Desperate Houseflies: The Magazine

Feel free to pull out your trusty fly swatter and comment on what is posted here, realizing that this odd collection of writers may prove as difficult to kill as houseflies and are presumably just as pesky. “Desperate Houseflies” is a magazine that intends to publish weekly articles on subjects such as politics, literature, history, sports, photography, religion, and no telling what else. We’ll see what happens.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Keeping Time

Eugene Peterson’s book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, offers the subtitle, A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, something the introduction defines as “the attention that the church community gives to keeping what we think about God (theology) in organic connection with the way we live with God (spirituality).” But I’d like to extend Peterson’s conversation offer to a wider audience than he and I, so expect this theme (connecting what we think about God to the way we live) to guide my Sunday articles for the next forty of fifty years, give or take a decade.

Let’s take it from the top: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” I learned it early in life. I remember it today as well as I remember how to spell my name. I was taught that this passage was the arena in which we fought atheism and evolution, but I was never taught that this text was foundational for a life lived today. But it seems to be. It teaches us how to live with the mind-boggling gift of time.

Leonard Sweet writes, “Time is life’s fundamental necessity but has become the ultimate luxury – the most expensive and extravagant thing we have. We’re in a time famine…” Peterson adds, “Among the many desecrations visited upon the creation, the profanation of time ranks near the top, at least among North Americans… The most conspicuous evidences of this desecration are hurry and procrastination.” He adds, “Genesis 1 is not in a hurry. And Genesis 1 does not procrastinate.”

It’s true (is it not?) that Christians have fallen captive to the desecration of time. We somehow come to believe that time in this life is just to be endured, hurried through until heaven, wishing life away for the “pie in the sky by and by.” Alongside, we learn the lesson of “getting done what has to be done” while putting off anything that might stand in our way, like, for instance, a child who wants to play a game, or a beaten-down Jew dying on the side of the road. Bottom line: Speed-walk to heaven with blinders on.

But Genesis 1 does not do this. Instead, we discover it to be downright rhythmic. There is a cadence. Try it (I’ll wait!) – read Genesis 1 out loud and see if you don’t almost hear the music trying to get in step with its cadence. You even find yourself “keeping time.” Ah, that’s it. Keeping time. The very thing we don’t do much of anymore.

There is a world around us, a world we are blessed to enter into each and every day. It is filled with breathtaking wonder and exquisite detail and the most fascinating people, most of which we never see as we hurry through life on our way to something more important. But where we are going is not more important. Our first key to noticing this important fact of life (remembering maybe?) is in recovering the rhythm of time.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Picture of the Week

From the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular Show at Disney-MGM Studios.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Pujols' Grandstanding



On behalf of Cardinal Nation, I submit this recent article from mlb.com to defend our Musial-esque hero from recent housefly allegations of grandstanding. Here's to a little humility from someone who doesn't have to be humble.

Pujols lets bat do the talking
04/25/2006 12:40 AM ET
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com

ST. LOUIS -- This time, Albert Pujols acted like he's been there before. Of course, he has -- 11 other times this season and on 212 other occasions in his career. Not to mention two previous occasions against the same pitcher, Oliver Perez.

But the last time he took Perez deep, Pujols showed a different side. Despite the fact that his home run against Perez last Tuesday at PNC Park came with his team already down, 8-0, Pujols tossed his bat defiantly. It didn't sit well in some quarters, including some quarters of his own clubhouse.

Pujols was making a point about Perez. With said point made, he felt no need to do it again. On Monday night, when he cranked a first-inning shot against Perez, Pujols made no special show. He motored around the bases quickly and was done with it.

"If you look at it, he struck me out last year and he did all his dancing and all that stuff, and I remembered that," Pujols said. "That's what happened in Pittsburgh. I hit that ground ball back at him [in the first inning in Pittsburgh] and he did his little dance again, and I got really upset.

"I went to the video room and I told my guy Chad, 'I'm going to hit the next ball and I'm going to hit it a long way. But don't look at the ball. Look at where the bat is going to land.' Because I respect this game just like everybody else. And when I see a guy like that, with the talent that he has, disrespecting the game -- that might be the way that he pitches, but I don't care.

"I don't care what you do out there. But when you start pointing and looking at the guys at the plate when you strike somebody out, that's disrespecting the player. I probably shouldn't have taken it to that level, where I threw my bat like that. But at that moment I was pretty [angry]."

After explaining his rationale to the throng of reporters around his locker on Monday night, Pujols also expressed some regret about his show.

"[Scott] Rolen mentioned something, but he knew why I did it," Pujols said. "He knew I was pretty upset about the way the guy is, but he was one of the guys who told me, 'Hey, you're a better player than that. You respect this game so much. Don't bring it down to that level, because you are the one that is going to look stupid.' Which I did. I looked stupid. That was my fault. I'm human. I make mistakes. Drop it like it's hot. That's it."

As far as Pujols is concerned, the matter is closed.

"I heard a couple of people say something yesterday about the home run that I hit against him in Pittsburgh," he said. "They were talking about it. My wife was actually the one that brought it to my attention, and I told her why I did it. I told her why I did it that day.

"And that's it. I need to drop it. I hit one tonight against him and I ran the bases like I always do. I probably shouldn't bring it down to that level like I did last week, but I showed today that that's not the way I play the game. At the same time, I need to respect my teammates. Because I don't want any of my guys to get hurt from me doing something stupid like that."

The subject didn't even come up with Perez after the game. The Pittsburgh left-hander was more concerned about falling to 1-3 and giving up seven runs in five innings. While the ballpark was different, and so was Pujols' reaction, Perez said that what Pujols hit was just as it had been at PNC.

"It was the same as the last game," he said. "It was a little cutter that was supposed to be outside and it was in the middle."

A great move ... 10 years too late

Finally! Some news to celebrate! Legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson to retire

Caption Time



Although I'm afraid to ask...

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Let them vote.

Please ignore the web source for this article and give it a fair read. Here's an excerpt:

Let's let the Iraqi people vote on whether American troops should stay in Iraq.

President Bush has said that if a democratically elected government of Iraq asked us to leave, we would. I think Bush is sincere, but the truth is that no Iraqi government is going to ask U.S. troops to withdraw anytime soon, because American troops are the only thing holding the country together...

...But at the end of the day, America still might lose. I'd hate to see that happen. But I can't think of a more honorable way for America to withdraw from Iraq and to prove it respects democracy. America won't bow to bullets and bombs — but it will to ballots.



It sounds like a GREAT idea to me.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A Little Airplane Etiquette

Folks, I've got nothing really substantive this week. But, Salon had a post today about whether or not it's okay to give your child Benadryl to sedate them during a long flight, and in response the following letter was posted, which I will reproduce in its entirety because I was rolling.

Annoying People On Planes Come in All Shapes and Sizes

Among those who can irritate you include...

