Cafe 42 Blog

Doing Mass

I’m a native Californian, born and raised in paradise. The weather along our more than 3,000 miles of tidal coastline is spectacular practically every day. The Sierra Mountains are our border sentinels, over 14,000 feet at their peaks, stretching 400 miles long of pristine wilderness to world-class resorts. Ski after brunch and be tanning, running, biking on the beach by the afternoon—from mid-October through early June. Ask me my religion, and I’ll say I’m Californian. We are a culture all our own out here; active, progressive, wildly creative—fantastically separate from anywhere else, yet intricately connected to the world.

I was married a little over a year when my husband sold his software to a company in Concord, Massachusetts. A three year, onsite contract was part of the purchase deal. After the blood oath that we’d return to California when the three years were up, I agreed to leave my family, friends, and Bay that I loved, and move to one of the oldest towns in the U.S.

I’ve never been a fan of the east coast. The weather sucks most of the time. Even the young people look older than most old people in California. I’d visited Boston just once, ten years earlier. Mid-August, and it was hot and wet and sticky. The city was dirty, crowded, crumbling, aged, with an excessive number of churches. I don’t remember finding anything I actually liked about the place other than the dim sum in Chinatown. 

A decade later and Boston hadn’t changed much, at least from the plane’s view as we flew through the thick air over the dilapidated city into Logan Airport. The sweltering July heat came through the crack where the gangway met the plane and felt like a sizzling brick wall. I hesitated as I stepped onto the walkway, fighting the urge to run back on the plane and beg them to fly me home.

My husband waited for me at the end of the walkway, all smiles. I wanted to slug him. He’d come to Mass. a week before me and found us a rental in Concord, and the entire drive there he chatted it up—how beautiful the historic area was; the one-bedroom with studio house he’d found with its great location just blocks from town center. 

What I saw out the passenger window after passing through congested Boston and manicured Cambridge was swampland. Rivulets lined with oak, birch, and pines were all that broke up the tangled shrubs and thorny vines that covered the ground and wrapped the fallen trees. I half-expected to catch a glimpse of the Creature from the Black Lagoon moving through the dark, heavily forested rolling hills.

My mood went from bad to black as we came into Concord’s tiny town center. Culture shock wouldn’t touch what I felt. Graveyards were the front lawns of the churches that stood on every other corner. Old stone and brick buildings lined the main streets of the town. Old meaning 1600 and 1700’s. Art galleries, bakeries, bank branches and real estate offices occupied these crumbling two-story structures, which met at the town circle. Every person I saw was White.

The thick smell of mold and the cloying scent of decay hit me as I got out of the car in front of the ramshackle Colonial Inn, which was used as a hospital during the Revolutionary War, according to their bronze plaque. The air was stifling and still. I could barely breathe. People on the streets milled about as if in slow motion. Three years would be an eternity here.

The oppressive heat was suffocating. I had to find air. My husband suggested we go to the Concord River where he assured me there was always a breeze. We drove toMinuteman Park, walked to the end of a creaky wooden pier and looked out across the river to the old stone bridge where the first battle of our War for Independence was waged. I was immersed in the past and felt the weight of it upon me, but I didn’t feel any breeze. 

The screened porch of our rented one-bedroom house turned out to be a haven, shadowed from the heat and separate from the bugs, except for the hive of wasps in the dormer of the upstairs ‘studio’/attic we spent the afternoon eradicating.

Summer passed to Fall, and the brilliant colors of the foliage was only marred by the attack of the insect population as it moved indoors in search of food and shelter from the impending cold. Autumn lasted about three weeks until the first frost when everything died and became flat gray.

The only season in Massachusetts I looked forward to [back in California] was winter, anticipating the pristine beauty of snow. And its splendor can not be denied while it’s falling. But shoveling the drive, managing the icy roads, and freezing my ass off from early November until mid-April was harsh at best, and within hours of falling, the clean white blanket was speckled brown with road grim from the plows and street traffic.

