Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Grand Resolutions

Here comes 2011! Resolutions are in order:

First, I resolve to dismiss all my servants and household help. Following the example of the King- and Queen-to-be sets a proper tone for the New Year. Not so much austerity, but more frugal living.

Seems like Prince William’s dad and step-mum might consider at least whittling down their service staff of 149. With 25 of those assigned to personal duties for Prince Charles himself, it makes one wonder if he remembers how to brush his own teeth, but I’m sure it’ll come back to him. It’s like riding that proverbial bicycle. Except of course, someone else may be doing that for him too.

I resolve to make a pie. I mean to make an excellent pie, a cherry pie, or lemon meringue, with a crust that I made too. I resolve to keep trying to make a satisfactory pie crust until it is properly flaky. I hope it doesn’t take too many iterations, or that achievement could interfere with my next resolution.

I resolve to…I resolve…oh! It’s so mundane. I resolve to get even thinner in 2011! There. That’s a good way to say it. I’m getting thinner. I got a little thinner in 2010. Thinner still in 2011! I got un-thin by smidgens over time. I shall get thinner that way as well. That’s all I’m going to say about it, probably until sometime in January.

I resolve to keep my desk more orderly. As it stands, my desk provides a secret window into an unruly part of my otherwise well-arranged self. In a tidy universe, my desk orbits within a debris field of newspaper clippings, magazines, read and unread memoirs, binoculars, pens, pencils, highlighters, sunglasses and visors, (need to get shades on the windows up here!), and of course, my computer, keyboard, iPad, iPod, cell phone, and Aztec ritual wedding mask. Surely, I can do better.

I resolve to be less clumsy socially. I will answer phone calls and invitations promptly. Even though it’s never too late to say “thank you,” in 2011 I will not be saying thank you so late that it must be accompanied by an apology, an explanation, or worst of all, a white lie.

Oh yes, and I resolve to make the world a better place. Oh yeah, you say? Oh yeah? Well, yes. I will. I admit it was easier to claim this when I worked in the schools. I had the Garrison Keillor principle working for me there: Nothing you do for children is ever wasted. So I could argue that even when I had the sidewalks at the school steam cleaned, I was doing something worthwhile, something good for kids. Now that I’m retired, it may not be so straightforward. I’ll have to be more pointed in my efforts at better world building.

Maybe I should establish criteria. Otherwise, how will I know if I have, in fact, made the world a better place? Let’s see: can’t stop people from killing each other, much as I would like to. That certainly would make the world a better place, but realistically, out of my hands.

Can’t end the world’s hunger, though I hope my drop in the Food Bank’s bucket helps someone.

Looks like I’ll have to set aside the grand criteria for world improvement. Following the Royals’ example would have its limits as well. I’d better stick to the small stuff.

Therefore: I resolve to make someone smile every day. Every day. Friend or stranger. Every day I hope to make note of a smile on someone else’s face with my name on it.

I resolve to be generous with my manners, stepping out of the way, holding the door, freeing up the lane even when I don’t really want to. I don’t think I’ll be any worse off for it. I may lose a few seconds in my travels, but hope to gain miles in goodwill.

Along with that, I resolve to forgive the small transgressions of impatience or stinginess that so often abound on our bustling planet. I will rein in my righteous, long-suffering, wry, and witty self, allowing other human beings a bad day without piling on.

So the criterion is this: The world might be a better place if I behave like a better person.

Not the whole wide world of course, but the tiny sphere close by could be a tiny bit better. I’m going to try it. See me this time next year. I’ll let you know how it went.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cyber Christmas

So I bought a web cam. Or is it webcam? Spell check accepts both. It’s kind of a “to me, from me” Christmas gift. I went ahead and opened it and everything.

I had a Blackberry once and ultimately had to admit to myself that I had no business with a Blackberry. I was working then and believed the calendar feature would be so great. Never again, so I thought, would I go to the wrong place for a meeting, or show up at the right place on the wrong day.

Turns out those tiny, shiny, infuriating nubs on the Blackberry’s keyboard are all buttons with multiple functions. So an “A” isn’t only an “A” but also a “~” and a “%” depending on if you are using caps or not, which is of course another function on another nub. I found I most wanted to use those nubs to create a line of cursing:!%~@##^&*!! But even that took too much concentration and the pinpoint mechanical fingers of a futuristic droid, which I most certainly am not.

I never used the calendar. Not once. I got email on the thing and it just felt like I was being pestered and pursued. And I paid that exorbitant rate for the mandatory two years! Why, I could have had lots of new shoes for the money I wasted on that glitzy gadget.

Which brings me back to the webcam: I bought it because a friend of mine went to Zurich for Christmas to visit a mutual friend of ours who now lives there. We three agreed how much fun it would be to go to the next level of chat while they were there and I was here. We wouldn’t just IM on FB, we’d SEE each other while we talked! Doesn’t that sound GREAT?!

In honesty, the webcam connected without snafu. Loading the software – no problem-o. It’s what comes next that is so disconcerting. The thing offered to take my picture for the profile it would post in contact books around the world. Okay.

Now, I’m with the crowd that wears “readers” – those half glasses you can get at Target after you guess what your prescription would be if you went to the eye doctor and got real glasses. I use them when I’m on the computer. I’m wearing them now and feel perfectly happy. But this thing took my picture as I leaned in and tilted my head back to get the proper angle so I could see the shutter button on the screen.

You know what I’m talking about. It’s the standard, old, funky-person pose. When your head tilts back, your jaw juts forward, and your mouth must open. If in vanity, you picked the weaker power on your readers, you still have to squint, which, as a final insult, exposes your front teeth. That’s the pose. My new webcam took a picture of me peering at it as though it were something gooey stuck on the mirror. Here, I’ll just get that with a tissue.

So that seems unfair at the very least. Here I am in the 21st Century and my own stuff is making fun of me. I think I deserve better.

To cap it all off, the three of us have yet to overcome the time difference between Zurich and Benicia, so no one has called anyone on the webcam phone. We’ve just been sending emails back and forth. So turn-of-the-century!

As I review this debacle, it seems pretty clear; they should be out enjoying Zurich anyway. Why call me up and prattle on about how cool it is to be there. I know that already!

I guess if we were love-struck and separated by fate, a webcam could provide us the screen to place our fingers on, ever so tenderly, as though actually touching, instead of virtually.

As it is, my new toy mocks me in cruelest techno-cyber sort of way. Like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, it never blinks, but waits for me to squint again. I know I can unplug it, dismantle its cyber-mind. But that seems like surrender. Defeated by a Blackberry, I will not concede victory to Skype!

Merry Christmas to Zurich! And to all a good night!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Another Angle on Immigration

I heard an inspirational speaker once talking about the introduction of ramps for the handicapped into public places - banks, shopping malls, airports. The expense was enormous and because of this, many able-bodied folks shook their heads as they passed the construction, thinking of all the other things the money could be spent on.

But as the ramps were completed, he observed all manner of people using them. Many able-bodied folks apparently found the ramps preferable to the stairs --- gentle, less taxing. No rules restricted the use of the ramps, so anyone who wanted to could angle up or down the way, stress free. And of course, those who couldn’t use the stairs before now gained unfettered access to a myriad of services previously held at bay. Everybody benefitted.

Thus, the speaker inspired us to help those in need, even if only for the selfish reason that we would benefit from our own largesse. Stinginess so rarely pays.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service says that to be a legal immigrant into our country, you must enter with a passport and/or a visitor’s visa or a work visa. That’s it. That’s the difference between legal and illegal.

It seems funny that so many come into the United States from Mexico without one of those two documents, a passport or a visa. I think what it means is that many Mexican citizens do not have passports or visas. And, they don’t have the basic information or the means to acquire them. That makes them illegal. That is their crime.

Most Mexican immigrants come here to work. And they do work. We have nearly eight million undocumented immigrants employed in our country now. With numbers like those, deportation is unrealistic, as is prosecution. And in truth, these folks are not true criminals, but rather our neighbors and friends, our colleagues and helpers. Like most everyone around us, they are hard-working, honest people seeking better lives for their families. They abide by our laws; improve their lives and ours by making every day contributions as we do.

When I was a high school principal, the Mexican Consulate apprised me of more than 400 adults in my community, many of them parents of students at my school, who had no identification at all. No driver’s license, nothing. The Consulate came to my school on a Saturday and set up remote communication with Mexico City, enabling those who had birth certificates to acquire their matricula cards, a form of identification that banks across the United States accept for establishing checking and savings accounts. Certainly, a matricula card would be a key component in the process of acquiring a passport or visa. Evidently, in Mexico, a person can move into adulthood without such a thing.

I wonder if, as a part of our response to illegal immigration, we could assist Mexican citizens working in our country in gaining their matricula cards, their passports, and visas. That is to say, instead to trying to keep our fingers plugged into the porous dikes of our borders, instead of building fences and walls, instead of investing in razor wire and weapons, maybe we could consider working with the concept instead of against it.

What might be our benefit in such a scenario?

Millions of dollars now spent on border patrol might be reduced or redirected. The time, manpower, and money expended at and between the portals along the Mexican-American border could be focused on those we truly want to keep out, the real criminals. It’s the drug dealers and thieves, looking to disappear into our country, and to ply their unlawful lifestyles here, that we truly want to identify, apprehend, keep out, or deport. They represent a tiny portion of those crossing the border.

The rest pay sales tax on their purchases, but not income tax because of their lack of documentation. Maybe if we assisted with their documents, we would benefit in tax revenues collected from another eight million employees.

I know it’s not simple. The issue is complex, multi-faceted, and has years of neglect adding to its recalcitrance, not to mention the attendant, boiling emotion. Folks will shake their heads at the expense of such a process. But whatever package of policies we ultimately combine to create immigration reform, we should consider building bridges and ramps, not only fences and walls.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

WikiLeaks for You & Me

I don’t know if we truly need to know everything WikiLeaks thinks we need to know to be good Americans.

