But Can You Do the Math? (#184)

My older sister never lets any of her siblings forget that she succeeded at the most prestigious – and most difficult – profession in America.

She’s a doctor.

In college, I told her I was going for three majors in three years and summa cum laude. She responded with, “Well, of course you can do that with liberal arts.”

When our younger sister went to law school, she said, “You know what the difference between law students and medical students is? When a law professor says, ‘Good morning class,’ the students respond with ‘Good morning.’ When a doctor tells his class, ‘Good morning,’ med students write it down.”

When my Big Brother bemoaned only getting an eight-hour sleep shift on submarines, Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister scoffed, “Ha! Eight whole hours? What a luxury! Two hours of sleep, that’s what I get when I’m on call. If I’m lucky.”

After winning Medical School, spending several years as an intern, and then several years as a resident, Dr. Sis eventually became the head of an oncology department at a prestigious university. She’s still in surgery several times a week. She works on cancer research. She terrifies her residents. She saves lives, too.

Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister is awe-inspiring. Most people recognize that she is at the pinnacle of the most prestigious profession in the United States.

As a bonus, after all those years of sleep-deprivation, Doctor Sis can sleep anywhere – including in the middle seat on a plane between two large men. She doesn’t even recline her seat or put her head on her neighbor’s shoulder. She sleeps sitting straight up.

Freaky napping abilities aside, I’ve always thought of a successful doctor like my sister as every parent’s dream child.

And then I met my Chinese-American in-laws.

*****

My father-in-law is a retired civil engineer. My husband followed in his father’s footsteps, getting a Masters of Electrical Engineering.

When my Baby Brother visited at the same time as my in-laws, my mother-in-law, Sunny, quizzed him about his career. He explained that he had a B.S. in Computer Science, and had just wrapped up his Masters in Finance at NYU.

Sunny was impressed. “So you have to be good at math, then.”

Baby Brother gave me an inquiring look. I sighed and told him, “Go ahead. Tell her all about your perfect math SAT scores.”

“Really? Perfect?”

“Yup.”

“So you are really, really good at math! So smart!” Sunny gave a delighted chuckle. “Just like my husband! And my son!”

Baby Brother attempted modesty, saying, “Well, I don’t know if I’m as good at math as Andy.”

“Do you think Calculus is easy?” I asked.

“Well, it’s not easy, but it’s not that hard.”

“Then you aren’t as good at math as Andy.”

“Oh, Calculus,” said Sunny, shaking her head. “Andy’s sister Maddy, she had a hard time with Calculus. She was going to be an engineer, but it’s so sad. She just wasn’t as smart. She couldn’t do the math like Andy. She couldn’t be an engineer after all.”

Baby Brother asked, “So what happened to Maddy?”

Sunny heaved a mournful sigh and said, “Poor Maddy. She could only be a doctor.”

Baby Brother and I stared, jaws slack, as Sunny left the kitchen (and a thousand WASP and Jewish mothers rolled in their graves).

After Baby Brother and I had finished crying silent tears of suppressed mirth, he whispered, “Next Christmas, I call dibs on telling Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister how she was too stupid to make it as an engineer.”

I waved a threatening spatula. “Oh, hell, no, little brother.

Line starts after me.”

An Atheist on Easter (#183)

Back when I was in high school in Virginia, an atheist was an anomaly. Christians were always asking me how I could possibly be an atheist. I had two flippant answers.

  1. “I was born on Black Saturday – you know, the day between Christ’s death and his resurrection. I’m doomed to be shut away from God’s light. It’s easier not to fight it.”
  2. “Well, my family used to be Catholic, but my great-grandfather was excommunicated.”

My snarky answers were easier than diving into a dissertation about how the more I learned about science and history, the more impossible it became to reconcile knowledge with religion — especially Christianity.

But both answers were technically true, although some people refer to Black Saturday as Holy Saturday, (which doesn’t make any sense, really, because nothing holy happened until Sunday).

