Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Let's Talk About Sex

While I know it has been a while since I have written here I feel like the world has made it difficult to actually express myself in any real way.  I cannot understand how to express myself on some matters but several recent stories in the news and in my life has me thinking once again about how screwed up our culture has become about sex and sexuality.  But the story that has pushed me out of slump is one that would make me angry if it wasn't so clearly comical.  You see it is another example of the failure of the lack of sexuality education that is meaningful.  In Texas a high school has had a huge outbreak of Chlamydia.   Their approach to sex education is "Don't Do It" and they will talk about if for a total of 3 days each year.  This does not prepare young people for the reality of the fact that we are born to be sexual beings and that those drives, feelings and subsequent behavior is often ignored. 

We are born to have sex, it is a primal drive and it extremely pleasurable.  It is also something that uncomfortable for people to fully discuss in our culture.  Virtually everyone is sexual to some extent and those that aren't often see themselves as wanting to be able to explore that part of themselves.  In fact it drives much of human behavior throughout our evolutionary history and sexual desire can be blamed for both great tragedies and great accomplishments over the millennia of human civilization.  But as we evolved as a species and as societies developed, how we approach our sexuality has changed.  Most human cultures don't simply act on sexual desire without conscious thought and we can find someone attractive and even desirable without abandoning the civility that has created our own structure of how sexuality works.  While there are in fact some communities that open sexuality are the norm, they are often hidden from the larger society and even when known are seen as an aberration and not ubiquitous.  But we know that we all have the desire and even if you are married and deeply in love you can still easily find someone else attractive but that doesn't mean you have to act on those feelings.  That is what it means to be human.  One of the things that clearly separates us from the other members of the animal kingdom is the fact that we have evolved beyond that need and we can control our desires, sexual and others.

so what does that have to do with education?  Well that is a learned thing.  The social contract that we all agree to, especially in Western culture, is that we are not rampant sexual beings and we approach our sexuality as more than a physical thing.  Our behaviors must have thoughts associated with them.  We can talk about being in love, but in the current human condition, expressing our sexuality requires us to take on responsibility.  For young people, understanding that responsibility means learning about it.  The physical, emotional, and dare I say spiritual aspects of being as sexual being are all learned and how we incorporate them into who was are as a human being is an important goal. 

Now one can argue that this should be the exclusive purview of the parents.  Frankly I wish that were something that was done. It use to be.  Parents talked to their children about sexuality, to various degrees. Mothers helped daughters understand what to expect from their first sexual encounter and some cultures, even today, teach how to pleasure a partner when they are married or coupled in the fashion of that culture.  Human sexuality was part of the education even in religious cultures that spoke of sexuality as part of the covenant of marriage.  But like many things we have professionalized the most basic of human growth and development.  I fear most people are no longer equipped to have serious conversations about sex and sexuality with their own children.  Evidence of this is a commercial for an anti-drug campaign.  A boy comes home to find his dad with a display to talk to him about his surging hormones, the discomfort is abated when the topic switches to talking about drugs instead of sex
It appears talking to our kids about sex is so taboo we would rather do anything else.  Thus we want the schools to do it, but that became classes about plumbing and disease.  The problem is there is another aspect of our culture that revels in sexuality as a sales tool and sign of popularity.  It sells so much that a horribly written fan fiction of Twilight that had a BDSM theme sold a million copies and currently is spawning two movies that we titter about.  So young people who see value given to the child stars they followed coming out of their shell and doing explicit performances like Brittney Spears,  and Miley Cyrus or the fact we have made cultural heroes of people like the Kardashians confuses students when the only learning they are given is to have a teacher emphasize waiting to experience sex until marriage.  (Leaving out the fact that many places some of those kids can still not get married).  We also question young men who pledge virginity but that is a different post.

So what do we do?  I wish I had a magic bullet, no one does.  But what we know is that comprehensive sexuality education from an early age will in fact help make our young people grow into more mature and responsible sexual beings.  Discussions of sex not as a necessary evil but as a much of a pleasure of our existence as anything else; while at the same time discussing the amazing responsibility that comes with being sexually active at any level.  That is what works in other countries including Canada and frankly much of northern Europe.  We can do better.  Perhaps we need comprehensive sexuality education for all of us, at every age.  We can discuss not only how to view our own sexuality but how we pass down needed information and support for the next generation.  I don't know.  But stories like the Texas school are not as rare as we think.  Two decades ago it was suburban Atlanta that caused a firestorm.  Then came the idea of rainbow parties and high school kids playing a scary game on the internet meeting strangers for sex in an online 7 minutes in heaven kind of game.  As a culture we must continue to try to understand the issues of sexuality and the fact that we cannot stop young people, especially with the freedom they have today, from exploring their own growing sexual desires at younger ages.  We must also not assume that saying no is the answer.  Can we get past our own discomfort and find a way to do it?  What do we need to do it? 


