Thursday, December 30, 2010

Memorable Quotes from Harold Jacobson's The Finkler Question

That was what it was to be a Jewess. Never mind the moist dark womanly mysteriousness. A Jewess was a woman who made even punctuation funny.

....”You say you want to be a Jew — well, the first thing you need to know is that Jewish men don’t go out without their wives or girlfriends. Unless they’re having an affair. Other than another woman’s flat there is nowhere for Jewish men to go. They don’t do pubs, they hate being seen uncompanioned at the theater, and they can’t eat on their own. Jewish men must have someone to talk to while they eat. They can’t do only one thing with their mouths.

“A halber emes ist a ganster lign,” he said.
“A half truth is a whole lie,” Hephzibah whispered to Truslove.

They found themselves walking away from the grave together. “My name is Emmy Oppenstein,” the woman said.
The two men introduced themselves to her. There were no handshakes. Treslove liked that. The Jews were good at making one occasion not like another, he thought. The protocol alarmed him but he admired it. Good to divide this from that. Why is this night different from all other nights. Or was it good? They pursued difference to the grave.

Other Lost Things

I have also lost enough winter scarves to cross the Atlantic.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Non-believer's Christmas

I am a non-believer. I was baptized when my parents were briefly Presbyterian, but I received no religious education and was not confirmed as a member of any Christian denomination. At times during my youth we actually attended services, most consistently during my high school years in the mid 1960s, when my mother took us to the Unitarian Church in Urbana, Illinois. Urbana was a university town, and all our friends were liberals. The counterculture revolution and anti-war movement were under way, and everything was affected by the social forces in the air. Sermons at our church were more political than religious, and long before the current controversy about secularizing Christmas, our Unitarian congregation favored hymns and Christmas carols that were stripped of any references to god.

Naturally, I became an agnostic. Like most people, I held fast to the religion of my upbringing, which was hardly any religion at all. But it is difficult to avoid membership in the culture that surrounds you. Anyone brought up without religion in the United States is culturally a Protestant Christian by default. Like most of the families we knew, mine celebrated Christmas, sang carols, read the nativity story from the Bible on Christmas Eve, and occasionally attended church. The rest of the year you would never know what, if any, religion we espoused, because most of the time we espoused none at all.

There is much to like about Christmas. It is a holiday that celebrates children: the birth of a child and, through the Santa Claus story, the delight of children with the gift of toys. The innocence and promise of childhood are always worthy of celebration. Although a kind of self-interested and unrestrained consumerism is rampant at Christmas, we are often urged to “Remember the Neediest!” and give to charity at this time of year. It is a time when we all give to others. In addition, Christmas approximately marks the Winter Solstice, when the days begin to get longer. Candles and evergreens bring light and life into homes darkened by winter’s long night. This part of Christmas marks an important seasonal turning point and makes a connection to many ancient celebrations of the lengthening of the light.

And there is music. Yes, it is predominantly religious music, but I have no problem with that. I have always loved singing in church. For a time when my kids were young, my then-wife took them to Episcopal services, and though everyone knew I was a non-believer, I often came along to be a good sport. Singing hymns was my favorite part of the service, and I took to it with great enthusiasm. More recently, I have attended Jewish services on occasion, and where the siddur provided transliterations of the Hebrew, I did my best to sign along in a language I do not speak. My kids have been singers most of their lives, and I recently attended a Lessons and Carols concert to hear my daughter sing with her college choir. As is common for me, I got teary at several points while singing the carols. Religious music evokes emotion, and although I cannot endorse its religious sources, the melodies and the generosity of spirit in the lyrics move me like anyone else.

