Friday, December 30, 2005
The priest assumed the issue would go away, but these are not lenient days for Catholics where homosexuality is concerned. The bishop ordered the priest not to allow openly gay members to serve in liturgical roles in the church. So my friend, a lifelong Catholic and a very faithful, spiritual–not to mention brilliant–man who might have become a priest but for the requirement of celibacy, has had to make a choice between accepting this decision and remaining a second class member of his church (until that is banned, as well, I suppose) or leaving it once and for all. He has chosen to move on, but it has been a decision mixed with tremendous sadness. He has been cut loose from a spiritual fold that has always been integral to his life. A church is like a family; he will lose that connection. He also faces the challenge of attempting to reconcile his deep and lifelong faith with what I believe is the humiliation he has suffered within his community.
For a long time, my friend found sanctuary in an apparently open-minded parish with a liberal pastor. He had a sense of belonging there and was a valuable part of the community. Most important, it fulfilled a spiritual need for him. It is disheartening to see that all this can simply be undone because the hierarchy of the church has enshrined prejudice. I used to think that there were two faces to this schizophrenic church. Spiritually, I believed it to be quite liberal and accepting, as it appeared to be in its post-Vatican II incarnation of my childhood. This openness might not be outwardly accepted by the authoritarian hierarchy of the church, but it was one of the better dirty little secrets the church is now so well-known for keeping. The era of the church’s willingness to live with its temporal and hierarchical aspects in conflict, if it ever was, is coming to an end. The dogma of prejudice at the Vatican is again hurting people, just as over the years it has hurt divorcees, unwed mothers, and women who have had abortions. As the hierarchy reaches into local communities of faith to enforce an untenable and even brutal orthodoxy, people are stung by its ugly face of intolerance and condemnation.
I have not considered myself a practicing Catholic for several years, but when I heard this, I was struck at the sense of mortification and powerlessness–the products of injustice–that consumed me. My stomach went into a knot; I got teary. Another friend of mine, a liberal woman raised as an evangelical Christian, had the same reaction. We each hurt for our friend, regardless of our individual decisions in years past to leave the churches of our childhoods. This reaction is what happens in the face of prejudice, and in one important way, it reminds me of the injustice I have heard about and read, from childhood stories to classmates’ anecdotes to contemporary publications, about the treatment of blacks in America. The humiliation and denigration are the same. In both, there is the suppressed rage of one whose actions could not possibly alter the injustice at hand. There are the flushed cheeks and wet eyes of endurance in the face of dehumanization. Whenever there is absolutely no way to subvert, challenge, or change a power structure in a given moment, its products are frustration, tension, shame at one's own powerlessness, sadness, loss, and the dull ache of injustice. Each is deeply wrong. Each is disgusting.
The new pope, Joseph Ratzinger, has made his first major official act the banning of gay men from becoming priests, hardly a courageous act in a world where homophobia too frequently goes unpunished and where the opportunities for true courage in the modern world are endless. In his cowardice, then, the pope has chosen to fuel the prejudice of Catholics and provide justification to homophobes worldwide. As with all forms of hatred, the cost will be paid in the form of misery and fear for life for its targets, especially in places outside of the United States and Europe.
Homosexuals are an especially easy target for Catholicism. If they banned the participation of blacks, left-handed people, the handicapped, Republicans, or the poor, there would be outrage. The threat of outrage and its consequences keep powerful institutions from attacking certain minority groups while victimizing others that have fewer or less significant advocates within the system. Clearly, there is the perception that this sort of discrimination is somehow acceptable or even beneficial for the church, that it will not suffer unendurable consequences for its intolerance. On the other hand, Ratzinger has made allusions to his belief that a smaller, more faithful church is an acceptable scenario in the future. He seems to desire a leaner and certainly meaner church: he may get his wish.
In an earlier column, I suggested that as the United States begins to act like a "second world" rogue nation, so does it become one. Equally, as the Catholic Church begins to take steps that will decimate its following in the civilized world, so is it decimated. As it takes action against human decency, so it becomes indecent. It would appear that the pope has chosen to address the problem of pedophilia not by resolving its more likely cause–the unnatural practice of celibacy–but by scapegoating the easy target of homosexuality. It would seem that eliminating gays from the priesthood would have eliminated many of the competent, spiritual men we know as traditional priests. Perhaps, in the future, the only ones left will be the sort of rigid, self-righteous conservative heterosexual men trickling forth from seminaries at the present. These men will likely live in a state of perpetual adolescent agony over sexuality; their relations with women may be strained and bizarre. Adolescent girls, including a new generation of altar servers, will continue to be at high risk as an easy target of these men struggling to live an untenable life of celibacy. But boys will be at risk, too, because clergy sexual abuse is most importantly about the exercise of power at the hands of the miserable and the angry. Ratzinger’s ban will solve nothing.
How can any of us choose to remain complicit in this agenda of demonizing and hatred? Enough is enough.
Friday, December 09, 2005
No, I’m not Jewish; I have no desire to convert; and I don’t celebrate any other Jewish holidays, though I may eventually consider doing something to commemorate Yom Ha’Shoah, the day of Holocaust remembrance. I was married to a Jew, though, and loved celebrating Hanukkah during our four winters together. I came to love it as much as Christmas and to enjoy it more in some ways, as it provided a powerful balance to that predominating Christian holiday.
Both Christmas and Hanukkah fall, not coincidentally, at the darkest time of the year, near the winter solstice. The ancient Christian church set the date of Christmas only three or four days off. The date of Hanukkah is determined by the Jewish calendar, which is governed by the moon. I remember my delight at discovering that the last night of Hanukkah, when all eight candles are lighted, is the night of the new moon at the darkest time of year. On that night, when no light is reflected to us from the moon, our candles illuminate the longest completely dark night of the year.
When first celebrating Hanukkah as a young couple, we needed to strike a balance between our cultural and religious traditions. She had never celebrated Christmas, and I had never had to face a moderating force against the excesses of Christmas decoration in my own home. So, we agreed that, during Hanukkah, there would be no Christmas lights or music until the Hanukah lights had been set ablaze and burned themselves out. Usually, this meant about an hour of calm. We would light the candles, stumble our way through the simple prayers in Hebrew and repeat them in English, place our menorahs in windows where they would be most visible to the neighborhood, and finally exchange presents by the light of the candles.
While I loved how the electric window candles of my childhood gently illuminated the house, the natural glow of the Hanukkah lights–with a candle’s mutability and flickering–would leave me transfixed. For many, this is a time for jubilant celebration of the literal and figurative triumph of light over darkness; I’ve seen some raucous Hanukkah parties! For me, though, the part of the ritual I took with me was the chance to immerse myself in the hour of quiet created as the candles burned. The elemental softness of the Hanukkah lights at home was conducive to calmness, reflection, and a sense of peace. Which candle lasted longest was always unpredictable, but with between two and nine candles burning each night, the dimming of the light was always gradual. Each flame in succession would disappear into the candle holder, perhaps blossoming in a moment of inundation by liquid wax. Then it would be dark for another day. We would swiftly return to the noise, brightness, and pace of life at Christmastime.
As with other Jewish holidays, including the sabbath, in my erstwhile home, celebrating Hanukkah created a time for us to be apart from homogenous, mainstream culture. It created time to look inward, toward home, family, and ourselves as individuals. In our culture, celebrating Hanukkah lacks both the evangelistic pressure to be part of a once solely Christian event and the militant messages (buy more now, and be happy, or else!) of Christmas. My view of Hanukkah is through a goyishe American lens. It provides for me a way to remember and express the quiet, introspective, and spiritual aspects of my personality just as Christmas allows me a chance to take a role in some of the brighter aspects of the American cultural monolith. Hanukah is the yin to the yang of my Christmas celebrations. Mine is not a Jew’s Hanukkah, but it’s a deeply satisfying celebration that helps me stay balanced during the hectic season of the holidays.
Monday, November 28, 2005
I hate the time change. I wish we were on daylight savings time year ’round. Of course, the return to standard time has different effects based on how one’s longitude and latitude fall within a time zone. Here in Vermont–and in Massachusetts where I grew up–the fall time change hits especially hard. One day, darkness arrives a bit after six o’clock. The next, it’s dark before many people can get out of work or get home. There is no time for outdoor activity in the light. By Christmas, it’ll be dark just after four. It is routine, for a month or two in the winter, for folks where I’m from to go to work and come home in the dark. It’s miserable.
And to a significant degree, we bring this on ourselves. Rather than simply drift into darker days, we launch ourselves smack into the change. I’m not a smack-into-anything kind of guy. So, this year for a change, I decided not to change my clocks. Since the time change, I have been using the alarms on my cell phone to wake me in the morning. As the cell signal reset the time on the phone automatically, I simply set the time for when I usually get up, and it kept getting me up in time for work.