Spring in Mass. brought allergies from hell. I felt like I had the flu for a straight month when everything was blooming. Then summer set in, and there was no air in the air again. There were excessively heavy rain storms though, that invariably flooded the basement numerous times from mid-July through late-August.

I’d left paradise for purgatory.

There were times of spectacular beauty in MA—those few weeks of fall, or a couple weeks in the spring when gray gave way to vibrant greens and crystal blue skies. But the days of sunlight and life were few and far between. At least through the summer months, every night at sunset was Attack of the Monster Mosquitoes! The other eight months everything was frozen or dead, and it was too snowy and/or cold to go anywhere.

For two and a half years I endured Concord. It got, if not easier, more routine serving my time there. I learned to dress for the weather, especially in layers because restaurants, theaters and clubs were usually blazing hot inside for some unfathomable reason. Other than a few affable store clerks and a couple of business associates, I never made any real friends there. Most of the people were as cold as the place, and prided themselves on their rudeness. By late fall of my third year, after totaling my car while nine months pregnant when a snowplow on the other side of the road dumped fresh snow on my side, I’d had more than enough of Massachusetts.

Two months after our son was born, and four months before his contract with the Concord based company expired, my husband accepted a job offer from a tech startup back in California.

We drove through several blizzards across the northern U.S. in mid-winter because it was the quickest route to get home. The February afternoon we drove onto Alameda Island in the San Francisco Bay it was 70 degrees and sunny. Across the sparkling blue water the sun was setting behind the city. The air was crisp, almost sweet with the fragrance of fog, the wind whipping around with the windows rolled down as we cruised along Shoreline Drive. People were walking, running and cycling along the strand. A few die-hard wind surfers were out on the bay doing their last sail for the day. And I said a silent prayer to hope that we were home to stay.

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On Being Cool

Had a meltdown on my tween son when he asked, yet again, for an iPad at breakfast this morning.

Before the iPad he wanted a laptop. He insisted he needed my HP the moment I purchased my Toshiba, though could give no reason why he had to have it since he had a powerful PC with an enhanced graphics card for gaming in his room. After weeks of needling me I finally gave him my old HP to share after backing up [mostly] everything. He loaded the same games he had on his PC and played them in bed on the laptop for about a week, until he inadvertently downloaded a virus [that ironically sold security software] which destroyed every program, every file including seven years of my labor. Between ‘mostly’ and ‘everything’ turned out to be the Grand F**king Canyon.

Prior to the laptop he needed an iPhone. He’s had a cellphone since the 5th grade, when he started walking the quarter mile home from school. In the two years he’s had it, he forgets it at home most of the time unless I remind him to bring it with him. More often than not the phone has no charge because he doesn’t remember to charge it. Though all his friends have cellphones, he’s exchanged numbers with no one, and this seems fairly typical among his contemporaries upon inquiry.

Before the iPhone he had to have a video camera, which he used a few times to tape episodes of Sponge Bob off the TV so he could view them later through the camera’s viewfinder. That lasted about a month until he tired of it and he hasn’t touched the camera since.

An iPod was before the video camera. I use his iPod when I’m recharging mine since in the four years he’s owned it he’s used it maybe 10 times collectively.

He sat at the kitchen table this morning eating his cold cereal telling me how badly he needed an iPad. They are so cool, he insisted, giving me his puppy face, and good for school, though was unable to define how since a PC with internet access was all his middle-school required. He kept at it throughout breakfast, bargaining away all other gifts for his upcoming birthday in exchange for just one iPad2.

And I blew a gasket.

He wanted too damn much! He asked for too much with no purpose. What the hell was the point of all these things when he didn’t even use them?

To be cool, mom, he said through tears.

His palpable shame was a knife through my heart. At 12 years old, crying had ceased to be acceptable except in tragic situation, and me yelling at him wasn’t one. I sat down at the table adjacent to him and stared at my son, fighting tears from overwhelming me as well.

