Thursday, February 18, 2010
Last week I listened to Greg Mortenson speak at Bend High School along with a thousand or so other people from Bend. Mortenson won me over with his humble countenance. He surprised me with his relationship with the US military and thereby his insight of military realities in the Middle East shared with a crowd largely cool to the military culture. Of course I was impressed with Mortenson's fearless pursuit to bring schools to Afghanistan and Pakistan, a story I am familiar with, having read Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson's emphasis on education as the answer to the Middle East and the world's difficulties raises a question for me: What kind of education? Are we talking about a liberal arts education? A technological education? Education is indeed necessary and no doubt is a noble pursuit - but what kind of education changes people and the world for the better? There have been plenty of educated civilizations and nation-states that have perpetuated grave crimes against humanity. The information and direction of the education matters. Smarter people do not change the world for the better, kind people change the world for the better. Does education make people more kind? Not unless teaching of kindness, modeling of kindness is an inseparable piece of the curriculum and educators.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Are table manners by and large a thing of the past in America, even in the most affluent homes? If table manners are indeed going the way of the dinosaur and in a downward spiral like the newspaper, is this a thing to be lamented? I remember some of the practices taught to me in my middle-class upbringing: fork on the left, spoon to the right of the knife. I always imagined the more feminine spoon protecting the knife, as if chess pieces or characters from Lewis Carroll's imagination. I remember that it is important to place the napkin on the lap. That it is polite to wait for the host before eating. Mouths should be closed when chewing. Mouths should be free of food before speaking. I didn't learn the proper use of salad forks until after I worked as a waiter at a restaurant with table cloths. I learned how to place my silverware on the plate to indicate that I was finished after visiting Australia, which is a different way from America.
Perhaps in America it was only ever the well educated and comfortably affluent that observed practices such as the proper fork to use and the correct placing of silverware on the plate when finished. Most Americans probably felt fortunate to possess a single silver fork for each person at the table. We chide the stuffy affluent for being snobs for insisting on proper table manners - but then, what do we have as humans if we don't have a proper way to do things? The proper way to do things is something that endears me to Europe. It is what I would appreciate in the tradition laden culture of Japan, or for that matter most anyplace in the world - the art of living is what stands out. The means by which we do things is what life is about. This is the art of life, the highest form of art - living with thoughtfulness and intention. Our table manners says something about our eating habits and our way of being: slow or fast; appreciated and shared or quick and meaningless; prepared and wholesome or hasty and unhealthy.
A friend of mine had a family that dressed for dinner every evening. Men in ties, cloth napkins and probably candle-light. This might be a tad overkill, but you can be sure of one thing: dinner was an event. Table manners were expected, conversation was too, and shared food together was the crowning moment of a day lived with intention and attention to the means.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
I have acquaintances in Vancouver who disdain the Olympics for sundry reasons. For one, they perceive themselves in solidarity with the poor and marginalized, and the Olympics does nothing, in fact retards help for the poor.
I understand the point. However, the Olympics are not going away anytime soon, and Vancouver has the Olympics, and despite the poor snow levels and general lousy non-winter conditions, the Olympics will go on. So why not use the event to help the poor and disenfranchised rather than spit insults?
I have news for you who spit: those that you help, the marginalized, are human beings just as the Olympians and Olympic Committee are human beings. And guess what? Most of them would quite like the chance to be Olympians, or to be stock-brokers, or whatever else you might imagine and disdain. Just because they are poor and you are their helpers does not make them or you righteous. I do not deny your right and worth to picket and protest. I'm not asking that you capitulate your convictions. I am asking that you recognize Olympians and Olympic Committee members as human beings, and those you help as human beings too. It is too easy to idealize the way of how things ought to be.
Monday, February 1, 2010
Several Haitian kids were victims of an attempted 'rescue' mission by a Christian group from Idaho who sought to rescue the children to safety in bordering Dominican Republic. As of yet, no one really knows what the Christian groups intentions were. Time will tell. What we do know is that several voices have howled in protest claiming foul play by the Christians, convinced that they are only out to proselytize or inflict child abuse, or worse. After all, these jaded voices claim, they've seen it too many times before. Please. And I've seen war and destruction too many times before, and good people of all stripes do terrible things, and supposedly bad people do good.
These voices have seen what too many times before? The voices of dissent and phobia act as if the 'religious' are the world's primary source of injury. That we would all be better off as mixtures of existential/nihilist/humanists. What the voices do not care to realize is that we all have a religion. We are all followers of something or someone. We are also all imperfect, slotted somewhere along the index of imperfection.
"Agnostic", not knowing, would be, I assume, what most of these voices would readily claim in regards to their metaphysical conviction. They would be wrong. They have quite a strong conviction in their not knowing and so do the chosen leaders of the not knowing group who have their own deep-felt convictions.
Being an agnostic, or suspicious, or a humanist, steps you no nearer toward right action than a 'religious person'. Firstly, because we are all finite humans, and second because we are all religious persons - religious about different things. One man is religious about singing his hymns, another man is religious about taking a dip of chew, another man is religious about philandering, another is religious about going deer hunting in the fall. We are all religious, and each of these religions can be abused, and generally speaking each of these religions does not make you more likely to be a child-abductor, or intender of foul play. However, each of our myriad religion and ways of being is bound to rub off on those that we conduct life with. Sometimes this is in a good way and sometimes this is in a bad way, most likely depending on the 'religion' and the person doing the religion.
