Friday, December 24, 2010

Have Yourself An OK Little Christmas

Last week I was talking to a friend of mine about how she had always been trying to create the "perfect Christmas" for her and her family, and seemed, to her mind, to be failing at it every time. She could never quite get the magic that she remembered from her childhood and when her now-grown children were younger.

This reminded me of a clip from The Daily Show that my daughter Devra showed me. It was called Even Better Than The Real Thing, and was all about how all these pundits are saying that things were better back in the 80s, the 70s, the 60s, the 50s, the 40s, etc, but when people who actually lived as adults through those eras were interviewed, they told about how many things were wrong back in "the good old days," and that there never was any "golden age" when everything was perfect.

The conclusion that the correspondent for the piece came to was that each of the pundits who referred to a particular time as one when things were "better" was referring to the time when they were kids, and didn't know or have to know all of the gritty stuff that was going on in the larger world around them. So of course things seemed better to them.

So what does this have to do with the price of a bagel in Brooklyn?

When we think of our "perfect Christmases," we almost never remember the ones we had as adults. It's the memories we have from childhood, when we didn't have to do any of the preparation; when Christmas, along with all the presents, all the relatives, and all the food, just sort of magically appeared in front of us, and we participated without really having to help create it. That's why, as adults, the magic seems to fade, and we can't quite get the perfect Christmas anymore...because now we're the ones doing the work behind the scenes to create what will become someone else's memory of a perfect Christmas.

So to all of you and especially my friend, I say, sit back, relax, don't stress yourself out. Don't worry about having or creating a perfect Christmas. Instead, let yourself have an OK one. I'm betting that you'll feel a lot better about it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Milgram Effect

Two weeks ago I talked about unspeakable things. That is, I talked about people who insist on going into the gory details of what I would consider to be unspeakable things. I expected some responses to that, and I was not disappointed.

I didn’t have “time” to distinguish between the types of situations where people might feel obligated to give the gruesome details, and I also didn’t have the time to connect them with what I call the “Milgram Effect.” I’ll do that this week.

I’ve mentioned the Milgram Experiment before, in my entry on “obedience to authority,” but in case you’ve forgotten, let me recap for you:
In response to the recent war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann, Yale Psychology professor Stanley Milgram set up an experiment in which he told volunteers that he was testing the effect of electrical shocks on memory. In reality, his goal was to test people’s obedience to authority, even when what they were being asked to do went against their personal morals.
In the original 1961 experiments, only 35% of the volunteers refused to continue administering the shocks (which unbeknownst to them, were fake) after the person in the other room started screaming, while 65% went on to the final 450-volt shock.
Ironically, after he saw how disturbed the first batch of volunteers were at finding what horrible things they were capable of doing, Milgram continued running the experiment with more people; obeying the “authority” of academic inquiry, rather than saying “enough already” to human suffering; and in the TV movie version of this, once he realized what he had done, Milgram was quite distraught.
So what does this have to do with the workshop I went to? It depends on the reason why the speaker decided to take us all the way to “level 11” in hearing the horrible details of what was going on in the Congo.

If the speaker’s goal was simply to educate us as to the horrors going on there, then that goal could’ve been reached by simply telling us that women were being sexually tortured in unspeakable ways, and not citing chapter and bloody verse, while we sat there, flinching, unable to leave, and unable to stop ourselves from hearing.

Instead, the speaker ended up doing a Milgram on us; continuing to “run the experiment,” and giving us more details, despite seeing the obvious pain of the audience, and the person doing the reading. The speaker went all the way to that last 450-volt shock, by forcing us to hear details that 99% of us never need to hear.

The first one or two shocks would’ve been enough for most of us. But according to the people who replied to me, there is a group of people who definitely need that last 450-volt shock, and maybe even higher ones, administered. These people are what we would call “The Deniers.” These are the people who either deny that the Holocaust happened or that it was really that bad. These are the people who make the same denials about other documented and unspeakable cases of man’s inhumanity to man.

Clearly, to a denier, you have to provide all the gory, disgusting, graphic, unspeakable information, not giving them a moment to flinch; in order to make it clear to them that these things did and do happen. But is everyone a denier? By no means, and the people in the workshop that day were not a bunch deniers.

How would I have reacted had I been chosen to read those passages that day? I've thought about this a bit, and I’d like to think that after the second sentence, I’d have to stop and say that I could not and would not read any more to the audience, citing the Milgram experiments on obedience to authority, and not inflicting more pain as my reason.

I’d like to think that, but maybe I would “simply follow orders,” and keep reading too.

And I wouldn’t like myself very much when I realized what I’d done.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Unspeakable Things

My wife’s family plays a game that I call “One More Terrible Thing.” It’s not really a game at all, but when the family gets together, talk will inevitably turn to some horrible news story that one of them read or heard about, and then that will remind Cousin Jane about some other tragedy that she now has to talk about, and that will remind Uncle Bob about a horrible thing that he has to tell everyone; and it all goes on in a tragic version of “Can You Top This?”

When the game starts, I leave the room. The tragedies I know about, I prefer to keep to myself; and I don’t want to add any new ones to anyone’s collection.

Why? Have you ever heard the old saying that if I have a good idea and I tell it to you, then we both have a good idea? It means that telling that good idea spreads it. Well, similarly, I believe that the same thing applies to misery; and that spreading a tragic story that you have no real connection to, merely spreads the pain. Why should I tell you about a horrible thing that happened to a friend of mine in Minnesota, just to “make conversation?” Why should I add her misery to what you already have on your plate, and then have you spread it later on to some other totally unrelated person.

