Kidnapped by Terrorists – Are Not All Men Created Equal?

In August of 2011 my husband’s family member, Warren Weinstein, was kidnapped from the supposedly secure compound where he was working in Pakistan. Warren has a Ph.D. in international law and economics from Columbia University and is an international development expert with 25 years of experience. He is a linguist and a Rhodes Scholar who has dedicated his life to the service of those less fortunate than he.

The release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl but not Warren has dismayed family members as noted by the New York Times article, which quotes Elaine Weinstein, Warren’s wife, as wondering why the U.S. government is willing to negotiate with terrorists for some prisoners but not others. Acting as spokesperson, Warren’s daughter spoken with CNN and appeared with Anderson Cooper; various other media outlets have taken up the story.

As my husband, Marc, has noted repeatedly, at a time in his life when most people are thinking about retirement, Warren, who will be 73 years old shortly, was working to make people’s lives better in Asia and Africa.

Please share this story with everyone you know.

Communication Issues – Text vs. Talk for Teens

writingpicMy son Bailey, age 14, a freshman in high school, got an text message from a girl who is friends with Bailey’s date for homecoming dance.  The girl told him that his date is only going with him because she feels sorry for him.  The message went on to say that Bailey shouldn’t think he’s “all that” and not everyone likes him as much as he thinks they do.  It didn’t even stop there. It said he must be some sort of loser because he often sits in a group of girls at lunchtime. There was more, but you get my drift.

To me, Bailey’s mom, he is a fun-loving, silly sort of kid who loves people of all types and doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.  He had forty-five kids at his bar mitzvah last year, all of whom looked like his good friends to the adults watching. He tells me he has friends in the orchestra where he plays violin, and friends on the field where he is currently playing JV football.  However, this is my view of him – I have to remember that I have no real idea who he is at school and how he acts there.  He’s so generally happy at home that it leads me to believe he’s a fairly well-adjusted teen.  Maybe he is a bit cocky at school – or overly dorky – or something else that I don’t even know.  It’s not my business to know every detail of his social life.  I’m just glad he has a social life for me to ignore.

When I was a fourteen-year-old girl, I didn’t have such a bright social life.  I was overweight and decidedly uncool with glasses and weird clothes.  I used to write letters to various kids at school who would not tease me per se, but would rebuff my efforts to be friends.

Here’s the difference: I would leave the letters in stacks on my desk at home and then every so often I’d re-read them and ball them up for trash can. If I wanted to communicate with anyone for real, I had no choice but to do it over the phone or in person. I don’t pretend that kids being mean to one another was invented in this young generation; I just think it’s a lot easier to press the “send” button on a nasty text or email than it was for me to send a pen-and-ink letter.  In a way it was harder for my mom and dad to find out what I was up to when the door to my room was closed.  There wasn’t a mobile phone on which they could snoop into my texts and emails.  There’s a sometimes-blurry line between privacy and needing to monitor the behavior of young people.

HOWEVER, the day after this message, I learned that my son wasn’t so innocent in the whole matter.  It turns out that though the girl started it by sending a bunch of messages trying to tell him that his date doesn’t like him in “that” way, Bailey got mad at her for saying it, and called her email antics “bitchy” and that’s when she sent him the mean message.  Learning about Bailey’s role in the exchange changed my perspective pretty quickly.  To my husband and me, this was the perfect opportunity to discuss communication skills in general. As parents of these young teens, we have to take some responsibility for teaching our kids right from wrong.  But it goes deeper than that; we have to teach them about the power of their own words, both oral and written.

When he first got the message and I thought it was in a vacuum, I counseled Bailey to delete the text, the equivalent of balling up paper into the trash can.  It’s gone.  But then my husband sat Bailey down and told him that enough was enough.  This use of go-betweens and texting was inappropriate at best, hurtful and harmful at worst.  His best course of action, we told him, was to talk to the girl he is taking to the dance.  He should be as nice to the girl who was texting him as he always was and he should sit exactly where he wanted to at lunch. Then he should open a line of communication with his date, who clearly knew about the conversations.  And you know what? He did. Bailey told us that he and both girls decided (over lunch together) to just forget the exchanges ever happened. At the end of the day, I was proud of the way he handled himself, even if he didn’t start off so well.

Bailey, my husband and I learned a number of lessons from all of this.  We live in a society that over-shares. We have to tell ourselves to “think before you tweet” in our social-media-driven world, and though we have to give him a modicum of privacy, as Bailey’s parents, it behooves us to monitor his communication tools.

However, the number one lesson that Bailey learned is the power of direct communication face-to-face with his friends as opposed to listening to third-party opinions, writing emails and pressing the “send” button too quickly.  There is no substitute for looking a person in the eye and speaking with him or her.

