Uncertainty...and Serendipity

I interviewed Aris Alexander at his Hollister Ranch home in Gaviota, California on November 15, 2016.  A retired professor of psychiatry, Aris is erudite, insightful, and kind, and he spoke honestly about life, priorities, and happenstance. It was just one week after the election. We were both feeling gloomy, and the subject comes up more than once, but that was the historical context.  

CW: We always start by asking for your full name, birth date, and place of birth.

AA: My name is Aristotle Alexander, and I was born May 25, 1933 in Milwaukee Wisconsin.

 CW: Aristotle. I love that name.

 AA: I hated it for the first ten years of my life.

CW: You didn’t know yet to be proud of it.  How did your family come to be in Milwaukee?

AA: My father immigrated to this country from Greece when he was sixteen. He had no money, no English, no special skills. He landed in New York and had various jobs, and ended up in Chicago. He did well. By the time he was about thirty, he had retired and was living on stock investments. After he retired, he moved to Milwaukee for some reason.

There were different waves of immigration. After the men came, Greek women were sent over to be their wives. My mother was twenty when she immigrated, but her story was a little different. She had nine siblings, and the oldest sister was supposed to be the first one to come to America. The family went from the village to Athens to see her off, and she got sick the day before the ship left, and they were afraid of losing their place, so they sent my mother in her stead, with no notice whatsoever. She went to St. Louis, where she had three brothers, and she stayed with one of them. This one brother was married to a very ignorant though domineering wife who used my mother as if she were a servant to raise her two little children. This went on for a couple of years. My mother was going nuts.

But she had a second cousin in Milwaukee who knew my father, and he told her, “I’ve to got this eligible Greek guy for you.” So they met, and my mother must have thought, “Oh, I’ve got it made. He’s retired, and he’s well off.” Not long after they got married, the stock market collapsed and my father had nothing. They couldn't afford a baby carriage for their first-born, my brother.

So my father started all over again. He opened up a restaurant and tavern in Milwaukee. Luckily his credit was good, and he was a very hard-working guy. But talk about hard times and how you get through them? You get through them by putting one foot in front of another and just going, and not thinking about it too much. He managed to do well again, but he didn't retire again until he was sixty-five.

CW: Do you remember going to that tavern?

AA: Oh yes. I grew up there. The restaurant and tavern were right next to each other. It was a blue-collar kind of place, and the restaurant was open twenty-four hours a day. My memories are from the early 1940s, wartime.  There was a portal between the restaurant and the tavern, and the tavern had to close at two in the morning and could reopen at six. My first job was as a cashier in the restaurant. They had blue-plate specials, basic fare, twenty-four hours a day. It was located in a light industrial area. Right across the street were the car barns for all the buses and trolleys in the city. The conductors would come for a drink after work. There were shipyards on the river nearby. I remember going to ship launchings. It was working class. The tavern was called The Royal Palm.

                                          A remnant under glass...greetings from Royal Palm Tavern

                                          A remnant under glass...greetings from Royal Palm Tavern

CW: So this was the 1940s, and you were a boy during the war. I realize I'm jumping around a bit, but I'm just wondering if you ever served in the military. 

AA: In the early 1960s I got called into the Air Force, after I got my PhD because of an ROTC commitment. There were heel marks all the way from Wisconsin to Texas! I was stationed in San Antonio the whole time. It was pretty bad. I felt trapped, because I wanted to pursue my career. Kennedy was sending advisors to Vietnam at that time, and I volunteered to go to Vietnam. Luckily they didn’t take me. Then I volunteered to go to Turkey where there was a program going on.  They didn’t let me go there either. I was stuck. I was desperate to get out of Texas.

I was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base, primarily a basic training place, and the work they asked me to do was ridiculous. Sometimes I’d sneak over to the School of Aerospace Medicine where at that time they were doing astronaut selection and training, which at least was interesting. But I found myself on the base at the officer’s club every night drinking and thinking “God this place is terrible. These people are here every night.” Then I realized I only knew that because I was one of them.

I finally got permission to move out of what was called the bachelor officer quarters and get a housing allowance, and I moved to a yuppie apartment at the center of San Antonio. It wasn’t much better. There were a lot of single young women there; one of them, next door, was an elementary school teacher.  One day we were sitting outside and I asked her how her day was. She said it was terrible. I asked her what had happened. She said, “I had to throw one of the Latino kids out of the classroom. He’s suspended.” What did he do? She said, “Well, he was talking about his mother and said that she now had a baby in her womb. I don’t let my kids use words like that.” This was a schoolteacher. And that mentality wasn’t that unusual. That gives you an idea of what it was like.

After I was discharged, in 1965, I was hired by the Department of Psychiatry, in Madison. That was a great job. I started at five figures…$10,000 a year. I really felt flush.

CW: I’m curious. Does your knowledge of psychology and psychiatry help you in your own life?

