Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Importance of Giving Presents

A few weeks ago, at the end of my post Christmas Shopping…Already, I said that I’d be back at some point to talk about why I think that kids need to give “real” presents to people, and not “just” something like a flock of ducks in their name from The Heifer Project.

This is that point.

First of all, let me say that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with donating money to organizations like The Heifer Project, The Salvation Army, ELCA Good Gifts, or a number of other non-profit organizations that either strive to make life better for those who are less fortunate than us or help the planet. And there’s definitely nothing wrong with donating money to an organization that you know your friend or family member is an ardent supporter of.

And you can’t beat the fact that you get a nice tax deduction for buying someone a Christmas present.

I’ll also say that as a former teacher who got way too many “Best Teacher” mugs and ornaments, and all manner of other tchotchkes that very quickly got underfoot, I was thrilled beyond belief when one of my students made a donation to a charitable organization in my name instead (although the iTunes and Amazon gift cards I got from some other kids were good too). But people like teachers, who aren’t a part of your circle of close friends and family members, are a different story.

In an age when many people are starting to push back against the commercialism of the Christmas season that’s been going on for at least 100 years by suggesting giving to a charitable organization in the name of a friend or family member, I want to suggest that while this may be a wonderful idea for adults to do, it’s not such a great idea for kids.

Why not? Because it allows them to be lazy, and not take the time to actually think about the other people in their lives. Really…why take the time to actually think about what Grandma Thompson likes when you can just donate another flock of ducks, or mosquito netting for an African village, in her name? Giving an actual tangible present isn’t necessarily about feeding into the consumerist frenzy that happens at this time of year…it’s also about showing that you’re taking the time to think about the people in your life, what they like, what they enjoy doing, and what they might enjoy having.

This doesn’t even have to require any great feats of mind-reading (which almost always turn out disastrous). It does, however, involve paying attention throughout the course of the year, and noticing what other people like…or asking around to find out and get some ideas. It also doesn’t have to involve spending great sums of money and feeding “the Christmas Machine”; there are many inexpensive homemade gifts that can be given. The trick here is to make sure that it doesn’t become just another tchotchke that gets underfoot, and can’t ever be thrown away for sentimental reasons.

And while it may seem lazy, a specialized gift card…like to a favorite store, online vendor, or restaurant does show that someone did their research. So that Barnes & Noble card for the avid reader is actually a wonderful idea.

Now having said all this, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with giving to the cause for its own sake…as a present to the cause. In fact, in our family, donating to a cause is on everyone’s Christmas list…along with the presents to everyone else. But unless a particular family member or friend has specifically said that they don’t need or want anything, and would prefer that you make a donation to a specific charitable organization, I still think that children need to learn how to give actual gifts…

As an exercise in learning to think outside of themselves.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cups...or Just Shut Up Already and Stop Embarrassing the Rest of Us

’Tis the season, and today I want to talk about cups…

I bought my ticket for the long way round
Two bottles of whiskey for the way
And I sure would like some sweet company
And I’m leaving tomorrow, what d'you say

Well, actually, no…not that Cups, not the song. I’m talking about coffee cups…like the ones at Starbucks. Apparently some Christians, and the key word here is some, are upset about this year’s holiday season cups from Starbucks. Why?

Because they’re red.

Just red.

Not even any snowflakes or anything else wintry on them. Just plain red.

And some Christians are seeing red over these cups.

And…this is where my rant begins…or perhaps continues. I began talking about the hijacking of the term “Christian” by certain types of Christians in last year’s post How to be a Christian, and it looks like I’m gonna have to come back to it with two main things to say.

First, to those whiny Christians who complain about a “war against Christmas” or a “war on Christianity” every 30 seconds…


Really. I’m tired of it, and the majority of us Christians who have a clue or two are tired of it too. We’re tired of you trivializing the idea of persecution just because you’re not top dog anymore and don’t get to call the shots for everyone else. We’re tired of you confusing nostalgia with persecution. Because that’s what it is. It’s not about the religious aspects of Christmas at all, it’s about nostalgia for the Christmases of your childhood, and your resentment of the fact that things have changed. But truth be told, the Christmases of your childhood were different from those of your grandparents’ childhoods. To find out more, check out The War on Christmas: Did Lincoln Start It?.

