Monday, December 31, 2012


It's humbling to see so many Facebook statuses about how 2012 was the worst year ever when, for me, it was easily the greatest year of my life.  It certainly wasn't without its low points but the high ones were so high that they all but eradicated their counterpoints.  In some ways, a few of my worst fears were realized in 2012: I had my first severe anxiety relapse in almost six years; Heather and I had arguably the single nastiest fight of our ten years together; my son endured not one but two health scares, one of which had us in the hospital for the second time in seven months (the first being back in 2011); and I saw my neighborhood--the place where I grew up, where my father grew up and HIS father--eighty years of Benecke history brought to its knees because of a freak weather phenomenon. 

In all of these things, though, I found something positive--some new strength that hadn't been there before: I had lived in fear for years of dealing with anxiety again because it nearly took my life and so, when it finally came around again, I was at first fearful...but I found something commingling with that terror--something that wasn't there in the past: defiance.  Indignation of a sort--a haughty disgust with the fact that this thing was trying to control me.  This time around, I decided to take control of the situation and I navigated my way through the dark waters on my own...and came out unscathed on the other side. 

From this, I garnered strength and confidence.

My fight with my wife was over something stupid and was meaningless in the landscape of our relationship but, because it happened in front of our son, it brought about the realization of a fear that I've had since I was a child.  Some of the worst moments of my childhood involved my parents fighting and I swore to myself that I would never treat my wife that way, especially not in front of or in earshot of my children.  That day in the car though, with me screaming at Heather, her screaming at me, and Timmy screaming at both of us, I felt the terror that nearly every adult feels in similar moments: I was afraid that I was becoming my father (and his father and so on).  In an instant, everything that I had worked towards--every Benecke male trait that I had tried to change, every moment of anger and rage quelled--seemed meaningless: wasted.  In a way, I felt like Bruce Banner fighting back the beast within him only instead of a Hulk of unimaginable strength taking over, it was shame and defeat. 

Then, through the haze, my wife's voice appeared: "You are not like him."  Magically, the fight ended and the conversation shifted.  I realized for the first time that she was right--that what I was feeling was what everyone else felt.  It didn't make me like my father: it made me human.

From this, I found hope and redemption.

My son's health scares began October 29th, 2011--the night of the "Snowpocalypse."  We had been sitting with candles lit as the storm raged outside, having already knocked the power out.  We played cards at the table while he sat with us, going first from one parent and then to the other.  He seemed uncharacteristically warm and listless and so we thought he might be coming down with something.  He fell asleep on Heather and so we figured that we'd let him rest, especially since it seemed like he needed it.  I went downstairs to use the bathroom and, barely a few minutes later, I heard her coming down the stairs; I knew right away that something was wrong.  He had suddenly started convulsing and was completely unresponsive.  To make a long story short, we called an ambulance and he and Heather headed off to the hospital while I drove myself over in our car; I will never forget that drive for as long as I live.  Saying nothing for the ice, snow, tree branches, and power lines that were scattered across the road like an expert difficulty level in a racing game nor for the traffic lights that were out at every intersection along Victory Boulevard, I was more scared than I had ever been in my entire life.  I've had more than a few terrifying moments that ran the gamut from a fear of going crazy to losing our brakes coming down a 14,000 foot mountain in Colorado but there was no question: it was the single scariest night of my life.

Fast-forward to the Friday before Mother's Day weekend.  An eerie recurrence of circumstances occurred: the power was inexplicably out two days before a holiday and Timmy had been sick.  Needless to say, that morning, my spider sense went off and I woke up, rolled over, and found him seizing next to me.  Once more, we called an ambulance and spent a few harrowing hours at the hospital.  This time, though, I faced a different sort of terror: that of the hospital/medical system.  During the first episode, we found out that he was susceptible to febrial seizures and had more people checking in on us than I can count; in short, it was the ideal hospital trip.  The second time--the one earlier this year--was almost equally but oppositely bad.  Tim had been sick and had obviously had a fever at the time of his seizure.  We put him in a cold bath--too cold, as I would come to realize--in an attempt to lower his temperature.  Perhaps because of this or maybe just poor technique, when we arrived at the hospital, someone took Timmy's temperature.  It was something ridiculous like 96 degrees.  I pointed out to the woman that this was ludicrous and that he had been feverish prior to leaving the house and thus requested a second temperature.  She blew me off and said that we would have to wait an hour before they would take it again.  When it WAS taken, it was slightly over 100.  Because this still wasn't technically a fever, the nurse didn't want to listen to me when I told her that it was another febrial seizure; I know that's ironic--me telling a medical professional what was what, but sometimes common sense trumps technical knowledge.  Needless to say, she was saying that they were going to have to admit Timmy and set him up with blood tests, a CAT scan, and possibly an MRI.  I knew that it was insane and managed to talk her down and request another temperature reading in a half an hour based upon the facts that a) he would have been almost hypothermic if his temperature really HAD been 96 degrees despite the fact that his lips weren't blue/purple and he didn't feel cold at all and b) if it HAD been 96 degrees then that meant his body temperature had risen almost five full degrees in barely an hour.

Fortunately, thirty minutes later, his temperature was nearly 102 degrees, the tests were called off, anti-fever medication was administered, and, a few hours beyond that, we were on our way home.  What I learned from that experience was invaluable because, had we simply stood back and let the "process" handle itself, we likely would have had one very traumatized child on our hands.

From that, I learned to trust my instincts where my child is concerned.

The one unifying characteristic of these negative events sums up the theme of 2012 for me: taking control.  In all three instances, I took control of a situation that I had initially led myself to believe was beyond my ability to influence and I culled something positive out of it while simultaneously asserting myself; after all, I am the master of my fate--the captain of my soul.

That was easily the biggest change that I saw in myself.  Don't get me wrong--I've always been a take-charge type of person but with certain situations or circumstances, I would clam up--try to ride it out or turn a blind eye in an attempt to hope that it would take care of itself.  Somewhere along the way in 2012, though, I realized that that was simply no way to live.  We get one crack at life for all we know but certainly one shot at this one...and isn't this the one that matters?  Of course it is!  It's the only thing we can be 100% certain of because we are here now.  I decided that it wasn't worth wasting another second on anything that detracted from my enjoyment of my life. 

If it no longer worked for me then I changed it.

If there's only one thing worth repeating it's that: we are all in control of our own lives.  You know what the biggest consequence of that is?  That it means we are also responsible for everything in our lives.  I know I'm good and goddamned tired of hearing people bitch about the things they can easily change but I've also come to realize that, in a manner of speaking, these same people are avoiding the shit out of that responsibility.  They're either too afraid or unwilling to take the helm and would rather allow themselves to be controlled by whatever it is that seems to torture them so.

Your mother/father/brother/sister/friend/etc. bring you nothing but pain?  Then cut them out!  If you had a growth on your body that caused you physical pain would you keep picking at it and then turning away or would you go and get it removed?  Exactly.

You hate your job/career?  Then find a new one!  "There are no jobs out there."  Then plot an exit route for when there are jobs--just stop being so goddamn miserable!

You hate where you're at in your life?  Well complaining about it certainly hasn't gotten anything accomplished, now has it?  Take a good long critical look at yourself, figure out what's wrong, and FIX IT.

Now, in many instances, the things that are causing us pain are circumstances rather than life elements--in other words, things beyond our control.  The most obvious of these situations is the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  There are still people without power and without heat, living in homes that are growing more dangerous each day.  Their reality isn't going to change simply because they close their eyes and make it so.

Sorry, Chris Rock, but everything didn't get fixed during the concert.  Asshole.

With that said, here's the most important unsolicited advice I can give: none of us can control our circumstances--we can control only our reactions to those environments and life moments.  A surprisingly few number of people have done nothing but complain (on Facebook at least) about their lives post-Sandy but there will invariably be the Debbie Downers, the "Why me? I didn't deserve this!" crowd but, thankfully, their voices are being quieted by the rest who aren't saying anything at all.  These are the people too busy rebuilding their lives to stop for a moment and bitch.  Sure, everyone is entitled to those moments of weakness--those instances where we feel wholly overwhelmed and unsure of whether or not we can even endure whatever it is we face for another second.  But there's a hideous beauty in those moments--something that comes, much to my amazement, from another person.  Sometimes that's all it takes--a hand on your shoulder from someone who's been there and survived or who's going through the exact same thing as the exact same time that you are.  It serves as a reminder that suffering is temporary, as long as that time period might seem.  While we were enduring Sandy, there were people lounging on beaches throughout the tropics, sipping on colorful drinks with tiny umbrellas sticking out of them; there are still people doing that while here, the reality is what it is. 

The point is that circumstances change and we are rarely an influence over the speed or timing with which that happens.  Control what you can and fuck everything and everyone else.  Keep one foot in front of the other and never, not ever think that you can't come through the other side of whatever it is that you're going through a better person--a stronger one.  Whether it's my neighbors, friends, and family who are still picking up the pieces after the storm, folks dealing with personal health scares, people who are being held beneath the thumb of some oppressive condition be it professional, romantic, or otherwise, it doesn't matter because the reality is the same: you'll make it through.

We're all stronger than we think. 

We're all responsible for our reactions to the things in our lives.

We all have the power to make ourselves happier--to better our situations even when our circumstances seem impossible to overcome.

