Color Expectant

The Thinker by Rodin

Why should the lack of diversity in a setting bother me?

This is one of those unsettling questions I have been asking myself for which I have no ready answer. It was triggered this time by a brief overnight foray into the Shenandoah Mountains with my wife. With our daughter Rosie in Canada on an extended field trip, we had an opportunity to escape to a B&B. Because we hadn’t done much planning in advance our selection was somewhat limited. We ended up in the Rose Room at the Cross Roads Inn, in downtown New Market, Virginia.

I knew where I was going and felt prepared. This is God’s country. Off came the antiwar bumper stickers that were now pretty pointless anyhow and might well cause a brick through my car window. The further you get from D.C. the more you feel the old South surround you. Maybe it is every highway seeming to be named after General Lee or General Jackson. Maybe it is grits on the menu. Maybe it is the churches every few miles on even the most remote roads. Or maybe it is the way the people become more and more Wonder Bread the further west you go.

New Market is not a large town nor does it have much in the way of diverse dining experiences. A frozen custard stand and a Godfather’s Pizza counter wasn’t quite what we had in mind for dinner. However there was the Shenvalee Country Club (a play on “Shenandoah Valley”, no doubt) down the street that offered casual dining and decent food. So we went there, although it was hard to find a parking space because we were dodging golf carts.

We were shown to a large dining room and elected for the buffet dinner. At $15.95 it was a pretty good deal: the food was better than average and the guy at the carving board was generous with the cuts of prime rib he was handing out. Our waitress was very attentive; I couldn’t take more than a few sips of coffee before she refilled my cup. And it certainly was a pleasant place with quiet and lovely green grass to look at outside the dining room window.

Still, I felt like I had hives. And it took me a while to figure out why. I was back in the 50s. I was in Leave it to Beaver Land. At first it was the lack of African Americans I noticed. But the more I looked around the weirder it got. There was no one of ANY color here at all. Not one of the hundred or so patrons. Not one of the waitresses. Not one person on the course or driving range. No blacks. No Hispanics. No Americans of oriental ancestry. Just lots and lots of WASPs, many right off the course, many with large nice white Wonder bread families in tow.

I only remember feeling this way once before, some seven years earlier when I was in Salt Lake City. Except actually I saw a little color there. There were a couple Native Americans hanging around the street corners in Salt Lake City. Otherwise it was Wonder Bread City: a whole city full of happy, prosperous, family-oriented white largely Mormon types.

At the Shenvalee Restaurant it was Jarhead City. Crew cuts were in. Most of the people looked retired, military or ex-military. Some of the golfers were reasonably svelte, but most were overweight or obese. On the other hand they all seemed to be good people. There were no crying brats. The kids were well behaved. The people were friendly.

So why was I getting a case of the hives? After all I grew up in Wonder Bread land too. Endwell, New York in the 1960s was just like this country club. Maybe people didn’t make as much money. But I was in tenth grade before I recall seeing a black person. There were no Hispanics. There were probably a couple Orientals but I don’t remember any. (I will note that in 2000 I returned to the area for a short visit and did find some diversity; the people who ran our hotel were Middle Eastern.)

I’ve been out of Kansas too long, I guess. The Washington D.C. area is nothing if not culturally diverse. Now I do live in a predominantly WASPish sort of community, but we do have at least a large smattering of people of color. It’s not unusual to go running and see some woman in a sari walking down the street.

And it’s not like I don’t generally hang around with my own race. I have African Americans here at work I work well with but at the end of the day we go back to our separate communities. The UU church I attend has exactly one black member. (Hey, at least the man heading the denomination is African American!) But I don’t feel I am prejudiced on the basis of race, sex or religion.

I do wonder though if I am prejudiced against my own race. Or maybe I am prejudiced against those with strongly conservative values who look like me. At the Shenvalee Restaurant I felt in the minority, but I also felt cloaked. Here I was a liberal, agnostic anti-war liberal in the midst of a group I perceived to be conservative, military, rich and overly Republican. Maybe that’s the issue and it’s not an issue of race.

Maybe. Or maybe it is also that I am “color expectant” now. It seems weird to me to be any place now where people of different colors and ethnicities are not intermingling. I would have bet that in the dining room of the Shevalee Restaurant there was not a Jewish person there either. I even wondered if it was a private country club that restricted membership based on race. I don’t know. It is probably not that kind of place but I suspect a person of color might have a hard time getting a membership there.

If I were colorblind then it would make no difference to me if 100 people in a restaurant were all WASPs. So I think I must be color expectant now. I want and expect people of all sorts and from all backgrounds to be wherever I am. And when I don’t have it, it seems as weird to me as it probably did when the first African Americans were bused to the local all white schools.

Am I showing some sort of reverse prejudice? Am I leaping to conclusions that I should not leap to? Your comments are appreciated.

My Feminine Side

The Thinker by Rodin

The good news is that I don’t feel the need to go Corporal Klinger on my family. I have no desire to dress like a woman. I spend no time in stores admiring feminine attire. I have no wish to own more shoes than Imelda Marcos. I am indifferent to a lot of things feminine, including flowers, kitchens, Martha Stewart and make up.

