Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Starting the New Year Right

I made a very simple resolution to myself about 2015. It didn’t involve eating more healthily, getting more exercise, reading more poetry, or any of those other lofty things that many of us aspire to at the change of the year, but never really quite pull off. It did, however, involve something that was very beneficial to my mental health.

I unfollowed some people on Facebook.

Now, please pay careful attention to what I said. I didn’t say that I unfriended them. These people are still my friends, I’ll still see posts that they specifically tag me in; what I’ve done is simply to unfollow them so that I don’t see the general stuff they post on a day by day basis.

Why? Well, there are three types of people I’ve decided that I needed to unfollow. The first consists of those who insist on bringing the all too abundant drama in their lives into everyone else’s. There is no problem in their lives that they don’t feel the need to share with the rest of the Internet. They’re like the “all drama, all the time” station.

So I’ve unfollowed them. But in the process, I’ve examined and reexamined how much of my own personal drama I share with the rest of you; and I’d like to think that unless I feel that you can help me find a solution, I don’t use my Facebook feed to vent endlessly about whatever problems I may have.

The second is those who constantly post extreme political or religious opinions (some of those political opinions being held with an almost religious fervor), who can’t or won’t listen to a voice of reason; and who see any intelligent, evidence-based argument against their belief as a sign that you’re part of the conspiracy too.

I have a policy of only discussing something with an idiot three times before just quietly walking away. But I’ve had my three times with some of these people more than three times three times three times, and enough is enough.

Buh bye. I’ll see them if they tag me, but otherwise, I’m spared.

The third is those who seem to be “Johnny One-Notes” about what’s wrong with the world. It seems that 99% of their posts that make it through to me, seem to be about all the pain, misery, corruption, evil, and stupidity in the world. There is no tragedy in the world too small, or too remote for them to post about. And I’m certain that if they had a way to see halfway across the galaxy, to a civilization that no one else had known existed until now, they’d feel it was their moral obligation to post about how the Trids were being mistreated by the monster on the mountain.

As. If. We. Could. Do. Anything. About. It.

They may think that by shining a bright light on all the dark corners of the universe, they’ll rally you to try to do something about it…all of it…but they don’t realize that a steady diet of bad news is paralyzing to the point where you don’t bother trying to fix anything anymore, because it all seems so hopeless.

And so I’ve unfollowed them. But in the process, I’ve also made a conscious effort to repost and share stories that tell of the good that’s happened in the world, rather than harping on the bad.

Removing these three toxins from my news feed already seems to be working, and I highly recommend that you do the same…

…and have a wonderful 2015 without them.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Dating "Fat Girls"

A few months ago, a piece from Jezebel.com about comedian Louis C K’s bit on dating fat girls came to my attention. And after I read the piece and watched the video clip, I reached one very important conclusion:

It’s more complicated than this...on so many levels.

First of all, what do you do about a really nice person who you just aren’t attracted to? A person who you like as a friend, but just don’t find attractive “in that way” for whatever reason...weight, height, hair color, face, any number of “superficial things” that really do matter to us as simple matters of personal taste? Do we ignore them and force ourselves to date someone we find unattractive because it’s “the right thing to do?”

Second, how do you avoid “dating fat girls” because (and the insensitive thing I’m about to say will make sense shortly) because “you can't do any better” and you want someone who “can’t turn you down?”

Let me explain this one here before you all start stoning me. When I was in my teens I had an extreme dry spell. I couldn’t get a date to save my life. But there was this one girl I knew who had a body that could stop traffic...and a face that could stop a clock. I decided to ask her out, figuring that no one else was asking her, so it would be a sure thing.

Boy, was I surprised when she said no. Surprised and furious. How could she turn me down...as if she was getting any better offers?

And then it hit me. Then I realized what I had just done. I had used her. I didn’t really care about her, I wanted a girlfriend. I wanted a girlfriend so badly that I'd ask out just about anyone who wore a skirt, no matter how unattractive they were to me. And I was disgusted with myself. I realized that because of the way I acted, I deserved to be turned down by her, and that she deserved to be asked out by someone much nicer than me.

So what does this have to do with dating fat girls? A lot.

