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Crisis Management Leadership Life Lessons

Northridge Earthquake

After moving from New York City to Southern California, I did not look forward to being greeted by an earthquake.  Back in 1981, I was living on the 18th floor of a condominium in Long Beach with my cousin.  On a clear day from my bedroom looking north, I could see the famous Hollywood sign.  When the building suddenly started swaying and shaking, and I realized what was happening, I closed my eyes and hoped it would end as quickly as it had begun.  The recognition of an earthquake in progress brings a complete sense of helplessness to whomever experiences it.  Because the origin of the earthquake was not close to Long Beach and its magnitude was not great, Long Beach did not incur much damage.

Since living in California, by far the worst earthquake I have experienced came in January of 1994 where the center was in Northridge, California in the San Fernando Valley in the County of Los Angeles. It had a magnitude of 6.7 and, it occurred at 4:31 in the morning, Pacific Standard Time, with its duration approximately from 10 to 20 seconds.   Suddenly awakened from a deep sleep, I remained breathless, as it seemed an eternity before the movement of my condominium building ceased (I was thankfully no longer living in a high rise).  Without a doubt, much worse damage would have occurred if the earthquake had struck at a time when most people were up and around.

When the earthquake hit, I was employed as a psychologist in a bilingual mental health clinic, El Centro, located in East Los Angeles.  Because there had been a fair amount of damage in downtown LA, temporary shelters were set up for people whose homes had been affected.  El Centro sent a case worker and me to Belmont High School, the site of one of the shelters, with the task of helping families, impacted by the crisis, cope better.

When I arrived at the school early the next morning, I saw my colleague who pointed to a mass of people surrounding some Red Cross workers, who were carrying megaphones.  Because she was already working with a family, I went over to see if I could help.   Upon hearing one of the Red Cross workers asking if anyone could speak Spanish, I quickly went over and told him I did.  He told me to tell the crowd to return to where their individual families were staying and water and food soon would be brought to them.  When I translated what he had said in Spanish, all the families immediately dispersed, and, as they formed lines to return to their designated areas,  I had this eerie feeling that I was like Moses in the Bible, casting a rod on the Red Sea, that allowed the Jews to cross over the water unharmed.

I was surprised to discover that the Red Cross workers had come from New York, and other areas quite far from California, with few, if any able to communicate in Spanish.  Because the target population was first generation immigrants from Central America and Mexico, about 80% of the families could only speak Spanish.  While the Red Cross workers were able to organize the food bank with helpers that spoke English, the case worker and I spent time with the families, many of whom had children that had some symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Because there were so many families in the makeshift shelter at the high school, I knew there would not be sufficient time to carry out an actual therapy session with each one.  Upon meeting the family members, in order to expedite the process, I made a quick assessment of how badly they were all hurting from the disaster.   I was able to do this by simply asking how they were doing, and afterwards, by observing their responses, with special attention given to how the children were doing.

I began by informing the family about the services offered by El Centro and, that they could be had at virtually no cost to them.  Fortunately, there were some resources made available to each family such as paper and pencil. A typical intervention that I found to be quite effective was to have the child or children draw a picture of their apartment after the earthquake, and then afterwards, have them draw it the way they remembered it.  I had the parents then reinforce to the children that their apartment would be repaired, and most importantly, they would have a place to return.   Depending on the needs of each family, I spent anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, but given the number of families there, I made it a point to budget the time spent with each one.

It was a long day as we were there for more than 10 hours with a very short break for lunch.  But because the families expressed their appreciation for our efforts, the case worker and I both shared a sense of satisfaction at our accomplishments.  At the end of the day, one of The Red Cross workers confided in me that he would have liked to have been more useful, but obviously could not, due to the fact that he did not speak Spanish.

I do not want my readers to think that I am saying The Red Cross is not a worthwhile organization.  In fact, some years earlier I had taken a very beneficial training course in how to deal with natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires or floods.  Nevertheless, it was evident that there was a lack of coordination vis-à-vis a need’s assessment with local agencies in Los Angeles that knew more precisely what type of services were required.  In this case, it was not so much that there was a lack of assistance but rather that the wrong sort of aid had been sent.

Similarly, there has been many errors made in adequately managing the current coronavirus health crisis.  In view of the fact that we are all living in the “shrinking” world of globalization, it is imperative that nations cooperate with one another.  When China refused to accept the seriousness of the coronavirus by hiding the scope of the problem from the world, what started as an epidemic quickly turned into a pandemic.  Once the medical profession understood the potential danger of what might happen here, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, needed to lead in administering–as soon as possible–test kits to work on tracking the virus.  Unfortunately, for a number of reasons that we now understand, this did not happen in any timely manner.

