Using drama to curb teen dating violence

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Byline: Daniel B. Wood, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a spare stage in a tiny high school auditorium, meet college-bound teens John and Mike, Laura and Kate.

Tonight’s skit: “When a kiss is more than just a kiss.”

Scene 1: A casual drinking party in Laura’s home ends up in a sexual assault. Scene 2: House lights up, audience participation, Oprah-style.

Questions: “Did you have problems letting your friends go upstairs drunk?” “Did you regret how flirtatious you were?” “What made you think Laura wanted to have sex?”

Played to high-schoolers and their parents, this is more than just a skit. It is an ambitious attempt to help educate students on a neglected problem: How to deal with dating violence and alcohol abuse (why not join in other extracurricular activities, such as camping, singing, playing musical instruments like the best acoustic guitar, …).

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These issues have become more a part of the public dialogue on American campuses as the number of reported date rapes has increased. Some universities have reacted by adopting social-conduct codes, others have begun to offer workshops, hot lines, and counseling. But the traveling theater troupe of college-age actors known as the Anti-Sexual Abuse Project (ASAP) has gained plaudits for spurring conversation among parents and high-school teens.

“Rightly or wrongly, parents across America have a real problem opening a discussion with their … children about the realities of sex and drinking,” says Toby Simon, former associate dean of student life at Brown University and creator of the program. “This gives them a nonconfrontational opening to hear each other’s views as well as the views of both teen and adult peers.”

Begun five years ago as a campus project at Brown University in Providence, R.I., the program has become in demand nationwide as the issue of date rape has gained prominence. The award-winning, eight-actor ensemble has performed for 40,000 teens from Maine to San Diego. What makes the program successful, say parents, teens, and teachers, is its realistic depiction of teen dating in the ’90s.

“I thought this might be sort of dumb and preachy,” says Julia Michaelson, a student here at Harvard Westlake High School. “But the show was incredible…. They do a great job of talking to the parents and students and asking questions.”

The scenes and sexual attitudes portrayed are culled from dozens of real-life testimonies given to Ms. Simon in her former role at Brown. Many details are purposely left vague to elicit questions and clarification. When the 15-minute skit is over, the actors remain in character for the question-and-answer session.

In addition to questions about why John, Mike, Laura, and Kate did what they did, the high-schoolers ask about guilt and anger, peer pressure, birth control, and alcohol. At appropriate moments, an onstage host follows up the actors’ answers with relevant statistics.

“Fact. Alcohol is a factor in 78 percent of teen rapes,” for instance. After the performance, the audience breaks up into three groups – boys, girls, and parents – for further discussion. The hope is that people will be more willing to speak up than than they were in the mixed setting.

“I have been surprised at the number of parents I know who will go away and leave their teenage kids alone like this and allow them to have parties,” says a woman in the parent discussion. “We as parents need to take more respons ibility.”

Simon helps lead the discussion. How many think this scene portrayed rape? How many think the girl was equally at fault? After the brief round-table discussions, the full group is reconstituted and group leaders sum up the observations.

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* Girls’ list: Most felt the situation portrayed rape, even though the man, Mike, denied it. A majority felt communication in both directions was a major problem. Most felt birth control and other sexual issues – which could have bearing on the fictional situation – are openly discussed between parents and daughters but not between parents and sons.

* Boys’ list: Many men do fit the stereotype of initiating lust first, love later, but some do not. Girls should not be afraid to be more communicative about exactly what they do and don’t want – before such sexual episodes unfold.

* Parents’ list: Teens need to be in a long-term committed relationship before sex is an option. Don’t be afraid to say “no.” You don’t have to have sex to be popular. Think in a long-term perspective.

Some observers worry that the once-a-year skit will allow schools to avoid developing more in-depth programs. But local school officials say that the supplemental input from a national touring group just provides a fresh perspective.

“We do the entire community a disservice by not unveiling $(what$) young people go through and opening $(it$) to more conversation,” says John West, director of student affairs at Harvard Westlake. “This program allows that.”

