Posts Tagged ‘Personal’

My evolving position on gay rights

May 15, 2012

When I was younger, I didn’t know any gay people, or, to put it more accurately, I wasn’t aware of knowing any gay people.  So in those days, I had no reality check to correct my prejudices.  I thought of gay people as unfortunates who had something wrong with them for which they shouldn’t be blamed, any more than you would blame somebody for being diabetic or colorblind.  I didn’t care for what I read about the flamboyant, promiscuous gay male culture, but I thought that people had a right to live the way they wish so long as they kept away from me.  In truth, I hardly ever thought about such things at all.

If I had thought about it, I probably would have said that although homosexuals should not be persecuted for something they couldn’t help, they should not be Scoutmasters, grade school teachers or anything else in which they would be role models for the young.

All of this could come under the heading of an honest mistake in thinking.  What I am deeply ashamed of to this day are the times I joined in making bigoted jokes and snide remarks about gay people.  This probably was partly because I have never been tough or macho and I subconsciously wanted to differential myself from a group of people that were outside the pale.  But it was worse than that.  I was generating a false sense of self-esteem by expressing contempt for a group of people outside my group–the same motive that leads people to tell racist jokes.  This was pure malice.

I think the worst thing you can do is to try to build yourself up by downgrading somebody else.  And I was guilty of it myself.

My thinking changed as a result of (1) being a Unitarian Universalist and (2) living in Rochester. N.Y.   The UUA and the Rochester community were not always liberal about such matters, or anything else.  They changed in the same way that American society as a whole is changing, but a little bit ahead of the curve.   The city of Rochester elected one of the first, maybe the first, openly gay city councilman.  He was Tim Mains, a high school guidance counselor.   I met him once and found he had the same values I did.   We had a nice conversation about how kids these days aren’t like we were when we were young.

Some time in the 1990s I reconnected with a former girl friend, then living in Santa Fe, N.M.   I went down to visit her, and she showed me the city.   At the end she told me that she had been reviewing her life, and decided that she was a lesbian.   A few years later I flew down to Santa Fe to attend her commitment ceremony with her partner.   I never saw two human beings look at each other with such love as these two middle-aged, outwardly ungainly women.

What reason other than prejudice could have caused me to question the value of a loving relationship between two adults?  Gay men are condemned for supposedly being more promiscuous on average than than men in relationships with women.   If that is true, then it would be a good thing, not a bad thing, for gay men to be recognized by society when they enter into committed relationships.

It still doesn’t sit well with me to use the same word “marriage,” the relationship between my mother and father, to the commitment of two men to live together.  But that is prejudice, not reason.  I do in fact know male couples and female couples who love each other as deeply as my mother and father did.   I know a couple of gay men with an adopted daughter who are as good parents as anybody could be.

There are a lot of people in the United States who think as I used to think.  If I could change, so can they–or their children.

My morning energy drink

April 7, 2012

When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is to heat an oversize mug of skim milk in my microwave oven.  Then I put in a spoonful of Ovaltine and a spoonful of instant coffee.  The spoonful can be either a level teaspoonful or a heaping tablespoonful, depending on my mood.  The delicious mixture makes me energized to face the day.

Recently I shared my recipe with some friends of mine, who liked it a lot.  I would be pleased to think others might like it, too.  If not, no harm has been done.

It is not food.   Instant coffee is of course not food.  The main ingredient of Ovaltine is sugar.  Skim milk is barely food.  It is like a no-fat Starbucks drink.  But I do not make the mistake of regarding it as a substitute for food, as some of my acquaintances do with Starbucks-type concoctions.  After I dress and wash up, I eat a bowl of Total and skim milk, or sometimes oatmeal and skim milk.

Formerly my morning drink was a mug of hot water, with spoonfuls of instant cocoa and instant coffee.   In my working days, I would sometimes feel exhausted but have more work to do.   I would drink the cocoa-coffee mixture, take a short nap or doze off, and wake up feeling like a new man.   Years later I started drinking a cup of warm Ovaltine and milk – the stereotypical old-guy drink – when I had trouble getting to sleep.   Now a spoonful of instant coffee turns my bedtime drink into my wake-up drink.


My thoughts on the nature of evil

April 6, 2012

My definition of a good person is someone who understands what is right, and usually does the right thing.

My definition of a bad person is someone whose understanding of what is right is overridden by some more powerful motive – pride, anger, fear, laziness, self-interest or appetites of different kinds.

My definition of an evil person is someone who is actively hostile to the good.   Such people exist, although they are unusual.  I know they exist because I have met some of them, and I recognize the evil in myself.

