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An Anniversary and Some Questions

Normandy, 1944

Normandy, 1944

Today is the 69th anniversary of D-Day.  In case you are an American student and have never heard the term before, D-Day was the beginning of an operation involving over 150,00 Allied troops landing on the beaches of the Normandy region of France.  The invasion has been called the beginning of the end of the war in Europe.

Those men you see in the photo wading through the surf toward the smoky beach ahead are now referred to as the Greatest Generation.  But get this…they were Twenty-somethings.  Some were as young as 18, but many were in their mid-20s.  General Eisenhower inspired the troops before the invasion by saying: “You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you.”  Just a little pressure, that.

Of course, that was then, and this is now.  How times have changed.  Nowadays, we refer to 18-25 year-olds as “emerging adults,” a whole new demographic group.  Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, the brains behind this new developmental stage, argues that people in this age group don’t believe themselves to be adults yet and struggle with identity and focus.

Gee, I don’t know.  Maybe they just need a Gen. Eisenhower to help them focus.  Since I can’t think of anyone to fit that bill, I would refer Twenty-somethings to this Ted Talk (entitled “Why 30 is not the new 20”) by clinical psychologist Meg Jay.

She argues that the 20’s are actually the “defining decade of adulthood,”  rather than a continuation of adolescence.  In one’s 20’s, the brain undergoes its last growth spurt, so she argues, “Whatever it is you want to change about yourself, now is the time to change it.”  And I love this insight:

Leonard Bernstein said that to achieve great things, you need a plan and not quite enough time. Isn’t that true? So what do you think happens when you pat a twentysomething on the head and you say,”You have 10 extra years to start your life”? Nothing happens. You have robbed that person of his urgency and ambition, and absolutely nothing happens.

Rather than spending a decade in finding one’s identity, Jay recommends doing something that develops “identity capital.”  In other words, do something that adds value.  Like liberating a continent from a genocidal tyrant.

To the ever-dwindling number of veterans of D-Day and World War II who are still with us, thank you.



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The Wisdom of the Waitstaff

Apparently, the popular TV show, “Big Bang Theory” was on to something when it  placed one of its characters, Bernadette Rostenkowski, on the payroll at the Cheesecake Factory.  Bernadette waits tables at the casual dining chain restaurant as she defends her doctoral thesis in microbiology.  Life indeed does imitate art, as Plato said.  A week ago, we had a lovely family dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, and now I’m wondering if the chain seeks out only the bright candidates for its waitstaff.

Our server was a lovely young gentleman from England.  He was cheerful and polite.  When he found out we were celebrating SuzyQ’s return home from college, he revealed that he is a graduate student at the nearby university.  He told us that he also teaches some courses there.  I don’t know how long he has been in this country, but he proved beyond a doubt he knows Americans.

  • Many American college students are as dumb as a pile of rocks.  Our server expounded on the sad state of higher education with searing clarity.  Most of his students have no business sitting in a college classroom.  According to him, they spend the whole class texting or playing games or internet surfing on their laptops instead of paying attention to the lecture.
  • The American university, in our server’s experience, is essentially equivalent to British high school.  He explained that the first year classes most students take in college are covered in secondary school in Britain so that by the time a student reaches university, he is prepared for advanced study.  In other words, Americans waste a whole lot of money on so-called “college” while the rest of the world laughs about it.
  • Our server was quick to confirm that the United States used to be recognized as the world leader in education, but now, well…
  • The best insight of the evening, however, concerned the lack of sincerity among Americans.  According to our server, Americans are quick to say how much they like you or even “love” you.  In his estimation, however, Americans rarely mean what they say.  After all, “When someone says he loves you, he should be willing to take a bullet for you.”  Amen, brother!  We quickly echoed that point to SuzyQ: “When a guy says he loves you, he had better be ready to take a bullet for you!”

So there you have it.  Powerful words from a Cheesecake factory waiter.  Americans, get over yourselves!

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“Nothing to See Here…”

“Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.” Friedrich Nietzsche

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Jury deliberation continues today in what is perhaps one of the most famous criminal trials most Americans have never heard of.  The case involves the beheading of infants by severing the spinal column after live birth, infant corpses and severed body parts kept in glass jars and cat food tins and assorted other containers, along with rusty surgical instuments and blood-soaked exam rooms.  Surely such carnage must capture the top story position and front page of every major news outlet.  Except that it hasn’t.  Apparently the story of Kermit Gosnell’s “House of Horrors” abortion practice is too awkward to probe in-depth on the nightly news.

As they say, “Ignorance is bliss.”  And what a happy, happy bunch Americans are.  According to a new survey conducted by the Poling Company for the National Right to Life Committee, 55% of Americans don’t know that Planned Parenthood provides abortions.  The survey also revealed that 38% of those who call themselves pro-life have a favorable opinion of Planned Parenthood.  I have no words.

Mark Steyn has plenty of words, however: “And so a progressive society evolves, from the me-generation to the meh-generation.”  That’s his response to the following Tweet about the Gosnell trial:

Nope.  Nothing to get excited about.  Just ignore the fact that Gosnell is not an outlier in his practices or the fact that abortion clinics across the country are given a free pass when it comes to inspection and regulation or the fact that these so-called “healthcare providers” are often untrained (also here) and/or more focused on profit than safety.

