When Life Laughs at You

The details are a problem. Spare yourself the details. No good comes from the details.

Except, perhaps, when they help you free-up your life and recognize the grand experiment offered all of us: the opportunity to remake ourselves by caring less about those same selves.

OK. You’re still reading? You really want to know the details?

Here they are.

I am in the middle of the crusty stage. Never heard the phrase? Here is the proper placement of this particular life plateau:

  • Youth
  • Middle age
  • Crusty stage
  • Old age

The crustiness is not the kind in a good piece of French bread. The temporary condition finds your face dry, red, and raw: the expected side-effect of a dermatologist’s handiwork to keep the skin on top of its game. Not cosmetic, but medical. A good outcome is predicted. I’ll be out of the crusty stage soon.

The story improves from here, although I must relate a few more details.

Better yet, I’m going to tell you what I learned by passing through this small period of discomfort; and what you might learn, too.

The procedure left my face painful, slightly swollen, and itchy for some days: a bit mask-like. The treated skin gradually flaked off and the rosy, sunburned toastiness faded. Lots of moisturizer and other unguents made my presence shiny. I was a beacon of reflected light in the half-dark.

I considered exposing you to a picture of myself in, what I can only call, the “full crusty.” I may be shameless, but I decided not to inflict this on you. Should you be grateful, just send a donation to your favorite charity.

The question was, while I was fully into this fullness – unable to put a good face on things, Halloween-ready two months too soon – “What am I going to do with my visage?” Several possibilities presented themselves. I could …

  • hide, kind of like The Elephant Man.
  • curse the hearing-impaired, indifferent gods.
  • concentrate on the pain of the first couple of days.
  • observe it.
  • obsess about the slowness of the healing process.
  • petition the authorities to make Halloween earlier, in which case I’d be able to save on a costume.
  • shroud the mirrors in my home.
  • focus on how I was getting better and better.
  • ignore the condition and occupy my mind elsewhere.
  • count myself grateful compared to those worse off.
  • worry what others might think if they saw me.

I could learn from it.

Notice how many ways we can make ourselves miserable. Instead, I decided to treat my face as the subject of an experiment.

The first two days offered restrictions: stay out of the sun lest I become some version of Dracula in the daylight. On Day Four, however, my kids, son-in-law, and  grandson visited. The adults were slightly unsettled, the two-year-old took my appearance in stride. I was still grandpa.

Day Five offered the real experimental possibility. My semi-annual dental exam gave me the chance to create some high-pitched screaming in public (not mine). Then I needed to pick up new glasses, where the patrons at Lenscrafters would scan me through their own fresh pair and surely say, “This can’t be right. I liked my vision better before. Refund please!”

In the event, only the dental assistant noticed, the dentist and office staff treating me as they always do. This either means that my regular appearance was already brutal, or they absorbed the big picture of me being me, kind of like my grandson. I vote for the second possibility.

Next stop was to pick up my glasses. Again, no crowds ran shrieking into the parking lot once I stepped into the mall. No fists were raised, no refunds requested. The experiment ended much as I expected: attention was not paid. If my countenance had grabbed some eyes? No matter. Well, OK, being chased by a shouting, torch-bearing mob would have been trouble. Fortunately, the Boy Scout in me brought earplugs.

“Always prepared” or “Be prepared,” the Boy Scout Motto

Buddhists talk of “non-self.” No soul. Nothing permanent. They state that a belief in a “self” is one of the causes of suffering. This turns the “Me, me, me” of the West’s competitive juggernaut on its head.

I could have said this turns the view of what is important in life on its face. If you have no face, no self, you have no face to lose.

Western philosophy and people like Martin Heidegger put the problem differently: we are beings for whom “being” is a question. If we think about our being, including the impression we make, self-awareness is a challenge, something our animal friends are free of.

We are far too preoccupied with our “selves.” Some say self-awareness is a disease. Or can be.

Worried about others laughing at you?

Life will laugh at you. The universe will laugh at you. Count on it.

