Thursday, February 28, 2013

down to the family melodeon

Since its settlement by the French as a fur-trading station in 1764, St Louis had moved toward becoming a major gateway to the western frontier.  Expanding apace with the river traffic, the population was almost 6000 by 1830.  By 1850--still seven years before the transcontinental railroads would reach the city--the number would be more than 77,000.  Here the liberals who came from the old Congregational parishes east of the Alleghenies found a mingling of rich and brash cultures entirely foreign to theirs.  The French had made their way up the river from New Orleans, bringing their Roman Catholicism, a code of honor that forced men to duel, a fondness for gaming and drinking, and an open acceptance of prostitution.  Baptists and Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, most from Virginia and Kentucky, had begun to arrive with their customs and slaves once Missouri became American soil in 1803.  German-born Lutherans, few of whom spoke any English, would follow, seeking a better life when the 1848 revolution drove them out of their homeland...Still sparsely 1837, St Louis had only a few rough roads and irregular cinder walks to coax its scattered houses into some semblance of a community.  Depending upon the weather, the streets were steeped in mud or buried in dust, and in season, the potholes of stagnant water served as havens for breeding mosquitoes.  With no sewerage, dry cellars, nurses, or any understanding of how disease spreads, [there were] "chills and fever everywhere," especially in the shanties surrounding Choteau Pond [sic], where the poor took their baths and then washed their dishes and clothes.

Humboldt was a natural training ground, or, as some said, "a nursery," for women who had unorthodox aspirations.  The town was itself an anomaly, a pocket of some of the most extreme liberal dissenters surrounded by staunch evangelicals out on the prairies of northwestern Iowa.  In 1880, seventeen years after being carved out in a little valley right where the rushing Des Moines River came to a fork, the colony of six hundred still lay at the edge of an untamed frontier.  Its founding father, Stephen H. Taft, a defector from the Methodist ministry in upper New York State, had harnessed the white water for a saw and grist mill and forged from the wilderness a modest commercial center.  Besides stores and shops and a public school, Taft's followers had established a college and etched in a series of roads that joined the hub to its nearest neighbors.  When the railroad connected the town to the outside world within a few years, a steady stream of Taft's former parishioners came through the conduits to find new prosperity in his "western paradise."
Taft had dedicated his colony to "freedom and unity in religion," temperance and social responsibility, and "equal rights for all, both black and white, male and female."  As soon as the group had settled in, he began holding noncreedal services to promote those values and, using whatever space he could find, simply carried his pulpit and family melodeon from storeroom to schoolhouse to vacant shops.  

These descriptions, both of them from books by Cynthia Grant Tucker, suggest the rough descriptions by Sinclair Lewis of Gopher Prairie in Main Street:  The Story of Carol Kennicott (many people forget there is a subtitle to the novel).  It's probably apt, as Tucker's books describe the background to Lewis' flatheads, Bohunks, and petit bourgeousie (down even to the portable "family melodeon"), and provide something of the history that leads up to what the city is by the early 1910s.  It is almost as if Tucker is putting a face, albeit a more human one than Lewis would think it deserves, to one set of the women for whom dish-washing is satisfaction enough.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

we are not sofas

Unlike the biblical literalists, who protected the separate spheres by citing the damage that Eve had caused by crossing the line in the Garden of Eden, the Unitarians [of the mid-19th century] argued that God's plan was written into the world he created.  "Woman was formed to obey"...and it was her duty to minister to the needs of her family at home.  The publication of Horace Bushnell's Christian Nurture in 1847 elevated this line of defense by canonizing domestic religion.  It established the home as the "seat of religion," where mothers, anointed as priestesses, tended worshipful families at table and hearth and filled the young souls with the spirit of Christ.  As a charming vignette of the moral growth that began at home in a mother's arms, this iconography helped the liberals compete with the evangelical brothers, whose instant act of conversion has a proven appeal with the masses.  But beyond this, by setting the home apart as the "church of childhood" and woman's preserve, it reinforced the division of precincts known as the doctrine of separate spheres, strengthening men's authority in the larger church outside.

--from No Silent Witness:  The Eliot Parsonage Women and Their Unitarian World by Cynthia Grant Tucker

I'm uncertain it's possible to find anything good to say about the attitude the above describes.  That this was the predominant attitude of men, even religiously liberal men, is something we all grew up knowing, and for many of us our rejection of it may have been our first rebellion.