Friday, February 6, 2015

The President Was Not Wrong

So on Thursday, the President spoke at a National Prayer breakfast.  In the speech he said these words:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.  Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

This, of course, sent the right wing crazy, but also several on the left.  They scream that the President was making a moral equivalency between ISIS and Christianity.  They said it was an attack on all Christians.  They said he was ignorant of the Crusades and mentioned that they were efforts to fight Muslims terrorists.  It was quite remarkable.  But what they are missing is the simple fact that the President was right.  The simple fact is that the actions of ISIS are a perversion of Islam that is not unlike perversions of other faith traditions that led to atrocities throughout history and up to very recently.  To paint all of Islam with the brush dipped in the blood shed by ISIS is silly and as silly as holding today’s Christian’s responsible for the Crusades.  But let’s be clear.  Even if you could make the argument that the Crusades were about fighting to take back land in the Middle East considered Holy to the European Christians who went to fight the Arabs there, one cannot explain how the killing of Jews along the way was justifiable and not a Christian mob who saw themselves doing God’s work.  The President is simply pointing out in this speech that we must be cautious of how we see groups like ISIS and how we generalize them to all of Islam, or even argue that Islam somehow supports this kind of brutality. 

But the noise machine and others will have none of it.  They will tell you what the President thought and how he hates Christianity and how he is making an excuse for ISIS.  But that is not the truth.  But truth and the noise machine are not friends.  In fact they conveniently ignore that he brought up civil rights in the equation so that they can so easily dismiss the clear evil that was part of the Crusades or the Inquisition as being over 600 years ago.  But what they won’t address is that it was Christian teaching that led many to not question slavery or even Jim Crowe in our nation’s history.  A history that is troubled and rarely fully addressed.  Funny story, at the same time there were preachers in pulpits saying things like enslaving savage Africans will break their will and they will find salvation, there were many in the pulpit using the same text to condemn the institution of slavery.  And that is what the President was alluding to in his speech.  That religion can be the lever to move people and that is can be manipulated to do evil and justify it as sacred. 

Ta-Nehesi Coates, writing today in The Atlantic says:

Now, Christianity did not "cause" slavery, any more than Christianity "caused" the civil-rights movement. The interest in power is almost always accompanied by the need to sanctify that power. That is what the Muslims terrorists in ISIS are seeking to do today, and that is what Christian enslavers and Christian terrorists did for the lion's share of American history.

Mr. Coates points out correctly that the analogy is not only solid, but important to any discussion about religions role in defeating the evil that is ISIS.  Going back to the imagery of the Crusades and frankly the Middle Ages in Christian Europe, it was often Christian leaders who called for mass killings and their followers who would carry it out.  Jews were slaughtered in many places simply for being Jews, this time of year, near Purim and Pesach that almost always coincides with Lent and Easter, priests would rile up crowds to descend on the Jews in a town to punish them simply for a different faith.  It used made up stories of Jews murdering Christian children, known as the blood libel, to make Matzah or Hamantaschen and the murderers truly felt they were making the world better through purging of the infidels in their midst.  Sound familiar? 

But we need not look back 600 years.  Near where I grew up in Massena, NY in 1928, a young girl went missing a few days before Yom Kippur and the city officials were convinced the Jews had ritually sacrificed her.  When it was later discovered that she got lost and fell asleep in the woods (easy to do in the region even today when you get outside of town) people still believed this.  But this blood libel is alive and well today in many places including among the Christians of Poland according to a 2008 study. 

Christian actions and words have led to horrors in the past that can’t simply be ignored while holding all of Islam responsible for the actions of the lunatic death cult called ISIS. 

The President was simply pointing out these Middle East thugs are not a novel invention in human history and we must be careful of how much we draw from their invoking the name of God in their actions.  We can so easily generalize their actions to all Muslims or think that this is the definition of Islam and that somehow that is waiting for us from all Muslim.  So instead of being outraged that the President addressed the issue in a strong way, perhaps you should use this to open up dialogue to address the real issues.  That religion can be used to commit horrors beyond imagine in the name of God, and that this must be stopped.  The best way is to promote freedom and take religion out of the hands of civil authority and to focus on not trying to demonize an entire faith, but understand the struggle that faith is going through as the radical members have created such a powerful profile.  Want to screw with an Islamic radical, invite a Muslim to your seder or your child’s baptism.   Each and every faith evolves as it matures and goes through its own form of enlightenment.  We are living in the time of that struggle in Islam. But what we must understand that while the words are different and the prayers have another language this is not new and that is what the President was saying.  It may be hard to hear, but it will help in the long run to combat the radicals.  But that will only happen if we recognize them for what they are, and that they are not unique in the grand scheme of things. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Life And How to Live It

