Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Chanukah...It's Not The Jewish Version of Christmas

A few weeks ago, a Jewish friend of mine shared a post about how people should stop referring to Chanukah as the “Jewish version of Christmas.” This is my slightly expanded response.

OK, I’m gonna tread very carefully here, because I get the point about Chanukah having been a minor holiday before it got swept up in the winter/Christmas craziness...but Christmas was also a minor holiday until it was not so coincidentally placed at the same time as the previously-existing winter celebrations...at which point it took on the trappings of those celebrations. So I feel the author’s pain.

Growing up, my hometown had a substantial enough Jewish population that there was a synagogue three blocks from my house, so I learned about the invasion of Judea, the Maccabees, and the oil that lasted for eight days from my very Irish kindergarten teacher, Miss Laughlin. Did we have a substantial population of Muslims or Hindus back in the 60s? Not that I know of; so there was no reason to learn about their holidays. And Kwanzaa wouldn’t exist for another five years.

But “the Jewish version of Christmas”? Sigh...I know what these people are trying to say, but they don’t get that they’re getting it totally wrong. Perhaps because they didn’t have Miss Laughlin to explain it to them. As a result, they’re trying to describe something else in terms of something they already understand, rather than on its own terms. And maybe sometimes you have to start with A before you can get to B. And maybe it’s not really, as the author suggests, a case of Christians wanting to define everything in their own terms. Let’s take sports for example. I’m no big sports fan, but because my daughters have played soccer, and I understand that, I understand basketball as “soccer with your hands” and hockey as “soccer on ice.” And yet, if your main point of comparison between Chanukah and Christmas is the gifts, then maybe your understanding of Christmas is flawed too.

As for the Holiday Season...well, it all depends on how you’re defining it. Are we talking about just the holidays I celebrate, just the ones my Jewish friends celebrate, or, as they say these days, “all the holidays”?

If #3, then the season includes Thanksgiving, Beethoven’s Birthday, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, and whatever Muslim and Hindu holidays fall in that span. If #1, then it’s my wife’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, my sister’s birthday, and New Year’s. If #2, it may be Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and New Years.  

But the other thing that so many people both within and outside of Christianity don’t get...and it’s a very important thing...is that Christmas is as much a cultural holiday as a religious one. As a result, there can be a tree in the city square and in the library without really violating the church/state separation…unless you’re really a stickler about anything with even a hint of The Feast of the Nativity to it. And it’s in the cultural part where we uncomfortably bump up against Chanukah. 

We have an elephant in the room that we can’t ignore, and that will not be ignored. And yet, at the same time, we know that we have to acknowledge the other creatures in the room. How do we do that well? How do we do that gracefully? The answer to that will be different for each person who’s not with the elephant. 

But also, because it’s such a cultural celebration, keeping those aspects of it strictly to ourselves seems sorta selfish. If I’ve made a little something for everyone else in my department, but skip you because you’re Jewish, is that respectful, or petty? Can I give you something because Christmas is when I give things, or do I have to shift the timing, and give you your gift for Chanukah?

It’s all very complicated, and becomes more complicated as more people from more cultures join this melting pot, mosaic, or whatever you want to call it. How do we respect everyone’s celebrations? How does the elephant react to being told that it’s not the only creature in the room?

Holy crap, is this ever complicated!

But…I’d like to wish all my Jewish friends a happy Chanukah…without which there might not even have been a Christmas at all.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

And So It Begins

November 1 was All Saints Day…and the day that the money gets automatically switched over from my Holiday Club account at the credit union to my regular savings account, as if to say “Gentlemen, start your engines. It’s time to start Christmas shopping!”

And yes, despite what you might think, the two are related…at least they are in my mind.

All Saints Day is not a major church holiday. Well, let me rephrase that…it’s a big deal in my church, where on All Saints Sunday we name all those friends and family who have died in the past year, and light candles in their memory…but outside of what I’ll call the “liturgical churches”, outside of Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and some Methodists, I’m guessing that it’s not much heard of or celebrated. After going to Sunday School for many years at Mount Olive Baptist Church in East Orange, I first heard of it when I joined the choir at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in South Orange. And if you’re a Christian who’s never heard of All Saints Day, or whose church doesn’t celebrate it, then you’ve just proven my point.

I’ve heard it said by a number of pastors and theologians that Christmas isn’t the important holiday…Easter is. And yet, to me this seems to be a chicken and egg issue. After all, could there even have been Good Friday and Easter had there not been a Christmas? Couldn’t one say that Christmas celebrates the beginning, while Easter celebrates the completion?

But I digress…sort of.

All Saints Day is not a major church holiday for most Christians. Many people in the church, and most people outside of it, have never heard of it. It’s strictly an “in group” day. You go to church, you do the standard All Saints Day hymns (and there are some), you have some special music for the occasion, you listen to a sermon about those who have gone before us, you go up and light a candle for your friend or family member, and then you go home. It’s just like any other Sunday, but special.

Oh…and of course, it comes right after the four-week run up to the big candyfest of the year…Halloween.

Now imagine if Christmas was like All Saints Day.

Really…isn’t that what Christmas is supposed to be like? Imagine if Christmas was a little in-group religious day that we had all to ourselves. A day where we went to church, did all the standard Christmas hymns (of which there are many), had special music for the occasion, and listened to a special sermon before going home.

