29 September 2008

Riding Widow Maker

Well for those who want a thrill a minute, today was the day. The House balked, the market tanked, and for the first time in two weeks we had rain. My executive director and partner in running this church returned from a cruise to Alaska (no quips OK?) just in time.

Long ago I heard of a Chinese Blessing that says, “May you live in uninteresting times.” Those who wondered why now know. Interesting times are volatile, even turbulent. From the vantage of a century they are great, as watching slapstick comedy or Greek tragedy is far better than being in one or the other.

To be honest, I saw this coming when the pres got elected. He is a militant Texan (which is redundant in a way. Even that wild eyed populist Jim Hightower once said that the only things in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos.) They like excitement. That’s the weather, that’s the culture, that’s the economy. And W wanted us all to enjoy the blessings of Texan life. So in the last years we got hotter, meaner, and wilder.

Maybe I am a wuss, but I prefer my country to be less a bunking bronco or riding bull than a yoked Clydesdale or solid milk cow. Not very exciting, but dependable, and far more effective when it comes to getting things done.

Maybe if we forgot about getting rich, or even getting Osama, and just got our jobs done and made sure our piece of the planet was safe and sound, we would actually be better off.

More boring I am sure. But remember, that’s a blessing.

28 September 2008

Coming Up Snake Eyes

I guess I am not very bright. Somehow it still feels like some guys went to a casino, lost all their money, then borrowed some from the casino and when they lost that too argued that they shouldn’t have to pay it back because the croupiers need them to keep playing to keep their jobs.

You should know that I am among the fortunate in all this. Bucking the national trend and advice, my spouse and I owe nothing but our mortgage. We pay our credit cards in full every month. I am having work done on the house that I saved up for, in the bank. In fact, half of our financial assets are in fixed assets like treasury funds, bank accounts, bond accounts, and insurance.

That sounds conservative but only recently. I grew up with advice to diversify. Put some in equities, some in cash equivalents and some in cash. Diversify the equities in index funds. Diversity the cash equivalents in money markets and bonds. The whole idea was make sure that you didn’t lose too much at once.

Our military used that strategy for a long time. They called it the nuclear triad – bombers, missiles and submarines. Each had its advantages and disadvantages but they knew no adversary could eliminate all three at once.

Diversity is everywhere, and always with the same purpose, to prevent obliteration. Nature has been doing it for eons through evolution. Make sure there is enough diversity among and between species and no matter what the catastrophe some will survive and life will continue.

So why do we humans, the astonishing product of evolution, seem to do exactly the opposite to ourselves? We put all our eggs into one basket, be it financial or racial or religious or political.

I really should not be surprised. Everyone knows the odds are always with the house and yet we all think we will be the exception. The only real sure thing is that people are always looking for a sure thing. I am putting all my money on casinos next time.

23 September 2008

Disturbing The Peace

A great article in this week’s NYTimes magazine talks about why teaching will never be cool. If by cool we mean popular and attractive. By its very nature, teaching subverts the norm, challenges what we think is important. As being cool means being important or hewing to the standards that the culture says are important, to subvert that is ipso facto uncool.

This explains a lot in my life. Standing at the end of the alphabet, on the margins of the political and religious norms, I quickly found out I was uncool.

First was the name – Weldon Wooden. People now call me Fred, which is my middle name, but until high school I was Weldon and on the playground that is “a bummer of a birthmark,” as The Far Side put it. Since childhood is all about who is in and who is out, I was a logical kid to put out.

Then the politics. Most folks in Maryland were Democrats, but we were liberal democrats in a Dixiecrat state. Mom and dad were pro civil rights, lifelong ACLU members, supporters of CORE and the NAACP, and liked Adlai Stevenson. The election of 1960 almost came to blows in my schoolyard. I still remember the lame shouting matches, “Nixon in the White House, Kennedy in the trashcan.” That was pretty foul mouthed for first graders then.

Lastly, religion. I am a fourth generation Unitarian. My friends were Christians of some sort, mostly Catholic by the time we lived in Baltimore. They had numbers, history, and a lot of pomp and circumstance. We were tiny, trivial and boring as blazes – talk, talk talk. What a snore.

Over the years I started taking perverse pride in my outsiderness. What choice did I have, really? I preferred classical music to rock and roll, rode the bus while my friends learned to drive, went away to college while they stayed close, and so on. In my heart, though, I never overcame my child's desire to be among the in crowd, to be normal, to be cool.

No wonder I became a Unitarian clergyman. I was finally in. Only one problem, though. As someone who’s identity is to be an outsider, to be on the inside feels false. To be outside is lonely, to be inside is phony. How ironic is that?

