“Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing!”

“ Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing!”

This title introduces readers to Robert P. Smith’s unconventional memoir of his boyhood. He wrote of the experiences, games, superstitions and beliefs of a typical boyhood in the first half of the 20th century. A boy– after lying on his back in the grass for hours contemplating the sky — would return home and answer his mother’s questions. He went “Out”. Then, “What did you do?” His answer made sense to him. “Nothing.”

As a father, Smith was concerned with what he saw as a lack of creativity in the lives of his own children. He was disturbed by the increasing trend of parents formalizing the play time of their children. He would be in a state of shock today when parents arrange ‘play dates’ for their children from the ages of two and three up to their teens. The children are often driven to each other’s homes for supervised play while their parents — usually mothers–socialize for an hour or more. Sometimes, the children are deposited for the arranged hours and picked up later. It’s a given that the activity will be reciprocal.

The entire subject of playtime for children received attention with the publication of “The Dangerous Book for Boys” that zoomed to number two on Amazon sales within days of publication in 2007. The book by Conn and Hal Iggulden celebrated the games and activities of boyhood that are no longer played. Of course, many of them were played by girls as well as boys. Within the year, “The Daring Book for Girls” by Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz followed from the same publisher. Both books are available in paperback on Amazon.com with five star ratings and comments.

Have you seen any boys playing marbles lately? Are there hopscotch squares drawn in chalk on the sidewalk in your neighborhood? Any girls jumping rope? Double Dutch? Are there any kids tearing around an empty lot or backyard playing tag? Is there a boy or a girl climbing a tree nearby? Maybe the basic question should be — Have you seen any children playing outside?

There is an emphasis on safety for children that has developed during the past decades. Children ride bicycles wearing helmets. And unless the backyard is secure, many parents will no longer allow their children to just “go out and play”. The years of my childhood, when my sister and I joined the other kids on the block to start a game of softball or kick ball in the empty lot, are long past. There were races, scavenger hunts and informal volley ball games with a makeshift net. It seems we were always outdoors and on the move. We climbed the big pear tree in our back yard; my sister always reached a higher branch. It was fun to sit on a sturdy branch, pick a pear and eat it. On rainy days, we played indoor games — jacks and pick-up sticks on the smooth parquet floor, hide and seek and endless marathon Monopoly games.

Conn Iggulden said that he received e-mails from parents who felt that keeping kids locked in the house in Play Stations wasn’t actually good for them . He also heard skeptical reactions from parents to the safety culture that prevented many activities that had been important to their own growth and confidence. Joan Almon, coordinator of a play advocacy group in College Park, Maryland says, “These kind of games, including tag, ‘You’re it!’ have practically died out. We should be paying more attention to these classic children’s games which are almost lost now.”

Today, children may spend most of their play hours inside the house in front of their computer linked to the Internet, playing video games. In many a home, there is also a DVD player, an iPod and iPad, as well as such 21st century attractions as Game Boy, Xbox and Game Cube. There’s no question that kids from the earliest ages of two and three are engrossed. Surveys clock the hours spent in rapt attention to the iPad, computer or television screen. The question is whether this type of free play time is beneficial to overall intellectual, emotional and physical growth. And does it stimulate creativity? Finally, a closely related concern that is emerging — whether the lack of physical activity has led to the rise of childhood obesity.

A national study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that overweight children, ages 6 to 11, increased to 18 percent in 2004 from 4 percent in 1974. There has been a two pronged approach to the problem with equal emphasis on proper nutrition and physical exercise. Many schools across the country have changed their cafeteria menus to cut back on fats, and have forbidden the sale of candy and sugar-heavy sodas. Of course, schools can do their part, but parents have far greater influence with control of foods available at home, and the play time activities of their children. Parents can play a major role in encouraging their children to take part in team sports sponsored by their schools and the community. Cross-country running, track, baseball, softball, soccer, basketball and lacrosse are offered by many middle and high schools.

When Robert Smith wrote his seminal book, he had a provocative view of the relationship between parents and children. Most of his observations are as fresh today as they were then. “When we were kids, we had the sense to keep things to ourselves. We didn’t go around asking grownups about them. They obviously didn’t know… I think we were right about grownups being the natural enemies of kids because we knew that what they wanted us to do was to be like them. And that was for the birds. “Pop, look at this. It’s a pollywog — look at it.” “Um,” said your father after a quick glance. Another kid peered at it with interest and immediately asked, “Jeez, where’d you get it? Are there any more? What’ll you take for it?”

