Thursday, October 28, 2010


Every Fall since 2004 I have taken my class for an overnight trip to Camp Hazen in Chester, CT. In spite of the demands this trip places on my time, my noise tolerance, and my sleep needs, I look forward to it every year. There are generally somewhere around 15 students—all of them eleven or twelve years old—and two adult chaperones. The kids look forward to the trip for months.

And why wouldn’t they? They get to have a giant sleepover with friends they have known well for seven years—more than half their lives. Also, the excellent staff of this YMCA camp leads my kids through some fun and challenging group-building activities, plays new and entertaining games, and belays as my kids attempt to scale a 50-foot wooden tower with all sorts of interesting and challenging elements.

I look forward to the trip each year for reasons that are somewhat different from the reasons my kids like going. I get to spend some time with my students where I am not the only adult responsible for them, I get to spend two days in a beautiful autumn setting by a lake with many trails through the woods, there is a full-time supply of coffee, and I get to see my kids in a setting that shuffles their well-established social deck in a way that gives some kids who don’t usually stand out a chance to shine.

I just returned from this year’s trip and I am happy to say it was just as good as it always is. My students did amazingly well. They treated each other with respect, they were committed to working their way through challenges together, they pushed themselves to go past their points of comfort on the climbing tower, and they had a lot of fun. When we got back to school after the trip the kids all spiraled away with their parents, dazed, tired, satisfied, and happy.

As I drove away yesterday I had a special reason to feel that this was my best trip yet to Camp Hazen. And in the end it wasn’t the kids that pushed this one over the top to make it the best. Of course, they were a big part of my happiness over the trip. As I said, they treated each other well and worked hard to stretch themselves, and these things always make me happy. But what really made this particular trip stand out for me was the final attainment of a private goal I have had for seven years.

I don’t know how common this is, but have you ever had a goal that to the outside observer looks entirely stupid, but to you means something for reasons probably opaque even to you? This has been the case with me for seven years now. I’ll just explain, since no amount of contextualizing will make this goal sound anything other than pointless. For seven years I have been trying to kick a football through a rectangular opening 30 feet up a wooden climbing wall at Camp Hazen. As with any good pointless goal, there are ground rules that have developed over the many years of trying:

I must use a football,

I cannot punt the football,

I must use my heel to make a small indentation in the grass and then stand the football up on its end and kick it from that position,

Someone else must be there to witness it,

I must let other people try if they ask, and

I must NOT let on how important it has become to me.

So, after approximately 40 attempts on my first day at Camp Hazen this week, I put the ball through the opening. It was a football, kicked cleanly from the tee I had made with my heel, and witnessed by a student. The only thing is, before I kicked it through I let on to this particular student how important this stinkin’ goal had become to me. He didn’t question this at all—he just watched, collected errant tries, and cheered me on. He seemed more excited when it finally went through than I did. Though I will admit to jumping up and down with my fists in the air once or twice, maybe…

We had an hour to kill after lunch and before we drove back to school, so I went down to the soccer field with some of the students. The boy who witnessed my kick sidled over and said, “Think you can get a ball to go from inside this soccer goal all the way to the other goal?” Without even considering the question I said, “Of course.” Thus began the next quest, but this time everyone knew what I was up to when I collected a tennis racket, baseball bat, soccer ball, tennis ball, and football and started kicking and throwing and swinging away.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

My Life As A Movie

I am in Atlantic City for a quick overnight trip. I am staying at the Showboat Casino Hotel and when I wake up in the morning I will have a cup of coffee from the Starbucks in the lobby, walk a mile to Boardwalk Hall, and then run 13.1 miles as fast as my body will let me.

Tonight I was out on the Boardwalk, walking from my “free” pre-race dinner at Bally’s back to my room when I heard the first few notes of a song I knew well from my freshman year of high school in 1979. It was Donna Summer’s song “Bad Girls” and because I was in a hurry to get back to the hotel my steps matched exactly the quick disco beat that propelled the song to number one on the charts all those years ago. The music was coming from speakers arrayed along the fa├žade of a long block of tattoo studios, massage parlors, funnel cake purveyors, and knickknack emporia.

As I walked to the beat, I suddenly had the feeling that I was in a movie. It was a long tracking shot taken from Boardwalk-level and the camera followed me as I pounded down the wooden walkway past all the storefronts, weaving my way around all the other people out on the Boardwalk on a chilly fall night. In the movie it was obvious I was different from all the other people out on the boards. There was my pace to set me apart, but also the glint in my eye, the snazzy brown felt fedora on my head, my purple Converse high tops, and the unblinking focus of the camera itself.

I allowed myself to live in the feeling of being in a movie for a few moments and then came back to my senses and started to think about just what sort of a movie my life would make, anyway. The scene I was just in felt like something from one of the Ocean’s Eleven films. But even just a few seconds’ thought was enough to make me laugh at that idea. Lately, my life is certainly NOT a cleverly plotted, quickly paced caper film. In fact, the more I thought about my life as a movie, the more alone and depressed I felt. A movie of my life lately would be whatever the opposite of an action movie is…an inaction movie? An anti-thriller?

