Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Christians and Scientologists

Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock for years, most of you know that I’m a tad religious. I’d like to think that you also know that I’m not one of those people. Not one of those people who’s always in your face about why my group is right and yours has to be wrong. I’d like to think that you know that I maintain that the very definition of the word believe implies that you don’t really know for sure, but are putting all your money on it (in fact, I even discussed that in this blog a few years ago); and that that also implies that I could well be the one who’s wrong…but in good faith.

Well, I’ve had this thought experiment going on in my head for years about how to explain to certain other Christians that the people who just don’t get it, and who think that we Christians are nuts aren’t being willfully stubborn, and refusing to accept what has to be perfectly and obviously clear to them. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to come across any Martians to do this experiment with.


Yes. My scenario involved plopping down a Martian here on Earth, and having her meet people representing Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and every other ism right on down to Pastafarianism; and then see which one she determined was true…or if she thought that we were all out to a seven-course lunch. Or…if she was biased by her own Martian beliefs, and started trying to proseletyze us.

My point here was that we’re all influenced and biased by what we grew up with, and of course we’re going to resist some new belief someone’s trying to tell us about, when it doesn’t fit in with what we’ve been taught for years…and especially when it doesn’t seem to make any logical sense.

But as I said before, I couldn’t find any Martians. I did, however, find a Scientologist.

Well not quite, but hear me out.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine who’s a very devout Christian was telling me about her friend George, an atheist, who seems to be resisting God’s call at every turn.

Now, before we go any further with this, let’s get away from the common practice of demonizing atheists. The “a” in “atheist” doesn’t mean against theism, it means without it. There are a lot of really nice, friendly, loving, and moral atheists out there. They even like puppies. They just don’t happen to believe in a god of any kind.

So now that I’ve gotten hat out of the way, as I thought about what my friend was saying, I suddenly found my Martian, but in a different way than I had expected.

I said to her:

Suppose you had a friend who belonged to the Church of Scientology. And suppose you found yourself, against your better judgment, starting to find some of its claims to be credibile. You’d start fighting too, because you’d feel that you were starting to be sucked into this thing that you knew couldn’t possibly be true. Well, that’s how George feels. Christianity is to him as Scientology is to you.

And let’s face it, we all do this. Most of us don’t take the time to take an honest, impartial look at all the other religions out there before deciding what we want to believe. We all come from a place where we have one set of beliefs, and will dismiss another set completely out of hand.

Just as most of us would dismiss Scientology.

And George is dismissing any kind of theism in general.

Just sayin’.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Turn it Off Already!

A few months ago I went to get the oil changed in my van, and as I walked into the waiting room at the dealership, I noticed the most amazing thing.


Yes, silence. The TV was off and the two other people sitting in the room were happily reading books or magazines. I commented on that, and they both said that it was wonderful to have the TV off.

How about that? They thought it was wonderful to have the TV off. Why? So they could read.

There are many places where we’re held captive by TVs that are on, supposedly for our benefit. And ironically, these places also have stacks of magazines for us to read. Wouldn’t it be easier for us to read without the TV? I go to the offices of three doctors who have TVs on in the waiting area, and when I go there, I put soothing music on my iPod to drown it out so I can read.

My dentist, mercifully, doesn’t have a TV in his waiting room. The only thing that could possibly distract me from my reading is the music that the receptionists are listening to behind the desk.

There are so many places where we’re held captive by TVs that are on, supposedly for our benefit. I remember a ride on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry 10 years ago, where there was a TV on no matter where you went, and they were all set to CNN. There was no way to escape them unless you either went to one of the outside decks or went back down to sit in your car. But if you simply wanted to sit at one of the tables on one of the inside decks and enjoy the view, you couldn’t get far enough from the current day’s reporting of death, destruction, and mayhem…things that maybe I didn’t want my kids to have to deal with while we were on vacation. I complained saying that I didn’t mind there being a TV on the ship somewhere tuned to CNN, but it shouldn’t be in our faces everywhere we went.

But the iPod and its like are game-changers. Not only can I now drown out what’s on their TVs by listening to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Bolero, or even Tubular Bells on my it while I read; I could listen to a podcast of my choosing. I could listen to Freakonomics Radio, The Bowery Boys, or selected downloaded segments from NPR’sMost Emailed Stories.

And irony of ironies, the iPhone, iPod Touch, and other similar devices allow us to even choose what I want to watch. I can watch Singin’ in the Rain, a TEDTalk, or an episode of Mythbusters. Privately, without inflicting it on anyone else. I can even watch CNN…but only if I choose to.

Now, for those of you who complain that this simply puts each of us into our own private little world, where we don’t interact with those around us, isn’t the same true of reading, that activity that many of you complaining have raised to almost sacred status? Whether I’m reading a book, watching a movie, listening to music, or even taking a nap, I’m in my own little world. So what’s the difference? I think that I should have the option of retreating into my own little world, or that my family should, without being held hostage by what someone else has chosen for us.

OK, wait, I know…you in the back seat over there. You’re gonna ask what the difference is between the car dealership and my dentist’s office…besides cars and teeth. What’s the difference between someone choosing the TV show I have to hear and someone choosing the music I have to hear.

Really? You’re really asking that question? The answer is so basically simple. The background music doesn’t require any of your attention. It can be there without intruding on your little world, and doesn’t force you to listen to it. The TV show or movie that you didn’t pick sucks you in despite of, and maybe even because of, all efforts to resist and ignore it. Perversely, the more you don’t want to hear a movie or TV show, the harder it is to tune out.