Emotionally though I am the woman of the family. I say this because lately I’ve been reading a lot of relationship books (a signal right there, I suppose). I am always puzzled when I get to the part where they talk about what women want from men. Why? It is because it’s exactly what I want from a woman. And because it bears little reality to my experience with women I’ve known intimately, which is 95% my wife. Nor does it bear much relationship to my sisters, who come across as independent and assertive overall. Some of my sisters are much more man-like than I could ever be. Not one of my sisters is the proto-feminine type. I don’t usually see them in dresses, or made up at all, or gushing over relationships, or getting weepy over receiving some flowers.

But the things I want in relationships seem to be exactly what women claim they want from their men. I want a deep level of connectedness on all levels. I want to spend time with my spouse: meaningful, connected time doing dopey things like taking walks, sharing how our day went, exploring how we feel about things, seeing movies regularly and perhaps eating out regularly. It’s not about me; it’s about us.

These things aren’t as high on my wife’s priority list and probably never will be. We are both fairly introverted but in retrospect she is likely to always be far more introverted than I could ever hope to be. She is happiest in quietness and solace. Give her a computer with Microsoft Word and a large hard disk and she will fill it up with her writing. The ideal weekend is one where the kid is away, the laundry requires little effort and she can curl up with her computer and her online friends. It’s not like we won’t go to a movie or a show every now and then but it takes persistence and a bit of serendipity for it to happen. She sees time as finite. When she has free time it should be HER time to fill in ways that make her happiest. Sometimes that is with me, but mostly her attention is elsewhere.

But this is not a wife-bashing screed. My wife Terri is being who she is and always has been and I married her knowing this was probably the way she always would be. But there have been other alarming things that make it difficult for me to fit in with my own gender. There’s my lack of interest in pretty much anything related to sports. (Exception: I can enjoy the Olympics.) I don’t like beer. I don’t like shallow relationships. Since most relationships between men are shallow I tend to gravitate toward having relationships with women instead. I do have an appreciation for geek culture so I have that in common with lots of men, not to mention my wife. So all is not hopeless with my sex.

Particularly with people I love, I am very nurturing. The reality was that I was the mother for most of Rosie’s childhood. It is only now in the terrible teens that Terri seems to be getting into this parenting business full swing. I was the one who usually kept Rosie fed, and changed, gave her baths, read her stories, took her to the playground, made her play dates and shuffled her to and from ballet classes. I didn’t mind at all. I felt it was not just necessary but it was my calling to infuse a sense of wonder, possibility and knowledge into my daughter. It was also neat to watch her grow up. It infused me with a sense of wonder too.

I often ponder if it’s not so much that I have a feminine side as I have a human side. Males in our culture are trained to be superficial and to stonewall when the pressures of life get too severe. And I certainly have learned how to do that from experience. But it never feels natural for me. I reserve for myself the right to be fully human. I am not always successful in expressing it, but I resent it when I feel circumstances won’t allow me.

Although I am not gay myself I often look on gay men with envy. Is it just coincidence or are gays usually the most talented people in any room? When I think of the openly gay men I do know they are passionate, creative, overwhelmingly alive people. I am sure even today it is difficult to be gay in our society but it seems that most gays have a gift that can only come from the liberation of being outed: the freedom to be themselves.

Meanwhile I assume I simply have a feminine side and that’s just the way I am. Since I am on a reincarnation kick at the moment it seems perfectly logical that if I have lived lives before, I probably lived most of them as women. Maybe this life is a gender experiment for me. If I get another one I will probably choose to be a woman again. It would feel more natural.

Home Alone

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s not often that I get a chance to be home alone for any extended period of time. Oh there are a few hours every now and then when the “girls” (wife Terri and daughter Rosie) go out shopping. And I confess I do enjoy my alternate Fridays off when Terri is at work and Rosie is at school. On those days I get up to seven hours at a stretch. But these are short duration experiences. And alternate Fridays are padded with stuff I have to do, like hit the supermarket, wait in inspection lines or get my locks trimmed.

This weekend was different though because I had more than 24 hours home alone. My wife Terri was at ConneXions, a convention for slash writers in Baltimore. My daughter Rosie was invited to a Unitarian Universalist church youth retreat in Chincoteague, Maryland. So for 24 hours or so there was just me, two cats (who thankfully largely left me alone), and Rosie’s pet fish.

It’s a weird but certainly not unpleasant experience to be home alone. After so many years of marriage though I feel a little bit like fish out of water. I don’t know really what to do. The complete freedom to do things on my schedule and have no pressing responsibilities makes me a bit giddy. But then I can’t seem to enjoy the experience. Even 24 hours is ephemeral. It would take a week or two to really see if I could enjoy it, or whether I would feel disturbed by it, or both.

