The Muhammad Ali Syndrome

  

Years ago, my major advisor from graduate school, Arnold Lazarus, published an essay about retirement.  In the article, he was comparing the plight of the renowned Albert Ellis, who at the time was in his ‘90’s, to Muhammad Ali.  Although he had his wits, Ellis was almost deaf, and what he had been known for in his early days, his use of four-letter words to shock his clients into changing, had become excessive, and no longer funny nor charming. 

The case of Muhammad Ali, a figure familiar to the world, is a perfect illustration of an individual who refused to retire from the brutal sport of boxing.  Recently, I saw the Ken Burns series that neatly captured the life of Muhammad Ali.  Although Ali was perhaps one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, the highlights from some of his fights showed the many punches he absorbed in winning his matches.  Many of his family and friends wanted him to retire but he wouldn’t listen to them.  If he had a glass jaw and was easy to knock out, he probably would not have wound up with the brain damage that he suffered from in the boxing ring.  After Ali knocked out the young, favorite George Foreman in the 8th round in Zaire, most observers thought Ali should have left the fighting game.  But he refused to quit. 

Ali went on to fight Joe Frazier a third time, in what he called the Thrilla in Manila, and he won by technical knock out after the 14th round.  It was a savage battle in which both fighters threw some heavy-duty punches.  Though, Ali continued to fight after that bout with Frazier, friends noticed that his mental processes had slowed.  Ironically, when the world had come to regard Ali with admiration, he lost the ability to talk aloud. After finally leaving the boxing arena, Ali admitted that Father Time had caught up with him.

In 2004, Lisa and I went on a Red Sox—Oriole Cruise where we had the pleasure of meeting Earl Weaver, the former manager of the Baltimore Orioles.  I asked Mr. Weaver what was the most difficult aspect of managing a major league baseball team.  He told me the hardest part of managing was benching a former star who no longer possessed the skills he had had earlier.  He named Brooks Robinson, the famed Oriole third baseman, as an example.

Because they don’t have to play their position but only have to bat, the designated hitter has allowed older sluggers, that may have retired earlier, to play more years.  An exception to the tendency for athletes to stay in the game too long, David Ortiz (aka Big Papi) could still hit the ball without showing the concomitant signs of aging.  The Red Sox would have signed him in 2017 but he did not want to return even though he had put up good numbers the previous year.  The constant physical conditioning had taken its toll on him as he stated to reporters: “I was done man. I ran out of gas.” He knew the Red Sox wanted him back and would pay him a hefty salary but it was no longer worth it to him.  Good for you, Big Papi!

I plan on working until my 80th birthday.  People ask why I am still working.  First, I am only working two days a week to avoid burn-out.  But also, because I very much like seeing people, and as a psychologist, enjoy helping them problem solve issues related to the difficulties brought on by life circumstances. Moreover, at this point in my career, I have the luxury of selecting clients I can work with and believe I can help.  When I first started out in my profession, I did not have that luxury.

I recently read an article in the New York Times about some of the problems Diane Feinstein, the Democratic Senator from California, is having with recent memory.  She is currently 88 years old.  The newspaper account indicated she is firmly holding on to her position because she is of the belief that she still has the capacity to serve in the fullest.  Though some of her democratic colleagues have defended her, many others question her ability to function in the manner she has in the past.

Without a doubt, quitting can be especially hard for those with prominent careers and the desire to continue to contribute in their fields of interest.  Long ago, my father, who never retired, and did have his “marbles” to the end of his life, told me: “When you leave, you are out of the game and no one cares about you.”  For some of us, leaving the game might be too hard to bear. Others might not know what to do after they retire. I have seen a number of clients that have this problem.  I have assisted some of these clients in finding alternative ways of spending their time such as volunteering or mentoring younger people in sharing whatever set of skills they may offer.  I have a colleague who has maintained regular support and guidance with his grandchildren, an exercise that has provided him with much satisfaction.  Lisa, my wife, has just transferred her enthusiasm and organizational skills in her career to volunteering with an advocacy organization. The key point to recognize is that retirement need not be the end of one’s road but the beginning of another journey where purpose and meaning still can be found. 

    Those Were the Joys

The last word, Rosebud, uttered by Citizen Kane, in the wonderful movie of the same name, before he dies, very much reminds me of my earlier years growing up (Spoiler Alert).  Reporters investigate the meaning of that last word that remains a mystery until the famous last scene when a sled, used by Kane as a child is tossed into the fire with the word Rosebud seen with the flames enclosing it.

I remember it well:  We all wanted it to snow with the hope that those l in charge of the city would close the schools.  I grew up in a blue-collar factory city, home of Singers Sewing Machines, in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  Because the leaders that made such decisions were hesitant to shut down the factories, light snows were not enough to close the schools inasmuch as children then might not have a parent to take care of them.   You needed a snow storm that would paralyze the city, temporarily, rendering driving virtually impossible. One reason I relocated to Southern California was my distaste and discomfort for cold weather.  But if it snowed, I, like most kids, was impervious to the cold.  To us kids, snow was like manna from heaven.  Lots of snow meant a day off from school but it also meant you could do all sorts of things that were out of the ordinary such as make snowmen, have snowball fights and go sleigh riding.

