Monday, December 31, 2012

Shalom, Christmas

Christmas isn’t part of my tradition.  My childhood Christmas memories are of sushi and bowling, Chinese takeout and Frogger marathons.  I grew up in a DC suburb with lots of Jews, so I had plenty of company.  Both of my parents were Jewish; not observant, but Jewish.  We ate bacon with our eggs, and we didn’t join a synagogue until I was 9, but we never had a Christmas tree. 

As an adult, my home has always been a Christmas-free zone.  The kids go back east to celebrate Christmas with Ted’s relatives every year- but in our house, there has never been a tree, lights, or faux melting snowflakes.  Call it indoctrination, but the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School was very firm on this point: Christmas is not a secular holiday.  Most secular holidays don’t have the word “Christ” in their name.  A Christmas tree has no place in a Jewish home.  I’d never really questioned it.

This is the first holiday season that Paula and I have lived together.  A few weeks before Christmas, she asked, innocently enough, “Do you want to get a Christmas tree?”  My flat and immediate “no” caught her off-guard.  Paula hasn’t been to church in decades.  She doesn’t identify as Christian.  For her, and for many Americans, a Christmas tree is a seasonal symbol; it’s Santa Claus and his reindeer-powered sleigh, not Jesus in a manger.  She had some reasonable questions to ask: what exactly do I have against cheerfulness, joy and peace?  (I do have something against them… when they are retail gimmicks… but that was my previous blog post.)

We visited the homes of several interfaith couples during the holidays, and many of them do have Christmas trees.  “We don’t have a Jewish home,” one friend explained.  “We have an interfaith home.”  They belong to a synagogue, their kids go to religious school, they attend services and go on family retreats with the congregation – but in their home, the multiple traditions of their families and faiths are alive and celebrated.  Their tree was beautiful.

Another friend with no cultural ties to Christmas had a different perspective.  “My wife and I are both Hindu,” he said.  “But we have a Christmas tree.  The kids don’t think of it as Christian; they just think of it as where their presents go.”  They are not interfaith, but Christmas is not a tradition of faith for them; it’s an American tradition of gift-giving, one which their children look forward to just as much as Jewish, Christian, and atheist children do.

I respect each of these friends’ decisions.  I love visiting their homes.  I have often caught myself humming “The first Noel” and “Silver Bells” in the car.  Still, I choose to abstain from Christmas decorations.  This year, more so than ever before, I have challenged myself as to why.  Here’s what I came up with:

Reform Jews don’t stand out in America.  We don’t dress differently, we don’t eat differently (unless you count gefilte fish), and most of us only go missing from work on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Christmas is one of the few times of year that being Jewish makes me feel different, like a chameleon coming out of camouflage.  This isn’t a negative feeling; I love being Jewish.  In myriad ways, Judaism has influenced my values, my lifestyle, and my ambitions.  As a Jew who is largely assimilated into American culture, Christmas is the one time of year when, with my unlit, treeless home, I stand up and am counted.

But it’s not just my home and my kids’ home; it’s Paula’s, too.  How do I honor the tradition of joy and seasonal beauty that Christmas means to her, if doing so obfuscates my own tradition?  Surfing around the web, I can see we’re not the only ones struggling with this balance.  Interfaith families- and even Jewish families – have landed everywhere along the spectrum.  

The day before Christmas, with the kids back east, I was out shopping for groceries to make a grand Christmas Day meal for Paula.  I had a nagging guilt about the exclusion of Christmas from our shared abode.  On the way home, I stopped and picked up an assortment of ornaments.  I savored the experience; ornaments have always been the piece of the Christmas puzzle I envy the most.  They’re so pretty, and over time, they tell the story of a life: baby’s first Christmas; the one made from pasta and metallic spray paint in first grade; a keepsake from Prague; and so on.

I came home and hung my new ornaments from the lemon tree in our backyard.  They really did look nice.  Paula smiled and thanked me, but I know she was just being polite.  Santa doesn’t often drop the mother lode under a citrus tree.  And with the tree in our backyard, the street view still suggested an undecorated home.  But at least I wasn’t snubbing Christmas entirely.  

