a relationship.

Last Two Days in California: Paso Robles and Celebrations

Entry for 17-18 August 2009:

Time was running out for the California part of our trip. We’d done various chores at Murray Creek, but still hadn’t seen my sister Anna. Anna suggested that we drive down to Paso Robles directly from Murray Creek, where we’d been visiting my mom and dealing with the Spring Crisis. So, having unboxed and put away 8 boxes of the vinyl records that I had mailed to California 3 years ago, walked the Labyrinth, and eaten dinner from my mom’s garden, we said good-bye to my her until December, leaving her in her lonely aerie looking out over Murray Creek.

Sunset in late-August California happens about 8pm, so dusk gathered around us as we descended through the Sierra Nevada foothills, past Valley Springs, driving through the vast orchards of nut and fruit trees that lie to the east of Stockton. Across an occasional empty field, we could see across the Central Valley to Mount Diablo – the Devil’s Mountain – silhouetted in the fading light. We turned south on Interstate 5, the main road connecting the Central Valley to Southern California, a long, straight highway that we’d driven dozens of times during the years we lived in Los Angeles in the mid-1970’s. It was dark by now, and, as always, the highway seemed to run for thousands of miles along the west side of the Valley. Diane and Kenneth were dozing, so I began to run through the radio dial. There’s a lot of country music in the San Joaquin Valley, and my dad used to do the same thing on long drives. Finally, improbably, I found a public radio station playing unbearable new music. I went back to the country music.

Cutting across the coast range at Kettleman City, we got to Paso Robles about midnight. Kenneth’s cousin Luke was up waiting for us, and Anna got up also to greet us. We were tired from the long drive, so we left Kenneth and Luke to reconnect while we crashed.

The next day, Kenneth and Luke stayed at home holed up in Luke’s cave of the bedroom, exchanging videos (e.g., all the Tom Baker Dr. Who episodes for all five seasons of Babylon 5, plus some Japanese anime) and Jim went to work; Anna, Diane and I, however, had a Tuesday Paso Robles Adventure: Anna and Jim are the proud new owners of a door store, so we began with the Royal Tour of their new business. After the Tour, we had Chinese for lunch, before driving out to one of the city parks, which featured a small artificial lake on top of a hill. There we sat in the shade of a picnic shelter house, relaxing in the breeze, and talked for a long time. Anna and I have a lot in common, and we always have good talks. Finally, we went back into town and walked around the town square. It was a warm, slow, late-August afternoon, and groups of teenagers clustered here and there in the shade, hanging out but trying not to move too much. Ah, California summers!

We went back to Anna & Jim’s place, collected the boys and Jim, and drove over the final row of coast mountains, on narrow, twisting roads through the canyon and down to the Pacific coast. There we made our way a few miles along Highway 1 to Taco Temple, a legendary California-Mexican-fusion restaurant, where Anna and I had their famous fish tacos.

I had promised to get Diane back to Pleasanton by dawn of the next day, so after dinner we made another drive, not quite as long as the previous night, through the dusk and into the night, on Highway 101. Within the space of a day, we’d driven on all four of California’s major north-south highways: 99, 5, 1, and 101, triggering many memories of previous journeys up and down the vastness of Northern California, hills, irrigation ditches, crops, California live oaks scattered along the way.

Tuesday was our last full day in California, Diane and my 36th wedding anniversary, and the day before Gladys’ (Diane’s mother’s) birthday. We decided to have a combined running celebration, including some of Gladys’ friends with birthdays also. Diane got up early and made two blueberry pies, while Kenneth and I went out for one more run together. I shopped for gifts and cards while the pies baked. We went to celebratory lunch at Eddie Papa’s, a fun restaurant featuring regional American food and unusual soft drinks. (I had Cock & Bull Ginger Beer from Chicago, and a Reuben sandwich – I have a weakness for Reuben sandwiches: corned-beef and sauerkraut on grilled rye bread.) Later that evening, Marjorie and Kris, still acting like newly-weds, and four of Gladys’ friends came over for the joint birthday party, with snacks and blueberry birthday pies, candles, songs, cards and presents. We were determined to get the most out of our final days in California, and I think we succeeded pretty well, actually.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

On the Fundamental Nature of Narrative and the Fundamental Narrative

Entry for 22 August 2009:

Tad Williams and Deborah Beale are featured in the July 2009 issue of Locus magazine, the monthly professional magazine for science fiction writers. In addition to the separate interviews with each of them, there is a lovely dialogue in which they talk about their new young adult series, Ordinary Farm, the first volume of which is Dragons of Ordinary Farm. I haven’t read the this book, but many years ago I read Williams’ early book, Tailchaser’s Song, to one of my kids. Kenneth swears it wasn’t him, so it must have been Brendan, but I loved this story of an ordinary cat’s journey to “cat hell and back”. For his part, Kenneth has read and enjoyed some of Tad Williams’ fantasy books.

