Sunday, April 28, 2013

Do You Know What You Are Talking About?

Words mean things.

Sometimes, it gets really confusing, because the same word can mean different things - like the way "fly" can be both an annoying insect and a crucial mechanism on a pair of pants.  Other times, different words that sound like they should be opposites mean the same thing - like "flammable" and "inflammable".

And if you want to get really super-King Kong word-nerdy, you could argue about how and whether usage by a population changes a meaning, and about whether people should cling to old meanings that are out of favor.  (Like, should "gay" mean what it does today, or should it mean what it meant 50 years ago?)  I don't want to get too deep into that kind of argument here.  I just want to clear up some things that people keep saying that may be leading to unnecessary confusion.

I want to address the over-used word, "Government."

If you click on the word "Government" above, it will take you to the entry.  Feel free to refer to that, or to whatever your dictionary of choice may be as I wax rhapsodic about the different definitions of the word.  No matter which set of definitions you choose, I hope you will notice that the real difference between them is scope. The first definition, though, should be the most widely used and generic one, and it should boil down to this:
Direction and control exercised over the actions of the members of a group.
Governing, in that sense, is something that we all do when we participate in any group.  And ours is supposed to be a participatory government.  We're all supposed to be paying attention to who is representing us at various levels, and have at least a vague inkling of how their choices represent our choices. The point is to keep every negotiation, disagreement, or transaction from becoming a battle that ends with the stronger party destroying the weaker party and taking away their lunch money. In other words:
Government is necessary to the existence of civilized society.
Deep down, I think all of my friends and neighbors agree with that. Where we run into trouble is when some of you start equating everything that has to do with any *kind* of government as *the* government - or the Big Government.

This is a problem, because as anyone who pays the slightest bit of attention can immediately tell, there are different kinds of governments all over the world, and different levels within each that have different rules, different jurisdictions - and it is wrong and misleading to lump them together as all being the same thing.

Doing so is lazy, and it leads to the kinds of conspiratorial thinking that drives too many people in our modern society - from relatively harmless loudmouths (like the Glenn Becks of the world) to destructive sociopaths (like the shooters & bombers in too many of our recent news headlines). I am not saying that Conspiracy Theorists Are Crazy, but it is important to bring some reason and objectivity to bear on the things that you say - and the first step is know what you meant by the words you chose.

It's probably also a really good idea to have some idea what your intended audience will think you meant.  (That's where this post comes in!)

One popular topic for people to grouse about on Facebook is schools. Most of my friends have children, and there are a million things to complain about during the course of each year that can be laid at the feet of the school district.  Too often for my taste, these conversations end with an eye roll and a jab at "the government" - sometimes, they even lead into a soapbox speech about how the current President is trying to do something to our children (brainwashing, usually) through the Big Government apparatus of their local schools.  What is maddening and absurd about that sort of notion is that there are slightly more than 16,000 school districts in the United States with an approximately equal number of different school boards running them. And almost all of them are elected school boards.

But here's a sticky question: how many of those who complain about the Big Government brainwashing program have any idea who any of the people on their local school board are? How many complainers know when they last voted for (or against) any of those elected officials?

I could repeat this process for every kind of complaint I see tossed around on my various friends' and neighbors' social media, or thrown out in public.  Listen to yourself and those around you, and see how often you hear The Government being blamed for things over which the complainer actually *could* have some control.  (And if you want to pursue the idea of running for some of those offices, well... I Dare You!)

Of course, there is always the fact that there is a big, federal government that is doing things in ways that a lot of us think it shouldn't be.  There are a lot of contentious questions to argue about that revolve on the government's proper role. But even at the national level, I see people using their ignorance of complex problems to let themselves off the hook of doing basic critical thinking.

It's not enough simply to sneer, and blame the "government" for your problems.  First, you have to know what your complaint really means.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Call Me Maybe (Not)

This is a tale of a phone call faux pas. First of many, and just one reason why I cannot stand the telephone to this day.

My father was a firefighter. He had tried his hand at teaching, but it simply hadn't suited him. He had no patience for dealing with saucy high school students in the 1969 version of Glendale, AZ, so after only one year, he found himself a spot on the Phoenix Fire Department.

He started when I was extremely little, so all I remember growing up was the natural pattern of having daddy home two days, and him being at work for a third.  One 24-hour shift every three days isn't a bad deal, but as we got to that age (around 3 to 5) where we started to notice he was gone, mom started the tradition of calling him at bed time.

