Jun 3, 2012 - Literature    3 Comments

A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That: Reverb Broads Summer #1

I took part in an offshoot of the Reverb blogging projects, called Reverb Broads, last December. I really enjoyed the almost-spiritual discipline of writing something every day, and the community of other women I hooked into has lead to some incredibly fulfilling new friendships and a whole bunch of excellent reading. So I’m doing the summer iteration throughout June. If you’re enjoying the prompts and the posts they inspire, consider joining in the fun!¬†

Summer Broads 2012, Prompt 1: With what fictional character (book, movie, TV, etc.) do you most identify? Why? (by Kristen of Kristendom)

This one has two parts, and neither of them include Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables) like everyone else’s responses apparently do. ūüôā

First, there are the characters I’d like to be like. They tend to be wildly intelligent, super useful, ultra competent women who stay calm in the most unimaginable situations. There’s Claire Fraser from Diana Gabaldon‘s Outlander novels. She starts out as a war nurse in World War II, then goes back in time to 1848 Scottish Rebellion (Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that). Once they think she’s not a whore who went out into the woods in her slip, she quickly ingratiates herself to the rebels with her useful medical skills. She picks up a hot redhead for her troubles (that much, at least I can live out), and generally rolls through major events of history with grace and aplomb.

Then there’s Mary Russell from Laurie R. King‘s series of the same name. Mary’s a precocious, bookish teenager when she meets Sherlock Holmes, and first becomes his apprentice in the art of detecting, and later, his wife. She’s easily as intelligent as he is, and though their life is anything but restful, their relationship could be described that way. She’s brilliant, a fast learner, and wicked cool in a crisis.

And, while I do have some reputation for functioning well in the face of disaster (hence the nickname Emergency Lass), I don’t have any illusions that I’m as cool as they are. Nor am I as consistently one personality as most characters. That’s not surprisingly–characters need to conform to predictable archetypes, and only evolve a modicum of complexity after a series is well under way. So, while this question left me at a sincere loss for days, the closest formula I can come up with is what follows.

A big part of me is Hermione Granger. I’m a bossy know-it-all witch, always eager to share what I’ve learned with other people. That’s why I’m happiest when I’m teaching–all that reading and study is zero fun if I’m not sharing it with someone else.¬†I’d rather spend my vacation in the restricted section of the library, and I’m a bit befuddled by how little attention most people seem to be paying to, well, everything. I’m pretty sure there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved with more reading. I’m also fiercely loyal to those I love, and willing to go to the mat (or the troll, or the Shrieking Shack, or the Ministry of Magic) for them.

But Hermione doesn’t cover my weird, unpredictable, impulsive side. For that, I turn to Delirium. She’s one of the Endless, a group of mythic archetypes that function as quasi-divinities/forces of nature in the classic graphic novel series The Sandman. Delirium hasn’t been quite right in the head since her brother Destruction, the big bluff protector of the bunch, split town. She wanders between her own reality and everyone else’s, and is fond of bizarre pronouncements and non sequiturs. At heart, though, she’s a little confused, a lot optimistic, and genuinely loves her family, imperfect though they are.

And her hair changes color with her moods, a power I sincerely covet. If only so I don’t have to touch up my roots.

Jun 2, 2012 - AV Club, World Religions    5 Comments

The Reel and the Surreal: Movies About Religion

I’m a documentary whore. I absolutely adore them. Can’t get enough. The more esoteric the subject, the better. I’ve always enjoyed them, even as an admittedly weird kid, but I really fell back in love with them right after my second son, Griffin, was born. He was not what anyone would call “a sleeper,” and I found myself awake in the middle of the night more often than not. Fortunately, there always seemed to be an HBO documentary on demand, and I started actually looking forward to those sleepless nights when I didn’t have to relinquish the TV to children’s programming.

I like to keep my classroom style varied, and video is instrumental in demonstrating concepts with a single clip that it would take me an hour to explain, and even then, the students wouldn’t know what the thing I was describing actually looks like in practice. This is especially true in my religious studies classes. Being able to immerse them in the sights and sounds of holy places, and hear everyday practitioners and learned experts alike reiterate what I’m trying to teach is priceless.

I’ve assembled a list here of films that I find particularly good at demonstrating core concepts of the philosophy and practice of religion. Many, I’ve used in class; some are just personal favorites. They’re organized by topic the same way I organize my Intro to Religious Thought classes. This is just a handful of the amazing, thoughtful, incisive, unsettling, critical films being made about religion. Some of them are available on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video; many are commonly stocked in libraries. All are worth tracking down.

Sacred Time

The Last Wave, dir. Peter Weir (Criterion Studios, 1979) — And, of course, I start with a movie that’s not a documentary at all–I’m just that perverse. This is a weird, dated, surreal Australian film by the same director as Witness, Gallipoli, Dead Poets Society, and The Way Back. Richard Chamberlain (The Thorn Birds, Dr. Kildare) stars as a Sydney lawyer who takes on the case of some Aboriginal men accused of killing another one. Chamberlin starts dreaming of a huge flood, and his clients disclose tribal secrets that help him decode the dreams–he’s dreaming of the end of a cycle in Aboriginal time, when they will step into the Dreamtime, leaving the white world to be washed away. It’s a confusing, circular movie, but it’s the most effective demonstration of the Aboriginal concepts of non-linear time that exist nowhere in any society outside of Australia or Africa.

Sacred Space

Ganges, dir. Tom Hugh-Jones (BBC Warner, 2003) — A beautifully filmed look at the centrality of the Ganges River to India as a continent and Hinduism as a faith. They explore the river in its environment and its religious functions, all the way from its disputed origins high in the Himalayas, down to the rich delta at the bottom of the subcontinent.

In the Light of Reverence, dir. Christopher McLeod (Bullfrog Films, 2001) — This film is difficult to find, but so well worth it. The three chapters show the importance of the land to three different Native American groups, and how difficult it is to preserve them with their inherent worth isn’t visible or understandable to Anglo-Americans, who think there has to be a building or monument for a place to be holy. This movie will make you scream and cry, and maybe get involved in the fight to preserve these special places.

Sacred Acts

National Geographic‚ÄĒInside Mecca, dir. Anisa Mehdi (National Geographic Video, 2003) — I had actually wanted to use the BBC documentary Hajj: Journey of a Lifetime, but it wasn’t available on DVD when I went to teach. Now, wonderfully, the whole thing is free on YouTube. But the National Geographic film is great, too. Only Muslims are allowed in Mecca during Hajj (the annual pilgrimage that’s part of an observant Muslims obligations, at least once in his/her life), so an entirely Muslim crew was assembled for each of these two films. They follow a variety of Muslims from all over the world through the hard physical and spiritual work of the Hajj. It’s fantastic for basic literacy about Islam, and experiencing such a moving journey.

Jesus Camp, dirs. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Loki Films, 2006) Even if you’ve grown up Christian, you may not know that places like the Bible camp in Colorado that’s depicted in this film exist, or what goes on inside them. It’s a harrowing look at the pressure put on kids as young as 5 and 6 to conform to a pretty extreme brand of Christianity. It raises some important questions about how and when to impose your own beliefs on children.

