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» 2012 » February

Monthly ArchiveFebruary 2012

Commentary 23 Feb 2012 06:32 pm

Shaky moral ground

Today’s column from The Alliance Review:

Some hard-core religious radicals (or is that conservatives?) want to dictate to American women what they can and cannot do with their bodies and their lives.

This is hardly a news flash, but it certainly came into sharp focus last week when the extent to which the GOP has gotten into bed with Roman Catholic bishops became clear.

The bishops are agitated over the Obama administration’s contraception compromise, which would allow employees of religiously affiliated organizations to deal directly with insurance companies for birth control and morning-after pills. This eliminates the morally sticky wicket of faith-based employers funding employees’ contraceptive choices. It also makes insurance company executives happy because — news flash again! — contraceptives are much less expensive than children.

This didn’t quell the bishops’ objections, however. Instead, it gave them a platform to expand a skirmish over insurance into a full-blown war against the very existence of contraception. Now they oppose the compromise because of moral qualms with the idea that couples — but mostly women, who aren’t allowed much of a stake in Catholicism, anyway — can wrest reproductive freedom from the whims of a capricious god and take control of their own bodies.

In this case, as in many, the majority of Catholic women are much more intelligent than their leaders. While the often-repeated statistic that 98 percent of Catholic women have used birth control is incorrect (a Washington Post blog entry by Glen Kessler explains the data in more detail), the fact remains that the majority of Catholic women of child-bearing age have used contraceptives in defiance of church teaching.

(The Catholic Church doesn’t cut its flock much slack. Even the withdrawal technique, probably one of the riskiest forms of contraception — if it can even be called contraception — is a moral no-no.)

With its strong stance against the Obama compromise, bishops appear to be saying that not only are contraceptives prohibited within the Catholic Church, but that they should be prohibited for everybody, everywhere.

The moral high ground from which these men operate, however, is located along a fault line as shaky as the San Andreas. The child-rape scandal within the Catholic Church may be in the bishops’ rear-view mirror, but the memory of its shameful handling still rankles. To put it bluntly, the authority of Catholic bishops to make pronouncements about sex, sexuality and procreation has been severely compromised.

Yet many Republicans are happy to join in the catcalls for the compromise because, at this point in the sad GOP primary process, their party doesn’t have a single candidate who could truly challenge Obama in November. Thus, they will seize on any point, no matter how woebegone, to chip away at the president’s credibility, including this nonissue.

My disgust at this sort of behavior, however, extends to members of both parties who curry the favor of various religious denominations.

If I showed up in the chambers of Congress, demanding to be heard because I had the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus on speed dial, I would be quickly be shown the door — and rightly so.

Yet faith-based delegates somehow keep finding their way to the negotiation table where politics is concerned, weighing in on issues of science and technology (stem-cell research) and social mores (the legality of gay marriage) where their only credentials are an alleged pipeline to a higher power for which they can offer not one more shred of proof than I can for Peter Cottontail or St. Nick. And not only are they not quickly shooed away, but they are listened to!

I know why — political expediency. Very few people are elected in this country who do not at least pay lip-service to religion, and by religion, I mean what most conservatives mean, which is fundamental Christianity. Jews and Muslims need not apply.

The odds of this cozening relationship between politicians and church leaders changing anytime soon are about the same as the odds of Catholic bishops getting women to buy into their outmoded, testosterone-centered view of sex.

Yet I — and they — can always hope.

@cschillig on Twitter

Commentary & Media & Music 16 Feb 2012 08:32 pm

Death be not poor

My column from today’s Alliance Review:

I have no idea how Whitney Houston’s album sales are this week, but it wouldn’t surprise me if her music shot straight to number one.

The best thing any artist can do to revive a flagging career is to die. Musician after musician proves it. Kurt Cobain. Tupac Shakur. Amy Winehouse. Michael Jackson. And now Houston.

Yet our ghoulish fascination with celebrity demise extends beyond singers. Would “The Dark Knight” have been as big a phenomenon if Heath Ledger hadn’t died shortly before the movie’s release? Might Marilyn Monroe’s mystique have been less magnetic if she had lived to, say, Betty White’s age? Is the memory of James Dean — leaning rakishly against a wall, one thumb hitched through a belt loop, red leather jacket identifying him as a rebel without a cause — indelibly burned into our collective subconsciousness precisely because he left us so young?

Or take John F. Kennedy, in the news again recently as more allegations of extramarital shenanigans come to light. Despite the profusion of stories indicating he was as morally bankrupt as any number of contemporary politicians whose dalliances have destroyed their careers, JFK remains our golden boy, leader of a mythical Camelot. Why? Because he had the misfortune of dying young, in office and by violence, a trifecta for immortality of the reputation. His death may have been bad for his person, but it was great for his persona.

