Redemption

One of the more bizarre stories in sports the past few weeks has been the saga of Antonio Brown, a very gifted and self-absorbed wide receiver who plays football in the NFL. He had played for the Pittsburg Steelers for a number of years though at the end of his time there he made it clear that he wanted to be traded, making it impossible for the coaches to want him around. Rumor is that he wanted to be traded to the New England Patriots, the standard for excellent football programs in the NFL — whether you like the team or not. But Pittsburg would not trade him to another team in their division because he has immense talent and they didn’t want to have to figure out how to stop him twice a year. So  he managed to orchestrate a trade to the Oakland Raiders where his behavior became truly bizarre. A recent story on CBS Sports gives us a sense of what Oakland had to deal with and why, eventually, they decided to get rid of him — and trade him to (wait for it) New England. This story centers around Jerry Rice who helped Brown work a deal with the Raiders where he was reported to have signed a contract worth more than $30 million. But it also hints at the various things Brown did to make it impossible for the team to keep him on the roster.

Rice isn’t alone in thinking that Brown becoming a Patriot was the plan from the beginning. On Sunday morning, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that New England offered Pittsburgh a first round pick for Brown before the Steelers traded him to Oakland for third and fifth round picks. Additionally, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported on Sunday that Brown hired social media consultants to help expedite his release from Oakland. As everyone knows, it worked, as Brown was released on Saturday after posting a video that included a private conversation between himself and Raiders head coach Jon Gruden on Friday night.

Earlier in the week, Brown was nearly suspended by Oakland after reportedly starting an altercation with GM Mike Mayock. Brown kicked off last week by sharing Mayock’s letter informing him of recent team fines on social media. All of this came after a preseason that saw Brown miss significant time with frostbitten feet while also fighting with the NFL for the right to use his now illegal helmet.

As I said, it was clear from the beginning that Brown didn’t want to play for the Raiders even though he seemed to say the right things at the right time — even offering a seemingly heartfelt apology to the team and the coaches in an effort to win a place back on the team — before he started trawling social media seeking ways to be traded to another team, preferably the Patriots. He signed with the Patriots within hours after being released by the Raiders. Very interesting!

As suggested in the quotation above, the theory that is floating about in the airwaves among the braintrust that knows all about very little is that Brown orchestrated the entire long drawn-out episode in order to end up with the New England Patriots. If this is so we must give the man credit of some sort, while hoping that perhaps this is the end of his bizarre behavior. But I do wonder if the reasons for his wanting to play for New England have to do with his unconscious desire for structure and discipline in an otherwise directionless life.

Folks like Christopher Lasch have told us a number of times that the current generation suffers from a lack of authority in their lives and that deep down we all crave structure and authority in order to find some sort of psychic balance. I find those arguments compelling and see Brown’s antics in the light of that analysis. On the one hand we have an immensely talented athlete whose life lacks direction and purpose, and on the other hand we have a coach in New England who is known to be a strict disciplinarian and who had reclaimed a number of talented athletes who seemed to have no direction and were given to chronic outbursts and bizarre behavior. Randy Moss was one of these who eventually ended up in the NFL Hall of Fame and was one of the most talented players ever to play the game of football. Could Antonio Brown be craving this sort of redemption? Could he want to be in a place where the line is clearly drawn and he will find some sort of peace of mind in an otherwise out-of-control existence? We shall see.

But if I am right, there may be a lesson  here for us all as we go further down the road to undisciplined out-of-control behavior designed to simply “express ourselves” while we draw attention to ourselves and cry out for someone to finally say “STOP!” Like Antonio Brown, perhaps?

P.S. And this just in — after the above was posted. Brown has been accused of rape and sexual assault by a former female trainer. Stay tuned!!

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Challenging Students

I founded and directed the Honors Program at the University where I taught for thirty-seven years. It was my pride and joy and I was privileged to have been able to teach some of the brightest and best students to graduate from that University. One of the innovations I promoted was a Senior Challenge session for the honor students. The students came from all academic disciplines, but I thought it would be good for them to have a bit of a challenge before graduating with honors to test the breadth and depth of their learning.

Initially the sessions were called “Challenge Sessions,” but one of he psychology professors convinced me that this was a bit too stressful for the students so we changed the name to “Senior Dialogues.” I always regretted the decision to change the name because I felt that we were preparing the students for the “real” world and they would face challenges every day of their lives. Why coddle them? But the name was changed in order not to ruffle feathers. One must choose his or her battles.