But that the attitude persists and, in some quarters, is actually seen itself as rebellion against the liberality of contemporary society, should be a cause for alarm and concern.  The world has always been too complex to divide it into spheres, as if each kept neatly to itself--rather than spheres the world is better described as being composed of huge, misshapen, permeable layers of responsibility, influence, and authority.  No one person can have such a field all to him or herself; everything bubbles up or drips down or slides from side to side as days pass, and to pretend that nothing within it changes--like authority, like influence, like responsibility--is to pretend our existence has been Scotch-guarded, if not since Creation, then at least since the 1950s.  

Not only is life too complex for that.  We are too complex for that.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I just like it

Most of my life I'm a pretty amiable, happy-go-lucky, almost brainless individual, and that's the way most people know me.  But I've come to realize that when I write on this blog I tend only to write about big, deep things.  Even when I write about something fun I enjoy I can get pretty analytic about it.

As a result I've decided to make a semi-regular feature of things I enjoy just because I enjoy them.  There really are a lot of these, because there are a lot of things I like, and I won't articulate anything big about them or justify my liking them.  I just like them.  I'd like to make more people aware of them.

Today:  the comic series The American Way.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

not alone

I'm a sucker for sob stories and it sometimes helps and sometimes hinders my capacity to be pastoral.  I've had to learn just to let things flow and accept that my subconscious--with a little screening from my superego--knows better what to say and do.

Last night my sister-in-law called after her dogs had been hit by a car.  I say "her dogs" although they are actually my two nephews' dogs, "hers" by dint of loving and caring for them.  She was in tears as I think anyone should be at the sudden and accidental death of someone she loves.  My wife went over immediately to help her get the dogs off the road, keep the older dog who hadn't been able to keep up with the two safe, and comfort both of them.  The dogs, big, dumb, littermate beasts of golden labs who loved nothing better than chasing a tennis ball ("C'mon, uncle Bobby, just 300 more throws!"  "Sorry, kids, 500 is my limit."), had been outside to whiz, heard something by the road (most likely a deer), and ran directly into the path of a passing car.  Both were killed instantly, and in some fashion it's good that they were, since either of them were probably incapable of going on without the other.

My wife got the call and left as soon as she dressed.  She found her sister knelt over their bodies having covered them and dragged them as much away from the road as she could (they are huge dogs).  My brother-in-law, their brother, having been called by their mother, soon joined them and hefted the two bodies into the trunk of his car to deliver them to our vet on Monday for cremation.

Why didn't I go over with her?  Because we have had our own drama and I had to stay home to deal with another dog.  Two days prior my wife had driven nearly to Canada to take in a dog that had been brought from California to be adopted, only to have bitten two people at his foster home.  He had been starved, had numerous food aggression issues, and where any food or anything food-like was involved, the lizard part of his brain kicked in and he would do anything to have it.  He arrived at our place Friday at 1 in the morning.

He's a good dog, by which I mean he's clumsy and playful as a pup, with huge soulful eyes that draw you inside his head where you've got room because there's almost nothing else there except bad memories.  He's malnourished, thin as a rail, and has renal issues.  But he's loving and trusting as only a brainless dog can be.

By 6 that evening he had bitten my wife.  Not hard, but it broke the skin and it causes her pain.  He snapped at her for reaching down to pick up a used tissue.

I had spent the day with my father-in-law--this is a post all about family--who is in hospice care while he suffers from COPD, so his primary caretaker (my mother-in-law) could get out of the house.  I got a message on my phone from my wife with the simple line that the new dog bit her.  We knew what that meant.  Three strikes is more deadly in the animal world than even in American jurisprudence.

Since we are fostering him, it isn't our decision to make.  The agency that "owns" him convened its board and decided that it was best to have him euthanized.  I don't blame them; they operate by volunteer and on a shoestring budget and to knowingly adopt out a dog that bites is worse than bad publicity, it's legally actionable.  But we cried.  Long and loud and hard.  I cried as if I had been given the sentence.  I was angry and bitter:  this dog had been brought all the way from California, where he already faced death for having been a stray, to Minnesota, where he had no clue what was happening.  He'd been placed in one home where he'd been confused and struck out, and now in another where, promised the loving care he'd been denied all his life, it was to be cut short because his lizard brain was controlled by his once-empty belly.

Even in the midst of my tears, I knew I was crying about myself.  It was a selfish feeling, that he had been brought just close enough to touch my heart, and then snapped away.  I hadn't even known him 24 hours and I would miss him.  My crying was all about me.  I knew it and couldn't stop anyway.  But when I did I recognized he had come to us for a reason:  we are to give him the affectionate care he had been denied.  Some people are allowed to be special that way.  We were, to use my wife's phrase, to give him a lifetime of love in a weekend.  This is our blessing.  To be capable of and willing to do that.  My nephews' dogs had had long, loved lives.  This new dog had not.  They died in a moment because of a single act of listening to their lizard brains.  He will die because his lizard brain is all that's kept him going.

