Thursday, January 31, 2013

Jackie Robinson's Birthday

Today is Jackie Robinson’s Birthday. All Day Google has helped to celebrate this extraordinary ball player and extraordinary man. Jackie Robinson deserves his place in baseball history. Jack Roosevelt Robinson was not only the man who was the subject of  “baseball’s greatest experiment”, who put a face on the color change in baseball, he also changed the chemistry of America’s pastime as well as its color. Sports writer Mike Lupica says of Robinson: “He played with flash and arrogance and made ferocity an art. Baseball did not look the same after Jackie Robinson.”

But we have to remember that history rarely happens in big events and single moments. There were other people who were critical to Robinson’s being able to do take those courageous steps on April 15, 1947.

 Jackie Robinson was not the first black to play professional baseball. It might be more correct to say that he was the first black to cross the color line who was allowed to stay.  The very first black to play professional baseball in America was Moses Fleetwood Walker. Walker holds the dubious honor of being the first black to play pro ball and the last to still be playing before the final shut out of blacks in baseball by Jim Crow laws.  Walker, a catcher from Ohio, was educated at Oberlin College and the University of Michigan and played ball at both schools before joining Toledo’s professional team in 1884.  Moses Fleetwood Walker set a precedent.

The refusal to allow blacks in pro ball meant that black ball players had to form their own teams and their own leagues. This formation of all black teams led to one of the most glorious periods in baseball history.

 There is a tendency I think for baseball fans to look at the Negro Leagues as the poor cousin to “real” baseball. Stories of barnstorming days give the sense that black baseball was an inferior game and organization. This could not be farther from the truth. Most of the bad conditions for Negro leaguers came after integration of the game. In their prime The Negro Leagues were multi-million dollar operations, among the largest black businesses in the United States, which sent millions of dollars into and through the community. .

Negro League star Josh Gibson was the greatest player of that time. He is now considered by most baseball historians to be the greatest baseball player of all time. One of the games most natural hitters, Gibson played for Pittsburgh’s Homestead Grays. Gibson’s hitting prowess outshined Babe Ruth. In one season Gibson hit 89 home runs, 29 more than Ruth’s record. And Gibson is the only player to ever hit a home run out of Yankee Stadium.

Without Josh Gibson Jackie Robinson’s moment would never have come. Josh Gibson showed fans what black ball players could do and he showed major league owners what black fans could mean to the business of baseball.  The Homestead Grays, who played in any town that had a ballpark available for rent, set attendance records in most of the big league parks along the east coast and through the mid west. Josh Gibson was the hot draw and fans- black and white -- came from all over and sold out every game to see him play.

Those sold out houses were not lost on another important baseball man, Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey had been managing baseball teams all of his adult life, and when he came to the Dodgers he inherited an aging team and declining audience. He wanted to win a pennant and he knew that the hottest talent in the game was in the Negro Leagues. Rickey knew that the draw for those games while mostly black included white fans who loved the more energetic brand of baseball played by the all black teams. Rickey spent more than two years orchestrating Robinson’s first step onto Ebbets Field. Rickey was willing to endure the scorn of all of the other major league owners and managers.

But ultimately it was Jackie Robinson who had to step onto that field, and who agreed to Rickey’s offer and Rickey’s terms. And the terms were tough: Robinson promised, “no reaction, no matter what” for three years. That was not easy for Jackie. He had to put up with bean balls aimed at his head, spikes aimed at his shins and the ugly names aimed at him and at his family.

Rickey admitted later that, “Jackie had to turn the other cheek so often that he had no other cheek left – both were beaten off.” But Jackie Robinson was not Jesus and not Gandhi. It is unfair to characterize him as a man of superior spiritual character who took his enemies racist hatred and returned compassion and forgiveness. He did not. Robinson swallowed a lot of that hatred. He was smart enough to know that this was the only way the “experiment” would work and he was wise enough to know that the men waiting behind him in the Negro Leagues depended on his fitting in.  

Robinson was the man who took the risk, who played the game and who changed its play in so many ways. But Branch Rickey can also be a role model for showing us that winning and making a profit do not have to be separate from making important social change.

