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

The  Flying Turns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some final questions:

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

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

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

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

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

What Do Women Want in Men? Three Different Answers

Freud asked the title question, “What do women want?” even though men had been asking it long before Sigmund’s time. It is not that women are so inscrutable. Rather, if you ask women, men are rather notorious for missing the obvious. And so we, the male of the species, repeat Freud’s question to ourselves: “What do women want?”

To some men, asking “What is the meaning of life?” would be an easier interrogatory.

Keeping in mind that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” this male will try to answer Freud’s question.

But, cheating just a bit, I will divide the challenge into three parts. First, I’ll offer some hints as to what young women want, then those not-quite-so-young, and finally, those who are mature. You can place yourself or your partner in the appropriate age category. Fool though I may be, I’m not so foolish as to demarcate the groups myself.

In each section I’ll also include a bit of advice to men on what to do (or not to do) or some commentary on the category in question.

I should also say that while my comments are based on lots and lots of conversations with men and women, many women will not fit into the broad categories I’m describing.

I. A young woman usually wants someone who is cute, if not handsome and sexy. He should be bold, take the lead, and ideally have a bit of an edge; a man who is exciting and confident. If at all possible, its good for him to be smarter and have a higher social status than his female counterpart or, at least, the ambition to achieve a higher station. He should not be timid or afraid, but more than capable of holding his own ground. Nor will neediness make him more appealing.

Young women are less likely to look at long-term compatibility (values and mutual interests) than the immediate excitement the man provides. These females often want little more than a good time, at least initially. If a man can take them places that they haven’t been to, know things about which they might not be knowledgeable — teach them or dazzle them with something new — all the better.

  • Yes, young man, do go up to the attractive woman and strike up a conversation. No, not with some worn out “line.” Just make contact. You never know.
  • Don’t immediately become slavishly devoted, putting the woman on a pedestal. Many women will view this as pathetic and run away. Why? Because it is pathetic. On the other hand, Woody Allen used to say that the problem with his first marriage was that he tended to put his wife “underneath a pedestal.”
  • It has been said that a man marries a woman hoping that she will never change, while a woman marries a man in the hope that he will. If the relationship requires serious change, it is usually too optimistic to expect that it can be achieved after the wedding day if you have not been successful in obtaining it during courtship. As to men expecting women always to be young, on fire, and totally focused on the man, they need to be both more realistic and more in touch with the fact that long-term compatibility requires sympathetic alteration on both sides.
  • One more word of advice to the young man: sometimes, persistence does pay off.

II. Not-quite-so-young women are usually looking for qualities and relationships that are more lasting. They are less inclined than young women to trade substance for surface, durability for excitement, or maturity for boyish charm. Unlike more youthful females, they do not “short” the value of the long-term — the things that last. Many of the same qualities that attract a less mature female remain appealing to the not-quite-so-young woman, but other factors now come into play more forcefully.

Can the man make a good living? Is he financially secure? Is he funny and easy to be with? Does he listen and understand rather than offering an impatient, abrupt solution to a woman’s problems? Is he egalitarian? That is to say, does he treat women respectfully and as equals? Will he be an involved and caring father? Is he comfortable with himself? Is he good — decent in a moral sense? Can he express affection? Does he share the same values and at least some of the same interests? Will he be faithful? (It should be said that it is not that young women ignore this question, but rather, that if they are attractive enough, they needn’t fear younger women because there aren’t any).

A certain realism usually enters into a not-quite-so-young woman’s thoughts as she considers potential suitors. She might realize that she is “not quite” the woman she used to be (some of this is entirely to the good), that she has some baggage (and perhaps some children), and that her “shelf-life” in the marriage-market will not last forever. (I apologize for saying this, but, it is something that cannot be ignored, however unfortunate or unfair it might be).

  • The 1988 movie Crossing Delancey touches on the issue of social status and intellectual/cultural background. Many a woman in the not-quite-so-young category struggles with this. She might meet a very nice man, attractive and decent, funny and dedicated, but someone not as accomplished as she is; from a different (lower) cultural, financial, and educational milieu. It can be enormously difficult for the woman to accept such a man despite the fact that he is a good match in every other way. In the movie, Amy Irving (who works in the New York literary world) is faced with just such a dilemma as she contemplates a relationship with Peter Riegert (who specializes in selling pickles).

