This past week in the United States has been stressful, for everyone, and because my synagogue school students are part of that everyone, I wanted to focus on teaching a lesson that would reassure them, somewhat, that there are areas of their lives where they really do have some control. And, because I love teaching Yiddish words, the lesson for this week was: what does it mean to be a mensch?
Mensch is a Yiddish word, from German, meaning “human being,” or a person of integrity and honor. The opposite of a mensch is an unmensch, a person treating others cruelly and without compassion, as opposed to the word ubermensch (Nietzsche alert) which is usually translated as “the superman,” someone who is superior to other humans. The word Mensch has gathered a lot of associations in American culture (bearded, male, Jewish) but it really means a person who is…
Have you ever found yourself glued to the television or following a particular news story, your attention laser-focused on the outcome of the event? Focused as if your life depended on the result or even as if you could influence it? It’s this last belief that I want to address.
It all began with a genuine interest in the dumpster fire that is our president. I then found myself refreshing the news site every few moments to ensure that I had the newest and freshest updates. Events were moving so fast that I couldn’t afford to turn my attention to other things because my attention was needed! The end result required me to stay focused.
Or so I believed. So we all believe to a certain extent.
Some scientists believe that humans have an innate tendency toward religion. I think that it is less about a higher being than our collective ability to influence the world around us. Essentially, an inherent faith in the power of belief or a belief in the power of faith.
However, I believe that this instinct is more a group focus than a religion. We believe that our attention on an event can influence that event. I call this the Attention Effect. It is similar to the Observation Effect in Quantum Mechanics, where “the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon.” The Attention Effect is the belief that “the focused attention of the observer on the phenomenon can influence the phenomenon.” Not only can we change the phenomenon by observing it but can consciously change the result.
“We must have Faith” is another way of saying this. But rather than focusing our attention or faith on a diety to influence events, we have sidestepped the need for a diety with belief in our own ability to directly control events.
The secularization of society has redirected our faith away from religion to other outlets. The news cycle, the drama of social media, sports, the stock market, and currently, in my case, politics need our attention and influence to move in our favor. We have convinced ourselves that we can nudge the events by watching by paying attention.
In my case, politics is much like watching sports. I couldn’t afford to miss a single play because the entire game may hinge on that one moment. I needed to Pay Attention! Because of the Attention Effect!
Rather than a diety, society has turned our superstition to other things. Our institutionalized faith is now focused on the news cycle, sports teams, politics, or a celebrity’s love life. Our attention has been siphoned off, bottled, and monetized. And, yet, still has no effect on events. None…Nada…The same nothing as always. But marketing and capitalism have conspired to give us the warm fuzzy feeling of participation and accomplishment. But it’s illusory. Yes, we participated in a cultural moment, but that moment will ultimately be lost in the static of every other cultural moment.
The hours I spent focusing my attention did not accomplish, influence, or earn me anything.
In the meantime, my novel isn’t finished, I have not mastered German, I still can’t play Crazy Train, and all my goals of youth, of last year and even yesterday are unaccomplished, sacrificed on the altar of attention. If Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci or Shakespeare had had access to the internet, we wouldn’t have the masterpieces they created because they would have been too distracted to do the work. Their attention would have been needed, nay demanded elsewhere.
So, the next time you find yourself glued to the television or the internet for no constructive purpose, TURN IT OFF. Turn it all off and walk away. Get some work done. CREATE!!
I have a particular fondness for fall. I love the smell of the autumn air and the crisp chill of the mornings. Yes, I also enjoy Halloween and football and pretty leaves and Thanksgiving and all the other stuff. But none of those really hold a candle to my favorite fall activity… snuggling!!
After months hot sticky summer nights where the AC just barely registers, where you can’t get any more naked but yet still wake up in a pool of sweat, and where I get banned from touching my wife because I’m walking furnace, the return of sweater weather is like the return of the sun to the Arctic. The long months of being shunned and alone on my side of the bed are gone, and I again become the best, warmest, most snuggly-wuggly husband in the world.