Looking at these others who set the stage for Jackie Robinson doesn’t take anything away from him on this special day. Rather it may let us take away something that we can apply to our lives. There are many parts to play in making great social change. Most of them come without recognition and they can, like Rickey’s, come with very mixed motivations.

Few of us will have the opportunity to be the man or woman of the moment, to publicly enact history in such a dramatic way, but we all have opportunities to be one of the unnamed others, who, though unrecognized, are necessary to building the momentum and critical mass that allows the historical moment to happen.                          

Monday, January 28, 2013

What are Your Character Strengths?

Last week I took the coolest test. It is The VIA Character Strengths Survey.  It's an online test and it's free and it gives you a very accurate outline of your personality or character strengths. We have all done Fourth Step inventories and we mostly know--from recovery or therapy--what our character defects are...but here's a chance to do the rest of that of inventory and find out what your strengths are.

Again: It's free and it's online. It takes maybe, 35 minutes to do the test. It's highly reliable having been developed by the folks at The University of Pennsylvania School of Positive Psychology-- A rigorous, research based program.  I'll attach the link below.

You'll be asked to sign in at the start because they are tracking who takes the test: students, business folks, parents etc.

The VIA Strengths Survey was recommended to me by by Caroline Adams Miller who wrote the book, "Creating Your Best Life" and who is a Coach working in the new field of positive psychology--she is a graduate of the master's program at Penn.

Try this and see what you think. You'll get a quick response and an outline of your strengths. Think of this as another way to take a mini recovery inventory. You might have a friend or partner take this too and then compare notes.

Here's the link:

Friday, January 25, 2013

A Week Away

I am in heaven. For the past six days I have been on a writing retreat. I have done nothing but write and walk on the beach. Yes, a freezing cold but beautiful beach. A friend loaned me her home so I could hunker down and write like crazy for eight days.

Years ago I read the diaries of poet, May Sarton-- a woman who cherished solitude--her best known book is called, "Journey of a Solitude"about her writing life on the coast of Maine. Reading her books in my twenties made me feel sane.  I had not yet found recovery, I didn't know about the Myers-Briggs Inventory, most of the time I was trying to have a life but fighting my own nature the whole time, and yeah alcohol and an eating disorder didn't help. :) May Sarton wasn't an easy woman but I "got" her and I thought she was lucky to have made a writing life.

I didn't understand then that she had, in fact, "made" that life by making very hard choices and by making a lot of people unhappy, and by suffering through the unhappiness of those who loved her. But there were some friends who really "got" her.

In one of the books she tells the story of a good friend who calls May to say she'd like to come visit on May's birthday. May reluctantly agrees--she'll be returning home from a reading that day --but this is a very good friend so she says, "yes, you can come."

Well, on that day, May's birthday, she comes home to find that the friend has been there and filled the house with flowers and delicious food and has left a note saying, "my birthday gift to you is this day with no company. Spend it alone with beauty and your self."

I remember thinking, "that is friendship". And that is appreciation of solitude.

This week has been precious solitude. I find at times like this that so much that I fuss about on a daily basis just falls away. I barely bathe, wear the same clothes, eat minimally and cherish my books and the beach. I am at home with myself in someone else's home.

This too is recovery. I am recovering my self.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Recovering Your Sex Life

I’m thinking a lot about sex this week. Yes, I’m away from home, but that’s not why. I’m thinking about sex and recovery and what I have learned about my sexual needs and how getting those needs met has changed over these many years of recovery.

Yes, pre-recovery and in early recovery all of my character defects applied to my sexual behavior just as they did to my workplace and social behaviors: I was a people-pleaser, not always honest with others, rarely honest with myself, pretty out of touch with my own body so I didn’t know myself well enough to be honest.

 In those days I managed any fear or anxiety with drugs or alcohol or food and I was alternately obsessed with my body or completely out of touch with my body—so being truly sensual didn’t have much of a chance.

But I was always an athlete—runner, gymnast, dancer, swimmer—so I had to know something of the body’s mechanics so I learned sex mechanically too—and being an ACOA I knew how to seduce without even really feeling seductive. My loss. Yeah—I faked a lot.

