Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Word Power!

The English language is always evolving. Each year, the Oxford Dictionary publishers pick a “word of the year”--a new word they believe reflects a thematic idea for the year. This year’s choice, recently announced, is the clunky, “unfriend”. Facebook users know exactly what this means: to remove someone as a friend on a social networking site. What is interesting about that word is the prefix “un” is usually used with adjectives (unacceptable, unappealing) and although there are certainly some “un” verbs (unpack, unburden), the word “friend” is not used as a verb, so to use “unfriend” as a verb is highly unusual, and likely what intrigued Oxford dictionary folks enough to pick it.

Narrowly missing out on the 2009 word of the year were a variety of other new words or phrases, among them:

• “Intexticated” (distracted because one is texting on a cell phone while driving a car—as in “Friends don’t let friend drive intexticated!”)

• “funemployed” (taking advantage of being laid off from work by having fun)

• “zombie bank” ( a bank which is virtually bankrupt but kept afloat through government bailouts)

• “tramp stamp” (a tattoo on the lower back)

Merriam-Webster also publishes a word of the year. If one goes back over the last 5 or so years, one can track major themes for those years. For example, in 2005 the word of the year was “integrity”, chosen that year because it was the most looked up word in Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary. Ironic, isn’t it, that as steroids rocked baseball, as ethical scandals in Congress and in the corporate world were rampant, that people had to look up the “integrity” to see what it meant!

Similarly, in 2006, the word of the year was “Truthiness”, which means believing what you want to believe in your gut, rather than what is known to be true. Again, I find it telling we’ve created a word that really means “my opinion”, and cloaked opinion with the authority derived from the base word “Truth”. Truth, at its deepest level, means “that which is” rather than “that which I perceive” but it should be no surprise we confuse the two given the influence of relativism.

In 2007, Merriam’s word of the year was “wOOt”, expressing joy, whereas in 2008 the word was, not surprisingly, “bailout”, reflecting the efforts of government to rescue many companies from financial distress.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “Words are alive; cut them and they bleed”. Using exactly the right word for a paper, invoking a clever turn of phrase in conversation or using a choice sarcastic word to cut someone down to size is immensely satisfying. Words are living things which have the power to create and inspire and the power to destroy. In a culture that watches too much TV, which Alec Baldwin in the Hulu commercial reminds us turns our brains into a cottage cheese-like gelatinous mush, let us re-dedicate ourselves to reading and writing so that we may be able to create and appreciate excellent prose.

Let me leave you with a brief example of spectacular writing from one of the all time great essayists, John Henry Newman. Newman is arguing against the enlightenment assumption that being well educated makes one morally virtuous. Rather than simply saying “No, because the temptation to sin is part of the human condition, regardless of how well educated one is” he writes:

Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with silken thread; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man. (John Henry Newman, “The Idea of a University”).

Now that is writing! May we all aspire to use words as well as Newman did. Work hard in your English classes!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Much expected

To whom much is given, much is expected” (Luke 12:48)

Jesus said that, but when I was in high school, my father repeated this phrase to me often. He was fond of reminding me of this phrase whenever I was a little too proud of something—maybe a good test score, a good report card, or playing a good basketball game. I can almost hear him say, as he did many times, “Consider your talents a gift from God, but be sure to use those talents for the sake of others.”

I was watching the Titans play Buffalo yesterday. Buffalo recently signed Terrell Owens as a free agent receiver. “T.O” is regarded as one of the most talented receivers in the game, a physical freak of nature at 6’ 3’’, 225 pounds who can run a 4.35 forty. But he also has a reputation of being a prima donna, concerned more about himself than the welfare of the team. Sure enough, yesterday, when things began to unravel and the Titans began to take control of the game, T.O. began yelling at his teammates and coaches on the sideline. No one questions his prodigious talent. But there are few NFL teams that want Owens on their roster, because he tears down team morale and draws unnecessary attention to himself. In other words, Owens has been given much, but he’s using his gift selfishly.

You, too, have been given much. Most of you come from solid families and they sacrifice to send you here. The education you receive here will catapult you forward in your life. Most of your peers growing up in Nashville don’t have the opportunities you have today, nor will have these opportunities in the future, whether that’s to attend a prestigious college or land a lucrative job one day. Compared to others you live a privileged life.

How will you return this gift to the Lord? Will you use the advantages you’ve been given only for yourself, or will you parlay them into a life makes a positive difference in this world for others?

And in the here and now, in your life around this school, this building, the hallways, our cafeteria, will you be grateful for what you’ve received? Gratitude can be shown in small, practical ways, like an out of the way kind comment to a teacher or classmate, like keeping our hallways and cafeteria clean from trash, like taking an unpopular position with your peers because it’s the right one to take, by simply being a good listener to someone who needs to talk.

