Category: uncategorized media & blog entries

Other people’s children and cheesecake

Other people’s children can be a joy. Sometimes I see a child doing something I used to enjoy doing. Other times (in the classroom), their curiosity and excitement restores my mood, which is often so negatively affected by the jaded adults around me. This Christmas I have noticed yet another joy I find in my friends’ children. That is parents view Christmas differently than the childless. They also have financial worries, and stress related to socializing with relatives. I’m sure some feel anxious hoping their kids will like their presents. But they experience the magic of Christmas because they are always watching and thinking of their children, to whom Christmas has not yet lost an iota of magic, to whom Christmas music is not yet annoying (I love it, but not everyone does!), who are perhaps only beginning to guess the truth about Santa Claus.

Recently at church one of the deacons had everyone partner with a stranger for an exercise. I might add how strange this sort of thing is during Roman Catholic Mass, but I suspect this deacon must have grown up a Baptist or something–I digress. One person was instructed to smile with real affection and love, looking into the other person’s eyes. The second person was to maintain eye contact, but to keep from smiling. It is possible, but not common for a person to be able to do this. “Monkey see, monkey do,” perhaps? The deacon explained that he had done this exercise during a workshop many years ago under the direction of a psychologist who did indeed have some professional term for this phenomenon.

I don’t know about psychology, but I do know that it is hard to look at someone who is experiencing wonder, and not to feel it or be reminded of having felt it before oneself. It is hard to look at someone in tears, suffering grief, without feeling some pain as well. Sometimes it is rather superficial (crying during The Notebook perhaps). Other times it is a great thing that touches the soul of the person who is looking (deciding to give to the homeless, having seen their suffering). There is potential for something even sacred, when both persons involved are touched (this happens, for example, when one has crossed from trying to offer comfort to actually comforting another).

So it appears with parents and children in particular. When I was a child, my mother would say, “When you cry, I cry.” Only many years later did I realize the profundity of her statement. It was not, “You cry, therefore I cry,” implying a cold cause and effect. It was an expression of connection. I experience what you experience because we are connected.

I suppose to be a true and enlightened Christian, that is, when we’re in the new world, in heaven, whathaveyou, we will feel this connection easily and with all of Creation, maybe with God himself. As it is or as we are, it is easier to feel as one with those close to us, and it is easy to wall off others and to refuse to feel with them.

But I am getting far away from what I had wished to write. What I have noted this Christmas is how much people love their children. This is not surprising, and no one questions it, but it is like this: you may have heard a friend talking about how delicious cheesecake is, and believed it, but it is different to watch your friend eating cheesecake–to see the goofy grin that a person gets when they eat something so luscious. You went from knowing they enjoy cheesecake to seeing they enjoy cheesecake. So in some sense, you feel their enjoyment too.

Finally, other people’s children are a joy when they are merciful. Kids are infamous for being too honest. “Mom, why is that lady so fat?” and things like that. For me, it is always a relief joy when I lose control of my skateboard or something in front of a kid–and, of course, it always seems to happen in front of a kid–and they don’t ridicule my old, not-as-coordinated-as-I-should-be arse. In my mind I say, “Thanks, kid! I know you saw that!”

Am I a hippie?

The answer, of course, is no. I like showers, shaving, shoes, and my “love” is not free!

But there are lots of opinions I have in common with bona fide hippies, and sometimes I think about this. Today I thought of it a little because I was listening to The Take Away on NPR, and they were playing listeners’ comments on gun control. Ever since living in Japan, I admit I am probably what you’d call pro-gun control. The proviso to that is that I’m not in favor of every gun law out there or on the table–I’m just for better regulation of guns in general. What struck me about listening to the comments on NPR today was that so many of them were actually consistent with what I think. I’m not used to that since most of my friends and acquaintances are anti-regulation Republicans, and even Libertarians–ahem, anarchists, ahem–and my own mother is an NRA member.

I avoid talking to any of them about guns because frankly, I believe their views are rooted in culture rather than reason, and I do not like hearing their cliches and hyperbole. That doesn’t keep them from bringing the issue up in conversation (especially my mom, because she really does not give a damn that I hate talking about guns), and it certainly doesn’t keep them from plastering my Facebook feed with pro-gun jokes, memes, and articles of dubious journalistic merit. It also doesn’t keep them from bashing anyone who disagrees with them, rather than, hm, I don’t know, refuting us? Trying to?

Anyway, I suspect there are people I know who feel as I do. But guns are not something I consider polite to bring up in casual conversation. So it was nice hearing strangers on the radio say things besides, “Guns don’t kill people, people do!” or “Obama is a fascist!” You know? There were some callers from pretty conservative cities in the South, and I sort of imagined them like myself, like little islands of Can’t-We-Talk-About-This-Logically spread far and wide in a sea of My-Way-Or-The-Highway.

I understand people who hate regulation. I used to feel that way myself. I was raised by people who think one should never register all of his or her guns. I can imagine, I think, what the founding fathers were thinking about when they wrote the Constitution of the USA.

But what’s both annoying as well as scary is the antagonistic attitude that so many people seem to have. It’s annoying because it prevents edifying discourse. It’s scary because if you’re this aggressive with your [sometimes unsubstantiated] opinions, are you really going to be cool as a cucumber with a deadly weapon?

I also think about guns as analogous to cars. Both are useful to humankind, but both kill a lot of innocent people in this country every year as well. There are two points here.

The first is that cars are regulated. You have to insure yourself because it’s well known that you’re likely at some point to damage someone else’s property or body with your car. You have to have a license to drive a car because it’s well known that although a licensed driver is not necessarily a good one, an unlicensed driver is probably unlicensed for a good reason. You’re not supposed to drink and drive, text and drive, or speed. The list goes on. There are many laws associated with driving, and while they are not perfectly enforced, they are well enough enforced that fewer people die nowadays from flying through the windshield than in the days when seat belts were optional. I know there are people who say, “If someone would rather die than wear a seat belt, who is Uncle Sam to tell them otherwise?” The problem with that view is that it assumes Uncle Sam is trying to save people from themselves, which is not the case. What Uncle Sam is trying to do is save innocent people from stupid people, and to save public money.

