Friday, July 30, 2010

Another Trip to LA

(News-Herald, July 29) I recently returned to Los Angeles—not because I love LA, but because it is where my son is. He is the main sight I go to see, and my daughter’s ability to get there for the weekend was an extra double bonus. But the trip was also an educational opportunity for me.
It has been a while since I’ve flown. The airlines are perfecting the fine art of nickel and diming people to death. If a restaurant ran like an airline, the waiter would take your order and then ask, “Now, will you be wanting plates or silverware? It’s a minimal extra fee. And during the meal, would you prefer to balance on this axe handle, or will you be upgrading to our deluxe three-legged stool?”
Sucking the last drop of blood from every airborne stone has probably not helped the other hazard of air travel—fellow passengers. Air travel is by far the best way to encounter many humans who apparently believe that rules are for suckers and consideration is for saps. I never see more people who believe that only they matter than when I am flying.
Once in LA, there were other treats to see. I was traveling with a devoted shopping enthusiast, so I made my first trip to Rodeo Drive. It truly is an awesome monument to conspicuous consumption. Can a dress be worth $5,000 even if it does not walk under its own power nor cure any major diseases? At one gallery, I was tempted to buy my daughter a piece of art—they were having a moving sale and some pieces were marked down a full 10 grand. But then to keep things even I would have had to buy my son a car (and not a Kia, but a Lexus with solid gold bumpers).
One of the things the rich consume conspicuously in LA is space; these shops flaunted their wealth by filling their stores with air, instead of trying to cram maximum merchandise in minimum space. Just about anything looks sophisticated and uncheap when it is flawlessly displayed. Many of these stores looked really cool.
LA is not a particularly great-looking place. The plant life is painfully thirsty and the grass is uniformly brown. But it still contains pockets of great beauty, much of it the result of the same sort of richness and privilege celebrated by Rodeo Drive.
Some is a tad silly. We drove past the edge of Beverly Hills, and there were the famous tree-lined streets and beautiful homes, but there also was a great lumpen silver sculpture that looked like the world’s biggest baked potato.
But we also went walking in Griffith Park. The public park includes an observatory and a tunnel that have both appeared in umpteen movies, but it also includes miles and miles of mountainside trails that provide absolutely amazing views of the city stretched out across the valley.
The park is there because in 1882, Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, having made a huge bundle of money in gold, bought over 4000 acres of LA land. In 1896 he handed over 3000 acres (that’s over five square miles) of that to the people of LA. His conditions for the bequest are worth quoting:
“It must be a place of rest and recreation…for the plain people. I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happier, cleaner and finer city. I wish to pay my debt of duty in this way to the community in which I have prospered”
J. Paul Getty must have had something similar in mind when he created his museum. It is an awesome collection of art housed in a setting of buildings and land that are stunningly beautiful. You cannot turn in any direction without seeing something that makes you want to point or snap a picture or say, “Wow.” And it is completely free.
Neither man was exactly exemplary. Getty was unhappily married five times, while Griffith spent two years in San Quentin for shooting his wife in the head (she lived and was granted a divorce plus custody of their son in a record 4.5 minutes). But they are examples of how people can make lasting and valuable contributions to their communities. Neither contribution is central to LA life, but both make the place better. In that respect, Venangoland is no different from LA—if you want your community to be a better place, figure out how you can use your resources to help make it happen.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are We Still a Christian Nation?

