George Altman and the Art of Living

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Nineteen-sixty-one began well for George Lee Altman. The year also looked positive for Jack Randolph Stein — my brother, Jack — the ballplayer’s best nine-year-old fan. Jack studied the newspaper box scores and memorized Altman’s statistics. He defended Altman to any “unbelievers” who might have preferred some other big league star. No defense, however, was needed in 1961: by baseball’s All-Star break Altman led the league in hitting. The 6’4″ black outfielder blasted a home run in the game. Only a better Cubs team would have made the world of George and Jack perfect.

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Ah, but the baseball gods are capricious and the long ball Altman drove over the fence proved the highpoint of his Major League career. After another All-Star year in Chicago he was traded to St. Louis and then to the New York Mets at a time when a ballplayer might be considered a “well-paid slave,” to quote Curt Flood about his own baseball career. But this story ends well so don’t lose heart. George Altman never did.

I offer you two stories here: one, a brief recounting of the life of an extraordinary athlete and man, and the other of a little boy who admired him. A tale, too, of the unexpected turns you meet if you live long enough.

Altman was 27-years-old in 1961, Jack at the age boys acquire heroes. Baseball permitted the love of a man of a different race in a way not allowed by almost any other public activities of the day.

Jack modeled himself after Big George. He adopted a similar left-handed swing of the bat; played the outfield as his hero did. My brother even hoped to spend time with him, something impossible after a ballgame in an ad hoc autograph line.

Jack wrote to the athlete at Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs. “Mom will cook you a meal of steak and beer,” he included as an enticement. No brewery inhabited our basement and no beer lived in our refrigerator, but the letter found its way out the door. Jack waited. The whole family waited and wondered.

My brother received a picture-postcard with Altman’s photo on one side and his autograph on the other. No mention of steak and beer. No comment at all.

A little history: George Altman played a part in advancing race relations in the United States. In 1947 Jackie Robinson, enabled by the Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager (Branch Rickey), broke the informal collusion among Major League Baseball’s owners to keep the game white: the color line. From Robinson’s arrival it took until 1959 — the same year George Altman joined the Cubs — before every team had at least one black man. Big George was among the last to play ball in the Negro Major Leagues (a gifted dark-skinned player’s only alternative to the barred door of the Majors). They began to unravel when some of their best athletes found jobs in the newly integrated big leagues.

A rough road greeted “colored” men (as they were then called) even if they did leap the first barrier. Salary was modest, most took off-season jobs to survive, and racism among some of their white teammates presented itself. Managers were all white and informal limitations prevented “too many” dark-skinned men from taking the field as “starters.” Blacks had to room with blacks, whites with whites. Segregated hotels sometimes separated the races further. Little inter-racial socialization happened after the game ended and, even in the dugout, the dark and light often sat apart.

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Altman had another superb season in 1962, but his trade to St.Louis left both the ballplayer and brother Jack disappointed. Injuries undercut much of Altman’s remaining time in the big leagues, but he eventually became a huge star in Japan for eight seasons. Even then, however, he was a person on the outside. No longer an African-American in a white world, nor a college-educated-man in a group of men of more limited learning, he became an American in Asia.

George Altman grew up in North Carolina. His mother died of pneumonia when he was four. Willie Altman, his dad, made a living as a tenant farmer who became an auto mechanic. The senior Altman could be a hard man, a man of few words and hidden feelings; one who didn’t encourage his talented son’s growing athletic success or attend his games. But the junior Altman gave his all to succeed at everything he tried, including the back-breaking labor of picking cotton and tobacco during teen-aged summers. Altman graduated from Tennessee State thanks to a basketball scholarship. He later became “semi-conversant” in Japanese during his playing days overseas, and a commodities trader at Chicago’s Board of Trade representing himself from the seat he purchased with some of his relatively high Japanese earnings. Along the way he beat down colon cancer.

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Before he left Chicago, George Altman started a chess club for young people and helped build the Better Boys Foundation. The 83-year-old continues a focus on high school-aged kids and combating the evils of drug abuse, but Chicago claims a special place in his heart.

The tall childhood hero once again came to Jack’s mind with the recent World Series Championship of the Cubs. Perhaps, he hoped, a 55-year-old meal ticket could be punched as well. Jack tracked down his 1960s idol and made a date to visit him near Altman’s Missouri home.

The men who broke baseball’s color line are thought of as having advanced the status of their race despite the initially punishing reception of white baseball. Surely this is correct, but not the whole story. They also served all Americans of the time, not only by displaying their particular genius for the game. Blacks were not just stereotyped, but invisible in mid-twentieth-century America: no black newscasters, no blacks in commercials, few blacks on TV or in the movies; and then, almost always in roles fueling the worst stereotypes of the time.

