Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Farewell to 2011, a Weird Year

As 2011 breathes it last, we stand on the precipice between a disaster-filled year (the Japanese earthquake-tsunami-nuclear meltdown; the Virginia earthquake; Hurricane Irene; wildfires in Texas; and the Halloween storm in the Northeast; the spring tornado outbreak, wiping out Joplin, Mo.) and a year that promises political to disasters to come, following on the Arab “Spring” and the Occupy Wall Street protests, not to mention the siege of the Wisconsin State Capitol.

There were some happy moments in the midst of mayhem: the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton. Kate has restored modesty, maturity, and manners to the fashion world (Lady Gaga take note). The gossip tabloids have it that Kate is pregnant with twins and suffering the same eating disorder as her deceased mother-in-law.

2011 was the year of the bizarre: Charlie Sheen, Anthony Weiner, the Wisconsin protests, and Occupy Wall Street. Then there was the tragic: the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering, and six others who were not so fortunate. The tragedy took a bizarre turn when Liberal pundits tried to blame the shootings on Conservative pundits.

The top news story was, or should have been, the killing of Osama Bin Laden. The heroes of SEAL Team Six took him out in very prompt, no-nonsense fashion. Had he been disposed of ten years ago, as he ought to have been, there would have been celebrations in the streets. Bells would have been ringing. But our executor-in-chief insisted on muted approval, lest we offend Osama Bin Laden’s followers.

Bin Landen’s execution was followed a few months later by the execution of Moammar Ghaddafi. His execution came after the full fruition of the Arab “Spring”. Because he refused to step down and said he would fight to the death, that is precisely what happened: he was hunted down like an animal and promptly shot. No one is shedding any tears over his death. Justice took a fearful turn toward the barbaric, though.

In Tunisia, a local fruit vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid set himself ablaze and died on Jan. 4, after a run-in with the law over lack of a vendor’s license. He immolated himself over alleged humiliation by a female officer. This was the spark for which socialists in the Middle East had been waiting. The revolutionary fire spread all over the Middle East, forcing a number of Arab potentates to resign, including Hazni Moubarak.

Protesters claimed they were simply tired, and understandably so, of the corruption taking place in high offices. Out of the ashes, however, the Muslim Brotherhood has arisen like a phoenix to, in all likelihood, establish Sharia law throughout the Middle East.  Meanwhile, Iran is reaching its goal of nuclear capability, as surely and steadily as Hitler’s Nazi Germany did under the blind, uncaring eye of Europe and the British government.

Here at home, it has been the battle of the unemployment, with the government propagating disingenuous unemployment numbers that do not reflect the great numbers of workers who have not found jobs and have run out of unemployment benefits, putting them off the official count.

The stock market has been up and down, with a case of the jitters over what is probably the inevitable collapse of the Euro. Germany has been expected to bail out less responsible and productive states like Greece and Spain. It’s anyone’s guess how it will fall out. Meanwhile the U.S. is some $12 to $14 trillion dollars in debt itself, with investors bailing out Europe with money borrowed from China, itself in no very great economic shape, with its inflated yuan and burgeoning middle class.

This was the year, also, of the Green Scandals, namely Solyndra, which never produced an ounce of an energy or anything else that resembles the color green (like profits). They simply took the taxpayers money and ran. Agenda 21 is running at full steam, meanwhile, with our bureaucrats engineering planned cities around 21st transportation modes, oblivious to the news from China, where they’re having considerable trouble with their high-speed trains. Seems the Chinese no more want to ride trains than we do, if we don’t have to. Once they’ve accumulated enough money, they buy their own cars.

Here in New Jersey, meanwhile, our tea party efforts failed to prevent further redistricting in favor of the Democrats. We do have Gov. Corzine in our corner, if he doesn’t decide to accept a nomination as Vice President.

The 2012 campaign for president has already begun, with the Republican candidates tripping over one another’s feet and their own tongues and making a beeline for the middle as much as they can, though they’re beginning to heed our conservative voices more than they had.

The stock market is ending on a high note. Wall Street is gleeful right now, especially since Zoocotti Park was relieved of its creatures. Yes, they’re ecstatic over all the bail-outs that made their particular surge possible. How much of the growth is real, and how much of it is a polyethylene balloon remains to be seen.

