Talking to Your Doctor: A Guide for Patients

Imagine I ask myself the question: which doctor do I see this week?

Witchdoctor or which doctor? Genius, God, or man?


I have no fatal conditions, so don’t worry. But since I’ve known quite a few MDs as a colleague, friend, or patient, here is some advice about how to ready yourself for your next medical visit.


This applies in particular if you will be meeting a specialist. These suggestions are also the product of the numerous comments from my own clients about their experience with the healing arts.

PREPARE: Make a list of your symptoms and medications; consult reputable websites like Mayo Clinic, but do not make yourself crazy with conspiracies or every worst-case possibility. Think about questions you’d like answered.

YOU ARE NOT A HOSTAGE: Don’t be intimidated. God neither wears a white coat nor uses a stethoscope. The MD is a human being. Use your session efficiently, but you are entitled to time. You (or your insurer) will pay for the service.

TAKE NOTES:  Perhaps bring someone along who can verify what you heard, ask questions you don’t think of, and offer his impression of the expert.  

COLLABORATION: Choose a primary care physician (also called an internist) if you are without one. He should come to know you better than a specialist, possess a wide knowledge of the field, and provide insight into advice from fellow MDs. If you see this person yearly, a collaborative relationship should develop.

THE DOCTOR’S STAFF: Take a measure of the people employed by the individual in charge. Their listening skills, competence, thoroughness, and kindness often reflect the qualities of their superior.

TREATMENT CHOICES: At some point in the visit, the doc should indicate what comes next. He might order tests or a consultation with a colleague. Perhaps medication will be prescribed or a procedure involving the examination of an internal organ. Maybe surgery.

If he does not mention alternatives (say, watchful waiting, drugs, or another approach), ask what else might be done. Speak if you wish to hear more about each method. Request printed literature, as well. These days, previously extreme interventions sometimes involve only small incisions, minimal time in a clinical setting, and rapid recovery.

COMMUNICATION ISSUES: If you don’t understand some of the words or names the authority uses, tell him so and ask for language easier for someone not trained in his field. Feel free to slow him down.

The doc might recommend a more than ordinary therapeutic approach. Some will offer possibilities and take a collaborative attitude, wishing not to impose a decision. The following question can be useful: if you were making a recommendation to a loved one, what would you suggest?

Short of an emergency, not everything needs to be determined the same day. Doing your own homework, obtaining a second opinion, and finding time to catch your breath don’t necessitate anyone’s permission.

SURGERY: The expert could say something like, “The two surgeries I perform are X and Y.” Inquire whether there are others and create a conversation about pros and cons.

Seek details. Become informed about potential side effects and their likelihood in percentages, the necessity of hospitalization, and possible rehabilitation afterward (knee replacement often demands this).

Ask how many times the doc has performed the procedure. Consider his age. Not everyone retains undiminished fine motor skills forever. Find out how many such surgeries are done at the hospital where he practices compared to other healthcare centers. The more, the better. Investigate institutional rankings for the particular intervention or treatment you will receive.

If your surgery requires fasting beginning on the evening before, that fact might influence what time you prefer the appointment — probably early if you can get it.

Take a look at any record of legal action claiming malpractice by the MD or the hospital and its employees. Such information should be available on state websites.

PERSONALITIES AND SURGEONS. Doctors need confidence, with surgeons at the top of the list of those needy of the characteristic. You don’t want an uncertain person guiding the manipulation or invasion of your body. Don’t be surprised at the absence of a tender bedside manner.

Why? Even psychotherapists maintain a therapeutic distance from their patients. Surgeons often go further in this direction. They mustn’t feel the full weight or dread of what they are engaged in while in a surgical theater. My encounters with this gifted group have included both the cold and the more approachable variety of humanity.


LEGAL FORMS: Your signature will be desired in many places. The documents detail risks, your rights, who can receive information about your condition, etc.


Medical facilities often employ physicians in training. Ask yourself the degree to which you desire care from these (typically bright and talented) younger people. Doctors must gain this experience to become skilled. For you, however, the question is, do you want the lady or man who performed 2000 procedures or 10?


Make sure the doctor knows what decision you make and your autograph doesn’t contradict your spoken wishes. Don’t assume someone else will tell the doc unless you do.

GUARANTEES: There are none. When asked about surgical side-effects, more than one doc told me, “Well, you could die.” You might have noticed I’m not dead. Ask yourself about your own risk tolerance.

Not everyone reacts to medication in the same way.

Doing nothing can also have physical consequences, as does pretending you are fine despite your physician or relative’s belief you are not.

Too many men avoid doctors in the belief “He cares about my money, nothing else” or “I don’t need an examination.”

Good luck, fellas.

THE HISTORY OF MEDICINE: Because of the lengthy period when the field offered a primitive level of expertise (if any), the discipline’s scientific basis doesn’t have a long past.

Strep throat killed people in the absence of any antibacterial medication. The initial successful use of penicillin in the USA, the first such drug, occurred in 1942.

There was no polio vaccine in the first years of my childhood (the late 1940s and ’50s). During the US Civil War and after, amputations were done with saws.


Years-long gaps exist between fresh knowledge and the point at which the practice of healing changes. The profession requires both learning what is new and unlearning what is no longer considered best and might be harmful in light of recent data.

Remember what I said about the initial employment of penicillin? The first use in the UK was in 1930, 12 years before.

MEDICAL SPECIALIZATION: The dramatic expansion and creation of techniques and other discoveries tax every doctor to keep up. These fine women and men are often lifesavers. They’ve earned our gratitude and more than a decent living.

Understand, however, no one masters every other discipline within the helping professions. Moreover, physicians do not always have easy access to other specialists, nor the infinite time to sit down with them for in-depth discussions.

If you are being treated by multiple professionals, the ability to integrate each of them increases the challenge for them and for you.

When you are consulting more doctors than you can manage, think about going to a place like the Mayo or Cleveland Clinics, where a team approach can be found.

PHYSICIANS WORK MIRACLES: I’ve highlighted some pitfalls because nobody wants to fall into the pit.

Remember this: All doctors are bound by ethical guidance derived from the ancient Hippocratic Oath. They mean you well.

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Another excellent list of Questions to Ask Before Surgery comes from Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Here is the full text of the Hippocratic Oath. It offers the first written ethical guidelines for physicians.