Being cool isn’t about what you have, I reminded him gently. Cool is about what you are, who you are, what you do that makes you special, separates you from the crowd. He was a straight A student, in advanced at math, played electric guitar, but every accomplishment I pointed out just made him cry harder.

None of that matters, he insisted. No one cares about that stuff. And being a nerd might pay off later but right now no one his age knew or cared who Bill Gates was, he said, throwing my refrain back at me.

Your dad would ask why cool matters, was the lame response I came up with. I knew cool mattered, even to me, but especially for a kid becoming a teen.

It just does, my son assured me. And I’m not, he added shakily, unable to stop the new round of tears.

My heart in my throat and struggling to swallow back my own tears stopped me from lecturing, but I again reminded my son that iPads and iPhones and video cameras are tools, nothing more, and possessing them doesn’t make one cool.

Yes, mom, he patronized me. But an iPhone is still cool, and so are iPads. I felt him lighten before I saw him grinning to himself.

They are cool, undeniably, which makes the engineers who invent Apple’s products cool, but not so much the people who use them. I needed to be sure he understood what cool really is, and perhaps remind myself as well.

Michael has an iPhone and an iPad and he’s totally popular, my son insisted. Everyone likes him. He has tons of friends and no one picks on him, ever.

Cool means Popular when you’re 12, and I suppose even for adults. Most of us want to be liked, admired, feel special, unique, seen as cool. But I knew Michael wasn’t popular because of his iPad and went about trying to enlighten my son without losing his attention. I spoke of Michael’s extensive involvement with his church, attended by many in our area. I pointed out Michael’s rather jovial demeanor, and reminded my son that his friend was also an avid sportsman, into soccer, basketball, baseball…etc, the ultimate key to cool for kids in school.

Perhaps Michael’s popularity had nothing to do with his iPad, I suggested. And to further my reasoning I asked, If Evan had an iPhone or iPad do you think he’d be more popular?

Evan is a jerk, my son proclaimed. He’s mean and rowdy, and he has an iPhone, mom. His eyes seem to sparkle with awareness of his own words. Then he smiled. He got it, and I smiled, too, for about a second, until his expression darkened again. But I’ll never be like Micheal, do what he does. I’m not discovering religion any time soon, and I suck at sports and don’t really care about ’em, and I’m not exactly what you’d call upbeat.

And I’ll never write like Stephen King, or Ray Bradbury, or John Fowles—

Who are they?

Famous authors you’ve obviously never heard of. Forget it. Tell me, who else is cool, dude? Name five, other than your friend Michael. Anyone, doesn’t have to be one of your contemporaries…

Greenday, he looked to me for approval.

Okay. Who else?

Death Cab [for Cutie] (another rock band). Thomas Edison. Einstein. And Jason, at school. All the girls really like him.

I laughed. Why?

I don’t know. He’s short but kind of buff already, I guess. He’s on the track team and the basketball team and he tells everyone he lifts his dad’s weights. He’s really into working out.

And what do all five you just named have in common?

He fiddled with the remainder of the Crispex in his bowl as he pondered my question.

They’re all good at something.

And how do you get good at anything? yet another of my canonical refrains.

Practice.

You bet. Find something you love, that turns you on, and work at it, my beautiful son. Practice your guitar more and become a great musician. Invent a new video game instead of playing someone elses creation. Learn how to program and develop apps, show us you need an iPad as a tool to create with.

He brightened, smiled at me. I had his full attention again, my reason for slipping in the iPad comment.

Owning an iPad is easy, my baby, and meaningless, just one of many who do and more who will. Creating with one is cool. Cool is as cool does, kid. Pursue a passion and you’ll be engaged, entertained, and so enraptured in the process you won’t notice or care if you’re popular. And how cool is that! ; – )

You Are Not Safe

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the world wide web. It was 1995. I was in my rented townhome in Alameda, a small island on the east bank of the San Francisco Bay. I already had a dial-up modem plugged into my Mac LC that I used to send graphic files and documents to my lithographers and commercial printers through FTP (File Transfer Protocol).

