Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Can You Seat A Large Party?

            It’s Christmas Eve in St. Pete Beach, Florida and Grandma tells us we need a reservation for 22 people.  It’s hard enough securing a table for a party that large on a normal day, let alone December 24.  It took a few calls, but we made it happen.  Skidders at 5:00 P.M.
            Taking a step back, I guess I should explain how we gathered together 22 hungry Jews in the first place.  Our extended family happened to be gathered in Florida for the occasion of my grandparents’ 50th Anniversary.  Apparently that’s a pretty big deal…so here we were.
            When we showed up at 5:03, our tardiness was the least of our problems.  Choosing a good seat is imperative for the success of the meal—no one wants to listen to that distant relative bore them to death with their entire life story—so everyone was scrambling to perch themselves amongst company they could at least tolerate.  To make matters worse, there were only 20 seats (actually, 19 and a high-chair) at our mile long table.  It was another seven or eight minutes before a couple of extra chairs were fetched and everyone was squeezed into place.
            I felt nothing but sympathy for the poor waitress who proceeded to take our orders.  Serving 18 adults and 4 children is difficult enough, not to mention my family’s notoriety for giving exceedingly complicated directions.  After all the onion-less salads, on-the-side pasta sauce, and extra-medium burgers were ordered, the real fun began.
            The kids played with silverware, the drinks were refilled, and the food was slowly but surely delivered.  One child fell asleep at the table and was wheeled across the street to her bed at the hotel.  Her younger sister was wide-awake but refused to eat anything that wasn’t one of her mother’s French Fries.  Finally, the dishes were cleared and it was time for the adults to square away the bill.
            This is always the most entertaining part of the meal (at least when you’re in no danger of being the one that ends up with the check).  The respective heads of households jockeyed over rights to pay.  It’s mostly the men of the family that take the reigns, but the fiercest competitor of them all is my stubborn grandmother.  With such a large group this process was exceedingly difficult, but once the dust cleared we emerged with some kind of impromptu plan for splitting the total.  Still, the losers could be seen passing cash across the table to a chorus of screams and curses.  It’s amazing how good adults are at pretending they enjoy shelling out large sums of money for their family.
            Of course when that was over, there was the typical scheming about how much to tip; no one wants to be the one who comes out the cheapest.  There was also a controversy over whether or not some gratuity was already included with the meal.  It took a solid half hour for this entire payment process to be completely resolved.  So, when all was said and done, there were a handful of grumpy adults, a crowd of disinterested spouses, and a faction of tired kids who all just wanted to go home.  One by one, we filed out, en route to our respective hotel rooms.
            I’m sure my version of Christmas Eve dinner wasn’t exactly of the traditional variety.  We don’t go to mass, we don’t light up the tree, and we wouldn’t dream of eating pork (actually, I got a bacon-cheeseburger).  But as far as I can tell, my family’s holiday meals are just as crazy as the rest.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


            Thelast day of class—it used to be a huge relief. You were finally done.  But as Iwalked out of class for the last time this semester, I was accompanied by nosuch sense of freedom.  The truth is, I’mnot quite done yet.  Here comes finalsweek.
            Honestly, I don’t really know what to expect. I’ve never taken a final exam before. I’ve written final papers.  I’veprepared final presentations.  I’veconstructed final projects.  But neverhave I sat down to take a test that counts for 40% of my grade in one class.
            Inone sense, exams are a great opportunity to put hard work in and earn a goodgrade.  A week or so of dedicatedstudying can have an enormous effect on a student’s GPA.  Yet, it requires a certain alacrity anddevotion to commit to receiving the desired grades.
            Howdo you even begin to study for a test that covers a semester worth ofmaterial?  Obviously going over priorassignments and assessments should give a good indicator of what will await ontest day, but the breadth of these exams can seem quite daunting.
            Asa graduate of the Park School, where finals didn’t exist, this is entirely newterritory for me.  The idea that two anda half hours of multiple choice questions can undermine an entire semester ofstudying and work is terrifying. Nevertheless, I’m pretty confident that I’ll make it through this firstround of exams relatively unscathed.
            Toall those college freshman that are going through finals for the first time,just like me, I wish you the best of luck. Especially to the Park class of 2012, try not to worry too much.  Put in an honest effort and you’ll be justfine.  We shouldn’t write off exams as anevil invention of the educational system; I think it’s healthier to view themas just another opportunity for us to succeed. So don’t be lazy.  Hit the libraryhard for a few days—you won’t regret it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

You or Me or I?

