Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A new kind of Christmas

I grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo, NY, in a nominally Christian household. Christmas was a very big holiday for me and my mother; significantly less so for my father and brother. It's not that they didn't care about the holiday, but just that the season as a whole meant much less to them than it did to us. Christmas Eve was very ritualized: there was the singing of carols; the addition of a last-minute snowfall to my mother's Christmas village; a lovely music-filled candlelight service at my church which routinely drew members of other churches; a walk home with stops to look at the nice light displays; a dinner of fruit, cheese, shrimp, and cocktail smokies wrapped in crescent roll dough; my mother's reading of An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas (aka 'Twas the Night Before Christmas), and then an early trip to bed for the next day's presents, big breakfast (eggs scrambled with potatoes and sausage) and dinner (ham, at least 2 types of potatoes, at least 3 vegetables, rolls, Jell-O, and dessert), and the cat(s) playing with ribbons and bows. About half the time I got snow on either Christmas or Christmas Eve. When I was very little there was a large family celebration, but from around the time I was in kindergarten onward it was just the immediate family with possibly the addition of my mother's sister, who routinely slept over on Christmas Eve until my brother an I were in late middle school.

Things are different these days. My mother died some years back. My father has remarried, and moved to Florida for the winter. My childhood cat--more of my eventual step-mother's cat while I was in college and beyond--died over the past year, so won't be around to play with the wrapping and the low-hanging ornaments. I do most of my Christmas shopping on Amazon, so I don't face the holiday crowds. Tomorrow will feature a relatively late start, given that I'm the youngest person present (my step sister couldn't get the vacation time this year), and the dinner will be the 4 of us plus two couples of their friends.

So, today, the activities were a bit different. I finished fixing my dad's computer problems, fulfilling my role as a member of Generation Tech Support. I went for a run, an walked back in my shorts and overheating still. I just finished a large wrapping job for my step-mother, wrapping basically all of her gifts to my brother and to my father, while she and my dad are out at a cocktail party. And now I'm waiting for the delivery of some Chinese food, as my family has decided that if everyone already assumes we're Jewish, we might as well embrace it, even if we do still celebrate the secular holiday.

The first couples of years I spent Christmas down here, without my mother, seemed very weird to me. Now, it feels mostly normal, with the exception of the weather. That's to be expected, of course. I just wonder now: if I had a Christmas like those I grew up with again, would that feel weird? Does the new normal replace the old normal, or become an additional set of parameters that are added to the category of normal?

Saturday, December 13, 2008


I was reading the New York Times blog Proof, which is about the intersection of American life and alcohol, earlier today. It got me thinking about my own relationship with the substance.

Such as it were.

When people get to know me, one of the first things they find unusual about me is that I don't drink. In the entirety of my life, I've probably had less than 10 servings of alcohol. I'm not a recovering alcoholic, and I don't have a religious prohibition against the substance, so I don't fit into the standard reasons people have come to expect from those who don't partake. Alcohol is so central to adult society in our culture that any deviation from it marks the teetotaler as an aberration, and seems to demand an explanation. I generally just tell people that I don't enjoy the taste of alcohol, and so I don't see the point of drinking it; while it's true that I don't like the taste, as a reason that still seems to leave people baffled. There have been other reasons for pretty much my entire adult life, though which ones have been in place at any given time have fluctuated.

When I was first in the age in which drinking was considered a social norm, I was under the legal age requirement. I am, and pretty much always have been, a goody-two-shoes, and just didn't see myself as the sort to break the law even when it was expected. I remember interviewing to be an RA in a campus dorm on my 20th birthday, and having a hard time convincing the faculty member who was interviewing me that no, really, I actually did not want a glass of wine to celebrate. It was less the fear of being punished for violating the rule than it was my self-image as someone on the straight and narrow that meant that my being underage was a reason not to drink.

There was also the fact that I knew full well that alcohol primarily serves to lower our inhibitions. I'm gay, and I was in the closet for quite some time--not out of fear, but because my libido was much weaker than my desire to eventually have a family, and at the time it seemed unlikely I could have both. I didn't want to risk saying something or doing something in regard to my orientation that I would regret in the harsh light of the next day. In my mind, no matter what allure alcohol might have once I tried it would be worth that risk.