To conclude, the initial response by The Red Cross to the Northridge Earthquake showed a lack of coordination with the local agencies in California that were directly involved, an absolute necessity in the successful handling of any type of crisis.  The most important lesson here is that leaders need to talk to local experts on whatever the emergency entails to develop a united initiative.

Upon Reading Jorge Luis Borges

 

Although I had recently received a master’s degree in psychology in the early ‘70’s, I was still quite unsure of my future inasmuch as I had held hidden dreams of becoming a writer.   I enrolled in a short story course at New York University, not for credit, but merely to investigate if and where my talents may lie in this area.  The professor recommended that I read a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, titled Death and the Compass.  Around that time, I began writing a novel that to this day remains with me, unpublished. I, like many other authors to be, recognized that the likelihood of making a living as a writer, certainly would be extremely difficult, if at all practical.  This realization made it easier for me to choose a much more reliable means of sustenance and so, while working full time as a probation officer, I subsequently, pursued and received a doctorate in psychology.

Be that as it may, my reading Death and the Compass turned out to be an eye-opening experience.  This was a detective story never encountered by me before. I discovered that Borges had been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, regarded by many as the founder of the mystery story.  The plot in Poe’s narratives is structured around the detective who, through penetrating analysis, successfully traces the clues of the murder to the killer.  Insofar as Borges was an avid reader, he may have seen Eric Ambler’s novel, A Coffin for Dimitrius, that was published in 1939, three years before Death and the Compass appeared.  Whereas in Ambler’s novel, the protagonist is a writer who is pursuing clues in better understanding the character of the evil Dimitrius, Borges’ story focuses on the detective, Erik Lonrot.  Lonrot’s modus operandi is similar to that of Poe’s Auguste Dupin, who was Poe’s master at solving esoteric clues left by the villain at the scene of the crimes committed.

Borges invites me as the reader along with Lonrot who, with his sleuthing skills, perseveres in uncovering the riddles awaiting him at each crime site.  What appears to be inscrutable to his subordinates at the local police department, only stimulates Lonrot to more assiduously study the bizarre manner by which the killer thinks.  As he goes about dissecting so thoroughly the clues at each murder scene, I visualized him as a modern-day Sherlock, attending to his everyday business of solving crimes.  I am entranced by his great analytical mind and, with each page read, I feel myself becoming more and more a part of the chase.  My emotional attachment to Lonrot and his search for the bad guy brought me a sense of pleasure that, ironically, became that much greater when, both Lonrot and I, surprisingly stumbled over the story’s denouement.  The unexpected and the unfamiliar ending made this story that much more pleasurable to me.

Although I have enjoyed many other stories by Borges, I will limit my comments to one other favorite story of mine:  The Aleph.   As I read this story, I sensed that I was stepping into two parallel universes:  the classic and the contemporary.  The story begins with the narrator, Borges himself, declaring that Beatriz Viterbo, a woman he respected and viewed with great awe, had suddenly passed away.   Because her birthday was on April 30th, he vowed to visit her home on that date every year and meet with her first cousin, Carlos Argentino Daneri.

I was immediately taken by the name Daneri and his cousin Beatriz.  Was this a story of Dante, and his unquenchable love for the beautiful Beatrice Portinari?  But Carlos was such a mundane character and in Borges’ eyes a dilettante “whose ideas seemed inept to me, their exposition so pompous and vast.” The magic and beauty of the diaphanous Beatriz in contrast to the vain glory of her cousin Carlos gave the story a comically absurd effect.

Danieri boasts to Borges about his writing skills.  After looking at his poetry, Borges refrains from judgment and hopes not to hear from Daneri any time too soon.  But a few weeks later Daneri calls Borges, and in an agitated voice, tells him that his house will be razed to make room for the expansion of a confectionary owed by two powerful men of the town.  When Borges visits Danieri, he studies the portrait of Beatriz in wonderment and is told by Danieri that the ineffable Aleph is in the wine cellar.  I descended with Borges into the cellar thinking like him that this may be a trap as it is dark, dank and eerie, a place that Edgar Allan Poe would so often visit in his brutal tales: I immediately thought of the Pit and the Pendulum.

Borges discovers the Aleph when the world opens up to him in all directions as he sees “the earth in the Aleph and in the earth the Aleph” and so much more.  In fact, it has been conjectured by some that the infinite vastness of the Aleph is Dante himself.  But Borges, in a playful manner, refuses to allow us to believe that he would write in such an abstruse way when he says: “Critics have detected Beatrice Portinari in Beatriz Viterbo, Dante in Daneri, and the descent into hell in the descent into the cellar.  I am, of course, duly grateful for these unlooked-for gifts.”

