Sunday, November 12, 2017

Reconnecting with the Ghost of 1987

Starting in January 1987 and all the way through that year, I had the incomparably good fortune to live in New Zealand as an exchange student through AFS.

Founded by workers with the Ambulance Field Service appalled by the carnage of World War I, AFS has a simple, straightforward goal: Promote world peace by sending high school students from all around the world to live in another country for a year. Let them discover another culture, another people, and find a new set of eyes to see the world with. The understanding they gain can change the world and help to keep us from plunging off the brink again.

I lived a year in Rotorua, on the North Island, where I attended sixth form in Edmund Rice College, later renamed John Paul College. (For those needing something to anchor this to, sixth form is the equivalent to Harry Potter's year at Hogwart's in "The Half Blood Prince.")

AFS had a number of get-togethers over the course of the year. I never thought about it at the time, but in hindsight it makes complete sense. Wherever we were from, we were in sync, going through the same highs and lows of culture shock, homesickness, conflict with our host families, bullying and acceptance at school.

I didn't get on with many of the other American students, but I made a number of friends from Thailand, Indonesia, Iceland, Spain, Japan and other countries.

Two in particular stood out: Alwin Keil and Anushka Pedris. Every time we had one of these get-togethers, the three of us would end up hanging out together. In a recent conversation, I compared the three of us recently to Harry, Ron and Hermione. Not that we got into their level of hijinks and world-saving, but the amount of time we spent together at these get-togethers. After the first one, I quickly started looking for the two of them whenever there was an AFS gathering. I cannot imagine that year without the two of them.

This was in the days before widespread email and long before the Internet had moved into the home. The sun set on 1987; and Anushka returned to Sri Lanka, Alwin returned to West Germany, and I returned to Pittsburgh. The times and distance being what they were, we fell out of touch.

I've thought about them a lot the past 30 years, but when I've looked for them online, it's been like trying to find one particular drop of water in the ocean, or a specific grain of sand in the Gobi. You can Google "Hinako Tanaka," but if you don't know Japanese, good luck understanding the results. And Facebook helps you find only people who use it.

I still haven't found Alwin.

But I connected with Anushka last week, and that 17-year-old I used to be is somewhere inside, doing cartwheels in a school uniform I haven't worn in three decades.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Kitchen stove, stuff of nightmares

It was the worst nightmare I'd had since I was a child dreaming that Sleestak, reptile men from “The Land of the Lost,” were invading our house through a hole in the basement wall.

Nightmares. We all have them. Dreams are the brain's problem-solving mechanism working overtime while the conscious mind sleeps. When we have a nightmare, it's because the subconscious is trying to warn us of danger. “Stop watching 'The Land of the Lost!'” your brain screams. “Get dad to patch that hole in the basement wall.”

The truth is, there was no hole in the basement wall of the house I grew up in, although I did have an older brother Bill. We used to watch “The Land of the Lost” together on Saturday mornings, and we got along so well that sometimes he even appeared in my dreams, at least until the Sleestak got him. He stopped appearing after that.

When you get down to it, this was a fairly stupid dream to be scared over. It's kind of like having a dream in which your oldest brother becomes a dancing skeleton, and you get so scared that you lean over the railing to your bed and throw up on your younger brother while he's sound asleep in the lower bunk. You just can't help but feel a little silly afterward.

This particular nightmare was nothing like that. It was legitimately terrifying, with horrors beyond anything Stephen King has given us. There were zoning law violations, bad computer coding, defaced kitchen appliances, questionable H.R. decisions, and ultimate evil loosed upon the earth after a long captivity. Nightmares don't get worse than this.

In my dream, I was married to the president of the board at the Christian school I used to teach at in Bethlehem, Pa., and we ran a private airport out of our home. If the paperwork for that mixed use wouldn't be bad enough, our home was also a church, an honest-to-goodness Assemblies of God church with yellow padded pews and a baptismal at the front of the sanctuary.

I'd like to think that the dream at this point carried some emotional heft. My wife was leaving on a trip, taking the airport's only plane. I'd like to say that our hearts were heavy, our faces besotted with tears that mixed with the rain as it fell, but it was sunny and my wife merely smiled in her flight suit before she donned her helmet, and flew off from the runway that doubled as the church's rear parking lot.

I went inside, where I joined my friend Scott, our lone air traffic controller, in the kitchen; and we approached the stove.

