Loss of Life

I was mostly asleep when I heard that George Tiller had been killed, so I thought it was a bad dream.  My dream self thought, that would be terrible if that happened.  Shot in the head in the lobby of his Lutheran church as he waited there like a good usher to guide people in. 

 The same day George Tiller lost his life, an airplane carrying two hundred people disappeared over the Atlantic.  Just disappeared.  President Sarkozy told the family, look, we’re probably not going to find anyone alive.  And they were so courageous, he said, although I don’t know what act of cowardice you could perform when confronted with tragic news.  What could you do—hide under your bed?  Punch the president in the nose? 

 I woke up completely at nine o’clock, and I heard the repetition in the top of the hour news, and I heard that George Tiller was dead, in this violent way, and they repeated, he thought he was doing the right thing.  He thought that what he was doing was right and necessary.  Performing medical procedures that might be morally blurry, but served his patients’ wishes. 

I don’t know how heavily or lightly he took his work.  Abortion is a grey area for me.  It’s certainly more serious than killing the spider in my kitchen sink.  I can’t believe it’s exactly the same as killing a healthy, born and breathing human, though.  I do believe that choosing to act, to try to do the right thing, even when the situation is horrible, when all paths are painful, is courageous.  I hope Mr. Tiller was courageously trying to do the right thing, as he saw it, even though it was morally ambiguous and painful for everyone involved.  But who knows, maybe he was a thoughtless rebellious nutcase.  Or maybe, like me, he was sometimes courageous and sometimes a thoughtless rebellious nutcase.

 The same day that Mr. Tiller and all those people flying from Brazil to France died, I got a week of my life back.  I went to a meeting about one of my summer jobs and the boss said, “Well, we have two weeks before class starts, so….”  In the bedtime story of my summer vacation, I had told myself I got two weeks off, free and clear, before I returned to teaching.  (I had a root canal and a vacation to pay for.)  I suddenly understood, at the meeting, that I had not counted the first week school was out in those free two weeks, since that week always gets polluted with grading final exams and cleaning out my classroom.  There were always four weeks in June, but the sensation of realizing I had left one out of my June conception of reality was better than winning a prize on a game show.

 I spent that afternoon at the swimming pool.  I found the water too cold to actually swim.  I just sat with my legs in.  I leaned back to see the clouds.  I watched two jets trace contrails.   I read a little.  Slept a little, under a big yellow shade.  When I looked at the clouds, or the fevery wobble of the chlorinated water, I thought of George Tiller and how his life had ended.  And those people on that airplane.  Gone.  How huge the world is, actually, and you’re still constantly sending people out into it, not knowing if you will ever see them again.  The first week after school ends, I hardly know what to do with myself.  I sleep twelve hours a night, and when I wake up, all that unstructured time is more unnerving than exciting.  I try to schedule lunches with people I ought to see, and usually they are unavailable.  This was the start of the second week, though, and my mind was untangling. I was feeling like myself again, like I wasn’t surprised to see myself in the mirror and words began to stand up for themselves instead of running by in a furious blur.

 All those people, there that Sunday morning.  It was Pentecost.  They might have been having their confirmations.  The altar linens were red.  The altar flowers were red carnations.  People were speaking in tongues in the lesson, and Jesus was saying in John how he would send an Advocate, and everything the disciples couldn’t understand was going to come out eventually.  And then somebody shot an usher in the head. 

 It’s very mysterious, me sitting in my swimsuit just to be half-naked in the open air and sunshine where it’s socially acceptable to be half-naked, and looking at clouds, in the same world where a doctor gets shot in the head at church.  Me deciding, capriciously, when I will drive home and make dinner.

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Fear and Loathing at Splash Mountain

I didn’t ride a roller coaster until I was twenty-one.  My life was basically a disaster, as it should be when you are twenty-0ne.  I was submerged in a codependent romance.  I was annoyed that my first three years of freedom were not more fun than rebelling against my parents.

