Monday, October 03, 2011

"Out of My Heart"

Yesterday Ashley, my three-year old granddaughter, asked me where my mommy and daddy were. She has been working at understanding family relationships and just recently Ashley and her mom had put together a family tree.

I think she was quite surprised to discover that her much beloved "Unca Boo" was actually her daddy's brother. One family meal around the dining room table usually makes that resemblance quite clear.

But now as we were drawing together (okay, one eye was peeking at the Chiefs game) she inquired about my parents. I told her that my mom and dad were no longer with us, that they lived a long and good life and had died a few years ago, even before you were born.

I saw a little ripple of concern cross her forehead. She lifted those beautiful eyes of hers. I looked right at them and saw deep waters stirring in there. Her eyes moved to the living room and I knew she was making sure that her mommy and daddy were in view.

"But they are still here, aren't they?" she asked, now coming back to me.

"Yes, they are," I replied, but not too quickly. "They are always right here in my heart," I said, touching that spot in E.T. fashion.

She was quiet for a few moments, putting the pieces together. Then she said, somewhat softly but with assurance, "My mommy and daddy are out of my heart."

Then she picked up a blue pencil and returned to her drawing.

It took me a little longer.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Applauding Death at the GOP Debate

There were many reasons for those of us interested in social justice to despair during the Republican debate on September 7, 2011. I never thought I would hear Social Security described as a "Ponzi Scheme." I hardly know how to explain why we are nominating one party's candidate for leader of the free world from among a pool of prospects at least half of whom don't believe in evolution and minimize or dismiss the effect of global warming. It says something, although I'm not sure what, that in a field of eight the two most "moderate" in their views are Mormons, usually not bastions of political moderation. But the thing that really set me back was something not mentioned much. ABC news reported it this way:
Texas Governor Rick Perry apparently loses no sleep over authorizing 234 executions in more than a decade as Texas governor. Perry has authorized more executions than any governor in the history of the United States. He said at a Republican presidential debate Wednesday that he has never worried that the state of Texas has executed an innocent man. “I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place,” Perry said.  “When someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States if that’s required.”
Okay, I'm an opponent of the death penalty, so I listened to Perry and was appalled by his cavalier attitude, but I'm familiar with his swagger and bravado and I expected it. But I was not prepared for what happened next:
When NBC’s Brian Williams asked Perry the question about the death penalty and pointed to the 234 executions – even before Perry answered – the Republican debate crowd erupted in applause for the governor’s actions. Perry pointed to the applause as indicating a vast majority of Americans supports capital punishment. The most recent execution authorized by Perry in Texas was in July.
I think even Brian Williams was taken back and perhaps that is why he pushed the candidate for his feelings about the applause. Perry showed not a lick of concern that innocent people might be executed, even though there is considerable evidence, amounting at least to reasonable doubt, that innocents are numbered among Perry's 234 death warrants. Instead we got a Texas style "you hurt a Texan you pay the ultimate price." It was not clear what would happen if the crime happened to a Frenchman visiting Texas.

Here is what frightens me. We're living in a very volatile climate these days. Many of our civil liberties have been undercut, purportedly in the cause of homeland security. Economic woes are exacerbated by a dangerously low trust in our culture's institutions, particularly government and big business. The ground is dry, the air is hot. It's no time to be playing with matches.

Politicians like Perry appeal to the worst of our fears as a pathway to their own ambitions. He won't be elected president. Eventually his mouth will catch up to his charm. But before that happens he can do a lot of damage to the fabric of our society. We need leaders with heart, not heartless leaders. We need those who understand our fears and calm them with words and actions, rather than exploit them with phony rhetoric.

The capital punishment issue is a very difficult one. Virtually all of those who face execution are guilty of the crime--not all, but most. They are not particularly nice people but the issue is not really about them. It is about us. Killing in the name of the state is barbaric, totally ineffective, and outrageously costly. And perhaps worst of all--it cheapens us, taps those inner demons within us. In the hands of he-who-would-be-president Mr. Perry, it is justice we got when he sent 234 men and women to their death. But it did nothing of the kind.

