Managing Your Anxiety in an Anxious Time

Even in a normal world, we encounter unwanted thoughts: fear of injury to our children, self-doubt, financial concerns, and more. These are not routine times, so they come in a flood. Yet distress needn’t become your new full-time occupation.

It is possible to get more comfortable with the uncomfortable despite daily reminders of illness and economic upheaval.

Vexing contemplations are like an undesired guest at a party. The gate crasher won’t leave as soon as we want, but perhaps we can have pleasure despite him. In a sense, now our job is to come to a truce with intrusive, unwelcome ideas.

The invading reflections can be viewed from the outside, not as part of your being or a mark against you.

Though this historical moment is extreme, no life escapes misfortune. Whether the days are down or up, our healthiest option requires the willingness to experience disquiet when it appears. Uncertainty and surprise come with every life.

On the train of your journey, you will pass through many challenges. Understand them as temporary, as nearly all are. The locomotive will move on and you with it.

Routines have been disrupted and the immediate future made unpredictable. In addition to obtaining the necessities of existence, time can be used to ask yourself about your values: what is important to you and what you can do, even now, to advance their achievement?

We must learn new skills, the environment still needs tending, our political life demands alteration, and fellow men need our help to survive. Assertive action and direction will lessen the anguish that waits for the empty space in any mind not occupied with purpose and creation.

There is an opportunity to build a tolerance to fear and worry. Not easy, but attainable.

Self-blame is not required. ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) recommends you catch a thought in mid-flight. Then take a moment to step back and note any accompanying brooding or tribulation as separate from yourself.

Wrestling with the feelings, trying to push them away, is a less winnable fight than if you permit them to remain and, with time’s passage, dissipate. Accept their presence and live with them in place of suffering in a struggle. The exhaustion of a skirmish only fuels your unhappiness.

End the battle with that which is in your head. Instead, watch the anxieties as if you were a spectator at a baseball game not involving your favorite team. A measure of separation from them and their anguish is thereby enabled. Social distancing is not the sole type of remoteness we need today.

No benefit arises from judging them as good or bad. Other things merit attention, some of which will allow you to achieve readiness for useful action, an ability less manageable when focused on the chattering voice of dread, helplessness, and catastrophization.

Anxiety comes in two parts. First to arrive is the fear of an event that may be near or far, likely or not. The second is the evaluation we make of those anticipations and the way our fight with their torment amplifies them, along with any self-condemnation for having them. An overvaluation of this unbidden visitor swells a component of misery: anxiety about our anxiety.

Within us exists the talent to distance ourselves from the alarm, recognizing the shrillness of the sound rather than enabling its power to ratchet up pain. At the least, the consternation can be incorporated as a part of life, not consuming all else of importance.

I do not mean to dismiss the extremity of the conditions faced by some of you and much of humanity. Rather, I hope to enable you to manage the challenging moment.

The three short videos illustrate and add to what I’ve written. The darkest, late-night places of the soul need not be an inescapable residence.

The Arc of a Therapist’s Emotional Life

I am not the man I was when I became a man. Nor am I the therapist I was on the first day I treated a patient. My question, then, is how did I get from letter A to whatever letter of the alphabet I’m now standing on?

More importantly:

  1. Is there a pattern to the emotional life of a therapist?
  2. Must he change himself in order to do the work?
  3. Is he changed by the work?
  4. Does he change again after the work?

In the absence of clarifying research on these questions, I’ll offer my own anecdotal observations, both of other therapists and my own journey through therapy’s emotional thicket.

I’ll begin by suggesting that counselors choose the field for one of two reasons:

  • They are touched by the torturous path of humanity and wish to ameliorate suffering.
  • They are fascinated by the human condition, the myriad forms of personality, and want to learn more.

Many of us chose our occupation for both of these reasons and, of course, to make a living.

Let us assume, then, that the future mental health professional comes to his work sensitive to the pain of others. Perhaps he is attuned to some portion of this by his own nature or experience. I was.

Although I do not pretend to be like all therapists, I was a bright youngster with questions about life. One of my earliest questions was, “Why am I me?” I wondered why my particular consciousness was not in someone else’s body! I also displayed awareness of racism before wide-spread marches, sit-ins, protests; before the 1955 national emergence of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.

My parents survived the Great Depression, my mom the victim of malnutrition and tuberculosis. She was further marked by a chaotic childhood home, a stewpot for mental disorders, including an alcoholic father and a paranoid mother. Dad survived a heart attack in late 1958. He, too, lived with the indelible tattoo of the 1930s worldwide economic drama and worked multiple jobs simultaneously into his seventh decade, both to define himself and arrest those youthful financial insecurities.

Beyond the particularities of the family, I came to an early awareness of the murder of the European Jews, though I experienced only occasional and mild anti-Semitism. I believe this consciousness preceded and heightened my recognition of racism and other forms of unfairness and mistreatment. Here was a youthful lesson that bad things can happen to good people. Thus, the stories I heard as a therapist, however harrowing, did not surprise me.

This was my emotional inheritance, the legacy shared with my brothers Eddie and Jack.