Last year, I went to work on Christmas Day.  I was in Tel Aviv, where Christmas is just a regular work day.  Other than the chocolate Santa that mysteriously appeared in my hotel room – an oddity in a hotel that keeps Kosher and has a Shabbat elevator – there wasn’t any indication that December 25 was a special day.  No one had hung snowflakes from their beachfront balconies, no stores closed early – and Israeli children don’t expect to wake up to a mound of new toys, under a tree or elsewhere.  This is really cool, I thought.  For the first time in my life, I’m surrounded by people as indifferent to Christmas as I am.  We lit the menorah at the office, and we had the traditional jelly doughnuts at the company meeting.  I was ensconced in my own tradition.

Except that I wasn’t.  I am an American Jew; emphasis on American.  Christmas is one of the few days that America grinds into low gear, even for most Jews.  Christmas as a normal workday was something I’d never experienced.  And believe me, fight it though I might, my kids expect presents.

This year, at home in San Jose, I ground into low gear too.  I explained to Paula that we must have Chinese food on Christmas Eve; she was all too happy to oblige.  On Christmas Day, we did a jigsaw puzzle.  We made a bag of sandwiches and distributed them to homeless people in the park downtown.  We visited her mom and hosted her sister for dinner.  For one day, the world around us slowed down, and we did too.  It was great- way better, honestly, than being 7,000 miles from home and saying “Merry Christmas” over Skype.

So maybe I wasn’t completely truthful when I said that Christmas isn’t part of my tradition.  I’ve come to look forward to “the holidays” as an annual respite from our busy, overcrowded, overstimulated life.  I’ve absorbed some of the warmth of the season into my own rituals of gift-giving, card-sending, and time off work.  (Yes, we light the menorah – and the kids get Chanukah gifts – but Chanukah gift-giving is really a tradition that grew out of Christmas.)  In a world that glorifies multitasking and often leaves professional women swinging on a pendulum between two outposts of guilt, Christmas is a day when the world around us stops its dizzying spin and we settle into the moment.  

When I am honest with myself, for that, I am truly grateful.

Friday, December 14, 2012


“The holidays” always agitate a certain tension in me.  It’s not so much stress or depression, the usual suspects this time of year.  It’s more that that the holidays pull at me internally, pitting the globally-warmed conservationist I’ve become against my inner child.  One night I can’t sleep because the rising level of CO2 in our oceans is decimating oyster hatcheries; the next night, I’m up worrying about denying my kids the carefree delight of holiday excess.  Inner Child loves the vision of a hearth piled with sparkly gifts, magical in their veil of infinite potential.  Inner Environmentalist knows that the wrapping paper will go straight to the trash, that most toys are less entertaining than the boxes they come in, and that production lines in China are pouring untreated wastewater into the rivers and lakes that serve local communities, too far from American buyers’ eyes to raise any eyebrows.

Is it just coincidence that The Grinch is green?

My kids feel the same tension– Becky, at 10, more so than her younger sister.  They abhor destruction of animal habitat – but they really love their collection of stuffed animals.  They sneer at our dependence on fossil fuel – but boy do they want the Nintendo 3DS.  They may wax poetic about days of yore when all this excess didn’t exist – but since it’s here, it’s hard not to want it.

I didn’t expect the kids to tell me that they want to pass on gifts this year.  My inner child would actually find it somewhat disturbing if they did.  But I also don’t want them to feel beholden to the spell that the retail world tries to cast.  I don’t want to tell them where to land, but I invite them to explore the spectrum between indulgence and abstinence, to sit with the pros and cons.  No matter how shiny and enticing the catalogs are, no matter how bright the smiles of the children modeling with toys and clothes, no matter how resounding the marketing message that money can buy you love, we know better.  Excess yields diminishing returns.  The euphoria of new stuff is fleeting, by design; if it weren’t, it wouldn’t work out so well for the retailers, who want you back next year.  And all of this has a global cost much higher than the Black Friday price tags suggest.

Everyone finds their own equilibrium in this tension.  For us, it is a place in the middle.  After the candles were lit on the first night of Chanukah, the girls sat on the floor in the living room with their eyes covered.  Five minutes later, they opened them to find model horses all around, unloaded from Trader Joe’s bags.  Thanks to Craig’s List, I had scored a collection of them to present as a Chanukah gift.  The fur on their noses is worn, and their saddles are cracked – but for $20, and zero incremental effluent into waterways, the kids enjoyed what felt to them like a bonanza.  For the next few hours, they gleefully welcomed Colonel Mustard, Annie Hall, Vanilla and the rest of their brethren into our home.  (Assigning names seems to be the most fun part anyway.)  No wrapping paper wound up in the garbage that night, but there was carefree excess in the air.  And if they collect cobwebs after their first week… well, no one really feels too put out.