So for Pete’s sake people…enough with the TVs in captive public spaces.

Turn it off already!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Let's Hear It For The Shallowness of Facebook!

Time and time again I’ve heard people talk about the shallowness of Facebook. About how it fosters a sense of false intimacy by enabling us to have many relationships of precious little depth. And I’ve heard this spoken of as if it’s a bad thing. But as I look at the names of former students and former high school classmates among those on my roster of friends, I’m beginning to think that a little shallowness is not such a bad idea, and actually may be a pretty good one.

Why? Well let’s start out by considering my old High School. The East Orange High School class of 1974 had about 435 students in it. My wife’s entire high school didn’t have that many students in it. But going on, this meant that there were roughly 2000 students at EOHS. There was no way that I knew all of them…heck, I didn’t even know all of the kids in my own class…but I came into contact in some way with quite a few of them on a regular basis.

Out of the 400-odd kids in my class, I recognized maybe 200, knew maybe half as many, regularly traveled with 30, and was really good friends with about 15. But the fact that I wasn’t really good friends with Sharon didn’t stop me from greeting her in the hallway and asking how she was. The fact that Eric was in the class below me, and was really one of my sister’s friends, didn’t stop us from talking when we ran into each other at the library. And the fact that I only really saw Michelle in study hall didn’t stop me from playing Scrabble ™ with her in Dr Handleman’s room every day.

There was a lot of shallowness in EOHS because while you couldn’t possibly be everyone’s best friend, you could still know a little something about them and be nice to them.

Then there were the kids I spent up to nine years with at Ashland Elementary School, but who went to Scott High School because they lived on that side of the line that Ashland straddled. Even though Brent wasn't a regular part of my life anymore, it was nice to see him when we went shopping at Pantry Pride, or when I was riding my bike near Upsala College. I didn’t have to engage in deep conversations with people like him, but it was definitely nice to know what they were up to.

That’s the great thing about the supposed shallowness of Facebook…it’s like running into Sharon in the hallway, Eric in the library, Michelle in Dr Handleman’s room, or even Brent near Upsala. It’s not just about staying in contact with the 150 or so people that sociologists say are your real friends, it’s about briefly hearing about what Suzie’s doing, or seeing pictures of Paul’s grandchildren (am I that old?) without feeling the need to sustain a long conversation. It’s running into these people in the hallway again.

And let’s face it…some of us just try too hard to connect, or reconnect, anyway, and it feels awkward for everyone as a result. But if we can be as comfortable with the “shallowness” online as we were IRL, then it can be a wonderful thing. Maybe a quick little response to someone’s status update is really all that’s needed.

This is why I generally accept all friend requests from people I remember from high school…even if I didn’t hang out with them. We share a common past, and it’s great to be able to run into them in the hallway again. Yes…I still have my really close friends who I talk to all the time, but there’s something to be said for those “mere acquaintances,” and keeping in contact with them, no matter how tenuously.

And so I say, “Bring on the shallowness!”

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

¿Should Sra Fishman Get Her Period?

Abbreviations. We all know what they are. We all know them when we see them. We all know that Mr is pronounced “mister” and not “mur,” and that Mrs is “missus” and not “murse.” And what about St? Well, we all know that that’s either a saint or a street, that Blvd is “boulevard” and not “blivid.” We all know that. And that’s why I’ve consistently not put periods after abbreviations in anything I’ve written for the past who knows how many years. If some editor wants to come along and do that, fine. But I’m not doing it, because I know that we all know that things like Mr, Mrs, St, Blvd, and Dr are abbreviations. We don’t need it spelled out for us.

Or so I thought. Marla Fishman may have changed my mind.

Marla Fishman is the Spanish teacher in my upcoming short story 20 Candles. I didn’t refer to her as Marla in the beginning; I started by talking about her as Sra Fishman.

And that’s where the trouble started.

As my wife was reading a draft of the story to our 10-year-old daughter, she assumed it was a typo, and read it as Sara Fishman. Um…no. Her first name is Marla, but she’s the Spanish teacher, so she’s Sra Fishman…you know, Señora Fishman.

Cheryl suggested that maybe when I introduced the character, I should actually spell the word out, since most people wouldn’t know that Sra was the abbreviation for Señora when they first saw it.

Oh. Well, I suppose that made sense.

But then I got to thinking about the rest of the story, and that abbreviation. Sure, I knew that Sra was the abbreviation for Señora, but actually, I think Cheryl did too, because she’s taken as much Spanish as I have. I think that what caused the confusion in her case was not having any context for it yet. Not knowing yet that Marla was a Spanish teacher made her think that “Sra” was a typo rather than an abbreviation.

On the other hand, putting the period there would’ve signaled to her that this was an abbreviation for something, that it was an abbreviation that she might not already be familiar with.


So what do I do now? Do I now start consistently placing periods after all of my abbreviations, just in case I ever have to deal with another Spanish teacher, or use some other abbreviation that the general public might not be familiar with?

I really don’t want to do that. Stylistically, I like the idea of not having a period in the middle of a sentence.

I guess the smartest thing to do to consistently follow Cheryl’s advice. When I know I’m about to use an abbreviation that people might not be familiar with, I’ll spell it out the first time, and then figure that people are smart enough to realize that what they see later on is the abbreviation.

And this means that none of the women I write about will ever have a period.