November 27

The Merry Christmas Kool-Aid

It’s that time of year again.

Time for viral Facebook statuses repeating the Fox News talking point that the liberals have declared “war on Christmas.” Time for angry letters to the editor claiming that the writer’s right to freedom of religion or freedom of speech has been infringed upon, and they have somehow been stopped from wishing everyone they encounter a “Merry Christmas.” Oy vay.

I’m only going to say this once: There is no war on Christmas.

To claim such a war exists is to betray such an ethnocentric blindness as a sane person would be ashamed to admit. If you could convert to Judaism, Islam or Buddhism for the month, you’d see just how ridiculous this claim actually is. For example, off the top of your head, do you know when Hannukah is this year? I bet your Jewish friends know when Christmas is.

So the “victims” of this “war” seem to suffer from an inability to keep government, business, and religion separate.  Not a surprise, since they usually want to combine the three when it’s convenient to them. But government really has little to do with their complaints. Sure, every year a few local governments run into opposition to a Nativity on the town square. Overall, though, governments have traditionally said and done little to address, let alone limit, expressions of Christmas spirit.  The federal government, to its credit, has kept its nose out of the debates as best it can. I’ve yet to see a law anywhere to prohibit anyone from saying “Merry Christmas.”

The Fox News crowd’s real anger should be directed at corporations.  Every year, the issues that honk off the Religious Right arise in big companies, those darlings of American conservatives. I always get a kick out of the righteous anger Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Target can drum up when they ask their employees to say “Happy Holidays” (or when they publish ads in Spanish!) from the very same folks who claim to want nothing but free rein for these job-creators!  But big companies know their customers. They know not all their customers are Christian, and no good capitalist venture wants to offend any of the people who spend American dollars in their stores! “Happy holidays” is not meant to limit employees’ right to free expression or religion; it’s just smart business (much like these companies’ decisions to open at midnight on Thanksgiving, despite the inconvenience to their employees). Hey, folks, if you want your big companies to make lots of money and be unregulated, they’re going to do whatever it takes to keep their customers content.

One of the things that really disturbs me about these “war-on-christmas” claims is the ignorance it reveals about Christians’ own religious history. Christmas is, and always has been, the greatest outreach program ever devised by the Catholic Church. True Christian conservatives, however, did not like the idea originally. When Christmas was initially established by church leaders under Emperor Constantine in 336 AD, conservative church leaders such as Origen, cried foul. To celebrate the birth of a deity smacked of Egyptian polytheism, conservatives claimed. Christmas was derided by conservative leaders as a contrived holiday, a cheap means of pandering to pagans so they would convert more docilely. More liberal Christian heads prevailed, arguing that, by celebrating Christ’s birth around the same time as the pagans already celebrated the solstice, the Church could make Christianity more appealing. It worked beautifully, and it will continue to work if we don’t try to shove it down everyone’s throat.

So my fellow Christians, here’s a radical idea: Think before you speak.

Say what’s appropriate for your situation and audience. If you’re talking to me on Christmas Day, say “Merry Christmas!” Please do. I’ll return the sentiment whole-heartedly. But if you’re a Wal-Mart greeter working on December 21st, saying “Happy Hannukah” to everyone isn’t going to go over well. Neither should “Merry Christmas” simply because you don’t know what every person walking through that door celebrates on that day. I’ll be saying, “Happy Holidays” to my students when they leave campus on December 12. Not just because I know some of them are Jewish and Muslim, but also because I’d like to include Christmas Eve and New Year’s in the equation. And if I see you and know you share my faith on December 24th or 25th, I will greet you with a very hearty “Merry Christmas.”

[Need more info? See Christianity Today,The Catholic Encyclopedia, The God Article, The Fat Pastor, or my previous entry on the topic.]

September 27

The Pro-Death Party

I am confused.

For years, my mother and other Republican friends have berated me for voting for Democratic candidates. “How can you do that?” they demand. “Those people think it’s okay to kill babies!”

Okay, let’s get one thing straight. No one in their right mind is pro-abortion. No sane person WANTS to kill infants. So let’s just take that off the table right now.

