Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Why the Baseball Playoffs Drive Us to Distraction

Not always a good thing, a baseball addiction
Hearing the title of this post, "Why We Love Baseball," FD told me that it has been done before.
So I changed the title.
What is it with baseball? Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, you might have noticed, are flush with exuberant Go Cubs Go adulations. FANDOM

Cubs hoodie-to own it

Kris Bryant- Go Cubs
But really, it makes no sense, and I don't understand it myself. Why all the excitement? It is just baseball. Just a sport. Why should anybody really care? .

My friends asked me to dinner last night. Could I get free? 

"No I'm really sorry, uh…"

They compassionately text back before I finish: 

Oh, right you've been working all day, and your back will hurt if you sit a minute longer. Right? It's okay, another time. We get it.

But I can't let it go with a lie, even if it might be true, sometimes.

"Don't be ridiculous! To go out with you, for the opportunity to catch up, I would take drugs! (Advil, we're talking). For sure. But it's the Cubs playoffs, see, and like, I really, really, love the Cubs."

You can feel them shrug and shake their heads side to side as they text back, simultaneously, OK

Then we all feel bad, me especially, because friendship should trump watching baseball. Maybe.

It's not as if I don't record the game. It is something one can watch later. But it's just much better live, in vivo, as it is unfolds in real time. Fans want their games immediately, like addicts with drugs. It's been said before, sports is addictive and one never wants to get in too deep. But once you're there. What to do? Is there a 12-Step program?

For a therapist to justify giving into the compulsion, she has to have real reasons, should probably get to the etiology, the possible causes, sift through them and chew on the relevance,

We could say that it starts young, during early childhood, in my case, maybe in 1966. As a free-reign kids (it was safer back then), riding the Skokie Swift for the first time with my older brother, taking it down to the Howard Street EL, and from there to Wrigley Field, the stop on Addison. Paying the five bucks for a ticket. That felt empowering, cheering on baseball greats, Lou Brock (yes, he was a Cub first), Ernie Banks (number 14), Ron Santo, and Billy Williams.

Or maybe it begins playing baseball, again, as a little kid. If you have brothers, your chances of learning to throw and catch increase exponentially (probably). You see yourself as a big league hitter, too, even if you are a girl. It is how the brain works, or should, gender-blind until life spoils that lovely judgement-free assumption of unlimited possibilities.

That would be considered a very strong neurological connection, attachmentas we say in psychological parlance, established as a pre-adolescent child with baseball players, particular teams. We don't break those well-traveled neurological paths that form connections easily.

Obviously people say that it is all about the competition, rivalry. But what drives that? Some say that we want to hate someone, or some symbolic thing, want to beat, overwhelm, displace our rage because we all have some anger dying to spurt. The opposing team, the one playing against us, serves nicely. Our team becomes an extension of ourselves. Frankly, this is much better than coming home from work and taking grief out on the dog.

This projection of self, unconscious merging with a baseball team, explains why we own the win, or the loss, whichever. When the player we love, our player, our self, hits it out of the park, that vicarious identity confusion comes out as a community shout: WE did it! 

It is as if we were the ones playing, making those winning runs, fielding those plays that rob the opposing team of what could have been a game changer. 

Not everyone takes it this seriously. Certainly for millions, spectator sports is merely a social exercise, sitting around with friends and watching the game, maybe having a beer or three together. But we don't all drink, and for some of us, there are no friends who like baseball or any sport for that matter. I have FD, thank God, but he's a Cardinals fan, which makes things uncomfortable sometimes.

But staying with that social bonding theme, Yesterday, while watching the Cubs-Cards playoff game, I thought. . .  I must call my brother! And or just text him, How about those Cubs? But then Starlin Castro hit a homerun and I forgot. Definitely not a social thing for all of us.

Baseball might be a vehicle for showing off a knack for remembering statistics, a numbers acumen, letting them roll off the tongue at appropriate moments: batting averages, rankings, runs batted in. Numbers people don't always get the respect they deserve any other way.

The obvious answer, certainly, is that we all need escapism, want to forget for just a little while about the next crisis, the next shoe to drop. Why not live in the moment for a few hours, lose one's self in a spectacular display of athleticism. Athletes are performance artists, and it is something to behold, men throwing pitches at 100 mph, more incredible still when somebody hits one of those rockets. 

Not bad, right, as a theoretical exercise, finding the variables, the reasons we're so distracted by baseball games. But why do some of us go crazy and others don't? They might be interested, they might watch, but they don't get high off of baseball wins, or upset about losses. 

It might even be the norm, actually, for baseball fans, for the entire population of sports fans, during playoff games, or the World Series, World Cup, Stanley Cup, etc. to feel a little better than usual if their team is playing well. Maybe most fans, even the stoic ones, are able to leave their prozac behind when this happens. It can be that good.

That would point to a biological explanationthat games contribute to sustained surges of serotonin or dopamine, and we get naturally high, even with the anticipation of winning. Surely, too, some of us are just more biologically excitable than others, our brains more easily aroused by fast movement, drama. We thrive on anticipation, the possibilities of good things happening. Baseball is a slow game, but when it comes to being a Cub fan, we're patient sorts.

FD tells me to prepare for the fall, in any case, because the Cardinals, his Cardinals, have been known to rise to the occasion, to come from behind to win the pennant, take it away. They're behind the Cubs 2-1 at this writing. 

