When Help Doesn’t Help

It is sorely disappointing when you’ve tried to help a person again and again, only to be met with ingratitude in return. This is particularly so when it is evident that your efforts appear to have done nothing to improve his life.

Of course, when you start down the road of helping a needy individual, it is difficult to know when to stop. At what point does largesse cease being charitable and begin being enabling?

We had it out with Homeless Guy #1 the other day. I don’t regret that it happened; we said some things that have needed to be said for some time.

If you’ve followed A Map of California for a while now, you know that we’ve extended ourselves for this gentleman time and time again. We have fed him, provided him with new shoes, given him bus fare, purchased items he needed for his outdoor mode of living, given him extra pillows and blankets, counselled him, visited him in jail, allowed him to wash and dry his clothes in our laundry room and allowed him to use the church rest room so that caring for his bodily needs would not result in arrest on charges of indecent exposure.

This guy is a user in every sense of the word. He uses both drugs and people. His mental deficiencies, lack of social skills, substance abuse and anger management problems have left him unemployable, unhoused and in frequent trouble with the law. Recently, he served three months in the county jail on a string of felony charges, led by allegations of forcible rape. When the district attorney ran into difficulties with securing the testimony of their star witness (who now resides out of state), good old #1 was released on parole, his whereabouts monitored by an ankle bracelet. It is unlikely that he would have been paroled had he admitted to being homeless. Instead, he gave his mother’s address, leaving out the part about sleeping in a corner of the yard because his violence and vulgarity long ago got him banned from the house.

Homeless Guy #1’s lack of candor with law enforcement is now coming back to bite him. His problem is that he has no money to pay the ankle bracelet monitoring fees. So a few days ago, he visited the parsonage to demand money. When we refused due to our own financial difficulties, he began raising his voice and issuing a diatribe full of invective against the church in general and against us in particular.

Our friend is a master of excuses. Each time he asks for the key to the church rest room, we remind him to lock it when done. He has stopped complying with this simple request. He insists that he is unable to lock the door, although doing so is never a problem for anyone else. Leaving the rest room unlocked is convenient, as it allows him to sneak back in whenever he wants to spend some time indoors. The safety and insurance issues alone are daunting.

Pastor Mom finally told #1 that he is no longer welcome to use the church rest room. I was so glad to hear this. He should expect nothing less after carrying on about how we’ve made nothing but problems for him all along and how the church has never done anything to help him.

Maybe it makes me a bad person, but I hope I never see the guy again. The problem is that I know I will. That is, until the sheriffs finally come around and haul him off to state prison.

In the meantime, I remain disappointed and saddened that our efforts have been met with such blatant ingratitude. It brings out my cynical nature and makes me wonder whether some people just cannot be helped.

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On If and Whether

Among the many quirks of the English language is the use of the conjunctions if and whether to make conditional statements.  While this is probably beyond boring to most of you, it holds a certain appeal to my nerdy proclivities.

My trusty dictionary tells me that if hails from the Old High German ibu and the Old and Middle English words yif and gif.  Whether came down through the Old English and Middle English hwether.  I find it interesting that these words have inched towards each other like tentative lovers over the centuries, until today they are often used interchangeably.

If is one of the shortest English words ending in f, sharing that honor with the preposition of and the letter ef itself.  While not onomatopoeic (it doesn’t sound like a thing that it describes), the vowel followed by f gives if a visceral sound akin to the interjection oof!  Humorously, whether is a homophone of the climate-related word weather, happenstance that has been celebrated in numerous corny pop songs over the decades.

I am delighted when I hear someone draw out the vowel sound in if to emphasize the conditional nature of what follows.  This may be accompanied by “open” body language that may include an up and down movement of the hands to indicate that this truly could go either way.  Indeed, the alternate raising and lowering of the hands (palms open, thumbs and forefingers forming the letter F), is how if is expressed in American Sign Language.

I am frequently called upon to prepare flow charts at work, a context in which the word if is important.  Computer scientists sometimes call conditional statements “if/then” statements.  If A, then B.  Should the condition A be found to exist, we know to go straight to B.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can’t eventually reach B by other means.  But the if provides a way of creating a branch in the logic.  At the precise moment at which we reach the fork in the road, the condition is either A or “not A.”  This lets us know which fork to choose.

It’s also rather cool that, over time, we’ve managed to turn the conjunction if into an adjective.  If a situation is particularly tenuous, teetering right on the fence if you will, we say that it is iffy.  It is a way of saying “this is by no means certain” and frequently carries the connotation that the condition in question is far more likely to fail than to succeed.  (As for the poets among us, the word provides a convenient rhyme for jiffy, spiffy or, for our Irish friends, the River Liffey.)