Do we really need to know that Hilary Clinton called Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi “odd”? Apparently he is odd. Eccentric at best. Creepily so. Is it a threat to national security that Mr. Gaddafi now knows she called him odd?

So what if the Turkish Foreign Minister now knows his peers in the Middle East consider him “extremely dangerous”? Does anyone suppose he’s surprised by the revelation? Has he been left alone in the henhouse up to now? Or haven’t we been watching him pretty closely? He must have noticed folks taking the eggs with them when they left the room.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad now knows other world leaders think of him as a little Hitler. He’s probably proud.

No one in the world arena is truly surprised by these revelations. Nor should any of us be surprised. Caring parents say things about their children that their children should never hear. Teachers vent about students, and go on to serve them well and faithfully. Bosses kvetch about their employees…you see.

We might be surprised if we knew the exact language used by diplomats around the world to describe Mrs. Clinton, or Condi Rice before her. Or George W. Bush. We might feign shock if we heard the descriptors applied to Barak Obama or the United States Congress. But the shock would be only a response to a particular word choice, not that others speak frankly, vent frustrations, or express concerns about the behaviors of those with whom they must put on the good face and deal.

It’s closed-room stuff that is not for public consumption, but now we know. There is no Santa Claus and our parents probably wanted to leave us at the campground at least once when we thought we knew everything.

I certainly don’t envy Hilary having to face those who’ve now heard the blunt references to their personalities and private lives. Part of what’s on in their minds though, has to be, “if she only knew what I said about her!”

This stuff is covering a big portion of the media plate, but it is not the meat of the meal.

We truly need to be concerned that a sad, bullied, and now vindictive private in the US Army could so easily access and share a trove of confidential and secret documents as his gotcha for the State Department. He needs consequences, and likely will get them as a first level scapegoat for the embarrassment much bigger wigs are suffering thanks to him. Clearly, folks in security and defense have some explaining to do, as well.

I don’t like that Julian Assange at WikiLeaks feels free and justified in publishing information that might put even one United States citizen in real jeopardy. Of course, the New York Times and other more traditional outlets published the documents too. Somebody close to the top needs to review the definition of “need to know” and even treason, and decide how bright a line to draw and how swift and clear a response to make.

I don’t like it, but I see the point about an informed citizenry when it comes to our government turning a blind eye to human rights abuse here (where we stand to gain), but condemning it there (where we have little to lose). At some point, we’ve got to stop kidding ourselves about ourselves and our government.

I don’t like it that the United States and its citizens (you and I) look two-faced, but I guess we are. We’re human. We want to believe we’re better than we are. We do believe it until someone like Assange comes to our party with a great big mirror and a klieg light. The release of some of this information might serve to get us off our tall white stallions and our penchant for preaching to those who may know us better than we know ourselves.

But does all this muck make us a bad country, a bad citizenry? No. I don’t think so. The United States is good, and we are good Americans. We just need to be more sober in our self-assessments, and more generous in assessing our colleagues at the world table. We’re not so different. We all have a lot to forgive, and a lot to learn.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving Surprise

I hate surprises. That probably comes from many years as a high school principal. In that job, uneventful is good; surprise is bad. Better to have things rock along in that steady albeit predictable way, than to face what a pack of teenagers can conjure up for a thrill. One too many “senior pranks” put me over the edge.

Certainly there are good surprises: No lines at Costco. Toll booths out of order – free bridge crossing. A scratcher that pays something, anything. Those I can adjust to. I will routinely welcome the surprise of good manners or generosity when they surface in the public arena. But I confess to being a slow adapter to even a mildly unpleasant, unexpected change of plans.

Thanksgiving this year, for example, had an element of surprise for the Plath family. The hosts - the ones who always host; the ones who take the biggest burden year-after-year; the ones who cook the turkey and prepare their house for the invasion of the running kids, the elderly, the gen-xers and the boomers; the ones to whom the rest of us carry a dish, (I’m hors d’oeuvres); had an illness preventing them, at the last minute, from hosting.

Thank goodness it’s not a life-threatening illness, but nevertheless a significant one that puts you down and off your l-tryptophan. The announcement came abruptly, nearly 9pm Tuesday night. They couldn’t have company, and wouldn’t be cooking for anyone.

So the calls began to circulate among the rest of us, the dependent ones. What, oh what, will we do?

I guess I could have simplified things by going to the logical conclusion first: We will host. We’ll scramble to pull the house together. We’ll go back out into the bustling world (curmudgeon hell) and collect all the things that go with hors d’oeuvres to create an actual holiday meal for the people we love. We will make the best of an unfortunate situation so that family is together and tradition is upheld.

But I didn’t do that, even though I knew it would be the eventual outcome. I didn’t cut to the chase, even though I’ll claim in other scenarios to be a cut-to-the-chase kind of guy. No, I participated in a series of tentative, circular, jaw-clenching (for me) conversations in which family members who honestly cannot host waited for me to man up.

Do I sound cranky? Why does this make me so cranky? Because I was in my groove, that’s why. Please, just don’t upset my groove. I was planning to do all that, happily, with joyful anticipation, really, for Christmas. But Now? Without time for psych? On the spur of this moment? NOW?!

All right, all right. I’ll do it. Of course. They all knew I would.

And as you’ve no doubt predicted, we had a lovely time. All parties pulled together to make simple what can be complicated by a non-changer like me. To my wonderment, they all seemed to take it in stride.

The meal was surpassingly good, each one bringing her best to the table. His best too – one brother-in-law brought warm fresh-baked bread, his claim to fame. My husband added his signature appetizers, grilled duck breast sliced onto Triscuits, with cheddar and plum jam…yummy! The unplanned and unexpected combination of tastes and textures made all the more pleasing when it worked in short order. This could be how it’s actually supposed to go.

That’s the way it was with the Pilgrims and the Indians, right? On that first Thanksgiving Day, no one in this group had any idea what the other group might bring to the table. They each had to suspend instinct, call on good breeding, and taste things they didn’t recognize. And that turned out better than OK.

(I know, I know. It’s a myth. Another startling revelation I’ve had to incorporate. But I’m not giving up on the concept of diverse parties breaking bread and making peace. Why should I?)

The Plath Clan returned to a forgotten practice of once around the table, saying aloud what we’re thankful for. Corny, but I recommend it. I’m thankful to have married into such a lovely, patient, adaptable, and accommodating bunch of Republicans. They’re really quite nice.

Can an Oklahoma girl learn to embrace the unexpected? We’ll see. In the meanwhile, I wish you and yours sweet surprises and the happiest of holidays.

Oh, and thanks for reading.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Your Junk is Fair Game; Mine is Sacred

I remember when “Don’t touch my junk!” was a normal, wholesome part of an argument between siblings over whose toys belonged to whom. Now, as with “thong,” and “dope,” and “the bomb,” the meaning of “junk” has been hijacked by a generation touchier and less gentile than any before it.

You probably saw the news blurb this week in which a sensitive, or not so sensitive, young software engineer, John Tyner, refused the newest airport security clearance invention, the electronic full body scan. He then went on to refuse the more personal version, the full body pat down, saying he’d have the Transportation Safety Administration employee arrested if that employee made contact with Mr. Tyner’s “junk.”

Not permitted to board his flight, soon Mr. Tyner was escorted out of the San Diego airport and put in line for civil charges and fines up to $10,000. Seems once you start the security clearance process, you must complete it, one way or the other.

We are all now faced with a new reality that seems unlikely to go away, even in the face of threatened lawsuits and loosely organized “opt out” protests. Someone somewhere, perhaps the Campaign for Liberty, is encouraging travelers to opt out of the electronic scanner security check during Thanksgiving week travel. The idea being to demonstrate their protest against the revealing scan, choosing the pat down instead, and slowing the security check process for themselves and everyone else headed for cranberries and pumpkin pie.

I don’t think it’s going to work, because while the act of looking under our clothing for an instant is invasive and unnerving, my money says more folks will still choose this touch-free and therefore oddly impersonal search over the extremely personal alternative, a full body “pat down.” From all descriptors and videos available, the “pat down” might more appropriately be named a full body “feel up.”

My husband and I had the electronic treatment recently at Tulsa International Airport. The process encompassed an awkward moment pausing for the camera as it were, hands over head, a futile wish that I’d lost the weight already, and a minor wash of relief as we reclaimed our possessions, slipped into our shoes, cleared the area, and headed to our flight. I resisted the urge to look back over my shoulder.

I’m glad to know the person operating the machine and the one who sees the image are nowhere near each other. Also, the one looking at the screen cannot see the person screened, only her whole life reduced to a glimpse of what might be a Safeway chicken strung up by the wings. I’m glad to know they don’t store the images---not enough room in the freezer, I guess

If we engage our intellect, there’s no denying these machines add another layer of safety to airline travel. These new full body scanners can detect objects made from a range of materials concealed underneath travelers’ clothes, including liquid and plastic explosives. The old metal detectors can’t do that. The “underwear bomber” got through the metal detectors. He wouldn’t have cleared the new scanners or the alternative same-sex, person-to-person hands-on search.

In our experience in Tulsa, I felt confident the process was professional. Still, software exists that does not produce a real body image, but only a stick figure. Let’s do that. I expect even John Tyner would not object to a stick figure on the screen representing his naked self. If the TSA can get the same critical information without exposing all my reasons for basic black and vertical stripes, why not do it that way? Have a heart.

And have a brain. Some of the scanners use x-rays and others use millimeter wave technology (the electromagnetic waves that power cell phones and microwave ovens). So use the safer electromagnetic waves. Software exists to ensure that images are not copied or retrieved; that unauthorized access is prevented; and that any image analyzed by a human reviewer is kept 100% anonymous. Do all that. In every airport, in every security check.

And before you rest, find a way to deal with infants and small children and our grandmas and grandpas without humiliating them.