And you know something…it is. Christmas, the religious holiday comes at the end of a six or eight-week run up to the Yuletide, which was there first. The problem, and I’ve said this before, is that the Church thought it could tame Yule by putting the Feast of the Nativity on the same date. But instead of Christmas taming Yule, Yule sucked up Christmas…to the point where many of us confuse them with each other, and get upset over the commercialization of “our religious holiday”, which isn’t really the case.

Ah…but what if it was different? Suppose the Church had decided to put the Feast of the Nativity at some other time? Then we could have our little religious holiday all to ourselves, and not get into a snit about people saying “Happy Holidays” during the last six weeks of the year, and claiming it to be part of a “war on Christmas.”

But you know what? It is what it is. To paraphrase the old commercial for Certs mints, “It’s two, two, two seasons in one”…or at least overlapping with each other at the same time, so much as to be almost indistinguishable from each other.

And so it has begun…the preparations for both the secular and sacred celebrations of the Christmas season. We can have both.

And I’m going shopping.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

On Discovering America

Yesterday was Columbus Day...or Indigenous People’s Day...or Rape of the Americas Day…or whatever you want to call it. The day that we’ve traditionally celebrated Columbus’s discovery of America...or not...since he thought until the day he died, that he was in India. 

And then again, there’s that whole “discovery” thing. How can you discover a place that already has people in it? Seems that *they* would’ve discovered it first. Why should old Chris get credit for it?

Well, writer Will Furguson came up with the best explanation in his book Why I Hate Canadians (not to worry, he’s Canadian himself). He compared Chris’s situation to that of discovering a new restaurant. The restaurant was there long before you happened upon it, and thousands of people had eaten at it before you arrived; but it was new to you. You “discovered” a restaurant that you hadn’t known of before. And when you tell all your friends, who had also never known of this restaurant, about this place, they’ll credit you for “discovering it” and bringing it to their attention.

Which is what Columbus did...he “discovered” a new world that no one in Europe had known of before. One that already had people in it, but one that was new to the experience of the Europeans. 

“Well, OK,” you say. “But what about the Vikings? Weren’t they here even before Columbus?”

Oh for sure...and I got in trouble for this one back in grade school when I kept insisting that Columbus didn’t discover America because I had read that the Vikings were here first. A classic case of me being too smart for my own good; of being technically correct, but practically wrong; of technically correct, but missing the point.

Or…of the teacher not being able to patiently explain that I was missing the point, rather than just wanting Gatling to shut up about the Vikings already.

It’s true that among the Europeans, the Vikings got here first...by almost 500 years…and had a few short-lived settlements in Eastern Canada. But as the term “short-lived” implies, they didn’t last very long and nothing came of them. There wasn’t a great Scandinavian rush to settle in this new world, and the Vikings apparently didn’t tell a whole lot of people about what they found; because very few others knew about the settlements in Vinland until hundreds of years later. The point that I was missing, while being technically correct (and that the teacher didn't ’splain to me), was that Columbus’s later “discovery” of America happened at just the right time and under the right circumstances to set the “Age of Discovery and Exploration” in motion.

And that’s why all of us, for better or worse, are here.

And let’s be perfectly clear about something…there’s absolutely no guarantee that if Columbus hadn’t accidentally stumbled upon this place, some other European wouldn’t have, with the same results. In fact, there’s no guarantee that something else or someone else wouldn’t have happened to wreak havoc on the indigenous population. We can romanticize about what might have been, but it’s all just useless conjecture.

We can, however, work to own up to and correct the damage that was done since 1492.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Throwing the Goose Under the Bus

I have to say that the only thing more dismaying to me than the senseless, and tragic, death, of Botham Jean at the hands of former police officer Amber Guyger is the speed at which many of my white friends…my white friends, mind you…are willing to throw her under the bus as a sacrificial lamb in a misguided attempted to try to make it up to us for all the ways that we’ve been mistreated since 1619.

Actually, I’m pretty steamed about the way that some of my white friends are all too eager to throw all white people on this continent…even those born just a few hours ago…under the bus as part of that same misguided attempt. But that’s another opinion for another time. I want to focus on one particular case here, and not make the mistake too many people have made of making one particular situation, one particular tragedy, emblematic of another, larger, problem.

In order to get my perspective on this, you first have to read my piece from November 18th, 2013, If it Looks Like a Duck. But for those of you who won’t bother taking the extra effort to go there, let me summarize: Sometimes what appears to be a duck…the same old tired duck of a white person shooting a black person intentionally…is really a goose. A very scared goose, packing heat, who thought that having a gun would protect it, and made a split-second decision with very tragic results. In that piece I cited three different cases where that happened, including the one of Bobby Crabtree, who shot and killed his 14-year-old daughter Matilda Kaye, when she jumped out of the closet to surprise him late at night. Her dying words were “I love you, Daddy.”

Remember that. It’ll be on the test.

Now, remembering what I said about that goose, there are two things we need to keep in mind about the Amber Guyger case.

First of all, had this been a white officer accidentally killing a white person in their apartment, we would’ve heard crickets. It would’ve just been another tragedy borne of a scared person with a gun making a horrible split second decision that they wouldn’t have had they been unarmed, and had to consider other possibilities.

