It’s a Wonderful Life

                                     

The last lines of George Eliot’s (aka Mary Evans) magnificent novel, Middlemarch, contain a most important kernel of truth:

“That things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

My wife, Lisa, and I make a point every Christmas to watch Frank Capra’s classic film:  It’s a Wonderful Life.  The underlying theme of this movie, in a much more dramatic way, illustrates the very same climactic ending of Eliot’s work.  Jimmy Stewart, as the small-town banker in Bedford Falls, George Bailey, is on the brink of suicide.  He discovers what the world would have been like without his presence.   To his disbelief, George suddenly finds the town he had loved so dearly had deteriorated with his old friends and acquaintances doing so poorly that they are barely recognizable.

I will say no more about Capra’s movie but to suggest that if you have not seen it, it is well worth your time, as a pause from the troubled and perilous world we inhabit.  This is a world full of woes given the pandemia, but added to by the ugliness that social media has armed each and every one of us.  The verbal arrows we sling at one other are not those of Cupid but rather those of Mars.  Although bellicose behavior is clearly one characteristic of human beings, it is not the healthiest way to function if you choose to live a long and prosperous life.

Contemporary research in the field of psychology supports that finding meaning in one’s life and giving back to others generates a sense of purpose, happiness and fulfillment.  Some of my clients, who have experienced financial success, expressed a certain amount of dissatisfaction with their lives.  I often find they are in search of a means to help others by using their expertise in some unique way.  The size of the contribution is not nearly as important as the sense of accomplishment one feels.  For example, what provides me with a sense of satisfaction is mentoring younger people who are just beginning to flap their wings in preparation of leaving the family nest to face the many roadblocks and complications that inevitably await them in life.    

Not all contributions need to be of a tangible nature.  Even changing one’s frame of mind or suspending one’s automatic views of a subject or an individual could have a positive influence on others.  A concrete example that I have seen in my clinical practice as a psychologist is when a couple has difficulty with communication.  Although simply listening to what a partner is saying is not a panacea for all of a couple’s problems, sometimes a partner’s supportive acknowledgement of what the other is saying, without offering advice, can be helpful.  This sounds so simple but for many couples this would mean a radical change in their pattern of communication.

The point here is that often a rudimentary change in one’s behavior can bring with it some wonderful repercussions.  Few of us think about the effect we have on other people when we act generously or kindly to others.  But isn’t this precisely what Eliot is saying when she observes those small kind actions of others do not go unnoticed but rather leave you and I much better off than we were previously.   Perhaps seeing your deeds having this small yet significant ripple effect on others will facilitate whatever small changes you may have resisted in the past. That’s the paradox of change:  Breaking bad habits can be tediously hard to do.  Yet change has been a part of the human race throughout our relatively short history on planet earth. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, put it most succinctly when he said: “There is nothing permanent except change.”   

A Well Sown Mind Has No “Seems”

To all my readers, let me start by saying I very much value your comments and feedback to my blogs. In my last blog, I discussed the meaning and various nuances related to the above titled pun.  My close friend, Richard Salandrea, made the following comment: “Interesting that in law practice, at least the litigation part, most litigators would forbid the very use of the word ‘seem,’ as the object of litigation is to win or lose—there is no seem when debating an opponent.”  As we all know, the practice of litigation is adversarial, quite the opposite of cooperative.  Attorneys are rewarded for their debating skills in winning law suits regardless of their belief in the veracity of their argument.

Unfortunately, I believe we are seeing typical litigant behavior in our current political process in the United States.  Our political leaders have adopted adversarial tactics lawyers employ to win verdicts that result in a winner take all situation.  A better and friendlier way to settle disputes is through mediation in which both parties work together in coming to an agreement that both can abide. However, for this process to work neither party can be stuck on their locked-in view of what each perceives as right.  The sine qua non to a successful mediation is when each party is willing to listen to the other side and drop the win-lose mentality implicit in zero-sum game tactics.

In the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, dated January 8th, two focus groups consisting of Democrats and Republicans were asked questions about how they perceived the present state of democracy in America.  This is a first step in beginning to understand more clearly the opinions of the voting public.  I am hopeful that these focus groups eventually can be combined allowing members of each party to interact with the opposing side.  However, I was disappointed to see that many of the participants in the Republican focus group still believe the 2020 election results were not valid and, consequently, cannot accept that Biden won the U.S. presidency over Trump.  This disbelief indicates a   deep lack of trust they have toward the government.