In Elizabeth, there were two streets that would be closed off to the traffic that offered both a good slope and pitch for us kids to go down:  Keats Avenue and Wyoming Avenue.  I had the good fortune to live near enough to both of those streets to be able to tote my sled on foot to either one.  Of the two, I preferred Keats Avenue.  Although it was a shorter ride down than Wyoming, Keats had a hill much steeper allowing one to gain a much faster speed than what was afforded by the less steep gradient of Wyoming.  Thus, my sleigh ride stomping grounds was pretty much Keats, and if I wanted a change of pace, I would walk over to Wyoming.

 At the top of Keats Avenue, Esther Stavis, the mother of George, a classmate of mine, would offer all of us a hot chocolate.  It was a warm and welcoming respite fortifying us from the cold.  I don’t remember any bullying or rough housing or the need to compete on how fast one could go down the hill.  Insofar as there were so few snow days off from school, there simply was no room for that sort of behavior.  We all were out to have a good time and celebrate the fact that there was no school that day. 

 Amazingly, I only have one negative memory about a School Free Snow Day.  I  remember, on one occasion, how distraught I felt in losing three dollars when I had gotten to the base of the hill after a great ride down.  This seems like a small amount of cash nowadays, but given inflation, over a long period of time, that three dollars had a current value of about $33. I had just earned that money from shoveling, and had stashed it away in one of my deepest pockets. But now it was gone.  When I walked up to the top of Keats, saddened by my recent lost, two kids, with big grins on their faces, one of whom I knew fairly well, told me they had recovered three dollars in the snow. When I told them that I had just lost the same amount, they appeared crestfallen and did not want to believe me.  Because I did not have the reputation of being a liar, they reluctantly returned my money.  I thanked them copiously letting out a sigh of relief.  So even this situation that started off being negative had a positive ending!

There were no virtual realities to distract us from the touch and feel of the snow. Our parents knew where we were going and, if anything, encouraged us to go. We didn’t have cell phones to check in with mom or dad or fiddle with in the snow. We were in an age before the helicopter parents. Contacting friends with a cell phone or texting messages would have killed the spontaneity of play that a heavy snowfall would bring. We might be required to shovel the yard and the front before any snow plowing had come our way.  We were motivated, and so, we did it as fast as we could without much regard to its appearance. Once we were done with the requested shoveling, we were on our way.

Yes, it gives me much joy in recollecting those days. Those were pristine days where we were free of the complications and vagaries of life that we would have to face later in our lives.  They lasted for a brief span of time when we were in elementary school.  If I recall correctly, by the time we entered junior high school, there were other more interesting and challenging ways we would spend our time.  But sleigh riding was a joy of childhood that we lucky kids that owned sleds could experience even in the freezing cold.  It was a time of innocence that remains, to this day for me, unforgettable.  It was that innocence, that Citizen Kane remembered and cherished, evidenced by his last word:  Rosebud.

Categories
Baseball

Baseball Tickets

After all the bad news that we have been inundated with in the last few weeks, let me offer to you all a positive moment that I recently experienced.  My brother, Andrew, and I had just arrived at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida to see the Tampa Bay Rays play the Boston Red Sox.  We arrived, or so we thought, in the nick of time to make it to the first pitch.  Most of my readers know that I am a diehard Red Sox fan so I was excited to be able to once more see a game live and not on TV or streamed. 

Upon reaching the ball park, however, I was in for a surprise.  I was intercepted by one of the ball park attendants, who told me I needed to scan a bar code on my phone.  Before I could react, he pointed to a bar code on what appeared to be a poster. There I saw another guy who appeared as confused as I with his grandson, who was about 10 years old, who immediately offered me help in scanning the bar code onto my phone.  Because I was with my brother, who is even more of a luddite than I am, I kidded the boy’s grandfather telling him he was cheating in bringing along his grandson.

Once I had scanned the bar code into my phone with my camera, I had no idea what to do.  As it became evident that the attendant could not help me any further, a woman that identified herself as Karen Jones,  told me she could assist me. When the fellow with his grandson gave a gesture of thanks to her, I assumed she was in the know as I continued in my quest to conquer this increasingly complicated act of purchasing tickets to gain entrance to the stadium.

Ms. Jones quickly located the MLB account on my phone.  I gave her the passcode I had set some years ago but it did not accept it.  I then watched her attempt to gain entry into the website at which point I blurted out “that they really don’t want to take our money.”  She assured me that that was not the case.  As she continued to fiddle with my phone, I asked what would happen if you didn’t have a phone.  She said you would not be able to gain admission to the game.  At which point, I sighed in disgust not being able to contain my utter frustration with this seemingly endless process.  Seeing my bemused expression, she glanced at me for a moment and said: “You know Bernard I like you.  I’m going to give you and your brother two tickets to the game on me.”  Awed by her sudden friendliness and recognition of my helpless situation, I told her I did not want them if she had to pay for them.  She assured me that she did not as she was the Manager of Ticket Operations.  When she asked me where I wanted to sit, I wasn’t shy in telling her as close to home plate as she could get us with an aisle seat preferred.

