Monday, December 12, 2011
Today I turned 60 years old. There are people who would rather ignore a milestone like that, but I’m not one of them. I think it’s worth celebrating when you’ve been on this planet for 60 years, so I embrace my longevity with open arms.
Sixty is a time to stop and think about what went before. I grew up in a time before cell phones, computers, the Internet, iPods and even television (my family didn’t buy our first TV till I was seven years old). It’s a time referred to by my children as the Dark Ages.
When I think back to what life was like in the 1950s it seems like another world. Here are some random thoughts about what it was like for me to grow up 60 years ago.
Playing after school every day, with no need to be home till suppertime. . . playing tag, hide and seek, riding bikes, two-man baseball games (with the strike zone outlined in chalk on the brick wall of the school) using a broomstick and a hollow rubber ball. . . building forts out of branches and anything we found in the woods behind our house. . . swinging on a tire strung up from a high branch on a tree. . . catching grasshoppers and fireflies. . . my father reading the evening newspaper on the porch after dinner. . . the mailman walking his route with a big leather bag, and delivering the mail right to our front door. . . my grandparents spending all afternoon on Saturday visiting, with nothing else to do than just visit and talk. . . dinner at 6:00 every night, with fish on Friday and a roast on Sunday. . . bedtime at 8:00 for the little kids, and 9:00 even in high school. . . no such thing as fast food or pizza. . . saving up our change so we could buy penny candy on vacation. . . no TV watching during the week, but Friday nights were for watching shows on the black and white set in the basement, and eating bowls of ice cream. . . a big black wall phone in the kitchen was the only phone in the house. . . movie theaters that were the size of storefronts, with only one screen. . . Saturday matinees with cartoons and Westerns. . . drive-in movies. . . being taught by nuns who wore heavy black habits with stiff white headpieces even on days when the temperature was in the 90s. . . playing Army with my Dad’s GI helmet and a toy rifle, and dressing up in my Dad’s army uniform on Halloween. . . living in such a solidly Irish Catholic neighborhood that I never actually spoke to a Jew, a Protestant, or an African American till I was in college. . . playing tag at lunch recess, or keepaway. . . trying to scare pheasants in the cornfield near our house, but nervous because people said the farmer would shoot at trespassers with a shotgun filled with salt. . . no seatbelts in cars, and no child seats -- in fact, holding the baby on your lap in the passenger seat. . . my father with the hood up on a Saturday, working on the car. . . being a one-car family. . . my mother sending me on my bike to buy groceries for dinner, and me riding back with the groceries in the basket on the front of my bike. . . watching the 11:00 news on one of only three channels we could get. . . looking up the Church’s rating before we went to see a movie (was it “morally objectionable in part” or worse?). . . having a paper route. . . listening to a tinny transistor radio that faded in and out depending on how you held it. . . playing pickup football, baseball, and basketball games, with no referees and no adults anywhere to interfere. . . the May procession. . . being an altar boy, wearing a high, stiff celluloid collar and starched robes and having to memorize prayers in Latin without knowing what they meant. . . no air conditioning, nothing but a ceiling fan that just blew the hot air around while you sweated in bed. . a milkman who delivered several times a week early in the morning. . . a bread man. . . a diaper service that came several times a week. . . a farmer who came once a week and sold meat, eggs, and vegetables from his truck. . . walking to your friends' houses and ringing their doorbells to see if they could come out and play. . . taking piano lessons in the convent with a stern-faced nun sitting next to you on the bench and going over scales endlessly. . . priests shouting from the pulpit, giving fire and brimstone sermons that scared the kids. . . going to a barbershop and getting a crewcut for the summer.
There are lots of these memories, but the thing that strikes me about all of them is that there seemed to be more time back then. More time to spend talking, exploring, wandering around, or just doing nothing. Was it just because I was a child, and time seems to move slower for children? I don’t know if kids today have that same feeling. Most of them seem to be moving pretty fast, and they’ve got the next item on their agenda in mind at every minute during the day. There’s no denying that young people today have a lot more amazing devices in their lives than I had growing up.
I had more time, though.
Monday, May 16, 2011
What will the world be like when we’re all wearing thought helmets?
Recently I read a report about “thought helmets”, which are devices the U.S. military is developing that will enable soldiers to communicate by sending thoughts to each other. Sensors inside these helmets scan electrical signals from the wearer’s brain and a microprocessor inside the helmet turns the signals into words that are then transmitted to a receiver’s hemet.
You can see how this would be useful in a military situation. Soldiers who are on stealth missions, such as sneaking up on an enemy camp at night, could communicate without making a sound. A soldier could direct his mates to avoid obstacles, spread out, get ready to attack, or any number of other messages, all at the speed of thought.
Things will really get interesting when these helmets are developed for consumer use -- and you know that will happen eventually.
Can you imagine a football team all communicating instantly about every play on the field? Or people at a business meeting exchanging thousands of thoughts an hour? Or the potential for fun at a party? It will bring a new dimension to social interaction.