When it comes to religion, I am the kind of person who often seems to be hanging around clubs he cannot bring himself to join. Not quite the same as Woody Allen’s problem (“I'd never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member”), but we are both outsiders. In the case of Christianity—and in contrast to Judaism—I am fully entitled to the cultural Christianity of my birth. I will never be a religious Christian—or a religious anything—but I am entitled to my Christian secularism if I so choose. So I can fully enjoy Christmas in the way that suits me. I may be an outsider to religion, but I am not an outsider to Christmas. I often find the sense of expectation surrounding the giving and receiving of presents somewhat stressful. There is the race to get everything purchased and wrapped and the worry that someone will be disappointed with what they get. As a result, I feel a great sense of relief once Christmas morning has passed. But everything else about Christmas is something I can choose to enjoy or not, and there is much to enjoy. It will never be for me what it is for a religious Christian, but I am happy to have the chance to celebrate Christmas in my fashion.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Having a Jewish Heart But Not a Jewish Soul: The Problem of Conversion to Secular Judaism

In her book, Choosing a Jewish Life, Anita Diamant recounts a famous episode of Louis Brandeis’ life:
A story is told about Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), who was a student at Harvard Law School at a time when there were explicit limits on what Jews could hope to achieve. Quotas were in effect and many law offices were completely closed to Jewish attorneys. When Brandeis was in school, his colleagues would say, "Brandeis, you're brilliant. If you weren't a Jew, you could end up on the Supreme Court. Why don't you convert? Then all of your problems would be solved."
Brandeis did not respond to such comments, but on the occasion of his official introduction to an exclusive honor society at the law school, Brandeis took the podium and announced, "I am sorry I was born a Jew." His words were greeted with enthusiastic applause, shouts, and cheers. But when the noise died down he continued. "I'm sorry I was born a Jew, but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own."
The initial response of stunned silence slowly gave way to awed applause. Ultimately, his anti-Semitic peers rose and gave him a standing ovation. In 1916, Louis Brandeis became the first Jew appointed to the United States Supreme Court.
Brandeis was, of course, a religious man. And he was right. Conversion is only possible when moving from one religion to another or from a state of non-belief to belief. If, like Brandeis, you happen to be born into the religion you love, you cannot enjoy the additional privilege of deliberately choosing the religion you love.

For the secular person who would like to convert to religious secularism, there is a parallel but opposite roadblock. The very term religious secularism may sound like a non sequitur, a contradiction in terms, but there are many secular people who would, nonetheless, align themselves with a religion—most often the religion of their birth. Many Jews, in particular, claim both their Jewishness and their secularism. In 2004, the Washington Post reported that 80 percent of Jews in Israel were secular. The percentage is undoubtedly much lower in the United States, but here, too, secular Jewish life is common.

But here is the rub. Just as conversion to the Judaism of one’s birth is impossible; so too is conversion from some other faith—or none—to secular Judaism. Conversion to Judaism is a particularly serious business. Jews are prohibited from proselytizing, and to convert you must demonstrate a strong desire to be Jewish and work hard to accomplish the goal. So the person who is born Jewish is granted the choice of being a religious or a secular Jew. Though it might never have occurred to him to be anything but a religious Jew, this was a choice that Brandeis retained. But for the secular person who is not born Jewish, Jewish secularism is another kind of impossible conversion. The path to secular Judaism must go through belief, and if belief in the Jewish religion is impossible, then Jewish secularism is unattainable.

While this may be frustrating for a small group of secular non-Jews who are attracted to Jewish life—people who might be said to have a Jewish heart but not a Jewish soul—I think, in the end, there is something fitting about it. Judaism is, after all, a religion. There is a Jewish culture, too, but it is a culture that grows out of a people with a common religion. It is one thing to be born into a religion and then, at some point in your life, decide that the religion does not work for you. This is a question that resides at an appropriately level. A question about whether or not to choose a religious life.

