Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Midterm Lament -- "If only..."

Day 100: I Voted
Originally uploaded by willowforlife
Those who know me will understand that I am not a happy guy today. I had long ago prepared myself for the outcome of the midterm election, but preparing oneself for hitting your thumb with a hammer does not prevent the screech that ensues when it actually happens.

I have done my fair share of screeching in the last 15 hours or so, not to mention gasping, guffawing, sniffing, and snorting. It really wasn't a pretty sight.

I am sickened by the orgy of disgusting television commercials leaping on every misstep or misstatement made by candidates of every stripe. It is as if being human is now a disqualification for holding political office. The end of those cursed clips is the one thing that makes this "day after" at least palatable.

I went through all that visceral stuff and insofar as possible shoved it out of the way. At that point my mind starting turning to regret more than anger. I am persuaded that it didn't have to be this way. My thoughts began to take the form of laments framed as wishes.  "If only...", I began to think. "If only..." 

If only... the promise of Election Night 2008 had been given a chance-- thousands and thousands of people in Chicago's Grant Park, pride in a country that could elect a man with the autobiography and ethnic heritage such as this, and a hope that seemed genuine and pervasive across the land. 

If only... the commitment to bipartisanship promised by the President had been even tried by the Republican leadership. Instead their policy was clear--oppose everything and propose nothing. To listen to those same leaders today calling for bipartisanship is almost more than one can bear. 

If only... the Democratic leadership had been wiser in managing the legislative priorities of the President. For example, having the draft of the health care legislation written in the Congress resulted in the same old "scratch your back, scratch my back" culture that was supposedly changing. Alas, not so. The Biblical metaphor for this is "new wine in old wineskins."   

If only... American elections could mirror the importance of the issues instead of catering to the entertainment value of the whimsical, the silly, and the stupid. 

If only... we could figure out how to do these elections without the poisonous injection of money without accountability--a candidate spending $160 million of her own money (I wonder how many jobs that could have funded), lobbyists who reward votes with money, trips, wine, women and/or men, and such other treats as the legislator may find helpful in deciding how to vote. No one believes in this nonsense; why is it we can't stop it? 

If only...Democratic candidates had shown some guts and campaigned on the legislative achievements of the past two years; things they had voted for but never mentioned since. The President and his administration failed to effectively explain their own successes. As a result, there was no substantive debate on key issues--Republicans had nothing to say and the Democrats somehow lost their nerve and more or less ran as Republicans. Makes us proud. 

If only... movements such as the Tea Party could come to understand that we're grownups and live in a complex society and that issues have subtleties that must be understood. Not all taxes are bad. Not all Hispanics are either illegal or alien. Witches have a right to be represented in the Senate too. (Okay, I made that one up, but the mere fact that a senatorial candidate went to the airwaves with a denial that she was a witch tells us more about the election than we want to admit.)

There are many other laments that could be issued, but these are genuine. I believe there are many things that could have been done to avoid this nasty, divisive process. It didn't have to be done this way. It does not honor the spirit of our country and it does not give us hope that we can pass to our children and grandchildren. 

All of the pundits are saying that the 2012 presidential campaign begins today. You know, it doesn't have to be done this way.

If only...

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

And Now Cometh Ayla

Big Sister Ashley welcomes
Ayla to her world.

I'm sure that most people who know me at all are aware that I am rather fond of my granddaughter Ashley. She is now well on her way to her third birthday and she has brought into my life unimagined love, heartfelt hope, and even a dash of redemption.

In this blog I have from time to time ruminated about this little girl's impact on my life, beginning with an extraordinary 2 1/2 months when I cared for her five days a week while her mom fulfilled a teaching contract. Ashley taught me so much without knowing it. One day I will tell her.  (Some of  what one might call the Chronicles of Ashley and Papa are posted here. Just enter the word "Ashley" in the Search This Blog box in the upper right corner.)

It would be fair to say that she has caused me to look at all manner of things--social justice, politics, humor, faith, family, even baseball--through a prism that persistently weaves her image into the fabric of my being. In a post a while back I wrote, "Her presence in my life has been transforming because it has placed a human face on the future." Rereading them recently, the words struck me much more powerfully than when I first penned them. Perhaps that is because I'm very worried about the future these days.