We know a charismatic leader, such as Donald Trump, can have a huge influence on his followers.  That fact, in conjunction with the human proclivity toward confirmation bias, make openness to others’ views, a quality that many of us have lost.  Personal attitudes, many of which have been proven false, become further reinforced and strengthened by the ubiquitous nature of social media.  

Sitting down and talking with members of the opposite party is a good beginning.  60 Minutes pointed out that such a program, One Small Step, is actually doing that right now. By giving one’s opponent the opportunity to be heard, we may be able to reestablish the faith in our governing policies that has been missing for so many of us.  If a relationship can be formed where respect and trust is evident, then solutions to differences can follow.  Perhaps when we emerge from the virtual life imposed on all due to Covid, in the live, we will see each other as humans and drop the absolutism that has controlled much of out thinking.  This vision probably never will fit into the practice of a trial lawyer.  But then again, most of our livelihoods do not depend on an adversarial approach to meet their goals.  Thank heavens for that!

Dissecting a Pun

     

Shakespeare loved puns and used them as a way of tacking on layers of meaning to the characters he so richly developed in his plays. My purpose in this blog will be to demonstrate how even one short line containing a pun can lead to other interpretations and further discussion.  While an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, I met Frank Millendorf, who was a graduate student studying physics.  At the time, both of us had been introduced to Ayn Rand, the founder of the philosophy of Objectivism, by another more advanced graduate student in physics. One day, Frank wrote on a blackboard in the room I was studying in:  A well sown mind has no “seems.”  He glanced at me, smiling, and asked what I thought.

My immediate reply was that I very much liked the sound of the pun.  Then I reacted to the content.  The quotation marks around the word seems indicates a separate meaning from its homophone seams that creates the intended pun. On further study, the acuity of the pun becomes more apparent inasmuch as the choice of words to complete the poem is, in fact, seems and not seams. What I’m quite sure I missed at the time Frank had composed this pun was “seems” though typically an intransitive verb, used in the context of this pun becomes a  noun replacing seams, a word we know to be a noun.

Puns are meant to confuse but in a humorous way.  It is this confusion that the receiver of the pun feels before the aha moment. It is precisely what Frank’s pun had done:  Play with the sound of words to achieve particular effects.  Here the visual presentation of the pun on the blackboard facilitated the intended meaning.  The pun ends with seems and not seams because the main idea embedded in the pun is how a good mind, well sown, functions. A seam refers to a line along which two pieces of fabric are sewn together in some garment.  The immediate connection then is that the seam, though necessary, represents a break in the sewing of the garment.  Seems, in a similar manner, represents a break in the completion of a thought whereby the speaker qualifies his/her statement by saying, for example, it seems this way. In a neat and original way, Frank made a pun to make his point:  A mind that thinks clearly and logically about things will not have to resort to the word “seems.”

The word seems did not enter into Ayn Rand’s vocabulary when she first developed and later introduced her philosophy of Objectivism to the public through her literary works.  The philosophy she created allowed her to make judgments in many walks of life:  For example, her romantic interest in literature extended to her perception of music.  Accordingly, she believed that Tchaikovsky, who scored his pieces with a romantic flair, was a better composer than Beethoven.  No doubt people well versed in music probably would disagree with Ms. Rand’s opinion.  In my view, Ayn Rand’s greatest fault was that she thought that her ideas, buttressed through her system of philosophy, were airtight and did not require any change or modification.

I would argue that it is good to have convictions and knowledge in your profession.  So, as a psychologist, I usually can answer a question of a psychological nature without attaching the word seems to my response.  However, I do not profess to know the answers to everything in my field, an area that is in constant change. 

Unfortunately, because our politicians along with their constituents are unwilling to see the other side’s position, America, it would seem, is being tore apart by its seams.  The dogmatic thinking reflected by our enmeshed belief systems has created a huge amount of stress on American democracy.  Richard Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, said: “It is important to doubt and that the doubt is not a fearful thing, but a thing of value.”  Feynman places value on what we are unsure of as a requisite for advancing knowledge.  Wouldn’t it be nice if some of our leaders, once in a while, questioned the validity or “truth” of their ideas? The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once stated: “You are entitled to your opinion, but not to your own facts.” Members of both the Republican and Democratic parties, in many cases, have confused opinion with fact and have spoken with little doubt.  I find the acrimony existing in both parties toward their opponents to be neither healthy nor constructive for our country.

Perhaps a more accurate expression of Frank’s pun would have been:

“A well sown mind has few seems.”  Here I would argue that the sound of the pun is lost as compared to what Frank had written: “A well sown mind has no seems.” Regardless, we can let the matter rest if we can accept the premise that, as a rule, a good mind will not be wishy washy about matters it is most familiar with, but rather will have strong convictions.