That changed with the vanguard of “Negro” baseball players. Even bigots now observed African-Americans in a new role, heard them speak in radio and TV interviews, and read human interest stories written about them. Unseen, anyone can be stereotyped. A man or woman in the flesh becomes a person, not so easily molded into an object of derision. The black athletes of Altman’s generation played baseball well, but they played a more important role in transforming America. The frozen, deformed national consciousness of people of color reformed because of their courage. We are better because of them, if still not perfect. We are better because of George Altman.

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Expectations nurtured over time become unspeakably high. The goal, once achieved, usually disappoints: too much pent-up anticipation. Not this. The still trim Altman met my brother at the appointed restaurant. The ballplayer didn’t remember the “steak and beer” invitation, nor did the pair dine on the menu items Jack had promised, but the 55-year-old wish was otherwise satisfied — and not only because of the former Chicagoan’s pleasure at the success of the World Champion players who wore the same uniform he did. Here is Jack’s voice:

After a while I brought up some of the tragedies he endured, from poverty to racial prejudice to his son’s death in a head-on collision with a drunk driver; the loss of his grandson, too. Despite all this, George is an absolutely positive guy who appreciates his life and how he handled his most difficult times.

Since George is not legendary ballplayer, he seemed surprised anyone would drive a long distance to spend a couple of hours with him over lunch.  He enjoyed my detailed interest in his career and the recollections we shared of some of his greatest games.  For me, as I have learned more about George from his autobiography and our meeting, the hero of a nine-year-old boy became his hero again at 64-years-of-age. It was a happy experience for both of us.

Responding to a note of gratitude from Jack, George Altman wrote this:

Jack,

I thank you for the honor of your visit this afternoon. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. You reminded me of some great experiences I had in baseball. Thanks for the memories. I’m honored that you would drive almost 700 miles (round trip) to have lunch with me. I am amazed at your knowledge of my career.

God bless you and your family.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Geo.

Where do resilience and grace come from? In the dedication of his autobiography, Altman first thanks God and then his mother, “whom I never really knew. Everyone who knew her said that she was a beautiful, kind, and loving person. I have tried to use her legacy as a guideline for my life.” Then he names his wife, Etta; children, relatives, and friends, all acknowledged for “their love, comfort, and support.” Last, gratitude is expressed to five coaches, perhaps father figures, individually identified. As John Donne famously wrote, “No Man is an Island.” Whether he knows the line, George Altman knows the lesson.

The Stein family, ca. 1960. Left to right in the front row, Jack, Gerry, and Eddie.

The Stein family, circa 1960. Left to right in the front row, Jack, Gerry, and Eddie.

Back in the childhood I shared with my brothers we never thought about players writing books or their lives in retirement. We were too busy watching those still active. The “stars” were, quite literally, in our eyes.

Mid-twentieth-century America presented an easy opportunity to believe in heroes. I mean the celebrated athletes of the time, especially baseball players. As Homer said of Trojan War combatants, some were “godlike” men. The human imperfections of anyone in the public eye today, however, have become inescapable. Each man’s and woman’s Achilles heel is x-rayed, dissected, and shamelessly exposed. We live in an age of full-frontal-news. We know more, but are perhaps poorer because of it.

And then there are George Altman and other people like him, quietly living out their lives. There are never too many: intelligent, decent, and hardworking; gifted, grateful and resilient. How many of us can stand comfortably on a pedestal erected by a worshipful nine-year-old? The 64-year-old version of that little boy, my brother Jack, would tell you he met one last year: a man who made a difference, the rare example of a life well-lived.

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Most of the information on George Altman’s life comes from his autobiography, written with Lew Freedman, George Altman: My Baseball Journey from the Negro Leagues to the Majors and Beyond. The second image above is Norman Rockwell’s, The Dugout, which appeared in the September 14, 1948 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. The painting well-symbolizes the futility of most of the Cubs teams my generation watched when we were growing up. The video tribute that follows is worth the attention of any baseball fan. After a number of vintage photos there are some wonderful clips of Altman in action. Younger fans will note how much Wrigley Field has changed over the years. The following dugout image includes, from left to right, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and George Altman. I do not know the names of the other players, but would be pleased to be informed by those who do.

What I Have Learned So Far: Life Lessons, Part I

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Long ago my maternal grandfather told me he missed the boat on his 1912 journey to the USA, trying to sail from England to America. He was late for the Titanic. My mom heard this in her own childhood, decades before movies like Titanic made such stories more common.

Grandpa was a warm, dashing, multilingual man; originally from Romania: the loving and lovable grandfather of one’s dreams. Leo Fabian was easy to look up to; and not only because he was over 6′ tall, slender, straight-backed, and imposing in an era of men of more modest presence. Grandpa owned a wonderful, rascally smile and enough charm to enchant a small village, a bit like Harold Hill in The Music Man. He was the life of the party.

Soon enough I learned that alcohol had been a nemesis never defeated, ruining him in the eyes of his son and much of the world. By the time I was a teen I saw my grandfather hungover, chagrined, and shrunken. My last memory of him is when he offered a weakened, but still welcoming smile for me, his oldest grandchild, from his hospital bed.