I told him, naturally, Wishful thinking on your part dear. Not to let anyone burst my bubble.


Saturday, October 10, 2015


Therapists often talk about quitting, going into some other field. Some normal field, where they aren't flooded with the emotions of others for five to eight hours a day; what I call empathy overload. Most people, even those who aren't therapists, become overwhelmed when friends and family have tsorris (Yiddish, rhymes with floor-dis, means troubles), all that feels unfair.

When the Holocaust is mentioned in a therapy session, it is empathy overload for the victims, even for the survivors, that brings the patient (and sometimes the therapist) to tears. Someone has to change the subject.

The rub is that even if we did change jobs we would find ourselves still feeling the pain, that of the people, the very world around us. Just like you do.

So at the gate, waiting for the plane, I’m looking around, not at the books so much, usually there isn’t time for that (barring a flight delay), but am scanning my fellow travelers, the most interesting species in the zoo, my attention mostly to women, sometimes men. People lose their social persona, that put-on thing, seated at the gate, outside their usual milieu. It is hard not to watch.

At some point I stop. Because there she is.

She’s not making eye contact with anyone, rather focused on a computer, never her phone. She may be wearing make-up, but often goes bare, a touch of lipstick, eyeliner. She may be wearing jeans with a nice blouse, or slacks and a blazer. She’s generally not got much, if any jewelry, maybe a pendant, an antique ring. She isn’t smiling. Her lips are pursed, shoulders back, head held high in that line to board. Standoffish. concentration within, gazing at nothing.

And I wonder, is she thinking about someone she’s about to visit? Her mom, her sister? Is she running from a boyfriend or grieving a break-up? Did she just lose her job? Is she a writer? A middle-manager? Why is she aloof, and is she this way with friends, too? Is she usually sad, or is this just how she seems, beaten? I feel she is, and want to know her story.

It is not such a mystery, this emotional draw to others, random lives at the gate. The brain likes new things, wants to unravel the puzzle of human beings, especially if this is what it is trained to do.

Even if we wanted to leave our empathy sensors behind while on vacation, leave the whole idea of other people and their problems in the taxi, we can't. It is a part of our packaging, noticing the emotional state of anything with a pulse, any living thing. (You certainly don't have to be a therapist to be equipped like this, but it is a vocational plus if you are.) Empathy is a trait, but curiosity an appetite, nourished young. In third grade, there's a girl sitting in the desk on the left, upset about something more than her C-minus. You're dying to know what.

Here, with a random stranger, it is just that, empathy sparking curiosity, but there's no authentic caring. If she were to run to get a last minute coffee and missed the flight, it wouldn't matter to us. Our curiosity doesn't work that hard.

But if our sister or brother   took off for a sandwich and didn't return, didn't make that plane, we would care.  Second to parents, siblings are among the first objects of attachment. We bond with them, are in forced-habitation with them during those early, formative years.

Parents contribute, reinforce those first ties, even orchestrate close sibling alliances, by (1) staying out of the middle; (2) showing favoritism to all, not no favoritism; and (3) forming a loving executive committee that makes decisions. The last is a tight communicative unit that allows input from the peanut gallery, but still makes the rules. Or (4) parents can influence a sibling alliance off-handed, unconsciously, behaving in completely dysfunctional ways, their children close because of the dysfunction. When the sibship is unhappy, people say: Family breaks your heart.

But back to hanging out at the airport.

So when I’m looking around, it looks as if there is at least one person whose heart, whose very identity, has suffered a fracture or two. Not that the hunch is necessarily right; this is just a feeling, an intuition. Maybe misguided empathy. There will likely be no conversation as a validity test. 

But if I wanted to delve, if I wanted to ask about someone's life while waiting for a plane, or anywhere, for that matter, it would be the life story of Mary Anna King.

Lucky for us, she kindly wrote Bastards  and shared. The memoir could be considered bibliotherapy, and like Mess (the September book pic), is extraordinarily well-written. Bastards reads like a mystery. Not what will happen next, but how will these messed up people ultimately turn out? Dead on drugs or as medical professionals, perhaps, in a uniform? How will they pass?

Ms. King won’t talk to you at the gate, for sure not. But to read her story about losing four sisters (!!) to adoptions, losing herself to an adoption,  is to feel unimaginable separation anxiety.

We know what it is like to lose someone to death, to disease. We know what it is like to lose someone to an abusive relationship, watch that someone lose self, personality, to domination. We know what it is like to lose money, to lose a home, possessions, even to lose a loved one to terrorist executions, assassination, airplane and car crashes, to alcohol, to drug overdose, even old age. School shootings. Adoptees rarely tell their stories. Everyone assumes it has to have been the best choice, in the best interest of the child.  
In this memoir we learn, maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Feeling what it feels like to lose siblings, either as the one who is taken away from the others, chosen by an adoptive family, or as the one left behind, isn't feeling so good.

Bastards is about what family, what having brothers and sisters, should mean to us.

And as I'm reading it, cover on, I keep flipping to Mary Anna King's picture, just like I do while working, jotting notes, looking up, repeat, or even at the airport, when someone just looks interesting.

So, Ms. King. If you see someone glancing one too many times in your direction at the gate, don't get paranoid. Maybe offer to sign my copy of your book. I could mail it to you with a SASE*.  


* a SASE is a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

Bastards is published by Norton, a company that is really putting out wonderful psychological treatments on difficult subjects.