Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Death Only Has to Win Once...But Usually it's Not Even Playing

Tonight my 16-year-old daughter is going with some friends to a concert. Somehow, in giving her both permission to go and the money for the ticket (in exchange for jobs around the house that she hasn’t quite completed yet), I neglected to ask exactly where the concert was, figuring that it was somewhere within 45 minutes of here. I just found out that it was in Albany…Albany…three days ago. Albany’s two and a half hours from here! Had I known that before…

But it was too late. I know, a lot of parents would disagree with me, saying that it’s never too late to change your mind on something like that, once you have more information; and that you’d have to be crazy to let your 16-year-old go to a concert with friends that was two and a half hours away. But you know something, she didn’t intentionally withhold the information from me, she says that she told me that the concert “wasn’t here.” And knowing the friend that she’s going with and how good she is with sharing information, she may not have known herself.

I thought about this carefully, and after ascertaining that they were being driven to and from Albany by a responsible adult, who is the 29-year-old sister of one of the friends, I relaxed, and told her to have fun. And then when I got a phone call from that 29-year-old sister, giving me her phone number and copious details about how she planned to deal with them, I relaxed even more.

But I know that many parents would be saying, “No bleeping way. Too many things could happen!”

I agree lots of things could happen. Lots of things could happen right here in town at a concert at the Dome up at SU, or even downtown at the Landmark Theater. Yes, they could get into a car accident on the way to or from Albany…just as they could get in an accident to or from a venue right here in Onondaga County. The likelihood of something happening doesn’t change with the distance it is from home.

But the people who worry about things like this are all dealing with the same unspoken mindset…“that death only has to win once” for all your worries to seem justified.

Yes…death only has to win once, but usually it doesn’t. Usually it doesn’t even get in the game. We can talk about “all” the horrible accidents we’ve heard of on the Thruway between Syracuse and Albany (and how many have there really been over the past 10 years?) while totally ignoring the many more people who safely make that trip every day.

But I’m not really here to talk about the concert. That’s just a lead-in to something else.

I’m no statistician, I don’t even play one on TV, but I do know a few; and they say that people in general are horrible at assessing risk…often basing it on their emotions and the skewed samples that they see. I knew an emergency room nurse who refused to let her teenaged kids ride their bikes in the street because bike riders came into her emergency room after having been hit by cars. I talked to a police officer many years ago who said that you should never let your kids on the internet because that’s where stalkers are. These people saw all the worst cases as part of their jobs, and extrapolated that out into everyone else’s experience.

And they were wrong.

They were saying that death…or severe injury…or an abduction…only has to win once in order to make the activity too dangerous for anyone to be involved in.

And this is the mindset that many people have about immigrants…both legal and illegal, and especially about refugees from “dangerous countries.” That “one Skittle in 10,000” might be poisonous, so we shouldn’t have any Skittles at all. That one immigrant in 10,000 could be a rapist, murderer or terrorist. To them, death only has to win once for all those people to be dangerous.

But in their fear of what they can’t control, they forget one very important thing: Yes, death only has to win once…but usually it doesn’t even play at all. And to live in the constant state of fear that they have isn’t living, as far as I’m concerned.

And so, now that I’ve said this, I hope my daughter has a good time at the concert, and she’s been instructed to text me when she gets there and when she leaves.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Crazy, Not Mentally Ill

I just finished listening to a great audiobook. It’s Words on the Move, by John McWhorter, a professor of Linguistics. Between that and Ann Curzan’s The Secret Life of Words from The Great Courses, I learned a lot about the English language over the past year.

And the important thing is that language changes. Words gain new meanings, shed old meanings, and gain additional meaning while retaining the old ones.

Which brings me to the word “crazy.”

Sometimes, when I use it on Facebook, someone will implore me to not throw that word around so casually, as it makes light of mental illness. Or perhaps after a suicide, someone will ask us to think about how we use the word “crazy” and what it says about the stigma we attach to mental illness. But I’m going to argue that “crazy” doesn’t always mean, and perhaps didn’t always mean mentally ill. In fact, I’m also going to argue that when most of us really want to talk about someone who’s mentally ill, we actually use the words “mentally ill.” Crazy is something else altogether.

