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Apr 22, 2011

Details, Details: The Matching Game

At the end of my previous post on comparisons, I alluded to the way some of us date by attempting to match every detail we can, like some sort of human matching game.

It is, I think, a source of much restriction in dating. If I decide that a person has to be pretty much the same as me in the way I think, the way I talk, the way I act... or even just the way I think... can be extremely limiting, and narrows the possibilities down to a very small number of potentials. (Again, don't get me wrong -more similarity makes for fewer sources of potential tension. But the point here is that not everything needs to be so closely matched.)

But nobody has my exact life experience. They won't always think just like I do. Most definitely not for all the little details.

Here's an example (using the concept of hashkafah, Jewish Philosophy) -trying to find someone who wants to cover her hair the way I want her to, feels about movies and music (during sefirat haomer and generally with secular movies/music) the same way I do, prays the way I do, who has the same expectations for my being kove'ah i'ttim (setting aside time for textual learning), and so on... is an exercise in trying to carbon-copy myself.

Never before in history has the choice of mate been so narrowly defined, so artificially engineered. 

Taking into account the multitude of elements that contribute to having chemistry, and the importance of having chemistry to build any meaningful relationship... it crates a problem of probability. I know, many people don't much look at probability, it's the one bashert, or soulmate, that matters.

But think about it in terms of hishtadlut (personal work/input). If the sons and daughters of the great houses of Hillel and Shamai could marry one another -growing up with often diametrically opposed perspectives on Judaism, halachah (Jewish law) and hashkafa, having different attitudes and customs, perhaps even keeping different halachot, then maybe we should consider being a bit more flexible.

Just look at our parents. I'm willing to bet they're not all cut from the same cloth with the same colors and textures, materials and patterns. They don't need to be a couple cut from the same piece of cloth, they just have to work together. Colors and textures and material and patterns can be so different and yet somehow they just work well together. At least mine do. My parents are so different in so many ways (and have many similarities as well), but when you put them together they are beautiful.

In terms of the hashkafah example above, I see that boiling down to one important concern for me: does the woman have a dedication to keeping halachah? If the answer is yes, then the rest is just detail and commentary. From where I stand, specifics can be worked through. What's the difference between a sheitel (wig), fall, hat, scarf... does it really matter?

My heritage and my custom clearly states that sheitels are not considered a valid hair covering, and perhaps I have a small preference. But it's not my hair to be covered, nor is it my place to dictate how someone else chooses to do so. A different perspective, different rituals and customs, even different perspectives within halachah and the meaning drawn from various aspects of Jewish life... are all the little details.

The value (eg. dedication to halachah) has to be there. The meaning may be different.

She doesn't have to love singing z'mirot (songs) on Shabbat as much as I do. If she's got respect for the way I love it, great! If she has an appreciation, even better! If she admires it, we're golden! If she joins in (when appropriate), it's a slice of heaven! The only time it may become an issue is if/when my self-expression and the meaning I draw from it is not tolerated. I will not be stifled. Anything more than respectful acceptance is whipped cream with a cherry on top.

That's the idea. Ask practically any married couple and I bet you'll find plenty of differences between them no matter how hard they tried to match all the little similarities. In fact, most married couples will tell you that regardless of whatever "list" existed, those details often tend to go out the window.

And yet, people make big deals out of small details. Can we PLEASE just stick to the basics, people!?

Apr 21, 2011


Tania's post had me wondering about dating more than one person, and it got me thinking. After having a few conversations with some family, mentors and consulting my old resources, I put my finger on what I think is one of the biggest concerns in dating multiple people: comparisons.

When someone is dating multiple people at the same time, it may be very easy to start comparing them. This one has a better smile, that one's slightly taller (or shorter), this one learns more, that one dresses better. This one is more intelligent, that one is more considerate, this one is more funny, that one is more open-minded, this one is more health-conscious that one is more spontaneous... and on and on.

There's always someone who has one attribute better, or fits certain aspects of what we want more. And it's so easy to slip into that tendency, it's like we're almost hard-wired into it. To want better for ourselves.

Funny story about that -when my Father was dating (before he'd met my Mother) he was once going out with a woman for a little while, and for one of their dates they went to see a Brooke Shields movie. Before they went in, he found his date attractive, engaging and wonderful. After seeing Brooke Shields act in a movie, he looked over at his date and a stray thought caught his attention - what makes his date so attractive? After seeing such an attractive woman on the screen, the one he was dating seemed much less so.

It was largely a matter of relativity, and comparison. My Father is a wonderful and great man -he didn't chase after all the Brooke Shields's of his time; but when the comparison smacked him in the face, it was quite difficult to push away. 

Of course it's not always a movie or a woman on the street that creates such a juxtaposition and not everyone draws the comparison. But part of the resistance to dating multiple women is that the juxtaposition may inevitably slap us in the face, and the temptation to compare, the tendency to contrast, can be quite challenging to resist (if at all possible). The same goes with having a tempting offer land in my lap when I'm already dating someone.

I do, however, believe that comparisons don't just occur between people we know, or see, or date, or the offers that happen our way. The comparisons can be with images we create in our own minds as well. The ideal spouse, our idea of what a woman or man we marry should be like. From physique to personality, from skills to interests, from thoughts to feelings... many of us are guilty of having these ideals, and being stuck on some aspect of our ideal mate. Be that a specific shape of nose, having a beautiful voice, hair/eye color, height/weight, having been a counselor at Camp HASC, being Ashkenazi/Sefaradi, having a specific type of humor, the list goes on and on...

