Are You the Perfect Therapy Patient?

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The blogosphere is full of worried therapy clients. They believe they are “not enough:” not interesting enough, not clever enough, not progressing fast enough. What then are therapists looking for? Are worried patients right to be worried?

Research is limited. An over 50-year-old model based on a survey of 377 counselors by William Schofield revealed what was believed to be the perfect client — the so-called YAVIS prototype: one who is young, attractive, verbal, intelligent, and successful. Schofield saw this as a bias toward patients who exhibited these traits, not careful science identifying those who actually were best suited to treatment. Psychotherapy was then a male-dominated profession, perhaps also contributing to a preference for female clients.

Psychologist Paul Meehl, among others, critiqued this model. He feared practitioners would make “hidden” or biased decisions toward YAVIS therapy candidates and against those who were not YAVIS. A counselor might, for example, work harder with YAVIS individuals because he thought them more likely to benefit from treatment. A self-fulfilling prophecy in other words. By the same token, the mental health professional would perhaps instinctively recommend medication for someone who, according to the YAVIS model, was not typical of those who profit from “talk therapy.” The YAVIS syndrome raises the possibility of other biases, not all of them conscious, including the possible refusal to take on patients of certain racial, ethnic, or socio-economic groups.

We don’t know who today’s mental health professionals would pick for their ideal client. Nor do we understand what attitudinal differences toward patients exist among practitioners depending on their own personal characteristics. Do older clinicians, for example, prefer different kinds of clients than younger ones? Do male counselors hold the same patient preferences as female therapists?

I’ll offer a few thoughts on the broad subject of “ideal” patients. No gospel is here offered, just one person’s ideas. I’ll start by considering the YAVIS profile:

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YOUNG: Let’s set age 40 as our arbitrary limit on “youth.” Let’s also stipulate that you can be “old” before your time. Meaning what? Too set in your ways, rigid in attitude and behavior, closed to new ideas and risk-taking. By this standard, youth holds the advantage of openness to change. Moreover, those clients who are “too old” have an increased likelihood of experiencing regret that cannot be erased by future action: the inevitable foreclosure of some opportunities in life when we pass the “use by” date on our early, fleeting talents. I’m speaking not only of career possibilities (athletics is an obvious example), but regret over having been a poor parent to offspring who are now adults. The absence of children would be another loss for women of a certain age who desired off-spring of their own flesh.

We can come to terms with some of our past errors, but we don’t always get a “do over.” Youth, therefore, owns the advantage not only of its openness to change, but a plethora of doors not shut to entry. Yes, there are other avenues to pursue for most of us who are past our physical prime, yet they are now different and fewer in number.

ATTRACTIVE: Although one might discuss this characteristic in several ways, I will opt for the obvious: a patient who is sexually appealing. I would be lying if I said I never noticed a beautiful new client in the waiting room. A colleague described the “energy” within the office when treating such a person, at least on early visits. The energy he spoke of was his own.

While feminine beauty has a potential downside (read Beautiful and Smart but Unlucky in Love), a male therapist can unconsciously work hard at his profession to achieve an appealing woman’s approval.  The man might seek a beguiling female’s admiration unaware of what is driving him: captured by his senses but not his sense. The counselor, however, should give his best for every patient. His first steps toward reducing bias are to recognize the danger, look at his reaction to a beautiful new client, and be certain he gives equal effort to all. Indeed, this was possible even though some women made obvious attempts to draw my attention or offered themselves to me as sexual companions.

Experience and conscientiousness, not to mention adherence to professional ethics, reduce a client’s distracting physical desirability. Moreover, I discovered — as I suspect you have — that my perception of another’s external qualities changed as I got to know them. Some become more attractive, others less. A few days ago on a New York subway I noticed myself looking at a rather plain (to me) young woman sitting opposite me. Lost in her thoughts, she had the most touchingly pensive expression concentrated in the unconscious, tender positioning of her mouth. Put differently, a good therapist can find almost all his patients attractive. Indeed, we look for the best in people on every level.