My misery led me to join my family on their vacation, and may have also inspired my epiphany.  Unlike some famous epiphanies, mine lacked a spotlight or an orchestral crecendo, but still startled me: rides at Disney World are not something to be afraid of.  Cancer and death are things to be afraid of, but Disney roller coasters… no. 

Epiphanies force you to do things you don’t want to do at all.  I did not want to line up for Splash Mountain.  I wanted to listen to the sanitized “Song of the South” tunes in the Winnie the Pooh gift shop and rock in their rocking chair, while maintaining a moderate heart rate and dry palms.  The rest of my family would return in a half hour, and then we would seek the mild, sing-songy pleasure of the raping and pillaging Pirates of the Caribbean.

But Splash Mountain wasn’t cancer, or death, or even dangerous, so I lined up.  One of my sisters held my hand as we snaked through the maze.  Another sister narrated the entire ride (“First you do a small hill, which really isn’t bad at all…”), and yet another sister repeated that I was going to be fine, that this was actually going to be fun. 

It clearly wasn’t going to be “fun.”  I thought I was GOING TO DIE, and I weighed by options: actually riding the ride versus the shame of ducking out at the last minute.  I wondered if they would stop the ride if I screamed something like, “I can’t do this!  Let me off!” as the train pulled away and I was all strapped in like a mental patient about to receive electroshock therapy. 

I rode every ride that year: Thunder Mountain (which is a baby ride, even for me), Splash Mountain (I don’t like that slippery-falling feeling!), Space Mountain (now my favorite), the Rock n’ Roller Coaster (upside down, no problem), and the Tower of Terror (falling is fun, but the suspense almost kills me). 

My new plan was to spend the rest of my twenties doing scary things so that I could relax.  The more things I could cross off my list of fears, the more relaxed I could become.  So I went to Europe alone.  When confronted by my infuriated boss, I refused to snitch on my coworkers.  And I taught high school freshmen– by far the scariest. 

Still, I’ve been disappointed by how fear returns.  It’s not like a cockroach you squash– it’s more like diabetes.  You have to be keeping an eye on it all the time, monitoring yourself, and it could flare up into a big crisis at any time. 

Just because I’ve vacationed alone doesn’t mean I’m not scared to do it again.  Just because I rode the Tower of Terror in 1999 didn’t mean I wasn’t scared shitless to ride Expedition Everest in 2009.   Everest was awesome, though, and I rode it twice, screaming the whole way.

Worth Blushing For

Although I technically teach English and writing, every year I also end up teaching sex ed.  Every year students ask me such terrifying questions as, “I heard this guy jerked off on his back porch, and then a girl in her backyard across the street with her legs open got pregnant.  Is that true?” or “Why is anal sex more likely to give you HIV than regular sex?”  or the old standby, “If he pulls out before he comes, then you can’t get pregnant, right?” 

It seems beyond comprehension that with all the sexual material out in our culture, kids could be confused about how their bodies work, how people get pregnant, and how to use birth control.  I can bear witness to the continuing need for explicit sex education.  I’m telling you, kids don’t know.

I’m guessing part of the problem is that sex ed is taught by people who won’t discuss sex.  I’ve seen that happen.  The teacher gives the kids a book and then awkwardly asks for questions.  I can’t say that I enjoy discussing sex with my students, but if I can’t suck it up and be frank, then I don’t have any business working with kids. 

Everyone needs sex ed except for nuns.  (I think they need it too, just to be educated citizens.)  Almost everyone has some kind of sex eventually. 

Our country’s failure to teach anatomy and the mechanics of sexual activities and birth control qualifies as child neglect, if not child abuse.  Using an abstinence-only curriculum, many of our children are left in the dark about how their bodies work or how to prevent pregnancy and disease during sexual activity.

It seems that people who say we should have abstinence-only are usually advocating not abstinence, but abstinence until marriage.  Well, how are you supposed to learn about sex then?  Is the school going to send you a packet then?  Even if your family wants your child to remain abstinent until marriage, your child may eventually need to use condoms within that marriage, right?

