Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Blitzer in North Korea: Writing from the Tinderbox

Far be it from me to critique a man who has more journalistic experience (and probably talent) in his left pinky fingernail than I in total. Far be it from me to take digs at a CNN journalist who just spent six days in North Korea. I don't have the  experience or credentials necessary to take a sarcastic look at the writings of one so well-traveled and seasoned. But it's never stopped me before, so why let it now?

I read an article of his today that actually made me laugh for lack of tears. Does this man not have editors? Does he even proofread himself? And how can one so well-spoken and clearly well-educated (poor performance on Jeopardy notwithstanding) write what I'm about to discuss? 

To follow is an examination of the article I ready this morning.

Pyongyang, North Korea (CNN) -- The Korean Peninsula is a tinderbox. One miscalculation can quickly lead to all-out war and hundreds of thousands of military and civilian casualties on both sides. Millions of North and South Koreans live very close to the DMZ.

True enough, if vague.

The North also has a million heavily armed troops on their side of the DMZ; the South nearly has many. There are also nearly 30,000 U.S. troops along the frontier with thousands of artillery pieces and missile launchers facing each other. The North is widely believed to be building a nuclear arsenal.

I believe this is the most dangerous spot on Earth right now.

Because Sudan, The Ivory Coast, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan are so last year.

We certainly packed a lot into six days here.

This sentence reads like "What I Did On My Summer Vacation, by John Radley, Grade 5"

After receiving our visas at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, we arrived on Thursday, December 16, on a regularly scheduled North Korean commercial flight from Beijing on Air Koryo flight 252.

Thank you for specifying.

It was a newish Russian-made Tupolev 204-300 aircraft and a very smooth 90-minute flight accompanied with patriotic music and a video showing the heroic struggle of the North Korean people. The attractive flight attendants wore red suit jackets and white gloves.

So much smoother than the less advanced Tupolev 203-299

We flew back to Beijing on Tuesday, December 22, a day after our original plan because of an incredibly thick fog. The flight back was on Air China flight 122, a Boeing 737. The flight attendants did not wear white gloves.

Again, thanks for being specific - but Tuesday was actually December 21st. I know, because it was yesterday. 

Pyongyang airport is very small. It has only two or three flights a day to only a handful of destinations. This is not a very busy airport.

Thank you for the added clarification.

CNN Beijing-based photographer Miguel Castro and I were covering the visit here of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations experienced in Korean diplomacy. Sharon LaFraniere, a Beijing-based correspondent for The New York Times, was the only other journalist invited by Richardson and approved by North Korea to cover this trip.
Richardson was joined by his senior adviser, Tony Namkung, who's been to North Korea 40 times going back to 1990. He is very impressive with a wealth of knowledge about both Koreas, China and Japan. 

He is very impressive.

Also joining Richardson was Gilbert Gallegos, his deputy chief of staff; Gay Dillingham, chair of the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board; and State Police officer Mo Arteaga.

Why were they there? And were they worth mentioning? 

The North Koreans took our passports, return flight tickets and cell phones upon arrival at the airport. They returned everything when we were about to board our flight back to Beijing.
I think it's fair to say we all had an eye-opening experience. It was a roller coaster of emotions -- ranging from real fear of war on the Korean Peninsula to relief that the North had stepped back from the brink and even accepted some of Richardson's proposals.
Maybe Richardson had played a positive role in calming down his hosts, including the chief nuclear negotiator, First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan; the new Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ri Yong Ho; the military officer in charge of the armistice and Demilitarized Zone, Major Gen. Pak Rim Su; and the country's Vice President, Kim Yong Dae.
We arrived convinced the Korean Peninsula was on the verge of a war, the worst crisis since the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.

I wouldn't call the armistice the crisis. I think the crisis was more to do with everything prior to the armistice. But that's just one man's opinion.

This was my first visit to North Korea, though I had been to South Korea, the DMZ and China. 

And you've been to Kuwait, Iraq, Canada, even perhaps North Dakota. It is no less your first time in North Korea.

When Richardson called me and asked me if I wanted to go with him, I immediately accepted and am glad I did. I have known him for 20 years going back to his days in Congress -- long before he became U.N. ambassador and energy secretary during the Clinton administration.

Because this is relevant.

I was apprehensive going in, worried about whether I would actually get out. I was concerned that they would shut the airport if war erupted, and I would be stuck inside North Korea. I even began wondering about the prospects of driving across the North Korea-China border if necessary. Was that even doable?

Driving from where, your jail cell?

Every time I heard some martial music on North Korean television and radio, I wondered whether the regime was preparing the country for war. I've covered wars and other dangerous situations over the years and usually go through a before, during and after cycle -- nervous before I leave about all the worst case scenarios; not all that worried while on assignment because my adrenaline is pumping and I'm in the midst of a big story; but wondering after the trip whether I should do it again.

And yet here we are.

Covering this story brought back memories of my early overseas assignments in the Middle East in the '70s and '80s: no internet, no cell phone, no Blackberry.