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VERBAL/INTELLIGENT: In talk therapy — a treatment involving many words — an inarticulate client is a challenge. I recall a bright man who lacked verbal fluency and had a limited education. He progressed well, but the demands on me to understand ideas and emotions he could not express with ease made treatment challenging. I was able to overcome the obstacles, in part, because of his patience and my persistence. Just so, those whose intelligence is below average may have trouble understanding concepts like transference. On the other side, one also deals with individuals lost in their own intellectual/verbal juggling act — preoccupied with the word play in their heads. A different form of challenge, then. Still, a therapist prefers a patient with a decent command of language.

Understand please, I’m not referring to those who are afraid to be open with their feelings and thoughts, but rather men and women with difficulty expressing themselves while trying hard to do so. Fear of self-disclosure is a different story. Counselors find female patients are generally more comfortable revealing their emotions, no small point when the individual comes to treatment because of mood issues. Thus, the therapist faces some clients frightened to say what they feel, others who don’t have the words to make themselves clear, and a few who struggle with both. The clinician does his best regardless.

SUCCESSFUL: A lack of “success” can prevent the patient from affording treatment, adding an additional hurdle to the therapeutic project. Many clients, however, came to my office thinking themselves unsuccessful. Some were correct from an objective, financial standpoint. An absence of success as defined in the materialistic USA is no automatic impediment to a good psychotherapeutic result. Success did, however, sometimes signal I was in the presence of a person who had surmounted past life challenges, and therefore predicted a capacity to take on those emerging in therapy. To me, high accomplishment by itself never meant the course of treatment would be easy. Indeed, some of the wealthiest clients I met were poor patients, often because of ballooning egos and a narcissistic inability to look into the mirror and witness an accurate reflection.

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What else made a client into a promising therapeutic prospect in my mind?

  1. MOTIVATION: In the best case these folks led the therapy, doing everything they could to make their lives better. More often it was enough if they were responsive to homework assignments, thought about the sessions rather than forgetting them after they were over, brought in issues for discussion, and recognized treatment needed to be a joint effort, with two people pulling the same sledge to a better place.
  2. OPENNESS AND A LACK OF RESISTANCE: Some clients fight the therapist, summarily discounting any ideas or interpretations suggested by him; reflexively saying “I’ve already tried that.” They were like giant tin cans in human form, well-versed in how to resist the can opener, aka the doctor. The best clients are emotionally available or learn to trust the clinician enough to permit a gradual revelation of difficult issues and feelings. They don’t make the “fifty-minute-hour” into a battle.
  3. CONSISTENT ATTENDANCE AND PAYMENT: Regularly missing sessions makes it impossible to get anywhere. Woody Allen denies saying “Ninety percent of life is showing up,” but (whoever said it) there is truth in the expression, even if one might disagree with the exact percentage. With respect to payment, a counselor doesn’t want money to be an issue between himself and his client. Many accept either pro-bono or sliding-scale patients who pay nothing at all or something less than the customary fee. Others will let clients in difficult circumstances run up large tabs. Usually you get paid at some future time, sometimes you get stuck. Such is life, but again, if a therapist has a choice, he’d prefer to deal with what makes sense, not cents.
  4. THE ABILITY TO TOLERATE DISCOMFORT: Change is rarely easy. The more damaged the patient, the more courage required. As a mental health professional you bring people along slowly not to overwhelm them. Nonetheless, therapy is a challenge and at least a bit of heroism is necessary.

What is left to say? It’s all very good to minister to a “perfect” client, but most therapists don’t waste time dreaming of that impossibility. By definition we receive those who are struggling. The entry to my office didn’t resemble an amusement park ride with a height requirement and a linear measure to make certain you were tall enough.

Sublimely well-functioning creatures, if there are any, don’t seek mental health professionals, nor do counselors have a waiting room runway for beauty pageant contestants. If patients were motivated, hard-working, communicative, showed up without urging, and were open to the challenge and pain of the process; then, in general, I had all I needed to do my best work. A sense of humor was a bonus. Most counselors are patient and don’t believe in miracle cures. Nor do we need to be entertained.

Hang in there. Do your considerable part. Misguided therapists surely have dumped patients in an unfortunate fashion, but this is rarer than suggested by tragic internet stories. Even if you don’t see over the hill yet, keep going. I never treated a walking, talking, human work of artistic perfection, a painting of Monet or Rembrandt in the form of a mortal being. If you were “ideal” I never got to meet you, in or out of the office.