I often compare interesting English words to their equivalents in French, the only other language in which I have any degree of fluency.  The conditional word (“if” or “whether”) in French is si (and often expressed in the contraction s’il).  S’il ne pleut pas aujourd’hui, je marcherai à mon bureau. (If it doesn’t rain today, I’ll walk to the office.)  French also has the idiom si on allait, which has the literal meaning of “if one were to go” but is actually the equivalent of the English suggestion “let’s.”  Back in junior high, I remember repeating the sentence Si on allait faire du ski! (“Let’s go skiing!”)  Ugh, let’s not.  (I remember the following paragraph contained the phrase je me suis cassé la jambe… “I broke my leg.”)

Although I have a very limited command of Spanish (like French, a Romance language — the two have many words and linguistic constructs in common), I am told that si is also used for conditional statements (not to be confused with ¡Sí!… “yes!”).  There is a lot of Spanish spoken here in California, and I’ve heard the phrase es o si (“This one or that one?”), sometimes followed by a rather forceful ¿Qué es? (“Well, which one is it?”).

This Spanish example is a great illustration of how the word if has evolved in English over the years.  If is no longer used exclusively to indicate a possible condition that may or may not exist now/occur in the future; it is often used nearly synonymously with whether or which to indicate a choice between two things.

The linguistic purists among us may still identify a distinct difference between if and whether.  In fact, however, the distinction has become so blurred as to have virtually faded out.  Your friend may say “Let me know if you’re going to the party.”  Arguably, she means “let me know whether you’re going to the party.”  In colloquial English, the two statements have been rendered indistinguishable.

Those purists whom I mentioned may insist that “let me know if you’re going to the party” means that your friend is asking you to call her should you decide to attend the festivities; no action needed should you decide to stay home.  What your friend really means, however, is that she would like you to be forthcoming with information either way, to provide her with a definite answer, “yes, I am going” or “no, I am staying home.”  Probably.  As always, context is king.  “Course of dealing” is paramount; based on your many previous conversations with your friend, you know what she means (although I, stranger to the situation, may not).

Another interesting thing about the word whether is that it is often, implicitly or explicitly, part of the phrase “whether or not.”  One may say “let me know whether or not you’re going” or simply “let me know whether you’re going.”  In the latter case, is the “or not” implied?  Or, in the former case, is the “or not” mere surplusage that adds nothing by its presence?  My next example may make you think twice about this.

The words if and whether are definitely not interchangeable when used to lead off a dependent clause (often at the start of a sentence).  Your mother may say “If you go to the store, please pick up a gallon of milk for me.”  You know she’s not going to say “Whether you go to the store, please pick up a gallon of milk for me.”  That would certainly grate upon the ear and may ultimately cause one to imply the “or not” following “whether,” thereby completely changing the speaker’s intent and the meaning of the sentence.  (Go to the store or don’t, see if I care!  But pick up a gallon of milk for me, whatever you do.)

If you’ve enjoyed this discussion at all, please say so in the comments so that I will know whether to go off on further linguistic tangents in future posts.  Thank you.

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A Prayer of Thanks

What is your family’s Thanksgiving tradition for giving thanks at the table?  Do the assembled family and friends bow their heads while one person says a prayer?  Do you have everyone hold hands in an unbroken chain while grace is said?  Do you go around the table and have everyone describe what he or she is thankful for this year?  Or do you dispense with the formalities and just dig in as soon as the turkey is carved?

As a moderately observant Jew, I come from a tradition where there is a blessing for everything.  Although the Hebrew prayers over different types of food were ingrained in me as a child, I did not begin saying an English language prayer over meals until after I got married and my wife started to encourage this.  I was delighted, but this meant that I had to come up with some brief, appropriate words to use for the occasion.

The blessing that I now use before we eat is pretty much the same on Thanksgiving as it is on any other day.  The only difference for a special occasion is that I might add a reference to my appreciation of particular individuals among us, particularly if we have been blessed by the presence of one or more honored guests.

My basic prayer goes something like this:  “Thank you, Lord, for the food we are about to receive and for the many gifts you have bestowed upon us.  Thank you for the blessings of our home, our health and our family.  Thank you for all your help at my job.  And thank you for all the work you do in our lives every day.  Amen.”

Admittedly, it’s a fairly plain vanilla prayer.  But I think it covers the important things.  Of course, if a particular family issue happens to be going on at the moment, I feel free to add a divine request for the complete recovery of a sick person (I still get an incredible kick when my wife refers to this by its Hebrew name, refu’ah shlemah), the safety of one who is away on a trip or the success of someone at school or work.