But my saving grace was 12 step recovery and oddly Helen Gurley Brown—longtime editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine and the author of many books including “Sex and the Single Girl” which despite the title was all about work and careers not libido. (Helen was married to the director David Brown who knew the difference a great title could make.)

But Helen’s later books were about relationships and aging and yes, sex. In one of them she wrote about how women of a certain age need to learn how to “go for” their own orgasm. She got my attention. I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant when I first read that but I have since come to understand.

And it turns out that “going for it” is about self-esteem, self-care, assertiveness and the best kind of seduction. I can’t tell you how glad I am to give up faking it, and in the process really come to understand my own erotic sensibility. (By erotic sensibility I mean what fantasies work for me and exactly what needs to happen in the, um, athletic sphere.)

So, let’s share here. It’s why we like women’s meetings right? What have you learned about your sexuality and how you take care of your erotic and sensual life as you have grown in recovery?

I mean, really, this too is about being happy, joyous and free.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Looking for Signs

I am sooo happy to announce that my new book, "Looking for Signs"--a collection of  essays is out! It includes some of the short essays  you have read here on Out of the Woods and work from the many newspapers that have published my columns over the years. I'm very excited--this is certainly a gift of recovery.

"Looking for Signs" is available at The Book House in Albany, NY; at Market Block Books in Troy, NY; at The Book Loft in Great Barrington, MA. and on Here is the link for "Signs" at Amazon:

Monday, January 14, 2013

Maybe Fear Just Is.....

I watched the Golden Globes last night and I was struck by the number of women who mentioned their self-doubt or "not fitting in" or having fears about their work/career/talents. And today I read the New Yorker piece by John McPhee--who is an extraordinary writer and The King of nonfiction and a literary star by anyone's account and he writes about the "terror" he faces when he begins a new piece.

It is making me re-think fear. Maybe we should not (I should not) spend so much time (and energy and money) trying to get rid of fear. Maybe just accept it? Maybe just say "Yep--more fear" and keep going?

Maybe treat fear like a toddler having a tantrum. (It's kind of like that really...) And say, "Okey-doke sweetie, when you're done with that tantrum I'll be right over here. (Working on my stuff.)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Dark Nights

Noche Oscura is The Dark Night. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross wrote about dark nights of the soul. The term has come into common parlance as meaning a bad time, a dry time or a hopeless time. We think of the “dark night” as a time when we can’t feel God’s presence. But Richard Rohr writes about the dark nights and he says that what Teresa and John were really talking about was dark nights as a spiritually necessary time.

Teresa of Avila’s dark night was a mind-shifting time. It preceded great growth and her magnificent books. This is not exactly the “Life is suffering” that Scott Peck writes about but “necessary” because, as Rohr says, the dark night of the soul is when God is actually deeply close, so close that he is working in us. These are the times God is so deep in us that it’s almost like he is doing surgery.

In steps 6 and 7 we ask to be healed, we ask to be relived, we say to God “I am willing and I have tried and now if it’s ever gonna change it’s up to you”. Then we ache. Often we say that surrender is painful, but through the lens of writers like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, we can see this as the kind of necessary pain that comes with healing.

A few years ago I took care of a friend who had just had a serious surgery and I could see his healing pain up close. The first thing that the nurses said when he woke up from surgery was, “Get out of that bed and walk.” They were adamant: “You have to “ambulate”--get up and walk”.

It made me think about Jesus when he performed acts of healing and he would say matter-of-factly,“Take up your bed and walk.”

Monday, January 07, 2013

Have a Retirement Party for Your Character Defects

In the Seventh Step prayer we humbly ask God to remove the defects of character that “stand in the way of my usefulness to you (God) and my fellows.”

That was something that I always wanted. But it took me a long time to understand that there is a world of difference from asking God to remove the defects that limit my usefulness to others versus the ones that that I don’t like or the defects that effect how others think of me. I wanted Step Seven to be a kind of self-improvement process or like getting a makeover. What I have come to realize is that this is a place where that humility is key: I don’t necessarily get to choose which defects that will be removed.  My Higher Power does. I don’t get to use the Seventh Step in a self-serving way, “Now I’ll get so good that everyone will like me.” 

So how to approach this step in a loving, and not self-defeating way?

