22 February 2006

Energy Independence

Did we ever laugh a generation ago when President Carter said solving the energy crisis of his administration, "the moral equivalent of war." What a pompous phrase that was.

(Aside: I'll gladly bet it is the last time we ever hear the philosopher William James used in a political address. And that is it's own pity. Political rhetoric, never a high art in America, did have its moments. We have not had one for a very long time. )

But here we are again, and this time we are far worse off in terms of the problem. We not only have not solved the problem that began in the 1970s, our use of foreign oil and oil in general has become downright gluttonous. The president called it an addiction, which is right. But his prescription is to grow more domestic poppies and coca plants.

I say, deal with the addiction. We already have a sure fire way to kick the oil habit. It's called shoes. Earlier today I said that I think there is too much parking in my town. Everyone else thinks we need more. Why? Because people need places to park their car or they won't come into town. But that's premised on the belief that driving is necessary. Modern life requires a car.

The problem is not gasoline, it's cars. We have built a society where we need to drive. Our homes are in developments where houses are amply spaced so we can all pretend to be in the country because owning your own home means a free standing dwelling that could be mistaken either for a farm or a mansion. That's the American Dream, right?

(It sure is the American real estate industry's dream. )

But to do that we need land, and since people like new more than old, we have to build new houses.

(which creates jobs and helps the economy and that brings in taxes remember, but we don't want them to be too high, especially on businesses, so we need to build a lot of them)

These houses cannot by their nature be either too close together or too close to businesses because that would lower their value.

(because property values must not decline except in poor neighborhoods so the poor can stay there and not come over here)

But the good news is that we have roads and cars, so getting to our houses and schools and businesses is easy, because we all have cars.

To me it seems patent and obvious, we have arranged society to support automobiles. Much as we privately admit our dogs and cats keep us more than we them, our cars control us more than we control them. The automobile commercials all sell us on freedom by showing us SUVs and sports cars creating macho dust storms in the wilderness.

(am I the only one who finds this repulsive, that digging tracks in the desert is a problem not a right?)

We then buy them because they give us the freedom to go where we want, but in the end we have no choice. Anyone who has ever broken down on a highway knows how unfree they really are. And if you are home in your development and do not have a car you might as well be in Siberia if you need anything. Going anywhere except the backyard needs a car.

An odd and overlooked example- my son could walk to school everyday but he has so many books it is hard to carry them a half a mile. Why do they give out so many books? Well in part because they can. They all come to school in cars. Yes, my son may be the only kid in his school actually to walk to school. And he is not the only one from out neighborhood. And he may have to quit if he has to add one more tome to his load.

Grocery stores and supermarkets depend on you buying more than you can carry. Even if I walk it is too far to carry the load home. But a smaller store closer by is impractical because the prices are higher when smaller inventory can be stored. People want lower prices, so they drive. But at $2.40 a gallon, and maybe 20 miles to the gallon, that means each mile costs 12 cents. Add in the other wear and tear, tires and insurance and your time going and coming, and the difference between what you pay at the far away super duper market is smaller than you think. We are simply blind to the costs because they are built into the way we live.

As I walk to work, something even I find myself doing less than I could now that I have car handy and the distance is longer, I see cars coming to town in the morning. Almost all have one person. Seeing those behemoths each with their single occupant it dawned on me that this is our secret obesity epidemic. We all weigh a ton or more and take up the space of a small room. Storing that room during the day so we can work is immensely costly, mostly in land being devoted to warehousing our bloated lives. There is nothing more empty than downtown parking lots after work. Acres of emptiness, with no purpose except to hold metal hulks that do nothing while they are there. Talk about desolate and talk about wasted space.

OK, I have ranted enough. You get the point. We should not be asking how to get energy independence but how to get car independence. Not personally, as we are all relatively powerless against a century of actual and effective policy to subsidize the automotive industry. Almost none of us can successfully live in defiance of this immense reality.

(I won't even mention how it virtually guaranteed the catastrophes of urban renewal and modern insitutional racism.)

So what can you do? We, my wife and I, made our choice about where we lived so we would have choices about how we lived. It meant forgoing the suburbs and their better schools so we could live on foot sometimes and close to places we value.

