“I vant to be alone”

Since a presidential election is only just over a year away, we are entering into the silly season for phone surveys. They always seem to happen at dinner time. Just when you are about to eat, the phone rings and someone tells you that they are calling on behalf of this or that survey and ask would you please…and that is when I hang up! There seems to be no way to get off their lists. You can register with the National Do Not Call Registry, but surveys are exempt, and so are those “robo-calls” from politicians. Politicians always exempt themselves from any restrictions. Not only do they go on and on, but you have no opportunity to debate with them when they tell you their views. Newt Gingrich was a particularly frequent caller in the last election cycle until he was knocked out of the primary race. I would often pick up the phone and hear, “Hello, this is Newt, and I would like to tell you my views on…” Slam! I hope he lost a lot of votes that way. I wish I could call all the politicians who called me with their “robo-calls”. I would get them just as they were sitting down to dinner with their family and tell them my views, and, if they stayed on the line, I would also go on and on.

It is similar with the torrent of “flakey” (and I am being generous with the use of that word) e-mails. Is it just me, or are there more of them lately? No, I am not interested in having a Russian bride. No, I do not believe you when you write that I have been left 20 million dollars by a person I have never met in Nigeria. No, I do not want a loan or a new car or, in fact, anything that is pushed on me by a blanket e-mail. I categorically distrust something that is sold by e-mail, and wish I could tell those marketers that wild horses could not make me purchase their goods.

I was not surprised that the Federal Office of Personnel Management computer system was recently hacked. Twenty-two million citizens had their personal information stolen by some outside party. I think Jayme and I were included because the hacked information contained the security clearances of those who worked in government, and one of our daughters is a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, and we were part of her clearance procedure. I am pretty certain I know who hacked into the system. Obviously, it was the very same people who call us on the phone and send me unwanted messages by e-mail. With all this data, they can be more focused in their relentless marketing operations. Now politicians can call us about the subjects that they think we will be interested in…but we still will not be able to answer them back or call them out on their untruths.

We have long lost the war for our privacy. Anyone can get information about you. When I was young, the only time the public found out how rich a person had been was when they died. At least this was the case in England. Newspapers would publish facts on the estates of the deceased in their obituaries. I thought that was tacky, but it is positively primitive compared to the revelations that you now get on the web about the living.

I acknowledge that if you are single, it might help to Google a blind date before you agree to meet, but, apart from that, why do we need all this information about each other? For the record, York Prep does not Google parents of potential students. I do not want to be rude, but it is the students we are interested in, not the parents. And, parenthetically, if you want to e-mail a teacher or administrator, my advice is always to put your child’s name and grade in the e-mail title so that it will be recognized as an important message rather than spam. As a school we remind students that whatever they put on the web will last there forever. That they would think otherwise surprises me.

Cynical as I confess to be, it seems to me that this loss of privacy occurred at a similar time when it became unlawful to ask a potential employee details about their background. So, while an employer cannot ask if the candidate for employment has a criminal past or a poor credit rating, at the same time there is now an established web industry which will get you exactly that information for a fee. Indeed, one of the spam e-mails I particularly dislike asks me if I would like to find out about a person’s past criminal record, who they voted for, and what their credit rating is. They will provide the answer so long as I fill in the information boxes about my credit card so that they can charge me for this service. For more money, they will tell me about someone’s favorite TV shows, their past romances, videos they have rented and books they have ordered. Yuck!

In fact, information is being collected on you all the time. If you search for “sunblock” on Amazon, you will “coincidentally” get e-mails about beach vacations, receive warnings about skin cancer, and find shopping links suddenly appearing for bathing suits. Order a car from Uber, and the driver will rate you as a passenger just as people rate restaurants based on one meal. But each night is a different night at a restaurant and Uber passengers have good and bad days; totally unlike a movie where everyone sees the same finished product. But all that does not matter; your record stays with you, and it can be bought and is certainly being sold.