I have learned that I don’t have a family so much as a wife and a daughter happily engaged in their own pursuits. Yes, we do love each other and are very much connected to each other’s lives. Terri and Rosie often seem to be best friends: they share a love of writing and Slash. Rosie and I have a bond that is more than a father and daughter sort of bond. We share passions for theater and the arts, and can have deep and meaningful conversations about life. But in what passes for our free time we are more apt to spend it doing things that interest us. Terri has her slash writing and her online slash friends. Rosie has her little coterie of girl friends, her writing, her interest in Wicca, and spells to try. And I have teaching (I teach web page design) in addition to my full time job to fill the hours. In addition I run a couple Internet domains including The Potomac Tavern.

So there are three of us, but when two of us leave the home becomes very quickly just a house. Our two elderly cats seem to sense the absence of excitement and find some remote spots and sleep. And I don’t want them in my face. They sense something is different and leave me alone.

The possibilities of how to spend my free time were rather endless. There were movies I could see that Terri wouldn’t want to see. I could venture into the city, or climb a mountain or two. But I didn’t. I don’t quite remember what I used to do when I was single and by myself. I wasn’t the bar hopping type. I was shy. There was work and the weekends.

I didn’t end up in some strip bar. I don’t know where they are and frankly, I don’t care. I’ve seen enough naked females and if I want to see more there is plenty of pornography on the Internet that is free and much more accessible. I didn’t see a movie either. Instead I was doing pretty much the same things I always do. I teach Saturday mornings so I taught, stayed late and tutored a student. I hit the grocery store because I’d have to anyhow. I did wander down to the Barnes & Noble. It would have been nice if my pal Lisa could have made it, but she wasn’t available. But I had just been there last week. Even the books looked stale.

So I stayed mostly at home, looked out the window, ran a couple miles, worked on stuff for my class, and then tried not to let it feel too weird to go to bed in a big house all by myself.

They’re back. Both are recharged. Terri communed with her friends. Rosie had a good time in Chincoteague and read to us her list of beliefs, an output from their workshop. And the cats are moving around and are in our faces again.

I wonder what I would do if I had a week or two all to myself. Am I still someone wholly apart, or am I now so integrated into something larger that I can’t really distinguish myself apart from it? Am I a fish out of water without intimates in my life? I don’t really know.

Doubtless I will find out again in time. Rosie is less than five years from college. Slash conventions will come and go and I expect my wife will attend more as opportunities and time allow. I will have to relearn how to be my best friend again.

On Karma

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve been thinking a lot about karma lately. Karma is basically “as you do unto others, so shall be done unto you.” In short it asserts that there is no free lunch. If you go around messing up other people’s lives, yours will get messed up in equal measure. Many of us would agree that this principle is often true, but is it always true? And is there a time limit to karma? Clearly if you believe, as most people in the West assert, that we live only one life then when you die you may not have gotten back in equal measure all that you did to someone else. In this instance karma may not always be handed back in equal measure. Karma though is more often associated with the assertion that we have souls that go through multiple lifetimes, and we bring our karma with us from one lifetime to the next.

Like most humans I’ve done a lot of foolish and negative stuff that has generated a lot of bad karma. When I think back on some of it, I feel embarrassed that I was capable of such juvenile stuff. But while most of it occurred when I was a juvenile, I carried a lot of anger and resentment with me into adulthood.

I have come to believe in karma because in my experience it is just simply true. Lately though I’ve come to believe it applies just not to all people, but to human systems too, as well as any system that has any recognizable form of intelligence. One of the reasons I am opposed to war with Iraq is because it generates a lot of negative karma. Sure our intentions are honorable but in the process of trying to save people from tyranny we are killing a whole lot of them, and getting millions of others pissed off at us. If we as a nation assert that we know best and have the right to interfere preemptively in the lives of other people and countries then we are due to get our comeuppance. Maybe it will be more suicide bombers. Maybe it will skip a generation or two. I would like to think that it would happen only to those who supported this ill-advised war, but I’m not that naive. Working as I do in Washington DC I feel I am likely to be a victim at some point. Some dirty bomb won’t discriminate me because I attended peace vigils and put antiwar bumper stickers on my car.

I find trying to create good karma all the time a challenging task, because it is often at odds with my basic nature. For example I am not always in a pleasant mood and I often want to snarl at the person wishing me a happy day. I often feel insincere when I fake a smile, but it seems better to do that then unleash my real feelings. I wonder if it is possible to generate positive karma and always be true to you. Perhaps that is something I will learn in the second half of my life.

And there are times when I feel like “Hey, I’ve generated a lot of bad karma in my life, but haven’t I made up for it yet?” I often feel that way about my wife, who I love dearly, but who has many life challenges. Staying positive and supportive of her through long years of yo yo medical and psychological challenges is very hard. I know it’s no cakewalk for her either, since she has to deal with the effects first hand. For my wife these problems seem to increase with age, and that means I have to continue to rise to these occasions in more challenging ways. Haven’t we both had enough? Can’t the gods of fate say, “Twenty years of struggling with this stuff is enough. Go enjoy the rest of your lives.” It doesn’t look like that is going to happen.