Second, similar to the first one, had both victim and officer been white, there would be no huge controversy over the showing of forgiveness in the face of what was a tragedy for all involved.

But...because the victim was black, it became a big racial issue turned into something emblematic of all racial issues in this country. Because the victim was black, and it became a grand racial issue, we are unable to see it as what it is...a single tragedy, and a single response to that tragedy.

As I said earlier, I find it troubling how many of my white friends seem a little too eager to throw Ms Guyger under the bus in a well-meaning, but mistaken effort to make up for all the intentional violence done to us since 1619. Sacrificing one person who unintentionally made a tragic split second decision does not make up for all the lynchings and intentional violence inflicted on us over the centuries. Throwing her under the bus does not advance the cause of true justice.

I might also add, to my black friends, that insisting on looking at this single specific tragedy as a racial issue, when it wouldn’t have been had both parties been white; and wanting this scared and disoriented goose to be treated as a premeditated murderer “just to even the score”, doesn’t advance the cause of true justice either.

And before people give Botham Jean’s brother any more grief, and look at this through a lens of “black people always forgiving whites” (which you know darned well that we don’t...it’s just that it makes news, and is a shock to most people’s senses when we do), it would do everyone good to consider the Amish response to the family of the man who intentionally murdered the girls at the school in Nickel Mines.

Remember that test I said there would be? Well here it is: How much different is Brandt Jean’s response to the woman who killed his brother from Matilda Kaye’s dying response to her father?

I’ll just let you think about that one for a while.


Tuesday, September 17, 2019

How Do We Remember?

I stumbled across it quite by accident two weeks ago…what purported to be the only photo in existence of the first plane hitting the Twin Towers in New York 18 years ago. And this photo was accompanied by a caption that said something like “Never forget” or “We must always remember.”

I have many thoughts about remembering, forgetting, and perhaps even the importance of allowing things to be forgotten. Some of these I’ve talked about before, and some will wait for some other time. But right now, a week after the 18thanniversary of that terrible day, I want to talk about how we remember.

Because how we remember, and what it does to us is important.

18 years. That’s a long time, and yet, not a long time. To put this into perspective, let me talk about something that happened 15 years before I was born…Pearl Harbor. Obviously, I don’t remember whether or not it was still a raw wound in June of 1956. I don’t recall whether or not it was still a raw wound in December of 1959, 18 years after the attack…when I was three years old. I probably wasn’t even aware of a thing called Pearl Harbor until I was about 10 or 12 years old…a good 25 years later, by which point, as horrific as it was to people who remembered it, it was the stuff of history books to any Baby Boomer who wasn’t from a military family or didn’t grow up in Hawaii.

But there is one thing I was aware of once I became aware of what Pearl Harbor was, and that was how the desire to “Remember Pearl Harbor”, and by extension, the people killed in that attack turned into a hatred of the Japanese. Not just those who planned the attack, not just those who were ordered to carry it out, not just the civilians trying to live out what they could of a normal life during wartime…but of all Japanese. Americans of Japanese ancestry (can you say “Manzanar”?) and Japanese who weren’t even born during the war. Our desire to “not forget” metastasized into a hatred of Japanese that lasted for decades; and it’s only within the past 20 years or so that the Japanese, along with other Asians, have come to be seen as “model minorities” rather than examples of the “yellow peril.”

What am I getting at? 18 years after the attacks of September 11th, what has happened to our resolve to “never forget” or to “always remember”? Has it been something that would honor those who were killed that day, or has it, like what happened to the Japanese in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, metastasized into a hatred of Muslims…all Muslims.

I think that we all know the sad answer to that question. An answer that shows that we didn’t learn a lesson from the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

But really, how do we remember those we lost? How do we remember them and honor their lives? Do we remember them by seeking vengeance on “those people”, whether they were involved or not, and forgetting that they too live in fear of those extremists? Or do we more properly remember them by trying to make the world a better place for all of us…a place where there aren’t any violent extremists from any religion? And let’s admit that there are Christian extremists, Jewish extremists, Hindu extremists, Buddhist extremists, and others, as well as Muslim extremists…all of whom give a bad name to the religions they purport to represent. I think that if we’re wise, we know what the answer to that is.

The question now is, how many of us are wise?

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Dress Codes and Accusations of Racism

I used to teach at a school that had a very precise dress code. And of course, with a very precise dress code, students were always trying to find ways around it. Some parts of the dress code were particularly hard to enforce…especially if you were a male teacher.

We could handle enforcing the rules about blue denim, ripped clothing, clothing with writing on it, untucked shirts, or any of a number of dress code infractions (no matter how petty or stupid we thought they were); but there was one rule we didn’t want to have to deal with.

Cleavage.

You couldn’t win this one. If you called a girl out for showing too much, she would turn it into an accusation of you looking where you shouldn’t be looking. You just couldn’t win.

And then one day, bless her heart, one day Laura, one of the administrators, dealt with it that in a way will not be forgotten. Upon seeing a girl who was practically falling out of her blouse, she said to her in a loud voice, “Put those things away!” and then took her to get a sweater.

There was no way that anyone could accuse Laura of anything inappropriate, and we had very few of those incidents after that.

So what does this have to do with accusations of racism? Well, it’s not going where you think it is, that’s for sure.