I resolved from then on never to intentionally “aim low” just because my social life sucked. I resolved to never treat someone who I didn't actually find attractive as a potential date just so I could say that I had one. I resolved to be very careful in how I interacted with the “fat girls” and others who I might not immediately find attractive, because I didn’t want to use them. And there were a couple of girls who liked me since then who were “fat girls,” but I didn’t want to go there because I was afraid of doing what I had attempted years earlier. If I wasn’t initially attracted to them, I wasn’t going to go there, when I found out that they liked me. And actually, I followed this same rule with a number of “thin girls” too, who were willing to throw themselves at me, but that I just wasn’t attracted to. But still, the question would always have to be “Do I like her because I actually like her, or am I just settling because I can't get anyone else? And if it’s the second, is that really fair to her?”

That all having been said, with age comes wisdom. What you think of as fat when you're 17 is zaftig at 57; and at 57, zaftig ain’t bad. With age comes the ability to not be embarrassed by what the rest of your friends might say about your “fat” or “unattractive” girlfriend. With age also comes their not being juvenile toward you about it either.

Moreover, while the “babe” may get your attention first, and seem to have the advantage, sometimes the “fat girl,” or some other woman that you really hadn’t thought of as someone you’d pursue sneaks up from behind you and smacks you upside the head with the 2x4 of her personality, and you suddenly find yourself saying, “Oh...yeah...her!”

I know because this has happened to me a number of times. Now, I can’t pursue any of these women, because I’m happily married to someone I was attracted to almost immediately when I first met her 28 years ago; but having been smacked upside the head with the 2x4 of their personalities, I would definitely consider them under different circumstances.

Knowing that I wasn’t settling.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Life in an Institution

They should never have gotten married. And fortunately, they didn’t. When they broke up and eventually found other people better suited to each of them, congratulatory telegrams came in from all over the world.

Well…not quite. However, their friends and family members did finally express the opinions that they had kept mum about during the years that the two of them had been seeing each other. You know…“He seemed like a nice enough person, but not quite right for you.” Or, “I didn’t say anything because you seemed happy at the time, but really, this new person is sooo much better for you than she was.” And of course, there were the friends who saw the problems from the start and tried to warn one or both of them, only to have their warnings fall upon deaf ears…these people who have worked hard not to say “I told you so,” but have waited for the people involved to come back and admit that they should’ve listened, but were blinded by love…or hormones…or both.

But what if they had gotten married? What would life had been like then?

Well, my money is on them both realizing that they’d made a horrible mistake within five years. However, while my money is on them realizing that they’d made a mistake, my money is not necessarily on them getting a divorce. Nah…my money’s on them staying together for the long haul out of spite.

Now when I say this, I don’t mean that they’d stay married out of sheer spite for each other. I mean that they’d stay married out of spite for all the people who thought that their marriage was a bad idea in the first place. They’d stay married just to prove that they could do it. One of them might even say that they’d stay married in principle, “out of respect for the institution.”

Notice that at no time did I suggest that they were staying married because they cared that much for each other and thought that they could and should work things out for each other’s sake. No…it’s not about the other person involved, it’s about the institution; and I believe it was Groucho Marx who said that marriage is a wonderful institution…if you want to live in an institution.

Now despite what Jesus may have said to the two Pharisees when he was asked about divorce in the Gospel of Mark (which may not have been the answer to the question we tend to think it was) [1], ancient Jewish law was quite understanding about the fact that sometimes things don’t work out between people as they had hoped, and this is reflected in the tradition that said that the empty shell of a marriage should not be allowed…or forced…to continue. In fact, quite the contrary from other cultures, the Jews believed that marriage was not something to be endured, but to be enjoyed. It was to be a gift, a blessing, to both parties. But when that blessing turned into a curse, they believed that dissolving the marriage was the lesser of two evils.

Did you hear that? Dissolving the marriage…for the sake of the other person…was the lesser of two evils. This implies that the person is more important than the institution. Or to paraphrase something else Jesus once said, the institution was made for the people, and not people for the institution.

So what does this say about my friends who mercifully didn’t get married?

It says that their refusal to consider divorce after they realized that they’d made a terrible mistake would’ve been more about their own pride of being able to say that they stuck it out in the rotting shell of a dead marriage, than about caring for each other by doing the kindest thing for everyone, and dissolving it.

