Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Oh Shoot

“Mr. McLaughlin, did you hear about Vice President Dick Cheney shooting that guy?” as student asked on a Monday morning, just as the first class of the day was beginning.

“Yes, I did.”

“The vice president shot someone?” said another student incredulously.

“Evidently there was a hunting accident in Texas over the weekend,” I said. “Vice President Cheney was quail hunting and accidentally hit a hunting companion with bird shot from a small-gauge shotgun. The man is alive, but in the hospital.”

“What if he dies? Will Cheney go to jail?” asked the first student. He seemed to relish the thought.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Possibly, I guess. If Cheney were found to be criminally negligent when the accident occurred, it’s a possibility. Texas law would apply in this case and I don’t know what the rules are down there.” I picked up one of the papers and saw an article below the fold on the front page. I scanned it and found information about the gun Cheney was using. “It says here that the man was shot from thirty yards away with a 28 gauge shotgun. I’ve never heard of that kind of gun. I’ve hunted partridges and woodcock around here with a 20-gauge shotgun. Most people use 12 gauge guns which are bigger. I’ve heard about even smaller shotguns called .410s, but I’ve never heard of a 28 gauge. Have any of you?”

“I’ve heard of them,” said a boy. A .410 is smaller than a 28 gauge. I use a .410 with a slug instead of buckshot to hunt deer with my father.” Other students were listening to him and I could tell from the looks on some faces that they had no idea what he was talking about.

“Buck shot is like a bunch of little BBs spraying out of the gun rather than one bullet. Instead of a bullet hole like this,” I explained while drawing a little circle on the blackboard and filling it in, “buck shot leaves a pattern like this on whatever is hit.” I drew a random collection of smaller dots next to the bullet hole. “The guy Cheney shot would have a lot of little holes on his face, his neck, and his chest.”

“There are some good jokes about it,” said another boy.

“Are any appropriate to tell here?” I asked.

“I can’t remember them exactly right now,” he said.

“I’m sure there will be more,” I said. “Cheney must be feeling bad about it. What he did was pretty stupid and the whole world knows it. Even his friends think he did a dumb thing, and his enemies are chuckling.”

For the next several days students wanted to talk about the incident. I asked them why they thought the story was getting so much attention. “Because it’s the vice president,” said a girl.

“Have any of you known someone involved in a hunting accident?” I asked. “They’re fairly common, unfortunately. Three hands went up. “Without mentioning any names, will you briefly describe what happened?”

One boy said, “A guy who was hunting with my father shot at a deer and there was another hunter behind it. He missed the deer and hit the guy in the leg.”

“Okay,” I said. “Did it get reported in the newspaper?”

“No.” he said. “I don’t think so.”

“Did the police investigate?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“Did the victim suffer any permanent damage to his leg?”

“No. He’s fine now.”

The other students described hunting accidents they knew about. One victim was shot in the arm and the results of the accident were fairly similar. Neither incident had gotten much attention beyond the circle of people involved.

“Cheney’s accident is being handled quite differently, huh?” I said.

“I don’t think reporters like Dick Cheney,” said a boy.

“I think there’s a liberal bias in the media,” said a girl. “They seem to like reporting on this.” Liberal or conservative bias is something we look for often in class when studying the textbook or when digesting news reports.

“Well,” I said. “There have been several research studies about that. Most indicate that at least four out of five Washington correspondents from the major networks and the biggest newspapers vote Democrat. Fewer than ten percent vote Republican. Cheney is one Republican they love to hate. Karl Rove, the president’s political advisor, is another. Negative stories about either of them tend to get a lot of attention. Cheney has never been afraid of speaking his mind. He’s annoyed a lot of people in the media and now that he’s done something stupid he’s going to have to pay the price, I guess.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Students And Cartoon Riots

“There are demonstrations, riots and fire bombings around the world lately because of some cartoon about the prophet Muhammad that was published in a Danish newspaper,” I told students. “Have any of you heard about this?”

