George Altman and the Art of Living

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Nineteen-sixty-one began well for George Lee Altman. The year also looked positive for Jack Randolph Stein — my brother, Jack — the ballplayer’s best nine-year-old fan. Jack studied the newspaper box scores and memorized Altman’s statistics. He defended Altman to any “unbelievers” who might have preferred some other big league star. No defense, however, was needed in 1961: by baseball’s All-Star break Altman led the league in hitting. The 6’4″ black outfielder blasted a home run in the game. Only a better Cubs team would have made the world of George and Jack perfect.

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Ah, but the baseball gods are capricious and the long ball Altman drove over the fence proved the highpoint of his Major League career. After another All-Star year in Chicago he was traded to St. Louis and then to the New York Mets at a time when a ballplayer might be considered a “well-paid slave,” to quote Curt Flood about his own baseball career. But this story ends well so don’t lose heart. George Altman never did.

I offer you two stories here: one, a brief recounting of the life of an extraordinary athlete and man, and the other of a little boy who admired him. A tale, too, of the unexpected turns you meet if you live long enough.

Altman was 27-years-old in 1961, Jack at the age boys acquire heroes. Baseball permitted the love of a man of a different race in a way not allowed by almost any other public activities of the day.

Jack modeled himself after Big George. He adopted a similar left-handed swing of the bat; played the outfield as his hero did. My brother even hoped to spend time with him, something impossible after a ballgame in an ad hoc autograph line.

Jack wrote to the athlete at Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs. “Mom will cook you a meal of steak and beer,” he included as an enticement. No brewery inhabited our basement and no beer lived in our refrigerator, but the letter found its way out the door. Jack waited. The whole family waited and wondered.

My brother received a picture-postcard with Altman’s photo on one side and his autograph on the other. No mention of steak and beer. No comment at all.

A little history: George Altman played a part in advancing race relations in the United States. In 1947 Jackie Robinson, enabled by the Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager (Branch Rickey), broke the informal collusion among Major League Baseball’s owners to keep the game white: the color line. From Robinson’s arrival it took until 1959 — the same year George Altman joined the Cubs — before every team had at least one black man. Big George was among the last to play ball in the Negro Major Leagues (a gifted dark-skinned player’s only alternative to the barred door of the Majors). They began to unravel when some of their best athletes found jobs in the newly integrated big leagues.

A rough road greeted “colored” men (as they were then called) even if they did leap the first barrier. Salary was modest, most took off-season jobs to survive, and racism among some of their white teammates presented itself. Managers were all white and informal limitations prevented “too many” dark-skinned men from taking the field as “starters.” Blacks had to room with blacks, whites with whites. Segregated hotels sometimes separated the races further. Little inter-racial socialization happened after the game ended and, even in the dugout, the dark and light often sat apart.

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Altman had another superb season in 1962, but his trade to St.Louis left both the ballplayer and brother Jack disappointed. Injuries undercut much of Altman’s remaining time in the big leagues, but he eventually became a huge star in Japan for eight seasons. Even then, however, he was a person on the outside. No longer an African-American in a white world, nor a college-educated-man in a group of men of more limited learning, he became an American in Asia.

George Altman grew up in North Carolina. His mother died of pneumonia when he was four. Willie Altman, his dad, made a living as a tenant farmer who became an auto mechanic. The senior Altman could be a hard man, a man of few words and hidden feelings; one who didn’t encourage his talented son’s growing athletic success or attend his games. But the junior Altman gave his all to succeed at everything he tried, including the back-breaking labor of picking cotton and tobacco during teen-aged summers. Altman graduated from Tennessee State thanks to a basketball scholarship. He later became “semi-conversant” in Japanese during his playing days overseas, and a commodities trader at Chicago’s Board of Trade representing himself from the seat he purchased with some of his relatively high Japanese earnings. Along the way he beat down colon cancer.

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Before he left Chicago, George Altman started a chess club for young people and helped build the Better Boys Foundation. The 83-year-old continues a focus on high school-aged kids and combating the evils of drug abuse, but Chicago claims a special place in his heart.

The tall childhood hero once again came to Jack’s mind with the recent World Series Championship of the Cubs. Perhaps, he hoped, a 55-year-old meal ticket could be punched as well. Jack tracked down his 1960s idol and made a date to visit him near Altman’s Missouri home.

The men who broke baseball’s color line are thought of as having advanced the status of their race despite the initially punishing reception of white baseball. Surely this is correct, but not the whole story. They also served all Americans of the time, not only by displaying their particular genius for the game. Blacks were not just stereotyped, but invisible in mid-twentieth-century America: no black newscasters, no blacks in commercials, few blacks on TV or in the movies; and then, almost always in roles fueling the worst stereotypes of the time.