So what is “crazy”? Let’s ask Patsy Cline.

In her song Crazy, she sings, “I’m crazy for crying, and crazy for trying, and crazy for loving you.” Does she really mean that she’s mentally ill? No…she was saying something more along the lines of being unrealistic, of having thoughts that were too far-fetched to be reasonable. Or working totally against logic.

So why not use those words instead? That’s what some people in the mental health community suggest. The answer is one that John McWhorter could easily tell you…because a word is more than the snapshot in time that its dictionary meaning gives you. Besides, many words have multiple dictionary definitions. A quick check of dictionary.com gives us:
  • mentally deranged, demented, insane
  • senseless, impractical, totally unsound
  • intensely enthusiastic, passionately excited
Only the first definition implies mental illness as we now understand it, and is probably not even the main way that most of us use it (more on that later). The second describes what Patsy Cline was singing about and talks about people with crazy ideas. And there are more that aren’t even covered there.

When I talk fondly about my crazy ex-roommate, I’m not saying that she’s mentally ill, and you know that. I’m also not saying that she was senseless or impractical…far from it. But she was bizarre and outrageous…in a fun way.

And what about the person who “drives you crazy”? Are we really saying that they cause you to be mentally ill? No…they’re affecting you to the point where you can’t think straight, another common definition of the word. I suppose you could say that mentally ill people can’t think straight, and yet, no one says that we should be careful about using that phrase because it stigmatizes and minimalizes mental illness.

But sometimes the person we describe as crazy really is mentally ill…and we didn’t know it. I have a friend who talks about her crazy ex-boyfriend (one of the reasons why he’s an ex-boyfriend), and later found out that he wasn’t just odd, annoying, unreasonable, and obsessive, but that he really did have some psychological problems worth noting and treating.

The simple fact of the matter is that not only is “crazy” so much more than a word that could mean mental illness, but it’s usually *not* used that way. In fact...and here's the kicker...we never politely use that word to describe a truly mentally ill person. Even my friend with the crazy ex-boyfriend uses that term to describe him as she knew him during the relationship, when he drove her crazy with his bizarre attitudes and behavior, and not his current diagnosis of psychological problems.

Which brings us to another issue: maybe sometimes a person acts "crazy" because they actually are mentally ill...sometimes. And sometimes they're odd, unusual, unorthodox, outrageous, senseless, obsessive, bizarre, and have very strange ideas well within the range of of what we consider sanity.

And, linguistically, to say that it always means and has to refer to mental illness is…well…crazy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Most Argumentative Time of the Year

And now it’s time for everyone’s favorite December pastime...arguing over Christmas songs.

And this started long before the current flap over Baby It’s Cold Outside, which probably seemed creepy to younger people for quite some time before the #metoo movement brought it to everyone’s attention in a way that many of us older folks hadn’t thought of it before. No...people have been arguing about Christmas music for as long as there’s been Christmas music.

We’ve been arguing over whether or not something counts as a Christmas song, we’ve been arguing over whether or not something is a good Christmas song. We’ve been arguing over whether or not something is a tasteful Christmas song. And we we’ve been arguing that certain songs don’t belong on Christmas albums or shouldn’t be played on the radio based on our own personal preferences...as if we were the sole arbiter of what’s a good Christmas song…and forgetting that there are millions of people out there with just as many opinions.

Let’s face it, if you think about it a bit, many so-called Christmas songs aren’t even Christmas songs at all...they’re winter songs, and should be played all the way from December 21st to March 21st. But for some reason, we start celebrating winter the day after Thanksgiving and get tired of it on January 2nd...after only 13 official days of the season.

Songs like Jingle BellsJingle Bell RockSleigh RideHome for the HolidaysWinter Wonderland, and Let it Snow are all about winter, not Christmas. But we consider them part of the canon anyway.

Which brings us back to Baby It’s Cold Outside. Creepiness aside, there are those who maintain that this shouldn’t be in the canon because it’s not even a Christmas song. When you bring up the “winter” argument, they counter that it only talks about it being cold, and doesn’t mention the time of year at all.

Unless you look at the lyric that says:

Baby, you’ll freeze out there
It’s up to your knees out there

Up to your knees in what? Ragweed? Pork bellies? Pennies from heaven? I’m betting Frank Loesser was talking about snow…which would mean it was winter…unless you’re in Syracuse, where it could snow into May.