Only a few knew knew of it. Taking a piece of chalk, I drew a rough facsimile of one cartoon on the blackboard - a rendition of Muhammad with a turban that looked like a bomb. A lit fuse emerged from the bomb which had Arabic script indicating that it represented Islam. “This and eleven other cartoons were published last October in Denmark, Europe,” I explained, “because a newspaper ran a contest for artists who might wish to illustrate a children’s book about Muhammad. The author, a woman, could find no illustrator willing to do the job out of fear of reprisal from Muslims. The newspaper was trying to help her,” I explained.

“Has anybody seen this cartoon before?” I asked.

Nobody had.

“Evidently, a Muslim cleric in Denmark told people at his mosque the cartoons were insulting to Islam and Muslims should not tolerate them. Soon, Muslims in London and other European cities conducted demonstrations and threatened all of Europe with September 11th-style attacks and new holocausts. There carried signs pledging to slaughter, annihilate and massacre Europeans for insulting Islam. Danish embassies in Beirut, Lebanon and Damascus, Syria were attacked. Danish flags were burned in the Gaza Strip by Palestinians who had cheered the 9-11 attacks against the United States five years earlier.”

I waited for a reaction. Nobody raised a hand for several seconds, then one boy who had seen reports of the demonstrations on television said, “I heard that Islam forbids paintings, pictures or figures of Muhammad. That’s why Muslims are so mad.”

“I heard that too,” I said. “American newspapers have decided not to publish the cartoons.”

There was no more discussion of the cartoon demonstrations that day. After school, while browsing familiar web sites and web logs, I found all twelve cartoons published on Michelle Malkin is a conservative syndicated columnist with a very active web log.

In class the next day, I hooked my laptop to the digital projector and showed students the rest of the controversial cartoons. Most were pretty innocuous, what you’d expect to find illustrating a children’s book. The only sketchy one showed Muhammad in heaven telling a line of suicide-bomber jihadists waiting to get in that he was all out of virgins. I thought it was clever and my students thought so too, but that it might insult Muslims who don’t approve of suicide bombers.

Another cartoon showed the star and crescent symbol of Islam superimposed on a drawing of the face of Muhammad. At this, a student commented that the symbol resembled the hammer and sickle symbol on the flag of the former Soviet Union.

I drew the hammer and sickle (with star above) on the board and beside it drew the star and crescent - symbol of Islam. The similarity was striking. It pleased me that some students picked up on this, not that it had any hidden meaning, but at least they were thinking. We had been studying comparisons of World War II with the Cold War. WWII was a fairly traditional war in that Germany and Japan were attempting to take over surrounding territory. The Cold War had that element as well, but it was also ideological with its propagation of communism. The current war with radical Islam is also ideological. Just as Soviet leaders sought to impose communism on the world, radical Islamic leaders like Osama Bin Laden seek to impose Islam and Sharia (Islamic Law) on the world. That the symbols of communism and Islam are similar is curious in that light.

Most students have a fascination with symbology. They remembered that a cross is symbolic of Christianity and a Star of David symbolic of Judaism. When we studied anarchists in early 20th century America, they learned the upper-case “A” with a circle around it was a symbol for anarchists - people against any form of government. They were interested in the swastika symbol when we studied the Nazi takeover of Germany and were quite taken by Soviet and Islamic symbols.

Regarding the alleged claim that Islam forbade pictures of the prophet Muhammad, a link on Michelle Malkin’s site went to an archive with dozens of Muhammad pictures from Islamic countries like Afghanistan, Iran (formerly Persia) and Turkey. Many went back seven centuries to the 1300s. There were other centuries-old pictures of Muhammad from countries in Europe. There was even one from the American TV show

“South Park.” Students laughed when that one came up. Evidently, none had provoked outrage until now.