God wants us to be happy. The best way to be happy is to use the natural talents God has given us to the best of our ability. But that alone isn’t enough. We must use those talents to serve others, not ourselves.

Students at JPII, you have been given much. Rejoice and be grateful for your talents. Return those talents back to him in service to others and you will indeed live happy and fulfilling lives.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Men, Women and Etiquette

I grew up in Mobile, Al on the Gulf Coast. Being a southerner, I was taught by my parents that gentleman are expected to treat women a certain way. For example, you always opened doors for women. But that was down south. The first time I opened a door for a woman when I was a freshman at Notre Dame in northern Indiana, the woman glared at me and said in a very irritated voice, “I can open the door for myself” and slammed the door behind her as I stood there, confused.

These are confusing times for men. For this reason, I was happy to recently come upon an article by Amy Bickers in Southern Living magazine, called “15 Ways to Charm Her” (July, 2009) —a guide as to what southern women expect of men. Fellas, I read this article for your benefit. Women, see if you agree.

Here’s what Ms. Bickers says:

Want to impress a Southern girl? Just think "What would my grandfather have done?"

Number one: We still expect you to give up your seat for a lady. On a bus, at a bar, on a train. . . we don't care where you are. Unless you are at a restaurant and the only lady in sight is the one taking your order, stand up. Now.

On a recent Friday night at a bustling restaurant bar, two friends and I waited for our table to be called. The bar stools were occupied so we stood patiently, sipping wine and chatting about the workweek. When a couple nearby stood up, another woman - who had been there less time than we had - swooped in, reaching across us to put her purse on the stool. This isn't the worst part. It's what happened next: Her male companion then slid onto the other bar stool.

Hang on while I do a geography check. Are we not in the South? If ladies are waiting for a seat and you have a Y chromosome, do you sit down? No, sir. No, you do not.

We know modern life is confusing. The roles of men and women have evolved over the years.

But come on, let's keep some things old-school. My late grandfather- he of the East Texas upbringing, U.S. Navy captain status, and Cary Grant good looks - would never have allowed a woman to stand while he sat. And if you want a Southern woman to love you, neither will you. So, men, here's a short list of things Southern girls still expect from you.

We still expect you to...


[3] Know that the sec has the best football TEAMS IN THE NATION. Big 12 fan? Hmm, perhaps you should keep walking.

[4] KILL BUGS. Enough said.

[5] Hold doors open.

[6] FIX THINGS OR BUILD STUFF. I once watched in awe as my stepfather built a front porch on the house he shares with my mother. He knew just what to do, cutting every notch, hammering every nail. The project was complete by sunset.

[7] WEAR BOOTS OCCASIONALLY. Not the fancy, l-paid-$l,000-for-these kind. We're talking about slightly mud-crusted, I-could-have-just-come-in-from-the-field boots.

[8] Take off your hat inside.

[9] Grill stuff.

[10:] CALL US. If you want to ask us out, don't text and don't e-mail. Pick up the phone and use your voice.

[11] Stand when we come back to the dinner TABLE. "Just a little half-stand is enough to make me melt," my friend Stephanie says.

[12] PULL OUT OUR CHAIRS. Wait, that's not all. Scoot them back in before we hit the floor.

[13] Pay the tab on the first few DATES. "If you ask me out, you pay," Stephanie says. "If I ask you out, you should still pay." Listen, guys, it's just simpler this way.

[14] NEVER GET IN BAR FIGHTS. Patrick Swayze might look cool in Road House, but in reality, bar fights are stupid and embarrassing. You don't look tough. You look like an idiot.

[15] Don't show up in a wrinkled, un-tucked SHIRT. Care about your appearance but not too much. Don't smell better than we do. Don't use mousse or gel. You shouldn't look like you spend more time in front of the mirror than we do.

So says Ms. Bickers from Southern Living.

Gentlemen, all joking aside, the truth is if you treat women with respect, if you listen to them and not talk incessantly about yourself, if you avoid playing the game we men often play with each other (which is to top someone else’s story with a story of your own that is even better), if you give them your genuine attention, you will be well on your way to a good relationship. My wife would add one more bit of advice: if you’re watching TV together, put DOWN the remote control. Men may like watching 2-3 shows at once. Women do not.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

My grandmother

This is Mr. Weber's assembly address to JPII students on November 2, 2009.

Today is All Souls Day in the Catholic Church, a day to remember and honor our deceased love ones. We pray for them today, but we also give them honor by remembering the values that they stood for and trying to make them our own.

