Saturday, August 30, 2014

Closet Skeptic

Brace yourselves. This is going to be a rant.

I am a skeptic, always have been, always will be. Blind faith is just not in my makeup. I was raised this way by a science-trained father who was a minister in a mainline Protestant denomination--the branch of Christianity that originated with theologians calling bullshit on Catholic dogma--and a New England Yankee mother who believed no gift came without strings attached. I did have a few gullible years in my teens, as most people do, but I quickly outgrew that phase, returning to my default mode of never taking anything at face value or valuing the authority of any source over the content of its argument. At times, this made me a troublesome candidate for ordination, an often disturbing presence in the pulpit, and a frequent burr in the saddle of employers.

I say "at times" because, for the most part, I have kept my skeptical opinions to myself. I learned in college that challenging an idea that is believed on faith, rather than from evidence, is a recipe for endless argumentation that will ultimately boil down to a "because I say so" reaction. There's no getting around blind faith, no matter how logical and/or eloquent a skeptic's points may be. So I've kept mostly mum about the jaundiced eye I cast toward claims made about fad diets, snake oil products, quack theology, and conspiracy theories. (And by "mostly mum," I must admit I rant more than I should in the presence of Amy, who has been mostly tolerant. Mostly.)

But not on this. There's a new "gotcha" zooming around the internet that claims the Centers for Disease Control suppressed a study that proves vaccinations cause autism. Slate magazine's Phil Plait dissects and counters the whole thing far better than I can, so I'll let you click on this hypertext to see what he has to say about it. This is a conspiracy theory that hits home for me because there are people I care about who've bought into it. My political and theological leanings have led me to associate, over the years, with people who are to the left of the mainstream; and while I usually find much to agree with them about, and share their skepticism toward Big Pharma (and, really, anything that bears the imprimatur of corporate America), this idea is just plain wrong. That's not all: clinging to the belief that vaccines cause autism, and acting on it by withholding those vaccines from one's children, puts them both at risk of contracting diseases that had been nearly eliminated prior to the promulgation of the theory, and of turning them into carriers who may infect others.

It's tempting to go on here about other health fads that cause me to roll my eyes in despair at the stuff people will swallow: diets, cleanses, supplements, minimalist shoes (I actually fell for that one, to the near ruin of my feet). It's not hard for me to understand why they swallow (literally, in some cases) such things: we want simple answers to our concerns about our own and our loved ones' well-being. We want our children to be intelligent and gregarious, want our stomachs to be trim, want our elimination cycle to be regular. We want to feel alert and energetic when we're up, and to sleep well when we're down. We want to be happy, contented, productive.

As much as we want all these things, having them all, all the time, is rare. The world we live in is a chaotic place. We do encounter pathogens and toxins, both natural and artificial, and they have impacts on our health. Environmental factors can lead us to be depressed, anxious, tense. Our children's development is influenced by many things beyond our control, and those that we could control we don't always know about until it's too late. Wanting the best for our loved ones and ourselves, we go on quests to identify risk factors. Sometimes this has merit--clean air and water really do matter to our health--but sometimes it leads us down blind alleys. No one wants all the effort put into a theory to go to waste, so while debunking may help some make the transition back to common sense, there will always be those who refuse to believe the better research, and will jump at any new study that appears to contradict it.

Remember this?

This, of course, is the poster that hung in Fox Mulder's office for most of the nine seasons of The X-Files. Mulder was steadfast in his belief that extraterrestrials were not just visiting, but invading Earth, and that there was an international conspiracy to cover up the invasion. The mythology of the show went to great lengths spelling out all the twists and turns of the conspiracy, and ultimately imploded under the weight of its own silliness, but there were some wonderfully paranoid episodes along the way.

What Mulder discovered about himself, with the help of his skeptical partner, Dana Scully, was that wanting to believe something, however passionate that want may be, does not make it true. Because the show was a fantasy in which UFOs actually existed, his blind faith could be set aside in favor of hard evidence. The words of the poster, in fact, demonstrate that Mulder, himself, was skeptical to the core. Believing in alien invasion would explain much that had happened to his family in ways that were actually less disturbing than what ultimately proved to be the case: his own father using them as part of an experiment.

For fifteen years, I wanted to believe that what I was being told about United Methodism was true: that it was a safe haven for rational Christians, that Christian conferencing (what the rest of the world calls "having a meeting") could serve a sacramental function, that Bishops and Superintendents made all decisions about pastoral appointments prayerfully and with the best interests of all concerned in the forefront. I wanted to believe it, but everything I experienced told me otherwise, told me that, like any other human institution, Methodism was fundamentally flawed, corrupt, and too much in love with its own dogma.

Those who believe in conspiracies are holding to dogma. Confronting them with reality, whether it is a Barack Obama's birth certificate or a meta-analysis of peer-reviewed research demonstrating no link between vaccines and autism, may lead them to set aside that which they've so assiduously clung to; but I'm skeptical of the efficacy of such a tactic. In my experience, it's more likely to drive them deeper into denial, to make them even more desperate to find a smoking gun they can point to. They believe, and they want to go on believing, just as long as it is humanly possible for them to do.

As for me, there are times when I think it would be lovely to believe in something, but I know better. So I will go on questioning rather than believing--though for all the reasons I've outlined, I'll keep doing it, mostly, in the closet.

Friday, August 29, 2014

I No Longer Teach in a Gym

Scott entrance photo

School's in! And I'm in--in the building, that is.

All last year, my increasingly discouraged educational refrain was "I teach in a gym." To be more precise, I taught in two gyms, because I divided my year between two schools, both of which had phased out the music room when they cut back music during the recession. Last year, the Reynolds district partially restored music education, putting half-time teachers in every building but one (more about that later). At Scott and Hartley, they also restored PE half-time. Having the PE and music teachers trade places at the semester worked out conveniently for the schools: no need to force anyone else to move! Music could be in the gym when PE was in the other school, schedules did not have to change midyear, administrators were happy, teachers were happy...

And I was not.

Initially, just the chance to teach elementary music full-time carried me through the challenges of having a space that was far too big, far too loud, for music teaching. I experimented with many things in the first month at Scott, figuring out what would and would not work with movement, singing, and my own voice. I began using an amplification system so I could be heard better. I discovered that kindergartners and first graders were having a hard time being restricted to just one part of the gym, so I looked for ways to break up the space. I experimented with safety cones, risers, chairs, carpets. Eventually I was able to create a "kinder corral" using the flip-form risers which, I discovered, could be stood on end and turned into a wall--though that didn't keep the kinders from climbing inside them and occasionally knocking them over.
Wenger flipFORM - Blue Top/Grey Base
Keeping children from running and screaming in the gym was, it turned out, a lesser problem next to that of sound. The amplification system helped make my voice loud enough to be heard, but it did nothing for the echo chamber effect of children playing instruments in a space without any acoustical dampening. The room was just too live for music teaching to take place. I struggled through months of recorder classes that could make only incremental improvement at Scott, and finally abandoned recorders altogether at Hartley.

That's the main reason I was thrilled to be coming back to Scott full-time this year: there was simply no way I could be put in the gym. We would still be having PE for at least half the year, and the PE teacher would, of course, have priority in using the gym. This did make me nervous I might have to teach from a cart, visiting classrooms, and all summer I worried about it, finally discovering when I reported back on Monday that I had, in fact, been given a classroom--mostly. I've been given the former ELD classroom (and why this couldn't have happened last year is beyond me), with one side of it partitioned off for a computer room. I don't know yet how that will work, whether there will be children on computers while I'm teaching music, or if a more permanent wall will be installed at some point. We'll have to see.

Meanwhile, it seems the district had other plans it was not sharing with me. There's another school in the district I had never heard of: Four Corners, a much smaller school than Scott that has some students with extreme behavior issues. It's just a mile from Scott. The reason I'd never heard of it is that it had neither music nor PE last year, and someone in the district office had just realized that meant the district had been violating Oregon law. If any school in the district had music and PE, every school had to have it. The district went hunting for spare time in specialists' schedules, discovered I had some sections free, tried to claim more of them than I really had, were convinced by my principal that they could only have two (as opposed to the seven they wanted, which would have meant bringing another teacher into Scott for the five I didn't have free), and decided finally on a crazy quilt mish mash of music and PE teachers for Four Corners. Two afternoons a week, I'll finish my day teaching one class at Four Corners.

I'm not thrilled by this. It constitutes an involuntary transfer, in fact. But I'll live with it, because for at least the next year, I'm in Reynolds to stay.

Given the challenges I faced last year in those gymnasiums, the insistence by administrators that there was no solution, and the crazy commute (35 minutes to Scott, 40-45 to Hartley, and that's with good traffic), I spent the summer looking for a position home. I nearly got one: a school so close I could have bicycled to it. That didn't ultimately pan out (and that's a good thing for us, as it could have caused the bank to nix our mortgage), but just yesterday, I had a call from another Beaverton school asking me to interview. I said no. Why? Two factors:

My colleagues, teachers so dedicated to their challenging students that they inspire me to pour more of myself into teaching. Reynolds is a poor district. Teaching here is as much a calling as a career. Now that I've passed through the rude awakening year, and done it under conditions far worse than what I'll be experiencing this year, I'm embracing this challenge with gusto.

