Monday, May 26, 2014

People with Guns

I know how some of you will react. "Guns by themselves don't kill anyone!" "It's mentally ill people and criminals, not law-abiding gun owners, who are the problem!" "It's our Constitutional right!" Yes, I've hard all these arguments, ad nauseum. I even feel some sympathy for them, particularly the one about how our society no longer cares for the mentally ill as it once did, and something needs to be done about that. I've also been reminded, by Michael Moore of all people, that Canadians own more guns per capita than Americans and seem somehow to manage not shooting each other thirty times a day. His reframing of the slogan goes like this: "Guns don't kill people. Americans kill people."

But here's where the rubber meets the road or, better euphemism, the hot lead punches through the rib cage: people are dying, boatloads of them, and apart from sympathetic speeches, empathetic arms around the shoulder, and choreographed hand-wringing,politicians, the only people who really can do something about it, don't. The posture, they protest, they shake their fists and point their fingers, but they never, ever do anything to stop the killing.

If this were a virus, if 10,000 Americans a year were dying of a rare disease, we'd be pouring millions, perhaps billions, into research, enlisting laboratories around the world to find a vaccine. Once it was found, health teams would descend upon schools, community centers, churches, anywhere people gather, and they wouldn't stop until every person had been inoculated. Some would protest, refuse the injection, and as dunderheaded as that might be, we'd probably give them that right--though if it meant endangering their children, as well, we'd probably have some misgivings about according them that freedom. In the end, we'd eradicate the disease.

Handgunitis, though, is a disease that has powerful defenders. Millions of otherwise intelligent Americans insist that this virus must be permitted to live, that it must be protected at all costs, even as thousands of innocents die from it. Yes, many more people die from the use of alcohol, tobacco, automobiles--and as a result, all of these are strictly regulated to lessen their virulence. Not so with guns. Thanks to constant lobbying by the NRA and its minions, the strictest gun regulations in this nation are minuscule next to the rules imposed on other dangerous substances or devices.

On May 23, a young man killed seven UCLA students with handguns he had purchased legally. He acted out of frustration that he couldn't find a blonde woman to date him. The next day, Richard Martinez, father of one of the victims, cried out against the NRA and the lily-livered politicians who advance its agenda. In a short piece in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes this:

Why did Christopher Michael-Martinez die? Because the N.R.A. and the politicians they intimidate enable people to get their hands on weapons and ammunition whose only purpose is to kill other people as quickly and as lethally as possible. How do we know that they are the ‘because’ in this? Because every other modern country has suffered from the same kinds of killings, from the same kinds of sick kids, and every other country has changed its laws to stop them from happening again, and in every other country it hasn’t happened again. 

In America, it keeps happening, and it will keep happening, because no matter how much the anguish of the survivors may be to bear, the people who most need to hear them will not. Instead, they will cling to their guns, cling to their arguments about the right to defend oneself, the right to responsibly bear arms, while ignoring the reality of the many who choose to attack rather than defend, and the many more who irresponsibly leave weapons lying around for toddlers to use on each other, and flimsy regulations that permit first-time murderers to purchase the weapons they need to be mass murderers, armed with guns that can take dozens of lives in minutes with no more effort than the squeezing of a trigger.

I read these stories, I see the video, and I know that the only backlash that will count is that of the gun lobby, fighting to protect not the innocent, but the right to bear arms, a right far costlier than any other; and so, with Stephen Stills, I sing:

Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground.
Mother earth will swallow you, lay your body down. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Out in the Open

Yesterday I wrote about a gay college friend who stayed closeted from me until our 25th reunion, though for much of that time, we were completely out of touch. Commenting on that blog post, another friend speculated about whether Scott was even out to himself in the 1980s, and wondered if coming out begins with oneself.


So there's the answer to the story problem. Now, of course, I've got to show my work. There's a lot of it.

This is about my personal journey of coming out agnostic. It starts in 1974, when I was on two parallel church-related tracks: confirmation and earning my God and Country badge, a religious emblem awarded by the Boy Scouts. Many eighth graders going through these initiation rites are fortunate enough to do them in a community of young people their own age. I was not. The church my father served in Emmett, Idaho was really too small to have a youth group, and I was the only Methodist in my Scout troop, so I was on my own with both these studies, which were taught by my pastor who, of course, just happened to be my father. Right at the age when young people begin questioning their parents' authority, mine was teaching me about faith.

I did everything I was supposed to: I studied the Bible, read the textbooks, filled out all the worksheets, did service projects, reflected as much as a 14-year-old can, and at the end of that time, two things happened: my father proudly pinned the God and Country medal to my uniform; and, several months later in Philomath, Oregon, where we had moved just after I finished the eighth grade, I was baptized in the only Methodist immersion baptistry in the Pacific Northwest after answering the required questions about believing in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the church, promising to be faithful to it with my prayers, my presence, my gifts, and my service.

I had hoped this would be a profound experience, that the heavens would open up, a dove would descend, and I'd hear the voice of God. Instead, I remember two things: the water in the baptistry was two hot, so my father could not get my head all the way under; and, since I was fully dressed during the baptism, I was now very very wet. And that is where my journey really began: even as I said the promises and took the vows, I felt like I was telling a lie.

I wanted to believe. That was never an issue. My grandmother was a saint whose faith had gotten her through a lifetime of difficulties, and her example was always before me. But I just didn't feel it.

Through high school and college, I continued to struggle. I never missed church--I was a dutiful preacher's kid--and I spent a portion of my own time reading the Bible and popular theology, trying to find the secret to faith. I had moments of inspiration, of feeling like I was on the verge of belief: feeling the embrace of a community at camp, among my friends, at church; crying out on my knees as life dealt me a harsh blow; reading of the faith journey of C.S. Lewis, another, far more prominent, skeptic. I'd almost have it in my grasp, and then it would slip away.

This is probably the main reason I went to seminary after just one year of teaching: I wanted to do my confirmation justice. I desperately wanted this elusive thing called faith. And in seminary, I found it, though again it was fleeting. Struggling with questions of identity, studying spirituality, engaging in disciplines of meditation and prayer, I came as close as I ever would to believing. I also acquired the tools to dismantle that belief: historical criticism, systematic theology, and an unflinching look at the history and polity of the church, corrupt, hypocritical, and more flawed than I'd ever allowed myself to know.

I came out of that experience preaching my doubts. I intentionally went with the hard texts, the passages in the Bible that had to be wrestled with, challenged, that forced readers to ask the same questions I'd been asking myself all along. These texts did not always yield satisfying answers. In fact, as the years went by, I found myself preaching to myself more and more; and while my sermons were always well received, I came to see that it was patently unfair to treat my congregation as my own personal theology experiment.

The doubting clergyman is an archetype well established in literature and the arts. Carl Orff's Carmina Burana is a setting of texts by medieval ex-monks, and it is loaded with drinking, carousing, and corruption. Robin Hood's companion, Friar Tuck, is a hard-drinking hoodlum. The novels of the Romantic era teem with such characters, struggling with their own faith. Sometimes they are victorious; often they are not.

What I could not admit to myself as I went through counseling, spiritual direction, retreats, and continued to study great works of theology and spirituality, was that I never really had faith to begin with. Looking up at the stars, I had awe--who could not?--but faith had always eluded me. And lacking faith, I really had no business being a pastor.