III. For mature women, reality usually intrudes more dramatically. They may wish to be left alone or with their female friends, and might well disdain the idea of seeking male companionship. But, if they are still interested, the answer to the question, “What do women want?” has been simplified. A kind, interesting, and companionable man in reasonably good health with his wits about him can be quite appealing, even more if he has some energy and vitality. Sexual magnetism or prowess are not usually high on the list of requirements. Superior status or financial stability are often less important than before, or no longer of any concern.

The numbers game favors the man — the law of supply and demand applies to this as much as to soybeans and corn — his competitors are dying off faster than available women of the same age.

  • The following story is true. A long-married man’s wife died after an extensive period of declining health. The widower, about 70 but physically fit and active, continued to stay in his home for some time. After a while, however, he decided that maintainance of his property was more than he wanted to do. Nor did he need so large a living space just for himself now that his wife was deceased and his children long since out of the house. So, he purchased a unit in a retirement facility — one of those senior-living communities where females usually outnumber males; the residents are still quite independent and each one has his or her own place. The seniors also have access to a central dining room, an activity director, maid-service, shuttle-bus availability, and so forth. The man had placed his house on the market, but it remained unsold as he moved to his new abode. Months passed. But eventually, the man returned to his home, leaving the retirement facility behind. “Why are you back here?” The man’s answer was simple: “They wouldn’t leave me alone!”

To close, nothing much in life is so generically unfair as the domain of love; or, to put it differently, the fact that “All’s fair in love and war,” means that nothing in those situations is fair. The best and brightest, the most kind and decent people, do not always come out well. But, the good news is that there is more than one possible mate for each of us, more than one person with whom we might share a good life. Since both the male and the female are looking for each other, there is every reason to believe that a happy outcome is possible.

Hang in there.

Should Beethoven Have Quit His Day Job? A Few Thoughts on the Complexity of Satisfaction

Ludwig Beethoven Life Mask by Klein c1812

Part of the problem with figuring out whether your life is satisfying is what exactly you expect from life. If you expect close to constant happiness, you haven’t been paying attention to what is going on around you — to what the nature of life is. No one is that happy — life doesn’t permit it with all its routine ups and downs. And, if you compare yourself to people in the media — beautiful or handsome, smiling, rich, famous, and seemingly in control — you will be hard pressed to think that you are doing as well as you should be. Moreover, if you believe that struggle and work frustration are somehow indicative of a life that isn’t satisfying, you just might be misunderstanding what “satisfaction” is.

Take Beethoven, the famous German composer who lived from 1770 to 1827. What is it like to be a genius? Well, for Beethoven it involved lots of struggle and enormous amounts of dedication and hard work. You can learn a bit about this by watching a recently issued DVD set that includes Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus television programs. One in particular focuses on Beethoven’s process of composing his Symphony #5, the one that begins with the most famous four notes in music history: three Gs and an E-Flat; three eighth-notes and a half-note.

According to Bernstein, Beethoven tried out 14 different versions of the opening of the second movement over a period of eight years. The DVD features Bernstein talking about and conducting the Symphony of the Air in several different passages that were rejected for the first movement, which Beethoven sketched out over a period of three years. Indeed, the composer altered some passages in that movement as many as 20 times. The agony and struggle involved in the composing process can be seen even on the orchestral score of this piece, with numerous write-overs, scratch-outs, and cross-outs.

One might then ask, did Beethoven obtain satisfaction from the process of composing with all its frustration, reworking, effort, reconsideration, revision, contemplation, and strain? The answer apparently is “yes,” he was deeply engaged and committed to the creative process and proud of the results he achieved, however dear the cost. Put another way, “no pain, no gain.”

Happiness isn’t a day at the beach, at least not on a regular basis. Rather, it usually requires that you work for and achieve something — something that isn’t simply given to you. It is not great wealth or a big house in the right neighborhood; it is not power for power’s sake or lofty status simply because you’d like others to look up to you. Rather, it demands that we take on a task that is challenging and engaging — perhaps even creative — master the challenges, and produce a result of value. Having attained that level of accomplishment (not necessarily a material thing or something to which you can assign a dollar value), you can look back with satisfaction on what you have achieved (be it the healthy young life of your child or a great symphony). It is not about work alone, but work is a part of it.