Of course, he was a story-teller. No surprise, the Titanic tale was unverifiable.

I think my informal education began with observations of Grandpa, who unintentionally provided me with lessons he never intended to teach. I learned that people with admirable qualities, even those full of love and humanity, can be grievously flawed. Moreover, I realized you can’t believe everything you are told, no matter how much you admire the teller. These were necessary lessons, cruel lessons.

We are carried through life in a flood of such instructions, some needful of learning, some wrong; some unlearned, never learned, or learned badly. All of us are lifelong students enrolled in the school of experiences, a university whose classes are taught in the midst of a vast river: now calmly flowing, now surging. Drop out and avoid experiences at your peril: little learning is found below deck, where the beautiful, sunny, glorious days on the water will also be missed. No perfect grades, either, even for those of us who man the sails and survive the episodes of seasickness.

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Since I’ve been on the voyage for a while I thought it might be useful to pass along some ideas not expressly taught, not usually written, and not often offered as sage advice. This is not exhaustive and not everything you will read here can be proven. Still, I began this blog with the idea of presenting ideas about life for my children and I now have a grandson who might profit from them (or run screaming into the night believing elders are best ignored). Here, then, for whatever value you assign, are off-beat bits of what I think I know:

  • I have met no one I thought to be completely evil, evil 24/7. We’d have an easier time identifying them if they were. Indeed, some of the least trustworthy folks were quite charming and generous. The world is full of gray tones. Still, dark gray is to be avoided.
  • Life lessons are often age-dependent. The lessons of youth apply to that time, the lessons of age to another time. Just as the customs of one country differ from another and must be used in the right place and moment, one should acquire the knowledge applicable to the period of life in which you live and use it in a timely way. Perhaps our learning ought to come with a “use by” date. Beware of employing old, once effective strategies which now fail with some regularity. We cannot “freeze dry” our lives. We must continue to adapt.
  • “Some people are so busy learning the tricks of the trade that they never learn the trade.” So said Vernon Law, the best pitcher in baseball in 1960 and a member of the World Series Champion 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates.
  • Fame, that is to say “celebrity,” is fleeting. Ask Vernon Law, still alive at 86. I’ll bet you don’t know his name unless you were a baseball fan 50 years ago or live in Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, I’d have loved to spend one day in Willie Mays’s skin in his prime, a contemporary of Mr. Law. I’m sure I’d immediately have become addicted to the excitement and adulation.

13 Oct 1960, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA --- 10/13/1960-Pittsburgh, PA: Photo shows the seventh game of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Vernon Law, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, is shown in mid-pitch action. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

  • “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” And just think, Oscar Wilde wrote this before Kim Kardashian was born.
  • If you believe everybody should be able to reason his way out of a paper bag, remember that half of the population has an IQ score below 100.
  • “If you want revenge, be sure to dig two graves.” An old Italian expression about the cost of undiminished anger.
  • The older you get the more time you spend on maintenance. Your body requests nothing when young, quietly obeying your every command, but recording your debt to it. The bill comes due later. By 29 I had to stretch before softball games. As I approached the age at which my dad had a heart attack (47) I began regular aerobic exercise to stay in shape. Stretching by now was a time-consuming daily event. Doctor visits, instances of physical rehabilitation, and occasional surgery enter the picture for many of us, jamming up the schedule. All of this happens gradually, little things accumulate. The change is both astonishing (because you didn’t think it would happen to you) and unremarkable (because you adjust to most of the nicks, scratches, and dents). Things wear out, something you knew abstractly, but hadn’t yet lived. Then you begin to have regular conversations with your friends frontloaded with physical concerns. You hear yourself making comments like this:

“The funniest thing happened yesterday, Steve. I was relaxing in front of the TV and — in the middle of everything — my nose fell off. Lucky for me, I caught it on the way down. A little glue and it looks like new, right?”

Of course, what is Steve going to say? That is, if he is able to speak. I wish I could pinpoint the exact date I turned into this person — like, perhaps, Tuesday, March 8 — but I can’t.

  • Even so, you will still think of yourself as about 20% younger than your real age (assuming you are over 40), perhaps explaining the frequent mismatch between the way people dress or wear their hair and what might be considered “age-appropriate.”
  • We are poor at affective forecasting: predicting our future feelings. An example: “When I make $10,000 more I’ll be happy.” Ask those who have won the lottery for the answer.
  • We are also bad at affective forecasting when it comes to negative events. Given enough time we tend to get over things. However, you might not want to wait months or years. The profession of psychotherapy depends on this, in part. There are also countless exceptions when no amount of waiting will lift you to a higher altitude. Psychotherapy is available for this, as well.
  • Some people, almost always men, succeed in life because they are like blunt objects with eyes, who see a door and keep banging on it until the door finally collapses. A number of women marry such a man thinking he will protect them. They admire his persistence or give in to his unrelenting will, though they aren’t emotionally drawn to him. You will also notice many of his kind on the political stage.

