The Price of Arrogance

A funny thing happened the other day between participating in a local blood drive and going to bed later that evening.

I passed out.

Well, not completely.  What happened was, I was on my way from the bathroom on the second floor of my apartment to my bedroom on the third floor, and about halfway up the stairs I grew dizzy and lightheaded.  By the time I reached the door to my room I could no longer stand.

Managing not to fully lose consciousness, I fell to the hardwood floor as gracefully as I could and, on all fours, more or less clawed my way to my bed, hoping this rather alarming discomfort would pass, as it eventually did.

There was no mystery as to why this near-fainting experience occurred.  At every turn, the American Red Cross recommends drinking copious amounts of water both before and after donating a pint of one’s blood, cautioning that failure to do so could very easily result in lightheadedness, fainting or worse.

Silly, dumb goober that I am, I made the cavalier decision to consume barely any water at all in the hours surrounding my donation, opting instead for caffeine and whiskey, and voila!

I have said (and still do) that there is nothing so boring or irritating as when certain people behave with perfect predictability—a Catholic priest banging on about the evils of homosexuality, say, or the head of the NRA saying the solution to gun violence in schools is to put more guns in schools.

However, my antipathy toward predictability in human beings does not extend to predictability in the broader universe.  In point of fact, exactly the reverse is true, even when it comes at my own expense.

Nothing so delights and reassures me, per example, than when I ferociously gobble my way across the dessert table at Thanksgiving, and proceed to spend the evening in the gentlemen’s quarters, hunched over in agony, trying to keep everything down but suspecting it would be just as well if such an effort failed.

It is essential that events unfold in this manner, because it reminds us that the world is just.  That we cannot escape the consequences of our actions and would do ourselves a service to stop thinking that we can.

In its way, it is a check on our own arrogance.  By skipping the “drink lots of water” part of the blood-giving process, I thought I could outsmart the Red Cross and the basic science in which it puts its faith, and I was proved wrong, suffering the exact side effects they said I would.  Serves me right.

It is humbling to learn we do not have full control over our bodies and lives—that the laws of biology and physics cannot be suspended in our favor.  That stuffing inordinate amounts of food into our mouths will, like clockwork, induce our systems to rebel.  It is a disconcerting fact for a control freak like me, but a necessary one.  And quite useful, as well.

For one thing, it serves as a mechanism for self-correction.  If holiday bingeing didn’t yield holiday indigestion, what would stop us from doing it all year round?  Manners and social conventions are well and good, but avoidance of physical pain gets right to the point.

I’m glad that the universe functions in such an orderly and reliable fashion, in no small part because of the way it keeps us on our best behavior when our base instincts lead us astray.

It reminds us, finally, that while faith in the supernatural is problematic, faith in people is often a very worthy investment, indeed.  In particular, the faith that a person trained in a particular field probably knows more about it than you do, and whose counsel is therefore worth taking to heart, even (or especially) when it requires swallowing one’s pride more thoroughly than to which one is normally accustomed.

One would be well-advised to be well-advised.

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Scaling Back

Why are the tastiest and most irresistible foods the ones that make you fat?  This fact is the most persuasive evidence I have yet found for the proposition that life is not fair.

With 2013 lurking just around the bend, we are amidst the season of New Year’s resolutions, when roughly half of America vows to lose weight, just as soon as those last Christmas cookies have been dusted off.

On the matter of going on a diet, I know from what I speak.  Two years ago, on the first of January 2011, I resolved to lose 20 pounds before the year was out.  It took me all of three months to accomplish my goal, and I would go on to shed 10 additional pounds by Christmas.  I have kept most of it off ever since.

What is my secret?

As my fellow success stories will affirm, the secret to losing weight is that there isn’t one.  The unfairness of America’s collective waistline problem—fatty food is delicious—is partly redeemed by the simplicity of the solution.

