Men Get Mammograms, Too

Today I experienced something that few men ever do.  I had my first mammogram.

Yes, men do get breast cancer. About one out of every thousand males is so diagnosed.  This translates to only about 1% of all breast cancer cases.  Granted, this is nothing compared to the one out of every nine women who find themselves with breast cancer at some time of their lives.  But neither does it mean that we men are exempt because of our gender.

I had been warned that getting a mammogram is uncomfortable.  For me, however, the chief source of discomfort was being a man stepping into a woman’s world.  You feel like an intruder, like you don’t belong there.  A woman in a paper gown steps out into the corridor and I instantly avert my eyes.  I remind myself:  This is a medical procedure, this has been approved by my doctor, this is for my own good.  (Shudder)

I grit my teeth and navigate the bureaucracy that is Kaiser.  I go to the location where my doctor sees patients and get my unrelated bloodwork done.  Then I step into radiology and “take a letter” (a laminated ticket marked by a letter rather than a number).  I suddenly get the feeling that I am in the wrong waiting area and walk back to check.  It appears that the outer room is the “waiting room” and the inner room the “waiting area.”  I go back and sit down.  I read work email on my phone and play a few Words with Friends turns until I hear “Letter F!”

I return to the counter in the narrow vestibule.  “What’re you here for?” asks the woman behind the cutout window.  Having been listening to other patients come and go, I know the choices are X-ray, ultrasound or mammogram.  Still, I am tempted to answer “second degree larceny and committing lewd acts with a chicken.”

“I am here for a mammogram,” I tell her.  Words I never thought would escape my mouth in all my days on earth.  Ms. Kaiser makes a face and then quickly recovers herself.  I can hear her thinking “You have got to be kidding me, son.”

“Men have to get mammograms sometimes, too,” I blurt out.  I read my medical record number off my phone, which I have now provided so many times that I should have the darned thing memorized.

She spends an inordinate amount of time studying something on her screen.  She turns around and consults with another employee.  “You’re gonna have to go to Point West.  We can’t do it here.  There has to be a radiologist present and we don’t have one here.”

Dismissed.  Welcome to the wonderful world of managed care.

“The wait is an hour to an hour and a half.  You want me to make you an appointment?”  I say yes and she calls over there, but it just rings and rings.  When she tells me that they don’t answer their phone, I reply that I’ll just go and wait.

“I need the address, please,” I tell her.  I’m still new to Kaiser and unfamiliar with their dog and pony show.  She writes something on the back of a card and I make a hasty retreat.  My wife is waiting on a bench just outside the front doors and I give her the news that we have to trek clear across town.  I decide not to mention how long we will have to wait, as she is already pissed off because she is drowning in work and should be at home on her laptop doing it.  I hand her the card.  This isn’t the first time that I’m glad she grew up in Sacramento.  I seldom drive and basically have no clue how to get from Point A to Point B.  Yes, I know, we’ve lived here for a year already and I should get off my butt and learn how to get around.

On the drive over, I decide to face the music.  “I’m probably going to have to wait a really long time,” I sheepishly admit.

“You don’t know that!” my wife snaps back.  She knows how pessimistic I tend to be about everything.  “Yes, I do,” I protest.  “They told me it might be up to 90 minutes.”

My wife drops me off at the Point West facility entrance and I hike down a long corridor to radiology.  This time I’m dealing with a male employee.  I breathe a sigh of relief and hope he’ll be more sympathetic than they were at Fair Oaks.

No such luck.  I tell him I’m there for a mammogram, which, despite assurances from my doctor, they would not do at the other location.  I tell him a radiologist has to be present and I practically throw the card at him.  He looks at me like I’m from outer space.  He consults several times with a female colleague.  Turns out he doesn’t know what code to enter in the computer.  Apparently “mammogram” is not a choice on the screens for male patients.  That’s Kaiser for you.  Thrive, my ass.

Is this an initial?  Yes.  Diagnostic?  Did you feel a lump? Do you have discomfort?  Any breast cancer in your family?

