Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Student to Soldier

Camel spiders got the most attention when former student and Iraqi veteran, Lieutenant Monroe Mann visited my classroom last week. A continuous play of three hundred photos taken during his Iraq tour showed on the screen at the front of the classroom. Three showed large spiders crawling inside his tent. Lieutenant Mann delivered prepared remarks while the photos changed every five seconds or so. When it was time for Q&A, the first questions were about spiders.

“They can run at about 15 mph - faster than a human, so you can’t get away from them,” Mann explained. When asked if they bite, he said they didn’t, but they were creepy-looking. Students all nodded agreement.

“When I was a student in this class fourteen years ago, the first Gulf War was going on. I had no idea that I’d be a soldier in the second Gulf War, but there I was.” A mutual friend had given me Monroe’s email address in Iraq last summer and I contacted him. His tour was ending in October and he agreed to come in and speak about his experiences as a military intelligence officer in northern Iraq, where his job included training the Iraqi army and gathering intelligence from captured terrorists.

Monroe started by explaining why he joined the military. He had finished college and was pursuing an acting career in New York City when he saw “Saving Private Ryan.” When Tom Hanks’s character said to Matt Damon’s character (Private Ryan), “Earn this. Earn it,” he realized that it was American soldiers who had given him the freedom to live the life he chose and he felt compelled to “earn it” - to do his part in this war we’re in now. He joined New York’s Army National Guard, went to basic training and officer candidate school, and then his unit was called to Iraq. “I had to put my life on hold for eighteen months, but it was worth it,” he said. “I served my country and I learned a lot while doing it.”

Pictures of Mann holding various kinds of weapons showed on the screen as talked. Students asked if he ever shot at anyone. “No, not personally,” he said. “When we were riding in our Humvee, my men would have to fire at some bad guys sometimes, but I never did myself.” When asked if any of his friends were killed, he told them about an Iraqi friend he worked with named Muhammed. “One day, I came in asking where Muhammed was, and they told me he had been burned to death,” Mann said. “Not a good way to die.”

“Most of our causalities there are from IEDs,” he explained, “Improvised Explosive Devices.” He described how terrorists take mortar rounds and wire them up to explode when American vehicles are going by. “There are car bombs, which we call VBIEDs or ‘Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices,” and there are SIEDs or Suicide IEDs, etc. We get shot at, but we don’t often get to shoot back, at least not where I served most of the time.

Students asked about pictures of men wearing blindfolds. Mann said they were captured terrorists he interrogated. Then he explained that 90% of those terrorists were not Iraqis, but were from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries in the Middle East. Most students were surprised. Several asked if the Iraqi people want us in their country. “Definitely,” said Mann. “About 300-400 Iraqis told me they were very grateful for what we were doing. Only two said they were not. I’d say about 90% don’t want us to leave until they’re ready to take over against the terrorists.”

Many students indicated they were surprised by his description of what it was like in Iraq - that what they saw on television
led them to believe that things were going badly for us. It was Mann’s assessment that reports by the media were not fabrications, but they were not showing the whole picture. They tended not to show good things that were happening there as a result of the American effort.

Lt. Mann ended on a lighter note. He taught students a few words from some of the languages spoken where he was. In Iraqi, “Shaku Maku” means, “How are you?” or “What’s up?” In Kurdish, “Choni” means “How are you?” and “Bashi” means

“Good.” He spent a lot of time with Kurds in northern Iraq.

Since he’s been back in the states, Monroe has reopened his business school for artists in Manhattan ( and is promoting his new book, “Battle Cries for the Underdog” which he wrote in Iraq.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Hot Tub Chronicle

Published 11-27-05

Sitting in the hot tub, I can see mountains and stars above them. Coyotes howl and yip in the swamp below, probably chasing down a deer, perhaps one wounded by a hunter earlier today. Occasional headlights show through bare hardwoods along the Shave Hill Road a half mile off and from Route 113 in Chatham further away to the northwest. My wife’s large, unintelligent dog growls at the distant sounds. There’s something charming about being immersed in hot water outside on a cold evening with snow all around. It’s best when there are no lights on in the house behind me and nothing to hear but distant, muted sounds that would not be audible but for the cold quiet around me.

