Tuesday, December 27, 2011

As Clear As A 2x4 In The Eye

So by now, probably everyone has heard about the big flap caused when Lowe’s removed all its advertising from the Learning Channel show All-American Muslim because of complaints from the Florida Family Association that this show was showing Muslims as normal Americans who just happened to practice a different religion, and not as the terrorist threat that they really are.


And by now, a lot of people may have heard the response from Lowe’s, that they had pulled the ads from future episodes even before the FFA (sorry about that, Future Farmers of America) contacted them, because they try not to advertise in controversial programs.

Well, OK…I can maybe see that.

Some of you have even seen Jon Stewart’s coverage of this whole disaster, and if you haven’t yet, here’s the link for it: John Stewart on Lowe’s

But you know me…I can’t just hear a little about the story. I want to know a little more about the people behind it. So I went to the website of the Florida Family Association, where I found this statement:
The Learning Channel's new show All-American Muslim is propaganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law. The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish.
And then it hit me in the head like a 2x4…the very kind you can get at Lowe’s.

The FFA and its followers seem to be a group of right-wing, conservative Christians who are as worried about fundamentalist Muslims trying to inflict their rules on the rest of us as many “liberals” are concerned about fundamentalist Christians trying to inflict their rules.

Calling Matthew 7:3.

Now, for those of you who aren’t the “right kind” of Christian, and therefore didn’t immediately know what it was, because you don’t have the entire Bible committed to memory (and shame on you for that), this is one of the times when Jesus asks, “How can you try to take a speck out of your neighbor’s eye when you’ve got a freaking 2x4 in your own?”

A 2x4, which, by the way, came from Lowes.

Think about it. For all practical purposes, the FFA is afraid of Muslims doing what they already want to do themselves, and they want to warn us about the Muslim danger without being aware of the Christian danger.

And I say this as a card-carrying Christian.

They don’t see that their desire to codify their Christian religious beliefs into civil is just as scary as the idea of Muslim religious beliefs being codified into civil law. They’re so focused on “the Muslim issue,” that they don’t notice the 2x4 in their own eyes.

So let’s look at a few simple facts here.

  1. Religious fundamentalism of any kind is scary. And whenever any religion seeks to have its rules codified into civil law, it’s time for the people to be concerned.
  2. Most people of any religion are not fundamentalists, and we have nothing to fear from them. That’s the point of All-American Muslim, and I often think that we need a show like All-American Christian to show the everyday Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and so on, who are perfectly happy to follow their own religious rules without trying to inflict them on others.
  3. We all need to learn a lot more about each other. Christians need to learn about Muslims, and how many different varieties there are. Non-Christians need to learn about the different varieties of Christians. 
  4. We all need to take the time to learn about a little place called Manzanar, which is what happens when people are filled with the kind of fear that the FFA seems to be spreading.
 And as for me and my hardware needs…I’ll be satisfying them at the Home Depot.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

It's Not For You

Just after Thanksgiving, I was sitting around with some friends of mine, and somehow the talk turned to the subject of cell phones.

Someone asked how it was that I, “Mr Tech-Head,” didn’t have a smartphone of some sort, but only had a $10 flip phone on a pay-as-you go plan. I said that I only make about four calls a day on it, if that many; and all of my other PDA functions are taken care of by my iPod Touch. But even more important was the fact that I really hated using the cell phone on a regular basis. I much prefer to use a landline – the sound quality is much better.

Then Kathy said something that I hadn’t thought of. She said that one of the things we’ve lost with everyone having their own personal phone number is the possibility of surprise…the idea that without it having been a wrong number, we might initially get someone other than the person we had called to talk to. She’s right; with just about everyone having their own personal phone number, you’ll almost never get anyone other than the person you called for.

But when Kathy said that we had lost this possibility of surprise, she didn’t say it as if it were a good thing, like we’ve lost the possibility of getting smallpox. No, to her, and I suspect many other people my age, this loss is a real loss; it’s something that we’ll miss, and that we feel that the world has become a poorer place without.

Why? Because as she said as we sat around the kitchen table, when you called up and got someone other than the person you really wanted to speak to, generally got 10 to 30 seconds of a short conversation with the person who answered the phone while you waited for the person you actually wanted to pick up. When you got someone other than the person you called for, you formed a brief relationship with that person by asking about them and finding out what they were doing; and maybe from that brief conversation, you’d find out that you had a common interest…something you could pick up on the next time that person answered the phone.

And at the very least, it forced us to be polite. We knew that we couldn’t just call up and say, “Hi, lemme have Sue,” and wait silently until Sue came to the phone. You had to learn to carry on a conversation with someone that you might not have really been interested in talking to in the first place.

OK…so I can see that certain members of this generation might not think that that was such a big loss, but it is. We’ve forgotten how to talk to people we’re not interested in. We’ve lost the skill of being civil to people we may not normally want to talk to.

But the most important thing is something I mentioned earlier, the loss of the serendipitous discovery that maybe we had something in common with the person who answered the phone, and that perhaps a friendship could develop there too.

As we talked about this, my wife Cheryl (as opposed to my other two wives) mentioned something that we hadn’t thought of. She said that maybe the role that having someone else answer the phone played in creating those serendipitous matches is being played by Facebook now. I thought about that for a moment, and mentioned how a chance comment by one of my FB friends about her gluten-free diet caused another one of my friends, who also has gluten issues, to contact and friend her. When Kathy, a long-time Facebook holdout, heard this, she decided that maybe she’d have to finally join it after all.

But you still won’t get either one of us to give up our landlines.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

But Is He Really Theirs?

This past weekend, my nine-year-old daughter had a babysitting gig for some friends of ours. Actually, it was more of a mother’s helper gig. It’s sort of funny, because this friend used to babysit her older sister. My, how time flies.

When she came home, she had a lot to say about the experience, since it was her first time actually being in charge of kids. And then she said, “They said that the adoption becomes final on Friday. What does that mean?”

So I took a moment to explain to her what adoption was, even though I was pretty sure she should be familiar with the concept since one of her friends from school is adopted from China, and everyone knows that.

After I explained, she said, “So he didn’t grow inside of her?”

“Well, no,” I said, “he didn’t.”

“So he’s not really theirs then?”

I froze. I knew what she meant, but I knew that this question, this statement, and the potential answer, is a big issue to adoptees and adoptive parents across the United States. It may even be an issue around the world, but I’m not familiar with their cultures. How was I going to handle this one?

I said, “Well he’s not theirs yet, but he will be on Friday, after the ceremony.

“But he still won’t really be theirs,” she said.

I tried again, “After Friday, he’ll be as much theirs as you are ours, except that he will have come from other parents.”

At that point, her brain exploded…followed quickly by her face, as she ran off in tears, saying, “Stop confusing me!”

I saw this coming the minute I had to answer the question, and that’s why I froze when she asked it. To the mind of a kid who knows where babies come from, and is trying to make sense of the world around her, saying that our friends’ baby was really theirs when he actually wasn’t theirs biologically was tantamount to dividing by zero, and in trying to deal with the emotional issues held by so many adults in the adoption community, I fried all of her little kid circuits. I was telling her something was that clearly wasn’t. I knew what she meant, but she wasn’t able or ready to understand what I meant. Nor did she understand the emotional weight of the simple question she asked.

And maybe that’s OK.

You see, for kids it’s OK to “not really be theirs” and still be part of the family. They don’t have a problem with that at all. Their terminology is not about exclusion, but of making sense of what to them is a very simple, and often binary, world. To them the baby is yours if it came out of one of you. If it didn’t, then it’s not. No value judgment there, just simple, biological, fact. To them there’s no problem with being “someone else’s baby” and a member of this family. To them, being someone else’s baby doesn’t mean being loved any less. It simply means that this one came from somewhere else. And when they ask about the baby’s “real parents,” they’re not making any kind of statement about the adoptive parents, they’re simply being curious kids, working in that simple binary world. So responding to a logical kid question with an emotional adult answer doesn’t do anyone any good. It sends them screaming from the room, circuits fried.

And it makes a bigger deal out of it than it should’ve been in the first place.

So is he “really” theirs? Well, no, not biologically. But on Friday he’ll be officially theirs.

And that will make a lot of people happy.

Even the kid whose brain exploded.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Communists and Catholics

Many, many years ago, when I was an undergrad at Syracuse University (and we know how long ago that was), I was in a conversation about some proposed social policy with a friend of mine, and she said, “We shouldn’t do it. That’s what Communists do.”

I was stunned beyond words. Really. The words only came to me hours later, too late to do the discussion any good. Basically, she had decided that a particular policy was bad, not on its own merits, or the lack thereof, but simply because the Communists did it; and if the Communists did it, then it had to be bad.

I ran into a similar situation 20 years later. A friend of mine was the pastor of a small Lutheran church in Pennsylvania, and when she mentioned a few of the liturgical changes she wanted to make, someone objected, saying, “But that’s what Catholics do!”

