Eishet Chayil

We don’t get many chances to have meals together as a family during the week. Between home visits and secondary jobs, I often don’t get home before 8:00, which means that Eitan and Shayna have usually been asleep for at least an hour by the time I walk in the door. I can sometimes FaceTime with them to say hi, wish them sweet dreams and get an up close view of Shayna’s tiny teeth when she puts Trudy’s phone in her mouth but that’s about it. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t nice to walk into a quiet apartment after a long day of work, but nothing beats seeing Eitan and Shayna’s faces light up when I walk through the door.

It’s one of the reasons why Shabbat dinner on Friday evening is so important to us. Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, lasts from Friday evening through Saturday evening. There are official rules that describe what constitutes “work” which I won’t get into here.(1) The important part is that Friday night is the time that we spend together as a family. We eat dinner together at the same table, have conversations about our days or our plans for the weekend and enjoy each other’s company.

Before we get to the meal, we light candles to signify the start of Shabbat and then sit down at the table. We sing two songs before making kiddush, the blessing over the wine. Then Eitan recites the motzi, the blessing over the challah, and we start eating.

A couple of months ago, Eitan was getting antsy while I was singing Eishet Chayil. He didn’t seem like he was being rude intentionally, but he was clearly bored and tired and wanted attention (as four-year-olds often are). He began making faces at Shayna, tugging at his clothes and playing with his silverware. I stopped singing and asked him to sit quietly until I was finished. He did so, for the most part, though he continued to fidget slightly for the next few minutes.

Once we started eating, I asked him if he knew what the songs we sing before kiddush were about. He said that he knew that the first song, Shalom Aleichem, is special for Shabbat. I agreed and said that it is about bringing people together for Shabbat and wanting peace for the people we love.  I asked if he had never noticed me looking at anyone while I sing the second song and he said that he has seen me look at Trudy. I said that he was right and explained that the second song, Eishet Chayil (“Woman of Valor”), is about all the amazing things that Mommy does for our family every day. It took some slight prodding to keep him focused (he was still trying to make faces at Shayna), but he was able to come up with a number of things that Trudy does for us at home, including cooking delicious dinners, keeping the house clean and taking care of him when he is sick.

Gratitude is a concept that can be somewhat difficult for young children. They understand the idea behind saying “thank you” as an acknowledgment of receiving a gift but it’s hard for them to keep those words in mind regarding other tasks that are not necessarily as tangible. Eitan doesn’t see the effort it takes to keep track of his doctors appointments and school functions, for instance, or the coordination that goes into planning his birthday parties, two tasks that Trudy handles masterfully. He doesn’t understand the organizational skills necessary to keep track of countless Carter’s and Children’s Place receipts or the patience it takes to make three hours with two kids under five – including baths, dinner and bedtime routines – run seamlessly. He certainly doesn’t see the way an emotionally and physically drained parent collapses onto the couch in the evening after a day of whining, nursing and the occasional tantrum.

To be clear, I don’t fully understand those things either. I spend most of my days (and, often, my evenings, as well) at my desk or on the subway or in other people’s homes. People aren’t whining at me, demanding that I do things for them or crying if I don’t do them immediately. The difference is that I understand what I don’t understand (sort of). I don’t understand, for instance, how Trudy can prepare dinner, feed the kids, clean the table and kitchen, bathe the kids and have them in bed in the span of an hour and a half. I don’t understand how she can keep shopping lists and birthday parties and school event plans straight without having a breakdown. I certainly don’t understand how Trudy can look at a set of ingredients in a fridge or freezer and turn them into a meal I’d gladly pay for in a restaurant without a recipe.

The most essential aspect of Trudy’s “valor,” though, has very little to do with logistical household tasks. Trudy’s star has always shone brightly, but it changed once Eitan was born and then again even brighter when Shayna came along. It grew stronger, as though Trudy’s evolution into an amazing mother added new layers of warmth and caring, intensifying her ability to love the people around her. She’s not only the primary reason why our children are consistently fed, clothed and as social as they are; she’s also the reason they’re always so happy.

