November 11

Giving the Kickball Back to the Bully

So I haven’t written a blog post in a while. And I could say it’s because I have been busy, but that would only be partly true. It’s also because I just haven’t felt inspired to write anything.

I mentioned my malaise to a friend of mine, and she was shocked. “But we lost the elections! How can you not be angry? Doesn’t that make you want to write something?”

And the simple answer is “No, not really.”

See, I don’t consider myself a Democrat as much as I consider myself a liberal. In fact, I have never in my voting life voted a straight party ticket. Back when I considered myself a Republican, I always had at least one Democrat on my ballot (usually Evan Bayh). And now that I don’t really have a hard party affiliation, I usually split my ticket about 2/3 Dem and 1/3 Rep. So I don’t feel like I lost too badly. About half my ballot actually won.

Still, I see my liberal friend’s point. And certainly, many of my friends on the left were pretty depressed by the election results. “We gave the kickball back to the playground bully,” one of my friends said, referencing a blog entry I wrote a couple years ago.

True. Just when President Obama’s administration was starting to resuscitate this economy that had most of the life sucked out of it by W. and his cronies, here comes the G.O.P. again, ready to kick it to death again. Indeed, many crucial economic indicators have been steadily rising in the past few months. (Not that indicators mean much. Economics is too complex to measure with most of these pat little numbers.)

Still, many of my liberal friends are quite depressed. Some of them didn’t even vote because they’re disillusioned with what they see as President Obama’s lack of action on social issues like gay marriage and DADT. I am too, but not voting certainly didn’t help their causes! Did they think the G.O.P. candidates would be more gay-friendly than the Dems?!

Anyway, I guess there are three main reasons that I’m not all that upset about the election results.

First, I don’t want a permanent Democratic majority. I’m not a fan of any political party having power for a long period of time. That’s why I was so vocal about getting Bush and co. out of office. They’d been in there way too long, getting their way and doing a real number on our country. True, the Democrats are much closer to my personal ideology than Republicans in general, but that doesn’t mean I want all Democrats all the time. Balance is better. No parties at all would be ideal, of course. I agree with George Washington: “(Political parties)are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” Since it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever be able to eliminate the party system we’re currently putting up with, though, I prefer to see it go back and forth a bit.

Second, it’s a lot easier to be on the defensive. I guess I’d never realized that until this election cycle. It’s so much easier to be in the backseat, complaining at the driver. It’ll be a nice respite after two years of listening to Republicans scream and stomp and throw rocks through windows.

Finally, though, I don’t despair about the right wing snatching back a little power because it’s just a little skirmish in the great war. If you ever want to really tick off a conservative, just remind them that in the big picture, the course of all human history, people have moving slowly but surely to the left. Yes, we’ve had ugly, violent jags back to the right (Roman Empire, Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Germany), but they’ve been local and temporary. The mankind that once valued only a handful of white, aristocratic landowners now (generally) values people of all creeds, colors, genders and religions. At the very least, most of us no longer own slaves. In civilized nations, children are no longer exploited, and women are no longer considered mere property. The nations where these backward (traditional and conservative) behaviors persist are considered abominations. In countries where we’ve abandoned slavery, child labor, gender and racial discrimination, we shake our heads at individuals who would return to those traditions. Even the G.O.P. no longer wants to be associated with the white supremacists they once courted openly.

So history is cyclical. I’m old enough now too see that and not to expect to win every battle. Tim Wise’s angry “Open Letter to the White Right” said it very powerfully: “We just need to be patient.” Because as a race, human beings are progressive. That progress may be frustratingly slow and often painful, but it’s pretty certain.

So to my Democratic friends, please don’t be depressed. Liberals can’t (and shouldn’t want) to win them all. And to my Republican friends, enjoy the victory for a few weeks. It’s always fun to win. But come January, the voters are going to expect some results. And this time it’ll be someone else’s turn to complain about your driving. Temporarily, anyway.

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October 1

The Gay Suicides

Do you remember 1988?

I do. I was a junior in high school and, well, kind of the belle of the ball. I was cute. I was skinny (was I ever really a size 4?!). I was the teachers’ pet, and I was popular. It was one of the best years of my life, so it’s imprinted on my memory very clearly.

Ronald Reagan was on his way out as the presidential campaign between George HW Bush and Michael Dukakis was in full swing. (I was rooting for Bush!?) The Soviet Union was still a constant threat.  My beloved Duran Duran, now down to three members, released their “Big Thing” album. Bruce Willis starred in the first “Die Hard” film that year.

We wore pegged jeans, Coca-Cola brand clothes, and high-top Converse. Our hair was BIG! Our eyeshadow was blue. And all the way up to our eyebrows.