And yes, my great-grandfather was indeed excommunicated. It was a huge scandal, because Great-grandfather’s family wasn’t just a little Catholic. They were so very, very Catholic that I had a great-great-aunt who was the Mother Superior of a convent. She even gave one of my sisters a little nun action figure. Except the nun’s hands were welded together in prayer, which was pretty limiting when it came to action. And don’t be quoting crap like, “Prayer is the greatest action there is!” at me. Because I’ve seen pious Republicans sending out endless prayers to the victims of gun violence, and that’s done fuck all to end school shootings in the United States. Until those sanctimonious bastards pull their hands apart and write some actual legislation to keep guns out of the hands of white male conservatives and domestic abusers, nothing will change.

But I digress. Back to the happy story of my ancestor being cast out of church.

In his youth, Great-grandfather got into an argument with a priest, which escalated into a battle with a bishop. My grandmother once theorized that it had something to do with the priest being a pedophile, but her father might also have been ticked off by the Jesuit embrace of American nationalism. Whatever the reason, the bishop formally excommunicated Great-grandfather. Great-grandfather left Catholicism without a backwards glance. Even on his deathbed, with his siblings – including Mother Superior — begging him to repent and a priest standing by, Great-Grandfather yelled, “You didn’t want me when I was fifteen, I’ll be damned if I’m coming back now!”

Obviously, Grandmother grew up without religion. She happily married a man who was barely a token Methodist. In fact, none of my grandparents ever spouted scripture at me. Neither did my parents. Mom’s family was technically  Episcopalian, but we only went to church for Christmas, Easter, or weddings. I spent a year going to a Baptist church and Bible study next to my mother’s house in Virginia, but that was only so I could be baptized and therefore drink the grape juice on Sundays. (And, hey, “judge not lest you be judged.” When you’re perpetually hungry and only nine, free grape juice is a big motivator.)

Church avoidance reigned until Dad married First Stepmother. Suddenly, there was church every Sunday. Attendance was mandatory.

My full siblings and I hated it, especially once in middle school and high school. Screw our damned souls, we wanted to sleep in on weekends. One church even assigned homework, for Christ’s sake (haha, you didn’t think I was gonna miss that pun, did you?). We had to complete worksheets or essays on a God none of us believed in – including my father.

We argued with Dad. We insisted we were atheists and we deserved freedom from religion. “You’re going,” he told us. “If you don’t believe, you’re gonna at least know what you don’t believe in.”

But that was a bullshit rationalization. Dad didn’t believe. The real reason he went was to make his First Stepmother happy. Always an early riser, getting up at 8 AM and driving to church at 9 AM was no hardship for HIM.

Despite being an atheist, Dad firmly believed in “spare the rod, spoil the child.” With the threat of that rod hanging over our heads, we went to church. We read scripture at Christmas Eve services, we lit advent candles, and we even spent summers rebuilding houses – and outhouses – in Appalachia with our youth group.

I escaped church by way of out-of-state college. Dad then ditched Ex-Stepmother for Next Stepmother. The Era of Church was gone. The irony remained.

Despite all those years of church, religion didn’t take. We’re mostly atheists. Some are like Big Brother. He rarely mentions religion, letting the denizens of his rich, white, southern suburb assume he’s as Christian as they are. Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister is more obvious. She drives around the Bible Belt with a Darwin fish on her car, which is like waving a red flag at an arena of bulls. Christians can’t resist. They leave all kinds of messages on her vehicle, insisting that she repent, because Darwin won’t save her soul.

“Which,” she once told me, “shows how they’re really missing the point. I believe in science, not souls.”

“So different from LA,” I told her. “No one there would ever presume to lecture you on religion. Or even presume you had it!”

“Yeah, it’s not easy here. Especially not for my daughter. Can you believe, there are kindergarteners proselytizing to her already?”

“What? In class?!”

“Yeah. But she’ll be six soon, so we’re almost there.”

“What happens when she’s six? Private school?”

“Oh, hell, no, I’m not paying for that. No, kids can’t be brainwashed into unquestioning belief in God after they’re six.”

“Really?”

“Yep.” Then Doctor Sis launched into a highly technical description on the human brain’s development, none of which I remember, mainly because I was thinking about the only two siblings I have who aren’t atheists.

Both are Ex-Stepmother’s children. Boyfriend-Stealing Baby Sister is a Methodist, and Pretty Space Cadet Sister is a Wiccan (though she’s not as devout as she was, and we older siblings still hold out hope that she will return to damnation fold central).

