Monday, April 29, 2013

Randomly Before I Go

I'm leaving this morning for a one and a half day gig as a Visiting Author.  This afternoon I'll be speaking at Webb School, a private K-12 school on the far side of Knoxville.  I'll be discussing For Freedom and Jefferson's Sons with their sixth and seventh grades.  Then I'll be making a return trip to Roberts Middle School, in Oak Ridge, to discuss the same two books, this time with the entire school.  I've got a few minutes of time this morning since my whole family had to get out the door early, except me.

1.  I haven't been doing as many Visiting Author trips as I used to.  I hope it's the economy, not that my stock has gone down.

2.  My daughter went to a birthday party yesterday.  She gave her friend a copy of one of my books as a gift. (We've gotten away with that trick for years.)  Her friend's Mom said something about my being an author, and another adult sidled up to my daughter and asked, "Published?"

3.  This completely cracked my daughter up, because it's the first question anybody ever asks me.  Both my daughter and I think that while the word "writer" can be somewhat ambiguous, the  word "author" implies published.

4.  No one at the schools I'm going to will ask me if I'm published.  Since they're middle schoolers, they probably won't ask me if I like hot dogs.  One kid, however is sure to ask how much money I make.  The teachers will pretended to be horrified even though they're secretly dying to know.

5.  The guy who works on my farm can not figure out why I'm going to talk at a school.  I've tried explaining, and he just shakes his head and says, "Well, Miss Kim, if that's what you'd like to do, go ahead."

6.  I went to a milestone wedding this weekend:  the first time that I was friends not with the bride, but with her parents.  The first time a bride has ever called me, "Mrs. Bradley."

7.  Those of us at Table Five at the wedding reception--five couples--were all on our first marriages, and had been married between 21 and 33 years.  We were rather proud of that.

8.  I've known the other couples from the time I moved to Bristol.  Kathy and I moved here the same year; the others were friends before that. 

9.  In time, we at Table Five will attend each other's children's weddings.  But since the children range in age from 13 to 20, we all hope it will be awhile. 

10.  My friend Diane snapped a photo with her phone of me raising a glass of wine at the wedding.  Then she put it on Facebook.  I now have one of those Facebook photos that make people nervous about hiring you.

11.  Fortunately, I'm self-employed.

12.  Although really, it's a good thing I got this Visiting Author gig before the photo went up.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Dog Is In Charge

Our neurotic ancient terrier mutt went berserk this morning.  It wasn't the first time.

The whole problem, the thing that upset his apple cart, was that my daughter, who's spending the night with a friend and going to the friend's house straight after school, came down the stairs carrying a suitcase.  She proceeded to put the suitcase into my van.

You can see how this might be upsetting.

Under Dog loses his marbles at the sight of a suitcase.  Always has, and, judging from this morning, always will.  He was around four months old when we rescued him from the parking lot of a CVS pharmacy (Hence his breed:  "CVS terrier."  It always kills us when people nod sagely and say, "Ah.  I've heard of those," as though he were some fancy-schmancy animal imported at great cost from the British Isles.).  He's thirteen now.  Not once in those thirteen years have we ever abandoned him after packing our suitcases.  Not once have we ever beat him with a suitcase.  Sometimes when we pack suitcases, we're taking him with us to our mountain house, which he loves.  Sometimes we're going on vacation, and we leave him at a very posh kennel where he gets to play with other dogs, which he loves.  Sometimes we're packing suitcases because my daughter is visiting a friend, and it really won't impact him at all.

He still freaks out.  Sometimes I think a Lizard Brain is all he's got.  Today he coped with his overwhelming feelings by jumping onto my office window seat and barking maniacally while the children drove away.  As they do every day.  Then he barked maniacally when the friend who boards his horse with us came to do morning chores.  As he does every day.  Then the dog ignored my husband's departure entirely, curled up in his bed, and took a nap.

While I was in the middle of writing the paragraph above, the phone rang.  It was my son calling from the high school.

Son:  Mom. You didn't buy me a yearbook.
(The school mails yearbook order forms in the fall; you mail back your check.)
Me:  I'm pretty sure I did.  I always do.
Son:  Nope.  (He sounds harassed.  He's a senior, and the yearbook is important to him.)
Me:  Well, can you buy one today?
Son:  Yep.
Me:  Ok, do that.  Do you have enough cash?
Son:  Nope.  It's seventy dollars.
(Seventy dollars!  I don't have that much cash, either.)
Me:  Will they take a credit card?  (He carries one.)
Son:  Nope.
Me:  Will they take a check?
Son:  Yep.  But you have to come now.

I am categorically against rescuing my children from their own problems.  Even when they were little, I tended to reply to cries of "You didn't remind me I needed my P.E. clothes today!" with, "Honey, I have no idea which days you have P.E."  However, this problem seemed to be mine, especially since I remembered telling my son more than once that, yes, of course I had ordered his yearbook.

Halfway to the school I realized I'd run out of checks in my wallet. 

Home again.

