Monthly Archives: January, 2010

One Night of Fun?

January 26th, 2010 Posted by Susan's Musings 2 comments

Last Tuesday night was just plain fun. Endless pundits have analyzed Scott Brown’s victory but for me, while I am very concerned about the many issues confronting our nation, the bottom line was straightforward: David vs. Goliath.  An easily dismissed, good guy brought down an arrogant, inflated and heavy-handed party machine. Now comes the hard part.

I recently enjoyed a January 25th Wall Street Journal Marketplace section article which I believe might have captured the best advice I could offer the incoming Senator. The Marriott chain of hotels is adding some boutique hotels to their brand. While Marriott clearly has its concerns about losing a well crafted image by branching out, the owners of the boutique hotels have the opposite concern; will they lose their individuality? One quote in the article jumped out at me. A prospective hotelkeeper says, “The key for us is to maintain our appearance to the public that we are still an independent brand and not part of a chain that tends to get rooted in what I’ll call sameness.”

Now, there are some huge plusses in sameness. As a prospective hotel guest, I like knowing that my room will be predictably clean and pleasant. A large chain’s tried and tested web site is a plus. Being able to rely on quality control measures inspires confidence. At the same time, it is less exciting to stay at a hotel that looks exactly like the hotel one has stayed at in ten other cities. Large chains simply can’t offer the charm and personality of smaller hotels. During our family’s travels, one of the most enjoyable overnight experiences we have had was at a small bed and breakfast in Oregon. We also have had nightmare experiences at similarly unique places. If the boutique hotel owners and Marriott can craft a deal providing the guarantee of top notch service and accommodations without sacrificing the singular experience of a boutique hotel, both sides and the consumer will win.

Which brings me back to Scott Brown. Doesn’t he face the same challenge? Last Tuesday’s election was a repudiation of the president and the bait and switch game he played with the American public. When Barack Obama promised transparency during his election campaign, most Americans thought would apply his transparency promise to governing processes. As it turned out he meant transparency in national defense, putting American lives at risk by making security information public while his health care bill was being secretly crafted in closed sessions. It became clear over the last few months that his calls for bipartisanship meant embracing Hugo Chavez while shunning Republicans. His party deserved to lose and it did.

But the Republican Party did not necessarily win. Scott Brown won, conservative fiscal principles won and Americans won. The election held as strong a message for Republicans as for Democrats.

The November 2008 election which took place over a year ago was a wrenching one for me. As a child, my mother used to take me with her when she voted. I actually have no idea for whom she voted in any election, but she transmitted the message that voting is a solemn privilege and responsibility. In the last presidential election the choice was between two candidates, each of whom I thought would be disastrous for America, though in drastically different ways.

After much discussion with my husband and hours of deliberation, for the first time in my voting experience, I left the section for president and vice-president unmarked. This was the opposite of apathy; it was an intentional message. No matter what party I am registered with, I am an independent voter. Don’t take my vote for granted. I think a lot of other Americans might feel like me.

I see last Tuesday’s Massachusetts’ vote as giving the same message. Mr. Brown is a Republican and his challenge will be to be a team player while still retaining an identity as a man of integrity and principle. Unfortunately, almost by definition in politics, there will be times those two needs will clash. What will he do if the party asks him to campaign for a candidate whom he thinks will make a poor elected official? Or to trade his support for a bad bill in order to get someone else’s vote for a good one?  

Will the Republicans only rejoice in the Democrats well-deserved comeuppance? Or will they recognize that the entire game of politics and power is becoming repugnant to many Americans? The answer will affect Senator Brown. The choices he makes when party and principle clash will tell us if last Tuesday night was a step towards America’s salvation or just a fun evening.


Being Nice Means Not Doing Your Job!

January 25th, 2010 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

William Safire’s language column in the New York Times is usually not a big source of controversy. But I was definitely ticked off by a line in the Jan. 11th, (2009) newspaper.


Commenting on the use of filler words, such as frequently starting sentences with, “Look” or “Well” which he attributes respectively to Joe Biden and Ronald Reagan, he mentions Caroline Kennedy’s proclivity for dropping the phrase “you know” into her sentences.


I certainly have no argument with Mr. Safire’s dislike of the phrase and agree that it has an adolescent association. My problem is with his comment, “In an Associated Press print reporter’s act of kindness, her use of the phrase was edited out…”


“Reporter’s act of kindness”? A reporter may certainly do an act of kindness. He may volunteer as a Big Brother, donate money to a worthy charity or invite an elderly neighbor over for a meal. A police officer or a teacher can do those same acts of kindness. But if the police officer apprehends two burglars and arrests one while releasing the second because he likes his bumper sticker, or if a teacher catches two students cheating and ignores one but not the other, it is not an act of kindness but a dereliction of duty.


The reporter’s job is to accurately report the news. If he is transcribing a speech, his responsibility is to accurately transcribe it. If he has a policy of making everyone sound more intelligent than they actually are, say by routinely improving vocabulary or deleting filler words, then the policy should be stated and consistently applied. Barring such a policy, choosing to make some politicians sound more mature and erudite isn’t a kindness; it is a betrayal of the public’s trust.


