Wednesday, April 30, 2008

How Flava Flav taught me about fakes

The first season of Flava Flav’s search for real love was hilarious. Actually the hilarity started during The Surreal Life when the cameras caught every moment of his connection with Brigette Nielsen. What a strange pair they made! I remember being intrigued, but my schedule did not allow much time for keeping up with their shenanigans. 

When they went on to tour Europe while they tried to figure out their ‘strange love’, I caught the show from time to time but was not glued to the set. I remember however watching transfixed, as Flav took off his shoes and stomped grapes in his bare feet, preparatory to making wine. Flav seemed aware that the stomachs of the white people around him were probably lurching in disgust but he appeared not to give a damn. He was just keeping it real. 

By the time the first “Flavor of Love” appeared, I was hooked. I could not believe that a bunch of women would not only sleep with this bizarre-looking man on television for all to see, but would spit on each other for the privilege of doing so. 

And of course one of the prize moments came when Brigette Nielsen reappeared, now as a platonic friend of Flav, and whose job it was to detect who was real and who was fake in the house. I sat down with my bowl of popcorn and prepared to be educated. 

See in my innocence I had assumed that every last one of the women in the house was a fake. I had assumed that to a woman they were motivated not by love for this strange-looking man and his clock-bearing ways, but out of a desire for fame and publicity. In my head they were nothing but a bunch of fame-whores – and I am being very kind. 

Come to think of it, I also never believed that Flava Flav was really looking for love. After all, this was a man with several children by multiple mothers, which made his life complicated enough. I thought that he was just having some innocent fun. So what did it matter whether any of these women was real or not? Well, apparently it did. 

Detective Nielsen was let loose among the women to interview them with the goal of rooting out the fakes. I expected her to vote to send every last one home, including herself. Silly me. She picked out a number of the women as fakes and concluded that several others had real love for Foofy-Foofy. I could barely contain my laughter. 

Then Flav brought his mother into the mix. The poor old lady, looking remarkably like her son but sans clock, seemed lost and confused at the best of times. What had started out as absurd fun now took on an element of the pathetic. Mother Flav wandered around the place saying nothing, only smiling vaguely. Come to think of it, her emotions were the only ones that rang true. There was nothing fake about the discomfort of her presence. 

There were however some doubts about the realness of some of the family members invited to screen Flav as a potential son-in-law. Was Sister Patterson really New York’s mother or was she just an actress paid to perform that role, as some newspapers claimed?

And then, as if this wasn’t enough fake drama, Pumpkin got busted as a reality show junkie who had hidden this from Flav. In the end, she was deemed to be a fake, while New York and her “mother” stayed on the show. I started becoming really confused. 

In the meantime, the women continued to fight with each other over who were just fake-assed bitches and who had real love for Flav. It was the height of absurdity. In the end, it came down to Hoopz vs. New York. I say ‘versus’ because by that point, Flav had become irrelevant to the plot. Hoopz wanted to beat New York. She didn’t seem to give a crap about Flav – she was just damned if she was going to lose to the tranny-looking one with breasts hiked up to her mouth. And in the end Hoopz won. 

But she did have real love for Flav? Clearly not. In the final show she got so caught up in berating New York for giving it up to Flav that she seemed unaware that her disgust was also being directed towards the man who was supposed to be the object of her affection. 

In the end I learned a lot of from Flav about realness vs. fakery. I learned that regardless of where people start out emotionally, put enough cameras to track their behavior and in the end they all get caught up in fake drama. It is the rare person who can resist the lure of publicity and continue to keep it real. With time, they all end up playing for the cameras. They lose their souls to the invasive lenses and start performing like puppets in this alternate reality. In the end, some of them find themselves forced to live there permanently. [Part 1 of 2]

Monday, April 28, 2008

Making the move

There is a moment in certain professional tennis matches when it becomes clear that a player has decided that he is ready to make his move.

I say “he” because women seem to have fewer of those calculated moments. Mainly women just seem to try to get the break in every game that their opponent serves. And of course hold their own serve if possible. Indeed, it is not uncommon in professional women’s tennis for breaks to be traded back and forth until one player has enough of a mental lapse to allow the other to profit by it.

Not so among the elite at the top of the men’s game where winning is a much more calculated affair.

An important piece of the calculation involved in winning entails deciding when to make the move. Making the move is most effective when one’s opponent is either at his weakest or when it is clear that one can do the most harm. It all comes down often to excellent timing and intuitive strategizing.

At his peak, Sampras was the master of making the move. In a match, Sampras would wait patiently. If his opponent gave a good challenge, Sampras would initially not even try to break serve. He would just throw up his ugly but serviceable backhands, and continue to wait. Patiently. Then, in the penultimate game of the set, Sampras would make his move. He would break his opponent and then serve out the set or the match.

That this was predictable made it no less effective. Sampras’ opponents would see this maneuver coming a mile away, and yet would remain transfixed, helpless against his power.

Cliff Drysdale, the well-known tennis commentator, probably analyzed it best. Cliff would start making a deep guttural chuckle as Sampras moved in for the kill. Cliff’s face would light up with glee as Sampras managed to obtain the desired break of serve. And when Sampras would then serve for the set [or the match], Cliff would barely be able to contain himself as Sampras’ American beauties rained down upon his hapless opponent who by then would have no effective response.

Making the move requires the same kind of cold-blooded awareness and precision of a serial killer. I don’t know any serial killers but I can well imagine that they probably go after their prey in the same way. When I got mugged several years ago, it was clear that the bandits involved had studied my movements, were familiar with my vulnerabilities, and knew precisely when to strike. It is no different in tennis.

