Snail Mail

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A recent visit to the post office gave credence to the term “snail mail.” I was there for the fairly straight-forward task of purchasing air mail postage for a letter going overseas. I was fourth in a steadily growing line of customers while a couple in front of me attempted to mail four huge packages to four different locations at the only open station. Other than the single postal service employee, the place had a depressing emptiness.

The U.S. Postal Service is becoming something of an anachronism in this electronic age. Although our household still gets its fair share of bills, catalogs, and advertisements, I can see a day in the not too distant future when all of these communications will be online. Think about it. When was the last time you actually received a letter in the mail? Even greeting cards may go by the wayside as people succumb to the convenience of sending Evites and e-cards to friends and family.

In its heyday, the USPS provided a vital link for people to other parts of the country. Especially in rural areas, the ability to receive letters, magazines, and the like was an important way to bridge the isolation. Nowadays, though, the world is at our fingertips online. And post offices definitely seem to be feeling the change.

Walk into any USPS facility, and the situation is the same: crowded spaces in serious need of updating, a scant supply of employees, and a feeling that automation might make the whole endeavor easier and more pleasant. Factor in the competition from other shipping services such as UPS and Fedex, and it’s easy to imagine that this government institution may become obsolete in our lifetimes.

Part of me would regret the loss of the postal service. I enjoy greeting my neighborhood postman as he makes his rounds. I like the satisfying clunk of the mail being deposited into my mailbox. And I enjoy leafing through colorful catalogs or finding the occasional greeting card from a friend. But the part of me that was standing in line the other day with several other hapless customers juggling packages thinks it’s time for the U.S. Postal Service to adapt or die.

 

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A Most Unfortunate Name

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1166654Yesterday I read a story in the Chicago Tribune about the bad luck of women and girls named Isis. Isis is the name of an Egyptian goddess dating back to ancient times. Her role was as the ideal mother and source of nature and magic. Today, however, the name conjures an acronym for the heinous terrorist group that is also referred to as ISIL or Daesh. When Chicagoan Isis Jackson heard Sarah Palin shriek that Donald Trump was “gonna kick ISIS’ ass!”, she reacted instinctively by looking up at the TV. It’s that same reaction I have when, no matter where I am or with whom, if I hear someone yell, “Mom!,” I assume they are talking to me.

Worse, though, are the reactions some people have been having to the name Isis here in America. From a 14-year-old girl being bullied to a shop owner being pressured to change the name of her Isis Books & Gifts due to vandalism, the name has become a serious burden for some.

The situation reminds me of the months post-9/11, when the name Osama carried that same kind of terrible baggage. Indeed, the owner of a restaurant called Osama’s Place was under pressure to change it. Located in the shadow of Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, Osama’s Place had been a local institution for many years before haters started to issue bomb threats or refuse to patronize the place. (newyorktimes.com, September 28, 2001) The name Osama, which means “big cat,” had been a popular one among people of Arab descent. I’m pretty sure most people now shy away from that name in the same way that the name Adolf became reviled after World War II.

Interestingly, I spotted the unfortunate name Adolph not long ago on – get this – a funeral home that provides cremation services. While I have actually attended visitation services there, and it’s a lovely place, I might have thought twice about the haunting associations there and gone into another line of work!

Even names with positive associations can cause people angst. Recently, on the Facebook page “Humans of New York,” a young girl named Beyonce bemoaned the fact that whenever roll is called in school for the first time, she gets a rendition of “Single Ladies.” (In my day, a similar reaction would be found to a name such as Cher.) In the comments section of “Humans of New York,” many people commiserated and shared their terrible names, such as Jim Socks, Meredith Pancake, and Lovin George.

But my favorite comment of all was, “Always be yourself. Unless you can be Beyonce. Then be Beyonce.”

Second Child Syndrome (and other facets of birth order)

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It’s a well known truism that first born children tend to be leaders. In large families, they were often called upon to be surrogate mothers or fathers to the large brood their parents were too busy (or too tired) to manage on their own. With baby boomer parents, the tendency is for first borns to imbibe the expectations and aspirations of their high-achieving moms and dads. Consequently, they tend to be high achievers themselves, with a sense of independence and maturity often beyond their years.

This has certainly been the case with my oldest daughter, who has managed to outshine  her parents academically, socially, and physically, and will in due time no doubt surpass us in career success as well. In the movie Cheaper By the Dozen 2, the well-meaning but competitive father calls his first born daughter “Superstar,” expecting her to attend Harvard and take over the family business. By the end of the film, of course, he learns to let go of his expectations and allow her to follow her dreams. I hope we haven’t set our eldest child up for a breakdown at age 30 when she realizes she has only been trying to please us all this time.

Enter the second child. He or she soon learns how difficult it will be to measure up to the perfection of the older sibling and thus decides to become the opposite of the first born. Many, although not all, second children become underachievers or troublemakers to distinguish themselves from their older siblings. I have seen this syndrome not only in my own family, but in the children of many friends and acquaintances. As parents, we are appalled that our high expectations and methods of discipline are ineffective on child number two. It is a humbling experience to learn to accept your child on his or her own terms and to guide them toward adulthood with some of your dreams diminished.