How to Cook Your Life, dir. Doris Dorrie (Lions Gate, 2008) This is a delightful movie about a Zen Buddhist monk and a chef in San Francisco. It perfectly demonstrates the idea that the most mundane, pedestrian things in our lives can become sacred acts with the right mindset. Don’t watch this if you’re hungry.

Sacred People

The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha, dir. David Grubin (PBS Home Video, 2010) — A lovely documentary blending legend and history to tell the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian prince who achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha.

10 Questions for the Dalai Lama, dir. Rick Ray (Monterey Video, 2007) — This is a very personal film, and though the narrator occasionally gets a little annoying in his self-centeredness, the Dalai Lama is so wise and happy and brilliant and wonderful that everything else fades into insignificance. He talks about the situation of his people’s exile from Tibet, the importance of science, and many of the central ideas of the Buddhist world view. I could listen to him talk forever.

The Devil‚Äôs Playground, dir. Lucy Walker (Wellspring, 2003) — This movie follows several Amish teenagers as they launch into a practice known as “Rumspringa,” when they leave the cloistered communities they grew up in and fully experience the “English” world. They swear like crazy, use drugs, go to drunken parties, drive cars, smoke, get jobs, wear jeans. It’s shocking to learn that every Amish person–people we think of as so sheltered and devout–intentionally tests the things of which the Amish life would deprive them. Even more surprising is how many of them choose at the end to leave it all behind and go back to their communities. It’s riveting.

Sacred Words

National Geographic: The Gospel of Judas (National Geographic Video, 2006) — Most people think the Bible has always looked the way it does now, but this film explodes that notion for once and for all. It tells the story of a remarkable document, which purports to be a Gospel written by the disciple Judas, whom the traditional four Gospels of the New Testament says betrayed Jesus to his death. The text is one of the gnostic gospels which interpret the lessons and life of Jesus very differently than the orthodox ones do, and it radically challenges our understanding of the Bible stories everyone hears every Easter. There’s a lot of dramatized action, which always rubs me a bit wrong, but the experts in the video and the story of the text itself more than make up for it.

Sacred Events

From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, dir. William Cran (PBS Home Video, 2004) — This is a very long, four-part documentary, but it throws into high relief precisely what a messy, confusing, unpredictable origin Christianity had. It gives a ton of valuable information about the Mediterranean world Jesus was born into, the political and social climate that led to his death, the wildly varying (and competing) interpretations of Jesus’ message and life, and the weird horse race to become the “official” version of Christianity that the Roman Empire eventually embraced. It also features most of my favorite historians of Christianity, and it’s a good way to get to know them; many of the authors on last week’s book list are in this film. All this flies directly in the face of the tidy, sanitized, fait accompli history Biblical literalists would have you believe, but the truth is always messier and more interesting.

The Mormons: A Frontline/American Experience Special, dir. Helen Whitney¬†(PBS Home Video, 2007) — Especially in this election year, it’s really important to know the origins and evolution of the only American-born brand of Christianity. This documentary talks to both the officials and the faithful of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints today, but also its critics. It grapples with both the problematic aspects of Mormonism–such as its attitudes and actions toward Native Americans and African Americans–and the very troubling exercise of federal power to exterminate the Mormons.¬† Whether you find it silly or compelling, it’s all American, and the imprint of this country’s ideals on the Mormon faith is indelible.

May 31, 2012 - Social Studies    15 Comments

Walking the Talk

I’ve been trying to string these observations together for three days now, and failing utterly to find a single narrative thread. But I really feel the need to get these ideas out there. So, instead of a coherent blog post, you get a bunch of random thoughts about the complexities of race relations. My apologies.

******

Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed and me, May 2012

I’m thinking a lot about race these days. Part of that is deliberate. I took part in a study group about the racial history of my religion, Unitarian Universalism, at church, in anticipation of a weekend visit by the foremost historian of the African American UU experience, Mark Morrison-Reed. We read his book, Darkening the Doorways, and discussed everything from white privilege, to assumptions about what black visitors to our church would find welcoming, to outreach efforts to walk the talk on multicultural engagement.

The accompanying workshop, and the extended conversation for the group of us, was difficult and painful, but soul work really should be. The first principle of our faith is that we honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but we’ve been unsuccessful more often than successful at truly embracing real diversity in our church homes. We’re so much more comfortable going into communities of color for a day of service–us doing things for them, not with them–then returning to our monochromatic congregations on Sunday with the glow of righteousness.

The main conclusion we came to that day, with Mark’s help, is that communities of color are used to people coming and going. What they’re not used to is people staying. Volunteers paint buildings and plant gardens. They don’t come back to touch-up or weed. It’s the same with political work. Don’t just show up for the march–come back for coffee, stay for dinner. Don’t just make speeches–ask what they want, and listen as long as they want to talk.

 ******

I’m not colorblind. My stepdad says he is, with ridiculous statements like, “I don’t see race” and “There’s no such thing as black and white–we’re all cocoa, vanilla, cream tea, cinnamon.” ¬†It sounds delicious, but it’s hard for me to reconcile this kind of obliviousness with his history as a young white man who stood up for civil rights in the ’60s. He even attended Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. To me, this is blindness, not color blindness, and it diminishes the real struggle people of color have had and continue to have in America. Is this a relic of that generation of liberal speech on race? Did it sound as insensitive in the past as it does now?

 ******

I see race because I see patterns. As a kid, I was curious about things like melanin, epicanthic folds, and naso-labial shapes. But I was far more fascinated by the differences than worried about them. I noticed that people of different ethnicities smelled differently, and I wanted to taste the food I scented on their clothing and in their hair. I collected dolls dressed in the native costumes of different nations. I spent hours in a Chicago-area children’s museum, acting out family life from Fiddler on the Roof in the kid-sized Jewish home, and making tortillas and touching all the weavings in the Mexican home. And my mom tells me that, around the age of 2 and 3, I would babble incessantly in some weird language, then sigh in exasperation when she told me to stop talking nonsense. “*Mo-om*, it’s not nonsense,” she says I said, “I’m speaking French.” To this day, she wishes she’d known someone who spoke French, to find out if I actually was.

 ******

I worked in a record store at the last year of my undergrad work, in Lawrence, Kansas. I loved my job, but I’d watch the kids who browsed a little too long in the Rap/R&B section. The white boys were so stupidly obvious, all I had to do was walk up to them and ask them how I could help to get them to mumble nervously and quickly leave the store, their shoplifting plans foiled. When it was young men of color, I’d watch them, then deliberately turn away, telling myself it wasn’t fair to profile them thus. After they left, I’d do a quick check of the section, and when I found neatly razorbladed magnetic tags or plastic wrappers stuffed into the corners of the racks, I was furious and hurt. I hated that they reinforced the negative stereotypes, justified my profiling, and made me feel racist and ashamed.

 ******

I just read a book by John L. Jackson, Jr. called Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, in which he makes a compelling case that, in the wake of the advances at exterminating de jure (in the law) and de facto (in reality) racism, all the remaining ambivalence gets internalized into what he calls de cardio (in the heart) racism, which isn’t even always conscious, and will be much harder to stamp out. Jackson posits that, if people on both sides of the color line can’t trust people to speak the truth about race, they come to mistrust everything they say about race, leading to deep racial paranoia.

