The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘school’ Category

THE BULLY

Bullies have always existed and probably always will.  For whatever reason there are some who are so insecure that they must find someone whom they believe to be weaker than they to push around so that the bully can feel an importance that is born in cruelty rather than in conscience.

I knew a few bullies as a child and several more as an adult.  The pattern for the children was always the same – find a victim who was weaker or who was different from most – and launch attacks, physical or verbal – with the hope that their prey would cry or run away in fear.

The adults who were probably bullies as a child have changed their pattern of behavior – but only slightly.  They exhibit less physicality but more verbal abuse – particularly if their target was a different color or of a different ethnicity or different in any other way.

In order for the bully to take full pleasure in his torture it is important that he or she have an audience to appreciate him.  This gives him validation.  And usually those who gravitate in his circle are even weaker than he, gaining their own self-esteem by being in the presence of such a mighty person.

We are reading and hearing more about bullies – from how they harassed a young girl so badly that she took her own life – to a professional football player who left the Miami Dolphins because of his teammates’ incessant jeers and taunts.  So naturally, being the caring people whom we are, we will pass laws and stiffen penalties for those who engage in this blood sport.  And we will walk away from our legislative chambers with a smug sense that we have done our duty.

It does not surprise me that there seems to be more of this going around today than when I was a kid.  If there is one fundamental thing that ran through the bullies I knew as a child it was this – not one of them was ever courteous or thoughtful of others.  On the other hand their most noticeable characteristic was rude and loud behavior – as though to shout out to the world, “Hey, look at me.  I’m important.”

Perhaps they had to shout that loudly to quash the thoughts that ran through their self-absorbed minds that they were anything but important.  These were lonely, arrogant children who almost certainly grew into adults with the same deficiencies and longings to be needed.

It’s interesting that the two bullies who come to mind from my childhood were both from wealthy families, still they were latchkey kids – if you can call a very expensive co-operative apartment with twenty-four hour doormen on Park Avenue a ramshackle shack.  But their parents were both too involved in their own lives to pay much attention to their offspring.  They had nannies and cooks and servants, but they lacked the most essential elements that can turn a malleable child into a bully.  They lacked the love and attention and direction of their parents.

If bullying is on the rise it should surprise none of us.  What is left of the family unit is so distracted that it seems that staying together is more a matter of indifference than desire.  Obviously, there are many exceptions to that statement – but they are the exceptions rather than  the rule.

Passing a law to punish the effects of bullying is about as useful as trying to put a poached egg back into its broken shell.  Laws are punitive in nature rather than pro-active, and if we are to address the question of bullying effectively, we need to look at the cause rather than punish the result.

If a person has a good sense of his own self-worth, he or she is far less likely to become the subject of a bully’s malevolence.  The bully is essentially a coward and must find someone whom he believes is even weaker than he in order to achieve his goal of torment.  I know that in my case I was able to develop a reasonable sense of self-worth through the efforts and love of my parents and teachers.

I remember one particular incident when a kid who was three grades ahead of me began picking on one of my classmates – someone whom I really liked.  It was, of course, before Facebook.  Back in those days, the bully needed more guts than today and had to confront his victim face to face.

It began with little things like jostling my friend in the hallway.  And then there was tampering with his locker.  Nothing that you could really point your finger to as being threatening, but a pattern began to emerge and these little incidents became more frequent.  It began to wear on my friend and to have an effect on his performance in school.

I think that everyone in our class was aware of what was happening.  And we all were silent.  And it is in the silence of those who standby from which the bully gains strength.  But I’m sure my thoughts were much the same as my other classmates’.  “Better him than me.”  That is the statement of the ultimate coward.

Well, one day the bully got over exuberant and body checked my friend into a hallway.  Enough was enough.  I knew what he was doing was wrong.  And, more importantly, I knew that what I was doing – saying nothing – was just as wrong.  So I finally spoke out – in a loud voice and with a great deal of fear in my heart, “Hey, cut that out.”  My body was shaking as I expected to be the next one tossed against the wall.

What happened next surprised me.  This kid who was four years older than I looked stunned that anyone had stood up to him.  The best he could come back with was, “Yeah, you gonna make me?”