Thus I am reminded of the famous line by Greta Garbo, the iconic Swedish actress who made great films in the 1930s. She said, in her Swedish accent, “I vant to be alone” And that was at a time before the barrage of intrusive calls, multiple insulting e-mails, hacking of our private communications, and general availability of gossip. People were amused by her remarks then; I regret that amusement is gone. We are constantly tracked wherever we go. It is a new world! So, when it comes to obtrusive dinner-time calls and absurd e-mails, I, too, vant to be alone.


Dust is truly ubiquitous on our planet. In oceans and on land, in cities and in the wildest of terrains, in palaces and hovels, it is a constant. We accept it in our daily lives as an inevitable nuisance that must be collected and disposed of. It irritates our eyes and lungs, it offends our sense of hygiene; it seems the antithesis to the life-bringing properties of rain. But unlike rain, most of us ignore the composition of dust, where it comes from, and what benefits or destructive qualities it might have. We invariably cannot even define it properly, either in size or weight. We think of it as covering the floors of our homes without realizing how high in our atmosphere dust exists. We dismiss dust, and in that, we are wrong.

If you look up “Dust” in Wikipedia, and who of us has not, you will find a mediocre article somewhat below their normal standards. It begins by defining dust as “particles in the atmosphere” but later mentions that there are large clouds of dust in outer space. Hey guys, that is not “in the atmosphere.” Clearly their first definition is too limited.

Often times when I read a Wikipedia article, I pursue the words written in blue that interest me. Words in blue mean they have their own articles. So naturally, my “dust” journey linked me to “cosmic dust” and led me to find out that there is an enormous amount of this stuff around. It can form planets and it can radiate light—for example, when it forms the luminous tails of comets. About 40,000 tons of the stuff lands on Earth every year because our gravitational pull attracts dust. “Stardust” sounds romantic; but in fact, it makes us a dusty place.

I want answers to all the dust questions worth asking—like, what color is dust? The answer is very vague. When you get dust on a black surface, it can look sandy; while on a sandy-colored surface, it can look black. Coupling this with the ability of dust to radiate and reflect light, I take it to mean that you can have dust of any color, depending on the substance it deteriorates from. The largest organ of the human body, a white/pink/brown-colored organic substance we refer to as our skin, disintegrates into a white/grey-colored skin dust. Apparently we create the majority of the dust in our homes from discarding dead skin cells wherever we go. Outside our homes, most of the dust on our planet comes from sand. I think of sand as a type of dust, but maybe there is a separate definition specifically excluding sand which I have not found. I do know, because the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) tells me, that dust can be carried thousands of miles by strong winds. So we can get Saharan dust in New York while Gobi desert dust can get to North America by winds going the other way. My daughter, an environmental geo-chemist (I do not know what that means either!), tells me that dust can help control the temperature of the planet because dust landing on the ocean will reflect back the heat of the sun. But desert dust can also be a factor in preventing rainfall by inhibiting the formation of raindrops, and so the deserts may get dustier because of the dust they produce.

There seems to be no agreement as to what exactly constitutes the size of dust. I have read that some dust particles are more than one-hundred microns while others are less than five. (A micron is a millionth of a meter.)  I still have not found an article that defines the limits of an object’s weight which qualifies it to be called dust. What is clear is that dust particles can carry viruses and bacteria on their backs, as well as a variety of biohazards such as molds and contaminates; and they can be disturbed by very little activity. So be careful before you kick up the stuff.

Some occupations are clearly made much more dangerous because of dust. Coal mining is the classic example; although many machines create machine dust, particularly drills, and dust is always a respiratory problem for firemen and rescue workers. We know that asbestos dust causes cancer, while dust is also a factor in fires and explosions. One can affirmatively state that dust is unhealthy for you to ingest.

One can also definitively say that dust often smells. Old houses smell because the wood and paper are disintegrating into moldy dust. When we turn on the heat in the fall at York Prep, we try to do it on a Friday afternoon because the dust that has collected on the radiators during the summer smells as it is burned off.