That changed with the vanguard of “Negro” baseball players. Even bigots now observed African-Americans in a new role, heard them speak in radio and TV interviews, and read human interest stories written about them. Unseen, anyone can be stereotyped. A man or woman in the flesh becomes a person, not so easily molded into an object of derision. The black athletes of Altman’s generation played baseball well, but they played a more important role in transforming America. The frozen, deformed national consciousness of people of color reformed because of their courage. We are better because of them, if still not perfect. We are better because of George Altman.

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Expectations nurtured over time become unspeakably high. The goal, once achieved, usually disappoints: too much pent-up anticipation. Not this. The still trim Altman met my brother at the appointed restaurant. The ballplayer didn’t remember the “steak and beer” invitation, nor did the pair dine on the menu items Jack had promised, but the 55-year-old wish was otherwise satisfied — and not only because of the former Chicagoan’s pleasure at the success of the World Champion players who wore the same uniform he did. Here is Jack’s voice:

After a while I brought up some of the tragedies he endured, from poverty to racial prejudice to his son’s death in a head-on collision with a drunk driver; the loss of his grandson, too. Despite all this, George is an absolutely positive guy who appreciates his life and how he handled his most difficult times.

Since George is not legendary ballplayer, he seemed surprised anyone would drive a long distance to spend a couple of hours with him over lunch.  He enjoyed my detailed interest in his career and the recollections we shared of some of his greatest games.  For me, as I have learned more about George from his autobiography and our meeting, the hero of a nine-year-old boy became his hero again at 64-years-of-age. It was a happy experience for both of us.

Responding to a note of gratitude from Jack, George Altman wrote this:

Jack,

I thank you for the honor of your visit this afternoon. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. You reminded me of some great experiences I had in baseball. Thanks for the memories. I’m honored that you would drive almost 700 miles (round trip) to have lunch with me. I am amazed at your knowledge of my career.

God bless you and your family.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Geo.

Where do resilience and grace come from? In the dedication of his autobiography, Altman first thanks God and then his mother, “whom I never really knew. Everyone who knew her said that she was a beautiful, kind, and loving person. I have tried to use her legacy as a guideline for my life.” Then he names his wife, Etta; children, relatives, and friends, all acknowledged for “their love, comfort, and support.” Last, gratitude is expressed to five coaches, perhaps father figures, individually identified. As John Donne famously wrote, “No Man is an Island.” Whether he knows the line, George Altman knows the lesson.

The Stein family, ca. 1960. Left to right in the front row, Jack, Gerry, and Eddie.

The Stein family, circa 1960. Left to right in the front row, Jack, Gerry, and Eddie.

Back in the childhood I shared with my brothers we never thought about players writing books or their lives in retirement. We were too busy watching those still active. The “stars” were, quite literally, in our eyes.

Mid-twentieth-century America presented an easy opportunity to believe in heroes. I mean the celebrated athletes of the time, especially baseball players. As Homer said of Trojan War combatants, some were “godlike” men. The human imperfections of anyone in the public eye today, however, have become inescapable. Each man’s and woman’s Achilles heel is x-rayed, dissected, and shamelessly exposed. We live in an age of full-frontal-news. We know more, but are perhaps poorer because of it.

And then there are George Altman and other people like him, quietly living out their lives. There are never too many: intelligent, decent, and hardworking; gifted, grateful and resilient. How many of us can stand comfortably on a pedestal erected by a worshipful nine-year-old? The 64-year-old version of that little boy, my brother Jack, would tell you he met one last year: a man who made a difference, the rare example of a life well-lived.

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Most of the information on George Altman’s life comes from his autobiography, written with Lew Freedman, George Altman: My Baseball Journey from the Negro Leagues to the Majors and Beyond. The second image above is Norman Rockwell’s, The Dugout, which appeared in the September 14, 1948 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. The painting well-symbolizes the futility of most of the Cubs teams my generation watched when we were growing up. The video tribute that follows is worth the attention of any baseball fan. After a number of vintage photos there are some wonderful clips of Altman in action. Younger fans will note how much Wrigley Field has changed over the years. The following dugout image includes, from left to right, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and George Altman. I do not know the names of the other players, but would be pleased to be informed by those who do.

Pondering Gratitude and the Admirable, Imperfect Life of Morris Abram

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A boost to the spirits can come from an unexpected place, even an obituary. The March 17, 2000 account of Morris Abram’s life, as written by William Honan in The New York Times, included this:

Mr. Abram was a young lawyer in Atlanta specializing in railroad cases in 1949 when he began a 14-year struggle to overturn a Georgia electoral rule that gave disproportionate weight in primary elections to ballots cast in predominantly white rural areas at the expense of those cast by urban blacks. The rule perpetuated segregation in Georgia.

Mr. Abram felt the sting of the rule in 1953 when he sought the Democratic nomination for Congress from the Fifth District. He ran on a platform that urged the desegregation of schools and carried populous Fulton County, which includes Atlanta. But he lost two smaller rural counties that had disproportionate weight under the rule and lost the election.

