Friday, January 29, 2010

Trending up, or moving backward?



I wrote the poem below back in 2002 after being troubled by the increasing reports of sexual abuse of children by clergy. My consolation then was, at least now we are aware of the problem and are calling people to account. In many ways, we are progressing in areas of ethics, enlightenment and compassion.

Recently, the airwaves have been so full of myopic shouting that I am thinking we take one step forward and two steps back. One thing is for sure, decisions made out of fear will not tend to lead us forward.

I am optimistic that our trend will continue to be upward, though we have witnessed some backward steps of late. I present this poem from eight years ago in affirmation of that upward trend.




Slowly God Arises

And slowly God arises
Arising, God turns
Pulling up tent stakes,
Cracking the foundation
And loosening the ties
Of a stagnant civilization.

One turn showed us not to enslave.
Another turn gave honor to women.
Yet another turn showed us
Not to send our children to factories and fields,
forfeiting their lives for illicit capital gain.

Now the turn shows us
To respect our children
And to protect them from harm.

And slowly God arises
Until a new awareness comes;
An awareness that children have been crippled
By the abusive actions of people we trusted.
No longer can we tolerate such abuse.

Slowly God arises.
Arising, God turns;
Cracking the foundation of tradition,
Breaking the bonds that held us.

With each turn
We are astounded.
Why did we not see this before?
How could we have let this happen?
Yet with each turn
We see that we cannot go back.
Astounded by sight
Loosed by light,
We walk at a new level
As slowly God arises
And rising, God turns.

The church did not show us.
Governments never called for justice
Until sight came upon the people
And scattered throughout the land,
"Just as the lightening comes from the east
and flashes into the west..."
But none can stop the rising
And the turning of a new day.

And slowly God arises.
Arising, God turns
Carrying the pain and the hope
Of broken bonds and shattered illusions.
Arising, God turns
To present us with the challenge of a new day,
To walk on a different level.
We are astounded by sight
And loosed by light
As slowly God arises.



*

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sand Crabs

-

There is one life,
One world,
One universe.
There are people
Who try to hijack it
For their own egocentric purposes.

From a distance
They resemble sand crabs
Scurrying along the edge
Of the seashore.




***

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cattle Call: A Tribute to Cowboys, Poets, and Other Wanderers


[Okay – I wasn’t really there. I just got so caught up in listening to the CD Emmylou Harris At the Ryman that I wrote this piece as though I were recalling the live performance.]


Emmylou Harris was at the Ryman. There was joy that night – and celebration. There were songs of elation and songs of regret; songs of work and songs of wistful longing. There was Bill Monroe before he died. Every seat was filled. There were beauticians and mechanics; miners and factory workers; carpenters and teachers. It was an audience of regular folks, out on a Saturday night. I had been fascinated by Emmylou Harris since my college days. I don’t know whether it was that clear voice that could simultaneously convey joy and longing, or if it was those eyes and the long, dark hair. Maybe it was the way she moved and carried herself; maybe it was some trait that resonated with my own anima (that creative feminine aspect of the inner self). At any rate, when she would sing, I would listen.

We heard bluegrass numbers and some folk-rock, but when she sang Tex Owens’ Cattle Call, my mind went back to another day. I remembered a day when I was 8 years old and we still had county fairs. Back then we could see prize livestock gathered in the cow barn during the fair, and once my Dad even gave me 50 cents to buy a chance on a beautiful black and white calf. I reminisced further and thought of drives in the countryside where the cattle outnumbered the people. There were visions of barbed wire fences, pastures, creeks, and salt licks.

Hearing the beautiful yodel in Cattle Call as the song continued, I went further back to an earlier day. I thought of that era of westward expansion and cattle drives when the cowboy came into his own as a symbol of rugged independence, idealized in film and rodeo. I wondered if little boys still want to be cowboys the way we did when we watched those Saturday matinees.

Then Emmylou came back to the chorus with the melodic call, and I went still further back to cattlemen of a different era. I thought of that cattleman from long ago who rode the plains of Whitby, England, back in the seventh century. Herding cattle by day and sitting in the mead hall by night, the song finally came to Caedmon. He first captured my heart and imagination in a high school literature class where I heard about that earliest of English poets. Caedmon was a cowherd who loved song, but was too bashful to pick up the harp and sing in the mead hall. Then a lady appeared to him in a vision and told him to sing of the beginning of things. From that day on, Caedmon sang songs of uncommon beauty, inspired by the lady in his dream. She must have looked and sounded a lot like Emmylou Harris.