Although the ticket agent at the window could not find aisle seats, she finally located two very good seats.  Moreover, Ms. Jones set a new password to my MLB App that I now would be able to navigate on my own.  I heartily thanked her and waved to my brother. As we hustled to our seats, I was surprised, not only to find I was seated a few rows behind home plate, but also that one of the seats was on the aisle.

I later discovered that there had been many scammers when people presented printed tickets bought online causing the MLB to stop accepting tickets in that format.  When I called MLB’s 800 line, the woman who took my call did not know why Tropicana Field only accepted tickets bought from one’s phone.  However, she did say Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California, near where I lived, allowed ticket purchases at the stadium ticket window of any tickets not sold online.  Though I was armed with my new password on MLB, I signed in relief that there remained option B, to buy tickets at a stadium nearby where I resided.

A World Lost In One Hour                                         

 As we approach the observance and celebration of both Passover and Easter this week-end, I wish to point out a passage from the Talmud, about which Rabbi Ilana Grinblatt spoke with such eloquence at our Temple last Saturday.  The Talmud is the body of Jewish civil, ceremonious law and legend that offers various interpretations and perspectives of the Bible.   Rabbi Grinblatt’s reference to the Talmud was the following: 

          There are some who acquire their world in an hour and others

          who lose it in an hour.

The origin of this saying, more than likely, comes from the time when God commands Moses to strike a rock with a rod that would bring water to his fellow Israelites.  Moses fails to contain his temper toward the Israelites in calling them rebels.  God then angrily tells Moses that he will no longer be permitted to take his people to the Promised Land.  Maimonides, a renowned Jewish scholar, speaks of the importance of being able to control one’s emotions.  His interpretation of this Biblical event is that God punished Moses for the moment, when he loses his patience with his People, defying the trust he had toward God in bringing forth water to them.

Rabbi Grinblatt cited Will Smith as a contemporary example of one who has lost his world in “one hour”.  “One hour,” of course, is a metaphor representing how quickly one can go from the pinnacle to the nadir in one’s life.  In reality, Will Smith’s slapping of Chris Rock was done in a matter of seconds with his ensuing expletives directed at the comedian moments later.  This slap portrayed over and over by the news media quicky took on a persona of its own in being framed: “The slap heard around the world.”

In biblical times, shameful actions may have gone unnoticed.  However, today we live in a time in which social media scrutinizes our actions ad nauseum.  Whereas opinions and interpretations of the Bible took hundreds of years to form, social media devours us all in opinions within minutes, hours and days after an untoward event such as the Will Smith occurrence.  The ubiquitous nature of social media is not necessarily a bad thing if one considers the case of Derek Chauvin, the police office who killed George Floyd.  Certainly, Mr. Chauvin falls in the category of a man who lost his world in one hour in that, for whatever reason, he lost complete control of his emotions.

However, social media can become deleterious to diverse ideas when it suppresses those thoughts that may differ from the majority.  Disagreement and dissent are the healthy barometers of a free society.  They do no require the bearing of arms.  But this is where the ability to have control of one’s thoughts and feelings is vital.  I was once derided by a comedian when I arrived a bit late for his show with a friend.  Perhaps he was angry at us due to our late arrival.  I understood, implicitly, that no matter what I could say would have been ridiculed simply because comedians are most skilled at riposte and any type of verbal dueling.  So, I chose not to engage in verbal warfare with him.

Likewise, Will Smith, though a great actor, is not a comedian.  Any verbal exchange he might have had with Chris Rock, a comedian, could not have gone well.  His best reaction would have been to grin and bear the comedian’s rather crude joke about his wife’s buzz cut, and respond to him the next day in a letter, statement or call telling the latter that his joke about his wife’s physical condition he found both offensive and inappropriate.  This would have shown restraint on Will Smith’s part but also assertiveness in expressing his feelings, subsequently, when his temper had cooled.

The sad consequence of Will Smith’s actions buries the many good deeds that he has done in the past.  An example of this is the fact that he has been barred from attending any Oscar’s event (even if he is a nominee) for the next 10 years.  Judaism and Christianity both believe in the concept of repentance and forgiveness.  My hope is that the remorse Will Smith has shown for slapping Chris Rock, in conjunction with his own subsequent achievements, will allow him to regain his former place in and out of the Hollywood circle. 

Humor’s Dark Side

Comedy hit a low spot at the Academy Awards when Chris Rock’s lame joke about the buzz hair style of Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, caused by her embarrassment in suffering from the stressful condition of alopecia (loss of hair).  Most of us believe Will Smith overreacted to Rock’s attempt at humor (not only was the joke an insult but also, not in the least, funny) by walking up to the stage and slapping the comedian in the face.  Given the current state of race relations in the United States, one can only imagine what would have happened if a white actor had been the one to have struck Chris Rock:  I’m quite sure bedlam would have ensued.