This was great for the first few days. Getting up when all my house clocks read 7:30 (instead of 6:30) explained why it was suddenly so much lighter in the morning. At night, when I was feeling downright exhausted at 9:30, I could see it was really 10:30 in my body. And if I went to bed past my usual 10:30 bedtime, well it may as well have been midnight. I navigated the clock differences pretty well at work. The biggest shock, though, was getting in the car and feeling, each day, like I had lost an hour. I can usually get out of school between 3:30 and 4:00. Now, I wasn’t getting home til after five, and I hadn’t put in any extra time.
After a few days of this, I realized that I was acclimating, at least partially, to the change and no longer needed my clocks to remind me why I felt so off schedule. First I adjusted the clock in my car and my bedside clock. I took my time changing the clock in the kitchen, though. I still needed a point of reference until this weekend, when my body seemed pretty well adapted and, intellectually and emotionally, I began to feel put out by that sole timepiece. Each check of the time had become an upbraiding, as if I were constantly running behind. With a glance at the clock, my heart lurched, my breath caught, and then I had to settle down again. It was time to give in.
I’m now living in a world that gets dark early, and this is taking a toll on my moods. I am feeling a little less cheerful and a lot less certain about my world. While I am looking forward to the extending of daylight savings time into March and November (but not until 2007), it does nothing for me now. But I haven’t surrendered entirely to the winter blues.
I believe it is high time for Vermont to go on Atlantic Standard Time and stay on it all year long. In fact, I believe that most of New England, except for Metropolitan New York, should be in the same time zone as New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and eastern Quebec. In the winter, we would have time in common with these Canadian provinces. In the spring, the rest of the eastern U.S. would “spring ahead” to have time common with us. This would allow those of us in the New England states to have quality time with all our neighbors while avoiding the harrowing changing of the clocks. And it would eliminate the odd fact that we are only in standard time for five (soon to be four) months and spend the better part of the year with our clocks in the alternative setting.
Checking a time zone map indicates that, at its southernmost in the U.S., the Eastern Time Zone only gets as far west as the Florida peninsula and the state of Georgia. In the north, Eastern Time runs from Maine to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and all of Lake Michigan to the shores of Chicago. Is this fair? Of course not. While I’m content to let the midwest sort this out themselves, I’d like to see New England take responsibility for its placement far ahead of most of the nation. Or maybe I’d just like to see Vermont secede from something and the northeast join Canada in at least one way.
Saturday, November 05, 2005
As the Senate considers a Supreme Court nominee who may change the legality of access to abortion in our country, I want to explain how I have come to be firmly pro-choice. I wasn’t always this way. When I was young, I considered myself a moderate Democrat. Along with most Americans, I thought atrocities against Native Americans and exploitation of workers of all races, for example, were excusable, necessary evils. I allied myself with official government stances regardless of whether they reflected my best interests or beliefs.
At the same time, I was trying to figure out where I belonged. I tried on different identities; one of the most significant was “Catholic”. At the beginning of my adolescence, I had strong opinions on many things, but I didn’t have a particularly strong position on abortion. I had the sense that my parents were pro-choice, and I chalked abortion up as another necessary evil, and therefore excusable, but nothing meriting a closer look. Then, in ninth grade, I had a religious education teacher who changed that. He was earnest, faithful, passionate, and certain in his belief that abortion constitutes murder. He provided solid guidelines for life at a time when having some certainties appealed to me. At the time, I regularly borrowed literature from the brochure rack at the entrance to my church. I found much of the literature simplistic and was, even at fourteen, able to unravel the false syllogisms in the logic of these Catholic writers who argued against abortion and pre-marital sex. Still, I consumed religious literature in an effort to find an incontrovertible, logical argument proving the abomination of abortion. I even recorded my own contortions of thought on the issue in my notebooks, stretching to the utmost my powers of argument. At times, I also provoked dinner-time arguments with my pro-choice parents. I found it fun, as teenagers sometimes do.
In college, both my anti-abortion zeal and Catholic identity wavered, and I returned to a sort of laissez-faire approach to the issue. It’s legal, I figured, and even though I’m against it, I wouldn’t vote to make it illegal. It seemed a bit cruel to make anyone live for nine months with the consequences of one mistake. Another aspect of my feelings was more libertarian. I believed that prohibition is a generally unsuccessful approach to society’s marginal and necessary evils. Now, I’d go further and say prohibition is almost always a disaster, and that such stances usually require absolute positions that force people to avoid rather than confront our human frailties and complexities.
During my time with my former wife, I had many conversations with her that gave me a stronger, if not yet immediate, sense that women ought to be in control of their own bodies. It was she who took the time to explain, in depth, the meaning of the term pro-choice. I was still immature enough to enjoy teasing her about an issue that was clearly of more than passing importance to her. Through our lengthy discussions, I began to see the issue’s medical aspects, which helped me frame it as a matter of control over one’s own body. For the first time, I began to see it as an issue of confidentiality and privacy, as any medical decision and action must be. I was also able to relate the desire to control one’s reproduction to my own desire to make medical decisions about my own body.
As a closeted homosexual, I still had a few things to learn about taking responsibility for my own life. Perhaps it is reasonable, then, that I gained a further understanding of the issue when I became openly gay. I spent a few months renting from a Unitarian-Universalist who was actively pro-gay marriage and whose church was engaged in examining acceptance of transgendered people. I watched some videos in which trans people explained that their transgendered identity was simply an understanding that came from deep within each of them. I understood that feeling quite well, as each day in the coming out process allowed me to connect with and express feelings I had long hidden.
Such internal knowledge forces itself out one way or another, I knew. I understood that the same must be true for trans people, as well. This understanding gradually generalized itself within me and grew into a greater belief that each of us deserves the unabridged right to make decisions, to the fullest extent possible, that affect the course of his or her life.
My more recent thinking has further expanded my understanding of the importance of the freedom of women to make decisions about their own bodies. I have come to believe that restricting women’s control over reproduction is usually part of a greater set of beliefs that would make women subordinate to men. And such subordination inevitably extends from women to all weaker, poorer, disempowered members of society, include most men. Also, before modern surgical abortion, female herbalists and midwives routinely provided compotes to women seeking to terminate pregnancies. Such decisions and remedies were between women. Modern medicine has done much to demonize such medical practitioners as “witches” and to put medical control into the hands of men or, at least, of those who practice the more traditionally masculine, invasive procedures which constitute most of modern medicine.
It was the calm assuredness in the voices of women I know discussing their own past abortions that finally convinced me, however, that abortion must be legal and available, and that it need not be controversial. These women–usually women I have known for several years without knowing of their experiences with abortion–have spoken of the procedure as matter-of-factly as I speak about being gay. That is to say, unless defined as such, abortion (like homosexuality) need not be considered evil at all. It just is. It is a procedure. It does not have to be deeply tragic and painful, as Hillary Clinton has recently suggested. Defining the issue in vitriolic terms where none need apply has worked wonders in heating up conservatives over issues that, when defined more evenly, need not be inflammatory at all. Indeed, through a calmer, less histrionic lens, abortion is as morally neutral as a hysterectomy or the removal of a problematic gall bladder. Discovering that these women–trusted, intelligent, independent, considerate, generally-happy people–have had abortions suddenly made it easy for me to stop the theoretical permutations and simply understand abortion as an acceptable part of life.
These recent experiences make me wish there were a sort of “coming out” festival for women who’ve had abortions and who aren’t self-tortured, guilt-racked and brimming with regrets, as the public is so often led to believe. Coming out has been a powerful way of changing people’s views of homosexuality and of fostering acceptance. Today, when my teaching ventures onto the topic of abortion, I remind (or inform) my students that they already know more than one woman who has had an abortion, even though they aren’t likely aware of who these women are. After all, it’s much harder to demonize someone we know, like, and trust. While people may still disagree about behaviors, discussions of controversial issues often become respectful and civil in the presence of others we already respect and treat civilly. Too bad most women who’ve had abortions couldn’t just come out about it. For me, their frankness and personal openness has made all the difference.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
So, when communion came around at the wedding, I had a decision to make. My brother stood down, and I had a lot of respect for that, as it’s consistent with who he is. As I sat in the church pew and awkwardly bent into position on a kneeler made slippery by the contact of dress slacks with the plastic kneeling cushion, I remembered with various levels of success how each part of the mass goes.
I recalled my fascination with the Latin Mass and how I memorized certain common prayers in Latin and would recite them silently as communion approached. “Lord, I am not worthy... Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectam meam, sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur anima mea.” Did I get the declensions correct? It doesn’t matter. A few Latin phrases got me in the mood for the mysteries of trans-substantiation and receiving the corporeal wafer. Then, after the communion procession, I returned to my seat, where I would begin my litany of prayers. These started with the same abridged version of the Act of Contrition I learned as a second grader. Then the Hail Mary and Glory Be, in Latin or English or both. With tears in my eyes, I would express contrition for specific failings. In harder times, I would move on to beseeching the creator for some respite from the anxiety and depression that gripped me so frequently. Finally, I would conclude with a short monolog about my current state of life and some more requests for assistance. My eyes red and my body transformed through intellectual and emotional communion with creation, I would blink my eyes open again and gear up for singing the recessional.