Once again, an idea was being objected to not on its own merits, but because of who it was associated with. Because whether or not the idea was good, it was associated with “the enemy.”

I wanted to say to my friend at SU, “Communists feed their children too, should we stop doing that?” Similarly, I said to my pastor friend “Catholics sing hymns, and pray too, does this person think we should cut those from the liturgy?”

The simple, and annoying, fact is that too often too many of us reject a perfectly good, practical, and useful, idea because it comes from somewhere else. Because it’s associated with “those other people” that we have some sort of ideological difference with. We seem to be afraid that if we admit that “those people” might have a point about one thing, then we’ll have to admit to them being right about everything.

I thought of this when I saw a billboard along the I-90 that said “Repeal Obamacare.” The sentiment isn’t what bothered me, I’ve heard plenty of people argue against it for one reason or another. What bothered me was the presentation. The billboard had yellow letters on a red background, and the “C” in “care” was the old Soviet hammer and sickle.

It seemed to me that whoever was behind this billboard was against “Obamacare” for the same reason that my friend  was against whatever social policy we were arguing about many years ago. It wasn’t about whether or not it was a good idea. It wasn’t about whether or not it was practical. It wasn’t about whether or not it was the best thing for all of us in the long run. It was about not being like the Communists.

It’s worth noting that no less of an “anti-Communist” than Richard Nixon believed that we needed to do something about our healthcare system, and that we needed to try to find a way to make it affordable for everyone. And before some of you go off on me for praising RMN, it’s also worth noting that many historians agree that if it weren’t for that one spectacular mistake with Watergate, he would’ve gone down as one of the 10 best presidents. Funny how we let the one horrible thing someone did taint all the good they did before, isn’t it?

But really, this isn’t about healthcare at all. Not this time, at least. For now it’s about Communists and Catholics…or any other group that you may have had long-standing ideological differences with. It’s one thing to not agree with a group’s ideology, but it’s quite another to refuse to even consider any of their ideas, or even to put our own twist on them.

After all, it’s worth remembering that the very Interstate Highway System I was traveling on when I saw that billboard were based on the Autobahn…something created by the Nazis.

And we definitely don't want to be like them.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sleep In!

Black Friday arrives in three days, and I have two words of advice to you: Sleep In.


Why? Because Seth Coleman has a point. In case you don’t know who he is, he’s the Target employee who started an online petition that garnered almost 200,000 signatures, asking the company to abandon its plans to open at midnight on Black Friday…so that he, and other Target employees could spend Thanksgiving with their families and get a decent night’s sleep.

Yes folks, Black Friday has officially gotten out of hand. It was crazy enough when stores were opening at 6.00a, but now, with everyone not wanting to lose sales to their competitors, everyone is opening earlier and earlier, and employees are getting less and less sleep…or time with their families.

I know about this first-hand, because my wife is a nurse…on the night shift, no less. She often has to work at 11.00p on Thanksgiving. But she performs an essential service. Hospitals need to be open 24/7. I’m not so sure that Target, and WalMart, fill that essential a need.

The retailers in general figure that the earlier they open, the more money we’ll spend with them this holiday season. It sort of reminds me of FDR’s attempt to move Thanksgiving forward a week back in 1939 in order to add an extra week to the shopping season, and help the economy. But the retailers and FDR seem to have forgotten one very important thing…I’m going to spend the exact same amount of money, whether I do it in four weeks or five, whether I start shopping at midnight or later on at 9.00. Giving me more hours to do my shopping in is not going to make me spend more money.

The retailers also say that they’re opening earlier because we want them to. But do we really? Or is there some sort of chicken/egg thing going on here? Do they open at those ungodly hours because we want them to, or do we go out at those hours because they’re open…and they’re lured us there with special sales?

I’ll admit to having participated in the early morning Black Friday madness twice. But I’m from New Jersey, and Black Friday here looks like a regular shopping day in Passaic County. And I went only because there was a particular item I wanted that was on sale at a great price, and that I wanted to be sure I got. But once I got those particular objects, I didn’t spend any more money in that store than I had originally planned, and then went home and back to bed.

Let’s face it, except for the few “doorbusters” they advertise in order to entice you in before the rooster is even thinking of getting up, everything they’re selling will still be there at 9.00a…on Saturday.

Quite frankly, I think we’d all be happier with the extra sleep, but we’re afraid that we’ll miss a great bargain, and they’re afraid that they’ll lose business if we’re not up before the sun rises.

So, I don’t know about you, but this year, on Black Friday, I’m sleeping in. Not only that, but except for the things I’ve already bought or ordered, I’m not going to do any Christmas shopping this year until Saturday.

Will you join me?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Letting Scut Farkus Get His

OK, let me start off by saying that if you don’t at least recognize the name Scut Farkus, then you’ve been living under a rock for the past 30 or so years since A Christmas Story came out, and should rent it immediately. But to save time, I’ll clue you in; he’s the bully who terrorized Ralphie Parker and all of his friends at the Warren G Harding School.

That is…until Ralphie stood up to him and, in a fit of rage, beat the crap out of him, leaving him crying in the snow. Then it was all over, and as far as we know, Scut never bothered them…or anyone...again.

As I mentioned a while back in my piece about the Star Wars Kid, I’m a little old school about bullies and bullying. I don’t believe that someone is a bully just because they’re not nice to you, and don’t want to include you in their circle of friends. To me, a bully is someone like Scut Farkus, who’ll beat you up for your lunch money…or even worse, just because he feels like it.

But I’m also a little old school about dealing with bullies. Those of you who’ve seen the movie know that when Ralphie’s mother came to pry her son off of the now-vanquished bully, she didn’t make a big deal out of it. She mentioned it in passing at dinner to “the old man,” and that was about it.

We understood then that the way to deal with a bully was to stand up to him, and maybe even beat the crap out of him. We also understood that going and telling your parents, or your teachers just made it worse, because it showed that you were a little wuss who couldn’t fight your own battles. And with this in mind, parents and teachers turned a blind eye to situations when the Scut Farkuses of the world finally got what they had coming from the Ralphie Parkers.

The mantra of most parents when I was a kid was, “You should never start a fight. But I expect you to finish it.” Our parents knew that fighting was a fact of life for school-age kids, and something that their getting involved in would usually only make worse.

But something has gone wrong in the past 30 years. Somehow, in our well-intentioned, but misguided, attempt to bring non-violence to everything, we’ve handed over more power to the likes of Scut than they ever had before. Based on the idea that “violence is never the solution” (and if you believe that, let me tell you about a little thing called World War II), we try to make non-violence the answer to everything. When we create programs in our schools that emphasize talking it out, and bringing the information to the proper people, we forget Scut and his companions are just going to bully the poor kid even more for “being a wuss who can’t handle things himself.”

And when I’ve talked to middle school students about online bullying, I’ve asked them why they don’t just block the person who’s harassing them. Their answer has invariably been that blocking the person just proves that you’re a loser. Ah…see how easily Scut and his pals have manipulated the system?

What would I like to see? I’d like to see a modern day Ralphie Parker go up to a modern Miss Shields and say, “If he bothers me one more time, I’m gonna beat the crap out of him.” This alerts Miss Shields to the situation without him appearing to be a wuss. And I’d like for Miss Shields to be otherwise occupied when Scut, having been duly warned, finally gets his.

Today’s students have not been given the tacit permission to settle it themselves at an early stage, and I have to wonder if the powerlessness felt by those we’re trying to protect has been left to simmer until the point where it finally explodes in a Columbine-like show of violence.

I think that we should go back to letting Scut Farkus get his. And I think we’ll all be better for it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

And So It Begins!

I walked into Macy’s last Tuesday, and heard the Hallelujah Chorus. I wasn’t surprised at all, after all, I had heard Christmas music wafting from other stores in the mall for a couple of days already. But I said to the woman working there, “Well, at least you waited until after Halloween was over.”

She agreed, and then went on to say, “And we’re doing it a little bit at a time. It’s not a total barrage of Christmas music on November 1st.”

I asked her what she meant by that, and she explained that they had some sort of system where they started with just a few pieces of Christmas music playing through the store, and then steadily increased the percentage as they got closer to Christmas.

Wow! That’s exactly the system I’d like to have working on my iPod. I’d like a “smart playlist” for each of the weeks leading up to Christmas, starting on November 1st. The first playlist would play one Christmas song an hour. When you figure that the length of the average song is about three minutes, that gives you one Christmas song and 19 regular ones.

During the second week, the playlist would randomly insert two songs an hour, and so on, so that by the time Thanksgiving arrived, I’d be up to a whopping four songs an hour. That would still leave me 16 regular pieces of music.

At this rate, by the time Christmas arrived, I’d only be at eight songs in an hour, with the bulk of the music still being what I’d hear normally, and not the seasonal stuff. Of course, I’d be perfectly free to play one of my “totally Christmas” playlists any time I wanted, but if I wanted a little variety, this would be the way to go.

