Humor’s Dark Side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zelenskyy and Babi Yar

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

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

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

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

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

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

                   But, hated I a passion that’s corrosive

                   Am I by antisemites like a Jew

                   And that is why I call myself a Russian.

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

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

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

We Are Americans First

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine If

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Negative Impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Side Story Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  It’s a Wonderful Life

                                     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Well Sown Mind Has No “Seems”

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

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

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

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

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

Dissecting a Pun

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A:   As his subordinate “clauses.”

Memories of Brother Benj  on Celebrating His 80th Birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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