Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Finding the ice cream connection

Now that there are three of them and the oldest is about to leave for college, this summer we instituted a tradition of one-on-one ice cream nights.

Every Friday my wife and I take turns taking one of the girls out for ice cream and a time to talk about whatever they want to. The trips may take an hour, they often take more. They're a great way to build on the connections we have with one another, and all it takes is a little ice cream.

The Milltown Ice Cream Depot is just 3 miles from our house, and uphill from Borough Hall. This is where the Police Department is located, and because Milltown could be mistaken for Riverdale in old issues of Archie Comics, it's not uncommon to see a police car sitting in the driveway, lights out, waiting for someone to drive past. Someone like me.

No one enjoys seeing a police car while they're out driving, but it gets even worse when there's one directly behind you. You run through an inventory of every possible offense you may have committed, may be committing, or even may accidentally commit while the police are directly behind you.

Is one of my taillights out? you may ask. Are my turn signals working? Did I fasten the lug nuts on the right rear tire? Is my radio playing too loudly? My radio is off; should I have it on? You think of everything you can do to minimize the chance of doing something wrong and getting pulled over. You try turning the headlights on, even though they're already on. You run the wipers in case there's bird doo-doo on the windshield. You tune in to an easy listening station in case the cop likes Kenny Loggins.

Now there's a light where Washington Avenue runs into Main Street, and that creates problems of its own. Can you turn right on red? If you didn't see a sign, does that mean it's not there, or did you just miss it? Do you make the right turn and risk running a red light, or do you wait the extra 10 seconds for the green light?

Better safe than sorry, I figured, and I waited. Somewhere in the back of my head I remembered an incident where Plainsboro police charged a motorist with failing to turn right on red, but Plainsboro police are an aggressive lot when it comes to collecting ticket revenue, almost as bad as Green Brook, where they will find a way to charge a driver seventeen different ways for the same offense.

The light turned green. I turned right. Patrolman Milltown followed me.

Main Street is lined with signs. I saw signs for Dunkin Donuts, for Hair After, for Wells Fargo and for Hanna's Florist, but nothing about the speed limit. A co-worker of mine once was pulled over for driving 22 mph in a 20 mph zone. (He got out of the ticket because he couldn't stop laughing long enough to give the office his license and registration.)

It's a residential stretch. I stuck to 20.vA half-mile up the road, a sign declared the limit to be 30. I sped up -- and saw the telltale lights in the mirror.

"I'll need to see your license and registration," Patrolman Milltown said when he reached my window. Then: “Sir, you were driving very slowly. Is anything wrong?”

We have an idiot running the country, I thought. I'm haunted by a profound sense of ennui and of loneliness, I can't focus on my writing and thus have dozens of stories that I would like to sell but can't seem to finish. I have serious doubts about the validity of my faith, and I feel like our nation is lost in the grip of an existential crisis.

"No," I lied. "I'm fine."

"You didn't turn at the traffic light, and then you were driving 10 miles under the speed limit," he said, and our eyes met. There, on that empty stretch of Main Street, our souls connected and we understood one another.

You think you have problems? he thought. My girlfriend left me when I took a pay cut to get this job, and she took our Netflix subscription with her, so now I'll never see the rest of “Luke Cage.” My dog won't stop pooping recreationally, and I'm afraid if the guys at work find out about my rash, they'll start calling me “Spiny Norman” again.

He handed me back my license and papers and walked back to his car. A moment later we each drove off into a night that was at once both literal and metaphorical, the road before us brightened by the street lamps of our chance encounter.

Life can be a lonely journey as we travel from birth to death, but if we take a little time and make a little effort, we can lessen the burden for one another along the way.

All it takes is a little ice cream.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Attention whore

I have a confession to make to everyone: I am an attention whore. Please look at me.

I love to be noticed. It's the remedy for what ails me. You see, as New Jerseyans, we live like ships at sea, warmed by the same sun, cooled by the same breeze and lashed by the same storm as our fellows, but so absorbed in our day-to-day that we rarely notice the others on the same voyage with us.

Sometimes the heartache and the isolation are too much, and I risk running the ships together. I get up on stage in front of dozens of strangers and pretend I belong there. I meet a friend for coffee, or invite people to celebrate my birthday with me. I even spend time with my kids.

Nine years ago, my daughter and I took her sister to school and then walked home in broad daylight. We sang. We laughed. Look at me! I fairly shouted. Someone please pay attention! And someone did. We weren't even halfway home before a police car pulled up beside me and an officer demanded to see my driver's license.