My students: all last year, despite the difficulties of behavior issues amplified by the gym environment, I saw again and again that kids are kids. However disadvantaged they may be, however challenged they may be by issues of socioeconomic status, language, and ethnic barriers, these are children like any others. My two weeks in Ghana underlined this truth even more: children everywhere are curious, playful, trusting, affectionate, eager, hopeful--and I can make a difference for them. As I was unpacking a box, I came across a note a fifth grader had written for me on my last day at Scott before I moved to Hartley. It moved me all over again.

It could be argued that, were I to change schools now, I'd get to know another group of dedicated teachers and sweet children who are just like the kids at Scott, whatever their SES may be. But here's the thing: I'd be starting from scratch with them. I did that twice last year. Returning to Scott, I get to build on what I started last year, picking up where I left off in my curriculum. More importantly, I get to come back to five grades of students who already know me, and continue building the relationships I initiated with them. Being able to see children grow and develop in knowledge, ability, and personality is one of the perks of being a music teacher, but only when one comes back.

As I am doing.

I can't wait.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Help Us Name Our House

Milderson Manor? Mark-Amy Acres? Milsh-Mark Manse?

First things first: we closed.

It took a solid hour of signing, dating, and initialing documents, many of them near duplicates of each other because, for some arcane titular reason, we had to break the purchase into two different mortgages; and then, called back from lunch, another hour because the bank rejected some of the dates we had scrawled as unacceptably sloppy; but finally, at around 3 p.m. yesterday, we became the proud owners of 6420 NW Starflower Drive.

So here I am, married, mortgaged, joined at the wallet as I haven't been with anyone in fifteen years, and even then only for a few weeks, as that house purchase came at the very end of my short, troubled second marriage, and I was bought right back out of it by my ex as soon as we separated. Buying a house with my wife and actually getting to live in it with her is a whole new experience for me.

There will be many more new experiences associated with this purchase in the days ahead. I've never been fully responsible for the maintenance and improvement of a house. As a pastor, I could always call on the trustees to clean, repair, or replace some part of a parsonage that needed tending to. I did some painting and wallpapering, but for the most part, it was the church that took care of such things--or, more likely, put them off as too expensive. Since leaving ministry, it's been the property manager who dealt with any issues I had with my house or apartment.

Those days are gone. Yesterday we joined Angie's List, and are already at work researching and hiring contractors to clean and repair the roof, gutters, and siding; to clean the vents and tune up the HVAC; to refurbish the kitchen and at least one of the bathrooms; and, at some point (though with all the other things we want to have done, it's not on the front burner) to paint most of the interior.

Ownership imbues us with a strange blend of responsibility and freedom. On the one hand, we do not have to ask anyone's permission as we pick patterns and colors for the counter, backsplash, and walls. We can take down the hideous entryway mirrors, repaint the banister, replace the cheap faucets, overhead lights, and ceiling fans according to our own tastes. On the other hand, every penny of doing any of those things comes out of our pockets. It's all up to us. And any changes we make to the house must be made with an eye toward eventual resale.

Because this is not our retirement house. There are things we love about it--it's a very quiet neighborhood, the patio is a great place to hang out, it puts us in the right area for Sarah to attend Westview High School--but it's not where we see ourselves five years from now. It's a long commute for me, all the way across Portland. It's also a neighborhood of nearly identical houses. And we'd like to live in a house that has more architectural history to it. Ultimately, we think that means inner eastside Portland. For now, it means every improvement we make to this house has to be such that it won't drive a potential buyer away. Paints cannot be as bold as we might like, kitchen materials will not be super-high end, and any replacement appliances will be purchased with an eye toward economical reliability.

Permanent or not, it is our house. This is the first real home of our marriage. We committed to each other a few weeks before moving in. After the wedding, we came back here for a small celebration, followed eight days later by a much larger one that spilled out onto the patio. This is our home, and we love it because of that.

We've already made many small adjustments to the house that personalize it: the rose garden, Tibetan-style prayer flags, firepit, and bird feeders on the patio; the Anderson heirloom Chinese antiques scattered through the house; the mixture of Anderson and Milshtein family pictures in the stairway and hall; and all the mutual choices we've made with respect to furnishings and decorations as we've blended our property.

Apart from all this, there is one thing remaining to seal the deal and make this place really ours: our house must have a name. This has been an Anderson tradition going back at least to my grandparents, whose home was always "An-di-fan" (House of Peace), which was their Chinese name when they were missionaries. My parents, who retired to my grandmother's home, have continued to call it An-di-fan, so that's already taken. Besides, we need something that incorporates Amy's moniker--or uses neither of our names, but takes something we share and turns it into a place name.

We've been calling the house "Casa Milderson" on party invitations for awhile now, but "Milderson" really doesn't cut it (sounds too much like a fungal infection) as couplehood designater. Nothing else we've been able to come up with works for us, either. How about you, dear friends and family? Got any ideas? Please share them in a comment, and one of these days, you might just be a guest in the house you named.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Morality Clause


In Love Is Strange, a movie I'd like to see that opens in a couple of big cities today, but not yet in Portland, a choir director loses his teaching job for getting married. Why would marriage cost him his job? Because he's gay. Wait, how can it be legal for a gay couple to marry, and simultaneously legal to fire a man for being gay? Because he teaches at a Catholic school, and religious institutions are allowed to practice job discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Ludicrous, you say? How could this happen in our modern, tolerant world? Ten years ago, it almost happened to me.

No, I was not, and am not, gay; nor was I getting married at the time. What I was doing was signing a petition opposing Oregon's "Defense of Marriage" ballot measure. The faith community I belonged to at the time was affiliated with the United Methodist Church, and took out an ad in the Oregonian listing the names of every signatory as a demonstration that people of faith were opposed to the ballot measure. Still all well and good--my name is common enough to be almost generic (look in any phone book, if you can find such a thing, and you'll see a long list of Mark Andersons)--but to give the ad extra weight, those of us who were ordained had the title "Rev." affixed to our names. And that's where I got in trouble.

From 2004-5, I was teaching music in a Catholic school in Vancouver, Washington. My principal lived in Tigard, Oregon, and subscribed to the Oregonian. On the day the ad came out, she called me into her office. The newspaper was on her desk, open to the page with the ad. She pointed to my name in the list, and asked, "Is this you?" And that's where it hit the fan.

Being ordained had helped me get this job. Even though I was a Protestant, I knew so much about theology and liturgy that teaching the children to sing service music, and playing piano for mass, were second nature to me. I could speak the language, interpret the metaphors, go through the motions. And teaching at this school was, in many ways, ideal: the children were better behaved than at any other school where I've taught, and because it was a private school, there were no children with learning challenges. My music room was spacious and well-equipped, I had plenty of prep time, and I was encouraged to teach private lessons in my classroom after school.

There was just one hitch: to take the job, I had to assent to the morality clause in the contract.

Morality clause? In the 21st century, someone's making you sign a morality clause?

That's right. I don't have the specific wording available to me, but here's a similar clause from the Diocese of Oakland, California:  In both the employee’s personal and professional life, the employee is expected to model and promote behavior in conformity with the teaching of the Roman Catholic faith in matters of faith and morals, and to do nothing that tends to bring discredit to the school or to the Diocese..."

Clauses like this are standard in Catholic school contracts. They've become controversial lately, as some dioceses are making the language more explicit, spelling out specific actions that are not permitted, including not just getting gay-married, but promoting the very idea of gay marriage. Which is what I had done in 2004, leading the principal to call me into her office and tell me that, while she wasn't planning to take action, if a parent put two and two together and complained, I would be out on my Protestant ass.

I didn't ultimately lose that job over the morality clause, though it figured prominently in my choice to look for a job elsewhere--a choice which did cost me the job, as the principal's feelings were hurt--as well as my decision to teach in public schools for the remainder of my career. (Though the music job at Catlin Gabel would be oh so sweet...) I was especially cautious for the remainder of the school year about my words and actions, and almost paranoid when off campus about publicizing any of my left-wing opinions. Had this blog existed then, I probably would not have gotten the job in the first place, and if I had, I would have been in hot water almost immediately for the opinions I write about.

And ten years later, Catholic schools are still forcing this clause on teachers. It's not just a movie plot: gay persons, and those in enough sympathy with their plight to stand in public solidarity with them, can be summarily fired by their religious employers. Gay customers continue to be turned away by business owners, and now religiously affiliated owners of secular businesses are using their faith as an excuse to deny employees benefits that offend the owners' personal beliefs.

The tide of public opinion is turning to an obvious conclusion: discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is an abomination. Hiding behind "morality" is ironic, hypocritical, and will ultimately consign religion to irrelevance. It takes the basest of human instincts, the rejection of the other, and projects it on God, transforming bigotry into a virtue.

For a religion to be true, its God must be all-loving. Any religion that rejects persons because of who they love, and further rejects those who stand with others because they have been rejected, to the extent of the rejection, is no true religion. (with apologies to Abraham Lincoln.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Eating Jesus

Catherine of Siena drinks the blood of Christ.