Maybe I’m just too sensitive a person, but I really believe in spreading no more misery than is absolutely necessary.

Which brings us to the workshop.

A while ago I was at a workshop in which the speaker asked one of the attendees to read few passages to the audience from a book that described in gruesome detail some of the unspeakably horrible things that are being done by both sides to women in the Congo in the midst of war.

As I sat there listening to a game of “one more terrible thing” that would make my wife’s family sound like pathetic amateurs, I wondered just how much of this detail was necessary for us to hear in order for the speaker to make her point, and spur us to want to change the situation. At what point did it become overkill, making some of us think, “Just kill them all and let God sort them out,” or even to question God’s existence in the first place? And not to try to make our discomfort seem at all equal to the very real pain of the people we were being told about, did giving us all of the gory details simply end up spreading the misery further?

You will notice that I mentioned “unspeakably horrible things” that were being done. I didn’t give you the details, because to my mind, just that phrase should be enough to make you wince at what the possibilities could be, without putting actual images in your head that can never be erased.

I also used that phrase because the things that were read to us that day were indeed unspeakably horrible. As I posted on Facebook later on that day, “We need to know that the Holocaust happened, we don’t all need to know every gruesome detail of what the Nazis did.” To force people to see and hear every detail of what was done is to spread the pain that they inflicted even further.

I believe that there are some evils that should remain unspeakable, unless you have specifically asked for the information, or have a real need for it. I have heard more than I needed to know, and starting with me, it will become unspeakable, so that I don’t spread the pain any further.

And yet, it remains that something does need to be done about the situation in the Congo.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Peanuts and Prayer

I don’t much read Peanuts anymore. All the strips that are in the paper now are ones that I likely read either when they first came out or in collections as a kid. Actually, I don’t much read the comics anymore. But every Sunday, when I gut the paper for coupons for Sofie to cut out, I have to pass by the comics section, and there, right on the front page, is Peanuts. And I always check to see if it’s a strip that I remember.

This past Sunday’s was a reprint from November 3rd, 1963. It’s not one I remembered reading before, but when I saw it, I immediately called Cheryl into the room.

“You have to read this,” I said. “And then I’ll explain it to you.”

If the link I put in to the strip isn’t working, let me summarize it for you. Sally Brown comes up behind her brother, who’s watching TV, and nonchalantly says, “Guess what?” After Charlie Brown takes the bait and asks “What?” she carefully looks around the house, and takes him to a spot where she’s sure that no one will hear her, and says, “We prayed in school today.”

Then I explained to Cheryl that she was to young to remember, since she didn’t start school until 1967, but I remembered school prayer, and it wasn’t as simple and innocuous as everyone thinks it was. At least not at Ashland School, in East Orange, NJ. It wasn’t a simple case of saying a little prayer at the beginning of the day; I remember the day in Mrs Celmar’s 1st grade classroom starting with the Pledge of Allegiance, a reading from the Psalms, and the Lord’s Prayer. And this was a scene that was repeated in all four sections of every grade from K-8.

That is, until the famous Supreme Court decision of June 1963 that “banned prayer from public schools.”

Someone once said that as long as there are algebra tests, there will be prayer in school.

The decision in Abington School District v Schempp did not ban prayer from public schools. What it banned were the religious exercises like the one I described at Ashland School. It banned them as mandatory, official activities of the school.

Those of you who know me, know that I’m a religious person, and you know something? Based on what I remember, and from what I’ve found out from researching this, the Supreme Court made the right decision. A simple non-denominational prayer, a simple moment of silence, would’ve been one thing; but requiring all students to take part in a religious exercise that may not even be a part of their religion is another.

And here’s the kicker. Whenever this issue comes up, everyone always thinks of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the famous atheist. But the original plaintiff in this suit, before his case was combined with hers, was Edward Schempp, a Unitarian-Universalist, who claimed that the daily religious exercises in the schools his children attended, violated their family’s religious beliefs. Schempp felt that it wasn’t enough for his children to be allowed to leave the room during the religious exercises, because being the ones who left, being the different ones, might make them targets for bullying.

In fact, O’Hair said that her son’s refusal to take part in the classroom religious exercises resulted in bullying being directed at him by his classmates. Bullying which school officials seemed to condone.

Being bullied for being different is something that we’ve gained increased sensitivity to over the past few years.

So go on, pray when you realize that there’s a test next period that you haven’t studied for. Pray that the cute little red-haired girl over there will go to the Homecoming Dance with you. Pray that when the principal calls you down to his office, it’s for a good reason and not a bad one. You can even pray for the victims of the most recent tragedy or disaster (and there seem to be far too many of those). It’s all OK. You can do this in public school. What the Supreme Court banned almost 50 years ago was the kind of coercive, mandatory prayer that I remember. And it’s a good thing.

I just pray that everyone else understands this.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Felony Insensitivity

Many years ago, a friend of mine came up with the term felony stupidity to describe certain incidents of what we call “date rape.” I liked his terminology because it implied no evil intent upon the perpetrator, but instead, that he got himself into a situation where he did something stupid with very bad consequences.