Then there's the potential risk of addiction. I have a large number of family members with alcohol problems, running through both my mother's and father's families. I suppose I shouldn't be too shocked by that, given the stereotypes of my predominantly Irish and German heritage, but while some of them are functional alcoholics, others are clearly not living the lives they would otherwise be capable of because liquor is holding them down. To be fair, there are also family members who don't seem to have any problem with their drinking, and others who abstain completely, but I know that the risk is there. It may even be pretty close--though I only ever saw my mother drunk once in my life (after a really bad superbowl loss by the team she rooted fanatically for), when she was hospitalized just prior to dying at 52 from kidney and liver failure the doctors asked us how long she had had cirrhosis of the liver. None of us knew she did. I don't know if that could have been caused by the abdominal infection she's had for months. It's possible that she drank no more than any of us knew she did, and just had a low tolerance for alcohol; it's also possible she had had a drinking problem for years and kept it secret from us. And I wouldn't be surprised if my father's liver isn't in great shape either; though it has moderated somewhat over the past couple of years, since he retired he's drank more than he knows he should. He definitely doesn't have an addictive personality (unlike my mother, he didn't have too hard of a time giving up smoking, and he still every once in a while smokes a cigar and then feels no craving to do so for months), so he seems to go through intermittent phases of deciding he's drinking too much, cutting way back, and then slowly loosening the restrictions. So with at least some evidence that both of my parents are/were disposed to drinking more than is healthy, I'm not exactly itching to dive in to the bottom of a glass myself.

There's also the fact that alcohol is toxic. It destroys brain and liver cells, and that's even with the human body's defense mechanisms. Hell, I use alcohol to sterilize lab equipment in my life as a biologist. This reason must be tempered by the fact that low to moderate drinking seems to have beneficial effects on the heart--ideally, I should be drinking a glass and a half of red wine a day--but it can't be totally overlooked.

Then there's the issue of deep core personality. I've known relatively nice people to turn into mean drunks--when all the layers of social skills and conscious choice are stripped bare, they're shown to be nasty, or depressed, or whatnot. Granter, there are also happy, bubbly drunks, and sleepy drunks, but I look at it somewhat through the cost/benefit ratio: there's not much to be gained by finding out that at the core I'm happy; there's significantly more to lose by finding out that at the core I'm nasty. The potential downside is enough worse than the potential upside to not be worth investigating.

And, finally, there's the fact that not drinking, and not for the most common of reasons, makes me different. A friend once observed that I seem to have a strong desire to be atypical, and I think she might be right about that. Choosing not to drink is a very easy way to be different. I'm not proud of the notion that some of my quirks may ultimately derive from a simple and somewhat childish desire to be unique, but I'm too introspective to dismiss the idea entirely.

And, of course, I still really do dislike the taste. I'm not the sort who really has acquired tastes--if I don't like how something tastes, I stop consuming it and find something else. The only taste I know I've acquired is for V8 juice, and that was by way of making myself drink it daily for a stretch of time in order to boost my intake of vegetables.

Thankfully, I'm not a moralist who looks down on others for drinking. As long as you're not an obnoxious drunk, and as long as you don't try to drive while impaired, I don't actually see a moral aspect to alcohol. So, enjoy your libations, which will be free flowing this time of year. I'll be over here with my soft drink, an oddity in your midst.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Civility of discourse

For a variety of reasons, I've been thinking recently about what constitutes being polite, and when it's acceptable not to be. This started with a flame war in a forum I frequent, where someone posted a diatribe about how people having racial preferences in their dating partners were sick and prejudiced. When people expressed contrary opinions, he alternately told them they weren't addressing the point or else dismissed them in a snarky comment or two without answering any questions they raised, even when the questions were along the lines of "Could you clarify what you mean by X?" or "You've stated that my entire post is a mass of contradictions. Would you point out a specific contradiction in what I said?" Eventually, even those who started out on the high road grew increasingly sarcastic and dismissive toward him.