And I want you to shut up because you’re embarrassing the rest of us, and making it hard to admit to being a Christian. On the one hand, because you’ve co-opted the general name that’s supposed to apply to all of us in all of our denominations, I worry that telling someone that I’m a Christian will having them automatically associating me with the Westboro “Baptist” Church instead of the many Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, Presbyterians, and Methodists I’ve known over the years. People who quietly go about trying to make life better for others without drawing attention to themselves. On the other hand, it’s really funny when someone finds out that I am a Christian (although I tend to prefer describing myself as a Lutheran, in order to distinguish myself from all the nutballs), because their reaction is generally one of shock: “What! You’re a Christian? But you can’t be…you’re not a small-minded, judgmental, jerk!”

Second, to the media…


Really. I understand that every group has its share of loudmouthed wing nuts, and they are amusing from time to time; but it seems to me that you’re giving too much attention to ours. It seems that you’re paying more attention to the stupid things they say and do, and not paying attention at all to any of the good things the rest of us are doing. Rather than talk about what Lutherans are doing to help eradicate malaria in Africa, you give publicity to an obscure county clerk in an obscure county in an obscure state. That girl got publicity that money couldn’t buy.

Which of course, was also great for Starbucks. How much free publicity did they get out of some misguided Christians getting all in a snit about their new cups? Don’t these people ever learn that when they go off like this, they’re actually helping the organization that they’re angry at.

Finally, to my fellow Christians, who aren’t dipsticks, I think that we really need to get together to do something about how our “brand” is perceived by the general public so that we can take it back from those who’ve hijacked it from us. We need to be louder, and yet gentler, voices that say that “those people” don’t speak for the majority of us.

Let’s get together and talk about this.

Meet you at Starbucks!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Christmas Shopping...Already

Well, I was gonna wait on this. There were really other things I need to write about after an absence of a few weeks while life caught up with me. But November is here, and I’ve already seen a flurry of Facebook posts about Christmas shopping, so why not just do it now.

And don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against starting to think about Christmas shopping right after Halloween. November 1st is when the credit union moves the money from my Holiday Club account over to my Spending Money account, so it’s sort of like they’re saying “Gentlemen, start your engines!” Forget Black Friday, November 1st is the beginning of the season for me.

So let’s start with thinking about Black Friday…before it gets here. I really have no memories of shopping on Black Friday when I was a kid…or even when I was in college. Black Friday shopping was something I embraced after I got married. I mean, first of all, I had the day off, so why not do it. Second of all, for me, Black Friday in Syracuse was like a regular Wednesday back in Jersey, where I come from. So I was like “Crowds? What crowds?” I liked the idea of getting most of my shopping done in one day and then having the rest of the next four weeks to just pick up a little thing here or there.

But in the last few years, we seem to have gone overboard with it. I thought that queuing up with the people waiting in line at Target at 4am was fun…I had my iPod with me, so I could listen to an audiobook while I waited in my soccer chair, wrapped up in a thermal sleeping bag. But now…pushing it back to midnight, or even Thanksgiving evening just seems ridiculous. Can we give the people who work retail a little time to spend with their own families?

So when I heard that Costco and Nordstrom, two stores at opposite ends of the spectrum, were going to be closed on Thanksgiving, I applauded.

And then outdoor apparel and sporting goods retailer REI upped the ante by saying that they’d be closed on Black Friday…under the hashtag #OptOutside…so that people could actually use the equipment they sell.

Well heck! I had specifically taken off Black Friday this year so I could do my shopping. But based on REI’s decision, I decided to take one for the team, and stay home. I’m not so sure about going outside though…it’ll likely be a little cold for that. On the other hand, the nice climate-controlled mall is an excellent place to take a nice long walk…if you can get a parking space.

Then there were the Facebook posts about the Advent Conspiracy, the 4 Gift Christmas Challenge, and IKEA’s The Other Letter, which were supposed to make you rethink your gift-giving habits (by the way...the IKEA ad didn't mention their products even once). I sort of liked The 4 Gift Christmas Challenge, but I thought that we already had a simpler and more flexible system in place in our family, which I’d like to share with you.

I’ve already mentioned the movement of money from the Holiday Club account into Spending Money. We have a certain amount of money from each paycheck automatically go there, and that’s the amount of money we’ll spend on everything Christmas-related…except for travel. We put that money onto a bunch of Visa or Amex Gift Cards, and use those for shopping. That way we never accidentally dip into regular money, and stick to the Christmas budget (except for food gifts, which sneak in under the radar when we go grocery shopping).

