A da Vinci, Then a Pollock – Reflections and a College Essay

This academic year, my classmates and I applied to and heard back from colleges. Over the past decade or so, the application process has become, in many respects, messy and circuitous. It asks more of us than some are willing to give; it can foster undesired animosity between the closest of friends; it breeds a brand of subjective, decisive judgment that can cripple even the most robust of egos.

The year is a masterpiece emotional paradox: we pour into it the acute precision of a da Vinci, and we leave it, clutching fragments of a canvas whose deliberate randomness closely resembles a Jackson Pollock piece. But in all its chaos, the process makes way for profound reflection and true personal growth. The year is an important one.

Below is the five hundred and fifty-three word piece that I wrote as my ‘personal statement’ for the Common Application. I hope you’ll find it meaningful. I wrote the bulk of it when I sat down for three focused hours in a West Los Angeles café.

It’s 106 degrees and I’m wearing a suit, strolling down an asphalt street in Phoenix. I’ve done this before: Every autumn my mother, a rabbi, leads a different congregation for the High Holy Days. We go where she goes, and – just as we do every Saturday – we walk to synagogue. In Redlands, California, we strode past the few remaining orange groves. In Portland, Oregon, we trekked into verdant hills. At home, we walked amid the dim glow of the city’s billboards and in the shadows of its highest skyscrapers.

When I was young, I would protest: Why did we always have to walk? The response was always the same: We’re observant Jews. In time, my complaining ebbed. Walking became my routine, and as we walked, we shared stories, songs, and thoughts.

My memories of some walks faded in with the years; but more than a few remain snapshots in time: the Saturday morning I stopped on the sidewalk to listen to Hillary Clinton’s concession speech blaring from a TV inside somebody’s apartment; the day we bumped into a friend who told us her fiancé had been struck by a car hours earlier. Somehow, everything was different on foot. When I watched on TV, or picked up the phone, I was a passerby. But when I walked, the moment gripped me. I saw what I couldn’t from a car: dandelions growing out of cracks in the cement, or the faces of the homeless hidden away under storefront canopies.

With each walk came a new question: why had it taken Hillary so long to give up? What must it have been like to be one of the Chilean miners trapped underground? The answers were less important; the process – the journey, the walk itself – made the questions fascinating, and transformed them into intellectual pursuits.

Then my questions changed. I asked myself whether I was really an observant Jew and the foundations of my faith began to tremble. Into adolescence, my religiosity waned. I stood among the remains of a crematorium at Auschwitz. I grappled with the writings of theologians like Martin Buber. And I moved from a sound and consistent religious connection to transient depths of non-belief, and back again. My once petty complaints became theological challenges. But my family walked, so I kept walking.

One Monday a classmate stopped me to ask why I had been so late to an event the previous Saturday. I explained that I’d had to cover the four miles from home on foot.

“Wouldn’t it be easier,” she asked, “to just get into a car?”

I began to ask myself: Wouldn’t it? Of course. But should convenience – or my doubts – eclipse all that I’ve derived from my walks? The walks fueled my curiosity. The paths they took me down didn’t lead only to temple; they also led to introspection and growth.

Because I walked, I click on my New York Times bookmark before I click on Facebook. Because I walked, I know what the House Minority Whip does. I’ve pondered the dire straits of the Chilean miners, I know the lyrics to American Pie, and I’ve wondered how cacti survive in 106 degrees. Because I walked, I know what my great grandparents were like. Because I walked, I’m able to wonder and grapple with why I walk at all.

A Weapon of Distraction and Numbness – Fighting Computers in Classrooms

As featured in the Huffington Post, adapted from the original version on The Roar.

I had never seen anything like it. I’d only left class for a few minutes, but as I was about to turn the corner, something caught my eye. I stared, stalled in my tracks, into the classroom window in front of me. Through the half-drawn shades, I could just make out the History teacher and a few of my friends in the class. It wasn’t the people in the room that had given me pause, though; it was the luminous patches of glowing light that lined the desks, almost uniformly.

Computers are killing classrooms.

Without question, online data sharing programs are efficient and both environmentally and financially sustainable. Communication servers like FirstClass keep school communities connected. The notion of “one laptop per student” ushers high schoolers into the same era of globalization that has caused such drastic shifts in self-sovereignty throughout much of the rest of the world.

But there’s a caveat to those advances: Technology is neutral, but its uses and users are not. My independent high school — by its very nature — is frenzied, adrenalized, and consistently active. We may be advancing technologically, but our engagement and education are in retreat. It’s time for teachers and students to begin thinking beyond the laptop’s use as a tool, and realize its quickly solidifying potential as a weapon of distraction and numbness.