It being that time of year, I will leave you all with a seasonal pun that my colleague Andy Schwartz gave me today:

Q:  How did the English professor refer to Santa’s helpers?

A:   As his subordinate “clauses.”

Memories of Brother Benj  on Celebrating His 80th Birthday

So here we are at this momentous and wonderful occasion, the celebration of my older brother Benjy’s 80th birthday, orchestrated by his lovely wife Gudrun, with all of my brothers able to join and celebrate.   So let me now recall some special memories of my relationship with Benj that always will remain indelibly etched in my mind:

1)  Our wonderful Aunt Cookie (i.e. Ruth Slaminsky) the mother of my cousins, Marcia and Jane, was married in February of 1952 when I was 6 and Benj was 10.  Soon after we (Dan was not with us yet) all traveled up to Great Barrington, Mass. to visit the recent newlyweds when the baseball season had started.  On the way up, (and I absolutely remember this), Benjy had a pair of red socks (I have no idea where he got them from) and said something to the effect: “See these red socks that’s the team near where Cookie lives that you have to root for.”  When you are 6 and your brother is 10, whatever he may have to say has an element of finality to it.  So, yes, I took his words most seriously and literally and became a diehard Red Sox fan from that day on.  Unfortunately, coming from New Jersey, most of my peers were Yankee fans. and most of you are too young to remember that the Yankees were forever victors in the 50’s.  I waited 52 years, when in 2004 the Sox at last would win a World Series and end the torture of being a Red Sox fan.

2)  It is July in 1954 a month before our youngest brother, Dan, is born.  My mother, in her 8th month of pregnancy, probably is wanting some peace and quiet (that with 3 boys there was little of) so my father relieves my mother by taking us all to see the Yankees and the Red Sox play.  I am very aware of the date because at the end of the 1st inning of the game, the Yankees were beating the Red Sox 8 to 0.  There was only one such score in baseball history between the 2 teams, who had played 2300 times, so it was easy to google and find the date. On a hot day, my father, Benj, Andy and myself are sitting in the bleachers (named because of the sun beating down on the heads of fans) and before the game starts, Red Barber, the Yankees sports announcer, is beginning a televised interview on channel 11 in which he  quizzes fans in the bleachers with the winners getting Yankee memorabilia (hats, bats, autographed baseballs etc.)  Benj, not at all intimidated, though he knew zilch about baseball, immediately sees what’s happening and goes up to Red Barber to participate (about 30 feet from where the 4 of us are sitting).  Red Barber is asking questions that both Andy and I knew the answers to such as:  How many home runs did Babe Ruth hit to set a season record (60); what was Joe Dimaggio’s nickname (Yankee Clipper); how many consecutive games did Joe D. hit safely in (56) etc. Meanwhile Benj is looking over his shoulders to me because he knows I knew the answers but he is too far away to make out what I am saying.  He made a TV appearance, but, needless to say, did not win any Yankee memorabilia. 

3)  It is summer, Benjy is 16 and I am 12.  We go to our elementary school to play stickball.  Benj had finished his sophomore year on the Jeff wrestling team at the time. We take a break, leave the court where we are playing to buy some sodas.  We come back and the court is taken by two kids probably 13 to 15 age wise.  When they refuse to give us the court, Benj loudly asserts that our stick and bat were there first and possession is 9/10’s of the law.  When they refuse again, Benj says we are not leaving, and then they challenge us to a fight.  Benj says sure, why not (at which point I can’t believe what I’m hearing as these 2 guys are at least ½ foot taller than the both of us).  He tells me not to say anything. Easy for me to do as I am petrified.  Benj confidently says the fight has to be out in the lawn where you can wrestle better.  When we get there, Benj then instructs them how they have to start getting into the referee’s position (not standing).  When they start doing this, Benj then says no that’s not correct stating:  “You have to follow the rules,” exclaiming he had been on the high school wrestling team.  When he says this, I shudder because earlier in the year he had made a headline in the Elizabeth Daily Journal, having been pinned in 11 seconds by Ernie Finzio, the fastest pin in Union County.  Benj is relentless in correcting the stance of the bigger of the 2 bullies that has challenged him. Finally, the bully gets frustrated says “if we see you two around here your ass is like grass,” and with his friend storms off.    When Benj and I leave, he tells me you can talk yourself out of any fight if you have to, thereby proving that the mouth is mightier than the fist.