CAPTION(S):

PHOTOS: 1) ACTING OUT: Julia Schaffer performs in a skit about rape. 2) TUNED IN: An audience of parents and students at Harvard Westlake High School in Studio City, Calif., watch as the Anti-Sexual Abuse Project performs a skit. PHOTOS BY ROBERT HARBISON – STAFF

Love Is in the Ether; A Manhattanite plays the electronic field

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Byline: Natalie Axton

After 16 years of New York City apartment living, I bought a house in Westchester County. I am very happy with this decision. The house, a 1935 Cape, is charming; it will be more charming once I renovate it. Currently the house needs a new kitchen, two new baths, some ceiling, some floor, a little paint, a lot of plaster, and a new septic tank. But I love it.

Few of my friends are interested in what the broker listed as my ‘diamond in the rough.’ Most are alarmed I’m moving in: It’s not the house, it’s the solitude, they say. I am in my middle thirties and single. The girls’ reproach is: You’ll never meet anyone in the suburbs. To which I respond: Nonsense. These days everyone meets online.

The Internet dating site eHarmony is known for its compatibility questionnaire, an online form designed to deter those looking for casual relationships. The procedure is long and boring. If you lose concentration you can screw up. Drinking gavi di gavi with girlfriends while you fill it out is a guarantee you’ll lose concentration. The next day I went online and learned that I was a religious Muslim who drinks frequently, sometimes in my favorite bathtub. Interestingly, I was very popular.

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Men began contacting me through the site, and in return I investigated their profiles. The men who ‘Matched’ with me lived throughout the New York metro area, came in every skin color, and ranged in age between 32 and 45. They had one thing in common: According to eHarmony, I am compatible with men who hold technical jobs. This is not what I expected. If you believe the science behind the compatibility questionnaire (I don’t), this means that all the time I’ve spent with editors, novelists, playwrights, and historians was truly nonproductive. I should have been looking for a guy like Tom, who posted a picture of himself opening the Nasdaq. Or Chris, who archives anime when he isn’t building information networks.

I’m happy to try new things. There is, however, a trade-off: None of my literary pals would ever approach me in writing with ‘I’m looking forward to exploring the possibilities with you.’ Not what I had in mind when I checked ‘verbal intimacy’ as a must in my relationships. The same goes for ‘You seem like a quality woman.’ I don’t know what that means. Perhaps it’s what one Match meant when he described his ideal partner as ‘STD-free and she MUST HAVE SEXY FEET.’ You have to admire a man who knows what he wants.

As a woman with less exacting criteria, I confront a tremendous volume of the possibilities. Every day a new batch of ‘Matches’ appears in my inbox, many ready to ‘communicate.’ There must be a lot of single tech guys in New York, and they produce a lot of bad copy. It’s hard to keep up. On the bright side, I could start a consulting firm with all the engineering contacts I now have. Ditto financial services. Overwhelmed, I called my brother, who also uses the site. His advice: ‘You just have to turn it off.’ Still, he thinks meeting online is better than meeting in a bar, where it’s difficult to start a conversation. With online dating, he said, ‘When you meet up you can always talk about eHarmony.’ Again, not my idea of appropriate ‘verbal intimacy,’ but if a girl in San Francisco can meet a nice guy like my brother through the site, why not give it a try?

I changed my religion from Muslim to ‘neither religious, nor spiritual,’ toned down the floozy factor on my profile, and settled in. I picked three men to contact, the first three Matches who didn’t list the iPod as a cherished item.

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Guy Number One was good looking, but in conversation he stuck to three topics: his fitness level, his family’s fertility, and his desire to have children. His interest in me was limited to my fitness level, my family’s fertility, and my willingness to have children. I’d like to go out; I don’t want to be a breeding experiment. That ruled out Number One. Guy Number Two was less awkward, and funny on the phone. We arranged to meet in person–three times. Number Two always canceled, the last time because he got tickets to an adult puppet show. A man who prefers puppets to women? Strike Number Two. Guy Number Three seemed normal, if a little Type A. He asked me to meet him at 9 A.M. on a Saturday. I reluctantly agreed. Then I overslept. Sorry, Number Three–and best of luck.