My little sisters went to Sunday School way before they were six. They continued going to church with their mother long after their heathen half-siblings had left home and their atheist father had left the state.

I share half my DNA with my religious sisters. We shared the same environment. The only difference was the age at which we received weekly religious indoctrination.

The Baptists talk a lot about “soul freedom” — the right and duty of each individual to follow the dictates of their conscience without compulsion from authority. The Catholics are huge proponents of man’s free will. Yet by bringing children to church well before the before age six, religions circumvent soul freedom and free will. A child’s brain is a sponge at that age, not a scale capable of weighing the pros and cons of particular theologies. Maybe, if I’d lived next door to the grape juice Baptists when I was five, that second baptism would have taken.

Or maybe my flippant high school answer was correct. Maybe I am an atheist because my Great-grandfather saw something ugly in the incense and refused to look away. His stand cost him his religion, but it gained so much more for most of  his descendants — the ability to avoid childhood indoctrination and make a mature choice on religion. Or lack thereof.

Good job, Great-grandfather.

And Happy Black Saturday to all.

Gossip Gets a Bad Rap (#182)

Back in college, if I found a guy interesting, I asked around until I found someone who knew him well. (This was back before social media enabled anonymous stalking, youngsters. Back then, we had to have actual conversations.) Once I found a reference, they usually enjoyed sharing their expert opinions on my potential love interest.

“Well, if you like D&D, you might have a shot.”

“If you like open relationships, you might have a shot.”

“If you have a yacht, you might have a shot.”

“Oh, honey, no – he’s way too sexually advanced for you.”

I only got stonewalled once. When I learned my roommate’s friend knew a particular clarinet player, I sat next to her at lunch. After the pleasantries were over, I asked her if she could tell me about Mr. Clarinet.

“What about him?”

“Well, are there any unsavory rumors?”

“Are you…asking me to gossip?”

“It’s really more like helping me with research.”

“I don’t gossip,” she said. “’A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.’ Proverbs, 11:13.”

“So…if small animals disappeared into Mr. Clarinet’s dorm room and never came out, you seriously wouldn’t tell anyone? Because Proverbs?”

She left in a sanctimonious huff, proclaiming, “The Bible says that women are to be worthy of respect, and not malicious talkers.”

I called after her, “Does this mean it’s okay for men to be malicious talkers?”

She never answered.

But society did. Or at least Patricia Spacks did in her study Gossip. In history, literature, and the media, gossips are overwhelmingly portrayed as females. Religious men have attempted to silence women for centuries, with sermons, scripture, and shame.

German Scold’s bridle — The Science Museum, UK

There was even one medieval torture device created just to punish gossiping women called a Scold’s Bridle.

There’s no male equivalent.

Men even made rules in the U.S. Congress about how a Senator cannot insult another Senator. Yet the ONLY time the rule was invoked was to silence a female Senator. Male Senators that called each other “cancerous” and “idiots” and liars were not silenced; Senator Elizabeth Warren’s reading of a letter from Coretta Scott King was.

And a lot of women – like Little Miss Proverbs in college – have bought into the “gossip is bad” mindset. My Most Religious Stepmother told me repeatedly how Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”

To which I will now say, “bullshit.” First of all, Eleanor never said that. (If she had, it might have been because she was sick of people telling her about her husband’s affair with his cousin, though.)

Second, gossip is useful — possibly even critical – for social groups. It prevents people from getting away with all kinds of antisocial acts. (Including a few of my ex-boyfriends.) Had more women at Fox News shared all their information about the abusive behavior of Bill O’Reilly, he — and the network — might have been discredited before helping elect a groping orange pustule president. But since the Scold’s bridle is now illegal and the First Amendment protects everyone except female Senators, Fox used another tactic. They bribed the women not to gossip, and O’Reilly stayed.

Trump himself used a similar tactic to silence his first wife’s accusations of abuse — a gag order. (There may also have been a little bribery, or at least the threats of withholding alimony.)

So you know what gossip made a bigger impact during the election cycle instead? Fake gossip – or, as it has come to be called, “Fake News.” Russian trolls, possibly paid by the Russian government, infiltrated social media and spread fictitious stories about Hillary Clinton murdering her rivals and arming ISIS. Men lapped it up – especially white men – and voted for Trump.