Finally, the Media is celebrating Obama’s return home of the troops. Cheerleading right along with the Left are many Moderate and even Conservative pundits. Less to be celebrated is our reduction in arms and our many agreements to arms treaties that our co-signees will never honor. China’s fleet is growing, just as Germany’s did 80 years ago.

We’ve seen some ominous signs in 2011 – the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street protests, Agenda 21, redistricting in suburbs, high unemployment, even higher debt. Retailers were ho-ho-hoing over huge Christmas sales. Who were those crazy people buying all that stuff? What exactly were they celebrating?

Finally, there’s the 9/11 Memorial. This year was the 10th anniversary since the attacks. We now learn that construction on the memorial museum has ground to a halt (again) in a monetary dispute between the City and the Port Authority. At least the outside falls are in operation.

America is poised on the edge of free-fall and economic calamity. 2011 was a downhill year. Thanks to every mistake made since 2008, when Obama was elected, we have no reason to expect any bright promise from the coming New Year.

Friday, December 30, 2011

SATs - Simply Amazing Test Scores

In the catastatic act of the downfall of American education, an entrepreneurial college sophomore risibly asseverated that he merely offered an amanuensistic service to aphotic, desultory scholars by offering to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test for them. He made the didactic observation on CBS “60 Minutes” that he was helping his clients improve their prospects in life.

In other words, he helped them cheat by taking the test for them.

A former Great Neck (N.Y.) North High School student, Sam Eshaghoff, 19, a sophomore at Emory University, was arrested in September and pleaded not guilty to criminal impersonation and other charges. He told the news program he grew his test-taking enterprise through "word-of-mouth."

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice has called the charges serious, saying there is “no level playing field when students are paying someone they know will get them a premier score.”

Twenty students have been arrested.  But Eshaghoff said, in the interview to be broadcast Sunday, he did not believe any college applicant lost their place to an undeserving student. “I feel confident defending the fact that getting into the schools that they ended up getting into didn't really affect other people,” he said (disinegenuosly).

Eshgahoff's lawyer told Newsday that his client entered a plea deal several weeks ago under which he will tutor underprivileged students for a substantial amount of time, though he would not elaborate. Eshaghoff told CBS that when a struggling student came to him, what he did was like “saving his life.” He said he took pride in his success like any other business person. “By giving him an amazing score, I totally give him . . . a new lease on life,” he said. Emouna said his client agreed to the TV interview in an effort to move forward, and called him remorseful. Eshaghoff has been accused of taking the test for as many as 15 students for fees ranging up to $3,600.

"Taking others' SATs was the biggest mistake of my life,” Eshaghoff admitted to Newsday through a Facebook message. “I've come a long way. I hope people can overlook my mistake and recognize me for my strengths. I would like nothing more than to excel in school and to make my family proud," he said.

“Sam is extremely upset about this whole ordeal," his lawyer added. “He has brought shame upon his family and the good name that they deserve. He is a gifted student and wants to explore the possibility of where the future will take him. He is an extremely good-hearted, kind individual, a good friend who wants to be a good son.”

The lawyer said it's unfortunate that his client has become the "poster boy" for SAT and ACT cheating, which, he said, has gone on for years.

“Cheating has been an epidemic that has existed since Adam and Eve,” he said.

Cheating has, indeed, been universal. Still, we never learn our lessons properly. The inflation of the common bachelor’s degree has made it a necessity, much as the high school diploma was once a criteria. As our students learn less and less, our population grows, and the competition for better jobs grows keener, the anxiety to pass the SAT – the most common test required for entrance into undergraduate studies – turns into hysteria.

Employers, for their part, are no longer satisfied with the high school diploma, and now insist upon a bachelor’s degree for anyone who wants to gain an entry-level position into a company. For someone with higher ambitions, the master’s degree is de rigeur. In this economy, someone without that coveted master’s degree hasn’t a prayer of even gaining an entry-level position into a company.