More generally, all children (including tiny therapists-to-be) need to master their emotions. We cannot cry at every setback. We discover this necessity in school, if not earlier. Those men born at the leading-edge of the post World War II “baby boom,” as I was, were raised to suppress their feelings, lest they be thought unmanly. The prohibition against male hyper-sensitivity or “softness” still is alive today, if somewhat muted.

What constitutes a “sensitive” person, however, is complicated. One can be easily hurt, moved by the pain of others, or both. If he is the former, the potential counselor must immunize himself against his own vulnerability before he can help anyone else. To do otherwise sets him up to become as needy as his client within session.

Even if the therapist is not “too sensitive,” he typically begins his therapy career with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to “cure” his patients – extend himself to the point of riding their emotional roller coaster with them – and risk burning out. Moreover, the new counselor, by definition lacking a track record of success, uses the improvement of his patients as the scorecard of his self-worth. To desire your client’s well-being is much more fraught if your equanimity and self-concept are too closely tied to the trajectory of the patient’s treatment.

Good therapists finally do acquire a sense of competence and confidence. They achieve this, in part, by finding the proper “therapeutic distance” from the person sitting across from them. You become sympathetic, not empathetic. In other words, you offer sympathy (compassion) rather than empathy (feeling as if the other’s pain has jumped inside you and taken you over).

The counselor is privileged and enriched by witnessing the fragility and strength of his clients. He listens to their stories: all the pain and challenge of life’s stage played out in a small room. I am certain I became more humane, a better person, because of the good luck of serving others. They served me, too – made me more comfortable with my own emotional expression, to the point of throwing-off some of the strictures required to “be a man.”

Nonetheless, I now wonder whether the distancing I mentioned might come at a cost. Does the therapist’s role above the roiling turmoil of his client persist when he is with friends or relatives? Can he set aside the now automatic tendency to “ice” his feelings at work and thaw himself elsewhere? Is the therapist’s responsiveness to those in his personal life limited by the practiced program of his profession? I’m not sure.

Now retired, I find myself (and a few other ex-therapists) experiencing a wider emotional range than before. At one end, I accept personal losses more easily (the recent death of a wonderful friend, Joe Pribyl, for example). The other extreme finds me more distressed by the fraught state of the world. Is this because I am no longer in the business of creating therapeutic distance? Might it be due to emotional changes that come with aging? Is the ratcheting-up of worldwide intolerance the cause? Maybe those reasons and more.

What then is the arc of a therapist’s emotional life? Here is one possible four-staged outline:

  • The child’s natural high sensitivity (amplified by the particular circumstances of his nature and experience).
  • A gradual mastery, to a degree, of his emotions, at least in public.
  • The essential development of therapeutic distance from the client, without losing sympathy.
  • A possible thaw, after retirement, in this automatic distancing. That is, an increased tendency toward empathy rather than sympathy in leading a life beyond the shuttered office. Paradoxically, an enlarged ability to accept most losses: to roll with the punches of life.

In the end, regardless of our personal trajectory, we hope our clients will be happy – “reasonably happy,” as the pianist, Rudolph Serkin wished for his student, Richard Goode.

The counselor’s universe of experience – vicarious exposure to the lives of his patients, as well as his own private emotional journey – is a sometimes dissonant, raw, thick, lumpy, unprocessed necessity for his work. He manipulates it and sings the words his effort evokes, searching for melody in the discord. He churns it – and it churns him. Only by refining this material can the healer transmute pain into the remediation of pain.

Perhaps, like the dream of suffering that Schubert wrote about in 1822, “to sing of sorrow, it turn(s) into love.”

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The top two images come from the collection of Christopher B. Steiner and date from 1915/20 and the 1920s, respectively. The final photo is called Self-portrait, by W. Helwig and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Coming to Terms with What Cannot be Changed

We cry for justice, but what is deserved is not always given. Sometimes the unfairness is due to lying, cheating, or political opportunism. Many imperfect situations, however, are not based on intent to harm. These are human stories where no political or legal action is possible. No crime has been committed. In such cases we can only accept the terms life allows, make the best of things, and find whatever “good” is present.

Here is an essay I wrote in the early days of this blog, now revised. The story tells of a situation in which life offers raw, rude, unchosen materials and asks us, in effect, to build something worthwhile out of the resources at hand:

Dr. Gerald Stein

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dd/Hand_drawn_ghost.png

A beautiful, but not always wise friend once told me a story of infinite wisdom. She married a widower with children when she was in her mid-30s. The kids had fond memories of their departed mother, so the house was filled with art objects, furniture and photographic reminders of the deceased.

Additionally, the widower maintained relationships with many people who knew his late wife. The maternal grandparents, of course, wanted to spend time with their daughter’s children. The husband’s parents did as well, and lived close by. Everyone held the departed in high esteem and affection. She had been an extraordinary person, now achieving a kind of virtual sainthood due to her early death.

