How do you solve an overthinking problem? Try thinking less

There was a time when one office co-worker or member of the lunch bunch was the go-to person for questions like, “Who was Lincoln’s first vice-president?” or “What year did ‘Jeopardy’ premier?”

I remember that time well because I was that one turned to to instantly produce “Hannibal Hamlin” or “1964.” Then came Google on I-pads and my principal role in the group was obsolete.

Brian Arbenz reading at a literary event in 2015.

As with all who find themselves displaced by technology, I had to find new skills to, in this case keep my sense of validation, rather than employablity.

For a while, that was tough! Gradually, though, I learned that I can have a purpose in the group by – this is so simple it is embarrassing – just being a pleasant person. I’d put that: by just being me, but the problem was, “me” had equaled “knowledge” for as far back as I could recall. Being the brain was a great gig for so long that I complacently stuck with it, until my support system was yanked away, forcing me to access the many parts of myself I had been ignoring.  So, thank you, Google!

That’s the positive angle on the new, less cerebral, more personable me. There also have been unhappy developments which have influenced this change.

Months after Robin Williams’ stunning death in 2014, his loved ones laid out how he simply could not control the genius currents constantly running his mind, pushing him always to observe, create comedy and dazzle, a three-step process that had long been as natural, even automatic to him as breathing.

His stuck-on mind was so fast, that being humorous on the spot became a command more so than a talent. He began hallucinating, then experiencing dementia through a condition called Lewy Body Disorder, so named from a protein called alpha-synuclein abnormally deposited in the brain in configurations known as Lewy bodies.

No, I have never had that, or experienced anything like Robin Williams’ reported symptoms.

Nor has my mind reached the level of dysfunction endured by Phil Ochs, an outspoken folk singer in the early 1960s. He was my kind of person: left wing, esoteric and fearless.

The son of an army doctor in World War II, Phil Ochs’ genius produced biting satire which attacked shortcomings he saw among progressives, as well as excoriating capitalism and racism.

Colorful, handsome and daring, Ochs had high standards for his art and for left activism. He occasionally argued with members of his own audiences over pronouncements they shouted.

Yes, I can identify with Phil Ochs, primarily because his depth of understanding was a burden. In a society of snappy phrases and sound bites, getting elaborate messages out through pop culture eventually is futile, I believe.

I figure that may have been one of the factors in his losing his mind in the 1970s, even becoming dissociative from his own identity.

His changes seemed innocent at first. His music’s ardent leftist tone softened as Ochs did songs of centrist Americana and he became longing for martyred brothers John and Robert Kennedy.  The changes then kicked into rapid gear. After becoming homeless, Ochs was diagnosed as genuinely perceiving that he was someone else – a self-invented persona Ochs gave the name John Butler Train (after JFK and William Butler Yeats). And he believed he, as Train, had killed the great folk figure Phil Ochs.

He eventually regained his identity and seemed clear headed and contented if apathetic while living with relatives on Long Island, N.Y.

He did child care for nephews and nieces, played cards and did little else, acting blasé about his musical achievements and the political struggles wrapped up in them. Internally, however, Phil Ochs was not so sedate. He committed suicide in 1976.

Again, my strains in life have not been as great as what Ochs faced, but had I achieved some national stature, who knows?

I’ve gone through some similar outlook adjustments. I took on the world in my late teens and early 20s, often championing leftist causes in my writings in mainstream and my college media, as well as letters to the editor in newspapers and over Marxist nations’ shortwave radio stations (shortwave was then essential in much of the world, but in the 1970s and ‘80s followed by only five percent of Americans, generally introverts and the NSA’s unit which created dossiers by monitoring letters like mine).

Suddenly feeling worn down by the absence of results in the me-generation society around me and put off by the sectarian splits on the world’s left, I started seeking social democratic change. I became more mellow and less strident, much in the same manner as Phil Ochs had, and started feeling more affinity with the society’s better angels. I even gave a tip of the hat to John and Bobby Kennedy.

