Tuesday, October 5, 2010

the practice of blogging

The practice of blogging, cultural neo-nate or no, has already acquired a range of uses, and with each of those uses, different meanings. Blogs allow those suffering from a serious illness to keep a large circle of family and friends efficiently informed of their progress. A friend from Chapel Hill who had left for graduate school at Michigan State started a blog to take those of us who cared--a large group--through her (and her boyfriend's) successful battle with her breast cancer. She writes like the applied scientist her business card identifies her as, with an emphasis on succinctness and brevity. I would not call her blog a work of art, and I doubt she would, either, but she used the medium for her own ends very effectively, and to the lasting gratitude of her friends and family. Only certain of us could log onto the blog, so despite its exposed existence on the web, it remained a private document. We have become so accustomed to the smart but often craven use of blogs by performers and athletes to stay in touch with their fans that we forget or simply don't realize that such a private use for blogs exists.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, journalists such as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times use their blogs for short pieces, often of either the op-ed or breaking news variety. Generally not as well-researched as pieces appearing under their print byline, these pieces tend to reach a wider or slightly different audience than their print pieces, even a narrower but valuable audience in some cases. Excepting online magazines such as Slate, The Huffington Post, The Beast and Politico, which do a number of short pieces aimed at the presumed attention span of an electronic reader, some of these journalists have found social networks useful places to alert potential readers to their blogs by way of links. Kristof, again, has made an art form of using his blog to engage readers and generate some of the best-informed discussion I see on Facebook.

I would not want to claim those examples as exhaustive extremes, but merely as the extremes that interest me for the purposes of this discussion. This blog disappeared for some months, and recently a friend reasonably asked why. The answer has to do with the different uses of the blog as a form. About the time I started writing mine, it came to my attention that a friend wrote one. A journalism graduate student, she writes strictly on deadline--as I mostly did in an attempt to follow her example--and on generally small subjects, though often with broad implications. They are jewels, but fenced in by the acceptance of the rules of a genre that requires sublimated ambition.

I have a background in the humanities where I learned to value the well-made, presumably dispassionate argument. One can indulge passion on a blog precisely because one does not have to satisfy academic standards of evidence. I do not back away from ad hominem debate as long as it has some demonstrable grounding in factual reality. Nor have I ever managed 250 words--except under duress--when a couple thousand would do so much more nicely; my dissertation stands as the glaring exception at just under 250 pages, very short by the standards of my field. Furthermore, the blog form permits argumentation on anything, as though one had carte blanche to write on the op-ed pages of The New York Times at will--an exercise in vanity restrained only by the attempt to say something important on a subject of broad interest worth engaging.

My friend and I made the mistake--I initiated it, if memory serves--of regularly commenting on each other's blogs. I say "mistake," because eventually the dissonance in our aims and styles became a source of confusion and friction. The first time a student in one of my discussion sections called me "intimidating" on an evaluation, it caught me by surprise. To hear--read--effectively the same thing from an adult graduate student in journalism took my breath away, especially in the context of suspending our practice of commenting on each other's material; though in fairness the disparity in the length and type of comment became obvious early, as did the possibility of tensions. I may have written one or two posts thereafter, but not much more. The exchange of comments had become integral to the writing process. Absent that exchange, the air had gone out of the blog.

I take two lessons from this. Vanity, ego, self-consciousness, call it what you will, express differently in different people. I have considerable vanity and ego invested in my writing; most academics do, whether currently in the academy or not. Add the ambition of commentator on the issues of the day, and one can sound like a pompous ass, particularly to those too humble to take on those issues by frontal attack. Training has something to do with all this, as well. I was trained to think large, though my blog addresses the issues of the day, not those of the sixteenth century my graduate studies addressed.

I am in a personal transition. My humility may receive a test. Writing without the consistent exchange of another blogger will take some adjusting, and my own trajectory may strain any efforts to revive this blog. We'll see. I'll take the challenge as an opportunity to write with a tighter leash on my ego. I do not speak with the authority of Nicholas Kristof and should not pretend that I do. Neither, however, do I find the observations of the small things of life my strength, and will generally leave that to my friend and others who do it well, though as Oscar Wilde said, "all generalizations are false, including this one." To paraphrase the title of one of the best books I've read on Afghanistan this year, by the British author Rory Stewart, I will try to stick to "the places in between."

