Our family had a great time last night watching a fictional family on TV, the Dunphys and their extended clan in the popular show Modern Family. A hallmark of great fiction is that it feels true to life. Several of the characters in this popular sitcom in particular resonate with us, as we have gay son (TV analog: Mitch, Cam) and two adopted kids (Lily).
One of the episodes in last night's mini-marathon involved the drama of a non-working car in the garage that had clearly outlived its usefulness, but to which the mom, Claire, carried a sentimental attachment, based on her fond memories from when her kids were younger. Among those memories were the many times her youngest child, Luke, vomited while in transit. Logic dictates the car needs to be discarded, but as is often the case in human affairs, emotion rules.
Wouldn't you know it: we have a non-working car in our garage, a twelve-year old Honda minivan which I unfortunately totaled in a fender bender. And our youngest child also made a career out of barfing in it. Trips required a couple of plastic bags be on hand at all times, given his propensity to toss his cookies.
The collision which rendered our minivan undrive-able involved a minor level of force. However, the other vehicle was an old pickup truck, apparently made out of lead, and as if that weren't enough, with a discarded washing machine in the flatbed. The truck, with its massive weight, hit me at a sharp angle,and the laws of physics, which state that mass times velocity times the stupidity of the driver at fault equal force, caused it to crumple a substantial amount of sheet metal along with my gas tank. The body work required to bring the car back to health exceeds its market value by approximately nine thousand dollars.
However, like the fictional Claire, my wife clings to fond memories which the car contains. The mess of life with small children: stinky diapers, barfing, fighting in the back seat.
Fiction generally follows a neat formula, and the dictates of a half-hour program require resolution before the last commercial. The fictional Dunphys dispose of their old wreck before the credits roll.
Meanwhile, we still have an old car in the garage collecting dust. Maybe life can imitate art for our family.
So here’s the thing about the Bible. Even if you don’t believe the Creator of the Universe revealed himself (or herself) to an ancient Near Eastern tribe of Iron Age nomadic pastoralists, the Jewish Bible still represents an amazing mirror into pre-modern society. Turns out those folks had exactly the same types of problems we face today: lying, stealing, drunkenness, worship of false gods, prostitution, poverty, adultery and unprovoked violence. Of course, that the one true God had a hair trigger temper of his own, exemplified by his napalming of Sodom and Gomorrah, is a small detail we might want to gloss over.
Somewhat less well known than the spectacular theatrics of many Biblical events is the story of Joseph. You remember Joseph, the guy with the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat from that whole Jesus Christ, Superstar Andrew Lloyd Weber we’re all groovy period of the late 1960s – early ‘70s, don’t you?
Here’s a quick refresher, in case you weren’t paying attention in Sunday school (or even worse, didn’t attend, may the Good Lord have mercy on your soul). Joseph was Jacob’s youngest son, and his favorite. To demonstrate his love for Joseph, Jacob gave him a special coat of many colors. Today we would refer to Joseph as being “pimped out.” As if the coat by itself didn't sow enough jealousy, Joseph told his brothers about two dreams he had, one in which each of them had a sheaf of wheat and their sheaves all bowed down to Joseph’s, which was the tallest, and another in which Joseph was the moon and the brothers were eleven stars who bowed down to him.
As you can imagine, the brothers got mighty ticked off, and did what any rational set of siblings would do in a period when disputes were often settled by running a sword through someone’s gizzard: while out in the fields during the day, Joseph’s siblings threw him into a pit, and sold him into slavery to a passing band of traders. They then took his multi-colored coat (moral lesson to any current or prospective parents: tell all your kids you love them equally, and then act like it’s true). They covered the coat with blood from a sheep of the flock, and then brought the garment back to Jacob, telling the poor old man his beloved son had been killed by a wild beast, another one of those relatively commonplace annoyances which made the “good old days” a source of such unending misery.
