Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Santa Lie?

Warning! Hide this from your children if they’re still of a certain age!

When I was in my mid to late 20s, I knew or heard of quite a few people who said that they never intended to do the Santa thing with their kids, because they didn’t want to lie to them. These were generally the same people who held children’s picture books in disdain, and intended to start their kid of with King Lear; or who thought that baby talk was childish and degrading, and would only speak to them in full, adult, sentences.

Well, of course baby talk is childish…that’s why it’s called “baby talk.” And as for it being degrading, it may be so if you’re talking to a 35-year-old that way, but linguists have shown that that helps children acquire language faster. So nana-nana-boo-boo to those people.

But let’s get back to the anti-Santa people. A lot of them refused to do it on the premise of “Well, when they find out that we lied to them about this, then they won’t believe us about anything else.”

“Reindeer shit!” I say. My parents “lied” to me about Santa, and I’m none the worse for it.

It was easy to ignore these people as not having any bearing on my life…until I married someone who voiced misgivings about the whole Santa thing, and didn’t want to “lie” to any children we might have.

I quickly decided to nip that one in the bud by saying, “So…if we go to Walt Disney World someday, are you gonna be totally truthful to the kid and say ‘Look, there’s a person in a Mickey Mouse suit!” or are you gonna go with the Disney magic and say “Look! There’s Mickey!’?”

That pretty much ended that discussion, and a few years later, when we took our first daughter to Sesame Place, Cheryl insisted on getting her picture taken with her favorite character…Big Bird (or rather, some person in a Big Bird suit).

But I found out years later that the “lying” thing wasn’t really what it was all about. Especially since she could easily go with calling costumed people at theme parks by their character names. It was really about the surveillance and coercion thing. It was about the whole Big Brother aspect of Santa spying on the kid and using that as a carrot and stick to get the kid to behave. That’s what she didn’t want to lie about.

And I can agree with that.

For what it’s worth, we never told our kids one way or the other if Santa was real. If they wanted to sit on Santa’s lap at the mall, fine; if they didn’t, that was fine too. If they specifically asked Santa for something, and we knew what it was, it would arrive wrapped in Santa paper, but it would never specifically say that it was from Santa. But for those of you who are still hung up on the “lie”…even the implied lie…let me give you a still more excellent way of looking at it.

Many years ago, when the internet was young, I stumbled across a piece about why Santa was a kachina. To make a long story short, this woman, who was never into Santa in the first place, thought about the kachinas that protect and look after the Native children in villages in the Southwestern US. Every year the children watch the kachinas dance, and get dolls of the various kachinas. And then, when a boy reaches a certain age, he is taken to a ceremony where the kachinas unmask themselves, and he finds out that these are the men of his community. It’s also then that he becomes a kachina himself.

At that point she saw the whole Santa thing as less of a lie and more of a way of making magic for the community and a rite of passage. It’s not that there is no Santa, but that we’re all Santa. Not just for ourselves, but for others too.

In our house, Cheryl, Sofie, and I are all card-carrying members of what I call The League of Santas.

And that’s no lie.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Elf on the Shelf vs the Mensch on the Bench

You know, as ubiquitous as it seemed to be during the past few holiday seasons, I wasn’t really aware of the Elf on the Shelf until about three years ago.

Let me rephrase that. I knew it was there. You couldn’t help but trip over them in stores. But I didn’t know what it was all about. I just figured it was a cute little decoration for your house. Then the Mensch on the Bench came out, and when I heard about him, I learned about the Elf…and quickly decided which one I liked better.

Turns out that the premise of the Elf on a Shelf, is that the elf sits in your house every day, checking on you, to give a report back to Santa on whether you’ve been naughty or nice. A lot of people have criticized this as being a little creepy, and just one more case of the “surveillance state” creeping into our lives. Some have simplified the elf’s job as being there waiting for you to do something naughty, that he can then report back to Santa.