Because cell phones and Blackberrys were huge in the '70s and '80s. HUGE.

I had a hard-line phone in my Pyongyang hotel room and could make outgoing calls to the United States at about $10 a minute. (No credit cards accepted; only cash and only crisp bills.) I could not receive incoming calls from the United States.

Well duh.

They would not let us broadcast live via satellite but we took hundreds of still pictures and shot about eight hours of video which we are now going through. Get ready to see the best on CNN and
I did get CNN International in my hotel room -- Zain Verjee, Anjali Rao and Richard Quest never looked better -- but no newspapers.

They appreciate the plug.

Still, six days isolated without e-mail or a cell phone; it was quite a transition for me, but I sort of got used to it and even liked it. I had 983 e-mails waiting for me when I eventually got back to Beijing.

Wolf Blitzer says: "I'm important."

The hotel and elite restaurant food was very good, especially if you like Korean food. 

This is a foregone conclusion. I don't suppose they have many Irish pubs.

I stuck with scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast; chicken soup and white rice and steamed veggies for lunch; and usually some grilled Korean chicken or fish for dinner.

I'll take note.

We had North Korean officials with us all the time -- and I mean all the time. They spoke English well and were very intelligent, polite and even nice. 

Polite AND nice.

I never felt threatened. They had a job to do, and we understood. Let's not forget this is a communist, totalitarian regime.
We were restricted as to where we could go, what we could film and to whom we could talk. They want to showcase the best and keep us way from the worst. We constantly pressed for more access and they sometimes relented. Sharon from The New York Times was especially persistent and her efforts occasionally paid off.
Still, we saw a lot of the North Korean capital and even managed to get into the countryside to see a huge apple and fruit-tree orchard where thousands of farmers work what the orchard director said were some 2.2 million trees. That number seemed exaggerated but whatever it was, it was impressive.
Once you get outside Pyongyang, you see very few cars on the roads. People are walking along the sides of the roads; some are riding bikes. It's eerie being in the only car on the road. This is a very poor country. 
Even as we feared there could be a war, we were taken to a silk thread factory where 2,000 women work diligently. We rode the jam-packed subway system from Prosperity Station to Glory Station. We went shopping -- again cash only and only crisp U.S. dollar bills. They really don't like the old, wrinkled bills.

Shopping in "the most dangerous spot on Earth" should be a story in and of itself, don't you think?

We spent one afternoon with well-dressed students at Kim Il Sung University and later at a foreign language high school where very bright 16-year-olds were learning English complete with American slang. I heard one student say: "That's very cool." He wasn't referring to the weather. 

So that's what "cool" means in slang. Thanks again for clarifying.

We saw the computers at their national library. They were decent but not state of the art.

Ya' think?

There's a huge music room at the library where people can simply listen to CDs of great artists. When I was there, they played a Kenny Rogers song for me. He apparently is very popular here.
They also took us sightseeing. We saw their Arc de Triumphe (supposedly bigger than the one in Paris); their huge stone tower (apparently taller than the Washington Monument); and their sports complex complete with indoor and outdoor stadiums and ice skating rink.
I saw the North Korean girls' ice hockey team jogging one afternoon and briefly caught up with them. They laughed as I ran with them -- probably thinking who is this crazy foreign person carrying a little hand-held camera.

Ya' think?

Later, when it looked like the North Koreans would retaliate for South Korea's live-fire military exercise, I thought of these girls and all the young people I had seen in North Korea. They seemed so vulnerable, and I worried about their fate if there were a war. I'm not embarrassed to say I got sentimental and emotional worrying about them and their counterparts in South Korea.
Huge pictures of the late Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, and his son, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, were all over the place. I didn't see pictures of the next generation's expected leader, Kim Jong Un.
Electricity is a huge problem in North Korea. It was bitter cold outside. Indoor heat is at a premium. The students were in the classrooms wearing their warm overcoats. The rooms were not well-lit.
There were no lights in the tunnels on the roads outside the North Korean capital.
Outsiders have been predicting its demise for 60 years, but I didn't get the impression this country was on the verge of crumbling.

And yet - it's the most dangerous place on Earth.

We were not taken to the Yongbyon nuclear facility or their side of the DMZ even though we and Richardson repeatedly asked. The North Koreans pointed out this was an especially tense time. They said I could come back on another occasion and perhaps visit these places.

Yes, "come see our Nuclear Arsenal at a more convenient date." You take them up on that Wolf. 

By the way, 2012 is going to be a huge year for North Korea. That's the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung. The North Koreans are preparing major events. Since they invited me back, I might go back then; maybe even sooner though I hope it won't be to cover a war. See above.

Did I mention that I'm worried about the children?   

Among other things, yes.

I don't mean to downplay the serious undertones of this article. Yes, we should all be worried about the children. But can we do them some justice by learning to edit a little?

Not that I'm not guilty of any of the above crimes. But then - I'm not writing for CNN either.

