Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Parental Pride

(News-Herald, October 2002) I had the pleasure of visiting with young Keegan Hoover last weekend (I believe that his parents were in the vicinity as well). Keegan is one of those rare babies who’s actually as cute as his parents believe him to be. Walking him around the yard until he fell asleep in my arms reminded me of how much I liked the whole baby part of parenting.
I still have fond memories of the days when my non-mobile daughter could sleep in an open suitcase. I have equally fond memories of having my son fall asleep lying on my chest. I remain, to this day, a sucker for babies.
I also liked the toddler stage, the stage at which they were so free and open and just a big bundle of raw, exposed heart. At this age everyone can dance; I videotaped my children dancing decorum-free to their two favorite tunes of the time (“Walk the Dinosaur” by Was (Not Was) and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”). The only people who will enjoy that sight as much as I do will be my future grandchildren-- the invention of the home video camera brought a quantum leap in the art of embarrassing your children.
I have always said that as much as I miss the previous stage, and call it my favorite so far, the next stage is always even more fun. In the last six months, I have discovered my children entering a new and even more remarkable stage. You experienced parents may recognize it; those of you trundling along behind me can look forward to it.
This stage involves a change in a dynamic that has existed since birth. That dynamic is simple. Let’s face it; only one baby in a hundred is actually cute. Most newborns range in appearance from “hairless ape” to “mildly alarming” to “cute as a sharpe that’s been squeezed through a garden hose.” But that’s just the objective view, and no one who’s related to the baby takes it. My two children were the most beautiful babies that I have ever seen, and nothing will ever change that.
Parents of small infants don’t need cable because they can sit and watch their progeny’s face for hours. Every expression is exciting, moving, hilarious, touching. Refrigerator art is an unending source of joy because you are seeing the expression, the creation, of your own flesh and blood.
You remember how this small person in front of you once fit between your palm and the crook of your elbow, and pretty much anything they do is astonishing. You are proud of every achievement because that is your child who has done it. Some parents become stuck at that stage and become insufferable (“Junior was the best looking person in the police line-up!”) though I would rather see that parent than one who simply ceases to feel any pride at all.
Beyond that level of pride lies an even better one.
You notice it first when other people begin to compliment your child. It takes a while to sink in—at first you mistake it for politeness, an effort to praise your child as a kindness to you. But then you realize that these people are praising your child’s achievements for reasons completely unrelated to you. It has become all about your child’s achievement.
So you look at your own children and realize that they are capable, able, admirable human beings in their own right, completely apart from any connection to you.
We should not be slow to feel pride for our children—not the kind of pride that reflects back on us, but which spotlights them. I think it’s a mistake to view young people as threatening creatures that need to be kept off the streets night and day. I have been proud of many people’s children over the years: the ones who traveled abroad to learn about the suffering in other cultures, the ones who learned how to run a successful business, the ones who stumbled and fell and found their way, the ones who grew up strong and good. I am not proud of them because they are somehow mine (they never were) or because I somehow made them better people (they found that in themselves) but because I feel a sort of humble awed pride in seeing what great people they have become.
It has been a great revelation to feel that while looking at my own children, to discover they have grown to be fine people. They have grown into people I would be proud to know if I had just met them today. It is the best stage of parenting so far. May all other parents be so fortunate.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Air Traveler Dysfunction

