Too Many Strike Outs

Unless the arbiters of baseball make some changes in how the game is played, we are in danger of seeing that sport becoming a relic of the past.  As a child, I was in awe of the players, and the game sparked my enthusiasm much of which I have maintained in my adult life.  But in the last few years, and especially this year, the pitchers appear to be winning the duel between them and the batters.  Batting averages have plummeted well below .250, an average less than one hit in four at bats.  The New York Yankees, also know as the Bronx Bombers, are bombing out more than they are hitting home runs.  As a team, their current strike out or fan rate is 25.3 percent, slightly higher than the major league average of 24.1 percent.

Perhaps the greatest thrill of baseball is the sound of the bat making contact with the baseball.  Even if the ball results in an out, the crack of the bat, putting the fielders in motion when they sometimes make great plays, is exciting.  In my day as a childhood fan, every once in a while, you would see pitcher duels between two great hurlers.  Because you were seeing a rivalry between the best pitchers in the game, as a fan you knew you were witnessing something special.  These games offered their own brand of excitement even if the players on both sides struck out.  Now, because the ratio of strike outs is so high, it doesn’t seem to matter who is pitching.  Because of the high frequency of strike outs, I would maintain much of the thrill of the game is lost.

So, what can be done about this problem?  When we were kids, we discovered what a spitball was, the adding of saliva or a moist substance to make the ball move in an unpredictable manner. The rumor mill has it that pitchers may very well be using some substance, such as tar or rosin, that causes the ball to spin more or move erratically making it more difficult to hit.  Recently, in a Zoom conference with reporters, Gerrit Cole, Yankee ace pitcher, was asked if he used Spider Tack, a sticky paste that can greatly increase the spin on pitches.  He sidestepped answering the question when he said: “I don’t know quite how to answer that, to be honest.”  One would have expected him to simply reply “no” if he didn’t use it. His response, however, left the reporters doubtful of his innocence in this area. 

The problem is not that the practice of pitchers doctoring the ball to increase its spin rate is forbidden, which it is in baseball.  Rather the use of such substances has been widespread and accepted by the teams.  However, if the use of Spider Track or other substances is causing the increase in strike outs, then Major League Baseball (M.L.B.) need attend to the matter ASAP.  Umpires need to check all the equipment a pitcher brings to a game such as his glove, cap and uniform resulting in a steep fine if that pitcher is in violation of the rules.  If the enforcement of this policy results in fewer strike outs, then it is clear that we have found a solution to the issue at hand. 

If the strict enforcement of the above rule does not significantly alter the strike out rate, then baseball need look elsewhere.  Here I can offer one of two options or both: 1) Move the pitcher’s mound further from home plate (i.e., from where the batter stands) and/or 2) Make a narrower strike zone by decreasing the size of home plate.  I’m sure either of these suggestions would be hotly debated, especially by current pitchers, but they, like the rest of us, need to understand that the greater balance between pitcher and batter makes a far superior entertainment than when the pitcher invariably wins the battle. 

To conclude, pitchers are currently overwhelming batters making baseball less exciting than in the past.  I think the best resolution for all involved would be to strictly limit any doctoring of baseballs by pitchers with the hope that the strike out rate decreases.  Regardless, one of the most important elements in baseball is when fans hear the sound of a bat whacking a baseball resulting in either a great play by a fielder or a hit.  I am sure baseball enthusiasts will be delighted when M.L.B. finds a way to make the hitter’s role more productive than it is presently.

A Helluva Mentor

In reading a review article on psychotherapy, I came across the name George Allen who I always will associate with fond memories.  Out of curiosity I googled his name and discovered  he had passed away a few months ago.  His obituary reflected the type of extraordinary individual he was in pointing out his many accomplishments in the field of psychology.

I first met George when I was a Psychology Trainee at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Danville, Illinois while in my first year of a doctoral program of psychology at Purdue University.  The supervisor I was assigned to at the time I will refer to under the pseudonym of Dr. Alice.   I had heard some horror stories describing her overbearing personality from several Purdue students that had trained under her.  Unruffled, and as I have indicated in an earlier essay, being inclined toward people pleasing I set out to make a good impression.  When I first met her, I was somewhat perplexed by the very critical, and if I might say, nasty evaluation made by my more senior, fellow classmates.  I perceived her as an attractive woman in her mid to late 40’s, blazing red hair, well dressed and well-mannered with her desk neat as a pin.   She possessed an ostensible swagger of confidence that gave the impression of one completely in charge of her surroundings.

Dr. Alice introduced herself by telling me about all the terrible experiences she had had with some of my classmates.  I recall her telling me that she believed one of them really wanted to be an opera singer, and had showed little aptitude as a psychologist.  She ended this diatribe by hoping that I would not be following in any of their footsteps.  Furthermore, she stated that she much preferred working with the students from the University of Illinois rather than those from Purdue.  Clearly the consensus of student opinion from Purdue and that of Dr. Alice was congruent in each of the mutual dislike shared by the other.

As a Psychology Trainee in my first year of graduate study at Purdue, Dr.  Alice quickly realized how green I was knowledge wise in the field of psychology.  She recommended I meet with George on a weekly basis inasmuch as he was in his last year at the University of Illinois and, who she held in great respect, would be able to show me the ropes.  This turned out to be a blessing for me.  But because I could see from the start that Dr. Alice, who had leanings toward a psychoanalytic orientation, viewed George with such high regard, I was puzzled.  The University of Illinois was staunchly behavioral in its approach to psychotherapy.  Would not this wide difference in theoretical perspective cause some sort of dissention or discomfort between Dr. Alice and George?

