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 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.

A Therapist Tells You a Secret. Do You Really Want to Know Everything?

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In the search for information and closeness to your therapist you can’t predict what you might discover. I will use the subject of race to illustrate. Two subjects, then: racial bias and yours truly, a retired psychologist who was not always admirable as a stand-in for your counselor. The question of self-knowledge, too, is on my agenda, absent in most of our prejudices, replaced by the ability to rationalize our thoughts and actions.

Ugh, I hear you say: what can one offer about race that hasn’t been uttered to the point of numbness. I’ve groaned myself. More often I’ve grumbled about unfairness to minorities, blamed the big bigots, or written a check to a noble cause. My buddies from Mather High School even established a college scholarship program for disadvantaged teens of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions.

Sounds admirable, right? Read on if you dare. You might find something out you don’t like, something to knock me off any pedestal given me by your generosity, a coin flip, or my own effort to climb on top.

We come by vulnerability to racial bias as part of our evolutionary inheritance. Humans who didn’t notice differences became someone else’s lunch. The tribe next door was quickly identified as “other.” Otherness made both sides wary. Those who were too welcoming too fast suffered a bad end. They are not our ancestors. Yes, cooperation was essential to survival, but care had to be taken about anything signaling danger.

We also want to think of ourselves as “better than” someone, more in control, deserving a more advantaged life than they. The “other” comes in handy here, too, for the sake of drawing contrasts. Read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death to investigate this light subject.

Still more of us seek simple advantage by becoming a top dog over the Untermenschen, which has typically included benefits like money, power, status, and mating opportunities.

The trickle-down theory of prejudice applies as well. The one who is mistreated — the one who is hated — becomes the hater. And not necessarily aiming his animus at those who inflicted the injury. But sometimes racial resentment derives simply from emulating the deeds and words of the ones you love or the culture in which you live. Then, in bad times, the fire is fueled, whatever its first cause.

Such tendencies do not make anyone evil. But they do require that we catch ourselves leaning.

At least in my generation — the leading edge of the post-war baby boom — most of the white folk were not untouched by racist messages and, more significantly, many absorbed some of the bias. I was one such.

Maybe the most shameful day of my life happened early in graduate school. My roommate and I had a one-year lease on an apartment in residential Evanston, IL. He soon was swept away in romance and wished to move in with his girlfriend. Jim, a quiet, mysterious, handsome fellow — his new fiancé was a beauty too (and they both had terrific abs, having met in a fitness center) — was also a man of honor: he agreed to pay half the rent until I could find someone to take his space. He and I understood, “the sooner the better.” Neither of us was wealthy.

I advertised, of course. The first person to call sounded perfect on the phone, another student at Northwestern. He came with a companion to see my digs. We agreed on the timing for his move-in. Within a couple of days I backed out of the arrangement. Why?

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Though he was born in the USA, his skin suggested an Indian subcontinent origin. Do understand, what I’d learned about race never referred to people who lived in Pakistan or India, other than they might be starving. Such references were common among parents of the time. They wanted their children to “clean the plate,” encouraging us to benefit from the bounty that the unfortunates on the world’s far side lacked.

I had no additional opinions about people from the spot on the map from which this NU student’s ancestors launched themselves. Moreover, he wasn’t starving — he could have been the guy next to Jim in the weight-lifting room. This young man, just a bit more green than myself, was clearly intelligent, displayed good manners, and dressed in the fashion of college students of the day. Well, obviously, he was not green in every sense, the clear point of my prejudice.

By now I had another roommate in line who would replace my replacement for Jim. Larry, the newer guy, was whiter than white. Blond. No better or worse, probably not as smart, different only in individual peculiarities I did not yet know, except — a big exception — for the fairness of his skin tone. I make zero excuses. My act was reprehensible, prejudiced. I looked in the mirror (eventually) and learned from it, too late for the man I discriminated against.

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as racist. The group in denial includes those who behave in a way consistent with bigotry, tell jokes dependent upon stereotypes, and vote for candidates who intend to disadvantage minorities while wrapping themselves in their country’s flag. The last of these adopt a faux patriotism that Samuel Johnson called “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” We are, almost all of us, pretty well-rationalized. Our sleep is undisturbed, our friends shake our hands, and we receive applause for acts of public generosity. But there are secrets, too, and now you know one about me.