(News-Herald, July 22) I saw it in the polling place where I went to vote- a t-shirt with the motto “This is still a Christian nation.” I’m never sure what to make of that slogan.
First, there’s that word “still,” meant to suggest that our founding fathers established the US as a Christian nation. This remains a noisy point of debate, and as with most such noisy debates, both sides rival Oscar Meyer’s way with b-o-l-o-g-n-a.
Those who insist that the US was founding as a religion-free zone are full of it. Many of our founding fathers (and mothers, too) were solid, devout Christians, many of whom had come to this continent for the express purpose of building a City on a Hill where God would be worshipped Correctly. Those of our founders who were not so religious recognized, at the very least, that the moral influence of Christianity would make for better citizens and leaders. The Christian faith, for better or worse, is an integral part of our history.
However, those who insist the founders intended to create a nation in which leadership and Christianity walked hand in hand, and the Christian faith would be woven into the very fabric of government are also slinging large slabs of lunchmeat. The founders knew their history and in some cases had seen first hand the unholy mess that came out of mixing religion and government, usually with bad results for both (Oliver Cromwell, Spanish Inquisition, Salem witch trials, etc…). They had ample opportunity to install Christianity as an explicit, official part of US government, and they very carefully and deliberately did not.
Many of them tripped over this question: what exactly is the term “Christian nation” supposed to mean, anyway?
The Puritans set Massachusetts up as a Christian nation, and as such they felt free to banish and execute folks who did not worship Jesus properly. And I’m not just talking about witches—Massachusetts executed PA Quakers who insisted on spreading the wrong brand of Christianity and banished members of their own congregation who failed to express the “correct” doctrine. I assume that people who call for a Christian nation are not demanding that the government start deporting and/or executing all non-Christians.
Does it mean “governed by laws based on Biblical statutes”? Because that’s problematic as well, particularly if we go Old Testament, which involves creeping socialism (Leviticus 19:9-10 instruct us to leave part of our crop “for the poor and stranger”) and strict payroll instructions not to hold onto someone’s wages overnight (Leviticus 19:13), just to name two trouble spots.
It might mean a country that recognizes and incorporates the generally agreed-upon principles of Christianity, which will work real nice right up until you have to agree on what, specifically, those principles are. Individual denominations get torn apart by such disagreements. 150 years ago the Baptists splintered over whether or not the Bible supported slavery; today the Episcopal Church is fracturing itself over the Bible’s view of The Gays.
Maybe it’s supposed to mean “a nation where I can express my beliefs without being contradicted or scolded,” but let’s face it—most Christians can’t even get that in their own churches.
Then we get to intra-denominational squabbles. Would a Christian nation recognize the Pope as an infallible voice of God as Catholics (sometimes) do, or would a Christian nation refer to him as the Great Whore of Babylon as some hard-core Protestants do?
Maybe a Christian Nation is one that is predominated by Christians. If so, the numbers aren’t helpful. Waves of studies show that Christians have the same divorce rate, suicide rate, unmarried pregnancy rate as everyone else. The way most Christians live is, apparently, not particularly different from the way everyone else lives.
Trinity College has released the latest results of its thorough and respected survey about religion in American life. The percentage of self-identified Christians was down to 76% in 2008. The center of Catholicism is now in the Southwest; apparently Arizona’s immigration policy will hit the Catholic Church. The fastest growing “religion” is pagan/wiccan.
If a Christian nation is one where Christians are free from oppression, persecution and the threat of death, we’ve done well. Comfy, cushy Americans don’t always appreciate that--the fact that a cashier didn’t say “Merry Christmas” to you does not make you oppressed.
Historically, a [your religion here] country is one where you never have to stand up for your faith because everyone is already pretending to agree with you. I can’t imagine why any Christians would want that.

Friday, July 16, 2010


(News-Herald, July 15) I’m not a big fan of tolerance. Mind you, intolerance stinks. I am inclined to expect the best of people, and I take a certain pride in Venangoland—I think that there is much to love and appreciate about life here. So I find it jarring and embarrassing to hear about someone yelling out a nasty racial slur in one of our neighborhoods. If you call someone the N word or the F word, you are simply dead wrong.
But tolerance is not much of an improvement. Tolerance too often comes with a pricetag. When people say “I’ll tolerate you” that’s shorthand for “I’ll stop giving you the message that you are wrong and bad if you agree to keep delivering that message to yourself” or “I’ll treat you as if you’re good enough as long as you show me you understand that you aren’t.” People who wouldn’t play by these rules are called, historically, “uppity.”
Unraveling the mechanics of intolerance can be tricky, because so many people handle their relationships with other people backwards.
We like to think that we look at someone, weigh his various qualities, and conclude whether we like and respect him or not. But more often, we jump to that conclusion, and then we weigh his qualities based on that. If we like him, we make excuses for all his supposed faults. If we dislike him, we look for particular qualities we can criticize him for.
So I call Pat, a person I really like, “free-spirited and fun.” But Chris, a person who annoys the heck out of me, is “irresponsible and immature.”
You can see this pattern in action in schools. On their way to call Chris a “four-eyed geek,” kids will walk right past six other kids wearing glasses without saying a word. They aren’t picking on Chris because he wears glasses. They’re picking on him because they don’t like him. “Four-eyed geek” is just the particular tool they’ve picked up to smack him with.
The school can create a special program to make students more sensitive to those who wear glasses. It can make rules against using the term “four-eyed geek.” But at the end of the day, that won’t help Chris. They will just pick out something new to insult him with.
All of us believe, to some degree, that there are some people who deserve to be the victims of intolerance. Even champions of tolerance can be vocal about not tolerating intolerant people. It’s not unusual for us to get lectures about not painting all gay or black folk with the same brush, and to get these lectures from people who talk as if all small-town folks are the same (ignorant redneck hicks).
It’s hard to address the roots of intolerance because we often don’t honestly know ourselves. One of the lines drawn in the Great Gay Cultural Debate is the argument that being gay is just not normal and shouldn’t be treated as such. Except that there have been gay people around through all of recorded human history, which means that from a purely historical perspective, gay folks are more “normal” than democracy, fast food, or pants.
One root of intolerance is… intolerance. If you watch school students, you’ll notice that one of the main reasons I decide I don’t like you is that I perceive that you don’t like me. We’ve seen a steady stream of groups claiming to be “under attack,” because, hey, if I’m just defending myself, I’m not being an intolerant bully.
In small towns, we don’t get the full bombarding of cultural messages about which groups we’re supposed to be accepting this week. But we do have the advantage of actually knowing most of the people we deal with. We know Chris—we don’t have to call him “one of Those.” We can do better than reducing folks to imaginary stereotypes. (Well, except for people who didn’t grow up in Venangoland—you know what those people are like.)
Perhaps part of the solution is to be more specific and accurate in our displeasure. Don’t call Chris a four-eyed geek; just say “You annoy the heck out of me.” We can understand Chris as the individual that he is instead of reacting to the characteristics we assume automatically go with his glasses. Things would go better for all of us if we took others as the whole human beings they actually are, rather than merely tolerating them as the people we imagine them to be.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Wedding Traditions