And then, on the not so creepy side, we have My Favorite Things, which everyone agrees is not a Christmas song, but keeps ending up on Christmas albums and playlists anyway. We can thank a song plugger for Rogers and Hammerstein for that. He convinced several well-known recording artists to put that song on their Christmas albums in 1964 in order to drum up interest in the upcoming film The Sound of Music. And now, despite the fact that it has nothing to do with either Christmas or winter, we seem to be stuck with it.

I have a friend who absolutely hates Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, and can’t understand why anyone likes or plays that song. But I remember when it first came out. I was in my mid-20s, and thought the song was hilarious in a way that perhaps only someone in their 20s can.

And I’m sorry, but you have to be a total Grinch not to like The Chipmunk Song.

But finally, for those who insist that only hymns and other religious music can really count as Christmas songs, I’m gonna end here with a song that is so beloved by many that you won’t believe that anyone dared question it. The quintessential Christmas song, second only to Silent Night. I’m talking about Cantique de Noel, or Oh Holy Night.

What could anyone find wrong with that? Well, after it achieved a certain level of popularity in its native France, the Catholic church considered it inappropriate for use in church for two reasons. The first was that the original poem was written by a wine merchant who had no interest in religion, and indeed, was a Socialist. The second was that the friend who set that poem to music was Jewish. Fortunately, by the time the French church tried to put the kibosh on it, the genie had been out of the bottle for quite some time, and even if it was inappropriate for singing at mass, people would sing it in their homes and everywhere else in France.

So…I’m going to close by saying, no matter how you feel about this song or that song, let’s just take this time to give our arguing a little rest. Accept the fact that different people have different tastes about holiday music, and, in the words of Ralph Blaine…

Have yourself a merry little Christmas!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Just Like Breathing

I’ve seen it happen many times before, and each time I’ve seen it, it’s annoyed me beyond any need for a laxative. But now I can better explain why it annoys me so much.

What am I talking about? Articles or documents written by church people for a church audience that get criticized by other church people for not specifically mentioning Christianity or Jesus. Their argument is something along the lines of “How will people know that we’re not just another social organization, not just another group of people trying to do good works in the world, if we don’t mention that we’re Christians?”

My first, rather snarky, response is, “This article was in a denominational magazine. Are you freaking kidding me? Are you that stupid? Do you think that people in general are so dense as to not realize that something in a magazine called Living Lutheran (or Positively PresbyterianEcstatically Episcopalian, or even Confidently Catholic) is based on the writer’s Christian faith?” And does the mission statement of St Andrew’s Episcopal Church really have to state that they’re a Christian community? Isn’t it pretty clear that they’re not a chapter of the Ethical Culture Society?

My second, similarly snarky, response is basically, “This document was written for use within the church. We all know why we’re here. Do we really have to telegraph it to everyone?”

The response of the critics is that as Christians, we need to be aware of, and tell people what’s most important to us, and why we do what we do.

To that I say, “Well…maybe.” But there’s something else I have to say to them. Actually, it’s a question I have to ask.

What’s the most important thing you do every day?

Really, what is the most important thing you do everyday?

Some of you might mention taking care of your kids, or the work you do for the local food pantry, or perhaps it’s your job as a teacher, or maybe even your job at the local hospital. Those are all good things. But quite frankly, none of those count as the most important thing you do every day.

At least not to me.

Nope…the most important thing you do every day is something so intrinsic to your being that you don’t even think about it. In fact, it’s so important that even if you voluntarily stopped for a few minutes, you’d involuntarily start again.

What am I talking about?


Breathing is the most important thing any of us do every day. It’s what allows us to go about doing the other things we think are important. But do we ever mention it? Do we put that at the top of the list of important things we do?

No. We don’t even think about it until we have a hard time doing it.

So why do some Christians insist that other Christians make a point of their Christianity when talking to church audiences?

For that matter, why do some Christians insist on putting their Christianity out on parade when they’re helping others? Isn’t it enough to let your Christianity quietly inform your good works, and then have the people you’ve helped ask you about your motivation later?