Mental health professionals are not like the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, holding his lantern in a fruitless search for an honest man. We do not make our own nightly, flash-lit quest for a perfect patient.

Since no ideal therapist exists, neither is an ideal client required to achieve the best that therapy can do. Indeed, I learned far more about courage from imperfect patients than they ever learned about it from their imperfect therapist: me.

The first image, Lilium Pink Perfection, is the work of Ulf Eliasson. The second photo displays Claire Parker with Her New MGI Crown, photographed by Ecprpageantnews. A Portrait of Albert Einstein by Hermann Struck follows. All of these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The final image is a cartoon figure long associated with the game Monopoly.

 

An “Ode to Joy” in a Difficult Moment

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For those searching for joy (and who isn’t), I offer a musical destination. For those searching for defiance — making a statement — I offer the same music, played differently. In both cases the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. You’ve heard it before even if you don’t know it. TV admen for cars and toothpaste made sure.

In a lifetime of listening, the most joyous performance known to me was played by the Boston Symphony under the direction of Charles Munch on April 27, 1956. You might have been brought to tears or thrilled by this music before — and this rendition is thrilling — but, the combustible singers and players, “drunk with fire” in the words of Schiller used by Beethoven, generated an unexpected smile impossible to prevent even if someone paid me to be grim. I’ll give the source below, if you care to put your money where my grin is.

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Unfortunately, not only admen and women turn musical art into a tool. Politicians do too. The Ninth was used in Hitler’s Nazi domain to celebrate his birthday, putting the requested performers in a dilemma: to play or not to play, that was the question. One man in particular gave a peculiar, but memorable response. He played the Ninth, especially the finale’s “Ode to Joy” — including heavenly words about a time when “all men become brothers” — as if to transform the celebration into something joyless, toxic, and dystopian. Indeed, until you experience it, you cannot think this piece could be played in this way. Of course, the conductor was already faced with something beyond imagining: the corruption of the most civilized nation of his time, one he called home.

Here is what Michael Tanner wrote about the concert in notes to a CD of the complete performance:

In April, 1942, (the conductor Wilhelm) Furtwängler was tricked by Goebbels into conducting this work on the eve of the Führer’s birthday in Berlin, something he had always managed to avoid before. Try as he would to insist that he was unwell, had commitments in Vienna, and so on, he was forced to take part and conduct it. … And in the last movement, after stupendous ecstasies and paens, the unspeakable happens: Furtwängler always accelerated wildly for the closing bars, suggesting a barely controlled excitement. But on this occasion the last bars are a nightmare of nihilism, a stampede towards the abyss, such as I have never heard in any other music. It is as if Furtwängler is doing what Thomas Mann’s fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn says he will do in Dr Faustus: take back the Ninth Symphony, because all the hope and aspirations of the noble side of humanity have come to naught. But instead of writing a new piece to negate the Ninth, Furtwängler does the unthinkable and revokes the work by the way he plays its own ending.

Tanner is not the only person with this opinion. Lynn Rene Bayley wrote in Fanfare Magazine, “Even if he was not really trying to hurl Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the face of Hitler, one definitely gets the feeling that, in his mind on that day, this “Ode to Joy” had become an act of defiance, almost distorting the music (and words) to produce an almost apocalyptic vision of the score. In short, one gets the feeling that Furtwängler was not certain whether he, or German art, would survive the Nazi horror, the war, and the Holocaust.”

Hyperbolic? You can be the judge, since the last four minutes of the performance are preserved below. But do find a way to listen to the piece in some other performance, too. The abyss is not a friendly place.

The top photos are of Charles Munch, the second being the cover art for the joyous performance I lead with. The recording of the Munch/Boston Symphony performance is produced by the St. Laurent Studio, catalogue #YSL T-315. The CD includes a rendition of Roussel’s Piano Concerto and only the finale of the Beethoven. Trust me, you won’t feel shorted by the absence of the first three movements. It can be obtained directly from St. Laurent Studios. Note that prices are in Canadian currency. It is also available here.

When Words Fail

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There are times, whether in therapy or in life, when words are inadequate. Listening to a story of heartbreak, sometimes my heart broke a little, too. If my patient watched me carefully (no failure on his part if he didn’t), he saw the tears in my eyes. Words would have intruded on what was happening between us. In a sense, the air, the touching contact of our eyes — the silence — did that which could be done.