Then, when we shop, there’s a limit of how much money we’ll spend on each person. Currently that limit is $150 for immediate family members, $75 for each of our parents, about $30 for certain friends, and $100 for the Salvation Army tree. We negotiated cutting out our siblings and their kids a while back. Obviously, this means that no one’s getting a laptop for Christmas; and if you want an iPad, we’ll give you a $100 Apple Store gift card toward it, and put $50 of tangible stuff under the tree.

So while it may seem a little early in the season to be thinking about Christmas shopping, it’s not to early to be thinking about thinking about it. Black Friday is not the day to start thinking about change if change is what you want to do…now is the acceptable time.

So check out some of the links here, consider the system we use; and I’ll be back in a few weeks to explain why I think that children need to buy actual presents for people, and not just buy a flock of ducks in their name from The Heifer Project.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Whose Lives Matter?

Late to the party perhaps, but sometimes late to the party gives you a little more time to think about what you're going to wear (unless the party’s totally over by the time you get there).

I was thinking about the controversy between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter”, and it seems to me that what we have here is not a disagreement, but a misunderstanding. A misunderstanding when Group A says something that is clearly understood from their perspective and their knowledge, and Group B hears it without that assumed perspective and knowledge.

I'm trying to think of a good example here that people might be able to understand, even if it doesn’t come from their own experience, and I’m not coming up with one at the moment, but know that I will the moment I post this.

Anyway, moving on...from their experience of feeling that their lives didn’t matter, the people in Group A came up with “Black Lives Matter”, to say that they indeed do and should matter. However, the people in Group B, who never had that experience and/or were never intimately involved with people who had had those experiences hear that as “Only Black Lives Matter.” It was not an intentional misunderstanding, they simply had no personal context for hearing it the way it was meant.

Moreover, in many ways the Civil Rights Movement has been a little too successful, making many white people think that there’s been more success than there actually is...although there’s been a freaking lot of success just within my lifetime. One of those places where there’s been “too much success” is in the category of getting people to believe that we shouldn’t be looking at race and ethnicity at all. The problem is that the great unfinished work requires that we do so. Not only that, but being totally “colorblind” is like not noticing whether a person is tall or short, skinny or fat, blond or brunette. Those are all still valid descriptors for people, but unless you’re dating, they shouldn’t determine how you deal with them. And for statistical purposes, we do still need to divide people into groups, whether it be by race, ethnicity, religion, eye color or whatever.

But I’m getting away from myself. This “oversuccess”, if I may call it that, is what colors a lot of modern attitudes about Affirmative Action, with questions like “If the goal is to judge people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, then why are we judging people by the color of their skin?” That is, to my mind, a very naïve question that doesn’t take into account the many disadvantages that people who have been judged by the color of their skin for almost 400 years still work under.

The same can be said about the many white responses to “Black Lives Matter.” Having seemingly bought into the concept of being judged by the content of your character, they hear “Black Lives Matter” as going against that ideal by singling out only one group. They ask “What about red lives? What about yellow lives? And, by the way, what about white lives? Are the rest of us chopped liver? How come you get to be the only one whose lives matter?”

Again, this is a naïve question, because the people who ask it, the people who are offended by it, don’t seem to get that there is a very large number of people out there...with weapons...who don’t seem to think that black lives matter...at all.

But it didn't have to be this way. The problem could’ve been avoided, and we might have gotten greater buy-in, with the help of Bob McAllister, the host of the syndicated kids’ show Wonderama from 1967 to 1977. You see, after he left Wonderama, he briefly hosted another show, called Kids Are People Too. Not Kids Are People, but Kids Are People Too. One word…one little word might have made the difference. Think about “Black Lives Matter…Too.” I think that gets the assumed point from Group A across in a way that’s clear to Group B.

Yes, all lives matter. And that means that black lives matter…too.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Girder in Our Own Eye

In the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke, Jesus asks how can you tell your neighbor that they have a speck in their eye, while ignoring the beam in your own?

Excellent question. And so, before I write a piece on how some of the people in the “pro-life” camp “cook the books”, use questionable data, and just out and out lie in order to try to make their case against abortion, I need to take a look at some of the ways that many of us in the “pro-choice” camp have been disingenuous or not quite honest about things in order to promote our side of the issue.

And why have we been this way? Because we’re afraid that ceding any “points” to the other side makes us “traitors to the cause.” Yet, it seems to me that intellectual honesty demands that we admit when the other side has a valid point, especially when we’re going to object when we believe that they’re the ones being dishonest. It seems at times that some of us are the NRA of abortion rights.

The components of your basic steel girder are iron, carbon, and elements such as tungsten, copper, and chromium. So what are the components of the girder that many of us in the “pro-choice” camp have had in our eyes for the past 42 years?