Through a series of adventures, Joseph ended up in Pharaoh’s dungeon in Egypt. While there, he developed a bit of a reputation as someone who was good at interpreting dreams (must be a Jewish thing, as this was a gift of Freud’s, as well). Eventually, he was summoned by Pharaoh himself and asked to provide an explanation for a very troubling dream, as recounted in Chapter 41 of Genesis:
And Pharaoh spoke unto Joseph: 'In my dream, behold, I stood upon the brink of the river… And, behold, there came up out of the river seven fat cattle; and they fed in the grass. And, behold, seven other cattle came up after them, poor and lean, such as I never saw in all the land. And the lean cattle did eat up the first seven fat cattle… And Joseph said unto Pharaoh: The seven good cattle are seven years; … Behold, there come seven years of plenty throughout all the land of Egypt… And there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and famine shall consume the land.
In other words, Joseph became history's first known financial prognosticator, and predicated a long-term business cycle: seven good years followed by seven bad years. Can you even begin to imagine how much money Joseph could make trading the stock market if he were around today? He would have shorted Internet stocks like nobody’s business when the Dotcom bubble popped.Joseph and his amazing economic prediction probably wouldn't sell as many tickets as a show about his technicolor dreamcoat. But he was the world's first economist, and we should heed his advice, or at least wear a colorful coat.
One of the truly dumb ideas of recent times is the notion that rape, a horrific crime of sexual violence, has absolutely nothing to do with sex. This viewpoint is completely unsupported by any scientific evidence, and in fact is completely contradicted by all available knowledge. It is an ideology, meaning a belief that is impervious to logic or facts, and has been promoted by feminists, unfortunately to the detriment of women. This rape-has-nothing-to-do-with-sex notion is thoroughly demolished by biologist Randy Thornhill and anthropologist Craig T. Palmer A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, published in 2000, a book I thoroughly recommend for its clear insights into the evolutionary basis of human psychology.
A problem that many people have with a scientific examination of the causes of rape is they falsely equate an attempt to understand why rape happens as being tantamount to promoting its acceptance, a means of forgiving it as an inevitable part of human nature. This is comparable to vilifying cancer researchers as being opposed to efforts to cure the disease. Palmer and Thornhill point out the obvious - rape is a terrible crime which causes significant trauma to its victims – and express the hope that a better understanding of why rape occurs will help society eventually eliminate it. In particular, in regard to the lunatic feminist position they argue against, to promote a “cause” of rape which is so grossly wrong as to border on willful stupidity serves to only make it more difficult for the scourge of rape to be eliminated.
I’ll leave it to the authors to make their case convincingly, but let me give a small example. Dating is commonly understood by its participants to have the potential to lead romance, i.e. sex. Also, in general across all known cultures and societies, men are less choosy about who they have sex with than women, as evidenced by a greater interest in sex with prostitutes, to have more sexual partners and to seek sex earlier in relationships than women. The term “date rape” is commonly understood: the man is the criminal and the woman is the victim. A man and a woman are alone together, at a secluded location, perhaps outdoors, in a car, or maybe an apartment. The man is ready for sex, and the woman isn’t. At some point, persuasion switches to physical coercion, and rape, a crime of sexual violence, occurs.
The man who commits date rape, thwarted in his romantic efforts, according to feminist theory, somehow loses interest in sex, but nonetheless becomes sexually aroused, attains an erection and commits forcible intercourse as an act of violence. In this case, for rape to have nothing to do with sex, then sex has nothing to do with sex, a complete absurdity.
Ideologies are blind to reason, which is what causes them to be so potentially dangerous. Another terrible ideological scourge of humanity is anti-Semitism. Hatred of Jews has taken many forms throughout history. A few thousand years ago, Jews were a nation-state, and their neighbors hated them because everyone hated everyone else back in the good old days. Until relatively recently, “history” meant the history of warfare. Put your finger down on any spot on the map, especially in Europe or the Middle East, and its likely that a dozen or more wars were fought there.
Since the development of Christianity, for much of its history Christian Europe blamed all Jews collectively, whether living, dead or as yet unborn, for killing Jesus. Imagine a people of such devilry as to have the power to commit deicide: to kill God, literally. Being a good Christian seven or eight hundred years ago carried an obligation to oppress Jews, as a preamble to an even greater punishment which presumably lay in wait as an angry God wrought vengeance upon his son’s murderers. To understand religiously inspired anti-Semitism more thoroughly, consider the vitriol of Martin Luther, he of the ninety-five theses, and one of the great anti-Semites of history, who in a work entitled The Jews & Their Lies urged Christians to “set fire to their synagogues”. Is it merely coincidence that Nazism took root in the country where Lutheranism was founded?