I’ll add, even if your family wants your child to remain abstinent until marriage, your child probably will not remain abstinent.  Personally, I’d prefer my children never to have sex.  I’m hoping to set them on a course toward that nunnery. 

The fact is, kids make their own decisions about their sexuality, apart from their parents.  Their bodies are their own.  Some of the families that are the most conservative and strict are the ones who have kids rushing out to have sex at the first opportunity.  They can’t stop them, and they don’t stop them.  (See Bristol Palin.  Although I hesitate to publicize her further, she is now speaking at abstinence-focused events.  Here’s a related link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/07/opinion/07collins.html?_r=1&em

One of my dear friends, whom I met my first year of teaching, can testify to the extreme blushing I suffered as a result of that anal sex question.  I turned bright red and I thought, oh, my God, but I answered the kid’s question anyway. 

Even with an appropriate, explicit curriculum that includes discussion of sexual activities, risks, and contraceptives, sex ed teachers have to be carefully observed by administrators.  We need to make sure that kids are actually getting to ask questions in a way they feel comfortable, and that they are held accountable for learning the material, just like in any other class. 

The role of the public school is not to undermine families’ values, but it is to serve society’s best interests.  It is potentially catastrophic for our society to let a bunch of people run around without knowing how women can have sex without getting pregnant. 

We can’t let your kid out of public school without knowing about birth control any more than we can let your kid out without knowing the three branches of government.  Your kid will be a voter and (although I hate to put it this way) a public health risk. 

Finally, let me assure you, the teachers teaching sex ed don’t want your kid having sex any more than you do!  Our tone will not be encouraging, but cautionary.  We care about your kid, and we have seen the sometimes tragic results of early sexual activity.  Also, it completely grosses us out.

The reason you are more likely to contract HIV during anal sex is that the anus is not a self-lubricating place, like the vagina….  I know.  We’re blushing now.  That’s okay.

Nothing Happened

I think from the first time I saw “Sesame Street,” I thought: I want to live in the city!  I want to live with a lot of weird people and mismatch architecture and monsters!  Get me out of here! 

I hated that the suburbs were clean and neat.  There was no room for my anger and shame and lust.  The suburbs laughed them off.  In the city, we have bars for anger and shame, and strip clubs and sex shops  for lust. 

I don’t frequent strip clubs or sex shops, but it comforts me to know that they are there.  They are only a mile from my house, showing how unsavory and measly people are.  The sickness of the human condition is there, and it doesn’t apologize.

As a child, I never saw a drunk person.  I never heard profanity.  I only knew one other kid whose parents had divorced.

I have forgotten how when you are driving at night in the suburbs, you can’t tell if everyone else has been kidnapped or dead or evaporated.  Miles and miles of seamless pavement and clean streetlights.  Any other moving car is a coconspirator.  Acres and acres of residential neighborhoods asleep.  Lights out, cars garaged, quiet as church.

My city neighborhood can be quiet, too, but just around the corner is a busy 7-11 and sometimes the quiet is interrupted with raving people at the bus stop or gunshots.

Flannery O’Conner maintained that “anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.”  And I think that’s true.  I had the feeling that in the suburbs nothing could happen to me, but O’Conner points out the truth.  Things did happen.

Holy Water

Although he is regularly served expensive food, my white cat thinks I’m trying to starve him to death.  He woke up early on Orthodox Easter, found the beet-red boiled egg I’d been given, and chewed one end of it off.  Scattered around the gnawed egg, I found the pastel foil-wrapped chocolates the priest had sprinkled with holy water.

At the service I attended the night before, my friend held her three-year-old son in her lap.  He wiggled and touched her face.  He wore a little vest and tie and suit pants, reminding me of the little clothes I pulled onto my baby brother’s limbs, only sixteen years ago.