Among my favorite things about this prayer is the “innocuous factor.”  Over the many years that I have been saying this blessing (including in public), I have never heard anyone object to it on religious grounds.  I believe it reflects the gratitude that we all feel, regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof.  Who isn’t grateful for having a roof over his or her head, food in his or her stomach, a loving family and meaningful work?  As one who recently suffered through a year of unemployment, this last one hits close to home for me.  “Establish the work of our hands for us — yes, establish the work of our hands.”  Ps. 90:17 (NIV)

I suppose an atheist might object to this blessing, but then any type of prayer at all might be offensive to one who prefers that I do not address the Lord.  There’s not much I can do about that.

True, some Christians might object that I make no reference to Jesus, but everyone is of course free to add the flavor of their religious preferences at the end.  All I ask is that those assembled remain respectfully silent for the 30 seconds or so that it takes me to pray over our food.  I have never experienced anyone doing otherwise.  Some dirty looks from fellow diners in restaurants, yes.  The occasional flummoxed server who brings over the iced tea at just the moment that I am praying and doesn’t quite know how to behave, sure.  There will always be those who will roll their eyes at the holy roller over there.  And there will always be those who believe that praying over the food is a quaint relic of the past that has little relevance today.

Thankfully, many of us realize that, in these difficult times, prayer arguably has more relevance than ever.  And fortunately, gratitude is a universal language that all of us can understand.

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A Slip of the Lip

Well, I finally did it.  At work, I confessed to being a vegan.  No time better than the day before Thanksgiving for that, right?

I hadn’t planned on it.  Like so many impromptu disasters, it “just happened.”  I guess I was in a holiday mood when I mosied up to the workstation of one of our secretaries and began a conversation about something totally unrelated to food and diet.  We actually discussed a few different things before she asked me whether I will be cooking the turkey this Thanksgiving.

In retrospect, I should have just laughed and said “Oh, no, I don’t cook.”  I could even have pulled out one of my fabled stories about being able to cook anything, badly, in the microwave.  But no, I had to open my big mouth and say “Oh, I don’t eat meat.”

“You’re a vegetarian?” she asked me, incredulous.  In this day and age, I should think that admitting to be a vegetarian would be somewhat less than shocking and perhaps even just plain boring.

“Even worse than that,” I added.  “I’m a vegan.”

“A vegan?” she responded, “What’s that?

I explained that I don’t eat meat, dairy or any animal products.

“You don’t?!  What do you eat?  Grass?”

Oh, great, here we go again.  I’ve ridden in this rodeo many times before, and it’s never pretty.  As I often do, I responded to this idiocy with some self-deprecating humor.  “Just take a look at me and you can tell that I find plenty to eat.”

I am kicking myself now for not being sufficiently quick-witted to have asked whether she’s ever seen a skinny cow.

After that came other Thanksgiving related questions, including whether I eat mashed potatoes or marshmallows.  I explained about the dairy in mashed potatoes (skipping the part about how great they are prepared with almond milk).

“What’s in marshmallows?” she asked.  “I just bought some little ones to put in my hot chocolate.”

I told her that marshmallows are mostly sugar, held together with gelatin.  That’s when I threw every bit of caution to the winds and explained that gelatin is most commonly made from horses’ hooves.

The poor woman frowned.  “I’m eating horses’ hooves?”  She seemed saddened.  “You mean Jello is made of horses’ hooves, too?”  I assured her that it is possible to purchase gelatin desserts and even marshmallows that are made from vegetable sources, effectively eliminating the giddyap factor.  “They’re usually kind of expensive and I’m not really interested, so I just don’t bother,” I added.

“What about cakes, cookies, candy and chips?”  I could see she was getting alarmed now.  I looked around to see whether anyone else was listening.  I didn’t see anyone in our immediate vicinity, but I’d bet a nickel that ears were perked in numerous nearby cubicles.  “Plain chips are often meat- and dairy-free,” I told the bewildered secretary.  “I don’t eat cakes and cookies.  Fortunately for me, there is some very good non-dairy dark chocolate out there.”

“You don’t eat cakes and cookies!” she cried.  The woman could barely believe what she was hearing, particularly since I am, well, obese.  “I guess you can’t have one of these then,” she remarked, bringing out a little Baggie containing two chocolate macadamia nut cookies.  “This is all I have today because I forgot my lunch at home.  Left my eggs right on the kitchen table.”

“Are those cookies made with butter?” I asked.

“No,” she told me, “but you can’t have flour, right?”

I assured her that I do eat flour.  “Is there an egg in that?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, it does have eggs,” she admitted.

I nearly blurted out something about refined sugars and the dangers of diabetes, but I managed to stop myself just in time.

The poor woman was shaking her head.  Fortunately, we were each put out of our respective miseries at this point by the receipt of a phone call over her wireless headset.  I took the opportunity to make my escape.

I now have four consecutive days off work for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Hopefully, that will be enough time for my department secretary (and all the unseen eavesdroppers) to forget that this little conversation ever happened.

Yeah, right.

