Watching Women’s Softball

Elena Kagan playing softball

I recently watched the 2010 World Cup of Softball, a game I used to play. Of course, not against women, as in the World Cup that featured teams of the fairer sex. And certainly not at their level of excellence.

When most people think about softball, they think about fast-pitch, 12″ battles between men who wear gloves on defense. Although I played a bit of that game, more often I enjoyed the Chicago-only version of softball — a 16″ slow-pitch ballgame played bare-handed.

Chicago-style softball is a very different game than the 12″ variety, but it’s another distinction I’d like to discuss. That is, the difference between the 12″ game when played by men and the same athletic contest among women.

Women have taken the game and made it quite their own. While no less dedicated and talented than men, their conduct on the field is remarkably dissimilar. Take the matter of cheering. Women will create cheers, sometimes musical, for their teammates and chant or sing them as a group. Similarly, at the end of a defensive inning, all those in the dugout rush on to the field to give their defensive compatriots “high fives.”  And, on offense, if you hit a home run, you get the same circle of congratulations with everyone participating.

There seems to be more smiling in the women’s game, more obvious pulling-together and concern for your teammates. Indeed, more good sportswomanship for the other team too. To wit, in a game against Japan, when Jessica Mendoza collided with the Japanese catcher in a play at home, Mendoza stood nearby as the catcher received medical attention, all the while showing her concern.

The females are also much more attentive to their appearance than male players. Makeup isn’t uncommon and the distaff athletes don’t scratch in public the way men do.

In all, the game seems to be a good deal more cooperative endeavor for the women, with more frequent displays of enthusiasm and goodwill for each other. More social too, as if the ladies know that the group really is more important than the individual and that the sun will rise tomorrow even if they lose.

Now, I’m not saying that the women don’t care. They appear to care deeply and have all worked hard to achieve elite status, certainly at the World Cup level. But they seem more balanced, less desperate and aggressive, so that the game becomes more about skill than about brute force or intimidation.

During one of the games, I watched an interview of Jenny Finch, the darling of women’s softball in America. Ms. Finch has a child and a husband, and has decided to retire at the end of this season; hardly ready for a pension, she is all of 29.

But what was really interesting about the interview is what Jenny Finch said she will miss most upon retirement. It isn’t trophies and triumphs, accolades and media attention, or the applause and the endorsements. Instead, she believes that she will ache for the camaraderie among her colleagues, whom she described as “family,” and “way more than teammates.” For her, the most memorable moments of her career happened off the softball diamond, not on it.

I think the women are on to something here and, to their credit, not so macho that they won’t talk about it publicly. Anyone who has played on an even moderately successful team knows that the sense of pulling-together as a group isn’t just the property of women.

If you love the game and know that your teammates are trying to win just as hard as you are, over a period of time you came to love them a little bit too. Men will never say it in quite that way, but then, men are generically well-known for having a little trouble in expressing their feelings (or even admitting to them).

I’ve written here before about the Zeolites, the high school summer league softball team of my last two years at Chicago’s Mather Public High School.

We won more than we lost, but never quite enough to distinguish ourselves as a powerhouse. Still, we gave everything we had to that version of the American Pastime and invested it with all the intensity and importance that is known to teenage followers of the great game.

In the end, the team reunited many years later (traveling from around the country to do so) and came to give an ongoing scholarship at Mather High School. But for the attachment to each other, the reunion (37 years after our graduation) would never have happened; nor the philanthropy that still bears the name of team: the Zeolite Scholarship Fund.

The women at the World Cup of Softball seem to know something that it took us many years to figure out. They understand the value of the people who wear the same uniforms and the significance of the acts they perform together, the bonding that comes from playing a child’s game, and the mutual benefit of the wish that your teammate will succeed just as much as if he were you.

As I said in a speech given at one of our annual scholarship ceremonies at Mather High, “The Zeolites never won a championship in the Mather summer softball league. But, as things turned out, we had something that was more important: our friendship.”

Once you learn this lesson, you don’t forget it.

The image above is of Elena Kagan, our newest supreme court justice.