Thanks 2012 for helping me figure that out.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Six Things That Piss Me Off When I'm Out Bike Riding

So after a few aggravating episodes whilst out for a bike ride, I decided finally to vent my frustrations here.  I mean, what better way to end the month of August than with a little misanthropy, eh?  Anyway, below are a few things that people do on bike paths that piss me off and simultaneously make me question the validity of Darwin's postulation about the survival of the fittest (obviously if these people keep seeing sunrises and sunsets, there must be something awry in said theory).


The last time I checked, there hasn't been a biological holocaust nor has some epic world war wiped out the global population.  As such, you, person who rides slowly in the middle of the path, are not the only person left alive.  With that said, there is a statistically significant probability that, at some point, SOMEONE ELSE will appear magically behind you and wish to pass.  Were you to follow the so-called "rules of the road" (more on that in a moment), then there wouldn't be an issue.  Since you're electing to be a douche, however, you force the other rider(s) a) to slow their progress, b) to take evasive defensive riding maneuvers, and c) to shout out to your dumb ass to try to get your attention.

See, the frustrating part is that there is a logical chain here that would render this issue moot if people only made the synapse connections.  Riding a bike is more like a car than walking simply because a) it is a machine and b) you can easily reach speeds that a car can match but not a runner.  Ergo, bike riders should follow the same rules of driving.  Think of it this way: if a bike path is like a roadway, then you can imagine that the center of said path is just like the double yellow lines on said roadway.  I would like to think that most people don't drive along the yellow lines and opt instead to stay to one side (usually the one on the right, at least in the United States).  This ensures that you won't collide with other drivers/riders and it renders your progress both safe and predictable (predictability being a requisite part of safe travel whilst driving/riding).  Following the "keep right, pass left" imperative that most states employ makes the whole thing even easier because it removes the guesswork on the part of the person looking to pass.  If, however, you're listing slowly from one side to the other, you're more like an intoxicated driver, which, by its very nature, is unpredictable (thus increasing the danger factor exponentially).

Bottom line: stay the fuck to one side!


I shit you not, the other day I was riding along the Henry Hudson Trail when I saw a kid coming towards me on a bike.  He was riding with one hand and with the other he was texting with his face about a foot away from the phone.  As he rode, he started to veer right towards me.  If I had been able to think more quickly, I would've just moved out of the way and let the fucker crash into a tree but instead I gave him a deep-throated "YO," which, unsurprisingly, startled the shit out of him.

Seriously?  WHILE YOU'RE RIDING A GODDAMN BIKE!?  I think it's people like this kid (and the others that I've seen) that make me doubt Darwin the most.  I can only pray for some sort of strange malignancy that affects people who text and drive/ride without causing any harm to the rest of us.

Bottom line: please don't procreate.

I'm all about sharing the path with pedestrians but there's a reason there are designated lanes for pedestrians and for cyclists.  I used to HATE riding along the beach in Staten Island because it never failed that people would walk on the wrong path.  There's a reason there is an enormous depiction of a person on a bike painted onto the fucking path, assholes!  Aside from the fact that, when there is a pedestrian path, it's usually on some sort of walkway/roadway that also has an enormous, undesignated stretch that is unofficially for pedestrians in the first place.  So basically, cyclists get approximately three feet of asphalt while walkers get the remaining ninety-plus percent.  And then they have the balls to cop an attitude when you chide them for walking in the ONE PLACE SET ASIDE FOR BIKE RIDERS!

At least with those people, you can call out and let them know that you're behind them.  The worst ones are the people wearing headphones (whether they're walking or riding a bike, and particularly on smaller shared paths like the Henry Hudson Trail) because they can't hear you!  Invariably, when you pass them, they have this insanely overdramatic reaction of shock and surprise, which is often followed with some sort of expletive or commentary, regardless of how far away you are from them when you pass.  Don't get me wrong--I've seen some real pricks who will buzz them as they pass just to drive home the point and, frankly, they're even bigger assholes than the headphone-wearers.

Bottom line: pay attention to where you're walking!


Listen, I get that you're out for a stroll/ride with your friends or family and you're looking to enjoy that camaraderie as you go, but how inconsiderate do you have to be to walk in a goddamn chorus line where you're taking up the entire path so that no one can pass you?  There's no reason for it, especially since the third person is probably an unwanted, superfluous wheel who was only invited out of pity in the first place!  You're on a shared, public pathway, not some private thoroughfare!  It's a bike path, not the goddamn yellow-brick road and you brain dead assholes sure as hell aren't on your way to see the wizard.

Bottom line: share the road!


This one applies mostly to other cyclists but there are plenty of pedestrians who do it too.  Why in God's good name do you feel compelled to take a break or to make some sort of pitstop IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PATH!?  Pull the fuck over to the side!  I'm a defensive rider in general, which is a good thing because about twenty minutes after I almost got hit by the kid on the cell phone, I reached a blind curve and had my spider sense go off.  Two assholes decided to take a break RIGHT around the bend and RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PATH!  One guy's straddling his bike, sipping some water and the other jerkoff has his bike laid down on path and he's sitting next to it!  There were grass embankments on BOTH sides!!!  UGH!

Bottom line: This.


This one is a touchy subject for a lot of people (and by a lot of people, I mean a lot of dog owners) and I have some equally strong views.  Let me say right up front that I do not have a problem with dogs.  Out of all of the possible pets, dogs are without a doubt my favorite.  I've always wanted either a German Shepherd or a Husky, so it's not like I'm one of those "pets are dangerous" people.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that pet owners are the dangerous ones simply because of their arrogance or lack of common sense.

See, here's the thing: many pet owners seem to assume that everyone else loves animals (or their particular type of animal) or is as comfortable around animals just as much as they do/are.  As such, when they leave their dog off of the leash out in public (whatever they do on their own property is their own business, as long as the dog can't get out onto the sidewalk/street), they're assuming that anyone passing by will have a particular, homogenous reaction to their pet.  The problem is many-fold but the most salient parts are that a) they assume that they know EXACTLY how that dog is going to react to EVERY SINGLE PERSON that will pass by (thus the aforementioned arrogance) and b) they assume that every person who passes by is comfortable with dogs.

I can't tell you how many times I've been out for walks with my son in the stroller and I saw a dog off a leash hanging out in someone's unfenced yard.  I'd say in more than half of the instances, when we were close enough, that dog suddenly bolted towards us.  The owner would yell the dog's name and tell it to get back over there (completely ineffective pack leadership) but by then, the dog would already be near the stroller.  Now, for me, I have only one responsibility in this case and that's to protect my son.  I don't know your dog and I don't know if (s)he is friendly or not.  All I know is that the fucking thing is running towards me and I will have only a split second to decide whether or not I'm kicking it in the teeth (which I would do only if it posed a threat to my son). 

Worse, still, is when we're out and Timmy isn't in a stroller.  One day we were walking up the block in Staten Island and these two vicious little dogs were running around while their owner was speaking with another neighbor.  I had had them nip at my ankles enough times to assume how they would react (ironic, I know) when we approached.  Sure enough, as soon as they spotted Timmy, they shot right towards him.  I scooped him up just as they got to within a few feet of him.  The owner stops his conversation and calls them back.  Livid, I told him that he should have the fucking dogs on a leash to which he responds (I shit you not):, "Ah, don't worry.  They're my dogs."  I was flabbergasted, mostly because of the horrific logic implied in what he said.  I told him that that was great and that I'm sure if those dogs bit my kid, that the judge would throw the case out based on that fact alone.

Again, it's the arrogance of these dog owners that pisses me off.  I don't care if you've had your dog for fifteen fucking years, you do NOT know how it is going to react in a given situation!  In fact, the LONGER you've HAD the dog, the more likely you are NOT to know.  It's a dog--an animal!  You don't know what it's thinking or feeling, or, more specifically, what's going to set it off.  What if my wife is wearing a perfume that makes the dog freak out?  What if it runs over to my kid who moves his arms too quickly, startling the dog and causing it to bite?  I don't care if that dog has reacted the same way in 1,000 similar instances--all it takes is one attack a) to potentially scar a kid for life and b) to warrant putting that dog down.

The best is the "Oh, (s)he's friendly!" line that many dog owners use when their animal is rocketing towards or jumping all over you.  How's this for a response?  I DON'T GIVE A SHIT.  And one more: THAT'S NOT THE POINT!  Inherent in that train of thought is the assumption that the person likes dogs or is comfortable with them.  I don't give a shit if your dog is the friendliest fucking mutt on the face of the planet, I shouldn't have to have that moment of worry when it comes tearing towards me, making me wonder whether or not it's going to attack me.  That's why they have dog runs.

The bottom line: if you're in a public place, ESPECIALLY with people riding bikes, keep the goddamn dog on a leash!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Ten Commandments Of Interacting With Pregnant Women, Infants, And Small Children

Over the past two years, my wife and I have been blessed with two fruitful pregnancies.  Consequently, we've also experienced a number of things as parents and parents-to-be that have proved to be anything from mildly obnoxious to inexcusably offensive.  It seems like there's something about pregnant women and small children that flip on some type of idiot switch inside the brains of many people.  In an effort to assuage the anger and frustration that comes from these confrontations (and to warn any friends who are expecting children or for whom pregnancy is on the horizon), here is a list of the types of situations that my wife and I have encountered either during her pregnancies or afterwards with our children.