In this interview, Williams and Beale discuss narrative as fundamental to being human. Here is a quote from Williams:

It’s a fact of human biology that literally makes us look at the universe in terms of beginnings, middles, and ends. If you’re not caught up in biology, the middle is so much more important than the beginnings and the ends! For star systems, the middle is billions of years long, and the beginning and the end are remote. But with human beings, we’re born, we live, and we die, and we see everything in that tripartite way… (p. 66)

Those of us to work with narrative therapeutically and in our research are of course very familiar with the tripartite structure of narrative, in terms of past, present, and future. What Williams does here is to locate this existentially: the fundamental paradigm for the past is our birth; our life exists as an extended present; while our ultimate future (at least as we know it within the boundaries of our life) is our death. Thus, narrative is grounded in our mortality; the most basic story of all is the story of our personal birth, life and death. Our ancestors knew this and recorded it in the story of Everyman, the medieval morality play depicting this Ur-narrative, in which the main character is intended to represent each of us.

Williams concludes with another equally acute but more consoling observation:

As a reader I feel that when I finally snuff it I will have lived so many thousands of lives through other people and through things I’ve experienced in both fiction and nonfiction … I will happily shuffle off the moral coil because I’ll feel I had such a dense existence. (p. 66)

Both reading and therapy offer this boon of this enabling us to experience others’ lives, the difference being that in therapy we engage actively in helping the other construct what we both hope will be a more satisfactory narrative. In this way, therapists and counselors live many lives within the frame of their own particular span of years. A rare privilege!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

San José Palimpsest

Entry for 10 August 2009:

After the wedding, Diane’s sister Nancy hung around for a few days in Pleasanton before flying back to New Jersey. On Monday, Diane, her mom Gladys and sister Nancy, along with Kenneth and I, decided to check out San José, starting with Mission San José, which is a bit north, in Fremont.

The route between Lodi, the small San Joaquin Valley town I grew up in, and Santa Cruz, on the north side of the Monterey Bay, where I went to university, used to go through the little village of Mission San José, but I’d never been to the mission itself. In the early 18th century, Spanish missionaries, with the support of the military, set up a series of 21 missions stretching from San Diego to San Francisco, each about a day’s journey (20 miles) apart. Like the monasteries and abbeys of Scotland and the rest of the UK, later political changes led to these structures being abandoned and falling into ruin, often cannibalized for later buildings in the area.

Over the years, I’ve been to various of the California Missions: Carmel, San Juan Batista, Dolores (San Francisco), Santa Cruz, San Miguel, but never San José, even though it’s only about 15 miles from Pleasanton. It was blazing hot, 95+ degrees, and the streets of the Mission San José district were largely empty. In addition to restoring the church, part of the hacienda that once contained living quarters of the mission has also been restored and turned into a museum, which was pleasantly cool as we entered.

The museum documents the mission’s history, going back to the Ohlone people who inhabited this part of California, and whose numbers have been drastically reduced by disease and deprivation. California’s image is that of a Place of the New, but like Scotland, it too is a palimpsest of peoples: Ohlone, Spanish/Mexican, American gold-rush prospectors/settlers, Chinese, and later waves of immigrants, including my great-grandparents (from Irish and German stocks respectively). These people’s names are written in the placenames: Ohlone College, Alisal (the native American village,“place of cottonwood trees”, that was latter renamed after General Pleasanton), San José (Saint Joseph), and so on.

The mission church has been lovingly restored in California Baroque style as it would have been around 1800, the rough adobe walls painted over and decorated in a tromp l’oeil of greek columns and coloured drapery. We studied the altar and two shrines along the sides; Glaldys, Diane’s mom, found them overly ornate, but I was comparing this to ornate baroque churches I’d seen in Slovakia, or even St. Andrews-in-the-Square in Glasgow, with its gilt cherubs floating on clouds on the ceiling. Compared to these, this church is pleasantly simple, even Spartan. I love these old California Mission churches, with their mixture of primitive and a bit of the garish, their thick walls keeping them cool in the summer heat. I find them unpretentious, sincere, quiet, peaceful.

Afterwards, we continued south, following the Sat-Nav to the heart of the oldest part of San José. We ate a snack at Peggy Sue's, a 1950’s diner-type restaurant, and began to wander, coming upon a series of markers of points of historical interest, memory markers pointing to the past events, such as the opening of the Electric Light Tower, built in 1881 to light up all of downtown San José. We passed the Catholic cathedral and the art museum, both closed because it was after 5pm on a Monday, and came to the city square, where families were playing in the fountain. I remembered previous visits to San José, on my way between Santa Cruz or Carmel Valley (where my grandparents lived) and Lodi, waiting around the old Greyhound Bus Station, which we spied a block or two over. More than once a drunk tried to detain me there, the naïve young psychology major with the look of someone who might just listen to the story of their life, their losses and scars.