In spite of the fact that I never became a writer, I am most thankful that my professor opened my mind to the many labyrinths so well imagined by Mr. Borges.  I recommend that those of you, who have seen this essay, treat yourself and read Borges’ perhaps, like I, starting off with the Death and the Compass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Consulting Psychology Life Lessons Psychology Spirituality

The Serenity Prayer and Beyond

 

The lines, now recognized as the Serenity Prayer, are rooted in a sermon that Reinhold Niebuhr, an American Reformed theologian, gave either in 1932 or 1933. They are the following:

  • Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped and the insight to know the one from the other.

Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve-Step programs have adapted it in the following way:

  • God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    Courage to change the things I can,
    and Wisdom to know the difference.

Regardless of the wording, the basic meaning does not change and, I would maintain that these words have had a profound effect on the way people think about things. One of the difficulties I have found people to have is their belief that they are capable of changing situations that they simply cannot. Thus, employees are not likely to change their boss’s behavior just as spouses are not likely to change certain traits their partners may have. The distinction is that they can change the way they react to their bosses or their spouses much more easily than changing how these significant others behave toward them.

An important ingredient in cognitive-behavior therapy is implicitly stated in the Serenity Prayer: You can change the way you think about others but don’t expect others to change for you. This is not to say–you can’t ask your spouse to change a certain type of behavior that you might find bothersome or annoying–without ever arriving at the desired consequences. You may. But generally, I have found that in most situations it makes more sense for a married couple to be able to live with and accept each other’s ingrained differences. Frequently, couples enter marital counseling with each partner blaming the other without understanding how each one’s behavior impacts the marriage.

Another illustration of this could be a student, after studying long hours, performs poorly on an exam. That student may blame her/himself for not doing well. Let us look at this example more closely. If the student did the best he/she could, then perhaps she/he may come to the conclusion that he/she is not particularly skilled in the area that exam covers. But if this is the case, does she/he have to feel badly about himself? Given the above information, I would answer this question with a firm “no.” However, what if that same student did poorly because of intense test anxiety, but she/he would have achieved a much higher score if the experienced anxiety was under control. Because no one of us can perform equally well in all areas that we may partake in, in the first situation it may be preferable for the student to accept this fact and focus on another field. In the second case, however, in which the student is suffering from test anxiety, she/he can change this through techniques involving relaxation and/or meditation with the possible help of a therapist or expert in that subject.

Many people are upset not only by the current coronavirus, but also by the way our leaders are handling the state of the world. I don’t doubt that these people may have the best of all intentions but I consider it unhealthy if their anger is such that they are paralyzed, thereby, preventing them from moving forward. Certainly, if you want change be sure to vote inasmuch as that is an activity within your power. However, changing the state of society is a huge task well beyond the scope of any one individual. Rather than expending so much mental energy in thinking about the impossible, I would advise these people to choose something near and dear to their heart in which their involvement might affect some type of change, whether it be small or large. Here, once more, we see from the Serenity Prayer the importance and wisdom of delineating between what we can change and what we cannot.

Three Men and Five Hats

Because most of you are enduring a social isolation never once imagined, perhaps you have time for a brain teaser requiring logical thinking to come up with the correct solution. Spend as much time as you wish but do not despair if you cannot figure it out insofar as you will be no different than the majority of humanity (that, in this case, includes me). My major professor in graduate school, most determined, took two months to solve it. But this may not be the case for you. A small minority of souls have solved it in a matter of minutes but, again keep in mind, that we are talking about a small minority.

Here it is:

There are three men, sitting next to each other in a room, all wearing blindfolds. With their blindfolds on, all three men are told that they are to choose from five hats in a container, three of which are black and two of which are white. Upon selecting their hats, both of the first two men are told to remove their blindfolds but not to look at their own hat. Therefore, both of these men can see the color of the hats that the other two men are wearing but not their own hat. Meanwhile, the third man is told that he must leave his blindfold on resulting in his not seeing his own or anyone else’s hat in the room.

The first man is then asked what color hat he has on. He replies: “I don’t know.” The second man is then asked the same question and he also says: “I don’t know.” Finally, the third man is asked the same question and he replies by saying: “I know.”

What color is the third man’s hat and, how do he and you know?

Jalopy

Some childhood memories still remain vivid in my mind. One happy one that I recall reminds me of that wonderful opening scene in the film, Citizen Kane. If you have never seen this movie and do not want to know how it concludes, then please do not go on reading this blog because it will be a spoiler. I am quite sure the movie is readily available inasmuch as it is a classic, directed by the young and talented Orson Welles, who also starred in it. My recommendation: If you haven’t seen it, see it and then come back and read this blog.