When my friend (who I hadn’t seen in years) told me all this, I asked what it was like to reside among the living reminders of her predecessor; in the midst of the physical mementos of…

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Happiness Exercise #2: Mindfulness Without Meditation

Mindfulness has become part of everyday conversation. In case you’ve missed overhearing it, Wikipedia defines mindfulness as “moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, characterized mainly by “acceptance” — attention to thoughts and feelings without judging whether they are right or wrong.” Mindfulness meditation research points to health benefits from living in the moment, neither imagining what is ahead nor preoccupied with the phantoms of yesterday. Yet most people can’t, don’t, or are too busy to meditate. We live as if distracted by flies at a barbecue. The insects are replaced by the latest text message, our supervisor’s criticism, or a baby who just pooped. With all this happening, mindfulness meditation seems indulgent.

Americans, in particular, believe they must be going somewhere, anywhere but where they are. Our country condemns stasis in the name of progress, however ill-defined. Even our anger is directed at action, though it keeps us stuck. Someone who is mindful, by contrast, chooses a destination worth reaching and tends to find the ride interesting if not joyful; tolerable at worst.

Today I’ll suggest three simple exercises to buy you some mindfulness. I’ll be like the grocery employee who offers free samples, hoping you’ll enjoy the product and purchase more for yourself. Best of all, you won’t have to meditate, a procedure you might have tried and given up because of little time or frustration.

First, a word about the meditation I won’t be illustrating. The technique is a means to an end. The goal is to help you flourish and become enlivened, not to get divorced, quit work, or spend your days with eyes closed in a trance. Meditation makes your marriage, job, and everything else less troublesome if it succeeds in producing mindfulness that transfers from a quiet, private exercise to the rest of your life. I will offer examples of a more direct way to arrive at the same state. You aren’t required to choose one path to mindfulness, but life satisfaction can be enhanced by any and all methods that get you focused:

  • Eat a meal alone. Try your home, a park bench, or a restaurant, although the first alternative probably will be easiest. It should be quiet to the extent possible. Turn off the TV and smartphone. Give dinner enough time after preparation. Look at the food. Examine it as if you had a microscope handy. Think about its arrangement on the plate. Appreciate the colors and shapes, the aromas and the temperature. Close your eyes and take a bite. Feel the texture with tongue and teeth. Chew slowly. Sense the taste. Be still. If you do this for even a few seconds, you will have eaten mindfully. Nothing but the meal and its qualities should be in your thoughts. Try not to compare this repast to anything in your history of dining.

Most of us tend to eat at speed. We simultaneously converse, anticipate the end of our lunch break, drift toward the events of yesterday or tomorrow, and pass through multiple disconnected emotions and ideas that start in Cleveland and end in Istanbul in 15 seconds time. The common way of eating is mindless, a term associated with Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer. Fueling the body becomes another job done daydreaming, like shoveling coal into a furnace while our brain is somewhere else. We move to the next task as distracted as when we ate. Our brain buzzes with car horns and flashing neon. Sleep alone stops the light show.

  • Wad up some paper or find a small rubber ball and use a waste basket as a target. You are going to shoot baskets in a home-made version of basketball. The goal is not to become a champion or even to test yourself. Concentrate on the task. Focus on your grip of the ball or its substitute. Let the texture of the projectile inform your touch. Notice how the arm and hand are positioned. Sight the target. Watch the ball fly into the basket or rebound away. Sense your body as you bend to retrieve your throw. You might even hear a joint pop. Repeat. Think of nothing else, not even the previous shot. Care not whether you succeed in scoring. This is about the process and not the product. Slow down so the act fully absorbs you.
  • Find a place free from the press of events. Think of someone you dislike. Consider all the negative adjectives you apply to them. Be as specific as possible. For example, words like hard-headed, foolish, demanding, etc. Now search for a different way to describe the same person, considering terms that are less pejorative but no less accurate. Can you recognize hard-headedness as another way of saying strong-willed? How about substituting optimistic for foolish, or acknowledging that a demanding human sets a high standard of performance?

The idea here is get out of the mindlessness groove and think afresh. Evolution led us to make quick judgements about who is on our side and who isn’t, who might be fun to share a lunch with and who might want us to be their lunch. When sticking to our preconceived notions we are living mindlessly, says Ellen Langer. The habit leaves us encumbered, unable to learn new things or correct errors with facility. Our world becomes a set of automatic answers and inflexible reactions, bypassing thought and reconsideration. Instead, try to look at anyone you know well and find something new about him or her. You might be surprised by what you discover.

I don’t want to overwhelm you. Any of these exercises is informative if done mindfully. No multitasking allowed. Mindfulness should enliven you. Observing the world in a new way is interesting. A fresh perspective is good for your brain and your relationships. Therapists sometimes role play with their patients, in part to give them practice in handling troublesome people, but also to take another perspective. In a difficult bond between parent and child — a bond like bondage — it can be enlightening to take your own role and then switch to the other’s role.

A psychiatrist I used to know often told his patients, “Learn or burn.” He didn’t mean it, of course. He wanted to emphasize their need to save themselves from the self-inflicted errors contributory to unhappiness. Abe Lincoln said:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves…

I’d take Lincoln’s writing out of its Civil War context by writing the last sentence this way: “We must disenthrall ourselves” every minute, every day.

If your life is not what you wish, I’d say mindfulness, not wealth, is the more attainable, more satisfying alternative to the self-imposed slavery of pre-conceived notions and routine thought-spinning. An interesting life is in the mind of the beholder.