I saw great progress possible via better social policies like family planning, gun controls, mass transit and restorative justice.

My path has resembled Phil Ochs only to a limited extent, but considering his end, the similarities have been enough to give me pause.

If there is one similar thread in what I have chronically experienced and the derailments of Williams’ and Ochs’ lives, it is overthinking. I am constantly aware — hyperaware of meanings to be defined from events, encounters and statements, even unscripted ones.boy on the bus

“You’re too much of an empath,” one acquaintance told me after I described how a stranger’s momentary frustration that morning over one of life’s rough spots was sticking with me all day.

Yes, I have trouble letting simple events I observe remain simple; I must fight the ingrained habit of referencing everything to the realm of complex ideas, concepts and polemics.

While sauntering along an apartment walkway to visit a friend in what happened to be the year 2001 I was greeted unexpectedly by a pleasant chatty little girl on a trike. She looked a little like the character Josephine Floyd, who speaks to her father in a picturephone call in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Most people would be content to note the nominal resemblance and move on. My instincts for drawing parallels wouldn’t nearly be sated with that.

I instantly decided to write a column for the monthly peace and justice newspaper I edited telling how the encounter with this charming child crystalized in my mind the differences between the future year envisioned by Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick and the real 2001.

That actual year was about whether little children would get health care, a home and eventually a job beyond Taco Bell, not whether life on a space station would beckon their fathers, who in the real 2001 may be known to the Josephine Floyds of the nation more for their signatures on child support checks.

That column was never written, a sign that my red hot penchant for epiphanies was beginning to cool.

My mind for spotting parallels creates memes with messages.

Then came social media, which reconnected me with elementary school chums with whom I’d had almost no contact for decades. That opened my eyes to something else that might be an imbalance in my mind – it turns out I have precise memory skills that are astonishing, maybe even spooky to some.

“You mean everyone can’t do that?” I asked a 6th grade classmate from 40-plus years earlier when he was flabbergasted at how I, from memory, tagged everyone in his copy of the class picture – in two minutes. No, that is not a normal skill, I learned.

Though neither he nor any of the other schoolmates I checked in with after joining Facebook thought it troubling that I could, say, remember particular questions they had asked our teachers during lessons on adjectives and adverbs or South American geography, I became a little self-conscious.

Was this newfound ability a gift, or was it creepy? After all, some of these folks about whom I could remember such details were people I had never actually talked to back in school.

More to the point of my present agenda, would it be an obstacle to improving my social contacts – just another reminder that I have always been different?

When asked by an innocently smiling person from way back, “How do you remember all this?” I, perhaps out of a sudden awareness that this could indeed be a problem, or just being lightheartedly self-effacing, told her, “I’m forgetful impaired.”

Truth is, my bigger situation is hyperawareness. And as a method of treatment, I am experimenting with being less precise on arcane data. In conversations, I’m saying, “that was more than 30 years ago,” instead of my traditional way of citing of the exact number when that number is not essential to the topic.

I’m asking myself, how much should I hold onto empathy over some complete stranger missing a bus this morning, or a driver pulling away not realizing their soft drink had been placed on their car roof.

Or a telephone customer to whom I gave the wrong serial number on a model railroad set sold at the store where I at age 18 worked my first job, forcing her and her husband to drive across town on a snowy night in pursuit of a coveted product it turned out we did not have. Yes, self-forgiveness is another issue involved in my being “forgetful impaired,” perhaps better described as an inability to let go.

I’m also using paraphrases more when they will do instead of exact quotes in recounting statements by public figures, or a judge’s ruling on a water rate hike, or my 2nd grade teacher when she taught us what homonyms were in 1966 – uh, make that more than 50 years ago.

Brian Arbenz, a self-published of author and independent journalist, lives in Louisiville, whose residents may notice he seems less deep in thought these days. 


1021 and 1022: gifts by Obama to Trump are our top 2 threats

Former President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act in 2012.