We all want to be safe and safer when we fly. For this, we have given up, and will give up even more of our comfort to get it. But you gotta respect our junk.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Crocodile Tears in the House of Representatives: Or, There's No Crying in Politics

So John Boehner has a soft heart…

The “Weeper of the House,” it turns out, is known for being “touched by a moment, a speech, or a comment, whether it’s from a constituent or a fellow member of Congress.”

And there’s sure plenty for him to cry about these days what with the Tea Party splitting the Republican vote in a couple of key races, and the Senate still in the hands of the Democrats.

I saw Boehner struggling to contain his emotions when he took the podium election night after he learned he would be the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. His memories of his personal history overwhelmed him in the moment of stepping from humble beginnings into such a high-profile and powerful position. So he cried.

Thank God. I’m not the only one who cries all the time. I can definitely share a moment with our new Speaker. I’ve been choking up over everything from the commonplace to the obscure for decades. It’s not the most desirable public image, but if like Mr. Boehner and me, you’ve got the Curse of the Cry, there’s not much to do about it.

Wait. I saw some advice on the Today Show recently giving a new strategy to help a person avoid crying when s/he doesn’t want to. It was in a segment including how to relieve the hiccups, to put it into perspective.

Anyway the new strategy is, when you think you might break down into tears and you don’t want to, since you’re at the podium in a televised national news conference, you should clear your throat and then swallow.

The thinking is that this gives your muscles and reflexes a chance to reset. And it gives you and Moses something besides “Oh no! Here comes the flood!” to think about.

I tried it the other day while watching the first episode of National Geographic’s “Great Migrations.” There are some heart-wrenching scenes in that spectacular footage. The one that got me was when the wildebeests crossed that same darn river at the same darn place where they cross every year. Why do they keep going back there? The crocodiles go there every year too. Duh! You’d think the gnus would at least go upstream a ways, ‘cause those crocs are ENORMOUS. They can practically swallow a little gnu in one nightmarish gulp.

That’s exactly what was happening, actually. This horrifically huge crocodile caught a young wildebeest by the lower half. The baby called out to its mother watching helplessly onshore, and I started to…but wait, let me just clear my throat. Ahem. And now I’ll swallow. Very gentile, I found. And…It worked! I was momentarily removed from the emotion. It is a video, after all.

But since I sat safe at home in my recliner, next to my husband who I must note was not unmoved by the drama, rather than in the glare of a Washington press conference, I still let a tear fall for that animal and its mother. They are so stupid it’s infuriating. And – you’ve heard it before – for some of us, when we’re mad, we cry. Infuriating in itself.

And what’s so bad about crying anyway? So what if we show that we’re touched, or moved, or saddened? Those of us with the Crying Curse are certainly free of ulcers. The rest of you strong hold-it-in types think you’re so smart. What? There’s no crying in politics?

In the coming months John Boehner will likely find himself in multiple situations where he’ll want to cry, particularly if he pursues the same “Party of No” strategy the Republicans have taken up since 2008. That pesky Democratically-controlled Senate will no doubt frustrate him. The President’s veto pen may have him reliving his childhood struggles once more. That’s when the tears are likely to flow.

So it’s important to note, Mr. Boehner, that crying will not prove an effective strategy for getting Senators to change their votes. Nor will pouting or shouting. My advice? A respectful approach coupled with good faith negotiation can be disarming even among the most ravenous crocodiles with whom you’re swimming.

Set name calling and tattling aside. Bring straight talk and genuine collaboration to the forefront. There’s your formula for a tear-free two years.

Then of course, you get the group hug.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mid-Term Elections: Oh Well...

The cat stood on the keyboard and inadvertently expressed my opinion about our election results.

What hurts most? In our little town it could be the loss on Measure C, a modest request for school funding. Having spent 30 years in education washing cars and icing cupcakes to raise funds, I feel the pain of those still in it. It’s quite demoralizing when a community backs away from its schools.

I know, I know, I know. The economy. And of course, each voter has a personal reason for saying yes or no. It’s just that when you’re on the front lines, slogging through the mandates and the muck, when so much depends on what a school does for its students and its town, when so many people seem to be standing on the periphery watching, clicking their tongues and shaking their heads, but not offering $5.00 a month to help…it’s hard to take.

Of course that required 2/3 majority made a heavy anchor, too. But my not-too-scientific calculation says that in our little town, only 306 more affirmative votes could have carried the day. Who stayed home, darn it! Students and teachers in every town and district need help.

Maybe we should consider a measure for Benicia similar to statewide Proposition 25, lowering the required majority to a simple 50%+1. I notice some other cities require a 55% majority to pass certain types of fund raisers. Sixty-two percent of Benicia voters approved Measure C – but it wasn’t enough. How is it that 38% of the voters get to tell 62% of the voters how it will be?

Proposition 21’s failure is deflating, as well. Funding for State Parks and Wildlife Programs at a buck fifty per month was just too much. No matter all the analysis or rationalization I employ, this decision eludes me. Perhaps if the measure is re-written asking for only $10 per vehicle registration, it would carry. Maybe the DMV could put a voluntary donation option on the registration renewal form, similar to the option to donate to the Presidential election campaign on our federal tax forms. More people might be encouraged to give something to our parks and wildlife, the essence of beauty and well-being in our state.

Oh, good news in the election? Sure! Proposition 25 passed! Perhaps we will have a state budget complete and on time since the legislators’ paychecks now depend on it. I heard a concern that they might pass a hurried and therefore flawed budget under these circumstances. That could be true. But we will only notice that it’s on time. The flaws we’re already used to.

With the passage of Proposition 20, we took redistricting out of the chicken house, so the foxes will have to find more legitimate means of bolstering their election results. That’s good.

On a national front, no witches will have a seat in Congress. That can only be a good thing, though sometimes an incantation might still be in order.

The President got a message he seemed to need to hear. I hope he makes the most of it. I hope his opponents don’t get caught up in gloating, or make his mistake of forcing legislation just because they can. It’s such poor form and so far off point.

Any more good news? Sure! The San Francisco Giants won the World Series of Baseball! They did it on a budget of $98million dollars, about $40million less than a certain unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate.

Through 160 torturous regular season games, and a jubilant post season with sports heroes and characters aplenty, they prevailed. Whenever I grew weary of political rhetoric, and dubious of the candidates’ claims, all I had to do was tune into Tim Lincecum v. Chris Lee, or Edgar Renteria at bat, or OOOO-ribe, or Posey behind the plate.

It gives you hope. If that ragtag bunch of talented individuals could come together as a team, setting their egos aside to reach such a pinnacle, maybe our elected officials could do the same.

The Giants gutted it out through a gauntlet rivaling any political minefield or caucus, and emerged victorious, not just for themselves. Okay, maybe they did it for themselves, but their victory elevated us too.

Politicians could take a lesson. They could focus on our common goals, put their heads down, sacrifice for the team, and make something really big happen for our state and our country. Go Democracy! Go Giants!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Stop Shouting!

The Scene: Tommy and Dickey Smothers - strumming away on guitar and bass violin in the 1960’s, swapping political barbs for our edification and entertainment. Back and forth they would go, tit for tat, see-sawing their way through both sides of a current event, until finally Tommy could no longer hold his own. His arguments inevitably faltered. Backed into a corner, he would swell up, contort his face, and unleash his best game-ending attack, “Oh yeah?!”

From there, knowing he’d won, Dickey would simply pluck his bass, letting his brother’s feeble, emotional display speak for itself, and the music would go on.

A similar scene played out at some sort of political gathering in New Jersey recently, except with a twist, and not nearly so funny: With the Governor at the podium, a heckler from the crowd raised his arm and angled an accusatory finger at the speaker. Veins distended in his neck, arm pulsing to the beat of his words, he shouted until neither the Governor nor the other audience members could ignore him.

This is our unfortunate truth: More and more people, out of arguments and moved by anger, shout out in public settings, hurling unanswerable blurts, derailing the moment. It is the method of the frustrated and powerless. Take a cheap shot and see if anyone else around you will pile on. “I don’t have a well-formed argument. I don’t have a platform, or forum. I’m hurt. I’m afraid. I feel defeated. And you stand for what I’m mad about. Let me attack you in public where I am free to act this way, but you, in your position, must obey the rules of decorum.”

But this time, the speaker didn’t smile and wave his hand, hoping to dissuade the heckler. He didn’t shake his head and wait. He didn’t surrender. Governor Chris Christie turned to his heckler, pointed back at him and in a forceful but calm voice said, “It’s people like you who scream and yell that divide our country. I’m about bringing our country together.”

With the breath knocked out of the red-faced man and order restored, the Governor returned to his business. No one could deny the truth of his response. Folks from that room will not likely break out into unbridled rudeness again anytime soon. If they’re going to flail in helplessness and fury, they will most likely chose their targets more carefully, or retreat to the safety of the internet. There they can join forces with others dug-in and disenfranchised, persuading no one, but righteous in their vehemence.

Now, will I vote for Chris Christie if he runs for president? Don’t know. Don’t know much else about him. I’m just glad he stood up to the crackpot.

I don’t know that any similar event took place in California around Proposition 19, the legalization of marijuana. Yet it seems, incredibly, that we’re going to vote on this extremely controversial issue without opposing forces standing toe-to-toe, wailing, wringing hands, or gnashing teeth. Nobody got all blood-pressure-y! (Of course, it’s not too late --- we have a few days left before the election.) Still, in the mean time, business people, educators, law enforcement, newspaper editors, and ordinary citizens expressed their views in a remarkably civilized manner. The fate of the Proposition remains to be seen. But it appears the outcome will be derived from voters’ consideration of the issue sans drama.

Maybe we could use such a model for a discussion of immigration. Maybe folks could just start talking about it; other folks could listen and respond with alternative viewpoints, and so on and so on and so on.

I’ll bet there are some really good ideas out there that could begin to unravel this knotty issue. Maybe we could take turns, offer suggestions, and ask questions without ridicule. Maybe even immigrants could join in.

Of course, Arizona will be in a time out for the first round. They must sit quietly while the rest of us begin a thoughtful conversation, thinking about laws, and human beings, considering what was, what is, and what should be.

