Breaking the Code: When Words are Not What They Seem

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Plain English is hard to come by. Some of us struggle with directness, while others take diplomacy to an extreme. We are caught between people who speak with the bluntness of a club to the head and those who are so careful it is difficult to know whether they make a sound.

Worse still, some speak in code. Psychologists and other therapists do their best to break the code, to find the meaning inside.

You might have heard Governor Scott Walker’s address pulling out of the Republican Party (GOP) presidential race. You heard the words, but did you get the meaning? The first sentence of his announcement provides an example of words in disguise and an opportunity to analyze them:

“I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field.”

The “field” to which he referred includes more than a dozen competitors for the 2016 presidential nomination of the Republican Party. He went on to state it would be better if the voters had a limited number of alternatives in the run-up to producing a party standard-bearer.

The single sentence is revealing. Those 15 words did two things beyond informing us he was dropping out:

  1. The Governor gave a coded message to many of his Christian supporters.
  2. Mr. Walker offered a preposterous reason for his decision to leave the campaign. He tried to disguise his loss of public support as the cause of his decision.

The former candidate’s sentence can be decoded even without the help of the late Alan Turing, the man who broke the Nazi’s Enigma codes during World War II. The second word in Walker’s opening is “believe,” a powerful utterance for some of strong Christian faith. Even more significantly, he went on: “I believe I am being called …” This phrase carries with it the notion of a “calling,” associated with life direction provided by a supernatural entity. Ministers, such as Scott Walker’s father, often say they are called to the vocation of ministry. Not coincidentally, many of the candidate’s strongest supporters are on the religious right.

In effect, Mr. Walker’s sentence was partly addressed to his spiritual backers, letting them know he is keeping faith with them, and acting according to his (and their own) religious beliefs. By so doing, he provided them with a reason to think favorably of him if he chooses to run again for public office. Thus, one can imagine Mr. Walker’s desire is to be thought of as a man of God doing God’s will.

I can’t comment on the Governor’s private contact with a superior being, if indeed such occurred. Yet it is difficult to think that Scott Walker’s disappearing public support did not determine his decision. The notion that he might have ended his campaign after receiving “the call,” even were he leading in the polls, strains credulity. The Governor is playing his religious believers for chumps.

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Remember what the press said about Mr. Walker’s decision to exit the race. The following quote comes from the September 21st issue of the The Wall Street Journal:

“He led most polls in Iowa until mid-July, and regularly ranked among the top three or four contenders in national surveys of GOP primary voters. But after a lackluster performance in Wednesday’s GOP debate, he didn’t register any support in a CNN/ORC national poll conducted right afterward. …

“But his biggest problem appeared to be fundraising. Many of his top donors expressed concern in recent weeks that … he wouldn’t raise enough money to maintain a large campaign staff.”

Following Walker’s message to the faithful, the remainder of his sentence attempts to recast his political failure as an act of leadership:

“I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field.” Thus, Mr. Walker anoints himself a leader, not a loser. Moreover, he says he just wants to “help.” Wow, he is an altruist, too.

Instead of telling us all this, the Governor might have been frank:

“I have less than 1% support of the likely primary voters. I can understand why potential backers will not fund my campaign. Hats off to those who beat me.”

What Walker did, in a mere 15 words, was an act of “spin.” His simple sentence was reprehensible because he mocked his alleged faith, tried to play on the religious convictions of his followers, and fashioned himself not as the loser in the race, but as a leader who exemplified high principle and, perhaps, divine guidance.

Yes, political speech is an easy target. Who can forget Bill Clinton’s righteously angry statement, “I did not have sex with that woman!” This sentence defined “sex” as intercourse alone, thereby giving him license to deny the accusation of inappropriate behavior with a White House intern.

My conclusion is this: George Orwell, the author of 1984, was correct. We live in a time, as he predicted, when language’s meaning is torn syllable from syllable. Communication has always been hard enough. Now, not so long after Orwell imagined it, failure is sold to us as success and religious references play to the gullibility of the flock.

Sadly, much of this has occurred for millennia, but was thought dishonorable in times past. The difference now is that such deceit is considered clever by too many of those who notice, and honest by those who don’t.

Words matter, in therapy and out.