If we have all lived many lives then perhaps I am getting my comeuppance for abusive or thoughtless behavior I created in previous lives. If so I must have been one hell of a bastard. I hope by the end of this life all is forgiven and in the next one life can be more serene.

At somewhere past the half way point of my life it is abundantly clear to me that one life is not nearly enough to attain understanding and wisdom. Although it is hard for me to grasp abstract notions like having a soul when modern medical instruments can’t detect it, perhaps the existence of a soul can be reasonably inferred. I can infer karma because I find it just happens. If it is clear to me that one life is not enough to work through all my bad karma then perhaps I can infer the existence of my soul through many lives.

As I suggested in an earlier entry, we are all in Purgatory. While I don’t necessarily subscribe to that notion, I do now believe in karma as a fundamental building block of my faith, such as it is. For me karma has now become self evident, the same way I learned not to touch a hot stove. Whether by design or whether by reaction I believe it also plays out on a macro level. As a society we simply must learn strategies to live in peace with each other. From my perspective violence is never the solution. No matter how painful it seems we must find nonviolent ways to resolve our problems, or we will continue to live through them over and over again.

Uh oh, the War isn’t going so well

The Thinker by Rodin

It was probably optimistic to expect the Iraqi armies to run away like scared chickens the moment our coalition forces crossed over from Kuwait. But that seems to have been the expectation by our military planners. What else would explain our numerous false assumptions and errors so far in conducting this war?

Here are some big ones to date:

Ordinary Iraqis will like Americans. Just because most Iraqis hate Saddam Hussein doesn’t mean they love the United States or want us to take over their country. Josef Stalin was reviled and hated in Russia too, but he managed to appeal to Russian’s sense of patriotism and stalled the German advance. Yes, in cities like Leningrad lots of people died from starvation and disease, as well as from the siege, but they held out. They wore the enemy down. An appeal to protect the motherland still wins 9 times out of 10. We are on their home turf. They have no place to go. Of course they will fight for what they have. They are fighting for their values, their culture, their way of life, their souls.

They will trust us because we believe in freedom and democracy. When you judge someone you judge him or her on their behavior, not on their words. It is completely reasonable to look at our country’s relationship with Israel, its funding for its war machine used to oppress the Palestinians, our bribing of other countries like Egypt to hold down political dissent and to infer that we talk out both sides of our mouth. An Iraqi would be nuts not to expect some ulterior motives by the United States.

With a lot of shock and awe in Baghdad the people will revolt against Saddam. We didn’t have a realistic expectation of what would be required. We raced to Baghdad but didn’t figure our extended supply lines would need so much protecting. To win this war we’re going to have to capture Baghdad. The expectation was that if we drop enough bombs there would be a big white flag raised over Baghdad. But Saddam and his cronies have nothing to lose. There is no reason not to go all out. Most likely we will either have to take over Baghdad, a city of over 7 million, through urban combat or we will simply have to cut it off and hope that when they run out of food the population will turn on its leaders. Even in Vietnam we never tried to do something like this. This would be a fighting on a level not performed by our armed forces since World War II. It would be ugly, cause large numbers of casualties and huge numbers of civilian deaths, but we could do it.

This will not be a nice, clean and short war. Instead it will be a long and messy war. I do think we have the capability to win it. I am not sure there is the political will and stomach to win it. As much as Bush says he won’t, I can see even him six months for now anxious for some sort of exit strategy. With unemployment shooting up, with the economy back in recession, with his own party revolting under him and mindful of a coming election he’ll need some sort of way to get out. Maybe he’ll accept a cease-fire. We’ll see.

But even if we do win it, what happens next is even a bigger gamble. Three quarters of Iraqis belong to a tribe of some sort. We’re going to get these tribes with a history of conflict to play nice with each other? Do we really expect that Iraqis will democratically elect someone to our liking? Isn’t it much more likely that if the people had their way they would elect an Islamic state similar to, perhaps, Iran? Would we really step aside in such a case and say “that’s okay by the United States”? I don’t think so.

What does Saddam get out of all this? He wins regardless of the scenario. If he is killed, he is a martyr protecting Iraq from the Americans and standing up for Arab principles and Islam. More will rise to follow his example. If he is captured and tried for war crimes he gets to plead his case and gets his mug in the papers for years to come, while probably rallying a lot of Arabs behind him. If he stalls us and we leave then he stays in power. Admittedly we think it’s crazy that someone would want to be a martyr but his motives are not ours.

It’s going to be a protracted, expensive and ugly mess without a happy ending. It is a needless, pointless war caused by excessive hubris, false expectations and insufficient understanding of the real world. If our leaders were wise they would cut our losses and get out now. But we’re committed and now we have to prove ourselves at any cost.

The cynic in me wonders: why did Bush not explicitly rule out the use of nuclear weapons? The idea of actually using one appalls me, but maybe it doesn’t appall Bush. It’s our ultimate trump card. When all else doesn’t seem to work, obliterate the bastards. They’re all just part of an axis of evil anyhow, right? And evil must be destroyed.