All of the paintings are the work of German Expressionist artist Gabriele Munter. They include Flowers on White (Cyclamen and Hyacinth), Still Life with PoppiesInterior with Christmas Tree, and Morning Shadow. All but the second image was sourced from Wikiart.org.

Tests of Character and What We Make of Them

Life is full of challenges. Not all demand courage.

Moreover, sometimes what looks like bravery might be foolishness.

Judge for yourself.

Judge me if you wish.

Before I began the independent practice of clinical psychology, I taught at two fine East Coast universities and then spent several more years working in a small private psychiatric hospital.

The institution’s owner was a remarkable man, remarkable because of his strange combination of incompatible characteristics. Those qualities included generosity, thoughtfulness, arrogance, philanthropy,  and vindictiveness.

Let’s call him SB.

Play with the letters to see if you can come up with a nickname. Perhaps choose a vowel for his middle initial.

This gentleman’s ego could have filled a large sports arena. I learned during my tenure to reason with him alone, not in public, a place where he might lose face. Confidential discussion often persuaded him to give up some of his dubious ideas.

The boss recognized my worth and treated me well for a few years. Ah, but almost everyone found himself in his metaphorical crosshairs as time passed.

One of SB’s brainchildren was the creation of a psychology internship program based at the hospital. The head man hired a part-time director, but the American Psychological Association accreditation team rejected his scheme — his baby. They cited the lack of a full-time chief as their biggest concern.

SB was displeased.

I was occupied with other activities within the facility, but SB wanted me as the savior of the program: its new high potentate. Some confidential conversations with the overseer offered hope he’d target someone else. I preferred my then-current work responsibilities. The request remained unresolved.

The new interns arrived on an autumn day like any other, but not a day like any other in my life.


At the time, I had a 19-month old daughter. My wife and I wanted our darling to benefit from a stay-at-home mom. Therefore, I was the sole financial support of my family, a fact known by SB.


Unknown to me, “the man” used the morning and early afternoon to introduce the aforementioned three graduate students to various staff members. I later found out he pushed several people around as he walked the newbies through his domain. No one was immune. Not doctors, nurses, psychiatric aides, or housekeeping personnel.


SB was a master of bending others to his will on the days he wasn’t smiling. The chieftain demonstrated to the twenty-something trainees his status as GOD relative to mortals.

My office overlooked a river at the far end of the building, leaving me last on the trail of tears. The maestro announced himself, and the young people joined the two older ones (I was almost 34 and SB in his 50s).

After introductions, the conversation sounded like this:

Dr. Stein, what have you decided about the directorship of the internship program?

I’d prefer to speak with you about it alone.

I’d like to know your answer now.

I’d prefer to speak with you alone.

Tell me now.

The exchange continued into infinity. The overlord tried to force the issue, and I repeated myself in the same words for about 10 years, psychologically speaking.

OK, not a decade as told by the clock. Maybe a few minutes if you add the silences. Lots of time spent staring at each other.

Another entity entered the room as soon as the confrontation began. No, not my past flashing before me, but my unlived future, towering like a gray shadow from a place just over my shoulder. Every person had a shadow but the fellow in charge.

Weeks later, I asked the fledgling psychologists for their take on the episode and their estimate of its duration. They were petrified. Everyone’s sense of time stretched like taffy.

Back to my office. Once SB realized he couldn’t make me talk in their presence, he ushered them out and told me I’d better say yes if I wanted to work at HIS facility. He gave me a couple of days to think it over.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

The result: I took over as the new director and explored plans to exit the hospital. SB and I were soured on each other. No value would come in staying. I departed several months later, invited to become the junior member of small group practice, of which I became the head within a few years.

What else was going on inside of me during the contest? I envisioned the event this way:

One person tried to get over (on top of) the opposition, defeat the other — “put him in his proper (diminished) place.” SB intended to bend another human object to his will, bring him to his knees.

The other resisted.

For years I engaged in silent self-praise for holding to some unarticulated principle.

Nope. No doctrine existed. My intransigence was about being a man. I wasn’t fighting for freedom, civil rights, saving the planet, world peace, better schools, racial equality, or any other noble pursuit.

As you must recognize, I did give in to him later offstage, not in the drama he initiated. Indeed, I knew he owned the power to fire me from the start.

Despite mindfulness of my jeopardy and awareness my wife and daughter depended on me, I didn’t roll over. The months between that day and my resignation were fraught. I put myself through a good deal of worry and unhappiness, my spouse as well.

Not so smart, then? I might even agree with this determination.

Here’s an additional complication: I felt I could not do otherwise than what I did. I reacted out of instinct. I’d have been ashamed for capitulating in front of the arriving trainees.

I’d have defined myself as a coward even though my employer had every right to reassign me to a different niche in the organization.

Both SB and I behaved with an awareness of our audience. It doubtless reduced the two antagonists’ willingness to act differently than we did.

Though I did not realize it at the time, SB’s actions motivated me to leave his employment and begin a far more fulfilling role within my profession, a necessary step toward my professional independence.


The insecurity of my status required me to be more creative, learn additional skills, reinvent myself from a vocational and personal standpoint, and enhance the economic security of my little family.

From that perspective, SB did me a favor. My superior made me uncomfortable enough to alter my career path and take more risks. I became, in my judgment, less a person who allowed fate to carve the road I traveled and more a man who forged his own way.

As I progressed, more opportunities came to me. Confidence grew, and my perception of myself evolved into that of an individual who could make a life rather than endure it or hide from it.

SB meant me no favors, but if I met him today, I might thank him.

One more thing, I was lucky, wasn’t I? A poorer outcome might have occurred.

Until such challenges appear, we don’t know ourselves. Most of us imagine what we’d do in a variety of conditions we’ve never encountered.


When we read news stories about the misfortunes of others, too many of us achieve a cheap self-satisfaction by claiming we’d have made a different choice. We assure ourselves of a wise departure before a disaster unrecognized by its soon-to-be victims.

Unlike other weaker souls, our fantasy includes unfailing defense of our principles. The poor mass who suffered or died didn’t possess our foresight, intelligence, or hard work, so we think.

