Lunch Break

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I had lunch with two old friends the other day. They are old friends in every sense. We go back 50 years. But this day was different.

One is a man of enormous energy and optimism, not to mention resilience: a survivor of life-threatening illnesses. I’ll call him “Grande.” The other is steadfast and quietly clever, but a block of granite underneath. You want “Top Hat” beside you in the trenches.

All that sounds too serious, I think. We mostly have fun, talk about everything and nothing. Conversation is easy. So this was a lunch like dozens or hundreds we’ve had before, until the topic turned to an acquaintance, someone we know pretty well, though he is younger. Another good fellow and, unlike ourselves, a great athlete.

At our age conversation easily leads to demise and Death — little d and Big D — those twin comedians. Seniors all suffer from daily aches and pains: your knees, your back, arthritis, balky shoulders, whatever. The conversation darkened.

Top Hat had seen the other buddy, Achilles, and was distressed over his appearance. “He didn’t look well. He isn’t the same old godlike, invulnerable Achilles.” Did the lights in the diner dim just then? Who turned on the air-conditioner? D entered the restaurant. D as in Death.

Achilles’ name brought the conversation too close to home. Meanwhile D circled our table as we ate. I watched the lettuce in my salad discolor.

Past a certain age, most people wait for a late night phone call about their parents. The three lunch-comrades lost them quite a while back. In the case of my dad I got the call early one morning 15 years ago from my brother Ed. Dad had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke and lasted only a few more days. I visited mom on a Sunday morning about nine months later, part of my regular routine, only to find her unconscious. She, too, made a “clean getaway,” as my friend Dan likes to call a speedy and painless death.

I still drive a 16-year old car my father rode in a few months before he kicked the bucket. I think about that sometimes when I look at the empty passenger seat.

The conversation continued. We talked about what our dating experience in high school might have been like if we’d been more mature and what a preposterous thought that was. Our kids’ well-being entered the discussion along with news of my new grandchild. One of the guys explained the reason for the brace on his hand. The other reported some exciting travel plans. Retirement issues came up. Politics, playoff baseball, and robotic automation were mentioned. We are all worried about what the world holds for our offspring. Grande suggested a get-together with other high school buddies. He plans to give a call to another chum whom we’d not seen in a while  — to say hello for all of us.

My mind drifted just a little. I started to think about how special this matter-of-fact lunch was. How much I love these two men. I was reminded how unimportant are the imperfections in each of us — even as much as we sometimes make of them. And I thought how short will be the time (however many years it might be) before one of us will be absent. Thank goodness we are now all in good health for our age.

I remembered, too, a videotaped oral history I did with my dad in his mid-70s. I asked him what he’d figured out about life. Milt Stein paused for a few seconds and then said, “I’ve learned to appreciate some things.” Not the most philosophical of people, in that moment he became the wisest man on earth.

My reverie passed and I noticed Death moving toward the door. As D pulled the handle, he turned and caught my eye. Did he wink? What a friendly guy!

Then he left us — for now. Other appointments to take care of first, I imagine.

Here are words of Shakespeare’s Prospero at the close of The Tempest. He is speaking about the players in the play, but also about all of us:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The top photo is called Sunset at Land’s End in San Francisco, by Brocken Inaglory. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

About Grieving, About Friendship… About My Friend Bob Calsyn

When you lose someone you care about, for a while you walk around in a daze. Of course, there is the sadness. But less often mentioned are the sense of disorientation and the random memories; the moments your eyes fill with tears and the fatigue you can’t seem to shake. For a while you are scattered and off-balance until, finally, the jumble of things settles down and life returns to “normal.”

I am writing this in the midst of the jumble. My friend Bob Calsyn died on Friday, September 21st. His wife Maria called from St. Louis with the news. I let a couple of my old friends know. They are Bob’s old friends too, from our days in grad school at Northwestern. And I heard independently from Dave Kenny, another NU alum. If Dave isn’t — I should say wasn’t — Bob’s best friend, then surely he was tied with the other contenders for first place.

I told Dave I was thinking of writing something about Bob and asked if he might offer some of his own thoughts. His remarks below are adapted from those he read at the memorial he attended in St. Louis on September 25th. (In each case that I quote him, his comments are set off from the rest of the text and begin with his name in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS).

What I’d like to do here is to tell you why Bob mattered to all of us. But the truth is, I need to tell you. I need to get this out to honor Bob — to honor the loss suffered by Maria and Bob’s children and siblings and all those who were closest to Bob. And, not least, to help myself with the jumble I mentioned at the start.