The top image is a symbol created by Mmm Daffodils to signify the “wise mind” concept used in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

Can Morton Feldman’s Music be a Key to Meditation?

Morton_Feldman_1976

We cannot escape the press of worldly events, expectations, and anxieties — the noise, the computers and the pressure to be the best. Indeed, to talk about the drivenness of the world only adds to the inescapable tension. Too many of us feel like a child’s old-style wind-up toy, impelled along a track we did not choose until finally we stop moving at day’s end, awaiting the next morning’s rat-race and another twist of the key to the clockwork motor. The world wins, stress wins, and we lose. And performers lose especially, by the anxiety that precedes and impedes their performance.

Enter Morton Feldman, composer, who has not been with us since 1987, when he died at age 61. A man who worked in the garment industry until he was 44. Feldman was no therapist, but his music just might add something to the much commended and researched antidote to the crazy-making nature of contemporary life: mindfulness meditation. I can offer no scientifically validated proof that his music makes a focus on “being centered in the moment” easier, but offer my anecdotal observations for your consideration.

For too many, mindfulness meditation is an elusive solution, despite its well-documented benefits to overall well-being. As meditation newbies we sit quietly and concentrate on our breathing, nothing more. We are told that it will be hard and that it should be done daily, usually shooting for 30 minutes at a time at the start. Eventually — so the research tells us — our brains will be retrained.

The object of such a practice is to permit us to live in the moment, alert to (but untroubled by) the single instant in which we are immersed. Its practitioners claim that it is a path to seeing the world as it is, accepting it without judgment. By doing that, they indicate, we stop ourselves from adding to the internally generated interpretations and pressures — and the self-consciousness — that can make life unbearable. We are advised that true mindfulness does not look back or forward. Nor is it freighted with worry, regret, or rage. They remind us that the past is gone and cannot be changed and the future is unknowable. The only thing we have with certainty is the present instant of time and our ability to really “live” in it.

Ah, but mindfulness meditation is difficult, more than you might think. The mind wanders from the breath. We are distracted by small noises and random thoughts: How much time has passed? What about today’s doctor appointment? What did my voice teacher or boss really mean when she talked to me yesterday? Anything and everything intrudes, including troubling dead-end ideas. We are instructed to expect this; and then, when we notice that our focus on the breath has been lost, to gently return our attention to that target. Our attention and focus will, with enough practice and dedication, get better — so the experts say. Until then keep practicing.

At this point, many people give up in frustration. Here is the opening through which Morton Feldman enters, this unlikeliest of composers: a man of 6′, approaching 300 pounds; a non-stop, cigarette-smoking talker with a strong New York accent. Alex Ross described his music this way in The New Yorker issue of June 19, 2006:

The often noted paradox is that this immense, verbose man wrote music that seldom rose above a whisper. In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences… In its ritual stillness, this body of work abandons the syntax of Western music… Legend has it that after one group of players had crept their way as quietly as possible through a score of his, Feldman barked, “It’s too fuckin’ loud, and it’s too fuckin’ fast.”

Feldman requires us to listen to music without the expectation of conventional melody fit into a recognizable musical form and provides a kind of experience that creates that new way of listening.  Unlike most Western music, Feldman’s does not seem to be leading us anywhere. We do not come to anticipate the next note or chord, as we do in a popular song or symphony. We have entered an unfamiliar space with nothing ahead of us, nothing guiding us, no forward or backward. Lacking “landmarks” we can be certain only of where we are right now. We are simply “in the moment” with the delicate sound he most often provides us — and the decay of that sound, as can be heard in this example from For Bunita Marcus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-Kl0eOo1VU

The importance of being neither judgmental nor critical, just experiencing what is present, is crucial. It is easier to listen to Feldman’s music with this type of “accepting” attitude than almost any piece of Beethoven, Brahms, or The Beatles. Their music “leads us” to judgment — too loud, too slow, too fast — once we have established even a bit of familiarity with it. For purposes of enhancing mindfulness, however, music like Feldman’s that provides us with no map is actually more beneficial. It does not “progress” and is harder to know than that which presents a formal structure that can be grasped and notes that can be anticipated, leading our thoughts to interfere with our attention and the mind to drift away from the sound.

Much of Feldman’s work can magnetize our focus so that the pull of external or irrelevant thoughts (including self-criticism) is vanquished, but only if we give up the conventional expectations built from years of listening to “tunes” and apply ourselves to the task he requires of our ears and our brains. With this new attitude, judgments about ourselves and about the music no longer gain an easy point of entry to the mind.

The compositions he offers us don’t seem to make headway except by extraordinarily subtle and quiet changes that are riveting. We are drawn in. To give a visual analogue, it is like looking at a kaleidoscopic image that is changing almost imperceptibly (much slower and without the formal structure of the example just below) with the slightest rotation of the tube, barely enough to be noticeable.

Teleidoscope_animation

As T. S. Elliot put it in Burnt Norton, Feldman finds “the still point” without which “there would be no dance.” But it is a dance in excruciatingly slow motion that can sound boring as described, but is absorbing when experienced and heard; where background silence is as important as foreground, ever-so-careful sound.