Everything that I am about to say pertains ONLY to strangers and to people with whom we have only a passing association (co-workers, acquaintances, basically anyone that we wouldn't consider friends).  If you're a friend or a family member, even if you've done something below, it doesn't apply to you because what makes the situations annoying is the fact that these people DON'T know us; for friends and family, it's all good because there's no confusion with regards to your respective intentions.



The naming of a child is usually a very personal, cherished thing.  Many times, prospective parents elect to honor someone in the family either with a first or middle name; others, the child's name has some other intrinsic meaning that is of the utmost importance to one or both parents.  With that said, there is a vulnerability attached to the revelation of the name.  When a complete stranger or vague acquaintance asks the parent if they've picked out a name, they're simultaneously putting that person on the spot.  What they don't realize is that, by asking, they're opening up the parent to potential judgment.  Now, with friends and family, there really isn't any judgment because they will ultimately have some involvement in the child's life.  For a perfect stranger, co-worker, or acquaintance, that level of involvement is greatly diminished. 

I'm sure most people are either being polite or curious in asking and, to some, the issue here might be a bit cloudy.  The problem, though, is that not everyone will say "Oh, that's a lovely name" or something else that's equally innocuous.  Sometimes, they will pass judgment and make a comment directly about the name or, the one that kills me, they will say "I don't like that name."  Oh, really?  Well go fuck yourself!  It ain't your kid and no one gives a shit whether or not you approve. 

I understand the irony here though that something said by someone who ultimately does not matter in terms of your child's life shouldn't have so powerful an impact on you but I would counter with this: how would you feel if you're on the train, wearing a favorite article of clothing, and a complete stranger comes up to you and says, "That shirt/blouse/jacket/pair of whatever is ugly."  I would imagine that it would sting most people since not everyone has climbed to the top of Maslow's pyramid.

Ultimately, if the parents want you to know the name of the baby, they'll volunteer the information.  If you're asking just to be polite, you're actually not achieving your goal.  And if you're just nosy or overly curious?  Mind your own business.


For some ungodly reason, many people seem inclined to speculate as to the sex of the baby whilst it is still in utero.  Most rationalize their positions with old wives' tales or other bits of superstition but some simply do it based on a hunch (thanks for being wrong both times, Dr. H!).  Ultimately, the problem here is that you're unintentionally either stoking the fire of the parents' desire for a particular outcome or you're dampening their excitement by positing the opposite.  You're also putting the mother in an awkward position because she then has to respond to whatever ill-conceived logic you're employing with your guess.  Believe me, if you think she's having a boy/girl because she's carrying high/low, she's heard the opposite position an equal number of times.  If you have the audacity to say something like, "You're having a girl.  Girls drain your beauty." then you're oblivious to your inconsideration and you should be shot.


Another one of those "just being polite" or "asking this because I feel like I'm supposed to" questions is what sex the parents are hoping for.  The trend these days seems to be to skirt the issue by saying something like, "We don't care--we just want a healthy baby!" or some other trite bullshit.  I will admit readily that my wife and I both said such things in response during her first pregnancy, mostly because we didn't want to jinx the outcome.  Superstition aside, it's none of your goddamn business what a given parent wants and they shouldn't have to proffer a response that makes them uncomfortable.  I'm guessing that a lot of parents feel uncomfortable given the number of responses similar to the one I mentioned earlier that I overhear.  Who wants to say that they want a boy when they wind up having a daughter, or vice versa? 


I wish I was making this shit up but I'm not: people actually did this to Heather.  I can't even fathom the complete and utter lack of decorum that some people have or what type of fucked up logic would lead them to pass judgment/commentary on a woman with a life growing inside of her.  The fact that they don't see anything wrong with saying something like, "Wow.  You're getting big!" boggles my mind.  The fact that someone had the gall to say to Heather, "I'm glad you told me you were pregnant.  I thought you were just having a hard time getting rid of the baby weight from your other pregnancy." infuriates me.

And just as a side note, straight up: there's never a situation in which it's okay to comment on someone's weight gain.  I don't even like when people say, "Wow!  You've lost weight!" because the implication there is "Boy!  You were fat!".  Many people dealt with being made fun of for their weight when they were in school (myself included) and so it leaves me scratching my head that these same people think nothing of making the same comments as adults that were made about them when they were kids.  I hate it when it's people I'm not close to who say shit but it pisses me off even more when it's a friend or a close friend.  You don't know what that person had going on in their lives that led to their weight gain/loss, so making a crack or passing judgment on it without that knowledge just makes you look like an asshole and, for me, it's a surefire way to end whatever conversation we were having and making me want to punch you in the face.  To say shit like that to a pregnant woman, though?  Repugnant.


This one might be number five numerically speaking but it's probably the most important one overall.  I don't get what it is about a pregnant woman's belly that makes complete strangers lose their fucking minds but it seems to.  First of all, (speaking from the expectant mother's perspective), I don't fucking know you so how dare you touch me.  Second of all, I have the most delicate thing in the world (for a human) growing inside of me, and you're going to lay your fucking hands on me?  It's bad enough when strangers ask if they can touch the belly but to just out and out do it?  It's grounds for getting your face dented, friend.

What gets me the most about this though is the lack of consideration and thought given for the reciprocal situation.  How would you feel if I just rubbed your stomach without asking you?  If you don't know my wife then keep your goddamn hands to yourself.


This one probably pertains only to us and few others but it was still something that made me want to choke people out.  I cannot tell you how many people asked us where we lived and what hospital we were delivering at/where the hospital was, only to follow with an IMMEDIATE asinine comment.  Here's a sample of what we heard over and over and over and over and over and over again:

"Oh boy!  That's faaaaaaaaaaar!"
"You'll never make it."
"Wow!  Good luck making it to the hospital!"
"That baby's going to be born in the car!"
"That baby's going to be born on the bridge!"
"That baby's going to be born on the Belt Parkway!"
"We're taking a pool about which exit the baby will be born at."
"You're crazy.  You couldn't find a closer hospital?"

Not that it warrants any explanation on my part but we chose to use the hospital in Long Island because of how comfortable we were with the doctors and the facilities.  The fact that we moved when Heather was seven months pregnant to a place that put us even further way was something that we had no control over; we found the perfect house for us and we did what we had to do.  All of those comments did nothing positive for us and served only to add more stress to an already full plate, especially since they were in reference to something that, again, we had no control over.  Heather wanted HER doctor to deliver the baby and not to have to start fresh with a completely new set of doctors in an unfamiliar place and a hospital that we didn't have an intimate knowledge of.


We never really had this much with Timmy but people seem to love to comment on how chubby (or fat, as some people seem wont to say) a baby is.  Among other things, such a comment tells you right away that this person doesn't have children and, more than likely, has had little interaction with them.  Babies (especially boys) grow like Christmas trees: they get thick and then suddenly shoot up and slim down before repeating the process.  It's one thing to talk about how cute the kid looks as a result of their rotundity but it's something completely different to pass judgment on his or her appearance.  Plus, how chubby a baby is (for the most part--we're not talking Honey Boo Boo here) is NOT an indicator of how healthy the kid is.  Some infants can't put on weight while others look like Augustus Gloop.  Saying that a baby is fat or chubby makes you look like an inconsiderate asshole, which is fine because that's probably precisely what you are!


I've had to use some insane restraint on my part as a result of this.  You're a friend or a family member?  Play with my kid all you want.  You're a complete stranger at the supermarket or at Target/Wal*Mart/etc.?  Keep your fucking hands to yourself.  Again, I don't know what it is about small children that makes a complete stranger think that it's okay to lay a hand on them!  First of all, when you reach down and either touch a small child's hands or tousle their hair, you're completely destroying their right to personal space.  You wouldn't like it if I just reached out and did the same thing to you or to your kid, so just what in the hell makes you think that it's permissible for you to touch my child?  In fact, let's say that YOU had a kid with you (which has happened a few times).  You're telling me that you'd be completely cool with me reaching out and stroking your thirteen year old daughter's hair?  "Oh, that's different."  You're damn right it is!  That girl would have the ability to say no and to defend herself from an unwanted encounter.  A two year old?  Not so much.

It also doesn't matter how old the person is.  In fact, for some strange reason, older, elderly folks seem to be the most inclined to touch small children.  I'm sure that it has something to do with their reminiscing of or appreciation for youth but it sure as hell doesn't make it any more acceptable.  People seem to think that just because these people are older that they're harmless--that something about their white haired appearance automatically renders them sweet and gentle.

Funny how that's not always the case.


Some people must have miswired neural pathways.  What would lead them to give something to a child that they do not know--especially something edible--is beyond my ability to comprehend.  Aside from the fact that it's rude (you're usurping the power role of the parent), it's just fucking stupid!  You ask the kid's parent if you just absolutely cannot control your urge or, better yet, you mind your own fucking business and keep your creepy candy to yourself.

Besides--everybody knows that you put razorblades in your apples on Halloween!