And I think many of us are guilty of comparing the person on our date with our idealized, romanticized, imaginary partner. This obsession with how someone is supposed to be, either on a date or within their own lives, can easily block us from actually recognizing who they are and what makes them worthwhile as humans and as a potential spouse. This leads to pushing someone away, instead of learning about their strengths and uniqueness. The image of what we want and expect can really prevent us from accepting people as they are, instead trying to cram them into the square peg-hole that we want them to fit easily into.

I hear a lot of that -ridiculous little excuses for why things won't work -obsession with finding someone who fits all the funny little peccadilloes that we've decided we must have or that our bashert (soulmate) must have. It vaguely reminds me of a matching game... people holding a card in their hand with the imagined perfect spouse and flipping over cards at random, trying to match them with the one in their own hand.  

M'shuga'im! It's absolute crockery!

Yet, I'll admit I've done that. Expected or wanted so much to see something in a woman that -upon not seeing it the way I'd expected -I was already crossing her off in my mind. Making myself blind to the other wonderful things about her and never even giving her the chance to prove my silliness wrong. By way of example, just because a woman isn't crazy about kids the way I am, doesn't mean she doesn't love children, or wouldn't make a spectacular mother to her own children.

That is not to say that every woman -and the wonderful traits she possesses -is for me. But it's much harder to see her for who she is and make an authentic choice when I am simply trying to find a match for the ghost of my own mind's creation.

Avoiding thoughts like "my bashert/spouse must be like 'X' and have 'Y' characteristic" will help us recognize the beauty in each and every person we come across, accept and love them for who they are and choose (or not choose) them for ourselves the right way. Instead of trying to build our own Frankenstein from the attributes and body parts we'd like to see together, maybe we can just appreciate a human being for who they are, learning and admiring the journey they've made and getting in touch with another soul.

Sounds better to me than playing a game of "imaginary bashert" card matching.

(And yes, I know that having more similarities between two people definitely helps reduce tension and makes it easier to get along and build a life together, but I don't think we have to reduce people to cookie-cutter types, categories, lists and attributes, a la Shidduch Resume. I just think we are at risk of losing touch with each other as human beings and neshamot (souls) by focusing too much on externals and details. And there's something to be said about learning to communicate effectively, cooperate respectfully, manage conflict and handle differences; there are wonderful skills that we develop as part and parcel of married life and present opportunities for tremendous personal growth.)

Apr 17, 2011

Pesach: Freedom in the Merit of Women

"For most of history, Anonymous was a Woman." - Virginia Wolfe

There are three major holidays that women are obligated in time-bound commandments within Jewish Law - By Chanukah, Purim and Pesach (Passover). Each time, the reasoning given is that they were part of the miracle ("Af hei'n Hayu B'oto Ha'nes").

Regarding Pesach, the Gemara (Pesachim, 108a-b) mentions that reasoning regarding the four cups of wine and Rash"i comments on the spot that in the merit of those women in Egypt the entire Jewish nation was redeemed. Their deeds and merits had a direct causal impact on the exodus and binding of the Jews together, as the American national anthem so aptly puts it, "one nation, under God."

Personally, I love that our history does not just use the label of "Anonymous" in the place of women (though it does sometimes bug me when the impact of various female role models and leaders is under-stressed or glossed over). And yet, most of the Egyptian decrees primarily affected men (eg. death of firstborn men, and by many accounts the field-labor of slavery).

I would like to take a moment here and recognize a debt of gratitude due for all the hard work that women -past and present -put in to make Pesach the experience it has always been. From their actions that merited our freedom to the tremendous work preparing the home and all of the different food items and aspects of the seders. If it were not for their unrelenting hard work, we'd have never had the original exodus and Pesach, nor would we have any Pesach Sedarim the way we do year after year.

For myself in particular, I must extend my tremendous appreciation and thanks to my own Mother, who manages to make the most delicious food of the year, every year, in addition to putting together amazing seders. I would be remiss if I left out her charoset -it was worth coming out of Egypt just for that alone -and I wish I could have it all year 'round. Sure, I often help with setting up, with Divrei Torah and invigorating the seder experience for myself, my immediate and extended family as well as our esteemed guests. But that's my little part, and what my Mother and other women throughout the Jewish communities in the world do to make Pesach possible gives others (like me) the freedom to enrich and enjoy an amazing evening and holiday.

Swinging back around, I also appreciate that despite how men may have experienced more oppression in Egypt, the women did absolutely everything they could -in their relationships and their observance -to help their men. What dedication! Their work leads to our freedom -physical and spiritual at the very least -and not just at the time of slavery, but in every generation.

To me, these reasons very well explain why women are obligated to partake in the commandments -in a very important way, it's their party! The fruit of their labors, even though we men reaped much of the benefit.

Also, I think there's a beautiful idea buried here -that we should fight (not with each other, but rather) as one to achieve rights and freedom regardless of gender or our differences. It is a message of unity, and I think the process of women working so hard (in whatever ways they could) to achieve freedom for (both themselves and) the men who were so harshly oppressed was precisely the process that bound us as one nation.

Have a wonderful Pesach, 
Chag Kasher V'sameach!

(Side-note: Perhaps it was that same process that bound the American nation together in fighting for freedom. And would very well explain the idea of "one nation, under God.")

Apr 15, 2011

Selective Vision

The other day, I was getting onto the subway, coming back home after a long series of classes. I saw a friend of mine, and he was busy with his phone, so I quietly sat down next to him and pulled out a book.