In Jackson’s case, a surcease of heart beats is all it took to erase the lingering stigma of child molestation. To mention it now is to earn the wrath of people who believe, mistakenly, that we should not speak ill of the dead. But if the dead did ill when they were alive, why should we stop speaking of it now? Death, it seems, provides the ultimate do-over.

Our fascination with whatever resides beyond that final curtain through which we must all pass before making our final bow extends into every facet of our culture. The English language is awash in it. “You’re killing me,” we say when we laugh; “I could have just died,” when we are embarrassed; and “I could blow my brains out,” when we’re upset.

We dress up death the same way we would a poor relative of whom we are secretly embarrassed but who must come with us to dinner, nevertheless. Our loved ones seldom simply “die.” Instead, they pass away or pass on to their eternal reward. They meet their maker, succumb, go the way of all flesh, depart or go home. (For what it’s worth, I’m OK with “died.” Call it what it is.)

Then there are the humorous descriptions: Sleep with the fishes, dirt nap, kick the bucket, buy the farm, cash in their chips, croak. Feet are an important descriptor: Extremely sick people have one foot in the grave, where it presumably waits for its companion before the entire body goes 6 feet under, and to die with one’s boots on is considered a compliment. (Since I haven’t owned a pair of boots until recently, I’ve been effectively immortal.)

In one of our strangest customs, we gather around a dead person’s body and offer compliments, saying all the words that might have meant something to the person had we bothered to share them while he or she was still around to hear.

(Mark Twain nailed it perfectly 136 years ago when he had Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn eavesdrop on their own funerals. They are so complimented that they almost regret letting loved ones know they’re alive.)

So it should surprise nobody if Houston’s record sales spike this week, as people who haven’t listened or cared about her in years suddenly decide she’s the greatest thing since … the last celebrity who died.

Death is merely a final marketing technique, a relaunching of one’s career. In the case of Whitney: Houston, we have liftoff.

Commentary 09 Feb 2012 06:36 pm

My secret life as an introvert

Today’s column, as published in The Review:

“The Upside of Being an Introvert” in the Feb. 6 Time Magazine was a come-to-Jesus moment for me.

The article by Bryan Walsh begins with the author’s story of hiding in the bathroom of the American Embassy in Tokyo, where he works up courage to later mingle with the powerful elite at a holiday party. It proceeds to explain how introverted people, often labeled (sometimes erroneously) as “shy,” are a product of both nature and nurture. In other words, that their disposition toward large crowds is determined by genetics and environment.

I nodded my head in recognition so often while reading Walsh’s piece that I reminded myself of one of those dunking-bird toys that perpetually dips its beak into water before swinging up again, propelled by a liquid counterweight in its bottom. When Walsh describes the exhaustion that introverted people often feel at social gatherings, I bobbed my head in agreement. When he talks about the introvert’s preference for working alone, I nodded again. When he noted that “introvert” need not be a synonym for “shy,” I was practically salaaming before the magazine and shouting “Amen,” despite the religious mixed metaphor, because it so perfectly dovetailed with my personality.

I answered yes to 19 out of 20 questions on an accompanying quiz, agreeing emphatically with statements such as, “I prefer not to show my work or discuss it with others until it is finished,” “I dislike conflict” and “If I had to choose, I’d prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled.” Along the introvert/extrovert continuum, I’m siding with the quiet folks.

The only statement that drew a “No” is this: “People describe me as soft-spoken or mellow.” And that, in perpetuity, has been the crux of my inner personality debate.

People who know me from my schooldays would likely remember me as a clown, if they remember me at all. I fancied myself the wiseacre in the back of the room, king of the quick quip or double-entendre, the guy who knew just how far to push without angering an instructor. “Shy” and “introverted” probably aren’t the first adjectives that come to mind, for instance, when people recall my humiliating performance as Quasimodo during a report for a book I didn’t read. (I moaned like an animal for two minutes, pretending I was the hunchback being whipped by the evil Claude Frollo.)

Yet outside of classroom situations that were my comfort zone, I was — and am — painfully introverted. I never attended a school dance. I never tried out for a sports team. I have never directly asked anybody out on a date. (My wife asked me.) My sales career ended when I found it too painful to continue risking daily rejection by strangers, when I literally could not cold-call anymore.

To this day, I feel anxiety when entering wedding receptions or calling hours, or speaking in a crowd. Rarely do I make a telephone call where I wouldn’t rather hang up before it is answered. If I can email or text instead, I do.

Oddly enough, however, I make my living as a teacher, standing in front of a room of strangers every August and hoping that my knocking knees and shaking hands aren’t too obvious. Each day, I attempt to win over students with corny jokes, a toothy grin and a carnival barker’s persona. If I’m overly tired, these tools fail me, and all I’m left with is the Real Me, who’d much rather sit in the back of the room and pretend to listen while hiding a Mad Magazine inside my textbook.

