Friday, August 28, 2009


Since around the middle of July I started seeing Back to School signs in the stores, and my daughter sort of cringed every time I pointed to one and reminded her about the inevitable. It seems kind of cruel on my part, and it reminds me of that old Staples commercial. Some of you may remember it: a father happily throws all the school supplies in the shopping cart as his kids look very sad while Andy Williams sings “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Oddly enough, I know my daughter is going back to school in about a week and I don’t feel all that happy.

I remember my own childhood summers as blissful times. My parents had a beach house in a place called Breezy Point, and it was so close to the city and yet seemed to be a zillion miles away. It was this safe little enclave where people didn’t lock doors, children ran barefoot all summer long, and the smell of barbecues filled the air every evening from June until September.

I can recall looking at the calendar on the wall in the kitchen as my Mom worked around the room, and I kept smiling and she’d ask why, and it was because “July” was in big letters at the top and that meant two months of no school. I was even happy when the page was turned to August, but like every kid I dreaded when Mom turned it again, and I saw September splashed across the top. The funny thing was Mom never seemed happy about us going back to school, and I always appreciated that.

My daughter now faces a similar situation. After a summer of freedom, she has no desire to return to school. I hate to see her go back because she has been such a great companion. Now 8 years old, she is in a place where she can help us with the baby (8 months old) and also do little chores around the house. She also fancies herself a writer and has been writing “books” all summer. These books involve little girls, most of whom resemble all her friends, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Sometimes I hear calls for an extended school day and school year, and this usually comes from politicians who wish to appease their constituents who are working parents. They want to see the day go from 7am until 6pm or sometimes even later. They would also like to see the school year extend until the end of August, effectively meaning twelve months of school. They jabber about competing with other nations like Japan or South Korea, but what they are really saying is that schools should provide year round childcare.

I am not looking at this just as a parent but as someone who has been an educator for the last 26 years. I have taught in elementary, middle, and high schools as well in a college setting. For ten years I was a school principal for grades N-8. I have no doubt that many people are well intentioned, but I also know that this call for more school denies the basic needs of children to have unstructured time, to be away from the classroom, and basically have a chance to be kids.

I do advocate academic work during the summer. This is a golden opportunity for parents or older siblings to work with children on math, reading, and other things. This summer my daughter and I have done numerous projects involving science activities and art. These are wonderful times that we share and she will always remember. I also make her practice her times table and read every day from grade appropriate books. The mind is like a muscle and, if unused, it becomes pretty ineffectual. This keeps me involved in her education and shows her I do care about what she is learning.

If parents are unable to do this during the summer, there are programs (half and full day) in which children can keep sharp, but these classes are usually given in a different place than the school the kids attend all year, and this is important because the students need a change of pace. We may be guilty of underestimating just how much children need and deserve a break from routine, but it is a fact and we must accept and understand it.

As an educator I know too that, if I am doing my job right, that I will go home exhausted every day. Good teaching involves so much energy and depletes the person mentally and physically. This is why that after ten months of school, most teachers have put in more than twelve months worth of work and deserve that summer vacation that the rest of the adult world seems to resent so much.

As both my daughter and I face her going back to school, I think we have pretty much accepted that it must happen. There is always that trepidation about the first day, the new students in different classes, and the new teachers who have come in since last year. Usually after the first week she will be okay, back with her friends and getting into the routine, but the memories of summer will linger at least until we start getting ready for Halloween.

I think many parents probably feel the same as I do now, but even those who may be happy to see kids go back to school must realize the benefits of a summer vacation. Kids get to feel a little freedom, stay up a little later, and sleep a little later too. They get to run barefoot through the grass, drink ice cold lemonade, and lay on their backs and watch the clouds go by. They need this time to run, play, swim, and scream their little heads off. The importance of unstructured time is crucial because, despite the seemingly haphazard schedule, students are actually learning vital skills to cope with the individuality and responsibility that will be required in later years.

