Am I Prejudice By Design?*

My parents were raised in a Chicago Slovak neighborhood, in a city of ethnic neighborhoods. They lived in a place where you could converse in Slovak, shop in Slovak stores, and attend a Slovak Catholic Church. Adjacent to the Slovak neighborhood was a Polish neighborhood where similar services were available but in Polish instead of Slovak. These countries touch each other on the European continent but are separated by state borders. Similarly, old Chicago neighborhoods touched each other but were separated by cultural borders. People were expected to marry someone from their religion and cultural background, which is precisely what my parents did.

During the first half of the last century, women were told that they were incompetent to hold positions of importance. Nevertheless, women performed a vital role during WWII by working in responsible positions. The war would not have been won without their efforts. However, after the war was over, they were expected to adopt their prior limited roles. 

During World War II, propaganda was used to unite US citizens. One method of propaganda was to create grotesque caricatures of our enemies. Especially notable were those of the Japanese where the physical differences between Asians are whites were so exaggerated that the Japanese looked more monster than human. 

I was raised in a neighborhood that was mostly blue-collar, mostly Catholic, and completely white. When I was a child in the 1960s, there was a great fear of blacks. A fear justified by stories of violence and immorality. We were led to believe that the integration of our neighborhoods would result in them becoming ghettos. This fear played out in the high school that I attended, which was ripe with racial conflict and violence. That violence was a product of our fear, but we were led to believe that it was proof of our false conjectures. 

Unlike my parents, my generation melted more into the American fabric. My wife is Swedish and was raised in a Protestant tradition. My siblings married spouses who were Irish, German, and Polish, respectively. Our parents believed that it was necessary to marry their kind. However, my generation found that “our kind” had more to do with values rather than ethnic heritage. 

My colleague Glenn was a Psychiatry resident whom I trained with during the 1980s. He attended a prominent pharmacy school in Iowa before he decided to seek a career in medicine. He told me of an experience that he had with a college roommate. One day his roommate asked Glen a favor, “I never met a real Jew before, can I see your horns?” His roommate was completely serious.  

While attending medical school at Northwestern, I became friends with a kind and thoughtful fellow student named Todd. We never talked about religion, that is until one day. On that day, this smart and kind man told me in earnest that he knew that the Pope had a massive arsenal of weapons hidden in the basement of the Vatican. “Someday, the Pope will give a secret signal, and all Catholics will rise up and attempt to take over the country,” he told me sincerely. I was glad that I did not tell him that I was Catholic.

My friend Tom, who grew up in Poland, said that homosexuals were hated and rejected there. He was taught that the gay agenda was to convert straight children into a gay orientation. As a child, he had a genuine fear of this group based on this lie.

Our highest officials tell us that all Muslims are terrorists and should not be given the same rights and privileges as others in our society.

I am writing this post from Starbucks, where I have a direct view of the street. Outside I see a Hispanic woman wearing a safety vest and wielding a leaf blower. She is working purposefully as she cleans the sidewalk that I will be walking on in a few minutes. I am told that the people of her race are lazy, drunken criminals. It does not appear that she got that memo.

What is the common link between all of these diverse groups? The common link is that in some minor way, they are different from the group in power and that these differences are enough for denial of their human rights.

In nature, other organisms exhibit destruction based on differences. Advanced species like chimps wage war on other chimps, as do lesser species like meerkats. Ants and bees, destroy insects from other colonies. Lions, bears, and even horses kill the offspring of other males. 

Plants, including walnut and pine trees, secrete agents that prevent competitors from growing near them. Other plants go a step further by secreting chemicals that directly attack the roots of living neighbors, killing them.

Some researchers feel that the distrust of others has a genetic component. However, others believe that distrust is entirely a learned phenomenon. I am in the first camp, as the traits of trust and distrust would seem critical for the survival of early humans. If primitive humans had an inherent mistrust of individuals who were different from them, it could provide a survival benefit.

Let me digress. Have you ever fallen in love? Think back to one of your high school crushes. The object of your affection could likely do no wrong. Their flaws were minimized, and their strengths were magnified. You probably had an intense interest in their behaviors and a strong desire to connect with them. Most adolescent crushes last from weeks to months. Most “post crush” individuals wonder why the former object of their affection has suddenly developed clay feet.

A chemical storm in your brain causes a crush that clouds your judgment and artificially emotionally connect you to your love interest. Why would your brain play such a trick on you? Stated, this emotional closeness can lead to physical closeness. In other words, your brain is setting the stage for you to procreate. Humans prize their intellectual capabilities, but many of our actions are based on primitive instinctual drives.