First of all, there are the arguments I heard as a teenager in early 70s, which may still be being used now, on why abortion shouldn’t be such a big deal. You know…the ones that said it’s no different from cutting off a hangnail or removing an appendix. It’s just an unwanted body part, so why make a big fuss over it? Some even went so far as to compare the fetus to a tumor or tapeworm that needs to be removed.

Really? Really?

I’ve never known anyone to agonize over whether or not to remove a hangnail or have their appendix removed…except maybe about the possible pain and discomfort later on. And except for situations where there were complications with the surgery, I’ve never known of anyone to have second thoughts or regret about cutting off that hangnail or having that appendectomy.

And this brings us to the second component of that girder: the denial that some women have regrets afterwards.

Come on now…would it kill us to admit that for some non-trivial number of women this is a major big deal; something that they may not have wanted to go through with in the first place, felt pressured into, and definitely regret having done afterwards? Do we have to minimize the numbers and feelings of those who have had regrets in order to not “cede any points” to the other side, or would maybe being honest about this too, force them to be a little more honest about the things they say?

I mean, maybe many women don’t have any second thoughts or regrets…but maybe many women do. Let’s be honest and admit that.

Number three…ignoring or denying the fact that the easy availability of abortion has brought out some of the worst behavior in us. And no, I’m not talking about the fact that there seem to be so many unwed mothers out there. Heck, that’s good news…it means that we’ve stopped painting those women as pariahs to be shunned and shamed. We’ve embraced them, and their cute little babies in our families…and our churches. And…I haven’t had a chance to check the figures on this, but I suspect that our more charitable treatment of unwed mothers, because of our acceptance of the fact that (shudder) people have sex when they’re not married, has helped the abortion rate go down. I also suspect that it’s helped the abortion rate go down more than any amount of ranting from the other side has done.

No, what I’m talking about is boorish behavior by guys…the guys who got these women pregnant in the first place. As much as I hate the “old days” of shame and coat hangers, back then I think that most guys would reluctantly own up to their responsibility and try to do the right thing one way or the other. Now we hear of stories of guys callously dropping off their girlfriends at the abortion clinic to take care of the “problem that they didn’t want to have to deal with.” Or maybe I overstate the case here…maybe these are the same guys who would’ve pressured their girlfriends to visit that back alley 40-plus years ago.

Finally, there’s that whole “war on women” thing. I don’t know if that’s what we called it back in the 70s, but let’s be honest about it. The people who are against abortion are not trying to wage a war on women. They are trying to save lives. They may be a little overzealous. They may not have great follow through once the kid is actually born, but would it kill us to admit that their intentions might actually be honorable?

Of course it would. Because admitting that might mean that they had a point, and then we’d lose.

The problem is that neither side wants to budge even a millimeter; because they’re afraid that if they give that much, they’ve lost the battle. But the simple fact of the matter is that a compromise absolutely has to happen.

And it can only happen when we both take the girders out of our eyes, and can look at each other clearly.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Religion and Culture

Our Muslim friends, if we’re fortunate enough to have them, tell us that many things that we think are the trappings of and problems with Islam are actually the trappings of the surrounding culture; and the culture has influenced how Islam is practiced there. As a result, Asian Islam is very different from Middle Eastern Islam.

The same thing is true of Christianity. A lot of things that we think are part and parcel of Christianity, or even certain denominations, are actually facets of a particular American subculture that wrapped itself around a particular form of Christianity. For all the jokes we may make about Baptists and how they think that anything fun must be sinful, most people don’t know that there are many different varieties of Baptists, and that every congregation is autonomous; so that old worn Baptist stereotype may not be quite true.

In addition, in his book Religious Literacy, author Stephen Prothero tells how in the 18th or 19th century, religion in America went from teaching about theology to trying to “preserve morals.”

The question is, “Whose morals?”

And once again, we go to a few religious stereotypes. On the one hand, I’ve heard that wherever you find four Episcopalians, you’ll find a fifth. On the other, I’ve heard that the best way to prevent your Baptist friend from drinking your beer on a fishing trip is to invite another Baptist to keep an eye on him.

Some of us grew up in denominations that had a very tight rein on what they considered to be moral issues, and could find chapter and verse to cite to support their beliefs. Others of us grew up in (or escaped to) denominations that weren’t quite so controlling, and focused more on how we treated each other than whether we danced, drank (in moderation, of course), or swore.

