Happy birthday to me

Not long ago, a guy I know, a good guy who to all outward appearances seems happy and successful, replied to a birthday e-mail I sent him at work — “go
home and blow out some candles” — with this:

“I’m 40-f—ing-8, give me a break. They tell me that’s close to 50, but I refuse to believe it.” (Only he didn’t leave any letters out of “f—ing.”)

I wrote back: “you’ve got your hair, a flat stomach, and a wife. I’d say life is good.”

To which he replied: “At 20 you won’t settle for less than several million, two best-sellers and a house in Majorca. At 48, what you said sounds really good.”

Expectations are strange things. When we’re kids, and when we’re parents of kids, we have no compunction about shooting for the stars. Every child is encouraged to believe that becoming a Michael Phelps or a Golda Meir, or however your tribe fills in the blank, is within the realm of possibility. B’nai mitzvah speeches and commencement addresses are universally about holding fast to your dreams.

But nevertheless, somewhere along the line we’re supposed to learn that the secret to happiness is adjusting our expectations to reality. Maturity means accepting that failing to get the gold or the Golda isn’t the same thing as failure. The good life is to be found in wanting what you have.

To be sure, the self-help sections of bookstores are filled with inspirational messages and 10-point-plans to the contrary. If only we visualize what we want, if only we believe in ourselves, if only we buy this book, then love and riches, fame and health, six-packs and serenity will be ours, no matter how far along in the life cycle we are.

But by and large, despite those enticing pitches, adulthood turns out to mean acceptance — of how you played the hand you were dealt, of mortality, of beshert — even if it sometimes includes flashes of 40-f—ing-8-like fury at the way the world turns out to work.

I wonder whether that rage would be mitigated if, instead of everyone being brought up to think we could be president, we were raised to believe, as Buddhists are, that desire is the source of suffering. I wonder if the gross domestic product would really shrivel, or the upward mobility of classes would stall, or the amount of art and justice in the world would decline, if we grew up already knowing how things more often than not turn out to be — if we understood early on the unreliability of the meritocracy, and the odds against our dreams, and the huge role in life of dumb luck — if the rough passage signaled in the cry of “40-f—ing-8” were not something kept hidden from children, like the true identity of the tooth fairy, the mutability of beauty, the lifelong wrestling with the meaning of existence that lies ahead of them.

In “The Uses of Enchantment,” child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim explains that the purpose of fairy tales is to give children an arena — a proxy world — in which to come to grips with evil, to come to terms with loss, to train their emotions for the inevitable struggles and disappointments of life. Anyone who has read the cruel original fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm will recognize the sense of this. But anyone who knows these stories only from their Disney versions will recognize how diligently we now go out of our way to insulate kids from the disturbing stuff that Bettelheim says is good for them.

Yes, I know that Bambi’s mother is killed, and plenty of other modern classics include scary separations from parents. The murder of Harry Potter’s parents by Lord Voldemort is of course the setup for the series. But (spoiler alert) no one in those seven volumes is forced to reconcile with the whole panoply of less lethal but no-less-soul-crushing disappointments — being downsized, pink-slipped, passed over, left — of which many, maybe most, lives are constructed. We are all broken vessels.

Recently I found myself reading the ” target=”_blank”>jewishjournal.com/sowhatsnew. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

My second childhood

It took eight decades, but at last I know what is meant by “second childhood.”

In my first childhood, my social life consisted of dating attractive young women. This second time around my calendar is just as full but my partners are all doctors.

The world looks different to me now that I have reached 80. It isn’t that I feel any older, it’s just that everyone else appears so much younger. And more distant. And a bit blurry around the edges. And much more difficult to hear. My ears have taken early retirement and last year, out of consideration for my fellow citizens, I gave up driving at night.

I am told that this last one is almost like a rite of passage; if you move to a retirement home to become one of its few available males, your popularity depends on your ability to drive at night. I will report to you further on this when and if the occasion arises.

