Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On Having Children

Oh Francis, you blew it. At least for me you did. I really like most of what you’ve done and said so far since you’ve been Pope, and I’m not even a Catholic. Of course, that’s been the big thing about you…you’ve been getting non-Catholics…even a few Southern Baptists out there…to take a look and say, “Hey, this guy seems to be legit! What else does he have to say?”

And I recognize that for as much as you’ve done so far, you haven’t moved fast enough for many Catholics…and too fast for others. But I understand that you can’t please everyone. Heck, even Jesus himself wasn’t able to do that.

However, back in February, you blew it big time as far as I was concerned, with your comment about couples who choose not to have children being selfish.

I’m reminded of a friend of mine who once said that unless you’re doing “something important” with your life, like setting up a hospital in Africa, building houses for Habitat for Humanity…or being the Pope, those who didn’t want to have children were just selfish little people who didn’t want to think outside of themselves…for 18 or so years. This friend maintained that children are an intrinsic good, and that everyone should have them as a result. When I asked about those people who knew they wouldn’t be good parents, this same friend said that they should have children anyway…it would teach them how to think of someone besides themselves, and build character.

When I heard that, my brain exploded. If children are good in and of themselves, wouldn’t she want the best for them, rather than just using them as a character building tool for someone else? And what about all those children who don’t end up improving the characters of the people she insisted have them, and who go through horrible, and sometimes even extremely short, lives as a result?

It’s not as if there are people out there consciously saying to themselves “I could’ve had children, but I chose the fancy vacations every year instead.” There are people out there who honestly never really ever had a desire to have children, and the fact that they have a little more freedom and money than the rest of us is just an added bonus. Really. It’s not something that they felt and are suppressing in order to have more material things, it’s just a desire they never had; and we’ve finally reached a point in society where a couple isn’t pressured to have kids, and it’s OK to not want them.

Or so I thought until you came out laying this guilt trip on these people who often make absolutely wonderful aunts and uncles precisely because they don’t have the constant responsibility for children of their own; these people who love their nieces and nephews in small doses, but are also more than happy to send them back to their parents.

Rather than looking at children as an “intrinsic good” and something that everyone should have, whether they want them or not, how about focusing on having every child be wanted? After all, aren’t there enough people out there who want three, four, or eight children that we don’t need to insist that everyone have one or two?

For that matter, aren’t there enough people, period? I think of the ongoing water crisis in California, and think that it’s only going to get worse as more and more people there have children. Do we really need more people competing for the same limited resources?

Sometimes we’re so caught up in our own feelings, that we can’t begin to understand those of others. I believe that was the case with my friend. She wanted children, and a lot of them, so intensely that she assumed that everyone did, and should; and that anyone who said that they didn’t was indeed repressing the same intense desire that she felt…and doing so for selfish reasons.

But you know what, Francis…children aren’t for everyone. The large family that you found so joyful when you were a child can be stifling to others. And many people who have children spend their final years in more intense loneliness than people who have none.

So how about a little live and let live here? I won’t criticize the people who have five or more children if you won’t criticize those who have none at all. After all, when you average out the “nones” and the “manys”, we’re still looking at an average of 2.58 children…at least in this country.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Who Are Those Old...and Young People?

The 40th reunion of the East Orange High School class of 1974 was last August. I wasn’t able to go because of a conflict with taking my oldest daughter back to college, but I did get to see the pictures that were posted on many Facebook pages. And as I looked at these photos, I wondered who were these people who looked like my grandparents’ friends.

Yes…not my parents’ friends, but my grandparents’ friends. Most of these people in these photos looked like the people I saw in old home movies and photographs of my grandparents and their friends, not of my parents and theirs. Of course, there’s a very good reason for this…the memories of my parents and grandparents, and each of their friends come from the same time; and at that time, my parents and their friends were in their 30s and 40s while my grandparents and theirs were in their 50s and 60s.

The reunion photos that would have us looking as we remembered our parents and their friends would’ve been taken 10 to 20 years ago, and I wouldn’t have been so shocked to see them. In fact, I wasn’t shocked at all when I went to my 20th reunion and saw these people in person…looking much as I remembered their parents…simply looking like grownups. But now…now I found myself looking at people I grew up with, looking like my grandparents, and the people they hung out with…and that was a little jarring.

Now…if you age along with someone, the process happens gradually, and you don’t notice as it happens to either you or them. For example, the other day I ran into my friend “Donna” from my undergrad years. We’ve run into each other on and off over the course of the past 34 years, and as far as I’m concerned, she hasn’t aged all that much. But the flip side of this is that when I look at a photo of her when we were students together, she looks like a kid. I’m so used to the adult Donna, that photo of the 20-year-old version seems strange to me.