Jackie Robinson, Ford Frick, and the National Health Reform Debate

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With even one eye shut and one ear covered it would have been hard to miss all of the acrimony expressed by and toward our elected representatives in recent days. And, some are saying, that this is unprecedented—this loss of civility, this frank hatred, including acts of vandalism and threats of murder.

Many are decrying the failure of some Republican politicians to rebuke the hate-mongers in an unconditional and decisive fashion, as Republican Representative John Boehner has: “I know many Americans are angry over this health insurance bill, and that Washington Democrats just aren’t listening. But, as I’ve said, violence and threats are unacceptable. That’s not the American way. We need to take that anger and channel it into positive change.”

Well, unfortunately, angry words and angry actions are really nothing new in “The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.” You will find them on both the political left and the political right within living memory: the violent “Weather Underground” of the Vietnam War era, The Black Panthers, the lynchings of blacks in the period between the end of the Civil War and the passage of Civil Rights legislation, the hate crimes against gays, the gauntlet of verbal abuse shouted at black children trying to integrate the schools of Mississippi and Alabama in the mid-20th century, the bombing of abortion clinics; the Oklahoma City bombing; the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy; and on and on.

But, every so often in the midst of all this angst—this stuff that makes one despair about the human condition—someone stands up and does something remarkable; something that makes you proud to be an American, and hopeful about the future of the human race.

Turn the page of your history book back to 1947 and to Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first black man permitted to play in the Major Leagues in the 20th century. What follows is heavily dependent upon (and quotes from) Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy.

Robinson faced a revolt by some of his own teammates who attempted to organize a petition against him. Kentucky-born Pee Wee Reese, who was to become a great friend and supporter of Robinson, later remembered, “In the park that I grew up in, there were no blacks allowed. Blacks got in the back of the buses, they had a special fountain to drink from. I don’t guess that I ever shook the hand of a black person.” Reese expected Robinson to fail because white people in his part of the country always believed that Negroes had no guts.

“You hear this all your life, you believe it.”

The petition died aborning because most of the players would have no part of it, and because of threats from management. But the bigoted sentiments were still there for Robinson to deal with. His teammate Kirby Higbe was asked on a radio interview how he’d come by such a strong arm. His answer? From pelting Negroes with rocks.

Dodger manager Leo Durocher laid down the law: “I don’t care if a guy is yellow or black, of if he has stripes like a f___in’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team and I say he plays.”

The Philadelphia Phillies were the worst of the race-baiters. Led by Alabaman Ben Chapman, the Phillies showered unspeakable derision on Robinson in their first series with the Dodgers early in the 1947 season.

According to Harold Parrott, “At no time in my life have I heard racial venom and dugout abuse to match the abuse that Ben sprayed on Robinson that night. Chapman mentioned everything from thick lips to the supposed extra-thick Negro skull…(and) the repulsive sores and diseases he said Robinson’s teammates would become infected with if they touched the towels or combs he used.”

Chapman knew that Robinson couldn’t fight back because of the disruption that would cause, the very thing that many predicted and used as an excuse to defend the segregation of the Major Leagues. Everyone soon came to know that Robinson, who received varsity letters in four sports at UCLA, was a sitting duck. “Plenty of times I wanted to haul off when somebody insulted me for the color of my skin,” Robinson later said. “But I had to hold to myself. I knew I was kind of an experiment…The whole thing was bigger than me.”

One teammate thought that Robinson, the sole black on the field, was the loneliest man he had ever seen. Red Barber, the Dodger’s radio announcer, said that Robinson was the only man he had ever seen who could actually play better when he was angry.

The death threats flooded in—the people who wrote that they would be carrying a rifle into the ball park to kill him. Opponents tried to spike him, pitchers threw at his head and body. Even his Southern teammates received hate-mail for allowing themselves to take the field with a “n____r.”