I have good memories of this part of church. It seemed important, where the droning stopped and there was time just to think, reflect, and let the anxiety, fear, sadness, and guilt of a week of living catch up with and move through me.
But now, I’m a gay guy who doesn’t really believe in god. I definitely see Joshua of Nazareth, or Jesus Christ, if you prefer, as a prophet with only as much of the divine in him as each of us possesses. I disagree with Catholic teaching on the human body, women’s rights, individual relationship to creation and divinity, the morality of governments, power, patriarchy, and war, and with the tradition of deceit within Catholicism. I differ with the papacy and the church’s approach governance, as well as their views of the feminine in the divine and the relation of humans with the environment. I disagree with their stances on marriage, abortion, birth control, and now, it appears, gay clergy. I don’t believe in sin as such, nor in heaven, hell, or confession. I could pretty much add “don’t” to every line of Catholicism’s creeds. So why, ultimately, did I receive communion at this family wedding?
In light of my brother’s moral rectitude, I find myself interested in exploring my reasons for participating in a Catholic sacrament. Some of my answers, I’m afraid, are a bit trite and edging on spiteful. First of all, I like the idea of doing what I’m not supposed to. I think some of the things I’ve done since my last, forced confession and general absolution fifteen years ago would disqualify me from receiving communion. Even though my lack of contrition invalidates the presence of Jesus in the host, I like the idea of making a quiet little protest of the church’s dogma on homosexuality.
Second, I feel like I’ve earned it. I did my ten years of religious education. I was confirmed a Catholic as my family wanted, despite the priest’s insistence that we should only undertake the sacrament willingly. I taught religious education and was an altar boy and all-around church volunteer. My brother and I even helped paint the lines on the church parking lot. I’ve earned the privilege of receiving communion, regardless.
The other reasons are a little more humble. One is that my great aunt, who was my first communion teacher, was in the church. I loved having her as a first communion teacher, and I loved that she chose seven-year-old me to be a reader at the first communion mass. I felt an important connection with the past.
The best reason, though, is that I did it for my grandmother. Without saying too much about her own relationship to the church and the divine, I’ll say that she doesn’t want me to feel that I’m not worthy to receive communion, possibly because I’m gay. She seems to want me to know that in the eyes of God, as she sees the divine, I am a good person. So, whenever we’re in church together, I receive communion because I feel a connection with her. In that moment of connection, I feel the joy of having her as my grandmother, and I think she’s happy knowing that we’re both receiving communion.
So, when it comes to Catholicism and communion, my approach remains equivocal. Catholicism was an important part of my upbringing. My priest was an important role model to me. When I was eleven, I knew I wanted intimacy with guys and not gals, and I still was a good and active member of the church. I’m still the same person. In the end, it’s a lot like trying to break an addiction. More accurately, I think I’m afraid to make the final separation, to sever the final tie to my mother church, the only act that definitively separates me from non-Catholics like my dad during mass. It takes a lot of courage to leave a disrespectful lover once and for all, knowing you can never go back. I guess I’m just not ready to close that door, once and for all.
Saturday, October 08, 2005
Gray Panther and social activist Maggie Kuhn exhorted those who seek justice to do the following: Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind - even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants. And do your homework.
I’ve never felt that brave. It’s easier for me to show up alone at a party than at a rally or demonstration. So I speak out in smaller ways about smaller issues that have an effect on smaller numbers of people. I speak out at work. I speak out in groups where I am a member. I speak straightforwardly to friends. I advocate for kids and for humane treatment of each other. I use my powers of verbal articulation where I can.
As a kid, I learned that words could cause pain, and for a long time, I used my skill with words as a weapon. Now, I try not to use words for violence, at least not against the powerless nor against people I care about. I’ve learned some temperance, and I’ve learned that using sharp words can complicate my life, as their sort of pain exacts its penalty slowly–through ruined friendships, estrangement, or ill will. I’ve also learned that well-crafted words can change minds, and changed minds can change individual lives and world events. Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of my heros in part because he knew how to use words powerfully. His brilliant speech created change through the articulation of what it means to be fair, free, and brave.
Eleanor Roosevelt was heroic in a somewhat different way. While her words were powerful, they were accompanied with nuanced actions–often small things that were symbolically enormous–that allowed her to communicate her views unmistakably. She was born into a circumscribed life and spent most of it dancing on the edges of acceptability. She flouted the requirements of her position in society and stretched the limits of what was expected and accepted. She presented her life as a visible alternative to those who lived only to fill a previously-defined role. With dignity and humor, she took her position of wealth and power and used it to challenge complacency all around her.
The levees of conservative greed and duplicity are beginning to rupture against the unexpected floodwaters of those who think freely and demand justice. Though we express our unity differently, each word, step, or banner is a droplet that further erodes the bank of stony-hearted indifference to suffering that was, just yesterday, believed to be impenetrable.
[Quotation from http://www.greatwomen.org/women.php?action=viewone&id=96]
Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind - even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants. And do your homework.
Sunday, September 25, 2005
You see, it’s about time for what my Mom calls “a rude awakening”.
Our society is a mess. We can’t feed ourselves or provide our own neighborhoods with the basic goods of daily life. Our reliance on cars has helped disintegrate what’s left of community centers. We’re fighting a war over a commodity, the barons of which rake in the profits while our world burns up under a smoggy sky. So I’m glad.
Not that I think it’ll be a real day of reckoning. Americans have gotten so far from holding any leader or business accountable for anything, that society is nearly completely predicated on absurdity. Denial rules the day. The president babbles into the microphones. Corporations sell out the human soul at an accelerating pace. And Americans let it all happen. We let ourselves get duped into fighting an elective war so greedy investors can maintain their profits on the backs of the world’s destitute. We let the oligarchs steal elections. We execute blacks, mock Muslims, scapegoat gays and atheists. We let the president off the hook for everything, from ignoring the drowning poor in the gulf coast to price gouging for gasoline to getting us into a war we can’t win. Who’s to blame for the shrinking middle class or the instability of contemporary American life? Who cares? Nothing makes sense.
So I sit here and smile.
I smile because I drive a car that gets over 35 miles per gallon if I’m careful. I smile because I carpool to work four to five days a week. I grin because I live in an apartment building where fifteen units share heat and insulate each other from the winter cold. I chuckle because, on my own two feet, I can get to the grocery store, the hardware store, lots of restaurants, one professional theater, two movie houses, two video stores, the DMV, a hair stylist, the pharmacy, my dentist, cafes, at least four book stores, the library, city hall, several music stores, an ice cream shop, a farmers’ market, and the homes of some of my dearest friends. Not to mention the places I don’t frequent, like a cell phone shop, a gym, an art supply store, used clothing shops, a printer, lots of lawyers and yoga studios, and half a dozen churches. I laugh because I can do all of this without a significant reliance on the internal combustion engine.
Maybe high oil prices will cause the oblivious masses to wise up, if not rise up. Perhaps they’ll drive smaller cars, take the bus, live in higher-density clusters, reconstitute communities in which members look out for each other and foster safety and responsibility, turn the thermostat down, shut off a few lights, and buy local. Until then, they’ll have to begin paying their share. We all will. It’s about time the economic cost of our fatuous American lifestyles caught up with the social and environmental price we are so willing to ignore.
Sunday, September 11, 2005
Her: Good morning.
Me: Good morning.
Her (gently brushing by my elbow, speaking sweetly): Let me just reach past you for a muffin.
Me (preparing my plate): Sure.
Her (taking a muffin): Where are you from?
Me: Vermont. You?
Her: Montgomery. Are you here for the Apparitions?
Me: No, I’m here on business.
Her: Oh.... Well, are you Catholic?
Me (cautious, interested): Um... yes.
Her: Have you ever heard of Our Lady of Medugoria?
Me (brightening): Oh, yeah. My grandmother’s cousin has been to Yugoslavia to see it.
Her: Oh, you have to hear about this. What's your name?
Her: I'm Debbie. Come join me for breakfast.
Her: Yes, come sit with me. I’ll tell you all about it.
We finish preparing our plates. I join her at her table.
Her: So you know, the Blessed Mother is appearing about ten miles away from here.
Me(surprised): In Alabama?
Her: Yes. Just south off of I-65. The woman, Maria, who the Virgin first appeared to, has come from Medugoria and is witnessing the Blessed Virgin in a field just off the state highway. It’s very close. You have to see it.
Me: Oh. Interesting.
Her: Do you ever pray to the blessed Virgin?
Me: Yes... well, I used to a lot. She’s my patron saint, because I was born on her birthday.
Her: When’s your birthday?
Me: September eighth.