This is another thing that people just seem compelled to do when they see a newborn.  I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "Oh he's his mother's/father's son!" along with all of the various facial features "Oh he has his mother's/father's nose/eyes/ears/lips."  Gee, how about this?  Maybe the baby looks like himself or herself!  Who gives a shit which parent he or she looks more like?  I don't know what it is that drives people to make such dopey ass comments but I can tell you that they have no idea of how annoying it is and how obnoxious it is to be alienated.  Being told to your face, "Sorry dad--but he looks NOTHING like you" (that actually happened.  Twice.) does absolutely nothing for your self-esteem.  Plus, what the hell are you supposed to say in response?  "Thanks?"  Having such comments flung at you repeatedly makes you feel diminished and just out and out embarrassed after awhile. 

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Common Modern Writing Errors And Their Solutions

Many of the writing errors that are legion in electronic forms of communication stem from laziness but not all do.  A heavy reliance on things like autocorrect and spell check features result in numerous typographical errors that could be resolved simply by re-reading the text in question.  Other errors, like deliberate misuse of punctuation, stem either from a blatant disregard for proper grammar and punctuation or, more likely, a lack of proper instruction in said areas of writing.  In the interest of offering something useful to supplement my previous rant, I will point out the most common errors and how they can be rectified.

#1 Overuse of the Ellipsis

One of the most common errors that I see is also one of the most frustrating: the incorrect, improper, over usage of those dreaded triple periods.  The primary purpose that the ellipsis serves in writing is to indicate an omission of a section of text, particularly when it pertains to quotations.  If one wanted to quote Oscar Wilde to imply that sincerity is fatal, one could alter this original quotation, "A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal" by utilizing an ellipsis in the middle, thus transforming the quotation into, "A little absolutely fatal."

A secondary usage of the ellipsis is when a writer will end a sentence with one, in which case it can be called a "suspension point" instead of an ellipsis. The writer's intention in so doing is, unsurprisingly, to build tension by effectively trailing off the point, leaving the idea unfinished and/or allowing an implication or inference to be drawn by the reader.

I see an atrocious overuse of the ellipsis on Facebook where people will insert them haphazardly into a wall post.  Here's a fictitious example:

"OMG...I am SO done with that show!!!  They killed off my favorite's can you DO that when he was EVVVVVVVVVERYONE'S favorite!?  It's ridiculous..."

I think the reason that people do this is either because they are attempting to elicit a greater amount of emphasis from what they are saying (implying, therefore, that they are not confident that they have conveyed their true degree of emotion effectively).  It could also be that they are made nervous by the natural space between words or simply by the use of a period.

Another example of the misuse comes from the people who use the ellipsis only once but at the end of every sentence:

"Thanks for the birthday wishes..."  or  "It was great hanging out with you..."  and of course "I love the photo you posted..."

I find this to be far more obnoxious than the "I'm-going-to-insert-it-everywhere-in-the-sentence" person because you can never truly know what the author's intention is.  Is she being sarcastic?  Does she like the photo?  Was it great to be hanging out?  You'll never know.  The same can be said for the person who runs through a sarcastic or passive-aggressive run of text only to end it with a smiley face.  It's the same issue: being non-committal with your emotions.

"Maybe if you work a little harder next time you will actually get the job. :)"

The only solution that can be implemented here is simply to stop using the ellipsis.  Period. (Get it?)  It's only necessary when one removes a portion of a quotation; at any other point, it's merely used for effect.  I say everything is fine in moderation so just stop using it all the time and save it rather for the important points that truly benefit from additional emphasis.

#2 Triple Punctuation

In a way, this is an issue that is analogous to the overuse of the ellipsis (which, ironically, is three periods slung together).  You see it mostly with exclamation points but sometimes with question marks as well (or even a combination of the two, which is its own issue).


Again, the motivation behind this is a lack of confidence that one is effectively conveying the proper amount of emphasis and emotion.  The exclamation point (arguably the most overused punctuation mark in the English arsenal) exists solely for demonstrating a heightened level of excitement--one that a period, alone, cannot display.  Using multiple exclamation points might show that you are really excited about something, but is it truly necessary?  Especially if you're a chronic over-user?  Just stick with one and be done with it!  (See!?)

#3 The Period After The Punctuation Mark

Sticking with the punctuation errors, my mind is perpetually boggled by people who place a period after another punctuation mark.  The purpose of an exclamation point, a question mark, a closing quotation mark or parenthesis is to end a sentence; placing a period after one of these is just wrong.

"Yo bro you wanna go see a Rangers game next week?  They're doing GREAT this season!!!."

I've also seen people who use a semicolon like a period or who treat it like a period and then follow it with a period.  A semicolon is meant to serve as a hybrid between a comma and a period (thus its appearance as such).  Like a comma, it separates two clauses in a sentence but ones that can exist independently and that are indelibly linked by a common thread in the sentence.  Usually, the semicolon is used to draw attention to this connection by way of emphasizing the first half of the sentence through the second.

"Jimmy suffers from voice immodulation; he is one of the loudest guys on the team."

You cannot use the semicolon purely as a period because it doesn't separate two sentences but rather links them.  That is why this would be incorrect:

"I love going to Clove Lakes Park; Tomorrow is Eleanor's birthday."

You would never capitalize the first letter of the first word following the semicolon much like you wouldn't if it was following a comma.

The reason people place a period after another mark of punctuation is simply a lack of understanding of grammar and punctuation.  The solution is just to pick one and to stick with it.  In fact, the only time you would even consider adding a punctuation mark is when you are attempting to state a question emphatically via an exclamation point and a question mark, though it would still be advisable not to pair them as such.

#4 Split Infinitives

This one drives me absolutely bat shit crazy when I see it in a professionally published article, or even in one that is affiliated with a major website like IGN or ESPN.  The infinitive verb tense is simply the root verb preceded by the word "to."  Some examples are, "To be; to run; to fall; to swim."  A split infinitive occurs when the infinitive verb form is invoked and then broken apart by another word, most often an adverb meant to enhance the verb.  Here are some examples:

"He wanted to quickly run to the store."

"She tried to not be upset when she heard the news."

The reason people write like this is because they speak like this.  I hear "to not be" spoken very often and yet it's utterly incorrect.  An easy way to understand why is that in these instances the infinitive verb form is being used.  Again, that is the word "to" followed by the verb itself.  Since the words "quickly" and "not" are not verbs, it is impossible to use them that way in a sentence.  You cannot not much like you cannot quickly; you'll never see someone notting or quicklying.

The easiest way to fix this from a writing perspective is simply to re-read one's writing and to keep a close eye on one's use of the infinitive form.  The more effective way is to stop speaking that way as well.  It's lazy and improper so why not just make the adjustment?  To, then the verb, then the adverb.

#5 Only / Just

These are two of the most incorrectly used words in the English language.  People understand their purpose (to imply an instance in which there is one and only one set of circumstances) but not their implementation.  Here are some examples:

"I only want to go to see Kelly Clarkson to pick up chicks at the show."

"I want to just curl up in a ball and die I am SOOOOOOOO tired!!!"

"Don't you just want to punch him for being such an asshole with all of this writing correction bullshit!?!?"

Both words modify the word that comes immediately after them.  Therefore, if you want to say that the reason for going to see Kelly Clarkson is to pick up women, you would write it as such:

"I want to go see Kelly Clarkson only to pick up chicks at the show."

The way it is written in the first instance implies that you only want to go to see Kelly Clarkson.  You don't want to swim to go to see Kelly Clarkson nor do you want to cook to go to see Kelly Clarkson.  In that first example, the verb "want" is being modified and thus makes absolutely no sense.  When the word "only" migrates to its proper position, it becomes obvious that the only reason this person is going to the show is "to pick up chicks."

The same issue occurs with the next two instances.  In the first (second, chronologically), the split infinitive results in a misplacement of the word just.  Since it is impossible to "just," the proper placement would be before the word "to," thus rendering the sentence, "I want just to curl up in a ball..."  This person wants only one thing: to curl up into a ball.  Therefore, the word just must appear precisely before this action.

The third example is yet another iteration of this problem.  You can't "just want" because that doesn't make any sense.  What does make sense is saying that you want just to punch him by writing it as, "Don't you want just to punch him..."

The reason these errors happen is mostly because it is a common and commonly accepted speech error that is reflected in one's writing.  The easiest way to emend this is to look at what comes immediately after the word "only" or "just."  If it's a verb, is it in the correct form?  If it's a noun, is it where it should be?

"I only want a new bike for my birthday and nothing else."

Really?  You only want a new bike?  You don't bake a new bike or recite a new bike?  In this case, the verb is "want" and it is being modified incorrectly. 

"I want only a new bike for my birthday and nothing else."

You want only a new bike for your birthday?  You don't want an iPod or a tablet?  No, only a new bike.

Usually, the solution involves only moving the word one or two positions forward or back in the sentence; just try to be careful in the future.

"U Mad Bro?"--The Degradation of Modern American Literacy

Not even six hundred years ago, literacy was a privilege for the rich in Europe and a foreign concept for most of the peasantry.  Less than two hundred years after the invention of the printing press, the first American colony was formed.  These inchoate Americans were far more educated than their European predecessors but were also still a far cry from the level of literacy that would be developed over the next three hundred plus years.  Collectively, we went from barely being able to write our names to being able to purchase and understand literature like Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.  In a way, we've taken our advanced literacy for granted, which might account for the state of affairs we face today.