Just when I think they’re going to send me away, the two employees finally figure out how to do some kind of manual override.  “I was told I don’t have to have an appointment,” I whine.  I really don’t want to have take time off of work (and have my wife take time off from her work because I don’t know where the hell I’m going) to come back another day.  Okay, let’s be honest, I just want to get this done because I don’t want to have to go through it all over again.

Having parked the car, my wife shows up just as I arrive in the waiting room.  She is getting upset because her work isn’t getting done and she believes that I don’t respect her time, which is quite reasonable considering a stupid thing I did recently.  I have sleep apnea and have a CPAP machine to help me breathe at night.  The thing is old and decrepit and needs to be replaced.  I have an appointment for the equipment to be examined next week at yet a different Kaiser location.  I asked them if I could just send my wife with the equipment and they said no, the patient has to be present.  My wife was pissed that I would even ask such a thing and she is 100% right.  I amaze myself at the depth of my idiocy sometimes.

Just like in the other place, neither my wife nor I am quite sure that we’re in the right waiting room.  But in just a few minutes, the door to the inner sanctum opens and a technologist with a heavy eastern European accent calls my name.  She walks me to the examining room, where I find that she is as confused as everyone else.

“How long have you had Kleinfelter’s Disease?” she asks me as she looks at my medical record.  I am appalled at her ignorance, but try to be polite because, after all, this woman is about to handle my breasts.  Um, yeah, she could hurt me.  I explain that it is a syndrome, not a disease, a chromosomal disorder that one has from birth and that gynecomastia is a common symptom, often suppressed by testosterone therapy, which ironically increases the odds of breast cancer.  Some of the literature discusses the advantages of having a mastectomy.  This is something, like breast cancer, that I prefer not to think about.  Not yet, anyway.  Thoughts of chemotherapy, my hair falling out and getting sick at work in front of management flash before my eyes.  I shake it off and remind myself that this is just routine, preventative.  Pull yourself together and get this done.

The procedure itself is no big deal.  She smashes me pretty well into that machine, which is what I fully expect based on the sign on the wall announcing “We compress because we care.”  The Nick Lowe song “Cruel to be Kind” starts playing in my mind.

“I torture people all day long,” the tech reassures me.  Just where is that accent from?  Poland?  Ukraine?  Chechnya?  Just before I went in I had pulled out my phone to find that I had a missed call from someone in, of all places, Russia.  One of sadistic Ms. I Love Torture’s relations, perhaps?

“Don’t breathe,” she tells me each time she gets my breast in just the right position to take the next picture.  After repositioning me several times on one side and then repeating the exercise on the other, it is over.  She tells me to wait while she takes the pictures out to be examined by a radiologist.  Five minutes later she returns and tells me that they didn’t find anything and I don’t have to go for an ultrasound.  I put my shirt back on and prepare to get the hell out of there.

“Come back any time you want me to torture you some more,” the tech tells me as she disappears around a corner.

Men as well as women are encouraged to perform breast self-examinations on a regular basis.  Learn about the warning signs of breast cancer in men here.

 

Broke but Out of Debt

Yesterday, my wife asked me if I was depressed because we have so little money.  Yes, I am, I told her.

As Tevye the milkman pointed out in Fiddler on the Roof, it’s no crime to be poor.  I do believe that it’s possible to be both poor and happy, particularly if you appreciate the things you do have and value your family and friends.

The real thing that’s depressing me is the Infinite Loop of Poverty.  I feel like a modern day Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the mountain only to have it roll back down so that we have to do it all over again.

All of this was triggered when we decided to purchase a car last week.  Not even a new car, mind you.  A low mileage used vehicle is all we could manage without going deeply into debt.  Which is the point, I suppose:  We may not have any money, but at least we’ve managed to stay debt-free.

This wasn’t always the case.  When my wife and I got married 17 years ago, we had a lot of debt between us.  With two (small) incomes, we worked assiduously to overcome this problem.  It took a lot of years, but all the credit card debt and most of the student loans were paid off.  I am proud of this, particularly since I suffered two year-long stints of unemployment in the interim and my wife worked part-time for a few years and not at all for another four years.

