The Dawn of Social Robots

The summary article, The Dawn of Social Robots, published in the Monitor on Psychology on January 2018 and written by Kirsten Weir, recalls the fictional use of robots reflected in the 100th episode of the Twilight Zone. In this episode, a female robot functions as a parent surrogate for children that lack a real parent. The robot has all the qualities of a human and is shown to be tearful like a mother would be when the children grow up and leave the “nest.” Weir points out robots are now being used to help develop social skills in children who are autistic. These robots can “analyze and adapt to each child’s behavior, tailoring their interactions to suit the child’s abilities, preferences and behavioral goals.”

The article continues to show how robots are currently used for comfort and companionship with elders.  PARO, a robotic harp seal developed by Wendy Moyle and colleagues, has been found to offer older adults with dementia a higher level of pleasure and quality of life as compared to a control group. This study recalls the famous Harry Harlow investigations in the ‘50’s on monkeys: He and his team found that infant rhesus monkeys preferred to spend more time with the “terry cloth monkeys” rather than the “wire monkeys” even when the wire made monkeys had the feeding bottle. One conclusion drawn from this study was that animals preferred the comfort of the touch or feel of the terry cloth mother as compared to that of the hard wire surrogate.
The article continues on the above theme to say that one day humanlike robots may provide companionship to older adults.

Another wonderful Twilight Zone episode showed a man compelled to live in exile, as a prisoner, on a neighboring asteroid from earth. There a humanlike robot with all of the emotions of a human being lived with him. The point of the episode was that the man stranded all on his own had developed a romantic love interest in the robot. Because of this love attachment the prisoner had formed with the robot, the stranded human had been able to survive the isolation of living all alone.

The studies mentioned in the above are beginning to demonstrate the interface between fiction and the technological advances in artificial intelligence that is occurring today. Scientists are now beginning to fathom what is needed to give robots a moral system that will help them in reacting to situations in which humans often encounter difficulty. These robots of the future will have to learn to understand the values and morals of the society they will be placed in to function in an autonomous manner as opposed to the factory robots that were developed in the past. For the sake of an enduring humanity, let us hope that future experts in technology employ artificial intelligence in a way that will benefit humankind. Mary Shelley’s prescient work, Frankenstein, is a reminder of the harmful consequences that can result from the misapplication of artificial intelligence.

Letter to Penn Applicants


Dear Penn Applicants,

I found it a pleasure interviewing you all and, indeed, I was quite impressed with both your level of maturity and motivation. If I had my druthers, the admissions committee would accept you all. But, unfortunately, that is not a high likelihood given the low ratio of accepted applicants to total applicants. Penn is a lot harder to get into now than it was when I applied back in 1963 for a number of reasons, two of which are: 1) Since the time I applied, the number of people applying to college has increased significantly and 2) Over the years, for a variety of reasons, Penn has become more popular resulting in a large increase in applicants.

Whether you are accepted to Penn or not, I believe each of you have the foundation to achieve success in the future. Let me offer a few suggestions that you may find helpful in guiding you through the next stage of your life’s journey. As you begin to develop a value system, keep an open mind on opinions that you may find difficult to accept. You may even consider befriending classmates that come from backgrounds that you have not experienced and, accordingly, think very differently than you do on the issues of the day. Unfortunately, our current leaders, on both sides of the fence, are not good role models regarding their ability to listen and empathize with the other side.
Try not to fall into the trap of holding fast to an idea without understanding the other side on a deeper level, where in fact, one’s background may play an important part. This is becoming harder and harder for young people like yourself to do due to the massive amount of information offered by the Internet, much of which can be of false origin. Hopefully, whichever college you choose to attend, you will feel comfortable listening to and expressing your ideas. I very much agree with what Former UC President Clark Kerr said about the University: “We are here not to make ideas safe for students but to make students safe for ideas.” This type of academic atmosphere allows the free exchange of ideas you or others may find either agreeable or disagreeable.

You will meet your obstacles, roadblocks, disappointments and failures. It is part of the human condition that none of us can avoid. If you do fail at a task such as not getting accepted to Penn, view it merely as a task and nothing more. That is to say you are not a failure for failing on a task. I promise you will face many more challenges in the future, great if you succeed on any one of them, but if you don’t succeed, not the end of the world.

Please feel free to let me know where you have chosen to go when you do receive word, I believe sometime in April, from the colleges you have applied and best of luck in all of your futures.

Warm regards,

Dr. Natelson

Memories Psychology

50th College Reunion

I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia 50 years ago on May 22, 1967, the day I turned 22 years old. I returned with my wife to Philadelphia for my reunion this past May. Wow, 50 years gone. At an earlier time in my life, my mother used to say: “The passage of time.”   Too well do I now know what she meant.

My first year at Penn was perhaps the most unique of all insofar as I met classmates from all over the country and beyond. This was the year before any of us were divided by the social forces called fraternities and sororities. My older brother who had graduated Penn in 1963 wanted to join a fraternity but had been “black balled,” a term used to describe those who were not accepted to the fraternity they wished to join. I remembered how hurt he had been by not being accepted. Although I was asked to go to a number of pledge parties to see if I was an appropriate fit with whichever fraternity had invited me, I clearly remember not having any desire to join or pledge a fraternity. I managed to meet some friends, who like me, never felt the need to become a member of a fraternity. In those days, we were called “Independents” and, I prided myself in claiming that status. Consequently, after my freshman year, I was never going to be in contact with the same breadth of classmates I had met that first year at Penn.

In my sophomore year at Penn, I do remember missing the unique camaraderie of classmates of all different types. The sorority–fraternity system is a way of segregating all of these types out: Thus, if you wanted to join a fraternity you had to be male to start, then you were classified or divided by your religion, and finally, you were classified or divided by how “cool” or how bright you were. Being Jewish, I was most familiar with the type of personalities Jewish fraternities were seeking.

