Affirmative Reaction?

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Kwasi Enin (source: myjoyonline.com)

Last week the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state of Michigan, whose voters recently passed legislation barring the use of racial or gender preferences in public university admissions. Since the advent of the term “affirmative action” in the 1960s, there has been a steady erosion of support for policies that use race as a factor to help minorities gain greater access to higher education. While I am not qualified to question the constitutionality of the Supreme Court decision, I do feel that affirmative action has been a necessary and successful way to help minorities achieve equity with whites.

Since 1976, the percentage of minorities in American colleges and universities has increased. From 1976-2011, Hispanic enrollment in higher education increased from 4 to 14 percent; Asian/Pacific Islanders from 2 to 6 percent; blacks from 10-15 percent; and Native Americans from .7 to .9 percent. (National Council of Education Statistics) At least part of this increase has been due to more aggressive policies on the part of university administrators to diversify their student bodies.

Yet whites, especially white males, have cried foul. They object to what they see as the injustice of minorities taking spots in top universities despite lower test scores and inferior credentials. The problem with this argument is that there are thousands of highly qualified candidates competing for enrollment in schools such as the University of Michigan. In 2013, only 33% of the 46,813 high school seniors who applied were accepted at UM. (NCES)  Clearly, universities must use criteria other than test scores or GPAs to make admissions decisions.

The question then is what other factors should come into play? Activities? Participation in extracurricular activities often unfairly disadvantages minorities or lower income applicants. Many of the tools colleges use in admitting students are subjective, including teacher recommendations, essays, and in some cases nebulous characteristics such as “character.” Fairness has little to do with it.

The case of Kwasi Enin highlights the prejudices our society still harbors about minority students and their place in higher education. Enin was admitted to all 8 Ivy League schools, a rare feat that impressed many and with good reason. He scored in the 99th percentile on his SATs, was in the top 2 percent of his high school class, is a musician, and volunteered at a local hospital while in high school. Yet naysayers were quick to assume that his race was the deciding factor in his acceptances. And even if his race did help him in getting admitted to some of these schools, what of it? I never hear people complain when someone gets into Harvard or Yale because a parent or grandparent went there.

According to the Harvard Gazette, in 2012 there were 34,302 applicants and only 5.9% of those applicants were admitted. More than 14,000 of the applicants scored 700 or above on the SAT in math, and more than 17,000 scored 700 or above in writing. Furthermore, graduation rates of first-time freshmen at Harvard are in the 90s (NCES), clearly demonstrating that the students who are admitted are more than capable of achieving success in college.

I also find it interesting that white males don’t complain about affirmative action for males, which has become commonplace in recent times due to their higher dropout rate. A recent story on usatoday.com stated that the US Department of Education estimates that 57% of current college students are female and that “colleges are struggling to keep male/female ratios even.” Indeed, a college administrator with whom I am acquainted has said that his school does try to admit more males than females to retain gender balance. Where is the hue and cry?

I would love to live in a color-blind world in which people were judged, in the words of the great Martin Luther King, Jr., “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Until then, we as a society need to recognize and address the inequities that impede the achievement of our fellow human beings. In the end, we will all be the richer for it.

 

Courage

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In modern life, it is not hard to find examples of courage. Our soldiers in war-torn countries come to mind, as do first responders such as firefighters, police officers and EMTs. But sometimes the most breathtaking examples of courage come from ordinary people.

Miles Eckert is an eight-year-old boy who found a $20 bill on the way into a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Toledo, Ohio. When he saw Lt. Col. Frank Daly in the restaurant, he handed him the twenty with a note thanking him for his military service. That gesture alone would have shown a great deal of fortitude for an eight-year-old, to whom $20 would be a huge amount of cash. But Miles’ true courage stems from the fact that he made this gift in honor of his father Andy Eckert, who was killed in Iraq when Miles was only five weeks old. (Source: CBS Evening News) Although Miles is only a small boy, he has a giant heart.