And so I say to those of you who think you are stuck in debt forever that there is hope.  It requires dedication, however, including paying down debts first thing out of every paycheck regardless of what you’d really like to spend the money on.  Whatever that may be, it’s probably not as important as watching that big number that you owe get lower and lower.

I am fortunate that my wife is so good with money.  I don’t do well with numbers and would rather have someone else think about what has to be paid and when.  I suppose this goes back to my childhood, as my parents did not believe in giving “allowances” or in encouraging budgeting and planning.  If they thought we needed something, they’d buy it.  Otherwise, they’d rather that we didn’t have any of their hard-earned money so that we couldn’t waste it on frivolity.

In my young adulthood, the result of this was not pretty.  If my father visited me at college and handed be a twenty, likely as not it would be gone the same day.  When I began working, I still lived at home and treated money cavalierly; gosh, I’d get another paycheck the next week, so what was the big deal?  I spent it as quickly as I earned it.

All my life, the place where this came back to bite me was cars.  Transportation was my bête noire, my Kryptonite, my undoing.  I’d use my tax refund to pay my auto insurance.  I’d fill up my tank every time I was paid.  But the moment something went wrong with the car and I needed a couple thousand dollars to make things right, I was in deep trouble.  My father generously purchased a series of high-mileage clunkers for me, none of which lasted very long.  When I saved for a new car, my father generously put up some of the cash, or it never would have happened.

Then my parents began giving me their old car each time they purchased a new one.  They took very good care of their vehicles, so I knew I’d be in good shape for a few years.  One of those cars was wrecked when an old lady ran into me on the way home from work one night.  Another was wrecked by my young niece when we lent it out to her.  Another had to be sold when it’s engine was about to go, and yet another was a trade-in on the old Cash for Clunkers program.

After owning two cars free and clear for a couple of years, we decided to buy a new vehicle even though we had to finance it.  We made some very large monthly payments and eventually paid it off.  Now, however, it has well over 150,000 miles on it and little things started going wrong with it.  We finally decided to give it to our niece (not the one who wrecked our former vehicle, leaving us with just one car between us ever since), who was desperately in need of vehicle, and to pay cash for a used car for ourselves.

The only problem is that avoiding the interest payments associated with financing meant spending just about all our savings.  Hence, my feelings of depression.  I must have a car in order to get to work every day.  Once there, I work and work to save enough so that we can spend it all to buy another car so that I continue to get to work to make more money to buy another car.  It seems to be an endless cycle, which might not be a big deal to a 25 year old, but takes on quite a different meaning to one who is rapidly approaching retirement age.  The only way out of this loop is to earn significantly more money or to up the ante on savings.  Yes, I do think that saving money faster than you use up your car is the only real answer.

Still, I am grateful that I have once more managed to escape the millstone of monthly car payments with which so many others are saddled.  As Dave Ramsey points out on his radio show, taking the scissors to that albatross around one’s neck is a significant step toward financial independence.

Just don’t ask me for money.  I don’t have any.

 

My Inner Millennial

Sunday morning.

My wife got up early, got ready and headed over to IHOP to meet her cousin and the cousin’s husband along with her elderly aunt for breakfast.  It was her aunt’s 87th birthday.

Meanwhile, I slept in after having stayed up late last night playing games online.  When my wife got home a bit after noon, it was my turn to go out for breakfast.  I headed to my favorite local buffet place, where even a vegan can pig out on steamed vegetables, potatoes, salad, fruit, roasted jalapeños and spaghetti with marinara sauce.

On Saturday, my wife and I ran around doing errands in the morning, then picked up our niece and made the long drive up to Chico to spend the evening with extended family at a church event.

My wife and I have been married for nearly 17 years.  Among the many joys of our married life is the fact that we do some things together and others alone.  It’s a nice balance.  We also spend a lot of time sitting just a few feet away from each other, both of us on our laptops, she with the TV on and me listening to music over headphones, she on our landlord’s mini-couch and me at the kitchen table in our tiny rental cottage.