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  • Look around you. If you think we humans are rational at all times you haven’t been paying attention. By the way, you are human, therefore …
  • On the other hand, if we were absolutely rational we would be machines: I’d rather have love, even at the cost of heartbreak; joy, even at the cost of disappointment; pleasure at the cost of pain.
  • Time will change you or at least it should. More even than learning from experience, the body and brain do their own shape-shifting and gradually alter who you are. Some of what passes for wisdom is simply getting older, inhabiting a different physique with an altered mix of chemicals running around.
  • No matter how intelligent or physically attractive you are, a number of people won’t want to spend time with you. You will likely believe this is your fault. “Maybe I’m not funny enough, smart enough, well-proportioned enough,” you think to yourself. More often than you imagine, however, it is just because you part your hair the way their father did, a factor of which even they are unaware. Transference is everywhere, not only in the therapist’s office.
  • We all need some amount of compartmentalization and denial. Otherwise life is simply too much. Within limits, the ability to lose yourself in an activity as simple as reading a book or having fun at a party is a great gift. Self-consciousness, being preoccupied with your thoughts about yourself, demands an escape.
  • Sunny days can turn cloudy. I learned to look back and figure out when exactly my mood changed and thus determine what bummed me out. Unravel your discontent early enough in the day and you will sleep better.
  • If you provide friends with too much truth about themselves you are in danger of losing them. Provide them with too little, however, and they aren’t worth having and you aren’t being a good friend.
  • I discovered the generation gap around age 26. Lecturing at Rutgers University I mentioned Adlai Stevenson II. The statesman had died only about eight years before. Stevenson was twice the Democratic Party’s nominee for President and remained a prominent international figure at the time of his death. No one in the large lecture hall of undergraduates knew who he was. These days I find myself spending more time explaining what I’m talking about when I refer to the past.
  • A Bulgarian patient once said, “In the United States people live to work. In Bulgaria we work to live.”
  • I’m still learning. A Thursday night PBS interview of Vice President Joe Biden offered the following anecdote. Judy Woodruff asked him about his plans after leaving public service. Biden referred to issues about which he was still passionate and for which he intended to continue his work:

My dad had an expression: ‘A lucky person (is someone who) gets up in the morning, puts both feet on the floor, knows what he is about to do, and thinks it still matters.’

Biden remains, despite enormous life losses and setbacks, a happy man. By his father’s standard, he is lucky, indeed.

The top photo is The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz. Taken in 1907, it is among the most famous photographs in history. The lowest class accommodation was literally the lowest on the ship and those who were “upper class” did, literally, look down on you. My grandfather likely took his voyage on such a ship, but I have no idea where he was situated on the boat. The second image is called Life Buoy, the work of Shirley. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Pondering Gratitude and the Admirable, Imperfect Life of Morris Abram

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A boost to the spirits can come from an unexpected place, even an obituary. The March 17, 2000 account of Morris Abram’s life, as written by William Honan in The New York Times, included this:

Mr. Abram was a young lawyer in Atlanta specializing in railroad cases in 1949 when he began a 14-year struggle to overturn a Georgia electoral rule that gave disproportionate weight in primary elections to ballots cast in predominantly white rural areas at the expense of those cast by urban blacks. The rule perpetuated segregation in Georgia.

Mr. Abram felt the sting of the rule in 1953 when he sought the Democratic nomination for Congress from the Fifth District. He ran on a platform that urged the desegregation of schools and carried populous Fulton County, which includes Atlanta. But he lost two smaller rural counties that had disproportionate weight under the rule and lost the election.

Over the years Mr. Abram helped bring cases against the rule to the United States Supreme Court. On March 18, 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who had been briefed by Mr. Abram, argued the case before the Supreme Court. In a historic ruling, the court declared the rule unconstitutional because ”within a given constituency there can be room for but one constitutional rule — one voter, one vote.”

A remarkable story, then, both for the achievement and the time and persistence it took. Abram advantaged not only those who heard of him in his lifetime, but those who did not. Countless others benefit today. Abram’s name fades, but his work remains. Thanks to him we are closer to a country where “all men are created equal,” even if not yet close enough. As a friend of mine, Rich Adelstein, likes to say, we are all the beneficiaries of people we never met whose names we do not know.

Life, however, rarely stops in the moment you achieve something of genuine greatness or personal importance. Glory is fleeting, the river flows on. Abram faced many ups and downs in his future, professional and relational: failed jobs, marital problems, and more.

In 1973, Mr. Abram was told he had acute myelocytic leukemia. His fight against the disease impelled him to write an autobiography, The Day is Short, in 1982.

Abram lived another 18 years after publication of his story and died of something else. He was 81.

