Monday, May 25, 2015

Defining (and Redefining) Memorial Day

My father, of blessed  memory, was a decorated combat veteran of World War II.  Like many young men of his generation, he had never expected to be a soldier, but he was well aware it could happen, given what was going on in Europe.  He had only recently gotten married, but then, he was drafted into the Army and sent overseas to fight.  My mother and he corresponded faithfully, but there were long periods of time when she didn't hear from him, and she didn't know if he was dead or alive.  As it turned out, he was wounded (and received a Purple Heart), but he fully recovered, and I can only imagine the joy my mother felt when they were reunited.

I was born in 1947, another of the millions of kids who were part of the post-war Baby Boom generation.  But when I was growing up, I truly cannot recall my father ever discussing the war.  In fact, years later, I found his Purple Heart, and I also found several of my mother's letters to him, which he had kept in his wallet for so many years.  But he never talked about any of it with me, nor with my sister. Perhaps he talked to my mother about his experiences, or perhaps he talked to his friends, some of whom had also served.  But from what I have been told, his silence about the war was not unique-- many of the men who had been through it wanted to put the memories away and move forward.  They had answered the call and served their country, but they did not see that as something unusual.  They knew that previous generations had been asked to serve in the military.  Some had died fighting for their country.  My father and his friends seemed to see themselves as the lucky ones-- they had served and they had survived, and now they could move on with their lives.   

I grew up in an era where attitudes about war changed dramatically.  The war in Vietnam evoked conflicting and contentious attitudes in many of us.  I started off supporting it, but gradually turned against it, as did Walter Cronkite (who contrary to myth was not in any way a "liberal" at that time). And while it is an urban legend that returning soldiers from that war were spat on (the author of this article even wrote a well-researched book debunking this myth, it is no myth that returning soldiers were rarely greeted with the same pride and gratitude as those from World War II.  And it is also true that a number of young men of that era, some of whom would later go on to gain political power, found ways to avoid serving.  This included members of both parties (Dick Cheney and Bill Clinton to cite two examples).  And for those who did serve, some to this day remain traumatized be the experience.

When I was a kid, commemorating the great victory that we achieved in World War II was cause for celebration on Memorial Day.  Yes, it was also the official start of the summer; and yes, it was often a great day for a picnic.  But for many Americans, it was mainly a day for parades, for showing the flag, and for visiting the graves of departed veterans and expressing gratitude for their sacrifice.  These days, it seems Memorial Day is more about the picnics than about the patriotism. I recently read an article where an elderly veteran remarked sadly that fewer and fewer people come out to the parades each year.  And there are probably fewer people who visit the graves of departed veterans:  I admit to not going as often as I should, but I have the feeling I'm not the only one who can say that.

It also saddens me to see Memorial Day politicized:  for example, nearly every year, certain politicians (many of whom never served) criticize anyone who was against the Vietnam War, or more recently, anyone who opposed the Iraq War.  There's a certain irony in calling into question the patriotism of those who protest what they see as unjust wars-- I mean, if previous generations fought for our freedom, doesn't that include the freedom to peacefully protest?  But it does raise a good point:  what does Memorial Day mean, and what should it mean?  I'd like to see this day serve as a pause in the political rhetoric.  It should be a day when we unite as Americans to thank those who served.

I especially think we should honor the families of veterans:  many wives (and these days, many husbands, as more women serve in the military) and many kids have endured long separations from the people they loved while those men and women were serving their country.  There are some excellent, and non-partisan, organizations that work to help military families, and many of these organizations need volunteers as well as donations.  I also believe we need to do much more to support those veterans who came home suffering from mental and physical illnesses:  again, putting politics aside, this is a problem that has been worsening for a number of years and cannot be blamed on any one president.  We are especially lacking in services for women vets:  an excellent article in the Boston Globe notes the unique struggles of women who served; it also notes that a recent bill that would have increased much-needed services was killed by the Senate, a move I don't find very patriotic.     

So, on this Memorial Day, I commend the veterans who served, especially during our most difficult times. And while I may not agree with some of the wars our country has fought over the years, it is an indisputable fact that serving in the military is rarely easy and requires a special sense of duty.  Those who served should not be victimized by harsh rhetoric and political paralysis when they come home.  What they really need is not more patriotic slogans or empty promises.  Rather, they need the opportunity to find a job (I do hope more companies will hire veterans), and the opportunity to get the medical care they need in a timely manner. Many veterans are like my father-- they don't like to talk about what they need.  But we should find out, and we should try to provide it.  That, to me, is the best way to remember and celebrate our troops, whether on Memorial Day or any other day.  