The Mensch on the Bench comes with a different premise. First of all, let me explain what a mensch is. In German it simply means a person, a human being. But in Yiddish it’s so much more than that. In Yiddish a mensch is a person of good character, a person who is always looking out for others, a person you should strive to emulate. When I heard the creator speak about on NPR back in 2013, I came away with the impression that the job of the mensch is not to catch you when you mess up, but to watch over you while you do good…to encourage you to be more like him. And he reports back to no one.

Well…I immediately knew which one I liked better. The elf reminded me just a little too much of every tattletale I’ve ever dealt with (especially those I’m related to). The mensch was more like a silent cheerleader to do good.

With the results of this year’s presidential election, a lot of us who voted for Hillary are in Elf on a Shelf mode…just waiting…hoping even…for Trump to screw up, so we can say, “I told you so.” But maybe this is counterproductive. Perhaps, instead, we should be more like the mensch, waiting, hoping, for the new President to break the caricature we have of him…and it’s every bit as much a caricature as the one that “they” had of Hillary…and offering encouragement along the way.

Several years ago my wife gave me a t-shirt for my birthday that had “mensch” on it, written in the Hebrew letters that Yiddish was classically written in.

You’ll find me wearing it, and sitting on my bench.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Who Are the Poor?

A few years ago my teenaged daughter asked me a question that stopped me dead in my tracks, and I’ll pose it to you too:

Are the poor people in Third World countries really poor, or are they poor just because they know what we have?

I’ve give you a moment or two to let that sink in and to let you think about it. This was not the snarky comment of a spoiled middle-class kid who thinks way too much. Well, OK, maybe she thinks way too much, but she is definitely not spoiled. This was really a very good question.

Think about it…if people living in certain parts of Asia, Africa, and South America were living their indigenous lifestyle, with absolutely no knowledge of how those of us in the industrialized world live, they’d probably be pretty happy. Sure, they’d still be living in mud huts, but they’d only be comparing themselves to the family in their village with the bigger mud hut. On their scale, they’d be middle class.

And indeed, those people who are still living indigenously probably don’t see themselves as being poor.

However…once those people are exposed to images of what the rest of us have, once they leave their villages and enter the big city to try to “make it,” suddenly, they realize that they’re “poor.”

This means that the people we think of in our own culture as being among the poorest of the poor, are probably rich by Third World standards. This might be why so many of the refugees who reach our shores look at their living conditions in a much different way than our “native poor” do. To the refugees it’s a huge step up from where they were, and they intend to keep stepping. Our native poor, on the other hand, see themselves as at the bottom with no reasonable hope of improvement. The “baby steps” that don’t seem worth the effort to our own poor are huge advancements to those who came from far less, and so they are willing to put forth the effort.

But I seem to have taken off on a slight tangent here. Let’s go back to the original question: are the poor people in Third World countries really poor, or are they poor just because they know what we have?

I’ve always said that the difference between the middle class now and the middle class of 40 or 50 years ago is that the middle class then saw themselves as “lucky poor people.” Today’s middle class tends to see itself as “not quite rich enough.” Turning my daughter’s question on its ear, do so many of us feel that we don’t have enough because we really don’t, or because we’ve seen too many images on TV and in movies of the super-rich, and feel resentment because we don’t have what they do?

This isn’t to say that there aren’t people who are legitimately poor. But let’s not confuse true poverty with not having the latest stuff, and with not living with the same comforts as someone else. After all, I’m sure that no one would call the Amish poor. They are rich in ways that many of us are not, and yet, it’s also a lifestyle that most of us wouldn’t want to live.

So, to answer my daughter’s question, there are poor people, there are legitimately poor people both in the Third World, and here at home; and it’s not simply about them knowing what we have, and being jealous. And to make things worse, sometimes our abundance contributes directly to their poverty.

However, we, knowing what they don’t have, should feel some sense of responsibility toward them, and try to help them in some way. So this Thanksgiving, in addition to being thankful for what you have, I’d like you to take the extra step of trying to help someone who could only wish to have what you’ve been blessed with.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Now What?