Happy Mother’s Day, Trudy. Thanks for being our family’s eishet chayil.

 

Speaking My Mind

It was just short of a year ago that I wrote a post about keeping my political opinions to myself.  I wrote that I had no interest in publicizing my views of governmental policies or the personalities that were advocating for them, largely because doing so felt like screaming at the wind. It seemed futile to publish articles about foreign policy or health care or education reform because I never felt like my voice would have any effect. I’m only one person, of course, and it is always hard to tell if anyone is listening. I pictured myself publishing a blog post and my words dissipating into the ether of cyberspace, without any response or recognition. Or, if there were recognition, I imagined it manifesting in the form of internet trolls hurling insults at me from the protection of Twitter egg avatars, rather than challenging my argument with an opposing opinion and engaging me in honest discourse. It’s not even that I’m looking for recognition with this blog;1 but if I’m going to write about something as important as the state of our government, I want to be able to make a difference.

The other issue was that I felt disappointed in the political conversations I was watching between actual politicians. I published the post in June 2016, at the end of the presidential primary election schedule. My biggest complaint was that the debates had become “nothing more than candidates throwing insults back and forth at each other while the political issues get pushed to the side… [All] platitudes and sound bites with no substance.” I was looking for leaders to describe their plans for moving our country forward but I was given reality television drama instead.

That brings me to today.

As I was deciding how I wanted to approach my stance to the events that have transpired over the past few months, I realized what has been bothering me the most about our President’s administration. It is not just my vehement disagreement with his choices for cabinet posts, as I outlined in my letter to the President on Inauguration Day. It is not just that I take exception to the blind defense that most Republican members of Congress provide in response to the President’s executive orders that are clear examples of discrimination. It is not even just my anger about the GOP’s celebration of a health care bill whose purpose is to offset tax cuts for the super-rich, rather than provide actual health care to U.S. citizens.

The most concerning and frustrating aspect of the American government since our President took office has been the fact that the supposed leader of the free world does not seem to care about the people he is said to be leading or the institutions of the country of which he is supposed to be in charge.

The President makes open displays of disdain for those he feels are beneath him and speaks negatively about foreign leaders without hesitation.2 Many of the President’s words seem to be uttered without any consideration as to their potential consequences. He appears incapable of admitting that he is mistaken (at best) or that he has lied outright (at worst). His disregard for the weight of his position and the related importance of his comments has shattered any last shred of integrity that might have remained with him.

To put it simply: I don’t trust him.

It is unfortunate, to say the least, that an educated American citizen feels like his Commander-in-Chief cannot be relied upon to accomplish simple administrative tasks. It is also unfortunate that his staff is forced to bend over backwards trying to defend his actions and comments, even if doing so forces them into their own political gaffes. However, neither of these are as depressing as the refusal of Republican members of Congress to deviate from party lines in order to speak out against behavior that is harmful to the American public or, in some cases, borders on treason. Our representatives in government should be held responsible if their actions do not benefit their constituents. If they vote in favor of bills that have a direct connection to negative results for the citizens in their districts, they should not be re-elected. If those in power take action to remove people from office who are investigating potential ties to corruption and foreign interference in our governmental procedures, they should be held accountable.

It is not worth remaining quiet about one’s views in our current political climate simply because the desire for open and honest political discussion is hard to find. It has been people’s complacence and comfort with silence that has led to the mess that has become our government. People need to speak about their ideas, whether the audience is apparent or not. We need to write letters to editors and op-ed pieces, make phone calls to our elected officials and attend rallies and marches in person. If it feels like Washington is not listening to us, we need to speak louder, reminding our representatives and senators that they work for us and not the other way around.

However, and perhaps this is even more important, we also need to listen. While it feels empowering to join with those who feel the same way we do, it is incumbent upon us to engage those who disagree with us so that we can understand their position and become more informed about the circumstances that brought them to their opinions. Such discourse continues to be critical for our nation’s progress because open conversation is the only path toward compromise. Even if we succeed in replacing the politicians who have brought us to this point, a lack of appropriate and mindful follow-up would land us right back at square one in the future. Without it, the population will continue to reinforce the current divide along party lines, resulting in the same white noise that has brought us to where we are today.