I was captured by that story of Caedmon because even though I loved the song and was inspired by words, I was also painfully shy and seized by stage fright. I thought, if Caedmon was a cowboy, then perhaps I could be one, too. Caedmon was encouraged by Hilda of Whitby, leader of the local abbey. Later recognized as a saint, Hilda was a champion for poets and the Celtic way. She was an advocate for those early Englishmen and Celtic cowboys as the Latin world was forcing assimilation. She was the great mediator at the Council of Whitby to temper the Latin religious onslaught. Hilda remained a supporter of Caedmon and his non-Latin song. She must have looked and sounded a lot like Emmylou Harris.

Imagine my wonderful surprise when I learned that the American Book of Common Prayer honors the feast of St. Hilda is on my own birthday, November 18. Now each year on the anniversary of my birth, I think of saints and poets and cowboys.

The wafting of Cattle Call returned with the final chorus. The whole audience was enthralled. I could keep going back in time to other cowboys. Father Abraham was a cattleman as well, you know (he has been revered down through the years by all kinds of cowpokes who had names like Roy, and Schlomo, and Achmed). Abe left his homeland and drove his herds along the plains and valleys of Canaan. I don’t know who inspired him most, whether it was Sarah or Hagar, or the Almighty, (tradition indicates the latter) but whoever it was, she must have looked and sounded a lot like Emmylou Harris.



***

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Supreme Court Ruling on Corporate Political Campaign Funding


Today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there can be no limit to corporate funding of political campaign ads; that to do so would be to deny freedom of speech. The first thing that many opponents to this ruling have pointed out is that this will steam roll the voice of the people and give corporations undue influence in the election of political candidates.

Has anyone noted the fact that corporations today are MULTINATIONAL? What will be the consequence when China has controlling interest in Exxon, or when Germany or India controls other heavy hitters in the corporate world? In past generations we saw great advances in child labor laws and civil rights by way of government legislation. Over the last 20 years, corporations have gained more and more influence to the point that government has lost much of its ability to protect citizens.

With the Supreme Court Ruling today, if we the people cannot find a way around it, not only will politicians be bought by the corporate world, legislation will itself become obsolete. Regulation and control will be in the hands of the corporate elite, rights of the working people will be at the whim of the International Corporation.

***
This is one day when I am inclined to complete that quote from Dylan "Not dark yet...but it's gettin' there."


***

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

This is for Joe (who gave me the first three lines)

Standing on the stateroom balcony
Peering into the endless black
Of a horizonless night,


I couldn’t help thinking of that dame that walked up to me
Just a few hours before.
She had the look of a wanderer
But a wanderer who knew her way around.
Only tonight she was a lost kitten
With eyes as deep as that horizonless night.

“I know it must be fate, Mr. Marlowe,” she said to me,
“That on this night, when all seemed so hopeless
I should find you here.”

That’s what she wanted – hope on a hopeless night.
I had seen that look before.
Sometimes that look would lob a zinger
Right into the pit of my stomach.
Another needy client
Short on hope,
Short on insight,
Even shorter on cash,
But long on virtue.

I promised her I would see what I could do.
I wasn’t so sure about this beau she told me about.
I didn’t know if he was on the up-and-up,
But he obviously meant something to her,
And now he was nowhere to be found.
I don’t know why I agreed to it –
Yeah, I know why –
It’s because I’m a sucker.
A sucker for a cry for help,
A sucker to track down dead-beat scum,
A sucker to thrash out a little justice in this god-forsaken city.
A sucker for the deep dark eyes
Of a helpless girl
On the edge of another horizonless night.



***

This is a good one




I love it when someone can look at the headlines and make us laugh. This appeared in our local paper last week (1/12/10)



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Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Place for Saints, Sinners, Doubters, And Jilted Lovers


I cannot call to mind a single instance where I have ever been irreverent, except toward the things which were sacred to other people.
– Mark Twain

A new Pew Forum Survey report that came out last month reveals that many Americans are mixing their religious practices. Our country is truly becoming a marketplace for faith and practice. This survey highlights my view that there has to be a place where everyone can come, even those who have been shut out by customs and creeds; a place for people who harbor doubts and disillusion; a place to find some sense of community. A few years back I saw an interview on Book TV with Ron Powers, who has written a biography called, Mark Twain: a Life. Samuel Clemens was the man who wrote under the pen name of Mark Twain. In discussing some of Samuel Clemens’ philosophy, Powers made the observation that “his bitterness [toward Christianity] was like the bitterness of jilted lover.” Later in the interview, he went on to add, “What he believed in and worked for often betrayed him… He suffered deeply when his beliefs proved hollow.”

Samuel Clemens was in many ways the quintessential American, much more so than Walt Whitman before him, even though Whitman intensely wished that role for himself. Clemens looked at life, religion, and politics in a distinctly American way. He readily saw the hypocrisy and shortcomings of American society, and used humor to bring them to light. Probably, he used humor to deal with his own disappointments as well. He once said that, “The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” In that vein, Clemens might serve as a role model for some of us as we attempt to reconcile faith, hope, and reality. Keeping a sense of humor as we examine the life we live helps to put things into perspective. There has to be a place where everyone can come to find some sense of community.