When I meet someone who is manifestly superior to me in any way, I feel judged.  I feel the lack in myself of whatever quality I admire–achievement, courage, compassion, professionalism in work, whatever it is.  One healthy way to respond to this is to try to emulate the good qualities I admire.  Another is to refrain from making comparisons.

But I feel the temptation to try to tear down the admired person, at least in my mind.   I think of all the reasons they might not deserve credit for being what they are, and all the excuses I might have for not meeting their standard myself.  I can imagine myself trying to tear them down in reality.  That would be evil.  The evil person is committed to the belief that there is no such thing as good, and that the good person needs to be taught a lesson–to be shown that their goodness does not coincide with the way the world is.

During my life, the people for whom I feel the most resentment are not people who are rich and powerful.   They are peers whose achievements are greater than my own.   I have learned to abort these feelings.  If I did not, I would be miserable, and I would make those around me miserable.   When I know someone whose achievements make me jealous, I make a point of going to that person and congratulating them on their accomplishment.   When I do that, I feel as if all the poisonous feelings are draining out of my mind, as if there was a boil that had been lanced with a red-hot needle.

I like egotists–that is, the kind of egotists who think well of themselves without having to think badly of other people.  It is a great mistake to based your self-respect on lookind down on other people.  This is especially true when you look down on other people because of their race, religion, nationality, social class, sexual orientation or political perspective, because your sense of superiority requires no effort on your part.   But it is a a mistake in any case.   No matter who you are, you can always find someone to look down on, just as you can always find someone who by whatever measure is better than you.  I have always found it a mistake to judge myself by comparing myself with others.   I have resolved to never let my sense of self-respect depend on things that are outside my control.

Imaginary evil is glamorous.  That’s why Nazism has such an enduring fascination.   Sauron, the Dark Lord in The Lord of the Rings epic, is a glamorous figure.   But in the story, giving yourself up to the Ring of Power will eventually turn you into a Gollum, someone whose personality has been reduced to a bundle of appetites.   That’s a good metaphor for how things are in reality.   Real evil is not glamorous.  It is petty and trivial.

Additions to my Links menus

March 25, 2012

If you find my posts of interests, I think you will find the items on my links menus of even greater interest, especially the Articles of Interest and the Articles of Lasting Interest.  I add to Articles of Interest roughly once a week.

I have added two new menus, Essays by Paul Graham and More Links and Pages.  Paul Graham is a computer programmer, venture capitalist and essayist who lives in the Boston area.  Many of his essays are of interest mainly to information technology specialists or business managers, but others, particularly the ones to which I have linked, are of great interest.  More Blogs and Links is a kind of P.S. to the menus about it.

I list some of my old posts which I think are still of interest under Notable Posts.  The posts and pages which get the most views in the current day and the day before are listed under Popular Posts and Pages.

Thomas Riggins’ blog

January 31, 2012

I’m pleased to learn that my friend Thomas Riggins has started a web log.

Click on The First Casualty of War to read an excellent post about the increasing number of incidents in which the troops of the U.S.-backed Afghan government shoot at American and NATO troops.

His web log is in my links menu at the right under “Links to friends.”  Blogs I Like [5/28/14].

Kodak and the Rochester mentality

January 21, 2012

Rich Karlgaard of Forbes wote in the Wall Street Journal that Eastman Kodak Co. might not have failed if it hadn’t happened to be located here in Rochester, N.Y.

He said Kodak needed to be in a place where “success is the norm and innovation is built into the ecology.”  And he said Kodak CEOs did not make the bold and drastic decisions that were necessary because of excessive concern for the welfare of their employees and the community.

I heard stuff like this a lot when I was reporting on Kodak for the Democrat and Chronicle in the 1980s.  When Kodak started to falter, Wall Street analysts called for layoffs – the bigger, the better, in their view – and they complained about Kodak’s generous employee benefits and separation packages, which took money they thought rightfully belonged the stockholders.

It is true that Kodak’s operations were much more concentrated in a single city than almost every other major manufacturing employees.  I no longer have the figures on hand, but my recollection is that 40 percent of Kodak’s employees worked in the Rochester area.  Kodak accounted for one out of every eight jobs in the Rochester area, and one out of every three manufacturing jobs.  All of Kodak’s CEOs, from the death of George Eastman in 1932 to the hiring of George Fisher from Motorola in 1993, were promoted through the ranks and spent most of their careers in Rochester.  Kodak and Rochester were very much identified with each other.

During the 1980s, Kodak management was well aware, as Karlgaard noted, that the days of film photography were noted.  CEO Colby H. Chandler tried to incubate new enterprises within the corporate framework, but fostering start-ups within the framework of a larger corporation proved hard to do.  The new enterprises were neither self-reliant nor free of corporate independence.