With or without Feldman’s music as an alternative to focus on the breath, mindfulness meditation (with sufficient practice) is able to reduce the “chatter” in the brain — all the extraneous and debilitating ideas and judgments inside our head. And to accept life’s inevitable discomforts without so much of the suffering that we seem to add by our anxious anticipation, over thinking, hand wringing, and the belief that things must change in order to create a state of satisfaction.

The regular practice of that discipline attempts to assist us in finding contentment in the terms that life allows, not by virtue of some dramatic achievement or the elimination of all that most of us might wish were different. And, by helping anyone who frets about his own performance to focus on what is being performed (the music or the play or the speech he is giving) rather than the self, the actual execution of that work may reach the state that athletes describe when they are “in the zone” (or in a “flow” state*), fully captured by what they are doing (and achieving the best of which they are capable) rather than observing themselves doing it, or painfully aware that others might be watching critically.

Does Morton Feldman’s music have therapeutic value in the mindfulness enterprise or in dealing with performance anxiety, beyond its shimmering, otherworldly beauty? There is a Ph.D. dissertation or two waiting to be written on the subject, I’m sure. And wouldn’t it be ironic if a man who once said “Where in life we do everything we can to avoid anxiety, in art we must pursue it,” wrote music that might help refocus our troubled souls.

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*For a further description of the “flow” state, see my response to the first comment below.

Here is a short example of Feldman’s music, the first 15 minutes of “For Bunita Marcus:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-Kl0eOo1VU

Here is a 20-minute talk by a monk and master meditator about the benefits of brain-retraining that can come with meditation: Matthieu Ricard: The habits of happiness

The top image is a photo of Morton Feldman taken at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on May 31, 1976 during the Holland Festival. It is the work of Rob Bogaerts. The second image is a Digital Teleidoscope Animation by nadjas. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Father’s Day (via Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago)

This is a revised and expanded version of a post I wrote two years ago about my father.

Father's Day Father’s Day can be complicated. Like any day of honor, some tributes are deserved more than others, or not at all. Some obligations are carried out with joy, while others are a matter of dutiful routine. And sometimes there is pain, where once there was (or should have been) pleasure. But, for myself, Father’s Day is pretty simple. While I miss my dad (who died 11 years ago), the sense of loss is no longer great. He was 88 when he stroked-out in … Read More

via Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago

How Duke Snider Burst My Bubble (and What I Learned about the Birds and the Bees)

http://raymondpronk.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/duke_snider_hitting.jpg?w=500&h=374

Will Rogers said “a difference of opinion is what makes horse racing and missionaries.”

But, as a child, I thought that there were certain things with which everyone would agree, where no difference of opinion was possible.

Like the idea that playing baseball was the best imaginable way to make a living and the dream of every red-blooded American male.

Duke Snider taught me otherwise. It was a hard lesson that I learned some time in the 1950s, simply by watching a TV interview of the gifted ball player.

It must have been about the time in 1956 when his infamous article in Collier’s magazine appeared: “I Play Baseball for Money — Not Fun,” co-written with Roger Kahn.

But I didn’t know anything about that. All I knew was that in the middle of the aforementioned interview, when the admiring TV personality questioned him, Edwin Donald “Duke” Snider said that he would rather be on his avocado farm in California than playing center field for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

What! What did he say? And, by the way, what’s an avocado? Here was this handsome, power hitting, left-handed batsman, both graceful and swift, doing something I could only wish I might do; and what did he say?

How can a man I thought to be a hero, a member of the World Champion Dodgers, a teammate of Jackie Robinson, want to be a farmer? Heck, is a farmer and prefers it to playing ball. How is this possible?

As a little kid in Chicago in the ’50s, I had never actually seen a farm. I knew vegetables came out of cans and never thought very much about the people who actually grew them and put them into cans.

In fact, the only time that the question of farming ever came up in conversation around my house, was when I asked my dad where I came from.

Yes, the sex question.

My dad’s answer was simple. He said, “I planted the seed.”

I was badly thrown by the answer, led in the direction of corn and beans and all sorts of things that presumably were grown by farmers, along with small boys.

It took me years to recover from this misinformation and probably delayed my sexual development by a full decade.

Later in his life, Duke Snider admitted that his attitude wasn’t always the best. His New York Times obituary of February 28, 2011 quoted him as saying, “I had to learn that every day wasn’t a bed of roses, and that took some time. I would sulk. I’d have a pity party for myself.”

That summer afternoon of the televised interview I saw must have been one of those days.

I guess the Duke didn’t care for the “boos” he sometimes received, occasionally unfavorable newspaper commentary, the pressure, the travel, and the sheer grind of a long season.

But, I suppose there was a worthy lesson in Duke’s complaint to the local sportscaster.  In fact, there were a few lessons:

  • Make the most of every day.
  • Accept the up-and-down nature of life.
  • Remember that there might be a lot of people who only they wish they could be as well-situated as you are.
  • If you are a farmer, check carefully before turning on the threshing machine, lest you injure a baby boy.
  • And, maybe most important of all: be careful what you say. Kids are listening.