At the conclusion of The Day is Short, Abram offers this:

I have never been a cautious man, and in a good cause, I would be more willing than ever to take risks. As my remission continues, I notice that I am more inclined to consider the long-term consequences of my actions. But I know that time is limited, and I tend to be in a hurry. I am daily reminded of an ancient Hebrew text that says, ‘The day is short, the work is great … It is not thy duty to complete the work, but neither art thou free to desist from it.’

The work to repair yourself also repairs the world. Those who find therapy self-indulgent misunderstand. In making ourselves better we impact the life around us. Perhaps in not so grand a way as this small-town Jewish man’s 14-year struggle to right injustice, but a contribution still. Even Abram’s battle to defeat disease provides an example; as does his sense of urgency in doing his work because, as he reminds us, “the day is short.”

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Morris Abram was grateful for his usefulness to others, offering us still another lesson in how to live. Therapists benefit from their usefulness, too. All of you have my thanks for spending time with my words. I am heartened that you do.

I have been told there are those who look to me for answers, some for encouragement, some to enter one therapist’s mind. Perhaps you are drawn by an unaccustomed frankness about difficult and complicated topics. I hope you enjoy my peculiar slant on a variety of matters or my effortful attempt to achieve an artful turn of phrase. I am aware more than a few find comfort here and I am pleased to provide it when I can. Then too, I try to entertain.

I know my essays are sometimes unsettling. I would apologize, but I am indeed doing so knowingly, though not always with perfect tact. My intention is to get you to think in a new way. I hope I succeed from time to time. This virtual cubby-hole is designed as a safe and civil place in a world not always so. If my provocations do not shatter your trust in me — well — then I’ve accomplished my goal. I am on your side.

To those who feel dismissed in life, know that I and others like myself take you seriously. I think of you as I write. My effort is to speak to you as if we were face-to-face, eye-to-eye, without condescension. A handful of you are friends, some ex-patients, some fellow-bloggers. All of your comments are appreciated and frequently enlightening or touching. I’ve been lucky to make online friendships along the way because of them. All of you — silent or not, known to me or not — are welcome here.

Without people who pay attention to us there would be no therapists.

So thanks for taking me seriously, too.

The best of good wishes for the best possible New Year.

The top photo is called Heart of My Heart. It is the work of Koshy Koshy as unloaded by Jkadavoor to Wikimedia Commons.

A Most Unlikely Christmas Movie

Dr. Gerald Stein - Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago

When friends bring up their favorite Christmas movies, I never name the ones they mention.

Not for me, It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol or A Christmas Story, much as I like them all.

Return with me to the night before Christmas, 1955, the only time I ever spent out with my folks on Christmas Eve. Perhaps then you will understand.

I couldn’t have been more excited.

My folks and I were going to the new movie Ulysses starring Kirk Douglas; more famous these days as Michael Douglas’s father, or the father-in-law of Catherine Zeta-Jones.

I would have my parents to myself. My little brothers (much too small to go) were in the charge of grandparents. More remarkable, we would be eating out, a rare treat for the Stein family, where memories of the Great Depression forever justified frugality, stay-at-home meals, and the second-best of everything…

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How to Gain Control: Is It Worth a Cup of Coffee?

Too often we lack control. We lead our lives, dodge traffic, defer to a boss. Others seem to own all the power, including the traffic signal which tells us when to go and when to stay put. Those whose affection we want (or want to keep) have conditions for that love, stated or not, something they (not we) determine. But, we can take initiative; and, in our action, alter the landscape, make a difference: get some control. Combat feelings of helplessness.

The man in the brief video above, Karim Sulayman, is likely to give you encouragement, something always needed. Encouragement to take a chance and take control. Once spurred by his praiseworthy example, what then? What will we — the two of us — do with the “feel good” experience he offers? Will we be touched, but return to our daily lives unchanged, inert? Do we believe our voice is too small, too weak, too distant from the levers of authority?

I offer six specific ways to take action and be effective. This is outside my usual role here, but what I am about to suggest is within the ability of virtually all of you to act on, if you believe action is required to fight the status quo: to give you hope and to do some good.

The cost of a “freshly brewed,” medium size (grande) coffee from Starbucks is estimated at $2.39 as of today, in Illinois, my home state in the USA. This amounts to 1.93 GBP or 2.2 Euros. Within the reach, I hope, of all of you reading this. Yes, I’m about to ask you to do something with the monetary equivalent of a cup of coffee: to serve the good of some portion of the world that needs your good and mine, and that we (you and I) need for our own good.

Here are six of the many organizations which would benefit from your coffee-sized donation:

Doctors Without Borders

Committee to Protect Journalists

Southern Poverty Law Center

National Resources Defense Council

Equal Justice Initiative

Reach Out and Read

Many of you, I’m sure, are already doing your part. Many of you, I’m sure, are taking control of what you can, both to further your personal growth and repair the world. For those who might fall into my audience for this post, however, the following:

Turning away is possible. It is easy to set this aside and intend to address the matter tomorrow.  Someone else will take care of the problem, we think. My little effort won’t make a difference.

