Thursday, December 13, 2012

A World Without Twinkies is a Loss for Our Kids

A world without Twinkies is a loss for our kids

When I first read that Hostess Brands, Inc., makers of Wonder Bread and Twinkies, was going out of business, I felt sorry not only for the 18,500 or so workers who will be left searching for work in a questionable economy, but also for the generations of children who may be left a world barren of these touchstone snacks of childhood.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Summer Family Depression

I’m not sure if anyone else has noticed, but reruns of the 1970s family drama, “The Waltons” has been showing up on more than one cable channel.

The resurgence – albeit modest – of the Great Depression family throwback hit couldn’t come at a better time because my family is in the throes an economic depression of our own, so with the retro-runs I can show my kids just how fun a depression can be. 

While summer gives my kids more time to ride their bikes, play at the park, swim in the lake, hang out with their friends, it also affords them more time to ask for things.  I can’t imagine how they make it from breakfast to lunch during the school year without grazing a kitchen every half hour.

Just the other night my wife and I were sitting on our front porch swing when my daughter opened the front door and asked if she could have some leftover chili.  My wife said no because they would be having it for lunch the next day.  Two minutes later my son steps out and asks if he could have a few slices of cold cuts.  No, my wife said, the cold cuts are for lunches.  Not five minutes later, my daughter, who obviously lost the toss, opened the door, told us how much she loved us and asked if we could order a pizza.

It’s not as though we don’t feed our children, we do.  Only three hours earlier we were sitting at the table scoffing down bowls of chili and rice.  My son had three helpings to my one. 

And it’s not just food.  Apparently parental greetings now begin with Can I get...?  Can I have…?  Can we buy…? 
The problem is we can’t just spend money that way during the summer.  You see, I am a teacher and just about midsummer my family hits a depression.

Early in June we hit an economic slowdown and eventual recession where any fiscal growth slows, spending comes to a near halt, and employment opportunities are reduced greatly. 

Sure, we tuck some money under the mattress throughout the school year for the rainy day that is June, July and August, but that little cushion has a funny way of losing its stuffing every time we change the sheets.  Wouldn’t it be nice if…? begins the conversation.  We’ll just take a little…it continues.  We’ll make sure to replace it…we vow.  The cushion ends up being a flimsy sheet.

Once September hits we enter into a period of recovery when the demands for goods and services (new clothes, school supplies, activities, fundraisers, etc.) are able to be met with the supply of income (Dad working a couple of after school activities and teaching a couple of courses at the local university). 

However, the recovery is short lived and almost immediately falls into another recession with the onset of the holiday season.

About a month into the new year an economic boon occurs.  With summer impossible to imagine with all that snow and ice, spending becomes a remedy for cabin fever:  Some clothing for us or perhaps a new piece of furniture, a new video game for them because the poor little darlings are stuck inside.  Wouldn’t be nice if…we’ll just take a little…we’ll make sure to replace it. 

The household economy cycles back to the June slowdown followed by the summer depression where there is no room for eating leftovers as a snack, and no room for pizza.

There is room, however, for some fresh air-popped popcorn in front of penny-pinching, purse-string-tightening entertainment and a hopeful lesson for my kids that one does not need a lot of possessions to be happy episodes of “The Waltons,” and, though they may not believe it, they could be much worse off:  They could have even more brothers and sisters.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Deodorant Identity Crisis

According to a 2010 report by Global Industries Analysis, Inc., by the year 2015, the market for men’s grooming products will exceed $33.2 billion. Although many male and female oriented personal grooming products have basically the same ingredients, marketers seem to have successfully convinced us that women perspire while real men, like me, sweat.  Does this marketing further divide the sexes or simply highlight the already seeded inequalities?

One morning in the not too distant past, I involuntarily and quite innocently grabbed deodorant and began gliding it under my left arm.  As I switched hands to give the other side a swipe, I noticed that I had mistakenly grabbed my wife's deodorant.  I looked at my brand still sitting there on the shelf.  I looked at my wife's in my hand and then back at the shelf.  I had applied my wife's deodorant, women's deodorant.  pH balanced deodorant.  Instead of smelling of sport musk, I'd be lilac fresh all day long. 

I had options.  I could simply apply hers to the other side; I could put my deodorant on the other side; I could step back in the shower, scrub it off, and apply anew. 

I glanced back at my deodorant on the shelf and then back to hers in my hand.  Oh, the heck with it, I thought, and evened up the other side with her stick.  I told myself if anything out of the ordinary happens this day, I'd know why.

I stood halfway inside my closet trying to decide what to wear.  With my deodorant identity crisis now full blown, I was cautious about every move I made.  Why had I just pulled out a silk shirt?  It wasn't what I usually wore to work.  Plain, breathable cotton is what is called for, certainly not silk.  Was it that I now wanted something softer against my skin?