(News-Herald, March 26) My daughter came home last week, having completed the great trans-continental commute once again. My family has logged more air miles in the last couple of years than in all the preceding decades.
When I’m at PIT it’s usually to meet someone who is coming in after 11 at night, which means there are only a couple handfuls of flights arriving at the same time. PIT late at night is a quiet, quiet place. I made better-than-average time on my late-night cruise to the Pittsburgh airport, so I had plenty of opportunity to think about air travel as I rattled around that empty slice of concrete realty.
The effects that rippled out from 9/11 have been discussed at great length, but I’m not sure we’ve heard much about one group that must have been hurt badly in these high-security years—the people who built shops and restaurants on the wrong side of the security fence.
PIT has a great little mall. How many families must have dropped a bundle waiting to see someone off in the old days? Now those days are gone.
Some airports have been hit harder than others. If you’re a traveler, PIT and Philadelphia and Denver are all pretty nice on the inside with plenty of good places to eat and shop. Denver looks a lot like the inside of Pittsburgh, only strung out in one long cardiac-inducing stretch. Chicago has a really cool light sculpture underground. Las Vegas has a nice view and plenty of gambling right in the terminal while you wait, just in case you don’t feel the airlines have sucked up enough of your money.
No airport I’ve seen has been ravaged as badly as Los Angeles. LAX has been turned from a neatly-arranged airport complex into a mess of seven separate terminals. Heaven help you if you are connecting through LAX and have to change airlines—you must leave the airport and come back in through security which, depending on the airline, can be a horrific mess.
Airline service can be as predictable as a roll of the dice. Last Friday we waited with my daughter’s fellow-travelers as the luggage was unloaded by, apparently, one arthritic old gentleman whose prosthetic arm was nailed to his wooden leg.
One would think that baggage handling has become a simpler line of work since travelers now routinely try to jam the contents of a small U-Haul trailer into the overhead compartment, the better to avoid the additional costs for checking any luggage larger than a toothbrush.
The attempt to avoid checking luggage has led to larger loading stampedes. Everyone’s seat is already assigned, but there is only so much room in those overhead compartments, and travelers are determined to get every last family jewel jammed into that space.
Airports are not the place to see the milk of human kindness rise to the surface. Air travel seems to give an extra boost to that part of the human brain that believes that other people are not real and need not be considered. It’s no wonder that terrorists can blend into an airport crowd; on an airplane, almost everyone is a possible sociopath.
My son is large and imposing-looking and in his trips other travelers seem reluctant to mess with him. When they traveled together, he was the one-man flying wedge that carried his sister and himself to the next gate through crowds of people (unconscious, as only a terminal-dweller can be, that the space they occupied had any purpose other than for them to stand and stare blankly). This is good, because my daughter, who is now a graduate student, has been mistaken more than once for a high school freshman (“Aren’t you brave to travel alone,” cooed one kind elderly lady just last week.)
The rudeness of fellow-travelers, combined with the odd combination of frantic rushing with tedious waiting, can be a great economic booster for the flying biz. Getting home a few hours later can seem like a great way to save money until you are sitting in a terminal for interminable hours over a brain-numbing paperback novel—that’s when an extra fifty bucks to get home at a decent hour seems like a wise investment.
I can imagine the perfect marketing strategy for flights out of Franklin. After someone drags the car to PIT, parks it and contemplates the cost of leaving it there, struggles through security, and is jostled through that massive concrete cave by surly selfish travelers—that’s the time to hit him with the sign saying, “NOW does it seem too expensive??”

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Teacher Strikes

(News-Herald, March 19) We’ve heard a long series of rumblings out of Cranberry School District about the state of teacher contract negotiations. Nobody likes to think about a teacher strike, but from out here in the cheap seats, it doesn’t seem unlikely.
Cranberry’s approach to teachers has always been puzzling. Given the most robust tax base in Venangoland, CASD could easily declare that they were going to become the premiere district of the region, a drawing card for new residents and growing economy, by upping their teacher pay just enough to outbid every other area district for the best teacher talent. Nobody sells a community with, “Come here. Our schools always get the last pick of teachers looking for jobs.”
(Before anyone asks why I pick on other school districts while never going after the one where I work, the answer is that my bosses and I are contractually bound to avoid picking on each other in public.)
I’ve some experience with the strike route—I was the president of the Franklin Teachers Association when we struck in 2002—so I can pass on a little of what I learned.
Teachers do not strike easily. As a group, we are big on behaving ourselves and following the rules. Yes, there are always some out front of the pack looking fairly agitated. But before anyone hits a picket line, there are many many meetings involving a hundred variations on “Isn’t there something else we could do instead??”
As with any high-charged time of stress and conflict, you have some choice about your opponents, but you can’t choose your friends. This is often unfortunate for both parties.
Some folks are surprised that teachers take some of this stuff personally. Those folks should not be surprised. Teachers identify closely with their jobs; for most of us, “teacher” is part of our identity. It’s not a suit of clothes we put for work; it’s our skin. If you say things like, “That’s just not a very important job,” we take it personally.
For many teachers, the hardest part of tough contract negotiations is confronting how little some people think of our lives’ work. It can be tough to be told repeatedly that your job is stupid and unimportant, or to face someone who is angry because you won’t just do as you’re told, as if you’re an unruly servant who insists on speaking even when not spoken to.
At the same time, teachers can get so caught up in our own work universe that we forget the universe that surrounds it. Invariably some teacher will trot out a comment like, “Do you know how much a teacher is paid in Mount Lebanon?!” The only appropriate response to that is, “Do you know how much a house costs in Mount Lebanon? Or groceries?” Venangoland-style teacher pay and benefits are not great compared to other corners of the universe, but we don’t live and work in other corners of the universe. We live and work here.
Every contract dispute gives rise to teachers who want massive raises plus ice cream on Sundays, as well as taxpayers who think that teachers should be paid no more than a fast food cashier. Both groups need a reality check.
A board may try to splinter a union into warring factions, or agitate the community. Sometimes it works. But it’s a short-sighted tactic; once the contract is settled, that splintered staff has to work with each other and the community to keep schools successful.
Both sides can get too heated. During our strike, we picketed board members’ homes. Heat of the moment and all that—I won’t make excuses, and I can only speak for myself. But that was a mistake; that was wrong.
And that great old line “This is our final offer” is just dumb. The final offer will be the one that both sides sign.
Teachers need to use PSEA expertise and experience, just as boards need to use PSBA. But those groups can only advise, and they will never know your community—where you will still live and work after a contract—as well as you do.
An unsettled contract is not a contest to be won; that’s why the best solution is a contract that both sides have reasons to dislike. An unsettled contract is a problem to solve, a problem that they share. The most important thing for all parties to remember is this: when the contract is eventually settled, everyone will still have to live and work together.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lenten Reflection

