Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Today's Word is Theodicy

I’m back. Sadly, I’m back. Well, actually, it’s not sad that I’m back, but the event that made me drop everything else, and get back here to write is. You know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t, then mercifully, you’ve been living under a rock for the past two weeks.

The word for today is theodicy. It’s a word that few people know, but a concept that’s as old as the hills; at least as old as Job’s questioning, and a concept that many of us have been struggling with since the events of Newtown. It is the concept of questioning how a loving, all-powerful God could allow such horrible things to happen.

Now, if you’re an atheist or agnostic (and nothing against them personally, some of the most moral people I know are atheists and agnostics), the fact that this concept and these questions exist proves that there is no God…or at least that if he does exist, he doesn’t operate the way that we’ve been taught since childhood.

There’s a bumper sticker out there that says “God is good. Evil is real. And God is all-powerful. Pick two.” It forces the theodicy issue to the front, especially at times like this, and it can be the statement that causes many believers to just pack it all in and give up.

And you know what? I wouldn’t blame them.

What? Did I just say that? A card-carrying Lutheran for 30 years, and an Episcopalian before that? A preaching deacon at our church since 1992, and the head deacon for more years than I can keep track of? Did I really say that?

Yes, I did. I wouldn’t blame any of the families who lost people two weeks ago if they said, “Screw this, God, I’m done. You weren’t there for us, I’m not there for you, because obviously you either don’t exist or don’t care.” I wouldn’t blame them, and I wouldn’t try to change their minds. Because the midst of such unbelievable pain is not the acceptable time to talk about Job or any other biblical examples of unwarranted suffering. It’s not the time to talk about how CS Lewis compared the pain we deal with for 70 or so years as being a pin prick when compared to eternity. It belittles the pain that they’re going through, and ignores their very real need to shake their fist at God and say, “What the Hell are you doing up there? Can’t you control your own people!”

Ah, control…there’s the issue.

Some of us on the religious side of the fence try to make sense of this by saying that God’s somehow stepping in to prevent tragedies like this would violate our free will. I’m not one of those people. To me there’s a very real difference between God stepping in and saying, “Nope, I’m not gonna let you do this,” and him saying “this isn’t what I want you to do.” Or to be more precise, him saying clearly and understandably “this isn’t what I want you to do,” because let’s face it, there’s a lot of misunderstanding and disagreement even among those of the same religion, same denomination, and even the same congregation about what God seems to have been saying, and means for us to do today. And there are a lot of us on the religious side of the fence who are just a tad frustrated with this lack of clarity which seems to be the root of so much well-intentioned evil; or this apparent silence which leads some people to figure that there’s no God in the first place, so who cares?

And come on, can anyone realistically claim that someone who is mentally ill has free will? Seems to me that that’s the ultimate loss of it. How would God be violating the free will of a mentally ill person (who doesn’t really have it to begin with) by stepping in and preventing them from doing horrible things?

The answer here is that I don’t have an answer.

What! I brought you this far, only to tell you that I don’t have an answer?

Yes. Not only that, but I’ve also brought you this far to tell you to be wary of anyone who claims to have an answer…because they don’t. None of us do. There are no simple answers to this question, and this is where a good read of the book of Job will put those who want to give simple answers that somehow put the blame on us in their attempt to protect their idea of how God works in their well-deserved place.

So then what do I have to say? Very simply, I find myself sitting here with you, yet again shaking my fist at Heaven and saying “WTF! Come on, this is no way to run an airline if you want to keep your passengers.”

But I’m also a stubborn little SOB, and I figure that there’s an answer somewhere that makes perfect sense, that ties everything together, and makes everything right in the long run; but I don’t get to find out what it is if I give up, say “Screw this,” and walk away because I’ve seen this happen too many times.

Instead, I take my cue from Jacob, who while wrestling with the angel, said, “I will not let go until you bless me.” Well, even in the aftermath of such incredible horror…again…I find myself saying “You’re not getting rid of me until I get the answer, until I see everything made right in the end.”

It may not be the answer that you’re looking for. It certainly isn’t the answer I want. But it’s all I have at the moment.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Truly Intelligent Design

I remember it was another pretty nondescript day in Mr Van Gilder’s General Science class 42 years ago at East Orange High School. It wasn’t the day when, after being caught not paying attention to a lecture on the weather, Curtis Brockman answered that they call the wind Mariah. No, that day was pretty descript, because I felt embarrassed for the poor white kid who just made a fool of himself in front of the 27 other members of the class…all of whom were black.

The day was nondescript because we were finishing up watching a film on the circulatory system that we had started the previous day. It was an OK film. I already knew pretty much all of the stuff in it, because I was a human body geek, and had been one since about 4th grade. At the end of the film, the narrator came on-camera and said a few words about how the way that this incredibly complex circulatory system worked in this incredibly complex body meant that there had to be a designer.

Well, duh. Of course there was a designer…and it was God. Where was the news in that?

Apparently, this 14-year-old who could name and draw every organ in the human body, had missed the news that, aside from the occasional atheist, there was any question about whether or not God had made us.

And this 14-year-old knew and understood Darwin’s theory of evolution.

You see, to me, evolution didn’t necessarily mean that we lived in a totally God-less, random universe. Far from it; it meant that God was so slick that he set up this method to eventually create us, and that the stories from Genesis were told to and by people who at that point would’ve scratched their heads going “Mah?” (Hebrew for “what”) if you tried to explain to them what a half-life or a singluarlity was.

And I went blissfully unaware that there was any debate about this until I was in college.

I mean, yeah, we read Inherit the Wind in English class, but that was about people 50 years ago. Surely no one really questioned it now, did they?

Little did I know that not only did people still question it, but that college-educated people questioned it, and tried, and still try, with all their might to come up with some alternative thesis that would allow them to believe that the Bible was word-for-word, literally true, in the current translation…totally forgetting the fact that we may have misunderstood some of the original Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and Latin.

And so these people went on to do what I call “science with an ax to grind.”

You see, real science does a few experiments, looks at the results, and says, “OK, until proven differently, it looks like this is how things work.” The Creationists, Intelligent Designers, and Young Earthers aren’t doing experiments and letting the chips fall where they may…they have a very clear goal, and that goal is to prove evolution and everything that the scientific community has accepted for years about the age of the universe, and our planet, wrong.

And this is so that they might “prove” the Bible to be right.

The Creationists and their ilk seem to think that science is trying to prove that there is no God. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Granted, there are a fair number of scientists who believe that evolution and an old universe negate the need for God to exist, but there are also quite a few who believe that the apparent randomness of Quantum Theory is where God and miracles hide from the view of us mere mortals.

And that, to me, is truly intelligent design.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Giftless Parties

My daughter, Sofie's birthday is coming up next week, and with that in mind, I figured I'd treat you to a reprint of a piece of mine that was published in the Syracuse Post Standard back in 2009.

Has anyone noticed the new trend of "giftless birthday parties?" We've been invited to three of them in the past few years and they're great. The invitation comes and says something along the lines of "Instead of bringing a gift, we'd appreciate it if you'd make a donation to such-and-such charity, which really means a lot to us."