 School.  I am not the only parent standing in the office.  There's a line of adults and students both.  The school secretary deals with us sympathetically and quickly.  She pages both of my children from their homerooms, then turns to the kid behind me and says, "What, oversleep again?", scribbles him a note, moves on to the annoyed father holding a graduation cap and gown.  I step to one side and see that if I want a photo of my son in his cap and gown--those photos being taken today--my son needs a form and a check for fifteen dollars.  When my son shows up I give him two checks and an empty photo order form, tell him to fill out the form, and tell him, yes, I do want a photo of him in his cap and gown.  And I'm sorry about the yearbook.

Identical twin girls come in, looking slightly confused.  "What do you need, honey?" the secretary asks one of them.  "You called me," the girl says.  "No, honey I didn't," says the secretary.  But the girl's name is quite close to my daughter's, alphabetically, and I know that the school divides students into homerooms by alphabetical order.  I ask the girl if she's in my daughter's class.  The girl's expression clears.  "Oh, Bradley!" she says.  "On the intercom it sounded like broccoli, so we were guessing who you meant.  We'll get her."  She and her sister bounce out.

My daughter comes in, carrying an extra-large sweet tea from a local fast-food chain, Pal's.  Pal's sells gallons of sweet tea to the high school students every morning.  My daughter laughs when I give her the yearbook check.  She tells me the voice on the intercom sounded like it said broccoli.  She says her friend brought her the tea, and also a small cheddar rounds, which helps me understand how she never starves to death before lunch despite eating barely any breakfast at all.

I come home to my half-completed post.  If it were a normal morning--if I ever had such thing as a normal morning--I might draw a tidy conclusion to the parable of the dog and the suitcases, about how Under thinks he has something to fear, but doesn't really, and how he seems to think he's doing something constructive when he barks, but is really just ticking me off.  How he's not controlling his world despite his delusions.  There's a lesson in there, somewhere.

But I can't find it today.  Just now it seems like the dog might be right:  the best thing to do is bark your fool head off, and then go take a nap.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Good News

I went to my internist for a check-up this week and got good news and bad news.  My blood pressure is down.  My weight is up. 

Now of course I would like both of those things to be down.   But if I had to pick one?  I'd go with my blood pressure.  And I'm aware that flies in the face of all that is thought to be holy in our world.

I have a family history of high blood pressure and a personal history of borderline-to-high bp.  Some of my personal history was a side effect of a medicine I used to take, but not all; I've been paying attention and exercising specifically to keep my blood pressure under control.

My internist rather gleefully told me that I'd traded one problem for another, as a side effect of the medicine I switched to was weight gain, something he'd seen in "all of his patients" taking this particular med.  Great.  

But I gave up disliking my body for Lent, and it went so well that I've kept on.  I mean it.  I spent a lot of years ignoring my body entirely (I was thin in college, but I never realized it), and then several more disliking my soft belly and what a friend once called my "strong Germanic thighs."  But it got old, all that negative energy.  It grew tiresome.  It started to feel like the opposite of healing.  It was certainly the opposite of love.

And when I really stopped to think, I realized that my body is a trooper.  I've been told by three separate physicians that I was very lucky not to have died in my sleep from untreated asthma as a child, but here I am, alive.  My body kept breathing.  I didn't wear glasses and consequently had no depth perception as a child, but now--with the help of bifocals--I can hit a tennis ball well enough to rally with my daughter.  I will never be a runner, not with my asthma issues, but, by God, I am an eventer--and lately I've been having less breathing trouble, not more. 

I have good hands.  Strong hands--one of my superpowers is opening stuck jars.  I type fast, and I can knit plain in dark movie theaters or with my eyes closed. 

I rather like the silver strands running through my hair.  I have no plans to dye them.  I may start wearing hair ribbons again.

My body created, bore, gave birth to, and nursed two beautiful healthy babies, who have grown into tall, graceful near-adults.  I would hate it if my son and daughter didn't understand what gorgeous creations they are.  It would be so untrue.

So, for myself at least, I'm going to keep telling the truth.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Love the Ones You're With

I woke up this morning and thought, "Ah, lovely, an empty day.  No appointments.  No visits from the vet or farrier.  No tennis.  A whole day to write."

Then I remembered it was Wednesday, my day to work at Faith in Action.

Ah well, I thought.  I'll at least get in a couple of hours of writing before I go.

Then I remembered my 8:40 am appointment at the high school.

I thought for another minute or two, lying in bed, and decided that I could write a bit before the appointment and a bit after I got home from FIA, and it was all good.  I'm working on the start of a new novel.  The start's always rough, and I don't think it needs to be perfect before you move on--in fact, better that it isn't--but on the other hand, it needs to be a place from which the story can continue.  Attempt #1 was frightfully boring.  Attempt #2 was better, but a bit navel-gazily for my taste.  Attempt #3 will happen latter today.

A few weeks ago at FIA, we had a moment of down time, and one of our regular Wednesday crew, Vic, settled himself into a chair across from my desk.  Vic is a retired high school teacher and football coach who takes a touching and genuine interest in my novels.  He buys them all up for his granddaughter.  Anyway, Vic asked me how my latest book was coming.  Then he said, "Do you love it?  Do you love writing?"

Nobody ever asks me that.  They ask if I'm published, if I'm famous, if they've ever heard of me, but they never ask if I love it.

"Yes," I said, smiling. "I do."