AA: I think that’s the hope of everyone who goes into psychology or psychiatry, and God knows we need help understanding ourselves.  I suppose in a roundabout long-term way it does help. When you see so many people so intimately as you do in psychotherapy and other clinical work, you really get to know people and how they think and feel…and that ultimately helps you to understand yourself. You can see the dynamics working. It’s easier to see in somebody else, but as you learn about how thoughts and emotions play out, maybe in a long-term way that helps you to understand yourself too.

One thing it does do, though, is help you not take yourself so seriously. Shrinks come in contact with lots of people who do that, and others who don't take themselves seriously enough, which provides them with a metric of what might be appropriate in either case, as well as for themselves. 

When I was getting supervision, in training for the clinical part of the business, the chairman of the psychiatry department who was my supervisor when I was a pre-doc said something to me once that has really stayed with me: Never run to an emergency. I thought, “That doesn’t make sense.” But I learned, partly from being on call for the emergency room and things like that, he was absolutely right. When something happens, your first reaction is, “I gotta do something!”  But if you don’t rush into it and are a little more deliberate about it, you can usually handle the situation much better.

It’s stayed with me all these years.  This would have been the 1960s when I first heard that, but then as I had to deal with different things over time, not just the clinical professional stuff, I found it applied in my life as well.

When I met Jenny, she was in graduate school and a she lived in graduate housing at the university. It was a very interesting place to live, because all the foreign students lived there. A neighbor of hers had a giant toucan and was going away and asked Jenny to take care of it. So one day Jenny called me up… this was before we were married…and said, “Oh, the parrot’s out of the cage. Get over here!” She was rattled.  I went over there, and it wasn’t that hard. I just held a cracker from the inside of its cage and it came right in. To me, it was an example of what I was learning right then. Never run to an emergency. It applies to all kinds of things in life.

                                                          Jenny and a Friend

                                                          Jenny and a Friend

CW: It’s good wisdom. Maybe it applies even to this election.

AA: Well, I hadn’t thought about it in that way until this moment, but it probably does. Let’s not over-react. Not emotionally.  In fact, I don’t think I’m giving it enough emotion. I should be yelling and screaming. But what can we do about it?

CW: We have to be clear-headed and smart. And you’re not able to be that way if you’re amped up and panicked. But maybe we’re not ready to be calm about it yet, if we are still speaking about the elephant in the room. It’s only been a week.

AA: It feels like longer.

CW: Yes. The “before” already feels like another era. I was worried before the election, but cautiously optimistic.  I guess I didn’t really believe this was possible. I thought we were better than this. Is it possible we’re being tested, and we’ll somehow emerge from this stronger and better than ever?

AA: Who’s testing us?

CW: Thanks, Aris. Good point. This is what it’s like talking to a smart person.

AA: We sure messed up. There’s something out there. Do you know who Konrad Lorenz was?  Zoologist and Nobel Laureate, considered the father of ethology. He’s the one who discovered how ducks imprint on the mother. One of his observations is that in a school of fish, the brain-damaged individual becomes the leader. Fish have evolved for preservation of the species to react reflexively, to move as a unit. Birds do it too. But an individual fish with its forebrain removed doesn’t have that reflex built in, he goes wherever he wants, and the others follow him because they’re just reacting reflexively.

As I’ve seen the popularity of Trump I remembered that. It’s the perfect description of the Trump phenomenon. People are responding reflexively, emotionally. “I’m pissed.” They’re not thinking one or two steps ahead. “I’m pissed, and somebody is going to do something about it.” It isn’t necessarily that they’re dumb; they’re not thoughtful or able to think beyond the immediate. It’s all just reflexive. This victory has more of that flavor to me. 

It’s the appeal of a solitary authoritative figure. It reminds me of something Jack Staplemann’s father told me. You know the Staplemanns’ here on the Ranch? Well, Jack’s father, Claus, was in the German army at the age of eighteen, shot, captured, and taken as a prisoner of war to the United States. He liked the United States so much that he came back after being repatriated at the end of the war to start a successful family and business. I knew him much later in his life. He used to sail with us, every Thursday. Anyway, he did some work at some point for someone here who was very involved with veterans and World War II memorabilia. This guy kept urging Claus to come and speak to this veterans’ group because he had been on the other side, and his perspective would be interesting. Claus kept saying he couldn’t do it. Then finally he agreed, and after he had met with them, he said, “What I told them is you guys were smart because you were fighting for a principle, ideals, the constitution, freedom...abstract things that are very important to you. In Germany we were fighting for a man. We were fighting for Adolf Hitler, the person. That was so dumb.”

It relates to Trump and fascism, and this idea that a personality will solve the problems of all his followers, his school of fish. Claus said that was Germany’s mistake, pinning all their hopes on Hitler. And this is the risk we’re running with Trump now, the appeal of a solitary authoritarian guy. But people don’t think one or two steps ahead. It’s reflexive...processed at a spinal cord rather than a cortical level.