There are many of us who thrive on intellectual discussion and dialogue. It occurs to me, however, that there are also those among us who may have felt betrayed by their faith. One of my times of greatest disillusionment came when I realized that there was no place for me among the Southern Baptists who had nurtured and guided me for so long. During that time I remembered the words of one of my seminary professors regarding disillusionment: “If it was an illusion to begin with, is it such a bad thing to be disillusioned?” I knew then that there had to be a place where everyone can come; a place to find support; a place for community. It doesn't have to be the same place for everybody, but everybody needs a place

I wonder what Mark Twain might say about the religious scene if he were here today. I’m sure he could find something humorous to say that would be both insightful and incisive. I wonder if he would find a place where it is permissible to explore faith, reason, doubt, and hypocrisy, all on the same page – like on the internet. There is a good site on the web: http://www.explorefaith.org/index.html which seeks “to provide an open, non-judgmental, private place for ANYONE interested in exploring spiritual issues.” I have no connection or association with that website, it's just one that I am impressed with. Nothing beats being actually present with like-minded people, but there are some helpful sources avaiable electronically.

Everyone needs a place to go, a place to find community. No one should be denied the opportunity for some sort of spiritual life that is congruent with his or her world view. The American spiritual landscape is such that today there are many places that people can go to affirm life and spirit as they understand it: a place for dialogue and discussion; a place for hope and community; a place for saints, sinners, doubters, and jilted lovers.



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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti in the Aftermath


I am still at the numb stage. I have difficulty watching those images om TV from Haiti after that 7.0 earthquake devastated the country. I am glad that there are already relief agencies beginning to help. So much tragedy elicits questions. The following essay of mine was run in The Birmingham News as a guest editorial after Hurrican Katrina hit in New Orleans. It is still the best way for me to make some sense out of tragedy.

Finding God's Face in Tragedy

“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn… that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” -- Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning

Christianity has a problem that arises from three basic precepts: 1. God is all-powerful and all-knowing, 2. God is loving and good, and 3. Evil is real. This is a recipe for dissonance. In two thousand years, these theological concepts have never been reconciled nor have they been abandoned by mainstream Christianity. I am in no position to try to debunk any of these three notions, but I am in a position to feel the ache and the loss for words in response to the question, “How could a loving God allow such devastation and loss of innocent life?”

Hurricane Katrina was one of those tragic events that cause many to ask, is there really is a God out there, or is this just a barren, meaningless universe? Preachers and theologians have always felt the tension of trying to communicate faith and hope to people in light of intellectual honesty and trying times. Theology likes to create nice tidy boxes to put things in, but the problem is that life is not nice and tidy.

It would be a cruel understatement to say that Katrina was an untidy incident. I’ll be honest, for days I tried to avoid the emotional impact. I tried to keep some distance as I viewed the news reports. Then the reality began to hit, and along with it, the tears that one tries to fight back, the deep sighs, the heaviness that weighs upon the chest and the brow. There came inevitable shock and the sorrow of so much devastation.

Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, came out of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. His was the only voice I could think of that might be appropriate to listen to in the wake of our current storm. The core of that book for me was a passage close to the middle of the work which is quoted above. Frankl goes on to say, “We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead start thinking of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.”

If we are being questioned by life, what is our response? Here are some things I heard in the week following the storm:
- I heard anger that response was so slow.
- I heard outrage that the poor, the handicapped and the needy were being overlooked and neglected.
- I saw bitter tears over the loss of life and the suffering of children.
- I saw responses from some individuals who were determined to do whatever they could to help.
- I heard scorn heaped upon the comfortable wealthy bureaucrats in Washington who seemed literally unmoved by the massive suffering.

When I read the words of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, God is described by these very same responses.

I cannot put this into a tidy box that will resolve all questions and ease the tensions of living, but I can say that in the midst of the chaos and horror that followed Katrina, I saw and heard God in our midst. I saw God in your face and heard God in your voice when the sorrow and outrage was expressed. As real people began to move to care for the evacuees by offering help, refuge, and hope, I took heart. There were people showing great care for life, even lending aid to pets that were displaced. I saw how we respond when we are questioned by life, and that response gives me hope in the midst of tragedy.



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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Johari Window: Do You See What I See?