This moment in US history cries — and cries out — for a response, but too many words have already been written and spoken. I am reminded of the composer John Cage, a wry and brilliant man. His most famous piece is entitled 4’33.” The composition consists entirely of silence. Quiet is appropriate for mourning, is it not?

Whether in words or in silence, compassion only goes so far. Expressed opinion only goes so far. But the emotional shards need removal, thus grieving comes first for most of us.

The work of therapy begins with the processing of pain. Sadness often robs us of motivation. Fear can paralyze. There are more catastrophes predicted than realized. Unrestrained anger turns you into the thing you hate. Rage is a motivator, but not easily prolonged or healthily maintained. No psychologist would urge you to try.

What then? Prior to counseling’s end you must change yourself if your goal is to change the world, whether one’s small personal globe or the bigger one.

Marcus Aurelius wrote,

The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s … it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.

Like the wrestler we take a breath, search our ingenuity, and get up when we have been thrown to the mat.

A return to the fight is essential whether in therapy or life. Action — exerting control of what you can control — defeats the sense of helplessness.

In therapy and in life we are called to heroism. Courage is required to take on uncomfortable truths, beginning with those about ourselves. Difficult actions must follow. No heroism is needed to pour gasoline on your heart and light a match. Reason is your friend; emotion, not always.

Take responsibility and act responsibly.

Nor does one profit by the simple wish for a result, a passive hope for a change, or a patient wait for others to lift you. Freedom from your demons, in therapy and in life, must be won.

Our demons teach us who we are and what we are made of. Are they perhaps, in this way, our friends? Do we owe a peculiar debt to our challenges? You cannot think otherwise when you watch your 14-month-old child learn to master his universe, but you can when you have been decked. Regardless, whatever we want we must make it so.

Therapy is not an endeavor of a few weeks or months if the goal desired is substantial. Whether in therapy or in life you will succeed only if you persevere. Expect setbacks. Whether in therapy or in life, many make a fast start out of the gate, but fade before the stretch run. The finish line is not achieved and the problems then persist. Lasting dedication of your entire spirit triumphs over both temporary grievances and passing enthusiasms. No distractions are permitted for the true of heart.

Cato said:

When Cicero spoke, people marveled. When Caesar spoke, people marched. … Good judgment without action is worthless.

Whether in therapy or in life the voice is yours, the choice is yours, and the action must be yours.

The painting above is The Silence by Johann Heinrich Füssli. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Keep Yourself in Check: How Insecurity is Fueled by Over-apology

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In my essay on Signs of Insecurity, I wrote the following, here paraphrased:

The self-doubting person tends to apologize when no apology is necessary. It is as if she expects to be reproached or is afraid to give offense; so, she prophylactically tries to excuse any possible mistake to avoid such a response.

Equally, answering a question with an upward inflection of the voice betrays uncertainty. The name given to the practice is “upspeak.”

The problem with these behaviors is that they telegraph vulnerability to those who would take advantage of you. Bullies are good at “reading” your actions if you begin waving a white flag. Otherwise they aren’t that smart.

Social interactions can be a kind of test, true enough. Even when not intended, lots of questions about you are being tentatively answered by the ones who care to pay attention, though not everyone does so until we give them reason to.

Among those questions:

  • Is he intelligent?
  • Does she like me?
  • Do we share interests?
  • Am I making a proper impression?
  • Is this individual naïve or street smart — too trusting for his own good?
  • And only sometimes: can I take advantage of him or her?

Note the presence of questions your conversation partner is asking about himself, as well.

The last two of the items listed are the ones offering a narcissist, a bully, or a sociopath the opportunity to bend you to his will. Most of us don’t wish to be thought of as pushovers in any sense. The gaze of someone strong-willed can make the insecure cower — turn the belly to jelly. He is defeated already. Fearing the unproven strength of the other, a fetal position is taken, as if to say, “Please don’t hurt me! I surrender. I won’t resist.” Now he has you. The “kick-me” sign on your bottom is evident, if invisible.

We all set our own price, put a sticker on ourselves that says, “Here is what I am worth.” Everyone is afraid of something, perhaps many things, but advertising the cheapness of your purchase price — in the hope of an unmade promise of safety — is not advisable. Your self-offering as a sacrificial lamb comes without a guarantee except the one you give.