It’s been fun to point and click, but meeting all these virtual dates takes real time. And it’s not cheap. I have a house to renovate, so I suspended my account. Besides, my contractor is single and pretty cute. More important, he thinks I bought a really great house.

Natalie Axton writes about dance in New York and blogs at www.howdotheymove.com.

Beyond the Apps; The Blue Helix should suffice for the next few months

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Byline: Joe Queenan

Consumers are justifiably confused when it comes to picking out a smartphone. Many high-end iPhones and Androids contain features that are not terribly useful in everyday life. Not-so-early adopters also worry that they will purchase a state-of-the-art phone for $399 and then, just a few months later, burn with envy as a less expensive unit offering many more features hits the market.

The public need no longer fear either of these scenarios. With the release of the Blue Helix, a solar-powered telekinetic unit that is easily the most powerful cell phone ever invented, consumers will find themselves in possession of a self-regenerating smartphone that automatically downloads new apps and features the very moment they come into existence. The phone is a living, breathing organism that not only need never be replaced, but keeps getting better and better.

The Blue Helix is very much like a plate of osso buco that miraculously reappears as soon as it is eaten, or a stein of award-winning Pilsner that automatically improves its taste before it has even finished dribbling down a person’s throat. It is a phone that will never be obsolete, a phone that will never require an upgrade, a phone that will never need servicing. Understandably, because it has a life expectancy of 4,000 years, it is a bit on the pricey side: $30,000 per unit. But anyone who has tried out the Blue Helix will agree that the thirty thousand clams is money well spent.

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In addition to all the basic phone, email, texting, and search engine functions that are standard features of smartphones, the Blue Helix has certain applications never before seen in a device of this sort. The polygraph app lodged in the upper right-hand corner of the screen tells the user whether the person he is talking to or receiving texts from is lying–a useful application when chatting with a broker, a politician, a philandering spouse, or a child. Via high-powered satellite cameras, a second app instantly pinpoints the location and identity of the person phoning, texting, messaging, or emailing, making it impossible for telemarketers to disguise their identity and making it useless for people who frequent online dating sites to lie about their height, age, weight, or the quantity of hair of which they are still in possession. Not with a resolution of 376,000 pixels.

A multifaceted GPS unit alerts drivers when they are entering a ZIP code where their political views and bumper stickers are not likely to be well received. And yes, it can be specially programmed for libertarians.

Standard features of the Blue Helix include a 35 mm camera, a telescope, a periscope, a high-powered microscope, an atomic collider, and a disposable EKG unit. Via an invisible, genetically modified camera made entirely of soy, the phone can be used to perform CAT scans, endoscopies, and colonos-copies, automatically texting the results from inside the stomach in any one of 35 languages, including Urdu. It also removes cataracts.

For an additional $599, ranking members of the armed forces can purchase an app allowing them to activate the nation’s antinuclear missile defenses from remote locations. The phone comes equipped with four micro-torpedoes, a state-of-the-art antiaircraft gun, 12 compact heat-seeking missiles, and a small, but remarkably effective derringer. The ordnance adds little to the weight of the phone, as it is made entirely of optical fiber fused with an extremely supple form of tungsten.

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In emergencies, the Blue Helix can morph into a lifeboat, a glider, a parachute, or a roulette table; it can also be expanded to serve as a mattress, a gazebo, a helicopter landing pad, or a small but well-appointed Gothic cathedral. The phone works well as a portable space heater, DVD player, television, and microwave, and can readily be used to detect termites, cholera, radon, or intruders. Optional add-ons include a portable chemotherapy unit, an electric piano, a virtual studio apartment in Paris’s fashionable 16th arrondissement, and a four-car garage.