This approach doesn’t always go smoothly.  On night three, I gave each of the girls an envelope.  Inside was a homemade certificate good for one year of horseback riding lessons- an indulgence that will stretch our budget but which I was honestly excited to give them.  I grew up riding horses, and I have long wanted them to share the experience.  Both of them read their slip of paper, looked at me uncertainly, and then dug into the envelope, looking for their “gift”.   Finding only the paper, Becky recovered gracefully, realizing that this was something she should celebrate – but Leah turned and ran to her room, sobbing.  My first reaction was righteous indignation; how could she turn up her nose just because I didn’t include a toy surprise?  What kind of spoiled little brats had I raised here?  But I know that she was only reacting honestly; at five, she is easily fascinated by shiny objects.  It’s my job as her mom to teach her what matters.  It is a lifelong course of learning.  I’m still learning it myself, every day.

So, gifts don’t have to be new, they don’t have to be wrapped, and they don’t have to be things.  It seems simple enough.  But part of passing on a tradition is considering which parts to preserve and which parts to rethink.  As our kids grow up to face challenges that are truly global in proportion, maybe these small invitations to adapt will have cultured an openness to possibility that becomes material to their survival.  It sounds like a leap – but as a wise woman once told me, all things are linked.  I believe it.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

California Minus 30 Equals...

Ever since our Tikkun Olam committee hosted a dialogue on "voting your values", I've been thinking a lot about what this means.  This morning, as I skimmed through a ballot guide that can only be described as overwhelming, I felt the weight of this responsibility. Registered voters in California are being asked to jury a mind-boggling breadth of debates, from the minimum wage in San Jose to labeling of genetically-engineered foods.

Generally speaking, this strikes me as a really bad idea.  Why?  Because, for the most part, we don't know what we're talking about.  Columnist Robert J. Elisberg summed it up well when he called the California Proposition system "an ill-thought out disaster":

"However poorly one thinks of politicians, the Proposition System is worse. It starts with the faulty premise that the voting public is going to willingly study a thick guidebook... Instead, with propositions, they turn to watching 30-second TV ads to learn what the laws are about.  Watching 30-second TV ads to learn what a law is about is like reading a fortune cookie and believing that you now understand Eastern Philosophy."

The prop system has also evolved into another stage where wealth inequality plays out.  Four of the eleven initiatives on the 2012 ballot are the pet projects of single uber-rich individuals - and others are being shot down with the help of millions in funding from equally wealthy critics.  The glossy, emotionally-charged fliers that fill our mailboxes leave Californians feeling obligated to exercise the right to vote on these propositions - but eminently unqualified to do so.

Historically, this has made me a sort of conscientious objector when it comes to most ballot props.  I am suspicious of their sponsors - their motives and, even when they mean well, their credentials.  And I am often equally skeptical about my own credentials as arbiter. 

But this year, there's a chink in my armor: Prop 30.  Unlike most propositions, which leave all but the most tenacious fact-finders with little clue about what will really happen if they do or don't pass, the consequences of Prop 30 are pretty clear because of the "trigger cuts" included in the state budget if Prop 30 fails.  According to KQED's non-partisan 2012 California Proposition Guide,

"K-12 schools and community colleges would lose $5.35 billion. The University of California and California State University systems would each lose $250 million. City police departments, CalFire, the park system, flood control programs and others would also lose several million dollars each."

Did you read that?  $5.35 billion.  This from a school system where PTAs already do fundraisers to buy paper for the copy machine, and students get extra credit for bringing boxes of tissues to class.

I think back to the Tikkun Olam dialogue about voting our values.  If there's one value that has been instilled in me as fundamentally Jewish since the day I became a fertilized egg, it's the importance of education.  From the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism:
"The Jewish commitment to public education dates back to the time of the Torah and Talmud... The Reform Jewish Movement has long stood in strong support of public education recognizing that an educated population is the cornerstone of democracy. The United States' well-being depends on the decisions of its educated, informed citizens...
When we invest in public education, we invest in our children and our nation's future."
If we're voting our values, we must give our public schools the resources they need to fulfill their mission.  Surely, a quarter cent increase in sales tax isn't more than the average Californian can stomach to bet on our future - whether their children attend public schools, or they'll count those students as colleagues some day, or they'll rely on them as neighbors and members of their communities 10 and 20 years from now.  For me, the choice is clear.  But it raises another question: why believe that Prop 30 has the right formula?