"That's good," Vic said.  "Loving your work, that's the biggest blessing you can have."

"Did you love your work?" I asked him.

"I did," he said.  "I loved every minute."

I pretty much already knew that.  I could tell by the way Vic interacts with my son, when my son comes to work at FIA.  I could tell, too, by the reaction of a young man who came into FIA as a client, saw Vic, and said, "Coach!"  They embraced; the young man told me, "He's the only reason I managed to graduate from high school."

We have a lot of very good, caring, committed volunteers at FIA.  We're lucky that way.  But Vic is special.  Clients stop by just to say hello to Vic; just to let him know how they're getting on.  Once, when Vic was absent, a client knocked on the office door to ask me, "Doesn't Vic work on Wednesdays?  Is he sick?"  The secret, I once told my daughter, is that Vic makes every person he interviews feel as though he truly cares about them.

"You're wrong," my daughter said sharply.  "Vic doesn't make people feel as though he cares.  Vic actually cares.  People can tell the difference."

She was right, of course.  Loving what you do, that's a blessing.  Loving who you're with, that's something better.  I spend half my Wednesdays now trying to learn from Vic.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The International Bank of Bob (and Me)

So, on my way to my daughter's tennis match in a nearby city a few weeks ago, I got sideswiped by a bookstore.  This is not a surprise to anyone who knows me.

One of the books I picked up was a surprise, a good one:  The International Bank of Bob: Changing the World one $25 loan at a time.

Now, I'd heard of Kiva before.  It's an online site that makes it startlingly easy to participate in microfinance.  Microfinance, for anyone who's not been paying attention, is a way to make little-bitty loans to people, primarily in developing countries, who do not have access to traditional banking, usually because their incomes and assets are too low. 

When I was in South Africa, I quite often saw people selling things on the streets.  ("Chickens: alive or dead" was one of my favorite signs.)  Sometimes the level of commerce was incredibly small:  a woman would go into a grocery, say, and buy a five-pound bag of apples.  Then she'd sit outside the store and sell individual apples at a slight markup.  You can imagine the amount of cash transacted would be pretty small.  You can't possibly make much selling a dozen apples a day. 

So a microfinance loan might, say, help the woman buy enough fruit to stock a small roadside stand.  It would be a boost of capital that while small in the context of the developed world could be life-changing in the developing world.

All Kiva does is vet microfinance operations around the globe, offer to help fund up to 30% of their loans, and then post photos and descriptions of the people needing loans online.  Ordinary people go onto the Kiva site and loan their own money, $25 at at time.  You get a small amount of interest, but nobody's doing this to make money.  They're doing it to help a Zulu woman with her fruit stand. 

Anyway, along about a year ago, I made 3 Kiva loans.  They were repaid, and I reloaned the money, so that in a year's time I'd actually funded 13 people, which was pretty cool.  But of course, one wonders: does this actually do any good?

Enter Bob Harris.  Bob is a writer, comedian, and Jeopardy! champion, among other things.  Not long ago he was hired by a travel magazine to help update their ratings of the most luxurious resorts in the world.  A pretty good gig--but he became bothered by the disconnect between the places in which he was staying, which featured, among other things, $75 coffee made from beans extracted from civet poop, and the ordinary laborers he saw on the streets.  Working men who reminded him of his father.  When he finished traveling for the magazine, he put the $20,000 he earned into Kiva loans.  Then he took off on another trip--to visit the places and people where his money was invested.  Thus the book.

1) it's an easy read, funny and interesting; 2) Bob will go anywhere and do nearly anything, but always with the sort of humility that leads people around the world to trust him with their stories; 3) it turns out you really can change lives with a $25 loan.

When I finished the book and started to tell my husband about it, he said heck, our savings account wasn't making any interest anyhow.  Make some more Kiva loans instead.  Make a difference, he said.  So I loaned to a farmer growing maize in Rwanda.  A man in Peru wanting to buy a dairy cow.  A woman in Sierra Leone selling shoes.  You get the picture.

Right now, Kiva's running a "recruit a new member, get a free loan" deal.  Click here, and change a life.  Then read Bob's book--you'll love it.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Ten Minutes A Day

So, the house has been a mess.  Not the sort of mess that comes from daily living--we deal with that pretty well--but the sort of mess that comes from living in the same place for the past eleven years:  odd accumulations of stuff, in corners, in cabinets, and--especially--on bookshelves.  I'd about had it with the mess, but, on the other hand, the shear scale of it seemed daunting.

Then I read something somewhere that you can accomplish anything if you work on it 10 minutes a day.  While I'm pretty sure that's not universally true, it at least got me over my inertia.  Ten minutes a day.  I started with the bookshelf in the family room.   I pulled books out, stared at the spaces, tried to make sense of it without having any idea what I really wanted to achieve, except more room, since the book piles in my office were overwhelming.  "You know," my husband said, wandering by (I was not offended by his wandering.  This whole project was my idea.), "I'd really like all my golf books to be in one place."

Well, that sounded like an amazing idea.  What if all the golf books were in one place? 

I'll tell you what would happen.  You'd discover that you had multiple copies of several of the books.

