Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Elf on the Shelf vs the Mensch on the Bench

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Who Are the Poor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Now What?

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

Calm down.

Really. Just calm down.

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

Give the guy a chance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Romances and Conspiracies

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

Needless to say, we are no longer together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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