It can be assumed that during our early evolution, resources were scarce, and mortality was high. Having a more significant piece of the resource pie would ensure a higher rate of survival, and one way to have more pie for yourself is to take someone else’s piece. This presents a problem. We are social animals who are more successful when we work in groups. Therefore, if our only drive was to selfishly secure resources for ourselves,  we would lose the significant benefit of working with others. Thankfully, we have other inherent characteristics that balance this drive, including empathy, compassion, and a desire to connect. It is fashionable to think that these characteristics are taught, but in reality, they are baked into us. However, they can be strengthened by teaching. Our connecting forces balance our self-serving forces. This yin and yang combination has enhanced our ability to expand our species and thrive. 

Although Homo Sapiens have been on this planet for around 200,000 years, our modern societies have only existed for 6000 years. Complex societies present their own problems and require additional solutions. As thinking creatures, we have developed social norms and established laws. Mechanisms from etiquette to governmental rule help humans work together in harmony.

In a perfect world, our innate drives combined with external forces (such as laws) would give us a utopian-like existence. However, we do not live in a perfect world. It is all too easy to channel suspicious feelings to others whom we perceive as different. The more significant that difference, the easier the alienation. Color of skin, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, and physical characteristics are just a few of the ways that we can separate ourselves from others. However, in modern society, it is challenging to denigrate someone on such facts. Instead, negative attributes are added to justify our emotional feelings. This group is lazy, that group is dirty, etc. 

Individuals and groups have intuitively used our fear of “different” in weaponized ways for millennia, and their manipulations have resulted in societies accepting and even celebrating tragedies from wars to mass genocide. Sadly, it is easy to see these weaponized forms of hate being applied in our present day.

This condemnation of particular groups can be partial or complete. During World War II, propaganda against the Japanese was so successful that little was said when Japanese Americans had their property seized and were locked up in camps. 

Partial condemnation allows an individual to continue to serve society while their rights are restricted. Blacks were allowed to do manual labor, cook, and care for our children, but were denied all human rights. Women were allowed to raise families, but were not considered equal to their spouses. 

Such actions keep power in the dominant group, but at a high cost to both the dominated and domineering. Increasing a pool of talented individuals allows for more meaningful and more varied solutions, as well as higher productivity. For instance, the US became an intellectual power when working classes were allowed to gain a higher education via the GI Bill. A whole country is a healthy country. 

Why is it that we continue to experience prejudice and the denial of human rights, and why do these behaviors seem to be on the rise? These actions give the group in power short-term gain. Unfortunately, we are in a time when it appears that leaders are more interested in what they can get in the next few years rather than what would benefit all (including their offspring) over time. As our society becomes further fractionated into very rich and very poor groups, it becomes easier for those on top to identify those on the bottom as being different, and not as worthy. Extreme wealth provides a second set of rules making some wealthy people feel that they are not only above the law but also above any consequences,

The solution to the above problem is disarmingly simple but extraordinarily difficult to implement. Groups that are determined to be different need to be accepted as similar.  

When connected with marginalized groups, most people tend to see more similarities than differences. However, forced clumsy immersions can have the effect of worsening discrimination rather than helping to heal. Our leaders need to model a behavior of tolerance, and our laws need to reflect true equality. We need to see positive models of different types of people in media, social media, and in our daily lives. Traditional ethical bearers, such as religious leaders, need to emphasize acceptance of all as a central core of their teaching. Intolerant behavior needs to be squarely addressed. Hypocrisy must be met with truth in equal force. 

One of the most powerful influencers of our basic drives is social modeling. Therefore, our society must demonstrate the full acceptance of individuals who may be perceived as different. Our current model rewards people who commit criminal acts while demonizing non-conformers who live ethical lives. This must change.

Groups in the majority fear loss. Loss of power, loss of prestige, and loss of influence. However, the healthiest societies are those that maximize the talents and skills of all of their unique members.

As humans, we have to accept our primitive beginnings, but also aspire to be higher than what those traits drive us to do. 

*This post represents my personal opinion.

Dad’s Super Secret Recipe Vault

It all started when my wife, Julie, returned to the paid workforce. My kids had been used to home-cooked meals, but her lack of time had them dining on fast food, delivery pizza, and frozen entrees. I thought I could kill two birds with one stone by starting a family cooking day that I labeled, “Cooking With Dad Thursday.” My goal was to provide my kids with more than a meal, I wanted to teach them how to cook and have them experience the fellowship of sharing a group-made meal.

