Monday, June 29, 2009

Pride Parades, Mark Sanford and the "Fear and Ignorance" that Spurs Support for Traditional Marriage

I'm listening to an outrageous caller to my fave radio talk show who says the people who resist redefining marriage are the same as the mullahs and Taliban, because both hold perspectives resulting from their "fear and ignorance," and are attempts to hold back progressive change.

This suggests that those who would stone a woman to death for infidelity are equivalent to those of us who want to recognize there's something fundamentally different between male and female.

Funny, because I'd bet this caller would agree that men and women are not the same or interchangeable, because if they were, then any man could just as easily marry a woman; there'd be no need to insist on marrying one of the same gender. Yet his argument in favor of same-sex marriage is that male and female should be interchangeable--isn't that a huge conflict?

The whole point of marriage is to combine opposites, for the socially important reason of promoting stable, two-biological-parent homes for children. The fact that some couples marry old or can't have children is irrelevant; they're the exceptions, and you don't discard the underlying mechanism and purpose because exceptions exist.

Yesterday, I happened to be in downtown Seattle with my husband, son and a friend, and though the "Pride" parades and displays had concluded earlier, an enormous rainbow flag was still flying, suspended from an apartment balcony across from the Space Needle. This doesn't bother me, though having such a demonstration to flaunt and glorify a certain type of sexuality strikes me as symbolic of a drop in society's general dignity. After all, the only thing that makes gays different from other people, "gaydar" and affectations aside, is what they do sexually. (And what they can't do, which is to have natural children.)

I liked it a lot better (and yes, I know that the toothpaste isn't going back in the tube), when sexuality was a personal thing, not so obvious that it has to be an ingredient in the way individuals are viewed. When I was a kid, it never occurred to me that any particular person was gay or not; you might retort it's because gays were so repressed then that they dared not let on about their preferences, but unlike one's skin color or gender, gayness is a characteristic that can be revealed or not, according to choice. And when it's revealed--"I'm out and proud"--the only thing I learn about a gay person is that he limits his sexuality to those of the same gender. I'd rather not think about his sexuality, one way or the other.

I do resent the talk-show caller asserting my "fear and ignorance" because--yes it's true--I do not want the definition of marriage to change. I resist change in this word because it's not merely change but loss. The language loses its term for the lifetime combining of male and female, with no word to replace it. Under the proposed definition, marriage can be any two people, regardless of gender--with a host of other limits I doubt the caller would say represent "fear and ignorance" --limits on number of spouses together, or incestuous relationships, or supplementary marriages.

Would the caller say it's "fear and ignorance" not to accommodate poor Gov. Mark Sanford, who wants to keep both his wife and present family, and his passionate love for Maria Belen Chapur, who wrote to him last July 4: "You made me realized (sic) how you feel when you realy (sic) love somebody and how much you want to be beside the beloved. Last Friday I would had stayed embrassing (sic) and kissing you forever." It must be "fear and ignorance" that makes the law forbid the permanent expression of such enduring love.

I know gays consider marriage to be their civil right, comparing man-woman marriage limits with previous bans on inter-racial marriage. Their argument is that like skin color, sexual preference is biological and immutable. That argument might work well for siblings who want to marry--it's not their fault they were born with the same parents. But not so much for gay sexual preference, which Jeffrey Satinover, MD, Ph.D. has found often moves to heterosexual: "The desire to shift to a biologic basis for explaining homosexuality appeals to those who seek to undercut the vast amount of clinical experience confirming that homosexuality is significantly changeable.." (p. 114, Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth) Anne Heche is quoted in Wikipedia as saying, "Just because I'm married doesn't mean I call myself a straight," despite the fact that she boasts a series of public straight relationships, and only one famed foray into gayness with Ellen de Generes, at which time she vowed she was lesbian "from here on out!"

The caller to the radio show didn't drop the H-bomb--and I don't mean hydrogen--but might as well have. The means used to discredit anyone who wants to defend man-woman marriage is homophobe. I can insist on my love and friendship with gays till I'm blue, and even my support for their forming lifetime commitments with the benefits of marriage, but under a different term that recognizes the union of a man and woman as unique. Doesn't matter: if I don't support gay marriage, I'm a homophobe. That's the re-definition of that word.