Especially in disguise.

The top images are called Reversible Head with Basket of Fruit, the work of Arcimboldo, 1590. If you take a close look, you’ll notice the painting on the left is an inversion of the one on the right. Thus, they represent a visual analogue of the essay’s topic: disguised speech. The bottom image is Governor Walker speaking in 2015, by Michael Vadon, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Looking For Trouble? Why Being “Friends With Benefits” Might Not Be To Your Benefit

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Like a parent putting a weapon in the hands of someone too young to use it safely, Mother Nature has given teenagers sex. And, along with its novelty and thrill, come bodies that are drawn to each other with an out-of-control animal magnetism. They are spring-loaded even before spring time, aching to be launched.

And, perhaps worst of all, Western culture has made sex into something almost as impersonal as buying your groceries.

Like those groceries, it is a thing to be consumed. And, like food, it produces sensations, with particular attention to appearance, shape, smell, taste, and texture.

But unfortunately, this thing that we consume with alacrity, just might eat the consumer alive.

Sex has always been a problematic commodity, even before the days when it began to be used to sell other commodities: cars, soft drinks, and the like.

Now the idea of “friends with benefits,” with No Strings Attached as the movie title promises, has added a new wrinkle to the long list of carnal complications.

For ages sex has put young people in the position of trying to figure out how to have it, without the concomitant problems of shame, disease, and pregnancy. For a long while access to young women was restricted by their families and trustworthy chaperones, with religious institutions casting a long shadow over the entire reproductive process. Perhaps George Orwell’s Big Brother wasn’t involved in surveillance of one’s comings and goings, but your own big brother was likely to be if you were female.

What the church couldn’t monitor, it condemned. Punishment by shunning and shaming was Hester Prynne’s reward for an out-of-wedlock pregnancy in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Church-derived predictions of a hellish afterlife and a powerfully ingrained sense of guilt also contributed to hesitation even when your older male sibling wasn’t close by.

Eventually, however, several things happened. Urbanization made people more anonymous and independent than when they lived in small communities. They were now less easily watched and controlled. Women asserted their rights, and politicians and voters followed their lead in granting them. The automobile assisted a couple in getting away from watchful eyes and offered a place, even if uncomfortable, where sex could occur.

Meanwhile, more women began to go to school in co-ed institutions and economic necessity brought them out of the kitchen and into the work place. The weakening of religion’s governance and the invention of the birth control pill further undermined the likelihood of negative consequences if the female became sexually active.

With less to constrain them, young people did what comes naturally. Casual sex always existed, but now it was a game that the woman could play with less chance of social disgrace. The 1969 movie John and Mary portrayed the very young Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow as two characters who become sexually involved and only introduce themselves by name at the film’s end.

One night stands, of course, can last more than one night. “Hook ups,” can hook you permanently. But the once common expectation of something meaningful coming from a sexual encounter has been relegated to a past that many young people see as a relic from the prehistoric age of their grandparents.

Which brings us to the idea of “friendship with benefits.” There are even instructions on the internet on how best to achieve this (apparently desirable) change in a platonic relationship. You are expected to think clearly, recognize in advance whether you can keep your emotions in check, choose the right person, and create clear and mutually agreeable rules about how often and under what circumstances you will see each other.

Unfortunately, even with some guidance, you are working against biology and psychology. And, you are risking the conventional friendship (without benefits) that existed before. As Robert Burns put it, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men” often go awry.

Let me count the ways, leaving out such complications as sexually transmitted disease, religion, and pregnancy:

  1. The human heart is hard-wired to “care,” especially the female heart. Having won equality and the right to control their own bodies, women are well-advised not to assume that they can objectify the opposite sex with the ease that men can.
  2. Even in friendships jealousy can be an issue. Despite the new set of “rules” that govern your sexualized relatedness, how might it feel to you after intercourse if your companion finds other things and people to occupy himself? Eventually, at least one of the parties is likely to attach to someone permanently. How will the “old friend” like it when his or her status is changed unilaterally back to what it was before sex?
  3. A “romance” with no commitments, no responsibilities, and no future is not likely to bring out the best in either person. It encourages treatment that is callous or indifferent.
  4. Do you believe that it is possible to make the relationship sexual without changing it? A kind of vulnerability can come with nakedness; the other person now knows some very personal things about you. Will he look at you and you at him in the same way later?
  5. Performance questions are almost inevitable. Was the sex good? Good enough? How did it compare to others? If it was not satisfying, how do you move back to a platonic relationship without injuring your friend?
  6. Perhaps you believe that you will get out of the “benefits” portion of the connection before your emotions get in the way. This represents a pretty basic misunderstanding of how (and how rapidly) love can bloom. If I had a nickel for every time one of my patients predicted incorrectly that her brain was in charge and would signal the moment in which to exit, I would be the richest man in the world.
  7. Even if you are able to keep your head dominant over your heart, your decision to get out might leave your friend devastated. Why would you want to risk something (your friendship) that you claim is so important to you?
  8. Does your mate-of-convenience have a different agenda than you do? Does he hope that love will follow sex, even if he states that he does not want or expect that?

One more point. Why would you want to give up the romance, the mystery, the allure of growing intimacy that might lead to love? Why debase something that can be precious and make it a commonplace?

We lose our appreciation of things too easily achieved. If gold grew on trees, it would not be so highly valued as it is. Few of life’s offerings escape the law of supply and demand.

Society puts young people, even including some not quite so young, in a tough spot. “Choose!” it says at the extreme, between an inflexible abstinence based on religious text and physical contact that has been so commoditized it is little more than the raw reproductive act of our mammalian cousins.

Remember: song writers write love songs, not songs about friends with benefits.

The photo above captures a Navy Seal showing a child an M4 carbine at the Veteran’s Day Ceremony of November 7, 2009 at Ft. Pierce, Florida. The author is Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How Watching the Cubs can Kill You–Literally

“Chicago Cubs fans are ninety percent scar tissue.” So said George Will. But could it be even worse than that? Could it be that the Cubs can kill you?

Case in point. Let me take you back to the year 1984, now 25 years in the past. It was the Cubs first appearance in the post-season since 1945. And maybe, just maybe, we thought, the long-awaited World Championship was at hand, the laurel we’d last won in 1908.

If your name was Theresa Boucek, 1908 wasn’t just something you’d read about. Indeed, Boucek, who had been born on October 7, 1882, could even recall the 1906 World Series between the Cubs and the White Sox. She’d been a famously attractive young woman back then, and was still comely enough to win a beauty contest at age 99! Of course, I’m not sure that she had much competition, but still, being the Arkansas Tri-County Nursing Home Queen must count for something.

That aside, lovely Theresa’s life was unremarkable. Daughter of a tailor, Boucek lived on Chicago’s West Side, and worked as a department store clerk and later, as a store detective. After marrying in 1906, she continued to work outside the home. Before moving to Arkansas in 1972 with her son Fred, she’d resided in Berwyn and Glenview. And all the while, Theresa Boucek was a life-long Cubs fan, suffering the “slings and arrows of outrageous (Cubs) fortune” known to many of us.

Fast forward to the 1984 playoffs: the Cubs vs. the San Diego Padres. Our boys won the first two games at Wrigley Field and needed only one victory in three possible tries in Southern California. But we lost the first two games in San Diego and were left with one final chance to make it to the World Series. And Theresa Boucek watched it all on her TV, watched in hope and watched in frustration, watched with her grandson Michael by her side, watched and prayed, as all Cubs fans do, for a final trip to the promised land and World Series glory.

Those of you with long memories will recall that the Cubs were actually leading in Game #5, and had their ace, Rick Sutcliffe on the mound. But Rick started to fade late in the game, and, as Michael Boucek recalled for the Chicago Sun Times, “as a matter of fact, (my grandmother) died during the game when Sutcliffe started to go downhill.”

It was her 102nd birthday. A fitting payoff for a lifetime of devotion to her favorite team.

Is there a moral to this story? I guess my thoughts go to the legendary Steve Bartman, the man who (some think) cost the Cubs a trip to the World Series in 2003 by allegedly interfering with Moises Alou’s attempt to catch a foul ball. I’ve always thought that this young man got a raw deal, that it was not Bartman but the men on the field who failed themselves and us.