Although this is not a good example, nevertheless, the fact that a Black comedian can joke about a member of his own race, if nothing else, represents an advance of sorts in race relations.  When Black comedians began to hit the stage, there was an unspoken taboo to make fun or belittle other Blacks.  Much of the humor was situational and non-racial (e.g. Bill Cosby) or about past transgressions of whites such as the vile practice of lynching Blacks (that action recently banned by the government).  This type of humor, indeed funny at times, like much of its kind, had an angry undertone to it.  Audiences would sit and, as members of the white race, would grin and bear it and laugh either because the joke was genuinely funny or because they were expected to laugh.  The late Jewish comedian, Jackie Mason, made sure when he indulged in ethnic humor, he would roast all ethnic groups rather than picking on any particular one.

The recent court case of Jussie Smollet, a gay Black actor who was convicted of staging a false hate crime, has taken a number of twists.   His story of being attacked at 2:00 a.m. in the morning in Chicago by two men that yelled racist, antigay and pro-Trump slogans, splashed him with bleach and put a rope around his neck, appeared extraordinary.  Many of Chicago’s leaders, reflexively, came to his defense supporting his narrative, thereby exacerbating existing racial tensions.  Mr. Smollett’s lack of credibility became clear when the men, two brothers, that had purportedly mugged Mr. Smollett, confessed to the police that the actor had hired them for $3500 to commit the fake attack. Mr. Smollett was initially charged with 16 counts of disorderly conduct, but these charges were dismissed by Cook County Prosecutor, Kim Foxx, after the actor agreed to surrender his $10,000 bond and serve two days of community service.

This ridiculously light sentence for an offender, who had caused utter chaos in the Chicago Police Department and potential civil unrest, was reviewed by a special prosecutor, Mr. Webb.  Because he found some irregularities in the way Ms. Foxx handled the case, a trial took place.  Subsequently, Mr. Smollett was found guilty of five counts of disorderly conduct, a felony, for reporting a false hate crime to police.  Although the maximum for each count would have been 5 years, his lawyers pleaded that he receive no jail time.  His attorneys made the point that this act was the defendant’s first criminal offense. However, the Cook County Judge, James Linn, upset with the evident perjury he committed, in conjunction with his complete lack of remorse, sentenced Mr. Smollett to 150 days.  The actor left the court screaming “I am not suicidal and I am innocent.”

But Mr. Smollett’s attorneys then brought the case to the Appeals Circuit.  Two of out of the three judges on the appellate panel agreed that the actor’s offense was non-violent in nature, and he was released from jail, after six days, and posted a $150,000 recognizance bond.  The actor’s attorneys sought the release of Mr. Smollett due to the fact that the review process ordinarily would take much longer than the 5 months sentence he had received.  Although the press and most Blacks initially sided with Mr. Smollett, after the facts became fully known, many remained conspicuously silent.  Chicago Police Superintendent, Eddie Johnson, took exception to this stance of other Blacks by pointing out at a news conference how an Afro-American man had exploited racial divisions for his own gain.

David Chapelle, a Black comedian, like Chris Rock, in the manner of Jackie Mason, has targeted different ethnic groups, his own included. In a recent gig, Chapelle remarked about Jussie Smollet’s strange behavior.  He stated: “African-Americans are oddly quiet because we understand that nigger was clearly lying.”  He went on to say that the racial slurs that Smollett had cited “sounded more like something I would say.” 

I believe that cracks, such as Chapelle’s, made in the context of a comedic performance take a certain amount of boldness.  As Blacks gain more agency in the United States, jokes of this nature, once considered taboo among Blacks, will add another layer of Black humor.  In essence, one joke in bad taste made by Chris Rock, and one very timely one made by David Chapelle, point to further progress in race relations.

Zelenskyy and Babi Yar

The heroism displayed by Mr, Zelenksyy, the Ukrainian President in the war against Mr. Putin’s Russia, reminds me of a situation that I confronted as a teen-ager.  While working at a summer job, I had been bullied by two older teens for no real reason except perhaps it had given them something to do while not working.  Although not harmful, their obnoxious behavior, such as spraying me with water, I found extremely humiliating.  I may have reinforced their ugly conduct by not responding to it with the wish that, somehow magically, it would cease.  Another guy that had little to do with them told me in the past they had done similar things to him but he would respond to them in kind and suggested I do the same.  My desire to appease, rather than risk what I thought might make things worse, steered me away from his advice.  Besides, I reasoned because he was a lot bigger than I and as big if not bigger than the others, that his reaction may have dissuaded them.  I thought if I put on a smile and greeted them with as much kindness as I could offer, this might cause them to treat me better.  But as you already might have surmised, whatever good cheer I may have sent their way had no effect in mitigating their actions.

