Friday, December 31, 2010


it's new year's eve, which seems to call for some sort of statement.  resolutions, wise observations,  witty comments on the passing year.  all of which seems beyond me at the moment.  personally it's been a pretty good year.  thanks to this blog i've written more of my own stuff than i have in years.  i'm mega grateful for the 'co-authoring' i've done for others, especially susan love, and --book plug warning--the fifth edition of the breast book that came out in october.  i'm proud of that writing, which is more creative than it may sound; and being part of susan's important work is in itself pride-worthy.  but the blog is more directly mine, and the fact that it actually gets read, sometimes by people i don't know in countries around the world, is encouraging.  further this was the year i finally caved in and got onto facebook, so i know what friends i never see are up to, and above all, what castle kids past are doing.

politically, what can i add? obama has still been better than anyone else would have been ---mc cain and  palin are even scarier now than they were when they were campaigning.  but the democrats have proven the accuracy of most leftists' cynicism; mostly wimps at bests and collaborators with the rich and richer at worst.  the cynicism of the republicans' overt lying is fairly depressing, and of course their wins in november are horrifying.

sarah palin sees herself as mama grizzly; i see her as mama 'alien,' with her spawn destroying human lives--those ghastly, unintelligent, smarmy females who certainly prove that women can be as vile as men, given half a chance.  it's been fun watching jan brewer's meltdown, sharon engle's pompous comparisons of herself to thomas jefferson and jesus, and of course the ever popular non-witch and antisexual flirt christine o'donnell.  and perhaps it's somewhat comforting to learn that except for the already-in -power brewer, they lost.  even more comforting to see the loss of the official republican [male] candidate in alaska to the snubbed incumbent with her write-in campaign.  i'd certainly rather have seen the democrat win, but mckowski is a big step past miller, and the write-in's success comes close to real democracy.

don't ask don't tell.  a shaky  victory, given who will be in congress next year.  but a victory nonetheless.

echoes of old songs--the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; empty pockets don't ever make the grade. it will be a hell of a year, for the unemployed, the underemployed, the lower middle class, and the people even obama is terrified to mention----the poor.  the rhetoric of liberals can no longer embrace that class, as though being poor is important only as a danger to the middle class, not as a horrible reality for those who never got near middle class. more islamophobia seems inevitable, more gay bashing.

maybe, maybe, maybe  more resistance.  the memory of those 800 emerson kids marching against the homophobes is warming.    one hopes. i hope.

happy and productive new year.....

Friday, December 17, 2010

Scylla and Charybdis--and the Democrats

So they have passed The Bill.  the compromise that, depending on who you listen to, really was or wasn't a compromise.  progressives are vehemently divided on this point, within and outside of the Democratic Party.  the one clear thing that  is that no progressive liked it. even obama, who has proven himself far from progressive, didn't like it.  but with the recent elections, the Democrats were trapped between two awful choices, so obama and most of the congressional democrats went with what they felt was the least awful one.  scylla and charybdis.

interesting story, the original s&c.  as the Odyssey tells it, in order to get home to Ithaca, Odysseus and his crew had to go past one or the other.  Scylla was a multiheaded monster who swallowed up all who came close to her; Charybdis was a giant whirlpool.  Scylla would kill six men, one per head.  Charybdis would kill them all.  Odysseus chose the lesser horror.  end of story.

but not quite.  there was a third option, about which Odysseus lied.  "Of Scylla I said nothing," Odysseus narrates, "lest my friends, held fast by fear, desert their oars and cringe down in the hold."
in fact, his "friends"--the sailors he commanded--would likely have done more than that.  they were leaving a paradise,  ruled by the beautiful demigoddess Circe, who would have been perfectly willing to have them stay.  It was 20 years since the men had left Ithaca; some, maybe all, might have preferred to stay on the goddess's island rather than risk a terrible death on the hope of getting home.  So Odysseus lied to them, and in the end, after many more deadly adventures, all but he himself died.