Who in your life—a grandparent or great-grandparent, perhaps, an uncle or aunt—has died but left a mark on you in some sort of important way? I’d like you to think of that person this morning.

For me, it was my grandmother. She died 20 years ago, but we were very close. She was a little woman, only 4’ 11’’ but she was strong in stature and personality. Her mother died when she was only 3, and since her father was an astronomer (known for having their minds in other galaxies) and she was the oldest girl in the family, she had a lot of responsibility to raise her younger siblings.

They were poor, so she went to work when she was 14 to help out, keeping the books for a local grocer after school. Her younger brother was apparently brilliant but had a gambling problem, so when he went to Washington D.C. in the 1920’s for law school, her father asked her to go with him so she could keep him out of trouble. She did as her father asked, but when she got there, she decided to enroll in the law school herself---something very unusual for a woman to do—and received a law degree 3 years later. No one would hire a female lawyer in the 1920’s except for the federal government, so she ended up working for the Department of Immigration for 15 or so years. During that time she also received a private pilot’s license, something else that was unheard of for a woman, but apparently she was dating a man at the time who was taking pilot lessons, and as she had done for law school, she decided to earn a license for herself. She never married that man, however, because when she went to visit his family in Georgia, she found out that they were virulently anti-Catholic and that was the end of that.

In fact, it wasn’t until she was 38 that she met my grandfather and married—18 years later than the typical woman of her day. He was a naval officer, a graduate of Annapolis, who had been married before and had 3 teenage children, but his wife had died of an illness 2 years earlier My grandmother became pregnant for the first time at age 39 with my mother just as World War II was breaking out, so less than 6 months after her marriage, my grandfather was called to war, leaving her all alone, pregnant, with 3 teenage step children. The WWII years were tough years for her. They moved constantly to where-ever my grandfather was stationed—San Francisco, Hawaii, back to the east coast—but they saw very little of each other during that time. He was at sea when my mother was born, at sea when she took her first steps, at sea when she first went to kindergarten. But my grandmother was faithful and strong and survived. She had one other child when she was 45, my aunt, who now lives in Huntsville.

Fast forward to when I remember her. She settled in Auburn, AL, about 5 hours away from Mobile, AL, where I grew up. My grandfather died in 1968 when I was only 6, so I don’t have much memory of him, but she would visit us often, and we loved it. She’d come down for our birthdays and other special events. She’d usually take us out to eat, something we didn’t do very often and she often gave us presents for no other reason than she wanted to. I remember she drove a big Cadillac, and since she was so short, all you could see over the dashboard was her head, and that, I think, partly explained the fact she was a terrible driver. She often bragged she had never been in a wreck, which only proved to me as a kid how skilled a driver every one else on the road must have been! She never stayed with us for more than 2-3 days before she whisked back off to Auburn, and even as young child I had this sense she was a very independent, self-reliant woman. She was always interested in us. She wrote letters to us and often included checks as gifts, which made her a pretty cool grandmother when I was a teenager.

Her generosity extended beyond our family. She cared for people in nursing homes, even eventually for those who were younger than she. She gave to charitable causes, a fact apparently well known to charitable causes, because she received literally 20-30 mail solicitations per day. She was a pillar in her church at St. Michael’s in Auburn.

She wasn’t perfect. She was an impatient woman. I remember when we were leaving for Auburn with her and got no further than downtown Mobile. There was an accident inside the Bankhead tunnel, and we got into a huge traffic jam, with miles of cars before us and behind us. After going no-where for 30 minutes, she snapped and just started honking the horn over and over for 20 minutes. When we finally crept forward close enough to be within earshot of the policeman directing traffic, she rolled down her window and let him know how incompetent he was in no uncertain terms. Meanwhile, my sisters and I, mortified, hid under the seat in the back.

God was merciful to her in the last years of her life. Given her fierce independence and fiery nature, she would have not tolerated a long sickness. She was in her 80’s, but she woke up that morning at 6 a.m. as she always did, went swimming for exercise in the Auburn city pool at 7 a.m., then delivered a cake to the nursing home she had made the night before. She wasn’t feeling well—she was having trouble breathing—so she decided to go to the doctor later that morning, who told her she must immediately check into the hospital. It turns out she had cancer. She checked in on Thursday afternoon, the same day she had been swimming at 7 a.m. and died that Monday, just long enough for all of the family to come and see her for the last time.

As you think of that person in your life you admired but who is now deceased, ask yourself, what was their best trait? Their best virtue? We can best honor our deceased love ones on this, All Souls Day, by taking this virtue and working hard to make it our own.

I admire my grandmother for her generosity to others, her fierce, fiery independent spirit and her strong work ethic. I hope that I can be a person worthy of being called her grandson by being just as generous and working just as hard.