Stick to the anchor desk Wolf, it's what you're good at. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Remote Control Meltdown

Every November I sit down and make a Christmas list. This list comprises of three tiers:

1) Immediate family (those with whom I am in frequent contact).

2) Close friends

3) Coworkers and Other Peripherals (Yes, this is what it's called on my list. I've never told anyone that until now. And, if you are reading this and you are a coworker, please be advised that you probably fall into tier 2. This is a blanket statement.)

Tier 1 is where I will begin the focus of this post. 

Every member of Tier 1 usually has a set list of five items that include (without being specific) "book," "movie," "snow globe," "appliance," etc... Naturally, my mother falls into Tier 1. And for some reason, every year I have a strange compulsion to buy her electronics. I seem to make it my personal mission to buy the woman who has little interest in state-of-the-art gadgets - the latest state-of-the-art gadgets. 

Whereas others in Tier 1 normally have items on their list that include "new Bill Bryson" or "Polly Pockets," Mom's list usually comprises of items such as "upgraded shielded HDMI cables," "touch-screen iPod," and "wireless router." 

This year, I decided to upgrade Mom to wireless TV. I plan to do this in stages, and I thought I would start simple. Stage one was to be a BluRay player with WiFi so she could watch her Netflix instantly without purchasing OnDemand movies or dealing with discs. I had a mission. I chose to accept. 

During my annual Amazon Christmas buy-a-thon, (in which 85% of my Christmas list is purchased in a coffee-fueled frenzy on my bed in my pajamas - it happens every year) I ran across a net-ready BluRay player. It was a reputable brand and was well-reviewed. I added it to my cart. I might also mention that I tiqued the little "gift" box that means it will arrive in a cheap Christmas wrap-designed cardboard box with a ribbon painted onto it. The wrapping sucks - but at least the recipient, if delivered to their house, does not know what's in the box.

It did not come in said Christmas cardboard. It arrived in its manufacturer's box, and after work one day I found it on Mom's breakfast table in the kitchen. She had seen it, so I just asked her to close her eyes while I handed it to her again with a cheap bow on top. And while I was not at ALL interested in playing with it myself, I offered to hook it up to her on the spot. 

That was when I discovered it required a WiFi receiver. Otherwise, I would need to drag an ethernet cable through the living room, down the hall, and to her router. This would not fly with Mom. 

So a few days later I ventured into the mass hysteria that is Wal-Mart during Christmas season and bought her a wireless receiver. When I came home, I plugged it in. It didn't work. So I plugged it into my laptop, downloaded the necessary items, put in Mom's WiFi password, unplugged it, plugged it back into the BluRay - and it was online! 

That was when I discovered that Netflix was not built in. Apparently, these things have to be built in. Sure, I could view Picasa - but why? Does anyone use that anymore? And AccuWeather - yes, I could turn on the BluRay player just to check the weather, because it's just so convenient. But - oh no - while in the cities list I could find Savannah, Columbia, or the other Charleston, there was no Charleston, South Carolina. And therefore no Summerville. Might I also mention there was a NORTH AUGUSTA? Oh - and there was YouTube. Yes, there could be hours of entertainment looking at videos of dogs riding skateboards - which can be done anyway on one of many items in this house. But no Netflix. Damn it all, I was determined to do this one thing for Mom for Christmas. If she would have little else from me, she would be able to watch movies on her TV at a moment's notice. 

So I decided I would regift this BluRay to yours truly, and go out to find one that was Netflix ready. Today, I found such BluRay player. It was Netflix ready. In theory, it was also wireless-capable. (On later investigation, I discovered that the Best Buy associate who told me this was either lying or misinformed). But no worries - I still had the wireless receiver. Finally - Mom could watch her movies. My Christmas present idea would finally come to fruition. 

So I hooked the thing up, and all was well with the world. Until the remote control didn't work. It didn't even work a little. No problem, I thought. It appeared to be a universal remote. Codes are easy to find. Well, not only could I not find the BluRay codes, I couldn't even find clear instructions on programming that remote. 

So I called Geek Squad, as I purchased two years' protection. I was told to either take it back, or buy a universal remote. Feeling the need to purchase another cable anyway, I headed back out to Wal-Mart. On Friday night. A week before Christmas. I muddled through the mayhem and came home with a mackdaddy state-of-the-art universal remote. The thing can actually learn from other remotes. 

I plugged it into my laptop via USB, and discovered that the website didn't like Safari. So I switched to Firefox. It didn't care for that either. So I opened up the slow, user-unfriendly, dusty Internet Explorer. I said "no" to all of its personalization demands, repeatedly told Yahoo that I didn't want its toolbar, navigated through the personal settings, and finally got to the right page. I finally got to the place where I needed to be. I entered the model number of the BluRay player, and it seemed to be fine. It was all too easy. I unplugged the remote, and could hear drumrolls in my head. 

Guess what? 

It didn't work. 