From there, energized, I moved to the bookshelf in the hallway.  I got rid of half the tchotkes, reorganized the rest, and found room for my entire collection of World War II reference books, which is about 8 shelf-feet long and which had been overflowing two huge cardboard boxes on my office floor. 

I've since organized a funky corner of the living room, the yarn on my desktop, my mending pile, three bags of unfinished knitting projects (using 4 episodes of Downtown Abbey to finish some of them), the enormous pile of baseball caps that was dominating the bench in the mudroom, and one, but only one, of the cabinets in the family room.  I'm getting there.

Today's project:  ironing.  Now, I don't iron.  I consider microfabric sport shirts to be right up there with the Internet in terms of modern innovation, and even when my husband and I were fairly broke, in the early days of our marriage, we sent his dress shirts to the cleaners.  He likes heavy starch.  I like t-shirts.  Therefore, today's ironing pile was easily tackled in ten minutes.  It consisted of 1 stock tie, 1 linen hand towel featuring a sheep in a Santa suit and the embroidered words "Fleece Navidad," and 8 good napkins, used, I believe, in the formal dinner we gave for my husband's partners.  Before Christmas.

So, there you are. Another corner conquered.  Hooray!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What Next?

I've been having that kind of a week.

On Monday, I had to drive my truck, because my son's car was getting its smashed bumper replaced.  I usually keep the truck for farm use only--it's a quad-cab dually, and I've gotten it stuck in drive-throughs before. 

Since I was going to be driving the truck, and I had some extra time, I decided to be virtuous and get new tires for my horse trailer.  This has been on my to-do list forever. 

I drove the rig across town to the tire place, where they happily informed me that my trailer tires were practically brand-new.  I'd bought new ones last spring. 

I'd forgotten.

Nothing says Welcome to Monday like driving your rig around town for an hour for no reason at all.

Yesterday I told my son to take the trash down to the curb.  This is a big job since our driveway is about a quarter mile long.  My son did it without complaint, then said, "You know tomorrow's not trash day, right?"

Ah, no.  I knew Thursday was trash day.  I just didn't know which day yesterday was.

This morning, in a burst of super-efficiency, I took the dog to the groomer's half an hour before it opened.

I think I made hotel reservations for my son's graduation for the wrong weekend.

I also seen to have forgotten to order graduation announcements at all.

I may go back to bed.  Until Friday. 

Meanwhile, over at Faith in Action, we're making big plans.  Real, strategic, big plans.  We're about to move into our brand-spanking-new building (fully paid for and furnished by an amazingly generous, doggedly anonymous donor).  We'll be able to see more clients.  We plan to hire a part-time social worker, to try to move more people into more sustainable situations.  We've got a classroom to use however we wish.

We can do more now: the question is, what?  The Board is going to sit down and really think about how best to serve the people of Bristol.

So--help me out here (I'm clearly not having my best week).  What do YOU think we should offer?  How to you think we can do the most good?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston and the Beauty of the Common Ground

I was just about to leave to take my daughter to her high school tennis match yesterday when I caught a Facebook post from a friend in Tampa:  "Oh, no!  What's happening in Boston?"

Oh, no.  Whatever it was, I knew it wasn't going to be good.  Part of me wanted to put my fingers in my ears (nah, nah, can't hear you), feign ignorance, head off to the match.  The other part of me turned on the TV.

Early reports were that six people had been injured, but that was clearly bogus, as I saw more than six in two minutes of video.  Video that showed dozens--literally dozens--of people rushing toward the sites of the blasts.  Women and men--I noted, interested in the shift, that there were more women than men--with vests that read, "B.A.A. Physician."  Burly men tearing apart the scaffolding lining the streets, in order to reach victims.  Completely normal looking people rushing down the street pushing empty wheelchairs in one direction, wheelchairs full of dazed, bleeding survivors the other.

Lots of people on Facebook are quoting Mr. Rogers:  "Look for the helpers.  There are always helpers."  It's certainly true.

At the tennis match I repeatedly checked my phone.  I have one friend who loves Boston and has run the marathon there several times, but she's sidelined this year following foot surgery.  My brother, who also loves to run, posted concern for a friend of his who was running, but after a couple of hours was able to report that his friend was fine.  Most people running, and most of the spectators, were fine:  20,000 people, who knows how many spectators.  And yet the reported casualties continued to rise:  22 hurt, no, 52, no, over 100; 2 dead, no, 3.

Meanwhile the tennis match continued under a beautifully clear spring sky.  I thought of the London Olympics.

