Crushed Rock

Checked the tires lately? No, no, no – not the air pressure – the treads. Take a good look the next time you grab the car keys. Besides pebbles in the grooves or nicks in the rubber, your tires might sport a bright swipe of yellow on the sidewall. That, my friends, is the calling card of the local police, tracking your parking habits.  You could say you’re a “marked man”.  But sadly – at least for me – the time has come for that chalk to go back to just being rock.

The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals sits in Cincinnati, with a jurisdiction of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  Recently, a disgruntled Michiganite, possessor of fifteen parking tickets in three years (all issued by the same enforcement officer – creepy), decided she’d had enough and filed suit.  Just this week, the Sixth decided yes, in fact; chalking tires is unconstitutional.  By definition, chalking is somehow “a search of personal property”.  By ruling of the Sixth, that search is considered unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.  Whoa.  All because of a little chalk?

I’m trying to decide if “trivial” or “ludicrous” is the better word for this little story (see news article and twelve-page ruling here).  Clearly, I don’t understand the fuss.  Is chalking an invasion of our personal space?  Are we channeling our inner little kid and crying, “don’t touch my stuff”?  Have we arrived at the Land of Ridiculousness, where issuing a parking citation requires a search warrant?

In my Mayberry world, chalking tires is kind of charming.  It’s a mark of a small town.  Perhaps the council didn’t like the look of parking meters.  Perhaps they couldn’t afford them.  Whatever the reason, they released parking enforcement by foot (or bicycle), to cruise up and down the blocks “swiping tires”.  Two hours later, those marks sometimes become parking citations.

College campuses are common ground for chalking tires, so the mixed opinions of students on this week’s ruling came as a surprise.  Some worry new technology (camera shots?  microchips?) will be more intrusive.  Others are simply glad parking enforcement will be hands-off.  Still others will miss the opportunity of “clever” ways to beat the system (a. Spray tires with a non-stick coating.  b. Cover tires completely with chalk.  c. Take tires with you after you park.)

I feel bad for chalk factories.  Parking enforcement was a significant, high-profile use of their product, and now that’s been taken away.  A substance of little more than calcium carbonate just lost some major press.  The rest of chalk’s uses – by comparison – are downright banal.

White Cliffs of Dover, England

When was the last time you encountered chalk?  Probably been awhile.  Unless you’re a teacher at the blackboard, a tailor marking clothes, a gymnast, rock-climber, weightlifter, or cuing up a game of pool, it’s safe to say you haven’t used chalk lately.  Unless you’ve sailed in front of the White Cliffs of Dover, you probably haven’t even seen chalk lately.

How about chalk memories?  My earliest comes from the playground of my elementary school.  Before the days of painted lines, girls would chalk out hopscotch squares on the asphalt, doing their skips as they collected items from the squares (we boys were too cool for hopscotch).  My favorite chalk memory comes from college, when my engineering professor laid out equations on the blackboard, then turned to talk to the class.  As he spoke, he’d subconsciously hold the chalk aside his nose.  By the end of the lecture his face was fairly covered in chalk dust.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I took a trip to Charleston, SC, and to nearby Folly Beach.  The (now defunct) Morris Island lighthouse stands several hundred yards off the coast.  A mile-long asphalt trail takes you from the parking lot to the beach, as close as you can get to the lighthouse.  That trail is the photo below.  Hundreds of pictures and sayings; bold, colorful sidewalk art.  You literally walk the chalk.

The next time I get a parking ticket (and there will be a next time), I’ll be tempted to check my tires.  No longer.  Instead, I’ll just chalk it up to days-gone-by, when marking tires was simply a good intention, not a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

What a world.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Thanks to another pro football season, America’s allegiance to its flag is once again called into question. My wife and I chatted with our German exchange student recently, asking whether her own country found patriotism so controversial. To this she said, “You Americans are considered very patriotic people. We Germans not so much; perhaps, because of Hitler in our past”. I was a little taken back by that comment. Americans can point to shameful events in our colorful – albeit brief – history, and yet; we still sing the anthem and stand for the flag. Well, most of us.

This week in Colorado, primary and secondary schools begin another year of formal education. The setting is not so different from schools I attended. The classrooms are laid out the same (technology aside). The cafeterias offer up borderline-edible food. And the students – every weekday morning – stand, face the flag, place their right hands over their hearts, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  Forty-six of America’s fifty states mandate the practice.  Congress opens its sessions with the Pledge, as do countless other government and private meetings across the land.  Another day begins in America.

     

The Pledge has a rich history for a phrase spoken (or sometimes sung) in less than fifteen seconds.  It was based on Captain George T. Balch’s Civil War-era pledge: We give our heads and hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one flag!  The version we use today – reworded by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, was first published in the children’s magazine The Youth’s Companion in 1892 (albeit with simpler wording).  The Pledge was also first used in public schools on October 12th of that year, coincident with the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair.  The Pledge was designed to generate patriotism in young people, at a time when this kind of energy was on the decline.  Sounds like something we need just as much today.