After all, that’s how they do it in radio…at least with most radio stations. I know of a few radio stations that do “All Christmas Music, All the Time” starting on November 1st, and I know of a number of people who hate those stations because of the wall-to-wall Christmas music. They’d rather get it in small doses here and there, the way the rest of the stations do it. But you know, I understand those stations. They’re for people who want a place to go where they’re guaranteed to get some Christmas music, no matter what time of day. If you don’t want a steady stream of the stuff, just don’t listen to WXMS (and no, I’m not making those call letters up; it’s actually a station in Chicago).

Well, OK, I suppose I can understand people being a little miffed when what’s usually “Your Home for Head-Banging Music,” flips over to Christmas fare for two months – even if it’s head-banging Christmas fare, but that’s why you have an iPod.

I can also sort of understand how the Christmas music ramps up on the radio until Christmas Day, and then on the 26th it’s back to business as usual, but still, what about the 12 days? Christmas doesn't end of the 25th, that's when it begins. Shouldn’t there be some Christmas music until January 6th? Or at least until January 2nd, when Christmas is over for most kids because that’s when school is back in session. Can’t we do a slow tapering off over the days after Christmas?

And for that matter, why aren’t we still hearing Sleigh Ride, Jingle Bell Rock, and even plain old Jingle Bells well into February? After all, those aren’t Christmas songs, they’re Winter songs, and last I checked, Winter lasted until sometime in March. Of course, here in Syracuse, I’ve seen snow on the ground in May.

But anyway, the season has begun, at least musically it has. And I hope everyone has a good time!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Changing the Past

A common topic of discussion among science fiction aficionados is time travel – or more precisely, the ability to change the past.

Quite frankly, of all the writers I’ve seen who’ve dealt with time travel, the only one I think ever got it right was Charles Dickens. Yes, that Charles Dickens. When did he use time travel? In the one story by him that just about everyone knows, A Christmas Carol. Think about it, if Scrooge’s traveling back and forth between Christmases past, present, and future wasn’t time travel, then I don’t know what it was.

How do I think Dickens got it right? Because in his version of it, you could go there; you could visit the past, you could visit the future, you could even see things going on in the present – but you couldn’t interact with them. You were merely an observer, and couldn’t change a thing…not even in the present.

But of those who enjoy talking about time travel, the issue always arises of what happens if you change the past? Does one well-intentioned change 100 years ago send unexpected ripples out that make the present unrecognizable? And then there’s the old time travel paradox: if you’ve gone back to change things in the past, do you end up creating a present where you don’t exist…and therefore couldn’t have gone back to change things in the first place?

Does your head hurt yet? Well get out the aspirin, because I’m gonna make it hurt more.

What does the well-meaning person who wants to save six million Jews by traveling to the past and killing Hitler before he can put in place his Final Solution do to the untold millions of us who were born precisely because World War II took place? And this even includes Jews who were born because of the Holocaust.

What of the equally well-meaning person who wants to go back to 1619 to prevent those first African indentured servants, and the millions of slaves that followed, from being shipped to this country. What does this person do to the millions of present-day African-Americans who exist precisely because their ancestors were ripped from different parts of Africa, and eventually came together here.

A number of years ago I watched a film called The Color of Fear as part of a diversity training session. In this movie, eight men of different ethnic backgrounds spent a weekend in a cottage talking about issues of race and racism in their lives…whether they were the victim of it or the perpetrator of it.

At one point, one of the men, who was of Mexican descent, said something along the lines of, “Damn those conquistadors! If they hadn’t come, things would be so much better for me and my people.”

And at that same point, I shook my head, thinking to myself, “No…you don’t get it. First of all, had those conquistadors never come to these shores, things wouldn’t be better for you, because you wouldn’t be here. You likely only exist because of events set in motion by the very people you resent. And even if you’re willing to sacrifice your own existence for the ‘greater good,’ there’s no guarantee that some other invading force wouldn’t have come along later…and done worse.”

We don’t have the option of changing the past, and doing so would be a very bad idea. But starting now, we can work on changing the present…and the future.

I hope that my Mexican-American friend from The Color of Fear comes to understand that.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Eyes Have It

Last year, at a Halloween-themed party, I was talking to a woman I know, we’ll call her “Jane,” who was dressed as a witch, and wearing those contact lenses that make your eyes look really freaky. I could not keep my eyes off of her…off of her eyes that is.

Once I realized how much I was staring at her eyes, I laughed and said to her, “You know, I was just thinking about your contacts. They could solve a problem for women who…well, let me put this delicately…have issues with guys never talking to their faces.”

When she figured out what I meant, she laughed and said, “Oh, I don’t have to worry about that. I’m not well-endowed. Heck, I’m barely endowed at all. I don’t have to have these contacts in for you to not look there.”

Similarly, a few months later, I ran into “Carrie,” a former student who had a rather unusual set of nose piercings, and just as with Jane’s contacts, I found myself unable to take my eyes off of them.

I’ll get back to Jane’s comment in a minute. Let’s talk about my idea first.

It’s true. If you met a woman whose eyes looked like Jane’s did, or with Carrie’s piercings, I’m betting that no matter how “well-endowed” she was, you’d be staring at her face. I know I would. Those eyes would draw your attention by being so different from what you’ve ever seen before.

And ironically, that’s the case with many well-endowed women.

I had a student once who was, shall I say, “overly blessed,” and I felt sorry for the poor girl. Not just because of the looks she got, but because I could imagine how uncomfortable it must be to carry all that around. I saw back problems in her future. But going back to the obvious, after she complained about guys never talking to her face I said, “Sue, in most cases it’s not about lust at all. It’s as if you were really, really tall. You meet a person who’s seven feet tall, and you’re gonna stare. So next time you notice guys (and some girls) staring at you, just remember that you’re ‘tall.’” It became our little inside joke.

If we tend to stare at things that we’re not used to seeing, then for most of us, the girl with the DDDD is no different from the one who’s 7 feet tall, or the one with spiky purple hair.

And OK, I’ll admit that there are guys out there for whom DDDD doesn’t seem to be enough (silly boys). But I’d like to think that that’s not all of us. Heck, I’d like to think that’s not most of us.

But let’s get back to Jane and her comment about being barely endowed at all.

Why is it that so many women of “modest means” are made to feel that they need to invest in silicone in order to be attractive? I had a friend in college, a beautiful friend in college, who complained that she was flat-chested (if she was, I never noticed), and I told her that at least guys had conversations with her face. I had another friend who quipped that when she went to buy a bra, the clerk thought she wanted to join the auto club.

To my knowledge, these women never invested in silicone, nor has Jane, but I wonder about the ones that do. Do they ever stop to think that the guys they’ll be attracting after they “enhance” themselves will be attracted for all the wrong reasons? Do they ever stop to think of the back problems they’ll have down the line? Do they ever stop to think that someday they’ll get tired of guys not having a conversation with their faces?

Well…at least when they do, they can invest in a set of freaky contact lenses or get their noses pierced.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Last Shall Be First - And Get Trounced

Well, with the 2011 World Series starting tomorrow, it’s time for a baseball story from third grade.

I remember very clearly that when it came to choosing sides for softball, I was always among the last to be picked. Nowadays schools tend not to do something as “potentially damaging to a kid’s self-esteem” as to pick two team captains and then have them chose players by turns. Nah, today they’d just have everyone count off by twos and then divvy up the teams that way, so no one’s feelings got hurt. But let’s face it, in the real world, not everyone’s gonna be a winner. Not everyone is equally good. Some people are going to be chosen last, and some won’t be chosen at all. And you have to learn this at an early age, otherwise you’ll be in for some major disappointments when you get out there in the world without bumpers.

I sucked at softball and I knew it. I knew I couldn’t catch if you threw the ball to me from two yards. I knew that I couldn’t hit if you threw a basketball at me. I knew that I sucked, and I knew that as a result I’d be among the last to be chosen every time. It didn’t bother me, it was just a fact of life. I sucked at softball, but there were other things I was good at.

However, every day, when Miss Murphy’s class went out to recess, two different kids were picked as captains. So even though I knew that I’d always be among the last kids chosen for a team, I also knew that one day I’d be one of the captains. And when that happened, things would be different.

Well, the day finally came, and when it did, I picked Terry, who was another kid who was perennially at the end of the list, as my first player. The other captain picked Roy, who was good. Real good. My turn came again and I picked Gregory, another end of the list kid. The other captain picked Robert, another powerhouse player. By the third or fourth iteration of the picking process, it was apparent to even a third grader, which we were, what I was doing – I was picking all the last kids first. All the kids who I thought would appreciate being first for once in their lives. The other captain was taking advantage of my idealism by picking up all of the good players while I took the scrubs.