I like these for two reasons. The first is that it makes my life easier as a gift-giver. Knowing how many useless and ill-chosen gifts my kids have received over the years at birthday parties, I strive to give what I call zero-footprint gifts. These are things that take up no space at all in the house, and include movie passes, bookstore gift cards, and the like. But giving to a charity is the ultimate zero-footprint gift, and teaches the kids that their birthday party isn't and shouldn't be all about what they get from their friends. I've come to believe that until they become teenagers and they all have a better idea of what their friends like, the best birthday presents come from family members.

The other reason I like this is because it now gives me a way to avoid all the useless presents that might otherwise arrive in my house, while also giving me a way to teach our daughter that it ain't all about her - even on her birthday.

Now in a previous generation, the great twin sisters of advice, Ann and Abby would've frowned on "no gifts please" invitations because it assumed that people were gonna bring gifts, and that was impolite. PULEEEZE! We all know that people are gonna bring gifts. We all know that the minute we receive the invitation, the first thing that goes through our minds is "What should I get this kid?" Sure, a gift may not be the "price of admission" to the party, but the person who comes without one sure looks funny. The time has come to stop pretending.

And that's the third reason why I like these giftless parties, no one looks odd when they come with only a card and no gift. In fact, if you're having a few financial difficulties, you can put off the gift of the donation until you're doing better (when you get your tax refund) and no one knows. Even better, this gift is tax deductible. Who could ask for anything more?

Let's hear it for more giftless parties.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Two Tubes of Toothpaste

Amanda and Joe got married this past weekend, and as a wedding present I gave them two little travel-sized tubes of toothpaste. You may think this is a rather strange gift, but I think it was a very important one. The card I gave them with it should explain why. It said:
There are two types of people: those who squeeze their toothpaste from the middle, and those who steadfastly believe that you should squeeze it from the end.
I say that each person should get their own tube.

When I first tell people about two tubes, they argue that that will cost more money because you’re buying two tubes instead of one. But it’s not really true. You’re actually still buying the same amount of toothpaste. The difference is that instead of buying a tube a month for two people to share, you’re buying two tubes every two months so each person can have their own. Either way you’re buying two tubes every two months.

But there’s much more to this than a simple lesson about shopping.

So many marriages fail these days because ask too much of it. Yes, you saw that right, we ask too much of marriage. I’m all for the bride and groom being each other’s best friends…I think that the best marriages are built on friendship rather than passion or hotness, the latter two of which will eventually fade away. Cheryl and I are each other’s best friends, but just as we each need our own tube of toothpaste – and different brands too – we each need our own circles of friends to hang out with every now and then. Sometimes those circles will overlap, and sometimes they won’t; but the moment that one of us expects the other to be our everything, and to “complete us,” we’re in trouble.

And that goes for everyone. Everyone needs a little time and space to themselves in a marriage, otherwise life together gets claustrophobic. And when things get claustrophobic, you find yourself screaming and clawing to get out.

We also need our own activities and interests to be involved in…which may not necessarily be shared by the other. If he likes Shakespeare while she prefers science fiction (in which case I’d wonder how they ended up together in the first place), he shouldn’t have to be dragged to every Star Trek movie by her, nor should she be dragged to every production of Macbeth by him. It’s OK to have separate interests, and not to constantly inflict them on each other.

Now, that being said, he should understand that he’ll get serious brownie points for suggesting that they go to see the latest sci-fi flick together. The same applies to her for not only suggesting that they go see Kiss Me Kate, but for also understanding that it’s a modernization of The Taming of the Shrew. But she shouldn’t get upset, and think that he doesn’t love her, just because he doesn’t want to go to the All-Night Star Trek Festival. That’s what her other sci-fi friends are for.

I don’t know how or when this trend started toward looking at our spouses as our “soulmates,” or of looking for a “soulmate” to marry, but I think it sets us up for expecting too much. Me? I was just looking for a nice girl who I shared some of the same interests and values with, who was nice to me, was smart, and funny, and was “low maintenance.” It’s important that when I met Cheryl, my first thought was that she’d make a great friend…and later, a friend that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.

Too many people expect perfection in their marriages, and are devastated when they don’t find it. My advice to everyone is to expect less, and you’ll be amazed at what comes your way.

And while you’re at it, get separate tubes of toothpaste.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Black Like New Jersey

There are a number of misconceptions about New Jersey and people from there. Some come from people who aren’t from there, and others come from those of us who grew up there.

The first is that it’s a vast industrial wasteland. Now this is understandable if you’ve only ever driven along the New Jersey Turnpike, that 122-mile swath of highway that runs from just outside New York City to just above the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The entire point of the Turnpike was to move goods quickly from one end of the state to the other. And with only 18 exits along the entire route, it’s more of a route through the state than for it.

And yet, New Jersey is officially known as The Garden State, and while this may not be seen as easily from its other major highway, the Garden State Parkway, with almost 90 exits over its 172-mile route, this road for the state takes you through slices of suburban and rural New Jersey that people who only drive the Turnpike, mostly outsiders, never see.

But there are a few other misconceptions about New Jersey, and one of them is that everyone from New Jersey is like the people in North Jersey, or Northeast Jersey, just outside of Manhattan, to be specific. But the people who live in Southwest Jersey, near Philadelphia, might have a different view. And then there are the people who live in the shore towns, or in Northwest Jersey. The simple fact of the matter is that there is no one way to be from New Jersey. The people from Passaic are just as much from New Jersey as are those from Phillipsburg or Cape May or Camden. The people who order “pizza and subs” are just as much from New Jersey as those who order “tomato pie and hoagies.”

And you don’t have to love Springsteen or the Four Seasons in order to be a legitimate Jersey Person.

What’s my point? For my birthday, my daughter gave me Baratunde Thurston’s book How to be Black. After jokingly asking her if she was going to read every other chapter (my wife is white), I sat down to read this book myself.

I couldn’t put it down.

This was the book I wish had existed when I was in high school back in the early 70s. The problem was that Thurston wasn’t born until I was in college. This book pointed out that there are many ways to be black. To some people being black is about being from the inner city. To others it’s about being from the south. To still others it’s just about what ethnic group they are, even if they much prefer Rachmaninoff to rap.

In other words, there are as many ways to be black as there are to be from New Jersey.

I could’ve used this book when people, mostly my classmates at Ashland Elementary School and East Orange High School, accused me of “not being black” or worse, of being an “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside), because I didn’t fit their narrow notions of what it meant to be black. This is a book that I’m certain many kids could use today, as they find themselves accused of “trying to be white” when they’re merely being black in their own particular way; one that looks more like the view from the Parkway than from the Turnpike.

And this is a book that I believe everyone, black, white, or purple, should read, before you go on making assumptions about what is and isn’t “legitimately” black, Asian, or even Irish.

My name is Keith, and I’m from New Jersey.

I’m also black.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Gentrification and Blockbusting

I had heard the term gentrification long before I moved to the apartment in Jersey City. To me it simply meant that middle-class people were coming into a previously run-down neighborhood, and were slowly improving it by their presence and efforts.

Others didn’t see it in quite those terms. They saw gentrification as something evil that pushed the poor out of affordable housing, either when landlords realized that they could charge more for the spots that existed, or when investors tore down entire blocks of what had been substandard housing, and replaced it with newer units for people who wanted to live near Manhattan, but not pay through the nose for it.

