Sunday, July 28, 2013

Truth, Reconciliation & Major League Baseball

Ryan Braun's 65 game suspension for using "performance enhancing drugs" (PEDs), rumors of an even longer ban for Alex Rodriguez and the potential that other major league baseball players will be similarly disciplined has again raised the specter of cheating in our national pastime. Some have suggested that this is all too much, that an investigation into an obscure company called BioGenesis that may yield records of PED purchases but no actual positive test results is not enough to go nuclear on ballplayers or sully the sport's reputation. Others prefer to simply turn a blind eye, pointing to lowered run production, everyday players that no longer look like Incredible Hulks and a more robust testing system as evidence enough that PEDs have largely been removed from the game. But the truth is, a full accounting of the "Steroids Era" is necessary to move baseball, which is otherwise experiencing a renaissance of young talent, exciting regular season races and compelling post-season match-ups, forward. 

In some ways, actions already speak louder than words. At the Hall of Fame, once surefire first ballot candidates like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire have all been kept out because of their suspected (and in McGwire's case, admitted) use of PEDs. Production has largely reverted to norm as players enter their early to mid-30s and the newest trend in baseball is accumulating young, cheap talent and locking up your best players years before they reach free agency. These are all good and important steps, but will be insufficient if Major League Baseball does not, presuming it has the evidence to do so, levy significant suspensions on Rodriguez and any other player connecting to BioGenesis. The message must be clear and unmistakeable to any player looking to cut corners and cheat - you will be caught and you will be punished, severely, for your conduct. 

But baseball must go further though than simply kicking out cheaters for long periods of time. It needs to rewrite its record book too because the numbers that define baseball are more important than any other professional sport. The violence done to "61" and "755" can only be repaired by acknowledging the impact PEDs had on baseball's record book. Fortunately, baseball need not write on a blank slate. The simplest solution would be to split the record book in three - records through 1961 (when the league expanded), records from 1961-1994 (when the league shut down and had no World Series) and 1995-present. Nothing would need to be said about this third category, it would simply speak for itself. And while players who were never suspected of PED use, like Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine would, to some extent, suffer from guilt by association, true fans of the game will be able to separate out those whose reputations are clean versus those who are not. On the other hand, players from earlier eras who "played the game the right way" will retain their rightful place in the sport's history. 

At the end of the day, addressing, head on and in full, the legacy of the Steroids Era is not just the right thing for baseball to do, but the only way it can move toward what should be a bright tomorrow. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

10 Things I Learned In Therapy

I recently started therapy after a rather ugly break up (you can read all about it here: but the truth is, I have long struggled with “issues” that, at least in part, caused that relationship to end. Therapy was something I resisted for a long time because I never felt unclear about what the causes of my problems were, it was just a matter of knowing the solutions (see, 1, below); however, I came to realize that having met someone I valued and was very important to me and then losing her, and that loss being related (in part) to my inability to solve these problems on my own, I needed to get help if I wanted to move forward with my life. 

So I took the plunge and I am happy I did, for (some) of the reasons mentioned below, but most importantly, because it was and is an investment in my mental health and well-being. There is something to be said for having a trained professional who knows what they are doing help you work through things you cannot get past on your own. I’m not saying therapy is for everyone, but it is working for me. So, without further ado, my listicle of things I have learned in therapy:

1. Diagnosing the problem is not the same as knowing the solution.  Anyone can tell you that taking a bullet to the stomach is likely to kill you, but you need a trained professional to figure out how to heal the patient. For many years, I *knew* what was “wrong” with me – difficult childhood, parents who withheld affection, being married to an emotionally abusive and withholding spouse and feelings of unworthiness resulting in crippling self-doubt and low self-esteem – but was ill equipped to figure out what to do about it (accept that the past happened, figure out how to reframe liabilities into lessons learned and obstacles overcome, looking more objectively and positively about myself, who I am and what I’ve accomplished, to name a few). A good therapist should be able to not just diagnose your problems, but offer concrete solutions for how to address them and improve yourself. And I found one (more below). On the other hand, if you’re not an analytical sort, your therapist should be able to pick through the information you provide him/her (and remember, the advice will only be as good as the honesty and sharing you provide, see below), frame issues in ways that make sense and provide guidance on how to address your problems.

2. You, or more specifically, your problems, are not unique snowflakes. Whether your problems are systemic and long-term or appeared out of nowhere into your otherwise good and healthy life, someone else has had those issues too. It’s not to dismiss whatever it is you are going through, it’s to empower you to realize that the person to whom you have brought your problems, has, in all likelihood, helped others work through the same issues. The facts might be a little different, the situation not entirely the same, but the general themes will be. Be thankful that others have plowed earth you are now walking on and thus, making your treatment easier. 