Sunday, May 30, 2010

L.G.B.T. vs. D.o.D.: When Subcultures Collide

The controversy over repealing the military's never-satisfactory "don't-ask-don't-tell" policy has taken yet another contentious turn. As the military conducts a painstaking process to give its personnel a chance to voice their thoughts and concerns over the repeal of the policy that has required lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered military personnel to operate below the radar, the L.G.B.T. community has grown suspicious, restless, impatient, and downright rude and disrespectful. A prominent California gay activist has now heckled President Obama twice at events on the West Coast, the most recent this week's rally for Sen. Barbara Boxer. I have avoided Rachel Maddow and MSNBC of late, but one can just imagine whose side they took. I hope I err in saying that; more's the pity if I don't.

When I speak of sub-cultures colliding, don't think two-car crash; think train-wreck on a high-speed track in France or Japan, spilling carnage everywhere. In an election year, the Democratic Congress fears looking too submissive to the cautious pace of the military. They have as a partner--perhaps "had" puts it better now--Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, who approaches this issue not from the point of view of whether to repeal "don't-ask-don't-tell," but how to do it. One of his predecessors, retired General John Shalikashvili, has supported repeal for some time, having presided over the early days of the policy and seen the error of its assumptions and the evolution of the attitudes in the military itself, at least among some personnel. With voices in the military saying in a business-like way, 'we'll work with you, just give us till December to complete our review'--as the president wisely agreed to let them do--Congress has jumped ship and begun to ram repeal legislation through both chambers.

One can distribute blame, and even praise, in various ways in this conflict. The L.G.B.T. community, in addition to exhibiting feelings of entitlement once having helped elect Obama, has no historic cultural sympathy for the military; quite the reverse in many circles. Many wonder beyond their comprehension why one of them would even want to serve in the military. Some L.G.B.T. support for repeal, particularly the activist variety, amounts to hypocrisy of a high order--repeal a bill that discriminates against their community, the institutional identity and loyalties of that segment of the community be damned.

Admittedly, some live close enough to or even within the military community that they see it very differently. They do not cringe at the sight of a young man with tattoos and short-cropped hair if he doesn't wear an earring, as well, or see lesbians as having ceded female power by submitting themselves to military command. Some actually admire them--gasp--for doing things beyond their capacities. This attitude comes without flag-waving hero-worship, and without the pretense that the military has rid itself of gay-bashing rednecks or paper-pushing homophobes. It hasn't, and probably won't for some time. L.G.B.T. soldiers, sailors, leathernecks, fliers, and support personnel do something every day that requires considerable bravery: they go to work, whether in Kandahar Province or Baghdad's Green Zone, Ramstein Air Base or the Gulf of Mexico, Fort Hood or the Pentagon. They put their uniforms on and do their best to adhere to a code that for some, though not all, has become onerous and unbearable.

Another element has to enter this conversation. The notion of repeal comes harder to an older generation of military brass and civilian administration than to that of military service age. Again, with exceptions, largely based on class, religion, and regional background. Repeal can happen now; just don't expect roses to show up on the front stoop of L.G.B.T. military personnel, most of whom would not want it any other way. It has taken Mike Mullen a while to come to his current position, and Defense Secretary Gates has had the distinct air of a man following orders and looking for a way to demonstrate their lack of wisdom. This drives the activists crazy. I have one word for them: compassion (and believe me, I started to write something else, more John Wayne or Mark Harmon than Jesus or Buddha).

Understand the scope of this change. Understand the wisdom of this president in letting the military manage the repeal their way, on their time. Call me naive, but I believe Mullen, however much he may have felt his hand forced by political considerations, as indeed they have done. Activism and Congressional poll-watching may have just made this whole process more acrimonious and awkward, which ultimately will most hurt those it most seeks to benefit. One can always understand the thrust of Rev. King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail"--'' why we can't wait"--but please explain to me why, in the case of "don't-ask-don't-tell" we can't wait till December for the military to do an orderly review? Do we have so little respect for each other? Do we have so little interest in the sacrifices the military personnel make to defend their belief in our system of government and way of life?

If you dismiss the notion that a kid dodging i.e.d.'s (improvised explosive devices--crude mines) in Afghanistan defends what you believe in, think about what you'd say as you watched him speed around your place of business on an artificial limb, as I did the other day. And--imagine this--it never occurred to me to wonder whether he was gay or straight or bi- or transgendered. The artificial leg rendered all that irrelevant. He asked for no pity, and frankly I felt none. Only awe.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Has any Room for Gray Survived the Sex Scandal?

