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On the Social Constructionism Conference in New Hampshire
|Talking about her move to a more reflexive
posture (within the last ten years) Hoffman says:
Listening came to seem more important than talking; helping people be more eloquent came to seem more important than being eloquent myself. Most of all, I had to challenge myself constantly to let go of the trapeze, in the faith that another's hands would appear and catch me.
I cannot tell you how much fun the whole trip was. I set off for the East coast from San Francisco at 10 AM last Wednesday. Getting to the airport was unusually smooth for me, but the truth is, I just handed them my ticket and I didn't recall exactly where I was going. I knew that I would end up somewhere in the East, and the arrangement was that Lynn Hoffman would pick me up. Then, the next day, we were to drive to the Social Constructionism conference at the University of New Hampshire. It was to take us about 4 hours. What a grand holiday for me!
I spent the flight drinking tea and reading Hoffman's book, Exchanging Voices. It is written in vintage Hoffman personal style, full of memorable anecdotes and sprinkled with fresh sparkling images that kept my mind tightly engaged on the text. So the time passed quickly, and since the book was her chronicle of her enchantments and disenchantments with various family therapy theories, I felt even more like I knew this interesting woman personally. I had this feeling of knowing where I was going, who I was going to see.
What I didn't predict was that I would be flying into a hurricane of considerable proportions. There was a bit of confusion in the airport, due to the fact that, being cyberbuddies, we had not communicated effectively about real bodies, like what we looked like, and what real plane was going to land. But then, there she was. We somehow managed. We looked at each other and knew. We were connected.
But outside the rain was pouring and the wind was whipping itself into a fury. "The hurricane? Really? I had heard there was one on the East coast, but I hadn't imagined... " But there it was, as real as real can be.
That night Hoffman and I talked until midnight or so, continuing our dialogue about philosophical matters. She is very engaging, and our words simply flowed. I crawled into bed late without a thought of the hurricane.
But the next morning when I awoke late, she met me in the hallway and said that we weren't going. "Weren't going? But that's what we were supposed to do, to go to the conference." "But we can't go," she told me. We can't drive through that. Let's just stay here at the kitchen table and talk."
And so we did. Instead of driving through the raging winds and the thunderous rain, instead of sitting in traffic on bridges over swollen rivers, Lynn Hoffman and I sat nibbling goodies she fixed and drinking still more tea at her cozy kitchen table. We talked philosophy, talked about the meaning of postmodernism, Wittgenstein, and the state of family therapy. We also visited with her colleague Judy Davis, who had published a book on the meaning of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah in our postmodern times. So, we discussed that, too. All of this kept us busy from 8 in the morning to nearly midnight, or maybe it was after midnight. I can hardly recall. And then we crashed.
The next morning, Hoffman told me we would be accompanied by her colleague, Mary Olson. It was just perfect. The three of us, like the three mustketeers, set off to drive four hours together through lord knows what kind of weathr. But the drive went well. The sun was shining and the air felt clear, but my mind was focused on the discussion in the car. Still, in spite of the sun, I noticed that every now and then, Olsen had to grab the steering wheel firmly when the wind tried to take us off of the road.
There, we were three women primarily engaged in a discussion, driving the freeway. The scenery that whipped by, although I had never been to New England before, was very secondary for me. Mostly my mind was engaged in our discussion. We talked about Lyotard, but we also laughed alot together about life experiences, going way back to our pre-postmodern days. Then, we stopped for lunch at a roadside cafe and I used my pagan voice to try to answer Olson's sharply targeted questions about whether Lyotard was a positive or negative force in postmodern politics. (My pagan voice, as you may guess, explained why I thought of Lyotard as a positive force. However, part of being postmodern to me means reading generously and even adapting Lyotard's ideas, when necessary, to make them work better. What is exciting about postmodern ideas, for me, is that we can improve them. We are not stuck with extraneous theoretical quirks that we don't like, just because he, or she, happened to tuck them in.)
Olson and Hofman and I did make a few wrong turns on this windy freeway that wound its way through green, green fields and inviting towns, but we corrected our course and finally arrived at our destination: the University of new Hampshire sponsored conference on Social Construction and Relational Practices. We missed all of the first day, but at last we were here.
The conference hotel for this uinversity is quite something to behold. A tall and thin building, it sits like a giant sequoia amidst a forest of spinley pines. Inside, I stood in a huge bay window of mostly glass and I felt like a bird perched in the branches and threatened a bit by the overly enthusiastic swaying of these tall pines.
Then, we tucked our things away and reconnected in the lobby to go off together. We set off to visit a session conducted by Peggy Penn. When we entered the room, she was standing close to her audience and speaking with considerable presence about "The Social Construction of Voices in Families with Chronic Illness." The case I heard her describing was one in which a man was about to die. The wife was frantic in her despair. We saw tapes of them talking over a period of time. Finally, the husband died. The presentation was about the way Penn worked with these clients. Folks, this is so much more humane than medicine simply telling people that someone is going to die!