Over the years Mr. Abram helped bring cases against the rule to the United States Supreme Court. On March 18, 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who had been briefed by Mr. Abram, argued the case before the Supreme Court. In a historic ruling, the court declared the rule unconstitutional because ”within a given constituency there can be room for but one constitutional rule — one voter, one vote.”

A remarkable story, then, both for the achievement and the time and persistence it took. Abram advantaged not only those who heard of him in his lifetime, but those who did not. Countless others benefit today. Abram’s name fades, but his work remains. Thanks to him we are closer to a country where “all men are created equal,” even if not yet close enough. As a friend of mine, Rich Adelstein, likes to say, we are all the beneficiaries of people we never met whose names we do not know.

Life, however, rarely stops in the moment you achieve something of genuine greatness or personal importance. Glory is fleeting, the river flows on. Abram faced many ups and downs in his future, professional and relational: failed jobs, marital problems, and more.

In 1973, Mr. Abram was told he had acute myelocytic leukemia. His fight against the disease impelled him to write an autobiography, The Day is Short, in 1982.

Abram lived another 18 years after publication of his story and died of something else. He was 81.

At the conclusion of The Day is Short, Abram offers this:

I have never been a cautious man, and in a good cause, I would be more willing than ever to take risks. As my remission continues, I notice that I am more inclined to consider the long-term consequences of my actions. But I know that time is limited, and I tend to be in a hurry. I am daily reminded of an ancient Hebrew text that says, ‘The day is short, the work is great … It is not thy duty to complete the work, but neither art thou free to desist from it.’

The work to repair yourself also repairs the world. Those who find therapy self-indulgent misunderstand. In making ourselves better we impact the life around us. Perhaps in not so grand a way as this small-town Jewish man’s 14-year struggle to right injustice, but a contribution still. Even Abram’s battle to defeat disease provides an example; as does his sense of urgency in doing his work because, as he reminds us, “the day is short.”

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Morris Abram was grateful for his usefulness to others, offering us still another lesson in how to live. Therapists benefit from their usefulness, too. All of you have my thanks for spending time with my words. I am heartened that you do.

I have been told there are those who look to me for answers, some for encouragement, some to enter one therapist’s mind. Perhaps you are drawn by an unaccustomed frankness about difficult and complicated topics. I hope you enjoy my peculiar slant on a variety of matters or my effortful attempt to achieve an artful turn of phrase. I am aware more than a few find comfort here and I am pleased to provide it when I can. Then too, I try to entertain.

I know my essays are sometimes unsettling. I would apologize, but I am indeed doing so knowingly, though not always with perfect tact. My intention is to get you to think in a new way. I hope I succeed from time to time. This virtual cubby-hole is designed as a safe and civil place in a world not always so. If my provocations do not shatter your trust in me — well — then I’ve accomplished my goal. I am on your side.

To those who feel dismissed in life, know that I and others like myself take you seriously. I think of you as I write. My effort is to speak to you as if we were face-to-face, eye-to-eye, without condescension. A handful of you are friends, some ex-patients, some fellow-bloggers. All of your comments are appreciated and frequently enlightening or touching. I’ve been lucky to make online friendships along the way because of them. All of you — silent or not, known to me or not — are welcome here.

Without people who pay attention to us there would be no therapists.

So thanks for taking me seriously, too.

The best of good wishes for the best possible New Year.

The top photo is called Heart of My Heart. It is the work of Koshy Koshy as unloaded by Jkadavoor to Wikimedia Commons.

A Dozen Ways to Avoid Regret (and a Warning about Endless Therapy)

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When we suffer regret we are, by definition, occupied with the past. We lament things we did or didn’t do, time lost, vanished opportunities. Perhaps, however, it would be useful thinking about how to avoid regret going forward. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Recognize life’s limitations, learn from failure, and don’t stop trying. Anyone with imagination can think of several possible lives to lead, places to go, experiences to pursue. If  you are honest you can even envision a different spouse or children, no matter your great good fortune in those you have. Thus, the world is like a candy store in which only so much consumption of sweets is possible, to borrow a metaphor from Haruki Murakami and Forrest Gump. The earlier you recognize this the more you are forced to refine and narrow your choices. Moreover, you must reach for some of those candies without ever having tasted them and before obtaining experience in how to grasp each one artfully, a guarantee of mistakes. We can only learn from disappointments and try again. Live your values as best you can: dive deep into those few candied heaps of life you deem worth the effort in the short time permitted. Don’t end your days saying, “I should have” or  “Why did I waste my time on … ” Or, worst of all, “Why didn’t I?” Michael Jordan, basketball hero, said:

I’ve missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games.Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