I thought that the end of the list kids would appreciate being picked first, but I wasn’t prepared for the response I got. After I’d picked the first three or four kids and my teammates figured out what I was doing, they begged me, even screamed at me to pick some good players. They realized that in picking them, I was picking a losing team. They had no illusions about their softball skill. They knew that they sucked just as much as I did. The difference here was something I hadn’t counted on: they didn’t mind being picked last as long as they were on a team that had a fighting chance of winning. When they were picked last, the teams were at least evenly matched. Barring either a miracle or major incompetence from the other team, my picking all of the end of the list kids first doomed them to a team that was bound to lose. Badly.

And we were trounced.

That was over 40 years ago, and do I care about losing that game? The answer is a resounding “no.” I don’t care about losing that game or any of the roughly 60 others from that school year. Heck, that’s really the only game I remember, and I don’t remember it all that clearly. What do I remember? The fact that even losers want a chance not to be chosen first, but to win; and that if it means that they’ve got a chance at being on the winning team, they’ll take being chosen last. What I won as a result of that one game I remember from third grade is the knowledge that I need to not shallowly assuage the egos of those who are always chosen last, but to give them a fighting chance of being on a winning team – by specifically choosing them last.

I also won the knowledge that by allowing myself to be chosen last, perhaps I’ll have a better chance of being on a winning team.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Little Shameless Self-Promotion

Yeah, I know it's not Tuesday, but this is a special occasion. I've been published.

Well, yeah…I know…I've had articles published in magazines and letters published in newspapers before, but this is different. I've been e-published, with the first of what I'm hoping is a series of short stories, leading up to me finally making my novel available electronically.

What on earth am I talking about?

Well surely you've heard of the Amazon Kindle, the Nook from Barnes and Noble, and Apple's iPad. They're either all ebook readers or have apps that will let you read digital books. And digital publishing is looking like a way for writers to get their material out there without necessarily having to have a deal with a traditional publisher. In fact, a friend of mine sent me an article about a woman who made a couple of hundred thousand dollars just publishing her stories digitally, and then St Martin's Press offered her a million-dollar contract.

Hmm…no overhead, no expenses, this sounded like something I could get into…especially with as many stories as I have floating around in my head.

So please, go check out my new site at keithgatling.blogspot.com. Become a follower, so you know when I've put out a new story.

And, for Pete's sake (or for Keith's sake), buy and download my first short story, The Restraining Order. It's only 99c.

And if enough of you buy it, and recommend that your friends buy, I might be able to buy lunch at Wendy's next week.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Girls Gone Stupid or Jimmy Stewart, Where Are You?

A lot of you might think that I’ve been living under a rock, but I had seriously never heard of Girls Gone Wild until I saw the bus pass us on the New York State Thruway back in April. Well, actually, I might have heard of it, but I really didn’t know what it was all about. My wife knew what it was because she’s up in the middle of the night, when the commercials are on. But I was totally unaware of the entire phenomenon.

So I decided to check out the website.

HOLY CRAP! This was not at all what I was expecting.

I mean, from the brief glimpse I got of the bus as it passed us in the opposite direction, I assumed it had something to do with girls in bathing suits doing crazy things. But like I said, I was not expecting what I saw when I got there.

It was like a train wreck…it was terrible, but I just couldn’t stop watching. I clicked on link after link, fascinated, and horrified, at what these girls were willing to do on camera for a t-shirt.

Yes…for a t-shirt.

And then I thought about Jessie Logan, who I mentioned a few weeks ago. She was the beautiful 18-year-old girl who committed suicide after intimate photographs, meant only for her boyfriend, were spread all over town.

On the one hand we have a girl so mortified over her small town seeing intimate pictures of herself that she killed herself. On the other hand we have girls just a few years older (and sometimes the exact same age) willing to do more than just expose themselves for an estimated 100,000 men -- both on the Internet and on home video.

Just for a t-shirt.

How on earth do some people get there?

I'm thinking that a false sense of sophistication, or a misguided desire to be considered sophisticated is involved. Let me just give you two names here: Lindsay Lohan and Brittney Spears.

But alcohol also has a lot to do with it, since the GGW crews seem to tend to show up at places where a lot of drinking will be going on. I can’t possibly imagine any of the young women in these videos agreeing to be filmed doing these things if they were stone cold sober. And apparently there has been quite a bit of “next day remorse,” resulting in quite a few lawsuits.

And as I think about the role that alcohol plays in getting young women to agree to be filmed by these people, I keep coming back to a line from the classic movie The Philadelphia Story where Jimmy Stewart’s character explains to Katherine Hepburn the reason he didn’t take advantage of her the night before, saying “You were a little the worse…or better for wine…and there are rules about that.”

“There are rules about that.” What a concept. What ever happened to the ideal of not taking advantage of a girl…or anyone…who’s had too much to drink? There may not be rules out there with the force of law about situations like this, but Jimmy Stewart will tell you that a gentleman knows that you don’t do that.

And yet, I have to admit that, unless they’ve been living under the same rock that I was under, people who go to events sponsored by Girls Gone Wild know why the crew is there. So there is some personal responsibility.

But come on…doing all that for…a t-shirt? Honestly, with what GGW will eventually make from those images, they can afford to give those girls a lot more than that.

Or would that somehow cross some sort of psychological line? Is there a difference between taking off your clothes in exchange for a GGW t-shirt…for “fun,” and doing the same thing for $1000? Would the crews attract “the wrong kind of girls” if they were offering money? Would offering money somehow run them afoul of the law?

Who knows.

But still…a t-shirt?

The other day, while we were in the car, I heard Brad Paisley singing his song I’m Still A Guy, and was struck by the following lyrics:
You see a priceless French painting
And I see a drunk naked girl
Hmm…maybe the phenomenon is older than we think. Could it be that Renoir was a painter for Mademoiselles déchaînées?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Four Stupid Smart Girls and US

Dan told me the story of what he calls “the four stupid smart girls” that he graduated with, and I think it’s one worth repeating.

As I recall, there were four girls at the top of his graduating class in high school. They were all friends until it came time for class rank to be posted and for the valedictorian to be announced. You see, by any normal measure, all four of them would’ve been listed as number one, the person after them would be listed as number five, and that would be about it. After all, that’s what happens when more than one person is tied for number 42.

But number one was different. Whoever was number one got to be the valedictorian of the class, and give the big speech. So now, who was number one was important, and Dan says that the school took their calculations out to three decimal places to try to figure out who was really number one.

Because after all, you couldn’t have more than one valedictorian…at least not in 1974 you couldn’t.

All of a sudden, Dan says that the claws came out on these four girls, as they argued amongst themselves and in front of others about who was the smart one and who were the stupid ones. Each of these girls wanted to be the valedictorian so badly that it destroyed their friendships.

Meanwhile, Dan, who was "only" number 20 in a class of 450 laughed at the spectacle, as did many of their classmates. You see, Dan realized that even at number 20, he was still in the 95th percentile, and these four girls, tied for the number one spot, arguing over who the stupid one was, were up there in the 99th. They were so much smarter than everyone else, and yet it was important to them whether one of them had a 99.999, a 99.998, a 99.997, or a 99.996. Their egos were so bound up in this, that they couldn’t understand that it didn’t really matter, and that no one would care in four years.

And that's what made them stupid.

Why do I repeat Dan’s story here? Because it’s important as we think about where the United States sits in global comparisons about education, technology, and a few other things.

A few years ago, at a faculty meeting, I was shown a YouTube video called Did You Know, that’s scaring the pants off of people. It talks about how India and China are going to catch up with, and surpass us in a few years. About how in a few years China will have more English speakers than the United States. I've also heard from other sources that America sucks in math and science because our students only come in at number 10 on whatever test it is that they're using to figure this out.

My response to that is pretty much the same as Dan’s was to the four stupid smart girls: So what?

Really. Is there any rule that says that we have to be number one in everything? Were we always number one in education or technology? No. And if we’re “only” number 10, doesn’t that still put us in the top 10 of all the countries in the world? And maybe the way other countries do their testing is different. Perhaps those countries that seem to be beating us only let their best of the best take whatever test it is that they’re beating us on, while we believe that everyone should have a chance. Maybe if we cherry-picked our best and had them take the test, we’d beat the pants off of everyone else.

But again, the question remains: Why do we always have to be number one? What’s wrong with hanging out with Dan in the 95th percentile? That’s still pretty darn good.

This fear we have of falling behind, and of being beaten by some other country, has us now trying to shoehorn students who would’ve been better in English, Psychology, Linguistics, or Music into Engineering, Computer Science, or some other technology-related field, so that we can “regain our edge.” I think that’s a very bad idea.

And I’d like to think that 37 years later, even the four stupid smart girls would understand that.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Of Privacy and Perspective: 2

I’ll tell you right now that this starts out with a sad story. Actually, it starts out with two sad stories.

The first is about Jessie Logan, a high school senior who sent naked pictures of herself to her boyfriend, only to find out that he had forwarded them along to his friends, who forwarded them along to their friends, and before you knew it, the entire town knew about her pictures. The harassment and taunting she got from her classmates was so bad that she committed suicide.