Most kitchens have stoves, and most stoves are unremarkable. They have burners, and they have controls to control the heat. Whether your stove is gas or electric, it works pretty much the same. Turn it up, and the heat goes up; turn it down, and the heat goes down. Your stove may be black, it may be white, and it may be yellow, but probably the most memorable thing about it is how well you can use it to make a grilled cheese sandwich.

This stove was different. Years ago, someone had faced beings of indescribable evil, and with powerful enchantments they had locked them one after the other inside the stove. The stove had six burners, and each one held a different devil prisoner. As long as they were trapped there, the world was safe, but if they were ever set loose, we were doomed.

It was a heavy responsibility to have such a stove. As long as you were careful not to write the name of the imprisoned entity in an opening HTML tag right above the dial before lighting the burner, things were fine. You could even make a grilled cheese sandwich, and no one would be hurt.

“You need to free them,” Scott said. “Write their names.”

“But I don't want to,” I said.

“But you have to,” Scott said. He was nothing if not persistent.

“OK,” I said. He was also persuasive. “But I want to note that I don't agree with this.”

I wrote "<satan>" on one burner, and then turned it on. A blue flame blossomed amid the smell of burning gas, and the devil was loose. The horror was getting real, and I didn't even have a grilled sandwich to show for my troubles.

Just as I don't know what happened to Bill — did the Sleestak sacrifice him to their god, or did they torture him and turn him evil? — I don't remember everyone who was imprisoned in the stove. Aside from Satan, the only one I remember clearly is Dr. Doom, arch-enemy of The Fantastic Four.

All I can say for certain is that in one dramatic moment, I saw the armored arm of Dr. Doom rise up from the stove, and I started awake. The room was dark and all was quiet, save for my own rapid breathing. I was coated with sweat and filled with horror that I had unleashed such tremendous evil on an unsuspecting world. (Damn you, Scott. There, I said it. Damn you and your silver-tongued arguments. Damn you to hell, sir!)

It's been 18 years now since I had that dream. In that time, we've seen the worst terror attack on U.S. soil in history, and in the wake of a war that destabilized the Middle East, we've watched as ISIS has thrown the entire region into chaos. Domestically our social contract has unraveled as the wealth disparity between our richest citizens and the rest of us has grown ever wider, and far right ideologues have sought to undo all the hard-won progress of the past 60 years.

When you go to sleep tonight, if you find the stove in your dreams, stay away. Remember, I lit only two burners before I awoke.

There are still four more to go.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

(I wrote about this before)

Friday, November 03, 2017

Building a better mouse, one trap at a time

Some time ago, we had a mouse problem at our house.

Now, by “mouse problem” I do not mean that I was unable to beat my wife's high score on Windows Solitaire because the tracking ball on her mouse kept getting stuck. Nor do I mean that a mouse may have been politely poking her head through a hole in the wall and demurely offering to come back later if this was a bad time to come visit.

“Ooh,” we did not coo. “You adorable little thing! You must be starved. Here, have some peanut butter and crackers.”

No, we had a problem.

I would be working at the computer and from behind me I would hear not the pitter-patter of little feet, but the skitter-skitter of tiny paws. Sometimes instead of paws I would hear tiny teeth gnawing away at the wooden struts inside the walls, or at things that had fallen unnoticed to the floor at the back of the pantry and remained there unseen. We would be abed, and my wife, a far lighter sleeper than I, would hear an unwanted guest scurrying across the floor.

This was no dramatization of Aesop's fable. The city mouse hadn't merely invited the country mouse to come visit her in the city. She had arranged a full family reunion from Uncle Sid to distant cousin Yeta, with our house the grand hotel, safe from the feral cats that wander through our back yard.

Admission to the family reunion cost only $200, and came complete with access to an open bar and presentations on the history of the mouse family, from the time Uncle Webster and Cousin Cyrus spread plague the length of the Ohio River down to the present breakthroughs in spreading leptospirosis.

There was a time when we would have made a trip to the store and bought some poison. I'd have opened the boxes and placed them in strategic places where the children wouldn't see them, and where the dog couldn't get them. The mice of course would discover them and perform a tarantella in wonder over this unexpected bonanza of delicious green pellets, right up until they died of thirst, preferably outside.

Changing rules and concerns over the wisdom of putting such poison in the hands of homeowners meant that we could no longer buy the poison ourselves, so we called an exterminator. He came, sized up the problem, and made us an offer.