Consider that children cannot be relied upon to make decisions about their safety, so they depend on their parents. Well, what happens when the parents do not make safe decisions? What happens when the parent does not think seat belts are really needed? In such cases, children need protection from their parents’ ignorance. Parents sometimes need financial incentives to make safer choices–the incentive here being, “I still don’t think seat belts are a big deal, but I would rather keep my money than pay a ticket.”

Also consider that people who fly through windshields typically need paramedics and police officers, who all need paychecks, and who all drive vehicles that require maintenance and fuel. So there is a significant cost to taxpayers when someone decides seat belts aren’t his cup of tea.

So a person has a choice to use a gun, and let’s not even consider what type of gun for now. A person has this choice, but it is a choice that should be regulated because it can jeopardize the safety of innocent people like children as well as cost taxpayers money that some of us think would be better spent on filling potholes (just saying).

The second point about guns and cars is that both threaten life. Do we care? This is the point: Do we? Where is Pope Francis? He could write about this better than I can. Our culture lacks respect for the dignity of life. Part of it is that we do not all agree on what is dignity, or we cannot agree on what is life (I am not only referring to abortion, but also to cases such as Terry Schiavo’s), or some of us are more cautious about certain slippery slopes than others. Part of it is also just either not knowing or not really caring that replying “LOL” to that text right now, while cruising 75 mph is actually putting other people’s lives at risk. Disregard for one’s own life is one thing. But part of living in a society is you don’t get to disregard other people’s lives! Or at least in my utopian dream that’s part of living in a society. But we constantly prioritize our desires and impatience over other people’s right to live.

Every time someone decides she’d rather drive home drunk than pay for a cab —

Every time someone answers a text message while driving —

Every time I speed —

Every time you try to talk on the phone, smoke, eat, and shift,  all at the same time! , in traffic —

These actions put our convenience, amusement, peckishness, and impatience above all else. We say to ourselves that nothing will happen, but the truth is that car crashes happen all the time. Fatal car crashes are not rare. And often it is not the foolish driver who dies.

When that guy in the white Camaro ran a red light at high speed a couple of years ago, I hated him so much because I realized this. Because his actions said, “Your husband’s life is not as important as me having a bit of fun.” Of course this is an example of someone disobeying the law, but certainly we all know that more people would run red lights if they weren’t afraid of a fine.

What I’m getting at is that people are selfish. I am not being high and mighty about this because I am not an exception, although part of my religion is trying to be less selfish and more life-affirming everyday. I have driven under the influence before, and that was wrong. The answer is not to defend my “right” to make a wrong decision though; the answer is to accept the consequences, and–Jesus said it best–“sin no more.” That is it. I cannot imagine that I will ever drive a vehicle like that again. For me, that is because my conscience has grown. But for others, conscience can be silenced (alcohol can do that, of course), and sometimes the law is just that one thing that makes somebody say, “You know what, I can’t risk getting caught doing this.” Their motive is selfish, but the result is the same: everybody is safer. This is what laws are for.

With guns, it is no different. If manufacturers could get away with selling faulty guns, some of them would (The Jungle principle). If some gun shops could get away with selling guns to anybody, they would. Since we already know that guns can be gotten illegally even under current laws, then some will say that is proof that gun laws don’t work. Don’t they though? Is the Camaro driver proof that traffic laws don’t work? No. Gun laws do not prevent every nutjob from getting a gun, but they do prevent some nutjobs from getting them. That is better than nothing when we are talking about people’s lives.

We need gun laws because people need gun laws when their consciences fail them. We need gun laws so that when a person cannot buy a gun legitimately, he has to ask himself (a) Do I need help? and (b) Since I cannot acquire a gun lawfully, is it worth it to risk getting caught with unlawfully purchased gun?

I’m not going to get into the hyperbole and fear of “One World Government,” or “New World Order,” or the other things that I’ve heard about from many of my anti-regulation acquaintances. I will also not get into how I interpret the Second Amendment. I’m not even going to address my friends’ logical fallacies. There is so, so much more to this issue, but all I want to say in conclusion is this:

What is more important: abstract rights or the lives of human beings? What is demonstrably harmful about restricting gun ownership? Are you certain that our society would not be safer with fewer guns? Have you ever lived in a developed country with strict gun laws?

Where hope lives

Little people who are open and even excited to learn.

Children are on my mind this week because I’m participating in a short internship the purpose of which is to better gauge my own interest in teaching. I’ve been reading and discussing education research articles and videos, and observing lots of students and teachers. Sometimes it is amazing; other times it is amazingly sad.

When I logged onto WordPress a moment ago, I saw a lot of the usual: writers who write about writing, and even some who write about writing about writing; people getting offended by injustices in the world; people writing about “microaggressions,” who would probably be a lot happier if they (a) tried to see anything in life through a lens other than that of power politics, and (b) quit spending their free time writing about things that piss them off. I know I’m happier when I write about things that make me happy.

Anyhow, the annoying aspects of WordPress got me thinking about children versus adults. I spent my whole lunch irritated at having to do a group presentation with some fellow interns. Some of them half-ass. Some already knew when they applied that they don’t want to be teachers, but thought it would be an easy way of earning a stipend. Some are just terrified they’re not going to get their fantasy engineering job when they graduate, and consider teaching to be their Plan B.

Of course not everyone is this way, and at least one of my classmates seems really charming as well as apt at teaching.

Whoa. I just had to interrupt writing this. My husband texted, “Were you affected by this lockdown business?” I didn’t know what he was talking about, but it had to have something to do with one of the schools where I’ve been volunteering. To Google. Several schools, including one where I’ve been spending my time this week, were locked down today in response to telephone threats. Nothing happened, and all the students have been sent home already. Wow. It’s hard to explain how heartbreaking it is to think about any of these students I’ve only spent a few days with getting harmed. Oh my God, bless them and their teachers and their worried parents!