Yes, folks, I said snuggly-wuggly.
Once the chill air of autumn starts wafting fragrantly through our bedroom windows, I become the space-heater and home hearth that my spouse loves and cherishes. Under a pile of comforter, she burrows into my chest as if she could crawl right in, and I bask in the glory of being the torch that keeps her warm. I’m like a cozy, romantic fireplace you can hug.
She calls me her Huggy-Buggy-Muggy Bear, and I am fine with that. As far as I’m concerned, the Goddess can call me anything she wants.
I took this photo on a trip to Austria years ago and it’s always been one of my favorites. Just a loyal dog waiting patiently for his owner.
What a great dog!
This would never be my dog. My dog would have run away or followed me into the store or taken off into the store without me. Anything but what a good dog would do, such as this very good dog is demonstrating.
I don’t have a dog, but if I did, he would be an asshole. That’s just the kind of dog parent I am.
What do we do with them now,
these new dead? Where do we put them?
How can we keep them company
in the remaining earth,
too full already with our living—
Christ, with our dead?
How do we launch their ashy bodies, newly furnaced,
into the fiery ocean or the stream
chugging along in useless concrete basins,
scooping whatever’s left between the seams
of the old junker driving back to truth,
an empty house, and an open server?
There is so little left for us to do.
Each day is mildly different—
death stays the same, remaindered
from the very first to fall
among the unmourning vegetation
or drift in silent waters towards a soul.
And like a closing sale, all things must go.
More importantly, must go somewhere.
Hence the teeth-white matrices
of soldiers’ graves fanning the freeways,
the McDonald’s arches flecked
with a thousand crucifixions,
When I was growing up, I remember adults telling me that farting wasn’t ladylike. This statement was lost on me. What the hell does that mean? Ladylike? Isn’t farting frowned upon by everyone? Is there someone you know that can fart in public, and it’s completely acceptable? I want to meet this person. Better yet, I want to be this person.
You wonder how I ended up on this subject. Let me tell you! First, I need to tell you some stories from my past that will help to build some understanding. Each story is like a building block to the end of this squirrel-like thinking of mine.
When my stepdaughter Kyra was about three years old, we went camping. This was the first time that we took the kids camping, so it was an new experience for all of us. We were in a parking lot of the campsite…
Last weekend we took a long weekend trip to San Francisco. We had this trip planned for some time and refused to cancel it due to COVID. After months of being shut up in St Louis, we needed out. I, at least, get out almost every day, my work schedule has not been affected by the pandemic. I haven’t missed a day. However, I do limit how much time I spend around people, particularly in public areas: fewer trips to the store, limited restaurant exposure, always wearing a mask, etc.
My wife, on the other hand, has been working from home for months and has been taking it rather hard. She is a social butterfly with an innate talk quota that she must meet to maintain general health and sanity. This trip months ago as a replacement for a family reunion that was canceled. Neither of us had ever been to Frisco and had a long list of things we wanted to do. Alcatraz and the Winchester House and see the Redwoods and ride the streetcars… Basically, San Francisco had been on our list for years. We planned a five-day trip and booked an Airbnb.
But then things started to fall apart. Alcatraz remained closed. The Winchester House was closed. The National and State Parks were closed. And then travel was discouraged. We had reserved and even prepaid for some tours and tickets. What is California without a wine tour, right?!
But regardless of all the roadblocks, we refused to cancel the trip; we needed to get out of St Louis!
Our new plan was to do more hiking than anything else. The National and State Parks were reopened, so we headed to Muir Woods to see the Redwoods. They were INCREDIBLE!! Walking through a grove of thirty-story, perfectly straight trees is a very grounding experience. The stress of the last months melted away to insignificance.