It was no different in the finals of Monte Carlo between Nadal and Federer. In the first set, they were equal at 5-5. Then Nadal held his serve, and the score was 6-5. And then he made his move.

Having made it his business to study Federer closely, Nadal’s timing was as precise as a Movado. As Federer served at 5-6, Nadal responded by upping his level of aggression. He pounded return after return into the Federer backhand. He didn’t just break Federer to win the set, he momentarily stunned him.

Nadal waited patiently during the second set as Federer went up 4-0. And then Nadal again made his move, aggressively erasing every inch of Federer's gain. It was a cruel display in prowess and ability. Federer seemed not know what hit him.

Or maybe he knew – how could he not, they have played enough matches against each other – but had no effective response for Nadal’s heavy, driving and insistent topspin shots to his weakened backhand. It’s hard to win from a defensive position. Survival is tough when a killer has made his move and is holding a knife at your throat.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Did Novak retire because he was losing?

The setting: Monte Carlo.

The match: The semi-finals of a Masters Cup event.

The opponent: Roger Federer, the number 1 player in the world as well as the number 1 seed.

The score: 3-6, 2-3 in favor of Federer.

The result: Novak Djokovic retires.

The reason: He had a sore throat and was feeling dizzy.

This is not the first time that Djokovic has pulled out of a match against an opponent to whom he was losing. [He has retired twice against Nadal at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and once against Davydenko at Davis Cup]. It is not the first time that he has come up with a ridiculous excuse for losing. [In Miami, against Anderson, he said that he had broken a shoelace. I kid you not]. This is not the first time he has behaved distastefully when the crowd supports his opponent. [Against Tsonga at the Australian Open, Novak made spitting gestures and hurled expletives at the crowd for vociferously supporting his opponent.]

Add up these incidents and the emerging picture is that of a sore loser.

Why did Novak quit against Federer in Monte Carlo? At 3-6, 2-3, he could easily have lasted the additional ten minutes it would have taken to properly complete this match. Why didn’t he do just do that?

For two reasons in my opinion. First, he may have wanted to deny Federer the satisfaction of beating him after having earned a reputation as one of the players who has climbed into Federer’s head and set up camp there. A loss to Federer in Monte Carlo may have validated Federer’s claim that he has been severely ill since the start of the year and was not performing his best. Supporting this are Novak’s own words during his post-match interview:

Q. How did Roger look to you, facing him for the first time since Melbourne?

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: He looks good. He was more aggressive than in Melbourne. I think he stepped up more. He was more patient. And I think I made some crucial mistakes in that first set. I had some chances on 3 All I think or 2 All, some breakpoints. Unfortunately in the end, physically I didn’t hold on. You know, in them moments, when you just need to stay patient and just play another ball back, I wanted to finish up with the return. So resulted with a mistake.

Second, Novak may have wanted to give the impression that he was only losing to Federer because of illness. But this too is repudiated by his post-match interview, where he cast doubt on his own excuse when he revealed that he had been feeling dizzy for three days:

Q. After three days, nobody knows what it is exactly?

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: No. Just I thought it’s nothing serious. You know, on the matches, I played well and I felt okay afterwards. I asked doctor yesterday. But he said I don’t have nothing, which I really don’t believe. I think he didn’t give me the right diagnosis, obviously. I’ll check as soon as possible.

Can you smell the bullshit?

Novak, in my opinion, is not only extremely competitive, he is also a piss-poor loser.

Djokovic seems to be so competitive that he would do anything to avoid losing. Whether it is bouncing the ball 20 times one game and 11 times the other, so that his opponent is never sure exactly when he is about to serve. Or protesting line calls even after the umpire has ruled. Or not cautioning his family against giving distasteful interviews in which they openly bash his opponents.

But tennis umpires now seem to be on to his tricks. In Monte Carlo, he got a time warning after one of his interminable bouncing routines. This seemed to piss him off so much that he made a point of yelling at the umpire and pumping his fist after hitting a forehand winner in the next point. He just hates to lose.

One of Djokovic's weaknesses seems to be his inordinate level of emotional dependence. He seems to have a hard time functioning when everyone isn’t cheering for him during a match. When at one point he hit a first serve into the net and the crowd cheered, he went on to lose next 13 points. No wonder he plays his best tennis when there is a huge Serbian contingent present. Or when his parents and brothers – who seem to have no life outside of supporting him – join in protesting calls against him.

Which brings me to my favorite moment in Monte Carlo. The Djokovic camp called a ball in after the line judge had called it out. Federer inspected the mark and conceded that the ball was indeed in. And then he looked over at Camp Djokovic, which had continued their vocal protests, and told them to be quiet. To a person they responded as if someone had let the air out of their tires. Their faces reflected shock and embarrassment. They had been collectively put in their place. Federer seemed to be saying, “I gave the wimp the point, what the hell else do you want? Shut up about it already”. And they did.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dealing with being ripped-off

I have always trusted people who play tennis. I know that that sounds kinda silly but my experience has been that the majority of tennis-players have a well-developed sense of integrity and fair play. 

I can count on one hand the exceptions to this statement. For instance, I remember a family of tennis players who would cheat their way to wins. If your serve hit the line, they would call it out. If your volleys got the corner pocket, they would claim an error. They were so completely dishonest as a family that everyone knew them. Of course, in umpired matches, they could not cheat, but then they would make such scenes on the court protesting calls that you just wanted to hand them the match to get it all over with. Or live in fear of running into one of them in a dark alley after you won a match. They were a thoroughly scary bunch. 