It can power the BluRay player on and off, can even switch between main menu and Netflix - but that's where the functionality ends. I can't even use the "enter" key. So I called Sharp support. Apparently, non-computer-related issues need to wait until Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm Pacific time for human help.

Determined to watch Mom scroll through Netflix items at her leisure, I was not giving up yet. Last attempt - I decided to try to program the TimeWarner Cable universal remote's Auxiliary button. After not finding any BluRay codes for Sharp - anywhere - I downloaded the remote's schematic. It appears it was designed before Sharp had BluRay players.

Dismayed, I decided I would take the remote back to Best Buy on Sunday. Wish me luck. 

After all this - maybe an hour ago - I sat down in the living room, defeated, scrolling through my friends' Facebook statuses. And one of them caught my attention. It was an update from an old friend who is a funeral director. This woman has perhaps the whip-quick sharpest sense of humor of anyone I know. She has always adeptly used this humor to express herself, and so when I saw the following, my frantic Amazon carting, frenzied Wal-Mart trips, remote control meltdowns and Best Buy excursions were put into perspective.

"Recipe for the weepies: funeral of a friend + hearse with Bing Crosby on the radio + apparently not enough dosage of antidepressants = verklempt Bethy...".

Nearly two years ago my Dad died. I plan to write a post for him soon, when I get up the nerve. So now I can only ask myself - how did I forget?

Merry Christmas everyone. The remote control is not that important. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Here We Go...

Okay folks, here we go... the prologue has been released. The Unborn Child arrives. Click on "Here We Go" to get there.

Again - it ain't that great - which is probably the best reason of all to put it out there and move on. If you do elect to read it, please feel free to critique as much as you like, via comments or email. I would like to try to use this as a learning experience, if nothing else.

Thanks for your patience, your time and your criticism. It's all much appreciated.

First Corinthians 13:11

I've bored you all with rants and whines about The Devil's Footprints. I've promised to release it repeatedly. This is nothing new, I've been saying it to myself for years. But a few months ago, I finished it. And I hate it. Though I love it.

I've struggled with defining what the driving force behind this story is. Is it about characters to whom a set of events is happening? Or is it about an event that people are caught in? Is it a set of ideas illustrated by a plot, or is it a story with a theoretical footnote? Somewhere in the debate, between self-proposal and self-rebuttal, I lost control over my own story.

Was I squeezing in so much plot that I focused too precisely on the whirlwind sweeping away my heroes? Should I instead have drawn a concise picture of the whirlwind through the reactions of my characters? And should my characters by defined by their thoughts and actions, or by their reaction to their environment and relationship to the others? I'm just too close, too involved. It's a house that's been remodeled past the point of resembling the original structure. I look through the windows of the house, through the glass darkly and wonder what happened to the source material.

It's trapped me. I've spent years walking in circles, writing and rewriting characters who were doing exactly that. In many respects I illustrated much of my own theme by never bringing the thing to completion. I started it nearly fifteen years ago, and when I could have moved on to more serious projects, spent time polishing my writing skills, I've instead lingered on to the perpetually unfinished story I would never conceive of writing now.

As more and more ideas stack up behind the dam I've built, I realize now that it's time to open the sluices. Today I'll be setting up a blog for The Devil's Footprints. I'll publish the prologue this evening, and let that first part go, feed it to the eRiver and be done with it. As I let it go, piece by piece, it'll be gone. I can't go back and change it.

I don't know if it's good or bad. I'm not even sure if I care. Maybe I'll care again as I put it together, this childish plastic model that's been collecting dust in my closet. Once I hang it on the wall, I can admire it or use it to see how far I've come at a later date. My family will pin it to their refrigerators, and I will forever fight the urge to delete it.

By telling you that it's not good, I am not preempting. I am not fishing. I am stating a fact. But that I've worked so long on it, to its credit or detriment, is reason enough to put it out there.

It's time to put away childish things.

On Michael Vick's Miraculous Personal Turnaround

Man's Loyal Best Friend
In August 2007, NFL Quarterback Michael Vick plead guilty to dog fighting charges. He was sentenced to prison, and lamented his financial losses.

The Poor guy, he's said to have lost everything. This includes his six luxury houses in Virginia, Georgia and Florida, and  ten luxury cars. And of course he had Bad Newz Kennels, and all the extra needed income that provided. Yes, it's tough when economic realities force one to work a second job.

Two years later, upon his release from prison, a "reformed" Michael Vick was signed on with the Philadelphia Eagles. He lamented the error of his ways, and is now showing a kinder, gentler Michael Vick, a Michael Vick that doesn't raise his middle finger to the fans who support him, shortly before being investigated for animal torture.

Last night it was said to me that we shouldn't impose our cultural values on the cultures of others, that this is common in the deep south. It was said that in China, people eat dogs, that we can't pass judgment. Well, I happen to eat cows and chickens, so no, I do not pass judgment on a culture that eats dogs.