The assumption is that if we apologize in advance — for who we think we are, for less than perfect language, or lack of knowledge — then criticism, being yelled at, or challenged will be avoided. Wrong.

First, you are overestimating the chances of severe reproof. Second, by admitting your flaws unasked, you state, in effect, “Keep on the lookout for my foolishness, ignorance, and weakness.” Without this — trust me — most won’t recognize any such inadequacies, imagined or real.

While we are being evaluated —if we are being evaluated — the judges are looking for big signs, not small ones: the kinds of markers you can’t miss even at a  distance, like the huge letters on Trump Tower in Chicago. Regular people don’t use instant replay. They aren’t equipped with a slow-motion, zoom-in button, at least not yet. The person facing you cannot recognize a bit of perspiration or hear a slight tremulousness. When you identify yourself as insecure, however, he doesn’t need an interpreter with a PhD. in clinical psychology. You have told him straight out. You may as well raise your hand or request a spotlight. You gave away your power for pocket-money. To paraphrase Emerson, instead of saying, “I am,” you are saying, “I am not.”

In the title to this essay I suggested an alternative, a way to avoid quick psychological exposure. It is both simple and difficult. One needn’t possess heroic self-confidence to do what I’m about to advise.

You must be quiet.

Don’t kneel and you won’t need to get off the floor.

Practice (in your head) stuffing the viperous, reflexive, unrequested apology when the serpent tries to escape your throat. The creature can be tamed. The more you do it, the better you get. Before too long people will forget all or much of what you previously revealed to them about your insecurity. Break the routine. Especially among those who don’t know you, more respect will be offered.

Did I hear you say, “I can’t”? Ask yourself whether your strategy of anticipatory self-criticism is working. “Maybe I’d be treated worse if I didn’t apologize.” Ah, but if your method is a good one, you wouldn’t be reading this, would you? The failure of my simple solution might, however, suggest therapy is needed.

Bottom line: don’t invite others to disrespect you by telling them you disrespect yourself.

The photo at the top is a Schademask or Shame Mask. This one comes from Burg Waldburg, Germany. Wearing such masks was a community-instituted punishment once upon a time. The photographer is Andreas Praefeke and the image is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“Do They Still Play the Blues in Chicago?” Cue Up the Post-World Series Blues

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I am about to rain on the victory parade, but with a smile. I offer a few thoughts on the psychology of experiencing the first Chicago Cubs World Championship since 1908. Plus a word of condolence to the Cleveland Indians and their fans.

  1. Enjoy this now, Cubs Nation. Unless you are all immortal witch doctors, you will not be present at the first rainfall after another 108-year drought. The rain delay in Cleveland was a reminder.
  2. The faithful who gathered near Wrigley Field while the game was played elsewhere are a dedicated bunch. They paid attention to the score, drank, worried, talked, stood, cheered, and chafed their hands from overuse in prayer. They thought about the dead relatives who wore out their bottoms waiting in the station for the victory train that never came. They wept when the contest ended. To paraphrase what someone on Facebook wrote, “I guess now we have to start dating again.”
  3. My last post suggested rabid fans get to attach to something bigger by saying “we’re number #1” and holding up giant foam-rubber hands with the index finger extended. Well, who am I to take their joy away? I do realize, however, much as I’m pleased the Cubs won, “we” watchers didn’t achieve the victory: “they” (the players) did. Don’t believe me? Ask the boss for a 15-million-dollar annual salary, guaranteed for the next seven years, because of your contribution to the championship season.
  4. What is possible after the impossible? Red Smith, famous baseball writer, wrote about a different game in 1951: “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”
  5. If the Cubs are more than a pastime for you, if you were resurrected from a miserable existence by the 2016 team, your life might just have peaked. Yes, the glow will only fade slowly, perhaps not disappearing until Thanksgiving or Christmas. Or maybe it will vanish on November 8, Election Day, and the inescapable reality of US political problems.
  6. Even if the Cubs win more championships, the experience of last evening was like lots of other “firsts:” first kiss, first child, first wedding. Magic isn’t easily duplicated.
  7. Rooting for the Chicago National League Ball Club, LLC guaranteed you a like-minded group of people who all shared the belief that no matter how fresh the carton appeared in the refrigerator, the milk would curdle as soon as you tried to pour a glass. To the good, however, you had millions of other humans for commiseration. You will now need either different things to lament or a personal surrender to optimism and a change in your philosophy of life. Yes, being positive is a tough job, but someone has to do it.
  8. You thought tickets to Cubs Park were expensive before?
  9. Listen to the old Peggy Lee song, Is That All There Is? Cubs fans are now like the dog which chased the fire truck its whole life and finally caught the big red machine, looked around, and thought “now what?”
  10. Hell just froze over, but was bumped from the front page by the Cubs victory.
  11. Everything happens for a reason. I thought I’d throw in this quotidian thought, since no matter the life event you are describing you can always utter the phrase. You could also say everything happens for a raisin, the wrinkly kind. If God didn’t have something better to do than decide it was finally time for the Cubs to become winners, he wasn’t paying attention. Can you receive an ADHD diagnosis and still be the deity? A rhetorical question.
  12. Here is another consideration on the subject of gods and reasons: atheist Cubs fans now own one less of the latter to justify their belief an all-powerful and all-good being can’t possibly be in charge. Cleveland Indian rooters who were religiously faithful until today will be seen fleeing the house of worship of their choice. Or going back in to pray harder. They now claim 68-years without a baseball crown.
  13. Don’t take any of the above too seriously. Except the part about enjoying the moment. Cheers, in every sense.