Last year, we did happen to catch the Pride parade downtown. Quite a colorful crowd, many wrapped in rainbow flags, with rainbow tie-dye everywhere. Flamboyant costumes and flamboyant people all made the event festive. I love festivities, bright colors, people enjoying themselves. It's just odd to put on such a lavish event not to celebrate history (eg Independence Day) or achievements (Ethnic parades, or for returning soldiers) or a holiday (Thanksgiving or New Years), but sexuality.

I'm far from "afraid" of gays, including those who want to say they're married to each other. And I don't know what the caller would say is my ignorance, either; I've read dozens of books and hundreds of articles on the topic of gay marriage. I'd like each person to feel self-esteem, even pride, if it's for accomplishments or positive attributes, but I think all these rainbow parades aren't as benign as they seem--they're to push a minority's political agenda and non-life-affirming sexuality on the rest of us, and that doesn't seem any more festive or friendly than the accusations and comparisons with the Taliban I heard on the radio today.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson: Catalyst for Our Connections

Like half of the universe, I'm stunned by the sudden death of generational icon Michael Jackson. (And like half of that, here I am blogging about it.)

I jumped to Jackson Five hits at high school dances, was amused by his eccentricities and confused by his alleged child molesting. Like everyone else, I know most Thriller lyrics and always wanted to perfect the video dance. When my son was in third grade, his class performed Jackson's "ABC," and as the class frolicked and sang, the music brought us a joyful bond.

While Michael Jackson was certainly stellar in the music world, producing the most-sold album of all time and a distinctive, beloved style, he was also a crackpot in his well-publicized personal life. But the child-dangling and creepy accusations have fallen aside with his passing, and we're left only with an overwhelming barage of Michael-philia. Why?

"Michael Jackson made the culture accept people of color," Al Sharpton, a friend of 35 years, said, "way before Tiger Woods, way before Oprah Winfrey, way before Barack Obama." Yes, he was accepted (as many other black musical performers were) because of talent--so why all the plastic surgery to narrow his face, create a cleft and get a ridiculously upturned nose? Did his face really become white from vitiligo? Michael Jackson's social contributions--even his generous charity work--don't explain this outpouring.

You read of fans immobilized by uninterrupted sobbing: "All you can do is just keep crying. There's nothing else you can do," said Francis Ayalla to the NY Daily News. She heard of Jackson's death "when a subway conductor announced it over the loud speakers of an uptown No. 2 train." Madonna says she "can't stop crying over the sad news." A guy in Times Square who saw it blared in lights locked into the moment: "It's one of those 'where were you when' events." The photos of mourning fans are eerily reminiscent of 9/11 or November 22, 1963. Except that the deaths on those dates defined momentous. Are we emotional just because everyone else is?

Michael Jackson was a talented singer, not a national leader or part of a history-changing attack. He was as notorious for his questionable and objectionable behaviors as he was praiseworthy for his musical impact. I do think the jolt of his sudden demise enlarges its importance; we are reminded of our fragility, and mortality's ability to topple even the highest pedestal.

And there was something compelling about Michael Jackson's weirdness. He didn't like his looks, so he changed his features. He didn't want to grow up so he created "Neverland" in his backyard and surrounded himself--even in bed--with children. He painted his face in bright lipstick and scary eyeliner, and married Elvis' daughter. Then he married Deborah Jean Rowe, his dermatology nurse, and had two children named narcissistically Michael Joseph Jr., and Paris Michael Katherine. His third child, Prince Michael Jackson II was borne by an unidentified surrogate. Living through his exploits drew us to him, but didn't they also separate him from the rest of us?

If there's a lesson here, it might be the way music can bridge so many differences, and can tie people to their significant moments. And Michael Jackson's music made us dance, laugh, pivot, sing falsetto, and tune into a new genre called music videos. He was the catalyst for our own experiences.

This hysteria isn't really about the tabloid life of Michael Jackson, but rather my high school dance, practicing the Thriller moves with my kids, seeing my son's class sway and sing "ABC." Music is a special medium separating us from all other creatures, and it's only perceived via our own emotions and connections. And we certainly don't want to see them die. RIP, Michael Jackson.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What I Learned from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--Blogger

I'm not well-versed on most international news. I read the New York Times and our local Seattle paper and listen faithfully to an intelligent talk radio host, but find myself with the ostrich approach to much of it, in the same way that I avoid movies with violence and suspense. World events are far more consequential than celluloid stories, but at the same time, I feel powerless to impact, and incompetent to fully understand, most situations, which are often a blend of politics, religion and cultural context.