Most students tentatively concluded that the cartoons were scant justification for riots around the world and that radical Muslims would seize on anything to stir their followers up against the west, just as they had during the French riots (which we studied, and I wrote about in this space) a few months ago.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Merchants of Cool

First published 2-9-06

Parents worry sending their kids to middle school - not every one, but a lot. At soccer games, in the post office, at the supermarket, mothers hold fingers over lips and with wide eyes, say: “Susie will be in sixth grade next year.” It’s not like they’re telling me proudly, “Melissa is going to college next year,” or “Billy got an appointment to the Air Force Academy.” No. They tell me ominously. They worry that teenage culture is going to “get” their kids in middle school and their influence as parents will diminish rapidly. Often, they’re correct.

What is teenage culture? It’s not easy to define, but you know it when you see it. Outward signs include bare midriffs on girls and sagging jeans on boys, but it goes deeper. It’s an outlook on the world almost completely without roots. It blows in the wind. It has its own dynamic. It’s permeated by sex and attitude and it’s what you see when you turn on MTV.

What drives it? That’s another difficult question. Is there a sinister force out there conspiring to lead our precious children into temptation? Yes and no. One of the most insightful programs I’ve ever seen about this is from PBS’s “Frontline” back in 2001, called “Merchants of Cool.” You can still get it on Netflix, but you have to wait a while. Merchants of Cool zeroes in on MTV, interviewing the directors of programming, the market researchers they rely on, and the reaction of teenagers to what they broadcast. It claims MTV is a continuously-running commercial which it made its owner, Viacom, $1 billion in profit for the year 2000. It has the usual thirty-second commercials seen on other channels, but even the programming sells product. For instance Sprite, an advertiser, pays teenagers $50 per day to look cool while they hang around in a large room somewhere and respond to whatever they’re shown, like music videos by “artists” sponsored by Viacom. It’s all filmed and edited for MTV’s own programming and also used in standard commercials for Sprite.

Nearly all their programs feature clothing and other merchandise their advertisers sell. Tuning in over the weekend, I saw a show with black men hanging around a barbershop. Interspersed was music from someone called “Fifty Cent,” another Viacom product. The dialogue was punctuated by “beeps” as salacious language about women was censored. The camera zoomed in periodically on the face of a five or six-year-old getting a haircut in the company of the foul-mouthed men. It was sad to watch his expression and consider that the boy is growing up with them as role models.

Though my middle school students have tried to educate me about the alleged distinctions between rap and hip-hop, such “music” will always be just angry-sounding noise pollution to me - abounding in degradation toward women, police, and life in general and worshiping gangsters. Generations of young men, white, black and Hispanic, emulate rap “artists” in dress as well as attitude. Viacom’s biggest white role model is Howard Stern. Enough said. Is Viacom a driving force in teenage culture? It’s one of them.

Frontline’s cameras recorded MTV’s staff as they worked. Most looked to be in their twenties and thirties, but appeared no more mature than the teenagers they targeted. They seemed vicariously titillated watching teenagers gyrate salaciously. When Frontline asked if they felt any misgivings about what they were doing, one woman shrugged and said, “Umm, it’s my personal opinion that teenagers shouldn’t be having sex, but they’re, ahh, confronted with it in terms of advertising. They see it on television, on nighttime shows and on daytime shows.” She shrugged her shoulders again as if she just goes with the flow. A young man said, “There’s no way to stop a movement in popular culture - it’s going to happen with or without you.” He had no qualms of conscience either. It was all out of his control. Might as well make a billion while you’re carried along. During spring break in Florida, Frontline says, “teenagers are followed by MTV cameras through their week of debauchery.” I watched as MTV got hours of free programming while teenagers exaggerated their wild behavior in the presence of MTV’s cameras. “It’s a giant feedback loop,” said Frontline.