Blinking lights of four passenger jets move slowly from star to star, two going southeast and two northeast. I imagine passengers crowded in those narrow seats and stewardesses pushing carts between them high above the dark mountains. Seems like a lot of planes to be over my lonely portion of northern New England at once; maybe because it’s the night after Thanksgiving and people are heading home. Though it’s quiet now, it was bustling in the house behind me the night before, as my grown children and their partners were here for turkey dinner. My daughter Sarah and her husband, Nate, announced they were expecting their first child - my second grandchild - next August. Life goes on. Bearing children is a sign of hope. Hope is good. I think it’s a girl. We’ll see.

With a barely-audible drone, one jet disappeared in the trees to my left as another appeared over the mountains ten miles away. The worn-down mountains have been there for hundreds of millions of years. Coyotes arrived nine or ten thousand years ago after the ice melted and humans around the same time, but jets have been flying over these parts for only about fifty years. I visualized people in the plane because I’m out in the quiet night alone with nothing else to think about, but it’s doubtful any of them are aware of me. Nobody knows what I’m doing except my wife, who scampered into the house trailing steam a few minutes earlier to sauté the asparagus and portobella mushrooms to go with baked scallops we’d already prepared.

I don’t bring the phone out to the hot tub and don’t play music either. I leave the jets off and I’m alone in the dark with nature, distant jets, a glass of shiraz and my own thoughts. Even a barking dog can sound charming if it’s a half-mile away or more away. In that melieu, it’s surprising what comes to mind. When the kids were little and we had animals, it was my job to feed and water them morning and evening. It wasn’t easy to leave my seat near the wood stove in the old house and trudge out behind the barn to break ice out of plastic buckets and add fresh water, but the animals were always grateful. Though I wouldn’t have walked back there in the cold if I didn’t have to, it was nice to feel the quiet and see the Milky Way above, smell the cold forest and animals, feel the air numb my cheeks and watch the moon rise over the pines to the east. I’d usually enjoy it for a few minutes before going back in. Sitting in the hot tub reminded me of all that. It was much the same except for the smells. Vaporous chorine scent replaced the fragrance of woods, but it wasn’t unpleasant, bringing back as it did memories of my mother doing laundry in the basement of my childhood home. The bleach smell was on clean sheets I’d lay down on Saturday nights after my bath - fond memories I didn’t know were still somewhere in my memory.

For fifteen years, my wife has wanted a hot tub but the idea of sitting in steamy water with other people didn’t appeal to me. It seemed like a yuppie thing. For two years in Massachusetts I was technically a yuppie - Young, Urban and Professional, but I didn’t live the stereotype. However, now that I’ve lived in rural northern New England for twenty-eight years and grown to middle age, I guess I’m a MARPie - Middle-Aged, Rural Professional and I’m not the only one around here. I don’t know yet what the stereotype for a MARPie is supposed to be because I just invented the acronym, but this one likes relaxing in a hot tub. Next time I’m out there, I intend to ponder the MARPie stereotype for part II of the Hot Tub Chronicles.

Sex Education Paradox

Published 1-05-06

Anyone who read my “Sex Education Controversy” column here last week didn’t see the whole thing. Editors of two newspapers removed sections about controversial “workshops” presented to fourteen-year-olds in Massachusetts by state agencies. The workshops exposed students to sexual practices so bizarre that they couldn’t be printed here. The Boston Globe ignored those workshops, but it reported in a front-page, above-the-fold headline last month that teaching abstinence in school was “controversial.”

One editor emailed me, explaining: “I wanted to let you know I removed the portion of your column regarding “-------” While I see why you included it, it crossed the line regarding good taste and appropriateness for a community newspaper.” I understand the editor’s action, but it presents a paradox. I can’t name the practice here, even though it can be favorably described to fourteen-year-old public school students by state education officials paid with public funds. A search of the Globe’s archives showed no coverage of sex lessons anyone but the Marquis de Sade would consider outrageous. If you want to read an account, Google: “City Journal”; “Tufts” and “teach out” and you’ll hit on a comprehensive article describing what the Massachusetts Department of Education, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are pushing in schools across the country. Be prepared for a shock.