People who are pro-choice recognize that we live in an unpredictable, difficult and dangerous world, where women in bad circumstances sometimes become pregnant. Ideally, all babies would be conceived in women who have loving partners, steady incomes, safe homes and affordable healthcare. Sadly, that is just not the case. Adoption would seem a perfect alternative; however, many women would not survive the nine months of pregnancy. Maybe it’s a high risk due to health issues or addiction. Maybe the woman is in an abusive relationship where the man would beat her for being pregnant. Maybe she has no money or health insurance, no support, no…

The point is that life is complicated. Making abortion illegal may save a few pregnancies, but at what cost? Why is the life of the unborn worth so much more than the life of the mother? Or, even more bizarrely, worth more than the life of the child after it is born?

See, this is where I’m getting really confused.

The past several weeks have seen multiple Republican presidential debates. The pro-life, Christian party that railed against the removal of Terry Schiavo’s feeding tube and has cut Planned Parenthood funding is in the spotlight as their candidates spar on stages festooned with the Stars and Stripes. But it’s not the candidates’ words that are getting the most attention.

It’s the behavior of the crowds.

First, they cheered Rick Perry’s dubious record: He’s overseen more executions than any other governor in modern times.

They cheered. Executions.

Never mind that some of those executed may have been innocent. Never mind that the Bible says  “Avenge not yourselves.”

I pointed out this rather horrifying behavior in a Facebook post and was flabbergasted when I got a response from a very mild-mannered, avidly churchgoing mom I’ve known forever: I cheer for justice. Really? You know all 234 people were guilty? Were you there for all the murders for which they were executed? Because if not, you don’t know. And there is always a chance an innocent person could be murdered by the state. (Why is that very real possibility not horrifying to conservatives who are so freaking worried about big government? Isn’t being murdered by the state worse than having the state raise your taxes?!)
Now I’m not just confused; I’m scared.

It got worse in the next debate when Wolf Blitzer posed a hypothetical question about a terminally ill, uninsured young man. Should society “let him die?” Blitzer asked. Before the candidate could answer, there were shouts from the crowd: “YES!”

This from the Republicans? This from the people who cried and prayed over poor Terry Schiavo? This from the people who echoed Sarah Palin’s and Sen. Chuck Grassley’s fears that President Obama’s healthcare bill would allow the government “to pull the plug on Grandma?” What happened to those people?

The third debate brought another stunner. A video from an admittedly gay soldier was shown, and he asked the candidates if they would reinstate “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The soldier was booed by the audience.

From the yellow-ribbon-waving, “Support Our Troops” bumper-sticker crowd came the message, loud and clear: “We hate you, soldier. Go lay down your life for us on the field of battle, but expect no respect for your individual life.”

I am astonished that these people, those who cheer executions, advocate the death of the uninsured, boo self-sacrificing soldiers for who they are, brag about having enough deadly weapons to kill anyone who disagrees with their politics, these people have the reputation as “the Pro-Life party.”

For want of a better term: Bullshit.

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August 14

A Day in the Life

Today is August 14th, and it’s raining in Central Indiana. That in itself is a rather momentous occasion. We’ve had more rain in the past 24 hours than we’ve had in the past 8 weeks. So we’re grateful, but along with the rain, we received incredible winds last night which resulted in a tragic day for the state of Indiana.

Last night, at a concert at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, the winds blew down the stage rigging and sent the whole structure into the audience which was waiting for a performance by Sugarland. Evidently, the public address announcer had just warned of an approaching storm, given directions for potential evacuation and explained that the concert might be postponed. The storm was still about fifteen minutes away, and it was not yet raining. Unfortunately the winds preceded the storm.

Out west in Hendricks County, the winds interrupted a dinner party I was hosting, temporarily knocking out the power and sending everyone scrambling for their cell phones to check on kids who were at various babysitters’ homes. That’s how we learned of the State Fair tragedy. People checking Facebook and Twitter got the news first.

I had several friends at the concert, including my sister’s best friend, who was there with her children and husband, an off-duty Indianapolis police officer. When the stage collapsed, he rushed to the stage along with hundreds of other concert-goers, to try to help. I saw him in a picture that was posted on CNN’s website this morning.

My dinner guests and I kept tabs on the news over the rest of the evening. It didn’t get any better. Four deaths, according to the official news, but my police officer friend made it clear that he expected more. He’d been up on the collapsed rigging and seen more than he would detail. By this morning, it was five dead, but it will likely increase. Indiana doesn’t receive much national news attention; today we’re all over the media for all the wrong reasons.

