Posts tagged " susan’s musings "

Five Minutes

May 10th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings 3 comments

In five minutes I can write a warm note to a friend letting them know that I am thinking of them. In five minutes, I can check if my bank and I have the same balance for my account. In five minutes I can recite a chapter or two of Psalms or unload the dishwasher or do any number of other grand or trivial actions. Or in five minutes I can play an inane game on my cell phone. Guess which activity has been most common lately?

My obsession started innocently enough. On one of our business trips, by the time our flight landed I was tired and benumbed. My job was to wait with the luggage while my husband set off to claim our rental car. It seemed a good time to become more familiar with my newly acquired BlackBerry (see BlackBerry Bamboozlement) and quickly enough I stumbled upon the ‘games’ icon. That probably wasn’t exactly what my husband had in mind when he wanted me to explore my new phone, but the next fifteen minutes allowed me to get the hang of one game and begin to master the first three levels. That left 31 levels to conquer.

Having a healthy dose of competitive spirit – even if I’m competing with myself – I continued to enjoy a close relationship with my phone when faced with odd moments of empty time. My husband needed to run into the post office to pick up a parcel? No problem. My computer didn’t shut down properly and needed to run a check before restarting? Hooray!

However, as my proficiency increased and I notched more levels on my belt, playing the game took longer and longer. That was the point where I found myself rationalizing that I needed some down time during my work day or that I would run an errand just as soon as I had a successful few game rounds. While clearly minor as far as vices go, it still became clear to me that devoting swathes of time to increasing thumb dexterity was not admirable. A crack-down with definite parameters was clearly in order. Was I becoming an addict?

There is something both spoiled and embarrassing about patting myself on the back for limiting a pure time-wasting diversion. Yet the lure of an activity which demands complete attention (thereby blocking out all “I should,” “I need to,” and “Do I think…” thoughts) with no consequence for failure is quite real.

I don’t think I am alone in finding that technology has made it ever so much easier to waste time. Unlike my game which is easy to classify as frivolous, many online links can truthfully be classified as educational and informative. The sheer number of them, however, is overwhelming. One could easily spend hours a day watching worthwhile video clips, reading valuable articles and communicating with people important in one’s life. No matter how fascinating and awe-inspiring it is to watch newly hatched eagle chicks via a web cam placed in their nest or to see the birth of a baby giraffe, the bottom line is that these are diversions from what one should be doing.

In response to so much instantly-available material, some of my friends have self-imposed web-surfing blackouts or allow themselves to check personal email only once a day. For many of us, time-guzzling activities are the latest frontier needing a “just say no” policy.



Beatrice Fairfax to the Rescue

April 26th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings 1 comment

Leaving aside human needs like oxygen and water, there are a host of other human wants as well. We crave affection and achievement; yearn for stability and companionship. I’ve noticed one more ubiquitous desire – a longing, particularly from women, for advice in our personal lives. While the boomer generation grew up reading Dear Abby and most modern women’s magazines have advice columns, this is not a recent phenomenon.

Just after the Exodus, the Israelites swamped Moses, turning to him for guidance. It is fair to assume that females triggered a fair number of those requests. Now, if Moses was available to answer questions today I’d also get in line, but leaping ahead a few millennia, the traditional newspaper women’s advice column goes back to 1898. The concept is credited to the New York Evening Journal editor, William Brisbane. The popularity of the column written by his protégée, Marie Manning under the name of Beatrice Fairfax, must have exceeded any expectations. Thousands of women wrote in with questions ranging from the heart-breaking to the mundane, mostly revolving around love, marriage and family. The column became so iconic that it was referenced in books, plays and songs. In 1943 in the movie Girl Crazy, Judy Garland sang the following lyrics written by Ira Gershwin in a song composed in 1930 by his brother, George:

Beatrice Fairfax – don’t you dare
Ever tell me he will care;

Beatrice certainly had staying power and name recognition!

What is the appeal of asking a stranger for potentially life-changing advice through a medium designed to be impersonal and limited? Perhaps that is precisely the attraction. In some ways, writing to an advice column is similar to buying a lottery ticket. There’s a very small chance of being noticed but the action itself fills one with hope – maybe all my problems will be easily solved! And while ‘Miss Fairfax’ and her spiritual descendants down to today’s Dr. Phil could be firm and no-nonsense in their answers, writing the letter in itself can be quite cathartic.  Certainly, utilizing the advice column venue saves the embarrassment of sharing one’s woes with someone with whom you come face to face. And sadly, not everyone has wise counsel in her life to whom she can turn.