3. Rome was not built in a day, neither were your problems.  If you’re expecting revolutionary and immediate change just because you spilled your guts to a therapist for one hour, you’re doing it wrong. Chances are, whatever brought you to this point took time, in some cases, A LOT of time, to pile up; unpacking and clearing them out will too. For me, it was helpful to think about when I finally quit smoking for good and became serious about fitness and good health. First, it took a couple of fits and starts to actually quit smoking *for good* and start focusing on losing weight (unsurprisingly, the two kind of go hand in hand). Although this all happened 13+ years ago and my memory is hazy, I assume day one sucked, as did day two, day three and so on. But little by little, change took place such that now, 13 years later, I have a BMI most people would give their right arm for, I look at least 5 years younger than I am, feel at least 10 years younger and don’t recoil when I look in the mirror. Oh, and the suit I got married in? It’s loose on me.

It took a looooong time, a lot of “sweat equity” and discipline to get to that place, but here I am. Improving yourself will take time too. Do not get discouraged because the results are not immediate or that you sometimes feel like you are “relapsing” into whatever bad behavior, negative thought or disappointment temporarily reappears. The important thing is to recognize when that happens, have the tools needed to reverse that flow and move in a more positive direction.

4. Change the tape in your head. Speaking of which, much of what I wrestle with is tied to my self-esteem and self-worth. For too long, the tape (yes, I am dating myself because I still remember cassette tapes) looped to the idea that I was not good enough, had not accomplished enough, and was unworthy of love and affection. This was tied largely to receiving those messages from people I should have been receiving validation and support from (family, spouse) but instead got a tidal wave of negativity. I internalized these ideas instead of considering what it said about the people who were uttering them and whether, empirically, they were right (spoiler alert: they were not) and manifested those thoughts in a highly self-critical, brutally self-deprecating style that I came to realize made me a major turn off. Simply put, if I did not like myself, why should I expect others to?

Sadly, when someone came into my life who wanted to smash that tape into a million pieces, I did not know how to handle it or thank her because I was so absorbed in believing I was broken. Turns out, I’m not, it’s just a lot of other people tried to break me and for too long, I let them. Letting go of the past, no longer punishing myself for things I’ve done and being excited and engaged in my own present and future are all part of the new tape in my head. It also helped to look at myself more honestly, to find the ample good I have done not just in the world but in my own world (i.e., with family, friends and loved ones), that I am the author of my own script in life, to acknowledge that I have worked hard, damn hard, to get to where I am and to be confident in my abilities without sounding like an arrogant jerk. Regardless of what your problem is, chances are, you too have a tape that is also playing at least one similar verse – “you won’t be able to get better, you cannot improve yourself, this is the way you are.” Lose that, immediately.

5. The universe is not indifferent. Sorry, Don Draper, but you got this one wrong. Something that therapy opened my eyes to was the value in the world around me and that putting positive energy out into the world makes me feel better as a person. I cannot control how people react to me, but I can control how I carry myself, how I treat people and what I do and do not allow myself to get invested in emotionally. Avoid the drama swirls, vortexes and self-absorbed behavior of others and you will already be most of the way to a better tomorrow.

6. Nothing is gained by holding back. What brought you to your therapist’s office? No, really. What brought you there? My break-up was the superficial answer, but underneath it, were a whole host of open wounds and festering sores that had been around for a long time. It would have been a waste of time to just frame my narrative as “I’m sad because a woman I loved walked out of my life without so much as a goodbye.” This would have been akin to going to a doctor for a sore throat but not mentioning the weird tumor that I’ve never told anyone about but might be cancerous. If you are investing time, energy (and money!) into having a professional help you, nothing is gained by ignoring or not talking about the things that are truly troubling you.

7. Do not avoid big truths. I want to be in a serious, stable, and committed long-term relationship that leads to marriage (if my partner is the marrying type) or ends up being for the rest of my life (just without the binding legal contract). That’s about as big a truth as I can put out into the world and that scares the ever living shit out of me; however, by owning it, it made me realize that I was deflecting a lot of unhappiness I felt into places where I was not actually unhappy. When that light bulb went off, it changed my entire outlook on my life in a really important way. Oh, and it also made me excited at the prospect that I want to spend the rest of my life with another human being and not end up like some grumpy old man shouting at the kids to get off his lawn (a not insignificant thing).