Her: Oh, no, no. I’m sorry to disappoint you, Matthew, but She appeared to Maria and told her that today is Her birthday. You see, all that stuff was just made up by the Catholic church. They don’t really know when she was born, But now we know it’s August fifth. Your birthday’s the Immaculate Conception.
Me: No it isn’t. That’s December eighth.
Her: Oh.... I see you don’t wear a ring. You’re not married.
Her: You’re going to be a priest!
Me: Oh, goodness, no.
Her: Ah. Are you single?
Me: Yes. Divorced, actually.
Her: Oh, I understand. My son’s divorced. He’s only twenty-four. You may think I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I do. I have been with my husband for nearly thirty years, and it can be trying. He doesn’t come to the Apparitions with me. He doesn’t believe in them. He’s not easy to live with, but I’ve stayed with him. You know, it’s hard, but life takes sacrifices. Marriage is a sacred bond. But you could try to work it out. Are you praying for a reconciliation?
Her: Well now, is there any chance you might reconcile?
Me (with a guffaw): No! Was she ever mad at me!
Her: Hmm. Is she Catholic?
Me: No, she’s Jewish.
Her: Oh. Well, sometimes it’s better just to let things go. (Pause.) Did you have any children?
Her: Well, you should really come with us tonight. It’ll help you heal. You need to see it. You should come down tonight for six o’clock. That’s when it’s going to start. We belong to a group called Caritas. This is Gregory. Maybe I should let you men discuss this together. That’d be better.
Me: That’s not necessary....
Gregory moves away to get his breakfast. She indicates over half a dozen women at two tables.
Her: All these ladies are here for the Apparitions. Do you think you’ll be back in time to drive with us?
Me: No, we work ‘til five and then have an hour to get back.
Her: Oh. That’s too bad. Well, maybe you could join us afterwards.
Me: I don’t think that’d work. We’re supposed to do things as a team, and I don’t think my supervisor would let me go.
Her: Well invite him along!
Me: Oh, he’s not Catholic. I don’t think he’d understand.
Her: What if we pray for it? If you’re really guided by your faith and pray, you can make things happen.
Me: I don’t know about that.
Around this time, an older lady, perhaps around seventy, approaches the table.
Lady: Excuse me, ma’am, but you look like a very strong woman.
Her: Oh no, no, no. I’m weak! It’s Our Lady who gives me strength.
Lady: Well, you look like you are close to our Lord, and I need to speak with you.
Her: Why’s that, dear?
Lady: I’ve... I’ve been having a very difficult time recently.
Her: What’re your troubles?
Lady: Well... I’ve had a bit of depression. And anxiety.
Her: Yes! Yes!
Lady: And I just find myself crying for no reason all the time. I’m so weak and sad. I don’t know what to do.
Her: Pray to Our Lady. You have to pray to Our Lady.
They continue, the Lady agreeing with Her advice, and the Lady departs.
Her: Do you go to church regularly?
Me: Not as much as my mother.
Her: You’re not a lapsed Catholic?
Me: Kind of.
Her: And how does that make your mama feel?
Me: I don’t know.
Her: My son is just like that. He thinks I’m foolish coming down here for these things. So does my husband. I say to my son, come back to church, but he won’t, not even for his mama. (Pause.) Do you think your mama would like it if you came back to church?
Me: She might.
Her: Yes.... Let’s imagine that I’m your mama. And your mama says to you, son, you goin’ to get yourself down to church with me, ain’t ya? Is that what your mother would say? Is that what she sounds like?
Me: No. (Chuckling.) We’re Yankees, so she doesn’t talk that way.
Her: Well, you know. You get the idea. Don’t you want to make your mama happy?
Her: You can start by going to church. This Sunday, go to your mama and tell her you want to go to church with her. Won’t she be happy?
She roots around in her purse.
Her: Here. I must have something in here for you. These are prayer cards. This one is the Blessed Mother. And this one, Saint Jude. The patron saint of lost causes. He’ll help you get back to church. What else do I have in here. Ahhhh! Isn’t that beautiful?
She presents me with three prayer cards. Some are from funerals and have the name and dates of the deceased person’s life on the reverse. The last card is a glossy photograph of a plastic crucifix on a bright blue background.
Her: You can take all of these. What else do I have in here?
She fishes two religious medals from her purse.
Her: These are medals of Our Lady of Medugoria. They were blessed by a priest AND Maria, the woman having the Apparitions. I’ll give you these if you make me a promise.
Me: What’s that?
Her: If you promise that you’ll start going to church with your mother.
Me: I can’t promise you that. It probably won’t happen.
Her: Well, here. Take two, one for your mother.
She recites the prayer, Hail Mary. Just audibly, I mutter the words along with her.
Her: You know what, Matthew? I’m going to pray for you tonight. You want children, don’t you?
Me: Yes, very much so.
Her: Well, I’m gonna pray for you to have children of your own someday.
Me: Thank you.
Her: Alright, I need to be going. But I’ll pray for you tonight. And don’t forget: six o’clock.
Then, we shake hands, wish each other well, clear the table, and go our separate ways.
Thursday, August 25, 2005
As I prepare to kick back by the ocean this week, I want to say a few things about my grandfather, who turned 80 this weekend.
I call him Nonno. I’m so glad I have him. He’s one of the most interesting people I know. He tells great stories, and I love listening to them. He tells stories about growing up as a little boy in an Italian-American neighborhood, he talks about his service in Europe as a tank driver during World War II, he talks about hunting for rabbits and deer, and he talks about working in a print shop and as a union steward for years. I know about how he used to gather coal that had fallen off trains at the rail yard, how he slept in the dairy barns of the Eastern States Exposition during fair time and brought home milk for his mother, how he and his friends initiated each other and sneaked into hockey games as boys. I know some things about his time in the war–actually, I know quite a few things, but not everything. My most recent discovery, when I was working as my union’s building representative and negotiator, was to find that he had handled grievances with his own union and used to travel to national conventions for his shop.
He’s given me so many things.
One thing I can thank him for is how he helped my imagination grow. I tend to be creative and interested in new ideas and new ways of doing things. Hearing so many stories in detail about far-away, long-ago events gave me pictures of things I had never experienced. As he tells each story, I see images in my mind, and because they’re his and I love him, they’re all really important to me. Of course I’ll never know exactly what the pass into the mountains looked like where five men in a tank were ambushed and killed due to an officer’s incompetence, but I have an image that stays with me and helps keep that story, and its sense of injustice is fresh and alive in my mind. The movie Saving Private Ryan made the edges of these images a little less fuzzy for me, but it didn’t change those stories of my Nonno in Europe.
He has also had, along with my Dad, an important influence on my sense of humor and appreciation of ideas. Every time I would go to his house as a child, he would have a new riddle for me to solve or a clever joke that helped me appreciate a play on words or the ironic part of a situation. He helped me to value the intelligence in humor, and that fact that the funniest things are not the stupidest, but are usually the cleverest.
He also gave me patience and respect for individual differences. When I was six, he had a stroke that paralyzed his right arm. Over the years, I have regretted, because of this, that I never got to learn to hunt rabbits or deer. I felt like I missed out on something important. Who could have imagined, then, the gifts that would come in the wake of this change?
When my brother Chris and I were small, we would often take bicycle rides with Nonno after supper. I would ride a black bike he found and fixed up for me. He could only drive his bicycle with one hand, and so, when he wasn’t around, we would practice riding our bikes one-handed, as well. When we would take walks after dinner, we would hold one of our hands behind our backs, just as he did. He was probably our first hero.
When I was learning to tie my shoes, Nonno was relearning to tie his shoes, too. We both had velcro sneakers in the mid-’80s. He recovered his multiplication tables a few years after I learned mine. Today, as a teacher, I share the joy of my students when they finally achieve the things that may look small to outsiders but are enormous steps in their lives. Through my Nonno, I learned as a boy to appreciate the accomplishments of each person as an individual.
Nonno’s manipulative devices from physical therapy were in a little shoebox that was like a toybox to me. As his right hand got stronger through therapy, he would grasp my hand and squeeze as hard as he could, and I could feel his strength growing. We’d ask him to do the same with his “good” left hand, and I think he went easy on us, now that I think about it. He showed me that one form of weakness did not have to overcome other forms of strength. Despite his disabled arm, I’ve always seen him as one of the strongest, most powerful people I know.
As I watched him and saw his attitude, he showed me another kind of courage, not unlike that of a soldier, but there–present–right in front of me. He showed me that he didn’t give up. He told me of men he saw in the hospital who did give up, who stopped going for walks, who didn’t do their therapy exercises, who decided to die–and showed me that he decided not to die. As I have gone through my roughest times, I have known, despite everything else, that surviving is of the highest value. How much do I owe to his example? He repeatedly showed me through childhood that giving up is not noble and that working through the hardest times–starting over from scratch, even–is worth the effort. He has always given me a living example of someone who has repeatedly stared death, hopelessness, and impossibility in the face and said, “No way , I’m not giving up.”