The photo of the 2016 Cubs World Series celebration is the work of Arturo Pardavila III as sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Fidelity and Infidelity in Love and Sports: Is Being a Fan Like Being in Love?

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I’ve known serially unfaithful men who were also among the most loyal and devoted people on the planet. A contradiction? They were untrue to their spouses but lifetime cheerleaders for a different “one and only”: a sports team. Please follow along as I consider this paradox. Perhaps we can learn both a bit about romance and about being a dedicated male fan in the process. I’ll use baseball as my example, but you are free to substitute the competitive team physical activity of your choice.

Most of us fall in love for the first time with a ball team. One of our parents, usually the dad, leads the way. We bond with him, try to please him, want to become him. He takes us out to the home field and we are dazzled by the immensity of the stadium/stage for the physical theater about to unfold. Our innocent devotion to the parent leaches into an attachment to the team he also loves. Virtually every die-hard fan can remember the first time he went to the ball yard and with whom. The experience, like meeting a first-love romantic partner, is unforgettable.

Before long we join our playmates in some version of the same game, all the more to identify with our fathers, older brothers, and the players on TV. We bond to friends through shared love for the sport and being on the same team, pulling together, praying to the same baseball god. Sports is like a civic religion, as many have written: something bigger than yourself, outside yourself.

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The crowd’s roar is intoxicating. Goose bumps. When we play the game, the full-bodied effort of running, stretching, leaping, diving, sliding, and swinging is as “in the moment” as life gets, as love gets. The day is warm, the wind is cool. The physicality of the in-person experience, whether on the field or in the stands, is not sex, but consumes the body and enlivens us, as sex does. They both involve a sweaty intensity.

Fandom and romantic love put us in jeopardy, as well. We give our heart to someone or something else. In a sense, we have no control, certainly none in the case of our team’s performance. Well, at least if you are in love with a person you can sometimes influence the destiny of your affair or marriage. Ecstasy and agony are part of the standard rations of fans and lovers.

Remember those early dates with your heart-throb — the anticipation and the preparation, the clock-watching as the time came closer? Not so different from a fan’s mental state before a big game. The urgency of seeing the hero, being next to the young gods, hoping to get an autograph or a photo proves the preoccupation.

Unlike love, however, the worshiped participants on the playing field are forever young. Even when fan favorites age and retire we transfer our loyalty to a replacement, but still a member of the same squad. Our spouses, however, are not ageless. Nor are we, of course, yet we delude ourselves into thinking so. Listen to the out-of-shape, middle-aged fan saying, “Oh, I could have made that play!” somewhat indignantly.

You take your children to the park and bond with them, as you did with your father. We display pride in carrying the multi-generational torch, either to repeated visits to the Promised Land of World Championship or, for the long-suffering fans of forever losing teams, toward a first time experience of becoming vicarious champions.