As usual, I gathered more material for the column than I could use in an 800-word piece. For example, sex education the way we know it originated with Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. PP is the biggest abortion provider in the United States - performing nearly a quarter million in 2004, sixteen percent of the total and not including chemical abortions resulting from PP’s distribution of the “morning after pill” to teenagers at their clinics.
Although Margaret Sanger is a feminist hero, few realize that she was also a major promoter of eugenics - the selective breeding of human beings as if they were dogs, horses or cattle. Planned Parenthood is just a new name for the first organization Sanger founded in the 1930s - the “American Birth Control League.” To the governing board of her ABCL she appointed fellow eugenicists and admirers of Adolf Hitler like Lothrop Stoddard. In his book “The Nazi Connection,” Stephan Kuhl writes of him:

“[Stoddard] even met personally with Adolf Hitler. William L. Shirer, an American colleague who had been in Germany since 1934, complained that the Reich minister for propaganda [Joseph Goebbels] gave special preference to Stoddard because his writings on racial subjects were ‘featured in Nazi school textbooks.’ . . . Stoddard claimed in 1940 that the ‘Jew problem’ is ‘already settled in principle and soon to be settled in fact by the physical elimination of the Jews themselves from the Third Reich.’”

Stoddard was referring to the Holocaust - the ultimate eugenics program. In 1942, The ABCL changed its name to the “Planned Parenthood Federation of America” over Sanger’s objections. As Kuhl put it, the ABCL had a strong Nazi smell.
In the late 1960s, our two biggest teachers’ unions joined Planned Parenthood to push sex education in public schools. In last week’s column, I wrote that teen pregnancy rates have been skyrocketing ever since. Actually, it’s unwed teen pregnancies that have skyrocketed while total teen pregnancies have been declining. Up to about 1970, many teenagers tended to get married and raise their children in nuclear families. In 1970, only about 30% of all teenage births were to unwed mothers, but in 1990 about 70% were.

Thirteen-year-old girls show up at Planned Parenthood clinics for abortions after being impregnated by men several years older. State laws obligate Planned Parenthood to report such cases to human services agencies as sexual abuse or statutory rapes, but it seldom does. It also lobbies against laws in every state requiring them to notify parents when teenage girls seek abortions. This is the agency public schools across the country trust to design their sex education programs.

In spite of, or perhaps partly because of these programs, American teenagers are having sex more often, with more different partners, and at much younger ages than ever before. Consequently, sexually-transmitted diseases among teens are epidemic. Should we be surprised? Teens are bombarded with sex on television, in movies, in music and in advertising everywhere. When dancing, they simulate sex. The instruction they get at school is scrupulously values-neutral. They hear, “You really shouldn’t be having sex at your age, but we know you’re doing to anyway. So, here are several different ways it’s done, and here are some ways you can avoid getting pregnant while you’re doing it. Oh, and here’s how you put a condom on. Now I want you all to practice on these bananas until the bell rings.”

Teaching sex in a moral vacuum strongly implies to kids that morality has no place in sexual behavior. If that’s the only way it’s delivered, perhaps the schools would be better off not teaching it at all. Or, maybe it should be an extra-curricular, after-school activity that parents could choose for their children if they didn’t want to teach it at home. If schools continue to teach it during the regular school day, how about using at least half the time to teach them some effective abstinence strategies along with all the “how tos”?

Nah, too controversial.

Sex Education Controversy

First published 12-27-05

It was an amazing sign of the times and it jumped off the page at me. In the first paragraph of it’s front-page, above-the-fold, headline story for Wednesday, December 21st, The Boston Globe said, “[it was] the state’s most aggressive effort yet to use a controversial method of teaching Bay State teenagers about sex.” What was this controversial method of teaching children about sex, you’re wondering? It must be really out there, huh? Nope. It’s not the least bit kinky. Nobody, not even my grandmother, would blush if I were to explain it in detail. The headline read: “State to push abstinence in schools.” According to the Globe’s way of looking at the world, teaching kids not to have sex is controversial. However, using public tax money to instruct Massachusetts teenagers in bizarre ways to “do it” is no big deal, not even worth mentioning.

The Globe featured this “controversy” as the most important thing that had happened in the world the previous day for its 500,000 readers. It reminded me of another kind of Massachusetts public school sex instruction a few years ago I considered vastly more controversial than the “Don’t do it” program. Public school students and teachers attended a “teach out” at Tufts University at which the Massachusetts Department of Education and other state employees led a workshop in which the bizarre sexual practice of “fisting” - inserting one’s fist into the anus or vagina of a sex partner - was described. When students at this workshop asked why anybody would want to do anything like that, the Massachusetts Department of Education official said, “[it’s] an experience of letting somebody into your body that you want to be close and intimate with.”

