April 26

A Good Christian is Hard to Find

I grew up in a Christian church. My mom taught Sunday school; my dad played Michelangelo to our pastor’s Pope Julius. I never questioned my faith, nor did I ever really think about it much. Until the day our married pastor’s multiple affairs with female church members was uncovered. He resigned in disgrace; the church was rocked. My dad was really shaken. It was 1986, and it was the first time a fellow Christian challenged my faith.

We didn’t know it then, but our pastor was at the forefront of a national trend there in the late 1980’s: Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Peter Popoff. Seems like the televangelists just make it harder to be a Christian, much less try to convince others to become one. Every time I feel like I’m making some headway with my agnostic husband, Pat Robertson makes some ridiculous pronouncement about 9/11 being the fault of American homosexuals or the Haiti earthquake being the result of a pact with the devil (CBS News, 1/14/10).

Sadly, I have noticed for several years now that it’s not the “threats” from outside my inherited religion that really make me scratch my head. I have Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Unitarian Universalist friends. I have atheist friends. I’m married to an agnostic. I can have wonderful, thoughtful, respectful conversations with them. We do not proselytize or try to convert one another, but what we usually discover is that, despite our different faiths (or lack thereof), we have a lot in common.

On the other hand, the nastiest, most paranoid, angriest conversations I have had about religion have been with people who supposedly share my faith. For example, this semester I had a student who introduced himself to me on the first day as “a very conservative Christian.” I told him we should probably get along well then, for I was a Christian too. But that wasn’t enough for this young man. He wanted to know which church I attended, and when I told him it was an Episopalian church, he made his pronouncement: “Ooooooh, that’s too liberal.” He then spent the rest of the semester spewing his anger, paranoia and hate in every direction: “Buddhists are going to hell.” “I hate those Chinese guys.” “Hindus and Muslims are going to hell.” “I’m ready to fight for my God.” “The Bible says women who cut their hair are going to hell.” That last one he gave me after I told him about two of my girlfriends who did the St. Baldrick’s event, shaving their heads to show their support for their mother who was going through chemotherapy. Such a sweet, sensitive soul, right? I am a professional; I am a Christian. I turned the other cheek and said almost nothing.

Then there was the Christian missionary who cyber-stalked me for a couple weeks, sending me progressively angry e-mails via Facebook because I did not agree with his stance on the healthcare reform bill. “You show me where in the Bible it says I have to pay my taxes to pay other people’s doctor bills.” I guess he had a point. Jesus never mentioned doctor bills in the New Testament. I am pretty sure he did say, “Pay your taxes” (Matthew 22:21) and also “You can’t take it with you” (Matthew 19:23-24). For a missionary to be that angry about his taxes and about helping others really shook me up a bit.

Another regular challenge to my faith comes from a friend of my mother. This woman, whom I will call Louise, is, well, insane. I’m not sure how else to say it. But she is active in her church which is pretty good cover for her instability. In fact, her church probably appreciates it because she’s loaded, having inherited millions from her late husband. Louise can talk at you for an hour without taking a breath. One day when I was visiting my parents, Louise called, and I answered the phone. I said, “Hello,” and then spent the next ten minutes listening to all her theories: Hillary Clinton is a lesbian, Barack Obama was a secret Muslim terrorist, and all the media outlets except Fox are run by Muslims. My mom says I’m hypercritical of Louise because of her right-wing politics, but I’ve assured my mom that if any of my liberal friends ever tells me that Sarah Palin is actually a member of the KKK or Mitt Romney wants to turn all of America into a Mormon theocracy, I’ll tell them they’re insane too.