The logistics of maintaining this balance has become more interesting in the last few years.  Before that, we could each have separate plans and execute them simultaneously.  On a Saturday morning, for example, I might head off to synagogue while my wife went shopping or met a friend.

All that changed when we moved from the desert on the California/Arizona border to northern California two years ago.  Having been laid off, I was out of work and didn’t need a car to commute.  So we loaned one of our cars to our niece to make it easy for her to get to community college in the mornings.  She promptly wrecked it, and we’ve been a one-car family ever since.

In some respects, this has been a good thing.  In addition to having fewer car expenses (things like oil changes and other maintenance, insurance and annual registration), there is the togetherness factor.  When you live out in the country as we do, it is no surprise that having only one car makes for a tendency to go more places together.

When we each “do our own thing,” however, it is of necessity on a sequential rather than a simultaneous basis.  When you have one car between you, you have to take turns.  This might not be the case in a more urban location, but out here there is nothing in walking distance and not much in the way of transportation.  I get a kick out of watching the neighbor’s roosters pecking around, photographing the wild peacocks and visiting with our landlord’s cat.  But that only goes so far.  If you’re desperate, you can always call a taxi to take you downtown or to Wal-Mart, but that can fairly quickly run into some serious money.  So the fact of the matter is that when one of us is out and about alone, the other is stuck at home, also alone.

Then there is the little matter of getting to work.  My place of employment is about twelve miles away, meaning that either my wife has to get up early and make two round-trips downtown each day to haul me in and home, or she gets to sit at home with no car all day.

Circumstances have happily converged to make this situation work well most of the time.  My wife works from home, so it’s possible for her to be without a car.  However, I am uncomfortable knowing that she can’t get out of here if she needs to do so.  Being stuck at home also means that she can’t run any errands, which definitely puts a crimp in smooth household operation.  Plus, I would have to leave the house at oh-dark-thirty if I am to have any chance of finding a parking space near my place of employment downtown.  I am delighted that, 95% of the time, my wife takes me to work, picks me up in the evening and has the car at her disposal all day.

In its old age, our second car was given to us by my parents when they purchased a newer model some years ago.  Throughout our marriage, they have generously provided us with their old vehicles rather than trading them in.  This has been a huge advantage for us, as we’ve never been able to afford more than one car payment.  Now that we’ve been down to one car for a couple of years, we’ve started to think about buying another.  Our current vehicle has been paid off for a while now, but after struggling through a year of unemployment, I get a bit panicky at the thought of having a monthly car payment again.

There are a number of options out there.  We could pay cash to buy an old beater just to drive around town, but who knows what’s going to go wrong with it and how much money we’ll end up having to pour into it for repairs.  And even old, high mileage vehicles don’t come cheap anymore.

Speaking of old, high mileage vehicles, our current car fits that category nicely.  We have been fortunate that, so far, most of the required repairs have not broken the bank.  But it’s not going to last forever.  Pretty soon, the piece-of-crap car that I envision taking to work, to Wal-Mart or out for brunch is going to be the very vehicle we now own.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to wring another 100,000 miles out of it, but really, it’s the luck of the draw.  I would happily bite the bullet and sign for a car payment on a new vehicle for my wife to drive around while I used our current car.  However, I know that, sooner or later, our trusty is going to sputter its last and repair to that great junkyard in the sky.  At that point, we’ll be right back to square one, only with the albatross of a car payment around our necks.  You can see why it’s tempting to stick with just one vehicle for as long as possible, despite the attendant inconveniences.

I’m guessing that we’re in the minority, having attained the status of seniors and being a one-car family who has always lived in rentals and never owned a home.  I recently read an article in The Atlantic indicating that this type of consumer behavior is a lot more common than it used to be, although not so much among those who’ve attained my age.  In “The Cheaptest Generation,” Thompson and Weissmann point out that sales of new cars and homes are way down, and that this phenomenon seems to be more than just a product of the recessionary economy.  Indeed, the popularity of carless lifestyle choices has increased among millennials, the driving force behind the popularity of Zipcar, Uber and Airbnb.  Many young adults seem to prefer living closer to the urban core, where the action is.  Live music, restaurants, bars and shops within walking or biking distance have become more appealing to twentysomethings in recent years.