Now, I concede, a tobacco chewer doesn't typically try to recruit other tobacco chewers, especially not young kids (except for the company that sells the stuff). But then, tobacco is sure to give you gum disease and a life by example is the greatest influencer. By default this tobacco chewer is a passive proselytizer. Shame on him. How dare he proselytize in this country.
These Christian Religious may in fact be the active proselytizing kind, and if they are - so what? Isn't it a far cry better for these kids to work through and recover from the Jesus of a religious right group than work through the starving and desperate state of Haiti in rubble? And if the Christian religious aren't good enough to go in and help - are the humanists? If you say yes, why? because they are agenda-less save their good intent and won't infect with their religion? Sure they will, just a religion by another name.
I understand the very legitimate need to provide proper documentation when dealing with children or for that matter taking action of any kind, especially within the sovereign boundaries of another country. For starters this is simply respectful consideration, and treating others the way you would wish to be treated, namely, with dignity. If indeed this religious group did not have the proper papers and official blessing by the Haitian government, then they should be both criticized and prosecuted. For, religious organizations have an egregious track record of regularly acting as if they are above the law because they are ipso facto on the ultimate right side of the law. This self-righteous, self-aggrandizing attitude is narrow-minded and irresponsible and should be punished.
However, let us not be gobbled up by our cynicism of religion and Christianity in the face of desperate Haiti in a time of dire need. Rather, may we all pour what we can towards Haiti in brotherly and sisterly love, while not acting unilaterally or condemning out of a sense of self-righteousness.
Sunday, January 10, 2010
This Christmas I flew east to Cleveland to spend time with my girlfriend and her family in the quaint Western Reserve village called Gates Mills. My path from Hopkins International to the village took me through little Italy and Mama Santas pizzeria and into the Bird Sanctuary of Gates Mills, the sign with a red cardinal notifies. The street lamps in G.M. are festooned with a red spiral up the pole and greenery on the lights. On Christmas Eve a bonfire burns on the common green next to the Hunt Club. It is a quintessentially genteel American Christmas. I remember it with fondness.
What I do not remember with fondness is the guy who sat next to me on the leg from Denver to Chicago. He came in late, just as the doors to the airplane were being closed. He wore gym clothing, running shoes and a leather jacket. All in new condition. He looked to be in his late thirties, with a good build and a reasonably handsome face. He was from Iowa, somewhere along the Mississippi in a city that I can't recall. I can't recall his name either. Probably repressed as I tried to forget our pathetic interaction.
I was reading a book by Krista Tippet called Speaking of Faith (the same name as the radio program she hosts on NPR) when Mr. Iowa arrived at the row indicating that the vacant middle seat was his.
"What are you reading." Mr. Iowa said.
"What am I reading?" I thought, a little dismayed by the interruption.
"People still ask this inane question?" I thought to myself, along with, "Get your own damn book and you won't care what I'm reading."
I gave the title and clarified who the author was and that I found her radio program quite interesting as week to week she conducted fantastic interviews with thinkers, scientists, religious types of all kinds, and pretty much any one who had made a mark in consideration of the human endeavor for good.
Mr. Iowa either thought I was sympathetic to his religious views, on account that I was reading a book with faith in the title, or he wanted to lecture me and the woman seated next to the window, because he began his wisdom-giving to me in a loud voice.
Things were only exacerbated when he asked where I lived and what I did. I always love this question, right along with: what are you reading? What do I do? I wanted to say, "The same things you do. You know, the usual, I eat, sleep, pet my dog, kiss the people I love, read (he could see this one), fly on airplanes (this one too), celebrate Christmas, drive a car." I knew what he meant, what do I do, and I played the game. I told him I was moving to Oregon to be the organizing leader of a new faith movement within the Presbyterian church.
Mr. Iowa's lecture to me, guised as a conversation with a co-conspirator, continued. He spoke of the difficulties of being a leader of the faith, the many pitfalls that lay in waiting such as the homosexual agenda, and not reading the Bible as the inerrant and infallible word of God.
Mr. Iowa didn't know me any better than the woman who sat next to the window, who I sensed was melting into the wall of the airplane, not wanting any part of our conversation. She might have thought silently to herself: "Oh, yes. The Christians. Once again ripping into the gays and the liberals."
Should I have said something? Challenged him? Been provoked? Perhaps, but I was not in the mood and I simply let Mr. Iowa rant.
I let Mr. Iowa say his peace and slowly reached for my other book, War and Peace, always a good conversation starter, or in this case decoy for other conversation.
Later in the flight I had my headphones on watching Two and a Half Men, starring the always bad-boy Charlie Sheen (recent scuff up in Aspen, CO with his wife). The show was about the womanizing ways of Charlie Sheen's character - big surprise. Mr. Iowa woke up from his nap, put his head phones on and appraised the show in less than two minutes. He pulled his headphones off and stuffed them into the seat pocket and returned to a napping state with an air of disdain (or maybe I imagined so).
Mr. Iowa's parting words to me were something about my going with courage and valor into the fight - or something like this. What I was happy to do was go away from sitting and speaking with Mr. Iowa and remember how not to presume that others love my opinion and that searing critique of large swaths of people is not genteel nor does it leave anyone with fondness.