Where Was I . . .

Where Was I . . . Old Dog, New Tricks 

By Janice Lane Palko  

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80.  

Anyone who keeps learning stays young.”  –Henry Ford 

This time of year, two themes occupy my brain—the passage of time and education. It is now 2018. I remember reading the novel 1984 when I was a teen in the 70s and that date seeming like a time from the Jetsons. Now that year is long gone in our rearview mirror.  

Because this is also our education issue, learning is always on my mind in January too. With the passage of time, I’ve gained some self-knowledge, and I’ve discovered that one thing that revitalizes me is to learn something new.  

I thought it was just my weird little brain that got excited when learning new things, but apparently medical researchers are discovering that one of the ways all of us can remain young is to challenge our brains by learning something new.  

Sometimes that can be a bit scary. 

After publishing my last novel, I was contacted by several readers who said, “This book needs to be turned into a movie.” Well, before you can make a movie, you need to have a script. So, at their urging, I enrolled in a Screenwriting course at Pittsburgh Filmmakers last January. I have taught several courses, but it has been about 20 years since I actually sat at a desk as a student. It was certainly a learning experience. 

When classes began at the end of last January, I donned my best jeans, new sweater and boots and headed off to class to find that all my other classmates were college freshmen—five years younger than my youngest child—and that I was way overdressed. They rolled into class in pajama bottoms, sweatpants and T-shirts. I smiled and tried to catch an eye to make a connection, but they were all swiping through their phones.  

The class was very informative. Our teacher, who thankfully was my age or older, knew her stuff. Our assignment each week was to watch a movie, and with our new “screenwriting knowledge” give a critique the following week as well as writing a brief scene and bringing it to class where we cast our fellow classmates in roles and had a reading of the scene. 

The first week, I gave my review of Hidden Figures, the biopic about the black, female engineers at NASA. My fellow classmates critiqued such screen gems as 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag and Seven Psychopaths—and those were the ones that were mainstream. But where the generation gap really became apparent was during the reading of our scenes. I wrote one about a mother and daughter on her wedding day. Most of the other students wrote ones laced with F-bombs and which featured gruesome reenactments of rape and dismemberment. Naturally, when reading, I was always cast as the old woman or mother. Talk about typecasting! 

In addition, to learning the techniques of screenwriting, I learned that no matter how much you try to remain informed, relevant and be youthful, time marches on. I am not 18, nor do I want to be again, but I still like learning—even if it’s sometimes about psychopaths and dismemberment.  

December 2017 

Second Chances 

By Janice Lane Palko 

 I don’t know if you saw it, but recently an article appeared in the Chicago Tribune about actor and former rapper, Mark Wahlberg. The article detailed an interview Wahlberg granted to Cardinal Blaise Cupich, and that article has spawned numerous other articles. Publications from Rolling Stone magazine to Maxim ran versions of Wahlberg’s response because in the article Wahlberg stated: “I just always hope that God is a movie fan and also forgiving, because I’ve made some poor choices in my past.” When pressed if he’d ever prayed for forgiveness for any movies, in particular, he added, “Boogie Nights is up there at the top of the list.” In the 1997 movie, Wahlberg played a porn star, a role that helped him successfully transform from rapper to serious actor. 

Although I’ve enjoyed him in several of the movies he’s been in like Patriot’s Day, Lone Survivor, and The Departed, I didn’t know much about Wahlberg’s life. He’s only been in my peripheral vision. I knew he made music, was a Calvin Klein underwear model and had a checkered past, but I didn’t know just how checkered it was until I read the Facebook comments posted in response to the article. They detailed his crimes—and I do mean crimes. A gang member in Boston, Wahlberg by the time he was 13 he had a cocaine habit. When he was 16, he was charged with attempted murder after viciously assaulting two middle-aged Vietnamese men. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and served 45 days of a two-year sentence. 

That experience scared him straight. He got in touch with parish priest and turned his life around. He is now married with four children and attends mass daily hence the reason for him speaking with the cardinal. 

Wahlberg’s conversion is commendable, but I found something distressing when reading those nasty Facebook comments about him—nearly every commenter discounted the possibility that someone could change their course. But what was even more distressing was that almost no one believed in granting anyone a second chance.  