Tomorrow we're to take him in.  In my rational state I recognize he has many other issues that keep him from having a painless life:  his renal problems and something involving his spine that causes him to walk with a swinging gait like a sailor suddenly taken off the sea.  He is too weak, despite his youth, to jump on the bed most times, so we help him up.  He rolls on his back like a happy, secure dog.  He plays with toys like a puppy just discovering his teeth.  But his teeth are also dangerous and a child or another animal could easily be the next thing he uses them on.  His death will be necessary not because he's inconvenient or difficult but because he is dangerous and his life could become too painful for him.  But my wife and I will accompany him tomorrow and we'll hold him and tell him he's a good dog.  He will not be alone and he will not be unmourned.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

roll up your sleeves, there's work to be done

The meanings of "liberality" include generosity, open-mindedness, and freedom from prejudice.  It evokes the strand of liberalism that takes a generous, curious, imaginative interest in other cultures, philosophies, and ways of life...[It] goes beyond the mere affirmation that liberal societies do not require all their citizens to be liberals.  It takes seriously the proposition that we can understand, appreciate, and learn from others even while profoundly disagreeing with them...[It involves the use of a] "curious and sympathetic imagination" that is adept at "recognizing humanity in strange costumes"...To say "a curious...imagination" implies that you go on to find out a bit more about the others next to whom you are now living..."[If] you know nothing about a people, you can believe anything"...With a little imagination, and with human contact, we soon discover the shared humanity beneath unfamiliar garb and tongue...the everyday experiences of schoolmates and neighbors engaged in joint activities that have nothing to do with getting to know each other's cultures:  smoking your first cigarette behind the school gym...or campaigning for a new local bus route.
--from "Freedom and Diversity:  A Liberal Pentagram for Living Together" by Timothy Garton Ash in the November 22, 2012, issue of The New York Review of Books

Garton Ash goes on to note that Jurgen Habermas addresses the secular majority of Europe to be willing to see the truth of religious peoples and that in the US this formula needs to be reversed; but as both Habermas and Garton Ash point out, "it is not just a call to the given majority."  There is also reason for minorities to recognize the generosity of spirit that members of the majority can have.  For instance, gay activists have long acknowledged the role played by straight (but not narrow) allies, and Muslims and Jews know that if they want any interfaith effort to be successful they need to make contact with mainstream Xians.

But I don't think any of this is intended to push for a colorblind society.  The emphasis instead is on recognizing the differences between people, groups and individuals, and accepting rather than tolerating (as if they're going to change) those differences.  A colorblind society that tolerates religiously-dictated honor killing or genital mutilation, in the name of getting along, is always going to have a hostile fringe element made up of those groups who maintain their customs.  One that accepts the group's rationale for those activities but points out that they are both unnecessary and unacceptable will probably still have a hostile fringe group at the edges; but it will be thinner and more apt to die out in the next generation.  Similarly, an emerging minority that accepts the historical reasons for grouping people according to skin shades and primary language, but recognizes that skin shades and language use are changing, is likelier to convince the majority that such groupings are best left in history.

It won't be easy.  It isn't meant to be.  The things most worth doing almost never are.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

stop praising dust

Jurisprudential theories...are generally categorized according to the element of their subjects they take to be essential.  A legal theory that stresses the logical consistency of judicial opinions is called formalist; a theory that emphasizes their social consequences is called utilitarian; a theory that regards them as reflections of the circumstances in which they were written is called historicist.  The problem with all such theories is that they single out one aspect of the law as the essential aspect...A case comes to court as a unique fact situation...There is the imperative to find the just result in this particular case.  There is the imperative to find the result that will be consistent with the results reached in analogous cases in the past.  There is the imperative to find the result that, generalized across many similar cases, will be most beneficial to society as a whole...There are also, though less explicitly acknowledged, the desire to secure the outcome most congenial to the judge's own politics; the desire to use the case to bend legal doctrine so that it will conform better with changes and social standards and conditions; and the desire to punish the wicked and excuse the good, and to redistribute costs from parties who can't afford parties who can...
Hovering over this whole unpredictable weather pattern--all of which is already in motion, as it were, before the particular case at hand ever arises--is a single meta-imperative.  This is the imperative not to let it appear as though any one of these lesser imperatives has decided the case at the blatant expense of the others...[The court] wants the law to run in a politically desirable direction, but it does not what to be caught appearing to bend an anachronistic legal doctrine in order to compel a politically correct result.
There is also...,within each of these competing imperatives, the problem of deciding what counts as relevant within that particular discourse and what does not...[until it] ends with the question of what counts as a "just result"...Principles are malleable...When there are no bones, anybody can carve a goose.
--From The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand (my emphases)