During those months when it seemed as if dozens of people were running in the Republican primaries, I had the opportunity to hear a few of the candidates speak. One gentleman left a truly bad impression with his use of over 100 “ums” in a ten minute speech. Talking to a friend later in the day, I found out that he had lost her support due to this language pattern. She was, quite reasonably, looking for a candidate whose ideas she agreed with and who could articulate those ideas. In many ways, Barack Obama’s victory emphasizes the importance of fluent speech.


As a mother, I have spent and continue to spend a great deal of effort trying to eradicate some of my own children’s random and frequent use of the word “like” in conversation. Caroline Kennedy has made my job easier by illustrating how sloppy speech can give an impression of immaturity and lack of intelligence whether it reflects the truth or not. On a different subject, William Safire has added another tool to my mother’s belt. He has helped me show my children how bias in the news media can take subtle and difficult to uncover forms.


How Dare You!

January 19th, 2010 Posted by Homeschooling, Practical Parenting, Susan's Musings 6 comments

This past week my daughter brought her homeschooled six year old son in for his state-required annual evaluation. Now, Emily (name changed upon request) may have her own family and business and present herself to the outside world as the competent adult she is, but she is still one of my babies. This is to say that the possibility exists that I might not be totally objective when a bureaucrat assaults her.

But to my mind, when an arrogant, rude, officious, taxpayer funded “expert” evaluator has the gall to suggest that Emily is anything less than a supremely competent and talented mother and teacher, that official is saying more about herself than about my daughter.

I don’t expect this pen-pusher to be familiar with Emily’s high school record, or know that she attended college on a complete academic scholarship. She has no way of appreciating that while in college majoring in biology, the administration implored Emily to enroll simultaneously in the School of Education and get a teacher’s license. Obviously, she isn’t aware that after attending a few education classes Emily felt that the standards for the courses were so appallingly low and the ideology level so high that it would be a waste of her time to enroll.

It is also unrealistic to expect this administrator to know that while a full time student in college, Emily simultaneously taught geography in a private junior high school and was called in by a puzzled principal who told her that in all the years that he regularly asked students what classes they especially enjoy, he had never before had anyone, let alone a majority, answer “geography”. Nor was this taxpayer-funded woman present six years later when some of the girls from that class ended up on a bus with Emily’s younger sister and proceeded to sing the songs Emily had taught them naming all the countries of Africa and Asia.

The official had no way of knowing any of those things. But she did see a six year old reading, writing and doing math at an advanced level for his age. She ignored those things and instead berated my daughter for not having dated worksheets and reams of tests.

She observed a child excited and enthusiastic about history. That was unimportant. She scolded my daughter for having a method of instruction that didn’t correlate with the authorized forms she was meticulously filling in. She faced a youngster who reads and writes a second language in addition to English. First graders aren’t supposed to do that, so it was immaterial. Similarly, my grandson’s fascination with and knowledge about airplanes and his understanding of the processes by which plants and vegetables grow was irrelevant; all that mattered was the lack of “official” science curricula.

All of which helps explain why large swathes of public education are a mess. There is no doubt in my mind that the children in the state in which Emily lives would benefit more from having Emily coach and evaluate their teachers rather than being evaluated herself. Quite frankly, I think any unbiased outside observer would agree.


There’s a Skunk in the Cinnamon

January 13th, 2010 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

For years realtors have seduced prospective home buyers by warming a foil packet with cinnamon and brown sugar in the oven. Restaurant owners know that certain colors stimulate appetite and mall owners are aware that picking the right music to play in the background can encourage sales.


But, of course, in the end whatever defects the house has are still there, the food presented still needs to be tasty and the goods offered in stores need to be attractive and well priced. If the smell, sight and atmosphere of a place enhance a good experience they are a bonus; if they are meant as smoke and mirrors to hoodwink naïve individuals and cover up flaws they are unethical.


When it comes to public safety, these types of shenanigans are dangerous. How many people are shocked, just shocked, that while law-abiding passengers dutifully tossed out their water bottles and hand creams before boarding a plane this past Saturday, a terrorist ignored the rules? Probably the same people who believe that not letting passengers out of their seats for the last hour of a flight will really solve the problem.


But, like you, I lead a busy life. There is family to take care of, a back-log of work which requires attention and bills that need to be paid. We have, over the past few weeks, received greetings from friends updating us on their families’ growth and activities. We had a chance to see much of our own family. Had we been able to master the time/space/money continuum we could have attended the wedding of three friends’ children last week. There are many blessings for which to be grateful.


If I truly focus on the massive terrorist network out there or the health bill that was rammed through the Senate, or the arrogance, incompetence and corruption of those in office in this country and around the world, I would have to turn my life upside down and react. I don’t even know what form that would need to take, as I see no wise leadership on any horizon.


I feel like a mother in 1862, busily canning fruit and making sure that her sixteen-year-old son wears a sweater when he’s outside. Those are her immediate concerns; what can she do about the threats looming on the horizon? It is far easier to smell the cinnamon sugar, while enjoying the décor and music.