This has nothing to do with the fashion choices of people of certain ethnic groups, and everything to do with a conversation that came up in a Facebook group devoted to library workers.

It seems that a library worker was wondering how to approach patrons of certain demographics about their behavior and that of their children, without seeming racist. And the moment they asked that question, the torches and pitchforks came out, accusing that person of being racist for simply asking that question.

The problem is that I know that as with the girls showing too much cleavage at my old school, some members of some ethnic groups will turn any interaction with a white person that doesn’t go their way into a racial issue…whether it was or not. I have seen it done, and sometimes I’ve had to put on my “Laura hat”, and tell those people to “put that attitude away.”

And as with the male teachers who didn’t want to call out a girl who was practically falling out of her blouse, and would probably try to ignore her if she was totally naked, there are many white library workers who don’t want to deal with behavior issues of patrons of color, and may indeed cut those patrons a lot more slack than they would white patrons, because they don’t want to deal with accusations of racism.

The poor library worker who innocently asked this question was really trying to do the right thing, but knew, as do I, that unless you’re really careful (and sometimes even if you are), some people in certain groups will turn an interaction that might have gone fine with anyone else into a racial confrontation. And for even suggesting that this was a problem (which it is), they were accused of being racist, and the conversation got so nasty that comments had to be turned off.

What can we do about this? First of all, all of us need to admit that it happens, and is a problem, rather than immediately accusing someone with a question like this of being racist. Second, those of us who are in those demographics need to remember that not everything is a racial issue, and that sometimes we’re just wrong.

Finally, when we see a situation like this, those of us who are in those demographics need to “put on our Laura hats” and say, “Put that attitude way!”


Tuesday, August 27, 2019

If You Could Not Fail


I’ve seen or heard it many times over the past few years. More times than I can count and in more places than I can remember. On the internet, on cups, on posters, on refrigerator magnets…the meme that says “What would you attempt to do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”

And every time I saw or heard it, and heard people’s responses to it, I felt that they didn’t have enough imagination. That they didn’t seriously consider the possibilities open to them with this question. That they limited what they could accomplish by considering only mundane things.

Me, on the other hand, the first time I saw that question, I realized its true potential, and ran with it.

So what would I attempt to do if I knew I couldn’t fail?

Well…let me tell you what I wouldn’t do.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love music. And anyone who’s known me for any length of time knows that I play piano…after a fashion…and wish that I could play a lot better than I do. So one might guess that I’d work on playing piano as well as Billy Joel or Elton John. Well…that would be nice, but that’s not it. Being able to play piano that well wouldn’t be using the possibilities of that opportunity to its true potential.

One person suggested that I’d buy an extra lottery ticket. This, of course, begs the question of why should I buy an extra one. Statistically, it wouldn’t get me any more money than simply knowing the right numbers to choose in the first place. But that ain’t it either.

These, and the things that I’ve heard most people talk about when they’re faced with the question, are small potatoes. They’re things that only benefit one person. But perhaps instead of dealing with potatoes, we need to think about rice.

You know…Uncle Ben’s rice.

Uncle Ben Parker, who told his nephew Peter that with great power comes great responsibility.

And now that you know that, I think you’ll have a better idea of what I would attempt to do if I knew I could not fail.

There is a big problem that needs to be solved, and it shows itself in many ways. It shows itself through our inhumanity to each other for personal gain. It shows itself through our inhumanity to each other for political or national gain. It shows itself through our inhumanity to each other because some of us somehow believe that it’s part of a religious obligation we have.

The big problem is that we just aren’t kind to each other. We don’t think about the needs of other people. We don’t think about people different from us as people, but as “those people”…as ciphers who merely stand for something that’s “not us”, that prevent us from having or doing something we want, and aren’t real living, breathing, people.

So what would I attempt to do if I knew I couldn’t fail? What rice would I buy?

I think it should be fairly obvious by now. If I knew I couldn’t fail, I’d talk to people…in person and on the internet; from the people in my neighborhood to world leaders; and get them to learn to play nice with each other. I’d convince everyone to convince everyone else to treat everyone fairly and ethically, and with an eye toward justice rather than mere legality.

If I knew I could not fail, that’s what I do.

And when that was done…I’d go practice piano.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

On Being "Mr Wonderful"

I’ve officially been Mr Wonderful for about seven years now. That’s the nickname I was given by a patron at the library where I’m the Tech Guy who tries to help you out with problems with your mobile devices and laptops (I promise nothing). But even though I only started being actually called Mr Wonderful since I started working at this library, I’m aware of having had this reputation for a long time.

The first time I clearly remember having that reputation was when I was working for a film company in New York, back in the 80s, and got a job offer from a company across town that wanted me to start in a week, rather than the standard two weeks you give for notice. When one of my coworkers asked our department head if he was upset that I didn’t give two weeks notice, he said, that his only concern was what three people he was gonna hire to replace me.

That sounds like Mr Wonderful to me.

And yet, as I think about it, even my starting to work there was a case of being Mr Wonderful. I was supposed to temp for two weeks while they found a new receptionist, and after one week, they asked if I really had to leave. I stayed for a year and a half, until I was lured away to the job across town by someone who knew how “wonderful” I was at the film company.