I offer you no grand take-away here. I cannot tell you the meaning of life or even whether one is waiting to be found. But I believe part of my guidance for myself is to do better, learn more, be more understanding — enlarge my humanity and add some little good to the world. Hard to do any of that unless you begin the endless and ancient task of knowing yourself.

The friendly social scientists at Harvard have made it easier. They offer a free psychological instrument designed to help you understand your implicit, unconscious preferences or beliefs: to be more precise, a tendency to prefer “white” over “black.” It’s called the  Implicit Association Test (IAT). Consider the measure akin to the mirror of the evil queen in Snow White.

There are actually a great many tasks you can undertake on the site, but the one I’m talking about is the one labeled Race IAT in blue.

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The Harvard creators take the time to quote Fyodor Dostoyevsky:

“Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone but only his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.”

These lines from Dostoyevsky capture two concepts that the IAT helps us examine. First, we might not always be willing to share our private attitudes with others. Second, we may not be aware of some of our own attitudes. Your results on the IAT may include both components of control and awareness.

Now, you are likely to ask whether there is a connection between preferring “white” over “black” (or the reverse) and acts of discrimination/racism. The answer is in the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section of the site. In general, they inform us, “not necessarily.”

Of course, I don’t know how you, dear reader, will score. Are you, to quote Dostoyevsky once more, a hostage to “those things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself?”

Do you have the courage to find out?

Again, here is where you can: Implicit Association Test.

Now, say, after me: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall … ”

For sure, this psychologist is not the fairest of them all. In any sense.

Following the Disney images of the evil queen and her mirror (from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) comes Vasily Perov’s 1872 portrait of Dostoyevsky, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A “West Side Story” Story (A.K.A. “The Angry Lady Incident”)

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Being the parent of talented children is a tough job.

Especially when they are performing on stage or on the field of play.

You want them to succeed, you hold your breath as they do their stuff, and are delighted and relieved when the show (or the game) is over. You want to find a balance between identifying completely with their performance and being totally indifferent.

You don’t want to pressure them too much or feel like the fate of the free world hangs in the balance, entirely dependent on a flawless effort.

And you try to remember (and remind them to remember) the quotation of a Hall of Fame basketball coach who said, “If every game is a matter of life and death, you’re going to have a problem: you’re going to die a lot.”

Then there is the question of how much encouragement or discouragement you visit upon your child if he actually wants to make a career in the arts or sports given the long odds of actually being able to make a living.

Two stories about that, the first a joke:

Question: What is the difference between a musician and a Domino’s pizza?

Answer: A Domino’s pizza can feed a family of four!

The other story has to do with Leonard Bernstein, who was the composer of West Side Story, not to mention a famous symphony conductor, pianist, and educator.

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Sam Bernstein, Lenny’s father, came to the USA from Russia, where musicians were held in low esteem. The musicians Bernstein’s father had encountered in his old country were mostly “klezmers,” itinerant Jews who played at weddings and other celebratory occasions, but had a hard time gaining respect and keeping bread on the table. Thus, when Sam’s oldest son displayed an interest in this “profession,” the elder Bernstein did his best to discourage the young man’s pursuit.

Eventually, his son Leonard became world-famous. And, the story is told that a newspaper reporter asked Sam why it was that he hadn’t encouraged his son in the field of music.

The senior Bernstein answered, “How was I supposed to know he would become Leonard Bernstein!”

Then there is the problem of the audience, of which you are a part; and what people say and do while your child is doing his stuff. We all have heard or witnessed parents and fans who go a bit crazy in opposition to each other over the performance of their eight-year-olds. It is worth remembering what happened on occasion when Jackie Robinson became the first black man in the 20th century to integrate organized baseball.

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Before his 1947 debut in the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson played one season for the Montreal Royals of the International League. The rudeness and racism recalled by his wife Rachel at the time of the team’s April, 1946 appearance in Baltimore is recounted by Jules Tygiel in Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy:

When Jackie appeared on the field, the man sitting behind her shouted, “Here comes that nigger son of a bitch. Let’s give it to him now.” The Baltimore fans unleashed an unending torrent of abuse. All around her people engaged “in the worst kind of name-calling and attacks on Jackie that I had to sit through.” For one of the few times Rachel feared for Jackie’s physical safety. That night as she cried in her hotel room, Rachel thought that perhaps Jackie should withdraw from the integration venture.