Reading and writing well is quickly becoming a lost art.  In the age of instant communication, things like punctuation and grammar have been thrown to the wayside in the interest of quaint acronyms and autocorrected sentiments.  Worse still, point out an error in said punctuation or grammar and you're labeled a "writing snob" or the "grammar police."  Or, maybe--just maybe, you'll get hit with that inimitable phrase of consternation:

U Mad Bro?

The average American--hell, even the poorest of Americans--has access to tremendous amounts of reading and writing resources and enjoys a well-above average level of literacy compared to their kin of even a hundred and fifty years ago.  So why, then, is the overall-American writing ability so piss-poor?  Part of it stems from education.  In the average, urban school (which are legion in our great nation), it is possible for a student to graduate with reading and writing levels that might not even be up to the junior high school equivalent.  I once co-taught English to a tenth grade student who was as close to completely illiterate as I have ever encountered not just in my professional career but in my entire life.  He could barely write his name let alone a complete sentence...and yet there he was sitting in my tenth grade class.  I could not in good conscience let this student move on to the next grade...and yet there he was, in the eleventh grade the following year.  And why was he passed?  Because he showed up, didn't cause any problems, and he had made it that far (so spake the teacher in charge of assigning his grade).  I'm not sure if he ever officially graduated but I do know that he made it into the United States military.

Think about that: right now, there is a man defending our country who, if his life depended on it, couldn't read the written instructions for a mission or even, perhaps, the name on his fellow soldier's uniform.

God bless America!

I'd like to think this is an isolated case but I'm not so sure that it is.  One need look no further than Corporate America to find an eerily similar state of affairs.  You have executives--men and women in charge of companies worth many millions of dollars (if not billions) who cannot draft a simple, coherent e-mail let alone a report.  Most of these people made it through four years of college and some have even earned graduate degrees from online universities, which terrifies me to no end.  Not only are people being pushed through the public education system but, evidently, you can graduate from an accredited four-year institution without being able to write at an undergraduate college level.  And don't even get me started on so-called PhDs that are earned online.  I think that Internet education is a great idea and a practical one at that--something that can truly help someone make up for a gap in their academic experience, ..but there are some places that these degrees should not go.  Certain professions and certifications are wonderfully amenable to Internet work but then there are others that simply cannot produce a graduate of the same caliber as a traditional program.  The experience of sitting in a classroom with equally-skilled peers and engaging in mutual discourse with a professor who is clearly an expert in his or her field cannot be approximated by online web-discussions and paper submissions.  Quite a few of these accredited institutions are as interested in their students' money as they are in the quality of their education, which explains why there are borderline-literate people waving the PhD certificates they printed online.

But that's speaking of those who at least try to pursue advanced education.  What about everyone else?  In the era of Tweeting and texting, it would appear that proper writing is a use-it-or-lose-it affair.  For many people my own age, the last time they wrote a paper or any sort of lengthy formal piece of writing was a minimum of five years ago if not longer.  How many texts and Facebook posts have they penned during those intervening years?  Probably enough to fill a dissertation.  To be fair, though, there are many people who still punctuate properly their texts, wall posts, and e-mails, it's just that there are myriad more who do not.

I suppose what ultimately bothers me is that the access to both information and forums for communication has opened up the door for people to become self-appointed experts, both in a given field and in terms of writing in general.  The fact that anyone can start their own website and claim whatever they wish about themselves is scary enough but the fact that few people call this into question is downright unsettling.  My writing partner for my beer blog had someone correct her about her misuse of a word.  Though he was right in that instance, it was the fact that his reasoning for pointing out her error was that he had been blogging for five years.  That was it--that was all he said: "I've been blogging for five years."  What was implied, I assume, is that because he had been blogging for five years, that he had become some sort of expert or learned sage in the field.  I went to both his blog and his website and was sickened by the blatant disregard for the most basic writing tenets that he was demonstrating.  So here is someone who couldn't even use periods and commas properly correcting a complete stranger about her misuse of a word that is, in and of itself, less than a decade old.  Classy.

It's reasoning like his that sickens me as a literate person.  Apparently our standards have dipped well below what I would consider the threshold of balanced levels of literacy.  People who are barely competent at crafting simple let alone complex sentences suddenly feel empowered (or entitled) to label themselves as experts or writing gurus and yet when someone with actual writing credentials does the same thing, they're labeled, as I said earlier, as a snob or the grammar police.

At the end of the day, it just comes down to people being lazy and frankly not giving a shit, which is sad because we have the opportunity, collectively, to be so much better than we are.  When called out on their mistakes, people hide behind flimsy excuses or wave degrees that are barely worth the paper they are printed on.  Typos, improper punctuation, and incoherent sentences are becoming the norm and it's a shame because, in my eyes, it shows an utter lack of regard for one's own self-worth and work.  I liken it to cooking: would you serve a half-assed meal to your friends with meat that is burned on the exterior and raw in the middle?  Would you just toss everything into a single bowl for Thanksgiving dinner and microwave it for forty-five seconds and call it a feast?  Of course not, because it would essentially be an act that says, "I don't care about me and I don't care about any of you."  When someone writes something that is rife with errors and then publishes it in a public forum, they are, in effect, saying the same exact thing with an additional "I'm too lazy to check/fix this and I know that you're too lazy to correct me, so, since we both know what I mean, let's just call it a day."

Funny how taking pride in one's work, whether it's written, cooked, or performed, has become passé in our so-called modern world.  I wonder what will happen if this trend continues.  Will we wind up once more facing a situation of two classes of literacy: the competent and the rest?  I shudder to think that such might ultimately be the case as children are now growing up in the Apple/Twitter/Facebook era. 

Guttenberg's probably rolling over in his grave regretting that he ever placed that damned hashtag on his printing press.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Proposed Solution To The Education Problem

I apologize for any lack of cohesion with the arguments I made in my previous entry; my impassioned burst of writing was fueled by some very strong feelings and was typed well beyond the cloak of midnight had fallen on the Isle of Staten.  As a result, I failed to mention a few key points that I feel would have helped to focus the thrust of my argument and, more importantly, provide a proposed solution or at least an idea of how we can tweak the current system.

Though I spoke generally of the education system across the board, I will admit readily that there are undoubtedly exceptions to the rules I laid out, whether they are schools or individual teachers.  These bastions of sensibility, sadly, are not in the majority, particularly when it comes to disadvantaged schools and their students.  Some teachers might try to tie in things like personal finance into their courses but again these cases are in the minority; too many students graduate without even the slightest understanding of what credit is, why it is important, and how they can go about maintaining and improving their own.  Though a given subject teacher can offer a rational and reasonable explanation for why he or she teaches a particular element, it still doesn't explain why it should be taught instead of something that might be of far greater value to a given student.  Teaching some abstract mathematical theorem might be useful in the sense that it helps a student learn how to think differently or more efficiently but when that student is in the eleventh grade and cannot add and subtract let alone grasp side-angle-side, the issue becomes one of relevance.  Another example from my own subject would be teaching the nuances of metaphor to a twelfth grader who is reading at a fifth-grade level or going over critical lens essays for the English Regents with a kid who cannot write a complete sentence or read at all (that one's from personal experience; that same kid is now in the military and he managed to make it at least to his senior year without being able to write more than a simple sentence or read anything more complex than a picture book).

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that we are focusing on preparing kids for college and basically shunning the rest.  When it comes to a school filled with disadvantaged, disenfranchised students who have been pushed along through the system for ten or eleven years without picking up even the most basic skill set, one has to ask: what is being done to help them?  For the kid that is going to graduate but for whom college--even a community one--simply isn't an option, what life-skills are they being instilled with?  If they can't even fill out an application for a job at a fast food restaurant, then what was the point of their thirteen years in the school system?  It's kids like that that keep me up at night, wondering what I can do to make a difference not just for any one in particular but for the vast majority that I'll never get to teach or even to meet.

Take a look at what's being taught in the New York City public school system.  What types of courses are these high school kids taking?  The answer is: the same ones kids in 1912 were taking.  You've got math, science, English, history, gym, lunch, and the occasional arts-related program or elective.  THAT's what is comprising their entire education just before they enter adulthood.  What sense does that make when the things that are important in today's society--the types of jobs that are available or opportunities that are open have almost nothing to do with those things?  Where are the courses in graphic designing?  In psychology?  In software development?  Hell, even marketing and the other business-related fields!?  What preparation are these kids getting for the jobs they'll most likely be filling assuming they even go to college?  Where is the guidance and grooming for students who are better suited for civil service jobs?  And what about trades?  How about the kid who failed every single math and English course he ever took but is an absolute prodigy when it comes to assembling and disassembling things?  Where's his mechanics training or engineering experience?

I propose that we induce softer change in the earlier grades and more radical adjustments in the later ones.  Let's teach more generalized material throughout a broad cross-section of subjects to our elementary school students; it would be not unlike the first two years of college during which students take "core" courses.  Let's ratchet up the sophistication and complexity of the things we're teaching them and stop coddling these kids and treating them as if they can't handle the loftier areas of a given subject.  Why not teach calculus in fourth grade?  Why can't we delve into Shakespeare with a bunch of eleven year olds?  Just because we haven't doesn't me that we shouldn't or couldn't.