No red flags in that, you may say, because he is civil and progressive Barack Obama, the man we miss for, if nothing else, the fact that he would not make fun of a person’s disability. The man who is the antithesis of this Trump-Bannon-Pence crowd of haters and tyrants, right?

Well, remembers these numbers: 1021 and 1022. If Trump’s police come to take you away because you have been outspoken against U.S. wars or racist policies, it will likely be because of Sections 1021 and 1022 of the NDAA.


They give the federal government broad powers to arrest anyone, including U.S. citizens in or outside the country, on suspicion of terrorism-related crimes, and to imprison them indefinitely without trial.

And it’s Trump’s law now.

A judge’s voiding of the powers in sections 1021 and 1022 during Obama’s presidency as unconstitutional was reversed by an appeals court and the House of Representatives has twice voted down efforts to rescind them.

President Obama said upon signing the NDAA he would strictly avoid using it to infringe on rights, but in 2012 the Huffington Post farsightedly asked whether we could count on successor presidents to feel the same way. Dan Johnson, founder of People Against the NDAA (PANDA) ( told Huff Post:

“The 2012 NDAA’s detention provisions apply to anyone, anywhere. But who is most likely to have the NDAA used against them? It depends on how you define the word terrorist. The Department of Homeland Security said that individuals or organizations ‘reverent of individual liberty’ and ‘suspicious of centralized federal authority’ pose a threat. The state of Georgia calls publishing ‘public records’ terrorism. The FBI added the director of an anti-fracking film to the terror watch list…. The government won’t define ‘terrorist,’ in order to keep their options flexible.… Under Section 1021, anyone who has committed a belligerent act, which even the government could not define when questioned in court, can be detained indefinitely, without charges or trial, as a ‘suspected terrorist.’ ”

Let’s review: Anyone. Detained indefinitely. Without trial. Without charges. For a belligerent act. Belligerent defined however the government wishes. And it is bi-partisan and the courts are upholding it.

Of the three members of Congress who have passionately urged NDAA sections 1021 and 1022’s rescinding, two are Republicans. Those two include my senator, Rand Paul, a man I otherwise do not respect at all. Paul opposes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and is a doctor who won’t join the AMA, instead choosing the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, which spreads dangerous hokum against vaccines. And he is our hope.

As I have been writing for years, things are not as partisan as we think. And now, because the many underreported bipartisan agreements of our time include one called the NDAA, we face more danger than we think.

Brian Arbenz, of Louisville, is a justice and nonviolence activist and independent journalist.

John Hollinden: at 7-foot-7, he was forever deftly rebounding from misfortune just as giant

As a junior in high school in Southern Indiana in 1975, I was baffled over how a visiting basketball player who was 7 feet, 2 inches tall could have left our New Albany High School gym one night with only two points to his name.

John Hollinden of Central High School in Evansville was described in a newspaper story as “frail” at only 198 pounds – that’s about 40 pounds below the ideal weight for 7-foot-2. A staffer on our high school radio station which broadcast the game said the towering 16-year-old looked uncoordinated and lost on the court.

Cutting the nets flatfooted was easy for the nation’s tallest player.

That seemed to me out of synch with an era when 7-foot-2 meant awesome dominators like Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain or Artis Gilmore, who would shortly power the Kentucky Colonels to the ABA championship across the river in Louisville.

Moreover, this was Indiana – where even being 6-foot-5 or so generates expectations that you will be savvy at hoops.

A Hoosier over seven feet tall not being good at basketball? That’s like a member of the Cousteau family being afraid of the water!

So, I put thoughts of John Hollinden and his sorry predicament out of my mind, until a year later when, as senior, I picked up the newspaper to read about that year’s Central-New Albany game.

There was the name Hollinden in the box score – well what do you know, the frail can’t-do toothpick-shaped klutz didn’t go away. Then I looked at his point total – 26, whoa!

