Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Half-Life of Grief

Yesterday was the 21st anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The event that we here in Central New York remember as killing "35 Syracuse University students, and a couple from Clay." But as we've reached the point now where there are students at SU who weren't even born when Flight 103 went down, I've come to wonder about the "half-life of grief." How long do we feel that we have to remember? When will we finally be allowed to forget, without seeming to be disrespectful to those who were killed? When will we finally be allowed to no longer define ourselves by one terrible day, and to finally let it become history?

As I’ve thought about our “one terrible day,” I thought about Kent OH and Bath MI, and how they’ve handled their respective memories through the years.

I was in 8th grade on May 4, 1970, and I can't hear the names "Kent State" or "Kent OH" without thinking of that "one terrible day," and the famous picture that was on the front of every newspaper. But almost 40 years later, how many people are still on campus, or in town for that matter, who were there and still remember? Any faculty or staff members have long since retired or died, most students have long since moved away, and I wonder how much of the town itself has "turned over" since then. In addition, not only did the events of May 1970 happen long before any of the current students were born, it's getting close to happening before the parents of those students were born.

How are Kent and the University handling the memory now? Are they are still actively trying to keep it alive, or are they letting it take its natural course of fading - much like the memories of students killed during WWI, WWII, Korea, and even Vietnam. At some point the memories have to fade. We can't remember and hold onto every tragedy. It's not good for us...or those we remember.

Which brings us to Bath MI. I had never heard of it until the random Wikipedia "article of the day" brought up a piece about the Bath School Disaster of 1927. Then I got to thinking of how the people in this town have handled things in the 80-odd years since. Are they still actively "honoring the memory" of their "one terrible day," or are they trying to get past it?

I wrote to people in both towns, and only heard from Bath. I guess it really does pay to "ask a librarian," because that's exactly who I asked.

The response was that Bath does not want to be solely identified by that tragedy, and tries to play it down. There is a memorial in town, but no big formal observances. The youngest victims would’ve been 89 years old this year, and the remaining four or five people in town who still remember steadfastly refuse to be interviewed about it, and want to be left alone. It is history, and they wish it to be left as such.

At some point the memory of our "one terrible day" will fade, except for a few people still directly affected by it, and a few historians. It has to. It will become a historical footnote much like the Split Rock explosion - something that happened here, but doesn't define us. At some point it will have happened before the parents of the incoming class of SU students were born.

Hmm...maybe you remember every year for the first 10 years. Then every five until you get to 30, and every ten until you get to 50. At that point, most people with any ties to it will have been long gone anyway. Then you have one last observance at 100 years, and you put it to bed. Maybe that's what the half-life of grief is.

The time when the parents of the incoming class will have been born after our "one terrible day" will be around 2032, just six years short of the 50-year mark, and I'll be 76 then. I hope I'm still around to see the day.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Good Grief! It's the Holiday Season.

Well, Charlie Brown, Thanksgiving has come and gone, and we're now into the holiday season again.

"Oh, good grief!" I can hear both you and Linus saying. You're thinking that it's bad enough that Christmas has become as commercialized as it is (which is even more than it was when you first brought it to our attention back in 1965), but now I've made things worse by wimping out and using the politically correct, all-inclusive phrase "holiday season," when everyone knows we're really talking about Christmas.

Well, Chuck (May I call you "Chuck?" Peppermint Patty seems to be about the only other person who does.), I used to feel that way too. I used to get about as crabby as Lucy is on a daily basis when I thought about how much people have commercialized, trivialized and watered down my religious holiday - while all the time never refusing a gift from anyone.

Then I did a little reading and found out something interesting. You see, despite all the signs we see to the contrary, Jesus is not the reason for the season. I know, you're thinking I'm nuts here, but hold on a second and I'll explain.

Long before anyone was celebrating Christmas, there already was a pretty established December holiday season in the Roman Empire, and it entailed a lot of the trappings (and the excesses) of the current secular celebration of Christmas. When the church finally decided to make Christmas an official holiday, they picked a time when everyone was already celebrating - Dec. 25.

I guess they figured that by putting the religious holiday in the middle of all the other celebrations, it would tone things down a bit. What happened instead was that Christmas picked up all the trappings and excesses of the other celebrations. It was sort of like trying to celebrate Easter on the 4th of July.

And this 800-pound-gorilla of a December holiday season has been sucking up everything in its path for centuries, including, ironically enough, Hanukkah, which started off as a holiday celebrating the success of the ancient Jews in resisting forced assimilation.

So we sort of did it to ourselves by deciding to put Christmas where we did. Had we put it in the middle of the year with no other general celebrations anywhere near it, we'd still have a rowdy, commercialized end-of-the-year celebration, but we'd also have a quiet Christmas that attracts about as much outside attention as Pentecost.

Linus is nodding his head. I think he understands what I'm saying.

So the peace I've made with the whole thing is that there is a December holiday season that includes Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Divali, Beethoven's birthday (I had to say that for Schroeder), New Years and who knows what all else. I've also decided that there are two distinct celebrations that happen to fall on Dec. 25, one secular and one religious. I celebrate them both, and have been able to lighten up about it, no longer getting into a snit about people who only celebrate the secular one or people who ignore the "true meaning" of the holiday.

So, Charlie Brown, I'll wish everyone a "happy holiday season" without feeling that I'm wimping out, or being blandly politically correct, knowing that in today's diverse culture I'll I get someone's holiday in there no matter what they do or don't celebrate. But to you and Linus I'll make a special point of saying "Merry Christmas!"

First published in the Syracuse Post-Standard on November 25, 2001

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Small Town

When I tell people up here in Central New York that I’m from a small town of about 77,000 people, they just look at me funny. There’s no way that 77,000 people is a small town. Fabius, with only 1974 people, is a small town. East Orange is not.

But you have to consider where East Orange is. In addition to telling people that I’m from a small town, I also tell them that I grew up 20 minutes from New York City – at 2.00 in the morning, when there’s no traffic. Compared to Newark with 281,000 people, Jersey City with 242,000, Elizabeth with 124,000, and of course the 8 million people across the river in NYC, East Orange was a small town.

Then there’s size. Neighboring Newark was 26 square miles. Nearby West Orange was 12, and Montclair was 6. East Orange was barely 4 square miles. I could walk it from end to end in less than an hour, and since I was usually on a bike, it took even less time. While it’s true that you could fit the entire population of Fabius into my old high school, the town itself is a whopping 47 square miles. So who’s from a small town?

Obviously, my perception of East Orange as being a small town was based on its size, but there’s something else. My father grew up in East Orange, and I went to the same grade school and high school that my father went to. I just barely missed having some of his teachers as my teachers, but I did have kids he grew up with as teachers. I also went to school with the children of kids he grew up with. Kids he grew up with were police officers and firemen. Not only that, by my grandmother was a beautician, and it seemed like between her and the other three “operators” in her shop, they knew everyone else in town.

With all these people knowing my family, and knowing who I was, if I got in trouble on one side of town, the news got home before I did. But it wasn’t just a case of these people waiting to report on my misbehavior, they were also there to help if I needed it.

Isn’t that what a small town is all about? Isn’t it about the librarians knowing you by name, or the teacher who lives across the street from you giving you a ride to school every morning? Isn’t it about the local pharmacist calling your father to report that he almost ran into you as you were riding your bike, and then taking the time to talk to you about it himself when you went in to buy candy? Isn’t it about the school nurse saying that your grandmother left in the middle of doing her hair when your mother went into labor, and the guidance counselor being one of her bridge playing partners?

Isn’t it about being able to run into people you know when you went grocery shopping, no matter whether you were at the Acme around the corner, King’s or ShopRite on Main St, or Good Deal across town on Central Ave?

If this is what a small town is all about, then isn’t East Orange, with its 77,000 people every bit as much of a small town as Fabius with its 1974?

If it is, and I believe it is, then I am from a small town.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day

On the way back from the 6th grade class trip, I saw our bus driver’s reflection in the rearview mirror, and in that reflection, I saw the word on his hat: Vietnam. This got me thinking about how horribly many people treated the soldiers returning from over there 30-odd years ago. It also got me thinking about why they treated them so horribly.