This is going to get theological, philosophical, and gross.

Much of my young adult intellect was wrapped around the two sacraments recognized by the United Methodist Church. A sacrament, in the traditional Methodist lingo I grew up with, is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." More concretely, it's a ritual that gives believers a tangible experience of the ineffable. Methodists recognize baptism and communion as sacraments. In baptism, the believer is symbolically drowned so that he or she can be resurrected to new life as a Christian. In communion, the believer eats a small bit of bread and drinks a sip of wine so that he or she can be sustained by the symbolic body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Although I grew up in Methodist parsonages, my parents were always Baptists at heart, and held off having any of us baptized until puberty, at which point my father found an immersion baptistry and had whichever son had reached the age of proper consent symbolically drowned. Thus I arrived at seminary already in tune with the idea that a sacrament ought to be big and significant: being dunked was always preferable to being sprinkled, and the communion elements ought to include a real hunk of bread, rather than a wafer (though it took me a number of years to get past my teetotal Baptist instincts and accept the idea that real wine was also preferable to Welch's grape juice). The more senses involved, and the richer the sensations, the more powerful the symbolism.

But here's something to consider: just how powerful should those symbols be? And how important is it to hang onto the historical roots of the sacraments?

Communion has its tangible roots in the Passover feast, and the ritual consumption of a paschal lamb and several cups of wine to symbolize the blood smeared on Hebrew doorsills to let the Angel of Death know not to visit their households as every other firstborn child in Egypt was slaughtered. This symbolic act--the sacrifice, the blood--resonated strongly with early Christians as they sought to understand what had happened in the crucifixion of Jesus. Atonement theology--that Jesus died to take away the sins of the world--grew out of it. And while Christians sought to distance themselves from Jewish practice but not actually sacrificing a lamb, saying instead that Jesus was the one definitive Lamb of God, they did continue the practice of periodically reliving that atonement, symbolically eating and drinking his body and blood, just as he had, according to three of the gospels, told them to do during his final meal.

Maintaining this belief was so central to the church that an elaborate doctrine grew up around it: transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus, even though they continue to appear to be the same elements they were prior to being blessed by the priest. One of the heresies of the Reformation was the Protestant effort to move the sacrament more solidly into the realm of symbolism known as consubstantiation. In the opinion of Martin Luther, the body and blood of Jesus now existed alongside the elements, so the believer was no longer literally engaging in sacred cannibalism.

If you did not grow up in the church, and are just being introduced to this "body and blood" language, you can be forgiven for asking the cannibalism question. Early Christians came up against it all the time, as rumors spread that they literally ate flesh and drank blood at their love feasts. They might attempt to argue that it was "only a symbol," but as soon as the word "only" comes into play, one is cheapening the rite, downplaying it not just to the audience but to oneself.

So it has gone for almost two millennia as Christians have sought to explain this unfortunate terminology. Efforts to change the language--"bread of heaven, cup of salvation"--remove it from its roots in atonement theology. Altering the framework of the rite as holy mystery, saying words like "this is for you" or "God loves you and so do I," raise the question of why this has to be done with bread and wine. Associating it with a different scripture story--manna in the wilderness, the feeding of the five thousand--removes it from the passages in which Jesus literally prescribes the practice, using the words "this is my body" and "this is my blood."

On the other hand, body and blood imagery is increasingly a problem for people whose primary experience of the metaphysical is popular horror imagery. Zombies eat flesh; vampires drink blood. Books and films about such occult beings often use them as metaphors for social trends, including religion. The HBO series True Blood has created a vampire version of the Judeo-Christian creation myth, then pitted fundamentalist vampires against reformers who sought to replace human blood with an artificial substitute--just as Christians have, from the beginning, substituted wine for the actual blood of Jesus, which was itself substituted for the destruction of humankind by a wrathful God.

Sunday morning, I attended the twentieth anniversary celebration of the Church of the Good Shepherd, an independent, progressive African-American congregation in northeast Portland. For five years, I was their pianist and frequent preacher, and it was good reconnecting with these wonderful people, as well as introducing them to Amy. The service included communion, as it always has from the founding of the church by the late Rev. Willie Smith. Because we were worshiping in a park, rather than in the sanctuary, we each received a portable cup containing both de-alcoholized wine and a wafer:
Prefilled Communion Cups with Wafers Box of 4
I received my cup, and returned to my seat; Amy, taking seriously the words "all who are baptized are welcome at this table," chose not to. I peeled back the plastic, ate the bit of styrofoam-like host, then peeled the next layer and knocked back a shot of wine-like juice that burned going down; and was reminded of how strongly I had always felt that the bread should be real, substantial, and tasty, and that one should be able to get a good mouthful of whatever was in the cup, whether it was wine or grape juice. I could tell that, apart from the "all who are baptized" language, Amy was put off by the body and blood imagery.

Frequent communion used to be an important part of my own spirituality, but I've grown away from it, in large part because of its connection to the atonement. At some point, I found myself questioning what kind of a God would send his only son into the world, then require that he die horribly to satisfy his Father's bloodlust. That's what the atonement is really about: humans are so sinful that God's anger had to be appeased by the death of Jesus. A good who would require such a thing is not a God I want to worship; and a sacrament that symbolizes such a theology is not one of which I wish to partake.

There are plenty of other symbolic reasons to celebrate communion: the symbolic invitation of all Christians, everywhere, to a common table; the providence of God, sustaining us through the week; the humble acceptance of grace; and I could go on. As I said, I spent fifteen years thinking about what the sacraments mean. But then I stopped, because at root, I realized their fundamental meaning was fixed on the vengeful God who demands satisfaction for sins against the covenant: the death of the old believer, the sacrifice of the paschal lamb, in rites repeated again and again, week after week, life after life, from now until the end of time. For fifteen years, I thought about these things and struggled to explain them to people who came to the church and were shocked by the imagery and the theology behind it. Ultimately, I concluded their impressions were correct: this is some messed-up theology.

Which is why, when I want table fellowship, I sit down with people I love for an actual, rather than symbolic, meal. No human flesh is consumed (whether we should be eating any flesh at all is a topic for another essay), and if we partake of the fruit of the vine, it is just that: wine, not blood. We are grateful for the produce of the earth, which sustains our bodies, and the presence in our lives of each other, which sustains our spirits; and in this gratitude, we may find our hearts warming to the source of all these things, that which brought this beautiful world into being.

Monday, August 18, 2014


Yesterday I came across a story about a UCSB women's studies professor who, several months ago, accosted an anti-abortion protester who was carrying an aborted fetus sign on campus. The professor was, herself, three months pregnant and found the sign offensive (and I would agree with her on that), but her reaction was inappropriate, ill-advised, and illegal. She was prosecuted, pleaded no contest, apologized, and will be performing community service.

The story came by way of a blog called "Chicks on the Right," and spent considerable time ridiculing the professor, those who have risen in her defense, the discipline of women's studies, and feminism in general, using this incident as proof positive that feminists are a bunch of sex-obsessed hypocrites who'd rather hide behind their outrage than issue a simple apology. At one point, the writer uses this clause: "that's the thing about liberal pro-choice feminists."

And that's where my hackles went up.

I'm going to make a generalized judgment here: the moment an opinion piece uses the words "that's the thing about..." you can set its conclusions aside as founded on anecdotal evidence. And while my anecdotal sample is a right-wing gotcha piece, I readily acknowledge that plenty of this goes on on the left, as well. Google the words "Sarah Palin stupid" and you'll have a page full of gaffes. Try "Tea Party racist" and the top of the results is a Huffington Post piece about a joke made at a rally--in 2012.

Once again, this is why we can't have nice things.

The internet is such a powerful research tool that any person can find, in seconds, a story, a quote, an image, a factoid to support an argument, to form the basis of an essay that will include the words "and that's the thing about..." It could be "the thing about" liberals, "tea baggers" (Bill Maher's term), socialists, libertarians, gun nuts, peaceniks, evangelicals, evolutionists, atheists, creationists, hippies, bikers, Republicans, Democrats, Monster Raving Loony Partiers, any group that the writer wants to paint with a broad brush.

And any time it happens, any time the words or actions of a single individual turn into a generalization, the writer is lying to you. This is not something you can honestly say about any group. It's not even something you can say about an individual. People sometimes say stupid things. They sometimes use the wrong words. Sometimes they even do something ill-advised and out of character: drive drunk, start a fight, deface public property, shoplift, commit adultery. Before the advent of the internet, such statements or incidents were less likely to make headlines--at least, not nationally.

Those days are gone. Across the internet, there are spies, lurkers, pundits, trolls lying in wait for actionable missteps. Any person who might be deemed representative of a hated group can, with one speeding ticket, one stumble, one blurted-out remark, become a poster child to that group's haters. "The thing about" Tea Partiers is that they believe torture is acceptable, because after all, Sarah Palin joked about "baptiz[ing] terrorists." "The thing about" Democrats is they think all conservatives are racists, because some celebrities have said so. It goes back and forth, on and on, and in the partisan echo chambers most of us live in, every quote, clip, snapshot, tweet just goes to reinforce our opinion about those people.

Those people. Them.

And now, I hope, you see the problem.

