Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Open Letter to Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council

Dear Mr. Perkins:

I was always under the impressions that the bullies were the ones who excluded other people. As my parents taught me when I was younger, those who stand up for the rights of those being excluded are the ones we should respect.

If the Boy Scouts want to continue a national policy of excluding gays from membership and leadership positions, by all means, let them do so. It tarnishes their reputation, it cheapens their claims to be a place for boys to grow into mature role models, and it puts them on the same side of history as men like George Wallace and Laurie Pritchett, men who also argued that discrimination was morally superior to inclusion and upholding human worth. It's not a choice I would make, but it's their choice.

I'm encouraged that the Boy Scouts are reconsidering their national ban on gay members and might be willing to leave it to individual troops to decide to permit openly gay men to serve in Scouts, based on the views of their sponsoring organizations.

The Scouts can and do accomplish a lot of good things for the children and teens who belong to their troops, but it's despite that ban, not because of it. It's time to do right on this issue as well.

David Learn

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

What a piece of work

I have of late, but wherefore
I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise;
and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition;
that this goodly frame the Earth, seemes to me a sterile
Promontory; this most excellent canopy the air,
look you, this brave o'er-hanging firmament, this majestical roof,
fretted with golden fire: why, it appears no other thing
to me, then a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

'The Korvac Saga'

If I'm a fan of alternate histories and realities, and I am, the reason lies in a comic book Marvel Comics published up until 1984.

Narrated by Uatu the Watcher, "What If?" revisited some of Marvel's most iconic or successful stories, and showed how thy could have unfolded based on a single decision made differently. The initial run of "What If?" gave us stories, often by the talent behind the original story, of things like Peter Parker stopping the burglar and becoming a TV star rather than a superhero. Another story had Reed Richards wait for better shielding against cosmic radiation, with the result that he and his flight team never became the Fantastifc Four.

In one of of my personal favorites, Michael Korvac defeated the Avengers and pursued his dream of remaking the universe, taking out one being after another and adding their power to his own. As his power increased, the threat that Korvac posed alarmed more and more of the big hitters in the Marvel Universe until it reached the point that both he and the forces arrayed against him were unstoppable.

Backed into a corner, and unwilling to let go of his ambition, Korvac destroyed the entre universe with a single click of the Ultimate Nullifier. I want to stress that this wasn't cheap melodrama as later issues of "What If?" became. This was a logically structured story that progressed the only way it could. Even now years later, I still get a chill thinking about the way the it went.

In the regular Marvel Universe, where he did not destroy everything, Michael Korvac was the creation of Jim Shooter. He was one of many of the nemeses Shooter created for Marvel whose godlike powers were so tremendous that he was virtually undefeatable -- except of course, the heroes always manage to find a way, alternate realities excepted.

The Korvac Saga, as it is now known, first ran in 1978. Goaded on by that "What If?" story, I searched through comics conventions in my teens for individual issues in the series, and even managed to buy some. I never read the entire story until I finally got a collected edition this past week from PaperBackSwap.com.

It's disappointing.

In all fairness, comic books in 1978 had a younger readership than they do in 2013, and so you have to expect that they're going to focus on the adventure and cosmic spectacle more than on the humanity of their characters. That is particularly true for comics about superhero teams with rosters with legends like Captain America, powerhouses like Iron Man and Wonder Man, and the occasional Norse or Greek god.

But, to a 42-year-old who still finds something to enjoy in superhero comics, this comic did disappoint. There are too many clumsy asides to bring the reader up to pace on what happened last issue; too many people casually walking around in public or in the privacy of their own home in silly costumes; and too much melodrama to make sure we know just how powerful and menacing a figure Michael Korvac cuts.

And then there are other things that just feel odd. Never in my life did I expect to see Captain America and Iron Man squabbling like children, but that's a spectacle that awaits inside this volume. "It's my turn to be in charge and give the orders!" Iron Man whines. "But you're doing it wrong!" Captain America shouts, before punching him in the face. (I am not making that up.)

That's not to say the comic was awful, though, because it wasn't. If the story seems too juvenile at times, there are moments when the writer's wit shines through. There's the fashion show hosted by the Wasp, crashed by a supervillain wannabee wearing a suit made of brown projectile quills and calling himself the Porcupine. Or there's the moment when the Avengers realize, their special flight privileges revoked, that they will have to take a bus to Queens to save the world.

The story's got some of the great Marvel cliches, like a threat to the entire universe, but it also uses some of the storytelling techniques that have made Marvel Comics worth reading for so long, such as the use of a subplot involving the Collector that finally reveals its relationship to the larger story just as the subplot concludes. And of course, this is the story that gave us Henry Gyrich, the government bureaucrat every superhero is afraid of.