Freedom, that American icon, is not the freedom to drive. It is the freedom to choose how you live. And a car dependent choice confines you; it doesn't liberate you. I do not condemn anyone for doing otherwise. Most do not even think about it because they do not know they can think about it. But if you are less comfortable with that choice right now, if you are feeling a little used and deceived and duped by society and government, I have done what I set out to do.

Choosing your life, using your freedom, is not easy but it is possible. That's one of those unpleasant facts about freedom. It's not easy being free. But it has other compensations.

Memento Mori

Sunshine today, welcome in these cloudy climes, and temps above freezing. What Al Capp called summer in Lower Slobbovia. So I washed the car from the grime of the gritty roads and salty highways. What prompts my comments is that I stopped at our downtown crossroads (Division and Fulton) to take a picture of something.

You should know that the southwest corner has been unoccupied for some time. While other parts of downtown here have shown some real renewal, our formal center, the place from which all streets number themselves, is this corner. A small park on one side commemorates the Civil War. A building containing police headquarters, the Secretary of State's office, and bankruptcy court are on another. An empty art deco dime store is on the third and this empty lot is on the last. Overall, it is hardly the bustling center of urban life that it was once. When I first saw it back in 2004 I questioned whether this place had a future, it is that sad.

Well, the two undeveloped sides are about to change. Developers have optioned both, though one may become a parking ramp (local term for garage for you non GR readers.) I happen to be among the few who think we have too much parking already. That is another entry, though. What prompted me to take a picture was the first sign of the developers - a bulldozer in the lot. And what I wanted to photograph was a great old painted sign, the kind that used to adorn the sides of buildings for years. Faded and peeling, with the rounded script lettering that now only decorates coco-cola cans, I realized this was about to vanish behind the wall of progress.

Now understand me, I want the corner to be developed, and for downtown to find its next iteration as an urban center. Change is good. But I also mourn the losses that time obliges. In this case, these signs bespeak an era when city life was up front and personal, when people saw downtown as the crossroads of their own lives, a place to go and be. Meant for pedestrians, they have a style and character that is part of a society that no longer exists. They go along with men in fedoras and overshoes, women wearing harts with veils and stockings with seams. Heck, they go back as far as bustles and bowlers, when electricity was new and wires created a spider web above the cobbled streets choked with horses and trolleys.

Unlike Europe, where adapting the future to the past is part of the soul, America clear cuts itself every century. As David Brooks argues in his book, we are the people of the future, and sometimes that is so true that yesterday is mere kindling. And in a great irony, I who am so future focused politically, philosophically and spiritually find myself cherishing these traces of a retreating time. I might as well be burning laurel leaves on a crumbling altar in the olive groves of modern Greece. It makes no pragmatic sense. But since I shall one day be but a shadow on the wall myself, a faded image on the crumbling brick of tomorrow's memory, I find myself wanting to capture this image before it is finally lost and thence quickly forgotten.

Forgive me, Jove, if my worship of thee is in truth a plea for me.

18 February 2006

Yo Jerry, Pat - Move Over!

Ok, here's my problem. Politics. It’s a mess. Not just in the country, but in my life.

You see, I am a preacher and I really really believe in the impropriety of churches taking sides. For me it’s sort of like the military who are scrupulously enjoined against making political statements or actions. That is the road to juntas and coups. The religious equivalent is aligning a religion for or against a political party, and that is the road to theocracy and tyranny. So I cannot and should not take sides in my pulpit.

This blog, however, does not identify my church. Those who know me know where I work, but if you don’t know me directly, or of me via someone else, then all you know is that I am a preacher. Legally and ethically I am as free to fulminate and agitate as anyone else. Cool.

Now my problem is that of a guest at a great wedding buffet. There are so many succulent things on the table I hardly know where to begin. Let’s see…

Amid the ruckus over Danish political cartoons, more abuse photos at Abu Ghreib, the renewal of the USA Patriot Act, deconstructing the official Katrina catastrophe, lobbying scandal and the national budget, I see an overriding fact. The Republican behemoth that is driving the country is losing its credibility everywhere.

Nothing is going right for them. But the irony is that the Democratic Party is not rising in its standing either. Both parties are being tarred and feathered even though only one is actually in charge. Essentially the Democrats are being convicted of being in the neighborhood when someone was robbed and not stopping the crime. That would be a good analogy if stopping them was possible, but it is not. But politics is not law, and careful logic is not part of public opinion.