“O wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!”
– Robert Burns (from
“To a Louse: On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church”)


While writing Tuesday’s blog post (Speaking Honestly, Living Honestly) I was reminded of the Johari Window. The Johari window came as a breakthrough for me years ago when I was taking a graduate course in group process. It is a great tool for understanding something of ourselves in relation to other people. (You can get a quick explanation of it at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johari_window)

Basically, the Johari window, using a four-pane window illustration, explains that there are four different areas of seeing ourselves. One pane represents those aspects of the personality that are known to the self and known to others. A second pane includes those aspects that are known to the self but hidden from others. The third pane represents aspects of the person that are unconscious – hidden from both the individual self and others. A fourth section of the window holds those traits seen and known by others, but of which the individual is unaware.

It is a very simple intuitive tool that represents what most of us probably know, but it comes as an “aha moment” for many (as it did for me some 30 years ago). Putting knowledge into a handy tool is a useful thing. Keeping that window in mind can help us in our own self awareness. It reminds us that there are those things about us that no one else will know unless we chose to make them known. It also illustrates that, as much as we may think we know ourselves, there are some things in our lives that we cannot see clearly which are well known to our friends and loved ones.

To see ourselves as others see us – that is the gift that can come from our spouse, our close friend or significant other. It may be uncomfortable, or it may just as likely be something good and noble. But just as surely as we cannot be fully known unless we make things known to others, we cannot fully know ourselves without input from others. And to keep us all humble, there is that third pane which illustrates those aspects of ourselves that are known to no one – not to ourselves, not to our friends. There is always that frontier of self discovery that lies ahead and will likely never be fully known.




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Monday, January 11, 2010

Speaking Honestly, Living Honestly


Last weekend I viewed the documentary In God’s Name with a discussion group of about 25 people. The film features interviews with 12 religious leaders who discuss the teachings of their respective faiths. With the terrorist actions of 9/11 as a backdrop, the documentary examines several major world religions and the harsh fact that wars, atrocities, and other terrible things have been committed in the name of religion throughout the years. We heard the Dalai Lama, the archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Benedict XVI, two Muslim imams, a Russian Orthodox priest, a Baptist, a Lutheran, a Hindu, a Sikh, and a Shinto leader. They all spoke of how their religions teach love, acceptance, forgiveness, peace and unity. All declared that there was no place in religion for killing, violence, and abuse of our fellow human beings. The National Geographic documentary by French filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet is very well done and offers a respectful sensitive portrayal of the major religions.

It is a beautiful and informative documentary, but it leaves one wondering why so many people practice their religion and at the same time commit acts of terrible violence and injustice.

My friend Malcolm stated during our discussion that a breakthrough for him came with the understanding of the concept of cognitive dissonance. He said that although we imagine that thinking precedes our actions, in actuality our behavior comes first, then we rationalize that behavior. The way Malcolm explained it, Cognitive Dissonance Theory proposes that a person experiences internal discomfort and stress when attitudes and behavior contradict. To resolve that dissonance, one must either change one’s thinking or one’s behavior. My friend tells me that research indicates that people are much more likely to change their thinking than their actions.

As we continued our discussion, I realized that with a healthy religion there is a kind of cyclical effect in which our faith and values inform us of ethical standards which often call for a change on our part. I know that I consider myself to be guided by religious faith and ethical standards, but there are those days when I am greatly disappointed in my behavior (usually after my wife points it out to me). If my faith is important – and I believe it is – then I must make adjustments to realign my actions.

Another friend, Barry, stated that he thinks religion offers the best vehicle for guiding our thinking and improving our actions. My church has something called the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) to assist the individual in making those realignments. For any of us, religious or not, if we are to maintain any human relationships at all, there will be occasions when we must make amends, ask forgiveness, and seek restitution. We will also find ourselves having to grant forgiveness and offer restitution.

It seems that all of us are agreed that the Golden Rule should be the standard for all our interactions. But living out the Golden Rule in everyday life – there’s the rub. Just because we fail at it one day, doesn’t mean we have to fail the next day.



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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Snow Days




We didn't get snow at my house today, in spite of the earlier predictions. We had some flurries - at times there was lots of white stuff in the air - but nothing on the ground. Here are two reflections on past snow days in Alabama - one humorous and one serious:


Stopping by Publix on a Snowy Evening
(with apologies to Robert Frost)

Whose shelves these are I think I know
He lives in a corporate village though;
He will not mind me stopping here
Among his aisles well-stocked for snow.

My little truck will have to suffice
Parked out on that sheet of ice
Between the store and busy street
In weather that comes but once or twice.

It gave a little sputter out there
As if to show machines can swear.
Other sounds include the sweep
Of people's footsteps as they hoard their share.

The shelves now look empty, wide, and deep,
But I have milk and bread to keep,
And videos to watch before I sleep,
And videos to watch before I sleep.




Southern Snowfall

It was one of those rare days
When all the conditions were right
And a bright soft snow fell
All day long.
Everything was covered in beauty.
Unneeded activity came to a halt.
No hurry.
A wonderful quiet in the city.
All is well.
It will last a day (two at the most)
Then there will be mud and slush
And life as usual.