Monday should be interesting.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my faithful readers.  I am extremely thankful that you keep coming back to read the drivel that I regularly dispense in this space.  May you enjoy a lovely holiday filled with family, food, love and laughs.

Recommended:  Don’t Fear the Vegan at Your Thanksgiving Table

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Ferguson, America Stands with You

Last night, I sat in the living room with my wife, my mother-in-law and my nephew.  Secure in the bosom of my family, we turned on the television and watched the reaction of Ferguson, Missouri following a grand jury’s refusal to indict the police officer responsible for the death of Mike Brown.  We watched President Obama’s brief remarks, after which my wife commented that our commander in chief didn’t seem very pleased with the events of the day.

She was clearly correct.  Not only was the president fearful of the violence likely to erupt in the wake of the grand jury decision, but one could read in his face disappointment over the outcome.

I believe that President Obama got a lot of things right last night.  He was right to appeal for calm in a volatile situation.  He was right to suggest that peaceful protest, not violence, is a reasonable response to public dissatisfaction.  And he was right to state that America was built upon the foundation of the rule of law.  Like so many things, the rule of law is a lot more appealing when it yields the results we’d like to see than when it does not.  But the rule of law is part of who we are, and it belongs to us, for better or for worse.  In tough times, we need to embrace the rule of law, not cast it aside in a fit of pique.

The grand jury agreed with Officer Darren Wilson’s assertions that his actions were in compliance with his training and with the law.  If his claims are factual, then we have our work cut for us:  We need to change police training and we need to change the law.  Those are two things that cannot be accomplished by means of violence.  They can only be accomplished by exercising our constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances.

The pink elephant in the room is, of course, race.  And as the president pointed out, this is a factor that cannot be ignored.  There are those who aver that Brown would not have been killed had he been white instead of black.  No one can say with certainty whether this is the case, but it is undeniable that the argument resonates with many.

Obama was correct in pointing out that the racial tensions of today were born of the racial discrimination of our recent past.  The president mentioned that he has personal experience with this, and I don’t doubt him a bit.  Every person with black skin in this country has encountered discrimination.

It is well known that there has long been an imbalance of power between blacks and whites in America.  For the most part, blacks have poorer childhood educational opportunities than white children do, graduate from college in far small numbers than their white agemates, have fewer job opportunities and are paid less than whites, have less access to health care and die earlier than whites.  I don’t think it is unreasonable to state that blacks have drawn the short end of the stick in this country.

Another type of imbalance of power exists between the citizenry and law enforcement.  Most of us do not carry weapons with us, but the police do.  The service weapon of a police officer is supposed to be a tool of law enforcement.  The officer’s gun is a symbol of power, a reminder of what he or she can do to us if we break the law.  Beyond that, however, it doesn’t take a brilliant scholar to know that when weapons are present, sooner or later they will be used.  The police have guns so that they can use them in certain circumstances, not just as window dressing for the cool blue uniform.  The prevailing argument is that the police receive extensive training and have it drilled into them that their weapons are to be used only as a last resort for protection of themselves or others.

Other than God, no one but Officer Wilson himself knows what was really going through his mind in the split second that he made the fateful decision to discharge his weapon.  But the already significant imbalance of power between police and public is doubled and redoubled when a white officer serving in a largely white police force has to make an immediate life or death decision regarding a black citizen of a largely black city.

Whites have been afraid of blacks for a long time.  When I was a kid growing up in the New York metropolitan area during the sixties, there was barely concealed panic about the riots in Newark as well as lots of whispers and knowing glances about which areas of town and which streets to stay away from after dark.  We shuddered at the Black Power graffiti and its raised fist logo.

Fear.  It’s a deadly thing, a destructive force of massive power.  More powerful that a policeman’s gun.  FDR knew whereof he spoke when he said that there is nothing to fear but fear itself.  Anytime there is an imbalance of power between two groups, the more powerful is going to use any means at its disposal to remain in power, while fearing the weaker group and what it might do should the balance of power shift.  So whites wield epithets at blacks while blacks yield epithets at whites, while each group fears the other and perpetuates unfounded generalizations that resound down the generations.  Stereotypes persist, even though political correctness has forced them behind thinly veiled cover.

In light of the above, the tragedy in Ferguson was inevitable, as was the decision of a grand jury composed of nine whites and three blacks.  What is not inevitable, however, is the senseless violence that continues to tear apart Ferguson and other cities.  We need to convert the cry of “burn this [epithet] down” to a cry of “vote, hold office, take back your community.”  Regardless of the depth of the tragedy in Ferguson, meaningful change will not occur unless we create it.  We have to be that change.

I went to work this morning, as I do every weekday, enjoying the opportunity of our commute to catch up with my wife.  We spoke of family goings-on, upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities, money, shopping and work.  Our conversations often roam all over the place, which is but one reason that they are so wonderful.  But neither of us mentioned anything about Mike Brown, the grand jury or Ferguson.

