What I Have Learned So Far: Life Lessons, Part I

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Long ago my maternal grandfather told me he missed the boat on his 1912 journey to the USA, trying to sail from England to America. He was late for the Titanic. My mom heard this in her own childhood, decades before movies like Titanic made such stories more common.

Grandpa was a warm, dashing, multilingual man; originally from Romania: the loving and lovable grandfather of one’s dreams. Leo Fabian was easy to look up to; and not only because he was over 6′ tall, slender, straight-backed, and imposing in an era of men of more modest presence. Grandpa owned a wonderful, rascally smile and enough charm to enchant a small village, a bit like Harold Hill in The Music Man. He was the life of the party.

Soon enough I learned that alcohol had been a nemesis never defeated, ruining him in the eyes of his son and much of the world. By the time I was a teen I saw my grandfather hungover, chagrined, and shrunken. My last memory of him is when he offered a weakened, but still welcoming smile for me, his oldest grandchild, from his hospital bed.

Of course, he was a story-teller. No surprise, the Titanic tale was unverifiable.

I think my informal education began with observations of Grandpa, who unintentionally provided me with lessons he never intended to teach. I learned that people with admirable qualities, even those full of love and humanity, can be grievously flawed. Moreover, I realized you can’t believe everything you are told, no matter how much you admire the teller. These were necessary lessons, cruel lessons.

We are carried through life in a flood of such instructions, some needful of learning, some wrong; some unlearned, never learned, or learned badly. All of us are lifelong students enrolled in the school of experiences, a university whose classes are taught in the midst of a vast river: now calmly flowing, now surging. Drop out and avoid experiences at your peril: little learning is found below deck, where the beautiful, sunny, glorious days on the water will also be missed. No perfect grades, either, even for those of us who man the sails and survive the episodes of seasickness.

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Since I’ve been on the voyage for a while I thought it might be useful to pass along some ideas not expressly taught, not usually written, and not often offered as sage advice. This is not exhaustive and not everything you will read here can be proven. Still, I began this blog with the idea of presenting ideas about life for my children and I now have a grandson who might profit from them (or run screaming into the night believing elders are best ignored). Here, then, for whatever value you assign, are off-beat bits of what I think I know:

  • I have met no one I thought to be completely evil, evil 24/7. We’d have an easier time identifying them if they were. Indeed, some of the least trustworthy folks were quite charming and generous. The world is full of gray tones. Still, dark gray is to be avoided.
  • Life lessons are often age-dependent. The lessons of youth apply to that time, the lessons of age to another time. Just as the customs of one country differ from another and must be used in the right place and moment, one should acquire the knowledge applicable to the period of life in which you live and use it in a timely way. Perhaps our learning ought to come with a “use by” date. Beware of employing old, once effective strategies which now fail with some regularity. We cannot “freeze dry” our lives. We must continue to adapt.
  • “Some people are so busy learning the tricks of the trade that they never learn the trade.” So said Vernon Law, the best pitcher in baseball in 1960 and a member of the World Series Champion 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates.
  • Fame, that is to say “celebrity,” is fleeting. Ask Vernon Law, still alive at 86. I’ll bet you don’t know his name unless you were a baseball fan 50 years ago or live in Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, I’d have loved to spend one day in Willie Mays’s skin in his prime, a contemporary of Mr. Law. I’m sure I’d immediately have become addicted to the excitement and adulation.

13 Oct 1960, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA --- 10/13/1960-Pittsburgh, PA: Photo shows the seventh game of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Vernon Law, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, is shown in mid-pitch action. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

  • “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” And just think, Oscar Wilde wrote this before Kim Kardashian was born.
  • If you believe everybody should be able to reason his way out of a paper bag, remember that half of the population has an IQ score below 100.
  • “If you want revenge, be sure to dig two graves.” An old Italian expression about the cost of undiminished anger.
  • The older you get the more time you spend on maintenance. Your body requests nothing when young, quietly obeying your every command, but recording your debt to it. The bill comes due later. By 29 I had to stretch before softball games. As I approached the age at which my dad had a heart attack (47) I began regular aerobic exercise to stay in shape. Stretching by now was a time-consuming daily event. Doctor visits, instances of physical rehabilitation, and occasional surgery enter the picture for many of us, jamming up the schedule. All of this happens gradually, little things accumulate. The change is both astonishing (because you didn’t think it would happen to you) and unremarkable (because you adjust to most of the nicks, scratches, and dents). Things wear out, something you knew abstractly, but hadn’t yet lived. Then you begin to have regular conversations with your friends frontloaded with physical concerns. You hear yourself making comments like this:

“The funniest thing happened yesterday, Steve. I was relaxing in front of the TV and — in the middle of everything — my nose fell off. Lucky for me, I caught it on the way down. A little glue and it looks like new, right?”

Of course, what is Steve going to say? That is, if he is able to speak. I wish I could pinpoint the exact date I turned into this person — like, perhaps, Tuesday, March 8 — but I can’t.