One Easter at midnight mass
I suddenly saw that everyone was aglow.
A subtle light from within
Revealed wonder in every person,
Joy in every action.
Everything was covered in beauty
And I was completely connected
(Not the usual outsider).
No doubt that all shall be well.
Life returned to normal after a day (two at the most)
Except I carried with me the realization
That what was seen only for an instant
Is always true,
Even while life goes on as usual.



***

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Interfaith Opportunities


This past Sunday afternoon there was an excellent documentary, Different Books, Common Word, which aired on our local ABC station that probably went unnoticed by many. I was alerted by a friend that it would be airing at 3:00 pm. The newspaper TV log had it listed as “Paid Program,” so I think it is unfortunate that it didn’t get better publicity. I learned from an online review that the documentary was produced by EthicsDaily.com in Nashville.

The documentary heralds the positive interactions and cooperation between Baptists and Muslims in such places as Oklahoma City, Memphis, Lake Charles, LA, Columbia, TN, and Orange, TX. We learn through some of the dialogue in the film that certain Baptist leaders were motivated to speak out and reach out to counter the inflammatory, derogatory remarks about Islam made by some other prominent Baptist leaders. They wanted people to know that Jerry Falwell and his ilk did not represent all Baptists.

Different Books, Common Word is an important documentary for two reasons. One, it shows individual Baptists and Muslims coming to know and appreciate one another, finding a common humanity while acknowledging differences. Two, it is a lesson and an image that many of us in the United States, especially in the South, need to hear. We need to cool down the dogmatic, inflammatory rhetoric and get to know our Muslim neighbors.

Local Opportunities

There are opportunities for all of us to do some bridge building between faiths. Our local Islamic Center for several years has extended an offering for dialogue with the community during the sacred month of Ramadan. Each year during Ramadan, which is a time of fasting from sunup to sundown, the Islamic community has invited non-Muslims to come join them for prayers and a meal. It is a time when they can explain their faith to their neighbors who may have limited knowledge (or misinformation) about Islam.

Last year I took them up on the invitation and joined them at the local mosque one night during Ramadan. I believe that we must find ways of living together, because none of us – Christians, Muslims, Jews, or anyone else for that matter – none of us is going to go away. We are all here on the planet, and we owe it to ourselves and our future to learn to live in harmony.

When I arrived at the mosque in the Rosedale community of Homewood, Ala., it was not dark yet, so things had not gotten underway. There were children running around – some tossing a ball. Men were talking on the steps while women in the kitchen busily preparing the evening meal. It reminded me of sights I had seen years before while working and travelling in Southeast Asia, but it also looked a lot like what I had experienced growing up as a Baptist in the rural South.

A couple of gentlemen came up to welcome me. They told me that Abdullah would be there shortly. Abdullah was the one in charge of talking to visitors about the faith. While we were there waiting for things to begin, an older man from India was explaining to me that Islam is the only religion that tells you everything you need to know in life “It even tells you how to go to the bathroom and how to have sex with your wife – what other religion does that?” Then the old man led me to a room where water, soup, and dates were offered as the first breaking of the fast before evening prayers.

Abdullah arrived shortly before the first prayers began. He was a young man of dark complexion, but not as dark as the Indian man I had spoken with. He spoke perfect English and looked like he probably had some African heritage. Abdullah lead me into the mosque where a man stood at a microphone and began leading prayers. After a period of time, he made a few announcements that had to do with general housekeeping procedures (so, they have those announcements during worship too, I thought to myself). Then the man announced some certificate awards to people who had successfully memorized and recited books of the Qur’an. He took delight in pointing out that the one who was best at recitation was a woman.

Finding Common Ground

After the first evening prayers, we all went to partake of the feast that had been prepared. It was then that I had opportunity to talk with Abdullah. He escorted me to the dining area. We sat down to eat and he began to explain to me some of the customs of Islam. At one point in our conversation he asked me about my faith.

“I’m Catholic,” I told him, “but I wasn’t always Catholic. I grew up Baptist.”

“Well,” Abdullah replied, “I grew up Baptist as well.” Abdullah was a hometown boy! And a former Baptist at that!

We laughed a bit about the fact that we both grew up Baptist and converted to another religious expression. You just naturally celebrate whatever commonality you find, and Baptist just happened to be one of our commonalities.

I haven’t seen Abdullah since then, but I’m hoping to continue dialogue with our Muslim neighbors in the city. Just last month, a local imam came to do a presentation on Islam at the hospital where I work. It was an in-service for us health professionals to learn how to better provide for our Muslim patients. I got his name and contact information. Perhaps that will be another opportunity for dialogue and cooperation.