The sessions involved the student’s major advisor, the director of the program, and another faculty member selected by the students themselves. The questions came from every side on every possible topic. The goal was not to embarrass the student, but to prepare them for interviews after they graduated and also to find out where their weaknesses lay so they could work on developing those weaknesses after they “commenced.” After all, education does not stop with graduation. Or it shouldn’t.

My favorite questions were the following: What three famous people would you invite to dinner? Who were the three greatest human beings who ever lived? What is the greatest problem facing humankind today? And I then winged it from there, asking questions that forced the students into strange territory or asking them to address topics they might otherwise avoid. By and large it went well.

In the nearly thirty years of leading the sessions I always asked the question about the most serious problem facing humankind and not once did a student suggest that it might be overpopulation — which, in my view is the root of all other problems. There are too damned many people on earth and it is creating serious problems! Many of the answers were interesting and even insightful — such things as the unrelenting spread of nuclear weapons, climate change, failure to curtail weapons sales, abortion, and the like. But never the point about human population.

One of the brightest of the students was a psychology major who was finishing her degree in three years in order to go on to graduate school in psychology. I pushed her into foreign territory on purpose because I sensed that her background was a bit narrow. I asked who wrote the Divine Comedy, for example, or what a tetrahedron was or who painted the Sistine Chapel ….that sort of thing. Bear in mind that this was one of my favorite students, but I wanted her to realize that education is not about finding a nich, but about a broad spectrum of knowledge including, but not exclusive to, her major field of interest. After the session (and we all evaluated the performance of the students at the end, though they received no grades) I spoke with her and strongly recommended that she take another year to explore topics other than psychology. She thought about it for a few days and rejected the notion. She graduated and went to graduate school where she earned her M.A. in psychology. Years later she wrote to me and said that she wished she had listened to me because she was no longer interested in psychology and wished she had other intellectual interests while in college. That story is both sad and true. And typical.

Another student, a history major, in responding to the question of who were three of the greatest human beings (male or female) who had ever lived listed his own father first! He then gave a most interesting explanation of his choice, though I had problems accepting the answer myself. In any event it led to a lively discussion of “greatness” — a notion that has come into disrepute of late by many who deny there is any such thing. I wrote his father after the session to tell him what his son had answered and his father has kept the letter to this day!

There were other episodes as well and they almost always involved success stories. The students felt proud that they had survived and they almost always shone in the spotlight. Of all the things I accomplished in my many years of higher education, those sessions were at or near the top. And given that both of my sons graduated from the university and went through the honors program — and the Senior Dialogues — I had occasion to be doubly proud. Those were some great times and some exceptional students who have gone on to make their mark in the world.

Prescient

In 2015 I posted some snippets from a book by Aldous Huxley which seem to me to be more pertinent than ever — especially since there are so many in this country, in particular, who seem to prefer a dictator to what is left of our democratic system. I repost here.

I have referred a number of times to Huxley’s 1931 “fable” Brave New World which predicted the future with astonishing accuracy. It is still, in my  mind, one of the most remarkable works ever written: prescient if not great literature. And it sold many copies. But few have read the sequel, Brave New World Revisited, that Huxley wrote in 1958 in which he admitted that he was even less optimistic than he had been when he wrote his classic fable. The newer work is not a novel, but a series of essays about the topics he touched on in his novel and which still bothered him twenty-seven years later. He starts off with the major problem as he saw it then, overpopulation, about which he has this to say:

” On the first Christmas Day the population on the planet was about two hundred and fifty million — less than half the population of modern China. Sixteen centuries later, when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, human numbers had climbed to a little more than five hundred million. By the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence world population had passed the seven hundred million mark. In 1931, when I was writing Brave New World, it stood at just under two billion. Today, only twenty-seven years later, there are two billion eight hundred million of us.”

As I write this in 2015 the population on earth numbers 7.3 billion. In a word it has more than doubled since 1958. It boggles the mind. As Huxley goes on to say,

“Unsolved, the problem will render insoluble all other problems. Worse still it will create conditions in which individual freedom and the social decencies of the democratic way of life will become impossible, almost unthinkable. . . .There are many roads to The Brave New World; but perhaps the straightest and broadest of them is the road we are traveling today, the road that leads through gigantic numbers and accelerating increases [in the human population].”