The problem is that the Democratic Party has chosen to define its mission as assailing the Republican Party for its mistakes. Nothing wrong with that in itself but it is insufficient. Without a persuasive alternative vision, it is cursing the darkness without lighting a candle. And the assemblage of Democratic policies and positions looks more like a laundry list of grievances (and an old one at that) than a commanding vision of what the country could and should do.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news. I have the answer. Sounds cocky, I know. But this is a blog, and whatever I say, my fate has one of two outcomes. First and most likely, my rantings will simply dissipate into the rarefied atmosphere of the blogosphere where it will vanish amid the millions of other ranting voices around the globe. No harm no foul. Second - and far less likely - you dear reader will be so inspired as to send your buddies a copy of this manifesto. They in turn will also rise in excitement and do the same, until this essay is whipping around the world and whipping up enthusiasm. Then some agent will find it and make a book offer or invite me onto some wise-ass pseudo news talk show and my moment of celebrity will begin. I find both alternatives equally nauseating.

So why do this? Because I really really believe what I am saying is useful. So I’ll take my chances in the electronic ether. In for a bit, in for a byte.

The Democratic Party is about one sentence: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States.” Making all of it true is what the party is about

“We the people,” the first and foremost words are also the first and foremost ideas. The United States is the people, not the states or the national government or any other agent of power. It is all the people not some of the people. It is only the people and not the companies and churches and other ‘bodies.’ Only people, actual human beings, are the United States and they are the ultimate sovereignty and source of authority for the United States.

“In order to form a more perfect union,” tells us that the work of the Constitution is to improve the union of the people. What it was in 1789 was not the end but the beginning. It has been amply amended over the years to form a more perfect union. And the words “more perfect "tell us that it is an on-going project. The nation, the people and the Constitution are always capable of being ‘more perfect’ as we come to know more about ourselves and the world.

“Establish justice,” means the rule of law, and its correlate that all citizens individually are subject to the law even as the law is subject to the people collectively. It means to mete out equitably and surely the demands of justice to guarantee that none are above the law and none are ground down by it. Note that the word they used was justice, not law. Justice is the outcome, which, like the previous clause can always be more perfect.

“Insure domestic tranquility,” reaches beyond the rigors of law to the character of life, to provide for the exercise of freedom among people and peoples so that the liberty of one is not tyranny over another, that the prosperity of one group is not legally purchased by the privations of another. It places a priority on community and cooperation so that the atomized world of individual freedom and competition between states and groups does not unravel the very fabric that sustains them.

“Provide for the common defense,” tells us that it must be for all of us not some of us, and that we are to defend not to attack. On its face it challenges empire and invasion, making any external force something that demands an explanation because it is prima facie a violation. Equally important, the phrase is not limited to military means, and therefore implicitly includes measures diplomatic and economic and moral.

“Promote the general welfare,” both prevents the federal government from favoritism and mandates that it advance the health of the whole country. It can neglect neither. Therefore, the powers of the state must never enrich some at the expense of others, nor may the government refuse to help the general well-being of the nation under the pretense of not risking the former.

“And secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity,” is the richest of all the clauses, for it does not limit itself to mere freedom but requires the government to seek also the blessings of liberty. And not only seek them but secure them, make them dependable, and not only for those now alive but those yet to be born. In other words, the task of the Revolution, to secure liberty, now becomes to secure both liberty and the blessings of liberty. The desire to free ourselves from tyranny is not enough. We must protect those yet unborn.

This is the Democratic Party, or should be. It is populist and progressive by its very nature. Its devotion to justice and compassion is constitutional. It defends the nation and its principles by means military and moral. It is more about tomorrow than today, seeing its goal as a more perfect union for our posterity than we ourselves have so far enjoyed.

I would say that this is the real Contract with America. The Democrats should haul out this sentence and say “This is what we believe America is about, what Americans want, and therefore what we the Democratic Party are making ourselves accountable to.”

It really is not all that complicated - a single sentence. The question is whether the democratic Party has the nerve to stake its future on it. That will take some rare courage, probably not the sort in it for the career opportunities or the photo ops. That means people like me. I don't want anything except for my party to mean business not business as usual. There may never be a better chance, so I am striking now.