Christian-inspired Jew hatred never disappeared – witness the the Edgardo Mortara affair of the 1850s, when soldiers acting under direction of the Church kidnapped a Jewish child because he had been secretly baptized by a Catholic nurse. This act, according to the Pope, made the boy a Catholic, and a Catholic child being raised by the murderers of Jesus constituted an affront the Church could simply not abide.
Anti-Semitism took on a new veneer with Hitler, in the form of a pseudoscientific racist ideology. Meanwhile, under Stalin, Jews were oppressed for being bourgeois opponents of the Communist Revolution. As you can see, anti-Semitism works backwards: first you hate Jews, then you come up with the reason.
There is of course another form of anti-Semitism making headlines these days, that of Islamic fundamentalism, as witnessed by the recent terrorist attack in Paris at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher, a Parisian kosher grocery store.
Terrorist attacks against Jewish targets are unfortunately all too common. The horrendous Mumbai terror assault in November 2008, with 164 innocents killed and 308 wounded, drew its source from the conflict between India and Pakistan, yet the murderers still managed to find time to find the local Chabad House and slaughter its founding rabbi, Gavriel Hertzberg, his pregnant wife Rivka Holtzberg and four other hostages.
The Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher murders were fueled by Islamic fundamentalism, an ideology which seeks first and foremost the destruction of Israel.
Many otherwise intelligent observers, when they think about the conflict in the Middle East are like the ideologically-blindered feminists who insist sex has nothing to do with sex. Acts of violence against Jews and a stated desire to wipe Israel off the map are somehow not what they seem. Seeking to harm Jews for the simple crime of existing is not anti-Semitism, but is transformed into an expression of a political viewpoint. Murderers are still killing Jews because they are Jews, but not because they are anti-Semitic. The argument is crazy, yet somehow otherwise sane people believe it.
Consider Hamas, whose charter imagines Jews engaged in a conspiracy with Freemasons and Rotary Clubs (Rotary Clubs!) and quite explicitly states “Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims.” This document reads like the ravings of a deranged lunatic, yet amazingly well-intended Westerners choose to simply overlook the vitriol.
What the world just witnessed in Paris is classic anti-Semitism, hatred of Jews whose very existence is an affront. The headlines will fade, but if history is any precursor they unfortunately will likely be replaced by new, fresh tragedies.
None of the above obviates the fact the Palestinians have a legitimate grievance. The Arab world rejected the UN Partition Plan in 1947; otherwise a Palestinian state would be celebrating its independence today. Seven invading Arab armies failed to destroy Israel in 1948. In 1964, when there were no “occupied territories” the Palestinian Liberation Organization came into existence. The land they sought to “liberate”: Tel Aviv and the rest of a country seven miles wide at its narrowest point. Hamas seeks an equal goal.
Palestinians have at various times been the stooges of despotic regimes and tyrants: The Soviet Union, Hafez Assad, Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini. Peace has never been an option under serious consideration.
Imagine the potential ending the conflict if Hamas and other Islamic fundamentalists could somehow renounce their anti-Semitism. They cling to an ideology that contains the ugliest elements of Jew hatred, a hatred so base and vile that Hitler would have approved. Unfortunately, for all of us, Jews, Palestinians, Westerners, the Palestinian leaders have undermined their own people’s interests. Jew-hatred is Jew-hatred. Murder is murder.
Even a Rotary Club member could have told you that.
The sun is shining today in Seattle, a rare event in mid-January, and my mood has brightened as a result. My physic reaction to a physical event serves as an example that we are all animals. There is no duality between mind and body: it’s all mind, as the brain is matter made of cells no less so than the kidneys or the toenails.
Everything that happens in our brains, all of our thoughts, dreams and aspirations, are driven by a body which is relentless in its demands. If you doubt me, try fasting for 24 hours like Jews on Yom Kippur, and see if at the end you have a desire to compose a sonnet or a piano concerto. No, more likely you’ll be focused on where you next meal will be coming from.