1. Which is good, considering the blog’s fairly meager following.

2. And those were our allies!

Featured image courtesy of Mediamodifier.

Awesome Clouds

My eyes scanned the ground as I walked, mapping out each step so that I could avoid the muddy patches near the walkway and the awkward separations between the sections of concrete. It was somewhat slow going; I kept having to pause so that I could pick the blanket up and re-wrap it around Shayna’s body that was huddled against me. I gave her a little smile but she didn’t respond. Her eyes held my gaze for a moment before turning back to the nearby trees swaying with the breeze.

“I know, Shin, I’m sorry,” I said quietly as I tugged the blanket up again and tucked in the corners.1 “I don’t really want to be here either.”

I stayed back behind the gathering, not wanting to disturb anyone if Shayna started to object to being out in the cold. The people kept shuffling in, squeezing together to make room for everyone. The cold began painting faint roses on their faces, some of which still showed the faint streaks of dried tears. I bounced Shayna slightly to keep her quiet and to keep my legs moving, trying to ignore the biting air and the reason we were all outside in the first place.

The rabbi began singing softly. Her voice was pleasant enough, though I found myself holding a grudge against her for making mistakes in her speech earlier in the day. She could have checked on the dates with any number of people, I thought. Of all days, she should have gotten it right today. The song ended and I let out a resigned sigh. The rabbi began speaking but I was too far away to make out the words.

My mind wandered as she spoke, desperate for distraction. The sky was a spectacular shade of blue, like a crayon that ends up getting blunted from overuse because of its appeal. A handful of white cotton candy clouds hung in the air, looking almost happy in contrast to the melancholy ritual taking place below. As I glanced at the names on the nearby headstones, I wondered who the people had been and why there were more small rocks piled on top of some of the graves as opposed to others.

A sudden gust of wind sent a chill through my legs. I turned to shield Shayna from the breeze and adjusted the blanket. Her head kept turning from side to side, as though there were too many things in the world to see and she couldn’t decide where to focus her attention.

“What are you looking at?” I asked quietly. “Is it the trees? The sky? The awesome clouds?”

Shayna turned her head once or twice more. When she finally settled on one direction, I looked up and saw what had finally caught her.

A large bird had taken flight in the distance. It glided back and forth, tracing circles and figure-eights through the air. “That looks like a hawk,” I whispered to Shayna. “He’s probably looking for–”

I stopped short, remembering where I was and for whom. I began to think of him and the moments we had shared together. I pictured us watching our sons play soccer in the courtyard of his apartment and tearing slices of pizza into little pieces for them at Nick’s. I thought of us drinking beer while we played arcade games at our friend’s birthday party and him making fun of me for leaving the party early. I thought of sitting with him at the bar as we watched the Philadelphia Eagles, his second love after his family. I remembered feeling simultaneously amused by his ongoing complaints about his team’s mistakes and embarrassed by his badgering of the waitress because the television showing the game kept cutting out. I thought of the love he felt for his team, which was why his disappointment in their performance was so intense.

Then I thought of his family again. I thought of his wife, who had been one of the first real mom-friends that Trudy had made after Eitan was born. I thought of his son, who is three weeks younger than Eitan, and his daughter, who is a month older than Shayna. I thought of how much being a husband and a father meant to him and how his children seemed to fill him with purpose. I thought of the connection he felt with his football team and how it paled in comparison with the passion he felt for his family.

I looked up again at the bird, still circling among the clouds.

“I changed my mind, Shin,” I whispered again. “That’s not a hawk; it’s an eagle.”

 


1. Shin is the first letter in Shayna’s Hebrew name.

The Force Will Be With You… When You’re Older

Eitan loves Star Wars.