But this is not the norm in tennis. The norm is a great deal more honest and sporting. And the rules of tennis reinforce this basic justice and honesty. 

For example, tennis players are allowed to call a ‘let’ when a ball or other object strays onto the court, even if the point is almost over and a winner seems clear. A server may catch the serve in mid-air if the positioning is wrong. If a call is unclear, players simply replay the point. If you get a point on a netball, you say “sorry” to your opponent. If players on a neighboring court are in the middle of a game, you wait until the game is over before exiting the court. These are just a few examples of the courtesy and fair play of this sport that I love so much. 

Against this background, you may understand the naïve trust that I tend to bring to the sport. So it was that when I first moved to the city that I now live in, one of my first objectives was to find people to play with. I called around and was told that if I just showed up at some upscale public courts, I would have no difficulty finding players. I knew that my game was a bit rusty so I decided to try to find a coach instead. 

And sure enough, within 10 minutes of my arrival, I was introduced to a coach. We knocked for a few minutes and, after praising my game, he told that he could have me back to top form in a few lessons. I gave him $150. for five pre-paid lessons, a fee consistent with market value in this city. This was in November of last year. 

We started off swimmingly. One lesson, then two, a third, then a fourth. Things were going so well, that I agreed to his price of an additional $140. for six more lessons – in other words, he offered me a package of 10 pre-paid lessons for $290. That was his offer and I accepted. 

Then we had a fifth lesson. And then he sort of disappeared. Not completely, mind you, but suddenly he just was not as available he had been in the preceding weeks. After several persistent calls, I got another lesson just before Xmas. I felt badly that it was cold and windy and we probably had no business on a tennis court. I felt badly that his wife was waiting inside with their child while we played. But I had paid and I had insisted – and he had complied. And that was the last time I saw him or the rest of my money. 

After several of my calls, he finally offered me a lesson on a Sunday morning at 8am. I showed up and waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually I called him. He sent me a text saying that he was out of town and was sorry that he had forgotten. Another time, he offered me a lesson and then went off on vacation. Then a member of his family died – or was it his wife’s family? I’ve lost track of the excuses. He once offered me an extra lesson to make up for one of his errors, but of course this never materialized. He never calls me and never takes my calls. It has gone on like this for four months. 

Being ripped off is a frustrating experience. The rules of tennis do not allow for rip-offs and other low-life kind of behavior. That is why Justine Henin’s dishonesty was such a big deal. It just goes against the grain when people behave despicably in tennis. 

Last week I joined a new tennis club. The front desk greeted me as if I was a long-lost member of the family. The day after I joined, the owner gave me a key to the backcourts so that I may come and play tennis late in the evening after the clubhouse is closed. This is the kind of trust and trusting that I am used to. I intend to get my money back from the dishonest coach. It will cover several lessons with the coach at my new tennis club.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Feeling used after he dumps you


Why is it that it is only after a relationship is over that some people accuse their former partners of having used them?

I’m not saying that there aren’t men that use women. Of course there are. And vice versa. But surely after staying with a man for years and years, it no longer becomes a valid complaint to say that he used you? Remaining in an exploitative situation is a choice some women make perhaps under the misguided belief that there is some kind of unspoken reward waiting at the end of the road. 

Some women actually encourage a certain amount of dependency from their men, not realizing that dependency and exploitation are flip sides of the same coin. Before he could say “I’m hungry”, she already has lunch fully prepared, his special knife and fork ready. Scarcely do the words, “what’s on these days?” pass his lips than she has run out to buy tickets for the latest show, stopping by the stores to grab him a new outfit to wear. His eyelids barely start drooping, and she has the pillows all fluffed up and the covers turned back. And in bed! Well, what do her needs matter? Come to think of it, what are her needs? 

Until he decides that he wants out of the relationship. 

“You were only using me!” she screams. She complains bitterly that he used her for food, comfort, and sex. Worst of all, for sex. That is the most unforgivable. 

But why do such accusations often come only after the relationship has ended? My only guess is that making them while the relationship is in full force would create cognitve dissonance – you can’t possibly remain in a situation that you yourself define as exploitative, so you leave the labeling for after it is all over. 

But sometimes women do make these accusations during the relationship – and yet remain. In such situations the accusation may be an invitation to the man to prove them wrong, to reassure them that their perceptions are inaccurate, to invalidate their gut instincts. When he does, they have reasons for not initiating the break-up. 

Sometimes a woman is aware that the man is using her but believes, as many women do, that she can change him with time. Being used is not supposed to become a permanent feature of their relationship, but is expected to have an unspoken shelf-life. After he leaves, she may have dark thoughts of revenge, or hope that he get his comeuppance through karma.

Other times the woman feels that she is being used but as long as the man remains in her life, his using her can be overlooked. It may be the price she is willing to pay in order to have a man in her life. Some women are prepared to pay any price for not having to face life without a romantic partner.

Psychologist Linda Tschirhart-Sanford blames this on the “indoctrination into couplism”. This is the notion that no matter how much a woman has accomplished, society continues to tell her – and she is at risk of believing – that she is incomplete unless she is part of a couple. 

Low self-esteem may be a factor in a woman’s willingness to believe that she is incomplete without a partner, and would have to compromise her self-worth in order to get intimacy needs met. 

