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?
A long-running battle between parents and children since the dawn of civilization is clothing. For most of recorded human history, what is appropriate to wear has been a source of inter-generational tension (the dress code of the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle, where my kids went, forbids clothing that exposes a “bare midriff”; were I to bare my midriff, an unsightly expanse of flab covered with swirling hair, panic in the streets might ensue). Parents object to their kids making fashion choices as a result of “peer pressure” as if this were somehow a bad thing. To understand this better, imagine a world in which kids were in charge of their parents, and consider the following hypothetical situation.
Kid: (Holding up a pair of denim bib overalls) I bought this for you to wear to work.
Parent: Are you out of your mind?
Kid: What do you mean? What’s wrong with them? They’re comfortable. They don’t cost a lot, so it fits our budget. And they are easy to launder.
Parent: What’s wrong with them? Is this your idea of a sick joke? I work at a corporate law firm. If I come to the office wearing overalls, people will think I’ve either had a nervous breakdown or am a complete buffoon. Or maybe both.
Kid: So what you are saying is that you just want to wear what the “cool lawyers” (kid waves his fingers in simulated quotation marks) are wearing? You think the point of clothing is to impress other people?
Parent: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. If I’m going to be a successful lawyer working downtown and meeting with clients, I can’t dress like a hayseed.
Kid: Do you have any idea how much the clothes you want to wear actually cost?
Parent: Yes, of course. We’re business casual, so I wouldn’t have to wear a suit, but still a dress shirt, a good pair of slacks and decent looking shoes would probably cost about $300. And I’d need more than one outfit. So the total wardrobe would run about $2000, give or take.
Kid: And you’d spend $2000 on clothing when a pair of sturdy overalls only costs thirty bucks? All because of stupid peer pressure? When are you going to grow up and learn to become an independent person? Is that all you are learning at the office? What about becoming a better lawyer by studying harder? No, you’d rather just throw away money on new clothes, even though you know our family is on a budget. That’s it buster – no golf for you this weekend. You’re grounded!
So, when you find yourself arguing with your kid about clothing, what you are really saying is, “In order for you to make your way in the world, you are going to have to learn how to get along with other people. The clothing you wear is just one small choice among many, but first impressions matter. I’m going to try to undermine your happiness and do what I can to make sure that you don’t have friends at school and are regarded as an oddball by making you wear clothes that help advance that goal.”
Is that really the message you want to send your kids? I didn’t think so. By middle school, if they can’t dress themselves, you are failing as a parent.
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.
Here, in no particular order, is my list of the ten most memorable events of 2014:
1. Hamas launched a war of aggression against Israel, firing thousands of bombs on populated areas, with the specific goal of killing innocent civilians. Israel, a sovereign nation, successfully defended itself, taking great pains to avoid civilian casualties among Palestinians, and is thereby condemned for committing war crimes. Once again, when it comes to the Middle East, the rest of the world channels the spirit of the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland, where words whatever she wants them to. Terrorists who explicitly want to kill ordinary citizens are the victims, and the victims of their aggression are considered guilty for engaging in self-defense.
2. Oil prices plunge on world markets, putting liberals into a logical conundrum. Despite predictions for decades by supposed “experts” that we are running out of carbon energy sources, the world is in fact awash in an oil. This glut has created immense benefit for consumers and made governments subsidies for alternative energy increasingly expensive. Al Gore in 2016?
3. The rise of Obama. The collapse in oil prices is creating great pain for America’s antagonists, specifically Iran, Russia and Venezuela. Not only is cheap gas at the pump good for Billy and Betty Six-Pack and the US economy, it’s bad for enemies of democracy, another bitter pill for liberals to swallow.
4. The owner of the Los Angeles Clippers was caught on a recording saying he’s not overly fond of black people, and now he is the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.
5. Two young black men were killed by police and subsequently cleared by grand juries: Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner with his haunting “I can’t breathe” legacy in New York. This reminded us all of our good feelings about one white billionaire owning the Los Angeles Clippers being replaced by a different white billionaire are not necessarily a sign of anything worth celebrating.