And yes, I realize that there are those whose religious convictions maintain that they must endure…but I maintain that those same convictions wrongly put the institution ahead of the two people trapped in it.

We all know people like this…who put Herculean effort into trying to keep together something that is dying or dead, for the sake of “the institution” rather than the other person, and it’s extremely painful to be around these people, lurching around in this rotting carcass that they can’t bring themselves to bury.

But sometimes you do have to bury it. Sometimes you do have to admit that it’s dead. And sometimes the kindest thing is to walk away, rather than to stubbornly try to give CPR to a rock.


Yes…marriage can be a wonderful institution, but when it’s not, we need to put the people in it ahead of the institution.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why Men Don’t Get It – Or Giving Each Other What We Want

On May 27th, Slate.com published a piece titled Why it’s So Hard for Men to See Mysogyny. I know I’m gonna get beaten up for this, but I’ll say it anyway…written by a woman, it gave a lot of the usual “men are all to blame” and “it’s an issue of power” arguments that I’ve heard for so long.

But if I may be allowed to add my own personal, anecdotal, data points, I think we might get a better understanding of why many (but not all...I hate sweeping generalizations) men don't see the harassment that women experience. And while it is about “power,” it's not something insidious...it’s just something that is.

We don’t see it, or understand it unless it’s really obnoxious and obvious, because it’s the kind of attention we think that we’d want.

And here’s where the “power” comes in: As the guy doing the asking, it seemed to me for years that it was the women who had the power. I had to work hard to get up the courage to talk to someone or ask them out, and she had the power of a Caesar to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to what happened next in my emotional life. That’s a lot of power. Boy was I glad when things started changing enough so that women started asking men out...not that that changed my luck much, but it meant that it wasn’t all on me anymore.

We don't get it because we think we’d like to have women hitting on us, instead of us doing all the work, and putting our hearts on the line. And we don’t get it precisely because we're not being hit on all the time, 24/7 from everyone.

Case in point...one day at the library, I was helping a woman learn how to use her Kindle, and as she left, she patted me on the butt. My initial reaction was, “Hey (smile)! She patted me on the butt! No one’s ever done that to me before! She must think I’m attractive!” Of course, she was also a good 10-15 years older than me, but it was still a major first.

And then I realized that had the shoe been on the other foot, and I had patted her on the butt after she’d helped me, she wouldn't be so ecstatic about it...less so from some guy who was 15 years older than her. I realized that technically what she had done was inappropriate, could be considered sexual harassment, and that any of my female colleagues would’ve gotten Security involved had a male patron done that to them. But still...I was on Cloud 9 because a woman patted my butt on the way out.

Now...to her credit, she came back a few hours later and apologized for what she had done, saying that she was treating me like she would her son-in-law, with a friendly pat. Gee thanks…the apology was fine, but don’t take away my ability to think that maybe you actually thought I had a nice butt. In a way, that was worse than had she never apologized at all.

The problem is that we give each other what we want for ourselves. Men hit on women because it’s the kind of attention we think we’d like to have. We’re tired of having to always work for getting attention or proving our worth in one way or another. It would be so nice to have some woman come up to us and talk to us for no other reason than she thought we had a nice butt…and to have her tell us that. So we go up to a woman and try that, and get smacked and charged with sexual harassment.

Women, on the other hand, are tired of being ogled, and looked up and down like “a piece of meat” (although I prefer to the analogy of a fine work of art or engineering); and knowing the kind of attention that they don’t want, they don’t give it to us either, thinking that we want to be respected for what we can do, and not desired for what we look like. Umm...I know that I’m respected for the work I do, but it would sure be nice to have women stare at me, or start conversations with me, because they thought I was attractive. Boy, what a boost that would be to my self-esteem…especially as I get older.

Sigh…can we ever learn that maybe the other person really does want something that we would either find offensive or that would make us feel like we were unattractive?

In any event, I believe that we don't “get it” or “see it” unless it’s really over the top and obnoxious because we think it’s what we’d want for ourselves, and don’t understand what it’s like to be hit on day in and day out 24/7. Maybe if we had to go through it ourselves, we’d change our minds and our behavior.

Or maybe we’re wired differently enough that we’d actually like it.