What follows is a series of recollections of a wonderful man and great friend, much of it in Dave Kenny’s voice; along with some of my own memories, a little of my own philosophizing about the nature of friendship and loss, and some things just about me. Someday, you too will be in the midst of the jumble. Maybe it will help.

DAVE KENNY:

I knew Bob for 44 years. When we met at Northwestern we had a lot in common: both oldest child of a large family, both lapsed Catholics, both of us had mothers who wanted us to be priests, and both of us had a strong commitment to social justice. We very quickly became friends. What Bob accomplished in four years at Northwestern was truly remarkable: earning his Ph.D., serving two years as a Conscientious Objector to the Vietnam War, doing a one year clinical psychology internship, and becoming a father, much of the time commuting 14 miles from Hyde Park to Evanston. The later incredible academic success of his sons Dylan and Chris was foreshadowed by Bob’s.

Bob, unlike me, continued in his commitment to social justice throughout his entire lifetime. He was passionate about ending homelessness and he worked diligently in this effort. I never told Bob how grateful I was that he let me play a small role in his work.

For the record, Robert Joseph Calsyn was a product of Rock Island, Illinois and Alleman High School; the child of working class parents. He graduated from Loyola University in Chicago before attending grad school. Bob served as the Chairman of the Psychology Department at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, as well as being Director of its Gerontology Program.

There is something about schoolmates. At Northwestern, our group of graduate students was more than usually close. The Psychology Department was small, so we had lots of classes together, the way you do when you are 10 years old. We ate together, socialized together, went on double-dates; some of us roomed together. We passed through the same moment in history and the same stage in our lives in the same place. It was hard not to bond.

The men in the group played lots of softball and football and basketball against other Northwestern departmental conscripts. Bob usually played second base for our softball enterprise, which we called the Psyclones — a play on words since we were all studying to be psychologists. He played hard, but that particular game was tough for Bob, especially making accurate throws to first base. Still, Bob was an essential part of a pretty good team. Even if we’d have been slightly more perfect without him, we wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun or had the benefit of his “heart.”

In sports like touch-football Bob was fierce, taking particular pride in the devastating, bone-rattling blocks he delivered to opponents who couldn’t imagine them coming from a man who was no more than 5’8″ (173 cm) on a good day. Bob was no plaster saint. He knew the full range of four letter words and used them when necessary, as they tend to be in sports, especially in games played with the sweaty tenacity that Bob brought to them.

DAVE KENNY:

Our friendship endured and we saw each other in eight different states. Many of those visits were near water which Bob loved: the coast of Maine, Cape Cod, Long Island Sound, and of course, his beloved Anna Maria Island (where Bob and Maria had a vacation home). Bob was strange about water. He loved to watch and hear it, but he was not a fan of being in it. However, don’t forget that Bob grew up and spent most of his adult life near the Mississippi River. Maybe not going in the water made good sense.

I didn’t see Bob a lot after grad school. We’d visit occasionally, at first when I was teaching in New Jersey and he came to nearby New York City, later in Chicago, and a few times in St. Louis. Our relationship took the form of letters, then email and occasional phone calls. I got to read and critique some of his short stories; he helped with career issues for one of my children.

And yet, for me at least, a person like Bob lives inside of you in a continuous way even when there is no continuity in actual contact. He was always on an imaginary list of people who I thought of as my friends. Bob was someone who you were sure would be dependable, helpful, and unfailingly honest. He told you what he thought, not what he believed he “should” say or what he thought you wanted to hear.

We “knew” each other, could talk about anything. We knew where each of us was coming from — came from — in both a literal and figurative sense. He didn’t keep score. Bob was always there when you needed him, someone who was compassionate, gave sound advice, and was incredibly funny.

DAVE KENNY:

Bob had his own view of nutrition. He introduced me to Dairy Queen Blizzards. I remember him cooking donuts and beignets in his kitchen. We always had a 3PM cookie break when working together. For breakfast he would ignore his wife Maria — his Argentine bombshell — and sneak off to eat at Waffle House or Denny’s, not the healthy breakfast she suggested.

Bob and Maria (ca. 1994)

My friend retired from his faculty position in 2009. Not long after he was diagnosed with cancer. This made our contacts more frequent. Somehow Bob remained optimistic in spite of multiple tumor sites that never fully disappeared.