Courage also looks like Dr. Jerry Umanos, who was shot to death at the hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he had worked to help young children for the past seven years. A pediatrician, Dr. Umanos could have spent his life in relative ease with a private practice in a well-to-do suburb of Chicago. Instead he chose to practice in the underserved inner city neighborhood of Lawndale. His family said Dr. Umanos had felt a call to be a missionary and that his work in poor and dangerous locations was his way of answering that call. (Source: Chicago Tribune, Friday, April 25, 2014)

Another brave soul is young Sammy Nahorny, who is undergoing cancer treatment at Comer Children’s Hospital in Chicago. While many children are afflicted with this terrible scourge, Sammy’s situation is unique. Because his treatment has rendered him literally radioactive, he cannot be touched even by his own parents. I consider his parents equally brave as they must watch Sammy’s progress from afar until it is safe for them to touch him. As his mother put it, “Not being able to snuggle him completely breaks my heart.” (Source: Chicago Tribune, Friday, April 25, 2014)

Every day, ordinary people face illness, poverty, loneliness, danger and death with quiet dignity and courage. We can learn an important lesson from their example and strive to live our own lives with hope, kindness and resilience.

 

 

 

“O brave new wo…

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“O brave new world that has such people in’t!” (a quote from William Shakespeare in honor of his birthday)

My son was just assigned the book Brave New World by Aldous Huxley for his English class. The book is a dystopian novel about the future written in 1932.  The title is taken from William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, in which a band of sojourners encounters the strange creatures of the island on which they have been shipwrecked. In Brave New World, people live primarily for pleasure. They have plenty of drugs and emotionless sex as well as harmless pastimes in a world whose motto is, “Community, Identity, Stability.” There are no attachments, and words like “love” and “mother” are considered profane. But when the main character, Henry Foster, meets “the Savage” – a man living in the wild who has passions and loves poetry – he begins to questions this Brave New World in which he lives.

By sheer coincidence, I just finished an award-winning young adult novel titled The Giver. In this futuristic book, society knows no pain, no suffering, no hunger. Life is placid and predictable. But the people also have no colors, no choices, and most importantly, no love. Once again the main character, Jonas, starts to realize what is missing when he begins to receive memories of the past from the Giver.

Dystopian fiction, while imagining the future, is really a commentary about the present. In both of these works, we are shown that humans are capable of terrible evil and often subject to horrific suffering. Life is hard. Yet our human spirit gives us great works of literature, a sense of purpose and the ability to love others.

Perhaps no one captured the great variety of human foibles, passions and emotions as well as William Shakespeare. His plays are filled with murder, lust, greed, jealousy, duplicity, love, and honor. Some of his characters – Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Iago, Shylock, and Ariel, to name a few – are among the most beloved in literary history. And his soaring poetry and prose gave life to his depictions of the human condition. We are much richer for having had William Shakespeare’s works in our lives.

So raise a glass to the Bard on his birthday and enjoy the messiness that is life in our brave new world.

Left or Right?

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 source – nicoleelkington.com

I had the bad fortune this weekend of being stuck in a car for two hours with Fox News. Fox News purports to be a “fair and balanced” source of information. But for two hours, all I heard was why everything President Obama does is wrong – or even evil. I marveled at the conviction with which commentators excoriated the president on issues such as Obamacare, the IRS, and the economy. Fox also featured a scathing criticism of Hilary Rodham Clinton, a presumptive Democratic presidential candidate.

As I listened, it occurred to me that had the car radio been tuned in to Chicago’s Progressive Talk Radio, I would have been happy as a clam while the liberal pundits wagged their fingers at Tea Partiers and John Boehner. While I might have been happier with the content, I would have been no closer to the objective truth about national affairs.

When I was studying journalism in college, we were taught that objectivity was the ideal. A reporter or news anchor should give no hint of his or her own political leanings. Unfortunately, it is hard to find unbiased media outlets in this politically polarized environment. I find this frustrating and potentially dangerous.