Someone had called the police in a panic to report that a brown-haired man in his late 30s was luring away a young blond preschooler.

I had been noticed.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

(I told this one before.)

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Commandments concerning ice cream

"When the weather warms and you desire a cold dessert, then your heart shall remember the kindness of your father, and you will look in the freezer and find the ice cream that he bought the last time he went shopping.

"On that day, after the dinner dishes have been put away, you shall turn to your brothers and your sisters, and to your parents, and you shall ask who wants ice cream, and you shall offer it to them in a bowl with a spoon, or in a cone if there are any in the house.

"But do not offer it in a cone if there are no cones, for it is after dinner, and your father has no desire to visit the grocery store just to buy more ice cream cones; nay, not even if you can think of ten other things he can buy while he is there."

"When you desire to eat the ice cream, know that the following flavors are blessed of your father -- chocolate, vanilla and minor variations thereupon -- and therefore do not eat them all, but leave some for him.

"For your own ice cream, all other flavors are permitted, even unto pistachio, provided they come in their own separate containers and do not mingle with the ice cream of your father, and you make no attempt to give any to him when he asks you also to get him some. Nor shall you insist that he give it a try; nay, nor shall you give your father a bowl of Peanut Butter Ripple when he asks for ice cream, but know that it is loathesome to him. Have I not spoken?

"If you beg and implore that we buy a carton of a flavor that you have never tried before, the entire carton you shall eat, even if it takes you all year, before we buy another flavor. Do not complain that you do not like it, for we have warned you beforehand, and like not to say 'We told you so.'

"In the same way, do not request strawberry ice cream, even though it comes in Neopolitan, with equal sections of chocolate and vanilla, for nobody eats strawberry and the carton shall sit in the freezer for an age of the world, never more than a third empty.

"Nor shall you ask for Rocky Road, for who in her right mind wants that? It is an abomination, and not good for eating. Rather leave it at the store that others may recognize the folly of creating such a flavor and learn wisdom, and not eat it."

"At the table you may eat it, whether in the dining room or in the kitchen, for the tablecloth may be washed this Tuesday, or sooner; and the tabletop may be wiped clean as needed. Similarly, you may eat the ice cream outside, for if it spills upon the ground there will be no harm done. You will get no replacement ice cream for you were careless; although in your father's mercy he may replace a small portion or even the full amount, for all fathers were children once and sang the lament of lost ice cream; but do not presume upon the mercy of your father, as he may want to be sure you have learned your lesson.

"But in the living room you shall not eat the ice cream, whether it is a sundae, or served in a cone or in a bowl, for when you eat ice cream you may spill it upon nice carpet or the good furniture, and that is a horror in my sight for the nice carpet and the good furniture will need to be cleaned properly, and behold it is come to pass, even as I have said, and now there shall be no ice cream for the next week."

"With caramel and hot-fudge or chocolate sauces you may eat ice cream, providing the ice cream is in a bowl or a cup, eaten with a spoon and at dinner table, or safely outside.

"Chocolate chips are acceptable as add-ons, and even crushed cookies, but not gummy worms, for when you ask for gummy worms, your parents shall look at you astounded and ask, 'What were you thinking?'

"Nuts you shall not put in the ice cream, for as in cookies, to put nuts into ice cream is an abomination most displeasing to me.

"With caramel and hot-fudge or chocolate sauces you may eat ice cream, providing the ice cream is in a bowl or a cup, eaten with a spoon and at dinner table, or safely outside. But do not ask for a sauce to be poured over your ice cream if it is served in a cone, for it will make a mess."

"Blessed is the one who finishes the carton and throws it out rather than returning it empty to the freezer, or who leaves but a spoonful of ice cream and says, 'It was not empty'; for does not your father perceive what you have done?"

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, April 03, 2017

My friend, the witch

Dreamed last night that a friend of mine was invoking the name of Hecate to perform some sort of magic spell on me and a group of other people.

The dream took place in a cave. I haven't thought about Hecate since the last time I read the Scottish play, so I got curious and looked her up online. In Greek myth, Hecate is a nasty piece of work. One of her best-known devotees was Medea.

Wouldn't you know, she is a goddess of the underworld and usually is depicted as residing in a cave. Spells invoking her are cast at night under the cover of darkness.

Well, OK. That was weird.

How do you propose I broach the subject when I see her next? "So, been performing any dark magick on me lately?"

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Mike Huckabee's moral blind spot

Whatever you are doing right now, let us all take a moment to thank Mike Huckabee for reminding us of the moral blindness that results from partisan thinking.