Perhaps – who can say? – it would have been better for Kodak to launch its digital imaging business in a new location as a separate corporation, far from Rochester corporate headquarters.  Another Rochester-based company, Xerox Corp., did just that, and it didn’t work out.

In a deliberate effort to escape the Rochester mentality.  Xerox relocated its headquarters to Stamford, Conn., and its research laboratories to Palo Alto, Calif., so as not to be limited by the mentality of any one place.  Douglas K. Smith and Robert C. Alexander in their book, Fumbling the Future, wrote that scientists at Palo Alto Research Laboratories in effect invented the personal computer, but Xerox never capitalized on their invention.  Perhaps — who can say? —  if Xerox factories, research laboratories and headquarters had all been in the same place, the divisions of Xerox might have been able to work together to turn research innovations into marketable products.


Coming of age in the Fifties

January 11, 2012

It is the nature of us older people to see the days of their childhood and youth as better than the present.  But I really think that the days of my youth, the late 1940s and the 1950s, really were better in a lot of ways.   I’m glad I’m not a child today or a parent.

I grew up in Williamsport, Md., a small town along the Potomac River, with a freedom that seems utopian today.  During summer vacations, our parents would tell us boys to go out and play, and be back by mealtime.  We would go roaming anywhere in town.  We would go by bus to Hagerstown, the county seat six miles away, and go the swimming pool.  We would go hiking along the abandoned Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and be in woodland five minutes out of town.  I was not a Tom Sawyer, I was a bookworm, but I spent more time in the woods doing things than any of the children of people I know today.

We had Boy Scouts and Vacation Bible School, but in general adults didn’t have to structure things for us to do.  We organized our own games.   We were devoted to movies and radio, but we could role-play as cowboys and Indians without needing a video game to script our imaginations.

We were dimly aware of juvenile delinquency and drug addiction, but it was something to read about in newspapers or see in the movies, not part of our everyday reality.  A juvenile delinquent was a guy who work a black leather jacket, combed his hair like Elvis Presley and carried a switchblade knife, not an automatic weapon.  Of course there were people in our town who did bad things, as happens everywhere and in all eras, but these were not things we felt as a day-to-day threat.

We were free because we felt safe, and we were safe because there was no anonymity.  I had the illusion that I knew everybody in town.  That wasn’t possible, of course; I didn’t know 2,000 people.  But if we hurt ourselves, if we endangered ourselves, if we seriously misbehaved, somebody would very quickly get back to our parents.

Authority figures – parents, teachers, the churches, radio and the movies, the town policeman – espoused the same values and backed each other up.  There was no conflict between parents and schools, and no struggle to resist the negative influence of the mass media such as exists today.   I faithfully listened to the Tom Mix radio program and belonged to the Tom Mix Ralston Straight-Shooters.  Tom , whose hero was such a quick draw and expert marksman that he never killed anybody – just “creased their skulls” with a bullet.

We did not worry about our economic futures.  We were justifiably confident that any able-bodied adult who was willing to work could find some kind of job and that a high school diploma was a guarantee of access to a good job.  Anybody who was capable of doing college work could get a good education at a state university at affordable tuition.

On the other hand, the Fifties were not a great time to be a person of color, a woman or a gay person.  Racial and religious prejudice were socially acceptable.  People who were not middle-class white boys might not remember the era so fondly.  I was taught by my parents, teachers and Sunday school teachers that all human beings had equal value in the sight of God, regardless of race or religious heritage.  But I had attitudes about the place of women in society that I am embarrassed to remember today.   And the rights of homosexuals, as we called them then, were something that it simply never occurred to me to think about.

It was taken for granted that, in practice, the only people eligible to be elected President were Northern white Protestant men.  I remember talking to school classmates in 1952 about whether it was proper to vote for a divorced man (Adlai Stevenson) or a military man (Dwight Eisenhower).

Teachers were grossly underpaid by today’s standards.  During the summer, I would encounter some of my high school teachers working as house painters or camp counselors.  There was no health insurance beyond the dedication and self-sacrifice of Dr. Zimmerman, the town physician.

In my college years, the mid-1950s, there was a lot of talk about conformity.  We were the “Silent Generation.”  All the great struggles, so it seemed, were in the past.  This was the opposite side of the safety and stability we enjoyed in that era.   The great criticism of corporations in those days was that they wrapped employees in a cocoon of security and conformity.   But the Organization Man did not live in fear of becoming permanently unemployed and unemployable.  When we spoke of poverty and unemployment, we spoke of an “other America” which was left behind, not “the 99 percent.”