The church got this, though not for the right reason. I was eventually pushed out of ministry because I did not connect well with parishioners unless they were going through some kind of crisis. For some reason--perhaps the empathy I wrote about yesterday--I did great work in hospitals and funeral homes; but when it came to dropping by for a chat, or just being friendly after church, I lacked the pastoral gene. So I was gently, but firmly, shown the exit in 2000, after fifteen years of going through the motions.

I landed in an intentional Christian community, where I continued to wrestle with these questions until that community closed up shop two years ago. I still wanted to believe, but now, I was finally realizing, I just didn't. And I don't.
I finally began admitting this to myself six years ago, the last time I really prayed. It was a deep, gut-wrenching prayer that sought something very specific. That which I prayed for, I lost. One could look at this as meaning that the prayers of those seeking the other outcome trumped my own, and God chose them over me. Maybe that's how things work, though if it is, that's not a God I want anything to do with.

There is one other explanation for the failure of my prayer to receive an answer, any answer: nobody was listening. This is what I've suspected all my life. As hard as I've prayed at times, I've never known for certain that God was listening. Quite the contrary, in fact. I've had a rare sense of presence in the experience, but for the most part, it's felt completely one-way, as if I'm pouring myself out into a vacuum. I'm not talking about half-hearted prayers here. These were prayers from the gut, from the anguish of my soul, sobbing, even wailing, my petition to a deity who, I've been told, hears all prayers and, more importantly, answers them.

I got no answers. And the least a loving God could do--the very least--would be a simple, "Sorry, no."

Six years ago, I finally admitted to myself that I had never known a prayer to be answered, and probably never will. There's nobody picking up when I dial God.

Mind you, I'm not saying there's nobody "up there," "out there," or even "in here." As Louis CK has said, how can anyone know for certainty that there's NOT a God? All I know is that, whether or not there is one, he/she/it is not talking to me, and never has.

So there it is, friends: I'm an agnostic. It took me half a lifetime to accept this about myself, but now that I have, I'm putting it out there for all to see. Or for at least the 20 people who read this.

Saturday, May 24, 2014


One of these people is gay. I had no idea.

Correction time: I said in my last post that I didn't really befriend a gay person until I was in my 30s, and serving a gay-friendly Reconciling Congregation. That was only partly true. In fact, I did have a close gay friend, but I was completely ignorant of his orientation. In fact, I only learned he was gay at our 25th college reunion, in 2008.

It's not that strange that I didn't know this about him when we were classmates, living in the same dorm, part of a clique we called The Group. Scott dated women, belonged to a fraternity, and was, the last time I saw him before that reunion, engaged to a woman. Then he moved to North Carolina, and I heard nothing from him for about fifteen years. Then came the reunion. We met at an alumni mixer at which we only knew each other, got out of it as quickly as we could, and went out for a beer. There, Scott just mentioned in the conversation that he had a partner, and called his partner "him." It's not that he came out to me in the traditional sense of the term; he just said it as if I'd always known.

Of course, I hadn't, and Scott knew I hadn't, at least not up through the early 1990s; but coming out in this casual way, the same sort of way most straight people come out as heterosexual ("I was just talking to my wife about that...") told me he was completely cool with this now, took it for granted that this essential part of his identity was as normal a thing to share as his job, and that he trusted me to be fine with it. I was touched and humbled that he thought that of me, at least in part because, as I wrote in my last post, I was an utter ignoramus about the topic at the time we knew each other best, and saw each other every day. It wasn't just that I didn't know Scott was gay; I hardly knew gay people existed. And Scott was actively hiding it then, though in retrospect, knowing it makes perfect sense to me.

I'd like to think that what led Scott to trust me with this information 25 years later was my empathy. I can be completely clueless about what another person is feeling--part of that mild autism I wrote about several months ago--but once I do know, it's impossible for me to be judgmental. I've always been this way. It's the part of being a pastor that came easily to me, though expressing it was another matter. It's why it was so easy for me to discard homophobia. As soon as I get to know people, they cease to be abstractions.

A former colleague who posts regularly on Facebook shared a string yesterday about the growing sense in United Methodism that there will be a schism over homosexuality. I browsed the conversation for about a minute, and stopped at the point at which I started feeling like throwing my phone across the room. It was all there, everything I was so glad to leave behind when I stopped being a pastor, then further distanced myself from church life in general: people on soapboxes, insisting that treating an entire class of people like perverts who should be locked up until they repent of their repulsive fixation was God's Truth, and that if United Methodism takes any steps at all that might suggest it's all right to be gay, the church will consign itself to the ash heap of history. Reading just a few of these tirades, I couldn't help thinking: here's someone who's never gotten to know a gay person.

Notice I didn't say that these people don't know anyone who's gay. That's highly unlikely. They probably know several. But they don't know they're gay. Why? Because it's not safe for them to be out in their presence. Given the fact that most of these ordained homophobes are pastors, coming out to them could mean, in the case of colleagues, coming under the scrutiny of the Board of Ordained Ministry, a church trial, and being defrocked. In the case of parishioners--or more likely, parishioners' children--there may be the sense that sharing this information will lead to being shunned by the congregation. If your pastor is openly hostile to your orientation, and the congregation seems to be fine with that hostility, you don't go around blabbing about your gay love life. In fact, you're probably not even out with your family, who likely share that hostility, for fear you'll be rejected by them.

This is the tragedy of homosexuality: that a profound aspect of a person's identity can cause that person to be rejected by family, friends, society in general. It is becoming less so in many parts of the United States, but even in Portland, Oregon, a male friend of mine was recently yelled out for embracing another man on the street. Granted, the person calling out the epithet was riding a bicycle rather than a pickup truck, but still, homophobia is everywhere.

To live one's entire life under the shadow of rejection, knowing that openly expressing affection to one's partner outside of the confines of the circle of one's most trusted friends is to court hostility, abuse, even violence, is tragic indeed. It astounds me that anyone, least of all helping professionals whose job it is to empathize with and reach out to the marginalized, could not see the suffering their hatred inflicts and be moved by it, work to rid themselves of it, make amends to the people they have hurt, actively defend the policies that drive these people from faith communities that could be healing them of all the fear and pain they have endured throughout their lives.

I used to argue this case with these people, citing this passage when I did:

Then [the Son of Man] will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment... (Matthew 25:41-46)
I eventually abandoned the futile quest to get people to take the Bible seriously, rather than using it as an excuse for their bigotry, because there's no convincing them. I don't talk to those people anymore.

I can't help thinking, though, that eventually they'll come around. As Mark Joseph Stern puts it in Slate magazine's "Outward" blog, "humans as a species are hardwired for empathy." To know a person in any depth is to share that persons feelings: joy, sadness, fear, grief, anger. Take the time getting to know someone who's gay and you will be inoculated against homophobia. It may take some time, but not as much as you might think.

Or, better still, just go around assuming that everyone you meet is worthy of treating decently. In the description of the Last Judgment I cited above, Jesus makes it clear that no one being judged, whether righteous or condemned, reached out or failed to reach out to the marginalized out of knowledge that it had eternal importance. They just did it, or failed to do it.