I was wonderful in all my other jobs too, but just never thought about it. I was just doing what I thought needed to be done, the best I knew how.

And I was wonderful in other facets of my life. I got my dream job of becoming musical director for the annual Parents’ Weekend student musical at Syracuse University because I was wonderful at learning to play three songs by ear at a time when we needed to replace a lead the night before we opened, and the only person who knew his lines, his three songs, and his three dances was the pianist. So we put him on stage, and I went to the pit for those three numbers.

In everything I’ve done, I’ve unconsciously tried to be Mr Wonderful.

But sometimes you just can’t be Mr Wonderful anymore. Or at least, you can’t be Mr Wonderful to everyone…not at the same time.

And one of the results of my having crashed and burned a few weeks ago is the realization of just that. The counselor I’ve been seeing said that you can’t be Mr Wonderful all the time. That sometimes you have to be Mr “Good Enough.” Sometimes you have to be Mr “It’ll Have to Do.” And the most freeing thing she said to me was that sometimes you have to be Mr “No, I’m Not Gonna Do That.”

I was stunned. I was like, “Wait a minute. I get to tell people that I don’t want to do certain things? Even though they’re asking me to do them because they think I’d be wonderful at them?”

This was something new, and yet it wasn’t. It was advice I always gave to others, but couldn’t take myself. And yet, when I talked to other people who had dealt with depression, they told me that I absolutely got to tell people “no”, no matter how hard they twisted my arm.

So for now, I’m gonna work on being a little less wonderful…or at least accepting the fact that it’s OK to be not quite so wonderful all the time.

And maybe by not trying to be so wonderful for so many people so often…I’ll be wonderful to myself.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

People Like Me

Last week, when I mentioned my struggle with depression, I also mentioned how a friend of mine said that depression seems to follow people like me around.

What are “people like me”?

People who think too much and feel too much. Well, OK, if you think that sounds a little judgmental and isn’t helpful to “people like me”, let me rephrase that…people who think and feel intensely and deeply. I’ll talk about the thinking part next week. For today I want to talk about the feeling.

Any of my friends who knew me in grade school will tell you that I’ve been an incurable romantic since first grade. My friend Sally from college told me once that I fall in love too easily. When I was in my late 20s, I had a girl break up with me because I felt more deeply for her than she was ready for (don’t worry, we’re still good friends). I’m convinced that the problems I had with one girl in my early 20s were because I felt more deeply for her than she wanted me to, while she still had other irons in the fire.

I replay the tapes (yeah, I know…what’s a tape) of situations from my teens and twenties, and ask myself, “What if I had dealt with this differently? How did I miss that social cue? Suppose I’d said this instead of that?” Some of you might say that this goes under thinking rather than feeling. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a gray area. Maybe it’s thinking about my feelings.

Of course, this could also be called “having a great imagination”, or being able to see alternate outcomes to things I’ve gone through. And this definitely helps when I write my stories. But sometimes it just gets you “stuck.”

And it’s not always about me. Sometimes it’s about others. It’s about other people…other wonderful people…that I want things for, and my disappointment that they don’t have or never got them. For example, there’s a woman I worked with many years ago who was one of the nicest people I knew, but didn’t have anyone…that I knew of. I imagined a secret love life for her that was wilder than anything you would’ve thought about her from seeing her at work. Many years later, she’s still never had anyone…that I know of…and I think it’s kind of unfair that someone that nice never got anyone to tell her just how nice she was.

But you know something…even in that, maybe it is about me…and how much I would enjoy being told that someone thought I was wonderful…even many years later. I remember how blown away I was to find out that the younger sister of a girl I had a crush on in high school actually had a crush on me. 40-odd years later, and with both of us happily married to other people, I was walking on air! Maybe I think that other people are this way too…when they’re not. And I’ve embarrassed myself more than once...and even gotten seriously burned...when I clumsily tried to pay a compliment that I’d be thrilled to get, but wasn’t received well at all.

But, going back to the woman I worked with, maybe that’s my issue…my issue as the incurable romantic…as the person who feels deeply…and not hers. Maybe it’s my issue as the person who feels incredibly deeply…and didn’t understand until very recently that not everyone else feels that deeply, wants to feel that deeply…or wants to know that I feel deeply about or for them…and not hers. Maybe she’s perfectly happy, while I’m sad for her.

And as I said a few weeks ago, maybe knowing this means that I can let go of my desire to make things right that I screwed up in the past.

And make me right in the present.


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

D is for Depression

Today I want to talk about depression…because it’s something I’m going through.

Hi. My name is Keith, and I’m depressed. And I’m not ashamed to admit it. In fact, I’m rather glad to be able to have a name for this feeling of helplessness and incompetence I’ve had for a while now. Because now that I have a name for it, now that I know what it is, I can start to get help for it.

Now that I know that it is depression, I can stop trying to power through with my life held together with duct tape, and just let things fall apart…so I can start to get better.

When I first announced on Facebook that I might be suffering from depression, I was a little hesitant about it. Not because of any stigma it might carry…screw the stigma, I know plenty of people who’ve suffered from depression, and the more we talk about it, the better it is for everyone. No, I hesitated because I knew plenty of people who’ve suffered from depression, and I didn’t want to appropriate the word for their serious condition for what might merely be a “rough patch” for me.