The other day, I read a question in a Jewish women’s magazine which was answered by three columnists whom I know and respect. Each individual’s piece of advice was thoughtful, reasonable and wise yet the three responses were contradictory. How can that be?

Honestly, how can it not be? Faced with an anonymous questioner presenting a major life dilemma in a few hundred words with no opportunity for clarification, none of the respondents gave an unequivocal answer. Rather, each supplied food for thought.

Why do so many of us read these columns? Because whether the questions resonate in their specifics, all of us face confusing options in life.  The broad spectrum of answers one gleans from these columns are sometimes validating and other times challenging.

The columnists’ responses (and I include my husband and my responses in our own ‘Ask the Rabbi’ column) are not meant to tell someone what to do, with the occasional exception of directing the writer to seek professional, in-person advice. At best, they give perspective, add some useful insights and suggest avenues to explore.  They also provide a form of virtual support, reminding us that others wish us well and share similar predicaments. 

It is tantalizing to think that clear-cut solutions exist to all problems. With the possible exception of Moses, who was in a category of his own with a direct pipeline to The Advice Counselor, Beatrice Fairfax and those who follow her may be helpful, but the duty of choosing a course of action remains an individual responsibility.




Glossophobia – originally posted July 9, 2009

March 6th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

According to the intensive .16 second long research I just did on the web, we humans are full of phobias. Ranking relatively high – though quite below fear of spiders – is glossophobia, fear of public speaking.

In general, this one passed me by. While I certainly get nervous before teaching a class or giving a public address, I love speaking before a group. And so it came about that when my husband was going to miss his weekly radio show (KSFO, Sundays 1-4) because they have not yet rigged commercial airplanes to accommodate traveling hosts, I agreed to fill in for him. After all, how hard could it be to chatter for three hours? My daughters and I have been known to keep conversations going for far longer than that, often with four or five of us chiming in at the same moment. (This has the side effect of terrifying young husbands who have grown up with only one sister.)

For anyone who is thinking of a career in radio, let me share some hard earned wisdom. When you are talking into a studio microphone, the microphone doesn’t smile, nod its head or respond in any other way. There is zero immediate feedback telling you whether you are being witty and wise or interminably dull and dim-witted. This is most unnerving.

Despite having diligently prepared my opening remarks and having timed them to get me to the first commercial break, I was acutely uncomfortable. For all I knew, I could just as well be reciting Longfellow ballads into the air and indeed might be reduced to doing so by the third hour.

Fortunately, just after the first break the lines began to ring with callers commenting on my thoughts. You can be quite sure that I was heaping blessings on their heads and getting a particular thrill from the homeschooling mom who is a Musings reader, at the same time that I was worrying if the calls would continue. All in all, the three hours were a combination of enjoyable stretches punctuated by moments of terror.

Since marrying my husband, I have done innumerable new and unusual things. Whether it was crossing the Pacific in a sailboat or sitting in Barbra Streisand’s house while she asked my opinion of a new song, or eating a kosher meal in Arkansas with Governor and Mrs. Huckabee, my life has taken some unanticipated paths. Who knew that even something that I thought I knew how to do, like talking, would get a different and out of the ordinary twist?





You Owe $36.52 More or Less – originally posted July 29, 2009

February 27th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

My bank and I rarely agree on how much money is in my account. This is a circuitous way of saying that despite the fact that I do know how to add and subtract as well as use a calculator, I can’t seem to reconcile my bank statements accurately.

As long as the bank thinks I have more money than I do, I figure that I’m safe. But recently, there has been a new development in the monthly “by how much am I off?” game.

About a month ago, while checking to see which checks cleared I noticed that the bank paid out fifteen dollars less than the amount on the check I had written. The payment was to a small family business that did some work for me, so I sent them fifteen dollars, explaining that it was to straighten things out. It seemed odd at the time, but easy to fix.

Then this month, I noticed that the bank had, on my behalf, paid my supermarket almost ten dollars more than the cost of my groceries. This time, I visited my bank’s local branch to ask what was going on. While I admit that my handwriting is not the most legible, I could view the check on-line and it just didn’t wash that either the digits or the written out amount looked anything like the amount deducted.

I was a bit taken aback when the bank representative didn’t seem to be at all surprised by what had happened. Instead, he told me that the misreading of checks was an increasing occurrence. This wasn’t as a result of new technology; it was escalating human error.

I know that I am looking only at the experiences of one person among the millions of daily transactions, but it does strike me as odd that as the government is getting more involved in the day to day operations of banks, I’m noticing that the level of reliability, responsibility and attention to detail is plummeting. Just a coincidence – or not?



