Monday, May 31, 1999

have a productive memorial day

Monday, Memorial Day, is a time for us to remember those who have fallen in battle during the service of our nation. It is a time for sober reflection on the cost of freedom and for remembering those who have died.

During the Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln reminded his audience, "We cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract...

"It is for us the living, rather, to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us ... that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

The task President Lincoln set before the people gathered on the Gettysburg battlefield is one no generation has yet completed. It is a task that awaits us as surely as it awaited the Founding Fathers, President Lincoln, and every other citizen of this nation. It is a task we dare not shun, because we have presumed to include it in the very foundation of the country. Many claim that America is the greatest country in the world. That is a bold claim, but it is matched by a bold dream of equality for all people, regardless of their differences. Historically, that dream has gone unrealized as we oppressed blacks long after the end of slavery, stole land from the American Indians despite endless treaties, and denied women a voice outside the home. As dreamers, we have made progress, but we still have a long way to go before the dream becomes reality.


  • In October last year Matthew Shepard was killed for being gay. Many were horrified at that crime, but others used his death to speed their hate campaign against homosexuals, complete with a Web site that counts off the days "Matthew Shepard has been in hell."
  • Last fall, a group of white men chained James Byrd Jr. to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to his death in Jasper, Texas. Byrd's offense? He was black.
  • In April 1993, the entire Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, was destroyed after federal agents from the ATF closed in. In the ensuing blaze nearly everyone inside died. The group had had licenses for its firearms, and from the reports of survivors had been about to surrender when the attack occurred.

And while we experience the longest economic boom in history, poverty remains a problem, and not just in major cities. Even in towns in the Princeton area, people live below the poverty line and need assistance just to get by.

Some say the American Dream has failed; others, with a touch of melodramatic cynicism, claim it has come true. The truth is, the dream is waiting for the dreamers to catch up.

On Memorial Day, we remember the fallen. Their sacrifice reminds us of the task still undone: not to die for our country, but to live. This generation, like every generation before it, contains the architects of tomorrow's America. It is for us to make America a land of individual freedom for everyone, a land where parents and children can live without the sting of bigotry, a land where we truly celebrate our differences instead of forcing others to be like us.

The American Dream is a good one, and the dead we will remember on Monday gave everything they had for it. As the beneficiaries of their sacrifice, we can do no less.

Thursday, May 27, 1999

battle of the bulge

About three months ago, I decided this was the year to get back in shape.

Weight problems run in my family; actually, they run in our country. I read recently that something like a third of the country is considered "seriously overweight." Although I don't have my own ZIP code, I've been forced to admit that my gut hangs out farther than it should.

"Look dear," my wife told me recently. "Your belly is larger than mine!"

Ordinarily, that would not mean much since Natasha's stomach has been as flat as a washboard since the day I met her. But since she's four months pregnant, it really drove the point home. She drove it home even further when she started playing games like "See how far we can put a finger into Dave's belly button."

The F word has become one of her favorites. "You're fat," she teased me.

"I'm not fat, I'm big-boned," I lied.

"In the belly?"

So, much to my dismay, I have to admit that I have a weight problem again. The last time I was this overweight was back in college. After graduation, I moved to Haiti for two years and dropped more than 40 pounds, putting me at the lightest I had been since high school.

Of course, a good part of that weight loss came from things like dengue fever, amebic dysentery and tapeworms. I want to lose the weight again, but not that badly.

The chief culprit here is my eating habits. I love food, but unfortunately I don't have the metabolism I did as a teenager to burn it all off.

It's frustrating to watch my wife, who does have a high metabolism, eat and not gain a pound. It's even worse now that she's pregnant, because her appetite is increasing and so she's eating all the time. At least in a few months her belly (I hope) will be larger than mine.

As every weight-loss expert will tell you, proper diet is important to any weight-loss program. Nutritionists consider a balanced diet to come from the food groups.

My middle school health teacher defined those groups as dairy, bread, meat, and fruits and vegetables. In the past few years, I personally have redefined the food groups as soft drinks, french fries, pizza and cookies, preferably with chocolate chips.

So the first step of reducing my weight theoretically is to improve my eating habits. Just cut the junk and get back to those fruits and vegetables, and I'll be fine, a voice from middle school tells me.

If only it were that simple.

As fate would have it, there is a Pizza Brothers restaurant within walking distance of the Hillsborough Beacon's office. It would be easier to resist if their pizza were bad or overpriced, but it's not. It's cheaper than the national chains, I don't need to tip since I walk over there, and I like it.

"You go to Pizza Brothers a lot," Natasha said two weeks ago as she looked over our credit-card bill.