The world sees me differently as well. What used to be bad taste (sloppy clothing, for example) is now acceptable. People are much more helpful; they see my four-legged cane and pause to open doors. If I should sit in my car for a few minutes trying to figure out the intricacies of cruise control, someone will rap on the window and ask if I am all right. At the supermarket I have been presented with my own key for the electric carts that are not equipped, thank heavens, with the latest gadgets dreamed up in Detroit. Besides, I no longer walk: I shuffle.

There is yet another problem. There are rows of keys on my computer’s keyboard whose meaning I fail to comprehend and icons on its screen whose purpose passeth all understanding. The makers of these gadgets assume that their customers are all graduates of MIT. In 688 pages of “Mac OSX for Dummies” there is not a single definition of the oft-used phrase “default position.” My wife and children, all highly computer literate, have given up trying to explain these matters to me; they use PCs and regard Macs as childish toys suitable only for the technologically challenged.

Despite this litany of whiney self-indulgence there are some advantages to being long in the tooth.

Even though the Iraqi quicksand is gradually swallowing us up, I am not likely to be drafted again for military service. Nor am I personally threatened by global warming, awakened in the morning by an alarm clock, paying for anyone’s college tuition or worrying about the state of my (nonexistent) portfolio.

Three sessions a week of cardiac rehab do much, I am told, for one’s physical well-being and has led to a discovery that will please the Bush administration.

They were expecting to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Well, I found them right here in my home city of Providence, R.I., at Miriam Hospital’s cardiac center.

And my brain, upon which I used to depend for solving The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, now is exercised by following the antics of Brad, Angelina, Britney, Paris, Nicole and their exes.

I used to imagine that life in the Golden Years would feature an endless series of visits from adoring grandchildren, all yearning to sit at the feet of the Fount of Wisdom so as to benefit from his experiences and profound utterances on issues of great moment. I have since discovered that grandchildren tend to live thousands of miles away and have interests of their own that rarely include the accomplishments of the Yankee teams of the 1930s or the pleasures of riding on the Sixth Avenue El all the way to the Battery. Instead, they chatter on about Game Boys, text messaging and other modern time-wasters, which will, in due course, turn them into members of the genus illiterati.

I know that it will all come to an end in a month or a year or perhaps another decade, but I don’t know how or when. Nor am I particularly anxious to find out. If there is one thing about which we elderly codgers are aware, it is that in becoming elderly we are riding a wave of good fortune.

After all, consider the alternative.

Yehuda Lev, The Journal’s first associate editor, lives in Providence, R.I., where his business card reads Editor Emeritus. He can be contacted at yehudal@cox.net.

Divorced-Dad Dater

For the past two years I’ve been swimming exclusively in the dating pool of divorced dads (DDs). This makes me a Divorced-Dad Dater (DDD).

I love DDs because they will always make sure you’ve had enough to eat and have gone to the bathroom before long car rides. To me, DDs are more colorful than single men, with greater complexity to their lives, navigating sanity, maturity and alimony coupled with the juggling capabilities of a high-wire performer.

My first date with a DD usually begins with his “last marriage soliloquy” delivered with a frown. Then that face transforms into beaming delight as he shares the names and ages of his kids. I always ask to see a photo, because I can see how proud he really is of his offspring. Also, when I see his children’s faces I get an idea of how pretty and/or non-Jewish his ex-wife is. I ask a DD a lot of questions about his kids, because how he treats his children is a lesson in how he’ll treat his date — namely, me. This I learned from my rabbi and Dr. Phil.

Last summer I was seeing two DDs, eager to choose one. Dad A said, “My son came home from summer camp crying because he didn’t have his bathing suit today. It was drying at his mom’s house, so I sent him without it.”

“Why don’t you get your son another bathing suit?” I asked.

“I pay enough child support so that she can go out and get him a swimsuit,” he groused. I felt sad for Dad A’s son.

I called Dad B and said, “How many bathing suits do your kids have?”

“I think they each have five. But today my youngest was pulling at her suit like it was too tight for her. So we ran to the store and got her a new one,” he explained. “It took five minutes and 10 bucks.”

Dad A was history.