Now that’s what I call controversial, so I searched the Globe’s archives for how they covered the story. In their search engine, I typed “fisting, public school, students, Newton” because I knew there were fourteen-year-olds (the age I teach) from Newton’s school system in attendance. Guess how many hits I got? Zero, zilch, none. Evidently, the Globe didn’t think that grotesque workshop controversial enough to even mention - certainly not the lead story of the day. However, when I typed the same five words into Google, I got 108,000 hits. What does that tell us about The Boston Globe’s manipulation of news? And more importantly: what is happening to us?

In spite of the Globe’s best efforts to prevent it, at least Massachusetts is going to use the federal money offered for teaching sexual abstinence. My state, Maine, is one of only three (all blue states) in the country which chose not to accept the funds. “This money is more harmful than it is good,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, Maine’s Public Health Director. According to an article by Paul Carrier in Augusta’s Morning Sentinel, “In the past, the state has used the [$165,000] to run public-service announcements on television that encouraged young people to avoid having sex prematurely . . . that used the recurring tag line ‘not me, not now.’” We all remember those. But now Mills claims that Maine’s teen pregnancy and teen abortion rates have declined and the state doesn’t need the money. I guess teen sex just isn’t a problem anymore here in Maine, huh Dr. Mills?

Mills claimed the federal money has to be spent on “abstinence only” programs which instruct children that the only appropriate place for sex is within marriage. But that would discriminate against gay and lesbian students who can’t marry here in Maine. And, she said it would prevent the state from providing “comprehensive information” for sexually-active teens. It’s strange for Mills to make that claim because, according to Massachusetts Governor Romney’s communications director who is quoted in the Globe, “the [Massachusetts abstinence] program will be taught in addition to comprehensive sex education programs already in place, and that students will learn about contraception methods.” I can’t believe the feds are going to allow it in Massachusetts and disallow it in Maine.

Ever since “comprehensive sex education” has been taught in the nation’s public schools, pregnancy, abortion, and sexually-transmitted diseases among teenagers have been skyrocketing. Proponents argue that correlation is not causation and that it would have been even worse had sex education not been taught. Hmm. When the results of your program are just the opposite of what were intended, it’s not exactly a vote of confidence in its effectiveness.

Now consider that Maine has been spending federal abstinence money for ten years and Maine’s teen pregnancy and teen abortion rates have been going down - so much so that Dr. Mills is now claiming we don’t need to spend any more. Instead, she wants to protect and renew the “comprehensive” approach regardless of its dismal long-term results nationally, and trash the one which seems to have been much more effective.

Why not take the lead from Governor Romney in Massachusetts and do both? Or is that too controversial here in Maine also?

Hot Tub Chronicle II

First published 12-21-05

For many years my wife told me she wanted an outdoor hot tub to ease the strain of Maine’s winter. I’d listen and visualize the getting in and the getting out. An image of my wet, bare feet sticking to the hard-frozen ground the way a boy’s tongue sticks to a frozen metal pole of a school yard swing set played out in my mind’s eye. Looking behind me, I could see in my footprints the skin from the bottom of my bare feet, followed by others stained red with my blood. The hot tub idea had little appeal for me.

What I’ve discovered, however, is that only getting in is difficult. Getting out is easy. In my fleece bathrobe and slippers, I go out the door and into the frigid night shivering. I lift off the cover over the hot water and set it aside before removing my robe and stepping out of my slippers. There is a second of freezing misery as, shaking with cold, I swing my legs over the edge of the tub. After I’m up to my neck in hot liquid I can sigh with relief. Tense muscles loosen in the warm buoyancy and my internal temperature rises. In only a few seconds I’m relaxed and listening to the silence.

There’s probably no such thing as total silence, really - not for the average person here on earth anyway. Maybe it exists in space where there’s no atmosphere to vibrate and carry sound. Maybe it exists for the totally deaf, but for the rest of us there are just different degrees of noise. In the hot tub on a winter evening, I relish the relative silence around me. As mentioned in an earlier column, there’s no music and no telephone with me when I go out there. Neither are there any lights on in the house behind to leak out the windows and intrude on the light of the moon, the stars, and from distant houses on the high western bank of the Cold River in Stow and Chatham. Occasionally a faint, flickering light is visible on top of Mount Washington. The only sounds are those from nature, like coyotes or wind in the trees. Occasionally, there’s a distant whine of truck tires on Route 5 a mile or more away and down the hill - just loud enough to hear, but not intrusive on my mood. Sometimes there’s the drone of a passenger jet five miles up among the stars. It’s not really silence, but some might call it that.