I like to think of the term felony stupidity as also applying to those cases where kids out on a lark drop water balloons, pumpkins, or even bricks, from highway overpasses onto the cars below. I’ve seen what a water balloon dropped from a 10th story dorm room can do to a car’s windshield, so I don’t even want to think about what a pumpkin or a brick could do. Did you ever wonder why so many pedestrian overpasses have chain link fencing to a good arms-length height above?

Once again, we have cases of people with no evil intent doing something stupid, with often tragic results.

And now, with the tragic events at Rutgers last week, I’d like to add another term to the lexicon: felony insensitivity.

Was it truly a hate crime when Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei used a hidden webcam to stream live video of Tyler Clementi having a sexual encounter with another man to the Internet? Did they target him because they knew or suspected that he was gay, or were they just out for a little “fun,” hoping to embarrass him by catching him with anyone, male or female, or maybe even masturbating on camera? Was what they did motivated by hate, by homophobia, or by simple stupidity and insensitivity? Felony stupidity and felony insensitivity?

Does the motivation even matter, as long as one person is dead as a result of these actions?

For that matter, does the person’s orientation really matter in cases like this? I have a dear friend who had intimate video of her copied off of her boyfriend’s computer by his roommate, and then posted to the Internet. Was it any less wrong that this was done to her because she was straight? It might have been less embarrassing, but it definitely wasn’t less wrong. Fortunately she had a good head on her shoulders, and lots of supportive friends, as well as a supportive family; and her body was not found floating in the Hudson River.

It’s worth noting that according to New Jersey law, collecting or viewing sexual images without consent is a 4th-degree crime. Do you hear that? It’s not just a little prank, it’s a crime. Furthermore, transmitting those images is a 3rd-degree crime, with a maximum sentence of five years. These are things that everyone should know before they even open the shrink wrap on their webcam.

Before this story broke, I talked to my 6th, 7th, and 9th grade computer literacy classes about the difference between knowledge and wisdom. We concluded that knowledge is knowing how to do something, while wisdom is knowing whether or not you should use the knowledge you have. I was, however, particularly struck by the definition one young lady gave me when she said that wisdom is knowledge with a conscience.

“Knowledge with a conscience.” This appears to be something that Ravi and Wei didn’t have. They knew how to set up a webcam to spy on the private moments of a fellow student, but they didn’t stop to think that maybe this was something that they shouldn’t do. The conscience seems to have been lacking there.

It is unspeakably tragic that Tyler Clementi gave himself a permanent solution to a temporary problem, because as Ellen DeGeneres said in her widely circulated video statement about this, “Things will get easier, people’s minds will change, and you should be alive to see it.”

In the meantime, it's up to all of us to see to it that there are fewer cases of this kind of felony insensitivity.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Academic Dishonesty

School’s back in session, and it’s time to talk about cheating.

According to recent studies, over 90% of all students admitted to some form of academic dishonesty at one time or another. The educational community is shocked about this. What has happened lately to cause so many students to lose any sense of a moral compass?

However, this isn’t an issue of just recent times. In her book My Freshman Year, author Rebekah Nathan cites figures of 83% for 1993. That’s a significant rise from 1963’s figures of…81%

What’s going on here? Is cheating really rampant enough among our high school and college students for us to be worried about it? Have things gotten totally out of control?

I think it all depends on how you define “academic dishonesty.” Let me tell you a story.
My sophomore year in high school, Mrs Guyre, our English teacher, gave us a vocabulary test every Friday. We didn’t have to be able to spell them right, we just had to be able to define them. She was a new teacher, so she didn’t have her own room. She used the room we had her in just for that one class, then it was off to the next available room. My homeroom was right around the corner from the room we had English in, and one day, just to see what would happen, I put about three or four words, and their definitions, on the far corner of the blackboard.
She never noticed.
This was the beginning of a plan to have someone on the lookout for her every Friday, while I wrote as many words and their definitions on the board as possible before she got there. This went on for weeks, until one day the class got lazy and sloppy.
“Facetious,” Mrs Guyre called out. And as one 28 heads went up and looked to the far corner of the blackboard. She didn’t think anything of it.
“Ostentatious,” she called out. And again, 28 heads went up to check out the words on the board. About four words in, she figured out that something was going on, and then turned around to see the words on the board.
“OK, who did this?” she asked, and 28 fingers pointed in my direction.
“And just how long have you been doing this?”
“Oh…” I said, “about two months.”
She was not happy. Not at all.

What’s my point here? My point is that by our 10th grade standards, we had simply pulled a fast one on the new teacher for two months. We had “gotten over.” I’m willing to bet that none of the 28 of us had ever cheated on a test or paper in the classic sense of cheating, and yet, if you consider the broader term of “academic dishonesty” from an adult’s perspective, that little two-month game we played with Mrs Guyre surely qualified as a case of it.

Do over 90% of all students cheat or otherwise engage in some form of academic dishonesty? You bet they do. In fact I'm betting that most of it involves some form of "getting over" on the teacher like we did with Mrs Guyre.

Did over 90% of us do the same thing when we were their age?

If you’re honest with yourself, you know what the answer is.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Simple Question

It was a simple question, and yet it was a tough one. It was one of those philosophical questions that make certain people’s minds just go in circles all night long. And I was one of those people.

The question revolved around a set of parking spaces.

Just a few nights earlier, I had driven to the library to check something out, and noticed the normal paucity of spaces in the little parking area right near the door. But this time, I had gotten lucky. I arrived just as someone else was leaving, so I was able to take the newly-freed spot for my own.