The coolest and most prestigious Jews would pledge Sigma Alpha Mu (SAMI), the less prestigious but perhaps wilder Jewish guys would pledge ZBT or Pi Lambda Phi. The brainy but less cool types would pledge Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) and the brilliant nerds would pledge Theta Rho.  I’m quite sure these distinctions existed in non-Jewish fraternities and in sororities for women.   The fraternity-sorority phenomenon effectively segregated students by their own choosing.

Jonathan Haidt, in his article in the Atlantic: The Coddling of the American Mind, points out a recent disturbing trend on college campuses. A first sign of this change actually occurred at the University of Pennsylvania when an Israeli born student could not study because of the noise that was coming from a black sorority group outside of his dorm room window. He yelled at them: “Shut up, you water buffalo.” This was taken as a racial insult, and a complaint was sent to the dean against this student on the basis of the sorority members’ rights being violated. Later, the student was exonerated through a long and arduous process, and subsequently, he filed a lawsuit against the University of Pennsylvania.

According to Haidt, the above incident marked the onset of a new way in how students communicated their feelings and beliefs. Moreover, the Department of Justice and Education in 2013 expanded the definition of “sexual harassment to include verbal content that is simply unwelcome.” In following suit, what is known as “safe spaces” on campuses became prevalent and was extended to the classroom where both professors and students had to be extremely careful in not verbally offending other students. Rather, than teaching students to be more accepting and understanding of other people’s views, Universities are currently reinforcing their desire to avoid areas of disagreement in which they might feel uncomfortable.

To conclude, the University in protecting students from other student’s beliefs that they may find distasteful, is, in fact, creating a greater distance among those same students. When the University turns down a renowned speaker such as Condoleezza Rice because their students may be offended by her political views, these same students are gaining power by playing victim. Whereas fraternities and sororities created segregated living spaces for students, the University, by creating “safe spaces” for students, is segregating students on the basis of their belief systems. College marks a time period when our youth of today, and leaders of tomorrow, are most open to exploring new ideas and attitudes. A University that puts a damper on free speech among its students is closing off students to this very important growth period in their lives.




Life Lessons Literature Psychology

Reflections upon Reading Anna Karenina

When I compare the writing styles of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I view the former as seeing life through the external lens of societal forces impacting the major characters in his story. On the other hand, the latter describes his characters through internal or intrapsychic forces that propel them to act.   As a practicing psychologist, I find Dostoyevsky’s method of character development the more appealing but this is not to say that I did not enjoy reading Anna Karenina.

Tolstoy’s writing style provides the reader with his perception of Russia life during the 1870’s.   The description of Russia during this time allows the reader to see both the political and cultural shortcomings. But in providing a slice of life Tolstoy may go into details that don’t alter or add much to the story. An example of this is the rather lengthy scene of Levin arriving late on his wedding date due to a lack of a cleaned pleated shirt. The detailed description of Levin having to obtain a pleated shirt from his assistant adds little to the development of who he his in relation to the other main characters in the story.

The novel, Anna Karenina, has all the qualities of a grand scale soap opera insofar as its principal characters face love, adultery and then, in the fashion of the Greeks, tragedy. None of the major characters in Anna Karenina are outright villains inasmuch as they commit acts of kindness or goodness as well as acts to the contrary. Soap opera characters likewise can go from the heroic in some episodes to much lesser qualities in later episodes. Perhaps the popularity of both Tolstoy’s masterpiece and soap operas resides in this very complex nature of human behavior where evil and good at different times come from the same hand.

As I read Anna Karenina, I thought about George Eliot’s classic Middlemarch written about the same time Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina. One very significant difference between the two novels was their author’s gender: Eliot’s protagonist, Dorothea Brooke, is introduced early in her life when she is about 17 years old as a naïve and idealistic woman that decides to marry a man much older than she. When Anna is introduced, she has been already married for eight years to a man twenty years older than she.   But although he may be rigid in his beliefs, there is little evidence that he mistreats her or demeans her as there is in Dorothea’s marriage. Eliot resolves her heroine’s marital difficulties by bringing about the death of her spouse, Edward Casaubon. This allows Dorothea the release of her positive energies and the falling in love with a much younger but distant relative of Casaubon, Will Ladislaw.

Anna Karenina’s circumstances are much different: She has the insight to understand she is doing wrong falling in love with Count Vronsky and from the start wants to break it off. But she cannot and we see this love as a fatal attraction that begins to take control of her and becomes all encompassing. She is torn by her passionate love. This results in her diminishing both the character and stature of her husband, Alexei Karenin, causing her to fixate on her husband’s ears as, most repusilvely, sticking out from the rest of his face. Intrinsic to Anna’a attraction to the Count is the fate that binds her love to him much like the fate of that of a Greek tragedy. Anna meets Vronsky at a train station where it is discovered that one of the railroad workers has a fatal mishap that finds him killed at a train crossing. This sets the stage for where and how their relationship will ultimately end.

When Anna’s husband, Alexei Karenin, sees her in the midst of child birth on her death bed, he is able to forgive her and grant her the divorce and right to live with her much beloved son, Seryozha. Dorothea’s husband, on the other hand, writes a codicil to his will stating that she will forfeit all of his wealth if she marries Will Ladislaw. Dorothea chooses to marry Will for the goodness she sees in him, and, in so doing transcends social convention by not doing what others expect of her.  Meanwhile, Anna cannot accept the generous offer her husband makes to her because she does not want to feel indebted to him. Of course, if she accepts the offer we no longer have a Greek tragedy. By her rejecting the offer, she becomes trapped in a relationship, taboo to the norms of the times, with her gradual descent into a Hell. This rejection of her husband’s largesse due to her not wanting to feel indebted to him is difficult to understand given the way Anna acts in subsequent passages of the novel. An example of this is Anna disguising herself in entering her husband’s house to visit with her son on his birthday with the accompanying joy that they both experience. The pain that Anna feels in not being able to see her son, due to her not being divorced, is made very real throughout her relationship with Vronsky.