The original version of the Pledge stated: “...allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands… ” The change in 1923 to today’s version: “… allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and the Republic for which it stands…”, was a nod to America’s immigrants, so as not to deny loyalty to birth countries.  Finally, the phrase “under God” was added in the 1950’s, and formally adopted on Flag Day (June 14th) of 1954.  It was also at this time students began the everyday reciting of, as President Eisenhower referred to it, “…a dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”

Along with saying the Pledge and standing for the flag, America’s students “place their right hands over their hearts”.  This gesture also has a history.  In lieu of a military salute (reserved for those in the Armed Forces), students originally stretched out their right hands towards the flag, palms down, ending the Pledge with palms up.  But the practice was associated with the Nazi salute and quickly abandoned, in favor of the hand-over-heart (or cap over left shoulder) we use today.

To no one’s surprise, America’s Pledge of Allegiance (almost unique among countries) is not without controversy.  Since 1940, there have been at least a dozen high-profile legal challenges.  A few target the practice itself, claiming a violation of the First Amendment.  But most target the use of the words “under God”, in conflict with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (freedom of religion).  None of these suits succeeded, with the typical defense, “…the [Pledge’s] words represent a patriotic (not religious) exercise…”, and [to atheists], “…participation in the pledge is voluntary.”

Three years ago, in the most recent defense of the Pledge, New Jersey Judge David F. Bauman declared, “As a matter of historical tradition, the words under God can no more be expunged from the national consciousness than the words In God We Trust from every coin in the land, than the words so help me God from every presidential oath since 1789, or from the prayer that has opened every congressional session of legislative business since 1787.”  Amen to that, David.

Aretha Franklin – America’s indisputable “Queen of Soul” – died last week after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer.  Aretha’s most famous lyric was undoubtedly, “…all I’m askin’ is for a little respect…”.  No coincidence; America’s flag makes the same request.  The Pledge is a voluntary act – sure – but who’s going to argue with, “…liberty and justice for all”?

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and from Erik Larson’s novel, “The Devil in the White City”.

Reinstating the “Swoosh-Curl”

The Associated Press (AP) recently posted an article: “Cursive Writing Makes a Comeback in U.S. Schools”. That caught my eye, because I didn’t know cursive writing went anywhere in the first place. I assumed most everyone – regardless of age – can sign their name in cursive. Turns out the broad adoption of Common Core curriculum standards in 2010 removed “handwriting” as an essential skill.  The teaching time once used for cursive now goes to learning the keyboard.  Ask today’s student for a signature and you’ll probably get block letters instead of “continuous flow”.

I still remember my grade-school days spending hours on paper, forming my upper and lower-case letters.  Then I graduated to cursive, and the “swoosh-curl” of the loops as I progressed across the page without lifting the pencil.  Cursive evolved from block-letter writing as a way to speed up handwriting.  If speed were the only criteria, no wonder today’s generation prefers the keyboard.  In the race between my cursive on paper and my daughter’s thumbs on the smartphone, she wins by a landslide.

Speaking of cursive, here’s an example of my very own.  Hopefully you can read it.

That’s right:  The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog – a sentence I wrote over and over in cursive practice.  It’s a pangram – a sentence using all the letters of the alphabet.  The quick brown fox… is the most famous pangram but there are several others, including: Pack my box with six dozen liquor jugs!

The shortcoming of my own cursive writing is my speed – or lack thereof.  It took me almost sixty seconds to write the sentence above.  You could probably write the same sentence in half the time.  But I have a couple of challenges working against me.  One, I’m left-handed, which means I’ve developed a curious writing style where I curl my hand around the point where pen meets paper.  This forces my hand to stay higher on the page and avoids ink smears, but I can’t go very fast.  Two, I have essential tremor, where my hands shake slightly when held in certain ways (like writing).  If I don’t go s-l-o-w, my cursive is downright illegible.

If cursive writing was born of block letters, then block letters were born of calligraphy.  Calligraphy is writing elevated to a visual art, where the lettering is created with wide and narrow strokes and requires the use of a special pen.  Today’s computer fonts try very hard to simulate calligraphy but there’s nothing quite like the handcrafted version.  The finest examples – using the Latin script – are found in early copies of the Bible; the so-called “illuminated manuscripts” created before the advent of the printing press.  Today you’re more likely to find calligraphy on wedding invitations, college diplomas, and other formal documents.  I have an aunt who mastered calligraphy and I wish I’d kept some of her letters and thank-you notes.  That kind of penmanship suggests a certain level of elegance and refinement noticeably absent in today’s writing.

The AP news article claims fourteen states have reinstated cursive writing into their grade-school curriculum, so here’s hoping for more continuous flow signatures.  But there’s still plenty of debate about the “usefulness” of the swooshes and curls when keyboarding is clearly king.  To those who don’t see the value, consider this: our nation’s most important documents were written in cursive.  If you can’t write the U.S. Constitution in cursive you probably can’t read it in cursive either.  That would be a shame if you were ever lucky enough to see the original in the National Archives.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.