The former governor of Arkansas, sometime presidential aspirant and frequent commentator on Fox News suggested that President Donald Trump take a page from President Andrew Jackson, and just ignore court rulings that he doesn't like. Trump recently was blocked for a second time in an attempt to block Muslims from entering the country, by a federal judge in Honolulu. Jackson was told he couldn't relocate American Indians.

“Hoping @POTUS tells Hawaii judge what Andrew Jackson told overreaching court,” Huckabee tweeted from his official account on March 15. "'I'll ignore it and let the court enforce their order.'”

Huckabee appears to refer to Worcester v. Georgia, an 1832 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established the legal foundations of tribal sovereignty of the American Indian peoples within the United States and ruled that they were not subject to state laws.

Among other things, this ruling served as a legal reprimand for the Jackson administration, which had been removing American Indians from the Southeast for two years.

Driven by an appetite for land to support the cotton industry, white settlers had been pushing into Indian territory in Georgia and creating increased conflict. Since 1830, the Jackson administration had been moving the Indians from the state to federal territory in modern Oklahoma.

Even after the court's ruling, which upheld the Indians' claim to their lands over Georgia's, Jackson refused to halt the relocation efforts. By 1840, the Creek, Choctaw, Seminole and Chickasaw nations all had been removed from lands east of the Mississippi under the Indian Relocation Act, on a death march that today we call the Trail of Tears.

Indians taken to their new lands often faced extreme weather, hunger and overcrowding that let disease cut through them like a sickle cuts through grain. Reports vary, but anywhere from 2,500 to 6,000 people died along the way. By 1837, the U.S. government had removed 46,000 Indians from the Southeast to claim about 25 million acres for predominantly white settlement.

That's Jackson's legacy, and like the incarceration of Japanese Americans under Roosevelt, it's not one any president, or former presidential candidate, should want to emulate.

Like Trump – and like Huckabee and other supporters of the president's ban on Muslim immigration, Jackson framed his actions as a matter of national security. Even more unbelievably, in a speech before Congress, Jackson framed forced relocation as the solution that would benefit the affected Indians.

Per the National Archives and Records Administration: "It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.”

From the vantage point of 180 years later, we look back on Jackson and his actions with horror. The Trail of Tears was an act of genocide, and we should regard Jackson's decision to ignore the Supreme Court not as an act of courage or integrity, but as one of arrogance and cruelty.

This is what Huckabee hails as the example that the Trump administration should follow as he tries to restrict travel to our country by a group of people based solely on their religion — including Syrian refugees who already have endured a two-year vetting process.

Rather than accusing the court of judicial activism or overreach, Huckabee should stop and be grateful that the framers instituted a system of checks and balances so that each of our branches of government can keep the others from going off the rails.

Sometimes the courts do get things wrong — the Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson and Citizens United decisions all spring to mind, among others — but a decision that opposes naked bigotry is not one of those times.

Right now, it's the rule of law, and the rulings of our courts, that are keeping us from being complicit in another Trail of Tears.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Our nation's laws and policies should be rooted squarely in justice

President Trump today signed an executive order ending Obama-era protections for transgender youth in our nation's public schools.

The move elicited the usual reactions from the usual suspects. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty and Law Center both criticized the move. Conservative groups hailed it as an important victory for the right of states to set such policies, while religious groups have hailed it as a moral victory to protect our youth.

What follows are my own unevolved thoughts on the matter. Take them for whatever they are worth.

While I understand that many people, including people I genuinely have a lot of respect and admiration for, feel uncomfortable around the transgender, our comfort should never be the basis for our laws or our policies. Nor should the basis for our laws and education policy be what the most people want, nor what outcome will satisfy the most people.

Our standard should be the standard of justice, of right and wrong, and the demands of safety. The U.S. Constitution, which our elected and appointed officials have sworn an oath to uphold, demands nothing less than the protection of the marginalized and the powerless.This is the entire point of executive power, after all: to benefit those who have no power of their own.

Public schools can be rough because kids can be cruel. In repealing the requirement of the Obama administration, that transgender youth be allowed to use the bathroom of the sex they identify with, the Trump administration has failed to keep that oath and to respect its duty to the Constitution.

Because of this policy change, transgirls -- that is, children who were born physically as boys but identify as girls -- now lack a federal protection that allowed them to go to the bathroom where they would have been safe from physical and even sexual assault. Transboys -- children who were born physically as girls but who identify as boys -- are going to be in similarly unpleasant situations.