Sincerely Unitarian

The Thinker by Rodin

I attend the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, Virginia. My wife and I were married there in 1985. We were shopping around for a place to get married and it was a tough task because I was an extremely estranged Catholic and she was just a nothing with no particular religious beliefs and no interest in practicing them.

From reading Sinclair Lewis’s book “Elmer Gantry” I got the impression that Unitarians were a kind of neat and unorthodox religion. If I had to get married in a church I figured it could only be in a Unitarian Universalist church. Terri’s Mom was anxious for us to have a church wedding. So we attended some services, seemed comfortable there, met the minister, rented the hall, paid a couple hundred bucks and got married. Ours was a small wedding with only a couple dozen attendees, mostly from out of town. I liked the church but married life kept us busy and Terri liked to sleep in on Sundays. So although I had some inclination to go back I didn’t want to go back by myself. So I learned to sleep in Sundays and enjoy leisurely readings of The Washington Post instead.

Twelve years passed. We created a daughter named Rosie. I tried to explain Catholicism to her, but had no desire to get her involved in that sort of experience. Better to be an unbaptized heathen, I thought, that spend ones days wondering if some trangression was a mortal or a venial sin. There reached a time in early grade school though when she started to do things she shouldn’t. I realized then that we had been a bit lax in her moral upbringing, mainly because we were pretty wishy-washy ourselves. We felt she needed some exposure to churches and religious communities. Maybe a little Sunday school was just what she needed.

We started at the local Methodist Church. Terri taught Sunday school at a Methodist Church when she was still single and thought it was fairly benign. But it was still Christian with a capital C and as an agnostic I wasn’t excited being associated with anything Christian, however benign. I did think it was neat that they had a lady minister, but the suits after services anxious to talk to us over coffee left me leery. Rosie attended Sunday school there for a while but neither Terri nor I could get up the energy to actually attend services regularly. Terri went back to sleeping in late on Sundays. I got stuck shuffling her to and from Sunday school. After a couple months though I realized it just wasn’t a good fit. It was too Christian for me. I would be insincere to profess a belief in Jesus’s divinity when I didn’t believe it.

So I drifted back to the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston with Rosie by my side and my wife still sleeping in on Sundays, as was her sacred religious custom. Our first service was a celebration of humor. Now THAT was pretty odd. And the minister was a lesbian. THAT was even odder, although it didn’t bother me in the least. It felt a bit weird but I felt a lot more at home than I did at the Methodist church. It would take many years of shuffling Rosie to and from Sunday school there and sitting through services before I would warm up to the place. I had a lot of bad Catholic baggage to deal with. I wanted to enjoy the experience, throw a few bucks in the plate when it went by, but feel no sense of commitment.

Nonetheless if you keep coming people start to recognize your face. Rosie seemed to enjoy Sunday school most of the time and soon she was participating in the Christmas pageant and ringing the bell at the start of service. Then she was going to the church Christmas party, and we were buying toys for tots for Christmas. After every service she and her maw could be found at the snack table. (Food can be a very bonding experience.) I taught a Sunday school class. Without quite realizing it I was getting integrated into a church. It took many years before I realized I was there as much for me as I was for her. Because there were aspects of Catholicism that I missed and mainly I missed a good sermon. It was nice to have a good sermon once a week. It was even better to have a sermon stripped of all the spiritual nonsense that constitutes most services. I began to look around more and realized I had found a sort of spiritual home: a nice religious, albeit wonder bread sort of place, with liberal spiritual values where you could be who you want to be, believe or not believe what you want, and no one gives you a hard time about it. In fact your diversity is something that is celebrated.

This was weird stuff for someone raised in a very Catholic family where rigid conformity to Catholicism was the ideal. I didn’t have to worry about whether some minor transgression totally POed God anymore. Increasingly it felt good to be in a place with my own kind. Virginia is a vast domain of strident right wing Protestantism. I often felt estranged and alone merely for voting Democratic. But this church made me realize I was not alone and there were plenty of us freethinkers out there. Now I had a place to commune with my own kind. It was kind of neat.

So I’m still there six years later and this year I quietly became a member of the church. It is now my major charity and I am throwing in large bucks into a building drive to expand the sanctuary. It is by no means a large church. Altogether there are about two hundred members. Since 9/11 membership is going up. The church is getting quite crowded some Sundays.

Terri still sleeps in Sundays for the most part, and probably always will. Rosie is a bit more scattershot at age 13 about attending religious education, but she does enjoy being in the church choir. About half the time I end up going to services by myself. But now I feel sort of integrated into the place. It is not too big a place where I can’t associate names and faces. It’s just right for me: not too big and not too small.

During my declining days of Catholicism in the early 70s, the Catholic Church added a portion to the Mass that struck me as rather strange. It was a sort of Kumbaya moment when you were supposed to greet your neighbor and wish them the peace of Christ or some such silliness. It was always awkward and I hated it, and it was apparent that most of the people I shook hands with felt the same way. (“For crying out loud, this is taking too long anyhow!”) As much as most Catholics will deny it, most Catholics don’t actually want to be at church. They don’t wake up on Sunday mornings and think “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to spend an hour or two hearing the same words over and over again?” No, I believe most go out of a sense of duty and obligation, because they have always done it and it’s part of the cost of being a Catholic. Catholicism isn’t so much a religion as it is a culture one is thrown into at birth without your consent. Curiously I’ve found Unitarian churches filled with disgruntled ex-Catholics totally pissed off about the religion.