Blessed to have Lyda as her mom

All of this is to set the table for the arrival of Ashley's sister, Ayla Joyce McMurray, at 4:06 am on August 12, 2010.  She showed up a couple of weeks earlier than expected, but was a healthy 6 pounds, 15 ounces stretched beautifully over a 19 1/2 inch frame.

It's always a bit tough to join a family where the older sibling has been the center of the universe. I wouldn't know; I was the first born and I'm sure my sister, to whom I just sent a draft copy of this post, never experienced any problems like that.  (Hmmm! My phone is ringing and my caller ID says she's on the line. I think I'll take it later.)

But I'll tell you this, Brian and Lyda did an extraordinary job of preparing Her Royal Highness for the role of Big Sister. There are many stories to tell and we'll perhaps do that one day. I don't want to turn this blog from its usual hard-hitting social commentary to maudlin bragging about one's kids and grandkids. But just this once, dear reader, please humor me.
Brian is a terrific dad.  We love it.
Without question the presence of Ashley and the arrival of Ayla embody that slice of life that is good and true. Without them I can't imagine how I could cope with my anger as well as my fears about our world and especially this country.  I keep reminding myself about the "human face on the future," but many other faces I am seeing are hateful, mean-spirited, ignorant, and deluded.

So-called tea party activists find it humorous to put President Obama's image on a poster with his face crafted into a likeness of Adolph Hitler. A clueless pastor of a tiny "Christian" church announces a public burning of the Koran and then finds himself atop the 24/7 news cycle. Never mind that such actions in the past have prompted international protest that led to riots, fanatical bombings, and infringement of human liberties around the world. The promise that many Americans embraced two years ago has stalled and soured in ways that break my heart. The Democrats must take their share of the blame, but the Republican tactics of demon-making, policy-blocking, and fear-mongering are unprecedented in my lifetime. And I didn't just fall off the turnip truck yesterday.

And so to Ayla and her big sister Ashley, I give you this broken country and invite you to love it. I hold before you those whose fear has turned to hate, and ask you to hug them. I point to those who are lonely or hungry or hurting and pray that you will welcome them with a smile when you meet them.

Some may consider me delusional, but when I look into a mirror each day I see the faces of Ashley, and now Ayla as well. For those of us who worry about the future that's a good thing.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

So You're Canadian, eh?


Canadian Pride
Originally uploaded by N10Z
I rooted for Team Canada in the hockey finals of the Winter Olympics this year. There's a story about that.

In the summer of 1959, just before my twelfth birthday, I pressed my nose against the rear window of our car and watched my homeland disappear behind me. 

The circumstances of my family's relocation from southern Ontario in Canada to the heartland of the United States were kind of complicated.  I suspect that the four of us making that journey--my mother, sister, grandmother, and me--probably all had different ideas about what we were doing and why we were doing it. 

I knew it had to do, at least in part, with a perceived need for a fresh start for our family after several years of coping with an alcoholic father. It wasn't a flight from him, more like creating a new place for him in the hope he would eventually join us and begin anew. He never did.
I was born in Toronto. Our family situation had caused us to bounce around quite a bit. Prior to our move I completed sixth grade. I think that I matriculated in about seven or eight elementary schools just to get that far. I lived in Guelph and Ottawa but Toronto is the place I consider to be my birthplace and home town. 

Our move to the States was probably the best thing for our family. I wasn't so sure at the time. As I was walking to my first day of school in the U.S. I met a kid my age. Upon learning I was new here he offered to answer any questions I might have. I inquired as to whether they played much hockey here. He hesitated a bit, then said, "Yes we play hockey here. You play that on a horse, don't you?" I knew immediately that my hockey cards featuring the likes of Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, and Maurice "Rocket" Richard were going to be under appreciated.

In 1965, shortly before I headed off to college, my mother, sister, and I became naturalized citizens of the United States of America. A strange notion that--to somehow be "naturalized" by court order.  Nonetheless, it appeared that we would be here for the duration and if so we might as well lay claim to the rights of citizenship. I don't recall having to renounce other loyalties, foreign or domestic, but it appears we did.  Hopefully that doesn't extend to Olympic hockey. 