I loved how we passed the light, candle to candle, in the pitch-dark room.  We do that at my church, too, and it’s gorgeous every time.  With our flames in hand, we left the sanctuary to circle the building.  This was a new thing for me.  Off to the west, lightning tapped on and off.  All around the building, and I was mostly thinking about how to hold my candle and trying not to run into anything.

When we got back to the front door, the priests and choir did some singing and proclaiming, basically winding up for the Easter pitch.  One, then two, then four drops fell on my head, and I thought, will we really stand out here with the priests in the bright cream brocade, the torches, the big gold starts on poles, the incense, and let the rain pour down on us?  I wondered, and wondered, and then we went inside.

I loved singing the same three phrases a million times: “Christ is risen from the dead/trampling down death by death/and on those in the tombs bestowing life.”  We don’t repeat much of anything in the Anglican prayer book.  That means you have only one time to let it sink in.  I appreciate repeating words.  It takes into account the slow, dumb nature of humans.  After singing it twelve or twenty times, I actually started to think about “those in the tombs.”

Children in the sanctuary were wrapped in sleeping bags, fleece blankets, and Dad jackets.  They slept and dozed and were walked up and down the aisle.  The service had started at midnight.  Then it was one.  Two.  (At my church, we do a long Easter Vigil, but it starts at eight, not midnight.)  We were all probably drifting in and out of focus.  Only the children could show their ebb and flow, their eyes closed or open, their bodies still or squirming.

I also loved hearing the lessons and singing in many languages: Greek, Russian, Latin, Spanish, Urdu, Belarusian.  Especially the opening of John’s gospel in Greek.  I studied ancient Greek to be able to read that piece in the original language.  If you have that piece of literature, you don’t need anything else.  It’s poetry, theology, philosophy.

After the service, we went outside again to bless the Easter baskets.  I put Spanish wine and chocolates in mine.  The others had candy and liquor, but also meat, bread, and dairy– they had observed Lent much more strictly.  Our candles were used again, this time to light up the baskets, kind of like birthday cakes.  The priest held a three-pronged candelabra and blessed our treats and how much we would enjoy them.

The evening culminates in a feast, down in the parish hall.  I’ve seen a lot of drinking, but I’ve never seen grown people gulp bottles of beer so gleefully.  That holy water must be effective… on people, and on cats.

Reasonable Doubt

This morning, driving to work, I had an epiphany: we should put Dick Cheney in a room with the administrators who okayed an adolescent girl being stripped searched and see what happens.

I sometimes have to take a hiatus from morning radio.  Sometimes morning news causes me to shout things across my apartment at no one.  Like, “Yeah, you better fucking tell me what critical intelligence you got after torturing those people!”  And that scares my cats.

Just a week after Easter, it blows my mind that some of the same people who say we live in a “Christian nation” would say that in cases of torture, the ends justify the means.  In case you hadn’t noticed, Christianity was founded by a man who preached nonviolence and then got tortured to death.  (Jesus wasn’t against confrontation, or destruction of social structures, but he did not, ever, use violence.) 

The ends do not always justify the means.  And the ends are always what show the kind of person you are, the kind of country you are.  They show what you are willing to sacrifice for peace of mind, or physical security.  And there are some things that aren’t worth sacrificing. 

We don’t have peace of mind– our military is more at risk for violent treatment when they are captured.  We don’t have physical security, either.  I don’t want to live in a police state, no matter how safe it is.  Physical security isn’t worth giving up your values.  (See either, What would Jesus do? sacrifice physical security for values; or, What would Buddha say?  you’re going to die regardless.)    

I imagine Mr. Cheney saying something like, “Well, sometimes you have to do things that are reprehensible in order to protect innocent lives.”  And then the administrator says, “That’s right!  We were only trying to keep pills away from teenagers when we stripped that shy adolescent girl naked at school and inspected her!”  And then the administrator is startled by that remark, and suddenly insecure.  Startled and insecure is a great beginning for growth.  (Aside: adolescent girls use hidden ibuprofin because they are shy, and they have nasty cramps every month.)