I once read that people with a particular world view tend to seek information that confirms their opinions while discounting or even ignoring material that contradicts it. Furthermore, when a group of liberals (or conservatives) gets together, they tend to become more extreme in their positions.

If this is the case, there is not much hope for progress in the political realm. I think print, online and television news outlets could take a lesson from University of Chicago economist, Matthew Gentzkow, who recently won the John Bates Clark Medal from the American Economic Association. Said Gentzkow in a New York Times interview, “People here [at U of C] have a low tolerance for shallow, simplistic liberal ideas and shallow, simplistic conservative ideas.” (Chicago Tribune, “What do you want, a medal?”, April 21, 2014)

Maybe the University of Chicago should publish a national newspaper. I would read it.

 

 

Because I Said So

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“It’s time to brush your teeth.”
“Why?”
“Because you need to clean them.”
“Why?”
“Because you don’t want a cavity.”
“Why?”
“Because you will lose your tooth.”
“Why?”
“Because the little sugar bugs will eat it.”
“Why?”
“Because they’re hungry.”
“Why?”
“JUST BRUSH YOUR TEETH!”
“WHY?”
“BECAUSE I SAID SO!”

As a parent, I have always tried so hard to be patient with my children, to answer their questions and explain why. As a young teacher I remember exhorting my students to ask why about everything in their world. (I’m sure I was a favorite with parents.) I carried this belief idealistically into parenthood.

I grew up with such admonishments as “Children should be seen and not heard,” “Don’t make me come down there,” and “Wait ’til your father gets home.” But the one I hated most was, “Because I said so.” It was such a reminder of who held the power in the family. I vowed not to use it when I became a mother.

Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men. I exhausted myself over-explaining every instruction or command to my children. Finally, I would just blow up and shout at them. This parenting style could not possibly be superior to the one with which I was raised. As sexist as this sounds, I found it easier to be abrupt and direct with my boys than with my girls. They seemed less fazed by my commands, if not more compliant than my girls.

I do think it’s important to explain things to children. Although explaining might not win instant compliance, ultimately kids come to understand why their parents established the rules that they did. And as much as I like to quip, “Why did I ever teach my children to talk?,” I do enjoy the give and take of our (sometimes heated) discussions.

Still, I reserve the right to use the time-honored response, “Because I said so!”

What’s So Smart About a Smart Phone?

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Before I got a smart phone, friends would tell me, “You’ll love it” or “You won’t know how you ever got along without it” or “It will change your life!” Now, such accomplishments would be a tall order for my soulmate, never mind a piece of technology. Still, I was getting tired of people making fun of my little flip phone. One friend, whom I’ll call Jen (because that’s her name!), upon seeing me pull out my phone, exclaimed incredulously, “What’s that? Is that a phone?”

So I dutifully signed on to two years of an expensive data plan and secured my first smart phone. Sure, it’s cute, slim and sleek with a bright green plastic cover and a smooth surface. And yes, it can even speak. Siri, can you spell “bandwagon”? Listening to Siri, however, only highlights the limitations of the so-called smart phone.

My daughter likes to amuse herself by asking Siri such questions as “How do I look?” or “Who’s a better singer – Rihanna or Beyonce?” Siri’s usual robotic answer is, “I don’t understand the question.” If the phone were really so smart, Siri would reply, “You look fabulous,” and “Rihanna, of course.”

I know, I know. You can check the weather, watch TV, send emails and perform Google searches with your smart phone. And when I’ve had a hard day, I do like to play Quizup against total strangers, doing serious battle over who has more useless trivia stuffed in our heads.

Despite the fact that I can watch an episode of “Game of Thrones” while waiting in the supermarket checkout line (“Dismemberment in aisle nine!”), I find that I primarily use my smart phone for those old fashioned operations, calling and texting.

A smart phone cannot think for itself, dream up a cool idea, or engage in a meaningful conversation. It is, after all, only a device, a tool for modern humans to make our lives a little easier.

The smart ones are the marketers who convinced me to buy one.

Who Am I?

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In Lewis Carroll’s beloved book Alice in Wonderland, the title character says, “How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another.”