And I remembered: The summer of 1971 that I spent living on 10th Street, a mile away from where we were now, while I did fieldwork at a local community mental health centre, my first taste of psychological practice on the front line, when I first experienced what I had set my sights on: the world of psychological helping. It was an intense experience, that summer between my junior and senior years at university, the same point that Kenneth is at this moment in his life, beginning to discover what the future would hold.

One day, toward the end of that summer, as I was walking to the bus stop, I had an experience that I made into a short poem:

Tenth Street, San Jose

I have wished to live for millions of years;

yet tonight the young woman

who smiled at me as I crossed the street

made me happy.

-August 1971

So a simple Monday Adventure to San José, modeled after our Saturday Adventures in Scotland, turned into a rich palimpsest of layered history and personal memory, revealing surprising levels of meaning underneath the surface of our daily lives.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Family Adventures in San Francisco

Two days before Marjorie and Kris’s wedding, still jet-lagged, we drove up to Mill Valley, north of San Francisco, for a family gathering at my cousins' -- Elliott and Denise Main's -- place. Louisa and her new partner Steve were there, as were Willy and Katie; Joseph, Ebru and their baby Ayla; and Elliott and Denise’s son Andrew and his partner. Seeing three of my 5 siblings at one time was going to be the best I was going to be able to do on this trip.

The next day, while Diane, her mom and sister were involved in wedding preparations, Brendan and Mayumi flew in from Seattle. I took BART from Pleasanton and met them on Market Street in San Francisco. It was a gorgeous, sunny day in San Francisco… totally inconsistent with the usual dreich San Francisco summer weather. Mayumi had expressed a strong preference that we not spend the day sitting around on our computers but instead do something interesting, so San Francisco it was.

Joseph and Ebru were in San Francisco on an errand, so they arranged to pick us up and take us out for lunch at A la Turka (Ebru is from Turkey). Then they drove us back across the Golden Gate Bridge to their place, perched part-way up a hill in Sausalito, where we hung out for a bit and played with Ayla, their 1-year old daughter, and admired the view. Joseph, Ebru and Ayla were leaving for Turkey the next day, so we didn’t stay long, but instead wandered down into Sausalito, which was mobbed with tourists (like us) on foot or on riding bicycles. There I found something I could not resist: A Carl Jung action figure, which I bought for my mom, who loves Jung, and because of the sheer paradox of it all. (And it comes with a wee pipe that fits into his hands…)

Soon, we were able to board the ferry back to San Francisco: It is hard to imagine a more perfect day to cross San Francisco Bay in this way, and along our path we passed by Angel Island and the notorious former prison island of Alcatraz, the fresh breeze off the bay whipping against our faces when we went on deck.

Arriving at the Ferry Building, at the beginning of Market street, we got on one of the newly refurbished trolleys that San Francisco has scrounged up from all over the world. We took the trolley to the Civic Center, where a group of men where setting up a red carpet on the front steps of City Hall, in preparation for some sort of social event. The guard waved us through the metal detector, which went off loudly each time, and we spent half an hour exploring this ornate building.

We had planned to meet Kenneth after his plane from Washington had landed, but he was delayed, so Brendan, Mayumi and I went back to Pleasanton to eat dinner at the Gay Nineties Pizza Parlour while waiting for him. Just as we were finishing, he phoned to say that he’d be there in 10 minutes, and we went to meet him at the BART station in Pleasanton. Kenneth was fresh from the America Go Association congress outside Washington DC and full of stories of exciting Go games. The last of us had arrived in California.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Water Crisis in Murray Creek: A Case Study in Causal Inference

Blog entry to 14 August 2009:

Northern California is semi-arid, with San Andreas, the Sierra Nevada foothill town nearest to Murray Creek (where my mom lives), receiving about 30 inches of rain in an average year. My mom’s place in Murray Creek depends on an ancient spring for its water. This spring is far up the opposite side of the valley from the main part of the property, which means that its water supply must be piped down the steep southern side of the valley, over the creek (where it has been washed out by winter floods three times over the past 30 years). After crossing the creek, it then runs under the lower house, up the hill by the upper house, and finally to the big water tank above the upper house.

Parts of this water system are likely to be at least 80 years old. Reportedly, in the first part of the 20th century, the water from this spring was bottled commercially, with the bottling facility located at the small side creek next to the lower house. So this spring has long been known for the quality and consistency of its water, and for all we know, the native peoples who lived in the valley centuries ago also used its water, particularly during the long, dry summers.