But this was not simply humane treatment without any reflection. At the center of Penn's presentation was a psychological dilemma that she found to be in the heart of people in this situation of chronic (and perhaps fatal) illness. She found that there was often a dilemma in the heart of such people that says, "If I don't talk to you I will slowly withdraw from you and leave you -- however, if I do talk to you, you may slowly withdraw and leave me." The presentation was about how she dealt with this oppressive dilemma. (Peggy Penn has now joined us in PMTH, so we may have the opportunity to learn more about this online.)
But that's all the time we had for papers that evening. We did attend a giant buffet of great food, however. There I sat with Hoffman and Olson and across from Penn and Sheila McNamee, who told me that these conferences were rather unusual. It had been six years, in fact, since there was one. And she talked a little about herself. I wasn't surprised to learn, for example, that she studied Wittgenstein as an undergrad. Over to my left I looked across at Lois Holzman and Bette Braun, both from the Eastside Therapy Institute of Social Therapy. And to my left was Glenda Fredman, author of the splendid book, Death Talk: Conversations with Children and Families and sometimes member of PMTH. (I understand that she was looking for me while I was almost at her elbow.)
There were so many other people, too. I will never be able to remember them all. And many of them knew about PMTH and told me that they read, or had their students read, PMTH NEWS. I should certainly mention Kenneth Gergen and Mary Gergen, for example, whose presence seemed to be everywhere. And I should mention, too, John Shotter, but that will take us into the next day.
For now, the day was ended. I slept like a log.
The next morning the three partners in adventure connected again, Mary Olson, Lynn Hoffman, and myself, and we made a collaborative search to find interesting spots to visit. (There was no way we could begin to exploit all the possibilities.) After a sumputous breakfast, we set off for a plenary address by Sallyann Roth.
I know Roth from a few years back, but I did not know she was such an
engaging speaker. What impressed me most is how she sets up private
dialogues among the audience which allowed us to think about things we
wanted to do to improve a situation with someone in our personal experience.
I think I had some good ideas from this, and I understand that other people
felt the same. Does this sound interesting? If you're a subscriber
to PMTH, you might ask Roth about all of this because she, too, is now
a subscriber to PMTH. Roth is a well known organizer for the Public
That's enough for this column. Page up and to the right to hear
more about this adventure. Or, in our postmodern way, just click
John Söderlund, editor of the New Therapist, a hot new magazine for present day therapists, handed us a new baby in two senses of the term. First, he introduced the idea that we would collaborate to write an article about online therapy. The discussions have been going on now for a couple of weeks. The idea is that we would sign PMTH as the author of the article and list our various names in small print below. Right now we are just collecting our ideas. Söderlund was joining us in this intersting discussion. (I, myself, have some hope for online therapy as a viable method.)
However, Söderlund's new daughter has demanded some time of her
own, so things have slowed down a bit on this front. John Söderlund
and his wife Sue, therefore, announce the birth of Julia Sarah Spencer.
Congratulations to John, Sue, and Julia.
|my adventures continued:
The next stop on this adventure had me tripping over feet and purses in a crowded room to take advantage of the chair saved for me by Mary Olson (you remember her-- she is the part of the Hoffman-Shawver-Olson threesome on this adventure). We sat on the front row of the audience with a panel in front of us. Starting from our left was the friendly presence of Lynn Hoffman, then Peggy Penn, Glenda Fredman, John Shotter and Arlene Katz (who co-hosted this session), James and Melissa Griffith and Susan Fleishman. (Almost all of these people are now members of PMTH, by the way.)
This conference was about Poetics Methods in Health Care settings. I will start with Hoffman, because what she said so clearly concerns PMTH (and because she was on the far left side, and my special inspiration and cohort). And, guess what! Lynn Hoffman spent her time talking about Lyotard and generous listening. She shares the vision here of many of us, and it was only natural, I feel, that this was a topic of her presentation. In the process of talking about these things, I could not help but blush when she mentioned me (sitting there in the middle of the front row in the chair Olson saved for me), and she talked, too, about our list and PMTH.
Is generous listening a poetic method in health care? I think so, and this opinion seemed to be shared by another new PMTH subscriber, Susan Fleishman, who showed us that the term had been used by someone else's postmodern thinking. (I'm afraid I missed the name of the author, but perhaps Fleishman will tell us.)
I am not surprised by this. Ideas invented by one author are often simultaneously invented by others. The most dramatic cases of this include Isaac Newton's and Gottfied Leibniz' simultaneous invention of infintesimal calculus. But there are many, many other examples. William James and Carl George Lange simultaneously invented the James-Lange theory of emotion, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, E. L. Post and J. Lukasiewicz, all three simultaneously invented truth tables, a clever way of evaluating the validity of logical arguments.
How can this be? History tells us that we are all riding the creast of our own era. What prepares me to think of something new is the same thing, the same literature, the same events, the same cultural mood shifts, that prepares you to think of them, too. And it was not just the source that Fleishman thought of that helps bring this new idea to life. In addition, Peggy Penn, although she used different phrases, was thinking of much the same concept. I believe the same was true of Sallyann Roth. Most of us, it seems, making this postmodern turn feel a need for a new concept of generous listening.