So the elementary school students gain exposure to a broad array of subjects and topics.  By the time they reach middle school, they've begun to develop a sense for where their strengths and interests lie.  If you have a kid who is gifted in math, why not introduce her to other more focused math-related courses?  Let her explore physics and statistics while supplementing that with enough of the other things to ensure that she is well-balanced.  Teach the basics of reading and writing across the board; use social studies to introduce simple counting and other mathematical concepts.  Elementary school teachers are already well-versed in a multitude of subjects, why not just increase the level of their experience?  High school subject teachers are already trained to a greater degree in their respective areas, so why not have them delve even deeper into them?

Middle school can be used as an opportunity to help direct students towards their ultimate courses of study.  The subjects that they encounter here should be more specialized but still general enough to help them to gain a better understanding of where they want to wind up.  Math and humanities are great but they won't necessarily help a kid determine whether or not he or she wants to become an economist or a dermatologist.  Let's use these intervening years to provide them with insights into different fields, maybe include observations or tag-alongs with various professions to give them a better perspective of what it means to be a surgeon or a state trooper.

High school, ultimately, would be a precursor to college.  Here, they would focus mostly on the subjects that are relevant to the fields that they'd like to pursue and would be provided with an equal amount of real-life preparation.  Instead of having personal finance electives, make them not components of a given course's curriculum but mandatory courses in their own right.  For kids who aren't learning many of these things at home perhaps due to their socio-economic standing or a situation where their parents simply do not have the time or ability to teach them, high school could be the time that they pick up the necessary life-skills to succeed.  If by the time they reach high school it's clear that they are not destined for greatness, then why not utilize those four years for helping them to prepare for whatever employment it is that they are best suited for?  Provide them with transferable skills and experience that they could use to enter the workforce and then move their way up to bigger and better things. 

All I'm saying is that there are far too many students, at least in New York City, who graduate high school with no clue as to what they want to do with their lives and a dearth of relevant life-experience that will help them to function sufficiently on their own.  The paucity of knowledge that they leave school with is in no way enhanced by the drivel that they are fed in their subject courses but is rather diminished by it; instead of learning about things that would help them to lead more productive and satisfying lives, they spend their time memorizing things they will ultimately forget and will wind up none the better-off for learning.

Let's stop being afraid of change and embrace it on our own terms.  We've gotten lazy as a society and the most we do is bitch about the laws and changes that are handed down to us; even our protests have lost the fervor and zeal they once had.  Remember: there's safety in numbers.  If enough people feel the same way about something and band together, then it becomes possible to effect change.  Maybe the problem is that everyone's too busy nowadays to make that kind of emotional and temporal commitment.  They're more interested in their phones and tablets than they are about the futures of their kids.  And I hate to break it to these folks but when it comes to fixing our education system...

there isn't an app for that.

The Disservice That Is The American Education System

Our education system is a joke.  We are clinging to an antiquated system that serves to teach our kids almost nothing truly of value in the twelve or thirteen years that they are imprisoned in it.  What's sad is that there is a strong movement among teacher-education programs to inculcate cutting-edge teaching approaches and techniques but at the same time the subject matter--the true core of what a teacher is expected to impart in terms of knowledge--hasn't changed, in many ways, for almost a century.  Instead of worrying about which industries and fields are serving as the gateway(s) to the future, administrators and politicians like our beloved Mayor Mike are obsessing instead about such trite and useless things as Regents examinations and other standardized tests. 

This might come as a surprise but kids who do well on the chemistry and physics Regents do not necessarily go on to become elite NASA scientists and engineers.  In fact, those who are becoming the leaders at the forefront of the American technological movement, particularly in the sciences, aren't even American by birthright!  Instead of focusing on grooming our own future physicists, chemists, and engineers, we are, for all intents and purposes, stealing them from other countries!  Okay, perhaps stealing is a bit harsh.  Maybe we can go with "borrowing" or at least "luring" instead.  Don't believe me?  Listen to what Professor Kaku has to say on the issue:

We should be educating our students about things that are far more salient than the current trend of nonsense that fills our curricula.  School, in its most ideal American sense, is designed to groom our children to be fully functional, productive citizens who can enter the workforce and make effective and efficient contributions to improve our country and the world at large.  How the hell can we expect that to happen when we (as teachers) spend our time "teaching to the test," running through the same type of material that our grandparents learned as children, and ultimately wind up ignoring the subjects and real-life experience that will help to edify our students in ways and to degrees our current system couldn't possibly achieve?  Our history teachers waste time providing instruction about the War of 1812 and the Magna Carta when they could be focusing on the cyclical nature of history and what we can expect to face in the coming years.  Our English teachers ignore or are unable to cope with the fact that their kids cannot write at a sufficient grade level and choose instead to keep plowing through novel after novel, preparing their students for the English Regents but not a job interview.  Instead, you have teachers like my friend Mr. Adrian and myself who are forced to teach in spite of the mandated curriculum that gets forced down our throats.  Though I've never sat in on one of Mr. Adrian's history classes, I can guarantee you that, even when he covers the "material" in the textbook, he does so in a way that truly educates his students.  He uses his time to teach his kids about life--about how to be better people and why the world is the way that it is.  He gives them the tools to help them to transcend the labels they've been given or the futures that have been prescribed for them.  We could have classrooms filled with insightful, thought-provoking men and women like Mr. A and instead we have elementary school teachers who continue to spoon feed our kids the same pointless lies about Native Americans and pilgrims.  We continue to twist the truth but to what end?  To shield our children from the horrors that are our true collective past?  Face it kids: Thanksgiving never happened the way you've been told it did!  Columbus and his European pals came to this continent and wiped out an entire race of people.  Deliberately.  Shove that up your horn-of-plenty!

My own experience with teaching high school helped me to see first-hand how ridiculous our education system is.  The most important parts of that experience--indeed the most rewarding aspects came not from having my students learn about literary elements or understanding the themes in Cry, the Beloved Country.  No--the most critical things that happened were more intrinsic and certainly not part of the state standards.  They were the times that I listened to a kid who was having trouble at home or when I said, "Good morning" to a student who, to that point, felt invisible not just in school but in his or her life.  They were the moments that I spoke to my class about life and got them to think, truly and deeply, about themselves and their futures.

But that kind of stuff isn't part of the standard lesson plan format, now is it?

We continue to follow the same inane format that's been in place since the beginning of the twentieth century...but to what end?  In English, we still teach poetry and have our kids read novels from the same list of poets and novels that's been used for fifty years.  In math, they're still teaching things that, despite the assertions of the well-meaning teachers, most students will never use in their lives!  Don't even get me started on history and science (or the lack thereof as it pertains to the latter).

So what should we be teaching?  How about things that will help our kids figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives or at least get them moving on a productive path?  More importantly, why aren't we teaching things that will help our kids live better lives, period?  We teach them how to write a five-paragraph essay but not how to craft a solid personal statement that they can use when applying for a job or for college.  They learn geometric proofs but not how to manage their own personal finances, for crying out loud!  And we wonder why debt among eighteen to twenty-four year olds is so high!  Have you ever noticed that when a kid turns seventeen, all of a sudden they begin to get mail from credit card companies?  Or what about those same companies that set up booths or sign-up stands outside of colleges during the first few weeks of the semester?  In both instances they lure kids in with language that they couldn't possibly understand (how many eighteen year olds know what it means to be pre-approved or pre-qualified for a credit card?) and promises of the ability to increase their purchasing power exponentially (at the cost of their credit and future income).  What kid is going to read the fine print on those "checks" that credit card companies send out from time to time, promising free money in exchange for nearly usurious interest payments on said cash advances?

It doesn't stop just with the typical subject teachers.  How about gym teachers?  Instead of teaching the most basic skills in a broad cross-section of sports, why not focus more on the importance of proper nutrition and eating habits?  Why not focus on explaining why fast food is so bad for you or pointing out that a single can of Coke has the equivalent of ten packets of sugar in it?  Then again, it looks like an uphill battle, especially when Congress is trying to establish the tomato paste used on those god-awful cafeteria "pizzas" as a vegetable!

And so I'm forced to ask this question: just what exactly are we doing through this so-called education that we are giving to these kids?  What do they walk away with from their thirteen year stay?  A confused jumble of information that they'll likely forget by the time they're twenty, if that long?  What transferable skills do they have?  What direction do they graduate with?  I just finished tutoring a really bright kid who is now halfway through his senior year of high school.  He has no idea what it is that he wants to do with his life...and how could he be expected to?  In all his time in school, what has he learned about the myriad fields that are available to him?  How can he decide whether he wants to be an architect or an astronomer, a brain surgeon or a busker?  Why aren't we spending more time on exposing these kids to as many different career possibilities as we can instead of wasting our time reading Jane Eyre and harping on the French Revolution?

You could say that we should start in elementary school but, in many ways, that's where things are the worst right now!  Thanks to a ridiculous wave of pacifism and a penchant for political correctness, our kids are becoming softer with each passing day.  Instead of helping them to build up their self-esteem through valuable life experiences like failing a test and finding redemption on the next one, we're trying to shield them from the very things that will ultimately serve to build them up.  Rather than tapping into the inherent but occasionally latent competitiveness that exists in all of us, administrators are seeking to end the use of number grades and switch instead to a gentler system that still upholds the students' fragile self-confidence.  Bullshit!  Give me a break!  You know who wants change like that?  The parents of the kids who aren't getting high grades.  Rather than encouraging their kids to try harder, to seek out additional help, and, ultimately, to challenge themselves to find a way to succeed, they choose to alter the system to mollify the dangerously-breakable spirits of these children.