Yesterday in my hometown there are people gathering to say good-bye to a man who has passed away way too soon.  A woman who graduated high school with me lost her husband at an early age. Her close friends come together to help comfort her as her life changes so drastically.  This tragic death pushed me further to think about the role of death in our lives. I became acquainted with death as a teen when my dad died. When Linda died my entire life was thrown into complete turmoil.   Later I had colleagues and friends pass away and more recently it seems I have entered an age where all of us who grew up together are facing the death of our parents.  While we know death is always there, it shocking.  Death travels with us our entire life, like a an old dog you take with you on a road trip.  Most of the journey it sleeps in the back, we forget it is there until it barks.  Sometimes even causes us to change the direction we are headed.  Death will always interrupt our lives.  How we react to this is the trick.     

As someone who works in a religious setting I get asked on occasion what I and/or Judaism thinks about death and afterlife.  In fact Noah asked me today if I would rather have an eternal but boring afterlife or no afterlife at all.  I didn't respond well because most of the time I answer those questions from the position of an educator. In this case I told him I had been thinking about it a lot lately and I don't have an answer but I am not certain I would want a boring eternity.  

In my work it is easy for me to skirt the bigger philosophical questions about the afterlife by saying that Judaism doesn't speak much about if. Much of Judaism focuses on the now not the next life.   However there is a lot of interesting views of an afterlife in Judaism.  When I talk about them I am teaching, or explaining what tradition teaches, often I repeat the caveat that it is not what I believe, but what our tradition teaches.  You see I don't believe in the afterlife image so common in our western civilization thought.  I can't imagine a heaven and hell that is populated by people for an eternity that is like a glorified and carefree version of life today or constant torment.  There is no way that I am comfortable with a God that would create that situation.  It makes no sense to me and seems to have grown out of a composite of various attempts to understand the meaning of life that often ended so abruptly and arbitrarily.  However there is comfort in knowing or believing that those we love continue on after they no longer walk the earth.  This too I find troubling but there are ways of knowing that what was important about the person does live on.  Those we loved live on in our memory and the stories we tell give them a sense of continued life.  All they taught us and gave us when alive is still there and is manifest when we use their knowledge and wisdom in our own lives. Just the other day I made my mother's Red Cabbage dish and for me I felt her presence in the meal.   That, of course, is what is important.  How those who are gone do continue to live with us, in the actions we take they have influenced, through the lessons they taught us that we pass on and by the vision they had for the world that we continue to help make happen.  

Ultimately we will all grieve in our own way and we will all deal with loss in our own time.  But while we may struggle with the what if of the world beyond there is one thing I know for sure.  Everyone who touched me in life who have left this world continues to live on in memory and how they have influenced my life choices.  They live on in me.  I also believe  the greatest tribute we can give those who have gone is to live life fully and carry their memory and essence with us.  I am sure I will continue to struggle with these tough questions.  I am not sure if I ever will come to grips with it.  

To those reading this in mourning, may you be fully comforted and I hope one day these words will have meaning for you.    

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Saying Goodbye to 2014

So tonight we say good-bye to 2014 and as we look back while the details are different the landscape is the same as usual.  There were some big highs and several lows.  Personally I clicked off a few more of my bucket list items.  Dianne and I found ways to find ways to create new experiences together as a couple.  I saw both coasts this year and spent time with old friends I don't see often enough.

This year saw some great moments.  Not a few friends were able to legally marry, a right that was blocked by law for them until this year.  I saw the world come together to turn a stupid challenge into a windfall for those combating the horrible syndrome of ALS.  Despite the horrible catalyst of a brutal video of an NFL player punching his fiance out the country is having a serious conversation about domestic violence.  Oh and the NFL moved into new territory by drafting an openly gay player.

We also saw low points.  The rise of ISIS, a terrible summer for Israel kicked off by the murder of a three teen-agers, riots in towns after the death of young black men at the hands of police and of course both the tragedy of Ebola and the irrational fear around it.

