Sunday, October 9, 2016

Chuck A. was the first abuser, starting when I was 12.

Coming to realize that my rage toward candidate and abuser Donald Trump is also rage at my parents' acquaintance Chuck A. (not an uncle and not the delightful and winning Chuck Law), who started grabbing me when I was 12.

I was horrified the first time Mr. A. came on to me, pawing me and trying to stick his hands into my dress. It was a big reception for a famous pianist, and as a special treat I was allowed to go. When I pushed him away ("Oh! Mr. A!  I'm Diggitt!") he went to my parents to tell them I was dressed like a tart and wearing too much makeup! (At 12? I loathed makeup!) He grumbled to one of my uncles, telling him I had asked for a drink and wouldn't leave him alone (uh, no, I could get my own Coke, thanks).

That was not the end of Chuck A. He tried it more times when I was a teenager. I sometimes babysat for his horrible children, and I decided to ask my dad if he'd come get me instead of having Chuck take me home at the end of the evening. I had heard some of the wives among my parents' friends talking about a divorced woman in the crowd. If Chuck gave her a ride home after a party, according to him she just crawled all over him (reported the other wives). I didn't understand the systemic nature of his creepy thinking, but just thought I could keep this horrible man off me if I didn't have to get into his car with him.

Luckily, I knew this was not my fault. Chuck overplayed his hand first time 'round, telling my uncle (who believed him because he himself was enough of a drinker) that I'd tried to get a drink out of him. I knew I was not bringing this on myself. Lots of young women and girls believe that somehow, it's their fault.

Married at 21, I was divorced at 23. Chuck A. spread stories about how I was a wild thing who wouldn't leave men alone. He even--wait for it!--said this to my dad. (Really, that still stuns me.) Who knows why men do this? His wife, daughter, and mother-in-law were all ugly, charmless, and mean, with loud and unpleasant voices. But I don't think it was in reaction to them--it was just how he was. Chuck A. was hands-down the most unattractive man among my parents' friends.  Few young woman (i.e., none) would be tempted by him romantically or sexually.

An unpleasant complication was telling my mother about him. Chuck's wife was the closest-friend-since-forever of one of my mother's sisters....Mother said that my aunt would never, ever believe me, and probably another aunt wouldn't either, since her husband and Chuck A. were great buddies. Well, at least it wasn't my grandfather, was all I could think.  And my dad knew better.

So I've recognized Trump as a bully and an abuser, seeing him with these women whose smiles are forced: They have to do this.  A nice smile is no guarantee of anything, but have you noticed how rarely you see a Trump smile that is anything but triumphant or mean? I doubt that he can feel joy--or show it. Why would any but the most mendacious of women be attracted to what they can see in his face? For the young and ambitious, it's dues-paying at best. He's what our mothers wanted us to be too good for.

The moral of this story is: When they say to you, "If you don't, I will tell everybody you did," believe them.  But tell your mother, and know that a lawsuit might be down the road.

Monday, May 5, 2014

My right to privacy, and yours

An college class exercise involving SCOTUS Justice Scalia was an interesting assignment for the students who did it.   An interesting by-product is recognizing that Scalia apparently thinks   *ponders exactly how to say this*   there's no violation of your privacy if you have nothing to hide.  Small-town gossips have always believed that!

But in whose judgment is ANY fact about you something to hide?  Consider something that happened to my family when I was in fifth grade.  My dad's family was very curious about my father's religious beliefs: did he go to mass every week?  Ever?  What was he teaching me about Catholicism?  About religion?  What went on at that Unitarian church he attended?  The subject of my dad's religious beliefs and behavior was his own business--he thought--and his mother and sisters knew not to discuss it with him.  He had fought for his privacy, even choosing to move to my mother's home town, which had no Catholic church.

So one day my fifth grade teacher, Mr. M--new to the district, and youngish--called me up in front of the class and asked me pointed questions about exactly these things. It was not lost on me that he didn't ask anyone else questions that even a nine-year-old found intrusive.  I told my parents about it that evening, and my mom teased my dad, "Well, Vincent, I guess they just can't leave you alone."

They obviously discussed it more after I went to bed, because they accompanied me to school the next morning.  I was called to the principal's office shortly after arriving, and the principal asked me about what had happened in class the day before.  A while after I returned to class, Mr. M was sent out and replaced for several hours.  I heard more of the story when I went home that night.

It seems that Mr. M was a good friend of one of my dad's sisters.  All these good Catholics believed that an individual's salvation is everyone's business.  My aunt--Mr. M's friend--decided just what the McLaughlin family "needed" to know.  Ultimately, Mr.M got a lesson he hadn't expected, that is--life in the secular world is nothing like life in an Irish Catholic community: people expect their opinions to be private.  The right of a nine-year-old not to be asked personal questions--during class time or any other time--was unknown. 

This incident opened a crack in my parents' relationship that never mended.  They had agreed on their shared right to privacy and my mother's family would never have dreamed of intruding like this.  It was decades before there was any mending at all between my mother and her in-laws.

My dad's conclusion that privacy was to the greater family good, did not protect him from the intrusion of his family and their pal, Mr.M.   Nor would parents be free from the kind of intrusion that Justice Scalia would enforce.  Scalia has no shame about his religious beliefs--indeed, as the photo to the right shows, he receives great social and professional rewards for being an outspoken Catholic.  So it makes sense that his view of privacy is that he, personally, has no need for it.   He makes a jump from: I don't need privacy, to: you shouldn't want privacy.  That's where we disagree, and that's why I find Antonin Scalia's lack of boundaries a danger to Americans.

There was, in fact, a sequel to this.   Mr.M apologized, and in fact met with my parents a couple times to discuss what had happened.  Apparently, he had had no idea people would find such questions intrusive; if he intended to continue working in the public schools he understood he could not be an enforcement arm of the Catholic church.  Fast forward a decade or so.  Mr.M was working in a different district, and applied to be a principal in our district.   My mother had been elected to our local school board and was on the committee that had to decide about his application.   During his interview with the committee, Mr. M brought up the incident and confessed his ignorance upon entering the job market about the secular concept of privacy--and how he'd learned.  He elaborated a bit on how it influenced his attitude toward managing a public school.   My mom thought he would have been an admirable addition to the district's faculty and voted for him, but alas, he got a better-paying job closer to his home.  I'm not sure when she forgave her in-laws, if ever.

Monday, June 24, 2013

A new day? Many of them, I hope

It just happened that when I started divinity school in 2009, my blogging stopped dead. And why not? I was experiencing a new city—and that city was delightful: Chicago. The hours of my day were filled with learning: new people, new ideas, new ways of being me. Suddenly I was in a relationship—actually, not just one, but many. An old love reappeared (and we are together, four years later, in Saint Paul). Preparing for ministry put me into a new relationship with my home congregation in Hastings-on-Hudson, my religious history, with theology and philosophy and ethics—suddenly and unexpectedly, everything I encountered had new meaning.

Over four years one would hope for change, and it certainly happened. I am born again! Ordination is still in the future; the road is a long one. But every day has been well and happily lived. So I am going to see whether I can blog again. Will the ideas come? Will the words? This is nothing like writing a sermon! Or Facebook.

Friday, May 7, 2010

On losing my vision

Today is Friday.  On Monday, I will have the cataract in my right eye removed.  In its place, a plastic lens will be placed in my eye.  The surgeon tells me she will be correcting me as close to perfect vision as possible.  The left eye will be done two weeks later.

There are hitches.  Without additional surgery (slitting the cornea, ugh) I have to choose between correcting my astigmatism and correcting my nearsightedness.  High school classmate Judy Burke Kraynak warned me that the plastic lens does not adjust between near and not-so-near.  If you don't choose a correction that, say, lets you read your watch, you will need to wear glasses for watch-reading.  Choosing a correction for close-up vision means no astigmatism correction.  Which to do?

(Left: An autumn hillside at Storm King mountain.)

I agonized over this for a couple days, then I realized that seeing clearly into the faces of people I love is really important to me.  Imagine, holding a baby up close and not being able to focus on its face.  (Reminder: babies are fascinated by glasses and  want to grab them.)  So I am going for the near vision.  (Continues below.)