Oh, if I could only play the bass fiddle. I would strum away while we talk, offering a measured rhythm to the tune of the times.

Friday, October 22, 2010

What's a Voter to Do?

I married into a nest of Republicans. In this family, a game established by the patriarch entails a set of questions of his device, always about events of the day and politics. After every holiday meal, all generations debate the answers, singing out in happy banter, voicing their insights, opinions, and assertions, all decidedly to the right of center.

My beloved father-in-law and his three children, including my husband, all have advanced college degrees. The same for their spouses, and their children, and now even their children’s spouses, our son being the only exception. (He went to technical school and remains single, thank God.)

It makes an impressive collection of conservatives working on pumpkin pie and whipped cream.

Arriving from a blue collar family in Oklahoma made up of teachers, oil refinery workers, deputy clerks in the county office, and postal employees, I kept quiet at the California dinner table for a long time. My mom and I are the only ones with any college on the Oklahoma side of my life. Back there, we were the sages. But if we mentioned our bachelor’s or master’s degrees, we’d only be showing off. And the conversations on Aunt June’s floral velvet sofa after an orgy of mashed potatoes and gravy heaped on turkey and green beans never approached the erudition of my West Coast family.

Somewhere during my acclimation, I remember hearing that only Democrats have hearts, and only Republicans have brains. There I found my rationale for becoming independent of party affiliations. I have a heart and a brain, and I vote all over the ballot.

Lately, though, neither my intellect nor my conscience can find comfort.

I listen to the debates; I read the stuff in the paper and the voter’s pamphlets. I put x’s and o’s on the chart in the “Election 2010” section of the Times like a gridiron coach developing a play book, choosing quarterbacks and defensive linesmen. I try not to be a one issue voter. I think about the economy and education and jobs and taxes and immigration.

But my guts count for something. And this candidate makes my shoulders sag. That one makes me hold my nose. Too many candidates seem like more of the same self-serving do-nothing office-holding politicos, unwilling or unable to do more than join the pack and play self-righteous. Any candidates who do seem fresh and selfless also seem doomed to be swallowed into the belly of the business-as-usual whale.

It’s crazy making! What’s a voter to do? Choose a stinker, or throw your vote away in feeble protest.

What I’d like to do is grab the table by its edge and flip it skyward. Start over. New game. New players. New strategy. New plan. I understand why some people don’t want to play at all.

Yet I marked my vote-by-mail ballot and sent it off to be counted. Why?

Maybe I voted because 21 people were killed in Karachi, Pakistan, during elections there. No one’s going to shoot me to keep me from participating in our frustrating democracy, though my exasperated brother-in-law sometimes shakes his head at me.

Maybe I voted because in the face of seemingly fossilized opinions and limited enlightenment, we elected a black man; and now we are mad at him not because he’s black, but because he hasn’t solved our problems fast enough.

Maybe I voted because I want to be heard. The action of voting says I do not give up and become a conspiracy-theory survivalist living in a commune with shotguns, “keep out” signs, and trip wires. I use the system to improve the system. I will not slink away in bitterness and retreat.

Maybe I voted because I’m just now starting to get it. At sixty, I’m finally beginning to understand enough of the intricacies of human nature, of complex systems, of long-term change, and yes, of politics, that by voting, my hope and belief are renewed.

Wow. Who knew? Renewed hope. Renewed belief. Voting: a shot of B-12 for the campaign weary.

In fact, now that I think of it, no nest of Republicans or Democrats can keep me from voting.

I voted...Will you?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Condoleezza Rice and Me

I have long suspected that I had a little Condoleezza Rice in my make up. Oh yeah. She rocks. I rock…on occasion.

You can be sure I was feeling it when I saw her on the Today Show this week. Of course she was pitching her newly released memoir, Extraordinary, Ordinary People. I joined a local “Writing Life Stories” group this week. My memoir’s in its early stages.

Some people who know a lot more than I do are wishing she had told the story of her time in the Bush Whitehouse. I am touched that she instead chose to tell the story of her remarkable youth, growing up black and brilliant in Birmingham, Alabama.

When my book is on the editor’s desk, it will tell the story of my growing up skinny and stringy-haired in Tulsa; running like a heathen with my stringy-haired cousins, popping tar bubbles on the shimmering pavement in the searing Oklahoma heat.

Condi (that’s what she likes to be called) was a prodigy on the piano. My mom couldn’t afford lessons for me after she and my dad divorced. She was too proud, or too angry, to ask him for the money for me. So I learned to read the treble clef and pick out melodies on my own when I sang in the church choir. That’s why it’s such a thrill now for me to own a digital piano, to be playing with both hands, to have lessons lined up. I’m playing for my own amazement, uh, amusement. Condi might appreciate the effort.

My mom was a teacher, just like hers. I talked to her everyday until she died, just like Condi did with her mom. My mom encouraged me too, but somehow, I didn’t become the “sleek, heat-seeking success-driven missile” that Condi did, as described by the New York Times. I haven’t been described by the New York Times. Still, stepping delicately here, deliberately there, and luckily many times, I made it this far…that’s good isn’t it?

My family is white. We didn’t fear much in the 50’s and 60’s except the commies and the bomb. They were pretty far removed from urgency until the Cuban missile crisis, and even that passed. My cousins and the neighbor kids and I played hide and seek in the neighborhood until it was so dark on a moonless night you only needed to stand still to be hidden. Condi recalls sitting on her front porch in Birmingham with her dad and his gun, anticipating a visit from the Ku Klux Klan’s Night Riders. Okay, I’ll give her that one.

I think young adulthood is where she truly left me behind. I got married at 19 mostly because I wanted to get out of the house and didn’t know another way to do it. I moved to California with my first husband, a drinker and a Navy ensign, and gained the confidence to divorce him during the time I lived on my own in Long Beach, while he cruised the Gulf of Tonkin on the USS Wichita.  I started college six years later, graduated at age 27, and finally began teaching high school English in Tulsa Public Schools. I got my master’s degree with the express intent of getting a raise.

Condi seems to have had a larger vision.

At more-or-less the same time as I was teaching full time and working part time in the University of Tulsa library, Condi was getting her doctorate after hanging out with Stokely Carmichael, Josef Korbel (Madeleine Albright’s dad), Brent Scowcroft and George Shultz. I guess it makes sense that our paths diverged about then. She went on to the National Security Council and Secretary of State. I…? I became a high school principal --- a noble calling as well. We were both high profile fish, I was just swimming in a much, much, much smaller pond.

While we would have disagreed about many things, when asked about retirement from her power-packed position in the Bush administration, Condi answered much as I have on leaving the principalship: “It’s good to be out of the pressure cooker. I can observe from afar, like any citizen. I can say, ‘Isn’t that interesting?’”

She’s optimistic about the state of global affairs, as I am about public education. On both fronts growth is complex and comprises a long arc. We’re glad to be cheering from the sidelines, Condi & me.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Goldilocks Can You Hear Me?

I’ve taken particular note of two news items this week that seem to have slipped the attention of many.


  • From the Christian Science Monitor - Astronomers have found a “Goldilocks Planet,” designated Gliese 581g. Not too hot; not too cold; just right to support LIFE.

  • From the Associated Press and Wired News - The United Nations appointed the one person who will be the official liaison should planet earth be contacted by extraterrestrials
Okay, I want to be the one who gets to talk to them. I’m open to coaching of course. Everything doesn’t have to be my way. I just want to be the one who says the words. And the position is open.

The UN originally picked a Malaysian astrophysicist named Mazlan Othman for the job. I’m sure she’s good, but off the top, I’m going to say she’s out of touch with the mainstream. She’s been cloistered in the United Nations’ Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA, really.) off and on since 1999. And now she has retracted her statement that the UN (she) should coordinate the international response to extraterrestrial contact. How can she be the right person for the job if she’s already backing away from it? The UN itself now denies the story, a clear lack of confidence in their first, knee-jerk selection.

Therefore, I humbly submit my pertinent qualifications: A. Worked thirty years with adolescents.

What other life form is more akin to an alien? Most of us know the experience of bringing up baby only to find, after thirteen or so years, that we don’t recognize baby at all. My thirty years interacting with partially formed humanoids makes me uniquely adept at listening and understanding when communication comes in the form of grunts and gestures alone. I actually love the little buggers. They respond to that. Maybe aliens would too.

B. Navigated the bureaucracy of public school policy, again for 30 years:

Should our guests arrive with a complex set of expectations, protocols, assessment, red tape, invisible tape, and duct tape, who better to side-step the adhesive and get right down to the bright shiny faces of our new immigrant friends, find their skills and interests, and acclimate them to our way? Why, I could have them moving from room to room every 55 minutes and eating government-issue cheese in no time.

C. Good manners and good sense.

If we get to Goldilocks first, I understand we must offer them a sign of our peaceful nature and inherent good will. The best gift would be something we’ve researched and know they want and need. Something superfluous here, and scarce there.

God, I hope it’s fat. FAT! YES! They want all the fat we can give them and they have the means to suck it out fast and pain free. Goldilocks is a beautiful blue planet populated by skinny ET’s. All they really yearn for in life is to fill out. And we can help.

NO! Politicians! That’s it! Goldilockians have a need for air—hot air. And they have too many trees and need more and more ways to consume the paper before it overtakes them. Their paint is all dried and their glaciers melted. They are desperate for something else to move slowly, imperceptibly. We can unload, er, offer our politicians.

Their welcoming gift, in exchange, we will accept --- oil? Too easy an answer, but okay. It might be nice to have a deep well with no strings. But that is so crass.

Is it too much to hope they might offer up their surplus of common sense, collegiality, and team work? Maybe they have tons of it bottled up on shelves in all their grandmas’ basements and can’t wait to share it like last season’s tomatoes before the new crop comes in. We’ll bring home cases of the stuff in Mason jars, tie ribbons on it, and distribute it at the holidays.

We could take intergalactic truckloads to Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Wouldn’t that be something?

