A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Have A Nice Day

In a New Year's tradition that goes back to 1976, the Unicorn Hunters, a group of language conservationists at Lake Superior State University in Michigan, have released their annual List of Words Banished From the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness.
And the number one banished word of 2012 is - slight drum roll, please - "Amazing!"
"LSSU was surprised at the number of nominations this year for 'amazing' and surprised to find that it hadn't been included on the list in the past," say the Unicorn Hunters. "It seemed to bother people everywhere, as nominations were sent from around the US and Canada and some from overseas, including Israel, England and Scotland. A Facebook page – 'Overuse of the Word Amazing' – threatened to change its title to 'Occupy LSSU' if 'amazing' escaped banishment this year."
Coming in a close second was "baby bump," followed by "shared sacrifice," "occupy," "man cave," "the new normal," "pet parent," "win the future," "trickeration," "ginormous" and "thank you in advance." "
The Unicorn Hunters were founded by W.T. "Bill" Rabe, the school's public relations director, as a publicity gimmick to put LSSU on the map. And he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Over the years, the list has been expanded to include such groaners as "more bang for the buck" (1996), "bring the evil-doers to justice" (2002), "don't even go there" (1997), "teachable moment" (2010), "back in the day " (2008), "BFF" (2011), "chill out" (1980), "if ____, then the terrorists win" (2002), "no problem" (1980), "in my humble opinion" (1992), "baddaabing!" (1994), "politically correct" (1994), combined celebrity names such as "Brangelina" (2007), and "your call is very important to us" (1996).
After Rabe retired in 1987 the university, which knew it had a good thing on its hands, copyrighted the name and continued the tradition.
The very first phrase on the very first hit list in 1976 was "Have a nice day."
"It's not that we wish anyone ill," Rabe explained. "But this has become so overused, telephone operators use it even when people call funeral homes."
                                   * * *
Meanwhile, looking for a fun read to gratify your inner techno-geek? Have I got a book for you!
It's "Mad Science: Einstein's Fridge, Dewar's Flask, Mach's Speed, and 362 Other Inventions and Discoveries That Made Our World," featuring 365 of the most amusing anecdotes from Wired Magazine's popular "This Day In Tech" column.
The editor and author of many of the entries: San Francisco journalist Randy Alfred.
"Mad Science" ranges chronologically from January 1 (1538: First New Year of the Gregorian Calendar) to December 31 (1938: First breathalyzer test – just in time for New Year's Eve!).
In between are such gems as February 14 (1929: Al Capone uses cutting-edge technology – the Tommy gun – to wipe out the Bugs Moran mob), May 4 (1538: First use of the "@" symbol), August 24 (2006: Pluto demoted from planet status), and September 21 (1982: First use of the smiley-face emoticon).
The earliest entry is April 24, 1184 BCE: Greeks Use Wooden Horse to Defeat Trojans' State-of-The-Art Security.
"'This isn't a book meant to be read all at once from cover to cover," says Alfred. "Ideally, it should be read in short amounts while sitting down in the smallest room in the house."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Bashing Teachers

(Above: Madame)
Two weeks after the massacre in Newtown, I still can't stop thinking about the 20 little children who were murdered – or the ones who survived, either.
But today I want to talk about the teachers. Not just those who sacrificed their lives to protect the children in their care, but also the others, who saved hundreds of other kids by following the safety plan drawn up by principal Dawn Hochsprung, who lost her life trying to tackle the shooter.
They locked doors, hid children in closets and cabinets, and desperately did anything they could think of – leading the kids in drawing, coloring or singing softly – to keep them distracted, even as they knew that other children and their own colleagues were dying nearby.
Teachers deserve all the praise that's being heaped on them today. But how soon will it be before we go back to insulting them, paying them peanuts, slashing their pensions and benefits, crushing their unions, cutting their school budgets so they're forced to dig into their own pockets to buy such basic school supplies for their students as pencils and paper, making them teach to standardized tests instead of imbuing the kids with the love of learning, and blaming them for everything that's wrong with the education system?
We claim to love our children; but we pay teachers, who spend more time with our kids each day than we do, less than we pay plumbers. The obvious conclusion: We care more about our toilets than we do about our children.
We entrust our children, who are our very future, to teachers to be educated, nurtured, comforted and socialized. And, as was demonstrated in Newtown, sometimes teachers are even called upon to throw themselves into harm's way to protect them.
They do all this because teaching is a labor of love. (It sure ain't a way to get rich.) And the kids appreciate it, even if we don't.
Let me tell you about a teacher much closer to home named Sarah Wadsworth. She taught French at Petaluma High School, and she was the strictest teacher in the school. She was tough as nails and held the kids to impossibly high standards, and they adored her for it.
As my young friend Lesley, now a junior at Cal, put it, "You always made sure you did your French homework before you did anything else."
"Madame," as the kids called her, was constantly on their case for dressing like grunges. She herself was always turned out perfectly, like a typical Frenchwoman. A familiar sound in the hallways was the click-clack of her high heels.
Last Feb. 1 Madame died suddenly and unexpectedly from a brain aneurism. She was only 51.
The next day, all her students showed up at school dressed to the nines, including high heels. And they all took new names.
Lesley's younger sister, Sierra, a senior, is now calling herself Eponine, after a character in "Les Miserables." All her friends have taken similar monikers.
And they plan to dress the way Madame would have wanted them to next Feb. 1, the anniversary of her death, and turn it into an annual tradition.
I can't think of a lovelier tribute – or a better demonstration of the difference a great teacher can make in so many young lives.