We’re programmed to respond to certain sounds in certain ways. Genuine laughter elicits a positive reaction from anyone within earshot. Crying stirs an agitated response. Car horns during a traffic jam can be stressful, but listening to a baby gooing and gurgling is endearing. The soft, nearly-silent sounds of a winter night relax me. Maybe I’m hard-wired by the Creator to respond that way, or maybe it’s the human software bundle I came into the world with.

If I relax them totally, my arms float out in front of me - a rather strange sensation. The old bathtubs of my youth weren’t deep enough for that and neither were the little swimming pools in the yard. By the time I could swim in the lakes and ponds, I was too adventuresome to linger in the shallow water and see if my arms floated. Could warm, semi-weightless sensations tap unconscious memories of when we were in utero? The womb would have been warm and cozy too. Or maybe such thoughts are residue of the psychobabble I heard in all those liberal arts courses. Nonetheless, I imagine other mammals out there in the winter night. I visualize mice snug in in the woodpile in their nests of leaves and the wooly material they manage to accumulate from somewhere - probably insulation from one of our vehicles in the dooryard. I visualize chipmunks curled up snugly while deep in the ground under the snow. I feel an affinity for other warm-blooded creatures, but not for the grubs or the reptiles I know are out there too - another result of programming from the Creator I guess.

As I said, getting out of the tub is easy. Last Friday’s storm blew a half-inch of snow around the patio and I actually stood in it, barefoot and naked, while I put the cover back on before going inside. It was a strange sensation. I was aware of the cold, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. I had no urge to roll around in the snow as some do, but walking in it left no bloody footprints behind me.

Changes in Churches

First published 12-14-05

Catholics in the United States are losing priests but gaining parishioners. Episcopalians are gaining priests but losing parishioners. Catholics and Episcopalians are changing, but in different ways and the interplay it getting interesting.

Catholic priests have been in short supply here in the Portland, Maine diocese, necessitating a reorganization of how they are to be distributed across parishes. There are just not enough for every parish to have one. Now the Vatican has reiterated forcefully that homosexuals cannot be admitted to seminaries. The rule isn’t new, but since the 1960s American and European seminaries have been winking at it and allowing more and more to become priests. Many have become bishops as well and probably cardinals, but not openly. Seminary rectors and other church officials estimate that about 40-50% of US Catholic priests are homosexual. Under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican is acknowledging what has been obvious to many - that Catholic sex abuse scandal is mostly the result of homosexual priests and the bishops who protect them. More than 85% of sexual abuse victims have been adolescent boys and over 200 Catholic priests have died of AIDS over the same period. Under Pope Benedict, not-quite-open, but not-so-closeted homosexual priests are threatening to leave the church, worsening the already-severe priest shortage.

Other Catholics believe a strictly-enforced ban on homosexual priests will have the opposite effect; it will increase the number of men going into seminary. In his book “Good-bye Good Men,” Michael Rose makes this case quite convincingly. He documents how the “lavender mafia” within seminaries and many dioceses have turned away more traditional candidates. The few seminaries who have remained faithful to church teachings, like one in Omaha, have no shortage of straight applicants. Liberal seminaries, like the one in Boston which graduated so many homosexual priests, are largely empty.

The Episcopal Church is dealing with its homosexual challenge differently. It has trumpeted its gay and lesbian priests, and lately, Bishop Robinson. They have plenty of priests, but are losing the parishioners to serve. Other Episcopal priests are not comfortable with these developments and consider leaving, but they’ve been informed that they would lose their pensions if they did. Some whole parishes are outraged and are trying to secede from the Episcopal Church. The leadership responds by claiming that the diocese owns the parishes and not the parishioners, so the churchgoers can go, but they have to leave behind the property. The Catholic Church, under siege from homosexual-abuse lawsuits, is claiming just the opposite - that the local parishes are owned by the parishioners and not the diocese.

