Sunday, October 29, 2006

Being Pretty or Ugly Depends on Who's Observing

It’s interesting to me how some people can see or hear something and call it beautiful while others observing the same thing can call it ugly. Maybe others have no opinion of it at all.

There are certain things that every rational person agrees is good or bad. All but psychotics and sociopaths would agree that thievery and murder are bad. And almost everyone agrees that having a good deal of wealth is better than living in poverty.

Those situations can be viewed from an objective standpoint. But even some subjective viewpoints can be generally agreed to by the vast majority of people. For example, almost everyone agrees that the sight of the Grand Canyon is awe inspiring. On the other hand, most folks would look with disgust at a puddle of fresh vomit.

What is most interesting, however, is that there are works of art or pieces of music that some people consider to be aesthetically very pleasing while others find them abhorrent.

Consider a famous painting such as the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, for example. It is obviously appreciated by most art connoisseurs. And there must have been some reason for it to become a priceless work. But if someone unfamiliar with the painting were to view it, he or she might very well consider it quite ordinary. What quality or qualities about a work of art make it pleasing, or expensive?

The same is true of music. Some people love listening to the classics, such as the masterpieces of Mozart and Hayden. Others find them boring. It probably depends on what aspect of music one finds most enjoyable: beat, rhythm, melody, etc.

For example, I find most music that is played on any Top-40 radio station abhorrent. But obviously the majority of music listeners enjoy it or else it wouldn’t be in the top 40. To me, most modern Pop and Country music is simplistic and trite.

I also tend to really loathe songs about certain subjects, regardless of the genre. For example, I really can’t stand songs about vehicles. There were a lot of early Pop songs written about hot rods, and there still is a lot of Country music written about pickup trucks.

I also can’t stand songs written about or for dances. That would include songs like Do the Twist, Do the Locomotion, The Bump, or Do the Watoobee. And I also find songs written about a specific genre of music very uninspired, such as Old Time Rock and Roll, C-O-U-N-T-R-Y, or that old Country song from the ‘70s, Kindly Keep it Country.

It’s not that I only enjoy songs with more substantive value; I also like a few with frivolous lyrics. But I generally prefer music that requires some semblance of imagination.

With paintings, though, imagination is not a requirement. I like realism in a painting. I can understand Impressionism and admit it takes talent to pull it off, but when looking at a painting, I prefer the ones that appear almost photographic.

In art and music, as in religion and politics, there is lots of room for personal preferences. I guess that’s a good thing, because otherwise, there would be only one or two genres of music and all art would look the same.

For that reason, I guess I can admit that there is a place in the music world for Rap, as long as it doesn’t invade my ear space.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Trick-or-Treat Time Again

Remember trick-or-treating? Not the giving out part, but the receiving?

When I was very young, I had no idea what the term meant. I thought it must have been just a single word: trickertreat. I didn’t find out until later, when I was an older kid and started going out on Halloween with my friends that I broke the term down for the first time into two concepts: getting treated or being tricked.

It was adult-sanctioned childhood extortion. What could be better?

Back in those days, if you didn’t provide the little fake ghouls with a treat, and a good treat at that, the kiddies would gladly soap your windows, toilet paper the tree out front, or throw eggs at your front door.

And it made no difference whatsoever whether or not you left your front porch light on as a welcome beacon. It made no difference whether or not you were even home. If the little extortionists went to your house and didn’t get a treat, you were in serious jeopardy of getting tricked.

Of course, the tricks were fairly benign. Soap washes off easily. Toilet paper decays away. And eggs are scrubbed off easily enough unless you allow them to get dry and hard. True vandalism, breaking windows, setting fires, destroying property, was rare.

Today, of course, the tradition is a little different. The rules of engagement have changed. Parents accompany their kids on their candy-seeking journey until they are almost too old to engage in such activity. And you never go to a house uninvited, one with the porch light off.

The term, trick-or-treat, has lost almost all of its former meaning. It virtually has become a single word. If kids come to your house and you’re out of candy, you can feel fairly safe that you won’t be tricked. Well, that is unless the trick-or-treaters are teenagers. Then all bets are off.

