Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Being an American in Murka

In recent years I’ve felt like two parts of my identity have been hijacked from me.

The first is my identity as a Christian. The second is my identity as an American.

Now, the Christian thing is something I’ve talked about before, and my first awareness of it being hijacked was when someone from a different denomination than me, a denomination with slightly different beliefs, and a different piety, saw the cross on my lapel, and asked if I was a “real” Christian…as if the rest of us Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Catholics were chopped liver. And as if we weren’t here first.

And over the course of the past almost 40 years, the rise of these people, who use the catch-all term “Christian”, rather than saying what specific denomination they’re from, have made it very difficult for me to identify as a Christian without also having to say, “But not like them.” It has made me want to let people get to know me well enough to know that I’m not a self-righteous, loudmouthed, jerk before letting on that I’m an active churchgoer.

The American thing is a more recent development. It’s not as recent as the Trump presidency, but the hijacking of that identity, and those who hijacked it are one of the many elements that led to it. Actually, I’m still an American, but I find myself right now living in the bizzaro world version of it known as Murka.

Murka, you know…land of the arrogant, home of the fearful and xenophobic…you know…those people who call themselves Murkans. And for the moment, these Murkans have risen to the top, not like cream, but more like dead fish; leaving me embarrassed to admit that I’m an American, lest someone mistake me for a Murkan. Leaving me with second thoughts about wearing anything with the flag, or flag colors on it, lest someone mistake me for one of those arrogant Murkans who have hijacked the flag I once thought stood for something better.

And yet, if I’m honest, if I remember my American history, I have to admit that we’ve always had our Murkan moments. Even as I try to counter fear-mongerers by reminding them that FDR said that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, I have to remember that that same FDR, out of fear…and racism…signed the executive order that sent thousands of citizens of Japanese descent to concentration camps.[1]

I have to remember that even as Emma Lazarus was writing her poem The Great Colussus, from whence came the famous words “Give me your tired your poor” that are found at the Statue of Liberty, laws were being enacted that either prohibited or severely curtailed immigration from Asia. I guess we were willing to take the tired and poor as long as they were white.

I have to remember that my “family history”, with as much as we say we aspire to something great, and as often as we do attain a greatness that other nations look up to, is filled with many ugly and embarrassing moments as Murkans since 1776 misunderstood what making America great really meant.

I also have to keep in mind that as much as those Murkans seem intent on forgetting or ignoring the lessons of the past, there are many people out there who haven’t forgotten and who have learned. There are people protesting how we’re treating our Muslim citizens, and working to make sure that they don’t get treated like the Japanese under FDR. The press, which has not been silenced, is actively reporting on our misguided and inhumane immigration policy. There are people actively trying to carry on a civil discourse with those who refuse to be civil. And these people exemplify what I believe it means to be an American.

As much as they may want to deny it, I will grudgingly admit that those arrogant and misguided Murkans are my brothers and sisters while we work out this current unpleasantness.

And that, my friends, is what makes me an American…as well as a Christian…and I will wear my red, white, and blue to represent the ideals, and not the miserable failures.

Enjoy the 4th!

[1] Yes, “internment camps” sounds so much less harsh, and doesn’t put us on the same level with the Nazis; but technically, while they weren’t death camps, they were concentration camps.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Enjoy Every Stage

I saw a woman in Price Chopper a few weeks ago with a cute little toddler in her cart. We kept running into each other every other aisle, as we worked the store from one end to the other, but going up and down the aisles in the opposite pattern.

Then one of us must’ve skipped an aisle, because suddenly I found myself heading in the same direction as her, and her cart was blocking my path. She was busy examining something on the shelf, and as I approached the cart with her child in it, I said, “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna run off with her. I’m done. I have a 25-year-old and a 15-year-old, and I don’t want to go back to this stage.”

She smiled and replied with just one word: “Lucky.”

I moved her cart out of my way, went back to my cart, and as I passed the two of them, I was reminded of something I’d thought a few months earlier when one of my Facebook friends posted on how quickly her kids were growing up. And then I turned to her and said:

Some people will tell you to enjoy these days because you’ll never get them back, but I’m gonna tell you something different…you’ll enjoy every stage. You’ll particularly enjoy it when she gets old enough to do things by herself and clean up after herself. So don’t let anyone tell you that you need to hold on to these days.

She smiled again and thanked me. But this bears repeating for all the rest of you with young children who seem to be growing up too fast: You’ll enjoy every stage.

I know parents who seem bound and determined to keep their children as little kids that they can have around the house forever. Little kids who they’re constantly cleaning up after and having to harp on to do things that ought to be done. Parents who are reluctant to give their kids the wings they need in order to successfully fly.

I’m not that parent.