* the drunks who harass the flight attendants
* the idiots who insist on blathering at top volume
* the jackass who hears the ding, and immediately reclines his seat so that his head is in your lap
* the moron in the bulkhead who thinks that the space under his seat -- in front of YOUR legs -- is HIS storage space
* the person who waits to poop until they get in the plane and then stink and clog up one of the two freakin' restrooms
* the tired/irritated/attitudinal flight attendants who are so sick to death of all of us passengers and aren't afraid to show it
* the sullen teenagers listening to their IPOD at full volume
* the person who insists on using 2 armrests
* the idiots with laptops who set them up, and then proceed to use up the airspace of the people on either side with their elbows as they types
* The idiots who bring every piece of luggage they own on with them and insist on stuffing it into every available carryon space
* the guys who watch porn on their laptops/portable DVDs while you're sitting in the place (yes, they are out there, I've seen them
* the truly morbidly obese people who hang over the armrests and take up your space
* the guys who fall asleep and then proceed to snore like a freight train
* the person who falls asleep and whose head ends up bobbing on YOUR shoulder
* the irritating seatmate (chatty old lady? horny single guy? bored business guy who'd rather yak than do his spreadsheets?) who insists on talking to you when you don't want to talk
* yes, the babies who cry out of discomfort.
* And yes, occasionally, bratty children whose parents are not controlling them

Why are children singled out when there are SO MANY IRRITATING PEOPLE flying these days?

How about we make it equal opportunity discrimination? If irritating kids can't fly, how about we also ban lonely, horny, chatty, morbidly obese, loudly IPODing, porn-watching passengers, and obnoxious "I'd rather be anywhere else" flight crews?

As someone who flies with children -- children who are well-behaved and NOT drugged, and who on rare occasions have cried for a few minutes during a landing -- I do concede that there are a few things I think should be done.

First: Do not allow free lap infants. Period. It's bad enough for everyone, parent included, to have to bring a baby on a plane. Don't let them do it for free. Make them buy a seat, and put the baby in a carseat. It's safer, and it's more fair. If a baby's going to use up our patience, at least he/she should be a paying passenger.

Second: DO allow the pre-boarding of children. Many airlines are getting rid of this. Ummmm...why???? Hauling a carseat, baby bag, and all the other crap, we NEED to pre-board, so we're not blocking your way for 10 minutes trying to install the bloody seat and get our kids in their places.

Third: If you can group all the kids in one section of the plane, BE MY GUEST!! Do it! I don't mind, and frankly, it'd be a relief to be out of earshot and range of the sighing, huffing and puffing buffoons who start grimacing the minute they see me and my kids. Of course, they're also quite frequently one of the IRRITATING passengers and far more irritating than any child could ever be.

Fourth, and finally: parents, REIN IN YOUR BRATS!!!!

Don't let them run up and down the aisles.
Don't let them climb under the seats. (one kid did this from row 33 all the way to first class on a flight I was on.)
Don't let your kid kick or otherwise hit or disrupt the seat in front of him.
Don't let your kid bounce on or in his seat.

A personal anecodate. I once sat in the window seat, while a mother let her 3 year old child climb onto my lap, so that Jr. could look out the window.

"Oh, I hope you don't mind!!?" the hapless mother kept saying.

"Well, I actually really would prefer..."

"Oh, Jr. LOOKIE LOOKIE....see the clouds? LOOK!"

Jr. meanwhile jumps up and down on my thighs in excitement, in his Buster Browns.

He then proceeds back to the middle seat, and, this being the era where they still served actual food on planes, his mother opens up the syrup for his pancakes (yes, she gave syrup to a toddler.)

Toddler covers himself in syrup, and THEN decides it's time for MORE sightseeing out the window, including using my head as leverage to navigate his way back to MY window.

I was COVERED in syrup by the end of the flight.

That mother, and her child... NOT ACCEPTABLE!!!!!!

So here is where I join the self-righteous boobs.

If you can't keep your kid quiet and well-behaved, then don't fly. Again, I'm not talking about a little altitude-induced crying by a baby. But if you have a bratty child who can't sit still and isn't going to behave, then drive. Take a bus. Take a boat. But don't fly.

And above all... don't sit next to me!!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Who supports the troops? Anyone? Bueller?

Thanks Ben Stein.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Of Shipbuilding

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” – Antoine de Saint Exupery

What do you long for most?

Of the kazillion possible answers to that question, at least one emerges common to all: sense of purpose. Significance. To matter in some shape or form. In his book, Summoned to Lead, Leonard Sweet put it this way: “Everyone is searching for a ‘higher purpose.’ Everyone wants to be part of a mission that they care about, a mission that will change the world. Mission is what gets people motivated… People will put in time for a job; they will give their lives for a mission.”

From this particular starting point however, purpose splinters into a million pieces. Some people live to collect Star Trek memorabilia while others sweat blood to win Yard of the Month. Some daydream at every opportunity of the perfect vacation while others see their life’s calling to make everyone they encounter as miserable as themselves. Bank accounts and fishing boats, mansions and marriages, there are endless options when it comes to life aspirations.

Yet once recognized, it seems a healthy thing to do to consider our life’s longing with a dose of perspective. Corporate consultant, Charles Handy, told this story, “I once sat up on stage with a C.E.O. in front of the senior members of his company. The C.E.O. said his goal was to create the world’s largest organization. He wanted to grow at a truly astronomical rate. I said to him that the two largest organizations in the world today are the Red Army in China and the British National Health Service. And I asked him whether either of those two models was what he had in mind. He was rather embarrassed. Suddenly, growth for its own sake seemed to be a very funny notion.”

So I ask again, What do you long for most? And once said out loud, with perspective, is that worth your life? (Even if the answer is, I don’t know. Maybe especially then.)

The author of Ecclesiastes asked these sorts of questions and came up with a conclusion that God’s way is the way to go, and though I happen to agree, I have to say it’s a bit easier said than applied – mostly because God’s designs on us seem to vary from person to person. Noah lived for a rainy day. Abraham lived for a foreign country. Joseph lived for an odd dream, while Moses lived for a rescue mission. Jesus lived for an execution.

So what is your uniquely designed mission? And what is mine?

I ask because, though I hate to admit it, I’m afraid much of our religious ship-building is long on wood-gathering, work-division, and order-following, and sadly deficient of yearning for a vast and endless sea. And the result is reflected in the quality of the ship.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Picture of the Week


I took this picture of Maria Sharapova's serve three weeks ago from the top of Crandon Park in Key Biscayne, Florida, at the women's singles finals of the Nasdaq-100 Open.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Sports Debate

SPORTS TOPICS

N.B.A. PLAYOFFS: They’re here. Does anyone really care? I’m a big basketball fan, and I am one of the rare sports fans that really think the professional game is amazing. Plus, David Stern is oft-perceived as the best commish in the short list of folks with his occupation. Still, I can’t ever find myself “in” to the regular season, and when the marathon playoffs begin, I’m not any more interested. I’m sure I’ll get into it in a few weeks, but for now I’m still yawning. I checked out espn.com to learn that Detroit and San Antonio are predicted to make the Finals, with Detroit winning it all. Does anyone even have an opinion?