Monday, May 18, 2015

When It's Difficult to Forgive

The hardest thing in the world, it seems to me, is to genuinely forgive someone.  I don't mean just saying the words because your religion demands it, or your family expects you to.   I mean genuinely letting go of the anger, the contempt, and the disgust you may feel towards the person who wronged you. I'm a former counselor and I am well aware that forgiving someone is supposed to be healthy. Holding on to rage and resentment ultimately does eat away at the person holding the grudge.  I know that.  And yet at many times in my life, I've found it difficult to forgive.

When I was in radio, during the 70s, I went up for a big job interview at a company where I really wanted to work. The guy conducting the interview was a well-known radio executive, and after a nice dinner, he invited me back to his hotel room to talk further about the opening.  I suspected nothing-- we were two professional broadcasters, and I had been in hotel rooms many times talking radio with out-of-town guests.  But when we got there, something changed. He didn't want to talk business.  He wanted to do something else.  He tried to get me to kiss him; he tried to unbutton my blouse; he tried to grab me and hold me close to him, even when I asked him to let me go.  I was able to talk my way out of the situation, but he seemed totally surprised that I wasn't flattered by his attention.  In fact, he said he could never hire anyone who didn't know how to be "nice" to him.  As you may expect, I didn't get the job.

(If you've ever watched "Mad Men," now you know why I never was able to sit through even one episode.  I couldn't watch it because I lived it. It brought back too many bad memories.) Anyway, I hated that guy for years.  I know: I should have forgiven him.  But I couldn't.  I just couldn't.

In Washington DC recently, a famous Orthodox rabbi was convicted and sentenced to seven years in jail for spying on innocent and unsuspecting women who were using the mikvah-- the ritual bath that religious women use at certain times during the month and also use as part of a religious conversion ceremony. He had installed a hidden camera to watch the women as they undressed.  Violating someone's personal privacy is disgraceful, but it's even more shameful for a rabbi to have done it.  And of course, the question was raised about whether the victims should forgive him.  I'm not sure.  There's a part of me that says now that he is being punished, it's best to move on.  But another part of me says that moving on is often easier said than done. I am sure it will take some of these women a long time to get beyond  feeling betrayed by someone they trusted, a man who claimed to be a religious leader.  I imagine the victims of pedophile priests felt the same way, even after some of the priests were arrested and sent to jail.

I believe that seeing the person who wronged you punished can certainly alleviate some (but not all) of the negative emotions.  I believe, for example, that some of the victims of the Boston Marathon Bomber are glad he got the death penalty; it might provide that elusive sense of closure.  (I must admit that, although I am generally opposed to capital punishment, in this case, I am fine about it:  that young man, who was given so many opportunities to succeed in America, not only threw it all away, but intentionally put a bomb next to a little boy and his parents, and then walked on.  And at his trial, he did not show any remorse at all.  I can't think of one good reason why such a monstrous person should get to live out the rest of his life.)  And yes, I know that some people, including some of the victims, asked that his life be spared.  They are better human beings than I am.  I don't think he should live one day longer than is absolutely necessary.  And if this had happened to my child, I am not sure I could ever forgive.

I don't know where that leaves any of us:  to forgive or not to forgive, that is the question.  First, ideally, there must be justice.   And if there can't be justice, there must be some way for the victim to let go of the pain and find a new purpose in life.  I am not equating being sexually harassed or being the victim of a voyeur with what the Marathon Bomber did.  I am simply saying that everyone who has been victimized is left with the same dilemma:  finding a way to move forward. We all know that we shouldn't let a horrible event define us.  But sometimes, that horrible event changes us in ways that are difficult to overcome.  And yet, we have to overcome it-- or else the person who tried to hurt us wins.  And if we let him win, that is the biggest injustice of all.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Let the Punishment Fit the Crime

First a disclaimer:  I am not a Tom Brady fan.  In fact, football isn't even my favorite sport-- I much prefer baseball.  But the NFL's four game suspension of Brady during the so-called "Deflate-gate" scandal seems excessively harsh to me.  And it pales in comparison to the lenient treatment given to players who assaulted their girlfriend the way Ray Rice did.  (I tweeted about that:  beat up your girlfriend, get a two game suspension; slightly deflate a football, get a four game suspension.  Okay then.)  And let's not forget Michael Vick, who ran a gambling ring, and tortured dogs-- yes I know, he ended up going to jail; but what did the NFL do about him? They welcomed him back with open arms, as far as I can tell. And don't get me started about all the teams who recently fought to sign Jameis Winston, despite his less than stellar past; accused of sexual assault, accused of theft, accused of other bad behavior, yet rewarded with a huge contract. What a country.