When describing millennials, one would be remiss in failing to mention the matter of extended adolescence.  Young adults struggling under crushing burdens of student loan debt often choose to live with their parents for a decade or more beyond their college days.  I should know.  I went that route myself, and not just because of student loans.  I liked having all that disposable income to eat out every day, see Broadway shows, spend weekends in Atlantic City and go on trips to places like California, where I eventually settled.  It really isn’t very appealing for a recent college graduate earning grunt wages to have to spend every penny on the rent and the car.  And, assuming the American dream is not dead (I know, don’t laugh), sponging off one’s parents for as long as possible makes it a lot easier to save for a down payment on a home.

I graduated from college in 1980, took one more semester of courses toward a teaching certificate that I never completed, then moved back home with my parents and worked the night shift in a chemical plant for seven years before heading off to graduate school in Massachusetts.  There, I lived off my parents’ dime for another two years before taking out student loans to pay for my last year due to circumstances too complex to get into here.  Twenty-five years later, I’m still paying on those student loans.  And that was for one year, friends.  I can’t imagine the debt facing those of us who had to borrow for their entire college educations.  The real irony is that I then spent decades working at jobs that didn’t require college.  Most of my bosses didn’t even have a degree.  I was in my late forties before I snagged a job that nominally required college.

I should mention that life was no financial picnic after graduate school.  Even with two degrees, I still ended up working for ten dollars an hour and living back with my parents for another 2½ years.  When I finally moved out, to take a similarly crappy job in a neighboring state, I rented a tiny bedroom that had been an unheated, uninsulated enclosed porch, where I froze all winter.  When it was thirty below zero out, I dressed in layers, including a parka and mittens, sleeping under piles of covers.

When I finally moved to California, I found myself earning ten dollars an hour and only working part-time.  Silicon Valley was not kind to me.  I lived with each of my sisters for several months, until my parents retired and built a house in the Central Valley.  I lived with them for nine months before getting out for good at the ripe old age of 37.

I know I will never own a home, and that’s okay.  Although my current job is far from secure, I no longer earn ten dollars an hour.  I know that my graduate degree played a part in my landing this position.  My wife and I have paid off all our debts other than my ever-present student loans, and we hope to clear even those out in another two or three years.

True, my wife and I have only one car between us and we rent a tiny mother-in-law cottage out among the goats, horses and chickens of the exurbs.  We may not attend Broadway shows or travel to Hawaii, but with both of us working, we are able to eat out when we want to, buy Christmas presents for all the nephews and nieces, and go to Reno when the urge hits.  I even get to play in expensive Scrabble tournaments several times each year.

We may not have “created wealth” by purchasing a home and living in it, but without children of our own, leaving an inheritance isn’t much of a priority.  I am aware that my parents think it is a disgrace that I haven’t done as well as they did.  Each generation is supposed to surpass the previous, or so goes traditional wisdom.  “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” my mother likes to mock.

Ultimately, however, it’s all relative.  Having lived a year with my wife’s family after I was laid off, complete with the joys of standing in line at food banks when my unemployment checks ran out, I appreciate what we do have so much more than I did before.  It’s nice to be alone in our cozy little rental.  And having just one car between us doesn’t seem so bad after all.

You might say I’m channeling my inner millennial.

Alone and Together

I suspect that among the secrets of a long and successful marriage is achieving a balance between “together time” and “alone time.”

Alone time does not necessarily imply being without company; it includes time spent with family, friends and colleagues in social and work situations that do not involve one’s spouse.  That isn’t to say that a person doesn’t also need some time to be totally alone.  Everyone wants some private time to commune with a book, an iPod or a pet.  It’s also healthy to have some time to just sit and think, without spouse, children or boss yelling for you from the next room or office.