As I waited for the departing car to totally clear the spot I was waiting for, my attention turned to the other two free spots nearby. The three spots I couldn’t touch, and was glad that I couldn’t. These were two of the three designated handicapped parking spaces, and I realized that I had never seen all three handicapped spots in use. In fact, I couldn’t recall a time when I saw more than one of them in use at a time.

And this is when the philosophical question arose in my head.

The question is this:
If you arrive at the library, driving a car with handicap plates, but not being handicapped yourself, and see only one “regular” space available, but all three handicapped spots available, which do you park in? Do you park in the regular space because you’re not handicapped, but risk incurring the wrath of every other non-handicapped person who comes along later on, wondering why a disabled person took a regular spot when there were three perfectly good handicapped spots that they were entitled to? Or do you park in one of the three handicapped spots, even though you’re not handicapped yourself, because the plates entitle you to, you’ve never seen all three spots used at once, and you wanted to leave the remaining regular spot for someone else?
It seemed like a perfectly good question to me. It seemed like a perfectly logical philosophical question. I could see both sides of the issue, but I wanted to know what everyone else thought should be done.

And let me point out right now, that I don’t have access to a car with handicap plates, so there was no personal interest in it for me at all. It was simply a philosophical question, and one that I put out to my friends on the Internet.

I was not prepared for the hammering I got.

Apparently there is a correct answer to the question, there is a right and a wrong thing to do, and actually a legal and an illegal thing to do. And boy, did I get beaten bloody for even asking the question.

But for Pete’s sake, I didn’t know. I really didn’t know, and that’s what made it a philosophical question. Had I known that there were actual rules in place about this, and what they were, I wouldn’t have bothered to ask the question. But in asking the question, people accused me of wanting to take something that I wasn’t entitled to. The accused me of trying to steal from the handicapped, and that’s pretty low.

No one took the time to calmly say,
“Um, Keith, there are actually rules about this, and they say that unless the disabled person is in the car at the time, or is going to be getting into the car, you can’t park there, no matter what it says on your plates.” 
Not a one.

Nope, it was a veritable orgy of jumping down my throat and throwing ugly accusations my way.

Makes a guy want to think twice before asking a simple question.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Why Don't You Go Play Outside

One thing I’ve learned from 18 years of teaching high school is that teenagers are notoriously squeamish about sex.

Well, let me restate that. They’re notoriously squeamish about the idea of their parents having sex.

Think about it. As much as we parents don’t want to have to deal with the idea of our kids “doing it” (and having as much fun as we did at that age), they don’t want to deal with the idea of us doing it. But for different reasons.

We want to protect them from unplanned pregnancies and diseases that a quick shot of penicillin won’t cure anymore (remember those days?). They just think it’s gross. Old people having sex? Eew.

First of all, they can’t believe that we “old people” actually find each other attractive. About 10 years ago one of my 8th graders said, “Mr G, we understand that 20-year-olds find other 20-year-olds attractive. But do 50-year-olds really find other 50-year-olds attractive?”

Without missing a beat I replied, “Yes. And some of you have some very attractive mothers.”

They almost threw up.

Then a few years later, one of my 9th graders was in total denial about the idea that his parents ever had sex.

I rolled my eyes and said, “Matt, you weren’t hatched.”

“OK well it was just that one time.”

“Matt, you have two siblings.”

He was getting a little distraught, but said, “OK, just those three times.”

Then I went for the jugular. I looked him straight in the eye and said, “Matt, did your parents ever say to you, ‘Why don’t you go play outside?’”

There was a look of horror as the blood drained from his face, and he screamed, “NOOOOOO!”

I guess he was asked to go play outside a lot.

As I recounted that very story to a group of recent 9th graders, one girl got very quiet and said in a quavering voice, “My parents still tell me to go play outside. Oh eew. That’s just disgusting. They shouldn’t be doing that at their age. They should like each other for other reasons.”

How quaint. How cute even. They should like each other for other reasons. Almost sounds like something we’d tell them.

So then I asked her, how old is too old to be having sex.

Her answer? 40.

I laughed, and she said, “No, Mr G. Don’t tell me anything about you that I really don’t want to know.” As if I’d actually give her the details of my personal life. But then the little light went on over her head.

“Wait a minute. How old are you?”


“And Sofie’s seven. That means…EEEEW!”

And if you think they think the idea of their parents having sex is disgusting enough. Just even hint that their grandparents might still be playing a little “sofa hockey.”

“Oh that’s disgusting, Mr G!”

“Why? Why shouldn’t your grandparents continue to enjoy life?” I’d ask.

“It’s just gross. I mean, all those wrinkles and everything.”

I look at them, I sigh, and then I ask, “Have you ever heard of a product called Viagra?”

“Yeah…” they all go tentatively.

“In general, who is it marketed to?”

“Guys who can’t…”

“No, no,” I say, cutting them off. “What age group generally has that problem?”

They haltingly say, not really wanting to admit it, “Old guys…eew.”

So to you teenagers out there who think that people like your parents (or grandparents) having sex is disgusting, think about when you get to be that old, which I hope that you all do. And admit to yourselves why there’s that lock on your parents’ bedroom door.

And all you parents of teenagers, mess with their heads a little bit. Just for fun, say, “Why don’t you go play outside.”