My mom was an English teacher at my high school, but I was lucky: she was way cool. My mom might’ve been more popular than I was! But I had a driver’s license, a car, and a reputation for being a non-judgemental goody-two-shoes, so I was everyone’s favorite designated driver. It was in that role that I experienced one of the “game-changing” moments of my life.

It was December (I think. I know that it was VERY cold.), and I was leaving a basketball game at my school. I was in the pep band (at my school, band was actually cool!), so I had had to stay for the entire game, then go back to the band room, put away my clarinet, and socialize for a bit with my fellow band geeks before actually leaving.

As I was walking out, one of my friends asked if he could have a ride. This friend, Ryan, would become my senior year boyfriend, but as juniors, we were just friends. I said sure, and we headed out into the cold, dark parking lot together, gossiping about this and that.

We were almost to my car when Ryan stopped short and grabbed my arm. “What was that?”

I’d heard it too. A terrible sound. I can hear it now. Whimpering. But almost-adult whimpering. A desperate, defeated sound that sent an instant zing up our spines and stopped us in our tracks.

We followed the noise to the edge of the lot. Between the darkened parking lot and the even darker football stadium was a figure in the brittle grass. A human form, lying on the frozen ground.

Ryan and I were 16 years old. We were frightened, fascinated and concerned at once. I remember the bizarrely inappropriate thrill of realizing that he was holding my hand as we approached this dark, moaning shape in the grass.

And then we saw, in the dim light of a distant street light, that this was a fellow band geek. He was lying, face-down, on the icy ground, moaning pitifully. We knew him well. He was a fellow clarinet player, and I had been to Europe with him on a school-sponsored trip.

I approached him cautiously and said his name. He moved a little. He recognized my voice and responded. “Price?”

Ryan and I helped him to a sitting position. Ryan put his jacket around him. We learned that he had been “jumped,” attacked by a bunch (maybe 3 or 4 or 5?) of guys in the parking lot. They had called him a “f-ing faggot” and beat him brutally.

Our friend was a mess, but he refused to go to an emergency room. He didn’t want anyone to know, especially his parents.

I was confused. At a very sheltered 16, I had a limited understanding of “gay.” I didn’t even yet realize that my dear friend Ryan was gay. I didn’t see why our bruised and battered friend was so anxious about people finding out he’d been beaten up. In fact, I chalked it up to a male-pride thing: he didn’t want anyone to know he’d lost a fight.

Ryan understood better. He ran back inside the school to use the pay phone. He told us later that he’d called his mom and our friend’s parents to ask if he could spend the night. While he was inside, he also scoped out the band hallway and determined almost everyone was gone. He came back to us, huffing and puffing. “We can use the restroom. Everybody’s gone.”  Ryan and I helped our friend back into the school where they went into the boys’ restroom. I waited in the hallway.

While I was waiting, our band teacher saw me as he was leaving. “Jenni, what are you still doing here?”

“Oh, I’m taking Ryan home, and he needed to use the restroom. I’m just waiting on him,” I replied.

The band director trusted me.”Okay,” he said, “well, I’ve gotta get going, so I’m just gonna lock these doors. You can get out, but make sure you have everything because you won’t be able to get back in, alright?”

“Yes, sir!” I nodded, absolutely panicked that Ryan might exit the boys’ room with our friend any moment.

“See you Monday!” the band director said, and he disappeared into the darkness.

Ryan and our friend appeared several minutes later. Our friend was no longer bloody, but he had a very swollen lip and a black eye. From the way he was limping gingerly out to my car, I’m sure he had bruises elsewhere too.

The boys didn’t talk much as I drove them to Ryan’s home. Of course, I filled the silence with useless prattle, making assumptions to justify my perspective. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something along the lines of: “Stupid teenage boys – always looking for a reason to fight. Just because Center Grove High School lost the game, they have to beat up on one of our guys.”

I never learned if it was kids from the rival school or kids from our own school who beat up our friend. He never said. But even then, I understood just enough to know it didn’t really have anything to do with a basketball game.

Our friend was beaten because he was gay.

I didn’t become a liberal right then. No, it took about 15 more years for that lesson to sink in completely. I voted Republican in the first two elections in which I participated. Then I began to split my ticket. Gradually it became more and more liberal as I recognized that the rhetoric of the G.O.P. helped inflame and justify the hate crime I had witnessed first-hand.

Both Ryan and our friend are gone now. One died of AIDS years ago; one died of stomach cancer in 2008. Otherwise, I would not be blogging about that night. You see, I promised them both that I wouldn’t tell anyone. It was too complicated, too painful, too fraught with consequences for parents, friends and loved ones.

