Thursday, November 27, 2008

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Wrong Again

(note to self: you haven’t published a novel yet). A few posts ago I was very critical of a book about which many of my friends were raving. I didn’t mention the title because I have this rule about judging authors. I know that writing is hard and that no one sets out to write a bad book. I did feel compelled to finish the book because of my friends, but I struggled with this one. I am nearing completion of this book and I have to say this: I was so wrong. The book is called The Shack and is written by William P. Young. It’s number 1 on the New York Times best seller list, so you probably have heard of it, if you have not read it. I don’t want to go too deeply into the story in case you haven’t read it (this is the official recommendation to read it if you haven’t yet), but it does deal with the main character having a conversation with God. There are some challenging images, and I suspect everyone will take something a little different away form its reading. Some will find it affirming, though, and some will find it life changing.

I will tell you this: I most likely struggled with the first part of the book because it dealt with something so horrible that I didn’t want to think about it. I had an idea where the book was going and kept thinking to myself, why doesn’t the author just get to the good part. It has become clear that this is the point of the book. You can’t just fast forward to the good part; life is a little more complex than that and not a little painful at times. So if you get a chance, pick it up. It will probably be worth it to you, in some way. And push through the uncomfortable stuff. That will be so important as you interpret the rest of the book. Enjoy. And Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Peace!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Proposition 8 and The Makings of a Man

I think that Richard Rodriguez is right. The movement to scapegoat gay people is founded in the disintegration of the American family and the insistence by women that they have an existence that extends outside of the kitchen and outside the shadow of men. Women, Rodriguez posits, have a deeper connection to the gay rights movement because the gay rights movement seems analogous to the women’s movement. Although Rodriguez paints a pretty bleak picture of a patriarchal society in decay, I hope that the definition of what a male is can grow and change and improve as our society wrestles with these questions that make many feel uncomfortable. I suspect Rodriguez would agree.

The problem with how males define themselves is that it is founded in a society in which males are trained to exercise power over others. Often, this creeps into sexuality, as witnessed by the continued belief that a man’s prowess is somehow connected to his sexual dominance of women. This cultural weight that we carry around our necks is compounded by our commercial sector; one need not go too far to see advertisements for a number of drugs to cure male sexual dysfunction. Note the looks on the faces of the women in these commercials: grateful. There is something seriously wrong, here.

There is such a thing as masculinity that is distinct from femininity. But our insistence, as a society to place sexuality at the top of the list of differences is just wrong. Maybe it’s wrong to place it on the list at all. Although sexuality is a part of most people’s lives, it should not be the defining element, whether it is spoken or not, of who we are as people. To my mind, maleness begins with, as Richard Rohr insists, spirituality. I am not surprised that Richard Rodriguez can maintain a loving relationship with his partner and with their Catholic parish. He is defining masculinity in a very different way. He sees life as being a lot deeper than the accumulation of power. Rodriguez shows us that it is the true male that lets this go. Position in society, as he seems to take his position as an intellectual and author, is a gift and a responsibility, not a possession. Being a witness has far more value in any society than being a king. If you doubt that, just look at history and how kings have treated witnesses who dared to speak of different beliefs: John the Baptist, William Wallace, and our founding fathers had they lost the war.

Men can define themselves best by being witnesses, by being present. And it is this, really, that makes men in our society so impotent: our failure to be there for our children and our families and only there for women when we get the urge. No wonder women are fed up. And no wonder gays are the scapegoats.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The World Gets Smaller, Again

Among the citizens in the general population we certainly have our naysayers. Every society has those. I suspect that they will eventually come around regarding the power of blogging in government. I read a few naysayers in this weekend's papers. They were saying that government by the Internet was not going to work. It seems that President-Elect Obama is continuing to use the extensive online network that he used for his campaign to communicate (and dare we say listen to the voices of his constituents). In some ways this is certainly a new idea in politics if we are to believe in the power of things like blogs: information flowing in a multi-directional process. I hope it is not just a modern way to take a poll or nothing more than another Ronald Reagan, who mastered the manipulation of the press to sell, well, whatever it was he was selling. I hope President Obama continues the use of these tools that he used as candidate Obama and now President-Elect Obama. In fact I have his rss feed coming into my aggregator. I have never felt more involved. I hope that it is not just a felling, but a true shift in how we govern ourselves.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Resurrection Story

I wasn’t there the morning that my sister died, that cold, wet February morning. I have pieced together the scene over the years, partly from the stories of those who witnessed it, partly from my own maturity. Although records will show that my sister was the only one to die in the terrible accident, four people died that day, bodies strewn about the highway, next to a crushed and twisted car that, minutes before, carried part of a family, my mother and father, my brother and my sister.