I've tried to explain to people how beautiful they were.  Physically beautiful, yes: the athletes showed the full glory of what the human body can achieve.  The sites were prepared to perfection, and had been carefully chosen to show off some of England's most iconic venues.  There were flowers, clean streets, enormous screens set up in public parks so that anyone could watch the live feed for free.  But more than that, they were emotionally stirring in a way I didn't expect.  I expected to be moved by the grace of my favorite sport in the world, eventing.  But I didn't think tears would come to my eyes when I watched some Japanese man I'd never heard of throw down the most improbably gorgeous dressage test ever, so that the entire crowd would end up on its feet, cheering, but they did.  I didn't imagine that when a Chinese woman and a Finnish woman played badminton in Wembley Arena, the entire crowd, predominantly British, would begin a roaring football-style sideline cheer, one side shouting, "Chi-NAH!  Chi-NAH!" and the other, "Finland, Finland (clap-clap-clap)," to the near-stunned bemusement of the two competitors, but they did.  I didn't think the boisterous Korean man wildly cheering each and every one of Korea's 45 Women's Team Epee fencing points would recognize the Panamanian flag of the people sitting beside him, and add, "Panama!  Panama!' to the end of his chants, nor did I expect that when Korea narrowly edged the United States to make the gold medal match that he would yell, "USA! USA!" not in one-upmanship but in appreciation for a finely fought match, but he did.  As we walked out of the arena we shook hands.  "Family?" I asked him, because one thing I learned at the Olympics is that every athlete has family behind them.  "Ah, no," he said, shaking his head.  "Friends."

Boston was beautiful before the blast, because of the athletes, their families, and the friends that surrounded them.  It was beautiful after the blast, because of the helpers and friends.

The blast itself was evil, but I'm betting that beauty prevails.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Big One: Marriage (Separation of Church and State, Part 5)

OK, this is a big one.  Gay couples are fighting for the legal right to be married.  Those opposed often do so with the argument that God created marriage to be one man and one woman.

Mmm.  I'm not going to get into a great big legal debate.  Nor am I going to quote the Bible.  I'll tell you what I know.

I was married in the Catholic Church.  In a single ceremony I was both legally and sacramentally married, but those are actually two different things.  For my marriage to "count" from the Catholic point of view, it needed to fulfill several conditions, among them that I was being married in an actual church building.  I could be married in a synagogue if I were marrying a Jew (note: I have no idea what Jewish marriage stipulations are), but I could not, say, be married on a beach, not even if the beach was really gorgeous.  If my intended were Jewish, he could have been previously married and then divorced, so long as his previous wife hadn't been Catholic, but if I were marrying a Catholic, it had to have been his first marriage, unless his previous marriage had been annulled.

Now, as a Catholic, I'm free to marry a thrice-divorced agnostic at a Vegas chapel, if I so chose.  However, the Church will not recognize said marriage.  In the eyes of the law, I'll be completely, fully married; in the eyes of God, as understood by Catholic theology, I will be single.  And probably living in sin.

Similarly, as a Catholic I'm absolutely free to divorce.  I'm then no longer legally married.  I can't be responsible for anything my jerk of an ex-husband does.  However, until I seek and receive an annulment, I'm still sacramentally married.  I can't marry again within the church.  Within the church, that would be bigamy.  Outside the church, it would simply be a second marriage, fully legal, no strings attached.

Annulments take awhile.  I know more than one couple that married legally, after a divorce but before the annulment came through, and then married again in the Church (and in the church) afterwards.

Whatever your opinions of these rules, they're the ones I play by.  But you can see, I think, that there are two systems at work here: a legal one and a religious one.  In fact, marriage in Europe began as a strictly civil institution.  It wasn't until the Middle Ages--some 1500 years after the birth and death of Christ--that it came to be seen as a Christian sacrament.  What it was or is in the Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or any other of the worlds' non-Christian religions, I have no idea.  I believe that the idea of marriage--the more-or-less permanent pairing between two adult humans--has existed in every human society.

When slavery was legal in the United States, it was illegal for enslaved men and women to marry.  This was not because slave owners didn't want their slaves to form permanent families:  in fact, as one particularly chilling letter from Thomas Jefferson shows, it was to the owners' advantage if they did so.  Jefferson wrote to one of his overseers reminding him that a young enslaved woman's chief value lay in her having children: that the "increase in capital" was worth more than any physical labor she could do. 

Enslaved people couldn't marry because marriage conferred property rights.  At the time, marriage gave men complete jurisdiction over their wives: the wives, and all they possessed, were the legal property of the husbands.  If you allowed an enslaved man to marry, you granted him legal rights over his wife--rights that would have trumped the rights of the enslaved woman's owner.   Obviously, that couldn't be allowed.  (As a total aside, one thing that's really interested me in this whole God-doesn't-like-homosexuality argument is how it's resurrected something I'd never known existed, which is that the Bible was once quoted as strong proof that God approved of slavery.)

So now we're in the midst of debate over whether homosexual couples should be allowed to marry.  This is strictly a legal debate.  Some religions already allow homosexuals to marry within their church; others never will.  That is not the argument at stake.  Nobody is fighting over what Jesus wants here, because Jesus is not part of a legal marriage.  If He was, atheists couldn't marry.  Jews couldn't marry.  Janists couldn't marry.

A religious ceremony without a legal one carries the same legal weight as two slaves "jumping the broom:" none.  A legal ceremony is a binding contract.  Within our society it conveys rights to property, inheritance, child custody, and taxation, among other things.  That's why it matters:  it's why people bother to get a marriage license even when they're marrying in a church.

I think any two consenting adults should be allowed to marry.  I think God loves everybody.  I think my husband, M. Bart Bradley, to whom I've been married for nearly 24 years, is one of the greatest guys on the planet, and that's not just because he made me chocolate chip cookies from scratch last night.