“I can set some poison and get rid of them for two hundred dollars,” he said.

That's a lot of money for something you'd like to think that you can do for yourself. So we resorted to traps, which after all are a fairly straightforward affair. You bait the trap, the bait attracts the mice, and the mice die. Maybe they fall into a bucket of water and drown, maybe they walk over glue and get stuck, or maybe they trigger a spring and it all ends with a loud snap. As long as it ends with a dead mouse, it's a story with a happy ending.

Alas, I failed to consider the role of evolution and the population pressures that humans have been applying to mice since time immemorial.

It's a principle of evolutionary theory that species adapt to changes in their environment, and each generation is slightly different from the one before it, and therefore harder to get rid of. Antibiotics eventually produce superbugs that are virtually unstoppable. Head lice develop a resistance to the insecticide that we place in delousing shampoo.

And mice? Ever since "Tom and Jerry" debuted, they've been getting uppity. They've learned to outrun the cat, and now they're figuring out how to avoid traps.

I set up a bucket of water in the basement, a tin can smeared with peanut butter, resting on a metal rod over the middle of the bucket. The idea is that a mouse will climb the ramp to the rim of the bucket, walk out into the middle to get the peanut butter, and then roll into the water and drown.

The mice weren't having it.

We set glue traps. In the morning the traps had paw prints on them, next to what I only can assume was mouse script for “Calvin was here,” written in the glue with tiny sticks.

We also set the traditional spring-loaded traps that go snap in the night. These proved to exert the biggest population pressures of all. After we eliminated the mice that were stupid enough to set off the traps, we were left with a mouse population of gradually increasing intelligence.

At first the smarter mouse would convince his companion to run across the trap and see if it was armed, and then eat the bait. After this had gone on a few months, the surviving mice, born from the intelligent mice, had wised up to this trick, and formed a union to protest their unsafe work conditions. That in turn led to exploratory committees that investigated ways to get the food without setting off the traps, and even administrative requirements that the mice forage where there were no traps at all.

It seemed like it was all over at that point. Mouse unions had bettered the working conditions and livelihood of everyone but the people trying to kill them.

Deliverance came, of all things, from plaster of paris. Apparently if you thoroughly mix a cup of it with a cup of all-purpose flour, you create a lethal combination. Drawn to the flour, mice also will eat the plaster of paris, which turns to rock in their guts and kills them. You can add milk if you want, to create dough balls, but either way intestines of rock apparently are detrimental to a mouse's good health.

Problem solved.

At least until the next evolutionary leap.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The never-ending game of peek-a-boo

I'm from Pittsburgh area. My parents still live there. It's about 300 miles to get there, or roughly six hours, given the occasional pit stop.

A little less than 16 years ago, we took Oldest Daughter and her foster brother out to visit my folks. Oldest had proved herself excellent at entertaining herself on the trip before, with the Elmo Toy From Hell and other diversions as may occur to a 2-year-old on a long trip, such as naps and shouting "Again! Again!" every time her favorite Jimmy Buffet track had ended.

But Lumpy? We had no idea. He was only beginning to discover how to play at our house, and we had no idea how he would fare in a car.

We needn't have worried, Since he had come to stay at our house six weeks or so earlier, Lumpy and Oldest had bonded quickly. Besides dressing him in her best princess clothes and flowery head bands, she ran around the house with him, played "This little piggy" on his toes once her language skills had reached that point, and consistently challenged and engaged him in regular, wholesome play. She was just beyond his ability, and just his size, so they made for natural engagement.

For example, you probably knew that if you cover yourself or your child with a blanket, and then pull the blanket away, you can shout "Peek-a-boo!" and have lots of fun together, You probably also know that it teaches object permanency, the idea that things continue to exist even when we can't se them, and that after you're bored with it and are ready to hang yourself with your child's blanket, she will want to keep the fun going for hours more.

And if she has a foster brother in the back seat with her, it can.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Regarding the Nashville Statement

I'm going to say something that may shock you. Being gay isn't about sex.

I swear to God.

That's not the impression you would get from the signatories of the Nashville Statement, freshly released by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The Nashville Statement -- so called because it was written and signed in Nashville -- is an attempt by certain prominent evangelical leaders to draw a line in the sand over the cultural shifts in the United States the past 50 years.