I don’t know where I came up with this but I said, “Maybe I’m not as big as you but with Timmy and me and our gang we can take you.  Now get out of here and leave us alone.”  And he left – and that was the end of Timmy’s being bullied by him.  I was never so scared in my life as when I uttered those words.  Neither Timmy nor I were fighters – and we didn’t have a gang.

As I thought about the recent episodes of bullying which made the news, I reflected back on a person who was the subject of a lot of sniggering when she tried to make a name for herself in the world of entertainment.  She wasn’t what most people would describe as attractive.  Sadly, most people make their judgments based on looks and if they don’t like what they see there, they never allow themselves the time to understand a person’s substance.

This Scottish lady’s name is Susan Boyle, and the video is a recording of her first performance on “Britain’s Got Talent.”  Fortunately, despite the audience’s and the judges’ initial reaction, Susan had the internal fortitude to stand in front of an audience and sing her song – fortunate both for her and for the world.

And that’s a lesson from which both bullies and their would be victims can learn.

GRATITUDE

I remember the evening that Mr. Reynolds came to our apartment.  My parents had scheduled an appointment with him for 7:30.  By then the dining room table would have been cleared, the dishes washed and dried and I should have completed my homework.  I was eleven years old.

Mr. Reynolds sold a product called the “Encyclopedia Britannica.”  It was, by far the largest compendium of knowledge available to the average person.  My parents, who believed that the more a person learned the farther in life he or she might go, were assessing the possibility of purchasing a set for me.  My parents knew that the set was expensive but they did not know the exact cost until Mr. Reynolds revealed that during his meeting.

We sat at the dining room table and Mr. Reynolds brought out his sales literature.  He explained how so many people, experts in their field, had all contributed to the encyclopedia.  And he also explained that there was an annual update which was published and that by purchasing the set, we would receive the next edition of it at no charge.  Thereafter there would be a small fee for each additional update as it was shipped.

My parents looked at me and asked whether I would use this reference library if they decided to purchase it for me.  I knew that I would but I had heard them discuss the price with Mr. Reynolds.  It was several hundred dollars – by far the largest gift that I had ever received.  And I was feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of the present.

I think my parents both knew that I would actually use the encyclopedia and had a sense of my feeling of awe, so although I couldn’t do much more than nod in assent to their question, they took that as a definite, “Yes.”  We selected the dark green faux-leather binding with gold stamped lettering for our set.

Mr. Reynolds expertly completed the paperwork and my father signed it while mother went to her desk drawer to retrieve the checkbook and give him the deposit on the set.  The balance that was due would be billed monthly over the next twenty-four months – but since my parents didn’t like owing money, I knew that this obligation would be retired long before then.  In fact I had a plan to help pay for it.

It was nearing the end of the school year and I had read in “The Herald Tribune” that a bookseller by the name of Barnes & Noble purchased used school textbooks.  Each of us students were given our various texts as part of our tuition fee.  And I remembered that the previous year on the last day of school as I was gathering my school materials, all of the waste baskets were filled with texts that other students had discarded.

I asked my home room teacher, Miss Green if I would be allowed to collect these and take them home and explained the reason that I wanted them.  Miss Green said that she would speak with the school’s principal, Mr. Tiffany but was quite sure that he would approve.

Miss Green was true to her word and two days later told me that would be fine and I had the principal’s permission.  So my next step was to commandeer Grandma’s wire grocery cart so that I could transport all these books the two blocks from my school to our apartment.  Of course, grandma, always a practical person, thought that this was a wonderful idea.  In fact she went to the grocery store in advance of my engaging in the project and secured a number of cardboard boxes so that we could package the books for the bookstore.

Well, the last day of school arrived and I set to work, racing home to get the grocery cart and then back to school.  Foolishly, I fully loaded up the cart but was unable to maneuver it down the school’s stairs.  So I had to unload half of the books so that I could manage the cart.  I left them in the stairwell and I hoped that none of the faculty would see them there.

I quickly wheeled my stash home to our apartment and grandma helped me unload it.  Then back to school to retrieve the books I had unloaded and back home again.  In total I made six trips, but the later ones took me longer as I had to go from classroom to classroom to load up.  It seemed that there was a never ending supply of textbooks

Although I had not gone to every classroom and was sure that there were more textbooks I could retrieve, I was too tired even to consider a seventh expedition and had to be content with the books I had procured.