But my church also has a Kumbaya moment at the end of each service. We all hold hands and sing a song (“From you I receive; to you I give; together we share; and for this we live.”) And while it still seems a little hokey, it’s okay. Why? Because it is sincere. These are people I’ve grown to care about. I know them as individuals. During the Joys and Sorrows part of each service the braver ones come up and discuss their life challenges, and we provide support to them. That’s not to say we always get along perfectly. It’s like an extended family. Many of us are squeaky wheels and prefer to live our lives that way. But somehow we manage to care for each other.

No, it is not a church to learn doctrine, nor hear sermons on hell fire and damnation. Arguably Unitarians Universalists are not Christian, and it would probably be technically correct to admit we don’t really have a church, but a meeting place for services. But it is a comfortable and caring space for people like me. Whatever it is, it has a quite real feeling of true community. I hope it never becomes a mega church. Unitarians are a small enough congregation where this is not likely to happen. It’s a good place. It’s a little secret. I don’t want the word to get out that I have a spiritual home. The place might become too crowded and popular. I mean if people find true fellowship and spirituality in a place where a fair number of congregants won’t even profess a belief in God … what is the world coming to?

I hope others find true joy and happiness in going to their place of worship. I’m glad to finally be some place where I don’t have to go through the motions. I am as home spiritually as I am ever likely to be.

Critical Thinking? Who needs it, we’ve got ideology!

The Thinker by Rodin

Ugh. This is one of those days when maybe I just should have stayed in bed. Reality is too depressing to deal with some days, but never more so than today.

Ideology is dangerous. If you have ideology, you don’t have to worry about whether an action is advised or ill advised. You know you are right because your ideology tells you that you are right. That’s the sort of immovable force that is George W. Bush. Morality has become a substitute for critical thinking. Circled by his coterie of advisers who only reinforce his inclinations, he does not feel dissent. When antiwar protesters come to town he is conveniently at Camp David.

In the process we are getting a lot of Orwellian newspeak. The latest one is “diplomacy”. In the old days diplomacy meant getting together with those of differing opinions, talking out your differences and coming to a joint consensus. Yesterday in the Azores, Bush said he would give diplomacy one more day. But make no mistake, he’s not going to compromise anything. Basically the U.N. Security Council either agrees with him or he goes to war without the U.N. This is diplomacy hard at work, folks.

When you have ideology you can conveniently overlook a number of facts that would otherwise be irritating. You can excuse our wretched job of nation building in Afghanistan. Our appointed president there controls, at best, the city limits of Kabul, and only because a lot of foreign troops are patrolling the streets. You can overlook the fact that the United States promised aid and democracy to Afghanistan that we did not deliver, yet remain supremely confident that when our troops take over Iraq we will instill democratic values and Iraq will become a shining beacon of freedom in the Middle East. You can overlook those pesky little ethnic and religious rivalries that have been going on for generations between Iraqi and Kurd, Sunni and Shi’ite.

If you have ideology you can pretend that our forces spread out across Iraq won’t be a target for every fanatical Muslim in the region, and there are plenty. You can pretend that because we can “liberate” Iraq that the Iraqi people will love us, even though they hold us responsible for years of sanctions. You can ignore the minor problem that Muslims will consider our occupation something like a holy war, and that they will see us as Christians on a Crusade.

This is what “your either with us or against us” gets us as a nation: virtually the whole world is against our preemptive war. Close to half of the American people are against it too. This sort of attitude causes only further polarization, making compromise impossible.

I am deeply ashamed of our president, and aghast at what our country is about to do in the name of peace. We will not have peace, we will only be throwing more gasoline on the fire. Why do they hate us? We will be giving them plenty more reasons, rest assured.

Please tell me this isn’t happening. Please tell me this is all a bad dream.

No Millionaire Left Behind

The Thinker by Rodin

Now we understand that when Bush said he wanted to leave no child left behind, he really meant that he wanted no millionaire left behind from a large tax cut.

Today’s story in the Washington Post reveals the realities of what states are facing: a recession, declining tax base and guess what … schools are taking huge cuts, classroom sizes are increasing, training for teachers is being cut or abandoned altogether. Oregon citizens are so bent against tax increases that they will send their kids home for two extra weeks rather than pony up the money to give them a decent education. The same state is proposing increasing the class size next year to … this is NOT a misprint … 42 students!

This article should shock anyone.

The few little coins the federal government is throwing in the coffers of state budgets to implement its No Child Left Behind program doesn’t begin to pay for it. Voters unwilling to raise their taxes are making a very dramatic statement: all this talk about the importance of public education is just talk. We really don’t care that much, certainly not enough to raise taxes to ensure adequate public funding.