I remember doing the little dance when my oldest daughter (with a bit of bribery) was finally potty trained. I remember doing that same dance when my second daughter mastered that same skill. Oh sure, they were both cute at three years old, but boy, could they make a mess (and a stink) in their pants. I was more than happy to see those days go by.

I have photos of my oldest standing on a stool at age seven to make a cake with the mixer in the kitchen, and was pleased when she finally learned how to cook for herself. I’m still trying to coerce her 15-year-old sister into gaining that same skill.

I remember fighting with the 25-year-old over doing homework when she was in fifth grade, and remember how happy I was when she suddenly became self-motivated in sixth.

I remember how we had to fight with our 15-year-old over practicing piano; and now that it’s been five years since we let her give up lessons, I enjoy the fact that she asks me to write out music for her to play.

Let’s face it, none of us really wants our kids to be five years old forever. Sure, when I look at the old photos, I’d like to go back to visit for a time, but I don’t want to live there again. Life is good with the older, and more responsible versions of my kids.

Even after they’ve successfully flown the nest.

So enjoy every stage, and be glad when they’ve moved on to the next.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

What Are the Odds?

I was at the credit union a few weeks ago, waiting to have some changes made to my account, when I had that worry that I seem to regularly have whenever I enter a bank or a credit union.

Suppose a robbery happens while I’m here?

I’m always a little skittish about going to one of those places because of the fear that I just might end up being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bank robberies do still happen, you know. There’ve been a few in our local paper over the past year. Suppose I end up in the middle of one of them?

But this time was different. I’d been thinking about statistics a bit over the past few weeks, and how we tend to focus on the least likely, most horrible thing, and not the most likely, more mundane thing. This was probably after having seen comedian Hasan Minhaj speak at this year’s Public Libraries Association conference about the infinitesimally small odds of being in a terrorist attack…as opposed to say…being killed in a car accident because you didn’t buckle your seatbelt.

And it’s not just him, who you might think was too close to the issue to be impartial. I know statisticians who say that Americans are absolutely awful at assessing risk; and that, once again, we worry about the least likely absolutely horrible thing, and don’t prepare at all for the avoidable tragedies that are most likely to hit us.

So this time I said to myself, “Shut up and sit down.”

It’s funny that I had to tell myself this, because whenever people come see me at the library, worrying about all the ways they can be hacked by simply going on the Internet, I often tell them that I could worry about the meteor that could fall on my house…but I don’t.

And speaking of librarians, in a recent thread on a librarian Facebook page about how to deal with challenged patrons who are being disruptive, one person said that you should never call the police, because we all know that the police shoot autistic people.

That was it. From anyone else, I might’ve just rolled my eyes and walked away. But this was someone representing a group of people who claim to be all about accurate information. So I said:

Really...has anyone actually looked at the statistics of how many people...black, autistic, white, neurotypical, Martian, whatever...have absolutely fine interactions with the police that don’t end in tragedy, or do we let the few news stories of situations where things went tragically wrong lead us to assume that the bulk of interactions are like that?

They’re called news stories for a reason, you know...because they’re so out of the ordinary and awful. 

Once again…do we let the extremely few really horrible, really attention-getting things lead us to think that they happen way more often than they do? And do we react more to those than to everyday things that we should really be concerned about?

I think so.

Now about that meteor…

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Father's Day Correction

Last month, after taking a little flak about my Mother’s Day piece from people who didn’t exactly have the best relationships with their mothers, I mentioned that someday they should ask me about my relationship with my father, and that I have my own set of familial scars. Immediately, a friend of mine from way back jumped in, saying how wonderfully I turned out for someone who had such a bad father…or that maybe it was a conscious reaction to having such a bad father.

And that’s when I realized that I needed to do a little correcting of the story.

They say that no matter how good or how bad you were, all you’re ever remembered for is what you did last. I have a history teacher friend who says that Richard Nixon might have gone down as one of the 10 greatest presidents had it not been for that little Watergate thing at the end. That overshadowed everything else that he did.

Well, that’s the way it was with my father. The first 18 to 19 years were pretty good, but after that, things went all to hell, and the friends who knew me back then only knew the story from me being up close and personal to when it all fell apart. I didn’t have the perspective then that I do now, and they still only know the story that I told 40 years ago.

So let me say it again…it didn’t always suck. The first 18 or so years with my father were actually quite good. The next three or four became a living hell, followed by about another 10 of peaceful nothingness, and then 18 years of cautious d├ętente. And it was during, and immediately after the years of living hell that my friends from back then heard the stories I was telling at the time. Stories that overshadowed the good stuff that came first.