None of these groups are monoliths. Every classification I listed a few paragraphs back consists of individuals. Quakers, Greens, NRA members, AARP members--one cannot ever say that any individual speaks for the entire group. Those who step up on the public stage to make statements would often like us to think that, but it's never true.

No United Methodist leader who waffles on gay rights or gay marriage speaks for me. No Scout executive who reiterates that BSA policy excludes gay adults from leadership positions speaks for me. No Democratic politician who in any way condones torture speaks for me. No feminist who defends assaulting a teenager for carrying an offensive sign speaks for me.

And I know for a fact that the same is true on the other side of the political spectrum, because I have known evangelicals, conservatives, Republicans who would be appalled by the things said and done by other members of their groups.

Human beings are diverse. No one person can fully represent any segment of humanity. No one statement or action can be honestly attributed to all members of a group.

So let's stop already with the "gotcha" journalism. It does nothing to discredit the people it's aimed at. But it does say a lot about the writers using it.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mourning in America

America has a grief problem.

Thank you, Bill Evans, for drawing my attention to this essay by Will Leitch in which he takes on the Robin Williams grief train so many are jumping on. If you're on Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media site, you've seen the steady stream of tributes and remembrances adding up to a virtual canonization of an actor/comedian with a spotty filmography and few quotable bits. Certainly he projected warmth and compassion as few entertainers can, and his basic humanity shone through his manic standup performances; but as Leitch observes, had anyone, on Monday morning, waxed rapturous over Patch Adams, Jumanji, or Night in the Museum, it would've been a short train indeed. Once his suicide became public, though, it was as if there was not a false note in his career, and everything he did was but a piece in the larger masterwork of his soon-to-be-sainted life.

I will admit to being one small part of this phenomenon: I posted a piece on depression, using the death of Robin Williams as my jumping-off point. But that was it. Yes, I enjoyed a number of his performances, and was especially fond of Mork and Mindy (though only when he was onscreen) during its first two seasons; but except in his purely dramatic roles, I haven't found much to like in what he's done in a very long time. Mostly his manic improvisations seemed tired, shopworn, cliched. What was telling to me in his death was the sense that, however successful he might be, however many accolades he might receive, none was sufficient to overcome his essential loneliness.

Perhaps this is what America has been responding to in its monsoon of mourning. As a people, Americans have always associated two things with happiness: fame and fortune. Who in our world has more of both of these than a movie star? To learn that someone who, in popular terms, has it all is also in so much pain, and who, for all his public emoting, has rarely revealed that pain, and now has taken his own life, is to realize that we have been lying to ourselves. If wealth and popularity cannot bring happiness, then why are we all working so hard to achieve them?

This is our national tragedy: that which we strive the hardest to achieve is ultimately empty, vanity, a longing after wind. Giving up this dream rends us to the core. And that, to my mind, is why so many are so torn by the suicide of Robin Williams--and, hopefully, also reminded of that which really matters in their lives, not the toys, not the recognition, but the family and friends they hold dear.

Set that aside now, because I'm going to take a different direction for the rest of this piece. Leitch writes of the death of Robin Williams as if his post mortem accolades are an invention of our linked-in social media internet age. He has a point to this extent: prior to the Facebook Era, the outpouring would still have been omnipresent, but it would have been confined to the fourth estate: newspapers, magazines, television programs. With the ability of so many to be online and participating, the tributes proliferate geometrically.

The canonization of the dead, though, is as old as the memorial. As a pastor, I presided over far more funerals than I care to remember. While I often found these events to be deeply meaningful and rewarding, I also frequently had to bite my tongue at the way in which individuals who had, in life, been difficult, obnoxious, selfish, rude, a burr in the saddle of every person who spent more than a few minutes with them, were abruptly transformed into saints. No, they didn't merit millions of tweets--Twitter was still years from being invented when I left the ministry--but their funerals were a time for apotheosis. It's what we do when someone dies: we work to, as best we can, remember that person well, and to speak well of him or her. That can be difficult, but we do our best.

If said decedent was wealthy, powerful, or both, then the apotheosis took on far greater, more tangible form. In 1989 I toured Westminster Abbey, the large church in London that is the resting place of kings, queens, nobles, and artists. Throughout the abbey, one sees ornate tombs, topped with effigies of persons of royal lineage that nobody remembers because, quite simply, they didn't do anything worth remembering. Then one comes to Poets' Corner, a place in which the names of great authors are inscribed on the floor. There are no pictures, no statues, nothing but names; and chances are good that you've heard most of them, probably even read some of their works. These people are remembered not for who they were, but for what they did.

Robin Williams will, probably, be remembered for a very long time for the ways in which he shaped American comedy. Those who had personal encounters with him will tell those stories again and again, until they become part of family folklore. A few of his movies may even be viewed in coming decades. Mostly, though, I expect his memory to fade.

But those of us who were brought up short by his sudden death, who took time to examine our own lives, our own values, and to feel some grief at the erosion of the American Dream: we will have something to remember for the rest of our lives. And perhaps, having jumped on the grief train, we can choose to jump off the prosperity train, the popularity train, whatever train it is that we now suspect is not nearly as important as we once thought it was, and instead to reach out to the people around us who are, in the final analysis, all that really matter.

Friday, August 15, 2014

United Police State of America

Have you checked Facebook lately?

That's a silly question. If you're reading this, you probably came to it via the link I posted on Facebook. So for all of us who spend reasonable to large chunks of time on Facebook, here's an observation: there's been a lot about the death of Robin Williams. I've clicked on some of it. I even contributed to it with an essay of my own. It's understandable many of us would be affected by this great artist's tragic death. One also has to wonder, though, whether it's getting maybe a bit too much attention, especially when, in some outlets, it's crowded out coverage of what's happening in Ferguson, Missouri.

That seems to be abating: a cursory glance at my Facebook feed just now (though please note that my friends list is rather heavily weighted with progressive activists) revealed more Ferguson than Williams links. Perhaps it's just people getting past their momentary obsession with a celebrity's death and realizing that something groundbreaking is happening elsewhere in the world. Maybe some of them are even getting bored with the steady stream of tributes and speculations about why he did it, and can now turn their attention to tanks, tear gas, and rubber bullets being used on peaceful protesters in an American suburb. But I'm speculating, and that's something I try not to do.

Here's what I know, after checking the latest news on the incident: on August 9, between 12:01 and 12:04 pm, an 18-year-old African-American named Michael Brown and a friend of his were walking down a street in the suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, when they were confronted by police officer Darren Wilson. Brown may have stolen some cigars from a convenience store a few minutes prior to the incident. At some point in the confrontation, Brown ran away from the officer, his hands raised above his head. Wilson shot him. He died on the scene. Peaceful demonstrations ensued, to which the police responded with heavily armored vehicles, riot gear, tear gas, and rubber bullets, imposing a curfew, and creating scenes reminiscent of race riots in the 1960s. Yesterday, a Highway Patrol Captain took over command of the Ferguson police, and a cooling-off period began, with the police putting away much of their riot gear.

Much of the commentary I've seen and heard about Ferguson has focused on the extreme police response. There have been analysis pieces about how local police forces built up their armories until they rival those of small countries; about the racial power imbalance in Ferguson; comparing this incident with two recent choke-hold incidents that have also garnered national attention; and about the immediate defensive posture taken by police forces when one of their officers uses excessive force. With so much already out there, it's hard to find anything new to analyze, so I'm not even going to attempt that. What I do have to share is my personal experience.

I've written before about how I grew up in communities so white that someone with a good tan stuck out. I didn't have any acquaintances or friends of color until I was in college. Grad school and seminary introduced me to more, but then I returned to the Pacific Northwest and its largely monochrome population.

As a pastor, I spent a week each summer counseling church camp. In the 1980s, the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference launched an initiative to introduce inner city children to summer camp. As a result, every camp I worked at had some campers from poorer neighborhoods in Portland. Many of them were African-American. The results were not always harmonious.

In particular, there was an evening at high school Camp 642--later renamed "MAGIC Camp"--in which an annual fund raising tradition called the Slave Auction--and no, I'm not making this up; many youth groups used to auction off chores to raise funds--was emceed by a white counselor who had applied some dark makeup to his face and was pretending to be a gospel preacher, complete with a choir in robes shouting "Amens" to his jokes. After just a few minutes of this, all the black campers quietly walked out. One called home, and the next day, the dean and I (I was his assistant) met with several angry parents and struggled to explain why a Methodist camp would invite several dozen African-American teenagers to attend a slave auction that added insult to injury by having a white man in blackface lampoon a black preacher. At one point, I told the parents that I had simply not been acquainted with any African-Americans prior to adulthood, that this was almost certainly the case with most of the white campers, and that what they had done, however obviously offensive it might seem to anyone with even a modicum of common sense, they did out of ignorance. This did not in any way excuse the incident, or let us off the hook from permitting something called a slave auction to go forward, and we apologized sincerely, promising that there would never be another such event held at Camp Magruder (and, to the best of my knowledge, that promise was kept).