But an amazing thing happened when I made my announcement…all my depressed friends came out of the woodwork in support, saying “We’ve been there. We’ll help you through this.” One friend laughed and said, “What took you so long to figure this out? People like you, who think as deeply and feel as deeply as you do, are prime candidates for depression.”

Whoa!

She was saying that it made logical sense for someone like me, a self-confessed overthinker, to be depressed. But she also hit on something else…that I’m also an over-feeler. OK…get your minds out of the gutter…you know that’s not what she meant.

And hearing her say this meant that I could let go of a lot of things I’ve been thinking too much and feeling too much about over the years. I could let go of the girl who broke my heart 40 years ago, and my desire to tell her that I understood and forgave her. I could let go of the girl who I hurt seven years after that, and the desire to apologize, and explain that I now understood what was going on in my head at the time. I could let go of trying to figure out what was up with the friend whose car was hit by a train on a deserted stretch of road in the middle of nowhere, back in 1977.

And that girl from freshman year who I never got around to giving the $20 to when I bought her stereo from her…I could stop calculating what $20 is over 45 years at 7% interest (it’s $392.57, by the way).

I can let all of that be water under the bridge. 

I was never one for perfection, but I was one for getting things “just right” rather than just good enough. But when I crashed and burned, it gave me the freedom to say that maybe I don’t have to be Mr Wonderful all the time, and maybe sometimes I should just let things be “good enough” rather than aiming for even just right. Perhaps good enough is good enough; and perhaps good enough will give me the space I need to breathe and get my life back together.

And of course there’s medication. I know…this a big stigma attached to taking medication for depression, but as an insulin-dependent diabetic, I see things a little differently. If there’s no shame in people like me taking a drug every day to stay alive, why should there be any shame in taking a drug every day to stay sane?

It’s gonna be a long journey, but I’m up to it. I have my first appointment with a counselor today.

And I will get better.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

On Trying Too Hard

Two years ago this week, for reasons that weren’t entirely my fault, I made a total ass of myself and pissed off a lot of people while my wife Cheryl was on a mission trip to Haiti. After the dust had settled…indeed, while the dust was still settling…I tried to fix things. I tried to patch things up. I wanted really badly to make things right.

I tried too hard. I became annoying. I knew I couldn’t get a cosmic do-over, but in my attempts to make things right I tried too hard, and became annoying.

I really shouldn’t be surprised. I have a history of trying too hard. Every time I liked a girl in grade school or high school, I tried too hard, and scared them away. This little habit of trying too hard lasted well into college (and I was an undergrad for seven years). By the time I got to grad school, I had finally learned my lesson. In fact, I learned it so well that Cheryl practically had to throw herself at me to let me know that it wouldn’t be “trying too hard” for me to ask her out…or ask her to marry me.

But I digress.

The simple fact of the matter is that I tried too hard to fix things, and became annoying as a result.

But there’s something else I realized just recently. It’s something that should be perfectly obvious when you think about it, but we often don’t get it because maybe it’s too obvious, or maybe we’re too idealistic…

Sometimes you don’t get to fix things. Sometimes you don’t get to make things right. Very often you don’t even get to apologize. And most annoying and painful of all…sometimes you just have to let the record show that you were a tremendous schmuck.

Because here’s the other revelation…sometimes, subconsciously, “wanting to make things right” can be as much about your not wanting to appear to be a schmuck as it is genuinely wanting to fix things. Perhaps there’s a lot of it that’s about not wanting to go down in history as that jerk that screwed things up.

And so you want to fix that. You want to fix what you messed up, and you want to correct the record.

The counterintuitive thing is that sometimes trying to make things right on your terms makes it take longer for things to become right again on theirs. Or perhaps trying to make things right years later, when you realize what you did wrong and understand why it happened, reopens a wound that had long since healed for the other party.

I can think of a number of other people I'd like to apologize to for bad...or hurtful...behavior on my part. But I also recognize that maybe they’re so over me by now that it doesn't matter to them anymore, and that that apology might disrupt the peace that they now have.

And yet...there’s a part of me that would like for people who recognize that they’ve hurt me to apologize and try to make things right. So maybe I want everyone to do it...me to them, them to me, all of us to each other.

In any event, as I said in the beginning, for reasons that were not entirely my fault, I made a total ass of myself and pissed off a lot of people while Cheryl was in Haiti two years ago. I’ve since apologized, and have tried to make things right, but you know something…the fact that I was an ass is a historical fact that will not be expunged by my later enlightenment. And my trying too hard to fix what happened then is counterproductive for everyone involved.

So I’m just gonna let it go, leave these poor people alone, and deal with it the way I deal with all of my very human failings…by laughing at what an idiot I was. After all, time has a way of making even the most painful things seem funny in the retelling.

And…remembering that while you can’t always make things right, you can always learn from what you did wrong.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Bad Idea of Residency Requirements

Once again, the idea of forcing Syracuse teachers, firefighters, and police officers to live within the city limits has come up, and once again, it’s time to take a look at why this is a bad idea.

First of all, at best, the idea of forcing the people to live within the city is a “feel-good” idea about what would make our neighborhoods better. At worst, it’s an idea borne of jealousy over some city employees getting to live someplace “better,” and wanting them to suffer like the rest of us do. I disagree with both of these ideas.