A few years ago, when I told him about being gay, his reaction was one of the most amazing of anyone I knew. After listening and thinking for a little while, he started to talk about what it was like to come back from World War II and to feel like there was a monster in him, a sense of perpetual unease and anger. Today, we might call it post-traumatic stress. In those days, beyond a two-week trip home by ship, there was no help for soldiers adjusting from war to civilian life. He lived with the beast of his war training and experiences haunting him like a shadow over his waking and sleeping moments for nearly twenty years. He was around 40 when it finally lifted. He explains that one day, he just noticed that it was gone, that the pressure had cleared away. I cannot say this enough: that is EXACTLY what it was like for me. One day, my existence was hunched, angry, and distorted by fear; I was lashing out with anger I didn’t even want or understand. The next was like taking a deep breath for the first time in years, without feeling compressed by fear of and anger at everything around me. On that day, six years ago this month, he found the part of his experiences that allowed him to understand something completely different, my experiences, in an instant. It was a moment of compassion, generosity, and intelligence, and I respect him so much for finding that connection between us.
John Fiorini, my grandfather, has shown me through his example what it means to be responsible, loyal, and ethical. He has given me love and understanding, and I love him tremendously, too. He has taught me the importance of family and helped give me a sense of justice, of right and wrong. He has taught me to be patient with people whose views or experiences may be different than mine. He has given me much of my humor, intelligence, and creativity. Along with my parents and grandmother–my Nonni–he helped me become who I am, and I am grateful for all he has given me.
Nonno, I’m so glad I have you.
Friday, August 12, 2005
The school where I teach is in the midst of a powerful process of renewal and restructuring that began in earnest two years ago but has been in planning and preparation for about five years. Our principal often says to faculty and students, “We’re going to make this the best school in the state of Vermont.” That statement used to earn laughs from students who, upon my arrival in 2000, told me we were the “dumb school”, and incorrectly assumed that I didn’t get any other job offers. In 2005, things are significantly different. Her statement may correctly be understood to mean that we are striving to be the most flexible, adaptive, student-centered purveyors of meaningful, rigorous education that we can be. In order to create such a degree of cultural shift within a public school, we as teachers have had to undertake a thorough re-conception of the purpose and type of work we wish to do. The workings of the school, as well as mission, tone, and climate must all shift. We could not accomplish this solely by administrative edict or by the desires of a small group of faculty or community members. As I have learned from my experiences, true meaningful renewal comes from all interested parties engaging in individual, small collective, and major systemic action to achieve a common essential outcome. And simply changing one or two factors that affect teaching and learning will not make for education reform; change must go in some way to the core of how things work in a school.
At our school, one of the driving forces for this change has been the formation of interdisciplinary teaching teams, which have a non-traditional structure. These teams came about as a way of addressing several problems that plagued the poor, rural school: low academic achievement, bad behavior, and the lack of a consistent safety net for students in crisis. One part of the identity crisis of the school involved the inability of a small high school to offer a great variety of electives and honors courses. This was coupled with a sense that the courses in existence were not sufficiently rigorous. As a small high school, we had four main departments (English, social studies, math, and science), each staffed with two teachers. Each department acted individually and no funding was available to increase department sizes. We wondered how we might offer a more rigorous curriculum, more choice, and more relevance. At the same time, we were dealing with issues related to socioeconomic factors; many students felt little motivation to engage in class or behave appropriately in class. Unaddressed, problematic situations at home have a disastrous effect on school performance. Though our school is small and most high school teachers know most students by name, the availability of time and manpower for teachers to contact families, track student issues, and support students is about as limited as in any other school. How might we create a more effective student support system, we wondered?
With the goals of more choice, more engagement, more student support and accountability, better behavior, and more serious academics, we looked at two model interdisciplinary courses that seemed to be working, American Studies (English/history) and Living Systems (biology/history), as successful models of interdisciplinary teaching that engaged and motivated students. How might we build upon the strengths of these programs? We decided to build more choice by eliminating tracking at grades 9 and 10; to enhance engagement by teaching core subjects in an interdisciplinary fashion that would eliminate artificial divisions of knowledge areas and allow for a more relevant, action-oriented curriculum; to provide academic challenges through this more integrated, individualized curriculum; to deal with the issue of inadequate choice by providing fewer but broader-based courses that could more flexibly adapt to a student’s particular interests; to increase support for students by teaming teachers with shared student loads; and to facilitate both planning and student support, including meeting with parents, through shared planning time and including all teachers in the Educational Support Team (EST) process. Building upon the experience of forty years of teaming in Vermont’s middle schools, we established the Core system, whereby three teachers (in English, social studies, and science) would provide a common core learning experience to students in each grade 9 and 10. The three core teachers would comprise the foundation of each grade’s EST and would approach the several disciplines through an integrated, thematic approach. (Other innovations at the time included the introduction of an integrated, standards-based math program and the development of a formal alternative program and the less structured offering of on-line courses.)
Those of us involved in constituting the Cores were aware that we would be working closely together all the time; we were perhaps less aware that these new Cores would become the dominant structure of organizing teachers at the high school level. Creating interdisciplinary curricula and working collectively as an EST group required teachers, and occasionally instructional assistants, to forsake autonomy in the areas most crucial to students’ success: the social/emotional and the intellectual.
The practical aspect of these teams is that they are not arbitrary; collegiality and collaboration are intimately linked to other aspects of our professional responsibilities. For example, we could have chosen to use a less formal structure, such as having teachers voluntarily meet periodically to discuss student issues. Beyond “doing what’s best for kids”, which can be a powerful motivator but not necessarily a particularly organized one, a casual effort to improve coordination for the good of the students may have lacked the immediacy to bring teachers into intentional collaboration. Instead, the structure around us changed–or, it changed with our input as well as administrative direction–which necessitated our engagement with each other; under the new structure of teamed classes, the success of both the academic program and students is now largely dependent on the collaboration of the educators in each team. With this collective organization comes power, flexibility, and responsibility.
The first link, academics, is hardly casual in our new organizational system. At the Core 10 level, our curriculum is thematic. We all work together to coordinate time and activities around a few central themes: cultural and ecological sustainability, and the interdependence of living things. As broad categories, these themes allow a diverse, wide-ranging curriculum full of opportunities for relevant activities, the addressing of various learning styles, and the thorough inclusion of specific content in life science, world history/social studies, writing and literature. Though we sometimes teach as individuals, we must coordinate our activities and they must be relevant to our themes in order for students to meet our overall course goal of understanding sustainability and interdependence. Further impetus for meaningful coordination comes from the fact that we must model pedagogical and curricular interdependence in order for students to best understand the interdependent elements everywhere around them.
Our second, built-in tie to building a strong community of practice is our joint role in the EST. In previous years, EST had been the domain of the nurse and guidance counselors, who issued lists of accommodations for students covered under educational support plans. Under our new structure, our Core 10 team became chiefly responsible for determining action related to student needs. Math and other teachers were included as well, but meetings were scheduled around the availability of Core teachers. As a team, working together with a group of students for one-third of the school day, we were able to share and build on each other’s insights. This brought immediacy to our community of practice because of our identical student loads and frequent informal discussion of concerns and frustrations on a daily basis. As the core of the formal EST structure, our daily and informal interactions took on new significance as we were given control of the situation and were required to take collective action regarding the success of our students. We share responsibility and we share consequences. The result is that even our least formal discussion takes on greater significance and immediacy.
Creating a new paradigm for teaching–wherein educators think, work, and learn with each other to form a community that best supports the learning and growth of all students and educators within it–requires making deliberate, intentional changes to the entire system, from the applied to the conceptual. Change and renewal are not haphazard activities that can be accomplished by the appearance of activity. In my experience, a more effective approach is to invest in the expertise of the teachers who do the daily work with students and to permit wholesale reform and reorganization on the classroom level. If reform is linked not only to teacher duties, but to sharing the responsibility and consequences for the curriculum and success of students, the stakes are raised in a way that encourages each of us to bring out his or her flexibility, creativity, and innovation. And successful collaboration, which creates ownership in the collective and individual participants, as it has on my teaching team, can lead to a gradual improvement in attitudes, school climate, behavior, engagement, and achievement. In this more holistic way, educational reform is structured so that individual educators, rather than abstract institutions, come to embody the reform and provide it with the sustenance and immediacy that it requires to create meaningful change.
Tuesday, July 26, 2005
On the heels of the appointment of Benedict XVI, who promises to take the church back from the nineteenth century to the fourteenth, and of George W. Bush, who’d like to return us to the pre-Roosevelt 1930s, we are about to see the Supreme Court make a sharp turn to the right, perhaps aiding Bush in his return to the harsh old times, around when my grandparents were born. How did this happen?