Grandma and I arranged these in the boxes she had brought home and my father agreed to drive to Barnes & Noble the following day, which was a Saturday.  I think he was a little amused that I had put in so much effort, perhaps thinking that all that work might result in a five or ten dollar return.

Barnes & Noble was located a short distance from my father’s business.  Dad had some paperwork that he wanted to get out of the way so he said that after we had sold the books he would buy me lunch at the little Italian sandwich shop that was down the street from his office.  I was all in favor of that as they made a terrific eggplant parmesan sandwich in a robust marinara sauce.

So we got to the bookstore and started to unload.  But most of the boxes were too heavy for me to lift.  So dad went in and found the department that purchased used textbooks.  He began carrying the boxes in and when he returned he came out with a young employee who helped him carry all the books inside while I stood vigilant, guarding the books that were still in our car’s trunk.

When we were finished, my father locked the car and we went inside where the clerks were figuring the purchase value of my treasure.  With the extensive collection this took a little while – and then the manager of that department said to my father, “We will pay you $180.50 for these books, if that’s acceptable.”

I’m not sure who was more stunned – my father or me.  That was nearly the balance that was still due on my Encyclopedia Britannica (my parents had sent in more than the minimum payment each month).  So we gratefully accepted the cash from Barnes & Noble  and drove to his office.  After about an hour my father finished his paperwork and said that it was lunchtime.

Since I was now feeling extremely wealthy (although dad was holding the money in his wallet) I offered to pay for our meal.  After thinking about it for a moment, he accepted my invitation.  And so we walked to Marco’s where I had eaten on several previous occasions.

As the lunch was going to be on me I upgraded myself from the eggplant parmesan and decided to try the meatball sub.  This was a grave decision as it was one of the pricier items on the menu ($1.45).  Like the eggplant it was fantastic and extremely filling and exceptionally sloppy to eat requiring at least eight of those little napkins that the stainless steel container which sat on our table dispensed.  Despite my efforts to be neat and even with all those napkins I still had to visit the facilities when we finished to wipe the marinara sauce off my hands and face.

Buying my father lunch that day was the only part of my new found money that my parents would accept.  I tried to get them to use the rest to pay for the Encyclopedia Britannica but they refused and took the remaining money and put it in my savings account.

The fact that I had planned on contributing whatever we got from selling the books, however, gave the encyclopedia added value to me.  And although I had spent some time with it, I now began reading it in earnest.

One of our neighbors, Mr. Benson was English and an executive with BOAC.  He had a subscription to National Geographic and was discarding some old issues on the floor of our incinerator (yes, we burned garbage in those and got the whole Global Warming thing started), when I asked if I might have them.  He gladly gave them to me and as he finished each new edition left it at our apartment door.

I was fascinated with the photos and the descriptions of the lives and customs of people from all around the world.  How differently they lived from us.  And so I started to read more about these foreign places in my Britannica.

After a lot of reading it suddenly struck me.  How lucky I was to have been born in America and not the Belgian Congo or Azerbaijan, Ceylon or Outer Mongolia.  I doubted that most of the kids there had books that they could resell and I was almost certain that Barnes & Noble didn’t have offices in any of those places to purchase them.  And those kids would never have a chance to enjoy either the meatball sub or eggplant parmesan at Marco’s.

I would like to acknowledge my friend Charlie for sending me the email which contained the YouTube video you will find below.  That provided the inspiration for this post.  It is a recording of Miss Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” for the first time it was ever performed publicly.  The song had been written some twenty years earlier by Irving Berlin but he had filed it away and it was never published.

This recording was made on Armistice Day, 1938 – as Hitler was moving the entire planet closer to World War II.  It was a time of trouble and a time of fear not only in America but everywhere on our little pebble in space.

Those were disquieting times as are the times we live in today.  But as I listened to this recording, which I heard Kate Smith perform many times in later years, tears came to my eyes and I thought that even with all the travail and anger and dysfunction, I’m still proud and most of all grateful to be an American.