Then again, what is communication going to be like when you can communicate at the speed of thought?
Most of us have a filter between our brain and our mouth, so that we don’t say everything that comes to mind. What happens when the filter is tossed aside? If you can think something and communicate it instantaneously, I can see problems. If we don’t have a chance to edit what we’re thinking, there could be some nasty arguments caused by those thought helmets.
Here are some classic cases where we don’t say the first thing we think, and imagine what would happen if you did.
Reporter to football coach: “How do you feel about losing 72 to 0?”
Reporter to player: “Is there anything you’d like to say to those people who booed you today?”
Boss to salesman: “Your sales results are down. It’s not because we raised our prices, right?”
Restaurant patron to waitress: “You expect a tip for this service?”
Used car salesman to customer: “Would you believe me if I told you this vehicle was hardly ever used?
Parent to teacher: “Isn’t my Johnny the smartest student you ever had?”
Wife to husband: “Do these pants make my butt look too big?”
On reflection, maybe these thought helmets should be kept away from the public, like nuclear weapons. The potential for catastrophe is too great.
Thursday, May 12, 2011
My daughter is graduating from college in a few days. She’s happy, of course, but also a little scared at the prospect of going out in the world and starting a career.
My words of wisdom to her? “It’s going to be all right.”
Maybe that’s not the most profound statement a father can make, but I still think it’s valuable.
In fact, it’s a constant thread running through my role as a parent. It’s a phrase I told my daughter when she was a little girl and fell and bruised her knee. It’s a phrase I used when she came home disappointed because she got a failing grade in a test. It’s a phrase I used when she had a bad game as a college soccer player. It’s a phrase I used just last month when she called about something that went wrong in her internship.
Even though she’s 22 and a grown woman, she still seems comforted when I say, “It’s going to be all right.”
I believe in positive thinking, and that your words can change things. They can certainly change your mood, your outlook on life, and that can make all the difference. I don’t always know that things are going to turn out all right, but I believe that if you say that phrase often enough it will create a positive outcome.
I also believe that it’s one of a parent’s chief jobs to say, “It’s going to be all right.” After all, there are plenty of people in the world who are ready to tell you that things aren’t going to turn out all right. Read the headlines in any newspaper, and you’ll see enough gloom and doom to make you think the world is heading downhill fast, and nothing, but nothing, is going to turn out right. Sometimes the most radical thing you can do in the face of all that is to say, “It’s going to turn out all right.”
If you can say that phrase to your child their whole life, and they believe you, and it helps them to keep a positive attitude about their life, I think you’ve done a pretty good job as a parent.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
The last time we went it was for my wife's birthday; this time was for Mother's Day. Both times there were some showers just before we got to the restaurant.
And then we saw the rainbow.
Rainbows are such magical things, and I always think that they are an omen of good fortune. So what does it mean when you see two rainbows a year apart at the same place? It must mean we are going to have some amazing things happen to us.
I think it was about the best Mother's Day present anyone could ask for, and my wife agrees.
Friday, May 6, 2011
A long time ago in another universe I worked in a bank. It was a small town bank with half a dozen offices, and my grandfather had helped to start it with some local businesspeople in the 1920s.
I only spent two years at that job, but I learned some lessons I’ll never forget.
The biggest one was: Treat your customers like friends. Everybody from the president down to the tellers at that bank knew their customers like they were part of the family. The branch manager knew if the gas station on the corner was out of Pepsi in its vending machines. They knew whether the plumbing supply store was meeting its payroll. What the local real estate market was like. Who was going to expand their business. What type of cars were selling well at the car dealer’s lot. The owners of businesses would come in and sit down at the manager’s desk and chat with him all day long. The tellers would gossip with every customer, and they often knew things that weren’t in the local newspaper. The loan officers in the main office would go golfing with their business customers, or take them out to lunch, and they always remembered a birthday or an important event in some customer’s life.
I was thinking about that recently when I went to my local bank, which has just been taken over by Wells Fargo, because I ran out of checks and needed some temporary checks to tide me over till I my new order came in.
“Sorry, Mr. McDonnell,” the teller said. “There’s now a charge for temporary checks.”
I was flabbergasted. “Are you kidding me?” I said. “There was never a charge for temporary checks.”
“Sorry, it’s a new policy,” she said, without the slightest note of apology in her voice.
That’s not the only new policy, either. I found to my dismay that if I temporarily overdraw my checking account, and Wells Fargo has to cover the overdraft with money from my money market account, they hit me with a fee for that. My previous bank, Wachovia, would do that little transaction for free.
Banks everywhere are tacking on more fees. Those ATM fees that were a minor inconvenience when banks started charging them a few years ago are rising steadily, till it’s now $3 and above for me to use an ATM machine that is not in my bank’s network.
At this rate I’m expecting the day when I’ll have to pay a fee just to walk into one of the bank’s branches. They’ll have a toll collector at the door, or maybe just a machine where you have to swipe a card to get in.