I don’t know where I heard about Netscape, probably from a business associate. But I remember the afternoon I logged on for the first time. The interface was full color visual, the first I’d seen, since FTP was only black text on a white screen and no images. The Netscape logo—the uppercase N sinking into a black globe against a starry aquamarine sky, was…beautiful. Once I registered, the next screen had bright, colorful illustrations of a spacecraft, a construction site, a radio tower and more. Under each drawing white text against the black frames said, “Explore the Net. Company and Products. News and Reference. Community.” I was floored, drop-jawed. The interface gave me choices to go anywhere. Netscape was a portal to news sites, business with ‘websites,’ online communities, a virtual store, and reference libraries from around the world.

I called my roommate into my bedroom/office space to show her what I was seeing on my screen. “This changes everything,” I practically whispered, sure that this portal was the beginning of a connected world I only dreamt of as a kid.

As I sat there clicking on each navigation link, then exploring each site the Netscape browser delivered, I recalled when I was 8 or 9 years old, sitting in the back seat of my mother’s huge Chevy, while she drove me and my sister home from school. “One wish,” my mom asked us spontaneously. “One wish. Right now. If you could have anything you want, what would it be?” She often came up with non-sequitur like this to fill the void of silence after she’d asked about our day at school and got, “Fine,” back from both of us.

I answered instantly. “World peace,” and I meant it. My brother had come back from Vietnam a wreck. PTSD. Clinical depression. I’d watched war on TV nightly. And I’d felt war all around me, growing up in the late 60s, the anger of the Blacks, my working mother, and most all women suffocating under our servitude to men. “I wish that everyone would be nicer to each other, and take care of each other instead of fighting all the time.”

“That’s a stupid wish,” my sister said, sitting in the passenger seat. I cowered in the back seat, and shut up. “It’ll never happen. Violence is part of our nature. We wouldn’t be here today without it, since we have no other defenses like other animals on Earth.” She was 2 yrs older than me. Surely, she must be right. She wished for a new purse.

“This changes everything,” I’d said to my roommate as I browsed the internet that first time. And I believed it. A portal to the world would let us see how others lived, and let others see what what possible. In 1960s – 1990s U.S. most of us had a place to live in, and enough to eat every day. Most kids were vaccinated from horrific diseases, and didn’t die from the flu. We got a free education, through at least high school, and 20 – 30% of the population got a college education as well. And in California, college was cheap, making it accessible to most anyone.

My roommate stood over my shoulder staring at my screen as I went from site to site. She seemed unmoved by what we were seeing, and in short order went back to her room. I stayed online the rest of the night, into the early morning hours, amazed. I pursued news sites, read articles from all over the world. We could never again pretend that Holocausts weren’t happening. We’d find out about atrocities taking place anywhere, instantly, and the United Nations would have to stop them! The privileged would no longer be able to turn a blind eye on poverty or disease, even in the most remote places in Africa or the Middle East, seeing it daily on their computers. We could talk to people around the block or in other countries we’d never meet, but share ideas, and feelings. We’d see how similar we all are, how we all feel sad, or happy, or mad at times. We could connect 24/7, and never feel isolated or lonely again. The internet was a window to the world, and the view would surely motivate all of us to care for each other like never before.

This is the argument I gave to my dad at Saul’s, eating bagels and lox a few years later. As a lover of technology since childhood, he too was on the internet, one of the first adopters in his advanced age group. He shook his head and gave me his indulgent smile.

“The internet changes nothing. It is a tool, like a screwdriver. It won’t change human nature. And it won’t save us,” he said. “We’re going to have to do that. Until we learn to care for each other beyond ourselves, we are doomed.” He took a bite of his bagel and savored the mix of salmon, onions and bread, satisfied in the moment.