Silly men. The first rule of gossip collection is to find multiple sources and their agendas. If your source is a former friend still bearing a grudge, don’t swallow their negativity whole. If your source is an Internet Provider in Veles, Macedonia, maybe ask yourself how a random dude found out Hillary funded ISIS when all Republicans got after 11 hearings and thousands of hacked emails was a risotto recipe.

It’s too bad white Americans weren’t more discerning with their cyber gossip. Because, as Jonathan Haidt explains in The Happiness Hypothesis, gossiping about a person is a method of policing — and teaching — others in our ultra social society. Those who are kind and honest in their dealings will get kindness in return, plus more work as word spreads and their positive reputation grows. Those who are cruel and dishonest will get a poor reputation (and hopefully starve).

Although, sadly, that is not what happened to the dishonest Donald Trump. But there’s still hope. So keep talking, beleaguered White House Staffers. Keep leaking Pentagon, State Department, EPA, and National Parks. And if you’re not sure how, well, here’s a handy guide from my favorite Congressman, Ted Lieu.

Because as Haidt says, “Gossip paired with reciprocity allows karma to work here on earth, not in the next life.”

Which sounds far better than Proverbs.

When the Cavalry Sucks (#181)

You know those big, dysfunctional but lovable white families you used to see in television and film? They were all about siblings being super shitty to each other. Yet when one member of the family was threatened, the family closed ranks and fended off the attacker.

I grew up in a huge, white, broken, dysfunctional family.

I thought those stories were bullshit.

When someone in our family had a train wreck of a relationship, my full siblings and I would kick back with popcorn and armchair quarterback:

“HA! What did she expect? I mean, he used her to cheat on his fiancée. She had to know that was coming around.”

“Seriously, a criminal record, and an illegitimate kid already? You don’t even get warning signs that good for a fallen overpass!”

“Can you really be shocked when your ex at an intelligence agency tracks you down? Shoulda used a little intelligence of your own, dude.”

Because we grew up in competition for scraps of parental attention, we didn’t close ranks. No, we secretly rooted for each other to screw up so we could win (or just enjoy someone else’s life devolving into a soap opera).

We mellowed as our half-siblings grew up decades later, though. Our mom had died, and our father had run off to the mountains of Utah with Wife #Whatever. We were much kinder to our baby siblings than we were to each other. I took them all to Disneyland. Big Brother let them tour his submarines. Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister even helped Baby Brother find a decent girlfriend.

When Baby Brother told me he was flying from NYC to LA for a conference, we worked it out so he’d arrive early and spend a few days with us. Our house is small, but we had a guest room.

And then my visiting  in-laws decided to skip Vegas. Their visit would now overlap Baby Brother’s. Baby Brother said no problem, he’d sleep on the couch. I rejoiced. My Chinese-American in-laws had spent weeks criticizing everything from my dogs to my desserts. They’d cracked my windshield and nearly burned down my house, all without a single apology.

Now, though, after weeks of being outnumbered and on the defensive, white reinforcements were coming. And not just any reinforcements — it was the sweeter, less judgmental branch of the cavalry. Here was my chance for a real-life, feel-good, family movie. Finally.

*****

When I picked Baby Brother up at LAX, he was all smiles and hugs. “Is this your new car? It’s nice!”

“You mean it was nice,” I corrected him, pointing at the new crack in the windshield. “Until my in-laws insisted on going to a Tribal Gaming Casino today, during rush hour. A truck kicked up a rock.” I sighed heavily and awaited an outpouring of sympathy.

Sympathy was forthcoming – for my in-laws. “That’s awful! Because, you know, you gotta gamble! I mean, I was ready to bail out of the plane when I saw the lights of Las Vegas. Hey, how far away is this Indian gaming place?”

“Really far,” I told him. “And we have a ton of people coming tomorrow.” I wondered if I had misjudged my reinforcements.

I dismissed this idea when we got home. Baby Brother was all boyish enthusiasm the second we walked into the backyard. “This is awesome! It’s a totally private courtyard! Are those real grapefruits? A peach tree? An orange tree? This is great!”

The air was as thick with compliments as it was with orange blossoms. I didn’t realize how stingy my in-laws were with their praise until Baby Brother showered it upon my domicile.