He has masks of Darth Vader and Captain Phasma that he uses when playing dress-up. When Trudy bought him new pairs of pajamas to wear to school for pajama day he chose the Darth Vader set over the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles set.1 He has a pre-reader book of Star Wars stories and loves pointing out Chewbacca, Han “Sola” and the “Stormtrippers.” He starts laughing anytime he sees C-3PO and R2-D2 and, once in a while, I’ll catch him glancing at the Yoda toy sitting on his dresser that he got from my father. When he was a baby, I would throw him up in the air while singing the Star Wars theme song and I would take his echoing toy microphone and say in my deepest voice, “Eitan… I am your father.”2 We recently had to hide his “light-savers” so he wouldn’t use them in the house because things like this kept happening:

 

There’s one little problem with Eitan’s love of Star Wars, though:

He’s never actually seen it.

Eitan hasn’t watched any of the movies. He hasn’t seen any of the television shows. He knows most of the names and characters but I don’t think he would recognize Luke Skywalker if twenty-year-old Mark Hammill walked into the room. I’m actually not even sure he would recognize the name Luke Skywalker because characters like Darth Vader and Chewbacca are marketed so much more frequently.

In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t even think Eitan knows what the Force is.

Most of this is by design, of course. I could have put Star Wars on for Eitan so he could watch it during any number of rainy days. The biggest reason I haven’t done so yet is because I think it would scare him. Chewbacca is a giant teddy bear at heart, but there are a bunch of aliens in the cantina on Tatooine that are not nearly as cuddly. Emperor Palpatine’s eyes and voice are incredibly creepy and Darth Vader… well, Vader is just terrifying. He’s strong, he’s dressed in black, you never see the face behind his mask and he appears to be unstoppable.

Aside from the fear factor is my hesitation about pushing Eitan’s interests in the direction of conflicts that are sometimes quite violent. The light saber fights are exciting and the special effects of the various gun fights are incredible to watch, especially as a child seeing them for the first time. The problem is that weapons, in real life, are incredibly dangerous and are specifically designed to cause harm to others. Even though Eitan has (unfortunately) had some experience with death and is old enough to understand the concept, at least in a basic sense, I worry about the idea of encouraging his interest in a movie so replete with acts of violence.

I should add, for the record, that my unease isn’t limited to Star Wars. I have the same concerns about pushing Eitan to become more interested in super heroes for the same reason. Eitan “likes” Batman and Superman the same way he likes Star Wars; he has some toys, clothes and books, but he doesn’t know too much of the characters’ backgrounds. Even if Eitan is well acquainted with character deaths from Disney movies – Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, take your pick – the idea of him becoming desensitized to shootings and sword fights just doesn’t sit well with me.

I realize that the desensitization is probably inevitable. Kids act out what they see on television and in movies, whether it’s Daniel Tiger learning coping skills, Blaze the Monster Truck speeding past volcanoes to teach fair play or super heroes fighting off bad guys. I suppose my hope is primarily that I can delay Eitan’s interest in guns so that he stays more of an innocent young child in my mind for at least a little longer before the negative influences of the rest of the world really start to creep in.

Look, Eitan will see Star Wars. It’s one of my all time favorite movies and I can’t wait to introduce Eitan to the stories and characters that I’ve loved since I was a child. The movies teach about magic, teamwork and a sense of wonder that I believe are so much more important than any references to violence, which is exactly how I will present the movies to Eitan. He is also finally getting to the age where I can really start sharing my interests with him in ways he can understand. I can tell he is looking forward to it, if only based on his enthusiasm for a movie he’s never seen and doesn’t even really understand. But I would rather wait another year or so, partially so that I can be more confident that the movie won’t scare Eitan too much, but also so that he understands more about the consequences of physical violence and the differences between fact and fiction.

 


1. Eitan made his choice fairly easily, but five-year-old me would have really grappled with that decision. Seven-year-old me would have had an even harder time.

2. I don’t do this anymore now. I’m scared he’s going to have that plot point spoiled for him before I can show him the movie and there’s no way I’m going to be the one to do it.