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Monday, January 4, 2010

Charlie Madison's War

“We perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifice. It may be the ministers and generals who blunder us into war, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution.”


Yesterday, I saw that The Americanization of Emily was to be aired on the Turner Classic Movie channel. I set my DVD so I could catch it later. The first time I saw it, there were three reasons that I was attracted to the film: 1. James Garner, 2. Julie Andrews, and 3. It was based on the book by Alabama author, the late William Bradford Huie. It’s a love story and a war story. What surprised me the first time I saw it was the eloquent examination of the nature of war, and its anti-war stance.

Charlie Madison, James Garner’s character, appears to be a quite cynical participant in WWII. The movie is set in London in the days preceding D-Day. Charlie Madison is a “dog-robber,” an assistant to the admiral of the Navy. A dog-robber’s job was to “keep his general or admiral well-clothed, well-fed, and well loved during battle,” and Charlie Madison was apparently the best at what he did. Emily Barham, played by Julie Andrews, is offended by Charlie’s cavalier attitude and the American military officers’ opulent acquisitions of the finest clothes, food, liquor, and perfume when her countrymen are doing without basic necessities in the midst of war. But then they fall in love and everything changes for them.

Emily is a young British driver in the military motor pool. We learn that she has lost many of the people close to her in wartime. Her father, her brother, and her husband – all soldiers, all killed in the line of duty. Charlie is a self-proclaimed coward and will go to any length to stay out of the heat of battle.

In a conversation with Emily and her mother, Charlie tells what he really thinks about war. “I’m not sentimental about war. I see nothing noble in widows,” he tells Emily’s mother. “Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and in the interest of humanity. So far in this war we’ve managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity.” Charlie explains that we make things worse by making heroes of the war dead. His own brother died in battle, “an everyday soldier’s death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud. .. Now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age.”

“We perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifice,” Charlie Madison says. “It may be the ministers and generals who blunder us into war, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution.”

As the story unfolds, Charlie becomes an unwitting hero himself. An unstable admiral decides he wants a movie made of the D-Day invasion to publicize the Navy’s vital contribution to the war. Though he tries to connive he way out, Charlie Madison finds himself on Omaha Beach on D-Day with a camera in his hand, in a cold sweat, trying to run away from the fighting. He is declared the first casualty on Omaha Beach when his colleague gets his picture just before he falls amidst enemy gunfire. When the picture is picked up by all the media, the Navy seizes the publicity opportunity. Then when he is found to be alive, he is proclaimed a hero as the first one to land on Omaha Beach.

Charlie Madison is outraged by attempts to portray him as a hero. He comes close to exposing the charade. With the press core waiting inside, Charlie tells his buddy, “I’m going to tell them the truth… I will not help you preserve the wonder of war.” In the end, with Emily’s persuasion, he realizes that it will be better to go along so he can enjoy a comfortable life and a home with Emily. So Charlie, in the end, lives up to his reputation as one who will not sacrifice himself for the sake of truth. After all, one reason Emily was able to fall in love with him was that she saw him as someone sure to avoid the ultimate sacrifice of war which had taken the other important men in her life.

“The Americanization of Emily” is a great study of war and human nature. William Bradford Huie’s writing supplied the screenwriter (Paddy Chayefsky) with many cogent observations of human behavior. If you haven’t seen the film, it is definitely worth the viewing.

Having never been in the military, I cannot speak from my own experience of battle, but I do think that in recent years our leaders have been too cavalier in sending our young men and women into war. In the end, it is thousands of ordinary people and their families who pay the highest price for war. Here is a poem I wrote several years ago after attending the memorial service for a Viet Nam vet whose remains were among the last of the MIA’s to be returned to the States:



A World Apart
by Charles Kinnaird

I saw the man as his knees buckled
With the 21 gun salute.
It must have been his wife
Who caught him
And supported him
While the rest of the shots rang out.

He only wanted to honor his fallen comrade
Whose dog tags and bone fragments
Lay in a coffin
After 15 years missing-in-action.

Only a couple of years older than I,
He was raised in a town much like mine.
But his instinctive response to the gunshots
Showed me that we were a world apart.

Rice patties
Napalm
Agent Orange
Gunfights in the middle of the night
Marked the difference in our worlds.
Having to live on high alert without knowing the enemy,
And smelling death at every turn
Helped create his world apart from mine.

Even so,
There is kinship
In our widely divergent lives.
There is a shared grief,
A commonality of tears,
Unrequested darkened days,
And gratitude for a woman's touch
That unites us in our world apart.