When I met George, I found him to be one of the most genuine and stable individuals I had ever encountered.  He immediately calmed any fears I may have had with his attitude toward Dr. Alice by declaring her to be a brilliant woman though his orientation in psychology was much different than hers.  That he could accept her with no misgivings was a far cry from the ranting of those students who had preceded me from Purdue.  George’s patient self-assured demeanor really set the stage for a most positive experience that the two of us shared.  Spending that hour per week with George was like a breath of fresh air:   Soon some of the quirks in Dr. Alice that my colleagues had spoken about became evident.

Most “memorable” was when Dr. Alice asked me to interpret Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventories (MMPI’s) that had been administered to patients.  In the second semester at Purdue, I studied the history, development, scoring and interpretation of the MMPI from a faculty member that had done a lot of research on it.  Briefly, the MMPI consists of 9 clinical scales, a social introversion-extroversion scale and 3 validity scales.  Dr. Alice had concocted a scoring and interpretive system in a cook book form that instructed the user to precisely follow her instructions.  As I recall, the instructions were endlessly long being several pages and, if you made a mistake, you needed to begin again from the start.  Even in 1968, this system seemed antiquated.   What I found most disturbing was the fact that when, after several hours, I successfully completed all the directions, my actual diagnosis and treatment recommendations were limited.  I thought to myself all this input but with so very little output.  Furthermore, when I started studying the MMPI at Purdue, not only did I learn of much faster ways of getting at the same data but also how this information could be better employed in the understanding of the patient’s condition.

This experience with Dr. Alice demonstrated her micromanaging and controlling nature.  I remember Dr. Alice had asked George to administer a Rorschach Test to a patient who had been out of control.  Although the Rorschach was peripheral to the core of his training, he willingly accepted the task.  At times, I felt like throwing in the towel and telling Dr. Alice to bug off.   George’s flexibility along with his mature wisdom steered me away from any impulsive desire to give up.   By cooperating with Dr. Alice, I had won her over, so to speak, and I understood it not worth creating an enemy out of her.  My people pleasing tendencies, in conjunction with George’s own respect for Dr. Alice, allowed me to surpass her own low expectation she may have had of psychology trainees from Purdue.

The many good things pointed out in George’s obituary reinforced my strong opinion I had of him during the year I met him.  Among other things, George had been the Director of the Clinical Training program at the University of Connecticut from 1984 to 2003 where he served as a major advisor for about 100 doctoral students.  There he influenced positively hundreds of additional graduate and undergraduate students.  I can proudly state I was perhaps his first advisee, and indeed, it was a wonderful experience.  Thank you, George, for reducing my anxiety in my first year of training at the Danville V.A.H.

Dealing with Phobic Reactions

                  


                  

A phobia is defined as an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.  The key word here is irrational.  Fears such as trying to escape from a fire or flood are not irrational.   However, when fear becomes irrational where there is no imminent danger, we can relabel the fear as anxiety, the origin of which is psychological.  These anxieties can weigh heavily on the human mind often with the effect of hindering an individual’s growth and development.

Years ago, while swimming laps in a pool, I suddenly had the sensation of being unable to breathe properly and found myself gasping for air.   I had been swimming all my life without ever experiencing such a weird bodily impression.  Suddenly, I could not swim the length of the pool without stopping and standing motionless in the pool to catch my breath.  Oddly enough, I had no fear of drowning inasmuch as there was no place in the lap pool where the water was above my head.  The depth of the water in the deepest part of the pool was about 5 feet, well below my physical size.

From where this phobic response emerged, I had little idea.  Was my body telling me something about my present state?  Recently, I had read that a very athletic man had died from a heart attack at the age of 88 while swimming in a community pool.  Although I was not that close to his age, perhaps I was feeling more vulnerable with my own advancing years.  I remember the first time being greeted by this frightening sensation upon swimming a few crawl strokes.  I stopped and walked a distance and then proceeded to swim.  When I reached the end of the pool length, I found myself out of breath and unable to continue swimming.  Holding onto the rail, I worked on slowing my breathing, a technique I have used in assisting my patients that have experienced panic attacks.  Then I proceeded.  With some concerted effort, I was able to swim back to the other end of the pool, but once again feeling the need to stop, hold on to the surface outside of the pool, and take some very slow and deep breaths.

I managed to swim two or three laps stopping at each end of the pool to regain my breath and composure.  I knew that if I gave in to this sudden phobic reaction, by getting out of the pool, it would become that much harder to overcome it as I would be reinforcing the anxiety.  In forcing myself to continue swimming, after perhaps three laps (i.e. back and forth three times), surprisingly, I no longer experienced difficulty in breathing  

The next time I entered the pool the tightness in my breathing overwhelmed me with each stroke I took.  This time I decided I would not stop until reaching the other end of the pool.  Once there, however, I felt compelled to stop, catch my breath, breath slowly and deeply before continuing to swim.  The same pattern as before resulted where by the third lap I no longer felt the need to stop and regain my breath.  This same sequence repeated itself for about one month:  Upon entering the pool and swimming, a sudden shortness of breath seized me causing me to stop at the other end of the pool.  Finally, after about one month this very strange and disconcerting sensation ceased, almost as suddenly, as it had started.  I congratulated myself for not giving in to the completely irrational fear that was affecting my ability to swim.

Similarly, recently, a patient of mine told me that he had suddenly developed an anxiety on driving on a certain exit of a California freeway that merges with another freeway.  He began to experience a palpitating anxiety as he was changing freeways, a route that he had been driving on for years.  In the past, we had talked about the importance of facing his irrational anxieties so rather than avoid this section of his route, he challenged himself by following the exit ramp that was the source of his anxiety.  Moreover, he repeated the exact same route noticing that each time he confronted his anxiety, it became a little less bothersome.  After the third or fourth repetition of this same procedure, his anxiety had diminished to where he was no longer troubled by it.