It is curious where the Bush Administrations priorities lie. It is certainly not out there lobbying the states to spend more money on education in spite of the recession. Gosh, that would demonstrate actual commitment to its principles. But there is plenty of money to fund a war against Iraq that will cost at least $100B, although the Bush Administration refuses to suggest how much the endeavor will cost. There is plenty of money for large tax cuts that will give the largest tax cuts to the upper class. There seems to be no limit to the money to give farmers and mega-agricultural businesses. There is always more money to give to Israel.

This administration is shamefully talking out both sides of its mouth. If it were sincere about ensuring no child is left behind, instead of cutting taxes for the rich it would allocate this money to subsidize education so that at the very least standards don’t slip.

This is a “no sacrifice” administration: no one who funds the Republican party’s coffers needs to worry about suffering in the least. Take your tax cuts. Drive your SUVs and your Lexuses. Send volunteers to fight our wars, certainly not your kids who will go to Ivy League schools as usual. Let’s wage a war that is inadvisable and unaffordable. Let’s shift the burden, as always, to the little people. Let them deal with declining schools and larger class sizes. Let them figure out how to afford unaffordable health insurance and pay for medications costing hundreds of dollars a month with no deductibles.

I guess the notion of public office as one of being a good steward and acting as a fiduciary is hopelessly outdated. Instead let’s pander to our base and let the rest flounder.

It is hard to think of a case where there is a bigger dichotomy between Bush’s words and his actions. But it is abundantly clear that Bush is no education president.

Is Mediocrity Okay?

The Thinker by Rodin

This is a discussion I’ve been having a lot with my daughter and my wife lately. What we’re trying to figure out is whether it is okay for our daughter Rosie to skate by through life or whether we should push her to excel. Rosie, by the way, is 13 years old and currently in the eighth grade. For years she has been “getting by” in school with a mixture of A’s, B’s and C’s, and the occasional D, but mostly she has been a high C sort of student. She came very close to going to summer school last summer.

It’s not that we haven’t been doing everything we could think of to motivate her. We’ve tried it all from bribes, threats, hands off, cajoling, networking, lengthy discussions with her teachers, punishments, incentives. She’s been tested for ADD (negative). Her teachers say over and over again what a bright, intelligent and interesting girl she is. But her pattern is the same. She starts off the year well then seems to lose interest in about half her subjects. We play the paper chase and try to keep on top of her homework but it’s impossible. She forgets to bring stuff home, or deliberately doesn’t do things. To her studying might be looking through her notes, if she has any, a few minutes before the class. But mostly she can’t stay organized so assignments aren’t turned in or are never even started.

Doubtless my wife and I are mirroring our own childhoods with Rosie. Terri was practically an only child, with a brother 8 years older than herself. She did well in school because she was naturally bright, but not necessarily naturally interested in everything she was taught. If the laziness gene is genetic, Rosie gets it from Terri. I mean no offense to my lovely wife but that’s just a fact. It was okay for her to be lazy. Her mother was too busy doing the single mom thing and just scraping by to care too much about her studies. Besides Terri was naturally bright. In a sea of mediocrity in the Flint Public Schools a naturally bright person working at half their ability is an A student.

I on the other hand was number five of eight siblings, and most of us were A students. I learned to compete against my brothers and sisters. My parents set high expectations. We were expected to be A students so we were, for the most part. Even so I was somewhere in the middle of my siblings. Certain siblings, Doris, Jim, Teri and Tom in particular excelled and zoomed to the top of the class. I had to work at it. I was ashamed to bring home any test that was less than a 90%; I knew I’d get a reproving look from my father. But mainly I was self-directed. I didn’t need anyone to pick up behind me. I kept up on my homework. I studied on my own. I knew life would not be handed to me. If I was going to go to college it would have to be done through hard work, both scholastically and through part time jobs. With all those siblings money for college was tight.

Fast forward to the present. I observe a lot of the characteristics of Terri and I in Rosie. She picks up on ideas and concepts very quickly. She has a unique and somewhat skewed perspective on life. She is an excellent writer, and both my wife Terri and I have considerable talent in that area. At her age I burned with writer’s fever, as does she. My writing at that age never came close to what she is producing right now. She also has considerable talents in singing and acting. Even though she doesn’t like math, she understands it.

I don’t understand why if the brass ring is right there in her grasp she won’t make the little effort to go up and grab it. But that’s continually the problem we face with Rosie. Yes she wants to go to college. Yes we explain to her that colleges are selective and if she wants to go to college now is the time to clean up her act and commit to serious studying. Yes, she knows the consequences of indulging her own apathy: “Do you want fries with that?” Even though graduation is four years away she doesn’t seem to grasp it. We try to explain that she starts high school next year, and that the pressure will double, and the kids are racing toward the finish line. Her fantasies revolve around private boarding schools far, far away where she gets to do things she likes in school all day, not tackle things that she finds boring like geometry or world history.

Is the problem too little adversity in her life? I’m not sure we spoiled her, but her life is certainly a lot easier and a lot fuller than my childhood. If there aren’t enough tough obstacles to climb over in your life, will you be conditioned not to climb over them in adulthood?