Laugh back.

Take it from a man in the crusty stage of life.

The top photo, Breads, is the work of fir0002 at flagstaffotos.com.au/ The second image is called Two Papier-mache Masks in the NYC Village Halloween Parade, authorized for posting on Wikimedia Commons by parade director Jeanne Fleming. The 1916 German scouting manual, “Allzeit bereit,” was made available to Wikimedia Commons by Mediatus.

Dealing with Daily Indignities

One does well not to dwell on the routine indignities of life. That said, I shall relate a minor one, freshly issued last week from the Indignity Assembly Line, Chicago Division.

It is a man vs. woman story. I play the man.

Typecasting.

I walked into the Adams Street entrance to Symphony Center in downtown Chicago at about 1:15. Lovely, sunny day, temperature about 80-degrees Fahrenheit. The concert would begin at 1:30. I wanted to go to the men’s room before the music began.

A long line slithered its way down the narrow hallway. The ladies’ room queue, of course. A few feet before its entrance was a male facility with no line. I turned left to enter the anteroom to my gender-appropriate W/C.

A short, trim woman, perhaps 70-years-old, stood in front of the door to the men’s room proper. I imagined she was waiting for her husband, though most partners do this by standing outside the anteroom, not within it. As I stepped in, she planted her feet and stretched out her arms as far as possible to block my way. An American football linebacker would have been impressed by a stance signaling her determination to stop me. Moreover, she was not wearing a helmet. In other words, no push-over.

“You can’t go in.”

“Excuse me?”

“There is a woman inside.”

“Oh.”

Not being an idiot, I gathered the reason had to do with the daisy chain of ladies a few steps away. I wasn’t in a rush, so I waited. The thought occurred to me, however, that the guardian might have directed her friend to another one of the many washroom facilities in the building. Or, if the trespassing lady were in urgent need, she (without assistance) could have gone to the door of her restroom, reported her distress to those nearby, and received the consideration my wife tells me is commonplace under such circumstances. These were among the many thoughts I had as I waited, coming and going in an instant.

A frail, white-haired man, bent forward with the weight of perhaps nine decades, walked slowly around me, his mission the same as mine. He probably didn’t recognize I was waiting to enter myself. The female guardian stopped him with a somewhat less aggressive stance than she took with me. I imagined the woman figured she could impede his forward progress with less effort, kicking him to the ground if necessary, or blowing him down like a big, bad, she-wolf.

He was given the same directive. He, too, would have to wait. Or else.

The assumption, of course, was that we were not in immediate need. Maybe the doorkeeper heard no grinding teeth, saw no crossing of legs, perceived no agonized distress in either of us, overheard no barking bladders. Neither did she ask.

Only a chunk more time passed before the men’s room opened to release its cheery occupant. She appeared unconscious of our presence. She began chatting with her buddy as if nothing remarkable had happened; as if she makes a habit of visiting whatever w/c suits her. The newly “relieved” woman did not look ashamed. Just unconscious or entitled or needy of immediate conversation with the she-wolf, to whom she began speaking.

Neither one of them thanked us. You are not thanked if you are invisible.

No other men entered and I quickly joked with the older owner of a Y chromosome that we had just witnessed the fall of the last bastion of male supremacy. He responded that it could be worse. We laughed. Both of us had experienced worse, for sure. I love an entertaining story and here was my daily allotment. More than adequate compensation for the short wait.

Matinee concerts have their own demographic. The audience tends to be old – really old – not within a discus throw of working age. Women outnumber men by a huge margin. Several reasons: many of the women are widowed, some of the more able-bodied men are still working, and other men are either watching sports on TV or yelling at kids to get off their grass. In other words, doing man stuff.

Indoor plumbing stations are of particular importance to us humans, a unique part of our mental space.

Earlier in life, when we were engaged in toilet-training, they’d been a battleground and a place where “accidents” lead to ultimate triumph. Once we are old enough to gauge storage-tank-capacity, we don’t think about them much. A little later, most of the time spent inside has to do with working on our appearance; chisel, sandpaper, and spray paint in hand.