Bob continued to play tennis, the game he loved best, even though the treatment compromised his breathing. Singles were now out, so he played doubles. I didn’t see the down moments and I’m sure that there were more than a few. But his resilience, his ability to live life and to keep really “living it” and enjoying himself was astonishing. And he could still be there for me, as when I had a long conversation with him about retirement: whether to do it, when to do it, what it was like for him, and what it might be like for me. We had plans to see each other on the first weekend in October in St. Louis.

People find it difficult to talk with someone who is battling “Death,” a bigger than “Life” opponent with an undefeated record. It is, indeed, hard to know what to say. Mostly you listen, even if most of us think we must have some sort of magic words to deliver when, in fact, no such words exist. Bob made it as easy as possible.

The day after Bob died I heard John Adams’s musical composition, On the Transmigration of Souls, presented by the Milwaukee Symphony and Chorus. Bob liked classical music, so it seemed a nice coincidence; more than that, the composition is a commemoration of those lives lost in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. An interview with the composer on the New York Philharmonic website includes the following:

… I’d probably call the piece a ‘memory space.’ It’s a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions. The link to a particular historical place — in this case 9/11 — is there if you want to contemplate it. But I hope that the piece will summon human experience that goes well beyond this particular event.

‘Transmigration’ means ‘the movement from one place to another’ or ‘the transition from one state of being to another.’ … And I don’t just mean the transition from living to dead, but also the change that takes place within the souls of those that stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then themselves come away from an experience transformed.

I guess you hear what you want to, what you need to, what you can’t escape. Of course, I couldn’t help but think about Bob during the performance…

Bob managed to write a novel, all the while dealing with his illness. It is called Primal Man and you can buy it on Amazon. You won’t be disappointed. The story is a murder mystery that takes place in a university setting. This comes from a brief interview of Bob in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on September 4, 2011:

Q: Had you written fiction before?

Bob: No. but I’ve always read mysteries.

Q: This primal man is apparently an exhibitionist?

Bob: Primal man exposes himself to female students and throws them an index card that says, ‘Men are hunters, women are gatherers. Gather yourself home.’

Q: How does psychology figure in?

Bob: It helps you explore character. I was an administrator for many years. I thought writing a mystery was a more socially acceptable outlet than strangling my colleagues.

Bob was a confident man, but not arrogant. For all the scholarly articles he produced and all his advocacy for homeless, mentally ill people, he told me one day at the St. Louis Zoo that he thought of himself as a “journeyman.” Indeed, he considered each one of us who got Northwestern psychology doctorates in 1972 in the same light, with one exception. Dave Kenny was and is that exception, an internationally known academic who has changed the way people think about social psychology research, its design, and its analysis. But, I don’t believe Bob meant to disparage any of us, and certainly not himself. He simply knew that there was a pretty big difference between being Bob Calsyn or Gerry Stein and being Beethoven.

Bob didn’t care about or aim to be a great man. He was too busy living his life, loving his wife, doing his work. He was too busy delighting in his kids and grandchildren, playing tennis, and having a beer (but not at the same time)! The irony, of course, is that the way that Bob lived was a kind of un-self-conscious, rough-hewn work of art, something to be admired and emulated. As Marc Anthony said over the body of Julius Caesar in the Shakespeare play, “When comes such another?”

DAVE KENNY:

In thinking over my friendship with Bob, it occurred to me that Bob and I never argued and Bob never got mad at me. We disagreed all the time, but our disagreements did not result in arguments. Bob regularly told me that I was wrong, but he never did so in a way that said, “I’m better than you” or “You are a bad person.” He sincerely wished, as I did, that I was a better person. Bob did have lots of reasons to be angry at me: missing deadlines, drinking too much, not staying in contact… Bob would get angry at Republicans, at demagogues, and perhaps even his colleagues. But he channeled his anger against his colleagues by writing short stories and killing them off there.

Bob always was one step ahead of me. He left a high-powered college to go to a more low-key institution. He got married and had children, ended his difficult marriage, and remarried; he had grandchildren and retired — all before me. Now Bob, you have done it again and you have died before me.

Upon reflection, Bob was more of an older brother to me than a friend. He was doing things before me and giving me advice on how to do them. My big brother Bob helped me cope with all of the major transitions in my life, especially my divorce. We know that Bob faced a terminal disease and death courageously and remarkably. Again I will be following Bob, and I hope I can muster 10% of his courage, but I hope that mustering does not happen too soon.