6. A variety of different sporting events were won by a variety of different teams and individuals. Roger Federer either won a major tennis tournament or came awfully close, and Tiger Woods' star powered continued to diminish. Plus, a baseball team, not sure which one specifically, captured the World Series, which includes no other world countries (Canada doesn't count). College coaches still get paid millions of dollars, the players bupkes, which supposedly helps them develop character.
7. Miley Cyrus has taken the lead on a “free the nipple” campaign. No word as to whether she will pursue a similar moral high ground on behalf of pubic hair.
8. Instead of broiling in Chicago this summer for my youngest son’s dance activities, I roasted in Las Vegas, which closely resembles the antechamber of Hell in mid-summer.
9. Cuba! Although critics of ending the embargo argue we’ve tried the policy for only fifty years. We should give it another fifty to really see if it works.
10. Uber. The last thirty years of technology have upended one industry after another. Taxis are the latest to topple over.
That’s it. Best wishes for a healthy, prosperous 2015!
Go ahead, laugh. That’s right, laugh at all those people in the past who believed in crazy ideas our modern society has long since discarded. You know what I’m talking about. Notions such as the world is flat, the Biblical flood wiped out the dinosaurs, or homosexuals should hide their sexual identity unless they want wholesome, peaceful, virtuous, moral people who believe in a loving God to beat the crap out of them.
I’ve got another hoary maxim to throw into the dustbin of history (pop quiz: who came up with that phrase? Yep, you guessed correctly, Trotsky. Which fact is going to cause me to go into a longer parenthetical than I intended. Early in my career I worked for a hot technology company. One day at work I made a reference to Trotsky. I can no longer recall the context, and a colleague of mine, who was in charge of an entire department, didn’t know who he was. You, dear reader, certainly are aware Leon Trotsky, the Marxist revolutionary who helped overthrow the Czar in the October Revolution of 1917, subsequently had a falling out with Stalin, and was ultimately murdered while in exile in Mexico. But you knew all that. Anyway, my wife, who is a highly educated European, blew a gasket after I came home from work and casually mentioned over a dinner of pot roast and gravy a person responsible for managing a multi-million dollar budget had no knowledge of one of the key figures of 20th century history).
Let’s get back to the dustbin. Throw in there the innocent belief cutting edge technology would cure our economic ills forever, eliminate the business cycle and usher in an endless era of prosperity. Well, the technology has arrived more or less as promised – witness JDate, Grindr and Tinder - but a whole bunch of regular folks are running scared, financially speaking. How did this happen? Why haven’t the stunning advances of future, which we stand on the precipice of, made us feel more secure? Or, as many people are asking, “Dude, where’s my job?”
In the early 1980s, while a student at Rutgers, I dipped my toe into a controversy which at the time embroiled the campus. The Unification Church founded by Reverend Sun Myung Moon, aka “the Moonies”, sought to have a chaplain provided by the school. Their argument could not have been more simple: Christians and Jews had chaplains provided at taxpayer and student fee expense to serve the campus community, so why shouldn’t the Unification Church enjoy the same right.
The commentary back and forth in our student newspaper, The Daily Targum, was predictable. Opponents argued Moonies were poor brainwashed souls, and anyone interested in religion should try to talk them out of their insanity, not encourage it.
I wrote a letter in support of the Moonies, and received a private reply from a fellow student. He expressed concern over my mental health, and encouraged me to come to my senses. He reflexively assumed I was fellow Moonie myself. The thought that perhaps I simply believed in freedom of religion and separation of church and state – Rutgers is a taxpayer funded university – appeared to have never occurred to him. I am Jewish, and I find much of religion, including the ancient practices of my own spiritual forefathers, to be a mishmash of a primitive thinking and institutionalized oppression. The Jews of the Bible were polygamous, homophobic slave-owners who engaged in tribal warfare and believed Jonah lived for several days in the belly of a fish. But they also believed the world was fashioned by a Creator who prefers good over evil, and that theme is what defines modern Judaism today.