Vietnam was a different kind of war from anything that the American general public was used to. Our reasons for fighting World War I and World War II seemed very clear to most people. In addition, the people we were fighting tended to fight according to the “European” rules of engagement that we were used to. Both sides understood that it was about taking out the ball bearing plant, or the refinery, or all the bridges across a certain river so that the other side couldn’t fight anymore. Despite the fact that there was always collateral damage, the battles and the bombings were generally always about the people in uniforms and the supply lines to them. Both sides understood the difference between combatants and civilians. Both sides had a minimum age for combatants, and would never send a child into battle.

And when our soldiers came back from those two wars, they were treated like heroes.

Vietnam was much less clear. Not only was the average person not really sure what we were doing there, but we were fighting an enemy that didn’t follow our rules of engagement. When that last ball bearing plant, refinery, or bridge had been destroyed, they would send children, people we would consider innocent noncombatants, in to attack us, or use them as decoys.

But that could only happen so many times before we caught on, and regretfully changed our rules of engagement to match theirs. Not that we’d send our children into battle, but we would shoot at theirs. And not fully understanding what the other side was doing, many of us at home naively referred to our soldiers serving over there as “baby killers.” Unlike the heroic return we gave to our soldiers from WWI and WWII, we treated our soldiers from Vietnam like pariahs. They were so often spat at by people that many of them refused to wear their uniforms in public.

It’s been almost 30 years now, and I’d like to think that we’ve all grown up. I’d like to think that we understand just what a complicated situation Vietnam was. I’d like to think that we understand just what hellish conditions our soldiers over there often worked under, and that they weren’t happy about having to shoot at children carrying bombs.

The fact that our driver, and many others, could wear a hat that said “Vietnam” in public, shows that things have indeed changed, and that we quietly recognize them as heroes, even though they never got their parade.

I’d like to say that I stopped to thank our driver, not for the ride, but for serving, but I didn’t think about that until much later. But the next time I see someone with one of those hats on, I will.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Skeletons in the Closet

Halloween is coming up, and it’s time to talk about skeletons. No, not the kind that hang out with the ghosts, witches, and goblins, scaring little kids. I’m talking about the kind that are hiding in your closet, scaring you and threatening to ruin your career.

Everybody’s talking these days about how thanks to the Internet, people can dig up some of our deepest, darkest secrets and use them against us. Indeed, colleges and potential employers have been known to check out the Facebook and MySpace profiles of potential students or employees before making them offers, with the result that that one drunken picture of you holding up your middle finger to the camera could cost you a job offer.

In addition, “intimate” photographs that were meant only to be shared between you and a significant other can end up posted to the Internet to embarrass you after a breakup or by a roommate who had access to your significant other’s computer and wanted to have a little “fun.”

The snarky comment you posted online about wanting to “stick it to the man” back when you were in high school can come back to haunt you when the company you work for 10 years later has an important government contract, and you’re denied security clearance.

But I think this is just a fad. I hope this is just a fad. And this fad comes from our newly-found ability to dredge up stuff on people that was there all along, but that we just weren’t able to find before.

Let’s face it, we all have skeletons in our closets. We all said or did stupid things in high school or college that we wouldn’t want held against us now, and that we’re thankful that no one had the technology to find out about. Even the people who are doing the dredging have skeletons, which would make you think that they’d be a little more sensitive about it.

And what about those “intimate” pictures? As recently as 10 years ago a lot of those photographs wouldn’t have existed to be passed around by hand, let alone posted to the Internet. That’s because Kodak, or whoever the processor was, served as a filter. You could take all the intimate photos you wanted of someone, but unless you knew how to develop film yourself, you very likely wouldn’t ever get prints back of them. Sure, you could use a Polaroid to get “instant prints” that didn’t need to go out to be processed, but then you couldn’t get copies.

Then came the digital camera, and you could take pictures of anyone wearing (or not wearing) anything, and doing anything, without having to send them out to be processed. Now there was nothing to prevent you from taking a “funny” picture of your roommate on the toilet, and emailing it to 30 of your “closest friends.” And there was nothing to prevent one of those “friends” from posting the picture to the Internet, where millions of other people, including potential colleges and employers, could see it.

Once again, I’m hoping this is all just a fad. I’m hoping that once we realize that we all have skeletons in our closets, and that we all know stupid people with digital cameras, the novelty of being able to find those skeletons will wear off. I’m hoping that once we realize that we all have skeletons in our closets, one drunken or naked (or drunken naked) photograph won’t sabotage a career.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Paperless Classroom

There’s been a lot of talk about the paperless classroom. There’s been talk about it ever since the beginning of the personal computer era. And now that we’ve got ecological concerns, we’re hearing more and more about the paperless classroom, and paperless assignments. Be “green,” don’t give your students individual handouts anymore, put them online, where they can’t lose them, and can always refer to them (provided the connection is up and running).

But there are a few problems with this scenario. Aside from the obvious courses like art and music where it’s still pretty hard to be paperless at this point, there are problems. There are questions.

The first is whether going paperless really helps the environment at all, or just pushes the problem somewhere else in the system. On the one hand, we think of all the paper saved, and all the trees not cut down. That has to be better for the environment. But I’ve known a Forestry student or two (“Stumpies” we called them around here), and I know that for things like paper and Christmas trees, trees are treated like crops, and are planted and harvested systematically for those purposes. It’s not like they’re hacking down the Black Forest to make printer paper. If we’re going to worry about the environmental effects of planting and harvesting wood for paper, then shouldn’t we start worrying about the environmental effects of planting and harvesting corn, wheat, potatoes, etc.

Related to this is the issue of whether or not going paperless solves a problem or just pushes it somewhere else in the system. What does it take to build all those computers and to create the infrastructure that allows them to send documents all over the world paperlessly? What are the environmental effects of producing all those batteries and other electronic components?

The second question is whether or not going paperless really helps the student and the teacher. The answer to this is a definite “sometimes.” On the one hand, the assignments that are handed in to me electronically are the assignments that don’t get lost.

On the other hand, there’s the whole issue of handouts. I’ve tried working on my computer from an online manual, and unless that online manual is on my laptop and I’m trying to get the work done on my desktop, it just doesn’t work. Flipping back and forth between screens on the same computer is a disaster for me. Flipping back and forth between screens on the same computer has shown itself to be a disaster for my students. Sometimes you just need a piece of paper with the instructions sitting on your desk for you to keep referring to.

Even when I’m grading quizzes, which come back to me in email, I need a piece of paper to compile the results before putting them into the electronic gradebook. Once again, it’s that back and forth between two screens thing. Being able to jot it all down on a piece of paper and then quickly transfer the results to the gradebook is so much easier and faster.

Perhaps, rather than trying to go totally paperless, we should focus our efforts on eliminating the waste that comes when users don’t pay attention to what printer they sent their job to. Or the waste that occurs when students print out tons of the most inane ephemera - like posters on Pastafarianism.

The paperless classroom may arrive one of these days. But for now, as for me and my classroom, despite the fact that they’re available online, I’m giving out handouts again. My students will thank me, and their grades, which I’ll jot down on paper first, will go up.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Nothing to Sneeze At

There’s a group of nurses and other health care workers here in Syracuse NY who are protesting the fact that state law requires them to get the flu shot this year. They say that it violates their personal rights, and that it’s not fair for them to be forced to get the flu shot or lose their jobs.

I say, “You have got to be kidding!”

I could understand if these were auto mechanics, teachers, hairdressers, pastors, lawyers or people in a host of other jobs and professions we were talking about. There is absolutely no reason to require any of these people to get flu shots. Threatening them with the loss of their jobs if they didn’t get one would be stupid, totally unfair, and a violation of their rights. But hearing that complaint from nurses and other health care workers just rings hollow with me.

Because they’re health care workers, for Pete’s sake. These are people who will be around some of the sickest people there are and people with some of the most compromised immune systems. These are the people most likely to get it from one patient and give it to another, or to bring it home to their loved ones. These are the very people we need to keep healthy in order to take care of the rest of us. It’s just common sense that they should get it. We shouldn’t need a law to force them, but sadly, for some of them, we do.

Yes, I suppose you have the right to refuse to get a flu shot. And if you want to exercise that right, then you need to be in a field other than health care. Because as a patient, I have a right to expect that the people who will be attending to me have taken every reasonable precaution to stay healthy.

And these health care workers really should know better! They should understand how diseases travel and the importance of prevention. They say, “But I never get sick,” or “the last time I got a flu shot, it made me sick.” The “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918 killed more people in two years (at least 50 million) than AIDS has in 28 (25 million). It also unusual in that it killed healthy young adults rather than children, the elderly, or otherwise weakened patients. With that in mind, these people who “never get sick” are precisely the people who need to get the flu shot. And the sickness that they experienced after their flu shot was probably nothing like what the full-blown flu would have been like.