But there's something different about Iran's revolution. This is a revolt of the type that can not only turn around the safety of the entire world, but pivot a nation from totalitarian, misogynistic suppression toward at least a form of democratic, semi-tolerant rule. What this could mean is opportunities for Iran's citizens, and openings to diminish or eliminate hostile threats that unchecked could launch us, God forbid, into a massive international conflagration.

So the significance of demonstrating for Iran's citizens who resist the imposition of the fraudulently and forcibly-perpetuated leadership of Ahmed Ahmadinejad is enormous. And as the people of Iran continue risking their lives and combating repression to express themselves, rallies around the world in their support abound. Tempe, Arizona. San Diego, California. Charlotte, North Carolina. People of Iranian descent, many of whom recall fleeing their nation with the overthrow of the Shah, join students and others passionately insisting on Iranian citizens' right to an election free of corruption.

I happened upon Mahmoud Ahmadinejab's blog. Really, he has one. While enjoying time with his wife and children, he says, he came upon "the noble book- Nahjul Balagha," specifically, "the letter of Imam Ali (peace be upon him) to his governor Maalik al-Ashtar, in ‎which he (pbuh) elaborates the right procedure of ruling and governance." Ahmadinejab "naturally" wanted to review this "greatest management charter of Islamic government" because he's "someone who bears the heaviest executive responsibility of the country for ‎sometime now." And he plans to continue for some more time, asserting the direction he believes is what Allah wants.

In this letter, Imam Ali (pbuh!) puts forth some pretty good-sounding instructions, like taking care of the poor, being just in making decisions, choosing fair advisors, humility, and integrity--in the service of Allah. It appears, however, that all bets are off for those who don't want to follow Allah's precepts. When it comes to negotiating, here's the word: "If your enemy invites you to a peace treaty that will be agreeable to Allah, then ‎never refuse to accept such an offer because peace will bring rest and comfort to ‎your armies, will relieve you of anxieties and worries, and will bring prosperity ‎and affluence to your people. But even after such treaties be very careful of the ‎enemies and do not place too much confidence in their promises because they ‎often resort to peace treaty to deceive and delude you and take advantage of ‎your negligence, carelessness and trust."

We're dealing with a theocracy here, but also a dictator, who justifies his oppression with religious interpretations. Those who eschew America's founding as a "Christian nation" must appreciate that while the populace has always been almost entirely Christian, governance has always remained entirely secular. Contrast our system with Iran's; be grateful for our heritage and our founders' insight, as well as the goodwill that the Judeo-Christian perspective encourages.

Then I read some of the comments on Ahmadinejab's blog. Jack Meyerhoff from the US: "I hope someone puts a bullet in your head very soon." Just above that Han Guangui from China says, "you are very brave that you can fight against to USA ,I support you forever." A couple comments ask if other commenters are fake.

What are we to believe about Iran? I believe the reports that journalists have been detained, email curtailed. That citizens risk injury and death to protest that their will has been violated. That Ahmadinejab, who denies the Holocaust, seeks nuclear capabilities, has designated Israel, which could be within firing range, an enemy despite there being no real threat other than its Jewish basis.

From Ahmadinejab's blog, I learn one thing. He claims, if not believes, that this is all about what Allah wants. And religious conviction can be the most dangerous of motivators. I only hope that world response allows the Iranian people to prevail, and that Pres. Obama gets over his fear of "meddling" and shows some courage to take a stand.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Pres. Obama: Right on Fatherhood

Today, Pres. Obama did something right. And it won't cost the taxpayers a penny.

To the contrary, simply because he's our nation's first black president; simply because millions consider him the Messiah, he was able to do something potentially powerful that can only help, not hurt: He promoted responsible fatherhood.

It's too bad that many of his policies that do cost taxpayers money undermine that message, but today, on Father's Day, I want to give the guy credit. He could have just sent best wishes out to all the fathers of the land, but instead, he wrote a personal essay that was the cover story of Parade Magazine, a supplement to newspapers in most cities across the country. I happen to think it's a hokey, amateurish-looking publication written at a third-grade level with eminently dismissible content. But that might be the perfect vehicle for the president's message today.