We had Jim Crow in the South and de facto segregation in the North.  We had the Korean Conflict, we had McCarthyism, we had the threats of Communism and of nuclear war.   But I and everybody I knew looked forward to a future in which things would be better.  We Americans as a nation thought of our greatest days as ahead of us, not behind us.

Was that era really better?  Or is it that I, like most people, think the days of my youth are better than the days of my old age?

Six notable people to invite for dinner

January 10, 2012

An on-line poll asked viewers to name six notable historical figures whom they’d invite dinner.  One of the responders was Newt Gingrich.  He listed Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Winston Churchill and John Ford.

The composite consensus of top invitees, as I posted this,  consisted of Jesus of Nazareth, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Jackson.

As for myself, I in a way already have notable people as guests.  They are guests in my head.  That is to say, I have imaginary conservations with people whom I’ve read or heard about, but never met.  I do not of course mistake them for real people, but I can’t always predict their responses, and I sometimes change my opinion as a result of these conversations.

I have imaginary conversations with George Orwell, Henry Thoreau and Ayn Rand, but I probably wouldn’t invite them.  I don’t think they’d be the life of the party.  But I think I’d have a good time talking to Bertrand Russell, Michel de Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, G.K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells and maybe Richard Feynman or William James.

Or maybe I should invite Socrates, Moses, Jesus of Nazareth, Mohammad, the Buddha, and Confucius and, if I am not too awestruck to open my mouth, ask them what they think of their professed followers.

What notable people would you like to have dinner with?

Click on Who are the six notable people you’d like to have dinner with? for the current version of the on-line poll.

Click on Dinner With Newt? A TIC Colloquium for thoughts about Newt Gingrich’s choices.  Stephen Masty, writing for the Imaginative Conservative, said it would be enlightening to ask all the Presidential candidates for their favorite imaginary dinner guests, more enlightening than the current debates, anyhow.  But the candidates would have to submit to lie detector tests to guarantee honest answers.

Of course the great thing about living in an age like this, when books are easily obtainable from stores, public libraries and the Internet is that you don’t have to meet great people in the flesh in order to interact with them.

Stimulus without nourishment

January 9, 2012

What little I know about Starbucks leads me to believe that its managers are ethical people who treat their employees well and provide a good product.  But I avoided Starbucks coffee because I don’t want to acquire an expensive new habit.

The other day at lunchtime, I went with a friend of mine to a Starbucks, and my friend bought me a grande java-chip frappuccino, which was something like a heavily caffeinated vanilla milkshake.  It was delicious!  I was surprised by how energized I felt.  The feeling lasted all afternoon.  I didn’t eat lunch.  I saw why people like Starbucks’ concoctions so much.

That evening my energy ran out.  I felt more tired than I usually do, and I slept later the following morning that I usually do.  I realized that I needed to eat real food for lunch, and that the Starbucks frappuccino was not food, but a food substitute.  The frappuccino gave me stimulus without nourishment, energy without strength.  If I had done this on a regular basis, I would have had the energy to keep going through the day, but in the long run I would have depleted my strength.

Stimulation and pleasure are good things, not bad things.  But they are no substitutes for nourishment.  When I worked on newspapers, I needed a cup of coffee and maybe a sugared pastry each morning and afternoon to work at peak efficiency, but I didn’t skip lunch.  The caffeine and sugar gave me the energy to stay alert, but I needed actual food for health and strength.  Now that I am retired, I usually (not always) limit myself to a single cup of coffee in the morning.

I thought about the other things in life that give stimulus without nourishment.   Watching the circus-like presidential candidates’ debates on TV is stimulating, but it doesn’t make me a better-informed voter.  I need to read intelligent newspaper and magazine articles to do that.

I stay away from role-playing computer games precisely because I fear I might find them so engrossing I would give up things which I care about.  If I am alive 10 years from now, I don’t think I will regret never having played World of Warcraft, but I would regret not having read some of the great classic novels I intend to read when I get around to it.  That’s one definition of a good life–doing things you can look back on with justified satisfaction.

On a societal level, we Americans talk about economic stimulus when what we really need is to rebuild our nation’s economic strength.  The two things are not the same.  Congress seems more resistant to doing things of lasting value, such as infrastructure improvement and investing in green energy, than to things that will give a temporary boost, such as “cash for clunkers” or temporarily cutting the payroll tax.  The latter will not sustain us in the long run.

Do you agree with this distinction?  What other things give stimulus without nourishment?