The secular person who would like to adopt the culture of a religion and who may also be drawn—in a spiritual but not truly religious way—to the teachings of the religion is not struggling with questions at the same level. He or she wrestles with a less central kind of life choice. In most cases, the secular person made the decision about a religious or non-religious life long ago. As a result, I think it is perfectly appropriate that the rabbis draw the line. Judaism is a religion. The synagogue door is open. You may come in and sit with the congregation. But the person who is not born Jewish cannot call him or herself a Jew without adopting the religion.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Ritual of the Dinner Party

Arrivals:      Kisses, handshakes, the discarding of coats and purses.
Before:         Drinks, snacks, getting to know the other guests, activity in the kitchen. The host(s) moving about while the guests sit together or kibitz in the kitchen.
During:       The table, candlelight, food, drink, conversation.
After:           Coffee, tea, dessert, more talk.
Departures: Kisses, handshakes, the gathering of coats and purses.

The phases of this ritual are designed to prolong contact over several hours. The dinner party accomplishes the simple function of bringing people together around food, but the different stages of the evening also provide natural breaks—points at which diners can change conversational partners or adopt different roles: helping in the kitchen, bringing things to the table, clearing, or jumping into someone else’s conversation to provide the missing details of a story. The familiarity of the ritual provides a comfortable foundation for various forms of risk-taking: the outrageous statement; the risque joke; the concerned but probing question; the tenderly offered confession. The dinner party is neither trivial—as in the case of the cocktail party, where encounters are brief and conversation is often superficial—nor ponderous. The different phases of the evening and the varying roles adopted by the participants keep the evening going.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Memorable Quotes from Jonathan Franzen's Freedom

She knew that you could love somebody more than anything and still not love the person all that much, if you were busy with other things. (p. 42)

“I know essentially nothing about sex,” Walter confessed.
“Oh, well,” she said, “it’s not very complicated.”
And so began the happiest years of their life.  (p. 129)

“It’s good to have friends in life,” she said. “If you want to have friends, you have to remember that nobody’s perfect.”  (p. 137)

For the prosecution: The problem wasn’t between Walter and Joey. The problem was between Patty and Walter, and she knew it.
For the defense: She loves Walter!
For the prosecution: The evidence suggests otherwise.
For the defense: Well in that case, Walter doesn’t love her, either. He doesn’t love the real her. He loves some wrong idea of her.
For the prosecution: That would be convenient if only it were true. Unfortunately for Patty, he didn’t marry her in spite of who she was, he married her because of it. Nice people don’t necessarily fall in love with nice people.
For the defense: It isn’t fair to say she doesn’t love him!
For the prosecution: If she can’t behave herself, it doesn’t matter if she loves him.  (pp. 147-148)

...there came a stretch of minutes in which they lay and held each other in the quiet majesty of long marriage, forgot themselves in shared sadness and forgiveness for everything they’d inflicted on each other, and rested.     (p. 330)

Meanwhile the country was at war, but it was an odd sort of war in which, within a rounding error, the only casualties were on the other side. (p. 399)

And it was a strange thing to feel, but he definitely felt it: when he emerged from the bathroom with the ring on his ring finger, and Jenna rushed past him and then reeled out again, squealing and cursing the stench, he was a different person. He could see this person so clearly, it was like standing outside himself. He was the person who’d handled his own shit to get his wedding ring back. This wasn’t the person he’d thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he’d been free to choose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones. (p. 432)

Saturday, November 06, 2010

It Isn't Socks

For me it isn't socks but pencils. Somewhere there is a log cabin's worth of Ticonderogas I've lost.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Modern Awkwardnesses

Needing to go to the bathroom in the middle of having a filling replaced, which led to a disorienting walk down a long hallway with most of my face covered by a red rubber dental dam. Of course, the moment I started my trip to the bathroom, the path filled up with people, including my hygienist and several startled patients.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"There was this girl..."

I recently watched a documentary about Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked The Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War and helped move the nation towards the end of that dark episode. As I watched I was reminded of a basic principle of left-wing politics of the 1960s and 70s. Many men first became involved in radical politics because of a woman. Ellsberg was a veteran of the Vietnam war who had married the daughter of a career soldier. But his second wife was a left-winger, and, soon after they began dating, he was accompanying her to antiwar demonstrations. He released the Pentagon Papers a year after they were married.