Mind=blown.

The book taught me about the propensity to believe in vast conspiracies, based on this fundamental mistrust, and the books and music who advance these theories in the black community. I felt about a dozen questions and observations snap into place, finally in context, with each chapter. And his theory confirms my suspicions about the direction public attitudes about LGBT folks are headed, as it becomes increasingly less acceptable to openly discriminate. In this way, among so many others, we have to acknowledge that civil rights are civil rights are civil rights.

******

Few things make me as frustrated or embarrassed as seeing white people co-opting pieces of other cultures as their own. Purely Euro-American people drumming in sweat lodge retreats at expensive resorts. Suburban soccer moms who say they understand Latinos because they’re sending their kids to a Spanish-immersion private school. Kids putting on the swagger and language of inner city culture, without having to suffer any of the doubt and fear that comes with walking through gated communities while black.

A few years ago, I heard someone ask, “Why is cocaine so addictive and damaging, when South Americans chew coca leaves for years and never suffer ill health?” The answer is simple. Because when you take something out of context–extract, distill, purify–you may amplify the parts you want, but you lose hundreds of organic compounds that balance and mitigate the downsides in ways we don’t even fully understand.

Culture works the same way. When you sample ideas and practices out of context, you may feel enlightened and energized by your new, hip, exclusive experience, but you’re missing the point, and denigrating a culture that’s richer than you even know. Admire Native American spirituality? Learn about rez life. Like to sing African American spirituals? Learn about the black experience of Christianity and liberation theology. Do the work, and learn the context.

 ******

I’m not trying to “put on” blackness, with all these inquiries into race lately. I want to understand a culture that is, in so many ways, hidden in plain sight. I want to understand how people of color experience the same things I experience, each of us through our different lenses. Those lenses are ground by things like dinner table conversations, schoolyard lessons, the looks you get (or feel) walking down the street, and how it feels to stand on thresholds real and metaphoric.

I’ve experienced the world through the lens of white privilege; I know that deep in my bones. I don’t feel guilt, but I do feel regret. I’ve also experienced the world through the lenses of being female, being autistic, being liberal, being curious. I want to hear the voices, and I have a deep desire to reach across that divide, as much as I would be welcomed, to speak to and embrace the common humanity of us all. I’m not satisfied with the boundaries others tell me are “safe.”

 ******

I am happiest when my world is diverse. And I want my boys to grow up thinking that friends come in every shape, gender, color, physical ability, and personality. When they were younger, I took them to the parks where the immigrant families came for day trips, up from Chicago. A lot of the locals in our lily-white resort town told us to avoid them on weekends, but I wanted my sons to smell different cooking, hear different languages, and play with every kind of kid. So many families welcomed my wild, gregarious sons, and seemed delighted with the mingled laughter and fun of their children and mine.

When they ran over to ask if they could play with a new friend, I asked them to point out at least one of the kids’ parents. They would point vaguely, eager to return to the game, and say, “His dad is the one in the green shirt” or “His mom has long hair.” I would follow their little pointing finger, and as often than not, the man in the green shirt was also black, or the woman with long hair was dressed in a sari. But those things didn’t register as different enough to remark upon, and skin color was irrelevant, next to the possibility of a new playmate.

Am I wrong to be proud of that? I don’t want to seem self-congratulatory. But teaching values to kids is such a fraught proposition, and the way they treat others–especially perfect strangers–is one of the real litmus tests for whether your lessons are sinking in. They’re a big part of why I want to expand my circle of friends and contacts to include more people of color. The indifference to difference doesn’t last forever. It’s time for me to put my body and heart where my values are, for them to see.

 

The 3 Rs: Recommended Religion Reading

This list was so much harder than you’d think. I’ve read literally hundreds of books about religion and history over the past 15-20 years, so narrowing it down to a few essentials left me feeling like I was trying to find the most refreshing thimbleful of water in the river. The one “book” I wasn’t able to find in a linkable form to include is the current US Military Chaplain’s Handbook, but that’s a fascinating read. It appears to be primarily available in CD-ROM form, which makes sense, since it’s really a large collection of field manuals, devotionals, and other resources.

In the meantime, though, here are the best books I could think of for folks who may or may not have had an Intro to World Religions class in college at some point, but are otherwise not too informed about religion, even their own. Please, suggest your own books down in comments! I’ll have a list of movies that demonstrate important religious concepts or new perspectives that break our stereotypes for you next week.

