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.