The there’s that catch phrase, “reproductive health care for women,” that makes Americans so much more comfortable than the ugly-but-accurate term “abortion.”  Just throw that phrase on the sand dune of euphemisms in which American society buries its collective head.  That’s how we get the majority of Americans and over a third of pro-life Americans applauding the “service to women” that Planned Parenthood provides.

I wonder how many people believe Josef Mengele was just a doctor providing access to healthcare.

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Baby Birds and a Nest Becoming More and More Empty

Last week, my sister found a bird’s nest in one of her potted herb plants.  And in that nest were some eggs which then hatched.  She found it entertaining to keep track of the 5 bald, hideous, scraggly hatchlings.  One day, she went out to water the plant and found that some had jumped (fallen?) out of the nest and into the pot.  Were they learning to fly?  Another day went by, and she discovered that several of the birds were gone.

The empty nest is a rather over-used metaphor.  And I don’t actually have an empty nest, but a vacancy in my nest is just around the corner.  In about 6 weeks, SuzyQ will depart for college.  We have begun accumulating stuff for her to outfit her dorm room.  My guest room, now the staging area, is out of commission until she leaves.  Having spent 4 years living in dorms, I feel that I have a reasonable idea of what she needs.  Still, there is a sense of panic about forgetting those odds and ends one takes for granted at home.  Headache medicine, sunscreen, Ziploc bags, clean towels.  She is not attending school in a desolate frozen tundra miles from any trading outpost, I know.  But minimizing runs to big-box stores will help her stay within budget.  Yes, I am an naive optimistic parent!

I had mixed dorm experiences.  None of my roommates became my best friends, although mostly we stayed friendly.  Learning to live that closely with someone I wasn’t related to wasn’t easy, even after sharing a room with siblings almost my whole life.  SuzyQ has never had to share a room (except for summer camp experiences), so I fear she will have a prickly adjustment period.  Of course, with all of the Facebook chatter and texts flying back and forth right now, perhaps she and her intended roommate will ease some of that tension before they arrive on campus.  That’s one benefit of social media, anyway.

The other baby bird just got his driver’s learner permit.  In my state, teens 15 and 6 months can begin supervised driving.  Thankfully, Junior is showing an appropriate amount of fear behind the wheel.  Confidence will come, too, with practice, but I also believe in a healthy fear.  Especially when he’s driving my car.  It will be at least 9 months before he’s eligible to get his license and drive solo.  Thank goodness.  That’s a lot for a mom to take all at once: one college freshman and one new driver.

I can’t help wondering how some of my friends from school who are just having a second or third child will cope with such things in 15 or more years–at the age of almost 60.  If they asked me, I would advise them to spend the intervening years taking good care of themselves and learning how to manage stress.  Then they might be better prepared, at 60, to haul their daughter’s belongings up 4 flights of stairs in the quaint dorm without an elevator.  And perhaps coaching their teen boy to finesse the brake pedal, ease around corners, and negotiate city traffic will come easily.

Today, my nest is bustling with all kinds of activity.  In a few weeks, it will seem a little more bare.  The metaphor has to end there because, in reality, my sister’s birds didn’t just leave their nest.  All evidence points to a slaughter.  The call of the wild and all that.  Cruel, cruel world.

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My Dear Graduates…

It is a near universal truth that graduation speeches are dreadful.  They are full of clichés and platitudes which actually tell the graduates and the well-wishers absolutely nothing.  All of the, “Remember the time when’s” might be good for a chuckle, but they don’t really cause the wheels of your mind to start turning.  Neither do, “seize the day,” “not an end but a beginning,” “believe in yourself,” or “follow your dreams.” You would think that a valedictorian with a weighted GPA of 6.75 would figure this out and come up with something better.  Perhaps they are too burned out by that point.  I’m not sure what the keynote speaker’s excuse is.

I recently had the privilege of attending graduation at the US Naval Academy.  Nearly 1100 of America’s best and brightest were being commissioned and sent, some of them, into harm’s way.  This was a time to celebrate their perseverance through the toughest route to a college degree and their commitment to serving their country, as well as to inspire them.  Every 3-4 years, the President speaks at the ceremony.  Lucky for us, he graced the Air Force Academy with his presence this year, and we were spared.  Instead, the class of 2012 heard from the Secretary of Defense.  He didn’t have much to tell the graduates that they didn’t already know.  After spending their summers out in the fleet experiencing various naval career paths (Marines, aviation, submarines, surface ships), they had a pretty good idea of what “A Typical Day in the US Navy” looks like without Leon Panetta spelling it out for them.  Another distinguished speaker, rather than coming up with his own material, he used the old Baz Luhrman Sunscreen routine.  I suppose it’s possible that the members of the class of 2012 are too young to be familiar with this gem.

The most valuable words I heard came in a brief statement before the swearing-in of the about-to-be military officers.  They were told to protect their integrity, since it cannot be taken from them, but it can be surrendered.  Amen to that.  I wish that little sound bite could be broadcast by every news outlet in the country.