It makes the sort of strident condemnations that we've come to expect from such groups: adultery is bad, polygamy is bad, premarital sex is bad, transgenderism is bad, homosexuality is bad. The whole thing is couched in a series of 14 affirmations and rejections that focus on what the signatories presume is the "clear meaning" of the biblical texts, all focused on the configuration of people's genitals and what they do with them in private.

"Clear meaning" becomes more suspect once we consider cultural and literary context in an attempt to understand what the biblical authors actually were talking about, and how to apply those principles in our society. But that doesn't seem to matter here.

What the Nashville Statement and its signatories miss is that gay people are, well, people, with the same desires and life goals as other people.

Being gay isn't about whom you have sex with, it's about whom you love. Like heterosexuals, gays want to be with someone they love, to spend their lives and grow old together. The little things that matter in a straight relationship -- reading a book or playing a game together, sharing a meal, having a conversation when you come home from a day on the job, sharing what matters to you, making plans together, the touch of a hand, and having someone to hold you when you're upset, scared or lonely -- those are things that matter in a same-sex relationship as well.

Article X is the killer, though. According to this statement, it's not possible to be a Christian and support your best friend's decision to transition from male to female, nor to affirm the happiness another friend has found with her fiancee. Do these things, and you've left the fold. You're an apostate.

This is some serious stuff. It requires a response.

I thought about all the great times I've had with my best friend, who was born David but is now Jennifer. There's the time Chicken Soup for the Soul threatened to sue us. One afternoon at college as she was listenig to "The Acapella Project 2," I opened her door just to say "This is really cheesy" and then shut it just as quickly. I stood at her wedding, and she stood at mine. We've been there for each other through divorce, head injury, three kids apiece, and even an unfortunate escapade with white Christian rap.

I thought about another friend and our late-night conversations over the Internet when she was working and I couldn't sleep. There's been snark, there's been laughter both out of control and out of bounds, a cascade of puns and an exchange of books. She's been there when I've stood on the brink and the void threatened to swallow me; and I've seen the high cost that can be exacted by the attitudes celebrated in this Nashville Statement, when her family discovered she was gay.

Or there's Darren, one of the friendliest and most drama-free people I've ever worked with in the theatre world. I've found him to be a rock: supportive, professional, flexible and a joy to work with as an actor, as a stage manager and as a co-producer.

These are the people the authors of the Nashville Statement say I have to reject in order to go to heaven with them.

But I think of all that I've been through with them, and the kind of people they are, and I find that I must borrow a sentiment from Huck Finn.

"All right, I'll go to hell then."

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Hell is not other people

Jean Paul Sartre famously said "Hell is other people."

All respect to Sartre, the man was full of shit. Hell isn't other people; it's no other people. It's having as much space as you could want, even more, and no one to share it with. Count yourself king of infinite space, gaze upon the desolate void you inhabit, and feel the desolate void that inhabits you.

Why do you think the cruelest and most inhuman prisons put inmates in solitary? It's because we're not given our own soul, we're given a piece of one big soul, and in hell our piece withers and blanches and takes all life, all hope, all joy with it as it dies.

Watch the shadows move on the wall of your cave, pilgrim. We live in hell, and the only one with the key is the person in the cell next to you.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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 went 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. A 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.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Racial reconciliation is not what we need

Here come the renewed calls for an end to racial animus and healing. Oh, how I am tired of them.

A recent motion to condemn the alt-right died in committee at the Southern Baptist Convention. Predictably, following the outrage, the church issued a statement condemning the alt-right and all forms of racism. Because it's important, you know, to remember that it's just as wrong for black people to hate white people as the other way around, and what we need is healing, not this division over race. What we need, church leaders would have us believe, is that there has been a lot of wrong committed on all sides, and we need reconciliation of the races for the healing to begin.

No. No. In Jesus' holy name, no Racial reconciliation is a misnomer, as reconciliation suggests equal fault. We do not need racial reconciliation. What we need is racial repentance, and racial justice.

Blacks in America are not to blame for the state of race relations in this country; whites are. Racial oppression and white supremacy began on this continent before the country was even established. Let's look at the issue honestly and fairly.

It was white Christians who enslaved blacks from the 1600s and for the following two centuries. It was white Christians like George Whitefield who saw blacks as worthy recipients of the gospel but not of their freedom. Likewise it was white Christians who stole the labor, the health and the safety of blacks throughout the South, and who fought a bloody war in defense of their right to own black people.