We fall in love because it is our biological imperative. We may have ancestors who lacked an interest in romantic adventure, but they failed to pass on their DNA to us. This does not imply that the love we feel is insincere, any less than our enthusiasm for good food is not authentic. It’s the adaptions, in the evolutionary sense of the word, which truly make us human. We seek to form loving relationships that nourish not only our bodies but our souls, because that’s what makes us tick.
My body has just told me to get back into the sunshine, and I intend to follow its command. Not mind over matter, but matter is the mind.
Willie Mays, one of the greatest baseball players in the history of the game, started his career with the New York Giants, who, in 1957 in tandem with the Brooklyn Dodgers move to Los Angeles, relocated to San Francisco, thereby breaking many hearts in the process. Mays did, however, finish his storied career in New York, signing with the Mets at age 41, and playing two desultory seasons, hobbled by age and his performance a mere shadow of his former self. Years later he met a fan who told Willie he had seen him play. “Where’d you see me?” the Hall-of-Famer asked.
“In New York, when you were on the Mets.”
Oh, then you never saw me play,” Mays replied.
I often feel the same way about my Seattle friends. You think you know me, but you’ve never really seen me in my prime. I moved here in my early thirties, prematurely aged by a baby daughter who defied modern medicine by never sleeping. She cried fitfully through the night and then awoke at 4 am, trying to figure out which of her two parents would break first under the psychological pressure. Like Shackleton making his way across the frozen Arctic wasteland, my existence had shrunk to mere survival. And, like the “Say Hey Kid” my physical skills had greatly diminished since my prime.
As a teenager, I was one of a very small number of high school boys with enough gumption to streak, a social phenomenon then very much in vogue.
I’ve always maintained that if I sported the same trim physique as I did back then, I would still be inhibition-free. My abdomen resembled an ironing board, providing a straight drop down from my sternum to the naughty regions. I seized each new day with a sense of adventure. Life was fun and exciting.
Today I am nudgy, cranky and easily irritated. My physical frame has battled Father Time and Newton’s concept of gravity and suffered a resounding defeat along the way. I diligently monitor my fiber intake. No one else in my family takes this responsibility seriously. Would it kill someone to check if we needed a new bottle of prune juice before heading to the grocery store?
No, the folks who know me from Seattle have never seen me play.
A friend of my son’s recently uttered a remark which in one sentence reflected the ultimately comic nature of the human condition.
The young man in question grew up in Seattle and moved to a different city, as young people are wont to do. My wife wants our kids to stay close to home, but forgets that she boarded an airplane to a foreign country the day after her high school graduation. And the man she chose to marry – yours truly – did the same, except I waited a full week before I hit the road, neither one of us bothering to look back over our shoulders at the suddenly abandoned parents we left behind.
My son’s friend is an adventurous fellow (much like I was at the same age), and demonstrated this in relocating to a new town, where he subsequently found two jobs, an apartment and, of interest to this story, a girlfriend.
The friend recently came back to Seattle for a visit, and my son had a chance to catch up with him. “How are things going for you?” my son asked.
“Pretty good,” the friend replied. Except for one odd thing, we went on to mention. Before leaving to visit home, he mentioned to his new girlfriend that hadn’t made any decisions regarding plans for next summer. Specifically, his words were “I don’t know what I want to do during my summer.”
She replied, “Don’t you mean our summer?”
All of the tragi-comic nature of life is expressed in that one short question. The lad, a mere stripling, wants to be carefree, and anticipate his next adventure in life. She wants to build a relationship with the young man she –presumably – is sharing a bed with. Who does he belong to: himself or someone else?I've been married longer than the average life span of a sea tortoise. Take it from me: there is no "mine" in a successful relationship.
You might be surprised to learn that Charles Darwin predicted the success of Kim Kardashian. Okay, maybe I’ve exaggerated for dramatic effect, but not by too much.
About Darwin. Our ability to understand of the development and complexity of life on earth can be dated with precision: the year 1859, when Darwin published On The Origin of Species. Perhaps no idea since has been better understood by specialists, and less understood by the general public than the concept of evolution and the role is has played in the natural history of our planet, right up to the present moment, with the hit TV show Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
Evolution is driven by two powerful forces: the twin “desires” of species to survive and to reproduce. I put the term “desire” in quotation marks because it applies not only to animals with brains, but to organisms which lack central nervous systems and – as best we can tell – consciousness. However even amoeba and bacteria, not to mention more complex organisms such as mayflies, behave in ways which suggest survival is an important goal.