The opening scene shows Kane on his back, dying, with his last breath uttering the word, Rosebud. In an effort to decipher the origin of this word, a reporter interviews several of Kane’s close acquaintances in flashbacks that provide the picture’s material. The film portrays the development of Kane’s life from a young striving individual to a newspaper magnate who wields great power. Although a fictional work, many compared Citizen Kane to the real-life newspaper mogul Randolph Hearst. There is a scene showing Kane as a boy frolicking in the snow that connects us with that last word uttered by Kane, Rosebud. Although the reporter cannot solve the meaning of this word, at the end of the film the audience sees a sled in a fireplace with the word Rosebud, on it, slowly disintegrating into flames.

I grew up in northern New Jersey in the ‘50’s where there was plenty of snow. When the blizzards brought snow, it was like manna from heaven insofar as the schools had to be closed allowing us kids to have a day off. Two close friends of mine had the good fortune to live at the top of their streets that were both long and steep, and due to the snow, blocked off from traffic. It was one of the natural delights as a child to take my sled to either of those locations and enjoy the thrill of sleigh riding down to the bottom of those streets.

But it was not a sled that I longed for as an adult. As I child my brothers and I would go down to Beach Haven, a pristine shore in New Jersey, every summer to spend a few weeks visiting the family of an old college friend of my father. It was there that as a child of 6 or 7, I discovered miniature golf and pinball with my brothers. I still remember the place we would go to: Beacon’s Golf and Amusement Arcade. The latter consisted of pinball games with the price per game being a whopping five cents. I became fascinated with one game, called Jalopy, when one day my younger brother and I were watching this other kid, a few years older than both of us, play and win 25 free games with the Kid, the driver of Jalopy number 6. I think he appreciated the awe and amazement we expressed when the games started ringing up to 25 as he offered me the chance to play one of his free games. His generous gesture began my career as a pinball player and my early infatuation with Jalopy. Each summer when I went with my family down the Jersey shore, I spent many a nickel playing Jalopy.

Since then I played a variety of pinball games and became fairly adept, with an almost reflexive knack for manipulating the flippers, an intrinsic part of the game. As an undergraduate at college there was a breakfast place on campus that had five or six machines with the same group of guys always playing the same games. I made some friends playing pinball perhaps related to both my enthusiasm and skill at the game. One of the games I excelled at was called: World Series. Because I was an avid baseball fan, I, especially, enjoyed playing it. However, as the years went by, many features of pinball were changing, one of which reduced the number of balls in a game from five to three, in addition to the inevitable raising of the price per game. In essence, what had happened is that now you had to pay more to play less per game. These changes along with others diminished my interest in pinball. Moreover, as pinball had become less popular with the next generation due to their greater fascination with video games, there were fewer places left to visit that housed pinball machines.

As the years went by, I thought about the fun I had in playing Jalopy. It had been over 50 years since I had first played that game. After searching for it on the internet for about a year, I finally found an owner of it that actually lived in Southern California about 50 miles from me. Upon going to his home, I discovered that he was a collector of pinball machines. When I told him of my interest in buying the game Jalopy, he said he would paint it and get it looking like new and, when I returned to buy it, it did indeed appear to be in mint condition. After playing a number of times, I decided to buy it.

Jalopy became more than a memory for me than the sled had been to Citizen Kane. That is to say, the act of both finding and obtaining the pinball machine of my childhood, as a personal possession, reified the memory. What is most surprising is that when I currently play the game (of course for free though it does have the original nickel coin slot), I thoroughly enjoy it. I have thought about this. Jalopy, like practically all pinball machines, was hard to win free games simply because the proprietors wanted the customers to keep on pumping their money into them. Consequently, despite the fact that I have owned it for about fifteen years, and have played it countless times, I still find winning at Jalopy quite challenging. Winning at Jalopy is somewhat similar to winning at card games in which skilled players won’t always beat other players due to the fact that they may be unlucky in drawing poor hands. If Jalopy was a game of 100% skill, then eventually I would figure out ways of winning the game consistently. This does not happen due to the unpredictability of how the ball caroms off the side, what bumper it hits, where it will go in relation to the flippers and, then how I will react to all this uncertainty, some of which I can control, and some of which I cannot. In this sense, I would say that Jalopy is more like poker than say bridge, a much more complicated card game that involves some luck but a much greater degree of mastery and expertise than does poker.

