Sunday, August 21, 2011


My friend Gary and I go way back. We met in high school, stayed in touch through the college years even though he went to school near home and I was three hours away. We annually meet up with another high school crony to attend the US OPEN, go to the school reunions, and generally keep abreast of each other's lives.

I remember meeting his then girlfriend in the early seventies and attending their wedding on November 17, 1973, the Saturday before Thanksgiving that year. I've been to both of his children's bar and bat mitzvahs, his daughter's wedding a few years ago, and then just last weekend to his son's wedding.

Gary and I have what I have always thought was a healthy dose of skepticism towards the status quo and convention for convention's sake. In the summer of 69 we worked together at a pool company unloading very heavy boxes that once assembled by the customer became outdoor pools for suburban back yards. In the course of that job and another working as waiter and busboy in the Catskills, we would regularly share a general laugh at what seemed to be done for show, ceremony, or without apparent reason.

There was a ceremony at his son's wedding last weekend, which on the surface was just the kind of thing that Gary or at least I would have ridiculed had we seen it while working one of the functions in the Catskills. It was called a Mezinka. The MC asked the parents of the groom to sit on some chairs in the middle of the room. And then asked each of the guests to circle around the parents and congratulate them on the marriage of their last child.

As I took my place in the circling guests I found myself not quite choked up, but feeling the power of this ceremony in a very physical way. Each of the guests, leaned into Gary and Cathy and congratulated them and I was very moved as I participated and watched Gary accept the well deserved congratulations.

Maybe getting older means realizing that there are reasons why conventions become conventions.

There is a power to having and raising a family and then seeing them move off on their own to continue the cycle. Gary, often the wiseguy, was engaged during the Mezinka and I could tell he was moved as he had a right to be. Afterwards, I told him that I thought it was a special moment and instead of pooh poohing it, he shook his head and agreed. He told me that his daughter was downstairs in the building taking care of her own young daughter who had walked down the aisle in the main ceremony. Gary's daughter was soon to be a parent again and I heard this week that she gave birth to a second child. The Mezinka congratulates him and Cathy and the cycle continues. Very powerful.

If we only have love, we can give the new world to our daughters and sons.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Pants on Fire

There is a section in the Boston Globe which lists "what happened this day" I don't read it everyday, but today I did. The column also lists famous people birthdays. It is humbling to note that nearly everyone under 40 is someone I have never heard of.

But what caught my eye today, perhaps in the light of today's news about deaths in Afghanistan, was that today is the date that congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which allowed President Johnson to escalate the war in Vietnam.

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was a reaction to what President Johnson referred to as the Tonkin Gulf incident--an event he described revealing the sinister behaviors of our enemies in North Vietnam, an event he suggested that compelled the United States to increase military activity in South East Asia.

Most, if not all, historians agree that the Tonkin Gulf Incident never occurred. That it was a contrivance by the President to persuade Americans and their representatives to give Johnson the authority to increase our involvement in the war.

Nobody with a pulse who visits the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial in Washington is unmoved. And so many of the names on that Memorial died because we escalated our activity based on a lie. Today is the anniversary of the vote that was taken based on that lie. How many of our soldiers and all the worlds' soldiers have died because they assumed that government was telling the truth.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Apples and Oranges

I saw something in the paper today that at first startled me and then made me snort with laughter. I am not sure my employers will be able to similarly laugh it off.

Northeastern University, where I am employed, has advanced dramatically in the past ten years. At one point we were an open admissions institution with a reputation that did not rival our neighbors' in the Boston area. Last year, however, and in each of the last several years the university's qualitative growth has been remarkable. We were ranked 69th last year in US News and World Report. This year we will likely be ranked somewhere in the 50s. I have heard optimistic predictions that we may be ranked as high as the 30th best research university in the country. At the same time the numbers of students who have applied has soared. This year over 43000 students applied for 2800 slots. So, we are doing well.

I read in today's paper that another organization has ranked universities and this ranking has my employers justifiably irate. Instead of being in the top 100 we are not in the top 400. How can it be that USNews has ranked us so high, and the newcomer has ranked us so relatively low.

The reason is comical if one could maintain one's sense of the humor. It seems as if this other ranking agency has as a criterion the percentage of students who graduate in four years. This criterion has a hefty weight of 20 percent. And in this category we, Northeastern, appear to not measure up. Most of our students graduate in 5 years. Therefore, we would consequently fall in the rankings.

When I read about the criterion, as I write above, I was at first incredulous and then laughed. Northeastern is a five year--not a four year-- school. Nearly all of our students participate in what is called Co-op, Cooperative Education. That means they alternate periods of study with periods of employment in their field. Students do not pay tuition while they are "on co-op"; they get paid by an employer. So, an Accounting major studies Accounting and then works for 6 months in an Accounting firm. Then she or he returns to school, studies in a conventional classroom, and then during the next semester goes back to another Accounting firm. After five years the student has accrued the standard 128 credits and also has had three work experiences.

Since we are a five year school, graduating in five years is what we, the students, and the students' parents expect.

When my school discovered the ranking was based in large part on this alleged deficiency, we contacted the agency. Their response, "Well we have to use the same criteria, otherwise it is 'apples and oranges'."

Well, no. If you were to apply this same measure, then the apt criterion would be, do students graduate on time. If you were to claim that graduating in four years is the appropriate criterion, then Junior Colleges would head the list, because their students would seem to be remarkably quick graduating in 2 years. Six month certificate programs in, say, Cake Baking would do even better, graduating their students in 1/8 the time of say Harvard.

I am startled by how often people use shibboleths like "Apples and Oranges" to justify irrational or irresponsible behavior. My favorites are "Business is Business" and "I was just doing what I had to do." Under the umbrella of "Business is Business" you can steal and deceive. "Doing what I had to do" can justify behaving unethically with employers, friends, sweethearts, and family members.

I am more amused by the ranking than anything else. Nobody but a goof could think that the listing made sense, but I am troubled as I am reminded by how often platitudes are used to be unprofessional or inconsiderate or, in some cases allow for horrifically egregious behaviors. "Just doing my job" and "just following orders" worked well for genocide collaborators.

Now comparing perpetrators of genocide with college ranking irresponsibility would be apples and oranges. Hiding behind shibboleths, however, seems to work for all sorts of fruits.