So today I got a flyer in my mailbox from the local Assembly of God congregation. It invited me to a four-part series called “The Future of America.” The lectures were titled “United We Stand, Divided We Fall: America’s March Toward Socialism,” “The Death of the Dollar: Will the American Economy Recover?” “Homosexuality: Exposing the Truth Behind the Facades,” And “National Security & Islam in the U.S.: Do You Know Your Neighbor?” My first response was laughter, but then I got nervous, and then angry myself. The inflammatory language on this little flyer – “socialism,” “death,” “exposing,” “security”- and the paranoid rhetoric – “Do you know your neighbor?” – made me wonder exactly what the purpose of a Christian church is. This thing was addressed to “Our Neighbor.” They don’t know me. I might be an agnostic, a lost soul or a Christian who has lost her way. What am I going to make of these titles? I have Muslim neighbors; they probably got this unsolicited trash too. Above the title of the lecture on Islam is a picture of fighter planes. Well, I’m sure that makes my Muslim neighbors comfortable. Not to mention the fury that homosexuality title evoked in me, a lifelong Christian who happens to have many dear gay friends who are not scary or dangerous or hiding anything which more than I can say for the BTK killer who was straight, a church member and Scout leader. How’s that for a facade?

Anyway, it’s a worrisome time for Christians, especially those of us who can’t embrace the almighty dollar, don’t despise all politicians or love toting guns and shooting at people who look different from us. I cling to a few of my Christian heroes: my friend Erik, a local pastor, who organizes new churches in inner-city communities. Frank Schaeffer, son of the theologian and missionary Francis Schaeffer. Fr. Jim Martin, who is actually the unofficial chaplain of “The Colbert Report.” And Reverend C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister who heads up the Interfaith Alliance. The good Christians are out there. Sometimes they’re just harder to find because of all the idiots making so much noise. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

February 18

Word Drama


As an English teacher and writing tutor, I spend a lot of time thinking about words. Lately, it seems like many other Americans are thinking about them too. From Rahm Emanuel, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh to John Mayer to Shaun White, people are taking flak for the words they are using.

First, we had the spat between Rahm Emanuel and Sarah Palin over Emanuel’s use of the word “retard.” Then Rush Limbaugh jumped into the fray, repeating the word half a dozen times and accusing Palin of trying to be “politically correct.” Now you can go about 50 different ways with this argument.  You can go the Mom direction: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. You can go the political route: liberals are all about political correctness, so Emanuel’s use of such a word is particularly egregious. You can even go the etymological route: “retard” is derived from the Latin “tardare” which means “to slow,” so there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the word itself. I’ll let other people take on those debates.

What really interests me in the classroom, at the tutoring table, and in the news lately is the issue of audience. I was talking with some students the other day, and we decided that the world is made up of two kinds of people – those who are only concerned with getting their point across for their own sake and those who want to communicate in a way that affects their audience appropriately. In all the recent language scandals, what has made the difference to me is the audience.

Take Rahm Emanuel first. He actually used the word “retard” months ago in a private meeting with staffers (telegraph.co.uk, 2/4/10). His intended audience was a small one, a group of people with whom he works on a regular basis. Did he offend some of them? Maybe. He probably didn’t surprise any of them, though, since he’s known for his brash, Machiavellian, potty-mouthed style. But he never intended everyone in America to hear his remark. It only came to light in recent weeks because of a tell-all book and Palin’s attempt to jump into the spotlight again by calling for his resignation. I’m not excusing Emanuel. It’s not a word I use, and I don’t like to hear other people use it. I’m not sure I can give Emanuel a pass. It’s pretty insensitive language to use with any audience, but he’s certainly not as guilty as Limbaugh.

Limbaugh used the word multiple times on his radio show which reaches millions of Americans. He not only repeated it, he defended its use. He was talking about the word, its meaning and his right to use it. To me, that kind of conscious discussion in front of a huge audience of whom you are proudly aware is far more egregious than an incidental usage in a private meeting. Limbaugh fail. As usual.

Evidently, Sarah Palin does not agree with me. Shocker. For her, it’s all about the speaker. Emanuel is a Democrat, so his use of the word is wrong. Limbaugh gets a pass because he’s a conservative. Just more evidence of Palin’s deep thinking.

But word snags are not hitting just the political world. The music world got a dose of the drama when John Mayer’s Playboy interview went public (Associated Press, 2/11/10). His use of the n-word and rude comments about his ex-girlfriends offended millions. Does he get a “pass” because he’s an artiste? Full of angst and creativity? No. At least not as far as I’m concerned. The guy was doing an interview with Playboy. It has millions of readers and subscribers all around the world. What an idiot. Did Mayer really think no one would notice his racism or misogyny? Fail.