On the other hand, self-awareness comes at the price of realizing the dream of heroic behavior in unlived circumstances is like a soothing massage of our self-image.

I am no hero, and I do not claim the rank of a great man. I hope you extend yourself beyond whatever evaluation you make of me.

What I’ve written has value only to the extent a single reader considers himself and reflects on whether the tale offers insight into his own life.

That much is in his hands.

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Each one of these images is called Face-off.

The first is by Aaron from Seattle. The Jack-o’ – lanterns Face-off is the work of William Warby.

Next comes the Face-off Situation between Evan McGrath and Ken Olimb in Tegra Arena by Calle Eklund/V-wolf.

Finally, NASA/JSC and Robert Markowitz created Face-off Robonaut. All were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Erotic Transference and the Fantasy Lives of Therapists

My father, a man of uncommon decency, kept an issue of Playboy Magazine in the closet he used for his overcoats. I discovered this item while snooping around the house, not expecting that. The featured model was Jayne Mansfield.

This happened in the late 1950s, long before the unending pornographic video flood undercut the thrill of “dirty photos.US citizens of the time lived in a post-Victorian, white man’s dream world, just prior to birth control pills and the sexual revolution. Then they continued in a non-Victorian, more sexualized version of the same thing.

I was old enough to fathom why a man might be interested in perusing color pictures of the famous blond beauty in all her air-brushed nakedness. I put the magazine back as dad left it, never confessed my discovery, and didn’t try to interrogate.

If my sire had fantasies despite sleeping next to the woman of his dreams every night, I imagined everyone did.

Therapists do, too.

I notice beautiful women still and didn’t close my eyes when they entered the office for psychotherapy. Another psychologist mentioned such beauties energized him, helped him focus his attention on “the person” behind the attractive face and form.

Hmm.

This man maintained an active sex life, by the way. To my knowledge, he didn’t engage in affairs with his patients but acquired a reputation for more than a few of the extramarital variety at one of the hospitals where we both practiced.

Counselors are not eunuchs. Acquiring a license to practice doesn’t require neutering.

We “notice,” and some few do more than take in the visual, feminine glories of the natural world despite ethical codes forbidding the mix of romantic engagement with those who come with personal problems.

Intimacy with a therapist is never the solution to those problems, though some professionals persuade themselves it is a different manner of “helping.In case you haven’t realized it yet, we homo sapiens can convince ourselves of anything, justifying murder, robbing our kids of their credit cards, and more.

I can’t tell you I never fantasized about the women I treated. I don’t recall doing so, however. But then, we don’t remember every dark night dream of body and soul, do we?

Did I have those fantasies or not? I still can’t be certain. Most of the time, I compartmentalized or separated home from work. What fantasies I do recollect didn’t derive from doctor-patient interaction.

I never overstepped professional limits, despite invitations offered in straightforward confessions of love from female clients. These included one lovely who brought a kit of sex toys and a variety of condoms to a session and proceeded to unload them on my desk.

The topic of sexual transference continues to pull in readers to my blog, as well as the writing of others. The humans alive today, every one of us, are here because the drive to procreate remains in the DNA passed to us and through us.

I heard females, a limited number, mention our sessions stimulated their lubrication.

I recall another dear person I referred to a different psychologist because we couldn’t resolve and move beyond her transference, aka, her obsessive wish to be my lover.

In our final meeting, she asked for a parting hug. Weeks before, she presented a pencil drawing of me holding her. Since I couldn’t predict how far she might take an embrace, I refused. Anger followed.

Another woman, paradoxically, could not have been further from capturing my interest. She did refer to her satisfying sex life with her husband, but this wasn’t what prompted her to consult me. Nor was the brief report remarkable.

I found nothing stimulating in her intellect, personality, appearance, or her way of walking or moving, speaking or smiling. She didn’t flirt and didn’t wear revealing clothing. I guess the lady was in her 40s or early 50s.

And yet, I felt drawn to her. By the process of elimination, I can only conclude she produced an oversupply of pheromones.

My boundaries and respect for those who requested guidance stopped me from considering the pursuit of touch outside those limitations, as did my love for my wife and a set of clear principles. I never needed to think about potential public humiliation, financial ruin, and vocational catastrophe.

None of this makes me a saint, in case you wondered. If you can find one, let me know.

But, I heard a few stories from men who did destroy their lives and those of their victims.

Two of my patients, defrocked former ministers, sought my services because they’d taken advantage of their religious authority and charismatic charm with multiple members of their separate congregations. One still retained an imposing presence and a powerful voice, a capacity he’d used to deliver stirring sermons. His shame was almost palpable.

Another man I’m thinking of, a doctor, employed several ex-patients in his office of female employees. Those with whom I spoke all admired him, but people in authority who provide treatment to a person in distress often receive this kind of attachment and appreciation.

This is what erotic transference tends to involve. The transferential object needn’t be Brad Pitt or whoever is the latest heartthrob.

Well, the odd man I’m describing owned lots of “presence,” an indefinable quality of strength or self-assertion, self-confidence, or magnetism setting an individual apart from others. One might describe it as an aura of sorts.

Most of humanity becomes invisible in a crowd, while those with “presence” stand out no matter their size.

Thus, perhaps it should be without surprise to discover the physician I’m describing took one of his employees, a former patient of course, into his office about once a week.

The couch doubled as a foldout bed. If you entered his “castle” after she exited, the scent of sex remained.

Back to me. I confess I sometimes could be a bit too attentive to the faces and bodies seeking psychological assistance. At least my eyes were. As a psychologist, you need to remind yourself of what you are doing, what your duty is and return your attention to the patient’s needs.

This isn’t difficult if your role remains well-defined internally. Most get this right, I suspect. Otherwise, malpractice insurance costs would be closer to those of medical specialists.

Patients test therapists. Not all, but some of those whose life histories included soul-breaking physical and emotional violations.

A few push their new doctor with displays of anger or intimate provocation. They come to the consulting room with memories of people who appeared kind and turned cruel, the ones who offered comfort as an avenue to their own carnal and controlling advantage.

These injured folks don’t want to be hurt again. They plan attire and enticement to assure themselves the kindly and wise Dr. Jekyll won’t become Mr. Hyde. I also encountered a couple of traumatized women who brought small knives into the office in an attempt to menace me.