It only got worse. Toward the end of one day, I noticed that the more obnoxious of the two bullies was looking at me along with some others as I took my lunch pail from the truck where I worked.  Because water was leaking out of it, I immediately understood why they were staring at me.  At this moment, I was irate and what ensued, happened very quickly.  Without contemplating the consequences, I hurled the water from the container at my agitator with some of it hitting him.  My action took everybody by surprise.  As he angrily dried off, a fellow that knew us both beckoned to me, unfurled a hose in the main station, where we would clock out at the end of the day, just in time as my nemesis entered the room.  Taking the hose from the other’s hand I aimed it directly at my assailant–while he ran toward me–drenching him.  We bear hugged for a moment, and then some of the full-time employees broke up the fight.  The staff in charge of our assignments placed us on different teams, and I never was picked on or harassed after that occurrence.

What I learned from this incident was that I had received the support of others only after I was willing to stand up for myself.  The remarkable and heroic gestures of Mr. Zelenskyy, the Jewish leader of the Ukraine, in summoning his people to resist the Russian attack on his country, has unified the West in assisting the Ukrainians in their struggle.  Similar to what had happened to me, I don’t think the world would have acted in the manner they did if the Ukrainians had given in to Putin’s forces without fighting back.  Mr. Zelenskyy has shown extraordinary courage and skill in remaining on the scene while rallying his troops.  Moreover, he has utilized technology to show the world how the Russians are bombing civilian sites such as hospitals and buildings.  These pictures send a message to the world of the ruthless and immoral actions of the Russian soldiers.

Putin’s call to his army to de-Nazify the Ukraine, as absurd as it is, brings up memories of Babi Yar, a ravine in Zelenskyy’s Kyiv where Jewish people suffered one of the worst massacres at the hands of the Nazis.  Before he seized power in 1933, Hitler believed the Jews operating from Moscow were responsible for the spread of a communist conspiracy that threatened the existence of Germany.  These were the underlying reasons why he invaded Russia in 1941, after signing the non-aggression pact with Stalin in 1939, and, subsequently, systematically oversaw the murder of 6 million Jews.  Stalin, in fact, was said to be in disbelief when Hitler attacked his country.  In Babi Yar, 33,771 Jews were killed in two days, September 29th to the 30th in 1941. 

Twenty years later the Russian poet, Yevtushenko, memorialized this spot in his poem Babi Yar.  In this famous poem, his concluding lines were the following:

                   There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,

                   But, hated I a passion that’s corrosive

                   Am I by antisemites like a Jew

                   And that is why I call myself a Russian.

What the poet is saying is that although he is not Jewish by birth, he can only call himself a Russian if he is recognized as a Jew.  His poem conveys the need of the Russian people to drop any past hostilities (e.g. pogroms) toward Jews before they truly can call themselves Russian.

The idea behind these words, though beautiful, we know never came to fruition. Throughout his reign, Stalin believed, like Hitler, there was a Jewish conspiracy that stemmed from the “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” a fabricated antisemitic text, first published in Russia in 1903.  It described a Jewish plan for global domination and was translated into many languages.  Later, according to the historian, Robert Wistrich, in place of the myth of Jewish Bolshevism, the Soviet Communists created the equally untruthful thesis of Jewish Nazism.  Mr. Putin, a commander in the former KGB, I am sure heard this.  Russian Jews that I have met all have told me how glad they were to emigrate to America.  I’m afraid the hope expressed by Yevtushenko is far removed from the reality of past and present-day Russia.

Let us hope and pray that Mr. Zelenskyy and the Ukraine somehow will prevail.  Many Russian soldiers have little idea what they are fighting about.  Ukrainians know only too well what this war is about:  Freedom and possession of their homeland.

We Are Americans First

Vladimir Putin’s invasion into the Ukraine, and make no mistake, it has been no minor incursion, has rightfully united the West and much of the rest of the world against him.  But I plead with all of us as Americans not to scapegoat those in American who have a Russian accent.  It is NOT their fault or doing that Mr. Putin’s actions have taken a treacherous course in causing the death of innumerable civilians, along with the mass destruction of buildings in the Ukraine, that are intrinsic to that that country’s culture.  

An underlying guiding principle of the United States is that immigrants coming here would bring their culture and wares but their primary allegiance would go to America.  These new Americans take the oath to become American citizens with the desire to melt into the culture with the many immigrants who have come before them.  They could practice their religion the way they chose along with their customs they brought to America.  One of the more wonderful outcomes of this inflow of different people from all over the world allowed the establishment of all sorts of cuisine and new enterprises that people could taste and experience as a first.  

America has thousands of Russian immigrants who came to the U.S.A. in the ‘70’s and afterwards when there was a thaw in the Soviet Union’s relationship with the West.  Many of those immigrants were Jews who had been persecuted and treated badly for years by Soviet authorities.  But others may have been Ukranians looking for a better life.  Of course, their common language before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, was Russian.  Once in America, those that came might communicate in Russian with each other, but their presence in American helps reduce any form of national antagonistic feelings of a negative nature against each other.  They can be friends.  It is precisely this that is the beauty of America.

