Tuesday, May 26, 2009

So What Can "American Idol" Teach Our Kids About...Cheating??

Honesty and fair play: two concepts that we constantly try and instill in our children. Try your hardest and be proud when you’ve given your all. If you don’t win the race, it’s alright as long as you did your best. If you can’t win honestly, it’s better to lose than cheat.

As parents, we hope that these are ideas that will sink in with our sons and daughters and help motivate them to do their best regardless of the circumstances – as long as it’s done in a respectful and honest manner.

So what does it mean when a cultural phenomenon like “American Idol” - a show that so many young people look to as an example of how hard work (and a bit of luck) pays off in the end – is suddenly in the news for cheating??

As the New York Times reported just a short time ago, AT&T may have rigged the system somewhat so that more votes were cast for the ultimate winner through a block voting system than were for the runner-up. In fact, according to the Times story, “AT&T…might have influenced the outcome of this year’s competition by providing phones for free text-messaging services and lessons in casting blocks of votes at parties organized by fans of Kris Allen, the Arkansas singer who was the winner of the show last week...There appear to have been no similar efforts to provide free texting services to supporters of Adam Lambert.”

Simon, Randy, Paula and the new judge (you can tell I watch this show a lot) didn’t smash someone’s dream of fame and fortune. It wasn’t even millions of fans voting for Kris over Adam who did it. No, it was a company – a sponsor – who decided (allegedly) to rig the system.

What does this teach our kids about fair play, hard work and honest effort? No matter what you do, someone else can change the rules on you at the last minute?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Special Little Moments with Your Kids

There’s so much rush to life: getting up, ready, and out the door on time for work; making sure the kids are up and dressed and have their show-and-tell items ready for preschool; scheduling the biweekly lawn mowing; meetings; family visits. The list of responsibilities for parents is never-ending, and it seems like everything is a constant rush to complete one task and get going on the next one.

As such, it’s the quiet times that really make the rushed times worthwhile. Our oldest daughter going to great lengths to set up our living room for a show she’s about to perform, and making sure we have pennies to buy our tickets and seats with a good view. My youngest daughter coming down to get me to read a story to her and then falling asleep in my lap for two hours. Both of them shrugging off my concerns over their being afraid to enjoy their first-ever viewing of two of the “Jurassic Park” films – surprisingly, without the crying and screaming I expected (case in point with my oldest, after a pair of T-Rexes has divided one of the characters among themselves for a quick snack: “Daddy? Will the others now go try and find him? Did he hide in the jungle? Will they be able to put his head back on?”).

Life can be brutal, exhausting, and often demoralizing. The work never ends, you never seem to have enough time or enough money to do everything you want or need to do, and you juggle all of this with trying to be a good parent. But that’s where kids can be helpful and give each of us a gift with the little things they try to do – to entertain us, to get our attention, to make us feel loved.

Make sure you enjoy those small moments that will help keep you going.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Your Child is Dangerously Ill; Would You Support Their Decision to Refuse Treatment?

For the past few days, network news has been riveted by the story of 13-year-old Daniel Hauser, the Minnesota boy suffering from Hodgkins lymphoma who has refused chemotherapy and whose parents are respecting his wishes. I’m not certain whether Daniel doesn’t want to proceed due to religious convictions or as a result of how the first round of chemotherapy made him feel. However, the pace has certainly picked up; in short (for those not familiar with the story), a judge intervened in the matter, Daniel and his mother have now disappeared, and an arrest warrant has been issued.

There are two issues that I see here which are troubling to me and which I can’t sort out in my mind: parents respecting the wishes of a child versus pushing for something which could save his life; and the right of the courts to intervene in decisions which should be made by a family. To begin, I can’t judge the maturity level of Daniel nor his capability for making such a decision about his own health; after all, he is only 13, and I can’t recall that I’ve met anyone at that age who is able to tackle such life-changing decisions. His parents are certainly doing what they feel they must in order to support their son. However, I look at my children and try and reconcile the anguish these parents must be feeling between honoring and respecting your child and doing whatever you need to do to save their life.

I don’t have a common frame of reference with those whose religious convictions lead them to turn down medical assistance and instead wait for direct intervention from God (although I do feel that the abilities with which our doctors and nurses have been blessed in order to save lives is direct intervention from God), and as such I’m in no position to judge anyone based solely on that. However, even if I did believe that, how in good conscious – how as a course of loving my children – could I look at either of my daughters during a time where their health is in danger and not want to sweep them in my arms and get them to the best care possible? Isn’t one of the roles of a parent to want the very best of everything for your children, including medical care? Even if one my kids was at a point where they were young enough to be under the age of majority and still decided they didn’t want to pursue medical care, I have a feeling I would have to resort to the “I know what’s best for you” argument and force them. Choosing between supporting your children and doing what you – not they – feel is best for their well-being is a decision I hope never have to face.