Friday, April 12, 2013


1)  I just finished the second major draft of my England novel.
2)  It now has a tentative title:  Ada's War.
3)  I'm really happy with it, and really happy to be done with it.
4)  "Done" is a relative term, meaning, "done until my editor reads it."
5)  The likelihood of her reading it before tomorrow is small, so,
6)  Let the weekend begin!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

No State Religions: Separation of Church and State, Part 4

Yesterday, someone who reads my blog (it's very exciting, that somebody reads the blog) sent me this link to an article about a North Carolina state representative who equated praying to Allah, as Muslims do, with terrorism.  She said this while being questioned about a bill she co-sponsored, which was an attempt to establish Christianity as North Carolina's state religion.

No state religions, folks, got that?  It's against the First Amendment.

The representative in question, Michelle Presnell, is a first-termer from Burnsville, NC, seat of Yancy County.  In 2000, Burnsville had a population of 1,623 people, and I doubt it's bigger now.  It happens that I know this particular part of North Carolina fairly well.  Yancy sits in the western North Carolina mountains; it adjoins Avery County, where I have a mountain home.  It's rural, underdeveloped--pastoral, but not exactly worldly.  I would bet Ms. Presnell never met an actual Muslim in her life.  I bet she's very surprised at the coverage her offhand comment has gotten.  I bet she's in way over her head.

I'm not excusing her.  I think a primer on the Constitution ought to be required reading for everyone who gets elected to public office.  But I also think that her comment, and her bill on a state religion, illustrate an aggravating tendency most of us have, whether we like to admit it or not, which is to lump everyone who seems different from us into a ball and call them "other."  I see this all the time when I talk about my work at Faith in Action.  "Oh," somebody says, "The Poor have too many children."  Or, "The Poor are lazy."  Or something else, but The Poor, a great big lump of I-am-not-them, I-don't-understand-them, and I'm-not-going-to-try.

I-am-not-them, I-don't-understand-them, and I'm-not-going-to-try. 

But now I have to confess my own bias, which just tripped me up.  In my original version of this post I wrote, "The friend who read my blog and sent the link included the comment, "Republicans=hypocrisy."" and I went on to say,  "I nailed her on it.  Republicans=hypocrisy is the same format as Muslims=terrorists, and we've absolutely got to stop doing that.  We have to start listening to each other."

What she actually said was, "So, Christian prayer = religious freedom, Islamic prayer = terrorism. I'm guessing atheist = deportation?  Republican, thy name is hypocrisy."  Which is different.  It's not a lot different, as it does still seem to lump all Republicans together, but it is different, and I'm sorry I made her sound more extreme than she did.  I wasn't listening as well as I should.

We have to start respecting viewpoints other than our own, and the way to do that, I'm convinced, is to listen to people who are not like us.  Find them, and hear their stories.

We all of us have more in common than we think.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Weird Sites I've Found Doing Research for this Blog

1.  One that chronicles "inappropriate" uses of "quotation" marks.
2.  One completely trashing nearly all modern Catholic liturgical music, especially the hymnal my church currently uses, which is dissected, dissed, and very nearly damned.
3.  One called "Why My Son is Crying," which includes 3000 photos of the same toddler bursting into tears for reasons such as, "He asked me to put butter on his rice and I did," and "car seat--again."
4.  Pinterest.  No idea how to use it, no idea what it's for.  Seriously.  Anyone?
5.  One (Ok, this was Business Insider, and my brother sent it to me) about how Margaret Thatcher was part of the research team that invented soft-serve ice cream.  Now, I hate the term "food chemist," but note that the growing list of people who were research chemists before they went on to do other things includes E.L. Konigsburg, Pope Francis, Margaret Thatcher, and me.
6. "Help Jenn Become a Nun!"  Ok, this one was also sent to me, by a college friend, though I'm pretty sure she sent it because of my blog.   This is a gofundme request--gofundme being a site where anybody can request any amount of money for any reason.  I wondered why it would take cash to become a nun--turns out it's because she has to pay off her student loans before she can enter the community.  I thought I probably could donate a few bucks--then I thought, heck, let's make it a matching grant.  If you're so moved, leave a comment or send me an email with the amount you gave Jenn, and I'll match the total next week. 

Here We Go Again: Separation of Church & State, Part 3

Ok, maybe this isn't entirely about the separation of church and state.  But it sort of is.  This morning's newspaper featured a letter to the editor opining that, "God will not bless any place where sin exists, and _____ is a sin."  In a previous sentence the writer made it clear that by "any place," he meant the entire country, the United States of America.  I leave it to your imagination to fill in the blank (he didn't).  Suffice to say, it was a sin the writer was pretty sure he'd never commit.  It wasn't HIM that was the problem--it was all the sinners that surrounded him.  All the people who didn't agree with his particular interpretation of the Bible. 

If God in fact will not bless any place where sin exists, we're screwed.  All of us.  We will never be blessed, not one blessed second.  We were born into sin, redeemed, forgiven, and yet, perpetually, we stumble and fail.  There is still injustice in this world.  There is still hatred.  Children still die, of hunger, of abuse, of diseases we could have fixed with 25 cents worth of vaccine.  Christ gave us only two commandments--love God and love each other--and yet we fail.