“You’re wrong, dad,” I exclaimed with certainty. “The internet is connecting the planet. For the first time in human history we are becoming one world.”

“One very small world, which everyone wants their piece of,” he said. “We’ve invented technology we can’t handle, from the Bomb to this internet. Getting bombarded with information isn’t going to change how we react to it. And the more technology we invent, the more likely we’ll implode with it.” He sighed, looked at me lovingly. “You can’t change the world, baby. Best just to focus on taking care of yourself, and your family.”

It was 1998. I had no idea what was coming, how the internet would evolve into the marketing platform it has become. But I left Saul’s that morning sure my father was wrong.

As it’s turned out, he wasn’t.

The Difference Between Men and Women

I’m a guy’s girl, meaning I’ve spent most of my life hanging out with men instead of women. Like the freight train comin at ya, I prefer men’s straightforward nature, their directness, their unwavering, solution-oriented trajectory. Men are simpler than women. Not less intelligent, just not round-about, underneath, from behind.

Women, by contrast, are the poison in your food. Eons of subjugation have forced us to become puppet-masters to get what we want. Not a judgment call, simply a fact that until very recently might was right, and men assumed they controlled the household with superior strength—at first to kill the mastodon and be the provider of food, and in the modern world, until recently, be the supplier of money. Back as late as the 1990s, women were still, and believe it or not still are, the primary homemakers, caring for the kids, shopping for and preparing the meals…etc. In fact, 99% of all household product commercials still show the women cleaning up, even when the men create the mess.

Notice I said, “men assumed they controlled the household.” Well, you know what happens when you ass (of) u (and) me…; -}

Seriously though, probably pretty early on, like cavemen times, women figured out how to get men to do what we want using our wiles—wits. Genetic transfer of memory over thousands of generations of women passing on how to be manipulative eventually became woven into our DNA and imprinted on our XX chromosomes.

Regardless of why women became…complex, the fact that we are scares me about us. Women don’t only manipulate men. Quite often our children, sometimes even our friends. I’d much rather face a freight train because if I’m paying attention I can get off the tracks before getting slammed. This also plays to why I’m a guy’s girl, why most of my friends have been men.

I knew I wanted kids for as long as I can remember. Two boys, I’d told any possible stakeholders, because boys are easier to raise. I now have two kids—a boy, 19, and a 16 year old girl, both of whom I’m madly in love with. Beyond proud, I’m humbled to know them. True to their ‘nature,’ my son is very direct with his feelings, practically the instant he feels something. He rarely lies, probably because he sucks at it, his facial expressions to the pause in his delivery clear indicators he’s not telling the truth or copping to. He’s a consummate whiner, but he respects the family rules and parental restrictions. My son is trustable, for which I’m eternally grateful.

My daughter, on the other hand, listens carefully, expresses just the right amount of contrition and understanding with every lecture, then does whatever she wants, whenever she wants, if she can get away with it. Went to kiss her goodnight a few nights ago and she was underneath her blanket watching Manga videos on her cellphone. She’d been viewing nightly since we took away her Kindle two weeks ago for watching videos on it instead of reading. Reading is all she’s allowed to do on the tablet, per our agreement when she got it for her birthday. (Is it too much to expect a 16½ year old to honor such an agreement when she gets plenty of electronics time on the weekends?)

While my son barely notices his reflection, my daughter spends hours in front of the mirror, preening. For eons a huge part of a woman’s value was/is defined by our physicality, so it’s natural, part of our nature now that our looks are important to us, or at the very least, more important to us than most men. My son likes violent movies. My daughter does not. She is deeply affected when families split up, or a parent or child dies in films, and even in books. Maternal instincts—reproducing and then caring for our offspring—is genetically encoded in our DNA. In fact, her reaction is not uncommon for most women.

Violent movies and video games are targeted at men because they are by far the predominant audience to engage with them.