She Was Dependent On Her Owner
But there is no excuse for torturing and maiming animals. Just as being in the deep south was never an excuse for beating or raping one's wife, or  having slaves. It's not as if those in the deep south are never exposed to the rest of the world. And someone who had six houses and ten cars does not strike me as a victim of cultural one-sidedness.

For anyone who is unsure about how dog fighting works, I'll give you a brief rundown. Puppies are brought in or bred from existing animals. Their aggression is fostered and nourished. Other animals, often stolen pets or animals taken from "free to a good home" ads are brought in as fodder. Their muzzles are duct-taped closed to prevent injury to the half-starved fighter-in-training. The dogs are let loose on the animal. In fortunate situations, death for the bound creature is fast. Not so for the champion dogs.

Anyone who does not believe that dogs experience emotion in a very similar fashion to us, has not spent a great deal of time around one. They can be loving, gentle animals. But as animals, (like us), they have an aggressive, survival-mode side. This serves its purpose when not domesticated, but not when harnessed for the sole purpose of gambling.

So Michael Vick raised these dogs, starved them, set them loose on smaller animals for training, then set them against each other and rival dogs, let them tear each other apart. He gambled on this. He placed money on the animals that depended on him for food and shelter. And he let them kill each other for the entertainment of others.

A Champion
It has now been a little over three years since Michael Vick's conviction. He has said that what he did was reprehensible. He has apologized time and time again.

Clearly, those who follow football are impressed with his comeback and his fans are showing a remarkable ability to forgive and forget. Either that, or their memories are just very, very short.

So in three years, has Vick really and truly turned his life around? Does he regret the pain and suffering he caused so many animals?

Will Michael Vick prove to be a champion of animal rights and humanitarianism?

I won't hold my breath.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Labor Pains (My Unborn Child, Part II)

With many apologies for being away from the blog for some time now, I thought I might explain why. As some of you who read this blog on a regular basis (by some I really do mean all six of you) know, I have another side project. When I have had a chance to write lately, I've focused on my Unborn Child. Now fully three-quarters the way through, (the farthest I've ever reached), I'm getting labor pains.

I've toiled over this thing for so long now, I have a hard time remembering much about this story in its original form. Eighty percent of the work I've done on it has been pondering, rethinking, re-plotting, and pondering some more. Very little of this time has actually been spent writing, until this past year.

As I've fleshed it out, it's evolved. You see, something happens when I sit down to write. I find myself completely immersed in the story. My laptop screen becomes a window through which I can dive into a  different world. Outside noises either escape my notice, or, when they do, send me a foot in the air when they startle me. It's quite the zone - characters seem to act of their own accord, events happen that I didn't outline, and events that were outlined suddenly don't make sense as they unfold, so I let the story evolve itself. And then I close my laptop after a two or three-hour session, and reflect on the characters and the day's writing, and end up jotting notes right before I get into bed on what should be different. I spend the last few minutes of each night outside pondering it some more. I think about it on the way home from work. And then I sit down again, and these characters, who I think I know so well, go and do something completely out of character and I go back to the drawing board. It always seems as if they're in conflict with the outlines in my notebook.

But here's the thing - I don't actually think it's that good. I think I may have over-complicated it, over-thought it. I mean, it has its merits, it has its moments, but I've been working in it for too damn long. I'm now finishing it simply to see it through. And while I don't really think it's that great, it's still very important to me. I no longer  have any intention of trying to publish it, at least in the traditional sense - if I were a visual artist, I wouldn't want to sell my first painting.

And let me be frank - this is a fantasy. It's not the wizard-fire dragon-breath kingdoms and swords type of fantasy, as it takes place pretty much in the here and now - but it's still fantasy. I refuse to make much use of the word magic, but there's plenty of magic. I didn't want there to be castles and dragons, but there are towers and creatures. I didn't want there to be monsters, but it has demons. I didn't want it to be a preachy morality tale, but it does have themes. I didn't want to approach my views of spirituality and let them influence the story, but if I'm to be honest, it's all about my views on spirituality. This is a collage of sorts of all my lives since those lost years in Columbia. I'm really not convinced I want to write fantasy after this, but when I started it that was what I wanted to do.

Jamie, David, Seamus, Marissa, and Nora; Marlan, Nikola, Amantha, Nikolas and Roia; Simon, Marcus, David, Patricia and Conroy - these characters have been with me for so long now I'm ready to let them go and live their lives on some page that does not exist in my brain. A few, such as Jamie, David, Michael and James have been in my head since the beginning. Others have jumped on the train as it hobbled along on broken tracks through the years. I'm ready to give them wings, as my Mom has said of my sister and me.

As I said, I have no real intention of publishing this, as it would need so much work as to be completely rewritten. But it will always be my first child. So how do I plan to give my baby wings? I'm going to blog her.