  • Even so, you will still think of yourself as about 20% younger than your real age (assuming you are over 40), perhaps explaining the frequent mismatch between the way people dress or wear their hair and what might be considered “age-appropriate.”
  • We are poor at affective forecasting: predicting our future feelings. An example: “When I make $10,000 more I’ll be happy.” Ask those who have won the lottery for the answer.
  • We are also bad at affective forecasting when it comes to negative events. Given enough time we tend to get over things. However, you might not want to wait months or years. The profession of psychotherapy depends on this, in part. There are also countless exceptions when no amount of waiting will lift you to a higher altitude. Psychotherapy is available for this, as well.
  • Some people, almost always men, succeed in life because they are like blunt objects with eyes, who see a door and keep banging on it until the door finally collapses. A number of women marry such a man thinking he will protect them. They admire his persistence or give in to his unrelenting will, though they aren’t emotionally drawn to him. You will also notice many of his kind on the political stage.

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  • Look around you. If you think we humans are rational at all times you haven’t been paying attention. By the way, you are human, therefore …
  • On the other hand, if we were absolutely rational we would be machines: I’d rather have love, even at the cost of heartbreak; joy, even at the cost of disappointment; pleasure at the cost of pain.
  • Time will change you or at least it should. More even than learning from experience, the body and brain do their own shape-shifting and gradually alter who you are. Some of what passes for wisdom is simply getting older, inhabiting a different physique with an altered mix of chemicals running around.
  • No matter how intelligent or physically attractive you are, a number of people won’t want to spend time with you. You will likely believe this is your fault. “Maybe I’m not funny enough, smart enough, well-proportioned enough,” you think to yourself. More often than you imagine, however, it is just because you part your hair the way their father did, a factor of which even they are unaware. Transference is everywhere, not only in the therapist’s office.
  • We all need some amount of compartmentalization and denial. Otherwise life is simply too much. Within limits, the ability to lose yourself in an activity as simple as reading a book or having fun at a party is a great gift. Self-consciousness, being preoccupied with your thoughts about yourself, demands an escape.
  • Sunny days can turn cloudy. I learned to look back and figure out when exactly my mood changed and thus determine what bummed me out. Unravel your discontent early enough in the day and you will sleep better.
  • If you provide friends with too much truth about themselves you are in danger of losing them. Provide them with too little, however, and they aren’t worth having and you aren’t being a good friend.
  • I discovered the generation gap around age 26. Lecturing at Rutgers University I mentioned Adlai Stevenson II. The statesman had died only about eight years before. Stevenson was twice the Democratic Party’s nominee for President and remained a prominent international figure at the time of his death. No one in the large lecture hall of undergraduates knew who he was. These days I find myself spending more time explaining what I’m talking about when I refer to the past.
  • A Bulgarian patient once said, “In the United States people live to work. In Bulgaria we work to live.”
  • I’m still learning. A Thursday night PBS interview of Vice President Joe Biden offered the following anecdote. Judy Woodruff asked him about his plans after leaving public service. Biden referred to issues about which he was still passionate and for which he intended to continue his work:

My dad had an expression: ‘A lucky person (is someone who) gets up in the morning, puts both feet on the floor, knows what he is about to do, and thinks it still matters.’

Biden remains, despite enormous life losses and setbacks, a happy man. By his father’s standard, he is lucky, indeed.

The top photo is The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz. Taken in 1907, it is among the most famous photographs in history. The lowest class accommodation was literally the lowest on the ship and those who were “upper class” did, literally, look down on you. My grandfather likely took his voyage on such a ship, but I have no idea where he was situated on the boat. The second image is called Life Buoy, the work of Shirley. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

The Unsung Value of Denial and Distraction: Where Therapists can Go Wrong

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One of my mentors was a psychiatrist of immense intellect and a laser’s capacity to cut to a psychiatric diagnosis. His brilliance as a diagnostician, however, did not extend to gently bringing his well-defended patients down the therapeutic path. He was a surgeon of the mind. Surgeons leave scars.

You might think of psychotherapy’s beginning as a kind of dance, with the patient in motion like Salome, wearing seven veils. The veils and shifting movement are for protection, not seduction. The client suffers “too much” and the covering — any covering — guards against invasion. If you, as doctor, rip the gauzy garments away, you do an injury. Without a shield, the client is exposed, terrified, and likely to flee treatment.

Too much too soon. A good mental health professional doesn’t drain a protective moat until the patient develops the courage to take on the scary world outside the castle (or inside his head). The counselor must avoid retraumatizing the patient, in effect flooding him with emotions he is unprepared for. The irony of hurting when you mean to help could not be more poignant or more terrible.

Young therapists can miss this. So do managed care companies when they want you to push treatment as fast as possible (to cut its cost) or medicate the insured party for the same reason. My mentor was guilty of ignoring the same therapeutic speed bump.