I can understand people’s hesitancy to grant mercy. No one wants to be played for a fool. It’s difficult to assess whether someone is seriously intent on turning a corner or is merely conning you, but that doesn’t mean we should pass entirely on believing in second chances. Second chances are risky. Sometimes people fail at them, but it’s glorious when they succeed. 

This time of year, we celebrate Christmas, but it could easily be known as the great second chance. After botching things in the Garden of Eden, those of us who celebrate Christmas believe that Jesus came to earth to save us—give us a second chance. This year, maybe you can grant someone a second chance or better yet, be like Mark Wahlberg. If you need fresh start, now is the time to seize the opportunity and take advantage of our Divine Do-over.  

November 2017

Whoah, Somethin’ Bad 

By Janice Lane Palko 

It was the fourth of July, and I was probably six years old. We’d bought a flag for our new house, and this was the first holiday to come along to display our new purchase. As my dad assembled the flag pole, we kids pulled the flag out of the plastic bag.  

“Careful,” my dad said, “you should never let the flag touch the ground.”  

“Why?” I asked. 

“Because it’s the symbol of our country; and it’s disrespectful.” 

“But will happen it if touches the ground?” 

I’m sure by this time my dad was wondering where he’d gotten this little inquisitor. 

“Bad things. Just don’t let it touch the ground.” 

“What bad things?”  

“I don’t know. Just bad things.” 

I was still at that age where magical thinking colors your world. I did believe that my clapping real hard saved Tinkerbell’s life. I did believe that Miss Sally on Romper Room could see me through her magic mirror. I did believe that my tongue would turn black if I told a lie. Therefore, I never, ever let the flag touch the ground.  

But as I grew older and the magic faded. I learned that fairies weren’t real, that Miss Sally’s mirror was only a piece of glass, and when I told a fib, that my tongue didn’t turn black. 

I never tested disrespecting the flag to see if bad things happened. I didn’t have to. I spent my childhood in the 1960s and my teen years in the 1970s, and people only a few years older than me put the flag to the test. They burned flags in Central Park, on college campuses, outside political conventions and wiped their feet on it. From those acts of desecration, I learned that the flag had no power, that it was only a cloth, that nothing bad would happen if you abused it.  

At least I thought so back then. 

During the 39 years since I was a teen, I’ve seen a lot of a lot of “thou shall nots” fall, things you wouldn’t dream of doing only a few years ago become the norm, and I’m don’t think we are the better for it.  

The website ushistory.org keeps a list of legal cases involving flag abuses. And from 1943 to 1968, there were no federal cases involving flag desecration. But from 1968 until the present there has been an explosion of legal cases regarding desecration.  

Like a slow-growing cancer, I think our disregard for everything that is sacred is finally catching up with us. Did disrespecting the flag cause bad things to happen? No, it is just another symptom of a deadlier disease, the result of tossing out everything held dear. What we are witnessing with the NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem is the trickle-down disintegration of civil society. Every institution in our nation is under attack and being disassembled. Our country is fraying because the cords that once bound us are snapping one-by-one. Let’s hope we find a way to knit this country back together before something truly bad and irreversible happens. 

October 2017

Where Was I . . . 

As my husband, one of our traveling companions, Maureen from Milwaukee, and I stood before the painting in Ireland’s National Gallery of Art in Dublin last month, a thin, balding, elderly Irishman charged with guarding the paintings in the gallery, sidled over to us and said softly in his charming brogue, “It didn’t happen that way, you know. They’re trying to put a good face on it.” 

We’d just spent a week touring the Irish countryside with 36 other Americans getting a crash course in Irish cuisine, culture and history. Mere hours before, our tour director, Dennis, had told us that if you polled the Irish people today as to whom is the most hated man ever in Ireland, the choice, even more than three centuries later, would be Oliver Cromwell. 

As we stared at the painting called An Interview Between Charles I and Oliver Cromwell by Daniel Maclise, we assured the Irishman, that we knew all about the two men in the painting, that Cromwell, an Englishman, had imposed the Penal Laws on the Irish Catholics. The laws among other things prevented Catholics from practicing their religion, buying land, owning valuable property, running for office, receiving an education. The intent of the laws was to crush the Irish. While Cromwell was no friend of the Irish, he was ultimately no friend to the king as well. After doing the crown’s bidding, Cromwell would also go onto sign the death warrant for the man sitting opposite him in the painting, his King, Charles I, who would be beheaded after the English Civil War. 