So parents and children, we all know about the back to school blues, but enjoy these last few days of summer. Watch the sun rise or the sun set, cook a few marshmallows over that lingering fire, take deep breaths of the summer air, and listen to the soothing refrain of the crickets in the night. Enjoy being with your kids and, maybe, just maybe, be a kid again yourself if only for a little while.

Copyright ã Victor Lana 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009


I don’t know about you, but these explosive town hall meetings regarding President Obama’s healthcare initiative are pretty scary events. It seems like people are coming to these events ready to do battle, sort of like if Yankees and Mets fans were attending the same party. I don’t think there is any hope for intelligent discourse in these matters because everyone is going in with some kind of anger for the other side.

I was watching one such meeting the other night with Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) playing referee to two of his constituents. I thought Specter did a decent job, but maybe it would have been better for him to put on a black and white stripped jersey and stand in the middle of a ring with these two guys. He could get Nancy Pelosi to walk around holding big numbers to signify what round they were in (I’m sure old Nancy would do it for the good of the country and maybe a few complimentary visits to get some Botox treatments). I think this might make for a more enjoyable evening for all.

Many people who like Obama, and I am one of them, say that this is just an attempt to smear this president. All these people are so angry that Obama won that now they are venting in these meetings like lunatics or maybe stockbrokers ordering hotdogs out on Wall Street. Perhaps fringe lunatics like Barney the Dinosaur and Elmo from Sesame Street are stoking the fires of hate (I have always had my suspicions about that Barney character), or it could be a plot from Al Qaeda to disrupt America in order for us to implode with anger and hatred.

I don’t know if I buy that. I think in general people do not know how to behave in public. Have you ever seen people in McDonald’s or Wendy’s when there is a long line? The eye-rolling and the wise comments are worse than any segment of The Factor with good old Bill O’Reilly. Similar behavior can be found in the bank, the mall, and any public swimming pool. In general I think Americans are not very good in public, which signifies a problem since we are the “public” whom guys like Obama, Pelosi, and company serve.

I was wondering if we could have some kind of rules for these town hall affairs, a sort of etiquette that would make clear how to behave. It could be distributed as a list prior to entrance to the meetings, preferably by Dick Cheney wearing his hunting gear and sporting a rifle over his shoulder.

The list should include the following:

1. When someone else is talking, yell louder than that person in order to be heard.
2. When stepping up to the microphone, make sure your gloves are laced and your mouthpiece is securely between your teeth.
3. Listening to the other side is never an option.
4. Whenever the word “healthcare” is used, boo and hiss loudly.
5. Bring posters of Obama dressed as the Grinch who stole Medicare.
6. Let your Congressman or woman know you like them as much as the guy in the public pool who stays in there for four hours and then leaves without using the restroom.
7. Old folks should rattle their canes and walkers as loudly as possible when the politician begins speaking.
8. Finally, everyone should dress as the cast of M*A*S*H, set up a still, and drink martinis as they listen to their fearless leaders. Throwing darts at the likeness of Obama is an option after the third round.

Well, I don’t know if any rules or etiquette will help these folks. They are venting in a way that seems to signify nothing and everything. Should we put a great deal of emphasis on this or let it simmer down and die out like a fire started by Sarah Palin in the Alaskan wilderness?

One thing is for certain: these town hall meetings have given lots of people some fifteen seconds of infamy. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but I think the road to healthcare reform is going to be about as easy to follow as the Yellow Brick Road. There will be some lions and tigers and bears, oh my yes, and a witch or two along the way to spoil the party, but in the end we just might reach that Emerald City of Healthcare Reform. Mr. Obama may turn out to be a Wizard of MD, or maybe a little dog will pull down the curtain and reveal him to be just a guy like the rest of us, treading water and hoping not to get sick.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Obama's Beer Summit: Where Everybody Knows Your Game

Benjamin Franklin once said that beer is proof that God loves us. If we think about the recent White House meeting between President Obama, Harvard Prof. Henry Gates, and Cambridge police officer Sgt. James Crowley, it seems clear enough that Obama thinks beer is a good drink to have a conversation over, but I wonder what message something like this sends to everybody and if it is a positive one.