The second is about a freshman at Rutgers named Tyler Clementi. You may have heard of him. He’s the one who jumped of the George Washington Bridge after his roommate posted videos of him having sex with another male student to the Internet.

Now I want to tell you a good story. It’s about my friend “Lauren.” When she was in college, she had innocently made a video for her boyfriend, only to have his roommate make a copy of it and post it to the Internet for all the world to see. But she’s still alive.

Why is Lauren still alive while Jessie and Tyler aren’t? Well first of all, she had the support of her family and friends. Now, by saying this, I do not in any way mean to imply that Jessie and Tyler didn’t have the support of their family and friends. I know from watching the heart-wrenching video, just how much support Jessie had from her mother. But for some reason, it wasn’t enough. What went wrong?

I’d like to think that it all boils down to a sense of perspective. Somehow Lauren was able to say “Yeah, this sucks right now, but it’ll blow over in a few years.” Maybe her parents and friends were able to say this to her, and have her believe it. And you know what, almost 10 years later, no one really cares about that video that her boyfriend’s jerk of a roommate posted to the Internet.

Yes…it may suck right now, but it will blow over. You will meet new people who don’t know about the incident, you’ll look different in a few years and no one will recognize the person in that video or those pictures as being you. It will blow over.

And let’s talk about meeting new people. Maybe Lauren wouldn’t have been so lucky had this happened to her in high school. Why? Because the high school community is a very small one, everyone knows you, and within those close quarters a few mean people can seem to be everywhere. But when you get to college, there are so many more people, most of whom don’t know you, and most of whom don’t care what potentially embarrassing pictures of you have been posted online. At the small high school Lauren went to, this might have been a disaster. But at the major university she attended when this happened, it wasn’t even worth a footnote.

The sad thing is that Tyler Clementi didn’t know this. He didn’t realize that in the grand scheme of things, the video of him having sex with another guy wasn’t seen by that many people, but that his death, and why he killed himself, would make him world famous.

And not only will it blow over, but people will grow up. In a few years it would’ve blown over for Jessie and Tyler, but it will never blow over for the people who were responsible for their deaths. Because even if they don’t feel any guilt about it now…

One day they’ll have kids of their own, and then it will hit them like a ton of bricks.

But I don’t really care about them. I’m more concerned with all the potential Jessies and Tylers out there, and I want you to know that it will blow over. It’ll suck for a year or two, but it will blow over.

Trust me on that, and don’t do anything rash before then.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Help and My Help

I’m vaguely aware of the fact that there’s a book out there called The Help and that there’s also a movie based on it. I’m also vaguely aware of the fact that there seems to be a fair bit of controversy around both. Something having to do with the fact that this book about black women at the height of the Civil Rights Movement was written by a white woman. Controversy over whether or not a white woman has any right to tell this story…especially from the perspective of the black characters.


I hear things like this and I wonder if anyone would dare say that that I have no right to write a book telling the story of people in medieval England. Or that an Asian has no right to tell the story of a French-Canadian family in Quebec. We certainly had no problem with an American writing about the Dutch, as can be seen by Mary Mapes Dodge’s writing of Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates. But for some reason these days, we seem to have an issue with people writing “outside of their ethnic group,” as if it’s only appropriate for you to write from the perspective of your own…and that assumes that each ethnic group has one single monolithic perspective.

But enough of that, that whole discussion is a little too serious and depressing for me to want to deal with right now. So instead of talking about The Help, I want to talk about my help.

One of the many advantage of being a teacher was the number of students who practically fought over being able to babysit for my daughter, Devra. Once, when Liz wasn’t available for her regular Sunday afternoon gig (because you know, like teenagers have lives), Sarah, a beautiful blond classmate of hers, jumped at the chance to take her place.

So she arrived at our slightly messy house on Sunday afternoon, all set to play with little Devra for four hours, while my wife slept and I got a few things done outside the house. But when she got there, Devra was asleep.

“What should I do?” she asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. Just hang out. Watch TV, eat. If she stays asleep, it’ll be the easiest babysitting gig you ever had.”

When I returned, four hours later, Devra was still asleep, and I almost didn’t recognize the house. Sarah had done some serious cleaning up, and everything had been straightened up and put away. Even the dishes had been washed.

“Sarah, what happened?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “I felt guilty just sitting around doing nothing while you were paying me, so I decided to clean up a little bit.”

“Oh Sarah,” I said, “I wish my grandmother were alive to see this.”

With a puzzled look on her face, she asked, “Why?”

“So I could tell her that a white girl came over and cleaned my house.

We both got a good laugh out of it, and still laugh about it 16 years later.

I think that the women in The Help would appreciate it.

And that, my friends, is progress.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Before Their Time

Roughly 25 years ago, when I was working at the Syracuse University Library, one of the student assistants, a beautiful girl in her early 20s, was telling me about her wedding plans. When she told me that the big day was going to be on November 22nd, I had a look of shock on my face.

When she asked me what was wrong, I slowly replied, “That’s the day President Kennedy was assassinated.”

And then, after a slight pause, she said to me, “Keith…I wasn’t even born then.”

Wow. I was amazed. Here was a girl for whom it wasn’t even a case of JFK being shot when she was a little kid (and quite frankly, I was only seven at the time, and since it happened in Texas, I imagined it as a western-type shootout). No..she wasn’t even born yet when it happened. It was before her time.

And as that sunk in, I thought about how cool that was. How cool it was that the defining tragedy of a generation happened before she was born, and wasn’t part of her lifetime. It wasn’t her tragedy to remember and be affected by. However, the space shuttle Challenger had exploded just the year before, so she had her own “one horrible day” to remember.

Then I thought about my generation, and how for us December 7th merely meant that there were only 18 days until Christmas. Pearl Harbor meant nothing to us, having happened a good 15 years before we were born. Unless we had relatives who served in World War II, and talked about it, or unless we lived in Hawaii, it wasn’t our national tragedy, and we started off our lives with a “clean slate” so to speak. All of the horrors of World War II happened before our time.

And so it was with my parents’ generation, which was born a good 12 to 16 years after the sinking of the Lusitania, which brought us into “The Great War.”

I thought about all of these things again as I had a Facebook conversation with a former student, who told me that she was in my 6th grade classroom the morning of September 11th. When she told me that she was really too young to understand what was going on at the time, I told her that it was good to be too young to understand a tragedy, because we can’t hold all the hurt of the world in our hearts forever. Then I said that I love the fact that my daughter Sofie was born in 2002 because it meant that 9/11 was before she was born. Like November 22nd for that student assistant, December 7th for me, and May 7th for my parents, it’s not something from within her lifetime, and it means that the world goes on.

I knew people who died that day. I also knew people who were working at the WTC and the Pentagon, and escaped with their lives. I commuted in and out of Manhattan from Jersey City through the World Trade Center on a regular basis, and its destruction was like having a town I visited often wiped off the map. So with no disrespect to any of those people, or the thousands of others who were killed that day, I’m going to say that I love the fact kids like my daughter represent the fact that time goes on.

As I said to my student, we can’t hold the entire hurt of the history of the world in our hearts. It would make us crazy. Of course we can learn about it, understand it, and respect it. But there will always be a new generation born for which a particular tragedy is ancient history, and before their time.

And this is a good thing.

I look at the kids of Sofie’s generation and am thankful that that one horrible day 10 years ago happened before they were even born.

And yet I know, sadly, that at some point they’ll have their own “one horrible day.”

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Looking for the Next Great Waste Product

Back in June I went to a conference on Biophysical Economics. Now before you all freak out, let me just tell you that it’s simply a ten-dollar word for sustainability. And as the people at the conference talked about the obvious things like carbon footprints, population growth, and our dependency on a decreasing supply of oil, I started thinking about waste products…and whales.

Yeah, waste products and whales. And I was wondering what the next great waste product will be..

You see, as I sat there listening to all these people, I remembered reading somewhere that gasoline used to be considered an unwanted and useless waste product from the production of kerosene. It was so unwanted that refiners used to dump it into Lake Erie under cover of darkness; and that’s where all those stories about Lake Erie catching on fire came from.

But what does this have to do with whales?

Kerosene basically saved the whales, who were being hunted to near extinction in order to provide oil for lamps.

But wait…there’s more. When I got home, I decided to look up this thing about gasoline being an unwanted waste product. I wanted to be able to back up what I was saying. And then I found something that amazed me. An article at wotwaste.com showed me that not only was I right about gasoline being an unwanted waste product from the refining of kerosene, but that crude oil itself was an nuisance that often came up as people mined for salt.

And then in 1854, Canadian Abraham Gesner discovered Kerosene, which was cleaner and less expensive than whale oil, and suddenly that murky nuisance became liquid gold.

And saved the whales.

But there was still the problem of what to do with all of the byproducts of kerosene refining, one of which was gasoline. Now the tables have turned and everyone wants gasoline, and very few care about kerosene.