The fact is, we know exactly what it takes to slim ourselves down, and we’ve known it for a very long time.  It’s what every weight loss guru recommends, and it never fails:  If you consume fewer calories than you burn over the course of a day, you will lose weight.  Period, full stop.

As a person who does not believe in divine intervention and puts in all his chips with the wonders of science, I take great comfort and encouragement in this equation—knowing, for instance, that if I eat one too many brownies today, I can get myself squarely back on track by eating one fewer brownie tomorrow.

Like Einstein said, the miracle is that there aren’t any miracles.  The universe operates exactly as we expect it to.  What is more awe-inspiring than that?

It is precisely because the answer to losing weight is so simple that the enormity of America’s obesity epidemic is so very interesting indeed.

The real trick as to how I managed to drop 30 pounds—you didn’t ask, but I’ll tell you anyway—is self-control and self-discipline.

So far as I can tell, America’s entire dieting and weight loss industry is based—and, indeed, depends—on the fact that most people (myself included) do not possess such skills most of the time.  If they did, they would not require the elaborate system of rules and strategies for dealing with food that our culture’s myriad diet plans offer.

During the time that I took losing weight seriously, I was never on any kind of “system” other than the one I devised for myself, which I essentially made up as I went along, and which was based on a much more limited knowledge of nutrition than I possess today.  It worked because I was determined to make it work.  There is little more to it than that.

Admittedly, the conclusion I seem to have backed into—that people who struggle with dieting are simply not “wanting” it enough—does rather make me want to punch myself in the face.

Losing weight effectively is not an easy trick to pull off, and I do not mean to imply to the contrary.  Temptation, the fundamental hurtle, is an affliction that science cannot easily cure, must ever be kept in check and never completely goes away.

What active dieting taught me—and still teaches me today—is a variation of the great line from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, “The only causes worth fighting for are the lost causes.”

Losing weight, and keeping it off, is hard, and that’s just as well.  If it were easy, it would not be such a great national obsession, would not be such a worthy personal challenge, and would not be so much fun.

Ode to Silence

Three highlights from my recent journey to Israel.  See if you can spot the common thread.

First:  A rather exhausting hike up Mt. Zephachot, situated in the Jewish state’s southernmost town of Eilat.  When we reached the rocky summit, boasting awe-inspiring vistas of Egypt, Jordan and the Red Sea, our leader, Asaf, instructed each member of our group to find his or her own spot, away from everyone else, and simply to sit and reflect until further notice.

Second:  Visiting Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum, we concluded our formal tour in the Hall of Names, a comparatively small room whose circular wall is adorned with more than four million volumes of material comprising biographical information of every known victim of the Holocaust.  After a brief explanation, the museum’s tour guide turned off her microphone and allowed us to take in this spectacle in peace.

And third:  On the trip’s final, sunny morning in Jerusalem, I left the hotel and (in flagrant violation of the Birthright program’s rules) went for a stroll.  It was a Saturday, the Jewish day of rest, and although Israel is largely a secular country, it nonetheless honors the fourth Commandment and effectively closes down on the Sabbath.  As I walked the streets of this normally bustling capital city, I found businesses closed, train and bus service suspended, and no activity of any sort, save the occasional worshiper making his or her way to synagogue.

In all three of these moments:  Total, blissful silence.

Surely everyone recalls the scene in Pulp Fiction in which John Travolta and Uma Thurman go on a date to a hopping ’50s restaurant and, after ordering their food, find they have nothing to say to each other.  Thurman finally breaks the tension by asking, “Don’t you hate uncomfortable silences?”  Travolta affirms, and Thurman continues, “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody really special:  When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably share silence.”

Would that we might apply this credo more generally to our day-to-day lives.

America is a loud country.  A country of talkers.  We talk both with and at each other, not always pausing to listen before resuming to talk again.  We talk to hear the sound of our own voices, to fill the room with noise for noise’s own sake.  Indeed, nothing may frighten us collectively more than silence.