What my patient and I had done, has been called exposure treatment.  Rather than avoiding our anxieties, the origin of which neither of us fully understood, we faced our anxieties directly as a means of mastering them.  We both realized that if we let our anxieties control us, it would impede our lives in some very unpleasant way.  We chose the initial lack of comfort, that is exposing ourselves to the irrational fear, to reduce or extinguish these anxieties.  In general, I have found that individuals suffering from some stressful situation or event reduce their anxiety by facing it rather than by avoiding it.

A phobia is defined as an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.  The key word here is irrational.  Fears such as trying to escape from a fire or flood are not irrational.   However, when fear becomes irrational where there is no imminent danger, we can relabel the fear as anxiety, the origin of which is psychological.  These anxieties can weigh heavily on the human mind often with the effect of hindering an individual’s growth and development.

Years ago, while swimming laps in a pool, I suddenly had the sensation of being unable to breathe properly and found myself gasping for air.   I had been swimming all my life without ever experiencing such a weird bodily impression.  Suddenly, I could not swim the length of the pool without stopping and standing motionless in the pool to catch my breath.  Oddly enough, I had no fear of drowning inasmuch as there was no place in the lap pool where the water was above my head.  The depth of the water in the deepest part of the pool was about 5 feet, well below my physical size.

From where this phobic response emerged, I had little idea.  Was my body telling me something about my present state?  Recently, I had read that a very athletic man had died from a heart attack at the age of 88 while swimming in a community pool.  Although I was not that close to his age, perhaps I was feeling more vulnerable with my own advancing years.  I remember the first time being greeted by this frightening sensation upon swimming a few crawl strokes.  I stopped and walked a distance and then proceeded to swim.  When I reached the end of the pool length, I found myself out of breath and unable to continue swimming.  Holding onto the rail, I worked on slowing my breathing, a technique I have used in assisting my patients that have experienced panic attacks.  Then I proceeded.  With some concerted effort, I was able to swim back to the other end of the pool, but once again feeling the need to stop, hold on to the surface outside of the pool, and take some very slow and deep breaths.

I managed to swim two or three laps stopping at each end of the pool to regain my breath and composure.  I knew that if I gave in to this sudden phobic reaction, by getting out of the pool, it would become that much harder to overcome it as I would be reinforcing the anxiety.  In forcing myself to continue swimming, after perhaps three laps (i.e. back and forth three times), surprisingly, I no longer experienced difficulty in breathing  

The next time I entered the pool the tightness in my breathing overwhelmed me with each stroke I took.  This time I decided I would not stop until reaching the other end of the pool.  Once there, however, I felt compelled to stop, catch my breath, breath slowly and deeply before continuing to swim.  The same pattern as before resulted where by the third lap I no longer felt the need to stop and regain my breath.  This same sequence repeated itself for about one month:  Upon entering the pool and swimming, a sudden shortness of breath seized me causing me to stop at the other end of the pool.  Finally, after about one month this very strange and disconcerting sensation ceased, almost as suddenly, as it had started.  I congratulated myself for not giving in to the completely irrational fear that was affecting my ability to swim.

Similarly, recently, a patient of mine told me that he had suddenly developed an anxiety on driving on a certain exit of a California freeway that merges with another freeway.  He began to experience a palpitating anxiety as he was changing freeways, a route that he had been driving on for years.  In the past, we had talked about the importance of facing his irrational anxieties so rather than avoid this section of his route, he challenged himself by following the exit ramp that was the source of his anxiety.  Moreover, he repeated the exact same route noticing that each time he confronted his anxiety, it became a little less bothersome.  After the third or fourth repetition of this same procedure, his anxiety had diminished to where he was no longer troubled by it.

What my patient and I had done, has been called exposure treatment.  Rather than avoiding our anxieties, the origin of which neither of us fully understood, we faced our anxieties directly as a means of mastering them.  We both realized that if we let our anxieties control us, it would impede our lives in some very unpleasant way.  We chose the initial lack of comfort, that is exposing ourselves to the irrational fear, to reduce or extinguish these anxieties.  In general, I have found that individuals suffering from some stressful situation or event reduce their anxiety by facing it rather than by avoiding it.

Police Reform: What Can Be Done About It?

                            

The recent conviction of police officer Darin Chauvin for his reckless act of killing George Floyd has led many of all colors and races to question current police techniques.  Given what was seen over and over again in the news, the jury’s decision appeared to reflect a popular bipartisan view that appropriate justice had been meted out. 

The reaction to Floyd’s death on the political far left was to defund the police.  I don’t believe punishing the police via defunding will serve society in a beneficial way.  In fact, what has been noticeable but, in my opinion, somewhat muted by news reporting, has been an increase in homicides and other crimes in the past year. 

In my last blog, I reviewed both the audience and public reaction to the movie:  Death Wish.  This picture came out in 1974 when, as I pointed out, the level of crime was much higher in New York City than it is presently.  A film released a year earlier than Death Wish was Magnum Force starring Clint Eastwood as the officer, Dirty Harry.  This movie is totally antithetical to most public opinion of today.  The plot revolves around San Francisco cops executing criminals because they believe the latter never get apprehended.  When Eastwood becomes aware of the rogue actions of his fellow cops, he refuses to join them in their murderous pursuits.

I cannot imagine Magnum Force being made in the current political climate.  Since that movie was made, crime in urban areas has been reduced significantly.  But let me be clear here, I am not arguing that the policing in this country has been without blemish.  When an officer commits a major mishap, the police blue code of silence is not a noble one.  Another movie, Serpico, made about the same time as Magnum Force pointed out the many travails a New York City cop faced because he did not follow the blue code. 

I am in full agreement with many of today’s critics when they plead for more transparency in police departments.  Moreover, whether or not police departments should have immunity from their acts is certainly an area that needs further investigation.  Clearly, however, such tactics as strangle or choke holds that police have been known to use for those resisting arrest, also need further review.