The challenge of focusing on life’s dark side was understood by the mathematician and big thinker, Blaise Pascal, who died just short of age 40 in 1662. He recognized the need to divert oneself from contemplation of the human condition. Students of clinical psychology might benefit from his words. For example:

Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.

Or this:

I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.

In short, the world can overwhelm such small creatures as we are. Those in most need of distraction are often the least inclined to make use of this necessary method in the pursuit of equanimity.

Pascal again:

However sad a man may be, if you can persuade him to take up some diversion he will be happy while it lasts, and however happy a man may be, if he lacks diversion and has no absorbing passion or entertainment to keep boredom away, he will soon be depressed and unhappy. Without diversion there is no joy; with diversion there is no sadness.

I’d say Pascal goes too far, but his point is a worthy one. I can name many people who seem relatively happy (at least for the moment) because they don’t think about the shadow following them down the street. A memorable patient of mine found escape in diversion and denial: she ate enough carbohydrates to push her well into obesity and diabetes. Yet, while eating, she felt good. Indeed, during stressful moments, she believed she deserved a treat as compensation for her upset.

The therapist’s job is to find a balance between allowing people to use their long-standing psychological defenses while gradually helping them recognize the longer term damage they are doing to themselves by not facing problems. With the large lady in question, it was quite a tightrope walk.

I find myself on both sides of the balance beam. Socrates was right when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” So, however, was Pascal, by implying the deleterious effects of too much “examination,” rumination, and painful memory. The truth is hard to swallow, as the kid in the top photo is about to find out.

I guess if I had to create my own mantra, I’d look to alter the inscription on the Temple of Apollo, which read:

“Know Thyself”

My less pithy version would be: “Know thyself, but not all in one bite. Remember: your eyes (for truth) are bigger than your stomach.”

Homecoming: On the Fantasy and Reality of Family

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Most of us invest a lot in the idea of home. Even if we don’t think about it, home claims us. It is the place where some of our most intense experiences happened.

At its best, “There’s no place like home.” At its worst, there is no place as destructive. I’ll address both sides, in order.

Home is the site of firsts: the first place we lived, the first day of school; our first friends, first love, first victories and failures.

One of my best memories comes from a time before my brothers were born and therefore, from my first five years. My folks and I were leaving a “drive-in” (outdoor) theater.

I was small enough to lie across the back seat of the Chevrolet (no seat belts then). Sleepy after a long day of play, I half-listened to my parents’ conversation. The rhythm of the auto and the sense of safety that comes from the childhood illusion of parental omnipotence and perfect benevolence made me feel as good as I ever have. Of course, we were going to the refuge we called home.

There are probably as many songs about home as about love. Stories too.

Remember Homer’s Odyssey? Odysseus is side-tracked on his return from the Trojan War. He escapes the Cyclops, the Sirens, and other trials to get back to Ithaca, his kingdom. His wife Penelope, who waited 10 years for the war to end, waits another 10 for his return. In that time, she fends off suitors who want her (and the kingdom) for their own. His son, Telemachus, also hopes for his father’s overdue arrival. Upon reaching Ithaca, Odysseus battles the rivals encamped in his estate. He succeeds in defeating them with the help of his son.

Isn’t that what we all want? People who remember us and will always be there for us? People who have unending faith in us? People who love us and still exist, even with the passage of great spans of time, in a place called home?

Think of The Wizard of Oz. It’s pretty much the same story, with a young woman, Dorothy, as the heroine. Swept away from home by forces out of her control, she searches for allies who can help her in finding the “Wizard” and transportation back to Kansas. Like Odysseus’s various nemeses, she encounters an evil witch who makes her life miserable. Dorothy must survive many trials to return where she belongs.

Most of us might write an autobiography of our quest for something worthwhile and the hurdles we overcame to reach a happy ending. The average life can have a heroic quality.

In the end, Dorothy finds herself again on the family farm in Kansas; with Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and the people who love her. The movie ends with her words, “There’s no place like home.”

When comfortable, we often say we “feel at home.” In baseball, our goal is to score more runs than the opposition. How do we do this? By crossing “home plate” more often than they do. If done at one blow, it’s called a home run. Sports teams play better on their home field, supported by their loyal fans, stand-ins for family. And a part of our heart breaks when the stadiums of our youth — those substitutes for home — are razed.

We go to “homecoming” at high schools and colleges, and to class reunions to meet the old friendly faces who attach to us by the memory of home. Of course, these places age, but we still care about them.

Home is a place most people idealize. However wonderful, parents are rarely as good as we imagine them. The “good old days” tend to get better with age and distance.

Unfortunately, the home (and the family there residing), can become a concept that is (like patriotism) “the last refuge of scoundrels.” In corrupt families the idea of loyalty stands above morality and decency. One member of the home “covers” for another’s hateful, abusive, or illegal actions. Parental authority trumps fairness.

Denial reigns in this group of blood and bloodied relations. Pity the person who sees through the psychological mist to things as they are. Beware if you observe the knives behind the smiles. Voicing such knowledge risks becoming an outcast.

