Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Staying home

I became a stay-at-home father largely because of what I now know to be the very patriarchal attitudes of top management at my workplace.  While my immediate supervisors, who were women, were very sympathetic to things like requests for time off because of a sick child, the male head of our organization was quite the opposite.  Frankly, my wife and partner had a far more difficult time cancelling her day to stay home than I did.  She was, in fact, the primary wage earner for our home, and a lost day of work for her affected us far more than a lost day for me did.  But whenever I had to take time off to stay home, our director was the first to ask, “Well, why can’t his wife do it?”  He constantly made comments in front of other (female!) staff about how it wasn’t really my “place” to take time off for that.  Ultimately his feelings about my situation resulted in my being assigned to duties and hours that were more and more difficult until they became untenable.  Unfortunately I chose simply to leave rather than to fight the situation.  I chose to stay at home full time.  We have never regretted my decision to stay at home, but I often regret having allowed this individual to get away with perpetuating his stereotyped ideas about what constituted my proper role as a worker, as a parent, and as a man.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thinking about Gandhi

When I was a student at the University of Virginia, back in the early 1970’s, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I became involved with a protest against the war in Viet Nam.  We planned to drive up to the Pentagon, meet up with protesters from other colleges and universities, and picket the main entrance.  It was going to be a pretty big deal.  When word of the protest spread to the authorities, they let it be known that our picketing was illegal, would not be tolerated, and if we tried it, we would be arrested.  I remember being amazed at the time at how many people dropped out of the protest when they realized that their arrest was almost certain.  Maybe they didn’t want to hurt their records, or damage their future careers.  Maybe they were afraid it would hurt their chances at getting into the right grad school.  Or maybe, this close in history to the tragedies at Kent State University and the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, they were simply afraid.


We went from being a bus full of people to a van full, but we went.  We WERE arrested, herded into RFK stadium, processed and jailed with as many as 20 of us jammed into a cell meant for four.  We were released a day or so later.  I was never tried, and some years later an amnesty from President Ford wiped even our arrest records clean.  It was, overall, a grand experience, and I’m glad and proud that I went.  I continued to protest the war until it ended.

There’s a story about Gandhi, perhaps apocryphal, about a mother who asked Gandhi to tell her young son to quit eating sugar.  She said, “I know it does him harm, and I know he will obey you.”  Gandhi asked her to come back in a week.  She was puzzled by the delay, and frankly, a little put out by it, but she figured that Gandhi was a busy man, so she agreed.  In a week,  she came back; Gandhi sat down with the boy, joked and played with him for a while and then said to him, “Please don’t eat sugar.  It’s not good for you.”  The boy agreed to stop.  The mother came over, thanked Gandhi, but said, “I don’t understand why it took you a whole week to tell him that.  Why couldn’t you just do that a week ago?”  Gandhi smiled at her, showing her the gaps in his own teeth, and said, “Last week, I, too, was eating sugar.”

To me, sacrifice means talking the talk and walking the walk.  It means not giving up just what's comfortable to give up.  I believe you have to sacrifice for your beliefs when it becomes uncomfortable, or inconvenient, or hard.  The sacrifices you make could be sacrifices of time, or money.  It could mean going on a march for a cause you believe in even though it’s raining, or it’s cold, or you’re hurting.  Even the Bible references this kind of sacrifice in worship:  look at the story of the widow’s mites.  The widow is praised because her donation of two tiny coins is worth more than a rich man’s sack of gold -- it's all the money she has.  Or look at any of Jesus’s rebukes of the all-talk-and-no-action Pharisees.  (Oh, those Pharisees.  When will they ever learn?!)

Could I be doing more, giving more, living my beliefs more?  Of course I could.  But awareness is the first step.  I don’t ever want to be a “do as I say not as I do” person.  I had to remind myself of this last Monday when my daughter and I were freezing outside for a couple of hours on the Dauphin County Courthouse steps, protesting for equal marriage rights for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender persons.  Quite frankly, there were times when I wanted to go sit in the car with the heater on.  I think my daughter did, too.  But we stuck it out.

I am so proud of her.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Turning Japanese? I really think not....

I suppose I should be blogging about the great two-part Death Storm that ravaged Pennsylvania this week. It is, after all, the first time in recorded history that two storms of this magnitude hit the mid-Atlantic in the same week.  In a way, it did lead to this blog, but only incidentally.  I'm sure that there are better accounts of the blizzards elsewhere.

One of the things that I share with my daughter is a love of Japanese culture.  We enjoy Japanese food, architecture, animation (anime) and comics (manga.)  We often talk about what we would like to do on our dream tour of Japan -- the temples we would visit, the cities we want to see, and of course a visit to Studio Ghibli where many of our favorite anime were produced by that wonderful genius Hayao Miyazaki.  Some of my favorite films are those starring Toshiro Mifune and directed by Akira Kurosawa, particularly "Rashomon" and "Seven Samurai."  Some of my favorite collectibles are my Japanese toys based on various anime like Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis EVAngelion and Keroro Gunsou.  Hell, the names are even fun to type.