One sentence. Can it work? It did almost 220 years ago. Why not now?

15 February 2006

What Do Kiwanis Want?

I am scheduled to speak to a local Kiwanis Club tomorrow, invited via a member of my church. Now, Kiwanis and Rotary and Lions are all well known service clubs that are not generally popular among the denizens of liberal religion. The sociology of that fact is worth an essay and I am not qualified to write it. But I have seen it, and I know a part, and I emphasize the word part, is a discomfort with the broadly conservative attitudes that are part of the ‘geist’ of service clubs and fraternal organizations. And in the spirit of full disclosure you should know that I have not been part of such groups over the years.

That said, there is something important that happens in these civic virtue organizations, something noted by de Toqueville 175 years ago. Civic groups, voluntary associations is the formal term, are what he saw as moving the country. By gathering into interest groups – library committees and betterment associations and yes even political parties, the atomized power of individuals in a democracy creates structures that actually get things done. The lofty individual, pure in his thoughts and unsullied by entangling alliances with her neighbors, is dashing and heroic and impotent. Only groups have any chance of making lasting differences.

So I approach my task tomorrow morning with a personal unease and a philosophical respect. Un-inclined and ill tempered for such associations, I do not join them. Yet my knowledge tells me this is exactly how things happen in a free society.

What should I say? When I appeared in a similar context for another group in the fall, I said that the intense differences that are supposed to divide us today, politics and religion and wealth and class, are not as wide as we think. There is still more in common than what differs. Day to day life for everyone still includes work and chores and worries and hopes. Most of us, liberal and conservative, Christian and otherwise, have to shine our shoes and press out pants and figure out what to eat for supper and see that the taxes get paid and so on. If you measured what we all did, even down to how we spent out Sundays, the vast majority would be pretty much the same. That, I said, ought to be what we think about when trying to solve the problems of our community.

I took longer than that, but that was the message. I thought about doing it again, and may yet. My task as the most public liberal in town is to break through the barriers of assumptions others have about what a religious liberal is, so they can actually see me and hence us for what we are. What I think I will do, though, is something slightly different. Here’s what I am thinking of saying.

“Liberal and conservative. Fountain Street is Liberal, everyone knows that. West Michigan is conservative and everyone knows that. Like their synonyms left and right, they are as opposite as right and wrong, as distant as the north and south poles, as different as infrared is from ultraviolet.

“And yet, when it comes to charitable giving, the conservative is often more liberal. Their famously conservative churches teach them to tithe, which is far more liberal than the so called liberal who tends to be rather conservative when asked for contributions.

“When it comes to religious beliefs, the liberal is the conservative, unwilling to accept on faith the sweeping vision of a gracious God, while by contrast the religious conservative could be considered downright credulous in applying the same good faith to matters of government.

“My point is that the words liberal and conservative have been beaten with ideological hammers so long that they have been turned from adjectives into nouns. One is called a liberal and accused of being a conservative, forgetting that we are each liberal and conservative in many ways. This morning I want to explore this sad and ironic fact from one vantage. As an avowed liberal (which vow by the way is available on the internet at www.loopylefty.org) I think I should confess the ways in which I am a conservative. If admitting the problem is the key to solving it, I am here to admit my conservatism.

“I am a conservative about parenting. Children need to be responsible for their choices, so far as they can. For example, when my oldest son, now 21, asked if he could learn to drive I said sure, here’s your portion of the insurance bill. He didn’t have the money, of course, but he quickly calculated how much that was in bus fare. Add in the gas and it is even clearer. Driving costs, he could not pay and did not want to. My younger son does his own laundry. It is his job, that’s all there is to it. And the curfew is our bedtime, which is ten p.m. and that’s only on weekends. On weeknights there is no going out on his own. He hates the school dress code and hair limits. We sympathize but tell him that adults have dress codes and appearance rules. School is his job, end of discussion.

“Clear limits and boundaries, with rational bases, and consistency in enforcing them. That’s not the stereotypical liberal way, but it’s our way because personal responsibility is a liberal value. As liberals we believe in personal freedom, but to an end – to do good. Until children know how to make good choices, safe choices, they don’t get to make the choices.