Sadly, the speech given by the class president was embarrassingly mediocre.  I say embarrassing because he managed to shape the first half of the speech around a “Hunger Games” theme.  Very high school, in my opinion.

I think I’m probably fairly typical in that I cannot remember the speakers at either of my graduation ceremonies, let alone a word that they said.  Perhaps if I had heard a commencement address like the one given by David McCullough, an English teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, I might have given it my full attention.  McCullough does not rely upon clichés.  He certainly does not tell the graduates what they expect to hear.  And he uses big words and wry humor.  I leave you with some great quotes from the speech, but do read the whole thing to your graduate.

       You are not special.  You are not exceptional.    Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special…

“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection!  Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!”  And I don’t disagree.  So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus.  You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless…

We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…  Now it’s “So what does this get me?”  As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans…

As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds,…[r]esist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction.  Be worthy of your advantages.  And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect.  Read as a nourishing staple of life.  Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it.  Dream big.  Work hard.  Think for yourself.  Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might…

Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.  Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.  Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly.  Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them.  And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.  The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

            Because everyone is.

            Congratulations.  Good luck.  Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.




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Things That Are a Whole Lot Harder Than They Need to Be

Does this ever happen to you?  When you are focused on a task, with a very precise outcome in mind, things along the way often become maddeningly more complicated than they ought to be:

  • Trying to make anything pretty using Microsoft Word.  Let’s leave aside the fact that I’m working with Word 2003.  All the templates in the world don’t help.  You still have to rearrange everything to include your own pictures and text.  Text boxes??  The “genius” who thought those were a good idea should be carted away.  The fonts are humdrum, but heaven forbid you try to download and use nice fonts.  You might as well stick with Times New Roman if everyone else looking at your file didn’t download the pretty font, too.  This is exactly why smart people use Vista Print and other businesses to make up their invitations.
  • Dress Shopping.  SuzyQ needs a dress for her formal music recital.  She has very particular requirements: appropriate for daytime wear (so nothing sparkly or shiny), a full skirt that’s at least knee-length, comfort and mobility for playing her instrument without tugging at straps or hiking up a strapless bodice.  I have requirements, too.  It should not cost as much as a wedding gown, and the dress should not make SuzyQ look like a hooker.  How much success do you think we have had?
  • Finding out if you have won.  This has nothing to do with the task I have been occupied with.  It’s just a piece of frustration to add to the pile.  SuzyQ has been waiting for weeks to learn if she won a scholarship from an organization.  She put a lot of work into the application: 3 recommendations, an essay, transcript, SAT scores.  All applicants were to have been notified in the first week of May.  We are in the 3rd week now, so SuzyQ had to contact the committee herself.  It seems that the winners were contacted but not everyone else.  This happened with another scholarship a few months ago.  My sister learned she did not get the new job she was hoping for when she went to the website of the organization and saw the welcome for the new hire.  Apparently, it’s too much work to group emails into “Congratulations” and “Thank you but unfortunately.”  And it must be a lot more fun to observe unsuccessful applicants embarrass themselves by begging for results.

Two weeks to go until the big event.  I wonder–are cupcakes complicated?  Tablecloths?  Folding chairs?  It wouldn’t surprise me.

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Random and Absurd

Busy time of year–April and May.  You keep plugging along, doing the same old stuff, and then it seems like someone hit the fast-forward button once you turn the calendar page to April.  Sadly, this means I have little mental energy to give to well-developed blog posts right now.  What I have to offer instead are some musings on some silly and absurd bits and pieces that have stayed with me–instead of the important stuff that keeps slipping my mind.

  • Azaleas are lovely this time of year.  Well, everyone else’s azaleas are lovely.  Fun fact: If your dog routinely pees on your azaleas, they will not bloom.  You see, according to the United States National Arboretum, too much nitrogen encourages growth of foliage rather than flower buds.  Bad dog.
  • Is this the perfect gift for Mother’s Day?I found an ad for these Lourdes water body products in my inbox.  This just seems wrong to me, though I can’t put my finger on exactly the reason why.  I’ve never been to Lourdes, but I have visited other pilgrimage sites.  They are all commercialized to some extent.  But a line of body products??
  • The people who create fonts either have the most fun job in the world or are completely insane.  Otherwise, how would they come up with font names such as “Enchanted Prairie Dog,” “Empire of Dirt,” or “Soymilk?”  None of these spoke to me as I was looking for script-like fonts to download.  I’m not sure what image “Prairie Dog” is supposed to convey in reagrds to fonts.
  • I am still a babe in the woods when it comes to social media.  Have you noticed the Twitter hashtags that appear on the TV screen during your favorite shows?  (Incidently, I had to look up the term “hashtags” to make sure I was using it correctly.)  I guess this is for the benefit of people with short attention spans so they can tweet their comments about the show to friends before they forget what they want to say.  Also, can someone explain to me what it means when a friend posts nothing but a heart on Facebook?  I’m assuming it means something nice, but couldn’t they be a little more specific about why we should all know about their heart?

Right.  That’s that then.  Carry on.

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