The irony is that if the game no longer would demand attention to the prerequisite dexterity necessary to win free games, my enthusiasm for it would wane. That is what is fascinating about humans: Difficult situations stimulate us to work harder at the task that confronts us with the goal of improving our ability to overcome their challenge. When I invite friends and family to play, they are quite amazed at how hard it is to win a free game which makes sense inasmuch as they have not played it or practiced it as much as I have. Because of my familiarity with Jalopy, when I demonstrate my prowess at it, my friends and family can appreciate my performance even if I don’t win a free game on that attempt.

The perception of time differs during one’s childhood. As a child the time to play one game felt much longer than it is presently. When I enter my home office where I have Jalopy, I tell myself I will only play one game but before I know it, I may play three or four  more times in no more than five minutes. Since I have owned Jalopy, I have been able to relax but still try to outmaneuver the machine in an effort to win free games. It remains a source of great fun.

Time Enough at Last

I am sitting at home, socially isolated like many Americans and people throughout the world, reading a thriller suspense novel, titled The Holdout by Graham Moore.  The opportunity to do this almost feels luxurious.  Life is cluttered with so many things to do that the chance to read a book for mere pleasure almost feels too good to be true.  Before the coronavirus turned the world upside down, I had read Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot, my local book club’s choice of the month.

Those two fictional works differ, most conspicuously, by the length of the sentences of each book.  The sentences in Eliot’s wonderful book were so long that every once in a while, I would have to reread it so as to not miss the underlying point.  That is to say I had to focus and concentrate.   Sentences in Moore’s book are short, concise and to the point allowing me to put my mind in neutral as I glide through what has been a page turner.  As I read, my body quivers with an eerie sensation upon peering outside from my home and seeing the intense stillness surrounding me.  The reality and the fiction appear so entangled that we are having difficulty disengaging from our beliefs that are rooted in our anxieties.

Fortunately, rather than having to go to my office, the internet has provided me with more available time than I normally would have by allowing me to see clients online.  The idea of unlimited time sparks a memory from long ago when I was in my early teens.  It is Friday evening, 1958, and I am visiting a friend when these stars appear on the tele screen and a very myopic man with whiskey shot lenses is pondering his difficult life with a wife that won’t let him enjoy the reading he loves and a demeaning boss at the bank where he works. After Rod Serling comes on, my friend, Marc, who is the youngest of 12 children, tells me that this is a new show.  Because all of his siblings were older, he always seemed to know more about what was cool and groovy than the rest of us.  As soon as the program starts, neither Marc nor I say a word.  We sit entranced.

Burgess Meredith plays Henry Dimis a hen-pecked bank clerk who, following his boss’s demand, goes inside the vault to deposit money and is suddenly jarred by a sonic boom.  Rubble and debris cover him from a nuclear explosion in which he is the sole survivor on earth.  He does not know what or where to go and contemplates suicide until he discovers piles and piles of books, all of which are intact, in front of the dismantled library.  His mundane life that necessitated his carrying out the chores and duties that his wife and boss commanded of him did not allow him the time to read the classics that he has so wanted to peruse all his life.  As he joyously looks at these treasures, he is so happy that his glasses slip off from his face and in looking to retrieve them he steps on them cracking the lenses in several pieces.  As if an arrow had pierced his heart, Henry, face torn, looks up and says: ‘That’s not fair, not fair at all. I had time at last.’  My friend and I nod with the silent understanding that we have seen something very rarely captured on a TV program.

The Twilight Zone episodes had a universal appeal inasmuch as they spoke to many of the characteristics–that make us humans–coming up against that vast unknown space.  Who would have guessed that the whole world is experiencing something that no one really could have predicted only a few months ago?  Surreal but very much real.  It was always the pain and emotions that humans experienced throughout history that separated us from the immortal gods who never could have such sensations as pain or joy.  We are in this together but the manner in which we use the time it affords us, though it may be unbearable to some, will make the difference in the way each and every one of us come out of it when it ends.  Though it may feel that way, this is not the apocalypse.  Although some of us may not make it to the finish line, the great majority of us will survive and, if we all work together, it will take many fewer lives than if we forget what it means to be human.  In the meantime, at last there is time enough for me to go to my bookshelf, wipe off some of the dust that has accumulated on it and choose some books that I can enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

On the Coronavirus

Globalization has increased trade in the world immensely in the last couple of decades.  Many countries now are involved in the supply chain, such as cars, that make them more affordable, worldwide, to consumers.  But global economic trade facilitates the spreading of pandemic disease that has no geographic boundaries when world travel is so prevalent.