  • Improve your choices. Moving through life, take stock, reflect. Write down your analysis, perhaps every five or 10 years. Look where you’ve been, where you are, and where you would like to go. I’m talking about what career you might still pursue, what you’d like to learn about, how much of yourself you hope to devote to relationships, what personal characteristics you still wish to alter, where you’d like to live, what you’d like to see, and the legacy you might leave behind. No one can do everything, be everything. Too much candy, too little time, too much indigestion.
  • Since we can’t invent more hours, we are left to determine how best to spend our allotment. If you hope to become World Champion in the art of perusing and responding to tweets, stop reading this now. You are wasting minutes you could devote to your curious focus on 140 characters or less. For myself, I watch TV/video less than an hour a day on most days, except for those in the baseball season! Why? Because I value the time spent in the company of fine novelists, historians, and ancient philosophers more than what is on the tube. Some of this might strike you as elitist, but no. Literature isn’t automatically “superior” to TV, film, or theater. I’ve simply made a choice: my personal preference. You can find superb TV shows if that is what you believe is a good use of your day. I’m suggesting you think through choices. Assuming you are mature, the most satisfying life possible for you will be a life designed by you — not a consequence of habit or the persuasion of advertising, the boss, or friends. Quiet consideration of how you spend your waking hours is essential to the success of your plan, especially if you are not happy.
  • Be active, take risks, always seek to grow. Some of these endeavors will assume the form of self-disclosure and vulnerability, some the shape of honest self-reflection, some the act of trying new things. The courage to know yourself and then be yourself is never easy. The ground is shifting under all of us. Move, don’t sit still. Reinvent yourself, at least a bit. Proceed, don’t rush, but live with intensity. Walter Pater wrote:

To burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

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  • Be wary of bucket lists. I’m referring to the postponement of activities until late in life, the things you want to do before you begin residence below ground. Several problems come with delay: a) you might not live long enough. b) if you are forever looking forward you won’t live in the moment and experience joy in the now. c) bucket lists assume excellence at predicting what will bring fulfillment in 10, 20, or 40 years. We are poor at this. Research on “affective forecasting” (being able to predict how life events will influence our emotions) affirms the weakness. Richard Posner, in his book Aging and Old Age, puts the dilemma of anticipating our future self this way. Say we sentence a 20-year-old to life in prison. Are we punishing the same person when he is 65? That is, does a man change over time? Possibly deepen, mature, give up old hobbies and take on new ones, learn more; become enriched and transformed by love or literature or experience, turn grateful or embittered, for or against life? Unless we can predict the manner in which events and people will work on us and how we will work on ourselves, we might realize a long postponed trip to Paris would have been better in life’s springtime; or, in my case, a Chicago Cubs World Series victory would have meant more to me at 20, when I lived and died by the team’s fortunes, than it did in 2016. By the way, I didn’t plan on morphing into a less avid fan. I simply changed.
  • Regret can be a result of idealization. As Janet Landman observes in her book, Regret: The Persistence of the Possible, this emotional state is akin to the aftermath of a decision made at a fork in the road. We reach the divide and must choose. Proceeding down the chosen path, past the time of easily retracing our steps, we think: “I was mistaken. The other way was better.” But really, do we know?  We only understand the lived experience of the choice we made. The other avenue is easy to idealize because it exists in imagination, because we didn’t encounter the imperfections one can only suffer by a different choosing. Do you wish to spend a lifetime lamenting a mirage?
  • Ask whether there is another side to losses, mistakes, and missed opportunities. I am not Pollyanna. Few who read my writing regularly would think so, I suspect. I will say, however, that I have learned far more from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” than from any other source. Not every mistake can be rationalized, not every loss offers even close to equal compensation in some other form. But before you devote the rest of your days to regret, take a few moments to seek what can be learned from life’s hard and unequal distribution of pain. Perhaps you can create some good out of your awareness of those things you did or didn’t do, the words you said or didn’t say, the chances missed and the poorly chosen roads endured — if not for yourself, then for someone else.
  • Remember that research says you will be happier if you take newfound money and buy a cup of coffee for a stranger than if you use the gift for yourself. King Midas wasn’t a happy guy, was he? Take a hard look at your desire to gain triumphant, towering status and wealth.