This statement perfectly expresses my feelings about trying to describe myself. Having recently committed to the writing life and starting my blog on WordPress, I find my ideas veering wildly in content and style. I would like to categorize my blog for like-minded readers, but I am not yet sure what I want it to be about.

I have been at home caring for my four children for the past 23 years, but strangely, very few of my posts concern parenting. Instead I have been exploring the world outside my safe and comfortable home. I love observing the small occurrences of daily life, sometimes with humor and sometimes seriously. I care deeply about issues such as education, spirituality and social justice. I admire courageous people who make a difference in the world. And I am just plain opinionated and want to share (vent?) those thoughts with a wider audience than my poor family and close friends.

My hope for my writing is that it will spark a thought or dream in a reader – and that that small seed of an idea might bear fruit in a beautiful way somewhere, someday.

 

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” – Stephen King

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“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
(goodreads.com/quotes/tag/reading)

In honor of National Library Week, I want to write about some of the books that I have treasured most in my life.

The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder – When I was a child, I fell in love with these true stories about a young girl and her family braving the elements of woods and prairie in the late 1800s. From tragic deaths to frightening encounters with bears, this pioneer family lived the true definition of “roughing it.” At the same time, they enjoyed simple pleasures like Pa’s fiddling, homemade dolls, penny candy and maple sugaring time.

Half Magic by Edward Eager – This book introduced me to the magic of fantasy. Three children discover a magic coin that will grant them only half wishes, leading to some amusing adventures as they learn how to make this strange magic work to their advantage. Along with other books about magic by Eager, I began to explore classic fantasies such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and A Wrinkle in Time. These books transported me into another realm, and my own existence seemed quite dull by comparison.

The Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace – Like the Little House books, these stories about best friends growing up in Deep Valley, Minnesota, were based on Lovelace’s own childhood in Mankato. The stories of the young Betsy, Tacy, and their friend Tib were charming. But I absolutely adored the tales of their high school years. It seemed filled with such innocent fun as dancing, making fudge, and ice skating on the local pond, all the while trying to catch the eye of the local high school boys.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – I was a little young when I first read this Gothic tale of a poor young governess and the mysterious employer she goes to work for. But I was entranced by the mystery and romance and the elegance of all things English. Reading Jane Eyre led me to an obsession with Gothic romance novels that lasted through high school. However, rereading the novel in college gave me a deeper appreciation for the themes Bronte had developed, including the designation of women’s overt sexuality as madness.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – I have taught this book to high school freshman a number of times, as well as reading it when my children studied it in school. It is a flawlessly rendered period piece about small town Southern life during the Depression. It is also a timeless tale of courage, empathy and growing up. Each chapter is a small gem, a true treasure.

Beloved by Toni Morrison – This was a difficult and haunting book about the repercussions of slavery. I had to read it over several times until I understood this strange but beautiful story of a black woman haunted by the terrible choice she made years before. I had the good fortune to attend a talk with Toni Morrison and was able to have my copy of Beloved signed by the author.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan – The interwoven stories of Chinese women and their daughters captivated me. After each chapter, I would force myself to stop reading so as to savor what I had just read as well as to prolong the pleasure of reading this wonderful novel. Since then, I have read almost all of Amy Tan’s novels featuring Chinese women and Chinese history.

There are so many more great books of both fiction and non-fiction that have enthralled me over the years. I have gone through phases of reading various genres: fantasy, Gothic romance, satire, magical realism, Shakespearean drama, historical fiction, memoir and popular nonfiction such as Freakonomics by Steven Leavitt and just about everything by Malcolm Gladwell.

So in honor of National Library Week, why not visit your local library and find your next favorite book? Happy reading!

 

 

Fixer-Upper

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Have you ever been fixed up? That is, have you allowed friends to set you up on a date with a person with whom they’re sure you will hit if off? If you are one of those types who attracts the opposite sex like honey to a bee, read no further.