At the same time, where does the court system have the authority to intervene on a matter such as this? I know that there are a multitude of laws on the books regarding endangering the well-being of a child, and certainly the parents could be considered to be endangering Daniel by not forcing him to receive treatment. But Daniel made his decision for whatever reason he felt was appropriate, and if by some chance it is as a result of a strongly-held religious view wouldn’t the court’s intervening be a violation of a person’s First Amendment protections against infringing on their religious beliefs?

At its core, I see this situation as it stands today being just a terrible period of fear: a child who thinks he knows what he is doing (even though doctors have said his chances for survival improve to nearly 90 percent with treatment) but is afraid because of the decision he has made; parents who are fearful of the consequences of their supporting his position; a mother and child on the run who are afraid of being caught. And above all, there has to be an overwhelming fear of the potential for this mother and father to lose their son.

I don’t know what I would do in this situation. Do you?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

There's More to Life Than What's Right in Front of You

Today started off great – up early, ready early, out the door on time. Driving to work, all I could focus on was the list of projects awaiting me on my desk and in my email inbox. It’s Thursday, the weekend is almost here, and I was about to knock off some important work before riding off into the Friday evening sunset in just over a day.

To quote Ethel Merman, “Everything’s coming up roses!”

My car, however, had other ideas. It’s odd, but it seems that alternators seem to have this built-in ability to detect the most inopportune time to malfunction. Waving battery needles and red “Hey! Look down here at the dashboard! What do you think is wrong with me?” lights start dancing around in front of me, and before I knew it I was sitting on the side of the road, cell phone in hand, pacing a rut in the median while waiting for Triple AAA to tow me across the Potomac.

If Ethel was trying to tell me everything was coming up roses, Judas Priest was countering with, “You’ve got another thing comin’!”

So, instead of being at work at 7:30, rifling through the morning papers and my stack of news clippings, I was at my desk two hours late, cursing the car, the delay in tackling my work, and my dumb luck. Franz Schubert once said “A man endures misfortune without complaint;” obviously, Schubert never met me on a Thursday morning when my Type A schedule was getting shoved into Type E chaos.

And then I had a chat with a friend. The details of the chat aren’t important; it is sufficient to say that it is someone with a lot on their plate – actually, a lot on many different plates – and it put my car troubles (and griping) solidly into perspective. This friend gives a lot – to their family, their friends, their colleagues; I can certainly say that I’ve been given the gift of some valuable time, conversation, and insights over the past couple of years. On this day, at this particular time, I saw that I could try – in my own inimitable way – to give a little something back.

It certainly never seems, when trying to repay the kindness of friends, to measure up to what I’ve been given, but even in trying to give something back to this friend, I got something back: an awareness (not quite the burning bush, but not too shabby in its own right) that alternators and getting to work on time and clearing off a to-do list are secondary to the needs of others.

A famous Vulcan once said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” Today, I got a great reminder in the midst of the chaos that was my own that it’s sometimes more important to focus on the needs of the one and the chaos that they might be battling in their own life.

So thank you Ford Motor Company – if it wasn’t for your lousy alternator, I might have missed out on a great gift!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Just Because You Leave High School Doesn't Mean Your Teachers are Done

In yet another sign that the years since my graduation from high school continue to quickly fade into the past, I received word last night night that another one of my high school teachers has passed away.

She was 83 years old and had lived a long and happy life, devoting her working life to English and her retirement years to her friends, her family, and what I've heard was an absolutely magnificent garden. I hadn't actually seen her in the two-plus decades since I left school, but I had spoken with her on the telephone a few times over the years and I received word from time that she had made a point of keeping up with what I was doing with my life.

I always felt guilty over the years that we had played some ridiculous pranks on her during our youth - setting her turntable speed to 16 rpm just before she was due to start playing a recording of one of Shakespeare's plays; setting the alarm clock on her filing cabinet to go off in a class later in the day; reversing all of the desks in the room so that she was facing one wall and all of the students were facing the other. We always thought we were being funny, but as time went on I always felt badly that we had tormented her as much as we did.