Home and family have sufficient claim on us that we wear metaphorical blinders, narrowing our vision and obscuring the dark side. The adults who are cruel or dishonest attempt to maintain the illusion of love for fear of being exposed. Equally, however, other members — usually children — are comforted by not acknowledging the painful truth. Nor do they wish to put themselves in the line of fire by looking behind the curtain. Unlike the Land of Oz, the person who would be unmasked is not as benign as the “Wizard.”

The loyalty, love, and attachment attributed to “family” are special only to the extent that the reality in which you live or to which you return approximates the fantasy.

Otherwise, home is worse than another four-letter word beginning with “h.”

Harold Pinter’s play, The Homecoming, lifts the veil on such a place.

Watch if you dare.

The photo by Kurt Nordstrom is called Celestial Tide and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Getting a Grip in a Difficult Time: Reasons for Optimism

Malala-Yousafzai

As I listen to the news and read the newspaper, it seems we are in the worst moment in history or something pretty close. Think of the following list:

  • Ebola
  • Ebola panic (a rather different thing than the disease itself)
  • Antibiotics losing their effectiveness
  • More armed conflicts and genocides than you can count on two hands
  • Political stalemate
  • Few if any great men or women to lead us
  • Climate change threatening planetary survival
  • Science-denial leading people to prevent the inoculation of their children against disease
  • Intolerance of opposing views even if they are well-reasoned
  • A fracturing of the sense of community (as, for example, was present during World War II or immediately after 9/11)
  • Political and corporate corruption
  • Unemployment
  • Homelessness
  • Racial/religious discrimination
  • Growing economic inequality
  • Inequality of opportunity
  • Educational failure
  • Enraged voices on all sides
  • Killer air-bags
  • The common cold. I threw a sneeze in just to lighten the mood!

Before you take a suicidal walk straight into and under the sea, inhale and step back. Here are a few ways to deal with all the bad stuff. I’ll describe five, the last two of which might actually be helpful:

  1. The Ostrich Impersonation.
    Take a tip from the myth about an ungainly, flightless bird. Stick your head under the covers or close your eyes. Perhaps the world’s troubles will disappear. Don’t read or watch anything having to do with problems. Stay focused only on personal issues or (even better) distract yourself from everything important, including your life’s direction. Don’t vote, but do drink, drug, jump on every sexual opportunity, surf the net, tweet every five minutes, buy a new sweater and post loads of selfies so we can rate your new look. YOLO! (You only live once)!
  2. “Rage, Rage, Against the Dying of the Light!”
    Attempt to be first in something. Lead the world in rage! That’s the spirit! Hone your expertise in criticism. Pick fights, complain, point fingers, and shake fists. Argue about politics and religion. Give family members a hard time, too. Despite having no experience or education in science and politics, shout “Follow me!” as you lead the crowd over the cliff. Should anyone survive, accept no responsibility.
  3. Pray, and If All Prayer Fails, Pray Harder!
    Ignore the real world. Spend the largest part of every day in prayer, if possible in a place of worship. Believe the gods will help you if only you pray hard enough. Take the attitude of the man who ignored flood warnings even when the police came to evacuate him. “No thank you, I’ll be fine,” he said. “The lord will protect me.” A few hours later, after the ground floor of his home was under water, a rescue boat made the same offer. Again, he repeated his confidence in the almighty from the window of his upstairs bedroom. The tide rose and the hours clicked by. He was now on the roof and a hovering helicopter dropped a rope ladder, his final chance to escape. “No thank you, I’ll be fine,” he replied once more. “The lord will protect me.” He drowned, of course, but was quite incredulous and a bit irritated. Upon arriving at heaven’s gate, this devotee of the creator delivered a Job-like complaint to St. Peter: “I was a devout man. I prayed every day. I never harmed anyone. I counted on God, but I died! Explain this!” he demanded. St. Peter looked down at the little fellow and said unto him, “Who do you think sent those people, you fool!”
  4. Look Back at History.
    Think about your own life, all the calamitous moments you thought unsurvivable. You’re breathing, aren’t you? You survived! Maybe you even learned something. Perhaps the world works the same way. Pick a year, say, 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember listening to President Kennedy’s TV speech on the evening of October 22nd, announcing a military blockade of Cuba to prevent Soviet missiles from being delivered. I wondered if I would be alive the next morning as those warships faced off. Mankind has endured two World Wars, the Great Depression between them, the Influenza Pandemic of 1918/19, the Bubonic Plague, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and more. Anyone who longs for the “good old days” has a challenge. Your grandparents lived when blacks were lynched and summers brought fear of polio. Bright women were largely limited to work at home, secretarial jobs, and teaching. Despite everything, including ourselves, the giant daisy chain of Homo sapien life that began with the first man and woman remains unbroken. Shakespeare knew the trouble we’ve seen: “‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.” Making the world better has never been easy. Still, humanity lives, laughs, and every so often creates a technological miracle.
  5. Take Action.
    As in #4, reflect upon your own life, but think anew, think what you alone can do. It might be grand or something small. Take heart in 2014 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner, Malala Yousafzai. Her 2013 speech to the United Nations came after she recovered from a bullet wound to her head by the Taliban. She had done the unconscionable: the teen wanted an education for herself and all young women. This is a portion of  her UN oration, given when she was just 16:

    I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me. I would not shoot him. This is the compassion that I have learnt from Muhammad-the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This is the legacy of change that I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learnt from Gandhi Jee, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learnt from my mother and father. This is what my soul is telling me, be peaceful and love everyone.