It’s bad enough we refuse to deal with the issue of climate change, but it is tragic that we even refuse to discuss the problem of overpopulation, which is, in my view, the problem at the root of all others.  However, this is only one issue Huxley dealt with in this book. As anyone knows who read Brave New World, Huxley was very concerned about the loss of individual freedom in a society that absorbs the individual  in an increasingly crowded world that is headed inevitably toward an all-poowerful central government. In that world a few will be forced by circumstances to take complete control of the reins of government while the rest spend their time seeking pleasures. As he noted in this regard:

“Only the most vigilant can maintain their liberties and only those who are consistently and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who manipulate and control it.”

None knew better than Huxley how insidious are the factors that control the minds of those otherwise preoccupied with trivia such as social media and games. He understood better than most that true freedom is not a function of how many loaves of bread there are in the grocery store, but in the knowledge which loaf is best for one’s health. He knew how important education is to the maintenance of human freedom and the democracy that is trending, even in 1958, toward dictatorship  — not a dictatorship held together by violence, but a dictatorship held together by subtle psychological manipulation. The kinds of manipulation that gets us to buy things we don’t need.

He understood how good salesmanship, whether one is selling soap or a political candidate, is simply another word for propaganda and he understood how clever propaganda works on the human mind and how easy it is for demagogues to capture the untrained minds of apathetic people.

“The demagogic propagandist must be consistently dogmatic. All his statements are made without qualification. There are no grays in his picture of the world; everything is either diabolically black or celestially white. In Hitler’s words, the propagandist should adopt ‘a systematically one-sided attitude toward every problem that has to be dealt with.’ He must never admit that he might be wrong or that people of different opinions might be even partially right. Opponents should not be argued with; they should be attacked, shouted down . . ..'”

Sound familiar? Huxley examines the workings of propaganda in great detail over two chapters in his book. He thinks we should have learned from Germany’s example; but, of course, we did not. Propaganda still works and it works well, whether the product is toothpaste or presidents.

“Democratic institutions can be made to work only if all concerned do their best to impart knowledge and to encourage rationality. But today, in the world’s most powerful democracy, the politicians and their propagandists prefer to make nonsense of democratic procedures by appealing almost exclusively to the ignorance and irrationality of the electors.. . .[Their techniques will include] scientific selection of appeals and planned repetition . . . Radio [and TV] spot announcements and ads will repeat phrases with a planned intensity. Billboards will push slogans of proven effectiveness. . . . Candidates need, in addition, rich voices and good diction, to be able to look sincerely at the TV camera.”

Huxley seemed to have sensed exactly where we were headed in the 50s. Today we seem to have arrived where he pointed to back then, though there are a great many people who would deny it. In the end, he has the final word:

“By means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms — elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts, and all the rest — will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.”

 

Hanging It Up

News of the retirement of Andrew Luck, quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts and only 29 years of age, shocked the sports world. As recounted in Yahoo News:

After a lengthy battle with injuries in recent years, Andrew Luck is officially calling it a career.

The Indianapolis Colts quarterback announced that he is retiring from the NFL after just six seasons on Saturday night.

“This is not an easy decision,” Luck said after the Colts’ preseason game against the Chicago Bears. “Honestly it’s the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me.

“For the last four years or, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab. Injury, pain, rehab. And it’s been unceasing, unrelenting — both in-season and offseason. And I felt stuck in it, and the only way I see out is to no longer play football.”

“I’m in pain. I’m still in pain,” Luck said. “I’ve been in this [pain] cycle … and for me to move forward in my life the way I want to, it doesn’t involve football.”

The 29-year-old was on the sidelines at Lucas Oil Stadium for their preseason game against Chicago and remained there even after news of his retirement broke. Colts fans picked up the news during the game, too, and then booed Luck as he walked off the field following their 27-17 loss.

In and of itself, the news of a professional athlete retiring is noteworthy — especially an athlete as talented as Andrew Luck. But what makes this story particularly disturbing is the crowd reaction.

For some reason the brain trust at the Colts organization decided to announce the quarterback’s retirement during a pre-season football game. The announcement might have been made on Friday a press conference with no crowd around to express their disappointment and disapproval of the man’s decision. But they chose instead to announce it during the game. One wonders why.

The crowd at the game booed mightily — and that’s the disturbing part of this story. Some took off their Luck jerseys and threw therm to the ground. I am reminded of the day many years ago when Johnny Unitas was still playing for the Baltimore Colts and, after many years of playing a brutal game he was struggling. The crowd reaction was to boo him mightily. This was one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time who had made the Baltimore Colts one of the best, if not the best, team in professional football at the time. What’s with those people?