And watch them run, screaming, from the house.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Whiter Than Sour Cream?

Weird Al Yankovic was in town last month, and we had to go see him. All four of us. Even our seven-year-old daughter is a big Weird Al fan, and she thought it was absolutely “awesome” when he came and sang on our table. Not at it, but on it.

One of Weird Al’s songs is called White and Nerdy, which is a parody of Ridin by Chamillionaire, and it talks about how he is just too…well…white and nerdy. He goes so far as to describe himself as being “whiter than sour cream.” And I understood the joke. No, not the obvious one on him.

The one on me.

I complained back in March of last year about the friends and colleagues who said that I was one of the whitest black people they knew. I took this as a well-intentioned, but misguided, compliment, saying that I didn’t fit their stereotype of what black people should be like.

But one long-time white friend made me see the light when she said that it never occurred to her that I’d take it as a compliment when she called me the whitest person she knew. Not the whitest black person she knew, but the whitest person she knew. She was making fun of me.

There are certain stereotypes among white people about white people that they use when they’re making fun of themselves. And yes, for those of you who didn’t know it, they do make fun of themselves. And apparently this friend, and many other people I know, thought I did a lot of things that fit those stereotypes. Just check out

I was whiter than sour cream.

I got the joke when I saw Weird Al. My friends and colleagues weren’t trying to compliment me by saying how white I was, quite the contrary, they were giving me some good-natured ribbing that I didn’t get.

What do you think? Check out Weird Al’s video for White and Nerdy.

Of course, some people will say that just being a Weird Al fan in the first place qualifies me.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

It's Not Fair

I just got word that a friend of mine is going to lose her battle with Leukemia.

My first reaction to this news was unprintable. It was a variation of one of George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on the air. My second reaction was the classic lament of “It’s not fair!

But as I drove along in the van, digesting the news, I got to wondering about what exactly “fair” is. Are there different definitions of “fair?” Of course there are. We all know that what’s fair to you might not seem fair to me. But is there an objective definition of “fair” that we’d all have to grudgingly accept, no matter how little we like it?

If we define “fair” as things always going the way we want them, never having bad things happen to people we love, and only ever having bad things happen to evil people, then life is pretty unfair most of the time. But suppose we look at “fair” differently? I’m a math person. Suppose we look at it as being a relatively even random distribution?

According to the figures I was able to get from Wikipedia, which may be wrong, in the year 2000, 256,000 people around the world developed some form of Leukemia. With a world population of 6 billion, that works out to 1 in every 24,000 people or 0.004%.

If this is the case, then if 0.004% of people are diagnosed with Leukemia, wouldn’t a “fair” distribution be 0.004% of nice people, 0.004% of evil people, 0.004% of children, 0.004% of people I know, etc? Isn’t the very definition of “fair” the fact that it doesn’t seem to just land on one group of people, but that it inflicts its pain pretty evenly throughout the entire population with no partiality?

Looked at that way, while it may not be the way I'd like things to be, it may be perfectly "fair" that people I know and are really nice people get this as well as people who I believe the world could well do without.

That is, of course, if that’s how you define fair; and I may just be rationalizing.

A friend of mine is going to lose her battle with Leukemia. It may be statistically fair, but I don’t like it one zbgure-shpxvat bit.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Make A Wish

My birthday was last week, and it was one of the rare times that we weren’t on the road for it. The Upstate New York portion of the family gathered on our front porch for pizza, soda, and Kool-Aid, and then it was time for the cake.

Cheryl lit a candle, and held it out for me to blow out.

“Don’t forget to make a wish!” someone shouted.

I thought carefully about my wish, and then blew out the candle.

“So what did you wish for?” someone asked.

“I can’t tell you,” I replied. “It would spoil the wish.”

But my not telling them what I wished for didn’t prevent them from trying to guess - and they were all way off the mark.

A few days later my mother-in-law called and asked if I had won the lottery.

“Um, I doubt it. Why?”

“Because someone at the Price Chopper near you bought a winning Mega Millions ticket worth $43 million, and I remember that you wished to win the lottery.”

I thought that was funny, since I hadn’t told anyone what I had wished for. When I got off the phone, I told Cheryl about the conversation with her mother.

“So what did you wish for?” she asked.

“You know me well enough, what do you think I wished for?”

“Well, there are lots of good things: for people to leave you alone, for Devra to get a job, for Devra to get into college, for certain people who annoy you at work to get nice jobs somewhere else…”

“You forgot the big one.”

“What’s that?”

“For people to not be stupid.”

You see, to me, all the problems in the world come as a result of people just being bloody stupid. They don’t realize that what’s good for them in the short run may not be in their long-term best interests. They don’t realize that the person they’re mistreating now may be the person they’ll need to save their lives later on. They get in their own way by being so stupid.

And they don’t realize that I’m always right.

“That was a stupid wish,” Cheryl said.


“At least you’d have a chance of winning the lottery. People not being stupid anymore is never gonna happen.”

“But I thought the point of making a wish was to ask for something that you normally wouldn’t get.”

“Yeah,” she said, but you have to have a realistic chance of getting it. Winning the lottery is realistic, having those bozos at work get new jobs somewhere else is realistic; they could all happen. Asking for all humanity to realize that you’re always right, ain’t gonna happen. And if you wish for stupid things like that, you’re just wasting wishes.”