I'd like to think that Scott chose to trust me 25 years later because the college me, even in my ignorance, was empathetic enough to treat people decently. And I hope the haters who are driving United Methodism down the highway to irrelevance can learn this lesson before it is too late, and they, like all the racists, sexists, ageists, classists, and every other kind of -ists before them, wind up on the ash heap of history.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Such Sadness

"We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history." --Judge John E. Jones III, in his opinion striking down Pennsylvania's version of the Defense of Marriage Act

I started my last post with this quote, but didn't really address it. The occasion of its writing was a cause for great celebration, as marriage equality is now the law of the land in nineteen states. Of the remaining 31, discriminatory marriage legislation has been challenged in court in all but one, and given the perfect victory record of every previous challenge, it is just a matter of time--months, perhaps--until gay and lesbian couples can enter into civilly recognized marriage contracts throughout the United States. (It might take a little longer in North Dakota, the only state without such a lawsuit in progress.)

This is, as I just said, cause for celebration. It's been a long time coming, and now it's happening so quickly! It feels in many ways like the collapse of Soviet Communism, an iron curtain tumbling to the ground. But before we get too giddy about the result, let's go back to Judge Jones's marvelously concise summation of what is happening: "We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history."

We are a better people than this. We are the people whose welcoming spirit is embodied in the Statue of Liberty, and this is the nation that, generation after generation, is eroding the power of ancestry to determine status. We are a people who value liberty and justice above all other national attributes, who grant extraordinary powers to our judiciary to check the excessive whims of democracy. We care about equality. To be accused of racism, sexism, any kind of bigotry is an insult that cuts to our very core.

How, then, did we become a nation so hidebound, so obsessed with what goes on in people's bedrooms, that we elevated this one strand of bigotry to the level of constitutional amendments? Many of these "defense of marriage" acts--Oregon's included--were enshrined in state constitutions, the better to shield them from the electorate changing its mind and repealing them in a subsequent election. There was serious talk for years of taking it even farther, and adding a marriage definition to the US Constitution. How did it come to this?

It could be easily argued that Christians are to blame. Most of the impetus for this kind of legislation came from the Christian Right. And it's not that long since states were considering--and some were passing--ballot measures that went much farther than banning same-gender marriage. Some went so far as to bar local and state governments from extending basic human rights to sexual minorities. This is much more than just a state sanction of a relationship I'm talking about: it's basic things like being denied employment, housing, medical care, any kind of public accommodation. There are places where this is still going on, now under the guise of a "freedom of religion" right to treat gays and lesbians as subhuman and unworthy of rights all Americans take for granted. That this current version of legislated homophobia is being sold as religious liberty lends credence to the notion that Christianity is at the root of this trend.

And yet, none of this legislation could have passed without the cooperation of nominal and non-Christians. There just are not that many places left in the United States where the church has that kind of power. No, the denial of basic rights to persons who differ from the sexual norm comes from some place more universal than creed. Besides that, it really is unfair to taint any world religion with this message of hatred. If anything, religion provides a convenient excuse for feelings that run deeper and which we know, in our heart of hearts, deserve opprobrium rather than affirmation.

Homophobia is, quite simply, fear of the other. Unlike other such fears, homophobia is not grounded in color, accent, or visible custom. A gay man, a lesbian, a bisexual can easily pass for straight, remaining closeted for his or her entire life. Because they look and sound just like us, discovering how different they really are is a shock to our desire to affiliate with our own kind. As long as they keep their sexual practices private, they can move freely among us. Finding out that such a personal, intimate thing as what gender they are attracted to is so different from our own orientation is a jolt, something that can cause us to question our own identity.

I speak from experience. I grew up in small towns in Idaho and Oregon. The first gay man I was aware of meeting was a theater major at my college. The first lesbian I knew was a woman I was sweet on in seminary. In the case of the classmate, he did not seem all that different from other theater majors I knew--which is to say, he was utterly outrageous. As for the seminary classmate: it shook me, deeply, to learn this about her. It also put me on the path to an open mind. I had known she was struggling with something all through our first year; seeing how relieved and liberated she became after coming out made me wonder if it might be time to outgrow my prejudices.

Shedding homophobia was not that hard for me. I already read the Bible with a scholar's critical eye, and I knew the passages most often used to defend homophobia had little or nothing to do with homosexuality as we now understand it. More than that, the American commitment to equality is a value treasured by my family, going back to the arrival of my ancestors  in this land during the nineteenth century. As homogeneous as my childhood hometowns were, I was still raised to believe that persons should be judged by the content of their character, that all other gauges for taking the measure of a man or woman were arbitrary, irrelevant, bigoted. It was not a great stretch to add orientation to that list of reasons not to deny a person basic human rights.

Even so, if you had asked me in 1979, the year I first voted, whether it was right for two men or two women to marry each other, there would have been no question in my mind. I just wasn't ready for it.

I've read in many places that the nation just wasn't ready for it, and that parts of it still are not. They'd rather not have to deal with how uncomfortable they feel seeing two men hold hands, seeing two women kiss. They don't want to put it down to prejudice; they'll hide behind scripture, natural law, or just common sense. This is not a tiny sliver of the population we're talking about, either. Oregon's Defense of Marriage Act passed just ten years ago with a significant majority of the voting public behind it.

And now, just like that, it's all being swept away. The tide is changing, and embarrassed former homophobes are stuffing their prejudices in the closet, just as previous generations awkwardly put away their white robes and tried to pretend they'd never worn them. As uncomfortable as it may be to witness same-gender public displays of affection, it's got nothing on the shame of discovering one has been on the wrong side of history for far too long.

Which is where far too many churches still are. United Methodism stubbornly clings to its narrow interpretation of Christian tradition and scriptural "truth." Other mainline denominations are becoming more open to the possibility of blessing same-gender marriages in their houses of worship, but the Roman Catholic Church and the evangelical traditions to which belong the majority of Americans remain firmly entrenched in their insistence that homosexuality is a perversion, a lifestyle choice that renders its adherents unfit for full participation in church life. I know many clergy who have left the churches that formed them to serve in more open-minded denominations, or have left the church altogether, over this issue. 

But their hurt is nothing against the suffering of generation upon generation of men and women who have been taunted, abused, murdered because the one they loved happened to be of the same gender. Every municipality, every state, every nation that endorses and codifies such treatment deserves a piece of history's ash heap.

In 1993, I attended a gathering of gay and gay-friendly United Methodists in Washington, DC. I couldn't afford a hotel room, but the organizer of the event found me a home stay. I didn't realize until I arrived at my hosts house that he shared it with his gay partner. Every night when we came home from the conference, we'd stay up talking. He was the first gay man I really connected with. I discovered, to my amazement, that his feelings and beliefs about love and relationships were very much in accord with my own. "Marriage equality" was not even on the radar at this time, but many welcoming churches had an alternative ritual called "holy union." I asked him if he and his partner had had such a service, and he answered that, in fact, he was skeptical of the whole institution of marriage and anything like it. But then he talked about his "other half," and I found myself envious, wishing my marriage had even a fraction of the trust and intimacy of this relationship that both state and church refused to recognize. At the end of the conference, I headed back to Oregon purged of every vestige of homophobia I'd ever felt.