It’s not insidious. It just is.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Very Good Year

After going to a private school from Pre-K through 5th grade, our youngest daughter is finishing her first year in public school this week. And I have to tell you that we’re all very pleased with her experience.

This may seem a little odd to you for two reasons. The first is that for 19 years I taught at the same private school that she attended. The second is that she’s not in some fancy-schmancy, well-off, suburban school district; she’s attending school in the Syracuse City School District.



As a private school teacher, I had heard all the propaganda about how bad public schools were, especially in the city. I had heard about how bad the teachers were, because of how low the test scores were when compared to other suburban school districts. I had heard how violent city schools were compared to suburban school districts. I have to tell you that this has not been our experience.

Even when I was a private school teacher, I'd always maintained that the school test scores were a terrible way to judge a how well a school was actually doing, because it didn’t take into account the number of students in the district for whom English is a second language, or the number of students coming from homes where there is poverty or where education isn’t highly valued. I figured that if you took the same students and put them into Fayetteville-Manlius or Jamesville-DeWitt, you’d see their scores go down and ours go up. Furthermore, I believe that if you take those very same students into account, then the “poor test scores” that we see in those schools represent something of a miracle for those students, and the teachers should be given due credit for how far along they’ve helped to bring those kids.

In addition, even my eleven-year-old daughter was smart enough to say, “It’s not like their low scores are contagious. I’m a good student anyway. I’ll do just fine.” She also met people of many more different socioeconomic backgrounds than she did at her old school; and this is a very good thing.

I’ve met the teachers at her school, and they seem to be every bit as dedicated to their students as the teachers who I once counted as my colleagues. And the principal goes out of her way to make sure that every parent feels welcome in what is their school. Huntington may be much larger than the school we came from, but it is every bit the caring academic community that we grew to expect over the past 21 years.

Is there violence in the city schools? I’ve heard from people who grew up in the city that this was always said about our schools by people in the suburbs. For some reason they thought that there were knife fights in every school every day, and bars on all the windows…and this was 30 years ago. Of course there are some knuckleheads who can’t seem to go a day without getting into an altercation with someone, but isn’t that true everywhere?

Now don’t get me wrong, there was much that was good about our old school, and it was a wonderful place. But once you get past the propaganda and the fear, you’ll find that the city schools can be wonderful places too.


That’s what we found, and we’re looking forward to our next six years in the system.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

How to Be a Christian

Two years ago, my oldest daughter gave me Baratunde Thurston’s book How to Be Black for my birthday. When I wrote about it back in 2012, I said that this was one of the best books I’d ever read, and one that I could’ve used when I was an adolescent. That’s because back then, I suffered from regular accusations of “not being black enough,” or of being an “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside) because I liked the Beatles, and wasn’t as totally into black culture as I was “supposed to be.” This book points out, through interviews with other African-Americans who grew up everywhere from inner-city DC to rural Maryland that there are as many ways to be black as there are people who are black; and no one can say that you’re not really black because you like classical music and know how to correctly pronounce the word “ask.”

I think there needs to be a book called How to Be Christian, and here’s why: I’m just wayyy tired of the term “Christian” being hijacked to refer to only a certain type of Evangelical Christian, as if we Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, and Methodists were chopped liver (and weren’t here first). I’m also wayyy tired of the term “religious” being used the same way.

I think I’ve always been annoyed by the use of “Christian” to mean a specific type of Christian, in an us vs them way that the rest of us would never use. I mean, we might think you’re a little weird, we might think that your interpretations and practices are a little off, but we’d still consider you to be part of the "family."

The first time I remember running into this attitude was a good 35 years ago, as an undergrad, when a stranger, upon seeing the cross pin on my lapel, asked if I was a real Christian. That got my hackles up right there. As if I was only a “real” Christian if I met her definition of what a Christian was, and shared her exact same beliefs and practices.

In the years since, I’ve heard of many media figures who won’t do certain things because he or she “is a Christian,” and I want to say, “What kind of Christian? I know plenty of Catholics who will do that! They’re Christians aren’t they?” I hate the fact that when the average non-religious person hears the term “Christian,” they think of those people, rather than the rest of us, who are at least specific about what branch of Christianity we belong to when giving it as a reason for holding a specific belief, or not wanting to be involved in a certain activity.