Does the Blue Helix have any drawbacks other than its price? Only a few. Some users complain that the laser gun app can accidentally be activated, causing nearby buildings to go up in flames. Several have pointed out that the female voice on the GPS unit bears an annoying resemblance to Carol Channing’s. And the stitches created by the personal auto-surgical unit may chafe against sensitive skin. Other than that, the Blue Helix is nothing short of a miracle.

This just in: The Blue Helix can also be used as a lunar landing device, a magnetic resonance imaging unit, a mobile funeral home, and a changing table. Once the price on this baby comes down a few bucks, look out.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of One for the Books.

Holiday gifts for the congressional staffer in your life!

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From Pages 12–18 of the December 2014 SkyMall[TM] Catalogue

The NoRegrets[TM] mobile-phone case slips easily on your iPhone or Samsung Galaxy to deliver up to ten extra hours of power on the go! The congressional staffer in your life will love the sleek design, the fashion-forward colors, and the easily rechargeable battery that comes packed into the case. Light, durable, and a must-have for the budding young strategist. Also comes with a tiny blowhole attached to a state-of-the-art breathalyzer that instantly measures the blood alcohol level of the user before allowing him or her to access any social-media applications! Including Snapchat! No more tweeting or Facebooking while tipsy! No more embarrassing updates! Anything above the equivalent of two light beers renders the continuously updated list of social-media services inaccessible for twelve safe hours! Also available: The NoRegrets+[TM], which utilizes the camera flash unit to measure the user’s heart rate for signs of anger, rage, and mental agitation with racial and/or ethnic overtones and instantly shuts down the entire range of communication applications until the pulse rate returns to normal! Tell your staffer loved one to stop apologizing! Get a NoRegrets[TM] or a NoRegrets+[TM] today! (Gift-wrapping available.)

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A one-month subscription to iFrenemy gives the political strategist or congressional staffer on your list the ultimate in career protection! It ain’t cheap, but then quality solutions never are! With a one-month introductory subscription to iFrenemy, the budding young political mastermind is “matched” with a “best friend” from a potentially troublesome and easily offended pressure group. Utilizing state-of-the-art algorithms almost identical to the ones used by online dating services your young friend already uses, the staffer is matched with one or more “BFFs” from a pull-down menu of ethnic and/or racial categories. Your “new best friend” will post on your wall, retweet your tweets, and in general serve as “inoculation” against charges of racial bigotry or self-segregation! For an additional monthly fee your iFrenemy will come to your defense via social media should that situation arise. (Which it probably will!) Imagine the delight on the face of the young political operative in your life when he connects online with this ticket to career safety!

The JKr App, now available in the iTunes App Store and Google Play, automatically follows each tweet, Facebook update, or social-media contribution with a simple “JK” followed by a smiley-face emoticon. Rest easy knowing that the political staffer or strategist in your family is well protected against outraged responses to his or her ill-considered Internet outbursts! They can relax and simply point to the automatically generated follow-up post, that they were “Just Kidding” about that tweet or update making fun of the first family, fat people, African victims of Ebola, or the physically challenged. Get the JKr App ($29.95 in the app store) and sleep easy knowing you’ve protected your young congressional staffer against career suicide!

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PhotoSpinnr is a subscription service that creates photographs using cutting-edge photo-illustration technology and uploads those photographs to the user’s social-media accounts. Simply by selecting a few checkboxes, the user can instantly “post” photographs of himself or herself building wells in Africa, serving food in a homeless shelter, comforting the sick, or casually surrounded by adoring children of all races and creeds (maximum limit of seven races/creeds), all from the comfort and convenience of the home! Imagine the peace of mind you’ll give the Little Politico or intern in your family by assuring them that no matter what stupid thing they may post on the Internet, no matter which zoo animal they may inadvertently compare the sitting president of the United States to, there will also be photo “evidence” sprinkled artfully through their social-media profiles of do-gooding and caring to offset the negative blowback! Crucial for any young person involved in politics!