I noticed he was playing a game of some kind and seemed pretty absorbed, so I quietly went back to reading. We sat there silently ignoring each other for most of the trip. It wasn't until just a couple stops from mine that he noticed me, said hello, apologized for not noticing sooner (which I didn't think was necessary) and we had a great conversation the rest of the way back.

Fascinatingly enough, later that evening I went to my Shul to sort out the whole selling-my-chametz business. I sat down with the form trying to figure out what I had, where it all is and how much it's worth when I realized that I'd been sitting for several minutes next to a good friend without even noticing!

We men (perhaps it's more than just us men, feel free to chime in with your input/experience, ladies!), we're fascinating like that. If we're focused on something -could be trivial as some game on our phone we only play on the way home to pass the time or very important like making sure we're not violating a Torah prohibition -we become fully absorbed in it and really don't realize what's going on outside of that focus. It's like the rest of the world does not exist for us.

It has nothing to do with importance or how much we care. I know my friends love me and I love them dearly. But when focused on something, we'll screen out pretty much everything that isn't relevant to the task at hand (or the object/person we are focusing on).

None of it has to do with offense or intent. But also, as men, when we are focused on something it is actually quite frustrating to be snapped away from that. It can even be a painful experience, to forcefully take our attention away from our focus (think about trying to get a guy's attention when he's at a sports-game) and the result -if we are not handled with care -may be a grumpy, angry or frustrated response. It's for this reason (among others) that we often resist having our focus (unwillingly) drawn away from the task, object or person in front of us.

Apr 13, 2011

False Advertising

Dating is supposed to be about getting to know a person, and tasting a slice of how they will be as a spouse.

Funny thing about that, some people -in trying genuinely to put their "best foot forward" -may not be representing themselves authentically as who they are and what they expect in their (future) family.

Dennis Prager very strongly asserts that if a man or woman ceases to do what they did in dating -taking each other out, giving gifts, putting in tremendous work, creating time for each other, having deep conversations, being spontaneous, sharing deep emotions, accepting each others' flaws, etc. -they falsely advertised themselves when they dated their spouse. His point, and I think it is well taken, is that when two people start dating and choose to get married they shouldn't stop dating. They should put in the same effort and thoughtfulness, even as life gets more complicated.

His punch line? Men shouldn't allow laziness to get in the way of (increasing/continuing) his taking her out and making her feel special and women shouldn't allow routine to get in the way of maintaining (and/or increasing) physical intimacy frequency/quality.

Personally, I think I may need to take more time in dating, because a person will settle into being themselves over time, and that's the part I'm really interested in.

It reminds me of a story my Mother told me when I began asking my parents about their dating experience. She said that on their 5th or 6th date, she invited him over, specifically didn't put on make-up, dressed very plainly as she does at home and they had dinner (with her family). For her, it was important that my Father see her "as she is" and still find her attractive without make-up.

Why? Because that's what he's been waking up to for the past 25+ years.

I appreciate both that she wanted my Father to see herself in a natural setting (recognizing and wanting him to accept her as she is) and that she still put in so much effort to dress up and put on make-up when they went out. Both having that acceptance for who she is, and putting in work to beautify herself because she understands how important it is to him.

Pounds over Personality: The Danger of Putting Emphasis on Numbers

A prime example of the potential damage in how we ask our Shidduch questions just showed up in the NY Times recently, and I heard about it this afternoon from a friend (I have also copied the article below).

One of the reasons considered (though the author admits that any reason at this point is pure speculation) is the way Shadchanim brazenly ask about a prospective woman's -and her mother's -dress size, expecting that sizes 0-4 are ideal, and anything over that number weighs in as less valuable.

Utter ridiculousness.

Stuff like this makes me think -more and more -that shidduch resumes and "objective criteria" perhaps do more damage than we imagine. Then again, I'm not much for most of those "objective criteria," and care less about specific details, and more for characteristics (eg. caring less about a woman's specific hashgafa and more about her dedication to religious observance). As long as I find her attractive, why would her specific dress size or number of pounds actually make a difference? There are far more important things I look for in a woman. 

Perhaps I'm being presumptuous by attaching this issue to my recent note on how we sometimes address our dating/marriage fears by asking crazy questions, but some of the comments very much fit with what I've been thinking, and I couldn't help but point it out.

~~ Here is the article text~~

Rabbis Sound an Alarm Over Eating Disorders
Published: April 11, 2011

In the large and growing Orthodox Jewish communities around New York and elsewhere, rabbinic leaders are sounding an alarm about an unexpected problem: a wave of anorexia and other eating disorders among teenage girls.

While no one knows whether such disorders are more prevalent among Orthodox Jews than in society at large, they may be more baffling to outsiders. Orthodox women are famously expected to dress modestly, yet matchmakers feel no qualms in asking about a prospective bride’s dress size — and her mother’s — and the preferred answer is 0 to 4, extra small.

Rabbis say the problem is especially hard to treat because of the shame that has long surrounded mental illness among Orthodox Jews.

“There is an amazing stigma attached to eating disorders — this is the real problem,” said Rabbi Saul Zucker, educational director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, or O.U., the organization that issues the all-important kashrut stamp for food. “But hiding it is not going to make it go away. If we don’t confront it, it’s going to get worse.”

Referring to the high risk of death from heart problems and suicide in patients with anorexia, he said: “This isn’t a luxury type of disease, where, O.K., someone is a little underweight. People die.”

As a teenager, Naomi Feigenbaum developed bizarre eating habits that had nothing to do with Jewish dietary laws: Cocoa Puffs and milk in the morning, when she figured she had all day to burn off the calories, and nothing but Crystal Light and chewing gum the rest of the day.