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Fortunately, as the proud parent of daughters who have performed, I never had to deal with anything like that. Just the usual twittering, texting, whispering, program rustling, and bracelet jangling, that is the commonly experienced thoughtlessness in auditoriums world-wide.

But on one noteworthy occasion attended by me with my wife, I went beyond an occasional stern look to take on a woman who should have known better than to converse with her neighbor when my youngest child was in a high school production of West Side Story.

The lady was a senior citizen two seats to my right, nicely dressed, who was talking pretty loudly to a friend seated to her right. Because she was turned in her neighbor’s direction most of the time, it was difficult to catch her eye in the hope that “a look” might communicate my wish for her to quiet down. About 20 minutes in to the performance I’d had about enough.

I leaned as far to my right as I could (across the body of my friend Rich who was our guest) and, in one of the few moments when she was looking forward, she noticed me as I said, “Please be quiet!”

It was not said with ferocity, but I’m sure she knew I meant business. And, indeed, she was quieter for the rest of the first half of the performance.

Rich and I had to walk past this woman in the aisle as we began to make our way to the lobby at intermission. To my considerable surprise, as I passed this lady, she actually pushed me into the railing barrier to my left. I turned right to face her.

“Why were you so angry?” she said.

“I wanted to listen to the performance.”

“But I was only talking during the orchestra part, not the singing!” she indignantly continued.

“But I wanted to hear the orchestra. You know, you are not in your living room and this is not TV!”

With that, the encounter ended.

No guns were drawn, no knives displayed, no one put on brass knuckles, and no chains or tire irons were brandished — there was no “rumble” — no example of life imitating art, as in the gang fight that is a central part of the musical we were watching.

And my antagonist and her companion did not return after intermission.

Given that more and more states permit concealed weapons, I suppose I was taking a risk. I can’t recommend that you take on rude audience members, who might retaliate even more forcefully than did the lady in question.

But, it is hard to “tune out” people who create a volume of sound sufficient to compete with the main attraction.

It was another one of those situations in which different people react differently, sometimes dependent on mood, the capacity to tolerate frustration, an evaluation of the importance of the matter, and one’s ability to be assertive or foolhardy — however you happen to label such action.

In the end, I guess I should simply be glad that it wasn’t Baltimore in the 1940s and my adversary didn’t have her own set of family members handy, and a length of rope to hang from the nearest tree.

Rachel Robinson would understand.

The top image is from a 2003 performance of West Side Story given in Brno, Czech Republic by Městské divadlo. It is the work of Jef Kratochvil. The second photo is of Leonard Bernstein in 1945, taken by Fred Palumbo, then a photographer for the World Telegram. The third picture is a 1950 lobby card for The Jackie Robinson Story. The final image is of Rachel Robinson Accepting the Congressional Gold Medal for her husband, deceased baseball star Jackie Robinson on March 2, 2005. From left to right: Nancy Pelosi, President George W. Bush, Mrs. Robinson, and Dennis Hastert. The picture was taken by White House photographer Eric Draper. All photos are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Generosity and Kindness: A Story of Political Incorrectness

Cats in bed 1970    - copyright Lisl Steiner

For some people, life is a choice between kindness and survival, trust and paranoia, generosity and miserliness.

As my mom used to say about herself, “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?”

It was a rhetorical question, of course, mostly intended for amusement, but could be understood as raising a very important issue for everyone: who am I and what is my relationship to my fellow-man? What, if anything, do I owe him?

We see it asked and answered all the time: in response to charitable solicitations, in requests for advice or assistance, and in decisions we make about whom to help (perhaps only family, friends, co-religionists, or countrymen) and those whose pleadings are ignored or disdained.

Most of us aren’t as kind as we could be, but have benefited from the kindness of others. I am certainly one such person who has had the good luck to have been on the receiving end of considerable generosity of spirit. And that, of course, leads to a story.