The most salient sentence of his piece is this: "...we need fathers to step up, to realize that their job does not end at conception; that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one." Sticklers for grammar flinch at such construction, but the point surpasses its expression. He talks about his own missing father; he talks about pressures. And then Pres. Obama continues with timely admonitions: "So we need to step out of our own heads [sic] and tune in. We need to turn off the television and start talking with our kids, and listening to them, and understanding what’s going on in their lives. We need to set limits and expectations. We need to replace that video game with a book and make sure that homework gets done."

YES! Exactly right. If he inspires only a few thousand fathers to come closer to their children, to evaluate their behavior, and to set a few limits, he's improved lives. And that message will get reprinted, and, I hope, sent home with kids, and discussed. Perhaps preachers will cite it, and mothers will read it to their absent co-parents. If it comes from the mouth of the Messiah, it can make a difference.

My opinion of Pres. Obama so far is not great, but mixed. I think he's already proposed and passed destructive measures like the Stimulus Package, which will drag down an otherwise robust recovery. I fear for his health care plan, but expect that doctors, other medical providers and smart consumers can block any near-socialization that would leave us like Canada or England, where individuals die before the system can accommodate them. I know the president's a liberal, but I also see that he seems to take the office seriously. Though he's got much more ego than experience, I believe he does want to do what he sees as right for the country, to protect and enhance it.

My concern, though, is that he does so from a completely non-spiritual orientation. I don't think his 20-year affiliation with Reverend Wright was fomented from deep connection with Jesus and God Almighty, but rather from the social milieu and political benefits that connection afforded. Which is why the ego over experience is problematic: it's not tempered with the humility of one who daily sees a more eternal and supernal purpose.

But at least today, he's using that position of power to motivate in a practical and fundamental way. He concludes movingly: "On this Father’s Day, I am recommitting myself to that work, to those duties that all parents share: to build a foundation for our children’s dreams, to give them the love and support they need to fulfill them, and to stick with them the whole way through, no matter what doubts we may feel or difficulties we may face." It would have been nice if he could have suggested that the best gift a father can give to a child is to stay married to the child's mother. But he did next-best: he emphasized the long-term view, and that's something severely lacking in our feel-good society. For that he deserves kudos.

I don't have my own dad around any more to celebrate, and my husband lost his just three months ago, so today we feel that loss. We've never made much of anniversaries or Mother's or Father's Days for ourselves; I like to write a poem, make it into a decorated card with photos, and sometimes offer up a craft-fair object made of wood. But these are concessions to the culture; we understand the real celebration comes in our quiet car-ride conversations about the kids, and recently, the bar-be-que we threw to celebrate our daughter's graduation. Parenthood is in the pursuing, not the pausing, and I did appreciate that the president was willing to underscore that point. I hope you enjoyed a Happy Father's Day, and appreciate all the men who remain dedicated to the complicated but rewarding parental process.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Customer Service and Tech Support: Mutually Exclusive?

Is customer service dead--or at least, gasping for breath? Certainly this seems the case regarding electronic equipment. Manufacturers want you to give up, throw your nearly-new iPod, flat-screen, laptop, digital camera or whatever away, and buy another. They certainly don't want to help you.

Got a question? Got an hour to wait on "hold" before a script-reading woman in Bombay or the Phillipines tells you she has to transfer you to another representative?

Tell her you've already been transferred twice, or ask a question not on her list and she'll tell you "just a moment, I'll get my supervisor," putting you back in the "hold" loop for another 20 minutes, before a completely new employee asks how she can "help" you.

Do you love that muzak they play, punctuated every 60 seconds by the robot-lady who insists "your call is very important to us; please stay on the line for the next available representative"? If your call was truly important to them, they'd answer it, instead of complaining about the "unusually high volume of calls" they're "experiencing" at the moment, necessitating an estimated wait-time of (pause), fifteen minutes.

Time to go to the bathroom, get a snack, return to the receiver in its cradle still on "speaker," recycling the same muzak and assurance as to the "importance" of your call. In fact, the "estimate" is way off--20, 25, 30 minutes pass until you hear the ring-through.