By the way, Claus made this vase [see picture above]. It’s over two hundred separate pieces, eight or ten varieties of wood. He turned each piece out individually to get it exactly right. He could do anything with his hands. He would make beautiful things and donate them to silent auctions for different nonprofit organizations.  

CW: It’s a beautiful object. Anyway, sorry for all this talk about the election, but it's a little bit new and strange to feel so helpless, to know that someone else holds all the cards and great wrongs are being perpetrated. I feel weirdly vulnerable and disenfranchised.

AA: In a funny kind of way, that’s probably the way white working class unemployed or marginally unemployed were feeling. The powers that be have overwhelmed them. The great mistake is in thinking that the remedy is Donald Trump, the person, rather than the system. That’s a reflexive view. They don’t think here’s this guy who is vulgar, shallow, narcissistic, untrustworthy, willfully ignorant… From the start, I’ve thought he is mentally ill. I hate to diagnose someone I’ve never sat down with, but he has every character disorder in the book, literally in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatry.  He’s as shallow a person as you’ll ever find, and he has this megalomania on top of it, a terrible combination.

CW: And we just gave him the keys to the nuclear arsenal. He is abruptly one of the most powerful people on the planet.

AA: My hope is that since his ego is so big and drives him so much already, that in attaining this he’ll de-compensate and it will be obvious that he is psychologically unfit to lead the country.  All the time he’s been running, once he got past a certain point, he kept making it worse and worse but it didn’t make enough difference to people, so I don’t know what it’s going to take to turn it around.

CW Do you have any suggestions as to how should we cope?

AA: I feel so impotent. What can we do? The protests make protesters feel better, but I don’t think they really accomplish anything. I lived through the 1960s and all of that, and they accomplished a lot then, but that isn’t the answer for me. I don’t know what the answer is. Part of me says oppose, sabotage, undercut anything harmful he tries to do as much as you possibly can, but that takes a Congress with a conscience and I don’t think we have that by any means.

CW: Part of what we have inherited from this is such disappointment and disillusionment. I don’t believe someone is going to step up and be brave.

AA: It’s hard to imagine.  The system hasn’t worked. It’s very frustrating.

CW: I suppose we should shift to a different topic. The Ranch. How did you come to be here and what does it mean to you?

AA:  My brother and his family were here in Santa Barbara. We’d come to visit from Wisconsin and my brother would say why don’t you get a place out here to retire.  I imagined I’d love to walk out of my bedroom and be on the ocean.  So each time we’d come for a visit, my brother would have the ads circled, and it would say beach house, and maybe if you stood in one corner on tiptoes and looked out over four blocks of rooftops you might see a little corner of the ocean.  And it would be a million dollars. I said, “Mike this isn’t working.”

My brother and I both grew up in Milwaukee, and MGIC (the mortgage guarantee company that ended up owning the Ranch on foreclosure) is based in Milwaukee, and my brother remembered that some years ago a childhood friend of ours, another Greek kid, John, was the attorney for MGIC, and they sent him out here to look at the Ranch when they were figuring out what to do with it. So he contacted my brother, and told him about the Ranch, and at that time they were asking $100,000 for one parcel, and my brother thought that was crazy.

So some years later, my brother remembered this place called Hollister Ranch, and said let’s look at that, and we got to the gate, and of course they wouldn’t let us in. My brother was an MIT graduate, an engineer, and deputy director of Delco, a GM company that did all the high tech rocket guidance, GPS, all that stuff... He remembered one of his engineers who worked for Delco had a place out here, Dick Streufert, Parcel Two. Dick used a marine radio to communicate, and he’d drive in to Delco every day, which was in Goleta, about an hour and a half from the ridge. Anyway, my brother tried to use Dick’s name, and they still wouldn’t let us in. Jenny swore that’s why we ended up here. Simply because they wouldn’t let us in.

We got in touch with Jeff Kruthers [realtor and Ranch resident].  First time we were here, we were driving up Long Canyon, and Jeff said, “Oh, look!” and there’s a hawk flying by with a snake hanging out of its mouth. Then we go a little further and we see a big sow and a bunch of little piglets, and they’re running like crazy. And there are three or four coyotes chasing them. The mother and piglets go over a little brow, and coming from it at the coyotes is a male boar. It was like a cartoon. The coyotes skid to a halt and take off in the other direction.  I don’t know how Jeff arranged all that. But that was it for us.

And Jenny always had an interest in horses. She had a horse as a kid but never as adult, so every time we’d come back we’d check in with Jeff and he’d show us what was on the market, and one time we were visiting and he said a place just became available, and it was this place. 