Safety and testing take many shapes. It can also serve to control the practitioner, rather than submitting to control by him.

I’ve read nothing about erotic transference and countertransference (when the counselor experiences a desire to pursue a client) specific to the new virtual, computer-mediated age of treatment.

It will be interesting if research informs us whether the power of transference can jump over and through the Zoom screen. I imagine it sometimes can.

From a distance of 10 years since retirement, my take on all this is that we psychologists and other helping professionals cannot but bring the whole of our humanity and personality into our vocation. Knowing yourself well as a healer means you should keep your focus and actions in check.

Of course, we are human, and humans do many things they shouldn’t. Be grateful, then, to find those talented professional souls who don’t, no matter their line of work.

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The first photo is of Ingrid Bergman and Mathias Wieman in a promotional shot from the 1954 movie Fear. The following image is a screenshot of Eva Marie Saint from On the Waterfront, also of the same year. Finally, a screenshot of Audrey Hepburn in War and Peace, a 1956 movie. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Realizing You Do Not Own Your Child’s Life (and Other Parenting Challenges)

Children ring bells in us. It is as if we were programmed to recognize ourselves in them, often unconsciously. Our instinctive response to feelings, vulnerabilities, and turning points experienced by the offspring touch upon similar vulnerabilities in us at about the same age.

This personal reaction is a historical one triggered by seeing the self in them, a kind of identification.

Significant and challenging things happen to all of us as we grow up. You are now the dear parent. They happened to you, too.

Each new life is vulnerable and tender, not yet hardened to defend itself. Perhaps you suffered humiliation or felt pressured, ignored, bullied, or worse. Maybe you pursued a course you later identified was wrong for you.

The paternal or maternal role now requires thoughtful consideration of how to proceed. Will you give your offspring what they need to avoid the damage you sustained? Perhaps you might push them to make different life selections or sidestep wrong turns you continue to regret.

The decision you made might have been running with the troubled crowd, sex, drugs, or giving up on school to emphasize sports. Numerous possibilities exist.

Haunted by the shadow of the road not taken, you are in danger again. So is the boy or girl in your charge, though not necessarily from the risk you encountered.

Time to look in the mirror.

I am suggesting you, dear parent. Your place in the minor’s life places him or her in jeopardy if you should fumble the job of being a mom or dad.

You face a test of your adequacy as a guardian, one who can separate your own identity from that of your youngster.

For example, your authority allows you to demand this admiring schoolgirl to study. No one will stop you from ominous hovering and harsh enforcement of failure to ensure the desired goal.

The power imbalance also permits you to restrict her participation in social life with people you decide are bad (even when almost everyone looks dangerous to you).

These decisions carry a substantial downside. Take another example. Detective-like inspection for signs of substance abuse (or any other actions you find uncomfortable) may drive the son who loves you toward the behavior you wish to prevent.

Regardless of your motives, results count more than noble intentions.

Other possible pitfalls also await moms, dads — kids and young adults.

Again the question hangs in the air. What do you do with your individual history of upbringing by your folks? You now occupy the role they did.

If you believe they were always right, you might impose a similar manner of child-rearing used with you. If the young one is like you and your parents did a fine job, this style could work.

But what if he isn’t like you? What if the circumstances of his life and the time in which you both now live have changed? Will the default tendency to do unto your child what was done unto you still suffice?

Do you instead believe the teen’s grandparents made dire mistakes with you?

Yes, you say. Will you then dispose of every thought and action they had? Will you throw out even their preference of one faith over another, fish over fowl, and their enjoyment of vigorous exercise?

Understanding you are not your offspring (and he is not you) is essential, no matter the likenesses. To the degree his temperament and inborn talents are different from yours, basing your parenting strategy on what you needed is questionable.

The blueprint for fostering any unformed life must be tailored to whomever he is. When parents say they treated all their children in the same way, I always imagine the fitness of such an approach was doubtful with at least one.

Here is another piece of hard-won advice. I am assuming you are a loving custodian of your kids in all these examples. You gave your infant life, an experience beyond words, the most astonishing of your life. Wishing the best for this helpless, beautiful creature is your desire. She depends upon you for everything.

However, with time, if the child proceeds along the usual route, he acquires skills and the goal of independent life. A moment arrives when he wants to make choices with which you disagree. Say, a different career, school, moving to a new location, or his own vision of the place of religion in his life.

To the extent your ideas don’t match, reasoned discussions should not assume he is mistaken. He may be the wise one in this. In any case, remember this: you gave him life, but you do not own his life.

Our daughters and sons take the captain’s chair on their voyage into the future. They often want our support, but they do not want us as their judge.

Check the proprietorship records or the birth certificate of your kids. What you will find, perhaps in invisible ink, is a rental agreement. The maternal and paternal responsibilities of direction and safekeeping last for a short while, not forever.

After that, the baton is passed to the next runner in the relay race we call world history. He might not be everything you envisioned. Do not let your preconceptions block you from honoring the best in him. He could be less in some areas, but he also may be much more.

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The top image is Mother and Child by Pablo Picasso, 1921. In second place comes Oswaldo Guayasamin’s 1989 Ternura. The last masterpiece is Mother and Child by Wilfredo Lam, 1957. The first and final works were sourced from the Art Institute of Chicago. Guayasamin’s painting came from Wikiart.org/

Why I (Still) Write Blog Posts

I began this blog in 2009. The driving reason was to leave my thoughts to my children for whatever they might find worthwhile, especially after taking off for the great beyond if such a place exists. This was not my sole motive to scribble, however.

As they all recognize, writers write out of inner necessity, an activity so essential to their being they cannot do otherwise for long. Some hope for fame, but few outlast the memory of their name if that. I never embraced their goal.

Offering your written words to the reading world takes a small bit of courage since not everyone will agree with what you say. With few, if any, ideas not thought or said by the best minds of our past, one needs ego to believe your new material will stand out with anything new.

Part of what justifies the idea of presenting personal observations despite all the brilliant writers of yesterday is the time in which we live. Every human life exists within a unique moment and place, no matter the similarities to all the history preceding us.

A few decades ago, a Ford Foundation study concluded the daily New York Times contained more information to process than the average sixteenth-century man had to consume in his lifetime. Wow!