4)  I am now just turning 17 with a driver’s license. Taking an early at bat, I was smooching with my date in her veranda upon escorting her home.  It was apparent that she wanted more than a kiss so I began fumbling with her brassiere trying to get my not so nimble fingers to unhook the clasps.  Sensing my frustration, she gives me a backhand assist.  Later, somewhat embarrassed, I consulted with my more experienced 21-year-old brother in the art of unhooking a bra strap.  Borrowing a brassiere from my mother’s closet, that had, I dare say, an ample number of clasps, Benj puts it on and in front of my parent’s bathroom mirror, I role played the removal of a brassiere where Benj’s assistance proved most helpful in my future pursuits.

Let me conclude by saying since the number of people that are alive that are older than I seems to be shrinking with each year, I am hoping that brother Benj stays alive for many many more years so I can point to someone older than I.  So, let’s all lift our glasses and toast to Brother Benj and Gudrun for many more years of happiness.

 The Bet

My friend of 40 years, John Grahm, a man of the left, told me how upsetting it was that the Democrats lost the election for governor of Virginia, and, in general, did not do well at the polls this past November.  And then he uttered that unspeakable thought: “What if Trump runs and wins the election and once more becomes president in 2024.  “Aren’t you scared that this might happen,” he asked in a nervous tone.  With an air of confidence, I replied I had little concern inasmuch as a Trump Presidency is not a high likelihood.  I backed up this statement by posing a bet giving John 10 to 1 odds that Trump would not be our president in 2024:  I would pay John $1000 if Trump becomes president in 2024, but if he is not, John would have to pay me $100.  Surprised at my offer, he thought for a few moments and replied that he liked my proposition because he could hedge his bet.  That is, because he really did not want to win the bet, losing a $100 wouldn’t hurt that much. 

Before we made the bet, I wanted to make sure he understood its terms.  I made it clear that it didn’t matter whether Trump runs or not for president in 2024.  The bet simply is whether or not he will be the next president.  If he is not around to run in 2024, I automatically win the bet.  He agreed to these conditions, and we both stated our hope that he would lose the bet.

Unfortunately, for many of those that want to see Mr. Trump as a mere vestige of the past, Mr. Biden does not appear to get the message.  He is acting as if he won the election in a landslide and is attempting to follow in the footsteps of LBJ rather than the more modest and compromising Bill Clinton.  Mr. Biden apparently has forgotten that he was elected to unify the country with the hope that he could bring both Republicans and Democrats to the negotiating table.  To date, he has chosen to side with the more progressive element of his party that has been pleading to pass a huge fiscal stimulus package at a time when the country is already experiencing the highest rate of inflation (6.2 %) in the past 30 years.  Larry Summers, a registered Democrat, who was the Secretary of Treasury under President Clinton, has pointed out that too much governmental stimulus would inevitably produce further inflation.  He recently told Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour he thought the infrastructure stimulus that Biden finally got through both the Senate and the House, as a signature win for his Presidency, would not cause inflation because it would be paid for over 10 years. Moreover, most people like myself, believe this particular act is extremely important inasmuch as much of the country’s thoroughfares are in need of mending.

But the buck does not stop there.  And this is where Mr. Biden might be overstepping his promises insofar as he appears to be appeasing the extreme left that attracts much media attention but not so much the vote of the populace nor that of the Congress.  The money that Mr. Biden is seeking under the rubric of the American Rescue Plan will come on the heels of the 1.9 trillion for Covid-19 economic relief and the 1 trillion Infrastructure Bill.  This money follows all the money the Trump administration injected into the economy to alleviate the consequences of the pandemic.  What might appear a gift to those named in the American Rescue Plan may turn out to have a boomerang effect, if it further worsens the inflation we already are facing.  Inflation eats away at one’s earning power in a like manner as taxes.  And as in most negative consequences vis-à-vis financial impact, the lower classes suffer the most from it.  What the government giveth, the economy may taketh away.

But it is not inflation alone that is Biden and the Democrat’s bugaboo.  Glenn Youngkin won the gubernatorial election in Virginia a few weeks ago becoming the first Republican to win a statewide election in the state since 2009.  Biden won both the electoral and popular vote in Virginia against Trump in the Presidential election by a substantial margin of more than 10%.  Contrary to his Democratic opponent McAuliffe, Youngkin argued that parents had a right to participate and inquire about what their children learned in school.  The fear of Critical Race Theory (CRT) taking over the educational system has become a source of bitter contention.

I am personally not opposed to allowing some of the ideas CRT espouses to be brought into the educational process.  But it should be seen as only one way of looking at and approaching history without eliminating other more traditional ways of viewing history.  Moreover, what CRT exactly means and how it will be taught require thorough analysis and comprehension.  The rapidity of change can create much turmoil and dissent in any society.  Both parties need to look at this process.  Unfortunately, most important matters, such as how America came to be, are hardly being discussed in any rational and balanced manner.

