Saturday, April 30, 2011


My father was a teacher and then a principal. My brother was a special needs teacher for over thirty years. I taught high school for one year and have been teaching college students for over thirty years. And yet, it was a fellow in a locker room who relayed an anecdote about teaching that I had never heard before and consider very interesting--even if I am not sure I completely agree with it. It may be that both my father and brother told me this story as did my own teachers in college, but I have no recollection of it--the marshmallow test.

So, we are in the locker room last weekend and shooting the breeze as is typically the case. He is asking me about work and we get to speaking about his playing days as a football player at Northeastern where I am currently employed. He tells me about one player who one just knew would be a leader on fields other than athletic playing fields. And this person did in fact become a leader.

I comment about how as a teacher you sometimes can sense that someone will become unusual and a leader. (By the way I will interject here that Michael Lake, a student in one of my classes several years ago, will--I guarantee it--be a senator or congressperson or perhaps president in fifteen years. He is now in his late 20s. If Las Vegas is taking odds on this--bet the farm).

When I tell my friend that teachers can sometime detect future greatness, he says--"well sure the old marshmallow test."

I smiled but confessed that I had never heard of it.

"You, a college professor, and you never heard of the marshmallow test?"

"This is one of many things that I do not know." I say. "But I am curious, what is it?"

He tells me that the marshmallow test is a good way to discover at a very early age who will make wise decisions and who will follow a path that is more difficult to travel.

He tells me that what you do is take children, isolate them, and put a marshmallow in front of each one of them. You tell the youngsters that they can eat their marshmallow now, or what they can do is not eat the marshmallow now, but wait thirty minutes at which time they can have two marshmallows.

My exercising friend said that the kid who eats the marshmallow right there is in for trouble. Whereas those who are wise enough to wait for the two marshmallows in thirty minutes reflect, patience, intelligence, analytical skills, and the likelihood of future successes.

I have been thinking of the marshmallow test all week. While I have found it intriguing, I am not sure the conclusions are necessarily correct. I am a two marshmallows in thirty minutes guy. No way do I snort that one marshmallow if I know that two are on the horizon if I wait. But I am not sure if that has served me well. Sure, two marshmallows are, all things being equal, better than one, but some people who are impetuous can benefit from this behavior. There can be tangible evidence of joy--and I have seen it--for those who grabbed that marshmallow.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

sudden death in the NHL

In the epilogue to the Madness of March I write about my trip to New York to see the 7th game of the penultimate round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 1994. The Devils played the Rangers in the game. The Rangers prevailed in double overtime 2-1.

Of the four major sports, hockey is my least favorite. I attended because the person I refer to as Larry Poppel (I changed the name at his request) is a lifelong friend and a serious fan of the Rangers. I had previously attended hockey games with him and his season ticket holding cohorts and it has always been an experience to do so.

That game remains, 17 years later, as the most thrilling event I have ever witnessed live. Today 17 years later, I feel for everyone of Larry's friends because last night the Rangers lost a heartbreaker of a game in double overtime to the Washington Capitals.

Those who are not fans of sport cannot understand how deflating it can be to watch your team go down in a tight contest. Last night's game was in the playoffs and the Rangers had been up 3-0 before losing the game 4-3 on a flukey goal with only a couple of minutes left in the second overtime period.

Again, I am not a hockey fan but I was riveted to the tv screen for both overtimes and most of the second and third period. I muttered a cliche at a few intervals that I've often said aloud but, except for in sudden death hockey games, I've never meant literally. After watching the Capitals and Rangers skating up and down the ice and screaming slap shots that could end the game instantly, I found myself saying, "I don't know how much more of this I can take."

The folks I've met in Larry Poppel's section on the occasions I've been to Madison Square Garden have been unable to focus today. Nevertheless, not one of them would argue with the contention that there is nothing in sport more exciting than a sudden death game in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Objects in Your Mirror

My friend Kenny, annually, travels to Boston for Patriots Day weekend. The weekend is a bit of a mystery to those who do not live in the Northeast. Monday is a holiday, Patriots Day, and most businesses and schools are closed. It is on this day when the Boston Marathon is run. Also, the Boston Red Sox play a baseball game which begins at 11 a.m. When I was a kid, the Red Sox played a double header on this day, but double headers have gone the way of Black and White television sets and now it is a single game. Spectators can leave the park, walk to the Prudential Center and see some struggling athletes try to leg out the last half mile of their 26.2 mile journey.