There's another hitch that nobody ever thinks of.  I have worn glasses for 57 years.  About 45 years ago my prescription moved me into the category of  legally blind or, as my then-ophthalmologist said, "I could get you out of the army."  But it's not that I don't see anything without my glasses -- it's just that I don't see what you see.

Without my glasses I live in a world nobody knows but me.  Among other things, it's a world of shimmer and of melded moving colors.  Light and shade have different meanings in this world.  What I see as areas of light or shade may actually be the same color as their surroundings but a different unseen texture.  Movement is different in this world; a train moving across the far valley doesn't penetrate it at all.  A car moving toward me could be a tank, or a buffalo.  Sun glittering on waters of a flowing creek is dazzling -- there's nothing like it!

So I've been playing with images trying to approximate some of the things I now see that I will no longer see.  The image to the right is something of an approximation -- although now that I look closely, the trunks of the young trees are far too clear -- I probably shouldn't show them at all.  But I wanted to show how astigmatism works too.  At least in my case, it's almost double vision, or a shadow vision with a similar image adjoining the stronger image.

So, by a month from now, this singular, personal, private world will be gone from me, never to return.  Surely this visual world has helped make me who I am!  Who is to say that the nearsighted kid who gets called weird isn't really walking in a completely different world?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I don't mourn its passing

Youngstown, Ohio is featured in this month's Inc. magazine. Youngstown! The city with poisoned air, in the heart of the Steel Valley. Famous for nearly a hundred unsolved bombing murders (which more or less ended in November 1962 but which have remained alive in memory). Famous for electing bribe-taker Jim Traficant to the sheriff's job and then to Congress, and then for supporting him while he did prison time. (Left: One of a million pics of an abandoned steel mill.)

But to many of us from Steel Valley families, Youngstown also has Mill Creek Park, 4,400 acres and more than four miles long, of lakes, waterfalls, tumbling streams, glacial caves, forested cliffs, and flowered meadows. (Right: Mill Creek's silver bridge in winter -- my dad would take me there the day after Christmas to feed the chickadees, which flocked on the field by the bridge.)

Youngstown has ethnicity. Everyone knew a restaurant with something special. Carchedi's in Lowellville?  Wedding soup. Cornersburg Pizza? Best pizza in the world. Kravitz's Deli? Corned beef to die for. Joseph's?  A separate psrt of the menu "For Fressers Only." Yes! I did know people -- cosmopolitan types -- who sneered that "in Youngstown, even food at the Ding Ho tastes like spaghetti sauce." Well, one thing that didn't taste like spaghetti was kolachi. I just googled kolachi and what was the FIRST result? A recipe from Youngstown, Ohio!   I note that the recipe keeps the fillings a secret but next time your Aunt Ann is making it, I prefer walnut.

In the Labor & Industry Museum (near St. Columba's Cathedral, left) there are blast furnaces and locker rooms lifted out of a steel mill. Locker rooms signs are in at least a dozen languages. While men of different ethnicities mingled in the locker rooms, their families didn't mingle anywhere. I have a photograph of a sixth-grade me as a finalist in the Vindicator spelling bee. Two other finalists represent St. John the Baptist school (Slovak) and St. John the Baptist school (Polish). Honterus Lutheran had services in Swedish. My college sweetheart John's family spoke Friesish at home. My friend Oksana Zayatz's dad was a Ukrainian orthodox priest (and Gayle Woloschak, one of my profs this semester here in Chicago, was best friends with Oksana's little sister).

Neighborhoods on Youngstown's west side had blood feuds going and their leaders never spoke to outsiders. For a couple years, my mother chaired the American Cancer Society's annual fund drive. She tried to get organizers in every neighborhood of Mahoning County. Nobody in a hundred blocks of the west side would speak with her -- not patients, not the priests, not the parents, not the children. Serbs here, Croats there, Ruthenians and Rumanians, Slovaks and Slovenes, all living in hostile silence in the shadows of their own, unshared saints.

And that ethnicity became something to flee. At Youngstown State, right along with their diplomas students would get a name change. Topolski became Talbott, Degli' Uomini became Degly. Why did Ozersky become Ozer, though? A Youngstown past was something to be ashamed of and left behind as soon as possible.

And it wasn't just the people in the neighborhoods of post-WW1 immigrants who wanted to get out. Pioneer families like mine, who'd settled there before statehood around 1800, counseled their kids to get out, move away, don't come back. Our generation saw people who stayed as deliberate losers. Over the years, when I sent Youngstown articles to several childhood friends, their question was, "Why do you care?"

I cared because Youngstown is a fascinating place and a life there can be well-lived. In the western foothills of the Alleghenies (which you can see now that the mills are gone from along the Mahoning River) most neighborhoods had tree-lined streets. There were dozens of cultures. Sure -- my mother's family, Ulster Presbyterians out of the Pennsylvania mountains, were a culture too (they just didn't understand that theirs was also a culture, with dialect and tribal rules). First Unitarian Church, on Youngstown's north side, was a Harvard culture. Butler Art Institute (right) in its McKim, Mead & White building, was a copying-Andrew-Carnegie culture.  It was possible to live a good life in Youngstown -- if you could let go of that nagging feeling that others, people in bigger cities, people on the coasts sneered at you for being too dumb to know the difference.

I am so proud of my many cousins who've stayed around the area (or, as we say, the southeast corner of northeast Ohio).  Betsy Johnquest taught at the Rayen School (which my dad, both grandmothers, several aunts and uncles, and one ex-husband attended) and preserved its 140-year history in a final Rayen Annual when the school closed.  Heather McMahon and Brigid Kennedy were both in a recent selection of Forty Under Forty Who Are Making a Difference in Youngstown.  Uncle Dick McLaughlin returned from a law partnership in Washington to make a difference in Youngstown.  And they have.

The reporter for Inc. magazine went there looking for people who have given up.  But giving-upness is old news.  Black Monday, in 1977, was 33 years ago!  Two generations have come and gone -- to the south or wherever they imagined a pot of gold awaiting -- but Youngstown is still there!   With ethnic food, a lively art scene, doers and shakers who open their ranks to newcomers, a symphony orchestra, several wonderful museums, and an interesting and different city plan.  You can have all that and encouragement for a large garden and live near a farm, within ten minutes of City Hall, at the same time.  That sounds like a pot of gold to me!  (Right: Lanterman's Mill in Mill Creek Park.)

I have always wanted to build a house out of Coke bottles and cement.  And I'll bet Youngstown would welcome a non-standard idea like that!  I have a site overlooking a glacial gorge all picked out, too.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Virginia, we hardly knew ye

We approach the end of the state of Virginia’s Treason, Secession, and Shooting-Yourself-in-the-Knee Month. Bob McDonnell, the Virginia governor who decreed the festivities, has gone on to boost Earth Day by promoting drilling off the coast of Virginia!

Bob McDonnell may wish to play down his values. A day for the Earth, but a whole month for secession? But realizing that the Confederacy’s great soldier Robert E. Lee thought secession was a bad idea, I wondered whose ox is being gored so badly that Virginia needs a whole month to scratch its ancient wounds.

Do Lee descendants themselves wish to retrieve the family honor? Reputable scholars agree that Lee’s honor wasn’t and isn’t on the block here. The website for Stratford Hall, Lee’s family home (after the loss of Arlington to the United States government), has a descendants-of-Lee family tree. It’s not totally up-to-date, since the last recorded birth was a quarter century ago, but in 2003 Internet sources reported 20 living descendants.

I searched the Internet for suggestions that Lee descendants are active in the secession month movement. They are a remarkably low-profile lot. Hasseltine R. DeButts, Lee’s great-great-great-grandson and born in 1964, holds two patents. His brother William Fitzhugh DeButts’s wedding was reported in the New York Times, but the report focused more on the bride’s family and didn’t mention the Lee connection. Amelia Lee Glover, the youngest on the online tree, seems to be a recent Dartmouth grad. So Lee family muscle, such as it is, is not behind the Organized Soreheads of Virginia.

So who is Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s secesh-minded gov, anyway? His Wikipedia entry tells us he was born in Philadelphia to a family of Irish descent. His father was career military and Bob himself spent time in the military. The two McDonnells saw heavy action on the battlefields of peacetime Germany and Newport News, Virginia. Then, Governor Bob became a salesman. Not very Lee-like.

On the other hand, we all know about those fighting Irish and in fact the governor went to Notre Dame. But the Irish connection is intriguing. Many Irish immigrants fought in the Civil War. Might that be the secession connection?