Trial by Mouth – originally published Jan. 28, 2009

February 13th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

Celebrity endorsements can mean a great deal to a company. So we thought it a tremendous coup when Illinois Governor (though probably not for long) Blagojevich give an unsolicited plug for our audio CD, Perils of Profanity: You Are What You Speak.

After all, while the governor is not being impeached for his vulgar language, I have to think that it impedes his attempt to portray himself as an innocent, wronged victim when the tapes that (allegedly) implicate him in criminal activity have every second word bleeped out. Fair or not, I know that I am less likely to give the benefit of the doubt to someone whose mouth needs a good scrubbing.

 While neglecting to mention the name of the product – you get what you pay for, as Governor Blagojevich well knows- he made a very strong case for our teaching. In interviews this week, he acknowledged that his foul language harmed his wife as well as noting how difficult it is to control such a loathsome habit.

So, some companies employ athletes like Michael Phelps to represent them while others prefer Hollywood stars like Jennifer Anniston. As for Rabbi Daniel Lapin productions, we think that Governor Blagojevich is an outstanding case study of why everyone needs to hear Perils of Profanity, and proof of the good you can do by giving it to any young adult you care about.
Rather than paying a celebrity endorsement fee, we’d like to offer the governor some advice. In one interview he said:

“Had I known somebody was listening, I wouldn’t have used language like that.”

Well governor, in the future you would do well knowing that somebody is hearing each word you utter, for He is always listening.



It’s the Genes, Stupid – originally posted Feb. 2007

February 8th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings 2 comments

February. An often bleak, cold and dark month. This may be the reason why, aside from the obvious commercial implications, cheerful, bright, pink and red valentines endlessly bombard us as soon as February approaches. For women’s magazines the theme of the month’s issue is pre-ordained – romance. Generally this means that even more clap trap than usual will be disseminated. Hollywood couples who have made it past the five week mark will be lauded as proof that enduring love still exists and “experts” will step forward to explain the new, advanced methods for attracting and holding on to a mate.

Right on track, in a statement so absurd that one knows without checking that the author is an academician, comes a quote from Melvin Konner, MD, professor of anthropology and behavioral biology at Emory University. Commenting on a study of rodents which suggested that injecting male meadow voles with the chemical vasopressin increased their likelihood of linking up with female meadow voles, the doctor states,

“There’s something at work with a couple that stays together for 50 years, bad years included. It’s hard to imagine that it’s just a question of compatible personalities or strict beliefs.”

Imagine. If we only had universal health insurance we could have a nation of young couples streaming to the nearest chapel and we could assure them that divorce is no longer a threat. A regimen of injections would turn us into a nation of long term, happily married couples.

I don’t mean to pick on Dr. Konner, who after all sounds like he was simply wondering out loud rather than recommending a policy. Later on, in the same magazine that featured his quote, is an article highlighting committed couples, including one who has passed the fifty year mark. It is clear that indeed they were initially attracted by compatibility but weathered and continue to weather difficult times through shared beliefs and views.

But in today’s cynical and bruising world thousands of young people are reaching marriageable age as products of broken homes; probably just as many as products of unfulfilled ones. It is easy for them to believe various academics who proclaim that marriages were never meant to last for fifty years. It seems sensible to them that as the expected life span increases it is only normal for couples to divorce and pair up with new spouses, or that marriage itself is obsolete and meaningless.

Studies such as the one that made the cover of news weeklies a number of years ago suggesting that there is an “adultery gene” or ones that suggest that commitment is biologically driven advance the argument that people are helpless beings who can only act as we are programmed. As such we are not responsible for or capable of controlling our behavior.

What a dismal message to send. And how different it is from the message that God gave to Adam and Eve in Eden (when life spans were even longer than they are today). As my husband and I have been preparing the newest volume in our Genesis Journeys  series, focusing precisely on what that message is, I can’t help recalling a February event that I was privileged to attend two years ago. Hosted by then Governor and Mrs. Huckabee of Arkansas, the focus was on promoting commitment in marriage and it had nothing to do with a magic pill or monthly injection.

The highlight of the evening (aside from my husband’s speech) was a moving video of the president of a respected Bible college announcing his resignation in order to stay at his wife’s side while she dealt with the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Like the thousands of other women in the room, my eyes were overflowing as he explained how his wife had supported him in all his endeavors and now she was in need of his company. Although she didn’t seem to recognize him, his presence calmed her down and gave her peace, and so he was choosing to free himself of other obligations to be with her. Not because he thought it was “only fair” or as a “payback” but because it filled him with joy to ease her distress.