As I read further, I had hoped that somehow Anna would obtain a divorce, be reunited with her beloved son and live happily ever after. But it became apparent that this would not happen: She sees herself stained, a pariah, having lost all communal and social ties. In feeling entrapped and not being able to travel and interact with family and friends, she started to become extremely jealous of Vronsky and his ability to enjoy himself.  In the past, he would be able to reassure her but as her condition worsened, she refused to believe him, though there is no evidence for her to believe that he was seeing other women. Thus, she became extremely paranoid only thinking that he was cheating on her to the point that she could not and would not believe anything to the contrary. Tolstoy is quite able to let the reader enter her mind and be guided with this paranoid way of thinking in which she seeks revenge on Vronskly by planning her death. Toward the end of Anna’s life, Tolstoy injects a stream of consciousness in the manner in which Anna begins to plot the end of her life. To Tolstoy’s credit, the style of writing changes to closely shadow the paranoia that takes over and grips the tormented mind of Anna.

But there is more to Anna Karenina than her fatalistic death. There is the side story of Konstantin Dmitrich Levin, who often has been considered Tolstoy’s alter ego. In fact, Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, said that Levin was like her husband but without the latter’s talent. In contrast to Anna and Vronsky, the love between Levin and Kitty, the woman he marries has a much happier ending. Although Kitty, somewhat like Dorothea, is young and naïve when we first meet her, she lacks the depth and moral values that the latter demonstrates throughout Middlemarch. In fact, as we come to understand the moral complexities that Levin finds himself in, we wonder what so attracts him to Kitty.

Levin, most notably stands out, from the rest of the characters because of his dubious sense of reality. His doubt is forever present in his interaction with others who appear to have the answer to the economic and political problems that are a part of everyday life in Russia. Moreover, the corruption in government jobs alluded to by Tolstoy throughout the novel, very well could be viewed as the precursor to the subsequent Russian Revolution and the advent of communism.

Throughout the book, Levin is struggling with his ideas never quite coming to a conclusion on his version of truth unlike the other characters who voice more absolute arguments that he cannot fully understand. Implicit in what Tolstoy is saying is that Levin’s lack of understanding is more a reflection of the superficial values held by others in the novel such as the the brother of Anna, Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky and Levin’s own philosophically inclined brother, Sergei Ivanovich.

The last paragraph of the book summarizes Levin’s feelings: He recognizes that he will forever at times act inappropriately with his wife and others and later regret these actions, but above all he will be able to realize that his life will not be meaningless. Rather, he alone has the power to direct his life, while committing these human errors, toward the good.

Life Lessons Psychology Spirituality Sports

One Wave Too Many

When I was a child growing up in New Jersey, my parents would take us to visit an old classmate of my father and his family in Beach Haven. We would rent a cottage in the summer, and it was there that I learned how to body surf. When I relocated to Southern California in 1978, I lived with a cousin briefly. I taught him how to body surf, and so we shared many memorable moments riding waves into shore. It felt good being the teacher, the one with the expertise as to knowing in advance which wave would give you a good ride and when to swim out to it and, at what point to start swimming toward shore just at the moment it was being to break.

Sometimes one can overestimate his/her knowledge and experience. It had been a windy day with signs of a storm very possibly approaching the coastline of Southern California. I’d made plans to meet a friend of mine that I had worked with in the past in Santa Monica on the beach after work. When I met him, there was virtually no one in the water: The waves were breaking madly against the shoreline and to me it was a challenge to swim into them and ride them back to shore. There were no lifeguards on duty because it was evident that the beaches were really off limits to the public that afternoon. The blackening sky matched the black flags that indicated danger and a warning to bathe at your own risk.

If I had been rational, I would have known better. But I was gripped by the fearlessness of youth, although I was already in my mid 30’s. My friend, who was a good swimmer like me, did not want to go in the water, and I chided him for meeting me at the beach and not wanting to take part in the fun. To myself, I said “poor Richard, here he goes being overly cautious once more.” And so I entered the ocean with all caution thrown to the wind. I was a lone body in the surf.

It started off as great fun as I rode some huge waves but suddenly———a wave hit me hard and I did a somersault and as I tried surfacing was hit by another wave that took me under. Now I was out of breath, having swallowed some water before being able to surface. But worse, after I’d been in a wave heading toward shore, an undertow pulled me back out. I found myself in water well above my head, a taboo to those of us that know the ocean. If you can stand in the water, you can usually, without much difficulty, get yourself back to shore, even in severe conditions. Fighting an undercurrent, and caught between two sets of breaking waves—one close, the other farther out from shore—I couldn’t get any closer to the shoreline.

I came to an immediate realization: If I let myself be dragged out beyond the farther breaking waves it would be extremely difficult to get back. What I immediately knew was that I could not let my body be dragged out beyond the waves that were breaking farthest from shore because it would be extremely difficult to get back. I don’t remember there being a rip tide but rather a very rough ocean carrying waves of gargantuan size. I swam desperately, thrashing with swim strokes, perhaps like that of a whale just harpooned. I looked above at the darkening sky, no blue and no sun in sight, and I wondered, for a very brief moment, whether this was going to be it for me!

I no longer tried to ride waves in to shore for fear if I went out too far I would not be able to come back. I swam as hard as I could to get to the waves that were breaking close to the shore. All of this occurred in just a few minutes, but felt like a lifetime of unending agony. I had no idea how to escape the ocean’s wild, untamed ferocity. I felt as if I was being devoured by Nature, then taken to a place I had never been and did not want to enter.

Exhausted, I continued to swim between the two sets of waves and, as I approached the set breaking closest to shore I felt sand under my feet. It was if my prayers had been answered. With both feet on the ground I galloped as a wave hit me and drew me closer to shore. I plunged onto the wave and glided safely on my belly to shore. I lay there for perhaps two minutes, dry heaving water and once more looking up at the colorless sky. A teen-age boy, who perhaps had seen me struggle, came up to me and asked me if I was all right. I told him “yes.” I’d drifted some 50 to 70 yards away from the point I entered the ocean. I discerned a distant figure approaching. As it came closer, I realized it was my friend.