DUKE LACROSSE: I heard on the Dan Patrick Show that Duke Lacrosse t-shirts and caps are hot-selling items across the country. Major retailer Dick’s Sporting Goods has now pulled them from their shelves, but that doesn’t phase the fad. What does this say about our country?

NATIONAL LOOK-ALIKE DAY: Dan Patrick took emails all day yesterday (National Look-Alike Day) of suggestions on sports celebs that had a look-alike. There were some really good/funny ones I heard mentioned:
Mike Holmgren & Craig Stadler
Larry Brown & Mr. Roper
Keith Olbermann & Janet Reno (though KO said she’s a bit bigger than he)
Dan Marino & David Hasselhoff
Mel Brooks & Lee Corso
Ray Lewis & Aaron Neville
Dirk Nowitski & Shaggy from Scooby-Doo
I say numbers 1, 4, and 5 are the most accurate. What do you think? And are there any good ones you can think of left off the list?

ALBERT PUJOLS: Another amazing start. Should anyone pitch to the guy? Ever?

BARRY BONDS: What do you really do with his story? Absolutely no one (outside his inflated skull) seems to like him and root for him, and maybe he doesn’t hit another home run and the only remaining argument is the Hall of Fame. But he’ll probably pass the Babe. And he’s still got a legitimate shot at Aaron. So what do you do with him? He’s not going to admit anything. The proof is very compelling, but though seemingly obvious, you can’t really convict him of anything. I know this is being talked into the ground, but in reality, what options does baseball really have with Mr. Bonds?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Caption Needed


With the characters that frequent this particular blog world, I'm sure we could propose a good caption or two for this picture...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Zen Rummy

Perhaps this Rumsfeld criticism phenomenon is thoroughly intriguing to no one else but me. Yet I must share. I found this piece in the W-Post sharply incisive. “Meet the secretary of serenity”

More on American Food Issues

For some reason, these things seem to come in waves. Today I saw this article in the New York Times about how McDonald's has revived its sales with its high-fat dollar menu marketed to teenagers and young adults of color. The statements from their spokespeople are cringe-inducing.

I also read this fascinating interview on Alternet with journalist Michael Pollan, whose recent book The Omnivore's Dilemma explores how Americans eat. There's lots of great material here, including a discussion of responsible agriculture, the ubiquity of processed corn, and how portable foods have changed the way we eat.

The best quote was this:

"Our food system is not a creation of the free market. It's a combination of a set of rules combined with the market. And those rules are dictating the fact that, for example, cheap corn and soybeans are the predominant ingredients in our food supply.

Because we subsidize those calories, we end up with a supermarket in which the least healthy calories are the cheapest. And the most healthy calories are the most expensive. That, in the simplest terms, is the root of the obesity epidemic for the poor -- because the obesity epidemic is really a class-based problem. It's not an epidemic, really. The biggest prediction of obesity is income."

Monday, April 17, 2006

The War on Junk Food

This was a slow weekend for thought-provoking articles. But I thought that I would post this William Saletan article about the war on junk food. I find it a really interesting issue because I am in a small minority of folks who think that the industry bears a share of the blame for rising obesity rates. Of course, I don't really believe in individual free will, which also places me essentially off the American political spectrum. I say that partially in jest, but in all truth I think that if you wanted to represent the extent to which we have choices about how our lives play out, versus the extent to which things are determined by accident of birth (including genetics, geography, parenting, luck, etc.), I would put the choice figure at about 1%. Sometimes I say 5% if I'm feeling more optimistic.

People always protest that this view is fatalistic and does not account for the ability of people to change. On the contrary, I think one can do a hell of a lot with their 1 to 5% free will. We just do it in a context where the deck has been stacked in certain ways.

How does this relate to junk food? Well, I guess I would say that the deck has been stacked in terms of what we eat, what we think tastes good, and where we get our food. It may seem strange for me of all people to say this, since I grew up in a house jam-packed full of junk food (soda, twinkies, cookies, processed cheese products, etc.) and still managed to become an adult who eats relatively healthily, although I am still addicted to sugar (and thus artificial sweeteners). After reading Fast Food Nation , I stopped eating fast food almost entirely and now am such a freaking yuppie that the thought of McDonald's makes me slightly nauseated (does Au Bon Pain count as fast food?). My food deck was stacked, but I managed to overcome it, so I'm the poster girl for consumer responsibility, right?

Well, not really. I learned about nutrition because I desperately wanted to be thin -- a desire that is also culturally driven. (Genetics helped out quite a bit in allowing me to accomplish this, another example of how free will is a crock). And my journey from hedonism to moderation was an uneven one. I still have a huge bag of Hershey's miniatures in my refrigerator.

So I know and understand very well the strong pull of junk food. Eating healthy is expensive, time-consuming, and requires planning. Because of the decline in family meals and home ec classes (people dis them, but I know what a pastry blender is and how to use it because of my 8th grade home ec class!), a lot of people grow up not having learned much about nutrition or how to prepare food. People without cars are limited in where they can shop for food, and others lack the time and money to prepare meals with real vegetables in them. This is not to say that healthy eating can't be done by almost anyone -- it can -- but it's certainly not the path of least resistance. And the abundance of unhealthy food choices out there make it very easy to go through life thinking that french fries and ketchup count as vegetables.

How does this translate into a policy prescription? Rather than following the route of the big tobacco lawsuits, I would advocate legislation restricting the production and marketing of nutritionally worthless foods. Although ideally, the industry would voluntarily change its practices regarding same (I think it is Kraft that has made some strides in this way). Putting the blame wholly on the consumer is attractive because it's easy -- but it practically ensures that little will change.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Relevant Ministry

It almost didn’t happen.

Andrew Young said Dr. King was feeling under the weather that evening in Memphis and had decided not to go to the church service, but after his entourage saw the overflow crowd, they asked him to come and at least make an appearance. Ralph Abernathy would bring the message, and Dr. King would simply add a few remarks.

Those remarks, given without notes, came to be known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. They were words that, though given before, proved prophetic the next day when he was gunned down in cold blood.

Smack in the middle of the speech Dr. King said these words:

We need all of you. And you know what's beautiful to me, is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It's a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and say, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Somehow, the preacher must say with Jesus, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor."

And I want to commend the preachers, under the leadership of these noble men: James Lawson, one who has been in this struggle for many years; he's been to jail for struggling; but he's still going on, fighting for the rights of his people. Rev. Ralph Jackson, Billy Kiles; I could just go right on down the list, but time will not permit. But I want to thank them all. And I want you to thank them, because so often, preachers aren't concerned about anything but themselves. And I'm always happy to see a relevant ministry.

It's all right to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's all right to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

These thoughts expressed by Dr. King, thoughts of a relevant ministry meeting tangible needs, hit close to my heart. And as one of the few preachers represented in this ornery group of houseflies, I wonder how the words come across to you.

To me, it seems that Dr. King is saying that it is hard to preach very long without addressing the issue of injustice, and that a ministry is irrelevant unless it gets its hands dirty about it.