Don’t get me wrong, being a DDD is quite complicated, and not for everyone. Many DDs have shared custody of their kids, which includes a major part of every other weekend. That means you’ll have dateless nights and weekends without him — unless you date two DDs who have custody on alternate weekends.

Another downside to DDs is they have other mouths to feed besides yours. Money (and the lack of it) is a frequent topic of conversation, as well as the reason for less-extravagant dates around holidays, birthdays and the back-to-school season. Also, newly DDs often live in small cramped places, where a child may share their bed on custody nights. In the past, when I’ve slept over at a single guy’s house, I’ve turned the pillow on occasion and found another woman’s thong. As a DDD, I’ve turned the pillow and found their 5-year-old daughter’s drool.

Every Sabbath and Jewish holiday that I sit in synagogue with dear friends but without a life partner, I’m reminded that I’m an only child with deceased parents who is alone way too often. What better way to fill those empty places than with the laughter of kids I never diapered?

The allure of DDs for me is that their life experience is more multifaceted than carefree, never-married single men or childless divorced guys. Some of their emotional baggage can walk and talk. I like the thought of getting close to children after they’ve been toilet trained. Having a relationship with a DD gives me the opportunity to build a loving relationship that could lead to a full family, instantly: a loving husband and children to share nightly dinners, summer vacations, Rosh Hashanah, Passover and everything in between.

Still, DDs have just as much dating anxiety, fear of commitment and intimacy issues as single men. One twice-DD canceled a New Year’s Eve date stating, “I can’t get too close to anyone while my kids are still young. When I look at you I see alimony in your eyes. Three strikes and I’m out.”

Yet DDs work hard, play hard and try to please everyone. At the end of the day DDs need an adult to curl up to. According to my guy’s child-care agreement, this Saturday and Sunday is a nonparenting time. I look forward to my visitation weekend.

Arlene Schindler is a writer for numerous national publications and was a relationship expert/guest guru for AOL’s Love-on-Line.

Alternatives to Drugs

“The world exists only because of the innocent breath of
schoolchildren,” attributed to Jewish sages, first century Talmud.

Recent reports of children as early as 2 years old receiving
psychotropic drugs has me worried. How safe are Ritalin and Prozac — the
stimulants and anti-depressants for kids?

Somehow the unresolved question of their effects on a
developing brain has not been answered, and yet, doctors are prescribing them
to young schoolchildren. Daily school problems are now being addressed with drugs
and more drugs.

Too many teachers are frustrated by being told to label
children as Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity
Disorder, or even to suggest Ritalin for problem students. They know that they
have a “problem student” but they do not have the tools, as of yet, to deal
with or recognize what kind of student they are working with.

Educators are being forced to make decisions regarding
placement of their students.

Every once in a while teachers are faced with a student who
won’t fit into the class. It might be he or she lacks emotional or intellectual
growth, or both. At times, the child is simply immature. Since teachers are not
qualified to do the testing, since they are not trained in these fields, what
can they do?

Teachers must ask themselves the following questions:

Why is the student having a hard time in class?

What role does maturity play with this student?

Is it plain boredom or is it a social, emotional or
intelligence problem?

Most teachers are aware of these three kinds of students who
may be doing poorly in class.

We perceive immaturity when children don’t respond in a
correct way. They do not have the tools to express themselves. They simply lack
the social skills. They may, at times, be too smart and need smarter children
to relate to, or they are average but need more time for child’s play. In both
scenarios, the child doesn’t fit in well with the class environment. The child
always acts out and frustrates the entire class.

The slow learner can’t keep up with the class. The student
might have many positive character traits but simply is lost in a class
setting. No matter how many times the teacher addresses the student, the work
is not done. The student cannot understand the instructions and simply cannot
integrate the ongoing instructions and lessons being taught in the class.

The late bloomer, too, suffers from a lack of understanding
of the schoolwork. This child might have good social skills; listens, but still
cannot perform the needed class work. He or she never seems to get things
right. You wonder what’s wrong and what can you do for him or her.

Both the slow learner and the late bloomer will not get the
work done, but have friends in class, while the immature student will get the
work done, but not possess the normal social skills for friends.