Misguided students take on all sorts of esoteric, and very useless, studies during their undergraduate years, when a basic, liberal arts education would suffice, and a degree in business would almost guarantee their entry into just about any company (providing the student gets decent grades).

The problem is getting over the SAT hump. The tests have been reduced in their severity at least once in their history. That’s where the term “dumbing down” was said to have been born. Back in the day, the parents of affluent and even middle class students would pay fairly big bucks for their high school scholars to take SAT cram courses so they could score better grades and get into better schools. Weaker students were out of luck. Inner city students – fuhgeddaboudit.

Civil rights activists rightly complained, but applied the wrong remedy. Instead of fixing the students, tutoring them just like their suburban cousins so they could also pass the SATs, they prevailed upon Princeton to “dumb down” its tests.  Guess there's no money in coaching inner-city students.

Two of the words in the first paragraph of this blog – taken from articles in the Dec. 19th issue of the National Review – were not in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed, pocketbook version. I didn’t know the meaning of the word “catastatic” myself and had an inkling of what “aphotic” meant (a lack of something), though I thought perhaps “phot” indicated light. A lack of sunlight, or someplace where the sun doesn’t shine. Thank goodness for the Dad Dictionary, c. 1938.

Students can’t be blamed if they feel their degrees don’t mean anything. They can be taken to task for not listening to parents who urged them to get a degree that could get them a job – namely, a business degree. Business is where the money and the jobs are. The media fills young students’ heads with dreams of fame and fortune. Those dreams only come true for the very lucky, the very talented, and the very-well connected.

Today’s students are also, in a short, four-letter word – lazy. They don’t want to take the time to study advanced mathematics and science. Math isn’t for the creative – or for those who don’t want to bother applying themselves. I didn’t. As a result, I completely flunked the math portion of the Graduate Record Exams (one of the placement tests for master’s degrees) when I was younger. I have an opportunity to try again and I mean to take advantage of that opportunity. I have no intention of cheating, either. I spend a portion of each day on mathematics, Latin, and history (yesterday was a wash because I’d come down with a nasty cold) in addition to my blog.

I don’t blame anyone but myself for not having passed that test. Reviewing the Algebra I for Dummies book, I see now that what I thought was impossibly complicated really isn’t. I might not feel that way when I reach Calculus, but at least I’m headed in the right direction.

I also have a Latin book and some study cards on the Greek language. My father told me studying Latin was how he came to have such word power. Once you learn the base words in Latin and Greek, you’re better able to solve a vocabulary problem by going back to the word’s Latin or Greek roots (i.e., aphotic). Mathematics, Latin and history didn’t seem so important to me, when I was 18, as they do now.

One must have a reason, beyond mere pecuniary ambitions, for seeking a master’s degree, other than an MBA. My reasons have to do with our current situation. I don’t want to be a mere sheeple, not knowing or caring about what’s going on or why. The degree will never get me anywhere in an ordinary job. History teachers are begging for work. That’s the case with my neighbor’s son. Loved history; can’t get a teaching job. 

Maybe I’ll never get anywhere with a Master's in History, except on my own steam, as it were. So be it. Getting the degree and particularly taking that test are, for me, a matter of honor.

Avatars need not apply.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Brawl of America

According to NBC-TV affiliate KARE in Minneapolis, Minn., shortly after 4 p.m. on Monday, more than 20 people started a riot in the Mall of America’s food court when rumors started that rappers Li’l Wayne and Drake were at the Bloomington mall.

Chairs and tables started flying and after-Christmas shopper began fleeing.  Stores closed unexpectedly as the police ushered shoppers out of the mall.  A cellphone video uploaded to YouTube shows dozens of young people watching as others pushed, punched, and threw chirs. The police arrested nine in the incident.

Bloomington’s police commander told KARE, “Anytime you have a large group of people together things can happen.  But this is highly unusual.”  At first, authorities attributed the violence, which occurred in several parts of the mall, to shopper rage.  Later, they learned that rumors had been Twittered about the presence of the two rap stars in the mall.

Some family friends gave their kids something called “The Bug Trail” for Christmas.  The little bugs operate on hearing aid batteries.  Their habitat is three connected circles whose routes can be opened and closed.  The habitat could easily serve as a model of your typical shopping mall, with the connecting passages serving as escalators.