I was in college and graduate school during the Vietnam War. A lot of my friends took much more interest in Canada than I had noticed previously.  I suspect Canada will always be thought of here as being a refuge for objectors to the Vietnam War, an image that is warmly received by some and greeted with snarls by others.  Mark me down for warmly received.

Once seen by many as almost a subset of the USA, Canada now has fashioned its own identity in the world. Never has that been clearer than in the Olympic Games. 

Here in the States these days it is front and center in the debate over health care reform, either derided by Americans as wild-eyed socialism or lifted up as an illustration of how national health care can effectively work for the benefit of the people. 

The nature of my career was such that I was able to return to Canada quite a bit on business, and our family made a few trips over the years. I was glad for them to see the Victorian row houses, the streetcars, Eaton's Center, the lakefront, and to experience the cacophony of images, smells, and sounds that pulsated through the remarkable city of Toronto.

One of those trips provided my kids their one and only opportunity to meet my father, a rickety soul by then, his body yielding to years of alcoholism, now cruelly compounded by Parkinson's Disease. "It's the only time anyone has ever called me 'grandpa,'" he said to me with misty eyes, those being among the very last words he would speak to me face to face. 

All of this and more ran through my mind as I watched the Canadians host the remarkable Winter Olympics. I felt pride not just for "them" but for me as well.  I sensed anew my own Canadian heritage, which I have embraced all of my days. It comes with a flood of memories, some bittersweet, even tragic. It encompasses place and people, life scenes of loss and redemption, times of beauty and meaning. 

And most of all, it is nurtured by beloved Canadian friends who always let me know whenever I am there that I am home.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Blogging Backwards and Forward

I did a little tweaking of this blog yesterday, taking advantage of some new features offered by the blogging application I use.  It is now possible to put links to previous posts in a sidebar, and to do the same with comments placed by visitors to the site.

I liked that because it has the effect of keeping alive some of the posts that seemed worthy of a longer life than that provided by the RSS feed that first launched them into the blogosphere. The same can be said of some of the thoughtful comments made by you who have generously contributed to the kind of dialogue I consider essential in our time.

Most of the changes I have made are cosmetic, but the process gave rise to some reflections on the blogging journey I began in the spring of 2006, now comprising 86 posts (in fits and starts at times) and many excellent comments. From the beginning this effort wasn't a typical blog with timely posts and comments seeking their fifteen minutes of fame before dying a quick and natural death, counting on Google for some form of resurrection in days to come.

Mostly it started as a way of imposing a writing discipline on me, your humble blogger, giving him time and place to reflect on issues that interested him, often at greater length than most blogs. To some extent that modest goal has been achieved. Inevitably, however, those posts slipped quietly to the bottom of the blogger sea, a fate most undoubtedly deserved. A few floated awhile.

I spent 33 years of my life working within a faith community, including primary leadership roles. That work is written into my bone marrow.  Since that had framed so much of what I wrote about over that time I wanted now to see if I could speak with other voices, particularly on issues of social justice.

As I look back I take some satisfaction in the rather wide range of topics I wrote about in those 86 posts spanning four years.

Stylistically, there were pieces that were whimsical, autobiographical, sarcastic, humorous, angry, analytical, persuasive, and hopeful.

Topically, I wrote eight pieces about baseball--in the same way that Moby Dick is about whales, of course.  Over 25 pieces fell into a pretty eclectic category I would describe as social/cultural. It was a political season and I wrote about 20 essays on faith and politics. A lot of those were pretty passionate. There were around ten pieces on blogging and technology, several focusing on its cultural significance. There were others that just need to be tagged "miscellany."

And then comes Ashley, my now two-year-old granddaughter. Have I mentioned her unparalleled beauty and amazing intelligence? She was around only half the time since this blog began, but seven essays deal entirely with her.  Disproportionate, you say?  Deal with it.

But in another respect, all of it is about her, whether looking backwards or looking forward. I haven't tried to do a word count to see how many times her name shows up in other posts not devoted entirely to her, but I suspect many. Her presence in my life has been transforming because it has placed a human face on the future. No longer just something out ahead, the future has become personal. If words mean anything (and I think they do), then I want is to find words that in her name proclaim justice, embrace joy, and embody hope.