“I am a conservative about money. I used to buy beef brisket a lot because it was cheap and I could make a decent barbecue with it. But not at more than $4 a pound. We eat more chicken now and sometimes no meat at all because it’s just too expensive. Yes, I do I indulge some things, like red wine, but Yellow Tail Shiraz which is only $7 a bottle. Every month I pay off my credit cards. Aside from my mortgage I have no debt. I can no more spend more than I have than I can drive on an empty tank. And speaking of gas, I moved into downtown so would be able to walk. I fill my tank once every two weeks, and even then it is way too much money.

“One reason for my liberal dislike of the current conservative federal administration is that they spend money like the credit limit was actual money. My parents saved, and I am the beneficiary. My government is spending, and my kids will be handed the bill. Is that a liberal point of view? Not to me. It is simply right and wrong.

“I am conservative in my entertainment tastes. Since high school I have preferred classical to pop. I go to opera not arena rock. I like minor league baseball where it is still a game for the players and a bargain for the watchers, and it isn’t about stars and stats and playoffs. I think TV and radio are coarse and crude and obsessed with sex and violence. Even the morning news shows and the evening news look more and more like the old police gazette and the supermarket tabloids.

“Conservative? Maybe, but also liberal because I think art and music should make us think as well as rock, and that TV should teach as well as distract. Am I wrong to think it can do both at the same time? There’s that goofy liberal attitude again.

“I am a conservative about manners. There is no excuse for rudeness or crudeness. I know all the words and mutter them privately with relish when stuck in the car. But they do not belong in public because they cheapen my and those around me. At the Y I clean up after the guys who think a maid comes in after hours. Why? Partly because I was taught to commit random acts of kindness from an early age, but also because it is the only way we can all live together.

“I am conservative about my freedom. I don’t trade it away easily or without a promise to get it back. That makes me less than generous, liberal, about the policy of secret surveillance and the provisions of the Patriot Act. At the risk of repeating something you know so well, Ben Franklin’s warning is ever on my mind: those who would trade a little freedom for a little security will in the end have neither. The famous Conservative George Will said, "The business of America is not business but justice and securing the blessings of liberty." Amen and amen.

“But what are the blessings of liberty? That’s where Conservative and Liberal often begin to quarrel. Well, I know one place where we do not disagree. We all want to make the world better for our kids. I am very fortunate, having a good family and a good job and getting a good start from my folks. When I see kids who don’t have those things I ache because I want them to have what I had. Not just my kids but all kids. I defy anyone to say they do not want that for the future?

“Kiwanis is about children. It’s a key part of your service mission. I suspect that, despite the fact that most of you are more "conservative" than I am in politics and religion, we are on the same page about kids. It’s a great idea. And I am as conservative as anyone in believing in it. But let’s also be liberal in how we serve that goal. Many hands make light work, and we need all the help we can get. Thank you.”

11 February 2006

"A Boy Like That, Who Kills Your Brother..."

Well, I am done with the sermon (at least as done I can can make it. There are points of saturation when the brain just can't swallow any more of itself.) and want to report on the Grand Rapids Opera production of West Side Story.

First, WSS is in my opinion the single best piece of American musical theater ever made. I say this because it is Wagnerian in concept, that is, every element is equally important - music, dance, song, story. Bold, daring, even haughty? You bet. But it works. Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein are among the best in their fields, and rather than competing themselves and the piece to death they actually create something that is better than any one of them could have done alone or as the boss.

As a result WSS is simulatenously bomb proof and impossible. The music is so good and so well known, the songs so effortlessly meolodic, the story so eternal, that it cannot fail to move an audience.

But is is also fiendishly hard to do it all really well. That's partly due to the fact that every actor must be able to sing and dance really well. There are no walk-ons here. Every Jet and Shark has to be able to do it all. Even the lumbering speech-only adult roles, Doc and Officer Krupke for example, are real characters who need to act. Add in real musical depth, an intricate book and lyrics, dance that demands truly athletic grace, and the hurdle of excellence is exquisitely high. In other words, WSS is truly operatic in its music, balletic in its dance, and dramatic in its words. All three must be met for greatness to happen.

Our production was good, satisfying, even above average overall. But it was not great, and that is less criticism of the company than acknowledgement that it is so hard to ring all three bells.