Soon, we’d be overrun with a functional government, working selflessly, in concert, toward the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Some say I’m a dreamer---I prefer visionary. I’m in touch with the needs of the people. I could fit right in at UNOOSA. Vote for me.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Going Dark on Facebook

I’m so glad “friend” has become an active word.
Facebook has taken that stalwart noun and made it an action verb. It can be conjugated. It has a present and past tense. He friended me. What a nice notion.

I’ve had the lovely experience in recent weeks of former students friending me. It’s so very sweet when they have the momentary thought of my being “the bomb” of a principal and choosing to find me online to tell me so. In that moment, they friend me, and I confirm their friendship. We usually exchange pleasantries:

“How’s it goin’, Mrs. Plath? How do u like your retirement? I’m going 2 DVC and it’s cool so far.”

“Great Brandon! So nice to hear from you! I know you’ll be successful!”

In the next moment, they forget that as their friend, I can now observe their online activities and overhear their conversations. I keep their lapses of memory in mind when they post a video of themselves and their friends circled around a buddy who’s hunkered down in a cardboard box with only his feet protruding. We all watch and laugh as he totters around, ultimately breaking through the circle and becoming a curiosity among the crowd outside AT&T Park. I try not to be too judgmental.

But now all our government secret agencies want to access to our email and social network pages. Actually, if a warrant is issued, they already have the authority to read our email and listen in on our Skype conversations, look at pictures of our grandbabies, and hear of our son’s job interviews. They call it “going dark.” They have the authority, just not the ability in this age of peer-to-peer communication without central hubs, and third party encryption.

Now they want insurance from the service providers that they actually can tune in when they want to. If approved, new legislation will mandate that service providers make all our stuff intercept-able / snoop-able.

It is the nexus of national security, right to privacy, and technical innovation.

We've been saying for a while; don't post it if you don't want the world to know about it. Now, not only can all your friends, dear and forgotten, observe your foibles, the government also will be free to misinterpret your words and meddle in your business!

A great big throwback to the sixties part of me says, “Keep 'em out of my facebook!” Then what comes to mind is that they don’t want in my facebook. Not really. Like most, my facebook page is about as intriguing as home movies have ever been, regardless of our awesome trip to Yellowstone. And honestly, I’m glad they’re huddled up in basements with headphones, looking out for me and foiling the bad guys.

But fair warning, if they decide to check me out on a slow news day, it might quickly become a slow snooze day. Just the idea of someone peeping, though, still gives me the creeps!

Then I think, it hasn't been that long ago since teenagers all over the country were talking about "the bomb." The Homecoming Dance was "the bomb." Their parents are "the bomb" (if they gave the kid what he wanted.) How many untamed geese would an agent have to corral before he realized the kid wasn't really talking about capital T, capital B, The Bomb, but rather ephemeral adolescent ecstasy? You feel me? (Sorry, couldn't help myself.)

And what about “Muslim”? That might be a word that would catch an agent’s attention. I have former students who are Muslim, and they’re my friends on facebook. Two of them have moved back to their native Egypt with their family. One of them, now a university student, posts all the time.

I don’t usually respond to her updates since she’s a teenager still and I’m a grown woman. But she caught my attention recently when the would-be Quran burner was big news.

Reacting as a teenager might, and probably having forgotten I am part of her audience, she said the only thing Americans need to burn is fat. Hahaha.

I felt compelled to speak up and remind her that that nut did not represent America. That’s what a friend would do, help put things in perspective.

But, suddenly, it doesn’t seem so far fetched that a CIA agent, hunched over a screen in a dark room, scanning for trigger words, might have his attention piqued, as well. He might recognize our exchange for what it was, proud principal and passionate young student feeling their way through an emotional issue.

Or, would he flag her, and me, and tune in again regularly? He has to be discerning, doesn’t he?

If I knew he was there, I’d friend him, and ask.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Fighting the Curmudgeon Gene

To paraphrase Confucius: “A continuous smile is the surest sign of wisdom.”
I’m working on it. I smile a lot. But it doesn’t always make me feel smarter.

Once, when I was standing at the entrance to my school at 7:45am, waving and smiling, greeting parents and students as they arrived, someone honked at me.

I continued my wave and lifted the eyes of my smiling face just in time to see a young man whiz by in a white pickup truck, giving me the finger.

My smile faded, but not soon enough to keep me from feeling like the idiot he apparently believed I was. I must have suspended that kid sometime.

Or maybe he’s just an early blooming curmudgeon bent on putting the kibosh on the merry mood of the moment. “Good morning, have a good day, my eye!” (Or my finger.)

Grumpiness is easier than thinking. For the genuine curmudgeon, no thought seems operable save the continuous loop of entitlement. “You could easily have been the one who bumped me; why must I be the one to apologize?” Or simply, “I, me, me, mine all mine!”

Not that there aren’t irritating and annoying episodes going on around us all the time. Clearly, there is plenty of justification for ill-tempered behavior, if we find ourselves in need of absolution.

Just last week I went to the Farmers’ Market with a friend. We arrived early so the crowd had not yet amassed. Still, plenty of folks there were living on Planet Oblivion completely unaware of their surroundings.

When I’m going into a setting like that, I take my chill pill in advance. It works pretty well in keeping a smile on my face and my manners up front even when I don’t truly feel that accommodating on the inside. (I may be a closet curmudgeon.) It seems like I say enough “excuse me’s” and “sorry’s” to make up for at least a couple of folks who remain unconcerned about much except that beautiful eggplant, or the teriyaki chicken skewers they might be fourth in line for, instead of third.

And I have to remind myself that, thoughtful as I might be, I am probably a pebble in someone’s shoe. I stop midstream as often as anyone else. I can’t find my money while people with exact change languish in line behind me. I’m as guilty as the next guy. Surely, I can extend the patience to others I hope will come to me. But it’s kind of fun to grumble.

One theory about grumpiness is that we’re all so steeped up with the minor thumps we endure each day that we’ve reached our thresholds. We want to get our surreptitious revenge. “Just this once I’M going to be first in line.” Or, “It’s someone ELSE’S turn to say ‘Excuse me.” I’ll have to plead guilty to that, coming and going. I’m guilty of demanding my turn on occasion, and then feel guilty after the fact for insisting on something so small. I ought to be a bigger person.

When I’m walking on the foot path in Benicia State Park, I sometimes resist moving to the side so an approaching person can pass. Darn it! I’ve been moving aside for everyone! I’m not moving for this guy! Of course, this guy doesn’t know any of that. He may have been moving aside for everyone himself.

What do I prove if I refuse to move aside? That I’m not a wimp? Maybe if it was the same guy day after day coming toward me. But it’s not. It’s this guy I hardly remember seeing before.

What do I lose if I let another BMW in traffic ahead of me? At most, a few seconds of travel time. But if I speed up and close the gap, I can bask in grumpy self-righteousness and bad vibes. Curmudgeon heaven! All those rude drivers who’ve wronged me before? They’re not around to learn my pathetic lesson; but at least this time I win!

Then there’s the other side, the driver who’s so overbearingly selfless that she never takes the right-of-way when everyone else at a four-way stop knows she has it and is waiting for her to GO!

Even Confucius rolled his eyes sometimes.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Advice from George Carlin

I’d like to propose International Ignore the Idiots Days. We could do one on Halloween---a day on which we already dismiss scary ugly things, putting them their proper perspective. Or, what about next Tuesday…or every weekday?

On International Ignore the Idiots Days we could all act in concert turning our attention away from the bad-acting hate-mongering fringe wherever it is, knowing what it is; or better said, what it is not. It is not us. The fringe represents only itself, the frayed edges of a society, not the mainstream.

George Carlin once said, way back when he was giving his comic newscasts: “A man barricaded himself in his house today. Nobody really gives a [damn].” (I cleaned it up a little bit for George.)

It’s an idea worth pursuing: The man had to come out eventually, didn’t he? Or not. Either way, why must we watch? Our watching doesn’t help, of that I’m sure.

What if we didn’t pay so much attention to the fringe folks who insist on such ill-advised and unhealthy displays?

What if we hit the power button and went to black screen when the next Terry Jones’s face appears? What if we quit listening to Laura Schlesinger’s “advice” to her callers, or Sarah Palin’s unfortunate and misguided recommendations to “reload”?

We could employ child psychology to treat infantile thinking: Ignore bad behavior and it goes away.

Would the world be a better place? I think it might. These idiotic things would be more proportional, at least. Their fifteen minutes in the klieg lights wouldn’t attain the seemingly immortal lifetime of a news story with legs, walking around creating negativity to feed ill will.

Terry Jones, the would-be Quran burner, has retreated from his plans to burn a book he seems not to have read. Maybe the spotlight helped persuade him to do so. On the other hand, if he and his band of thirty (that’s right thirty) parishioners had burned their books in their own backyard without NBC’s Today Show watching, would we be any worse off for the act?

The pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center (easily the most misleading name for an establishment on record) says he accomplished his goal of showing the world that Islam has a radical element.

This, of course, is not breaking news. We all kind of knew that. What he inadvertently did was to demonstrate to the world that Christianity also has its radical element, though most of us knew that as well. We also have our gun totin’, book burnin’ yea hoos. Yippee.

Thanks to Mr. Jones, another slice of slander about the people of the United States is served up worldwide for any other fringe group who’d like to take it and exploit it to their radical ends. No doubt his photo in front of his “International Burn the Koran Day” banner will provide fuel for such radicals in other arenas to build more hatred and fear of the U.S., of us.

The damage such elements can inflict in a short time and on an enormous scale is astounding. The flames of hate and ignorance burn more brightly thanks to the Terry Joneses of the world. Two have already died in Afghanistan during a protest of his proposed bonfire. Shouts of “Down with America” accompany news videos of the US flag aflame with a picture of Jones along side.

Too bad. Damage done. Those in the world who want to believe Mr. Jones is representative of you and me now have “proof.” His words and actions are the sealing wax on their mind sets. Living down a reputation, deserved or not, can take a lifetime.