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  • Be careful how much time you spend looking back. I am on thin ice in saying so. A good therapist begins with history. The untying of binding emotional knots is essential, often requiring discovery of how they came to be, where they remain, and more. Danger exists, however, in believing every knot requires attention, every cognitive or behavioral change demands agonizing soul-searching. Some will loosen with the passage of time, others aren’t too important. CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) is able to master many without endless and wrenching historical probing. Meanwhile, weigh the time spent on a backward focus versus possible gains from attention to the now via action. Curtail whatever retrospective view isn’t essential to making a satisfying life. Is this avoidance, cowardice? Only sometimes. Psychotherapy in-depth encourages a seemingly perpetual return to the bottomless gorge of your memory-distressed soul until you dredge up every dark thing at its floor. Sometimes we must put an end to reruns and begin a new season in the installment series of our lives. Your therapist might urge digging deeper. He may be correct. I’m here to say — on reflection — my patients sometimes knew when to stop when I didn’t.
  • Is there room for gratitude? Such a sentiment is hard to summon in the midst of despair, maybe impossible. The practice of routinely reminding yourself what is good can, nonetheless, diminish sadness much of the time.
  • Time is always moving forward and doesn’t permit time-travel for do-overs. Those facts set the stage for regret. Not because you made horrible mistakes, but because you are human and were thrown into a set of unalterable physical laws (as are all of us). The best way we can deal with what nature offers is to make good use of the present and plan for the future, even though the person for whom we are planning (our future self) may not be as thrilled as we hope with the baton we pass him. Regret is inevitable because our genetic inheritance keeps us unsatisfied, always seeking more and better. Those early humans without such ambitions — those who were easily satisfied — didn’t survive, nor did their offspring become our ancestors. Evolution enabled the perpetuation of our forefathers’ genes in the form of their progeny, but offered no guarantee of joy in our status, our mate, or our job. Regret, therefore, is built into who we are: restless creatures still driven by the biological imperative to behave in a way that increases the chances of our genes surviving, even past our reproductive years.
  • Learn to forgive yourself. You cannot do everything, you will never be perfect, you will disappoint and injure others, your imprint on the planet will (unless your last name is Will Shakespeare or Hawking or Beethoven) be small. We are always learning and forever changing course. Do your best, try to do better, and leave it at that. Life is punishing enough for most of us without volunteering for the cross and offering to hammer in the nails, to boot. As a Christian colleague occasionally told her patients, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”

You need the wood, too. Take the timber and carve a sculpture or draw a lovely image or build a house; or burn it to keep yourself and another good human warm. Leave the job of summing up your life to history, assuming history cares.

In my book that is enough.

The top painting is Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet. The second photo is Sunset Over the Vercors Mountains, Seen From Grenoble by Guillaume Piolle. Finally, Sunrise with Reeds in Winter is the work of Benjamin Gimmel. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When Therapy is Long Does Your Therapist’s Patience Grow Short?

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Some phrases never grow old, never become routine. “I love you” is one.” So is “I don’t want you anymore.” It is not that we’ve never heard the words before, but that they are so powerful and fraught with significance (or so hard to say or mean so much) either to the one who utters them or the one to whom they are delivered. In therapy the dread-laden expression is different: “I can’t do more. I need to refer you. Treatment has been long. The lack of progress means we must stop.”

Yes, perhaps it is said differently or becomes evident not through language, but impatience or facial expression or indifference. Where once enthusiasm and intensity bloomed, now the counselor seems to be enduring you, too conscious of the time, growing weary of your moments together. Two of my readers, Claire and Rosie, asked me to write about what permits a therapist not to take this dreaded path, the one leading to his desire to dump you — hoping you “never again darken my door” even if he doesn’t say the precise words I just used. Thanks to them I will try. I speak for myself, but know many therapists who would agree with much of what they will find below.

  • I like people. I like stories. I like individuals, not groups. I try to provoke meaningful conversations even with friends, not small talk. The time I spent with my patients was the perfect environment for me to look into a person’s history, history being a favorite subject from my early school years on.
  • I learned to notice small signs of progress. Sometimes we advance in microscopic steps. We reach a plateau on the mountain climb of treatment and then must catch our breath or wait for the storm to pass. The old Chinese saying tells us, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Therapists measure their work in moving toward a goal, not reaching it in quick time.

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  • The work is gratifying. Where else do people come to you, rather than requiring your travel? Watching others grow — helping them grow — generates good feeling on both sides. You receive thanks.
  • The work is an honor. New counselors find the responsibility almost overwhelming: another person places his well-being in your hands. A wiser, more experienced, older doc should know (or remind himself) of the implicit tribute his patients give him by their consultation and expectation of his help.
  • I received payment for my effort. It was easier to be patient with patients in the knowledge some of my compensation came in a material way. That said, in a handful of cases, long-term clients were thousands of dollars in debt to me before the sessions ended and they achieved the life they wanted. Yes, they did then pay me, usually over time. Healers must not be so self-sacrificing that they become resentful of those they treat.
  • The patient’s life was not mine or that of my spouse or children. While clients sometimes wish to be closer to their doctor, the therapeutic distance created by him makes it possible to put treatment still-points in perspective. I am less calm and understanding with my wife and adult children than with those who sought my professional skills. I cared about the people I treated, but (usually) not to the point of a disruption of my equanimity. Thus, I tended to be patient with a lack of movement, thinking of such episodes as a rather commonplace experience not usually requiring a desperate and immediate remedy.
  • I was responsible for making therapy fresh. A therapist’s job is to bring his intense focus to every session. He must also reflect periodically on whether he has missed something important. I reevaluated my patient and my approach, made course corrections as needed. A therapist who is often bored or unable to change perspective and look anew at the client is in the wrong profession. I kept it interesting both for myself and for those who put their trust in me. A patient is not your entertainer. The counselor should be emotionally and intellectually engaged on his own
  • Of course, if you aren’t putting in the effort, you might wear the therapist down. If you are simply paying for a friend, buying his time because you have affection for him (or using him to replace a missing social life) then he should recognize this and talk to you about it. So long as you rededicate yourself to “the work” of therapy, no ouster need be expected.