So, back to the question: what drives teenage culture? Teenagers claim they do. Viacom says it doesn’t, but only rides the wave. Frontline’s “Merchants of Cool” concludes by saying: “Makers of MTV argue that they’re only reflecting the real world - sex is a part of teens lives so it better be in their media too. Media is just a mirror after all, or is it?”

Americans, not wanting to appear judgmental or intolerant or, heaven forbid, uncool, must then endure the swill Viacom feeds our teenagers. Even if children never watch MTV, they’re influenced by it. We all are, like it or not.

Talk Is Cheap

Published 1-30-06

Words fail us. They’ve never been adequate to express meaning completely, no matter what the language. The best we can hope for is that words will convey a facsimile of what’s inside. Each week I write eight hundred words here, but I’m seldom satisfied with what emerges. It usually falls short of what I mean.

Even when we strive mightily to find the right words, they’re not enough. When I ask a question of a class sometimes and a student raises a hand, he can’t find the words to answer after I’ve called on him. The poor kid will be speechless. I sense he understands but can’t express himself. I’ll encourage him and he’ll make a few attempts, but then cut himself off and say, “Never mind,” in exasperation. I ponder that. It’s a command to ignore him forever. Does he want me never to mind him when he has something to express? I doubt it but that is the literal interpretation. What he really wants is for me to divert attention away from him, so I do.

People who say the least seem most worth listening to. Conversely, those who talk endlessly say little worth hearing. Reading recently about early Christian hermits who lived in the Egyptian desert and practiced silence, I ran across a 1600-year-old quote from Diadochus of Photiki: “When the door of the steam bath is continually left open,” he said, “the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good.” Many times I feel dissipated after writing a column or striving to express something verbally and failing.

We can’t pray openly in public schools. At my school, we have a moment of silence beginning each day after the Pledge of Allegiance and I pray silently then. All day long, however, I hear students say, “Oh my God.” There are variations on this too, such as: “I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” and “I was like, so ‘Oh my God.’” It’s perhaps the most ubiquitous phrase uttered in middle school. It’s not, however, considered a prayer, even though it is, literally. It’s not considered a prayer because students don’t have an attitude of prayer when they say it. They’re not kneeling; they’re not fervent or solemn. They’re trying to express how strongly emotional they felt in a certain situation. I wonder, however, if they are actually praying, but at an unconscious level. If they’re attempting to express how deeply emotional they felt a given time by saying, “I was like, ‘Oh my God!” and they have some unconscious awareness of God, what could be stronger than to invoke His name in astonishment?

It’s paradoxical that we can allow public school students to utter words of prayer so long as we know they don’t really mean them as such, but moments of silence in which there is no visible prayer but perhaps some surreptitious worship, make atheists in the ACLU feel like suing. After all the school shootings in the nineties, schools have become hypersensitive about other things students say. Often, we’ll hear one say to another, “I’ll kill you.” Usually it’s when they’re teasing and smiling good-naturedly, but school officials are encouraged to pick up on words like that and consider them danger signals, even when we know they’re not, really.

Then we have the aptly-named “small talk.” It never came easily to me. I find talking without really saying anything quite difficult and my words often stumble when I attempt it. If someone addresses me saying, “How are you?” I’ll take a second or two, consider how I am, and try to find the right word or words to answer honestly. Some are put off by the momentary pause. They don’t want their question to be taken seriously. For them, asking “How are you?” is just a way to say hello and they don’t really want an answer. Or, if they do expect a response, they want one that is as ineffectual as their question and nothing more. My feeling is: if you don’t want to know, don’t ask.

Being silently present can be more meaningful than speaking. Much is communicated wordlessly. We can learn more sometimes by observing someone’s behavior than listening to what he says, but many people are uncomfortable with silence in the presence of others. They’re compelled to talk even when they have nothing much to say. They only feel a semblance of control if they’re talking. Others, however, find silence relaxing and feel completely comfortable with it. As Mark Twain said: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Holy Smoke

Published 1-24-06

“This is an unusual story,” I said to students while holding up the front page of the Lewiston Sun Journal. There was a large, color, above-the-fold picture of a woman staring at an image burned on a wall after a house fire in Mexico, Maine. Reading from the story, I said, “‘The image was created by smoke, according to the town’s fire chief. Others will say it is a miracle.’ I don’t think another newspaper would have run this story as prominently as the Sun Journal has. Do any of you know who the Virgin Mary is?”