The point still remains, though, that gasoline, kerosene, and all the other petrochemicals we depend upon so much were either unwanted waste products themselves, or came from something that was originally thought to be a nuisance in our pursuit of something else.

So I sat there wondering what is the next great waste product? What is the next great thing that we see as a common nuisance right now, but that will free us from our dependence petroleum?

And what new problems will it bring along with it.

Think about it; once kerosene became available at 1/3 the price of whale oil, more people started buying oil lamps, and using them longer, which meant that more kerosene needed to be produced. Similarly, once we found something that gasoline and the other petrochemicals were useful for, we used them more and needed more and more of them. In programming, this is called an infinite loop. In economics, I believe it’s called a Ponzi scheme.

It is indeed possible that we’ll find that next great waste product within the foreseeable future, but we need to realize that there won’t be an infinite amount of whatever it is. At some point we all need to scale back. Scale back our expectations, scale back our usage, and here comes the third-rail of all conversations about biophysical economics…scale back our family sizes.

But that…is a conversation for another time.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Brains and Beauty

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.
  -- John W Gardner - Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? (1961) 

I ran into a former student of mine who's working as a beautician. We’ll call her Carrie. She said that one of her customers was the mother of a former classmate, who looked down her nose at her and said, "So this is what you're doing with your fancy private-school education?" Carrie just smiled and thought to herself, "Just shut up and hand over the money, lady."

Ah...one of the things she got from her "fancy private-school education" was the courtesy to not say that out loud.

My grandmother was a beautician, and owned her own business for years. I know that they make good money. More than I ever made as a teacher. It's recession-proof too, because people always have to look good.

Carrie’s education was most decidedly not wasted because she's a beautician instead of an engineer. She has figured out what she wants to do with her life, and is doing something that needs to be done. She's also one damned smart beautician, and I'm proud of her.

But this speaks to another problem in the way we look at education. We keep trying to push our kids into high-status programs at high-status schools. We keep trying to push more and more students, and especially girls, into fields like engineering and computer science. And by doing that, we imply that these fields have more worth than things like cosmetology or carpentry. We assume that the point of an education is to make sure that you get that “good job” as opposed to being a well-educated person in whatever field you choose to go into.

Carrie started out in engineering, and decided it wasn’t for her. She tried out English and a few other fields before deciding that she was wasting her family’s money trying to fit into a box that someone else decided she should fit into because of the education she had.

We should be giving our children an education so that they’ll have choices in life. This means that they can choose to become a well-read beautician or they can choose to work for Google, but either way, it’s a choice. And yet some parents see the education they give their kids as providing them with a choice…a choice between parentally acceptable careers, a choice between careers with status that they can brag to their friends about.

I’m not sure that’s really a choice.

I’m glad that Carrie has decided to become a really good beautician rather than a second-rate engineer.

And I’m glad that she felt that her education gave her a choice.

Besides...I know an awful lot of engineers who are out looking for jobs right now.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On Privacy and Perspective: 1

Many years ago, in a school somewhere in Canada, a dumpy-looking kid wandered into the room of the AV Club and recorded himself fooling around with a golf ball retriever, as if it were a light-saber, over the tape of a school basketball game.

A little later a classmate found the tape, showed it to a friend, and had a good laugh. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that. Had they called in a few more of their friends to have a good laugh at the tape they found, there would be nothing wrong with it. I might even stretch it so far as to say that had they called in 10,000 of their friends, one by one, to say, “Hey, get a load of this tape I found,” there would be nothing wrong with it.

But that’s not what happened.

What happened is that one of those friends digitized the tape and distributed it among the students in the school, and at that point a line was crossed. It’s one thing to laugh at someone privately among your friends. It’s something totally different to make him subject to ridicule throughout the entire school.

But wait. There’s more.

One of those students took the digitized file and uploaded it to the Internet, where, after being edited by someone else to include Star Wars type special effects, sounds, titles, and music, it became the hottest thing since the Dancing Baby.

And our dumpy-looking kid’s life was over.

Or so he thought.

He withdrew from school and his parents filed a harassment lawsuit against the families of four of the students involved with originally distributing the video. But I’m not sure this was right. Did those students mean to “ruin this kid’s life?” Were they harassing him with malice aforethought? Or were they simply being stupid teenagers, saying “Get a look at the funny tape we found?”

Was it bullying or cyber-bullying? I’m sorry, but I’m a little old-school about bullying. As one who was regularly shaken down for my lunch money, or beaten up after school just because I was the little guy, I have a hard time with how we’ve expanded the definition of bullying to include anytime that people just aren’t nice to you. That’s a slap in the face to people who’ve been…well…slapped in the face.

And what of the student? Was his life really ruined, or does there come a point where you, and your family, have to gain a bit of perspective and humor and say, “You know, this will be really funny in a few years, and I should learn to roll with it?” Are we way too thin-skinned these days?

Or as Helen Popkin of MSNBC suggested, once his moment of Internet fame arrived (which included people petitioning George Lucas to give him a part as an extra in one of the Star Wars movies), rather than running and hiding, the Star Wars Kid should’ve proudly walked through his high school halls, embracing his new-found fame, and “answering every verbal Jedi jab with a handgun finger point and a cheerful, ‘That’s me! Right back at cha! No autographs until lunch period!’”

Yes, we need to be very careful about what images we post online of other people. But we also need to gain a sense of perspective that allows us to remember that when that embarrassing video or set of pictures of us makes it to the Internet, it’s not the end of the world; we should especially remember how much we’d laugh if it were someone else we were looking at.

And take it in stride.

And if, by chance, you've been under a rock for the past 10 years, and don't know what I'm talking about, check out the original video, the edited video, and the Wikipedia article telling how many times that video has been spoofed in other places.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Odd Couple?

You know, I just love it when adults try to force their issues onto things meant for kids. And for those of you who are sarcasm-impaired, that means that I absolutely hate it when that happens.

Back in 1999 there was the whole issue of the Teletubby Tinky Winky being gay because he carried a red purse. Despite a popular response that he couldn’t be gay, because the purse didn’t match the rest of his outfit, those who liked to find hidden meanings in things insisted that Tinky Winky was a gay role model.


And now, with New York finally legalizing gay marriage, a movement has grown to allow what they call one of TV’s longest-running closeted couples to finally get married.

Who is this couple? None other than Ernie and Bert from Sesame Street.

Sigh again.

Come on folks. I’ve been watching Sesame Street on and off ever since it first went on the air back in 1969, and not once over the past 42 years did the thought ever cross my mind that Ernie and Bert were gay.

OK, so they were two guys sharing an apartment. Many of us did that in college…it’s called dorm life. And come to think of it, many of us did it after college…it’s called saving money.

And if you’re gonna talk about Bert and Ernie, then what about Oscar and his roommate? Oscar Madison and his roommate Felix Unger, that is. I don’t believe that anyone thought that the two leads from the long-running TV show The Odd Couple were gay. Of course, it helped that the opening narration for each episode of the series mentioned how they were both thrown out by their wives.

Come on now, I no more thought about Bert and Ernie being gay than I did about the fact that Porky Pig doesn’t wear pants (and some people spend a lot of time thinking about that). Sometimes you really can just over-analyze things (like Porky Pig not wearing pants). They’re puppets, for Pete’s sake! And according to Sesame Street Workshop, producers of the show, they have no orientation because there’s nothing below the waist (I’m not even gonna go there).

But seriously, the producers say that the two characters were created to show children that two people who are very different can still be best friends. I’m quite certain that there was no gay agenda to this when the characters were first conceived of in the late 60s. I’m betting that the idea that anyone would think that these two characters were gay was the farthest thing from their minds back then.

But times change, and as we talk more freely about homosexuality, a lot of us start to read it into situations where it perhaps isn’t. A lot of us start to read our own issues into them.

Has this ever happened before? Of course it has. Many of us of a certain age have shared apartments with people of the opposite sex, and remember the winks we got from people who assumed that some sort of hanky panky must be going on, and who wouldn’t believe that we were just friends splitting the cost of an apartment.

Because that’s what their issue was, and they couldn’t imagine sharing an apartment with someone of the opposite sex being for any reason besides…well…sex.

But years have come and gone, and no one bats an eye anymore. People are used to the idea of two (or more) people of the opposite sex sharing an apartment platonically.

So then why do some people seem to have an issue with two people of the same sex doing so? Two puppets, for Kermit's sake!

Ah, but this too shall pass…and people will find some other children’s show to force their adult issues onto.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

If They Can Do This To Jerry...

The headline my college friend wrote for the WMAL website said Muscular Dystrophy Association Kicks Jerry Lewis to the Curb.


It seems that after 45 years of hosting the annual telethons, and over 50 years of being its national chairman, the Muscular Dystrophy Association has decided that they no longer need Jerry’s services.


You saw that right. He was planning on retiring from the telethon after this year anyway, but rather than letting him go out with a bang, the non-profit organization announced that he won’t be appearing on this year’s revamped telethon, and they won’t be replacing him as national chairman either.