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  • Progress isn’t linear. I once asked my money manager, a professional analyst of financial markets, what he expected in the near term from the stock market. He answered, “It will fluctuate.” What he said was funny, but his comment acknowledged that no one predicts economic busts or booms, much as many people claim to. Therapy doesn’t move in a straight line of ascent from start to finish, anymore more than the stock market goes straight up or down in perpetuity. There are bursts of change, but more often, periods of little movement. I didn’t expect patients to be elite prodigies of self-analysis and courage, sprinting to psychotherapy’s finish line, so I wasn’t desolated if treatment took its time.
  • The therapist discovers value in challenges. If therapy were always smooth sailing, counselors would become bored with it.  They would learn nothing new because no greater progress could be made by doing so. Since I lacked a magic wand, I had to continue to consult colleagues, read books, and attend classes. Those who posed therapeutic dilemmas generated some of my growth as a counselor and a person. Why would I wish to cast aside people who were, in effect, helping me to do better?
  • Elite athletes are useful models for clinicians. Baseball players grind out a 162-game schedule from April through September, longer if they reach the playoffs. Successful athletes learn to put today’s failure behind them, lest they worry themselves into being unable to perform well tomorrow. I was better than many in my capacity to go home and think about other things, relate to my loved ones, and set the therapist hat on a closet hook. To do otherwise would have burned me out. I was not available 24/7, nor did I guarantee rapid responses to email or phone messages. I made sure I didn’t get used up. A doctor who takes good care of himself is less likely to get tired of you.
  • Buddhists provide yet another excellent example for therapists. You know the frustration of a long static line: a line where there is but one indolent checker or ticketing agent taking care of all those in the queue. You have places to go, people to see. Yet your reaction to just this type of setting — one seemingly out of your control — might determine whether you lead a satisfying life: 1) You can be frustrated and make yourself miserable. 2) You might jump to the line’s front and complain, which will not usually make the line shorter or the ticket agent more efficient. 3) You can reframe the experience. A Buddhist would say, in fact, you should be grateful for the line and the plodding employee because they are giving you the opportunity to learn patience. A lengthy term of treatment where every inch of progress is dearly won offers the same opportunity.
  • My job was a gift. I performed work that was not always “work.” A summer job during my school years in the 100-degree heat of a metal-stamping factory taught me how soul-killing “work” can be. I later came to make a good living in clean, climate-controlled surroundings as a psychologist. My patients helped me become more patient, more thoughtful, more loving — more grateful. I was my own boss and I took meaning from the relationships and the privilege, the stories and the intimacy. I used my brain, one of my favorite body parts! Living this professional life and remaining (mostly) grateful defused many frustrations.

The task of a therapist is not to say, “You’re fired,” but to find a way through or around, under or over; whether running, crawling, pushing, pulling, cajoling, asking questions, waiting, reconfiguring, staying silent, or getting his own help. Much as some of our patients worry about being put into a dumpster, we are working to get them out of one.

Rest easy.

The top photo is called Doraemon by istolethetv from Hong Kong, China. The second is named I’ll Miss You Dad by Cecilio M. Ricardo, Jr., USAP. The final image is a highway Sign at the Truth or Consequences, New Mexico Exit taken as part of an August 24, 2009 road trip by CGP Grey.

Anticipation and Realization: Can Expecting Disappointment Reduce Your Pain?

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My mother used to say, “Anticipation is greater than realization.” She uttered the phrase more than once, always unprompted. It was as if she were giving me a warning about the disappointments of life, the hoped-for moments that wouldn’t fulfill my expectation of them. Certainly, she was speaking of her own pain-filled history. Her strategy was not to predict too much good from events and especially from people, for fear of adding to the list of letdowns. In doing therapy I heard many others tell me they adopted a similar defense, the better to buttress themselves against the world’s assaults. Simply put, don’t get your hopes up, they would say. Otherwise you will be ripe for dismay.

I am no blind optimist, but I think mom was wrong. First, I’m not sure you can effectively steel yourself against all the blows of life. If Death is an opponent with an undefeated record, Life is sometimes your best friend and at others your worst enemy. He will lift you up and tear you down. Even in a lucky life like mine “there will be blood.” But since I like the heady experience of those times life lifts you off your feet, I must pay the cost of admission to the airport. These are the terms of the contract we accept by taking our first breath. We do well, if we can, to bounce back when defeated, since the future may hold more glorious and unexpected flights.

Secondly, many of the injuries we suffer are impossible to anticipate except in an abstract way: we know people will leave, we expect occasional betrayal, we recognize nobody wins every game, on and on. Only a fortune-teller knows exactly how and when. Thus, in a moment of pain, we are taken by surprise despite our preparation. Moreover, we risk wasting our days in a state of general worry or dullness, bypassing every chance for love, kindness, and accomplishment. Expecting disappointment rarely reduces the hurt, but the strategy guarantees little possibility of joy.