Beethoven wasn’t what we would call a happy man. He was lonely, in part due to his growing deafness, and often frustrated and frustrating in his relationships (and satisfying relationships are normally needed for happiness). But he knew he was a great composer and lived for and through his enormous gifts and an unflagging dedication to producing the greatest music that was in him to create, no matter the length of time and the strain required.

Indeed, it is the strain and struggle within Beethoven’s music itself, and his ultimate triumph over the difficult technical and emotional act of composing, that draws us to him. Beethoven’s “process” is felt in Beethoven’s “product.” The trajectory from travail to triumph mimics the task of composing in such works as the 5th and 9th Symphonies or the Leonore Overture #3. And, in his mastery of the challenge of composing (not to mention the overcoming of his deafness to make great music), he also gives us a model for living.

Should Beethoven have quit his day job and found something easier?

I think you know a rhetorical question when you read one.

(The image above is a life mask of Beethoven done by Franz Klein in 1812 when Beethoven was 41).

By the way, the Chicago Symphony plays all of Beethoven’s Symphonies conducted by Bernard Haitink in June of 2010.

Telling Your Children Too Much: The Danger of Role Reversals

“My children are the most important thing in my life.” I know you have heard that before. You might well have said it yourself, believe it, feel it, and it might be true.

But are you injuring them anyway?

What I’m talking about here is the tendency to confide in children; to tell them things that they shouldn’t have to hear.

Such as?

Feelings of depression and loneliness, criticism of your spouse, and details of your sex life (whether good or bad).

Questions to them about how you should handle your relatives and friends. Disclosures of insecurity about your abilities or your appearance.

Why not talk about these things?

First, you are the parent, not a friend. Even when we are older, we want to see our parents as people who are capable, strong, reliable, confident, and who will always be there. As children of whatever age, we want to know we can, in a pinch, go to our parents — count on their wisdom, and depend on their honor. We really don’t want parents to be friends, although it is good if they are friendly. We shouldn’t have to “take care” of the parent’s emotional life, serve as a confessor or a therapist; or function as a go-between for one parent in order for one alleged adult to get along better with the other nominal authority figure in the house.

Our children shouldn’t come to feel we are an emotional burden on them, the one who needs parenting rather than the other way around.

If our progeny are to separate from us, become independent, create healthy families of their own, take good care of themselves, and navigate the white water of twenty-first century life, it does not help them to take on the parenting role of their own parents.

I have known children who were required by one parent to retrieve the other from a neighborhood saloon. I have known children who were expected to accompany one parent on her detective work in an attempt to discover whether her spouse was cheating on her. I’ve known kids who were told to ask for the child support (much too common), expected to mix the parent’s favorite alcoholic beverage, smoke pot with mom, lie to the other parent, or cover dad’s money mismanagement; and when older, double-date with a divorced parent and take over the job of being the isolated parent’s social life.

It is usually the mom, not the dad, who cries on the child’s shoulder, gives too much information, and creates the emotional burden for the child. Dads are less likely, even today, to talk about their emotions and their weaknesses and insecurities. A father’s stoicism can be a problem for a child, but not usually in this particular way. Nor are fathers as likely to compete with mothers for a child’s attention, interest, and camaraderie.

Instead, when dads become a burden it is usually a consequence of their misbehavior, addiction,  or life failures. Regardless, neither parent should communicate that the child must “choose sides” or take over the psychological role of a spouse, because one parent is estranged from the other and needs support. While such parent-child relationships are not frankly incestual in a physical sense, they can be emotionally incestual and contaminating, fraught with a sense of something not right and a feeling of complicity in the usurpation and betrayal of a much-loved guardian.

Even after childhood is over, we still prefer our parents to be bigger than life, ideal models capable of solving any problem, all deriving from the same instincts that caused us to say “My dad is better than your dad” when we were little. Of course, as adults we know it isn’t true.

A funny story: my dad told his three sons (when all of us were still small) he’d been a famous Chicago Cubs pitcher, but somehow, quite mysteriously, all record of this time in the Major Leagues had been lost! Moreover, he’d been so reliable, hard-working, and constant that he could pitch nearly every day. And so, his teammates came to call him “Rain or Shine Milt Stein.”

