Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Death and Not Having a Script: Part 1

When I was younger, like in my 20s, I had been to more weddings than funerals; and the funerals I had been to were mostly for “old people.” That’s pretty much the way it should be. Grandparents and old extended relatives die, and there’s sort of a “script” for that. You don’t really know it yourself, but you follow the script that all the older family members around you seem to know and be following. You also follow the script that your particular culture or religion provides for dealing with death.

But what happens when someone your own [young] age dies, and you don’t know the script because no one has taught it to you?

My first experience with the death of someone my own age was when I was around 12 or 13, and found out that a friend of mine from choir, who had moved away, had died in a boating accident. When the rector (the Episcopalian word for “priest”) told us that as we were getting ready for the service on Sunday morning, I was shocked and saddened, and didn’t know what else to do with my feelings. So I just didn’t mention it to anyone. Ever. When we got home, however, my younger sister shattered my silent dealing with it by announcing to our parents, in the way that only a 10 or 11-year-old can, “Guess who died!”

There was no script to deal with this because his death had occurred in another state, and there was no funeral to go to. In fact, this is the first time I’ve mentioned it to anyone since then.

My next experience came some eight years later, when someone I was working with in a summer program at the university was killed in a bike riding accident. I came back from a weekend home, and was greeted with, “Have you heard about Jon?” Mercifully, there was sort of a script for this. The university and the grownups around us provided us with one, but the rest of the summer was a bit somber.

Just barely a year later, I had to deal with it again, when another friend from another choir was killed in a car accident. Once again, the university and the grownups around us provided a script of sorts for us, but this time it was a little messy for me. You see, he had lent me a bunch of his Beach Boys records, and I had no idea what to do with them. I didn’t know who to contact. I didn’t know if I should contact anyone. Did they want to talk about him? Did they want to deal with getting his records back? There was absolutely no script for this. I ended up holding onto those records for a few years before trading them in at the used record store.

Mercifully, that was the last death of someone my age that I had to deal with for a long time. After that, it was all grandparents and other older relatives…people there was some sort of cultural script for. It was a good 17 years later, and I was in my late 30s, when someone from choir at church died unexpectedly (I know…you’re wondering what is it with me and people from choirs). Of course, there was a script for this, because it was someone from church. And because there was a script, I knew what to do.

But a very important thing remains…most of us never get taught the script. We fumble through learning it piecemeal, and don’t know how we should handle deaths of people our own, relatively young, age when they’re thrust upon us. And so we handle them awkwardly…if at all.

Because I had no script for the situation I found myself in with my friend’s Beach Boy’s records, I sort of just avoided the whole issue. Of course now, some 40 years later, I know that there were people I could’ve asked about it. But at 21, as mature as you think you are, you’re still overwhelmed by a lot of learning of new social skills that you never had to deal with before, and you misstep…a lot.

More on this next week.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Programmer's Explanation of Our Presidential Election System

Since this keeps coming up, and the fact that people seem to almost willfully be misunderstanding it keeps making me crazy, this former computer programming teacher is going to try to explain our presidential election system in terms of computer programming.

Now, before I go any further, I need to say three important little words to all the people out there who keep arguing that Trump didn’t really win because Hillary got the popular vote:

It doesn’t matter!

Really. It doesn’t matter. That’s not the way the system works. That’s not the way the system was designed. THE POPULAR VOTE DOESN’T MEAN SQUAT.

At least not on a national level it doesn’t.

Now let the old programmer explain.

In the programming world we have main programs and subroutines. The main program runs by itself, but can have subroutines inside of it. A subroutine can’t run by itself, and is always part of another program or subroutine. Let me give you a moment to assimilate that. Basically, programs are made up of subroutines.

Now we need to talk about variables. There are two types of variable in programming: global and local. Global variables exist for the main program. Local variables only exist within a particular subroutine. And now I’m gonna add one more type of variable: results. Results are sent from the subroutine to the main program (or the subroutine that used it). OK, take a deep breath and we’ll go on.

The result of a subroutine comes from working on the local variables that the main program never sees. Ever. The user might see the local variables if the programmer had them show up on the screen during the calculations, as a way of checking the math, but they’re going to the screen and not to the main program. They help create the result, but they are not the results themselves.

OK…our presidential election system is the main program and it counts the number of electoral votes each candidate has in order to determine the winner. There’s a global variable for each candidate, we’ll call them candidate1, candidate2, and candidate3. There’s also a subroutine that does the counting for each state, we’ll call that State. State has three local variables called candidate1, candidate2, and candidate3. This is really bad form in programming. You try not to give your local variables the same names as your globals, because people might get confused…especially since these variables don’t talk to each other. Better the local variables should’ve been called something like candidatea, candidateb, and candidatec, but it’s too late now.