Somewhere around middle age, physical changes cause men to notice the locations of the facilities more, think about ingesting less caffeine (because it is a bladder irritant), and the mental space I mentioned gets larger. We can no longer take for granted that will-power will prevent us from “peeing ourselves.” When the bell rings signaling the symphony players have five minutes before they must be on stage, the stream of male musicians waiting to take care of their nether regions can resemble a conga line.

As the older man in the men’s room said, “It could be worse.” It has been worse, much worse. It will yet be worse and also better, depending on the moment. Such is life.

Someone will cut you off in traffic, jump ahead of you in queue at a store, clobber you with their backpack, perhaps not even knowing anything happened.

Bigger personal indignities exist. You will, for example, get older and become less physically attractive. Your body will demand more maintenance, more stretching, gallons of sunscreen. As my primary care physician told me years ago, when I asked why my left knee meniscus tore, “things wear out.”

Or, you could be like the teen-aged version of my mom, who lived with her parents and three siblings. There were times, she told me, when five of them were awaiting the sixth to exit the smallest room in their apartment, to replace the person on the throne. The frustration built until finally, someone used the nuclear option, yelling:

“Break it off and get out!”

A younger woman with whom I’ve recently become acquainted tells me she can still do the splits, a different kind of evidence things could be worse. More power to her. On the best day of my life, I couldn’t do the splits. The only splits I ever thought about were banana splits.

I am not talking here about war and peace, revolution, obstruction of justice, climate change, flood, hurricane, corruption, tax fraud, marital infidelity, or the like. I’m not talking about financial disaster, homelessness, or malnutrition.

We don’t think much about it, but nearly all of us in the Western World have indoor plumbing. Mozart, whose music I heard at Symphony Center on the day in question, used a chamber pot.

The frail, white-haired, 90-year-old man had it right.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. You won’t get those 30-minutes of grumbling discontent back.

Have a banana split instead and drown your sorrows.

The top image is  of a Pink Bunny-Shaped Roadblock , near Narita, Japan; a 2010 photo by Hopefully Acceptable Username. The second photo is a Replica of the Capitoline She-wolf, Palazzo Senatorio, Rome. It is the work of Jebulon. Finally, a 1942/43 called Men’s Room Marines won’t Win This War  It came from the Office of Emergency Management. War Production Board. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Curse of Being Average and How to Flourish Anyway

FIRST, THE BAD NEWS: you are not permitted to be average. There is a rule. Surely you know this, even if the requirement is not written. It just “is.”

We think of the rule as a “curse,” one of life’s biggest problems, even if not much discussed. We therefore try to disguise our “averageness,” overcome it, hide it under a sofa.

When it doesn’t fit we get cosmetic surgery, tutoring, and take courses to improve our college entrance exam scores. Or lift weights, get tattoos, use makeup, wear fine clothing, comb-over a receding hairline, and rent the right apartment in the tony neighborhood. We even cheat on tests.

Have you ever met a person who prefers mediocrity? Who shoots for a pedestrian education at a run-of-the-mill school; or wishes he’d come from lackluster parents? “My dad is more average than your dad!” is not heard on the playground. We don’t want an undistinguished job at an average salary in an unremarkable town.

Why do so many worry about this? A few reasons:

  • There are no more small ponds. That is, you can’t easily be a “big fish in a small pond,” a standout in a village. TV, the internet, and the global economy make comparisons with the best people worldwide inescapable.
  • Many others are trying to “pretend” they are not forgettable. We often compare ourselves – knowing our personal deficits all too well – to the surfaces and self-reported glory of those who aren’t always honest in portraying themselves.
  • Life isn’t fair. The Theory of General Relativity had already been invented when you were born. Doing it a second time gets you no points on your score sheet. Nor can you split the atom or invent the steam engine.
  • We tend to compare “up.” We might remind ourselves that we aren’t at the bottom of the scale, but are more inclined to make comparisons with those we believe are “better off” and more worthy.
  • Much of the First World encourages the lie “you can be anything you want with enough effort.” Tell that to the guy who can’t tie his shoes but expects to compete in professional basketball or the lady who fails high school algebra and still wants to win a Nobel Prize in Physics. The media singles out the one person who triumphed over astonishing odds as an example of what is possible, not the tens of thousands who did not. We believe the media.
  • All of us have been transformed by evolution. Our ancestors succeeded in producing offspring who survived. Being above average tended to help in finding healthy mates and outmaneuvering bad guys. We instinctively aim for the same goals.
  • There is no escaping the bell-shaped curve. Think about intelligence. Assume all people fit into the bell-shape below. As one moves to the right of the tall vertical line marked 100, you find those higher in IQ (intelligence quotient). Moving from 100 to the left, the IQ scores get lower. Fifty-percent of all people fall below the arithmetic average of 100. Yikes!

THE GOOD NEWS: Being average doesn’t consign you to life’s landfill. If you don’t believe me, read The Invoice.

You have not only the inherent worth of your humanity, but whatever contributions you can make to society, friends, and family, even if those acts are not recorded in the history books. By the way, my contributions won’t be there either.

Be the best you can be, which in some areas may be above average, in others not. Giving maximum effort is within your power, even if sometimes you will only get a mediocre result. Such is life, no matter what you are told.

Be defiant in the face not just of worldly injustice, but nature’s random assignment of physical and intellectual gifts. Rip your life from Mother Nature’s hands and remake the internal qualities still in your control.

I have watched some of those gifted in the unequal genetic lottery – people of towering intellectual firepower – sink under the weight of a self-imposed desire to be “great” in the judgment of the world. They are like the mythological Icarus, who thought he could (and should) fly close to the sun, not remembering his wings were made of wax and would melt. Icarus fell to earth.

Some journeys are just too dangerous and difficult for all but a tiny few. Some journeys are not necessary unless your make them so. You can enjoy most other trips as long as a rarely achieved destination is not one of your requirements.

Near the end of our days most of us keep our own score – or no score at all. “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,” as William Bruce Cameron wrote.

If you are preoccupied by the placement of your face on the totem pole of life, the higher the better, you may be missing some things: the appreciation of experiences good and bad, what you can learn from failure and the different lessons taught by success; the value of friendship and love, the taste of food you prepared even if you followed a recipe, the wind in the trees, the smile between you and a stranger, a good novel, laughter …

You cannot make yourself grow six more inches, but you can change your character, make yourself proud of yourself because of your virtue and acts of kindness or fairness, emotional generosity or courage. We must accept some of our limitations. Socrates, still discussed over 2400 years since he died, was said to be a homely, penniless man. He was not concerned. He also married a woman who wouldn’t stop criticizing him. He wasn’t much concerned about this either. Be like Socrates but marry better.

If you stop condemning yourself for “not measuring up,” then you will have more time to enrich your humanity. The loftiness of your character is in your power. If you become an honorable person who demands basic decency of himself, not just others, you will have accomplished something beyond price or rating.

As Queen Elizabeth II said, “the upward course of a nation’s history is due in the long run to the soundness of heart of its average men and women.”

The top image is called Daruma by Soen Kogaku. It is sourced from Wikiart.org/ The Bell-Shaped Curve comes from IQ Test Labs.

Is Religion Necessary for Morality?

Therapists hear many opinions from their patients. Such beliefs are not always the focus treatment or what the client came to work on. They simply “appear” in the course of conversation. One of those ideas, quite common, has to do with religion. On numerous occasions my clients mentioned, unprompted, that a religious upbringing was essential to raising “moral” children. Without the guidance of a perfect, all-good, all-powerful being, the successful raising of an upright person was hard for them to imagine.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th century German philosopher, disagreed. So did moral theorists like Immanuel Kant.