I do not know if we come from dust, but the Bible is certainly right that we end as dust. You and I will become the particles in the air that future generations will breathe. Isn’t this fun?

In the meantime, let us revel in our idioms. Dust yourself off, leave your competitors in the dust, and, whatever else, do not bite the dust.

And so ends my minor exploration of this often-overlooked subject, except to say that there is a town in New Mexico called Dusty, and I would not be too proud of the name.

Congratulations to the York Prep Graduating Class of 2015

York Prep Graduation Class 2015I want everyone here to know that this is a very special class for me; one whom I have told a number of times that I found particular pleasure teaching because they are such a cohesive community, AND they laughed at my jokes. This is a class who has watched out for each other, has never put each other down (no matter how unorthodox some members are), has always embraced each other, has always helped each other, and who were always interesting to teach—never boring. You are a wonderful group of young men and women. I congratulate you on your character as much as on your great academic success. You are a class of great talents in so many areas—the performing arts, the visual and film arts, sports, and the talent of humor, as well as curiosity. A terrific class! In trying to teach ethical philosophy to this group, I was interrupted so often with interesting questions, and we got diverted into such interesting discussions, that we never finished the course and never got through the curriculum. I am proud of that, even though, as Eddie said, sex seemed to be a major topic throughout the year. So, on a personal level, THANK YOU for being such active participants in the learning process and not just an audience for lectures. When I say that sex was often the subject of our discussions, that does not come out quite in the way I meant it to be. This is a very emotional day for me, very emotional… because 20 years ago today I bought this suit… and I don’t have another one like it. As Jayme and I get older, as the gap in ages between the graduating seniors and us widens, I realize that we were not much older than you currently are when we started York Prep. We were in our early twenties and had a dream, and 46 years later together with you we continue that dream. But from your perspective, the people who dreamt the most were your parents. That is why they had you. They dreamt they would have people, not babies but people—young people who would be kind and thoughtful, and they were successful. You are! I know you appreciate them and hope you know that you represent their dreams now and in the future. They deserve your real thanks. So dream of the future too, and be kind to us old people, I know you consider us very old, because we all started the same way, we were all young with dreams. Seeing Fatimah, a devout Muslim, and Eddie, a devout Jew, as the joint MC’s of this graduation, and more importantly as real friends, gives us all immense pride. It shows that your class at York Prep embraced both diversity and community and that those words are completely compatible. It is clear that this class has gone through the most important period of life growth together. They are unified, and interconnected. I hope that you continue to find ways of staying in touch with each other and grow and take joy from shared experiences as you go forward. Since we have a great graduating speaker in BD Wong, I am not going to take much more of your time except to applaud you again, to tell you that you will be missed so much, that you have brought laughter, energy, and joy to the school and, therefore, to thank you and your families for sharing these glorious years with us at York Prep School. I hope you find the same joy and success at the colleges you now attend. They are fortunate, indeed, to have you join their communities. Be assured that you have the affection of the entire school. We all wish you great success at college and in the future.

What’s The Story With Your Signature?

My signature is truly appalling. It looks like a truncated part of an ECG from a person with an irregular heartbeat. When I write using a stylus on one of those plastic windows in tablets, as some retail establishments ask you to do after you make a purchase with a credit card, it looks like the ECG from someone who is dead. It is virtually a flat line.

Like most things, there is a history behind my terrible signature. I was taught handwriting at a London primary school using, you may not believe this, a dip pen with an inkwell in the desk. Yes, a wooden dip pen with a slide-on metal nib. And we learned to write by connecting dots on paper to make letters. Unfortunately, these letters were written in old-fashioned copper plate with all the curlicues and exaggerated loops that are part of that antique font. No one in their right mind would teach a child to write like that.

The result is that I have bad penmanship and am a slow writer. A few years after this “dip pen write lines over dots” nonsense, they came up with a far superior method of teaching writing in England. At least it appears so to me, because my younger English friends have a very nice handwriting style. They certainly were not at the school I went to.