No, it isn’t. The famous Irish Brigade in the U.S. Civil War was from New York. Overall, though, "About 190,000 Irishmen contributed to both sides of the cause. It is estimated that 150,000 served on the side of the Union and that about 40,000 served the Confederacy. After the conflict was over, more than 130 Irish soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor." The same source suggests that nearly 50,000 of the dead were Irish by birth or descent.

So get that. If Governor "Fightin' Bob" McDonnell is claiming that his military background puts him in a position to honor Lee -- well, why doesn't it seem likely that the great general needs to be avenged by a sunshine soldier? If the Gov is out to avenge his Irish brothers who died on the battlefield, statistics suggest that nearly 80% of the Irish dead died at the hands of the south.

But there's an even more interesting back story to Irish Bob's wrongheaded politicking. In his race to the bottom, blind to the slaveholders of Virginia as he panders to their heirs, Gov. McConnell ignores -- or more likely is ignorant of -- the hard reality that his own blood may have been slaves in the south. Lost in the centuries of agonizing over African slaves in the Americas is the story of Irish slaves sold into New England, Virginia, and the Caribbean before, after, but especially during Cromwell's time.

"In the 12 year period during and following the Confederation revolt, from 1641 to 1652, over 550,000 Irish were killed by the English and 300,000 were sold as slaves, as the Irish population of Ireland fell from 1,466,000 to 616,000," reports a history of the Cavanaugh family. [my bolding] In another brief period, at least 100,000 Irish children were taken away from their Catholic parents (who were forbidden by law to even exist and thus had no claim to their own children) to be sold into Caribbean slavery. Some sources quote figures across the entire 17th century of nearly a million Irish sold into slavery; several thousand Scots were also enslaved.

Where did the Irish go? Well, the prettier women were concubines to the planters, but children of these "unions" were also slaves. Frequently the men were more literate than their owners, and were valuable as house slaves and business managers. But their price was low -- they were enslaved to empty Ireland so the land could be redistributed to Cromwell's favorites -- and they were more likely to be beaten to death than the Africans, a luxury item. Speaking from my own pale perspective, I wouldn't be surprised if melanoma leveled many of them. Crafty owners chose to cross-breed them with Africans because their lighter-skinned offspring sold better on the North American continent (especially, of course, the women).

Montserrat alone has a population distinctive because of its mix of Irish and African. From the late 19th century comes this story. "About 100 years after the 1768 rebellion, a ship crewed by Irish-speaking Corkmen dropped anchor at Montserrat....Eventually, as things loosened up a bit, it's said the Montserratans also informed the Corkmen with good humor and a straight face 'Tá sé sin ait, ní fheictear mar Gaeil sibh' - 'That's funny, you guys don't look Irish'"

Another visitor to Montserrat reports: "And then there were the obviously Irish surnames, despite the less than obvious features that went with them: the Burkes, the Collins, the Lynches, the Murphys, the Maddens, the Mullings, the Lanigans, and the Walshes. There were the McCarthys, McCormacks, McDermotts, McDonnoughs, McGanns, McLaughlins, and McMorrises. I found the O'Briens, O'Connors, O'Reillys, O'Haras and O'Meallys -- the list is almost endless, with Madden being one of the least popular, as Madden's is the name of the main undertaker in Kingston."

What can you say about a man -- an elected official in these United States today -- who celebrates the rape, murder, and enslavement of millions of people? You can say that he is free of compassion. You can say that he is ignorant of what "America" is about. You can say that he is calculatedly pandering to a group of people like himself, who envy the perhaps "chivalrous" history of a few Virginians and are pretending a likeness, aspiring to a sort-of-aristocracy among the dead. And who, incidentally, are unimaginative, mean-spirited, and deeply forgetful about what their God intends for them to be.

What can you say about a man who celebrates the rape, murder, and enslavement of a million and more of his own kin? Who sees slavery with the face of his own mother, of his own son, and separates himself out of that image? Out of sight, out of mind, and six degrees of separation counts for naught. Virginia's Governor McCromwell has truly lost his soul.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Marble Man, 145 Years Later

It’s Day 12 of Virginia’s Bad Ideas and Treason Month. Today is the actual anniversary of the end of the Old Dominion’s ancien régime, and since any number of pallid politicos are having their belligerent say, it’s worth examining the greatest Virginia soldier of them all. (And the handsomest! Right: Lee as a young man.)

Robert E. Lee stepped open-eyed into his future. He was no fan of the Confederacy in its first stages, but when President Lincoln asked him to take command of the entire Union army, he refused, saying that he could not take up arms against Virginia, should it secede. It did secede, and he went with it, [I assume] resigning his commission in the army of the U.S.A. He ultimately commanded the Confederate forces in the east, and it’s in that role that we are most familiar with him.

If Lee had chosen to lead the Union army, it’s unimaginable that the war would have lasted as long as it did. His record at West Point was one of the best in its 208-year history, and he served as its superintendent from 1852 to 1855. Lee was an outstanding military leader during his life in the U.S. Army and did the best with the resources he had in his years with the C.S.A. (It’s worth remembering that his resources included soldiers trained at West Point and the many United States military bases built throughout the south.)

Nonetheless, I believe that Lee’s most remarkable feat — of all his life — was his surrender. What the soft-bottomed soreheads in Virginia (most of whom have no doubt visited a military base only as a tourist, just like me) forget is that Lee surrendered. He had to. He had no other option. The C.S.A. was defeated. It was not betrayed. The Confederacy lost. Robert E. Lee was the supreme commander of the Confederate army in the east and he believed the war was lost. Period, end of story. (Left: Lee as the Confederacy's great general. The portrait is at Washington & Lee.)

Lee and General Grant, head of the Union forces — and, incidentally, with a career trajectory nothing like as brilliant as Lee’s — discussed the terms of Lee’s army’s surrender for several days. There was no treaty, perhaps because Lincoln’s government insisted that the C.S.A. was not a sovereign nation. The terms of the agreement were simple, permitting every soldier to return home safely, if he turned in his arms and horse or other animal (if publicly owned). Soldiers could keep horses or other animals if they were privately owned, which was regarded as a mercy to men who had to return home, possibly to ruined homesteads, and begin the spring planting.

The paroles — the pledge of safe passage to these soldiers — were based on Lee’s word alone. In effect, the last public use of Lee’s honor came in the maintenance of the peace. Imagine what it would have been like if Lee reneged! Within the week Lincoln was assassinated, and a lesser man might have taken up arms again or encouraged an uprising. Lee did not.

I am telling a complicated story in a simplistic way. There’s a lot to argue with in terms of Lee’s choices. He was a slave-owner, although in a limited way, although he did control an estate that owned slaves. Slaves on his property did testify that he had ordered whippings. He had been shown that Arlington, his estate across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., was financially viable only when operated with slave help, and that trumped any thought of freeing them. After the surrender, Arlington was confiscated by the United States government as part of the punishment for Lee’s treason. Lee became president of Washington College in Lexington; it subsequently became Washington & Lee. (Right: The Matthew Brady portrait of Lee, following the surrender, in Richmond.)

Robert E. Lee died in 1870, but he was in the process of becoming “the marble man” as his biographer, Thomas L. Connolly, described him. The myth-making had begun.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Confederate History Month, Day 11, and Golden Tomatoes

Confederate History Month continues.  I am reminded of a classmate from the Virginia boarding school I attended.  I visited her Norfolk home and was shown into a drawing room with a portrait of a Virginia gentleman over the fireplace.  A cut in the canvas had been clumsily stitched up.  "What happened?" I asked, ingenuous at 18.  "Oh, a Yankee soldier stabbed it with his sword,"  I was told.

A few years later, I wanted some reassurance that I had not imagined the exchange.  Ah, said my friend.  "That's what we were told in the family!"  She went on to say that her parents had taken the portrait to a restorer who examined the rip and said no, it was not the result of an intentional cut -- probably just wear, or a bump against a sharp object when being carried.  That story seems to me to be a metaphor for Virginia's ill-considered new festivities.  The actual history, the intent of the story, and its actual effect seem strangely, nastily, mean-spiritedly askew from each other.