But this isn’t all about what a shock it is to see photos of people I was a teenager with in their 50s and 60s. I figure that we’re lucky to have gotten this far…because quite a few of our cohort haven’t. No…it’s about something else very important that I realized as I looked through those photos.

Suddenly, as I gazed at those pictures from last summer, I became aware of something that I had known intellectually, but hadn’t grasped fully: my grandparents, who I had only ever known as being old, probably looked at photos of their friends (black and white photos, of course), and thought the exact same thing! They wondered where the teenaged or 30-something versions of Clara, Otto, Ethel, Prince, Jeanette, Marcel, Pearl, Carl, Katherine, and Ollie went. Especially since except for a few malfunctioning and slower-moving body parts, they didn’t feel like old people.

Suddenly, as I saw old people in my friends from years gone by, I saw young people in my grandparents and theirs.

I no longer saw those old photos of my grandparents as younger people as some sort of artifact from an alternate reality…

But instead, as evidence of younger days that were just as real for them as ours were for us.

Yes…because I see us as old, I can now see them as young.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

It's Always Good to Educate People

I had an interesting conversation recently with a friend from the trans community, who I’ll call Chris, in which he mentioned that he often gets tired of answering questions, but it's always good to educate people.

I said that I felt the same way about being black…that you have to answer a lot of dumb questions if you don’t want people to stay ignorant.

His reaction blew me away. “Really? Black people get the same treatment too? Cool! I thought we were the only ones.”

And no…he wasn’t being sarcastic.

Sometimes we’re so tightly focused on our own particular oppressed minority community, that we don’t notice that there are others out there who might be suffering from a different form of oppression. We think that everyone who isn't “like us” is part of a monolithic mainstream, and has no problems.

I liked the fact that Chris thought that black people were typical of everyone else. This is a person who truly is color-blind. And by that I mean he notices that a person is black the way that he’d notice that a person is blond. It may be a little na├»ve, but it also means that Ferguson and Baltimore notwithstanding, in a way we’ve made it very close to where we wanted to be 50 years ago. But that's another thread for another time.

The point I made to Chris was that everyone in the “mainstream” is part of some minority that people have stupid questions and ignorant assumptions about. Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Southern Baptists, Irish, Italians, vegans, atheists, agnostics, Asians. That “rest of society” that's not a part of your group is really a patchwork of other minorities that sometimes have things in common and sometimes don’t. But we all get the stupid questions.

And we all learn from being able to ask the stupid questions.

I count myself as very lucky for having people I could ask stupid, and sometimes seemingly invasive questions of, as I tried to learn more about people who were different from me. And I will continue to answer stupid, and sometimes seemingly invasive questions asked by others.

Because it’s always good to educate people.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Bad Stuff in the Gamma Quadrant

We listened to a Freakonomics episode a while back that started out talking about the very public death of the giraffe in the Copenhagen Zoo and the worldwide outcry that followed it; and contrasting that with what seems to be the lack of worldwide outcry about the deaths of thousands, maybe even millions, of humans around the world in places like Syria. The host posits that it’s easier for us to get upset over animals than it is over other human beings.

I have a few ideas. Some are mine and one is something I learned when I was a Public Communications student at SU many years ago.

My idea is that what happened in Denmark is something that we don’t expect to happen in a “civilized” country...especially one that many of us like to think of as one of the most civilized in the world. Denmark represents the standard to which we’d like to raise countries like Syria (but first we have to get them up to ours). And so what happened in Denmark is shocking, simply shocking, because it seems so horribly contrary to everything we thought we knew about that country.

Syria, on the other hand, is a country where we know that things are seriously effed up. And quite frankly, whether it’s fair to the Syrian people or not, it wouldn’t be news at all if this story had played itself out in the Damascus Zoo. It would be just one more terrible thing from a terrible place.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t care about the Syrian people...or any people less than we do about the giraffe. There is much outrage and much horror, but little that we feel we can do in the midst of a complicated situation that won’t just make things worse. We've been there before and we know that sadly, some civil wars just have to settle themselves without us getting involved. We’ve learned that we can’t fix everything. We’ve learned that if we try to fix everything, we end up not fixing anything.

And then there's what I call the “Gamma Quadrant” perspective. This comes from the concept on Star Trek that our galaxy is divided up into four different quadrants, with us being in Alpha.