    If we have reason for optimism about this crazy world, it is in the realization the human species endures, but we live as surely in the shadow of death as did our short-lived ancient ancestors. All of us owe ourselves and each other the responsibility to make life better. We alone can ensure all life, not only human life, goes on. You and I are not Malala Yousafzai, but surely, to “be peaceful and love” is in your power and mine.

The top image lists an incorrect birth year for Malala Yousafzai. She was born in 1997.

Thomas John Henek: Memorial Day Thoughts on the Complexity of a Life

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Though a courageous man, you won’t find Tom Henek’s name in a history book. He represents the “the greatest generation” who fought in World War II (so named by Tom Brokaw), along with some of the deficiencies of mankind — especially those men who lived in mid-twentieth century America. Regarding history books, he would be in any autobiographical one I might write because I married one of his children.

I never met Thomas Henek. He died two years before I fell in love with his daughter, Aleta, who is still my wife. Yet, as I have come to hear stories about him, I think he is worth describing because of the complexity he represents to those of us who might prefer black or white, good or bad, without the grays of human experience. So, if you’d like to know what being a “man’s man” meant back in the day, I invite you to observe one such individual of personal integrity but clear deficits. If you recognize both of these qualities, I hope it will lead you to witness the convolutions in all those around you, including one of the people you know best and perhaps least: yourself.

Born in Chicago in 1910, Tom Henek’s parents emigrated here from Poland. The City of Chicago once claimed the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw. Tom’s father was a well-to-do business man who purchased two empty lots, upon one of which he built his home. Mr. Henek owned two cars when most people didn’t even have one. Prosperity, however, can be a fleeting thing, as the family discovered after their father’s fatal pneumonia in the 1920s, well before the Great Depression.

Tom was the third of seven children, six boys and a girl. Their father’s death pushed the three oldest, all male, to quit school and go to work. Thirteen or so at the time, Tom completed only seven-and-a-half years of formal education. He worked for the same company most of his life, becoming a lithographer with a specialty in embossing fine leather book covers, a demanding job requiring attention to detail.

The family’s original name was Heineck or Hynek, German or German-sounding despite the family’s Polish identity. Tom’s parents changed their surname when anti-German sentiment swept the USA during World War I. Yet the father was not one to hide from predicaments. The parish priest and one of his married parishioners were having an affair and some in his flock, like Mr. Henek, knew it.

Tom’s dad confronted this fake holy man, who warned him to mind his own business. Mr. Henek didn’t. He removed all his children from Catholic schools and placed them in the public school system because the same priest taught them weekly lessons in morality. Tom’s father couldn’t reconcile the idea of this immoral man lecturing his kids about Godly conduct.

His next step further alienated him from the church institution. Tom’s dad went up the chain of religious command, at each stage told he should keep his mouth shut “or else.” Undeterred, he continued his attempt to remove the priest until the church excommunicated this “trouble maker,” not the guilty party. When Tom’s father died the church refused burial in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery.

Henek’s mom had not been a supporter of what she claimed to be her husband’s attack on her faith. The emotional tone of family life changed dramatically after the dad’s demise. The mother continued to believe in the absolute virtue of the church.

Her third born son, Tom, did not. Young T.H. learned his father’s lesson of trying to be just and, though he believed in God, viewed any place of worship organized by men to be a flawed entity. He eventually stopped attending services, putting himself at odds with his mom. “I believe religion and faith in God are good, it’s just too bad people don’t live by the rules. God knows whether you are a good person or not,” he told his older daughter years later.

This youth became a defender of the underdog. He did not hold to his mom’s belief that all things Polish or Catholic were, by definition, the best. Born in America, he said he was American first. He judged no one by the color of his skin, his national origin, his faith or lack thereof. When he saw a fight, especially one person bullying another, Tom would try to break it up. This short (5’6″), stocky (170 pounds,) powerfully built, black-haired man didn’t leave such things to someone else. He took responsibility.

Ironically, the parish priest who had been his father’s nemesis gave a deathbed confession to the priest administering last rites. The latter, a genuinely holy man, reported the injustice done to Tom’s progenitor. The church reburied the elder Henek’s body in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery.

Tom’s working life was not all sweetness and light. The factory’s environment was dangerous and the unhappy men of the factory attempted to unionize.

Although Tom didn’t lead the movement, he joined in, believing the cause just. The bosses alerted the Chicago Police and paid some off in order to get them to break up the picketing that occurred. For his participation, Tom, more than once, earned a billy club to the head and a night or two in jail. Nonetheless, the union prevailed and working conditions improved.