The thought is astonishing until one recognizes who the gentleman was: a creature who couldn’t read or write, never got far from home, lived and died in the blink of an eye, and performed the same repetitive tasks without end.

No TV, computer, Internet, either, not even choices of toothpaste. Just flowers at weddings to make sure the new pair didn’t overpower each other with an unpleasant odor.

We live in a moment when the speed of change leaves us dazzled, dazed, delighted, or distressed, depending. Thus, I can rationalize my words as fitting for the time you and I share.

I also write for other reasons. The first of these would be the help or enjoyment the posts give to some readers. The second is praise, though I’m pretty self-sustaining without it.

Another, and this is significant, the act of composing keeps my brain active and focused away from occasional dystopian reflections I can’t escape about the world’s current state. Furthermore, the task of assembling sentences gets my mind off the usual worries and personal concerns none of us can avoid without something else to do.

Many use drugs as a distraction to help with this. Lots of folks get comfort from prayer. In addition to writing, I employ meditation and study, conversation, human companionship, love, comedies, and helping those I can when I can.

An unexpected bonus has been the correspondence I’ve had with a handful of individuals. I took joy from meetings with four of them I didn’t already know. Homo sapiens fall in love online; why shouldn’t they fall into friendship, too?

Another reward was a surprise gift from a person I did know, who made a book for me out of my writings up to the moment she presented it. She is a dear heart, as I’m certain are many of those whose comments in response to my work reveal their humanity.

I now have two young grandchildren, boys. Like most of you who reproduced, the children’s health, not gender, was all I cared about. Yet, I’m glad I have the chance to watch these spirited souls grow up and to aid a bit in the process. Thus, I set down words for them, as well.

I am aware I repeat myself — duplicating points I made among the over 600 published titles you can find here in the Archives. Inevitable, I suppose.

I also change my mind or discover research findings not available when I started the compelling hobby. I’d argue the fellow who began 12 years ago has been altered by moving into a new version of body and brain as we all do as we age, aware or not.

Those changes of heart, soul, additional experience, and reflection will take you places you never imagined going. Therefore, my posts have also changed.

For those who continue to read me, I’m forever amazed and grateful to the people who’ve consumed about everything in these electrified white and black pseudo-pages. I’m pleased, too, new arrivals find their way here, despite my lack of presence on conventional social media.

So, my thanks to each of you for hanging out with me. I hope to be doing this for a while yet.

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Another person I met online: Laura Hedien, Storm Cloud Photography. With her permission, the two works used above are Supercell in Nebraska, 2021, and Sunflare, sunset in N.D, 2021. As always, I’m grateful to have made the connection with her and appreciate her generosity.

The Indirect Messages We Find Hard to Understand

There are many ways we are informed of our place in the world, where we fit in the lives of others. I’m speaking of relationships and work.

I imagine you’ve read about open body language, making eye contact, pleasing facial expression, and whether we ask another person about himself and his ideas. Such behaviors or their absence provide information about our standing.

I’ll mention a few more later, but the main attraction for today speaks to the question differently. Let me tell you a story.

Two white men chatted in a waiting room a couple of weeks ago, another gentleman and me. He spotted my Cubs hat and struck up a conversation. The time passed in an entertaining, cordial way until his turn came to enter the office.

The out-of-shape fellow employed a walker but had a most pleasant and engaging disposition. I’m guessing we belong to the same generation.

For sure, we shared our love of baseball. But the sports stories he related aren’t what lingers within me. Rather, he told a tale of early employment, unlike anything I knew.

This charming bloke labored in the building industry for most of his life, a muscle-taxing, manual way of making a living. Still a teen, his first job required him to dig a trench, a task of several days.

On the morning of his first day, a truck came by and stopped beside the dig site. The driver’s elevated position in the covered vehicle reflected a higher status since all the other employees engaged in physical challenges exposed to the summer sun and the heat.

The communication began:

“Hey, buddy, would you like some coffee?”

“Thanks, but can I have a Pepsi Cola instead?”

The man behind the wheel turned away and drove on.

In the afternoon, the same truck showed up again. My chum looked up as the rig stopped. The now-familiar voice spoke:

“Hey, buddy, would you like some coffee?”

The new guy on the job recognized his previous mistake.

“Yes, thanks.”

“What do you take in it?”

“Cream and sugar.”

“We don’t do that here.” So the big machine sped off.

When the workday ended, the rookie took a bit of time to reflect during his trip back to his parents’ house. He wondered what happened. The youthful chap was not stupid, though he had little experience outside of home and school. The second day found him more prepared.

The predictable arrival of the authority figure offered the unsurprising question.

“Hey, buddy, would you like some coffee?”

“Yes, with cream.”

“Good,” came the reply, and, not long after, the creamed beverage appeared.

What do you believe happened between the older man and the younger one? Think for a moment before I tell you what I imagine.

In the world of beasts, birds, and the (so-called) civilized creatures on the planet, there is a form of ranking known as a “pecking order.” Here is an internet definition:

A hierarchy of status seen among members of a group of people or animals, originally as observed among hens.

To fit into the social world, one must learn where one stands, what behavior is acceptable, what is not, when to listen, when to speak, when it is your turn in the “pecking order.”

Thus, assuming my waiting-room companion wanted a tolerable place in the arrangement of laborers, he needed to discover how to behave. In effect, the coffee potentate trained him about his rank and the consequences if he didn’t accept without question the lowly station he occupied as “the new guy.”

If my temporary buddy wanted to continue working in this place, individualism was out. Unless he first blended in with the crowd and followed orders, no guarantees existed. To put it another way, the conditions demanded recognition of even unstated rules, to sink or swim without swimming lessons.

He learned to swim.

I could be wrong and, if you have a different interpretation, please tell me. But, to my mind, the youngster who is now an oldster received the unorthodox instruction — “know your place” — without the remark ever being made.

Bigots of the time said such things when talking or writing about black people.

The story I related took place over 50 years ago. These days, one might realize one’s standing with a “friend” if, for example, he makes you wait but not others or drops his attention to you when someone else enters the room.

Or maybe he engages in monologues without asking you questions about yourself, wants to see you only when he needs a favor, doesn’t respond to calls, texts, emails, etc.