It is good manners to handwrite birthday greetings, congratulations on marriages and babies, and condolence letters. I try to do the right thing, and each production, each card, takes me about half an hour and usually at least three tries. I go through far too much good stationery. I have such bad handwriting that when I make quick handwritten notes, I have to ask Ms. Vivian Garneier, my assistant, if she would read them to me because I find them indecipherable.

Early on in my academic career I discovered the solution to my problems, namely the typewriter. I probably was the only 11-year-old who would hand in typed paragraphs to my English and History teachers. They looked at them, at least initially, with deep suspicion, sure that somehow this was written by someone older than I. Only when they looked at the quality of what I wrote, were they assuaged into believing that the material produced was mine. This solution did not, unfortunately, help in formal state exams or the scholarship exam to Oxford. It is a miracle they gave me one, and I have wondered if Vivian was one of the examiners in a previous life. All of the exams (except the last) required four handwritten essays in three hours, and there were two exams a day culminating with the dreaded “one-subject, three-hour, no-choice-as-to-title, essay.” You had to write for three hours on the subject of that year: in my case it was “The Moon.”

I still use fountain pens to write the formal letters I referred to above. I still get my fingers inky cleaning off the ink from their ornate nibs after I fill them. All of my four fountain pens have plunger-type fillers. Two of them (the expensive ones) were presents. I like them because they represent a time when every adult who seemed successful whipped one out. Nowadays they are more likely to be Japanese or German than the Parker or Montblanc pens of status from former years, but they all have a time capsule quality that I find appealing. However, they do not improve the legibility of my poor penmanship.

For most of the regular work I do, signing checks or signing typewritten letters, I use blue ink “Uniball” pens. I go through boxes of these. I just do not know where they go but disappear they do. I cannot keep count of how many times I have asked Vivian for another box of 12. Fortunately, she has worked with me for over 30 years and keeps a large stash of boxes. They always disappear before they run out of ink. Always! For some people it is the mystery of the disappearing sock, for me it is the disappearing “Uniball.”

I have heard that there is a vast whirlpool of plastic trash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that is twice the size of Texas. This moving monstrosity contains the plastic detritus of our world. So I wonder how the plastic, my plastic pens in particular, got there. I do not live near the Pacific, and it is a long way for them to roll there. Anyway, is there not a continental divide in this country? If anywhere, they should roll to the Atlantic Ocean.

Yet somewhere in the South Pacific, is this huge morass of materials that will not biodegrade, principally plastic, some aluminum cans, and clearly, hundreds of my “Uniball” pens. In blue!

And I want them back, so that I can continue to write my appalling signature with them.

Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep

York Prep Principal: We Are No Longer The Sage On The Stage

Stephanie Lopez is the Principal of York Prep. One the favorite parts of her job is working with the students and fostering a sense of community. The school’s mission is to you promote the growth of students from grades six through 12 intellectually physically emotionally socially. York cares about the whole student. Their approach to education is quite unique. They are not teaching the same way teachers did 20 years ago. They are no longer the Sage on the Stage. They are hands-on, Theyre involved, they open dialogue, they have debates, they want interaction with the students. One unique approach is that York uses The Tracking System so they actually place students based on individual academic strengths and weaknesses. Some students can be strong and English and history, yet they might be a little more challenged in math and science – so they are able to tailor a curriculum that responds to that individual and allows that student to even excel in different areas and still challenges them in areas where they are strong. The administration still teaches in classrooms. They all teach the courses, all of the way up to the Headmaster to Principal to the Deans.
Stephanie teaches a history class to the 8th grade. York Prep is community. York Prep is excited learners. York Prep is compassionate educators.

When school is over, what does one really do with algebra skills?

A lot of young people – especially if they don’t like math – like to question if math and algebra skills will be ever used after they graduate. There is a joke that the only time one will need math in real life is to split a check at restaurant or calculate a tip. Thomas Henderson, math teacher at York Prep school in New York City takes the approach that math is not just about knowing how to work out equations, its about life.