Four years later, after leaving the ministry, I took a position as pianist and occasional preacher at a small African-American church in northeast Portland. The congregation welcomed me warmly, was patient with my learning curve as I adjusted to the gospel style they preferred, and responded to my sermons just as vocally and affirmingly as they did to their pastor's. It was pure coincidence that I was assigned to preach on the Sunday after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, but the way my sermon was received gave me another profound lesson in seeing the world through African-American eyes.

I can't remember what exactly I said, and there's no manuscript--I had long since dispensed with writing even outlines for my sermons--but I know it was about the shock of being attacked, how new this feeling was to me as an American. There were nods, "Amens," hummed assent; but also, toward the end of the sermon, there were comments (I solicited their responses) that I would not have heard in a white church. They boiled down to this: "Now white people know what it's like." Many of the members of this church had grown up in the South, and had memories of the Civil Rights struggle, as well as family memories of living under Jim Crow. In essence, their ancestors had lived under the shadow of terrorism since the Civil War--and before that, they had been slaves. This is a part of their identity that had never hit home to me before because I just didn't have anything to compare it to. Now I did. Once again, I was humbled by my ignorance; more than that, I felt deeply honored to be welcomed into their community, even though I wear the face of an oppressor.

Today I'm thinking about Ferguson, Missouri, and the overwhelmingly militarized response to protests. More than that, though, I'm thinking about how dangerous it is for a person of color to have an encounter with a police officer. I've had a couple of traffic cops chew me out for doing something stupid, but it's never crossed my mind that I might be pulled over just because of the color of my skin--as had happened to every member of that church. I've also always been let off with a warning, something I put down to being a mature white man. If a policeman confronted me in the street, I wouldn't be thinking about Michael Brown or Eric Garner or any of the many other black men who wind up dead from an encounter with the police. Yet such fears are a daily reality for both African-American and Hispanic men.

Mostly, I just have to accept that, when it comes to situations like this, I am an outsider looking in. I can't really know what it's like not to be able to trust the police to treat me with respect. I can't know what it's like to have the powerful majority to ignorantly make light of the genocidal acts its ancestors performed on my ancestors. All I can do is to agitate for others to be aware, and to adjust their actions accordingly, whether they're in law enforcement, education, or camp management.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Knee-Jerk Activism

Amy and I enjoy shooting pool together.

Doing that in Bethany means going to the corner of 185th and West Union, where there are two bars with pool tables. One of these bars has a table in need of leveling, resulting in the balls rolling in strange arcs and all congregating at one end of the table. The other, a real sports bar, has five pool tables, all in good repair. Naturally we tend to pick the latter when we've got a hankering for pool.

There is one problem with this bar, though: In the game room, where four of the five tables are located, there is an emergency exit door, marked prominently with the words "this door to remain open during business hours," that is almost always locked, and I don't just mean from the outside. It's impossible to use it at all. One night about a month ago, as I was settling the tab, I pointed this out to the bartender. He blew me off. I pressed my point, and he blew me off more rudely. I left furious, vowing never to return, a reaction that prompted Amy to remind me that this meant driving half an hour to find a decent pool table. My urge to boycott was trumped by the convenience of the location--which is probably how most boycotts end, not with success, but with boycotters finally giving in to the realities of the marketplace.

Consider the case of the Nestle boycott:

It was the late 1970s, and one of my chores was checking the mail. I would walk down the hill to the post office, empty out our box, and walk home, leafing through the envelopes in hope of finding one addressed to me, something that rarely occurred because, at 16, there just weren't that many people wanting to expend postage on me. My father was a different matter. As a United Methodist minister, he received plenty of mail, and much of it came from the Nestle Corporation.

One day, after dropping off Dad's mail at his church office, I asked him what the deal was with all the large envelopes from Nestle. "They're trying to reverse the boycott," he replied--and then had to explain what a boycott was, and what this particular one was about. In a nutshell, Nestle had been aggressively marketing infant formula in African nations as an alternative to breast-feeding. Mothers would mix the formula with contaminated water (clean tap water is still hard to come by in many African countries), or over-dilute it, and as a result, many infants were dying of water-borne illnesses and malnutrition. The boycott of Nestle products, which had been joined by the United Methodist Church, among many other mainline denominations, was aimed at changing Nestle's marketing policies. It was apparently getting Nestle's attention, enough so that they were spending huge amounts on a deluge of mailings to mainline protestant ministers begging them to reverse the boycott. And yet, to my knowledge, our family wasn't even taking part in it: we still had Nestle Quik in the cupboard. According to the Wikipedia article on the boycott, it's still in effect, 37 years after it was begun, so apparently it wasn't just our kitchen that continued to have Nestle products in it; and it has yet to effect the change it sought, though Nestle has found itself under repeated investigations by international organizations.

That's one problem with boycotts: they may help individuals feel better about themselves, but only in rare cases do they recruit enough participants to bring about real change.

Here's another problem: while many of them are founded on legitimate concerns, some grow out of knee-jerk reactions to inadequate or even false information about target companies.

Consider Procter & Gamble, the home products company that has been manufacturing soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, and many other products for personal use since 1837. In 1851, the company adopted as its logo a whimsical image of the man in the moon gazing at a field of stars. For 129 years, no one questioned this logo. Then in 1980, a rumor began to circulate that the logo was a Satanist symbol, that the company was, in fact, a front for the Church of Satan, and that to buy Procter & Gamble products was to contribute to their diabolical scheme for bringing on the Apocalypse. The rumor has been repeatedly debunked, but has proven so durable that the company dropped the logo entirely in 1995--and yet it still lives, like a weird populist zombie out of the very apocalypse it supposedly foretells. Battling the rumor led not just to a rebranding, but also to a successful lawsuit against Amway for helping spread the story.

On a side note, there is a legitimate boycott of P&G in opposition to its animal testing practices. This boycott may have been at least partially successful, according to this article.

And finally, let's take a look at Starbucks, the ubiquitous purveyor of Italian-style coffee drinks. I heard yesterday that some pro-Israel activists are calling for a boycott of Starbucks because it has "withdrawn support" from the Israeli military. This struck me as extremely odd--military subsidies typically come in the form of foreign aid, not corporate gifts--so I googled "Starbucks boycott Israel," and the first article I found was from an ezine called The Jewish Daily Forward, with the title "Starbucks Doesn't Mix Coffee with Politics." The piece carefully dissects the various Israel-related boycotts against Starbucks, most of which have come from pro-Palestinian groups that have assumed the company is far more connected to Israeli politics than it actually is. In fact, Starbucks stopped operating stores in Israel in 2004, though the article does not explain the reasoning for that action. What becomes clear over the course of the article is that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has walked a nonpartisan tightrope with regard to Israeli policies, and any statements he has made on the topic have been to insist that the company is not financially supporting either side in the conflict with Gaza. The most recent disavowal came about because of an anti-Israeli boycott against Starbucks for alleged contributions to Israel. Ironically, that very disavowal has now triggered calls for a boycott for the opposite reason.

I'm not a big fan of Starbucks, and given a choice, I will always pick a local espresso shop to satisfy a coffee craving. But reading this article, which clearly went to great lengths trying to find a reason to critique the company, I found myself feeling a great deal of sympathy for Howard Schultz. Sometimes the cost of doing business is learning you just can't win: make a statement to counter a rumor, and find yourself boycotted because of the statement, rather than the rumor.

I'm no stranger to knee-jerk activism. One bad experience at an establishment can tempt me to boycott it. Hearing one bad thing about a company can have a similar effect on me. My knee-jerk response to the idea of boycotting Starbucks because it's not pro-Israel enough is to want to head down to one of the three Starbucks in my neighborhood and order a Trenta Macchiato with whipped cream--except I know I'd regret it almost as soon as I sucked it down. Knee-jerk boycotts and reverse boycotts crop up all the time, often in reaction to remarks made by a CEO about the hot-button issue of the day. I understand the temptation, but here's the reality:

Any corporation of any size is going to engage in some practices, and have some policies, that politically active individuals find offensive. Frequently consumers have no real choice in the matter: there may only be one cable company serving a neighborhood, one coffee shop within walking distance, one sports bar with decent pool tables. Boycotts do affect corporate bottom lines, the one stimulus that can be sure to bring about change, but they also can take a bite out of a consumer's budget. And sometimes they're simply reactionary, grounded in a rumor or a misunderstanding.

Which is why, when I'm tempted to boycott, I stop myself and do some research. Sometimes I sign on; more often, I just continue going about my business, drinking Starbucks if I've got no other choice, signing up for Comcast because it's the least disappointing option in town, washing my hair with a P&G shampoo because it was on sale, and shooting pool at the bar with the locked emergency exit because I don't want to have to drive into town to drop an eight ball in the corner pocket.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Horrific Choices

This is not a political blog.

If you've read much of it, you can be excused for calling bullshit on that statement, because, frustrated pundit that I am, I frequently use this space to comment on political issues. It's my soapbox, after all, and I can use it any way I please. Still, the primary reason this blog exists is that, at midlife, I find myself with much to think about, and writing has always been a good way for me to gather my thoughts. Having an audience is a side benefit, because it's a good feeling to know I'm not alone in my thoughts, whether they're spiritual, artistic, pedagogical, interpersonal, developmental or, as today, political in nature.