The critters jittered around the circles, mindlessly bumping into walls, turning themselves over and kicking their feet, and climbing over one another in their frenzy to get nowhere.  At least the critters have an excuse for their mindlessness; they have no brains.  This family is affluent enough to have something called a “Black Card” for a certain store, which allows them the privilege of pre-store hour shopping, or did, they say.

These children have the ultimate nursery/playroom on a balcony above the living room, filled with the latest and most fantastic toys any kids could dream of.  A modern, wood dollhouse, a bunkbed for their dollies complete with handmade comforters and pillows.  An arts and crafts table.  Bookshelves crammed with books.  A horse-drawn dolly sleigh with a beautifully crafted horse.  A television set up for DVDs and Wii-Fi only.  Toy soldiers, GI Joes, Star Wars characters, cars and trucks, nerf guns, Barbie doll castles and cars and American Girl dolls.

Amazingly, they’re not spoiled.  They’re all very well-mannered kids.  Their parents take the time to teach them basics like spelling and memorizing multiplication tables.  My particular role when visiting is to teach them the pleasure of making music.  Nagging at kids to practice, practice, practice never works.  They need to see an adult enjoying the art of playing the piano, of making music.  Kids are never taught that the exercises are to help them warm up, just like an athlete or a ballerina.  If an athlete didn’t warm up and exercise, he’d wrench his arm throwing the first pitch of the game; the ballerina would break her leg on the first leap.

Making music is the same.  You warm up to get yourself oriented to the instrument.  You do scales to get your fingers moving and your mind accustomed to different scales.  It just makes playing the music you love easier.  Lessening the number of mistakes makes playing a tune less frustrating in the long-run.  But children naturally have a low-tolerance for tedious practice.  I let the kids see me take the time to do some warm up scales and arpeggios.  The parents say that they do imitate it later on after I’ve left.  They suggested my teaching, but I told them no way, that I’m not “accomplished” enough to teach more than the basics.  My coordination isn’t that good.  My right hand often doesn’t know what my left hand is doing and when you’re playing the piano it’s very important that your two hands work together (which isn’t easy).  You have to literally practice the scales two-handed until you can do them in your sleep.  I can type in my sleep but I still can’t play the piano in my sleep.

I was too distracted by a houseful of brothers, their friends, and the concomitant noise to master the piano properly.  That’s the trouble with America today; we’re too distracted by too much noise, too many toys, too many places we go, too many ways to spend our money.  We don’t know how to concentrate.  Kids today don’t even understand what concentration is.  It’s no wonder America is falling behind in the sciences, particularly mathematics, the branch of knowledge that requires the most concentration.  The Nephew’s girlfriend, I’m told, would get up at 7 in the morning and study until 11 at night.  That’s the culture from which she comes.  The Nephew, not so much.

Instead, we run about blindly in a maze of malls and superhighway cloverleafs, running into and over each other, bumping into walls and looking for the way out by trial and error instead of reason.  We not infrequently turn ourselves over in our haste, kicking our feet in a futile attempt to right ourselves again, helpless and pathetic, unless the Invisible Hand should happen to reach down and help us out.  The wiser, grandfatherly voice is there, though, to caution the well-intentioned to wait and let the critter right itself which, in time, it does.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas 2011 - A "Post"-Mortem

The one thing that I should have asked Santa for, didn’t ask him for, and consequently didn’t get was more time.  Since I became the family Christmas hostess after Brother A tore out my mother’s oven years ago and never replaced and my former sister-in-law quit the job (she always hated it anyway), from the 23rd of December on, Christmas is just one flurry of shopping, decorating, cleaning and cooking.

I’m proud to say I not only got the decorating done far ahead of the 23rd but even had all, or most of, the presents wrapped.  Still, there was much to do and no time for blogging after the 23rd.  There’s always that person that you nearly forgot – in this case, my nephew’s girlfriend.  They’re both mechanical engineering grad students, so I got her a Rubik’s Cube.  My nephew became instantly addicted to it, the annoyance of the original recipient.