And that is the question: what is wrong with people that they would boo a man who has displayed such remarkable athletic ability for so many years. Andrew Luck, as the story recounts, has been dealing with pain for years. Many professional football players cannot get out of bed when they are in their forties. Pain is a fact of their lives. And, for some, it is relentless. Apparently Andrew Luck doesn’t want to be among those men.In my mind this is admirable, it shows signs of prudence. But the fans see only the blaze of glory on Sunday fizzling out and know that now they cannot hope to be able to strut with pride when their team wins the big prize. Seriously folks, it’s only a game and these are people who feel pain and hurt when booed.

In a word, the fans care only about the fact that the odds of the Colts winning the Super Bowl this year dropped from 15-1 to 30-1 after the announcement of Luck’s retirement. Their hopes are dashed. The man is that good. But, in addition to being a man in pain, he is a player who was smart enough to know when to hang it up. A great many athletes play on long after they have passed their prime. I suspect they don’t know what else to do. But then there’s the dopamine that is released when they make a great play and the fans go wild. That keeps many a star athlete going — men such as Johnny Unitas. The game can be addictive.

I applaud Andrew Luck for knowing when to call it quits. The fact that he is walking away from an estimated half-billion dollars in retiring at this point suggests that this is a man of courage and even wisdom. And the fact that the fans booed this man is deplorable.

Solus Ipse

I have developed this theme numerous times in this blog, but it bears repeating in light of one of the most popular sit-coms on television that recently closed up shop. I am speaking about “The Big Bang Theory” which had eleven successful years before finally going the way of all old sit-coms: syndication. The question is: why was it so popular? The answer is complex, but part of the explanation has to do with the central character, Sheldon Cooper,  a genius who is a theoretical physicist at Cal Tech. He also has asperger’s syndrome, a condition in which the individual is totally unaware of the effect he is having on other people. He lacks sensitivity and a sense of humor in addition to having no compassion whatever and being socially inept. His behavior ranges from amusing to peculiar, even maddening.

The show also has several other characters including a pretty “dumb blonde” who seems brighter than the other supposedly bright people the show centers around. She may well be at least part of the reason why the show was so popular. In any event, the Sheldon character is most interesting because, as I see it, he is an extension of the way so many of us are becoming: self-absorbed, totally unaware of others around us: solus ipse.

The Sheldon character may have been modeled after the lead in a British sit-com titled “Doc Martin” which centers around a physician in a small village in Cornwall who also has asperger’s syndrome. The difference is that Doc Martin, who also lacks a sense of humor and social skills, is very much aware of others (for the most part they annoy him) — though unaware of the effect his behavior has on others. He is a physician and has a deep and genuine sense of duty to his patients — many of whom would try the patience of a saint! And it is this sense of duty, together with his dawning awareness that he needs to work on his social skills — which must be learned by those suffering from his condition — that makes him a more sympathetic character.

What makes these two characters interesting is that they speak volumes about the fact that so many people are apparently drawn to the two of them. Despite his many strange “tics,” Doc Martin is someone we can identify with and for some strange reason care about. So also, although to a lesser degree, is Sheldon Cooper. I have suggested why this is so, and I will repeat that we care about such fellows because more and more of us are becoming just like them. One thing that many find appealing, I read from the comments others have made, is that they are totally honest: they say exactly what is on their minds. They do not “suffer fools.” And this is true. Both of these characters say exactly what they are thinking despite the fact that in many cases what they say is hurtful to others around them, even those they regard as friends. And both of these characters are similar in refusing to accept any responsibility whatever for the blunders they may commit. Remind you of anyone?

At times, the behavior of such folks as Doc Martin and Sheldon Cooper strikes viewers as sadistic, but this would be so only if they knew they were hurting others whereas these two people do not. If they hurt others, it is collateral damage, something out of the range of their awareness. The question is whether this excuses them. Are we to say “no foul” if those around us are unaware of the effect their behavior has on us and others around us? I think not. These people can be taught how to behave toward others, even if their behavior does not stem from genuine concern. And this is certainly the case for the rest of us who seem increasingly to be trending in their direction. It’s all about awareness and concern for others — and accepting responsibility for our actions.