All told, I enjoyed the story for what it is, though I'd be lying if I said I didn't skim it at times. On the other hand, my daughters, who still love a good superhero romp as much I once did, have been enjoying it quite a bit.

Once they finish it, I need to turn them on to the story where Korvac wins.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Egyptian poem

Death is before me today
Like the recovery of a sick man,
Like going forth into a garden after sickness.

Death is before me today
Like the odor of myrrh,
Like sitting under the sail on a windy day.

Death is before me today
Like the odor of lotus flowers,
Like sitting on the shore of drunkenness.

Death is before me today
Like the course of the freshet,
Like the return of a man from the war-galley to his house.

Death is before me today
Like the clearing of the sky,
Like a man longs for something that he does not know.

Death is before me today
As a man longs to see his house
When he has spent years in captivity.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

broken hearts and lost love

My daughter's heart got broken yesterday.

I've been watching the past several weeks as she has fallen in love, and it really has been a sight to see. It started out as a mild curiosity that I unwittingly encouraged. I've known the object of her affection longer than she has, and when I've spoken of it, I have spoken only with the utmost regard and respect. That was enough. Her curiosity got the better of her before long, and she decided to check things out.

It was love at first sight.

Rachel is only 10, maybe a little young for a book the size and depth of "Les Misérables," but I've learned to trust my children's judgment on what they're capable of. Every morning for the past month, I have watched as she walks into school, the book tucked under one arm.

The sight of Rachel lugging an unabridged hardback copy of "Les Misérables" around the school quickly became iconic. Staff who never had her for a class asked me what book she was reading that was bigger than she was. They were amazed to hear not only that she would tackle a book so epic but also that she understood it.

And understand it she did. As she read, Rachel got caught up in the story. She groaned with good humor when she read Victor Hugo's 52-page essay on the Battle of Waterloo that is as fascinating as it is irrelevant to the story. (Just wait until you get to the chapter on the sewers, I told her.) She grieved for Fantine, hated the impassioned coldness of Javert, loathed the Thenardiers, and loved that brisk autumn evening when Valjean came to rescue Cosette.

Her experience with "Les Misérables" came to a cruel and premature end on Friday. When I arrived at the school to pick her up, I found Rachel distraught and almost in tears. "Les Misérables" was gone. She had left the book in its accustomed place during the school day, and now it was gone. She and the teacher had checked around the classroom and around the school, but they couldn't find it anywhere.

At first I thought she was upset because she had lost a book of mine, and I tried to console her. "It's all right," I told her, and I meant it. "I bought it 20 years ago at a used bookstore for seven bucks. It's not like it's your great-grandfather's second-edition copy of 'Moby Dick.' If it doesn't show up, we can find a new one."

Later, I realized how badly I had misread the situation. To me, "Les Misérables" was a book, a phenomenal book even; but to Rachel, reading it was a nearly religious experience. We could find another copy of the book, even the same edition, but it wouldn't be the same.

This wasn't just a book that Rachel had fallen in love with; it was a book that she had fallen into. The dust jacket was battered and worn, its edges frayed from being carted around every day for a month. For weeks she had taken every moment she could spare, and she had spent them all on reading that book. She had discovered the humanity of every character she had encountered, and established a connection with each one. Like the Velveteen rabbit, this book had become real.

And then it had disappeared. It was brutal. I had bought the book, but on Friday afternoon I realized that it wasn't mine anymore. Rachel had established a claim on the book and loved it right from under me. It's her book, through and through.

There is another possibility, though I prefer not to think about it. It's possible that one of the other students took it, out of spite. Every school has bullies, and Rachel has had problems with a few classmates over the past year.

But everyone in that school knows how much Ruth has been enjoying that book, and the thought that someone could be so deliberately cruel to another child is one I hate.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, January 04, 2013

the daniel fast

Among the more interesting things I've tried in the past year: a meal plan that lets you eat as much as you want, whenever you're hungry, and still lose weight.

Of course there's a little more to it than that, because it does restrict you from meats, bread  and a few other things. Known as the Daniel fast, it's essentially a vegan diet with a spiritual gloss, although it's just as effective without the religious aspects.

It's based primarily on what the book of Daniel records that he, Azariah, Mahalel and Hananiah ate, with additional restrictions taken from the fast Daniel kept while praying for the return of the Jews to Jerusalem. I lost about 20 pounds on it over a two-week period this past June.

It's pretty straightforward. Under this regimen, you can eat any fruit, vegetable, nut, legume, root or whole grain that you want, cooked or raw. Use any natural herbs or seasonings that you want. You drink water. Quantities are unlimited, so there's no worries about getting enough calories.

The benefits of a vegetarian diet are pretty well documented, so it's not too surprising that the book of Daniel reports that he and his friends outperformed both physically and mentally those who ate choice meats and drank fine wines.