I woke up this morning to another word snag, this time at the Olympics. It seems the sports world can’t get enough of this language craziness. Today it’s about Shaun White’s coach, Bud Keene. Evidently White and Keene were at the top of the snowboard run. They knew White had the gold medal wrapped up. They were excited and happy, and they were talking. To each other. Unfortunately, NBC had one of its huge boom mikes close enough to pick up a couple of F-bombs (Chris Chase, Yahoo! Sports Blog, 2/18/10). So the NBC announcers immediately had to apologize “for Bud Keene.” Wrong. Bud Keene was talking to his athlete, a guy he’s known for years. They have trained for this moment for ages, and they were thrilled with the outcome. Two adult professionals should be able to say anything they want to each other. The fact that NBC felt the need to eavesdrop that closely in that situation is not Keene’s fault. Would I have been angry if I’d been watching with my kids? Sure, but not at Keene. His intended audience was Shaun White. He gets the pass.

Language is a tricky thing, and these days it’s getting harder to keep track of your audience. Cell phones can record anywhere at any time. Sometimes we post things on Twitter or Facebook, forgetting that certain of our friends may be offended. As technology becomes more and more invasive, those of us who actually try to consider our audience when we communicate are going to find it ever more difficult. For the other folks who don’t care who’s listening as long as they get to say what’s rattling around in their head at the moment, I guess they’ll just go on offending everyone in their wake. Soldier on, Limbaugh and Mayer!

December 14

Failing Economics 101

Being a rare liberal in a Republican family in a red state is sometimes discouraging. My conservative friends and family see me as a challenge, a problem, a project they need to work on. So they send me e-mails like the one I received last night:

“An economics professor at a local college made a statement that he had never failed a single student before, but had once failed an entire class.

That class had insisted that Obama’s socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer. The professor then said, “OK, we will have an experiment in this class on Obama’s plan.” All grades would be averaged and everyone would receive the same grade so no one would fail and no one would receive an A.

After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. As the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too so they studied little.

The second test average was a D! No one was happy.

When the 3rd test rolled around, the average was an F.

The scores never increased as bickering, blame and name-calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else. All failed, to their great surprise, and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great but when government takes all the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed.

Could not be any simpler than that.”

No, it could not be any simpler, but it could be MUCH more complicated. And unfortunately, economics is complicated.
After reading this, I felt some things were just “off.” First, as a college instructor myself, I could not imagine an entire class of college students agreeing that “Obama’s socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer,” much less all of them agreeing to the professor’s proposition. I can’t even get my 24-member classes to agree on a simple due date. Second, this e-mail assumes a level of naďve idealism that I found offensive. My students have a perfectly reasonable view of reality; none of them would be so silly as to believe ANY system could assure that kind of utopia.

Then there was the issue of chronology. “An economics professor at a local college made a statement that he had never failed a single student before, but had once failed an entire class. That class had insisted that Obama’s socialism worked…” This is all in past tense. If the professor “had once failed an entire class,” it would have to have been in May of this year since that is the only semester completed since Obama was elected. And this discussion ending with the idea that “Obama’s socialism worked” would have to taken place very early in the semester since it occurred before the first test. Since Obama was inaugurated weeks after the spring semester started, something was amiss. So I checked out one of my favorite websites: www.snopes.com.  Sure enough, this is a legend, dating back about 15 years: http://www.snopes.com/college/exam/socialism.asp

It is an interesting illustration, but it contradicts the experience I have had with the over 100 teams I’ve mentored in my professional writing classes. Half of the students’ grades in the course is based on an applied research project that they do in teams. The average grade on those 100 projects is a B. And I have always seen that the stronger students bring up the weaker ones, but not the other way around. My fellow instructors and I actually had a discussion last spring about the fact that the deans keep asking why our grades are so high. Our consensus was that the collaborative group projects bring up the average.