In many cases, these moral issues were little more than social taboos and the proper behavior for fitting in with the “right sort of people”, and weren’t moral issues at all. Drinking, salty language, and dancing in and of themselves have no moral component to them theologically. They can, however, make some people think that you’re not “the right sort of person.”

If you look at Christianity, you can see that there’s a disagreement between Paul and Jesus on appearances. Paul exhorts the congregation at Thessalonika to avoid even the appearance of sin. Jesus, on the other hand, hung out with sinners on a regular basis. Why the disconnect? Well, I’m no Biblical scholar, but I suspect that Paul was concerned with this new Christian thing looking “respectable” in the eyes of the rest of the Roman empire, and didn’t want any weird rumors going out about them that would lead to them being persecuted any more than they already were.

And that whole avoiding the appearance of sin can cause some very uncharitable behavior as a result. I’m thinking of the story I was told about the couple that was booted out of a Christian college because they got stranded together during a snowstorm, and even though those in charge were pretty sure that there was no hanky-panky, there was the image of the school to protect.

Ah…this is why people think that they don’t like Christians.

But really…is being Christian all about presenting a “perfect image” to the rest of the world? Not in my book. And I’ll tell you, I’d rather be with the Christians who drink, dance, play cards, carouse, swear, talk about sex, and enjoy life, while loving God and their neighbor; than with the “brittle saints” who are afraid to enjoy life because they’re afraid of the impression they’ll give of not being the right kind of person. And yet, I feel sorry for those people who have been so victimized by religion used to enforce cultural taboos, that they can’t truly enjoy life.

With that in mind, there’s an old Jewish saying I love that says that in the world to come, we will be taken to task for all the things we could have enjoyed in this world but refused to.

And I’d like to end with a joke at the expense of some of my Baptist friends:

Q: Why don’t Baptists have sex standing up?

A: It might lead to dancing.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Too Close for Comfort

I don’t remember how we got into it, but one of my female friends and I got into an online discussion about why guys don’t talk. Now the fact that we were having this discussion at all puts the lie to the idea that we never talk. We do talk, just not the way that women talk to each other, or want us to talk to them.

I think the question she was asking…on behalf of millions of American women…was why don’t guys talk to their significant others about the important things. You know, the things that might be gnawing at them. Most of us have heard or read about the many ways that men and women communicate differently…both with others of the same sex and across sexes, so I won’t bother going over them again here. Besides, I’m not sure if they explain one important reason why we don’t share certain deeply felt issues with our significant others. At the very least, they don’t explain why I don’t share certain deeply felt issues with my wife.

Sometimes a person can just be too close for comfort.

“What?” I can hear you asking. “How can your significant other be too close to talk to?”

Well, maybe it’s just me, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was. On the other hand, I’ve been surprised lately to find out how many things I thought might just be my little idiosyncrasies, were shared by other guys.

As I explained it to this particular female friend, sometimes your significant other can be so close that talking about the problem with her doesn’t make it better at all, but instead creates a “feedback loop” that takes forever to dissipate. If you’ve ever heard feedback through an audio system when the microphone is too close to the speakers, and the sound from one keeps getting picked up by the other, building and building instead of being out and gone, you know what I’m talking about.

There are just some things that are so sensitive to you, and so intensely personal, that you need to talk about to someone who’s not your significant other, who’s not a member of your household; because you need for it to be better by being spoken about or dealt with, and going away. You don’t need it hanging around in the air of your home and your relationship. You need to talk about it, or deal with it with someone you don’t see every single day at home, so that the “sound”, so to speak, has a chance to dissipate before the next time you see them again.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about talking to your significant other about some sensitive issue, and having her continue to “throw it in your face.” What I’m talking about is something totally unintentional that’s just a function of being in that close of a relationship or being in the same household. I’m talking about that person knowing about this deeply-felt issue, you knowing that they know, and not being able to get away from it because you know that they know, and you’re reminded of it every time you see her…which is constantly. This is why I don’t share all of my deepest thoughts and concerns with my wife, but have other friends I talk to about things that she’s too close to talk to about. These are friends I might not see for months at a time, but the fact that I might not see them for that long means that by the time I do see them again, after discussing the issue with them, we’ve both had a chance to let things dissipate.

I understand that some women may feel hurt by this. They may feel hurt by the fact that we won’t or can’t share some of our deepest hurts or concerns with them, but can with someone else. But believe me, for guys like me, it’s not meant to hurt you, it’s meant to help us. That’s how it has to be so that we can process the emotions better and heal any hurts easier.

It keeps our ears from hurting from the feedback.