I have always been a liberal, and during my senior year of high school, I rode a bus to the March on the Pentagon, a large anti-Vietnam War protest in Washington, DC. But my only foray into old-fashion Marxism came during my college years, at the suggestion of my then girlfriend. She convinced me—at least temporarily—that I should get involved with the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth wing of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist group that is now largely credited with screwing up the antiwar movement and inadvertently delaying the end of the war. At my girlfriend’s suggestion, I drove with two other guys from Carbondale, Illinois to a YSA convention in Houston, Texas to watch scratchy silent films of Leon Trotsky—who was by then long dead—standing on a wall delivering dramatic oratory. Also, for the first time in my life, I heard the International sung by a large hall full of people. Soon my brief involvement with Russian-style socialism ended, and not long after that, my girlfriend and I parted ways.

Several friends report similar stories. When asked how they first got involved in left-wing politics, they smile and say, “Well, there was this girl....”

Saturday, October 23, 2010

From Our Town

Emily:....Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?
Stage Manager: (Quietly) No— Saints and poets maybe—they do some.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Making a Difference In Someone's Life

I think this is the greatest joy of all. Knowing that you have made an important contribution to someone else's life. The post below is from a blog written by Liza Talusan, a former student of mine. Liza is a very special person who spends much of her time working for social justice. Unfortunately, Liza's family has a high rate of cancer, and she carries a gene that greatly increases her chances of getting breast cancer. After long contemplation she has decided to have a double mastectomy next month to increase her chances of survival. Liza's blog, Marathon B4 Mastectomy, is an account of her personal journey. The following entry in her blog is one of the nicest gifts anyone has ever given me:


 After all, how bad is a stain on my shirt or a being late for a meeting or someone being mad at you or a headache/stomach ache/hangover or traffic or missing a 24-hour sale when your kid has had cancer? Or, how about when your sister has had cancer? Or, how about when your own body is a ticking time bomb for cancer? Or, how about when your friend’s husband suddenly loses his vision or when your neighbor’s mother dies unexpectedly or when a young person cannot see any relief from bullying and teasing other than to take his own life? The “downs” redefine your norm.

For me, the downs are just part of the process. And, that end goal is experiencing a redefined UP; a new joy both in life and for life; and a new appreciation for when times are good.

And, these past few days have been particularly awesome.
Today, I received a beautiful letter. Twenty-seven words. Typed. Centered.
The Liza Mutiplier Effect:
a well-known economic concept
You help Liza, and just by being who she is,
she helps a hundred other people.

Between mile 9 and mile 10 on Sunday, my friend Carra Gamberdella joined me as a fresh pair of legs during my 1/2 marathon journey. Carra and I have been friends since our Connecticut College days, and she has always been that gal who puts a smile on my face just by Being Carra. She’s funny, kind, genuine, and full of life. Carra is also notorious for saying the darndest things. For example, one time Carra told me that she loves to drive in the left hand lane on the highway. “Why, Carra? Why do you love to drive in the left hand lane on the highway?” Carra answers, “Because, Liza, silly, it’s the friendliest lane!” I cringe yet dig deeper, “Carra, (dear God), why do you think the left hand lane is the friendliest lane?” She smiles her big white smile and her dark black Italian eyes light up, “Because, Liza! People drive right up behind you, flash their lights and wave! It’s so friendly!”

Sigh. Yes, Carra is serious. And, this exchange is pretty typical of a Carra Conversation. This is exactly why I love her.

I can also count on Carra for another reliable conversation — our shared admiration for one of our favorite professors: Stuart Vyse. For over a decade, Stuart Vyse has insisted that I no longer address him as “Professor.” Yet, to me, he is and always will be someone who I hold up on a pedestal. He was the very first professor I met on campus. He completely shaped my college career, ignited my love for psychology, and showed me the importance of being both a parent and a professional.