During my second year in graduate school I was a research assistant. In return for tuition and a stipend on which to live, I coordinated the research data-gathering done by a number of Northwestern undergraduates who worked for my advisor. The latter was a big man in his mid to late-30s. I learned a lot from him about the proper attitude toward social science research and how to do it.

I remember one of the first communications I ever had from him included a line about his intention “to work with me and on me.” That he did, much to my benefit. Coincidentally enough, his work focused on altruism, defined as the quality of unselfish concern for the wellbeing of others that is so highly prized, at least in the abstract, by most of the major world religions.

As I said, my mentor was a big man, with a personality to match. And, in that age just before the concept of “political correctness” became so firmly established as it is today, he would say, and get away with some outrageous statements.

My advisor occasionally referred to himself as “The Chief” or “The Big Chief” alluding to his size (about 6’6″) and his authority over those of us in his charge. But where he really went off the rails, I suppose, was in calling all of us — the undergraduates who collected his data and me as well — his “slaves.” I’m sure he meant no harm by this clumsy humor, but he was a colorful person and, as I noted, said some things that would have been over-the-line for most other people in a university setting.

One day he mentioned, very casually, that there would be a new “slave” coming to his lab the next day at 3:00 PM; he wasn’t going to be there, so he wanted me to greet her and show her the ropes — let her know what she needed to know and do in order to collect his data and to receive the “independent study” credit that would be her academic reward for helping “The Chief” with his research. By now I had instructed and supervised his undergrad helpers for quite some time, so I thought nothing of his request and simply made certain to be in his lab at the appointed time the next day.

Sure enough, at 3:00 PM precisely the following afternoon, I heard a knock on his laboratory door. I turned and saw a very pretty and well-dressed young woman.

“Is Professor X there?” she asked.

“Oh, you must be the new ‘slave.'”

It was then, and only then, perhaps a quarter of a second after I’d said those words, that I realized something especially critical to the interchange and perhaps, to the rest of my life:

She was black.

“Oh my God,” I thought to myself. “What have I done? What is she going to do?” These and other thoughts flashed through my now feverish brain, as my entire life — my entire unrealized future — passed before my eyes and perhaps out of my reach forever.

I do not remember what precisely I then said. But, I know it was some form of apology and explanation. I’m sure it was inadequate. Certainly I told her how the awful word was used in the context of the Professor’s lab — the bad joke some of us had too readily imitated — as opposed to the world of civil rights, the history of slavery in the USA, and so on.

And then something amazing happened.

This charming young black woman accepted my explanation and apology.

She didn’t complain to my advisor or the Chairman of the Psychology Department, or the Dean or the President of Northwestern University. She didn’t call the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun Times so that they could run a front page story. She didn’t contact a local or national radio or TV station to report the wrong done to her. She didn’t file a law suit against me and the University. Nor did she contact the NAACP or get her older brother, assuming she had one, to break my legs.

I would have deserved it. Any of it. All of it.

Yes, it’s true, I meant no harm.

It is also true that at the moment I saw her, had I been more racially conscious, my brain probably would have registered BLACK PERSON, BLACK PERSON, BLACK PERSON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Or worse.

And, in that event, I wouldn’t have said what I said.

But instead, it simply registered pretty girl!

And so I spoke the unspeakable, entirely to my discredit.

No excuses here, just an explanation, but I was certainly wrong and deserved some sort of punishment.

My life could have been irrevocably altered that day. But for the generosity and kindness of someone I didn’t know, someone who owed me nothing, someone who I had just injured, I might be doing something very different from practicing clinical psychology; someone very different from a Ph.D. graduate of a major university.

As my friend Rich Adelstein has written elsewhere, “all of us (who received financial support for our education) have been helped in the course of our lives by many kind and generous people whom we never met and whose names we never knew.”

I sure have and also by one particular person who I did meet and who heard my tactless speech before she knew anything else about me.

As Blanche Dubois says in the Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

I haven’t always depended on it.

But I am enormously grateful to have received such kindness more times than I deserve; and especially grateful to a pretty Northwestern undergrad for the uncommon grace and beneficence she showed me at precisely 3:00 in the afternoon on a day many years ago.