Okay, I’ll return to what I was writing. Although I have plenty of adult friends I love and value, a lot of adults exasperate me with the things they do that they also try to tell their children not to do. “Do as I say, not as I do,” is a phrase I hate more as an adult than I did as a child.

If you want your child to be considerate of his peers, show him what that looks like.

If you want your student not to interrupt others when they’re speaking, do not interrupt your student.

If you do not want your daughter to cheat on her homework, then you should not cheat on yours either (even if you are a parent and an employee and a student).

If you want your teen to drive safely, then you put your phone away and slow down yourself.

So for me, one of the attractions of teaching is interacting with children–with little people who are open even excited to learn. Little people who laugh at funny names, who haven’t yet been trained to act more “professionally.” Little people who are shy at first, who giggle at their mistakes, and wear sneakers with every single outfit! Little people who don’t psychoanalyze each other yet, but who do seem to instinctively try to manipulate grown-ups.

Other adults make me smile, of course. My friends and family, the random witty and outgoing stranger you meet from time to time. Hearing a Welsh person pronounce “squirrel.” Any time I witness an act of kindness, or when I see somebody doing something with great skill or passion.

But kids stir up something else. Maybe I am just more sympathetic to them because I believe they are more malleable, dependent, and therefore innocent than somebody my age. But I don’t know if that’s it really. When I’m around children, I feel like we should be more like them–they shouldn’t be more like us. There are so many things we lose from childhood, so many ways in which we become less honest and more cold, all in the name of what? Learned mutual distrust? Ambition? Worship of mammon?

Children are not perfect, of course. They are people. To be childish, however, does not mean to be childlike;  can we not train out the former while preserving the latter?

I am drifting away from my point. My point is that I do enjoy being around children. It is miraculous to see comprehension dawn on their smooth faces, to see them learning to communicate with each other, to watch them collaborate on simple problems the same way adults do on more complex problems. It is hard to see them have difficulty, but their will to learn can be inspiring.

It is really, really hard to see them disengaged, to see them give up, to see them misbehaving for no apparent reason. There are as many causes for this as there are students. Some are too hungry to concentrate. Some are starved for attention at home. Others may be in need of medication or therapy they can’t afford–or their parents are in need of medication or therapy they can’t afford. But there is hope and potential in children, if only someone can keep it alive.

Ultimately, I guess hope is what it’s all about. Hope that my kids will do better than me. Hope that there will be an earth full of wonderful diversity for them to enjoy. Hope that one generation will live in a more peaceful world than ours today. Maybe even hope that life is more than just the seventy years or so that we walk this land.

Blood drive at church and the nurse who learned to stop fainting

They really got me with that flyer in the church bulletin about a little kid who needed blood transfusions during treatments for leukemia. Gosh.

When I was old enough, I think 16, I remember being excited to give blood. The bloodmobile regularly parked at my high school, and lots of students would give as often as we were allowed to. Once I was sent away for not having enough iron in my blood (ah, those vegetarian and vegan days!), but other than that I had no problems.

When I was 18, I left for the military. The first time I had a reaction to anything was at MEPS, when they took a few vials of blood. It was crappy, but not that big of a deal. A nurse put me in bed in a little room by myself for fifteen minutes or so, and then I went on to all those other tests I had that day.

Once I finished boot camp and all that stuff, I got back to donating when I could. Then two or three times in a row it was just… awful. The last time I donated was on a bloodmobile parked at the naval hospital where I was working at the time. Across from me, a physician was also giving. While the blood technicians (or whatever they are) were elevating my feet and looking worriedly at my pale face, I asked why I was having a problem–I wasn’t afraid of needles or new to the experience or anything. “It’s called a vasovagal response. People just have them sometimes,” the doc told me.

After that, I started feeling fainty pretty much every time I needed a needle stuck in me–which was a lot, since the Navy required me to get a ton of vaccinations. I became avoidant, though I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been afraid, of medical procedures in general.

Finally, a couple of months ago, I had to have a mole cut out of my back. First my doctor took a little shaving biopsy, which was bad enough. And damned if it didn’t turn out to be “abnormal.” Since I, like most people, really don’t want cancer, I made the appointment to have a deeper chunk of flesh cut out. Fortunately for me, the nurse practitioner performing the procedure was totally cool. She knew I was fainty, so she talked to me about all kinds of interesting things. Then it came up that she used to be fainty too–“How’s that? You said you always knew you wanted to be a nurse! And you are one!” I said. Finally she told me how she’d always had the calling, and so when she got to nursing school, she just… fainted. That’s simple. She told me she fainted about a dozen times before she became desensitized, and she hasn’t fainted since (about thirty years). I was amazed.

So when I got the blood drive flyer in the church bulletin a couple of weeks ago, I let myself also be inspired. “Mind over matter,” is a really old mantra, but it’s probably still my favorite. The best part of physical challenges, to me, has been the triumph of my own will. That’s the magic of a marathon. That’s what makes a snack taste really excellent when you eat at the top of a mountain. That’s why it’s bothered me not giving blood and having to ask to sit down whenever I get shots. I don’t think it’s pride, but it’s really just that I want to do what I want to do–so why don’t I? It’s that I don’t want to make decisions based on fear or anxiety or imagination. It’s when Paul talks in the epistles about endurance, perseverance, and steadfastness. It’s just not consistent with me to avoid doing something good because I don’t want something uncomfortable to happen to me. I would rather donate blood and faint, than not even try because I might faint.

I donate blood today. I told the vampires that I had been fainty in the past, but I also wore some red lip gloss so they wouldn’t remark on my lips becoming pale (if they did). It was fine! It was fine! It was fine! I drank a ton of water, I looked at baseball news (sad indeed for my team, but that’s okay), and I talked to people who were around. I felt pretty hot and got tunnel vision for a  minute after the needle was removed, but I didn’t even care at all by then! My will triumphed. I was willing to faint if need be, and I didn’t; my apprehension had been unwarranted. Now maybe I’ve done a good deed, maybe even helped save a life. I am so happy, and I will be going back to donate next time.