My wife and I seem to have traveled through every possible permutation on the alone/together spectrum during our sixteen years of marriage to date.  Well, all but one.  We’ve never had to live apart, thank God.  I remember my parents doing that when I was a teenager.  The demands of their careers took them to different states, so they did the “I’ll visit you this weekend, you visit me next weekend” thing for several years.  I was already off to college when most of that occurred, but I know it was hard on my youngest sister.  At the time, it didn’t occur to me how this living arrangement was affecting my parents.  In the thoughtless way of teenagers, I figured that they chose it, so it’s their problem.

I thought about this recently when we learned that a married couple who are friends of ours are considering doing the weekend commute thing to maximize their career opportunities.  You just have to wonder whether there’s more to it than meets the eye.  Perhaps, like my parents all those years ago, they aren’t getting along with each other as well as they’d like us to think.

During the first few years of our marriage, my wife and I each did stints working the graveyard shift at the phone company.  Our employer did everything possible to keep spouses off the same shift, so there were a few times when we felt like ships passing in the night.  Although we didn’t have a lot of together time, it wasn’t as rough as one might expect.  When you work “the grave,” the only thing that really matters is sleep.

After several years during which we both worked more normal hours and had evenings and weekends together, I was hired to work in a remote area out in the middle of the desert.  My wife left her job to move out there with me, which left her at home alone all day.  She knew no one and her family and friends were 600 miles away.  We lived in a hick town where there was absolutely nothing to do and the nearest mall or movie theater was an hour and a half away.  Unless she went to the grocery store, my wife was stuck at home.  She spent a lot of time texting, instant messaging, emailing and Facebooking friends in other parts of the state and country.  To make matters worse, my work left me tired and wanting to go to sleep early and catch extra sleep on the weekends.  When I arrived home after work on a Friday, I generally wanted only a meal and to commune with the back of my eyelids, which would leave my wife alone some more while I snored.  After being alone all week, my wife understandably wanted to get out of town and do something.  We did our best to compromise, dividing our weekends between staying home and escaping.

After I got laid off from that job, we relocated back to northern California and moved in with my wife’s family.  Suddenly, we found ourselves at the opposite end of the spectrum.  Instead of being alone all the time, my wife couldn’t escape her family for a minute.  As I was unemployed and looking for work for nearly a year, I got to witness this firsthand.

The recipe goes something like this:  Grab your husband and, to save money during a period of unemployment of unknown duration, move in with your mother in a house with just one bathroom for the three of you.  Your sister and her kids and granddaughter will live about a mile away.  You will become the chief form of day care for your grandniece.  Oh, and make that house the parsonage of a church with the doorbell ringing and parishioners and community members and the homeless banging on your door at all hours of the day and night.  Wake up and stumble into the living room to find a strange woman sitting on your couch.  Be awoken at two in the morning by a man standing outside and yelling “Pastor! Pastor!”

Alone time?  What’s that?

We went from missing family to having them on top of us every minute.  Alas, in life it is often difficult to find the mythical happy medium.  There were a few weekends when we rented a hotel room thirty minutes away just so my wife could escape the constant going and running and doing for someone or other.  When we first arrived here, it felt good to be tucked in among extended family; now, we cherish any opportunity for just the two of us to be together.

This past week, Pastor Mom went out of town for a couple of days, during which time my wife happened not to have any babysitting duties.  She actually had the house to herself and could hear herself think for once.  She says the peace and quiet was heavenly.

In about two or three months, we plan to move into our own apartment in a location much closer to my work.  Not only do we look forward to putting the regimen of commuting behind us, but it will be great for my wife and I to have regular “alone together” time while my wife can have her “alone alone” time during the day.  It sounds like marital bliss to me.

And if we miss the family, well, they’ll only be about half an hour away.  I’m sure we’ll still spend a lot of time with them, but after all the running around, we’ll have a place to which we can escape.  A place where we don’t have to remember to lock the bathroom door or watch where we toss our clothes.  In other words, we’ll be able to go home.

Together.

Alone.

The Marriage Gene

My sister called last night to tell me about a hot job prospect in the Bay Area.  She’s hoping she gets the job so that she can move back into her house at the end of the renters’ lease term.  I don’t blame her for hoping that her days as a traveling sonographer might be over.

