Thursday, September 10, 2015

Great Expectations

It is now 9:45 PM, and my eighth grader has just gone to bed, having finally finished his homework. He started at 3:30, took an hour for dinner and a bit of relaxing, and finished fifteen minutes ago. Which is to say that he had five hours of  homework tonight, including practicing his musical instrument (music is one of his classes). This is a fairly typical night's work for him. If there are tests or assignments due, it may be more; rarely is it less.

The reason I mention this is that last week I watched a discussion on a cable news show about public school parents who complain of the amount of homework their children are given. How much homework? Thirty to forty-five minutes a night.


(Those who have followed my blog will know that the ellipsis represents my reaction of stunned silence.)

Forty-five minutes of homework a night?! My son has forty-five minutes in each subject. How do these indignant parents expect their children to compete in the real world on such a minimal diet of self-improvement? Forty-five minutes a night?!

Are the public schools' expectations of the children so low, and the demands made on them so scant, are the parents so utterly clueless, that they think these children can compete for places at the best universities -- or at any universities -- on forty-five minutes of homework a night? Do they expect that they will go out into the wide world armed with the knowledge necessary to secure good jobs and fashion fulfilling careers?

What planet are these people living on? Certainly not the one on which bright, well educated, ambitious students live, and on which Japanese and Chinese students live, who will gobble up the few places at the best schools, while your little underachiever struggles to get into the local community college.

On the rare night when my child has a mere three and a half or four hours of homework, we fairly celebrate. We make cookies and watch an old movie or classic TV show, or he enjoys the luxury of getting an extra hour's sleep. Unless you feel that your child is stupid and condemned to a life of underemployment, or to the pickings of academia after the choice spots have been taken, you should not be complaining about less than an hour's homework; you should be demanding more.

And you should be helping the child with that extra work, both to improve your own mind, and to keep abreast of what he or she is learning, and how well he or she is doing. That is part of the responsibility of being the parent of a school-aged child. And it is, surprisingly, fun.

Those extra hours you spend helping your child with homework are not only a bonding experience for you, they will pay big dividends later in life. And meanwhile, they will ensure that your young student has a good grounding in the fundamentals of education, and learns mental discipline, time management skills, and the self-esteem that comes from not only knowing, but knowing that you know.

Put in the time now, those extra hours in the evenings, and you will open doors for your child's future which otherwise will be closed. As Shakespeare said: Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross. And if your child doesn't know who Shakespeare is, I rest my case.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Browning of SoCal

All of my liquid amber trees are dying. Beset by drought and beetles, they are literally falling apart from the tops down. Just yesterday, another shed its upper branches all over the cactus in my driveway, the few desultory pinpoints of green I have left. An ambitious tree surgeon, a sort of arbor ambulance chaser, appeared at my door to ask if I needed any work done. When I pointed out the carcass of the grey-trunked maple in front of my garage, he nodded sagely and said "$200." For what? To take it down, to rub it out as if it had never been.  It was as if he were making a bid on a funeral service. But when I showed him the trees in my back yard, his eyes glowed darkly. Thousands of dollars in removal fees glimmered in them, as if this drought were a personal boon to his otherwise seasonal service.

The fact is that we in Southern California are in the throes of one of the worst droughts in our history. I have already suffered the governor, that octogenarian hipster, instructing me on how many times I can flush my toilet and how long a shower I can take. The fact is that, having lived in this metropolitan brush-land for thirty-some years, I already knew all that, and I was saving water as assiduously as anybody. Anybody, that is, except for the "civil rights activist" who lives up the street from me in a gated mansion, by far the most valuable real estate in the neighborhood, and who consumes water as if nothing has happened. His lawns, unlike everyone else's, are liberally sprinkled night and day, in keeping with steadfast and time-honored left-wing hypocrisy. "The rules are for the rest of you; not for righteous folks like me."

But all of that pales in the face of the growing crisis of dehydration in which we find ourselves. For the first few years it was a warning, which became requests, and then regulations, which are becoming strictures. Though I run only full loads of laundry in my washing machine, and that only after dark, and though I am down to watering my lawns and plants twice a week (as per), take five-minute showers, flush in a timely fashion (as my son says: If it's yellow let it mellow; if it's brown flush it down), not letting the tap run while brushing teeth, and waiting till the dishwasher is brimming before I use it, I expect that any day there will be a knock at my door. Then a uniformed representative of the DWP (if not the police) will put me on formal notice that, if I do not curb my usage, I will incur a $500 fine, or worse.

Meanwhile, I could not help but notice that, earlier this year, the City of Pasadena, in its bureaucratic wisdom, decided to re-sod the medians on Sierra Madre Boulevard, near my house, and then allowed the new grass, so carefully and expensively installed, to die when they shut off the municipal sprinkler system. If you wonder why I distrust, even despise, government bureaucracy, the answer is in those dung brown medians. Apparently no one in the city government asked: Is it a good idea to re-sod the medians in the middle of a historic drought? No, they just went ahead as planned and spent other people's money, and the result is a stretch of wasteland that would have made Okie Dustbowlers feel at home.