From time to time, as the nonnative plants in the garden and elsewhere on the property suffer from the late summer 100-degree heat and low humidity, we will decide to do some catch-up watering, spending some substantial fraction of the stockpile of water in the water tank. Earlier this week, however, the water tank failed to fill after a bout of catch-up watering, then continued to go down further even after my mom shut off everything she could find to shut off. Art the plumber came out on Tuesday to look at the situation, tried a few things, then ran out of time and said he’d come back the next day. By the time we got to Murray Creek on Wednesday afternoon, the water tank was less than half full and my mom was on the verge of panick. All her plans for staying in Murray Creek to work on her writing and to develop the garden seemed to be jeopardy. More importantly, she was afraid that the spring was in the process of giving out, possibly because of climate change, and that her over-watering had somehow set this off.

On Friday morning, the plumber, Art Mills, was able to make it out to work on the ailing water system, having set aside an entire day for it. Art is 46, has a crew-cut and a bit of a pot belly, drives a pick-up full of plumbing supplies; he crushed my hand when we shook hands. He was happy for me to tag along with him and help out to the best of my limited ability, regularly teasing me with his dry humor. (“There’s not a lot of poison oak up here,” he remarked, upon encountering a field of the familiar three-leafed red plants.)

I was fascinated by the process by which he tackled the problem, really a case study in causal inference, with parallels to HSCED. Here was a prime example of the kind of practical reasoning process that I’ve written about as the inspiration for the interpretive case study method. All he knew to start with, was that the tank wasn’t filling, but he did not know why. He’d identified small leaks two days earlier, but they didn’t seem to be enough to account for the problem. “Small leaks” turned out to be a sort of back-up general purpose explanation, which he invoked whenever he didn’t have a better explanation.

In order to fix something (anything, really), it really helps to have an explanation, a theory for what is wrong with it. The theory points to potential fixes, which can be tested, in part, by trying to apply the appropriate fix and seeing if that solves the problem.

It can be particularly useful if the theory is embedded in a more general model of how the broken system is supposed to work. In this instance, the model consists of an ancient and possibly inaccurate hand-drawn diagram of the Murray Creek water system. I’ve added numbers for the main valves. (It’s a high resolution image, so if it’s opened up separately the details can be seen more clearly.)

Art the Plumber started a process of testing different sections of the system. We started with the simplest theory, really more of a null hypothesis: that there was a problem in the pipes in the lower and upper houses, i.e., between valves 3 (lower house patio) and 6 (upper house). That would isolate the upper house from the spring, which would keep the tank from filling. Small leaks would account for continued loss of water. That was the simplest explanation, but not the most likely one.

Art had identified a leak on a line near the tank (not on the diagram), which he had previously tried and failed to fix. He now totally disconnected the offending part of the water system, eliminating the leak and thus simplifying the problem. After quickly scanning the system of valves 3 to 6, he shut off valve 5 (lower house patio) and opened a faucet before value 3 (under the lower house). We got a small but steady flow of water, which we knew was coming directly from the spring, because water from the tank had been cut off. The taps inside the lower house also worked, and we also tested how well the various valves were able to cut off the flow of water.

After that, Art opened valve 5 and turned off valve 7, cutting off the water tank from the rest of the system. Then we tested a faucet in the lower house patio, which worked just fine, indicating that the pipes from the spring worked as far as that point in the system. Finally, we went up the hill and tried out the deck faucet, the lowest point in the upper house. After draining the water from the upper house system, the water from this spigot slowed to a trickle and then stopped altogether. We waited for 10 minutes, feeling increasingly puzzled, but nothing happened.

Why were we puzzled? To understand this, it’s necessary to know something about gravity feed water systems: Left to its own devices, water seeks its own level, which means that as long as the spring is at a higher elevation than the upper house and the water tank, water should naturally flow through the system and get to them. So why wasn’t this happening?, I asked Art. Small leaks, he said, invoking his all-purpose theory. Having forgotten all the fluid mechanics that I had learned in high school physics (which wasn’t much to begin with), and not really trusting all-purpose stop-gap explanations, I concluded that there must be a partial break (i.e., a big leak) in the downhill section of the pipe on the far side of the creek, at a level between the upper and lower houses, about 20 meters.

Art the Plumber conceded that this theory was quite likely, but pointed out that finding such a leak in the steep, over-grown slope would be “like looking for a needle in a haystack,” and that the most likely problem was in the first bit of pipe near the spring, where he had found a problem with blockage and tree roots 2 years ago. At the time, he’d installed a union joint, making it easier to open up the pipe for clearing crud out. This strategy didn’t seem to fit the most likely theory, but he was the expert, and I was just along for the ride.