The real answer to clearing our collective souls of this blight is relationships: opening ourselves up to meeting, greeting, and knowing the people all around us whose sexual orientation differs from our own. In the knowing, we will find our fear of the other displaced by the shock of recognition that here is another soul, another precious human being fully as deserving of love, acceptance, and affirmation as we are; knowing profoundly that we are better than any small-minded law that says otherwise; and eager to heave every one of those laws--even those we might have, at one time, voted for ourselves--onto the ash heap.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Such Joy

"We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history." --Judge John E. Jones III, in his opinion striking down Pennsylvania's version of the Defense of Marriage Act.

These powerful words sum up a cascade of judicial decisions that will, once they have weathered the inevitable ineffective appeals, make marriage equality the law in more than half the fifty states. They could have been written for the Oregon decision, but it is perhaps more significant, more telling, that they came from the pen of a conservative Republican judge who, at the time of his nomination to the federal bench, was endorsed by Rick Santorum.

I learned of the ruling from Facebook, which was flooded with happy posts yesterday afternoon, including several versions of "Now I can finally marry my true love!" Amy, Sarah, and I were headed downtown for a heterosexual wedding celebration at Voicebox, a karaoke bar that was, we discovered, just around the corner from the official victory celebration. As we walked to our party, we saw a breathtaking diversity of people converging on the other party. Many were dressed for a wedding of their own, it appeared. After our party, heading back to our car, we again passed the celebration, where now a New Orleans-style second line band (Love Bomb Go Go, of which my trumpet student, Carter Thaxton, is a member), dressed appropriately (for Portland) in their trademark space age glitter uniforms. People were moving, waving, dancing, and coupled with the wonderful feelings we had for our friends, the joy was almost overwhelming.

I began this blog a year ago in large part as a platform for my political, philosophical, and theological opinions. I've written many times since then about marriage equality, particularly with reference to the ossified homophobia of the United Methodist Church, in which I was raised and, nineteen years ago, ordained an elder. For all the joy that has issued from this ruling, my brothers and sisters of the United Methodist clergy are still prohibited from presiding over a gay or lesbian wedding. I've offered my services to do just that, knowing that, unlike other clergy, the only thing I place at risk is a status. I have moved on to another career, and I need not fear the loss of livelihood, shelter, or future employment.

I've seen many on Facebook complain that it took Oregon much too long to come to this, that we should have been at the front of the pack, rather than lost in the middle, of the great race to full equality. This puts our None Zone state in the same company as most mainline Protestant denominations: gradually, reluctantly accepting that change must happen, dragged to it forcefully by a court ruling rather than embracing it in an election--though ruling or not, it is highly likely this November we will pass a ballot measure to finally excise this loathsome amendment from our state constitution.

I'd rather not dwell on this sort of grumbling, though. In 1993, when I first attended a conference for gay-inclusive Methodists, I heard much about the difficult struggle for equality, and the quadrennial disappointment of trying to get gay-inclusive legislation through General Conference. I remember remarking then that, with regard to civil rights for persons of color, it took court action to get the ball rolling; that people had to be forced to accept such change before they could embrace it. The friends I was making at that gathering insisted that the way to true change is the ballot box, that forcing it on people by judicial fiat could never bring true equality.

Now I see courts greasing the wheels of change and, as Emily Bazelon writes in Slate, it may come to pass that we don't need another Supreme Court decision or even any more ballot measures to bring about this change once and for all. The momentum is building. States that are still probably a generation away from approving marriage equality are having it thrust upon them by the judicial branch. Utah, Texas, even Idaho, however much they squander appealing these decisions, will soon be requiring county clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples--or be in contempt of court.

I've been a marriage doubter for many years, but I have to admit, the joy I see and hear coming from my gay friends is infectious. Who knows? I might not be done with this institution after all.

Sunday, May 18, 2014


I'm angry.

I don't say this lightly. I'm not a believer in anger. Anger is an emotional appendix, a feeling that has long outlived its evolutionary purpose. In our world, expressing anger does not get constructive results. It does foment violence in the home, in the schoolyard, on the streets, and between states. It drives couples apart, traps children in the middle of divorce, turns town meetings into free-for-alls, furthers the causes of reactionaries who shout down information they'd rather not here, and thus furthers the descent of this nation, this world, into the inferno of climate change. Anger gets us nowhere.

I've believed this most of my life. Expressing anger, however justified, has never yielded a result I coveted. In fact, however I have expressed my anger--and that includes the vaunted "I statement"--has always made matters worse. Always.

And yet I feel it. However dedicated I may be to detachment, however logically I may seek to talk down the passion stirring in me, I feel it; and as is so often the case with my anger, it is impotent.

What's angering me is news I received from my son, Sean, yesterday afternoon. He was fired.

For those of you who haven't met Sean, or heard me talk about him, or read what I've written about him, here's a capsule summary: Sean barely survived being born. A flaw in his pulmonary system kept him from breathing properly for the first four hours of his life. This trauma created a cascade of other physical issues, most of which he miraculously overcame within a few weeks. He was left with one visible scar--a Harry-Potteresque lightning mark on his forehead from a leaky IV--but the real damage did not manifest itself until he was four, and began to suffer from seizures. His brain had rerouted itself around the damage done by that neonatal trauma, and the result was epilepsy. It took years to bring the seizures under control--drugs were useless; the magic bullet was a bizarre, rigorous diet--but he rarely experiences them anymore. The developmental delay, however, was permanent. Meeting Sean, who is now 22, it might take you awhile to realize he's different. At first, he just seems like a tall, nerdy young man, with slightly immature cultural tastes, who's friendly, polite, and empathetic. Because he does have an emotional intelligence, he knows when people are being cruel and making jokes at his expense. Unfortunately, he lacks the quick wits to react in fruitful ways.

Sean worked for Sam's Club, a Costco-like warehouse store chain operated by Wal-Mart, as a cart associate. If you bought a TV, he'd be the young man pushing the cart out to your vehicle and helping you load your purchase. Sean was proud of his work, and his friendly attitude was well-received by patrons of the Idaho Falls store. Friday, one of those patrons engaged him in a conversation.

I don't know all the details. I do know this: the man had a bumper sticker that used the word "Libtard." (I've looked it up on Urban Dictionary, and I don't think it means what the man thought it did.) He apparently asked Sean how he felt about the sticker, and Sean responded, quite honestly, that it was offensive to him. Sean considers himself a liberal, but the offense runs far deeper: for people with his challenges, attaching the suffix "tard" to anything is an assault on basic human dignity. The man reacted to Sean's comment with a tirade, telling him it was people like Sean who were fucking up America, and that he would come back after work and beat Sean up. He then went into the store and complained to management about Sean who, when he reported for work the next day, was informed that he had been fired.

Before I go into why this makes me angry, I'll stipulate several things. It is never a good idea for an employee to enter into a philosophical, moral, religious, or political discussion with a patron. Further, when encountering an individual with an ax to grind, the best course of action is to politely turn down any efforts by that individual to engage in any conversation that might bring up such issues. Wal-Mart as a privately-owned corporation with a non-unionized work force is well within its legal rights to dismiss employees without cause, and to do it with impunity, making no allowance for any explanations, excuses, or conditions those employees may have for whatever actions they took that violated corporate policy. And finally (and this is a calculation I do internally whenever I find one child bullying another), I know that aggressive behavior like that displayed by this particular patron almost certainly grows out of experiences of being abused emotionally and physically, and of conditions of unemployment and disempowerment that have left him bitter, angry, impotent, with no way to address his pain other than to bully a disabled cart boy in the Sam's Club parking lot, then get him fired.