I am not claiming that Tom Brady is innocent.  I am not even saying he is above reproach.  But when it comes to the slightly deflated footballs, I sincerely don't know if he did this.  Even the report that came from the NFL says he "probably" was involved in deflating the balls;  but "probably" is not the same as "we can prove he did it."  In fact, the report seemed to reflect that the investigators were angry with Brady-- they were peeved that he refused to turn over his cell phone and they felt the Patriots organization did not give them sufficient cooperation.  I also understand that outside of Boston, where he's a hero, a lot of fans hate Tom Brady and they also hate the Patriots' coach, Bill Belichick.  I've heard fans say the Patriots are arrogant and that they've cheated before, so they're probably cheating now.  All of that may be true, but again, in a league where until very recently, the commissioner was fine about ignoring domestic abuse by players (until public opinion shifted), I find it hard to take the NFL seriously when it talks about the need to punish Brady to preserve the "integrity of the game."  In fact, I'd be shocked if there were no other quarterbacks who ever tried to alter the pressure of the football to make it more to their liking.  And I'd be even more shocked if there were an investigation to see whether Brady is the only QB who ever tried this.

One of the most misunderstood verses in the Bible is Exodus 21:24, about "an eye for an eye."  No, it isn't about vengeance or retaliation.  It's about making sure the punishment fits the crime.  Whether on the field or off, athletes are role models.  Ignoring players who break the law, or (until recently) giving no punishment or just a short suspension to someone who beat up his significant other sends a troubling message.  So for now, let the pile-on begin, and cue all the Brady-haters.  Yes, maybe Tom Brady does deserve to be punished... but I am still not persuaded that a four game suspension is fair.  And even if somehow the NFL becomes able to prove that Brady ordered the footballs deflated, the league still has a lot to answer for when it comes to its selective application of ethical standards.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Some Random Thoughts About Education

It's almost the end of the semester, and time for my seniors to graduate.  And that made me think of how things were when I got my own undergraduate degree, back in 1969.  College was very different back then-- and at the risk of seeming to miss the "good old days" (believe me, I do not miss them), I have to say the courses were more difficult, and there was much more reading of books and journal articles.  That was partly because it was still the pre-internet era, before so much material was digitized.  There was no easy or instant way to get the information needed to pass the course, so students actually went to the library to study and do research.  Although the culture was changing throughout the 60s, the educational experience remained somewhat formal.  Some schools still had a dress code, and coming to class looking like you were heading for the beach was frowned upon.  Students were rarely on a first-name basis with professors; and if I disagreed with a grade my professor gave me, I could not imagine arguing about it (or demanding a better grade because of how hard I had tried).  And rightly or wrongly, most courses still centered around the professor's lectures: there were some discussions now and then, but the common wisdom was that the professor was the expert, so we were expected to listen and benefit from his or her knowledge.  And speaking of professors, most of the ones I had were core faculty:  there were a few part-time or adjunct professors, but the majority were full-time educators.

So much has changed since 1969.  Some of it is positive:  I used to be frustrated sitting in endless classes where the professor lectured and students sat silently taking notes.  I'm glad that today, I can engage my students in discussion and debate.  Yes, I still give class lectures, and I hope my students believe I have some expertise.  But learning is no longer just a top-down exercise, with the teacher as authority and the students as note-takers.  Today, students can participate, rather than sitting passively.  And I'm also okay about the classroom being less formal.  Yes, I still expect courtesy and I like students to arrive on time. But I'm not troubled by being called Donna ("Auntie Donna" is more common), although those who want to call me Professor can do that too. (Interestingly, it's often the students from other countries who still prefer to use the formal title.)  And unlike when I went to school, a time when current events were rarely discussed in class and there were many taboo subjects, I am able to engage my students in a wide range of topics, and various perspectives are welcome. (Contrary to what my conservative friends seem to believe, not every student is a liberal, nor would I expect them to be.)

But some of the changes have been negative, or somewhat mixed.  I've mentioned before that the internet falls into the "mixed blessing" category:  it does make doing research faster, but many students prefer the quick answer rather than taking the time to find the best answer.  Many students seem to have shorter and shorter attention spans; they expect education to be entertaining (kind of like a grown up version of Sesame Street), and they really dislike having to read an article that is densely written or one that requires thorough analysis.  (Critics like Nicholas Carr have pointed out that many students don't read articles all the way through-- because they mainly read online, they become easily distracted, especially when an article has links to other articles-- they click on the link and never return to the original piece.)  And from observing them trying to surreptitiously send text messages or or check email during class (yes I do notice), I must say that many of today's students seem addicted to their smartphones.

In the negative category, more and more universities rely on part-time or adjunct instructors, who are paid less and often have to work at three or four colleges to make enough money to pay their bills. Also a pet peeve of mine is the outrageously high costs of textbooks.  As consolidation has affected the textbook industry, with fewer companies dominating the market, the prices have gone up dramatically (and no, those of us who write them are not paid any more money, even though writing a textbook is very time-consuming).  Some required texts sell for as much as $100 each, making them difficult for many students to afford.  I am also troubled by the number of students who truly believe they should get an "A" and are very upset when they don't. 

