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.