But Robinson’s teammates stood up to Ben Chapman and the Phillies. Fellow Alabaman Eddie Stanky called Chapman a coward. Meanwhile the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team plotted a May strike against Robinson and the Dodgers. Ford Frick, the National Baseball League President, quashed the strike and faced down the Cardinals:

If you do this you will be suspended from the League. You will find that the friends you think you have in the press box will not support you, that you will be outcasts. I do not care if half the league strikes. Those who do it will encounter strict retribution. They will be suspended, and I don’t care if it wrecks the National League for five years. This is the United States of America, and one citizen has as much right to play as another.

The National League will go down the line with Robinson whatever the consequence. You will find that if you go through with your intention that you will have been guilty of madness.

As I said earlier, we have been here before, in this dark place in America that seems to surface especially in difficult economic times or in times of change, of which we have both just now. America is changing today, just as it was changing in 1947, and that metamorphosis brings out the worst in some of us. But the courage of people like Jackie Robinson, and the decisive confrontation of unfairness by people like Ford Frick, are heartening.

At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey made an impassioned speech in advocacy of a strong civil rights plank that failed to become a part of the Democratic Party’s platform in that year’s election. His words are worth remembering, as he recalled the founding of the nation in 1776:

To those who say, ‘we are rushing this issue of civil rights,’ I say we are 172 years late. To those who say, ‘this issue of civil rights is an infringement on states rights,’ I say that the time has arrived for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of state’s rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.

Eventually most of Robinson’s skeptical teammates and competitors came to think differently and act differently than they had, at least to the point of accepting that blacks had as much right to play the “Great American Pastime” as they did. Still, the animosity did not end immediately.

As noted by Stuart Miller in the April 25, 2010 New York Times, Robinson continued to be the target of pitched balls in those days before batting helmets. In his first eights seasons he was lower than third in HBP (Hit By Pitches) only once. Moreover, the handful of blacks then in the National League—people like Monte Irvin, Sam Jethroe, George Crowe, Billy Bruton, Ernie Banks, and Hank Thompson—were similarly treated. In the American League, Larry Doby, Luke Easter, and Minnie Minoso found it no different.

Time passed, the hard-line bigots left the game, and others who were more open and less shocked and offended by integration took over the field of play. When Ernie Banks joined the Chicago Cubs in 1953, management saw to it that he join the club at the same time as (and roomed with) Gene Baker, so as to avoid the issue of having one black man and one white man live together.

It took 10 years from the time of Robinson’s debut for the Philadelphia Phillies to allow a black man into a Major League uniform, with the Detroit Tigers behind them. The last to integrate was the Boston Red Sox squad in mid-1959.

Along the way America changed too, for the better. And one must believe that the voices of the fulminating, frustrated few on the political landscape today will eventually be replaced by those who are less self-righteous and more in control of their emotions.

As a therapist it is impossible to do my work without believing that people can change.

It doesn’t always happen, of course.

But it happens more than enough to keep pitching.

Teenagers, Chicago Parking Meters, and Left Fielders

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The “Windy City” — the “City of Big Shoulders” — has a way of making some big mistakes.

Recently, they’ve come in the form of some fiscal short-sightedness affecting both baseball and government. Just over four years ago, the Chicago Cubs signed Alfonso Soriano to an eight year contract, all for the measly sum of $136 million dollars. Alfonso was 31 before he ever played for the team. They will “own” his contract (although the words “owe” and “ouch” come to mind) for three more seasons beyond this one.

After only the first three, he demonstrated that his sunny personality, million dollar smile, and ability to hit home runs when no one is on base don’t make up for declining offensive production and an attitude toward playing left field that suggests, according to Baseball Prospectus 2010, that Soriano believes the outfield wall at Wrigley is actually covered with poison ivy.

Not to be outdone, the local city fathers decided to lease every last parking meter in the city for a term of 75 years to an independent company that agreed to pay 1.15 billion in up-front dollars for the privilege. They doubtless wished to out-do the Cubs in boondoggles, since it is reported that the money is already spent. It has also been said that the city could have negotiated a better deal, and certainly one that didn’t so offend the parking populace by the inflation of parking fees to multiples of their previous size.

In both instances, there is more to come — more parking fee increases and further productivity decline from the Cubs left-fielder. And, long before the end of either contracted term, we will be saddled, metaphorically speaking, with the back-end of an animal that didn’t even look too great from the front-end.