A vegetarian friend of mine once said that there are good vegetarians and bad vegetarians. You’ll never know that a “good vegetarian” is a vegetarian unless you pay close attention to what they’re eating, or unless it just happens to come up naturally in conversation. A “bad vegetarian” will take every opportunity to tell everyone about their vegetarianism.

I think that those Christians who want us to explicitly state our Christian identity and motives are bad vegetarians, who want to make us into bad vegetarians too.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Dance to the Music...But Choose it Wisely

Over the years I’ve had a lot of time to think about the music played at wedding receptions, and how I think that a lot of it is wrong for the occasion. I mean it’s great for dancing, or maybe has a nice tune, but when you get to the lyrics, we have a problem. For example, Heard it Through the Grapevine may be a great song for a stroll-type dance, but have you taken the time to listen to the words? I didn’t think so. And while I’ll Get Over You was a personal favorite of mine after a certain breakup back in 1979, and is still a song I love, I don’t think that’s really something you want to play at your wedding reception. And then there’s the DJ who played Like a Virgin at a friend’s wedding many years ago, back when that song was still current. I’m not gonna make any assumptions about my friend, but even though it was a very good dance tune, there were snickers all around the room because the DJ didn’t think about either the title or the lyrics.

My wife and I just celebrated our 30thanniversary, and her parents threw a huge party for us. During the party and after it was over, people kept talking about the wonderful choices of music the DJ played. That’s because I picked them…every…single…song. Then I gave the five CDs with that music on it to the DJ we hired for the night. I saw this as a chance to show people what could be done with choosing appropriate music for a party like that.

How did I do it? First I went through the 2000 or so favorite songs on my laptop and made a playlist of four hours of songs that I thought either presented relationships in a positive light or were totally neutral, while specifically eliminating the ones that didn’t. And wasn’t all that hard…after all four hours works out to be only about 66 songs. Surely you can pick 66 songs with appropriate lyrics from a set of 2000.

And there were still a lot of pretty good songs to dance to…from all decades, styles, and genres…after all, one thing that people forget at wedding receptions and parties like this is that it’s not just about the music you want to hear, but having a little something in there for everyone.

Now…admittedly, this is a whole lot easier to do with a DJ, who you can just hand five CDs to, than with a band, that only knows so many songs; but it can be done to some extent, even with a band. A friend of mine told the band at her reception that if she heard The Chicken Dance, they weren’t getting paid…no matter how many people asked for it. And if the band has a list of songs in their repertoire that you can look at, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to go through it and select which ones you specifically want and specifically don’t want…if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.

So when people commented on the music choices, I’m betting that they weren’t consciously thinking about the lyrics to any of the songs, but they did notice that they all seemed to go well with the theme of the party.

But yes, it can be done. You can choose appropriate and danceable music for your wedding reception or anniversary party, and I challenge you to try it. People will talk about it.

And in a good way!

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Avoiding Responsibility?

A few months ago I had the pleasure of having dinner with some old college friends that I haven’t seen in years…no, let me change that…in decades. They now have kids the age that we were when we last saw each other…and older.

One of the things we discussed is how much the world had changed since we last saw each other. As an example I used one of our doctors, who is the father of a former student of mine. When I asked how his daughter was, he beamed and said that she was doing well…and was living with her boyfriend in Philadelphia. I mentioned how 30 years earlier the father would be grumbling about his daughter living with her boyfriend, rather than beaming.

I thought this was a good change. My friends, however, didn’t. They saw it as “kids these days” wanting to have sex with none of the responsibility. I didn’t want to turn what was an enjoyable time together into a debate, but I quietly vehemently disagreed with them.

I think it is a good change. I think it’s good that, for the most part, our culture has stopped pushing young people into marriage as soon as possible. I think it’s good that we understand that you don’t have to start making babies and taking on a 30 year mortgage at age 25. And I think it’s good that we don’t push people into legal entanglements that will be damned hard to extricate themselves from just so that they can have sex without people giving them the hairy eyeball.

And speaking of legal entanglements, I know of a couple who decided it was best to wait to “make things official” until he got his precarious credit situation all straightened out. They figured there was no sense in making that her official problem too.