Rather than reducing the monies for policing, wouldn’t it make more sense to add more training to what officers currently receive?  Although this may not be cost efficient, I have thought that one prerequisite in becoming a police officer is a college degree or some form of advanced training in criminal justice.  In any event, either more training in police departments or accepting applicants that have college degrees, would necessitate more, not less funds, for police.  Hiring young males who have the authority to carry a deadly weapon, no matter what race, color or creed they may be, with only a short-term police academy training after a high school diploma, is a questionable policy.  A job for psychologists, like myself, would be to employ screening devices that would better evaluate racial attitudes of incoming police officers. 

Awhile back, I read an article in the New York Times that indicated most people simply do not want to interact with unsavory types necessary in what police do as part of their daily work.  Even with my training as a psychologist, I would not want to be answering calls where there is suspected domestic violence.  Therapeutic interventions do not work when individuals are in a state of uncontrollable rage, as is often the case when spouses are involved.  We discover that Serpico, in the movie that actually happened in real life, was shot when answering some such dispute. 

I do think that mental health professionals could help police departments understand how to deal more effectively with the mentally ill.  A colleague of mine told me that she has little trust in the police because she has known of some cases in her hometown where police were called out to calm a situation involving a mentally disturbed patient.  The result of summoning the police led to the death by the hands of whichever officer had responded to the call.  If the individual is not carrying a dangerous weapon but is resistant to being arrested or apprehended by the police, officers need to know how to deal with these situations without using lethal force.  In settings where a person with a mental illness is causing a disturbance, officers skilled in crisis management might be dispatched.  Once more, this would require specialized training and more funding to police departments for this to be a viable solution.

Let us not forget that most homicides are intra-racial where the police are not involved.  Thus, the F.B.I. recently reported that 89% of Blacks killed Blacks and 81% of Whites killed Whites.  Despite mass media reportage, deaths caused by police do not represent anywhere near the majority of homicides with Blacks.  To quote Marshall McLuhan:  The message is the media.  This is not to say that police should not be questioned when they use lethal force inappropriately.  But the media does a tremendous job at dramatizing sensation as a means of increasing its viewers or readership.  What goes viral often causes alarm without subsequent supporting evidence.  With all the guns out on the streets, contemporary policing that is skillful is by no means an easy task.  Police are not pigs.  The reality is that if police fail to do what is necessary to protect the public, the crime rate will undoubtedly continue to rise.  

Critics of policing in this country have argued that police killings are higher here than in other developed countries.  True, but gun ownership is much higher here than in other wealthy nations, along with a social system that is not as tight as those same nations.

The journalist, Jason Riley, in reviewing the Washington Post database, pointed out the following: “Police shot and killed 999 people in 2019, Including 424 Whites and 252 Blacks.  Twelve of the Black victims were unarmed versus 26 of the White victims.”  Given the fact that over 10 million people are arrested each year in America, the number of total deaths by police does not appear that high. Like most people, I believe that every life is important.  That is why, rather than undermine the work of police departments, I believe we need to underpin their structure by adding training and community resources cited in this article.  I would much prefer the police handling criminal offenders rather than vigilantes taking the law into their own hands as portrayed in Death Wish and Magnum Force.  The latter state of affairs could lead to anarchy.

On Going to the Movies

                                                                

I am quite sure that the pandemic will change some of our long-standing habits, an obvious one requiring employees to go to an office on a daily basis. Another shared routine, going to movie theaters, is also changing.  I, like so many other movie buffs, was saddened with the news that the ArcLight Hollywood and its Cinerama Dome, along with its theaters in other locations, would not be reopening after the long shutdown from the pandemic.  Part of really experiencing a new film is seeing it on the big screen with other people in your presence. I get that some films are not worthy of the cost and effort to make it to the cinema house.  But I am not talking about those.  So, allow me to share the cinematic power that three films had on me when they were first produced, and I experienced them with the kindred crowd in the theater.

In 1959, upon turning 14, my mother asked me what I would like for my birthday.  I had read that Alfred Hitchcock’s, North by Northwest, was soon to open at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.  I asked her if she would take me, and she agreed.  Because I was a fan of Hitchcock, who already had gained celebrity status in directing his television series, I was eager to see this much talked about movie when it came to New York.  I remember seeing the Rockettes, an all-female dance group give a brief but most enjoyable performance before the movie. The theater was a complete sell out as early reviews had said that Mr. Hitchcock had directed another gem of a thriller.  As the curtain slowly opened, the widescreen cinematography appeared stunning.  From a child’s perspective, I viewed the film with a certain eeriness inasmuch as I knew the action was occurring very near to where I was watching the film.  There is Hitchcock making his personal introduction in the film, as the door of a NY bus he tries to board, slams in his face.  It all seemed enchanting going from the Rockettes stage performance to the opening credits of the film.

Part of the grandeur of the movie are the unforgettable scenes that are played over and over again in the media and in our minds.  I can still see Cary Grant with the fright in his face running from what had appeared to be a crop duster, but is really a biplane spraying bullets at him.  The fact that you are not ready for it adds to the suspense that builds from scene to scene.  It doesn’t matter that you suspect Cary will survive all the attempts on his life because you can’t help but root for him.  Who would not root for Cary Grant?  Actually, if Grant and the character he portrayed, Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising man, did die, I may have reacted differently to the film.

About one year later, the next Hitchcock movie, Psycho, that I saw when it opened, did exactly what it hadn’t done to Cary Grant.  Only about one third of the film has elapsed when Janet Leigh, who appeared to be the main character and therefore star of the movie, is murdered.  No prior Hollywood film had killed off the apparent star so early in a movie.  As Hitchcock put it: “The suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming as it were, out of the blue.”  How could this be happening to Janet Leigh?  Yes, she was taking money that didn’t belong to her, but she certainly did not deserve the end she met.  The horror on the actress’s face as she is being attacked, the blood, and the last terrible scene, where her eye floating in the bathtub takes up the entire screen, shocks the spectators.  I remember the cries of the audience.   This was not a film I would have wanted to see at home, especially, if I were alone.  Part of the experience of looking at the film with others was that you were not alone in seeing some very gruesome scenes.