A few years ago, as we took a trip on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, we passed through my old Jersey City neighborhood, and I didn’t recognize it at all. 25 years later, the transformation had been that complete. The slightly dicey neighborhood I had lived in for a year was now beautiful, and I probably couldn’t afford to live there now myself.

However…I didn’t have the history with Jersey City that I had with my hometown of East Orange. I hadn’t lived there during its “better days,” if it had any, so I didn’t know quite where it came from before the gentrification started. As a result, I didn’t have an answer for those who thought that gentrification was evil because it displaced the poor. But looking at East Orange, where it came from, where it fell to, and my hopes for its future, gives me a whole different perspective on the whole gentrification issue.

And my new perspective is that gentrification and blockbusting are two sides of the same coin, with the former possibly being a correction of the latter.

Now, for those of you who are two young to be familiar with the term “blockbusting,” it’s really quite simple…and truly evil. It was the act of scaring the current middle-class residents of an area into selling their homes at a loss, and moving out, because “those people” are coming; and then selling, or more likely renting, those homes to “those people” at a profit. In the years after the 1967 Newark riots, a lot of blockbusting went on in East Orange, and a lot of the middle-class, both white and black, moved to “safer” places like Scotch Plains, West Orange, and Montclair. As more of the middle-class moved out, more of the poor moved in, and it became a repeating death spiral, to the point where what was once one of the wealthiest towns in the state has almost a 20% poverty rate.

But this trend can be reversed. East Orange can be saved, and it can be saved by something that has run right through the middle of town since about 1836. I’m talking about NJ Transit’s Morristown Line. As young professionals moved out of Manhattan to Hoboken and Jersey City in the 1980s because of its convenience to the city via the PATH line, East Orange, just a few stops away on the Morristown Line, may be the next stop for the Gentrification Express, as those two cities become almost as expensive as Manhattan.

“But what of the poor?” you might ask. “Won’t the influx of all these professionals displace them by making housing there impossible for them to afford?”

This is where I see both sides of the equation. Because I know where my hometown came from, I can see that while gentrification may indeed displace many of the poor who are there now, it would not be artificially and unfairly raising property values, but instead, would be bringing them back up to what they would’ve been, had the blockbusting and middle-class flight of the 1970s and 1980s not occurred in the first place.

And I can see so many reasons why a mass influx of the middle-class back to my hometown would be a good thing for everyone.

But that’s something to talk about later on.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of towns, it is the worst of towns.

Well, maybe I overstate both cases a little, but my how my hometown of East Orange, NJ has fallen. I discovered a book, East Orange, by Bill Hart (ISBN 978-0-7385-4549-3), that says that at one time East Orange was one of the wealthiest cities in the country. It had some of the best schools. It had a great park system. And when Andrew Carnegie donated money to build a public library, some of the residents were insulted, and one stated, “We are a wealthy community able to provide for our own library.”

I don’t remember East Orange being a wealthy town, but I do remember it being a proud and beautiful one. It was a town that regularly won awards for its cleanliness, and a town with a thriving middle class. I’ve mentioned before that East Orange was a small town even though it had 77,000 people because it was physically small. We were only four square miles in size, but with no height restrictions, East Orange was the home of many beautiful apartment buildings. In fact, according to Hart, we were once known for having more apartment buildings than any other East Coast community. But I also remember the beautiful homes on Ampere Parkway, Woodland Avenue, and Brookwood Street.

In the years since I left for college in 1974, East Orange seemed to start going downhill, and actually, the spiral had started while I was still there. East Orange is no longer the beautiful town it once was, and the school system is one of the poorer ones in the state.

What happened? Newark happened. But no, Newark is not the second city in this tale. Specifically, the Newark riots of 1967 happened, causing white and general middle class flight from both Newark and East Orange and an influx of some of the poorer residents of Newark. East Orange now has a black population of 89% and a 19% poverty rate. So much for being one of the wealthiest cities in the country.

And then there’s Bayonne…and Harrison and Belleville while we’re at it. These towns are also right next to Newark, but neither have the huge black population nor the poverty rate that East Orange does. I wondered why it was that those towns didn’t take in as many “refugees” as East Orange did. I had theory; I was betting that it was easier for poor blacks to move into East Orange because of those apartment buildings we were known for, and that to move into Bayonne, Harrison, or Belleville would’ve meant buying a house.

I tested my theory by asking a friend from Bayonne, a town with a 6% black population and a poverty rate of 10%. He said that not only had I hit the nail squarely on the head, but that in the 60s, Mayor Fitzpatrick intentionally had block after block of old apartment buildings in Bayonne torn down and replaced by one and two-family houses. Many people complained that this was blatantly racist, and forced the poor to move out of Bayonne…but they also said that it “saved” the city.

Wow. Could East Orange have been “saved” by tearing down some of the many apartment buildings we were known for? Now before you call me either racist or insensitive, I’m neither. But perhaps a better distribution of people…a little more diversity…would’ve done everyone some good. Perhaps East Orange could’ve torn down some of the apartment buildings and Bayonne could’ve left some standing.

On the other hand, maybe some of those apartment buildings in East Orange are the next stop for the young professionals who find that they’ve now been priced out of Jersey City.

But I'll talk about that next week.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What is Facebook For?

Just this past weekend, Sam Biddle, a writer for the tech blog Gizmodo, posted his list of 11 things you should never, ever say on Facebook. Expecting it to be the regular commonsense things about getting drunk, how much you hate your current job, and having a dead body in the trunk of your car, I decided to see what made his list. Here it is:
  1. Birthday thank yous
  2. Deaths
  3. Personal messages to your significant other
  4. Hangovers
  5. College admissions
  6. Exercise
  7. Requests for money
  8. Romantic anniversaries
  9. New phone number
  10. Screeds bemoaning Facebook
  11. Engagements

My first reaction when I saw the first two things on his list was “You’ve got to be kidding!” But then as I read further, and saw the rationale for each of the things he said didn’t belong on Facebook, I said it again…along with “This guy is a shallow schmuck who doesn’t want to know about the lives of his friends…if he really has any!” Because let’s face it, these things are exactly what most of us use Facebook for. Let’s take a quick look at his issues with some of these items.

What’s wrong with birthday thank yous? He says that it’s less sincere than the “dozens of perfunctory congratulations from people you barely know anymore.” I say that he needs to remove the telephone pole from the darkness.

And deaths? In his own words, “Bummer city. A death has no place on Timeline, because Timeline is beautiful…” Get serious dude! There are many people whose deaths I wouldn’t have known about if it weren’t for someone posting it on Facebook. Apparently he believes that Facebook should only be used for posting videos of the stupid cat trick of the week, and not for anything that might reflect on your real life. Yes, deaths are awkward to deal with on Facebook…they’re bloody awkward to deal with in real life too. Would it kill him to post the same perfunctory “I’m so sorry” that he would’ve said in person?

Personal messages to your significant other? His response to this was “we’d prefer that each of you stop by our computers and gag us by hand.” Are you beginning to get a picture of how totally self-absorbed this guy must be?

College admissions. He says that nobody cares except your family and friends, most of whom can be reached directly online anyway, and that you should stop bragging. My response is that they’re on Facebook precisely to find out stuff like this. I personally enjoy finding out where the kids of my friends are going to college, and don’t consider it to be bragging. In addition, this is how my daughter and her friends let everyone know where they got in. What is wrong with this guy?