As a father myself, I relive the moment of my own father, the driver and innocent, although I don’t think he ever forgave himself for being behind the wheel at a particular place and at a particular time when another car, traveling in the opposite direction jumped the median and, like a heat-seeking missile, landed dead square and tore apart my family’s car. When movement and that horrible noise of twisting medal stopped, my father, mother, brother, and sister lay strewn on the highway, sleet falling on the sudden silence.

In a movement of habit and obligation, my father began to rise and to take control of the situation. He only got as far as his knees, when he saw my sister’s crushed body. He stayed there on his knees until he could only drop to his hands, his head bowing, forehead touching the wet pavement. I imagine that he had felt betrayed. He had lived a good life, dutifully fighting in two wars when his country called, faithfully raising his children, and probably believing that if he did all that was asked of him by a God that he believed loved him, then he could withstand anything in life, except, perhaps, this one horror that all parents do not want to think about. He would never have imagined that this loving God could take away one of his beloved children. He lived the rest of his life with his chin up, as he used to call it, demonstrating a bravery with which he thought all men should live, but he lived with his heart searching for his daughter and for his beloved Father who left him in the sleet that day.

No, it wasn’t my father who rose to the occasion. How could he? It was my brother, Steve, a young man who had seen his own troubles but was not burdened by a life of war, and hardship, and the struggles of any family man. It was he who went over to pick up my sister’s broken body, to hold it lovingly, but powerless, nonetheless, to bring it back to life. I could hear it in his voice when he called me. “I think you’d better get down here. We’ve been in an accident and Marybeth is hurt pretty bad.” Of course, he knew that she was already dead, but protected me from that moment so that I might be able to travel safely to the hospital. I don’t think Steve ever recovered from that, and it would be simplistic to blame his alcoholism on that moment, but I can’t help to think that his life might have been different only if….

And it was my mother, who faithfully and literally followed her Irish-Catholic upbringing, which taught her that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. So this punishment was more than she could bear. Her life after that was one of self-punishment and self-imprisonment, trying to make up for imagined and unimaginable sins so that one day she would be with her “angel in Heaven.”

My father passed away a few years later and Steve died years after that, his body succumbing to years of abuse from his alcoholism. And I had a dream last night. A dream in which Marybeth came back to life, only after Steve placed an anointing oil on her forehead. My father stood by, proud of his son, and happy to see his daughter. He still stood back, but this time standing. I am quite sure someone else was there. Perhaps it was my mother, who today lies in a nursing home, suffering from a horrible dementia that seems to ask her to relive that day over and over. I am sure that the other person there was Life itself, the Spirit that many of us believe breathes life into our lungs, the loving Father about which my Catholic faith should teach us. And if you are a Christian, you would recognize, in an instant, this scene as the Incarnation itself.

We all lose things; life changes and certainly never ends up the way we had once imagined it. But that is the point, isn’t it? The things that we clutch and hang on to are the things that are guaranteed to decay, to become lost, to become meaningless. My father found his loving Father for whom this accident caused him to search. My brother is far more a hero than many of us remember because his life’s pains seemed to define him more than this event. But it was this event that really defined him, his humanity, his ability to love. And despite all of those sappy songs that croon that love never dies, it is his love that lives in all of us today. It gives hope that my mother, who today, minute by minute, is still living that accident, is receiving that same gift. After all, sometimes time is a gift.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Because I Want To

During my first year of teaching, I received a gift that has informed my teaching and my learning (Hey! That's the name of this blog!) ever since. It was given to me by a small quiet lady who headed the development office at the school and the office where I was posted as my daily duty. It was a little booklet entitled "New Teacher's Survival Guide." I am pretty sure that I read the whole thing. Most of it was practical advice that I probably still haven't taken. But one article remains with me today, the title of which escapes me. But the topic was about reading for yourself. It warned me that during the first year of teaching that I would be tempted to throw all aside as I prepped, read, and wrote for class. The article went on to say that although these endeavors were admirable and necessary, not at the expense of my own mind. It even went on to say that if I needed the excuse, I could tell myself that my own self development would make me a better teacher but it insisted that the intrinsic value of self development should need no excuses. So I still take a little time each day, to read, to write, or just listen to some music. Just because I want to. Peace!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Yes, I Admit It.

With apologies to Lisa Scottoline, I think the cloistered nuns had it right: silence is the way to the soul.

And yes, I do read Lisa Scottoline's column in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sundays. It started because my wife reads it and always has something funny to say after reading it. So I took a look, just to see. And I have been taking a look ever since, just to see. I find that Scottoline speaks a language that is pretty universal, transcending gender, especially when talking about parenthood. She may be a little off the mark sometimes when I think that she fails to understand the deeper meanings of maleness, but her column is called "Chick Wit," so I give her a pass on those times. And perhaps, at those times, I am being too sensitive.