We crossed the creek, which is totally dry at this time of year, to the primitive road that runs along its south side. We couldn’t follow the pipe, because, just as Art had said, it immediately disappeared into steep, dense brush, so I followed Art around to the right, where the ascent was easier, and we began the climb. There is no trail, although in many places it was possible to follow the track Art had made two days earlier when he’d been up taking a look around. Following the grading system used in Scotland, this was a level 4 trail: hard scrambles over fallen trees, often at 45 degrees, no discernable trail. (To which I would add: hostile biota in the form of a great deal of poison oak.)

After about 20 minutes we reached the spring. I would never have found it on my own, and I didn’t see it until I was practically on top of it, but there it was, tucked away in a narrow ravine, about halfway up the ridge. The spring is encased in a construction called a spring box, because someone, apparently in the early years of the 20th century, presumably when bottling its water was a commercial enterprise, went to the enormous trouble of hauling cement and mixing equipment up to it, in order to construct a concrete enclosure all around the spring, complete with a removable door for accessing it. The door is now deteriorating rapidly, and another rotten board fell off of it when we handled it. As a result bits of leaves and such were floating on top of the water, which was dammed in by a concrete lip about a foot high. Water apparently comes seeping out of the rock at the back of the spring box, collecting in a basin with a drain at the bottom and an overflow about halfway between the floor of the box and the top of the lip. The overflow was running at about the same rate as we had seen when we tested the flow at the lower house. This meant that the system was backed up, with none of it getting to the upper house and water tank. Art noted that the dead rat that he’d found floating in the water two years ago was no longer to be seen. “Probably decomposed by now,” he remarked.

Art went down for tools: shovel and two pipe wrenches, while I poked around trying to find where the pipe went after it left the spring, still looking (in the wrong place, of course) for the hypothetic partial break, which was still our official theory for the problem. I did in fact find a length of pipe just to the left of the ravine, but this turned out to be a long-abandoned section of pipe that ended in mid-air where the ravine had undercut it. It was an abandoned water pipe from an earlier piping attempt, now a piece of domestic archeology.

Art came back, closed the number 1 valve just up stream of the union joint, and proceeded to take it apart. Although the pipe bore was substantial, at least an inch (25mm), once we’d opened the valve again, there only the same medium amount of water coming out, in spite of the head of water in the spring box. This first section of pipe was clearly badly blocked up.

Art decided we needed something to clean out this length of pipe, so he went down the hill yet again, while I continued to try to track the pipe, locating a place where not one but two trees had fallen on the pipe. Art came back with a 20-foot section of quarter-inch copper pipe. He pried the two sections of pipe apart and opened the valve while I shoved the copper pipe up the old galvanized pipe. A big clot of crud came loose, and water began to shoot rapidly out of the pipe. Art’s strategy of Looking Under the Lamppost for the Lost Keys Because At Least the Light Is Good There appeared to have been successful.

Art collected his equipment and went down the hill, leaving me to spray paint a blaze on the big oak tree overlooking the spring. I climbed as high into the tree as I could manage and sprayed three horizontal white lines and an arrow pointing to the spring. This is supposed to make it easier for us to find the spring in the future, but once we got down, we discovered that the bright sun made it quite difficult to see the shadowed marks. It will be visible once people get close to the spring, however.

By the time we got back to the upper house, the water tank was already starting to fill, going up by about an inch an hour. We declared ourselves well-pleased by the results, comparing our operation to an angioplasty (“No stent, though,” joked Art the Plumber). Then my mom paid him, and he left.

However, I was left puzzled: Why had clearing the top of the line fixed the problem? Finally, I did some research on gravity-fed water systems. Such systems are not that common in municipal systems today, but they are very important in third world situations, and so I was able to find some useful information that explains what happened:

It turns out that Art was correct in his prescription of clearing the top of the pipe run, but proper theoretical explanation is not Small Leaks but rather Friction, leading to something called the Hydraulic Grade Line (HGL). The way it works is this: The narrower the pipe and the higher the flow of water, the more the friction. Also, the longer the pipe and the more bends, the more friction. The pipe system is a siphon, based on gravity but operating in a partial vacuum, which means that it only operates as well as narrowest section of pipe. The friction counters the potential energy from the force of gravity on the water (referred to as the “head”), lowering the effective level of the source of the water. This descending line is referred to as the Hydraulic Grade Line (HGL). When there is too much friction, the HGL ends up being lower than the destination, which is equivalent to trying to get water to go uphill. That’s exactly what happened to the Murray Creek water system: the lower house was below the HGL, so it got water, while the upper house, some 20 meters higher, got none.