From a proscriptive angle, the Daniel fast allows no meat, no dairy, no eggs, no sweeteners of any sort (including honey) and no flour. This pretty much eliminates all processed foods, so you can see why it's a big saver on the waistline. In the first few days alone, a person usually drops about 10 pounds of retained water.

The downside is that this is a big change from the diet we're accustomed to eating as Americans, and we can get strong cravings those first few days for junk food, or just find ourselves hungry for more food.

At the same time, though, that is part of the appeal of the Daniel fast both for losing weight and for being able to stick to the commitment -- if you're hungry, just get something to eat. You're not relying on willpower alone to tough it out for the duration of the fast; you're training yourself to eat more healthily, and you're breaking an addiction to unhealthful habits the way you're supposed to -- by replacing them with good habits.

One thing I discovered after trying the Daniel fast in June was that, after a few weeks without meat and sugar, I really didn't have an appetite for them. They not only lost their taste to me, they annoyed my stomach. If I hadn't insisted on getting back into some unhealthy eating habits for the sake of convenience, I probably would have stuck with it just fine.

Make that a goal for 2013.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

'Black Like Me'

There are times I feel that my public education denied me important parts of my education. This is one of them.

"Black Like Me" is the true account of journalist John Howard Griffin and his journey through the South as a black man during the days of jim crow justice and segregation. Through a combination of melatonin pills, ultraviolet light treatments and a dye, Griffin made himself appear to be black, in order to better understand racism and how it affected society. The idea alone is incredible. That someone actually did this and then wrote about it, is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Griffin's book is written as a series of journal entries detailing his experiences as a black man in the South. Much of this details things that are textbook segregation: not being able to eat at white restaurants, not being allowed to drink from white water fountains, and not even being allowed to use white restrooms. What raises this above mere textbook knowledge is the immediacy of the narrative. Reading the book, you get a real sense of the indignity of having to walk for more than a mile just to go the bathroom, of not being given a drink of water on a scorching hot day, and of being subjected to what Griffin calls "the hate stare."

Beyond the obvious racism and racist attitudes, there were a few things revealed in the book that I found disturbing. One is that, in the afterword, Griffin notes that once the Civil Rights Act was passed, a number of white Civil Rights advocates felt that the work was finished. Blacks were guaranteed the right to vote, segregation was over, and things were looking up, What else was needed? Further demands by blacks for advancement and opportunity were met with incredulity and anger.

Right now there is a lawsuit headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, calling for a repeal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ensured that states that had practiced segregation and jim crow justice would need to receive approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before they made any change to their voting laws. The argument is that, with a black president now elected to a second term, surely we have put this sordid chapter of our past behind us.

At the same time, a number of state legislatures have tried to pass voter ID laws in a sometimes brazen attempt to give Mitt Romney the upperhand in the election; and other states have gerrymandered their voting districts so that a Democratic-leaning state consistently elects Republican representatives. (Stop and think about the racial implications of this.)

Have we really come as far as we think we have? The white majority thought we were fine in the 1950s, thought we were fine in the 1960s and thinks we're fine now. I'd suggest that the white majority doesn't really know what it's like for the black minority, and should find out from the people who do know.

Secondly, Griffin had some illuminating thoughts on black achievement and the attitudes Southern whites had on that subject. As he traveled the South, Griffin noted the substandard living conditions many black families had, and noted that many whites attributed this to the overall shiftlesness of black culture, and the lack of desire on the part of blacks to get ahead and achieve for themselves.

At the same time, blacks routinely were being denied economic opportunities, funding for their schools was low, and their overall access to culture in the form of theater, concerts, and even libraries was minimal. And why should the wealth be taken from hard-working whites, and given to people who haven't worked for it?

It's not much of a stretch to see some disturbing parallels between those attitudes from the late 1950s and views recently expressed in the contemporary political dialogue about the 46 percent, and about people who benefit from safety net programs like Medicare, Social Security, and unemployment.

In the past 25 years, we've seen the wealth of our nation aggregate into the hands of an increasingly small group of people. Right now public schools and teachers are under tremendous fire, and the Republican Party has made a lot of noise about freeloaders trying to live off the hard work of others.

Have we really come as far as we think we have?

Right now we're at a crossroads in American education, where our standards are being adjusted to stress nonfiction reading, to "improve work-readiness" and to make us "more competitive in the global job market" and a lot of other things like that. There are a lot of books that are being cut from the national standards that shouldn't be, like "To Kill a Mockingbird." This is another book that should be part of our national curriculum, because it should be a part of our national conversation.

We have made some progress since the 1950s in terms of race, but we still have more to go. As we make that progress, "Black Like Me" should be a part of our discussion.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.