Let’s start with the “feel-good” idea that this would make our neighborhoods better. The people who propose this believe that having teachers, firefights, and police officers live in the city they’re serving would make them more responsive to the needs of the community. They believe that if these people were forced to live within the city, they would provide needed positive examples to the rest of the people in their neighborhoods. They believe that these people would put a little more heart and soul into their jobs if they knew that they were affecting the people that they lived with on a day-to-day basis.

Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. Forcing Syracuse teachers, firefighters, and police officers to live within the city limits is not going to force them to move to the neighborhoods where the “example of their presence” is needed most. There are plenty of homes available in Eastwood, Sedgwick, Strathmore, and the University area, far from the problems many of these people have to deal with on a daily basis. And if you think about it carefully, it makes sense that a person who has to deal with the issues that these people do should be allowed to escape somewhere else to recharge without feeling that they’re on duty 24/7, whether that’s a nicer neighborhood in the city or somewhere just across the city line.

In addition the people who use as an example the fact that when they were kids, their father, the firefighter, was able to walk to the firehouse if he was needed in an emergency don’t grasp the fact that nowadays even firefighters who live in the city probably live across town from the station they’re based out of.

Now let’s consider jealousy, because that’s exactly what it is. I don’t see people from Liverpool or DeWitt demanding that their teachers live within their communities, and I’ve known teachers from both districts who lived right here in the city. Why is that? Because for the most part people in those two communities don’t feel bad about where they live. Yet, for some reason, many of us who live in Syracuse don’t like it, would prefer to live somewhere else, and don’t want anyone else to live someplace we consider “better” on our dime.

And who are these jealous people? I’m betting that they’re not people who live in Eastwood, Sedgwick, Strathmore, or the University area. After all, anyone who lives in one of those neighborhoods could easily afford to live in DeWitt, Liverpool, or Nedrow, but chose to live in the city for one reason or another.

Not me. I’m a city kid from way back. Not this city, but a city kid nonetheless. I like being able to walk to the corner store, the drugstore, or the library; and I like having sidewalks to do it on. I love living in the city, and I have never considered moving outside of it. However, I understand that city life, even in a residential neighborhood, isn’t for everyone. Some people need a little more space and a little more nature – neither of which is available here in the city.

With these thoughts in mind, I think it’s time o give up on the residency requirement as a bad idea whose time has long passed, and just hire the best people for the job, no matter where they live.


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Can We Deal With Competing Truths?

What do we do when two sets of statistics appear to tell us different things, but they’re both true? Do we ignore one set because of our own biases, while latching onto the other? Do we, because our minds are too small and inflexible, insist that they can’t both be true, and that it only appears to be that way because of smoke, mirrors, and the unethical (or ignorant) manipulation of data?

Or do we sit down, open our puny little minds a bit, and try to understand the complicated nuances that actually do allow for both sets of statistics to be true, thus walking away with a greater understanding of the issue as a whole than we previously gravitated toward when we only saw things in black and white?

I mentioned this once before when I talked about Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics About Planned Parenthood, and Unicorns. In this post I tried to explain two things could be simultaneously true.

The first was that only 3% of the work Planned Parenthood does is abortion related.

The second was that they could still be the “single largest” provider of abortions even if they only did 10%, if the other 90% were spread out among smaller independent providers.

My point there was to get each of the extreme sides to take a look at how the other side saw things, and go “Oh…” Did it work? I don’t know.

Here’s another case where two seemingly incompatible sets of statistics can both be true: Most guys are not sexual predators…but the small number of them who are do damage far out of proportion to their numbers, and cause women to not trust the rest of us.

And let me hit you up with one more related set of statistics before proceeding to my main point. Most Catholic priests are not pedophiles…but the small number of them who are, combined with the horrible mishandling of the situation by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, have done damage, once again, out of proportion to their numbers, that will last for generations.

So having given you those three examples, which I’m assuming you are able to understand the nuances of, let me now go to the main course and talk about what I really came here for.

Guns and gun violence.

And here are my two sets of seemingly incompatible statistics, both of which are true:

Most gun owners…the overwhelming majority of gun owners…are responsible, law-abiding citizens, with no anger management issues, racist tendencies, or desires to overthrow the government when things don’t go their way. On the other hand, a very small minority of gun owners, armed with some very powerful weapons, do unspeakable damage far out of proportion to their numbers.

So there you have it. Both things are true. Now the question is how do we go about dealing with the problem that we alone in the industrialized world seem to have with gun violence? Does being able to see and understand both sides of the equation enable us to maybe come out of our own well-fortified corners and out of our own ideological bubbles…to talk to (and not scream at) each other, to listen to and try to understand each other as we try to solve this horrible problem? Will being able to do this enable more people to come in from each of the extreme sides (and some of them are unbelievably extreme) to somewhere in the middle where we can all agree on a compromise?

I don’t know, but I think it’s worth a shot.

Oops.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

What You Can Learn About Sex From Porn

Recently a notification popped up on my screen for podcast called What Happens When You Learn About Sex from Porn. I was intrigued by this for a number of reasons. First of all, I was sure that it was going to be all about the misinformation and bad information guys get from porn. Second, I was thinking that I learned a lot about sex from porn, and it was a lot of good information. Third, and this is where those two seemingly incompatible things tie together, I understand that the porn…or “dirty books”…of my youth are much different from what’s available out there on the internet now. The stuff I accidentally found in the back of my father’s closet would more likely be called “erotica” today, and would be considered quite tame…and almost even innocent…by today’s standards.