As I thought about my dangerous escapade, I understood: “masculine” bravado? In actuality, it was youthful foolishness. With no life guards in sight, I’d performed on a trapeze without a safety net. It was adolescent but very much male what I had done. If I had been pulled out beyond the farther set of waves, I doubt I’d be here to tell the story. As they were out that day, a helicopter may have sighted me. But the ocean is a huge expanse. Given how tired I was once ashore, how long could have I lasted in the deeps? Would I have been spotted before it was too late?

Never again did I body surf at an unguarded beach.

Eight Runs In

I invite my godson, Joe, to a Los Angeles Angels game, the first of a three game series with the Toronto Blue Jays. I am a Red Sox fan but it is evident this year, 2015, they are going nowhere so I transfer my loyalties to the Angels, a team I have come to like, living in Long Beach, California. But I also know that the Blue Jays have vastly improved since the beginning of the baseball season and will be no easy team to defeat, especially with their ace pitcher, David Price, starting.

So the game begins with Hector Santiago of the Angels retiring the first Toronto batter on strikes, and I begin to think that this may be an interesting pitcher’s duel.   But after that Santiago proceeds to walk three batters in a row. He can’t manage to get a third strike on any of them as they each foul off several pitches. Then the next batter lifts a pop fly to the infield and now it looks like Santiago may get out of the inning unscathed. Russell Martin, the Blue Jay catcher. is now up, and once more he like the other batters swings at a pitch and misses but when there are two strikes he starts fouling pitches off and the count goes full to 3 and 2. He fouls off another pitch and on the next pitch he walks with bases loaded letting in a run. There has yet to be a hit in the inning: A strike out, a pop fly to the infield and four walks.

I look over at Joe and say: “This reminds me of a game I saw with my dad and brothers sometime in the ‘50’s when the Red Sox were playing the Yankees in New York at Yankee Stadium. Things might get ugly here like they did there.” I remember the first inning of that game so well. It’s traced indelibly in my mind. The Red Sox pitchers walked batter after batter, gave up hits to batters, but failed to get three outs.

CRAAAACK!! The Blue Jay batter hits a ball to left field with Shane Victorino coming in on the ball as it is beginning to sink in front of him, dives forward with the ball landing in his glove but as he hits the ground the ball bounces out. The umpire shows the safe sign indicating the ball has not been caught and suddenly another two runs come in. I later find out that this is Victorino’s first error in a year and a half. Now the Blue Jays are leading 3 to 0 without getting one hit. Santiago can’t seem to control his fast ball but finally finds the strike zone and the next batter smacks it to right field for a single. So it is now 3 to 0 with bases loaded, one error on the Angels and one hit for the Blue Jays. Somehow Santiago escapes giving up any more runs by getting the last batter on a routine fly ball to the outfield.  But the Blue Jays go on to pound the Angels and win 9 to 2.

So I ask my godson, tech experts that all kids his age are, if he can locate online the inning by inning plays of the game the Yankees had with the Red Sox when the Yankees got 8 runs in the bottom of the first inning.  How many games would have a score like that?   Sure enough, he found that particular game and sent me the box score with the inning play by play: The game was played on Sunday, August 15, 1954 with the Red Sox losing 14 to 9.   I was 9 years old at the time.

Prior to the game, Red Barber, the Yankee announcer of old, was interviewing fans–where we were seated in the bleachers–for the sports station, which was then Channel 11. My older brother, at the time 12 years old, who knew zilch about baseball, had no stage fright, so when he saw Red with a mike in his hand promptly went over and was actually on T.V. attempting to answer questions like how many home runs did Babe Ruth hit in his lifetime (714).  My brother didn’t know any of the answers, so he looked over in my direction, guessing I would. I did. Interview completed, he sashayed over to my father, younger brother and me, and  in an unabashed manner inquired: “Did you see me on television?”

“Start the game,” I’m thinking, because in the eyes of a child the wait before the game is endless. I sat, restless, wishing this one would. Finally,  Bob Grim, the New York pitcher, finished his warm-ups with his teammates taking their positions.  25,000 avid Yankee fans and one died-in-the-wool Red Sox fan, inasmuch as my family hardly shared my devotion, rose for the National Anthem.  The scratchy recording ran its course, and the last notes faded to perfunctory applause.  As we turned to our seats, the home plate umpire motioned to Grim to start the game as Jimmy Piersall, the Sox lead-off hitter walks up to the batter’s box. I want to see everything as my body is filled with excitement.  Jimmy hits a single but Ted Williams, prized above all others, grounds into a double play. Billy Goodman, the next player up, grounds out to short to end the Red Sox half of the inning,

The box score my godson sent me yielded the following account of the Yankees’ half of the inning: Rizzuto walks; Collins flies out to center field; Mantle walks; Berra walks and now, without a hit, the Yankees have bases loaded. Noren walks scoring Rizzuto (1-0); Slaughter singles scoring Mantle (2-0); Carey singles scoring Berra and Noren (4-0). Brewer, the Sox starter, is now out of the ball game replaced by Hurd. A passed ball by the Red Sox catcher allows Slaughter to score (5-0); Hurd walks Coleman and then pitches to Grim, the Yankee pitcher, who hits a single scoring Carey (6-0); Rizzuto fouls out; Collins hits a single off of Hurd scoring Coleman (7-0). Hurd is now replaced by Brown. Mantle hits a single scoring Grim (8-0). Berra strikes out, and guess what, the inning is finally over.  It took three pitchers to record three outs. With the inning ending as it did, and with Berra’s uniform number being 8, I am thinking the baseball gods must have planned it all this way. eight runs on five hits: The New Yorkers always had a knack for taking advantage of the misplays made by other teams; in this case several free passes or walks issued to Yankee batters.