It’s funny though. What do these health care workers think of the laws that say that their children can’t go to school unless they’ve been properly vaccinated for a host of diseases? Do these laws violate their children’s right to an education, or do they understand the wisdom in these laws? You can’t even go to college now without a complete vaccination record.

It’s like this. Most people could understand getting the flu from a coworker or another patient in the doctor’s office, but if they found out that they got it from one of the nurses – who had chosen not gotten the vaccine – they would not be very understanding, and would have every right to bring a lawsuit.

And that is nothing to sneeze at.

For the record, I got my flu shot, as has everyone else in my family. Especially my wife, the nurse.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Can You Give It Up?

It all started with the smell of Febreeze in a classroom. Someone had spilled something that smelled bad, and to cover up the smell, one of the students got out the Febreeze.

This led to a few comments about what other smells they might be trying to cover up, and I, remembering the 70s very well, said, "Oh no, that's what we used incense for."

One of the students looked at me and said, "Mr G, did you really smoke that stuff?" I know, it seems hard to imagine, but yes, I did. And unlike Bill Clinton, I actually inhaled. But a bit of explanation is needed here.

The times were different back in the 70s. Much different. Possession and use of small amounts of marijuana had already been "decriminalized" in places like Ann Arbor, MI and the entire state of Alaska. In those places, the penalty was the equivalent of a parking ticket. And it looked like there was momentum to change the rules nationwide. In addition, when I was in high school, I had read the 1944 report of the LaGuardia Commision, and saw its conclusion that the dangers of marijuana were quite overstated. In fact, put into historical perspective, I saw the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act which led to the criminalization of it, to be just another attempt at Prohibition, and we all knew how well that worked. So it seemed just a matter of time before the lobbying efforts of organizations like NORML would result in the laws being changed so that using marijuana was no different than having a couple of beers.

And so it was in that era, with many law enforcement people turning a blind eye to people who just had a little bit, that I occasionally smoked the stuff.

What was most amazing to my friends at the time, was not only that my mother knew I was doing it, but her reaction to it. She said something along the lines of, "I know that there are lots of drugs there at college, and that you'll be tempted to try some of them. My only rule is that when they start to affect your grades, you have to stop."

After a long pause, I said to the students, "It never affected my grades, but eventually I did give it up."

When one of the students asked why, I said "Because my new girlfriend didn't approve of it and asked me to stop."

Well, you can imagine the reaction that got from the room. Giving up something you liked doing just because your girlfriend or boyfriend asked you to. At least one person in the room made the comment that I was "whipped." But I had a reply to that.
Think about it. If you can't give up something when someone you love asks you to, then it means that you're addicted to it.
The room got really quiet, and one of the students said, "You know Mr G, you're right."

Now let me say right here that there's a big difference between someone you love asking you to stop smoking dope or drinking and that same person asking you to stop watching The Office or reading Harlequin Romances (No wait a minute, the last one really is a harmful addiction. Those Harlequin Romances will rot your brain). There's a difference between someone caring about what's good for you and someone being downright controlling. The problem comes when you confuse the first with the second, as too many people do.

I was able to tell my girlfriend that I wouldn't do it anymore, and I kept my promise. Even six years later, after we had broken up, and there was no way we'd be getting back together, I turned down a joint when it was offered to me - and that was 23 years ago.

I could give it up, and did. The question is, can you?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Richard Nixon, Sexual Visionary?

This summer I read an absolutely fascinating book called Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz. It’s a must-read for anyone who talks about the “traditional marriage,” because it shows just how un-traditional the model that most of us have in mind is. It also shows how marriage is an amazingly flexible institution, adjusting to meet the needs of the time and the culture; and an institution which despite the cries of many alarmists, isn’t going away any time in the foreseeable future.

As I read and marked up my copy of the book, I kept some of my friends up to date with some of the more interesting things I'd read. And perhaps one of the most fascinating things I read is this section about Richard Nixon:
Almost immediately [in the late 60s, after Loving v Virginia], several gay and lesbian partners argued that they too should have a fundamental right to marry. In 1970, President Richard Nixon commented that he could understand allowing the intermarriage of blacks and whites, but as for same-sex marriage, "I can't go that far -- that's the year 2000." Little did he realize how close his estimate would turn out to be. [pg 256]
The reason I bring this up is that even a staunch conservative like Nixon didn't say that it couldn't or shouldn't ever happen, but that he, and perhaps the rest of society, just couldn’t go there yet, and that perhaps it would be something that would see its day in 30 years, at the turn of a new century (and when he was sure to not be around anymore).

Say what you will about the rest of "Tricky Dick's" failings, but this is one place where he was spot on. Not only in the prediction that it would come, but in what I'm reading as his implication that he wouldn't get in the way of it when that time came. Many of the people I read about trying to prevent even civil unions from occurring are trying to prevent them from ever happening. RMN knew better. He knew that gay marriage would happen when a critical mass of people found no problem with the idea, and that the critical mass would likely happen 30 years down the line, as younger and younger people became more comfortable with the idea.

I'm betting that 30 years hence, we'll look back and say "What the hell took us so long?" Sure there'll still be pockets of people who disapprove, just as there are pockets of people who disapprove of me and Cheryl because we’re an interracial couple, but they will no longer represent the mainstream, and most people will look at these dissenters as if they had three eyes.

Perhaps it would be good (and I still can’t believe I’m saying this) if everyone if everyone learned a little from the example of Richard Nixon, the conservative who saw gay marriage on the horizon, but just not in his lifetime.

I also think it would be good if everyone picked up a copy of Marriage, A History. It’s a fascinating book, and one that you’ll hear more about from me in the coming months.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Modern Condom Marketing

Driving somewhere in the van recently, we were actually listening to the radio instead of having one of the family iPods plugged into the sound system. And while we were listening, we heard a condom commercial.

Then another.

And another.

During the course of less than an hour, we heard three different condom commercials.

After the third one, I turned off the radio, and plugged one of the iPods in.

It’s not that I object to condom commercials. I think that they should’ve been advertised a long time ago. It's the way they're being marketed that bothers me; to a crowd of people who sees no problem with sleeping with a different person every two weeks.

I remember, and miss, the “good old days,” when you wore a condom to keep the one girlfriend you were sleeping with from getting pregnant, and not to prevent spreading diseases among the six that you’ve slept with in the past three months. I have no problem explaining to my seven-year-old daughter about not wanting to get pregnant. My wife's a nurse, so she knows all the details anyway. I suppose that based on that, I shouldn’t have any problem explaining to her about the diseases you can get if you "sleep around," but I really didn’t want to go there yet. So it was iPod time.

Have you read the instructions on a package of condoms lately? They’re scary! Once again, 30 years ago, all you were concerned about was not getting your girlfriend pregnant, so the instructions for putting one on, taking it off, and disposing of it were fairly straightforward. Read a package now and it’s like reading the instructions for dealing with hazardous materials. Heck, you are dealing with potentially hazardous materials. The package might as well say “If you can read this, you are way too close.”

And yet, if I am totally honest with you and myself, the “good old days” from 1974 to 1982, when I was an undergrad, and had an active interest (although not as active a part as I would've liked) in the “sexual revolution,” were probably full of as much “serial shtupping” as there is today. In fact, I remember one housemate who seemed to have a different girl over every weekend. But he was the exception to the rule among the people I knew. All of my other housemates were with the same girl for a semester or more. Yet one thing remained the same: for all of them condoms were about not getting the girl pregnant, and a used one wasn't considered a biohazard.

That all changed when we learned about AIDS. This was a venereal disease (to use the terminology of the time) that penicillin wouldn’t help, and that would kill you. You’d think that days of sleeping around would be over with that. Yet, ironically, it was probably AIDS that saved the condom from irrelevance in an era when most sexually active women were on the Pill anyway. Because instead of being seen as something that could prevent a new life from starting, it was now something that could prevent yours from ending. As a result, they were no longer marketed as contraceptive devices for relatively stable couples, but as disease prevention devices for people who flitted from bed to bed to bed.

Which brings us back to the three commercials I got tired of hearing.

With all this having been said, I think I have a much more effective, although old-fashioned, way of preventing the spread of STDs.