(News-Herald, March 12) We’re now in the midst of Lent, a season that the Christian church has observed since almost its very beginnings.
Of course, people are commonly familiar with Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) as a celebration of pre-Lenten excess. The idea is to indulge one last time before entering a season of self-sacrifice. In typical human fashion, we have an easier time remembering the over-indulgence part.
The term “lent” comes from the old Germanic name for springtime, and while many of us are a little fuzzy about the purpose, the general list of Things To Do includes fasting, penitence, simplicity, and self-denial in an attempt to grow in faith, a little spiritual spring cleaning. It’s not supposed to be like a New Years resolution with an expiration date.
When Lent is observed by folks who don’t put much thought into the whole business, it ends up being like the worst relationship therapy session ever.
Therapist: We’ve agreed that the relationship between the two of you is kind of a mess, and I thought today we’d talk about how far you’re willing to go to set things right.
God: Well, I thought I could take the form of a mortal human, setting aside my power over all creation, and then suffer a horrible death to pay for sins I never actually committed.
Mortal Human: I figured I could go a month without eating Twinkies.
I’m not sure you get any big credit for giving up things you shouldn’t be doing anyway. “I gave up robbing little old ladies for Lent,” doesn’t sound all that virtuous. Likewise, no fair giving up things that you haven’t actually gotten around to doing. I get no points for a Lenten decision not to sleep with Carmen Electra.
And we’re not just supposed to give something up. Part of the Lenten tradition is almsgiving—contributing to charity, helping the less fortunate. If I take all the money I would have spent on Twinkies and buy a few cases of Ding Dongs instead, I’ve missed part of the point. That Twinkie money should go to a good cause.
Not everyone is a fan of Lent. Many hard-core Protestant denominations find the whole business entirely too Catholic Churchy, while in modern times many churches rejected the season as too heavy on guilt and sin and just generally too much of a downer. The ashes of Ash Wednesday are about 1) being mortal and destined to die and 2) being sorry that we have behaved so poorly in our brief lifetime. Neither observation will make you the life of the party.
Which may be why this is a good year for remembering Lent—there’s not much of a party going on right now. I don’t have any deep analysis of the current mess other than economic messes are always hard to sort out because they involve some hard-to-quantify combination of real problems pushing people over the edge and people just freaking out and jumping.
Nor am I fan of cheery sayings like “Tough times don’t last; tough people do.” Too chirpy, too glib, and not always true. But I do like Easter, and one lesson I take from Easter is that life can get pretty rotten and scary, but that’s no excuse to stop trying to be a decent human being.
Lent provides a nice prelude to that, a chance to remember that we can give up some of our toys and still be ourselves, maybe even more so. Take away our uber-expensive stuff, and it turns out we’re the same people we ever were. Just with less stuff.
Occasionally circumstances can snap us out of our privileged complacency. We see people who suffer real catastrophes or catastrophic lapses in judgment. Watching people soldier on through disaster reminds us that A) mostly we suffer not at all and B) there but for the grace of God…
But there’s no reason to wait for circumstances to remind us of our humanity. A good dose of pancakes and ashes can be an occasion to remember that other people exist, that we all share some troubles, and we could stand to get over ourselves. The oddly encouraging thing about remembering that we aren’t all that great is realizing that we aren’t all that bad, either.
I don’t mean to suggest that real suffering isn’t hard and painful. But forty days of self-denial can help us rediscover gratitude, strength and empathy for our fellow strugglers.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Winter Sports Champion Season