Imagination. Creativity. Independent thought. A young child playing with wooden blocks of different sizes, shapes and colors creates a marvelous configuration — stacking, leaning, arranging, extending. Much concentration of thought, time and effort is involved. Thoroughly engrossed. Then an adult approaches, looks down and asks, “What is it? A house? A bridge? A train? Does it have to match something already in existence! Can’t it be his or her unique creation of form and space — and mind? Yes, that’s what it is. That’s what childhood play should be about — individual creativity and growth.

Generation Talk

Generation Talk

‘Double Speak’ was coined by George Orwell in his classic novel, 1984. Saying one thing and meaning the exact opposite. We all recognize that in current life. “Bad” is the highest form of compliment among teenagers. The Pentagon Budget is built on a necessary stockpile of war materiel. “Academically challenged” means a slow learner. Some contradictions begin to make sense after awhile.

While Double Speak has become a part of our living language, an interesting new phenomenon seems to be emerging. Let’s call it Generation Talk. Using words and concepts that have little meaning for other generations. Consider this scene: Two couples in their sixties are seated in a booth waiting for the table server to appear. A young woman, in her early 20’s, approaches and cheerily asks, “How are you guys tonight?” Aside from the unisex usage of ‘guys”, is that supposed to put the two couples at ease? A sort of inverted compliment. We’re all in this together, even with that sprinkling of gray hair. The ubiquitous ‘you guys’ is one of the signature phrases of Generation X.

Americans are living longer these days. Thus, the Elders, the respectful term among Native American tribes, are in their 60’s, 70’s and over. They would like to be considered wiser with this age and experience advantage. But it doesn’t always work that way. Elders need a sense of humor and perspective to communicate effectively with the younger generations. When they refer to the London Blitz during World War II, or rationing of food and clothing, ‘victory gardens’ and “ F.D.R.‘s fireside chats”, most of these terms have to be explained.

“Two pairs of shoes a year! Are you kidding, Grandma? No way!” So responded a teenager when ‘rationing’ was made vivid in terms of her lifestyle. Would you believe five different types of sneakers in her closet? Plus dress shoes. And an assortment of play sandals and boots for one sixteen year-old. Just a normal array.

How about explaining curfews in the colleges in the 50’s. The outside dormitory doors locked at 10:30 on weekday nights. Midnight on Saturday for the women’s dorms. No visiting privileges above the first floor. “You can’t be serious! Our dorm is co-ed. Only the bathrooms are off limits. And we’re free to come and go whenever we want. After all, we’re adults, aren’t we?” Is that a rhetorical question? If it is a real question, some elders would love to answer it. Yes. They may have found the dorm rules too restrictive. But, they’re not sure the pendulum swinging 180 degrees is the answer. They know that ‘unisex’ was not a word in their vocabulary then. Now, they’re getting used to it in clothing and haircuts. It may take a little more time to convince them that unisex dorms are an improvement in the halls of learning.

Child rearing is another mine field of Generation Talk. For elders, “time out” means a break in the basketball or football game. Today, it is the primary form of discipline and/or punishment. Sitting in a chair for a proscribed period of time; it is aimed at bringing about a change in behavior — often in a sullen and resentful child. In the old days, spanking was taken for granted. It was only a matter of who administered it, how hard and how often. Did it work? We’ll never know. Now, it is likened to child abuse. “Mother, we would never use physical force with Bobby!” Mother may be tempted to respond with, “Give me a break!”, a favorite cry from Generation X.

Dr. Spock gave confidence to decades of unsure new parents. “Trust yourself”, he said. And they did. Of course, parents certainly made some mistakes. Then, Chaim Ginott, the child psychologist, brought comfort with the soothing, “Parents are not perfect.” Today, a pantheon of experts give parents the latest child rearing advice. Many of the new theories make good sense. Perhaps reading books to three month-old babies needs more research. But teaching them to swim sounds like a good idea.