We stand alone as the only country in the Western world who still uses the death penalty. We should be booing, not applauding.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How Difficult Is This Debt Crisis Really? Six Simple Principles

I am not an economist in any sense of the word. My idea of a debt crisis is when I forgot to pay the $73.21 balance due on my Visa card, thereby triggering a $35 late payment charge. I churned for days, worried that my credit rating was ruined for decades. I was sure I'd never be able to buy a house again.

So obviously I'm not one to talk about solutions to our $14.3 trillion national debt. There are way too many zeroes in that number to hold my attention through dinner. But it does remind me of the famous quote by the eloquent late great Senator from Illinois, Everett Dirksen, who once said "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money." I really think that is where most of us are when it comes to the financial issues in play. We nod our heads knowingly and hope our kids won't ask us to explain it.

But I'm also inclined to believe that the mind-numbing figures may be obscuring the simple, albeit conflicted, issues that are at the heart of the matter. I've been listening and reading, and I've worked up a half dozen simple principles that seem to me are pretty hard to contest. Couldn't we begin with these?

Simple Principle #1. Pay your bills. The debt ceiling is the legal limit set by Congress to pay the liabilities already incurred by that legislative body. Duh! How hard is this? Pay your bills.

Simple Principle #2. Balance your budget. It's kind of a simple idea--don't pay out more than you take in. Normal Americans understand the consequences of not balancing their budget--it involves terms like foreclosure and repossession. Obviously, few people write a check for a house or car--nothing wrong with manageable credit. But come on. This isn't rocket science (something I know even less about than economics).

Simple Principle #3. Tell the truth. I don't know how one does this, but we just fought two wars without a budget. Kind of skewers the numbers when one is figuring how many seniors will suffer reductions in their Medicare and Medicaid and such. Numbers lie, and so do those who manipulate them for personal or partisan purposes.

Everett Dirksen listens
Simple Principle #4. Protect the vulnerable. I was pleased to see that President Obama met with faith leaders on July 20 to discuss the impact of impending budget cuts on the poor. Thousands of religious leaders have signed onto a document entitled "A Circle of Protection," offering a rationale for why it is necessary to protect programs for the poor. They seem to get overlooked by certain political groups.

Simple Principle #5. Commit to fairness. Americans claim that all persons are equal, but we know they are not. Some are smarter, some run faster, some are prettier, some are richer. The way to honor the principle of equality is to have a society that is fair. Those who have more give more. Not only should they have to, they should want to.

Simple Principle #6. Prepare to compromise. I am stunned by the hundreds of members of Congress who have signed a pledge to never support any tax increase of any kind. Ever. Such a pledge renders the signatories completely marginalized as a participant in any meaningful negotiation. The venerable Senator Dirksen said it well when he declared "I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times." Oh for the likes of Mr. Dirksen these days.

So there it is. I don't know the global consequences of defaulting on the U.S. debt payments. Sounds kind of serious to me, but I don't truly know. I don't know what will happen to my mortgage or my meager investments if Standard and Poor's downgrades the US AAA credit rating for the first time in history. Seems like it's something we'd prefer not to happen. Some politicians say it's Armageddon; others say just a hiccup.

Here's what I'd like. Let's see if we can get agreement on the six simple principles. The debate would be nothing if not entertaining. And then, having agreed to the simple principles, I'll bet those zeroes won't seem so formidable.

Revised 12/07/2011 (Minor alterations, including title)

Saturday, May 07, 2011

How Osama bin Laden Took One for Calvin

When I was in grade school a kid named Calvin used to beat me up. I have no idea what I did to tick him off. I suppose one could say he was no respecter of persons when it came to choosing victims. In a perverse way I guess you could consider him as some kind of equal opportunity thug. Maybe that's what allowed him to look at himself in the mirror each morning. "I think I'll thump on Grant today," I can hear him saying. "I haven't whupped his butt for a week. It's his turn. It's only fair."

My house was just across the street from King George Elementary School on St. Catherine's Street in Guelph, Ontario. Canada. If I played my cards right I could escape by exiting from a different school door and slip quietly across the street before he was wise to me. My grandmother lived with us at the time and though she was a mere wisp of a thing Calvin knew she wasn't to be messed with.