My goal is to have this done in October. To do that, my friends and family will have to understand that for a while, my child will come before trivia. I am going full steam ahead now, lungeing for the end of the tunnel. Once I think it's done, and then when I can finally declare it done, once and for all, I will create a separate blog for it. Once a week I'll post another segment. You can comment all you like, or you can remain silent and simply either enjoy it or laugh at it for the disjointed mess that I think it may have become. I'm okay with either, because this is my child, and even if it has a face only a father can love, it will always be mine.

Once it's over, I plan to begin writing seriously. I've discovered that this is what I want to do more than anything else in life. I can create a world and live in it freely and fully, even if only vicariously through my keyboard. But this work has given me more fulfillment than any job that generates a paycheck.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Church and Me

Greetings from the 'sphere! I'm sorry to have been absent for so long - I've experienced a renewed focus in my Unborn Child and have decided once and for all to get this thing out of me. I'm nearly a third of the way through, due in part to my self-imposed deadlines to get chunks of the story to a good friend for review, (and soon another good friend for literary critique - though he doesn't know it yet).

I've barely logged into Facebook, I haven't posted a Tweet for days, and even had a week off of my story this week to focus on my other love - trivia. But by tomorrow night I will be a third of the way through it - or at least the skeleton.

This story is largely about faith - the desire for faith, the need to believe, the rationalization of the equally terrible and wonderful aspects of life - not faith in any one specific direction, but a study on faith itself, and what it can create for us. And as this allegory exits my brain and orders itself on paper, it has started teaching me as well, as I look at this thing that's been in my head from an outsider's perspective.

This story has brought to the surface all the vastly opposing, contradictory feelings I have for the Church. And while I say Church as a single entity here, I know I'm making an enormous generalization - but Church is far easier to type repeatedly than the sterile term "organized religion."

The Church and I run hot and cold - we have had our differences, but periodically I find myself returning to it. It's always a new experience, sometimes boring, sometimes insightful, sometimes refreshing - but it's never the same experience twice, probably because what you get out of it depends on what you put into it. (There are those very faithful that will stalwartly tell you otherwise, but that's another blog).

Some of my earliest memories of having a religious experience occurred at Lutheridge. This is a Lutheran Summer camp that I attended from around 8 years old through high school. It was at this mountain retreat in North Carolina that I first learned to equate the Devine with nature. We were taught to see Holiness in sunsets and sunrises, in the freezing cold creeks of the Appalachian mountains to the white water of the French Broad River, to the simple hikes to our meals. We were taught to find love and warmth in song and dance, and to appreciate those feelings as a gift. Because of Lutheridge, I understood the idea of divinity manifesting itself to us all the time if we just stop and listen, as at sunset Vespers and Morning Watch in the cold, dewy grass of this mountain refuge.

This feeling of harmony with nature, this finding of God in that harmony was a stark contrast to Sunday church services with my Grandmother. There you were to stand when you were told to stand, sit when you were told to sit, sing when you were told to sing. During Sunday School we would make crosses out of popsicle sticks and hear stories of Jesus' miracles. There was no spirituality here, only what had always been done.

Then there were those times I was on my own, walking through the woods, playing in the Saluda River, biking for hours with nothing but me and my thoughts and the world around me seeming at a distance. It was during these times that I could sometimes stop for a moment and recall those feelings at Morning Watch - there was divinity in the air around me. This was always a passing feeling, and only a few times in my life has it completely overwhelmed me as it seems to do to so many every Sunday. But it is a joyous feeling, this communion with the spiritual. It can't be brought on, but it happens from time to time.

And yet, for sixth and seventh grade I attended a Southern Baptist private school. Here I was taught that other religions were wrong, and that we were to either try to convince them to join the "correct path" or to pity them for their looming trip to eternal fire and brimstone. As a child who was searching for something - anything - I was easily swayed by revival weeks and prayer corners with school officials. My desire to fit in and believe overwhelmed my fear of telling anyone I was raised Lutheran. I even remember how one day in class the Science teacher was briefly touching on the world's religions. The subject of Lutheranism was raised, and a student asked "What do Lutherans believe?" The teacher actually told her that she didn't really know. I am not going to get into the birth of protestantism and why they are called "Lutherans" - but let's just say that the exchange between the Baptist teacher and student was at least a little ironic.

But discovering around the end of my seventh grade year that I was likely gay, I knew that if I told anyone I would either be expelled, told there was no hope for me, or prayed with for hours on end - likely all three. God loves everyone, as long as you are born attracted to the opposite sex, was my stance as I got older.

I swung from near Zealot to near completely anti-church within a year. I was disgusted by the fact that I was gay, felt tremendous guilt over it, but simultaneously hated the church for furthering myths about who I was. I saw the church as a hateful, judgmental establishment, aimed at growing membership - as long as those people fit into their societies. (Why are there still "black" churches and "white" churches? This astounds me).

It was a few years later that I discovered the predominantly-gay Metropolitan Community Church. If I didn't fit into the "straight" churches, I surely didn't fit in here. I went to three sermons and backed out. This is another story for another blog.