When I think about this sort of short-sightedness in clinical terms, the behavior of teenagers inevitably comes to mind. Teenagers are stereotyped for taking risks, acting on impulse, and using poor judgment. Some of them tend to allow tomorrow to take care of itself, not fully grasping that tomorrow will indeed arrive soon enough and claim payment for the errors of today.

Now, I’m not talking about all teenagers, but rather those prone to vices like smoking, drinking and drugging to excess, blowing off academics, etc. And, it is not as if adults are free from this “live for today” approach, even adults not employed in management by the City of Chicago and the Cubs.

In a just world, all such folks would pay for their indiscretions somewhere down the line.

But, of course, the world isn’t just. And sometimes this works out quite well for the impulsive and heedless joy-seekers in our midst.

I recall one woman who ate and smoked and drank and had unprotected sex as if there would be no tomorrow. When I reminded her that tomorrow would likely come, she assured me that she would be dead by then, and so it didn’t matter. Even as she entered middle-age, she ignored the pain in her joints and her diabetes, continuing to indulge herself well beyond the bounds of medical advice and good sense. This lady believed in the motto uttered by John Derek in the old Humphrey Bogart film, Knock On Any Door:  “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”

I doubted the wisdom of this, but she turned out to be right, dying of a cancer unrelated to her excesses in her late-40s. I guess if you know with certainty that your time is relatively short, then indulgence might become the preferred path, although it can also create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course, most of us don’t know the appointed day of our departure with the prescience that characterized my acquaintance. Many decisions depend upon just such an estimate of the future: whether to go to college, how much to save for retirement, the care and feeding of your body, the need to exercise, and so forth. In a way, we all are gamblers, those of us who imbibe and those who abstain, those who are profligate and those who save for a rainy day.

We place our bets on what “feels” right now, how we expect to feel in the future, and how long that future might last, if there is one.

Let’s just hope that our bets are wiser than those practiced by the City of Chicago and the Cubs.

The photo above taken by Scott Ableman at RFK Stadium on May 5, 2006 is of Alfonso Soriano in his days as a Washington National. It was 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.

Gone in 60 Seconds: How to Lose Three Girlfriends in a Minute

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I was a dashing little boy. Resplendent in the Indian (Native American) head-dress my parents gave me and the cowboy holster and six guns that I wore around my waist. Of course, the contradictions among those elements of attire didn’t bother me. Perhaps they were an early indication of my tendency to see both sides of an argument.

I was a six-year-old. I didn’t wear my western outfit to school, but I was still pretty cute: a curly-haired, fresh-faced, sweet little boy, with large hazel eyes. And I had three girlfriends! Count ’em: three! Way more than any of the other little boys in my kindergarten class. Was it at Avondale School or Jamieson? I don’t remember that.

Little did I know that I was about to meet my Waterloo. Little did I know that the great disasters of life are largely unforeseen; and that fortune can turn in an instant.

The teacher gave us an assignment to draw something. I don’t recall just what it was. But I was good at anything having to do with art and quickly finished off my mini-Picasso masterpiece. That gave me a little time. And so I walked over to the place where two of my girlfriends were hard at work on their own artistic products.

What exactly did it mean to have three girlfriends? I was six, for God’s sake. I never saw them outside of our kindergarten class. I doubt I ever held hands with even one of them. Still, there was a sense of security, a point of pride in “having” three pretty little females each of whom also thought I was her boyfriend, and each of whom was just as clueless as I was about what that might mean.

I can still see myself standing in front of the first two charmers, who were, by the way, best friends. And I can still hear the question one of them asked me: “Gerry, whose picture do you like the best?”

Remember, I was six. Maybe even five. No life experience. A piece of unripe fruit, yet to be churned by the cruelties of the human food processor of daily life. I was pure and naive. And terribly, terribly honest.

So I answered. I chose one. I don’t remember which one. I only remember the aftermath.

The unchosen female immediately burst into tears. “You made me cry. You aren’t my boyfriend anymore!”