After pouring a cup of coffee, I turned on the television to one of those morning news shows.  There, during the station breaks, I was told how a mother can comfort a sick child with liquid pain relief; that women who work can come home and pour a complete meal out of a plastic bag from your grocer's freezer; and if I had decided to go strapless today, I had used the right deodorant because even though it was a solid, it goes on clear.

I wondered if I would be more or less aggressive on the commute.  Would I be more or less tolerant of sexist slurs in the professional workplace?  Would I listen far more carefully to what people say without thinking more of what I'm going to say when they are done speaking?  Would I take off one of my shoes in a meeting?  Would I clean the office microwave? 

I contemplated calling in sick and watching Sports Center all day.

Enough, enough, enough!  What was I doing?  I have always considered myself an enlightened, forward-thinking individual.  I have prided myself at being above the lure of advertising.  It doesn't affect me.  I don't need Madison Avenue to tell me what to think or how to smell.  How could I have been so wrong?

Is it that I had been fooling myself for years, or is it that advertising seeps into our collective subconscious far more than we'd like to admit?  Are we far more duped than we realize or does it go deeper?

Perhaps what we fear most is that part of us we don’t want to admit is there.  Does the liberal tolerate so much diversity because he or she is afraid of the conservative within, a suppressed trust, perhaps, in a father's words?  Does the civil rights activist commit so strongly because deep down inside there is suppressed hints of bigotry placed there by an environment in which he or she was raised?  Does the conservative demand fewer social programs so adamantly because he or she those programs just might work and level the playing field?

My wife met me in the kitchen just as I was about to leave.  She asked me why I had used her deodorant.  How did she know?  Did it show?  And here I was, thinking I had just gotten over the whole thing.  No, she told me.  Tell tale hair stuck to her stick.  Relieved, I explained to her my mishap.  She sighed and said she didn't know why we couldn't just always use the same one.

I shrugged my shoulders.  A faint whiff of lilac drifted to my nose.  I really didn't know why either.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Commuter Fitness

While enjoying my daily commute, I often ponder the messages that bombard us along the highways but tend to ignore:  “How’s my driving;” “If you can read this, you’re too close;” “Speed Limit 25.”
But there was one message in particular that had me pondering from gaper delay to disabled vehicle.  On the back of a large tractor trailer, a sign read, “If you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you.”
What at first seemed to be a smug, passive/aggressive warning abdicating any and all responsibility on part of the truck driver for the dreaded “blind spot,” I realized was actually quite an empowering statement for the 21st century.  What the truck is trying to tell us is that the solution to most problems is always within view; we’re just not looking at it the right way.
Take for instance the recent study by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis showing how long commutes, more than 15 miles a day, are associated with higher weight and lower fitness levels.
Researchers, who  looked at several variables including BMI, waist circumference, cholesterol , and blood pressure among others, speculated that a longer commute leads to less time to do other things like prepare a balanced meal or take a trip to the gym.
Since 86% of us commute an average of 25.1 minutes according to 2009 Census data, it may appear that we are a portable population heading for a portly population. 
The solution, however, seems to have been sitting in our blind spot all along and is closer than it appears.  You see, we have been overlooking the wellness potential of a long commute.
When we’re already running late and have drizzled coffee down our white shirt, it is inevitable we’ll hit a sea of brake lights just as we enter the stream of traffic causing us to sigh, snort, or scream.  In wellness terms this is known as deep breathing.
Not only does deep breathing release toxins in the body as well as tension, it increases oxygenation to help increase muscle mass.  In addition, deep breathing helps burn excessive fat because the fat burns more efficiently with the extra oxygen.
As you muddle through the morning muck and people pass you on the shoulder then force their way in that tiny space between you and the car in front of you, while other drivers honk their horns, yell obscenities, and blast their poor taste in music, you furl your brow, tense your shoulders, and maintain a death grip on the steering wheel.  We’ll call this isometric exercise.
Isometrics is when a muscle contracts, tightens, without extending or shortening like it would if you were lifting, say,  a dumbbell (and not the one in the car in front of you).  Experts say that just by contracting a muscle for 30 seconds at a time can contribute to fat burning and muscle strengthening.  Just imagine how flat those abs could be and how tight that tush could get with just one rainy morning drive.
To keep your mind off of the day ahead and the tailgater behind, you turn on the radio and, in the solitude and safety of the car, you belt out that Duran Duran song you never admitted to liking.  This we can refer to as cardio-strength training.
Studies have shown that signing not only has cardiovascular benefits because of the deep breathing necessary, but certain muscles are worked out as well.  Your abs, back, groin, and posterior are all muscles that support vocal sound and projection.
Long commutes can promote fitness.  It just depends on the effort you put into it, and your point of view.  The potential for commuter calisthenics has always been right in front of us, maybe we just couldn’t see the mirrors.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

My Graduation Keynote Speech

Since it is now obvious to me that my invitations to speak at any graduation ceremony had been lost in the mail, I shall address the speech I had written in anticipation of said invitations to all graduates of the class of 2012.


