Off to College and Saying Goodbye

Paintings Reproductions David, Jacques -Louis The Farewell of  Telemachus and Eucharis

It is that time of year. Some kids are going to college for the first time. A difficult moment for all concerned.

If you are a parent, your child may have been spending much of the last year or two pushing you away; being disagreeable; wanting to spend more time alone; confiding in you less.

It could be adolescent rebellion in a fairly moderate form, but, more likely, it is his striving for independence; and his anticipation of the real break — the one that finds him living in a different state; both a state of mind and a State of the Union.

As most of us know, it usually feels better to be the one who ends a relationship first or enacts a change in it — separates, creates a distance — than to be on the receiving end of that action. But, whatever it is, it is tough for sure.

The farewells can be tearful and terrifying, mostly for parents. The kids have their anxieties too, but don’t want to betray them as openly as the elders do. The students’ brave front is as much to persuade themselves that everything will be fine outside the nest as to keep their ambivalence in check, lest they encourage mom and dad to show even more emotion and make the parting harder.

I remember spending a good portion of our drive back home from an off-to-college goodbye with tears in my eyes, having taken our eldest to the Champaign/Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. Within a few days we heard from her though. Sure enough, homesickness.

Letting go of your children is hard, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog. You have to have faith that your offspring have learned something by age 18 and that they will survive, bruised but unbowed. Not much you can do anyway, unless you are prepared to keep them hostage in your basement forever.

They will return of course, but they won’t be the same. That too is a good, if  ambivalent thing, a sword that cuts both ways. As a parent, you’ll remember the cuddly and loving stage, the moment when you were everything to them and they couldn’t get enough of you. In trade, you get to see your children flourish (one hopes) as adults, a wondrous thing when you remember back to how little and helpless they once were.

But, be patient. The “full bloom” just might take some time and some struggle. Keep the faith.

Regardless, you do get more peace, quiet, and privacy as a bonus.

A new relationship, then — something different rather than better or worse.

The “saying goodbye” comes by degrees. At first, they return for summer vacation and holidays. Later, they will live away and see you less often. Such is life.

My wife and I kept a very old car for our daughters to use when they were home, even after both had graduated college and gone on to grad school. Finally, a minor accident rendered it beyond repair and we donated it to charity.

For a few days after the auto had been taken away, my wife and I both felt a little bit low. We talked about it. Of course, it wasn’t hard to figure out. The car was a symbol, something tied to the time they lived with us, and something that said they would be coming back. Now, with the car gone, we both had to face  that there was no coming back with the regularity of the past.

Their lives were elsewhere.

When I gave the toast at my eldest’s wedding, I told the following story:

I remember the day that we took Jorie to Champaign/Urbana to the Illini Towers dorm, to begin her college education at the University of Illinois. We thought we would be clever about it, so we woke up very early that Saturday morning and drove fast so that we would be among the first to get into the building and unloaded. But we were out foxed by several hundred people, who had gotten up earlier and driven faster and were already way ahead of us in line to use the couple of elevators and the small number of carts to get their child moved in.

It was a long, hot, late summer day. And as we stood in line  waiting, I had a feeling of familiarity, as if I had done this before. Of course, I had never moved Jorie into any new place, so I couldn’t easily figure it out.

As the morning changed to afternoon (and we were still in line), I thought back to the day that Jorie was born. At 1:00 AM, that is to say, in the dead of night, Jorie gave the signal and we were off to the hospital. And that too was a long day as we waited for the labor to progress. Finally, at 9:34 PM, over 20 hours later, Jorie arrived in this new world. And I realized that the long day of waiting for her to be born was what the long day of waiting at Illini Towers reminded me of.

The only difference was that on that day at the hospital we were waiting to say hello to her, and on the day at Illini Towers we were waiting to say goodbye.

Shakespeare was right.

“Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

But, life does go on.

The image above is The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis by Jacques-Louis David.

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


Signs of Insecurity: Behavior That Reveals a Lack of Confidence

https://drgeraldstein.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/insecurity.jpg?w=225

Insecure people often reveal their self-doubt without being aware of it. Indeed, a wise observer can “read” another individual. For example, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have told me they can tell whether a new conductor is competent and talented within 10 minutes of the beginning of their first rehearsal with him. What follows is a short list of behaviors that suggest insecurity:

  • 1. Are you able to give a compliment? Even more important, can you graciously accept one? The latter behavior tends to be difficult for someone who is unsure of himself. He might blush or become flustered. Alternatively, he is prone to dismiss the validity of the praise, instead telling you why it isn’t true. What should one do if complimented? Smile and say “Thank you.” Nothing more.
  • 2. The ability to maintain eye contact is hard for many individuals who lack confidence. They will turn away or look down, but rarely hold the gaze of the other by looking into his or her eyes.
  • 3. The self-doubting person tends to apologize when no apology is necessary. It is as if she expects to be reproached or is afraid to give offense; so, she prophylactically tries to excuse any possible mistake to avoid such a response.
  • 4. Answering a question with an upward inflection of the voice has been done by everyone. The person being questioned doesn’t have certainty about his answer, so he replies with a tone betraying his insecurity. Since I originally wrote this piece, a name has been given to the practice: upspeak.
  • 5. Men and women who are uncomfortable with sharing personal information for fear of being judged will oft-times turn the conversation to a different topic, away from anything that might make them vulnerable or reveal too much. This is also called “changing the subject.”
  • 6. One way of inoculating yourself against criticism is to joke at your own expense. Do this often and others may conclude you believe you are flawed.
  • 7. Do you have trouble making a decision? The comedy team “Cheech and Chong” (I’m not sure which one) said: “Taking responsibility is a lot of responsibility.” If you automatically let others choose the restaurant, movie, and other activity, you are either easy-going and good-natured or don’t want to be held accountable for making the wrong choice.
  • 8. Do you state strong opinions? Those who avoid doing so might maintain the peace — often a good thing — but some fear drawing fire and unwanted attention.

Before I give you nine more signs of insecurity, I’ll say what might cause the condition. Many possibilities. Critical or neglectful parents, poor academic skills, frequent moves making you “the new kid” (especially if you are introverted by nature), learning disabilities and ADHD, being “different” in some fashion (size, shape, color, religion), thinking of yourself as the “poor” kid in a community of the affluent, sensing you are the average child in a school filled with bright youngsters, feeling ashamed of your parents or residence, frequent rejections, getting fired (whether deserved or not), clumsiness, a history of abuse or bullying; physical unattractiveness, deformity, or injury, etc. For a more thorough discussion of these causes, click here: The Causes of Insecurity. Now back to the list of signs of insecurity:

  • 9. Do you laugh nervously in social situations? It is another behavior betraying self-consciousness.
  • 10. People will appraise you harshly if they see you bite your nails or they appear bitten.
  • 11. Are you self-effacing, placing yourself at a disadvantage — letting others go first, speak first — reluctant to raise your hand? Do you hesitate to take your turn? Do you sacrifice your interests as a matter of course? Insecurity can make you wait until the opportunity before you is lost. Excessive deference displays little regard for yourself, even if some amount can be a sign of good breeding and consideration.
  • 12. Are you nervous eating in front of others? Do you fear dropping something, displaying poor table manners, or making a mess? You probably won’t, at least not more than the rest of us.
  • 13. Can you make phone calls without trepidation; especially those in which you need to introduce yourself, correct a problem, or speak to an authority? Too much discomfort in anticipation of these actions can reveal your sense of uncertainty.
  • 14. Might you make too many excuses? Those who are unsure give explanations where none are required. Imagine you order an entrée at an elegant restaurant and the waiter asks whether you want an appetizer to start. You explain why you don’t. Some folks offer multiple excuses for what they do, anticipating criticism. If you must give a reason, limit yourself to one. The more you give, the more uncertain (or dishonest) you sound. For  example, “I can’t come to the party because I have a stomach ache and my car broke and I need to study.” One reason will be more convincing. You needn’t explain yourself as often as you think.
  • 15. Insecurity can be suggested by hesitation to ask for a favor or an inability to say “no.” Anticipation of rejection or disapproval is the motivator for both of these problems with self-assertion. By contrast, a self-assured person will not believe the relationship (or his own value) is dependent upon going along with someone else’s wishes or fulfilling the desires of others as a matter of routine.
  • 16. Do you make frequent requests for reassurance? A few examples: “Does that make sense?” “What do you think?” “What would you do?” “Do you think that is a good idea?” “Do I look OK?” Must you have sex to prove your partner remains interested in you? If you are self-assured, you won’t implore your lover to calm your doubts and remind you, over and over, in words and deeds, of your desirability or intelligence.
  • 17. Last one. Here insecurity takes a different form. This person wants the spotlight at all times, the better to be told “You are the fairest of them all!” She or he pushes for recognition, strutting about the stage we call life; checking to see where he stands and what others think of him. Bragging and display become a full-time job. Perhaps he was the class clown in grade school, but now he drops names to prove his importance and get your attention. His inner emptiness must be filled and refilled, like a bucket with a hole in it. Such people are plagued by narcissism as well as insecurity, a troublesome combination. There is hell to pay for those who expose the pretender’s flaws: lacerating attacks against any critics. If you are this variety of insecure person, I doubt you will admit it even to yourself. If you meet such an individual, run!

I suspect you get the idea. Please add an item if you like. You can use the list in one of two ways: to consider whether you are insecure or evaluate the confidence of those around you. Of course, you are the only one whose self-confidence you can change.