Of course, we all fall short with friends on occasion, but some do it as a matter of routine. Were I to choose from these methods of communication, I’d prefer the method of the construction workers to that of the inconsiderate friend. But that’s just me.

We all have to do some wiggling to find a satisfactory spot in the world. At least for a while until we develop the confidence, strength, and character to say no to the person who imposes unfavorable conditions on us.

And then, if you also have economic security, you can set many of the guidelines and, I hope, be considerate to those around you.

My favorite comment on the role money plays under similar circumstances is best captured in the words of a famous, long deceased harmonica player named Larry Adler.

It is as eloquent as it is vulgar, so turn away if you must:

You should always have enough ‘fuck you’ money.

Sorry for that. No other phrase quite captures the sentiment.

=======================

The top two images were created by Laura Hedien in May and reproduced here with her permission: https://laurahedien.com/

The first was taken Outside of Gail, Texas. The second displays a Sunset in Texas. The final image is the work of William Gottlieb, derived from Wikimedia Commons. It is a portrait of Larry Adler and his frequent collaborator, the dancer Paul Draper, in City Center, New York, around 1947.

An Unusual Way to Think About Life When in Despair

Here is something you probably haven’t encountered in the self-help realm. The therapeutic aid applies in a world where trust is challenged 24/7, as it now is.

A story is required to explain it. No religious belief is needed, though the lesson can be found in sacred writing.

The Genesis tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, places of exceptional immorality, tells of God’s decision to destroy those cities and every person within them.

The Master of the Universe talks with Abraham before the destruction, a man honored by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He respectfully pushes back on the Almighty’s sweeping judgment to punish everyone, the decent along with the evil.

This worthy individual reminds God of his role as “the Judge of all the earth.” He asks the Lord whether the wicked and the righteous should share the same fate.

Might the Creator be willing, the Jewish patriarch asks, to spare the planned eradication if 50 upright souls reside within the doomed cities?

God agrees: he will save the entirety of those evil places if 50 exist.

The conversation with the Lord continues. Each time Abraham pleads for the Deity to lower the requirement. The discussion concludes with an agreement to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of 10 honorable souls.

In the end, only Abraham’s nephew Lot and his small family are deemed virtuous by angels who search for 10 upstanding citizens. Short of the number required for the towns to escape God’s wrath, they alone are permitted to flee.

Many themes are present in this biblical tale. Its emphasis on the value of each individual prompted this essay. God is prepared to spare all the guilty for the sake of a few who are good. He allows a family below the promised number to depart.

What advice might grow from this?

When in despair over your life or the state of the world, perhaps consider something else. Yes, we live in a troubled time in which much harm occurs each day. We have all been hurt or afraid in this challenging moment.

Yet, you might pause to evaluate whether anyone you know or are aware of is decent?

I imagine someone will occur to you. Does the presence of even one such individual encourage you to continue to recognize your life, too, has value?

Now think of someone who might also be facing challenges. They may be thinking of you as someone whose existence lightens their burden. You make their life better simply by being here.

Maybe you do things for them for which they are grateful. Your benign presence or characteristic kindness allows them to take heart. Your laughter or cleverness brings joy, distraction, and their gladness they are alive to hear it.

The world needs many things: wisdom, courage, and generosity come to mind, in addition to those qualities mentioned above. But just as Abraham argued that a handful would justify God’s leniency, I will argue one needn’t be a superhero to uphold the human race despite the messes we humans make.

The kind heart found in a single neighbor, friend, and even within you adds to the conversation about the value of life and living. I hope you can find yourself on the list of those with at least one good quality. Earth is a place where other admirable souls you know or have heard of also reside.

—–

The Descent Towards Sodom by Marc Chagall, 1931. Abraham is surrounded by three angels. The image is sourced from Wikiart.org.

Confused by Friends, Family, and Neighbors? Why is the World so Messy?

When I think back to my Chicago Public School education, only two answers existed for the many questions presented to us. One was right, the other wrong.

No, I suppose it wasn’t quite so simple. I had to find the one right answer. All the rest were wrong.

It is evident today that even my five-year-old grandson has opinions, and an astonishing number of us choose to believe a select group of those who deliver opinions. Unlike my elementary school, our country doesn’t agree on the question of what’s right and what’s wrong.

What shall we do with this condition of our equally human lives together? We are assailed by so many who offer a certainty not shared by other voices. They and we live in unshared tents of true belief.

First, dear reader, I don’t want you to accept automatically what I’m about to offer you. I don’t want you to receive my ideas without asking yourself about them. If you don’t step back and consider whether I’m wrong, I shall become another of those supposed authorities who might mislead you by accident or the intention to deceive.

Let’s get back to what I learned early in life.

My sliver of religious education encountered authorities similar to the secular ones employed by the city, in this case having to do with alleged truth about our obligations to a creator and fellow mortals.

Depending on one’s religion, one received God’s all-knowing words, some etched into long-unavailable stone tablets. So the believers believed.

Friends told me about the Catholic churches of the time. Bible reading was discouraged. The priest would inform you of all you needed. Accepting his pronouncements was expected.

The various authorities delivered top-down stature and insistence. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t dare ask who or what is in the boat or where the vessel is docked.

You could ask questions in these centers of learning, but I didn’t ask many early on—most who did attempted to understand what the teacher or the text said, not challenge the instructor.

Parents also authored a version of the law: the rules of the home and how to behave outside. Again, follow the drill. If you don’t, no thrill.

If the city elders put a sign on the Chicago block containing Jamieson School — the gigantic mortar and brick edifice I attended through the eighth grade, it would have read:

WANT TO FAIL? ASK QUESTIONS!

Somehow I got a doctorate. I made a jump of several years here. Hope you are still with me.

What was going on then? What is going on today?

The average American has not been encouraged to ask queries of himself. Not well-considered, thoughtful ones, at least. For example, when the teacher told us about slavery, the telling including a few uncomplicated explanations of how and why.

Almost no instructor asked students, what else? Might there have been other causes, more or fewer?

We could have been asked, “What do you think was going on in the minds of the slaveholders? What motivated them? If you were a slave, how would you have felt?”

Many of the slaveholders claimed adherence to high-minded religious principles. How did these “masters” combine the vision of a loving God with their treatment of men they considered property?