Preparations, transportation, and where to put my emergency floss

Lately I have been making preparations for fall which I hope will make my life a little easier, since I anticipate my classes getting harder. One of the things I’m doing is researching my transportation options. I live about 25 miles from the school I’ll be attending, and in rush hour, that could put my commute at about an hour one way. On top of that, the route has some serious hills, and I would probably be using air conditioning (because green as I try to be, I hate sitting in a hot car).

I really want to align my behavior with my beliefs though, hence the research. The bus won’t work because I’m not Japanese, and I’m not commuting a total of four hours per day–I only mention the Japanese because I saw a TV program years ago about a real Japanese man who really did commute for four hours per day! No!

Carpool won’t work because… I just live in the boonies and I’m not very sociable. Who would I carpool with?

All the cool people are vanpooling. Of course, by “all the cool people” I simply mean “an increasing number of people I know.” Though I do feel some trepidation about it, I did decide to send an inquiry about it to my school vanpool coordinator.

The cost will probably be less than what I’d pay for gasoline and a parking permit–that’s not an issue.

I might be trapped with a van full of weirdos for an hour or two per day–that’s not even an issue.

Really, it’s my junk. Where will I put it? I don’t want to carry my lunch bag around, as well as my backpack full of books and possibly lab gear (coat, goggles). And I have to have an emergency stash of floss, feminine products, a baseball cap, and hand sanitizer somewhere–that’s just part of who I am! And I refuse to buy a wheelie backpack before my hair turns white!

Cue the silly thing that made me feel totally stoked today:

UCSD has lockers for rent for commuter students! So if I do join a vanpool or find some other way to ditch my car, I’ll have a place for my bento box and my hat and everything! Whew!

Sometimes it really is just the little things in life that bring joy or comfort or relief. I guess sometimes it’s just knowing that one of those ‘little things’ even exists. What happened today was that I decided it was important to ask about the vanpool. I decided that not having a place for my emergency supplies was not an acceptable reason to forget about it and just keep driving my car every day. (I should add that I might not join a vanpool–but only because there might not be one that I can easily reach, or that will fit with my schedule.) I decided that if I could, I would just make the sacrifice, stupid and minor as it would be. Only after that did I find out I wouldn’t need to make that sacrifice at all!

Now the serious question: what cool pictures would I tape up inside my locker? Periodic table? Cute animals? Tardises and starships?

To sublime

The short story of how I came to Christ:

Today I awoke late, around seven thirty, and I read a few pages of Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, the book which played such a great part in my Christianity.

When I was about fifteen, the title, The Sickness Unto Death, by the same author, attracted me when I happened to see it at Barnes & Noble. I asked my mother to buy me the book, as well as another which had something to do with Hinduism, an interest of mine at that time. Mother made me choose only one, and I can still remember how surprised she seemed that I chose the Kierkegaard title. The cover described the book as a “psychological exposition from a Christian perspective,” or something close to that, and my mother must have realized how (unfairly) biased against Christianity I was. She bought me the book.

One book led to another, and I found myself reading Works of Love. Around that time I was also taking a humanities class which required me to read several passages from the Bible in order to learn about the ancient Hebrew culture. Together, Kierkegaard and my teacher, Mr. Stewart (I use his real name because I think it is sufficiently common to maintain his anonymity), pried my mind open to just read about Jesus of Nazareth. Just read. Find out about the man. I began to read the Gospels.

I went to school one day after having been absent for a few days, and had to be excused from a biology exam. The teacher let me study on an old couch in the back room. I guess it was typically me not to study biology, but instead to casually read whatever I wanted, in this case, Works of Love. By that time, I had read enough of the Gospels to begin to understand. I remember the ratty couch, and that it was in a little corner, with a window behind it. There were all sorts of animal specimens in jars on the shelves nearby. It was quiet. I don’t remember the particular section of the book I was reading–though perhaps I will rediscover it soon, since I have begun to read the book for a second time–but I believed Jesus was the Son of God. In a moment, I believed it. It was perhaps the least complicated event of my life, profound.

St. Augustine wrote something about believing being like a man finally deciding to get out of bed, but I would rather describe my experience almost in a chemical sense of spontaneity. A flame suddenly burned. I was conscious of it being my individual choice to believe or not to, but it seemed inevitable almost, as if now I knew the truth–and Jesus Christ was the truth. Whether I believed or not, whether I worshiped or not, I felt that what I had learned about Jesus was the truth, and one day this would become impossible to deny; so although it was still possible for me to choose to deny the truth for the time being, it seemed like a foolish and futile thing to do. So I was given the gift of faith, but it was a separate action for me to receive it.

To sublime:

As I said, I read a bit of Kierkegaard this morning. Oh, what wonderful things were stirred in me! Have you ever read or heard something that you knew was true? Something you needed to hear from someone’s voice besides your own? Something that made you say aloud, “Yes! Yes. Yes, that’s right!”

Have you ever loved an unpopular book or an obscure movie or band, and met someone who loved it too? There is a certain joy in finding out that the object of your love is also the object of someone else’s love! Of course there is, for if you love something, of course you believe it is worthy of everyone’s love! This is a basis for friendship, as C.S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves. (He also writes in the same book about the type of “love,” I am talking about in this paragraph, which is really, “intense like.”)

There are sublime thoughts and feelings. Ideas or sights or smells or sounds, etc., that seem to elevate one into a greater sphere of existence. The transcendentalist writers wrote about the beauty of nature, of various social and economic ideals. The Romantic painters crafted great images, full of symbols and ideas and ideals. In America particularly were painted epic landscapes, scenes of nature–of storms on the sea or sunrise over a mountaintop–which still drop jaws today, and remove the viewer for a few moments from his or her existence. The viewer forgets he is standing in a gallery and he might’ve worn more comfortable shoes. Perhaps she even forgets to look at the work critically, for she is just rapt by what she sees: How can it be so beautiful? she thinks.

Similar things happen for some of us when we spend time alone in nature. For others it happens listening to certain music, or looking at an infant’s tiny hands, or inhaling the gentle scent of roses in the morning.