Hitchcock understood the meaning of less being more.  Nowadays movies have long drawn-out bloody scenes that never appear to end.  In Psycho, there were only three very scary scenes with each of them lasting a very brief time:  1) Janet Leigh in the shower; 2) Martin Balsam, the detective, investigating what had happened to Leigh who had been missing and 3) The chair in which “mother” swerves revealing her frightening skull.  What adds to the film’s intensity on the viewer is that the apparent “good guy,” Martin Balsam is also killed.  Insofar as the movie proceeds in a totally unpredictable manner, the suspense almost becomes too much to handle.  The unique and chilling cello and violin arrangement that Bernard Herrmann created further intensified the horror of the violence on the screen.

Hitchcock anticipated problems with the censors.  It is interesting to note they had little objection to the very evident violence in the movie, but rather were concerned with the nude scene of Janet Leigh in the shower.  Perhaps it was Hitchcock’s fame or his coolness in dealing with the board of censors from Paramount.  Initially, they sent a message to the office of Hitchcock: “Please take out the nudity.” Hitchcock, in feigning contrition, repacked the film without editing any of the scenes in question.   He then cannily bargained with the censors, saying he would cut an earlier scene with Janet Leigh in bed with John Gavin, clothed, if they would allow him to leave the shower scene untouched. When Hitch and cast rescheduled the reshoot that the censors were supposed to clear, they never showed up.  However all ultimately agreed, to Hitchcock’s delight, that they did not see any nudity in the shower sequence.

The final film I wish to discuss is Death Wish.  At the time of its release in 1974, I was living in Manhattan and saw the picture, the week it first opened, in Times Square.  What I remember most about watching this film was the way in which the audience, multiracial, reacted to it.  For those not familiar with this film (that had several sequels), Charles Bronson plays a New York City architect, Paul Kesey.  His mild-mannered nature snaps when intruders break into his home raping his daughter and murdering his wife.  When his daughter is committed to a mental hospital, Paul takes a revolver given to him by a client and goes on a late-night walk in which he is mugged at gunpoint.  He reacts automatically in shooting the mugger but, upon realizing what he has done, throws-up.  Subsequently, Paul walks through dangerous areas such as Central Park at night, with the intention of luring muggers and then silencing them with his pistol.  Meanwhile, no matter whether the mugger was white, black or Hispanic, when Kesey killed him, the movie audience broke out into loud cheers. 

Because the film made Bronson, an anti-hero of sorts by his eliminating the bad guys, it appeared to support vigilantism.  In 1974, the rate of crime in New York and other cities was much higher than it is presently.  I viewed the shouts of approval by my fellow moviegoers as releasing their own hurts and pent-up frustrations from very possibly being victims of crimes.  Although film critics had mixed reactions to the film, the public sentiment was different leading to a discussion on how to deal with the increasing level of crime. 

I am sure all of the above three films have been available for home screenings.  However, I can’t imagine experiencing these movies at home, in the same way I did as a member of an audience, sharing the event in common with others.   I am quite sure that the powerful impact I felt could not be viewed at home.  Often the time and cost it takes to go to a movie theater takes priority over the convenience of staying at home and seeing it there.  Hopefully, enough others will both consider and support these benefits allowing the movie house to stay with us as an integral part of our culture. 

On the Departure of My Father

Recently, I observed the yahrzeit of my father’s death 25 years ago.  Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word that means time of year.  It represents the anniversary of a parent or close relative and is marked by the burning of a candle for 24 hours.  During this time, the Mourner’s Kaddish, a hymn of praise about God, is recited in the synagogue with other congregants.  I would like to share some of my reflections I wrote at the time of my father’s passing.

Upon hearing from my older brother of my father’s death, I had to rapidly change my plans inasmuch as that evening I was scheduled to give a talk on the poet, e.e. cummings, in Los Angeles.  Fortunately, I had a friend that came by and videotaped my talk.  One of the poems I planned on covering was Cummings’ elegy to his father:  my father moved through dooms of love.  Toward the end of the videotape, when I discussed Cummings’ attitude toward death and dying, tears welled up within me.  To Cummings, death was stagnant and evil, whereas the gerund, dying, to him suggested movement, captured by an invisible transformation or change of condition that man can neither alter nor impede.  Dying is perfectly natural and an extension of life.  My father had no desire to wage a war against death.  Prior to his demise, he told my brothers and me he had lived a wonderful life and was ready to die.  My father’s life ended by his dying and not by his death.

When I arrived on the East Coast, most of my relatives had already gathered in the house where my brothers and I grew up.  I immediately hugged my mother, and together we shared the fact that her husband, my father, had lived a good life.  My mother had lived with my father for 58 years, and although it was a sad time for all of us, she recognized the years with him had been filled with joy making it easier for her to accept my father’s dying as a natural stage in life.

The next day my brothers and I met with the rabbi that would preside over the funeral service at the synagogue our family belonged to when we all lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  The rabbi told us he would call us, after he spoke, to give our eulogies.  When I walked into the main part of the temple where the service would be held, I was amazed at all the people who were assembling.  Because there were no empty seats, there must have been close to 500 people present.  When it was my turn, I delivered the following eulogy:

          I consider myself supremely fortunate and glad that I was the son of my father.  As a boy growing up, I remember well the times when I was feeling down, when I did not want to get out of bed, but rather escape into sleep.  My father always would exhort me to get out of bed.  His message was a consistent one:  I was allowing time to slip by from my life.  Time that I would never get back again.  Time lost forever.  My father cherished every waking moment of his life.  And he, like the rest of us, faced some hard moments.  He had a passion and zeal for life that few men his age, or much younger than he, possessed. 