Whoa! That was a totally new concept to me: wasting wishes. This, of course, implied that wishes came true. I figured that if they didn’t come true anyway, then there was no harm in wishing for things like world peace…or people not being stupid. And if they did come true by my wishing, then that’s great for everyone.

But the idea that you could waste a wish by using it for something impossible never occurred to me.

I guess wishes are about things that are theoretically attainable, but just need a little nudge (or a big shove) to have happen. I guess they’re also one of the few times when it really is all about you. That means that wishing for something that serves the greater good of the world may well end up being a stupid, wasted, wish, while wishing for a date with Kari Byron from MythBusters isn’t.

Anyway, enough of this. I need to go to the corner store and see if I got lucky with any of the lottery tickets I bought there.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What's In A Name

It started when a 30-something Sunday School teacher came into the kitchen where the regular group of us were having a conversation, and asked me to come down to her class.
“Mr Gatling, could we borrow you for part of our video project?”

I didn’t think about it at the moment, but I did when I returned to the kitchen, and made a mental note to do something about it. When Sunday School was over, and she came to the kitchen to join us, I said to her, “Erin, what’s my name?”

“Mr Gatling,” she replied.

“No, let’s try this again. What’s my name?”

“Ohhhh. Keith,” she said.

The rest of the kitchen crowd laughed, and someone said, “Yeah, Mr Gatling is his father.”

Well, that wasn’t quite it. It was the fact that I work with people her age and younger, to whom I’m Keith, and there are other people her age at church to whom I’m Keith. As a teacher, she probably works with people my age that she’s on a first name basis with. So why was I Mr Gatling to her?

Because she grew up in this church, and probably remembers me from when she was a teenager, and then I was definitely Mr Gatling to her. Now that she was a grownup too, it was time to change that.

As we got to talking about this, one of the women in the kitchen said how much she hated it when adults introduced themselves to her kids by their first name. She said, “My kids have to call you Mr or Mrs Gatling, or if you don’t like that, I’ll settle for Mr Keith or Miss Cheryl. It’s a matter of respect.”

I bit my tongue.

You see, to me respect isn’t necessarily about the forms we use, but about respecting what the other person wants. And if I want to be called Keith, isn’t it being more respectful to go with what I want than what you want? Besides, I can call you Your Royal Highness, and think you’re a horse’s ass. Similarly, I can call you Chuckie, and be willing to follow you into Hell. But I chose not to fight that battle then.

Sometimes it’s about culture. If I’m from a culture that insists that you address me one way, but you’re from a culture that insists that you address me another one, who wins? Who’s right?

And sometimes the culture doesn’t have to be one of region or nationality, but could be one of where you worked. I worked at McDonald’s in high school, and the corporate culture there said that everyone was on a team together, and that meant that everyone was on a first name basis, no matter how old you were. When my mother came to work at McDonald’s with me and my sister for a few weeks while Western Electric was on strike, she immediately became Elsie, and once that genie was out of the bottle, it never went back in.

There is so much more to this, but I don’t have the time right now to talk about the question of how old you were when you first met someone, and how the same age difference can mean different things when you’re 3 and 17 than when you’re 13 and 27.

So…am I Keith, Mr Gatling, Mr G, or even just G? It all depends on who you are and when I met you.

And if you respect me, you’ll address me the way that I’d prefer to be addressed.

Although, if it really makes you feel more comfortable, I’ll let you call me something more formal than I might be happy with.

Oh Great Exalted One would be nice.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

On Obedience to Authority

In the famous (or infamous) Milgram Experiment, Yale Psychology professor Stanley Milgram told volunteers that he was testing the effect of electrical shocks on memory. In reality, his goal was to test people’s obedience to authority, even when what they were being asked to do went against their personal morals.

On May 22nd, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts suggests that due to the results of some recent experiments with children and dolls, nothing has changed on the issue of race over the past forty years.

I disagree.

In the experiments he talks about, five-year-old white and black children are given light-skinned and dark-skinned dolls, and told to choose which one is the smart one or the stupid one, the pretty one or the ugly one. And the sad results are that most children, even the black ones, will pick the dark-skinned dolls as being the stupid or ugly ones.

But are we really seeing childhood racism here, or a pint-sized version of the Milgram Experiment? In the original 1961 experiments, only 35% of the volunteers refused to continue administering the shocks, despite the prodding of the person who appeared to be running the experiment. Let me put this to you a little differently: Only 35% of adults were capable of saying “No, I will not do this anymore.”

What does this have to do with five-year-olds and dolls? A lot. If only 35% of adults found it within them to question the apparent purpose of Milgram’s experiment, if 65% of the volunteers followed the instructions of the authority figure to the point of administering the last 450-volt shock, then how can we expect five-year-olds to behave any differently?

What I am saying here is that perhaps we found out more about how children respond to authority than what they think about race. What five-year-old is going to have the savvy and wherewithal to say to the grownup in charge (the authority figure) “Why are you asking me this question?” “Why are you making me choose?” Indeed, that child might not even have thought in terms of one being good and the other being bad until the authority figure put that idea into her head. And not being given an option to not choose, they made the choices they did. Seems to me that this is the sign of a flawed experiment.

And suppose some smart child did indeed say, “This is stupid.” Would they then prodded, Milgram-like, into making a choice, or would they be left alone?

I’d like to see the results of this test with the child given red and green dolls to choose from; or one doll their skin color, and a doll that was green or red or blue or purple. Really, what happens when you tell a five-year-old to make a binary choice, any binary choice, and then explain why they made that choice?