Generation Talk may be encountered with adult children when they marry. It used to be taken for granted that after the engagement was announced the couple started calling their in-laws to be, ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad”. It was a given. There was no getting used to the idea. It was expected and it just happened. After the hugs and kisses all around, the new honorary titles were launched. This scenario appears to have changed in some families. There is a new expectation by the young couple. They plan to call their in-laws by their first names — Ellen and Jack. They work from the assumption that they have to be comfortable, rather than what their in-laws want to be called. “That shows we’re all equals in this new extended family, doesn’t it?” Well, that’s the rub. Parents expect recognition and respect for years of raising the new groom or bride. And the first name salutation does not do it for many of them. Working this subject out can be a tricky business. And it can rankle, unfortunately, for decades.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, wrote, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Since each generation grew up in a different era, in fact in a different world, there is a need for give and take in the use of language and understanding. Finding out that one’s givens pull a blank stare from the listener is a sure clue that Generation Talk is taking place. The words we use convey the thoughts and feelings we have. Most important in communication is the skill of listening. Not just hearing what the other generation is saying. But listening for their meanings, their concerns and their world in the language they use.

Generation Talk can be about trivial matters. It can also mirror the values we treasure most. The trick would seem to be in “sorting out” as the British say, which is which. The next time two or three generations get together, listen for Generation Talk. Is it on the surface? Or does it dig deeper? Are the generations listening to each other? These are important questions and interesting to pursue. They can lead to meaningful answers that could improve communication and living within families — and our society as a whole.

Hang Up! Just Drive!

Hang Up! Just Drive!

Are you ready to take a test? Okay, here goes:
Do you own a hand-held cell phone?
Do you keep it with you in your car?
Do you call someone while you are driving?
Do you answer the phone while you are driving?
Do you turn corners with one hand while holding the phone with the other?
Do you conduct business on the phone?
Do you call someone as soon as your leave the house in the morning? For business?
For pleasure?
Do you ever argue with anyone on the phone while you are driving?
Do you ever get upset during a conversation while you are driving?
Do you know that New Jersey has a law against driving while using a hand-held cell phone?
Oh — by the way — do you ever drink, eat, comb your hair, put on make up, read or text while you are driving?
An interesting experiment took place several years ago in Northfield, New Jersey. Eleven special enforcement police patrols issued 349 summonses during two weeks under a $4000 grant from the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety. The patrols put in a combined 45 hours on the assignment. Violators of the year-old state ban on driving while holding a cell phone were fined $100 plus $30 in court costs. Publicity in local papers reinforced the law and the penalty.

Lt. Arthur Faden, who initiated the “Hang Up! Just Drive!” effort, said the goal was to educate the public. He did preliminary work at a busy intersection in the community where he sat in an unmarked car and observed the drivers of 200 passing cars. He found l7 disobeying the cell phone law as they talked while holding their phone in their hand. Another seven were violating the statute by texting while driving. After the two weeks of targeted enforcement, Faden conducted a follow-up observation of 200 cars at the same intersection. He found six drivers holding their phones while driving and two texting.

Faden said, “ I think this was a great educational tool for the city to use and we will use it again. Now the people know we are enforcing the cell phone law and what the consequences are, they will be more careful.” He added, “Statistics show that drivers who are distracted are involved in more accidents, and talking on a cell phone — whether we like to think about it or not — is a distraction.”
Northfield police will continue their high alert surveillance for drivers using cell phones. This includes a plain clothes officer using a radio to call ahead to a uniformed officer who is waiting to pull the driver over to the side and issue a summons.

Remember the movie, “Network”, when Peter Finch sticks his head out of his apartment window and shouts to the city, “I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” That scene flashed through my mind as I walked along Burroughs Avenue in Linwood one peaceful morning. As I reached the corner and waited, I watched driver after driver turn the corner from Oak Avenue onto Burroughs with one hand on the wheel — while talking on the phone held in the other hand. I felt like Peter Finch. I wanted to yell at all those drivers! But their windows were closed and they were oblivious to a lone walker watching them take the corner.

Have you watched these drivers? Most appear to be deeply involved in conversations. Sometimes, they seem to be angry with contorted faces. That’s when I really worry what’s going to happen next. Psychologists have told us about attention span and doing more than one thing at once. The results have been proven in scientific laboratories. Now, we have the behavior happening all around us without laboratory controls. Accidents on the way to happen.

Do you know the answer about the current New Jersey Law ? That using hand-held cell phones or texting while driving is a “primary offense“? When the first New Jersey statute was passed as a secondary offense, Robert Rodriguez, director of the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety, compared the cell phone law to the state law requiring the use of seat belts. “We want to analyze human behavior to see if making it tougher is necessary.” They found 2 of every 10 drivers were not buckling their seat belts when it was a secondary offense and changed the law to a primary offense.