Liberal groups were beseeching the president to appoint a moderate conservative in the mold of Sandra Day O’Connor. Yeah, right. Why should he? George W. Bush is a man who knows no accountability to the American people. He has scarcely been stopped before; why should he expect any less now? Hello, there, Democrats! You’ve let him get away with the PATRIOT Act, No Child Left Behind, tax rebates for millionaires and billionaires, reductions in Medicare/Medicaid, public money to religiously-based organizations, abstinence-only education, the abortion Gag Rule, and not signing on to the Kyoto Protocol to fight global warming. Of course, there are the biggies, too: lying to the gullible nation in order to start a war with Iraq is at the top. So is alienating the U.S. from the global community. And placing us on the edge of drilling for oil in Alaska. And then there’s passing laws that will regulate industry less and allow more mercury into our water and more carbon dioxide into our air. And appointing a trophy hunter to oversee wildlife on public lands. And right wing revenants to the federal judiciary.
Why should we expect anything less strident when it comes to the Supreme Court? We shouldn’t. Incidentally, in his land of no accountability, where hubris and machismo and the inability to adapt are repeatedly rewarded, why should he fire Karl Rove? The answer? He shouldn’t.
When I think about the Supreme Court, I imagine a liberal’s tragedy of errors. Liberals were blessed by Eisenhower’s appointment of long-lived moderate-to-liberal justices. But when Lyndon Johnson sacrificed the Great Society for the Vietnam War, he was destined to lose the presidency. Then Robert Kennedy was shot, and Chief Justice Earl Warren freaked out and realized he didn’t want Nixon to appoint his successor. He resigned; Johnson nominated scandal-plagued Abe Fortas; and Nixon found himself replacing both Warren and Fortas. So, Democrats, we have Johnson selling out the idea of a liberal society, Kennedy shot down, Johnson’s and Warren’s poor planning. Conceivably, without these disasters, we would have been spared a third of a century of William “Brown vs. Board was wrong” Rehnquist and contemplation of his current demise. (It amused me to see headlines saying he has no plans to retire. Let’s just write the honest truth: “Rehnquist Pledges to Die in Office”.)
Then, twice, liberals have gained a voice on the court by sheer dumb luck. Ford appoint John Paul Stevens, a true maverick with a strong liberal streak; and Bush the first was too scared to appoint someone who had a record, so we have David Souter, who ranges from a moderate conservative to liberal. Thanks, Republicans! So nice of you to keep that 5-4 balance in tact for us when we couldn’t do it ourselves!
Perhaps the saddest moment was when civil rights forefather Thurgood Marshall, elderly, ill, and anticipating (as most folks did in 1990) a Bush reelection in 1992, retired, allowing his record to be desecrated by conservative purveyor of alleged (how I hate that word) sexual harassment, Clarence Thomas. I remember that Edward Kennedy voted for him. I was stunned that, out of fear of rejecting a black justice, a heavily Democratic Senate would approve a man so clearly hostile to the causes of women, minorities, and the poor. If Marshall had done what Rehnquist is doing–held on til death–Clinton would have named his successor, and it would have created an opportunity for a real liberal to win easy confirmation to the court. (Whether Clinton would have seized the opportunity is another question.) The same was true of William Brennan, who seemed to have given up in his old age as the reelection of the elder Bush seemed inevitable.
Then comes 2000, when the Supreme Court got to decide the election, the bare majority tilted toward the thief from the party whose presidents had appointed seven of the nine justices. In retrospect, that decision caused me to lose respect for Justice O’Connor. If she were, indeed, the reasonable, centrist justice celebrated in the media lately, how could she have cast a deciding vote for election fraud? As with most people who swing with the wind, a moment of moral crisis often finds them too weak to resist the dominating power of corruption. I am further pressed to wonder: if she expected her retirement was imminent (her husband was already sick), why didn’t she retire in 2004 to assure Bush the replacement of her successor? Is there any chance that she was hoping for Kerry to replace her with a justice more likely to be moderate, in her own image? Why doesn’t the media, with all their hours of idle chatter, speculate about juicy questions like this?
So, today, thanks to the poor timing of Warren, Marshall, and Brennan, and due to the gutlessness of the Democrats who failed to prevent the confirmation of Thomas, we sit poised on the brink of a takeover of the Supreme Court by radical right wing conservatives. Should we be surprised? Certainly not. Might we suspect that the impending change to the court is anything other than the culmination of a well-organized, decades-long plan? Probably not. That’s why it’s time for liberals, especially the Democrats among them, to begin putting together a plan of their own, and the begin acting on it with the utmost urgency.
Thursday, July 14, 2005
That’s the best conclusion I could make after casual conversations recently with two men who have sons stationed in the Middle East. As someone firmly against the war, and with no close friends who support the war, I look at the issue of war in Iraq and Afghanistan not through the lens of visceral fear and anxiety over loved ones, but as a question of right and wrong.
Shortly after the U.S. attacked Afghanistan and well before the invasion of Iraq, I knew that these wars were another instance of a rich man using poor people to protect the purported “interests” of the U.S.–which were actually just the assets of billionaires and multi-millionaires, people content to exploit the beauty, resources, and people of the earth for their own greed. Homeland security, for the most part, was the ruse under which such exploitation would again be possible.
I also want to be clear that I don’t particularly think that peace is patriotic and that I am not a patriot. I don’t feel the need to make excuses for my belief in peace or to assimilate it within the current language of patriotism. I don’t believe that nationalism or jingoism–the real names for patriotism, I believe–are healthy for anyone. They are bad for the environment and the health of the planet, bad for the quality of life in communities, and bad for the rights of each individuals to shape his or her own mind and existence. Exploitation is the root, base, and defining factor of what we call civilization–a concept intimately linked with the control of wealth, which today exists as capitalism. So, I’m not a patriot and I really don’t care who is one. Neither am I a hero, nor do I think the concept of a hero as a rescuer is a particularly healthy one.
So, when thinking about the children of these men I met, I began to frame the issue as one of work. I don’t mean simply to confine this to the idea of man as laborer or as employee, but to look more broadly, in a nearly religious sense, at all we do (our deeds) and to see them as work. We call what we do “good works and deeds” or “evil deeds”, and each of us has a “life’s work” to do. With any luck, we all hope that our contribution to the world will be positive and meaningful. We compare our work to our beliefs and values, and determine whether our work has worth.
As a teacher, I frequently reflect on my work and wonder, is it valuable? Am I serving a worthwhile community? Am I teaching according to my values? Does my job integrate well with the values of my life, or do I have to check my values at the door when I go to work? Does my work fit with my goals for society and the world? Am I growing in relationship to my values–patience, tolerance, flexibility, for instance–through my work?
I believe that people in the service of the country are doing so because of deeply held beliefs that their work will do similar things: help spread their goals for society and the world, make themselves better individuals, help serve a community, affirm their values. Spreading freedom might be their goal. Or, they may be trying to assure that innocent individuals–children not unlike their own, for example–are safe and secure. They may desire to travel, to experience new cultures, to challenge everything they’ve ever known and believed, to discover their own limits–physical, spiritual, and psychological. All of these goals are legitimate uses of our time as human beings. They reflect the curiosity, generosity, idealism, and goodness any person should be proud to maintain and work for.
Hence my outrage at George W. Bush and his wealthy cadre of capitalist friends who are exploiting the earnest goodness of American service members. While Bush takes weeks and weeks of vacations, while his daughters party on, while Dick Cheney’s Halliburton rakes in the dough, thousands of honest young Americans die under hostile fire in the heat of deserts far from loved ones. Yet, for all their sacrifices, service members ask only that their mission be worthwhile, that it begin and end with the values they hold dear. And George W. Bush and friends have taken advantage of those good intentions. They have pushed American service members into battle for the sake of corporate greed, easy markets, and profits that only the wealthiest few will ever share. These are the only reasons we ever go to war, but manipulation of emotions and values are the way leaders continue to make exploitation palatable to American citizens, their primary victims.
Bush himself cannot properly defend the war because all his expressed reasons–freedom, democracy, security–are founded on a lie. He cannot state the real reason for this war or any war, which is uninterrupted extraordinary wealth for a small class of individuals. His cheerleading will never make sense until his true intentions become clear, and continued occupation of Iraq would be impossible were the truth revealed.
Having founded his war on one set of fallacies, Bush and his government must perform yet one more manipulative act of trickery on service members and civilians. The government must convince us that we can only be responsible citizens if we believe their lie. They must deceive us into believing that knowing and speaking the truth make us evil and in opposition to the soldiers risking their lives abroad. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite. Bush and his government are inimical to America’s military. Those against the war, and war in general, are the best friends America’s servicemembers could have.
Monday, July 04, 2005
Crash seems to be driven by three main elements. The first is the premise: a number of Los Angeles residents, generally living in a state of alienation, crash into each other, physically and figuratively. A plethora of subplots are provided by a host of characters: the district attorney and his wife, two carjackers, a movie producer and his wife, two police officers and a father, a health care worker, a smuggler, a detective and his mother, a locksmith and his family, and a shopkeeper and his family. While such arrangements in other films may leave me lost and confused, Crash makes no such mistakes. Each story intertwines with several others, showing how, in the absence of understanding, people from disparate backgrounds continue to have profound effects on one another.