I ask:  why not?  Why not blatantly adjust the law to fit contemporary facts?  I can understand the lure of precedent, that a case has to stand on previous decisions in order to fend off arguments against it.  But if the law is, like the Constitution, a living document--and it is--then in the case of deciding a law based on newer, more modern ways of looking at people--whether or not it's legal for gay couples to marry, for instance--why not broker a whole new decision in which the case is decided on the human merits, the fact that human love is the imperative, in blatant disregard of anachronistic laws and public feeling?  Why praise the dust of dead decisions?  In such an instance, we might have avoided a Plessy vs. Ferguson or a Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission:  common humanity, once acknowledged, trumps all other imperatives (I admit I'm ignoring the specific counterarguments, that at the time of Plessy blacks weren't completely afforded their humanity--at least they weren't "as human" as whites--and for Citizens United, what determines humanity).

Here, I think, is why not:  Because I am human and prone to determine things by what Menand calls "the desire to secure the outcome most congenial to the judge's own politics."  I can't help but look from my perspective as a liberal male who wants to share the cultural wealth he has with others who have need of it but can't reach it and decide in favor of them, even at my own cost.  But I can't be trusted with that decision. It's the same reason we don't allow victims or their families to determine the punishment against their offenders:  some will undercompensate, some will overcompensate, and there isn't a happy medium when it comes to punishment.  If the meta-imperative is malleable then we all get our own cuts of goose but someone ends up with the piece he or she can't eat or isn't enough.  I don't like this way of deciding law; but, like Winston Churchill wrote about democracy, it's the worst  except for all the others that have been tried.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

religious walmartization

I see a counselor a couple times each month--this shouldn't be a surprise--who is also a former evangelical minister (Southern Baptist, more inclined now, he says, to Methodism).  We spend time haggling over my issues and most of those revolve around work or lack of it.  This last week he told me a story.

A friend of his is a professional house painter.  This is how he makes his living and feeds his family.  But the past few years he's discovered that clients are demanding he lower his price for what he does to be competitive with college students who do the work in the summer for beer money.  "But I'm not competitive with them," he explains.  "I have a professional reputation to uphold, references you can check, examples you can see in the community, skills to be utilized to do the job exactly the way you want it done, and the expertise to do it quickly and efficiently.  They are doing it during the day after drinking all night and hurrying to finish before you notice what a hackjob they've done.  That's why my price is higher."  "Regardless," he is told, "they cost less and I want you to do all you promise for less than what they charge or you don't get the job."

This, my counselor told me, is an example of people wanting a skill but not wanting to pay what it's worth.

We were having this discussion because I'm in the midst of moving from my previous profession as a professor (not altogether willingly) to that of a professional minister and chaplain.  My concern is that, given the changes we see all around us in churches and their finances, but not a resultant willingness by congregations to lessen what they expect of a pastor, and a glut on the market (similar to that of doctoral students in teaching) of younger graduates willing to do the job for less, I'm uncertain I can expect to have a career after graduation.  After all, I've had 2 careers shot out from under me; at post-50 I'm not anxious to have a 3rd.

I added to our conversation the story of the server initially stiffed of her 18% gratuity by a minister, and then fired for having publicized that stiffing, and he smoldered at the idea someone who would consider herself God's representative would abuse her station like that.  He agreed this is what we are heading for, an economic system that punishes complaint at injustice.   As we talked I began to form an idea of gathering people together at my seminary for discussions on this situation:  what are we heading into?  What can we expect?  What will we be asked to do and what will we be paid for doing it?  We can't, of course, make any determinations about it.  We aren't Walmart.  But the point is that we're heading out to work for a religious system that has itself been Walmarted--megachurches putting out of existence tiny congregation who themselves now face being put out of business by a competition, usually apathy but sometimes responsibilities in the form of children's activities and work.  Is there room between the self-taught Bible-bangers and the Reverend Doctors for the rest of us?

(In revising this post I realize I have never been this self-referential before.  Does this mean I've somehow arrived at something?)