The chief problem is that of any short production, lack of depth and polish. Most grievous was a technical problem, the amplification. Both too loud and too soft, words and (most sadly) the exquisite lyrics were often lost either by yelling that was deafening or singing too hidden by the orchestra. Dialogue after dances was marred by panting from exertion. I noticed the problem most keenly in the ensemble latin songs, "America" and "I Feel Pretty." The close harmonies and deft wordings were lost in all the noise.

But the toughest part of short production of WSS is that the cast will be uneven. This is more than tolerable in most shows, even many opera, but in WSS it is glaringly evident because no role is minor in its demands.

The two principal women's roles were well acquitted, especially Anita. She had the awareness of what it takes to be on stage - the large gestures and strong faces needed to reach the balcony. Maria was more timid, but the role is. Even for them, the images of Natalie Wood and Rita Morena dominated their choice of style and look. By the second act, though, they had found an equilibrium and their duet ("I have a love") was the musical highlight of the show, with strong voices and passionate deliveries.

The key men were somewhat less successful, owing to a bit of onstage reserve or maybe a desire to look more manly and stoic. Tony looked old as a person, and so needed to be more youhtful in his behavior to be convincing . His voice was strong and worked well with Maria, but in his portrayal was more composed than someone head over heels in love ought to be. The impulsive quality of being love sick was not evident and so he looked more confused than giddy.

Bernardo relied on his beefy arms a little too much, but managed to look sultry and dangerous. He was a good dancer with Anita, and seethed pretty decently. He has no solo music to do, but there is plenty of dancing. His size was a liability in the balletic opener and other places the men need to look fleet and lithe.

After these four, the level of ability moved down a notch. Some had great voice but not good dance; some could dance but not act as well, and so there was a jerky quality as differing levels of ability were impossible to hide. The aformentioned women's ensembles, for example, needed both fine dancing and singing, especially "America." The second singer was fine for singing but only a modest dancer. And in "Pretty," the close order drill of the three backup singers was untidy.

This sounds fussy and demanding, but again the show is relentless in exposing the players because it demands so much. Overall, the second act was better - it was opening night and even the orchestra was a little unfocused at first. The comic ensemble, "Officer Krupke," was very well presented, with less loss of lyrics and real confidence in the performance by the Jets. By contrast, the big ensemble that brings the first act to a climax was muddy and loud and so lost some of its edge.

Some words about the staging and directing and choreography. Overall, the sets worked well. They did not intrude on the play at all, which is great praise. I noticed them when they were new and felt at home with them later on. The one jarring note came when Tony climbed down the fire escape, at which the whole structure wobbled and I worried about its integrity.

The directing was a bit derivative, something also true for the choreography. But I cannot say how much of this is choice or the nature of the the ingredients. Accents were uneven, and may not be all that necessary. Blocking was decent, again unobstrusive to my watching, although some song blocking was virtually cliche - arms stretching out and back. There was room for some acting here but who knows if that too was a function of the actors or the director.

Choreography is a major piece, and much was very much taken from Robbins original. It is magnificent and so deserves respect, but the fact that I noticed says it was too obvious. The floor was squeaky, surely unintended, so that in the act two dream sequence I heard lots of feet and not enough music. And some ensemble blocking was decidedly clunky and banal.

The music got better as the evening went on. The downside to this is that the magical opening was imprecise and lacking in the precision that gives it the piquance it needs. Of all the first notes ever played, these are essential to nail on the head. I thought some tempi were a touch fast, hurrying both the dancers and the singers. Jazz, even when quick, needs to keep its cool. Speaking of which, "Cool," is a compositional miracle, a jazz double fugue. It started well, and kept its lines clean for a while, but midway into the long development lost its clarity. The arc faded. It snapped back at the end, though, very nicely.

A word about the end. It is a tight and quiet sequence, with Maria doing all of the dramatic work. She or the director lost an opportunity by not letting/making Maria truly feral when defending Tony's corpse. Natalie Wood got it just right - rage and sorrow at fever pitch. So when she wields the gun everyone, including the audience, should shrink. And there was far too long a pause before she allowed the boys to carry him off. Her gesture was also far too grand and calm to be persuasive.

