Thursday, September 9, 2010

Be a man, burn a Koran! And other political piffles.

My once and future idol, Mark Twain, wrote that "In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand and without examination, from 'authorities' who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing."

This may be, in part, the reason that for over a year now, I've seriously avoided discussing either subject at any great length, either on Facebook or Live Journal. During this time, I've read a great deal of posts and links that I've had serious issues with. Some soared the absolute heights of stupidity, and I would have loved to have taken down the author with a witty insult or two. However, more often than not these days, I find myself looking at the idiotic post or link in question, and considering the end result. And deciding, it's just not worth the hassle to respond.

To wit: my response will generate a response back, possibly from the poster, although just as likely from a friend of the poster, who may be even more ill informed (and most likely, less civil) than the person I was responding to. That response will in turn necessitate a response on my part, and that will entail, in all likelihood, a certain amount of research, at least, online. It will also take some thought on my part, because I simply cannot spew forth opinions as if they were farts in the wind. That response will then generate another response, which will require more research and formulation on my part, etc. etc. etc.

And the things is, those folks who post such things NEVER let you get the last word. Nor will you ever convince them, and more than likely, you'll end up sore and irritated. It's kind of like contracting herpes, except without the fun sexual caressing and massaging that takes place beforehand. In politics and religion, you bypass all that crap and go straight for the disease.

Simply put, I just don't have time any more for that nonsense. I've got a job that keeps me way too busy, kids that keep me jumping, and a strong dislike for wasted effort. What's the use of arguing like that if you're never going to reach a conclusion?

Be that as it may, I have to say that I have been paying some attention to the two Islamic scandals that seem to have occupied everyone's attention for months.

The most recent one, of course, involves a dime store preacher in Florida who looks like Jed Clampett with a handlebar mustache and has a congregation that's roughly the size of a baseball team. He's decided to declare a national day of Koran burning on September 11. Well, that is, a national day, between the hours of 6-9 p.m. (apparently you only need three hours to call it a day...after that, you take a nap. Book burning is tiring stuff, after all).

The other big ruckus involves the supermosque being built at the Twin Towers. Only it's not a supermosque, right? And it's being built a few blocks away from where the Twin Towers, near a porno shop. At least, that's what that notably unreliably pinko commie, Mayor Bloomberg said. But who can trust him, right?

In many ways, the two are tied directly together. One could almost see how the dime store preacher's friendly little "international" day (I'm sure folks in Paris and Brussels are just lining up to stage their own burning!) is a direct reaction to the hue and outcry that's been heard around the mosque. "What, those fellers in New York City aren't going to do something about this dang-gummed sacreelidge? Well, I'm just going to have to take matters into my own hands...I'll show them I'm a dang better New Yorker than an actual New Yorker!"

Both involve civil liberties, of course. The group building the mosque has every right to build a mosque/not mosque wherever the hell they want, as long as they have the appropriate permits and such. And the dimestore preacher has every right to burn whatever the hell he wants (as long as it's not the American flag, of course), even if that pinko commie Commie General Petraeus says that doing so will endanger our troops...ah, but who listens to HIM, anyways? (Well, that is, unless has the bad taste to rhyme Petraeus with Betray Us, in which case, you're spitting on a saint...oh, forgot about that one, did you?)

What's at the heart of both is the essential triteness of the discussions themselves. I've heard one rabidly right-wing friend of mine argue that the outcry that some people are making about the preacher and his Koran burning would be better spent decrying female genital mutilation or the way that certain Islamic countries mistreat women, and that's certainly true, of course. Plus, it certainly gives a two-bit crackpot desperate for publicity way more attention than he deserves.

However, the same argument can be made for the supermosque. Instead of whipping up a tempest in a teapot about a one-floor information center in an area that already has a mosque, because it's such a "slap in the face," why not focus one's attention and ire on things that really matter? Why not call attention to the issue of female genital mutilation, for example, or the way that certain Islamic countries mistreat women? Wouldn't that be a better use of one's time?

My point is that both of these front-page stories precisely illustrate what Mark Twain was trying to say, only without half of the wit possessed by the master. Serious issues of substance aren't discussed because they require more than a facile discussion, and people just don't have the time, patience, or temperament to dig any deeper than the surface. That's why supermosques and second-hand preachers become cause celebres, and real issues of substance simply wither at the vine. It was true back in his day, and it's just as true--perhaps even more so--now.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Rule the School

For my younger kids, today marks the first day of school. For one person in my life, however, for the first time in over sixty years, there will be no such first day of school, this year.

I'm talking about my father.

My dad, you see, has been an elementary school principal for most of my life. First in Rhode Island, then in Massachusetts. Last year, however, he decided to call it quits, after almost fifty years in education. It was retirement time.

This past June, Dad invited our family to his retirement party, and I was actually given the honor of speaking on behalf of the family. For three hours, we heard stories from teachers and other educators who had been influenced and inspired by my dad throughout his career. It was a wonderful opportunity to see a side of my dad that I didn't normally have access to. Since I had been a little kid, I had always wondered what it was like to do what my dad did. Hearing the stories from the folks who knew him in the work world finally gave me some idea.

Anyway, I kind of suspected that Dad wouldn't feel that he was really retired until around August and September. I mean, being a principal and all, he usually has the first few summer months off. So, I figured that the first few months of retirement wouldn't seem any different than the others.

Around August, I started looking for signs that Dad might be starting to miss the day-to-grind. I'd ask in subtle ways whenever I spoke to him, I'd listen in on conversations between him and my mom at family gatherings. However, try as I might, I haven't been able to discover one sign...not one signal sign...that he's not experiencing a less-than-blissful retirement.

Just to continue with my experiment, I called him on the phone, yesterday. "So dad, today is the day before the kids go to school," I said.

"I see."

"And this is around the time that you'd be going back to school, too."

I could hear the smile in his voice. "Yes, son, it would be."

"So, I just have one thing to say to you." And then, I cleared my throat, and began to sing.

"School days, school days,
Dear old golden rule days
Reading and writing and rithmatic
All to the tune of the hickory stick"

It was a song that Dad used to sing to us every day, bright and early, on the first day of school. How I hated that damn song!

Even just thinking about the first few lines of the song, sung in my father's strong tenor voice, was enough to make me squirm. Literally, on those first days of school in my youth, I would be begging dad to stop singing. Of course, that would only make him grin and show his dimples even more. He sang it every year, too, even into college. And my sister Kerrie, a teacher, tells me he woulds sing it to her, too, on her first days. It was not a tradition any of us enjoyed.

And there I was, singing it to him.

Dad didn't seem much phased by it. In fact, he put me on speakerphone and had my mom listen, too.

"Do you think he's missing school at all, Mom?" I asked her, later in the conversation. "Does he seemed bored at all?"

"No, not really. Why do you ask?" she said, sounding surprised with the question. "I mean, maybe he will once winter hits, but right now, we're doing too much to be bored."

Well, maybe so. But I still contend that this morning, when the class bell rings and the kids start filing into lines at the playground, my dad, a man who is always up bright and early, will at least feel one small twinge of regret. Perhaps he'll wish, just for a second, that he was the person in front of the entrance, introducing himself to everyone as principal and laying down the rules for the year. Or maybe I'm just a sentimental fool.

What will he actually be doing? Knowing him, he'll probably call up my sister Kerrie to sing "School Days."

She probably won't mind it, either. It's a tradition that perhaps, after all these years, has finally moved beyond annoying and into the realm of charming.