Thursday, December 24, 2015

A World Without Boundaries?

Is it my imagination or are people less polite than they used to be?  I'm asking because several recent incidents got me thinking about manners (again).  I encountered some holiday shoppers who had parked in handicapped spots, even though they had no right to be there. I admit this is a pet peeve of mine, and I was disappointed to note they got upset when anyone asked them to move.  I also observed a number of folks who were cutting each other off in traffic or honking their horns at each other (or giving each other the middle finger) as they raced to the mall to do their last minute Christmas shopping.  There's a certain irony about folks who are supposedly shopping for gifts to make others happy, yet they are so angry themselves. 

And then, there was an incident from the campaign trail:  a much-discussed comment that Donald Trump made the other night, when he used a slang Yiddish word for the penis (I honestly never expected to be writing about male genitalia when I first began blogging).  He said that Barack  Obama had "shlonged" Hillary Clinton.  Okay fine, contrary to his insistence that using it like that refers to "defeating someone overwhelmingly," I do not think this word means what he thinks it means. I grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home, and I'm well aware of every vulgar Yiddish expression (Yiddish is a great language for profanity and sarcasm, by the way).  There's no getting around the fact that "shlong" is a crude term; and yet this man who wants to be president was using it on national TV.

I know, that's just Donald being Donald.  But it still puzzled me.  When I was growing up, NO candidate from either party would have used that kind of language in a public venue.  Richard Nixon, as we now know from the White House tapes that were released to the public, frequently used vulgarities when he was with his advisers.  But in public, never.  Ditto for Lyndon Johnson, another fan of using profanities with friends and colleagues.  In public, however, he was always courteous, even when talking about his political enemies.

Dave Weigel of the Washington Post recently wrote a very insightful piece about what has happened to our political discourse.  He equated Mr. Trump's way of speaking with how radio shock jocks speak.  It's a very apt comparison. (You can read his entire column here:  In fact, I notice that in much of our public discourse, courtesy takes a back seat to blurting out whatever emotion comes to the forefront at that moment.  

I'm not sure what to make of it all.  We seem to be in an era where people feel they can be rude and then say they are just "striking a blow against political correctness."  There certainly seem to be a lot of angry, overwhelmed, frustrated folks out there, all seeking someone they can blame, or someone they can lash out at.  But whatever happened to boundaries?  Is everything permissible now, even if it make life difficult for someone else?  Whatever happened to the idea of thinking before you speak, or trying to show courtesy, or speaking with civility rather than vulgarity?  Maybe politicians today do think of themselves as the heirs to shock jocks and bloviating talk show hosts.  Maybe online commenters think it's now okay to call people Nazis or make slanderous accusations against anyone they disagree with.  Maybe good manners are now just a relic of the past.  At times, it certainly seems that way... or is it just my imagination?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

There Really IS a War on Christmas (and on Hanukkah Too)

Hanukkah has just concluded (for those who aren't Jewish, it comes at a different time each year because we use a lunar calendar to calculate the date), and I noticed with some disappointment that it's not like it used to be.  When I was growing up, Hanukkah was a minor holiday in the Jewish year, celebrated with potato pancakes (latkes), "Hanukkah gelt" (coins made from milk chocolate) and big jelly donuts (sufganiyot).  It took place in the home, where we all lit the menorah, and we played various children's games, often with a little top called a dreidel; but Hanukkah was not the Jewish version of Christmas, nor was it supposed to be.  In fact, our big holidays were (and still are) Passover and Jewish New Year.

But these days, Hanukkah seems to have risen in importance:  I even saw one recent study that said Hanukkah is now the most widely observed Jewish holiday. I'm not sure that's a good thing.  Don't get me wrong-- I love Hanukkah and I'm glad more people are observing it; but I get this uncomfortable feeling that it has nothing to do with the religious meaning of the holiday.  Rather, it's about competing with Christmas, so Jewish kids don't feel bad that their Christian friends are getting a ton of expensive presents while they're just getting little tops and packages of chocolate coins.

Interestingly, my Christian friends often lament what has happened to their holiday too.  I was very friendly with a Catholic nun for many years, and she frequently expressed her sadness that Christmas was no longer about the birth of the Christian savior-- it was about having the most beautifully decorated tree, putting up the most lights, and making sure the kids all got the toys they wanted from Santa.  Okay fine, the lights are certainly pretty, and we can all debate whether Jesus was actually born in December (most scholars say he was not).  But I cannot help but think that if Jesus were here, he wouldn't want his Christian followers going into debt to keep up with the wish-lists of their kids.  Nor would he be pleased by equating love with how much money one spends.