The task was multi-faceted. We would plan, shop, cook, and clean up together. Each cooking Thursday culminated with a Facebook post where I would upload a photo of the plated and completed meal. Naturally, I tried to present our dishes in their most favorable light on Facebook. I would always ask my kids, “Reality or Facebook reality?” when I posted the photo in an attempt to emphasize that most things that you see on Facebook are highly curated. Another effect of posting the picture surprised me; friends started to post pictures of their homemade meals. Also, “Cooking With Dad Thursday,” spawned a mini-movement of others preparing real food from scratch.

I grew up eating great food. My mother magically threw things together in the most delicious ways. She didn’t teach us how to cook, but she did write down some of her recipes in a ledger style notebook, which was passed to my brother when she died. Her musings provided her with the information that she needed to remember a recipe but they were incomprehensible to anyone else.

Most of the “Cooking With Dad Thursday” recipes originated from conventional sources. Standard cookbooks like “The Betty Crocker Cookbook,” and “The Better Homes and Garden Cookbook” provided some inspiration, but most of my recipes were procured and printed off of the internet. I have always felt comfortable cooking, as the process is a form of practical chemistry. I have been making meals for decades and can interpret a list of ingredients quickly. Most of the recipes that I selected had to conform to the tastes of my kids and also be essential enough to teach a particular cooking technique. 

Many of the dishes were well-liked by my children and warranted saving, but where? The answer came early in the form of an old and somewhat beaten up school folder from my son William’s elementary days. Its bright orange color made sure that we wouldn’t lose it; all that it needed was a little updating. With a black marker, I scratched out Will’s name on its front, and in a bold and sloppy script, I wrote “Dad’s Super Secret Recipe Vault.” The folder was neither super-secret or a vault, but reality should never stand in the way of a creative process. During any Thursday meal, I would ask the kids, “Is this dish worthy of saving in the vault?” If the answer was yes, I would toss it in the folder. One checkmark indicating pretty good and two checkmarks noting that the dish was excellent. 

Nowadays, my kids can make anything from a savory lasagna to 6 loaves of 100% whole wheat bread. However, they are in college and beyond, causing “Cooking With Dad Thursday” to become a school break activity.

When a door closes, a window opens. With our new empty nest status, Julie and I had to negotiate who would be the meal preparer. In an egalitarian fashion, we decided to split the duty. I’m now the Sunday chief, and so “Cooking With Day Thursday” has evolved into “Simple Sunday Supper.” Julie is a more adventurous eater than the kids, and so I can revisit the culinary memories of my past, including soups, stews, and casseroles. However, she has banned peas from the list of acceptable ingredients. 

My new routine often starts with an internet search for a potential meal candidate. Once printed, I check our larder to see what we have in stock. I’ll highlight any needed purchases directly on the recipe, fold it, and stick it in my pocket to serve as a shopping list. I dislike large stores, and so I’m fortunate to have a little grocer called “Fresh Thyme” just a few blocks away. Although limited in selection, they have all of the basics plus a good meat counter and an excellent fruit and vegetable section. It is a short and easy trip for me to buy any needed ingredients, and the store’s limited selection prevents me from overbuying.

I have also taken over the weekly house cleaning, which I do on Sundays. It is a bit of a balancing act when it comes to time management. However, I’m getting good a juggling these tasks and cooking is hardly a hardship. 

Yesterday I made Italian sausage and lentil soup garnished with a little sour cream and served with chewy ciabatta bread. Total cooking time in my Instant Pot was 25 minutes, and it was the perfect dish for a frigid fall night. Julie gave me a thumbs up on dinner, and so I marked the recipe with two checkmarks. Where did I save it? In “Dad’s Super Secret Recipe Vault,” of course!

The folder is now over two inches thick. It has been loosely divided into categories such as “stovetop,” “oven,” and “Instant Pot.” In that old and now worn-out folder resides years of recipes and memories. It may not have the charm of my mother’s handwritten cookbook, but it is wholly legible and clear. I hope that someday one of my kids will want the collection, and perhaps they will teach their children using some of the recipes that we so lovingly made. The vault may serve as a new tradition as well as a vehicle for my kids to tell their kids about their crazy dad and the food adventures that were spent together.

Traditions don’t have been elaborate, they just have to be. What traditions do you have? 

The old repurposed orange folder.
The vault is over two inches thick representing many dozens of cooking adventures.
I usually post an ingredient shot. Why? Because I think it looks nice.
Last Sunday’s meal. An Italian sausage, lentil soup with chewy ciabatta bread.