Is this the way you take it? If so, do you agree? And (on a limb here), if so, how do we go about it nearly four decades removed from the sanitation strike in Memphis?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Disney World Picture



A couple of bats duke it out upside down over a snack on the Maharajah Jungle Trek in the Animal Kingdom.

(Note: You can check out a folder of my Disney pics on my Webshots page at http://community.webshots.com/user/alsturgeon.)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Smell-a-Vision

OK... Whitney begged me to post this link.

Makes you wonder what other movies might smell like.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Dilemma of the Dirt Threshold

On a lighter note, there was an interesting article in the Style section this weekend (I don't know why they don't just call it the Life section, since it's rarely about style, but whatever) about the ongoing issue of the division of domestic labor.

This is such an interesting issue for me because I live in one of the presumably rare households in which the typical gender roles are reversed. My husband is a very clean man. He does far more of the household chores than I do. In fact, since we moved in together I have not cleaned a bathroom once. Not once. This is not to say that I am a big slob, although I have been known to let things slide a little longer than they probably should. Rather, it is simply that my dirt threshold is higher than David's.

The dirt threshold is the point at which you can't stand it anymore and get up off the couch and start cleaning. For me, as long as no one is coming over, the dirt threshold is relatively high. I need external motivation to clean; so, there usually has to be a sight or smell that grosses me out or otherwise makes me uncomfortable in order to motivate me to do it.

Living with David has been great, like having my own personal maid. I get to live in a clean house and only rarely do I do much of the work. I try to do my part, I really do. But the dirt threshold is a stubborn thing; until it is reached, other things inevitably seem much more important than cleaning. Of course, this has been a point of tension between us, one of maybe three issues that we have with each other. I have tried to explain the concept of the dirt threshold to David, and while intellectually he gets it, I know it still galls him that he does more of the household chores than I do.

And it's not like he can really ask for help. I get very defensive and stubborn at anything that smacks of being what to do and when to do it.

Honestly, I blame all of my issues with cleaning on my mother, also known as Susie Spotless. See, she was very meticulous about having a clean house. At various times during my childhood she tried to get me to do chores, but then she criticized how well or how quickly I did them. Plus we didn't have a great relationship on other fronts, either, when I was living at home. So I got a little surly about housework.

In truth, though, I can honestly say that I don't hate cleaning. That may be most people's reason for not doing much of it, but it's not mine. I actually enjoy cleaning; I like the feeling of virtuousness and accomplishment that comes with it. As I've gotten older and started taking more pride in my surroundings (let's face it, it's hard to find a reason to keep your college apartment spotless), I've found that being clean is more important to me now than it used to be.

But while my dirt threshold may be lower than it once was, it's still higher than David's. As it was higher than that of my long-term boyfriend I was with in law school. But my first year in college, my dirt threshold was lower than that of my female roommate, who was a certifiable slob. She had a ferret that was not descented and I'm not sure how often she cleaned its cage. It was all I could do not to puke when I passed her bedroom on the way to take a shower in the morning. And don't get me started on the food and dirty dishes she would leave in the sink ... it nauseates me to think of it to this day.

To be fair to the Times article, I guess cleaning is a gender issue in a broad statistical sense. Certainly a visit to various public restrooms, bachelor pads, and college dormitories would seem to confirm as much. But the traditional "women are cleaner than men" split has not had particular relevance to my life. Rather, it's the dilemma of the dirt threshold that continues to bedevil me. Because I don't find cleaning to be a moral issue (nothwithstanding my comment on virtuousness above), the difficulty is that neither David nor I are wrong to have the dirt thresholds that we do. The question is how to reach a compromise that accommodates us both.

Pro-Life Nation

I swear I am sick to death of this topic (no tasteless pun intended), but this New York Times Magazine article about El Salvador's draconian abortion laws is pretty chilling.

All in favor of retaining a woman's reproductive organs for use as evidence against her in a criminal proceeding? Oy vey.

The Park Slope Hat Spat

I really don't have any commentary on this other than to say I chuckled... a lot.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Retired General: Iraq was a mistake

Lieutenant General Gregory Newbold retired in late 2002 as the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the most recent issue of TIME he has some scathing words for our country’s leaders relating to the Iraq-war decision.

I'd bet anyone with an opinion on the issue will find his words interesting. Read it here.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

And in sports... The Duke Pink Elephants

A letter from Duke's president on April 5 for your consideration and discussion...

Durham, N.C. -- April 5, 2006

A Letter to the Duke Community

I want to speak to the issue that is troubling our community and announce five steps we are taking to address it.

Allegations against members of the Duke lacrosse team stemming from the party on the evening of March 13 have deeply troubled me and everyone else at this university and our surrounding city. We can’t be surprised at the outpouring of outrage. Rape is the substitution of raw power for love, brutality for tenderness, and dehumanization for intimacy. It is also the crudest assertion of inequality, a way to show that the strong are superior to the weak and can rightfully use them as the objects of their pleasure. When reports of racial abuse are added to the mix, the evil is compounded, reviving memories of the systematic racial oppression we had hoped to have left behind us.

If the allegations are verified, what happened would be a deep violation of fundamental ethical principles and among the most serious crimes known to the legal system. Such conduct is completely unacceptable both within the university and in our society at large. If the truth of the allegations is upheld, it will call for severe punishment from the courts and from Duke’s disciplinary system. This university has cooperated and will continue to cooperate to the fullest to speed the ongoing investigation by the police, and I pledge that Duke will respond with appropriate seriousness when the truth is established.

But it is clear that the acts the police are investigating are only part of the problem. This episode has touched off angers, fears, resentments, and suspicions that range far beyond this immediate cause. It has done so because the episode has brought to glaring visibility underlying issues that have been of concern on this campus and in this town for some time—issues that are not unique to Duke or Durham but that have been brought to the fore in our midst. They include concerns of women about sexual coercion and assault. They include concerns about the culture of certain student groups that regularly abuse alcohol and the attitudes these groups promote. They include concerns about the survival of the legacy of racism, the most hateful feature American history has produced.

Compounding and intensifying these issues of race and gender, they include concerns about the deep structures of inequality in our society—inequalities of wealth, privilege, and opportunity (including educational opportunity), and the attitudes of superiority those inequalities breed. And they include concerns that, whether they intend to or not, universities like Duke participate in this inequality and supply a home for a culture of privilege. The objection of our East Campus neighbors was a reaction to an attitude of arrogant inconsiderateness that reached its peak in the alleged event but that had long preceded it. I know that to many in our community, this student behavior has seemed to be the face of Duke.