I said to Cheryl once that I was glad that we didn’t know about intelligent life on other planets, because then we’d also have to know about the horrible things they did to each other...that we couldn't do anything about from here. And because I don’t know about them, the atrocities happening on Rigel VII don’t concern me. But once we were able to see them on super telescopes, how would we feel about what we saw going on? And at 860 light years away, we’d be helpless to do anything anyway, since the events we’d be seeing would be ancient history.

In practical terms, the “Gamma Quadrant” perspective says that there are places too distant for me to have any practical influence on, and that perhaps I need not be inundated with the daily horror data on, since I can’t do anything about it.

It’s worth noting that on April 20th, 1995, Cheryl came home and told me that something terrible had happened in the Gamma Quadrant.

The last one is one that I’m not going to get exactly right, and couldn’t easily find a version of online, so I’m going to wing it here. It goes as follows:

The man stabbed downtown is more newsworthy than two children trapped in a well across the state, which is more newsworthy than 10 people in a plane crash across the country, which is more newsworthy than 20 people killed in a mudslide in the neighboring country, which is more newsworthy than a bombing that kills 200 people in a country on the other side of the ocean, which is more newsworthy than a bloody ongoing conflict in a country you’re never going to visit anyway…because it’s one of those horrible places.

And frankly, while you may feel horrible about all of them, the farther they get from you, the less they affect you, and the less you feel you can do anything about them.

So going back to where we started, after the international community expressed its outrage about what happened in the Copenhagen Zoo, we can be pretty sure that that won’t happen there again. On the other hand, the international community has been expressing its outrage over events in Syria for a long time.

Things really suck in the Gamma Quadrant.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Where Do You Eat?

People have definite…and strong…opinions about food. And often, they don’t realize that these opinions are simply opinions…they way they feel about something…and not objective fact.

I have friends who turn up their noses at the idea of going out for dinner at Applebee’s or Friday’s because it’s “chain food,” which, by definition, is of a lesser quality than what you can make at home. These people have obviously never eaten a horrible homemade meal. I have friends who argue with me about my choice for favorite Italian restaurant in Syracuse (Spaghetti Warehouse, if you must ask), because Dominick’s or Angotti’s are soooo much better.

These people don’t understand that you like what you like, and that there is no objective standard of what’s better food. Places like Applebee’s and Friday’s…and even Spaghetti Warehouse…give me the meals that I can’t make well at home. And if you like the lasagna better at Dominick’s, that’s fine for you, but as for me and my palate, we’ll be going to Spaghetti Warehouse.

And as far as homemade food goes, I grew up on my mother’s macaroni and cheese with the breadcrumbs on top. I didn’t even know that Kraft Macaroni and Cheese existed until I was at least a teenager, and maybe not even until I was in college. My mother’s macaroni and cheese was the standard that I measured all other mac and cheese by, and Kraft doesn’t even place a distant second.

My two daughters, however, learned to love the stuff in the blue box at an early age…most likely from daycare…and absolutely hate the stuff I make from my mother’s recipe. It is what it is. You like what you like because it’s what you grew up with; and you shouldn’t have to feel guilty about not liking something “more sophisticated” or homemade. Food snobs drive me crazy.

I love the Glove and Boots series of videos, and there’s one about visiting New York in which Johnny T says that if you’re gonna visit New York, don’t eat at the same restaurants you’d go to at home. This is accompanied by a graphic showing the logos of many national chains.

I have friends who feel this exact same way…if they’re visiting a new city, they make a point to avoid chains, and only eat at local restaurants. But I figure that after you’ve been on the road for hours and hours, there’s something comforting about food you recognize, and eating in a place where you know exactly what you’re getting…or can get a particular favorite that you can’t make at home.

Besides, despite what Johnny T says, some chains are local…or at least don’t exist where we live…so going to them is eating something different than what we’d get up here. Even though I grew up with them in Jersey, there are no White Castles anywhere near Central New York; so going to one when we’re in the NYC area would be something different. Eat’n Park and Steak ’n Shake are local to Pennsylvania and parts of the Midwest. And while we used to have them here, Bob Evans and Big Boy left the area before we ever had a chance to visit one.

Now this doesn’t mean that we only eat at chains when we’re on the road. We’ll eat in almost any Chinese or Italian restaurant, but we don’t feel a need to avoid chains when we’re traveling, just to make our experience more “legitimate”...and neither should you.

Just eat what you like.

Now, we have to make a special pilgrimage to one of the three remaining Howard Johnson’s.