In another recent example, a friend apparently removed me from his list of friends on Facebook because I left a comment that his status message was factually inaccurate. That fact really can't be disputed; it concerned the number of senators of a given party who voted one particular way on an issue he cares about, and he attributed all the votes in one direction as being from one party when that was not the case. My comment was deleted very quickly; several hours later my status as friend was revoked. I've since sent him an apology. I don't actually see why what I said was inappropriate, but a mutual friend certainly felt it was and when there's not a larger principle involved, I'm willing to go along with the views of the majority on societal norms even if they don't make sense to me. Since I was apparently in the wrong, I apologized. Being right on this issue isn't more important to me than maintaining a good relationship with the person involved.

But all of this has me thinking about several larger issues.

One is the expectations regarding communication. This is an age-old question where social and technological change has brought it to light from a different angle. When someone expresses an opinion on a blog, or in an internet forum, or on a social networking site, what is the intent? If you disagree with something they say, either objective or subjective, what is the appropriate response? Who decides? The mutual friend in the latter case saw it as our friend expressing his frustration; I saw it as him both expressing his frustration and assigning specific blame. Even assuming that there is a true correct answer to what the comment was doing, when two intelligent people read the same comment and come away with two different impressions of what it means, that makes it seem that interpretation is important even on things which seem straightforward to any one observer. Those issues of interpretation are a big part of why I chose to go into a natural science in the first place; while there is still interpretation, there is far more in the way of objective fact and an underlying reality to be examined in those fields than in many others.

Then there's the line between public and private. Many people apparently consider social networking sites to be private affairs, despite the massive reporting on employers scouring the myspace and facebook profiles of applicants and even current employees. I take a very different view: these sites are meant to foster interaction between people even when they aren't physically present. I may be alone in my living room while I'm writing this, but once I hit publish it goes up for the wider world to see. Even though very few people read this blog, it's still available to the public even if I have editorial control over it. The more people who read something, the less private it is. If you keep a hardcopy journal or diary, that's private. If you publish comments on a social networking site where you're connected to dozens of your friends and coworkers, that seems pretty public to me.

I've always felt that dissent is one of the cornerstones of our society, and that on the whole it tends to be a good thing. Silencing people who disagree with you doesn't seem to serve a purpose to me, other than to place you into a false echo chamber where you assume everyone agrees with everything you say, and thus there's no need to think critically about it. That's one of the main reasons I've left up comments that are little more than ad hominem attacks against me, even when it's an issue I care about. I actually enjoy it when people attack my position themselves, but it's my impression that many people do not make the distinction I do between attacking a point and attacking a person.

Then there's the issue of how emotion is treated in our society. I've noticed a general pattern in life that the more passionate someone is about something, the more others excuse their behavior in regard to the subject and castigate others for doing or saying anything that might upset the passionate individual, even if the statements are objectively true. This happens in politics, in business, in social relationships...I can come up with examples from pretty much every aspect of my life. There is a certain deference given to those who act on emotion, which is why the rallying cry of "Think of the children" has an amazing ability to shut down discourse. The key word in that cry is "children"; the word "think" is hardly ever stressed.

Those who act on logic are often considered inhuman. That's backwards. We have plenty of evidence of non-human animals acting on and feeling emotion. We have almost none of non-human animals acting on logic. Even chimpanzees seem to be unable to learn the concept of delayed gratification in games where picking the smaller pile of treats leads to the bigger reward, despite being able to grasp it when abstractions are used; the sight of the reward seems to overpower the conceptual knowledge that they will get the large reward only if they select the smaller one. Your dog really does love you and enjoy spending time with you just being you, even if he's just laying down next to you. He doesn't, on the other hand, know whether or not it's his birthday, or make plans for what to do when he gets old. The ability to act on logic rather than emotion is one of the most defining characteristics of humans compared to other animals we know of.

I also have to say that people who act on emotion are not the only people who experience emotion. I almost always base my actions off of logic and reason, and I have a definite preference for facts over feelings. That in no way means that I don't have feelings, or even that my feelings are less intense and therefore less important than those of people who do act upon theirs more often. It is entirely possible that the difference between them and me lies not in the intensity of our emotional responses but in the strength of our self-control. As someone who has demonstrated that control in the past, I am expected to continue to do so, while those who lash out in a self-righteous rage are given a pass, and the rest of us are to keep our heads down and our mouths shut until they calm down. We are admonished to be polite even in the face of others being decidedly otherwise. I don't really see that changing anytime soon, nor even a way in which it could change. It just gets tiring at times.