Romantic anniversaries? He says “There are two people who truly care about this, and you are one of them.” I like hearing about romantic anniversaries, but then again, I’m an incurable romantic. This whole article sounds like it was written by a guy who isn’t getting any, hasn’t gotten any in a long time, and won’t be getting any at all until he changes his pathetic attitude.

Finally, we have engagements. Why doesn’t he want to hear about your engagement? He says that you should simply change your relationship status, rather than screaming it out to the rest of us. I don’t know, I’m thinking that that may be just a little too subtle for most of us on the receiving end to notice. He also says that this is like broadcasting your upcoming wedding to hundreds of people who won’t be invited. Yeah? So what. Happens IRL too. I’ve known about the engagements of tons of coworkers and friends whose weddings I was never invited to. NBD.

Basically, he wants people to stop using Facebook for the very things we all use Facebook for. He doesn’t want you clogging up his newsfeed with your life. And if we don’t use it for things like this, then what’s the point of even being on Facebook to begin with?

I suspect that if he removes the telephone pole from it’s rather unfortunate placement, his heart might grow three sizes…if he has one.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Pre-Fab Forty

Davy Jones, the short, cute Monkee, died back in February. Yes, I know I’m coming a bit late to the party…or the funeral, I suppose…on this, but I’ve had a few other things to deal with in my life.

Getting back to the point, for those of you not old enough to remember, Davy Jones was a member of the popular 60s group The Monkees who were derisively referred to by many as “The Pre-Fab Four,” because this was a group built specifically created to cater to the market for “boy bands” among 1960s teenaged girls. It was a group where the members were not selected for their musicianship, but for their showmanship and acting ability (hmm…sounds a little like Big Time Rush, which my nine-year-old daughter watches on Nickelodeon).

But while they were derided by musical “purists,” in 1967 they sold more albums than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined. That just made the sting even worse to people who enjoyed “real” musicians. What right did these upstarts, who supposedly didn’t even play their own instruments, have to outsell “legitimate artists” like the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, and the like?

And the same question has been asked about performers such as Brittney Spears, the Spice Girls, and the A*Teens (anyone remember them?). Don’t people understand that these people don’t write their own songs or play their own instruments, and therefore have no talent? Don’t they realize that they’re just a bunch of people who’ve been trained to look good and sound good while they’re singing someone else’s stuff?

Well, quite frankly, I resemble that statement…and so do about 70 or 80 of the people I hung out with when I was an undergrad. And so do hundreds of students at St Olaf College, and other schools that are famous for their choirs. You see, while I was an undergrad at Syracuse University, I was a member of the Hendricks Chapel Choir, and we not only sang for the regular Sunday morning chapel services, but we gave a concert each semester, and went on yearly concert tours. I will also tell you that we didn’t write our own material, we rarely played our own instruments, and we were most definitely trained by a succession of excellent choir directors to look and sound good while were singing someone else’s stuff.

I suppose you could call us the Pre-Fab Forty.

So I’d love to ask all the music snobs out there what the big difference is between being in the Hendricks Chapel Choir and being one of the Monkees, or one of the Spice Girls, or a member of any of the current groups that I’m too old and out of the loop to know anything about unless my daughter downloads one of their songs from iTunes and plays it incessantly. OK…so they make a whole lot more money than most of us will ever see. But are they only “legitimate performers” if they write their own stuff? Most opera singers, as well as most actors on the Broadway stage, would answer “no” to that.

For his part, Davy Jones was already a professional actor, having played the Artful Dodger in the Broadway production of the musical Oliver! before landing the gig of a lifetime with the Monkees. So was Mickey Dolenz, who those of us of a certain age remember as Corky on the TV show Circus Boy. He went into this thinking that he was simply playing the role a rock star, and ended up becoming one for real.

Were he and his three bandmates, as well as other “made for TV” or “made for the studio” groups “real performers?”

Well…I’m a believer.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Only an Eye for an Eye

One of the commonly cited problems with email is how easy it is to misinterpret what someone has written because you can’t hear the inflection of their voice to know whether they’re kidding or not. But this problem isn’t restricted only to email, it happens with every form of writing. If the writer doesn’t go out of his or her way to telegraph to you the fact that they’re kidding or being sarcastic, you may well miss the point. And yet some writers prefer not to telegraph their intentions for fear of insulting the reader’s intelligence.

The problem comes when someone reads that same piece or that same letter years down the line, without knowing the back story, or without knowing the writer’s personality and their relationship with the original reader.

And don’t even get me started on how the meanings of words can change over the years…even simple words that we think we know the meanings of. Take for example happiness. Our 21st century minds think of something much different than Thomas Jefferson did when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. When he wrote about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” he was not talking about the pursuit of hedonism or personal gratification. He had something much more lofty in mind than that. But unless you take the time to study the language, as well as what educated people were thinking during the era we call The Enlightenment, you’re going to think that Jefferson was saying that one of our inalienable rights was to be able not only to chase after, but to eventually get, that hot babe or guy that we’ve had our eye on.

And the problem only gets worse the farther back you go, and the further removed you are from the person who said the thing you’re quoting. Often, it doesn’t mean what it appears to at first blush. This is the case with many well known and perhaps overused quotes from the Bible…the most overused of which is “an eye for an eye.”

Now, I have to tell you, that I get just a little worked up whenever I hear people who claim to be Christians stating that they believe in an eye for an eye…”just like the Bible says.” That’s because if they spent as much time in their New Testament as they want you to think they have, they’d know that in Matthew 5 Jesus said:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
With that in mind, it seems that Christians should be the last people calling for an eye for an eye.

But there’s something that most people don’t get, and that I didn’t get until I stumbled across it a few years ago…the lex talionis (as the eye for an eye concept is known) wasn’t about saying, “You took out my eye, so I get to take out yours!” Instead, it was a limitation. It was saying that if someone made you blind, you only got to make him blind too…you couldn't also torch his village. It was saying only an eye for an eye, and no more. And in a culture where long-running vendettas were common, this was an important change. The lex talionis said that you couldn’t slaughter your enemy’s entire family because he had called your mother’s honor into question. The most you were allowed to do was to insult his mother in the same way.

And then it was to stop.

It’s funny…a lot of people think the world would be a much better place if we all followed the rule of an eye for an eye. I guess I could go along with that…

if we followed it the way it was actually meant.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

You May Be Right - They May Be Crazy…and Armed

OK, before I say another word, let me state right now that I firmly believe that George Zimmerman should never have gotten out of his car. Had he followed the dispatcher’s orders, and just stayed there, we wouldn’t be looking at the situation we’re looking at now, and Trayvon Martin likely would still have been alive.

That having been said, without “blaming the victim,” I can easily see how Trayvon could’ve been alive today had he just used some basic common sense. And I’m not even talking about the well-known advice that many black parents give their kids of “Don’t argue with the police. Just be polite, and call the lawyer when you get home.” Heck, that’s good advice for anyone. It’s what I said to my melanin-impoverished wife when she was pulled over for speeding in a Pennsylvania work zone almost ten years ago. I knew something was wrong with the signs, but I told her that we’d quietly go back and check out the signs after she got the ticket.

No…I’m talking about something more basic, that applies to anyone, black, white, or purple; something that this least street-smart person in the world learned as a kid in Jersey.