Survival, by itself, however, is no guarantee of evolutionary success, just as possession of a set of pots and pans is no guarantee someone will be a good cook. For those species that reproduce sexually, such as us humans, a life without offspring is an evolutionary dead end. Of course, modern existence as we know it today, with cities, hospitals, airports, cars, telephones and computers came about only after the development of agriculture, some five thousand years ago. In evolutionary terms, this is the merest blink of an eye. We may live twenty-first century lives, but our brains and bodies reflect the history of our species as small bands of hunter gatherers hundreds of thousands of years ago on the African savannah. And, of course, these bodies of ours contain big brains capable of complex and sophisticated thought, which means we consciously choose to engage in all kinds of activities which would have been maladaptive 100,000 years ago, such as remaining childless by choice, or, in my case, adopting two kids and in no way regarding them as anything less than 100 percent my own. Biology is powerful, but it is not always destiny.
Sex doesn’t explain everything in life, but it does explain a lot. Our bodies reflect marked sexual differences, a fact I discovered upon my first visit to a nudist beach. So does our behavior. Interest in courtship and relations between the sexes - or for gays, among their own gender - occupies a substantial amount of daily life, not to mention quite a few powerful dreams.
The idea that people are artificially sexualized because of culture reverses cause and effect. Popular culture – book, songs, magazines, advertising, movies, television shows and so on – is developed by humans for humans. Even sports, among men considered the manliest of pursuits, is a celebration of the body and its potential. Great athletes like Tiger Woods have access to a lot of willing women, and I suspect it’s not because the know how to fill out a tax return or change the spark plugs on a car. A song about two people falling in love is more likely to be a hit than one about a man storing up a masive supply of canned baked beans in his fallout shelter.
Kim Kardashian is a textbook example of how evolutionary forces shaped humanity, both physically and behaviorally. Her body contains the type of differentiated secondary sexual characteristics Darwin would have greatly appreciated, with its ample posterior and bosom. Her daily life, at least as captured by the show (so I’m told) is filled with seeming minutiae. However, amid the triviality is the very stuff of life: men and women, relationships, courtship and beauty, sex and reproduction. Being successful at finding a mate and reproducing separated the winners from the losers among the primates who we are the lucky descendants of. Ignore the importance of the language of love at your own peril.
Critics constantly complain about the poor quality of the US education system. Let’s introduce Ms. Kardashian into the science textbooks, and see if test scores improve. The difference in beak shapes among the finches of the Galapagos may have inspired Darwin, but a discussion of Ms. Kardashian’s love life and personal affairs will prove more captivating to school kids.
The rest of you can thank me for this suggestion.
One of the most significant challenges in any religion is determining how much latitude an adherent to the faith has regarding individual choice. In other words, do you have to accept every single precept as unquestionably true, or are you allowed to use you own free will and intelligence to determine right from wrong? Among members of the Church of Rome there is a derogatory term, “cafeteria Catholics”, for those who follow only the practices they deem worthy. Many present-day Catholics have read the Bible, listened to the arguments, and, to pick one example, not been convinced modern methods of birth control should be forbidden. The counterpoint is, apparently, believe what you are taught by the leaders in charge, regardless of your own opinion on the matter.
Another way to think about this dichotomy is to consider whether truths are immutable across time forever or whether they evolve as human wisdom does. For example, the Roman Catholic Church believes in the concept of “papal infallibility”, meaning that the Pope cannot be wrong on matters of faith and theology. So while if you asked the Pope who holds the Major League Baseball record for RBI’s in a single season - Hack Wilson for the Chicago Cubs with a remarkable 191 in 1930 – if he guessed Lou Gehrig or Babe Ruth, the history books would not have to be rewritten, a la George Orwell’s 1984. On matters of religion, however, the Pope’s answer is not only final but true beyond doubt. Unless, that is, you don’t believe in this notion in the first place.