The house was more than big enough, two bedrooms, and there’s a guest house. The sticker shock was…oh. Very different from Wisconsin. I sort of ended up holding my breath, and I made it work in a funny way. Did you know the Ferrys'? Frank and Betty. This place was theirs. They had a price, and I offered a little less, although I still had no clear idea how I was going to pay for it. The Ferrys' responded that they had received another offer and were gonna do a “Dutch auction”. Each of us could make one more bid by a certain deadline, and whoever’s bid was highest would get it.  I was scheduled to give a paper in Malaysia, and Jenny and I were leaving ahead of time so we could stop in Asian cities along the way and do some travel on our own. So I made an offer and we left for our trip.

Four o’clock in the morning in Bangkok, the phone rings, and it’s my brother saying, “You got the place." I don’t know if there was another bidder or not.

CW: Did you feel delighted or scared?

AA: Both. I still didn’t know how I was going to pay for it.  But mostly it was delight.

And of course the call woke us up and we couldn’t get back to sleep after hearing that news. I was pacing the floor. So when the stores opened, the first thing I did was go down and have cowboy boots made. I’d never had cowboy boots in my life. But they’re lizard and lambskin…they’re the most comfortable shoes I ever had, and they were sixty dollars for these beautiful boots. So that was one way we picked to celebrate.

                                        Celebratory Cowboy Boots

                                        Celebratory Cowboy Boots

CW: Beautiful moment. Did you manage to get here full-time pretty quickly?

AA: It took two years. First of all, to work up the nerve to retire and not have any more earned income. That was pretty scary. And even more than the finances, who the hell am I if I’m not…I mean, my whole identity was wrapped up and encapsulated in Madison, Wisconsin.

CW: That’s huge. You had to reinvent yourself.

AA: I didn’t even think of it as reinventing so much as…well, in Madison we could never go out to a movie or dinner without running into six people we knew. We had a network of friends and all that. Everything was automatic. And that actually turned out to be what decided me to do it. The idea of a life in Madison, if I had stayed there and retired there, I could have told you who I’d be eating with, and where, five years in the future. It was too damned predictable.

CW: So you said yes to the adventure and the mystery.

AA: I said yes to the uncertainty.  And something that drove it home for me was that older colleagues would retire, and if you got emeritus status, you still had an office and access to the secretaries, and you’d see these old retired people there at the office, and someone would ask, “Who is that guy?” "Well, he was somebody once."

CW: You saw your fate.

AA: I thought, the last thing in the world I want is to be a has-been wandering around the halls. So I came out here, where I’m a never-was.

It was all up in the air. It felt like a gamble, but a gamble worth taking. What I ended up doing was retiring early. If I’d stayed in Madison I’d have waited until I was sixty-five at least. At the university you could keep going to seventy before you’d have to retire. That would have been the easiest thing to do. Instead, I retired early. It took me two years to take the chance and figure it all out. I was fifty-eight when I retired and came out here. It was the smartest thing I’ve ever done.

CC: And you had those good years here with Jenny. What a gift that was.

AA: It was much harder for her. She wanted to come, and she was excited about the place, and she could have a horse and all that…but her family was all there in Wisconsin, so it was harder for her to leave. For me, what little family I had was here, so that part was much easier for me. But I didn’t know anyone outside of my family.  Luckily, Jenny was very social. She made friends easily.

                                                                                  Aris and Jenny

                                                                                  Aris and Jenny

And I just loved being here! Weeks would go by and I’d never leave the Ranch. We ended up getting a little horse for myself, and John McCarty let me ride along driving cattle down the beach, it was like being eight years old, playing cowboy. Jenny’s folks started coming out here to get away from the Wisconsin winters. They would stay in the guesthouse, come in early December and leave in February or March, so she could see them, and sometimes she’d go there.  It worked out fine.

I think besides the natural beauty you experience just being here, I really like the privacy and solitude. I indulge my inner hermit out here. I like the idea that nobody can sneak up on me, and as long as Jenny was alive, I was fine. I got involved in this and that, so it kept me intellectually occupied. I was on the Mental Health Commission for the county, and a private nonprofit, and so that was a good life.

After Jenny died, it took me about three years to set up something else. I found I was getting even deeper into isolation on the Ranch, more than I wanted to be. I finally got out of that by getting a condo in Santa Barbara and getting my "urban fix" on weekends. 

CW: Is that one of those things where you have to just put one foot in front of the other and somehow get through it?

AA: Well, the hardest part of putting one foot in front of the other was when she got ill…and the eight weeks until she died. You just go through that. There’s nothing else to do but try to deal with the end. The situation kept getting worse and worse. You run out of options but you still…

You know, there’s a physiological principle called reactive inhibition. When a nerve fires, there’s a period immediately afterwards where it can’t fire again. It has to sort of reconstitute biochemically. It’s true of every single neuron in your body. It feels like I was in a reactive inhibition stage for a long time…

CC: Is that like a kind of numbness?

AA: I guess it’s sort of like numbness. If you hit it, it reacts. But if you hit it again, it won’t react. All of this is in microseconds, with any individual neuron. But it’s sort of a metaphor for what can happen in a situation where it’s so overwhelming. You feel so drained. So empty. It just takes a while for things to start working again.