This is why the trend toward increasing involvement with electronic devices is so disturbing: it encourages a loss of awareness of the real world and other people coupled with a gradual desensitization to the pain of others. It has been shown that it releases dopamine in the brain of users and therefore is addictive, and this is certainly a concern. But as we become increasingly lost in an electronic world in which we talk to machines and they talk back even as they drive our cars, we risk becoming increasingly less aware and less concerned — in a world where a sense of community and the desire to live in common are things that separate us from the wild animals. And from people like Sheldon Cooper and Doc Martin.

Scandal!

When I was a young man fresh out of graduate school, PhD in hand and filled with optimism, I taught at the University of Rhode Island for two years. Rhode Island was a great place to live and the University was a good place to work. As a new player on the team of seven professors I was handed the chore of teaching several sections of logic along with a course in the history of philosophy. Two other members of the department taught logic as well, since it was a university requirement that all students at the university take the course (imagine that!). Thus there were seven or eight sections of the course taught in three different ways.

Strange to say, the university scheduled all of the logic finals to be given in the gymnasium on he same day at the same hour. Strange, because it caused endless conflicts and when I pointed out to the powers-that-be they they could avoid conflicts if they scheduled finals by the class schedule instead of subject matter, they told me “this is the way we have always done things.” So it was in New England. Much like Old England, so I hear.

Anyway, the morning when finals had been scheduled to begin I was called by the chairman of the department to report ASAP because somehow one of the final exams had gotten out and was being copied and spread around to young students eager to learn. It was about 5:00 AM as I recall and I hopped to it! When I arrived I spent a couple of hours with the other instructors putting together a common exam for all students as we had no idea whose final had been pilfered. Imagine that! Several hundred students were now going to take an exam made up by three different instructors who each taught the course a different way. It was bedlam. The students complained — with good reason — and I had to lower the curve to make sure at least half the class passed the course. All because some kid, as it turned out, rummaged through the trash bin outside the philosophy department and found the plastic sheet that in those days covered the mimeograph paper and was later tossed aside: it being possible to determine just what was on the plastic sheet with just a touch of pencil rubbed on the overlay. What we didn’t know was whose exam had been pilfered. So we needed to design a new one we could give to all our students.

After the event we discovered that a fraternity man found the exam and was selling it to long lines of students lined up that morning eager to find out what was on the impending examination — even though they had no idea whose exam it was since the instructor’s name was not on the final exam! Still, it was a mess. And the rationalization that went around was that this was not such a bad thing: it was no different from keeping a wallet found on the street. Really? I was outraged.

Not only because I had to get up at dawn and rush to the university and try to put together an exam with a couple of my fellows, but because the excuse sounded so hollow, I wrote my first ever letter to the student paper. (It was not my last, as my wife will attest. I am a bit compulsive about such things — which is why I blog, I guess.) Anyway my letter pointed out that rummaging around in a dumpster outside the philosophy department was hardly like finding a wallet on the street. The  analogy was not only weak but the ethical conclusion in both cases was bogus: in either case it was wrong to (a) keep the wallet and (b) make money by selling copies of the exam to other students. Some things are just wrong.

Within a week I had a call from the Dean’s office and was told to report as soon as “convenient.” I was told that the university did not want a scandal and I should let the matter drop. Being bold and a bit naive I asked what was going to happen to the fraternity responsible as everyone knew which one it was — as determined by the lines in front of a particular fraternity house the morning of the exam. He said the university would handle it and repeated that I should let the matter drop. What this translated to was sweeping the whole thing under the carpet in hopes of saving face. So much for integrity in the Ivory Tower!

Interestingly enough I had one student, a young woman majoring in mathematics, who earned a legitimate B+ — on an exam that asked questions about things we had never even discussed in class. How remarkable!  But the rest of the students suffered from the entire episode, needless to say. And the fraternity got off scot free in order to avoid a scandal! Was it then that I began to be just a bit cynical?

 

Out Of Control

The story in the Washington Post reads (in part) as follows:

MASON, Ohio — Nick Kyrgios was fined $113,000 by the ATP for expletive-filled outbursts in which he smashed rackets, insulted a chair umpire and refused to get ready to return serve during a second-round match at the Western & Southern Open.

The tour announced the penalties Thursday, a day after Kyrgios berated chair umpire Fergus Murphy and left the court to break two rackets during a 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4), 6-2 loss to Karen Khachanov.

The ATP listed a breakdown of eight fines ranging from $3,000 to $20,000 each for violations such as unsportsmanlike conduct, verbal abuse and audible obscenity.