Today was particularly busy at work, and I was caught up in my duties immediately upon arriving.  It wasn’t until I took a break at noon to microwave my container of veggies that I remembered.  And that’s when it hit me:  With the hundreds of people working in my building, and with conversations conducted all around me throughout the morning, never once did I hear mention of Ferguson.  I quickly logged on to CNN to see what was going on, whereupon I learned that the businesses along West Florissant Avenue were in flames.  Store windows were smashed, looting had occurred, shops turned into fireballs faster than the fire department could extinguish the blazes.

I sought out the company of one of my coworkers and broached the topic of Ferguson and the grand jury decision not to indict Wilson.  I asked her whether she had seen the president’s remarks on TV last night.  She admitted that she hadn’t.  She tries not to watch the news, she told me, as it only makes her upset and angry.  My coworker, who is a devout Christian, pointed out that horrors like the situation in Ferguson are prophesized in the Book of Revelation.

“But it doesn’t have to be this way!” I cried out.  She agreed, reminding me that Revelation paints a picture of what will happen to all of us when society loses its mind, slips over the edge and willfully refuses to subject itself to God’s discipline.  It may not have to be this way, but it will continue to be this way, she pointed out, as long as we persist in our folly, persist in engaging in discrimination, in embracing stereotypes, in accepting imbalances of power.

I must admit that I can see how easily disaster can be chained upon disaster.  A black teen is killed by a white cop, a grand jury refuses to dispense justice, a city’s anger and its streets both burn.

Nevertheless, I refuse to give up.  Revelation notwithstanding, I stand firm in my belief that it doesn’t have to be this way.  The Bible teaches us that the Lord’s anger burns but for a little while, that His rebuke does not last forever, and that He eagerly awaits the day of our return to His ways so that we can once again enjoy the blessings of prosperity bestowed upon the compassionate and the just.

We can divest ourselves of the fear, we can take back our communities, we can update our laws, we can stand together and be the change we want to see rather than waiting for someone else to do it.

Because no one else is going to do it.

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Soldier Boxes – Part 1

We just sent our first care package of the holiday season to our soldiers overseas.  We’ve been doing this for a few years now, using the website www.anysoldier.com to obtain the APO/FPO addresses of Marines and other service members who are busy protecting us halfway around the world.  They are in places like Qatar, Djibouti, Kuwait, Jordan and Pakistan.  And, of course, Afghanistan.  Some of them are stationed aboard aircraft carriers and other giant ships, plying the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea and Indian Ocean for months on end.  Some live in barracks, some in “cans” (shipping containers that are pushed together to form makeshift shelters) and others in two-man tents pitched somewhere on the desert sand or on a mountainside.

There are those who have been dispatched to parts unknown, servicemen like Sgt. Adrian Quinones and his crew, to whom we sent off our most recent package.  Any Soldier labels these troops as “location undisclosed for security reasons.”  You just have to know that these are the guards and sentries who perform reconnaissance missions in some of the most remote regions on earth.  While some units live in encampments the size of small cities and request things like DVDs and X-Boxes, I feel most inclined to respond to the denizens of remote outposts who report “Dusty, sandy, no cooking abilities.  Please send socks.”

I continue to be surprised by how many soldiers ask for food.  Several years ago, I saw many requests for candy and Red Bulls.  Now I’m seeing units asking for protein:  Tuna packets, canned chicken, beef jerky, Balance Bars.  One problem faced by these units is that they often must remain on patrol 24/7.  Even if they are at a location where there is a chow hall, it is not likely to be open when they are relieved of duty for lunch at some ungodly hour like 2:30 in the morning.  Then there are those that are out on days long two-man patrols in the middle of nowhere, carrying a pack with a canteen of water and a handful of MREs.  I am told that these reconstituted meal packets (just add water) can be pretty disgusting, not to mention monotonous.  You have to feel for a soldier who dreams of a can of Star-Kist or Bumble Bee.

We always remember to stick some cheap hand can openers in the box with our gifts of canned food.  I hear that these packages are often air dropped into remote areas, and I don’t expect the recipients to have any means of opening cans at their immediate disposal.  I recently read of a soldier who attempted to open a can of tuna from a care package with his knife.  He ended up having to get stitches.

I can’t begin to imagine what our soldiers’ lives must be like over there.  I beam with pride when I read “we can’t tell you what we’re doin’, but we’re doin’ it.”

I know you are, guys.  Carry on.

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One Lovely Blog Award

One Lovely Blog Tree

I’d like to start out this Thanksgiving week by giving thanks to fellow blogger Mindyminix for nominating me for the One Lovely Blog Award.  This is such an honor, Mindy, and I greatly appreciate your generosity.