This was not all that was talked about in this great panel. Glenda Fredman gave us remarkable story that had me laughing. I have already told you about Sue Fleishman's contribution. James and Melissa Griffith told us about a particularly touching suicide client, and Arlene Katz and John Shotter talked about arresting moments in their experience.
But Hoffman, Olson and I had to run before it was all quite done. It had somehow occurred to us that we had to check out of our room or pay an extra night's fee! And that we managed to do with thirty seconds to spare.
We slipped in later, however, to hear the most hillarious comic act about a therapist you can imagine. We all thought it was a real therapist, kind of brazen, perhaps, but quite familiar. It turns out that it was a professional actress acting the role of a therapist. The monologue was written by none other than the marvelously talented playright-therapist, Fred Newman. More than that, I shall not tell. One day you will l happen to hear this skit yourseslf, and I want you to remain fresh to the experience.
Back on road that night the Olson-Hoffman-Shawver team found their way to our various hotel spots, and then settled on dinner together in great New England fish and chips kind of place. There we continued to laugh and tell stories and imagine the future together. It was all such a high experience.
And the next day, too. Wandering back to the conference in the woods, we attended still another bright spot, a presentation by Harlene Anderson. I must tell you I am really quite impressed. She discussed a particular case she planned to write up for a conference in Norway. It would have certainly challenged me, a young rebellious adolescent boy who was on probation for setting fires and burglaring. I believe it was not an exaggeration to say she was highly successful, but the way this worked had an entirely unusual twist. She was successful because she was able to deny herself the pleasure of succeeding on her own terms. She was able to maximize the input of not only the other therapists but the client himself. Folks, he was actually video taping his own therapy process! Can you imagine? And thinking up slogans to capture its success for the conference.The message I took away from this was the way she gave up personal glory to succeed.
Let me tell you about two things more -- there were so many others that I missed, too many to see, especially with one day spent with Hoffman waiting out the hurricane. First, let me say a word about John Shotter's final plenary address. I thought plenary addresses (what does that word mean?) were supposed to be boring. But Shotter has a way about him of filling the air with optimism and excitement. The most striking moment, I thought, though, was when he talked about how we (the audience) was necessary for him to do what he did. He used to call this "joint-action" (meaning that we act jointly to create whatever happens), but he has decided now to call this "dialogically-structured activity." It was his example of this that I thought particularly striking.
He said (as well as I can remember), "I couldn't stand here talking to you like this, unless you facilitated it, nodding and looking interested." My mind flashed on how hard it would be to talk before an audience that was snickering among themselves, or discussing other sessions. (Actually, I have tried to talk in such a setting at times. Argh!) So his point came home. It is in ways like this that we collaborate to create our culture, on PMTH, and throughout our lives. We cannot do it alone.
Now, let me end this long story by telling you this: For an hour or so one day I got away to listen to Harlene Anderson interview Lynn Hoffman. It's a dynamite interview, but I won't tell you more. It will be available for a reasonable price before long, and you'll be able to purchase it for observation with your VCR. It's not available yet, so I'll wait until then to give you more information.
And, after that, the three of us, Lynn Hoffman, Mary Olson, and myself, set off on our 4 hour ride home, discussing still, what it all means and speculating about the future. And the next day I set off for San Francisco with the trip and the hurricane behind me.
Landing here on the west side of the continent, it all feels like a
What was the buzz on PMTH in my absence? There was a discussion of two controversial topics: the orthodox Jewish idea of the construction of the world in over 5000 years ago by God. This hot controversial topic was studied by Jews (orthodox and reform) and non-Jews without a hint of a problem that I could see. Thanks to Jerry Shaffer and Yishai Shalif, especially, for their bringing this topic to our attention. There was also continued discussion of homosexuality.
There was also much discussion of the hurricane. (Jane Whitehead's plane actually turned back and she missed the conference! I hope you got a refund, Jane!)
There was also a big theme called "late night thoughts" with too many
different late nights thoughts for me to summarize. Val
Lewis, however, was welcoming Jane Whitehead down to Australia.
(No, she isn't being blown there by the hurricane that turned her away
from New Hampshire. It's a choice, and Graeme
Kane told her something of the language in Australia. Apparently,
they have a special way of talking on that small continent that is colorful
Last night I slept 10 hours, making up for accumulated jetlag, I suppose, and I awoke to the loudest clap of thunder I have ever heard. But I am thoroughly recovered now and I am so pleased I went. Thank you Lynn Hoffman for being such a marvelous host, and thank you, too, Mary Olson for driving and entertaining me.
And thanks to everyone. The truth is folks, that I have brought many of them back with me, and they are here with you. You may hear from the any day. Only one has spoken up so far, David Haddad, but I loved what he had to say. He said he was thinking of making PMTH his virtual tribe. Perfect. It is certainly mine.
I won't name everyone at this point. I'll let them decide how
visible they want to be, but keep your eyes pealed. Sometimes, in
virtual space, you'll be surprised how far you can see.