Women with high self-esteem seem better able to accept their aloneness – the aloneness that is fundamental to the human condition – and are more willing to take responsibility for creating their own happiness. With or without a man.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Finally, Federer gets serious about France

Yes I know I dog him, but that’s because I love him so. And if the people who love you can’t dog you from time to time, who the heck can? OK, so I called him a whore, which was probably going a bit far, but he hurt my feelings by selling his soul for some attention in Madison Square Garden. And as much as I love him, I will probably never forgive him for allowing Old Ass Sampras to come close to beating him – even if the entire damn thing was a pappy show.

OK, now that I have vented my feelings, let me get back to the loving.

I am in love with Federer’s latest decision to hire José Higueras to help him win Roland Garros. Because have no doubt that this is precisely what the agenda is. And it is a good plan. Only fans of Andy ‘the Boor’ Roddick and Rafael ‘Wedgie-Man’ Nadal would say otherwise. And that only because they are already running scared.

Let me tell you first a bit about José Higueras. He was born in Diezma, a town outside of Granado, Spain. He is a former professional tennis player with 16 singles titles. He was a semi-finalist at the French Open in successive years (1982 and 1983), and even famously broke his arm in an attempt to win that particular Slam. He ranked as high as Number 6, and represented Spain in 39 Davis Cup events, garnering 21 victories, 15 in singles play. In other words he is experienced, and he understands the game of tennis very well.

After retiring in 1986, Higueras went on to become a world-renowned tennis coach. He is probably best known for helping Jim Courier become the No.1 player in the world in 1992. Higueras has also worked with Michael Chang, Carlos Moyà, Sergi Bruguera, Dmitry Tursonov, Todd Martin, Guillermo Coria, and, most famously, Pete Sampras. Higueras runs a tennis academy in Palm Springs, Florida (www.higuerastennis.com). And he has become the go-to coach if you are serious about mastering the terre battue.

Which apparently Federer is. And that is excellent news.

Federer is a bit of a maverick. He has accomplished a great deal in his career without the benefit of a coach. In December 2003, he parted ways with Peter Lundgren, his coach of seven years. With only the assistance of hitting partners, Federer then went on to win three Grand Slam tournaments in 2004. This was an incredible accomplishment. Federer remained without a coach until 2005, when he began to work part-time with Tony Roche, the famous Australian coach. They parted ways in mid-2007.

Despite Federer’s many accomplishments during his coach-less years, it has been difficult not to join the call for him to accept the fact that his game has been thoroughly deconstructed by his opponents and that it is time for him to consider hiring a full-time coach.

However, I do not believe that he has done this with Higueras. Higueras is a surface-specific coach. He knows how to help players win on clay. He has done this for much of his coaching career. His hiring signals only one thing – not that Federer thinks that he needs a full-time coach, but that he wants to win on clay. He wants to win Roland Garros.

Everyone who is anyone has beaten up on Federer so far this year. Heck, even Andy Roddick who faced this kind of beat-down just last year, ended up getting a win over Federer in March 2008, after 11 painful attempts. Probably the lowest moment occurred when Federer lost to Mardy Fish. Even when he wins, it has become embarrassing to watch him relinquish sets to players who this time last year were dreading having to face him. Federer has not won a single tournament thus far in 2008. He is, frankly, in the worst slump of his career.

His decision to hire Higueras is not a decision to pull himself out of this slump in any general sense. It is a decision to improve his chances of winning Roland Garros, the one tournament that has so far eluded him. Sampras made the same decision in 2002 – but this came way too late in his career. By that point it proved impossible for Higueras to teach the mechanical Sampras the fluidity required for sliding and playing on clay.

With Federer he will not have this problem. Federer actually grew up playing on clay. He glides naturally on this surface. He has come close to winning Roland Garros on several occasions. I look forward to him finally winning it in 2008. It’s time he achieved the Federer Slam.

So Tennis Vision isn’t always 20-20

More than any other player, Serena Williams can probably be credited with influencing the decision to include technology as an integral component of professional tennis. One match in particular, against Jennifer Capriati at the US Open in 2004, resulted in insistent calls to use technology to help adjudicate in situations in which line calls are ambiguous.

I tried finding this match on youtube, but wherever I looked, I ran into one of two error messages: “This video has been removed due to terms of use violation” or “We’re sorry, this video is no longer available”. I guess someone somewhere has decided that this important piece of tennis history needed to be squelched forever. Well forgive me for bringing it back up.

This match is important because it became part of a significant movement that has forever changed the way tennis is adjudicated professionally. And despite new research suggesting that the new technology may not be all it is cracked up to be, I’m sorry but there is no going back. Hawk-Eye is here to stay.

But before we go forward we need to go back, to that infamous match that Serena played against Jennifer Capriati, who was then enjoying a second wind in her career. Capriati lost the first set 2-6, but came back to play some scintillating tennis that won her the second set 6-4. In the first game of the third set, the chair umpire called a ball out that the line judge had called in. The ball had fallen on the far sideline of the umpire, so she was actually not in the best position to overrule the call. But overrule she did – and handed the game to Capriati. That was the first of four horrendous line calls that would end up costing Serena the match. ESPN’s computerized Shot Spot confirmed that all four calls were incorrect. Fans were stunned. The media documented the sense of outrage. The Association of Professional Tennis later apologized to Serena. The umpire was banned from adjudicating any more main draw matches at that tournament. Tennis fans joined the call to use the existing technology to prevent such unfair outcomes in the future. And many of the more influential tennis pundits supported this call.