Times truly are changing, though. Want part of a mastodon, a small ice-age relic? Buy one on Amazon. Most educated women who pursue a career path can pay their own way through life now, even if we still typically make less than men. Most of us don’t need a man’s support to survive, or even thrive. Technology, from the Pill to the personal computer has made it possible for women to control our own destinies, and function equally along side men in today’s business environments.

Sociological shifts in behavior are glacial, and true sexual equality is probably still a few generations in coming. Perhaps our great-grandchildren will share equal incomes, and split the household tasks of rearing the children to doing the dishes equitably as well.

From the dawn of man to present day the divide in humanity is not our race, religious orientation, education or income level. Our greatest division has been between men and women. I’m humbled to bear witness to a quantum shift in our evolution, that, for first time in our history, technology is providing us the ability to become an egalitarian race, and close this great divide.

 

 

 

Looking for Cancer

I’m scared out of my mind. It’s not unexpected. I’ve been waiting for the news for years. Still, when I felt the tenderness in my breast a month ago I passed it off as a pulled muscle from weightlifting. I still tried to ignore it last week- told myself my breasts were just swollen from my impending period. But my husband felt it too during sex the other night. He moved the lump under my skin with the tips of his fingers, clearly troubled, and I had to stop pretending.

I find out tomorrow. A part of me already knows. As I sit here in McDonalds, across from my daughter, watching her stuff fries into her angelic face, I think of our limited time together. She runs off to the play structure and I wonder if she’ll remember me when I’m gone. She’s so young. I wonder how long she’ll miss me. I can’t help crying. People will see. I hide my face- stare down at the page.

It’s not death I fear. It’s the process of dying. I watched my mother grasp at every last second with each new experimental treatment while her body and her mind withered, and it was horrific. I’ll opt for chemo, even though I don’t want to. I’ll do it for my kids- model not quitting, to never give up. Show them to fight for life against all odds. I’ll lose my hair, my thick auburn waves- my one feature I’ve always been proud of. I’ll be sick and tired all the time and it’ll all be for naught- just like my mom. Six months, a year, even two, but the cancer will take me. Once it’s manifested in the system there is no stopping it.

It’s getting crowded in here now. Moms and dads with their kids eating Happy Meals celebrating life. I sit in the corner. I can’t stop the tears. My beautiful child comes running back to our table, her cheeks flush, her expression joyful. I’m afraid to look up, look in her eyes. She senses my fear. Her expression darkens. She asks me why I’m sad. I lie and say I’m not, tell her how beautiful I think she is. She hesitates, then smiles. She’s flattered but it falters as my eyes fill again. I’ve never been brave and I suck at pretending. I’ve let her down again.

There’s a woman staring at me. Her infant son sits on her lap trying to suck a shake up his straw. He stares too. They’re wondering what’s wrong with me. It’s more than just cancer. I can’t breathe. I can’t hold it together. I’ve never been able to hold it together. My daughter runs off to play, lost to the moment, lost from me. I stare down, and write.

I’ve never dared write about things that profoundly frighten me. The written word is so concrete, like casting a possibility into reality. I’m writing it down because it doesn’t matter. The foundation was laid years ago. The result of reckless behavior is inevitable. I’m writing it now because my fear is consuming me, and I don’t want to look up.

If I have it- I’ll deserve it. And if I don’t it’s just a reprieve. The bullet is coming at me. No doubt about it. I’m not being fatalistic. All those years of partying, smoking, six or more Diet Cokes a day, and of course genetics. I’m a realist. Nothing happens in a vacuum. I set this up with my obsession to be thin, and in. There’s no point in pondering if it was worth it. I’m scared out of my fucking mind.

Learning How to Learn

My daughter is studying for her SAT—her college admissions test. I never took the SAT because I got a D in Algebra in high school, twice. I took the class again, to advance to geometry, but got the same grade, forced to take it from the same teacher that didn’t explain anything the first time. No, it isn’t “just the way it is,” Mr. Mulvaney. Even algebra has a reason for why it works the way it does.