Getting the condo in town helped. It gives me an alternative. As much as I love being here, I’ve got an option.

CC: Is it comforting to be here, or do you find you need the distraction and diversion of being in town?

AA: It goes both ways. I’m usually here Sundays through Thursday, when I go in to sail. By the fourth day or so, I’m looking forward to the town things. Well, I can go to a movie, and I can see so-and-so, and I can order pizza in, or whatever. But then when I’ve been there for three nights, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, I’m anxious to get back here.

CC: I admire you so much. You’ve patched together a good life. I keep thinking of that line from Samuel Beckett: I can’t go on, I’ll go on. I would imagine that losing Jenny was the kind of event where you don’t know if or how you’ll go on, but you do.

AA: I know what you’re saying and it’s a good description, but I can’t remember ever deciding, “I will go on.” It was more the negative side of it, where I would realize I hadn’t had any human contact in so long…other than maybe over the phone…and possibly it occurred to me at some point, “This can’t go on.” 

CC: I see. That’s different.

                                                                                    The Joy of Jenny

                                                                                    The Joy of Jenny

AA: It’s funny, but I’m associated with a nonprofit called Trinity Youth Services that was facing a financial crisis at this time, and being involved with that turned out to be really helpful. Trinity used to be called Guadalupe, but we kept getting mixed up with some other outfit. There’s a website for it, trinityys.org. My brother was board president for many years, and he got me involved with the board.  We just had our 50th anniversary a few months ago.

Anyway, the fiscal crisis in 2008 really impacted us. Our kids get referred to us from different counties, and we had programs all the way from Yucaipa down south to Ukiah north of San Francisco. All the counties were affected, and then they just stopped sending kids. We really got into fiscal trouble. We had facilities and debt service, and maintenance costs, and we didn’t have the usual revenue coming in.  At our peak we had 1500 kids under our care on any given day, and now it’s like 700. We had buildings we had to close and tried to sell, but there was no market for them. Stuff like that. We were really dancing on the brink of bankruptcy for quite a while.

So we were in crisis, and as all this stuff was happening, they asked me to become president of the board. Jenny died in January 2009, and this was shortly afterwards. I thought, no I can’t do this. But I said that I would just because they needed somebody like me.

And that really helped me, because it was the one thing I had to occupy my time and energy through all that time.  In fact, I just retired from the board presidency on the 50th anniversary.

But it was a big problem. I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I went through, not just me, but everybody in the agency working on it.  And as I said, we went from 1500 to 700 kids. I still ask, what’s happened to all those other kids?

CW: You wonder. But then again, you made a big difference to the 700. I guess you have to take comfort in that. And all this comes back to the kinds of questions I’m always pondering. How we get through the hard times, and how do we find meaning?

AA: I hadn’t thought of it until this moment, but it was about having something that was really important to devote myself to: something other than the importance of having lost Jenny, something more important than me.

That’s what helped.  And I think that’s a way to get through aging––which is a word for coming to term's with one's one's mortality. 

CW: Devoting your time and energy to something bigger than yourself, maybe?

AA: Yes. Something that isn’t about you as much as others.

When I first came out here, I had to figure out some role, some way to contribute and engage with the world. I couldn’t assume people would know who I was and say, “Oh, he’s a professor. He’s probably okay.”

CW: No. I don’t think it works like that around here.

AA: But I was lucky enough to get involved in Trinity and the Mental Health Commission and things like that after coming out here. So there was always something to put my energy and thought processes toward. And that’s made an enormous difference. I don’t have any children of my own, yet I have for years been involved with trying to help disadvantaged kids, and hopefully in my life I’ll be doing something like that until the day I die. Which could be tomorrow. [laughs]

As I’ve gotten old, I find I do resent the unnecessary and mundane things that just come along, unasked for out of nowhere and take up precious time and energy. [Here Aris described an example of a frustrating utility issue caused by a miscommunication by the corporation that could have been easily resolved but instead resulted in hours spent on hold, repeating explanations, and going through arbitrary bureaucratic hoops.]  I’m spending too much of my life dealing with that kind of stuff rather than what’s really important.

When you’re younger, you get involved in things to put mortality into the background. For me, getting old just means you start to deal with your mortality. It isn’t in the distance; it’s palpable. That’s not a bad thing, actually. It helps you focus. Makes you more dedicated. But then that kind of petty, unasked-for stupid stuff comes along, and it takes away from that.

I want to focus on the things that matter. [And enjoying life too, which is something the Greeks understand.] When I was in Greece, I was surprised that even with the hard times there, I saw people still going out walking and enjoying themselves. They don’t let the economic problems interfere with their appreciation of life and getting together with people. They don’t spend as much money, but they still go out.  I’ve heard it a hundred times there: “Things are really bad, but we’ll get through.”

CW: Coming back to the Ranch, how do you think it’s changed? How do you think it’s doing?