A SEVEN YEAR OLD WRITES TO GOD

deer god

my momma and mrs jones my sundayskool teechur they be tellun me that you seez evrythin and nos evrythin to an they be very smart and nice so i knowz iz so.

but you be so buzy seein and knowin you may nothas seed some of the stuf what happun at my skool las yeer .  speshully wif a boy in my klass we callz meen tyrone.

meen tyrone he jes always be lookin at wayz to make a fuss.  he pull at all the girlz hare and wen we be eatin our toona sanwich mean tyrone he com over and try to mush it up wif his fingurs.  so now when we seez him acomin we jes eatup our sanwich reel fast like so he dont have no chance to go mushin.

an he alwayz pickun at my bes frend a lil boy name of peter chen cause peter is a diffrun kolor than mos of us be.  kinda a yeller.  me an peter we be bes frenz an we likz to go on the swings to see whoo ken go up the hiest.  peter ken go hier than me an i think he be the best swinger that there ever was.  one day i drop a book an peter he reach down andd pick it up an give it back to me.  that was nice.

so i was thinkun that if all us kidz waz the same kolor than meen tyrone heed have no kall to be pickun at peter.  so could you make it so we all be the same kolor.  i think perpul would be nice.

i love you and i no you love me to

XoXOxOxoXOXoXOXOXOXO

kiesha smith

THE VERY NEW MATH

Mea culpa – I confess it.  I love math.  I’ve always loved math.  It comes very naturally to me and I revel in its precision.  I guess it’s for the same reason that I enjoy crosswords and jigsaw puzzles and those games where you have to get from point A to point B by drawing a line through a maze without running into the barricades while en route.  When you get the right answer or complete the puzzle, you have the reward of knowing that you accomplished something.

So here’s a math-ish question for you.  Now before I state the question, you might be thinking that I read this on a five hour flight and who is seated next to me but a man who spilled half a bottle of Gaucho Boy Cologne (primary ingredient being horse sweat).  So I picked up the In Flight magazine to see if there are any ads or stories which pique my interest – but primarily I am going to use the magazine to fan myself to keep the cologne odor as dispersed as possible.

I turn to page 33 and this is the question.

“You and some friends have gone out to dinner.  You are extremely happy both with the food and the service your pleasant server provided.  The bill comes to $200.00.  What would be a good (my italics) tip to leave your server?”

Answers (Multiple choice, of course):

A:  15%

B:  20%

C.  25%

D.  50%

Frankly, that is just the kind of question that I might expect to find in an In Flight magazine.  But that is not where I read it.

That question appears in a seventh grade “math” book that is currently in use in the Las Vegas School District.  One of the children in the neighborhood was carrying this text home from school.  As a matter of curiosity I asked her if I might take a look at it.  In flipping through the pages this question caught my eye and as that was the last day of the school year, I asked if she would lend the book to me overnight, which she did.

If you remember my opening paragraphs, I enjoy math because it is precise.  There is a right answer and every other answer is incorrect.  There is absolutely nothing that is precise about this “math” question as it merely asks for a value judgment.  In fact, other than the fact that there is an amount stated for the bill and various percentages are given as potentials to be applied to that bill for the tip, there is nothing mathematical in the question.  The children are not asked to compute a tip amount – perhaps because the question assumes that their calculators or smart phones will always return the “correct” answer once the multiplier is input.

This was not the only such question in this textbook.  So I wondered who wrote this piece of garbage.  Only mildly to my surprise, one of the contributors to the book was the “Education Committee of the S. E. I. U.”  If you don’t know what those initials mean, they stand for the Service Employees International Union.  Parenthetically, that union represents, among other people, restaurant servers.

So here’s my take on the whole thing.  We have one union (S.E.I.U.) writing questions which it supplies to another union (The Teachers’ Union) which, of course, accepts them.  The question serves more to the benefit of propaganda than it does to the mathematics purportedly being taught in the book.  This seems not to bother members of either union.  If there’s no such term as crony-unionism, I think I’ll just coin it now.

The kids get brain-washed into an agenda which benefits members of the S.E.I.U. (notice that the lowest answer given is what most people accept as a normal tip) and the Teachers Union member who is instructing the class doesn’t really have to bother grading any papers since it would be hard to argue that any of these answers was either correct or incorrect.

And that’s education in America today.  It certainly adds fire to the argument in favor either of private or home schooling.

“In the first place God made idiots.  That was for practice.  Then he made school boards.”  – Mark Twain

DO YOU KNOW THE WAY TO SAN JOSE (OR ANYWHERE ELSE)?

