Big Brother: Presidential Edition

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reality_tv_collageBased upon the most recent presidential election, it’s clear to me that the American electorate needs more entertainment value in its politics. Therefore, I propose we run future elections like a reality TV contest.

We could, for instance, model our presidential race on the granddaddy of all reality shows, Survivor. Democrats and Republicans could form two tribes of presidential hopefuls who would be forced to compete on a remote island wearing nothing but loincloth, eating gross food, and completing arduous tasks until the fittest survived.

The refreshing part of a Survivor– style competition would be that all the political machinations and back- stabbing would be in the open for a change.

Or maybe the campaign could be run like The Amazing Race. Here we’d have pairs of candidates running around the country completing challenges such as stomaching the horrible food at various state fairs and pretending to love it. (Actually, this is pretty much what our current candidates do.)

The first pair on The Amazing Presidential Race to get to the winning destination would become our next President  and Vice President.

But I think the most entertaining way to choose a president would be to subject them to a Bachelor/Bachelorette type of contest. Each week we would select random citizens to be wooed in hot tubs by the scantily clad presidential hopefuls. Each week an unlucky candidate would get a rose and be unceremoniously shown the door.

We might not get a smart or capable president, but at least we’d get some eye candy to cheer us up.

So who’s with me? Is it time to give up the idea that a sober, thoughtful, and qualified individual is the best choice to be leader of the free world? Hasn’t the U.S. electorate shown itself to be more interested in a person of the caliber to be seen on The Real World?

At this point I’d settle for a contest resembling the old game show To Tell the Truth. 

Ike Is a Highway

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obama+i55The news that the State of Illinois just designated a stretch of Interstate 55 the Barack Obama Presidential Expressway could not be more timely. Having returned from a recent trip to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, I was musing on the ways in which residents of different cities refer to their expressways.

Twin Cities denizens are logical and matter of fact. They refer to their highways by number: 94, 394, 494, 694 etc. Outside of Highway 35, which is a north/south route that branches off into an East side road and a West side road, such references make it easy for the out-of-towner to get around without confusion.

Out in Los Angeles, where I lived for a number of years, residents also use numbers to refer to their expressways, even though many of the highways have names, such as the Santa Monica Freeway and the San Diego Freeway. The twist is that for some reason, Angelenos like to put a “the” in front of the highway number. So it’s the 10, the 405, the 5, and so on. The only major road known by its name more than its number is Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, known to locals as the PCH.

Here in the Chicago area, we like to call our expressways by name. I-290 is the Eisenhower, I-55 the Stevenson, I-294 the Tri-State. I-94 is variously called the Dan Ryan or the Edens, depending upon what part of the city it is headed toward.  I-90 changes its name from the Kennedy Expressway to the Rockford (or Jane Addams, if you prefer) Tollway as it heads northwest away from the airport. As you might imagine, this can make things a bit confusing for people from out of town. To make matters worse, we’ve nicknamed the Eisenhower Expressway “the Ike,” so a newcomer listening to a traffic report of congestion on the Ike might have no idea what road is being referenced.

The only interstate that is consistently referred to by number and not name is 88, the Reagan Memorial Tollway. (I have my theories as to why that might be.)

I like to think it’s our friendly folksiness that makes Chicagoans so chummy with our roadways that we like to call them by name. On the downside, the gridlock faced by commuters on most of these roadways can give the historical figures for which they are named a bad rap. Let’s just say that in Chicago, I don’t like Ike.

It might not be fun driving in heavy traffic down the newly named Barack Obama Presidential Expressway through Springfield. But it will be entertaining to start hearing the radio news choppers reporting, “Traffic is heavy on the outbound Obama” or “A crash has shut down two lanes of the Obama.” Who knows? Maybe before too long we’ll be calling it “the Barry.”

Smiling Faces

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Years ago when I lived in L.A., an Iranian-born friend of mine introduced me to the local Persian market. After countless lunches and dinners at her home, as well as my marriage  into an Iraqi-American family, I had developed an affinity for Middle Eastern cuisine and wanted to try my hand at cooking it.

My friend had warned me that the shopping experience would not be what I was used to in American culture. She was right. The market was small and cramped, and women were bulldozing their way through narrow aisles with grim determination. The people who worked there were brusque. But what struck me more than anything was that no one smiled.