Today you find yourself at the end of one seemingly long journey and at the beginning of an assuredly longer one.  Yet, these two journeys are far more alike than they appear.

Regardless of what you may think, regardless of low test scores, regardless of reports attacking the efficacy of public education, you, as successful graduates, now possess all the experience you ever will need to lead productive and satisfying lives.

Robert Fulcrum said that everything you ever really needed to know, you learned in kindergarten.  He was, however, only one thirteenth correct.

I know to some of you this may come off as rather depressing, but school and the rest of your life are pretty much the same; it is just we adults who change the verbiage so everything sounds much more complicated than it really is.  Take for example attendance.

Attendance is just as important in the real world as it is in school.  Poor attendance will wreak havoc with your professional as well as your social life.  Your boss never wants to see you saunter in even two minutes late.  If this by chance does occur, make sure you’re seen working at least twenty minutes past your usual time.  Much like detention, this does not serve much of a purpose aside from giving a pleasurable feeling of power to those in charge.  Never be truant from a reunion with old friends or a family wedding.  No matter how good you think your excuse is, even if you have a doctor’s note, it will never be good enough and you’ll be forevermore reminded of missing the time.

In school and life, art and music are the things that are most worthwhile, yet they are the least we tend to devote time to and they are usually the first to be cut when budget crises arise.

Life, like school, has homework.  Tons of homework.  Contrary to what anyone might lead you to believe, no one actually likes homework.  People would much rather play with their friends or their toys or their friends’ toys.  Mowing the lawn, weeding, raking, painting, unclogging toilets, fixing leaking faucets, scrapping the goo from the bottom of the trash can is home work that must be completed before there’s any recess time.  And if you neglect your homework, you will not get credit.

Credit is what you get when you do well.  Doing home improvement projects get you lots of credit that can manifest itself in many was such as a night out with your friends.  Of course earning extra credit never hurts any either, and it’s readily available.  Flowers, a non-coerced back-rub or picking up your socks always earns points.  Ladies, try sitting through an entire NASCAR race with him without nodding off.  Gentleman, bring home a copy of “The Vow” and watch the entire movie with her without nodding off.  Remember, the more credit attained, the better the grade.

Like it or not, we are all graded on a daily basis.  If it isn’t an evaluation at work, it’s the neighbors looking at your porch that needs painting or the polite smile from someone crunching your tuna casserole.  But it’s not only your grades that take you to the head of the class.  To be successful, you must always be prepared:  Never go to a meeting without a writing instrument even if you have nothing to write down, it looks impressive; always do your math in pencil, as any accountant will tell you 2+2 does not always equal 4; always check your answers, even when you are one hundred percent right, you still may be wrong; take good notes, there is always a test afterwards; memorize your facts, corporate America loves trivia; spelling counts, especially names; don’t eat or chew gum while working, you’ll eventually get called on in mid-chew; and to let everyone know just how hard you are working, it is important to always show all your work unless, of course, you’re a lawyer.

It is societies principles that lead you through your daily schedules and guide you in the right direction, and trouble may send you right to the vices.  It’s all very much like Salisbury steak.

Salisbury steak appears regularly on school lunch menus.  The meal sounds regal enough for a king:  Salisbury steak -- a generous portion of prime tender meat smothered in thick, rich gravy.  However, as every graduate of public school knows, Salisbury steak is nothing but a hamburger with an identity crisis.  You can make the ground meat of your life into anything you want:  a loaf, patty, sloppy Joe, meatball or a steak.

And that, my dear young friends, is the essence of life:  Salisbury steak.

Thank you.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Closet NASCAR Fan

Now that the NASCAR season is back in gear, and since most of its races occur on Sundays, I believe it fitting and proper to now make a good and full confession:  I am a closet NASCAR fan.

It all started several years ago when my wife and then five-year-old son, Ethan, stopped at the local liquor store to pick up Dad a six pack as he had been working away remodeling the kitchen.  In the parking lot was a racecar:  number 97.

My son came home thrilled to have seen a real racecar and insisted we watch the race that following weekend which, I believe, was the Pocono 500.

I had never been a racecar enthusiast.  In fact, I was what you might call your classic NASCAR basher.  What was the level of the mind of the person who finds it amusing to watch cars drive in circles for hours, I’d say.  What could possibly be the thrill of exhaust fumes, deafening noise, drunken rednecks and cheap beer, I’d wonder aloud.  What do you call an overweight, loudmouthed, couch sitting, beer swilling middle-aged man?  Why a NASCAR fan, I’d often declare. 

