Thursday, February 26, 2009

Our Week In Vermont

We spent our school vacation week at a house in the woods of Vermont. It was just south of Brattleboro so it made for an easy two-hour drive. A stomach flu swept through our family at the beginning of the week, leaving us weakened but still happy to be there. We snowshoe-ed, ice skated on the pond, built a snowman, sat and read by the fire, and had a few friends come and visit. It was a good week. Our dog, Ginger, was in heaven. I don't have much to say about our week--just wanted to post some pictures.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Follow Through

Every time I look up at the corner of our dining room ceiling, I feel a tweak of sheepishness. Two years ago, I began to replace our cruddy old drop ceiling with a less-cruddy new drop ceiling that has a pressed tin-tile design. I had some problems with the adhesive and ended up re-doing large chunks of the ceiling, and now it stands 98% complete. The 2% incomplete section is the corner my eyes travel to every time I walk in the room.

It is undone because the ceiling is not flat in this corner—it slopes upward, leaving an irregular and problematic surface upon which to glue new tiles. I am not dumb, but I am also not very handy around the house, so I have simply walked away from the project without figuring out a way to make a new flat ceiling appear below an old, not-flat ceiling. The job is undone.

I start with this illustration to make a point: I have a problem with follow through. I get near 80% done with any major job or commitment and I start to lose interest. It happened in the Peace Corps, it happens when I tackle a major chore like cleaning out the basement or getting the yard ready for winter, and it sometimes happens in my relationships with people. I pull away before they have actually left my life. I noticed and put words to this habit of mine back in the fall, when I decided I needed to do something about it.

For me the first step to doing something about anything is simply noticing it. I am not a noticer and I am certainly not very good at identifying my feelings. Heck, I used to be able to go days without even realizing I was having emotions. So now I am working at noticing when I have settled into my pattern of pulling out and walking away. Along with simply noticing when it is happening, I am developing strategies for re-engaging with whatever is the matter at hand. And I am also working to simply build my stamina for tough, unpleasant tasks.

One task I decided to take on was running the Half at the Hamptons LOCO Half Marathon this weekend in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. I decided back in November that I would train through the winter and try for a personal best half marathon time at the Hampton race. I knew that in order for me to actually set a new personal record, I would need to train consistently and hard through the winter. I also knew this was exactly the kind of commitment I would be likely to flake out on and find some reason to give up just weeks before the race.

I am back from the race and I can tell you right off the bat, I did not flake out and give up on the training a few weeks ago. I stuck with it through some tough weather, inconvenient schedules, and winter-induced inertia and managed to train hard right up through Friday of this week. No, I did not give up on the training at all.

But I DID almost give up on my goal during the race.

It was a beautifully sunny, cold, clear morning on the beach today and around 900 runners lined up for the 11:00 a.m. start. I could see in the pack up ahead the pacesetters for those who wished to run a certain time in today’s race. I know myself and I knew that I could not start up with the 8:00-minute mile pacers, though my eventual goal was to finish with them. I need to start races slowly and then speed up through the easier miles later in a race or else I simply crash and finish disappointed.

There was a good crowd of runners today—very friendly and supportive and the first few miles were good. I got to mile-marker four and found myself running with a group of about ten runners who were all following the 8:00 minute pacers, (Lisa and Cliff). I settled in just behind Cliff and locked onto the yellow bib pinned to his back. I was not feeling like I had a lot in me today, but I made up my mind that I was going to simply dog Cliff the entire way, and then sprint ahead in the last mile and see if I could finish in under an hour and 45 minutes.

To make a long story a little shorter, I found it very hard to keep up with Cliff and Lisa. I struggled with the temptation to drop back and then try to catch up later in the race. In fact, I had almost convinced myself that this would be the best course to take when I remembered that damned ceiling and its incomplete corner. I caught myself doing that thing I do where I back away from something I have committed to without even putting up a real fight.

So I dug in and just gritted my teeth and matched Cliff step for step. At mile eleven I pulled up alongside Lisa and asked her about the etiquette of using the services of pacers and then taking off ahead of them at the end in an effort to get a better time. She laughed and said, “That is what we are here for—take off and see what you can do.”

So when I got to mile twelve I thanked Lisa and Cliff and turned up my speed a bit. The final mile was along Ocean Blvd. in Hampton and the wind picked up in this beachfront stretch. I was hurting—my calves were tight and getting tighter with each step, my lungs were burning, and my head was screaming at me to slow down and coast in, knowing I would beat my goal of 8:00 per mile.

But my heart was saying NO NO NO with each pound. It wanted me to stick to my goal and work it until the last step across the finish line. So we held a quick committee meeting and my heart overruled my calves, lungs, and head and I gave everything I had all the way to the finish line.

In that last mile I thought about how I used to go to yoga classes a lot and loved them, but could never make myself do yoga at home. I needed to simply get to the studio and once I did, I would follow any instructions the teachers gave and work really hard at it. I also thought about the growth I am experiencing lately in my personal life and in my relationship with Erica. It is happening because Erica is out in the world learning important lessons and bringing them home to me and I am simply applying what she has learned. In both cases, someone else is doing the work and I am merely following along.

The same was true of the race today—until mile marker 12. Cliff and Lisa were doing the real work and I was simply following along. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t anything to be proud of either. But then, when I stepped out and around Cliff and Lisa and fought off my own efforts at sabotage, that was when I really learned something about follow through.

I finished with not a drop left in the tank. The clock said 1:42:56 when I ran over the finish line. That works out to be seven minutes and fifty-two seconds per mile. It was faster than I had hoped possible and the only reason I did it is because I didn’t listen to most of myself.