Oh, how I wish none of this was so.

Perhaps because I am (or presume to be) a writer, I am convinced there is very little that cannot be stated perfectly well on the page, rather than out loud.  I prefer to text than to talk, and when compelled to communicate a message orally, I attempt to do so in as few words as possible.

I have long given up on most cable TV news programs, as they are little more than glorified shouting fests, with host and guest engaged in an insufferable competition for verbal and physical (rather than intellectual) dominance.  I congratulate any viewer who manages to glean any sort of insight from this grating piffle.  I struggle.

A reason I find excessive talking so annoying (at any decibel) is because it cheapens the language I hold most dear.  Listen carefully and you will find that those who speak at the greatest length tend to be those with the least to say, and, consequently, become the easiest to tune out.  Consider the words of Christopher Hitchens, who theorized that, in oratory, “One has to be a spellbinding person to speak for more than half an hour,” adding, “If one is spellbinding, one doesn’t really need the half-hour.”

I do not mean to suggest that words cannot have intrinsic value and beauty, or that conversation as we know it ought to be phased out except for the pure transmission of information.  What a horribly dull society that would produce.

I mean only to say that we do not appreciate both the value and the beauty of resisting the impulse to opine and converse, and allowing for the occasional pause in its place.

We have the right to remain silent.  We should exercise it more often.

A Non-Believer in the Holy Land

I am hovering in the skies somewhere over the Mediterranean, having concluded a 10-day adventure with three dozen strangers who, with me, have but one thing in common.

Our parents—and, by extension, we—have a unique and divinely ordained right to a home in the land of Israel.  We are Jews, God’s preferred tribe, and returning to the land of our fathers after thousands of years in exile is our birthright.

The adventure to which I refer—a program whose Hebrew name, “Taglit,” translates to “Birthright”—is an initiative, partly funded by the Israeli government, to send to Israel young Jews who have never been there before.  The trip runs for 10 days, traverses a significant portion of the country and is free of charge.

It is to Birthright’s great credit that your humble servant was deemed qualified to participate.  I made it as plain as I could in my application that, while I self-identify as Jewish, I live a secular existence and firmly do not believe in any sort of God.

I should begin, then—in point of reflection—by noting that my views on the God question were not at all changed during my trip.  In fact, they weren’t even challenged.  At no point was a belief in the supernatural required of me by my many guides.

What the Birthright experience explored, rather, is the simple proposition, “What does it mean to be Jewish?”  The question is a vital one, as Jews are very much a “people” as well as members of a religion.  If we are indeed entitled to a state of our own, the answer had better be a good one.

One way my group approached the matter was to debate the relative merits of various facets of Judaism—observing the Sabbath, keeping kosher, marrying a Jew and moving to Israel were but a few examples—under the heading, “What is most essential to ensuring Judaism’s survival?”

A lesson we drew from this exercise is that Judaism means different things to different people.  One of Birthright’s objectives (and definite strengths) is to enable its participants to better explore and understand the roots and purpose of their heritage in the context of their own lives—if, indeed, any such meaning exists.

Not all the games we played were so serious or seemingly on-point.  Numerous evenings were spent on various ice-breakers to allow members of our rather large group to know each other better and bond over matters beyond our common ancestry.

These nights of merriment served to lighten the load of what was otherwise a fairly exhausting ordeal.  But it was here, as well, that I realized what very little I had in common with my Birthright fellow-travelers.

It was not merely that my team was composed of a disproportionately high number of heterosexual males whose late-night tales of conquest I could not quite appreciate or relate to.  Or that everyone else on the bus seemed to boast resumes of accomplishment well beyond their years (or at least beyond mine).

Things just seemed to not quite click between me and the gang at large, and I never became fully engaged by it.  I was in the group without being of it.  An odd man out.