          There was no one more generous than my father.  If he could help a fellow human that was struggling, he would.  At the retail clothing store he and his brothers owned, he was one of the first to hire blacks to work there.  He did this because he knew it was the right thing to do, not because of political correction.  If anything, when he employed blacks, it was if anything, not politically correct.

          There were times when I would become angry at my father.   Like any close relationship, such as father-son, we had our confrontations.  But I found, as the years passed, our differences lessened.  I came to see more clearly how great my father was compared to others who had not lived their lives to the fullest.  My father’s loss of eyesight never stopped him from living and pursuing his interests.  This loss he suffered in his later years made my vision of him that much clearer.

          Toward the end of his life, we came to admire each other greatly.  The last few years of his life he would call me in California at all hours to express his admiration of me.  It was a wonderful way to gain closure.  We communicated.  No longer were there confrontations.

          God bless you Dad!  You taught me what it meant to be alive.

At the end of the memorial service, my brothers and I walked behind the limousine bearing my father’s casket.  Suddenly, a bearded man approached me and introduced himself with his wife and son. He told me that when my father’s eyesight started to fail, his son had helped my father obtain auditory learning tapes from the synagogue.  He related that when his son’s bicycle was beyond repair, my father, without asking, replaced it with a new one, to the utter amazement of his son.   It was strange.  As I walked behind the hearse with my family, that same boy looked at me as if I had descended from the heavens.  His face wore a sense of awe and wonderment that lightened my own pain by transforming my sorrow into a son’s pride of his father.

In the past, I have seen many clients in my private practice who have lost close relatives.  Several of them do not have a built-in restorative mourning process. The Jewish religion provides what are called morning minions where 10 or more people gather with the mourner for about one hour to recite the mourner’s kaddish.  Different temples throughout the community offer minions throughout the week.  The mourning period is about one year.  Subsequent to my father’s dying, I made it a point to attend at least one minion per week for one year.  I found it alleviated much of the grief I was feeling when I was around people I knew or came to know during the year I mourned my father.  Part of the healing process came as a result of my being around people who had suffered similar losses in their lives that allowed them to better understand and empathize with me in an honest manner.

Delivering Happiness

                           

I was surprised to have read recently about the death of Tony Hsieh, the eminent CEO of Zappos, a company he built up to reach billionaire status.  He died, at the tender age of 46, from smoke inhalation caused by a fire, induced by excessive drug use.  He had created a milieu of purpose and ambition that he had passed on to the many who knew him.  His abrupt loss of life reminded me of an “ex-addict” I met several years ago.

                

When I first started working at a residential program for drug addicts, I had little experience with this clinical population.  My supervisor suggested I sit in on a group that was led by an ex-addict, named Fred, who I was told had much savvy in the ways of addicts.  It was a learning experience listening to Fred talk the jibe of the addicts and not get sucked into their manipulative games.  He turned every complaint they had against the system right back on them as the root of their misery.  It was a confrontational style that the group members appeared to respect.  After observing Fred’s technique with the residents, he suddenly did not show up for work.  The news was that he had been arrested and was being held in a county jail.  Apparently, he had relapsed and started using drugs again.

About 7 or 8 years ago a friend invited me to a talk that Tony was giving in Santa Monica, California related to the steps he had taken to have hit the jackpot with Zappos, when Amazon bought it.  Mr. Hsieh impressed me with his young age combined with his evident self-confidence and ease he had in sharing his own creation of success and wealth.  Although the market is flooded with self-help books, the title of Mr. Hsieh’s book, Delivering Happiness, appealed to me.  After all, as a psychologist I’m in the business of trying to bring less suffering and more happiness to my clients.

When I read Hsieh’s book, I was not looking to make significant changes in my career.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it.  The language in the book very much reflected the way this CEO had spoken about himself.  His early failed attempts at earning money on his own, in combination with his honest lack of interest in being the ideal Asian child by learning how to play a musical instrument, reflected candor.  His goofing off at college, but then determining how he could salvage a good grade in a course he had not bothered to study all semester, showed an originality in how he would deal with subsequent important business decisions.

He explained in his book how he processed information with specific details pointing out the pitfalls and successes on the way.  Throughout his piecing together a very profitable online shoe company, Zappos, he related some of his fun activities, one of which was rave parties.  Masses of people attended these parties where strobe lighting beamed down on the participants.  This form of recreation appeared to serve as an outlet for Tony, an individual who put a huge amount of effort into the development of an empire.  Mr. Hsieh had reached the quintessential entrepreneurial achievement when Zappos became a “wholly owned subsidiary” of Amazon.  This deal gave Zappos shareholders over $1.2 billion based on the value of Amazon when the transaction was finalized.

For some people the experience of a grand success can be more difficult to handle than failure.  That I believe was the case for Tony Hsieh and Michael Jackson.  Both of these hugely successful individuals had layers of relationships.  Unfortunately, the people that may have helped them the most were shut out from their lives.   A recent article published in the Wall Street Journal about Mr. Hsieh’s death stated that the entrepreneur bankrolled his followers and in return they shielded his very risky lifestyle.  Prior to his passing, he had been using nitrous oxide, a mind-altering gas, along with a mixture of other drugs and alcohol.

Although Mr. Hsieh believed he had found happiness, the way he died would prove otherwise.  Perhaps he put too much emphasis on financial success in achieving what he thought would be happiness.  We know he had a huge influence on others with many admirers who looked to him as a role model.  Both he and Fred, the ex-addict that knew how to work with drug addicts, could help others but in the end, they were unable to help themselves.   Tony understood that it is easy to become sidetracked in the present and lose sight of future goals “because of all the inertia to overcome.”  When he gave in to the inertia and the good life entailed by hedonic acts, he began to lose his foothold on a meaning or purpose that perhaps would have sustained him. 