What I’m talking about is this: If you think that someone is following you, don’t look back, don’t acknowledge them, don’t let them know that you know they’re there or that you think they’re following you (because maybe they’re not). Just walk a little faster to where you’re going, or to some “safe” place. Do not run, if they are following you, that will just make them chase you. And above all, Do not confront them. People are nuts; you don’t know why they’re following you or what they’re carrying. This is advice that this “least street-smart person in the world” had to follow more than once in his 55 years.

Zimmerman was one of those people, and had Trayvon followed this simple advice, he’d likely still be alive today.

To paraphrase Billy Joel, “You may be right - they may be crazy…and armed.” And sometimes backing down to defuse the situation, even when you know that you’re in the right, is the better part of living to see another day. I worry about some of my young friends, black, white, and all kinds of shades in between, who don’t understand this, and who I can easily see getting themselves killed over a principle, when they could easily have backed down and walked away.

Unfortunately, that’s the problem with being young; you don’t get that. I’m not sure that even I would’ve gotten it at that age.

And once again, I will say that Zimmerman instigated the situation that Trayvon was not experienced enough to know how to handle wisely.

Some people, upon hearing what I’ve just said, tell me that there’s no guarantee that Zimmerman wouldn’t have killed Trayvon Martin even if he had acted calmly and wisely. I can accept that. You never know what might have been.

But had Zimmerman still shot him anyway, the evidence against him would be even more damning.

So please, take a little advice from this “least street-smart person in the world;” if you think you’re being followed, don’t look back, don’t acknowledge them, don’t let them know that you know they’re there or that you think they’re following you. Just walk a little faster to where you’re going, or to some “safe” place. And above all, Do not confront them.

Oh, and by the way, cell phones are wonderful things. Use them to call for help.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Putting Her to Bed

Two and a half years ago I wrote in my post The Half-Life of Grief that maybe 100 years after some great tragedy, after anyone directly involved would’ve long been dead, as would most people directly affected by it, we should have one last observance, and then put it to bed.

This coming Saturday will mark the 100-year mark of what is probably the most famous peacetime maritime disaster: the sinking of the RMS Titanic. And fitting with what I’d previously said, the youngest, and last survivor, Millvina Dean, died in 2009 at age 97. The only people left now are those with indirect ties; people such as Robert Burr, whose grandfather was a steward who went down with the ship, or Philip Littlejohn, whose grandfather left the ship in Lifeboat 13. People who weren’t there, but were told the story by people in their families who had actually been there on that night to remember.

And in a move that was seen as some as tasteless and tempting fate, the MS Balmoral left Southampton last week, as a 100th anniversary commemoration cruise, following the same course that the Titanic had intended to take.

Yes, I can see how some people might think that this was in terrible taste. I did when I first heard of the plans to do it a few years ago. But when I read the article about it in the Daily Mail, I changed my mind. This was to be no simple “party cruise” for people who had gotten “Titanic-mania” after seeing James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster. This “Titanic Memorial Cruise” was to feature meals from the original menu, a five-piece band playing music from the era, and lectures from historians and experts. It would also stop, on April 14th, for a memorial service at the site where the ship went down. Later on it would stop at Nova Scotia, where some of the bodies were buried, before finally continuing on to New York.

If you still think this is crass, and that the people who spent up to $9500 for tickets are trading on the sorrows of others, let me ask you about the many history buffs who visit places like Gettysburg or Normandy or Auschwitz every year. Aren’t those people, especially the ones who go “dressed for the occasion,” doing the same thing?

And what about the people like Burr and Littlejohn, descendants of passengers and crew members, who have decided to make this anniversary voyage, and successfully complete the trip that their ancestors started out on? Are they tasteless gawkers too?

I don’t know. I guess that 100 years later, when everyone involved would’ve been long dead anyway, is a pretty good time to put it to bed, and to do it in a grand way. I guess also that when you consider that the Titanic was built in Belfast, they’re putting it to bed in the grand tradition of the Irish wake, combining both the joy and the sorrow.

So let’s raise a cup to the Titanic and the 1514 people who went down with her.

And then let us say “goodnight.”

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Not Quite According to Plan

It was a very simple plan. Six weeks after Cheryl and I started seeing each other we figured that it was inevitable that we were going to marry each other; but we also figured that our friends and family members would think that we were absolutely out of our minds to announce that so soon. So the plan was that we would officially announce our engagement in July, on the first anniversary of our first date, and plan to get married a year later, as close to our second anniversary as possible.

That was the plan. But I was a little impatient. I knew she was going to marry me…actually, she had brought up the idea first…but I couldn’t tell anyone outside of a few trusted very close friends. I had to wait until July before I could announce to the world that I was going to marry this wonderful person…and that seemed like waiting forever.

Every now and then I’d look at her and say, “So…will you marry me?” and she’d smile and say “Not yet,” or “Yes, but you can’t tell anyone yet.” Both of those answers made me absolutely crazy. Like I said before, I knew what the deal was, but I wanted everyone else to know the deal too.

The months seemed to go by very slowly. December to January, January to February, February to March, and it was the same thing each time. I’d ask her, and she’d tell me that she couldn’t give me an official answer until July.

And then April came, and one evening, after watching TV together, I turned to Cheryl and said, “Marry me already.”

To my surprise, she said, “OK.”

“Really? Officially? You mean like this counts, and we can tell people?”

She smiled and said “Yes.”

Why am I telling you this? Because this week is the 25th anniversary of the day that Cheryl finally said that we could officially tell everyone what a lot of our friends had already figured out…that we had decided to get married.

What about the rest of the plan? Well that went just as we had laid it out in the first place; we got married on July 16th, 1988, just three days shy of our second anniversary.

And quite frankly, I think things have worked out just fine. And I’m still as thrilled to tell people about Cheryl now as I was then.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Conscience Clauses and Money Laundering

So as I sat there at Price Chopper, with my arm in the automatic blood pressure machine, I looked across the Pharmacy Department to the display of “intimacy products,” which included home pregnancy tests, lubricants…and a huge selection of condoms. And as I thought about that last set of items, I thought for a moment about conscience clauses.

I mean really…people have been making a big deal about the pharmacist who doesn’t want to dispense birth control pills against his beliefs, but what about the cashier on aisle 10 who’s not only scanning condoms that she doesn’t believe in, but is scanning them in for a person she knows isn’t married?

And what about the poor Jewish kid over on aisle 18 who has ring out someone who’s buying bacon?

Seems to me that if we don’t allow it to be an issue for the cashier, then it shouldn’t be one for the pharmacist. These conscience clauses can be part of an extremely slippery slope where we allow anyone to not do anything simply because they don’t believe in it. And that becomes very dangerous.

And then there’s that bit about the Catholic Church not wanting to pay for medical insurance that includes benefits for birth control…again because of the conscience issue. A lot of conservatives and people on the religious right have jumped on this bandwagon as a way of not being forced to pay for insurance that might cover abortions. But what about an organization whose beliefs might cause it to want to opt out of paying for something that most of us think is absolutely essential?

Like blood transfusions.

Suppose the national organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t want to pay for medical insurance for its non-member employees that covered blood transfusions? Should a Lutheran who just happened to work as a secretary in one of their offices be denied coverage for blood because the organization doesn’t believe in it? Would the conservatives and members of the religious right be quite as eager to jump on this particular “conscience clause” bandwagon, or would they finally draw a line in the sand here?