Because this proposition represents Governor Jerry Brown's plan, not that of a rogue billionaire.  Because it wouldn't even be on the ballot if California weren't suffering the same legislative gridlock that has crippled Obama's efficacy in his first term.  Because I believe that Jerry Brown is not only smart but also a devoted and experienced public leader who knows what he is doing.  Because government, for all its flaws, can act in the name of shared values in ways that the private sector simply can't.  .

I'm so tired of this election cycle- the inflated outrage around slips of the tongue, the asenine stream of MoveOn Facebook posts, the never-ending pleas for more money to secure Obama's reelection.  (Though honestly, if there were a magic number that would clinch it for him, and I could afford it, I'd write the check tomorrow.)  But weariness aside, I ask you: Please, ffs, vote Yes on 30. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Facebook and the art of coming out

“I’m not sure I’m ready for this.”
“It’s OK if you’re not.”
“I think I am.  Are you?”
“OK.  Here goes.”

At which point I pressed “Post”.  And up on my Facebook page appeared a smiling photo of Paula and me, along with the caption, “It’s National Coming Out Day, so… out I come.”

That was one year ago.  70+ “likes” and public affirmations later – mostly from straight people around the periphery of my life – I was euphoric.  I hadn’t expected it.  The chorus of support came from classmates I hadn’t seen in years, former coworkers, parents and teachers from my kids’ school, my old yoga instructor.  I sat and reflected on the fear and dread that had lead up to that moment.  What had scared me so much?

Coming out in your 40s is a strange thing.  It’s often described as a rite of passage.  But by the time I came out, I had been through many such rites.  I was a parent and a professional.  I understood myself pretty well.  I could list many things I liked about myself, but I had a well-reasoned list of dislikes too.  Neither list had anything to do with my sexuality.  I hesitated to come out to the world because I didn’t want to be told I was brave.  I didn’t want to be proud of my sexuality any more than I wanted to be proud of my skin color or my height.  And most of all, I didn’t want the world to start defining me through a filter that is rife with stereotypes.  (For the record: I am terrible at softball, and I don’t really like going to Ikea.)

But these were just rationalizations.  The truth was that I like to be liked, and I was afraid of making people feel uncomfortable.  With that context, taking the leap felt like the only way to act with integrity. 

Although I was already “out” to all of my close friends and family, I’d retained an online identity where I presented myself as a parent, a businesswoman, a cyclist, a wanna-be comedienne – but not as gay.  In the sanitized slice of life known as Facebook, where the skies are always sunny, all of our meals are photogenic, and we’re never awful to our kids, I was in the closet.

Like almost everyone, I make fun of Facebook.  And I’ve unabashedly loved it anyway: targeted ads, navel-gazing, invaded privacy and all.   But I have never appreciated Facebook more than I did on National Coming Out Day 2011.  In one swoop, without having to broker uncomfortable conversations that would have been more about supporting the listener than about supporting me, I came clean.  And I realized that there were a lot of people out there who were just fine with that.

I dream of a day when people scratch their heads and wonder why we used to have Pride celebrations, confused by what could possibly have been shameful about being gay.  Sadly, that day isn’t here yet.  The world is changing, and we’ll get there – but in the meantime, to all who got up the nerve to break the silence on National Coming Out Day last week, yasher koach.  Strength to you.   

Monday, October 1, 2012

Gamification and the plummet of society into a deep, dark chasm

Driving 101 to our office in Redwood Shores, it's hard to miss the giant billboard advertising Bunchball, the "leader in gamification."  Gamification is a buzzword you hear a lot in Silicon Valley these days.  Companies are using game thinking and gaming strategies to engage customers, motivate employees and build brands.  LiveOps, for example, uses badges and leader boards to encourage their virtual call agents to participate in eLearning.  Even Playboy is using gamification to attract a younger demographic.  Companies like Bunchball are making a business out of helping other companies gamify their websites and applications.
Venture capitalists and product designers alike are excited about making it all fun and games.  But it's not just the corporate world that is gaga for gamification.  Inevitably, it's flowing into education and other spheres that involve our children.  An increasing number of educators are espousing the benefits of gamification in the classroom.  Parents are turning to Zamzee to motivate their children to get off the couch.  A 2011 study points to the cognitive, emotional and social benefits of gaming.