About a week ago as I was going to the supermarket to do some grocery shopping, I was greeted by a very tall young boy whom I took to be in his early teens and several of his teammates who were wearing their school’s baseball uniforms.  They were soliciting donations to buy some new equipment.  Accompanying them and sitting at a table that the store had allowed them to set up was a man in his early 40’s whom I guessed was either the father of one of the team members or perhaps one of their coaches.

The young man was very polite and explained that they were trying to raise money for their team.  I gave him credit for taking his time on a weekend in order to solicit us shoppers for something that was a purpose in which he believed.  So I was certainly willing to contribute to the cause.  However, I was curious about his level of scholastic achievement and so I decided to offer him a little test and, if he answered correctly, told him I would donate to help him in his efforts to purchase new equipment.

I am not quite sure why I decided on this particular question but I asked him if he knew what the capital of Chile was.  I could see a blank stare come over his face – as though Chile was not so much a location as it was something you ate.  The coach at the table tried to help him out – “It begins with an ‘S’.”  No help.  “The last letter is ‘O’.”  Still nothing.  I admonished the coach for these helpful hints – but they proved to be of no value.  The young man simply had no idea.

In a very early post I explained both my interest in and how I learned a great deal of the geography that I know.

https://juwannadoright.wordpress.com/2012/01/19/how-i-learned-geography/

If you read that earlier post you will realize that one of the things that helped me learn about different countries was in collecting the stamps of those countries.  I seriously wonder if anyone under the age of 30 has ever actually written a letter or sent a Christmas card that wasn’t done through electronic means.  Perhaps that is part of the problem in our technological age.  But the other part may be the curricula in our schools.  So I asked, “Don’t they teach geography in school anymore?”  He answered, “We get a little of that ‘World Stuff’ but not much.”

I had never heard geography phrased as “World Stuff” but I guess that’s the new normal.  Perhaps it is for that reason that a fair number of younger folk think that Afghanistan is somewhere left of Mexico and just right of Hawaii.  In the olden days, we might not have been terribly concerned about what was happening in Niger or India or Australia – but at least we knew where they were.

So I decided to offer this young man a second opportunity to raise money for his team.  I got away from the “World Stuff” and brought things as close to home as possible by asking him if he knew what the capital of Nevada was.  I told him that I would give him two chances and he should consult with his younger teammates before giving me his choices.  A gleam of hope shone on his face and I thought that he was going to give me the correct answer.

Without consulting his teammates he blurted out, “Las Vegas.”  I presume that if you’re relying on pure guess work, picking the largest city in the state is not an unreasonable choice – but, of course, it is incorrect.  That left only about four cities of any size from which to select and he chose the second largest one, Reno.  Also incorrect – though only about twenty-five miles from the actual capital, Carson City.

So, although he didn’t get my donation, which I had hoped to provide him, I decided to use the opportunity to turn this into a life lesson.  So I said, “I’m sorry that you will not be getting a donation from me today.  I really would have liked to help you and your teammates out.  But there is a lesson to be learned here – which is that the only things in life that are free are generally things that we don’t want.  We have to work to earn the rest.  The next time I see you, I’m going to ask you another geography question and I hope that you’ll study up on the subject so that you can give me the correct answer and I can give you my donation.”

This is not to say that this young man falls into the category of folks we used to categorize as “Dumb jocks” or in any way impugn his intelligence.  He seemed very bright and eager.  But that is not enough if the raw materials for learning are not being provided by our schools and further fostered in our homes.  And that is a pity in a society which views our world as a “Global Village.”

Sadly, in this Global Village, I’m not sure that this youngster would be able to find either the kitchen or the bathroom.  And in all honesty, I wonder if his teachers would do any better.

LET’S GET DOPEY

This is normally a “G” or on occasion a “PG” rated blog (I gave it those ratings – not a government agency) so parents need not worry about exposing their children to this post.  This is not about killing one of the Seven Dwarfs.  Rather, it’s about how technology is facilitating our getting dumber and dumber.

Once upon a time there was an expression which went, “He had to live by his wits.”  That time is past and that is a fortunate thing for most of us.  If we lived by our wits or perished, the funeral home industry would be working round the clock, seven days a week and there would still be a backlog of bodies to process.