The other day, my son asked me how much longer this drought would last. I reminded him that the drought which destroyed the Anasazi (ancient Navajo) civilization is thought to have lasted over 100 years. Then, the dearth of rainfall virtually wiped out one of the most advanced and ingenious societies that ever existed on the North American continent; a culture that invented the flying buttress 300 years before the French, devised a far-flung and almost instantaneous communication system, and had a water conservation scheme which, it was thought, could defeat the scourge of drought. It did not, and all that remains of that sophisticated culture is the breathtaking ruins of the Four Corners.

How long we can survive this episode remains to be seen. For my own part, I feel guilty every time I wash clothes or do the dishes, and I find myself more often scanning the sky for rain clouds, which never seem to appear over the parchment shoulders of the San Gabriel Mountains above my house. Mark Twain said that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. That has never been truer than of we who live in this artificial urban sprawl which was destined to be a desert. All we can do, I am afraid, is ask the rest of you to pray for rain for us who, as T. S. Eliot said, are dry brains in a dry season.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Business of America is...

I have seen many things in my lifetime that have caused me to worry and to wonder about the state of our society, and its future. I am old enough to remember little black children being refused schooling at gunpoint, and protesters being pummeled along the pavement by high pressure hoses. I lived through the JFK assassination and the elaborate cover-up that followed, and through Watergate, and the elaborate cover-up that followed. The Vietnam War was a horrid carbuncle on the national flesh, perhaps our greatest crime in the Twentieth Century, and I recall clearly the climate of lies, chaos, and corruption, political, fiscal and moral which it engendered. All of these events touched, and helped shape, my consciousness, and provoked in me mixed feelings of anger, sorrow, and protest.

But nothing has so shaken me -- shaken me to my core -- and caused me to question, calmly and profoundly, the spiritual condition of American society as the recent Planned Parenthood videos. These undercover interviews have made it clear that that organization, which claims to be the spearhead of women's health care, is actively involved, at the highest levels, in the sale of fetal body parts.

Let me repeat that: A taxpayer-funded organization is harvesting and selling the body parts of unborn babies. And now, it appears, is selling entire baby corpses themselves.

Let us put aside for the moment the near-hysterical debate which these revelations have generated, and focus on the simple, cold fact that in America the harvesting and sale of babies' bodies is not only being carried on, it is being defended. I watch in wonder and dismay as intelligent and informed spokespersons for Planned Parenthood and its political supporters, go before the TV cameras and try to rationalize and even to justify this practice. It is a practice worthy of the worst Nazi nightmares; indeed, such experiments were carried out on the bodies of mothers and babies in the extermination camps during World War II.

I am sorry, but there is no finessing the matter: Harvesting and selling babies' body parts is a crime of monstrous proportions. Yet we see the Planned Parenthood executives and doctors discussing the matter casually over cocktails at lunch. Laughing, making jokes, and haggling over prices. In America. At taxpayer expense.

Organs and tissue and brains and entire little corpses, for sale in the United States of America. And those whose political affiliations demand that they defend it, go before the public and try to explain the necessity of it, even the benefits of it, and to excuse it in the name of science and women's reproductive freedom. I have noted before that, in order to rationalize their position, the advocates of abortion on demand must argue that unborn babies are not human beings, but merely "viable tissue masses." And now we see where that leads. If the babies are not babies but merely tissue then we can do anything we want with them: discard them, or, given that they have monetary value in the marketplace, harvest them, dissect them, and sell their organs.

Now, if, for any reason, you find yourself inclined to support this practice, you ought to do what Catholics call an examination of conscience. You need to counsel with yourself and take a dispassionate look at the position you are embracing. And if you feel instinctively that it is wrong (and in the case of selling baby body parts, you cannot help but feel this way), then you must ask yourself why you are taking this position, and what you ought to do to bring your behavior in line with the voice of your conscience. That much, at least, you owe it to yourself to do if you are to consider yourself a moral person.

If nothing else makes us think about God, sin does. And the greater and more hideous the sin, the more focused our minds become on the possibility, even the inevitability, of divine retribution. Well, there is scarcely a more hideous sin imaginable than removing living human babies from their mothers' wombs, cutting them up into pieces, and selling the parts to those willing to pay for them. Unless, of course, it is chatting about it over white wine and cheese.

I have written here before that I reject the conventional concept of God, though I do believe fervently in the spiritual nature and destiny of humankind. I also reject the idea of eternal punishment and reward as being a primitive fancy founded on an intuitive need for some final form of justice. But this business -- and make no mistake, it is a business -- stirs up in me precisely an instinctual sensation that in some way, at some time in this life or another, the people who do this must be repaid, and the innocents who suffer it must be consoled.

As for America... How much farther from truth and justice, from compassion and humanity, can our society get? Especially when there are so many who will clamor forward, not to condemn, but to justify the rape and murder of pure souls who ought to represent the best in us, and our hope for the future.