Well, the small minds in the Old Dominion don't affect my life here in Chicago.  Today the temperature was 72 and I had a lovely walk through Kenwood and along the lake.  And I worked up a thirst, also a hunger.   What would still my craving?

Too early for gazpacho, I thought, which is only adequately served with red tomatoes ripe and scented, taken  from the vine in the last several minutes.  I recalled reading about a golden gazpacho, with yellow tomatoes and red-gold fruit and veg.  Yellow tomatoes were in the store -- ripe-ish looking, not too insulting, from Mexico of course, and I recalled that I have a huge batch of bean and kale soup in the fridge which was just too wintery for a day like this.

So: two pounds of yellow tomatoes, into the blender.  Two cloves of garlic.  A medium red onion.  Two red peppers.  It wouldn't be gazpacho without cucumbers.  Olive oil, wine vinegar, ground pepper, some salt.  A large handful of cilantro.  And a beautiful ripe avocado!  Result: smooth, creamy texture ... but a little brash (the garlic).  An hour later, mellowing and even creamier, but ... boring, actually.  I put a cupful into the blender and added carrot juice; sweeter but two-dimensional.   A second cup, with sweet potato this time: sweeter and stiffer, no more interesting.  Orange juice -- sweeter and wetter.  By the fifth cup, I was still dissatisfied and tried blending in some fresh yogurt cheese I made this morning: tangier, certainly.  I realized I have consumed more than a quart, which is a lot of tomatoes, and put the experiment aside until tomorrow.

A small thing, but a lot more nourishing than the sourness emanating from Richmond.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Santa Claus, is there REALLY a Virginia?

I have wanted to resume blogging, but as time passed by, asked myself: what topic really deserves being the one to break silence for?  But Gail Collins tells us, as kings of stupid begin to line up south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Explanation: Virginia's governor says it's now Treason and Secession History Month!  Yes, indeed -- economic crisis be damned, the new south hangs on to its old garbage.  Onward into the swamp, my friends.

The alternative histories are fascinating. If you agree that it would be legal for a state to secede (Lincoln's view is that secession was illegal, thus impossible) a CSA [Confederate States of America] would have been created, of states who believed they could secede as needed. So it would have been a more fragile organism to start with. Add to that the short fuse and honor obsession of the Celt (historians Grady McWhinney and David Hackett Fischer separately suggest that the south was basically a Celtic culture), and without any prodding, the CSA would be even more likely to implode or explode.

Western provinces would not have automatically assumed they would join the Union -- but on the other hand, if the CSA was combustible, or relatively poor, or did not believe in unity, why join it? Would Texas have stayed in the CSA once oil was discovered? Why? I think it more likely that Texas and Louisiana would have held their noses and allied with each other, because of oil and the Mississippi River. They would be better off doing business on their own with the CSA than joining it. The north central territories would NEVER have joined with the CSA, port or no port, but would do business through a foreign New Orleans.

But again, the northern route through the Great Lakes would have united the Union and the north central territories firmly with British Canada. I can't imagine the Union and the north joining Canada, but I can imagine the southern tier of populated Canada being ever more firmly allied with the USA. Duluth, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Ottawa, Quebec, and Montreal were already population centers by this time -- a far better substrate to build an enduring alliance than one along the Mississippi. The Chicago River might still run north!

Once you no longer have northern sheriffs being forced to observe the Fugitive Slave Act, the CSA's northern boundary would always leak. Imagine a Berlin wall stretching from the Atlantic to the Mississippi! Would the CSA have the leadership or the money to make it happen? If you were a southern soldier with a small-holding and a slave or two, or none, once the dust had settled and your so-called honor was no longer threatened by the Yanks, would you feel like paying taxes to Richmond or sending your son to protect that boundary? It didn't work for the British between 1763 and 1776, it didn't work for eastern businessmen in 1792, and it didn't work for East Germany in 1989.  In fact, it didn't really work for East Germany between 1961 and 1989 either!

I haven't read this anywhere and I'm not spouting another author's ideas -- I've just been tossing this around in my head in the few minutes since reading Gail Collins's blog. If I can come up with such serious reasons for the CSA not to stay together in just a few minutes, I don't think it really could have survived.

The north has been subsidizing the south since the writing of the Constitution: the three-fifths compromise and the siting of the capital on the Potomac. The south has been holding the north for ransom -- almost literally, since we've been putting our military bases there -- ever since. After the late 1860s unpleasantness, it received northern industry because carpetbaggers saw a fresh wilderness to exploit. Before globalization, it received northern industry because southerners were willing to sacrifice their dignity, working without unions. The south would have been better off listening to Robert E. Lee's better angels than sending him off to fight.

(Incidentally, Lee himself did not always listen to his better angels.  You can read here about how he treated his own and inherited slaves.)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Detour >>>>>>>>>

One way
Chicago 790 miles
Meadville Lombard Theological School
New students this way

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The entering div student's first sermon

Felling the need to post something to prove I'm still here, I am posting my very first sermon ever, which I delivered last Sunday at the First Unitarian Society of Westchester.

If you've visited my UU congregation, you'll know that I usually speak extemporaneously. This was the first time since high school, I think, that I actually wrote something out and actually delivered it that way. Here it is:

Twenty-four years ago, I had the great good fortune to hear Dana McLean Greeley preach, at the Arlington Street Church in Boston. Dana McLean Greeley was a name I heard frequently as a child: he was a famous Unitarian minister, he was the last president of the American Unitarian Association, and he was the first president of the the Unitarian Universalist Association.

When you read Unitarian history, you get involved in a very limited world, the world of eastern Massachusetts. In this small region, there are dozens of Unitarian churches. Lists of their ministers bear a family resemblance to lists of Harvard presidents and heads of the Harvard Divinity School. For a couple centuries, these Harvard presidents and school heads married the daughters of their mentors, and when their own daughters grew up, kept an eye on likely young men for them. These families gave their children triple-barreled names, like
Dana McLean Greeley
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Edward Everett Hale
William Ellery Channing, for starters.
And their last and middle names are on streets and college buildings throughout New England. In this tightly woven group, ancestry was important.

Dana Greeley’s sermon topic twenty-four years ago was, “The Heyday of Liberal Religion.” He mounted the steps of Arlington Street Church’s high pulpit with determination. He flashed his famous wide smile, but we could all see his gauntness. He hadn’t long to live, and this sermon was his final public statement on the denomination to which he had given his life. Punch lines being what they are, it will not surprise you to learn that to Dana McLean Greeley in 1986, the heyday of liberal religion was still to come.

Think of that. This child of New England, this leader of such a traditional group, who had been minister for sixteen years in Concord, the home of transcendentalism — he believed that the heyday of liberal religion was not in those 19th-century glory days, but still to come.

We have recently elected Peter Morales — a wise Latino — to our presidency. Peter Morales is a vibrant contrast to that old tradition. His parents were Mexican immigrants and he was born and raised in San Antonio. When he took the bus off to the College of the Pacific, he had never seen a mountain, the ocean, or been more than eighty miles from home. In the years between that bus trip and today, Peter Morales — always with his wife Phyllis — has lived in Canada as a manual laborer, fleeing the Vietnam draft. He has lived in Spain as a Fulbright professor. He has lived in San Francisco as the father of a small cancer patient. He has lived in Oregon as a newspaper publisher. He has lived in Peru as a Knight International Journalism Fellow. And he has lived in Colorado as a UU minister. He has lived many lives, actually. What do you suppose Peter Morales believes is the heyday of liberal religion?

He hasn’t used the word, but he strongly suggests that that heyday could be ours. But to get there, we need to rethink who we are. In our quest for diversity in our membership, we have often commented to each other how very white we are. Peter Morales is living evidence that tomorrow’s Americans will not primarily be descended from western Europeans.

In fact, Peter Morales has suggested that we UUs have our own ethnicity, and that ethnicity is New England, Boston, Brahmin, Harvard. And it’s not working any more.

Sixty years ago, my father — from an Irish Catholic family — embraced Unitarianism. One of his nieces, my cousin Brigid, once explained to me what Unitarianism meant to my father. He had grown up in Youngstown, Ohio, in a neighborhood too middle-class to have steelworkers. Its Catholic church, St. Ed’s, was the most prosperous one in a city of Catholic churches. But Youngstown had a Protestant ascendancy, based in the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches. It also had a Unitarian church too, though, that was a little out of the power structure. The Unitarian church’s members were, in fact, Harvard families; they were scholars, intellectuals, teachers, readers, scientists; they were not standard people. Cousin Brigid explained to me that when my father adopted Unitarianism, he was making that heritage his own.