I remember my father sitting on the floor, leaning on the ottoman, smoking his menthol one hundreds and drinking his sixteen ouncers, watching stock car races when I was a kid.  From time to time I would try to sit there and watch with him because, perhaps subconsciously, I was attempting to connect with him, but I could never make it past a few laps.  Once in a while there was a good crash that held my attention, but, to me, all the cars looked alike and just kept going around and around and around.  Even at twelve years old, I thought that a good crash was not worth the wait.

So, my son and I tuned in to the race.  “There it is, there it is,” Ethan yelled.  There on television was number 97, the very same car he had seen and touched only days before.  I soon learned that the car was being driven by the defending champion Kurt Busch.  If you have to root for someone, it might as well be someone good.  I further learned that Busch wasn’t the most popular driver, and had a reputation of being a troublemaker, which made me like him even more.

Number 97 started off strong in the first row, but finished somewhere in the middle of a pack of forty-some cars, a ho-hum performance but oddly appealing.  I found myself being drawn into the drama of the race and, dare I say it, enjoying myself.

Soon I started turning on the races while doing small chores around the house.  Just background noise, I told my wife.  I wasn’t really watching.  A few weeks later I was sitting on the couch when she said that for background noise, I seemed pretty interested.  I told her that I would rather have been doing a thousand other things, but Ethan wanted to watch another race.  The problem, she so lovingly pointed out, was that Ethan had gone to the park with his sister nearly an hour ago.

By the end of the 2005 season, I was watching regularly, and, when she discovered the endless amount of available accessories – t-shirts, flags, barware, kitchen tools – my wife was watching, too.

Before the 2006 season began, we had to pick a driver to support.  Last season we had cheered on Kurt Busch because we had the car connection.  But since he was no longer going to be driving number 97, we had a decision to make:  Do we stay with the team or follow the driver.  In other sports players change teams all the time, but very few people will change their allegiance to the team.  Perhaps we’ll go with our favorite sponsors.  What would it be?  Candy?  Breakfast cereal?  Office supplies?  Home improvement centers?  Alcohol?

In the end we decided to choose several drivers to follow for an array of reasons.  Some we chose because they drove the same brand of car we drive.  Another because we share a last name with the driver.  Finally we chose a rookie because we thought it would be fun following someone’s career from the start.

During the first race of the following season, the famed Daytona 500, I called all my children into the living room to watch the race with their mother and me.  Among groans, complaints and an offer to do homework, I told my kids that watching NASCAR is like sitting in Circus Maximus of ancient Rome watching chariot races filled with danger and nobility and honor.  Each chariot a wonder of modern physics and engineering.  Each charioteer a fearless competitor, risking life and limb to wear the laurels of victory.

When that didn’t work I told them I’d run to the convenience store for some chips, dip and sodas.  They were in. 

It’s been that way ever since.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Metric Maleficence

Eight years ago saw the passing of an international hero.  Steve Thoburn, of Sunderland, England, died of a heart attack in March, 2004, at the age of 39. 

While most people probably never heard of Thoburn, his stand against a system forced upon millions of people in both the UK and here in America echoes many people’s beliefs. 

In 2001, Thoburn was prosecuted for selling fruits and vegetables in pounds and ounces when the European Union requires produce to be sold in metric units.

Fortunately, Thoburn’s spirit of aversion to the metric system carries on.

While standing in line for nearly twenty minutes while some guy in front of me was buying enough lottery tickets for the entire eastern seaboard, I contemplated my purchase.

Why was I buying a two-liter bottle of soda?  Why not a quart of milk or, for that matter, a half gallon of ice cream or a pound of American cheese?  Why not just a thirty or so once bottle of soda?  Why two liters?  What ever happened to the metric system anyway?

While we are only one of three countries in the world that measures out its highways in kilometers, it seems we still have miles to go.  Even though my car has a 1.3liter engine to cruise those highways, I still fill it with gallons of gas and keep my 13-inch tires filled with air at 32 pounds per square inch.

The metric system was first made compulsory in France in 1801.  It was first authorized for use here in the US in 1866 by an act of Congress, though the debate over our utilization of the metric system has been raging for nearly 200 years.

Back when I was in elementary school we were told that by the year 2000 everyone would be using the metric system exclusively.  The US Metric Conversion Act that was signed on December 23, 1975 declaring a national policy to encourage the voluntary use of the metric system prompted this metric exuberance. So, to prepare us for the measurable future, we were drilled in conversion:  inches to centimeters, pounds to grams, quarts to liters.  What made it even tougher was that even our parents couldn't help us with the homework because, much like kids and technology today, we knew more about the system than our parents. 

Some parents flat out refused to take the metric system seriously because they considered it un-American. 