After so many years, though, I am growing into my anomalous self. It’s not going to change, and that’s beginning to feel OK. Still, what do I do when, as a clergyman, I am expected to set the norm, be cool? Subversion is in my nature, remember.

I guess I am a teacher.

21 September 2008

Tasty Morsels

Two thoughts on the world, gathered from those moments after waking but before rising.

“Never the Twain”…

The presidential campaign is in danger of becoming a contest between east and west. One ticket says they are the ‘original mavericks’ a reference to a cattle owner who refused to brand his cattle, and thus "play by the rules." Both candidates are from the west and cultivate the mythic qualities we associate with the west.

Potent stuff. If you can claim a heroic myth as your story, and assign a less heroic myth to the other guy, you get the advantage. The western myth is the plain speaking, hard working, self made man (yes man) who doesn’t put on airs. A woman in Alaska, asked what she thought of the senator from Illinois (which is the east to someone in Alaska) reminded us of the eastern myth when said he acted ‘snotty and looked kind of weasely.’ There’s the lesser myth – refined, effete, smug, sneaky.

Once you get a myth going, it’s very hard to get away from it. The only escape is to offer a more compelling myth.

“Gimme Fever”

The Wall Street mess is a national fever. Literally.

When the body gets sick, it runs a fever. Overheating is what the body does something is threatening it. Fevers are not the disease, but uncontrolled fevers can do terrible harm, even kill. Treating a fever does not cure the disease, but it may be necessary to save the patient. What the feds did this week was like the old fashioned treatment for high fevers, putting the patient in cold water.

In this case, the febrile mechanism itself was ill, and we cannot sit in ice forever. Instead of responding to and giving feedback to the larger economy, the stock market became solipsistic; entered a manic state in which someone loses touch with outside reality as they obsess about their own thoughts. That’s what bubbles are, manic episodes.

Reconnecting the markets to reality is the key. That means limiting the role of derivative investments like those mortgage backed securities that had artificially inflated the amount of money available to loan. Someone has to slap someone in the face, as Cher did to Nicholas Cage and say “Snap out of it!”

Well, it’s Sunday morning and I’ve got work to do. You know, ever since George Carlin died I’ve been having weird caustic thoughts like him. Maybe I am channeling him? You should know that I prettied these two “Brain Droppings” up for you, being a minister and all and knowing some of my members read this stuff. Must be pastoral now! But inside I am snarling.

16 September 2008

I Would Rather Be Writing...

... But reality keeps getting in the way. Like the financial meltdown. Why is everyone shocked?

We went through this twenty years ago with the S&L scandal and its fallout. Every generation we get into serious financial trouble and then ask, “What was I thinking?”

The answer is, “You weren’t.” When it comes to getting rich, we are all fools for schemes that promise easy money. Including the experts on Wall Street. But what makes them worse is that they are like magicians who begin to believe they really do have magical powers. I can almost (well that’s a stretch) forgive someone who consciously cons someone else. At least that person knows it’s a trick. But when the trickster begins to believe in their own scam, that’s when thing can get really dangerous.

(BTW, this is a fool proof test of religious leaders as well. When they start to believe they actually do have a hot line to God we are in real trouble.)

Speaking of hot lines, I have been getting busy signals for some time now. Monks of old spoke of the ‘dark night of the soul,’ a period, often very extended of doubt and despair. Mother Teresa had a night that last more than twenty years.

In my case, I do not expect to get some IM or a text from the Great Beyond. What I am carrying is a gnawing cynicism for my own species. This latest financial lunacy is just that, the latest of many disappointments. Don’t even get me started on the election.

14 September 2008

Even Prunes Won't Help

I delivered my sermon three times today. Make that four.

1st: At home Sunday morning, revising.
2nd: At the “Preview” I do for teachers about an hour before service.
3rd: The actual 11 a.m. service
4th: Rewriting the outline for later publication which I do Sunday afternoon.

This is twice more than I have done in the past. That means I have at least two more chances of getting it right. This week, the written version is the best. If we ever get the podcasting system working, that will make five and sometimes that will be the best.

And none of them will be as good as it should be. Most every week I fail to find the right words in the right order to say what is in my head. The ideas are there, the feelings, but somewhere between thinking and feeling and writing and speaking half of it gets lost.

That’s the hard part. There is this whole world inside me, a terrible wild and magnificent symphony, but all I can get out is a thin scratchy voice that says “Mary had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow.”

11 September 2008

Today, Moments Of Silence Are Blasphemous

It’s not easy being weird. Until I saw the paper this morning I did not even notice it was September 11.