This, to my way of thinking, is the whole story of Judaism.  Collectively, Jews are natural outsiders, shunned from the cool kids’ table, left to wander alone in the wilderness waiting, perhaps in vain, for a moment of redemption.

It is an irony of my life, then, that I find myself identifying with this Jewish outsider ethos in the company of fellow Jews, an outsider amongst outsiders.

The key, and the challenge, is to accept this state of affairs and not view it as some kind of a problem.  Rather, to take a bit of pride in not being like everybody (or anybody) else.

For me, to be a Jew is to be forever a misfit, to not belong, and to not want to.

Killing George Washington

There is no way around it:  It would be exceedingly difficult to tuck a one-dollar coin into a stripper’s grateful thong.

I have been racking my brain, trying to imagine the negative consequences of an America without the one-dollar bill, and that is the biggest one I have yet devised.

In testimony before a House Financial Services subcommittee last week, representatives from the Government Accountability Office made a fresh case for eliminating the republic’s smallest paper currency, estimating such a move would save the government $4.4 billion over the next three decades.  The bill would be replaced by the myriad iterations of one-dollar coins already in circulation, albeit heretofore rarely used.

Indeed, it seems the most enduring argument against a general shift from paper money to coins is the inconvenience of it all.  For men in particular, a pile of change is simply not as portable in one’s comings and goings as a stack of bills.

As it turns out, the arithmetic that produced this $4.4 billion figure depends on this very dynamic.  These supposed government “savings,” should we sack the dollar bill, are based on the presumption that a certain percentage of these suddenly-relevant dollar coins would swiftly exit the circulation—winding up in jars, under couch cushions, etc.—effectively turning a profit for the government, which pays less than one dollar to produce each piece.

It is encouraging, in a way, that the debate over currency is being conducted on economic and utilitarian grounds, for it suggests we are a serious and sober people.

All the same, as we ponder the future of the almighty dollar, my sentimental side cannot completely ignore an additional consequence of the bill’s demise:  The absence of George Washington’s face from our surviving paper money.  Somehow the prospect just feels wrong.

Before I go further, I will admit that complaining about the décor of our money is a luxury of a thriving democracy, which America presently is not, economically speaking.

I will further admit that which founder’s face adorns which denomination is, by itself, not a sufficient basis for arguing which bills to save and which to shelve.

I used to insist that we would be doing wrong to eliminate the penny from circulation—an idea that, thanks to inflation, has grown increasingly popular in recent years—because it would effectively demote Abraham Lincoln, its cover boy, in the national consciousness.  If Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt get to stay on a coin, why not the noted lawyer from Springfield?

On this basis, then, maintaining a Washington bill becomes even more of an imperative.  However illustrious and essential the men emblazoned on our other paper denominations are—and they are—it would be simply a travesty for our nation’s foundingest of fathers—the man “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” as Henry Lee had it—to be relieved of his close-up while, say, our mere first secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, survives.

Of course, this is what happens when one grows a touch too emotional about the contents of one’s wallet, and we can note the cruel irony that (rightly) putting our most treasured leaders on the “first” denomination of their respective forms of currency made them most vulnerable to a recall.

My own view—completely paradoxical, perhaps—is that it is bad practice to put images of human beings on our money in the first place.  It is a (mild) form of deification that is unhealthy and should probably be avoided.

I quite appreciate and admire, for instance, the Treasury’s “America the Beautiful” quarter series, begun in 2010, which feature various American landmarks, such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, on the tails side of each coin.  It seems a noble and germane way of celebrating our grand country without indulging in unsightly hero worship.  The state quarters series, which ran from 1999 to 2008, was an attractive initiative for the same reason.

For good or ill, on our money’s face we are stuck with the adornments we have.  Should the Government Accountability Office have its way and the one-dollar bill fall by the wayside, we all will simply need to adapt accordingly.  I am confident I would eventually get over my umbrage about the unfairness to General Washington.  However, the stripper question remains thus far unresolved.