The issue of public safety is also another factor weighing on the American mind.  The rate of homicides has increased in almost all of American cities.  The response by progressives to defund police completely contradicts the statistics of the rising crime rate.  Trump, of course, represented himself as being tough on crime.  Although most Democrats by now have abandoned the idea of defunding police, the Biden administration has yet to adopt a plan for how to combat crime.  Areas where poorer people reside are often the hot spots of much lawlessness with many deaths by violence having occurred in these communities.

Given the above, President Biden’s approval rating has tumbled downward to a current low of 42%.  This, of course, is not a good omen for the Democrats.  Then there is the other factor that makes my bet against John even more undecided:  Republican continued support of Mr. Trump. Because of this support, the Republican party has sunk to its lower depths in many years.  The treatment that Liz Cheney received from her Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives regarding her desire to further investigate the attack on the Capitol–January 6th by Trump’s followers—was nothing less than deplorable (excuse the use of the word, but in this context, I believe it to be appropriate).

It is not a coincidence that many brilliant political analysts that were former Republicans, such as George Will, Max Boot and Bret Stephens, have left the Republican party.  Furthermore, many prominent Republicans put together a political action committee (PAC) in 2019 with the aim of preventing the re-election of Donald Trump.  During his presidency, Mr. Trump’s shambolic gestures made in trashing the unwritten rules of American society has had a deleterious effect in and outside of the United States.  If the Republicans that represent us in Congress continue to pander to their past president, we may be ultimately finding ourselves either stuck with one party or two parties, one of which, the Republicans, is out of control.  Let us hope that neither of these very bad choices become realities in American politics.

In conclusion, a lot can happen before the next presidential election in November of 2024.  John and I disagree on a lot of issues.  But we both agree that Trump in the White House in 2024 would not augur well for our country.  Although Biden has made his share of mistakes as president, the jury is still out.  One positive sign is that our President has begun to look more closely at the bottleneck in supplies causing current demand to go unmet, a factor driving prices higher resulting in inflation.  

I can only hope that President Biden makes a greater effort in representing, not the loudest members of his party, but rather the majority of his party, and, I maintain, the majority of the country. That stance, if endorsed by Biden, in conjunction with the Republican sentiment of pulling away from Trump, will secure my bet.  Hopefully, it will go in the direction of a changing Republican party and a consolidated Democratic party.  If nothing else, the next two years indeed will be interesting.

Flight #93

My wife, Lisa, and I just returned from visiting my youngest brother, Dan, and his family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.   Dan and his wife, Bernice, suggested we take a drive about 2 hours to the site of the Memorial for Flight #93 on 9/11.  The trip toward Shanksville, the location of the Memorial, allowed us to see the beautiful foliage in a windy crisp day midway into autumn.  The colorful autumn day contrasted with the somber and gloomy mood that hung over us and those that attended the Memorial.

It was a calm sunny blue-sky day on that fateful day in September. There were 33 passengers and 7 crew members.  They came from all walks of life.  They were as different as one can be.  And yet they had one thing in common:  They were all Americans.  None of them had an inkling of what was awaiting them.  Their total lack of knowledge of what was to ensue rendered the passenger response that much more remarkable.

The flight was to take-off early in the morning from Newark, New Jersey to San Francisco.  However, unusual air traffic delayed its departure by more than 25 minutes.  This wasperhaps the best thing that happened that day.  The terrorists had coordinated a plan to attack the twin buildings at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Capitol building.  The attack on the latter had been planned to coincide with both the House and Senate to reconvene after the summer break.

When the terrorists took over the cockpit and plane, they directed all of the travelers to the back of the plane warning them that there was a bomb on the plane and to stay calm.  Fortunately, for all of us, the passengers did not comply with the command of the terrorists as some made phone calls and were warned that terrorists had seized and crashed other planes.  The plane had already gone off course and was heading toward the intended bomb site in Washington D.C. that was 20 minutes away.  Some of the passengers and one crew member had previous experience in handling emergency situations.  It is believed that this group were able to provide the leadership necessary to avert a potential disaster with grave consequences.   In the little time the passengers and crew members had to make a critical decision that they knew would cost them their lives, they acted and, it is speculated were about to seize the cockpit.  

After the passengers fought back, a message in Arabic was heard saying “put it down.”  The velocity of the plane at impact was 565 miles per hour creating a huge crater in a vacant field away from anyone.  The delayed start at Newark along with the unified courage of 34 passengers and 6 crew members diverted what could have been a most deadly attack on the Capitol, a building that is the hallmark of what our country stands for:  Democracy, that is rule by the people.