You have absolutely got to be kidding me. If the information at the WMAL website is correct, Jerry Lewis helped to raise over $1 billion for this organization. And this is the thanks he gets? He doesn’t even get to have one last on-air appearance?

Maybe MDA decided that it was time to “go in a different direction,” or to try to “reach out to a different audience.” And there’s some validity to those concerns. They make perfect business sense, and MDA is a business, after all. But it’s a business whose public face is all about compassion. They’re not looking very compassionate right now, and in a horrible mistake, they don’t understand that the amount of compassion they appear to show in their “business decisions” may affect how much compassion people are willing to show through their support.

Now, as far as I can recall, Jerry Lewis wasn't taking any kind of salary for this, so if they can do this to someone who works for free, then what hope is there for those of us who actually get paid?

Well, now that you mention it, here in Central New York, there’s a big fuss about how the Diocese of Syracuse is streamlining the operations of the 13 cemeteries it owns by dissolving the individual non-profit corporations, coming up with something new, and then allowing the gravediggers who have been faithfully toiling at those jobs for many years to apply for new positions in the new corporation, with no guarantee that they’ll be rehired or keep the same salary and benefits.

You’d think that after the PR fiasco the Catholic Church has had with the mishandling of pedophile priests, they would’ve known better. You’d think that an organization that has gone on record as fighting for social justice would do better than this.

One can only hope that this “business decision” made by some bean-counter in the Chancery Office is a mistake that will be corrected when it’s brought to the attention of Bishop Cunningham, who will remind this person of the church’s commitment to compassion and social justice, and point out that this does not reflect either one.

But still…what if Bishop Cunningham doesn’t step in to fix this? If the Diocese of Syracuse shows us that the face of its inner workings are much different than its public face of compassion and social justice, then what hope do we have for the inner workings of other organizations whose public faces are based on compassion?

Or cooperation. Or courtesy. Or even concern?

Is it unrealistic of us to expect organizations who say that they stand for these values to reflect those same values in their inner workings and the way they treat people who have given so much to them? Is it unrealistic of us to demand that organizations that claim that they stand for these values, and that we support because we believe in them, reflect those same values internally, remembering that every “business decision” is a person?

No. Not only do I not think it’s unrealistic, but I believe that we have an obligation to hold them accountable. I know that I will be writing to the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the Diocese of Syracuse to express my profound disappointment with them.

Jerry deserves better. The gravediggers deserve better. And surely, you know others who have been kicked to the curb by organizations whose public faces make it appear that they should know better.

Who will you be writing to?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

We Still Need To Teach Computer Literacy

Hmm…something went wrong a few days ago, and this didn't get automatically posted on Tuesday. So here we go right now. Sorry about that.

As I embark on a new career after spending almost 20 years as a teacher, I find myself now free to publicly comment on certain trends in education without either “biting the hand that feeds me,” potentially embarrassing my institution, or getting in trouble with those above me in the food chain. That being said, I’ll probably tackle one issue every few weeks. The issue I’d like to reflect upon now is Computer Literacy vs Technology Education.

A few years ago I went to a conference of computer and technology teachers, and there seemed to be a disturbing trend away from teaching students the basics of computer literacy and pushing them into more technologically advanced and “cutting edge” things such as robotics, computer-aided design (CAD), and moviemaking. Similarly, a number of public school districts in the Syracuse area had stopped teaching basic computer literacy classes because “the kids already know how to do that.”

I disagreed with that, as did a number of the teachers I met at that conference. We felt that our schools were making a big mistake that they wouldn’t recognize for about five years. It’s true that today’s students are much more familiar with using computers than they were when I first started teaching. I remember having to teach kids what a mouse was, and the difference between clicking and double-clicking. But familiarity with the device doesn’t mean competency with it.

About 20 years ago, in one of the computer labs at Syracuse University, I saw a student working on her resume. And as she sat there typing, she said that the thing she liked most about using the computer to do this was that if she made a mistake, she could just wipe it out with the eraser tool and put in the correct word.

I was aghast! The eraser tool? She was doing her word processing with a paint program. It apparently was the first program she had learned how to use, and she figured that that was all that she needed to know. She was probably also using that to write her papers with, because no one had made her learn any differently.

Today we have students who aren’t much different from that young lady at SU. They know a few simple things about Word or Pages, and figure that’s all they need to know in order to get their work done. Worse, their principals and superintendents think the same thing. They think, “Oh, they know how to open the program, how to write, how to save, how to print, and how to quit. That’s all they really need to know. Now we can move on to the cutting-edge stuff that looks cool, impresses parents, and will help America return to number one in the global economy, right?”

Well…no. Computer Literacy and Technology Education are two different, but complementary, things. I like to say that the first is Driver’s Ed while the other is Auto Shop. A smart school will recognize this, and have one teacher for each area. In fact, when I first started teaching, it was understood that I was the basic Computer Literacy person, while the other guy they hired was the Advanced Technology person. But as schools of all kinds, both public and private, find themselves with funding and enrollment issues, they’re trying to do more with less, thinking that they can do without basic computer literacy anymore, and putting a lot of high-tech window dressing on their other classes in a mistaken attempt to look cutting-edge and relevant.

They’re not doing anyone any favors.

But let’s leave high school for a moment and look at colleges. We just recently finished the college process with our older daughter. And as we looked at schools for her, did we ask about whether they had a great robotics lab? Did we care about the high-end CAD classes? Did we care about how many iPhone apps had been written by last year's freshmen? No. What we were concerned about was that they had the two programs she was looking for – Linguistics and Music – and what they had in terms of tech support for the students in the dorms who come in with printer problems, networking problems, and yes…problems with their word processing, spreadsheet, email, or music composition software.

Where will the students who become the experts at these campus computer centers come from if no one is teaching them the ins and outs of the software they’ll end up supporting?

Our schools area making a big mistake, and it's not just me saying that. If they talk to any of their graduates who’ve been through college, they’ll say the same thing. They’re graduating a generation of students who’ll be able to build great Lego robots, but will write the paper about how they did it using a paint program.

But maybe they’ll figure that out in about five years.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Of Power and Pizza

A few weeks ago I sat on the living room couch and watched Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed, a History Channel documentary on the entire Star Wars series, with my oldest daughter. This was great because Devra, who’ll be off to college in a month, not only tolerated my presence in the living room with her as she watched, but also allowed me to make comments without her shushing me down.

But as we got to the part where they talked about the lust for power that both Anakin and Senator Palpatine shared, I was taken back to a question I had asked back in 1980, when I first saw Superman II. I could understand Lex Luthor wanting to be filthy rich from real estate in the first movie, but I just didn’t understand the lust for power held by General Zod and his companions. To me, it boiled down to one very simple thing:
Once you know that you don’t have to clean up your room, that you don’t have to go to work in the morning, and that you can have a sausage pizza delivered to you any time you want it, what’s the big deal?
I mean really, what’s the point of being able to rule the world, or the universe for that matter, after a few simple desires are taken care of? Where’s the thrill in being able to crush Mrs Rosenzweig for making you stay after school for something you said under your breath to a sub 46 years ago? Where’s the joy in making everyone in France declare that you, and not Jerry Lewis, are a genius?

What does that kind of power get you personally?

Does it get you the girl?

If you’ve seen the entire Star Wars cycle, then you already know the answer to this. If you haven’t, well then I’ll give a small part of the story away, and tell you that the more power he got, the farther Anakin moved himself from Padme, as she was repulsed by what she saw him turning into.

And, as the genie alluded to in Aladdin, you can’t force someone to fall in love with you.

That girl next door who always thought you were a jerk, and wouldn’t give you the time of day? Well now she’ll just think you’re a jerk with power. She’ll give you the time of day, but she won’t like it, and she won’t like you.

And the girls it does get you…well, can you say “Lady Macbeth?” They don’t want you, they want access to the power.

Which brings me back to the question of “What’s the point?”

Maybe the problem is that I’m just too nice of a guy, and that’s why I don’t get it. I don’t have any enemies I want to destroy. There are no people I want to silence because they disagree with me. To be sure, there are people who have made my life miserable; stick around and I’ll give you a list of the ones who’ve done it lately; but I don’t want to destroy or silence them. I just want them to leave me alone, and to listen to me. I suppose that if I ruled the world I could say, “Let’s try it my way and see what happens,” and they’d have to listen.

But having armies at my command to do whatever I wanted? Nah. Doesn’t interest me. I guess I just wasn’t meant to rule the world.

But that pizza’s sounding pretty good right about now.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

You'll Shoot Your Eye Out with That Thing!

A few weeks ago, my eight-year-old daughter came home from school with a gun.

OK, let me rephrase that. My daughter came home from her summer program, at school, the other day with a gun. A gun she made herself. Out of paper. And she was quite proud of it.

And I didn’t go ballistic.