All that said, I am not a socialist, nor do I believe President Obama is or I would not have voted for him. Unregulated capitalism is, however, a nightmare. I think that is one of the points of “A Christmas Carol,” one of my favorite novels and especially appropriate this time of year. There will always be those Scrooges, Mr. Potters (the miser from “It’s a Wonderful Life”), Bernie Madoffs, and Kenneth Lays who will take, take, take if no one stops them. And since most of the rest of us cannot afford to take them on, the government’s pretty much our last line of defense. Somewhere between communism and capitalism is a system that works.

Even Ayn Rand acolyte Alan Greenspan realized in the end that we cannot trust financial companies and businesses to act responsibly. What’s more, this brilliant man recognized that economics is not simple: “…we’re not smart enough as people” (“Greenspan Admits ‘Flaw’ to Congress, Predicts More Economic Problems,” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec08/crisishearing_10-23.html).

So to come back to the last line of the e-mail, no, it is not simple. It’s complicated. And we just have to keep tweaking until we get it right.

December 10

Getting It Right


It seems like we all spend a lot of time and energy complaining about our nation, our government, our economy, our countrymen. So I was pleasantly surprised when I suddenly realized today that I had something really positive to say. I discovered something that we are doing well, even beautifully.

Before I explain my epiphany, there are three things you should know about me. First, I’m an efficiency freak. I am always looking for ways to do things faster and easier, or better yet, ways to do multiple things at once. It comes from years of overscheduling myself so badly that I had no choice but to find clever ways of multitasking to get myself out of the mess I’d made. The best example of my efficiency obsession (and the most embarrassing) is my grocery shopping behavior. Not only do I have a thorough shopping list, it is in order according to the setup of the store where I buy my groceries. And heaven forbid I should miss something and have to backtrack! I mutter furiously under my breath any time I have to go back to an aisle I already visited. And when my grocery remodeled and re-ordered their aisles, I actually took pictures of the signs so I could re-organize my list.

The second thing is related to my love of efficiency; I hate waste. Wasted time, wasted energy, wasted food, wasted paper. Anything I can recycle gets sent to Goodwill or friends or the recycling plant.  My refrigerator’s produce bins are checked regularly; anything that is starting to go bad must either be frozen or used somehow.

The final thing you should know is that I am crazy about charities, especially those involving the environment, education or small creatures (children or animals). Yesterday alone, I donated to five separate philanthropy projects. I’m not bragging; I simply cannot say no.

Okay, so given those three things about my personality, you can understand how excited I was yesterday when I realized that I was incidentally involved in an activity that combined all those things. Not only did it satisfy me personally, it also proved to me that Americans are still pretty darned resourceful despite the entitlement and laziness that has crept into our society in the last few decades.

Here’s what happened: I bought a diet Coke.

Yep. Not just any diet Coke – a 50-cent can of diet Coke. But wait, my story gets better! I bought this particular diet Coke from our university’s Anthropology Club. They sell cans of soda for 50 cents as a club fundraiser. Now, I like buying soda from them for two reasons. One, they’re right next door to our Writing Center, and two, they only charge 50 cents, which is 75 cents less than the bottled Cokes in the vending machines down in the basement.

Okay, so follow this. The professor who sponsors the Anthropology Club buys the Cokes in bulk from Costco.  The club sells them and keeps the profits for the club funds. I buy the soda. Then I take the empty can home and put it in a bin in my garage. When the bin is full, I take it to my son’s elementary school. His school has recycle bins for aluminum cans; they use proceeds from the recycling as a fundraiser. Oh my.

It’s just the kind of thing I love: efficient recycling for philanthropy. Coca-Cola gets a profit; Costco gets a profit;  the Anthropology Club makes money for its fundraiser; I save money on my soda; my son’s school makes money for their fundraiser; the recycling company gets raw materials to sell back to Coca-Cola to start the whole process over again.