I’m not an Obama worshipper.  I just like Obama because he seems so reasonable.  I love the word “reasonable” in our legal system.  It is exactly the right word.  Obama says, “Open up Cuba!  But only this much,” and I think, that’s reasonable.  Let’s take our time.  He says, “Let’s release the torture memos, but not prosecute anyone.”  I think,  that’s reasonable. 

Much as I might want to watch the breakers of international law, the spitters on the Geneva Convention, squirm as they explain why they HAD to threaten the security of our own military because our country might be attacked again (as if this were a brand-new risk and not a consistent danger), I have a James Brown quote that I will rely on instead. 

I can’t verify this at all, but once I wrote it down, so it probably is James Brown.  It is as follows:  “Do I get discouraged?  No, I do not.  I just keep working, because I believe in God’s justice.”  I always think a guy involved in civil rights in the 60s has more reason to get discouraged than I do.  Whether or not you believe in God, people who condone torture have to answer to their own consciences.  If they have them, they’re feeling what they need to feel.  And if they don’t, there’s nothing we can do about it. 

My larger concern is that this torture thing gets enough press and public outrage that it won’t happen again.  I feel satisfied with the outrage level, apparently 2/3 of Americans want more investigation.  That’s plenty of reasonable people, weighing the ends and the means.

Teachers and Undertakers

I was not invited to the economic meltdown.  I went to work in a field with little prospect for financial advancement and infinite job security.  (Teachers and undertakers remained solvent during the Great Depression.  I’m the former.) 

Even worse: I didn’t invest.  My only retirement savings has been through the state pension fund.  I own my car, and I rent my apartment. 

I’m not throwing this out to brag.  It’s just strange that in the eyes of the world, I’ve gone from silly to sagely stable in the last year.

The other strange thing about this economic crisis is that suddenly being poor seems worthy of compassion.  I’ve been working with poor people for about eight years.  During that time, Oprah has gone from interviewing families who make $100 grand a year and still bury themselves in credit card debt to spotlighting tent cities.

Not so very long ago, the only relief I found from a relentless march of sloppy consumerism was a “Roseanne” rerun, where a character would sometimes dare to say, “We can’t afford it.” 

Since Americans believe so passionately in individual opportunity, they can easily fall into an old-fashioned idea of poverty.  Before modern times, most people believed the poor were lazy or stupid or immoral.  They deserved to be more physically uncomfortable and emotionally drained than the rest of us.

But when jobs fall away and credit dries up, we have to admit that this cannot be the case.  Suddenly everyone is too close to poverty to associate it with laziness, stupidity, or immorality.  And if we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that we are one serious illness away from bankruptcy, health insurance or no.

Back to Oprah’s homelessness show: what shocked me most about the feature was that many people living in the tent city said they had family they could be living with, but they were too ashamed to ask for help.  I have a huge family.  I imagine that I am at least 30 couches and basements away from being homeless.  I hope I wouldn’t be so wedded to my individualism and pride that I wouldn’t sleep on a perfectly good couch.  But I don’t know.

One of my friends recently insisted that we had to change our safety net.  This every-man-for-himself thing, she said, has to stop.  We have to become more like the Europeans.  Individual fates are too fragile, and families are too fractured, to make our society stable. 

She insisted we need the government to step in more often, and more reliably.  This is not about emotional concern for the poor.  It’s about building stable social structures, which benefits the rich as much as the poor.

Although I’m firmly on the left, I still find these idea a little strange.  What would that be like?  What would it be like to know that your access to health care was not dependent on your job or (bizzare as it is) your health?  What would it be like to know that your retirement was not dependent on the stock market? 

What if the government prevented loans from being given to people who clearly can’t afford to pay them back?  What if the government stopped big corporations from becoming so powerful we had to “save” them to save ourselves?  Could we make that happen?  I guess we’re about to find out.