By the time Friday rolls around, all this extroversion leaves me with just enough energy to crawl back into my cave, pull shut the front door and hide inside a book or a movie with some take-out food before I pull on my extrovert’s mask again on Monday.

Even this split-personality, which for most of my adult life I have considered patently bizarre, is explained by Walsh’s article. Brian Little, a Harvard lecturer and researcher, calls it the Free Trait Theory, which Walsh defines as “the idea that while we have certain fixed bits of personality, we can act out of character in the service of core personal goals.”

For me, that personal goal is making people laugh. I was good at it in the back of the room, I fancy myself as competent here in print, and I like to think I’ve developed a penchant for it in front of people.

Because I firmly believe that when people are laughing, with me or at me, they are more open to new opportunities and ideas. That they learn better. And teaching, while I would prefer to do it in the privacy of my own home and from behind the safe anonymity of a computer screen, is a noble-enough calling to force me outside my comfort zone.

It’s what keeps me from living inside my shell 24/7 like a hermit crab and sends me out into the world each morning, mingling when I’d rather be retreating and speaking when I’d rather be listening.

At least now I know why.

Commentary 02 Feb 2012 10:21 pm

Comforting thoughts about furniture

Today’s column …

The reason people marry is to have somebody with whom to share comforting thoughts, and to have somebody share comforting thoughts in return.

I was reminded of this recently while shopping for new bedroom furniture with my wife, Holly, also known as the one-person economic stimulus package. Honestly, I expect a thank-you letter from President Obama any day for her efforts in improving the nation’s retail bottom line this election year. I don’t know if the Presidential Medal of Freedom can be bestowed upon a person for fiscal bravery in the face of an uncertain economy, but if so, she and her credit card, confidently clutched in one forward-thrusting fist like Custer charging into battle, should definitely be on the shortlist.

Anyway, after what felt like hours of crisscrossing the store in search of the perfect bedroom set to complement our Early American White Trash Decor, during which I feigned polite interest but was really more excited about leafing through the books that furniture store people set on bookshelves to make them look more homey, she turned to me and said, “You know, this will probably be the bed you die in.”

See what I mean about comforting thoughts?

As with all spousal comments that require a response (and this one did), I ran her words through my mental meat grinder to determine exactly what she was trying to say.

She didn’t mean that I’m old. I am, but because she is only nine months my junior and considers herself a perpetual 29, she wasn’t implying that I was ready to shuffle off any time soon. And she wasn’t saying that I would necessarily die in bed, surrounded by family and friends (OK, friend) and grandchildren yet unconceived (I hope) and unborn.

No, she was saying that I was cheap, and that if given a preference, I would never, ever buy any furniture. Left to my own devices, I would still sleep in the little bed from my childhood, on the same mattress that was once covered by superhero sheets and a Star Wars comforter, and still pull my clothes out of the same chest of drawers that once housed my Incredible Hulk Underoos. Heck, if they fit, I’d still wear my Hulk Underoos.

We bought our current mattress at the beginning of the Clinton administration, I think, replacing one that I had as a hand-me-down from an aunt and uncle who had bought theirs in the 1980s. This old mattress was housed inside a water-bed frame that was about six inches too wide for it. Sometimes in the middle of the night, I would wake up with my face thrust into the crack between the frame and the mattress, feeling a little like that mountain climber who had his arm wedged between two rocks and couldn’t escape. It made for some rough nights.

Nevertheless, the savings I realized by not replacing the mattress were well worth it to me. When Holly finally threatened me with dismemberment (shades of that same mountain climber, even though this happened years before he sawed off his own arm to escape), I grudgingly agreed to a new bedroom set, confident that it would be the last time.

Granted, in the last year or two, our “new” mattress — and to me, it will always be the “new” mattress, even when it’s thrown unceremoniously on the curb, waiting for the midnight trash mavens who will undoubtedly get another 10 to 15 years of serviceable use from it — has started to sag along the sides. Sleeping anywhere except directly in the middle results in an early-morning roll out of the bed and onto the floor, where one enjoys a firmer sleeping experience.

So here I was, a mere 18 years later, give or take a year, buying another mattress. So she’s right: If left to my own devices, it would be the last mattress I ever bought.

Having considered all of the above in less time than it took Newt Gingrich to forecast a colony on the moon, I opened my mouth and said the only thing I could: “Yes, dear.”

So we’re getting a new mattress and bedroom furniture, but it’s not here yet, because before we have it delivered, it only makes sense to paint the bedroom, and if we’re going to all that trouble, it only makes sense to paint a few more rooms while we’re at it.

The one-person stimulus plan strikes again. By the time I finish paying for all this remodeling, I may be ready to die in my new bed, after all.

Now isn’t that a comforting thought?