The above image is Love in the Afternoon 1970 by Lisl Steiner, with permission: http://www.lislsteiner.com


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 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 of 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 overreacting? 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 rudeness from 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 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 enabling 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 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 you can put your effort into the things of 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.

Obama, Racism, and the Implicit Association Test

Are you a closet racist? In 1948, your reaction to the above photo of a white man hugging a black man might have been a measure of that trait.*

Today, however, most people in the USA are better at disguising it, even from themselves. It’s not a charge that can be as easily dismissed as you would think. Your voting record, for example, might not tell you very much. That’s where the Implicit Association Test comes in, as a possible way to know more about your innate tendencies, perhaps even ones about which you are unaware.

Depending on your political orientation and attitude toward the man in the White House, you might have been accused of being either unpatriotic or a racist within this new century: unpatriotic if you opposed President George W. Bush and a racist if you opposed President Obama.  The voices of protest against the War in Iraq were often charged with giving aid and comfort to the enemy in the scary days after 9-11-2001, when all manner of evidence (later disproven) about the presence of WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) in the hands of Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator, were alleged by the folks in charge.

More recently, noisy opposition to President Obama’s initiatives have included accusations that he was not born in the USA, is a secret Muslim, is a closet Communist or at least a Socialist, and so forth. When the expression of these ideas is accompanied by posters telling the President to go back to Africa, and pictures of him in “white face,” it gets pretty hard to think well of the protesters.

Now, I don’t know if there is any psychological instrument that can effectively test your patriotism, but I do know one that might tell you something about whether you have any racist tendencies. Or, to be more precise, a tendency to prefer “white” over “black.” It’s called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a measurement generated by the friendly social scientists at Harvard. It can be found at: Implicit Association Test. Click on the word “Demonstration.”

There are actually a great many measures on the site, but the one I’m talking about is the one labeled Race IAT: Race (Black-White’) IAT.

This and other similar tests are described in the following background quotation from the site:

The IAT was originally developed as a device for exploring the unconscious roots of thinking and feeling. This web site has been constructed for a different purpose — to offer the IAT to interested individuals as a tool to gain greater awareness about their own unconscious preferences and beliefs.

Many years ago, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote: “Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone but only his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.

These lines from Dostoyevsky capture two concepts that the IAT helps us examine. First, we might not always be willing to share our private attitudes with others. Second, we may not be aware of some of our own attitudes. Your results on the IAT may include both components of control and awareness.

Now, you are likely to ask yourself whether there is a connection between preferring “white” over “black” and acts of discrimination or racism. You will find the answer to that in the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section of the site. In general, the answer is a “not necessarily” and I’m sure that you will want to read more about the behavioral implications of your “preference.” The site and the various tests and explanations are really quite interesting, so I would encourage you to take a look.

The test just might be informative to you about who you “really” are. If you believe that your opposition, for example, to President Obama is entirely motivated by firmly rooted, color-blind principles, you might find the test results unsettling. No less, however, the left-leaning, Obama-supporting, test-takers who pat themselves on the back for their belief that they are “color blind,” might be surprised by their results. A member of either of these groups might be caught up short by what the “black-white” test suggests about them.

Of course, I don’t know how you, dear reader, will score. Are you, to quote Dostoyevsky once more, a hostage to “those things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself?”

Do you have the courage to find out?

Again, here is where you can: Implicit Association Test.

*The image at the top is a 1948 newspaper photo of Steve Gromek embracing Larry Doby in celebration of a fourth game victory in the World Series. Gromek was the winning pitcher for the Cleveland Indians vs. the Boston Braves. Doby hit the game winning homerun, prompting Gromek’s spontaneous act.

The photo was astonishing for its time. Doby followed Jackie Robinson by less than three months in the 1947 integration of Major League Baseball. The idea of men of two different races cheek-to-cheek offended the most bigoted parts of the white population, some of whom never forgave Gromek. It should also be added that Doby endured the same racism and brutality as Jackie Robinson, but received less credit for it as the second man to integrate baseball while Robinson was the first. The fact that Robinson played for the Brooklyn (New York) Dodgers and therefore received much more media coverage probably also contributed to the reduced attention to Doby’s extraordinary courage and athletic accomplishments. Doby was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1998.

A Few Good Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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