Monday, January 20, 2014

Sympathy For the Devil

I read a story in the news a few weeks ago about a group of Satanists who have gotten together and applied for permission to build a monument on the capital grounds in Oklahoma City. The group did not choose Oklahoma City randomly for their seven-foot statue of a seated, goat-headed god. Oklahoma recently allowed a monument of the Ten Commandments to be placed at the capital building, opening the door to a lawsuit from the ACLU on First Amendment principals. As you remember, the First Amendment enshrines both the right to free speech AND the right to religious freedom.

To me, this is a no-brainer. Of course citizens have the right to build a monument to the Ten Commandments;  “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise (of religion).” Also, the tale of Moses receiving the law of God is one of the most well known stories ever and the basis for 4000 years of Judeo-Christian morality. However, because of that pesky First Amendment, the state of Oklahoma finds itself in a sticky place.  Along with the right of citizens to practice the religion of their choice without interference from the government, the very same amendment bars the state from endorsing one religion over others; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

By allowing a monument rooted firmly in the practice of Judaism and Christianity to take a place of prominence on the capital grounds, the state appears to have endorsed one set of beliefs over all others. To rectify this, the state must allow the erection of similar monuments rooted in other faiths OR order the removal of the original monument. The fact that it is a group of Satanists who have announced plans to place their own monument in Oklahoma City makes me gleeful. It is the perfect group to challenge the state of Oklahoma.

The worship of Satan would most likely be abhorrent to 99% of the citizens of the Sooner State, and this will be a real test of Oklahoma’s commitment to the ideals of the United States Constitution. If Christians and Jews can have a monument on land at the state capital building, then so can other faiths, right?  That is exactly what the Constitution guarantees.

The First Amendment protects the right of stupid people to say hurtful things exactly as strongly as it does the right of Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak so beautifully about equality. That same First Amendment protects the right of any citizen to pray to any arbitrary and omniscient being he or she chooses, while at the same time guaranteeing the government cannot endorse one particular omnipotent being (or set of beings) over any other omnipotent being (or set of beings). For the Constitution to mean anything, it has to apply equally. For the citizens of Oklahoma, that means you either have to take down those Ten Commandments or clear space for Baphomet (the goat-headed Satanist monument), Shiva, Buddha, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and any other imaginary being people choose to worship. That is the enduring truth of the First Amendment: it is at its most beautiful when protecting what many find most ugly.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My Next Career

Five months ago I started a new job. Five months is long enough to now have some actual opinions and thoughts about how things are going. But before I write about those, it feels important for me to at least recognize that something big has shifted in my life.

For 25 years I was a teacher. I taught English in Yemen for 2 years, I was a teaching Naturalist at Brandywine Creek State Park in Delaware for a year, I taught severely emotionally disturbed teens in Delaware for 4 months, I taught Outdoor Education in Massachusetts for a year, I taught preschool in Montana for 3 years, I taught teens at an in-patient psych ward in Montana for a summer, I taught carpentry, construction, backpacking, and rock-climbing skills in Montana for 5 summers, I taught Special Education in Upstate New York for 3 years, I taught English and Global Studies Upstate for 3 years, I taught fifth and sixth graders in Connecticut for 7 years, and then back to preschool in Ithaca for a year.

In retrospect, I can say that I was a good teacher.  I was patient.  I was dedicated to my students. I kept myself informed on many topics. I communicated well with parents. I was a good colleague. I taught by example. I was willing to follow tangents if they were interesting and productive. I listened to my kids. I helped them see that testing is a game adults make kids play, and test scores are NOT a valid yardstick with which to measure a child. In the end, it was a great run.  The highlight for me was getting to have my daughter, Isabel, in my class for a year. It was a pretty great year.

But after all of that, I have nothing tangible to show for it.  There is not one thing I can point to and say with certainty, “I did that.” The successes are invisible, as are the failures. I have the kind words of parents in the end-of-the-year cards they sometimes give to teachers, but they are not concrete, either.  If I reread them, I can feel good, but still I cannot hold in my hand one thing I have created as a teacher.