While younger kids and preteens offer little threat, teenagers often forgo the asking-for-a-treat part of the night in favor of concentrating on the tricks. They don’t need to dress like a dork and ask the neighbors for candy; their smaller siblings will provide a bounty for them.

And if you’re in certain larger cities, like Detroit, the tricks have often gotten out of hand. Older teens and even young adults find it amusing to go out on an arson spree on Halloween night. Thankfully, those kinds of serious tricks of outright vandalism are not common in most civilized neighborhoods.

I stopped trick-or-treating when I was about 12 or 13. These days, I often get visits from kids in their mid teens making their rounds. Some of them are simply taking their younger siblings around and so join in the act. Others go out in groups on their own.

Even so, I’ve been fortunate enough over the years not to have been tricked. My first year out of college I got my car egged. And there have been two or three less troublesome tricking events, but nothing major.

There was a time, back in the ‘80s, when the tide got turned and the treat givers started playing dangerous tricks on the costumed kids. Sharp objects such as pins and glass started showing up in apples and candy.

Although there have not been many reports of candy tampering in recent years, the incidence did spark a sense of heightened awareness by parents. More parents are checking the treat bag and more parents are taking their youngster around the neighborhood to trusted homes.

It’s just another way Halloween traditions have evolved over the years. We’ve come a long way from the ancient practice of beggars asking for soul cakes on Halloween in exchange for their prayers on behalf of the dearly departed. Today, a Snickers bar will do just fine.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Radio: Better Format, Worse Music

Back in the early 1970s, I was interested in being on the broadcast end of radio. Although I was studying to be a teacher, I also tinkered with the notion of being a disc jockey. I spent three years of my college career being one of the on-air personalities at Franklin College radio.

The college station was small and not very powerful. The AM side of the dial could be heard only on campus, but with a good radio and the right weather conditions, the FM signal could be picked up over much of Johnson County.

At first, the play lists were pretty much up to the DJ. There were genre guidelines, of course, but I could play whatever I liked. Back in those days, Country Music didn’t enjoy the popularity it does today, but that’s mostly what I played. It wasn’t cool, but it was better music than the assembly-line stuff that’s played on country stations today.

If I had my own radio show today, I would play jazz and the standard vocals. But I went the other way, opting to teach instead of broadcast.

These days, radio doesn’t play a big part of my life. I neither broadcast nor do I listen. I don’t know what has changed the most, radio and the music it plays, or my personal tastes. Either way, the stuff they play on most radio stations is not what I would play on my stereo system.

When I was in my teens, I listened to WIBC in Indianapolis a lot. They played a mix of popular songs. But mostly they played commercials. It was the bane of radio in the 1960s and ‘70s.

While in college, I listened to WIRE country AM. The DJs grew to be my on-air friends. Still, there were all those commercials. Typically, the station would play one song then air about three of four commercials. Then the DJ would talk for awhile before playing another song about 10 minutes following the last one.

In those days, most artists knew that if they wanted their song to be played on the radio, they would keep it below three minutes in length. That went for Pop and Country music.

Of course, there were those few progressive musicians that bucked the trend, such as Don McLean whose American Pie lasted well over seven minutes. Radio stations got around that flaw by playing only half of the song, then airing some commercials before finishing it.

These days, radio has caught on to what listeners were telling them. They play more music at a time. Oh, there are still plenty of commercials, but they are mostly lumped together in a five to seven minute block every half hour or so. In the mean time, the stations typically play at least three to five songs in a row without too much interruption.

That still doesn’t make the music worth listening to. Most stations play either Top-40 Pop or Country. I not only don’t like 95 percent of it, it actually upsets me that the majority of Americans would actually consider the stuff they play as real music. Of course, that’s just my opinion. The stations play what sells and most teenagers don’t care that their music is artistically anemic.