But we can start.

The media aren’t going to help us so we’ll have to be strong. Next time that white mustachioed visage appears, we can switch the channel to “American Idol,” or “The Apprentice,” or any other reality TV---just not that reality. Bye - bye interest, bye – bye Jones.

While we’re at it, maybe we can ignore people who cut in front of us in traffic without waving “thank you.” I’m going to try not to notice. And kids in saggy pants? That won’t bother me at all.

The Fellowship of the IIID (International Ignore the Idiots Days) won’t have dues, or meetings, or newsletters, or headquarters. We won’t elect officers since George Carlin’s not around. We will be grassroots on the down low. The only way anyone could spot us would be by the smiles on our faces and the brains in our heads.

Tuesday? Will that work for you?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Don't Be a Hater

Here’s an idea from a teenager’s T-shirt---“Don’t Be a Hater.”

Oh those crazy kids. What’ll they think of next? Give peace a chance? Make love not war?

I traveled with teenagers to the feared Soviet Union in 1990. One big surprise for naive me was that the hated people of the USSR, now Russia, were peace-loving. This was in direct opposition to all I had learned of them. What I knew was that we had better be prepared to defend ourselves against the Soviet threat.

That evil empire plotted through each night to decimate us. Each rising sun renewed their resolve to obliterate our soldiers and our school children. I was sure of this because I saw the stunning images of atomic bombs blasting the skin off mannequins and flattening buildings in the desert. I had to practice hiding under my desk or curled head-to-butt with my 10-year-old classmates in an interior hallway of Louisa Mae Alcott Elementary School. Our neighbors built bomb shelters in their back yards and let us come in to hide from the Soviet menace.

But almost immediately upon crossing into St Petersburg, I learned the Russian word “mir” because it was posted so frequently. Peace. The people valued peace. This knowledge flowed over me like warm oil. Of course. It’s not the people of the Soviet Union we’ve built such an enormous arsenal to annihilate. It’s the Soviet Government that’s hell-bent to kill us. They built a war machine, so we built a war machine. But the people want peace. Just like we do.

Wait. So, it was our fear, fueled by our press. Those among us who were truly fearful and lived their lives based on fear and the hatred and anger that arise from fear created a false image of the Soviet people. That’s all I listened to and all I knew. Fear-based ranting and hatred created the great demon Russia. We hated the Ruskies blindly and en masse.

Then I had the chance to travel there chaperoning students as a part of People to People / American – Soviet Youth Exchange. We spent three weeks around the Union, staying in the homes of the Soviet people getting to know them. President Eisenhower knew what he was doing when he established that organization.

He knew that most of us are just like Will Rogers. We rarely dislike a person once we’ve gotten to know him. We have to acknowledge that person’s humanity. We cannot ignore our bonds in human experience. Peace seems possible when you know the guy.

Right now we’re in the midst of another frenzy of fear-based hate building complete with book burning. Good citizens locked up in a frantic round of pin the tail on the enemy lash out with blindfolds in place. As though trapped in a corner, they swing wildly at anyone who could be threatening, especially if he’s non-Christian and brown skinned.

But what about our brown-skinned non-Christian citizens? The ones next door, on our kids’ soccer team, at the farmers’ market? Shall we burn their Qurans? Will we circle up and play the hurtful game of exclusivity? Tick tock, the game’s locked and only white “Christians” can play.

I’m unsure how each of us can get to know the Muslims around us, but it seems like one-to-one would be a good start. Or are we too wound up with fear and anger? Fear has tunnel vision and anger quashes opportunities.

Some who are angry and fearful will say, “Oh what? Just make nice?”

Well, no. I get that things are more complicated than that. We cannot pretend that our world is without danger, ignorance, and violence. We must be diligent and watchful. Prepared, of course. Proactive, certainly. These are the things our government must do for us.

For our part, for us, the people, acting on stereotypes is demeaning --- to the receiver and the giver. By design they minimize critical thinking and insight. Based on ignorance and its natural companion, fear, stereotypes weaken our culture. We, the people, are less when we employ them.

I think it would be good to take a breath, to listen, to think. To recognize a human being when we see one.

Act like Will Rogers: Get to know a person.

Don’t be a hater.

Friday, September 3, 2010

US Flag Protocol? Why bother?

I take pains here to keep the location and the person I refer to unidentifiable, since I hope and believe that that person would be mortified if s/he were “outed” publicly. S/He has lots of ‘splaining to do, and would no doubt prefer to do it in private.

I was in a government building the other day at closing time. As I wrapped up my business I glanced out the window to observe a government employee completing the end-of-the-day routine. The employee was taking down the flag of the United States of America.

The employee lowered the stars and stripes down the staff, detached it from the halyards and dropped it onto the ground, freeing up hands to secure the halyards. Once the halyards were fixed, the employee picked up our flag, gave it a little shake, and folded it like a teenager folds a bath towel, tucked it into an armpit, and headed back toward the building..

I saw something like this not once, but twice before, at schools where I worked. The honor of raising the flag in the morning and lowering it at day’s end belonged to custodians in those schools. Way back when, someone made the assignment, likely without designating the task as an honor or without providing any training as to proper protocol. Over time the honor morphed into a duty, a task, even a chore, and then finally, a bother. Like jury duty. Or voting.

I corrected the procedures at the schools where I worked, obtaining training for staff members charged with care of the flag. I can see now that I should have widened my vision for surely, in a district of 50+ schools, the carelessness I witnessed was likely widespread.

Why isn’t that honor assigned to students? Don’t know why I didn’t think of it then. It seems so obvious looking back. JROTC trained students at one of the schools where I worked before. I invited them to the other schools for special occasions to present the flags of the United States of America and the State of California. They always did an excellent job following protocol with dignity. Students and staff in my schools responded to such ceremony with their heads held high and hands over their hearts.

Why didn’t I think of training students to take on the daily honors at my schools?

And now, here it is again: An adult carelessly handling the flag. More than carelessly, thoughtlessly.

Again, I’m faced with my responsibility. What should I do in a case like this? You already know I did nothing. I even averted my eyes.

Should I have attempted to speak to that employee myself? Probably. Like most of us, that employee would most likely prefer to handle things like this personally, without their coming to the boss’s attention. But it’s uncomfortable to confront someone I’ve never met, even with the best intentions. That person couldn’t help feeling accosted and embarrassed. Maybe angry…who am I to tell you how to do your job? Who am I to tell you how to handle the flag?

I could have gone to the boss. Didn’t do that either. It was closing time after all. That’s my excuse, er, my reason for walking away, head down, distressed and inept.

I could go back. I could clip this column and leave it on the counter anonymously. Maybe I’ll highlight crucial passages so they will be sure to get the idea it was about their building, their employee. Then they’ll take it to the boss who will make things right. Yeah, that’s it. I could do that.

But why? What does it matter really? What difference does it make that one person in one place did one inappropriate thing?

On the other side, so what if one person learns to treat the flag with its due respect? An employee now follows protocol. Most of the time, no one’s looking anyway. Big deal.

I wonder who the honored employees are in other buildings where our flag is flown.

Who raises and lowers the symbol of our country in our banks, federal buildings, schools? Has someone smarter and more visionary than I established a process for teaching our employees and our young people the power of the symbol, the dignity of the task, and the weight of the responsibility?

I’ll vote for that person, the smart one with the long distance view…after I serve my jury duty.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Happy and Productive

Rob isn’t a suspicious guy. He’s the most supportive husband, really. But I get the feeling lately that he’s checking up on me.

So every day I prepare a list and memorize it. It’s like “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” only it’s how I spent my Monday (or Tuesday, or Wednesday…) now that I’m retired.

To remain above suspicion, I am ready to recite my list at his daily prompting: “What did you do today, Honey?”

“I walked 4.3 miles,” I begin, having tracked this on my trusty pedometer. This always pleases him. I give him details of my walk to give it weight and credibility. “I went all the way to the Arsenal and up Jefferson to the Mansion.”

It pleases me too. I’m always glad to be keeping my word.

Rob’s not the only one. When I announced my retirement this spring, all manner of people began asking what I was going to do in my retirement. I think it was hard for them, and for me, to imagine how it would feel not to have the constant intense stimulation of being a high school principal. I loved the whipped up frenzy of a school day, doing important work, helping young people, making the world a better place, so I hoped.

But like most folks, I kept a list of things I’d do given the time bestowed by a big jackpot. That’s the jackpot of retirement --- time. But my dreams seemed mundane in the telling. Smiles of the well-wishers got rigid and eyes glassy when I said I wanted to learn to play the piano!

Yet when I said I would take a walk every day, people smiled. So that became my pat and only answer, unless I was talking to the kids at school. More than anyone, the kids took my retirement personally. So when they asked what I was going to do, I said, “Miss you!”

Our family developed a saying years ago. Having determined that we were happy when we were productive, we sent each other off each morning with, “Have a happy and productive day!” instead of, “Have a nice day.” It soon got shortened to simply “Happy and Productive!” This eventually morphed to the quick and cryptic, “H & P!”

It’s not a bad motto, H & P, but it does carry a burden. How to define “productive”?

When I was a principal --- never a doubt about my productivity. I helped every day. My charge and my goal was to ease pain, facilitate learning, lift up, make smile, pave the way to success for students and teachers. I was hard after it and secure in the H & P.

For Rob there’s no question. He works hard out in the world. Business attire. Commute. Office functions. Emails and flow charts. Oh yes. Capital “P,” Productive.

When he comes home, he’s a project guy. He’s not just handy; he’s skilled. He loves working on the house and the fruits of his labor are evident immediately, and at every stage. We can point to lots of things he’s done to improve our home. VP. Visibly Productive.

For me now, in my new role, if I point to a shelf of books I’ve read, am I productive too? Somehow reading gets little respect among the items of my recitation. Still I include it, resolute in its value. It feels like I’ve barely read anything for 30 years! I’m entitled.