In chemistry, to sublime is to change directly from a solid to a gaseous phase, without ever being a liquid. Dry ice is perhaps the best known example. I learned the term at school with some solid iodine. The substance gains energy, breaks bonds, and becomes a gas, which generally have greater entropy than solids. Now it isn’t my point to rewrite all of my general chemistry notes, but it is interesting to me to compare the two definitions of ‘sublime’ that I know of. The universe tends toward greater entropy just as water tends downhill, and here we can simply think of entropy as a measure of how much freedom something has to move.

How much freedom. The greater the entropy, the greater the freedom–might as well just say freedom generally, since it isn’t like atoms and molecules have much use for any freedom besides ‘freedom of movement.’

To me it seems that a sublime experience is no different than this. Isn’t it just a little gift of freedom? When I listen to blues, it frees me to forget that I am even sitting in traffic. When I read Kierkegaard or study physics or mathematics, it frees me from the box my thinking has been confined to–it does not force me to think in new ways, it helps me to do so. When I love God or other people, it frees me from self-centered anxiety.

I think of the Biblical phrase, “hearing, they do not hear,” or “seeing, they do not see.” It may be that a certain openness is needed in a person before she is able to experience something so wonderful. There are people who are perfectly indifferent about baby’s hands or the smell of roses. They could walk right by a sunset still thinking about what an ass Mike from HR was this morning. They see the sunset, but they do not see it; and they miss out on something valuable.

And so there are two sides:

There is you, and there is the rest of all that is (what is I’ll let the philosophers argue about). There is you relating to God. You relating to your own idea of yourself. You relating to you mom. You relating to a stray animal, a meteor, a chilly gust, a disturbing new idea, a familiar scent, a man outside the convenience store.

Is it a choice to hear and yet not hear? To see and yet not see? Certainly it is sometimes. The story of The Good Samaritan is evidence that it is no new phenomenon for men to find excuses to look away when they see someone else in need. We all have a friend who refuses to read or watch the news because it is all house fires and wars–and a part of us does not blame our friend’s refusal because we understand it!

But while there is little mystery in humans avoiding what is unpleasant, what can we say when people seem to be avoiding beautiful things? What can we say about the man who misses out on sunset while thinking about Mike from HR? What can we say about the woman who has a hundred surgeries because she couldn’t see she was lovely to begin with? How am I to understand my brothers and sisters who are not only indifferent to, but who actually abhor being outside?

I can’t answer these questions completely. I suppose they can be accounted for in some cases by differences in taste. There are people who take joy in studying bugs after all, while for most of us the presence of a bug would only add disgust or heebie jeebies to an otherwise sublime scene. There is more to it though. There is the interaction, the relation, the decision.

Beauty is everywhere, like the gift of faith. But it does not force its way into your heart or mind. Rather it says, “Here I am,” and waits patiently for you to take ownership of it. You do not have to take it, but if you do, you’re glad. If you do, you think it would’ve been terrible if you hadn’t. When you take ownership of faith, you become a new person; to your bodily existence is added a new, spiritual dimension (and this is higher freedom). When you take ownership of beauty, you feel something similar because via your physical senses, you spirit is awed or inspired; to the spiritual life you already had, more is added, though nothing is taken away from the physical in doing this.

I don’t know why some see it and some don’t. I don’t know why some grab hold of faith or beauty when they do see it, and why others don’t. But here I have written about seeing and embracing both. It feels right.

You probably have a modicum of control, but that may be all

Earlier this week I wasted a number of hours on a draft that I ultimately deleted. I couldn’t get it right, couldn’t work it out. It was about illusions of control. This is how my thinking went:

       I really want to go back to Japan! I hope my husband gets orders back there because that’s about the only way it’s happening…

       Shit, the timing is screwy. How am I going to finish my degree in time for the move, if he does get orders to Japan?!… 

       Almost three years since I got out, and what did I do? Went and married a Sailor so that Navy could continue to control my life!…

       No, no, no, no. Faulty thinking! Control is an illusion!

So then I went on to write about the Navy actually doing me a favor by teaching me that however I might like to have complete control, I just can’t have it. I actually consider it a Christian principle, too, because as Kierkegaard explains far better than I shall even attempt to, we need to need. If you want to feel intimacy, you need to feel need. If you want to know God, you need to need him–to know you need him. I’ll leave it at that, except to say that Kierkegaard really does explain it better; try reading the Kierkegaard book that changed my life, “Works of Love.”

Reading this post by Am I Thirty Yet, I figured out where my thinking went wonky on the aforementioned post: I was being, dare I say, uncharacteristically, black-and-white.

I stand by my belief that much in life is beyond our control, and things are no worse for military folk dealing with orders than they are for civilians dealing with natural disasters, medical bills, economic recession, transportation accidents, and so on. I stand by my belief that we need to need. Keenly feeling one’s dependence on God is a blessed thing, though it is not without suffering.

I understand what AmITY is writing too. When she described her anxiety over HIV, I was shocked to read it because one of my closest family members went through many months of severe anxiety over the same thing! I understand better than I wish to because honestly, though I do not like to admit it, I deal several symptoms of OCD. There are things I do to keep myself in line, but there are also things that I… can’t see as being within my control, much as–God knows– I want them to be.

But there is also power in belief. I’m not speaking so much about Jesus right now, as about the placebo effect. I spent a few years of my life depressed, and there is just no way that I would’ve emerged from that terrible gloom had I never believed it was within my power to do so. I believed that with sustained effort, I could get better. And I put in the effort, and I continue to every day. And I am better.

The problem with motivational posters and naturally optimistic friends is that they tend to tell you you’re thinking or feeling in a flawed way, and that you can just decide to stop. That’s not right, and is, I think, akin to telling an overweight person to just decide to do ten pullups.

I think mental health depends as much on behavior and environment as physical health does.