What does this tell us about the ability of some folks to hold contradictions in their minds? Do you think the plantation owners resolved those contradictory beliefs and actions? How? Do such contradictions present themselves in today’s world? Do they live inside you?

What would you have done if you were the son of a mom and dad who kept slaves? Can you be sure without having lived in that moment, in an identical place and time?

Well, you can imagine. If I taught such a class to young people in certain places today, I’d be terminated along with this agenda.

To my benefit, I was a curious kid, one who led a one-person in-home questioning of my family’s life on Talman Avenue.

Whatever the cause, most of us should harbor lots of questions about the world we live in. An endless number. In particular, those without easy answers

Even before we start, however, we must begin by observing more of the world. Socrates, Martin Heidegger, and other philosophers said a typical person sleepwalks his way through life. We see without awareness. We hear without listening.

We peek at life through a tiny lens — as if through the small end of a funnel. We walk down the street peering into phones, examining texts, tweets, headlines, and emails fed to us by those opinionated others I mentioned before. Taking selfies along the way, as well. Everything gets blurry.

Meanwhile, if you challenge yourself to absorb everything else, you might see without a funnel. Notice the road. Why is it closed off? Perhaps you would wonder who decided this? Who benefits? Who doesn’t? How are the asphalt and labor paid for?
 
You’d see homeless people instead of walking past them as we tend to do with discarded furniture, recognizing the humanity in them described in Sabbath sermons. Do these creatures cause problems? How? What do they need? What is your responsibility? Where do they sleep?
 
Recognize the weathered skin of those too long in the sun. Were they born to other homeless people? Did medical bills lead to the loss of proper shelter? Was prescribed medication a stepping stone to addiction?
 
You’d see trees and insects. In some locals, few flies, bees, and butterflies live. Was it always this way? What explains their reduction in numbers? What happens when these beings are in short supply? Are there human consequences due to their diminished number?
 
Do you know population growth is slowing in many countries? This started before the pandemic. Is it a good thing or not? Why are people having fewer babies? How significant a factor is a living wage to the decision to have a child?
 
If you take another intellectual step, immigration policy enters your conversation with yourself. Pro or con? More newcomers would increase the number of inhabitants and produce more children. Helpful for business or not?

I hope you recognize how many issues like this are interconnected with other observations you might make as you widen your eyes to consume what is in front and around you. Prepare yourself for one question leading to another. The experience can be both unsettling and exciting.


We are interlinked to things, bugs, bridges, people, the folks harvesting our crops, the guy who collects our garbage, the environment, the people who build businesses, the men and women working three jobs of necessity, and the police.

We are attached to entities like us who toil in never heard of villages or cities, absent from dusty maps. Some are decent, some indecent, some would give you the shoes they use to walk, and others would steal yours and laugh about it.
 
Socrates, Parmenides, and Heraclitus all observed their neighbors’ failure to open themselves to the world, wonder about it, and raise internal inquiries instead of accepting the opinions of those thought to be more learned or wise. They believed this the natural state of humanity.
 
Why? Why do we hear but don’t listen? Why do we step forward through the day, the places, and the living things without “seeing” them?
 
Why don’t we reflect upon what we perceive of this magnificent, baffling, racing life and begin more questioning rather than reflexively buying into so-called authorities, assuming they are right?
 
The philosophers I mentioned suggested explanations like this one:

We want simple answers. Quick conclusions making us feel better are preferred, whether they help us feel secure, confident, and adequate or project blame for hard times on others instead of ourselves.

If a person admits he doesn’t understand something by asking a question, he risks self-doubt. If this man is unsure around associates, he may appear foolish.

Uncertainty experienced within our complicated lives provokes anxiety for many. Confused, shaky members of the group can be cast out or lose status. Rejecting the accepted ideas of the tribe breaches the unstated rules of membership.

The world is a demanding, competitive place, where few own the luxury of time. It is one where fairness and prosperity are not guaranteed. Making a living, finding a mate, achieving a safe place to live, and raising decent and healthy children can’t be assumed.
 
Better, many believe, not to overthink what others don’t ask about, thus avoiding worry. Last, we cannot escape the grim reaper: death. We will die, as will everyone we know or will know, those dearest to us included—another troublesome topic to be set aside instinctively.
 
Few have the courage to look at the most pressing conditions of existence in the face, nor the person seen in their mirror. Thus, only the strongest can take on the surroundings in one swallow that includes everything — the beautiful and the awful together.
 
Small bites of the least unsettling bits of it come naturally to the human condition. No, don’t ask too many troublesome questions without comforting, fortifying answers. When in doubt, trust your friends and maybe the people they trust. If you take a widemouthed gulp of the whole world, you might drown.
 
Ah, but the same philosophers also believed there is an upside here. If you are brave enough to perceive everything as it is and engage in questions on a large scale, you will become a more excellent person. You may then alter your life’s path and the history of those around you.

This kind of courage, curiosity, and wonder offers engagement with whatever exists ahead. The well-being you want for those you love and the world’s future requires people such as you shall thereby become.


The possibility of discovering the best possible version of yourself remains down this road. I hope you seek it.

==========

The first image is the Yukon River, Dalton Highway, Alaska by Laura Hedien, with her kind permission. Next comes Oswaldo Guayasamin’s Waiting. Finally, a Buddhist Lama, 1913, sourced from History Daily.

Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Please, HEAR ME!

We want to be heard by those who matter to us: known, accepted, cared about. Many people are wanted for particular qualities, but not the whole of them. Often their entirety — their essence — is neither recognized nor understood.

The essence is more than a pretty face, a powerful embrace, a tender or firm hand, femininity or manliness, or a sense of humor. The extent of this elusive thing isn’t sexuality, intelligence, prominence, money-making, the ability to protect, or the capacity to be a capable parent or housekeeper. It is all of these and more.

That which is to be embraced is everything, despite everything. It is their core and voice. We wish to be seen for more than can be seen.

Each of us hopes what we say and feel makes a difference. Not with everyone but with someone. Not at every moment, but often.

No fellow man or woman can fully understand us. Nor can we fathom the extent of our changing selves. Moreover, there is always an element of “seeming” as we move through life and its transforming interaction between who we are in this moment and who we are becoming.