I imagine that this man and his wife probably felt they were compatible when they embarked on their marriage many years earlier. But I doubt if it was hormones that led them to stay together. My guess is that there was a constant recognition that communication, hard work and common goals were needed to keep them compatible and, indeed, that strict beliefs laid the foundation for and built the protective fence around their relationship.

I don’t think there was anyone in the Altel Arena in Arkansas, male or female, who didn’t say a silent prayer asking for a marriage as blessed as that one. And I also don’t think there was anyone there who thought that achieving that kind of marriage was a function of winning a genetic lottery or having access to new drugs rather than of making a constant and sustained effort, through good times and bad, to attain it.



Thank God for Ordinary Folk – originally posted July 2, 2009

February 6th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

I’ve been spending more time in the car than usual lately, and that has exposed me to the top of the hour news. By the end of last week my outlook on the world was pretty bleak.

You might think that news of repression in Iran, threats from N. Korea and the House of Representatives passing an awful cap and trade bill were the source of my unease, but I barely heard of those. Judging by the time devoted to each story and the order of discussion, Mark Sanford’s affair and Michael Jackson’s death were clearly the most important events of the week.

How depressing. First of all, how can we have an informed electorate and make knowledgeable judgments when not only entertainment but the information media panders to our lowest impulses? Secondly, doesn’t hearing about talented people, in any arena, who destroy their lives through their own bad choices leave us cynical and pessimistic?

It does me, at least for a passing moment. Even if it is too far-fetched to expect wisdom, I would like to believe that our elected officials are both well intentioned and good. Good in my book does mean faithfulness in marriage and whether it is John Edwards, John Sanford or the scores of others who can be held up as disappointments, my guess is that betraying your marriage vows is more widespread among the political elite of our country than among the general population. As for our public servants being good in their public lives and well intentioned, the week’s news included Monica Conyers, wife of the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, pleading guilty to bribery. Somehow, I don’t feel this is an isolated incident. And I suspect that the poorly reported passage of the cap and trade bill, a bill that was never read by those who voted on it, had little to do with good intentions or wisdom and more to do with greed and power grabbing and political calculation.

Michael Jackson’s life represents a different type of tragedy. Few people are born with the musical talent that he had. Can you appreciate his giftedness without peering into his tormented life? Yes. But, when all is said and done, his talent doomed rather than blessed him. Not exactly an uplifting thought. The adoration of millions added up to nothing.

We are in a new week and the desperate need for fresh headlines will push those of last week off the front page. Meanwhile, millions of people whose names will never be known outside their immediate circles are faithful in their marriages, honest in their transactions, and fulfilled in their lives. As America enters her 233rd year, that is the meaningful, gladdening and good news that doesn’t make the top of the hour broadcast.



Of Fridges and Men – originally posted Feb. 26, 2009

January 30th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

I have spent the last few days befuddled, bewildered and basically overwhelmed while shopping for a refrigerator to replace the one in my garage that whimpered its way to warming last week.

I have many reasons to be grateful. While deciding whether to call a repairman or not, an online search revealed that my old fridge had been a good and faithful servant for about twenty years. Even in its demise, it chose a relatively good time to die, when it wasn’t packed to the gills in pre-holiday mode.

Once replacement rather than repair seemed to be the issue, the search began. In the olden days, say ten or fifteen years ago, I would have gone to one or two local appliance stores and compared features and prices on what was in stock. In today’s time of Internet largesse, I instead researched brands and models on-line, which I quickly discovered could be a full time job. I remember hearing how immigrants from the old Soviet Union would sometimes become depressed by American supermarkets. Used to a system where you stood on line for hours and bought whatever was available, the dazzling array of thirty types of breakfast cereals and twelve varieties of apples paralyzed them.

I could empathize. Not only did I need to choose between top freezer, bottom freezer, side by side and French door as well as between stainless steel, black or white, I needed to make a guesstimate as to which brand was most likely to be reliable along with a slew of other issues.

The option that isn’t available to me is the “build your own.” I can’t take brand A with two features from brand B and the size and design from model number C. And the one feature that I crave, a built in odometer that will tell me when it’s about to break down isn’t an option I could find anywhere. All in all, refrigerator shopping is strikingly similar to the dilemma my daughter and her friends face as they navigate the dating world.