When I was depressed, I became inspired by the belief that I could climb out of the pit. As if I were in a literal pit, I looked around for tools to help me accomplish my goal. I began to observe the things and the people in life which made me feel worse, which encouraged nihilism and thought on the topic of suicide, well why not. Silly as it may sound, I had to quit listening to Elliott Smith. I still abstain from his music because it still has the power to stir up within me the terrible things. Why I ‘enjoyed’ his music back in those days is a psychological question for another day (or never!), but the fact is that when I listened to it I felt hopelessness and pain and what else it is hard to say. Franz Ferdinand doesn’t give me that. Lady Gaga doesn’t. Led Zeppelin doesn’t. J Cole. Beethoven. Elliott Smith did, and so I ceased to listen to him.

There are numerous changes I made to my behavior to encourage good moods, constructive thoughts, and pleasant feelings within myself. The important point is that I made changes to my behavior. I did not choose to be happy, but I chose people and things which would help my happiness.

Over the years I have done the same thing with my body. I ran a marathon, learned to swim, hiked Mt. Fuji, lost fifteen pounds, and did my first pullup. I did not decide, “Today I am able to be thinner!” I made changes to my behavior, which eventually led to those accomplishments.

All I’m getting at is that nothing can improve without work, but work requires motivation, and it is extremely difficult to feel motivated to do something you believe is actually impossible. So I say keep the motivational quotes coming, but maybe don’t tell people, “It could be worse!” because they are probably just thinking, as I used to, “Yes, or it could be better!” Or they are thinking you’re being awfully insensitive. Or you’re making them feel guilty, because they already know that kids in Africa are starving. Or a combination. So again, maybe don’t go with “It could be worse,” or “Look at the good things.”

Maybe talk to your friend about what’s causing his or her depression or anxiety or perpetually shitty mood. Suggest some behavioral therapy, if your friend has money for it. Or do some amateur BT like I did on myself (oh, better believe that I still do).

You don’t have total control, but you probably have some. It’s not either/or. Look for it. Study yourself, your surroundings, your reactions, what makes you cry, what makes you fume. Change your behavior and you will eventually change yourself. I do not say you can perfect yourself, but I think nearly all of us have a great capacity to improve and even heal ourselves. Cheers.

Perhaps you need there to be a reason

I like observing people. I love the witticisms that come from the mouths of strangers who I wouldn’t assume to be particularly clever based on appearance: skater boys, little old ladies, pretty girls. I also like to observe the way people communicate with one another, sort of in the way I like watching Olympic sports; I can’t ice skate well, or wrestle, or swim a mile, but I can still enjoy watching someone who can.

Earlier this month I read Caleb Carr’s novel, “The Alienist,” and just the other day I finished its sequel, “The Angel of Darkness,” which are essentially murder mysteries. The alienist (psychiatrist) of both books is named Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, and he is one of those wonderfully observant fictional characters, like Sherlock Holmes, that people like me can’t help but love. Dr. Kreizler is the pioneer of a very controversial theory of “context” in the stories.

I should add here that Caleb Carr is a novelist as well as an author on history, so Dr. Kreizler and his theories may be based in some truth. If such is the case, I apologize for not citing the real psychiatrists and psychologists to whom these ideas first belonged. Anyway, the doctor holds a very narrow view of what constitutes insanity, insisting that even the most heinous crimes–those which are impossible to understand, which seem crazy–can in fact be understood within the context of the criminal’s life. That is, a person’s attitudes and actions can be understood as the result of one’s past experiences as well as one’s current environment.

I find myself thinking about this “context” more and more since reading the book. In a way it is a simple extension of, “if you ever walked a mile in those shoes.”

About two weeks ago, I was at a cafe, outdoors, doing some writing. A young man stormed by and walked around the corner of the building, out of my sight. Shortly after, a woman who turned out to be the boy’s mother crept by the building in her old car, shouting something like, “Come back!” which the boy did not acknowledge or obey.

Eventually, after the woman had parked her car and found her son on foot, she tried to get him to get in the car to go home with her. He refused with very harsh words, and the two found themselves on the cafe patio where across from me was a group of older people chitchatting. The boy meandered toward them, and one of the men said, “You ought to go with your mom,” to which the response was, “She’s a stupid bitch!”

I felt many emotions when I heard this, not the least embarrassment for the woman. But the gentleman said, “No she’s not,” and seemed so warm and calm and understanding that I, if no one else, was slightly comforted. The boy was too large for his mother to control, and he sought refuge in the AT&T store next to the cafe. At this, the gentleman who had spoken before suggested to the very frustrated woman that she call the police for help. He asked about the boy, and the mother said her son was autistic and somewhat retarded. The man shared that he knew how it was, for he had had a sister like that, and he had had to call for help with her before too.

So the woman called the police, and she chatted with that group of older folks until the police arrived. It all seemed to end well enough since the boy seemed much calmed when he emerged voluntarily from the phone store. I did not hear most of what the officers said, but what I did hear was kind and helpful; and at the moment, I thought that’s the good community work that police are for–but I also wondered how things might have been different if the citizens involved had been black.

Though this happened two weeks ago, I still think about it, those cruel words the autistic boy had yelled about his own mother. I want to understand. It isn’t easy for me to say, “Ah well, he can’t help it.” Indeed there are people who cannot help what they say, but there is still the matter of where those words come from.

Today I wondered the same thing as I stood in line at the pharmacy. In front of me were a man and a woman who just kept being so rude to each other! There’s no better way to put it since they weren’t flat out arguing about anything, nor were they continuously talking. But when one did speak to the other, it was to say, “If you hadn’t done such and such,” or “It’s your own fault,” or, most commonly, “Shut up!” They even did this in front of the pharmacy technician, whom the woman repeatedly told that her husband (I presume) was taking one of the medicines like candy.

I looked the other way. I shook my head inside my head. My only judgment was, “These people might benefit from some counseling.” But I wondered why they talked to and about each other like that. How did they find themselves together when there appeared to be no great affection between them? Where did those spiteful words come from? And that angry tone?

I wonder about people’s lives. I wonder who was cruel to them so that they learned to be cruel to others. I wonder also about people I know who are kind and patient despite having endured tragedies–where did they learn the be resilient and peaceful?