So I typically just leave the radio dial in neutral while listening to my personalized music on my favorite Internet radio station. It allows me to fine tune the music they play to exactly what I would play myself if I were still a DJ and had the freedom to make my own play lists.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Mainstream Students Cheated by Bush's Policy

There are two philosophies about how to coach a Little League baseball team. One is that you let all kids play in every game, no matter how good or bad they are. After all, it’s just a game and, though it would be nice to win them all, it’s far better to let every player participate and have fun. It also means that there will be no self-esteem issues, since everyone gets to join in.

The other philosophy is that only the players who are more apt to provide a win for the team get to play. Coaches often send in weaker players only if the game has been wrapped up, or if there is no chance of pulling off a win late in the game.

Most coaches, parents, and psychologists would prefer the first philosophy. It’s only a kids’ game and it is far better to have fun with it than to take it too seriously.

But there comes a time, usually in high school, when student athletes must try out for the team, and only the better players are put on the field or the court, because by then, it’s more about the school, the team, and even the game than about individual players. After all, a lot of school pride and recognition comes from having a winning team.

And so it should be with academics.

When Pres. George W. Bush introduced his education policy to Congress back in 2001, the lawmakers passed his proposal, calling it the No Child Left Behind Act. The theory was, and is, that all children deserve an equal education and we must do whatever is necessary to provide that education for them all, regardless of ability or inclination to learn.

It sounds good. It sounds fair. It sounds like the right thing to do, at least on the surface.

But let’s face it; it’s not the right thing. It hasn’t worked and it isn’t working still. It not only has failed to provide equal and quality education for the underachievers and disadvantaged, it has gone a step further and diminished educational opportunities for the average and above-average students.

We must ask ourselves the basic question: Why do we educate our children in the first place? Ultimately, it is hoped that a better education will lead to better opportunities in the future. More education means better jobs and higher earnings.

Those assumptions are borne out by statistics. Students who stay in school and graduate earn more money over a lifetime than those who drop out, on the average. And students who graduate from college have a higher average salary than those who do not attend post-secondary schools.

But a good education is not only for the benefit of the individual. It is also for the good of society. That is why society pays for it. Even adults without children must pay school taxes, because all of society benefits from a well-educated public.

Bush’s No Child Left Behind program forces teachers and administrators to spend so much time, effort, and money trying to squeeze as much education as possible into those students who are not likely to ever contribute much to society that those more likely to learn are cheated.

Let’s face it, some students are going to end up in jail, on drugs, or become a burden on society. Some girls will become welfare mothers and baby factories no matter how much we attempt to rehabilitate them or educate them for the mainstream.

Our educational dollars and efforts would be far better spent helping the average and above average students develop their skills so that they can become productive members of society.

And that’s not to say we forget about the underachievers or those with mental disabilities. Of course we don’t. We do what we can, but we must realize there is only so much we can do without pilfering the resources used to educate the mainstream, those who will benefit most.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Cell Phones Important to Kids, Parents

Consider two hypothetical scenarios.

A 12-year-old student gets out of school one afternoon and starts his trek home when he spots two of the school bullies that constantly harass him and other weaker students in his grade. They are on an approach vector and the young man starts to panic.

These bullies are not satisfied with just teasing him. In the past, they have attacked him physically, stolen money from him, and threatened his younger sister. He knows they are big trouble for him.

He remembers the cell phone in his backpack. He pulls it out of the side pocket and immediately dials his mom at home using speed dial. The bullies spot his phone activity and change direction. The mother, just a couple of blocks away in her car, speeds to his location. The young man is safe, thanks to his cell phone.

In a science classroom, a teacher is trying his best to educate the ninth graders in his charge about the periodic table of elements. In the back, a student has his book open and appears to be engaged in the assignment.

The teacher clandestinely strolls back to where the student is seated and spies a cell phone opened in his hands. The student is sending a text message to his girlfriend in social studies class down the hall. Despite appearances, he is completely off task.

School officials in most schools across the country, and here in Johnson County, cite the last scenario as an example of why they have banned cell phones in school. New York City schools have one of the most stringent anti-cell-phone rules in the country, and some parents are on the attack because of it.