Welcome to Hoosierdom, John Hollinden. And my apologies for writing you off early. It was a lesson to my 17-year-old self not to be dismissive or belittling toward an endeavoring person just because their obstacles at first appear immense.

For John Hollinden, his pitiful performance the previous year contrasted with 26 points as a senior was to be a lifelong pattern of extraordinary height alternately being a curse and a blessing.

John’s 1976 senior picture at Evansville Central High School

By graduation time he was 7-foot-4, and was offered a scholarship at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Ok. There, though still an underweight 220 pounds, he impressed coaches with his stamina and coordination, which bespoke that John Hollinden was forever past his days of struggle to catch up with growth spurts. And that was fortunate, because he wasn’t through: John was 7-foot-5 when his freshman season at ORU started in late 1976 and he reached 7-foot-6 by the spring.

And that caused more problems. John, not yet suitably strong for the physical college game, didn’t get much playing time his first season, and fans who packed opponents’ arenas to see a person now billed as the tallest college basketball player in the nation sometimes booed and shouted insults at the giant they felt should have made their cost of admission pay off with a superhuman performance to tell their grandchildren about someday.

Long used to people – like me back in 1975 — being initially unimpressed with him, John was undeterred. Still, it was becoming taxing for him just to leave campus, as every single person he would encounter would stop in their tracks and ask the inevitable questions about his height and avocation.

For such occasions, John printed up a t-shirt bearing the words: “My name is John Hollinden. I’m 7 foot 5. I do play basketball.”

Such resourcefulness is typical of giants, who must custom order their clothes, beds and shower stalls. The sense of humor displayed by his informational shirt, however, showed that unlike many 7-foot-plus basketballers who dislike constantly drawing notice away from the court, John was comfortable being a spectacle.

“I enjoy meeting people, especially when we’re visiting different cities,” he told his hometown paper the Evansville Press in 1979. “The attention doesn’t bother me.”

After two years of less than abundant playing time at Oral Roberts, John decided in 1978 to transfer to Indiana State University at Evansville, delighting fans in his hometown still reeling from the deaths of the entire basketball team of the crosstown University of Evansville in a plane crash en route to a game months earlier.

In a city where the name John Hollinden had been a household word since he was a 9th grader, he could put away the t-shirt explaining himself, but had he needed it, the height listed would require updating: John, after the one-year off from playing sports the NCAA requires of a transfer student, was 7-foot-7 as he joined the ISUE Eagles roster in the fall of 1979.

His constant weight training and protein diets had been adding needed bulk, but his body’s refusal to stop growing kept John’s weight at about 25 pounds under where the sport demanded it be.

“He’s not an NBA-type dominant center,” cautioned Wayne Boultinghouse, coach at ISUE (now called the University of Southern Indiana). “We don’t want to be overly optimistic…. It’s difficult to measure what John will mean to our team, but I’m sure he’ll be a plus.”

Evansville Press staffer Mark Tomasik wrote: “Wayne Boultinghouse believes the attention Hollinden attracts will help promote the Eagles program. And he’s certain Hollinden can handle the demands on his time.”

Indeed, John happily accepted ISUE public relations as an extra duty.

“If reporters want to talk with me or photographers want to take my picture, it’s all right,” he told the press. “I just put myself in their position. I’d want to do the same.”

Constantly being photographed, even to poke fun at his height (such as here with the team dentist), was all in fun for the good natured giant John Hollinden.

In fact, it was more than drawing cameras that John Hollinden soon excelled at; he finished the 1979-80 season the 2nd best shooter (56 percent) and the fourth best rebounder (8.3 per game) in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. John’s towering defensive presence, Boultinghouse said, was a major reason ISUE gave up the least points per game of any GLV team.

“When I talk to other coaches, they always mention the influence of Hollinden,” Boultinghouse said. “His intimidation can’t be measured by statistics.”

Back home again on the banks of the Ohio River, the once frail high schooler and target of insults as a collegian now had hit his long-awaited stride. John Hollinden made the All Great Lakes Valley Conference team.

