Monday, December 31, 2007

color me clueless

So a friend of mine has a blog on LiveJournal called Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
I just now realized why. I only now figured out what that means. I suppose if it had mattered more, I would have figured it out sooner.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

in memoriam

There’s a certain je n’est sais quoi to how I feel about the death of Tim Canavan last Monday ― not pleasure or relief, but not exactly grief either.

Tim Caravan was the editor in chief at WCN Newspapers, where I had the misfortune to work for nearly two-and-a-half years, from May 2002 until October 2004. It was in many respects the worst job I have ever had, a distinction due in some part to Tim and the way he treated his staff and ran the editorial department.

At the time I started, Tim was undergoing treatment for cancer. He already had lost his hair and much of his weight because of the chemotherapy, and was in the middle of a rather grueling battle against his own body that had just included brain surgery to remove a tumor that had metastasized there. In the months that would follow, Tim would get a clean bill of health at one bioscan, only for something new to show up six months later. Surgeons removed an adrenal gland and even part of his lung, but ultimately were unable to remove the cancer. He died last Monday, surrounded by his siblings and their families.

Reading the article that WCN Newspapers ran on its web site about his passing, you can read the sort of comments you hear whenever somebody dies: what a nice fellow he was, how dedicated to his profession he was, and how he worked tirelessly to make the world a better place. There were even a few anecdotes I imagine were supposed to be heartwarming, to show how decent he was.

Usually when I read this sort of story, if it’s about someone I know, my mind flashes with one burst of insight after another. So that’s why he was like that, I think. Aha! That’s the aunt he always talked about. That sort of thing. With Tim’s obituary, I might as well have been reading an account about a complete stranger.

The Tim I knew was none of those things. He was neither inspiring in his commitment to community journalism, nor a tireless crusader for justice. He was not, ultimately, either honest to a fault nor trustworthy, nor was he professional in the extreme, nor was he a genius about his job as some would have him.

The Tim I knew was far less inspiring an individual. He was, in many regards, a man who preferred sticking to something he was competent at but long ago had ceased to enjoy, over taking a risk, moving on to something new, and learning something new. What was worse, he discouraged others from moving on, had a low threshold for disagreement and at times engaged in overtly unethical or even illegal conduct.

Some of my dislike for Tim surely is personal. At one point, after I had expressed an interest in leaving my post as managing editor for something a bit more challenging and interesting, he promised me a post in another office, where I would be in charge of training the editorial staff there and shaking things up to improve the product ― and then broke his promise and gave the post to someone else who had less experience and lower salary expectations.

He ran the newspapers with a heavy hand, keeping editors understaffed, underpaid and overworked on antiquated equipment. Another editor and I once tracked our hours at averaging between 50 and 60 hours a week, including marathon duties on Monday and Tuesday, in a job where at $35,000 a year, I was one of the best-paid employees. Those lengthy hours were necessary because we lacked reporters; as an editor with two newspapers, I was required to write four to five stories, in addition to my editorial duties, which typically involved editing eight to ten stories by my reporter, writing four editorials, assigning news photographs, and copy editing the entire contents of the newspaper. Those who complained found that not only were their complaints ignored, they either were criticized themselves, or in some cases were strongly encouraged to leave. One reporter actually was fired while he was on disability.

The worst breach of ethics came after I had left to become a stay-at-home father. A member of the school board in one of our communities had been videotaped in a tryst in a public park, and a copy of that video had found its way into the hands of an editor, who was set to write a story about it. Tim axed the story ― a debatable decision, but in some ways respectable ― and then called the board member in question, explained about the videotape, and then promised not to run it if the board member were to resign.

Where I come from, that’s called blackmail. It’s not an admirable trait in anyone, least of all in a journalist.

I never found myself inspired by Tim, and I never felt particularly close to him. But when I heard that he had died, I considered going to his funeral just to pay him the last respects he was due as a human being.

It’s been a busy year for death in my circle. This year I’ve watched as friends buried an infant son, as my cousins buried their mother, and as my aunt buried her husband. One theme has run constant through all the funerals: We are all made of corruptible mortal flesh, and that makes us more alike than our differences separate us.

Tim Caravan was many things I wish I were not, and would hope that I could never be: scared to try something new, and resentful of those who aren’t; blind to what others endure to bring his vision of efficiency into existence, and in the end so sure of the rightness of his actions that he is blind to how obviously corrupt they are.