RECOMMENDED READINGS FOR THE RELIGIOUSLY CURIOUS

  1. Prothero, Stephen, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know–And Doesn’t. (HarperOne, 2008)¬†This book makes a powerful case that understanding the major world religions–including the reality of Christianity–is absolutely critical for social progress, international security, and continued democracy. Prothero has a new book, God Is Not One, that I haven’t read yet, but profiles in more depth eight of the world’s major faiths.
  2. Livingston, James, Anatomy of the Sacred, Sixth Edition. (Prentice Hall, 2008) This is the textbook I used for my most recent course on religious theory. It fits pretty well with my approach of looking at different facets of religious behavior and belief, and filling in variations on those themes from a wide variety of historical and contemporary religions. Because it’s a college textbook, it costs a stupid amount of money; on the other hand, used copies abound.
  3. Eastman, Roger, The Ways of Religion: An Introduction to the Major Traditions. (OUP, 1999)¬†I don’t use other people’s anthologies of primary sources, for the most part–I pull together a much more diverse selection of my own devising than any I’ve ever found in print, both for religion and history classes. But if I had to pick one for a religious studies class, I’d go with this one every time. It’s by far the most diverse, and the excerpts are nice and long (relatively speaking, to the rest of the field). If you haven’t ever heard the voices of faiths other than yours, I cannot possibly stress how important it is for everyone to read the actual sources themselves.
  4. Meredith, Hickman, Rogers, and Kirkby, The Usborne Encyclopedia of World Religions: Internet-Linked. (Usborne, 2010)¬†This is a “kids'” book, but like everything Usborne does, it’s a hell of a lot more informative than anything you’ll encounter in the vast majority of mainstream media. It’s also lavishly illustrated, something that’s really important as you try to wrap your head around new and foreign faiths, and it’s Internet-linked to all sorts of extra articles, pictures, and videos. This may actually be the very best place to start if you’ve never taken a course on world religion. NB: The link is to the book listing on the UK Usborne Publishing page, but Usborne books are available here in the States too, both through home distributors (think Tupperware, but with awesome books instead of burping plastic) and, increasingly, in retail outlets.
  5. Matlins, Stuart, and Arthur Magida, How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook, Fifth Edition. (Skylight Paths, 2010)¬†This may be one of the coolest books around. Religion by religion, sect by sect, it gives you the basic etiquette to guarantee you don’t embarrass yourself at religious ceremonies of any stripe. Practically speaking, it’s awesome if you’ve got a diverse group of friends who do things like get married, give birth, or die, but it’s also a fascinating read cover-to-cover, and should be considered for the bookshelf of any graduate or world traveller.
  6. Swami Tapasyananda (trans.),¬†Srimad Bhagavad Gita. (Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2003)¬†You may have picked up a free copy of the Gita from a table on your college campus, but this is the edition of the essential (if not only) Hindu holy book recommended by a very smart and learned Krishnavite friend. It’s part scripture, part epic poem, part philosophical treatise, but it sums up with passion and poetry some of the most compelling concepts of Hinduism.
  7. Kornfield, Jack, A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Religious Life. (Bantam, 1993)¬†This is a wonderfully simple introduction to Western Buddhism, especially the core concepts of mindfulness, compassion toward all living things, our attachments to the material world, and the practice of meditation. Western Buddhism certainly isn’t the same as all the Asian variants, but this explains those central ideas in a way that sets the reader up well to make more far-reaching inquiries.
  8. Robinson, George, Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs & Rituals. (Atria, 2001)¬†I have it on very good authority (from an honest-to-goodness Jewish school teacher!) that this is one of the most popular texts for people new to the Jewish faith; it’s even used as a textbook in conversion classes. I need to pick up a copy myself, come to think of it.
  9. Beard, North, and Price (eds.), Religions of Rome (2 vol.). (Cambridge University Press, 1998)¬†This is a very scholarly two-volume set–the first volume is synthesis and analysis of the religious landscape of the Roman Empire at its height, and the second is full of annotated primary sources (inscriptions, imperial proclamations, legends, and rituals). It’s geared toward the expert reader, but if you want to get a clear view of exactly how much like every other Mediterranean mystery cult Christianity was, and how fundamentally weird that was in the history of human religious practice, there’s no better starting place.
  10. Wansbrough, Henry (ed.), The New Jerusalem Bible (Doubleday, 1999)¬†My Latin and Roman History teacher calls this the “Scholar’s Bible.” The translation is directly from the original Hebrew and Greek by some of the best biblical experts in the world. It’s not the easiest version to read, but it’s probably the closest to the original text as we’re going to get.
  11. Crossan, John Dominic,¬†The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus. (HarperOne, 1999)¬†I can’t recommend against any of Crossan’s work, but this one’s particularly good at highlighting the historical truth that Christianity was not founded by Jesus, but about¬†Jesus, by lots of other people. Crossan is one of the leading experts on the historical Jesus, and this book does an excellent job of demonstrating the real horse race Christianity was in for its survival, and how unlikely in many ways it was to have been the faith that came out on top.
  12. Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels. (Vintage, 1989)¬†The discovery of the Nag Hammadi gospels in the 1940s revolutionized our understanding of Christianity in the decades following the life of Jesus. Most Christians get a very tidy, unified history of the development of the faith’s core principles–even the compilation of the Bible–when the truth is very far from that. We knew other gospels existed, but until the Nag Hammadi texts, we only knew them based on what more orthodox critics said about them. This book tells us about the Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene, among others, and illuminates the radically different interpretations of Jesus’ life and message among his own followers.
  13. Pagels, Elaine, The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics. (Vintage, 1996)¬†Pagels is another historian whom it’s hard to go wrong with, much like Crossan, when it comes to the history of early Christianity. I also recommend this particular book, though, because it highlights the point at which Christianity was no longer the outcast under attack, but the dominant power that could attack others, even other kinds of Christians whose beliefs weren’t officially endorsed. It also helps us understand the anti-Semitic foundations of Christianity that reverberate into the present day.
  14. Aslan, Reza,¬†No God But God (Updated Edition): The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. (Random House, 2011)¬†The absolute best book on Islam I’ve ever read. You get it all–history, culture, faith, practice, conflict, poetry, mysticism, expansion, controversy. Aslan’s analysis is unflinching. I wish more universities would make this their freshman read as students come into the collegiate world.
  15. Armstrong, Karen, A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (Ballantine, 1994)¬†Armstrong is one of the world’s most respected experts on world religion, and she makes it incredibly accessible for regular readers. She’s written dozens of books, on many different faiths, but I wish more people read this one so they could see the full extent to which the Abrahamic religions are interdependent and similar. Armstrong is also doing great work with her non-profit foundation Charter for Compassion, which promotes understanding and dialogue among people of all faiths.
  16. Comte-Sponville, Andre, and Nancy Huston, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. (Penguin, 2008)¬†This slim volume is surprisingly full of simple, elegant wisdom. Don’t let the title mislead you, though–this book isn’t out to convert anyone away from believing in gods or religion. Instead, it blends science, philosophy, humanism, and history to prove that there’s immense mystery and majesty in what and where humans are, even before we try to understand the unknowable.

 

Pride and Prejudice

My nine-year-old son Connor finishes the partial hospitalization program that saved his life this spring on Friday. He’ll return to school, and his beloved friends and teachers and staff, for the last eleven days of the year. It’ll be a lovely reunion–he’s determined to surprise them on Tuesday–and he’ll get to show off the amazing new self-control and trigger management he’s developed, in a manageable, boundaried time period.

As part of his evaluation and treatment in the program, Connor was tested on a wide battery of skills and scales. Most irritating of these tests was a tear-your-hair-out boring attention test that required TWELVE FULL MINUTES of participation to determine a baseline. We laughed at the irony of his twice quitting an attention test because it bored him, but as soon as he tried it with someone to tell him to keep going, the test revealed no attention span issues.

Connor's first-place winning science fair project this year, about predicting compressive strength of materials based on their atomic structure.

Equally unsurprising to us were the results of his IQ test. He scored 136. Now, officially, there’s no “cutoff” for “genius level” anymore in the updated IQ scoring, but 136 puts him into the 99th Percentile for kids his age. In other words, only one percent of nine-year-olds score higher than that. His vocabulary and reading level is that of a 12th grader. According to a new study, that’s two grades higher than the average of the U.S. Congress.

This kid is staggeringly intelligent. Which comes as news to absolutely no one who’s ever met him. I feel far less proud than affirmed. These scores only quantify the bar that we’ve always felt we have to rise to as his parents. The doctor who evaluated him repeatedly emphasized how unusual Connor’s mind really is–the words “exceptional,” “exceed,” and “excellent” appear frequently throughout the write-up, and he urges several times that Connor receive gifted and talented services.

What did shock us in this evaluation was the statement that immediately followed the quantitative elements:¬†“Connor indicates that he enjoys role-play games, which I would strongly advise against, given how these activities can result in him being more obsessed with fantasy than reality. Connor should be devoting his time and effort to normal activities socially, recreationally, and athletically that would be pursued by a nine-year-old.” Further down, he returns to this point: “Repeatedly, I witness children like Connor becoming consumed with fantasy and role-playing games, derailing their social and emotional development and ignoring ‘normal’ endeavors. The result is a pattern of unusual or atypical interests that ultimately are not shared by their peers, causing them to be viewed as unusual, odd, or atypical and, therefore, contributing to social rejection and emotional alienation.”

My first reaction was, “Holy crap, he thinks geeks are pathetic.”

I saw the Darling Husband’s hackles rise as he read, though he channeled it into humor, since the therapist who gave us the papers wasn’t the one who did the evaluation. Instead, he suggested that they give the doctor a call and tell him what Connor’s dad does for a living.