It’s against this backdrop that we are starting our week. I was driving my son to a friend’s house this afternoon, thinking about things and trying to make sense of it all, when it struck me what a quintessentially American week this is going to be. Much of what is going on in my life, my community and my state reflects what is happening in our country right now, what it is like to be an American right now, struggling and re-building and waiting every day for the other shoe to drop, but simultaneously enjoying some amazing 21st-century developments

For example, today is my father’s 71st birthday. That blows my mind. It’s ridiculous to think of such a number pertaining to him, rather as if I were to catch him wearing clothes that were four or five sizes too big. He does not look 71. He does not act 71. He is active and engaged and busy and healthy. My kids and I called him this morning on his cell phone to sing “Happy Birthday” to him. He’s in Yellowstone National Park, hiking around Yellowstone Falls. Everything about that phone conversation is miraculous if you think about it. It would not have happened fifty years ago. Not many 71-year-old Hoosiers would have been hiking around a canyon, and none of them would have had a cell phone so their grandchildren could sing to them from 2000 miles away.

Those grandchildren start school this week. My daughter will be in first grade, her first year of full-day school. Right now, she’s out riding bikes with one of her neighborhood friends. The friend is black, by the way. That also would have been a rare occurrence fifty years ago, when segregation was still the rule. I think my daughter knows her three good friends are black, but she wouldn’t phrase it that way. One day at the store, she saw a Princess Tiana doll. (That’s the heroine from Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog.) My daughter said, “She looks like Ashlee!” And I asked her how. She replied, “She has the brown skin.” I know that racism is still alive and thriving in some parts of our country, but coming from a little girl whose great-great-grandfather was a murderous racist, this her-skin’s-just-a-different-hue thinking encourages me.

My son, on the other hand, is starting fifth grade. He’ll be at a new school, and they anticipate class sizes between thirty and forty. See, our public school district, like so many others across the country, is bearing the brunt of the limping economy and a Republican governor who slashed its budget by $13 million while giving charter and private schools lovely windfalls. We had to lay off more than 30 teachers. I am desperately trying to hide my anxiety from my son, who is already nervous about moving up to the Intermediate School.

My anxiety is compounded by the fact that I’m starting a new full-time position. After ten years of being underemployed as a part-time instructor at IUPUI, I was finally offered a temporary, full-time instructor contract. Ten months. I’m thrilled, of course, despite the temporary nature of it. And I’m honored to have received not just one job offer this summer, but three. When you consider how scarce jobs have been for the last five years, to get three offers in one month is fantastic. I’m even happier to say I’m not the only one. Several friends who have been unemployed or underemployed for months or even years have recently reported getting jobs all of a sudden. It seems things are looking up.

Not that the stock market would notice. The traders are too busy being drama queens, randomly sending the Down Jones spiraling or skyrocketing every other day.  The media seems to expect average Americans to panic or rejoice, but I was on vacation when the Dow took its biggest nosedive in three years. And on the crowded streets of Gatlinburg, a Midwest tourist mecca, no one was talking about Wall Street. People were shopping. People were eating at restaurants. The Aquarium was packed. Ripley’s Believe It or Not was doing brisk business. Average Americans didn’t seem to notice. Whether that’s because we are ignorant or because we’ve all given up on Wall Street, I cannot say. Maybe we’ve all just become inoculated to its ridiculous antics. It’s a crap shoot, dominated by the high rollers.

Overall, my community seems to be recovering from the Great Recession, despite Wall Street and Governor Mitch Daniels. There are currently only a couple of foreclosures in my subdivision, down from dozens three years ago. And houses are selling. Not at the $150,000 mark we bought them for, but at $125,000. It’s not great, but let’s face it; the $150,000 was likely inflated in 2000.

Long-vacant strip malls all along the highway are starting to fill up. And the north-south corridor project that was halted, incomplete, about three years ago re-started construction and is nearing completion, thanks to federal stimulus money.

Are we outta the woods? Is the U.S.A. headed for another great boom? Probably not. Right now, my husband is working in our bedroom. He does not get paid any extra for working on Sunday. He’s salaried, and he’s making well less than he did two years ago when United Health Group outsourced his job to his current company, that not only expects him to work more for less money, but also expects him to do that work on his own computer that he paid for with his smaller paycheck. His employer, like so many others, is taking advantage of him because they can. So, no. The economy is not healthy. But it’s limping along in the right direction.