We are currently facing a crisis of extreme proportion never before experienced in our lives.  What was most surprising is that the public was kept in the dark until it was too late to prepare ourselves for the most unpleasant consequences that a virulent virus brings with it. President Trump’s wish that the virus would pass over us and, we would be miraculously saved, though indeed not quite the same, has a similar ring to it as President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party reprimanding Dr. Li Wenliang for his warning about the emerging threat of the coronavirus.   The leaders in China and America did not want to admit the inherent danger of a deadly virus–delaying the immediate treatment of the problem–causing untoward consequences.

Now that it is clear that it is here it might be much harder for us to face than Asian countries that have a collectivist, as opposed to an individual value system, where the family, and not the individual, is primary.   Because Asians are not as likely to challenge authority as Americans, the Chinese leaders, once they stopped denying the existence of the coronavirus, were able to enforce a complete shutdown.  Strict adherence to this policy by the Chinese people kept the numbers and spread of the disease in abeyance.  The objective in controlling the spread of the disease is to get a flat curve where there are not too many cases reported on a daily basis.  The medical experts are saying that the way to achieve this is to minimize contact with other people in what has been called social distancing or minimizing social contact to just family members.  These social restraints have been put in place to contain a virus that might otherwise grow exponentially and create a shortage of medical supplies essential for treatment and care of the sick.

Because the virus is more likely to thrive in places where there is a greater density of people, the big cities, such as Los Angeles and New York City, where many of us find most desirable to reside, have reported the greatest incidence of the virus.  Like China, almost all work and leisure areas have been closed.  When people go food shopping, they are told to stay six feet apart while standing on line.  Older people are much more vulnerable to the illness regarding mortality rates than younger people and, so the latter, may not follow the guidelines as strictly as their parents or grandparents.  If young people become infected by the virus, they may be either asymptomatic completely or free of symptoms for 5 to 10 days during which time they can come in contact with a parent or older relative that may cause serious illness and possibly death to this elder.

No one really knows how long this will last.  The unpredictability of the duration of this virus increases our anxiety and is very much reflected in the stock market where a huge amount of money and resources has been lost.  The hope is that we, as a people, can adjust to whatever losses we experience, and follow the advice of medical experts by changing our life style.  The government has taken certain monetary and fiscal steps to ease the public pain.   However, the fact that there has been a vast shutdown of any type of travel and commerce goes beyond any palliative measures pushed by our leaders.

Hopefully, the new life styles imposed on us in conjunction with concomitant losses will not result in anger and irrational behavior.  In LA, I am told gun shops have sold out with customers afraid that their stores will be ransacked.  Unfortunately, unruly mob behavior will only exacerbate the problem by increasing the spreading of the virus.  This will counteract the good intentions of the rest of us and result in further turmoil.

There is a bright spot to all of this:  Now we will have time to contact through phone or the Internet many forgotten friends and acquaintances from the past.  Besides the Internet has allowed schools that are closed to supply Chrome computers to their students.  Moreover, as a psychologist, I am able to see clients online by accessing Skype.  Many employees are working from their home full time, in areas like the big cities mentioned above, that have gone Dark.  Even though we need to socially distance, we can communicate through the many online platforms accessible that are for free.  Imagine the losses that would have been sustained, not so long ago, when the Internet did not exist.

The Book of Genesis, from the Bible, talked about how after the flood, the people wanted to build a Tower that would be high enough to avoid any future floods with the goal of reaching the Heavens.  God objected to this pompous act of humans resulting in their dispersion over the earth and the formation of many languages.  I view the Internet, not as a vertical structure aimed at the Heavens, but rather as a horizontal structure that has spread itself throughout the entire globe.  Although we are a people with many languages, the Internet manages to unite us and bring us closer to one another by sharing both our customs and culture.

To conclude, there are always heroes to be recognized in every crisis.  The workers at pharmacies, grocery stores and at gas stations are on the firing line as are our medical personnel.  They are still reporting to work as their jobs are a sine qua non for the maintenance and continuance of our lives.  I have noticed that the workers in grocery stores are by and large younger people and, certainly, that makes sense.  This, however, may not be true of some of our medical professionals that still are working.  It would make sense, if at all feasible, to give older professionals time off from what could be for them, a most dangerous and precarious environment.  My bet is many doctors and nurses still would choose to continue with their work rather than to withdraw.  Hats off to them.

 

 

 

 

A Nation Mourns a Star

With a sad irony there was a coming together of those that had any kind of connection with Kobe Bryant on both sides of the country.  The New York Times had as much to say about Kobe as the Los Angeles Times did.  The irony comes from the union of all colors, race and creed upon the death of a star.  Far too often death, and not life, is what precipitates a most humane reaction underscored by unity.

