Wednesday, December 11, 2013

So What, Who Cares?: Holiday Gifts for Teachers, and Naked Neighbors

Dear Erin,

As we all know, it's time for holiday gifts for teachers. Every year in my son's elementary school the parents association takes a collection and divides the contributions among the teachers. Last year, my friend told me that she no longer participates in the collection, because she was giving very generously, and others were not, and she felt that she wasn't getting credit for her contribution.  So she now gives the teachers gifts directly. This is one of those things that, as someone who also gives generously, I sort of understand the desire to do.  And yet, never ever in a million years would I actually do it.  Something about it seems totally against the spirit and self serving.  The point of the whole thing is to give generously and show appreciation to the teachers, not to get credit.   Am I wrong to be annoyed by this?

Bugged in Boston

Dear Bugged:

Did you ever find yourself annoyed at George Costanza?   I only ask, because your friend is acting like him.   Remember the Seinfeld episode, the Big Salad?   George buys a salad for Elaine.  Then his girlfriend -- upon handing the salad to Elaine – gets the thanks for it.   George protests the “false premises” under which Elaine thanked the wrong person.  Elaine is annoyed.  His girlfriend, naturally, can't stand him.

The problem with George  – and his creator, Larry David – wasn’t that they were always objectively wrong.   You could understand their feelings.  We all like to be thanked, when we go out of our way to help.  What made George/Larry annoying was their inappropriate responses to such perceived slights.  They could never rise above things, and be the bigger person.  With a meaningless thing like a Big Salad, they couldn’t just get over it.  Forget about it.   Focus on the value of friendship and kindness and togetherness with friends.   Instead, they blew it out of proportion.   Annoyed their friends, alienated their partners.  It's hard to be friends with people like that.  But I have to think, it's far worse to be them.

Like you, I understand your friend’s feelings.  Her response would almost seem rational, in another context.  Credit and kickbacks are the way of the world.  Private philanthropies, arts organizations, and academic endowments recognize big donors all the time.  In Manhattan, if you raise a lot of money for Dalton or Brearley – say, by putting your family’s summer home up for silent auction -- your kids get on a special list.   Our society rewards self-interested generosity.  Of course it does.  It’s straight up Adam Smith.  It’s the hot molten core of capitalism.

The problem with insisting on recognition – and protesting the injustice of every perceived slight -- is that regular life is not a theoretical abstraction.   In the real world, if we want to get along with others -- better than George Costanza and Larry David did, anyway – we have to temper our self-serving reactions and interests by considering other perspectives and values too.   Like, say, the value of cooperation.  At our school, for example, some parents contribute in non-financial ways.   They volunteer, work in the book room, go on field trips, run programs.   Do these parents demand special credit?    I don’t know.  But I doubt they spend much time worrying about it.   They’re too busy copying papers, pulling on snow pants, and wiping exploded ketchup packets off the lunchroom floor. 

Even more important is the value of inclusiveness.  In preschool and elementary schools, people often practice collective giving because they feel like all families should be included -- whether their parents are rich, or generous, or not.  Honoring the relationship between families and their beloved teachers is what makes elementary school a little bit different from Manhattan’s power elite, or Harvard’s fundraising machine.  Kids have plenty of time to learn how to keep score, and cut each other’s throats.  But while they’re still young, shouldn't their parents try to emphasize friendship and kindness over individual contributions and credit?   And really, what’s the personal cost of doing this?   Is it really so hard to part with twenty or thirty bucks, and not get personally thanked?   It’s the cost of a Big Salad.

Ultimately, your friend is choosing to act upon the perceived slight of others’ lesser generosity, rather than a whole set of other positive social values, like community and inclusion.  Frankly, it would be fine with me if your friend gave her own gift in addition to the collective one.   In our family, we give in all kinds of different ways to school –materially and not, collectively and not.  But your friend is not addressing the perceived injustice by being more generous.  She's being judgmental and self-serving.  To put in terms George Costanza would understand, she’s vowing never to buy Elaine lunch again.   And it's not surprising that, like George Costanza's petty behavior, her actions have already started to annoy her friends.  

Dear Erin,

For the past month when I wake up to make coffee in the morning I can see my neighbor walking around nude in his house.  I think I've only noticed this recently because the leaves on our trees are gone, and dark mornings call for turning on the lights.  I don't want to have to draw down our shades for the whole winter as winter in Wisconsin already makes me feel like I live in a cave.  It would be too embarrassing to bring it up to him.  Any suggestions?


Dear Overexposed:

We had a naked neighbor in our last apartment building in New York.   Nothing unusual there. City dwellers don’t necessarily have more aberrant lifestyles than the rest of humanity, but their eccentricities are often more vividly on display.  In our case, the naked man lived in the apartment one floor down, and directly across the central courtyard from our den.  Perfect line of sight.

Technically, he was a half-naked man.  He often walked around wearing nothing but a tee shirt.   Particularly when he went on late night feeding rampages in his kitchen.   My husband and I found this exhibitionism surprising, for a few different reasons.   For one thing, his girlfriend worked in my husband’s office.  She didn’t share her boyfriend’s inclination to undress.  But neither did she share our inclination to close the curtains.  Equally curious to us was why the naked man even bothered to wear a tee shirt.   Maybe I was hung up on an overly rigid interpretation of the term, private parts.   But why not cover the bottom?  Especially because the naked man’s most public appendage, by far, was his giant scrotum. 

For several months, we didn’t fully appreciate the animal we were dealing with.  We caught glimpses of it here and there, but it was often partially blocked by something.  Like one of his legs, or a party sized jar of mayonnaise.  Then one night – in his zeal to reach something in the back of the fridge -- he bent completely over.   Only then did we appreciate the animal we were dealing with.  It was an elephant.  A pale, wrinkly elephant.  With an average sized trunk.  And two giant floppy ears.

Unfortunately for us, the naked man’s elephantine organ raised more questions than it answered.  Personally, I had to wonder about the sanity of his girlfriend.   As someone who cooked a lot, I was horrified at the thought of living with a guy who pressed his bare manhood up against my cutting board every night.  Wood has natural antibiotic properties, of course.  But even wood blocks have their limits.  I had to conclude that anyone who routinely engaged in intimate acts with a sex organ of that caliber was probably accustomed to having it show up in places it didn’t belong.

We also wondered about the naked man’s motivations.  If he wasn’t a bona fide nudist, then why didn’t he ever think to close the curtains?    I found his indiscretion especially irritating, in the presence of my kids.  I often had to get up and close my own curtains.   It wouldn’t have bothered me, just alone.  But I didn’t want to have to answer any premature and inappropriate questions about the Jungle Book. Ultimately, though, we just acclimated to the spectacle.   

When it comes to naked people and their lack of discretion, there’s nothing you can do.   If your kids see it, consider closing your curtains.  If it bothers you, try to look away.   Otherwise, try not to let him catch you with binoculars.   Try not to giggle at the drug store, when you see him buying a razor for his back.   And in the meantime - enjoy the winter Safari!   I’ve heard the animals are really running wild this time of year.  

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