You know how those calls go; the kid is whiny & tired, but doesn't want to sleep, and you put them on the phone so they start to perform. We would make goony noises and tell him lame jokes, and he would tell us exciting tales from the firehouse ("Tonight, Fred tried to make chili and set fire to the cooktop!"). We tried to drag it out as long as possible, and mom would try to hurry us up. Every call ended the same way:

"Love you!" And a big, loud kiss - MWAH!

These routine phone calls tapered off, as they do when the kids get a little older. I still loved talking to dad, but the phone itself wasn't that exciting, and I knew he was going to be home the next day.  My sister was about 4 years behind me, though, so when I had kind of started to outgrow the bed time phone calls, she was just getting into it.  She would remind mom to call, or we would fight over who got to dial - and yes, I'm a dinosaur who remembers the rotary phones - then she would chatter at him until it was my turn to say good night, all rounded out with the obligatory "Love you! - MWAH!"

The only other times we would be on the phone tended to be special occasions like birthdays or Christmas, and it was usually talking to a grandma or grandpa. These were exciting events, because mom's folks tended to travel around a lot, and we didn't get to see them often.  We would blather on at them about whatever we were doing in our solipsistic lives, and grandma would cluck about the expensive long distance charges, and then eventually... "Love you! - MWAH!"

Sometimes it would be dad's folks calling for a birthday; or Aunt Ginny out in Florida; or (even more rarely) the relatives in New Jersey. I don't remember a whole lot about specifics, but you know how I ramble on trying to be amusing, and I'm pretty sure that's what I was like then, too - so I'm sure I told stories ranging from hilarious to awkward, mumbled about school and loving Jesus, and passed the phone to my sister before we ended with that habitual "Love you! - MWAH!"

But seasons turn, the tides roll in and out, and kids outgrow the easy sharing of casual emotion, and somewhere around the point when my age hit double digits, I started dodging the phone calls as much as possible. I'd still get dragged to the phone for certain annual rituals, but it wasn't what you'd call an "everyday" sort of tool.

Then one day, the phone rang, and my mom called me downstairs (because it was, you know, stuck to the wall down there), and Scott from school was speaking to me.  This was odd.  No one from school had ever called me before; and Scott and I had never been the closest of friends. He was asking me over to play at the park near his house. I was so very confused, I remember trying to hand the phone back to mom for her to deal with it. Of course, since we lived about 15 miles from the school, and my classmates almost all lived in the neighborhoods immediately surrounding it, mom wasn't about to take me anywhere on a whim like that - so I think I thanked him for asking, but had to turn him down.

And that's where my relationship with the phone kind of started out: a mixture of that grudgingly dutiful family feeling with an extra dose of bafflement and sad confusion.

A couple of years after Scott's call, I had switched schools, and I was reaching that age where most of my peers were spending a great deal more time on the phone. I wasn't, but that was about to change thanks to a special group assignment for science class.  We were paired up with partners, and we were supposed to get together to build a model of the solar system.  I brought home a phone number for my friend and classmate, Tony.  (You might remember him from last month.)

I was pretty excited about working on a project with another kid.  Living so far away from the world, we really didn't get a lot of spontaneous play time with anyone outside of our church (and it was a small church, so kids my own age were a rarity). I liked Tony, so I was looking forward to hanging out with him.  But something had to happen first.  Something I hadn't ever really done before.

I had to call him.

The memory of making the phone call is pretty clear - I can still see the spinning plastic dial, and hear the static-shrouded clicks of the rotor.  I can remember the details of all the things sitting on mom's dresser in front of me as I waited for someone to pick up, and then as I croaked my well-rehearsed greeting.  (Mom had to coach me thoroughly on phone etiquette, you know; say "Hello," and tell them your name, then ask for the person you're calling.)  Once I got Tony on the line, though, it kind of clicked.  This was normal.  It was just talking!  I can do that - no problem!  We made our plans, set times, confirmed our transportation arrangements and agreed on materials. Before I knew it, we were all set.

"Alright, see you Saturday.  Love you! - MWAH!"

Wait.  What?  What the ... actual... did I just blow a big, loud kiss at my classmate over the phone?

Yes.  Yes, I did.

I think mom laughed the whole rest of that week, and she may have still been giggling when she dropped me off that Saturday at Tony's house. I was mortified, and not looking forward to this any more.  But I had nothing to worry about.  Tony hadn't even noticed. He had been so nervous about being on the phone, he'd hung up when I said "Alright..."

Still - this was such a harsh entry into the world of teenaged telecommunications.  At least I learned the ever-valuable Lesson #1:  No big, loud kissing.

But that wouldn't be enough to prepare me for the First Telemarketing Job....