The day before Kobe died the LA Times Sports Section had revealed that LeBron James had just surpassed Koby’s point total for the Lakers with Koby calling and congratulating him.  Inasmuch as he did not allow his ego to obstruct his view of a fellow player’s greatness, this act by Koby, though small, showed his fullness of character.  The next morning, Sunday, in disbelief, I heard the tragic news of his death in a helicopter.

Although I very much enjoyed playing basketball when I was younger, I never was a particularly avid fan.  However, when I did watch Koby play with the Lakers, his unbridled enthusiasm and love of the game were apparent.  It is evident that this love of the game continued on in his relationship with his daughter, Gianna, and more generally, with women’s basketball.

To his credit, Kobe recovered from what could have been a very serious rape charge that occurred in 2003.  The case never made it to trial because the woman involved decided not to go through the arduous procedure of testifying.  The case was resolved, civilly, with Kobe paying her an undisclosed amount of money out of court.  Although he did apologize for his behavior, afterwards he still maintained that the sex he had had was consensual.

From there his marriage had its ups and downs, with a subsequent trial separation.   However, at the time of his death he and his wife, Vanessa, appeared to have worked through and resolved their marital difficulties.  Much of Kobe’s enthusiasm playing basketball had been transferred to developing the skills of his daughter and other young females’ intent on basketball.  Indeed, this was a constructive use of his energies.

One of the hardest challenges facing stars, whether they excel as athletes or in some other profession, is to maintain their loyalty to their wives and children.  Perhaps Kobe’s stable family of origin helped him overcome the temptation of wandering.  Certainly, love and marriage at such a young age as Kobe was, when he married, often does not bode well for any star who is in the limelight and the center of public attention.  Immediate wealth and fame can overcome the sensitivities of any young starlet, male or female.  Kobe was able to beat the devil of stardom, and from what we know now, become a devoted father, husband and family man.  Perhaps it is this latter characteristic of Kobe that has made his premature death that much more difficult to accept by both the public and those that knew him.

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The Return of Mr. Rogers

The attention given to the late Mr. Rogers very much reflects the state of American culture and perhaps, more broadly, the state of the world. First, came Morgan Neville’s hit documentary about Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” This was followed by the very successful movie directed by Marielle Heller starring Tom Hanks, as Mr. Rogers, in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” It is a credit to both works that neither featured the violence and sex so often glamorized in today’s cinematic productions.

The enthusiasm for these two biopics hearkens back to 1968 when Simon and Garfunkel recorded the song, Mrs. Robinson, with the lyrics:

“Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio?

Our nation turns its lonely eyes on you.

What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson?

Jolting Joe has left and gone away.”

When those words were written, America was still fighting a futile war– but being told differently–in Viet Nam. And, furthermore, a third-rate power like Viet Nam was in the process of conducting the Tet Offensive that was one of the largest and most successful campaigns against South Vietnam and the U.S.A. Joe Dimaggio represented an American hero long gone as Viet Nam turned into a nation’s disgrace.

Today the kindness of Fred Rogers is almost revered because there is such a dearth of that very same human quality.   If a catalyst is a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without undergoing any permanent change, then I would say Donald Trump is a human catalyst. Although he did not create it, President Trump has taken social media to its ultimate in “twittering” nastiness to all of his detractors. His enemies of which there are many have returned the favor of Mr. Trump with their own version of nastiness. The news media shrieking both loudly and mockingly from side to side with little hope for resolution catapults us into chaotic oblivion. We are now facing the moral bankruptcy so many of us felt in the ‘60’s. We view Mr. Rogers, though if he were alive, he would surely deny it, a hero amidst cowards that are afraid to step down from their pedestals and make peace with those of whom we disagree. This has resulted in a lack of civility felt by all. Such a lapse in good manners can erode the values for which this country believed in when it first came to be.

There is a deep need for the kindness and decency embodied by Fred Rogers. We want to believe, as Fred Rogers told us we could, that he was no more special than you and I and, that we all have the moral capacity to behave in a way that would better serve both our neighbors and ourselves.   People applauded these two movies about Mr. Rogers because he possessed that generosity of spirit that is so lacking in today’s society. Mr. Rogers touched a vital chord that we so painfully miss today.

 

 

The Gift My Mother Gave Me

It happened very late in my mother’s life and not so early in my own life when I was visiting her from California in her new home, a place that offered assisted care to seniors. My father had recently died so I would have been in my early 50’s and my mother in her early 80’s. So now many years later let me address a past ugly side of myself that took much time and inner pain to heal.