Of Grasshoppers and Ants: When Winter Comes

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/The_Ant_and_the_Grasshopper_-_Project_Gutenberg_etext_19994.jpg

It is an age-old dilemma and an age-old story. Spend or save? Play or work?

Aesop told it in the tale of The Ant and the Grasshopper. The grasshopper sings the summer away while the ant works to store food for the cold months. When winter comes, the grasshopper is out of luck.

There are numerous different versions of this story, but I’ve always wondered about one particular, very human variation. What happens when two people, close friends or lovers, both are engaged in a life style that only one can afford?

The woman, a high-powered executive with a salary to match, can afford to live the way she does; expensive meals, nice trips, Broadway musicals and the like. The man has the same tastes as his lady friend and enjoys indulging them no less, but isn’t a big-time earner. His is a “live for today” attitude, and let tomorrow take care of itself.

Finally, though, the man has a reversal of fortune; perhaps he loses his job. Or, let’s say that he must retire. Both remain healthy and active, but the small amount of savings in the man’s account are mostly gone, spent on all those dinners and trips,  the wine and the laughter that accompanied the good times. The woman still wants to live in the same old way: not counting the pennies. The male is largely dependent on his severance and unemployment benefits in one scenario; or his modest Social Security and retirement checks, if he is a bit older.

What happens now?

A few different possibilities:

1. The woman adjusts her life style and learns to live in a new way, still spending the same amount of free time with the man; the man, too, realizes he cannot live as before and finds less expensive ways of having a good time. Travel is severely curtailed. Lavish restaurant meals are now just memories. They accept the new financial terms dictated by his financial status and still enjoy the relationship.

1a. Both parties try to live with less expense, but it doesn’t work for them. The man believes that the woman could support some approximation of the previous level of entertainment and luxury if only she wished to. The woman regrets the need to set aside “fun,” even if it is in an effort to maintain the relationship. Each one feels the strain.

2. The woman decides that she still wants to live in the old way and is willing to pay for her friend to accompany her. Some amount of “hostile dependency” is inevitable, with the man feeling resentment that he has lost “standing” in the relationship. Meanwhile, the woman matches his resentment with a sense that her lover is not sufficiently grateful for her generosity.

3. In the final scenario the woman decides she wants to live as before, but she doesn’t intend to pay for her friend’s expenses all the time. So she leaves him behind with some frequency, going to expensive dinners with female friends, going on trips alone or with others who can pay their own way. She does not want to mortgage her economic future to indulge her friend.

Of course, this path risks its own tensions. The man is angry at being left behind and the financial strain of trying to keep up with his companion to the extent that he can. The woman resents his resentment, because she is paying for more than before, even if not for everything.

The lovers are spending less time together now and therefore might have more opportunity to meet someone else of the opposite sex with whom these difficulties would not be present. Temptation exists where none existed before.

Now, I imagine that you might have one of several responses. “Too bad,” would probably be one, a shame that they have had this reversal in fortune that has changed the relationship.

On the other hand, some of you might blame him for being the “grasshopper,” not saving for the winter. Others could find the woman to be selfish and self-involved if she chooses either the second or the third “solution;” not willing to be more generous toward the man whom she says that she loves.

In my experience, it would be relatively rare for two people used to a certain, somewhat extravagant way of living to adjust to a more modest life style, when such an adjustment is a necessity for only one of them. Indeed, in the present example, one can fairly assume that shared interests in elegant dining, good seats at sporting events, and travel were among the elements that attracted one to the other and bound them together.

In the end, we outsiders often think that the proper solutions to — let’s face it — non-life-threatening problems such as these are obvious and should be easy to enact.

But when you are in the middle of the thing itself, it often isn’t as easy as it looks from the grandstand.

If only this couple could realize their good fortune in having each other, friends and family, and their good health (Solution #1), as well as the relative unimportance of living in a grand fashion…

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/12/Goya-La_ri%C3%B1a.jpg

There is a famous 1819 painting by Francisco de Goya, La Riña. It shows two men attempting to beat each other, stuck in muck and mire. Nothing too remarkable in that.

But what is stunning about the composition is how it contrasts the brutality of the antagonists with the staggering beauty of the landscape they inhabit. Just as in the case of the hypothetical man and woman I’ve described, who (unless they can comfortably arrive at the first solution) will live in some unnecessary measure of tension and unhappiness, these men too do not see the beauty around them, or do not value it highly enough.

And so the consolation of what the lovers still have together — those things about their relationship that are free of any cost — are dismissed, just as the beauty and wonder of nature are ignored by these men, sacrificed to their resentments.

Sound familiar?

The first above image is The Ant and the Grasshopper, from Aesop’s Fables, a 1919 illustration by Milo Winter from Project Gutenberg, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second is the Goya painting I described, which resides in the Prado, with the same source.

Off to College and Saying Goodbye

Paintings Reproductions David, Jacques -Louis The Farewell of  Telemachus and Eucharis

It is that time of year. Some kids are going to college for the first time. A difficult moment for all concerned.

If you are a parent, your child may have been spending much of the last year or two pushing you away; being disagreeable; wanting to spend more time alone; confiding in you less.