At the kosher dinner table in her home near Cleveland, she said she would start arguments with her parents so she could stomp off and avoid eating. She lost weight so rapidly in high school that she used safety pins to cinch her long skirts around her waist.

By the time her rabbi came to visit her, she was emaciated. He told her that she must attend a treatment program that met on Saturday, the Jewish day of rest, even if she had to violate religious rules by riding in a car to get there. She could even eat food that wasn’t kosher.

“That’s when I realized it was a matter of life and death,” Ms. Feigenbaum said in an interview. “My rabbi does not take Jewish law lightly. But he told me the Jewish laws are things God wanted us to live by, not die by, and that saving a life takes precedence over all of them.”

Now 24, she has written a memoir, “One Life” (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009), about her recovery from anorexia after treatment at the Florida branch of the Renfrew Center, the nationwide eating-disorders clinic.
There is little research to indicate how many women are in a similar position. Israeli studies consistently find high rates of disordered eating among Jewish adolescents but not Arab ones, and Israel’s rate of dieting is among the highest in the world — more than one woman in four — though obesity rates are relatively low.

Data about American Jews is limited, but two small studies have reported high rates of disordered eating in certain communities. One of those, a 1996 study of an Orthodox high school in Brooklyn, found 1 in 19 girls had an eating disorder — about 50 percent higher than in the general population at the time. The 1996 study was done with the agreement that it would not be published. The other study, done in 2008, looked at 868 Jewish and non-Jewish high school students in Toronto and found that 25 percent of the Jewish girls suffered from eating disorders that merited treatment, compared with 18 percent of the non-Jewish girls.

Demand for treatment programs that accommodate Orthodox teenagers prompted the Renfrew Center to start offering kosher food at its clinics in Philadelphia, New York, Dallas and Florida, while a new residential facility catering to young women from the United States opened last year in Jerusalem. It is not affiliated with Renfrew.

Relief Resources, a mental health referral agency that serves Orthodox communities, runs an eating disorders hot line, and last year the O.U. teamed with a social worker to make “Hungry to be Heard,” a documentary about eating disorders among the Orthodox.

Most of the young women interviewed for this article said they did not blame the culture for their health problems and said they derived support from their religious faith. But they spoke openly about the enormous pressure they feel to marry young and immediately start families , and the challenges of balancing professional careers with the imperative to be consummate homemakers who prepare elaborate Sabbath meals.

Experts say that eating disorders usually emerge during adolescence and other times of transition. And in large Orthodox families, the girls are often expected to help care for their younger siblings, leaving them little time to pursue their own interests. Experts suspect that anorexia may provide a way to stall adult responsibilities by literally stopping the biological clock: the drastic weight loss can halt menstruation.

Young Orthodox women are also expected to conform to a rigorous code of conduct, with few outlets for rebellion. They are expected to be chaste until marriage and do not date until they start looking for a husband. Even gossip is considered a sin.

Once matchmaking starts, they may be expected to choose a life partner after only a brief courtship. Known mental illness in a family can affect the chances of a successful match, not just for the individual but for siblings as well, so young women may well avoid psychiatric treatment.

In addition to fulfilling the traditional roles of caregiver and homemaker, many Orthodox women also assume the role of primary breadwinner so their husbands can pursue religious studies full time.

“It’s too much,” said a 23-year-old woman from the New York area who is recovering from an eating disorder and asked not to be identified by name to protect her privacy. She is married and a full-time student, but has postponed having a baby.

“A lot of my friends are going to work and support their husbands,” she continued, “but part of my recovery is to say that I can’t do everything — I’m not superwoman.”

Food plays a central role in Jewish family and religious life, and both the Friday night dinner and the midday Sabbath meal, as well as holiday meals, can be multicourse affairs. But fast days — when no food or water is consumed for 25 hours — are also sprinkled throughout the year, often preceded or followed by a large meal.

Next week’s Passover Seders, which traditionally include matzo and four cups of wine, along with soup, gefilte fish, brisket and potato kugel, are a particular challenge, experts say. For women who struggle with eating disorders, they can be an invitation to purging.

“There are a lot of mixed messages,” said a 27-year-old woman from a strict Orthodox community in Brooklyn, who once carried less than 100 pounds on her 5-foot-6 frame. “My grandmother would see me and say, ‘You look so good, you’re so skinny — come eat, eat.’ ”

Many rabbis find themselves being asked to resolve conflicts between religious obligations — like the requirement to fast on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement — and doctors’ orders that patients not restrict food intake under any circumstances.

“A patient will call and tell me their weight is down to 82 pounds, and they have weaknesses in their body, and I’ll tell them there is no question they must eat during a fast — not that they can eat, but that they must eat,” said Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser of the Bais Yitzchak Synagogue in Flatbush, Brooklyn, who has become known in the Orthodox world as an expert on eating disorders and counsels women from all over the world.

 “They have great difficulty with that,” Rabbi Goldwasser went on, “and they say to me, ‘But isn’t it true that by fasting you get atonement for your sins?’

“I try to answer the spiritual conflict and say that no, God wants you to eat. Your eating on that day is considered as if you fasted.”

Apr 11, 2011

Strictly a Matter of Weight and Money

There are all sorts of generalizations about what men and women are really interested in when it comes to dating. Phrases like "men only care about how a woman looks" or "women only care about money." Ridiculous or not, they all have a common theme -they come from experiences of people, and hold at least small kernels of truth. That kernel, I believe, stems from fear (and overreaction to that fear).