The irony of Milgram’s experiment is that after he saw how disturbed the first batch of volunteers were at finding what horrible things they were capable of doing, he continued running the experiment; obeying the “authority” of academic inquiry, rather than saying “enough already” to human suffering.

I believe that there is a similar irony with the doll experiments, in that every time we run these on kids, we may well end up putting ideas into their heads that weren’t there in the first place, and perpetuating the problem.

And for Pete’s sake, why weren’t there any Asian dolls? After all, everyone knows that they’re the really smart ones.

Or maybe five-year-olds haven’t figured that out yet.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Good News From the Invitation Box

There’s a box in the closet in my study that has the invitations or bulletins from most of the weddings I went to during the 1980s.

I keep this box for reference purposes. And last week I checked it to see what time my sister-in-law got married. Since it was a Sunday wedding, it had to have been in the afternoon, after the regular service, and finding the invitation would tell me for sure. I didn’t find the invitation, but while I was looking, I decided to do a little counting. Of all the weddings I had documentation for, how many of those marriages were still intact?

There were 17 marriages documented in that box, mine included, and of those, 10 are still going strong, one ended with the untimely death of one of the partners after almost 20 years, three ended in divorce, and three are couples that I’ve totally lost track of over the years.

If I get rid of the couples I’ve lost track of and count the one death among the success stories, we get a score of 11 to 3. Put into percentages, that’s a 79% success rate for marriage among my friends – at least the friends whose documentation I still had.

Let me say that again: 79% of the marriages I had documentation for are still intact. And these are all first marriages.

There’s an old saying that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics; and some of you may want to consider this as one of the third, after all “everyone knows” that half of all marriages end in divorce.

But that’s one of those statistics too, and it’s not one to be trusted. Here’s why. The figures that “everyone knows” about marriage and divorce are taken by comparing the number of people who got married in year x with the number of people who got divorced in year x. These two numbers have nothing to do with each other – at all. The people who got divorced in 2008 may have gotten married as far back as 1958, and spread equally along the 50 years between the two. For the figures to be meaningful, you have to track a group of people who got married in 1958 and see what percentage of them are still married to each other 20, 30, 40 years later.

That’s what my invitation box did, and studies that use this method tend to come up with a 60% to 70% success rate.

There’s one more thing, though. At about the same time that I got the good news from my invitation box, Larry King got divorced for the 7th time. While it’s true that most first marriages tend to go the distance, if you’re counting the sheer number of marriages and divorces, people like Larry King, Elizabeth Taylor, and  Mickey Rooney skew the figures.

But what about the weddings I went to during the 80s that I didn’t have documentation for in my invitation box? Ah…I knew someone had to ask about those. As I thought carefully and tried to remember all of them, the figures came closer to 68% and 32%. But that’s still pretty darned good!

And finally, a word for my friend whose documentation never made it into my box, but is one of the 32% of divorces. I do not in any way mean to imply that people in the 32% didn’t work hard enough, didn’t love each other enough, or weren’t committed enough. By no means! Sometimes things just don’t work out no matter how hard you try, and you sadly have to walk away from it.

But this same friend has since remarried and speaks of the joy of second chances. I firmly agree there. I know many people who found success the second time around.

And having just celebrated her 18th anniversary, I’m counting her as being in the 68% success rate for second marriages!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Death of the Book

A while back I had an idea for a piece about the so-called “death of the book” that was supposedly on the horizon. Many well-known digiterati had said that with advances in portable computing, it was only a matter of time before the book, and indeed printed literature as we knew it, would all disappear.

And this was before the arrival, or even the announcement of the iPad.

However, like Mark Twain, I was prepared to say that the rumors of the book’s impending death were greatly exaggerated.

First of all, there’s the price factor. Sure, some of us in certain socio-economic classes can afford the latest new electronic toy when it first comes out, but for most people $400 for an Amazon Kindle is a stretch. And then to take this to the beach where it’ll get sand and water on it? No thanks, I’m leaving mine in the car where it’s safe, and reading a good old inexpensive and expendable paperback with me while I’m sunning myself.

True, after enough of the digiterati buy these devices to make the price drop, everyone and his brother will have one, and it won’t seem like you’re courting disaster to take it on the beach with you. I never would’ve taken my $400 first-generation iPod on the beach with me at Cape May. My $150 Nano (which, by the way, holds way more music than my first one did) goes with me everywhere. Perhaps one day the Kindles, Nooks, and iPad will reach this level of saturation and price point.

But the main reason I was prepared to say that the book would be with us for a long time is because I’ve heard this all before. Film was supposed to herald the end of live theater, records would bring about the end of live music, television would bring about the end of movies and radio. In the end, none of those things happened. In fact, it’s a special treat to see a live theater or musical performance. So it is with the plain old printed book. Other things may come along that are fancier and seem like they might take its place, but I’m betting that the book will be around for a good long time. I'm also betting that as time goes on, we'll see that the printed book has certain advantages over its digital cousins.

As I said, I was going to write a piece on this, but never got around to it. And then I saw Anna Quindlen’s piece Turning the Page in the March 26th issue Newsweek in which she said:
Americans, however, tend to bring an either-or mentality to most things, from politics to prose. The invention of television led to predictions about the demise of radio. The making of movies was to be the death knell of live theater; recorded music, the end of concerts. All these forms still exist—sometimes overshadowed by their siblings, but not smothered by them.
Dang! She took the words right out of my mouth – and sent them out to a much wider audience than I could ever hope to reach.