8. Resist the urge to second guess. You’ve decided to go to a therapist for a reason – you’re stuck, you’ve tried (or not) other ways to resolve whatever it is you are there to get help with, don’t dismiss ideas because you don’t think they will work. My therapist suggested I meditate first thing in the morning and come up with a (what I would call) “New Age” mantra. My love of the Grateful Dead notwithstanding, I’m not a spiritual-commune-with-the-world type, but I took her suggestion and modified it to something I was more comfortable with – acoustic music playing in my ears and an agreement with myself that for 10 minutes, I would just power down my brain and focus on the music. Turns out, it’s a great way for me to start my day, with all thoughts of work and life cabined off until the music stops. If a licensed professional is giving you a suggestion, don’t dismiss it. Give it a try. If it doesn’t work, ask for modifications or alternatives. But …

9. Shop around if you must. There is nothing binding you to your therapist. If you do not think you are getting better, communicate that fact with him/her. If the problem persists, find someone else to talk to. A good therapist will recommend others who they think might be better able to help you. 

10. Ultimately, your betterment is in your hands. You can be monitored by a team of psychiatrists working around the clock [1], but ultimately, you own your own happiness. A therapist, and I use that term as a catchall to include, LPCs, MSWs, psychologists and psychiatrists, can offer you all the tools in the world that he or she thinks will make you feel better about yourself, but at the end of the day, it's up to you to put them into action. I know I am. Be fearless and embrace what life has to offer you and what you have to offer to it. 


1. Seinfeld, The Pitch, Season 4, Episode 3.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Just in time to save the media industrial complex, two scandal-scarred politicians, Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer, jumped into races for New York City Mayor and New York City Comptroller (respectively). Naturally, the media pounced (does it do any other action verb in situations like this?). Much ink was spilled over the temerity of these two men to run for elective office. The former, brought down low by a bizarre Twitter scandal involving semi-chaste ‘sexting’ type behavior; the latter, an actual law breaker who paid money for sex (but kept his socks on, in case you were wondering) have both been adjudged by some in the media as unworthy of the public’s trust and while that may well be the case, I don’t recall anyone nominating the media to be the arbiter of propriety when it comes to who we pick to represent us.

Indeed, the negative reaction to Weiner and Spitzer belies a larger issue at work in today’s journalistic circles – its inclination toward lowest common denominator reporting that feels like some combination of Mean Girls and school marm. Reporters are entitled to their opinions, but unless those are being expressed on the opinion page of their newspaper or website, the citizenry is perfectly capable of (and indeed, constitutionally designated) choosing people to represent them. In fact, because of the comprehensive reporting done of these scandals when they happened, it is impossible to think that voters in New York City are unaware of the actions of these two men and have (and will) factor that behavior in to deciding whether or not to vote for either candidate.

Short of some legal impediment that bars a person from running for office, the media is best served by sticking to the candidates’ positions on issues and avoiding substituting their own morality for that of the electorate. Surely, in a country where voters are getting disenfranchised at the state level, abortion rights are being restricted, and our economy continues to limp through a tepid recovery, there are more important things to focus on than WeinerSpitzer.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

On The Zimmerman Verdict

The George Zimmerman trial will undoubtedly result in many column inches being dedicated to the racial component of the decision, of the fact that an unarmed black teen minding his own business can be accosted by a stranger, fight back, be shot and not have that action be deemed a murder. Sadly, this is not exactly news. The devaluing of our fellow citizens the darker the hue of their skin or because of the God they worship is, regrettably, a stain that we cannot seem to overcome.  But to me, the other message reinforced in the not guilty verdict against Mr. Zimmerman is that there is a significant thumb on the scales of justice that skews outcomes based on your economic status, not just your race or religion. 

The dirty little secret of the criminal justice system generally, and many prosecutor's offices specifically, is that without the vast majority (in most jurisdictions more than 90%) of cases plea bargained, the system would simply collapse. This is owing to the length of time trials take, the limited resources many offices have to investigate crimes, gather witnesses, take their attorneys off the other cases they are handling and devote the time and energy needed to take a case to trial. The reason people with means are able to either get highly favorable plea deals or take their chances at trial is that well-compensated defense attorneys can deploy a number of tactics that bleed the prosecutor - pre-trial motions, lengthy voir dire, the use of jury consultants, slick presentations and taking advantage of a culture immersed in more Law & Order and CSI type shows that make juries expect there to be a high level of sophistication and immutability to whatever evidence is presented to them. Prosecutors, on the other hand, are far happier to take the low hanging fruit of plea bargains, maintain high conviction rates and avoid embarrassing acquittals.