T’Shuvah

 

In the movie, Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays an obnoxious television weatherman, Phil Connors, who comes to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on February 1st to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities.  He is both bossy and rude to his co-workers, Rita, played by Andie Mcdowell, and Larry, the cameraman, played by Chris Elliott.  When he awakens the next morning, contrary to his weather forecast, a blizzard hits the town and he is compelled to spend the day and night in the town.  Upon awakening the next day, the time has remained February 2nd, and he begins to wonder if he is trapped in a time loop.  This process repeats itself each morning with only Phil and no one else experiencing being stuck in a time loop.  As the days progress, he becomes a kinder and gentler soul who begins to fall in love with Rita.  With each day, we see Phil’s transformation from a loud aggressive newscaster to a much more sensitive caring human being.  At first, Rita questions the sincerity of Phil’s metamorphosis, but when she realizes he is not acting, but is for real, she begins to fall in love with him. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if such a story could happen in real life?  The recent conclusion of the Jewish New Year occurs in the observance of Yom Kippur, the day of repentance or in Hebrew, T’shuvah, marked by a day of fasting and asking God for forgiveness of one’s sins during the year.  According to the Jewish religion, the sins of the past can be halted by repenting for one’s past transgressions.  This is a healing process in which T’shuva represents a form of ethical transformation.  The idea is rooted in an individual’s return to the right path that will bring about redemption similar to what Phil experiences at the end of Groundhog Day.

Since the pandemia began, we Americans have grown more and more apart from one another in our ways.  At times, these ways have led to what amounts to an ugly tribal warfare amongst its members.  It hasn’t been pleasant to watch.  We as a nation are in need of redemption.  However, recovery will not come to us unless we begin to face each other, not as enemies, but rather as one people with differing ideas.  An example of this might be my own annoyance at people who refuse to get vaccinated.  I promise you that this belief compelling people to not vaccinate, from wherever it originated, will not be altered by my or your anger.  Anger and frustration will not bridge the gap of disagreement.  Listening to the other’s viewpoint will at least allow you to enter into a dialogue with that person.  Of course, in order for this process to work both sides need to bury the hatchet and accept the other as a fellow human being rather than a monster.  Abraham Lincoln’s words cannot be more relevant today: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

A Touch of Humor

October brings the playoffs in baseball marking the end of a long season in which each team plays 162 games.  When I look at the stony faces of the players, they appear to me to be under more stress than the rest of us have felt during these past two years.  Egos are at stake in the attempt of each team to “bring home the gold”, that is win the World Series.  Given this atmosphere, it is hard to imagine that baseball, like any other sport, is only a game, and isn’t participation in games supposed to be rooted in fun?  Obviously, this is not apparent during playoffs.

Kyle Schwarber, Red Sox first baseman, a few days ago reminded us not to take each other so seriously.  The Red Sox acquired Schwarber just prior to the baseball trade deadline of July 30th this year.  The main purpose behind acquiring Schwarber was for his bat, and not his fielding skills that were regarded as mediocre.  Although his position had been as a left fielder, the Sox had a weakness at first base so the plan was to place Schwarber where he would best contribute to the team:  first base. 

Even though Kyle’s bat has lived up to the hopes of the Red Sox management, his glove, especially at a position he had not played in the past, has drawn some apprehension.  He had made a few fielding miscues in some important games prior to the American League Division Series (ALDS) against Tampa Bay.  However, he outdid himself in the 3rd game of that series, played in Boston, when he fielded a routine ground ball hit by Josh Lowe.  In his effort to make a simple underhand toss to pitcher, Nate Eovaldi, who was covering first base, Schwarber threw it well over the pitcher’s head  The broadcasters, in a moment of disbelief, joked that the great and famously tall basketball player, Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain, couldn’t have made the catch.  You could see the momentary chagrin on Eovaldi’s face.  One could only wonder how Schwarber felt after making such a poor play allowing Lowe to be safe at first base.

Kyle only had to wait until the next inning when Ji-man Choi of the Rays hit a ground ball to him almost duplicating the play he had blown the previous inning.  However, in this case, he did not commit an error.  Afterwards he charged with fist flying in the air, as if to say he had made a great play, and then he doffed his cap and waved it to the Fenway crowd.  It was funny because it was a routine simple play that any first baseman could have made.  The Boston fans loved his antics and wildly applauded Schwarber. 