And finally, a word about ovations. Less is more. Every performance gets one now, a habit propelled by our desire to show our support more than real appreciation. Ovation inflation means we no longer know great from good from merely adequate, as we want so much to show we care. But applause should be enough of it is genuine. Ovations should come with truly exceptional work, when we rise automatically as we do for home runs because they are thrilling. The people rose in ovation, but as soon as the curtain dropped they stopped. Real ovations demand curtain calls, at least two. If you are not moved enough to clap for five minutes, then you have no business standing up.

That is more than enough.

10 February 2006

A slice of Salamis with your Outrage?

One of those days with lots of chores so that even by Friday evening I have not composed my sermon. Never mind why, just that I had three writing projects that I could not put off so they had to happen first. Spiritually, though, I find it hard to focus on homiletics when other tasks loom. I have bills to pay, for instance, and until they’re done I’ll be thinking about them in the back of my mind.

My point is that now, at the end of the work day, with an evening obligation (the wonderful West Side Story being produced this weekend by our local Opera Company) I have not enough time to get started on my sermon in earnest so I decided to record a brief thought which has now gotten longer by making such a deal out of why I am doing it.

Offensive cartoons, the recent Danish political cartoons that depict the prophet Mohammed. It’s all over the news so what can I say?

Salamis. The battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. Long before either Europe or the Middle East were at loggerheads. Long before Judaism and Christianity and Islam had entered into their perpetual apache dance. Long before any of the issues at stake today the same struggle took place in the bay of Eleusis near the Greek mainland.

For ten years, Persia, in the persons of Darius and Xerxes, sought to upend the growing Greek presence in the eastern Mediterranean. A series of battles over ten years (including the notable triumph of the Greeks at Marathon – Nike! cried Pheidippides the story says after running 26 miles to report the victory, at which he dropped dead of exhaustion) comprise the Persian wars. But as Barbara Porter argues in an essya of a book I just bought (What If?) the naval battle at Salamis was the axis around which history turned.

The battle is intriguing as it pitted outnumbered Greek ships against a vastly larger Persian navy that they managed to rout in a deft use of location and equipment and tidal advantage. One of the early uses of tactics and technology to gain military victory.

But what is really significant, according to Porter, is that this was the last moment the stronger forces of the East could have stopped the emerging social ideas that ultimately matured into the nation state, free market economies, individuality, democracy and so on. Without suggesting that the Greeks were better people, just wily and lucky, she suggests that had Persia won everything we think of as European and Western, would have either died or been suppressed so long that the Persian model of society would have become the dominant mode from Afghanistan to Lisbon.

OK, she doesn’t use that exact image but she quite persuasively reasons that had the Greeks not gotten lucky, a lot of what Europe - and thus America - assumes to be basic social norms would have been lost at the outset. Among those things was a separation of authorities. Greek and later Roman ideals affirmed layers of authority – political, religious, social, familial, personal. Nestled within and alongside each other they made for a messy, complicated, and chaotic society. But it also countered the urge to autocracy. For example, property, meaning real estate that belonged to a person, was unknown to Persia. Everything belonged to the emperor – land, people, everything. But in Greece of the 5th century BCE individuals could, and could defy authority. Each city was separate and suspicious of the other.

Like it or not, our idea of separating church and state begins here, and if Salamis had not happened, we might all be living in a world more like ancient Persia which is the context for Islamic social norms.

The furor of today thus began 2500 years ago. It has flared up from time to time, and here it is again. The outcome is by no means forgone. While it was 2000 years before the east conquered to west again, the Ottoman arrival in the 15th century CE proved it can go the other way. For the next 400 hundred years Greece was a tributary of Turkey.

I’ll say more later, but I thought this little bit of history would be useful in thinking about the current situation. So think!

08 February 2006

Electronic Amnesia

I went to the blog to re-read the entry I just wrote; somehow it is only then that I can see some mistakes. And I noticed that my entry for February 4th, my birthday, vanished. I have no idea what happened. Of course it must be something I did. Reason one: I am the first born so I think everything is my responsibility. Reason two: there are so many osbcure buttons and clicks one has to make with computers that no doubt one of them replaced the previous post with the earlier one.

I am very ticked though, because I thought there was some decent prose in it. And I do not save them, so it is gone forever. If anyone saw it and remembers what I said, let me know. Damn.