I didn’t take the SAT because I was afraid I’d fail it with no math background. In fact, every time I even thought of math, I felt anxious. I was a failure, stupid if I didn’t get it, as most of my classmates seemed to. I couldn’t apply to a California university, or any four year college worth attending without taking the SAT. Instead, I attended Jr College for two years before transferring over to CSUN. I studiously avoided math classes, as they were not required after high school.

Fast forward 5 years, and I want to apply to graduate school to study Education. Not only will I have to take GRE, which will have math, but before that, to apply to the best colleges, I have to have teaching experience, in a real classroom, which will require I pass the CBEST, which has math. Panic. How was I supposed to pass any standardized test when I never passed algebra, and never advanced to higher levels of math that was sure to be on these tests?

Enter my friend, Bert. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll teach you algebra, and geometry, and any other basic math you need. You’ll pass the tests.”

He had to be kidding. “I failed algebra twice! I’ll never be able to learn all the math I need to pass these tests.”

“Don’t be absurd. You are one of the smartest people I know. Of course you can learn math.”

The familiar terror was choking. Did he not hear me. I FAILED IT TWICE, and never advanced. I’m just not a math person. “I suck at math!”

“Not likely,” he said with confidence. “More likely, you got turned off of it by some careless teacher, and the gates in your brain shut down. All you need to do is get out of your own way. Open your brain back up, so you can learn what you need to know.”

“I’m an artist, a qualitative person, not quantitative. I hate math.” I was trying not to kill his delusion that I was smart.

“But you need to know it to pass these tests, to do what you want with your life. You have some worthy goals. Make them happen. I’ll help you.”

I didn’t want his help. I didn’t want to learn math, or, more likely not learn math, prove to him, and myself, how stupid I really was. He was being so kind it was impossible to keep defending myself. But I still did not believe him. I knew I wasn’t smart enough for advanced math.

“Here’s the deal,” he said, when I didn’t jump at his offer. “Remember the show Get Smart?”

Ok…“Yeah.”

“Remember the opening? Max enters that hallway with the thick metal doors that slide open one by one as he approaches them. And each slams shut behind him as he walks down the hall?

“Yeah.”

“Well, that’s what your brain is doing when you think of math. The doors, or gates to learning are shutting down in your head. You are so freaked out because some lazy teacher made you feel stupid, and you bought it, hook, line and sinker. Stop it! You’ll make a great teacher, or professor, or whatever you want to do with education. Learn math, and move forward.”

“You make it sound simple.”

“But it is. You just have to open the gates in your brain that make it possible to learn, well, anything.” He smiled. I did too, couldn’t help it. With his words, he’d just introduced hope.

We were sitting at Jerry’s Deli, in L.A., at the time. Bert takes the pen the waiter left to sign for our bill, and an unused napkin, and writes out a quadratic equation. I frowned, felt anxious. Here we go. Now he’ll see how stupid I really am.

“I can see by your face, you’re already freaking out.” He laughed. I scoffed. “This is good!” He was clearly excited. I felt pissed off, embarrassed. “Let’s explore that feeling. Talk to me about it, what does it feel like?”

“I feel scared, and stupid.”

“That’s your first two gates. Big, thick, metal doors shutting you out of learning. So, let’s start with feeling stupid, because that’s likely why you’re feeling scared, that I’ll see you, or you’ll see yourself, as stupid.”

“OK…”

“Do you think you’re stupid?”

“With math!”

“Our brains don’t work that way. You can’t just be stupid in one area. Either you have a functioning brain, or you don’t. Most of us have functioning brains. Are you telling me you don’t believe you do?”

I thought about that. Of course I have a functioning brain. I graduated college. I got good grades, even in high school, except for math. “I have an OK brain, I guess.”