For example, physical attraction is important to men. No amount of trying to teach men otherwise or degrading how we experience attraction is going to change that physicality is important to us. Not that it should be (or is) the only (or highest priority) thing men care about in a woman or marriage, but such a conclusion may be implied by people who have experiences with men where they put too much emphasis on physicality (and seem to ignore everything else) or people who overreact to that basic part of men.

But why, oh why, does a man need to know the dress size of a prospective woman's mother!?

My answer is not that he needs to know, but that he is concerned and afraid. So much that sometimes we each ask ridiculous things in trying to calm our own fears. In this case, it is a fear of the prospective woman gaining significant weight after marriage, or not working on it after having children (and thereby becoming unattractive to him). I think men need to realize that women do gain weight when they are building a child (with God's help, of course) inside their bodies. But their concern, I like to believe, has to do with still being (physically) attracted to her.

Is it legitimate to fear that? Well, if a man is no longer attracted to his wife, that can cause significant marital distress. However, being that I'm not a stickler for numbers and don't think that attraction (even physical attraction) is strictly a matter of pounds and dress sizes, I see the method of trying to handle that concern as absolutely destructive (regardless of whether or not there are statistical analyses that correlate a mother's dress size to her daughter's future weight -and which I have not seen).

That whole issue (and what a mess they make of it!) becomes moot when a man and wife can be honest with each other. When a man can convey his concern without pointing fingers or blaming, and when two people are willing to work on themselves to better their relationship with each other.

The example of "women chasing after money," similarly has to do with a concern for security. I believe that women are not materialistic (though there are a tiny minority of cases the same way some men are far too fixated on pounds and dress sizes). In a world where money is the way we ensure our needs are met and our future is secure, it makes sense to have concern for lacking in that department. Not that it actually brings happiness on it's own.

I acknowledge that I have some of my own ridiculous and irrational fears when it comes to relationships and marriage. I hope to work on them, so that the legitimate underlying concerns may be addressed without becoming inflexible or ridiculous expectations or demands.

Apr 10, 2011

On Money and Happiness

It was a bitter cold winter day. I was walking around the city with a coat, but I was miserable. My eyes were tearing up, only in part from the icy wind that whipped around my head and numbed my ears into a frosty pain.

My hands were crammed into my pockets and clenched to try and keep the blood flowing, but I had to pull one out to check that my ears were still attached to my head, and not frozen solid. By the time my fingers made contact with my ear, they too had lost much of their feeling. But I still had ears, so I was relieved. Miserable, but relieved.

Just then, a brilliant idea struck me. I dodged into the nearest souvenir store just as an arctic draft began to pick up, and that little bell sound hailed a warmth I could only have dreamed of. I checked my ears again, and sighed in appreciation for feeling warmth touch them.

I browsed for a few minutes as feeling returned to my extremities and then I grabbed a set of earmuffs. They were ugly and ridiculously expensive for the cheap quality. But my ears were crying out for respite, so I paid the clerk and told him not to give me a bag as I pulled them over my whimpering ears.

Walking out, I instantly felt warmer, lighter, happier. The world was much brighter and I was much less bitter. The wind still whipped at my face, but I was much more content, and the newly forming wells by my lower lids were no longer from misery.

That very moment had me asking what would be for someone who did not have the means to do what I had just done. I clearly paid twice what I should have, but it didn't matter. That money served a tremendously useful purpose for me: it brought me happiness. Thinking about it, I then realized that it was not happiness, but rather a reduction in my woes -of that very moment -that served to brighten my countenance and my attitude.

And with that epiphany I realized that though money cannot grant happiness, it may surely stave off misery when it can be used to help alleviate my troubles or fulfill a need. Being human means I have quite a bit of that need -food, drink, warmth, breath, shelter, and more. What gratitude to have, realizing how fortunate I am for my ability to take care of so many of my needs!

Apr 7, 2011

The Skill of Parenting

I was reading a parenting book -as I'm apt to do with my free time - entitled Between Parent and Child by Dr. Ginott, which discusses the importance and application of empathy through addressing a child's emotions first in parenting, and I came across a fascinating annecdote that I felt many people would appreciate and not enough hear:

Recently in an electronics store, the owner said to me "I heard you discuss discipline and I don't agree with you." He stretched out the palm of his hand. "This is my psychology," he said proudly. I asked him whether he applied the same "palm method" in fixing a computer, stereo or TV set. "Oh, no," he replied. "For that you need skill and knowledge. These are complex instruments."

Issues of corporal punishment as a parenting method aside, the message is quite still clear. I think it's interesting how we don't start our education for becoming doctors, lawyers, accountants, psychologists, teachers or virtually any career just nine months before we begin working (and never-mind initiating that training the day we take a position!). We know it takes years to master, and dedicate large chunks of each day to learning the required information and skills. We are aware that every situation requires preparation and application of a specific set of learned skills.

Personally, that's why I have dedicated tremendous time and effort in preparing myself to be a better parent. Thus, the parenting books. Then again, I think the same about relationships and marriage -particularly because I see marriage, children and family so intimately intertwined -so I dedicate significant time and effort into that as well.

Apr 6, 2011

It Was "Nice"

After talking to a few friends about this and reflecting on a bunch of first, second and even third dates I've been on I had an epiphany.

The experience of being on a formal date and being excited about the person I'm with are pretty much diametrically opposed. Something about it -maybe the rigidity? the expectations? the rules and social niceties? -just makes the whole thing so structured, and I feel like the formality/structure may block my/their personality from shining. The person I'm with is suddenly just "nice," as am I.