My most memorable experiences were impossible to fully forecast. A trivial example: as a kid I looked forward to attending a NY Yankees baseball night game against the Chicago White Sox on May 18, 1956. I couldn’t wait until my Uncle Sam took me. The thrill I imagined weeks in advance was amplified a thousand fold when the mighty Mickey Mantle hit one home run batting right-handed and another left-handed, a feat rarer than pitching a no-hit game. I can still picture the port side clout, as if carried by a rising tide, the ball aglow in the arc lights until the spheroid struck the right field upper deck of old Comiskey Park. But for the impediment of the rafters I thought it would reach the moon.

I have been moved to tears by music, by the birth of my children, and amazed that I could move many of my high school classmates to tears by a speech given at one of our class reunions. A crackling physical electricity of athletic performance passed through my body on one occasion — a sensation I never knew possible. I’ve enjoyed luck in love and friendship as well as heartbreak and betrayal. A business partner and friend stole tens of thousands of dollars from our enterprise. My parents are both long dead. A lifetime of movies, books, conversations and observations did not prepare me for these sensations and emotions when the moment arrived. Life is about taking action and being surprised and being grateful despite the fact there is no free lunch.

Some hunker down in their shelter of straw thinking the big bad wolves will thereby be held off. I’m here to tell you I know of no fool-proof defense against injury and no Teflon-infused clothing to deflect the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” What we are offered is a life of imagination and fear and effortfully summoned courage and friendship and tears and laughter and loss and taking chances: in other words, of winning and losing. If you think otherwise, well, you haven’t been paying attention.

Sample the menu of life. Not all the dishes are tasty, but even some of those you don’t like are informative, and knowledge is usually desirable. Don’t make the highlights of your life the things you buy for yourself. Do make some of those highlights the gifts (of all kinds) you give to others.

The best events cannot be anticipated. And don’t glut yourself: a gourmet meal should be a special treat, not a routine pattern of diminishing novelty. The greatest art, music, and literature become old if revisited daily. I wouldn’t want to attend a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony even once in three years. Celebrate the rare occasion. Become an enemy of routine. Do look forward to some things, be they goals worth working for, a date with your sweetie, a trip, or a once a year get-together with old friends. Anticipation has magic, as we note in the lives of children every Christmas. Don’t become like the worker in a candy factory who grows tired of chocolate by eating too much.

The world is not your oyster, but there are some good bites. No one gets out alive, yet brave souls seize the day. On a fine afternoon your bite will feel like more than enough. You might even uncover a pearl.

The top image is called In Anticipation by Albert von Keller. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Two Life Lessons From Dale Clevenger

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There are people who have traveled great distances to spend an afternoon with Dale Clevenger, but since he lives in a nearby Chicago suburb, I didn’t have to. Those who journeyed thousands of miles are musicians who dreamed of the chance to be coached by the world-famous solo French Horn player of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). Most of them wanted to improve their technique on that fiendishly difficult instrument. Most of them hoped to heighten their musicianship, elevate their art in performance.

I don’t play the horn, but in the course of recording Dale Clevenger’s oral history for the CSO, I received some lessons, too.

Not about music, but about life. About the beginnings and the ends of things. About the way careers in any field are started; and how they finish.

The first had to do with auditions. And also the need for perseverance despite repeated rejection.

If you are a musician, an audition can feel as though you are on stage naked in front of a small group of listeners who will decide whether you have “the chops:” the ability to make music at the highest possible level. But if you aren’t a musician, you probably still have had something close to this experience: giving an oral report in school, sitting for an oral defense of your masters thesis or dissertation, giving a speech; or perhaps simply going for a job interview or asking someone on a date.

Clevenger had significant successes before he came to the CSO. He played in the Kansas City Philharmonic, the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra in New York, and the American Symphony under Leopold Stokowski (the conductor Disney captured on film in Fantasia). He toured Europe with the Pittsburgh Symphony and recorded the Shostakovich Symphony #7 with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.

While a member of the American Symphony, at age 22, a big chance came: an opening in the world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, several steps above any of the ensembles with which he had previously worked full-time. The Berlin band was in New York on tour, performing in Carnegie Hall. And when he walked on stage for the audition, he performed not for a small group of listeners, but for the entire orchestra, as well as its storied music director, Herbert von Karajan.

Dale Clevenger: “I played for about 20 minutes. That’s a long audition.”

Gerald Stein: “And I would think, an intimidating one, too. That is, if one were inclined to be intimidated.”

Dale Clevenger: “That’s the key. I wanted to show them what I could do. I was not worried too much about intimidation.”

When the audition was over, Herbert von Karajan told the young performer that he played “very well,” but that he didn’t match “the tone” of the Berlin horn section; in effect, didn’t fit their sound. “But,” said Karajan, “you will have a fine job one day.”