While it is true that some "high profile" cases do result in convictions (the recent Jodi Arias prosecution being one), meting out justice day-to-day looks very little like what we see in these televised spectacles. The sad reality is that the same incentives driving prosecutors to keep their conviction rates high work in the same way for overworked public defenders and solo practitioners representing the vast majority of poor and low-income defendants, who are incentivized to plea bargain because some combination of decent evidence and lack of resources compels them to. In most cases, this probably does not offend what we view as fairness because hey, a lot of people are guilty of the crime they are accused of (ever watch speeding tickets get knocked down to get a "guilty" plea?) and offering them a deal is a reasonable triage of the more serious versus the less severe; the cases of strong evidence (witnesses, fingerprints, confessions) versus ones where each side has risk if the case goes to trial; however, between exonerations secured by organizations like The Innocence Project and the disparity in sentences levied against those with greater means, we need not see the Zimmerman acquittal as anything other than confirmation that our criminal justice system is still inequitable. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Book Review - Confessions of a Sociopath

Provocatively titled, but ultimately as elusive as the person behind the mask on its cover, M.E. Thomas's Confessions of a Sociopath is an ugly, empty and deeply narcissistic work of “non-fiction” masquerading as an exposé of the life of an anonymous woman who has, in her mind, achieved an enormous amount in her life by basically treating everyone in it like toilet paper on the bottom of her (expensive) shoe.

The author’s attempt at shock value begins immediately, as she relates an anecdote from her younger years offering private swim lessons. As she inspects the pool before a student arrives, she notices a baby opossum struggling in the water. Instead of rescuing it, Ms. Thomas attempts to drown it, but when the effort becomes too taxing, she simply walks away, waits for the creature to die, cancels the swim instruction, fishes out the carcass and bombs the pool with chemicals. EDGY.

And so it goes, through 300 pages of trivial slights, psychological warfare, head games and emotional manipulation. The book’s primary problems are two-fold: first, the author is anonymous, so validating any of her story is difficult; and second, because she outlines the primary characteristics of sociopaths as including deceitfulness, manipulation and lying, it simply compounds the first problem.  In other words, a person who is telling you she is well-versed in lying is asking you to believe her autobiography is truthful. Good luck with that.

It is hard to discern what Ms. Thomas is offering for public consumption. Is the reader supposed to feel revulsion at her callous disregard for the feelings of others? Disdain at her pluck-the-wings-off-a-fly description of her emotional manipulation of colleagues, lovers and rivals? Envy at her allegedly successful career? Sadness that she cannot sustain a relationship for more than 8 months? Titillation at her bisexuality? All of the above? At bottom, what I felt was pity that someone has invested so much of their being into such pettiness and sorrow that this is the way some people live their lives.

Of course, to be an “empath” (a catchall the author uses to essentially describe all people who are not sociopaths) is to be cruelly mocked and taken advantage of in Ms. Thomas’s world and the world inhabited by the fellow travelers who flock to her website.  Ms. Thomas is the heroine of her own stories, lashing out at bullies from grade school to the board room, ruining professional reputations (but usually for those who “deserve it” in her view) and personal relationships like Sherman rolling through Georgia. The casualty list is long and the victims include everyone from a female supervisor who (allegedly) becomes so obsessed with Ms. Thomas that she torpedoes her own career and turns to drugs to salve the wound to a high school teacher who disses Ms. Thomas, leading her to spread rumors about him, resulting in his termination.

These skirmishes are, to some degree, paradoxical. Ms. Thomas takes pains to point out that sociopaths are typically concerned with blending into the crowd, the better to not arouse suspicion, than creating antagonism, where their true colors are less likely to be disguised. But this contradiction is simply of a piece with much of the book’s internal inconsistency. An early chapter devoted largely to itemizing the awful parenting Ms. Thomas suffered through, primarily at the hands of a verbally and physically abusive father, is flipped by the end of the book, where Ms. Thomas essentially gives her parents a pass for their conduct, saying they did the best they could. Huh?

The author’s professional career arc is similarly confusing. On the one hand, she lands a prestigious job at a top-tier law firm straight out of law school, but bombs out and is fired, skids out on unemployment for a time before landing a job as a prosecutor in the misdemeanor section of her district attorney’s office. There, we learn in exhaustive detail about Ms. Thomas’s skill with a jury, yet, at least in my state, misdemeanor cases (1) rarely go to trial; and (2) are not heard before a jury. Perhaps things are different where she lives (again, who can tell, the details of her life are purposefully obscured) but if Ms. Thomas was flashing her trial chops over disorderly persons citations and speeding tickets, I am fairly certain we are not dealing with the second coming of Clarence Darrow. Having tired of showcasing her skills before these supposed juries (or perhaps having realized she was not the lawyer she thought she was), Ms. Thomas now spends her days at a mid-tier law school wowing herself with her own cleverness and, (according to her), receiving laurels and encomiums from her grateful lemmings, whose affection for her teaching is matched only by their fascination with her as a person.

If there is a saving grace to Confessions, it is the author’s use of the research of others to inform her writing. Here, we have some objective barometer from which to digest the behavior of others, not the self-selected musings of someone who acknowledges her own capacity for deception combined with our inability to independently confirm anything that she says. Unfortunately, merely regurgitating the professional studies in the field is insufficient to carry a book that otherwise reads as a vanity project by someone with a wildly inflated view of themselves that does not comport with what most people would deem objective reality.