I have a vague memory of having to sit through this torture wondering if the bottom half of the first inning would ever end. When it finally did, I sighed, recognizing that the game was already over after only one inning of play. The Yankees went on to take an 11 to 0 lead before the Red Sox scored. Although the Red Sox were finished at the end of the first, they actually fought back and scored 9 runs, though my idol Ted Williams had a hitless game. Four days later, on August 19th, my youngest brother was born. The New York Giants who were my second favorite team after the Red Sox, went on to win the World Series that year by sweeping the favored Cleveland Indians, 4-0. I had the pleasure of seeing live on television the incredible catch that Willie Mays (another favorite of mine) made on Vic Wertz’s drive to deep center field in the Polo Grounds, a catch that I believe may have been one of the greatest of all time.

In 1978, I had just moved to California. That August the Red Sox blew a big lead they held over the Yankees and were forced into a playoff game against them at Fenway Park for the American League East Division title. The Red Sox were winning 2-0, when suddenly Bucky Dent of the Yankees hit a 3 run homer in the 7th inning, putting the Yankees in the lead.  They went on to win the game 5-4. After Dent’s homer, the silence in Fenway was deafening.  To add insult to injury, Bucky Dent was not known for his power and that home run was only the 5th he’d hit that season. Dent’s home run not only put a dent on Red Sox hopes but also led to another Yankee World Series.  Everyone knows what happened when the Red Sox played the Mets in 1986. The Red Sox looked like they were going to win the World Series in the 6th game until once more the baseball gods intervened.  Bill Buckner, Red Sox first baseman, could not field Mookie Wilson’s ground ball.  This error forced the Series into a 7th game which the Mets won.

Fifty years after the first inning fiasco of unfond memory–2004, a baseball season all Red Sox fans remember. With the Yankees ahead in the American League Play-off Series for the Pennant 3-0, the Red Sox went on to win the next four games in a row–a first in baseball history–to capture the Pennant. I sat glued to the television in disbelief those last four games.  The Curse of the Bambino that had hung over the Red Sox team finally had been broken. The Sox then went on to beat the Colorado Rockies four games in succession to sweep the World Series. I had the good fortune to be alive to see it all. To this day I am not sure whether those 50 years took more or less time than the bottom of the first inning at the game I, a 9 year child, saw with my family on August 15th, 1954.

A Memory That Refuses To Fade

Fifty years have passed, and yet the moment remains as clear as yesterday. For most of us, high school graduation meant an emotional severing of the umbilical cord.   But that moment, November 22, 1963 had an immediate impact on all of us who lived through it: The shot heard around the world.

At the University of Pennsylvania, I had been studying all night for a freshman chemistry exam scheduled for that fateful Friday afternoon. My mind rambled toward the end of the exam, the end of the weekend and, finally, to the following week when I would go home to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends.

It was about 1:30 the next day when I donned a black poplin jacket and left Bishop White, my dormitory. My first steps outside forced me to shield my sensitive and still dry eyes from the sun’s glare. I ceased drumming the numerous equations into my consciousness and plodded numbly toward the Physical Sciences building. My body and mind seemed disconnected as my legs propelled me forward.

I can still feel that hand thumping on my shoulder, invading my lonely privacy, and I still hear that troubled and tremulous voice beckoning to me: “Hey you! Hey you!” he was saying, “The President was just shot.”

President shot? My mind ran: “What President?” He answered my thought: “Yes the President—Kennedy was just shot.” My already dazed mind was spinning like a roulette wheel, not wanting to stop to take in what he had just said. “He’s crazy,” I thought. I was in no mood for joking, and I became angry.

But the stranger tugged at me relentlessly and that wild look in his eyes changed my anger to fright. I ran ahead to the nearest two students and saw similar agonizing looks. Those with radios turned them up and suddenly the city was on the air.

My mind was searching for an escape, not an exam room. I walked on, weak and nauseous, by force of habit. When I arrived at the exam room, my instructor’s smile betrayed his ignorance. I blurted out the news, but he did not want to hear it. “If it’s not true, you fail chemistry for the semester,” he said. I cried out: “It’s true, it’s true, it’s true.”

Because I was alone with him, I really wanted someone to come in and tell him it was true (yet hoping somehow that what I had heard was not so).   They did come, and they did tell him, and when he came over to me, his sad look of embarrassment was, by far, the most poignant apology he could offer me.

Somehow I controlled my emotions for the hour exam. Later in the dormitory, a friend from Marblehead, Massachusetts, red with tears, was whining incomprehensibly. He was drinking along with the others. I joined them. We tolerated the intolerable by drinking. As I channeled all my energy into deep prayer to save a dying leader, I was amazed at how insignificant my own problems suddenly had become.

That night I sought solitude. To be alone was the only way I could grasp the meaning of what had occurred. I walked into one of the study rooms in the dormitory. Nobody was there. There were papers with bold print strewn all over the floor. A campus guard walked slowly toward me. He walked as if he were sinking in quicksand with little strength or desire to keep his head above the quagmire. When he reached me, the sorrow in his face reflected his words: “It’s a damn shame, a real damn shame.” He pointed to the headlines and started to sob. We looked at each other. Our grief was so intense that we forgot who we were: He was no longer a campus guard and I a student. The events of the day had bound us together.

Before my time, there was World War I, the Depression, Pearl Harbor and Hitler. But for me the day that John F. Kennedy was shot is etched indelibly in time: That day was a precursor of the madness that the ‘60s would bring. The security and serenity of the ‘50s and early ‘60s were suddenly shattered by this tragic event.

Each year at Thanksgiving I cannot taste the turkey and dressing without also reliving the impressions of that fateful day: a few chemical equations, that strange hand pounding on my shoulder, my instructor’s look of disbelief and, one campus guard, a solitary figure with tear–stained face. It is still vivid in my mind, and I suppose it always will be.

Inside Out

As a psychologist, I have noticed that that it has been a challenge for film directors to describe the vast complexities of human behavior on a movie screen that the public will find entertaining. Movies, as visual productions, limit the presence of narrative description so essential in character development. But with the help of technological advances, what is lost in narrative description can be replaced by scenes filled with visual narration. The Pixar Disney production of Inside Out does just this, in a brilliant display of emotions, taking place within the mind of an 11 year old girl named Riley.