I looked up "God blessing Nations" in the Bible (this is easy to do online), and the only verse that stood out was Psalm 33:12.   When I went to read that, I found it was the last line of a stanza.  Here's the whole stanza:

Let all the earth fear the LORD;
let all who dwell in the world show him reverence.
For he spoke, and it came to be,
commanded, and it stood in place.
The LORD foils the plan of nations,
frustrates the designs of peoples.
But the plan of the LORD stands forever,
the designs of his heart through all generations.
Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,
the people chosen as his inheritance.

None of this suggests that we are in charge.  None of this suggests that we humans, by our actions or inactions, can call down a blessing from God.  Can earn one.  God spoke, and it came to be:  we are chosen, not choosing.  By our election, by our redemption, we are called to a closer relationship with God, but we are never the ones in charge.

Jesus never said, "Love the sin and hate the sinner."  St. Augustine said something similar to it, and Gandhi said it, but Jesus didn't.  Jesus said, (Matthew 7:1) "Stop judging that you may also not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you."

Monday, April 8, 2013

It's Complicated: A More Subdued Rant on the Separation of Church and State

One of the problems with learning is that it never stops.  That's also one of the great things about learning, depending on the day, but today's Monday, and I've got a problem with it.  I can't find easy answers to anything today.  It's clear I should have taken philosophy in college, but it's a little late for that.

OK, so, last week I learned, from an atheist friend of mine, that it was against the law for atheists to hold public office in the state of Tennessee.  She sent me a link about it, but I didn't look it up; quite frankly, it sounded like something Tennessee would do.  (I love my state, and appreciate its basic less-is-better approach to government, but it also produced the Scopes monkey trial.  Enough said.)  But I thought about what my friend told me; I wondered if it were true, and, if so, how true.  I mean we've all seen those books of weird laws still in place somewhere, "you can't ride a horse down Main Street in Grand Rapids, Michigan, while eating sausages," etc.   And yet--any law forbidding something because of a lack of religious faith was clearly in violation of the separation of church and state--wasn't it?  I thought so.

So I broached the topic on Saturday night, when we had friends over to eat pizza and watch Louisville win.  My family loves a good debate, and fortunately (because I didn't want them to think we were nuts, or naturally contentious) so did the other family; within minutes, we were arguing about what was actually meant by "separation of church and state," what the Bill of Rights does or does not guarantee, and whether state law trumps federal law or the other way around.   In the midst of healthy chaos, my friend Beth quietly got out her cell phone and texted her brother.  He happens to be Lieutenant Governor of the state of Tennessee.

No, he said, it was not against the law for atheists to hold public office.  There was no "religion test."  He did opine that it would be difficult for an atheist to get elected in Tennessee, "even in Memphis," but that's a whole 'nother story.

At roughly the same time, my daughter, who'd gotten online, read out loud the part of Tennessee's state Constitution where it says quite clearly that atheists can not hold office.  However, that line was highlighted, with a footnote to the effect that, forget it, this part's been declared fully null and void.  The legal battle has already been fought; the separatists already won.

So, it's true, but also false. 

I'm reminded of something I learned while writing my book Jefferson's Sons.  Thomas Jefferson's children with the enslaved Sally Hemings were legally slaves, because the children of an enslaved mother were always slaves.  Therefore, they were legally black, because white people could not legally be slaves.  However, because they were 7/8ths white (Sally was 3/4 white), they were also white.  They were legally black and legally white.

I want to do a post on the origins of the United States Constitution, but I can see that one is going to get complicated, too.  Already I've learned that U.S. democracy is considered fundamentally different from European democracy, in that we proclaim the rights of the individual instead of the rights of mankind.  The difference there seems hair-splitting to me.  Greg Brubaker?  Wanna help me out here?  (My brother's not in politics, but he majored in philosophy.)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Atheists Should Not Be Shot: A Multi-part Rant on the Separation of Church and State, Part 1

Ok, everybody, let's remember that our country was founded in large part on the principle of religious freedom.  It goes like this:
CHURCH                                                                                                         STATE
Separated, got it?

I would have thought this truth self-evident.  In fact, I did, until two days ago, when my friend Jessica posted something I thought a bit strident and anti-religious on her Facebook page.  Now, Jessica is, among other things, a physician, a wife, a mother, an atheist, a knitter, a horsewoman, and a moral and ethical person.  I feel confident enough of her upright character that I once gave her a dog I loved (The dog needed something to guard, and I was out of sheep.  Now the dog guards Jessica's goats, chickens, and children.).  So, knowing Jessica, and feeling that her post was a touch off, I didn't just roll my eyes and delete her from my friends list.  I posted a comment that may have been a bit strident as well.

I'm glad I did.  She posted back, and I posted back, and we started a dialogue which made me understand that Jessica was actually being defensive, not offensive:  that she's feeling attacked for being an atheist, probably because she's being attacked for being an atheist.  She's been told things like, "Only Christians belong in our country," and "People who don't believe in God should be shot."

Shot.  Really?  I'm trying to imagine what the tone of my posts would be if I kept hearing, "Only atheists belong in this country," or "Catholics should be shot."