From my point of view, the freest children are the subsequent ones after the first and second born. While still possibly competing with the older kids for attention and affection,  younger siblings seem to have more ability to be themselves rather than measure up to parental expectations. Our third child does care what we think of him. But he makes decisions based upon what he wants and not what we think. He has also had the benefit of our experience and sheer exhaustion, having raised the first two.

The baby of the family, of course, is infantilized for the longest period of time and tends to be spoiled. While never having gotten as much undivided attention as the older children, he or she benefits from our wistful sadness at this being our last one. I know I treat my youngest daughter as much more of a baby than I ever did my oldest one. This can cause problems when our pampered princes or princesses meet the real world, however, and realize they are not the cutest, most special things ever.

Birth order generalizations are, of course, just that. For instance, when there are more than a few years between the first and second born children, the competition is less fierce, and the younger one is less likely to react in opposition to the older one.  I also know plenty of families in which the children don’t seem to feel the need to react against the image created by an older sibling. And then there are only children, whose undisputed place as first in their parents’ hearts and minds gives them a different, perhaps more entitled, mindset.

I think research on birth order should be required reading for new parents. If I had realized that my ideals and techniques would not work equally with each child, I might have been more prepared for the roller coaster ride of parenthood. Still, I am grateful for the way each of my four children has taught me humility, patience, and trust. In the words of a great Who song, “The kids are all right.”

Me and MLK

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For years I loved to joke that January 15 was the birthday of two great humanitarians: Martin Luther King, Jr., and me! Back in the days before MLK’s birthday became a national holiday, schools in Illinois were off on January 15, so as a teacher, I had my birthday off every year.

My teacher friends and I usually celebrated the night before by going down to Greektown in the city of Chicago and putting away saganaki, moussaka, Rodity’s wine, and ouzo. (I’m sure my former students are shocked.) Not exactly a meaningful way to honor the man who galvanized the American civil rights movement, was it?

Years later, when I was teaching at a private girls school in the rarefied atmosphere of Bel Air, California, the assistant principal, an African-American woman, addressed an assembly at the school to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. She mentioned the fact that nowadays, people celebrate President’s Day by going shopping. Look at the circulars in the daily paper, and you will see all kinds of President’s Day sales advertised. She went on to say she looked forward to the day when racial discrimination and prejudice were such a thing of the past that the MLK holiday would be similarly celebrated – not by marches, speeches, or commemorations, but by a good home sale at the local Macy’s.

More recently, communities across the country have made MLK’s birthday holiday into a day of service. My husband’s company, for example, invites the families of employees to come downtown and participate in various volunteer activities. This strikes me as a much more appropriate, if less bacchanalian, way to celebrate the birthday of such a great man.

Since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday became a national holiday, it is no longer always celebrated on my birthday. Still, I feel honored to share a birthday with one of the greatest leaders our country has ever known.

 

Hey, Baby, What’s Your Sign?

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I saw the above photo in my Facebook news feed and had to chuckle. As I am about to celebrate another birthday, I’m thinking about how well my personality matches my astrological sign, Capricorn. According to infoplease.com, Capricorns are cautious, focused, responsible, serious, conventional, reliable, hardworking, and unforgiving. Apparently, at least according to the t-shirt, we are also obnoxious know-it-alls.

When I was growing up in the Seventies, astrology was all the rage. I often read my horoscope either in the daily newspaper or in one of my favorite magazines. I was undeterred by the fact that none of the predictions for me ever came true. And, of course, “What’s your sign?” became a famous, albeit cheesy, pickup line at the bars.

But is there really something to astrology, or is it all nonsense? I do find that many people I know possess the personality traits of their signs. And scholars believe the Three Wisemen were astrologers looking for larger meanings in the stars. And look who they discovered!

The event that has made me take astrology more seriously, however, happened 25 years ago. A friend of mine gave me an astrological reading as a gift. Furnished only with the date and time of my birth, the astrologer made a star chart for me and then read it for me. As the reading started, my skeptical self reasoned that most of what she was saying could apply to just about anyone.

But then she paused and said, “Something very traumatic happened to you at the age of one.” I immediately burst out crying. When I was 13 months old, my mother died. The astrologer reassured me that she saw a long life for me and that I would be there for my daughter, who was just a baby. She also kept saying she saw something about helping foreigners in my future. This made no sense to me until 11 years later when my husband and I went to China to adopt a baby girl. It occurred to me that perhaps this was what the astrologer had seen all those years ago.

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my zodiac sign or trying to find out what will happen in my future. And I retain a healthy amount of skepticism about tarot cards, ESP, and other aspects of the occult. Yet as Hamlet tells his friend in William Shakespeare’s famous play, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” After all, we are made of star dust.

What’s your sign?

Today’s Kids: Spoiled Rotten or Stressed Out?