            “Nietzsche’s No Better Than You or I” was not the title of my latest paper for Intro to Philosophy of Art.  Yet, when I opened the version of my document that included my professor’s comments on the piece, that’s exactly what it read.  My title was, “Nietzsche’s No Better Than You or Me.”  The intention of the correction was clear; the classic rule dictates that the word “than” is a conjunction, linking two independent clauses.  Therefore, a verb is implied, so the statement must read Nietzsche’s no better than you or I (am), instead of Nietzsche’s no better than you or me (am).  “Me” is an objective pronoun and cannot be the subject of a verb.
            This seemingly trivial correction assumes that I was using “than” as a conjunction.  It ignores the possibility that I was using the word as a preposition.  A preposition is used to describe an object in relation to the subject.  For example, the tiger is behind the door.  In this case the tiger is the subject and the door is the object.  Likewise, the word “than” can be used as a preposition.  In my title, Nietzsche acted as the subject and “You or Me” as the object of the preposition.
            Of course, the perceived error in my title likely had little or nothing to do with my final grade.  In fact, there are many grammarians who still argue that my professor’s correction was exactly right.  These grammarians are prescriptive—they see their way as the right one and believe that everyone should agree.  These same people scold the use of “them” as a singular pronoun, in place of him or her, ignoring its obvious advantages (intentional ambiguity, or disregard for sex) for the preservation of an outdated standard.
            There is nothing inherently wrong with prescriptivism.  It is a way of ensuring unity and creating a standard amongst bodies of people.  A particular field or school of thought will likely want to use the same terms in their discussions.  How would our doctors be able to function in unison without a common jargon?
            Nevertheless, in a learning environment—particularly one that focuses in the liberal arts—prescriptivism seems counterproductive.  How can students search for meaning in their studies if their teachers are forcing them towards a singular truth?  Shouldn’t students strive to find their own answers to the questions they ask?  In a progressive culture, teachers act as guides to their students’ educations.  They do everything in their power to give their pupils the necessary tools and resources to learn and grow.
            At Park, my teachers wanted me to succeed.  When I was struggling they gave me pointed critiques and advice.  They looked for meaning in my work rather than condemning any thoughts just for being different from their own.  I cannot overstate how much I took for granted their mantra of positive expectations.  The Park philosophy couldn’t be more accurate in its assertion that students will not reach their potential if their teachers do not believe in their success.
            Getting back to my paper on Nietzsche.  Nietzsche’s No Better Than You or Me was by no means the best essay I’ve ever written.  It certainly wasn’t the worst either, but my grade said it was.  I don’t claim to be an expert on the philosophy of art.  There were problems with my essay and the arguments I made and I’ll admit that.  My frustration, however, comes from my feeling that my professor didn’t want me to succeed.
            I have a very hard time getting motivated to improve my work when I feel like my teacher couldn’t care less whether I do well or not.  What kind of message does it send to a student when their title—a sacred space for the creative individual to express himself even in the most serious of assignments—is corrected for word choice?  It certainly doesn’t send one of positive expectations.  I started reading the comments and I knew I was doomed.
            The truth is that I’ve been spoiled by my high school experience.  At Park, I had the opportunity to learn from a score of teachers who truly valued their students and understood how to treat them in a way that is conducive to education.  In the end, the teacher can only do so much.  Ideally, the teachers are doing as much for their students as they possibly can.  But in reality, sometimes the students need to take matters into their own hands.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Just Some Casual FIFA