Raise your hand if, after this kind of frustrating and time-soaking encounter, your question was satisfactorily answered. I didn't think so.

I enjoyed this life-shortening situation twice yesterday; more than an hour on hold--uselessly--for my digital Panasonic camera, and a separate 35 minutes trying to get Delta to assign a seat--any!--to my daughter for a red-eye cross-country flight she'd booked weeks ago. A dozen online attempts all failed, (even at time of booking the ticket), with the message that a seat would be assigned once she was at the airport. The representative in Bangalore was "so sorry" she was unable to help; she'd go check something, though, and be right back--and of course my call entered the nauseating muzak loop. I waited hopefully (and stupidly) thinking she'd actually return, only to be greeted by a different woman who started over. Delta, meanwhile, has claimed it stopped routing customer service calls to India this year, in response to customer revolt. Don't believe it.

(The upshot of my efforts, btw, was that my daughter and a handful of other unfortunate ticket-holders who never could obtain seats were shunted aside while everyone else boarded [how did they get seats??], and were only given assignments as they entered the gangway to board. My daughter got a non-reclining, jostle-attracting position that precluded sleep.)

Am I just whining, or is service passe? Should we bargain-seeking customers expect that best-priced airlines or on-sale computers bring with them cheapo support? I said in my previous post about low frat-house rent that you get what you pay for. Must we expect to pay extra if we want courteous, personal responses to our problems with products?

Such questions would not have been asked even a dozen years ago. It was expected that companies stood behind their products. Recall 30 years ago, when business was valued and gentility in interactions were the norm. Anyone remember trading stamps? When gas stations dialed out long curls of sticky blue or green sheets you'd exchange for household goods as rewards for fill-ups?

Perhaps you even remember when store clerks and businesspeople used titles when addressing customers--Mrs. or Mr. was the expected first-acquaintance style. Now, the script-readers in Bombay call poor shlubs who they've made wait endlessly "Bob" or "Ashley" when they're apologizing: "I'm truly sorry for the inconvenience, Brandon." It could be that the false familiarity and fraudulent sympathy are even more maddening than the out-sourcing of help and their inability to actually provide any. Apparently call-center employees are so used to resentful Americans that they lie about their locations. Some Indian centers put up video screens with local sports scores and weather so their workers can better fool suspicious customers, according to the Washington Post.

Perhaps as a result of the downturn, some companies will figure out that they can attract business if they actually serve their customers. Unfortunately, however, rudeness has become de rigeur, kindness and competence exceptional. Still, the customer can and does "vote with his feet;" next time, my daughter will fly Jet Blue, and I'll stick with Costco for my camera.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Inside a Fraternity--Ewww!

Call me naive, but I thought the movie "Animal House" must have been exaggerated. The disgusting but endearing 1978 flick that launched John Belushi way beyond Saturday Night Live was top-to-naked-bottom with profanity, nudity and scatology. Though I viewed it during my until-then-innocent youth, 30 years later, scenes from the Toga Party and Food Fight flash immediately back to my nauseated psyche.

Well, I now know that the classic whacked-out film had a basis in reality. I have inspected the bowels of a fraternity, and have emerged to tell you about it, using language considerably more refined than most of the enshrined lines of the "Animal House" script.

The occasion was the end of spring quarter and beginning of summer, when my daughter was to move from her hysterical sorority into a frat house, whose alternate floors are let annually for the summer to Greek-system women. I'd packed her vast store of clothing and schlepped them with her mini-fridge, plastic drawers and bins of shoes to my car; we were to take our first load on to the fraternity a couple blocks away. Most guys had cleared out for the summer, and for the next ten weeks, my daughter was to assume her part of the "four-man" (double bunk bed) room she'd assured me was fabulous--spacious with three closets--and a steal at just $250.

Always remember: You get what you pay for.

The exterior of the fraternity was unprepossessing, with a flat concrete pad on which two lavishly tattooed guys were shooting baskets. The open front door led to the lower floor, the level of my daughter's room. We stepped in, and--dum, dum, DUM--descended into a world of vomit, scum, broken glass and knee-deep beer cans. And not even beer worth drinking; these cans said Keystone Beer, the dirt-cheap stuff you buy at the convenience store when you're too sloshed to care if there's flavor (just be sure any girls you try to pick up aren't wearing a bluetooth in their ears).