No excuses! The E-lectrocutr[TM] mobile-phone case–fits all models, including the new iPhone 6 Plus!-creates a powerful electric charge just waiting for the young and impulsive congressional staffer to “forget” him- or herself and click on social-media applications to “share” or “post” some thoughts or rants on the events of the day. Simply pressing the icon for any social-media application will result in a powerful electric jolt, enough to stun a 180-pound adult and render the typical nerdy congressional staffer (average height: 5’8″, average weight: 142 pounds) unable to speak or move for several reflective hours, giving the politico on your Christmas list valuable time to decide that, after all, no one really needs to know his or her thoughts on the “inconvenient truth about Ferguson.”

A table for one: a New York restaurateur is tackling the single-female diner stigma one glass of bubbly at a time

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IS THE SOLO female diner still such a brave anomaly that her pluck needs to be rewarded–even celebrated–with a complimentary glass of bubbly? Legendary New York City restaurateur Keith McNally thinks so, as I learned recently when dining alone at his restaurant Balthazar. I’d approached the hostess of the popular Soho brasserie one weeknight with the standard solo-diner plea: “It’s just me. Do you have room at the bar?” They could do better than that, she said, leading me to a table for two that wasn’t in Siberia. I was so shocked I didn’t tell her I actually like dining at the bar.

Once seated on a banquette though, I enjoyed the civility and the view. Service was stellar. After the main course, the waiter asked if I’d like a glass of champagne, on the house. They offer it to all women dining alone, she explained, a tradition McNally started because he didn’t like how solo female diners can be treated.

I felt torn. I like champagne, and generous gestures. But I also felt suddenly foisted into a sad cliche that needed to be rewarded with alcoholic combat pay-Bridget Jones out for steak frites, someone who needed to get back to her cats. What about single male diners, I wondered. Do they get free booze? Then I smartened up and said “yes” to the gratis wine, which was lovely. (And, no, there was no attempt to upsell dessert with it.)

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Needless to say, McNally’s femme-friendly gesture isn’t bankrupting him. Two per cent of diners at his seven restaurants are singletons; fewer than one per cent are women, he said in an email. He began the champagne tradition shortly after Balthazar opened in 1997; he didn’t like how women dining alone were apologetic about asking for a table “for one.” Often they would suggest the bar in order not to “take up a table for two,” he says. He does it at all of his locations, “to send the message that the restaurant actually likes, even encourages, women to dine alone.” The response is “mostly pleasurable surprise,” McNally says, “But it’s occasionally bewilderment; the last thing diners expect is to be encouraged to eat alone as it obviously reduces business. But I like it for that very reason.”

Not only women experience singleton stigma, of course. Singles may be the fastest growing demographic but in terms of dining out beyond the food court, little has changed since Steve Martin’s 1984 movie The Lonely Guy: Martin walks into a restaurant alone, and a spotlight suddenly appears that follows him to his table. The current trend to communal tables can make the solo dining experience even more amplified, notes Sandy Hamilton, the general manager at Salt Tasting Room in Vancouver. “I’d never seat a single between two parties of four” he says. Andrew Kremulec, a waiter at a high-end Toronto restaurant who likes to dine alone, sees it from both sides. “An unaccompanied person in the midst of a crowded restaurant is viewed askance, like a surveillance camera eavesdropping on every word and deed.” Krempulec always takes a book with him, “not only to prevent the forlorn spectacle of staring sadly off into space, but to put surrounding diners at ease. Burying one’s nose in a book renders the single diner invisible and defuses the threat.”

For female diners, additionally burdened by a bad-tipper rep, the alienation is more pronounced–and analyzed. Magazine articles offer strategies to minimize exposure: take a prop, sit at the bar, dine early. Women often have different needs, says Alison Fryer, manager of Toronto’s Cookbook Store. “A lot of women like to see the room but not be seen themselves.” McNally believes the stigma surrounding women dining alone is less than when he started in the industry 30 years ago, but it still exists. “To a small degree it can be a negative perception.” Beth Whitman, the Seattle-based author of Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo, agrees. She recalls visiting Toronto on business a few years ago and going to a fancy restaurant. “I told the maitre d’, ‘It’s just me,'” she recalls. “And he said,” ‘Only you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, just me.’ And he said: ‘So, one person?’ It went on and on.” She laughs about it now.