Yet all the ads on TV stress that message-- if you really love your [pick one:  spouse, kids, significant other, best friend], you will spare no expense to find the right gift.  It all makes me wonder:  where would Jesus shop?  And where did he even say that his birthday should be celebrated with wreathes, and trees, and reindeer, and Santa and hundreds of dollars worth of gifts?  Unless I'm reading the wrong parts of the Bible, the New Testament says what matters most is feeding the poor and helping those who are less fortunate.  And the Hebrew Scriptures say pretty much the same thing.

And that brings me to the real "War on Christmas."  No, it's not some fake war dreamed up by Fox News and Christian conservatives, who sincerely believe that Christianity is "under attack" by so-called "secular progressives."  I promise you, my dear Christian friends, Christianity is doing just fine, and secular progressives are the least of your problems. Nor should you be worried about whether stores say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas," or whether Starbucks does or does not have "Christmas messages" on their coffee cups.  The real issue is whether we are going to allow the true meaning of Christmas to slip away forever.  Originally, both Christmas and Hanukkah were times for family and friends to gather in the home, share a nice meal, and exchange simple gifts-- often gifts they made by hand.  Today, both festivals have turned into odes to rampant consumerism, as adults try to out-spend each other, and stores worry about keeping the latest popular toys in stock (or these days, they worry that online shopping is making brick-and-mortar stores irrelevant).

While Christmas is not my holiday, I understand that some of my Christian friends want to see public and visible symbols.  I, on the other hand, wish this season were not a contest-- whether or not there's a huge manger in front of City Hall is less important to me than whether we treat each other's holidays with respect.  Some cities may have a public menorah lighting at Hanukkah, but most do not.  In fact, there are a number of important holidays observed by American Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus, and none of those holidays gets much attention at all.  They should.  Kids need to learn from a young age that there are many religions in America, and all should be treated with courtesy.

Sometimes, I wonder if the war on Christmas (and Hanukkah) has been lost.  Too many kids growing up in our modern world don't associate a religious meaning with either holiday-- rather, they just expect that they'll get more stuff this year than they got last year. That may be good for the corporations, but is it good for our ethics and morals?  I salute every parent who takes their kids to do volunteer work on Christmas, and each parent who teaches about the joy of giving rather than receiving.  It's an important lesson, but it may not be the lesson most kids are getting, given how ostentatious many of the holiday observances have become. 

One of my favorite Hanukkah memories occurred in the mid 1980s, in Rapid City, South Dakota. There were few Jews in town, but one family made it a point to preserve Jewish tradition and teach about the holidays.  I was in Rapid City on business, and I was invited to their Hanukkah celebration.  It was a cold winter night, and we stood on a hill, where the family had put up a big menorah; it was visible for miles.  And there we were-- the family, their friends, and I; and we lit the lights, and we sang the prayers, and we expressed our gratitude for the holiday season.  The local media covered the event-- they rarely saw Jewish observances-- and it was one of those beautiful, magical, yet very simple celebrations.  I have never forgotten it.

So, whether you have the most lights in the neighborhood or none at all, whether you celebrate Christmas in a religious way or a secular way or not at all, let this season be one of kindness, of compassion, and of giving-- not just giving presents, but giving warmth and welcome to those who need it most.  If you really want to fight the mythical war on Christmas, go ahead; but a better strategy is to remember what Christmas is really supposed to be about-- it's a time to say thank you, a time to be joyful, and above all, a time to let the light of wisdom pierce the darkness of ignorance.  May you have a wondrous holiday season, and may you have many reasons for celebration.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Neil's Alleged Retirement

If you're a Rush fan, the past several days have been a roller coaster ride.  It all started when some fan sites posted a couple of quotes from a magazine interview with the king of all drummers, Neil Peart, in which he said (or seemed to say) he was now retired.  Social media exploded.  Was this the end?  Would there be no more Rush?  Wild speculation took over, as it often does online, and many fans were inconsolable. 

To be fair, Rush's loyal fan base had been worrying about this since the most recent tour; it was very brief, and during it, hints had been dropped that this tour might be the last one.  But after the tour ended and the guys went home to rest and spend time with their families, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson gave subsequent radio and print interviews in which they said they'd be willing to perform again at some point.  But there was someone whose voice was missing-- Neil.  And then, out of nowhere, the interview with Neil appeared, in which he seemed to state that he would no longer be part of whatever plans Geddy and Alex might make.

Or not.  As it turned out when I did some fact-checking, this was not a new interview (I was told it had been done several months ago, and was just being published now); and more importantly, it was not in response to what Geddy and Alex had just said in their mid-November radio appearance on Q104.3 in New York.  Rather, it was just Neil saying basically what he had said before-- that he did not want to do any more touring.  As it turned out, it was not exactly a "stop the presses!" moment.