What was some of the good stuff that came first? Here are a few examples of the important things he taught me:
  • How to read and draw a map.
  • How to use drafting tools.
  • The fact that it’s a promise even if you didn’t specifically use the words “I promise” when you agreed to do it.
  • The idea that the Bible may have been written about God, but it was written by people. People who were influenced by their culture and biases as much as what they thought God might have saying to them.
  • How to use the microfilm reader at the public library.
  • That the first thing you say after you’ve had a car accident is “Are you OK?” not “Oh my car!” (And boy, did my wife get grief for that one when I wrecked her car at a friend’s grandmother’s funeral back in 1986.)
  • Got me started playing piano by ear.
  • That the real cost of something isn’t measured in dollars, but in how many hours you had to work for it. (I always use this measure when people start complaining about how high gas prices have gone up. It almost always works out to take a McDonald’s employee roughly the same amount of time for a gallon of gas now as it did for me back in 1975 when it went up to an unheard of 75¢ a gallon.)
  • Oh…and he was the one who gave me the freedom to basically ride my bike all over the county in middle school, when my mother might have had me tethered to our little town.

I also realized, with a little perspective, that my best parenting moments are based on the best moments of the first 17 years with my father, and not a total avoidance of trying to be anything like him. When I’m laid back about issues with my kids, when I give them a long leash rather than hovering over them like the dreaded helicopter parent, when I encourage them in all their interests, then I’m emulating the best of the Melvin Gatling I knew before 1976.

While avoiding the worst of that last act from 1973 up to then.

Because, you know…it didn’t always suck.

And now that I’ve made that correction to the story, my friends who knew me in the midst of, and right after, hell, will understand that.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

On Religious Freedom

Hang on folks, this is gonna be a long one!

Recently my wife was reading a book that dealt with life among the Puritans, and as she gave me regular snippets of information from it, I was taken back to Mrs Alexander’s 8thgrade History class, in which I learned more about the Puritans than what we previously knew about the “Pilgrims” who came here on the Mayflower.

The thing that stuck in my mind the most, and endured for almost 50 years, was that the Puritans left England in search of religious freedom for themselves…and for the right to persecute those who didn’t believe as they did.

Wow…that seemed contradictory and hypocritical even to this then 13-year-old. Seemed to me that if you wanted religious freedom, you wanted it for everyone, and not just your little group. If you wanted religious freedom, you wanted everyone to have it, and not for your group to be calling the shots for everyone else. And so it was a relief to me when we finally learned about Roger Williams (the Puritan minister, not the pianist) founding the colony of Rhode Island on the ideal of religious freedom.

However, this same then 13-year-old didn’t quite grasp what believing that you have the absolute truth and the absolute moral high ground can do to people. I understand now, and that’s one of the many reasons why I’m an ELCA Lutheran, a member of a denomination that most decidedly doesn’t believe that it has the absolute truth, that absolutely knows that it has screwed up in the past, and will likely do so again in the future. A denomination that takes seriously what Paul said in 1 Corinthians, 13 about how we’re not going to get it perfectly right in this world because right now we’re only seeing as through a glass darkly.

This, while others, like those Puritans, are so sure that they’re right, and are so certain that they have revealed truth, that there’s no room for compromise, and no room for considering what religious freedom means for those who aren’t in their group.

So what does religious freedom mean? I’ll start by telling you a few things that it doesn’t.

It doesn’t mean the freedom to enact and enforce “blue laws” that keep your Sabbath holy, while ignoring the Sabbaths of others, or not taking into account those who have no Sabbath at all.

It doesn’t mean the freedom to chose not to serve those who don’t follow the rules of your religion.

It doesn’t mean the freedom to insist that the tenets of your religion are taught in the public schools.

It doesn’t mean the freedom to insist that books and movies that offend your religious sensibilities are removed from public libraries.

It doesn’t mean the freedom to insist that everyone follow the same strict moral code as your religious group.

It doesn’t mean the freedom to harass members of other religious groups, people who have left your religious group, or people who are members of no religious group at all.

It doesn’t mean the freedom from honest criticism of your beliefs, although it does mean the freedom from being taunted for them.

Most important, it doesn’t mean crying that you’re being “persecuted”, when you’re merely being asked to “play nicely” with those who don’t share your beliefs.

So now, what does religious freedom actually mean?

It means the freedom to worship as you wish, with minimal interference (obviously human sacrifice is out, as is having your service in the middle of the Interstate at rush hour).

It means the freedom to reasonably dress in accordance with your religious codes without your school or job telling you that you can’t.

It means the freedom to reasonably wear your hair in accordance with your religious codes without your school or job telling you that you can’t.

It means the freedom to wear a habit*, bonnet, yarmulke, turban, hijab, or other religious head covering without worrying about someone snatching it off.

It means the freedom from being taunted for your beliefs, although not the freedom for having those beliefs honestly criticized.

And those are just the short lists. 

The big problem with “religious freedom” these days is that laws that were enacted in order to guarantee the rights in the second list are being seen by too many as justification to do the things on the first. As a result, what should be an ideal that we all agree on has become tainted, and is looked up with suspicion by those who feel bludgeoned by it.