It was white Christians who replaced slavery with Jim Crow, prison camps and segregation following the Civil War; and when the courts and the federal government finally demanded an end to those things, it was white Christians who fled public schools and closed public resources rather than share them with blacks. These actions even found sanction from the pulpit, where ministers taught that it was God's intent to keep the races separate.

Every bit of progress our nation has made toward racial equality and justice the past 150 years has been fought at every step by white people, often self-identified Christians. Blacks in America today can't even protest a justice system that targets them more regularly, sentences them more harshly and kills them more frequently than it does whites, without being scolded that All Lives Matter.

Statements disavowing the racist history of the past are not enough. For any denomination, for the church as a whole in our country, or for our nation itself to rise above our legacy of racism, we need to own up to what we've done, and we need to correct the fault that we have inherited. It's not reconciliation that's needed. It's repentance.

We can begin by elevating black America: its art, its poetry, its literature, its leaders, its history, and its economy. This is the example we see in the Christian Scriptures. Faced with prejudice against Grecian Jews, the Jerusalem church handed over the welfare programs of the church entirely to those suffering the prejudice. Through humility, the dominant church saw that the minority church was empowered and its widows protected.

Can we follow suit? We should. Can we study church history from the perspective of black America? Can we learn how the enslaved church flourished amid slavery and the abuses of the empowered church?

Can we learn to see the heroism of Nat Turner, and remember the deep moral flaws of white leaders who saw white supremacy and black subjugation as the ordained way of things, or who never gave it a thought? Can we demand black chancellors and presidents at Liberty University and Bob Jones University, and black-majority boards?

Will we throw our moral authority, weakened though it is, behind the efforts to stop honoring the Confederate veterans who defended slavery with their lives, and instead shame them and everyone in the North and South who benefited from slavery?

Will we speak out against the policies and actions of President Trump and Jeff Sessions that threaten the well-being of the African American community?

The Southern Baptist Convention has made steps in the right direction. But what is needed are seven-league boots.

I pray we have the faith to wear them.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Super Bowl Sunday away from Pittsburgh

About eight years ago, I was talking to a fellow after church, and he suddenly said, "Hey, you're from Pittsburgh! You must be excited."

"Um, yes, I'm excited," I said blankly. Pittsburgh's a great place to be from, with its role in American history and the presence of great schools like Carnegie Mellon University, but it's not like I wake up every morning and run around the house, caught in the ecstasies of heaven and screaming "I'm from Pittsburgh! I'm from Pittsburgh!"

"What am I excited about?" I asked.

"The Steelers!" Tony said.

"Well sure, they're from Pittsburgh too," I said. When I was 8, our elementary school music teacher taught us the Pittsburgh Polka, which was the closest thing the Steelers had to a fight song. "What about them?"

"They're going to be in the Super Bowl!"

"Oh yes, yes," I said with all the relish someone might muster for washing the dishes. "When is that?"

"Today," he said. He groaned as he realized that my disinterest wasn't an act, and he turned away. "Never mind."

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

President Trump is inspiring my daughter to read

Youngest Daughter is not yet a fan of reading. She'll get there in time, but for right now it's more fun for her to watch a short show, play a game, or draw than it is to read a storybook.

On Wednesday evening. she asked if she could watch something on Netflix. I want her to practice her reading at least, so I use shows as a carrot.

"You have to read a book first," I told her.

"Do I have to?" she asked in that way that is common to 7-year-olds.

"Which president do you want to be like, President Obama or President Trump?" I asked her.

"President Obama," she said.

"Which president do you think reads more?"

She didn't even argue. She just went, picked up a stack of books, and started reading.

I think I found a bright side to the Trump presidency.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Psst! I totally stole this from Brucker.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

an open letter to president trump

Dear Mr. President:

I join you in your recently stated admiration for Frederick Douglass and welcome the growing appreciation for all that he has done. Mr. Douglass was an amazing man. As a boy he taught himself to read and to write, and then took it upon himself to see that other enslaved blacks also learned. After he won his freedom, he worked tirelessly as a writer and newspaper editor for the cause of abolition and also for women's rights. He served as an adviser to President Lincoln during the Civil War and later served as an ambassador to Haiti.