For 25 years, that was okay with me. It was a job full of rewards and I truly loved it. For the last ten years there was not one day where I said to myself, ‘I would rather not be a teacher today.’ I know that is hard to believe, but it is true.

As we moved to Ithaca 18 months ago I started to play with the idea of getting out of teaching and into something else.  I was not sure quite what I wanted to do, but I could tell that teaching was nearing the end of its rewarding life.  I was starting to feel a bit run down from having to always care so much.  As a teacher, I could feel the weight and power my words and attitudes had. When you are a teacher there is no room for casual remarks or jokes at the expense of a student.  There is no room for tuning out while a student tells you about something they find important. You have to care—all the time. And, in the end, I knew I was getting tired of caring so much all the time.  I wanted to be able to let my guard down, to tune out of boring conversations, to poke a little fun without worrying if someone was strong enough to take it.

In the end, I feel like I did a lot more good than harm as a teacher and I did not want to skew the balance of that equation by remaining in the classroom too long.  There is nothing worse than a bitter teacher.

So, now I am a writer! And I am loving it. I am working for Cornell Engineering in the Marketing and Communications Department and mostly what I get to do is find fascinating people and write about them. My boss took a real gamble and hired me with no professional experience. And because she did, I get to learn all sorts of amazing science, I get to talk to geniuses, and then I get to close my door, not care at all about anyone for hours, and write words. After a while, the words show up out in the world, on websites and in magazines. There is a finished product I can point to and other people can judge. It is so different for me—and so good—to be able to share something I have done for work.

It is good to have specific tasks, to have deadlines, and to get concrete feedback in the moment on how I am doing. As a teacher the feedback is clear as you watch your kids.  You know if they are bored, if they are confused, if they are getting it. But that feedback has as much to do with their internal states as it does with your teaching. The other feedback you get as a teacher is test scores, administrator evaluations, and that inner-voice that lets you know how you are doing.  None of these is a truly objective measure of your ability as a teacher.

As a writer, my bosses and editors can tell me if something is unclear, too long, too informal, wrong on the facts, or just plain NOT what they were looking for. And then I can go back and make it more clear, shorter, more formal, correct, or more like what they were looking for. And I can do this by myself, in a room, without having to take anyone’s feelings into account. I feel remarkably free in this new job. After 25 years without direct, in-the-moment criticism of my work, I find it refreshing and very helpful to get feedback right away.

Another thing I love about my job is that I have an audience. If most teachers are honest, part of the thrill of teaching is being on stage every day. You have a captive audience for your brilliance, your jokes, and your special insights. But it is a small audience, and it is also there when you are having a bad day. As a writer, my larger audience only gets to see my edited work after it goes through several drafts and several critics. The crappy stuff doesn’t make it onto the website or into the magazine. I get a real thrill out of seeing my name in the by-line.

Another huge benefit of changing careers at the age of 48 is that I get to learn all sorts of new things. And, as an ex-teacher, I know the value of learning new things.  It keeps a brain young and makes me happier.  I feel pushed and challenged and excited about work.

So, I am happy to report that I loved being a teacher for 25 years, and I am also very happy to report that I love being a writer.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Cheney For Senate?

Let me start by saying that I am not from Wyoming, though I do go there once in a while during family visits to neighboring Montana. If you add up the number of days I have spent in Wyoming as an adult, you might get to 60. This total would most certainly NOT qualify me for a resident fishing license. According to Wyoming Fish and Game regulations, a person must live in the state for a year to qualify for the lower-cost resident license.

Surprisingly (to her), Liz Cheney also did not qualify for a resident fishing license in Wyoming. When she applied for permission to fish in Wyoming’s trout-filled steams and rivers, she said she had lived in the state for a decade. (Actually, she had only lived in the state for 72 days.) Cheney says the clerk who took her application must have made a mistake. Whoever made the mistake, it was a costly one to Cheney. She ended up posting a $220.00 bond for the high misdemeanor of swearing a false oath. 

It may be the most expensive $220.00 fine ever paid. It may cost Liz Cheney a Senate seat.