Here’s a bit of Step Seven wisdom I got from an early sponsor. We do not kill our character defects! My first therapist in recovery pointed out to me that my “character defects” were all things that saved my life growing up. Being a “high screener”—super vigilant --was a life saving skill in an alcoholic home. And being super organized (controlling) gave me a sense of safety and security as a kid. Being hyperaware of other people’s feelings and anticipating them made a chaotic world more manageable. Telling lies, stuffing feelings, being seductive or bossy or too complaint were all part of my survival.

And so my defects were once important assets.

Until they weren’t.

My sponsor pointed out that it didn’t make sense to hate these parts of me because they were, in fact, part of me and that I didn’t want to hate myself. Instead I could retire my character defects.

I love the idea of retirement. If we think of our character defects as workers whose skills no longer fit our company’s goals then retirement is honorable and appropriate. Just as in a business we can say, “Hey, we are doing new things now and doing things a new way” but we honor the “retirees” for all they gave to our enterprise. Rather than shove the character defects out the door or pray that God destroys them we could have a retirement party for our character defects.

Imagine that. We could list each defect and thank them for their contribution and for their help in our early lives. There could be laughter and stories just like a real retirement party. And then we could walk them to the door, take their keys and shake their hand.

 But we don’t have to kill the retirees.

Here’s the thing to remember: Just like at our workplace, sometimes retirees come back to visit—and sometimes they visit at inopportune times—and that can be frustrating. But again, we don’t kill them. We may say, “ Hey, I remember you; remember how we used to work together?” And then, ever so gently, we might say,  “But you don’t work here anymore.” And we walk them to the door, and say, "Now there ya go." 

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Happy Introvert Day

Ahhh,  January 2. The day that introverts get to breathe a sigh of relief.  We can come out of hiding; it’s safe to answer the phone, and to stop pretending we feel the flu coming on. Hip Hip Hooray! The holidays are over.

Yes, from mid-December through New Year’s Day, those of us with an introverted nature live in a state of perpetual dread. The weeks of office parties, neighborhood potlucks and open houses drain all our energy. But today we can relax; we made it through.

I speak from experience. I am an introvert. It surprises most people because I’m outgoing and friendly and, in fact, very far from shy, but I prefer one person and one conversation at a time.

I fought this for years, always trying to be someone else. I made myself go to parties; I tried to fix what I thought was “wrong” with me. It didn’t help that other people would press, “But you’re so good with people” as if being introverted meant living on the dark side. But I finally got it.

This is also one of the blessings of being older. Along with the wrinkles comes a, “What you see is what you get” self-acceptance, or perhaps for introverts it’s, “Who you don’t see is what you get”. It is a great relief to stop trying to be who you’re not.

But it’s no wonder that we introverts are sometimes defensive. Seventy-five percent of the population is extraverted; we’re outnumbered three-to-one, and the American culture tends to reward extraversion, while being disdainful and suspicious of reflection and solitude.

I’ve learned to spot us though. We’re the folks walking toward a festive house saying, “How long do we have to stay?” Or we’re the ones in the center of the room assessing other’s interactions, and slowly backing toward the door. Introverts crave meaning, so party chitchat feels like sandpaper to our psyche.

Here’s what introverts are not: We’re not afraid and we’re not shy. Introversion has little to do with fear or reticence. We’re just focused, and we prefer one-on-one because we like to listen and we want to follow an idea all the way through to another interesting idea. Consequently small talk annoys us. So does pretending to be happy or excited or anything that we’re not.

Many great leaders are introverts and I think that many of our better presidents have been introverts: Lincoln, Carter and the John Adams—both father and son.  No, maybe I’m not being totally fair, but life isn’t fair to introverts. Introverted kids are pressured to “speak up” and “make friends” or told they’re not leaders. We’re hounded to “be more outgoing” and tortured with invitations that begin, “Why don’t we all…” …No thanks, we don’t want to do anything that involves “we” and “all”. We prefer to visit you, just you, and not a dozen other people.

The philosopher Pascal wrote, “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”  Introverts do. So let’s make January 2nd, Happy Introvert Day. We’ll be quiet and happy. As a bonus, January’s weather is on our side.

You say it might snow? Oh darn, I guess I’ll have to stay home.