I’ve explained that growing up is all about mistakes and learning from your mistakes. I told her it is much, much easier to learn from your lessons now than to procrastinate and try to do the same as an adult. I try not to be myopic about her education, but I try to set a reasonable bar. Getting B’s or better in all her classes should be a minor matter. All she has to do is turn in all her homework. That’s it. And she is doing better than before, but she hasn’t gotten to the bar yet. She gets a couple C+ grades the last two grading periods, but the rest are an improvement on last year. But she feels under pressure, she says I in particular am obsessed with grades, and she tells me frequently there is more to life than a report card.

She is right of course. And she is wrong. It is both. One doesn’t need an abacus to figure out the consequences of her behavior. There is certainly nothing wrong with a life behind the French fry vat at McDonalds. But I also know her well enough to know she would not be happy there. That sort of life would make her miserable. She flows on the energy of music and writing and drama. She is a restless child who wants to suck the nectar out of life. She just hasn’t made the connection that it takes perseverance to get that nectar.

All this while at 13 she also needs to start making her own choices and my wife and I have to continually rethink her boundaries. Maybe she does have the right to be mediocre. Maybe she is one of these people whose greatest lessons have to be learned from failure. Maybe we have to take our hands off and let her fail before she can summon the inner strength to move persevere and grab the brass ring. Or maybe she’ll never grasp it at all, and spend her life getting by. Ultimately it is her choice.

Stopping the War in Iraq: There is always hope

The Thinker by Rodin

If you are a Tolkien-head like me you are probably enjoying the movies directed by Peter Jackson. One of the principle characters is Aragorn, a.k.a. Strider, a rightful future king of Middle Earth. Aragorn, in order to claim his throne, has to fight off and win against the evil forces of Lord Sauron. All hope is vested in poor Frodo and Sam, who somehow have to secretly get into the evil land of Mordor with the Ring of Power and destroy the ring, while not being corrupted by its evil influence and without Lord Sauron getting wise to their scheme. Meanwhile Aragorn has the dubious job of rallying discouraged forces to distract Sauron, who has armies many times larger than his. Finding hope in such circumstances is challenging to say the least. Many of the other characters, like Boromir, have long lost hope.

This is a similar time when it comes to our impending war on Iraq. In this case while Saddam Hussein is undeniably an unsavory fellow, we have the power of Lord Sauron to spread our dominion and forces as we see fit across the globe, largely unchecked. President Bush is gung ho to topple Saddam at any cost. Nearly 300,000 troops are massed around Kuwait waiting for Bush to say “go”. There is every indication that Bush will say go, no matter how much the rest of the world says don’t go, even if we have to go without any other support.

It’s a discouraging time for a peace activist like myself. Some of us feel strongly that such a use of power preemptively is deeply wrong for our country. In this case I believe it will actually make us far less secure by inflaming more Muslims against us. There has been a huge amount of opposition to this war. Tens of millions have demonstrated here and across the globe. Bush doesn’t seem to hear them, or if he does he just discounts them. He is convinced his morality is right and the rest of us are fools or are wrong.

Despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, I believe that this unnecessary war can still be stopped. I have hope.

Cases in point: A new resolution is to be submitted to the Security Council by the United Kingdom that would at least delay actions. Delay is good because it at least buys time. The war is deeply unpopular in Britain and it is not clear that if it started Tony Blair would survive as Prime Minister.

But there is more. Pope John Paul, and by inference the whole Catholic hierarchy, and the Catholic Church here in the United States is against the war. (Also, the National Council of Churches.) John Paul has met with lots of leaders including Tony Blair and Tarik Aziz and is forcefully (for an 82 year old guy) coming out against the war. His representative met with President Bush yesterday to push for peace, probably the only one with the moral clout to actually get in to the Oval Office and discuss it with Bush face to face. This is not a guy who welcomes discussions of opposing views.

And students across the country left class and went to antiwar rallies yesterday. We’re talking hundreds or thousands of students in college campuses, but also in high schools and other schools, all over this country. These students know that they will likely be the ones who will have to fight this war against evil that Bush has proclaimed. And they understandably are not anxious to be dragged into it, particularly when Iraq is well contained and has a fraction of its military strength prior to the first Gulf War.

There is also the recent success of MoveOn.org’s virtual protest. Virtually every congressional and senate office was flooded with anti-war calls. We are being here.

Don’t give up hope. Continue to express your feelings to your neighbors, friends, family, coworkers. Keep calling your congressmen and senators. Write your local newspapers! Call a talk radio show! Put a bumper sticker on your car. Together we can do this! And in doing so you will not only keep a lot of people from needlessly being killed, but you will actually improve our national security too. Do we really need to make a billion Muslims hate us even more? Do we really want to vindicate George Orwell’s Big Brother that “War is Peace” and “Ignorance is Strength”??

Hang in there brothers and sisters. We can do this. We just have to stand up to the plate, shoulder our responsibility as citizens in a democracy and keep yelling.