Similarly, it was wrong to blame Jews, when the Israelis defended themselves in attacking Gaza in May of 2021.  Whether you agree or don’t agree with Israeli foreign policy, it is simply wrong to attack Jewish people because Israel is a Jewish State.  However, I have read and have been told several Jewish students at different universities were attacked by virtue of their religion.  Chinese Americans were similarly mistreated after the CoVid19, a virus that had its origin in China, had become a pandemic.

It is almost reflexive to find a scapegoat as a substitute for one’s grievances.  This is the easy way of dealing with tragic occurrences that take place from time to time, and as I caution my clients, it is System 1 thinking (see Kahneman and Tversky, 2011).  Unfortunately, this type of thinking, that can be called automatic thinking, does not lead always to a good result.  System 2 thinking, requiring deliberation and rationality, might allow us to reconsider our instinctive nature to point fingers at others.  System 2, in this sense, tells us to take a moment away from the immediacy of our feelings by monitoring them with some deliberative thought.  Hopefully, this type of thinking will serve as a beacon to guide us into a more constructive way of looking at such situations. 

If, In the future, we may start seeing “Russian” villains on all kinds of media (e.g. movies, animated cartoons, games and T.V.) Let us keep in mind that such caricatures are not of “Russian” Americans.  Here System 2 thinking will help us not to forget that distinction by reminding us of what it means to be an American.

Imagine If

As the world anxiously looks on at the invasion (and it seems more Putin than Russia, into the Ukraine, I think about the great amount of destruction one man can cause the rest of humanity.  In the ‘90’s, I remember seeing Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s president on a 60 Minutes Special, appearing to enjoy himself as he was being filmed in the States clumsily playing a game of tennis.  Unfortunately for the world, his tennis performance matched the manner in which he presided over Russia, where with the end of the Cold War, corruption and disorder was rife in Russia.  This, in conjunction, with Yeltsin’s excessive alcoholism sunk the hopes and possibilities that Russia would someday become integrated with the West.  The sad result was Yeltsin ceding his authority to Vladimir Putin, who formerly had served on the K.G,B., the main security system of the Soviet Union.

The world was dealt, Putin, a dictator with nefarious intentions instead of Yeltsin, the benevolent, but incompetent alcoholic, infatuated with the West.  Then I reflected, what a shame that history projected on the world Hitler in Germany and Stalin in Russia, two of perhaps the most evil men that had ever lived; I wondered what the world would have been like if these two men never had existed.   As charismatic as Hitler may have been, he had his enemies.  In fact, there were six assassination attempts on his life, some occurring before 1939.  If one of those had succeeded, the destruction and the mass murder of six million Jews in Germany and neighboring countries, I believe never would have occurred. Granted there was plenty of antisemitism throughout Europe and in the United States during the ‘30’s but, even so, few people had Hitler’s drive and insane desire to exterminate the Jewish population.  It would take a leader like Hitler to create the greatest tragedy in modern history.

Ah, but what a pity history was not kind to some of the leaders, who I referred to as heroes, in an earlier blog.  If Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated, progress in race relations between Blacks and whites would have progressed at a much faster clip than it did, subsequent, to his death.  Nelson Mandela, one of the few heroes I mentioned who survived, paid a huge price for his brave and outspoken beliefs against the existing apartheid in South Africa: twenty-seven years in prison. 

Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin, Egyptian and Israeli respective leaders, were both assassinated because of their strong will to seek peace with the opposite side, labeled the enemy by many of their countrymen.  Sadat’s assassination in 1981 put brakes on Egypt’s progress by inducing the subsequent war in Lebanon in 1982, the creation of Hezbollah and the seeds of al-Qaida.  The assassination of Rabin in 1995 ended the goal of the Oslo peace accords to create a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.  I always have maintained that a two-state solution is the most viable way of creating a durable peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The common denominator here is that leaders can be either heroes or monsters.  The idea of an aristocracy dates back to Plato, who as a student of Socrates, saw knowledge as virtue in which the philosopher king, and only he, was suited for leadership.  Plato did not believe that the standard of scholarly attainment could ever be reached by the majority or popular opinion.  But history has shown us that leaders with a great amount of knowledge could be ruthless despots.  The late William F. Buckley once said he would rather entrust political leadership by randomly choosing people out of a phone book rather than to give it to Harvard professors.  Albeit Harvard professors are undoubtedly very intelligent but does that make them good leaders? 

In developing a system of checks and balances, America’s founding fathers understood how power could corrupt by influencing leaders to go astray.  They did not want to allow any leader to serve like a king with unlimited powers.  Foremost was their desire to create a government where the people were in charge and not the leader.  Whereas monarchs ruled for a lifetime, the President of the United States would have to be elected every four years.  No doubt democracies have had their problems but to quote Winston Churchill: 

Indeed it has been said democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

I shudder to imagine what America would have become if those same founding fathers had opted for a government other than the one, they so miraculously put together.