AA: The generic answer to that is that I try not to get involved in Ranch issues anymore. I did for a long time.  The Ranch is very important to me. I love what it is, and I want to keep it what it is. But more and more I’m disappointed at how people use it for their own special interests. I don’t know much of what’s going on right now, and that’s intentional, but it has become somewhat distasteful to me. Even the Wood litigation [1994], which was a pretty big deal, was basically petty stuff. It was the worst of people making things difficult for each other.  I don’t know any place that can escape that.

 Actually Trinity is one of the few agencies I’ve been involved with that has managed to not make it about themselves. The spirit of the place is unique. The kids are what come first, always. People are not motivated by self-interest. That’s very hard to achieve in the first place, and very hard to maintain, in the second place.

Even the Mental Health Department in Santa Barbara County, which isn’t any worse than others, is awful in this way. Those systems are run for the welfare of the people in the system. It’s a “me first” kind of mentality. I banged my head against the wall there for nine years, and I can’t say I accomplished much.

And I see that at the Ranch. Maybe it’s because I don’t know about all the good things happening. But that’s how it appears to me.

CW: Do you think it’s maybe because there are more people who buy here as sort of an investment and don’t have a sense of the culture or uniqueness of the place? Is that part of it, do you think?

AA: Not so much as you might think. I’m more bothered by the people who come here and make running the Ranch their purpose in life, what takes up most of their energy.  Maybe this isn’t fair, but I came out here to be free of all that stuff, and not be encumbered by this or that mundane kind of issue, or somebody doing something stupid and you have to react to it. I came here as a sanctuary. And for the most part, it has served that purpose for me.  But I see that getting more and more encroached upon.

And again, I’m so out of the loop now…purposely…that I’m not sure this is even the case anymore. But there was a period when I felt like the people who ran for the board and sat on the board did it so they could jiggle the CC&Rs (Conditions, Covenants, and Restrictions) for their own ends.

CW: I think there’s still some of that. But I have to say…and I’m not the most objective person, since my husband is president of the board right now…but I see how much that encroaches on his free time, and not because he particularly enjoys it or has some lust for power. He works really hard, and for him it’s a sense of duty, not self-interest. 

I think at certain points in the history of the Ranch, we’ve been subjected to existential threats, and the outcomes can change the nature of the Ranch dramatically, and we’re facing one now. Concurrently, we have all these basic environmental issues to think about as a whole…shared and limited resources, such as water. So there has to be some kind of governance and hopefully good people will continue to step up and be involved. But I do agree, not just here, but in public service in general, that there are always people who come to it with their own self-interested motivations. I don’t know if it’s gotten worse in recent years.

AA:  I don’t know the numbers either. But it doesn’t take many to poison the well. And I don’t know any organization that escapes this entirely. It’s just that it’s so contrary to what I want it to be. I wish everybody would just leave everybody alone to the maximum extent possible.

CW: I think we all wish that to some extent. And you’ve done plenty of public and community service here and elsewhere. I’m just thinking that there are probably a lot of people who want this to be their sanctuary, but they have no idea how much sweat is going on behind the scenes to protect it.

AA: If it’s a choice between somebody who lives somewhere else and they have a nice place here and they don’t care about how much it costs, and they just come once in a while, I’d rather have that than a busy-body who’s trying to control everything. 

CW: Me too!

AA: Homeowners’ associations were unheard of in the Midwest. It was such a shock and surprise to me to come out here and find out how much of this goes on. I’ve been on different boards and in general I’m a believer that a board has to be active, and its role is to monitor things, not to micro-manage, but monitor things, and make sure everything is running. But after being on the board here, it seems to me that the primary goal of a Homeowners’ board should be to do as little as possible, not interfere.  There are people who come here and get overly involved because that’s going to give them something to do…

CW: Well, of all the things you can do here, that would be a really weird one to choose.

AA: You see the same thing in northern Wisconsin. People who buy land near a beautiful, isolated lake, and then they start complaining that it’s hard to get there, and they want a highway built, and before you know it, it isn’t the same. Why can’t they just leave it alone?

CW: Well, it’s human nature, I guess. No one is ever satisfied. New question. I always like to ask what gives you strength…or hope.

AA:  I’ve given up on hope. It has a whiff of passivity embedded in it. I’m not saying that as a bitter, petulant response. It just doesn’t seem that important. You just do what you need to do, and whether it works out or not, there’s no hope there for or against it. Hope is not an issue; action is.

Hope. Look what happened to Barack. I really feel bad for him, but he’s taking it better than I am. I mean, it’s such a repudiation.

CW: It’s so horrible.  God, we’re talking about again. Okay, is there any message of wisdom or advice that you might give to a younger person?