Schopenhauer thought religion clouds our capacity for rationality. According to him, early religious training creates an intellectual blind spot persisting throughout life. We then become susceptible to accepting ideas “on faith” instead of reason. Our dispassionate, analytic abilities are crippled, in Schopenhauer’s view. Childhood religious indoctrination requires us to “believe” (lest God punish us either now or in the hereafter) rather than search for truth with whatever logical tools and evidence we can muster.

Early acceptance of miracles and supernatural beings were, to Schopenhauer, the beginning of a path to intellectual and behavioral ruin. He feared religious education would hamper our ability to separate truth from falsehood. Bad behavior, excused by our confused thought process, was considered another potential consequence of a religion-created blindness.

Schopenhauer offered ancient Athens, the city-state of Plato and Aristotle, as a counter example: a moral community not produced by religion and one he thought functioned better because of its absence.

Athens was a genuine democracy: all the citizens voted on every important issue (as opposed to representative governments in which individuals are elected to do the actual voting in legislative bodies like the U.S. Congress). Schopenhauer argued that religion did not exist in Athens in the period to which he refers. Yes, there were gods and some people made sacrifices to them; but no organized, regular religious services were observed with a formal priestly hierarchy and a carefully prescribed method of worship. Nor did religious documents exist (like the Bible or Koran) or any “inspired” list of good and bad behavior similar to The Ten Commandments. Yet, Schopenhauer reminds us that laws were respected, justice was important, civility was maintained, and philosophical schools like Plato’s extraordinary Academy flourished. The question of the good life and how best to lead it was discussed among educated citizens.

At this point you might complain about the lack of rights for women in ancient Athens or the slavery prevalent there. Do remember, however, equality of the sexes is a relatively new issue despite over 2000 years of Christianity. Moreover, the Confederacy during the U.S Civil War justified the hideous institution of slavery by reference to its presence in the Bible. Nor is slavery condemned in that book.

Schopenhauer believed compassion, not religion, contributed to moral conduct, and such compassion was in man’s nature (making religion unnecessary). Indeed, the ability to identify with our fellow-man seems in short supply these days, whatever the cause. The more closely we identify with the superiority of our national, racial, or religious group, the more we are at risk of excluding feelings of sympathy for those who don’t share our nationality, skin color, or faith.

Immanuel Kant, an earlier German philosopher, argued for a different (but still secular) foundation for morality: the categorical imperative. Kant recommended we each ask a question when evaluating our behavior: should my personal moral standards be made into a universal law — a requirement and duty for everyone without exception, or, as he called it, a categorical imperative. Additionally, in considering our answer, he would remind us to respect the dignity of our fellow-man simply because he is human. “Using” others is therefore immoral.

For example, if sexual fidelity and honesty are deemed proper, they must be required of everyone in all circumstances. Adultery, by contrast, however much you believe it would be in your self-interest, would be of no moral value; because proper action is not a matter of how much you might profit from it, but rather, a duty to what is good in itself.

Let’s say you are unfaithful, steal, lie, and break promises. Are you prepared to give permission for everyone to act the same way against you and everyone else? If not, he would argue you have exposed the moral failing of your own behavior.

These thinkers make demands on us to consider whether what we do is justifiable by a process of reason: to look in the mirror at who we are, beyond any religious rule we follow.

Clearly, whether religion is essential to implant the seed of a life-long moral rootedness, one can argue it provides many other things, including a sense of comfort, order, and hopefulness in the most fraught moments of life, as well as a supportive and congenial community of fellow-believers.

The question remains, however, whether there is something Schopenhauer and Kant are missing in their quest for moral grounding, beyond these potential benefits of faith. Do you believe religion provides some necessary ethical guidance for our children that these men miss?

I look forward to your thoughts on the subject.

The top image is Man Praying at a Japanese Shinto Shrine. It is the work of Kalandrakas and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Question Mark is sourced from the Monroeville Community Website.

The Music of Catastrophe

If music means something important to us, our contact with a new person finds us trying to discover what musical loves we might share. Thus do friendship and romance begin.