Hawk-Eye was officially incorporated into tennis adjudication in 2006, but came fully into its own in 2007. Players are allowed two challenges per set, and an additional challenge if the match goes to a tiebreak. If they are correct, they keep the challenge. If they are wrong, they lose it. Most of the center courts at the top tournaments are now equipped with instant replay screens, which the chair can consult to confirm the accuracy of line calls. Fans love the new technology. Challenges add a dimension of excitement to a match that may not otherwise exist. You would think therefore that everyone would be happy.

Not so fast. Comes a report out of the University of Sussex, looking at Hawk-Eye data gleaned from 1,473 challenges made by 246 singles players or doubles players from 15 tournaments in 2006 and 2007.

Turns out that 39.3 per cent of the challenges were successful, which confirms that line judges do sometimes make wrong calls. But despite this, line judges turn out to be more accurate in their judgments than players themselves who are much more prone to error. And more errors seem to occur on the base and service lines than on the side or centre lines where the ball may move more slowly past the line judge and may therefore be better visible to the naked eye.

But some tennis professionals remain unconvinced that Hawk-Eye has been all good for tennis. Some were convinced that it might lead to gamesmanship, similar to the way sick time-outs and bathroom breaks are sometimes exploited by losing players during a match. However, the new research suggests that most players use their challenges in good faith. I believe this to be true for the simple reason that players only have two challenges, which does not lend itself to gamesmanship. However the proposal to increase the number of challenges to five certainly increases the likelihood of exploitation.

Roger Federer has spoken out openly against Hawk-Eye and similar technologies. He believes that they have taken some pressure off the umpires but have added more to the players, which “makes it really hard for us. They [the umpires] tend to now just let us do the work, the tough stuff. They let us get embarrassed, basically”. He’s got a point. There is always a loud groan when a player challenges and loses. It can be a bit embarrassing.

Others believe that the accuracy of the technology may be overrated. Tennis commentator, Mary Carillo, has compared Shot Spot to presidential polls – we need to keep in mind that “there’s about a 3 percentage point margin of error”. Which makes the system imperfect and therefore fallible. But clearly not as fallible as the human eye.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Perfect love or passing amnesia?

A couple meets and falls in love. Or at least in serious infatuation. They soon find each other absolutely wonderful, and can’t imagine how they existed without each other all these years. They become inseparable as each blossoms under the care and attention of the other. They positively glow.

Infatuation is the lovely but temporary phase at the beginning of a relationship. And the pronouncements of the infatuated lover can be so certain! I remember the actress, Gwyneth Paltrow, upon being quizzed about her then brand spanking new relationship with actor, Brad Pitt, declaring: “I’m properly in love for the first time in my life and I don’t care if any of my former boyfriends hear this!” I wonder how she feels about this statement now?

A common symptom of infatuation is the development of temporary amnesia about one’s pre-coupled life. Everything in the present is as it should be and everything feels as it has never felt before.

But, after a while, the scales begin to fall off the lovers' eyes, as each partner reconnects slowly with reality and starts to perceive the other in its harsh light. Glimmers of disillusion begin to appear.

He discovers that she makes a bizarre kind of whinnying noise as she sleeps. At first he found it cute but now it’s downright irritating. As are many of her other habits and mannerisms. She, in turn, becomes increasingly aware that he is not all he advertised himself to be. She detects hints of the insecure lad behind his macho posturing. And he can be so stingy with money!

Either way, a certain level of disappointment begins to creep in on both sides. But along with this often comes a certain realism. A gradual acceptance of each other’s foibles. And later, a more realistic commitment, and the beginnings of the struggle for real intimacy.

The transition from infatuation to a more lasting commitment between lovers, is not only the stuff of novels. Psychologists too are intrigued by this process. I remember some time ago running across a study which examined whether couples who move beyond infatuation and come to see each other in more realistic terms, end up being more satisfied with each other than couples who do not make this adjustment in their perceptions of each other.

The researchers found the opposite to be true – perceiving another too starkly and accurately may eventually become the kiss of death for a relationship. It helps to hold on to some of the idealization that occurred naturally during the phase of infatuation.

Cognitive researchers have long confirmed this human propensity for positive illusions. Optimistic persons remain depression-free by conveniently distorting the reality of their lives. Where others see the glass as half-empty, they see it as half-full. They filter out the bad stuff and view the world through rose-colored lenses – and their dispositions remain all the rosier for it.

Similarly, it seems, lovers need to find ways of retaining some of their positive illusions about each other if a relationship is to last. But this is not to say that they must remain in denial about each other’s destructive flaws. On the contrary, denial can be extremely harmful to a relationship and may set one up for greater disappointment in the end. 

But it is also not a good idea to rush into marriage during the infatuation phase of a relationship. There is a risk that the assessment of each other may be based more on projection than on reality. This too can set the stage for later disillusionment and recrimination.

A healthier approach seems to be to find ways of honestly acknowledging the more irritating aspects of the other’s behavior, while also maintaining the ability to see these imperfections in the best possible light, through eyes of compassion and understanding. It helps also to retain a bit of the idealization that typified the period of infatuation, and to think of each other not as perfect, but as truly awesome. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Surviving Carnival

An American friend of mine lost her boyfriend in Trinidad a few weeks ago. They left together from New York to spend the Carnival period with his family. Once they got there, she found herself stuck with his mother and sister, both of whom could not understand why she was angry at his disappearance. They kept whispering behind her back that she was so sour.