Monday, December 17, 2007

understanding who jesus was

What sort of person was Jesus?
You could make the case that he was black:
  • He called everyone "brother."
  • He liked gospel.
  • He couldn't get a fair trial.
The traditional answer is that he was Jewish. And you can make a case for that too. After all,
  • He went into his father's business.
  • He lived at home until he was 30.
  • He was sure his mother was a virgin and his mother was sure he was God.
But he also might have been Italian.
  • He talked with his hands.
  • He had wine with every meal.
  • He used olive oil.
And as every hippy will attest, Jesus would have been right at home on the West Coast. Could he be from California?
  • He never cut his hair.
  • He walked around barefoot all the time.
  • He started a new religion.
Or was Jesus Irish?
  • He never got married.
  • He was always telling stories.
  • He loved green pastures.
Or maybe Jesus was an alcoholic.
  • He was always going to parties at people's houses.
  • He was always filled with the Spirit.
  • His first miracle was to turn water into wine.
Probably the most compelling evidence suggests that Jesus was, in fact, a woman.
  • He had to feed a crowd at a moment's notice, when there was no food.
  • He kept trying to get a message across to a bunch of men who just didn't get it.
  • Even when he was dead, he had to get up because there was more work for him to do.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

call me 'mister'

When I was a first-year teacher, I generally called the principal Mrs. Martineau in front of the students and Joann in private, but in time I found myself calling her Mrs. Martineau more often than not.

It resurrected in me the old habit of calling adults Mr. and Mrs. My wife thinks I'm old-fashioned for it, but I really don't want our daughter calling adults by their first names. It creates a false familiarity and inappropriately levels the field between people of widely disparate social status. Calling a teacher the more formal "Miss Smith" instead of "Miss Rachel" reminds the child that the teacher is not a buddy or a peer, but someone to be treated with deference and respect.

Maybe we don't need to be as formal as other cultures, where all social interactions are last-name-only, save for the closest familial relations, but I think we've gone too far in the other direction.

I always insisted on being called by my last name when I was a teacher. I didn't discipline anyone who called me "Dave," but I reminded them they were supposed to call me "Mr. Learn." The worst reaction that ever got was from one of the more immature children, who insisted that if it was respectful for him to call me Mr. Learn, then I should call him "Mr. Cofre."

Don't remember how I resolved that one -- I might have told him that the honorific was because of my position, but I also might have started calling him Mr. Cofre until he begged me to stop.

I never called any teacher in high school by first name, except for Tom Montleone -- and I should add that he probably was the least respected teacher in the school too. In trying to be our friend, he lost claim to the respect he was owed as our teacher and instructor.

In college it seemed weird to have faculty insist on being addressed by first name. A few years a professor of mine whom I still keep in touch with periodically asked me to call him "Howard." I can't do it; he's still "Professor Marblestone" to me.

Friday, December 14, 2007

life as a brick

Think of all the sin we could avoid, how much easier life would be, if only we were not made human. There's gotta be something wrong with that reasoning.

It sounds like hell: an existence utterly devoid of pleasure, work, accomplishment, progress and change. Bleah. Count me out.

I believe the Preacher dealt with a lot of this stuff in his writings; he called it "meaningless, utterly meaningless" and concluded in the end that it was right to serve God regardless.

Thirst makes us appreciate water; the joy we get from scratching an itch is proportional to the aggravation of the reach; the simple pleasure of eating is enhanced by the gravy of hunger ... all these things in their dual opposites are gifts of God.

The difference between this and the crack addiction is that crack destroys you; hunger and thirst, kept in balance, do not destroy us but instead increase our little joys when those needs are satisfied. No one wealthy appreciates his wealth like the one who knew poverty first.

In the case of food, drink, sexual pleasure, rest, and so on, you can see a reminder that we are not self-sufficient and all-contained, but need others and their gifts in order to keep going. And that steady humbling should keep us mindful of the source of all good things.

Monday, December 10, 2007

on my bookshelf

I just finished "God Laughs and Plays," a series of essays written by a deeply spiritual outdoorsman that I bought for my wife for her birthday back in April, because of the fellow's strong pro-environment views, which are based in his understanding of the gospels and a christocentric approach to creation. (You know, "The Earth is the Lord's, and everything in it" and "God saw what he had made, and it was good.") The writer gets a little too polemical when he talks about the Bush administration, but it remained a fascinating and thought-provoking collection nonetheless.

Before that, it was "Anansi Boys," by Neil Gaiman, a brilliantly hilarious story of what happens when your father happens to be the trickster god Anansi, and he dies suddenly, leaving you even more embarassed of him than ever, just in time for the brother you never met to come crashing into your life and make it even worse.