Now before you start citing all sorts of papers dedicated to proving why the use of grading in school is counterproductive or inefficient, let me remind you that grading occurs everywhere in life.  In some places, it's more overt like companies that have an Employee of the Month award, but in most it's more subtle and yet ever-present.  What sort of preparation for the real world are you giving to a kid by constructing this fallacy that everyone is intellectually equal and that seventh place is just as good as first when that's not how it is in business or in life?  It's going to come as a rude awakening to that kid who joins a rotation at a huge investment bank and then finds out that he or she is the only one who wasn't given an offer for long-term employment.  What will that kid or those parents do then?  Sue the company?  Blame unfair comparative practices for their inability to measure up to the competition?

In some schools, they're even removing such vaunted honors as valedictorians and salutatorians.  I'll tell you right now--I would be pissed beyond words if my kid busted his or her ass for four years (or however long) and earned the highest average in the entire school only to be denied the honor of being named valedictorian because some other sissy kid's self-esteem might be damaged because he wasn't named valedictorian.  What happened to merit-based rewards?  And what's next?  Will children's sports be the next field to take a hit?  In five years will games be played without any points or scoring so as to ensure that all the players feel an equal level of self-actualization?  My, my!  Bless their little palpitating hearts!  Will everyone come in first place because no standings were kept?

As teachers AND parents, we need to stop being so goddamn passive and start acting and effecting change.  We need to fight to get the curriculum changed--not just a little bit but a complete overhaul.  Let's stop outsourcing our "geniuses" and start focusing on developing our own!  Let's prepare our students for college, for the job market, and for the rest of their lives instead of handing them their diplomas and tossing them out on their asses with a "Good luck, Chuck!" mentality.  Let's put more emphasis on helping these kids to develop respect for themselves as well as for others--for their minds, their bodies, and their spirits.  Let's teach them the importance of proper nutrition, proper rest habits, and proper exercise routines.  We need to give them the skills that will help them to succeed in life instead of sitting back and letting them grope about blindly in the dark.  We need to tell kids who are failing that they are failing and then give them the support, encouragement, and guidance that will help them to succeed.  We need to stop worrying about offending people and protecting everyone else's feelings and start toughening up instead of using carefully crafted terminology when referring to certain types of people.  Saying "handicapped" or "handicapable" (or any of the myriad politically correct terminology that exists today) won't change the physical limitations that have been placed upon that a given person; only his or her spirit, will, and desire to succeed will determine whether or not they rise above the lot they've been given.  And if they are offended or disheartened by an archaic referential term then they need to reassess both their priorities and the direction into which they are putting their energy.

So let's stop coddling our kids, let's stop regurgitating the same banal material, and let's start figuring out how we can help our students and children reach their full potential not in math, science, or English but in life.  Isn't that what being a teacher and/or a parent is all about?  We need to take ownership of the state of our education system and resolve to engender transformation as a result of our action.  Let's turn our pacifism into anger and that anger into something productive: the courage and motivation to fight for an end to the disservices that are being done to our kids in the form of the modern American classroom.

"Man...I see all this potential and I see squandering. Goddamn it--an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war--our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."  --Tyler Durden

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Going Against The Grain or "A Condemnation Of The New-Era Yuppie Parent"

My two year old son--not a school-age child!

In the past four days I have twice been engaged in conversation about my son and the fact that I should be enrolling him in a pre-school program as soon as possible.  During both instances I informed the other party that he had just turned two and was promptly told that I should get him into a program as soon as he turns three if not sooner.  I bit my tongue both times and have decided to transform the negative energy that has persisted into something positive by expressing my thoughts and feelings here in this blog entry.

I'm not entirely sure of when it happened but it seems as if sometime over the past decade or so there has been an inexplicable rise in interest in pre-school programs.  Well before I became a parent I can recall hearing stories of couples signing their children up for waiting lists to be put onto a waiting list for a pre-school program.  The presumption on my part is that these seemingly well-meaning lunatics want their children to be in the "best" programs around, which I can understand...I just can't reconcile that "best" with "pre-school."  Pre-Kindergarten programs are designed to help to expose the child to the structured environment that they will be entering for the next thirteen years, to assist them in their socialization and conditioning as students in said environment, and to help them to build simple skills like sharing, obeying commands, following directions, and indulging their creative sides through various art and music exercises; I didn't realize that pre-k groomed a child for BC Calculus and AP Physics.

I haven't been a parent for very long (two years and five days) but I have been a person for quite awhile (and a pretty observant one at that).  From what I have seen in terms of the people who are obsessing about their children beginning school as early as possible for the purpose of helping them to succeed presumably in life as well as school, I feel like I can conclude confidently that the majority of these neurotic parents are a part of what I am terming the New-Era Yuppies.  On the surface, a person who wants only the best for their child seems like a wonderful ideal to which to aspire...but when one digs deeper the ugly truth makes itself apparent (get it?  A "a parent.")  These Yuppies don't want what's best for their child, they want what they've been told is the "best" for their child.  This new generation of high-strung, overachieving, perfectionist Yuppie has also been imbued with a tremendous guilt complex.  If you so much as imply that they are failing their children or that something else is better than what they are doing, the new Yuppie perfectionist parents have meltdowns and obsess over this newer, better thing.  Thus the prevalence of the Mommy & Me, Gymboree bullshit that you're seeing nowadays.  Baby Bikram Yoga, My Baby Can Read, and countless other trendy and ultimately unnecessary programs have been springing up and persisting mostly because of the aforementioned guilt complex.

"Oh?  You don't take your son or daughter to Baby Yoga?"


This obsession with enrolling children into school or academically oriented programs at ever-decreasing ages seems to be symptomatic of the pursuit of perfection that this new generation of parents seems content to engage in.  When did kids stop being allowed to be kids?  Why are you making them grow up at an accelerated rate and to what end?  I hate to break it to you but putting your kid in school at three or two isn't going to help him or her to succeed in school or in life down the road!  As far as your child's academic success goes, it's called potential and personality.  Your kid can be the brightest student in the room but if he's stuck with a crappy teacher in a crappy school, his performance is going to suffer; ditto for the slow learner in the best possible environment.  Personality is huge too because if your kids are lazy or is disinterested in school...guess what?  They're not going to do well unless they have natural talent for a given subject (see: potential) or they are in the right type of school environ!

Let me make something clear: putting your child in school at an early age does have its merits but that's not what I am arguing here.  My bone of contention is the seeming need to put said child in said school.  What kid wouldn't benefit from spending time with other kids, learning how to share, learning self-discipline, and learning structure?  As much as that's a rhetorical answer, I do have one of my own: your normal, everyday kid!  Do you know why Yuppies are so obsessed on exposing their children to these things in school?  Because as parents they aren't doing it themselves!  You want your kid to spend time playing with others?  Take them to a playground.  I don't mean some time-structured, rigid "class"--I mean an outdoor play area where kids run around and be kids.  You want your kids to learn how to share and how to sit still for more than ten seconds?  DISCIPLINE THEM!  I'm so friggin' tired of hearing shit like:

"Tucker--you are devaluing that little boy by taking his organic juice box without his permission.  You need to stop and think about whether or not you are invading his personal space."


"Connor--we don't want to elevate our voices in anger, do we?  What should we do with our negative energy?  Should we return it to the environment with some deep breathing?"

Part of the problem with the New-Era Yuppie Parent is the mollycoddling and ridiculous pacifism that they employ in terms of how they interact with their children.  It's become nigh unthinkable to use words like failure and disappointment--basically any word with a negative prefix attached to it.  The fear is that this next generation of children will be emotionally damaged and scarred for life, presumably because that's precisely what happened to their Yuppie parents.

Newsflash!  There is nothing wrong with being honest with your child and letting them know in a constructive way that they've failed or have done something wrong.  Giving trophies for seventh and eighth place is counterproductive.  Instead of using that result as an opportunity for edification, they are falsifying reality for those children by demonstrating to them erroneously that they will succeed simply because they tried, regardless of whether or not they tried hard enough or had any sort of success as a result of their efforts.  Sheltering children from rough language and harsh words does them a tremendous disservice because it oversensitizes them.  When it's time to enter the real world, usually in the form of public school, they're grossly underprepared for what they face.  You wonder why bullying is in the news so often these days?  It's because there is a generation of kids who have absolutely no coping skills for the realities of life.  When they've been shielded and sheltered their entire lives from the roughness of reality, their ears filled only with words of empty encouragement and their minds filled with an overinflated sense of self-worth and value, they wind up lacking the emotional toughness and mechanisms for dealing with being told no, that they're not as good as they've been told they were, and that the world in many ways couldn't care less about them.  These children, ironically enough, wind up lacking the self-esteem necessary to deal with what the world throws at them because they've been swallowing nothing but placebos of love and encouragement.  

What these Yuppie parents are ultimately concerned about and consumed with is artifice; they don't care about whether or not their children are living their lives to their utmost--achieving their ultimate potential.  Their primary aim is to make it look like they are.  They fill their children's lives with structured activities under the guise that they are enriching their children and exposing them to things that are beneficial to their growth and development...but these things are nothing more than a house of cards.  As parents, we are meant to serve as teachers and guides to our children--not travel agents plotting out the itineraries of their lives!  Kids should be allowed to live their lives in such a way that they can experience ups and downs and thus build the requisite skill sets for dealing with both.