But there is another question: can these attitudes and behaviors be explained? Dr. Kreizler is challenged on this, and accused of looking for explanations when there are none because he needs there to be a reason.

And so I question myself, and I look to my own past. Do I need there to be reasons behind every sad scene I witness? If I do, then why do I feel that need?

Qualifications to talk

I. My rights, not your rights

It is strange to me how holy the Constitution seems to many of my fellow Americans. A month or two ago, my mother said she considers it second only to the Bible. Second in what, I’m not sure, but I think she must’ve meant second in authority over her life. Oh, but what kind of authority: moral or legal? Another type? Multiple types?

To me the Constitution is a legal document. It is the paper basis for our legal system here in the States. I find much of it to be beautifully written, and who could argue that the framers had a great idea? But the Constitution is not flawless, and it is not a religious scripture.

Yet I know a lot of people, and encounter many more via news and social media, who treat it as such. Funny enough, too, they act like many Christians do when it comes to the Bible: they talk about how important it is to them, but then they generously dispense with the double standards, ignoring many explicit tenets of ‘the faith’, while expecting non-believers to adhere to even the most obscure and debatable laws. For example, many Christians have been divorced multiple times, yet still believe that marriage equality will ruin family values, while the former is described as a sin in the Bible and the latter wasn’t even an idea in the times of Christ.

Yes, people do this with the Constitution as well. They do it when they complain (often erroneously) that their nth amendment rights are being violated, and next day donate money to some group lobbying to limit another group’s rights. I don’t wish to be perceived as ragging on my Christian brothers and sisters, but I can think of no better example than this:

The friends and relatives I have who think their freedom of speech has been taken away simply because someone finds their words offensive. First of all, the first amendment guarantees free speech; it does not guarantee that no one will think you’re a bigot, idiot, or asshole after you exercise free speech. Secondly, supposing these people were correct in thinking their rights had been violated, what do they do? They go and donate money to organizations that actually really do seek to restrict the rights of other people, usually people with different religious beliefs than them. They don’t think their children ought to be taught about sex or evolution in school, but they don’t think it matters that other parents don’t want their children parroting the Pledge of Allegiance or… heck, not getting educated about sex and evolution.

One really ought to question how much freedom means to her if she is not willing to give it in equal measure to someone else.

I have been thinking of this more for a couple of days. Thursday I spent some time with an old shipmate and friend, saying all sorts of thoughtful and controversial things right out in public. I am a white woman and my friend is a black man (let’s call him Aaron), and we did indeed get to talking about both racism and sexism. Well, Aaron explained that studying history has led him to believe that W.A.S.P.’s or their ancestors have pretty much always been culturally dominant, and remain so today. I think I was expected to be offended by this hypothesis, but I wasn’t.

II. Whose speech matters

After a while, Aaron confessed: “I do not think white people are qualified to talk about race.”

Well, did you just dismiss everything I just said during this conversation then? I thought.

We continued to chat for a while, and I complimented my friend’s consistency at least, when he said he also considered men unqualified to talk about sexism. Still, I was disappointed that he found anyone automatically disqualified to talk about anything. I understand his opinion, but I do not agree with it. If someone is demonstrably prejudiced, then disqualify him from a debate–but do not disqualify him because you don’t believe he could have ever experienced discrimination like you have.

I partly find this disqualifying attitude troubling because I know that I do not look like I have faced much discrimination in my life. I have faced some though, even recently. I don’t like to talk about it. Do I have to talk about it to prove my opinion is worth something? To some people, of course. To some, it will never be worth anything.

I questioned myself though. Do I think that men have a place talking about gender? Actually, the rational part of me does think so. Not every man can talk intelligently about it, but neither can every woman. Sometimes I do not want to listen to what a man has to say. Sometimes I think, “Of course you think that!” but it is not right to dismiss someone’s opinion this way. People in positions of power (the male, the white, or the wealthy) are not all incapable of rational thought, open investigation, and sympathy for those whom they often totally unwittingly offend or oppress.

This is why white people get uncomfortable about race conversations–they–we–are really not trying to be racist, and it’s hard to accept that you can perpetuate racism without meaning to.

But white people can accept that. Some do. I do. I get it. So why can’t I talk about it? Why is it bad for white people to try to speak in support of racial equality? Why are we diagnosed with “the white savior complex,” when one of the symptoms of racism in our society is that white voices are heard more than black ones? Will the day spontaneously come when black people are heard out just like white people?

My feeling is that no, that day will not spontaneously come. Will the day spontaneously come when women are heard out just like men? No, I doubt that too, which is one reason I appreciate it when men speak up about equality with women. Should anybody need a white male to speak for them? No. But do we? I don’t know, but it seems that way.

Wait, this is so serious… Watch a video, and maybe laugh at the messed up truth: The Daily Show – Helper Whitey

Next time I talk to Aaron, I’ll have to ask him some questions, beginning with, “Are you still comfortable even talking about race with me?” because I realize that I am not comfortable talking about it with all of my friends, and I shouldn’t assume all of my friends are comfortable talking about it with me. I’ll also ask:

  • What can/should white people do to understand privilege and racism in their own lives?
  • With whom can they discuss and work out concepts they find difficult, if they are disqualified from conversing on the topic?
  • How can/should white people address systemic/cultural racism?
  • When we observe a black person being talked over, for example, should we be “Helper Whitey,” as in the video? Or is it better not to? Why do you think so?
  • Is this an us v. them battle? Can/should white people try to help black people?
  • Is the term “white savior” necessary? Is it possible for white people to fight altruistically for racial equality?

III. I don’t mean to minimize sexism, but I’m minimizing sexism

When someone says they don’t mean to minimize something, they probably already think rather little of it in their heads. When someone says they don’t mean to be offensive, they probably just don’t care that they’re about to offend somebody. It’s the same when my mother says, “Not to be judgmental, but…” or when I say, “Not to be a bitch, but…”

So this was actually something my friend Aaron also said, that he didn’t mean to minimize sexism. We were speaking in relation to race still, so I understood, and admitted myself that I think black people suffer more discrimination in this country than women do, and that black women suffer the worst.

