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.