If you have never been to the Northeast to see the Boston Marathon you should put it on your bucket list. It is quite a scene with thousands of runners engaged and thousands of viewers cheering them on. One time attending the event and the party that is Boston on that day will make it clear why my buddy likes to travel here for the weekend. Even before the race day/baseball day itself, the city is charged with those who have arrived and are awaiting the race day. Restaurants and taverns are jammed with family members of runners, the streets are decked out with the bunting of a party, and in general all appears festive.

It would be good I think if we could imagine all of life like the three day ride which is Patriots Day weekend. Over breakfast Kenny and I were musing about this and that and I told him about a calendar I'd received last year as a gift. The calendar was a New Yorker cartoon a day rip off number, so that each day one could be greeted by a drawing and cartoonist's quip that might brighten your morning. I save the ones that are especially funny to me, and talked about a few with him. One that had a bit of dark humor featured a woman who is, apparently, conversing with the grim reaper. The cartoon/caption has the woman saying to the grim reaper, "Oh My, I've got to introduce you to my husband."

Kenny got a laugh out of that one and then told me about a birthday card he'd received last year from a friend. In it a driver is in a car and is looking out at the side view mirror. In the mirror the driver sees the reflection of the grim reaper. The birthday card message is simple: "Objects in the mirror are closer than you think."

This is a good notion to carry around in your head despite what could be seen as a gloomy reality. It is time to enjoy Patriots days, and all the rest of them. The object in the mirror is closer than we think.

P.S. The World's Record for a marathoner was set yesterday. The more amazing news is that "Dice Kay" pitched a one hitter over seven innings and the Red Sox won their third straight.

P.S. #2 Best tee shirt at the marathon yesterday was a takeoff on the omnipresent Green Celtic shirts that read, "Beat LA" a reference to the chant encouraging the Celtics to beat the LA Lakers. The knockoff shirt for the marathon yesterday looked the same--green with the same lettering color and font. However the message was slightly different.

"Beat Kenya" it read.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Sarah's Key--Book Review

One of my tipsters for good books is the check-out woman at a local package store. She is a full time librarian who moonlights bagging sixpacks and wishing people a nice day. Once when checking out I noticed she had a hardcover underneath the counter, reading it when she caught a break from the traffic. So, I asked what she recommended and she rattled off a few names that I scribbled onto the paper bag. One was The Help. The Help was a great read, so when recently I spotted the librarian in the store I asked her for another suggestion. She suggested Sarah's Key. .

I don't think Sarah's Key is an especially well written book, but it is a powerful one. It is very predictable in some sections and often reads as a thin story intended as a vehicle to describe an historical event.

That written as a caveat, I still recommend it. As predictable as the book is, I still found myself moved by it.

When I first began teaching at my current university I heard a speech about the Armenian genocide. It was a very good speech and what bothered me most about listening to it, was that I had never heard of the Armenian Genocide before and was embarrassed that I had not. I had a similar experience reading Sarah's Key. It is not about the Armenian genocide, but about an event that is called Vel' d'Hiv, a horrific occurrence that took place in Paris on July 16 1942. Sarah's Key centers around this event and I had never heard of Vel' d'Hiv. Sixty plus laps around the track, a relatively well read individual, and I'd never heard anything about this. Can't remember a lesson in high school, graduate school, anyplace. July 16th is two days after Bastille Day. I sure have heard about this. How is it possible I did not know about what took place in another year on July 16th.

There are several parts of the book that can move a sensitive individual to tears. One occurs at the end and despite the fact that nobody wise enough to pick up the book will not be able to predict it, you will still water up when you read it. However, to me the section that will stay with me more takes place about two thirds of the way through the book.

An American journalist has discovered something that connects her life with the Vel' d'Hiv incident. She too had never heard of Vel' d'Hiv. The journalist doggedly investigates what transpired and is looking for a woman who is central to the story of Vel' d'Hiv.

The journalist finds a relative of the woman and requests information. "Why find her?" says the relative. "What for?"