Being smart and being sociable are two different markers for
dealing with students.

Here are some suggestions that may help teachers deal with
the three kinds of students

Being smart and mature are two unrelated markers, writes
Dr. Louise Bates Ames and Dr. Joan Ames Chase, in “Don’t Push Your Preschooler”
(HarperCollins, 1981). It is possible that an exceptionally bright child may
have more problems than a slower and not-so-bright child, they say.

“It is important for parents to appreciate that maturity and
intelligence tend to be two separate measures or qualities,” the authors note.
“A child may be obviously very bright, that is, very intelligent, and at the
same time be immature or young for his age.”

If a child is immature, it does not mean that he or she is
not intelligent. The term “superior immature” is often used for that child who
is bright but young for his age. The superior immature child is one who
especially needs protection from the parent or educator who would push him too
early into formal schooling just because he is bright.”

What we need is to be super sensitive to the superior
immature students. The teacher needs to go the extra mile in providing guidelines
for this child. If not, we could have disastrous results. The bright child gets
into all kinds of trouble and shows inappropriate behavior.  This is because
the student is immature and that is the cause of the problem. This answers the
old question of ‘if they are so smart then shouldn’t they know better?’ The
answer is that they are not emotionally ready for a regular classroom

In dealing with the slow learner we must be cognizant that
the slow learner remains a slow learner all his/her life. They never catch up,
repeating the same class for one or two years will destroy the student. As
being bigger, older and placed with younger and smaller children destroys the
self-esteem of this student. So what do we do?

What the teacher may need to do is address the student’s
needs now while remaining in the appropriate class. The school must provide a
one-to-one instructor where the slow learner will learn, however, at his own
pace. We must keep the child with his peer group-class at any cost. A teacher’s
aide or volunteer will be needed. The teacher will need to set different goals
and tasks for this slow learner.

Is the slow learner getting the survival skills like reading
and basic arithmetic? No amount of in-class or homework will take care of the
above-mentioned concern. The teacher and supervisor will need to make the
appropriate accommodation now while the child is in the proper age group and
keeping his self-esteem. Survival skills must be the goal for the student.

“The New Dare to Discipline” by Dr. James Dobson (Tyndale
House, 1996) states: “The slow learner is unlike the later bloomer in one major
respect: Time will not resolve his deficiency. He will not do better next year.
In fact, he tends to get further behind as he grows older.”

The late bloomer is the easiest student to work with. There
is an expression “what time does the mind doesn’t.” The late bloomer will bloom
a bit later and catch up with his peers. He just needs some extra time. A late
bloomer will unquestionably catch up and do well with his age and peer group.

However, it is the responsibility of the school and teachers
to protect the student from being mislabeled as a “slow learner” that never
catches up.

When teachers are aware of the different kinds of students,
we become better teachers. By knowing the needs of the different students, we
can help them stay in school and become a true asset to society and a joy to
their parents. Teachers have the power to empower the student with self-esteem
thus giving them the much-needed ingredient for success. Yes, each child has
different gifts and it’s our job to teach to the child’s capabilities.

By realizing that a classroom has all kinds of students,
realistic expectations are met. The teacher feels a real sense of accomplishment
and when that happens, it becomes a win-win situation. Drugging them into
compliance will only create a defiance of unprecedented proportions. America
has witnessed so-called phenomena of violent students. Drugging our children
has done little to alleviate violence in the schools.

In a book called “Reclaiming Our Children” (Perseus, 2001)
by Dr. Peter R. Breggin, author of “Your Drug May Be Your Problem” (Perseus,
1999) and “Talking Back to Ritalin” (Common Courage, 1998), we are told that
the violent youngsters involved in school shootings are usually under
psychiatric care and prescribed medicine. Breggin writes that, “The most
despairing and violent of our children reflect the underlying disorder of the
society: the alienation and abandonment of our children. We must utterly reject
the idea that the problem lies in our children’s brains or bodies, or that we
need to focus on diagnosing individual children. Instead, we need to identify
the breakdown of relationship with our children in our homes, schools and
community, and then to come together as adults dedicated to making ourselves
and our institutions more able to serve the needs of our children.”