Many parents would rather their children be allowed to carry cell phones while at school. While acknowledging that they should not be used during class time, and accepting the dolling out of punishment for such a violation, they claim cell phone possession should not be prohibited outright at school.

Indianapolis Public School bans all cell phones and other electronic devices, such as MP3 players, at school. Children are not supposed to have them in their possession.

Indiana had a state law that allowed for suspension from school for carrying cell phones or pagers. Edinburgh Community School Corp. still has such a policy on its books.

Detroit bans cell phones and the second offense means the student forfeits the phone to the school. Boston has changed its policy to allow cell phones in school, but not the use of them during class. Los Angeles has a similar policy.

In addition to the possibility that students may disrupt class with cell phones, schools point out that they are often stolen. And, some administrators claim that students have gotten by without them for hundreds of years, so there is no need to allow them now.

Humanity once got by just fine without cars or refrigerators, too.

Although cell phones can be misused and used at inappropriate times, the best solution would be to punish the offending behavior, not ban cell phones outright. I am both a parent and a teacher. I can see it from both sides.

I have confiscated cell phones from students trying to play games on them or send text messages during class. I have also seen students pull them out of their pocket merely to check the time. In those cases, I tell them to put them away because they are not allowed.

Cell phones can be life savers. They are one of the best personal security devices ever invented. And for schools to ban them outright simply because some students might misuse them is a sign the schools are out of step with reality and that their policies are anachronistic.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

School Food Not Really So Bad, Maybe

Few things are as maligned on a daily basis as much as school cafeteria food. It doesn’t matter what school or grade level, from first grade through college, cafeteria food is equated with everything from mystery meat to toxic waste.

On one episode of the Simpsons, little Lisa, bleeding heart that she is, decided she was no longer going to eat meat. Upon entering the cafeteria at her school, she asked the serving lady if each item she had on her plate had meat in it. The lady said yes to everything. “Does the bread have meat in it,” she asked. “Yes,” was the reply.

In desperation, Lisa finally asked her, “Is there anything that doesn’t have meat in it?” The grumpy serving line lady quipped, “You might try the meatloaf. It doesn’t have much meat in it.”

From late night talk show hosts to everyday students, cafeteria food is disparaged. Remember when Ronald Reagan wanted to include ketchup as a vegetable? Comedians had a field day with that one.

I, on the other hand, am not nearly so critical. Although I can’t say I am a big fan, I will admit that I have been served up several meals at various school cafeterias that were pretty darn delicious.

One example is the broccoli and cheese side dish they serve once in awhile at the school where I teach. It is one of the few places that cooks broccoli the way I like it, nice and soft.

When I was in first grade at Edinburgh I ate in the cafeteria for the first time. I took one bite of the mixed veggies and almost gagged. I boycotted the place until at least the third grade. After that, I don’t remember the food being so bad.

I especially liked the bread and butter sandwiches. They served them everyday. The serving ladies would always ask, “How many breads?” You could get between one and four sandwich triangles. I always got four.

No matter what else was being served, I could always count on those delicious sandwiches made from bread that was oh-so-soft, spread thinly with softened, but not melted, butter.

In college, we called our cafeteria Saga, because it was run by Saga Food Services. I think they still refer to it as Saga at Franklin College. That’s where my daughter is a junior; she complains often about the cafeteria food.

My biggest complaint, as I recall, was that their chocolate pudding was always lumpy. And I hated their eggplant dish. Other than that, everything was pretty good.

When I was attending school, they served food on real dishes, although plastic. We had to take our plates to the scrapers, students who scraped plates for free lunches.

Today, at my school, there are no real dishes. Everything is disposable, even the trays. Students just throw them away when they’re finished. And every kid gets a free lunch, although it costs me three bucks.

Going from a student in elementary school to high school to college and graduate school and then becoming a teacher, I’ve had to endure, or enjoy, school cafeteria food for most of my life.

One might think I would avoid the commercial cafeterias like MCL or Jonathan Byrd. But I can’t help it; I like what they serve most of the time. If you like your veggies overcooked and mushy and your meat filled with mystery filler, the cafeteria is the place to eat.