My husband explained to me that in Middle Eastern culture, people who smile all the time are considered fools. There are expressions in his language that basically translate into “grinning idiot.” Someone smiling in public for no reason is not to be trusted. This same cultural belief, I recently learned, is true in Russia. An Invisibilia podcast described the difficulty in opening Russia’s first McDonald’s and training Russian workers to smile. In Russian culture, one only smiles at one’s friends and family members, not strangers.

Here in America, smiling is ubiquitous. When I am out in public and make eye contact with a person, I usually smile, and they usually smile back. Friendly, smiling service personnel are the expectation here. And smiling can have many positive effects. One day during my teaching years, I stood outside my classroom door between class periods and noticed that every kid I saw was smiling. Even students I knew to be on the shy or surly side had a bright smile for me. Was something in my teeth? I wondered. Did I have a scrap of toilet paper dangling from the hem of my dress? As the bell rang, I realized that the students were all smiling for one reason: I was smiling at them.

Smiles can be contagious and make others feel welcome. The men and women who worked at the first Russian McDonald’s discovered that the Russian people started flocking to the restaurant, not so much for the food, but for the warmth and friendliness they found there. Studies have even shown that if you force yourself to smile, you will start feeling happier inside.

There can be downsides to all this smiling, of course. A perusal of one’s Facebook feed, for instance, can make a person feel as if the whole world is happy except for them. It can be challenging and exhausting at times to “put on a happy face.” And in the world of customer service, the expectation of smiling subservience can have a dark side. As explained in Invisibilia, in Russia, servers at restaurants were traditionally unfriendly and not particularly inclined to make customers happy. They had access to the food the customer wanted, and therefore they had the upper hand. The balance of power in American culture definitely lies with the customer, who in our tradition is “always right.” This can lead customers to be inconsiderate and even downright abusive at times with the expectation that the server is at their beck and call.

Smiling and friendliness can also conceal bad intentions. As the Temptations sang, “Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes, they don’t tell the truth.” I always think of glad-handing politicians when I hear that song. Lately the smiles of Paul Ryan and others on Capitol Hill have struck me as Cheshire-cat-like as they dismantle health care for the masses and hand out juicy tax breaks to the rich.

Yet I prefer to live in a culture where smiling is common. It can brighten someone’s day and make others around us just a little bit happier. Overall, I’d say that’s a good thing. As pop artist Sia sings, in America, “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.”

 

It’s All Relative

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I’m currently watching a fascinating show on the National Geographic channel entitled Genius, a biography of the great physicist Albert Einstein. Never having had a particularly scientific type of mind, I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy learning about Einstein’s revolutionary discoveries. For instance, I enjoyed seeing how Einstein’s brain starts forming ideas about relativity while watching his time piece in a tedious math class.

Einstein proved that time is not absolute and that our perception of time moving forward is an illusion. I’m not sure I completely understand his ideas, but I do enjoy thinking about relativity in the simple terms in which he famously explained it. An hour spent with a pretty girl, he said, seems but a minute while a minute spent sitting on a hot stove would seem like an hour.

I was reminded of that idea on a recent walk in my neighborhood. Up ahead of me was a young woman pushing a stroller with a baby inside. The scene looked idyllic: a young mother with all the time in the world to care for and enjoy her child. But I know better. I was that young mother once. When my first child was born, I was beside myself with stress and worry. Every single task seemed difficult and new and challenging, and I was not sure I was doing any of it right. Had she had enough poops that day? Did she have a slight fever? Was she too warm, too cold, hungry, tired? And why would she not stop crying?

From my vantage point as the mother of four grown children, it seems so easy just to have one child, a child who can’t go anywhere or do much of anything without my say so, a child who can’t stay out past curfew or sass back or ask to do things I’m not ready to let her do. When my children were young, the days would crawl by at a snail’s pace. Even though they were perfectly clean, I would still give my kids a daily bath just to pass the time. Nowadays, I blink, and months have gone by while my teens and twenty somethings move ahead at the speed of light.