Given the history of this campus and city, this has been particularly painful. Only forty years ago, the first African American student was admitted to Duke and at that time men and women lived on separate campuses. Today, more than one-third of Duke undergraduates are members of minority groups. Many, many dedicated members of the Duke and Durham communities have worked hard to bring us all forward. Duke has worked to be a good neighbor, supporting health care, K-12 education, affordable housing, neighborhood stabilization, and economic development through the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership. Duke is not, as some have reported, just an institution for the children of wealthy families. This university admits undergraduates without regard to their family’s ability to pay, and we invest more than $50 million a year to enable the 40% of students who receive grant aid to afford a Duke education. Duke’s Women’s Initiative, launched by my predecessor Nannerl Keohane, took the national lead in exploring issues of gender inequality across the university. Perhaps most important, I know—and I suspect our students’ harshest critics know too—that the huge majority of Duke students are well-behaved and good-hearted, and many work hard for the larger social good.

But if the dark aspect is not the whole truth, this is not a moment to take comfort or mount defenses. To get the good of the current situation, we all need to face up to the profoundly serious issues that recent events have brought to light and address them in a positive, substantive, and ongoing way. If none of these issues is peculiar to Duke, that’s no reason why we should refuse to address them in our midst. As we decide what steps to take, let me underline the values that must govern our actions.

The university is guided by the principles of openness, inclusiveness, mutual toleration, and mutual respect. Everything that furthers these causes advances our ability to work together toward the truth no individual or group can reach alone. Everything that hinders these causes retards the search for wisdom and knowledge. The university is also founded on the principle that we have an obligation to seek the truth, and that truth is established through evidence and disciplined inquiry. Reaching certainty without evidence or process is a double wrong in a university because it opens the door to injustice and violates our commitment to the truth.

In keeping with these values, I want to announce five steps Duke will take to address the issues before us. Some will be accomplished in a short period of time; others will require our sustained attention.

1. Investigation of men’s lacrosse. In regard to men’s lacrosse, I have announced today that the men’s lacrosse season and all associated activities have been cancelled. Lacrosse coach Mike Pressler submitted his resignation today to Athletics Director Joe Alleva and it was accepted, effective immediately.

The criminal allegations against members of the team must continue to be investigated by the Durham police and we will continue to cooperate with that investigation to the fullest. Many have urged me to have Duke conduct its own inquiry into these charges. Frustrating though it is, Duke must defer its own investigation until the police inquiry is completed, first because the police have access to key witnesses, warrants, and information that we lack, and second because our concurrent questioning could create a risk of complications—for instance, charges of witness tampering—that could negatively affect the legal proceedings. I assure you, however, that the Duke disciplinary system will be brought to bear as soon as this can appropriately be done. Until that time, I urge us to be patient and remind ourselves that allegations have been made, the team has denied them, and we must wait until the authorities act before reaching any judgment in the criminal case.

Quite separate from the criminal allegations, there have been reports of persistent problems involving the men’s lacrosse team, including racist language and a pattern of alcohol abuse and disorderly behavior. These are quite separate from the criminal allegations, and these we will address at once. The Athletic Council, the body with oversight of athletics in Duke’s governance system, is the right group to perform this investigation. The Executive Committee of the Academic Council and I have asked a faculty subcommittee of the Athletic Council to investigate all the evidence regarding objectionable behavior prior to March 13. The intention here is not to single out the behavior of individuals but to understand the extent to which the cumulative behavior of many over a number of years signifies a deeper problem for which significant corrective actions are called for. I have asked this group to report its findings and to make any recommendations it may have by May 1. I am pleased that Professor James Coleman of the DukeLawSchool, an Athletic Council member, has agreed to chair this committee.

2. Investigation of Duke Administration Response. I have heard a good deal of criticism of the Duke administration for being slow to respond to the allegations against the team associated with March 13. At meetings with faculty, students, community members, and others, I have explained why it took time to know how to respond: we learned the full magnitude of the allegations only gradually, as police and other information was reported in the media, and indeed it appears it took the police themselves some time to understand the nature of the case. Nevertheless, I want to address the concern that my administration did not respond as quickly as we should have and to learn any lessons this episode can teach. To that end, I have asked two individuals with outstanding experience in higher education and civil rights to look into the role of the Duke administration and Duke Athletics in handling this episode. I am grateful to William Bowen, President of the Andrew Mellon Foundation and former President of Princeton University, and Julius Chambers, former Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and past Chancellor of North Carolina Central University, for agreeing to take on this task. They have agreed to report their findings and make any recommendations to me by May 15.

3. Examination of student judicial process and practices. Questions have been raised within the Duke and Durham communities about the way Duke deals with problems of student behavior and the applicability of our Community Standard to social life. The Executive Committee of the Academic Council has charged the Council’s Student Affairs Committee, chaired by Professor Prasad Kasibhatla, to study Duke’s existing judicial processes and practices for students and make any recommendations for change to the administration and faculty by June 1.

4. Campus Culture Initiative. Duke traditionally has given its students a great deal of freedom, but at times the exercise of that freedom is not matched with a commensurate sense of responsibility. We must be concerned about issues of campus culture this episode has raised quite apart from the lacrosse team. This is a time for Duke to take a hard look at our institutional practices to assess the extent to which they do, or do not, promote the values we expect students to live by.

I have asked Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Trinity College Robert Thompson to direct a Campus Culture Initiative involving faculty, students, and staff. The task of the Initiative is to evaluate and suggest improvements in the ways Duke educates students in the values of personal responsibility, consideration for others, and mutual respect in the face of difference and disagreement. The goal of this initiative is not to tell students “what to think” in some simplistic or doctrinaire way. Nevertheless, this is our chance to take the ethical dimension of education much more seriously than heretofore. An important task of the Initiative will be to enlist the faculty more fully in this broader work of education. Since we need to engage the whole of the student population in this process, we will also need to involve all of Duke’s overlapping student groups and communities and learn how they can be parts of the solution.

Although the academic year will soon draw to a close, I believe the Initiative’s work should begin this spring. We should not lose the chance for education in large and small groups supplied by this moment of heightened sensitivity. Some work can be done over the coming summer, and we are looking to pioneer a period of focused engagement on campus issues for upper class students in the fall. In honesty, some of the Initiative’s work will require long-lasting attention and is unsusceptible to any quick fix. This would include promoting a more responsible approach to the culture of campus drinking, a major factor in Duke’s recent crisis and the source of much bad college conduct throughout the United States. I have asked Vice Provost Thompson to report on the Initiative’s progress at the end of this term and again in the fall.

5. Presidential Council In addition to these steps aimed at the lacrosse team culture and our larger student culture, I will convene a presidential council to give advice and offer guidance to me and the Board of Trustees. This group will be made up of wise figures from within the university community, from the larger Duke family, from the national higher education community, and from the city of Durham. I will ask it to receive and critique our internal policies and self-assessments regarding the promotion of these central values; to inform our on-campus efforts with the best practices in other university settings; and to consider ways that Duke and its community can work yet more closely to promote these values in a larger social setting. Emeriti Trustees Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs of the University of the District of Columbia, and Roy Bostock, Chairman of The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, have agreed to chair and I plan to convene the first meeting of the Council this spring.