I am learning to play the piano. Teaching myself at the moment with the help of Schaum’s Pop Piano Course and a Craig’s List digital piano. I can now play three songs with both hands well enough to perform right alongside any six-year-old. I’ll take “Instant Piano” through Benicia Parks & Recreation this fall, and real weekly lessons after that. Is that productive?

And I write. Of course, I write. A memoir. A screenplay. A blog.

You can see why I create the list, can’t you?

So I walked and I read and I practiced my chords. I wrote. I did laundry, bought groceries and more. Grew zucchini, tomatoes and spinach and dill. Tracked electric consumption and paid every bill.

There, Honey, that’s my list. That’s what I did today.

I know.

It sounds like Dr. Seuss.

I was happy.

But was I productive?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Animal Testing: A Deal with the Devil

Whenever we encounter a euphemism, it’s time to beware. From the war: “Collateral damage,” and “friendly fire.” From the airlines industry: “Near miss.”

Benicians are now presented with a euphemism of equally dubious merit: vivaria. It means animal testing laboratories, and it is part of a proposal for relaxing Benicia’s zoning codes in an effort to include clean energy, high-tech, and research and development uses in the industrial districts.

Thanks to Commissioner Donald Dean who says, “We want to know what’s going into the community. There may be a dark side to some of [this], and we want to know what [it is].”

We don’t have to accept animal testing laboratories in Benicia. We can rewrite and broaden our development plans to include lots of things to enhance our economy without selling our souls.

Remember the 1940’s movie "Picture of Dorian Gray"? Dorian, played by Tyrone Power, makes a wish ever to remain the beautiful young man he is in a portrait of himself, while the portrait takes on the effects of his hedonistic life. As in any good pact with the Devil, he gets his wish.

He gets women and wealth and an extravagant life. As he goes, he steps on the backs of others. He reneges on promises he made. He breaks hearts and disappoints those who thought they knew him, even admired his good looks and influence. Only his portrait, covered in heavy canvas on an easel in his spidery attic, shows the effects of Dorian’s short-sighted selfishness.

He goes to the attic periodically to view his own corrupt soul and assess its march downward. Once, seemingly distraught at the degeneration he sees, he goes and kills the artist, blaming him for his own ugliness and torment.

But ultimately, Dorian knows he is the ugly and degenerate one. It is his distorted soul in the painting. His outward beauty cannot disguise his corrupt and cynical self.

He stands in anguish facing his portrait and a sliver of conscience goes to work. He pulls out a knife; at first we think to tear at the painting. Then his servants, hearing noises above their heads, rush to the attic to find him dead on the floor, shriveled and grotesque. The portrait now restored to its youthful beauty.

Guilt never did do a person much good. Regret and apologies are most limited in their value.

So how shall we have it?

We can stick to the euphemism. We can allow vivaria without looking at the animals. After all, we won’t actually witness the tests. We won’t be present to document the effects on animals’ eyes, or skin, or breathing, or nerves.

We can keep vivaria in the attic of our industrial park and go along our way, pretending not to know what we’re sanctioning there. After all, there is much to be gained by the inclusion of businesses that harm animals for profit: greater city revenues and new job creation are dangled before us.

It won’t show will it? No one has to know.

Or, we could steer away from the ugly and degenerate. We could go to the trouble of writing our zoning codes specifically and precisely to include those businesses and industries we truly can be proud of as we profit from them. I object to the notion that there is no threshold that would allow the city to prevent laboratories from testing on specific animals. It’s our city, our zoning code. It will read as we say, set the limits we determine in good conscience.

We can add such categories as information technology, computer server farms, nanotechnology, semiconductor manufacturing and robotics so the city can “put out the welcome mat” for new businesses without leaving the door standing open for the unsavory business of conducting traumatic, painful, deadly, and crude tests on animals in Benicia.

We’re told that Benicia has an opportunity to be a leader by relaxing our zoning now so we will be ready when ‘the next Google’ walks through the door. Perfect! Google is funding research and development projects that provide alternatives to animal testing!

Why go there?

We can flourish without this unwholesome pact. We don’t need to step on the backs of animals dependent on us. We must not renege on our promises to be moral and ethical in our pursuits. We can expand our economic base while retaining our good looks and influence.

Vivaria be damned.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Most Likely to Shoot His Lawnmower

Once my colleagues voted me “most likely to shoot my lawnmower.” I guess I was showing some on-the-job stress.

I think I growled a little and raised my 10-key calculator above my head. It caught their attention.

Frustrated that the accounts wouldn’t balance in my humdrum job tracking barrels of oil for a private producer, I had a pronounced urge to heave that calculator through the floor to ceiling window in front of my desk onto the green, green lawn fringed with impatiens and agapanthus.

Then I put it back down.

Soon I got a more meaningful job in public service, and left all those numbers behind me.

My honorary title came from a note weeks earlier in the Police Blotter section of the Tulsa Tribune indicating that a local man had been cited for firing a handgun within city limits. He had dispatched his lawnmower with his daddy’s .44. The brief notice did not share what the final straw had been.

We can only assume that whatever fine he had to pay, he paid with satisfaction.

Which brings us to Steven Slater. He said he dreamed of slipping down that airlines escape chute for years, taking his leave with a Heineken in one hand and middle finger extended on the other.

Too much face time with the public put him off his good humor.

So Mr. Slater lost his cool (and his job and his rainy day funds --- forthcoming legal fees, you know).

I almost feel bad for the guy.

Then I remember the social contract: that agreement we made so long ago, consciously or unconsciously, to be nice to each other since we live so close together. We gotta bend a little here and there or nothing’s going to go smoothly.

Could be both Steven and that ugly woman at the overhead bin each needed the other to bend that day, at that moment.

But Steven loses the argument, because he took the job of serving the tired, the rude, the unreasonable exception, along with all the rest of us who are courteous, tolerant, self-contained and bending whenever we’re part of the public.

That’s right: Almost of all of us are pretty nice. We set aside our desires for personal space, the aisle seat, an armrest for our elbows, and easy access to the bathroom. We bend. We accommodate. We even smile our brief smiles letting those around us know that even though the cramped conditions suck, we’re going to mind our manners and get through it.

When Steven took the job, he knew there would be a few, a small percentage, who would be jerky, demanding, and inconsiderate. But even now, even he would say, I’ll bet money on it: The vast majority of the public are really nice.

All those flight attendants, cashiers, postal workers and waitresses across the country who hold him up with banners declaring him a hero for reaching his threshold, crossing it, and succumbing to the instinct to run screaming, if not the impulse to smack some other stressed person who didn’t make nice on the airplane---even they will say, even now, most of the people they serve every day are NICE.

The thing is, it’s hard to shake off the not-nice people of the world. It is a skill flight attendants and all other public servants learn early and practice often, or they pull a Steven Slater, or worse.

By his own declaration, Slater was a baggage “Nazi,” on a mission to ensure carry-on rule breakers didn’t enjoy the benefits reserved for carry-on rule followers. A lousy way to go through the workday, with a personal vendetta guaranteed to focus on the negative and take self-righteous pleasure in catching, embarrassing, and angering the offenders.

When he found himself lapsing into sarcasm and fantasies of escape, he could have and should have helped himself to stress management, anger management, a job in accounting, a vacation, a margarita, a massage, a funny movie, or maybe a lawn mower and a sledge hammer. No firearms, please.

Then if he disturbs the peace with his loud banging and cursing, he should pay the fine with a smile.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Pretty Package for a Penis

I painted over the penis today. 

It was on my walking path.  Teenagers and spray paint:  A bad combination.  They painted a penis right on my walking path!

I'm retired now and making good on my promise to take a walk every day.  And there it was --- so annoying.  Sometimes I stepped over it; sometimes I stepped right on it.  Either way it did not feel good.

It's hard to measure the impact of such a negative gesture.  Once you know it's there, resist as you might, your eyes are drawn to it.  Damn it!  For those few moments every day I had to think about a penis I didn't want to think about.  Totally uncool. 

What's in the mind of a kid who paints such a thing on a path like that?  Here's a penis for all to see!  Hahahahaha!  (That's a feindish laugh.)

Old ladies, little girls!  Looook!  A PENIS!

Or maybe it's territorial, like a dog peeing judiciously as he goes:  I've been here!  This little square of pavement is MINE all MINE!  Again with the laugh.

Do penis painters go on to other crimes?  Yikes!  I shudder to think.  What's the next logical step?  Wagging it?

Once, at the school where I was principal, I came onto campus at 7:00am to find a kid had painted a giant penis on the asphalt quad over night.  It was easily twenty feet long in yellow paint.  Appropriate somehow.

I imagined that the kid was mad at me for some disciplinary action I had taken.  Quid pro quo.  You suspend me, I paint a penis.  But in this case, I couldn't think of any student who had reason to be mad at me---a rare circumstance for a high school principal! 

Nothing else to do but call Maintenance.  I asked if they would come out and paint over it before brunch time. 

Our District had a very good practice of painting over graffiti and tagging immediately, so it wasn't too long at all before I could see the maintenance crew first standing with their hands on their hips, staring down, and shaking their heads, then bending over the asphalt and painting.  When I looked again a few minutes later, they were gone, leaving a set of cones around the area to protect us from walking on the wet paint.

But then, when the bell rang for brunch and I headed toward the quad to supervise the students, I saw half a dozen of them standing around the edge defined by the cones, looking and laughing.  I joined them to find that the maintenance crew had indeed painted over the yellow paint.  Very carefully, with black paint, distinct on the greying asphalt, they had re-painted the outline of the penis.

"Mrs. Plath," a football player feigned serious concern, "what do you make of this?"  My turn to shake my head. 

Maintenance had to make a second trip out that morning to paint a twenty foot black box on the quad.  Only a hand full of kids and I know what's in the box.

So this morning, I carried a can of my own spray paint to the scene of the crime on my walking path and went to work quickly.  My only regret is that I didn't have concrete-colored paint. 

But let me assure you, my enigmatic silver box is much nicer than its contents.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Note to Mrs. Grant

I'm about to be extremely presumptious.  Some will no doubt be disgusted.  How dare I?