But then, I guess the punishment suffered by Cubs fans is relative. The lifetime of shame suffered by Bartman might not be so bad after all.

Bartman, at least, unlike Therese Boucek, wasn’t killed by the Cubs.

Cubs and Sox Fans: Be Careful What You Wish For

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Certain years ring bells for Cubs and Sox fans. For the South Siders, it’s 2005 and before that, 1959.

Make a note of the year: 1959. I’ll get back to it shortly.

For the Cubbie faithful, the remembered years cause pain: the twin failures of the last two, 2003, 1998, 1989, 1984 and too many others to mention. Years when the balloon of faith and hope got punctured in the playoffs by grim reality; years that brought tears and anger and much gnashing of teeth.

As Chicagoans know, but outsiders might not, you are not supposed to be able to be both a Cubs and a Sox fan. It is essential to make a choice, usually early in life; this is done by some combination of parental persuasion, family example, and geography. Most locals don’t want to break faith with family tradition and root for a different team than their neighbors root for.

And so, not surprisingly, I was a Cubs fan. So was my dad, so was his dad, etc. And for most of the aforementioned lives, I and my recent ancestors have been living on the North Side of the city or in the northern suburbs. You’ve heard the story before, how you get imprinted on the team when your dad first takes you to see them in a tender moment of your youth. After that, no amount of pain inflicted by the ball club’s failures can separate you from the attachment. Like certain wild animals, you have mated for life.

Thus it was in 1959, the year of the first White Sox pennant in 40 summers, that I discovered the meaning of the phrase “Be careful what you wish for.”

I was a little boy, of course, but not so little that I didn’t want the White Sox to fail. Like nearly all my friends, I hated the White Sox. It was something like a religious obligation, almost an 11th commandment: “Thou shalt hate the Chicago White Sox.” Just as religion required me to honor my father and my mother, so did it ask that I root for the Cubbies only: “Thou shalt have no team before the Cubs.”

My Uncle Sam was an exception to the family allegiance to the Cubs. He was my mother’s brother, was raised on the South Side, and breathed the air of other Sox loyalists. He also had a friend who was a White Sox scout and minor league manager, Frank Parenti. Frank would get Sam tickets for some of the games and occasionally I got to see American League contests played in old Comiskey Park as a result. But that didn’t mean that I had to like them or like the White Sox! No, I went out of curiosity, as a sort of scientific observer, and to see what the draw of the Sox was to my uncle; not to mention getting to watch Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Ted Williams, and other American League greats close up.

Thanks to Mr. Parenti, both my uncle and my dad got to see the second game of the 1959 World Series. Back in those days, the games were all played in natural light, so school required that I miss seeing most of the weekday action on TV. But I was more than happy when the Sox returned to Chicago for the sixth game down 3 games to 2. Only one more loss and the World Series would be over! The sooner, the better, I felt.

I came home after school on the afternoon of the 6th game, October 8th, to find the White Sox down by a score of  8 to 3 in the 7th inning. It was clear to me, as it must have been to every other Chicago baseball fan, that the World Series was effectively over. The Sox had a relatively weak hitting team staffed by the likes of Luis Aparicio, Nelson Fox, Sherman Lollar, and Al Smith; and had won the American League Championship by dint of excellent pitching and defense, and a surprising off-year from the Yankees. The South Siders would have needed a miracle to reverse their fortunes. I was feeling good!

Along about the 8th inning, still 8-3, my mom strolled into the living room where I was parked in front of a large Muntz TV. “What’s the score,” she asked?

“Eight to three,” I replied, “the World Series is pretty much over.”

Then the words I have not forgotten, will never forget; more indelible than a tattoo on the heart they were about to break:

“Oh, that’s too bad. Your dad had a World Series ticket for you tomorrow.”

I don’t have much recall after the trauma of those words. I think I started rooting feverishly for the White Sox, but I can’t really remember any detail. All I know is that my life changed forever. I had learned a hard lesson.

As Oscar Wilde put it many years before: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants; the other is getting it.”

In the succeeding 50 years, I have yet to see a World Series game except on TV. And I have become that rare Chicago sports fan who hopes for the best for both the Cubs and the Sox.

I know, all too well, the danger of doing otherwise.

The above image is by Kalel2007, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.