Dave Kenny

We cannot know what others are feeling except by analogy to our own emotions. Those of us who have lost a friend may think we are hurting and we are, but surely the intensity and nature of the feelings experienced by those closest to Bob can’t be known, at least not by me. Everyone’s grief is different, formed by the tapestry of experiences they had with the departed — all the memories and struggles, the laughter, the kindness, and the human imperfections that are inevitable on both sides of any relationship.

For those closest, their lives will now be marked with the idea of “before and after;” before and after Bob died and how much that difference made. To all those who were closest to Dr. Calsyn, and to those (like me) who were a step or two back, my condolences.

That said, from the outside and some distance, it looks to me like Bob had a wonderful life. Too short, for sure, but wonderful. Not without pain or disappointment or hard times, but full of compensating joy, success, and love. He gave life and the people in his life everything he had. He traveled, competed, and he knew when to rest and take a walk on the beach. Bob didn’t “phone it in.” He lived more in 66 years than most of us would do in twice that time. Like the ballplayer who tries to stretch a triple into a home run and is thrown out at the plate, he was a thing to behold.

On the subject of baseball, I’m reminded of an old story about Babe Ruth, the most famous baseball player ever. Actually, it is about the Babe’s funeral, which happened on a particularly hot day in New York City. It seems that two of his old teammates, Joe Dugan and Waite Hoyt, couldn’t help but comment on the weather, especially since they’d served as their friend’s pallbearers and the heat hadn’t made that easier:

Joe Dugan: I’d give a hundred dollars for a beer.

Waite Hoyt: So would the Babe.

Here’s to you, Bob. How lucky I was to know you.

——–

The top image is the Calsyn Family (ca. 2001). From left to right: Bob’s son Dylan and Dylan’s wife Beth and their daughter Zoe; Maria, Bob, Soledad Van Emden (Maria’s daughter and Bob’s stepdaughter), Bob’s son Chris, Margaret van Emden; and John van Emden, Soledad’s husband. Since this picture was taken, three more grandchildren have arrived: Abigail, Ella, and Max.

The photos are courtesy of Dave Kenny. My very special thanks to Dave for his contribution to this essay, especially given the enormous difficulty he had returning home to Connecticut from Bob’s memorial in St. Louis. Thanks, also, to Judy Goodman, Steve Hanan, Angela Shancer, and Diane Tyrell for their helpful and speedy comments about an earlier draft; and for their friendship.

 

“Relationship Crime” or the Man Who Knew a Little Bit Too Much

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Knowledge can be a problem. You know the old saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

I once had a friend who was dating a lovely woman. She was charming, sweet, and fun to be with. And, this lady was very kind, a person who respected others and went out of her way not to do harm. My wife and I enjoyed her company and my friend seemed to appreciate her immensely, as well.

But, not really looking for someone else, he stumbled upon another woman who pursued him; a pursuit to which he succumbed. Rather quickly, it is true. He didn’t put up much of a fight.

She too was charming and perhaps a bit more energetic than his current lover, and I suspect a little bit sexier, too. She had a sleek sultriness that his girlfriend didn’t possess. But since he never told woman #2 that he was “involved” with someone else, he was “fair game” as far as she could see; and he certainly didn’t proclaim any abiding allegiance or committment to the lady he’d been dating.

From this point, my buddy enjoyed the company of both women — enjoyed sex with each of them — and he saw no reason to tell either one about the other.

But he did tell me what he was doing.

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I asked if either one knew that he was sleeping with someone else; and he had to admit that each of them thought she was in an exclusive relationship with him — that she was the “one and only.”

I pointed out that there was implicit deceit involved, since he knew that his lovers were with him only because they did not know the truth.

“No one is being hurt,” was his reply. And he was sure, he said pre-emptively, that he did not have a sexually transmitted disease, which he’d checked out recently with his MD. No one was in harm’s way from physical disease, he assured me.

As far as this man was concerned, he had made no promise of eternal fidelity and believed that a “no strings attached” understanding existed all around.

My friend was not a young man, nor were the two women — the three of them hip-deep into their fifth decade on the planet. Everyone had been around the block several times. All parties had been hurt more than once. They knew the pain of heartbreak. They didn’t need any more of it, not that anyone of whatever age needs more. It was just that the resilience of youth was no longer as available to any of them as it had been a while back, and one would have hoped that the man had thought just a bit about this fact.

I asked him how he would feel if his youngest sister were sleeping with someone who was doing what he was doing: simultaneously having sex with another woman whose existence was a secret?