It may be true that many children need medication, as do
adults. But, I believe it is far more important to educate our educators to be
sensitive to the students than to mass medicate.  We should have a whole-child
approach in understanding the student before we prescribe drugs and label them.

I run a day care center and private elementary school. I
have learned that children march to different drums. One of the ways we deal
with problematic children is with a mentoring system. We solicit seniors and
grandparents who are talented, but have graduated from the work field. These
volunteers come into the school once or twice a week to spend a few hours
mentoring children. They do this in a supervised area under the guidance of our
school principal and teachers. Our methods of having the child overcome his/her
so-called problem is by receiving extra attention and one-to-one instruction.

You can’t imagine the joy we have observing the success rate
between the student and their mentor. The retired mentor has a purpose and the
children receive a great boost, enabling them to continue within the school
system. This may be an alternative to medicating youngsters.

Let’s keep the innocence of children alive by providing them
with the rich opportunities of sensitive teachers and safe schools.   

Finding the Adult Within

“So, tell me, what are you looking for in awoman?” I ask.

“Someone kind and gentle, intelligent, educated,cultured, witty, fun, a professional, independent, but interested intraditional things, Jewish, haimish, warm, family-oriented…andthin, tall, attractive, blond, well-dressed.” He continues, but Irealize already that I know him. He’s my 3-year old. The open mouthof the infant: “I want, I want, I want.”

I know what he wants: a Playboy playmate who willadore him, cook like his mother but make no demands on hissoul.

He isn’t alone. He belongs to a whole culture ofchildishness.

My kids’ favorite video is “Hook,” the Peter Panstory, as told by Steven Spielberg. In this version, Peter fell inlove with Wendy and left never-never land. The boy who said that hewouldn’t grow up has matured to become a driven corporate executive,chained to his cell phone, without time for his wife, his children,or his humanity. Stripped of all imagination, playfulness and love,he is everything Peter Pan always abhorred about adults.

Suddenly, his children are kidnapped by his oldnemesis, Captain Hook, and Peter is challenged to one final battle.He returns to never-never land to save his children and, really, tosave himself. He is powerless against Hook until he recovers thatpart of himself denied these many years: the child within, hisspontaneity, imagination, capacity for enchantment — all taught tohim by the wise, loving Tinkerbell.

It is a touching, enchanting film. And it is deadwrong.

The problem of our civilization is not that wehave lost touch with the child within. Our problem is that too manygrown-ups refuse to be adults. Our problem is not that we have losttouch with the sources of enchantment. Our problem is that too manyhave lost touch with the wisdom of maturity.

Judaism loves children. All of our festivals –Pesach, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Purim, Chanukah — put children at thecenter. God wakes up each morning, relates the Talmud, takes one lookat the world, and decides to destroy everything until He hears thesounds of children learning, playing, and laughing. He then decidesto let the world go on one more day.

Our tradition loves children, but we revereadulthood. Our tradition adores the spontaneity and imagination ofchildren, but we revere the wisdom of maturity.

This week’s Torah reading contains a sectionrecited in the daily Shema, a section that teaches the first lessonsof adulthood: “If you will obey the commandments that I enjoin uponyou this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all yourheart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season….Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow down tothem. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He willshut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground willnot yield up its produce, and you will soon perish from the good landthat the Lord is giving you.”

Adulthood is about making choices. And choiceshave consequences. We must live with the consequences of our choicesbecause, despite our childhood fantasies to the contrary, theuniverse does not revolve around any of us. If we choose values thatare real, eternal, expressions of the Source of Life, we grow inwisdom and prosper spiritually. We make the world our home. We learnto love and to hold others close. We create life. If we turn away andchoose the never-never land fantasies of the culture around us — itsaddiction to entertainment, amusement, distraction — then we shriveland starve.

Somewhere out there, there’s a 38-year-old man whohas just learned this wisdom.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.

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Read a previous week’s Torah Portion by RabbiFeinstein

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