We shared a laugh at the time, with Connor in the room and unaware of what the papers said, but we were shocked and bothered by the obvious bias in the evaluation, and how utterly dissonant it was with both of our life experiences. How could anyone think such a wonderful hobby was destructive and alienating?

For both of us, fantasy literature and roleplaying games were the ultimate sandbox, an environment finally big enough for the universes our minds could imagine. Sci-fi and fantasy, both in prose and comic books, gave us colorful and expansive vocabularies that challenged us, in the days of stultifying spelling tests and reading assignments that left us cold. Games gave us math problems we wanted to do. They gave us new friends at home and around the world, hours of solo and group entertainment, and eventually, roleplaying games gave us each other. They are our hobby, and our work, and now our legacy to our children.

We understood the doctor’s concern that, if Connor was only into media far beyond his peers’ comprehension, he’d have no common interests with them. But what’s “normal” for a nine-year-old? Chess? No, no chance of obsession there (ahem, paging Bobby Fischer). Baseball? Just what he needs to stay away from unsociable statistics (or not). Guns? That can’t possibly turn out badly. In fact, I’d like someone to tell me what subjects are, in fact, more normal for a nine-year-old American boy in 2012 than heroes, monsters, superheroes, Star Wars, LEGO, and XBox games?

Sure, we’ve known our share of people who couldn’t function well socially in contexts that excluded their primary enthusiasm. Every joke refers to a D&D stat, or a video game plot, or a Monty Python sketch. Every anecdote ties back to a Star Trek episode. And yes, autistic kids get fixated and study the everlasting hell out of what they like. Some days, it’s all they can talk about, and that can be off-putting to other kids who don’t have the sheer bloodyminded endurance they do. But that’s not the vast majority of today’s geeks and gamers, and it’s certainly not Connor.

Connor got a make-your-own sonic screwdriver kit for Christmas. He may have been pleased.

Cam and I will take some credit for keeping his interests wide. Every time he finishes a book, movie, or TV series he’s thoroughly enjoyed, we’ve got three new things racked and ready to suggest. So you liked Star Wars, did you, kid? Here, meet this guy called Indiana Jones. Muppets tickled your fancy? Fantastic–watch this Wallace and Gromit short. Harry Potter and Doctor Who are pretty awesome, aren’t they? Let me tell you about my friends Sherlock Holmes and Lewis Carroll. And the same lack of inhibition that sometimes leads Connor to say tactless or oblivious things allows his passion and enthusiasm for his favorite things to bubble over giddily, and it’s absolutely irresistible. He’s a trendsetter among his peers. They don’t tell him he’s weird for liking what he likes–they want to know what’s got him so excited.

I know the kids around him won’t always be as forgiving of his differences. But the age when that happens was exactly when Cam and I found roleplaying games, and we weren’t alone. Neither will he be. In fact, he’s likely to be in demand as a creative, versatile gamemaster with deft control of rules and narrative, and a bag full of hacks and tricks. Heavens know, he’s learning at the feet of The Master.

We want to let this doctor know that we respect his experience and knowledge, but in this area, he’s got it flat wrong. Games knit society closer together. Connor’s entire existence, and his loving home, come from the power of those stitches. His whole life, since before he was even born, he’s been on the receiving end of love and support from the friends we’ve made through games. He’s already discovered the delight and the challenge in them, and he’s learning social skills in a safe, welcoming environment, in the community of gamers.

How on earth could he grow up healthier without all that?

May 22, 2012 - World Religions    13 Comments

Living the Questions

One of the hats I wear upon my surprisingly pink head is that of a religious studies scholar. Believe me, I’m as shocked as anyone that I ended up that way, but there you have it. It’s mostly the fault of medieval studies–it’s pretty much impossible to become educated about the Middle Ages (not just in Europe, but in many cultures) without learning about the religions and the institutions they create.

But I started my inquiries about religion much earlier than grad school. When I went through an abusive relationship in high school that ended in sexual assault, I knew from my mother’s and grandmother’s examples that that was when faith was supposed to kick in and help guide me through dark times. But it didn’t, and I didn’t have a good reason why it didn’t, except that I hadn’t accepted my Methodist upbringing as deeply as I’d thought. Sure, I was Bible Trivia CHAMPION, and sang in choirs and ensembles from the time I was five, but when it came to unswerving belief in the tenets of Christianity? I just didn’t have it.

A lot of young people go through a crisis of faith like this at some point, and it’s pretty common for them to swing way out to the most diametrically opposed idea of religion that they can imagine, then gradually work their way back in to something pretty close to where they started. A kid raised Lutheran may flirt with Quakerism or (gasp!) atheism in their teens and 20s, but usually drifts back as they establish a career and family, ending up with, say, United Church of Christ.

Griffin says, "The Doctors are going to church." I guess Time Lords and Silurians are Unitarian Universalists too (note the flaming chalice, our religious symbol, in the center).

Did I do that? Oh, no. That would’ve been too easy. In my weird Asperger’s brain, I decided that I must have missed something in Christianity, so I set about re-reading the Bible, and a bunch of the Church fathers and modern theologians. When that didn’t yield an answer, I thought maybe Protestantism was the problem, so I looked into Catholicism. Nope, not there either. Maybe Jesus was the hitch? Judaism was fascinating, and I loved the ancientness of its traditions, but no, no faith there. I expanded my search gradually outward, into Asian religions and secular philosophy, in an ever-widening circle of texts and ideas. I loved so much of what I found–the beauty, the ritual, the breathtaking elegance and complexity of both physical and spiritual architectures–and I saw the pathways light up with common themes and practices. I found my own truth in a completely unexpected place, and years later, shocked myself right down to my boots by discovering an actual church home in Unitarian Universalism.

That bright skyline of connections stayed with me, though, and when I began my grad work in medieval Celtic history, I was drawn to the messy intersections where politics and faith collided, maneuvered, and eventually negotiated a common space in medieval culture. The space between what the Church was officially teaching and what the Irish people appear to have believed practically leapt off the page, and I started to pick at the stitches of Irish syncretism, or the meeting and merging of the island’s pre-Christian faith with the new Mediterranean import. Without the official government structure of Ancient Rome for support, and eventually to be co-opted by the Church, Ireland was a weird, awesome case study. I eventually found another, similar collision, on the other side of the world in medieval Japan, where Buddhism slid into Shinto like so many tectonic plates.

In my teaching, I returned again and again to the common threads among religions, which seemed so much more important and interesting than the differences. Even when I was teaching Early and Medieval Christianity, I found I couldn’t, in good conscience, teach about events like the Crusades without giving my students the basic grounding in Islam that they weren’t receiving anywhere else, even at a major university like Penn State. I made this a feature of my classes, and the students seemed grateful to be getting that information, especially post-9/11. A few students took exception to my treatment of their scriptures as, first and foremost, historical artifacts, rather than the direct word from on high; others might have been jolted by the way I talked about saints and wise men as both mortals and archetypes, instead of the uncritical figureheads populating their stories of faith. But, year after year, kids and adults alike told me how they’d gone to church their whole lives and never heard voices like the ones I brought into the classroom, or understood what sacred texts meant to be saying, and I’m proud and hopeful that the historical perspective prompted their own inquiries.