Material objects take the place of a genuine fiery beacon. I once had a baseball caught by my grandfather in the Wrigley Field stands, just as I own a scorecard dad got signed by the legendary Rogers Hornsby. There is more shared energy and positive emotion and identification among the united Chicago Cubs Nation than the fraught relations within the United States or the United Nations.

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How interesting that we never betray the multi-generational pact we have with our relatives, friends, and fans by quitting the “team,” but some do cheat on a spouse. Where else in the world can you be #1 except by identifying with a team of élite magic-makers? Not at home, where our foibles are on display and beg forgiveness. The world of a sports fan, by contrast, means never having to say you are sorry.

Perhaps part of the reason some flee the spouse is that we can do all the complaining we want about the men on the field, quite unlike an actual mate. Criticizing a beloved human is more costly. The partner tends to push back, the players don’t. You can berate the young men, they don’t berate you. The only cost is the price of a ticket.

Where else can you tell someone he isn’t trying hard enough? Maybe at home with your kids, but you will easily alienate and injure them. Rarely is the boss or the spouse fair game unless you want to corrode the relationship, lose your job, or sleep elsewhere.

Another difference: baseball, whether playing or watching, is recreation: the “Great American Pastime.” Marriage is not. Marriage takes work if there is to be ongoing reward.

A relationship, of course, offers many benefits not provided by fandom. Requited love, sex, offspring, consolation, trust, understanding, and shared intimacy. A sports team will not reject you (unless it moves to another city), but it provides no meaningful looks, tender embraces, quiet confidences and shoulders on which to cry. Most fans would not give up on the idea of ever having a partner, despite the complications. A sports team, by comparison, is like making love to a blow-up, plastic woman. Put differently, sports — in this fan’s opinion — should be taken for what they are, not the dearest thing on earth: a good and loving woman.

There is no escape from heartbreak as a fan or a spouse, however. Indeed, athletics, particularly if you are on a Little League losing team or simply the youthful fan of the Major League variety, is a preparation for life. Yet we seem to mate for eternity with a uniformed bunch of men, not necessarily with a spouse. An able-bodied squad, significantly, is a sometimes thing, an observed entity, not a person you live with in-season and out. Ballplayers go home for the winter. Fans, in a sense, do too. Partners don’t.

I met only one faithless sports fan, ever. Or, perhaps I should say, he was the wisest man on the planet. Many of you know that the Cubs have reached the World Series for the first time since 1945, when they lost in seven games. Lost, I might add, the World Championship that has eluded them since 1908. My friend was rooting for the Cubbies and was more than disappointed at the result. Soon after he made a major decision: he would never cheer for the Cubs again, never ever.

As a consequence, the gentleman in question enjoyed the ensuing 70-years far more than the rest of the Wrigley loyalists.

Talk about good timing and superb judgment!

He was eight-years-old in 1945.

The top photo displays Maurie and Flaurie (named after the original owners, husband and wife) of Superdawg, a Chicago drive-in and landmark. The W Flag is similar to the one that hangs from the Wrigley Field scoreboard after a Cubs victory. It is a practice going back many years, before the time we could consult our phones to discover the outcome of the game. Two different elevated train lines passed within visual distance of the flag, thus alerting fans of the day’s happy or sad tidings. The third image was taken by Arturo Pardavila III on October 22, 2016 before the sixth game of the National League Championship Series. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second photo requires no explanation.

The Danger of Objectification and the Surprising Pleasure of Talking to Strangers

We live in a country where most of us decry the objectification of females — a vision of them as body parts. Playthings, not people. Yet, I suspect some of us are also guilty — to a limited degree — of a different variety of objectification. Less damaging, but still injurious. Moreover, in the act of divesting another of her humanity we lose one of the joys of routine human contact.

We go into a store and pass before a checker on the way out. The person scans your purchases, gives you a total, bags the products, and takes payment. How often do we enjoy a verbal exchange that goes beyond a greeting, a question related to price, and the ubiquitous “Paper or plastic?” and “Have a nice day”? This man or woman has become a series of tasks to be done with speed and without error, defined by our attitude as something like a robot. We are facing another human we can’t escape fast enough, who has the knowledge of our desire for a quick-get-away, and who experiences hundreds of such mini-rejections every workday. We have added one more.