You may find the following related post of interest: Signs of Self Consciousness: When the Mirror Isn’t Your Friend. Also, you might want to read  The Upside of Insecurity or, this very recent post: Insecurity and Our Preoccupation with Appearances/

The image above is Insecurity by Lacey Lewis: http://www.lacey-lewis.com/ With permission.

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.

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.

The Price of Humility

Humility is generally thought to be a positive characteristic. Let’s consider this a little more carefully.

From the centuries-old teachings of the Catholic Church, one reads that there are “seven deadly sins:” wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. Even without such a list, however, young people are often taught to be humble and not boastful.

They are instructed not to call too much attention to themselves, not to be full of themselves or too proud. Arrogance, excessive self-love (narcissism), hubris — all are viewed negatively and point to the notion that you are not as good as you think you are and therefore should not become “too big for your britches.” In effect, the message is, be modest and you will be fine.

But.

Yes, I know, there is always a but.

An example illustrates why I am a hesitant endorser of humility in all things. My seventh grade Chicago Public School home room teacher gave us an interesting assignment. In one of the marking periods (there were four per semester) each of us was to write down the grades that we believed we should receive for the term — what marks we felt we deserved. Up until that time I was something of a humility addict. Whether from home or elsewhere, I’d learned not to toot my own horn, not to draw attention to myself, and certainly not to overstate my accomplishments.

The strategy had worked pretty well up to that time. But, I did not see that it created the potential for trouble ahead.

I dutifully delivered the grades, having understated most, if not all of them. What difference did it make, I thought? The teacher would assign the bona-fide grades, of course, based on the work we had completed, our test scores, and so forth.

Some time later, we received our real marks. And, wouldn’t you know it, my instructor had given me exactly the evaluation I assigned to myself. Since I was enormously invested in my school performance, I was crushed. I seem to recall that each kid had a mini-conference with her up at her front desk. I don’t remember what she said to me, but the grades stood, at least until the next marking period, when she would not be influenced by any external opinions. Nevertheless, I’m sure that I was mad at myself for having understated my worth.

As miserable as she made me feel, this woman did me a great favor. In fact, there probably was no better way to deliver the message: don’t diminish yourself, don’t minimize your accomplishments, don’t be self-effacing. If you cannot be your own best advocate, why should you expect anyone else to advocate for you? While you needn’t trumpet your attainments to the farthest reaches of the earth, neither should you hide them under a rock.

There is a price to excess humility, just as there is a price to the extreme of any human characteristic, not just the seven deadly sins: too much confidence or too little, too much risk-taking or not enough, a naive excess of trust or a cynical absence of confidence and faith in others, and so forth.

My teacher is almost certainly deceased. But, if I could, I would thank her for her instruction in the price of a surfeit of humility.

Ironically enough, her name was Miss Price — my seventh grade teacher at Jamieson School.

The image above is Kandinsky’s Composition V.

To Trust or Not to Trust: A Con Artist Story That Leads Back Home


The old guy was an easy mark. He’d had a stroke a few years before, made a good recovery with no evident physical effects, but certainly wasn’t the bright young man of his youth. And he wasn’t just any old guy. He was my dad.

“Rain or Shine” Milt Stein, an appellation that referred to his reliability and work ethic, was 83, but still active. Early every morning he took a walk of perhaps a mile in the area near the condo he shared with my mother, who was seven years his junior.

It was the very steamy summer of 1995, the hottest in Chicago’s history, topping out at 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius). On the day in question the temperature was already in the 90s, although not yet 7 AM. A relatively young couple with a small boy approached him.

“Our car broke down, sir. Do you have any water — water to drink?” It was a Sunday and stores would not open for three hours or so.

Milt Stein was a gentle and decent man. Perhaps he noted that the family wasn’t especially well-dressed — that their clothing was damp with perspiration. Approximately 750 deaths by heat and dehydration had been reported in the news recently. The condo was only a couple of blocks away. He led the family there.

My mom was shocked when dad unlocked the door and the family entered. Much less trusting than my father, Jeanette Stein never would have permitted this if she had been given a choice. Beauty, charm, and a quick wit were my mother’s strong suits. Faith in humanity wasn’t high on the list. She often said that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Mom knew this wasn’t exactly politically correct and wondered what others might think of her lack of trust. She sometimes made her suspicions known by saying (always with a twinkle in her eye), “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?”

As she would have viewed it, the “aliens” were now inside the gate. But what could she do? Dad was already on the way to the kitchen to get some glasses and fill them full of water. Meanwhile, the man and woman began to talk excitedly to my mother.

The boy disappeared.

It all happened quickly. Within just a few minutes everyone had been hydrated and the trio departed. But when my parents went into their bedroom, they noticed that a closet door was open and a card board box on a shelf there was ajar. The box was empty of the $10,000 in jewelry it had contained only a few minutes before. The little boy had done his crafty worst. He had taken the treasure.