Lawsuits against the Catholic Church in the United States have surpassed $1 billion. They are filed against the local dioceses wherever the abuse occurred. The Spokane, Washington diocese, for instance, filed for bankruptcy claiming inability to pay the huge homosexual abuse settlements against it. Attorneys for the men who were abused as adolescents claim that the the diocese should not be allowed bankruptcy protection, but should instead liquidate parish properties and pay off the settlements. The diocese claims that the properties are owned by local parishes and the diocese has no authority to sell them, citing Canon Law. The Catholic News Service then reported that “U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams of Spokane ruled Aug. 26 [2005] that civil property laws prevail in a bankruptcy proceeding despite any internal church laws that might bar a bishop from full control over parish assets.” The diocese is appealing.

As if church ownership issues weren’t confusing enough, the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, where the homosexual abuse scandal was worst, began closing local parishes and selling off the assets, claiming the diocese owned them. Meanwhile, the Portland, Oregon and Tucson, Arizona dioceses, however, have filed bankruptcy just as Spokane did and legal experts expect the ownership issue will go all the way to the US Supreme Court before it is settled. President Bush’s two Supreme Court appointments are conservative Catholics. When Alito is confirmed, he will join coreligionists Roberts and Scalia to rule on these property issues.

Meanwhile, if homosexual Catholic priests who are threatening to leave and join the Episcopalians actually do so, they will be able to wave at straight Episcopal priests going in the other direction to join up with the Catholics. Conservative Episcopal priests have been welcomed into the Catholic Church, some even with their wives. It makes one wonder how that goes down with straight Catholic priests who have lived for years under a vow of celibacy.

Shooting Squirrels

This column was first published 12-8-05

Red squirrels are a pain and I shoot them whenever possible. Squirrels on my property or the properties I take care of here in Lovell are subject to the death penalty because those little red buggers cause a lot of damage. (Besides teaching and writing, I’ve been a caretaker for twenty years.) A pellet gun with a scope is my method of execution and if they’re in range, I don’t often miss. Sometimes they’re dispatched with one shot, but usually they need two or three shots before they stop twitching. I leave the little corpses where they fall and some other animal eats them up. By morning of the next day, not a trace is left. I shoot gray squirrels too, but not as often. They don’t come around much anymore. Maybe they noticed their cousins’ cadavers and decided to look for other habitat. I have no mercy on porcupines either. Rules of engagement for them? Shoot on sight with a .22.

It’s amazing that so many people put up with nuisance animals: deer eating their gardens, beavers flooding their homes, or coyotes eating their cats and terrorizing their children’s school yards. Yes, we live in an ultraliberal part of the country where guns and traps are considered evil and humans are less noble than animals, but don’t they know that coyotes chase down deer and disembowel them on the run? What would they propose to do with those marauding predators? Capture them and send them to sensitivity training?

People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, is enraged that birds are slaughtered to prevent the spread of bird flu. What do they think should be done? Let it continue until all birds are infected and the virus spreads to humans? A friend emailed me with helpful information about bird flu symptoms. Watch out if you have high fever; nausea; stomach cramps; diarrhea and an overpowering urge to defecate on statues or windshields. So far, I’m symptom free.

Speaking of birds, you PETA activists who want to ban fish hooks because they’re painful to bass and trout, what about bald eagles and ospreys grabbing fish with sharp talons, then carrying them to nests to be ripped apart alive with those sharp hooked beaks? Should sensitivity training be mandated for them too?

Perhaps you read about the bird murder in Holland. People were setting up dominoes in a large hall attempting to break the Guinness world record when a common sparrow flew in and knocked over 23,000 of them. Someone chased down the bird, shot it, and got arrested. Apparently “Common Sparrow” is a misnomer. That little bird was on the Netherlands Endangered Species List.

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson hit a dove with his fast ball back in 2001, according to ESPN’s web site. “It exploded, feathers and everything, just ‘poof!’” said the batter. “There were nothing but feathers laying on home plate. I never saw the ball, nothing but feathers.” Luckily for Johnson, that dove was not endangered as a species, but only from flying too close to his pitch. Dave Winfield wasn’t so lucky, however, when he threw a ball and hit a protected seagull. The gull died and Winfield was arrested after the game for animal cruelty. Yankee manager Billy Martin summed it up thusly: “They say he hit the gull on purpose. They wouldn't say that if they’d seen the throws he’d been making all year. It’s the first time he’s hit the cutoff man.”

According to seagull research by Wisconsin blogger Gavin C. Schmitt, “Seagulls fall under the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This law, a treaty between the United States and Canada (and later Russia, Mexico and Japan), makes it illegal to kill, sell, or capture certain birds mentioned on a list by the Act. Even dead birds and bird parts such as eggs and feathers, are protected.”