One of the main reasons I'm not a pundit is the TLDR issue. I'm well aware that many of my posts are just too damn long for people to finish, and that they click away before they get to the end. In some ways, that's a good thing--I've never been good at endings, and tend to spin my wheels as I go on and on and on--but in at least one sense, it highlights the central problem with popular punditry: most political issues are just too complex to do justice in a short form piece. This is especially true of international politics, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the conflict between Israel and Gaza.

The first issue faced by a commentator addressing this conflict is moral authority. Who among us can speak out on this issue? Any American holding forth has to acknowledge, from the start, that our nation has only very limited experience with attacks on our territory, and honestly, only one of those attacks rises to the level of severity that the nation of Israel has endured as a constant since its founding. To me, this means anyone venturing to comment on Israel's response to Hamas, an organization dedicated to Israel's destruction that has honeycombed its border with tunnels for the purposes of infiltration and bombing, and that regularly launches missiles into Israeli neighborhoods, must first acknowledge that he or she has no idea what it's like to live under such conditions.

Now let's add another layer to the moral authority conundrum: Israel is a nation of survivors of genocide. For thirteen years, hawkish Americans have had a single answer to critiques of our nation's assertive foreign policy: "9/11." As I noted above, that one incident hardly compares to the constant sense of living under siege that is part of living in modern Israel; far more significant, though, is their much better answer to criticisms of their policy toward organizations and states they perceive to be terrorist: "The Holocaust." Rabbi Irving Greenberg was talking about God's Covenant with Israel when he wrote, "No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children." While this was not intended to be a political statement, it sums up well the reason no Gentile commentator can claim moral authority when critiquing Israel's extreme vigilance with respect to terrorism. With the exception of African-Americans, few of us have anything in our ethnic memories as immediate and extreme as the Holocaust to lend moral weight to our criticism of Israel's refusal to be dovish on matters of foreign policy. In response to the rhetorical question "What's the worst that could happen if you sue for peace?" their legitimate answer is "our extermination as a people."

Taking the last two paragraphs into account, I hope you can see why I cede authority to Jewish commentators on all matters Israeli. And yet, even they struggle with the question. Slate's Emily Bazelon writes eloquently about why it is so hard for Jews to judge the current crisis between Israel and Gaza. Her piece is an at-times excruciating example of the "on the other hand..." approach any honest pundit has to take to the issue, ticking off points justifying a variety of positions. One can find merit in any argument either side might choose to make.

I've read that some Israeli opposition politicians have argued that Israel's current policy is fundamentally anti-democratic, that it flies in the face of Israel's claims to be a moral nation, founded on liberal principles. I've also read that, living as they do under the shadow of constant missile attacks, the vast majority of Israeli citizens are strongly in favor of this same policy. I've read that most Palestinians oppose Hamas's cynical placement of missile batteries in proximity to schools and other civilian facilities. I've heard that, despite this placement, it is patently offensive to suggest that Hamas does so intentionally for the purposes of exploiting civilian deaths to gain international approval.

So where do I stand? I would like Israel to back off on its aggressive response to missile attacks. I would like Hamas to stop firing missiles. I would like both Israel and Palestine to elect governments that can be relied upon to enter into sincere peace talks. I'm aware that only a genuine ceasefire can bring this about, and that neither side is willing to put such a ceasefire in place. And still I haven't answered the question.

Instead, I choose to reframe it: "With whom do I stand?" I stand with the children, both Palestinian and Israeli, who live in constant fear of bombs, missiles, and artillery fire. I stand with their parents, who would rather be doing anything other than fighting a war. I empathize with those who cannot banish the thought of burning children from their minds and decisions, and ask only that they consider that it is the burning of any child, not just a Jewish child, that must be present in every policy discussion.

I put off writing this piece for two weeks, during which time the conflict never let up. I kept juggling the complexities of the matter, weighing each perspective, until I concluded it was time for me to put my struggle in writing. I knew I would have no answers, that what I would write would be just a lengthy acknowledgment of what a tangled knot this crisis is. I also knew that expressing this paradox is the essence of what this blog is about.

This is what comes at midlife: the simple, easy answers of youth are discarded as inadequate, false, useless. In their place is the balancing act of Fiddler on the Roof: "On the other hand..." Tevye says again and again, as he rationalizes his way to permitting one daughter after another to break from tradition and marry the man she loves, rather than someone chosen for her by her parents.

We live in a world of problems that have many other hands. Before we rush to judgment on any of them, it behooves us to work our way through every one of them.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

He Was Like Me

This tribute to Robin Williams will not be like others.

I almost entirely knew Robin Williams from his breakthrough role in Mork and Mindy, a 1970s sitcom that combined the sensibilities of My Favorite Martian and Three's Company. The character of Mork had been created for an episode of Happy Days, and proved so popular that he was spun off to his own show. For me, there was no reason but Mork to watch this show. Every other character was boilerplate sitcom. When Williams was on the screen, it sparkled. The rest of the time, it snoozed.

But what a sparkle it was! I'm sure much of Mork's most surreal and hilarious moments were improvised. Robin Williams's standup was a tour de force of tangents, voices, juxtapositions of ideas mashed together in ways one never saw coming. It was manic, furiously busy, the comedic version of an Art Blakey piano solo. I bought a couple of his albums, and just didn't care for them, wondering how I could find Mork so appealing, and the comedian behind him so manically off-putting.

The reason, of course, was that Mork was more than a riff. He was a person, a sweet, gentle soul who occasionally got carried away with an idea and took it too far, to comedic results. Until recently, we would've called that kind of behavior Asperger's Syndrome; but since that diagnosis has been removed from the DSM, we can now just say it was somewhere on the autism spectrum.

Margie Boule's husband attended college with Robin Williams. Here's what she wrote about him today on Facebook:
Dave says Robin was very quiet, not given to attention-getting outbursts, not outgoing or a clown. Then one night Dave attended a production in which students each gave ten minute solo performances on stage. "In ten minutes, he carried on complete conversations between about nine distinct characters," Dave says. "It wasn't manic, the way it was later when he became famous, but it was brilliant." 
What Dave is describing here sounds very much like the toned-down Robin Williams that came out in the character of Mork. It also reminds me of myself.

The one word that has probably most been used to describe me is "quiet." I've also never been called outgoing or a clown. And during my days of preaching, people frequently wondered how I could be so confident in the pulpit (or, more frequently, in front of it) as I improvised sermons, yet such a cold fish in the fellowship hall. I suspect that people who observe me teaching may have the same reaction: how can someone who is so present, so engaged, in this act of performance become so distant when it's time to make small talk?

And yet, that's who I am. I care deeply about people, am deeply enthusiastic about my interests, become passionate when I'm performing, can pursue an idea down the rabbit hole and into wonderland; and yet when I'm not wearing my performer or teacher hat, people can feel put off by me. That's why it's always been hard for me to make friends: people have to be patient enough with me to see past my guarded exterior.

That's who Robin Williams appears to have been: someone very much like Mork, a beautiful, sweet alien who never quite fit into a world that didn't know how to relate to him. We loved his humor, were blown away by his virtuosity, entranced by the vulnerability of the characters he portrayed, enamored with the dreaminess in his voice when he allowed us to see past the riffing comedian.

Robin Williams also struggled with depression, a demon I'm well acquainted with. I battled it through my twenties and well into my thirties, talking with one therapist after another until all my talk was gone. I finally found peace at, appropriately, the Peace House, where I learned to live in the moment, taking life a day at a time. I had times of back-sliding--emotional traumas will do that--but for the most part, I was able to push through and be back on my feet in a short time, with no deleterious effect on my work.

What I don't have in common with Robin Williams is substance abuse, something most people speculated about for much of his career. He had to be on something wild to do the things he did, the thinking went, just as those baseball players setting world records must be taking steroids. I tend to think, though, that the drugs were not part of the act, but were rather part of surviving in the world when he was not on stage, addressing the pain of being an alien, an outsider, a man with a huge heart but no one to really offer it to. That's something I'm also familiar with.

Learning of his death by suicide saddens me, as it has so many people. I've been watching the tributes pile up on Facebook and Slate. Mixed in with them have been a few reminders of just how abusive suicide is to the people left behind, as well as an occasional remark about the ironic parallel with one of Williams's less-well-received movies, What Dreams May Come. Even in the deepest pit of despair, I never thought of taking my own life. Perhaps if I had not finally defeated my demons, and found myself in my sixties and still struggling with them, I might think differently, but I doubt it. The people I love trump any sense of release I might get from ending it.

I do know people who have fought the depression battle for most of their lives and are simultaneously brilliant artists. Certainly the art, especially if it is a performing art, can have a therapeutic function, and I've heard Marc Maron address this many times in his interviews with comedians. As he and his subjects have frequently concluded, though, the performance is never enough. It's more like a drug that takes the edge off the darkness, briefly shines a light into it, keeps them going, if they're lucky, until the next time they're in the spotlight.

The problem with using substances or activities to address deep pain is that over time, one develops a tolerance to their effects, and needs a larger dose or a stronger drug to achieve the same results. And at some point, they just stop working. If there's no other way to address the pain--no therapist's couch, no support group, no meditation practice--or if all those alternatives have proven futile, I can see how the knife on the wrist, the belt around the neck, or the pistol in the mouth becomes more attractive.