Keeping your pants on for a few months until you really get to know and trust each other.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Schroedinger's Dance Partner

My students jokingly call me a stalker when I tell them about how, back in 6th grade, I tracked down Karen, a girl I had a crush on, but had moved at the end of 3rd grade, using only the Suburban Essex White Pages and a map of the county.

And they're right. Even though we didn't have the word then, I guess I was a stalker. And I'm betting that a lot of girls I had crushes on, and later moved away from East Orange, were glad that the Internet didn't exist back when I was in elementary school, because I would've been dangerous.

But over the years, because of my library training, I've been able to use new online tools like Classmates, Reunion, USA People Search, the Syracuse University alumni directory, the online White Pages, and of course, Facebook, to satisfy my occasional curiosity about "what ever happened to..."

However you have to be really careful, because sometimes you end up with more information than you really wanted.

It started with the 1977 Dance Marathon. My partner and I hadn't been on speaking terms for weeks leading up to the event, but I was determined to be civil for the 48 hours we had signed up for months earlier. But when her boyfriend from home showed up on Friday night, and took my place, that put the final nail in the coffin, and I was now a dancer without a partner.

After a little time just drifting about on my own, this girl with a great smile came up to me, told me that her partner couldn't make it because he was sick, and asked if she could dance with me. I may have been lacking a few social skills at the time, but I had enough to know to say "yes" to her.

Her name was "Diane," and we spent pretty much the remaining 48 hours together. She was really nice, and I wanted to ask her out sometime after the Dance Marathon was over, but I didn't quite have the social skills to do it and so nothing ever happened. I'd run into her on campus from time to time over the next year or so, and then at some point she graduated and disappeared.

Well, one day a few years ago, I decided to use my "stalking" skills to find out whatever happened to her. Where was she now, what was she doing? You know, just plain old human curiosity, nothing that would warrant a restraining order. I've learned a thing or two since Karen.

Somehow, through one of the sources I had found, I discovered that someone with her name, from SU, and roughly the same age, had been killed in the 9/11 attacks.

I stopped right there. She had a common enough first and last name - in fact, the alumni directory showed two or three people with that name at SU around 1977 - so there was a chance that it might not be her. But still, this was more information than I needed. Dammit! This was more information than I wanted. This was stuff I was much better off not having known in the first place. I didn't check any further. I didn't look for any more information to either confirm or disprove that it was her - and I won't either.

Because as long as I don't know for sure, that really nice girl, with the great smile, that I got to dance with for almost 48 hours back in 1977 is still alive.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas

A few weeks ago, as I was in the fabric store looking for fabric for Cheryl to make a new shirt for me out of, I saw that the Christmas fabrics were out. In July.

And you know what? I wasn't bothered or offended by it.

That's because I'm an old choirboy, and, as you know, that changes my perspective on a lot of things.

I remember every September, when we came back from vacation, and the boys in the choir at St Andrew's went back to their every Tuesday and Thursday schedule of rehearsals, right there near the back of our folders would be music for Advent, which I learned was the four-week season preparing us for Christmas. Then, as the music at the front of the folder was sung each Sunday, collected, and removed from our folders, the Advent music moved up closer and the Christmas and Epiphany music would start showing up in the back.

The point here is that we were learning music for the three liturgical seasons in the Christmas story arc (Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany) in September, and we were a church choir. We started practicing those songs in September so that we'd have them spot on by the time Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany actually came. Having a bunch of 5th through 8th grade boys try to learn the music for the Christmas Eve service a mere three to four weeks beforehand just wouldn't cut it for Mr Blake. It was all about giving yourself enough time to do a job well.

It was pretty much the same thing when I was a member of the Hendricks Chapel Choir at Syracuse University. We had two big concerts for the year; the Christmas Concert (which is probably now called the Winter Concert) and the Spring Concert. You can bet that we started looking at the Christmas music (or the "Christmas arc" music) the first Thursday night that we were all back on campus. There was no way we were learning pieces like Lo, How A Rose by Distler, No Sad Thought by Vaughn Williams, and Deck the Halls in 7/8 well enough to sing in front of a packed Chapel in just three weeks. Again, it was about giving yourself enough time to do a job well.

And if we were rehearsing these pieces in September, that means that they had to have been ordered in - July, when Boosey & Hawkes, G Schirmer, Belwin-Mills, and all the other choral music publishers had their catalogs of Christmas selections out for choral directors to look at.

I know this first-hand, because I've also been a choir director, and have been to the summer workshops that publishers put on to showcase new pieces for you to order for "the season."

Which brings us back to the fabric store.

Based on my experience in choirs and directing choirs, it made perfect sense to have the Christmas fabrics out in July, so that people who wanted to make things for Christmas would have ample time to do a good job in a leisurely manner between now and then, rather than making themselves and their families crazy rushing to do all of their Christmas crafts and sewing projects between the day after Thanksgiving and December 24. It's not about the over-commercialization of Christmas and wanting to sell as much stuff as early as possible; as with my choirs, it's about planning in advance and giving people enough time to do a job well.

And so I welcome the July appearance of the Christmas fabrics, and the dedication to a job well done that it represents.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Most Important English Lesson

School starts up again for me and my kids in a few weeks, and as I was thinking about all the things that I'll teach and my daughters will learn, I remembered that some of the most important and long-lasting lessons aren't even on the lesson plan, and may have just come from a tangential comment from a teacher while discussing something else. I know that was the case with me when I was in high school.

We learned a lot of things in Freshman English at East Orange High School in East Orange, NJ, but the most important thing I learned in Mr Delaney’s class was the meaning of the word believe.

Mr Delaney taught us the difference between belief and knowledge, and that since it’s not first-hand knowledge, belief by definition has to imply some room for doubt. He taught me that when I say that I believe something, I’m also admitting the possibility that I could be wrong. He said that when we believe something, we don’t know that it’s true, but we’re willing to act as if it is until we get convincing evidence to the contrary. This lesson, that I learned at age 14, has stayed with me for almost 40 years, and has had a profound effect on both my intellectual and my religious life.

It seems that too many of us confuse belief with knowledge, and that too many people who profess one belief or another act as if they know for sure that it’s absolute truth. As a Christian, I believe many things, but thanks to Mr Delaney, I understand that I don’t know them to be absolute fact, but believe them based on what I consider to be convincing evidence handed down from a number of different sources. And – I accept the fact that I could be wrong.

When we confuse belief with knowledge, we also confuse knowing where we disagree with someone else with knowing where the other person is wrong. My understanding of the word “believe” requires me to admit not only that I might be wrong, but that there’s a chance that the other person, with whom I so vehemently disagree, may actually be right. I may not like that possibility, but since I’m not perfect, that chance definitely exists. I’d like it, though, if those who believed differently from me accorded me the same intellectual courtesy.

I know where I disagree with Catholics. I know where I disagree with Baptists, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I even know where I disagree with other Lutherans. But I don’t know for sure where any of them are wrong. Contrary to what many people may think, this doesn’t mean that my faith is wishy-washy at all. By no means! My faith is strong enough to handle knowing not only that I might be wrong, but that I will be wrong from time to time. My faith is also strong enough to handle the onslaught of new information that many “true believers” can’t deal with because their faith is based on never being wrong or having to readjust their worldview. Because I believe, in the Delaney sense of the word, I know that I’ll be constantly readjusting my worldview, and am not afraid to do so.

Indeed, the fact that I believe means that I need to be very careful in how I act. Many great evils have been done by those who were sure that they were right, and were able to count as “enemies of God” those with whom they disagreed. On the other hand, those who understand Mr Delaney’s definition of “belief” tend to be a bit more cautious about forcing their will and beliefs on others, and a little more willing to try to “meet in the middle.”

Other Christians may ask me, “How can you say that you don’t know for sure? We have it all there in the Bible. What more proof could you possibly want?”

Well, the simple fact of the matter is that just as my parents weren’t there for all the fights I claimed I never started (and I really didn’t), I wasn’t there when the events written down in the Bible happened; and so just as my parents didn’t know for sure and had to trust me, I don’t know for sure either, and so I believe.

Amusingly, this brings us to atheists. For you see, atheists are believers of a sort too. Garrison Keillor once said that all the atheists in Lake Wobegon are Lutherans because it’s a Lutheran God that they don’t believe in. Like Keillor, I believe that most atheists are atheists in opposition to some particular interpretation of religion that they’re familiar with. But more to the point, it’s not that atheists don’t believe in God, it’s that they believe there is no God. And as such, they are no more certain than those of us who claim to believe.

And of course, I could be wrong about all of this.