Kids today are learning to hide behind texting, emails and social media (and don’t get me started on the grammar issues inherent therein) so they don’t communicate directly.  While I’m sorry it took a lousy experience like this to teach Bailey the lesson, I’m not that sorry it happened.  I only hope we all learned something along the way.

Conversations With Brian, or, What I’ve Learned So Far

CMy friend Brian Ledell is my favorite “Words With Friends” buddy.  Some people just play the game, which is an online version of Scrabble, but he and I chat a lot, too.

Last week I made a move on the board at about 3am.  “Insomnia,” I confessed on our chat.  When he awoke a few hours later and made his own move, he sympathized, telling me how much he hates when that happens to him.

Because I’ve known him for so long and because of our close relationship, I decided to put myself out there and just be honest with him.  The following conversation ensued:

Aimee: Confession: I’m taking something to quiet my brain at night.  I’m upbeat and positive all day.  Nights are tougher.

Brian: If I was going through what you’re going through I would be taking all the anti-anxiety drugs I could get the doctors to prescribe for me and would not feel the least bit bad about it.  Life is stressful enough in normal times.

Aimee: And this is why I love you – permission to be imperfect. I really work on that Superwoman mask but sometimes it just won’t stay on. I’m learning that not only is it okay to BE fallible; it’s okay to let people know you’re as flawed and faulty as everyone else.

Brian: You are too kind! I agree with you, though – asking for help is not an easy thing to do.  I think you’ve handled it very well. I’m proud to know you.

Aimee: I am so control freaky that I’m usually the helper, not the one asking for help. It’s a challenge, but I’m learning.  I’m learning a lot of things lately!

There are several important items in the subtext of that conversation, not the least of which is that Brian is an excellent listener.  For me, though, the crux of it is that I am learning.  Even when I’m going through this sh***y exercise called cancer, I continue to learn about myself, the people I love, and the world around me.  I’m reading a lot.  I’m continuing to write. I get messages from friends that brighten every day, and when I feel well, which, luckily, is many many days, I get to see several of those wonderful friends who live nearby – and sometimes even people who make treks of many miles to see me.  On most days I’m feeling quite lucky as I learn.

In order to maintain my own sanity and get through this, I have to stop trying to be perfect, express gratitude, and allow myself to ask for help when needed.  Learning to do these things has not been easy and I’m still not so good at it, but I’m working hard. They’re good lessons and I just hope that some of them stick with me beyond (God willing) cancer.

Cancer: an opportunity for a growth experience.  I’d rather not have the opportunity, but since I have no choice, I will take it.  Thanks, Brian.

This Is Not Your Father’s Math Homework

Tonight I watched my son, Bailey, do his math homework and at first, he did exactly what I expected him to do.  He surveyed the worksheet, got out his graph paper and worked through the one main problem, ultimately creating a graph for the outcome, before reaching a final solution.  It was just like I used to do for my own math homework centuries ago.

That’s where the resemblance ended, however.

Bailey’s next step was to take a video of himself (with his school-required laptop with camera in it) explaining in great detail what his solution was  and how he arrived at it.  The video ended up being approximately 5 minutes long.

After taking the video and saving it on his hard drive, Bailey uploaded it to Google Docs, to the video section.

Next, he made sure to click the little box saying “make the video public on the web with a sign-in required.”  That allowed him to share the video only with those to whom he gives the password.

In Google Docs Bailey is able to retrieve and copy the “embed code” for the video which allows him to embed the video elsewhere.

And lastly, Bailey had to create a blog post on his personal blog, which he has through school.  He calls it his “Bailey-verse.”  He has the blog organized by class – he has to blog now for most of his classes, even for the strings orchestra. Please note that Bailey had to paste the embed code into the HTML section of his blog post and not in the regular creation part of it because then the code would appear, but it wouldn’t link properly to the video on Google Docs.

The finally, he was done with it.

Whew, that bears absolutely no resemblance to the math homework I used to do!  I am proud and confused all at the same time.  Bailey is no different from any of his peers at the American School in Japan; I don’t think he works with any particular facility, but he has just done it enough times that it’s second nature now.  Not every assignment has to be done in this way, but for a significant portion of them per month, he goes through this process.    I could say all sorts of trite things right here about how my children will never know a world without computers, or that he already knows more about software than I do, or even that he has terrible handwriting, but I don’t care because he never needs to write any more.  But you already know all those things; I don’t need to repeat them or elaborate on them.  I could also get morose and wonder if Bailey is really better off with all of these steps or if he just has to do more work than I did in 7th grade.  But is that going to hurt him, even if it’s true?  Most likely not.

How did he learn this stuff, I wanted to know.  He said that the computer people showed them some videos at the start of the year and he has learned other stuff from his fellow students and classmates.  They share knowledge well, it seems.  It this knowledge-based economy now, the ability and willingness to share what you know is a commodity.