Because my view of what a traditional movie on the big screen should look like, I have not been too excited with animated movies. However, despite this bias of mine, I found Inside Out to stand alone on its own merits of innovation by demonstrating how an 11 year old girl’s emotions may cause her to act in certain ways. The animated features, in effect, magnify the conflicting feelings that Riley is currently experiencing.

The catalyst that triggers this girl’s emotions occurs when her parents relocate from Minnesota, where she had played ice hockey, to San Francisco.   Departure from one’s familiar surroundings is hard for anyone but, without a doubt, much harder for a child or adolescent. Years ago, when I was doing some consulting work for LA county, one of the clerical workers, although having never attended college, was well read and to me appeared as bright, if not brighter than a college graduate. Like college students in an English Lit class, we would discuss the finer points of some great books that we both had read. I wondered why he was a clerk, a position well below what I considered his academic potential.

As we came to know each other better, he told me that when he had moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, it had been a devastating blow to his emotional growth. He had to give up his relationships with close friends and, he encountered great difficulty in adjusting to the change in his environment. I listened and could see the pain reflected in his face as he talked about this sad event that had occurred some twenty to twenty five years earlier. I wondered whether it was this event that had kept him from going to college and actualizing what I considered his very high potential inasmuch as this memory appeared so vivid in his mind.

In the movie, Inside Out, we see how Riley, the 11 year old girl, deals with the heart breaking experience of leaving her hometown through her emotions of Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. Throughout this journey, the two primary emotions are Joy and Sadness and, consequently I will focus my review on these two emotions. One of the basic tenets of the movie is the important role that Sadness plays in helping Riley cope with the stressors that her new environment bring. Some of these stressors are peer pressure as seen in the classroom and, when she tries out for ice hockey as a girl.   She is so overwhelmed by her emotions that she decides to leave her family as she proceeds to steal her mother’s credit card and board a bus heading out of San Francisco. But once again her emotions come into play recognizing the hurt she would cause her parents.

Riley’s turning point comes when her Sadness, the flip side of Joy, becomes her dominant emotion. When she is able to express the Sadness that her departure from her old home in Minnesota has caused, her parents, who all along have been preoccupied with the details of the move, become aware of what she has been facing and are able to embrace and bond with her in a supportive manner. If the emotion of Sadness does not emerge, we sense that Riley will somehow not be able to successfully complete her transition to her new environment. As Riley begins to be more comfortable in her new environment, Joy, once more dominates her other emotions and the movie ends on a happy note.

What is most remarkable about Inside Out is that the movie has innumerable possibilities for sequels. For example, how about a boy Riley’s age or older who faces peer pressure along with the added difficulty of getting along with his siblings. In the film, Riley has no siblings. Another possibility would be how a child copes with a traumatic situation such as being beaten up by a bully or observing a parent being abused. We are beginning to know so much more about how the brain coordinates our emotions that, presently, such situations could be visually enlivened with the use of animation the way Inside Out did.   The beauty of Inside Out is that it is an entertainment that can be shared by adults and children both insofar as adults can surely remember the bumps in their own lives that may have made growing up not always such a smooth transition from childhood to adulthood.

Is there room for changes in the structure of inside Out that would improve on the content and what it has to offer? As a psychologist, I know that the driving force behind human emotions is thoughts and, it is the ability to think that distinguishes us from other primates. Perhaps a future movie can deal with two fictitious characters experiencing the same situation (such as moving from home) in a different way. The key here would be to show how one character copes better with the other because his/her thoughts are more accepting to the change than the other character.   Accordingly, the character shown to cope better would be more likely to have joy as a predominating emotion than sadness in contrast to the other character.

The Meaning of Mazel

Although I understood that the word mazel is the Hebrew word for luck, I could never completely accept when my mother would say:  “Bernard, in life, you have to have mazel.” Was she saying that any good future or good life I would have would be dependent on luck? I had difficulty accepting these words inasmuch as I wanted to believe that in growing up and making decisions,  I would not be limited to a predetermined destiny, but rather that my actions would determine my fate.

When I told Yetta Kane, a holocaust survivor, what my mother had said to me when I was younger, she put it differently by saying: “You make your own mazel.” As a holocaust survivor, losing much of what she had and seeing the worst of humankind, she was not inclined to rely on luck to turn her life around.  She and her late husband relied on mostly hard work along with their wit and intelligence to carve out both a happy and prosperous life in a new country, the United States of America. From a psychological point of view, making your own mazel occurs when a person takes on an internal locus of control perspective of the world. Because I can choose what I want to do with my life, I rely on my skills and abilities to achieve happiness and success. On the other hand, a person that sees the world from an external locus of control, views his/her life as determined by fate or luck and exerting little or no control over the events that may occur in life.

Of the many couples I have seen in my private life and my practice as a psychologist, often both partners will say that the way circumstances evolved it was pure luck that they met and became a couple. I will agree with them that their first meeting one another may have been based on luck, but I will then comment that it is not luck that both of you are still together years later as a couple. So it was mazel that they first met, but in staying together as a couple, they have made their own mazel or good fortune.

Was my mother wrong then, when she said: “You have to have mazel.” As we get older, what our parents said when we were younger, begin to make more sense. I began to see and read of family, friends and others becoming ill and dying at an early age, not because they were bad people or had not taken care of themselves but rather because they were simply unlucky to have had illnesses where there is no known cure. So really what I believe my mother was doing was equating mazel with health and fitness some of which we can control but much of which we cannot.

Even though I exercise and watch what I eat, I cannot control certain illnesses, such as cancer, entering and attacking my body. So far, I have had good mazel as I am in quite good physical shape. But there are elements of my life I can control: We know, for example, that car accidents are one of the greatest causes of death. Wisely, I never drink and drive. In a broader sense, the choices we make to improve on our life have an internal locus of control foundation. We may meet someone on a plane that gives us an idea to further our career and so, the meeting is luck based on that of external locus of control. But if we follow-up with the suggestions that we have received, I would maintain that that takes on more of an internal locus of control  inasmuch as we decided voluntarily to take action of our own accord.