In addition to these five steps, I look forward to continuing a dialogue with leaders in Durham and at North Carolina Central University. I’m indebted to Mayor Bill Bell for hosting a meeting on the Duke campus last week that brought together many African American leaders to discuss the incident of March 13. We concluded that meeting with the resolve to meet again; I look forward to further discussions with this group and others at the next meeting, which my colleague NCCU Chancellor James Ammons has offered to host. Durham is a proud city with a rich history and a diverse population that responds to the challenges of the day better than many other cities in this country. I’m resolved to seize the moment to do what I can to strengthen what is in many aspects, but surely not all, a positive relationship between our university and city.

Nobody wishes trouble on one’s house and I regret the trouble that this incident has brought to Duke and Durham. But when trouble arrives, it’s the test of a community and its leaders to deal with it honestly, act accordingly and learn from it. This is a deeply emotional time as well as a rare opportunity for education – for our students, faculty, administrators, and members of our community. Let’s move forward with a serious commitment to make progress on the many complex issues that confront us now.

Richard H. Brodhead
President
Duke University

The Power of Prayer?

I'm sure you all heard this story in some form or another last week. I myself didn't know what to make of it -- a large-scale study designed to prove that prayer produces results for the sick showed instead that it had no effect, or even perhaps that it hurt those prayed for.

Today, one of my very favorite journalists, William Saletan, many of whose articles I have previously cited, came up with an interesting list of possibilities for what the results of this study might mean, based on what various people and organizations have said in response to it.

I would be interested to hear from the loyal readers of this blog what your take on this study is. I guess I'm sort of one of those "science and religion are two separate things and never the twain shall meet" types, so it seems foolhardy to me to try to quantify and make scientific something that is by its very nature more ephemeral than that (if that's the right word). What do others think?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Arresting the Drift


ARRESTING THE DRIFT

Back to Leonard Sweet…

So we all sort of agree a little bit in some touchy-feely way that leadership depends somewhat on circumstances every once in a while maybe. How very postmodern of us.

This describes in large part my experience with Sweet’s book, Summoned to Lead.

But there were two or three things he shared (that my modern mind cannot yet link together to some logical whole) that had a great impact on me. This is one of them:

Hebrew history scholar George Adam Smith makes this compelling analogy from the natural environment of the Middle East: “Great men are not the whole of life, but they are the condition of all the rest; if it were not for the big men, the little ones could scarcely live… In the East… where the desert touches a river-valley or oasis, the sand is in a continual state of drift from the wind… which is the real cause of the barrenness of such portions of the desert at least as abut upon the fertile land… But set down a rock on the sand, and see the difference its presence makes. After a few showers, to the leeward side of this some blades will spring up; if you have patience, you will see in time a garden. How has the boulder produced this? Simply by arresting the drift. Now this is exactly how great men benefit human life. A great man serves his generation, serves the whole race, by arresting the drift.” (Summoned to Lead, pages 31-32)

If Sandi can look past the gender-bias reflected in this 1928 commentary (smile), then I’d like to suggest that I found in some measure a purpose for my life in Smith’s comments: arrest the drift.

FAMILY

I met my now nineteen-year-old daughter when she was six, and I fell in love with her before I fell in love with her mother. We have all been together ever since. I think her biological dad, despite his obvious mistakes, didn’t so much make a conscious choice to abandon his daughter. As John Lennon once sang, “Life is just what happens to you / While you’re busy making other plans.”

But actions have consequences. Especially when children are the victims.

On my daughter’s fourteenth birthday, by accident of course, I stumbled across something good. She was infatuated with the reality show, Making the Band, at the time, and when I noticed the show’s creation, O-Town, was to be in concert at the House of Blues in New Orleans, I hatched a birthday surprise plan. Without her knowing where we were going, we took off on an adventure, just she and I. We bonded that night in a good way. To put it another way, I think I set something down in each of our lives, a marker if you will, and began to arrest a drift.

On birthday number fifteen we chased soccer star Landon Donovan to Dallas and got her picture made with him. At sixteen we drove to Orlando to spring training and a murder-mystery dinner. At seventeen we saw LeBron James in his rookie year. At eighteen we took a haunted tour of the French Quarter. Then last Saturday…

I told her to set her alarm at 2am. We left the house at 2:30. We made it to New Orleans by 4:30, and we were on our plane to Miami at six. We rented a convertible and drove to Key Biscayne to watch the finals of the Nasdaq-100 Open, watching Maria Sharapova get whipped in straight sets, along with part of the men’s doubles finals. We then drove with the top down along Ocean Drive in South Beach, which isn’t easy during spring break, before heading back to the airport that night. Our plane was delayed, landing back in New Orleans at 11:30pm. On the drive home, we witnessed a U-Haul truck flip on the I-10 bridge near Slidell and parked on the interstate with a few thousand other people for an hour-and-a-half. We made it home at 3:30am, a few hours before I had to be preaching.

I was exhausted, but I really don’t care. I’m too committed now to arresting the drift, and I’m most interested in seeing a beautiful flower emerge amid the burning sands.

COMMUNITY

I wasn’t raised a racist per se, but I had great potential. If I had paid attention, I could have easily been content with a homogeneous life filled with people of the same color, religious persuasion, and income bracket. Nirvana for some I guess.

Instead, I’ve fallen in love with Habitat for Humanity. I’ve found nothing else like it for breaking down community barriers, something that can build bridges between Catholic and Protestant, black and white, young and old, liberal and conservative, rich and poor, and male and female.

The landscape of community may be a barren landscape, but for nine years now I have seen Habitat for Humanity set up shop against the strong winds and produce little gardens. Arresting the drift of religious exclusivity, racism, age segregation, political division, the rich-poor gap, and gender issues.

I cannot escape it. In this effort, I find purpose. Gardening in the desert of community.

RELIGION

And where’s Nancy Grace? As you may have read already, I don’t mind admitting that my religious heritage is an imperfect one. Whose isn’t? But I am choosing to expend my energies arresting the drift.

There are hot winds that have blasted my religious landscape, winds of closed-mindedness and sectarianism, winds of apathy and atrophy. Winds that could make a guy want to up and quit. And I just might someday.

But not as long as I see a purpose in arresting the drift. There may be an oasis yet. When I look closely enough, I can already see blades of grass.

CONCLUSION

I’ve been learning to come to terms with the fact that I just might not be able to defeat the barrenness of the world I inhabit. Instead, I’m learning to take my stand facing the killer winds, look for flowers blooming in the vicinity, and smile.

Heck, I might turn out to be a good postmodern after all.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Pink Elephant in the Room

My first two years after law school, I lived in Jackson, Mississippi. For those who haven’t been to Jackson, let me say that it is possibly the most rigidly segregated city I have ever been to, and certainly the most segregated place I have ever lived. Very few white folks live in Jackson proper. No, they’ve all fled to the suburbs – Clinton to the west, Pearl and the rest of Rankin County to the east, Ridgeland and Madison County to the north, and Richland et al. to the south. There are a few scattered upscale neighborhoods in northeast Jackson where whites can still be found, although I’m not sure how long that will last. There’s Fondren, the burgeoning gay neighborhood (don’t tell the Chamber of Commerce!). And then there is the only other section of Jackson where white people live in large numbers – Belhaven.