And here we are: my average-sized family, living the American Dream in the suburban Midwest with a 3-bedroom house in a diverse neighborhood. We’ve got the minivan and the Xbox. We’ve got a cat, two frogs and three goldfish. The school year will start in about 72 hours, and the football season will start shortly thereafter. Summer’s getting old, and we’ll be putting on sweaters, picking apples and prepping for Halloween before you know it.

And Americans like us will be bravely and stubbornly re-building. From tragedy and disaster like the State Fair and the Missouri tornadoes and the Southern floods. From Wall Street-induced financial recessions. From nasty political fights like the debt crisis in Washington.

Normal Americans are decent people. We are out here, doing “the working and paying and living and dying in this [country].” Maybe someday the media, Wall Street and Washington will notice not just the tragedies, the wild market swings and big elections. Maybe they’ll notice what’s happening right now in places like this to Americans like us.

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July 1

The Stay-Cation

My husband was informed last month that he had to use his week of vacation time by September 1 or he would lose it.

Thus, we embarked on our family’s first-ever “stay-cation.”

Yep, first ever. We’re spoiled, I guess. My family had always traveled a lot, and when Sean and I met, I infected him with the travel bug. He had traveled far less than I had, so he felt compelled to catch up to me. Since we met, he’s been to over 20 new states and Mexico. He may love traveling even more than I do at this point. So a stay-cation was anathema to him.

It didn’t start right away. I think. It’s hard to tell when a stay-cation starts. I suppose it began the moment my husband arrived home from work on Friday. In which case, I need to apologize to him. We had a house-full of children (our own+neighbor kids), and I was knee-deep in cake batter. It was a frantic beginning to his week away from work.

My parents’ 40th wedding anniversary was Sunday, and I was making the cakes: 3 big sheet cakes. Only one of them was decorated, but I was still a nervous wreck. I had spent all week making sure I had everything ready for the big bake-off. The result was that my house looked like a bomb went off, and the kids were running amok, enjoying the unusual lack of mommy oversight.

Okay, so that was the weekend. And Sunday was great. My parents’ 40th was a big party at a winery here in Indiana. We saw so many beloved friends and family, and though we didn’t get to spend as much time as we’d have liked with any of them, it was a wonderful party just the same. And my crazy parents, after playing host all day to 120 guests, insisted on taking the grandkids for the evening. My hubby and I had a relaxing dinner and movie, kid-free.

Monday, hubby had an optometrist appointment, and the kids had swimming lessons. Very exciting.

Tuesday, we all had dental cleanings, then we went to the zoo. If you’ve never been, the Indianapolis Zoo is lovely. It’s got an amazing Oceans pavilion where you can “pet” sharks, a cool snakes pavilion, bats, cheetahs, lions, tigers and bears. Very nice. It’s so nice, in fact, that our family has had an annual pass for a couple years now. The kids, therefore, were not all that fussed. Familiarity breeds contempt, and all that. The hubby was pretty excited to see the new exhibits, but the kids and I have been so many times, it wasn’t a big deal. So it was fine, but not great.

Wednesday, after the kids’ swimming lessons, we did something new. We headed to the north side of Indy to a hotel/indoor water park. Caribbean Cove was once owned by Holiday Inn, but it’s in the process of being purchased. Still, it’s very nice. They had a good deal: two nights for the price of one, plus unlimited admission to the waterpark and free breakfast bar. The kids loved it. I don’t think my fingers will ever un-wrinkle. But Thursday afternoon, I saw a change come over the hubs.

He was depressed.

Seriously.

I kept asking him what was wrong, and he kept saying “nothing.”

But we’ve been married almost 13 years now. I knew he was lying. What’s more, I knew what was wrong. When he finally spilled the beans today, I was not at all surprised.

His vacation had been wasted.

He doesn’t make enough money.

He spent a bunch of money to go nowhere.

He was disappointed, and I understood. I wasn’t as upset about our “stay-cation” as he is, though. I knew this year was coming. We’d been successfully avoiding the recession for several years. When my husband’s company was purchased by United Health Group (hereafter known as “the Evil Empire”), he was saved from unemployment by being hired by the company that took over the IT department. With a pay cut, of course. But we cashed in his retirement plan, paid off ALL our debt (except the house), and kept the remainder in savings to defer the cut in income. Eventually, though, the recession caught up with us. I’ve been under-employed for five years; he makes less than he did five years ago. The retirement savings is all dried up.