Adapted from my piece in the What I Believe column of the
Syracuse Post Standard on May 12, 2007.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

If I Were A Rich Man

According to an article my wife read, the current recession has even the wealthy starting to worry now. Some of them have taken a big enough hit from the stock market that they're beginning to realize that maybe there's a finite amount of money out there. That maybe they can't have everything. That maybe they'll have to cut back by a yacht or two.

And she's talking about people with millions of dollars.

It's funny. I remember reading about people leaping out of 20th floor windows during the Great Depression because they had been reduced to a "mere" couple of million dollars - in actual cash, and thinking that if you "reduced" me to that much, I'd be a very happy person.

What the heck was going on then, and what the heck is going on now?

These people have absolutely no clue. You know what would make me rich? $200,000 a year. Doesn't sound like much to you? Well maybe that's because my goals are more modest.

You see, to me, being rich isn't about moving out of our cozy little house in a nice city neighborhood and being able to have the castle on the hill (and be able to heat it). It's not even about being able to buy the McMansion on the other side of the county. Those aren't my style. For me, being rich would mean that I could have our soggy basement fixed right now and put a guest room (and another full bathroom) in it without having to take out another home equity loan. Heck, it would enable us to pay off the home equity loan we took out two years ago to have energy-efficient windows installed.

It wouldn't be about having the Mercedes, the Lexus, the BMW, or some other fancy, expensive car. Instead, it would mean that we'd actually be able to pick out the color and features of the next minivan we bought - new, rather than picking a used one up off the lot in whatever colors they happened to have. And if the color we wanted wasn't offered, having that much money would mean that we could have a custom paint job done.

It would mean that when we traveled, we could stay at a Holiday Inn Express instead of a Red Roof Inn or a Motel 6, and that we could stay in the city we were actually visiting, rather than on the outskirts of town, where it was cheaper. Although we'd still stay at the Reeves Motel and the Traveler's Haven Motel when we visited Cape May and Ottawa. Those two tiny little motels seem like home to us now.

Then there are the college funds for my two kids. With $200,000 a year, they could pretty much go anywhere they wanted.

And of course there's giving some of it, maybe even a lot of it, away. There are a lot of causes that mean a lot to me, and it's a no-brainer that I could give more to them if I had more money.

But the important thing is that I wouldn't think for a moment that I had access to an infinite amount of money. I'd just have access to a larger finite amount.

And within that larger finite amount I could live very comfortably.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Words We Use - 2

I originally posted on sexual terminology back in June, and asked for your responses. I learned a lot as a result.

One of the things I learned was the limits of a free basic account from Survey Monkey. You're only allowed 100 responses. That explains the people who emailed me saying that they tried to take the survey but weren't allowed. Oh well. I'm sure that getting 500 responses would have given much more reliable data than a mere 100, but what are you gonna do?

The second thing I learned was how hard it is to create a good survey - at least the first time around. Amazingly, of all the people who put in their two cents to tell me what I should've done differently, my sister wasn't one of them, and she's a professional statistician.

The third thing I learned is that sometimes life throws you surprises.

As you may recall, my original premise was that almost no one uses the "proper" the "formal" the "clinical" terms behind closed doors, and I was secure in the knowledge that the survey results would substantiate my hunch.

Well, the first 14 results came in and they proved me right. 67% of the people said that there were "formal" and "informal" terms as opposed to "proper" and "street," and 67% of the people used the "informal" terms in private.

I was totally taken by surprise, however, when the next 16 results came in and flipped the responses almost exactly. That's right - 67% of the people not only thought that there were "proper" terms to use, but they were actually using them in private. So much for those medical terms being cold and clinical.

As the results inched toward the 80s, I could see that they were actually converging on 50/50. This was still an incredible shock to me. I just couldn't wrap my head around the idea that so many couples were using what I considered to be cold, clinical, medical terms when they were being "romantic" (OK, so I guess this tells you a lot about what terms we use).

Some of my colleagues thought I had lost my mind in asking them these questions, even anonymously. One even went so far as to refuse to take part in the survey because she was sure I was collecting this data for some other nefarious purpose. But really, words are my business, and I want to know about what words people really use.

So what are the "final" results from my sample size of 100 people? 32% of the people think that there are "proper" and "street" terms while 68% think that there are "formal" and "informal" terms. That's an overwhelming majority. Surprisingly, however, when it comes to what terms people actually use, 42% used the "proper" or "formal" terms while 58% used the "street" or "informal" terms. The informal people were still in the majority, but the formal people were a much larger percentage than I thought. But then again, as I've already said, this whole thing is probably skewed by the incredibly small sample size (you see, sometimes size does matter).

I still suspect that a much higher percentage of people use the informal terms than this survey was able to show, but I think I'll give up on this project for now and let someone with better resources and a larger potential sample size deal with this.

Anyone know anybody at Redbook?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Different Lens

A few summers ago, a student saw me wearing a sweatshirt with Coca-Cola written on it in Hebrew, and asked why I, being African-American, was wearing it if I wasn’t Jewish. After all, why expose myself to all the anti-Semitism that’s out there, if I don’t have to?

I chuckled and said to him, “Kid, anti-Semitism is the LAST thing I’m worried about.”

But as I walked away, I thought about how sad it was that this kid’s entire Jewish identity was probably based on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the result of a well-intentioned, but misguided, attempt by his parents to prepare him to deal with people out there in the “gentile world.” He was like the character Alvy Singer in “Annie Hall,” who saw anti-Semitism in every conversation, hearing the quickly spoken question “Did you eat?” as “Jew eat?

But to borrow a line often attributed to Sigmund Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” This comes to mind as I think of the events in what has come to be known as “The Case of the Professor and the Policeman;” the confrontation between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge police officer James Crowley.

Like my Jewish student who saw everything through the lens of possible anti-Semitism, Professor Gates views the events of last week through the lens of years of racial prejudice and profiling; perhaps where there was actually none of that involved. That is very likely why he “went off” on Crowley, because he felt that this same thing would not have happened had he been white.

But let’s consider another Harvard Gates: William Henry Gates III, better known to most people as Bill. Yes, that Bill Gates. What would Bill do if someone who didn’t recognize him saw him apparently trying to break into his house, and called the police to check it out? I’m betting he’d do what most people would do when the police arrived: thank them for checking it out, and cooperate immediately. I’m betting that despite being one of the richest people in the world, he would not go off on the police officers. Bill Gates would do what most people would do, and be thankful that the police came to check it out; after all, suppose it wasn’t just a simple case of the door being stuck, and it really was a burglar?

And when I say that Bill Gates would do what most people would do, this implies most white people. I don’t know a single white person who would immediately go off on the police for simply checking out something that understandably looked suspicious to someone else. Well, actually, I do know one, but he’s a little hot-headed and full of himself anyway, so we’ll ignore him.

Too many of us in the African-American community have an attitude about dealing with the police, as if “they’re” always out to get “us,” and that says that responding in a calm and polite manner means that you’re letting them trample all over your rights.

Many years ago I read a book by a New York State Trooper about how to get out of a speeding ticket. One of the first things it said was that police officers spontaneously divide people into two categories: citizens and jerks. Citizens understand that the officers are just trying to do their job, which is potentially dangerous, but ultimately is about protecting you, and the officer will generally cut a citizen a break. Jerks don’t understand this, give the officers a hard time, and make life harder for everyone – especially themselves in the end.

Citizens and jerks come in all colors and ethnicities. I wonder which one Professor Gates was being.
Adapted from a piece in the Syracuse Post-Standard on 8.2.09

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Other F-Word

I was always a skinny kid. Really, really skinny. Play xylophone on my ribs skinny. When I was in high school I weighed a whopping 105 pounds, and I couldn’t gain weight to save my life. Forget about the weight Morgan Spurlock gained on his 30-day diet of McDonald’s food; I worked for two years at McDonald’s, ate their food all the time – in multiple servings – and couldn’t gain an ounce.

For the entire eight years of my undergrad career at Syracuse University I had a 28-inch waist. That’s pretty skinny. Sometimes I had to shop for clothes in the “Young Teen” department. Everyone kept telling me that one of these days my metabolism would catch up with me when I turned 30, and I’d finally gain weight.

As a 30-year-old grad student I still had that 28-inch waist, and when I got married at age 32, I was so skinny that Tuxedo Junction didn’t have a tux shirt small enough for me. They had to pin up the back.