I think, however, she missed the mark this weekend for a different reason. Scottoline started off right on the mark as she described the adult child flying from the nest. I was right with her. Until the end. You'll have to take a look at the column but I just want to focus on the last line. It was one of those lines that people read and then shake their heads knowingly and approvingly while they stroke their chins, yet really do not understand the deeper meaning. Here it is: "...with apologies to my cloistered sisters, I think that voice, not silence, is the sound of the human soul." Maybe it's because she mentions soul, always a dangerous thing for a writer, who risks being called cliche at its use. But she pulled it off because she was quoting the cloistered nuns.

No, I don't accuse Scottoline of cliche. I do think that she sold silence a little short, however. Sometimes silence is a louder voice than words. Sometimes silence reminds us that we control so little in this life. And when we get to a point in our lives, where we think that we should know how to handle any situation but where we do not know what to do or what to say or how to handle that situation, we are given a choice. Speak--and therefore try to impact the situation. Keep silent--and try to accept the situation. To be sure there are times that we need to speak and impact our world. Justice depends on it. But sometimes we need to just be silent... and accept, quietly if painfully. The first is the currency of our world and is good. The latter is the currency of our souls where life really happens, I believe, as do Scottoline's cloistered sisters. And when our children leave, tears are bountiful and no words will help us to understand or control. But quiet acceptance will give us insights never dreamed of. And it is then that we come to accept that our children do grow into adults and that is just plain cool.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Plateau of Relativity

I'm reading a novel right now, the title I don't care to give because all of my friends say it's a great book, and I find it quite poorly done. Yet, it is a popular book, so who am to say.... It did catch my eye at one moment, even though the description that caught my eye broke the rule of don't show it to me unless it has meaning. Well, I think it broke the rule; I, for the life of me, couldn't figure out why it was there. Perhaps it is me. Anyway, the description to which I refer is a description of a valley, a plateau really. But what made this valley unique was that it was at 5000 feet above sea level. I never thought of a valley being above sea level. I have always thought of a valley as a lake waiting to happen if not for the protection of the mountains surrounding it. Like this disjointed scene, I suppose we can find rich, lush valleys anywhere, anytime. Even valleys that almost touch the sky. Hmmm. Just thinking.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Effective and Responsible Communication

To be effective at communication, we need to define two terms, often confused with each other: these terms are power and authority. Both power and authority are often naively defined as having control over others. Power, however, has nothing to do with others. Power can be defined as the control that we exercise over ourselves. Power is granted to each individual by virtue of the fact that we are human beings and deserve respect and deserve the opportunity to exercise some control over our own lives. If one tries to exercise power over another, this is very unhealthy and is really about trying to control another. Authority, on the other hand, can be defined through relationships and is granted by social structure, and therefore comes with a great deal of responsibility. In its healthiest form, authority is a partnership in which all people involved, leaders and followers, understand their roles and through that partnership live a productive and creative life. The Harriton Banner, Harriton High School's newspaper, of which I am faculty adviser, recently published an article that made everyone feel very uncomfortable. Some might view this as exercising power over a community by telling it something that is very uncomfortable to hear. By this definition, the newspaper places itself in position over the community and becomes nothing more than a preachy institution, the type of institution that over-populates our society as it is. Yet, The Harriton Banner exercises no power if it is to be a vital part of our community. It is, however, granted authority by the school district and community that it serves. The paper also is granted authority by various Supreme Court rulings on freedom of the press. With this heavy authority comes heavy responsibility. My hope is, that by publishing a challenging article, that we do not set ourselves above our community, but honestly share in the joys and challenges of a community to which we belong and to which we owe our authority.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Blogging and Podcasting

I am testing podcasting with Blogger.

Monday, November 3, 2008

And the Winner Is...

Life is about competition, a friend once told me. It's survival of the fittest; winner take all; just win, baby.

Hey, I like the idea of winning. The Philadelphia Phillies, a team that looked good in spring training, better in April, a little off in May, and so on, delighted us all, in this region, with a World Series championship.

I think I have had enough of competition, however. Isn't there a time when we are not trying to beat our fellow man into the ground? I knew that we had gone over the edge when we started to play sudoku competitively. In fact the Philadelphia Inquirer just announced that a proud Philadelphia had won the bid to host the 2010 World Sudoku Championship. What a fool I have been: I always thought that sudoku was a way to relax at the end of the day, a little game to play. Suddenly, I feel the need to practice, to get better, to beat others into the ground with my number crunching prowess, to show that I am the best, that I am number 1!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! YEAH!

Wait. Is that really what life is about?