I sense a similar perceptual blind spot to my long-age Rutgers critic in the rear-guard argument against the gradual legalization and social acceptance of pot. “Don’t you realize how harmful marijuana abuse is?”, so many opponents of legalization, such as former drug czar William Bennett continually ask. I find myself occasionally contributing to the comments section of the Wall Street Journal, usually against my better judgment. Articles on certain topics – gay marriage, immigration reform, and legalization of pot – inevitably draw hundreds of responses, some of which are shocking in their ignorance and racism.
I threw my two cents in yesterday in a pot-related article regarding Nebraska and Oklahoma suing Colorado over its marijuana legalization. Their argument of the plaintiffs is that citizens of their states are smuggling pot purchased in Colorado, and since the evil weed remains illegal under Federal law, this is a violation of the rules regulating interstate commerce. Amid the voluminous comments was one from a doctor, with the tired point that people in favor of legalization of pot don’t understand its health risks and are encouraging its consumption. He added this liberal viewpoint was ironic, since lefties oppose tobacco but are promoting a different dangerous plant.
The good doctor’s blind spot, identical to that of Mr. Bennett and similar to the Rutgers incident over thirty years ago, was his inability to realize people could be in favor of marijuana legalization and simultaneously fully aware of its risks. I voted for pot legalization when it was on the ballot in Washington in 2012 for the following reasons:
· 90% of pot smokers consume in moderation; the health risks for them are negligible.
· For the 10% who smoke excessively, their problem is better treated by medical professionals than the criminal justice system.
· Pot prohibition has been unevenly enforced and racist in its implementation. Blacks use pot at the same rate as whites, but are arrested ten times more frequently. College kids at private schools, predominately white and middle class or wealthy, toke up without any concern law enforcement is going to harsh their mellow. African-Americans in poor neighborhoods, on the other hand, have borne the brunt of the “War on Drugs”.
· Pot is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. We should have consistency in our laws.
· Criminal records, even for arrests, follow people for a lifetime. The destructive impact of pot prohibition is many times more harmful than the health risks.
· Taxpayer funds are always in short supply. The many billions spent pointlessly locking up black people along with a few poor whites for smoking pot are better spent elsewhere.
Finally, we live in a free democracy, and the United States Constitution itself declares that its purpose is to uphold life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If happiness for my neighbor is a pot-infused cupcake, well that’s what we fought the Revolutionary War for. The good Reverend Moon could tell you that
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 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 best glossed 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 that wasn’t bad enough, Joseph told his brothers about two dreams he had, one in which everyone 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, the brothers ganged up on Joseph, threw him into a pit, and sold him into slavery to a passing band of traders. They took Joseph’s coat, a source of extreme irritation to them, covered it 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 cattle, fat-fleshed and well-favored; and they fed in the reedgrass. And, behold, seven other cattle came up after them, poor and very ill-favored and lean-fleshed, such as I never saw in all the land of Egypt for badness. And the lean and ill-favored 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 great 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 the famine shall consume the land.
In other words, the business cycle: good years followed by 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 Pets.com like nobody’s business during the dotcom meltdown. Don't believe me? It says so, right in the Bible, so there.
Well, I once again survived Christmas. Unfortunately, this year’s observance of the Christian festival did not include the obligatory visit to a Chinese restaurant, at least not by me and Missus Harris. We spent the holiday alone, which perhaps not coincidentally is how we began life as a married couple, sans offspring. My two sons were in Boca Raton visiting their grandparents, and my daughter is already married (how’d all those years fly by so fast?).