Edmund Burke thought otherwise:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Thanks to my friend Rosaliene Bacchus, Three Worlds One Vision, who made me aware of Mr. Sulayman’s video.

Returning to Therapy, Renewing Friendship, Starting Over, Fixing Things …

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The holidays are a time of both fond and aching remembrance of those who are absent: an estranged family member missing from the celebration, a once close friend silent, a therapeutic relationship over.

Ghosts.

Perhaps then is it time to begin again?

Our century is a “time vacuum.” You can buy everything except a 25th hour in the day. A lack of time combined with distance puts relationships at risk. Friends are more digitally available, but offer less physical presence. Gone are the school days providing hours of contact with our playmates and extra time together in the neighborhood.

Relationships beg for attention, but speak too softly to be audible in a world of carnival barkers pretending to be wisemen. The torch-carrier who wishes for human closeness might bring a spark, but lack the wood. The lonely woodsman hopes for a lightening-strike because he has no flame. Waiting comes and friendship goes … disappears.

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Funny how much effort we put into the maintenance of things and how little into the feeding and care of friendship. Time is set-aside for routine dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, mending, and replacing. The days are scheduled: Saturday means washing clothes, Sunday stipulates mowing the lawn, Monday is for watering plants. We get absorbed and stop thinking, a human condition to which we are all subject and which we all need.

Dutiful honor paid to the numbing maintenance routine blinds us to the implication of the toll taken on everything in the world, including our affections. All man-made things need renewal. Just as in the old days when mattresses were supported by ropes which needed regular tightening (as in the expression, “sleep tight”) so must the unseen cords binding us to each other be tightened. The unseen is easier to miss, the seen can’t be ignored. Habit takes over.

Our attention to physical things can be trancelike, done without consideration. Experts, handymen, and service contractors are available when we don’t know how to do the fixing ourselves. You take the car for repair or you go to the Apple Store for a new computer. E-mail might remind you the auto needs attention with a “tune-up special.” The computer signals its unhappiness by running slowly. Your spouse tells you marital counseling is necessary.

Who speaks for friendship and its tender sensibilities? Who speaks for a return to therapy?

Actually, the friend or the therapist might. I would call old patients on occasion, far from everyone and far from often, to see how they were doing, especially those who I thought (a bit like a car) might need a tune-up.

I understand however, I was not typical. Moreover, as I say, I didn’t do this often. Yet possibility exists in taking action, breaking with the customary. As Carlo Maria Giulini, the great symphony conductor said of himself, “I am an enemy of routine.” Thus, his performances almost always were full of intensity, never “phoned in.”  Possibilities exist if we envision the world anew.

Most of us wouldn’t think about letting the house get too cluttered or dusty, the sofa too frayed. We stretch in the morning, exercise before or after work, and check the iPhone. Not to mention performing the job for which we are paid and caring for our kids.

Frayed feelings are invisible. Emotions are hidden. Therapists are not psychic, friends even less so, and counselors can become surprisingly obtuse after their workday is done. The smoke detector does its electronic whine when the battery needs replacement. Distressed friends usually don’t give the same decisive alarm.

We take care of what is observable. Most of us want to look nice, want our residence to be welcoming. We try to keep things as they are: attractive. If I wear a hole in my shoe, as Adlai Stevenson II did during his 1952 Presidential Campaign, I get embarrassed and take it to the shoemaker. Friends are usually quieter than unintentionally air-conditioned footwear. Some are like the old soldiers described by General Douglas MacArthur. “Old soldiers never die,” he said, “they just fade away.”

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We assume the permanence of people and things. Marriage takes for granted our mate will remain young, fit, appealing. Yes, everyone understands age is a thief, but that is an abstraction. When the roses are in bloom and the kisses strike fire I dare anyone to really — really — believe the flesh is weak. Might we insist on better care of relationships if we thought they needed the same oversight that our sofa does, a piece of work whose fabric will wear out, whose springs will lose their spring?

My friend Nancy Pochis Bank is a chalk artist. She decorates chalkboard menus and buildings, creates murals — whatever you fancy. Nancy marries beauty to usefulness, making lovely things of the everyday. Many people wonder (and Nancy has heard this) why she employs such a temporary medium for her work, the effortful beauty she creates — knowing her magical product will disappear with the next day’s menu or a new rain?

The mistake we make, I think, is looking at Nancy’s craft as temporary and not realizing that our relationships (and all else) come with no greater guarantee of permanence. They are as vulnerable to destruction as Nancy’s outdoor art is to the weather. Like Nancy in creating her art, we are the art we create, we are the chalk ever-changing because it and we are exposed, vulnerable. Our friendships are, as well. Ignore them and they will be gone. Walk on them (like a sidewalk chalk-drawing) and you leave a mark. She says her work is a reminder to value that which is ephemeral.

