Monday, July 26, 2010

Bullying: Nowhere to Turn?

It's one of those things that's difficult to define, but we know it when we see it. Or do we? The youthful scourge of bullying has proven a very difficult monster to tame. It seems the more this phenomenon is studied, the more nebulous its core characteristics become, which is in fact where much of the problem lies.

Too often bullying is portrayed as a harmless right of passage in our pop culture media, laughing it up all the way while helpless nerd types are consigned the indignity of atomic wedgies, toilet swirlies, and the oh-I-didn't-mean-to-bump-into-you-so-hard body slam in the hallway. In the real world, however, bullying is more nuanced and subtle so as to camouflage its sinister essence and provide the offender with the plausible deniability he or she needs to avoid responsibility and consequences.

The difference between normal boundary testing among kids and the invidious institution of bullying is that bullying is used for the express purpose of hurting its victims; hurting, alienating, and subordinating are the objective, its willfulness the most defining trait. The everyday border skirmish between young personalities carries no such odious motivation and is much less likely to result in serious emotional injury.

There is also an unlikely and unwitting co-conspirator committing the ominous sin of omission when most bullying incidents occur: the nearest adult authority figure. Passively instructing an apparent offender to "knock it off" or "return to your seat" while his victim fumes with silent desperation reveals a profound ignorance about what is often really occurring. Even when a teacher does recognize serious bullying for what it is, he or she is sometimes met with an unsympathetic administration whose agenda often involves denial. So often the abused feel most disappointed by the very adults charged with maintaining civility and administering consequences. Not only will incidents be rationalized and minimized as mere misunderstandings, worse yet is the sense of betrayal victims experience when their emotional pain is not even validated by those in authority.

When those who have been repeatedly abused by their peers feel they have no place—or no one—to turn to for help, long-term consequences are all but inevitable.

These observations are informed, sadly, by the experience of having a child who was mistreated by her peers. As parents we, too, felt most aggrieved by the adults, the administration, guidance counselor, etc., who kept trying to turn the page without ever really reading what was on the page. One counselor had the effrontery to say, after our child was admitted to a psychiatric facility, that maybe 'in there' she would finally see some real suffering which would "snap her out of it." Inexplicably, this person did not even comprehend the seriousness of her plight and the reality of her already painful predicament.

Today my daughter is my hero. She is committed to turning the page, but knows full well the way to get beyond the pain is to work her way through the pain—not go around it.

The conspiracy of denial must end. It is time the bullies were sent to the school psychologist to gain some insight into their own behavior. Counseling should be part of a comprehensive approach to dealing with offenders. Bullies need to learn the craft of empathy. The consequences of not learning we know all too well.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Understanding the Coulter Culture (Redux)

Original Post Date: July 2, 2008

What is it about Ann Coulter? By her own admission, the things she says and does are calculated to provoke the most infuriating response possible. Which begs the question: Is she in the business of providing astute political commentary or pissing people off?

It occurs to me that Ms. Coulter rarely achieves the former and, in all likelihood, regularly achieves the latter. This is not to say she is not one of the best at what she does. It’s just that people can’t quite seem to agree on exactly what it is that she does do. Despite this conundrum, she remains all too predictable, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Larry King is the master of the softball interview, but at least we know that going in.

For pure entertainment value, Ann Coulter has few equals. With exquisitely good looks and a diabolically sardonic wit to match, she presents a formidable presence, to say the least. But this presence, including all the taunting cloaked as sublime articulation, is so painfully manicured it all appears to be little more than a “shtick.” I’m not sure even she believes most of the immoderate rhetoric (to put it politely) that comes out of her own mouth. With Ms. Coulter, controversy and self promotion are the objective, not changing the hearts and minds of us lost liberal souls. She is keenly aware that the more extreme her vitriol the more entrenched her ideological opponents become. Of all the tools she possesses, the fine art of persuasion clearly eludes her.

Listening to Ann Coulter reminds me of professional wrestling. Is it real, or is it fake? That depends. What it purports to be, human gladiators intent on maiming one another, is so fake it doesn’t pass the laugh test. What it really is, entertainment on a stick, is as real as it gets. So it goes with Ms. Coulter. As she ostensibly promotes the virtues of conservatism, she compels us to dismiss her as an observer of the political landscape precisely because she is doing it all for show (not to mention book promotion).

So good luck with your next guest spot on The O’Reilly Factor, Ms. Coulter. Or should I say—in the tradition of theater-goers—break a leg. Either way I’ll be watching the same way rubberneckers gawk at a highway inferno, unable to turn away from the resplendent carnage. After all, I am so easily entertained.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Fenway Park: Now That's Baseball!

It took me a long time to get there, but I can finally check off "gong to Fenway Park to see a Red Sox game" from my bucket list. No, I'm not really about to kick the bucket, but don't we all construct a sort of bucket list as we go through life anyway?

Being a Yankees fan, the legendary charm of Fenway Park is something we'd all heard about: the quaintness; the small arena; the rickety, aging architecture; the infamous Green Monster. As much as I despised my baseball fan nemeses, I kept secretly hoping to go to Fenway Park one day to see for myself what made it such a special place. The wait is over.

At the moment we entered the Park and the playing field came into full view, a chill went up my spine. As great as it looks on a high-definition television at home, being there in person is an experience like no other. Each and every fan is an integral cog in the wheel of the game experience: passing Fenway franks down the line to the person 12 seats over; smiling every time (well almost every time) someone needs to exit your row in a symphony of standing and sitting to accommodate them; becoming one with passionate cheer every time the home team makes a great play or sends a run across the plate. And the sheer determination of the wave initiators is something to truly behold. Like starting a cold lawn mower, waves tend to growl and fizzle a number of times before they finally come to life, merging the minds of the masses and giving us a wave so grand it would make the Beach Boys proud.

Something I really wanted to be treated to was a Green Monster home run, and in the sixth inning Bosox banger Kevin (You Kill Us) Youkilis obliged, lining a shot over the great left field barrier so hard it nearly tore a hole through the billboard above. And from where we were sitting in the right field grand stands, we could see this ball was still headed in an upward trajectory as it flew over the fans atop the monster! God I hate Kevin Youkilis. I have a recurring nightmare where it's the bottom of the ninth in game seven of the Championship Series and Youkilis is facing Mariano Rivera with two men on and trailing by one. I won't say exactly what happens next, but it ain't pretty and I always wake up screaming and crying.

There's a good chance the fans at Fenway will have a laugh or two during most games as well. Watching Big Poppy, a.k.a. David Ortiz, slam one toward the gap or off the monster—as he did twice on this night—usually brings with it the torturously funny spectacle of seeing him make the huge turn at first and approach second base as if it were a bridge too far. Somehow, Poppy gets there safely, though it often takes him a few minutes to get back on his feet. Even funnier is seeing him try to avoid being overtaken on the bases by a teammate who hits a gapper right behind him. My hunch is that Big Poppy has never scored from first base on anything other than a home run.

The Red Sox won the game last night 9-3, which is as it should have been. They were the better team. But more important, my family and I won a night we won't soon forget, and got to see baseball at its best. The beer was cold; the franks were tasty; the peanuts were salty and crunchy, and the grand old game gave us a thrill. Yankee fan or not, Fenway Park is one magical place to watch baseball.