The thing is, it’s the same bloody bandwagon. And once you allow the Catholics to provide medical insurance that doesn’t cover birth control, you allow the Jehovah’s Witnesses to provide insurance that doesn’t cover any kind of blood work.

But there is a way out of this. It’s called money laundering. At least, that’s what it practically works out to be.

Let’s face it, when you get right down to it, if the Catholic Church was really serious about not paying for birth control, they’d have to follow all of their employees around 24/7 to make sure that they didn’t go to the local Price Chopper and spend any of their hard-earned pay on something from that rather large selection of condoms I gazed at.

In other words, as long as the Catholic Church is employing people who can spend their pay any way they see fit, they’re paying for birth control. The difference is that they’re not doing it directly. The money’s going to the employee, who then makes the personal decision to spend that money on a box of Trojans. And once the money is in the account of the employee, the Catholic Church can wash their hands of any responsibility for what happens with it.

So my solution is for the Catholic Church to just give everyone a health care stipend, which they can spend on any provider that they want. One that provides birth control benefits or one that doesn’t. But once that money is in the employee’s account, it’s no longer the responsibility of the church. There’s no more conscience issue because the Church isn’t directly spending the money. It’s being “laundered” through an intermediary.

But these questions open up a much bigger can of worms and raise more questions than I can try to answer right now. The big question, however, is Do we all get to opt out of paying for things we don’t believe in?

I think you know the answer to that one, but as I said, I’ll tackle that one some other time.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I See Pretty People

I’d like to have a collection of pictures of all the women I run into on a regular basis that I think are attractive.

No, it’s not for the reason you think, and no, my wife won’t be upset.

You see, for those of you who don’t know already, I’m a dork. Things that most people wouldn’t give a second thought to, I give a third, a fourth, and a 50,000th to. And one of the things that has captured my dorkly fascination has been attractiveness; what makes people attractive to us. What makes Susie attractive to Bobby, but not to Woody? More important, what makes certain women seem attractive to my wife and not to me?

Yes, you read that right, and that’s not where I’m going with this. It’s much simpler than you think.

Every now and then Cheryl will see someone and casually mention to me that she thinks she’s attractive. I almost always take a look at the woman in question and go “no thanks,” because she does absolutely nothing for me.

Then, when I do see women who I think are attractive, Cheryl’s not around for me to point them out to. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to unobtrusively take pictures of them so Cheryl and I could look them over later on, and compare the ones she thinks I should find attractive to the ones I actually do?

Now, to be fair, Cheryl usually agrees that the women I pick out are indeed attractive. It’s the women she picks out that are the issue.

What’s the difference?

Well, not that she’s been pointing any of these out, but I’m not attracted to the “drop dead gorgeous” types. Funny thing is that I can identify what women indeed fit the type; they just don’t do anything for me. No, I’m more attracted to the “girl next door” types, which shouldn’t be any big surprise, since that’s what I married. I once dated a girl next door who kept trying to be a drop dead gorgeous, and it made me crazy. Why couldn’t she like herself the way she was?

That’s the other thing, the women that I think are really attractive probably think that they’re average-looking…but are happy with it.

But I don’t always understand Cheryl’s choices. I’m like, “You think that I should find her attractive? I mean, she’s not ugly, but she definitely wouldn’t get my attention the first time around.”

And as I said, it goes beyond the differences between what Cheryl and I think makes an attractive woman; I’m interested in the whole concept for everyone. But then I know that tastes vary in everything. Some people like spicy food, some don’t. Some people love science fiction while other find it a waste of time. Some people have blue as their favorite color while others favor red. Maybe it’s just a simple case of “people are different,” and I don’t have to think much more about it.

Maybe it’s a matter of me wanting Cheryl to know what interests me before she has me turn my head to check it out, and has me say, “Um, no thanks” again.

Oh well, I guess I just have to take Cheryl to that Post Office, that bookstore, and that Target; and hope that the women I think are attractive there are on duty.

Or I could get to work on using the 12x zoom on my camera.

But then that might end up adding creepy to dorky.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

¿Habla Usted Nederlandisch?

A while back I saw a bumper sticker somewhere that had an American flag on it and said Why should I have to press 1 for English? Well, we know what that person’s hot-button issue is, now don’t we?

I’ll admit that I’m a little annoyed with seeing both Spanish as well as English on the coupons I circle for my daughter to cut from the Sunday newspaper, but that’s not because I have anything against bilingualism. It’s because trying to fit the same thing in two languages on one standard-sized coupon forces them to use really tiny type that I can barely make out. In fact, I’m betting that middle-aged Hispanics are complaining that the print is “mas pequeño.”

But aside from that, I’m not one of those English Firsters who get all bent out of shape when they see Spanish “encroaching” on our All-American culture. Far from it. In fact, I’d like to find the person with the bumper sticker, as well as the person who printed the lot of them, and ask them both a very simple question:
¿Habla Usted Nederlandisch?
Now, in case you haven’t been able to figure that out, that’s bad Spanish for “Do you speak Dutch?” For, you see, Dutch was the language of the 1614 New Netherland settlements that eventually became New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut when the English sailed into New Amsterdam and took them over without firing a shot in 1664. So one could argue that all signs in New York City, and a large portion of the Northeast, should be in Dutch, rather than the English that came with the “encroachers.”

I can see, however, that those of you who paid close attention to your American History are saying, “Now wait just a minute. Jamestown was settled by the English in 1607, which means that we beat the Dutch to North America by seven years.” And you’re probably using that as the basis to say that it makes perfect sense for English to win out in the “language wars.” And it’s true, as the English settlements spread across the Atlantic coast, those founded by the Dutch and the Swedes ended up becoming British colonies, with English as the de facto language. Some of you are even saying, “We got here first, there were more of us anyway, so English wins.”

But wait a minute. It’s time for the 10-point question. What was the first permanent settlement in North America? I’ll give you a hint: it obviously was neither New Amsterdam nor Jamestown. And it wasn’t even Vinland, the Norse colony in what is now Newfoundland, settled almost 500 years before Columbus (the key word here is permanent).

Give up? The answer is St Augustine, Florida, settled by the Spanish in 1585. It remained under Spanish rule, and the Spanish language until 1763. So is it any wonder that there is so much Spanish spoken in Florida? All things considered, shouldn’t Spanish have become a major language in the United States a long time ago?

And things only get more complicated when you consider the Southwest and California, all of which were once parts of Mexico. Here we took an entire Spanish-speaking region that was almost the size of the existing United States at the time, and added it to our country. Once again, it’s amazing that it took so long for Spanish to gain the foothold that it has today.

So, you see, I’m not bothered by how Spanish is becoming used by more and more people in their everyday lives, nor am I bothered by bilingual traffic signs or government forms. It’s simply the way that languages go. First it was Dutch, then it was English, and next it will be Spanish. That’s just the way it is.