Different states have passed different laws. New Hampshire with its motto, “Live Free or Die” is the only state in the union without a mandatory seat belt law. But it did pass the first law in the nation against “distracted driving” in 2001. This prohibits talking on a cell phone, eating, drinking, or putting on make up while behind the wheel. Drivers face fines up to $1000 if police find any of the distracting activity caused an accident.

“If you’re going to have a law, it should cover all distractions,” said Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit group that represents safety officers. Adkins added that there is no evidence that using a headset makes telephone use any safer while driving. A study funded by the American Automobile Association found that changing radio dials, talking with other passengers, eating, drinking, grooming and writing were also common activities for drivers. Pam Fischer, an AAA spokesperson, said, “Research shows that it’s the conversation, not the device that causes the distraction.”

Laws against cell phone use vary in their specific prohibitions. Teenage drivers are banned in certain states as well as bus drivers except in emergencies. Some municipalities have passed their own rules. The bottom line is that legislatures in each state research, debate and decide what actions they will take to protect the citizens in their state. Drivers need to remember that even with hands-free cell phones, two free hands can lead to other “distractions”. The toughest danger to avoid while driving may be any telephone conversation that becomes intense or heated. Don’t risk it. Just drive and focus all your attention on the road. It may be the best decision you have ever made.

An Exaltation of Larks

An Exaltation of Larks

Avery special book beckons to me from the shelves, An Exaltation of Larks, the fascinating collection by James Lipton, first published in 1968. Lipton, an American writer, poet, composer and actor, traced the tradition in the English language back to the 15th century when groups of animals, fish and birds associated with hunting were given names to epitomize salient characteristics. Young gentlemen were taught the precise designation of their quarry. We are familiar with some: a pride of lions, a plague of locusts and a litter of puppies. The magic of this book is in the hundreds of collective nouns that identify the essence of the group to the reader for the first time — and the witty engravings by Grandville, a 19th century French lithographer, that accompany most of the terms and the text.

Here are a few groups of birds to whet your appetite:

A parliament of owls.

An ostentation of peacocks.

A banquet of pheasants.

A murder of crows.

A siege of herons.

A brood of hens.

An exaltation of larks.

Skylarks climb high together into the heavens while uttering their song — thus the poetic comment of exaltation. In the interesting introduction to the book, Lipton traces the history from the 15th century to the present. He writes, “Obviously, at one time or another, every one of these terms had to be invented — and it is equally obvious that much imagination, wit and semantic ingenuity has always gone into their invention. The terms are too full of charm and poetry to suppose that their inventors were unaware of the possibilities open to them , and unconscious of the fun and beauty they were creating. What we have in these terms is clearly the end result of a game that amateur semanticists have been playing for over five hundred years.”

Lipton breaks down the terms into six families according to the original inspiration:

1. Onomatopoeia – A Murmuration of Starlings. A Gaggle of Geese.

2. Characteristic – A Leap of Leopards. A Skulk of Foxes.

3. Appearance – A Knot of Toads. An Army of Caterpillars.

4. Habitat – A Shoal of Bass. A Nest of Rabbits.

5. Comment (pro or con) – A Richness of Martens. A Cowardice of Curs.

6. Error – A School of Fish, originally a “shoal”

Part III of the book may be the most fun for readers since Lipton drew upon the Book of St. Albans, compiled in 1486, which included seventy references to people and life in the 15th century in addition to the birds, animals and fish for the hunt. The social references, scattered through the St. Albans book, are filled with wit and commentary about the manners and morals of the day. The lively, intriguing engravings accompanying these human figures capture the meaning and nuances in each term. Here are samples from the 15th century:

A Herd of Harlots

A Converting of Preachers

A Doctrine of Doctors

An Incredulity of Cuckolds

A Riffraff of Knaves

A Drift of Fishermen

An Eloquence of Lawyers

A Worship of Writers (Ah, I love that.)

Lipton closes his delightful book with a challenge to the reader to join the “game” and create clever terms that illuminate intrinsic qualities of a group. He says, about playing the game, “like Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence. I found that spectators didn’t stay spectators for long. If you should feel the urge, there are more brushes in the pail.”