What makes this weird is that I was there, within a mile of it all. I heard the explosions, saw the twin towers smoking, got covered with the dust of pulverized concrete and people. I have among my treasured objects some singed papers that fluttered down from the sky, pages from loan amortization tables doubtless in a cabinet from one of the financial offices.

My life was dominated by the event for weeks.

First was to care for my church and its members, serving as a communications hub as much of the city lost telephone connections. None of my members died, though many worked downtown and fled and were evacuated. Some walked miles to get home, the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges being closed.

That night I conducted a prayer service. A rabbi friend, the chief fire chaplain, arrived in his fire suit from the pile itself. A neighbor, the rock musician Dan Zanes, played. We held on to each other and asked lots of questions in our hearts.

Then came the interfaith service, which meant spending lots of time persuading the local Arab and Muslim population, which is old and large, to take part. They were terrified and outraged and mostly in Arabic. And then gathering the other clergy, organizing the service, getting the PA system, spreading the word, and on the day being astonished at the crowd (over 2000) that gathered on the Brooklyn overlook that has the best view of the city anywhere.

The weather all that week was beautiful.

Then came the funerals and memorials. I performed two for unchurched folk, one quite large and one quite small. And then the firefighters, Catholics all, but which I attended along with other clergy, processing through the teeming crowds held back by uniformed firefighters and police, the wailing bagpipes echoing through the eerie quiet street and the vast church.

Maybe I am uninterested in all the observances now because I was so saturated then. And maybe because I know these distant honors are not really for or about those who perished but for those who were not there and are still trying to figure out their connection.

“We will never forget” is the mantra, a phrase less lyric that “a day which will live in infamy.” That’s what we lack, a lyric.

Actually, the right word is elegaic. Elegies are poems for the dead, and history is filled with them – Pericles’ oration, Milton’s Lycidas, Whitman’s “When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloomed.” We have nothing like this, words meant to carve in mnemonic stone the grief of a people wounded. Movies we have, and books, and pictures, and moments of silence, but these are captive to their times. They will not live long, and those which time capriciously preserves will be puzzling to those who find them eons hence. No, we need an elegy that lifts this occasion from the raw pain of reality to the firmament of perpetual meaning, a verse that children who do not know they are our descendents will learn by heart and recite in their rote bird voices, paradoxically redeeming this wretched thing by infusing it with blithe and na├»ve life as they canter through its iambs and trochees like toddlers running in diapers.

That’s what we need, an elegy that will put an end to our selfish sack cloth silences and send us and our unknowable issue toward lives lived better than we have yet dared. Yes, that’s what we need. I pray it comes soon.

06 September 2008

My Country, What Of Thee?

What constitutes a nation?

I am wondering because recently I read about resurgent Scottish nationalism, and the possibility that Scotland may try to dissolve its political union with England. Not to worry just yet. Somewhat like Quebec a few years ago there is a lot of talk about referenda and such. What actually happens is far from certain.

Then I thought of South Ossetia, and Abkhasia, and began to wonder exactly when a group of people can claim to be entitled to nationhood?

Size seems irrelevant. The smallest nation at the UN has only 9000 citizens. China has 2 billion citizens. There are over 2,000,000 Chinese for every citizen of that smallest country and yet at the UN they are considered equals. In the US the ratio between the smallest and the largest state (California and Vermont) is 57 to one.

Language is tempting, but slippery. Take Yiddish. Spoken by Jews for centuries throughout Europe, it has no national identity at all. But English, thanks to its imperial history, is the primary language of Great Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand and the secondary language of a dozen more.

Ethnicity is dangerous. Remember ethnic cleansing?

Religion is volatile. Iraq anyone?

Land. That’s the only rock solid (sorry) criterion. Nations have land, a spot that they own. But a nation has to exert something more than squatter’s rights in this world. Just as an existing nation can no longer just go and grab land without trumping up some other reason for taking it. Russia?

It turns out that the nation-state, something obvious and self evident, is not so obvious after all. It may be more like obscenity as Justice Potter Stewart defined it – I cannot define is but I know it when I see it.

Nations as we know them exist as a consequence of the Treaty of Westphalia (I am not making this up!) and later the rise of European world imperialism. Go and study, and then ask yourself, as I am, whether this house is not built on sand more than rock. Not a comforting thought when storms brew.

Gustav and Hanna and Ike may be more an omen than we realize.

03 September 2008

Hungry For Civilization

Speaking of delicatessens, remembering my sandwich last week, there is nothing like one in my fair city. This is important in a new way to me, now.