Bullying comes easy to our president, but it is not something we should want our children exposed to, involved with, nor witness to. This decision of his is wrong, wrong, wrong.

I stand with my trans friends. Come stand with us.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Compassion is the highest law of all

As news reaches my ears of immigration officials arresting undocumented immigrants, I keep hearing one phrase repeated: "We are a nation of laws."

It is true, we are; and the rule of law is what historically has kept us from the tyranny of other nations. In our country, everyone is subject to the same laws as everyone else. No one can claim exemption by dint of birth, wealth, status or position.

We are a nation of laws, but we are a nation where punishment is always to be proportionate to the law broken. Separating parents from children, deporting dreamers who know no country but this one, and sending away people who have contributed to our communities for years -- this is not proportionate to the crime of living here without proper immigration papers.

We are a nation of laws, but we are a nation of people. We understand that there are extenuating circumstances -- economic distress, political unrest, threats to life and safety -- that may prompt people to do things that they know are illegal but that harm no one. We know that a one-size-fits-all solution is not a solution at all, but a convenience.

We are a nation of laws, but the highest law of all is to have compassion.

We are a nation of laws, but when we subjugate compassion, human decency, discretion and common sense to the law, we have made an idol of the law, made fear our master, and set ourselves on the road toward ruin.

Push back. Remember who we are as a nation, and don't let fear win the day.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

William Faulkner and the very bad terrible no good book

I have always hated William Faulkner. Nothing in the past 48 hours has changed my opinion of his writing. I hated "The Sound and the Fury" when I was in college, and to this day I still get a headache when I think about it.

The world is left poorer and darker when writers like Shakespeare, Zora Neale Hurston or Emily Dickinson leave it. I am convinced that when William Faulkner died and could no longer write books, the English language threw a party that the sun, moon and stars all attended and danced at.


Seriously, William Faulkner. College and high school literature classes would be merrier for thousands of students every year if he had limited his writing to the weekly grocery list and the occasional check to cover the utility bill.

Faulkner's are books that Ernest Heminway should have edited. Think of how "The Sound and the Fury" would have been simpler:

Part one: "My sister Caddy got pregnant. I have a mental disability of some sort, and have been castrated."
Part two: "I am insane and incestuous, and I make no sense. Now I am dead."
Part three: "I am anti-Semtiic, racist and offensive in every way."
Part four: "William Faulkner was too. Plus this book is painful to read."

Hemingway also could have improved "As I Lay Dying" by writing it: "The soldier had not been able to have sex ever since he was injured in the war. His wife died, so he took his daughter's money to get his teeth fixed and married someone else. Also, I hate women."

See? It is much easier to read Faulkner this way.


The average reader may enjoy reading a story J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote about Faulkner. It goes like this:

"Long ago, in a hole in the ground, there lived a William Faulkner. His books were aggravating, so we rented a cement mixer and filled in the hole while he was writing one of his them. I am very fond of you, Mr. Baggins, but surely you don't suppose this all happened solely for your benefit? It is a very big world, and you are only one reader, after all."


To be honest, I do not mind if William Faulkner failed to pay his utility bills. It would have meant he wrote even less. Perhaps his electricity would have been cut off, and his straits would have been so dire that his wife would have been forced to sell his internal organs to pay the rent.

As long as he was denied access to writing materials, that could be a win-win for everyone.


In conclusion, William Faulkner received the Nobel prize for literature, and now he is dead. I am sorry that he is dead, but I also am sorry that he wrote books that people have to read. The world would have been a much happier place if he had joined the glee club instead and learned to sing songs like "Jesus is a Friend of Mine."

Actually I've heard that song. It's bad enough that I can believe he was involved in its composition.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

I'm a charter school parent. I oppose Betsy DeVos for Education

My daughter attends a charter school, the same charter school her older sisters attended, and the same charter school where I was on the board for 10 years. Obviously I support charter schools.

But let me provide a little context here. I live in a city where our school district is in a state of disarray. When we bought our house nearly 19 years ago, we heard disheartening statistics like "50 percent dropout rate." We heard things like "gang activity in the hallways" and "armed guards and metal detectors at the doors." This varies from school to school even within our district, obviously; but nothing in the past 19 years has altered significantly my impression of the overall look of public education in my city.

Our options for our children's education were to send them to a private school, let them attend the city schools, homeschool, or send them to an alternative publicly funded school. As fate and fortune had it, we had that option. Greater Brunswick Charter School had been approved in 1998, in the first wave of charter schools permitted under the state act authorizing charter schools. Charter schools were controversial even then. Highland Park sued successfully to delay the school's opening by a year over the funding issue.