Dear Mr. President

Dear Mr. President,

I’m going to begin by offering you congratulations on your inauguration today. You may not have won my vote, or even the votes of the majority of U.S. citizens, but you did win the votes you needed to win the election, which is why you’re standing where you are today. As I told my students after the election was over, “Whether you were happy with the results of the election or not, the system worked the way it was supposed to.” And so, I will congratulate you.

I must tell you, though, Mr. President, I am nervous about your upcoming administration.

I am concerned about the people you have appointed to your cabinet posts. Senator Jeff Sessions, whom you have selected as your attorney general, has a political history replete with racist actions and statements; your Secretary of State appointment, Rex Tillerson, has close ties with Russian leader Vladimir Putin; and your nomination for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, not only has no formal experience working in schools, she struggles to understand the basic policies of our education system. I’m not saying that you have to be an expert in these areas or that you should be running these political and economic systems yourself, but your appointments of people to positions who are on record as being biased against the agencies they are about to oversee are, as I said, concerning.

I’m also concerned about the connections between your supporters and acts of violence, acts which seemed to happen fairly frequently during your campaign. I’m willing to acknowledge the possibility that these incidents may not have been quite as prevalent as they seemed because of the publicity they received in the media. That being said, however, I would argue that even one act of violence on your behalf should be deemed deplorable, rather than minimized. It would also be comforting to hear you condemn acts of violence against women, people of color or even just people who disagree with you, rather than simply distancing yourself from those attacks, if you address them at all.

The root of my unease, Mr. President, is that I have difficulty believing that you have the well-being of our nation as your top priority. If my concerns stemmed simply from an inherent difference of political opinion, I would not be happy about your actions and cabinet appointments, but I would accept them. The problem is that every action you have taken, both during your campaign and since the election, has appeared to be self-serving, from maintaining ties to your businesses after being elected to appointing Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy, a position neither of you understood. Even if it is not necessarily the case, it appears to me you are more focused on your own interests than on how you will achieve your goal of making America great again.

Mr. President, you have the most unique of opportunities before you. Today you are becoming our Commander-in-Chief and our representative to the rest of the world. It is a position of great power, to be sure; but, as we learned from Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

If I may be so bold, I would like to give you some advice as you begin your new position. You don’t have to listen to it but I sincerely hope that you will at least consider it. You seem to put so much stock in what other people think of you, taking to Twitter to post angry responses, whether you feel you’ve been slighted by CNN, Saturday Night Live or Meryl Streep. I believe that one of the reasons why many people – including me – have been so outwardly negative about your election victory is that we do not feel like you see yourself as our leader. As I said earlier, your actions seem to indicate you have only your own interests in mind. It appears as though you plan to lead the members of your own socioeconomic group and the rest of us will have to fend for ourselves.

My advice is this: lead all of us. Answer our questions, rather than suppressing the voices that imply that you might be wrong. Explain the rationales behind your actions and support your arguments with facts. Reassure us that you are thinking about the consequences of your comments and that you are listening to advisers who have some political experience as opposed to just your business buddies. Assuage our fears by demonstrating that you’re not just making decisions because “you feel like it.” Be more transparent about your thought process and engage in true political discourse, rather than simply insulting the people who contradict you.

We may not be happy with your policies or your political actions. You still may not get our agreement. But you may get our respect.

Congratulations again, Mr. President.

Sincerely,

Aaron

Religious Education and Spontaneous Combustion

This week I had one of those fantastic moments in class where I blew a student’s mind.

The class was made up of students in sixth and seventh grades. The broader lesson revolved around interfaith relationships and focused particularly on the degree to which we, as Jews, should be educated about other religions. I’m on record with my students as saying that it is not only a good idea to learn about other religions and cultures, it is critical for Judaism’s survival that we learn about the people around us so that we can find ways to coexist peacefully. Judaism has never existed in a vacuum and part of my lesson was imparting the message that we need to understand the beliefs of others in order to maintain healthy relationships with them. It is a matter of keeping the peace and being good neighbors, to be sure; but, for a nation that has been attacked and persecuted as long as it has existed, it is also a matter of survival.