Like Montanans, Wyomingites do not cotton to liars. Or carpetbaggers. And Ms. Cheney certainly seems to be both. She and her husband bought a house in Jackson Hole in 2012 and shortly after, she announced that she would run in the Republican Senate primary in 2014. This has struck many observers as an interesting choice. Wyoming already has a Republican Senator in that seat. His name is Mike Enzi. I can certainly understand why Tea Party-types are “primary-ing” Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. They think he is not pure enough in his conservatism. Same for Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Susan Collins in Maine, Orrin Hatch in Utah, Lindsay Graham In South Carolina, and Lamar Alexander in Tennessee—all of whom voted to re-open the government after 16 days of self-inflicted economic damage had been done to the country.

But Mike Enzi did not vote to reopen the government, even though Wyoming is home to several amazingly beautiful national parks that had to shut down. In fact, Mike Enzi voted to continue the shutdown, even in the face of looming economic disaster. In his three terms as Republican Senator from Wyoming, Mike Enzi has earned the following ratings and scores from various interest groups:

Rated A+ by NRA
Rated 100% by National Right to Life Committee
Rated 0% by the American Public Health Association
Rated 100% by US Border Control—a private anti-immigration group
Rated 0% by Citizens for Tax Justice

In addition to these ratings, Senator Enzi has shown where he stands by voting no on limiting farm subsidies to those making under $750,000 a year, voting no on extending unemployment benefits from 39 weeks to 59 weeks, voting with the Republican Party well over 90% of the time, and voting no on increasing the tax rate on those earning over $1 million. 

Why on Earth does Liz Cheney feel the need to run against this man? Does she feel the voters of Wyoming need someone more in line with their values? Is Mike Enzi too liberal for Wyoming? I can think of only two reasons why Liz Cheney would move to Wyoming and try to unseat Mike Enzi: ego and love of power. 

The voters of Wyoming are smart enough to see right through Ms. Cheney. By now, she may have earned her resident fishing license, but she surely has not earned the votes of the people of Wyoming.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Sprinkle Plants of East Haven

When Isabel was 4 we lived in East Haven, CT. Our house was an 80-year old place that had been bought and updated by two guys who reminded me a lot of Tom and Ray Magliozzi from Car Talk. The hard wood floors had all been stripped and polished, the washer, dryer, fridge, and dishwasher were all new, the wooden accents around all the windows and doors had been taken down and refinished and rehung, it had central air conditioning, a new super-efficient furnace in the basement, and multi-zone control of the temperature for maximum energy savings. It was a beautiful house.

Only one thing was wrong with it—it was in East Haven, CT.

You may have heard of East Haven—it has been in the news a few times in the last couple of years. Four of its police officers have been charged with federal civil rights abuses; some of the charges stemming from a falsified police report about the arrest of a Catholic priest as he filmed two East Haven cops harassing a shopkeeper. Others of the charges are the result of one officer’s assault on the owner of an Ecuadorian restaurant who tried to photograph the officer harassing his customers in the parking lot.

Or perhaps you heard of East Haven when its mayor, Joe Maturo, was asked what he intended to do to help Latinos in his town feel better about his leadership. In all seriousness, the mayor said he might go home that night and have a taco for dinner. And then he could not understand why this answer might actually be offensive, or just the wrong thing to say. Or, if you didn’t hear about the mayor’s taco comment, perhaps you heard about the hilarious response to his taco comment from some in his community.

If none of these stories rings a bell, then maybe it was the more recent case of the group of East Haven cops who left their jurisdiction, lights flashing and sirens wailing, and went to New Haven, where they provoked an accident, took a woman and her car hostage, and then changed their stories about what happened as Internal Affairs investigated. Well, whatever the case, East Haven was where this beautiful house was located and we simply did not have the resources to jack it up off its foundation, put it on a truck, and cart it off to somewhere a bit better, (like Camden, NJ).