AA: Whatever lessons I’ve learned are sort of idiosyncratic. They apply to me. I’ve never thought of myself as someone who has something to give to the succeeding generation. If it’s something specific, like psychotherapy technique or a research finding, or something like that, yes, I can teach in that sense, but life lessons, I don’t know.  I think the biggest mistake I made all my life is taking myself too seriously. I don’t know if it just comes with age, but there’s a shift in perspective about what’s important. Some things are important at any age, but a lot of things just drop off the scale as you get older.  Why did I get so upset about that ten years ago? But you don’t know ahead of time what those things are.

As for advice, the old medical slogan comes to mind: “First do no harm.” I can think of a lot of mistakes I’ve made that I regret, and I would hope to minimize those kinds of mistakes with whatever time I have left. I think that’s just as important as the obverse, which is to do as much good as you can.

So, try to avoid doing harm, and try to do good. But both of those things reflect some way of thinking about yourself. Nothing is that important that it’s worth hurting somebody else for. You’re not so important that it’s you or nobody. The Donald Trump delusion.

CW: See? That’s why we’re so traumatized.  What happened is so dissonant. This delusion is what we have just been told is reality, and that’s going to be our new motif. You know, I think it’s important to note for the record that this interview has been very overshadowed by the feelings we are having right now about the election.  This conversation might have been completely different had the outcome been different.

AA: And when it comes to the Ranch, specifically…if I could dictate how people behave on the Ranch, it would be live and let live. Forget what the other person is doing, short of burning the place down, short of violating the rules you agreed to when you bought into it. That’s not what we’re here for.

CW: I’m laughing because that’s almost exactly what Mr. (John Hollister) Wheelwright said when I interviewed him and asked him if he had some advice. He said something like, “Just don’t trample on anyone else.”

AA: That’s a good word for it. Don’t trample on anyone. Especially here. I mean, it’s universal of course, but it should be easier here. The place is remote and rural. I can just live my life the way I want. In Madison, I remember my neighbor built this big addition to his house and it was looking right over our balcony, and I thought when I came here, “I’ll never have to worry about that again.”  Then I’ve got people here telling me I can’t put up a compartment for my generator. I like that: don’t trample.

CW: You didn’t grow up with any kind of spiritual, religious thing…did you?

AA: I was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church. I went every Sunday. I thought God read my mind and thoughts, and I was always embarrassed by that. I don’t know when I started thinking for myself, but I’ve never been religious in that sense. I kept going for my mother’s sake. It was important to her. But I grew up in a tavern. I was pouring shots when I was ten years old! I subscribe to the notion that "Reality is the only truly moral alternative."

CW: But it seems to me you also had a real work ethic modeled for you.

AA: Oh yeah. My father was such a hard worker. My mother as well, but in a traditional Greek wife way.

CW: Do you speak Greek?

AA: Yes. When I started school, I didn’t speak English. I was home all day with my mother. My father would be gone and wouldn’t get back until late at night, and my mother didn’t speak English. So I only spoke Greek.  When I went to kindergarten, that’s when I started to learn English.

I can relate to Latinos, as a first-generation child of immigrant parents, and one of my research areas was cross-cultural adaptation. Wisconsin had the second largest enrollment of foreign scholars in the country when I was there.  A number of them would show up in the emergency room, and what really got me and a couple of colleagues interested in this, was that within a week, two foreign students committed suicide.  One had just been released from our psychiatric in-patient unit.  The other had no contact at all. We just thought there cannot be two in a week. What are we missing? We got involved in both treating and researching what’s going on psychiatrically with these people. This was a long time ago too. A lot of them, especially from Asia, were placed on an airplane, and by the time the plane landed they were psychotic. They were so overwhelmed. And in Asian society, education is such a big thing.

We ended up developing a program to try to get to students sooner, and I did a lot of training with our psychiatry Residents about how psychotherapy with a foreign student is very different than with an American. I’m currently consulting with UCSB… working with the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, who is very interested in these kinds of issues. They’ve got a wonderful program at UCSB. When I compare what they’ve got here to what Wisconsin had in the 70s and 80s, it’s a world of difference. But then you always hear about the kid who was missed, like the one who shot up Isla Vista. There was no realistic intervention that might have prevented that.

CW: I’m impressed by how much you’re still active and involved in these things. Maybe you’ve given up on this idea of hope, but you’re still acting in hopeful, positive ways.

AA: You just keep trying. You do what you can do. I don’t know what would happen to me if I didn’t have something like that to do.

CW: That’s when you get depressed.

AA: It’s hard enough thinking, “What the hell am I here for in the first place?” But if you don’t have anything to be energized by, really, who needs you? You don’t need you either.

CW: Can you tell me about someone who was a big influence or role model in your life?

AA: Yes, in addition to people like my father–who never went past second grade yet saw me through a doctorate and my brother through M.I.T.– and of course my wife Jenny, a couple of people come to mind.

First, Jack Gilchrist, my major professor of psychology when I was working towards my degree was a very odd duck. He was just great. It would take me an hour to describe him. Very smart, very nice guy. He had a big influence on me mostly because he gave me a lot of latitude. I came up with an idea for my PhD dissertation that was something that had never been tried before. He said, “If this doesn’t work, you’re not going to get the degree, and I won’t be able to back you up, but go ahead and try it anyway if you want.” I did. It worked out very nicely.