Imagine a new-fangled Committee for Un-American Activities:  (In a smoky room with flashbulbs snapping all about):

Panel:  Is it true, sir, that on April 15, 2000, you asked for .45 kilograms of German bologna?  German bologna?  And you actually pronounced it bologna with the short “a” sound at the end and not baloney with the long “e”? 

Witness:  I respectfully exercise my constitutional right and not answer that question on the grounds that everybody will look at me funny, like I was French or something. 

Learning the metric system was always a problem because nothing else outside of school measured up in the same way.  Conversion to the metric system was not going to be so easy.

In September of 1999, even National Aeronautics Space Administration ran into its own little conversion problem. 

The Mars Climate Orbiter, valued at $125 million, was lost, tossed into the abyss of space or crashed and burned in the Martian atmosphere, when engineers failed to make a conversion between the metric system and the US system units (pounds, inches, feet, et. al.).  "I can only say," one of the project scientists said, "it served the United States right for not converting to the metric system decades ago."  Served us right?  Economically, politically, financially and militarily the strong-arm of the world and they're going to get us on weights and measures?

Why is it that illegal drug dealers work so successfully with grams and kilos as well as pounds and ounces, easily converting constantly between the two systems, but it's a challenge for a rocket scientist?

It is time for the world to realize that our system of measurement is indefatigable because it is quintessentially American.  It's no accident that the United States is one of the only countries in the world not totally committed to adopting the metric system.  Rugged defiance of global influence and shrewd isolationism are representative of the American spirit.  What else than good ol' American determination can fathom (6 feet) measurements like the rod (16.5 feet) or the pole (5.5 yards) or the peck (2 gallons) or the pace (2.5 feet) or the gill (half a cup) or the hogshead (63 gallons)?

America will keep her measures just as she pleases.  She will not bend to the torrents of international pressures.  Her scales of justice will tip left and right with ounces and pounds; her quantities of milk and honey will flow in pints, quarts and gallons; her rulers will hold its inches to a foot.  And remember what Thomas Jefferson said:  People get the rulers they deserve.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Valentine's Day Fear

Like many rationally thinking men, I am absolutely terrified of Valentine’s Day, this year more than most.  My reasons are many, and while I could go as far back as to third grade and the Hong Kong Phooey Valentine incident, for brevity I’ll start a little later.

On Valentine’s Day, 1979, I decided to write Candy a poem.

I was in high school and had developed a deep crush on Candy.  She was somewhat plain looking, tall, thin build, short brown hair, thick glasses.  I remember how I loved her long slender fingers.  I don’t know why I liked them, I just did. 

Her parents owned a small arts and crafts store down the street from where I grew up.  Many evenings, as she sat behind the counter in the mostly empty store, we’d sit and talk about many profound and meaningful subjects.  We spent much time together, talking, laughing, enjoying each other’s company.  And while I saw her as the love of my life, she saw me more as a little brother.  You see, she was a senior, while I was nothing but a lowly freshman.

So, on Valentine’s Day, I decided to write Candy a poem that would put it all out there.  I opened an emotional vein and bled such anguished adolescent sentiment that it couldn’t fail. 

I stood next to her watching as she read, studying her face for any reaction.  At first she looked confused and maybe just a little concerned, but then a huge smile grew across her face.  She looked at me straight in the eye and said, “This is really good.”  She looked at the poem and then back at me.  “Do you think I could use it to give to my boyfriend?”

I eventually recovered from the devastation of that episode, but it has served as a touchstone for Valentine’s Day ever since.

Avoidance has been my coping mechanism of choice when it came to Valentine’s Day.  It worked pretty well for a number of years, too.  The holiday’s winter placement made the flu a perfect out.  An annual bout of bronchitis kept me safe in solitude every 14th of February. 

It wasn’t until I started dating Cheri, the girl who would end up being my wife, when I was roped in to – did I begin to celebrate the day.  But it was not without a lot of trepidation and a little tragedy.

Valentine’s Day had fallen on a Friday when Cheri was a sophomore at Temple University and I was living down at the Jersey shore.  When I got off work at four in the afternoon, I stopped at a florist and spent what little money I had on a dozen roses.  I planned to stop home, take a shower, and then head up to Philadelphia.

Just before I pulled in my driveway, it started to lightly snow.  I gently lay the roses in the trunk and went in.  Less than a half hour later, I stepped out of the shower and peered out the window at blizzard conditions.  Mother Nature had given me the perfect out when I finally didn’t need one.

Much to Cheri’s chagrin, I called to postpone our Valentine’s date.  Being a guy and an economizer of every step, I decided to keep the roses in the trunk.  I figured the florist stores them in a cooler, what harm could it do.

The next day, late in the afternoon when the main roads were clear, I drove up to Philadelphia.  I told her how sorry I was that we had missed our first Valentine’s Day together, but, if she would come out to the car with me, I was sure all would be forgiven.