And it’s an audience that she reached mostly…by print.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sand and Water

One of the sadder, and yet more fascinating, things I had to do in 2009 was to attend my first Jewish funeral, for the mother of one of my students.

I loved how the cantor started it by saying, “Let’s face it, none of us wants to be here today. We all have things we would much rather be doing than this.” Wasn’t that the truth.

But it was the graveside ceremony, under a tent in the snow, that really struck me. One of the things that the two daughters did was to each put a spadeful of earth from Israel onto their mother’s casket, followed by some from good old Syracuse NY. Then family members each put a spadeful of earth on the casket. Finally the rabbi asked if anyone else wanted to do the same.

There was an uncomfortable silence as many of the people from school, most of whom weren’t Jewish, wondered what they should do. Was it appropriate for us to take part in what seemed to be such a painfully intimate tradition? The rabbi must’ve sensed our discomfort, because after that awkward silence, he invited us, all of us, to put a spadeful of earth on the casket, explaining that it was a mitzvah to do so.

Later on, I got to thinking about that some more, and laughed as I considered that if they put earth from New Jersey on my casket, it would have to be decontaminated of all the toxic wastes first. Then I thought, “Nah, just have them use a bucket of Cape May sand.” After all, Cape May is my favorite beach and probably my favorite part of New Jersey.

Well, about a week ago I read an article in the April issue of The Lutheran magazine about a pastor who collects water…for baptisms. He asks family members of the child to be baptized to bring water from places that are significant to them, and that water will be added to the water in the baptismal font that day.

What a great idea, and had I known about it 17 years ago, it would've taken me to Cape May again; this time for water from the Atlantic Ocean. We would’ve used Cape May water for the baptisms of both of our daughters.

Sand and water. Or rather – water and sand. Important symbols at both ends of life.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pride, Logic, and Real Estate

A few years ago I read an article that said that for the amount of money it cost us to fight the war in Vietnam, we could've given every Vietnamese person $3000, and not have lost a single American life. And just think of how far $3000 per person - not per family, but per person - would have gone there.

But there's something about us that thinks it's dishonorable to "bribe" people to do things our way, or that makes us feel that we're condoning blackmail if we pay rather than fight. I'm not so sure about this. I think that $3000 per person would've been a very good idea, and might have earned us a lot of friends very early in the game, instead of the enemies we ended up with.

All of this leads me to think about real estate. Some of the most contested real estate in the world.

The stuff in the Middle East.

Call me incredibly naive, or call me an amazing realist, but I'd like to sit representatives of the Israelis and the Palestinians together in one room and ask the Palestinians this very important question:
Is your issue with Israel about real estate, and the just compensation for it, or is it about pride?
The answer to this question is very important. Because if it's really just about real estate, this whole thing can be settled in a few days with the writing of a couple of million large checks. But the cynic here suspects that as much as the Palestinians may say that it's about the land that was unfairly taken from them when they "abandoned it" (as the Israelis might say), it's more about pride and still wanting to drive the Israelis to the sea, no matter how much money they had to offer.

It's as if we were actually smart enough to offer $3000 to every Vietnamese man, woman, and child, and they turned it down.

I think about the borders drawn in the divvying up of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Borders that have caused nothing but trouble, because they weren't really based on the ethnic and cultural realities of the region, but on what Europeans thought would be a good idea for themselves. I think about borders that have been the backdrop for conflict after conflict ever since; and may well be considered the continuing battles of World War I.

And I wonder why Florin can't just offer Guilder so much money to buy the contested land once and for all, without a shot being fired?

The answer, of course, is pride. They would rather spend even more money, and lives, to try to seize the land "for free" than just peacefully buy it outright.

And if they could do this, if they could just buy the contested land from the other country, and didn't have to spend money on soldiers and weapons, maybe they could put their remaining funds to use on making life better for their own citizens.

Ah, too often pride gets in the way of logic.

Logic which would allow them to live long and prosper.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I'm Back!

I’m back!

So where have I been all this time? Nowhere really. Right here where I’ve always been.

So then, why haven’t you heard from me in a long time?

The simple answer is that I just got too busy. Life got too complicated, there was too much for me to try to do, and not enough hours for me to get it done in. A 30-hour day would come in very handy for me.

Add to that the fact that I’m very fussy about what I write, and you can see where I’d have a bit of a problem on my hands.

Really, you have no idea how long it takes for me to write a 600-word piece. Oh sure, the ideas pop into my head like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve got a list a mile long of possible topics for this blog. But getting each topic down to 600 well-written words…well, that’s another story. I agonize over every sentence I write, because I want to get it just right. Especially when people compliment me on how well I write. With that kind of pressure on you, you can’t afford to put out a piece of dreck.

But I’m back! I’ve got a lot to say, and I’m gonna work hard on getting a new piece out every Tuesday. I suppose this means sitting down for an hour every Wednesday with no one around to disturb me. [cue laughter]. Who knows, maybe over a weekend or two (or a school break), I can even stockpile items to be posted automatically later on. That would be great.

Well, for now I guess just around 300 words is enough. But believe me, next week you’ll start hearing from me again in earnest.

And I can’t stress enough the importance of being earnest.