October, In the Rain

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It’s October, in Upstate New York.

Turning leaves.

Raking leaves.

Burning leaves.

And this year, I’ve got a front-row seat for all of it. I’m in Cooperstown, New York. I’m sitting here in my cottage on the shores of Otsego Lake, looking out my window at the lake, through the soft rain that’s been falling all afternoon. Looking at the flame-orange and yellow foliage on the trees – their last, glorious act of defiance, before winter pulls down the curtain on the show. But what a show!

I came here to worship at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s located here because, back in the Thirties, a group of guys got together and decided to say that baseball was invented here, by a guy named Abner Doubleday – a Civil War hero. Well, long story short, but d’ohh, it wasn’t, and everyone knows it. But here’s the deal: whoever thought of locating this thing here in Cooperstown was a genius. I mean, if they needed to say that Christ was raised from the dead in Cooperstown to get the darn thing located up here, it would’ve been worth it. Because this place is so utterly beautiful in the Fall, it’s practically criminal. After seeing all this, I feel like every other burg in America should be arrested for impersonating a small town in Fall, because this is IT.

I mean, if there was an All-Star game for the seasons, this place would have to represent Fall, hands down:

And now, ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together once again and welcome your unanimous selection for the season of Autumn: Cooperstown, New York!

All that Fall stuff, and Americana, too. As far as the Americana part of it all, well, I guess it’s understandable: once Cooperstown was chosen as the site for the Hall of Fame, it was committed to keeping its old-time flavor, and that’s as it should be. I mean, you will not find a McDonald’s on Main Street, or a Wal-Mart, or a Taco Bell. I did find a Price Chopper store, but it’s kept discreetly out of the way, like an embarrassing relative.

So what it comes down to is this: Cooperstown is what we, in our modern cynicism, would call a Theme Park. But is that so bad? Hey, we need Theme Parks! I remember, years ago, when I was on a business trip in Florida and visited Disney World in Tampa. And they had this thing called the World Showcase, and it had areas that were supposed to look like Germany, and France, and they did! I mean, heck, I knew it wasn’t Germany, or France, but it did kind of give the feel of those places, and I enjoyed it. And, in the original Disneyland, my favorite part is the one that’s supposed to look like the French Quarter in New Orleans, and you know what – it does look like the French Quarter in New Orleans, and if you hang out there in the evening, and have a couple drinks, it’s like being in the French Quarter. And no, that’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing.

And for that matter, aren’t our whole lives kind of like a Theme Park? I mean, we decorate our houses to give the ‘feel’ of something or other, don’t we? It’s not like the visitors to our homes actually look around the living room and think, for example,

“Wow, the Bernsteins really ARE the leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement in America: they live a life of aesthetic perfection, because I can see that that special celadon vase with the dragonfly imprint goes so well with that painted tile on the south wall over there.”

And how about the way we dress? Do people actually look at a woman and think,

“Oh my god – she’s the living embodiment of Dior! And she has accessorized so perfectly that it takes my breath away! She must spend all her time in Paris at the feet of the masters!”

I don’t think so. All we really want is a momentary Theme Park: “Oh, yeah, you’ve got the right idea. You go, girl!” That’s good enough for us, right? We’re going for an impression, a ‘feel’, not a full-on identity. We’re, all of us, impersonators, to one degree or another.

And in that sense, Cooperstown really does its job. Baseball, more than any other sport, celebrates and treasures its old times and its old players. Even the casual baseball fan knows something about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Willie Mays: the really famous guys. And the Hall of Fame is a shrine for the casual fan, because it’s about the Really Famous Guys. The average Joe who makes the pilgrimage to Cooperstown wants to look at a plaque, turn to his wife and say, “Oh yeah – I know that guy!”