Friends from my college days came through town. His family was my informal “bar mitzvah instruction” into ways of Jewish life. I attended my first Seder with them, ate chopped chicken liver and smoked whitefish and when it was truly festive, lox.

If you do not know, lox is smoked salmon, and comes in many forms from the Presbyterian heights of fragrant Scottish smoked salmon served on long planks holding a half of a fish to mere lox pieces and spread which is mixed with cream cheese.

Lox on a toasted bagel with a schmeer is what I indulged at Morry’s in Chicago last week. It was far from the best I ever had, but as I ate I realized that no such thing was possible in my new home town. This was underscored by a search for lox to feed my friends for breakfast before they went home.

There is a lovely specialty grocery with an artisan bakery next door. Truly wonderful. But no lox. There is a decent Middle Eastern restaurant and grocery as well but lox is an Ashkenazic dish, not from the Levant. We have a new high end grocery but this is far from my house, as are the other boutique places that might have it. But nothing even approaching Morry’s which sits on a street corner in Hyde Park and has a long formica counter and small tables by the big windows and a menu on the wall, now quite old now, touting enormous sandwiches made from corned beef and pastrami, and large coolers near the cash register with soda and iced tea, and shrink wrapped cookies and slices of pie. Nothing fancy at all, really.

And yet Morry’s had lox, and my wife’s hot pastrami (not too fat) on fresh rye with honest mustard, and we both had a goodly slice of half sour dill pickles. This is not elegance at all, but what ordinary people buy for lunch, like the guy sitting at the next table reading his Sun Times while devouring his sandwich and pickle. That's what I want.

My elder son thinks any city wishing to be truly civilized requires a Jewish community to be part of it. I would add that in America any city to be truly civilized also needs a black community and a gay community. These are minimum requirements. More is better.

We have such communities in our fair town, but they are not organized, so their civilizing influence is lost. They have to have a physical center like a neighborhood or a commercial heart. Our Asian community has developed one, and so has our Latino/a community. And the mark of their success is that they not only serve their own community but members of the wider city as well.

One good barbeque does not comprise an African-American village, and two gay bars is not community center. I sigh.

And a town without a genuine deli? Barbarity!

01 September 2008

Lucky Generals

I’ve had a string of good luck recently. Nothing fancy, mind you, but it’s as if the universe decided to hold the door open instead of letting slap in my face.

I was away in Texas recently, preaching at a former church and conducting a thirtieth anniversary wedding. Those were the excuses for going back to a place where we spent too few years, and where our youngest was born and our eldest faced his first challenges as a schoolboy. In short, it was a visit to our past.

Now, such occasions can too often be like high school reunions which are never quite as good or bad as we make them out to be. But in this case, everything went even better than I hoped.

First, the trip down was easy and uneventful. The flight left on time, arrived only 15 minutes late and we were on our way to our hotel just before rush hour. A wicked summer storm came upon us as we drove north, just as the ‘check tire pressure light’ came on in the car. I had a sinking feeling and pulled off to find a gas station in the driving rain.

(You said good luck, right?)

Yes. I happened to pull off just where the rental company had an office, and they swapped my sub compact for – get this – a brand new mustang convertible. “It’s all I have,” she sheepishly said.

“I really don’t mind at all,” said I sounding nonchalant. Secretly giggling.

At the hotel the room had only double beds. I am too old, or rather my wife is too old, to sleep like that. I asked the clerk if there was anything else. She hemmed and hawed about not having a king size except in a suite. I said “Talk to me,” and she remembered how I had already tipped her when I checked in. Lo and behold I had a complimentary king suite (really big room with couch and desk).

We spent the whole next day roaring through the hill country, top down, fluffy clouds keeping the morning heat low. The air was clean and the scenery was as great as I remembered. The next day we toured our old haunts, eating in favorite places and then conducting the wedding.

The next day I preached. Two services. I helped them go to two services 15 years ago and that was what set them free. It was lovely to see so many familiar faces, and so many new ones. And then we had dinner with my old staffers.

At the airport on Monday they put us on an earlier flight, giving us over two hour's head start home. But I said, let’s play, and we poked around Chicago for that extra time, the place we were married and lived for four years. Had a real delicatessen sandwich at Morry’s on the South Side and still got home before dinner.

I thought it was over, the lucky part that is. But maybe not. Had a stroke of it this morning, and perhaps it is a token of more to come. Taking a very long walk because the Y was closed for Labor Day I found $50 on the sidewalk.

Not the lottery, but maybe I’ll spend some of it on some tickets.

Napoleon Bonaparte came to mind. Asked which sort of generals he tried to hire, he replied, “Lucky Ones.”