He loved the dogs, too – even the one that loved him too much. When Woofie humped his leg, Baby Brother merely laughed and cheered him on.

Jay and Sunny greeted Baby Brother with big smiles — never mind that when they last saw him at our wedding, he was thoroughly drunk or hung over. My guests spent the rest of the evening chatting about the joys of gambling.

As I made up Baby Brother’s bed on the couch, he said, “You know, your in-laws are nothing like your emails! I think they’re great!”

“I think you got free drinks on the plane.”

“I think you might be right. Which way is the bathroom?”

I gave Baby Brother directions. An hour later, I showed him the way again. And once more in the middle of the night. Even though our house is less than 1200 square feet, Baby Brother could not find his way to the bathroom.

The cavalry had arrived, indeed. Drunk.

*****

The cavalry slept until midmorning, when I began baking the last bunch of desserts. Baby Brother decided leftover cheesecake frosting would be great for breakfast. Sunny and Jay join him at the kitchen table. Baby Brother entertained my in-laws while I worked. I was pleased.

Until he disappeared to take a shower.

“Such a gentleman,” Sunny gushed. “Your brother is very smart, and very nice.”

Jay nodded. “Not mean like you.”

I turned on the Kitchen Aid. “Sorry, can’t hear you!” But Jay’s indictment echoed in my ears as I creamed butter and sugar. I had waited on my in-laws hand and foot for weeks, and all they did was complain. Yet in less than twelve hours, they put my Baby Brother up on a pedestal.

Time to knock him down. Strictly in the name of justice, of course. I shut off the Kitchen Aid, musing aloud, “Yeah, the cops in New Orleans definitely thought he was a gentleman when they stuck him in their Paddy Wagon last year.”

“No!” exclaimed Sunny.

“Yes.”

As I said, our house was small. Sunny was loud. Baby Brother stuck his head out of the bathroom. “You just had to tell them that story, didn’t you?”

“What was the charge?” I asked sweetly. “Obstruction of justice?”

“Oh, please, they couldn’t get me for that,” Baby Brother scoffed. “Drunk and disorderly.” Baby Brother spun a sob story about how he was just watching a fight when the evil police in New Orleans picked on poor little him. As soon as Sunny finished lapping it up, he disappeared back into the bathroom.

“See?!” Sunny said. “Your brother would never start a fight. He is gentle, and sweet.”

“He’s a lot wilder than you think. Ask him to show you his pierced tongue.”

“What?! No! I don’t believe it. How can he eat?”

After a flurry of Cantonese, even Jay shook his head. I crowed silently. Ha! Baby Brother was off his thoroughly undeserved pedestal.

Baby Brother finished his shower, returning to the kitchen – and intense scrutiny.

“What’s up?” he asked. “Are there beaters to be licked yet?”

“Show me your tongue,” Sunny demanded.

Without hesitation, Baby Brother stuck out his tongue.

THE STUD WAS GONE.

Sunny shot me an accusatory look. “I don’t see any pierced tongue!”

Baby Brother grinned and said, “No, no pierced tongue. Is that what Autumn told you?” He shook his head. “Sometimes she makes up stories. You gotta watch her.” Turning his back to Sunny, Baby Brother had the audacity to stick his stud-less tongue out at me.

I sputtered, “But – you – ugh!” before giving up. I had been outflanked. There was no point in protest.

Sunny and Jay soon left the kitchen, mumbling to each other in Cantonese. Undoubtedly their conversation consisted of phrases such as “Are her delusions common?” and “Is it congenital?”

As I scooped cookie batter on baking sheets, Baby Brother helped himself to a beater. He cheerfully copped to the fate of his tongue stud. “I was watching TV and eating Cheetos, and the stud was kinda hollow like a Cheeto and I didn’t even notice, but I must’ve eaten it, too. Then I was just too lazy to replace it, ya know?”

“And you couldn’t just SAY that?! Now my in-laws think I’m insane.”

“Hahahaha, yeah, they do, it’s hilarious. Hey, can I lick the sides?” He reached for the bowl.

I snatched it away with a, “Hell, no.” I gave the mixing bowl to Woofie.

As my father-in-law says, I’m mean.

Must be genetic.

I guess all the oranges don’t fall far from the tree. Or the compost pile.