In a world where isolated suffering comes easily, music, like some of the other arts, reveals we have much company in our emotional distress.

Songs add language to instrumental expression, making them more precise in meaning than purely instrumental music. Vocal composition is literally sung to words, but there is just as much of the human experience in the more abstract forms, even if a symphony is not so easily identified with the particular circumstance (say, a broken heart) described in lyrics.

Sound offers solace if a composition reaches the tender, injured place inside. Few pieces, however, deal with cataclysm and collapse. To my ears, one of those is the Symphony #4, the last such work of German composer Johannes Brahms.

Brahms was a life-long bachelor from Hamburg, who died in 1897. He achieved recognition early and much success afterwards. The major unhappiness of his life was his unfulfilled romantic attachment to Clara Schumann, 14 years his senior; the widow of the man who first recognized his genius, the composer Robert Schumann. Some believe their age difference, his virtual adoption by the couple, and the shadow of Brahms’s indebtedness to her late husband made the consummation of his ardor impossible. Brahms’s final symphony reveals he knew much about human calamity, whatever its source.

Lacking a description from the composer about what his symphony “meant” — if anything or nothing — we are left to make our response personal. Perhaps no language exists with which to “understand” Brahms’s Fourth and my use of catastrophe is misplaced, but I am not alone in the opinion.

That disaster, if there is one, occurs in the fourth and last section of the work, the concluding 10-minutes or so. There, too, you will hear a much commented upon “conversational” quality in Brahms, when the wind instruments “speak” to each other. David Hurwitz of Classics Today, finds “active rage and impassive grandeur” in the ending. Jerry Dubins wrote, in Fanfare magazine, of the “final rush to oblivion … on the symphony’s preordained appointment with disaster and annihilation” in “a score of gloom and doom.”

Why might one want to listen given this description?

To me and the many who rank the work one of the most perfect and moving in the entire classical repertoire, much poignant beauty accompanies the ride into the abyss; indeed, because of it. The reasons for listening are no different from those causing us to appreciate a sad song. In Brahms’s 40-minutes we become the composer, inhabit his intellectual and emotional journey, and are seized by towering grandeur; perhaps even  swept away, exhilarated by the suspense and power, and moved to tears. Some would say a great work of art, if masterfully performed, can change us.

Franz Kafka knew the power of all art forms and wrote about the potentially transformational impact of writing:

What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be like an ax to break the frozen sea within us.

Will you be changed?

You can find out in 40-minutes time.

The top photo is the work of Ville Miettinen. It is described as, “A crevasse (moulin) in the Langjökull glacier, Iceland. At the time it was perhaps three or four meters long, a meter wide and some 30-40 meters deep.” The second image is the 20-year-old Brahms in 1853. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What I Have Learned so Far: Life Lessons, Part II

study-for-inner-improvement-1977

Here is a second round of ideas about the process of living accumulated in a lifetime of observation and action — success, error, and reflection. My profession allowed me access to the thoughts and stumbles, ascensions and tumbles of thousands of folks. Some of my learning is crafted into the bits below. I published an essay on January 8 with the same title, labeled Part I. Perhaps there will be a third set after a while. Here goes the second one:

  • “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” Einstein most often gets credit for saying so, but the real author is William Bruce Cameron. So much for justice.
  • “Buddies don’t count,” as my friend John Kain says. He meant we should not keep score or expect perfect equity in any relationship. Close attention to a balance sheet will make us (and our soon-to-be former friend) miserable.
  • Know thyself” is inscribed at the Temple of Apollo. I never met anyone who understood himself completely, myself included. Self-awareness is a “more or less” commodity. We consume too much time preoccupied with what others think of us, analyzing why they did what they did, said what they said. One might more profitably endeavor to know oneself and do good in the world.
  • The ability to start over is essential. I counseled people who made dramatic career changes (from powerhouse attorney to clergyman, for example). I had to evaluate patients afresh to see if I was missing something or misunderstanding their makeup. We must occasionally wipe clean the mirror of our thinking and let ourselves be shocked or enlightened by our unphotoshopped image. As Max Weber suggested, whether we wish to or not, our lives will be influenced by how much truth about ourselves and the world we can bear.
  • To understand yourself you need to know your roots. Our ancestors survived, chose mates, and produced children. We inherited their genes and therefore possess the same urges. These forebears also had to detect who was like them and might be friendly, and who was different and might be dangerous. Fruit enabled survival, so we were handed their love of sweets. The creation of tools further enhanced the chance of staying alive. The ability to form cooperative groups helped, as well. Since they didn’t live long, the genes they delivered to us gave us instincts that worked for what we now think of as the first half of life.
  • A troubling aspect of evolution is that it enabled survival, not happiness. Happiness became the bi-product of human actions only if the emotion helped make sure the kids were born, survived, and thrived. The joy produced by love, for instance, bonded families and increased the likelihood the children would come to generate offspring of their own in time.

even-if-happiness-forgets-you-occasionally-never-forget-it-completely

  • We tend to think in terms of before and after: before and after school, before and after you left home; a first job, the death of someone you loved, a first sexual encounter, etc.
  • We don’t need permission from very many people. Asking “to be allowed” means you will hear “no” more than the guy who doesn’t. Such requests make you the hostage of waiters, your children, and people you will never meet again. Often it is OK to just do what you want. No one will stop or question you. The world, within limits, tends to adjust. A wonderful sense of liberation awaits.
  • We need to evaluate our default (automatic) tendencies. Some of us take action, others wait. Some routinely approach, others reflexively avoid. Our strengths can also be our weaknesses when applied to the wrong situations. Best to apply as needed, rather than by default.
  • Personality disorders cause us to rerun mistakes, like an old episode of a poor TV show. One is well-advised to recognize flawed life strategies — recurring behavior patterns contributing to our disappointments. We otherwise risk familiar and fruitless searches for the wrong people; too many or too few chances taken and, either ignoring tomorrow for pleasure today or focusing so much on tomorrow we miss the glory and opportunity offered by the new sunrise.
  • “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.” Within a group of unremarkable people, you can stand out without being extraordinary. Becoming a big fish in a small pond is easy because the pond is tiny, with little competition, and the other fish are not so fine as you are.
  • There are fewer small ponds these days. Over our history, especially when villages and small towns predominated, we could achieve high status without difficulty. Now we must compete with people all over the globe.
  • The only thing you control is what you do, what you think. The attempt to change other adults is a fool’s errand unless they want to be altered, like an article of clothing needing to be resized. Remember the old psychotherapy joke:

Question: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: One, but the light bulb must want to be changed.

untitled-1993

  • Most selfish people don’t experience much guilt. Those who fear their own selfishness tend to overstate the danger. Even then a self-sacrificing person must care for his own needs. Please recall the airline safety instructions:

If the oxygen mask comes down and you are traveling with someone who is dependent on you, put the mask on yourself first. (Otherwise you’d be of little help to your companion or child).

  • Many folks don’t buy into the belief their choices are as genetically determined as they are. Example:

Maybe you say, “I dress the way I do to look nice.” Well, an evolutionary scholar would tell you ancestors who made a good appearance were more likely to have their choice of healthy, faithful mates and thereby ensure they would create fit offspring. That tendency is “built-in,” so we incline toward concern about appearances well after our biological clocks stop.

  • The average 16th-century man had less information to process in his short lifetime than can be found in a single, daily edition of The New York Times. We must narrow our focus or drown in a sea of real news, fake news, and drivel. Too many of us attend to things of no lasting value.
  • Change can be unsettling. The effort to keep our world exactly as it is, however, can lead us to reduce the size of our lives, resist unfamiliar experiences, and fail to incorporate new people in our circle. Flexibility is a key to life satisfaction. Change is an opportunity to reinvent oneself.
  • Don’t expect sincere apologies any time soon. In 1942 West Coast Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps by the federal government, which alleged potential disloyalty during the ongoing war. World War II ended in 1945. Not until 1988 did the USA formally apologize, citing the real reasons for this disgraceful act against a group which included 62% U.S. citizens:

Race prejudice, war hysteria, and the failure of political leadership.