As a child growing up, I was in the middle of three boys during the early years of my childhood. Later, when I was 9, my older brother 13, and my younger brother 7, my baby brother was born, and with his birth I was no longer a same sex middle child. I remember being unhappy before he was born and really wanting my parents to have another child. How the mind of a child works. As a middle child I felt stifled, that is caught between my older more important brother and my younger more helpless one. A feeling of being left out, not being noticed for who or what I was, yet very much wanting to have another sibling, that if anything, might lead to even less attention. The more compelling need for an addition to the family was my strong desire to escape this dreaded sense of being stuck in the middle. The addition of another family member would create change and any change was more desirable than the status quo.

Perhaps it was simply jealousy toward my younger brother who was stealing my mother from me. Or perhaps it was my tortured sense of self that drove me to take out my frustrations–in growing up–on my younger brother. It may have been the implicit pain I felt as my older brother would be gaining accolades for scholastic achievement while I struggled very much in school to do well. To hear it from my parents, everything came the hard way for me in contrast to my older brother who had the capacity to learn things, simple or complex, much faster than I and most others.

Right or wrong I had this perception of being left out. I was the youngest only for a little more than two years before being replaced by my younger, and at that time, youngest brother. Suddenly, this younger brother was the cute one, the one that would get all the attention. Because he often dribbled, he was christened with the name “Dew Drops” that led to more attention as this unintentional habit of his came to be endeared by everyone in the family but me. Did I mean to be a bad child? I daresay not initially. In fact, in school I was well regarded by my teachers and peers. I had a desire to be friends with everyone, a trait that may have originated from my perceived lack of attention at home. No one at school would have believed that I carried this inner pall so different from my behavior among my peers.

And so, he the cute one, the youngest, and perhaps the neediest of the three of us, in receiving the attention that he did, I sadly admit, became a target for my aggression. The fights would come on of which I’m sure, I mostly initiated, resulting in my mother screaming at me. Unfortunately, much of the attention I received in my early years was of this negative sort. I had this obnoxious urge to hurt my younger brother that would result in a nasty pattern of behavior. Soon I found myself playing the role of a bullying brother that became reinforced by other family members seeing me as the “problem child.”

Once I had established my reputation as the initiator of all evil, I could not resist the temptation of maintaining my position. I may have become more and more sensitive to being overlooked further evidenced by my constantly having to hear my family and relatives lauding over how cute my younger brother was. Soon it became much easier to perform the behaviors expected me rather than to alter my conduct. When you have an established reputation, change becomes incredibly difficult. Once my parents more and more expected me to behave in a certain manner, it became extremely difficult not to fulfill my duties. I now was locked into a cycle of jealousy and hostility that actually caused me to have a deep sense of guilt and regret. When the perception of blame became reified in my mind, my role in the family as bullying brother became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My more humane side emerged when I entered high school. When I was a senior in high school and my brother a sophomore, I remember defending my brother when he was being criticized at a group meeting that, at the time, I led. The teacher in charge of the group acknowledged what I had done and complimented me. Perhaps I was beginning to feel more comfortable in my own skin as my older brother had gone to college so I was now the oldest brother at home. It now may have felt more natural to be the responsible helpful one with my older brother out of the picture.

But it took many years for my younger brother to stop reminding me of the way I had treated him when we were younger. Furthermore, he would make sure to remind my mother how I had treated him, almost blind to the effort I had put forth in changing our relationship.

After I had completed my first year in graduate school at Purdue University, this same brother and I arranged to meet one another at Purdue with the intention of us both driving to California. Before we left, my mother, as had been customary in earlier times, became protective of my brother by pleading with me not to hurt him in anyway. Although my mother and brother would not let the memory go, I refused to get caught in the morass. I handled it as maturely as I could by telling her not to worry inasmuch as several years had passed since I had behaved cruelly toward him. Needless to say, it took many years of my behaving like a “good brother,” never relapsing into former behaviors, to alter the reputation I had as a child. I would not allow myself to fall back into the pattern of behavior that had haunted me for many years during my childhood.

Then the surprise came. My mother, in recalling her early parenting years and my childhood, told me that she realized how difficult it must have been for me to be in the middle of two brothers. She said that my younger brother had been regarded as the weakest of all of us and had a tendency toward victimhood. She recognized that I was not entirely at fault in the way I treated him insofar as his personality had triggered much of my behavior. Wow, I said to myself, after all these years perhaps my behavior was not really as bad as I had imagined it was as a child.

As a therapist, I have learned that negative patterns of behavior become strongly embedded in family and/or marriages. Once the pattern or cycle is identified the objective is to change the way members within that system interrelate. In doing this, the problem is not the individual within the family or marriage, but rather the toxic cycle that all members of the system create. The pain I experienced as the “bad child” may have been alleviated much earlier in my life by a competent family therapist who could have taken me away from my role as “identified patient” and reframed the problem in a more holistic fashion.