Only three or four hands went up. Other students seemed perplexed, but curious.

“She’s the mother of Jesus,” said a boy.

“That’s what Christians believe,” I said. “Roman Catholics, the biggest group of Christians in this country and in the world, believe that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born. Some other Christian groups are skeptical about that.”

“How could she be a virgin and be pregnant?” I heard one student say to another. I repeated the question and said, “The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was visited by the Holy Spirit and became pregnant with the son of God, but remained a virgin. Like I said, not all Christians believe that.”

Some students snickered and others said, “Shh.” I handed the newspaper to a student in the front seat and it went up and down the rows as each stared at the picture.

“I don’t think the Portland Press Herald or the The Boston Globe would feature this story so prominently,” I said. “Lewiston, as well as Mexico and Rumford, are mill towns. French-Canadian immigrants from Canada and others from northern Europe moved to these places more than a century ago to work in the mills. Most of them were Catholics and many of their descendants still are. The Sun Journal knows a story like this would be interesting to them.”

“I remember hearing there was an image of the Virgin Mary in the shadow of a streetlight somewhere in Massachusetts,” said a boy.

“Really?” I said. “I never knew about that one.”

“Lots of people were coming to see it every night until it was shut off.

“Wasn’t there another image of her on a grilled cheese sandwich?” asked a student in the back of the room. “It was sold for more than $20,000 on Ebay, I think.” More students snickered. Others appeared interested.

“I did hear about the grilled cheese sandwich,” I said. “Here’s a quote from the Catholic Church in Maine about the picture in the paper: ‘“It’s amazing to look at,” said Susan Barnard, spokeswoman for the Catholic Church in Maine after viewing a Sun Journal photograph of the image on Tuesday. “As far as the Church is concerned, we don’t jump to conclusions quickly. We often take a wait-and-see attitude; we wait to see if it caused conversions, improves the lives of people or miracles happen. We would never encourage people to go to Mexico in droves,” she said. “We just know in history that if this is a true sign, miracles will happen there. If it’s authentic, it will prove itself in time.”’”

“As far as I know,” I said, “there are very few appearances of the Virgin Mary considered real by the church. One was in Portugal near the end of World War I. Another was in France more than a century ago, and another was in Mexico - the country Mexico - about five hundred years ago.”

“According to the Mexico, Maine fire chief, the Virgin Mary image formed behind a picture on the wall as the room filled up with smoke,” I said. “Chief Gary Wentzell said the image was ‘striking.’ He’s a Baptist - another kind of Christian.”

“What do you think of the picture, Mr. McLaughlin?” a student asked me.

“Well, I’m a Roman Catholic,” I said. “I belong to the church right over there through the pines beyond the soccer field,” pointing toward the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church next to our school, “and I agree with what Susan Barnard said. People should wait and see what happens. There weren’t any miracles after the grilled cheese sandwich. Let’s not come to any conclusions yet about this one and just watch what else happens up there in Mexico, Maine.”

The story stayed on the front page for several days. The woman who owns the house had cut out the paneling on which the image appeared and indicated a willingness to sell it. I updated students on this information the following week. “She must have heard about the price someone paid for the grilled cheese sandwich,” said a boy.

“Maybe,” I said. “Trying to sell it sounds somewhat unmiraculous to me.”

“Maybe not,” said a girl. “You said her house is burned, right?”


“Well, if she gets a lot of money for the image on Ebay, she can fix it up better. That’s kind of a miracle, isn’t it?”