The USA entered World War II in December of 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan. Many young Americans volunteered to serve, Mr. Henek among them, entering the US Army on March 27, 1942. Thirty-one-years-old, he would not have been drafted at that point in the conflict. Indeed, excluded from the infantry, he took the job of “heavy truck driver” transporting supplies and ammunition needed at the front. He married the love of his life, a red-haired beauty named Helen Grigalunas, before being sent to Europe.

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Tom Henek and his best friend in the service took turns driving their truck. One day, with Tom at the wheel, a sniper fired a bullet through the head of the buddy sitting just beside him. Tom kept going. He had drawn the lucky card of survival, the same card whose opposite face pictured horror, loss, and perhaps survivor guilt. His children say he never talked about the War, but his wife told them he had nightmares, as do many who endure battle. Though discharged from the Army on November 25, 1945, those memories lived inside of him for the rest of his days.

My wife’s father smoked cigarettes from an early age, as a large part of his generation did, and enjoyed an occasional drink with his buddies. His other major vice was gambling. Like most gamblers, losing trumped winning, but the young family subsisted and bought a tiny house in Franklin Park, IL where his wife lived for many years after her husband died. Siblings helped to pay off his debts. Yet when confronted about betting and smoking by his spouse he said that since they didn’t hurt anyone else he believed it permissible to enjoy them. Clearly, the face he put on his gambling ignored the family’s modest living circumstances and the imposition on his siblings. Addiction? Entitlement? Denial? Perhaps.

Back then, of course, second-hand smoke effects hadn’t been investigated, but on January 11, 1964 the government issued the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health based on more than 7000 research articles accumulated over the years. Moreover, as early as 1957, Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney authorized the official position of the U.S. Public Health Service recognizing a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer. Thus, Mr. Henek effectively dismissed the danger to himself and the potential for emotional and financial suffering to his family.

Blind spots. We all have them. Some are big, others tiny, but one usually needs an outside perspective to see them clearly, as Tom Henek did not. Look in the mirror and perhaps you will view someone else with a few.

My wife and her sister Tomi remember Henek’s response to the predicament of a neighbor and schoolmate. Let’s call her Polly. This young woman “got in trouble,” a euphemism for out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The lover was the girl’s former teacher, who waited until the 18-year-old graduated to have the affair. Her father (one of Tom’s drinking buddies), told her to get out of the house and never return.

Tom Henek became incensed by his friend’s behavior. He walked over to his buddy’s abode and “chewed him out,” another old expression like “giving him hell.” T.H. told him not to throw Polly out of the home, but rather to embrace and help her in the moment of her greatest need. Tom pointed out the imperfections of his friend and lectured him on judging this teenager in light of his own defects. And, he said, “If you don’t allow her to live with you, I’ll bring her into my place and support her.” The lecture worked and the father of the pregnant girl permitted her to continue to stay with her own family.

That was the kind of person Mr. Henek was. A man who got off a long, late night train ride to downtown Chicago in a winter blizzard with my wife-yet-to-be when she was 13 or 14. Aleta’s mom and slightly younger sister Tomi were there too, returning from a family visit to Helen’s relatives in LaSalle, IL. Cabs were scarce and it took him about an hour before he found one. Just then a young woman with an infant in her arms turned up, a slightly older daughter following behind in the snow drifts, while the mom dragged her luggage with a hand only partially free. She too needed a taxi. Tom offered the ride to the young mother for fear the cold would harm her newborn. No other cab could be expected any time soon. Again, nothing to put on a monument, but something that counts for a lot, at least to my wife and her sister. By the way, my sister-in-law, Tomacine, was named after her dad.

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The father-in-law I never met was the rare person who changed his political thinking based on evidence. A veteran of “the good war,” as Studs Terkel called WWII, Tom instinctively sided with the US intervention in Vietnam. But as the body count mounted growing numbers of protesters doubted the “domino theory” predicting the loss of  S.E. Asia to Communism — the rationale for U.S. military involvement in a small country over 7000 miles from San Francisco. The Gulf of Tonkin incident that justified our military escalation proved as questionable as “Weapons of Mass Destruction” would later be in Iraq. Tom Henek began to change his mind. My wife remembers political conversations in which T.H. no longer defended the aggression. He was a person who knew, too well, the real cost of wartime. Over 58,000 American men and many more Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, died in a conflict that continued long after Mr. Henek’s death.

Like many males in Tom’s day and even today, doctors are scary people. A man who faced enemy fire did not want to face a friendly M.D. Perhaps he believed “real men” didn’t go to physicians. Tom would not have been alone in such thinking. In the mid-1960s Mr. Henek started to cough frequently and all three women in the home spotted blood stains on his underwear when they did laundry. He ignored his family’s pleas to get checked out. Increased alcohol use did not kill the growing pain. Finally, a man who never missed work was so depleted that he collapsed at home and called in sick. Testing led to the diagnosis of metastatic lung cancer: treatment might delay, but not prevent his death.