A second element is race in America. The characterizations only begin to take shape if I mention that it’s a white D.A., a black car jacker, a light-complexioned black movie producer, a Persian shopkeeper, a Latina housekeeper, an Asian... you get the picture. The show includes racially-based statements of all sorts, from mild epithets to both subtle and direct insults that provoke a varying degree of cringes. Crash jumps headlong into racial issues, at times providing parodies of both itself and the challenges of tolerance and political correctness. It was a bit irritating, in a theater stocked with aging hippies, to hear audience members hissing and commenting on some of the initial slurs. As their relevance to the show and the depth of characterizations became clear, however, pithy expressions of tolerance gave way to the silence earned by the complexity of the film.
Without the third element of violence–or really, the fragility of life– would not move as it does, with constant immediacy. The show begins with a car accident and the discovery of a dead body. Then, the setting returns to the previous day, and nearly the rest of the film builds to the scene where the movie started. While it’s clear that at least one person has to die, it’s entirely unclear as to whom that will be. Guns, accidents (both vehicular and individual), and homocidal intentions permeate the lives of the characters. While the plot can be an emotional roller coaster, sometimes dancing on the edge of Hollywood artificiality and feeling free to tinker with our emotions, each turn of events is ultimately rooted in the motivation of the individual characters.
The only exception is that one character, a health care worker played by Loretta Devine, seems to derive all of her motivation from an aggregate frustration with racism in America, and is set off by a caller telling her that her name, Shanequa, explains her attitude. Unfortunately, she lacks a personal story and the depth of other characters, and when she weaves back into the story at the end, it’s random in a way that is disappointing in light of the way the rest of the film comes together. This would be the fault of the writers, however, as Devine’s performance is as articulate and evocative as ever.
It is the complexity of nearly every character in Crash, however, that makes this story so gripping and worthwhile. There are no good guys and no bad guys. The best-intentioned characters take the most ill-considered actions, and the worst-intentioned are fully developed and can elicit sympathy as they become tangled in the ironies and contradictions of their own circumstances.
This movie doesn’t rest. It pulls the audience along as it carefully threads each character’s story into those of the others, and it jars us into sudden awareness with the kind of moral and ethical conflicts we face every day. Crash is well-written and tells an important story. It is open, non-didactic, and unwilling to make judgments on the issues of race and violence. Go see it, and take umbrage in a film that gives each member of the audience enough grist to come to individual conclusions, and better yet, that encourages the observer to dwell in complexity and avoid simplistic conclusions about what are, literally and figuratively, too often seen as black and white issues.
Friday, June 17, 2005
Willoughby is located in the town of Westmore, a town so small that it doesn't even have its own school. It's out in the Northeast Kingdom, part way between Lyndonville, Island Pond, and Newport. The community church along the lake has chimes that ring at nine in the evening. I can imagine children being lulled to sleep by them after packed summer days in the sun and water.
The first few times I'd heard of the lake were from several people saying it was the most beautiful spot in Vermont. I'd also heard that the sister camp of the boys camp where I worked summers during college used to be located there. Photographs of the now relocated Songadeewin showed broad fields leading down to a lake surrounded by sharp mountains.
Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of Lake Willoughby is the way it is surrounded by peaks pushed up by the glaciers as they carved the lakebed deep into the ground. The main two peaks that surround it have names that lead to their own stories, Mt. Pisgah and Mt. Hor. In places, these peaks fall directly into the lake as sheer cliffs.
I've heard the lake is located at about the southern edge of the advance of the glaciers during the last ice age, and that this is what makes the lake so deep. On a visit to a friend's camp there earlier this spring, her boyfriend and I traded stories on the depth of the lake, making up progressively wilder scenarios, and feigning disbelief when another friend brought over a map of the lake, indicating that it is only about a hundred feet deep.
I'd heard it was over 300 feet deep.
Well, I heard that it was so deep, that the government couldn't measure it when they tried to back in the '40s, that their submarines got lost in the clouded depths.
Didn't it used to be a dumping ground for the mafia? A great place for someone in cement shoes never to be heard from again?
The girlfriend chimed in: they say there's an underground waterway that connects this lake with Caspian Lake and Lake Memphremagog, and that's how sea monsters travel between the lakes.
Like Willy? (Willy being Willoughby's local sea creature, akin to the Loch Ness Monster or Champ on Lake Champlain.)
Its depth and its sheltered location between the mountains add to its renown as the coldest lake in Vermont. I felt blessed to swim in Willoughby for the first time last summer, when a classmate and I broke away from the sweltering August heat during a course in AP English we were taking at nearby St. Johnsbury Academy. At the northern edge of the lake is a state beach where all sorts of folks--locals and summer people--mix, take in the sun, and catch a swim. In August, it was cool and refreshing, but not impossibly cold. Another nice feature of the lake is that it takes a while to drop off along the northern and eastern edges, so one can easily wade out at quite a distance to cool off.
The length and breadth of Willoughby also make it a fine place for canoeing and kayaking, though its location between the mountains can turn it into a bit of a wind tunnel. Exploring the edges of the lake is worthwhile, though, especially as the terrain varies from frightening cliffs to calm, rolling hills. While parts of the lake are surrounded by camps, a few garishly new, many other sections are completely undeveloped, and the hills and mountains all around are, in summer, an uninterrupted expanse of green.
I have barely begun to explore the area on foot. I hope to make it to the top of one of those mountains--Pisgah or Hor, I don't know which is which yet--to get a new view on the amazing expanse of the valley. On my last visit, a short, moderate hike brought me and friends to a waterfall where the pooled springs must offer a tempting dip in the summertime. I've heard the the lake offers several other hikes, from moderate to strenuous, and even a nude beach.
I expect I'll make it up there at least once more this summer. For me, Willoughby has become a sort of pilgrimage destination, one I must make from time to time, both for its own beauty and power, and to indulge in the sense of gratitude that I feel for living in this beautiful state.
Tuesday, May 31, 2005
When I was in college, I had a few friends who suffered what I suspected were breakdowns. One of these friends took some time off from school. He later returned looking kind of shell shocked. In fact, with the distance of a decade, I wonder whether he might have experienced a shock of another kind.
One summer, we worked together. I remember I thought he might be gay and a potential romantic interest. Nothing came of it. He was serious, earnest, and kind. I could share my imagination with him. After his time away, he was a different guy. His speech was more halting, he seemed more distant, and he had a disconcerting wildness in his eyes from time to time. We still keep in touch occasionally.
Another student, a young woman, took some time off, as well. For a while, she lived near campus. I remember visiting the house where she was renting. It was an enormous old Victorian in the process of being converted into a satellite location of a prosperous local inn. That Friday of my visit, we explored the many cold rooms with their built in fixtures and large windows. We went into the attic until my friend became spooked. I went exploring in the cellar. I wanted to know every inch of that house. That same house later became the home of my dreams. I imagined young sons and daughters of mine inhabiting the rooms and living a storybook childhood. I transposed the house onto the rocky cliffs of Maine; I was enchanted.
That same night, we made supper in the ancient kitchen. My friend was familiar with whole foods and co-op shopping long before I was, and I was enthralled with the earthy, organic authenticity of it all. Making food was a deep pleasure for me.
I remember an early morning trip to a neighboring campus where my friend picked up a used standard transmission Honda hatchback station wagon. I went along because I could–just barely–drive the stick shift for her.
This friend of mine was always shy. She was kind and she often had difficulty putting her frustrations into words. She was ancestrally Jewish and came from New York. If I’d been straight, I would say I had a crush on her; from my position, I simply enjoyed her as a fascinating friend.
Time passed, and we fell out of contact. A mutual friend informed me that she had joined a cult near New York City, that her parents were distraught, and that contacting her had become impossible.
During all this time (consisting of my sophomore and junior years), I spent each day laboring under a burden so enormous that, a friend pointed out when I spoke of it recently, it’s amazing that I was able to complete any of my work for classes. Part of the burden came, I’m sure, from struggling with being gay. I thought being gay would be the end of my world, and I fought it with all the emotional and psychological energy I could muster. My power in these realms, I discovered, is enormous. My college advisor once suggested to me that my emotional mind was so powerful that, if I could harness it for positive thinking, I would have amazing capabilities.
I was also always a sensitive kid, and a bit dark. My mother can recount stories of my youthful sensitivity. My favorite is a bit more superficial and more humorous. I remember going to a “sticks and pucks” pre-hockey league for very young boys. After a trial skate or two, my parents asked me whether I would like to continue with the lessons. No way, I replied, and complained of how barbaric the whole thing was, in second grade words, of course.
I remember a summer vacation by the shore in Rockport, Massachusetts. As we walked along the wharf in the early evening, my mother laughed. She was having such fun! I thought, she’s such a good-time gal – I don’t know where I got that phrase – and I don’t know what I’d do if she died. I was always performing obsessive rituals in the hope that they would ward off an untimely death for my mother.