News Stories and Other Works of Fiction

January 12th, 2010 Posted by Susan's Musings 6 comments

Recently, I read a newspaper story of a boat on fire and its owner’s rescue by a fellow mariner. The account appeared on the online version of our local paper. It confirmed my decision to stop getting a physical copy of the same paper.


You see, certain details about the event were accurately reported.  It is true that there was an incident on a local lake involving two boats; one which was on fire and the other which served as a rescue vessel. But what became clear from the reader response to the article was that the news story mistakenly reported Boater A jumping overboard to escape the flames and being fished out of the water by boater B. A cable news channel seemed to have gotten the story even more confused when it portrayed the captain of the rescue boat boarding the burning vessel to save his neighbor.


The real story was dramatic enough as the captain of the burning boat crossed from his bow to the bow of the second boat only moments before fire engulfed his vessel. And I can’t think of any real harm to the universe done by the careless and erroneous reporting.


Which is why it serves as such a valuable lesson. This story involved no confusion as on a battlefield or disaster scene, generated no rush to scoop another newspaper (the city only has one), and had no element which could rouse the reporter’s personal political biases. Even so, the reporter messed up the story and the newspaper ran an error filled article.


Repressive regimes do their best to ensure that only the official version of the news gets reported. When Germany invaded other countries, it confiscated radios so that the citizens wouldn’t have any outside sources of news. Citizens of the old Soviet Union knew they needed to read between the lines of Pravda newspaper. Taking stories at face value was like knowingly accepting counterfeit money. Today, regimes like Iran and China attempt to control Internet access.


Thanks to the constitution’s first amendment, America’s press cannot be censored by Congress or forced to print anything. But that only allows a free press to function, it doesn’t guarantee one. Freedom of speech does not impose the obligation on any individual or any news service to report the truth accurately. The press has the choice to highlight a story or underplay it. When Congress or the president’s approval rating is front page news under one administration and not reported or delegated to a monthly back page report under another administration or when unpopular legislation moving through Congress is ignored we have a free but a useless press.  When stories destroying someone’s character are reported in large print and the correction or retraction appears in an inconspicuous box, we have a free but harmful press.

 The New York Times has proudly proclaimed for decades, “All the news that’s fit to print.” A more accurate rendition for today’s news gatherers might be “All the news we choose, printed whether it is accurate or not.”


The Age of Maturity

January 7th, 2010 Posted by Susan's Musings 1 comment

When I was a teenager, my family attended a wedding which broadened my horizons quite a bit. I hadn’t attended many wedding before then, but the ones that I did took place in a gossamer haze, having as much to do with Cinderella and Barbie as real life. The brides looked like princesses, the grooms, if I paid attention to them at all, were handsome. Happily ever after was a foregone conclusion.

On this occasion I had a rude awakening.  Even to my immature eyes it was clear that all was not right. The tension was palpable as the bride’s warm and affectionate parents (close friends of my family) were greeted with icy demeanors by the groom’s side. The groom himself exuded none of the amiability that was always found in his own home. I have no idea what the background story was, but the wedding was less fairy tale and more of a gauntlet. Nobody was surprised when a divorce followed a few years later.

This week marks the publication of Elizabeth Gilbert’s second book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage. Like millions of others, I heartily enjoyed her bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love. The account of her around the world post-divorce adventures was insightful, poignant, and humorous. While I wouldn’t recommend some of her life choices and the book undoubtedly reveals a self-preoccupation too often seen nowadays, she is an undeniably talented writer. I read quite a few passages more than once for the sheer pleasure of the language.

In an interview presented in the Wall Street Journal just before her second book launches, Ms. Gilbert makes the point that marriage requires maturity and as such isn’t for the young. But age does not automatically confer maturity. If, for example, we decreed thirty-two as the minimum legal age for marriage, I don’t think we would see a much greater success rate. Don’t we all know extremely immature “seasoned citizens”? I also know very young couples who understand the concept of commitment better than those double their age. Ms. Gilbert’s conviction that she is not interested in having children also allows her to extol the virtues of marrying at a later age. Additionally she is comfortable with sex outside of marriage, which makes her assertion less useful for society in general.

The question I would ask is why our society seems to be doing such a poor job of producing adults with a mature understanding of marriage.

It seems to me that encouraging the establishment of stable, life-long marriages and families at a relatively young age is more beneficial to a culture than advocating years filled with either loneliness or sequential relationships outside of marriage. If I could recommend anything it would not be the delaying of marriage but rather the acknowledgement that marriage should be treated with no less seriousness than a career.

When a five year old tells us that he or she is going to be a fireman, astronaut, ballerina or store owner, we are supportive. But as the child grows we, and the world, help them discover that each of these requires a great deal of work, study, and preparation. Not only that, but the learning and effort don’t end with a degree or certification. Lifelong, ongoing work is required to succeed. We also openly discuss the different realities of each choice, economically, emotionally as well as socially. If a child never expresses an interest in work, we inform him of the serious downside of not working. Yet we often allow our children to remain in a childlike state of fantasy about marriage or to ignore it altogether. What a different society we would live in if marriage and family life stopped being seen as what one simply does if one feels like it and instead were granted the dedication, training, and commitment they deserve.

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