  • Inaction, stillness, and patience are powerful tools. Passive-resistance has been a major and successful method of changing the world, one practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Here is a modest illustration of how passivity can work for you:

When my wife and I bought our current home, we dealt directly with the owner. He proposed a price. I was silent. As the seconds passed he lowered the number a few times. The man assumed my failure to respond meant he’d not reached a figure acceptable to us. The truth was, however, he went below what we were prepared to pay.

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  • If you chase people they are inclined to flee. Stop chasing and they may turn toward you or even walk in your direction. Consider this with respect to your romantic life.
  • I had the pleasure of a friendship with a Japanese businessman residing in the USA. His favorite teacher advised him to choose a career that was his second love, not the thing he loved best. Why?

If you do what you love best as your vocation you will discover it becomes a thing you must do, not an activity you choose to do. You may kill the thing you love.

  • Luck is most often defined by happy accidents and near misses: finding a dollar on the street, winning the lottery, that sort of thing. A bigger scale exists. My wife’s maternal grandmother was an indentured servant in Poland. She served on a farm before indoor plumbing was common. When using the outhouse in wintertime she jumped from one cow patty to another to keep her bare feet warm.

In my mother-in-law’s childhood, she and her young friends picked up lumps of coal that fell off passing freight trains to help heat their homes. I can remember washboards and clothes lines in my youth, a day of few washing machines and dryers. In graduate school we used mechanical calculators to compute research results until giant computers became available. The point?

Be grateful for what you have.

  • Think about random events for a moment. The most unlikely event in your life is that you exist at all. Had my grandparents not left Europe at the beginning of the 20th-century, I could have been murdered by the Nazis some time later. Moreover, for each of us to exist as the unique person we are, every ancestor had to meet and procreate with just the mate with whom they did. Had only one made a different choice or perhaps had intercourse on another day, we wouldn’t be here. Others would.
  • I worked for a quirky psychiatrist at a now defunct psychiatric institution. MJ was enormously bright and also quite full of himself. One day he asked me to sub for him at a meeting. I reported back the criticism I heard aimed at him. He was unperturbed. MJ’s only comment was, “A big tree casts a long shadow.” In other words, MJ viewed himself as a big, imposing tree and therefore believed some people were going to take shots at him, be jealous, etc. I thought to myself, “You really are full of yourself.” A second later I realized he was right:

If you are going to do anything significant in life and hold opinions not universally agreed upon, you need to let the bullets bounce off. There will be bullets.

  • In his Politics, Aristotle writes about those who “proceed on the supposition that they should either preserve or increase without limit their holdings of money. The cause of this condition is that they are serious about living, but not about living well.”
  • Aristotle was born over 2400 years ago. Lucky for us, some of the best advice has been around for a while.

The first image is called Study for Inner Improvement by Helen Almeida, dating from 1977. The next one is Even if Happiness Forgets You Occasionally, Never Forget It Completely, a year 2000 work of Hasson Massoudy, followed by an Untitled 1993 painting of Albert Oehlen. Finally comes Evening Magic created in 2000 by Eyvind Earle. All are sourced from Wikiart.org.

George Altman and the Art of Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack,

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

God bless you and your family.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Geo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Most of the information on George Altman’s life comes from his autobiography, written with Lew Freedman, George Altman: My Baseball Journey from the Negro Leagues to the Majors and Beyond. The second image above is Norman Rockwell’s, The Dugout, which appeared in the September 14, 1948 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. The painting well-symbolizes the futility of most of the Cubs teams my generation watched when we were growing up. The following dugout image includes, from left to right, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and George Altman. I do not know the names of the other players, but would be pleased to be informed by those who do.