The room my daughter was renting with three girlfriends was not the worst of it, despite being in the basement with two tiny slit-windows near the ceiling, which was criss-crossed with pipes. The carpet, strewn with detritus, much of which was unidentifiable broken-edged pieces of plastic, boasted some enormous dark stains and copious dirt-balls. The mattresses on the bunk-frames were of the ilk I would touch only if protected by latex gloves.

True enlightenment, however, came from viewing the "party room" steps away, through a short hall whose walls were multiply knuckle-punched through, with splintered holes (some covered by faux "walls" of shredding paper). On one of the "party room's" navy-blue-painted (and blotched and scratched) walls was a large flat-screen TV. The floor was completely obscured by beer cans, broken drinking glasses, wadded paper, toppled disposable cups, beer bottles. A large low coffee table, laden with empties, was surrounded the length of the 50-foot-long room, with putrid once-discarded couches, most with threadbare arms and stuffing oozing out, sagging cushions, colors faded into grime-homogenized dullness. Behind this first semi-circle of dilapidated upholstery was built a plywood platform that supported a second tier of similarly filthy and vile sofas; two layers of fetid furniture in a dark and beer-soaked dungeon.

Into this, I cast my beloved baby girl.

Wasn't I lucky that we could take a look at the entire place? Walking the length of the upper-floor hall, I got to see the sophisticated intellectual pursuits of these university men--like the full-sized nude pin-ups. Whereas the bedroom doors in my daughter's sorority each had cute photo collages with the girls' names in cut-out letters, I saw tacked here on one fellow's portal, scrawled on a sheet of notebook paper: "f--- [female dogs]; get money." Several of the doors had manly knuckle-punched holes; most were simply banged, bitten and scratched. Ear-splitting heavy metal rock blared in cacophony from several rooms simultaneously. Since guys will inhabit upper floors while the renter-sorority girls take the lower ones, I enjoyed a relaxing sense of security about my daughter's summer welfare...not.

She chose to eschew her lovely, private, quiet bedroom with bath and sweeping lake view here at home for a basement next to the party room of a bunch of uncivilized beer-guzzling sex maniacs. And we put up the cash for it. She also gets to procure and cook her own (kosher) meals, sharing the kitchen facilities with the grungy guys. This should be fun.

Only in my own fantasies will this adventure cause my daughter to appreciate the many luxuries and privileges she enjoys when in the bosom of our family. She and her girlfriends will laugh off the feculence, and use satin sleep-masks to comfort their pampered eyes at night, while placing their plumped feather pillows over their ears to blunt the din. They'll take arms-length photos of themselves seated on the fouled couches, Keystone in hand, giggling. And they'll think themselves so clever and cool to be where the action is in the summertime.
But on the eve of Shabbat (our Sabbath), I can predict from experience, my daughter will come home, pass me her filled laundry basket, head for her clean, comfy bed, and collapse.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Dumptster Divers Beware: Digital TV Switch Will Cause Tubular Trash Friday

The other day I heard our handyman (who's been part of our family for 25 years) ask my husband if he got rid of the TV.

Since not having a television was a condition of marriage my then-future husband imposed, I wondered what he could possibly be talking about.

Turns out that somebody had dumped a large analog TV alongside the road in a wooded area of our community. Apparently, purchasing an adapter for Friday's digital switch-over wasn't worth it. My husband, the litter-buster for our town (he patrols the streets with "gopher picker-upper in hand) saw the pitched cathode ray tube and asked our guy to dispose of it--but doing so would cost us $30 or so. So my husband took the set and pitched it in a big dumpster.

Unless there are free collection points provided on Friday and thereafter, you can bet lots of dumpsters will be filled with the TVs people are now required to abandon. It's true that those with cable or satellite service don't need a converter and so may not scotch their old sets. And it's also likely that most people already replaced their old tubes for nice flat-screen models. But I bet there are plenty of folks with old TVs lurking in their closets who now feel there's no reason to store them "just in case."

In fact, here's a confession. We have a TV in the closet. It's the little 10-inch TV I owned when I met my husband more than a quarter-century ago. We used to pull it out very rarely, only on election night, when my husband had to have returns as they came in. Lately, we go online instead. The TV collects dust. A candidate for the dumpster?