But once again, here was an example of how deep the love and admiration the fans have for this band:  even a couple of quotes that may or may not have been taken out of context could cause thousands of tweets, emails, and Facebook posts.  Since I didn't yet know the whole story, I simply commented that whatever Neil's decision, I respected it:  he had given so many years of outstanding music to fans all over the world.  Few drummers put as much energy and dedication into their craft as Neil did.  In addition to writing excellent lyrics, and being a legendary drummer, he always gave a dynamic performance, a true complement to the equally dynamic performances of Alex and Geddy.  Like them, Neil was always a professional.  He threw himself into his playing, no matter how he might be feeling health-wise (I still remember spending some time with him one night in 2012 and he had a bad sinus infection; yet he still gave 150% during the show, and I doubt anyone in attendance realized how miserable he felt).  So, if this was now the right time for him to stop, I could only wish him well.

Eventually, the story of Neil's alleged retirement was given some context. So, perhaps he would no longer tour, but he had not closed off the possibility of getting together with Alex and Geddy to create some new music.  When this might occur was uncertain-- Neil is loving every minute of watching his daughter grow up, and hanging out with his wife and his closest friends.  And while fans are probably disappointed that there might not be another Rush tour (no, Geddy and Alex would not replace him-- they have said previously if there's no Neil, there's no Rush), at least there might still be a new album.  Or perhaps a live performance somewhere.  Only time will tell.

Of course, if there's a lesson to be learned from the past few days, it's that quotes online are often not what they seem.  But realistically, the idea that he does not want to tour makes perfect sense.  Neil is no longer the young guy who could go from city to city performing for more than 300 days a year.  He's in his 60s now, and doing all that drumming can be physically painful-- he's had tendinitis, and let's also keep in mind that many drummers of his age can suffer from some hearing loss.  It's understandable that he might want to quit touring while he is still at the top of his game, and let the fans remember him at his best.   

I'd be lying if I said I know what Neil's plans are.  While I have several good friends at Rush's management company, it's Alex that I talk to the most often (I've also become friendly with Geddy's sister). But my interactions with Neil have been very few over the years.  That's fine with me.  He's a very private person, and I respect that.  If I want to know how he is doing, I do keep in touch with one of his close friends, and I can get a message to him that way.  But Neil has every right to live his life in the way that best ensures his health and happiness.  Maybe he'll get tired of retirement and want to perform again.  Maybe he won't. But we do know he has NOT definitively stated that he is done; he simply hasn't made any specific future plans.  I fully expect Geddy, Alex and Neil to get together at some point, to discuss what the next thing is.  Whatever it is, I will say what I've always said:  for forty-one years, I've had the privilege of knowing the guys in the band, seeing them perform, and enjoying so many of their songs.  I don't know if we'll get to hear any new music, but somehow, I get the impression that we will. Till then, I'm grateful for what the guys have given us. And there's nothing else I can say other than "thank you." 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Conversation About Guns That We Never Seem To Have

In the midst of the shock and horror of yet another mass shooting, I learned that this time, the alleged perpetrator had a Muslim name.  And I knew immediately that we were not going to have a discussion about why there are so many guns on the streets (and how easy it is for bad guys to get them); or why average citizens, rather than police officers or members of the military, need access to assault-style weapons.  No, we were going to have a conversation about "Muslim terrorists."  And sure enough, the political attacks from the Republican presidential candidates started almost as soon as that information came out.  Meanwhile, as if we were in two parallel universes, as Republicans were talking about Muslims, the Democratic candidates were once again talking about the need for reform of gun laws.  Two very predictable conversations, neither of which ever seems to result in anything positive.   

All the facts about the perpetrator have not come out yet, so despite rampant speculation on blogs and talk shows, we don't really know when or where he became radicalized: he was born and raised in the US, (his parents were from Pakistan), and by all accounts, he seldom if ever mentioned his religion at work.  It may turn out that we need to look further into how an educated American Muslim who seemed to be successful in his career, who was married and had a six-month-old child, could suddenly transform into the kind of monster who would kill fourteen innocent people at a holiday party.