OK, so what many of us have considered the unthinkable has happened…Donald Trump has been elected president in another really close election that featured the Electoral College anomaly that only ever happens when the difference between the percentage of votes the two candidates got is a fraction of a fraction. And with that in mind, I want to say two very important words to those who seem to think the world is going to end:

Calm down.

Really. Just calm down.

And now five more words that you probably won’t believe I’m about to say:

Give the guy a chance.

Really. Maybe he’ll surprise us. Maybe he’ll grow into the job. Maybe he’ll tell some of his more hateful followers to behave. Maybe monkeys will fly out my butt. But let’s treat him better than Congress and some pockets of the rest of the country treated President Obama for the past eight years. Let’s give him a chance and see what he does. Let’s see if he manages to make good on all the promises he made…especially with Congress on his side.

A year from now some of us will be eating a lot of crow. It’ll either be those of us who thought that a Trump presidency would bring on the apocalypse or those who thought that all of his xenophobic, racist, misogynistic talk was just a lot of bluster.

And quite frankly, I hope that we’re the ones eating crow; it would be a whole lot safer for everyone. I hope that we’re pleasantly surprised by what he does. But…if he does turn out to be just as dangerous as we thought he would be, I hope it doesn’t take very long for his supporters who are decent people to recognize it, and get out their dinner plates.

Both candidates had their flaws, and for many of us Trump’s perceived flaws were more important than Hillary’s perceived flaws. Both candidates were victims of a lot of hyperbole from the other side…many Trump supporters honestly believed that Hillary was going to rescind the Second Amendment (really hard to do) and many Hillary supporters honestly believed that Trump was going to make all Muslims in this country wear yellow crescents (heck, we’ve already sent Japanese-Americans to concentration camps during World War II, so this wasn’t that much of a stretch).

I know that we thought that Hillary would try to make this country not just a better place for her supporters, but for all of us (despite themselves). I also know that many Hillary supporters were afraid that Trump and his supporters were only concerned about themselves, and not the multicultural, multi-religious, multi-sexual rest of us.

We’ll have to wait and see. Although I’m not above the little bit of schadenfreude that hopes that the things he ruins affect his supporters first, I hope this President Trump thing works out for us. Not just for them, but for us all.

So let’s give the guy a chance. If he’s as dangerous and unqualified as many of us thought he was, we’ll find out soon enough; and there will be time to deal with him. But maybe he won’t be that bad.

In which case I’ll gladly let the monkeys fly out my butt.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Romances and Conspiracies

Many years ago, I dated a girl who was addicted to Harlequin Romance novels. Seriously, there was an entire wall of them in her dorm room, and it was from these books that she got all her ideas of what relationships should be like.

Needless to say, we are no longer together.

While those books may be entertaining, they’re not realistic. They set up the reader who believes that they are to expect something they’re never gonna get, and puts the poor guy who dates the reader in a position where he can never live up to those unrealistic expectations.

And because they’re perfectly scripted, with not a stray word to be found; nothing happens that doesn’t advance the plot…unlike real life, where things happen for no reason all the time.

And…if the guy has the nerve to tell her that those books are unrealistic, well then, that’s just proof to her that he’s not trying hard enough, and isn’t good enough for her.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with those books if you read them for what they are…entertaining fluff. But to base your expectations of real life on what you’ve read there…well, that makes as much sense as me basing my life on Superman comic books.

Which brings me to the disturbing number of people out there who seem to believe the most whacked-out conspiracy theories. I couldn’t understand it at first. Why were these people so drawn to theories that, to my mind, defied logic and common sense? Why were they so willing to believe theories that required huge amounts of mental gymnastics to think had even a shred of plausibility?

And then, as I considered popular culture, I thought about the number of books, movies, and TV shows that are built around some conspiracy or another. Some conspiracy that makes perfect sense because the writers set everything up to work out that way…just like in the romance novels.