As his senior season ended in 1981, though John was primarily interested in playing in the European basketball league, he put his name in the draft of the NBA, that league for which coach Boultinghouse had figured his 7-foot-7 star was not dominant enough. The Dallas Mavericks drafted John in the 11th round, but he signed a contract with a Swedish team in the European league.

Days before his scheduled departure for Sweden, John Hollinden looked the picture of a man comfortable with himself, an accomplishment that was as towering as his physical stature, considering his awkward beginnings as a Hoosier hoopster. (Evansville Press columnist Tom Tuley recalled a stiff and jittery 14-year-old Holliden giving one word answers while doing his first interview with media as a 6-foot-9 freshman at Central High.)

Now, gymnasiums full of sarcastic doubters were behind him and life in Europe’s great cities was ahead for the musically talented, athletically gifted and bright young man from Evansville.

It never happened.

The day before he was to leave for Sweden, John was driving alone for pleasure on a road outside the city when his car crashed. He was paralyzed from the waist down. Days later, doctors said the 23-year-old would never regain movement or feeling in his legs.

The 7-foot-7 John Hollinden, listed among the 20 documented tallest people in history, would permanently be at eye level with the rest of us, from his wheelchair.

Don’t think for an instant that bitterness or anguish entered John’s life, even though it’s true, here was a guy who was going to be the marvel of Europe’s fast spreading fascination with basketball. And now he can’t walk because he, as it were, missed the plane by a day. No, in the years to come he wouldn’t be dunking, blocking and passing to cheers in Stockholm, Barcelona and Brussels, nor politely posing for 10 times the press pictures, nor cheerily telling inquiring passersby in seven languages how tall he was.

John Hollinden’s unmatched ability at overcoming the roadblocks that seem always to come with his extraordinary endowments would now go into overtime.

He became a speaker at schools in the Evansville area. He helped out with the Tri-State Food Bank and the United Way. An accomplished musician who played several instruments, John joined the Mid-America Singers at his renamed University of Southern Indiana.

His friends and former coaches described John as a good Christian, in the sense of Christian as caring about others and seeking a peaceful outlook.

He was still the center of attention, with his niceness, glibness and busy civic involvement drawing raves, as the name John Hollinden immediately prompted admiration and gushing among Evansville-area people. Before, they considered whether they could do as much as he did if gifted with a 7-foot-7 frame; now it was his giant resilience that left fans wondering if they would be capable of John Hollinden’s strength in the face of such terrible misfortune.

Despite his undaunted resolve and good cheer, John’s condition was straining him. Leg infections, common among paraplegics because of their inability to position their legs properly to avoid physical stress and bedsores, began plaguing him in 1985, four years after the car crash.

By early 1990, “he knew his time was coming,” John’s former high school coach John Wessel recalled in an Evansville Courier interview.

The infections worsened and John had both legs amputated in January 1991. “I went to see him in the hospital after that operation, and he had more grit and determination than the law allows,” Wessel said.

In October 1992, however, John Hollinden died of cardiac arrest brought on by complications from infections. He was 34.

USI students still celebrate John.

In the obituary story, Wessel recalled the trying days when his young Central High prospect’s unaccommodated rapid growth left most of us in the stands dismissing John Hollinden as a sideshow.

“There was a game during his sophomore year when he got ridiculed pretty good,” the coach said. “I tried to console him afterwards, but he said, ‘It’s OK, coach. Someday, they won’t.’ ”

Southern Indiana folks watched as a young man given the greatest reach ever in our near-religion of a game more than once found himself in that age old fix of his reach exceeding his grasp. While the more cynical among us kept giving up on him as a failed star, John Hollinden — when towering above us and then confined below — just kept figuring out how to reach in new directions.

Brian Arbenz, who once dreamed of being over 7 feet tall, today is contented to be a foot shorter than that while recalling the inspirational life of John Hollinden. Arbenz formerly worked as a sports writer in Southern Indiana.