Soon enough we realize stories like this are not true. Soon enough we become aware our parents do not embody the perfect mix of human qualities. Eventually, we see that our elders have failures of judgment, imperfections of mood, and suffer from doubts and worries just like everyone else. We realize even our parents cannot protect us from heartbreak, failure, and injury. Soon enough we see them aging and grasp they will not be around forever, and might even come to a point when they cannot fully care for themselves. Life reduces everything to size sooner or later.

If you are a parent, don’t accelerate this process; know that your children need protection not just from the outside world, but from you — from your intimacies and personal problems and sleepless nights just as much as they need their own privacy and the permission to fail, to learn, and to grow on their own — to come into their own and own their lives, not to be hostage to your judgment, your worries about them, or worries about you due to an invitation or requirement to know you too well.

A parent is a guardian and a custodian, not an owner; a loving authority, not a buddy. A child is not on the planet for the purpose of fulfilling your life, but rather, to fulfill his own.

Your life is your job, not that of your offspring.

One of the greatest favors a parent can do for a child is to take good care of himself or herself both physically and emotionally, not expecting anyone else to achieve that result for him (or worry about the fact it is not being adequately accomplished). And yes, this means even such things as eating well, following medical advice, and making oneself as physically fit as possible.

How important are your children to you? Not in words, but in deeds — in the way you relate to them and the care you take of yourself?

If you haven’t put your words into action, might it be time to start?

(The reproduction at the top of this page is Rembrandt’s Young Woman Sleeping)

Earning Your Life: Teaching Kids the Value of Work, Not Entitlement

http://st4tic.files.wordpress.com/2008/01/workers.jpg

Most of my teenage friends worked in the summer, but I might have been the only one to work every day after class during the last two years of high school.

It wasn’t by choice. My dad, a child of the Great Depression, required it. I protested that it would affect my school work and I think it probably did, but not so much that I didn’t do well.

I accepted my dad’s work dictum, but generally felt put-upon that I, in the minority among the lower-middle class kids I hung around with, had to do this. In the end, it taught me a good deal, as I shall relate to you.

I’d catch the Lincoln Avenue bus and transfer to the Ravenswood elevated train at Western Avenue. This would take me into the “Loop,” that place where the elevated tracks encircle a good part of what is also called “Downtown Chicago.” During my junior year of  high school I was employed at Chicago Band Repair/Ace Crystal Service, my Uncle Sam’s business.

There, I learned to make simple repairs on expansion watch bands, pack and ship glass watch crystals that had been ground to size on a lathe (this was in the days before plastic watch crystals), dispatch those repaired expansion bands, and run errands. The next year I was an “office boy” at David Altman Law Offices on La Salle Street (still in the Loop) doing filing, errands, and running a Multilith machine, the offset duplicating equipment that was used to copy and print large quantities of legal documents.

Those jobs were interesting enough. There were always lots of things to do, little “down time,” and some entertaining people whose life experience was entirely different from my own. At my Uncle’s place at 5 S. Wabash in the Mallers Building I worked with an almost entirely black and mostly female staff in the days just before the major civil rights legislation was passed. At the law office, it was lawyers and secretaries — all white and all white-collar. In both places I fit in pretty well and got treated pretty well.

But it was the summer work at one job that I hated. I was a college student by then, just having finished my junior year. The place was an un-air conditioned metal stamping factory. I had two mind-deadening tasks. One was bending the backs of metal bucket seats using a simple machine. The other was assembling a small gasket. Each job took a matter of seconds. Once you learned how to do it, you never got better at it, and the assignment never changed. You just did the same thing over and over and over. For eight hours, five days a week, while swimming in a river of sweat.

I started by punching in at 7:00 AM, which meant that I had to get up at around 5:00 AM in order to get to work on time. If I stayed out at all late the night before, I paid for it dearly the next day with the extra-strenuous effort that was required to stay awake while performing my deadly dull duties. You know the feeling — each eye lid seems to weigh 400 pounds and sleep beckons more enticingly than the most beautiful woman and more insistently than the most demanding boss.

I recall one day in particular. The summer was a hot one and the factory retained heat. Water was essential to avoid dehydration. Even so, it felt peculiar to be drenched in sweat at my work station at 7:00 AM in a building where the thermometer already registered over 100º Fahrenheit. Dutiful as ever, I did my best that day to keep alert and be productive. Three hours must have passed before I looked at the clock on the wall. It said 7:15 AM! It seemed impossible, but only 15 minutes had elapsed since the moment of my clocking in. Like a bad science fiction film, time had come close to stopping and eternity seemed nearer than the end of the work day.