I led her outside and proudly opened the trunk.  There we stared at a dozen roses fit for Morticia Addams.  They were practically black, wilted, and generally pathetic.  Apparently a cooler at a florist is not the same as a subfreezing trunk.  I would have told her to forget about the roses, that I was taking her to a romantic restaurant in the city, but I had spent most of my money on the now dilapidated flowers.  The best I could offer was some ice cream from the convenience store and maybe some M&Ms to sprinkle on top.

Fortunately, I have improved somewhat when it comes to Valentine’s Day.  For instance, I no longer buy super sized boxes of chocolates when just that morning my wife was complaining that her jeans felt a little tight.  I double check to make sure I actually sign the card I give her.  I also make sure to read the words closely before randomly underlining some to give them emphasis.  There is no good answer for why you underlined the word “but.”

This year, Valentine’s Day falls on a Tuesday, and I am just a little concerned.  Going out the weekend before is too early to really count and the weekend after is too late.  Sure, you can say that the date is in lieu of Valentine’s Day, but that will still leave an expectation of something on the actual day.  That means we guys must either go out on a Tuesday night – which no working person would wish on his worst enemy – or risk certain emotional annihilation. 

The whole situation makes me feel a little feverish.  Maybe I’ll luck out and it’ll be the flu.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What Education Reformers Tend to Overlook

I teach high school in Camden, New Jersey — cited, yet again, as the second most dangerous city in the nation.
"I could never work where you do," this guy said to me at a social gathering I attended not very long ago. It was a friend of a friend who had been teaching in a suburban school district for over twenty years and whom I had just met. There were several teachers at this party because we teachers, like fish, tend to travel in schools (I hear the groan from here!). "Why not?" I asked. He looked at me as though the answer was obvious. "It's Camden," he said chuckling.
"And...?" I said.
He looked around the five of us who were standing in the kitchen. He was looking for help and wasn't getting any. Then, in a more serious tone, he said, "Well, being white..."
"Being white?" I said as if I misheard.
"Yeah. Being white I couldn't tell the kids, you know, what to do," he said.
"Why not?" I said.
"They're not going to listen to some white guy," he said.
I looked at my own complexion and then back at my acquaintance. "That has never been an issue for me," I said.
"But I hear the pay is good," he said as if I hadn't just addressed his last point. He was a classic overtalker, someone who will keep yapping with little regard to anything anyone else says. "Combat pay, that's what you guys get, combat pay." Was this attitude why inner city schools are plagued with such teacher turnover problems? Do people really believe you need to be a certain race to be effective with a certain population? And if that's so, do they also believe the inverse is true? Was this irrational and ignorant fear, subtle racism or inherent guilt?
"The idea that inner city teachers make more money than teachers in the suburbs is ludicrous," I said.
"Look at test scores," he overtalked. "They're always lower in the inner city. You know why? Because the kids are so bad that these schools have to waste money on higher salaries, combat pay."
"Combat pay is a myth! And you want to talk test scores?" I said. "On a practice assessment test once supplied by the state, the writing prompt for the persuasive writing section begins with a scenario: After a soccer championship, the fans, in celebration, charge the field and many cut pieces of the goal nets to take as souvenirs leaving the nets as tattered threads. The principal, so it goes, says that the money for the repair of the goals will come from all the school's clubs. The task is to write a letter to the board of education agreeing or disagreeing with this decision," I said in a single breath.
"Yeah? So?" He said.
"Soccer isn't exactly a big sport in the inner city. But in the suburbs..." I let my voice trail off.
"Doesn't matter," he began. "A test is a test is a test. The state standardized tests are the only way to measure achievement across the board."
"It's only one way," I said.
"It's the only one that counts," he said. "And all kids have the same opportunity to pass. These kids just don't take the opportunities that come their way."
"I'll grant you that there are inner city kids who live up to the expectation society and the suburbs have put upon them, but in no way do these kids all have the same educational opportunities. There are kids who have to care for their siblings because a single parent is off working her second or even third job. Others aren't sure if there will be a meal when they get home. Many walk the streets in fear and live in houses with bars on the windows to protect what little they have. Many do not have a desk with ample light and parents who have gone to college, parents whose parents have gone to college standing close by to help them with their homework. The opportunities are as far apart as their economic status," I said.
"Aw, you're just rationalizing because your test scores aren't as good as the suburbs," he said.

"You know what real school reform would be? Maybe school districts shouldn't hire teachers. Maybe the state should. Then a teacher could work at one school for a few years and then be transferred to another for a few more years and so on. Then a teacher could work in both the more wealthy suburbs and the inner cities putting their real teaching skills to the test. If a teacher can get high test scores from their students in the most affluent districts, let's see those same teachers do it in the least," I said.
This friend of a friend sipped his drink and looked at me and chuckled, "A lot of teachers think like you when they first start teaching. Don't worry; you'll get like the rest of us. You'll grow out of it," he said.
"That's funny," I responded. "Teachers have been telling me that for years."