I have found in my practice as a psychologist that people with a healthy understanding of what they can do (internal locus of control) and what they can’t do (can be external locus of control such as changing the weather or preventing some illnesses) are more likely to function well in their lives. Those that attribute luck to events they can control, such as studying for an exam and doing well on it, or responsibility for an illness that is really beyond their control function less well in their lives. When you go to Las Vegas the next time and throw the dice, it is purely luck whether you win or lose. The part that is not luck is: 1) Going to Vegas and 2) How long you stay at the craps table. You can leave when you are ahead or you can stay at the table until……..

Life Lessons Psychology Religion Spirituality

Shavout: Reflections on My 70th Birthday and Second Bar Mitzvah

Honored Rabbi Cantor, a person I have enjoyed knowing these last few months and Cantor Sofer, family and friends and fellow congregants, let me first give special thanks to Ted Hirschfeld for the excellent teaching he provided to me on my Haphtarah today. My wife Lisa also deserves special thanks for encouraging and enduring the time I spent learning and practicing my Haphtarah. To those that asked: Yes I did have a Bar Mitzvah on May 25, 1958, on Sunday the first day of Shavuot. Remembering what my mother, may she rest in peace, said to me many times: “Bernard we are a strange people, we eulogize the dead and criticize the living.” As I remembered the sense of exhilaration I felt, going through the process of practicing my Bar Mitzvah some 57 years ago, especially, that very last week, I decided to repeat the process that I had experienced in my early adolescence. In so doing, I wanted you, my friends and family, to join me in this celebration.

Let me begin by going back in time. It is the week of my Bar Mitzvah, 1958, and suddenly out of nowhere, I who rarely ever got sick, had developed a rash that within a couple of days covered my entire face. You can imagine my mother, fraught with fear: Her first thought being that I had German Measles as it was thought contagious and was making the rounds in the neighborhood at that time. Asking if I was okay, I repeatedly told her I felt fine except for the fact that I had a need to itch my face where the rash had spread. My father, as always the optimist he was, told my mother not to worry as I would be fine. But the rash spread and worsened to my mother’s distress and, I continued to feel the need to itch. When my face became covered with red marks my mother decided to have me stay home on Friday and on to the doctor I marched. I did not mind missing school because by this time I was feeling pretty uncomfortable in my own skin. How this could be happening, I wondered, on my Bar Mitzvah week. Why was God doing this to me? What was He trying to say to me?

Ah, how we can sometimes miss the obvious. The doctor immediately diagnosed my problem as a bad case of poison ivy. I had played stick ball with a friend, Marc Goldblatt, who is among us today in the congregation and on our block was an undeveloped lot. I went to fetch a ball he hit into the lot and I had stuck my head into a clump of what had turned out to be poison ivy. I took liberal amounts of calamine lotion and by Sunday my condition had cleared up to the point where I looked like a normal acned adolescent.

On a broader and more universal level, I remember being in the 4th grade in 1955 when I was 10 years old and the teacher saying that the likelihood of Israel surviving was small inasmuch as she was surrounded by its enemies among which was Egypt’s Nasser and, thus would more than likely lose its statehood. Saddened, I talked to my parents about that and they somehow reassured me not to worry. Obviously, the world underestimated the people of Israel as indeed, they are still here, stronger than ever. Besides which, Nasser had to put up with the likes of Hollywood in 1956, when Charlton Heston, as Moses, crossed the Red Sea unharmed in Cecil Demille’s epic: The Ten Commandments.
1948 was a huge turning point in Jewish history when Israel gained its Statehood and became a nation after its battle for independence. It had been 2100 years since the Jewish people had won a battle. when the Maccabees stood up against the Greeks in 163 b.c.e. 2100 years and, here I thought 86 years was like an eternity, when the Red Sox finally won a World Series in 2004. 86 years may seem a long time but compared to 2100 years it is a mere speck of time.

And now what about this holiday called Shavuot. Shavuot is the Hebrew word for weeks and has been referred to as the Festival of Weeks. By custom, we as Jews count 50 days from the 2nd day of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot which would be today. 50 days represented when the grain was ready to be harvested by the farmers. Shavuout is sometimes referred to as Pentecoste from the Greek work meaning 50. Shavuout represents the time, when Moses leading the Jewish people out of Egypt crossing the Sea of Reeds and entering Mount Sinai in what is now the Sinai Peninsula, receives the Torah or 5 Books of Moses from Genesis to Deutoronomy from God at Mount Sinai.

Today I read a haphtarah. A haphtarah is a series of selections from the books “Prophets” each of which corresponds to the Torah reading of that day. And so, my haphtarah corresponds to the Torah reading of today describing Moses’ journey to Mount Sinai. My haphtarah dates back to the time the Jews were in exile, after being conquered by the Babylonians, and comes directly from Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot he had in which he sees heaven opening up above with four heavenly creatures, each having four faces: 1) Human; 2) Lion; 3) Ox and an 4) Eagle. Each has wings extended upward at once human with other characteristics that are not human where he sees faces of humans and animals combined with wings that appear to turn into the angels of God. When he sees what he believes to be the image of God on a throne above the creatures, he falls to the ground; he then hears a rumbling voice believing that God has made him a prophet with the goal of leading his people back to the Promised Land. Ezekiel has this vision in Babylon after he is taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar who seizes Jerusalem in 598 b.c.e. where Ezekiel was born of a priestly family. The vision occurs in the 5th year of the Babylonian Exile which would have been around 593 b.c.e.

Now in ancient times, when a people were conquered they had two ways of understanding or reacting to being conquered: 1) The people that conquered them must have had stronger gods so let’s accept or believe in their gods and abandon our gods or for Jews their one God or 2) We are being punished because we have sinned against our God so we must correct our sins of the past to once more gain favor in the eyes of our God.