I am convinced that when drugs and other substances become elevated to the foreground in any individual’s life, that person’s sense of reality is lost.  It is saddening to see Tony Hsieh, and the many other innovative souls let their talents go to waste, when they lose the purpose and meaning that earlier had propelled them.

A Second Renaissance or Chaos

An earlier blog I wrote, titled The Dying Slave, ended by asking whether the internet’s effect on facilitating mass communication would lead to a Second Renaissance.  One of the responses I received was: “The U.S.A. and the world has regressed to the Dark Ages.”  I pointed out how the Gutenberg Printing Press allowed an intercontinental sharing of knowledge.  I’m sure this invention allowed Shakespeare access to much of the historical information he needed to create his great works.  But because “Real” news was hard to verify during the Renaissance, many false ideas ran rampant during this period.

Similar to the Gutenberg Press, the internet increased the power of mass communication with the likes of Facebook, Twitter and other social media.  Conspiracy theory, that is the belief that an event or series of events are caused by a group operating in secret, has existed from time immemorial.  The blood libel, for example, referring to the false allegation that Jews used the blood of non-Jewish, usually Christian children, existed well before the invention of the Gutenberg Printing Press.  However, conspiracy theories can be propagated much quicker than ever before with access to the internet and its concomitant social media.

Thieves, for example, can employ technology combined with the vast amount of information made available by internet use, in a harmful way.  The internet has made it difficult to hide from trouble makers who seek to hurt us.  There are examples galore going on of this type of harassment brought on by the accoutrements found in modern day living.

Criminals are always in search of the easiest prey that they can victimize.  A few years ago, an older, woman friend was called and told her granddaughter had been in an accident, was in jail, and needed $9000 bail money to be released.  Her “granddaughter” then took the phone and pleaded with her about how badly she wanted to get out and that she would definitely have the money returned.  She then said the money had to come in the form of a money order so it could be used immediately.  My friend told me that the voice of this female sounded exactly like her granddaughter which caused her to follow the instructions given to a tee.  Soon, to her horror, she discovered that she had been swindled.  Apparently, other people have received similar communications and have fallen for this same trap called the “grandparent scam.” The internet and social networking sites, have facilitated the ease in which criminals can uncover personal information about their targets, which make the impersonations more credible.

I am constantly reminded how hackers and scammers can turn the fruits of technological innovation into not only individual, but also national peril.  Without a doubt, computer hacking is one of the most regrettable consequences of life in the Information Age.  It can occur on different levels.  According to a recent article in the New York Times, hacks were launched from inside the United States on servers run by Amazon, GoDaddy and smaller domestic providers.  When Microsoft finally detected the breach in security, it was traced to China.

On a microcosmic level, a very frequent intrusion of one’s personal space occurs when someone(s) gets hold of your personal data, and then starts sending emails to your contacts stating that you or a relative is in some serious dilemma requiring instant money to save the day.  The first time I received a message like that, years ago, it had to do with a classmate that I knew since junior high school.  It sounded compelling enough for me to want to help her but I resisted the temptation later discovering the message was all bogus.  In the past, I have had to change my email password because friends have told me they received strange notes from me that I explained were not sent by me.

Recently, I had an equally interesting experience.  My Facebook account has been hacked a few times as those of you who will receive this blog on that site know.  This has been more of a nuisance than the potential loss of money.  Changing my password initially helped.  But lately, my friends have notified me that they have received a “picture” of me asking to be their friend.  When I clicked on Facebook support, I was automatically sent to a company that wanted $5 to answer my question.  I checked the company and they did exist having a real ID with an 800 number in which I was told I would be in contact with a consultant.  I emailed my question with hope of receiving a response which was sent via text.  When I read the response, I wanted to ask the consultant a question to clarify its contents and asked if I could call.   He/She/It texted me back with a similar but shorter response.  When I once more asked for clarification, he/she/it replied in similar fashion.  Aha, I realized that it was not a human on the other end of the phone but artificial intelligence typing in an automated response to my inquiry.  Upon learning that, I called the 800 number and canceled my subscription to the monthly charge they would assess for their “help.”  I did, however, send the response I received to all my friends on Facebook.  I am hoping it will help.

I also alluded to technology as a game changer in modern life, another contributing factor, to a possible Second Renaissance.  Whether or not the increase of technology will augment human progress or hinder our growth going forward, ultimately depends on the human factor.  Technology, unleashed in the hands of the wrong actors, can be devastating.  This is why it is vitally important that we never lose sight of the democratic ideals embodied by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.  But, in addition, the advances in technology will require the development of a universal system of ethics capable of evaluating their potential good and bad outcomes. Our ability to live cooperatively has a long way to go before we can settle back safely and reap the benefits of the innovations that currently are being created.    

On Therapeutic Alliance

Sometimes a discussion between colleagues can have an unexpected effect on the way you see things. As an adjunct instructor teaching adolescent psychology at Kean College in Union, New Jersey, I met Jose Perez, who was my office mate.  Jose was in his last year at Rutgers University in the doctoral program of psychology.  Upon inquiring about that program, which I subsequently entered, one comment Jose made still stands out in my mind:  Behavior Therapy does not make Arnold Lazarus’s patients well, Arnold Lazarus makes them well.

Jose’s point is quite critical in understanding the process of therapy and its efficacy.  His reference to behavior therapy was simply to illustrate the point that even though Arnold Lazarus may be considered a behavior therapist, its methodology was not what cured the patients of Arnold Lazarus.  In truth, I am not sure whether the late Dr. Lazarus would disagree with this idea inasmuch as he recently had published a book (1971) titled:  Behavior Therapy and Beyond.  In that book he discussed a mélange of therapeutic techniques, and how he employed them as a therapist.  These techniques went well beyond what people typically attribute to those clinicians who practice behavioral therapy.