In the painting, Cromwell looks handsome and heroic, while King Charles is portrayed as calm and pious. He is surrounded by two little girls as they read to him from the Book of Common Prayer. Even the dog looks placid as he rests his head on Charles’s leg. Cromwell and Charles appear quite comfortable together. Who knew this was a painting of an embattled king and a dictator who would usurp his monarch’s power and send him to his death?  

We did. Because the Irish told us their history. 

The next day, we returned home to Pittsburgh to discover that there is a debate raging over the Stephen Foster statue in Oakland because it has a black man seated near Foster’s feet. Some regard this statue as racist and want it removed. While I can understand that, I think it is a mistake to remove every offensive statue, picture or monument. Because to do so erases history. It makes it seem like it never even happened.  And if it never happened, no one can ever know how evil was defeated, how indomitable the human spirit is, how far a people have risen above their oppressors. It’s easy to remove monuments, but it takes effort to pass on your history. But easy isn’t always the best way.  

I like the Irish approach. Vikings, Normans and the English had all to come Ireland over the millennia. Some came to conquer the Irish, some came and assimilated with the Irish and some were defeated by the Irish. Some came and experience a little of each. Artifacts from all those times remain. There are Viking long boats in the museums and churches that they founded in Dublin. The ruins of Norman castles dot the landscape, and famine cottages, from when the Irish were nearly starved out of existence under English rule remain in the countryside.  They do no provoke offense but pride for the Irish that they have endured so much. So, keep the paintings, the statues, the monuments, but most importantly, keep the truth, keep the history. Take pride in what you’ve overcome. Every relic of oppression is a chance to tell your story. It’s worth the effort.  Don’t erase, educate. 

October 2017 issue

No privacy. Chips! 

Back in the 1970s, Saturday Night Live featured a recurring skit called the “Olympia Café” that starred the late John Belushi as Pete Dionasopoulos, the owner of the Greek cafe. What made the skit such a hit was that no matter if a customer ordered fries, Pete always shouted, “No fries. Chips!” Everyone got chips. There was no choice. 

I’m afraid that we may be approaching a day when “chips” are no longer funny. 

On August 1, Three Square Market, a technology company in River Falls, Wisconsin, gave their employees the choice of having a microchip inserted into their flesh between their thumbs and index fingers or not. More than half of the company’s 80 employees opted to have the microchip, which is the size of a grain of rice, embedded. The company makes cafeteria kiosks that it hopes will replace vending machines and says the chips will eliminate the need for employees to swipe to get into a building or pay for food in their cafeteria. All that will be accomplished by a wave of the “chipped” hand. 

I can understand the employees agreeing to this as an example of “practicing what you preach,” but I wouldn’t be so keen on this. The company says it has no GPS capabilities imbedded in the chip so it cannot track employees, but this could be just the first step to the greatest loss of privacy and independence ever known to humankind.  

As with most innovations, there comes the duality of advancement and abuse. The invention of cars gave us greater mobility and convenience while at the same time creating pollution, noise and traffic. Television opened the world to us, but also has seduced us into spending countless hours watching mindless shows. Cell phones allowed us to remain in touch wherever we go, yet when we are face-to-face with an individual, many of us still stare at our screens. 

I can see how “chipping” someone would have benefits. But I can see many more problems. What if it becomes “beneficial” to chip you with your medical information? What if it becomes “beneficial” to chip you with your passport information? 

I’m not just wary of governmental abuse, tracking citizens whereabouts and what they are doing. What about employer abuse? Could they track how many bathroom breaks you take? How long you spend on the phone or sending emails? What if Joe can sell as many products as Jane but he does it with less minutes spent on the phone or with fewer emails? Can Jane be let go for that? 

With the government playing an even bigger role in health care, I’ve felt the nudge by my insurance carrier to be more accountable to them. This year they’ve introduced “wellness activities” that persuade subscribers to do certain things to receive a discount on monthly premiums. This month I’ve been tracking the fruits and vegetables I eat. But what if they insist on having their customers chipped as a condition of being insured? The possibilities for abuse are endless. 

While there may be good reasons to embrace this technology, I can think of many more bad ones. So for now I will have to say: No chips! 

What are your thoughts about being microchipped?