Cut back to the classroom: The students may, indeed, be looking at a pertinent document on a school webpage, but the problem lies therein — they are looking, not reading; skimming, not absorbing; hearing, not listening, and certainly not engaging.

A teacher approached me after class a few weeks ago. “Did everyone seem a little bit distant today?” he asked. Yes, we had been distant. Earlier in the year, my classmates and I had been quick to respond to a point that seemed off-color, or to wrestle with the material presented. Now, we’re transfixed. Those glowing arcs of MacBooks in my school’s classrooms are causing a steep and rushed decline in engagement, counterargument, expression, and even interest.

In another one of my discussion-based classes, the teacher often begins with a provocative question as a jumping-off point for active debate. But when I look around the room, almost every student who isn’t responding verbally is faced-down, eyes — and attentions — mesmerized by Tetris, QuickMeme.com, and the beckon-call of the Facebook news feed. I, too, find the screen an enticing prospect, and (often unknowingly) dive deep within a sea of articles and Internet phenomena that my AP Government teacher would be quick to label “non-germane.”

My evidence is purely anecdotal; I have limited knowledge of statistics or empirical data to support my assertion. But my experiences as a student in classes that range from the standard to AP levels testify to the notion that the digital approach — categorical in its nature, far-reaching in its effects — is hindering my education and undermining the dynamic and participatory environment that student and faculty leaders work so hard to build.

It’s not that we students have a malicious intent. We spend Saturday nights thinking up ways to further distract our ever-distracted psyches. Few of us have a strong-willed desire not to learn. The problem? The modern classroom — an environment that requires us to be present — is simply no longer conducive to being present.

The iPhone has taken my school by storm. The BlackBerry still permeates campus. We use them during class — a shock to neither students nor faculty. In fact, most schools like mine have their fair share of teachers whose phones make all sorts of noises mid-lesson. But the glow of the laptop and the buzz of our phones are denigrating the very basis upon which we learn; they are pulling us closer to the virtual world of profile pictures and pushing us further from the pragmatic and illuminating realms of derivatives, Federalism, Punnett squares, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The following is my proposal to begin alleviating the consequences of the transfixing glow. Some will call it radical, I call it practical: Students should stop using their laptops to take notes and revert to the pen and paper. Each student should put his or her shut-off phone on his or her desk before class. Teachers should do the same. Google Docs, Schoology, Evernote, FirstClass, and other digital means of data sharing should be used for reading and submitting; when the primary function of the technology has been accomplished, we should shut our laptop covers and discuss.

I haven’t yet been able to follow the above rules — but I try to. If I did, I would be both a better student and a more engaged member of my school community. Students don’t need to be convinced that we’re distracted, we just need help becoming less so. These rules shouldn’t be imposed from above, but, rather, should be a community-wide exercise in self-control.

I believe firmly that a transcendentalist strategy or an attitude that lures us to return to antiquity would be better left to Thoreau and his kin. But laptops are moving us further from enlightenment. One biblical prophet’s vision foretold that, in the messianic age, the lion would lay down with the lamb. I’m no prophet, but in my vision, during class, the smartphone would stay out of the hand.

The Irony of Framing the Debate – How Extremism Puts Things into Perspective

This piece won’t be as long as usual; it’s just a thought I had.

In the wake of recent debates and campaign stops, it has quickly become clear that the Republican presidential field generally errs on the side of political and religious extremism, or at least make statements that rely on acute (and often blind) chauvinism. Those of us who listen closely – even those of us who don’t – have watched as candidate after candidate vies for the hearts of the GOP base.

Rick Perry, in a blend of visible one-eighties and glaring political opportunism, has stated his belief that Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme and “a monstrous lie,” and has set out to eliminate it. Michele Bachmann has mixed church with her stately undertakings, and has even called into question whether or not this country needs a Department of Education – it is, perhaps, too rooted in centralized government to work, she claims. Newt Gingrich has promised to repeal the healthcare bill that has already insured upwards of thirty thousand previously unqualified Americans. Mitt Romney has vowed to cut federal spending and cut taxes drastically, for all segments of the population, which would put at risk our economy’s growth. Rick Santorum’s “social” policies are simply a mandate for prejudice. The field is chock-full of radicalism.

We’re being inundated with anxious, daunting flashes of “what would Rick Perry do on his first day?” and “could Michele Bachmann really get elected?” “President Gingrich,” we think, shuddering, or “President Romney.”

Watching the GOP debates helps me put things in perspective. Because, after all: how relieving does “President McCain” sound right about now?