As all years we had a little of everything. What is important is that we try to make the next better by fixing what we can, moving on from what we can't, and acknowledging what we have.  As we say good-bye I will take note of the fact that I have a wonderful family, a smart and growing young man for a son and wonderful wife who not only loves me but gets me.  I have friends who span the globe both in location and ideology.  I have a great job, wonderful if changing colleagues, and a stronger support of fellow educators than ever before.  In the new year I turn 50 as does Dianne and Noah heads off to  college.  It will be a year of transitions.  So raising a glass to 2015.  May it bring all the joys you want and none of the travails you don't need.  May you go from strength to strength.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Happy Holidays

So I have Christmas off and even though I don't celebrate it I enjoy the way the world slows down.  So I spent a lot of time today doing little and thinking a lot about the holiday season. This can be a frustrating time of year.  It is not the overwhelming tinsel bombing of the country, but that is a symptom of the situation I struggle with in this context.    You see most of my Christian friends are honoring and respectful of people who don't celebrate Christmas and are knowledgeable or inquisitive about that and other Jewish holidays.  So when I see something like this I shake my head and wonder:

Bud Williams, a city councilor in Springfield, Massachusetts, attended a menorah lighting ceremony with prominent Jewish community leaders. When it was his turn to speak, he lectured the group about how important Jesus was to the holiday season. According to Williams’ shaky logic, Jesus is the reason for the season – even the Hanukkah season.

Seriously, WTF?  Why would anyone say this?  Hanukkah has nothing to do with Jesus and in fact the story of Hanukkah takes place almost 200 years before Jesus is born.  Now I know that for some it is hard to understand a holiday that last year started on Thanksgiving eve and this year ended on Christmas eve.  But this is just nonsense.  Why are there some people who feel the need to impose their own religious ideology on everyone.  

Each year Fox News brings up the War on Christmas.  One of the main themes of this is that some stores do not say "Merry Christmas" but do in fact say "Season's Greetings" or "Happy Holiday" are somehow destroying the holiday.  What is actually happening and what Mr. Williams didn't understand is that our culture is changing.  More and more people who were invisible by design are getting a chance to be noticed.  This seems to disturb so many and I think that part is that they feel their superior position is slipping.  When others are get a place at the table, those who have been there forever can't spread out as much.  That is not a bad thing.  But people do feel hurt.  What I wonder about is how weak their faith in their faith, themselves and their tradition must be to not allow others to express themselves in public.  Especially when we think of a holiday like Hanukkah, a holiday that some see as a holiday about religious freedom. 

I have friends from many different faith traditions and they hold their faith deeply.  I can't imagine any of them denying someone an expression of their faith or trying to step on it with a trite cliche as this guy did.  

So as Christmas day winds down and the season will soon be in the rearview mirror I hope everyone continues to grow in their faith and in that growth find room to allow others to do the same in the New Year.  I hope that people will embrace the growing expressions of the diversity that has always been part of our country and not feel threatened by it.  I hope that when next year at this time when someone says "Season's Greetings" it doesn't become an opportunity for a boycott but the kind thought that it is.  Oh and I also hope that when we all share who we really are with others we can get the best out of us all.  

Happy holidays to all now and throughout the year.  Whatever holiday feeds your soul. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

It May Be an Old Song, But a New Tune

I know you have heard it before.  Last summer I went on a diet, a meal plan.  I lost some weight, I patted myself on the back and I moved on to gain more and more.  It was never anything of a problem I told myself.  I mean I needed new pants and the comfort-fit waste band was a cool invention.  I really didn't think much about my growing stomach until a child ask me if I was going to have a baby.  Even when James Gandolfini died a day before my 48th birthday I knew I had to get my weight under control but that soon faded.  I remember from June to July of last year I went from 224 pounds to 218 and had a party.  By the end of August I was again at 223 and by December I was stable at 227.  That was what I was, stomach, comfort-fit and that cringe when I saw a picture of me from the side.

In July I registered at 231 and my blood work was a mess.  My doctor was not happy, and frankly neither was Dianne and Noah was all over me.  So I downloaded a simple ap called My Fitness Pal at my Doctor's suggestion and started monitoring my intact of calories, sugar, fat etc. and keeping track of exercise or the lack there of.  It was immediately educational.  I plugged in some numbers and it gave me an allowance of calories etc. to follow.  A huge database of food allows me to know precisely what I am taking in and I did the one thing I never did before.  I bought a kitchen scale to see exactly how much of stuff I was eating.  It is remarkable.  When I went back and looked how much I was eating I was well over 2500 calories a day.  Now I am between 1600-1800.  I don't skimp on what I eat, as anyone who reads my other blog knows and I just eat less and I am not hungry.  It is quite revealing.  I think sometimes I just ate for the joy of eating.  But now I eat a limited amount at each meal and I am still happy.  I don't feel like I suffer.