Taking root in the Flower City

October 13, 2010

Skyline of Rochester, NY

Before I moved to Rochester, N.Y., in 1974, I had lived all my life – except for college and peacetime military service – in or near Hagerstown in the western Maryland panhandle.  I was discontented in my work and had an opportunity to get a better job in Rochester, but before I accepted, I read books by Henry Clune and others to reassure myself that Rochester was a place with a history and identity and not just some sort of giant suburb.  Like many people in western Maryland, I had only the vaguest notion of an upstate New York separate and distinct from New York City and its environs.

I now have lived in Rochester more than half my life.  I think of Rochester as home and people in Rochester as “us.”  Rochester offers me everything I want in terms of what’s called “quality of life,” and yet it is a community of which I feel a part.

My friend Michael J. Brown, a lifelong Rochester resident, wrote an article in the Fall 2010 issue of Dissent magazine magazine about how living in one place relates to the ancient ideal of citizenship and what you lose when you sacrifice that ideal to the quest for status and success.

What’s at issue is the tension between belonging to a rootless professional culture and a rooted local one. The price of holding on to the latter may be exclusion from the status, power, and income the former offers. It’s not the case, however, that those leaving their childhood homes in places like Rochester are lighting out for wide open spaces where opportunity abounds and careers are simply open to talent. My peers are not leaving to pursue Jeffersonian independence; they’re leaving to enter large professional organizations in which they often become quite dependent—on the caprice of bosses, the vicissitudes of markets, the shifting terrain of mergers and acquisitions.

And this brings me back to how eager I am to tell people why I live in Rochester. It is not because Rochester affords me economic independence (though the low cost of living helps). There are surely capricious bosses and volatile markets here, too. But there is something else. There are the faces and the names of the people around me, each of which has a story behind it, each of which is a buoy anchored in the social sea, helping to orient me. There are the old buildings—the grand facades of high culture, the battered storefronts of the inner city, the sentinel-like pump house on the reservoir hill—to remind me of history and time. What is different in Rochester is that I own a piece of this place, and this place owns a piece of me. I’d like to suggest that this relation is the grounds for a special kind of independence.

via Dissent Magazine


The promise of American life

August 9, 2010

The promise of American life is that every generation will enjoy a higher material standard of life than the generation that came before.  But what happens if this is no longer true?  What happens to the American way of life then?

Compared to my parents, I am better off materially in every way.  I live alone in a house that is bigger than the house in which my parents brought up my brother and me, and for which they saved up for years.  I have a thermostat which I can turn up or down as I like.

I remember the first family in my home town to get a TV set.  All the neighbors gathered to watch as they set up a free-standing outdoor antenna that looked like the Eiffel Tower.  Now TV is practically a necessity of life.

But am I happier than people of my parents generation?  I don’t think so, at least not after they came out from under the shadow of the Great Depression and World War Two.  They were happy and unhappy for the same reasons people are today.

I’m now in my 70s, and I am materially much better off than I was in my 20s.  I was happy when I owned a radio and a library of 20 books.  Now I have cable TV and an Internet connection, and thousands of books.  I don’t know if these things make me happier.  But I am very unhappy when my computer malfunctions or I lose my Internet connection for a couple of days.

Will my niece’s and nephew’s generation, and their children’s generation, enjoy the same material abundance that I do?  Maybe not.  For the past three decades, the U.S. manufacturing base has declined, wages have been depressed and an increasing share of U.S. wealth has flowed to the upper 1 percent. Even if our dysfunctional economic and political system can be reformed, we face real-world problems such as the peaking of world oil production and the worsening of global climate change.  Maybe there is an answer to these problems, but maybe not.

I have always believed that the story of the United States is the story of the affirmation, in the Declaration of Independence, that human beings are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, and of the struggle to live up to that affirmation.  But what if I’m wrong? What if the promise of material abundance through individual effort was not merely a part, but the whole, of the American dream?  And what if that promise was not fulfilled?

We do not need the latest of this gadget and the best of that product in order to be happy.  We need a minimum of food, clothing, shelter and medical care.  We need freedom from well-founded fear, whether of crime, arbitrary government or economic catastrophe.  Beyond we need things that economic and political systems can’t provide – ties to family and friends, interesting and worthwhile things to do, the consolations of religion and philosophy.  None of these things are out of reach, either now or in the foreseeable future.

Can this be enough to sustain American freedom and democracy?  Or will we turn to something else?  I probably won’t live long enough to see.  In certain moods I’m glad I won’t.

Six months as a blogger

July 25, 2010

Today marks six months since I started this web log.  If I’d known how easy it was, and how much web hosts such as WordPress provide free, I might have begun years ago.

Unlike my 40 years working on newspapers, I don’t have to meet deadlines, I don’t have to write to a specific length and I’m not subject to anybody with the power to alter or disapprove what I’ve written.  On the other hand, I don’t do any real reporting.  There are bloggers who are excellent reporters, and excellent reporters who have blogs; I don’t fall within either category.