I hear it from the other side too. The guy was "nice." The date was "nice." All went as it should. No interest? No excitement.   

What are your thoughts and experiences?

Apr 5, 2011

You Make My World Go Round

This morning I was in a rush, doing paperwork and heading to an appointment on the subway at the same time, all while trying to keep track of my upcoming stop.

The subway stopped. I looked up, craning my neck to find a sign through the windows and inconveniently placed support beams that often block my view. Not my stop yet. I return to my paperwork, trying to remember all the places I've lived since birth. Why do they need to know the one month my family spent at an apartment while we remodeled some parts of our house? What's the address? I was six years old, how should I know?!

I notice a woman sitting down across from me, shoulder-length straightened red hair, a tiny stud on the left side of her nose, her left forearm tattooed in many colors crossed over her right. My mind wandered a moment about what she would have drawn on her arm, and what it means to her. She has white headphones in her ears.  I wonder about her taste in music, as I sit there with my own earphones in listening to my personal favorite song of the month.

Back to my form. Forget it, our address was still the home address. It was a vacation, not a residence change. I'll leave that one out. The subway went onward. Another stop. I looked up, instinctively at the red-haired woman sitting across from me. We make eye contact. My heart warms, I smile genuinely at her. She smiles back. "Must get my paperwork done," I tell myself. I have force my attention back to the forms balancing precariously on my legs while I attempt to write and sign each one appropriately without making too big a mess.

The subway stops again, I stretch my neck out, looking for the sign. It's my stop. I check back across from me. The red-haired wonder is gone. I miss her, for a moment. On with life.

Women are beautiful, in so many ways. There is just something about seeing a woman, no matter where I am. It happens when I'm walking around town, out shopping, on the subway, sitting on a bench. It happens in school, at work or at home. Sometimes, I'm just so focused -my face buried in a book, or my mind occupied with thoughts -that I'm too absorbed to notice my surroundings. but if I'm at all aware of my surroundings, my attention is magnetically drawn to her.

It doesn't matter what she looks like, all women are beautiful. Or at least, I seem to sense something exquisitely unique in every one I see. I may not find each of them attractive, yet I am powerless but to see something that I want to explore, to know, to see, and to listen.

Is it mere curiosity, I wonder. But then, it's not the same with all men. Sure, when I recognize an acquaintance or a friend. And for some of my more cherished friends, absolutely. But for men as a whole? I have curiosity, but no magnetism.

Back to the topic at hand -every time I see a woman, there is a little extra joy in my heart. It's a very minute connection with a woman, since I've never seen her before and we don't form a close bond by passing each other on the subway, and the connection lasts only as long as her presence. When she's gone, so is that connection. When I'm attracted to a woman, that connection is magnified. And more so in a relationship.

The stronger my connection to her, the more excitement, pleasure and happiness I feel from that connection. Clearly, physical proximity is a huge part of that, especially if I feel something from just seeing a woman sitting across from me on the subway. But the same may be true of talking on the phone, via text or thinking about a woman I have a connection with.

If the world had no women -if my world had no women -I miss out on so much of that joy. Women, you make my world go round.


Apr 4, 2011

A Tale of the Rose Garden and Crocodile Wrestling

There is a parable that has been handed down in my family for some time.

My Grandfather (may he rest in peace) used to tell it to my my Mother in explaining the way traditional roles played out, and what a man needs from his wife. And it began like this:

The home is like a rose garden. It requires constant care, attention to detail, hard work. Without the feeding, pruning, fertilizing, trimming and general care for each and every stem, for each and every flower, it turns ugly and becomes wild, overgrown and even dangerous with the many weeds, thistles, and thorns. But may also be a place of peace and beauty, and with the work it may shine, becoming a place of nurturing, enjoyment, relaxation.

In a family, the members love and care about each other. Without all the work and growth put into nurturing the family, it may become difficult, painful, hurtful for each other. And all that work is draining. But generally, family members mean well towards each other. They all want the home to be a wonderful, positive environment to live in and return to.

When a man leaves the home to go out and make a living, he goes out to wrestle with crocodiles.  Outside the home, in his business, at work, people want to take advantage of him, to get the most and pay the least, to prevail over him. Some want to harm him.  He walks out into a dangerous world, and often not by choice but rather by need.

So my Grandfather used to tell my mother that when her (future) husband comes home, though she has also been working -and working tremendously with all her own strength -that she recognize his exhaustion too. That she realizes he goes out to wrestle with crocodiles, in (large) part so that a place like the home may exist -a place where people who love each other and mean well may nurture and be nurtured by each other.

He wanted her to understand that -in recognition of what he does -she nurture him upon his arrival. In their culture -and my heritage -that consisted of bringing refreshments to him upon his arrival, to ensure that dinner is ready for him to relax, eat and gather his strength. So that he may -through being nurtured -be able to appreciate (and participate in his own way) the incredible work she put in and the beauty of the rose-garden, of the home she creates.

The values behind this parable resonate very strongly for me. The empathy, the understanding, the care and nurturing and the recognition of how hard the challenges of the home and the outside world are. In some ways, I am saddened by the change in roles -not because of the new opportunities that were gained, but rather for the loss in values and empathy that came with it. A loss, I sometimes think, that may come from exhaustion and defeat.

As a  man, I am raised, taught and trained to wrestle with crocodiles. As much as I draw strength in having an equal partner walk out of the home and wrestle crocodiles alongside me, the consequences we face when we come home to a rose garden that also demands tremendous care have me -at times -feeling defeated. I recognize many women may feel that defeat too. I just want to express that I was taught to fight crocodiles so that the home may be a place of nurturing and solace for the rest of our family. To see a wife feeling exhausted as I, and to know we would both have to work on the rose garden too... makes my heart sink.