I asked a liquor store associate named Christian how frequently people address him by the name on his name tag. “Oh, I guess about one in 10.” Granted, not a scientific survey, but I can’t imagine the percentage reaching anywhere near 50% in a metropolis.

And so, we dehumanize a person by ignoring his name: making him anonymous and thing-like or simply invisible. Moreover, we rob ourselves of a pleasant way to pass the time — a chance to watch some of those sales associates brighten because we have recognized them as something other than a machine.

In a large grocery I was in the line of a 30ish woman whose ID said Beata. It is pronounced Bee-ott-uh. The name derives from the Latin, beatus, meaning “blessed.” She looked anything but. Her face seemed vacuumed clean of any emotion and life-force. Not unpleasant, but beaten down. I said, “Hello, Beata.”

“Oh my God, you pronounced my name right! You can’t believe how many people get it wrong. Most don’t call me anything at all.”

“I just got lucky,” I answered. “By the way, you have a lovely name.”

“Thank you,” she replied, with a big smile. For those few words and few seconds we both felt a little better.

256px-no_name_road_2988366432

During my teens I worked briefly in a small market, so I know a bit about the dehumanization of being a faceless drone, not to mention the mind-deadening repetition of taking care of one customer after another. Back in yesteryear name tags weren’t commonly used. Now they are. Why, then, do we ignore them?

Princeton University psychologist Susan Fiske and her colleagues may offer us a clue. They evaluated how the image of the “other” impacts us. Research participants reacted to a variety of photos while their brain activity was recorded. She and Lasana Harris predicted the experimental subjects would respond by dehumanizing extreme outgroups like the homeless. Pictures of those individuals produced the brain activation characteristic of viewing furniture, not people. Perhaps some of us protect our emotions by responding to fellow humans as things. Though the folks processing our purchases are not (usually) homeless, I wonder whether keeping a distance is now habitual.

Do we lose our humanity in the process? Do we also deprive ourselves, as social creatures, of one of life’s simple pleasures?

This was not always so. As a boy in the ’50s, the days before shopping malls, you walked to the local grocery and recognized the same employees and neighbors. You had no phone in your hands, increasing the chance of noticing a familiar face. Smiles, brief conversations, and names were more common then, or at least I’d like to think so. Have we become similar to Robinson Crusoe before Friday turned up, despite the risk-free opportunities for innocent contact? Have we created a class of women and men within reach of our touch, without being in-touch; whom we face, but treat as faceless? Or, we do take a look and see another human — only to become uncomfortable without our electronic intermediary, be it the iPad or iPhone, the real thing we place between ourselves and the other?

I suppose I should blame air-conditioning too, the 20th-century wonder that still keeps us cool, but at the loss of evenings sitting on the front stoop talking with the person next door or sleeping in public parks. Both practices were common before A/C contributed to our seclusion. I repeat, we are creatures who need the society of others to fulfill ourselves, create a community — indeed, to create a nation. We need eye contact and conversation to be reminded there is a fragile creature before or beside us, one with the same desire for love, respect, and encouragement; a fellow-mortal on life’s complicated path; like the grass, a living entity in need of sunshine.

Shylock says in the The Merchant of Venice:

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

Ah, but I hear you saying you won’t enjoy speaking even briefly with a stranger; that you’d be happier if you didn’t. Research suggests otherwise. We are often poor “affective forecasters:” making wrong predictions about our future emotions. The research link is specific to the question of whether you’d be happier talking to strangers — even if you are an introvert.

I’ll admit, however, that for people with social anxiety a word to the checker or some one next to you in line can be difficult. But since the world is too often perceived as a zero-sum contest — one winner and one loser — here is a game where all are winners: the one who smiles and the other who smiles back.

Therapy needn’t only be about an epiphany, a once-in-a-lightning-bolt moment after years of treatment. Happiness doesn’t always require the purchase of a counselor’s time.

There is worse we can do than “drop” names as a way of boasting about our prominent friends: it is to drop names from our vocabulary. Don’t drop names, say them.

Sprinkle them, like magic fairy dust, wherever you can.

The No Name Road street sign can be found in Yazoo County, Mississippi. The photo is the work of NatalieMaynor and is sourced from Wikipedia Commons.