Another of my teachers from those years - a wonderful lady who is godmother to my oldest child, was like my second mother during my parents' divorce, and has become a very dear friend - was the one who had informed me of Mrs. O's death, and she was the one in whom I confided my guilt over the pranks we had played. The response was not what I had expected; she simply laughed and said that teachers are very forgiving folks who understand that they are teaching kids, and that Mrs. O never held those pranks against me. In fact, she told me that the two of them had had many conversations over the years about the direction my life was taking, about some of the writing I had been doing (historical articles published in an Alabama magazine), and about my marriage and the growth of my new family.

Quite unexpectedly, here was another lesson I learned from these two teachers: that they can be very forgiving, and that interest in their students never ends with the walk across the stage in cap-and-gown, diploma held high.

Guilt? It's gone. Now I'm just smiling...

Saturday, May 09, 2009

An Evening with Christopher Buckley

From my younger years, I have vivid recollections of William F. Buckley, Jr., mostly from his role as host of PBS' "Firing Line." I don't know how often my parents watched the show, but I have strong memories of Buckley, reclining in his chair, notes on his knee, speaking with his inimitable accent about important news of the day. As I got older and my political beliefs were being developed, I discovered just how important Buckley had been to generations of conservatives in this country as the father of the movement.

The next generation of the family, son Christopher, wasn't as well known to me. I had heard of his many humorous novels - I suppose the most famous being Thank You for Smoking - but hadn't actually read any of them, and until recently hadn't read any of his columns (which are carried on the website The Daily Beast; I highly recommend them). I also recalled that he had incurred the wrath of the hard-right conservatives when he broke with family tradition and endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 election. So when I saw that was appearing at Politics and Prose last night to discuss his latest book, Losing Mum and Pup, I took advantage of the opportunity and attended to learn a bit more about him.

As with my previous visits to the store, I opted to arrive early and am glad I did - the place was absolutely packed. I was fortunate to get a good seat, and the friend who was joining me managed to arrive just two or three minutes before I would have been required to relinquish the seat I was holding for him. What was most surprising to me was that contrary to what I was expecting in terms of the age of the crowd, a large majority of those in attendance were in their 70s - seemingly more from WFB's generation than that of his son, but was certainly pleased that his writing holds appeal to such a large segment of folks. One lady seated near me asked if I was familiar with his work, and then proceded to give one of the best layperson's explanations of his writing that I'll ever get - "He takes people from Washington that you'll probably recognize and puts them in situations that aren't really absurd - but then drags them out to as absurd an end as he possibly can."

This was Buckley's thirteenth appearance at Politics and Prose, and he celebrated this event by bringing his son and daughter with him - both of whom really seemed to enjoy being there with him (I can't say all kids their age would have enjoyed doing something like this on a gorgeous Friday spring night in Washington). He was an extremely witty and charming gentleman and reminded me of a cool college professor that takes the class out for beers at the end of the semester. The audience was quite taken with him and hung on his every word.

He began by reading a chapter of his newest book, which covers the year of his life between the death of his mother and the death of his father (the New York Times recently published a great review, which can be read here). It was very poignant but full of humor - made all the more real by the emotion he put into reading it - and we were all obviously on a fine line between laughter and tears. At the conclusion of his reading, he then took several questions from the audience - and it was almost painful listening at some of the insane queries being posed: one gentleman was intent on hearing every opinion Buckley had about the feud between his father and Gore Vidal resulting from the famous incident at the 1968 Democrat convention (a clip of which can be viewed here), which quickly got old; one lady, who had also lost her parents, went into a long explanation of how she had learned things about them as she was going through their papers and how she was so moved by Buckley's experience that she literally "curled up into a fetal position around the book" (he ended his response to her by thanking her for curling up with his book, "however you did it"); another gentleman tried to be very respectful as he asked Buckley if he thought his father's mind had become sclerotic towards the end of his life (which elicited an audible groan from the audience). Despite the inane quality of most of the questions, he handled each of them very gracefully.

Then came the stampede for the signing line, which one gentleman beat by starting to walk towards Buckley during the answer to his last question, just to ensure that he was at the table immediately. My friend and I found a spot towards the end and had a nice visit as the line moved - surprisingly quickly, in fact, as it seemed most of the crowd left after he finished with the question-and-answer session. He took time to chat with everyone and pose for photos for those who asked, and I had an opportunity to tell him how much I had enjoyed reading his Daily Beast columns and was looking forward to his books.

All in all, it was a great evening - and seeing as how Buckley and his family live here in the Washington area, I'm hoping to have more opportunities in the future to hear him speak.