Gamification sure has some rabid enthusiasts out there.  Gabe Zichermann is one of them.  During the TedxKids@Brussels event in 2011, he described himself to the audience as "in many ways... a parent's sort of dream of how somebody can turn a sedentary lifestyle playing video games into an actual career that pays real money."  He went on to make a case that video games increase fluid intelligence and even suggested that the Flynn effect - the fact that IQ has been rising year over year since the 1990s- is more than just coincidental with the proliferation of increasingly-complex video games.  

As for concerns that video games make our kids hyper or inattentive, Gabe puts this out there: "Is it that our children have ADD, or is our world just too freakin' slow for our children to appreciate?"  He flips to a slide showing an older gentleman in a chair.  "Sitting down on a Sunday afternoon to read a good book with a cup of tea... like, I just have to say, I don't think that today's kids are ever going to do that."

Sorry, Gabe, but you lost me at “Hello".  

I'm honestly trying to remain open-minded about all this.  I do think that game thinking is being applied in some innovative and promising ways.  But frankly, I'm turned off - and kind of scared.  Are we grooming a generation of impatient, reward-driven future adults?  They may be better multitaskers, maybe even multitaskers with higher IQs - but I'm not convinced that's what the world needs most right now.  Does IQ cure apathy, ennui, isolation and self-absorption-- or might it actually feed them?  And multitasking: isn't there a downside when nothing gets our full attention anymore - even our children? 

If kids are growing up in a world where gamification is so pervasive, where everything from their education to their in-vehicle driving experience is being formulated as a series of blinking, animated challenges, targets and trophies, I worry that their brains are  being wired to respond only when a certain kind of stimulus is presented.  Are we doing them a favor by making life imitate games?

Intelligence isn't much use if our kids grow up too impatient or distracted to apply it in more than 30-second bursts.  More to the point: it's not all about being smart.  How do video games do at developing empathy or initiative?  Will our kids have the patience to stick with a struggling business?  What teaches them that even when life isn’t fun, you don’t walk away from it?  How will this generation cope with chronically-ill family members, babies who keep you up crying all night?  What does gamification do to our sense of community, our interpersonal relationships, and our spirituality?  Can video games teach resolve, integrity, loyalty, tenacity – when there is no explicit reward at the end of the tunnel?  Will our kids be able to read how someone is feeling by looking at their eyes?  How do games teach us to cope with death?  

I can envision the defenses some would formulate to these questions.  But I think the answer is simple: they can't.  Games are definitely fun.  They definitely have their value as learning tools.  My kids really enjoy them.  But I limit them for a reason, and I worry about the pundits out there who wave away my concerns (and my passionate love of reading.)

The other night, before school was back in session, I was lying in bed with my older daughter. She was worrying about how hard it is for her to pay attention in class, and she wanted to do well in fifth grade.  She thought something was wrong with her. “I have to tell you a secret,” I whispered.  “Everybody has trouble paying attention in class.  It’s the human condition.”  ADD and ADHD are biochemical disorders.  But not everyone who struggles to pay attention has a biochemical disorder. 

The way I see it, there are are two ways to deal with our collective attention deficit.  One is to pare out the parts of life that are not exciting because they don’t offer instant gratification or stimulation.  We can gamify our life – through product marketing, employee motivation, and even education techniques that offer explicit challenges, points and rewards.  We can put our kids in front of the screen and let them play.  We can, as Gabe Zichermann has, take the stance that life is just too slow, and that technology has the power to change that. 

Or we can take the position that patience is (still) a virtue.  That grit and perseverance build leaders, and that the world needs thoughtful, committed leaders now more than ever.  That the brain is a muscle that can be conditioned to pay attention, given the right calisthenics.  That good things come to those who wait - and that while we need to tackle the world's problems with a sense of urgency, it's going to take time, diplomacy, creativity, and the willingness to try and try again, even when it is utterly unexciting to do so and there are no points involved.  That there is value in muscling through boredom, and that some of the most vital creativity comes when the mind is still.

I know which way I lean.