I would eat the rich, but I don't eat junk food.

Yeah, it’s been a few days and I am sorry. Somehow there is always way more to do than my consciousness likes to admit.

Anyway, I am a little piqued this moment and decided that was a reason worth writing about. I am eating my supper late, as I had a meeting until 7 p.m. My son, finished with his homework, is watching his favorite movie which means it is at least the third time I have seen it just passing through the room. I am a bit lazy as well as tired so I take my sandwich and small glass of shiraz upstairs and sprawl on the bed a bit.

My TV habits are little better, and in the midst of something I see a commercial for a new series called “Daddy’s Spoiled Little Girl,” the next generation of ’reality’ TV which idea provokes my aesthetic gag reflex. This new program is apparently about teen-twenty women who are spoiled rotten by fathers who lavish things on them. The promo shows her getting at Mercedes convertible and then being whisked away on a private jet on which bubbly fluids slosh out of tall glasses and spill into d├ęcolletages.

Aside from the nauseating behavior young adults seem to have adopted as their generational signature, what frosts me is that it is yet another version of our cultural obsession with the rich. Over and over I see our media making policy of “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” which invariably involve massive homes and abundant vehicles and lots of excess bandied about.

Earlier this week my interest was piqued in the better sense by the Today Show, which is sampling Italy on the way to Torino for the Olympics (our obsession with sports and the hoopla that now obscures any actual sport is quite another essay). So "Today" spent a day in Rome, which if you read my profile you know is one of my favorite cities.

I watch, recollecting my own chilly day in the Piazza Navona, indeed almost exactly the same day, as we were in Rome from early February through early March in 2001. So I am enjoying show until they visit with some Italian quasi-celebrity, a young woman with a smile that gave me a cramp in my jaw just watching her. The story then had Katie Couric in that woman’s home I gather - the gym where i see it has no audio unless you bring earphones and I loathe earphones and love silence, hence my uncertainty - which home was indistinguishable from any California mansion. The rooms were immense and there were luxurious amenities everywhere. A wall in one room was full of TV screens and they lounged on vast sofas. The kitchen was as big as my living room. Only outside could you see the umbrella pines and realize you were someplace not in the USA.

My experience in Italy was far less opulent but far more different from US norms. What struck me as I watched was how the rich tend to live the same way everywhere. Like I said, the house could be in California. They wore the same clothes and drove SUVs. In other words, there was nothing really all that Italian. But our apartments where we lived, and that of friends we visited, and the little restaurants we went to, and the supermarkets where we shopped, the buses and trains we traveled, the streets and neighborhoods were we lived, were distinctly different from anything we saw in America.

While showing us all this luxury, the media avoided showing us anything of Italy. The media involvement with the rich as the ideal has led to a sameness about what rich is, thanks in part to the afor-implied Robin Leach from a generation ago. Only the ordinary are different now, have actual lives and actual homes and live in places really unique and interesting. Sure the rich had abundance and opulence and luxury, but they are boring.

And what a pity that people do not see it, because, you see, all we ever see on the tube or the screen is the rich and their fabled lifestyles.

The loss is manifold. First, that ordinary people are being told that a world that is less real than their own is better. Second, ordinary people disparage their unique and wonderful lives, created by their adjustments and limits, so they turn a blind eye to who they are.

I now treasure even more the odd angles of our apartment, the fussy stove and small balconies and the smell of oranges in the morning from the trees outside. The dining room where somehow nine people managed to sit and eat for two hours, stumbling over bad Italian and bad English, and the furniture shoved about to make room, and the toilet without a seat (normal for most homes it turns out) and the tiny kitchen with a 12 foot ceiling where the immense meal was prepared. I tell anyone the story of the crowded train where non-smoking was a mere suggestion and how I had to evict three nuns and a blind man to get our seats to Florence. The supermarket had horsemeat other mystery foods that I had to calculate in lire, and then carry five blocks home. These experiences and a hundred more are etched into my memory and I am so glad to have them.

Why do we not see how marvelous ordinary life is, how various and splendid in its variations? But no, we prefer the world of the McRich. No wonder we are so often obese and still hungry. Even our ideals are processed, pre packaged and sold from the dive-up window.