It was shortly after my brief run-in with the MCC that I began going off and on to the Unitarian Church. For years this seemed to fulfill my spiritual needs - all was okay here, all was accepted, we were all on our paths to find God as we saw Him or Her. I went back and forth to the Unitarian church for years, until I came to the conclusion that it was like drinking non-alcoholic beer. It filled a need for community, but spirituality was reduced to intellectual exercise. To me, this is just as bad as dissecting the divine with bureaucratic Dogma.

Now, as the ELCA has decreed it okay for non-celibate, monogamous gay men and women to serve as pastors, I'm raising an eyebrow once again to the Lutheran church. I'm tipping my toes in those waters once more, and may even go to church soon. I have no desire to mold my spiritual beliefs to fit a system. Like any relationship, this will have to happen organically.

One question I haven't directly addressed here is this - do I believe in God? Without going into my explanation (which is my own and no one else's) I say yes, I do. I firmly believe in a divine presence. There is no doubt here.

I do not have this belief because I need it. I have it because I believe it. But I don't feel the need to justify it to anyone else. I don't feel the need to justify it with myself. I don't need to point out the perfection that is nature, that is our majestic universe, to illustrate logic or illogic in any direction. Logic is as pliable as faith. They can work with each other or against each other, and they can negate each other. So where spirituality is concerned I choose to throw them both out the window, and simply believe. Anything beyond that is simply filling in the blanks, and we're all quite adept at filling in those blanks.

The Church and I have some mending to do in our relationship. But with faith, all things are possible.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Nanny State and The New Puritanism

Dame Edna was on CBS Sunday Morning last week. During the interview she referred to political correctness as "this new Puritanism." Such an incredibly on-target statement caught my attention, and reminded me of a blog I was planning to write several weeks ago, on the Nanny State. When Dame Edna made this remark, it struck me how interwoven these concepts are.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, "Nanny State" refers to over-protectionism and parental-like interference on the part of a governing body. Some would argue that seat belt laws fall within this category, although it's my belief that seat belt laws save the state hundreds of millions in health care each year - in this situation I believe there is logic behind the Nanny, so I tend to agree that there should be a law. What would however fall under Nanny State laws are those that prevent one from getting a tatoo - or purchasing alcohol on Sunday - or smoking marajuana. These are victimless crimes, and these laws do nothing but press the will of some onto the lives of others.

Blue Laws, for example, are textbook Nanny. In fact, they're often the most insidious type of Nanny laws. These are revenue generating laws - the cost of licensing, fines, added taxes, all revenue generators disguised as Nannies so more people would support them. This is a double-edged hypocritical sword that pains me when people can't see through it.

The bar on trans-fat in New York restaurants; the proposition that cigarette smoking become illegal in one's own home; mandates that bars close at a specific hour; these are Nanny doctrines that threaten to propel our country into a day care. A prime example was raised when my mother, when in Australia, discovered a sign in my Aunt's house that dictated the proper way to evacuate one's bowels. Mom blogged about this recently. In her entry she brought up the idea that this is not something that needs to be taught. This is a basic human function that we do quite naturally without the help of an illustrated (yes, illustrated) flyer. This is the end-product of the Nanny State: a population made to feel dumbed down to the point of receiving instructions on basic human functionality.

So what does this have to do with the New Puritanism? Absolutely everything.

When did we learn to fear words? When did it become not okay to refer to a black person as black? (I could take this argue further and ask why we need to define anyone by their ethnicity anyway - "race" wasn't even a term used until relatively recently, and will hopefully phase itself out as we blend as a world population - but I digress). Why does one have to be "African American?" I would imagine many black people find this term offensive. And what of white people from the African continent who immigrate to the US? Are they referred to as African American? What of blacks who move here from a continent other than Africa? Are they African American? Or would they be, say, African-Canadian-American? Where is the line drawn?

Then there is the term "people persons of color." This is just ridiculous. This is as much defining a person by their ethnic background as referring to someone by their ethnicity before profession (i.e. African American Lawyer or Asian News Anchor." This falls into the same category as "my woman-doctor" or "male teacher." By using these terms as defining characteristics we're perpetuating the myth of our differences by nature of background.

Politically correct speech is harmful much in the same way as Affirmative Action is inherently racist. I am not a Gay American. I am an American. I am not a European Male. I am a male. Who I am - who any of us are are defined only by that - who we are. However, if we need to identify someone and utilize their physical characteristics to do so, that is entirely different. If I am referring to a black salesperson so that I can get their name from someone else, there are those who find this offensive somehow. It would be the same if I were to ask for the woman wearing pink.

And while we tiptoe around the correct terminology, we avoid real, honest conversation. We become so afraid of offending anyone at all that we purposely stunt our communication and feelings. We subvert those feelings and they fester. The only way an honest conversation will ever occur is if we're not afraid of our words.