I haven’t listened to that podcast yet, because I wanted to share with you some of my thoughts without having any of them be a response to that.

So let’s talk about those books I stumbled across in my father’s closet. After I’d read a few of them...and took a cold shower, I was very careful to put them back exactly where I found them, so that he wouldn’t know that anyone had found them, and they’d be there for me to read some other time. Second, I learned a lot of things from those little books that put me in good stead with the girls I dated later on. I learned things about what girls found enjoyable that they definitely weren’t gonna teach me beyond the basic plumbing in Health. Not even in the rather advanced health class we had at East Orange High School.

To put it simply, in Health I learned about plumbing, pregnancy, and disease. From the books in the back of the closet, I learned *technique*.

But there’s more. The porn of my day…the erotica…the Playboy of my adolescence was, at least to my recollection and perception, not about women as sex objects (unless, of course, both people were being mutually objectified), but about people you might enjoy spending time with, and then “frolicking with” until the break of dawn.

Or maybe this was just me…and that’s where my perception comes in. Ask anyone who knew me in grade school, and they’ll tell you that I was an incurable romantic since kindergarten. So on those occasions when I got an adolescent view of an unclad Barbi Benton, as I said once before, my first thought wasn’t “Nice tits, I’d like to f*** her”, but rather, “She seems really nice. I wonder if she’d like me…and then want to do that thing you do when you really like someone.”

And even when I fantasized about girls I knew in high school or college, it wasn’t about the sex…it was about the relationship that caused the sex to happen. Relationships where I could use those techniques I learned from those books in the back of my father’s closet. Those girls weren’t sex objects, they were relationship objects. And yet, is the term “relationship object” a bit of an oxymoron? That’s a question for another post.

And contrary to the rather one-dimensional view that many women have of us as being single-minded sex maniacs, I’d like to believe that more guys were like me.

But let’s go back to the original question…of what happens when you learn about sex from porn.

Well…I think it all depends on what you’re calling porn. If you’re learning about it from some of the hardcore stuff that’s out there these days, that can’t be good for anyone. On the other hand, I think there’s a lot of good to be learned from *erotica*…erotica that takes into account the humanity and sexual desires of both parties.

OK, so now that I’ve written this, I guess I’ll go listen to that podcast.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Why We Care About Notre Dame

I’ll admit it. When I first heard that Notre Dame was on fire, my first thoughts led me back to an old episode of The Flintsones, where Fred and Barney, in order to get a regular night out with the boys, had joined the volunteer fire department, which had a fire to put out every week…in a town that was made entirely out of stone.

And so I wondered, “How can it be on fire? It’s made out of stone?”

I quickly found out that while the walls were stone, the roof wasn’t. It was made from 800-year-old wood. 800-year-old dry wood, of which their own website says “fire is not impossible.” And because it was the roof that was on fire, that’s why you see so little damage to the inside.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. I’m here to talk about why so many people care about Notre Dame in a way that they don’t care about the other churches, and a mosque, that burned on that same day or in that same week. And that’s a question that has many people indignant.

My answer is very simple: Notre Dame has touched more people in one way or another than all those churches, and the mosque, put together.

The church I grew up in, St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in South Orange, NJ, burned to the ground decades ago. Actually, the building burned down (let’s all sing the song now). The people of St Andrew’s had decided to merge with another Episcopal church across town, and had sold the property to Seton Hall University. So what had burned down was now St Andrew’s Hall. I don’t expect the world to notice or be upset about it. Heck, I was only nominally saddened when I heard about it months or years after the fact. I was similarly saddened to hear that Ashland School, where I spent kindergarten through 8thgrade had also burned down.

These were places that I grew up in, that I could never go back to visit again. They meant a lot to the people who passed through them. But how many people outside of East Orange ever heard of Ashland School? Heck, how many people in East Orange ever heard of Ashland School (we had a lot of schools)? And how many people outside of South Orange ever heard of, or had been to, St Andrew’s?

No…my old church burned down decades ago, and I didn’t expect the world to notice when it did. It meant something to the people who belonged there, and to the people in the surrounding neighborhood, but few others.

But why do we care about Notre Dame, and not the other buildings that went up in flames last week? Because we know it, we’ve been there, we’ve seen pictures of it, we’re familiar with it in a way that we weren’t familiar with any of the other buildings that burned.

They say that familiarity breeds contempt. But it can also breed appreciation and love.

If we’ve been there, which I have, along with 13 million others each year, we have that familiarity. If we’ve seen pictures of it, we have that familiarity. If we’ve studied it, we have that familiarity. Millions of people have a familiarity with Notre Dame that they never had with the other buildings or…St Andrew’s.

And you know what? In my book, that’s OK. You can’t care about everybody. You can’t know about everybody. You can’t be told and care about every religious building that’s on fire. That would be as overwhelming as being able to hear all the molecules collide.

And it’s well worth noting that even those who are indignant about people caring so much about Notre Dame have their own blind spots of familiarity and unfamiliarity.

So let’s give everyone a break here. OK?