I understand all this. I stipulate it. And still I'm angry; and like the anger of the man with the offensive bumper sticker, it's an impotent anger, because I know there's not much I can do about it.

As much as I understand where this man's bullying nature came from, I'm angry at individuals like him who, when I was a child living in Idaho, bullied me mercilessly. I'm angry at others like him who did the same things to my younger brothers when they were growing up in Oregon. I'm angry that they visit their pain on the less powerful rather than seeking help. I'm angry that the systems surrounding them did not intervene and offer them that help (as we do in the schools where I teach). I'm angry that these same systems so rarely identify both perpetrators and victims, and that when a victim attempts to take a stand and resist the violence, he or she can become as much a victim of the system as of the bully.

I'm angry at the system, angry that a huge corporation can bully its way into a local economy, forcing prices to collapse and small businesses to close, then becoming the only employer for desperate workers who have no choice but to accept lower wages, reduced benefits, and soulless managers who can and will fire them for little or no cause.

I'm angry and I'm impotent. Wal-Mart doesn't have to care about losing me as a customer. I rather doubt that I've made more than two or three purchases at a Wal-Mart in the last decade. It doesn't have to worry about its abusive policies hurting its bottom line in Idaho Falls, either. There's no real competition; and that's true of most local economies where Wal-Mart and Sam's Club operate. There's also no competition for workers: the company can always find more drones to replace those who leave, whether involuntarily or on their own. I can write to Wal-Mart, as can people who know Sean and are angered by this action, and it may even get him his job back. But it won't change the corporate culture that sides with a reactionary bully over a disabled employee. Wal-Mart is simply too big to care.

I've got no power when it comes to the bully, either. He's an anonymous jerk to me, just another angry man in a truck taking out his own impotence on someone with even less power than he has. I've been threatened by men like him on rural roads in Oregon, who take apparent delight in frightening runners and cyclists. I've had them follow my car, blasting their horns angrily because it had a pro-gay rights bumper sticker. Such encounters leave me shaken, angry, and with no recourse.

Sean's angry, too, and far more rightfully than any of the rest of us. He's learned a hard, painful lesson about the way the world really operates, a lesson I wish he could have been spared. It will be tempting to blame the bully, to blame the managers, to blame the corporation they work for, to blame the unforgivingly conservative atmosphere of Idaho; but this could, and does, happen anywhere. With the help of his case worker, he can take steps to try to right the injustice, and he may even get some satisfaction.

But he shouldn't have to. And that is why, again and again, I come back to the pointlessness of staying angry: the world should be a better place for people like Sean. Human beings should be valued simply for being human; and when their quirks, foibles, weaknesses, disabilities interfere with their work, their managers should work with them to transcend those problems and, if possible, capitalize on them.

I've expressed my anger here, and I expect I'll share it in other ways in the days ahead. I will be careful not to channel it into my workplace, and I will, in the coming days, think carefully about situations that anger me, knowing that what I feel may be amplified but what has happened to Sean. In the end, I'll have to let it go. Hanging onto it leads to resentment, fury, depression, and will not change anything.

I hope Sean can learn this lesson, too. I suspect he already has. He's never been one to nurse a grudge. If anything, I could benefit from following his example.

But not today. I'm too angry.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How Much They'll Miss Us

It's the time of year when kids start feeling their oats.

In the gym where I teach, I use rolling plastic risers called "Flip Forms" to organize classes, dividing children among the four colored risers as they enter the room. This breaks up clumps of friends and creates ready-made teams that can compete with each other for quietest, most confident singing, best listening, etc. And yes, I know "winning" a competition like this is extrinsic motivation, but at this point in the year, I will pragmatically do whatever it takes to hold their attention long enough to teach a concept. It works up to a point--that point being when the active boys (somehow, it's never girls) start jumping off the top riser, having their own competition to see who can break an ankle first. I move the children to another part of the gym for the next activity, and now the really active boys are wandering over to the risers whenever I'm not looking to continue jumping off of them. This is true from kindergarten to fifth grade.

There are other misbehaviors that transcend gender: sass, backtalk, crosstalk, smuggling in candy or toys, and all of that's before we even get to the instruments, where their little fingers just can't hang on long enough for it to be their turn, and we have to get everyone quiet before we can start playing according to the lesson plan, rather than the internal crazy bone.

It's enough to make any teacher lose hair. Today after school, a second grade teacher walked away from the last bus she had just ushered children onto rolling her eyes and sighing, "I am so DONE!" During that same bus duty, a boy on the bus next to the one I monitor kept calling out an open window to me, "Music teacher!" When, for a moment, I walked closer to his bus, he said it again, with an addendum: "Music teachers suck!" Two days ago, a first grader, placed in time out for repeatedly distracting his neighbors, told me "I hate you!" and "I hate music!"

I take this all with a hefty dose of salt because of the following words, emailed to the entire staff last Friday by our principal:
Please continue to exercise patience, remembering that at this point (whether they can articulate it or not) they're already missing you.
And just like that, my frustration evaporates.

There is so much love in this building. We all work as hard as we can to reach every student, even the chronically misbehaving. When I discipline a student, whether it's a time out, a trip to the office, or (in extreme cases) calling for someone to come and remove that student, I do my best to keep my voice free of frustration and, if possible, to do it with a smile. I want the child to know I'm not doing this because I'm angry, but because I need to be sure the rest of the class has a chance to learn, and things are hard enough in the echo chamber without having a child testing the acoustics with high-pitched screams, picking fist fights with a friend, or stalking another student right before my eyes. The effort at maintaining a calm exterior and communicating to the children that the discipline comes out of concern, rather than anger, seems to be paying off: the child with the surly attitude toward music (like the kid on the bus) is extremely rare; and even children I've had to discipline multiple times still greet me with a smile in the hallway.

We love these children, and they know it. In less than a month, they'll be away from us, going home in many cases to unstable situations, cramped apartments, less supervision, absent, neglectful, even abusive parents. Some of us they will not see again: fifth graders will be in middle school next year, some children are moving over the summer, and some teachers (myself included) are leaving this building for different assignments in the district.

Saying goodbye to adults who've played a more important role in a child's life than his or her parents is traumatic. There's anticipatory grief behind much of this misbehavior, as children lack the sophistication and self-knowledge to articulate how sad and frightened they are to be away from this safe, structured place for three months. I feel some of that, as well. I develop an attachment to any children I spend time with, and I've spent many hours with these children, almost none of whom I will see again after June 11. I'm going to miss them.

For the first two years of being an interstate parent, my children usually flew together to see me for a weekend a month, longer if there was a school vacation. As our time together drew to a close, they'd begin bickering with each other, the intensity rising as the time to take them to the airport approached. After several visits that left me feeling more relieved than sad to see them go, I asked them in the midst of a fight, "Why do you always do this?" My daughter came back with, "So you won't miss us so much when we're gone."