I was stunned. It might even have been her question that prompted the answer she was blaming me for. I considered using the Nuremberg Defense (“I was just following orders).” But before I could say anything, the next hammer dropped.

Her companion, girlfriend #2, looked at me and said: “You made my friend cry. You aren’t my boyfriend any more.”

My stock was falling like the Dow Jones Industrial Average on “Black Friday.” I was down two-thirds on my net girlfriend-worth. I was sweating. I didn’t know what to do. I must have mumbled something about being sorry. But the hard-hearted pair facing me had rendered their unchangeable verdict. The Gerry Stein Fan Club was quickly disbanding.

In my desperation I did what most anyone would do. I ran over to my one remaining girlfriend, the better to secure my position with her. God knows, if she asked me what I thought of her drawing, I was prepared to tell her that not even Rembrandt could have done half as well.

Unfortunately, in my haste I wasn’t especially careful about where my feet were going. And the hard wood floor had recently been polished, making traction tricky and braking balky. I over-ran my target and accidentally stepped on my remaining girlfriend’s foot. This damsel, now in distress, quickly began to cry. And you already know the rest: “You made me cry. You’re not my boyfriend any more.”

Dazed, stunned, disillusioned, and confused, I probably would have walked into traffic if we hadn’t been in a secure environment. Everyone else continued to busy themselves in drawing and conversation. I alone was crushed, alienated from humanity, feeling for the first time in my life the cruel indifference of a world that goes on about its business, ignoring the human road-kill still to be observed in its peripheral vision.

Little did I know my moment of lifetime peak popularity with the opposite gender had passed.

Somehow, life went on. I did, of course, have girlfriends again, although always one at a time. I eventually recovered enough to get an education, do some things of value in life, win a few awards, marry, and have children.

Over the years, my perspective on this event changed. I came to realize that I’d done something pretty remarkable. That I set a world record for most breakups within 60 seconds time. You can check it in the Guinness World Record Book.

Like Joe DiMaggio’s achievement of hitting safely in 56 consecutive games set in 1941, I’m pretty sure this mark will stand the test of time. There is a little bit of solace in that, some compensation for my kindergarten disaster, my childhood tsunami.

And now you know why I became a psychologist!

The above image is called Bath Time Smooches by Kyle Flood, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

The Tricks of the Trade

Some quotations require no comment. Here is one from a legendary baseball player of the 1950s and 1960s:

“Some people are so busy
learning the tricks of the trade
that they never learn the trade.”

–Vernon Law (Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher)

After Life

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The subject of religion is a dangerous one. Many people have strong opinions for and against. It makes little sense to trying to persuade someone that God does exist, or that he/she doesn’t.

At the risk of offending you, I’m going to offer a few random thoughts on the subject, with particular focus on the question of whether there is a life after death and what it might consist of. I don’t claim to be strongly attached to all of these thoughts, but I do find them interesting; you might as well. If, however, you are 100% certain of the validity of your own opinions (or that of your faith or lack of faith), I’d suggest that you don’t read further.

So, if you are still with me…

When I was a kid, an athlete who hit a home run or scored a touchdown generally didn’t make an enormous deal of it. Today athletes are much more demonstrative, not a bad thing in itself. However, a good number of them point to the sky, presumably to heaven, to give thanks. In some cases it represents the same “Gott mit uns” attitude, an essentially tribal view, that some countries adopt in and out of war-time: “God on our side.” In other cases, the jocks state that they are giving thanks simply for the good health and ability that they believe they have been given by God. Well, first of all, I sure hope God has better things to do than to side with one team or another. But there is actually a pretty funny story about this, in W. P. Kinsella’s collection of short stories, The Thrill of the Grass. The story is called The Last Pennant Before Armageddon and its about the Cubs winning the pennant.

On the subject of heaven, it seems that we all want to go there, but we don’t have a really clear idea about what it consists of. Many references are made to deceased loved ones looking down on us and looking after us from beyond the grave. But think about that for a moment. What if heaven does consist of people who do care, and care a lot, about what is going on back on this mortal coil? How can they be living in never-ending happiness? Seeing all the unhappiness, the accidents, injuries, and disappointments of life is heartbreaking and tough enough when you live here. To think that the dead are suffering with us from afar doesn’t sound like my idea of a better world.