I was inspired to write this post because of an event that happened yesterday.  I used one of the greatest technological inventions of all time, the car horn and saved a life from being extinguished because of another, more modern technological advance, the “smart” cell phone.  I’ll get to the details of the incident in just a moment.

When I blew the horn on my car I wasn’t even sure if it still worked.  I think it’s been about three years since I heard it – and that only because I was getting out of my car with a large bag of groceries in my hands and I accidentally bumped into it.  That naturally startled the dogs who were milling around waiting for me to open the door of the house so I, of course, apologized to them and they forgave me.

If there’s anything that really irks me it is the idiot who is one centimeter from your rear bumper as you are waiting for a stop light to change and when it does, one nano-second after the green light is displayed, lays on his horn to advise you of the fact.  I am very attentive to changes in stop light coloration so this is unnecessary.  Because I do not enjoy being “honked at” I don’t do it to other people.  So for me to employ my horn means that something really critical is in progress.

Returning to the incident … I was driving to the dog park with Gracie when a young man walked into the street almost directly in front of our car with his eyes firmly affixed to the screen of his cell phone.  I would have guessed him to be in his early twenties and unlikely to reach his early thirties.

Fortunately, at the early hour I could see there was no traffic coming the other way so I swerved into the opposite lane and gave a quick toot on the horn to see if I could rouse him from his fixation on the cell phone screen.  In the process of swerving to avoid hitting him, Gracie got jammed up against one side of the wagon and banged her right side on the car frame.  I am pleased to say that she, the young man and I all survived relatively unscathed.

I pulled the car over to the side of the road and my first reaction was to be angry with this cell phone-fixated fellow.  Then I remembered that I have promised myself to try to be nice and kind and gentler to the people I meet.  But I did think that it was important that he understood that his actions might have involved all of us in a life-changing event.

I got out of the car to speak with him.  He had lowered the cell phone and was apparently beginning to grasp what had happened on his own.  Nevertheless, I thought it was appropriate that I let him know my thoughts on the subject and I presented them in the nicest and kindest and most gentle way I could muster considering that my knees were shaking moderately because of all of this.

Well, I found out the source of his fixation.  It was his girl friend.  He had spent the night at her house and was walking back to his apartment when she sent him a text message saying that she didn’t want to see him anymore.  He was naturally surprised,shocked and “distracted” by this announcement, coming only twenty minutes or so after he had left her.

I didn’t see the text message so I don’t know if this was an excuse for his lack of paying attention.  If it was the truth, what does it say about our ability to communicate?  We now can use technology to trivialize our relations with others, shielding ourselves behind its cold flat panel screens.  Other than in a philosophical way, it didn’t really matter to me whether he was telling the truth or making up an excuse.  So we took our leave and went on about our business.

You are probably thinking that proves nothing about how using technology is “dumbing us down” and you would be right on the money.  Anything has a potential to be used or misused and it is up to us to make the choice.

There is nothing inherently right or wrong in sending or receiving an email or text message.  Of course, if the email contains a death threat or pornographic images of children, we believe that is wrong.  Although not in a legal sense, I would argue that there is something inherently wrong if staying in touch is so pressing that it jeopardizes our life.

To many of us, being able to access information almost instantaneously is very important.  If it weren’t, various network providers would not have run extensive advertising campaigns about how their service provides the greatest geographical coverage and quickest download times.

In the case of this young man, let’s agree that his need to access his communication while paying attention to it and not the fact that public streets often contain moving vehicles was a poor choice on his part and not the fault of the technology which enabled him to do that.  That many people engage in that exact form of behavior should be clear from all the furor over drivers who “text” while they operate their vehicles.

I am moderately surprised that the FCC, as an extension of our paternalistic government, hasn’t advocated for the abolition of all cell phones based on the danger that they pose to those of us who misuse them in this way.  My only explanation for why that hasn’t been proposed is that acting thus in the “public interest” might put them out of a job.  That, and the fact that our cell phone dependent populace might lynch them.

When I was learning to type, Mom who was my instructress, emphasized that “accuracy matters.”  I remember all the exercises, how I placed my hands on the typewriter’s keyboard, learning where all the letters were and finally, without having to look, being able to create words and sentences – and to do it quickly.  At my peak I typed over 140 wpm with 100% accuracy.