Say you’re Pentecostal if you want to, say you belong to the Assemblies of God, say you’re a Southern Baptist; those at least give the hearer enough specificity to imply that maybe not all Christians share that belief or do things that way. But for Pete’s sake, don’t go around saying that you won’t sing certain types of songs or play certain roles because you’re a Christian, because I’m sure I can find a Presbyterian or a Lutheran who’ll have no problem with them.

So remember, there are as many different ways of being a Christian as there are people who claim the name.

Which reminds me…do you know why Southern Baptists don’t have sex standing up?

It might lead to dancing.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Of Jews and Transsexuals

Well now, that’s an odd title, isn’t it? And you’re likely wondering what they have to do with each other; what they have to say to or about each other. I’ll tell you shortly, but first I’d like to register a complaint with the Internet.

Oh, don’t get me wrong…I love the Internet. For me, it’s the library that never closes. It’s the source of information to refute all the stupidity that I’m regularly bombarded with. And yet…it’s a two-edged sword because it’s also the source of much of the stupidity that I’m bombarded with. The Internet has allowed any idiot with a broadband connection to have as much of a voice as a properly-vetted, well-established, expert on a subject.

Take for example the anti-vaxxers. 20 years ago there may have been pockets of them here and there, but they would’ve been surrounded by many more people who could try to talk a little common sense into them; and they would realize that they were very much alone in their opinions. Today, those formerly-isolated nutcases can easily find others like them, and spread their dangerous misinformation far and wide, wreaking damage that they can’t begin to imagine.

I hate to say it, but it seems to me that there are too many support groups out there on the Internet. I once heard that there was a support website for bulimics…not to help them get over their problem, but to give them tips on how to hide it better. Now that just seems wrong. I was going to joke that there’s probably a support group out there somewhere for people who pick their nose and eat it…until I found out that there actually is one.

Sigh.

Which brings me back to my title.

A while back, I remember hearing a piece on NPR about how children with what is called Gender Identity Disorder being diagnosed earlier and earlier, and how there’s more support for them now; and I was a little concerned about this support. You see, I was wondering if a kid going through what might be a temporary exploratory phase might get enough “support” that they’d feel that they couldn’t change their minds without “letting people down.”

Why do I wonder this?

Because when I was a kid I wanted to be a girl.

Really, I wanted to be a girl. 50 or so years later, I couldn’t tell you why, but I wanted to be one, and pretended I was one every now and then. Now…I knew it wasn’t possible for me to really be a girl, I didn’t learn about Christine Jorgensen until I was in my teens, and by that time I had long since grown out of that phase. So knowing that it wasn’t possible, I figured I’d just play the hand that life dealt me, and be a boy. Besides, all things considered, had I known that it was really possible, would I actually make that choice? I tend to doubt it.

On the other hand, who knows? In today’s climate would my parents feel obligated to get me counseling that might “support” my desire to be a girl, rather than figuring it was just a phase I was going through? And having put my parents and all the people who were supporting me through that, would I feel able to say, “No, wait. I don’t want to do this after all?”

This is where the Jews come in.

I’ve heard it said that not only is Judaism a non-proselytizing religion, but that when a Gentile goes to a rabbi and asks to convert, the rabbi’s supposed to turn him down three times, basically saying, “What are you, crazy? Look at what we go through because we’re born into it, and you want to take it on voluntarily? Get outta here!”

I understand the desire of members of the transgendered community to make life easier for the current generation than they had it, but I also think it would be very good if the first reaction that they had to a potential newbie was similar to that of the Jews. I mean, it’s one thing to have your family and the rest of the general world suggest that you might be making a mistake, but it’s something completely different to have people in the community that you think you’re a part of tell you to go away, and ask yourself if this is just a phase you’re going through.

Now don’t get me wrong…I know my share of transsexuals, all of whom concluded definitively somewhere after the age of seven that they were in the wrong body. I understand enough about biology and brain chemistry to know that these things do happen. And I’m not saying that these people should be trapped forever in the wrong body.

What I am wondering, however, is if our current age of providing “support” for every issue a person might have is creating a few irreversible false positives.

And that’s why I think that a Jewish approach to newbie support from the transgendered community might be a good thing.


OK, let the hate mail begin!