On the other hand, let’s assume for the moment that “the dead don’t care,” a refrain in Thomas Lynch’s book Undertakings. (Lynch is both a published poet and a professional undertaker, so he has a rather interesting vantage point on death). If our parents and loved ones no longer care about us (and assuming that they reside in heaven), they must be quite different creatures than they were on earth. And I can’t imagine the petty jealousies of life, the hunger, the (at least) occasional insomnia, the worry, and so forth, being the lot of those in any heaven worthy of the name. So, if people actually do go to such a place, I doubt that we would quite recognize them as being very much like they were on earth. And, frankly, one would be so transformed in transit to heaven as to have difficulty recognizing oneself.

A number of people commented on how the recent death of Farrah Fawcett was overshadowed by the death of Michael Jackson. A few of my patients expressed the fact that they felt sorry for Farrah that the media didn’t attend more to her passing. It is a touching sentiment. But, if Thomas Lynch is correct, Farrah wasn’t bothered by it.

I recommend that you watch a Japanese movie of several years ago, After Life. It depicts a group of recently deceased people who assemble at a sort of transit station on the way to whatever is beyond. They are told that they will have several days to decide on their own version of eternity, which will consist of living forever in whatever single moment they choose from their just-ended life history on earth. They are each assigned a counselor of sorts, to assist them in the choosing process. To live “in the moment” necessitates that they give up that part of themselves that, like all humans, allows them to look back and remember the past, as well as to look forward and anticipate the future. Experiencing whatever large or small single event is most precious involves sensations and feelings attached only to that slice of time rather than to thought, analysis, worry, reflection, or concentration on other things, even including other positive relationships, experiences, and events. And so, perhaps not surprisingly, each person in the movie struggles with giving up all of their other memories, relationships, and daily preoccupations in return for an eternity of living within a single instant in time with a single focus.

To me, it sounds like a heaven worth wishing for, one that would really be wonderful, assuming that one would choose a particularly joyous or exciting or touching instant of one’s life. And it raises an interesting question: what moment would you choose?

Do we fear death or dying? Just asking. Shakespeare’s Hamlet clearly worries about the afterlife not being so much fun. If you haven’t read his famous soliloquy in a while, the one that starts “To be or not to be…,” you might want to take a look at what thoughts about death ultimately stopped him from taking his own life:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Another film on the subject of life and afterlife is called Defending Your Life. Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep star as two forty-something, recently deceased Yuppies who meet in the place you supposedly go after you die, Judgment City. There, you are subjected to a sort of tribunal where it is determined whether you learned enough and accomplished enough in your earthly existence to win you a place on the next higher level of existence, presumably something like heaven. Streep’s character was a brave, generous, and loving person in life, so there is no question that she will go on to the next level. For Brooks’s character, however, things aren’t looking too good. He never overcame his fear of a great many things on earth, so he might just get sent back, reincarnated without memory of his past, in the form of a new-born little boy. And, if this happens, the love affair that has begun in Judgment City between him and Streep’s character will end. I won’t spoil the rest of the film for you, but it is a very funny, entertaining, and wise movie about the need to learn and progress and grow throughout our lives, and to be brave in facing whatever is difficult for us.

And, who knows, maybe there is something like a Judgment City ahead for all of us.

The above image is Stratocululi. Source: German Wikipedia, original upload 3. September 2004 by de: Benutzer. Living Shadow. Courtesy of Wikimediacommons.

A Few Good Books

You won’t be looking at this unless you are a reader. So here are a few brief recommendations of books that have made a lasting impression on me. Most are not new and I suspect that some are out of print, but are likely to be obtainable by a search on the Internet. In no particular order:

1. Frauen by Allison Owings. Owings comes as close as anyone to answering the question, “How did the Holocaust Happen.” An American journalist who studied in Germany, she returned there to interview mostly gentile women who had lived through the period of the Third Reich. Owings summary does an extraordinary job of describing the psychology of the bystanding German population.