Around this time, carbon dating in areas where Jews lived, were rife with figurines and objects showing that Jews shared the practices of idolatry (idol worship) with other peoples. As a result of his vision, Ezekiel told his fellow exiles that the captivity was but temporary punishment for their disloyalty to God. He rebuked them for their ways and told them that their fellow Jews in Judah (Israel of today) would suffer the same fate if they did not change their ways. And sure enough, Nebuchadnezzar and his armies in 587 b.c.e destroy the Temple of Judah in Israel. Ezekiel has another vision and then is asked to record the date and the event. When the sad news was confirmed, the Jews in Babylon realized that Ezekiel the priest was truly a prophet of G-d: Ezekiel assured his people that they would survive as long as they worshipped God and followed His laws ceasing any practices of idolatry. The result was truly phenomenal inasmuch as after the destruction of the Temple in 587 b.c.e., carbon dating has shown that the Jewish people gave up the practice of idolatry. The giving up of idols and truly accepting a monotheistic God, I believe, to be a watershed in the history of Judaism.

We know from history that in 539 b.c.e. Cyrus, the Good king of the Persians, enters Babylon and gives back to the original cities the sacred objects carried off to Babylon. In 538 b.c.e., the Edict of Cyrus is proclaimed allowing the Jewish exiles to return to the Promised Land. In 537 b.c.e., the foundation of the Second Temple is laid and between 520-515 b.c.e. the Second Temple is erected.

Moses, receiving the Torah or having written it is, of course, more symbolic than historic. There really is no specific date as to when the Torah was written inasmuch as the event itself transcends any one point in time. Modern religious scholars believe that the writing of the Torah started sometime after the reign of King David in 1000 b.c.e. and, it was edited during and after the exile of the Jews in Babylon. With good fortune, when the Jews went into exile in Babylon, they were able to take the scrolls of parchment that the Torah was written on. In the 5th century b.c.e., the Pentateuch or the Torah, that is the five books of Moses, becomes recognized and accepted by all Jews. Ezra, a scribe, was said to have read this accepted version to his people when they have returned to Jerusalem. Acceptance of the Torah is then the binding force that kept the Jews together till present day after other tribes and peoples disappeared from the face of the earth.

So what then is the significance of the Torah? It would take an Irish Catholic, Thomas Cahill, to address this question in his wonderful book: The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. This is a book I recommend to both Jew and Non-Jew to read as it is a fascinating study of the Jewish Bible or the Torah. So now, let me highlight a few of the main points Cahill makes about the Torah that is the 5 books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Most importantly, the Jewish Bible changed history by literally creating history. Prior to the wonderings of Abraham outside of Ur, where he was believed to come from, every religion and culture in ancient times saw the world in cyclical terms with no movement forward. Humans simply followed the cyclical pattern of nature with no event being unique but rather being enacted perpetually. These cycles were marked by: 1) The phases of the moon; 2) the cycle of a woman’s body and 3) the seasons. Humans were believed to have no control of their fate as it was predetermined by their gods. The beer of the Sumerians was good because of its associations with the eternal, with the archetypal goddess who took care of such things. Nothing is considered new. But if everything is a circle repeating itself, there is no such thing as a future. With no future in sight, if all is a circle, there is little purpose to life because the pattern will repeat itself and the future cannot be influenced if everything happens over and over. The Israelites became the first people to live—psychologically—in real time, and they also became the first people to value the New and to welcome Surprise.

As Cahill points out, the Bible is distinctly different from anything else written before or after ancient times, because it lists individuals’ names “including names of women” thereby saying that every one of these persons was uniquely significant. No such listing of commoners’ names exists in pre-biblical literature. Other writings such as the Greeks, for example, have gods and humans mixed with the fate of the characters often predetermined by Fate. The lack of free will in the writings of these ancient cultures is evident, for example, in the famous Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles written in the 5th century b.c.e. In this tragedy, Oedipus, from the outset, is doomed to kill his father and marry his mother.

Rather, as Cahill puts it, the Bible is history, not mythology. Each episode fits into a logical progression of events so that it is told against the background of everything that has come before it giving it a natural sense and unity.

The second transformative Jewish contribution was its understanding of God. The Hebrew God, unlike every god before, “cannot be manipulated,” as this God “is a real personality who has intervened in real history, changing its course and robbing it of predictability.” The Torah’s account is grounded in its monotheism, a concept at the heart of the religion of Israel and promoted in Christianity and Islam.

Third, the Jews gave the world the notion of human freedom on two levels: The first and more obvious is the Torah’s rejection of slavery in the human condition, a reason why black Americans took so much solace in the Hebrew Bible’s Exodus narrative. The other point I discussed above: The Bible’s complete rejection of the cyclical view of life. “We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free but are as liberated as were the Israelite slaves when they crossed the Sea of Reeds” in their exodus out of Egypt.

Fourth, through the Ten Commandments, “for the first time human beings are offered a code without justification. Because this is God’s code no justification is required for who but God can speak: Thou Shalt and Thou Shalt not without such authority that no further words are needed.”

Fifth the Jews gave the world a day of rest. “No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest.” Even today you can hear many of us say: TGIF: Thank God It’s Friday. Those people, who work seven days a week, even if they are paid millions of dollars to do so, are in the biblical conception, slaves.

Sixth, the Bible’s “bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law.” I would maintain that this principle, especially, resonated with the founding fathers of America as they were said to base many of their ideas of justice and freedom on the basis of their reading of the Bible. Certainly, at the start of the Revolutionary War, America was viewed as the underdog against British forces but we know how that war ended.

Let me conclude on a positive note: Shavuot is a time of gratitude as it is the time when Jews accepted the Ten Commandments from God and the Bible and, it also represents the time of harvest of the farmers in Israel. As a practicing psychologist, I know that gratitude is a very important ingredient of happiness. Those that lack gratitude in their lives are often weighed down by the everyday difficulties that life presents to all of us.

Studies have found that people who are grateful are likely to be happier, hopeful and energetic, and they possess positive emotions more frequently. Individuals also tend to be more spiritual or religious, forgiving, empathic and helpful, while being less depressed, envious or neurotic. And here I may end by saying: Let us all count our blessings.