In a time when so much of our society and politics are influenced by the often-radical views of loud religious minorities, I think it’s worth shining a little light on the ideas and practices that bind us together. I want to share some of the sources and stories I’ve taught over the years, and I’ll probably end up doing it in roughly the format I designed for the last general religion class I taught: around the common themes of sacredness in terms of space, time, people, deeds, texts, and events. Let me make this clear: I’m not looking to change anybody’s mind, or convert anybody from one thing to another, or even challenge anybody’s faith. I have no agenda beyond asking the questions, and hopefully giving others a glimpse of that intricate web that connects us all. I’ll primarily talk about religion, which is the structure of beliefs and practices, as opposed to faith, which is the intellectual and emotional resonance of the truth humans seek. I’m always open to questions or counterpoints, but I want the dialogue to be open and respectful. Hopefully, we’ll all be able to see the value in each others’ values.

Before the Ballot: Friday Night Lists

Every presidential election year, I assign myself a whole pile of relevant non-fiction books as my Election Year Reading List. Some of them are topical; some are great political, sociological, or economic minds; and some are just strong liberal voices that clarify the values that motivate me to pick up my clipboard and get to work. I thought I’d share this year’s reading list, and a few important pieces that are still relevant from the ’08 list.

I’m putting this list in the order I’ve read them so far; those I’ve read will be marked with asterisks. Totally at random, the order of #2-5 has worked out very serendipitously, so if you decide to read these, let me recommend that order. I’ve already made quite a dent in this year’s list, so I could use a few more suggestions to fill it out through November, especially in specific issues of foreign affairs. I’m also always willing to read different points of view, so long as they’re rational, fact-based, and not overly polemical. You can leave your recommendations in comments, or friend me on Goodreads so we can see each other’s lists.

2012 ELECTION YEAR READING LIST

*1. Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government–and How We Take It Back¬†by David Sirota.¬†Sirota, a progressive radio fixture, ¬†offers a good basic primer of how money affects every branch of the government, from local to federal, and suggests some common-sense, achievable solutions to reverse that trend.

*2. ¬†Tear Down This Myth: How The Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future¬†by Will Bunch. This book by Bunch, the Philadelphia Daily News senior (and former political) writer and Huffington Post columnist, sets out to remind its readers of the realities of Ronald Reagan’s background, politics, and actions as president, untangling him from the distortions the man and his record have been subjected to in recent canonization efforts. The book’s definitely critical of Reagan, but the history review is good, and serves to point out just how far left of today’s conservatives Reagan really was.

*3. ¬†Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America by Matt Taibbi. The Rolling Stone columnist delves deep into the mechanisms and psychopathic personalities that led directly to the 2008 economic meltdown. Taibbi’s wacky, profane style keeps the economic explanations from being dry, and he’s got a real knack for capturing characters that make you want to tear your hair out.

*4. ¬†Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power¬†by Rachel Maddow. Headliner on the MSNBC primetime line-up, Maddow‘s first book puts her ferocious intelligence on display as she traces the transition of the US military from the all-volunteer force of WWII, through the Vietman Era, into the privatized professional military with its overused, sequestered backbone of soldiers of today. She ends with a few good actions to begin reversing this trend toward permanent war.

*5. ¬†With Liberty and Justice For Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful¬†by Glenn Greenwald. The tightest-written and most persuasive book I’ve read in a long time, Greenwald, a widely respected Salon.com contributor, lays bare the subversion of our justice system to protect the social, political, and economic elites from the reach of the law.

6. ¬†The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness¬†by Michelle Alexander. I think the racial disparities within our justice system, and the private for-profit incarceration industry, comprise one of the most important issues in American society today. I saw Michelle Alexander, a professor of law at Ohio State and a Huffington Post contributor, speak on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, and I’m braced for a hard, harrowing, eye-opening read.

7. ¬†End This Depression Now!¬†by Paul Krugman. A¬†New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Krugman is the hero and standard-bearer for modern Keynesians. I trust his analysis without reservation, and I’m very interested to see his prescriptions for the short- and long-term changes that our economy needs.

8. ¬†Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unexpected Resurgence of the American Right¬†by Thomas Frank. I loved Frank‘s earlier book (see later, in the best of ’08 list), and I’ve heard him speak on the current one on NPR a few times. He’s got a way with case studies and relating them to broader trends, and the examples of “broke” billionaires and the trappings of that culture I’ve heard him talk about just blew my mind. I expect this book to be funnyhorrorsad.

9. ¬†The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion¬†by Jonathan Haidt. I first encountered Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, on The Colbert Report, and I’m wildly intrigued by his work on identifying the psychological underpinnings that make political and religious zealots so similar.

10. ¬†Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective¬†by Paul Rieckhoff. I respect the hell out of Rieckhoff, a retired Army specialist and one of the founders of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. I’ve read a lot of about the wars and today’s military by civilians, but I always want to get a balanced view, and I’m looking forward to his smart insights.

11. ¬†Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it¬†by Robert Reich. Reich, Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor and a current professor of economics at UC Berkeley, dazzles me with his talent for condensing complex facts into easily understandable patterns. He’s a good Keynesian too, like Krugman, but add in his expertise on labor history and government experience, and you’ve got an expert I’ll always stop to watch/hear/read.

12. ¬†The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity¬†by Jeffrey D. Sachs. I heard Sachs, a professor of health policy and management and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, speak on MPR, and I spent most of the hour with goosebumps from his smart, impassioned argument for the restoration of the real American values that made us great in the 20th century. After all the previous books help me get a grip on the scope and details of many problems we currently face, I’ll be ready for his strong restatement of our core values.

13. ¬†Back To Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy¬†by Bill Clinton. Similar to Sachs’ book, but obviously from a very different perspective, Clinton‘s most recent book should offer lots of good suggestions for how to get the country back on track. His work at the Clinton Foundation is on the cutting edge of new global solutions, so I’ll be creating my Debate Watchword Bingo score cards from the key issues he highlights.

THE BEST OF MY 2008 ELECTION YEAR READING LIST

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army¬†by Jeremy Scahill. This exhaustive work by Scahill, a journalist who reports on US foreign policy for media outlets like The Nation¬†and Democracy Now!, ripped the lid off the world of private contractors in the Iraq War with his exhaustive, shocking expose. It’s impossible to understand our current foreign policy without understanding the role of privatization post-9/11, and this book is as relevant now as it ever was.

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism¬†by Naomi Klein. This book made a huge splash for a very good reason–Klein exposed the practices and policies that make people and nations very rich by whipping up fake disasters that turn into real ones. I’m so glad to have read this before terms like “shortselling” and “credit default swaps” came on the market. It also gave me an entirely new perspective on the tumultuous history of South America.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America¬†by Thomas Frank. If you’ve ever wondered why Red States are SO RED, despite policies by their elected politicians that seem determined to destroy the very middle-class, salt-of-the-earth workers who elect them year after year, this is your book. Frank demonstrates with grace and humor the ways in which conservatives have tapped into good heartland values and twisted them into bogeymen and puppet strings that work way too well for anyone’s comfort.