The tour also said it is “looking further into what happened during and immediately after the match” to determine whether additional fines or a suspension is warranted.

Kyrgios is a 24-year-old Australian who is ranked 27th this week. He is a volatile sort who repeatedly has gotten in trouble for on-court actions. He was kicked out of the Italian Open in May after throwing a chair and being suspended by the ATP in 2016 for not trying to win and insulted fans during the Shanghai Masters.

You may not have heard about this if you are not a sports fan, or if you have been preoccupied with current world events, but this is an event worth noting because it is a symptom of a deep malaise; I suspect it is not restricted to Nick Kyrgios. It is a sign of the complete freedom that many liberal-minded folks prize as the virtue worth having above all others. It is freedom without restraint. As I have noted on numerous occasions, freedom without restraint is not freedom; it is chaos. And Kyrgios’ behavior — in this instance and in numerous others — may be a sign of the times.

Without sounding like a preacher looking for work, I would remind readers that in a world that does not prize restraint but which instead applauds behavior such as that of Nick Kyrgios there is a real danger of watching the threads that hold us together tearing apart. Ours is a culture, including Australia apparently, in which parents for years now have been told by the “experts” not to restrain the young because it inhibits their potential. Never say “No!” The result is a world in which the behavior of out-or control athletes and celebrities, not to mention ordinary folks like you and me, is not only tolerated but frequently met with applause. This athlete, in particular, is immensely popular and when he plays on television it is “must see TV.” The crowds wait breathlessly for an outburst which they label “honesty” and regard as worthy of emulation. And we must, really we must, ask what’s wrong with this picture?

Nick Kyrgios is slowly becoming the rule, not the exception. He has a huge following and openly admits that he doesn’t really like tennis where he makes a small fortune showing signs of his undeniable brilliance and occasionally winning — while always being on the brink of a meltdown. He is much more interested, it would seem, in drawing attention to himself than in winning tennis matches. He is a showman in an age of entertainment when those who behave erratically are the main attraction. After all, ordinary people going about their business, no matter how successful they might be, are not much fun to watch. It’s the out-of-control athletes and public figures generally who make a stir that interest those who present television pictures to large audiences. The more erratic the behavior the more likely the audience will be large and appreciative — and buy the sponsor’s products, needless to say.

Thus we do eschew restraint as boring and prize the Nick Kyrgioses of the world (who will pay this fine with the small change out of his tennis shorts) because they make life interesting. We flavor our infatuation with the sensational by calling such behavior honest. But if we are honest we will admit it  is extreme and not worthy of respect and certainly not admiration.  It is freedom gone amuck and self-indulgence of a sort, when adopted by more and more people, that ultimately strains the thin threads that hold civilization together. Entertainment is not the most important thing. Not in the end. And honesty does not equate with outrageous behavior.

The Brits

Spoiler alert: I am an Anglophile. My father was born and raised in England until he was seventeen — born in a suburb of Oxford and raised near Worcester. His family, going back generations, was British through and through. And his mother who married an English gentleman had roots going way back in Scotland. Ironically, her great-grandfather came to this country and fought against the British to assure American Independence from England.

I visited England twice, once on a Fellowship which allowed me to visit Oxford University and travel a bit and later I visited with a friend during which we traveled for a week in the Cotswolds — and visited Oxford once again. My friend is a former student and an attorney and while we were in Oxford we decided to visit as many Pubs as possible (doing sociological research, of course). We learned a great deal, as you can imagine. I don’t remember much.

I love England and most of the English people I have met. Moreover, my wife and I are addicted to British television shows, especially the mysteries in which detectives solve crimes with their brains rather than with their fists and guns. My favorites are such shows as: “Vera,” “Inspector Gently,” “Endeavour,” and “New Tricks.”  And I must add two brilliant British comedies: “Mum” and  “Detectorists.” Beautifully done.

But, let’s face it, some of the things the Brits say are a bit bewildering. They put in syllables where they don’t belong — as in aluminium. And they pronounce lieutenant “leftennant.” Of course, it might be said they invented the language and they can bloody well do with it as they choose. And speaking of “bloody” note how often this word gets a workout in British parlance — as in a “bloody big boat” sitting in the Thames. But there are other expressions that are equally endearing. I list a few here and would welcome additions from other anglophiles (or even British readers themselves).

For the British “Worcester” becomes “Wooster.”

The family of Beauchamp is referred to as “Beechum.”

“Telling porkies” means telling lies.