What I write comes from my reminiscences, my daily life, my reading and other Internet web logs.  Having a web log is like being able to write an unlimited number of letters to the editor.  I depend a great deal on material from regular newspapers and magazines which is available free on the Internet.  I would like to think I am symbiotic rather than parasitic; I help disseminate the material, and add my own insight for what it’s worth.  At the same time I do little to alleviate the financial plight of the magazine and journalism industries.

My original expectation was that my web log would be read mainly by some of my friends and acquaintances.  WordPress facilitates the circulation of my posts on the Internet, and I am surprised and pleased that my writing is of interest to strangers.

One of my vices as a newspaper reporter was that I was overly prolific.  I wrote some things that I am proud of, a great many more mediocre and forgettable things, and some things I wish I hadn’t written.  My desire to write and get feedback from what I’ve written is addictive.  I would have served myself and my readers better if I had written less and better.

There were a couple of times in my career when I had weekly newspaper columns.  When I began them, I had a great backlog of opinions to express. Gradually I depleted my inventory of ideas, and reached a point where I ceased to wonder, What am I going to write about this week?, and started to wonder, What can I write about this week?  I promise myself, and you, that I will not fall into this trap as a blogger.  When I have nothing I want to write, I won’t write it.

Affirmative action and me

March 30, 2010

When I was just under 16 years old, I was awarded a scholarship which entitled me to go directly from the 10th grade of Williamsport (Md.) High School to the freshman class at the University of Wisconsin. This was in 1952, during the Korean War, and the Ford Foundation Pre-Induction Scholarships were intended to allow bright boys (girls were brought in later) to complete college prior to their military service obligation.

Some years later Prof. Herbert Howe, the administrator of the Ford scholarships at Wisconsin (three other college participated in the program) told me how the selection was made. His original idea was to award the scholarships based on scores on tests given to applicants. The letter of application was also a factor; he weeded out a guy who said he would “try to be a good egg and a credit to the Wisconsin omelette mater.”

But when the test scores came in, all the highest scores were by students in two elite high schools in New York City – the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School. Since it wouldn’t look good to give all the scholarships to students from just two high schools, he restricted them to 50 percent of the scholarships, and also allocated 10 percent of the scholarships to residents of the state of Wisconsin.

My own test scores were nothing special, he said; he chose me because I was the only applicant from the South and because I chose to be tested on my knowledge of history and English rather than the sciences, as all or almost all the other applicants had. He said he thought that just because I was so different from the others, it would be interesting to take a chance on me and see how I worked out.

In other words, I was a beneficiary of affirmative action. I was chosen on the basis of my demographic characteristics rather than my achievements. I was chosen for the sake of “diversity.”

I was glad he waited until I had a couple of years of college under my belt before telling me this. If I had known this right off the bat, it would have shattered my self-confidence.

I didn’t, and I don’t, feel bad about the reason I was given the scholarship. But because of this experience, I don’t get indignant because here and there blacks or Hispanics get something they aren’t strictly entitled to.

By the way, I never met any black Ford scholars. I don’t think there were any, but there could have been some, because I didn’t meet all of them. Prof. Howe kept us separated so that we would blend in with the rest of the college population and not come together as a separate group. It never occurred to me back then (the program ran from 1951 through 1955)  to notice the absence of black Ford scholars or wonder about the reason for it.


Mr. Plummer and the string stretchers

February 26, 2010

Mr. Samuel Plummer (I still think of him as Mr. Plummer), who was principal of Williamsport (Md.) High School when I attended, gave a talk to a high school assembly on the benefits of education which was remembered for years.  I don’t remember his exact words, but I remember the gist of it.  It went as follows: –

If you look outside the windows of the auditorium, you’ll see men digging ditches for the new sewer main.  It is important work, and it is very hard work, in the hot sun.  If you keep on watching, you’ll see other men putting little pegs into the ground, and stretching string between the pegs, to show where the ditch is supposed to go.  Now stretching string between pegs is much easier work than digging a ditch with a shovel, but strange to say, the men who stretch the string are paid more than the men who dig the ditch.

Now what is the difference between the men who dig the ditch and the men who stretch the string? The men who stretch the string have high school diplomas. The men who dig the ditch dropped out of high school before they graduated. So it is up to you.  Do you want to be a ditch-digger or a string-stretcher? If you want to be a string-stretcher, stay in high school until you graduate.

And if you keep on watching the ditch digging, you’ll see men walking around with clip boards who are doing hardly any work at all. They are college graduates. So you can see the value of education.