(News-Herald, July 8) Summer is not complete without weddings, and I had the privilege of attending a very nice one recently as a Plus One.
Plus One’s have all the fun at weddings—you don’t know any of these people, so it’s not necessary to sample that special cake that is one layer of class reunion plus one layer of family drama held together with the emotional frosting of fraughtness.
Weddings are loaded with traditions, old and new, official and unofficial, silly and sweet. All of these come with loaded subtext.
Sometimes the subtext is easy to figure out. The bridal subtext might be “Hey, Everybody! Look at Me! Me Me Me Me MEEEEEEEEEE!!” Any bride who starts a sentence with, “It’s my day and I’m entitled to….” just doesn’t understand the situation. Fortunately, it’s also traditional to forgive the bride for saying stupid things under pressure.
In the ceremony, fathers still “give away” their daughters, as if the wedding solemnizes a bill of sale. These days almost everybody gets that this is a teensy bit bizarre, but it’s one of those traditions that has such a powerful link to earlier generations (not to mention to the days when the bride was old enough to think about marriage, but too young to think about sexist patriarchy) that it remains irresistible.
For new traditions, I like the unity candle. Seeing the moms light the family candles is a nice piece of symbolism about the joining of two families, plus it gives the moms something to do while letting everyone get a good look at their outfits.
The only thing almost as obnoxious as self-involved brides are all the friends and family members who believe that the purpose of the occasion is for the bride and groom to publicly rank everyone they know in order of importance.
The correct offer for friends and family is “Whatever will help your special day go most smoothly.” But you have to really mean it, because often the true response to that is “We’ll just be happy to have you there.” In other words, come sit in a pew and be quiet.
Friends and family who insist on being given a place of prominence have led to all sorts of traditions from the made-up job (“Aunt Ethel, we would be so pleased if you would personally guard the punch bowl”) to the person who inserts himself into the reception (“Hey, everybody, listen up. Since I have always been a very important part of the life of my second cousin’s niece twice removed, I thought I should say something today…”). And the world would be a much better place if couples would stop buckling to pressure to lengthen their ceremony by including musical selections by relatives who don’t sing very well.
Divorced guests must behave themselves. When the ceremony gets to the parts about the power of love and the eternal nature of this bond, divorced guests may neither snicker sarcastically nor burst into bitter tears.
Some subtext is hopelessly garbled. Throwing rice symbolized fertility. Birdseed symbolized… small meals? Soap bubbles symbolize cleanliness?
At the reception guests may reveal their uglier sides (particularly if the wedding party takes six hours for pictures). Some traditions are a test—can the couple stand on their own two feet? The clinking glasses are just a way for folks to say, “Look what we can make them do! Dance, puppets, dance!! Bwa-ha-ha!” The cake cutting is even worse. Will you show everyone that your first loyalties are now to each other, or will you bow to peer pressure and entertain guests by demonstrating that your marriage, a few hours old, is just as layered with conflict and power struggles as everyone else’s. When new couples smash cake in each other’s faces, divorced guests get to react visibly.
The modern wedding reception is run by some combination of the photographer and the dj. Select your photographer for two qualities: speed and unobtrusiveness. Photographers can turn a reception into a massive photo op, and couples end up doing a series of things for no purpose other than taking a picture of it. Nobody gets out their wedding album to say, “Hey, remember that time when we posed for the camera?” Make your photographer chase you around.
A good reception dj can sense the mood of the crowd and is personal without trying to be the star of the show. And of course a good reception dj understands one simple fact—nobody is truly married until they’ve done the chicken dance.