It makes me wonder if I cannot live up to the manhood of my elders, that I am inadequate and thus cannot wrestle crocodiles on my own (so that the family may take care of the rose garden), because I would not wish to force a person I love so deeply to join the fight.

Apr 3, 2011

If Chivalry is Dead...

'Tis (radical) feminism that hath slain it.

Trust in Me...

Have you ever been at a job or working with a group and noticed that some people seem to micromanage everything?

They tell you want they'd like to see or what they want you to get done, but it doesn't stop there. They stick their nose in every part of your work. Sometimes, it's because they have a specific vision of how it should be. Other times they're just control freaks (though control freaks will just say it's about making sure the project/work is coming along they way they envision).

That inability to let go - it communicates volumes about them. Including a fear of not being in control and a basic mistrust in others. The two go hand in hand. What other reason would someone have to constantly look over my shoulder and/or making small corrections or reminding me to do the task in a specific way? It is those fears and that lack of trust in others that leads them to try and force everything to go their own way.

The opposite is also true. When someone puts that confidence and trust in our hands, they communicate "I know you'll do a great job, I'm sure it'll turn out spectacular" and we get a sense of pride, a feeling of confidence. They believe in us, and they expect the outcome will be great too. And it spurs us to do even better. To validate the trust, to show our capabilities and live up to the expectations. 

In relationships, it works the same way. I've dated women who want everything their own way, who tell me how to do all the little things. Ugh. It communicates basic mistrust (of people, of men, and of me in particular), it makes me want to do those things less and it's just unpleasant. I really dislike feeling controlled that way, it makes me want to disconnect from them and push away.

However, the other side of that coin... what pleasure! To hear a woman communicate trust in me -ladies pay attention here -it makes me want to do better, do more. In particular, I believe, because of my male ego.

Everyone has an ego -we all like to be admired and complimented. But the male ego is unique. One of the things men want most -particularly in a relationship -is to be admired. When we get up in front of a crowd or up to bat at a baseball game, we imagine hitting a home-run for the express purpose of being admired by women (Credit: Dennis Prager).

Most male competition boils down to that. One huge reason we create and work so hard to stand atop social hierarchies is to be admired by women. The reason teams started having cheerleaders is because they noticed that the (male) players worked harder and did better on the field with women cheering them on (the downside of which is getting distracted).Why do you think so many guys (especially when they are in their teens) dream of being professional sports players?

Similarly, when there's a jar or bottle that's tough to open, ever notice how guys try really hard to be the one that opens it? It's just a cap, it's practically nothing! But -when it is a challenge -the competition prevails. Every guy wants to be at the top, because he wants to be admired (even for something as silly as a cap or cork). Show a little admiration for it, and you'll see. Women who learn this young seem to have the men around them at their fingertips, as if under a spell of magic.

When a woman says "I really admire a sensitive man. When I notice a guy being sensitive I immediately think about wanting to date him." My brain is already figuring out ways of being more sensitive and ways of showing her that I'm really a sensitive guy. Especially if I find her attractive or have any interest in her. It's hardwired into us men.

You want into a man's heart? Show him your genuine admiration. Want him to work on something, to improve an aspect of himself, to change for the better? Build up to it with admiration, and show trust in his character and abilities ("I really admire when a guy..."). The more he cares about you, the more important your admiration is to him. Even better, admire him in public.

What is the right way to admire a man? As much as we occasionally like being labeled "my hero," it can get tiresome. And it sets up an expectation, which can be frustrating (particularly if a guy doesn't measure up). The best way is to be specific and to comment on the effort and accomplishment. Let the implication of the words carry the compliment. For example, let us go back to the challenging jar or wine cork for a moment. Saying, "wow, that's tough to open, you've got to know what you're doing, and it takes serious strength!" implies a compliment of the accomplishment using his skill and strength without explicitly saying so. It allows the man to tell himself "yes it does, and I did it!" which enables him to feel pride in himself.

One of the most common reasons I hear from men who break up with women, break off engagements or initiate divorce is that the woman was overly controlling. Women who don't show admiration for their men, who don't show trust, who are controlling, commanding, demanding or micromanage, who don't understand how important admiration is to a man... will hurt him, make him resentful and push him away. 

Ladies, I've handed you the key to influencing men. Be patient, show admiration and show trust in him. Let him grow.

If I'm having a tough time or facing a huge challenge, what I would appreciate most is my wife's admiration in how far I've come and trust in me to get through. If she immediately starts trying to help, telling me what to do, how to fix it or giving me advice -it may communicate that she sees me as a failure or not competent enough to deal with it myself.

I know it can be anxiety provoking, sometimes y'all just want to help. For a group of women with a hard-to-open bottle, they care much less about who opens it, and more that it gets opened. I know y'all mean well when you offer advice or try to help, because that's how women are with each other (giving unprompted advice and helping each other out all the time) but often it's just better to show trust and admiration. Otherwise, you may end up pushing a man away by -perhaps accidentally -communicating a lack of trust and admiration in him. 

Yes, yes. It's a crazy thing we men have, this male ego. But it's how we are. You can accept it and work with it -and we'll be eternally happy if you do -or you can hurt and push us away. Your choice.

(Disclaimer: Yes, I believe men should work on this too, not to take it personally when we are offered unprompted help/advice by a woman. Women want to help when they care about someone, and the more they care the more they really want to help. We should take her help as a sign of her caring, and she should work on helping through communicating trust and admiration.)