But now we are more than four decades past the Civil Rights Act. Americans can go to Harvard, to Yale, to Dartmouth, and be exactly what they are. They can be any race. They can be immigrants, or their children. They can be women. People no longer need to “convert” to become who they want to be. So in New England, the old, customary connections may be as sturdy as ever, but UUs across the country have moved on and are becoming something else. In fact, here in our congregation, that model was left behind long ago.

But Peter Morales is reminding UUs that we have what Forrest Church has called the gospel of Unitarianism, the good news. He believes that hundreds of thousands of Americans want what we have. They want community. They want connection. They want to know that when they walk in the door of this congregation, people will be happy to see them. They want their children to feel this kindness, this love, this concern.

I am going to read from a speech Rev. Morales gave, using his words because they are so perfectly to the point.

A few years year ago an earth-shaking research paper was published in the American Sociological Review. . . The research sought to measure changes in the close relationships Americans have. A key question in the study asked subjects how many people they feel close enough to that they feel they can confide personal information. An earlier study, done in 1985, asked the same question.

The new study was designed to measure any changes over time. The results were so shocking that the team of sociologists doing the study withheld publication for a while. They were afraid they had made some mistake in the methodology and spent months reviewing their data and procedures. But the results were real. Here are the key findings:
• In 1985, the response given most often was having three people in whom one could confide. In 2004, the response given most often was zero.
• The percentage of people who said they had no one with whom they could confide jumped from 10 percent in 1985 to 25 percent in 2004. That means that in just 20 years the percent of people who said they have no one to talk to went from one person in ten to one out of every
four. This is simply shocking.
• Almost half of all Americans now either have no one or only one person with whom they can discuss important matters. The percent of people who either have no one or only one person has almost doubled in 20 years.
• If a person has only one confidant, chances are that the one confidant is his or her spouse.
What this means is that relationships beyond the nuclear family are being systematically eliminated.

Listen carefully. Hear the cry of pain in these numbers. This study reveals a level of human isolation that is unprecedented in American life–and perhaps unprecedented in human history. Americans are lonelier than they have ever been. The close friendships that are so essential to us are being eroded at a frightening rate. One in four Americans has no close personal relationship at all. Zero.

... Let me throw just one more statistic at you. At the end of the Second World War about half of all American households had three generations in them. That means that about half of American children lived under the same roof with one or more grandparents. Today there are almost no three generation households left. The two or three percent of multi-generational households that exist are almost all poor recent immigrants. Today, one out of four households in American is a single person household. Let me say that again. One quarter of American addresses today has only one person living there.

You and I are relational creatures. We become fully human in a network of relationships. We desperately long to belong. We need community the way we need food and shelter. Yet, in our pursuit of a misguided sense of independence and economic opportunity, we have created a society that systematically rips apart human relationships. Yet our need for deep relationship never goes away.

So UUA president Morales thinks that our congregations can build a better world, at least for the people within them. How does he believe we can do this?

He says, by getting religion. Americans want a religious vision that can transform their lives. If they find it, they will be faithful to that vision. Now generally, our visitors know who we are. They do online research; they read what we say about ourselves, and for some, it sounds just right. Then they must come here, and be with us. Visitors must see and hear and feel our good news for themselves.

Now here is a point I find difficult. If I come here, to this small but sacred space where we spend our Sunday mornings together, I am coming for community. I am coming for kindness, and love, and to be with people who know my lumpy past and accept me as I am. I come here because I crave what I get here.

With everything I need to receive from this place, how can I find the time, and the strength, to give to someone else? It goes back to getting religion. Part of getting religion is being able to give as much as to receive. It’s being the person you want to meet. Part of getting religion is undertaking ministry yourself. I guarantee you that coming here to serve, as much as to be served, will make you happier.

Here’s what else can be done. If Americans no longer live in three-generation households, let’s make this entire congregation a three-generation household. How about finding a way to include in your own world, a person, or a family group, older or younger than you? You will share something special with them, and they will share with you. You will be thrilled by what happens. I guarantee that.

What else can we do? We can recognize that diversity can be broader than we’re accustomed to thinking. Peter Morales has commented on the sweep of immigration from the south and from across the Pacific. Not only that, but in the past twenty years, there has been sizable immigration from eastern Europe as well. The more those immigrants acclimate to this country, the more we can give them what they find themselves looking for. They will share with us and change us, and we will share what we have with them.

We build community here with our lay-led style. And next year there will be many Sundays without our interim minister. We have room to hear from other resources that have not been home-grown, which we rarely do.

Neither do other aspects of worship need to adhere to the old ways. Our music directors Diane Guernsey and Richard Slade are both interested in more rousing music. And how about dance? Americans have considered dance a spectator art instead of something prompted by the spirit. Joy has many faces, and perhaps that can be a new face of ours too. About 20 million people have viewed the viral YouTube video of Jill and Kevin’s wedding dance, and most of the commenters have felt the joy within the church. Let’s go get some of that for ourselves!

In closing, I thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak on a subject that thrills me for its potential in my new ministry. I believe that this FUSW community can embrace that vision too. The good feeling in this congregation can translate into more personal ministries for all of us. We can become the change we want in the world. And we can create a new heyday for liberal religion.

©2009 Diggitt McLaughlin

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Naming names, I: News from Swaziland

From Lydia: Mangalisa Maphalala is my Swazi name. Mangalisa means surprise. I requested it specially. I think my host family was somewhat perplexed about why I would request that name. Amusingly, it turns out that Grandmother Maphalala's first name is Mangalisile -- Surprised -- methinks that particular name usually goes to kids whose mothers were naïve about birth control.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Is this synchronicity, or what?

Yesterday I took the #4 subway train from Jerome Avenue, and last week Bill Bratton resigned as top cop in Los Angeles. As we used to say in San Francisco, rolling our eyes and nodding meaningfully, "Oh, wow."

About fifteen years ago, I parked my car by Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and walked down Jerome Avenue to take the #4 in to East 86th Street. Afterwards with my errand completed, and just in time to get to a plant morphology class at the Botanic Garden, I returned to my car.

As I walked by the cemetery main gate, I began to see books littering the ground. Muttering tsk-tsk to myself, I bent over to look at them and realized -- in horror -- that they were 150-year-old botany books I had borrowed through the state library system ... and they had been thrown all over the ground! I rushed to the car and saw a broken window, wide open. As I gaped, a passerby said to me, "I hate when that happens."

Well, me too. I opened the car and began to paw through it. As usual, it was packed with stuff going here or there or to be used along the way. I thought the botany books were the worst: I was working on a history of plant taxonomy, using very old sources. Fortunately, titles over a few hundred years old had to be used in the Botanic Garden's library. But I gagged to see the casual mishandling of the lovely old books.

On the ground was the box which had held a camera lens I had bought the day before. But! I had immediately put it on the camera, now sitting safely on my desk. So, a disappointed vandal.

But no. I had had a thermal cold-bag containing some cycad seeds I had borrowed to take home to photograph. I swore my life away for permission to take them off the premises. They too were gone. But I brightened -- they were poison! Just let some vandal think they're a new kind of kiwi fruit, and heh-heh, no vandal.

As I went through the very back of the car I realized my greatest loss. I had been working on two 24"-square needlework pieces for a couple years. They were when-I'm-done-with-these-I-can-die projects, using 16-point canvas and 24 shades of red, brown, gold, and green silk thread. One was a variant on a 17th century Hungarian point design, the other I had drafted from a Indian rug I'd photographed at the V&A. The Indian design was finished, all 576 square inches of it, and there were only a couple square inches to go on the Hungarian design. The two pieces, all the silk, and my grandmother's embroidery scissors were together in one bag and that bag was gone. What a blow.

Forgetting my morphology class, I went back down to the cemetery gate and found a gatekeeper, and explained what had happened. "You've got to call the police," he said. He decided I was too upset to dial. "I'm calling the forty-seventh," he told me. "They're always really helpful when we need something."