They “chat to” others while we “chat with” others.

Things are “different to” for the British while they are “different from” for us.

They speak of “maths” while we say “math” or, when we feel a bit full of ourselves, “mathematics.”

The British live in “flats” while we live in apartments.

They play football while we play soccer. (Their word makes much more sense since the game is played with the feet for the most part while our game requires that three hundred pound men run at one another as fast as possible and try to smash each other to pieces. Their game requires finesse, ours requires steroids).

They try to avoid “Yobs” while we try to avoid thugs and delinquents.

They line up in queues  (or queue up) while we wait in line.

Their “bobbies” are our policemen.

When they know someone has misspoken they shout “bollocks” while we shout “Bullshit” or “Horsepucky.” (Their word seems so much more refined!)

The Brits whinge while we just complain.

We think of an exceptional student as bright the Brits think of her as clever.

When the Brits want to know they ask “What’s that in aid of?” On the other hand, we ask: “What’s that for?”

In Great Britain when your car breaks down (from driving on the “wrong” side, perhaps) you open the boot and get the spanner after which you raise the bonnet to check out the engine. In this country we open the trunk, take out a wrench, and open the hood to check the engine.

And if it’s dark you will need your torch, which we call a flashlight.

Great fun! There are many more and any you can think of please pass along. (And if you would like to you may copy this and take it along with you on your next trip to Great Britain. No charge!)

 

 

 

 

White Mountain Bread

For five summers during my undergraduate and graduate school years I worked in a boys’ camp in Wayne, Maine. It was a beautiful spot on Lake Androscoggin and the summers were memorable. Bright sunny days with the clearest of skies followed upon one another like geese flying South. Together with another counsellor who became one of my closest friends, my job was to teach young boys the game of tennis and I was also in charge of a bunk with five precocious boys aged nine. During those summers I had many of the most pleasant moments of my life and in order to maintain my sanity in an insane world, I shall share a couple of the those moments with you. This post has no point, really, it’s just anecdotal.

Each summer the boys from the camp, aged seven through eleven took trips around Maine and even into New Hampshire. One of the trips was to Mount Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We rode to the top of the mountain in the cog railroad, slowly inching up precarious angles, chugging away as the boys took turns standing up at ridiculous angles seeking to defy gravity. At the top we explored the region around the headquarters and souvenir shop and later after a good meal we spent the night high atop Mount Washington where, it is said, one can see several different states on a clear day and the wind blows at record speeds.

We went back another time to New Hampshire and camped out in a public camping area which the boys cleared for themselves. It was primitive, which is to say it had no running water and no bathroom. The boys and counsellors visited the front office or found a tree when necessary, otherwise they spent the afternoon clearing the area and playing games. At night we were preparing for the evening meal when the leader of the expedition, an older and more experienced man by the name of Phil Traub who ran a boy’s club in New York during the year, pulled me aside and said we had forgotten to bring the bread. Since we were planning to have sandwiches, this was a problem. He told me to go into the closest town and buy several loaves of white bread — as the campers, being young boys, preferred white bread to all other kinds. The store had no white bread so I bought several loaves of whole wheat bread and handed them to Phil with fear and trepidation. He was an imposing  man, a former marine who did not suffer fools. But he said not to worry he would think of something.

As the meal was being prepared and the boys gathered around Phil told them they were in for a treat. “Tonight,” he said, “we are going to have White Mountain Bread!” The boys had no idea what he was talking about, nor did I, but they cheered nonetheless and ate their sandwiches with great glee. Needless to say, I learned many a practical lesson in child-rearing from Phil and also from the man who owned and ran the camp who was in many ways a very wise man. His name was Pat Wack and he was not only wise but also had a delightful sense of humor and ran a terrific operation. The camp was spotless, the meals were always excellent, and the counsellors were among the best men I have ever been around.

The eleven-year-olds took a canoe trip each summer and the counsellors, as was the case on all the trips, were chosen on a rotating basis. When I went in my final year I learned how to handle the canoe and we took off one bright morning headed for Canada — or at least that’s what the boys were told. Bear in mind that the camp was in the Southeast of the state of Maine and Canada was, as they say, a fir piece! But off we went, portaging after we reached the shore of our lake and settling into the canoes in the nearest lake North of the camp. We went several miles on that lake (and on that lake alone) until we reached a spot owned by the boys’ camp that was set up and ready for the boys who would swim, explore, eat, prepare their beds for the night, sleep and then return to home base the way they came — all the way back from Canada! The arrangement for bathroom needs was primitive, to say the least: a rope hanging over a deep hole. The boys (and counsellors) swung on the rope over the hole and “bombs away!” One only hoped that his aim was good. Otherwise it was great fun and relieved many of the young boys of their fear of pooping in the wilds.