The psychology department at UW was known as the dust bowl of empiricism. Old-fashioned psychology and very little clinical stuff. If you wrote a dissertation it had to be at least 250 pages long, because you had to go back through all the history, what happens in your retina, when the dog salivates, how the rat finds its way through the maze. My project was completely out of bounds. My dissertation was twenty pages long because there was no history whatsoever to review.

But he was the kind of guy who would let me do that. In a sense, he backed me, even though he said he couldn’t save me if nothing came of it.

CW: And you’ve just given some more good advice even if you didn’t realize it. If you want to help somebody or encourage somebody, sometimes the best thing you can do is back off.

AA: Yes, he was very un-authoritarian.

CW: But that’s how people flourish. When they don’t have a heavy hand forcing them and telling them that’s how it has to be.

AA: It’s risky. I was scared as hell. I had spent all these years with all this anxiety about getting the degree, my poor father paying for it, that sort of thing.

But influential people…another one. I started out wanting to be an architect. Wisconsin didn’t have a school of architecture so I went to the University of Illinois for my freshman year, and half the coursework was in the art school, and I was terrible at it. If I had a straight edge and a T-square, I could do the engineering and technical side of it, but I had no artistic ability whatsoever.  I’d stay up all night doing a charcoal drawing and get a C minus on it and some kid would do one in fifteen minutes and get an A. So I switched into civil engineering just because it’s sort of related, and then went to Wisconsin because they had a good school of engineering. I was in it until my senior year, and I just hated it. I got terribly depressed. I was cutting classes. In those days you didn’t cut classes. It wasn’t the way it is now. You couldn’t go to the Internet and get the lecture notes. But mostly I was getting more and more depressed. I decided I can’t do this. I don’t want to design reinforced concrete the rest of my life.

So I got the catalog and looked for whatever I could major in to get a Bachelor’s degree in the shortest time possible. The two things I found were Psychology, which I knew absolutely nothing about, and Philosophy, which I had no idea what a philosophy major could do for a living.  So I flipped a coin and switched from the School of Engineering to Letters and Science so I could get a degree in psychology.

In those days, the universities had a Dean of Men and a Dean of Women, and they were like parental surrogates. They had all kinds of control over the students. In order to switch majors, you had to get the Dean of Men’s permission. In the three and a half years I had been an undergraduate there, I’d had three strong disagreements with him, but each one, I had won. Now I had to go ask him permission to transfer. He looked at me and said,  “Oh, I’d love to do that, but I don’t think you have the interest of the university at heart. No."

This was in Bascom Hall, the executive part of the University of Wisconsin.  So I’m walking out of his office, down the hallway, and my life is a mess, and all I could see was blackness.  The Vice President, Leroy Luberg, happens to come out of his office. About three years before this, I had been involved in a program he ran in which students went out to the rural areas and talked up the university, but I hadn’t seen him in two or three years. He happened to come out of his office just as I was walking past. He said, “Hello, Aris. How are you?” I said, “Hmm…” He said, “What’s the matter?” I explained that the dean had just turned me down for a transfer. He said, “Come to my office.” He picks up the phone. Thirty seconds later, he says “You’re transferred.”

It was happenstance. I transferred, and I loved psychology, and I got straight As and I decided to go to graduate school, and I lucked out and got the major professor I told you about.  I was on a great trajectory. My girlfriend at the time was a research assistant to a professor in the psychiatry department. Carl Rogers and this fellow, Norm Greenfield, had started a big psychophysiological study and none of them knew what they were doing. And at one point, my girlfriend said I’ve got a boyfriend who’s pretty good at statistics and methodology…do you want him to look at it? I did, and it was just garbage. There was no way to make anything good come out of it, so I had to tell him that. But he became a mentor of mine. He’s the one that when I was given a pre-doctoral Public Health Service Scholarship that I could spend anywhere I wanted, he encouraged me to spend my internship in the Department of Psychiatry, and that’s where I got to know those people, and that’s when they offered me a post-doctoral fellowship.

In a couple of weeks I’m meeting someone from the University of Wisconsin Foundation…I’ve been talking with him for over a year… about starting a Happenstance Scholarship that involves some kind of almost random confluence of events, I mean each of these people I have told you about has made an enormous positive difference to my life, and it could have so easily gone the other way. Those three people, I want to call it the Gilchrist-Luberg-Greenfield scholarship.  I’ve been trying to set this up for over a year. How do you make it really happenstance? How do you engineer something random, something that by definition can’t be engineered? I don’t know how we’re going to resolve it, but we will soon. It should come as a surprise to the recipient, but it has to come in some way because an element A or B or C just happened to come together by coincidence…the idea is that something comes out of the blue for the recipient. Happenstance... serendipity.