I so-hated the job that I found another one that summer in order to get out of the factory, where both the duties and the temperature were liquefying my brain. But it was an experience I never forgot, nor the fact that there were men there who did work only slightly more sophisticated and challenging than I did, and continued to do it for the rest of their working lives.

Earlier, during the summer before my second year in college, I worked in the mail room at Edward H. Weiss Advertising Agency. I made about $1.25 per hour. I had a girlfriend named Beverly that summer and she fancied the idea of going horse back riding. One Saturday afternoon we did just that in Lincoln Park. But, to my dismay, I discovered that the horses cost $3.00 per hour. I knew something was wrong if an equine commanded a better wage than I did!

So what exactly did I learn from experiences such as that?

First, that honest labor at whatever level is nothing to look down upon. There are many worse jobs than those I did, but some of mine were bad enough to make me appreciate the men and women who make a living at tasks that provide little room for growth, excitement, or creativity. My hat is off to them and to what they do for their families and their children.

Second, those jobs taught me how to get along with people whose backgrounds were different from mine, in some cases individuals of a different color, sometimes of a different social status (both higher and lower), including people whose parents and grandparents had gone to college (as mine had not) and those who only could hope that their kids might some day be able to obtain more than a high school degree. I came to see the nobility in simple labor; the complexity and skill required to work precisely with your hands; the meaning of craftsmanship, duty, and dedication. I also learned respect for authority even when the authority wasn’t always fair, and the value of being able to make the best of a situation that wasn’t ideal.

I realized, too, that if one had some good fortune — in my case the opportunity to go to college along with parents who encouraged me to become educated and scholarships and fellowships that enabled me to obtain graduate degrees — one should take advantage of it. I saw, up close, that life could be different from what I hoped my life would be, and that the “different” path was one that I did not want to traverse.

And, I have come to appreciate, every day of my life, how lucky I am to do the work that I do. Work that is interesting, mostly in my control (since I am my own boss), and that has allowed me to make a good life for my children; labor that does not always feel like labor, that I do not dread, and that is challenging, enriching, and satisfying to myself and those I serve.

My friend Jeff Carren, who is an attorney, tells me that he has encountered new hires into legal practice (that is, new lawyers) who had never held a full-time job until they became associates at a law firm. And, that they were stunned at the amount of effort that “work” — a new job, any job — requires.

Perhaps then, in light of my experience, you will not be surprised to know that my kids, despite heavy academic and extra-curricular loads, both were gainfully employed part-time during high school. My oldest, Jorie, did her regular stint as a barista at Star Bucks, while Carly did lots of baby sitting. And, both performed full-time summer jobs when school wasn’t in session. They too, have learned the value of hard work and the worth of a dollar earned from that labor; that is, they have learned the one additional lesson of my early life experience — that money does not grow on trees. They discovered, early enough, what it feels like to “earn” a thing — quite a different sensation from having it given to you. And they have, thankfully, grown up without the sense of “entitlement” that is so pervasive in American youth.

JFK put the entitlement issue in quite a different context when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Similarly, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) in the movie Saving Private Ryan tells Ryan to “Earn It” as the latter faces the fact that men have given their lives to save him. That is, “earn” your life by making something of it, so that those who gave their lives for you will not have died in vain.

There is great value in “earning” your life. And, the way it starts is by doing work, “making” a living — in effect, doing what is required to sustain yourself and others.

Parents need to remember that we can let our children down just as much by expecting too little of them, as by expecting too much; as much by overprotection as neglect.

We are not entitled to anything — not you, not me, not our kids. Life can be a gift of opportunity, but there is no free lunch.

It is work, hard and honest labor, that helps to teach this lesson.

Thanks, Dad.

The Power of “No”

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Most people don’t realize how much power they have. Or how easily they give it away.

The key is to be able to say “no.” And to hold to that position without alteration.

I learned how easily I could give it away in graduate school.

A door-to-door salesman rang the bell of my apartment. He had a list of magazines. Did I want to subscribe to any of these?