He laughed. “So, there goes your first gate. Poof! It’s gone. It was bullshit anyway. Good riddance. Every time you think of math, or we work on equations, notice how you feel. Pay attention to how your brain is operating. Examine the messaging it’s feeding you, and the bullshit it’s telling you. Qualitatively break it down to check if it’s right. Every time your brain says, “I can’t do this. I’m not smart enough,” call BULLSHIT. YES, I AM SMART ENOUGH! Then go back to the problem, and work at figuring it out.” He took a sip of his tea, and smiled at me. “Work at it long enough, and hard enough, and you will.”

The gates in my brain…I could literally feel them all of a sudden. Bert was right. Every time I even thought of math the gates in my brain shut down. And not only with math. Every single time I found it hard to learn something, anything, I now could see it was me, getting in my own way, allowing my brain to convince me of bullshit. All I had to do was examine my own feeling more carefully, embrace the ones that supported my success, and reject those that didn’t.

I learned algebra and geometry in a three week refresher course offered through the CBEST testing program. I passed the test, and subsequently my GRE, and though I never followed through with my graduate degree in education, as my career, and having kids became my priority, I now teach at some of the top universities on the planet.

I now know, with enough hard work, I can learn, well, anything.

An Atheist on Morality

Einstein did not believe in God, as many [mistakenly] claim.

Albert Einstein said, “My position concerning God is that of an agnostic.” He clarified with, “I am convinced that the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.”

Atheist don’t believe in God, either. Not any god/s. Ever. Unlike Agnostics, open to the possibility of a ‘higher power,’ or ‘collective, sentient being,’ Einstein believed in neither.* Agnostic is more politically correct, less threatening, especially during his time, born a Jew, and existing on federal funding.

As an Atheist, I do not recognize the Old/New Testament and related works illuminating the adventures, restrictions, reprimands or absolution of a divine being as anything more than fiction—parables by some wise, some ignorant, partisan scribes with an agenda to dominate and regulate human behavior. (The introduction of organized religion being necessary when Human was still running around in small, warring tribes is arguable.)

So, when I need money, why don’t I go rob a pedestrian. Or shoplift?

When I’m attracted to my neighbors husband, why don’t I just hit on him, get intimate if he’s into it?

When I get pissed at the driver on their cellphone that just cut me off, why don’t I shoot her?

Snatch & Run, even drive-by’s these days, and the odds of getting caught for either crime is somewhat nominal if I’m discreet. Fear of being busted, going to jail is not the main motivation that prevents me from committing these, and ‘lesser’ crimes like lying, cheating and others most would agree, religious or not, are moral infractions.

If I believe I answer to no higher power, where do I get my morality, much of which is similar (often seemingly the same) to that of Judeo/Christian doctrine?

Einstein said, “We have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem—the most important of all human problems.”

Believer or not, what is your ‘Moral Obligation?’

Mine, as an Atheist and Human, is to support our continued evolution. It is my Moral Obligation to nurture reproduction—to extend the magnificent, wondrous, glorious feelings of being alive to someone else, as it has been gifted to me.

I am born owing Humanity that existed before me, and this planet that supports us. We all are. My moral conscience asserts we all must work at insuring life continues long after our own time, and that humans evolve to our spectacular potential of creativity, ingenuity, kindness, and learn to fully embrace our amazing capacity to love.

Notable Facts:
Murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious
nations where belief in God is deep and widespread (Jensen 2006; Paul 2005; Fajnzylber et al. 2002; Fox and Levin 2000).

Within America, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates tend to be among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon (Ellison et al. 2003; Death Penalty Information Center, 2008).

Rates of most violent crimes tend to be lower in the less religious states and higher in the most religious states (United States Census Bureau, 2006).

The top fifty safest cities in the world, nearly all are in relatively non-religious countries, and of the eight cities within the United States that make the safest-city list, nearly all are located in the least religious regions of the country (Mercer Survey, 2008).

 

* “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.” —Albert E.