The journalist responds "I wanted to say I am sorry."

"Sorry for what" says the relative. Why should she feel sorry, neither she nor her country had anything to do with Vel' d'Hiv.

The journalist looked straight into the eyes of the relative and said. "[I'm] sorry for not knowing. Sorry for being forty five years old and not knowing."

I was less than forty five when I heard about the Armenian genocide, and older than forty five when I read about Vel' d'Hiv. And in both cases I felt sorry for not knowing.

So, in sum, Sarah's Key is a good and fast read, and I don't think anyperson who reads it will be unaffected by it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The light in the piazza

This past weekend my mother turned 86. To celebrate, my brother and I joined my folks for the weekend. It had been a while since the four of us were together like this and it was a joyous few days.

On the birthday night itself we all went to see The Light in the Piazza, a musical that had played in Lincoln Centre several years ago. I'd actually seen it then and had been impressed by the staging as much as the story. I am one of those people who has to listen to a song a dozen times before I get it, so while I got the general gist of the musical at first viewing, it was only after seeing it again, that I was able to appreciate it in its nuances.

The story appears to be simple. A woman takes her daughter, Carla, to Florence. The two of them are there to explore the city. The mother reads a guidebook that explains the various sights. What occurs one day is that the wind blows the hat off of Carla's head and it, serendipitously, is caught by a young man, Fabrizio. And in that moment when Fabrizio sees Carla to return the hat, the two are smitten. Subsequently problems develop and we, in the audience, wait to see what will occur between them.

Pretty standard plot. Boy meets girl. Tension surfaces for this reason or that. Boy and girl may or may not unite. I'll not reveal the ending.

But what is central to the story transcends the plot. You can take a guide book and try to explore this or that, but what we are really seeking beyond any landmark is that light in the piazza that is our true love. Understanding the value of that light, and respecting its significance, can render a simpleton a wiseperson. And vice versa, not acknowledging the value of the light, can render an otherwise bright person to be a fool.

At breakfast on the morning of the day we went to the show, my dad made a little speech before he drank his orange juice. He talked about how grateful he was that he had met my mother when he was 16 years old. And what a delight it was to be able to share this birthday with her as he had shared the others and would, knock on wood, share more in the future.

In essence, in his little talk he had summarized the play that we would see that night. There is nothing more important than finding the light in the piazza.

Friday, April 8, 2011

a dream deferred

There is a fine line between acknowledging a loss and failure, and feeling good about yourself because you fought hard to succeed even if you were unsuccessful.

The Butler Bulldogs lost to the UCONN Huskies last Monday night. None of the players on the Butler team are good enough to play professionally. What the players and the team did was miraculous. Just like the previous year, the Bulldogs won five consecutive games in a very competitive tournament to earn the rights to play for a championship. In 2010 they came within a last shot of being victorious. In 2011 they were determined to win the championship game.

Butler does not have a single player who would get meaningful playing time for Connecticut. Not one. Their two best players might not even make Connecticut's team. Yet they worked industriously and indefatigably on defense, had an offensive scheme that really was the stuff of genius, and had a chance, for a second year, to win the championship.

Not only did they lose, they looked on this championship night, as if they had no right to be playing. Nobody could make a shot. They had an awful, as in terribly awful, shooting night. I played some basketball in high school and college. Every single one of the players on Butler could beat me on my best day 15-0 in a game of one on one, 90 times out of 100. But on Monday night I have never seen a team, on any level, shoot so poorly. They could not drop a bar of soap in a bathtub.

So, not only did Butler lose, but they were embarrassed. And they had come so close.

The Butler players should feel good about themselves nevertheless because they had gotten so close.

But it must be difficult to hold onto feelings of self respect and at the same time acknowledge that you really messed up.

So, how do you handle this if you are a Butler Bulldog? You have got to be true to yourself and acknowledge that you did not score on the big stage. And at the same time you can not let this one event define you. Failure can haunt you, and an inability to reach a dream can be debilitating. I feel for the Bulldogs. As I have written in this blog before about similar competitive failures, the biggest challenge for athletes--and all others-- who have lost, is not to delude themselves that they have won--because in fact they did lose. But rather to understand that one loss does not define them however upsetting the defeat might be.