As unemployment is in my crystal ball for 2012, I was told not to buy any presents at all.  Bah humbug to that!  But I did keep the price range down below $10, for the most part and near to it for the exceptions.  The only truly expensive present was the Second World War set by Winston Churchill and that had been an accident.  You have to watch very carefully when you’re ordering from a site like  Sometimes the quantities can duplicate on you, as it did in this case.  I would have returned, however it’s been my habit to periodically give my nephew a book or books for Christmas.

One year I gave him the Lord of the Rings.  I forget what other books I might have given him.  He was very impressed with the set.  He’d harbored some very strange ideas about Adolf Hitler, which the first 100 pages of the Second World War should permanently dispel.

Big Brother was displeased with the two very minor gifts I gave him – a Yankees Santa hat and an aluminum wallet.  He didn’t want me to give him anything at all.  But I said bah-humbug to that, too.  The hat was a gag.  The wallet was to protect the money he works so hard for.  Thieves have figured out ways to scan your credits right in your wallet.  The aluminum wallet is supposed to thwart this current chicanery.  He’ll set it aside for now but one day he’ll be sorry.  He and his gal friend spend a lot of time at the malls.  His luck will run out and then he’ll be glad for my gift.

Mama was pleased with her Victorian Etiquette handbook, which she knew about in advance.  I also gave her a videotaped version of John Wayne in The Alamo.  This did not please her, even though I told her it was a leftover from about 20 years, a film I just never got around to watching.  The VHS machines went out of vogue before I could watch it and so it just sat there gathering dust.

Younger brother got an LED headlamp for his caveman activities.  The best and funniest gifts, though, were for The Nephew.  I gave him an eyeglass drinking straw, that is a straw in the shape of eyeglasses.  This thing works best with a colored drink so you could watch as it swirls around the drinker’s eyes and then down the hatch.  So much fun for a mere $5.  You don’t have to go into debt to have a memorable, merry Christmas.  His girlfriend was delighted with her game of Chinese checkers.  A friend feared she might be insulted.  Even though I hadn’t met her yet, my intuition told me she’d either laugh at the notion of Chinese checkers, a game they didn’t play in China (like Chinese food, which is very different from what the Chinese really eat) or she’d be very honored, having played the game in her native land from where it originated it.  The second guess was the correct one.  This bit of happiness was a real bargain at $2.50 from Wal-Mart.

Even the traditional World Almanacs were cheaper, coming as they did over, with free shipping.  I always provide my own gift from my younger brother as he’s working hard but struggling financially.  There was a beautiful rose clock on sale at K-Mart for half-price, $15.  My mother scowled and wanted to know if I could return it.  I explained it was Brother A’s gift to me and how inexpensive it was.  Still, she was angry, but Brother A, God bless him, came to my defense.  I bought it because I had a set of beautiful rose lamps on my piano, but I knocked one of them over and broke it.   The rose clock will sit in its place (although the clock will be more firmly secured than the lamp was).

I have a very special reason for treasuring watches and clocks, which I will not get into at this point.  I would ask my mother for Mrs. Piersson, our ancient, miniature grandfather clock, but being clumsy, I allowed wealthier Brother B to take stewardship of it.

I was probably too extravagant in my purchase of DVDs.  I make no apologies for my book collection; the books are for the purpose of furthering my education.  As I ordered the last set of DVDs I even said to Santa, “What am I doing?!  I shouldn’t be doing this.”  But something whispered back that it would be all right.  He was right.  Between my mother and others, I received a considerable amount of cash that will take care of the DVDs.

They may seem like an extravagance to most people.  However, I don’t buy very much at all in the way of clothes, except what is necessary to be presentable.  I don’t buy fancy dresses, shoes, jewelry, or pocketbooks.  My cellar is filled with my former sister-in-law’s expensive pocketbooks.  I have absolutely no use for any of them.  Should my brother and his current gal pal decide on matrimony, I will give them all to her as a wedding present.  She’s a typical female female.  She loves shopping at malls, as most women do.

I don’t love shopping.  I don’t care about clothes, I cut and dye my own hair (to my family’s dismay) and I haven’t worn a pair of earrings in at least five years.  The last time I wore pumps, my feet swelled up for about 48 hours.  I do wear perfume but I have enough to last another ten years, at least.