In other words, this blog is for you, Ashley.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Football, Politics, and Haiti

Peyton Manning
Originally uploaded by Leyinglo
The Super Bowl was a satisfying, even heart-warming, experience, both in terms of the well-played game and the remarkable New Orleans story. The themes of redemption and renewal were moving and I willingly suspended my usual cynicism that kicks in when athletes give glory to God for helping them win a game.

I figure that if we don't blame God for 200,000 bodies buried in Haitian rubble (and I don't), then God should get no credit for a team of Saints winning a football game. It was one of those feel-good things that thankfully defies explanation.

That being said, there was another level of nonsense surrounding the game that connects to a cultural phenomenon that I think is unfortunate and potentially dangerous.

It is illustrated by a piece about the Super Bowl written by Jason Whitlock, the Kansas City Star's sports columnist viz. cultural provocateur. He is analyzing the performance of Peyton Manning, quarterback of the losing Indianapolis Colts, and widely considered one of the best players ever to play the game. Whitlock writes thusly:
Down a touchdown late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIV, 5 yards from a first down and 31 yards short of a tie score, Manning tossed his Ruthian legacy into the arms of Tracy Porter, throwing the interception that decided the game and, in all likelihood, cemented Manning’s reputation as a big-game disappointment.
I have neither credentials nor interest in judging Manning's career. But I do want to register an objection to this silliness that takes one moment, one errant pass, one interception and makes that the linchpin that defines a career. (For the record, in his twelve year career Manning has completed 4232 passes for 50,128 yards, 366 touchdowns, and 181 interceptions.) And ONE pass, ONE interception "cements" his reputation as a "big-game disappointment?'" Give me a break!

But my real issue here isn't about football, except to the extent that sports are often guilty of this kind of hyperbole. The games are marketed with hype and exaggeration and overstatement.

In the end, however, it's only a game. But when the same issue begins to appear in the larger culture there may be reason for concern.

Take for example the election of conservative Republican Scott Brown to the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated by the death of Senator Ted Kennedy. I certainly acknowledge that Brown's victory was significant and that it signaled some shifting in national politics since the 2008 presidential campaign. What got to me, however, was the inability of the media to restrain themselves from making this single off-year election one of the defining moments of our generation. One blogger reporting on that race referred to the "cacophony of cataclysmic change that is coming from Left, Right, and Center."

The "cacophony" is precisely the problem. A vast number of journalists, pundits, bloggers, and water cooler commentators, many working to fill the 24/7 news cycle of cable television and the Internet, create a cultural phenomenon before any kind of thoughtful reflection can occur. In Brown's case the hype created a larger than life figure descending into Washington, DC with cameras recording every step and talking heads breathlessly reporting on what he had for lunch as he made his way like a conquering hero to receptions around the Capitol.

Just today I heard of some polling that makes the point even while sending chills down my back. Respondents were asked to rank their favorite for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. No candidate had a margin of any consequence, but Mitt Romney and his multi-million dollar political makeover was in first place. In second, embodying the notion that we get what we deserve, is Sarah Palin, another media creation who manages to present herself as a populist even while charging $100,000 for one speech to her own supporters. You gotta admire audacity like that.

And in third place as a GOP candidate for leader of the free world? Yes indeed, that honor belongs to Senator Scott Brown whose own mother probably didn't know who he was two months ago. But here he is, not far removed from a nude layout in Cosmo (think a female candidate would have got away with that one?), suddenly anointed as America's savior du jour. Well, at least it can be said of the Senator that he has nothing to hide.

These days we allow the media to create heroes, define cultural movements, and tell us when some event has vast importance. We have actors declared to be stars upon getting one small movie role and a DUI. We have teenage singers writing their memoirs. We have unknown politicians who become household names because of some rude or thoughtless remark.

The plea here is for some sense of proportionality that honors achievement over time and provides for thoughtful reflection and intelligent dialogue.

We have a culture of celebrity that creates and hypes personalities made of straw. While not wanting to exemplify the kind of overstatement I am criticizing, I really believe this is a danger to our civilization and way of life.

It is not unlike the construction standards in Haiti. Buildings were not anchored as one would see in the developed world; they virtually sat on the surface of the land with no foundation of any depth.

And then the earthquake came.