Just as she called, I received a text from my cousin on the east coast.  This is starting to get freaky.  First, my sister, who I often don’t hear from for months, calls me twice in one week.  Then my only first cousin, whom I haven’t seen or spoken to since 1996, appears out of nowhere.  “Who is this?” I asked when he texted me.  I didn’t even recognize the area code.

I am guessing that my cousin, who is only two weeks older than I am, is trying to reconnect with family for some reason.  Apparently, my brother-in-law in Texas finally accepted a Facebook friend request that my cousin made two years ago.  In our younger days, my cousin had a little crush on my Texas sister, but of course nothing came of it since we’re first cousins and all.  Instead, he ended up marrying one of her best friends.

Putting two and two together, I suppose my Texas sister or her husband gave my cousin the phone number for my Bay Area sister.  Then she gave him my number.

My cousin and I are such opposites that, from childhood on, we never had much to do with one another.  He was always a thin, tall, good-looking guy, while I’ve always been short and obese.  I was always well-behaved and did well in school, while my cousin had a sassy mouth, was constantly in trouble and struggled with grades.  My earliest memory of my cousin is when, at the age of five, in a fit of pique he took off his shoe and threw it at my grandparents’ console television.

I’m sure that a good part of my cousin’s early problems were related to his upbringing.  His parents were constantly screaming at each other and, I am told, had fistfights.  His father was a skinny little 98 pound guy, while his mother was a huge woman with a huge voice.  They both had huge tempers.

My parents bought a house in the suburbs and moved us out of New York City when I was six years old, while my cousin slept in the living room of a tiny, roach-infested apartment until he graduated from college.

When we were in our early twenties, my cousin bemoaned his bad luck with women and wondered aloud why a fat guy like me always had a girlfriend.  I didn’t bother mentioning that personality might have something to do with it.  There are not a lot of people who find a wiseass endearing.

I haven’t felt the need to keep in contact with my cousin over the years.  At some level, I think I associate him with bad childhood memories.  So now he gets in touch with me via text and says he wants to call.  What can I do?  It would be rude to tell him not to call.  Maybe I need to give the guy another chance.  However, considering that he lives 3,000 miles away, what hope would we have for a normal familial relationship even under the best of circumstances?

I texted him back, telling him to call me on the weekend.  This should be interesting.

In text, I explained to him that I work in state government and that my wife and I enjoy a happy life.  “That’s good,” he responded.

Then he texted me a photo of himself with his wife.

His third wife.

My cousin has always chosen his partners badly.  When we were younger, I thought that, because he had difficulties with women, he settled for whatever he could get.  First it was his New York wife, my sister’s friend, with whom he had two sons.  Then he divorced her and married his New Jersey wife, who referred to him as “my prince.”  Then he divorced her and married his North Carolina wife, whom I hear has cancer and is undergoing the hell that is chemotherapy and radiation.

My sister says that, if NC wife passes on, Cuz will quickly move on to a fourth wife.  Her theory is that some people have a “marriage gene,” an innate trait that compels them to hitch their wagon to “anyone with an XX chromosome.”

My cousin’s mother died of cancer about a dozen years ago, and his father, already past the age of 70, remarried.  His new wife suffers from a variety of serious illnesses.  Sis is laying bets that, should she pass away, my uncle, now well in his eighties, will marry again.

My father says that a second marriage represents the triumph of hope over experience.  I wonder what a third marriage represents.

When a relationship fails, we often resort to the defense mechanism of blaming the shortcomings of our partner.  After a couple of failed marriages, however, what would make one think that a subsequent attempt would fare any better?  At some point, a reasonable person would take a good hard look in the mirror and say “maybe it’s me!”

After my sister divorced her husband, he stated that he “doesn’t want to die alone” and promptly remarried.  Someone should have broken the news to him that we all die alone.  Nevertheless, I get it that some people just can’t stand to be without a steady bed partner, particularly after years of marriage.  I get it that having lots of family, friends and coworkers isn’t the same thing as having a life partner.  Or an until-I-get-divorced-again partner, at any rate.

Or maybe my sister is right.  Perhaps there really is a marriage gene.

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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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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