I wonder if maybe there's a little of that going on, too: children looking out for their teachers, knowing how painful the parting will be, trying to ease the hurt by being obnoxious. If that's the case, it's working at a subconscious level. I'd like to think it's part of the struggle of making it through May, that it's not all cabin fever or fear of going home to unemployed parents or something deeper. I'd like to think these children are acting up not because they dislike us, but, quite the opposite, because they love us and they know we'll miss them as much as they'll miss us. Which is to say, quite a lot.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Creeping Sectarianism

The setup: the small town of Greece, New York, has for many years opened its council meetings with prayers led by local clergy. Clergy invited to lead prayers were selected from a list of local religious institutions, so there was considerable variety in the content of prayers--up to a point. The list, you see, contained only Christian faith communities. For ten years, every single invocation was Christian. This led to complaints by a Jew and an atheist attending a meeting. The council responded by looking farther afield and intentionally inviting clergy who were Wiccan, Baha'i, and Muslim, but by now it was too late: the situation became a court case, which was ultimately settled last week by the Supreme Court--in favor of the town of Greece. It is now Constitutional, according to this 5-4 decision, to open any public gathering at which attendance is not mandatory with not just a prayer, but an explicitly sectarian prayer. Further, it is Constitutional if the people leading those prayers all come from a single faith tradition. So shut up, you minority whiners. If you don't like it, step outside until it's over.

Considering the response of the town council in Greece, New York, I don't believe it was ever the intention of the council to be exclusive. If it had been, they certainly wouldn't have attempted to repair the damage by inviting clergy from three traditions considered heretical, pagan, cultish, even Satanic by conservative evangelicals. That there were ten years of exclusively Christian invocations was an oversight, an inadvertent blunder, an accident brought on by majoritarian blinders. Sectarianism is like racism: none of us wants to believe he or she could be a bigot. Just ask soon-to-be-ex-owner of the LA Clippers Donald Sterling. 

The sad truth is that most racism, classism, ageism, sectarianism, insert-your-status-here-ism is inadvertent. The number of people who set out to intentionally offend others is far smaller than those who are offended believe; and those who genuinely mean to harm or even fewer. Most acts of discrimination come about through the ignorance of well-meaning people who, being part of the majority, just don't stop to think what it must be like to be, say, a Jew attending meeting after meeting that begins with the invoking of Jesus' name.

Case in point: in 2003, I took my son Sean to Scout Camp for the first time. His troop, a business-sponsored unit in Sherwood, Oregon, had selected Camp Morrison, located in the northern Rocky Mountains just outside McCall, Idaho. The site was spectacular, the program staff were top-notch, and the boys had a plethora of activities running the gamut from crafts to fishing to rock climbing to whatever other Scout skill you can imagine. I only had two complaints. Unfortunately, over the course of the week, they became significant.

The first had to do with diet. I don't eat mammals. It's not a religious thing: my reasons have to do with health (my family has a history of heart disease), justice (raising animals for slaughter uses far more resources to feed far fewer people than raising grain and produce), environmentalism (grazing and waste make a large contribution to climate change) and personal taste (I just don't like the flavor and texture of red meat). Be all of that as it may: the registration form for Camp Morrison asked about dietary restrictions. I spelled mine out. Every time beef was on the menu, I was directed to the sandwich table, where my alternative entree was a PBJ.

Apart from my frustration with feeling like a Second Class Scout at every meal, I was aware our Sherwood troop had some Hindu members, though neither had come with us to this camp. If they had, they would've been in the same boat. I'd also voiced this concern at a leader training earlier in the year at which the protein for a meal we were taught to prepare was ground beef, and the presenter had no answer to a question about menus that would be inclusive of boys with dietary restrictions.

My second complaint at Camp Morrison was saying grace before meals. As a former clergyperson, I had coached our troop chaplains on how to say non-sectarian prayers. It was clear to me whenever we gathered at the dining hall that the other units, almost all of them Mormon-sponsored, had not taken any pains to train their boys in this way. The assumption in a Mormon troop is that all Scouts in that troop are Mormon, and it's a well-founded assumption. To assume that every boy attending an Idaho camp is Mormon, or at least Christian, is not that much of a leap. Of all the troops in attendance at this camp--and there may have been as many as 28--I was only aware of one other that was not sponsored by a Mormon church, so the boys saying the prayers, and even the adults coaching them, could be excused for not stopping to think there might be non-Christians, even atheists, attending the camp.

Just to be clear, I really don't think anyone was setting out to offend the small minority of Scouts and adult leaders who were not members of the majority religion at this camp. Mormons I've known have gone out of their way to be inclusive of other faith traditions, to the extent they're aware that they exist. Spend enough time in a monochromatic culture like Idaho, and it's not surprising one might assume everyone wearing the uniform of a Scout is, like you, a beef-eating Mormon.

The problem is that we're not all like that. It's common to put down Portland as a very white city, and much of it is, but the neighborhoods where I teach have plenty of color, both of complexion and culture. One might not know this in Irvington or Lake Oswego, but as a metropolitan area, Portland has got plenty of diversity. Portland is also a predominantly secular community, with religious minorities clearly in the minority. No one elected to the city council would last long assuming that any one faith or ethnicity could speak comprehensively for all the others.

That's not true of small towns, though. And it's small towns that are the battlegrounds in this religious war our nation is fighting. Should evangelical business owners have to wait on gay patrons? Should they have to serve them in their restaurants, bake cakes for their weddings, rent apartments to them? Should graduation committees consider the rights of the two Jews, one Muslim, and three atheists in the graduating class when they decide whether to ask an evangelical minister to deliver the invocation--or whether to even have an invocation? These are questions for small monocultures where almost everyone belongs to a few churches, and those who don't can be ignored, forgotten, until they bravely complain--and find themselves stigmatized as a result.

Here's where I climb up on my soapbox: the Bill of Rights exists to protect the minority, however small it may be. Sometimes it means protecting the minority from having to complain. That's why we still have, and, I hope (almost said "pray") will continue to have, strict rules against religious expression in schools. The Supreme Court, sadly, has just opened the door to majoritarian steamrolling of the rights religious and non-religious minorities at public meetings. That makes me extremely nervous. If an institution as well-meaning as a Scout Camp can inadvertently stomp all over minority rights, how much more could a town council or commencement committee with an agenda? What's to stop them from outright proselytism, from prayers and expressions and even sermons that seek to convert the very few non-Christians attending a meeting or other public event?

This is how it starts. I hope it ends soon with a re-aligned Supreme Court reversing this bad decision. If not, I worry about what the newly-empowered strident voices of the religious right may have in store for us.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Where We Teach

The good news? I get to be in just one school next year, instead of splitting the year between two. The bad news? I'll most likely still be teaching in a gym--if I'm lucky. Since I'll be at that school all year, there will be at least one semester of overlap with a PE teacher, who will have a better claim on that space than I do. The sad news? On June 11, I will say goodbye to all the students at Hartley School, and probably not see them again.

This is a sad reality of being a music specialist in an economy that does not support arts education. When core curricular concerns take all the top priority spots in a budget, music quickly takes on a vagabond status: we'll find work for you if we can; if not, we can always use good subs. And when we do find work for you, be happy to have a job. Keeping you in one building long enough to form relationships, giving you an adequate work space, providing you with all the materials you need to do your work, giving you a daily schedule that makes sense--all these things take a back seat to the privilege of simply having a job.