I suppose the nation does have to go digital, but I scoff at the $650 million the government has allocated for $40 coupons so folks only have to pay $20 for a converter box. If we have to switch, then switch. Having a TV isn't an entitlement. You won't die if you don't see Desperate Housewives. I heard on the radio that 3 million people in the US cling to their unconverted analog TVs and will experience befuddlement when, on Friday, their TVs don't work. Why is this worthy of worry? A taxpayer-funded necessity?

I have survived 24 years of marriage without a TV. I've never seen The Cosby Show or Friends. All the cultural phenomena that bind Americans through the tube marched by. And I seem to function.

However, if, come Friday or later this year, I stub my toe on a TV as I walk through our local forest, I won't be so happy. Why can't somebody graciously take all those old boob tubes and extract the parts for recycling? Perhaps because in this age of planned obsolescence, it's more expensive to pay somebody to take it apart than the innards are worth.
I didn't care much for the film Wall-E, but if we abandon the planet due to too much litter, you can be sure that old TVs (and washers, computer monitors, desktop CPUs and car hulks) will be forming the base of the garbage mountain.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Modeling Appreciation for Disrespectful Oafs

Over the last week I've either been doing an important mitzvah, or I've wasted lots of time being a chump.

I spent day and night (not to mention many, many hours in previous weeks) conducting "Teacher and Staff Appreciation Days" at my son's high school.

I've been organizing and executing most everything for this annual event since 2003. That's a lot of years feeling I've been swimming against the tide like one of our local, suicidal salmon. Since Staff Appreciation was considered one of the plumb volunteer jobs when my kids attended our local public schools, I assumed when my oldest child entered the nearby Jewish high school that there, too, it would be a prominent parental activity. After all, a premier Jewish value is "ha karat ha tov," recognizing and acknowledging the good--even by those who didn't mean to perform a service. Certainly, in a private school that requires parents to donate 10 hours per year of their time, expressing gratitude for the staff's dedication would be a big draw.

Uh, no. There was no form of "thank you" to the staff from either students or parents scheduled at all. Nada, zip, nothin'. When our eldest became a junior, I couldn't stand it any more--I decided to spearhead "Staff Appreciation Days." I modeled my plan on the enthusiastic energy generated by a panoply of events at the public school, where parents made monthly lunches, sent endearing remembrances regularly, brought made-to-order lattes to teachers complete with little notes of praise. Kids at the public school washed their teachers' cars, made signs and banners filled with kudos, and on one special day each semester, every child brought his instructors a bouquet. And the smiling faculty-members deserved and loved it all.

At our local Yeshiva high school, however, there was a different mood. Much more casual. One of the entries in my son's new yearbook says it all: "You know you're at the Yeshiva never spend an entire period seated in class..." The kids just get up and walk around. They debate any teacher who seeks quiet decorum, or for the kids to stop texting. Just yesterday my son was offended that his teacher had taken his cell phone overnight after being warned: "I just had it in my hand!" he protested. "It could have just been my pack of gum!" In my day, you couldn't chew gum in school, either. Of course, that was when the earth was cooling.

Given that I was the lone instigator of Staff Appreciation, I didn't set my sights as high as the efforts at the public school. My first year, I organized a noon-time car-wash, bouquets, lattes and a school-wide lunch honoring the teachers. Given that there were about 40 staffers and only 115 students in the school, I thought I could easily recruit enough fellow parents and grateful students to get the job done. I publicized the week of festivities for a month beforehand, made phone calls to all the parents soliciting volunteers, and went "begging" to local businesses to contribute foods and supplies.

Several dozen hours of my time later, the faculty eagerly pulled their cars into the school lot for cleaning. The students sat by while my employed handyman and I washed all the cars. Four mothers helped me make bouquets, but they could only stay a short while--my handyman and I finished and delivered them. I decorated the dining room and put together lunch for the school and staff; the kids grabbed their food in a free-for-all. The staff, I must say, unused to any acknowledgement, thanked me profusely.

But I was dismayed. Why were the public school kids and parents so "into" Staff Appreciation, and the parochial school kids--whose parents pay big bucks so their kids learn Jewish values--so not? I had to think this through. What was I trying to do, here, in this hostile environment?