Humor to be fully appreciated has a context.  Telling a joke to an audience that doesn’t understand the punch line, has little value.  Likewise, Kyle’s stunt would not have been funny if the home team was Tampa Bay and not the Red Sox.  It takes a certain amount of self-confidence and coolness to laugh at oneself in a way that can make others laugh too but in a loving rather than deriding manner.  Even if you are not baseball fans, I would suggest you look at a replay of these two plays by Schwarber as it is being widely seen on the internet.  Kyle allowed us to put the importance of our lives on hold and savor a moment of good fun and humor.    

Anatomy of a Scam

In the old days, the buyer warning from the Latin, caveat emptor, meaning let the buyer beware, derives from the principle that a buyer, and not the seller of an item, is responsible for that purchase.  Let me extend this principle to present day conditions of scamming where the buyer does not get anything in exchange for what he/she believes was purchased.

I had received a number of calls about a special offer on my DirecTV account where I would be able to get 18 months half price, subsequently, to paying my bill for 6 months upfront at half price.  A number was left on my voicemail but I never responded.  However, I finally did answer when I saw a similar call come on my screen and, I was greeted by a robo voice offering the same deal, with DirecTV music in the background.  The voice beckoned me to wait until I was connected with someone.  My experience with all the technological advances is that it has become increasingly difficult to ever reach a real human voice.  For example, in making appointments with doctors or trying to speak to insurance companies of my clients, I find myself constantly put on call waiting before being able to speak to a real human.  So, the wait before being connected to someone gave me more credence in the phone call.

When a real person came online. he asked me for my password to verify my account information, all of which DirecTV and AT&T do, as normal procedure, when a customer contacts them.  He then said there was a promotion that DirecTV and eBay were jointly offering that applied to DirecTV users, like myself.  What was added was that eBay was involved in the promotion.  He then asked if I would be interested in having this special deal put on my DirecTV account, along with additional channels I did not have that I would receive for free as an incentive.  When I checked to verify the numbers of the stations he was citing on my TV, they were, in fact, the same ones he had mentioned.  I then told him I would take the deal at which time he gave me a confirmation number that he said I should take down.  Everything so far appeared legit.

Next, he explained that I needed to buy an eBay gift card for 6 months from a local Kroger’s or CVS or Rite Aid.  When I told him I was no longer interested in the deal, he said I would have to pay a $200 cancellation fee at which point I protested vehemently.  He then told me I could call the billing department at DirecTV if I wished.  When I called the 866 number I had been given, the man I spoke to reiterated what was already said telling me I had to pay the cancellation fee.  I then asked to speak to his supervisor.  When the supervisor came on the line, he said he couldn’t change the company’s policy regarding the $200 I needed to pay as a cancellation fee.

By this time, I was in a combined state of dismay, frustration and anger.  Rather than forfeit the $200, I decided I might as well go for the promotion and asked the supervisor exactly what I needed to do.  He told me that I had to buy a 6-month eBay gift card as a payback to that company for sponsoring the deal; I was to peel off the silver label with the serial numbers and call them into him.  He told me I had to do it by 5 p.m., Pacific Coast Time, to qualify for the deal.  When I informed him that was impossible due to my work schedule, he told me I still had to pay the cancellation fee.  I asked him what his name was and, he told me John Anderson.   Because he and the other man I spoke to had heavy Indian accents, I became suspicious.   In the background, Lisa, my wife, was saying they were breaking California state law that allows the buyer the right to cancel any contract within 48 hours.  Hearing what my wife had said, he said the promotion had been approved by the Better Business Bureau and, I could call them to verify what he was saying. If I did not pay the cancellation fee, he then threatened to cut off my DirecTV in the next 30 minutes.  At this point, my wife screamed out so he could hear it: “You are a disgrace to the human race,” and told me to hang-up.  He emphatically repeated to me that if I hang up, my DirecTV connection would be discontinued.  I hung up.

I then dialed the Better Business Bureau and, while waiting to speak to someone, saw on my iPhone screen that AT&T was calling.  I left the call to BBB and took the call from AT&T.  When the representative said she was from DirecTV Moving, I became suspicious of her.  However, she did confirm that she was with AT&T and, she asked if I was going on holiday for two months out of the country, and whether I had asked to suspend my DirecTV services for that period of time.  By giving out my password, I had allowed the intruders to speak to customer relations and put a stop on my service.  I related to her what had happened with me, and she told me I could call the AT&T Fraud Unit. I did just that.  The woman that answered my call from AT&T verified the other lady’s identification name and number that had been given to me.  She had been aware of the scheme I revealed to her telling me that AT&T does not call about promotions but emails them.  When I told her a lot of scams exist online, she did not disagree. 