Belhaven the neighborhood surrounds Belhaven College, a tiny Methodist liberal arts college known for its music program. The streets are wide and tree-lined, the houses are older and have the character lacking in more recent housing developments – you know, they’re not cookie-cutter, they have hardwood floors and crown molding, the works. The residents are a mix of younger professionals and older professionals (20s versus 30s and 40s). Belhaven extends across Fortification Street, a major road that cuts the neighborhood in two. Well, I guess I should say that in my view Belhaven extends across Fortification. More discerning, or perhaps just more racist, Jackson residents condescendingly refer to the section of Belhaven located on the “other side” of Fortification as “Belhaven Heights” (accent on “Heights”). As far as I can tell, this is code for “the part of Belhaven where black people live.” The houses themselves are the same.

During my two years in Jackson, I lived in three different dwellings. Two of them were in Belhaven Heights, one was in Belhaven proper. My first apartment was on Morningside Street, just across Fortification. Then we got a new roommate and moved to a house on Riverview Drive, which was several blocks west of Fortification Street. Most of the residents on that street were young professional types. But because that street was more “transitional,” there were also poor African American residents, particularly in a run down apartment complex on the next block. The rent was also really reasonable for a just-renovated three-bedroom house with a screened-in front porch.

Several months after we moved in, around September of 2002, one of my roommates got engaged and wanted to move in with her fiancé, so my original roommate Kim and I moved again, this time to Belhaven. It wasn’t the location of the new apartment that attracted us – it was the most reasonably priced place available on short notice. Because we wanted out of our lease at the Riverview house early, I took responsibility for listing and showing it to try to secure a new tenant.

It was a nightmare. I listed the house as located in Belhaven, and people would call, ask exactly where it was, and hang up when I told them, or better yet, give me a horrified, “oh, I could never live there,” as if it were the bowels of hell instead of a nice, quiet residential street where, God forbid, black people without checking accounts lived side by side with white people. One man came to see the house for a female friend of his who was moving down from Tennessee. By that point I was tired of the questions about the neighborhood, so I said, “look, let’s just be honest here. The difference between Belhaven and Belhaven Heights is that more black people live here. So anyone who’s racist probably wouldn’t want to rent this house.” His response: “Do they walk down the street?”

I don’t remember what I said to that because the question was so outrageous it was the only thing that stuck in my mind.

Fast forward three and a half years. I have moved to D.C., a city which has one thing in common with Mississippi – there are a high percentage of African American residents. This is what I am accustomed to, having lived most of my life in Mississippi and Louisiana, the two states with the highest percentages of African American citizens. I live in a neighborhood known as Capitol Hill, which begins, predictably, very close to the Capitol and spreads east toward the Anacostia River and also north up to about H Street, NE. I took my first apartment there sight unseen because I had no money to travel to D.C. in advance of my move. During my first year in the city, I met my husband David, and when our leases were up in June 2004 we moved into another, much larger and nicer, apartment in Capitol Hill. At least, that was where I thought we moved. (Check out this map: we live five blocks to the east of Lincoln Park, which you can't see on the map, on the corner of 18th and East Capitol).

By now, my residential M.O. is clear and well-established: I choose to live in “transitional” neighborhoods to save money on rent and to live in larger, nicer places than I could otherwise afford if I insisted on living in very upscale areas. This started when I was in law school. See, when I was in college, I lived on the “good side” (i.e., the white side) of campus – and my car was nevertheless broken into. Between college and law school, I spent a summer in Brooklyn living on a street that was, most would say, questionable in terms of safety. I found that it wasn’t so bad, that the risks were more negligible than most people thought they were, and that I even liked being in a place that was more diverse, both racially and socioeconomically. Why should I pay more for less when I could pay less for more? I spend far less time walking around outside than I do inside my home, so a nicer place means more to me than a nicer neighborhood.

Apparently, I am somewhat of a freak for engaging in this type of calculus.

At the end of this month, David and I are moving to a three-bedroom rowhouse in another transitional neighborhood in D.C. called Eckington, perhaps even more “transitional” than the one in which we currently live. Again, because we are leaving before our lease is up (for bar exam reasons), I took responsibility for showing our place to get a new tenant. I guess I had forgotten my experience in 2002. Or maybe I thought people in D.C. were different. Or maybe, because I’ve lived in the same type of neighborhood for so long, I just didn’t think about “it” at all. But here I am again, having precisely the same experience a second time and getting even more annoyed and frustrated than before.

People have been incredibly rude about the location of our place. Apparently, the fact that it’s two blocks from the Metro (a BIG deal to me given long cold winters) does not make a damn bit of difference to entitled baby yuppies who want it all and want it now. The fact that it was renovated a few years ago and is by far the nicest place I’ve ever lived leaves young white women who are scared of black men unmoved. And the fact that the rent is half of what it would be in Georgetown or Dupont Circle – not a factor.

The trajectory of my Craig’s List postings went from “accentuate the positive” to “a few code words” to “let’s see how I can say this without really saying it” to “fine, dammit, I will just be honest.” I hoped to screen out those who would rule the place out before seeing the inside before they even picked up the phone. Because I am really afraid I might curse at some folks and call them racist on the phone. Oh, they use their code words correctly: “the neighborhood looks a bit run-down,” “it’s definitely a different feel on the inside than on the outside,” and my personal favorite, “I want to be able to take an after-dinner walk and feel safe.” (This from a graduating law student from Penn!) But let’s be honest here – this is about race. It’s the pink elephant in the middle of the room that none of these callers, who probably all consider themselves liberal Democrats because this is, after all, the District, can bring themselves to talk about. Maybe they can’t even bring themselves to think about it because the cognitive dissonance would be too much. I just know that the feeling they engender in me is utter contempt and disgust.

If telling this story has a point, it’s to raise consciousness. This is how residential segregation happens. It is embodied in the snap judgments we make about how “run down” a neighborhood looks or how we feel about it based on who we see walking around outside. Are these folks bad people for wanting to live in neighborhoods where everyone “looks like them” or where their subjective comfort level is met based on highly questionable judgments? Maybe not, but to the extent they consider themselves progressive, I would say that they are not living their ideals. Maybe I’m just as bad or worse, because I am part of the wave of upper-class folks moving into previously poor neighborhoods, driving up prices and driving out the previous residents. Where do they go? I’ve often wondered. In D.C., the answer is Prince George’s County, Maryland. That’s where African Americans live. Whites live in Fairfax or Montgomery Counties, or further out to the west and north. I do not know this statistically. I know it anecdotally, from talk of where the “good schools” are to watching who takes the Metro where. D.C. isn’t much better than Jackson. The same attitudes toward residential integration prevail. And it doesn’t seem like anyone cares enough to try to change them.

The inevitable question will be, isn’t this a class issue rather than a racial one? As far as I’m concerned, that’s just a cop-out that attempts to obfuscate the extent to which race is inextricably bound up with class in this country. Willie Horton won George H.W. Bush an election in 1988. Was that commercial really just about crime? Anyone who can answer yes to that question with a straight face is kidding themselves.