As State runs on each state and territory in the country, it uses the local variables candidate1, candidate2, and candidate3 to figure out who won all of that state’s electoral votes. It doesn’t matter if candidate1 won by 1 vote or 100,000; if that candidate won, then the subroutine sends out the appropriate number of electoral votes to that candidate to the main program as the result.

But what of those popular votes in each state? Because they’re local variables, they don’t matter. At least not for the main program. They only exist to figure out the result for each state, and to check the results in each state. They never get passed out to the main program.

The problem arises when people look at the results for the local variables as if they meant anything to the main program…and they don’t. Even if the program is written so that you can see the local results onscreen in order to check the accuracy of the results for each state, those local figures still aren’t being sent out as results.


Now, most of the time the popular numbers and the electoral numbers will pretty closely resemble each other, but there have been a number of times in our history when they haven’t. And when they haven’t, people got all up in arms because they misunderstood the system, and were looking at the local variables instead of the global results.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t still be upset that Trump won the election. But it does mean that a lot you need to stop going on and on about how Hillary won the popular vote.

Because the popular vote never was the point in the first place.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Laws of Attraction

Coincidences are funny things. A few weeks ago, when I told a 50-something friend of mine that she was “eye candy”, she laughed and said that I definitely needed to get new glasses. A few hours later, a 20-something friend of mine posted on Facebook how it felt like a punch in the stomach when some of her “more conventionally attractive” friends posted about how unattractive they felt, and acted surprised when all the reassurances came in.


I responded that I’m always surprised at the people who I think are attractive, but don’t think they are themselves; and suggested that maybe they’re not being disingenuous about it.

Let’s talk about my first friend. It’s true that she’s no hot 26-year-old, and maybe she feels that she was more attractive 30 years and 30 pounds ago; but I didn’t know her then. All I’ve known is the 50-something pudgy version of her, and this 60-something could look at that 50-something all day long.

Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate an attractive 26-year-old just as well as I could when I was 26 myself. However, now that I’m in my 60s, I can appreciate a slightly pudgy 50 or 60-something in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I was 26.

And then there’s me. When I look in the mirror, I see my grandfather, who was 63 when I was born, and he lived to be 86. I look in the mirror and I see an old man who’s not as skinny as he used to be. So it came as quite the surprise one day when a very attractive woman in her early 40s came up to me at the library and said that I was more attractive in person than I was on my posters.

Really? Me? Now? As with my first friend, I can see it 30 years and 30 pounds ago. When I was in my 30s, I might have feigned surprise to hear someone say that, because I knew I was halfway decent looking. But this old guy? Are you kidding me? Now that’s a real surprise.

And I wasn’t being disingenuous about it. I just didn’t see it.

Or rather, I was focused on what I thought I had to look like in order to be attractive to people, and not what other people were actually thinking. And what many of us think we have to look like to be attractive to others is young. Young and thin. Or buff…or shapely.

Even though I obviously didn't think that way about others. Which brings me to an important point: we often judge ourselves by harsher standards than we judge others, or than others judge us.

The laws of attraction are very funny things; and they change as we get older. I’d like to think that they change to represent more of what people in our age group look like. But even when we’re young, our standards of beauty are different from person to person.

I’ve seen people who I understood by current standards were strikingly beautiful, and gone “Meh.” I mean, I can see it, I can understand it, but they just don’t do anything for me. On the other hand, there are people that I might once have rated a 4/10, who by the simple force of their personalities, became attractive to me, and have me checking them out every time I see them. As I said to my wife about one friend of ours, “I don’t check out Sally because she’s necessarily hot. I check out Sally because she’s Sally.”

But what are the laws of attraction? This geek would love to know. He would love to know what makes Person A attractive to Person B, but not to Person C.

And what makes my second friend attractive to unknown people who just haven’t spoken up yet.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Anna Jarvis Still Isn't Happy

I first posted this four years ago, but as Mother’s Day approaches again, I think it's time for it to get another airing. So here you go. Enjoy!


Wait! Put down that box of candy. Forget about ordering those flowers. And whatever you do, don’t put that card in the mail! Anna Jarvis would not be happy.

What on earth am I talking about, and who the heck is Anna Jarvis?

For those of you who didn’t know Anna Jarvis is the woman who created our modern celebration of Mother’s Day. She also ended up hating what her creation had turned into, and spent the rest of her life trying to kill the “monster” she had created.

But let me back up a little bit.

She had intended Mother’s Day to be both a memorial to her own mother, who had died in 1905, and a day like many of the other observances that came out of the Sunday School movement of the time; things like Roll Call Day, Temperance Sunday, and Missionary Sunday, which have long been forgotten. As such, it was her intent that since it was on a Sunday, it would be a “holy day, not a holiday,” and a day on which people would write heartfelt letters to their mothers, telling how important they were to them.

However, within 10 years of Woodrow Wilson’s 1914 proclamation of the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, Jarvis was soured by what she considered to be the commercialization of her “holy day,” and actively campaigned against it. She had meant for it to be “a day of sentiment, not profit,” and was angered by the huge profits that the candy, flower, and greeting card industries were making off of her mother’s day.