When I think about my role in education and in the lives of students, I think of Professor Vyse. For, I took nearly every single class that man taught, and I took his academic advising to heart. It was because of him that I applied to graduate school in psychology (decided, instead, to go into Higher Ed Admin) and was even accepted. I was a terrible student, even when he gave quizzes on a fixed interval schedule, but I remember nearly everything that he taught me. He was even an accomplice (meaning, he drove the van on a class field trip to Harvard) to my first nose piercing.

But, it wasn’t necessarily the lessons in class that impacted me; it was the interactions outside of class. They weren’t anything big nor lengthy. But, his words meant something to me. For example, at a Faculty event in the President’s House (we’re talking sometime in 1996), I was singing a solo with the acappella group and Prof. Vyse simply said to me, “That sounded great, Liza,” and walked on. I remember that feeling of A) He knows my name!, and B) Wow, he took the time to say something to me. That interaction was probably was just a blip on the screen of his day, but it meant the world to me. Positive reinforcement.

Years later, I was teaching psychology at a private school on Long Island to 12th graders. And, try as I might, I just couldn’t understand a concept well enough to teach it. Though I had been out of college for more than 5 years, I took a chance and emailed Professor Vyse to ask him how to best teach that lesson. He quickly responded, laid out a great lesson plan, and at the end, included, “So, are you still singing?”

So. Are. You. Still. SINGING?

He remembered that about me.

Years later, I would remember Professor Vyse again. Once I had children, I wanted them to be a part of my work community and interact with students. I remember Prof. Vyse’s kids running across the college green — his younger child with glasses bigger than his own face — and realized that I, too, could show my students that I was human. That I was a mom. That my family life is integrated into my work life. By having my children present on campus, students felt a different connection with me. They no longer saw me as just an administrator, but they could see me in different roles. I remember that moment I realized Prof. Vyse not just as a research and teaching psychologist, but he was also a dad. A human.

Over the next decade, thanks to Carra, I would hear about Prof. Vyse’s new books or research on magic or gambling or superstition. I would hear about the “Album of the Summer” or the different radio or talk shows he had been on. To me, he was always the definition of Professor — brilliant, funny, caring, dedicated, interesting, and, of course, as a requirement of the academy, a little bit quirky. I read his Op Ed pieces, usually not about psychology, and understood that professors could be interested in something other than (gasp!) their field of study.

When I gave the College’s Convocation address in 2008, I saw Prof. Vyse sitting in the audience. “I’d better not screw this up,” I thought. In my brief time there, I didn’t even say “hello” to him — I was too intimidated and didn’t want that awkward exchange of realizing he might not even know who the heck I was anymore.

Yet, a day later, I received an email from Prof. Vyse thanking me for my Convocation address.

Months later, I received encouragement from Prof. Vyse in the Marathon B4 Mastectomy journey.

And, today, in the mail, I received the kindest twenty-seven words I have ever had the privilege of reading, from Prof. Vyse.
The Liza Mutiplier Effect:
a well-known economic concept
You help Liza, and just by being who she is,
she helps a hundred other people.

How far can we go when we redefine the very thought of who we are, what we can do, and who we can impact? How high can we fly when we take the time to say or write words that transform — redefine — how we think of ourselves?

And, how beautiful can our world be when we multiply goodness, and redefine the idea that helping others is helping oneself?

Peace, love and embracing the sweetness of a life redefined,

Q-tip Morality

Some products are purportedly made for one purpose but most often used for another. One example that crosses the line of legality in the United States, is rolling papers. Probably some of the Zig-Zags sold at the local convenience store are used to hand roll tobacco cigarettes, but I suspect the overwhelming majority end up as joints.

A far more common domestic example of a product sold with a wink is the Q-tip. This great little tool was reportedly invented in 1923 by Leo Gerstenzang when he witnessed his wife attaching cotton to a toothpick to clean their infant child. The product is now manufactured by Unilever, and a complete history of the Q-tip can be found on their website. Imitators abound. The box in my bathroom is a Stop & Shop brand knock-off. 