This goes both ways. I could care less if someone calls me a faggot. They do not define me by their words. My three closest friends are Jewish, Black, and Hispanic. None of them would care if a derogatory term were used in connection with their names, because they do not allow the uneducated to define them by irrelevant characteristics. Why are more people not like this? Those that tiptoe around terminology and those that profess their proud ignorance through slang are on the very same page, as far as I'm concerned.

It's time to stop obsessing over our differences - it's time to discuss them when appropriate, and move on. We're all much more alike than we are different. Tolerance goes both ways. In order to expect the intolerant to learn the error of their ways, we need to not expect them to dance around the issue. Otherwise we'll never discuss the issue, and we'll never move beyond it.

If we avoid the serious topics by dressing them up in pretty words and remain terrified of offending someone, we are headed to a new Victorian Age, a Puritanical Nanny State that wraps its xenophobia in an ornate cloak of the enlightened. It's not enlightenment. It's fear.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

What Hath God Wrought?

Easter is coming. And in the wake of the Easter Bunny (it's a rabbit that lays eggs - does no one find this disturbing?) are the decidedly creepy and arguably malevolent peeps.

A Peep Is Born

Peeps are not created. They are born. They are born of sugar, marshmallow, gelatin, and carnauba wax. Once the alchemy needed to fuse these ingredients into just the right proportions has been completed, the inanimate peeps are sent to a sealed vault where shadowy figures in dark robes incant what is necessary to breathe life into these little spawns. 
Carnauba wax, incidentally, is also found in Turtle Wax, cosmetics and shoe polish. It's refined from a plant native to northern Brazil - I often wonder who decided to apply the compound to sugar, marshmallow and gelatin. Did they have a clue as to what they were unleashing?

A Wolf In Peep's Clothing

What we feed our children is an increasingly debated topic - and rightly so. We seem deaf and blind, almost willingly, to public knowledge of hormones, pesticides and other carcinogens that lace factory food. That a thing tastes good is no longer a good enough argument for its consumption. That these "foods" such as fast food with mass-produced,carelessly butchered meat, and hormone-laden, long-shipped produce are more inexpensive than fresh produce and organic proteins is the tragedy. Parents are practically cornered into providing unhealthy sustenance filled with such nefarious and addictive compounds as high fructose corn syrup and MSG. 

Peeps, with their demonic friendly smiling faces, bright colors and cheerful packaging beckon the children to beg Mommy or Daddy to invite these ghastly menaces into their homes. They invade quietly. They sit in the cupboard, and they wait to be dispensed as a treat. The little Trojan horses can lie in wait for decades before showing any outward signs of aging. This beings me to my next point:

Peeps Are Forever

I've read that peeps are practically indestructible. Given my fear of hatred for these little harbingers of sugar and destruction, I had no issues with spending $1.56 of my hard-earned cash to test out a few methods of dispensing of the terror-chicks, and while doing so possibly find their Achilles beaks.

It turns out they come in three-packs of rows of five peeps fused together, looking as if they're about to march into battle. I took out my first row of victims and placed them on the counter. 

They look innocent, don't they? Don't be fooled. They were designed that way.  I pried the first one loose and decided my first test would be the microwave. What happens when you microwave a peep? I've heard it does nothing, but surely something must happen. 

There he was. I named this one Duke (after the arcade game Duke Nukem) and waved goodbye as I closed the microwave door and pressed 30 seconds. 
It began to grow after two seconds. Evading the possibility of a mutant peep on my hand, (or a really difficult mess in the microwave), I opened the door and removed it. The thing began to shrink back to its original size. Very little evidence was left to show its ordeal, though there were a few cracks that I'm sure, given time, would heal. 

Next I decided to test solubility. I prepared three spice dishes with water, acetone, and rubbing alcohol. I placed a peep in each dish. (I made Duke watch).

Guess what happened? Nothing, apparently. So I turned them upside down to review the damage to their undersides. There was none.
I turned them back up and they all seemed to be staring at me, taunting me. Then I thought - chlorine!
Again, nothing. Peeps, it turns out, are adept swimmers. 

So acetone, chlorine and alcohol have no discernible effects on peeps. Does anyone believe stomach acid or intestinal bacteria would have an effect? These harsh chemicals cannot dissolve these beasts - your body can't either. 

How To Stop Them

I cannot think of a way to stop these malicious marshmallows other than to tear them apart, bury them and salt the earth. 
Like so many items that line our grocers' shelves and calls us from the side of the road with happy colors and clowns, peeps are not food. I don't want to take the joy out of food, and understand parents often need food that is fast, easy and inexpensive. Let's just not fool ourselves (mega food manufacturers do that pretty well without our help) into thinking we are consuming food. General rule of thumb: if it comes wrapped in plastic and requires happy, fun, warm-fuzzy marketing, it should be little more than a rare treat. 

As human beings we are programmed to like food. We are programmed to know what's good and what isn't. If it takes chemicals to induce the right flavor, texture and aroma to entice us, or inviting plastic to catch our attention, then our bodies don't really want it. 

I say it again - bury the peeps. Bury them, and salt the earth! 

Happy Spring everyone.