It was Christmas time, 1967, and Tom told the doctors who recommended immediate radiation of his desire to spend his last Christmas with his family and be hospitalized thereafter. I will spare you most of the details. He rallied for a time in the approximately six months remaining to him and spent several weeks at home. During the last three weeks, however, while not unconscious, Thomas was bleary-eyed and unable to speak or move. Whether he knew the date or understood what was said to him is unknown. Death came on June 15, 1968 at age 57, the day after his wife’s birthday. His widow Helen cried herself to sleep every night for over a year.

My wife describes her dad as “the kind of man whom everyone wished to have as a friend, the salt of the earth.” Thomas Henek’s funeral drew hundreds, rather remarkable for a man who attended church only if he had been invited to a wedding there, especially in those days when weekly attendance was expected. Nor have I mentioned his sense of humor. For all his flaws, he raised two daughters who became fine and accomplished women and never but once laid a hand on either of them in anger, so horrified was he at the single (non-injurious) spank he gave to his first born’s diapered bottom.

There you have the life of Thomas John Henek: soldier, father, hero, husband, gambler, craftsman, smoker, defender of the underdog, and friend. A man much-loved. Complicated, isn’t it? We are imperfect and human, which is certainly redundant. Care to judge Tom Henek? I’m just grateful to know his story and regret I never had the chance to thank this man for his part in bringing my wife (and, therefore, also my children) into the world.

The top image is the confirmation photo of Thomas John Henek. The next picture is his wife, Helen. The final photo shows Downtown West, Minneapolis, MN, USA, 12/12/2010. The author is Nic McPhee. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

It’s Not Going to Happen to Me

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It’s not going to happen to me.

“Why?”

Well, because I’m young. Sure I smoke, but so did my grandfather and he lived to be 97. Sure I eat a lot and I’m overweight, but so does my mom, and she can still do cartwheels. Besides, I’m a good person — bad things don’t happen to really good people. And, I have a strong relationship to God. He wouldn’t let anything bad happen. He’s on my side.

OK, I don’t know if it is a He or She, but I’m goddamn sure about God being on my side. I’m a spiritual guy. No, not the kind that has to go to church all the time, but God knows my heart is in the right place. I even gave 50 cents to a homeless guy a couple of years ago. Besides, I’ve been lucky all my life. And I’m careful, I have very good judgment. I look both ways before I cross the street. I plan in advance. Not to  mention, I’m really smart. I always got good grades in school. And before anything bad happens, I’ll see it coming and get out-of-the-way.

OK, sometimes I lie to the boss, sometimes I do a side job for cash so I can avoid paying taxes, but who doesn’t do that? The government would waste it anyway. I’m clever. I’ll never get caught.

Sure, there are some things I haven’t taken care of yet, some stuff I need to start, some projects I need to finish. But, crap, I’ve got time, plenty of time. There’s always tomorrow or next week. What’s the rush?

If I really wanted to stop smoking I could stop, but I enjoy it. And even if I do trip myself up somehow or some way, there will always be other chances. What’s more, I’ve got people looking out for me. If I were in trouble, they’d warn me and I’d change course.

The bad things that have happened to me have been someone else’s fault. I’ve recovered. See! I’m as good as new!

What’d you say? You said I drive too fast? Heck, I’ve got terrific reflexes, great hand-eye coordination. I’ve never had an accident, not even a traffic violation. I know what I’m doing.

Yeah, I drink, sometimes too much, but I never drive when I’m tipsy. How do I know? Well, I can just tell. I know myself. I don’t make dumb choices. OK, sometimes I have unprotected sex with people I have just met, but I don’t have sex with those kinds of people who would have AIDS or herpes or something. I guess I wasn’t always faithful to my last girlfriend either, but, I mean, who is? Jeez, I’m a man, I have needs, I have urges. I just do what other men do. What’s wrong with that?

I’m smart. I’m good. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be OK.

It’s not going to happen to me.

What you’ve just read is an imaginary conversation, not intended to resemble the words or attitudes of anyone living or dead, and certainly not the gentleman pictured. The top image is called Smug Santa, taken in 2008 at the New York Santacon by istolethetv and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Princess Merida.

Advice for Life: Dr. S’s Savvy Suggestions for Survival

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When I was 16 I thought that life would be peachy once I knew how to drive and had a girlfriend. Unfortunately, achieving those two goals did not produce a permanent state of bliss. The first didn’t seem very important once it was accomplished; and the second — well, I regret to say that even love becomes something that one takes a bit too much for granted, except when it is absent.

If I could have given that kid I was some guidance, the list of advice wouldn’t have included those items because he (I) already knew I needed to learn to drive and find love. Nor would I have instructed him to work hard; or about the importance of the almighty dollar, values osmotically communicated within my childhood home. But here is a list of the things I might have offered, even if that 16-year-old version of myself couldn’t have fully understood them all:

1. When your mother told you that “Your eyes are bigger than your mouth” as you looked at a glorious piece of pie, she was on to something: the illusion of appearances. Some things and some people who look good, aren’t good. Or, have no lasting value, only a temporary pleasure that, like the food your mother was talking about, might not be as wonderful as you think.