However, if I miscalculated my escape route I would inevitably find myself laying on my back with Calvin sitting on my chest explaining to me why I shouldn't be occupying space on the face of the earth. When he asked if I understood him I pulled the secret kid trick of crossing my fingers when I answered. If you do that the answer "Yes I understand"actually means "I'll take it under advisement." Ha, Ha, phooey on you, Calvin!

Okay, I'll admit that I may have taken some slight literary license in introducing you to Calvin, but he did exist and he did harass me from time to time for no sufficient reason. We've not stayed in touch but I still wonder now and then where he's doing time.  He is for me the human face for bullies of all kind. In the past few weeks we have encountered several of them around the world.

We have come to painful awareness of what is happening in our schools when teenagers take their own lives rather than submit to the bullying tactics of classmates who taunt them for reasons ranging from appearance to athleticism to sexual identity. Mature adults, faced with what is happening to teens around them, are forced to revisit their own childhood and come face to face with long suppressed memories.

There is no social consensus around the definition of a bully. One study defines the elements thusly:
Bullying involves a desire to hurt + hurtful action +  a power imbalance + (typically) repetition + an unjust use of power + evident enjoyment by the aggressor and a sense of being oppressed on the part of the victim.
There are obviously many other ways of defining the subtleties and varieties of bullying. It is clear that there is an evolving awareness of the terrible toll it takes on kids, and to some degree on all of us. Tragically late in coming, but welcomed nonetheless.

This kind of thing was going through my mind as we began to hear about American military forces taking out the world's Bully-in-Chief, Osama bin Laden. My jubilation was remarkably free of parsing and justifying. I am not a pacifist but my commitment to non-violence is deeply rooted. I have opposed every U.S. war since Vietnam, with the possible exception of limited military actions to secure human rights, prevent genocide, and defend direct attacks on American soil.

Calvin as I imagine him today.
It is extremely difficult for me to celebrate a violent death of any kind. The assassination of bin Laden (and there is no doubt about it--this was an assassination) was ultimately a symbol. He was an old man on the run for a decade and his impact on world affairs was in decline. But his death, far more than some protracted trial, was the only thing that could satisfy.

I believe that the outpouring of joy was somewhat personal. I saw it as a blow not just at international terrorists but at those who terrorize our children in school and throughout our communities. As for me, I will continue to support non-violence and just live with the knowledge that sometimes my actions will fail to be consistent with my own beliefs.

Of course, I wish no such outcome for Calvin. For all I know he's a concert violinist somewhere in Europe and the head of a philanthropic organization that defends the immutable rights of puppies. I just hope he thinks of me now and then and has a twinge of regret.

One of the cornerstone principles of my life comes from my own faith tradition. It declares that "all persons are of inestimable worth in the sight of God."  I believe that.

I'm still working on how to apply that principle to Osama bin Laden. It probably will take a lifetime but I have to keep trying.

As for Calvin, I know that bullying bears no comparison to mass murder. However, don't ever think that the loss of a child who was bullied to death in school is any less painful to that family than the thousands of families who were changed forever one September morning in 2001.

So here is my offer, Calvin, wherever you are. I apologize for whatever I did to make you dislike me so. And I forgive you for those times when you thumped me for no reason at all.

At least that's a place to begin, eh?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Wrigley Field, Monarchy, and the Weight of Tradition

Chicago: Wrigley Field - Scoreboard by wallyg
Chicago: Wrigley Field - Scoreboard, a photo by wallyg on Flickr
A few weeks ago my son Jeff and I attended the home opener of the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field--a ballpark revered by baseball traditionalists like the two of us. Notable for going without lights until 1988, it carries forward to this day an antiquated scoreboard on which changes to the score are manually updated. Woe to anyone who dares to propose that it is time to get with the modern world.
Take for instance my home ballpark here in Kansas City. Known as The K (a tribute to the founding owner, Ewing Kauffman) the newly renovated stadium boasts a massive scoreboard which when installed in 2008 had the largest high definition video board in the world. To be candid the Kansas City Royals teams taking the field in recent years weren't scoring enough runs to make updating a labor intensive task. It is a malady that has also plagued the Cubs over a long time.  
Royals Game, 29 May 2008 (11) by
KC Royals Scoreboard, on Flickr.
Since attending that game I have been reflecting on the feelings prompted by these two disparate images. I love the mystique of Wrigley Field. The opening ceremonies were strangely moving for a visitor like myself. There was a sense of family, genuine  community forged perhaps on the anvil of baseball ineptitude. But still...