Oh…but wait. It seems that I forgot one very important language. So, for all you English Firsters out there, let me ask you this question:
How’s your Leni Lenape?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

There's Just No Talking to Some People

When the story of Indiana State Representative Bob Morris and the Girl Scouts first broke, I was all set to write a letter to the editor of both our local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, and their local paper, the Indianapolis Star, full of the righteous indignation that only a librarian and a former Computer Literacy teacher could bring to bear on the situation. Because this was clearly a case of an elected representative believing the first opinionated rant he stumbled across on the Internet, rather than taking the time to do some real research, and checking out reliable sources. And as much as he wanted to put this behind him as a minor issue and get back to “real work,” when someone we trust to represent us and write our laws is doing so based on bad information, that’s a major issue in my book.

And then I found out that it wasn’t quite that simple. It turns out that Morris wasn’t simply misinformed, he wasn’t simply the victim of shoddy searching. His conclusions about the Girl Scouts and their supposed connection to Planned Parenthood would’ve remained the same even had he gone all the way to the tops of both organizations and gotten denials from them (after all, they could be hiding their connection).

For you see, according to the Washington Post (part of the evil liberal media complex), Morris is a member of a very small, very conservative group of people who are pulling their daughters out of the traditional Girl Scouts for their own American Heritage Girls. These people portray the traditional Girl Scouts and their organization as a group of radical, lesbian, Marxist, feminists, who don’t share “traditional family values” and are pushing abortion and contraception on young girls.

As Bill Cosby’s Noah might say, ”Right…”

When I look at a group of people like this, that is deliberately spreading misinformation, I realize that there’s just no talking to some people, and that trying to straighten them out would be like pouring sand down a rathole. They’re very much like editor J Jonah Jameson in the Spiderman comics, who at least once said, “I’ve made up my mind, don’t confuse me with the facts.” They have their beliefs…their deeply felt and held beliefs…that America is going to Hell in a handbasket, and nothing any of us, librarian or not, can say to them will change their minds, because the only information they will look for, indeed, the only information they’ll believe, is that which supports their beliefs. I’d like to think that the rest of us are a little more open to correction. I know that I am.

But there is some good news here. Despite all their noise, and the 15 minutes of fame they received, there are only 18,000 girls in the American Heritage Girls organization…compared to over 2 million in the Girl Scouts. To put this into context, the American Heritage Girls would just barely fill Madison Square Garden, while the traditional Girl Scouts far outnumber even everyone else in Manhattan. I think this shows just how influential each group is.

And despite the fact that these people seem to be a very exclusive group, who demonize anyone who doesn’t totally agree with them; the fact that they exist is one of the beauties of this country. We allow even the most far-out wingnuts to have a voice…provided they don’t hurt anyone. Conversely, the surest way to give people like this more power is to have them feel that they’re persecuted; so the best thing to do about them is to smile and nod…and then walk away.

But what about the rest of us? While it’s true that you can’t talk to some people, while it’s true that even when confronted with the facts, some people will stick to what they want to believe, the rest of us have a responsibility that this librarian feels very strongly about. That responsibility is to make sure that all of our information comes from reputable sources, and to double and triple-check it. This includes a responsibility to even check to see if those with whom we disagree are actually right, because sometimes they are.

Oh, and while we’re at it, we should each have a Girl Scout cookie.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

You Will Not Do This

I’m a little late this week because I was a little sick last week. Let me rephrase that…I was a lot sick last week. I lost three days of my life to that nasty stomach virus that’s been sweeping across the United States, leaving millions of people gripping their stomachs and running for the bathroom. And at the risk of giving you much more information than you really wanted, not only was this the first time I’d thrown up in over 35 years, but Cheryl also said that when I did, I exploded.

Cheryl did yeoman’s work taking care of me and cleaning up after me. Many of you may figure that that’s no big deal, since she’s a nurse, but there are a few other things to consider. The first is that she had called in sick herself, with a head cold, when I suddenly came down with this thing, and she ended up taking care of me rather than me taking care of her. The other is that it brought back to mind an incident that happened in church many years ago.
Our pastor was telling the story of the president of a Christian college whose wife had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. When he got the diagnosis, he decided to resign immediately, and spend the rest of his time taking care of the woman he loved full-time. His associates thought he was making a terrible mistake. Surely he could hire someone to take care of his wife while he continued to run the college. Surely he could put her in a nursing home. But he was adamant – he had made a commitment when they got married, and he was sticking to it. 
As I listened from the bass section of the choir, I thought about the many patients Cheryl had to deal with at the hospital, and that she “only” has to deal with them for eight hours before she gets to come home to rest, and I decided that there was no way I wanted her trying to do that 24/7 for me. So I tore off a part of my church bulletin, and sent a note up to her in the alto section that said, “You will not do this.” 
At the same time my note was going forward, she was sending one back to me. Hers said, “Beautiful story – but just find me a nice nursing home.”
She’s right. It was a beautiful story, but it didn’t begin to even deal with reality. It didn’t deal with the reality that she knew as a nurse and that I knew as the husband of one; and neither one of us wanted the other to feel that they had to try to do by themselves what there are entire staffs available to do…to do well, and to do while getting a little time off from before you have to face it again.

For three days I lay in bed, watching as Cheryl cleaned up after me, as she brought me what little food and drink I felt like dealing with at a time, taking care of all of the household chores that I usually attend to, and I was reminded of that day in church when we both passed notes to each other. And my resolve became stronger, so if you didn’t get it when it came around the first few times, I’m telling you once again now:

When I become old and infirm, unable to take care of myself, leaking from every bodily orifice, and unable to recognize anyone, Cheryl is to put me into a nursing home. I love her too much to want her to try to put in 36-hour days taking care of me.

And if any of you try to guilt her into doing it herself, I will briefly find the strength to rise up out of my bed and smack you upside the head with my IV pole.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Looking for the Truth in a Pack of Lies

You know, I’m a big fan of the truth. Not the brutal, unvarnished truth like what AJ Jacobs did with his experiment in Radical Honesty, which he wrote about for Esquire back in 2007, and I definitely believe in lying in order to pull off a successful surprise for someone. I’m a big fan of the practical truth, the reasonable truth, the truth that’s not used in a hurtful manner.

Along with this goes the fact that I’m not a big fan of lying…except as I mentioned before, for the sake of pulling off a surprise party, or sparing someone’s feelings…or their life. And I have no problem with being “economical with the truth” from time to time. With this in mind, I really don’t need to tell the Nazis that I’ve got Anne Frank hiding in my attic (although I know of some people who believe that their obligation to always tell the truth would take them to just such extremes).

But what I hate most of all is lying in support of the truth…lying in support of something we think is good. I can’t buy this. I firmly believe that our noble goal should be able to stand on the truth, and not on outright lies or even a little bending of the truth. This is for both practical and philosophical reasons. One of the practical reasons is that if the people you’re trying to convince of your truth discover a lie, not a mistake, but an outright lie, in your argument, then they’re likely to dismiss everything else you’ve said.

And this is why I have a problem with so much of what we’ve said as we’ve tried to prevent people from smoking.

Yes, I know that smoking is a nasty habit. I know that it can kill you. But I also believe that hyperbole isn’t the way to get people to stop.

Let me start by taking a look at one of the best-known lies used in trying to fight smoking. This was the argument RJ Reynolds must be marketing cigarettes to children because more children recognized the “cartoon character” Joe Camel than Mickey Mouse. Even if this were true, it wouldn’t mean anything. Why? Because it’s quite possible that more children recognized Mr Clean than Mickey Mouse. Did that mean that Procter and Gamble is hawking cleaning products to children? I doubt it. And I don't recall seeing kids flocking to help their parents scrub that floor because Mr Clean made it look cool. But here’s the kicker…the actual situation was that more children recognized Joe Camel than the stylized Mickey Mouse outline logo for the Disney Channel. That’s something completely different, and when you ask yourself how many children got the Disney Channel at home, you can see where the problem…and the lie is.