The one constant for me as a parent is how much I worry about my kids. I think that’s what makes grandparents so much more relaxed around their grandchildren. They have a slight distance that allows them to be calmer, more playful, and less stressed.

This idea was borne out for me recently when I listened to a fascinating NPR podcast called Invisibilia. The episode “The Problem With the Solution” describes the way mental illness is managed in a small Belgian town called Geel (pronounced “hail”). In Geel, people with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia live with ordinary families and are considered “boarders.” While there is a hospital nearby and doctors help people manage their medications, no one in Geel tries to fix the mentally ill. They are simply allowed to be the way they are.

The reporters from Invisibilia discovered an important fact through learning about the town of Geel. These same victims of mental illness faired much worse when living with their own families. Indeed, one of Geel’s residents had a mentally ill son herself, and she described how hard it was to live with his behavior. What psychologists have discovered is that when people care too much, they are determined to fix the problems their loved ones have. On the other hand, non-related hosts or neighbors of the mentally ill have a detachment that allows them to accept these people the way the are. In this way, “it’s all relative” takes on a different meaning.

The great Albert Einstein certainly had his fair share of family drama, including a wife who suffered from depression and a son who attempted suicide. As a Jew, he was endangered by the rise of Nazism in Germany. He also objected to the use of scientific discovery to create weapons of mass destruction. But he looked at the world in such an endlessly fascinated way. He was convinced that observing nature was the way to solve all the mysteries of the universe. And he had a great determination to be the one to do so.

As the summer days go by, I will remind myself about the deceptive nature of time and do my best to slow it down and enjoy its passing.

 

 

 

Great Expectations

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I have grown used to my husband being the more common-sensical person in our marriage. With his take charge personality, he seems to know how to handle just about any situation. I have grown so used to this trait of his that I find myself disappointed when he is wrong about something or admits he doesn’t know what to do. I have this expectation that he will keep us safe and well-functioning as a family no matter what.

What a heavy burden that is to place upon a person! I think men in general carry a lot of emotional weight around, not really allowed by society to crack or show weakness. While we women also bear much responsibility in our families, we are given leave to vent, to ask for help, and to lean on others.

Expectations can be difficult to live with. When our child fails to meet our behavioral standards, our parental disappointment is felt keenly not only by ourselves, but by our kids as well. I know I have felt betrayed and disillusioned by catching my child in a lie or in finding out they were unkind to a friend. Parental expectations can also put undue pressure on our children. Right now, my youngest daughter is going through high school final exams. She wants to do well, and that fact contributes to her stress. But she also has to live with our expectations as parents that she excel academically. As often as I say to her, “Just do your best,” she knows in her heart that I am hoping for a perfect report card.

Our children, for their part, often have superhuman expectations of us as parents. As they get older and see our imperfections, as they realize we are not infallible, they lose some of the comfort and security that their wide-eyed innocence afforded them.

It’s hard to see our heroes fall. Recently, Tiger Woods was arrested for a DUI, to the disappointment of many fans who idolized him for his golfing prowess. It’s the same for other athletes, political leaders, artists, and anyone else who has attained a larger than life persona. We have set them on pedestals, and it is all too easy to fall off those exalted mounts.

On the other side lies cynicism. We start to doubt anyone who attains acclaim for great talent, public service, charity, or career success. We become jaded by scandal and the inevitable recognition that being human means making (sometimes huge) mistakes.

We need to attain a happy medium wherein we can admire and hope for the best in people, where we can encourage goodness and excellence without crushing someone’s spirit when they fail, where our expectations of each other are tempered by compassion and the recognition that we are all imperfect beings and that most of us are trying our best to be good people.

For my part, I will try not to expect my husband to be my constant rescuer. I will love my children unconditionally and let them know that nothing they could ever do will change how I feel about them. I will even try not to be so hard on myself when I inevitably stumble. Better to practice great encouragement than to saddle people with great expectations.

 

Coffee or Tea?

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news-surveyeah-tea-coffeeAre you a coffee or a tea drinker? My sister and I look alike and are very close in age. But I am a coffee drinker, and she likes tea. Our chosen beverages fit our personalities. I am a bull in a china shop: loud, fast-talking, opinionated. My sister is more methodical and thoughtful. She takes her time. This is the way I think of the two iconic drinks, coffee and tea.