Mindy, I should add, is the pride of Missouri, the “Show Me State” and indeed, she has shown us all how this blogging thing is done!  While the murder of Mike Brown by police and the resulting unrest in Ferguson over the summer has largely passed from the public consciousness, I would encourage you, dear readers, to head over to Mindy’s blog and learn about the continued effects of that disaster on Missourians. A tragedy of this caliber is a bit like a death in the family:  After a while, the visitors and the casseroles stop coming and the immediate family is left to suffer alone in its grief while the rest of the world forgets about what happened.

The rules for accepting the One Lovely Blog Award are as follows:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you.
  2. Tell us seven things about yourself.
  3. Post a One Lovely Blog badge in the post or on your blog.
  4. Nominate seven other bloggers you admire.

Seven things about myself:

  1. I was four years old when I wrote my first short story. I would hear adults engage in talk about World War II and watched lots of westerns on TV with my grandpa, so it should come as no surprise that I titled it “Indian Ranger War II.”
  2. My wife and I live in the parsonage of a church. My mother-in-law is the minister.
  3. My wife and I are both iced tea fanatics. We each go through about a gallon per day. I can’t drink mine without lemon juice.
  4. I miss the ocean. Why can’t there be any good jobs in Pismo or Narragansett?
  5. My wife and I have 19 nieces and nephews between us, plus a rapidly mounting number of grands. There are usually one or two of them around here somewhere. They keep us young.
  6. I am a certified Scrabble fanatic. I used to play in highly competitive regional tournaments, but I don’t anymore, primarily due to a lack of money. I have played in an email Scrabble league continuously for well over a decade.  (Want to join?  Ask me how!)  Now, of course, we have cell phones, so I play Words With… uh, well, Strangers.
  7. I’ve been to London. I’ve also been to France. No, you can’t see my underpants.

Blog nominations:

And now, without further ado, I hereby nominate the following delightful blogs for the One Lovely Blog Award (says he, doing a very poor impression of Julie Andrews singing “these are a few of my favorite blogs”):

  1. rachelmankowitz – The ongoing saga of the antics and adventures of rescue dogs Cricket and Butterfly. Although I have never been a dog person, Rachel has demonstrated to me that our canine friends can teach us more than a few lessons about life and love.
  2. Too Many Spiders – I’m so tempted to go wisecracking about the itsy bitsy spider or along came a spider and sat down beside her (I have a two year old grandniece, so sue me), but I’ll just say that Ms. Spider generously shares her wealth of wisdom with us, whether it’s about television or chess or history or religion or life on Staten Island. Oh, and she just recently gave birth to her eighth child. Among the best reads online, in my humble opinion.
  3. Movin’ It With Michelle – Retired from the Army and working in the health professions, Michelle has two daughters, runs marathons and nurtures a deep passion for cooking. When she posts photos of her amazing culinary creations, you will want to lick the screen.
  4. Brooklyn Doodle – Although this blogger hasn’t published many posts lately, I look forward to her next installment. It’s all about a bike ride, a café, a few extra napkins and pulling out a marker for some impromptu drawing. This art teacher creates beautiful artwork on paper napkins.  Well worth checking out.
  5. Drinking Tips for Teens – This Canadian has a sharp wit and a unique perspective on the everyday. And maybe I’m just a teensy bit envious that the man is on National Public Radio.
  6. Troubleface Mom – Another blogger who doesn’t post nearly enough. Perhaps you can leave some comments on her blog to encourage her to write more regularly. I enjoy her applications of her faith to daily life as well as the chronicles of her journey with an autistic son.
  7. Raising 5 Kids with Disabilities and Remaining Sane Blog – When a blogger has more than 11,000 followers, it’s hard not to sit up and notice. Raising children with a diverse spectrum of disabilities places one precisely at the intersection of the tragic and the comic. Check out her blog and see for yourself.

Now we’re off to a short, three-day workweek preceding the Thanksgiving holiday.  I hope everyone is looking forward to food and family as much as I am.  And here’s a special shout out to my fellow vegans.  This can be a tough holiday spent with our meat-eating brethren.  Don’t forget to post up your stories!

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Thanksgiving Memories

What is your earliest Thanksgiving memory?  Was Thanksgiving a big deal at your house when you were a kid?  It certainly was at ours.  And not always in a good way, I might add.

Thanksgiving holds a place of respect in many Jewish households.  One reason for this is that gratitude is deeply ingrained in Jewish tradition.  Observant Jews like myself (and I am not Orthodox by any means) thank God many times during the day, expressing appreciation for the many gifts He has given us.  We have separate blessings that we say over different types of food, thanking God for the fruit of the trees, the fruit of the ground, the grain of the field, etc.  We say a prayer of thankfulness when we open our eyes in the morning and when we lie down to sleep at night.  And, yes (don’t laugh), when we use the rest room we pray that the Lord has created us with all the proper bodily functions.