So now, we have a Democrat who, during two years of an administration, has clung to his
precious but peculiar goal of 'compromise'  with an enemy no more interested in compromise than Scylla or Charybdis.  he betrayed a constituency that had believed in his rhetoric of change.  doubtless he was fooling himself as well as us, making him perhaps less culpable but also less shrewd than Odysseus. and no less dangerous to the people that followed him.  he ended up with a new mega-conservative majority in Congress.  he still bleats his favorite word, 'compromise,' as though the situation he helped create will somehow make the conservatives more, rather than less, willing to negotiate. his scylla will swallow up her fewer victims, leaving a few temporarily better off.  in the long run, i very much fear we'll end up with Charybdis after all.


compromise makes strange bedfellows.  let me be clear; i believe in getting rid of the pernicious 'don't ask don't tell' policy, for the obvious reason that it is a result of bigotry.  it has to go.  but there is something odd about fighting to get more people in the military, so they can risk their own lives and very likely kill other people in a war that two presidents have foisted on us.  leftists of my generation spent a lot of time marching against the war of our youth, encouraging young men to avoid the draft in whatever ways they could. in stirring demonstrations, some of the bravest [or most reckless] among these men publicly  burned their draft cards. These soldiers of anti-battle  helped pave the way for the elimination of draft cards and of the draft itself.  Remember 'what if they gave a war and no one came?'?  i have recently made contact, after many years, with a friend i last saw when some of us visited him in canada, where he had fled and where he happily remains.  some straight guys pretended to be gay in order to get that coveted 4F--the category for draft-age men whose health or other factors caused the military to reject them.  some stayed underground in the US. some went to jail.

there's  no more draft, but there are two grim wars with countries that the US invaded.  and now we find ourselves in the absurd but necessary position of protesting the wars while trying to enable more soldiers to fight in them.  so what would i say to a young gay or lesbian fighting to fight?  passionately i would support them: you have every right to be an army along with straight people.  passionately i would then add, but for god's sake, don't do it!

dear old sylla! dear old charybdis!  dear old dying, disintegrating planet!


[Each year, my holiday greeting card is a poem, which keeps me writing poetry at least once a year. so here is my season's greeting to you all....including, most certainly my new FB buddies]

Stained glass refracting churchlight rays and
the chorus singing like it knows it's sacred.

In the back seat, alone, an old lady cuddles
a doll she thinks is jesus.
When they sing silent night she mouths the words quietly
and tears fill her eyes.

Who is she?
She could be you, she could be me.
It is the holiest of evenings: she could even be god.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

God Help Us, Everyone

i love christmas. i love it fiercely, passionately,  irrationally.  i loved it as a catholic child, and i have loved it as much through my adult life as a quasi-pagan agnostic.  i love the tackiness that has grown into it over the past century, as much as i hate the crass-materialism  that infests it.  capitalism and banal religion, those inevitable bedfellows, have tainted it, turning the impulse to give and the love of ceremony into greed, competitiveness, and pettyness of soul no grinch could possibly match. but they can't destroy it.  for one thing, it's older than its specific origins.  it goes far back into pagan, and probably pre-pagan, times.  sun-worship, tree worship, fear of dark and of winter cold, huddling together for survival.  for another, its own variant of the ancient myth is indescribably moving:  hope, love, redemption, born where it is least expected, and in the least expected form, the birth of a lower-class infant.   that child in the manger. that poverty-born outcast of the rich. i can never understand how  so many apparent believers in that child can claim in his name the right to be rich, the right to throw away the health and lives of other children.  anyway, i'm digressing, and this is about to turn into a different piece than i want to write now.  the point is, i love christmas and its images of faith-hope-and, the greatest of these, charity.