Now don’t ask me to give you a laundry list of examples, because those books, movies, and TV shows just aren’t my style. But suffice it to say that as far as I’m concerned, stories in which some great national, global, or even galactic, conspiracy is an underlying premise of the plot are to politics what Harlequin Romances are to relationships…entertaining fluff, but not necessarily indicative of how things are in the real world.

OK, yes, I’ll grant you that every now and then things work out in real life like things do in one of those romance novels; and every now and then you will find conspiracies of one sort of another. But…to believe in many of those conspiracies requires believing that the government is much smarter than it really is and runs much more smoothly than it really does.

My point is that if you consume a steady diet of novels, movies, and TV shows that feature huge conspiracies, you’re going to tend to start seeing them in real life…just like the person who reads tons of medical books and magazines, and is then convinced that they have every disease they’ve ever read about.

At least that was how I saw things until a friend of mine showed me an article that presented a different point of view. This article, Why Trump Supporters Are So Susceptible to Conspiracy Theories, basically says that many conspiracy theories come from people who can’t believe that their side, the right side, the side that should’ve prevailed, actually lost. They can’t accept that the other side was better, was better organized, or was more popular; and that they lost fair and square. If they lost, then the balls were tampered with, the refs were biased, and the election was rigged.

But once again, this speaks to the fact that some people just can’t bring themselves to believe that strange coincidences happen all the time in real life. That sometimes tragedies come about not by deliberate planning, but by institutional ineptness and miscommunication. It’s much easier for some people to construct a story line that connects the dots to create a conspiracy than it is to believe that seven or eight things went wrong at the same time…even though the latter happens all the time.

Quite frankly, when all is said and done, it’s like this: The truth is out there…but it’s more benign and boring than you want to believe it is.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

I Blame the Internet

I’ve been thinking about a lot of the divisiveness and polarization I’ve seen lately. I’ve been thinking about a lot of the strong opinions…and downright weird opinions I’ve seen lately. I’ve thinking about the marked increase of people believing weird conspiracy theories lately. And I have one thing to blame for it.

The Internet.

Don’t get me wrong…I love the Internet. For me it’s the library that never closes. I can go there to look up anything and usually get a decent answer…even if it’s one that I wasn’t expecting. It’s the mall that never closes…and that has older or specialty items that most brick and mortar stores don’t want to keep in stock. And it’s a way to keep in contact with people who are hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away from me. But for all my love of the Internet, it’s caused some very serious problems over the past few decades, which have led to not only our current state of political polarization, but the whole anti-vaxxer controversy.

And it’s time we talked about it.

The good thing about the Internet is that it gives everyone a voice. The bad thing about the Internet is that it gives everyone a voice…even people who should just keep their mouths shut because they don’t know what they’re talking about, or they’re jerks. Or both. If you’ve looked at the comments page for any magazine, newspaper, or online forum, you’ll see what I mean.

It used to be that because of space limitations, the “letters to the editor” section only printed a small sampling of the letters, and those from nutcases were weeded out. But now, with the “unlimited space” of the Internet most of those online forums are letting everything through unless it’s been specifically flagged as abusive. And this is a problem for many reasons…not the least of which is that sometimes bad information can outshout good. Or even allowing bad information to show up in the first place lends it an air of possible legitimacy, which it doesn’t deserve.

Perhaps it’s “too much trouble” to moderate these forums, but maybe those in charge could take a page from the print side, and just limit the amount of feedback they publish, and only show a sampling of what they got…an intelligent sampling.

Here’s the other problem…it used to be that if you had some whacked-out conspiracy theory, if you had some piece of misinformation or disinformation that you were spewing, or if you were just way out there in general; you were surrounded by enough “normal” people that they could talk you down from where you were with facts. Facts that came from places we all agreed were reliable sources. But now, the Internet has provided these people with easy access to the other people out there who share their opinion or believe their misinformation; and once you’ve got a group of 10,000 on the Internet, you feel a sense of legitimacy.