I tried to ask my friend – a Carnival novice – if she really knew what she was getting into. She replied confidently that her boyfriend had told her what to expect and that she understood that she would have to give him some space. What she was not prepared for was his complete abandonment, and the equanamity with which his family accepted that entertaining her was their responsibility, not his.

I could have told her that I am convinced that there are certain things couples should never do together – not if they want their relationship to last more than a few weeks anyway. Like argue over politics, religion, or whether OJ really did it. Or allow one to teach the other how to drive. Especially a manual car.

Or play mas’ in Trinidad for Carnival. A break-up is practically guaranteed.

I’ve been pretty successful at side-stepping the religion and politics booby-traps in my love-life, but I remember well the experience of a boyfriend teaching me to operate a stick-shift car. For two weeks, I chafed under his unending barrage of criticism. He in turn became increasingly frustrated by my seeming refusal to learn “something so damn simple!”. The car in question, an old Ford Escort, kept stalling just for spite.

Finally, one of us ran out of patience, threatened to beat the other to a pulp, and jumped out of the stalled car, leaving it to roll backwards down the hill as the other scrambled to control it from the passenger’s side. He recovered fast from the experience, my boyfriend, and, after driving slowly back up the hill, suggested – quite calmly under the circumstances – that perhaps I should let somebody else teach me to drive. I agreed.

Would that my own Carnival story had a similarly easy resolution! Suffice it to say that the bacchanal started in the pitch-black of J’Ouvert morning, and continued right through to last lap on Tuesday. By Ash Wednesday, the relationship was history.

But I started telling you about my friend who lost her boyfriend sometime after they landed in Piarco. What is it about the experience of Carnival that places such terrible pressure on relationships, she wanted to know?

Problems often start during the early months of the season when a couple may have difficulty agreeing on whether to party separately or together. There are advantages and disadvantages on both sides of the equation. What there isn’t is a resolution that can make both parties happy at the same time.

Carnival tends to bring out terrible feelings of insecurity for both men and women. Infidelities sometimes occur, particularly under the influence of free-flowing booze.

Differences between a couple may become highlighted. She may want to go dancing in the streets while he prefers to watch the spectacle from a more sedate distance. Or vice versa. Under the stress of Carnival, such differences become glaring, and oppositeness temporarily declines in attractiveness.

Finally, the alcoholic frenzy that characterises the Carnival period can bring out the worst in people. Relationships often suffer as a result of alcohol-induced bad judgement. Couples fight over whose turn it is to be the designated driver. Quite often one partner gets stuck with this responsibility and comes to resent the other’s continued drunkenness.

Add to this the stress of visiting a country and your boyfriend’s family for the first time – and it is a wonder that any couples survive the return trip. My friend last saw her boyfriend on the flight back to New York. He seemed genuinely shocked when she asked the flight attendant for a change of seat. He asked her why she was being so sour.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

On being a fan of Serena Williams

Some moments in tennis are stellar. Martina Hingis’ breathtaking performances during 1997 that resulted in her becoming the world’s youngest Number 1. Steffi Graf beating Hingis at Roland Garros 1999 in a match filled with more drama than tennis. Federer humbling Sampras at Wimbledon. And, for a time, Gustavo ‘Guga’ Kuerten’s dominance of the terre battue.

But there is no tennis story like that of the ascendance of the William sisters and the awe and fear they still inspire. And this is one of the few times you will ever see me referring to them as a unit, because I generally think of them as two separate individuals.

I respect the heck out of Venus but she’s just not my cup of tea. I can’t bear to watch her interviews. They are so carefully worded while disclosing absolutely nothing that they end up irritating. I can’t bear to watch her play either, especially when she starts to lose and copes by chewing away at the inside of her cheek. I’ve always wondered what the inside of her mouth looks like after all that gnawing. And then when she starts to panic in a match, it becomes painful to watch. Sure she plays her best tennis when she is in a hole, but I find it too emotionally draining and not at all enjoyable to witness.

And I hate to say this but I wish I could just once see Venus out on a date with a brother. She has only been photographed with white men. Of course she has the right to find happiness with whomever she pleases, don’t get me wrong, but I wish that just once you could see her going for some coffee without cream. There is something about the complete rejection of one’s own race that speaks to possible self-esteem and self-image issues. Not that Venus would ever go there in an interview.

Serena however is on a completely different level. In the early years she used to panic like Venus, and choked more than a few matches away. I don’t know how she learned to gain better control of her nerves, but I do know that at some point she did, and thereafter became a formidable opponent. I credit her with single-handedly running Hingis out of tennis the first time. [Cocaine did it the second time].

Any player who beats Serena knows that revenge is waiting around the corner. And when Serena gets revenge, she doesn’t just beat you. She crushes you to a pulp. She pounds you into oblivion. She gets into your head so that the next time you meet, you might seriously consider just laying down your racket and handing her the win. Just ask Justine Henin, the current #1 player in the world. There has been no love lost between these two ever since Justine cheated during a 2003 French Open match when she held up her hand to delay Serena’s serve, and then refused to admit having done so, to the Chair. Their matches have ever since been tainted with bad blood. Justine beat Serena three times in 2007. Each match was painfully close. Serena was in poor form. Then they met in Miami a few days ago. Serena crushed her 6-2 6-0. She made the #1 player in the world look like a junior as she ate the bagel Serena force-fed her. Revenge was sweet, but also bitterly cold.

Serena is one of those rare athletes who seem able to play their way into good form during a tournament. She may start out seeming out-of-form, but if she makes it all the way to the finals watch out, because she will be in scintillating form. This approach to match preparation is not recommended by any coach I know, and it may be a factor in Serena’s history of injuries. But it has also worked for her.