Apr 1, 2011

Don't You DARE Hurt Her!

Growing up, I was told to always be careful about a woman's emotions.

I was told not to ask questions like how much a woman weighs, what her age is, never to comment if I thought she may have gained a pound (or five or fifty). I was told to always respond positively -particularly if a woman asks how she looks. I was taught to outright lie if I didn't think she looked great. That I should tell her she's gorgeous even if the dress, skirt, shirt, shoes or whatever doesn't fit or look right to me.That I should love her no matter how she looks and therefore think she's beautiful regardless of the clothing and makeup (or lack thereof) she wears. Or at least to tell her that, because it's what she wants to hear. And because she'd be hurt and angry if I didn't. Her being hurt and angry, I learned, is a bad thing. A very bad thing. And if -heaven forbid! -it was because of something I did or said, I am a bad guy. A very bad guy.

I was taught to be honest, always. Except when it comes to being with a woman. Then all morality goes out the window. Whereas lying is bad in all other respects, telling the truth to a woman -if it should be hurtful -is bad, and therefore, somehow, morally wrong. I should change how I see things or lie about it. Why? Because of how she feels; all for her emotions. Particularly if I am dating the woman and especially in marriage.

When I was younger, I accepted it without question. I thought of it as a law determining how to get along with women, so put myself to task and I internalized it. Slowly a set of beliefs and attitudes developed, but from framing it as sensitivity -and of course sensitivity is a good thing -it turned into fear.Fear of how a woman will feel. Fear of how she will react to what I say. Fear of offending her. Fear of hurting her. Fear of her emotions. And the judgment -being bad. Being mean. Being a jerk. Being a terrible person. Being evil incarnate. 

Reinforced over and over by friends and family. By media and literature. By many, many, many Jewish mothers and their warnings. By fathers and brothers and friends whose words echo in my mind: "Don't you dare hurt her!"

I tried that. I tried being a good boy. Sensitive. Nice. Always nice. Afraid of her emotions. Tip-toeing around. Apologizing at the first sign of hurt, anger, or frustration. Always asking how I could make it better. What I could do. Always apologetic. It was always my fault. Of course it was my fault. I said something, I did something, and now she's hurt. Or angry. Or upset. She's not happy. And it must be something I did -because if I were just more sensitive, more careful, more apologetic. If only I were more tuned in!

But somehow, it was never enough. Never.

Somehow, being a "good boy" didn't translate into women liking me. Or finding me attractive. Yes, they often said they want a guy like me -exactly like me -but not me. I was bewildered, because she had said it! She laments not finding me attractive!  But she wants a guy just like me! Not me, but just like me.

What am I doing wrong?

I asked that question over and over again. I started to notice the guys that women find attractive, the men that they respond to. The guy would tease her. He would grab her phone away. And smile -that devilish little smile -and she'd be angry. Angry and laughing. She'd protest with a smile on her face.

Before, I just thought these guys are being a bunch of insensitive jerks. I told myself that they are mean. Don't they know that taking her phone will get her upset? Why would they do such a thing? These guys are bad, they are hurting her feelings. Why didn't he just give her phone back, and apologize? Wrong, wrong, wrong. And then she'd come to me -the "good boy" and tell me all about how she likes him. And eventually I got it into my thick head. The epiphany came from Kohelet (3:1)

There is a time for everything. A time to tease, and a time to comfort. A time to ignore and a time to listen. A time to be honest and a time to be reassuring. A time to be gentle and a time to be tough.  

What a revelation!

To a woman, emotions are paramount. I knew that already, because of the experience I had. I heard the pain of women who were hurt, and the responses of the men who experienced that pain against their will. The lament of women who needed reassurance, or comfort, or to be listened to, or a gentle touch and didn't get what they needed. That pain cries out -and I heard it loud and clear. The wrong way, to be sure. I was taught to be afraid. But how can I live with a woman -to listen and empathize with her emotions -if I am afraid of them? I should be sensitive, yes. Perhaps also more intuitive in showing her how much I really want to listen.

But being afraid of her emotions, or trying to avoid getting her upset is ridiculous. And degrading. Treating women and their feelings as fragile is not the way to "get along." Changing who I am or acting differently because I am afraid of her anger or her pain won't do either of us any favors. I believe a man should not be afraid of a woman's emotions. Her emotions should not dictate what he does, or force him to change himself. That will only separate the two. Emotional coddling prevents intimacy and growth that comes with communication and working through shared pain together.

I'd rather be with someone who I can be honest with, and build closeness and intimacy through honesty -and willing to hurt and be hurt in the process -then with someone who avoids it at all costs. Of course, there are tactful, gentle ways to be honest and cruel ways to be honest. I'm not advocating cruelty or disrespect, nor do I wish to hurt anyone. The fact that we all experience pain and are hurt -even within our relationships -is an immutable law of nature. (In all honesty, I would have it no other way, because it is the key to growth, greater intimacy and a stronger bond in the relationship.)

Sometimes she may just need a little reassurance. Sometimes she would like to hear that she is loved and wanted. We all feel that way sometimes, but I think reassurance does not have to come at the cost of honesty and most definitely should not come from a place of fear. Reassurance should come from a place of empathy and understanding, and the desire to be there for them.

I also think that, like myself, many of us are told so much to be careful with a woman's emotions, to the point of being afraid of them. But if we internalize that lesson, we do not learn the skill of listening to how she feels, to empathize and understand her emotions.