Even in the office there is no escape. Mary Stulack, the newspaper's office manager, keeps a tin on her desk filled with candy for us to eat. On a good day, when I demonstrate self-control, I'm out in the reception area three or four times to check the mail, and decide as long as I'm out there, I might as well take a few pieces of candy.

Two weeks ago, the tin was filled with gum drops, which I don't like. As a matter of fact, only one person in the office does like them, and it took forever for the gum drops to disappear.

It was hell. After waiting in vain for a week for Jack to eat all the gum drops, I drove to the ShopRite and bought a bag of bite-size Three Musketeers for the tin.

So here I am, fighting the losing battle I have fought since I became a journalist. How do you stay in shape at a job that keeps you at a desk? At least as a teacher, I walked around the room constantly to help students, keep their attention and stop them from cheating.

Whatever the answer is, I have to find it fast. The postmaster general recently called to let me know they have a few five-digit numbers that are still available if I want one.

Thursday, May 20, 1999

world's end

A little more than two months ago, the world was knocked out of orbit and flung into uncharted space.

My wife and I are expecting. A baby. Our first one.

This is a big event for me, bigger even than finishing my first novel, or when I discovered Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" series of trade paperbacks. It even tops the time a stampeding goat ran over my brother at the petting zoo.

"How did this happen?" I asked Natasha recently. "I don't remember filling out an application to have children."

She tried to explain it to me, but I'm afraid I didn't quite understand it all. What kind of sicko entrusts babies to people who haven't even taken a qualifying exam? I'm still a tender young lad of 28 myself. Who decided I was cut out for being a father?

My pastor tried to reassure me during a recent panic attack that becoming a father really isn't the end of the world.

"People have been having babies for a long time, at least 20 years," he told me. "So far, they've managed to survive the experience."

Of course, if the people who have been having children for the past 20 years were having this one, I wouldn't be alarmed. They obviously know what they are doing by now. But Natasha and I are complete novices.

A baby. The thought makes my mind reel. This is an even bigger responsibility than the time I was asked to cut Mr. Schatz's grass for my brother 17 years ago. I blew that one so badly that Mr. Schatz never asked Herb to mow the lawn again. What's Mr. Schatz going to do to Herb if I blow this one?

I never realized how involved having a baby would be. For starters, everyone keeps asking us if we have found a name yet. One friend of mine -- let's call him "Brian Tarantino" -- observed during his own wife's pregnancy that you can tell people you’ve settled on a name like Quagmyra, and even though they think it's an ugly name, they'll lie and say how lovely it is, especially if you tell them that Quagmyra is your mother's name.

So far I've found that's true. The only disapproval Natasha and I have encountered for the girl's name we've settled on has come from family members who know my mother's name is Ellie, and not Quagmyra.

On top of the whole name struggle is the matter of preparation. A few weeks ago, my sister-in-law hit us with the question of a theme for the nursery. I usually leave such details to the last minute -- my wedding party had to appoint a best man for me, for example -- but Rhonda won't let us off the hook so easily. She insisted we select a theme.

"Rabid moose," I wrote her in an e-mail. "I want nursery decorations that show wild moose foaming at the mouth."

"I'm not going to buy my niece or nephew clothes and toys with rabid moose on them!" Rhonda wrote back, even after Natasha suggested a wild-animal theme, complete with birds, frogs and moose.

I suppose eventually my world will stop spinning and settle into a new orbit, perhaps a stabler one than I've been accustomed to before now. A friend of mine with two sons has observed, "Marriage is the tie that binds; children are the stakes that hold it in the ground."

That's undoubtedly true. But I still wish someone would give me the instruction manual.

Thursday, May 13, 1999


I got a call recently from someone who was distraught by what she has heard about the Y2K computer bug. Like many other people, this person was wondering what the Y2K bug would mean for her personally and what she could do about it.

In case you don’t know what Y2K is, you’re obviously from an Amish community in Pennsylvania or Ohio, and therefore have nothing to worry about, so you can skip the next paragraph.

The Y2K bug stems from a programming shortcut that makes computers look only at the last two digits in the year. On Jan. 1, 2000, so the story goes, computers will think it’s 1900 and the IRS mainframe immediately will begin issuing refunds for all the taxes collected during the last 100 years. Well, maybe not, but I can dream.

The truth is, for all the furor over it the past few years, Y2K has caught absolutely nobody by surprise. My younger brother Ward figured it out when he was 8 because all the deposit slips at Dollar Savings Bank had 19__ for the year, and even he could tell that 2000 wouldn’t fit into that little space, and even if it could, it would say 192000.