The Q-tip moral question is: Does the product warning really cover it? Does Unilever really believe that their product is only being used outside the ear canal? I found this photo of the Unilever warning on the web, and while it seems very direct, I suspect the manufacturer knows full well that the great majority of Q-tips are used to clean wax out of people’s ear canals. Indeed, the product is perfectly constructed for this purpose. The cotton is very securely attached and the thickness of the swab is ideal for spinning in an ear canal to get that pesky yellow gunk out of your head. It works beautifully. 

Of course the manufacturer wants to be protected from lawsuits, but does this really absolve them of responsibility? It is unlikely anyone would bring a suit about a product that, by now, has such a long and honored history, but I suspect a jury would be quick to see that a large portion of the profits gained from Q-tips come from the “misuse” of the product. Furthermore, few people would be convinced that Unilever is unaware of this fact.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Daniel Gilbert Quote

"My friends tell me that I have a tendency to point out problems without offering solutions, but they never tell me what I should do about it."

                            —from Stumbling on Happiness

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Odd Classroom Moments

Earlier this week while lecturing to my senior seminar, I uttered the following sentence: “Being sober is always worse.”

When the students laughed at this, I was jolted out of my concentration and quickly realized how ridiculous I sounded. There is a reasonable explanation. I was describing one of the features of relative addiction theory, as proposed by psychologists Howard Rachlin, Gene Heyman, and others. But to my students it sounded like I was expressing a personal preference for drunkenness.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Simple Pleasures: Ode to Pero

Two and a half years ago, in a post called “Ode to Postum,” I waxed romantic about the beloved coffee substitute. I reported that I and my partner of the time had come to enjoy a hot cup of Postum after dinner and that, no more than six months after we had established this pleasant routine, Kraft Foods had discontinued Postum. A product first introduced over a hundred years ago had been snatched from our hands just as we had fallen in love with it.

Much has happened since Ode to Postum. I am now drinking my hot beverages alone. But, especially as the weather turns cooler, I find myself yearning for a Postum-like beverage in the evening. When tea is not enough and something heartier and a bit sweet is required, I miss my Postum.

It has taken a while, but I’ve made the transition to Pero, a Swiss-made instant coffee substitute. Soon after the demise of Postum, I sampled a few of the other Postum imitators on the market. Most were undrinkable. Pero was acceptable but suffered by comparison with the memory of Postum. Pero was smooth and rich tasting. Its primary shortcoming was that, unlike Postum—which contained molasses—it was not naturally sweet. But sweetness is easy to accomplish. I typically drink both coffee and tea black, without sugar, so adding sweeteners does not come naturally for me. But a hot cup of Pero with a teaspoon of brown or white sugar is a very pleasing beverage. It may also help that, two and a half years after my last cup of Postum, the memory of its deliciousness has faded somewhat. Now, if the Pero and sugar are mixed just right, I can imagine I am drinking a cup of C.W. Post’s wonderful elixir.

On one level, the forgoing represents an unsolicited product endorsement (“I’m not a doctor, but I impersonate a PhD in real life”), but I hope you will see that is it much, much more: another installment in a long series of sonnets in appreciation of simple—in this case, domestic—pleasures.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Gail Caldwell on God

I recently completed Let's Take the Long Way Home, by Gail Caldwell, a memoir of her friendship with the writer Caroline Knapp, who died too young of lung cancer. Caldwell writes the following passage about her struggles after the death of her friend:

What I took away from that dark alleyway was that, when it came to God, I needed not to know—needed the humble ignorance as to whether anything existed outside that grim tableau. In the months that followed, I kept thinking of the phrase "requisite mystery," as though that could capture my necessary position in the universe now, poised on the line between Knowing and Not Knowing, between what seemed to me the arrogance of religious certainty and the despair of a godless world.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

This American's Dream: Please, May I Never Be Rich

Recent research shows that wealth diminishes a person's ability to savor and enjoy simple pleasures. Other studies show that inadequate income is associated with both immediate unhappiness and more general life dissatisfaction.