But still, not meaning to minimize something is not the same thing is not minimizing it.

Shortly after this, my friend said something like, “I mean, if you lived in New York or something…” indicating to me that he probably doesn’t understand that sexism is more than disgusting cat calls, and that women  e v e r y w h e r e  deal with it. I wonder how he’d have felt if when we were talking about racism I had said, “Oh, I can understand it’d be bad if you lived in Mississippi or something…” as though black men in his city didn’t deal with racism.

Did he mean to minimize my experience of sexism? No. Did he minimize my experience of sexism? Yes.

There’s no need to launch into “(n-1) reasons I’m a feminist” here. The observation I want to make is that even members of less powerful groups often have the attitude I tried to describe at the beginning of this post. There are no universal rights or freedoms in anybody’s mind. There are my group’s rights, and your group’s rights–and guess whose are my number one priority! And so feminists, LGBT activists, NAACP leaders, green freaks, religious zealots, anti-religious zealots, gun zealots, and everybody else just shouts. Too often we believe the interests of others are at odds with our own. Too often we are willing to sacrifice truth and justice if it gets our group ahead.

Nobody asked me, but I know what black people need. I know what women need. I know what men need. I even know what unborn children need. All of us need each other. Each needs to fight for the others’ rights and freedom and happiness; for each needs the others to fight for him or her.

And sometimes when we perceive the other as an enemy? Perhaps if the perception is true? Then, if we believe in either the Bible or the Constitution or both, we must defend the enemy’s rights just the same as our own. There are no rights unless everyone has them; there is no justice unless there is justice for all; and there can be no ‘first among equals.’

How we spend our time

Several years ago, my mother was laid off. She had been expecting it for months, and the prospect had been very stressful. So when it happened, she told me via the telephone. I remember it well. I was an airman, I think, and I was driving to my barracks from the mini-Nex on Coronado. Mother was relieved and happy enough. Of course the apprehension was worse than the reality, but it wasn’t just that. She was also happy because my brother was only a baby then, and she knew that on her death bed someday she would be happier to look back on years spent caring for him, rather than on years spent hustling to keep a job that it turns out she didn’t really need or enjoy. I’ve never forgotten that.

I’ve also never forgotten the final years of my uncle’s life. Uncle Pete was intelligent, often astringent, deeply feeling, proud, and… well, what can I say? Can I sum up a man with a few words? I haven’t even got a photograph of him, though I can remember his face and his clothes and the smell of his house. He was the most skilled musician I’ve ever known, as well as the most passionate about music–and he had the best taste in music. Over the years, I have listened to some things I know he would have scoffed at. After a while the novelty wears away, and I scoff at them too; then I return to the blues and rock ‘n’ roll my uncle taught me.

The entire time I knew Uncle Pete, he wasn’t in the best of health. He was older than my parents. He was a Vietnam veteran (a fact I believe he hated). He had ingested and inhaled plenty of drugs and alcohol. He had had plenty of recreational injuries, too, from motorcycling and things like that. Whatever happened in those last few months, I don’t know precisely, but I won’t even write what details I do know because I must still respect his pride, dignity, and privacy. What I do know is that I had wanted to spend more time with him, had said I would, and had wanted to tell him without prompting that I loved him. He was my uncle, and I do still love him like I love my parents; indeed I could not be who I am if it hadn’t been for him and his damn near incessant criticism! No, he didn’t denigrate anybody (though he did sometimes accuse people of committing, “assholisms”). He criticized poor logic and hypocrisy. He pointed out where my manners needed improvement. He explained things about my parents that were puzzling and troubling to me, and he showed me sympathy. Perhaps most of all, he treated me like he had high expectations for me.

And I truly hope he did. And one of my greatest hopes still is that if he were alive he would be pleased with my progress. Of course if he were alive, probably he would have stopped speaking to me when I joined the military. Or perhaps not. Perhaps he’d have understood better than I did why it was an extremely pragmatic decision.

Regardless, circumstances were such that I did not get to see him as often as I wished to in his final days. I never spontaneously told him I loved him either. This requires explanation. Though I did fear my uncle at times (he was the tallest member of my family and went nowhere without his German Shepherd, which is frightening for a small child), I always loved him. I felt that he doubted this, however. The only time I had ever said, “I love you,” was in response to him saying it to me; and he hinted at least once that he thought I was saying it because I felt obligated to. That was not the case, however, and I don’t recall ever telling someone I loved them without having felt it genuinely, to this day. So when he became gravely ill, I intended to make sure he knew that I really did love him. But I never did! When he died, I felt regret for the first time. I still feel it, of course. But I learned from this, I hope, and anyway, I have never forgotten about it.

So how do we spend our time? What is worth while? Shall I one day look back on how well I asserted myself? Will I be glad that I found a political party I really fit in with? Will identity matter? Will labels, categories, denominations, or titles matter then? I suspect not. I suspect what matters in the end of our lives is what matters at the beginning. Before we are taught to love acclaim and wealth, to be proud and serious and ambitious, we are silly, honest, and innocent little children. We say what we think, and ask for what we want. What matters the very most is Mom and Dad, or perhaps Grandma or someone else; what matters is the human relationships we are part of. Why should the middle of our lives be different? Why should we spend our vigorous and independent days looking for answers to questions that ultimately do not matter? Intellectual and emotional exercise is great, but like physical exercise, must not be taken too far.

We must not define ourselves too narrowly, for three reasons. Firstly, if we define ourselves too narrowly, we limit ourselves on an individual basis. Secondly, if we define ourselves too narrowly, we limit ourselves socially; that is, we miss out on relationships with people who do not define themselves the same way (or whom we misread). Finally, when we spend too much time defining ‘who we really are,’–whether that has to do with sexual preference, movie preference, profession, religion, ethnicity, or favorite sport–we are really wasting time. By all means, seek to know yourself. Seek to understand yourself. Your likes, your dislikes, and the reasons behind them, if there are any. Look humbly at your own best points, and soberly at your worst. But do not be excessive in all of this. You have a son who needs you, or an uncle: spend more of your time with them.