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Icycle Light Plea (A Form Letter)

The following is a draft of a proposal on an idea of a concept.  Readers are urged to clip, copy, sign and send it along to their local town representatives.  Remember, the more of these they receive, the more likely something will be done about this most heinous problem.
Dear Representatives:

My name is (your name here), and I live at (your address here).  I would like to bring to your attention a serious problem that is not only plaguing our little corner of the universe, but most other places as well.  In fact, the problem is so out of hand that we are in danger of it’s becoming an epidemic.  You must take serious action now before it is too late and there will be no turning back.
Let me start by saying that I am not a killjoy in any way.  I like having fun as much as the next person and in a festive spirit, I’ve been known to make rather merry.  Let me also start out by making it clear that I believe in the rights of all private property owners and that there ought to be limits to the powers of local government.
That being said, however, I sincerely demand that you, (insert local form of government here:  township committee, town council), draft, pass and strictly enforce an ordinance that forces homeowners and renters to take down their icicle lights within a reasonable time after the winter holidays.
There was a time when people ridiculed those who left their holiday lights up past the Super Bowl.  That behavior was once reserved for those who also thought that a broken down car made an excellent lawn ornament.  Alas, no more. 
Today, unfortunately, it seems that leaving the lights up year round is in vogue.  I challenge you to drive through a neighborhood without passing a home sporting the glistening tentacles dangling from rooftops.  Even those developments with “executive homes” – you know, those slash-and-build neighborhoods that was a orchard just last week – have a few families who must think that icicle lights are permanent lighting fixtures just because they come with nifty plastic clips.
Perhaps these perpetrators believe that no one can really see the lights dripping from their rain gutters.  Perhaps they think that they are attractive and add to the aesthetics of the block.  Perhaps they feel that if everyone left their holiday lights up, it will become the norm.  Whatever these people may believe, I must strongly state that they are wrong, wrong, wrong.
Not only are they a safety hazard because they are not designed permanent outdoor use, but these lights are just plain ugly.  They make your house look like an Appalachian smile. By keeping them up, residents are showing a lack of respect for themselves or their neighbors but also for (insert name of town, borough, city, berg or township) itself.
It is time for our (insert town type here:  town, borough, city, berg or township) to stand up and take swift and decisive action.  It is time for all (insert name of town, borough, city, berg or township) residents to tell their fellow community members that these lights are an eyesore, that at night, during the holidays, they are a delightful adornment, but now, during daylight saving hours, they look not unlike an albino millipede racing across a roof.
Even though there are most likely ordinances already in the books dealing with temporary and permanent outdoor electrical wiring and lighting that can and ought to be used to control this ever-growing problem, a specific ordinance may help many people to realize that the appearance of their homes are as much of a reflection on me as it is on them.
Thank your for your quick attention to this problem.


(Insert name here)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Refinishing Your Inner End Table

When Michelangelo brushed his last stroke on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, I imagine he must have stood back to take in his work as a whole:  one part admiration, three parts relief at the work’s being complete.  As I hammered the last finishing nail in the window trim of my bathroom, I stood back to take in the work as a whole:  one part relief at the work’s being complete, three parts amazement that the nail went in straight.

After several jump starts, mishaps and do-overs, it is finished.  The total bathroom renovation that began with a burned out light bulb in 1998 is finally done.  From gutted room to new towels, my leviathan of a lavatory has been conquered. 

When I had put the last of the tools back down in the basement, I stood at the bathroom door, staring, noticing a couple minor imperfections that few others would perceive.  I like to believe those little imperfections, like the bumps and wrinkles of life, are what make a place, a life, our own.  Perfection, after all, is in the eye of the cynic.

Still standing in the doorway, I tried to picture what the room had looked like before I started.  I wondered what it had looked like before that and then even before that.  Our house is around a hundred years old, so I figure it must have gone through many renovations.  All those minor imperfections painted, papered and paneled over to lay a claim, to mark a territory, to discover a land anew over and over again. 

And then a thought occurred to me:  Aren’t we all constantly renovating our inner rooms?

It’s like Deepak Chopra meets Bob Villa.  A person needs to tear down a facade put up years ago, perhaps in another lifetime, before rebuilding.  A healthy individual needs to know the dimensions of his own door jam in order to put up new trim.  The sub floor must be flat, smooth and clean before laying the new, improved vinyl flooring.  Seams between sheets of dry wall must be tapped and spackled well so the wall can be one flowing wall in itself and of itself.  Paint looks best over a coat of fine primer, that is, our outside is only as beautiful as what lies beneath because if you can’t get at what’s really underneath, at least keep it from bleeding though.