Vision tells us the people standing before us are static, solid, and fixed. In truth, they are blurred, not constant. Time-lapse photography provides evidence of never-ending changes on the physical surface and points to the same ongoing process within. The mirror plays the identical trick when facing it.

Each one of us has had the goal or fantasy of being relevant, not a matter of indifference — not a replaceable part.

An old New Yorker cartoon by Robert Mankoff offers a visual representation of what we don’t want. A woman seated near her husband interrupts him to say, “I’m sorry, dear. I wasn’t listening. Could you repeat everything you’ve said since we got married?”

What explains this failure to communicate, to connect, to be known by someone? What might account for a shortfall in understanding by the person we desire, love, care for, want to be with, want to be close to?

I’m referring to only the ingrained version of this common happening. Everyone gets misunderstood some of the time or falls out of focus and presence.

Here are factors to consider in conversation:

  • The speaker has real limitations in word usage. He can’t explain what he wants us to know.
  • The talker takes too long, circling whatever his concern is, not quite getting to the central message.
  • The pair find it hard to be unguarded in what they say.
  • Body language and facial expression interfere with the intake of words and their meaning.
  • Genuine hearing problems affect the listener.
  • The hearer is a habitual multi-tasker and doesn’t give his complete attention.
  • The twosome infrequently sits face to face in a quiet room when speaking.
  • Differences in temperament, history, knowledge, and gender create a gap language fails to overcome.
  • The infrequency of tender or open conversations increases the danger of big emotions (held back) now overtaking the couple.
  • One or both participants cut each other off.
  • The auditor assumes he received the same memo before, perhaps many times. He takes in the first few words and tunes out, filling in the rest from his catalog of familiar beliefs about the other.
  • One or both are in “attack” mode. The two people engage in accusations, not reflection.
  • Transference from previous relationships interferes with the individuals’ abilities to differentiate this person from someone else.

A match between two people in friendship or love requires maintenance. However, unlike an auto whose oil must be changed and tires replaced, the reasons for the work are a bit elusive.

Let’s begin with the duo’s beginnings. The initial affection and mutual interest tend to be motivated by a few appealing qualities: sexual allure, shared enthusiasms, the feeling of being desired, newness, or a temporary fitness between roles. An example would be one party’s search for a protector and the other’s joy in being appreciated for providing this.

Such attributes outshine and obscure other features of significance about the pair’s interconnection.

One of the surprises and challenges of grasping the “being” of the mate is the continual unfolding we go through as we proceed through life. Only a stone statue untouched by wind, water, or pollution remains unchanging.

Existence means transformation. In the best circumstances, this enables the possibility of growth.

A step toward improving our relationships is understanding that none of us are the same as we were. The partner, therefore, must attempt to “know” you — a living, developing, wavering soul moving through unending alteration — while he engages in a motion of his own and tries to understand himself anew. If the pair of friends or lovers can discover their nonsynchronous “becoming,” the endeavor to retain, recover, and recognize the companion may lie ahead.

Each of us loses his way at times. Still, much is possible if we recognize one of the greatest opportunities to be found in the search for friendship and love: to discover another who takes on the lifelong task of fondness, forgetting, and generous acceptance of human frailty, the better to become aware of another being who intends and attempts the same.

No wonder our delight when we come close to this closeness.

———-

The first photo is called Couple Talking by Pedro Ribeiro Simões of Portugal. The second is a A Reading & Conversation with Scholastique Mukasonga. The Moderator was Odile Cazenave. The photo was taken at the Boston University Center for the Study of Europe. Both of the images were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to Know When You are Wrong

Today’s loudspeakers offer strong opinions. Many leaders, commentators, and friends display no doubt in their beliefs. We often greet them with relief and cheers. Who among us doesn’t need a bit of security and a boost to the righteousness of our cause?

Unfortunately, too many unwavering voices are wrong. What emotional and mental approach might lead us to the truth without going back to school?

Julia Galef, a Fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, wants to help us become more open to the possibility we are in error. To do so, she says, we must look upon the world with curiosity — take delight in discovering new ways of understanding what we thought we knew.

Whatever a member of our tribe proclaims from a pedestal must always be subject to question.

Galef offers us handy metaphors to aid our self-understanding. She calls one viewpoint the “Soldier Mindset.” The soldier has a difficult task to perform, offering no room for possible skepticism about the mission. When approaching combat, adrenalin-fueled emotions capture his being.

Time and thoughtful deliberation don’t characterize the duty he undertakes. The combatant aims to protect his side and his comrades, defeating their shared enemy by attack and defense.

If, instead, we think of how best to acquire new ideas and revise our conclusions, a militarily defensive or aggressive stance won’t fit.

The Scout Mindset” is the alternative Galef suggests. The scout’s job in the army is also essential.

The assignment is not to fight but to observe conditions as they exist. This man performs the reconnaissance needed to choose the best strategy. His commanders want knowledge of the armed forces’ position and the strengths and weaknesses of both sides.

His objective is to understand the reality of the circumscribed world he surveys.

Here, penetrating, analytical, well-honed inquisitiveness is paramount. Closed-mindedness and overflowing emotional commitment to fixed beliefs mean failure. Grasping the accuracy and completeness of the surrounding circumstances is the goal. The actuality of his time and place, not others’ assertions, count for everything.

I hope it is clear which of these roles will uncover the world as it is, not support our predetermined beliefs or confirm what others tell us.

The scout prefers searching to certainty. He prides himself on a willingness to learn, recognizing no one has all the answers. Immovable preconceptions are seen as obstacles to discovery.

In the TED Talk above, Julia Galef describes how personal insecurity and a shaky self-image make it harder to take a new standpoint, uncover a fresh perspective. When some in positions of supposed authority refuse to admit mistakes for fear of displaying weakness, they present poor models for the rest of us.

We, our children, and our grandchildren do well to identify misconception as a door to enlightenment.

If good judgment is sought, the sacrifice of awareness in the name of solidarity with our side is costly.

The Temple of Apollo in Ancient Greece featured three Delphic maxims inscribed on a column in its forecourt. Their guidance remains worthy of consideration:

  • “Know thyself.”
  • “Nothing in excess.”
  • “Surety brings ruin.”

The first of these is the most famous, but if we are sure of the validity of incorrect beliefs, we will neither know ourselves nor uncover who we are and what is right.