She was incensed that it had become that most loathsome of all things…the dreaded “Hallmark Holiday,” a term which is horribly misused, because Hallmark didn’t create those holidays, they simply made a mint recognizing that many people would like cards to send out on them.

And that’s what pissed her off…the fact that people sent their mothers printed greeting cards rather than a heartfelt, handwritten letter. Or to quote her:
A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.
Now, I’m quite certain that if I wrote my mother the kind of letter that Anna Jarvis wanted me to, she’d be on the phone immediately, asking how many days I had left to live. I also know that if I wrote the kind of letter that Jarvis wanted us all to write, I’d have to double my insulin dosage for the day. My family is just not that overtly sentimental.

And that’s OK. For you see, the other thing that Anna Jarvis didn’t get is that for many families the candy, the flowers, and the dreaded greeting card, are symbols of what she wanted people to say outright. They are symbols of what is already understood within the families that use them, and that might even mean more than the handwritten note she insisted upon.

I can only imagine Anna Jarvis’s reaction to the grandmother of a friend of mine who would’ve seen the handwritten note as a sign that you were too lazy to go to the store and pick out a nice Hallmark card for her. She'd say "Write the note if you want…but make sure it’s in a proper card!"

Ironically, one of the reasons that Anna Jarvis didn’t get it was because she was never a mother herself. To her, Mother’s Day was always about her own mother, and was never something she got to experience from the other side, where she might have gained a different perspective.

She didn’t understand that once she’d let the genie out of the bottle, people would observe Mother’s Day any way they wanted to, whether it was the way she had in mind or not. And so she spent the rest of her life trying to stuff that all too independent genie back. She was so set on having Mother’s Day observed the way that she had intended, that she never paid attention to the joy millions of women got from the way that it actually was being observed.

And so if your mother, grandmother, mother-in-law, wife, whatever, enjoys the candy, the cards, and the flowers, I say run out and get them right now. Thank Anna for the idea, but then tell her that she's being a bit too much of a control freak.

For more information, you might want to check out these links:

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Enough Pain to Go Around

Many years ago I dated a girl who made a big deal about selfishness. Well…let me rephrase that…she made a big deal about my selfishness. And my selfishness was defined as any time that I didn’t want to do what she wanted to do, or didn’t want to do things the way that she wanted to do it. Any time I tried to get my way once in a while, I could count on being accused of being selfish.

Funny thing is that I knew that if anything, she was the one being selfish by demanding her way all the time. But I also knew that pointing out her selfishness would just be proof to her of mine.

I was aware that I often wanted my own way. I was aware that we all often want our own way…her included. I was also aware that as a result of that, there needed to be a little give and take…some compromises…to reach a point where one side wasn’t getting all while the other was getting none. I knew that there was enough desire for our own way on both sides of this relationship to go around…and that it wasn’t right that she was the one getting all while I was the one getting none.

But “compromise” isn’t in your vocabulary when you feel that you have the moral high ground…which may only be a mound that you’ve made out dirt dug out from the other person’s yard.

There’s something to be said for being an outsider, a third party with no vested interest in the situation, and who can look at it clearly and dispassionately. A third person could clearly have called her on her own selfishness, and she’d have to accept it without lashing out at them. Similarly, had I seen the same situation playing out in someone else’s relationship, I would’ve given the advice that I couldn’t give myself.

However, I’m not here to talk about that relationship today. I want to talk about pain. Not the physical kind…the emotional kind.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine posted an article titled Six Signs That You Might Not Really Respect Your Transgender Loved One. As I read the article, I was reminded of a transgender person I heard speak a few months earlier about dealing with her family, and how evil they were because they didn’t recognize or acknowledge the pain she was going through.

In both cases I was able to see things much differently because I was the disinterested third party. The two transgender people here were only able to see things from their perspective. They were only able to recognize and acknowledge their own pain and suffering. They couldn’t…or wouldn’t…see what their families were going through.

And I call “bullshit” on that.

When their family members explain that this is hard on them too, when they try to cling to a few reminders of what they thought we happy family moments from the past, and the transgender person responds by saying that this is just another sign of how little they really care about them, this is just like my old girlfriend claiming that any time I tried to point out when she was being selfish was just further proof of how selfish I was.

These people are saying “My pain is the only real pain, the only valid pain, the only pain that matters. they may have pain too, but it’s not mine, so it doesn’t matter, and can be belittled and discounted. when your pain conflicts with my pain, you just need to suck it up and let me have my way because my pain’s more important.

The simple fact of the matter is that no one gets to have all their way all the time. No one gets a pain-free life. We all have to deal with a little pain for the sake of someone else…especially when both sides are hurting. We all have to give a little.

That includes both transgender people and their families.

And my former girlfriend.