For example, the Catholic Church burned witches and heretics at the stake during the Middle Ages. Did God require such actions half a millennium ago and then subsequently change his mind? And when did he send the memo letting us know about the new policy?
Of course, I don’t mean to imply Catholics are the only religious group facing this dilemma. The Mormon Church excluded blacks from the priesthood until 1978, when they received a “revelation” that God had changed his mind. Interesting how the Good Lord waited until after the Civil Rights movement in the US and the expansion of the Mormon Church to African nations. The alternative would have been a Mormon community in Africa where the locals would be allowed to sit in the pews but not lead from the pulpit.
Lately, all religions have struggled with what to do about the fact that humanity, which the Bible tells us God created in his own image, currently includes somewhere around half a billion gays. Clearly, this can’t be an accident, plus he’s God, of if he didn’t want the world teeming with sexual diversity, then what was he thinking in the first place?
Condemning gays, like burning witches, used to seem like a good idea to religious leaders, including my own community, Jews. Then, gradually, the world changed. Mainstream preaching from a generation ago now sounds like hate speech. Even the Pope Francis appears to be nudging the Catholic Church in a new direction, saying in 2014, “"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
Which forces one to wonder about this new Pope: is he a cafeteria Catholic?
Advice on parenting is overrated. Take it from me: it’s all about the food.
I am writing this post in Vancouver, WA (aka “the other Vancouver”), where my youngest son is attending the Monsters of Hip Hop dance convention. The schedule over the weekend is akin to military basic training, with nearly every minute of each day jam-packed with dance instruction, punctuated by short breaks, including one for lunch. Throw a couple of hundred teens into a hotel ballroom, pump up the music and aerate the chamber with the aroma from a mass agglomeration of adolescent sweat, and you have the general idea. The concept must have been devised as a mechanism to tamp down their libidos, as the kids are reduced to disheveled messes, and so exhausted they can barely move (or so I pray, given all the hotel rooms a short elevator ride away). Idle hands are the devil’s plaything and all that.
The job of the parental unit while their son or daughter is expending calories to the music of Nicki Minaj and her ilk and simultaneously kneecapping the household budget is to keep the calories and lubrication flowing. Napoleon said an army marches on its stomach, and so does an army of youthful athletes. Last night’s intake involved a 12-inch Subway sandwich and a Jamba Juice. I purchased breakfast this morning at Starbucks, because the free meal at our hotel’s morning buffet was deemed “gross” by my discriminating child. Oh to be young and filled with preferences that others will satisfy at your merest whim, regardless of effort or expense!
After a vigorous shvitz of my own on the treadmill at the hotel gym (during my workouts I perspire so much I create my own ecosystem), it was off to Panera Bread for lunch. The ultimate indignity: he is going out with friends for dinner, and simply needed a cash infusion to fund the evening’s festivities. His mother and I can go to the Olive Garden for all he cares.
Tomorrow will most likely be a repeat of today, with strategizing over where to procure the required fuel. Jesus displayed wisdom when he advised praying merely for one’s daily bread. Unfortunately, we belong to a different Abrahamic faith tradition, and a generic request to Heaven for bread will need some degree of specificity. Does that mean ciabatta, or a bagel, or a bialy, or a croissant, or honey whole wheat, or a Kaiser roll, or wrap, or an English muffin, or sour dough, or what exactly?
In any event, I know exactly what I will be asking His Highness tomorrow morning: May I take your order?
Here is a list of some of my most important New Year's resolutions over the course of my life:
Age Four: Pee without pulling my pants all the way down to my ankles.
Age Six: Take the training wheels off and learn to ride a bicycle.
Age 15: Lose my virginity.
Age 16: Lose my virginity.
Age 17: Lose my virginity.
Age 18: Travel the world.
Age 25: Get a real job.
Age 30: Have kids.
Age 35: Blessed with two small children, get a good night’s sleep at least once.
Age 40: Lose weight.
Age 45: Lose weight.
Age 50: Avoid going broke.
Age 55: Lose weight and avoid going broke.
My current New Year’s resolution for 2015 is become a grandpa. I think I’m finally old enough to handle the responsibility.
Best wishes for a healthy, happy and prosperous new year to my loyal readers, all dozen of you.