so, 'tis the season.  for a lot of stuff, including the annual battle to keep christ in christmas, by god!  it starts each year with the first signs that anyone who isn't christian dares to challenge the celebration of the myth.  one of the glories of this country is that we are not a theocracy.  no one denies that christianity is the dominant belief system; that the puritan forefolk were christians determined to live out their own form of christianity but whose beliefs didn't appear to extend to those who lived out other visions of ultimate truth.  nonetheless, as the various states and statelets started moving toward nationhood, someone figured out that it was a bad idea to have any religion control the law.

we have continued growing into a multi-beliefed society.  most christians seem to accept that. some have even learned to respect the range of other beliefs.  but  too often this apparent tolerance is merely condescension.  if you're dumb enough to believe something different, go right ahead.  just let me do everything i want. don't impose your belief, or even worse, your disbelief, on my awareness. we are 'tolerant,' as long as nothing gets in our way.

christmas brings this out, bigtime.  some jews, some atheists, some agnostics don't want christianity shoved in their faces.  they know it will be--they're not stupid.  they walk past churches every day. they realize that people's lawns will have plastic mangers with haloed virgins and haloed babies with kings and shepherds  kneeling plastically in front of them.

but some unChristians prefer not to see such images in spaces defined as public.  it's one thing to walk past neighbors' homes and churches; it's another to be accosted by an alien faith in non-parochial schools, courthouses, or other places that are part of all our lives.

it isn't really a lot to ask.  if citizenry is shared, it has no business being represented by symbols of a specific religious creed.  and for the most, that's all the nonbelievers are asking.  whether santa claus has much of the 'saint' remaining in his iconography is dabateable, but who really suffers when we get frosty the snowman in his place?

i have an uncle who is a lovely person, but who gets upset when people want to eliminate christian iconography from public places.  he is convinced that they are trying to eliminate it from private places.  last year he told me that he was going to put a christmas tree up in his living room, and no one could stop him.  i assured him that no one was trying to.  finally i offered a promise.  if anyone tried to stop him from having a tree in his house or indeed anywhere on his property, i would enlist the help of the ACLU to defend his christmas tree.

personally i like the trees. and i love the creches.   as a kid, i went with my mother and brothers to 6 o'clock mass on christmas morning--we walked in the dark, and at the end of the sparsely attended mass we went up the creche and lit candles to the baby jesus and his mother.  when we left, it had turned light, and that banal, daily miracle of morning merged with the miracle of jesus's birth. the church, and the world around it, smelled of holiness. it's one of my few happy catholic memories.  i'm glad there are christians who have creches in their churches, in their houses, on their lawns.  i get to see them there; why do i have to see them in community spaces?

of course, the hard core atheists can be something of a bore. and sometimes, inadvertantly comical. a friend once told me of  her neighbor, a very serious marxist, who in mockery of religion,  put up a tree one christmas and decorated it with hammers-and-sickels. point made, she thought, looking at the tree through his window.  she thought the same thing the next year--and every year thereafter. she wondered when it had ceased to be mere mockery and became instead a ritual followed...well, religiously.

but atheists, like followers of any religion, vary greatly, as H.L. Mencken showed in a wonderfully funny 1944  New Yorker story. 'there are as many variations in doctrine between infidels as between christians,' he wrote.  i have seen such variations among my atheist friends, some of whom i think of as  fundamentalists.  two such freinds, unacquainted with each other, faced serious and life-threatening illnesses, and each declared that we were not to pray for them.  the less orthodox of them softened his ultimatum: if we wanted to pray for him, he couldn't stop us, but he insisted that we do it quietly and not tell him about it. i refrained from asking him if that was also true of sending healing light, and assumed that i had the same rights as his prayer-prone acquaintances. i have sent light for years.

 i made the mistake of reassuring my other friend that i didn't pray, i sent light. she was appalled and made me promise never to send her light.  i asked if i could wish her luck, and she said, certainly, and she wished me luck as well.  i have honored the promise i made her, and in my daily ritual, i lurch out of the white light long enough to silently wish her luck.  if a little light sometimes seeps into the luck, there's nothing i can do about it.