For one thing, Staff Appreciation is enshrined in the wonderfully old-fashioned town where I live as a means of involvement for public school parents, many of whom sacrifice so the mom can stay home to raise the kids, or so they can afford this family-centric neighborhood. Not so with the Jewish school, the only Orthodox high school in the region. Also, the Jewish school is small; the public school ten times its size. There are more teachers, more impersonality, among the masses; Staff Appreciation is a means to connect. Additionally, and I hate to admit it, courtesy and order at the public school is way above the Jewish school norm. No child would just get out of his seat and leave class, as students do all the time at the Yeshiva--administrators at the public school patrol the halls, and teachers would instantly punish such insubordination.

So, why did I have the sadistic need to volunteer to do Staff Appreciation the following year, and the many since?

I redefined my purpose. Moms and dads of the public school kids modeled an eagerness to support and praise. Their children understood that education was important and serious, and that those who provide it deserve respect. The Yeshiva students who think nothing of wandering out of the room while their teacher is speaking just don't get it--they don't realize how very fortunate they are that their parents are willing to pay huge tuition so they can receive both a secular and Jewish education.

Reminds me of the tune from "Bye Bye Birdie:"
Kids! I don't know what's wrong with these kids today!
Kids! Who can understand anything they say?
Kids! They're disobedient, disrespectful oafs!
Noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy, loafers--
And while we're on the subject,
Kids! You can talk and talk till your face is blue!
Kids! But they still just do what they want to do!
Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way?
What's the matter with kids today?

But that was the point--with no one going to the effort to show appreciation to the teachers, the kids didn't even have gratitude in their repertoire. I decided that my purpose was to expose these ungrateful louts to "ha karat ha tov." If it killed me.

I reduced the event down to three days--advertised for weeks with signs around the school and announcements. On the first I set up a big market umbrella trimmed with lanterns in the school foyer, and ceremoniously prepare to-order lattes, delivered during class so the kids see the pleasure on their teacher's face. (A week in advance, to increase the staff's excitement, I send them espresso order forms.) On the second day, the staff comes to school to find flower arrangements on their desks with a colorful balloon and note of appreciation. On that day, students are encouraged to bring tokens or cards of thanks as well--and a huge banner they've signed is displayed across the office. On the third day, I partition off the kids' lunchroom with Hawaiian fabric and fanciful decorations, turning that half-hall into the "Hula Bula Hut," an exclusive area where the staff comes for a specially-prepared (by me) lunch. The goal: to be conspicuous, lavish.

Over the past several years, I've been fortunate to have my dearest friend and neighbor to help out. For the years when she, too had a son in the Yeshiva, her complicity in Staff Appreciation made the exercise downright fun. One year, we went to Alki beach and collected unusual stones, one for each staffer, and painted "You Rock, Mr. ____!" on each one for personalized paperweights. She and I together developed the now infamous Hula Bula Hut, and I reuse many of her hand-made decorations. Her attitude, and our friendship, made the many hours we devoted worthwhile in themselves.

But her youngest son graduated two years ago, and while she's graciously returned to help me with particularly challenging tasks, she no longer has reason to put her time into Yeshiva chores. This year, my calls for help were answered by four moms, ones whose generosity in supporting and fundraising for the school continues all year. You probably know the syndrome--the same committed moms do almost all the work. And I completely understood when they could only give very limited time to Staff Appreciation after all they'd done throughout the year.

Back to my original thought--after seven years heading Staff Appreciation, what do I have? Are the kids any more likely to express gratitude to their teachers? To anyone? Am I any more likely to have parent support in my time-soaking endeavor? Are the teachers going to feel better?

The answers: no, no and yes. When I hear the staff tell me they look forward to these days all year long--that it gets them through moments when they want to throw a textbook at a kid--I don't mind all the frustration so much. The staff tells me "thank you," and I say it back to them. For I personally am truly grateful that they take my disrespectful oaf and try their best to put some information into his noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy little brain. So "thank you" to all the teachers I ever had, and ever knew, and ever will know. And who knows, maybe some year one of the girls who saw me tacking up signs all over campus will be the mom who can't stop herself from leading Staff Appreciation at her own child's school.