Negative Impact

We live in a time in which a pervasive gloom hangs over us   Negativity contaminates the air we breathe, that same air that can infect our bodies in unknown and scary ways.  The unfortunate reality, that we all need to heed, is negativity carries a stronger valence than positivity.  When we become more aware of our own negative biases as self-defeating and unhealthy, it is my hope that we will begin to replace the burden of negative feeling with more positive sentiments.  A person that sees the glass as half full rather than half empty not only feels better about him or herself, but also is much more pleasant to have in one’s company.

I realize that the world is not just aromatic cherry blossoms, that is to say we certainly are not in the Garden of Eden.  On the contrary, sometimes it feels like we may be closer to a dystopia rather than a utopia.  The news, be it T.V., radio, newspapers or social media thrives on tragedy and negativity as a means of upping their ratings.  Social media, especially, sees an increase in clicks indicating usage, not through love, but rather themes that provoke anger, hate and hostility.

The psychologist, Rick Hanson, expressed the impact of the negative this way: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experiences.”  When I was a student, I clearly remember, after completing an exam, having almost perfect recall of the test items that gave me difficulty.  I was much more likely to answer those questions incorrectly as opposed to those items that required little effort for me to solve.  Another psychologist, John Gottman, after studying hundreds of videotapes of couples in therapy in his analysis of successful and unsuccessful marriages, put the ideal ratio of positive to negative comments from one partner to another as 5 to 1.  An equal amount of positive and negative comments does not bode well for a marriage given the much stronger impact of a negative statement than that of a positive one.

Daniel Kahneman and Alex Tversky’s research reviewed in their book, Thinking Fast and Slow, indicated that people miscalculate probabilities when they are confronted with financial risks that could result in loss.  What these two investigators discovered is that a loss has about two and half times the impact of a gain of the same magnitude.  This means we overvalue negative prospects as compared to positive ones. From a personal viewpoint, when I go to Las Vegas the pain of losing money always seems to outweigh the joy of winning.

I have learned from my own experience, along with that of my clients, bosses and co-workers tend to accentuate the negative rather than the positive. Over the years, I have done critical incident stress debriefings at different employment sites after a tragedy, such as when a death of an employee, had occurred.  I could tell the staff and management were quite satisfied with my services.  That was apparent when the same company, subsequently, would request me when another incident had occurred.  However, I never received a follow-up call from these companies telling me what a great job I had done.  Rather, on two separate occasions, a manager had voiced a complaint about my services to the insurance company that had requested my assistance.  On one occasion, when the representative contacted me about these complaints, that were indeed minor, I remember telling him that I’m sure you are not calling because you have anything good to say to me. Inasmuch as I suspected what was coming, I tried to lighten the mood by adding that my mother told me years ago: “No news is good news.”  When he chuckled at my comment, I knew the criticism that lay in front of me would not be too severe.

Given this propensity toward the negative in conjunction with the pain it causes its unhappy recipients, we need to make a special effort in paying attention to the way we treat others, be they family or friends.  A simple example of this is in marriages.  Gottman’s ratio of 5 to 1 emphasizes that expressing love regularly to a marital partner is of supreme importance to keep the marriage alive and vibrant.  Many partners in marriages believe their spouse ought to know that they are loved after having lived together for so many years.  This common mistake made by marital partners is called mind-reading and is not beneficial to a marriage. 

Beyond one’s marriage, I suggest we make it a point to find good in what others are doing, and when you do, don’t conceal it.  Say it to that other person.  I am sure that if our comment is genuine, it will be much appreciated by whoever receives it.  I can only speculate what our country would sound and look like if today’s political enemies dropped their swords for a moment and found something good to say about the other side on both a micro and macro level.  We need to consciously work on expressing positive thoughts which in turn will create a healthier environment for us and those around us.  As a cognitive-behavioral psychologist, I believe that we, as humans, have the capability of making these changes when we are so motivated.

West Side Story Revisited

Shakespeare’s, Romeo and Juliet, where two young people from rival classes in Verona, Italy, fall in love, provided the theme for Jerome Robbins in the play, West Side Story, he conceived in the ‘50s. This material was used in the film adaptation that came out in 1961. I was surprised when I heard that Steven Spielberg was going to do a remake of Westside Story.  How could he improve on a movie that had won 10 Oscars including Best Picture of the Year?  I wondered what motivated Spielberg to remake this great movie.  I found that Spielberg made a short video pointing to his motivation for taking on the project related to the intense divisions in our country in 1957, when the original play was developed and, currently, the divisions in our country that he believes are even worse now than in 1957.  He stated that:

“West Side speaks to every generation.  It’s just that love bridges     every divide.  It’s timeless in the sense that we’d be reminded of the story as often as possible.”

I believe Spielberg wanted to give native actors, (i.e., Latinos) not well-known, a chance to star in his remake. If more people see the film, especially those that are young, and the film generates interest in making more theatrical productions of it, then Spielberg’s efforts will have been worthwhile.  The hope is the underlying message of the story–where hatred need not prevail over the most valued emotion any human can experience love–will be witnessed by a new generation of youth.