If they could only build their own future spouse they would be able to take the character of boy A and pair it with the hard working persona of boy B and top it all off with boy C’s height and boy D’s sense of humor. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t work that way. As they meet young men they are faced with a package deal. And while I might if I’m lucky spend the next twenty years with my fridge, they not only yearn for more than that with their spouse but the entire world of their future will be affected by their choice. Getting a lemon of a fridge is expensive and annoying; getting a lemon of a husband is devastating.

I made my refrigerator choice with the guidance and support of one of our four outstanding sons-in-law who happens to be in the building industry and who guided me. My single daughter and her friends are finding that their decisions might best be made in a similar fashion. After doing initial research on their own, they turn to people who love them, and whose input they respect, who have way more experience in the field than they do. There is a Jewish saying that if all your friends call you a duck, you should start quacking. In other words, listen to your parents, your (especially married) siblings, and trusted and tried friends. You don’t really want to invest in an expensive appliance, let alone a man, relying only on your own, limited vision.


More Fireflies; Fewer Computers- Originally posted Feb. 19, 2009

January 23rd, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

One Shabbat, when our five older children ranged in age from five to ten, we had the privilege of hosting a prominent business leader for Friday night dinner. As table conversation extended the meal, our children asked to be excused and promptly curled up or splayed out on living room couches with lots of reading material.

Our guest, who had long-ago emigrated from Jamaica to the States, looked wistfully at the children, each one engrossed in a book. He recalled how he grew up in intense poverty in a shack without electricity on the hills above Kingston.  Every night, his mother made the rounds of bars and lounges collecting stubs of candles. When her supply of candles was low she would take a jar and collect fireflies. All this effort, after a back breaking day of work, was that so he could study, become educated and aim for a better life than she had.

Her efforts paid off magnificently. Her faith in him and in education stayed at his side as he came to America, dedicated himself to his studies and then to diligent work. But his wistful expression while looking at our children wasn’t due to nostalgia or any tinge of resentment that our children’s path was so easy compared to his. He commented, in an incredibly sad and slightly angry tone, how heartsick it made him to see children in his community who had access to free libraries and schooling, wastefully scorn those opportunities.  I still remember his exact words—“Your people’s children read books while ours snap their fingers to obscene lyrics.”

This story came to mind as I read about the vast sums of money the “stimulus plan” will allocate to education. In the years that have passed since that night, the fascination with obscene lyrics has spread to all communities, and the feeling that education is a legal right rather than an incredible privilege has spread as well. I certainly wouldn’t suggest spending taxpayer money for firefly collection. But if we could manage to convey, to both parents and teachers, some of this gentleman’s mother’s passion for education, a reverence she shared with Abraham Lincoln’s stepmother and thousands of other poverty stricken and immigrant parents, we would be further along the path to producing successful future generations than any amount of technology or infrastructure improvement could possibly grant us.




Remember the Titanic – originally posted May 28, 2009

January 16th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

Have you noticed that among the obituaries that newspapers publish of famous or influential people, ordinary folk also get mentioned if they were the last of their kind? So, we were informed when the last Civil War soldier’s widow passed away a few years ago as we will hear when the last survivor of the Titanic dies. Note is taken of regular people who through a quirk of fate become our last link with an extraordinary time or event.

Now the above mentioned widow, Maudie Celia Hopkins, had no recollections of the Civil War; she was the nineteen year old bride of an eighty-six year old veteran. The sole survivor of the Titanic doesn’t have any first hand remembrances to share; she was nine weeks old when the ship went down. Yet, for some reason, their physical presence in the world matters.

I am surely not the only parent shocked when something that I have vivid recollections about, such as the Kennedy assassination, lives in my children’s mind only as history. While the day that President Reagan was shot is etched in my memory since it coincided with going into labor with my eldest child, I can’t reasonably expect her, let alone her younger siblings, to recall that day.

Our educational system has a tendency to suck the oxygen out of vibrant, multi-faceted events that impacted millions of lives, instead, presenting them in history books as dull, insipid lists of names and dates. In a relatively recent attempt to liven the subject up, textbooks sometimes highlight one individual or group, but the bottom line is that human history is so complex and intertwined that the simple fact of putting it down on a finite amount of paper automatically limits and distorts it.

Could our fascination with those who were even somewhat tied to a historical event be an acknowledgment that history is not an academic subject but the building block of our lives today? Do we clutch at those connected to the past in a vain attempt to realize that the impact of the past flows unceasingly into the future? Does knowledge of the Civil War veteran’s widow’s death make us realize that we are not as distant or as immune as we would like to believe from the type of cataclysmic upheaval that overturned the lives of Americans in the 19th century? If our absorption with otherwise obscure individuals serves these purposes, that indeed makes it worthwhile.



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