I am lucky enough to know I will never be poor, but, please, may I never be rich.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Boys’ night out keeps three lives’ strands from fraying

My latest op-ed published in the Providence Journal Wednesday, August 25, 2010.

Kevin and Steve were two guys I went to graduate school with. After graduation the three of us happened to end up working as psychologists at the same community mental-health center. That was 30 years ago, and today we are all still friends. Indeed, Kevin and Steve are probably my closest friends. When we first met, I would never have guessed that we would become friends — much less that our friendship would last as long as it has — but due to a combination of luck and deliberate action, we are all still together.

A large part of our friendship is based on random events. The rigors of graduate school always create an intense bonding experience, and we happened to be in the same program at the same time. In the mid-1980s, after graduation, we all began our adult lives in Providence. We were newly married. Kids had not arrived yet, but we were working our first real jobs and beginning to acquire the accessories of adult life.

We all lived in classic triple-decker apartments common to Providence. These late-19th-Century structures have notoriously narrow stairways — not designed for late-20th-Century furniture. As each of us purchased our first real couches, the others were summoned to the challenging task of using rope and extension ladders to bringing these heavy pieces through an upper-floor window. Because Steve’s apartment was on a third floor, moving his couch was a particularly harrowing project involving an army of nervous friends and an enormous ladder.

During the raising of Kevin’s beautiful white contemporary sofa, the rope snapped while I pushed from underneath, bringing the load down on my head and eventually—because I could not hold it alone — back to Earth. Thankfully, the only damage was a headache and a small tear in the fabric.

Eventually, children came and we each drifted away from Providence. Steve and Kevin live in southern Rhode Island, and I have slipped over the border into Connecticut. The demands of work and raising kids made getting together more difficult, but there was an urge to keep the group together. So we decided to start meeting once a month for dinner: Boys’ Night. We have burgers and beer at a local pub, and each time we get together we set the date for the next meeting. It is a simple system that has worked now for about 15 years. We talk about work, kids, politics — whatever is happening at the moment. Once in a while, we get together with the spouses, too.

Over the course of our association, the three of us have not always agreed on everything, and we have taken breaks from Boys’ Night during vacation periods or holidays. But we have kept the string going.

Like all important relationships, deep friendships take work. It has not always been convenient for me to make arrangements to drive to Rhode Island for dinner, but I give this meeting priority over many other things. There are very few people in my life who have known me continuously over a span of 30 years. Much has happened to all of us in that time, and in important ways we have accompanied each other on our separate paths.

Boys’ Night means a lot to me because friendships like these don’t come along every day. It takes effort and a bit of luck. So I plan to keep making my monthly trip to Rhode Island as long as possible.

Stuart Vyse, an occasional contributor, is a professor of psychology at Connecticut College and the author of “Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold on to Their Money.”

Thursday, August 12, 2010

People Will Surprise You

Once in a while we encounter people whose remarkable graciousness is a welcome and very pleasant surprise. These encounters are rare, but when they happen, they can restore your faith in the basic goodness of people and the society in which we live.

In December of 2009, I was in a car accident. Stated more accurately, I caused a car accident. It was a brilliantly sunny Saturday, and I was driving along a winding country road in Stonington, CT. Daydreaming, I allowed my attention to drift, looking away from the road as I enjoyed the winter scenery. Within seconds I had rear-ended a car that was stopped in the roadway. A car ahead was attempting a left-hand turn and was waiting for on-coming traffic to pass. The car I hit was stopped, waiting for the other car to complete the turn. I did not see the car I hit at all. I was traveling at full speed, approximately 35 miles per hour.

The car I hit was an Audi sedan occupied by a young man and his infant daughter. Thankfully, no one was injured. The front end of my Volvo wagon collapsed on impact and absorbed most of the force of the collision, and both the young man and I signed wavers and declined medical attention. I apologized profusely, and the young man was remarkably understanding. “Accidents happen,” he said. His most pressing concern was getting to Providence, where his wife was at the time, so that his daughter could be nursed. In the end, both cars were totaled. I had no further contact with young man, and I went on to buy a new Volvo wagon.