I used to joke that the situation is so bad that you could probably find a group that thinks that picking your nose and eating it not only isn’t gross, but that shares recipes. This was a joke until in checking this out, I found numerous links to articles suggesting that this actually wasn’t so bad after all. On the more serious side, I’ve heard of “support” websites for people with anorexia and bulimia that give them tips on how to hide their symptoms from “busybodies.”

And what constitutes a reliable source? Is it simply one that agrees with your already-held opinion? Is it the one with the best graphics? With software like Photoshop, anyone can easily and cheaply create a professional-looking graphic and put it out there as “truth”; and people will believe it without taking the time to double-check it…or won’t believe the fact-checkers because they’re “obviously biased” and “are part of the conspiracy.”

I said earlier that sometimes I get an answer that I’m not expecting. That means one that didn’t fit in with what I had originally believed. When that happens, what do I do? Well, I check for more information. I check to find out if this new information is really true.

But…the Internet also allows us to only look for “sources” that “prove it false.” It allows us to back further and further into our little corners, without considering that maybe we’re wrong and that the other person might have a point.

The result has been the divisiveness and polarization we’ve seen in the years leading up to this election season.

I said in the beginning that I blame the Internet. But in reality, the Internet is only a tool…one that can be used well or foolishly, for good or for evil. In reality, I blame laziness and our inability to be challenged by another opinion…our inability to accept the fact that we may be wrong.

Or as Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Friday, October 21, 2016

Decent Roommates, Falling in Love, and Elections

Every time I hear someone complain that they don’t feel like voting because they’re not excited by either presidential candidate, I don’t know whether to sigh, laugh, or just smack them upside the head with a 2x4. Same thing when I hear people complain about not knowing how these two candidates (and there are only two viable ones) got nominated.

Let’s start with the second issue first.

Those candidates that you aren’t thrilled with got nominated because a majority of the people in those parties voted for them. Pure and simple. Maybe they weren’t your first choice, but they were someone else’s; and they were the first choice of enough “someone elses” that they got the nomination and your person didn’t.

Now let’s move on to the first issue.

When I think about this, I think of the roughly 35 people I lived with in the 14 years between leaving my home in East Orange back in 1974 and getting married in 1988. Now, if 35 people seems like a lot of turnover, consider the fact that if we’re talking about a three-bedroom apartment, that means only 18 *sets* of roommates over 14 years. But that leaves out summer subletters and a few *four* bedroom houses…not to mention roommates who were replaced because they graduated or spent a semester abroad. When you consider that, I didn’t do so badly. I even kept one set of housemates for *two years*.

Why do I think about the 35 or so people I lived with between 1974 and 1988? Because some of you are looking at choosing a president more like choosing a spouse or live-in lover than choosing a roommate. And let’s face it…the president is more like a roommate.

I don’t have to be all excited over a potential new roommate, I don’t have to be in love with a potential new roommate. They just have to be acceptable. They have to be clean, pay their rent on time, and not be a putz. That’s about it.

Over those 14 years, I’ve had some really good roommates and a few really bad ones. I’ve had a roommate who we asked to leave, and roommates who made me feel unwelcome in the house that had been mine for two years before I invited them to move in. There were people who I was thrilled to be getting as roommates, or to be moving in with; and there were people who were “good enough for the moment.”

And except for those few cases where either we asked someone to leave, or I decided to leave myself, they all pretty much worked out.

And then I met the Best Roommate Ever.

But, as I said before, in choosing a president, we’re not choosing a spouse or a live-in lover, we’re choosing a roommate for the next four years. We don’t have to be totally “in love” with the candidate. All that’s necessary is that they pay their bills, are clean, and aren’t a putz. So maybe your first choice candidate didn’t get the nomination.

Suck it up, deal, and pick a roommate who’s not a total putz!

Otherwise, one might be assigned to you who is.