The solo female diner remains “a definite minority of an already curious minority,” says Krempulec. He recalls one customer, a woman he guesses was in her sixties, who’d arranged to have her dessert delivered with “Happy Birthday” written in chocolate on the plate and no fanfare. “To this day, I still cannot figure out whether the gesture was in-your-face-world triumphant or a prelude to suicide,” he says.

But you have wonder why, more than 50 years after M.EK. Fisher rhapsodized about the pleasures of dining alone, even devoting a chapter to it in The Gastronomical Me, the plight of the solo female diner remains entrenched. A recent article on CNN.com read like ’70s feminine-hygiene ads in its discussion of “the embarrassment and awkwardness” of female business travellers dining alone. One woman, Rochelle Peachey, summed up her insecurity: “When I walk into a restaurant or bar alone, I feel others see me as either a woman out to pick up men or a sad, lonely spinster.” Peachey, who runs a dating website, once even pretended to be talking on her cellphone so as to seem she had friends who liked her; when it started ringing mid-conversation, she was mortified.

The spectre of dining alone can transform the most confident, successful woman into Miss Havisham. One corporate powerhouse, who asked not to be named, says she skips meals rather than eat alone when travelling. NancyVonk, co-founder of Swim, a Toronto leadership training firm, has no problem dining alone at casual places where she can read her iPad, she says: “But I’d never eat alone in a ‘real’ restaurant. Not only would I feel paranoid about the judgment of others, I would be unbelievably bored. It would be inappropriate to be on an iPad or to be reading, or God forbid, talking on the cell.” When travelling, Vonk loves ordering room service, “sadly, the most expensive way to consume food of any kind.”

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Nor does the connected generation show great comfort in dining alone, says Sarah Lyons, general manager of Toronto’s Crush Wine Bar. “Most women in their mid to late 20s would never, ever sit alone at a table. They’d be bored to death, or feel like a loser.”

A new website, Invite For a Bite–billed as “the safe, friendly way for women to meet and eat”–is capitalizing on the last bastion of upscale sexism by offering a platonic matchmaking service for female diners, evidently confident most women would prefer to make strained small talk with a random stranger than eat by themselves.

Paradoxically, the pronounced solitude that inspires terror can be a pleasure, an escape from having to make conversation, a chance to people-watch, to enjoy the moment. “I find it very empowering to dine out alone,” says Toronto food writer Marion Kane. “I go out for a certain dish ! really like, and I don’t feel the need to share the experience. It’s healing.” Kane’s point echoes one recently made by psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle in the New York Times. She wrote of the need to unplug and be alone in a culture constantly connected technologically, even when dining with others in a restaurant: “In our rush to connect, we flee from solitude, our ability to be separate and gather ourselves.”

Given the retrograde stigma, women who dine alone see it as a defiant, even liberating, gesture. Janet Beed, the president and CEO of Markham Stouffville Hospital in Markham, Ont., says she made a conscious decision about dining alone years ago when she travelled constantly as a management consultant. “I asked myself, was I going to sit in my hotel room like a social pariah or go out and eat a nice meal in a lovely environment? And I decided the ‘social pariah’ label was mine, not society’s.” Rounding up companions didn’t interest her, Beed says. “You can always find someone to eat with, but it’s not always enjoyable.”

She analyzed what kind of restaurant appealed and where she was most comfortable, experimenting with out-of-the-way tables, tables for two and sitting at the bar. As most singletons do, she prefers the bar: “The bartender keeps an eye out for you and makes sure you won’t be disturbed.”

Beed takes a book or work with her but rarely turns to it. “I prefer watching the crowd, or chatting,” she says. She dines out alone when home in Toronto as well. “Sometimes I don’t feel like cooking,” she says. “A guy doesn’t think, ‘I should cook.’ “She likes the freedom of dining alone, she says. But more than that, she says she likes “fighting a stereotype.”