And once you know about that lie, you start to wonder what other lies are being told in an effort stop smoking.

Then there’s the big lie…the lie that we non-smokers don’t realize is a lie, but that many smokers do. But wait, maybe this isn’t really a lie, perhaps while it’s an inaccuracy that’s simply not true. However, because many smokers know that this simply isn’t true, they don’t listen to us.

What is this lie? The “fact” that smoking causes lung cancer.

“Now wait a minute!” I hear you saying. “It’s an established fact that smoking causes lung cancer. So how can that be a lie?”

Very simple…it’s as much a lie as saying that crossing the street causes people to be hit by cars. Yes, had Johnny not been trying to cross the street, he wouldn’t have been hit by that Buick, but there isn’t a direct one-to-one correspondence between crossing the street and getting run over. Most people who cross the street don’t get hit. The same applies to smoking, and the smokers know it.

I was curious about this, so I checked it out on Wikipedia, and while roughly 80% of lung cancer deaths can be attributed to smoking, it’s not true that 80% of smokers get lung cancer. Instead, its occurrence in smokers is “only” about 14%. This means that 86% of smokers don’t get lung cancer.

So smokers aren’t deluding themselves when they say that their great-aunt Sally smoked all her life until she died in her sleep at age 92. In fact, my grandfather was a smoker, and died at age 86. Similarly, my father was a smoker, and died at age 80. As a result, when they hear us say that “smoking causes lung cancer,” as if there were a direct one-to-one correspondence, they tend to roll their eyes and ignore us, because they know it’s not true.

Then what is truth? The truth is that smoking increases your likelihood of getting lung cancer tenfold, from 1.4% to 14%. The truth is that smoking is a major factor in a number of other diseases, such as heart disease, emphysema, and stroke. Oh…and for you guys out there, it’s a key factor in erectile dysfunction. But again, while it greatly increases the likelihood of developing one of those problems, it is not a direct one-to-one correspondence. Many people…most people…do indeed cross the street every day…even in Midtown Manhattan…without getting hit by a car.

But…and here’s the important difference…you have to cross the street to get places. It’s a necessary risk. On the other hand, there is absolutely no reason why anyone needs to smoke.

Besides, as I learned when I was 19, kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray.

And that’s the truth.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Isn't It Romantic?

Last Valentines Day Cheryl took me to dinner at my favorite restaurant; the Spaghetti Warehouse.

Just me. No kids, even though they both love the place too. No, this was just the two of us, celebrating Valentine's Day a day early because she had the night off and the 14th was a school night anyway. So we each grabbed our magazines and stuff, got into the van, and headed out to eat.

When we got there, we asked to be seated in the "trolley car." We like sitting in the trolley, and it also has much better light to work by. So we sat there reading our separate magazines and circling coupons while we waited for our dinner to arrive.

When our waitress came by with the mozzarella sticks, I turned to her and said, "This may not look romantic, but after 25 years, we get to just sit and read together."

The woman at the table behind us agreed.

No, it's not that we're so bored with each other that we bury ourselves into our reading when we go out. Quite the contrary, we enjoy sitting and reading together. After 25 years we don't have to stare into each other's eyes all the time anymore; and just to be somewhere anywhere, without the kids once in a while is a wonderful thing.

Many years ago, around 1980, Suzanne Britt Jordan wrote a piece for Newsweek that I wish I could find again, about how the ideal of marriage is not necessarily to always be like new young lovers, but instead, to eventually end up like old friends. She complained that those who divorced after many years because "the thrill was gone" had simply missed the point. A bonfire is great and exciting, but it doesn't keep you warm for as long as the slowly burning fire.

Hey, we might not have looked all that romantic that night, sitting there at the Spaghetti Warehouse, reading our separate magazines, and circling coupons while we waited for our dinner. But after 25 years we don't have to stare into each other's eyes all the time anymore, and just to be able to be somewhere, ANYWHERE, without the kids once and a while is a wonderful thing.

Happy Valentine's Day to all!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Eyes Up!

Perhaps I had been living under a rock, since I don’t watch much TV, but I had never heard of Nigella Lawson until I saw a humorous post on Facebook comparing the results of her eating and cooking habits to those of Scottish nutritionist Gillian McKeith.

Intrigued, I decided to do a little more research on this woman who looked like she obviously enjoyed what she cooked, and had a body to die for. Indeed, I was especially intrigued…and heartened…by the many women who applauded her for showing that you can have a body larger than a toothpick and still be considered hot. (Well, duh…all of us guys knew that, it seems to be the women who are stuck on this thin kick.).

And then, as I was doing my reading, I found a post from one particularly bitter woman who complained that “the Queen of Gastroporn” can’t cook worth a darn, and that the only reason people watch her show is “because she has a nice rack.”

Well…OK now…I think that someone here has some issues.

But as I thought about it some more, a question kept nagging at me (and probably nags at a lot of other guys too). Why is it OK to admire a woman’s beautiful eyes or beautiful face, but not to admire her beautiful chest? I mean, after all, they’re all body parts, aren’t they? They’re all part of the whole package, right? So why is it OK for a guy to sit there transfixed by a woman’s incredibly deep blue eyes, but if he lowers his gaze 13 inches, she’s likely to think he’s a pig?

I needed to find out, so checked online, and then I asked someone who I thought would be an expert on this…my wife…after all, last I checked, she was a woman. She might be able to fill me in here on what I was missing.

The answers I got were all pretty much along the same line: staring at the eyes or face shows that you’re interested in her as a person, while staring at her chest shows that you only have one thing in mind. It’s invasive, and makes her feel uncomfortable and unsafe, as if you’re molesting her visually.

And yet, while I understood the words I was hearing, Mr Dense here, still didn’t quite grasp it. It still didn’t quite make sense to me. After all, if I’m staring at the face of a beautiful woman, I’m likely thinking the same thing that she’s worried about me thinking if I’m looking lower. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if I’m talking to a woman with an incredibly engaging personality, I’m likely thinking the same thing. Hello…I’m a guy…we’re wired that way. If we’re attracted to you in any way…eyes, face, personality…chest, our minds are gonna go there. Actually, it’s more complicated than that, but that’s an issue for another post.

So why isn’t that invasive? Or did that just change now that you found out how our minds actually work?

I brought up my question to a bunch of people I work with, and one of the guys said that the problem is that there’s such a huge “no fly zone” with women’s bodies, that it makes it almost impossible to look anywhere but their eyes without being offensive. When he talks to me, he doesn’t have to always have his eyes locked my face; in fact, that would be rather awkward for both of us. Because we’re both guys, his eyes can drift to just about any other part of my body, and not mean a thing.

This got me wondering…would we actually be a bit more relaxed about things if huge portions of the female anatomy weren’t considered “no fly zones?” Would guys feel as compelled to try to “sneak a peek” if looking at a woman’s chest was considered no different than looking at her arm, or anything else that just happened to be there?

OK ladies, what do you think?