This sort of thing used to be called “two-timing,” but I didn’t remind him of that.

He pretended that he did not hear me. Better to keep the walls up, the compartments separated. It was the sort of response (or lack of response) you get from someone who doesn’t want to think any troublesome thoughts that might arouse his slumbering conscience. And so he kept the metaphorical blinders on himself, so that he could not see the collateral damage of his self-serving behavior.

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Although he wouldn’t have admitted it, he viewed these women “instrumentally” — in terms of what they were good for and how they could be used, while comforting himself that “no one is being hurt.”

Perhaps you are asking why all this troubled me. Several reasons. I cared about the first woman — my wife and I both cared about her — and were happy to have become her friends. We knew that she was being fooled, even if she was not presently in any pain. We knew that the “relationship” was based on deceit and her lack of knowledge. We expected her heart to be broken before long. And, I felt bad about the moral degradation of my friend, someone who I could no longer look at in the same way as before — could no longer respect as I once had.

My buddy told me all that I have now related to you on the condition of confidentiality. But that was going to be a problem. Not that I would break his trust, but that I now had what might be called “guilty knowledge.” I knew too much for my own good.

My wife and I had a double-date scheduled with our friend and girlfriend #1. At dinner I was uncomfortable. I knew something that his lady friend didn’t know and I realized that eventually she would be left spinning, which didn’t lighten my mood. It was as if I had just read her X-ray and discovered a spot on her lung about which she knew nothing — yet.

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Nor did I want to participate in the sham of their implicitly exclusive relationship, the references to future things that they planned on doing (some with us), or watch the way that this gracious and good woman-in-love looked at a man who, although he was my friend, was ( I now realized) not nearly so gracious and good; and not in love with her.

The day after this get-together, I phoned to tell him that so long as he was dating both of these women I could not go out with him in the company of either of them; I could not pretend that I didn’t know what I did know.

I knew a little bit too much.

It was not long before my friend ended the contact with the first woman. I suspect that his decision to end the relationship had more to do with his developing feelings for female #2, than any unhappiness with his first girlfriend or the flowering of his dormant conscience. And, I’m pretty sure he’d had difficulty coping with the logistical problems of juggling two relationships, each with a woman who wanted as much of his time as he could give. After all, there are only seven days in a week and the task of keeping both women happy (and unaware of the other) began to wear him down a bit.

And just to show how little influence I had on my friend, he repeated the two-timing when another woman came along who found him attractive. Now girlfriend #2 achieved the position of the previous girlfriend #1, and like here predecessor, she too was eventually taken to the relationship consignment shop. I guess practice makes perfect.

Many years before, when I was an intern in a psychiatric hospital, I recall a raving, out-of-control man being brought into the locked-unit to which I’d been assigned. He was suffering from Bi-Polar Disorder, which you might know by the label Manic Depressive Disorder. Clearly, he was in a manic phase — grandiose, impulsive, erratic, exploding with energy, and incapable of making good judgments.

He had been a high school teacher of mine. A wonderful teacher. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to remember me and I made no effort to remind him of who I was and thus risk embarrassing him.

There are things that we don’t want to see in life: the failings of our friends, the frailty of respected parents and teachers, the needless hurt that one person we care about is doing to another one we care about. We don’t usually want to be party to deception, an accessory to even the kind of commonplace “relationship crime” that my friend was committing against a woman he liked very much.

None of this is very earth-shaking, I know. Unless, of course, you are girlfriend #1. But watching people diminish themselves is no fun, even for therapists who see it every working day. Bad decisions, hurtful decisions, thoughtless and self-serving decisions — all of it part of routine human experience.

We’ve all done some of it, but the best among us learn that it is wrong while others just keep on doing it.

As I said at the start, “I once had a friend…” He might now more accurately be described as an acquaintance. Someone about whom I think wistfully, remembering the days when I thought he was better than he turned out to be. Was he? Had I simply missed some things about him, never seen him in the kind of situation that revealed his limitations?

Sometimes the only conclusion to the story is “I don’t know.”

The top image is Two Women with Sink by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The second photo is of Bernard Spindel Whispering in the Ear of James R. Hoffa in 1957, taken by Roger Higgins, a photographer for the New York World Telegram and the Sun newspapers. The following picture of a Saddlebred Stallion in Harness is the work of Steve Fortescue. Finally, the flash-animation Spinning Dancer was created by Nobuyuki Kayahura at the Procreo Flash Design Laboratory. All images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Growing Apart in Marriage

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In the black and white world of “absolutes,” life decisions are easy and obvious. But life as it is actually lived becomes a good deal more complex and muddy.