“Hmm,” I said. “Good point.”

The Owl

First published 1-27-06

The big bird broke me out of my daydream as it flew silently into my field of vision. I’d been sitting in my office and staring down across the field at the lower tree line when the creature landed on a limb to my left. It was larger than any wild bird I’d ever seen that close up. I leaned toward the window for a better look as it turned its head in my direction. It was an owl. He (I think he was a he) seemed to sense my presence behind the glass because he looked right at me. I froze and stared back at him, amazed. When I slowly leaned back in my chair, he flew to another tree further away. I reached for my binoculars and watched him looking from side to side and waiting for something resembling a meal to scurry across the snow below him.

It was only mid-afternoon and I’d always thought owls were nocturnal creatures. While I considered that, several blue jays flew into the tree where the owl first landed and jumped around from limb to limb, obviously agitated. Then five of them flew to other trees around the owl’s new perch - above him and below him. He kept turning his huge head around trying to keep the blue jays in view. Then several crows appeared and joined the remaining blue jays, raising a ruckus with their cawing. A couple of them flew over to join the braver jays harassing the owl. I reached for my digital camera, zoomed in and snapped a couple of pictures before the owl got fed up with the harassment and flew deeper in the woods. I hooked up the camera to my laptop, downloaded the images and pulled them up on the screen. This was way more interesting than what I’d been trying to write about. The images were grainy, but I could see a few more details than I noticed through the binoculars.

It dawned on me that I could search the web for information about owls, so I Googled “Owls in Maine.” After a few clicks, I had an image that looked a lot like the ones I’d taken. It was a Barred Owl, or “Strix Varia,” also known as a Swamp Owl, Hoot Owl, Eight Hooter, or Round Headed Owl. I hit a link beside the image and heard the owl’s call: “hoo, hoo, too-HOO; hoo, hoo, too-HOO-ooo.” Or, as the site spelled it out: “‘Who, cooks, for-you? Who, cooks, for-you, all?’ The last syllable drops off noticeably.” This was definitely the hooting my little grandson and I listen to, and attempt to mimic, while we’re sitting in the porch swing during early spring evenings. We cuddle in the dark with a blanket over us and try to answer the calls over the distant woods.

The Barred Owl can have a wingspan of over four feet and sits more than two feet high. I’m not sure if my owl was that big, but I wouldn’t be surprised. They are nocturnal, but will hunt on cloudy days before evening and it was cloudy that day. Barred Owls like voles and deer mice which abound in my field. They also like to hunt squirrels, and I can certainly identify with that. There were very few squirrels around my yard this past summer and I thought it was because I’d shot so many, but it looks like I’d had some help from old Mr. Owl. He also eats rabbits, weasels, snakes, woodpeckers, partridges, and jays. No wonder the blue jays were getting so nervous. Then it occurred to me that I learned all this without once having to get out of my chair. After the owl first flew into view, I could capture its image, listen to its call, determine its species, its size, range, life span, mating habits, diet, and preferred habitat - all without getting off my butt.

While I was marveling at wonders of today’s information technology and savoring the contrast between the digital equipment in my office and Nature’s wild carnivore on the other side of my window, the owl flew out of the woods and reclaimed its perch overlooking the field. I watched as he turned toward me again with concentric rings around his eyes and and I wondered if owls really were as wise as they appeared to be. I sincerely hoped they were because I’m in need of a heavy dose of wisdom lately and maybe I this owl experience was some kind of omen. Again, the blue jays and crows harassed him and I admired how he seemed to bear it serenely. He was trying to put food on the table (or the branch) while other creatures were doing their best to bother him.

The phone rang, interrupting my muse. I picked it up and a friend from Florida asked me what I was up to. I told him all about the owl and added that I still hadn’t gotten off my rear end and I could describe my experience to someone a thousand miles away. Modern technology is great, but I doubt that it will ever substitute for Nature’s ancient wisdom.