Oh and I have started losing weight.  From 231 in July I have now found myself at 210 and still losing. People have started to notice and say something and and old friend recently said I am looking like my old self.  I feel better, have more energy and move around better.  What is remarkable is that for years I have resisted the simple act of watching what I eat.  When I was a kid I could eat anything at anytime and was always skinny.  I am glad that I am taking this route and glad that I can make it work for me through technology.  I am grateful for the opportunity and the challenge of making food that fills me up and tastes good that doesn't make me compromise.

Oh and just so you know I am not a zealot, I still have days I eat 15 chicken wings and a mess of potatoes.  I still love Dianne's fried chicken, and Noah's recent birthday we all had a great cake with butter cream frosting.  But I know that eating is a life time venture and like keeping kosher it is about awareness and choices.  I plan to continue.  I plan to continue to lose and I plan to be with us for a long time as Noah asked me to the other day.  I hope this is the last time I write this.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Week in Review

I wanted to write about this week since it had a very busy news cycle of stories that interested me.  I was hoping to comment on many of them.

The Stealing of Nude Photos of Famous Women:  So someone hacked into the cloud storage of many people stealing and posting famous women's personal photographs in various states of undress and in some cases sexually explicit.  This was a theft and an invasion of privacy.  The fact that they were stored in electronic form in a protected fashion made it analogous to storing printed photos in a safe deposit box at the bank.  There was an agreement of privacy from the cloud server company.  But it took less than a day for people to attack the women for owning the photographs or for putting them in what thought was a safe place.  So let's think about this.
1.  Should people take pictures of themselves in the nude?  Well that ship sailed when the first photographs were invented.  In the 1800s people taking nude pictures and even creating pornographic images.  I remember an amazing exhibit at a museum in New York of personal movies and photos from when my grandmother was in her 20s.  So to be clear, this was made by my grandmother's generation.  The Polaroid made it even more common, and digital photography made it ubiquitous.  And yet these women are attacked publicly for having these available in their private archive.  Should celebrities be held to a higher standard?  Especially attractive, celebrity women?  It seems like the idea here was that they should know people want to see their intimate pictures and so not have them.  I wonder how many of those commentators would give me access to their passwords for their archives.  Bottom line is we are sexual beings, technology allows us to explore that with imagery, bodies are not dirty unless we make them such, and frankly the hacker who stole them is a lowlife.  That should be the story.  Not questioning whether the women should have these photos.

Bob McDonnell:  So Governor Ultrasound was convicted for the brides he took as Virginia Governor.  This was not an issue that was a surprise.  What is a surprise that some people thought this was a political attack and others suggested that it was a prosecution that was not necessary.  Think about this. A governor, one that ran on family values, was taking bribes to act on behalf of a wealthy friend, in a state with lax ethics standards.  The federal government had a strong case.  The defense was to throw his wife under the bus.  Seriously, how could anyone defend this guy.  It is amazing.  We are so politicized that a straight up liar who sold access to his office is considered a victim for being prosecuted.

Joan Rivers:  Joan Rivers died this week.  She was a pioneer and someone who kicked down the door to allow so many women to walk through.  Rivers created a new way to be a woman in a man's world of entertainment. She embraced the gay community from which she built tons of fans and stood with them to fight discrimination.   I miss that Joan Rivers but I have for a long time.  In her later years she created a persona that was built on attacking people.  While I understand in a lot of ways it was a character it also could at times get caustic.  We do wish her family comfort during this time and her legion of fans who will certainly feel her loss.

Michael Sam:  The first openly gay man drafted by the NFL was cut by the team that drafted him.  In part because he didn't fit in their scheme.  There is some indication that his sexuality may have played a role but that is not clear.  He was put on waivers and was picked up by Dallas for their practice squad.  Almost instantly people assumed it was social engineering.  Sam is a good player and was a great college player.  He is not built for the NFL in skill and flexibility at his position.  But he showed he can play at least at a level that can help a team so Dallas is not losing anything to have him on the practice squad and his ceiling is pretty high.  What is remarkable is that we know about his sexuality because someone was going to out him before the NFL draft.  He took control of it and said he wasn't going to hide who he was.  That was brave.  It clearly didn't help his prospects (most defensive players of the year in the toughest conference in college football get looked at in the draft).  But we know there have been many gay NFL players.  In fact in the 70s Vince Lombardi stood up for them.  The guy who the Superbowl trophy is named after.  The difference is that Sam has opened the door for those NFL players who don't want to hide who they are to live their real lives.  Sam may never take a snap in a regular season NFL game.  But he will change the culture of the NFL a culture that has asked gay players to hide themselves may now allow them to be open.  That is a good thing.

It was quite a week and this is just a small sampling of the stories we encountered.  I wonder what will happen next.