The desk sawjint, um, sergeant, picked up. "New Yawk P'lice, four-seven," he said. I explained that my car outside Woodlawn Cemetery had been broken into, and stuff inside was stolen. "Whereja say the car is?" he asked. Outside the cemetery on Jerome Avenue, I explained, you turn right outside the gate and walk about a hundred yards. The sergeant was audibly relieved. "That's not us," he said, "you want the five-oh." And he gave me the number.

I called the five-oh. I explained my problem and told him the four-seven said it was the five-oh's jurisdiction. "What's he tawkin' about?" asked the exasperated desk sergeant. "The five-oh ends at the center line of Jerome Avenue. We're to the west. You call the four-seven back and tell them it's their jurisdiction."

I explained all this to the Woodlawn gatekeeper, and dialed the four-seven again. "Ma'am, I tolja it's the five-oh," said the desk sergeant.
I corrected him. "The five-oh says their jurisdiction ends at the center line. They're west of it," I explained.
"Ma'am, I know this is tough," said the sergeant, "but I'm telling ya our precinct boundary's at the Jerome Avenue eastern curb. I know this. You're not parked up on the grass, are ya?"
"But the five-oh says theirs ends at the center line," I wailed.
He paused and you could almost hear wheels turning. "Well," he said doubtfully, "maybe it's the five-two. You could try them." He gave me the number.

The Woodlawn gatekeeper looked on in disbelief. "I always call the forty-seventh and they couldn't be nicer," he said.

I called the five-two and explained my predicament. "They said what? They said it's the five-two? Where are you again?" I explained I was a hundred yards north of Woodlawn's main gate. "We're nowhere near there," he said, "I don't know what's wrong with those guys."

Well, neither did I, and I was late for class. I very much hoped the thief was sitting somewhere dead, preferably in the four-seven, with a half-chewed cycad in his mouth. As I walked out of the caretaker's cottage, off in the cemetery I saw a flash of neon pink -- just the color of the missing thermal bag the cycads had been in. Maybe my needlework was discarded there too! I hurried through the cemetery and found the cycads, still in the thermal bag, but the needlework was not to be found.

After class, I went home, stewing about the fact that I had no place to report a crime. Given the high deductible on my insurance, a police report might not be useful. But, darn it, I wanted this to be a New York City crime statistic. I decided to tell my story to Rudolph Giuliani, then a not-much-loved NYC mayor. I told Rudy the story I have just told you, then, as I licked the envelope, I thought, Why not tell William Bratton?

Bill Bratton was easily a lot of people's idea of a cop's cop, but he was also a people's cop, heading the New York police department after a career in Boston. Regional residents noted the city's falling crime rate and gave his up-to-date policing the credit. He was definitely a popular favorite, so I wrote to Bratton as well.

Within a week, I got a nice letter from Bratton's office telling me that they had determined the correct precinct and reported the crime for me. And a week later, Giuliani fired Bratton; the general view was that he was jealous of Bratton's good press. No, I never heard from Giuliani's office, nor did I hear from the precinct.

I hope that somewhere in the Bronx, an elderly mama got my needlework, accompanied by a fishy story she chose to believe, and loves it. I think of her often, as I did yesterday when I once again went to Jerome Avenue and parked to catch the #4 train. A street sign has been added: it reads "Albany next right" and it's not the allegory it sounds like; the Thruway passes nearby. I no longer do needlepoint: I knit instead.

Jerome Avenue was named for Sir Winston Churchill's mother's family. In the intervening years, of course, Rudy Giuliani has become a Sir too, and next month, Bill Bratton -- just retiring from the job of L.A. top cop -- will be created a Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth. So if that's not synchronicity, what is?

I mean, oh, wow.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ancient thoughts

Observe the Days that come from Zeus,
all in their right order. . .
explain them to your workers . . .
the eleventh day, and the twelfth too,
are both very good days
for shearing sheep or for reaping
the good harvest;
But of these the twelfth day is far better
than the eleventh,
for it is on the twelfth that the air-flying
spider weaves
her web in the full of the day
and Know-All, the ant,
piles her dirt-hill.
On this day a wife could set up her loom
and get her work going.
On the eighth of the month, it is time
to geld the boar and the bellowing
bull, but the hard-working mules should be done
on the twelfth day.

---Hesiod, The Works and Days

Monday, August 10, 2009

Religious Freedom Thought for the Day

Probably no two lawyers in the United States understand our Constitution alike. To allow a few men to tell what the Constitution means, and to hang for treason all who refuse to accept the opinions of these few men, would accomplish in politics what most churches have asked for in religion.
--- Robert Ingersoll

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

On behalf of Ferrous, Eric, Popper, Sherlock, Boudicca, LeWeasel, and Tequila, I give thanks

For this great news about their cousins.

Yes, yes, the domestic ferret and the blackfooted ferret are not the same. But after living with some of these wonderful animals, it was one day sobering to check out the exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History and see that the blackfooted ferret display contained animals that don't quite look like the ones we see in the news report or here.

This is because of the founder effect -- what you get in a population that comes from a single ancestor or small group of ancestors. And the blackfooted ferret captive breeding program, while successful, has created a population descended from a very few founders. That means that the variations in color that created the somewhat blonder AMNH sample are now gone from the population.

You might not want blonder blackfooted ferrets -- hey, as long as their mates approve, it's none of my business -- but you have to wonder what other, hidden effects come with that narrowed gene pool.

Blackfooted ferret pic by Arizona Game & Fish Department.

Friday, July 31, 2009

How I would defend marriage

A few months ago, marriage equality was a hot topic here in New York State, and Albany UU minister Sam Trumbore's blog reports on it today. Orthodox commenters on his blog have predictably thrown up the usual blather about "logical extremes," like marriage among multiple partners, and continue the cant about "traditional" marriage.

That the traditional meaning of marriage has been between a man and a woman is, in fact, up for grabs. For most of recorded history, marriage was between a man or boy and a female of any age, including newborns, designated by their families to be contracted to that male. The participation of the female in the contract has been expected only in recent centuries in some countries. So tradition is a weak reed to depend upon in support of this argument.

Our society expects adult men and women to participate in the contract as equals. For myself and the women I've known, participating as an equal trumps every other possible variation in defining the marital contract. But once you accept men and women as equal partners, the question does arise about equal treatment of both men and women as to whom they prefer to marry.

Ethnic and religious custom does not trump civil law when civil law sets a bottom age limit as to who can be married. Why should custom then trump civil law about who marries whom? Society has already accepted having people of different races and religions marrying each other. Indeed, society accepts selling yourself into marriage, and society accepts sequential marriages with divorces in between. Custom has changed as civil law has.

I suggest that the stumbling block here comes from our acceptance of a religious contract as equal to or supplanting a civil contract. The civil contract supplants the religious one at the time of a divorce (although pious Jews and Catholics may take the extra step of arranging a religious dissolution as well).

We would take nothing away from religion if we defined marriage as the civil contract, and let the civil contract take place between two consenting adults, period. Those religious groups that choose to discriminate against individuals because of color, race, or gender preference could, because the equal protection of the civil law would be untouched.

In other words, the religious contract of marriage would have no civil value. To be legally married -- with all the privileges and duties of civil marriage -- would be wholly the job of civil authorities. Mormon clergy could continue to marry old men to their 10-year-old great-nieces but that ceremony would have no civil standing. Catholic and Anglican priests could refuse to marry whomever their bishops direct them to discriminate against, without taking away from those individuals' human and legal rights to marry those whom they love.

Is there a protest about these religions' rights to perform rituals? Perform away, I say. Do any states accept a baptismal certificate in place of a birth certificate? Does administration of last rites supersede a certificate of death? Of course not. Religions do their thing and the state handles its own documentation, and civil documentation has the last word legally.

The JK Wedding Dance Video has an Act II

"Defense of marriage" has taken on a new meaning and in one of those only-on-the-internet stories, Jill and Kevin found themselves in it.

(You have surely seen pictures of the wounded Rihanna on the news, and Chris Brown -- the singer on the wedding video -- was the guy who did the wounding.)

So Jill and Kevin put up a dance video website, and you can enter there to donate money to the Sheila Wellstone Institute, to prevent domestic violence. And while you're there, you can watch the wedding video again ... and just try to keep from dancing yourself!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Advice from my dad

My dad was a keen observer of my birthdays. Whatever happened on my birthday would be a great observation of it.