Here is an example:

Take a middle-aged man and wife, both approaching 50. They married young for many of the same reasons that other people do: physical attraction, the fun and good times of first love, and religious faith.

He had been groomed to work hard, build businesses, and accumulate wealth. She had been raised to refinement, home making, and the raising of children. Although both were college graduates, neither saw education at the time as more than the expected and required thing to do.

They both succeeded at their appointed tasks. He was often absent, working late to achieve and maintain the commercial success that he won. She had the major responsibility for raising the children and keeping the home a beautiful and congenial place in which to live.

Time passed. As the children left the home, she turned increasingly to her religious community for companionship and to the comfort provided by her faith, the one which he professed only nominally. She attended less to her physical well-being and gained weight. She was satisfied with her life, fulfilled and sustained by her belief in God and a like-minded group of co-religionists. This woman believed her relationship to her husband was satisfactory in terms that were typical of a long-married couple with grown children.

The man, on the other hand, became more interested in philanthropy and involved himself in charitable projects in which the wife was uninterested, simultaneously turned-off by the religious focus of his wife; indeed, by now he had become sceptical of organized religion, if not agnostic in his outlook. And, in the free time that his success afforded him, he worked-out and kept fit. As well as discovering a passion for history, philosophy, and science, he read voraciously for pleasure. The world of ideas had captured him.

The wife would encourage her husband to pray with her and to attend bible study groups, but his study of the history of religion made him doubt the authority of the documents that his wife accepted as the foundation of her world view. She was calmed by the certainty of her belief in God, while he had become a sceptic.

For her part, the increasing “intellectuality” of her husband and his decision to return to school for occasional classes left her untroubled, but unable to connect with his newly developed interests. His efforts to engage his wife in conversation about the things that he found intensely exciting found her indifferent, unable even to feign curiosity. That was simply not who she was.

And so they grew apart, although her life remained satisfactory to her, since she was not looking for the intellectual interaction that her husband wanted; or sex, for that matter, although she dutifully complied with his desire to continue a physical relationship with her. Other than the children and  the practical matters that occupy business partners or roommates, there wasn’t much depth of communication, and certainly no meeting of minds.

The woman did not sense the extent of her partner’s disaffection, his feeling of emptiness, or experience these feelings herself. She was close to the children while he had only business associates, no close friends. Nor was he one to talk about his feelings with her easily, so that his wife’s lack of intuition left her unaware of his loneliness and his desire to engage with someone who stimulated him in every sense.

Indeed, intensity was not what his wife wanted, not in bed, not in the world of ideas, not in thoughtful conversation about his feelings. When he did try to achieve these things with her, he was left even more disappointed than before.

Still attractive to women, with a strong personality, good looks, and the status conferred by money and power, he was tempted by younger, more admiring females who offered a sense of engagement that his wife seemed not to value. Still, the ethic of responsibility with which he was raised gave him pause, and he experienced a feeling of anticipatory guilt as he thought about the prospect of being unfaithful.

Whether this man acted on the temptation for an extra-marital affair or sought a divorce is not something I’d like to address quite yet. First, I want to raise some basic questions about relationships and responsibility:

1. Should this couple stay married for what might be another 40 or more years?

2. Is it possible that the idea of fidelity — the promise of a lifetime of faithfulness — made more sense when lives were shorter than they are today? The average lifespan of 50 at the turn of the 20th century has now been extended, at least in this country, to the mid-70s for men, and even longer for women.

3. How much should we be held accountable for a decision (to marry) made at a relatively early age that does not — cannot — fully anticipate the unpredictability of changes in personality, behavior, and beliefs that may occur in any life?

4. To what degree should one member of a marital couple sacrifice his or her happiness so that the other member remains satisfied and content?

So what happened?

The female was not interested in marital therapy (although she did give it a half-hearted effort), instead believing that it was her husband’s lack of religious faith that should be the target of intervention, and that only if he was properly devoted to God would he be relieved of his troubles. He eventually did have affairs, but when his wife found out he saw what injury he had done to her, felt guilty, and renounced infidelity (and the divorce he also contemplated) going forward.

The husband attempted to accept his wife’s limited interests in the things that stoked his imagination. In his mind he had already hurt her enough and therefore could not demand more.

