I had an essay published today at The Rumpus. Please check out the link here:
So nearly a whole month has blown by since my last post. Forgive me; I’ve been understandably busy, moving 2,500 miles away and settling down in Fairbanks, Alaska.
I’m still in awe of this place. But I feel right at home.
More to come, to be sure.
So I’m going to make a couple of confessions here. The first is that I never liked potato salad. The second is that I had never eaten potato salad until a couple of weeks ago. But it didn’t matter that I’d never eaten it; I was certain that it was simply terrible and I’d never touch the stuff.
A couple of weeks ago my friend Chris threw an impromptu party before heading off for an extended stay in Portland. I was the first to arrive at his place (a bad habit of mine, showing up early), and we hung out whilst he prepared for the rest of the guests. Chris had bought fried chicken from Cub Foods supermarket, which I was very happy about, since I love their fried chicken. He also set about making potato salad.
At this time ten years ago, when I turned 30, I had just moved to a new city. In the city I’d moved from, most of my friendships were pretty new. I moved very suddenly because I had to; my opportunities had completely closed up. So I settled into a big city to start a new life. The world was so big and fresh and wonderful. Life begins at 30, I declared.
Today I turn 40. I’m about to move to a new city. In the city I’m leaving, many of my friendships are pretty new (at least judging from my party RSVP’s). I am moving with plenty of advance notice because I get to. The city I have been living has opened up possibilities to move on. So soon I will be settling into a little town to start a new life. The world is so big and fresh and wonderful.
Life begins at 40.
I like baseball. I can’t say I’m the perfect fan – I don’t follow it the best in the world, and I don’t understand the finer points of the game. But I enjoy watching a game, especially live. As an American of a certain age, I think it was unavoidable that I would have some connection to baseball. I remember when I was two or three, my mom bought me a little plastic Baltimore Orioles helmet (although I thought the logo was of Chilly Willy).
When I was older, I watched baseball on TV. Indiana doesn’t have its own major-league ball club, so we split our loyalties among the closest teams: the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, and the Cincinnati Reds. Our local TV station aired the Reds, so that’s who I followed. Later, the station switched affiliations to the Cubs, and though Harry Caray was fun to listen to, I couldn’t really get into the Cubs. Read the rest of this entry
I have a conflicted relationship with Independence Day (or the Fourth of July, as it has been branded for so long). Patriotism doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. The idea is that you’re supposed to be proud of the country you’re born in. But I didn’t have any control over what country I was born in. I just happened to fall out of a woman in 1974 at roughly 39°N 85°W. I didn’t do anything for that. And if you tweak any of those factors slightly, relative to the size of the world and the scope of history, suddenly I’m not born in the United States anymore.
There are, of course, plenty of people who choose to move to the United States, just as there are plenty of people who choose to move to other countries, and, given the incredible obstacles that have been established to prevent someone from moving from one country to the next, one could take pride in having accomplished such a move. And I know people whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents made such a move, and the narrative of that move has been passed down to them, so there is a kind of pride by proxy, and I can get that. But I don’t have that narrative in my family. Most of my ancestors arrived on this continent as colonists, before there was a United States. They were always citizens of another country even though they lived here. The rest of my ancestors were dragged here against their will on slave ships. Read the rest of this entry
One of my indulgences is my Netflix account. It’s astounding, when you think of it: access to thousands of movies and television shows for just $8 a month. Yet, with all of my viewing possibilities, I tend to fall back on television series I’ve seen before. I’m a sucker for nostalgia, and Netflix offers me plenty of video comfort food.
When Freaks and Geeks was cancelled in 2000 after a mere 18 episodes, the show’s devoted fans were livid. They (by which I include myself) wanted to know more about the futures of these high-schoolers. We wanted more of the well-crafted characters and thoughtful plots. But the powers that be thought otherwise – the same powers that cancel 2/3 of American television shows by the end of their first season – and canceled the show. Read the rest of this entry
I think it was the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of high school. My youth pastor had the idea of taking us to a nearby park for our youth group meetings that summer. As we were in Indiana, he imagined the basketball courts would be a natural draw for attendance. I didn’t play basketball. I had the hand-eye coordination of a rock. So I would just sit off to the side and talk with the girls until youth group officially started.
One evening, after our youth pastor beckoned us from the basketball courts, he opened up the evening’s discussion. He asked us to raise our hands if we believed in capital punishment. Hands shot up all around me. Then he asked us who didn’t believe in capital punishment. I was the only one to raise my hand.
The next hour was spent engaged in a relentless onslaught. Youth pastor, group sponsors, fellow students, taking every tactic they knew to change my mind. Of course, the first line of offense was to quote Bible verses. But that wasn’t enough to sustain the argument. They talked about how life imprisonment was a drain on taxes. One of the sponsors explained that capital punishment was more humane than life imprisonment, because the guillotine was invented to make death swift. I struggled to see how an instrument that was no longer used was essential to the discussion.