I think that's what happened with Robin Williams. I wish it hadn't. And I hope it doesn't with the depressed geniuses I know.

What I'm left with for now is the realization that I was like him when I was young, but as brilliant as he was, I'm glad I'm not like him anymore.

Monday, August 11, 2014

What a Difference a Ring Makes

It shouldn't make that much of a difference, yet somehow, it does.

Amy and I have been a couple for five and a half years. We've been living together for four of those years. Three years ago, I declared Amy my domestic partner and added her to my health insurance plan. Two years ago, we started calling our relationship a "mountain marriage." And less than a month ago, we started signing papers and putting money down to buy our house together. After all that time, you'd think that saying a few words and putting rings on each other's fingers would be a mere formality. Clearly we're in love and dedicated to being together for a very long time, so why make a big deal out of these circular pieces of silver? Is there really anything different about the relationship since putting them on?

In a word: yes.

For nine days, I've been in a state of euphoria. It's not overwhelming or incapacitating--I can still drive, read, do the crossword, write this blog--but it's always at the edge of my awareness. I look down at my hand, and there's the ring. Amy looks up from playing cards with Sarah and me, and starts to ask when I started wearing a ring, then remembers and blushes. It's different, really, truly different.

It took me about a day to get used to having the ring on. In fact, on Friday, when we picked them up from the jeweler who made them for us, and I tried it on, it felt uncomfortable, though I quickly realized that was just the weirdness of not having anything on my fingers for fifteen years. Now I mostly don't notice that it's on--and then suddenly I do, and I smile as the happiness again washes over me.

Wearing the ring means we no longer have to awkwardly grope for what to call each other. I can say "my wife" rather than "my partner" in reference to Amy, and not have people jump to the conclusion that I must be gay. And I don't have to explain "mountain wife" anymore; "wife" will do it.

"Wife" will take getting used to, though. I'm trying it on for size in conversations, and I still can't believe I'm saying it.

It took us a long time to be ready for this. Apart from my previous marriages, my family is known for long engagements, but five years takes the cake. I've been married twice before, the second one ending in 1999, and while I was engaged once between then and now, I really was not in any hurry to be married again. Marriage had treated me badly, chewed me up, spit me out, broken all the promises it made to me, left me pretty much for dead, and I didn't want anything to do with it. The broken engagement just underlined how brutal this institution can be. If I was ever to marry again, it must be to someone whose eyes, like mine, would never again be clouded with romantic fantasies. We would walk into this fully conscious of what we were doing, cognizant of how badly it could all end if we weren't intentional about maintaining our relationship. Marriage, we knew, is like a sports car: when it's well-maintained, it's a dream to take out on the road, but miss a scheduled service, and you're asking for a breakdown.

We came into this incrementally, as I said above. Our appreciation for each other has grown and matured over the years, and yet we still find ourselves having misunderstandings, impatience, resentment, jealousy, all the things Marc Maron complains about in the introduction to his weekly podcast. We have them, but they do not overtake our essential love for each other. We acknowledge those feelings when they arise, address whatever issues may have birthed them, talk about them in the safe place that is our personal couple space, and we are able, again and again, to transcend them.

I think it's the way we stayed true to each other through these hard times that most convinced me we were right for each other, that of all the people I've ever known, Amy is the one I can absolutely trust to be honest about her own baggage and to bear with me as I unpack my own.

I speculate sometimes about what it would've been like if I had met Amy at the beginning of my adult life. What if we had come together in the 1980s, instead of waiting until 2009 to meet? Could we have spared each other the heartache of what we went through in those other marriages?

That's an easy fantasy to dispel, because the person I was in my 20s could not possibly have been a happy partner for Amy; and I'm pretty sure the Amy of 1986, the year of my first wedding, would not have seemed at all like the woman for me. We were different people then. The nearly 30 years that have transpired since I first made wedding vows have changed me. In those days, I had no sense of perspective. The slightest argument terrified me that my marriage was going to end (which, of course, it eventually did, but that's beside the point). I had so many insecurities to process, so much buried anger and resentment from my childhood, so much therapy yet to come.

So Amy gets the housebroken Mark, the Mark who's passed through one ordeal after another, who's spent enough hours in counseling to put several therapists' children through college, the Mark who understands marriage far better than he ever could have back in the days when it was the one thing he most wanted for himself. The Mark of 2014 is over that. He no longer has a bride-shaped hole in his life. He did want to be married, but not just to a placeholder. He wanted to marry Amy Milshtein.

And he did. I did. Driving to and from our honeymoon, I would glance over at Amy from time to time, watching her nap, and feel that wonderful warmth of knowing this is my wife who is resting so securely beside me. As I lay in bed this morning, with her head on my shoulder, I tried that out again, reminding myself this is my wife, and it felt right, true, and wonderful.

Besides saying words, besides hearing our loved ones say lovely things about us, besides exchanging rings, we engaged in one other ceremonial act at our wedding: we wrapped burned out light bulbs in towels and crushed them beneath our feet. The tradition of breaking glass at a Jewish wedding symbolizes the destruction of the temple, as well as the ending of the old life. For us, it certainly has that connotation as well, but the fact that we used old light bulbs adds an extra dimension: these were a relic of the 20th century, a lighting product that is being phased out. All our future lights will be either compact fluorescent or LED. Similarly, the breaking of the glass reminds us that our youthful concept of marriage was obsolete. We are making a new marriage here, a marriage far more efficient in its expenditure of energy, a marriage in which we can cut quickly to the problem solving without first spending days in sulking and expecting our minds to be read by each other.

We have a marriage based in trust, understanding, dedication, and above all else, love. The mountain pattern on our rings reminds us of the hard work we did coming together, and also that there will be many more alpine trails ahead of us. Sometimes they will even be on actual mountains; more often, it will be some obstacle life throws in our way (like having to buy this house!). Whatever it is, we'll share the trail together, encourage each other up the steep parts, kiss in the middle of every bridge we cross, and when we finally reach the top, we'll take a selfie, kiss each other again, celebrate the accomplishment, and start back down.

So it's not just a ring. It's more, much more. It announces to the world, and more importantly, to us whenever we look down at our hands, that we are married, wrapped up in this thing forever, husband and wife.

Not bad for $250 worth of sterling silver.

Cowardly Patriotism

Last week, driving through Washington state, I saw this bumper sticker:
My first reaction was anger. I remember well how, following the 9/11 attacks, my country went insane with bloodlust. We wanted desperately to find someone, anyone, responsible and teach those monsters a lesson. We wanted to bomb their camps, invade their countries, obliterate every human being who was in any way involved with any organization that might have had something to do with this attack on America. And when rooting out the actual terrorists proved more difficult than we'd bargained for, and capturing the mastermind of the atrocity an elusive goal that was to prove, for more than a decade, unattainable, we found a different target, and rained down our fury on Iraq, a country that had had nothing at all to do with the attack, but did have a real jerk for a president.

Just to be clear: for all the empathy I may have felt for that reaction, I opposed it.

I was living in a community called the Peace House. There, I said the word: peace. Some of my housemates had long arrest records for civil disobedience, and had to keep their incomes below the poverty line to prevent the IRS from garnishing their wages due to years of anti-war tax resistance. These were serious peace activists. One member of our community, a grandmother with diabetes, spent more than a year in a federal penitentiary during this time for trespassing on the property of the School of the Americas (and yes, I'm aware that's a plotline in Orange Is the New Black). In the Peace House, and the wider peace community that met in our living room, there was unanimity on the need for a peaceful response to the attack. It wasn't a blind reaction: we had plenty of empathy for those who grieved, and we shared the horror of the moment; but we were also aware of the conditions in the Middle East that had created groups like al-Qaeda, and as horrific as the attacks on New York and Washington were, they were dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands who died as a result of the American reaction. Even if one can be callous about all those Iraqi and Afghani lives lost, the number of American casualties in this quagmire war long ago exceeded the number of victims on the 9/11 attack.

Taking that all into account, perhaps you can understand my anger at the simplistic knee-jerk blood lust of that bumper sticker with its Marine logo. Once I'd processed the anger, I went on to speculate on where that sticker came from. Perhaps the driver of the car--a middle-aged woman, I realized as our vehicle passed it--had lost a son or daughter in the war, and needed to justify that death to herself as essential to keeping America safe. Maybe she comes from a military family that has always assumed responsibility for the protection of America. I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt on this, but those words haunted me all week, until finally I googled an image of the bumper sticker and started writing.

Because it's wrong. The chaos nations that are Iraq and Afghanistan might well have wound up the way they are without American intervention, but it seems unlikely, and certainly the hundreds of thousands of civilians who died in the crossfire would not have suffered that fate. Iraq might even still be a united country where a variety of faith traditions and ethnicities live peacefully together. And all those American young people who were dismembered, traumatized, or killed would still be alive, contributing to the growth of the American economy. Then there's the sour turn American culture has taken since 9/11 which, it must be admitted, started in the previous decade, as Congress turned on President Clinton. But would it really be that bad?