That said, I know I am also sufficiently a product of this technological age (I blog, for gosh sakes) that I would hate to give up the vast amount of information provided by the video board at The K. I am sure all agree that it substantially improves the baseball experience if one knows that Billy Butler is hitting over .385 when facing left handed pitchers on cloudy Thursday afternoons. No way does one get valuable information like that from those kids flipping numbers on the Wrigley scoreboard.

I realize you may furrow your brow at the least, or perhaps call 911 if you're real excitable, when you hear me contend that all of this is why I got up at 3:30am this morning to watch the Royal Wedding.  Just bear with me, eh?
Royal Wedding : Kate and William by Ray Wise
The Royal Carriage:
Let's begin with this. I was born in Toronto, Canada in 1947, about a year and a half before Prince Charles arrived to considerably more pomp and ceremony, as I later learned. I sang "God Save the Queen" not just at the opening of every school day but also prior to the main feature in the local movie house. I was just a lad when the 27 year old princess was crowned Queen of England on June 2, 1953, ascending because of the death of her father, King George VI. 

I think it was 1957 when the Queen visited Guelph, my residence at the time. We Cub Scouts lined the streets as the royal motorcade passed by. We noticed that the young Queen had perfected the royal wrist wave (Princess Catherine still needs some tutoring--her wrist just flops around). I have often thought of myself and my Cub friends that day as something of a security detail. I take pride that the Queen made it safely back to Buckingham Palace.

I'm not sure any of that explains fully why I hauled myself out of bed at an unfamiliar hour, but I think it has something to do with it being "writ on my inward parts."

But here's the thing. My inward parts are also offended by unbridled opulence in a world of poverty, hunger, and homelessness. I dare say that one need not stray too far from Westminster Abbey to find people living in cardboard boxes. Likewise, I cannot abide a system of privilege whereby wealth and notoriety are seen as a birthright. I understand why some, perhaps even most, call the monarchy an institution that is no longer credible in the modern world.

And in a far less significant matter, neither does it make sense at Wrigley Field to change scores in a manner reminiscent of the pin setters I remember from the bowling alleys of my youth. It is silly to try to hold back the waves of modernity.

But even if we believe these things we still have to contend with why the streets of London were filled with massive crowds estimated to be a million or more (and I didn't spot a cynic among them). And what is it about Wrigley Field that leaves sophisticated Chicagoans declaring that only "over their dead bodies" will that stadium be modernized?

I don't pretend to know the answer to all of this, but I have an inkling or two. I think we all are searching for roots. Technology, for all its social benefits, comes to us in cold packages of brushed aluminum. People are losing faith in our primary institutions such as government, religion, business, public education, and others. An economy that almost collapsed left retirement savings at risk and a general sense of malaise throughout the land. Politicians are ridiculed and what is beginning to feel like a critical mass of people seem ready to believe almost any nonsense about their leaders. When that happens there is a loss of center, things we counted on seem to unravel. The ground beneath our feet seems unstable. Anger, fear, uncertainty begin to take hold.

Maybe one answer has to do with not railing against traditions but transforming them. Princess Diana's public work brought enormous credibility back to the Royal Family; the circumstances of her alienation and death squandered it. Perhaps this newly married young couple will find a way to make that institution relevant again. They seem able to stand in the midst of the traditions with a little twinkle in their eyes. Perhaps we all can learn from them.

"Tradition!" wails the fiddler from the rooftops, decrying the slow erosion of the values that frame the boundaries of his own life but seem not to be efficacious for his children or their generation.

Maybe we can first look at our traditions and see if they can speak to us with a new voice in a new time. Maybe there's a little wine in those old wineskins after all.

The monarchy, weighed down by centuries of rules and obligations and attitudes, still seems ripe for reform.

As to Wrigley Field, I just don't know.  That may be a tougher job.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On Tolstoy, Forgiveness, and the Waffle House

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
A while back I found myself at a local Waffle House, filling a little time between appointments with my orthopedist and my ophthalmologist.  Life is like that for me these days, requiring far more visits to medical facilities than I ever would have imagined.