Lessons learned: First, Art the Plumber’s theory in practice (crud in the pipe increasing friction) was better than his espoused theory (small leaks); supporting the idea that it’s important to look at practice rather simply listening to the expert’s theories, which may not be fully or accurately elaborated. Second, basic science like the Bernoulli Equation (the physics behind the Hydraulic Grade Line) can be really useful in understanding everyday phenomena and can be usefully applied for constructing explanations in case studies like the Murray Creek Water Crisis. Third, getting the theory right points us in the right direction: toward making sure that the topmost section of pipe, closest to the source of pipe-blocking crud, is kept clear. Fourth, one key implication is that the spring box needs to be “re-stented”, i.e., the screen that used to protect the intake pipe in the spring box (before it rusted out and was removed two years ago) needs to be replaced. Also the main source of crud (not to mention dead rats), that is, the decrepit door to the spring box, needs to be fixed with something more solid and secure. These are now top priorities. The rest of the system appears to be pretty solid. If we’d followed my theory, we’d be looking at replacing much of the system. That’s why Art is an expert rural plumber and I am a professor of counseling!

Figure from: Tawney, E. (n.d.). Visualization of the construction of a gravity-fed water system and treatment system in developing countries. Michigan Technological University.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Rainbow Wedding in California

Entry for 8 August 2009:

Diane’s youngest sister Marjorie realized she was gay only after she finished seminary and started her first job as a Presbyterian minister. Because her church didn’t recognize the right of gay people to be ministers, this pretty well shot her career plans. She drifted for a few years, and finally began building guitars and teaching music.

Two years ago, she met Kris, her current partner, and a year ago the two of them decided a year ago to get married. At the time, marriage was legal for gays. In an earlier draft of this entry I tried to explain the convoluted legal process that has occurred around this issue over the past several years, but I got some of the it jumbled, so Kris has helpfully provided the following chronology:

1. There was a passage of a Proposition (22 I believe) that was NOT a constitutional amendment some years ago identifying marriage as that between a man and a woman.
2. In May 2008, the California State Supreme Court overturned this law as unconstitutional and stated that same-sex couples had a right to marry.
3. Prop 8 passed in November 2008 which was a constitutional amendment. (This was pushed strongly by out of state pro-family groups.)
4. A challenge to the validity of Prop 8 (California has 2 means of changing its constitution) was eventually ruled to be invalid - allowing Prop 8 to stand.

The wedding took place last Saturday at a lovely church in Palo Alto. There was a rainbow theme: The (6!) bridesmaids all wore different rainbow colors. Diane was assigned green, and then had an interesting time locating a green dress, leading to endless references to the Barenaked Ladies’ first hit song, “If I had $1,000,000”, which contains the line “If I had a million dollars/ I’d buy you a green dress/But not a real green dress – that’s cruel”. The Rainbow Women’s Chorus, in which Marjorie and Kris met, performed repeatedly in the service and at the reception afterwards. And there were many rainbow references during and after the ceremony.

There were many interesting things about the ceremony. For example, it was really a wedding/concert, which I think is a lovely format for a wedding, like a nuptial mass, but with music instead of the eucharist. They also added a Buddhist ritual, the Forgiveness Prayer, in which each party asks for forgiveness for things they’ve done to hurt the other, “intentional or unintentional; in thought, word or action; past, present or future”, and in turn offers forgiveness to the other in the same terms. They each composed a song for the other. And they had the minister bless their families. All of these were lovely touches that made the wedding interesting and special.

However, in many ways the most interesting thing about the whole thing was how traditional it was: For one thing, much of it was organized in terms of traditional gender roles: Marjorie was referred to as the bride and wore a white wedding dress, while Kris was referred to as the groomette and wore a dark men’s suit with colored vest and tuxedo (not very practical in the heat!). They were backed up by bridesmaids (dressed in rainbow colors as noted earlier) and attendants (attired similarly to the groom). Aside from the additions I mentioned, the ceremony stuck pretty closely to the traditional order, music, readings and vows. The reception also followed standard wedding traditions.

It was clearly very important to all present that this be blatantly and classically recognizable as a wedding in our western culture. That this was not legally the case was recognized by the opening song (“Legal”) sung by the Rainbow Women’s Chorus, and by remarks made, with varying degrees of rancor or acceptance, by various people throughout the afternoon. Nevertheless, as the minister said, Christian ministers have been performing illegal weddings for nearly 2000 years, when they first began blessings between free people and slaves, which was against Roman law.

In the end, Marjorie and Kris’s wedding between was a complex act of love, defiance, and affirmation. For me at least, it was even more affecting than usual because of the poignance of it not being validated by the government for what everyone there wanted it to be recognized as. The piece of paper the two of them got out of the event says (I believe) “domestic partnership”, but the clear message of the ceremony was that from a cultural and psychological point of view, this was the Real Thing: A Wedding Signifying a Marriage.