And then there are the children we get to work with. The Reynolds School District is home to some of Portland's poorest neighborhoods. Most of the children in our schools are on free or reduced lunch, and have breakfast at school as well. Much of what we do with these children is as much social work as education. At the meeting Monday afternoon at which I was told I'd be full-time in one school, the administrator running the meeting kept repeating a simple refrain: "We know where we teach." Those words summarized the many harsh realities of working here: buildings in disrepair, overcrowded classrooms, long waiting periods for materials and equipment, and above all, children who come to us with challenges we would rarely, perhaps never, encounter in a middle-class suburban or bedroom community school district. It's not for everyone, and many, once they realize just how hard it can be, find work elsewhere.

I had an inkling of this reality before I ever came here to teach full-time. In 2002-3, as I was easing back into the education world after a seventeen year absence, I subbed in every Portland area district except Portland (which is hard to break into). Much of my time was spent in the poorer districts to the east and south of Portland proper: Reynolds, David Douglas, Centennial, Parkrose, Gladstone, Clackamas, Oregon City, Gresham-Barlow. I also subbed in the suburban districts of Riverdale, Lake Oswego, West Linn-Wilsonville, and Tigard-Tualatin, and bedroom community districts on the 99W corridor including Sherwood, Newberg, and McMinnville. I discovered some key differences in student behavior among those districts: middle school and high school students were more likely to be respectful if they came from middle class backgrounds, while those from upper class backgrounds (West Linn, Lake Oswego, Riverdale), and those from lower class backgrounds (ever district east and south of Portland Public) were far more likely to act out, often giving the impression they just couldn't help themselves. My first year of full-time music teaching, I was placed in a school in Aloha, a lower-income part of the Beaverton School District. While acknowledging I was still extremely inexperienced at classroom management, and was finding my way as an elementary general music teacher to boot, my principal that year told me again and again that Aloha Park School was a "steep learning curve."

Apart from income levels, all the poor neighborhood schools had another thing in common: diversity (a quality not shared by the upper income schools). The student bodies in these schools had far more English language learners, and not just Spanish-speakers; there were students from eastern Europe, Africa, and southeast Asia. That has been the case in both the schools I've worked in this year, though much moreso at Margaret Scott; Hartley's population is more typical of a bilingual school, with many Spanish-speaking children.

Children in these schools often get most of their nutrition met by the school. Many of them are in an extended-day situation, where an after school program continues their care until late in the afternoon. Many come from single parent households, or households where extended family takes up much of the parenting. Some are technically homeless, living with family friends or in a relative's spare room or, in worst cases, a car. Their parents may be unemployed, working at minimum wage jobs with night shifts, or earning money through activities that come under the purview of a vice cop. They may experience a long string of "father" figures. And their diets at home may consist mostly of junk food. There's a strong possibility their older siblings belong to one of the gangs who frequently tag school property. They may also be up far later than is advisable for young children, and be exposed to television and internet entertainment that is in appropriate for their age.

All of these factors generate misbehavior in the classroom: acting out, socializing, fidgeting, inability to hold onto an idea for an entire class. Couple that with the environment in which I must teach--a huge echo chamber with a constant white noise generator and a smooth wooden floor that cries out to be slid across--and it's amazing I don't have more behavior issues than I do; or, more likely, a testament to the good work done by their classroom teachers and the rest of the school staff of continually teaching and re-teaching expectations.

So yes, I do understand the realities of where I teach: the challenges, the frustrations, the added stresses. But at the same time, I choose to teach here. Yes, in the beginning, I took the job because it was the only one offered to me after four years waiting for a full-time elementary music gig. As I've detailed in this blog several times, though, the rewards of teaching these particular children are manifold.

Start with the fact that almost every child who comes through the doors of the gym is thrilled to be making music: to be moving, singing, clapping, drumming, playing whatever instrument is the lesson of the day. They're so eager that there's often no stopping them. They'll pound the rhythm tubes on the floor, blast ear-piercing squeals out of their recorders, spin until they're dizzy before I've even had a chance to turn on the music we're supposed to be moving on. As one of my Orff mentors, Ric Layton, likes to put it, they're practicing. Telling them to stop runs counter to one of my desired outcomes: that they're intrinsically motivated by the sheer act of making music. I don't have to force or trick them to engage in my subject matter, as I might if this were a math class. They come in wanting to make music. If I wasn't in a giant echo chamber, I could let them get away with a lot more of it. Unfortunately, at some point I need to get the pounding and squeaking to stop long enough to teach a concept or two, and that's where I find myself defeated again and again by the space. But I've got to love the enthusiasm.

Second, these children are far more liberal with shows of affection for me than the children at any schools I've taught at before. I haven't had as many hugs at Hartley as I did at Scott, but they do happen. There are plenty of high fives in the hallway, and any child I pass, whatever age, is quick to smile and say, "Hi, Mr. Anderson!"--or "Hello, Music Teacher!" These children understand that the teachers are here for them, that we care about them and are working hard to make their lives better. They may resist our efforts at discipline, but in the end, they know we're on their side.

And finally, whatever their situation in life, however more likely they are to misbehave, whatever the challenges of facilities and equipment: they're children. Life has not yet taught them to be bitter, cynical, jaded, to shut out the cold harsh world. They're playful, friendly, cheerful, and when they're not, it's because something is wrong.

Don't get me wrong, there are days when they utterly wear me out. This evening, I found myself taking a 45-minute nap after dinner. Often when I drive up to the house, I have to sit in the car for a minute, gathering the energy to get out and go in. Sometimes I have to pause and close my eyes for a few minutes before I can even do that.

As they used to say about the army: this is the toughest job I'll ever love. Finally, at 53, I'm doing real ministry, work that makes a difference in the lives of hundreds of children. Sure, it would be much easier in Beaverton, Tigard-Tualatin, Lake Oswego, West Linn-Wilsonville, or (holy grail of every Oregonian educator) Portland Public, where I'd have the facilities, the equipment, the budget, and the better-behaved kids. But this is where I teach, and these are the children I teach; and I can't imagine doing it anywhere else.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Stage Courage

Last night, MaryAnn Rambo blew me away.

MaryAnn has been on a weight loss journey for over a year now, and as of the last time I checked, had last 203 pounds. She blogs about it at "Repairing Me," and reading it is well worth your time. She has also begun telling her story on stage as part of a show called "Campfire" and, for the first time last night, as monologist for a long form improvisation called "Disco Lounge." Working from the suggestion "teddy bear," MaryAnn told short stories from her childhood that were the inspiration for scenes by a group of improvisers. The players were silly, blasphemous, hilarious at times, often inspired, but none of what they did would've been possible without the offers MaryAnn made with her stories.

To be fair, MaryAnn has actually been doing this for a long time. She's been running the screens at ComedySportZ, putting up images and text that comment on moments in the matches (in keeping with this year's rebranding, we're not supposed to call them "shows" anymore), finding them and projecting them so quickly that fans (rebranding word for "audience") wonder if it's all been scripted ahead of time. And she's been steeped in improv, married as she is to an improviser, attending workshops, and present at more matches than any player on the field (stage). Immersed in improv, she understands timing, beats, and most importantly for last night, what kind of material will be the most nutritious fodder for scene work.