Maybe getting married is what started it. After a few years, a friend commented on how I’d actually put on some weight – just enough to make me weigh almost what I was supposed to for my height. She attributed this to what she called “Contented Cow Syndrome.”

Then I had kids, and was finishing up the food they left behind on the table – providing that it was food I liked. I do have standards after all. That’s when I noticed a little pudge, and the fact that I couldn’t see my ribs anymore. That’s also when my then four-year-old daughter started patting my stomach and asking me if there was a baby in there.

I freaked out. This wasn’t a good thing. But on the other hand, I tried to keep a sense of perspective about it. I was 41, and not only was a little pudge was probably to be expected of all of us, but being able to see my ribs all those years probably was not a good thing. My body image was based on having been a toothpick forever, and that was unrealistic.

There was another piece to this that made it necessary for me to be really careful in how I reacted and what I said. I teach adolescent girls, and you know the kind of body issues they have. If I said that I thought I needed to lose a little weight, it would just feed into their own anorexic and bulimic tendencies. Instead, I would just suck it up and deal with the “middle age spread” as graciously as I’ve done with going bald and gray.

But then it happened. One week after my 53rd birthday, someone asked Cheryl if I was getting fat. NOOOO! She said the dreaded F-word.

That was it! Until that moment, it had all been in my head. It had all been an issue of my having to adjust an unrealistic idea of what I thought my body should look like. But now someone had dared to speak the F- word. This meant that it wasn’t just in my head, and now I had to do something about it. Actually, now I could do something about it. Hearing it from someone else finally gave me permission to be concerned about it, without worrying about those adolescent girls. Let’s be clear about this. I’m not at the point where I have to buy an extra ticket when I go on planes (as if I’d get on a plane), but I wouldn’t mind losing a good 15 pounds.

It sure hurts not having seconds of chicken parmesan at dinner and not grazing through the day, eating whatever I want whenever I feel like it.

And right now I want some coffee ice cream!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Little Lamb, Who Wired Thee?

Little lamb, who wired thee?

Our oldest daughter hates church, and hasn’t gone with us on a regular basis since she was 13. This would make sense to us if we were one of those Bible-thumping, “believe it all literally or burn in Hell” families. In our experience, people who’ve soured on church come from those kinds of families and those kinds of churches.

But we’re not like that. We’re Lutherans, we’re expected and even encouraged to question. We’re expected to bring our brains with us to church. As such, we expected and encouraged our daughter to question what she heard in church and to look for the nuances that might change an interpretation, even as we did.

Dost thou know who wired thee?

It wasn’t always like this. She loved church when she was a toddler, and made us sit in the front pew so that she could see what was going on better. She would pretend to baptize you when she was taking a bath. She enjoyed the fact that her mother had been her Sunday School teacher and “knew every Bible story in the world.”

Then there was the embarrassing incident in Kindergarten when she told one of her Hindu friends that Ganesh, their elephant god, was stupid and didn’t really exist.

But at some point, somewhere around fourth grade, that all changed. She didn’t like church, didn’t like going, and resented having to come with us.

Little lamb, who wired thee? Dost thou know who wired thee?

I know who wired you, and I’m annoyed. But not with you. After all, you didn’t ask to be wired with a brain that often focuses on the one tree instead of the vast forest around it. You didn’t ask to be wired with a brain that looks at things in a strict linear fashion that takes what you know about the major world religions, and rather than being able to ask deeper questions about them, just concludes that since they can’t all be right, they must all be wrong.

Instead, I’m annoyed with the one who wired you this way, and then gave us the responsibility for trying to get you to “get” him. I’ve found myself throwing up my hands in frustration saying, “You want her, you deal with her. You wired her that way, so you find a way to patch into those odd, but fascinating circuits you created. But don’t put this all on us!”

I’m annoyed that he also seems to have wired millions of other people to not “get” him, while apparently blaming them for his wiring job.

Little lamb, who wired thee?

When she was baptized we promised to “faithfully bring her to the services of God’s house…and provide for her instruction in the Christian faith,” and yet there comes a point when you can try too hard, and lose a person forever. You can force attendance, you can force compliance to certain behaviors, but you cannot force belief. We didn’t want to win the battle while losing the war. And so she stays home.

Dost thou know who wired thee?

I’m no electrician. I don’t even like changing light bulbs. But maybe somewhere in that wiring that so confuses us is a homing circuit that will be activated someday, if we just leave things alone. An excellently made circuit that might be ruined by our mucking about with it too much.

Little lamb, God bless thee.

Little lamb, God bless thee.


with apologies to William Blake

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cheryl the Redeemer

Ah, this is one of my favorite stories, and I've saved it for the week of our wedding anniversary.

It starts with an old girlfriend, we'll call her Maggie. I had actually thought about marrying her. In fact, I had gone to Wilson's Jewelers to pick out an engagement ring and put a $200 deposit on a nice one that I saw on sale. But things didn't work out as I had hoped, and Maggie turned me down.

Now as if that wasn't bad enough, when I went back to Wilson's, they told me that since it was a sale ring, they couldn't give me back my money. The best they could do was to give me a store credit slip. The salesperson was very understanding though; she told me that I should buy something for myself with the money. Like maybe a nice watch.

Well, I've always been basically a Timex kind of guy. I really didn't need a $200 watch. So that credit slip just sat in my wallet, mostly forgotten - or at least something that I wanted to forget about.

Then, almost a year later I met the person who would change my life. The person that Maggie told me I would never find, because people like that just didn't exist. The person that I was being totally unrealistic to even look for in the first place. This was Cheryl.

Cheryl and I got along perfectly from the start. Much better than Maggie and I ever did. And in the time that Cheryl and I were getting to know each other, she got to hear a good many "Maggie stories" - including the one about the ring and the credit slip.

It became apparent to us rather quickly that we were going to marry each other. In fact, Cheryl brought it up first, saying that she'd marry me if I asked. I told her to hold that thought, because I intended to. And eventually it became time for us to look for rings.

Not engagement rings. She decided that she didn't need one, and that the money could be put to better use for both of us. No, it was time to look for wedding rings. We went to the mall, and as I was all set to walk into Zale's, I felt a yank on my arm, as Cheryl pulled me in the other direction.

"What's going on?" I asked.

Cheryl replied, "You have $200 sitting over at Wilson's, and you're not going to let it go to waste. Just because Maggie was too stupid to want to use it with you doesn't mean that I am. We're using that money for our rings."

Wow.

They say that you're always fighting the last war, and that's what I had been doing when I headed to Zale's. In the Maggie universe this would not have happened. According to Maggie you didn't buy the new girlfriend something with money that was originally meant for the old one. But Cheryl was no Maggie. In fact, now we joke that a bad day with her still beats a good day with Maggie.

The word redeem has a number of meanings. It can mean something as simple as to cash something in - like an iTunes gift card. And that day, Cheryl and I redeemed that old, worn out, credit slip in my wallet for two gold wedding rings.

But it can also mean to save or rescue, to make right, to restore to honor. And when Cheryl decided that the credit slip in my wallet was not something that belonged to Maggie, but something that belonged to us, she redeemed it in all the other meanings of the word.

It also proved that she was exactly the right person for me - and has been for the past 21 years.

Happy Anniversary, Cheryl!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Princess, the Saint, and the Pop Star

12 years ago Princess Diana was killed in that automobile accident in Paris, and almost the entire world went into mourning. I remember seeing my own wife crying for someone she had never even met.

And yet, while the rest of us were mourning for her, so-called wiser heads looked down their noses, asking “What has she really ever done to deserve all the adulation she got in life and the outpouring of grief she’s getting in death?” “What will happen when someone truly important, like, say, Mother Teresa, dies?”

They got to find out five days later, when Mother Teresa died. And quite frankly, the attention given to her death was a direct result of that question having been asked five days earlier. Under any other conditions, Mother Teresa’s death would have been given all the attention as that of the Queen of Denmark – not much. But because the media felt guilty about how much attention they lavished on Princess Diana’s death, Mother Teresa got the star treatment too.

But let’s go back a moment to those deep thinkers who looked down the noses of the rest of us for seeming to pay more attention to Diana than Teresa, when the latter’s work was so much “more important.” Was that really the case?

I, for one, don’t think so. I think that they represented two different ways of doing good in the world, and two vastly different ways of living in order to get it done. Mother Teresa represented the kind of good you could do in the world if you were willing to live in a hovel. While we admired her for being able to do this, and supported her with donations, it is not something that most of us aspired to.