Yes, there is a fantastic library, which is a fabulous resource for the hard-core guys: the writers, the researchers, the people who are sitting up nights obsessing about  OPS+, and the research facility also houses a staggering amount of memorabilia, artifacts of the game, that tell the story of baseball in the objects that have been associated with it. Rotating group of these artifacts are on display in the ‘museum’ of the history of the game that you can walk through at your leisure and ooh and aah over: baggy old flannel uniforms, tarnished trophies, the battered catcher’s mitt that Mickey Cochrane once used, the cap that Casey Stengel wore at a Yankees’ old-timers’ game, the bat that Babe Ruth leaned on when he said goodbye to us forever.

It may seem childish to ‘outsiders,’ but to anyone who loves this beautiful old game, these are holy relics.

But back to this lovely little town and looking at the lake through the rain. This little town’s job is to be Evocative, and evocative, even if it’s only ‘theme park’ evocative, is wonderful. It reminds me of a movie I saw a long time ago, called Bachelor Party. Nope, not the Tom Hanks one. Definitely not the Tom Hanks one. The 1957 one – one of those ‘prestige,’ social commentary jobs, written by Paddy Chayevsky, that were so prevalent in the Fifties, with Don Murray, E.G. Marshall, and Jack Warden. At one point, one of the characters tells the story of going out with a woman who asks him, “When we go to bed, please, just say you love me.”

So it’s kind of like that for me here: I don’t care if the people who work in the cute little diners and shops on Main Street actually aren’t wonderful human beings in their ‘real’ lives, whether they forget their kids’ birthdays, cheat on their taxes, or sometimes shoot up something stronger than aspirin; I just want them to LOOK LIKE they’re nice people, so I can get into that evocative space that this place is all about. I want to float along Main Street and pretend, if I feel darn well feel like it, that I’m back in the 1950’s, or even the 1900’s.

Just SAY you love me, Cooperstown!

So I went and saw a life-like statue of Ted Williams, I genuflected to Stan Musial’s bat from the 1946 World Series, I rubbed the bronze plaque of Babe Ruth (I noticed that Ruth’s is the only one that is  worn absolutely smooth, from decades of spontaneous affection), and I even listened to Abbott and Costello’s ‘Who’s On First’ routine once again.

And now I’m back in my hotel room, looking out at the lake, and the rain, and thinking. I’m thinking about how, in some ways, we are all impersonators. Yes, we admire those Hall of Famers because they actually got out there and DID it, in the big-time.

But real life isn’t that simple, or substantial: a lot of life is about how we’re SEEN, and how we’re seen matters to us, a lot.

Perception.

A therapist lives with the issue of perception all day long:

How is the patient seeing me?

How does the patient see the therapy?

How is the patient seeing himself?

How does the patient feel about his life?

Because there is very little actual difference between the life of a person who is severely depressed, and the life of the same person when he/she is feeling ‘better.’ The difference is, mostly, perception. Are you actually functioning much better, in real terms, when you’re feeling good about yourself and your life? Are you actually doing a better job at work, functioning more maturely in your relationships, making more money, being a finer human being, making the world a more worthwhile place?

No, not really.

You just feel like you are. But that makes all the difference.

After all, on Monday, a patient might feel like a loser, a failure, and a bum.

On Tuesday, he starts taking Prozac.

The next Monday, he comes in beaming:

Life is good.

I am worthwhile.

I look forward to each day.

What happened? Did he have a spiritual awakening over the weekend? Did he find a four-leaf clover? Did Jupiter align with Mars? Nope – he started taking a little round pill before bedtime each night, and he feels differently about himself and his life.

Perception.

Why is it that one person, with terminal cancer, can feel calm, settled, and appreciative of life, whereas another person, who is perhaps privileged, healthy and in the prime of life, can feel desperately miserable and tortured?

Because it is not so much what is going on in the patient’s life, as it is his or her relationship to what is happening. What a therapist does can be very complicated, steeped in convoluted theory, and infinitely challenging, but it all ultimately boils down to two basic tasks:

1) Teaching the patient a new way to ‘hold’ the facts of his life.

2) Creating a safe place for him to do so.

Each and every therapist will accomplish these things differently, and differently with every patient, but the success of the therapy will primarily hinge on these two jobs.

And how do you accomplish those two jobs?

Ask me later.

Right now, I’ve got a lake to watch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.