Charter schools are publicly funded entities, created by a special charter granted its board of trustees by the state Department of Education. They are governed by the same regulations as other public schools, are not allowed to discriminate in their admissions process, and if they fail to meet state standards of education, they can be subject to closure.

The entire push behind charter schools is that they are committed to the education of their students without the constraints of the local board of education and its accustomed way of doing things. With that freedom, and with state oversight, they are free to re-invent the wheel, potentially to discover a better design, a more durable model, something that spins more easily and turns more readily. This new wheel, the thinking goes, can lead to be a better bicycle and make learning a better and easier experience for every student.

Think about your own experiences in public schooling. While we're all justly proud of the way our schools prepared us for our careers, and while we also remember particular teachers with great fondness, if we're honest we also can remember the frustration we felt with struggling to understand material that was too difficult for us. We remember the passions that we weren't allowed to indulge because they were too advanced for our classmates, and we remember the sheer agony of having to sit at a desk when we needed to move, to be quiet when we needed to talk and to be in one grade when our best friends were in another.

GBCS was founded by a group of parents in New Brunswick, Highland Park and Edison who dreamed of a school that was built around the interests, needs and learning styles of each student. When it opened its doors, the school had classrooms with students from multiple grade levels.

Instruction was designed to allow students to pursue each subject at their individual learning level so that a student who came to kindergarten already reading could partner with a first-grader who was struggling; and a math-savvy second-grader could tackle fractions if she already had mastered multiplication.

Learning not only was personalized, it was project-based, so that a girl who was passionate about pirates could make a pirate ship from a shoebox if she wanted, and present it alongside the boy who wanted to talk about dinosaurs. And in those lower grades especially, the floor plan was open. Children could do their math at a desk, or lying on the floor.

Over the decade that I was on the school's board of trustees, we've had to make some changes to how we do things because we found that they weren't working as well as we had hoped they would. Most classes are now mostly single-grade, with the chief exception being middle school and "specials" like art, music and gym classes.

But we also made some pretty bold innovations along the way. Because our school is located in New Brunswick, we've come demographically to resemble the city as well. We have a sizeale number of students who come to the charter school who speak Spanish at home and who know little if any English.

Five years ago, we instituted a dual language immersion program that now immerses everyone entering our school in kindergarten in a Spanish-speaking environment one week and in an English-speaking environment the next year. The result is that each student who attends GBCS is becoming more fluent and more literate not just in English but in Spanish as well.

That sort of innovation is the reason behind the first wave of charter schools in our state, and the things we have learned are things we have shared with other public schools -- another purpose of charter school education.

As a public charter school, GBCS has always made it a priority to educate each of our children in a financially responsible way. As a trustee of the board, I personally worked with our teachers union over three consecutive cycles of contract negotiations to reach a collective bargaining agreement that honored the commitment and service of our teachers without jeopardizing the fiscal health of our school.

With those staff members and with our administrators, we have kept our obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, No Child Left Behind and other state and federal regulations and have never turned away a student who was eligible to receive a free public education in New Jersey

Somewhere along the line, as too often is the case with reform movements, enterprising individuals saw the opportunity to link charter schools with privatized education. Arguing that anything in the public sector would perform better if it were a private sector enterprise with a profit motive, they began pushing for-profit charter schools, and those schools in turn have found ways to cut costs in order to maximize profits for their shareholders.

That in turn has inflamed popular passions against charter schools as students have paid the price of these cost-saving measures, like fewer teachers, and the elimination of the arts in favor of the sciences.

The appointment of Betty DeVos, who favors privatized charter schools over public education, is something that truly worries me. During her testimony to the U.S. Senate, she betrayed a frightening lack of understanding of pedagogy and basic education law, including a school's obligations under IDEA.

Her ideas, which essentially amount to dismantling the public school system that 90 percent of Americans enjoy and have benefited from, would undo centuries of public policy in educating children and turn it over not to concerned parents working to provide healthier alternatives to schools that genuinely are struggling, but to corporate privateers with an eye on making money at the expense of those children.

As the record shows, I am a supporter of public charter schools. They're a proud and important part of America's public education legacy to the world.

But in confirming Ms. DeVos to lead the U.S. Department of Education, the Senate and Vice President Michael Pence have failed us all.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission. Views expressed herein belong to the writer alone and should not be considered the views of any institution he is associated with.