This hasn’t always been the case. When I was 17 I gave myself a birthday present. It was a jump out of an airplane and it was how I celebrated my 18th birthday. When I was 21 I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Yemen, where I learned Arabic, lived in my own apartment, taught in a Yemeni school, and hitchhiked all over the country. When I was 23 I took a two-month road trip all over America, visiting 22 states and driving over 10,000 miles. When I was 28 I moved to Billings, Montana on a whim because I got tired of driving and found a job and an apartment there my first day in town. At the time, everything I owned fit in my 1970 Plymouth Valiant named “Fuad”. When I was 30 I met Erica and within a few months we knew we would be married. After our wedding we took a six-week honeymoon in Portugal without any real plan about where we would go and what we would do.

Now, I am soon to be 45 years old and I have not done much of anything lately that I would call adventurous. I know I am still that same person who was so willing to put himself in new places and try new things, but an outside observer, (or say, a cameraman following me down the Boardwalk), would have precious little evidence of that adventurous spirit in me. Erica is starting to wonder if maybe it was all just an elaborate case of false advertising.

Which brings me back around to why I am in Atlantic City tonight. Last fall I started to get inklings of this dissatisfaction with myself and my unwillingness to put myself out in the world. I decided to set myself a huge challenge. I decided to run a half marathon in each of the 50 United States. If I finish the Atlantic City Half Marathon tomorrow morning, that will make 6 states under my belt.

Back in August I went to Montreal and spent a week doing only what strangers said I should do with my time there. It turned out to be a great week. While there I literally felt ten years younger. And now that I think about it, I am certain that feeling of being younger was a direct result of getting back in touch with that part of me that craves new places, new challenges, and new experiences.

So, as I run my 13.1 miles tomorrow I am going to spend a lot of that time playing with ideas, thinking of challenges, and trying to tap into the spirit of playing at life that I used to have all the time.

I also want to invite you to send me ideas and suggest new situations and challenges that might allow the adventurous me to wake up and come out and play again. Maybe we can turn my life from “Remains of the Day” to something a little more exciting and worth watching.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Thank You, Fred Phelps, or Why I Belong To the ACLU

Fred Phelps and the members of his Westboro Baptist Church are repugnant human beings. Their “theology” seems to consist of one tenet: God hates homosexuals. The Reverend Phelps and his followers first came to my attention when they picketed at the funeral of Matthew Shepherd—the Wyoming man murdered for being gay. The signs they carry, the things they say, heck, even their web address, are repulsive.

The last few years they have gained notoriety by picketing near the funerals of United States servicemen and servicewomen who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the brutal theological world Phelps and his fellow troglodytes inhabit, God is killing American soldiers because He is mad about our societal shift toward greater acceptance of homosexuality. Their presence near these military funerals has garnered lots of media coverage and inflicted immeasurable emotional harm on the families, friends, and mourners at these ceremonies.

Some states have begun to pass legislation establishing protester-free buffer zones around military funerals. Based on the actions of Phelps and his followers, President George W. Bush signed the Respect For America’s Fallen Heroes Act in 2006. The act establishes restrictions on the time and place for demonstrations at Military burial places.

The father of one serviceman whose funeral was picketed by the Phelps menagerie was so incensed by the desecration of his son’s memory that he sued Fred Phelps in Maryland State Court for invasion of privacy and emotional harm. The father, Albert Snyder, was awarded $5 million in damages as a result of the Maryland trial. An appeals court set aside the $5 million damages award and Mr. Snyder’s appeal of the Maryland Appeals Court decision is now being heard by the United States Supreme Court. The nine justices will have to find the proper balance between a family’s right to privacy and our Constitution’s guarantee of free speech.

Another case in the news this week has dovetailed nicely with the Phelps case. Attorney Danny Lampley of Lafayette County in Mississippi was jailed temporarily for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance in the courtroom of Judge Talmadge Littlejohn. Judge Littlejohn’s orders are printed below:

Attorney at Law, is in criminal contempt of court for his failure to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance as ordered by the undersigned Chancellor and is hereby ordered to be incarcerated in the Lee County jail.

IT IS FURTHER ORDED, ADJUDGED, AND DECREED, that Danny Lampley shall purge himself of said criminal contempt by complying with the order of this Court by standing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in open court.”

Most Americans would agree that the things Fred Phelps and his supporters say are godawful. A large majority of Americans would probably also agree that saying the Pledge of Allegiance is the opposite of godawful. When taken together these cases explain why I am a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU defends the Constitution of the United States. We are not a nation of individuals or political parties or lobbyist groups or churches. We are a nation of laws. And in order for our laws to work they have to protect our freedom.

Even the freedoms to say stupid-ass shit like the Phelpsians and the freedom to remain silent as others recite the Pledge of Allegiance. If the freedom of speech protected by the first amendment to the United States Constitution is to mean anything at all, it must include the right to say things that are stupid, hurtful, and wrong. If a Pledge of Allegiance is to ever mean anything, it CANNOT be compulsory.

My ACLU renewal form came in the mail last week and I set it aside on the kitchen table. And then I read news coverage of the Phelps case and the Lampley case and I filled out the check and mailed it right in. I sleep better knowing there are lawyers out there protecting the Constitution from us flawed humans. We are a country of laws and sometimes we need to be reminded that the Constitution is blind, deaf, and insensitive to the thoughts being expressed (or withheld), but acutely attuned to each citizen’s right to say (or not) those thoughts.