It could be adolescent rebellion in a fairly moderate form, but, more likely, it is his striving for independence; and his anticipation of the real break — the one that finds him living in a different state; both a state of mind and a State of the Union.

As most of us know, it usually feels better to be the one who ends a relationship first or enacts a change in it — separates, creates a distance — than to be on the receiving end of that action. But, whatever it is, it is tough for sure.

The farewells can be tearful and terrifying, mostly for parents. The kids have their anxieties too, but don’t want to betray them as openly as the elders do. The students’ brave front is as much to persuade themselves that everything will be fine outside the nest as to keep their ambivalence in check, lest they encourage mom and dad to show even more emotion and make the parting harder.

I remember spending a good portion of our drive back home from an off-to-college goodbye with tears in my eyes, having taken our eldest to the Champaign/Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. Within a few days we heard from her though. Sure enough, homesickness.

Letting go of your children is hard, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog. You have to have faith that your offspring have learned something by age 18 and that they will survive, bruised but unbowed. Not much you can do anyway, unless you are prepared to keep them hostage in your basement forever.

They will return of course, but they won’t be the same. That too is a good, if  ambivalent thing, a sword that cuts both ways. As a parent, you’ll remember the cuddly and loving stage, the moment when you were everything to them and they couldn’t get enough of you. In trade, you get to see your children flourish (one hopes) as adults, a wondrous thing when you remember back to how little and helpless they once were.

But, be patient. The “full bloom” just might take some time and some struggle. Keep the faith.

Regardless, you do get more peace, quiet, and privacy as a bonus.

A new relationship, then — something different rather than better or worse.

The “saying goodbye” comes by degrees. At first, they return for summer vacation and holidays. Later, they will live away and see you less often. Such is life.

My wife and I kept a very old car for our daughters to use when they were home, even after both had graduated college and gone on to grad school. Finally, a minor accident rendered it beyond repair and we donated it to charity.

For a few days after the auto had been taken away, my wife and I both felt a little bit low. We talked about it. Of course, it wasn’t hard to figure out. The car was a symbol, something tied to the time they lived with us, and something that said they would be coming back. Now, with the car gone, we both had to face  that there was no coming back with the regularity of the past.

Their lives were elsewhere.

When I gave the toast at my eldest’s wedding, I told the following story:

I remember the day that we took Jorie to Champaign/Urbana to the Illini Towers dorm, to begin her college education at the University of Illinois. We thought we would be clever about it, so we woke up very early that Saturday morning and drove fast so that we would be among the first to get into the building and unloaded. But we were out foxed by several hundred people, who had gotten up earlier and driven faster and were already way ahead of us in line to use the couple of elevators and the small number of carts to get their child moved in.

It was a long, hot, late summer day. And as we stood in line  waiting, I had a feeling of familiarity, as if I had done this before. Of course, I had never moved Jorie into any new place, so I couldn’t easily figure it out.

As the morning changed to afternoon (and we were still in line), I thought back to the day that Jorie was born. At 1:00 AM, that is to say, in the dead of night, Jorie gave the signal and we were off to the hospital. And that too was a long day as we waited for the labor to progress. Finally, at 9:34 PM, over 20 hours later, Jorie arrived in this new world. And I realized that the long day of waiting for her to be born was what the long day of waiting at Illini Towers reminded me of.

The only difference was that on that day at the hospital we were waiting to say hello to her, and on the day at Illini Towers we were waiting to say goodbye.

Shakespeare was right.

“Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

But, life does go on.

The image above is The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis by Jacques-Louis David.

The African Dip: Thoughts on Passive-Aggressiveness, Powerlessness, and Acceptance

The  Flying Turns

My dad occasionally took me to a legendary Chicago amusement park called Riverview when I was a little boy. I was dazzled by the roller coasters, the “Waterbug” ride, and something called the “Rotor.” The latter required you to enter a circular room which spun on a central axis until the velocity and centrifugal force were sufficient to pin you against the wall, just as the floor dropped away.

But, as small as I was, it is a sideshow called The Dip that I remember most vividly. Today I’d like to use this politically incorrect carnival attraction as a spring-board to a few thoughts on the expression of indirect anger that sometimes is called “passive-aggressive,” as well as a therapeutic approach to setting aside the temporary upsets that are a part of any life.

Black men in cages. That is what “The Dip” involved.

Unbelievable, perhaps, as we think about it in 2010. Each man sat on a stool inside the cage. In front of the cage, off to the side a bit,  stood a small circular metal target that was attached in some fashion to the stool, perhaps electronically, but more likely mechanically.

For less than a dollar, you could purchase three balls to throw at the target, one at a time. If you struck the target solidly, the stool on which the man sat collapsed, and he dropped into a pool of water underneath the cage. You might have seen similar “dunk tanks” at various fund-raising events, often giving students the chance to dunk their teachers.

Harmless fun? Not so in the case of a black man doing the sitting and a white man trying to knock him off his seat.

This sideshow was once reportedly called, “Dunk the N****r,” later “The African Dip,” and finally “The Dip.” It was eventually shut down by a combination of Negro outrage and the increasing disgust of white people to the offensiveness of its implicit racism.