Before proceeding to learn anything further about this scam, I immediately changed my password with AT&T-DirecTV.  Afterwards, I googled DirecTV-eBay promotion and discovered that this very same scam had been going on for some time.  Let me review what I learned from this experience for any other readers that may have a gullible streak.  My first mistake was to not google eBay-DirecTV.  The internet has many faults but one of its benefits is the availability of information.  If I had done this, I would have known from the start this was a scam.  Such calls can be blocked once one discovers a scam.  I was too eager to respond to what sounded like a “great deal” without doing some simple fact checking.  I further discovered that gift cards should only be used by whoever received the card or the purchaser and should never be given as payment for any service.  If someone asks you for payment in this manner, it is definitely not legit.  The reason why crooks request payment via gift cards is because they are not traceable to any bank account and cannot be retrieved.  When you are reading the serial numbers to someone, you are in effect handing that person cash.  The thief that has those numbers in his possession will then redeem the gift card as quickly as possible rendering it valueless.  He/she will do this by selling the gift card, probably at a discount, on an online shopping site such as Craigslist.

Unfortunately, scammers can burn phone numbers for one time use with all types of faked prefixes that conceals where the call originates.  I have read that these types of calls can come from another country.  On a number of occasions, I have received an email or phone call stating that I just got billed from Amazon a certain amount and I need to call a certain number if I hadn’t made that order.  Again, this simply requires some fact-checking by either going online and checking to see what my latest purchase was.  My wife, Lisa, far less naïve than I, has shown me how to verify authenticity of emails.  Even if the logo looks real, check the email address of the sender.  It may start with Amazon or AT&T with an official looking logo, but than after that may come lots of letters or numbers that point to a scammer. 

When we were children, we all had heard of the Aesop Fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, about the boy who repeatedly lies to the nearby villagers into believing that a wolf is attacking the sheep of a town’s flock. When a wolf actually appears, the town folk do not believe the boy’s warning and the sheep perish.  The ubiquity of scammers online, by text and by telephone is so strong in present day society that it has become difficult to know who is telling the truth.  Our heightened awareness of the everyday presence of scammers has created a general distrust that we all feel.  The caveat emptor of old has spread its wings to the online world.  I think it is much more difficult in today’s world of social media to find that rare honest individual.

On Athletic Prowess

Now that we have gotten past the memory of the tragic 9/11 event, twenty years ago, I would like to turn to the higher nature of humankind.  John Keats, in his poem, Endymion, began it with the immortal line:  A thing of beauty is a joy forever.  I would like to modify that to an act of beauty is a joy forever but retain the same idea that Keats conveyed in his poem, that we cherish a thing or act of beauty  beyond its existence.

We look at athletes who perform at the top of their game with wonderment.  When we see Simone Biles take leaps into the naked air with multiple twists, we applaud her mastery that appears so effortless.  Our own understanding of what we can accomplish makes it easy for us to recognize the uniqueness of their skills.  An athletic feat of such grandeur is short-lived but not forgotten.  Likewise, the beauty of a flower in bloom is ephemeral but stays with us much beyond its happening, as Keats surmised in Endymion “will never pass into nothingness.”

A few days ago, Hunter Renfroe, of the Boston Red Sox did the impossible.  With two outs in the top of the 9th inning at Fenway Park, a ball hit by Joey Wendle of Tampa Bay, in being missed by centerfielder Danny Santana, went passed him.   Hunter Renfroe, who plays right field, sped to the ball, and almost in one motion, took the ball and hurled it to Bobby Daubach, who was playing 3rd base for the Sox.  The throw, described by several sports writers as a “howitzer,” gunned down Wendle as he slid into 3rd base.  When the umpire called him out at 3rd base, Wendle had a look of confusion and disbelief on his face.  The perfect throw, some sportscasters said may have been 300 feet, ended the inning and the game with the Red Sox winning 2 to 1.

The post-game interview with Hunter was, like most spectular moments, anticlimactic.  Renfroe commented that when he saw Joey running to 3rd base, he instinctively threw the ball in that direction.  He modestly gave some credit to Daubach for successfully applying the tag on Wendle.

Words do not have the power to reproduce great moments.  Just like the fleeting beauty of nature, an athletic feat happens quickly and, in the case of Renfroe’s throw, unexpectedly.  Nowadays, seeing a great play like that, is much more available than the mere memory of it.  The modern age allows us to see the event well after it happens.  When the skill of an athlete far exceeds the norm, we can marvel at what had appeared impossible to reach was indeed within the grasp of humankind.  It reminds us that the potential for achieving this level of greatness is a part of what we share as human beings.