If my own son were dead on the platform, I don't know that I could do what I'm asking.

Still, I just wish Oscar Grant's family would come out with a statement for a peaceful response to the Mehserle verdict, whatever it is.

I'm not saying no demonstration.  I'm just saying a peaceful demonstration.

The imminent protest after all is for an end to violence, isn't it?  We abhor violence. 

It seems to me that Oscar Grant's family is in the unique position to enlighten and educate folks on both sides of this terrible issue.

For his family (based on the media reports), Oscar's death is a blatant act of racist violence.  I believe they want an end to racist violence.  But in their grief, they seem focused solely on punishing Mr. Mehsele. 

Things were desperately wrong on the platform that day, no question.  Oscar Grant should not have been killed.

Will the harshest sentence be sufficient to right the wrong?  Will all who are watching and listening be edified by Mehserle's imprisonment?  What will be learned beyond crime earns punishment?

If the sentence is not sufficient to address the issue, will a violent riot help?  Will the oppressed and wounded be uplifted in their own eyes by a riot?  Will those they rail against learn the desired lesson?

Sorrowfully, no.  We will not learn enough from Mehserle's sentence.  And we will not be enlightened by a riot. 

Yet so many ASSUME we will have a riot.  Businesses are boarding up; commuters are avoiding the trains.  Children are watching and listening as we brace ourselves for violence, maybe racist violence, as though it must be expected as a response to this deplorable circumstance.

There is some logic to the anticipation afterall:  violence breeds violence breeds violence.... 

But violence doesn't seem to breed thoughtful growth.  Violence doesn't prompt the urge in one person to take on the other's experience or views.

Still, we are about to be caught in the cycle again.  We know it well and we're gearing up to repeat it.  If we do have a riot, some will no doubt call at some point for an end to it, having never learned that we each in our roles stoke and restoke the fire.
We all know the rage.  We are all enraged that we must face again the avoidable loss of a healthy young man.

We all want to lash out and issue the same pain we are dealt. 

But if Oscar Grant's family called out for peace, we might have peace.  We might stop and think and learn something new.  We might listen to his family's pain and grief and strive to break away from such horrible cycles and stunted growth. 

Oscar's family has a unique opportunity.  They might actually have the power to ensure Oscar's death bears fruit for the living. 

There will be no winners, that's clear. 

But some might hang their heads and learn.  Others might hold their heads higher, with courage and dignity, if we are forced by peace to reflect.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Grammar Rant

What has happened to “pled”? You know, pled, as in, “The suspect pled guilty to the charges.” Nowadays, the suspect “pleaded” guilty. Pleaded! It feels stupid just to write it! Since when did pled become pleaded? Sounds like something a sheep would do.

As far as that goes, when did suspects quit pleading guilty at all? Even when they did it they don’t plead guilty anymore. They’re all claiming innocent regardless of eyewitnesses, prior confessions, fingerprints, and DNA! But I digress.

Pleaded! Really!

And what about helping verbs in the news? Where have they gone? Every night we’re assaulted with at least one half-baked grammatically feeble headline sort of faux sentence. To wit: “Families asking tough questions as the hillside deteriorates.” Or, “Hot weather creating problems for the elderly.”

No! Families ARE asking tough questions, and hot weather IS creating problems! Oh! I see. We’re avoiding the passive voice by speaking and writing in fragments! Wonderful. Why not make it active: Families ASKED tough questions. Hot weather CREATED problems.

But everything is present tense now, too. Have you noticed? “In 1956 he marries his high school sweetheart.” How can he do that? How can a person in 2010 marry in 1956? I say he can’t! Either he married her then, he marries her NOW, or he will marry her in the future. Conjugate, damn it!

And please, commas within the quotation marks! Oh. My. Gosh! Even Alex Trebek puts his commas outside the quotation marks now! Nothing is secure! Nothing is sacred. If Alex is doing it, who’s next? The Queen?

Apostrophes are up for grabs. Any old “s” can claim an apostrophe. “On Sale Today! Shoe’s for Men, Women, and Kid’s!” Usage lesson’s of the past fall by the wayside as student’s mind’s retain like sieve’s.

It’s and its are virtually one and the same. People do not know the difference. Write it however you like! Its raining! Put everything in it’s place! No one notices! No one cares!

You’re and your? Might as well throw in yore! I got a card from a student this year,  “Dear Mrs. Plath, thank’s for everything. Your the best!” God love her.

Next, we will have the blurring of there, their, and they’re. Here it comes! All you stodgy old grammarians get out of the way! There new rules are there way of saying their is no more time for Standard English!

This is unacceptable license with the language. And it’s rampant! Don’t people have dictionaries any more? Or, more to the point, don’t they ever use them?

I use mine. In fact, to prove my point, I’m going to use it right now, and look up “pled.” Ah, here it is, “pled (pled), colloquial or dialectal past tense of plead.”

WHAT?!! “Colloquial or dialectal?”

First, I thought it was dialectical---and besides that, how dare they? What are they implying? That I am quaint?

Well of course, that’s the easy way, isn’t it? Out with old, the correct, and the proper. Fine.

Put me on trial, and what’s the case against me?

• In 1966 she buys a Webster’s New World Dictionary.

• Dictionaries creating new usages for careless speakers and writers.

• She pled not guilty to grammar snobbery.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

From Heaven to Hell on American Airlines

I'll probably burn in hell for this.  I'm hiding from Elizabeth.  She doesn't deserve it, but I need a break. 

Face it.  She's demanding.  I know she can't help it, but dang!  How many times can I review her flight plan with her?

Elizabeth has Apert's Syndrome.  It's a rare condition with a constellation of unfortunate physical and mental symptoms.  First, and most notable, her head is misshapen. 

Remember that old cartoon where the witch is sitting in front of the mirror in the haberdashery?  She's trying on pointy hats for Halloween.  The sales girl standing above her delicately places a hat pin in the topmost point of the hat.  "Ouch!" says the witch.

That would be Elizabeth.  When she wears her pilled-up red felt cowboy hat with the sequins glued around the brim, her head looks pretty normal.  But when the hat flies off in a gust of wind, it reveals that her peaked head fills the uppermost regions of the hat.  Straggly wisps of oily hair do little to disguise the fact.

Her face is distorted too.  Poor Elizabeth!  She's our Quazimoto.  Porcine nose almost always free flowing.  Two middle fingers on both hands are fused into one finger.  One hairy knuckle, one fingernail. 

Her squat little body, or should I say fuselage, is always cloaked in her gray American Airlines jacket.

Elizabeth comes to me on the quad every day now.  Every brunch.  Every lunch.  She finds me to review her flight plan.  It goes like this:  First she stands in front of me and proudly taps the AA logo with the oversized middle finger of her right hand.  "Do you know what this stands for?" 

I used to say, "American Airlines" and it pleased her.  She smiled at me and we talked about how the turbulence caught her on her flight to Miami.  She had to make an emergency landing in Houston where they cleared the debris from her engines and she was on her way in no time!

Day after day we replayed the scenario:  American Airlines; Miami; turbulence, debris.  I asked her to be sure:  "Elizabeth, are you the pilot, or the airplane?"  "I'm the airplane!  I'm a 747!  I was on the runway with those other planes and they couldn't beat me.  I'm the fastest one!  I have red, white, and blue painted all over my fuselage!"

"Are you the stewardess?" she asked, eyeing me as though dubious of my qualifications.  "No, I'm Air Traffic Control," I said.

The bell rang and with that she wanted clearance for take off.  "747, cleared for takeoff!"

"Roger!" and off she flew to her classroom, arms atilt and backpack flapping.

She brought me two pieces of construction paper the next day.  One gray and shaped like a submarine with three stripes running the length in red, white, and blue pastel chalk.  The other is the AA logo, red and blue on white paper. 

On about the 200th day she approached me and tapped the AA logo I became perverse.  "What does this stand for?" she said. 

"Alcoholics Anonymous?"  "No."

"Aardvarks and Apples?"  "No."

"Artichokes and Anchovies?"  "No!" 

I could have gone on and she sensed it.  "American Airlines!" she declared with a little pat of her foot.

Students scuffled in the cafeteria one day.  Elizabeth said she was taking on fuel so she didn't see everything.  But she dwelled on it.  She worked it into the routine for weeks.  Did I see what happened?  Neither did she.  She was taking on fuel when all of a sudden, pow!  "So I just took off!"

Mucus forms a shiny sheet between her nose and upper lip.  I began carrying tissues for this reason.  Now when I hand one to her, she smears and smears, only to have it begin again. 

One of our campus supervisors observed this ritual day after day.  She called me on the walkie talkie from across the quad.  "You're going straight to heaven, you know." 

"Do you think so?"

"Oh yeah, for all these conversations, you've got a straight shot!" 

But today, behaving like the adolescents I serve, I am hiding from Elizabeth.  I'd just like to complete my lunch supervision without the pre-flight itinerary.  

It's not that hard to elude her.  Believe me, I know her routine.  So I move from my usual, highly visible spot, just to the left near a cinder block pillar supporting the overhang.

She comes out of the cafeteria at 12:40pm and lands exactly where we usually stand.  Not seeing me, she's flustered.  She begins a systematic scan of the area, turning quadrant by quadrant.  When it's time to scan in my direction, I step behind the pillar.  Like a light house beacon she turns again.  With that, I step into the cafeteria and relax.  She won't look in here.  She's already been here.  We always talk outside.

"Mrs. Plath!"  A group of students beckons me and I'm off to lighthearted conversation about Senior Ball.  Am I going?  Will I dance?  So much normal fun!

Then, from the corner of my eye, I can see her, taxiing closer.  She found me.  Darn.  As I turn toward her the other students peel away, and it's just Elizabeth and me again.

"Mrs. Plath!  I was looking for you!"

"You found me Elizabeth."  I hope it didn't show too much, my weariness.

"I just wanted to tell you, Mrs. Plath, thanks for everything."