Coffee is the fuel that gets you going. Without my morning coffee, I am still in the groggy cobwebs of sleep. After downing my first cup in the morning, I’m off to the races. Everywhere I go, I see people with their to-go cups of coffee. It’s the kind of beverage you drink on the run. It’s also the indispensable accessory on the office desk. Coffee is strong, bitter, and powerful.

Tea, on the other hand, is subtle and aromatic, almost like fine perfume. It’s meant to be sipped during quiet times or shared in an intimate moment with friends or family. It seems dignified and civilized, maybe because it’s the drink of choice for the British. A paper to-go cup of tea just doesn’t compute.

According to Pew Research Center, tea is preferred to coffee worldwide by a ratio of about 3 to 1. Some of the most populous countries, after all, favor tea. Asian countries such as China and Japan even have special ceremonies surrounding tea. And in Great Britain, many denizens take a break in the late afternoon for tea, which consists not only of the beverage itself but also a light snack. High tea in a swanky hotel is on my list of the most delightful experiences, mostly because of the scones with clotted cream and dainty pastries, as well as the sheer luxury implied by sitting around doing nothing but eat, sip, and chat.

Yet coffee is my drink. As a child, I always loved the smell I woke up to in the morning as my mom percolated coffee on the kitchen stove. I have even taken up my mom’s daily habit: her 2 o’clock coffee. Coffee has gotten me through many a late night studying in college. In America, coffee is far and away the more preferred hot beverage to tea. It is, after all, the birthplace of the ubiquitous Starbucks. And coffee gives a buzz that matches the fast pace of American life.

So when you reach for a hot beverage, which will it be: coffee or tea? The answer might give you a clue to who you are, or who you wish to be.

Snowflake, Meet Deplorable

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During the presidential campaign, I winced when I heard Hillary Clinton refer to Trump supporters as “deplorables.” First of all, name-calling is a mean-spirited and ineffective way of getting one’s point across. Secondly, I knew Trump supporters would have a field day with the comment, using it to point out how elitist and out of touch Clinton and her liberal base are with Middle America.

Conservatives have done their best to portray liberals as rich, intellectual elites who live on the two coasts and ignore the needs and wants of Americans in the “fly over zone.” Much was made of Hillary’s being part of the establishment in Washington, despite the fact that Trump was being propped up by career politicians in the Republican Party and is himself an “out of touch” billionaire.

The fact is that when it comes to belittling and mockery, the political Right is just as culpable as the Left. Lately it has become fashionable to sneer at college students as “snowflakes” who melt at the least little challenge to their multicultural, pie in the sky, kumbaya sensibilities. Over the past two decades, in fact, conservatives have taken an anti-intellectual posture, as if being smart and educated are bad things. What conservatives are really miffed about is that most colleges and universities have become bastions of liberalism where right wing ideas are marginalized. So their method of fighting back is mockery.

Since Bill O’Reilly was forced to resign from Fox News, the new champion of liberal-bashing has become Tucker Carlson. Tucker is a blue-blooded, boarding school, East Coast WASP, but you’d never know it the way he makes time to ridicule rich people. A regular on his show is Mike Rowe, a self-proclaimed man of the people whose job as host of a reality show called Dirty Jobs apparently makes him akin to all working class Joes. Rowe comes on regularly to belittle rich folk who would buy such preposterous items as pre-dirtied jeans or torn up sneakers for hundreds of dollars. I happen to agree that this practice seems crazy. But the subtext is what I object to. Here is a man worth millions of dollars pretending to be folksy and down to earth. Sound familiar? And who is his biggest fan? The baby-faced Carlson, who was born rich and undoubtedly has had servants taking care of his “dirty jobs.”

My point is this: We will never get anywhere in political discourse if we spend our time putting down people with opposing views. All Trump supporters are not racist. All Hillary supporters were not out-of-touch millionaires. We can criticize actions, statements, and policies without resorting to sarcasm and ridicule. With the exception of comedians, who are paid to be rude and sarcastic, Americans of all stripes need to put down their sharp weapons and try to meet in the middle. A little mutual respect would go a long way to heal divisions and truly make this country great again.