This woman was now, once again, contented in her life, if ever mindful of her husband’s potential for further betrayal, of which she did not hesitate to remind him. The couple stayed in their rural suburban community away from the stimulus of the city that he craved, partly as his penance for harming her, and partly (she hoped) to keep him away from temptation. He did not again pursue other women or respond to their attempts to entice him.

Later, as his involvement in the world of business began to wind down he suffered a diminished and unsatisfactory life, relieved only by the self-stimulation of reading, his increased closeness to the children he had left for his wife to raise while he pursued the bread-winner role, the grandchildren who received the best of him (as his children had not), and the joy that came with being an active part of their small lives.

Most of us know at least one old friend, someone we hardly ever see anymore, with whom we somehow remain close. “We pick up wherever we left off, even though we haven’t seen each other in years,” or so we say in such situations. But we also know the experience of growing apart from a person we might even see fairly often.

In the first instance we have taken different routes in life, lived away from each other, but wound up in the same psychological, intellectual, and emotional place. In the second example, even though our external paths have not differed very much, our internal compasses led in different directions. We may be close by, but we are no longer close.

The relationship problems exemplified by the couple that I’ve described grew out of the divergence of these two human personalities as time passed. It would be easy to see one partner as evil and one as good, but I hope that it is clear that this situation was more complicated than that. The husband was not cruel. He did not wish to harm his wife and, in the end, was clearly leading the less happy life of the pair.

He had sought fulfillment by pursuing other women, at least temporarily. But did not his wife pursue her own self-interest, as well? It included a kind of marriage between herself and an institution of faith — the church and the people who made it up. That it did not involve sexual infidelity, however, does not mean that it had no effect on her husband. Indeed, he craved an intellectual, emotional, and physical exhilaration that his wife found unnecessary to her well-being.

It could be argued that in ultimately choosing fidelity to his wife, forsaking the kind of betrayal he had visited upon her earlier, the man had betrayed himself and the possibility of a satisfying companionship for himself ever after.

Life does not always easily correspond to neat categories of right and wrong, good and evil. Even the Ten Commandments are not seen as absolute by most Christians and Jews, at least those who justify killing in wartime or self-defense, or accept the State’s right to perform capital punishment.

Sometimes people who once matched well, change. Sometimes you can do nothing wrong and get an unfortunate result. Sometimes the choices that partners make prohibit mutual satisfaction because of who they are, not because one is good and one is bad. A relationship that works for both parties today may not continue to work indefinitely.

It is a bit unsettling to look at life this way.

But that is the way it looks from here.

The image above is American Gothic by Grant Wood, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Violence and Intimacy

File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Dante And Virgil In Hell (1850).jpg

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, but one can do the most violence to another when one is close to that person. Physically close. Pinching, punching, pushing, plucking, picking, pulverizing — actions that can only be done at close quarters, the victim is pilloried and punished. Perhaps then, it is no wonder that human kind can be uncomfortable with and afraid of intimacy.

When physical vulnerability is compounded with the psychological, we tend to be even more careful. Those who are close to us know just where to strike, where the soft and breakable parts are; and they are just in reach.

I watched a History Channel feature the other night on The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The point was made that while the Thompson submachine gun was a useful weapon for killing at a distance, many of the most important gangland assassinations were done with a pistol, while holding or grabbing the victim, or pulling him close to make certain that he couldn’t reach for his own weapon. Intimacy again — the closeness that made injury possible, more certain, more lethal.

Remember Delilah of the famous bible story that featured Samson? Again, intimacy, this time of a sexual nature, allowed her to rob Samson of his strength by having his enemies cut his long hair while he slept.

When you were a kid, do you remember an aunt or uncle or grandparent who would hold you close and then pinch (and shake) your cheek between thumb and forefinger? It was alleged to be an act of affection, but whenever it was done to me, I couldn’t quite understand how something that hurt that much was supposed to show love.

I’m sure you know the origin of the handshake — an ancient custom designed to display the fact that you do not have a weapon in your hand with which to do injury at close range.

And, in the “you always hurt the one you love” department, we should not forget that “crimes of passion” account for many of the violent deaths in this country. That is, we are harming those we know, not strangers, in fits of intense emotion and impulsivity.

How does this relate to therapy? In part, because the therapeutic relationship is a somewhat one-sided intimacy. The patient makes himself vulnerable to the doctor, displays his wounds and expresses his emotions, trusting that his secrets and feelings will be safeguarded, treated with kindness and respect, and definitely not used against him. Therapists need to keep this in mind, lest they re-traumatize the person, injuring him in a way that is similar to the very torment that he came to therapy to heal.