From slavery to Jim Crow to our current uneasy silence, we have certainly come a long way in America. But if persistent residential segregation shows anything, it is that true equality and racial justice is still, and may perhaps always be, an elusive dream.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Learning From Experience

LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE – by Al Sturgeon

As Gomer Pyle once taught us, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

It has been a long time, over twenty years actually, since the Collinsville Church of Christ defended itself on Phil Donahue’s show, but Churches of Christ found themselves in the middle of another fifteen minutes of fame recently, this time on a talk show hosted by Nancy Grace. It wasn’t a pleasant experience this time either.

I watch very little of the news and had actually never heard of Nancy Grace until I became enamored with the Winkler tragedy, but I happened to be watching Ms. Grace’s show when I think the idea hit her to give Churches of Christ a little attention. I heard a caller ask the question whether or not Mary Winkler’s congregation might have been cult-like, a question Ms. Grace did not know how to answer. She had a reporter read a very encyclopedic entry describing “us,” but that wasn’t very exciting.

She fixed that by the next show, however, when Pastor Tom Rukala made his appearance to share his views on the Church of Christ, using terms such as “methods of intimidation and pressure tactics” along with “cult-like tendencies” in his description. He centered on the idea that members of the Church of Christ think they are “the only ones going to Heaven” and this exclusive attitude.

And it didn’t take long for the emails to start flying. Most that I read were outraged that Ms. Grace had asked a Baptist pastor to describe Churches of Christ and encouraged letters to the show requesting that she interview a Church of Christ minister to set the record straight. I don’t know if it was the emails that did it, but the very next night she had Dr. Rubel Shelly on her show to represent “us.”

Many people will know that Dr. Shelly represents the liberal end of the Church of Christ spectrum, the most inclusive guest she could have tracked down (read: the guest most likely not to claim we’re the only ones going to Heaven). Then she went on to make him look silly, speaking only toward the role of women (in which we agree with Southern Baptists) and the traditional Christian view towards salvation for other religious groups like Jews and Muslims. I have learned that “making people look silly” is the specialty of the Nancy Grace Show.

So now what?

I think many Church of Christ folks feel that urge for revenge. You know, Don’t get mad, get even. Write some vindictive letters. Start a petition. Discredit Nancy Grace. But let’s be serious for a minute: it’s kind of hard to sport the name Jesus and seek revenge.

So many opt for “damage control” instead, a much more morally palatable option. This involves letter-writing, too, but with a different audience. Start our own public relations campaign, write letters to the editor, email your friends, explain what we “really” believe and such. “Damage control” is a natural option, the one we see employed by politicians on all levels as well as the corporate world.

But I think there’s an even better option. I suggest we focus on learning from the experience instead.

What can we learn that is worth learning? I suggest three things:

#1: DODGE BALL IS NO FUN WHEN THE OTHER SIDE HAS THE BALL.

Pastor Tom Rukala’s impressions of Churches of Christ are his own, ideas he based I’m sure on interactions he has had over the years. Those are his impressions, and it is a free country. But this doesn’t make it any more fun when you are the punch line.

We shouldn’t do the same in reverse. I have listened to many a sermon with the punch line being “Baptist” or “Presbyterian,” not to mention many others where the boogey-man was “liberal” or “conservative” or whatever other label was being attacked that week. Yet we wonder why some choose to spend their Sundays in other locations than ours, having found themselves or their family the ones on the end of these barbs.

It hurts being ridiculed, not to mention the fact that it is often less than the complete picture.

I’ve heard people say that they loved The Nancy Grace Show up until this incident, though I’ve also heard others explain that personal attack is par for the course on this show. Maybe we can learn that “taking shots” at people isn’t a good thing, even when we happen to agree with the attacker.

I plan to learn how to spot “dis-grace” when I see it, no matter what it is talking about.

#2: BEING CUT DOWN TO SIZE REQUIRES A NEW WARDROBE.

It ought to be the least bit humbling to realize that answering the question, “Who are the Churches of Christ?” was not adequately answered by our tracts. Most people don’t know. We should not be too big for our britches.

And it ought to be the least bit humbling, too, when we realize what people actually see when they look at us as a group: (a) an exclusive group who thinks that even other Christian groups aren’t going to Heaven, (b) a church that limits the role of women, and (c) a group that denies its history. This is the perception. (Funny, but instrumental music never even came up!)

Now we could debate what we “really believe” about such things, but like it or not, when others are asked, “Who are the Churches of Christ?,” this is what comes to mind.

I’d like to think long and hard about what I want people to see when they look at “us” and take steps toward that end.

People think the wrong things first when they define us. I plan to learn from this.

#3: IF YOU’RE NOT A DUCK, DON’T START QUACKING.

I’ll admit that it cracked me up to hear the “cult-like” label the first time I heard it. My picture of a “cult” involved Jim Jones preparing special Kool-Aid, so the label seems ludicrous given that picture. We may be different in various ways from other Christian churches, but we are similar in that if we are a cult, then so are all the other groups in town.

But if the “cult” label is abhorrent to us (and I believe it should be), then I hope we learn to shy away from the things that might lend credence to the argument.

A cult loves to employ the “siege mentality,” the “everyone’s against us so let’s circle the wagons” approach to church life. Wouldn’t it be ironic if we responded to accusations of cult-like tendencies by circling the wagons?

A cult likes to maintain great internal control over its people while having little to no influence on people outside its (sometimes fortified) walls. Wouldn’t it be ironic if we shied away from our foundational principle of letting everyone come to his or her own conclusions in regard to Scripture and loudly demanded adherence to the conclusions of “the group?”

I don’t like being called a cult. I plan to learn how to act less like one than before instead of the other way around.

CONCLUSION:

I am a preacher in a Church of Christ, and I am not running away. You can count me in as part of the group. I am in love with our historical plea of being “Christians only, but not the only Christians.” And I have fallen in love with the idea of allowing every person and every church family the God-given freedom to do his or her best in following Jesus without the rulings of anyone outside of Jesus. I can’t seem to escape these liberating concepts.

And I have seen many good things in Churches of Christ. When Hurricane Katrina swept my home away, I saw countless examples of love put into action by generous, compassionate people. I owe my life as I know it to these people.

But we are FAR from perfect. And we have MANY problems.

And I don’t want to just blame someone when bad things are said about us. I want to learn from the experience. I want to be better. I want “us” to be better. More like Jesus than we’ve ever approached before.

In a former life, I coached high school basketball. On one occasion, I had the pleasure of hearing Coach Bob Huggins tell of his experience going to the Final Four only to lose to a much more powerful Michigan team. After the game, his dad approached him, and Huggins expected a, “Great season, son, I’m proud of you.” Instead, his dad said, “If you would have rebounded better, you would have won.”

Huggins said he was furious with his dad. At first. Then he thought, “You know, he’s right.” So he set out to be better than he was before.

May we in Churches of Christ do the same.

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