2. Be quick to recognize patterns of mistakes and stop repeating them. As Bill Clinton said, “When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”

3. Perpetual regret is some version of hell. The first half of your life gives you lots of chances to recover from wrong turns and thereby avoid sentences that start with “I should have” or “I shouldn’t have.” You have the time to start most things over.

4. Hiding, hesitating, and hoping don’t work very well. To get ahead in life you can’t just read about it, imagine it, or worry about it. You actually have to do it. It’s a little like jumping into a cold pool. Once you’re in the water, you get used to the cold temperature and discover you can swim.

5. Don’t fool yourself by rationalizing your misdeeds or denying the real reasons you do what you do. But do learn to forgive yourself for most things. You are human, after all, and mistakes come with the package.

6. Perfectionism will kill you. So will slovenliness. Goldilocks was right about a lot of things: don’t aim for “too hot” or “too cold,” but for “just right.” In philosophical terms it is “the golden mean” — that place between excess and deficiency, between too much and too little of a quality. Some people call it balance.

7. No one cares about you except your mother, and even she has other things on her mind. OK, the first part of the last sentence is an exaggeration, but most of the people you know are too busy thinking about themselves to think much about you. Get over your self-consciousness.

8. You will pay for wisdom. Pain teaches, pleasure not so much. The body gives way in any case. Take care of your body; enjoy it and all the many pleasures of being young. Indeed, don’t take life so seriously that you miss the joy in living.

9. You too will die. Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor, actually hired someone to remind him of this fact every day. The cemetery is full of irreplaceable people. As Gregory Maguire has written, “Happy endings are still endings.” That tends to put things in perspective, so note the truth of it without constantly dwelling on it.

10. There is always someone better (and better off) than you are. There is always someone worse (and worse off) than you are.

11. You can’t have it all. Choose wisely, but remember Einstein’s words: “Try not to be a person of success, but rather a person of value.”

12. Accumulate experiences moment to moment, not possessions. Money and “stuff” are overrated unless you don’t have enough to get by.

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13. Make friends. People are the problem, but they are also the solution. Grudges will eat you alive, so try to let go and enjoy people for who they are, not who you want them to be, unless they are real scoundrels who should then be avoided. Spend more time trying to change yourself and less trying to change others.

14. Be nice. Or, to quote from American Opinion Magazine: “My boy,” said a father to his son, “treat everyone with politeness, even those who may be rude to you. For remember that you show courtesy to others not because they are gentlemen, but because you are a gentleman.”

15. Religion isn’t essential to morality. Some of the kindest and most decent people you will encounter don’t believe in God. But some really wonderful people do.

16. You must change yourself perpetually because of the changing circumstances in any life, not the least of which is aging. Think of life as a moving target, not one that is stationary. It follows that you should always seek to learn more from both study and experience. By the way, the most interesting people you meet will be the ones from whom you learn, by their words or their example.

17. You have to take chances, otherwise you can’t grow. Make the transition from seeing challenges as a crisis to seeing them as an opportunity.

18. Acceptance of the things that can’t be changed and appreciation of the good things you have are both life long tasks. Work at them.

19. Think about how you relate to money, food, time, and sex. Know where your potential spouse stands on each of these before your wedding day.

20. Reproduce. That’s why you are here, but don’t do so to save your marriage, and recognize that raising a child is a tremendous amount of work. Only have a baby if you want to be involved in all aspects of your little one’s life.

21. Overcome the things of which you are afraid. If you don’t they will diminish your life and continue to haunt you until you die.

22. Get to know your parents and, if possible, their early history. Whether by their good or bad example, they have something to teach you. There is also probably at least one person in your family who is so nuts that you want to reach for a giant nutcracker. Try to stay out of his or her way.

23. If you are an anxious or worried person, know that most of the things you anticipate either won’t happen or are survivable.

24. Always treat the wait-staff well.

25. Learn to be assertive. The world can be a merciless place if you don’t. Don’t explain your reasons or make excuses when no one asked. Don’t ask for permission when none has been requested. Someone might just say “no.”

26. Dr. S’s Bonus Item: Almost all the things you think will be the permanent solution to your problems provide only temporary relief. Once you solve one difficulty you are on to the next one, which probably requires a different remedy. Life is about learning that you can take on new challenges, not about finding permanent solutions to a fixed and unchanging set of problems.

27. Dr. S’s Second Bonus: If you want to get ahead, do what President Woodrow Wilson said: “Do not follow people who stand still.”

The top photo by Jonas Bergsten is of a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife, Mountaineer Model. The poster is called Follow the Old-timer’s Advice and comes from the Office of Emergency Management, Office of War Information, 1941-1945. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.