But the suicides of Tyler Clementi, Raymond Chase, Billy Lucas and others have made me re-think my promise.

The perpetrators of hate crimes WANT to keep their acts in the dark. They want their victims to remain silent.

It certainly was easy for me to stay quiet. I finished my junior year in the top 10 of my class. I became a drum major in the marching band. I was a homecoming princess. Life was good. I didn’t want to complicate things by telling the story of having witnessed a crime on school grounds. My promise made my life easier. So I could happily justify my silence; I was just being a good friend.

Now I’m not so sure.

Those guys, whoever they were, got away with assault and battery on a kid they wanted to beat on because he was different. And I helped them get away with it by being quiet, passive, sweet, and loyal. What if they raise their kids to do the same thing?

My mom loves to say that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” That night, I did nothing. And I’m sorry for that.

If you know an LGBT person, especially a kid, do NOT do what I did. Do something. Even if it is just to say, “Hey, I’m your friend, and if you need me, I’ll listen.”

Change starts just one person at a time.

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 (, 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!

February 7

Sarah Palin ’12

I’ve been in the hospital all weekend with my daughter who is very sick with pneumonia. There’s not much to do here. We got hit with a snowstorm on Friday, and today is Super Bowl Sunday. Most of my friends and family are either hunkering down trying to stay warm or prepping for Colts’ parties. So in between my daughter’s breathing treatments and meals, I’ve been reading and surfing the net.

This morning I noticed that the Yahoo! News page had three Associated Press stories in a row on Sarah Palin: “Palin assails Obama at ‘tea party’ gathering,” “Palin says ‘absurd’ not to ponder presidential bid,” and “Palin: Obama could win votes by playing ‘war card’.” I read all three, but it was the last one that just blew my mind.

The article is only four sentences. The first: “Sarah Palin says that if President Barack Obama ‘played the war card,’ he could improve his chances of being re-elected.” So sending troops to risk their lives is akin to a card game? Or even worse, the president should use troops to improve his political chances of re-election? I know many soldiers in our armed forces who have already served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know they were proud to serve their nation and felt they were doing good things for the people in those countries, but I also know they would not appreciate being “played” as pawns in some political game. Such an assertion is disgusting.

The second sentence: “Palin says that declaring war on Iran or showing stronger support for Israel might convince voters that Obama is tougher than they think on national security and doing all he can to protect the U.S..” Obviously, Mrs. Palin subscribes to the George Bush school of foreign policy: do whatever you have to do to other countries, regardless of the impact on their citizens, as long as it gets you votes back home. Again, a disgusting notion. Mrs. Palin claims to be a Christian, but evidently she has forgotten the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Should Vladimir Putin invade the U.S. or show more support for China to improve his chances of re-election? Somehow, I don’t think I or my fellow Americans would appreciate that much.

The third sentence: “Otherwise, according to Palin, Obama won’t be re-elected if he continues on his current path.” Palin seems to have forgotten that one of the main reasons Obama was elected was because Americans were worn out with the Iraq War. Not only that, but she assumes that all voters are hawks who would welcome another politically motivated conflict. I thought voters made it pretty clear to the G.O.P. in ’08 that we did not think much of that behavior. Maybe Palin believes in SSDEC – Same S#!^ Different Election Cycle.

The final sentence of the article: “Palin was interviewed on ‘Fox News Sunday’ — the network where the former GOP vice presidential nominee is a paid commentator.” This final line was really the icing on the cake. So let me get this straight. Palin is a Republican poster girl; she is being interviewed on Fox News, which, despite their protestations, is just a mouthpiece of the Republican party. She is also now employed by this “news” outlet which “interviewed” her about her speech at the tea party convention. Does anyone else see the irony, not to mention the conflict of interest, in this?

It just so happens that this article was the last one of the three listed and the last one I read. But I couldn’t help synthesizing the points Palin made in this article with a line in the “Palin assails Obama at ‘tea party’ gathering” article: “Aside from broad conservative principles like lower taxes and a strong national defense, the speech was short on Palin’s own policy ideas that typically indicate someone is seriously laying the groundwork to run for the White House.” Evidently, she did her usual sweeping-generalization-folksy-jokesy-talking-point speech style during her tea party speech. (That would play well with that audience, which she ironically described as “fresh” and “young” although the average age of the attendees was about 95.) Her “interview” on Fox News Sunday filled in some of the blanks in her policy ideas, though: use the troops for your own political gain, invade whenever it will promote your career, assume that all Americans love war, and use any outlet necessary to forward your ideas, even when it’s unethical. So those are some of the things we can expect from Candidate Palin in a couple years?

Sarah Palin ’12? Excellent.

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