Princess Diana, on the other hand, represented the kind of good you could do in the world while still having fun. While having the kind of life we think we wish that we had. She brought our attention to causes that needed to be supported, and support them we did. This is because Princess Diana seemed like one of us. In fact, she was one of us – a regular person, a Cinderella, who got lucky (so we thought) and married a prince.

Princess Diana represented us as the everyday people we were, and Mother Teresa represented what we could be like if we gave it all away. Quite frankly, I don’t recall seeing any of the deep thinkers volunteering to give it all away as they looked down their noses at those of us who were mourning for Princess Diana.

This brings us, of course, to Michael Jackson, and all the attention being given to his death.

Again, the deep thinkers look down their noses asking why so much attention to this “mere entertainer,” especially when there’s a war going on and the economy is in the toilet. And if you must give so much attention to a recently deceased entertainer, why not give it to Ed McMahon? He at least served in the Armed Forces during World War II.

The answer here is deceptively simple. It’s the number of people he reached, all over the world, through his music. I know that I wanted to be like the Jackson 5.

In 30 years of being Johnny Carson’s sidekick on The Tonight Show, Ed McMahon didn’t influence anywhere near as many people as Michael Jackson. And I say this as someone who fondly remembers the Carson/McMahon years.

Yes, there are pressing problems in the world today, but every time that there have been problems, there have also been those who helped make those problems seem bearable by making us laugh, dance, or sing along with them. A Jolson, a Crosby, a Hope, a Jackson.

So, to the deep thinkers, I say, "Lighten up!"

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Retarded Issue

OK, I’m back. I’ve heard from a number of you asking why I haven’t posted anything in a few weeks. Some of you even told me I was slacking off. Well, the reason I hadn’t posted anything was because I was on vacation.

Yeah, I know, I could’ve posted from on the road, especially since I took my laptop with me, and every motel we stayed at had WiFi. I had intended to do that. But you know, at the end of a long day of sightseeing and driving, you just want to plop down on your nice comfy bed, and not write anything except a few postcards.

But I suppose that, as some of my students might say, that’s a retarded excuse, and that gets right to the heart of the matter. Is using the words “retarded” and “retard” as insults insensitive to people who are “developmentally disabled?” Should using those words as insults be considered insensitive to people who are developmentally disabled?

I don’t know.

I know that there are people who really do get upset when they hear those words thrown around as casual insults. These are usually people who know someone who suffers from some form of developmental disability, and I understand what they’re saying. On the other hand, I know that over time the English language changes.

It doesn’t seem to bother anyone that when the words moron and idiot are thrown around as casual insults. Yet both of these words used to be accepted clinical terms for specific levels of mental retardation. Now they’re just garden-variety insults that no one get much bent out of shape about.

In fact, while typing a paper for a friend 20 years ago, I was astounded to hear that the former Syracuse Developmental Center was originally founded as the New York State School for Idiots. More people now are shocked that the school was called that than are offended by hearing the word "idiot" used as a general insult. But it was the proper term at the time, and has become insensitive in retrospect because succeeding generations have used it as an insult, and it fell out of clinical use as a result.

As a teacher, I do firmly get on my kids when they use "retarded" as an insult; just as I do when they similarly use "gay." However, knowing what I know about the language, I often wonder why we don't make a similar fuss about us using "idiot" and "moron." In fact, a common joke I use in my computer classes is warning them about the dreaded ID-10-T error, which if you write it out without the hyphens becomes ID10T, which of course looks like idiot (unless the student writes it out as IDTENT, which has happened, and we won't even go there).

I suspect that we are in a very uneasy "transition time" where the word "retarded" is going the route of the words before it. I suspect that as those terms fell into the vernacular, they stopped being used clinically; and perhaps that same thing will happen with "retarded." Perhaps it's already happening, after all, I don't regularly hear people referred to as mentally retarded anymore, but instead, I hear of them as having Down's Syndrome or being developmentally challenged. Heck, even the American Association on Mental Retardation changed its name a few years ago to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. So perhaps here the issue isn't so much the public's use of the word as an insult, but some people’s insistence on hanging onto that term both as a clinical descriptor and a source of identity.

I think the time has come to let it go.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

It's A Grand Old Flag

Every time we went to the mall, when I was a kid, we’d see it just over the crest of Bloomfield Ave in Verona, as we turned on to NJ-23. I checked to make sure that they’re still there and they are. At least the main offices are. The actual plant has been moved a few miles away to Roseland. I’m talking about Annin and Co, the world’s largest maker of flags, and official supplier to the United Nations.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about what you can and can’t do, or what you should and shouldn’t be allowed to do, to what is probably one of their biggest selling products – your basic red, white, and blue American flag. The United States Flag Code, which many of us learned as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts is an official set of guidelines for flag design and treatment, but it doesn’t have the force of law. There are, however, those out there who want to create a Constitutional Amendment that would make it illegal for you to order a flag from Annin, or any other supplier, and burn it.

I don’t agree with these people.

I understand that they hold the American flag, and all the rights that it stands for, highly in their hearts. I understand that they consider burning an American flag for any reason other than its proper disposal to be the utmost in desecration. But I believe the one of the rights it stands for is the right to take the flag that you have paid for your with own cold hard cash, and burn it if you want, as long as you’re not violating any pollution ordinances.

That’s right. I believe that our flag stands for the right for us to destroy or deface it, as long as it’s your personal flag, and not one that you’ve taken from someone else.

Ironically, this means that while many have burned the flag in protest, it is indeed possible to burn it in celebration – in celebration that we have a Constitutionally protected right to do just that.

In fact, my two favorite magicians, Penn and Teller, have come to the same conclusion. As part of their Las Vegas act, they take an American flag, stuff it into a rolled up copy of the Bill of Rights from the Constitution, apparently set it on fire, and the Bill of Rights – the truly important thing, the thing which the flag represents – remains unscathed.

But my description here doesn’t do it justice. You have to see it and listen to Penn’s monologue for yourself, in order to get the full effect. Fortunately, that, like so many things these days, is available as a YouTube video.

Then, when you’re done watching that, check out what happens when they perform that same trick at the White House on “The West Wing.”

And then, think about all of these things on Sunday, which is Flag Day.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Words We Use - 1

A few weeks ago I read an article in Time Magazine about a very successful sex education program, and one of the things this program was proud of doing was teaching kids the "proper" names for sexual organs and activities, rather than the "street" terms.

Now, I've had a long-standing beef with the idea is that there are "proper" and "vulgar" names for our sexual organs and sexual activities

Why? Because those "proper" names are merely the Latin-based clinical medical terms that we wouldn't use for any other parts of the body. After all, do we talk about putting the ring on the bride's "digit," in particular her "digitus quartus?" Of course not. We call a finger by its common English name: finger.

So what's up with using the "proper" terms of penis, testicles, vagina, etc instead of those words everyone else knows, and a few cute euphemisms that I've heard over the years? Well, frankly, everything sounds good in Latin. Or to put it a little differently, nothing sounds bad in Latin. When I was in high school, I heard of a family on Long Island whose crest included the inscription Semper superamus - fraudamus. Sounds impressive. But when you translated it into English, it became, "We always win. We cheat." The entire point of the Latin-based terms was to make it possible to talk about sex in "polite" company.

But here's my real problem with those terms. They're just too cold and clinical. They're not warm, fuzzy, and user-friendly. They're Gray's Anatomy, and not The Joy of Sex. For Pete's sake, they're medical terms.

Yes, I know The Joy of Sex uses those cold medical terms. There is something to be said for a standard terminology for public discourse. But why couldn't the standard terminology be the Anglo-Saxon terms that we're told "aren't proper," but all know?

And the Latin terms don't really mean what we make them mean in Latin. If my Internet sources are correct, "penis" comes from the word for "tail" and "vagina" comes from the word for "sheath." Looks like a little Roman slang, if you ask me. I wonder what the ancient Romans really called their "naughty bits."

With that in mind, I've had an image in my head for years of some poor little Roman kid getting his mouth washed out with soap for saying one of what we would consider the "proper" terms, and his mother telling him that from now on she only wants to hear him use what we would consider one of the offensive Anglo-Saxon terms.

Now that I think about it, this gets me to wondering. Is English the only language that hides its sexual terminology behind Latin words, or do other languages do it too? Are there any French, Spanish, Italian, German, etc speakers out there who want to let me know how their languages deal with this?