But while I agree that this particular Muslim may indeed turn out to be a terrorist, I'm not persuaded that ramping up the right-wing verbal attacks on every Muslim everywhere will solve the problem of mass shootings in America. For one thing, the outrage about yesterday's mass shooting is highly selective.  Just last week, in Colorado Springs CO, a white Christian man shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three people, including a police officer, and wounding nine others. I was disappointed, but not surprised, when most Republicans said nothing; and those who did say something seemed to blame the victims.  Both Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina suggested that while the shooter was a criminal, such visceral dislike of Planned Parenthood is understandable because of the allegedly horrible things that this organization does. (Most Americans disagree:  in survey after survey, Planned Parenthood is viewed very favorably, despite repeated conservative efforts to demonize and distort its work.  But that is a story for another day.)  Only Mike Huckabee called it what it really was:  domestic terrorism-- and even he framed it in the context of how Planned Parenthood isn't especially deserving of our sympathies.

When Adam Lanza (another angry white guy) shot up a school in Newtown CT, killing twenty children and six adults, the dominant meme was that he was mentally ill.  The same was said about James Holmes, when he massacred twelve people and wounded seventy more in a movie theater in Aurora CO. In fact, whenever the shooter in white, it seems the dominant discourse is that he is "troubled" or "a loner" or "suffering from mental illness."  All of that may be true, but whether the violence occurs at a school, or a theater, or a women's health clinic, rarely is the dominant discourse that the person who committed the murders is a domestic terrorist, or any kind of a terrorist at all.  But now that the perpetrator is Muslim, well, it's definitely terrorism.  

My point is not to make this about race or religion.  My point is to ask why we can't have a serious conversation about guns in America without it deteriorating into side issues like whether the perpetrator was tied to Muslim terrorism, or even whether the person was mentally ill. I'm more interested in why we can't honestly discuss the documented fact that there are too many guns on the streets, or that too many of the wrong people can easily get them; we can't even debate whether anyone other than law enforcement or the military needs to have assault weapons.

And for those who hope for some legislative fixes to loopholes in current laws, congress seems powerless to take any action, afraid to stand up to the money and power of the NRA. Whenever I ask on social media about what I believe are sensible modifications of our gun laws, I often get angry responses-- folks who call me anti-gun or accuse me of being a liberal who hates the second amendment.  But name-calling isn't helpful either.  For the record, I am not anti-gun:  I respect those who hunt or engage in sport shooting, and both of my step-daughters served in the military (and my father, of blessed memory, was a decorated combat veteran in World War II).  And while I am indeed a liberal on some issues, my main problem with the 2nd amendment is how conservatives and lobbyists have reinterpreted it in a way that I believe the Founding Fathers never intended.

So, no I do not want to ban all guns.  But I do wish I could see a return to sanity about gun policies:  in 2004, congress allowed the ban on assault weapons to lapse.  Contrary to the folks at the NRA, I remain unconvinced that assault weapons should be in every home-- and if you ask the majority of police officers, they agree with me.  Yet we can't seem to budge on closing the gun show loophole or making it harder for folks to buy weapons online.  We can't seem to make it harder for people on the Terrorism Watch List to get weapons-- I mean, politicians want to demagogue about "radical Muslim terrorists," yet today again, the day after this latest mass shooting, congress refused to close the loophole that allows people on the terrorism watch list to purchase weapons.  But then, we can't even agree on whether convicted domestic abusers should be allowed to get their guns back.

As I see it, congress is being held hostage by 2nd amendment absolutists, folks who believe there should be NO restrictions on gun ownership.  As a result, even common-sense suggestions are immediately rejected by the same politicians who will go before the nearest microphone and claim they want to keep us safe.  It seems what they really want is to stay in power:  going up against the NRA these days means the public will be told you are a "gun grabber," and voters will support your opponent.  But even though in reality, nobody's guns are being grabbed, any time even a small limitation on gun ownership is proposed, the NRA immediately stokes the fears of its members, insisting the next step will be a total ban... a nonsensical claim, but one that seems to be widely believed by a small but very influential group of gun owners and the lobbyists who represent them.

But who represents the rest of us?  With each mass shooting, we hear the same platitudes, the same comments about thoughts and prayers going out to the victims, the same insistence that there's nothing we can do to change any of this.  Things did not used to be this way when I was growing up-- 2nd amendment absolutism was considered a fringe view, and even NRA members supported common-sense gun regulations.  It's a different world now, and the answer from the usual suspects is that we need more guns-- good guys with guns will allegedly be able to stop bad guys with guns.  Umm, that may be true in the movies.  But in real life, too many innocent people are being murdered, and until we can sit down and begin a serious conversation about sensible solutions, it seems that every week, another tragedy will occur, and then another, and another.  I fully expect this blog post will bring out the folks who generally call me names.  But what I hope will happen is that, instead of the usual polarized reactions, some people on both sides will look at where we are now, decide it's just not working, and demand that some changes be made.  It's a conversation we need to have... before even more people are killed.