I once heard a legend about Frederick Douglass' ghost and how he torments the dreams of racist men in power, particularly at the White House. According to this legend, such men have terrifying dreams where a black man accosts them and harshly reprimands them in a powerful oratory. Supposedly it was after one such visitation that President Lyndon B. Johnson abandoned the cause of segregation and ultimately became our nation's highest public official to push Congress to enact the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.

If there is any truth at all to the legend, I must say I look forward to seeing what Frederick Douglass does next.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

You are no longer friends with this person

Today I discovered that I recently had been defriended recently on Facebook.

I can't help but think what a loss it is for us both. I've known this person for about six years, someone I've always considered worth knowing better if the opportunity should arise. Unfortunately, it hasn't. Following that initial rush in 2011 when our paths first crossed, our social interaction generally has been limited to exchanging pleasantries after church and an uneventful Facebook friendship that apparently ended a few months shy of the six-year mark.

I know people can take it personally when someone defriends them. Some see it as a personal rejection, while others blame themselves for driving the other person away. The element of rejection is undeniable -- defriending someone on social media is an active choice, after all -- but my main reaction to this act is simple curiosity. Why this person, why now?

Was it simple housecleaning? Some people have hundreds, if not thousands, of friends on Facebook, including family, actual friends, neighbors, co-workers, teammates on Mafia Wars, and even former receptionists from the doctor's office. It'd be hard to fault anyone for wanting to cull the herd a little under those circumstances.

On the other hand, my former Facebook friend and I see each other almost every week and there are more than 400 other people who survived the great purge. A housecleaning doesn't seem too likely an explanation, all things considered.

Maybe it's politics. I'm usually content to live and let live, but I have been absolutely forthright in my denunciation of Donald Trump, and that's upset a few people. Maybe that was it. The election was a divisive affair, and while I wouldn't defriend someone myself, I wouldn't hold it against someone else who did.

Could it be religion? I've shared a few things over social media that disappoint me about the church, and from time to time I tweet commentary on the worship service as it unfolds. It's all in good fun, and the pastor takes it in good stride, but I can see how it could bother someone.

It's impossible to say what set the ball rolling without knowing the story, and no one has told me. That's what lends the whole affair an air of the surreal. When an actual friendship ends, there's something you can point to. There was a fight, or an act of betrayal, or there was a completely natural drift over the years as life and geography come into play.

With social media, there's none of that. There's a passive-aggressive decision to click a button, a sense of satisfaction that it's over. Except that its not. If you move in the same social circles, you're going to feel an odd sense of dislocation the next time you run into the person you defriended. Once they realize they've been defriended, that dislocation is going to get downright awkward.

Here's the cut and jib of it for me. I'm cautious about making friends, but when I consider someone a friend, it's solid. Friendship is a sacred bond, something we neither pretend to nor lightly cast aside. I'm a little looser about whom I'll identify as a friend on social media, but I don't add people just for the sake of it. They have to be decent people too, or it won't happen. And when I add someone, I don't remove them.

Why's that? It's simple. For one thing, the snub in defriending someone is undeniable. We may pretend it's not there, but it takes a conscious decision and deliberate act to defriend someone, and there's no way to undo that decision without drawing attention to its being made in the first place. Defriending someone on social media almost certainly is going to create ripples offline as well.

But just as importantly, defriending someone carries a cost for us as well. The differences in perspective and experience that different people bring to the table can cause a lot of friction and weary us, but they also enrich our lives.

Shutting people out of my life because I disagree with them will leave me – and possibly them – poorer for the experience. I'm a Christian, an identity that makes me treasure my Muslim, Jewish and atheist friends all the more.

In the same vein, I'm sorely disappointed in my friends who voted for Donald Trump, and I'm deeply critical of their decision; but that doesn't mean that I hate them or don't want to hear from them. We probably won't change each other's minds, but we can grow in understanding of and appreciation for each other.

There is a depth of perspective and a vitality of life that we get from interacting with people whose lives and viewpoints differ from our own. When we limit our time to people who only share our views, or when we silence voices that differ from our own, we rob ourselves of the chance to hear new ideas and to grow our roots deeper.

Did my former Facebook friend drop me from social media because I was too angry, too liberal or too disrespectful? I'll never know. All I do know is this: We'll see each other in church on Sundays, and we'll continue to be friendly to one another, but our ideas are less likely now to cross than in the past six years.

And we're both a little poorer for it.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Psst! I totally stole this from Brucker.