During Tuesday’s class, there was a moment when we were discussing some of the basic distinctions between Judaism and Christianity. I chose to contrast the concept of the Holy Trinity against Judaism’s singular God to drive that point home: not only does Judaism reject the notion that God would appear in human form, the idea that there can be three “versions”1 of God runs directly contrary to the Jewish belief in one God. The students were familiar with Judaism’s stance from reciting the Shema but had some difficulty understanding the Trinity. They asked questions like, “How can God be in three parts but also have each part be God?” Also, “Is one of the parts higher than the others? Like, is the Father the ‘real’ God and then the Son and the Holy Spirit are below him?” And, the more basic, “Are the Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost the same thing?”

I might have considered the class a success at that point, if only because I had engaged the students and pushed them to grapple with foreign and challenging concepts. They were trying and they were taking the material seriously, which is all I usually care about. But then I used an analogy I had heard from my father, a Jewish educator in his own right, to help them along a bit more. I wrote the words “vapor,” “water” and “ice” on the board2 and said, “These are all the same matter, just in different forms. The temperature and the environment affect the way the matter appears but its basic nature never really changes.” The students nodded in agreement.

Then I asked, “Now, of water, vapor and ice, who can tell me which one is the real one?”

A couple students immediately blurted out, “Water!” One of their classmates corrected them and said that they were all real because nothing except their appearance was changing. A moment or two passed as the students kept going back and forth and another student started to ask me how the analogy connected to the Trinity. I started to explain that, just as there is no “real” form of water, vapor or ice, there is no “real” form of God in the Trinity, because God is both made up of the three parts and each one is God on its own. I was about halfway through my explanation when one girl, who had been sitting and listening quietly in the back, suddenly sat straight up in her chair and clapped her hands to the sides of her head.

“Whoa!” she yelled. “I think my brain just exploded!”

I couldn’t help but laugh. Her eyes had gone wide as dinner plates and she began stammering, trying to find the words to articulate what had just happened. She was eventually able to string together a few coherent sentences and some of her classmates began to show similar understanding smiles, though there were no more exclamations.

Those are the moments I strive for. The sudden awakenings of understanding where everything somehow slides into place; the proverbial “light bulb” moments. It sometimes feels like my students are already so jaded that I wonder how much of an impact I’m really having on them. In many ways, these twelve and thirteen-year-olds have seen much more of the world than I had at their age because of their access to the internet, so I have to work harder to grab their attention (the social and political events of the last few months have been quite helpful in that regard). When those moments do come, though, whether they lead to smiles or laughter or gray matter getting metaphorically splattered around the room, I feel like my effort has been validated. Not only are my students learning, they are enjoying the process, which means I’m doing my job right.


1. I put “versions” in quotation marks because it’s a difficult concept to explain. As I understand it, the three beings combine to make up God, while God is also simultaneously fully present in each of them. So we’ll go with “versions” and accept that it’s a difficult concept to explain. (Thanks again, Sam, for help with the phrasing.)

2. Technically, first I wrote “steam” and then changed it to vapor when one of my students informed me that steam and water vapor are two different things. It was just one more instance of me learning as much from my students as they learn from me.

The Long and Short of Greed and Anger

I watched The Big Short last weekend, the 2015 Oscar-nominated movie about four men who saw the housing market crash of 2008 coming. Here’s a very quick summary, just in case you either haven’t seen the movie1 or weren’t paying full attention nine years ago when all this was actually happening (like me): basically, big banks began selling bonds made up of mortgages that weren’t nearly as strong as the banks said they were, so when the bonds matured, the money that was supposed to be there wasn’t. People hadn’t been paying their mortgages, which meant that the banks didn’t have the cash that they said or thought they did, which then meant that the banks couldn’t pay people’s loans or their employees’ salaries. Millions of people, both in the banking sector and in other walks of life, lost their jobs and their homes and it’s only been in the last few years that the housing market has really begun to recover.