So a holiday that centers on thankfulness fits right in with our traditions.  But it is more than that.  As a uniquely American celebration, Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays during the year that all of us can celebrate, regardless of religion or beliefs.  Even atheists are thankful for the gifts in their lives.  Jews of a traditional bent don’t recognize Christmas, Easter or even Halloween (although many Jews living a more modern, integrated lifestyle do), as these celebrations are based in other faiths.  There are other American festivals, of course, such as the summer holidays (Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day), when we always barbecued hot dogs and hamburgers or headed to the lake for the day.  But all of these pale in comparison to Thanksgiving.  In some respects, one could say that Turkey Day is the granddaddy of American holidays.  The Pilgrims feasted with the Native Americans in 1621, long before any of the Big Summer Three were a twinkle in the colonists’ eyes.

My favorite thing about Thanksgiving is that it is truly a celebration that we can all enjoy.  There are few of us who aren’t thankful for something, and who doesn’t like stuffing his or her face?

Until I was ten years old, we generally had Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ apartment, 2½ hours away in Connecticut.  After that, they moved to Florida and we did Thanksgiving at home in the New York suburbs (except for once or twice when we were invited to feast at my aunt and uncle’s apartment in The Bronx).

As much as I loved riding to New Haven to visit my grandparents, there were a few hazards associated with celebrating Thanksgiving there.  The sense of jubilation and anticipation that we experienced on the way up there was always tempered with a measure of anxiety.  We never knew which mine we would end up stepping on this time.

You see, Grandma and Grandpa did not have a religious bone in their bodies.  While they were ethnically Jewish, they never prayed, attended synagogue or participated in any of the rituals associated with Jewish holidays.  They were strictly secular.  I, on the other hand, attended a very Orthodox religious elementary school (due to the insistence of my mother), where I learned every detail of every Jewish rule and custom (and that anything enjoyable was probably a sin).

As disgusted as they were with my religious “brainwashing,” my grandparents knew how things stood and made at least a nominal effort to accommodate.  My grandmother would buy a kosher turkey and roast it with potatoes and vegetables.  Dessert was usually an issue.  When the pie or the Pepperidge Farm cake came out, I would insist on seeing the box so that I could read the ingredients.  “Not kosher!” I would indignantly pronounce, pointing out the gelatin or glycerin in the ingredients.  I would then run off crying to another room because I would miss out on dessert.

If it wasn’t that, then my grandparents would start griping about my weight, inevitably engendering an argument with my parents.  Grandma might, for example, attempt to serve me a diet soda, which my parents prohibited me from drinking due to the deadly chemicals contained therein.  For years, my father enjoyed a running joke about my grandparents presenting me with “a case of Patio Diet Cola and a funnel.”

And if it wasn’t that, then my mother would get into it with her mother-in-law.  The two entertained a mutual hatred of each other from the time that my parents began dating as teenagers.  Once voices were raised, my grandfather would feel the necessity to come to his wife’s defense and my father would attempt to intervene and get everyone to “stop it already.”  That was usually about the time we’d head for the door.

Another memorable Thanksgiving occurred when I was in college and my sisters were still in high school.  I would come home for Thanksgiving, of course (I had to, as the dorms were closed).  My mother had taken a job in New England not long before.  My father continued to work in New York.  My sisters were with my mother; my parents commuted back and forth on the weekends.  In Rhode Island, seafood is king.  After all, it is the Ocean State.  The local joke was to refer to fish as “Block Island turkey.”  Although we all convened in New York for Thanksgiving, my mother had to work in Rhode Island on the previous day and had no time to prepare a festive meal.  As we didn’t eat meat in restaurants (because it wasn’t kosher), we ended up enjoying Block Island turkey at a local diner.  My youngest sister, a surly teenager who made a science out of being miserable, announced at dinner that this was a stupid holiday because she really didn’t have anything to be thankful for anyway.  As you may well imagine, that went over like a ton of bricks and put more than a bit of a damper on the occasion.

Not that I was shocked or anything.  I had learned years earlier that it wasn’t Thanksgiving without a family fight.

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Lessons of NaBloPoMo

My father likes to say that everyone is capable of being an author because we all have at least one story to tell:  Our own.

I think he’s right, and that over time, we develop a script to explain our lives.  It could go something like this:  “I grew up in a small town, I got married right out of high school, we had kids, I worked in the local factory.”  Or, in my case, “I grew up as a misfit, attended a lot of college, bounced around from job to job, married at the age of forty and ended up unemployed a lot of the time.”