There were none of these fees when I worked in banking. In fact, when I was an assistant branch manager one of my jobs was to settle the checking accounts of old ladies who would come in all flustered because they bounced a check or two, and they’d dump a pile of bank statements on my desk and say, “Can you please help me, young man? I just don’t know how I got in this mess.” It would sometimes take me hours before I could sort out the problem, but we never charged a nickel for it. Imagine a bank doing that today.
We had customers back then who still had their first savings account book, and some of them dated back to the 1920s. They stayed loyal to us because we treated them with kindness, we remembered their names and took an interest in their lives, and we didn’t try to nickel and dime them with fees for every little transaction we performed for them.
I know the world has changed, but it hasn’t changed that much that people don’t care how you treat them when they do business with you. I’m sure Wells Fargo can give me lots of reasons why it’s essential for them to charge fees for things that banks used to do for free, and if the market will bear it then they’re welcome to do it.
But I’m also welcome to take my business elsewhere. I know I won’t find a bank anymore like that small town bank I used to work at, but maybe there’s one that will be just a little more concerned, a little more personal, and a little less prone to stick its hands in my wallet.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
So we got Osama. I had almost forgotten about him; he had faded into irrelevance.
When I drove to New York last summer and the skyline came into view across the river, there was that emptiness where the Twin Towers used to be. At times like that, or when the anniversary of 9/11 comes around each year, that's when it all comes crashing back. I remember the pain, the horror, the desire for vengeance against this man who killed so many innocent people on that cloudless, brilliant day in September.
In the beginning I thought we'd get him fast. There was so much anger, so many people seemed willing to work around the clock to track him down, I thought they'd get him before Christmas. I expected he'd be shot dead in a firefight in some Afghan valley, probably running for his life from the soldiers bearing down on him.
It didn't happen. Now, with the revelation that he was hiding out less than an hour's drive from the capital of Pakistan, in a town where many retired Pakistani generals live, it seems likely that he got help from people in high places. I won't be surprised if the computer files that were taken from his house have the names of high-ranking Pakistani officials on them. Somebody had to be protecting this man, whether because of ideology or payoffs, for him to avoid capture this long.
My religion tells me it's not right to rejoice in the death of anyone, even someone as evil as Osama bin Laden, so I didn't go out and celebrate when I heard the news. I was somber, thinking of all the families that were shattered by the deaths of loved ones on that September day. I thought of how our innocence was lost as a country, symbolized for me by the way my children acted when I picked them up from school that day. They ran out to the car and they kept looking up, afraid that a jet plane would fall out of the sky on them.
I thought of the people who have been working relentlessly for ten years to track down bin Laden and all of his cohorts, to bring a measure of justice to the victims of terror everywhere.
And I thought: Job well done. The mission is not finished, but still, job well done.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Parenting can be an exercise in trashing yourself. I've never done anything else in my life where I second-guess myself as much as parenting. From the time my children were babies I've always had a nagging voice in my head saying, "Maybe I should have done this or that differently." It's everything from, "Maybe I should have made sure they didn't use a pacifier when they were babies," to "Maybe I should have insisted they go to a different college."
The "Maybe I should have" moments pile up with each year, till you could spend hours analyzing decisions you made when they were six years old and wondering if you screwed them up forever because of that. You lay awake at night and think, "Is he going to get diabetes some day because I let him eat all the chocolate candy he wanted when he was five years old?" Okay, I'm exaggerating -- but not by much.
That's why it's such a pleasure when you have a moment when things go right, when you can bask in the glory of a decision well made. Last night my wife and I attended a voice recital at my daughter's high school, and she sang a solo. She's 16, and this is her fifth recital since she started at the school. She is a beautiful child, but shy. There's nothing wrong with shyness -- I was very shy as a child -- but as a parent you want to see your children grow out of it and let their voice be heard as they enter adulthood. This daughter has always enjoyed singing, but she was afraid to get up and do it in front of an audience. When she went to the same high school as her older sister, we strongly suggested that she sign up for voice lessons, the same as her more extroverted older sister. She did what we asked, but when it came to recital time she was clearly nervous on stage, and her voice had no volume. "I don't know how to relax and sing," she told us after another performance where her voice sounded small and timid.
Well, last night it all changed. As we sat in amazement in the theater, she strode up to the microphone, sat down at a stool, and sang with power and spirit. Her solo was beautiful, moving, and loud -- and it brought tears to our eyes. I tried to shoot a video with my camera, but I couldn't focus because my eyes were wet and my hand was shaking too much.
I can't take full credit for this, because one thing I've learned is that children can amaze you. You raise them from babies and you think you know everything about them, then they do something that you wouldn't have predicted in a million years. I do take credit for putting her in a position to astound us with her voice. If my wife and I had not urged her to sign up for the voice program she may never have done it on her own.
So, I'm patting myself on the back. Anytime I can say, "I'm glad I did this," rather than, "Maybe I should have," it's a good day.