Furniture refinishing is much the same thing.  When I got my first apartment, I raided my parents’ attic.  Along with an old set of plates I don’t ever remember using; forks, knives, and spoons; a few pots and magazine rack, I was able to confiscate two matching end tables.  They had been the end tables of my youth, permanent fixtures in our living room until my brothers and I were out of the jump-on-the-furniture-with-your-dirty-shoes phase when my parents bought new furniture that wasn’t akin to burlap.

When I set up my living room that also played the role of dining room, office, guest room, and hamper, the end tables gave me a familiar, homey comfort feeling.  Seconds later I made the decision to refinish them.  It wasn’t that they were in bad shape; it wasn’t that I didn’t particularly like the style.  It was that I was not living at home anymore, I was on my own and I needed to strip off the fine, natural wood finish of my parents and paint them with the good black semi-gloss of my independence.

It’s not just the big jobs that help us renovate our inner rooms.  The smallest jobs around the house are just as important.  Touching up paint on a baseboard, fixing a leaking faucet, even simply Spring cleaning can be as insightful and meaningful toward a more fulfilling sense of self as a Wayne Dyer marathon during PBS fundraising.

For those who believe that it’s best to leave such major improvement projects to the professionals, I’d reply that people must be their own contractors, sub-contracting only surrenders one’s power to another – although having a good plumber really helps.

With the desire, patience, and the proper tools, any inner room can be improved upon.  Just don’t forget to wear your safety glasses.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Odyssey of the Playground

In his famous journey, Homer’s Odysseus had to suffer and prevail over great challenges both mental and physical before he could finally return home.  With the help of his guardian from Mt. Olympus, the goddess Athena, Odysseus was able to escape the eye of Cyclops and the voices of the Sirens.  Of all the hardships, however, the hero of the Odyssey never had to endure anything as arduous as the elementary playground at recess. 

My son once came home from school complaining that one of his classmates had annoyed him during recess by constantly inflicting a “spider hold” on him.  A spider hold, I deducted by his description and rather annoying demonstration, is sort of like that Vulcan knock-out pinch to the neck that Mr. Spock did on Star Trek to those who annoyed him.  My son told me that all the kids were constantly giving each other the “spider hold,” but he found it ridiculous and, frankly, somewhat uncomfortable.

My heart went out to him.  I remember those seemingly innocent albeit slightly injurious rites of passage in the schoolyard.

“Hey, Chester!”  Wham!  A full force blow to the upper body.  “It’s good to see you back.”  Whomp!  A breath-taking slug to the back.  There were others.

I dreaded Tuesdays.  In my school it was referred to as “Toes-day.”  On this particular day, someone would walk up to you and stomp his foot down on yours as hard as he could.  I would wake up the next morning with mixed feelings.  Yes, I had survived another “Toes-day,” but now it was “Weddings-day,” a day wrought not only with physical pain, but emotionally scarring as well.  On “Weddings-day” the nuptials were performed by a blind-sided shove that made you go flying into the nearest girl, preferably one in need of a good emollient.  Any contact constituted marital bliss. 

Painful though these were, it was merely the light stuff, the work of the underlings. 
Those who perpetrated these little annoyances were the imbecilic henchmen to the archenemy that was Gunter; six feet forever to my four foot whatnot, Gunter was the bully’s bully.  Gunter had been left back so many times that he had his own parking spot.  Gunter was so mean that he’d step on your toes and push you into girls on any day of the week.

Gunter had it out for me.  Mostly everyday during sixth grade I was either tripped, noogied, Indian burned, Charlie horsed, ear flicked, or just plain punched by sasquatchian kid.  I had no idea why until one day when he was caught red handed, that is, he had me in a headlock grimacing in pain when a teacher walked up.  The teacher told Gunter to stop pummeling me.  “But he’s wearing Bo-bos,” he said about my sneakers with the tell tale “BB” on the sole.  “That’s stands for basketball,” I said from inside Gunter’s elbow, repeating the words of my mother.  Even the band kids laughed.

According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, approximately one-third of school children have been bullied or have participated in bullying by the time they are in high school.  Unfortunately, children learn to tolerate these unwarranted assaults as a means of self-preservation.  It’s the classic catch-22:  If a child complains, he is ridiculed by his peers or he may incite the bully to take even more violent actions.  Telling a teacher is completely out of the question.  The code of ethics among school children wading their way through playground politics is clear on this one.

In this age where schools are installing metal detectors, completing random locker checks, practicing lockdown drills where students stand in a darkened classroom against a wall so that the classroom will appear unoccupied to a gunman in the hallway, implementing and enforcing zero tolerance policies, and completing volumes of paperwork when bullying is reported, some abusive behaviors are still being over looked and even encouraged in schools by those who still believe in the antiquated adage that boys will be boys. 

A simple punch in the arm my look innocent enough; however, accepting even the slightest nudge could be a sign of something far worse.