The Post-American World¬†by Fareed Zakaria. Don’t let the title put your back up. Zakaria–columnist,editor-in-chief of Newsweek International, and host of the only dedicated foreign affairs TV news shows today–provides a great, crunchy exploration of the ways in which countries like India and China have moved into modern positions of global power, following very different paths than the one America took. His analysis of global trends is really second to none.

Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War¬†by Andrew Bacevich. Written by a retired Army career officer, now professor of international relations at Boston University and Huffington Post columnist, this book would be great to read alongside Rachel Maddow’s newer contribution. Bacevich also explores the ways in which the war industry pushes us to engage in conflicts around the world that are actually against our national self-interest.

 

Lace ‘Em Up

When I hear about a rally or a march or campaign that stands for something I believe in strongly, I say, “Uh-oh. Time to lace up my Protesting Boots.” This is not an idle statement, nor a clever euphemism.

These are my protesting boots. I bought them at Shelly’s of London. They’re actually Tank Girl boots. There aren’t laces in them at the moment because they were needed for a science experiment, but note the speed-lace loops.

They’re not pretty boots–I didn’t buy them to be pretty. They’re scuffed, and the little metal teeth on the toes are rusty. But they’re padded, and comfy, and heavy, and just right for kicking ass. I love my Protesting Boots.

I’m not really sure where my mile-wide activist streak came from. I come from a family of selfless volunteers and helpers, determined to contribute to any and all communities of which they’re a part. My grandma taught Red Cross first aid and gave swimming lessons to disabled children, when she wasn’t running inner-city Girl Scout troops. My mom was PTO president and ran the Sunday School program at the church I grew up in. Now, she’s a dedicated member of the 501st Legion (TR7084, Florida Garrison, Makaze Squad), and despite two artificial hip joints, she troops at every fundraising march to which they’re invited. (My stepdad and brother are also members.) Most of their commitments come from genuine Christian charity and human compassion, the spirit of which I’m immensely grateful to have had modeled throughout my formative years.

But none of my immediate family is particularly activist, or politically inclined. The first real activism I engaged in was a fight against the school board, to keep them from moving our beloved band director from high school to elementary after he returned from his sabbatical (during which he worked toward his Ph.D. in trombone performance). We got our parents all worked up, and we packed the meeting room the night they were supposed to consider teacher placement. But just before they started in on the topic, they announced that they’d reconsidered, and Don would be returning to the high school the next year. We were relieved and excited, but humming with the unspent fight we’d girded for.

My first real experience protesting was against the First Gulf War. In fact, I ran all the way home from the college protest meeting to tell my parents to turn on CNN because they’d started bombing Baghdad. I was one of a small group of students at my school who got in trouble for refusing to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance, if only because we couldn’t see how we were being disrespectful to a flag that they thought was fine to sew onto all the disgusting, sweaty athletic uniforms, or to fly over battlefields where we had no business being.

Later, the school tried to crack down on boys wearing of cutoff t-shirt sleeves as headbands. (It’s a skater thing. It’s probably on Wikipedia, or in the Smithsonian, by now.) Targeted at friends who were routinely threatened, even beaten, by jocks who called them every homophobic slur you can think of, I naturally took exception. A bunch of us invoked Title IX, took it to the administration, and organized as many girls as we could into wearing them too. Such a silly small fight, but as I look back now, I see the pattern developing. My stepdad actually understood this piece of me better than anyone else; he’d flirted with Quakerism, and was at the March on Washington for civil rights to hear Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream.

In my adult life, I’ve volunteered for numerous causes, if only because I have more time than treasure to support the campaigns I believe in. I gravitate toward issues of human rights, free speech, justice, and democratic (little d) freedoms. I canvassed so much in 2008, with 2-year-old Griffin in his stroller, that every time I reached for my purple clipboard with all the campaign materials and lists on it, Griff would groan, “NOOOOO OBAMA!”

But the single greatest protest experience of my life was the 2006 March for Women in Washington, D.C. I went with a group of friends from grad school, and it was the very first night I’d spent away from Connor, who was nearly two. I have only the vaguest memory of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Cybill Shepherd, speaking on the National Mall, but what’s indelibly etched into my most 3D, high definition, full-sensory memory is walking down the dotted line in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, holding high a sign that said, “Pro-Choice, Pro-Child.” Because I was, and am, and in that electrifying moment, I was more sure of my own power and identity than I’ve ever been, before or since. I owned that street. I could change policy, I could influence outcomes, I could stand for the silent. I was mighty.

And once you’ve had that drug, once you’ve danced at the victory party, once you’ve cried as election results rolled in, you just can’t get enough of it. Currently, I’m working as a team leader in Saint Paul for Minnesotans United For All Families, the organization fighting the proposed amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriages. It’s going to be a lot of work between now and November, on top of the other political work I’ll no doubt take on, but I can’t imagine writing injustice into the permanent guiding principles of any state or country.

I wrestle with being the parent and the activist. My heart aches for the tiny children I see holding horrid, hateful signs they couldn’t possibly understand at funerals and Planned Parenthood locations. Sure, I gave my 2 1/2 year old a sign that read “Bush Is Scary, Vote For Kerry” at a rally in 2004. And when a MN state legislator slammed Neil Gaiman for “accepting” a 5-figure honorarium from a community library for doing a book talk and signing (“accepting” is in quotes because he turned right back around and donated it to a library support organization, as he often does), I didn’t give my family any choice about whether we’d go to the Read-In for Civility on the capitol steps. But I want them to grow up with their own priorities, their own causes, their own voices.

I want my kids to grow up thinking it’s worth the effort to stand up, be heard, and work for values they believe in. I want them to grow up knowing that it isn’t acceptable for one group to oppress another, or to silence a voice just because it disagrees with someone powerful. I want them to open their hearts, to make themselves vulnerable, by caring about the fate of humanity and the planet. If their values don’t always match mine, I’ll talk to them to find out where they’re coming from and make sure they’ve got all the information to make an educated stand, but I won’t make them back down. They have the same rights I fight to ensure for others.

And some day–maybe soon–I’ll take them shopping for their very own Protesting Boots.

 

Priceless: the Nordstrom follow-up

This post is a follow-up to the one I wrote on Sunday, 29 April 2012, after a nightmarish customer service experience at the Mall of America Nordstrom store. If you haven’t read that account, what follows will make much more sense if you do so first.

I held off writing a follow-up until I felt like I’d reached as much of a resolution as I was going to. I reached that point two weeks later. And I really wanted to come back to you and say that my in-store experience was a fluke, that Nordstrom’s reputation for good customer service really was the norm.

I can’t do that.

In the minor Twitterstorm that blew up following my initial blog post, a member of Nordstrom’s social media customer service team contacted me and invited me to Direct Message with her about my experience. She had also seen the customer service complaint that a good friend submitted directly to the Nordstrom website, with a link to my post. I summed up the unnecessary pain, humiliation, and frustration to which I’d been subjected; she replied with very sincere apologies on behalf of the company she represents, for which I was grateful. She said that she hoped we could work together to find a resolution that would repair my impression of the company, to which I replied, among other things, that I would “be content with a good fitting with someone nice.” I asked if there were people at Nordstrom Rack who could also do that job. She said she would contact the MOA Rack location and inquire on my behalf. She also indicated that she would be forwarding my story up the chain of command, as an object lesson in customer service.