In those days of carbon paper and manual typewriters, accuracy was important.  If you messed up you might have to correct one or more copies by manually erasing the error and re-striking the correct letter in its place.  This created a product that looked sloppy.  So we invented “corrassable” paper which left far fewer smudges.  And we invented “White Out” to cover our mistakes – but this still left evidence on the printed page.

We moved from manual typewriters to electric ones and IBM invented the “Selectric” typewriter which could remove an error on the original document by re-striking the mistake while hitting the “X” key and magically it would disappear.  Of course these early technological advances in written communication were primitive by comparison to what is available to us today.

We can move whole paragraphs around and if we find a mistake we made earlier, we no longer have to crank a carriage to return to the scene of the crime.  We merely cursor up and over it, delete the error and correct it.

If our spelling isn’t that great we have the magic of spell check to guide us and suggest for us what it is that we meant to say.  So why make the effort to learn to spell when technology can make up for our learning disabilities?  The answer is that we don’t.

I used to pride myself on being able to type a document quickly and accurately.  Let me be honest and tell you that in typing this post I’ve probably made at least 100 errors and corrections – so far.  I’ve deleted whole paragraphs and replaced them with others.  I’ve typed incorrect characters and backspaced to eradicate them.  I’ve substituted words and phrases which I felt added a better nuance to the piece.

I do proofread my work because I take pride in it and want to present a professionally written post for you to read.  But I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times, after I’ve published a post, I’ve caught an error or decided to add to or delete something that I had previously written and simply changed the piece after publication.

It’s as though I were an author whose works were available in hardbound book form and after publication, an erratum on page 47 line 6 was discovered.  So magically, at the press of a button, it was corrected on all the copies that were already in circulation.  That master of illusion, David Copperfield has nothing on technology.

What I hope I am conveying to you is that my once accurate approach to typing has been dying a slow death.  I still probably accurately type faster and better than most – but that is only because I had many years of practice where it wasn’t the better choice but the only choice.  And if you think that this wasn’t important, I made a lot of money in high school and college typing up other students’ term papers at fifty cents a page.

Today, however, by relying on technology I will be the first to admit that I’ve gotten sloppy.  It bothers me and I still strive for accuracy.  It is, in the end, far more efficient to do it right the first time than to have to re-do something – even if re-doing it is now far simpler.

I suspect that those who have grown up in and only know our present environment have little or no understanding of this concept – which is not their fault.  That they are technologically dependent rather than self-reliant speaks directly to the root cause of at least some of our problems as a society.

A few days ago I was speaking with the mother of a three month old baby boy.  She was telling me that the new brand of disposable diapers she just purchased, (another technological advance that is one of the greatest contributors to the pollution in our landfills), has a strip which changes color when the diaper is wet.  I don’t know what extra amount the manufacturer is charging for this feature but I know she is paying for the convenience of it.  Mom used to know when my cloth diapers were wet either through a visual or touch test.  I mean, how hard is this?

Later that day one of the guys at the park asked if anyone knew where the least expensive place was to buy razor blades.  The men standing around made several suggestions.  This fellow said that his last razor blade cartridge had “just gone white.”  I didn’t understand what the meant so I asked him to explain and he did.

Apparently there is a little strip at the top of each of these which starts out green and as the blades dull becomes lighter in color until it finally turns white which means that it is time to replace it.  I asked innocently, “Wouldn’t you know that because the cartridge is producing less smooth shaves or pulling at your beard?”  I thought that was a reasonable question.

He and the other men looked at me as though I were from the planet Uranus (as it was formerly pronounced).  I wish my dad were still here so I could ask him how he learned when it was time for him to change the double edge blade he used in his “safety razor.”

Now please don’t get me wrong.  We have made technological advances which I wouldn’t trade for the world.  Today’s air conditioning beats the pants off our version of a bowl of ice and an oscillating fan that was the best we could do to cool ourselves when I was growing up.  This is just one of hundreds of improvements to which I could point.

But when we allow technology (or for that matter another person) to do our thinking for us, we give up, if Descartes was correct, our right to call ourselves human.  And I have often wondered, if all the satellites and the batteries suddenly disappeared, how many of us would be able to find our way home?

IS XMAS HERE TO STAY?

As tomorrow is the beginning of Advent which commences on that Sunday the closest to the Feast of St. Andrew (November 30th), I thought it would be appropriate to put up a post on a religious theme.  Well, mostly a religious theme depending on whether or not you consider Xmas to be a religious event.