I know it’s uber-geeky to get this excited over a little process like this, but I have been buying soda from Anthropology for years without thinking twice about any of it. For some reason, it hit me today as I was taking the cans to my son’s school. This is something America is doing well. We are using our ultra-materialistic, capitalist system to do some good things.  We’re supporting education, supporting kids, maintaining the economy and recycling.  It made me proud.

November 20

Education is Bad!

A recent Facebook post from one of my friends shocked me out of my blogging stupor. Here is what he wrote:“President Obama told all of our kids that they need to stay in school. He also told us that every mother needed to go back to school. Now I see an ad that says ‘Obama asks dads to return to school.’ At some point, we are going to be the most over educated poor country that only knows theory and reference material. My Grandfather and your Grandfathers should return from the grave and kick all of our asses.”

Aside from the fact that he is blaming President Obama for an ad posted by a for-profit organization, I was floored by this whole way of thinking.  My friend is a regular Joe. We went to high school together here in the suburbs of Indianapolis. He’s a service technician for a large corporation and what I would consider to be a mainstream Republican. His post worries me: has the GOP so successfully vilified Barack Obama that he cannot even advocate activities widely accepted to be positive without being crucified for it? Yikes!

Facebook being a “social” site, I refrained from posting ALL my objections to my friend’s update. I limited my response to the following: “since so many other countries can do manual labor for so much cheaper (which we American consumers demand so we can buy more stuff at Wal-Mart), don’t you think we need education so we can do something? Believe it or not, many of us “liberal elitists” would really love more of our fellow Americans to be educated right along with us so we won’t have so many people to (according to some folks) “look down our noses at!” Not to mention, if all these people go to college, I’ll get to keep my teaching job!”

I was pleased to see that everyone who responded after me, pretty much agreed that his post was nothing short of ridiculous. I did not feel the need to pursue it any further in that arena. But I was still disturbed. So much so, I found myself tossing and turning in bed last night, coming up with more answers to his gripes. I’m not willing to lose him as a friend over a silly political rant, so I decided to voice them here instead.

First, I understand formal education is not for everyone. My husband is one of them. He dropped out of high school at 16, and I really don’t care. He’s brilliant, and I adore him. He has been fortunate to be able to build a successful career without a college degree, but it has been difficult. He has often bemoaned his youthful decision because it certainly made his life tougher than it might have been.  Do I think EVERYONE should attend college? Nope. Not a chance. But more people should get the chance. More people should consider it. The president’s encouragement can’t hurt.

I’m also surprised that a mainstream Republican could seriously think education is a bad idea. A college education helps a person secure for financing to start a small business; it helps them succeed and stay in business. A mechanic may be able to learn his trade without going to college, but starting his own garage will be much easier if he can show a loan officer a business degree. Handling finances, managing employees, marketing services and staying in business will be easier if he has at least had some classes.

Besides, Americans are not really in any danger of being over-educated. I certainly encounter enough stupid people on a daily basis not to be worried. If you think the U.S. is getting too smart for its own good, just check out some of these sites. They should put you at ease:

http://www.darwinawards.com/

http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/years/2009/1113092mugs1.html?link=rssfeed

www.peopleofwalmart.com

With all their talk about Obama being a “socialist,” “communist,” and/or “fascist,” conservatives ought to be encouraging everyone to become as educated as possible. If they really believe the president is trying to become a dictator, they should recognize the importance of having a highly educated population. After all, one of the first things socialist, communist and fascist dictators do is to exile or kill all the academics and intellectuals. (See Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot.)

Finally, there was my friend’s off-putting comment about our grandfathers returning from the grave to “kick our asses” for getting educations. Well, personally, my grandfathers would probably have supported any kind of education initiative. My maternal grandfather was so bitter about having had to leave school at 13 to help his family through the Depression, he practically forced his own children to go to college. My paternal grandfather was a college graduate himself and a teacher. Both members of the “greatest generation,” my grandpas understood the value of education.

So we return to my initial concern: the GOP is so completely brainwashing its constituents, even the president’s most positive, innocent and helpful initiatives become grist for the hate mill. Now even education is bad just because an advertisement said President Obama said it was a good idea. Argh.