So if an 8-year-old who hadn’t even seen a computer could figure it out, why couldn’t all the computer programmers figure a way around it? Actually, they did, but they decided they could make more money by waiting 20 years for people to start panicking and then rolling out the Y2K-compliant merchandise at inflated prices.

A few self-labeled computer experts have predicted the computer problems will result in incredible disaster worldwide, from airplanes crashing and fax machines not working right to the entire eastern seaboard sinking beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

As a result, a lot of people have been buying property in Ohio for the real-estate appreciation when it becomes beachfront property, once they have made sure the land isn’t under any major airplane routes.

Other impressionable people have equated Y2K with the End of the World, especially because -- as everyone knows -- round numbers make God very angry, so he goes around smiting people with greater frequency than normal.

Some people, like doomsday prophet Gary North, have even offered to help God with the smiting business, and have drawn up lists of people to smite. (We can be sure newspaper editors are high on that list.)

Otherwise normal people have been buying houses in the woods and stockpiling ammunition and toilet paper. My advice for the rest of us is, if you have a house in the woods, sell it immediately and buy property in Ohio.

With your leftover money, invest heavily in the firearms and toilet-paper industries, and remember to buy some 24-packs of Charmin yourself. There will be no toilet paper production after civilization collapses in January, so those two-ply sheets will be worth their weight in gold.

My Uncle Dave Coates recently declared that the bulk of the Y2K craze is media-driven. Are you kidding me? Of course it is. This is the best thing that’s happened to newspapers since Watergate.

Which story would you rather read: "New Jersey will perish in flames on Jan. 1" or "Bob Oaks considers run for school board?" I would too, but unfortunately Bob missed the filing deadline to run this year.

So we’ve been milking Y2K for all we can. So far, I’ve been able to get a three-part series, a couple letters, two cartoons and a column out of it in just this newspaper.

My big problem next January won’t be how to live in a house without running water or electricity, it’s going to be what to write about.

Thursday, May 06, 1999

by no other name

It happened again the other day. I got a letter addressed to David Learned.

It was a letter from some company I had never heard of, even though they claimed to value my years as a customer. Some noodlehead somewhere in the corporate world typed my name into a database somewhere, and -- bless the noodlehead's heart -- typed it in wrong.

Maybe the noodlehead thought he was doing me a favor by "fixing" my name (a problem my brother Brian regularly has had with both his first and last names), or maybe the noodlehead simply knows someone named Learned, and unintentionally transposed the name onto mine. Worse gaffes than that happened at Ellis Island, I'm told.

I try to take these things philosophically. Learned is a common name, and the Learneds probably are related to the Learns somewhere back there.

Learned is one of the milder screw-ups I've seen of my name. In my time, I've seen my last name spelled Lern, Lear, Lean, Loorn, Leorn and once, even Warren. It does make it easier to tell which companies sell my name to mailing lists, but still ...

My name has been David Learn since 1970. It might not be much of a name, but it's mine. It's one of the few things I was born with, and it's one of the few things I'll have my whole life and take to the grave with me.

It's frustrating to see someone get your name wrong, and even after 28 years, it can still get my goat.

I could understand the confusion if my name were a fairly difficult one like "Beowulf Rosencrantz-Oppenheimer III," but how much simpler does a last name get than Learn? That was one of my spelling words in third grade.

Because I sometimes have to spell my name 50 times in one week, I try to make it as simple as possible. "It's David Learn," I say when people ask me my name. "L-E-A-R-N, like in school." Most people appreciate the extra effort, but I was tempted to give it up one day when someone returned my call and asked for "David School."

Beowulf Rosencrantz-Oppenheimer III looks better all the time.

At least I know I'm not alone in this mess. Everyone I know has some horror story about a named that was misspelled or mispronounced once, and how it irked them no end.

My wife's maiden name is Hanson. Back before we started dating, she told me people sometimes asked her if she was related to Jim Henson, the man who brought us Cookie Monster, Count von Count and the other Muppets.

I told her the proper response was to start crying and explain that her father had died a few years ago, and that, despite a will clearly stating the family business was to be split, her brother Brian had taken control of the entire Muppet empire and left her penniless.

While the Hanson-Henson issue no longer applies, Natasha still has name issues to contend with. People regularly misspell her name, and now she's fighting the never-ending battle to get her new surname spelled correctly.

"Learn!" she fairly shouts sometimes. "Like the verb."

It's just a matter of time until someone sends her a letter addressed to Natasha Henson Verb.

Copyright © 1999 by David Learn. Used with permission.