Therapists are not identical to friends, of course. The form of contact is both intensified and limited. Counselors tend to require less special-handling than companions, though many patients fear not giving them enough. And, therapists incline toward welcoming you back, even if you left abruptly.

The desire for a second chance with estranged or neglected friends is driven by fond memory. With some you fell into an emotional ravine that hobbled and gobbled you up. Is another try worth the risk? Only you can say. Stranger things have happened than a joyous reunion. Perhaps you can sew your togetherness together anew.

Counselors discourage catastrophizing. Not everything is a matter of life and death and yet, everything is in the sense that it is temporary, as life is temporary. The holidays remind us that another year will end without some of those with whom we began it: work friends, close friends, neighbors, and yes, the irreplaceable people who fill the obituary pages.

You can take this as a dark message and flee or think about who you want in your life and what you can do; whether they are on good terms with you, out of your life, or drifting. The New Year is an ending and a beginning. The cycle round the sun ends. A new spin on the axis offers beginnings only if you make them happen.

The subject of relationship renewal brings to mind these T.S. Eliot lines from Little Gidding, the last of the set of poems he called Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Sometimes we learn things the second time around.

Friendship and therapy can be like that.

The top photo is of German Manga artists Asu and Reami,  known as DuO, at the Comic-fest in Munich on September 3, 2005. The next image is called Morning Fog at the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Both of these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons and are the work of Fantasy. The photo of Adlai Stevenson II won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Photography. William M. Gallagher, the photographer, wasn’t aware at the time he took it that it revealed a hole in the shoe on Stevenson’s right foot.

 

A Dozen Ways to Avoid Regret (and a Warning about Endless Therapy)

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When we suffer regret we are, by definition, occupied with the past. We lament things we did or didn’t do, time lost, vanished opportunities. Perhaps, however, it would be useful thinking about how to avoid regret going forward. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Recognize life’s limitations, learn from failure, and don’t stop trying. Anyone with imagination can think of several possible lives to lead, places to go, experiences to pursue. If  you are honest you can even envision a different spouse or children, no matter your great good fortune in those you have. Thus, the world is like a candy store in which only so much consumption of sweets is possible, to borrow a metaphor from Haruki Murakami and Forrest Gump. The earlier you recognize this the more you are forced to refine and narrow your choices. Moreover, you must reach for some of those candies without ever having tasted them and before obtaining experience in how to grasp each one artfully, a guarantee of mistakes. We can only learn from disappointments and try again. Live your values as best you can: dive deep into those few candied heaps of life you deem worth the effort in the short time permitted. Don’t end your days saying, “I should have” or  “Why did I waste my time on … ” Or, worst of all, “Why didn’t I?” Michael Jordan, basketball hero, said:

I’ve missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games.Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

  • Improve your choices. Moving through life, take stock, reflect. Write down your analysis, perhaps every five or 10 years. Look where you’ve been, where you are, and where you would like to go. I’m talking about what career you might still pursue, what you’d like to learn about, how much of yourself you hope to devote to relationships, what personal characteristics you still wish to alter, where you’d like to live, what you’d like to see, and the legacy you might leave behind. No one can do everything, be everything. Too much candy, too little time, too much indigestion.
  • Since we can’t invent more hours, we are left to determine how best to spend our allotment. If you hope to become World Champion in the art of perusing and responding to tweets, stop reading this now. You are wasting minutes you could devote to your curious focus on 140 characters or less. For myself, I watch TV/video less than an hour a day on most days, except for those in the baseball season! Why? Because I value the time spent in the company of fine novelists, historians, and ancient philosophers more than what is on the tube. Some of this might strike you as elitist, but no. Literature isn’t automatically “superior” to TV, film, or theater. I’ve simply made a choice: my personal preference. You can find superb TV shows if that is what you believe is a good use of your day. I’m suggesting you think through choices. Assuming you are mature, the most satisfying life possible for you will be a life designed by you — not a consequence of habit or the persuasion of advertising, the boss, or friends. Quiet consideration of how you spend your waking hours is essential to the success of your plan, especially if you are not happy.
  • Be active, take risks, always seek to grow. Some of these endeavors will assume the form of self-disclosure and vulnerability, some the shape of honest self-reflection, some the act of trying new things. The courage to know yourself and then be yourself is never easy. The ground is shifting under all of us. Move, don’t sit still. Reinvent yourself, at least a bit. Proceed, don’t rush, but live with intensity. Walter Pater wrote:

To burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

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  • Be wary of bucket lists. I’m referring to the postponement of activities until late in life, the things you want to do before you begin residence below ground. Several problems come with delay: a) you might not live long enough. b) if you are forever looking forward you won’t live in the moment and experience joy in the now. c) bucket lists assume excellence at predicting what will bring fulfillment in 10, 20, or 40 years. We are poor at this. Research on “affective forecasting” (being able to predict how life events will influence our emotions) affirms the weakness. Richard Posner, in his book Aging and Old Age, puts the dilemma of anticipating our future self this way. Say we sentence a 20-year-old to life in prison. Are we punishing the same person when he is 65? That is, does a man change over time? Possibly deepen, mature, give up old hobbies and take on new ones, learn more; become enriched and transformed by love or literature or experience, turn grateful or embittered, for or against life? Unless we can predict the manner in which events and people will work on us and how we will work on ourselves, we might realize a long postponed trip to Paris would have been better in life’s springtime; or, in my case, a Chicago Cubs World Series victory would have meant more to me at 20, when I lived and died by the team’s fortunes, than it did in 2016. By the way, I didn’t plan on morphing into a less avid fan. I simply changed.
  • Regret can be a result of idealization. As Janet Landman observes in her book, Regret: The Persistence of the Possible, this emotional state is akin to the aftermath of a decision made at a fork in the road. We reach the divide and must choose. Proceeding down the chosen path, past the time of easily retracing our steps, we think: “I was mistaken. The other way was better.” But really, do we know?  We only understand the lived experience of the choice we made. The other avenue is easy to idealize because it exists in imagination, because we didn’t encounter the imperfections one can only suffer by a different choosing. Do you wish to spend a lifetime lamenting a mirage?
  • Ask whether there is another side to losses, mistakes, and missed opportunities. I am not Pollyanna. Few who read my writing regularly would think so, I suspect. I will say, however, that I have learned far more from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” than from any other source. Not every mistake can be rationalized, not every loss offers even close to equal compensation in some other form. But before you devote the rest of your days to regret, take a few moments to seek what can be learned from life’s hard and unequal distribution of pain. Perhaps you can create some good out of your awareness of those things you did or didn’t do, the words you said or didn’t say, the chances missed and the poorly chosen roads endured — if not for yourself, then for someone else.
  • Remember that research says you will be happier if you take newfound money and buy a cup of coffee for a stranger than if you use the gift for yourself. King Midas wasn’t a happy guy, was he? Take a hard look at your desire to gain triumphant, towering status and wealth.

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  • Be careful how much time you spend looking back. I am on thin ice in saying so. A good therapist begins with history. The untying of binding emotional knots is essential, often requiring discovery of how they came to be, where they remain, and more. Danger exists, however, in believing every knot requires attention, every cognitive or behavioral change demands agonizing soul-searching. Some will loosen with the passage of time, others aren’t too important. CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) is able to master many without endless and wrenching historical probing. Meanwhile, weigh the time spent on a backward focus versus possible gains from attention to the now via action. Curtail whatever retrospective view isn’t essential to making a satisfying life. Is this avoidance, cowardice? Only sometimes. Psychotherapy in-depth encourages a seemingly perpetual return to the bottomless gorge of your memory-distressed soul until you dredge up every dark thing at its floor. Sometimes we must put an end to reruns and begin a new season in the installment series of our lives. Your therapist might urge digging deeper. He may be correct. I’m here to say — on reflection — my patients sometimes knew when to stop when I didn’t.
  • Is there room for gratitude? Such a sentiment is hard to summon in the midst of despair, maybe impossible. The practice of routinely reminding yourself what is good can, nonetheless, diminish sadness much of the time.
  • Time is always moving forward and doesn’t permit time-travel for do-overs. Those facts set the stage for regret. Not because you made horrible mistakes, but because you are human and were thrown into a set of unalterable physical laws (as are all of us). The best way we can deal with what nature offers is to make good use of the present and plan for the future, even though the person for whom we are planning (our future self) may not be as thrilled as we hope with the baton we pass him. Regret is inevitable because our genetic inheritance keeps us unsatisfied, always seeking more and better. Those early humans without such ambitions — those who were easily satisfied — didn’t survive, nor did their offspring become our ancestors. Evolution enabled the perpetuation of our forefathers’ genes in the form of their progeny, but offered no guarantee of joy in our status, our mate, or our job. Regret, therefore, is built into who we are: restless creatures still driven by the biological imperative to behave in a way that increases the chances of our genes surviving, even past our reproductive years.
  • Learn to forgive yourself. You cannot do everything, you will never be perfect, you will disappoint and injure others, your imprint on the planet will (unless your last name is Will Shakespeare or Hawking or Beethoven) be small. We are always learning and forever changing course. Do your best, try to do better, and leave it at that. Life is punishing enough for most of us without volunteering for the cross and offering to hammer in the nails, to boot. As a Christian colleague occasionally told her patients, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”

You need the wood, too. Take the timber and carve a sculpture or draw a lovely image or build a house; or burn it to keep yourself and another good human warm. Leave the job of summing up your life to history, assuming history cares.

In my book that is enough.

The top painting is Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet. The second photo is Sunset Over the Vercors Mountains, Seen From Grenoble by Guillaume Piolle. Finally, Sunrise with Reeds in Winter is the work of Benjamin Gimmel. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.