Halloween, And First Snow

I heard the weather report on Tuesday. It would snow on Wednesday and Thursday. Not just a little dusting of snow, but 4-6 inches. I felt my heart sink. Thursday was Halloween, and it would be cold and snowing.

I always thought of Halloween as a fun holiday. A day to dress up, be creative, and a bit silly. 

My involvement with the day has changed over the years. When I was single, I often worked late, so I was one of those houses where a doorbell ring yielded little for an expectant trick-or-treater. When Julie entered my life, either one or both of us were at home to pass out candy. Early on, we established the tradition of eating Chinese carry-out on Halloween. A habit that started out of chance, but is now has become an expected event.

The introduction of children to our family brought new traditions. I would carve pumpkins to the specific instructions from my kids, and Julie and I would help them realize their costume visions. One year Julie blew up dozens of purple balloons to turn Grace into a bunch of grapes, and I remember spending many evenings perfecting a costume for William that transformed him into a living Lego block. 

Julie would pull a kitchen chair into the front hall so she could be close to the door to pass out candy. She especially liked seeing the little kids dressed up, so excited and fresh. I would walk with our kids, protecting them from imaginary danger. My reward was their company. 

Our Halloween decorating was simple, a few candlelit pumpkins on the front stoop, and a giant blow-up pumpkin on the front lawn that I had purchased from the Dollar Tree. That monstrosity graced our home for at least a decade, although its internal lights ceased operation after the first 5 years of service.

As my kids aged their trick-or-treating became more independent, then stopped altogether. However, I could vicariously remember those pleasant days by passing out candy to the next generation of young candy seekers.

However, this year, Halloween was predicted to be very snowy and very cold. Even if the kids did come out, they would be sealed in coats and hats hiding their costumes and blunting their wonderment. With all of our kids out of the house, this functional cancelation of Halloween felt especially harsh. It was another life-change to deal with.

I discovered that it snowed more Wednesday night when I got up for my morning walk at 4 AM on Thursday. I have a morning routine set on my Google Nest smart speaker, which includes the weather. Bitter cold and more snow were the agenda. I cleaned up, got dressed, drank coffee, and prepared myself to face the snow and cold. 

I stepped out of the front door, and I was met with a winter wonderland. The air was still and calm, and a thick carpet of snow lay on the ground. The trees had not yet shed their fall leaves, and these appendages served as landing pads for snowflakes that transformed them into glistening ornaments. 

The snow had served as sound insulation, adding to the stillness of the morning and making my walk even more meditative. I felt a sense of peace and a feeling of calm as I traversed the distance between my house and the Starbucks on Chicago Avenue.

Julie had decided to lighten her workday, so she would be home for the bulk of the trick-or-treaters. At 4 PM, I was ready for our transient guests with bucketfuls of candy that were placed in a massive orange bowl. Eventually, Julie came home, and we ordered Chinese food from Grub Hub; Pot Stickers, Brocolli Chicken, Spicy Tofu… enough food for the night and lunch the next day. 

We decided to start another tradition and streamed a horror movie. Our first watch was “Aliens,” a movie new to Julie, but one that terrified me so much the first time that I saw it in 1986 that I checked the back seat of my Nissan Sentra when I left the theater. This time around, it was less frightening; muted by time and the much smaller screen of our family room TV.

Halloween concluded with only three groups of trick-or-treaters (less than 20 kids) gracing our doors. Yet, the day was a success.

Dear readers, as you know by now, I look at every event and experience as a potential tool for learning. I had an expectation of what Halloween was supposed to be, but the weather dashed that dream. However, Mother Nature didn’t take away, it gave. My morning walk was quiet, beautiful, and serene. Yes, there was a lack of trick-or-treaters, but that allowed us to start the new tradition of watching a scary movie. The day was different but no less pleasant or special.

I wanted to pass out candy as a way to revisit the time when my children were young, naive, and full of expectation. That didn’t happen, but instead, I was given new experiences combined with some of our old traditions. My Halloween symbolized my current life, build on the foundation of the past, but changing in an unknown way. My current life direction is not that different from the expectations of my children in the past. I, too, await with excitement to see what tricks or treats will be placed in the bag that I call my life. 

Snow on the autumn leaves made them look like glistening ornaments.
The carpet of snow dampened the sound and made my walk quiet and meditative.
Downtown Naperville as I walk towards Starbucks.
Even my back yard looked like a winter wonderland.