Friday, July 02, 2010

A Few Fourth Reminders

(News-Herald, July 1) For Independence Day, here are some reminders of some oft-forgotten notes about our country’s origins.
The French Don’t Always Stink. We like to talk about how we single-handedly secured our own freedom and independence as a nation. But if it weren’t for the French, we’d be singing “God Save the Queen” at the start of every ball game.
The French provided the critical political support of recognition and the practical support of military supplies and advice. The French took a bit of a political leap of faith with a tiny wanna-be country that smart observers expected to get crushed by the mighty British empire. This is particularly remarkable given that it had been barely twenty years since they had been at war with us. George Washington got his first military training fighting against the French, and his most important assistance from a French general.
Amateur Soldiers Aren’t That Great. Yeah, the minutemen grabbed their guns, left their homes, and headed off to fight for independence. Where they drove their leaders crazy. Many of those early volunteers stuck it out, fought hard, and learned to function like a real army. But in many cases, leading the continental army was like herding cats. Hungry, homesick, ornery, ADD-afflicted cats.
Washington’s heroic decision to cross the Delaware on that cold December night was forced, in part, because on January 1 a large chunk of his army’s term was up, and they fully intended to go home regardless of what George had in mind.
Many 18th century politicians disliked the idea of a standing army; professional soldiers had an unfortunate history of taking over countries. But the Revolution convinced many folks that the country would be best served by real, professional soldiers.
The Founding Fathers Weren’t Much Like Family. We often discuss the founding fathers or the framers as if they were a single unified group with one cohesive vision and intent for the country. They weren’t.
Many of them didn’t even like each other. Patrick “Give Me Liberty or Death” Henry thought Washington was a jerk. Pretty much everyone thought Thomas “Common Sense” Paine was a loon. Southern leaders thought the Massachusetts folks were priggish schoolmarms. Northern leaders thought the Southerners were morally deficient libertines.
And the founders themselves were (like real, live humans) changed by time and events. Nobody ever fought harder for a peaceful reconciliation with Great Britain than Ben Franklin, until he became convinced it was hopeless. Jefferson and Adams were best buds—except for the couple of decades when they hated each other and didn’t speak.
There isn’t a single aspect of our nation that we take for granted—a federal government with its own capital, national currency, a supreme court, every single line of the constitution—that wasn’t violently opposed by at least one “founding father.” And speaking of opposition…
Politics Have Always Been Ugly. We may imagine that modern politics are ugly, but if anything they are cleaner now than in the first fifty years of our country’s existence. Jefferson and Adams were slandered and libeled to astonishing degrees by each other’s backers, accused of everything from treason to moral turpitude. Members of Congress occasionally tried to physically beat each other up. And while everyone remembers that founding father Aaron Burr killed founding father Alexander Hamilton in a duel, we tend to forget that at the time Burr was the actual Vice President of the United States.
What they agreed on. What the founders did agree on and accept was that their opponents were Americans, too, and as citizens of the same great nation, they would often need to compromise, even on issues of considerable personal importance. Granted, their idea of citizenship was not exactly a big broad tent—mostly the founders thought that a citizen was a white male who owned stuff. But their political wrangles, ugly and difficult as they could be, were directed at the goal of finding a compromise that everyone could live with, not at obliterating the opposition or somehow making it go away completely.
We Americans are too often ignorant of our own history, too often proud of that ignorance, and too often willing to just make it up to suit our own agendas. It seems a waste to focus national pride on things that aren’t exactly true, when there are so many things to be proud of in our history. The first step is know about that history. July 4 is the perfect holiday to celebrate with a good, well-researched, legitimate history book.

From my Flickr