Eight months later, in August of 2010 my mother and I were at the Stonington Village Fair. Among other amusements, there were booths displaying the work of artists and crafts people. My mother was visiting with one of the artists and soon determined that she was the wife of the man whose car I struck back in December. The baby’s mother. My mother introduced me to the young woman, who was lovely. Remarkably, the woman was very friendly and seemed to harbor no ill will toward me at all. In fact, I learned that her husband—having researched me on the internet—had purchased a copy of my most recent book. In addition, she explained that, with a baby, they needed a larger car, and the accident gave them the incentive to decide what car to get. They chose a Subaru Forester. Again, I apologized to the woman profusely, and she said, “Not at all. Accidents happen.”

It is not often that you rear-end someone on the highway, totaling their car, and not only are they not mad but they buy a copy of your book and seem thankful to be forced to buy a new car. I will always feel regret and responsibility for this accident, but I am grateful to have met such wonderful people.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

He Did the Best He Could

Latest op-ed, published in the Providence Journal on May 4, 2010.

STONINGTON, Conn. My father died in March. He lived in California, and I was able to see him a couple of weeks before his death. I sat by his bed. We exchanged expressions of love and gratitude. We also shared an unspoken understanding that this might be our last time together. Despite the sad occasion, it was a pleasant visit, and I flew home knowing that I had fulfilled a son’s obligation to pay his last respects to a dying parent.

There was a time when an ending like this might not have been possible. My parents’ marriage came apart in 1962, when I was 11, and in those days, before our contemporary era of shared parenting, many divorced fathers, my own included, were rarely heard from. He was a Navy veteran, and I became a college student of the late 1960s. Our political views quickly diverged, and after visiting my apartment and finding it decorated with symbols of the anti-Vietnam War movement, he wrote my mother a letter expressing great displeasure with me.

As I grew up and established myself in life, our relationship improved. The philosophical divides between us could never be bridged, but we learned to avoid those topics and enjoy the things we shared. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was always interested in what I was doing. We found ways to strengthen the bonds between us by focusing on what we had in common.

In the weeks before his death, my father suffered a final humiliation. As his battle with emphysema wore on, he had to move to a nursing home, at which point his financial circumstances came to light. Dad had always presented himself as if he lived a comfortable lifestyle. A former business executive, he dressed well and displayed all the outward indications of a modest but solidly middle class life.

When the crisis hit, he was forced to reveal that he drew a small pension, owned little of value, had no savings, and had tens of thousands of dollars in credit-card debt. After a life spent complaining about taxes and denigrating government-run social programs, he found himself completely dependent upon those programs and died unable to pay what he owed to his creditors.

When I heard this news, I struggled to avoid reversing our old roles — becoming the critical son leveling judgment against a disappointing father. Because he was in his final days, I could never have said anything to him about my displeasure, but for a time, at least, it was hard to avoid feeling let down.

But I quickly recovered from this initial reaction. In recent years, I have tried to adopt the philosophy that, at any given moment, we are all doing the best we can. Perhaps, if we had greater encouragement or lived under different circumstances, we could achieve more and be better people. But given things as they are, we are all doing no better or worse than we are able.

It is easy to stand in judgment of other people. On talk radio and cable news, it is something of a national pastime to cheer on the heroes and rail at the villains, but in the real world of ordinary people, we are all equals. Even an attitude of forgiveness, with its flavor of religious authority, is something I try to avoid. Instead, I strive to accept people as they are and recognize that there, but for a cosmic roll of the dice, go I.

My father’s obituary concentrated on his military service in World War II and Korea, his successful business career, and his community volunteer work. When I think of him now, I will remember him in a similarly positive light. He loved me; I loved him; and I will always be grateful for what he gave me. He did the best he could.

Stuart Vyse, an occasional contributor, is a professor of psychology at Connecticut College.