But getting back to the point, I just can't imagine anyone using those clinical terms behind closed doors. That would seem to me about as much of a turn-on as starting off the evening by asking your date if she'd like a collection of Dianthus caryophyllus. I'm betting that, in private, most people are using the good old "street" or "vulgar" terms that I consider informal and "user-friendly."

So I decided to find out once and for all. I've set up a two-question, anonymous, online survey, asking about sexual terminology. You can get to it by going to www.tinyurl.com/keg-terminology. 86 people have taken it so far. I figure that if all of my blog readers take it, and then forwards it on to their friends, I might get a whopping hundred.

I'll let you know what the results are in a few weeks.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Not Just Another Pretty Voice

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've seen and heard all about Susan Boyle, the frumpy-looking 47-year-old woman whose singing knocked the socks off of the panel members on Britain's Got Talent. If you have been living under that rock, then you absolutely have to watch the YouTube video before you read another word.

And by the way, the term "frumpy-looking" modifies "47-year-old." They don't necessarily go together. My wife will be 47 in November, and is still a major league babe. In fact, I know a few 55-year-olds who are major babes. On the other hand, I know 20-somethings who are frumpy-looking.

But getting back to the main point, let's say it now and get it over with. She won because we didn't expect that voice to come out of that face and body. But what would've happened had she been "a looker?"

A friend of mine who's a music teacher said that Boyle has nice enough voice, but not necessarily better than any of the hundreds of kids she's had in her high school chorus over the past 10 years.

And she's right. Pretty voices are a dime a dozen. Some attractive 20 or 30-something, dressed nicely, and singing the exact same piece with the exact same voice, might not have even gotten a raised eyebrow from the panel. You expect people who you figure are right out of music school to be that good. But Susan Boyle had the perfect setup to make her stand out: the beautiful voice in the body of a frumpy-looking middle-aged woman. And it's exactly because of this setup that everyone is so amazed, and wishes her success.

Perhaps it's our perception of this "never been kissed" youngest of nine children, who stayed at home to take care of her ailing mother that has us rooting for her so much. To our minds, she never had a chance to get out there when she was younger, so let's give her the big one now. On the other hand, all those 20 and 30-somethings who are beating the pavement trying to get auditions and agents are still young yet, and have had plenty of other stuff in their lives (like boyfriends and girlfriends), so who really cares about them.

After seeing this video, one person wrote that he was "weeping over the years of wasted talent." That got me thinking about the millions of other people out there with beautiful voices who are living ordinary lives as doctors, teachers, pastors, steamfitters, whatever. People who maybe had their moment in the sun in their college choir, or who do community theater. Is this talent wasted because it never reaches millions? My friend Lonnie had a gorgeous voice, but rather than pursuing a career in music, is finishing up a doctorate in Nursing. Is her talent wasted? I don't think so, and I don't think that Susan Boyle's talent was wasted all these years by being shared only with people in her small town.

But we love a good Cinderella story, and Susan Boyle gave us one: the ugly duckling whose beautiful voice got her invited to the ball. And yet, as I've said many times already, it's worth noting that it's precisely because she's an "ugly duckling" that her voice was noticed.

Oh, and by the way, I can sing, and I'm 52. Does anyone want to invite me to the ball, even though I'm relatively good-looking?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Like A Kidney Stone

SPOILER ALERT: If you've never seen The Dead Poet's Society, and don't want the ending given away, skip this post until you've seen it. If you don't care about having a 20-year-old movie "ruined" for you, then go right on ahead.

Toward the end of The Dead Poet's Society, feeling that he can't escape the life planned out for him by his parents, Neil Perry commits suicide by shooting himself. The moment the sound of the gunshot is heard, most likely every person in the audience held his parents responsible, feeling that they just didn't get it.

I felt that way too, but there was someone else who I thought didn't get it - Neil. He, tragically, didn't get something that I understood from grade school: This too shall pass. Like a kidney stone, but it will pass.

This is what I thought all those times I was being bullied by Robert, John, Levi, or any of a number of bigger or stronger kids when I was in grade school. Somehow, I was able to step outside of myself, and look at the situation as a third party, thinking that in a few years they would "grow out of" their need to beat people up, and look back at how they treated me with shame.

This is what I thought when I was made fun of by the other kids, and none of the girls I was interested in would go out with me in high school. Again, somehow I was able to step outside of myself and say that in a few years they'd realize that the guy who wasn't cool enough and was way too geeky, was actually the better catch.

And this is what I thought as I chafed against some of the rules I didn't like from my parents. Even as far back as age 12, I took the long view, thinking "They may not let me do this now, but in six years, I can do whatever I want."

I was patient. With the bullies, with the girls, and with the rules. And I was right. Eventually the guys who were always waiting for me at the corner of Clinton Street and Melmore Gardens grew up and became productive citizens. Eventually the girls who thought I was too much of a dork married guys who were like me and wanted their kids to be like me. And eventually I moved out of my parents' house and didn't have to follow their rules anymore. I have to admit, however, that by the time this last thing happened, I didn't really care about flaunting most of those rules.

Neil didn't get it. He didn't get that he just had to wait it out another year or so, and then walk, to the consternation of his overly controlling parents. Instead, he gave himself a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

I teach grades 6 through 12, and middle school is a very ugly time for kids. High school isn't much better. With everyone trying to figure out where they fall in the social pecking order, they can be incredibly mean to each other. I wouldn't go back there for all the money in the world - unless I could take my 52-year-old brain with me, and then I'd be dangerous.

But there's one thing I want all of my students to know: that despite the horrible ways their classmates might treat them, and despite how limiting the rules of their parents may seem, this too shall pass. Like a kidney stone, but it'll pass.

It's really too bad that Neil didn't understand that, because once he got past that stone, he would've been a stronger person for it. I'd like to think that I am.

Oh, and while I'm ruining old movies for you, Rosebud is the sled.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Most Perfect Hunchback

When I was in grade school, my mother gave me a set of books that have to have had an effect on the warped sense of humor I have now. Sick Jokes, More Sick Jokes, and Still More Sick Jokes had both my sister and I laughing hysterically, and I have to admit that thanks to those books I still love a good "Helen Keller" joke.

In fact, I was telling Helen Keller jokes as I was wheeled in for my own eye surgery over 30 years ago. I figured that if I couldn't tell the jokes then, then I had no right to ever tell them at all.

But aside from the many Helen Keller and "Sheldon" jokes, one other joke stuck in my mind for years. It's the one about the preacher and the hunchback:
The Sunday gospel-shouter was in great form.

"Everything God made is perfect," he preached.

A hunchback rose the rear of the auditorium. "What about me?"

"Why," said the preacher, "you're the most perfect hunchback I ever saw!"
In that joke is a bit of truth about how some (but not all) Christians look at certain types of deformities and abnormalities. Unable to reconcile their beliefs that everything God does is perfect with the obvious imperfections some people have, they come up with convoluted logic like that of the preacher in that joke.

And this brings me to "Terry."

Now, to be fair, most Christians do accept the fact that some people are born with deformities and abnormalities that need to be addressed. That's why there are so many church-related hospitals in this country, and why there are so many missionary hospitals in other countries. And had Terry been born with a cleft palate, a heart defect, or one leg shorter than the other, he could've not only found help at one of these hospitals, but support from the many congregations that support them. In those cases they could accept the fact that sometimes God would let mistakes happen. But that wasn't Terry's defect.

Terry said that he was born the wrong sex, and wanted to have surgery to become Terri.

From the time when he was a child Terry felt that something was wrong, and that he was supposed to be a girl. He sat on this and fought it for 30 or 40 years, and then decided to do something about it, to fix what to him seemed like obvious mistake. But even almost 50 years after George Jorgensen made news with the surgeries that turned him into Christine, there was still a lot of resistance to the idea of sex reassignment surgery, particularly among Christians.

People who would never have told someone with a heart defect that the problem was "all in their mind" and that they should get counseling and pray about it, were saying exactly that to Terry. Yet, what is easier to change, the function of a brain or the physical structure of the body? I'm no biologist, and I don't play one on TV either, but as we learn more about the effects of hormones on all parts of the developing fetus, including the brain, it becomes clear that sometimes things don't always go right, mismatching brain and physical sexual assignment.

Despite this, there are still people out there who are effectively saying that Terry is "the most perfect hunchback they've ever seen."

I haven't seen Terry in about 10 years, but I'm hoping - and praying - that she's not a hunchback any longer.