The Politics of Being a Camp Counselor – Why There’s No Such Thing as a One-Sided Deal

For the past nine weeks, I haven’t posted on Truth Be Told because I’ve been working as a counselor at a prominent Jewish sleep away camp in Southern California.

In the coming days, I will dive into what I’ve missed – Washington’s über-political debt machinations and the rampant corruption that plagues the business world. But before I comment on those, I’d like to offer a simple (and what, to me, is a meaningful) reflection on a universally applicable lesson I derived from being an educator in a place that has given me the ultimate education.

This summer, I spent my days leading services, clearing tables, planning overnight trips, teaching songs – the works. I was constantly engaged and always busy with campers in a plethora of different settings. But one afternoon stands out in my memory.

On this particular afternoon, I trudged up a hilly knoll and found myself in the bunk area, where the younger campers live. The day was rolling at its normative brisk pace – everything moved and nothing stood still. Ecstatic pairs of feet paced back and forth, from lawn to lawn, as frisbees flew and the leaves of a thick oak tree cast an ephemeral shadow on the grass.

“Ami!” The comfortable commotion briefly stopped. I looked up – past the trees, past the frisbees – at another counselor’s sweaty, exasperated face. “Ami,” – he was almost panting – “What do I do?” He launched into an exhaustive tirade about a twelve year old named Michael who hadn’t showered in days.

Michael just didn’t want to take a shower. That was it; he simply wasn’t into it. Being wet made him uncomfortable. Water wasn’t his thing.

Michael’s pathological aversion to showering made the bunk’s slated “shower time” a difficult hour for his counselors. On this day in particular, Michael had decided to up the ante; he would not shower, no matter the cost.

When the counselor rushed me into his bunk, the scene was a strange one.

Michael had thrown himself onto the slimy tile floor of the bathroom and, like an iron pretzel, had artfully attached his arms and legs to a pipe that held up the sink. His body wound itself over the floor in a way that only a twelve year old’s can. Tears streamed down his face as he begged, glued to the sink, for some solace. He had remained there – a staunchly seated pretzel – for about an hour.

It often seems that the walls of our lives are plastered with notions of stubbornness. In our internal lexicons, “headstrong” is synonymous with “angering,” “irrational,” or “unreasonable.” Time and again, we see the intentions of those with whom we disagree as groundless and unfounded. We perceive the manifestation of their frustrations as a personal effrontery upon ourselves.

Michael’s unbending will was no different. We – those who strove to help him – were blinded by the irritations he projected onto us.

We were all frustrated. Why wouldn’t this kid just move? Why did he have to be so difficult all the time? I scanned the scene again: a group of tall, mature young adults standing above a terrified and uncomfortable child, boldly and loudly insisting that he do something that made him cringe. The problem was evident; there had to be another way. Hesitantly, I situated myself on the slippery floor, latched myself onto the sink, and looked at Michael.

“I don’t like taking showers, either. They don’t feel good on my body.”

Michael looked up at me.

“You know what does feel good, though?”


“Being clean. Doesn’t that feel good?”

Michael couldn’t help but agree. I told him that I was going to wash my face and that he could join me. Slowly, Michael stood up. We lathered up our hands in warm water and gently doused our faces in soap.

“Didn’t that feel good?”


“Being clean is cool, huh?”

“Yeah, it is.”

Then we made a deal: to be able to feel clean – but to not feel too uncomfortable – Michael would take a brief hundred and twenty-second shower. Miraculously, he agreed.

I realize, now, that I have been trying to quash others’ stubbornness for years. We all have. We look for ways to out-Machiavelli those who irk us – in school, in work, and in our most significant relationships. People spend decades studying and researching ways to master human interaction (the kind that are laced with inflexibility) and come out “on top.” In the end, though, it doesn’t take a doctoral degree to grasp the key to understanding another’s intentions.

What does he think he needs right now? Is she feeling some sort of external pressure that has led her here? Just as people don’t ball up on the floor of a dirty bathroom without reason, so too don’t people decide to vote against a bill, sell stock, or cast a vote groundlessly. Dealing in politics is often no different from dealing with a small child’s pathological fears. After we have clarified our own beliefs and expectations, to make any sort of deal or come to any relevant consensus, we have to be on their level, see through their eyes, and establish a solution suitable and sensitive to their needs and desires – no matter how silly or outlandish.

For years, I’ve been taking glimpses into the political world – a place of unwavering inflexibility and an abiding accusatory nature. I’ve taken glimpses into the finance and commerce world – a place of duplicitous intentions and ever competing calculations.