The black men were in a relatively powerless situation — almost literally, “sitting ducks.” But, they did what the situation allowed them to do so as to unsettle, tease, and otherwise disrupt the white pitcher’s aim. The Negroes were careful not to say anything too frankly insulting, lest they stir up the racism (and potential for less veiled violence) that was at the heart of the event.

But they would and could get away with belittling their adversaries athletic skill or throwing ability in a way that was amusing. If their comments distracted the opposition at all — got them to laugh (or the crowd to laugh at them) — or caused a break in the hurler’s concentration, the chance of staying on the seat improved a bit.

According to Chuck Wlodarczyk in his book Riverview: Gone But Not Forgotten, the caged men’s banter could include comments about one’s appearance: “If you were heavy, they’d call you ‘meatball.’ If you were thin, they might have called you ‘toothpick.’ If you were with a girl, they might have said ‘Hey fella, that ain’t the same girl you were with yesterday!'”

You don’t have to be a black man in a cage to have some experience of expressing anger indirectly. We’ve all done it. It takes many forms: talking behind someone’s back and mocking that person, being sarcastic, complaining to a co-worker’s superior rather than to the offender’s face, neglecting tasks you have been assigned unfairly, and procrastinating. These passive-aggressive words or acts are rarely very satisfying. The anger doesn’t dissipate; the grudging discontent usually continues; nothing positive happens.

The sense of powerlessness and lack of control that the passive-aggressive individual experiences can come to dominate that person’s emotional life, rather than allowing him to put effort into changing the power dynamic or to remove himself from a position of weakness.

Unfortunately, for some of those who feel powerless and injured, even a passive-aggressive action seems impossible. Consequently, they take a more uniformly passive role. They defer to others, try to avoid giving offense, act meekly, and position themselves under the radar. All that does, however, is give them second class status, just as it informs bullies that they are easy targets.

Someone in this situation, who repeatedly feels mistreated but isn’t able to take on those who inflict the injuries directly, needs to ask himself a few questions. Why do I put up with it? What am I afraid of? Am I really as powerless as I feel? Am I perhaps overreacting? What would happen if I were more direct? Is there any way to get out of the situation I am in?

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), which aims to quell and counter irrational thoughts, is often helpful in dealing with a lack of self-assertion and the fear that is usually associated with it. Equally, it gives you practice (sometimes using role-playing within the therapy session) in a gradually ascending hierarchy of challenging situations that require an assertive response.

Some CBT therapists, much like ancient Stoic philosophers, employ an “acceptance-based” psychotherapy and integrate this Zen-like element into their treatment. Why, they might ask you, do you so value the minor indignities of daily life and of opinions and behavior of boorish persons? Is it really a good idea to spend the limited time of your life being upset over rudeness from a tardy repairman or a fender-bender accident you didn’t cause — things that will be of no significance in a week, a month, a year?

Put differently, there will always be injustice, and some of it must simply be accepted as the nature of life and of living. Not every fight is worth fighting about, not every slight is intended. If your skin is so thin that you are regularly being upset by people, perhaps you are valuing the approval and opinions of others too much.

For those who ask “Why me?” those same therapists might say, “Why not you — you are alive, aren’t you, so you are subject to all the same things that can affect any other person.” And, as the Stoic philosophers and Zen practitioners would tell us, if we can accept this vulnerability as part and parcel of living, thereby assigning it less meaning and taking it less personally, our lives will be more satisfying — less fraught with anguish, anger, and hurt.

This is not to say society should have tolerated the indignity and racism of “The Dip.” There are times when the indirect, but pointed wit of the caged men is the best course of action; and, many occasions when the force of your personality must be brought to bear by confronting injustice. But some combination of directness in taking on unfairness and forbearance in accepting things — in allowing oneself not to sweat the small stuff — tends to produce as good a result as life will allow.

Of course, you have to figure out what the small stuff is and what other things really do matter to you.

Meditation is usually a part of the treatment enabling you to stay in the moment, and let go of your attachment to passing feelings and thoughts, worries and regrets, and anticipations and fears. To be preoccupied with just such temporary upsets causes you not to be able to fully experience what is going on in the present and determine what is really of importance in your life.

By encouraging and training you in meditation, the counselor  is attempting to give you a method to achieve a state of psychological enlightenment that (without using words) helps you to distinguish the transitory aggravations, disappointments, worries and anxieties of life from whatever matters the most to you, so you can put your effort into the things of greatest value in your life.

Some final questions:

  1. Do you often find yourself fighting over things others consider to be small?
  2. Do you frequently feel put-upon but are capable only of a passive-aggressive response?
  3. Do you (too easily and too often) assume a fetal position with others (metaphorically speaking), who come to think of you as an easy target and treat you badly (in part) because they know you will not stand up for yourself?

If you have answered any of these questions in the affirmative, you might benefit from asking a couple of other questions:

  1. What does this mode of living cost me?
  2. Am I willing to do the work necessary to change?

If the cost is substantial and you are eager to change, then a therapist can be of assistance. Only then will you be ready to get out of the cage, real or not, in which you find yourself.

The image above is the Flying Turns, a toboggan-style ride that was one of the many attractions that made Riverview Park famous.