An Exaltation of Larks is available online at Amazon.com

How Pope John XXIII and Jules Isaac Struck a Blow Against Anti-Semitism

The time was l960. Pope John XXIII and Jules Isaac, a renowned historian, sat side by side, talked for hours and changed the world. Their wide-ranging conversation resulted in a revolutionary course for religious ecumenicalism.

Pope John XXIII was making major changes in the Catholic Church. Their meeting had a direct impact on the second Vatican Council and its pronouncements in l963. Of great significance was the lifting of the false charge of “deicide” —responsibility for the murder of Jesus — that had plagued generations of Jews throughout world for almost 2000 years.
What led up to their dramatic meeting of mind and spirit?

As Angelo Roncalli, John XXIII grew up on a peasant farm in northern Italy, where he walked miles barefoot to the nearest school and decided at the age of nine that he wanted to be a priest. Showing exceptional ability, he won scholarships and attained his goal when in l904 he was ordained as a priest at age 23. From the beginning of his career, Roncalli was given important work in the church. After he served on the battlefield of World War I, he traveled throughout Europe for the church as a diplomat during the l920’s. He became well-known as a man who could build human bonds and trust. He rose to be an archbishop, then a cardinal. On October 28, 1958 —on the eleventh ballot— Angelo Roncalli was elected to succeed Pope Pius XII. He chose the name John.

Jules Isaac was raised as the son of an officer in the French army. He pursued a career in the academic world and became a professor of history and a widely respected scholar. For the first sixty years of his life, he said he never personally experienced anti-Semitism. “I was a Jew. I did not boast about it and I did not hide it; it was a fact.” World War II and the Nazi occupation of Europe changed his life and his work forever. He was stunned by the silence and apathy of most of the Christian world to the rounding up and destruction of millions of European Jews. In l942, he published his first writing on the wrenching subject of the Christian roots of anti-Semitism.

In l943, Gestapo agents arrested his wife while Isaac was away from home. His daughter, son, son-in-law and several other family members were arrested in Nazi occupied Vichy, France. Only his son later escaped. All the others were killed in the concentration camps. His wife, who had worked closely with her husband, was able to smuggle out a note him before her death. She wrote “Save yourself for your work. The world is waiting for it.” Isaac fled the Nazis, hiding many times in the homes of priests and ministers, and continued his work as a “sacred mission”. In l947, his 600 page manuscript, Jesus et Israel, was published. Through scholarly analysis and comparison of the Gospels with many Catholic and Protestant commentaries, he showed how the influential commentaries had given a distorted and slanted picture of Jesus and the Jewish people.

While Isaac continued his writing and meeting with ecumenical groups of Christian clergy in the l940’s and l950’s, John XXIII was beginning to make changes in the Catholic liturgy. In l958, he eliminated the crucial word perfidis, (Latin for “treacherous” or “faithless”) from the prayer for the Jews. In l959, he cut out two other prejudicial sentences against the Jews from significant prayers. He had been elected Pope as a compromise between conservatives and those who wanted to modernize the church. He turned out to be very much a man of action and change.

Finally, Pope John XXIII and Jules Isaac met face to face without others present. They sat on a bench overlooking the sea and talked for hours. Isaac was 83; Pope John was 79. Isaac made a fervent presentation, based on his decades of research, that there was an urgent need for the head of the church to condemn forever “the teaching of contempt” against the Jews. He suggested creation of a separate sub commission in the Vatican II Council to study the project. At that point, the Pope, who had been listening with great concentration, declared, “ I have been thinking about that ever since you began to speak.”

Jules Isaac did not live to see the results of the Vatican II Council. But his life’s work had led to the momentous meeting with John XXIII. And to dramatic ecumenical changes in Christian theology and practice. At a Sorbonne lecture in l959, Isaac had said, “The teaching of contempt has been with us long enough. It has wrought enough evil in the world. It no longer had the right to exist.” Pope John XXIII, with his profound wisdom and great heart, agreed with him. He made the changes in the Catholic liturgy, lifting the false charge of ‘deicide’ from the Jewish people.

In the daily chant of Catholics in different languages around the globe, the question “Who killed Christ?” and the answer, “The Jews killed Christ” was no longer to be repeated. However, making that happen would take years to become real in the minds of Catholic men, women and children who had said it and believed it all their lives.


“The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism” by Jules Isaac, 154 pages is available on Amazon.com.