On the contrary, I recall Lazarus stating it is not theories that cure patients, but rather the selective use of therapeutic techniques geared toward their specific problems.  In an article he later wrote, he underscored the importance of selecting out the appropriate techniques for an individual, and he labeled this procedure technical eclectism.  He believed that the more therapeutic techniques a therapist understood, and knew when and how to employ, the greater success that therapist would have in treating patients. 

I gained a greater awareness of technical eclectism when I had the opportunity to observe Arnold Lazarus do therapy, with a seminar patient, in a class he taught.  After the therapy session was over and the patient left the room, the class discussed what had happened in the session with Dr. Lazarus.  I must say I was extremely impressed with the improvised techniques that Lazarus was able to come up with, but also, I was struck by the fact that what he was doing bore little resemblance to behavior therapy.

While completing my doctorate in psychology, I had the good fortune of studying under Albert Ellis, the late renowned psychologist. Dr. Ellis had a direct confrontational style in treating his patients.  But, nevertheless, he made it clear to his patients that he had an unconditional acceptance or unconditional positive regard for his clients.  So, even when he was confronting them in his typically abrasive manner, Ellis’s patients knew that what he was doing was meant to be beneficial and not harmful to them.  Similarly, the results of the methods practiced by shamans and other faith healers have to do with the interaction of the individual with that particular healer.  If the individual has a strong belief and faith in the curer, this sets the tone for a favorable outcome.  Because there is no active ingredient, such as medicine involved in the treatment, scientists have referred to the causal agent as the placebo effect.  The placebo effect can be attributed to the positive expectation the subject or patient may have vis-à-vis the treatment the he/she is undergoing.

As a matter of fact, not to detract from the capabilities of past, eminent therapists such as Virginia Satir, Arnold Lazarus and Albert Ellis, I have no doubt that patients seeking out their services were well aware of their reputations.  Prior to their first meeting with any well-known and well-regarded name in the area of psychotherapy, I am sure they had great respect and with that, a positive expectation that they would get better.  This belief of the patient creates a positive therapeutic alliance that contributes to a treatment outcome that is beneficial. 

Most therapists do not carry the prestige and fame possessed by the celebrated names of their profession.  I have honed my own therapeutic skills with a combination of course work and reading in conjunction with the experience of having seen many patients that present with different problems.  To quote Albert Einstein: “Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information.” Here, I would add as a therapist goes through the different stages of life (e.g. career path, marriage, mentor), a therapist can more easily relate to more patients, a stance that would facilitate therapeutic bonding.

In summary, the therapeutic alliance is a sine qua non between patient and treating doctor.  No matter how intelligent or competent you are, if the patient does not like you or does not have a good opinion of you, your efforts to help that person will go in vain.  A client will more likely let you enter into his life if you have established good rapport with that individual.  That gets you in the door.  From there, you will need to apply whatever techniques you deem appropriate to counter the client’s issues in the therapeutic process.  I agree with Dr. Lazarus that the more therapeutic techniques you have mastered in combination with your experience, the greater likelihood of success you will have in dealing with the myriad of problems your patients may be facing. Although I specialize in cognitive behavioral therapy, the key to my success has been to tailor my techniques to the specific needs of my clients.

The Dying Slave

While studying the History of Art in my third year at college, my reaction to seeing Michelangelo’s sculpture of the The Dying Slave projected on a slide screen still remains crystal clear.   I could hardly anticipate its arrival and when it came, after so many lesser works I had seen, I was awestruck.  My reaction was like that of a child gazing in amazement the first time she had beheld a rainbow.

I barely paid attention to the professor who gave some brief facts about the sculpting of the piece.  The slave’s face wears an incandescent glow that lends a proud indifference as his body appears to pull him back away from the life he has lived.  His muscular torso represents that of a strong individual unafraid of the consequences of his actions.  If this is his last gesture on earth, he will let the world see his fortitude before his captors take him away.  His physical posture, almost nonchalant, one arm is thrown across his chest with the other, his right arm, thrown behind his head, conveys a sardonic air. These arms telegraph a source of strength and perhaps some defiance toward those who seek to end his life.

Michelangelo’s statue moves us to see a human dying, yet at the peak of his physical powers.  He is young and virile, hardly the picture of an individual whose maltreatment may have drained his strength.  Even on the threshold of death, we are able to see in him the classical features of early Greek art.  It is this obvious incongruity perhaps that, unwittingly, drew me to the underlying power and beauty embodied by the sculpture.

I view this work by Michelangelo as characteristic of what the Renaissance, that is rebirth, represented that began in the 14th century.  Humans had emerged from the bloodbath of pestilence, disease and warfare to begin to tap into their innovative and artistic energies to create a new more beautiful sense of life that had been lost during the Dark Ages.  The wealth of human savoir-faire and knowledge started in Italy and branched out throughout Europe.  It was a time when human achievement had reached the pinnacle of one’s esteem.

Years later I visited the Louvre in Paris.  Most people that go to the Louvre want to see the Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo da Vinci.  Rather than competing with the tourists, waiting their turn to make it to the first row of sightseers, I immediately descended into the basement of the Louvre where I knew The Dying Slave was stored.  Few people know about this location so I had the basement of the Louvre and Michelangelo almost to myself.  There I saw the original sketch that Michelangelo drew before working on the actual marble.  I took a picture of the statue with its drawing, framed it and, since, have kept it. Whenever I happen to look at it, I am reminded of the greatness of both the human spirit and its potential.

As we emerge from the pandemic that has taken so many lives, hopefully, we can once more open the door to the ingenious inventions that have sprung from our technological prowess.  Just as the Gutenberg Printing Press spread the accomplishments of the Renaissance masters throughout the world, today’s Internet has increased, beyond all measure, our ability to communicate.  Perhaps we are entering into a Second Renaissance.