We lived in the house for two years, but we should have known from Day One that it was not the place for us. As the movers were unloading our stuff from the truck, there was a teen-aged girl on the front stoop of the house next door, talking loudly into a cell phone and cursing a blue streak. On closer examination, her ankle bracelet tracking device made itself evident. The girl’s heroin-using mom hit us up for work once in a while when she needed money.

Or, if we didn’t realize it was not the place for us on Day One, maybe we should have realized on Day Two, when I took Isabel to the playground in the local park just down the road from our house. Isabel LOVED to swing and she could do it for hours, so whenever she woke up real early, I would get her out of the house so Erica might be able to sleep-in a bit. So, that second day in East Haven Isabel and I went to the park and I put her in the kid swing and started pushing her. And then I looked down and noticed broken glass all throughout the sand under the swings. The more I looked, the more glass I saw. Oh, and also some used syringes. Before long, Isabel took to calling it the Glass Playground, to distinguish it from the Giant Playground that was a twenty-minute walk away from our house.

The first time Isabel ever said the F-word, she read it spray-painted on a slide at the Glass Park. Ah, memories…

 And if not on Day Two, surely we should have known five months into it, when our Subaru Outback was totaled while parked in front of our house. Seems a guy fell asleep behind the wheel on his way home from the methadone clinic. It wasn’t even his van he was driving—it belonged to the plumber who had just that week hired him as an assistant. (I ended up feeling a little bit bad for that guy.) Anyway, what got me thinking about that house in East Haven today was a cupcake I saw on somebody’s desk this afternoon. It had white frosting and rainbow sprinkles.

The sprinkles acted as the visual equivalent of Proust’s madeleine; one glimpse brought back two full years in East Haven. When I saw those sprinkles I right away pictured our front yard. We had put a white picket fence up after some punk stole the good cooking pot we had left on the porch. The pot was full of self-service Halloween candy so that we could both go trick-or-treating with Isabel. Inside that fence we had created a large L-shaped garden to grow tomatoes and basil and lots of flowers.

As I remember it, for our first Easter in East Haven we put a small shaker of sprinkles in Isabel’s basket. Then we told her that if she buried a few sprinkles in the garden, a sprinkle bush would grow. So, she planted some sprinkles in the garden. A few months later, Erica and I placed a few new plastic jars of sprinkles in the branches of a green pepper plant and then reminded Isabel of when she had planted the sprinkles. Right away she wanted to go check the plant, and sure enough it had borne fruit. In retrospect, the look on Isabel’s face when she saw those plastic jars full of rainbow sprinkles outweighs all of the negatives that came with living in East Haven, CT for two years.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

My Daughter's Perfume

Brushing my teeth this morning I had a horrifying insight into my own worldview. I am not sure about other people, but I am terribly bored by brushing my teeth. (This, by the way, is NOT the horrifying insight—that will come soon enough.) I do it every day at least twice, but it always feels like a chore. Often I will leave the bathroom as I brush, using the time to do little tasks like moving dirty laundry from my room to the washer or putting clean towels away or opening windows to let some air in. This morning I left the bathroom and went to Isabel’s room to turn out the light in her closet. While in her room I caught a whiff of perfume and assumed she had just put it on as she was getting ready for school. That whiff of perfume triggered a cascade of thoughts and feelings that ARE the horrifying insight. I am not sure what to do with what I have seen about myself, but my first impulse is to write it down and get it out into the light to help me make sense of it. Mostly, that whiff of Isabel’s perfume made me feel achingly sad.
The chain goes something like this: my daughter is growing up a bit..she is no longer playing dress-up when she wears a touch of perfume…it is part of her morning routine…soon enough she will be in high school…and she will, at some point, start dating people…and she will be lied to and manipulated and have her heart broken. How twisted is that? A whiff of perfume leads to real true sadness about the broken hearts my daughter has not yet suffered? Why is it that I go directly to the future sadness rather than the future joy? I remember how thrilling it is to have a crush on someone. I remember the jolt when you realize they might feel the same. I can still feel the explosion of that first kiss with someone you really like. Relationships bring giddy joy as much as they do deep sadness, so why do I ignore the upside and go straight to the down? Am I someone who sees life this way?