2.  A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Irving gives away the plot of his novel early on: Owen Meany will die an unusual death. But rather than destroying the tension of the book, this puts the reader in Owen’s shoes as a man who knows that he will come to an untimely end, but doesn’t know exactly how. As the book progresses and that end comes closer, the terror is almost unbearable.

3.  Agitato by Jerome Toobin. The story of Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra in the one decade that it attempted to survive after his retirement. If you enjoy anecdotes about famous musicians, this book is for you. The tale Toobin tells is both funny and sad, since the orchestra did not last. Jerome Toobin, by the way, is the father of Jeffrey Toobin, the legal scholar and public intellectual.

4.  Regret: the Persistence of the Possible by Janet Landman. A book about the title emotion, viewed from literary, psychological, and other perspectives.

5.  What is the Good Life? by Luc Ferry. A very good attempt to answer the biggest question of all: what is the meaning of life?

6.  The Long Walk by Slavomir Ramicz. The author tells the true story of his escape from a Siberian prison camp. He and his compatriots, with almost no equipment, food, or appropriate clothing, attempted to walk to freedom and Western Civilization, which took them as far as India. As you can imagine, not all of them made it. That anyone at all did is astonishing.

7.  Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. This story of an unhappily married Russian woman touches on almost all that is important in life: love, friendship, obligation, children, religion, the value (or lack) of value to be found in work and education, death, and the meaning of life. None of that would matter much without the author’s gift of telling his story and allowing these issues to flow out of the human relationships and events he describes.

8.  The Boys of  Summer by Roger Kahn. Kahn’s classic tribute to the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team of the 1950s, the team that had Jackie Robinson as its central figure and leader.

9.  War Without Mercy by John Dower. Dower describes the racism that underpinned the Pacific theater of World War II. Unlike the war in Europe, each side viewed the other as less than human and treated the enemy with a brutality consistent with that view.

10.  The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch. Although the book is now a few decades old, the writer’s message is still spot on. He looks at the empty pursuit of happiness in material things and acquisitions, driven by the increasingly disconnected nature of social relationships in this country, and the promise of the media that happiness lies, not in fulfilling human contact, but in the goods that come with “success.”

11.  The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. A fantastic and touching creation about a man unstuck in time, thrown forward and back, and the woman who loves him. Its being made into a movie, I’m told.

12. Patrimony by Philip Roth. Roth’s account of the illness and death of his father.

13.  The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker . More than one person has told me that this is the finest nonfiction book they have ever read. It is a meditation on what it means to be mortal, and how the knowledge we all have of our inevitable demise influences how we live, in both conscious and unconscious ways. Becker’s book has lead to an entire area of psychological research called “Terror Management Theory.”

14.  For Your Own Good by Alice Miller. Miller is a controversial Swiss psychiatrist who looks at the effect of harsh upbringing on the welfare of children. If you believe that children should be seen and not heard, this book might make you think twice.

15.  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. A story of self sacrifice and heroism set in the French Revolution. If you can read the last few pages without tears, you have a firmer grip on your emotions that I have on mine.

16.  The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter. Ritter was a college professor when he began to travel around the country in the 1960s, tape recorder in tow, to obtain the first hand stories of the great baseball players of the first two decades of the 20th century, who were by then very old men. Probably as great an oral history as any of those written by Studs Terkel, and perhaps the greatest baseball book ever.

17.  American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Oppenheimer is the man who brought the Manhattan Project to fruition, that is, helped create the bomb we used to end World War II in 1945. But more than that, this book is a wonderful biography of a complex, peculiar, and brilliant man, who was brought low by those who wished to discredit his opposition to nuclear proliferation in the period after the war.

18.  The Mascot by Mark Kurzem. A story that is beyond belief, but turns out to be true. The central figure of the story, when he was a little boy, was adopted as a mascot by a Latvian SS troop after surviving the murder of his family. Why beyond belief? Because he was Jewish. The book reads like the most extraordinary mystery.

19.  All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. The most famous anti-war novel ever written. The book is told from the standpoint of a young German infantryman during World War I.