The police were engaged quickly. A report was filed and the officer told my parents that there had been similar episodes in their neighborhood recently. None of this made my dad feel any better. He felt the fool and, unfortunately, my mother’s criticism of his trusting nature didn’t encourage a quick emotional rebound from the event.

Surprisingly, the police actually were able to recover more than half of the jewelry within a few weeks. But Mrs. Stein’s approval wasn’t so quickly retrieved by Mr. Stein. Mother would tell people the story and father would have to admit that, yes indeed, his kindness had not been repaid in kind.

So what we have here is a difference of temperament or personality on questions of trust and compassion — two models of how to live. You probably have a few family stories yourself, the kind that illustrate similar things, get repeated, and eventually become amusing, even if they didn’t begin that way.

As time passed, my always-clever mother found a humorous way to tell this tale. First she would explain the details of the “con.” Next mom would comment about my father’s naivety and mention the recovery of some of the jewelry almost as an afterthought. But you just knew she couldn’t end it there and the twinkle in her eye gave away that she was getting ready for the knock-out punch. Mrs. Stein pointed her index finger at the man to whom she had been married for nearly 45 years, took a deep breath, wound up and delivered:

People keep telling me that I should change the locks on the condo. But the problem is, he’s got a key!

The image above is my mother as a young woman.

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.

Fear of Change: the Therapeutic Implications of Japanese Holdouts

Onoda-young.jpg

Things change. The question is, do we change with them? Or, do we instead, continue to operate by the same outdated rules of conduct.

I often said to my patients that they seemed to be behaving as if the conditions of their early life still existed. They had long since fashioned solutions to problems that they faced many years ago, and continued to use the same solutions, even though those methods of living didn’t fit with their current life situation. It is as if one were born in Alaska, learned to wear multiple layers of heavy clothing and then moved to the tropics without a change of attire. The warm clothes were helpful up North, but are a disaster down South.

What does this have to do with the “Japanese Holdouts of World War II? The answer is that these men lived by an outdated set of rules with heartbreaking consequences.

If you recall your history lessons, you will remember that the Japanese soldiers of that period were trained according to the principles of Bushido, a feudal fighting code that derived from the period of Samurai warriors. Above all else, weakness was condemned and surrender was disgraceful. Death by one’s own hand was seen as preferable to permitting oneself to be captured, so as to avoid both personal disgrace and family shame.

The Allied approach to the war against these very soldiers in the Pacific was one that involved “island hopping.” The strategy passed over certain islands, both to save men and ensure that the Allies would be able  to capture those islands that were of the greatest strategic value. When the Japanese surrender came in 1945, numerous Japanese troops found themselves stranded on out-of-the-way Pacific islands, cut-off from their command, and without the capacity for communicating back home. These men neither knew the war was over nor could imagine that any honorable soldier, let alone their entire nation, would surrender. Some were in small groups who gradually died from disease or starvation; others were, at least eventually, alone.

While many never surrendered and died still waiting for reinforcements that never came, it was not uncommon in the late 1940s and 1950s to read news accounts of isolated Japanese combatants giving themselves up. The photo at the top of this page is of Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onada, who finally surrendered in 1974, and would not do so until his former commanding officer, by then a bookseller, personally ordered him to lay down his arms.  At that point, World War II had been over for nearly 30 years.

Thirty years. Yes, 30 years dedicated to a war that was over and a life of desperation that was no longer required.

But how many years, if any, have you given up to a thread-bare, bankrupt strategy of living that has long since outlived its usefulness?. And, more to the point, how many more will you endure? When will you realize that your “solution” has now become the problem?

In my psychotherapy practice I saw numerous variations on this theme. People who were abused or neglected  or criticized as children and who continued to live in terror of disappointing others. Those who found substance abuse the only available way of treating the depression or anxiety they experienced when they were young, and who continued to do so. People who avoided challenges because they were scared of failure, having failed many times in the past. Individuals who wore a chip on their shoulder, forever sensitive to insults and injuries that reminded them of long ago attacks, but now were only injurious in their imagination. And those poor souls who expected rejection because of past rejection. Like the Japanese holdouts, the years pass but the fear doesn’t, and the possibility of satisfying relationships and happiness slips away.

If you still are responding to the present as if it were the past, with solutions that solve little (even if they were once necessary), then it is time to change your life. The barricade of your life’s defenses might be protecting you only from the phantom of an enemy who lives within you, not on the other side of the fortification.

A good therapist is likely to be able to help you develop a new way of living, one more appropriate to the world as it is, not the world as it was; to set aside and heal old wounds.

Is it time?

What is the continuation of your old way of living costing you?

The war, your personal war, might just be over and you don’t know it.

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)