But one thing hasn't changed:  every year around this time, students who started college four or five years ago are ready to graduate and go out into the world. My hope as a professor is that I've given them useful information and made them think.  (Judging from their term papers, that seems to be the case for most of them, and that makes me feel good.)  This is not an easy time to be an educator-- a subject I will discuss some other day.  But truth be told, it's probably not an easy time to be a student either.  Yet, somehow my seniors got through it, and so did their professors, myself among them.  And even though college is very different now from how it was when I attended in the 60s, it's still an amazing feeling to finally get that diploma.  So, congratulations to all my seniors:  I'm proud of what you accomplished, and I hope this will only be the beginning of what you achieve in your life!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Rooting for "None of the Above"

I've been a sports fan ever since I was a kid.  I especially loved baseball, but followed nearly every major pro sport-- in fact, there was a time when I thought about becoming a sportswriter, even though back in the 1950s, girls were discouraged from that occupation. I remember my first time seeing the Red Sox play at Fenway Park when I was about ten years old:  the seats weren't great, but just being there was exciting.  And I remember watching the Boston Celtics practice-- the building where I attended Sunday School was called the Hecht House, and it was like a community center, with a gym that athletes could use.  I am probably going to hell for admitting this, but I used to sneak out of religion class (I said I had to use the rest room) so I could spend a couple of minutes watching Tommy Heinsohn, Bob Cousy, and the other Celtics greats shooting hoops.

It was a simpler era.  Ballplayers were not multi-billionaires, tickets were affordable, and players stuck around with the same team for years, so fans developed a loyalty to them.  I understand that even then, some players drank too much or gambled or cheated on their wife, but rightly or wrongly, the sports reporters didn't discuss any of that. They focused on who was winning and who was losing, who was setting records, who was having a disappointing year, and who was probably going to get traded.

These days, we live in a world of too much information, where every scandal (or every rumor, verified or not) is tweeted or posted on a gossip website.  Today, we know who is cheating, who is a domestic abuser, who got arrested for DUI, who probably uses steroids.  Players come and go, and few remain loyal to one team:  owners and players are all about business, and the "bottom line" comes ahead of fan loyalty.  Maybe it was all about business even when I was growing up, but somehow it didn't seem that way--  some athletes genuinely seemed to enjoy playing for a certain team and did what they could to stay in that city.  As I said, it was a simpler era.

On Saturday night, as most of the world knows, there was a major boxing match, between Floyd Mayweather, who has a documented history of domestic abuse against women; and Manny Pacquiao, an inspirational figure in the Philippines but also someone who has made homophobic remarks, and as a legislator, has championed laws to prevent people in his country from getting access to birth control.  (For more about both of these men and their attitude towards women, here's a good article:

I know that I have a minority view about the fight, but I couldn't get enthusiastic about it.  In fact, I found myself not knowing which fighter to root for-- and I finally tweeted that I couldn't really root for either one.  Yet, that didn't stop millions of fans from watching, paying outrageous amounts to get Pay Per View, and paying equally outrageous amounts to attend in person.  The fight was a who's who of celebrities, none of whom seemed bothered by the fact that both men are very flawed as human beings.

Okay fine, it's sports; it's entertainment.  It's not Sunday School, and it's not a class in ethics.  People root for their favorites because of what these athletes do on the field or in the ring.  And yet, as talented as they may be as fighters, it still seems wrong to make heroes out of either of them.  I mean, which one do you prefer:  a man who is unapologetic about assaulting women, or a man who believes that even the poorest of the poor must never be allowed to use family planning?  It's hard to choose between them, but fans seemed to have no problem with any of it.  According to Politifact, "Ticket sales topped $74 million (more than the Super Bowl), organizers said, and another 3 million people were expected to fork over $100 to watch the fight at home. Add in other sources of revenue and Saturday’s event was projected to generate an estimated $400 million."

I keep thinking about how many better ways our society could spend $400 million.  There are people going hungry, people who are homeless through no fault of their own, kids who attend school in old or crumbling buildings... and in too many countries, children have to drop out of school (or not attend at all) because they can't afford the school fees. And I keep thinking that the winner, Floyd Mayweather, is now the highest paid professional athlete in the world, according to Forbes Magazine.  I grew up in an era when kids looked up to athletes and even idolized them.  They were seen as role models of hard work and fair play.  But how do today's parents explain someone like Mayweather to their kids?  Or is the fact that he is so rich seen as something admirable?  I'm not sure how to process what happened last night, or why so many people seemed so excited about it.   Perhaps I'm missing the point, and perhaps someone can explain it to me.  But for now, all I can do is repeat that the entire event (and the fact that it generated so much money) seems utterly bizarre.