The lens we tend to see ourselves through is composed not so much of our experiences as it is of the life script we have carefully developed.  It’s as if we constantly fear that someone will angrily demand “explain yourself!” and that we need to have a reasonable sounding script all wrapped up and ready to go.  The faithfulness of that script to historical truth can vary a great deal from one person to another.

Many bloggers have remarked that their posts all start to sound the same after a while, and that it can sometimes be difficult to even remember whether they have already told a particular story or not.  I can definitely relate.  I have come to realize that everything I write is filtered through the lens of my life script.

Participating in NaBloPoMo has helped me to understand how difficult it is to come up with something interesting to write about every day, something that doesn’t sound like a rehash of the same thing I already wrote yesterday and the day before that.  Some days, I feel like an old grandpa buttonholing anyone who will listen with “Did I ever tell you about the time that…” (conveniently forgetting that I just told the same story five minutes ago).  It’s as if I’ve become a parody of myself, stuck in a time warp à la Ground Hog Day.

Others may be smarter than I am, more witty than I am or more well-read than I am.  For them, writing daily may be a lot easier than it is for me.  And perhaps they even manage to break loose from their life story lenses and write from fresh perspectives that don’t look like day-old bread.

For me, however, writing every day is hard.  I’ve already written about my long daily commute to work.  Haven’t I already discussed my amazingly cute grandniece enough times?  Should I write about the challenges of being a vegan again?  I fear that anything I write about will bore me as much as it will bore you.

For now, I’ll just say that I’m glad that it’s Friday. that the weekend is upon us, and that I’ll be splitting the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend between my wife’s family and my own.  Hopefully, we’ll get to spend time with everyone, and celebrate my father’s 81st birthday as well.  After that, it will be December and we’ll begin our long, slow slide into Christmas.

But the best thing of all is that there is only one more week left in NaBloPoMo, after which I can breathe a sigh of relief and go back to being a weekend warrior.

I can hardly wait.

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Schizo

I never heard of schizophrenia until eighth grade health class.  Along with learning about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and the obligatory, highly embarrassing sex ed curriculum (from which my parents refused to excuse me, despite my entreaties), we plodded through a unit on mental health.  When we covered neuroses, I knew right off that the teacher was talking about me.  But it was the psychoses that were really scary, and I wondered whether I could secretly have one of those.

When we arrived at a discussion of schizophrenia, I was shocked (pun intended) to learn about such strange phenomena as multiple personalities, paranoia, delusions of grandeur, catatonia and hearing voices.  Alone in bed at night, I prayed to the Lord that I would never be afflicted with any of these horrors.

Mental illness, schizophrenia included, was still on the pedagogic menu when we were once again subject to the tortures of health class as juniors in high school.  By that time, I understood that I was not psychotic and was able to relax a bit.  I went on to take two psychology classes before I graduated, one of which included a visit to the local mental hospital.  My father humored me by driving me to the Vassar College library on quite a few evenings, where I researched a term paper on schizophrenia until the librarians threw us out and locked the doors.

Even today there is stigma associated with mental illness, but it was much worse when I was a teenager back in the seventies.  This was the era of Psycho, The Exorcist and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  My fellow junior high and high school students were openly derisive about anyone who appeared to deviate from the norm in any way, and never more than when it came to mental illness or developmental disabilities.  If we didn’t like something that someone did, they were “retarded,” “psycho” or “schizo.”  We bandied these terms about indiscriminately in the same way that many continue to demean the sexual preferences of others by saying “that’s so gay” (sadly, still “dropped on a daily,” Macklemore and Lewis notwithstanding).

It’s good to be able to say that some things have changed in the past forty years, however.  While the causes of mental illness have by no means been locked down, advances in scientific research have made inroads in our understanding of the nature and treatment of schizophrenia.

Still, it came as a bit of a surprise to me today when I learned that bacteria, of all things, are now being implicated as one possible cause of schizophrenia.  New research estimates that about one-fifth of all cases of schizophrenia may be attributed to infection by Toxoplasma gondii.

Now, wait a minute.  I know about toxoplasmosis.  When my sisters (both of whom have always had cats as pets) were busy having babies, my mother warned them to have their husbands clean the cat box.  It was known that cat feces could contain Toxoplasma, and that if this microorganism was transmitted to the blood of the fetus, the baby could be born with horrific brain deformities.

Turns out cat boxes are just the beginning, however.  Humans can also contract toxoplasmosis long after they are born.  T. gondii can also be transmitted through eating undercooked meat or by drinking contaminated water.  It is estimated that as many as 60 million Americans may currently be infected with T. gondii, and that some of them will develop schizophrenia as a result of the protozoan’s effects on their brains.

Just think of it:  One in five schizophrenics could have avoided a lifetime of misery and incapacity by avoiding infection by Toxoplasma.

Still want that steak done rare?

Sounds to me like yet another argument in favor of the vegan life.

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