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Sunday, January 3, 2010

You Can’t Go Wrong with Figgy Pudding


I was in my late 20’s when I first tried traditional fig pudding at Christmas. I had grown up singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” when we did Christmas caroling, and there was that last verse, “Oh bring us some figgy pudding…” but I had no idea what I was singing about. The opportunity came when I was living under British rule. I was teaching English in Hong Kong at the time when it was still a Crown Colony of the United Kingdom. One Christmas, a gracious missionary lady served some of us American expatriates a fig pudding that she had prepared and steamed the old-fashioned way. Part of it was the novelty, but I truly loved the treat that followed our Christmas Day meal. I had come to love many things British during my stay overseas, and fig pudding was one of them.

Shortly after I returned to the States, I found a pudding mold in one of those up-scale kitchen boutiques in the shopping mall. I had to get it. (Did I mention that cooking is one of my great joys? It is like a kind of alchemy in which ordinary ingredients are transformed into something extraordinary.) I found a recipe for fig pudding and straightway put it to the test, even though it was in the middle of August. I introduced my new bride to the joys of figgy pudding. It was a great recipe and I repeated it on our first Christmas together. Fig pudding has been a tradition in our house at Christmas for the past 24 years.

A few years ago, I also came upon Julia Child’s recipe for “A Glorious Plum Pudding for Christmas” so I had to try that in my traditional pudding steamer mold. It had a spicier taste with cloves and cinnamon, and a zabaione sauce that is remarkable, but you shouldn’t touch if you are the designated driver. So for a couple of years, I offered our Christmas guests a sampling of both fig pudding and plum pudding.

This year, I discovered a recipe for figgy pudding in my prized “Laurel’s Kitchen” vegetarian cookbook. It required less steam time (2 ½ hours as opposed to 4), fewer eggs, and a few other interesting changes. I decided to try this recipe for Christmas this year. After I made the pudding, it turned out quite lovely in appearance but I began to panic. I realized that with its spices, it was going to taste more like the Christmas plum pudding, and less like the fig-newtony flavor of what I had been making. But the clincher was it didn’t seem to rise as much as I thought it should. I feared it was a flop. Then it hit me, Christmas dinner was approaching, and I was about to offer guests and untried recipe. I actually ran out and bought more eggs and made more bread crumbs thinking I would regroup and make my tried-and-true recipe, but alas, there was no time left. There were too many other things to be done. My wife assured me that everything would be fine, but I had that nagging fear that I would be caught in a Christmas failure, an anglophile disaster. But then there are those times when you have to put on your best face and proceed (a stiff upper lip as our British kin would say).

The day arrived. Getting the house in order and food prepared came right down to the wire. We were making those final preparations, and I was changing into my welcome-the-company-clothes just as the doorbell was ringing. We had 10 people (half of them in-laws!) around the table. Everyone enjoyed the holiday bounty and pleasant conversation. Then came the moment of truth when deserts were brought out. My daughter had brought a cheesecake, so that was our ace-in-the hole, and someone else brought a pecan pie (which no southern Christmas table should be without). But what about that figgy pudding – that thing which would add an Old World element to the season which some would sample for the first time – would it do the holiday justice? It was all heated up, sitting on the plate, hard sauce ready for the topping. I placed the dish on the table and made the first slice. I was relieved that at least it looked just the way a steamed pudding should look, but how would it taste? Plates were passed around to all who wanted to experience it, then I took a bite from my serving …the texture was just right… and pure traditional Christmas pudding flavor (no it wasn’t like the one I had always made before, but it was good, none the less). My relief was complete. Later, when an in-law asked to take some home, I knew that success was achieved.

I’m glad there was no disaster, and no offense registered to the British Isles, but I don’t think I’ll try serving anything again without a test-run first. I’m just not used to living life so close to the edge.





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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Common Good vs. Corporate Greed: the Dilemma of Healthcare in America

Part of the healthcare debate in the U.S. has been the question of whether healthcare in a right or a privilege. This is the wrong question, and is often laden with hot-button issues. The real question is what is good for society? My take on it is that there are three basic things that make a society function well:

1. Access to education
2. Access to transportation
3. Access to healthcare

If these things are in place for the population, then you have an educated workforce ready to do the job, able to get to work and healthy enough to contribute to society. You don’t have to decide if healthcare is a right or a privilege, but it becomes obvious that optimal health for all citizens benefits the whole of society. The same is true for education and transportation. If they are available to all, everyone benefits.

The problem in Washington D.C. is that corporations are spending millions on politicians to keep their own interests secure with little regard for the common good. When Medicare “reform” was enacted to cover prescription medications, the primary beneficiaries were the pharmaceutical companies, not the Medicare recipients. The way healthcare “reform” is shaping up now in congress, it will benefit no one except the insurance companies. Insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies are no more to be trusted than the “fat cat” bankers when it comes to the good of the people.