Mr. Plummer probably would be gratified to know that the wage gap between college graduates, high school graduates and high-school dropouts still exists. Click on this chart or its duplicate for recent figures.  The chart shows that from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, the average real earnings (meaning pay adjusted for inflation) of people with college educations rose, while the earnings of those with lesser education fell. Since then all groups made slight gains, but the education gap remained.

The difference is that nowadays high school dropouts have a hard time finding any work at all, while high school graduates are competing with college graduates for the jobs equivalent to string stretcher. It really takes a college education to get the kind of job a high school graduate could get 60 years ago.  And while high school education is free, college education is not affordable to increasing numbers of people.

But I don’t think that more schooling for everyone will necessarily close the wage gap.  I’ll go into the reasons below.


Life’s little mysteries

February 16, 2010

How is it that vending machines that refuse to accept Canadian coins will give Canadian coins in change?

No more bragging about upstate New York snow

February 14, 2010

I guess I can no longer brag to my friends back in Maryland how severe the winters are in upstate New York. The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports that Washington, D.C., has had nearly 60 inches of snow this winter and Baltimore has had 80 inches, much of it during the big storm last week. In contrast, here in Rochester, N.Y., we’ve had only 65 inches and no severe blizzards (so far).

The great thing about Rochester is that the community is geared for snow and takes it in stride. Back home, it always came as an unexpected emergency.

When I was a little boy growing up in western Maryland, a snowfall of just 4 or 5 inches would have made me ecstatic. The county superintendent of schools would have been sure to call a “Snow Day” and I would have to day off from school.

Later, as a grown-up newspaperman covering mayor and council meetings in my home city of Hagerstown, Md., I got used to the annual ritual of “economizing” by turning down requests for new snowplows and eliminating contingency funds for snow emergencies.

Some winters, there was hardly any snow at all. And when there was, Bill Potter, the city street superintendent, and his team of mechanical geniuses could somehow get the city’s antique snowplowing equipment working. And if they couldn’t, well – snow will always melt.

All that was 45 or so years ago, and I don’t know how things are now. But it made me appreciate how the Rochester area, including the county and town governments, are organized for winter. Native Rochesterians take for granted the fact that, the morning after a snowstorm, the main roads and streets will be plowed and the side streets will be plowed not too long after. That is not a universal rule.

Here in Rochester, we even have sidewalk snowplowing, which I’d never heard of before I moved here. In Hagerstown, the standard method of keeping sidewalks free of snow and ice was to fine property owners who didn’t. If you were aged or infirm, you’d better be able to hire a teenager to do it for you.

We’ve had blizzards which knocked out electricity and telephone service, including a couple of ice storms over the decades in which service wasn’t restored for weeks. But for the most part, even after the worst storm, life was soon back to normal.

I came to appreciate, as the people in Washington, Baltimore and Hagerstown must, the efforts of the snowplow drivers, the telephone and electric company linemen and all the other people whose efforts make it possible for the rest of us to have food and water, stay warm and go about our daily lives. And it made me appreciate as well the importance of being prepared for the worst, and not gambling with false economies.

Doctor Zimmerman

February 3, 2010

When I was growing up in the small Potomac River town of Williamsport, Md., in the 1940s, nobody had health care plans. When anybody in my family was sick, we went to see Dr. Zimmerman. There was another doctor, but I knew nothing of him; as far as I was concerned, Dr. Zimmerman was the town doctor.

Dr. Zimmerman was a gruff, no-nonsense man who spent all day on the road making house calls, then held office hours after supper. That is, almost every waking hour on weekdays and a good part of weekends was spent in his medical practice. He was not the kind of doctor who took an afternoon off during the week to play golf.

In those days people who were sick in bed normally expected to be cared for at home, and expected their doctor to come see them. You only went to the hospital for surgery or for what is now called intensive care.

His office was on the ground floor of his home. It had an unmistakable doctor’s-office smell, something has now vanished from the world – a mixture of one part body odor, three parts antiseptic and something else that was undefinable. He had no nurse, secretary or receptionist. Of course, he did not have to concern himself with third-party reimbursement; he billed his patients himself, and they either paid him or they didn’t

When I was a small boy, I’d get the sniffles every winter, and I would be sent to Dr. Zimmerman’s office. His treatment consisted of putting a small cotton ball on the end of a piece of stiff wire, soaking the cotton ball in what looked like Mercurochrome and sticking the antiseptic up my nostril. I still remember the burning, stinging sensation, and how proud I was that I didn’t cry out or jerk my head.

One night I was the last patient in his office. When I walked out the door, I remembered I had left my comic book in the office, and went back and rang the doorbell. Dr. Zimmerman, in pajamas, stuck his head out of an upstairs window and snarled, “What do you want?”