Boca happens to be thick with Jews, many of whom are transplants from New York. These wandering Israelites brought with them their general pushiness – honed from years of fighting for one square foot of personal space on crowded streets and subways - aggressive driving habits – a yellow light means speed up before the signal changes to red, the exact opposite of what traffic planners intended - and food preferences - lots of bagel shops, delis and Chinese restaurants. One is left to wonder, did the Chinese independently follow their own migration southward, or were they drawn in a symbiotic relationship by their Jewish customers?
I spent this year’s Yuletide at a once-prosperous fishing town in Oregon, Astoria, on a peninsula of land where the mighty Pacific Ocean meets the mouth of the equally mighty Columbia River. Our charming boutique lodging, jutting right out on a pier over the water was retrofitted into a former cannery and named, logically enough, The Cannery Pier Hotel. Astoria, like most natural-resource dependent burgs in the Pacific Northwest fell on hard times in the transition over the past half-century to an information-driven economy. However, thanks to its spectacular natural beauty and relative proximity to Portland and Seattle, the city has slowly begun to recover, albeit in a gentrifying fashion. Upscale restaurants and trendy shops catering to tourists have begun to spring up in the tidy, compact downtown, where the newest buildings appear to date from the Eisenhower administration, and those a block or two from the main drag have fallen into disrepair. Fishing protein from the sea as a collective community enterprise is slowly being replaced by fishing credit cards out of hipster wallets in return for locally sourced, creatively inspired meals accompanied by appropriately paired craft beers.
We had dinner on Christmas in such a restaurant, The Astoria Coffee House & Bistro. Our meals were outstanding – I had a Portobello sandwich Santa himself would have enjoyed - but they weren’t Chinese. My wife thought the local Chinese restaurant near our hotel seemed to be still stuck in the 1950s in terms of décor, ambiance and possibly even soy sauce supplies. As she’s gotten older, her digestion has become more delicate, and so she was understandably reluctant to risk her health simply to uphold an ancient Jewish tradition, even one passed down from Moses at Mt. Sinai. Our kids, of course, went to the local kosher Chinese restaurant with their grandparents. Oh well, they say sometimes traditions skip a generation.
My next challenge: staying up until midnight on New Year’s eve.
I can’t believe I found myself in a mall on Black Friday, again on December 21st, 22nd and today, the 23rd (Christmas Eve eve, if you will). Me! A person who hates malls, hates shopping and hates crowds. Note that I love humanity, but preferably not too many of them at the same time.
I lost half a day of my life at Verizon over multiple visits, hence my several trips to the commerce emporium I dread setting foot into. The Verizon store had piped-in music, presumably to distract the customers from their long waits. Adding to the din, a young woman serving as greeter at the front had turned on a speaker connected to a tablet pumping out different music. She had apparently set the volume on “stun”, and the combination of two alternate tracks playing, one of sufficient volume to sterilize frogs from ten paces away, must have been a secret scheme on her part to discourage shoppers from entering the premises , and hence lighten her workload. An older woman – prematurely aged, perhaps, by the interminable wait – asked the friendly young greeter to turn down the sound. “Oh, you remind me of my best friend’s mom,” she chirpily replied, as not wanting to deafen oneself was a typical buzz kill attitude which separated oldster from those secure in their hipness. “Sure, I’ll lower it,” she replied, “even though it’s more fun when it’s loud.”
I had half a mind to say, “listen, Missy, I had a set of experiences as a teenage globe-trotting, adventure seeking, nude beach frequenting, seldom bathing, backpacking adventurer that would blow your rheostats if I told you about them. Which I can’t because the music is too loud.”
Instead, I patiently waited my turn. Finally, it came, and a bored young man did nothing to hide his sense of tedium when I explained the many deficiencies of my new not-so-smartphone. And somewhere, just around the corner, almost out of earshot, you could hear the strains of some Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. Or maybe it was coming from my imagination, like those memories of when I was young and I regarded those a generation older as decidedly unhip. Now I am they. The Bible says the sins of the fathers shall be inflicted upon their descendants, but in real life it’s the opposite: the sins of our youth are inflicted upon our older selves. Iggy Azalea, with the volume set on eleven, anyone?