The year I turned 15 I received a letter from the governor of Texas, congratulating me for having been born there. When I was an ardent piano student, I got an informal pic of Vladimir Horowitz, personally inscribed to me, and the next year, the same from Arturo Toscanini. Another year there came an original Pogo strip, with an inscription to me from Walt Kelly as well as a letter from him.

At other times, Daddy would make a point of taking me someplace and introducing me to someone he knew I would find interesting. One year I was taken to meet Leo F. Grandmontagne, a geologist (I loved the fact that his first name was Leo, because I, of course, am a Leo). Leo F. Grandmontagne gave me some selenite crystals for my collection. Another year I met a taxidermist and yet another year, a man who made prosthetic arms and legs, who showed me how his own worked.

Because it was summer, some birthdays I was off at camp. And there were several tough years when my dad was in the hospital. But after I was grown up and had left home, letters came instead. One year I was told that precisely at 3.28 a.m. "...all the docs at Brooke General Hospital stop what they're doing and turn toward the maternity department and bow."

When I found the box with "old stuff" -- the one with the water pistols? and the egg? -- it also contained a letter which I received on my birthday 40 years ago today. It was the one time my dad actually gave me advice. I remembered the advice, but finding the letter itself was a thrill, because of all the offhand comments he made (most of which can't be printed here). It's too bad more parents aren't as open with their children as he was with me in this letter. After telling me that the United States would not have a violent revolution, he wound down with these comments:

Who do you like most? He might have been a
son-of-a-bitch. Who do you dislike the most?
He was probably a nice guy if you talk to him right.
St. Francis of Assisi was probably a lousy neighbor,
but he was a saint.

Danny the Red? Now that he's a tycoon with a Rolls,
he has no time for the canaille. A buck is the
best way to assuage any of the potential
revolutionaries, and as long as the economy keeps
feeding the animals, you may be sure there will
be no revolutions ...

You don't know what to do? You see everyone
doing their thing successfully? You may be
sure they have their fears and doubts just as
you and I and Adolf Hitler and Aldrin and Collins
and everyone else. Bigger ones than ours, too.

When I was your age, I fell into that trap of wondering
why everyone else seemed to be having more fun than I was.
Now, with a melancholy air, I know for a complete fact
that had I gone off to school, gotten a PhD in birds,
painted all I wanted, I would now be rich, famous, and
everything else. Ironically, I see those who I sorta envied,
completely lost just about the time I know where the hell I am,
and now, I feel it's too late.

I should have had the wonderful
fun of looking at Kennicott's willow
warblers on Adak when I was 30 ...
not when I'm 54.

So, dammit, do what you want to do most and like
best. If you can't do something and don't like anything,
then, dammit, cultivate it. Nothing invented by the
animal is anywhere near perfect much of the time
(including you).

What I loved about my birthday letter forty years ago was that my dad was giving me permission to be myself. He was of the generation that had finished high school at the depths of the depression, then gone through a war, and fear of and for the future marked many of their parental judgments.

Forty years on, I am sure this letter made me a better parent when my time came. Getting your parent's permission to displease him sometimes was a wonderful gift. Thank you, Daddy, for this and so many other things.

Gypsum var. Selenite crystal in clay matrix, crystal measures 3.4 cm (specimen Joseph W. Vasichko) Clay bank along West Branch of Meander Creek, Ellsworth, Mahoning County, Ohio.

The image of the Kennicott's willow warbler is from

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A letter from Eddie

Eddie Barnes: a name from the past. I met Eddie in grade school. His dad ran the village's only pharmacy. Yes! It had a soda counter, when you could get a cherry or chocolate Coke, made step by step, where Eddie sometimes worked. Eddie was smart and talented but above all, Eddie was fun. He loved music and played piano like nobody's business, was a great dancer and managed the football team.

I sound like Eddie is no more, but Eddie's still here. He is a GLBT activist in Houston. For many years in San Francisco he was a volunteer chaplain at a city hospital. People who have not known him since grade school know him as Ed, and Ed sent me a letter I am printing here in full because, well, it doesn't hurt for us to be bitch-slapped into realizing its truth.

(Tobias Barrington Wolff was the GLBT liaison in Obama's presidential campaign.)

Dear Mr. Wolff:

I'm Ed Barnes and I was present at a luncheon prior to the Texas March 4, 2008 primaries here in Houston which you hosted for leaders of the GLBT community of Houston. In said luncheon you asked for our endorsement and to vote for "Barack" as you referred to him on a first-name basis.

I want you to know that I have given approximately $500 to Obama's campaign. I stood out in the weather for two weeks at the March 4 primary early voting center in Houston (at the West Gray Multi Purpose Center) and handed out fliers for Obama. I repeated the two weeks for the Nov election as well. I also worked election day in front of my precinct 34 here in Houston 6:30am to closing polls.

I was so impressed with your presentation of Obama and one of the things you said to us: that if Obama were elected president he would issue an executive order to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". My impression was Obama would indeed live up to his promises. This was further installed in my mind when Obama had an hour-long conference call with the board of the Houston GLBT political caucus. As you know, the Houston GLBT caucus then endorsed him.

I felt excited and elated that finally we gay people would be treated fairly. You told us you were the GLBT liaison to Obama's administration. I was thrilled for the first time in my life to be a part of a candidate's campaign.

Then suddenly, the request to use the so called Evangelist Rev Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at Obama's Inaugural. I cannot tell you how shocked and saddened I was at this action of Obama's. What an insult -- to say the least -- to GLBT people.

Secondly, I am still waiting on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" termination by his aforementioned promise of an executive order.

Tobias, I am 65 years old and have been a political activist all my life. I was hosed in Berkeley during the anti-Vietnam war protests and marched in every GLBT parade when I lived in San Francisco. Worked early voting centers for GLBT rights and Houston GLBT caucus-endorsed candidates. I've glued enough envelopes for the GLBT caucus here in Houston but thankfully the glue has not shut my mouth, probably much to your dismay.

I have lived with HIV with good health for over five years now. However, I do have a heart condition brought on by chemo with the elimination of Karposi's Sarcoma. I now, being retired, volunteer as a patient mentor at our HIV Thomas Street Clinic here in Houston.

What I'm trying to say to you is I'm awfully tired of politicians who "gay bait". Obama to me is a true picture of this now. I feel like a fool because I never spent a cent on anyone's campaign until his. I'm so saddened that I may die with my heart condition with the status quo for GLBT people still without human rights on an equal basis.

Many of us here in Houston, Texas have been fighting for rights of GLBT folks all our lives. Keep in mind that the Lawrence sodomy case came, and was set up, by GLBT folks right here in Houston.

So in effect, please tell Mr. Obama that I am just fucking pissed off with the usual "gay baiting" bullshit practiced by him and his predecessor Bill Clinton when he then approved DOMA.

I'm tired, Tobias, and have lost all faith in politics. Saddened and genuinely hurt by Obama's political promises of equality of GLBT folks. He pure and simply gay baited. Know that many in Houston's community are angry and we don't forget.

As for myself, I feel much better in telling you that you were a part of the gay baiting process or you've been duped like the rest of us. Please don't let me go out of this life feeling this way. Again I'm just so saddened and angry. Do you really think he will deliver for us? We've certainly been moved by his promises but prioritized on the back burner, which appears to not even be lighted.

Edward R. Barnes
606 Harold Street #14
Houston, TX 77006

Back into my MacroMicro voice again. Look, I'm something of a political animal and I understand the need for compromise. But human rights are not a place for compromise. This is first, foremost, and maybe even only a human rights issue.

The Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell are blatant discrimination against people's most inrooted, basic natures. GLBT people can no more become "straight" than straight people can become GLBT. You are who you are.

You who say you don't know any GLBT people? I say, examine your life. Someone close to you is in a closet. You are keeping that person there. Your insistence that someone fit your description of normal is denying that person's basic reality. Is that love, keeping someone else from being their fully realized human self? All the reasons you may have are human constructs. Whatever God may be sees only our perfect selves.

Monday, July 20, 2009

What makes you a Catholic if you don't accept Catholic teachings?

The Talk to Action blog today discusses the Catholic Church's "art of constructive schism." Guest blogger Frank Cocozzelli writes about the ways in which ultra-conservative elements are driving out or punishing liberals and moderates in the Roman Catholic Church.