As I say, I learned a great many practical lessons in raising boys which came in very handy when I had two of my own. And that was not long after as my wife joined me in the fifth summer by way of a honeymoon. Pat arranged a room for us to sleep in on alternate nights (when I didn’t have to be in the cabin) and found some work for her to do in the office with his wife and daughter with whom she got along famously. As I say, those were the best summers of my life and, as I also said, this post has no point to make whatever. It’s an exercise in pure, unmitigated self-indulgence.

Dilemma

I find myself caught on the horns of a dilemma as I try to determine whether conservatives or liberals make most sense when they talk of human freedom. On the one hand, conservatives insist that increasing social programs will deprive humans of their freedom while on the other hand liberals insist that human beings cannot be said to be free if they have no food on the table or homes to live in. I find the latter position more appealing, but the former one is not without strength.

When I speak of conservatives I speak not of reactionary conservatives such as our fractious leader who takes great delight in spreading hatred among his mindless minions. Nor do I speak of the “dollar conservatives” whose only love is of filthy lucre and who think freedom is all about free enterprise. Rather, I speak of those intellectual conservatives such as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky who thought that socialism, for example, would deprive humans of any real freedom in the name of making them feel more safe and secure. Dostoevsky knew whereof he spoke as he had been condemned to a firing squad as a young man for having radical political ideas and then, after a reprieve, was sent to Siberia for five years to live among convicts in clothing that stank and crawled with lice while he picked cockroaches out of his thin soup. He was convinced that in order to be really free humans needed to suffer and he hated the Church because he was convinced that they took upon their own shoulders the burden of human freedom thereby reducing humans to “denizens of an ant heap.” Socialism, in his view, was nothing more than the stepchild of the Church.

How does one argue against a man who went through what Dostoevsky went through? How does one living in modern day America possibly understand how much we take the easy life for granted when so many in this crowded world struggle to survive? As Dostoevsky would see it, our freedom has been reduced to determining which loaf of bread we will select from the huge variety on the shelves at the grocery store or which car we will lease this year. We fear the risks and responsibilities of true freedom. And Heaven knows we don’t want to suffer in any way. (Where’s the aspirin?) At the same time, however, even in this wealthy country there are those who must scrounge in dumpsters for their meals and live on the streets, it is hard to agree that such people are free in any real sense of the term. There’s the dilemma.

Thus, one turns to politicians such as Bernie Sanders who embraces socialism in the name of human compassion and a genuine concern for others. I take him at his word; I believe he is sincere. He does want to help others. In wishing to do so, however, does he threaten to make us all “denizens of an ant heap”? I would prefer not to give up my freedom in order to dance to the tunes played by the corporations or in order not to have to make moral choices for myself. It is true as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky say that living in a state in which people are taken care of by a powerful political machine does not seem to allow room for any true human freedom.

But what about those who suffer? There’s the dilemma. And the care for others coupled with the compassion we ought surely to feel for our fellow human beings who do suffer — even though we do not do so ourselves (or, rather, because we do not do so ourselves!) would seem to be a demand we make of our moral selves. Must we trade genuine human freedom in order to make sure there are none who suffer to the extent that freedom becomes an empty word?  I think we must. I acknowledge the strength of the position taken by Dostoevsky who suffered immeasurably and grew in the process from a shallow human being with a few tattered radical ideas to a genius who knew that what really mattered in human lives was the love we have for once another and who cared about others while he was convinced that they must suffer, as he did perhaps, in order to become fully human.

But I finally come down on the side of those whose care for others would take some of their freedom away in the hope that in doing so they could live meaningful lives and achieve some semblance of meaningful freedom that is denied to them as they seek to keep body and soul together on the streets of our cities. We risk becoming “denizens of an ant heap” in opting for a political system that focuses on the needs of our fellow human beings. But the conservative view of freedom that was held by thinkers such as Dostoevsky has been reduced in our day, as I noted above, to a preoccupation with free enterprise in which the only thing that truly matters is the increase of creature comforts among the few at the cost of misery for so many others. In the end, the escape between the horns of the dilemma seems clear: err on the side of compassion for our fellow humans.