I am a healthcare worker in favor of healthcare reform that will allow universal access to healthcare. Since we are seeing ever-increasing unemployment and the advent of the global market, it is wrong to place the onus on the individual people, requiring that they buy health insurance (if you are out of a job, requiring you to buy insurance is not going to solve the healthcare problem). It is also wrong to require businesses to furnish insurance when they must compete with international companies who do not have to figure the cost of healthcare into their product.

Therefore, the amalgam of ideas masquerading on the Hill as healthcare reform should be scrapped. It makes much more sense to extend Medicare to all citizens who are not covered by Medicaid. The current legislative proposal seems to favor the insurance companies, just as the financial “bailout” only favored the banks, and Medicare reform favored the pharmaceutical companies.

One is reminded of the words of Ebenezer Elliot (1781-1849) borrowed by Stephen Schwartz in "Godspell":

When wilt Thou save the people?
O God of mercy, when?
Not kings and lords, but nations,
Not thrones and crowns, but men!
Flowers of Thy heart, O God, are they;
Let them not pass, like weeds, away;
Their heritage a sunless day:
O God, save the people!

We could change the phraseology today to ask, when will we begin to care for people (including the working class, the poor, the sick and unemployed) rather than favoring corporations, banks, and politicians (the kings, lords, thrones, and crowns of our day).




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Friday, January 1, 2010

The Play Is the Thing


There is something about a good drama. Live theater can have a remarkable effect upon members of the audience. The power of drama and its influence was brought home to me recently while watching a film biography of Pope John Paul II. I learned that the young Karol Wojtyla was a member of an underground drama company (called the Rhapsodic Theater) in Poland before he began considering the priesthood. His mentor had been encouraging him toward the priesthood when at one point young Wojtyla realized the he could make a positive change in the world by being a priest. Prior to that point he had been assuming that drama would be the way to effect positive change in his world.

Upon hearing that drama had been Pope John Paul’s first choice for positive change, I tried to imagine what drama must have meant to him and his colleagues living in Poland under Nazi occupation. Immediately I remembered hearing about an acting company in Serajevo during the Bosnian War in Yugoslavia. Even amid the fighting and bombing that completely disrupted that once grand city, the actors were determined to continue, and the people were determined to see that the plays went on. Furthermore, consider Czechoslovakia. When the communist Soviet Bloc fell apart, whom did the Czechoslovakians choose as their first democratically elected president? It was a playwright, Vaclev Havel.

What is it about a play? Why is drama so important? I think that a good play helps us to visualize what life can be like. It is one thing to talk about how things are, or how they could be, but it is another thing to illustrate life with a good drama. For the ancient Greeks, drama was a central act of community religious life. Their plays provided both instruction and catharsis (Now it’s making more sense that a noble young aspiring actor would eventually become Pope).
Drama has a universal appeal. Every culture has its own unique forms of dramatic re-creation. When Black Elk, the Lakota medicine man, was young, he had dream that was a visionary message to his people. As was the shamanic custom among his people, Black Elk staged a play. He called the community together and directed the people in acting out his dream in order to bring the power of the vision into the world. It seems that everyone knows that the play is the thing.

Even today in modern U.S. society, drama plays a vital role. While we have an abundance of live theater, perhaps most people are more familiar with the drama in film and television. We have seen how drama can highlight social concerns and can illustrate our hopes and values. A few years back, it was said of the TV drama West Wing, “This is the President we wish we had.”

I think we can still find instruction and catharsis in our modern drama. There is still that hope that through dramatic illustration, we can make a positive change in the world. There remains the idea that if we act out the vision, we can make it a reality. The medium still works for us today. Unfortunately, whereas in the past drama may have been used to illustrate the tragedy of hubris or misplaced honor, today on our TV sets we often use drama to illustrate the tragedy of carrying cash instead of traveler’s checks.




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Avatar

I spent New Years Eve at the movie theater with my daughter who is on college break. We went to see “Avatar” which we both thoroughly enjoyed. I went not expecting much more than impressive state-of-the-art special effects. What I saw was a most important message for our time. Yes, there were some very impressive special effects (in 3D), there was a lot of action and some shooting and bombing. But the message, not to spoil any of the story for those who haven’t seen it, was the importance of respect for indigenous people and care for the environment (as opposed to displacing people and mowing down nature just to extract needed resources. I was very much reminded of “The Mission” as I watched “Avatar.”

Years ago, I was a fan of the TV show M*A*S*H. In recent years, I have looked wistfully at that show thinking that such a liberal ant-war humanitarian message would not be made in Hollywood today - the public wouldn't buy it. With the success of “Avatar” I have a new hope that the message of caring and compassion is being welcomed by the public.

If you haven’t seen it, go see it. If you agree or disagree with this post, add a comment.




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