Standing at the far side of the Reformation, I have always found this issue totally confounding. Operating within the terms of the Catholic Church itself, how is it possible to be a "moderate" or a "liberal"? The Church says what it says, and that's that.

There appear to be places within Church doctrine where someone can sincerely disagree. But none of those places are concerned with infallibility. I went to Wikipedia to find the exact words to use for this, and find the distinctions so nicely drawn that it's worth a direct quote.

Catholic theology divides the functions of the teaching office of the Church into two categories: the infallible Sacred Magisterium and the fallible Ordinary Magisterium. The infallible Sacred Magisterium includes the extraordinary declarations of the Pope speaking ex cathedra and of ecumenical councils (traditionally expressed in conciliar creeds, canons, and decrees), as well as of the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Despite its name, the "ordinary and universal Magisterium" falls under the infallible Sacred Magisterium, and in fact is the usual manifestation of the infallibility of the Church, the decrees of popes and councils being "extraordinary".

Examples of infallible extraordinary papal definitions (and, hence, of teachings of the sacred magisterium) are Pope Pius IX's definition of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and Pope Pius XII's definition of the Assumption of Mary. Examples of infallible extraordinary Conciliar decrees include the Council of Trent's decree on justification, and Vatican I's definition of papal infallibility. ... the ordinary and universal magisterium is the usual manifestation of infallibility, the decrees of popes and councils being the extraordinary expression.

In other words, and not wanting to be obstreperous, accepting infallibility of the pope and of the body of the church is part of the definition of being Catholic. If you do not accept that, by definition you are not a Catholic.

More to the point: why would you want to consider yourself a Catholic if you don't believe what the Church teaches? That's where I stumble. If you do not accept the teachings of the Catholic Church, by definition you're not a Catholic. Whatever benefits Catholics get from being Catholic are not for you. To protest that you are still a Catholic is to give jurisdiction over your life to an organization whose teachings you reject. Why the insistence?

It's obvious that many Catholics today are non-Catholics, or at least living in a state of sin, by their own definitions. Catholics get abortions and use birth control at rates slightly higher than the U.S. average. I guess the catch here is that the Church will not acknowledge that people who make these choices are not Catholics; rather it considers them as living in a condition of sin. So the Church doesn't throw these people out. If you're presidential candidate John Kerry, it may try to humiliate you by publicly denying you communion, but very few people actually get excommunicated.

Let's try these on for size:
"I'm a vegetarian but I eat meat."
"I'm a Jew but I refuse to have my son circumcised."
"I'm a Quaker but I'm a member of the NRA."
They don't work either -- and they all have more latitude within their definitions than Catholicism does. What am I missing?

Not because it was easy but because it was hard

The past several days have been filled with moon landing memories. Bookstore C has displays of commemorative newspapers, magazines, and other ways to part people from their money. Mira Costa tells us of the big step she is undertaking today, and my thoughts are very much with her. And I have been reminded of what I did on that day 40 years ago.

And I must say: what optimists everyone was! Most Americans were home huddled around the television. But not I. I and several skeptical friends decided to take advantage of the fact that everyone was looking in a different direction. We went out and climbed an abandoned dry-dock in Richardson's Bay, off Sausalito.

In two dinghies we rowed out to the structure, an unpainted wooden hulk several stories high floating way offshore. Someone had scouted earlier and found decking a few feet above water level where we could tie up. Clambering aboard, we found the deck leading to a featureless wall several stories high, with one ladder up.

When the dry-dock was abandoned, part of making it unusable was the destruction of that ladder by the systematic hatcheting of every rung. In other words, it wasn't really a ladder. It was two uprights with nubs of torn wood sticking out of the two sides. We used that to climb to the top.

Which was another deck, although rotten and broken in many places, through which one could fall fifty or seventy feet, whatever it was, into the dark interior where we could hear water lapping. We picnicked there for a couple hours. I made some attempt to be in the moment, and sat apart gazing up at the pale mid-afternoon moon.

Rationally, I could accept that there were people up there. It didn't seem to mean much, though -- after all, rationally I knew there were people in Australia, but I couldn't see them either.

Getting down that ladder was worse than climbing up, but we did leave and scatter to our homes. The streets of San Francisco were still empty in the early evening, and sounds of TV dialogue leaked through open windows. And I wondered: What's this all about, that America is so pleased by this and I simply can't see the point?

At that tender age I had known the total bliss of love, and I had found thrills in various discoveries that may seem small but were big when they happened (discovering garlic, how John MacLaren seeded the dunes to build Golden Gate Park, getting a feel for the Niagara Escarpment). But what spoke to me loudest were the words of e.e. cummings.

you shall above all things be glad and young

you shall above all things be glad and young.
For if you're young, whatever life you wear

it will become you;and if you are glad
whatever's living will yourself become.
Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need:
i can entirely her only love.

whose any mystery makes every man's
flesh put space on;and his mind take off time

that you should ever think, may god forbid
and (in his mercy) your true lover spare:
for that way knowledge lies,the foetal grave
called progress,and negation's dead undoom.

I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

One of the best photos ever taken

This stunning photograph of a bubble at the instant of breaking is for real. Many, many more in the same series -- with info on how they were taken -- can be found here. If you look carefully, you will see the photographer reflected at the moment the pic was caught.

An image like this works better to persuade me about miracles than any "proof" I'll ever see about ghosts or visitors from space. As the old Beacon Street curriculum taught us Unitarian children, miracles abound.

Incidentally, Richard Heeks, the photographer, has also posted a completely unedited set of images here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What was I thinking? Chapter 37,592

Yesterday I found a stack of photographs from the 1975 dedication of the Poland, Ohio time capsule (at that time my mother was president of the Poland Historical Society). They were in a just-discovered time capsule of my own.

I am deaccessioning, because after 20 years it's time to bury my parents (No, they're not in the time capsule) so I am cleaning out my storage unit. There was a box labeled OLD STUFF. It was a big box, a heavy box, a sealed box. It was a sleeping dog I would no longer let lie.

Here are some of the things I found inside the sealed box:
The photographs from the time capsule dedication. I wonder if anyone in the village knows it exists!
Programs from celebrations at Poland Presbyterian Church in 1927.
Original membership applications for the Poland Library and Historical Society, probably from about 1924. The one shown is Mr. Steinfeld's.
Youngstown Vindicator roto section clippings about old-house tours (featuring, among others, my grandparents' house on College Street and my parents' house on Water Street) for years between 1945 and 1975.
Two half page roto section pictures from the mid 30s. One shows a group of girls, including my mother and her sisters Billie and Betsy, in Poland Woods. The other shows a group of young people, including Mother, her cousin Weedie, and other people on a horse-drawn sleigh at Zedakers' farm.
Programs from annual Junior Achievement awards dinners for my junior and senior high school years.
Programs for plays produced by my Junior Achievement company -- the only J.A. theater group in existence.
Programs for four years of high school academic awards banquets.

Six years of the Seminarian, my high school paper.
A program for the installation of new officers for the Poetry Club my junior year.
Aunt Betsy's first grade class photo from about 1927.
Letters from and newspaper clippings about a boy I had a massive crush on for years.
Pictures of me, My Hair, and Duke the Dog at the Grand Canyon during our grand tour of the U.S. and Canada.
An envelope containing My Hair. [When I lived in England, I cut it all off. The guy who did it went chop, chop, chop. I saved one hank and sent one to my ex-sweetheart, who still had Duke the Dog. I sent the third hank to my dad, from whom I received a telegram reading AWAITING RANSOM NOTE STOP]

A first-generation photocopy, on horrible paper, of a headline in the London Evening News, January 3, 1972. It appeared in only one edition, then the sub-editor woke up.
Hand-written notes on the contents of the rijsttafel at Garoeda in The Hague.
Hand-written notes on wild boar with juniper berries, after a meal in rural Luxemburg. (Afterwards I was asked to dance by two young men, Siegfried and Adolf.)
Two feet of very heavy chain.
Two empty water pistols.
One unbroken brown egg whose insides have evaporated.

I ask "What was I thinking?" because I cannot imagine a time when all those articles would ever have been near each other. Much less, why are they very carefully packed together in one box? And the chain? And the egg? Some of my past decisions have subsequently mystified me, but this leaves me beyond mystification.

Incidentally, everything listed down to Betsy in first grade is being sent to the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.