"Anansi Boys" is related to his earlier novel "American Gods," which I have to admit I didn't care much for. I mean, it was nice realizing that Shadow was Balder and all, but his character wasn't all that engaging. Shadow was someone things happened around and to, rather than someone who made things happen, and we never really got a sense of any depth to him until after he had completed the vigil for Wednesday. (I loved the characterization of Odin, and most of the other minor characters as well, from the mortals like Sam Black Crow and Wood, through the gamut of gods -- both new and old -- and other fantastical creatures. But Shadow, as Gaiman himself has noted, was just a plain difficult character to get into, because for most of his life he's done little more than exist and let other people move him about. So thank goodness for Odin's little escapades and trickeries ... and if you thought Odin was a treat, Anansi is light years funnier.)

In "Anansi Boys," the characters are so engaging and real that I was cracking up at the misfortune and bad luck Fat Charlie had to be the son of Anansi. Of course, that may be the difference in the characterizations the Norse gave their deities, compared to what the African peoples gave their folk characters.

I think I'm probably going to break out my copy of "The Humiliation of the Word," by Jacques Ellul, and read that. I started it years ago but never finished it.

As for watching, well, the girls and I have been going nuts over our Looney Tunes collection, and I saw "Premonition" last month. Beyond that, we're working on our list of Christmas season must-sees like "A Christmas Carol" and I'm STILL waiting for BSG season 3 to come out on DVD. It's been almost a year now...

Sunday, December 09, 2007

the golden compass

Sometime tomorrow I plan to walk downtown to our public library and see if I can borrow a copy of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy.
I've been largely indifferent to the trilogy ever since I first heard of it, years ago. A friend of mine read it and wasn't impressed, and since I was past the age where I was shelling out money for children's books out of general curiosity, I was content to let it lie there.
The revelation that J.K. Rowling based the character of Gilderoy Lockhart on Pullman also didn't inspire me to seek the books out, either.
But, thanks to the success of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises, New Line Cinema has brought "The Golden Compass," the first book in Pullman's trilogy,to the big screen. And the Religious Right is upset.
Now I'm intrigued, and I want to read the book.
People invariably assume that my sudden interest is due to a deep-seated contrarian streak, sparked by the recent call from Focus on the Family founder James Dobson for Christians to boycott the movie.
It's not quite that simple, though. While I can be contrary, and while I do have a chip on my shoulder, the plain fact of the matter is that I love Story. It draws me, in all the terrible ways it undermines my ease and self-confidence, and questions my half-baked assumptions, it draws me inexorably closer into a confrontation with Truth.
Truth makes us uncomfortable, and when we feel really uncomfortable, we get angry. Sometimes we learn from anger, and become truer ourselves. Sometimes, like Ebenezer Scrooge, it's easier to extinguish the light of truth than it is to learn from it.
Like I said, I don't know much about the books, except that they've angered or offended a lot of the right people in the ecclesiastial heirarchies of both the evangelical and Catholic churches. I know that the main character, Lyra, is transported to an alternate world, where she is caught up in a battle with a group called the Magisterium that resembles the Catholic Church, where she is aided by daemons, and where she ultimately discovers a pretender God who turns to dust when she confronts him.
That doesn't bother me in the least. As my friend Rob the aging hippy said today, all Pullman has done is show how pathetic the God is whom he doesn't believe in. By extension, I suppose he's shown how pathetic are the people who believe in such a weak and impotent God. That's not a problem for me; I don't believe in that God either.
But I do believe in Story, a grand and epic tale of which Pullman and I are privileged to be part. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," is how one writer began the "Once upon a time" of that grand Story.
All stories echo and proceed from that first one. Why be afraid of this one?

joseph and potiphar's wife

Genesis 39:7-15
7. And after a time his master's wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, "Lie with me."
8. But he refused and said to his master's wife, "Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand.
9. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?"
10. And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her.
11. One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house,
12. she caught hold of his garment, saying, "Lie with me!" But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside.
13. When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside,
14. she called out to the members of her household and said to them, "See, my husband has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us! He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice;
15. and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside."

So, what happened between Joseph and Potiphar's wife? Did she accuse him of rape when she couldn't seduce him? Or did he accuse her of seduction when he couldn't rape her?

Scripture is pretty forward on the subject; still, you have to admit that it's hardly uncommon for men who rape or try to rape women, to blame it on the woman as though she seduced or pressured him into having sex, and then accused him of rape later.

I recall an incident like this about 20 years ago at the University of Pittsburgh, I've heard a reporter (!) express it in the news room about a case that was making headlines, and I've encountered instances where lawyers use this tactic in the courtroom, particularly when the offender is a police officer or has some other respected position in the community.

Not saying that happened here. Merely asking what people think.