The simple and direct answer was “no.” Had I said this and held to it steadfastly, his time wouldn’t have been wasted and my money, of which I had very little, would have been saved. Instead, I felt that I had to give him a reason, an excuse. I didn’t of course.

But, I chose to say, “Gee, its too bad you don’t have Sports Illustrated on your list.”

“Oh, but I can get that for you!”

I was sunk. I didn’t really want to buy anything. But I’d given the young man, probably no older than I was, an opening. And now I was committed to purchase a thing I didn’t need.

Well, I suppose I was young, inexperienced, and immature. All true. I allowed myself to be held hostage to my insecurity, a feeling of guilt, a need to explain myself, even though it wasn’t required.

If you must have the approval of others, if you believe that you are duty-bound to give them a reason for your actions, then these situations present you with a problem. So too, if you fear confrontation. If you think someone will only provide approval if you consent to their wishes, then you will leave the interaction as the other’s thrall. In effect, the keys to your life and the certificate of ownership will be the property of someone else.

But if you don’t let them or their opinion of you count for so much — if you can live with their unhappiness and don’t feel the need to convince them of the rightness of your position — you will come out of the interaction still in possession of yourself, as opposed to being the possession of your counterpart.

Remember, in many situations you don’t have to persuade the person across the table of your position. You just have to hold to it.

Short of pulling a weapon on you, there is usually very little that people can do to require you to do something that you don’t want to do.

Unfortunately, there are quite a number of people, especially female, who are able to say “no” in defense of their children, but not as an advocate for themselves; all the more, they are prepared to go on attack if they believe that those same little ones have been ill-served by someone else. And yet, when it comes to defending themselves, these moms have trouble. Put simply, it comes down to the fact that they don’t value themselves very highly and therefore can’t easily assert themselves. But for a person they do value, especially their flesh and blood, they are transformed.

If you can’t yet do it for yourself — say “no,” stand your ground — you’ve got some work to do. Your life will be much more the life that you want it to be, if you prevent others from taking you in their direction against your wishes. Think of all the favors you’ve done that you wanted to avoid, the responsibilities you took on at work that really shouldn’t have been yours to take, and (for some women only) the men whose attention you suffered unnecessarily.

If you can’t prevent these things on your own, psychotherapy can help you to learn to employ the word “no” to great effect. It allows you to examine the reasons for your inability to be assertive and gives you tools (and practice) in how to live in a new way.

The ability to say “no” is extraordinarily empowering.

This is one thing you shouldn’t say “no” to.

The above image is by Fibonacci from Wikimedia Commons.

The Stress of Everyday Life

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Much ink and electronically generated language have been expended commenting on the oppressive and stressful nature of everyday life. We are expected to move too fast, produce instant answers to complex problems, and respond with a fax or an e-mail or a text on the spot.

Many of us travel long distances just to get to work. We hardly know our neighbors and, even if we do, don’t have the time to talk to them. Each of us has his own individualized shipping container (called a car), further separating us from each other. We relate to gadgets more than to people — voice mail and snail mail need answering, internet sites demand surfing, our phones are always on and in our pockets — even vacations don’t place us out of reach of urgent demands and obligations.

Teacher conferences require our attendance, our children plead for our time and homework help. The house needs minding, the lawn needs mowing — there is never any rest.

Witness this commentary:

I cannot help but regret that I did not live fifty or a hundred years sooner. Life is too full in these times to be comprehensible. We know too many cities to be able to grow into any of them, and our arrivals and departures are no longer matters for emotional debauches — they are too common. Similarly, we have too many friends to have any friendships, too many books to know any of them well; and the quality of our impressions gives way to the quantity, so that life begins to seem like a movie, with hundreds of kaleidoscopic scenes flashing on and off our field of perception — gone before we have time to consider them.

I should like to have lived in the days when a visit was a matter of months, when political and social problems were regarded from simple standpoints called “liberal” and “conservative,” when foreign countries were still foreign, when a vast part of the world always bore the glamour of the great unknown, when there were still wars worth fighting and gods worth worshipping.

These words were written by George Kennan, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, diplomat, and scholar.

Yesterday, you ask?

No.

They were written 83 years ago in his journal, on December 20, 1927 when he was 23.

They can be found in his book, Sketches From a Life, published by Pantheon.

The above image is Tension Belt by LeonWeber, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.