In San Francisco, we focused on the attractions at Pier 39. We went sailing in the bay, into the shadow of Alcatraz, and even went whale watching out into the Pacific. Watching whales jump out an ocean that covers 70% of an entire planet, makes life’s problems seem rather insignificant.
However, COVID was still a concern, and California is considered a hotspot. However, unlike St Louis, 95% of the people around us were wearing masks. I found it encouraging and even comforting to see everyone watching out for each other by simply covering their faces. Rather than focusing on the inconvenience and uncomfortable aspects of wearing a mask, they just jumped on board and did it. I believe that once a majority of people are participating, there is an unconscious peer pressure placed on anyone not participating. San Francisco has reached that level of conformity. And that’s a good thing!
For me, our trip was less about getting away from home or seeing something new than it was about resetting my perspective. I live a rather stress-free life and have built it that way. But I do tend to get hung up on issues around me and tasks I still have to complete. I’m an engineer, so task lists and deadlines are part of the gig. However, in the end, they really don’t matter in the long run. I need to keep that in mind when things start getting to me.
San Francisco was amazing, and we plan to return to hit all the things we were unable to do this time. We rarely return to a place once we’ve hit the major attractions, but Frisco has enough for multiple trips. I look forward to it.
I absolutely agree with this writer. I am a former Christian and could never understand the focus on locations and buildings. Economically, it works best that way, but that does not benefit faith at all.
My favorite lines:
“- there is no one waiting for you there.”
“Because at that point, he is simply not answerable to you anymore.”
Sometimes you need to overturn the cart and let it burn
This poem is the result of a writer’s group discussion about our current protest culture. We have one African-American in our group and she accused us all of holding back and not participating in the dialog. For myself, a White Male, I felt that I should probably remain silent and support the protest in other ways. How could my voice be welcome? However, she pointed out that as writers we are obligated to provide a voice to those that do not have the language or audience needed. She challenged us to write something that addressed the protests. This poem is what came of my effort.
I miss the stars of yesteryear
Before the emotions
Before the tears
Before the memories
When they were cold and crystal clear
I have found that too much familiarity can be a bad thing. Much of our enjoyment in life comes from our wonder at and awe of the unknown. Exploring and experiencing is life and as long as we can continue to seek new unknowns we can continue enjoying the awe and wonder.
But once we reach the point where everything in our life is familiar or a ‘been there, done that’ moment, we can only look back at our past and remember feeling those things. Like most things, it’s never quite as good as the first time.
I am fortunate to still be in the wonder and awe stage of my life. My wife and I are still exploring the world and chasing new experiences and new knowledge. We like to travel to more and more exotic places and try new foods and activities. I always strive to remain in wonder of the world and of the people around me. I am never bored, there are too many things to do and experience. I don’t watch much television because I have things I want to DO and experience and NONE of them are on television!
However, the excitement of discovery and experience can only survive a limited number of cycles before familiarity sets in. The wonders that once took your breath away can become mundane and ordinary. For example: How many of the people living in Denver still look out at the mountains with bated breathe? I love the mountains and am still in awe of them every time I see them. However, I also don’t see them Every Day!
There are people that actually LIVE IN ROME. What….??!!?! How could they not be in absolute awe of their surroundings every single day of their lives? I mean really?
Answer: They could see them every day of their lives. That’s how.
As I said: Too much familiarity can ruin the surprise or destroy the magic, destroy trust, taint emotion, and temper the awe and wonder of youth. As I get older I sense my wonder slackening. I am surprised by fewer movie twists or horrible news events because I’ve seen so many others. I don’t want to be that cynical old grump that frowns away my last years. I want to explore and wander and look up at the stars and breathlessly wonder at the mysteries of the universe.
PS: My wife and I are traveling to San Francisco on Friday. I’ve never been and am excited to explore. COVID is certain to put a damper on many of the activities we had planned (no Alcatraz, no Winchester House) but there will be plenty of hiking and scenery. And maybe some wine… We’ll see.