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It seems like just about every day in my Facebook news feed, I see articles about how parents have turned the Millennial Generation into a bunch of entitled, whiny, helpless brats who can’t make it on their own. So-called helicopter parents are ruining their children, so the theory goes, by doing too much for them and making them feel as if they should have unlimited success simply by virtue of their vaunted existence.

I can see some truth to this opinion. As a member of the parents’ Facebook group for my son’s university, I see some eye-roll-inducing questions, such as, “Where can I find the syllabus for my child’s college class?” Hello! You are not in college, dear parent. Your child is. Unless you want to reenact the plot of Disney’s The Goofy Movie: 2, in which Goofy decides to go away to college with his son Max, you might want to loosen the apron strings a bit.

On the other hand, numerous articles, documentaries, and school-sponsored presentations have been warning us parents that we are stressing our children out too much with our sky high expectations. Both my local elementary and high school districts screened the harrowing documentary Race to Nowhere, which posits that we are over scheduling and literally killing our kids (Children’s suicides are described in the film) with our demands that they take honors and AP classes in order to get into the best colleges and universities.

So which is it: coddling or killing? Maybe it’s a touch of both. I do see a lot of children (my own included) not getting enough sleep because of homework and extracurricular activities. Recess seems to be disappearing from elementary schools under the theory that cramming more of the 3 Rs into kids will make them smarter. At the same time, parents are being charged with neglect for allowing their kids to walk places by themselves. In my household, I’m embarrassed to admit, the kids have no routine chores and have come to rely on me for homework help, laundry, rides, money, and just about anything else they might need – with little incentive to figure things out for themselves. In the words of a neighbor’s child some years ago: “26 is the new 21.”

Yet I don’t think our Millennials are doomed. To those who say kids have it too easy and don’t know what adversity looks like, I would invite them to attend a sixth grade class in a middle school. Believe me when I tell you that kids encounter plenty of adversity in their day-to-day existence. And to those who worry we are expecting too much of our kids, I would argue that today’s world is very different from the one in which we Baby Boomers and Gen Xers grew up. More than ever, kids need advanced skills if they are to find a good job and make a living wage.

What I would like to see are forward-thinking corporate and governmental policies that support parenting and families as our nation’s most important assets and hope for the future. Paid parental leave, adequate childcare, health care for all: These are some of the things I believe will help children grow up to be the next “Greatest Generation,” not in terms of being better than previous generations but in terms of having parents who truly cherish and believe in them and expect them to live up to their fullest potential.

 

Religious Schools and Religious Tolerance

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This is an article about two Christian colleges on the outskirts of Chicago. One attracts Muslim students in large numbers while the other has begun taking action to terminate a professor over her solidarity with Muslims.

Wheaton College is an evangelical school that requires its staff to accept and confirm the college’s strict “statement of faith.” Recently, Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor, was censured by the college for a Facebook post in which she declared solidarity with Muslims on the basis that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Wheaton College officials were unhappy with what they regarded as an insufficient explanation on Hawkins’ part as to the vast theological differences between the two faiths. Hawkins countered that she was merely expressing solidarity with Muslim people, not repudiating the statement of faith required by the college. Wheaton College has begun the process of terminating Hawkins’ employment.

This is not the first time Wheaton College officials have displayed religious intolerance. In 2006, a teacher was fired for having converted to Catholicism. How can a college that is ranked 8th in the country for “Best Undergraduate Teaching” by U.S. News and World Report (wikipedia) show such narrow-mindedness?

In reference to the Hawkins issue, even another Wheaton College professor, Gene Green, remarked, “People should be able to have this as an object of discussion. There’s no direct violation of the statement of faith.” (christianitytoday.com, Jan. 6, 2016) He went on to call it an issue of “academic freedom.”

It is hard to fathom how true learning and exchange of ideas can occur in a college with such stringent regulations. Ironically, Wheaton College was a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1800s and was the first Illinois college to graduate an African-American student.

Meanwhile, less than 10 miles away, the Roman Catholic institution Benedictine University has become a mecca of sorts for Muslim college students. Founded by Benedictine monks and ranked by Forbes magazine among “America’s Top Colleges” for the last five years, Benedictine University’s “inclusive religious environment” (diverse education.com, Feb. 4, 2009) has made it a welcome place for Muslims to earn a degree while being allowed to practice their faith. Such features as a permanent Muslim prayer space and cafeteria food that meets Muslim dietary requirements certainly facilitate such inclusiveness. In addition, the university sponsors an Islam Awareness Week, with lectures and programs to foster learning and understanding between Muslims and those of other faiths.

Benedictine University is proof that an institution of high learning can stay true to its religious principles while welcoming the diversity that is found in America. The philosophy at Benedictine is that its students will have to meet in the world outside college. Why not help them develop understanding and tolerance for each other before they are thrust out into “the real world”?

Religious tolerance may not be mandatory for a religious school. But isn’t it desirable? Christianity should be about welcoming the stranger, loving all of God’s children, not just the ones that share our exact beliefs. In my view, Wheaton College is failing miserably at that ideal.