I am currently working on a memoir, and memories have come flooding back to me. Some are painful; others are hilarious. One of them was my bad luck with being fixed up, which could be painful or hilarious depending on my mood. In college, I dated but never seriously. There always seemed to be expiration dates on either his interest in me or mine in him. In our sorority, we had an annual dance called the Fix Up Dance. The idea was to have your sorority sisters fix you up with someone you had had your eye on but were too shy to approach. Alternatively, your friends would find a guy they knew was perfect for you. Unfortunately, neither of these scenarios worked very well.

My worst Fix Up Dance was with a guy I called Bluto. This was due to the fact that he resembled John Belushi in Animal House both in looks and behavior. I’m sure after I had a few drinks, I even called him Bluto to his face. But I’m also pretty sure he didn’t notice because he himself got wildly drunk and started dancing on the table. The only thing missing was a toga. I was kind of insulted that my good friends had seen fit to pair me with this bozo.

But being fixed up with Dreamy Frat Boy didn’t turn out any better. My “sisters” had managed to get this hunk to agree to be my date, sight unseen. I had been worshipping him from afar at fraternity events and football games, where we shared a block of tickets with his frat. But because he was so gorgeous, he felt no obligation to be friendly or charming in any way. All he wanted to do the whole night was find some pot and get high. Quel disappointment.

Despite these cautionary experiences, I myself am always looking to fix people up. There is something romantic about the idea that you might be responsible for the meeting of two soul mates. Indeed, my husband has had some success pairing friends of his, even to the point where they married and are still living happily ever after.

But be careful. You just don’t want to match your friends with a Bluto!

Under the Chuppah

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Last weekend I attended the wedding of our good friends’ daughter. It was only the second Jewish wedding I had ever attended, and I was in my twenties the first time. In those days, I was much more interested in the party afterwards than the ceremony itself. But this time I was paying attention as the ritual unfolded. The site of the wedding was a beautiful hilltop overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A tent had been set up with row upon row of chairs for those in attendance. And the focal point was the chuppah.

A chuppah is a four-posted shelter under which the couple stands to marry in a Jewish wedding ceremony. The posts were festooned with flowering vines and covered with a white canopy. The rabbi explained that the chuppah represents the Jewish home. As the ceremony got under way, it became filled with first attendants (including the couple’s siblings), then grandparents, and finally the parents, who accompanied the groom and the bride down the aisle. Unlike my own wedding, during which only my husband and I and the priest were on the altar, this wedding ceremony was truly a family affair.

I noticed during the course of the evening that the importance of family was paramount. Following their intimate witness to the bond created between the bride and groom, the families danced and hugged and clapped under the chuppah. Later on, at the reception, they would repeat this with more dancing, as well as exuberantly lifting the bride and groom on chairs above the heads of the crowd. Both the father of the bride and the father of the groom, as well as the groom himself, made moving speeches about their love for their families and the close bond that this marriage would bring to them all. They also honored those who had gone before, their ancestors.

During the ceremony, the rabbi spoke of the spiritual presence of these loved ones who had passed away. They too were crowded under the chuppah with their children and grandchildren, their spirits celebrating along with their loved ones. The rabbi noted that the bride’s deceased grandfather’s tallit, or prayer shawl, was stretched above them under the white canopy. I was very moved thinking about the continuity of love and tradition being experienced on this happy day.

The bride glowed. The groom radiated happiness. In many ways, it was like any other noisy, festive wedding celebration I had ever attended. But the closeness of these families was remarkable. Family is woven into every aspect of Jewish life. The Shabbat dinner is a time when families gather on Friday at dusk, light the candles, pray, and share a meal together. Many Orthodox Jews do not drive on the sabbath, so you can see them walking to synagogue, hand in hand with children and grandparents. The high holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Passover are family affairs. Jewish spirituality is truly a communal affair.

I realize that there are other cultures which are intensely family oriented. My husband’s own Chaldean culture is certainly that way. But as a woman raised in a world that glorifies independence and individuality, it was beautiful to be part of an event that celebrates community. Indeed, I felt included under the chuppah.