Right now I’m going to just enjoy my little glimpse into what seems to be a very bright future indeed.  Go tell your kid to do his math homework and see what you find out.

How “Words With Friends” is Altering My Brain

I have two friends to blame for getting me into “Words with Friends” (WWF) – the online app I play on my phone.  Both of them thought that since I am a writer, I would be really good at it.  Well, it turns out I suck at it.  I’m better now, but at the start, I was really horrible at it. I could create a sentence of twenty, three-syllable words, punctuate it properly and sing out synonyms for all twenty words, but give me a bunch of letters to place on a board and I was hopeless.  Even though there’s a “shuffle” button at the bottom of the screen, I often still couldn’t “see” the right combination to make up a word.  And as the games progressed, I would have issues with word placement because sometimes I could see a word there in my tile-rack, but I couldn’t figure out how to set it on a crowded board.  Another reason I was losing all the time is that I can’t see how the words work in combination so that I could set the tiles down for the most available points.  “With the letters I can tell you have based on what you’re putting down, you’re missing words and opportunities for points,” one good friend noticed.

And then, after about a month of struggling and losing to various friends left and right, another friend pointed out that it really is a different part of my brain that I need to use.  This particular friend owns a highly successful natural and pro-biotic food company, Zukay Foods, and he jokes that fermenting food for a living improves your WWF skills.  Maybe he’s not that far off, actually.  He has an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and a graduate degree in marketing – he’s all about strategy and logic (but don’t tell him I admit or even know that about him).  I’m a writer; I’m all about imagination and language.

So now I’m doing a little better at WWF, about six weeks after starting.  It’s not that anyone gave me any tips or that I use a dictionary or cheat-site or anything like that; it’s just that practicing a skill makes you better at it, and I seem to be doing a lot of WWF practicing these days.  Just realizing that it’s not my usual brain-function at work made me change the way I think about the game, which allowed me to open up to other methodology for playing.  It could easily take over my life if I let it.  I love it now!  It makes me laugh when I do something really rare, like get a 75-point word.  I once got a word for 110 points!  It’s utterly ridiculous how much of a kick – nearly a high – I get when I achieve on this game. It’s a game for heaven’s sake!

I am still wondering if the game might make me a better writer in a way because I’m seeing different possibilities for words and words in combination.  That remains to be seen.  But for now, I think I’ll go on playing, bending my brain in different ways and seeing what comes of it.  Let me know if you want to start a game – I’m up for it!

History, Critical Thinking and Writing

Last week, being an avid NPR listener, I heard a story about a speech by Malcolm X, which was given about fifty years ago at Brown University.  The reason I found it so compelling is that it had to to with a writing class, initially.  A current senior at Brown University, Malcolm Burnley, took a narrative writing course last semester, and as an assignment he had to find, in the university archives, an actual event, and then fictionalize it as a story.  Instead of one event, however, he unearthed a goldmine.

In simplest terms, Burnley discovered that Malcolm X had visited Brown in response to an editorial in the school newspaper written by a senior at the university, which argued that “the Negro is a vital part of the American culture,” which was the exact opposite of Malcolm X’s Nation of Islam message of Black Separatism.  To this day, the author isn’t sure how Malcolm X found the editorial.  The editor of the paper at the time was the legendary diplomat Richard Holbrooke and he work tirelessly to get the university to allow Malcolm X to speak, which was no easy task in mid-1961 at a university that was not known for any type of controversial stances.  The NPR story allows Burnley to discuss his findings about the speech, and the ideas of it, as well as airing parts picked out by Burnley.

My fascination with it encompasses the notion of critical thinking.  Burnley not only found this previously un-aired treasure, but he seems to have listened to it and analyzed it light of current day ideology, but also as it would have  been received in 1961.  He mentions the audience, an important rhetorical consideration, as well as the fact that the speech was hastily written given that the evening was intended to be a debate between Malcolm X and an NAACP representative who backed out at the last minute, which speaks to the rhetorical situation, another important consideration for writers and thinkers.  In fact, the story mentions that Holbrooke, who was all of nineteen years old and not even on the cusp of greatness yet, used the argument of thinking with the university when pleading his case to the administration: why not have the guy come and speak and let the students consider the ideas for themselves? Academic freedom at its best.

At the end of the story, they note that Burnley went on to write the paper as a narrative for his class, and is currently at work on a longer version of it.  To me, this is the bare-bones essence of writing: thinking through the story and the situation from multiple angles before committing the physical act of writing.  The ideas, the thoughts, the considerations, have to precede the words.

I have argued before that the use of technology seems to be obviating the need for critical thinking, but perhaps I am not all the way right here.  Technology, archives and the ability to see, understand and research with never before available speed and ease might be paving the way for a different type of thinking.

Stay tuned.