As much as this is in her blood, MaryAnn has been extremely nervous about taking the stage to tell her stories. She's talked frequently about her nerves, and how relieved she is afterward--and thrilled--that she got through her performance without fainting/crying/vomiting. Again, MaryAnn performs every Friday and Saturday at ComedySportZ, often providing the biggest laughs with her brilliant visual and textual jokes, but all of that is done remotely. The spotlight is never on her when she's finding the perfect image to project, and her back is to the audience much of the time.

It doesn't surprise me, then, that she would be so nervous about performing on a stage, or why any of the people who tell me "I could never do that!" are speaking quite sincerely. I come from that place, too.

As a child, I never cared to be the center of attention. Introvert that I was (and still am), I was always happy to let extroverts have the spotlight. I did want to be heard from time to time, but I was never one to blurt things out: I'd raise my hand and wait to be called on. As I waited, I would carefully compose what I had to say, thinking of the perfect way to express my opinion--only to find myself grasping for words when it finally was my turn, as the anxiety of speaking publicly trumped all that careful preparation. Despite this, I knew it was important for me to be in front of others, performing with an instrument or with my voice, and so I continued to place myself in situations where I would have to project to others: reading the lesson in church (plenty of opportunities for that when you're the pastor's eldest child), playing trumpet solos in church (see above), being a DeMolay officer with a ritual part to deliver at each meeting, performing in a school play, debating bills at Youth Legislature, and, most telling, auditioning for and giving a senior address at graduation (there was no automatic spot for the valedictorian, or even that title for being at the top of the class, in my sports-obsessed high school). 

By the time I started college, I'd been in front of many groups of people, and had reined in much of my natural introverted fear of speaking. Musically, though, I was still shy--not a good quality to have as a trumpet player. I would hone my playing of a solo to near perfection, then have the performance turn into a clambake at the student music convocation we had every Wednesday morning. Nevertheless, I soldiered on, even performing a senior recital my final semester at Willamette--something not required of a music education major, but an important step for me. Graduate school made all the difference, as I was able to study with a brilliant trumpeter, Ray Sasaki, who taught me a zen approach to performing, letting go of my thoughts, sinking into the music, and feeling the sound travel from my core to the far well of whatever room I was playing in. And right there, in his studio, I felt all the stage fright I'd ever known evaporate.

I went to seminary after an abortive first year of teaching. My first half dozen sermons were from manuscripts, and I did fine with them, delivering them confidently, with just the right amount of emotion in my voice. But I wanted more: I wanted to be like the preachers who got in front of a congregation without a manuscript and held forth, telling stories that moved people as much by their delivery as by their content. So starting in my second year, as I took Introduction to Preaching, I left manuscripts behind. At first I memorized large portions of what I wanted to say, but soon I learned to keep just a bare skeleton in mind, and to allow myself to spontaneously tell the stories of both the scripture lesson and the illustration. These sermons were often awkward, particularly at transition points, but with experience, I became smoother, more confident, and ultimately able to preach myself out of all manner of dead ends. Eventually I stopped writing sermons altogether, choosing instead to allow ideas to percolate in my mind right up to the moment I stepped out and began speaking. This was word jazz, improvised performance art, using all the trumpet zen I'd picked up from Ray Sasaki to allow myself to disappear into the art I was creating.

It was the most rewarding thing I did as a pastor. I did it fearlessly and, toward the end, recklessly, deciding as I stepped into (or, more often, down from) the pulpit what direction I was going to take with a passage. In retrospect, I know this was irresponsible, a sign of how badly I wanted out of ministry, that I had placed all the exciting eggs in a single twenty-minute weekly basket, with the rest of my time on the job an ordeal to be endured until my next fix of performance adrenaline. I couldn't sustain it past my fifteenth year in the profession. I'm much happier teaching music to children.

But I do miss that crack of performing an improvised text. For about a year, I attempted standup comedy at CSz sponsored open mikes, but that just wasn't right for me. Short-form jokes that have to be workshopped to perfection are just not my cup of tea. I'm much happier telling stories that, while often humorous, do not deliver the steady stream of laughs one finds in a good standup performance. 

Why, then, have I not pursued the Campfire spotlight, as have MaryAnn and many of my other CSz friends? Even more, why have I not stayed involved with the Farm Team, practicing and performing CSz games during their weekly show?

It comes down to two things: time and fear. And yes, for all I've said about defeating stage fright, it's still a part of me, though not in a way you might expect.

First, the time: I played in one Farm Team show two or three years ago. I was okay. There was enough there for me to know I could get better if I attended more workshops, though I don't know how long it would take me to be good enough to play with the Pro Team. What I did learn from that experience, and from subsequent opportunities to participate in Pro Team workshops, is that this is not something that comes naturally to me. What I know from having so many improvisers in my life (apart from all the friends I've made at CSz, I live with one, not to mention her two improvisational children) is that getting to be really good at it takes an enormous amount of time. And my time is precious. Teaching is hard work, and coupled with a 90-120 minute daily roundtrip commute, it takes a lot out of me. It also has me up at 5:15 every morning, which means staying out until 10 or 11 (improv practices happen at night) leaves me exhausted. And knowing myself, I don't want to do something like this unless I can give it all the time and energy I need to in order to become good.

And now the fear: there are a lot of improv games that come easily for me. I often participate in warmups before shows and at workshops, and the musical side of improvising--the part I do weekly at a keyboard--has become such second nature to me that I easily slide into my zen place, listening attentively to what the players are doing and letting my fingers find exactly what needs to go with it; what Pat Short calls "listening to the listener." When it comes to scene work, though--the interactive skill that makes improv seem so magical, so natural, so real--I freeze. I can't think what to say.

And yes, I know it's not about thinking, it's about being in the scene, letting go of my thoughts and just allowing myself to react and interact as I would in a natural conversation--except I've never been all that good at natural conversations. I loved preaching, and I love storytelling, because it's just me doing the talking. It's the introvert's curse: I don't know how to act in an extroverted way. And yes, I mean "act," because my natural inclination is to listen when others are speaking. But to be part of a scene, I must also speak, and what I say must "yes, and..." what my scene partners are saying. I have to make words happen in a live context, and those words have to be natural, real, spontaneous, even though, for the real me, there is no spontaneous conversation, everything has to be thought out ahead of time.

That's what I'm afraid of: that this may be something I just can't do. For years in the ministry, I tried to make myself learn how to be a good conversationalist, to know what the visual and verbal cues were for speaking up and being engaged as more than a listener. It was hard work, and I never felt like I mastered it. My few experiences of doing scene work have kicked me into that same place, an extremely uncomfortable place for someone who heard all through his failed career that this was something he needed to do better.

Any good improviser will tell you that scene work is hard, and it's something you only get better at with practice. I've seen plenty of novice improvisers struggle with it. Many of them plateau. Some shine. I'm afraid of the plateau, afraid of having that deer-in-the-headlights experience, afraid that I just don't have the time to spend teaching myself not to deliver cringeworthy scene work, and this, more than anything else, keeps me off that stage. Someday, I'd like to get over this. Short form, long form, any form, it all looks like so much fun, and I know from seeing some masterful performances by players more deeply introverted than me that it is very possible, with practice, to put oneself into an extroverted character and get over oneself; but it does take practice. It will take practice. Lots of it. Just not right now.

Though as for storytelling: yeah. Any time. Put me up there with a microphone, and I'll tell you a story that will blow you away. Just don't expect me to be super-gregarious in the receiving line afterward.