But looking back to the original film, I don’t believe some of the changes Spielberg has made in this latest version are improvements. I remember the opening scenes of the 1961 classic, directed by Robert Wise, showing aerial shots of Manhattan starting from the lower end, going uptown to the Empire State Building then Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.  This opening of the film prefigured, in my mind as a 16-year-old, something great was coming.  I looked in awe at these landmarks that I was very familiar with having grown up in New Jersey.

The camera then beams down to some white kids playing basketball. But when the Jets, Riff leading, take over the basketball court the teen holding the ball puts it down and lets them preempt both ball and court. This scene gives the viewer the sense that the Jets are not just protecting their turf from the Sharks but also are bullies beating up on other white kids in the neighborhood.  On the other hand, Spielberg’s opening scenes show heaps of rubbish at a construction site with a sign: “Slum Clearance.” Then urban urchins leap out of the ruins consisting of members of the two gangs, Jets and Sharks.  This presentation more vividly demonstrates the poverty endemic to the gang culture.  However, the aerial shots of the island of Manhattan going up to the Bronx remain indelible in my mind.  Granted here, the fact I was only 16 probably influenced the impact these shots had on me.  Nevertheless, I still think it was a wonderful way of introducing what would come next.

In the original version, Chino is a tough guy who plays the role of a sidekick to Bernardo, the leader of the Shark, the Puerto Rican gang. In Spielberg’s version, Chino is at night school studying accounting and, though in a gang, wears glasses, and he is cast as a studious type.  Perhaps this is Spielberg’s attempt to give the characters some depth of personality and ward off the complaints that the picture stereotyped Puerto Ricans.  However, the fact that Spielberg, as in the original, has Chino kill Maria’s lover, Tony, (spoiler alert) toward the end of the movie, he does not fit that of a meek student trying to better his life.  The original portrayal of Chino is more congruent with the role he plays than the way Spielberg features him to be.

In the earlier version by Wise, Tony wants out of the Jets because he has a job and wants to better himself whereas in Spielberg’s production, he avoids the Jets because he is on parole having been released after serving one year in prison for killing an Egyptian gang member.  I don’t mind this difference except that the actor playing Tony, Ansel Elgort, does not resemble a street ruffian that would possess the moxie and brutality necessary to kill someone.   

When the Jets and the Sharks meet up on a gym dance floor with their girl friends, I remember their outfits to have been both flashier and sexier in the original.  Moreover, in that film when Tony sees Maria, everyone in the background becomes blurred with the camera only focusing on the two of them. A sense of love and urgency is seen in Tony’s eyes when he and Maria drift magnetically toward each other.  This romantic touch is lost in Spielberg’s version where the two, in separating from the others, meet in a hall containing the bleacher seats of the gym.  Maria played by Rachel Zegler, whose mother is Columbian, unlike Natalie Wood, whose voice was dubbed in the original movie, sings all of her songs. This, of course, is a plus for Spielberg.   However, she and Ansel Elgort, in my opinion, do not make a very good fit.  Besides the fact, that he is twice her size, he appears too old for her.  The image of romance leading to a deep love is simply not there.

Spielberg has also changed the scene where, in the original, Tony comes after hours to visit Maria, who is working in a dress maker’s shop owned by a Puerto Rican woman.  Here there is a bit of levity offered when the two of them sing together, One Hand, One Heart, and by using the mannequins at the shop they playfully scheme how their wedding will look to them and to their friends.  Spielberg replaced this scene with the more serious and religious setting offered by the Cloisters in Washington Heights, Manhattan.

Spielberg creates a role for Rita Moreno, who played Anita, Bernardo’s girl-friend, and won an academy award for best supporting actress in the 1961 film.  In the updated version, she is Valentina who is the widow of Doc, the owner of the drugstore and hang-out for the Jets.  Here she sings solo: Somewhere.  Although I think it’s a plus that Rita Moreno has a part that allows her to sing a song (rather than Tony and Maria in the original version), I think the role she plays, a Puerto Rican woman who was married to a white male, might have been better served if she were a mentor to the Sharks rather than the Jets.  However, this may have led to substantial changes in the script.

Perhaps a better role for Rita Moreno would have been the proprietor of the dress shop where Maria and Anita work with their friends.  Here, after Maria discovers that Tony has killed her brother, Bernardo, Rita could have sung the piece, Somewhere, that imagines a place bereft of the violence around them where they can live in peace.

I credit Steven Spielberg for bringing in a cast more representative of the people that are depicted in West Side Story. However, the criticism made toward the original screening of the film that the characters were stereotypical presentations remain the same in the more recent version. This is a musical with lots of song and dance with a tragic ending that really does not provide sufficient time for character development. Because there were tears in my eyes in both versions of West Side Story, I was glad Spielberg retained the amazing music and songs from the original.

If Spielberg wanted to dig deeper into the lives of the gang members from both sides, I think he would have needed to make a different film.  Music, integral in movies, would need to be in the background whereas the inner lives of the characters would take the foreground of such a movie.  Perhaps with the increasing participation of Latino artists in cinema such a film someday may be coming.