Americans are an angry people these days. We drive aggressively, argue incessantly, seek out friends who are politically identical to ourselves. When we are wronged, be strike back, often before all the facts are in. We get our news from sources that are biased along our preferred lines, and when these sources say something patently absurd about those on the other side, we swallow it whole. When someone in that other camp makes a misstep--a slip of the lip, an inartful comment, a poorly timed remark--we leap on it, crowing at how all our worst opinions about this politician and whatever movement he or she is associated have been confirmed.

I look at that bumper sticker, and I see that very anger screaming from it. It's clearly on the hawk side of the war question: attack us, and there is only one right response, fighting back. It's not enough to state this, though; it has to go after everyone who disagrees, and call us cowards. I'm offended by this, because I know the issue is far more complicated, know that the cost of war-mongering has far exceeded whatever price was paid on 9/11, know that, if anything, we've created far more problems with our ships and missiles and drones and bombers and guns than existed before we lashed out. Much more than that, I know that choosing peace in the face of attack takes far more courage than striking back. It takes the courage of conviction, the courage of patience, nuance, diplomacy. It takes looking into the eyes of the ones who maimed us and saying, "I hear your anger. How can we make this stop without losing anymore lives?" There's nothing cowardly about that.

And yet, here's the other side of the coin: I understand where the warmongers are coming from. 9/11 felt like a personal attack. I was reeling for over a week, weeping at inopportune moments, afraid to listen to NPR because I didn't know what I'd hear next. My country had been attacked using its own infrastructure: passenger jets, with everyone on board, turned into guided missiles and used to destroy iconic buildings. There were other scares in the days that followed: anthrax in the mail, suitcase nukes, the rooting out of a conspiracy that had taken advantage of America's open borders and liberal attitude toward tourists. I felt no sympathy for the terrorists, believed that, however righteous their grievances, nothing justified the mass murder they had engaged in. I wanted my country safe.

And I understood the wave of young adults enlisting in the armed services. I wanted very much to volunteer in some way, myself. I applied to the conference to have myself reinstated as a minister, because I thought I could make a difference in a pulpit. I was ultimately turned away, a rejection that led me to the place where I do make a difference, the music classroom, but that is another story. My point is that everyone who felt this impact wanted to make a difference. Many did by putting their bodies in harm's way. Others did by opposing the use of military force, often putting their own bodies in a different kind of harm's way. Neither of these responses was cowardly.

And patriotism? I believe it was in both responses to the attack. Some loved their country enough to travel to a foreign land and fight. Others loved their country enough to hold it to a higher standard, to call again and again for a peaceful response. Most of us decided, one way or another, to be patriotic right where we were, living our lives as fully as we could, denying the terrorists the ultimate victory of turning us into a paranoid dictatorship.

At least, that's what I tell myself, and I can almost believe it. Until I see a bumper sticker calling me a coward.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Gassholes of Washington County

If you've been out on a country road in Oregon anytime in the last few years, you've probably seen this sign:

The sign's design and wording single out bicyclists as the travelers most in need of understanding and patience on the part of motorists. The main reason for making this distinction is that cyclists have fewer accident-avoidance options than walkers or runners, who can usually step off the road surface without risking injury (though, as I've pointed out in a recent post, this is not always the case, especially in areas with raised road surfaces and limited shoulders). The sign does suffer from a lack of specificity, however. An especially aggressive driver might interpret it to mean it's up to the cyclist to do the "sharing" by getting out of his or her way. In fact, Oregon law specifies exactly what a driver must do when overtaking a bicycle:

ORS 811.065 Unsafe Passing of a Person Operating A Bicycle
(1) A driver of a motor vehicle commits the offense of unsafe passing of a person operating a bicycle if the driver violates any of the following requirements:
  • (a) The driver of a motor vehicle may only pass a person operating a bicycle by driving to the left of the bicycle at a safe distance and returning to the lane of travel once the motor vehicle is safely clear of the overtaken bicycle. For the purposes of this paragraph, a 'safe distance' means a distance that is sufficient to prevent contact with the person operating the bicycle if the person were to fall into the driver's lane of traffic. This paragraph does not apply to a driver operating a motor vehicle:
    • (A) In a lane that is separate from and adjacent to a designated bicycle lane;
    • (B) At a speed not greater than 35 miles per hour; or
    • (C) When the driver is passing a person operating a bicycle on the person's right side and the person operating the bicycle is turning left.
  • (b) The driver of a motor vehicle may drive to the left of the center of a roadway to pass a person operating a bicycle proceeding in the same direction only if the roadway to the left of the center is unobstructed for a sufficient distance to permit the driver to pass the person operating the bicycle safely and avoid interference with oncoming traffic. This paragraph does not authorize driving on the left side of the center of a roadway when prohibited under ORS 811.295, 811.300 or 811.310 to 811.325.
  • (c) The driver of a motor vehicle that passes a person operating a bicycle shall return to an authorized lane of traffic as soon as practicable.
(2) Passing a person operating a bicycle in a no passing zone in violation of ORS 811.420 constitutes prima facie evidence of commission of the offense described in this section, unsafe Enrolled Senate Bill 108 (SB 108-BCCA) Page 1 passing of a person operating a bicycle, if the passing results in injury to or the death of the person operating the bicycle.
(3) The offense described in this section, unsafe passing of a person operating a bicycle, is a Class B traffic violation. (Maximum fine of $360.)
With that wording in mind, a safe passing distance probably looks like this:

Most of the time when I'm bicycling on rural roads, that's what it looks like when I'm passed. Drivers wait until it's safe for them to pass, then steer a wide enough berth that I have no fear of falling into the path of their wheels. Other state laws spell this out as the "three foot rule," but the wording of the Oregon law is, I think, better in that a bicycle with a rider is typically much taller than three feet.

Why am I revisiting a topic I so recently wrote about? Because I just spent my honeymoon in the San Juan Islands. Amy and I took some long bicycle rides through rolling terrain on both Orcas and San Juan Islands. There were times when we had cars biding their time behind us for several minutes, until it was finally safe either for us to pull over or for them to pass. Not once in nearly fifty miles of riding did a driver come close enough to us to put our lives at risk--this despite the fact that hardly any of them were traveling over 35, the speed below which Oregon law actually excuses drivers from passing at a safe distance.

As you will remember if you read those two previous "gasshole" posts, I've had some experiences on Washington County roads that are the polar opposite to my San Juan rides. In fact, I've found again and again that there are two roads on which a significant portion of drivers travel dangerously close to nonmotorists, whether they are cyclists or pedestrians, at speeds that, while I lack a radar gun to check them, seem significantly higher than 35. Those roads are West Union and Germantown. This could be a rant about commuters, and I'm sure many of them are doing just that; but some of the worst offenders are drivers of commercial vehicles. I've been "buzzed" by large farm trucks on portions of road with no shoulder at all, places where, if the driver jerked the wheel a few inches to the right, I would have to chose between being crushed beneath massive wheels and tumbling head over heels into a blackberry patch.

At times like this, I wish the sign were to be a little more strident, something along the lines of this one:
It's not just passing that's an issue, of course. Some drivers tailgate cyclists, making their displeasure clear by their proximity to my rear wheel. As a driver, I've been rear-ended several times, and in every instance was found in the right by insurance adjusters. Fortunately for me, cars are designed to be crash-cages, absorbing most of the impact by crumpling. Riding a bicycle, of course, provides no such protection. Giving tailgaters the benefit of the doubt, and assuming they simply don't realize how much room their car needs to come to a full stop, I'm still glad that we don't use this sign in Oregon, which seems almost to encourage unsafe following distances:
I assume that the rule for following a bicycle is the same as that for following a car or truck: enough distance that, if one had to come to a full stop without hitting whatever's in front, one could do so. That, of course, means far greater distance than an impatient driver may realize. When driving a road that is shared with bicyclists, my practice is to err on the side of safety, knowing my car has the horsepower to quickly overtake the bike once an opening appears.

It's not just about safety, though. Oregon, and especially Portland, is a mecca for bicyclists, a region of beautiful scenery that can be almost completely explored on surface roads. Oregon is also a region renowned for its common sense traffic laws and the relaxed attitudes of its citizens. For all that, there are still enough libertarians and anarchists on the roads, whether behind the wheel or sitting in a saddle, to generate a good deal of animus. Critical Mass rides in Portland can foul up traffic for hours. Abusive motorists can make even the most polite and thoughtful cyclist feel oppressed. This is unfortunate, even dangerous. Apart from the lives ruined by car/bike/pedestrian accidents, there is the cost to people's psychological well-being. A week in the San Juans left me feeling like this:

We were all just getting along, respecting each other's rights to be on the roads, cars waiting until it was safe to pass, bicyclists using driveways or designated turnouts on hills to let drivers get around them, no one in such a hurry that endangering another seemed a worthwhile exchange for shaving a minute or two off one's travel time. Maybe someday it will be like that on Germantown or West Union, all the travelers coexisting in peace and politeness, nobody shaking fists, hurling invective, or committing manslaughter. Until it is, I will, like so many of my hiking/running/cycling friends, operate with the assumption that no driver is to be trusted. Because as much as I believe in sharing the road, defending the principle is not worth dying for.