When she got back to me, a few days later, she said that, while the Rack doesn’t usually do bra fittings outside of special events for that particular purpose, there were trained sales associates who could do that for me. I expressed concern that, if they didn’t do fittings regularly, perhaps they wouldn’t do it as well as someone at the full-line store. Time and again, I was steered back to an option that took me to the Rack–“I’m sure you’d feel more comfortable there,” “I can imagine you’d rather not go back to the full-line store,” etc. It’s hard not to see those efforts as being related to my initial price point of $30-40, though I’d reiterated several times that, if I received good service and found a sturdy, lasting product that cost a little more, I’d be willing to spend beyond my range. Those statements were consistently ignored, and I feel the class warfare side of this whole fiasco more keenly than ever. I’m only welcome in the Rack; I shouldn’t even bother crossing the boundaries of the upscale store.

(When I finally received an email apology from the general manager of the MOA Nordstrom, on Thursday, it wasn’t in response to the promised escalation, but rather my friend’s online complaint. She, too, offered a “private fitting”–to which I could only say, “What, do you usually do them in the food court?”–but reiterated the statement that I “might prefer not to come back” to their store, and get the fitting at the Rack.)

Moreover, the offer of a fitting was consistently phrased as “you can call anytime and speak to this person, to set up a fitting.” The onus of getting what I was asking for was placed entirely on me. Now, I understand the practical issue of me being the one with the schedule that needs to be worked around–I get that. But there’s no good reason at all why I shouldn’t have had a phone call from someone–anyone–to apologize “in person” and ask me when I would be available for an appointment. This seems petty, when I write it out, but there isn’t a moment of my day that isn’t busy, and I’m not likely to take a moment to make a phone call for something selfish when other people need things done.

The longer I went without resolution, and after discussions with my therapist and friends, the more I felt that it wasn’t too much for me to ask to leave the store with what I’d come in for–an affordable, comfortable bra. I replied to the offer of a private fitting with the uncommonly assertive (at least, for me) suggestion that a fitting was basic customer service that they (ostensibly) offer to anyone who walks in off the street, free of charge, and that that wasn’t sufficient restitution for the damage done. I said I wanted an affordable, comfortable bra, and whether they accomplished that with a discount coupon or gift card was up to them.

Anyone who knows me knows that making this demand is A Big Deal for me. I’ll insist on cosmic justice, plus a moon to hang their coat on, for anyone else, but I just don’t ask for things for myself. I won’t even send food back to a restaurant kitchen unless it’s thoroughly inedible. This comes directly from lack of self-esteem–I’ve got no illusions about the flimsiness of my justification. It took me a full 12 hours to hit the Send button on that email. In some ways, I feel like that accomplishment was the real outcome of the harassment I suffered. (Deep gratitude to Cam, Jess, M, Panda, Josh, Elizabeth, and John for their editing and affirmations.)

That demand was, however, apparently in vain. Here’s the response I got from the Nordstrom rep:

At Nordstrom we feel that you can’t put a price on good customer service… Since you indicated in one of your messages to our social media team that you’d “be content with a fitting appointment arranged with someone nice” to bring resolution to this situation, we are happy to arrange this. Please let us know a day and time that would be convenient for you and if you’d like for your fitting to take place at our full-line store or at the Rack. We will work closely with you to ensure that you are fitted properly and to assist you in finding a quality product in a price point that you are comfortable with.

Following that reply, I received a request for my phone number so the manager of the MOA location could call and apologize in person. I hoped that she might have more leeway to accomplish what the social media rep couldn’t, but her tune remained the same. said offered me her apologies–though they struck me more as “we’re sorry we missed a chance to earn a customer,” rather than, “we’re sorry you were treated so inhumanely”–and an appointment with the stylist who fitted her for her bras. She also offered to have to have her meet me at the Rack. When I said that I didn’t think it was out of line to ask that, if the bra we found that fit me best turned out to be beyond my price range, that they step in to make it affordable, she responded with the “no price on good customer service line,” making it apparent that it’s company policy. ¬†She said, “I mean, people could come in and be offended all the time! If we handed out gift cards left and right, we’d go out of business!” ¬†To which I replied, “But I didn’t come in to be offended, and my experience really happened.”

I almost caved–I’ll be totally honest. I wanted to please and relieve her at least as much as she wanted to do so for me. But I drew up my last bit of gumption in the end and told her that, while I appreciated her time, her apology, and her offer, I wasn’t going to give a single dollar to a company that values their bottom line more than their customers. She sounded very put out, and the cheer drained from her voice. When someone ends a call with “Well, I’m sorry that’s how you feel,” you know you managed to stick to your guns.

So it comes down to this: Nordstrom’s quality of customer service is priceless to them. On the positive side, it means that they (are supposed to) care more about customer satisfaction than the sale. That’s good, and should be the service goal of every for-profit organization. On the flip side, it means that bad customer experiences aren’t worth anything tangible to them. They don’t assign a price to satisfaction, so when they fail, they still win, because mistakes cost them nothing, plus they reap the benefits of an object lesson. Nordstrom is not willing to negotiate with terrorists. And they see everyone who walks through their door as both potential sale, and potential bomber. It’s more than a little weird to think that they see customers as people “trying to get something out of them.” They do–you’re a freaking STORE.

Here’s my final reply:

Nordstrom, I will never darken your door or put a dime in your cash registers. Every time I hear someone suggest Nordstrom as a destination, I will tell them how I was treated.

I am not rich or powerful. But I have friends. My friends are having weddings and babies. My friends are your target demographic. My friends are fiercely loyal, and believe in the worth and dignity of every person, which apparently doesn’t fit with your company’s values. And they talk to people, too.

For 15 minutes of your time and a half-price bra, you could’ve had a whole lot of goodwill. Instead, you get 15 minutes of a whole bunch of people’s time, and a PR disaster. Be sure you tally that on your bottom line.

 

May 11, 2012 - Literature    No Comments

Fun with Guest Posting!

So, one of my best friends in the whole wide world has an awesome new blog called Reads4Tweens. Amanda Valentine started R4T to give parents of precocious pre-teens a resource for honest, spoiler-filled reviews of kids’ and YA literature. While these kids can read far beyond their grade level, a lot of those books contain themes and events that they might not be prepared to confront, at least not without the help of a parent.

One of those themes is death. In fact, death comes up in kids’ lit a whole lot more than anyone would expect. Some of those deaths are so pointless, or such obvious mechanics for propping up saggy plot details, that Amanda ran a Gratuitous Deaths Week at R4T. But, by way of countering the truly egregious examples, I offered up a guest post about a shocking, but well-done and important, death in one of the all-time great YA lit series, Anne of Green Gables.

You can read my post here, and while you’re there, be sure to take a look around–the whole site is full of great stuff! Also, if you’ve ever got a subject you’d like my particular take on, feel free to propose it as a topic for a guest post. I’ll link your blog from mine, and all that so-called “optimization” will take place!

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