The parents themselves seem terrified of being disliked by their children; they're more concerned about being viewed as a friend than they are an authority figure and disciplinarian.  They often fail to reprimand their children adequately for things out of a fear that their children won't like them or that they will be somehow diminished in their children's eyes.  I've always felt that there is a parallel between teaching and parenting and that is no more apparent than it is here with the parallel I am about to draw: the Yuppie parent is the same as the teacher who never yells at her class, brings them candy and treats all the time, and who is more concerned about being popular among her students.  Both the parent and teacher ultimately fail in their respective jobs because of a lack of self-confidence.  You're the parent/teacher--act like one!  Step up to the plate, take ownership of your position, and do what you have to do.  

I would never advocate spanking or raising one's hands to one's child but there is definitely middle ground between the two extremes of being violent and being passive in this new-era Yuppie sense.  It's okay to yell at your kids, to correct them when they make mistakes, to punish them when they deliberately do something wrong, and to put them in time out (if such is your wont) when they disrespect you or the rules that you lay out for them.  It's how they learn!  I see parents whose kids are literally tearing up a house or running amok in a store knocking things off the shelves and all the parents do is offer a meek "No..." or "Stop..."--a passive reaction to a very active behavior.  How can you expect your children to learn things like respect for themselves, for others, and for property not to mention self-discipline when you're not setting clearly defined limits and establishing consistent consequences for overstepping those bounds?  These things happen at home NOT in school!

And thus we return to the pre-k situation.  Most of the things that my kid will supposedly be benefiting from by enrolling early in a program are things that my wife and I already address and take care of now.  The most important difference will be exposing my son to the school environment and schedule...but he's two right now and I intend fully to allow him to enjoy this time.  He's going to be in school for almost a decade and a half not counting any higher education, why should I rush him into it?  The presumption is that a kid who starts school earlier will be more successful.  No offense to the kids that I grew up with that went to Nursery School but I turned out as good or better a child as they did and I developed into an arguably more successful and better prepared adult who started school at four and a half than a number of them who began at three or earlier.  Again, it's all about potential and frankly I do not believe that that potential can be tapped or be manipulated at such an early age.  Your kid's eighteen months old and he can read?  Great!  Come back to me in another eighteen years and let's see how much further ahead he is than the kid who starts reading at four or five.  Your kid can add and subtract at two?  I'd love to see how that head start helps her with calculus in another fifteen years.

The bottom line is that my son is going to be a great student or he's not going to be.  I'm not going to obsess about putting him in the "best" schools because if he's meant to be academically successful, he'll turn out that way whether he's in the worst school or the so-called best.  Don't believe me?  How many Macaulay Honors Students came from Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science?  A bunch.  And how many came from schools with less illustrious reputations like Curtis and Townsend Harris?  A few as well.  Now for the million-dollar question: which batch of kids is more successful?  The answer is: there is no collective answer.  It depends on the individual students.  Two of my friends who were members of the Macaulay Class of '10 attended one of the schools of diminished stature and now they are tremendous successes not just in a professional sense but in a human one; they have truly become citizens of the world and are more civic-minded than many of the most academically talented students produced by schools like NYU and other prestigious educational institutions.  They thrived and continue to thrive because of themselves, not because of some dopey new age propaganda or toddler-education programs.

I'm sure that I'm coming across as disgruntled and in many ways I am but my disdain for this new wave of parents and my seething misanthropy stems from what I view as a generation that has lost its sense of self and sense of respect.  Communication--arguably one of the most important aspects of our humanity--has become so distant and desensitized as a result of our ever expanding virtual presence on websites like Facebook and through the use of devices like smart phones that people seem to have lost sight of what's appropriate and what isn't.  People are quick to offer unsolicited opinions on things that we post online or through text messages and that lack of a filter seems to have found its way into our interpersonal communications in public.  For example, I'm tired of being given unsolicited parenting advice from anyone other than my parents, my family, and my friends who have children and with whom I have already talked about different parenting situations.  The two words that fill me with increasing ire every time I hear them are, "You should..."  I hear them from the register woman at Met, from the people my wife and I see in stores or at the mall, and from the people I encounter when I'm out on my walks.  I'm not sure of what compels people to offer unsolicited advice or to make corrections to things that they seem to think need correcting but they clearly do not take into account that when you approach someone and immediately begin telling them that they're doing something wrong, you're being both obnoxious and presumptuous.  You have no idea why I'm doing or not doing whatever it is and you can't possibly know whether or not you're more qualified than me to reach such a judgment or conclusion.

Here's a list of things that I am tired of:

People adjusting my son's zipper on his jacket if it's slightly open or closed all the way.  When you do that you're implying that you know what's better for him than I do and you're wrong.

People touching my kid.  It's slightly less obnoxious when it's an elderly person but when it's someone between the ages of thirty and sixty?  It's grounds for me getting my scream on.  You wouldn't appreciate it if I walked up to you and patted you on the head, squeezed your cheeks, or tugged on your hands, right?  So stop doing it to someone's child that you do not know!  Ironically enough, people under thirty seem not to engage in this behavior and, surprise surprise, neither do people who have toddlers and young children, themselves.

People offering my son things in front of me.  I am his parent and I make the decisions for him at this stage of his life.  If you want to give him candy, ask me first.  If you want to offer to clean his hands (the single oddest thing I've seen yet), ask me first (or, preferably, don't ask at all--just go away).  When you offer something directly to a two year old you're simultaneously disrespecting and devaluing me as a parent and calling into question your own judgment because, well, you're offering something to a two year old and are expecting that toddler to have the faculties necessary to make an informed decision.

People offering me parenting advice.  Though there's an outside chance that you actually have some sort of Master's or PhD in parenting, I'm going with the safe bet that you're just an overbearing, obnoxious asshole who thinks that a) you know better than me and b) that what you have to say is worth hearing.  I've never offered unsolicited advice to another parent even if I felt that what they were doing was wrong because, in the end, it's really just a matter of preference; whatever they are doing might not be how I would do it but that doesn't make it incorrect.  Parenting is an organic endeavor; what works for one kid, individually, might not work for another and what works in one instance or situation might not work in the next.  It's not only pompous to think that you know better than the child's parent when you offer that advice, it's pure idiocy.  You couldn't possibly know whether or not what you have to say has any merit because you do not have the information necessary to draw a reliable conclusion.

People who insist on specifying which parent the child resembles most.  This started literally the day we brought Timmy home and, fortunately, I was able to tell right away that you cannot put stock in what anyone else says about your child.  Some people said he looked only like me, others that he looked only like my wife Heather, and a few (the smart ones, truthfully) who said he looked like an even mix of the two of us.  It doesn't annoy me so much when people say "Oh, he definitely looks like his dad/mom" it's the people who insist on it--the ones who press the issue and say such asinine things as, "SORRY MOM BUT HE LOOKS 100% LIKE HIS FATHER.  HE DOESN'T HAVE ANY OF YOU IN HIM AT ALL!"  Now this has happened both to Heather and to me so it doesn't bother me at all (if it happened only to one of us I'm sure that person would have developed a complex about it) but it does annoy the piss out of me when someone makes a comment like the one quoted above, which, sadly, is precisely what happened at a supermarket a week or two ago.  How blatantly rude can you get?  First of all, when you're saying shit like this in front of the other person, how do you think that they feel?  Second of all, are you that unaware of how awkward you make the situation when you say something like that?  And lastly, who gives a shit which parent a child looks like more!?  My answer is: he looks like Timmy.

I swear, I wish I had the balls to have looked that woman square in the eye and say something like, "This woman isn't his mother" or "His mother left shortly after the birth.  This is my cousin" just to see what her reaction would have been.

So to tie this whole thing together, I must share an epiphany that I had earlier in the day while thinking about this entry.  I've always gone against the grain, throughout my entire life.  I've never been a rebel in any sense of the word but have been unconventional or eclectic in my approach towards and personal view of life.  People who love me understand and accept this, and, in many ways, fuel it with their own eccentricities.  I do not like following the status quo, especially when I feel opposed to it.  I keep my mouth shut when it comes to the affairs of others and offer my input only when asked for it.  I keep my hands to myself unless I'm invited to do otherwise.  I offer encouragement whenever I can and I always make sure that it's constructive and genuine; if my son fails I can still support him by helping him to see the positive in the experience and to suggest that he use the situation as motivation to try harder the next time and to learn whatever he can from what happened.  I don't sugarcoat things and I don't spew sycophantic platitudes simply as a way of endearing myself to another person; I'd rather that person respect me for my honesty and objectivity than for my hollow attempts at kissing their ass.  I disagree tremendously with what I view as the Yuppification of the next generation of children but I would never out-and-out tell someone that what they are doing with their child or how they are parenting said child is wrong because it's not for me to say; my acerbic venom here is a reaction to people telling me to my face how I should be raising my child.  To these people--the ones with a preternatural preoccupation with staying on top of whatever the latest trend is, the ones who value artificial perfection over the realization that perfection is divine and is unachievable by mere mortals--I offer the following in conclusion:

"Fuck off with your sofa units and strine green stripe patterns.  I say never be complete.  I say stop being perfect.  I say...let's evolve--let the chips fall where they may." --Tyler Durden