According Adam Smith, being economical is a matter of spending your money on one thing rather than another.  Sooner or later, you will have to spend it.  I anticipate that my biggest future economic problem will be medical bills.  Food has about as much of a hold on me as pocketbooks do.  I never eat out restaurants, not even fast food restaurants.

So if my one passion or vice is movies, what of it?  I consider spending $100 on one – one, mind you – pocketbook, as much of a waste as 10 or 20 DVDs.  Frequently, I haunt the discount bins at Wal-Mart and K-Mart, and look for bargains on the Internet.  Only my earliest purchases were costly, made when I was more secure of my position.  Most of my collection is within the $5 to $10 range. 
This year, the additions were Christmas movies.  There isn’t really a great variety on Netflix and the broadcast stations hardly seemed to be aware that it was Christmas.  Most people are content to rent a movie online.  Companies can and do go out of business, though.  One day, those Christmas may not be there.  They might even be banned and I didn’t want to get caught short.

Besides, next Christmas, I’d like to do a Christmas movie countdown on this blog, if the world doesn’t end first.  I wasn’t sure there were enough to cover the subject, but it turns out there are.  You won’t believe how many versions of A Christmas Carol were produced.

Anyway, that was Christmas at our house.  Many thanks to Santa Claus for making my DVD wish come true.

Christmas 2011

Christmas.  It’s a subject that pretty well boggles the mind.  What words can any mere mortal say that hasn’t already been said after 2011 (plus) years?  What wisdom can any of us bring to the table?  No words penned by any writer yet has brought about that peace on earth that was promised over millennia ago.

On Christmas Eve, a woman stood near the cashier area of the local Stop & Shop and challenged any of us “believers” to prove that we really believed in the holiday we were celebrating.  She declared that it didn’t look to her, observing us racing about with our shopping carts, that we did.  Where is this “Christmas” she wanted to know.

Only dread of my mother, a stickler for punctuality, get me from turning back to answer the woman.  I could have shown her where it was, why she didn’t “get it”, and given her a simple exercise to find it.  All I needed was a bag of nuts, probably walnuts would do, they’re pretty hard, and a nutcracker.  That is a real nutcracker – the tool, not the toy, although I would have been glad to throw one in as part of the gift.

I would have pointed at her heart and told her, “This is where you’ll find Christmas.  But in order to find it, you must sit down in a chair by your hearth, if you have one, open the bag of walnuts and start cracking and keep on cracking until you find the meaning of Christmas.  These people may need to do the same thing, it’s true, but you’re the one asking the questions and if you have to ask, this is the only way you’ll find the answer.  The toy nutcracker here will keep you company and see to it that you complete the task.”

Then I would have hurried on my way to have Christmas Eve dinner with Mom and the boys and picked up the ham for the next day’s dinner.  Some complain about the commercialism of Christmas, buying the latest gadget, toy, or unwanted gift.  Selecting a gift says as much about the giver as the receiver.  If you truly love the person to whom you’re giving the gift, your heart (with a little help from Santa Claus) will help you find the right present, one that will make the receiver happy.

Some people are clueless or don’t want to give the receiver the thing that would make them happiest, but the thing of which the giver would most approve.  Some people simply give money to meet the obligation, either because they don’t care, don’t know what the other person wants, or don’t approve of what the other person wants.  To the most jaded giver, Christmas is, as Scrooge says in the story, ‘an excuse to pick someone’s pocket every 25th of December.’  It is they who complain loudest about the commercialization of Christmas.

Christmas is for children.  Only children truly need to be surprised at Christmas.  Money (or a gift certificate) seems a cold and selfish gift, but as it avoids many unhappy problems and hurt feelings for adults, it’s not as bad a gift as you might think at first.  The thought may count, but if the thoughts are all wrong, bitter, or resentful, it’s no gift at all and totally misses the meaning of Christmas.

All these material things are well and good, but none of them and none of us lasts very long.  We received the best gift anyone could give 2011 years ago, at the ultimate cost of the giver.  We were given the gift of redemption, of restoration to God, and eternal life.

What more do we want?