As an actress, thus far Serena has been a failure. The bulk of her IMDB profile features roles in which she has appeared as “herself”. In other words, almost her entire acting career has involved her not getting into any character. I’m not sure how that qualifies as acting.

I happen to agree with those who believe that Serena has wasted her career by pursuing dreams of becoming a Hollywood star. I wish she had dedicated those years to tennis, to surpassing Steffi Graf’s and even Margaret Court’s records. Serena has the talent to do this. But she lacks the interest, dedication, and motivation. She plays tennis on her own terms. Frank Sulloway would say that as the last-born in her family, she was born to rebel. I think that this is what happens when people end up being overly deprived in some spheres and overly indulged in others. Their dreams can get distorted.

Over the years Serena has faced a barrage of criticism for some of her fashion choices. I have never been sure if Serena was just playing the Hollywood game (by letting her boobs hang out), or if she truly has the internal self-image of a skinny petite chick. The former is less disturbing and suggests that she is in control of her image and is simply playing by the rules. The latter calls to mind similar concerns regarding self-image that plague her sister, and makes one wonder about what it was really like growing up Williams. I have on occasion been embarrassed for her by the spaghetti straps and bra-less gets-ups she sometimes forces on her chunk-sized frame. In her own mind, she is clearly all girly-girl, never mind that she has the muscles and shoulders of a quarterback. But when she periodically gets it right, her real beauty shines smilingly through.

I have learned not to count on Serena. I accept with humility the terms she has set down for her fans. When she is focused on her tennis, we show up in numbers to support her. When she stopped going to Indian Wells, we joined the boycott, knowing that there is indeed a difference between booing and booooooooing, and that the latter was tinged with racism. When she is off her form, we wait patiently for her to get back on it. During her Brett Ratner phase, we held our breath. When Jackie Long reportedly broke her heart, we wept on her behalf. Now that she is allegedly dating Common, we exhale and wish her well. And through all of her permutations, we keep the faith that she can see that history is within her making, that the Serena Slam is just the start of what she can accomplish, that she has the capacity to be stellar - if only she could see this as clearly as we do.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Born to irritate?

I am different from the other members of my family. There is no doubt about that. I have always assumed that this is because the circumstances of my birth were drastically different from those of my older brothers and sisters – quite simply, I have a different father from the siblings with whom I grew up.

I have always accepted, in an Adlerian sense, that my interpretation of the circumstances of my birth may have played a part in why I turned out so differently from my older siblings. But if Frank Sulloway is right, the differences between my siblings and myself may have more to do with our respective birth order. I am different because I was born later. This birth position, far more than the circumstances of my birth, help to explain why I have always had such difficulty painting within the lines.

Sulloway is much too intelligent a writer to ever lapse into implying causation. After all, this is the same mind that dissected Freud’s. And so he never actually says that birth order causes personality differences per se. Instead he maintains that certain aspects of personality that are under environmental control are strongly influenced by family niches. Birth order is a particularly significant niche, a stand-in for many of the patterns of family dynamics that end up shaping personality.

For example, because first-borns are necessarily bigger than their siblings, they become more effective at tactics that require size, aggression, and competition. First-borns become those “responsible achievers” who easily slip into the role of parent surrogates.

Second-born children naturally compete with first-borns. If they succeed, they try to out-do them. When they don’t – particularly in areas where size may be a disadvantage – they branch out and find new areas of success and achievement. To quote Sulloway, “if an elder brother is a great spear-thrower and a younger cannot top that, they might as well take up the bow and arrow. And if there is another older sibling already specializing in the bow and arrow, then it pays to invent the crossbow.” In other words, sibling rivalry is healthy and natural.

Sulloway argues that younger siblings are motivated to diversify. The impulse to do so is Darwinian, enhancing the family’s possibility of survival. He also explains why younger siblings are more likely to identify with democratic causes. Having grown up as underdogs, they are more likely to pursue egalitarian goals.

But perhaps Sulloway’s most radical conclusion was his statement that first-borns everywhere are more similar to each other than they are to other members of their own family. He arrived at this incredible conclusion based on his perusal of historical data as well as on his meta-analysis of the birth order literature. And this is true, he believes, at every level of the pecking order, such that last-born children share a personality trait of rebelliousness that is more akin to each other’s personality than it is to those with whom they share filial bonds. And middle children everywhere not only share the experience of feeling lost, neglected, and overlooked, but in doing so they too have more in common with other middle children than they do with blood siblings.

One of Sulloway’s biggest critics, Judith Rich Harris, concedes his point that birth order dynamics can be detected – but only within the context of the family-of-origin. She believes that these dynamics do not endure outside of the family. Sure, adult children may return home for Thanksgiving and end up slipping into old roles and grievances. But these dynamics do not result in indelible personality features evident in the way they relate to others outside of the family.

In other words, once we begin the process of separating and individuating from our family-of-origin, we blossom and try out new roles. Some of these other influences also help to shape our distinct personality. Indeed, Harris has provided conclusive evidence that the way people behave within their family has no correspondence on the way they act outside of it. She believes that birth order effects are figments of the imagination. Researchers keep finding them only because they keep looking for them.

Sulloway may be one of those researchers. And if he is right, then my personality is much more similar to younger children everywhere. Never mind my gender, culture, race, or the circumstances of my birth. Apparently I have more in common with irritating last-borns like Katie Couric, Jim Carrey and Jay Leno – than I do with the largely wonderful and accepting members of my own family. Imagine that.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Stick a fork in him. Federer's done.