An intense political debate is going on in California at the moment over how long to wait before attempting to repeal Proposition 8. It may take 5 years for the law to be reversed, but the demographic trends clearly indicate that our society is steadily moving toward acceptance of gay or lesbian marriage. (Last month, our priest in Glasgow came out publicly in favor of gay marriage in one of the national Scottish newspapers.) Eventually, today’s gay marriage pioneers will be validated legally, but in the meantime it seems very important to me that the rest of us, straight or gay, do our best to personally affirm and validate the legitimacy of their wedding/marriages.

Friday, August 07, 2009

American Summer Meals

We’ve flown to California, where it’s pleasantly warm but not too warm and where my sister-in-law, Marjorie, is to be married on Saturday. She and her partner are doing most of the arrangements, and things are a bit tense as we arrive in Pleasanton. We are grateful when my mother-in-law, Gladys, whisks us off to a classic American summertime event: The men in her church are hosting a barbeque. I gorge myself on bratwurst, hamburger and watermelon.

Last week I discovered that the café at Jordanhill charges 15 pence for a tiny packet of tomato catsup. I was offended by this penury; like most Americans I believe that I am entitled to unlimited supplies of free catsup. For this reason, even though I’ve already had a bratwurst and now generally prefer salsa on my hamburgers, I go back for a hamburger so that I can fulfil my patriotic duty to smother it with catsup. As a result, I feel too full and slightly ill from overeating. (It was the ice cone at the end that did me in…)

This appears to be an ancient pattern from my childhood, the Saturday Night Barbeque, my father at the grill, all of us stuffing ourselves with hamburgers until afterwards we could only sit around and groan. Now I’m older than my dad was when I used to help him light the grill and keep an eye on the cooking meat, but the script is still there and wants to be enacted now and then, for old times’ sake, no matter the consequences.

Much more healthy was the fare we’d been making for ourselves in Toledo, collecting fresh produce to prepare for ourselves: corn on the cob, vine-ripened tomatoes, melon, green beans picked that afternoon, blueberries, etc. We’ve been suffering from Mexican food deprivation in Scotland, so the second night in Toledo, Diane and Linda (our friend and housesitter) decide to make gazpacho, one of my all-time favorite dishes, which we eat as a main dish instead as an appetizer. They creatively revise the recipe, which turns out so well that we decide to record the recipe on the family’s favorite recipes Google Document. In the interest of Promoting Gazpacho, I offer this modified recipe here:


1 large cucumber (remove seeds if seedy)
2 large tomatoes
1 green pepper
1/2 medium onion or 1 small onion
2-3 C tomato or multi-vegetable juice
3 T red wine vinegar
1/4 t tabasco sauce
(1/4 t salt)
1/8 t ground black pepper
2 small or 1 large clove garlic (croutons for garnish if desired)

Puree half of the vegetables, adding the other ingredients. Chop the rest. Add chopped vegetable to the puree. Chill covered for 2 hours and serve.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Summer Breezes in the American Midwest

Entry for 3 August 2009:

When we got home from dinner on Saturday night, one of the first things we did was to open the windows. In Scotland, we have to keep the windows closed for most of the time in the summer. On a good day, we’ll open them 6 inches for a few hours. There are no screens, so the bugs come in, and after a while it starts to get cold in the flat, so we have to close them again.

In Toledo, at this time of year, there are many days where you can keep the windows open, day and night. We have to close the house up for thunderstorms, of course; also, if it gets warm, you might want to close them in the afternoon to keep the heat out; and if it get really hot and humid, then it’s better to just close up the house and run the air conditioning. These are normally things we take for granted, like closing the house up in mid-morning and drawing the blinds on hot days, practices that people don’t seem to understand in Scotland, even when the rare hot day or two comes along. A couple of times this past June, I annoyed my colleagues in the Counselling Unit by lecturing them on appropriate in-door climate control for hot days.

What this means is that the boundary between in-doors and out-doors feels much more permeable here in the US than in Scotland. The house, and our living in it, seems to breath more freely. When a week or two of really hot, humid weather does come along, so that we have to shut up the house in order to be able to get anything done or even to sleep properly at night, I feel stifled after a day or two and look hopefully for the weather to cool down, not so much because I hate really hot weather in itself (although I don’t really like it), but more than anything else just to be able to open things up again. The breeze comes up, blows the papers off the desk in my study, but feels heavenly and free. The cool mornings feel refreshing rather than cold. It all feels alive indoors and outside.

Apparently, there is good reason for this. A couple of months ago, a collection of faculty members at my university gathered for most of a day to talk about health-related research. One of them, either an engineer or an architect, started talking about indoor air pollution. “The air inside buildings,” he said, “is always dirtier than the air outside, even on the busy streets of the city centre. The air comes from outside, bringing all that with it, and gets even more dirty inside.”