In three minutes it had taken me to exit and turn back, he had gone up to his bedroom and changed for bed. That’s how exhausting his work day was, and how much he was in need of rest.

I learned of Dr. Zimmerman’s death when I was away in college in the 1950s. My parents sent me a newspaper clipping telling what happaned. He was injured in an automobile accident, and died treating the injuries of others injured in the accident.

I will always respect the memory of Dr. Zimmerman for his life of dedication and self-sacrifice. At the same time, I don’t believe in a system that requires self-sacrifice to keep it going.

Levels of ridiculousness

February 1, 2010

One of my father’s favorite sayings was that the most ridiculous thing in the world is a doctor or a lawyer complaining about the power of labor unions. What he meant, of course, is that the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association were much more powerful unions than any organization calling itself a “labor union.”

My father was a wise man, but he did not live to hear, as I have, tenured college professors complaining about the desire of American working people for economic security.

North and South

January 30, 2010

My friend David Damico who was the one who suggested I start this web log and suggested WordPress as the host, has an observation on his own web log about the perceived differences between North and South. David is originally from south-central Louisiana; he tells me there is a noticeable cultural difference between southern Louisiana on the one hand and northern Louisiana on the other. He said he always thought of the South as the Gulf Coast; he never thought, as upstate New Yorkers do, of North Carolina as the South.

Growing up in Maryland, my perspective was different. When I was growing up, I thought of Pennsylvania as the North, Virginia as the South and Maryland as something in between. I’m from the western panhandle of Maryland; if you think of the two shores of the Chesapeake Bay as the handle of a pistol, western Maryland is the barrel. In less than an hour, you can drive from Pennsylvania through Washington County, Md., where I’m from, and the eastern panhandle of West Virginia into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

During the Civil War, Washington County contributed soldiers to both the Union and Confederate armies; we had peaceful Mennonites and Dunkards (German Baptists) as well. The dashing Henry Kyd Douglas, author of I Rode With Stonewall, was from Washington County. We also had people like Benjamin Franklin Newcomer, a merchant who did a good business selling supplies to the Union Army until they demanded he sign a loyalty oath; he refused to do so on the grounds that “I am a Southern sympathizer.”

I always thought of myself as more Northern than Southern. I never accepted the view in my high school textbooks that the Civil War was a great national tragedy, fought by two sides that were equally brave and equally sincere. The two sides were brave and sincere, but one was fighting to preserve the Union and the other was fighting to preserve slavery.

A sociologist, whose name I forget, came up with a good way to tell whether a community was Northern or Southern. Look in the business listings in the telephone book. If there are more businesses whose names contain the words “Southern” or “Dixie” than the words “American” or “National,” you’re in the South.

The other Phil Ebersole’s Blog

January 27, 2010

When I Googled the phrase “Phil Ebersole’s Blog”, I was taken to a different web log on the Internet besides my own. This one is by a minister of an independent church in the Mennonite / Anabaptist tradition in Denver, Colorado.

I know enough about the Mennonite religion not to be surprised that a Mennonite would have a web log. There is a wide spectrum of practice within that tradition. At one extreme are the Amish, who wear distinctive 17th-century-type dress and renounce most (though not all) forms of modern technology. At the other extreme are Mennonites who interpret “plain” clothing to be clothing that is unobtrustive and who use modern technology in a discriminating manner. What unites them all is a commitment to peace and goodwill on the personal as well as the global level.

My acquaintance with the Mennonite tradition comes from having lived and worked years ago in western Maryland’s Washington County, which culturally is somewhat like rural Pennsylvania. I don’t share their beliefs, but I think Mennonites as a group live up to their beliefs more than most of us do.

When I was growing up in small-town western Maryland, the phrase “a real Christian” meant not just someone who believed in the Apostles Creed (this was taken for granted) but someone who was unusually good-hearted, forgiving, modest, patient and dutiful. Since then I have met people I think of as Christians with a “K,” who think the main point of Christianity is to hate secularists, feminists and gays. I also have met people I think of as Christians with a “Q,” with whom I have more sympathy, people who don’t believe in Christian doctrine but revere the figure of Jesus and the Christian tradition. The web log of my liberal Mennonite namesake shows him to be a wise and good person and a real Christian in the old sense.

Hello world!

January 25, 2010

I’m Phil Ebersole. I’m a retired newspaper reporter living in Rochester, NY. My new WordPress web log will be about books, politics, religion and whatever else is on my mind. I would be grateful for any comments here about the web log itself – its format, its contents, what should be included, excluded or changed.