This was no simple piece of cardstock cut out into the shape of a gun. It was made up of two pieces of paper rolled up into tubes and taped together to be the barrel and handle, and another two pieces of paper taped to them to be the trigger and trigger guard.

She was a little confused about terminology, though. She had thought that the “lever” (her words) you pull on was called a pistol, but when I informed her that the gun was the pistol and the level was the trigger, she was surprised.

Not just surprised that she was wrong, but also that I knew so much about guns.

“How do you know so much about guns?” she asked.

“Because I played with them when I was a kid. Everyone played with them when they were my age. And some of those guns shot plastic bullets!”

It’s true. If you grew up in the 50s and 60s, you played with guns. Whether it was cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, or secret agent, you played with guns. I have home movies of a bunch of boys – and girls – in my aunt’s basement at Christmas, having a good old time playing with the latest cowboy rifles. I didn’t get the official James Bond secret agent attaché case with the hidden gun, but I got the Secret Sam knockoff that did the same thing. I remember the look of surprise on my cousin Ricky’s face when I shot his hat off.

I was pretty surprised too – because I normally couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.

But yes, we all played with guns. Girls too. Dale Evans was right out there shooting along with Roy Rogers. We all played with guns because we all understood that people had them. In our world, guns were like steak knives: they were morally neutral. Everything depended on what you were using the gun for. With that in mind, if you were going to pretend to be a police officer or a cowboy, you needed to have a gun. Similarly, if you were pretending to be the bank robber or the cattle rustler, you needed to have a gun.

But something happened over the last 40 years. Toy guns and pretending to play with guns got a bad rap. It was felt that playing with guns would make you grow up to be violent and want to shoot people in real life. Schools discouraged kids from playing with guns or pretending to play with them. In fact, schools discouraged children from having toy weapons of any kind – even as part of their Halloween costumes. Knights couldn’t have swords, Luke Skywalker couldn’t have his light saber…and cowboys couldn’t have guns.

And this is all because now we see the weapon itself as evil, and not the potential use of it.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m no rabid NRA “everyone should have a gun, or three, or seven” type. I know how many people are killed as a result of gun violence. I’ve known people who've been killed by guns. I’ve looked down the barrel of a gun once or twice myself. I know that there’s no such thing as a drive-by stabbing. But I also know that most people who played with guns as kids didn’t turn out to be criminals, and I’ve seen reliable figures that show that more children die from accidental drowning in swimming pools than from accidental shooting.

I say we should get a grip, and rethink our gun phobia.

And by the way, I think my daughter did a pretty good job.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Married, Not Dead

One of my favorite restaurants is the Spaghetti Warehouse. We’ve gone to the one here in Syracuse for years. When we visited Pittsburgh a few months ago, we tried to visit the one there, but the wait for a seat was too long – there were people lined up outside.

Aside from the fact that the food is really great, we love the décor. I guess I’d call it “retro eclectic.” Our favorite place to sit when we go there is the trolley car. Yes, there’s a trolley car inside the restaurant – or at least a replica of one. And there are old tin signs for all kinds of products that you’ve never heard of, but that your grandparents might have.

But this isn’t about the trolley. Or the signs. Or even the two working typewriters sitting in the lobby, that I had to explain how to use to my daughters (“How does it work if there’s no screen?”).

It’s about the confessional.

Yes, the confessional.

There’s an old confessional in the lobby – that probably came from when some Catholic church was being decommissioned. They were being used as phone booths until cell phones rendered them pretty much obsolete for that purpose. So now they just sit there as curiosities, and a place for my younger daughter to play while we wait to be seated.

On this particular occasion, she convinced her mother to sit in the middle booth, as the priest, while she sat on the left and I sat on the right. As I took my seat, Cheryl looked through the sliding door and said with a smile on her face, “I already know what you’re confessing. You’ve lusted after everyone in the world.”

“Wrong,” I replied, “I don’t do guys, so it’s 50% max.”

Whoa! Did she actually say that to me, smiling? And did I actually admit to possibly lusting after half the people on the planet? And she didn’t blow a gasket?

Well, yeah. Because it’s realistic. Well, OK, maybe the figures are unrealistic, but the idea that I think that other women are attractive is very realistic.

But let’s talk about those figures first.

To begin with, it’s not the “usual suspects” or for the “usual reasons.” There are “drop dead gorgeous” women or “perfect 10s” who just do absolutely nothing for me. And I just feel sorry for the women who need counterweights in order to stand up straight. By the same token, there are plenty of “Plane Janes” who I would follow around like a lost puppy.

But if you know anything at all about me, you know that I’m a bit of a geek. And we geeks like to try to be able to quantify what we say with hard numbers. I figured the best way to figure out how many women I really lusted over was to do an unscientific survey of all of my female Facebook friends. I have 237 of them, out of which I’ve “lusted in my heart" over 28 of them. That’s a mere 12% of females, and 8% of friends in general. That’s a long way from everyone and still a long way from all women.

But how can Cheryl and I have a conversation like this without either one of us going ballistic? It’s simple – the saying around our house is that “we’re married, not dead.” This means that as long as either one of us is breathing, we’re going to find other people attractive…too.

Did you get that last word? Too. It means in addition to, and not instead of. More people in more relationships, be they marriages, domestic partnerships, or simple boyfriend/girlfriend (boyfriend/boyfriend, girlfriend/girlfriend) relationships, would be a whole lot happier if they’d ditch the idea that if the person they’re involved with “really loves them,” they’ll never find another person attractive.

Because that is so much male bovine excrement.

Cheryl knows every person I have a crush on, and agrees that they’d be good matches for me. Similarly, I know every person that Cheryl has a crush on, and I agree that they’d be good matches for her. Heck…sometimes a woman will walk across the street while we’re waiting at a traffic light, and we’ll both watch as she goes by.

Nice to know that we have the same taste in women.

But seriously, the important thing is that because we talk about this, we have nothing to worry about.

We’re married, not dead.

Hmm…our anniversary’s coming up. Maybe I’ll take her to the Spaghetti Warehouse.

I bet you can fit two people into one of those confessional booths...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

I Can't Find My School

I can’t find my old school. OK, I know that the “old building” of Ashland School burned to the ground over 20 years ago, but the new building is still there - I can see it on the map; I just can’t find it in the directory. And even though their buildings may also still exist on the map, I can’t find the schools my friends went to either: Kentopp, Lincoln, Elmwood, and others.

Why? Because the names have all been changed.

At some point in time, after the City of East Orange became 89% black, we exercised our right to rename all the schools after famous African-Americans; people like Althea Gibson, George Washington Carver, Johnnie Cochran, Langston Hughes, Toussaint Louverture, Benjamin Banneker, Gordon Parks, Whitney Houston, Dionne Warwick, Cicely Tyson, and Sojourner Truth. This would be fine with me if these people actually had some connection with East Orange, but most didn’t.

At least the old names were in honor of people who had actually lived in East Orange and had done something for the school system. I’m talking about former principals and Board of Education members like Henry Kentopp, Vernon L Davey, and Clifford J Scott. And if the schools weren’t named for someone within the school system, they were named by their location. Hence Ashland School in what was originally the Ashland district, Elmwood School on Elmwood Avenue, and the Eastern School on the Eastern side of town.

But the current names mean nothing to me. They reflect nothing of the town history, and they seem to only reflect a desire by the African-American community to say “We get to name the schools now, and we’re naming them all after black people.”

Even though most of them were never in East Orange. Even though some of them who were really don’t deserve it. I mean, come on now, Whitney Houston?

OK, at the time it probably seemed like a good idea. But you really need to be careful naming a school after someone who’s still alive, because she might just embarrass you. And Whitney Houston has indeed done that.

So what names would I suggest using for the schools in my hometown? Well, I made a quick visit to Wikipedia find out what notable African-American former East Orange residents have not publicly embarrassed us, and first of all, tennis player Althea Gibson and singer Dionne Warwick get to keep their schools. Trombonist Slide Hampton, State Assemblyman LeRoy Jones Jr, and poet Naomi Long Madgett get to have schools.

But let’s open it up to any notable and worthy person from East Orange, and not just the African-Americans. How about Clara Maass, who died volunteering for experiments to study yellow fever? Or Albert Vreeland, US Representative from New Jersey? What about William Wiley, co-founder of the publishing company John Wiley and Sons?

Or how about we just admit that there really aren’t that many nationally famous people from East Orange who are worthy of having a school named after them, and name them instead after local heroes, and then have some sort of display in the school building explaining who this person is or was.

And most of all, how about not changing the names of existing schools. I almost don’t care what you name a new school, but changing the name of a school that’s existed for decades seems almost spiteful. It’s also confusing to old people like me.

Wait…I think I found my old school. It looks like it might be the Edward T Bowser Unique School of Excellence (how's that for a mouthful?). It’s located right about where I remember the “new building” of Ashland School being. But maybe I’m wrong, and it’s a brand new building and a brand new school.