That morning I was visiting the surgeon who had patched together the remnants of a knee that took the brunt of an ungraceful descent down the stairway in my home. That nasty surgery left me with a couple of months spent mostly in a recliner, my foot elevated and my ego bruised.

Later that day I was at the eye doctor, demonstrating once again that I could not make out the bottom row in the vision test. Never mind that I had long ago memorized the darn thing, although that knowledge seems a bit useless.

For some reason these medical appointments are often followed by visits to Denny's or IHOPs or such--the comfort foods, the brassy waitresses, the bottomless coffee pots, and the morning paper. On this occasion it was the Waffle House I visited. I learned a little history from the greasy menu--there is a Waffle House Museum in Decatur, Georgia at the site of the first restaurant opened in 1955. That was interesting to know, but hardly life-changing.

But never did I imagine that in the midst of the maple syrup, the buttered waffle, and the black coffee I would run into Leo Tolstoy. He came by way of a story in the New York Times which I was reading on my iPhone. I see a lot of irony in the circuitous route that connected me to Tolstoy that morning, but that is not the point of my musings today.

Waffle House Museum
The piece in the Times dealt with an effort underway in Russia to rehabilitate Tolstoy's reputation on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his death. It seems that although he is fondly remembered among literary types, and is an important figure in Russian history, he is not beloved by the Russian Orthodox Church. A century ago the  church had excommunicated and blacklisted him because they believed he had supported the rise of the Bolsheviks.

Clearly Tolstoy had radical views and was a favorite of Lenin. But even those who abhorred his politics had to acknowledge that War and Peace and Anna Karenina, among others, were such a worthy contribution to the world's literature that he could be forgiven his political myopia. And so, a decade ago Tolstoy's great-great grandson wrote to the church requesting that Tolstoy's 1901 excommunication be "revisited." There was no response.

As the centennial approached the effort was joined by the literary establishment and a most remarkable request ensued. The president of the Russian Book Union wrote to the church and in effect asked for forgiveness on behalf of Tolstoy, something Tolstoy himself had never requested. The church's response, while praising his books and other literary accomplishments, noted that Tolstoy had never made peace with the church nor renounced his "tragic spiritual error" and as a result his excommunication could not be lifted. They did say that those who held him in high regard would be allowed to offer "sincere, humble prayer for his soul." (The full text of the letters are well worth reading and can be found here.)

At this point the waitress at the Waffle House asked if I would like my coffee refilled.  I did.

Russian intellectuals were appalled by the church's response:
“It’s as if in the 20th century the church did not survive persecution that made Tolstoy’s criticisms look like childish prattle,” wrote the literary critic Pavel V. Basinsky, whose new book examines Tolstoy’s final days. “It’s as if we have found ourselves in the situation that we were in at the beginning of the last century.”
As the waitress two booths over hollered "Two eggs over easy, hash browns, and bacon extra crispy," I shook my head in agreement and chuckled at the silly rigidity and narrow interpretations of those church officials unable to migrate to the modern age.  I poured a little maple syrup on what remained of my waffle.

And then a little chill rippled through my body.

I stared at the words. I wrote that statement by the Secretary of the Patriarchal Cultural Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, I thought, lukewarm coffee gurgling in my throat. Not that statement, of course. I had never upheld the excommunication of Leo Tolstoy. Never even knew about it.

But my entire career was spent in various roles in a faith community, eight of them as its president. In that moment in the booth of the restaurant du jour I started to wonder how many times had I written policies or responded to inquiries in a manner that leaned on custom or comfort or precedent but ignored the Waffle House test.

Does it make sense to the world as we know it, as it has become over time? Does it honor the past without being bound to it? Does it stifle or does it breathe with new life?

 My mind raced.

A few days ago I stopped by the Waffle House again after seeing the doctor. A little bladder problem if you must know. I had some things I have been wondering about since my last encounter with Tolstoy. Many things. I needed to know what he thought.  That same waitress was yelling something about link sausages. No Tolstoy though.

Maybe I'll check at Denny's, just in case.