The key, though, is that the whole mess was essentially created by bank executives who saw opportunities to make money off of people’s lack of knowledge, lack of interest and, most importantly, their lack of patience to actually research what they were buying. Without getting too much into specifics, the banks kept taking on loans that had no backing and, as with any system based on falsified practices, the foundation eventually fell out from under them and everything crashed. And, while “common” citizens were floundering trying to find new jobs so they could stay afloat and avoid going into terrible debt, the bank executives received bailouts from the government – paid for, by the way, by those same “common” citizens’ tax dollars – to keep their banks open and fix the mess they had made (more about this in a second).

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I wasn’t affected too severely by the market crash. My wife and I probably paid more for our apartment than we would have even six months or a year later, but that’s probably the most significant influence.2 We were able to make all of our mortgage payments through the eight years that we lived in our apartment. Neither of us lost our jobs and, probably because we were very young and didn’t know any differently, we didn’t think too much about what was happening around us.

But there I was, watching the movie the other night, seeing old news clips of people in tears leaving their offices with their belongings in cardboard boxes. I saw photographs of unemployment lines and tent cities. I saw parents trying to reassure their children that there would be food for dinner. And then I saw references to 2008 headlines about bank and insurance company executives receiving billions of dollars in bailout money from the government and using significant portions of it for lavish parties and personal bonuses, rather than trying to fix the economic crisis.

And I got angry.

I got angry at the bankers who willfully sold products that were doomed to fail. I got angry at the lawyers and accountants whose language was so esoteric and intentionally unintelligible so that people were driven to simply sign on the dotted line rather than give themselves migraines trying to understand the details of their contracts. I got angry at the executives for not only tolerating such behavior, but encouraging it because of the extent to which their bank accounts would be padded. I even got angry at the homeowners who stopped paying their mortgages. I’m sure that many of them did so for good reason because of job loss or other unforeseen circumstances, but that just made me angry at the banks again for not realizing the problems and addressing it immediately, rather than putting lipstick on a pig and bundling those underwater mortgages together in order to sell them under a different name.

Most of all, I got angry at everyone who either ignored their conscience or didn’t seem to have one to begin with while they were complicit in creating a fraudulent system that caused so much pain to so many people.

I don’t mean to sound naive. I know that greed is real and that there are always going to be people who will look to take advantage of others in order to move ahead. I know that hubris and arrogance are always going to rear their ugly heads at some point or another. I know that people are animals at their cores, which means that they are usually going to act in ways that promote their own best interests as opposed to limiting their potential for personal benefit after considering the impact of their behavior on others. I even know that it’s specifically because of those primal instincts that the responsibility gets placed on the rest of us to be upstanders, rather than bystanders,3 in order to pursue justice.

That is probably where the root of my anger lies. It’s a mix of disappointment in one group of people for their actions and frustration with another group of people for not speaking up about it.

The question, of course, is, “So what?” The Big Short chronicles events that happened almost a decade ago, so there isn’t much for me (or any of us) to do about the past. But there is something we can do about the future. We can pay closer attention to the influence that big banks, pharmaceutical companies and other corporations have on our government. We can contact our elected officials to make our voices heard so that they understand the motivations of their constituents. We can criticize the media’s coverage of certain issues over others and draw more attention to events that are important to us. We can be more aware of politicians’ attempts to pack so much activity into one day that we lose track of their actions, just as the aforementioned housing and banking lawyers used legalese and financial jargon to confuse and overwhelm unsuspecting clients, not to mention competing institutions.

The housing crisis and the Great Recession may be over for most of the United States but that doesn’t mean we can afford to get complacent. Our President-elect may not end up having quite as much power as he thinks he will after being inaugurated, but his greatest weapon as the leader of our nation will not lie in his Constitution-granted executive abilities, his partnership with a Republican Congress or his Twitter account.

His most powerful weapon will be capitalizing on the apathy and ignorance of the American people.


1. You should.

2. That, plus the fact that we were part of that first government stimulus package that gave homebuyers a grant that would need to be paid back a year at a time later on, as opposed to the later stimulus packages that included grants that did not have to be paid back at all.

3. There’s that Facing History language again.