Karajan was right. In January, 1966, Clevenger would win the competition to become the Principal Horn player of the Chicago Symphony. But not before failing to become a permanent member of the orchestras in New Orleans, Dallas, the New York Philharmonic, Pittsburgh, the Metropolitan Opera, and even his first try at the CSO in 1965.

I asked him how one deals with those kinds of defeats. He then proceeded to tell me about a Boston Symphony horn player who had only gotten that job on his 48th professional audition:

Dale Clevenger: “How do you stick it out? How do you do that? Would I have done that? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. There are a lot of people who play five to 15 auditions (before they win a big one). I played 9 or 10. It didn’t affect my ego. You just keep going. (For example), how can an actor be an actor unless he is used to the failure to get jobs? It’s not possible. You have to try to find the positive in that situation.”

Not to mention lots of practice to keep improving.

In the course of our long conversation, I also talked to the virtuoso about his coming departure from the CSO. And, he told me that he’d written a farewell letter to his colleagues. We’d arrived at a the second life lesson — about gratitude and saying goodbye.

If there is a more graceful way to leave the stage, I don’t know it; especially his quotation of a line from the vocal text of Mahler’s 8th Symphony, borrowed by Mahler from Goethe, which is perhaps the best description I’ve ever heard applied to a life devoted to recreating that which is indescribable: the music of the great composers.

February 12, 2013

My dear friends and colleagues of the CSO,

One of the most euphoric days of my life was the day I was engaged to play solo horn in this great and classic orchestra. All of you know exactly that feeling. To quote Mahler in the 8th Symphony, “Das Unbeschreibliche, hier ist’s getan” (“What cannot be described with words, we have done”). I have been so fortunate for forty-eight seasons to do just that. It is with incredible bitter-sweetness, joy, and sorrow that I announce to you that at the end of June I plan to retire from this amazing Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I am the most fortunate and grateful musician ever to have played here, the elite of the elite of orchestras. This will end an amazing tenure, but retiring from music I am not. Indiana University has engaged me to be a Professor of Horn starting August 1, 2013.

You are truly some of the finest musicians on the planet. To have had the pleasure and privilege of making music and sharing the stage with you in thousands of concerts is a sweet memory I shall cherish to my grave. Please, I encourage you all to do everything possible in your power the keep my Chicago Symphony Orchestra “the best of the best!”

A very heart-felt thank you for these wonderful years,

Dale

Wonderful years, too, for those of us who just listened. Thank you, Dale. And thanks for the lessons.

“Have a Little Faith in People:” Therapy and Love in the New Year

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The beginning of the New Year is one of those moments when love-past and love-future stand back-to-back. I suppose they always do, but rarely do we so literally turn the page, see the annual number change, and acknowledge our movement across time. The advancing calendar makes our heart’s progress (or lack of progress) harder to ignore than usual.

If you had a relationship-past that is better than your present, there is a chance that the New Year will remind you of those times when there was love and enchantment in your life; when bygone people who meant everything to you also believed that you meant everything to them. The New Year in that case offers another chance, hoping to recapture what was lost or trying to achieve the thing that has been so elusive.

The subject of love — the lost and found quality of it — is at the heart of Woody Allen’s 1979 movie Manhattan; much more a romance than a comedy, for all its good humor. You may not think of Woody Allen as someone who specializes in tenderness, but Manhattan certainly does.

Mariel Hemingway plays “Tracy,” a young woman in a May-December romance. She is soon to find that her openness to love leaves her as vulnerable as if she were in surgery. Perhaps she is also too young to know that the operating theater of romance always involves the potential for heartbreak as well as the hope that finally — finally — someone will see all the good inside of us and cherish it without conditions. That their eyes will brighten on our arrival, and that even our scent on a just-worn garment will warm the frozen sea within. Love is compensation for the lacerations of living, but also the cause of those same cumulative cuts.

If the New Year’s dawn is spent in the company of someone who is constant and caring, it is easy to feel intoxicated even without champagne. But if we are alone on New Year’s Eve, the back-to-back character of the old year turning new forces us to look both ways. In one direction is the receding memory of ended romance and present loneliness, while the tightrope of hope beckons in the other direction — the hope that relationships yet unknown are just up ahead; if only we can keep our balance and brave the journey from here to there.

That dream confronts the darker aspect of our memory. All of us have been betrayed or rejected by lovers. The surgical scars bear witness. As Sartre said in No Exit, “Hell is other people,” but so is heaven, at least as we imagine it. Still, it is easy to give up.

The line I love the best in Manhattan comes in its closing moments: “You have to have a little faith in people.” For those who have been repeatedly hurt, this is asking terribly much. Yet the first job of the lovelorn is to keep alive the faltering flame of future possibilities. A therapist can be of help in this.

It is faith in what another person might be able to do that ultimately brings the lonely to therapy and keeps them in the game of love, doing the hard work that treatment involves; dreaming finally to come out whole; and trying once more to find a lasting romance.

With or without therapy our job is the same, this New Year and every year: To have enough faith in people to keep searching; and, once the right one is found, to hold tight.