By sixth grade, I was almost completely isolated. I used to spend recess lonely, walking the farthest reaches of the playground while every other boy in my grade played football with the male sixth grade teacher. I remember struggling to comprehend my feelings. I didn’t know what to make of them.
That loneliness would be echoed when I headed to college, and initially, it sent me reeling. At first, I did what I always did: I buckled down and hid in my homework. My grades were good.
By the second semester, I had to drop a class and my grades sunk. The saddest day of my freshman year was Super Bowl Sunday 1993. I was ready to give out. I bawled to my parents on the phone. I was unable to wrestle away the loneliness. For the rest of the semester, I would spend Sunday afternoons by my computer, missing my parents. I wanted to live in a house with a family, not as an independent, solitary pseudo-grown-up in a dorm.
My sophomore year, I became gradually more obsessed with fighting my own homosexuality. Having a girlfriend and my first sexual experiences was interesting, but I couldn’t sustain the attraction. That summer, I returned to the camp where I had worked the previous year, but I became lost in my own sad thoughts much of the time. My doubts impaired my ability to work easily with the kids and my lack of confidence showed.
By my junior fall, I needed to start every morning in the shower talking myself into functionality. Finally, I admitted being gay and that it was possibly tolerable. I managed to connect with a friend of mine and have my first gay experiences. He made two brief trips to my parents’ house, even; I enjoyed walking on the line of acceptability. I wanted to tell my parents. He left for a study abroad. We had plans to rendez-vous that never worked out. I descended into an emotional hell. I had my first flush time of a fairly open gay life on campus. I spent spring semester celibate but active. Things between me and my first boyfriend became awkward through the mail; I became paranoid and suspicious and he finally wrote me off. I convulsed emotionally and suffered from paranoia.
I started a relationship with the woman whom I would marry and divorce. I lived off campus with her during my senior year. Each morning, again, I would awake in terror in agony. I would go to her room, and she would talk me into the ability to face the day. She would spend evening after evening talking with me, carefully reasoning me out of my paranoia and hysteria – first about my ex-boyfriend, then about an unending myriad of anxieties. She was patient and kind; my love with her was sincere.
During this time, I began to confront more and more what I referred to as “the aches”. Today, untraceable body aches are listed as a sign of depression. In 1995, they weren’t on the literature I looked at. I was sure I had a horrible disease. Cancer? AIDS? Something else debilitating?
Even today, I have to talk myself out of such anxieties–lately it’s been Parkinson’s. The aches went on into my post-graduate year in Boston and into my life in Vermont. When I was distracted and socially involved or working on a serious intellectual challenge, I forgot the aches. In my quiet moments, they were nearly paralyzing and were terrorizing harbingers of illness and death. I could barely move; somehow, I kept going.
During a required physical exam in the fall of 1998, I finally cracked and told the doctor about my hypochondria. He probed further and I gushed forth with what I deemed a shameful recounting of my obsessiveness, anxiety, and mystery aches. He prescribed medication – I remember starting it on December first – and the aches gradually went away. It was miraculous; I could function again.
During the spring and summer of 2003, an ex-partner encouraged me to quit my medication. I tried it, and the old, familiar terrors, paralysis, untraceable pains, and unremitting fear returned. As my ex-wife had done, he walked me through my mornings, got me out the door, and was my crutch in the evening. When it was clear that a relationship with him was hazardous to me for other reasons, I broke up with him, and finally succeeded in ending things on the third try. But then I was alone. I became a nervous wreck. My body shook all the time. I was seized with terror whenever I was alone. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t talk to friends, family, or co-workers without edging on hysteria.
My family and some of my friends were loving and kind. My parents were tremendously frightened, as I was relying on them in my worst moments of panic. There was no significant other to buffer the onslaught of my despair and emotions. Many people didn’t understand, and I lost some friends. Finally, I started a new medication. I began a slow, slow crawl out of despair. Most mornings, I would wake up an anxious wreck. Conversation with my housemate was an invaluable life raft, helping me get emotionally upright in the mornings. She helped me laugh at myself just when I needed to. Nonetheless, any disruption to my routine could start a panic attack, and I had special prescription medication for those occasions, as well.
There were days when I taught classes barely able to speak without stumbling over my words. But I kept on going with the support of my principal and our lead guidance counselor.
Today, I feel small shadows of that anxiety many days, but I am managing to stay well connected with people who give me a sense of belonging and value. I work on my individual, interior life with the help of a long-term therapist–and the journey is intellectually exciting as well as emotionally necessary. I do not dread time alone. Sometimes, I respect my own mind, body, and personality. Sometimes, my medication makes me shaky; if I drink caffeine, I can nearly start stuttering! Often, I astound myself at how well I manage despite the internal vibrations of my mind and pulse that seem to threaten to take over and shake me to the ground.
I don’t know how I manage to persevere. Maybe it is that incredibly powerful emotional mind my advisor spoke of. But I remember thinking many times that the difference between my two friends’ inability to hold on and my own ability to continue seemed so fragile and undefined. I was glad I was on the functional side of the line; I was humbled and sometimes scared by the subtle differences of mind that allowed me to continue in society where others cannot. I do not believe this makes me superior, though; only slightly better adapted to modern life. Modern culture –with its pace, pressure, intolerance, violence and waste –make survival as a different, sensitive person difficult and, at times, intensely painful.
I am currently experiencing a strong upswing in my life, but I am always acutely aware of the presence of depression and anxiety in my life. I look forward and move on, but with a profound sense of my fragility.
Saturday, May 21, 2005
It’s taken me six months to start coming to terms with what happened this fall. At first, I was just too shocked to know what to say. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I couldn’t believe you would give up on things the way you did. That you would be the waffler they all said you were.
With Howard gone, I agreed to be with you. I believed folks when they said you would fill that space in my heart, that you would try harder to give me what I need. I figured you would ignore those others, that even though you were more like them, that you could be with someone like me. But you must understand, I loved Howard more than any of the guys in the gang. I knew he wasn’t perfect, but I liked his spunk and his honesty. He agreed to a civil union, so long as the ceremony was in private. I didn’t like everything he insisted on, but I could live with it. And he was so intelligent–not unlike you–and spoke with such conviction, against the war especially. I admired that about him.
But with him gone and with no where else to turn, I felt my choice was between you and independence. And I thought, for the good of everyone involved, that you could give me what I needed. But I never loved you. And I knew you well before Howard, though hardly as well. We go back twenty years; Howard and I were involved for less than half that. When I knew you best, a decade ago, I thought you shared my goals and would stick to your principles. But people were right: you never could quite make up your mind. You would fight in a war and then oppose it. You would speak in favor of a cause but then turn your back on your friends–like all the women we know who need control over their own bodies–when the pressure was on.
You know, the problem with you is that you have no courage. Given what you went through in Vietnam, most of us figured you had the gumption to stand by your principles and identify yourself with whatever people and causes you wanted. But you’ve lost something. Or maybe you never had it. These days, you’re always so busy looking over your shoulder, wondering what other people are thinking. Always, “That’s too weird,” and “Now, now, let’s be polite.” And look where your damn politeness got you.
As things went along, you made me feel like a freak. Am I welcome in your church or not? Do you want to be seen in public with me or not? I paid my share of the bills, just like I did with Howard, but sometimes I think that’s all you wanted: my unconditional support. Well, it’s a two way street, John, and you failed to treat me as a real person and to deliver on your promise to make things better. We talked of commitment, and then the court in your home town said it would be legal for guys like us to marry, and you told me you weren’t interested, that we should stick with getting a civil union in Vermont. That took no guts.
The end came last fall, when you said you’d uproot the bushes so they wouldn’t come up next year. And then, when I thought the job was nearly done, you were gone–and you hadn’t accomplished anything. Now I’ve heard that you’re hanging out with those safe, boring losers you always preferred, but that you might come knocking on my door in the future, hoping for another relationship. Are you nuts? You are so out of my realm of possibilities at this point that I hope you have the good sense to let it go. You’re not what I’m looking for, and I’m sorry I ever thought you were. I’m not jealous, either. I’m mad. I’m angry for trusting you, disappointed by your weak will, and feeling foolish that I sacrificed my independence for you. It wasn’t worth it. You’re not worth it.
Back when I was with Ralph, people used to laugh, say he was goofy and weird, that he wasn’t the kind of guy you commit to. But he never betrayed me or lied to me. At least I knew who he was, and he let me be me. Now that I’m hanging out with folks more like me and avoiding your parties, there are times of hopelessness and confusion, but they’re well worth it. I know who I am and what I believe. And I’ve come to realize it’s better to be faithful to myself and my principles than to sell myself out to someone who will betray my deepest values and not be able to follow through for me in my darkest hour.
You’ve left things a mess, John, but this won’t last forever. I know I deserve better. We all do.