            “Let’s go out tonight.”
            “I think I’m actually staying in.”
            “Come on…you have to come.”
            “Maybe next time.  I have some work to do.”
            “That’s pretty lame.  This party’s gonna be crazy”
            “Fine.  I’ll come.”
            Sound familiar?  This is a conversation that takes place in many dorm rooms.  Obviously, some people probably have stronger resistance to a change in plans.  Still, I think it’s safe to say that often times, it’s easier to say yes than no.  No one wants to be lame.  No one wants to be a loser.  We’ve been at school for two months now, but many of us are still trying to impress our new friends.
            Everyone’s heard the phrase.  We’ve been told over and over again to battle it.  Our parents and teachers have drilled us with strategies for overcoming it.  This is not a new phenomenon.  We call it peer pressure.
            Peer pressure comes in many forms—some severe, and others not so much.  It is our job to make educated decisions, weighing the pros and cons of each situation.  The problem is that, more times than not, the costs and benefits of our choices are not so clear.
            Say it’s Tuesday night.  We’ve done our homework and it’s pretty early.  Better yet, we don’t have class until tomorrow afternoon.  I’m looking forward to a relaxing night, but my roommate has another idea.
            “Let’s play FIFA tonight.”
            “Sounds good to me.”
            “But let’s make it interesting.”
            “Oy vey…what are you thinking?”
            “Let’s make it into a drinking game.”
Each time you give up a goal, you have to drink.  Just three guys having a little fun.  Doesn’t sound too bad, but when you’re lackluster at FIFA in the first place, and all of a sudden you’ve had a few drinks, things probably aren’t going to end well.  The effects are cumulative.
            Of course this case was not particularly extreme.  No long-term damage was done, and everyone made it to class the next day.  This is a great example, though, of why college students are at such a higher risk than even those in high school.  I know that when I was living at home, and I tried to go out on a Tuesday night, forget about it.  My parents would never let that happen, and I hated them for it.  I always argued that I made good decisions, so they should trust me.  The truth was that sometimes they knew best.
            In college, you’re on your own.  Mom isn’t going to make you stay in and do your homework—or maybe she will, but that’s a problem for another post.  It’s great to take advantage of this new freedom and try new things.  Everybody makes mistakes, and even stupid decisions can teach valuable lessons.  Just beware; when things go wrong, it’s on you.  Maybe your friends convinced you to go out in the first place.  Perhaps you were just doing the same thing as everyone else.  Nevertheless, it was your choice to make.  So make confident decisions—be proud of the choices you make—because they define not only who you are, but also who you will become.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Why Do People Lie?

Language: the tool that separates humans from all other creatures.  Some animals may have the capacity to communicate through sounds or other means, but people have a unique aptitude for speech.  Their vocal chords enable them to articulate their thoughts in an incredibly specific and often complicated manner.
Language comes in all shapes and sizes.  Language varies by region and heritage; it consists of letters, words, and sometimes, even signs.  Language is both spoken and written.  The alphabet, vocabulary, and syntax used are different throughout all groups of people.
Beyond the basics of language, our understanding is complicated by its constant progression.  New words are introduced, definitions shift, and cultures mix—our rhetoric is always evolving.  It is difficult enough to understand language without any additional obstacles.
Words are a powerful tool.  There’s a saying that goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  That statement is false.  Words can bring both joy and despair.  Used carefully, they can help people in need, and further the success of any cause or individual.  Used poorly, they can ruin lives, or put a damper on something that was otherwise beautiful.
The problem is that many people do not know how to use their language properly—they abuse their power to speak.  From insults, to sarcasm, and even libel, there are countless ways to do wrong with words.  Perhaps the most interesting and classic example is lying.
Why do people lie?  There are seemingly a million reasons, but they boil down to a few common themes.  Often, people are simply afraid of the truth, or more importantly, its consequences.  If the truth is incriminating or embarrassing, it can seem disadvantageous to make it known unnecessarily.  If lying can save someone from experiencing something they’d rather not, it is an attractive alternative to telling the truth.  There is also the notion of a selfless lie, or white lie. Many argue that if a lie is doing someone else good, and has no negative consequences, it is okay.
So are there, in fact, situations when lying is okay?  The easiest argument to make is that lies are okay as long as no one is getting hurt; if a lie is only doing good and no bad, then there’s no problem.  This argument is all well and good, except for the fact that it is hardly, or maybe never, true.  Even a white lie conceals facts that might seem unnecessary in the short term, but in the long term might be helpful in fixing a problem, rather than simply covering it up.
A slightly different approach might be to weigh each lie.  If the pros outweigh the cons, then the lie is worthwhile. This method opens a door that forces people to take new factors into account, including perspective, and the subjectivity of what is better.  Should society rely on individuals to decide what is right and wrong, better and worse, for the entire population?
In America, citizens enjoy the liberty of free speech.  It is up to them to use their judgment when they speak and accept the consequences once they’ve been heard.  Whether lying is right or wrong, it exists, and it’s certainly not going away.  It is a phenomenon that people must constantly be wary of.  As the vastly overused Spiderman saying goes, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”  Humans enjoy the blessing of speech and its merits every day—they must also bear the burden of using it in a way that does less harm than good.