So, the federal government is obligated to protect seagulls even if they’re dead? It’s a struggle to make sense of this, especially when I read stories like the one last month in Lewiston’s Sun Journal: “Feds killing gulls to fight germs in lake.” Forty gulls had been shot and more had been sentenced to death. Why this departure from federal treaty obligations you may wonder? “The birds are suspected of defecating in the water,” suggests staff writer Doug Fletcher. Hmm. Where else did these crack federal agents suspect that seagulls would defecate besides on the occasional windsheld? Has it occurred to them that fish are probably defecating in there too?

After shooting the gulls, will federal agents guard their corpses? For how long? After the flesh rots away, will they remain on duty over the feathers? If so, maybe they’ll be too busy to bother me about shooting squirrels and porcupines.

Paris Riots in Class

First published 11-14-05

On the blackboard, I wrote four questions under the heading “Riots in France.” The first asked, “Who is rioting?” The others asked, “What happens during the riots?”; “Why are the riots occurring?” and “What is the French government doing about them?” Students were instructed to copy the questions on a piece of paper, leaving space under each for answers. They they were to use search engines on their laptops to find information. The riots had, at that point, been occurring for two weeks.

“How should we answer the first question, Mr. McLaughlin?” a girl asked.

“Use your brain,” I said. “Don’t use mine. It’s a simple question: ‘Who is rioting?’ Find an answer.”

She didn’t like my response, but I didn’t want to influence her search. I knew the answer was being reported in different ways and that’s what I wanted students to find out.

Pretty soon, several started raising their hands. When I called on a boy, he started reading from the screen of his laptop: French youths rioted for the thirteenth night . . .”

“Hold on,” I said. “I’d prefer that you each write the answers on your paper before we go over them as a group. I want you to process the information through your brains rather than reading it from the screen.” When most were done researching, I said, “Okay. Who is rioting?”

The boy had his hand up again. “Youths,” he said.

“Youths,” I repeated. “Who else found that?”

Several hands went up.

“Any other answers to ‘Who is rioting?’ ” I asked.

“Immigrant youths,” said a girl.

“Immigrant youths,” I repeated. “Any other answers?”

“Muslim immigrant youths or the children of Muslim Arab and African immigrants,” said another girl.

I went over to a world map and called for everyone’s attention. “Here is France,” I said, “and here is North Africa across the Mediterranean. During the 1800s, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia became French colonies. After World War II there was a rebellion in Algeria and it became independent in 1962. After that, France’s population didn’t go up much as people used birth control more and abortion became available. Immigration from the former colonies was encouraged and now Muslim African and Arab immigrants, and their descendents, comprise about 12% of France’s 60 million people. However, they’re not assimilating well. That means they’re not joining French culture as fully as France would like. They live in France, but stay to themselves keep their own ways. Unemployment is very high among Muslim male ‘youths’ - almost 40% of those under 25 are out of work and many of them get into trouble. That’s the part of the population of any country that commits most of the crimes and their being out of work doesn’t help. Are you beginning to get a picture of how the riots could happen?”

There were nods all around.

“Okay. What happens during the riots?” Lots of hands went up and I called on a girl.

“They’re burning up lots of cars,” she said, “setting them on fire.”

“How many?” I asked.

“More than fourteen hundred the other night.”

“Wow. That’s a lot of cars,” said a boy.

“But it’s getting better,” she said. “Not as many cars were burned last night.”

“How many?” I asked.

“Six hundred sixty.”

“That’s a lot!” said another boy.

“Okay,” I said. “Third question: Why are the riots occurring?”

There was a pause before another girl said, “Because they feel discrimination in France and they’re angry.”

“Okay. Any other answers?”

“Because they don’t have jobs,” said a boy. “A lot of them have nothing else to do.”

“All right. Now for the last question: What is the French government doing about the riots?”

“They’re putting more police out there to deal with the rioters,” one said.

“They’re starting curfews,” said another.

“What are curfews?” I asked.

“When people must be inside at night.”

“Is it a sundown to sunrise curfew?” I asked.

“Ten PM to dawn,” she said.

“What happens if they go out?” asked a boy.

“They go to jail for two months and get fined $6000,” she answered.

“Wow. That’s a lot.”

“Do you think those moves will be effective?” I asked.

“There were only 660 cars burned the first night of the curfews,” said the girl.

“Only?” said the boy.