 my other atheist friends are fine with it; pray, send light, invoke the roman or hindu gods; it doesn't bother them.  they like people wishing them well.

 though these freinds are scions of a long line of atheist jews, they have no problem with christmas.  in fact, we always spend christmas together, along with my ex-catholic brother and his culturally jewish wife, who have too much  skepticism to embrace atheism.  my freinds enjoy my wishing them merry christmas, and they wish me the same.  they could as easily wish me happy hanukkah or happy Eid or happy Saturnalia--they like happy.

i have other jewish friends who dislike christmas intensely; for them, the birth of jesus was the beginning of centuries of oppression, and they try to get past the season with as little attention to it as possible. they don't like hearing 'merry christmas.'  astonishingly, to me, they have friends who insist on wishing them merry christmas and even on giving them christmas presents.

 it seems to me to a deeply unchristian, and bizarre, thing to do.  why, celebrating the idea of love of one's fellow human, would they inflict discomfort on others?   if you're going to make someone feel less merry, haven't you pretty much defeated your own purpose?

if this is 'politically correct,' as so many people love to say with a sneer, so be it.  'p.c.' is an unfortunate expression, whose inventors have no doubt lived to regret it.  what politically correct really comes down to is doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.  i don't want people to shove their ideals down my throat. i don't want to use  an expression of joy as a slap in the face.  if this means saying 'happy holidays' instead of 'merry christmas' to people who might find that phrase offensive, i can manage that [though i find it funny that religious people object to hearing wishes for happy holy-days].  if i have reason to think someone doesn't like even 'happy holidays', i can try to shut up about it altogether.

one of my favorite small, perfect  moments occured a few years ago at the end of the semester. as the students dribbled out of the last class, i wished most of them a happy holiday. one was a boston-irish lad, and i grinned and said, 'you, i can wish a merry christmas!' and he beamed at me. he was followed by a quiet young muslim; i was pretty sure there wasn't a muslim holiday upcoming, so i wished him a good break from classes. he smiled gravely and said, 'merry christmas.'

that was a gift, a magi-worthy gift.  it was offered in the spirit of whatever good force exists among us,  from whatever source it comes.   and i remember it and cherish it every year. is this  politically correct? sentimental? i can plead guilty to both.  and to anyone who reads this, i wish the joy of every season, in whatever way joy offers itself to you. you can't get much merrier than that.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Stupidest Legend in the World

i enjoy legends;  they're rarely realistic, and they tend to lack the depth of real mythology.  but they're fun and romantic and often tell us something about the ways we think.  then today i came across this one, in a catalogue called 'collectables.'  it seemed so bizarre that i wondered if they had made it up, so i ran to my computer and googled it. yep, there it is.

the product is a lovely pendant and earring set with images of the forget-me-not.  there are several legends about this flower, some more interesting or reasonable than others.  but here's the one the catalogue used:

in medieval times, a knight and his lady were walking along a river. he saw the flowers and bent down to create a bouquet. alas, the weight of his armor pulled him into the river, and he drowned.  but as he was going down, he threw her the bouquet, crying 'forget me not.' and since then women wear them as signs of faithful and enduring love.

none of the places i looked said when the legend began, but i'd guess at the height of 19th century romanticism.  it certainly didn't began with anyone who knew anything about the middle ages.

why is this guy wearing armor to walk along the river with his beloved?   i'm not a scholar in the field, but i know enough to be pretty sure you didn't wear your armor for courting, or for any reason at all except a battle or a joust.  the stuff is heavy!  and if you've fallen in the water but are close enough to the shore to throw a bouquet to someone on the ground, you're probably close enough to grab onto the shore and dig in until she can get someone to come and help yank her idiot lover out of the water.  unless of course she's too busy laughing at you.  in which case, women would wear the flowers as a sign warning other women  not to get involved with madmen who are running all over the place in their armor. faithful and enduring, indeed......