But last week, while holed up during the storms and passing the time by reading manga and watching Japanese movies I caught a news report of a Japanese whaling vessel which deliberately rammed a ship which was trying to protect a pod of whales from those hunting them.  And it got me thinking about the dark underbelly of Japanese culture.  While there is much to admire and even, for some, to love about Japanese culture and society, I sometimes forget about the other stuff.  The whaling.  The xenophobia.  The racism.  The denigration of women.  The insane importance placed on "face."

I have to believe that time will heal some of that.  I have to believe that each succeeding generation diminishes the hatred and prejudice of the preceding generation.  I like to think I am less prejudiced than my parents were, despite growing up in their home and under their influence.  I like to think that if I, imperfect as I know I am, can transcend some of their hatreds, then anyone can.  And I do see some progress by Japan, which I find encouraging.  Although women's rights there are about thirty years behind where we are (and we are by no means where we should be), they are better than they were.  Their blind prejudice against other races and cultures seems to be less than it was.  They are kinder to their own indigenous people, the Ainu, than they ever have been.  But they persist with whaling, which is alien to me as anything could be.

Before I can ever in good conscience visit Japan, they have to stop hunting what may very well be the only other sentient species with whom we share this world.  They need to give up the ridiculous sympathetic magic ideas of much of Eastern medicine.  Rhino horn will not give you a bigger manhood, guys, and panda bile is not a miracle cure.  You have hunted creatures to near extinction in the pursuit of a fantasy made of smoke.  And none of the products you get from whales are of any real use to anybody except the whales themselves.  Your argument that whaling is an important part of your culture is belied by the factory ships you use to hunt these magnificent creatures.  It's a business, not a cultural ritual.  So stop it.  Just stop it.  Now.

Thank you.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Politics & Religion

Growing up, I was always told that there are two subjects which you should avoid in polite conversation:  politics and religion.  Granted, this was practically a non-issue, since my family, my neighbors, and most of my town were all Republicans and all went to the same church.  I think that finally ended when Kennedy ran against Nixon in 1960 and the decision had to be made whether to vote Republican, or Catholic.  Nowadays religion is far more likely to come up in conversation, especially along with politics, and I still find myself reluctant to get into it sometimes.  People usually wind up asking me why I go to church if I have no belief in God, or the soul, or an afterlife.  I’ve been asked how I can even consider myself a spiritual person if I, quote, don’t believe in anything, end quote.  It’s hard to convince some people that you can be a spiritual person, that you can believe in personal redemption, for example, without extending that belief to include a God.

But at least most people have HEARD of Unitarians now, if only as the punch line to a joke on Prairie Home Companion, or The Simpsons.  (As much as I love Garrison Keillor, my favorite Unitarian jokes come from The Simpsons.  Probably because back when I was an actor I always wanted to do cartoon voices.)  My favorite Simpsons moments are when Lisa goes to the Church of Springfield’s Ice Cream Social and gets an empty bowl from the VERY right-wing Christian Reverend Lovejoy.  He calls it a "Unitarian Sundae."  She says, “But the bowl is empty!” and he says, “Exactly!”  I also laughed when Bart went next door to his Christian neighbor’s house to play a video game called Bible Blasters, where you shoot unbelievers with Bibles in order to convert them to Christianity.  Bart thinks he’s hit one, but his neighbor says, “No, you just winged him; now he’s a Unitarian.”

Well, I haven’t been winged by the Bible, but the fact is, I DO consider myself a spiritual person, and I do have beliefs.  As I said, I believe in personal redemption.  I believe that through your actions now, you can redeem past mistakes.  I believe that coming to church regularly helps keep me on that path.  I also believe in scientific fact.  I believe in the enormous human potential all around me.  I can appreciate the wondrous architecture of nature and the universe without feeling any need to believe in an architect.  For me, one does not necessarily lead to the other.

And this drives my Christian relatives CRAZY!  You’d think that by now they’d have learned that they’re never going to change my mind.  (I certainly know I’ll never change theirs.)  And yet, some of them still ask me what I believe.  I’m not sure whether they’re hoping for a new answer or an old argument, but now I just tell them, “I believe ... I’ll have some more dessert.”  It obviously hasn’t helped my waistline any, but it does wonders for saving family gatherings.

So.  I don’t believe in a deity.  But I DO believe, strongly, in Unitarian-Universalism's "Seven Principles."  I especially appreciate the Fifth Principle of the Unity of Experience.  I like the idea that there is no conflict between faith and knowledge.  Other beliefs do not threaten mine.  And this doesn’t mean that I am not open to other beliefs.  I have found beauty and wisdom in many places, not only in Einstein and Hawking, but also in the words of the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Buddha.  I like to read, and learn, and most of all, I like sharing my journey.  With toleration; with that unity of experience which denies any conflict between Sacred Faith and secular knowledge.  After all, we all get to take this trip together.