But this summer, I finally got it: their tactics are impotent, as long as you start at their level. And all it took was a glimpse into the world of a very clean twelve-year-old named Michael.

Gingrich vs. the Media – The Battle He Can’t Win

It’s difficult to look back upon Sarah Palin’s unsuccessful vice presidential bid without calling to mind her relentless attacks on the “lame-stream media.” It seemed that every stump speech brought a new chapter of her vendetta against the press, with the attacks growing more exaggerated as November neared. In turn, the media cut her little slack, she plummeted in the polls, and the Republican ticket tanked.

You’d think that the fresh batch of GOP candidates would learn from such missteps. But over the course of the past few days, Newt Gingrich and his campaign have proven otherwise. First Gingrich’s spokesman, Rick Tyler, issued a statement—responding to what he called an anti-Gingrich media “onslaught”—saying that “the literati sent out their minions to do their bidding.” He went on to accuse journalists of firing flimsy attacks “without taking aim” and distorting the campaign’s message.

Alas, there was more. During an event in Iowa, Gingrich himself took up the mantle in the war on media. “It’s going to take a while for the news media to realize that you’re covering something that happens once or twice in a century,” he said of his candidacy. He called his campaign—and the ideas that it presents—something that will “take a while (to) sink in.”

The minds of the media, it seems, are too dull for the bright light of Gingrich’s genius.

Never mind that he made these statements while the cameras of a dozen major news outlets were pointed at him and rolling.

Candidates – Gingrich and his kin – grapple during every election cycle with the challenge of sending their voters a consistent and enticing message. Much is in their control: the clothes they wear, the statements they make, the places they go. But on the election battlefield, there is one external force that is neither obedient nor governable.

The media is simply a canvas, upon which and off of which is projected a candidate’s message. It can be influenced and it can be shifted – but, for the most part, it lives up to its name: it is a vehicle of whatever message is being voiced.

But for two reasons, the war on media is injurious for any candidate.

Firstly, constant media attacks are the most palpable and contemporary iterations of “biting the hand that feeds you.” When that slew of controllable campaign factors is either ignored or abused, the media is no longer a plain, suggestible canvas. Just like Palin, when Gingrich uses the media as a target, or turns it into a legislative scapegoat, problems plague his campaign. As Palin has relied more and more upon comments like these, coverage of her in that “lame-stream media” has transformed from sound reportage to a form of satirical mockery. Newt Gingrich is on that path.

Secondly – and more importantly – he’s attacking being educated, informed and inquisitive. To portray writers and reporters in a negative – even hostile – light is to undervalue and trivialize the importance of education and awareness. And to hastily slap scathing terms like “minions” onto the diligent and hardworking members of the mainstream media is to malign the work that makes this country’s voting populace a more informed and erudite group.

The media is what has kept us free. It is the force of transparency that allows us to maintain a functioning democracy. To attack the media is to attack a central pillar upon which our rights as citizens stand.

Every blow that Newt Gingrich deals to the media will become a blow to his campaign. Each insulting epithet he attaches a writer or reporter will become a permanent name-tag on his lapel. Every “lame-stream media”-esque reference will be seen as an attack on the Bill of Rights. Sound familiar, Newt? Ring any bells, Tea Party?

Sarah Palin harangued the media for months, then admitted that she couldn’t name a newspaper she reads. Newt Gingrich is walking a fine line.

For the sake of his campaign and for the benefit of the country, I implore Mr. Gingrich (and any opponents he may face) to eagerly engage in substantive debate and elude the fatal attraction to ceaseless attacks on the media. All campaigns – especially those for the most lofty office in the land – should be driven by ideas and ideals, not assaults on those who seek to inform decisions.

And Then He Rolled His Eyes – Dignifying the Next Generation

On a summer day in 1963, a young Bill Clinton shook hands with John Kennedy. Clinton – just seventeen years old – was a participant in Boys Nation and was given the opportunity to spend a day at the White House. That moment was a pivotal one for Clinton. It kindled his internal activist spirit and incited within him the desire to achieve. “It had a very profound impact on me,” Clinton said years later. “I think that it’s something that I carried with me always.”

Last week, a local congressman came to speak at my high school. He was visiting to deliver a brief autobiography and court a group of soon-to-be constituents. As kids were still shuffling into the gym, where the congressman was to give his talk, I spotted him and decided to approach him.