You know what—I have tomorrow off and I think I just might try to finish that stupid ceiling.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Pardon the Indulgence

The Catholic Church is up to its old tricks again—its VERY old tricks. It has reinstituted the practice of granting indulgences. When I first saw this story I thought it was a joke. I went to Catholic High School—St. Anthony’s in Smithtown, NY—and I learned all about indulgences back in ninth and tenth grade when I studied Church history. My teacher, Mr. Donlon, was an intense intellectual and, as I recall, he presented indulgences as something too theologically complex for 14-year olds to understand. So I went to the Catholic Encyclopedia to learn what he would not teach us.

I don’t think I am oversimplifying with the following description of the official Catholic Church teaching on indulgences, but if I am, please set me straight:

1) The members of the Church are like the organs of the body—they share one life and one spirit.

2) Each good action of church members accrues expiatory power in a “treasury” controlled by Church.

3) The Church controls an inexhaustible fund of “satisfaction” based on the good works of its members, the virtues, penances, and sufferings of the saints, the works of the Virgin Mary, and the infinite value deposited by the life and death of Jesus Christ.

4) The Pope and his chosen delegates can grant use of the funds built up in the treasury to shorten or even cancel the amount of time a soul is required to spend in Purgatory before going to Heaven.

5) Control of this treasury is granted NOT to individual Christians but instead to the Church. In order to tap into this fund of “satisfaction” there is required an exercise of authority and the Church alone can determine how, on what terms, and to what extent indulgences may be granted.

The Church outlawed the outright sale of indulgences in 1567, so now you can earn an indulgence through charitable contributions and other acts. The church contends there is no quid pro quo.

Paul Vitello in a recent New York Times article writes:

“According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and say their Our Fathers or Hail Marys as penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory, before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament.

There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed. You can get one for yourself, or for someone who is dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day.”

When I think about this idea of indulgences I am forced to admit a certain amount of admiration for the Church. The Church has found a way to place a value on the amount of time spent in Purgatory. They have "commoditized" the lessening of a soul’s suffering. I am both horrified and impressed at the theological convolutions, contortions, and gymnastics required for the Church to find itself morally okay with the concept of trading contributions for a lessening of suffering.

For one thing it becomes undeniably clear that a system requiring this much explanation is surely a construct of humans and NOT divinely inspired. If there were a God, S/he would not have the idea of a BANK filled with the moral valence of untold good works. Banks where good deeds are hoarded is certainly a human idea. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Once it is admitted that Christ left the Church the power to forgive sins (see PENANCE), the power of granting indulgences is logically inferred.” Maybe. But the power to act as bankers doling out propitiations is far from logically inferred.

On one level, the Church is only doing what individuals have done forever. This makes sense since the Church is simply a human construct and it therefore exhibits human behaviors writ large. When I do something dumb in my marriage with Erica I might bring her flowers or chocolate to shorten my time in the doghouse. If Isabel has done something to anger me, she will sometimes give me a big hug and say, “I love you SO MUCH, Daddy.” She might not be aware of what she is doing or why, but it is clearly an effort to shorten the length of time I am mad at her.

These “tricks” often work in human relationships because they are subtle and unmentioned. What horrifies me about indulgences is how strictly transactional it makes the process of making up for something. It takes a fine-tuned trick humans have mastered below the radar and puts it out where everyone can see it. And in the process it has somehow cheapened the acts of contrition. It places into doubt both the sincerity of the penitent and the good intentions of the Church.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Oval Office Dress Code

Ex-President George W. Bush’s former Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, was on Michael Medved’s radio show recently and he had this to say about the new, more relaxed, dress code in the Oval Office:

"...I found that Ronald Reagan and both President Bushes treated the Oval Office with tremendous respect. They treated the Office of the Presidency with tremendous respect. And some of that respect was reflected in how they expected people to behave, how they expected them to dress when they walked into the symbol of freedom for the world, the Oval Office. And yes, I'm disappointed to see the casual, laissez faire, short sleeves, no shirt and tie, no jacket, kind of locker room experience that seems to be taking place in this White House and the Oval Office."

I nearly spit out my coffee as I read Mr. Card’s words this morning.

Now, I am no psychologist, but allow me a moment of long-distance diagnosis here. President Obama seems to me to be a man who is supremely confident. He is not cocky. He is not obnoxious. He is not a braggart. He simply knows that he has what it takes to lead the United States, (and, by extension, the World), through these perilous economic times.

He has no need to hide behind the trappings of the office. He doesn’t need to place 220 years of tradition and history between himself and everyone else in order to command respect. He will be respected, (if indeed he IS respected,) for what he says and, more importantly, for what he DOES.

Mr. Card claims the Oval Office is “the symbol of freedom for the world.” This is the line that practically had me needing a new keyboard and screen—under President Bush the Oval Office has been seen as a symbol of closed-door meetings, abuse of Presidential authority, DISrespect for the actual symbol of freedom—the United States Constitution—and general ineptitude. President George W. Bush had a different kind of confidence than President Obama. President Bush’s confidence seems to be that of the man who is constantly out to prove himself. At his core, I think he knows that he was out of his depth and therefore he had to adopt his swagger and his outsize cockiness. Deep down, he had more doubts about himself then we did.

Just as some would make desecration of the flag a crime because they elevate the symbol itself (the flag) over the ideals it stands for (freedom of expression), Andrew Card and President Bush have mistaken the symbol for the thing itself. This mistake gives evidence of their inability to see much below the surface and points out some of the possible reasons for their eight years of ineptitude.

I for one am glad we have a President who can see through the surface and get to the heart of the matter. There is some especially hard work required at this moment in our history and to get it done, President Obama and his advisors will need to take off their jackets and roll up their sleeves.