Let's review history for a moment.
"All Jews should be shot."  The Holocaust.
"All Christians should be shot (by Muslims.)"  Jihad.
"All Muslims should be shot (by Christians)."  The Crusades.
"All Protestants should be shot (by Catholics)."  The Spanish Inquistion.
"All black people should be shot."  The Klu Klux Klan.

We could add ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, Bosnia, and other places.

I would submit that these are not humanity's finest moments.  I would submit that whenever we start a sentence with "All _____..." we end up with something that sounds a lot like racism, or whatever you call racism if it's aimed at religion instead of race.

One of the great things about our country is that we guarantee freedom of religion as a Constitutional right.  This means I have the right to be Catholic.  Episcopalian.  Lutheran.  A Quaker.  A Scientologist.  Jewish.  Muslim.  Hindu.  Pagan.  Shinto.  Mormon.  Southern Baptist.  Heck, it means I have the right, the Constitutionally guaranteed right, to worship a used McDonald's soda straw if I so chose.  As long as the tenets of my Soda Straw religion do not break civil laws, I can hold them as dearly or loosely as I wish.  If my Soda Straw religion requires that I never eat chocolate again, and I eat chocolate, I may be sinning, but I'm not going to jail.  If my Soda Straw religion requires the ritual maiming of small children I'll be headed to the Big House, where I will still be permitted to worship my Soda Straw, just without any weapons on hand.

So--if I as an American citizen am free to worship any thing and any way I want, I am also free to worship:


I am free to say I don't believe in God.  Happens I do, but that's not the point.  Your average atheist, agnostic, person who is "spiritual but not religious," or person who has never bothered to think about God at all, is just as American as Jerry Falwell (evangelical), Antonin Scalia (Catholic), or Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Jewish).

Thus endeth Part One of the Rant.  But don't worry, there'll be more. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Easter Meditations--Next Best Thing to Taking a Nap.

If not for a sense of shame, I would be in bed right now.  I would be sleeping.  But my husband is at work and my children are at school, and the fact that I work in the same building as my (soft, comfortable, inviting) bed doesn't exempt me from working.  At least not right this very minute.

We are all tired because we went to Hawaii for a week, and flew back on a red-eye flight, the sort that claims to land at 6 am but really lands at 2am in the time zone to which your body has become accustomed.  If you're lucky--and we were--you will land just in time for your daughter's high school tennis match, which will last for decades, and yes, I'm aware that whining about how my lovely tropical vacation has worn me out is just about the most obnoxious thing I could do.

So I'll talk about Easter.

Mass at the little Catholic church on Maui was fun; the priest wore a gorgeous floral lei, and parts of the Mass were sung in Hawaiian.  The "Holy, Holy, Holy" was actually sung in a mixture of Hawaiian and Latin, something I at least don't hear every day. 

Mass was pretty much the sum of our Easter; I didn't attempt baskets or even candy.  My children are teenagers, but, even when they were small, my son was fairly disinterested in Easter candy.  He doesn't like jelly beans and has only moderate enthusiasm for chocolate.  In years past, I've eaten his Easter candy myself, along about the end of June.  I've never given big gifts at Easter.  We often seem to be traveling--we've gone to Easter Mass in a slew of interesting places, from a tiny village church in rural Costa Rica to the Duomo in Florence, Italy--and the trips themselves were gift enough.  That, and I've never thought of Easter as being about presents.  It's about gratitude, certainly.  But rabbits?  Eggs?  never wildly meaningful.

So I was surprised to read about one of my favorite knitting blogger's Easter preparations:  colored eggs, baskets, hot cross buns--which is to say, everything traditional EXCEPT the church service, because--get this--she's not Christian.  I'm sure there's nothing wrong with this, only, why bother?  I wanted to write and ask her if she was celebrating the ancient pagan holiday, or just liked to dye eggs, or what was the point, but I couldn't figure out how not to sound rude.  She celebrates Christmas, too.  I'd love to hear if any of you understand this, because I really don't.  Secular Christmas sounds a lot like secular Yom Kippur, which is not something I've ever personally celebrated.

Meanwhile, the new Pope attracted a bunch of attention on Holy Thursday when, instead of washing the feet of 12 retired priests in St. Peter's basilica, he washed the feet of 12 juvenile inmates at a Roman youth prison, including those of two young women, one of whom was Muslim.  While not the first time this particular man had washed the feet of women (he did so as Archbishop), it was the first time a Pope ever had.  Apparently Popes always washed the feet of priests before because Jesus washed the feet of the 12 disciples, all men, but to me that interpretation was totally missing the point.  In the first place, the Pope is the successor of Peter, not Christ.  (Lucky for him.  What a job that would be!)  In the second, the foot-washing seemed to be a gesture of humility and service, not a re-enactment of the Last Supper.  My husband feels I shouldn't disparage previous Popes; tradition, he says, has value.  It does--but the sheer amount of press this particular foot-washing received seems to indicate that the world doesn't usually view the Pope as a servant, which is of course what he's supposed to be.  All that stuff about whatever you do for the least, you do for Me.

Anyway, I'd like to hear your thoughts about the Pope, too, and about the role of Christians in the world.  If you have any.  Me, I'm all out of thoughts for the day.  It's a miracle I'm not going back to bed.