We know that beer is the fuel of sports here in the United States, mostly because the beverage companies sponsor all sorts of sporting events. If you look around at the sights in any major league ballpark, chances are you’re going to see a sign advertising beer. Beer is ubiquitous at games in all sports, as a beverage that is quaffed with snacks while watching the event, as well as an advertised product.

While I have nothing against old Ben Franklin, or beer for that matter, I wonder if everybody in the world feels the same way. Certain religions call for their members to abstain from alcohol; many other people must refrain from drinking for health reasons. Besides those considerations, the biggest segment of the population that concerns me are the young people who are not yet allowed to legally drink. Did they really need a presidential meeting to occur over beer, solidifying an already subliminal imagery of something that is cool?

I think Obama meant well when he set-up this meeting, but let’s make no mistake that there was a great deal of calculation here. How does a man who seems aloof and above the common folk send a message that he is just one of us? Well, he doesn’t go up to Cambridge and have a snifter of cognac in one of the university lounges, that’s for sure. Gates and Crowley were all business in their suits and ties, but Obama rolled up his sleeves, grabbed a few snacks from the bowl on the table, and presto-change-o he becomes a man of the people, drinking a beer after work with the guys like the rest of us working stiffs.

If you study the picture that was in the newspaper carefully, the one where the three men (and Vice President Joe Biden who drank a non-alcoholic beer) clink their glasses, it reminded me of that old great show Cheers. Everybody definitely knows their names, and they are just hanging out, shooting the breeze on a warm summer’s evening, looking to all the world like best buds. Of course, there is the thing that is festering beneath all this that started the mess in the first place: America’s view of race and the perception that racism is practiced by some members of police forces in our country.

Sgt. Crowley arrested Prof. Gates after getting a call about a break-in at the professor’s home. One would think that as soon as Prof. Gates provided his ID to the officer that the story would have been over, but the officer ended up arresting Gates for disorderly conduct. People all over the world jumped on this story like John Wayne onto a speeding horse, mostly because of so many past events involving police and people of color. This incident, while lacking the inflammatory aspects of a Rodney King or an Amaduo Diallo situation, clicked in the collective consciousness of those who wonder if this is just another case of a white cop abusing power with an innocent black citizen.

Still, we have dead cops whose families will tell you differently, or a paralyzed cop like NYPD’s Steven McDonald whose life was forever altered by a black perpetrator. Yes, we have stark images on both sides, but seemingly no answers to the burning questions, with certainly none being provided after the “beer summit” ended.

General Colin Powell made an interesting comment on this case. Powell, a native New Yorker who no doubt had plenty of opportunities to observe the NYPD in action, said that his mother told him that you always have to listen to a police officer. This reminded me of exactly what my father, a retired NYPD cop, told me when I was a teenager. “No matter what,” he said, “you always obey the police officer.” It seems to me that this was good advice and good parenting in both cases.

Now, back to the beer itself. Did it send a wrong message to America’s youth? Should it have been over cups of expensive coffee, or perhaps soda, or even bottled water? Since each of those drinks also have detractors, I guess probably not. The truth is though that we have the old saying “in vino veritas” that sort of makes me wonder if Obama was onto something here. He wanted to loosen these guys up a little bit, get them to be open to the other’s feelings, and relax while all those cameras on the South Lawn were poked in their direction.

This “beer summit” is now history, and whatever it means in the grand scheme of things may not be decided for many years, but it reminded me of another president who allowed alcohol at meetings in the White House. His name was Andrew Jackson and apparently guests got so rowdy and drunk on his watch that major damage was caused, things were thrown out windows, and there were wild parties late into the night. Of course, that would be less like Cheers and more like Animal House, with “double secret probation” always being a possibility. Maybe next time, Mr. President, you should tap a keg.