So one of the joys of the period of the year from late Spring through early Fall here in the upper Midwest of US is being able to throw open the windows in order to air the house out and to let the fresh air in. There is a below-ground freeway (motorway) half a block from our house in Toledo; when we first moved here almost 25 years ago, it used to bother us, especially in May when we started opening the house up at night. By now, however, the passing cars and trucks are simply part of the susurrations of the summer’s night, like the sea or a waterfall in the middle distance. And in the early summer mornings, lying awake still with the remains of west-bound jet lag, the dawn chorus at 3 or 4 am is rich and intricate with polyphonic birdsong. The other morning I counted the counterpoint lines of 3 or 4 different species weaving together.

These times take me back to my childhood in Lodi, in the Central Valley of Northern California, when sometimes the magic would feel so strong that I simply had to get up and sneak out of the house at 4 or 5am, just to experience the streets empty of cars and people, a different world, familiar but alien in its peacefulness and the sense of clarity. At these times, I seem to come home not just to our old house here in Toledo, but also to a series of earlier selves from other places and other summers, when the open windows let in breezes, birdsong, and the sound of the occasional crop-dusting airplane flying in the early morning over the grapevines half a mile away, just outside of town.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Transition Back to Toledo

This started as a brief email to my family ut it turned into a blog entry.

As we packed to go back to the US last night, we found ourselves in a rather nonfunctional, disorganized state: My planner disappeared, probably left on my desk at work. We mislaid some things we'd planned to bring with us. We got the times of our flights wrong (though not enough to miss any of our flights). But somehow we got our act together and we almost ready when the taxi picked us up at 7am.

Now we've arrived safely in Toledo after the long journey back from Scotland. We had a bad moment arriving in Amsterdam when the pilot aborted the landing about 100 ft above the ground. The first thing we were aware of was that the engines being throttled up and suddenly going up instead of down. Later, he explained that the plane had been coming in too low. We were very relieved when after circling around he came in for a safe landing. The rest of the journey was uneventful. The flight across the Atlantic felt like a strange transition time in which we were hanging between two lives in a kind of limbo or liminality. I spent most of the journey trying to regenerate a list of research projects for the Research Clinic data archive.

As I said, the rest of the trip was uneventful ... until we picked up our bag and discovered that someone had slit Diane's new suitcase open with some sort of sharp object. We thought it was just some normal damage and a cheap suitcase, until we discovered that they had also cut into the binding of Neal Stephenson's Anathem (a hard cover first edition signed by the author), ruining the book, which had been resting against the part of the suitcase that was cut. We filed a damage report with the airline, taped the bag up and took it home to Toledo. As far as we can tell so far it appears that nothing was taken from the bag, and Diane's green bridesmaid dress for her sister's wedding next week is thankfully still intact.

The Toledo house appears to be in good condition. Linda had the rugs cleaned this week and her grand piano is back from being reconditioned. I opened the upstairs windows to let the cool (but not cold) evening breeze in, relishing the interpenetration of outdoors into the house that is such as an important part of summer in the USA. We miss that in Scotland, where we've had to keep the windows closed all summer except for an occasional hour or two. As always, the roads feel like broad boulevards and the driving is easy. We dropped our luggage off at home and took Linda out for dinner at Jing Chuan, where we had Hot & Sour Soup, spring rolls, Kung Pao Delight, and Hunan Vegetables. Even though it was our 6th meal of the day, it tasted fabulous and made us feel home again, the ultimate comfort food.

After dinner, we stopped at the Game Room, now in its new larger quarters. In the card room, there was a group of almost 20 people playing Dungeons & Dragons. The Dungeon Master looked familiar... She looked up at us, and said, "Say, aren't you Ken's dad?" It was Nancy, the drama teacher from Start and Dungeon Master par excellence from Kenneth's gaming days. "Yes," I said. "Where's Ken?" she asked. "In Washington, DC, at a Go Conference," I replied, pleased to be able to say that he too was gaming tonight. "Well," she went on, "This is the same campaign that he was playing form Scotland last year, and it's almost over. There's even someone playing from Australia!" With their permission, I took some photos to show to Kenneth. Later, her husband followed us out of the room and we chatted with him for a few minutes, or rather he talked at us about how exciting the Dungeon & Dragons scene is right now, proudly showing us the schedule on the wall, listing D&D games practically ever night at the new Game Room.

We really like Scotland, but it's great to be back home in the Toledo again also, in my study, listening to Capercaille (Scotland's classic celtic trad folk rock group) as evening settles in and Diane and Linda's soft voices waft up the stairs. We rose very early at 5am in Glasgow and have travelled fair. Soon if not sooner it will be time to sleep, but for now I just want to experience the sense of return.