“Hi, Congressman,” I said politely, putting out my hand to shake his. I began to tell him about a project that I’d helped to start; my “Global Response” team at school had designed and produced pins to sell as a fundraiser for disaster relief in Japan. I worried that what I was doing might seem somewhat trivial; still, I felt that it was important for me to reach out to the congressman and offer him a glimpse into our student activism. But when I began to tell him about our venture, his eyes glazed over in boredom.

As I handed him one of the pins – emblazoned with the slogan “Bring the light back to Japan” – the congressman rolled his eyes. He backed up and threw his hands in the air as though he was conceding something to me. “Uch,” he said, shaking his head, “I get so many of these kinds of things.”

What if the congressman had said “Fantastic!” or “May I have a few more pins for my colleagues?” What if he had told me that he’d done something similar in high school? What if he had even challenged me – asked me to prove to him why Japan needs our money more than Haiti or Chile?

The congressman’s remark was particularly troubling because of the setting he was in: a high school. In this era, rife with the distractions of “pings” from BlackBerrys and “pokes” from our Facebook profiles, it’s difficult enough to inspire young people to engage in the world’s pressing issues. What we need isn’t contempt and disinterest. It’s encouragement – or even just recognition.

Teenagers are – as our parents were, and as the next generation will be – inherently self-involved. That’s not an accusation; it’s an established physiological fact. Combine that egocentrism with pervasive technology – SparkNotes, Google, smartphones – and you’re witnessing a perfect storm of distraction and apathy. We’re not texting at the dinner table out of disdain for our families; we’re doing so because to us, in that moment, the most important thing in the world is whatever it is that we feel the need to text about.

To combat that adolescent indifference, my English teacher says the same thing in one form or another almost every time we meet for class: If you’re not bothered, then you’re not paying enough attention. And he’s right. In this era, to be disheartened is to be enlightened, and to be angry is to be empowered. But when a United States congressman belittles the hopeful and inspired efforts of a group of motivated high school students, he promotes just the opposite. Instead of the “Thank you for the pin!” that would fan the flames of intellectual curiosity, he chooses the “Uch, I get so many of these kinds of things” – a slight that extinguishes them.

The value of person-to-person validation is unquantifiable. No matter how high we rise or how low we sink, no matter what job we have or what job we wish we had, it must always be our priority to validate, engage, and elevate the company with whom we surround ourselves.

To the congressman: If you wish to extol the values of education from the height and might of the podium, please practice what you preach. Dignify each individual, young or old, seemingly worthy or seemingly not. Instead of “Uch,” how about giving a teenager what Bill Clinton got: something to carry through life. And to the rest of you: Want to buy a pin?

The Real Wireless – A Letter to My Generation and Myself

Technology is neutral. Websites and laptops are simply canvasses upon which we can project or depict whatever we’d like. Facebook isn’t evil, nor is text messaging some overpowering detriment to humanity. The world is making technological and informational progress. But these innocuous advancements are serving off-kilter purposes. They’re being used as means of ignoring studies – or at least turning learning into Googling.

But you know how your grandpa always seems to know everything? You know how he knows what happened yesterday – and also what happened on yesterday’s date in 1943? You know how he knows about apples, and wars, and people, and money, and cats? Well, he didn’t just wake up one day and know all of that. He didn’t spend his entire childhood listening to the click-clack of his MacBook keyboard or the bee-bop of his BlackBerry. He didn’t worry himself with Facebook notifications. He didn’t get home from school and lunge for his laptop so that he could numb his mind while “learning” the ins and outs of a helicopter game on addictinggames.com. He flipped through the pages of books and read what was written inside of them.

Your know how your English teacher seems to know exactly what Scout Finch means – on every line of every page? And why Shakespeare decided to use a metaphor – “out, out, brief candle!” – instead of simply providing a penetrating glimpse into the obvious (disclaimer: that’s my English teacher’s line. He knows those fancy words because he reads)? Your English teacher knows all that because when she was your age, SparkNotes.com wasn’t even a faint conception. So she read everything. Every last word.

You know that kid in your class who doesn’t seem to pepper his sentences with “like” like the rest of your class does? Or that uncle who always seems to bring up “what’s happening on the Hill” at family get-togethers? Or that clerk at the grocery store who sneaks a peak at what you’re listening to on your iPod and gives you an in-depth analysis of the cultural and ethnic heritage of your favorite band’s lead guitarist?

These people aren’t geniuses. They weren’t all born with God-given talent or intrinsic brilliance. Most of them probably didn’t go to Harvard or Yale or Columbia. But I can promise you one thing: when they got home from school, they sure as hell didn’t log onto Facebook. They picked up a book, gave their index fingers a good lick, flipped a page open, and read. And so should I. And so should we.