No one backed me up. And I am not one to engage in heated argument. I couldn’t get two words out without someone firing a volley back at me.
What could I do? I was just a fifteen-year-old kid. I was no expert in public policy or theology. I wasn’t an expert in anything. So, at the end of the hour-long onslaught, I relented with a “maybe you’re right”. I didn’t honestly think they were right, but what could I do? I would see them all again, the next week and the week after and the week after. I had to live with them.
Of course, I could have chosen not to live with them. I wasn’t forced to go to church – in fact, at that point, I was the only one who attended. The rest of my family quit going because they were tired of being bullied – my siblings for having learning disabilities and my mom for being poor and having a handful of disabilities.
But I attended because I was loved. Or, I was told I was loved. In truth, I was mocked and bullied much of the time. But the youth pastor told me that the other kids in youth group mocked and bullied me because they loved me. And, of course, I believed him.
But I think back. What was the point of the discussion that evening? What relevance did a specific view on capital punishment have on the spiritual development of teenagers? None, that I can think of. As I look back, it seemed to have much more to do with grooming us to vote for a specific party.
Now, in the United States, churches aren’t supposed to campaign to their parishioners in favor of a specific party or politician. To do so jeopardizes their tax-exempt status. But the pressure doesn’t have to come in an official channel, through the pulpit or the front of the classroom, in order to be effective. My congregation at that time was lock-step Republican. They could tell me how to vote – three years before I could – over pitch-in dinners and post-service conversation. And at my church, a number of peers and adults constantly pressured me to change my political outlook, because, heaven forbid, I sounded like a Democrat, and everyone knows that Democrats are really Communists, and Communists are against God.
And I look back on it all in astonishment. For people who were supposed to be focused on eternity and on a kingdom that was spiritual in nature, they were awfully wrapped up in political parties and countries and other things that are bound to come to an end and thus have nothing whatsoever to do with eternity.
I think we would have all benefited that night in the park from a lesson in love, or compassion, or grace, or any of a zillion other things that, not only are more important to the message they claimed to profess, but also are of greater permanence and importance to the human species.
I closed yesterday’s post with an odd allusion that might not have made much sense in the context in which I put it, so I thought today I’d clarify.
You see, patriotism doesn’t make much sense to me, and here’s why:
First off, patriotism implies an allegiance to a country that either you were born into, or that you have moved to and chosen for yourself. Now, in the latter case, having an allegiance because of a conscious decision you’ve made makes some sense. You determined which country would be the best fit for yourself, and you’ve made considerable sacrifices in order to reside in or even to take up citizenship in that country.
But most people don’t make that conscious decision. They reside in the country they were born in. And though some may disagree with me, I will maintain for this argument that you don’t choose where you’re born.
So, then, what obligates your loyalty to a choice you don’t make? Let’s start by looking at who or what makes this all-important choice. And of all the theories and philosophies and theologies I can think of, it boils down to one of two options: Chance and Fate.
Let’s look at Chance first. This theory assumes that the place and time of your birth is left up to the randomness of the universe. And it’s hard to argue in favor of loyalty to sheer randomness. But, to make my point clearer, let’s look at just how random this chance is. It’s important to bear in mind that nation-states, as we understand them today, are very temporary things. I’m reminded of how my father always referred to “the great 48 states of the United States”. Now, I think my father was aware that there were 50 states when I was a child, but when he was a schoolboy, Alaska and Hawaii had not yet become states, and he could never get that early schooling out of his system. So it’s always been evident to me that what constitutes a nation-state changes over time. And, for a wonderful further proof of this phenomenon, check out this video:
If I had been born at a slightly different time (relative to the very long history of humanity), then my obligation, my loyalty, would suddenly change. So this idea of patriotism is a very impermanent thing.
But now, let’s argue that the time and place of my birth were not random, that some supernatural power (that here, to accommodate all the belief systems that share this claim, I call Fate) had foreordained the time and place of my birth with a specific purpose in mind. Then, suddenly, there’s purpose to the time and place of my birth, which would seem to justify a feeling of loyalty and patriotism. But wouldn’t this adoration be more properly directed to the Fate that put me here? The time and place would be secondary, in this equation.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s argue that this formula still obligates me to be patriotic to my country. If the time and place of my birth were foreordained, it stands to reason that this would be true of every single person who ever lived (because, gracious, there’s nothing particularly special about me). But then, that means that different people are born in different countries at different points of history were all put in their particular locations by this same Fate. And that would mean that every person was obligated to be loyal to whichever of the thousands of countries that have graced this planet over the milennia.
Now, here, I think the fact that I was born in America gets in the way. In the United States, we are taught that our country is the greatest country in the world. (Even though, in many measurable respects–from healthcare to infrastructure to education to sports–we are not #1.) But it stands to reason from the path of my argument that every country could argue for being the greatest country on earth. And that makes no sense.
It’s not that I’m lacking in loyalty. It’s where I place it. And I place it in humanity – a view which is independent of time and place, and which recognizes our fundamental equality.
I am not a patriot. I am a humanist.