The stay-cation was inevitable.

This weekend is Independence Day weekend, and we have plans with family and friends to keep our minds off the fact that we’re stuck in boring, hot, humid, flat-as-a-pancake Indiana. And we do get to go to Tennessee next month, courtesy of hubby’s mom, who has a time-share in the Smoky Mountains. It’s not all bad. I even read an article today that stay-cations or scaling back on vacations is good for the American economy. We’re planning to return to Disney World next year by saving and scraping and maybe getting a new job or two.

In the meantime, I’ll have to work on getting the hubby to perk up a bit. Fireworks might help. And whiskey.

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June 7

Why I Hate Summer

I get a lot of flak from my friends and family because I hate summer. “How can you hate summer?” they demand. “You’re a teacher! You get three months off!”

Yeah. Right.

Generally, I just shrug and walk away. Trying to explain it orally takes too long. Plus, I end up on the defensive, sounding like a bitter old lady. So let me try to explain in writing, where I won’t be interrupted.

First, I don’t get three months off. I have to teach summer school to help make ends meet, so my summer break doesn’t start until the end of this month. I get about 7 weeks, and I can’t complain about the time off. It is nice to have a few weeks off to catch up on all the stuff I didn’t have time for during the school year, like dusting and cleaning windows.

But as most asthmatics will tell you, summer is like one big marathon. My daughter and I spend three months trying to catch our breath, feeling like we have huge pillows over our faces. Especially in Indiana, where our 90+ degree heat is usually accompanied by 90-100% humidity.

Now, I have to tread lightly when it comes to criticizing my home state because my husband desperately wants to get out of here. He hates the weather as much as I do, and I can’t blame him. Winters are bad enough; it’s either dangerously cold with minus-double-digit windchills or just vaguely cold and wet. Either way, you don’t go outside much from November to March. So everyone’s very excited for spring which lasts approximately 15 minutes.

Then it’s summer.

Summer in Indiana is much like living in a terrarium. It’s paralyzingly hot, and the Hoosier state has woefully few bodies of water, none of them with free public access. If you know someone with a pool or lakeside home, you give them gifts and kiss their butts because they are the only thing standing between you and a summer hiding in the AC. We have public pools, but they cost a pretty penny and are always overcrowded. The few lakes and rivers we have are surrounded by lavish private homes. They might have a small public beach, but you’ll have to pay to get on it, and they will have about 150 rules to ensure you do not enjoy your time there: no umbrellas, no flotation devices, no glass bottles, no alcohol, no food…

Okay, so I still sound like a bitter old lady.

How about the things I do like about summer then? I like flip-flops! I have about 25 pairs of them. They’re nature’s perfect shoe – cheap, easy to put on, comfortable. I love them. Other than that, though, summerwear is rather awful. Shorts are not flattering unless you’re a size 2. (I am not.) And some folks wear stuff that doesn’t cover nearly enough of them. Tank tops and denim cutoffs and halter tops on women three times my size? And large, sweaty, hairy men mowing the lawn with their shirts off? Yuck. My husband always complains that winter makes the world look ugly. That’s true, but summer makes people look ugly!

Okay, so that whole things-I-like-about-summer outlook didn’t work too well. Let’s try again – I do love sleeping in! There’s something I can appreciate about summer. As a devout night owl, I can get quite excited about the prospect of sleeping until 10 or 11. Unfortunately, the morning people in my life do not understand and feel the need to correct my circadian clock for me. They have learned that the fastest way to tick me off is to wake me with a phone call or knock on my door on a day I have no early-morning obligations. I’ve finally learned to put a note on the front door to curtail all the neighborhood kids. I’ve got most of them trained now anyway; they don’t come knocking until noon.

So sleeping in is good. Bored kids is bad. And they are bored already. We’re less than 24 hours into summer vacation, and I’ve already heard the “I’m bored” chant from both of them. I’ve got them signed up for summer camps, baseball and swimming lessons. We’re going to Tennessee for a week next month. But I’ll have to spend much of the next 10 weeks trying to keep them occupied without breaking the bank. I have a trusty list of activities on my computer. Maybe we’ll go to the library. It’s free and cool. Yes, indeed. Free and cool. It’s what summer’s all about.

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