(News-Herald, March 5)It’s championship season in PA high school sports, the season that captures the most attention from local fans. I like the winter sports. By which I mean the high school versions. I still occasionally try to enjoy professional sports, but endless seasons of contests between squads of over-privileged millionaires battling in allegiance to whoever is writing their next fat check don’t really send me. I know that there’s a trickle down effect, that some high school athletes are already motivated by dreams of future big fat paychecks of their own. But mostly high school sports can show you a lot about the human heart, striving and pushing to achieve.
I like basketball because of the team factor. The most exciting teams are just that—teams. It’s a fast-paced version of the part of life that is all about fitting together, working together, finding a connection and rhythm as a group.
There’s also a certain random suspense. Whether the team is hot or cold, fast or slow, in synch or out—on any given night, just about any team can beat just about any other team. And because you can have a direct effect on your opponents, it reveals character—how far will you go? Will you fight with class, back down, or become a thug?
Swimming, on the other had, is interesting because of the absence of those factors. Swimmers are great students of each other. Basketball players may have game films, but swimmers go on line day after day, checking results, looking at records, memorizing times. When a swimmer steps into a pool, he already know exactly what his opponents are capable of—and there isn’t a thing he can do to stop them.
So the best swimmers know how to dig down and extract every last molecule of grit, because the only obstacles they can control are the ones inside themselves. Swimmers know more ways to play mental tricks on themselves than any other athletes.
The sport I don’t attend as often as I ought to is wrestling. And I’m not the only one. Wrestling is the most woefully under-appreciated high school sport we have.
The physical demands are enormous, and they are immediate. Swimmers have no direct combat with their opponents at all. A basketball player has to fight an opponent for control of a ball and some space on the court. A wrestler has to fight another person for control of his own body.
That’s not easy. Spectators often question why the wrestler didn’t just hook his foot back a bit farther, or grab the leg that was right there. What you forget, if you didn’t have a larger sibling or at least haven’t been beaten up by him in a few years, is that it’s hard to know exactly where everyone’s arms and legs are when all you can see if the floor that your face is mushed into.
Wrestling has enormous mental demands as well (the common assumption is that wrestlers are the dim bulbs in the scholar-athlete chandelier, which is just not right—Franklin’s Cory Ace, for one, was as smart as any student I’ve ever taught). There’s no hiding on the mat, nothing for the crowd to see but you. Other sports certainly have moments of solitary struggle, but for a wrestler, that’s all there is. Other sports offer a full field of spectacle—in wrestling there are just two guys out on the mat.
And while outcomes aren’t as clearly fore-ordained as in swimming, many wrestlers have to walk onto that mat knowing that they’re facing someone stronger who is likely to make them look helpless in front of a full gym. Certainly guts, commitment and heart can be important in all high school sports, but I can’t imagine how a wrestler could hope to succeed at all without them.
Maybe that’s why more people don’t go to wrestling matches. In basketball, there a hundreds reason to lose. In swimming, the action goes on separately, impersonally, side by side. But wrestlers lose in each other’s faces. It’s raw. Watching a wrestler get badly beaten can be like seeing a singers step forward for a big solo and botching it badly—your gut twists in embarrassment, even when you know there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
The unfortunate part of post-season play is the guarantee that most athletes play until they end their seasons, or careers, with a loss. Even so, I hope each athlete (and families and friends) take the opportunity to look back at the season with pride.

From my Flickr