But religious freedom should not be something that anyone has any reason to be afraid of. And it’s time for those of us who believe in true religious freedom to start taking the term back, and showing people what it really means.

*Technically a wimple

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Why Should They Listen to Me?

I’ve often been troubled by Bible-thumpers and religious tract-pushers of all kinds. This is, as I’ve alluded to before, one of the many reasons that I’m an ELCA Lutheran. We’ll let you know that we exist, and if you want to know more about us, feel free to ask, and then we’ll tell you all you want to know…but only if you insist.

But getting back to the point I’m trying to work up to, I’ve often been troubled by proselytizers of all kinds. I mean, with so many different people claiming to have the absolute truth about, and inside track to, God, who am I supposed to believe? 

With all the different opinions out there, I sometimes like to apply what I call the “Martian Standard.” That is, if a person from Mars arrived tomorrow, with no cultural baggage…at least no cultural baggage from this planet, what religion would they pick? After listening to everyone’s spiel, who would they decide made the most sense? Would they decide that anyone made sense, or would they just say that it was all nonsense?

And this brings me to me.

Christianity has the concept of “evangelism”, which literally means “to spread the good news.” Let’s ignore for the moment that many so-called “evangelists” are anything but good news, and take the term for what it’s supposed to mean.

I, as a Christian, yes, even as a Lutheran, am supposed to be about spreading the good news. I figure I spread it most effectively by quietly doing good, and letting people be surprised to find out that I’m religious. But let’s take a look at the idea of me actually going out and talking to people about my beliefs. In which case the Martian Standard has me asking:

Why should anyone listen to me?

Really. Why me and not Shoshana? Or Ahmed? Or Yoshi? Or Sanjit? Or any of tons of other people. Why should anyone listen to me, and think that I speak authoritatively for God?

More to the point, if God really wants to get his message to people, if God really wants people to listen, and to know that this isn’t just another Bozo claiming to speak for him, why doesn’t he just do it himself, in a voice that we’ll all know is his?

Many years ago, I read a reprint of a short story that appeared in the August 1948 issue of Cosmopolitan called The Next Voice You Hear. It was about how in the years not too far after the end of World War II, God decided to take over all the radio stations in the world for a short broadcast at the same time every night for a week, to let people know that he was there, and to encourage them to get along with each other and do right by each other.

And this brings me back to my original question: Why should anyone listen to me…a person full of his own biases and misconceptions, who is bound to get things wrong, even with the best of intentions? For that matter, why should anyone listen to Shoshana, Ahmed, Yoshi, or Sanjit?

What I’d really like is to turn on the radio for a week…

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Steel Idol

Another school shooting.

Another damned school shooting.

And the lieutenant governor of Texas had the nerve (but not the courage) to say that the problem is that we have devalued life.

This is partially true…some have devalued life, and placed too much value on the right to own any damn gun they please, and take it anywhere they want.

He bemoaned the lack of religion in schools and our lives. I bemoan the lack of religion that tells us it’s important to protect our children, and trading it for the mess of pottage that is, again, the right to own any damn gun we please, and take it anywhere we want.

You want to talk about the role of religion in the wake of this latest shooting? Fine. I can do that. Aaron and the ancient Hebrews had their idol made of gold in the shape of a calf. We have ours made of steel, in the shape of a gun. And we are sacrificing our children to it.

I thought at first when the usual suspects talked about more armed guards, fewer entrances and exits to schools (a fire hazard), and armed teachers, that they had a failure of imagination, because they couldn’t think of other ways that a shooter with a powerful enough weapon could create massive carnage. I didn’t want to mention how easily that could happen lest I give anyone some horrible ideas. But it turns out that what these people have is a failure of memory…because you might remember that the Las Vegas shooting took place in a way that no security guard could’ve stopped, that decreasing the number of entrances and exits wouldn’t have prevented, and no “good guy” with a gun could’ve ended sooner.

In short, you can make every school in the country an armed camp in order to protect your right to own guns that no one has a chance against, and someone perched up on a hill can still pick people off from a distance.

Then what will you say? Then what solution will you give that involves everything except dealing with the gun problem?

Yes, I admit that there are other issues involved here too. We have a serious anger problem in this country. A serious problem with people thinking that if they don’t get what they want when they want it, someone has to pay for it. And when you combine that anger problem with our gun culture, it’s like combining a lit candle with gasoline. We’re no longer content to just punch someone out, we want to kill them…and we can.

Fortunately, the governor of Texas is a wiser man than his second in command, and wants to put everything on the table in order to prevent this from happening again. Some people doubt that anything will come of this because he’s been known as a strong pro-gun person, but sometimes, as Spock said in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, “Only Nixon can go to China.”

Let’s hope that he’s able to successfully go to China…and is able to come back with enough imagination to destroy this idol made of steel.