Although a counselor’s power can hardly be considered “great,” it is considerable when it comes to his patients. Psychologists would do well to remember the quote from the movie Spider-man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The moral of the story? Allowing one self to become close and vulnerable to another person opens the door to the best and worst that life can offer. It is therefore of great import to choose a friend, a lover, or a therapist with care.

As the Knight Templar told Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when the explorer had to pick out the Holy Grail from an assortment of old cups, “choose wisely.”

The above image is William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1850 painting Dante and Virgil in Hell sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Holiday Depression is Coming to Town

It is that time of year. The TV shows us happy families, all smiles, getting together around the Christmas tree or a turkey dinner. Festive window displays adorn your local department store. Greeting cards proclaim good cheer and the values of family and fraternity. And there you are, alone or lonely, wondering how it is that you haven’t been invited to the party.

The media often represent a version of American life that overstates the happiness quotient of the average person. It is difficult not to believe that many, if not most people are having a better time than we are; are more loved, more popular, and having more fun.

First off, don’t be fooled. You are not alone. Just because you are not represented in the media ads, doesn’t mean that you are solo in your suffering. Many of the “holiday singles” group keep a low profile at this time of year, fearful that they will be judged to be losers if they proclaim their isolation; few want to be objects of pity, and that is exactly what they expect if it should become known that they have nowhere to go and no one to be with on Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year’s Eve.

But many people are alone: many of the divorced, widowed, and childless; many who live at great distances from their families; many who have recently broken-up with someone; many who are estranged from family or friends; many who have recently moved; and many of the unemployed, who have lost the connectedness to co-workers that was an emotionally sustaining source of support.

Holidays can also be difficult because of the haunting memories of better times. This is especially true if the loss of loved ones is fairly recent. The first holiday or two after a divorce or death is usually especially difficult to endure, so great is the contrast between the focus on family that the holiday brings and the solitary fact of being bereft. Moreover, holidays tend to rob the lonely of the distraction of work, generating significant expanses of empty time, filled only by reflections on one’s sorry state as the time moves with a dull, clumsy, funereal tread.

On top of all this, there is the problem of Seasonal Affective Disorder (appropriately signified by the acronym SAD). Typically, the pattern is one of onset of a depressive episode in the fall or winter, with remission coming in the spring. Additionally, the seasonal condition is not due to some external event (such as the beginning of school in the fall), but rather is thought to do with the relative unavailability of “bright visible-spectrum light” that is characteristic of  “the dark months.”

What to do then, if you are suffering from the holiday blues? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Although your unhappiness presupposes the absence of satisfying social contact, at least consider whether there is someone to whom you can reach out and who might even welcome your participation in his holiday celebration. Social withdrawal tends to feed on itself, only making us feel worse. While it is true that a rejection is painful, many people are more than usually welcoming at this time of year; the risk might be worth the reward.
  • Keep busy doing something productive. Don’t spend hours watching television alone, if at all possible. Clean your house, build something, exercise, or perform some other useful function.
  • Consider volunteering at a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. Not only is this important work, but it will fill the time and might even make you aware that, however bad your situation, it is still better than that of some other people. One other benefit is the human contact that such volunteerism provides, including the possibility of making new friends, among whom might be some others who find themselves alone on the holidays.
  • Make a list of the things about which you are grateful. Most of us take much for granted. Perhaps there are still things in your life that you can count as blessings. Such reminders are often useful in boosting a sagging spirit.
  • If you have the means, travel can be a good and beneficial use of your time at the holidays. Fares are often cheaper on the holiday itself. Going to a warm climate or a new place might serve to break up your routine and, once again, give you a chance to do new things and meet new people.
  • Social-networking sites on the internet may be worth investigating. While not usually as satisfying as face-to-face human contact, this new type of relatedness can lead to friendship for some, and reduce one’s sense of complete isolation.
  • If you have been on the planet for a while, remember the past difficulties that you have overcome and how you did so. It is very likely that the same human qualities that enabled you to get past other tough times will get you over the holidays.
  • If you have been diagnosed with a seasonal depression (SAD), consider obtaining a light box that provides a full light spectrum for your own in-home therapy. These can be found easily by googling “light box.” Such devices are typically not enormously expensive.
  • Psychotherapy and/or anti-depressant medication are always available should you wish to take on your sadness in a most direct and powerful way.