Federer lost to Andy Roddick at the Ericsson Open.

Federer has beaten Roddick the last 11 times they have played. ELEVEN!

But tonight he lost 6-7 6-4 3-6. He folded like a wet baby blanket.

I am gutted.

Next up Roddick faces Mikhail Youzhny, made famous recently when he busted open his head with his own tennis racket.

There's a weird energy about in Miami. I blame Raul Castro. All these new freedoms he is introducing in his homeland have made his compatriots in Miami restless. Change is good, but it also unnerving.

I am deeply worried about Federer. At this rate, I do not see how he can possibly erase Sampras' record. Now I am seriously wondering if Sampras could really come back and kick his ass. Not even Santeria could help Federer at the rate he is declining.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Think you're too shy? Just take a pill!

Tom Cruise had a point. And you have no idea how hard it is for me to admit that.

During the phase when his lunacy seemed at its most high – the period when his longstanding PR woman had stepped down and his sister had embarked on a misguided mission of showing us the real Tom – he participated in a now infamous interview with Matt Lauer. During the interview, Tom made it clear that he had no regard for the “pseudoscience” known as psychiatry. He spoke out against the abuse of drugs like Adderall and Ritalin. All drugs, he declared sarcastically, “only mask the problem”, and “there is no such thing as a chemical imbalance”. Drugs are “dangerous” and “mind-altering” he insisted. There are ways of changing behavior without using drugs, he implied.

If you can for a moment put aside the lunacy of the person doing the speaking, there are some genuine kernels of truth in several of the above statements. At the time, what made it difficult for people to see this may have stemmed from the fact that it was embedded in an unnecessary and unprovoked attack on Brooke Shields for her use of antidepressants to combat severe post-partum depression.

It also did not help that Cruise’s own behavior at the time suggested the possibility of a biochemical imbalance so profound that it was hard not to consider throwing some Depakote at him. But despite his irritating narcissism, the lunatic had a point. He did not however make it well.

A more cogent argument against psychiatry has been made in an interesting new book titled “Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness”. It’s author, Christopher Lane, is an English professor and Guggenheim fellow at the University of London. Lane has written on a wide range of topics from psychoanalysis and race, to intimacy, hatred in Victorian England, and homosexuality. And if you think that such a range would dilute his latest tome, you would be wrong.

Lane attacks psychiatry for its increasing tendency to ‘medicalize’ normal behavior. He combed the archives of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as well as documents from several drug companies, and found evidence that the APA and drug companies are involved in an unholy matrimony. Lane believes that the growing influence of drug companies on APA practice is reflected in the creation of new diagnostic categories, which in turn became opportunities for the psychopharmacological industry to cook up new lab-based solutions. And they do.

A central example of this, Lane notes, is the change in the definition of shyness. In a previous generation, shy people were considered to be introverted. Shyness was perceived as an aspect of personality, one end of the normal range of human sociability. Today shyness has been re-packaged as a mental illness that can be medicated. Lane notes that in 1990, the Psychiatry Bible, otherwise known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, was completely overhauled, and almost 100 new categories of illness were added. Among these was a new condition called Social Anxiety Disorder. Or shyness.

But shyness is not a billable condition. Social anxiety however, is. Which points to another important component of the increasing medicalizing of ‘conditions’ such as shyness – the dependency of psychiatrists on insurance reimbursements. Lane believes that the distinction between crippling phobias and garden-variety shyness is deliberately being blurred by drug companies – and the psychiatrists they have in their back pockets - all for the purpose of marketing and selling new drugs.

Lane also points fingers at the unethical marketing of anti-depressants such as Prozac and Paxil, and what he argues were deliberate attempts to keep the public ignorant of their side effects and frightening withdrawal symptoms. He gives examples of celebrities who are paid by the drug companies to “out” themselves as having these new mental illnesses. When Delta Burke recently hospitalized herself for treatment of “hoarding behavior” [her words], I found myself cynically wondering if a drug company had paid for her endorsement. Surely there is no aspect of hoarding that made her a danger to herself or others?

There are many fallouts from this medicalizing of experiences that are normal components of the human condition – such as shyness, unhappiness, or eccentricity. Or even the odd erectile failure. For a start, it discourages people from finding non-medical solutions to their problems. I once had a lover who couldn’t get it up for a month. It sprang to life after he realized that I had not cheated on him. He did not need Levitra. Indeed, when I was trained as a sex therapist, I was told that 85% of erectile failure was psychological in nature and 15% of causes were organic. Today those numbers have been reversed and men are increasingly encouraged to drug it up rather than talk it out.

There are untold dangers of parents becoming increasingly over-reliant on psychologists and psychiatrists to help them raise their children. Some children go through childhood and adolescence collecting diagnoses – and taking pills. Who knows what the long-term effects of this might be?

Another problem is the loss of a sense of what constitutes the range of normal behavior. An example of this is the increasing over-diagnosis of ADHD. Lane quotes a psychiatrist who observed, “we used to have a word for sufferers of ADHD. We called them boys”.

A final concern is that research on conditions such as schizophrenia that truly impair human functioning end up being under-funded in favor of sexy new conditions like Body Dysmorphic Disorder. This condition even has its own Wiki page.

An unexpected irony is that I am forced to admit that the insane ravings of Tom Cruise end up containing more than a kernel of truth. The last thing we need is more influence from Scientologists discouraging people from seeking mental health help. And I don’t mean to be glib.