I remember as a child that during the summer the vestments worn in church by the clergy were green.  A never ending sea of green, week after week and month after month.  And then suddenly they took on the color purple as Advent began.  (This was a clue to the faithful that something was up – and what was up was that we were awaiting the arrival of Christmas – and, no that is not a misspelling of Xmas).

If I had somehow missed the hint dropped at church I received a reminder when I went to school as casting for the Christmas play had begun and I truly hoped that I wasn’t going to be the ox as had happened the previous year.  As is appropriate to the season, my wish came true.  I got to be the ass that year.

Now my school was way ahead of its time.  It was a private but non-religious place of learning.  It was a very ecumenical place.  We students, as nearly as I could figure out were either Christian (in various forms), Jewish (in various forms) – well it was in New York City – unidentified, or unconcerned about the whole religious experience.  Amazingly, we all got along quite well.

I always thought that it must have been hard for the Jewish kids to get into the spirit of a Christmas play – but they were all good sports about it.  I give credit to the school staff for that.  As we all know, Jesus was a WASP, but in our play they had dabbled in revisionist history and turned him, his father and mother into Semites.

This, of course, opened up a number of roles for the Jewish kids in class to play.  If they didn’t get cast as Mary or Joseph – there was still plenty of room for them as one of the shepherds stage right.  We didn’t have to worry about accommodating the Muslim kids as we didn’t have any in my class and the one child who was Buddhist just sort of transcended the whole thing.

Well it went on that way for years.  We would send people Christmas cards to which we had affixed Christmas stamps.  We would wrap Christmas presents and say to those we passed on the street, “Merry Christmas.”  I remember saying that to Mrs. Rappaport who always wore her Star of David and lived in our building and she just smiled broadly at me and said, “Well, Merry Christmas to you too, sweetheart.”  Then she bent down and kissed me on the cheek.

I’m not sure what Madalyn Murray O’Hair would have thought about my exchange with Mrs. Rappaport but it’s safe to say that she probably wouldn’t have been amused.  But as I was in a private school and this was before the Supreme Court decided that prayer and Bible reading was a no-no, I suspect we really didn’t need to hear from her on the subject.

Well we meandered through the four weeks or so from the start of Advent until the big day finally arrived – or more correctly the big night – Christmas Eve.  We would all trundle off to church for the Midnight liturgy filled with the old war horse hymns that we loved and which I still love.  You probably know some of them, “O, Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and the excellent choir would always sing “Silent Night” a cappella in the church which was illuminated only by the flickering of a sea of candles.

That service was always my favorite of the year.  You see, for just a few weeks, suddenly we all seemed to be just a little nicer as people.  A little kinder.  A little gentler.  In some ways it was with melancholy that I walked home with my parents and grandmother.  I knew that seven days hence we would start a new year.  And with that new year, most of us would return to our old ways.  It would be eleven long months until the spirit of compassion would once again reach out to us.

I’m not quite sure when Christmas evolved or devolved into Xmas.  As I understand from a friend who’s spouse works at a division of Kroger Foods, the staff have been informed that the proper greeting for their patrons is, “Happy Holidays.”  That is the only reference to the season which is permitted and should someone violate that they are subject to termination.  Talk about a way to infuse a little holiday spirit in your employees and make their season bright.

I would be remiss if I didn’t introduce a little history here.  You remember St. Andrew whose feast day is used to determine the start of Advent?  Well he was crucified on a cross that was in the form of an “X”.  So that might be the origin for our referring to the upcoming holiday as Xmas.  I don’t think with our current need to sanitize, whitewash and PCify everything that Xmas is in any danger of extinction.  I’m pretty sure it’s here to stay.

I admit to being old-fashioned in some ways and am going to keep a few traditions as I learned them in childhood.  I am looking forward to the thought of a service starting at midnight, a choir singing a cappella and a church in total darkness other than the light cast by a sea of flickering candles.

I am going to hold on to Christmas and not be ashamed to call it that.   I will try to be a little nicer, a little kinder, a little gentler to others and spread good cheer and warm wishes to those I meet.  And I’m going to hope, as I do each year at this time, that the idea catches on.

I’ve been hoping that for a long time.

Tag Cloud