But let’s go back to that whole idea of “avoiding the responsibility.” Really, just what does that mean? There are couples who get married and put off having children for years…or decide to not have children at all. There are also couples who don’t get married, stay together for years, and do an excellent job raising kids. And…there are couples who live together until the baby’s on the way, then then decide to get married…and there’s actually a lot of historical precedent for that…which we have conveniently forgotten about.

Now I know that some of you will bring up religious objections to this, and I’ll deal with that. Quite frankly, those who have “religious objections” to couples living together without being married, have objections based on a culture and time when things were much different…where the community was more important than the person, and where a woman’s “value” was based on whether or not she’d had sex with anyone before. And believe me, I am so glad that those days are gone!

Now, having said all that, I can think of some pretty good reasons to bite the bullet and get married. Quite frankly, I think that after you’ve had five years of living together, you really ought to “shit or get off the pot.” And as much as I cautioned against legal entanglements that are hard to extricate yourself from, there are actually some pretty good legal protections marriage gets you for $40 (the cost of the license, not the fancy schmancy wedding) that you’d have to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees for otherwise.

And of course, by this point, some of you are asking how I’d react if one of my  daughters decided to move in with her boyfriend. Well, quite frankly, if he was a decent guy…and could put up with either one of their personalities…I’d be thrilled that they’d found someone.

I’d even help them move!

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

30 Years of Good Advice

Yesterday was our 30thwedding anniversary. Yup…30 years. Who knew it would speed by so fast!

People think that’s amazing because there’s a false statistic out there that says that 50% of marriages end up in divorce. That’s a false statistic for reasons explained in my 2010 post Good News from the Invitation Box. With that in mind, Cheryl and I really aren’t all that special after all. But…I’m still gonna give you some advice from our 30 years together.

First: Marriage creates a new thing, a new family, and your allegiances change. Your main allegiance is now to each other, and not your family of origin. This means that given a choice between your partner and your mother, your partner comes first.

Second: Create new traditions. Don’t both of you insist on slavishly bringing over all of your family’s old traditions to this new thing. This is your chance to decide which traditions you want to keep, which ones you finally get to toss, and which new ones you want to try that you saw in a magazine, a movie, or someone else’s family. Remember…you’re a new thing.

Third: Learn to compromise. You both need to be able to do that. A marriage where one person is a “take no prisoners” type is likely to fail. A marriage where both people are “take no prisoners” types is likely to fail quickly.

Fourth: Learn to alternate. Those couples that argue every year about where to go on vacation make me crazy. One should get to choose in odd years and the other should choose in even years. There. Done.

Fifth: Choose your battles. You squeeze the toothpaste from the end and they squeeze it from the middle? So what! Buy a tube for each of you and move on. It costs the same in the long run. You don’t have to agree on everything.

Sixth: Let George Washington decide some issues. That means sometimes you’re just gonna need to flip a coin over it. Statistically, you’ll each get your way half the time.

Seventh: Understand that you don’t have to do everything together. If you love science fiction and your partner doesn’t, don’t insist on dragging them to the all-night Star Trek festival. Let this be your thing...that you do with your science fiction friends (you do have outside friends, don't you?)…but give them brownie points if they offer to go with you.

Eighth: If their family lives 30 minutes away and yours is six hours, depending on how much vacation time each of you gets, and how it’s given out, you’re probably gonna see more of theirs than yours. But if vacation time is not an issue, let’s go back to item number four, and learn to alternate. Maybe in odd years you spend Thanksgiving with one and Christmas with the other, and then flip it in even years.

Ninth: Despite what the common wisdom says, sometimes it’s best to let the sun go down on your anger. Why? Because arguing when one…or both…of you is tired, cranky, and possibly hungry, gets no one anywhere. Take a time out for a nap and a snack, come back to the issue when you’re refreshed and well-fed, and see how much quicker it gets resolved.

Tenth: If you have kids, don’t let them run your lives. Make time for yourselves without them. They’ll be fine without you for an evening. You don’t want to become one of those couples who realize once they’ve grown up and left home, that all they had in common was the kids.

Eleventh: Finally, remember that you are friends. Ideally you’re each other’s best friends. And ideally, you were friends before you decided to get involved in this whole marriage thing.

And that’s the short version of my advice after 30 years. If you want more, you know where to find me!