The Vatican sex scandal has reached a pitch that seems to have eviscerated any possibility for nuance or ambiguity. Some of us in the church, myself included, have refrained from referring to the Pope as Benedict XVI in favor of his surname, Ratzinger. The Europeans, especially the Italians, have long done this, alternating from Papa Benedetto to Papa Ratzinger. In American Catholic circles, it sounds unfamiliar and, as such, rather sinister, as many of us intend it to sound. The Pope we desperately didn't want got the benefit of the doubt from some of us on the left in the Church, both here and in Europe, led by the reasonable voice of Fr. Hans Kung. His honeymoon ended with the reference to Islam as inherently violent in his Regensburg speech. The gloves have come off in response to his pastoral letter to the Irish, which satisfied nobody in addressing the expansion of the scandal to that profoundly Catholic country, and a not terribly strong case against the handling of a sex abuse case on his watch as Archbishop of Munich.

I have joined some of the "off with his tiara" rhetoric myself, without expecting anything to come of it, least of all Ratzinger's abdication. More ominously, the controversy has reopened fissures along deep-seated fault lines in the Church, basically pitting those like George Weigel who travel in lockstep with the American Council of Bishops, against those, like Nicholas Cafardi and the Administrators of Catholic Hospitals, who see the imperative of obedience as less compelling than that of moral complexity. It seems very late in the day for adducing any ambiguity in all of this. Nevertheless, though I have not felt so inclined in the last few days, I will try.

My reasons for attempting what may seem impossible stem from personal experience. I know two of the priests caught up in the scandal. I admire both of them, for different reasons, as they have very different personalities and histories. Both of them have had their pastoral careers cut short because of sexual abuse they committed as younger men, though one seems to have gotten caught in a once-only case of very poor judgement, whereas the other perpetrated a series of calculated abuses over an extended period of time. Until this morning, I had never wanted to know what he did; I simply knew that he was living humbly and paying a high price for his fall from eminence. After a Google search, knowing some of the details certainly strains the image of him I have held. The other has appropriately suffered a less harsh punishment, able to pursue scholarship and carry on as though he were just another member of his order, but removed from any official contact with minors. He, too, has demonstrated remarkable humility in wearing his cloak of shame.

I have always had one nagging problem with the popular response to the sex scandal. Mercy and forgiveness lie at the center of Christianity. To a substantial degree they set us apart from other great religions. Some of the most maladroit handling of pedophile cases clearly stems from bureaucratic impatience which, repeated often enough, morphed into a heinous disregard for children under a diocese's pastoral care. That description fits Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who wound up as Archpriest of S. Maria Maggiore in Rome, which he has apparently run with a virtually Benedictine simplicity. Law certainly took some of the most deserved and intense fury as the sex scandal unfolded in Boston, still the epicenter of the scandal in the United States. Law's reassignment by his friend John Paul II to one of the great basilicas of the early Church hardly seems punishment, and does not satisfy many--it certainly struck me as a soft landing at the time, to put it mildly--and yet he seems to have taken it as the opportunity to live in a penitential manner. I have never taken it this easy on Law before, but I can explain why this point of view has some merit.

Every priest or monk, or one such as myself who has tried to live that life, knows its difficulties. I would not call them unimaginable to the lay population, but I would say that the clerical and monastic community will respond with instinctive compassion to one of its fold trying seriously to right a wrong. For this reason one of my reactions to Ratzinger's handling of the sex scandal when John Paul II had him read the case files in the early 1990s may seem counter-intuitive. "Filth!" he said and wrote, acting in one syllable as judge and jury. Many of us may indeed think of these men as filth. Ratzinger had the responsibility to form a more nuanced reaction, such as Cardinal Levada attempted to do in Portland in a case currently in the news. The public and the media tend to see only the Church's pastoral responsibilities, but Ratzinger and Levada had a second responsibility: to try and help men who committed their lives to the Church mend a heinous fault. Within such an attitude, finding the point at which rehabilitation gives way to punishment may present more difficulties than people now have the patience to admit, so far has the scandal gone, and so badly did misjudgment lead them to the abrogation of responsibility in some cases.

Perhaps one needs to live in a religious community for a year to understand that point of view; or perhaps I want to hold in tension two responses too inimical to each other. Certainly doubts about Ratzinger and his central role in aggravating the fault lines in the Church ever since his years as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, through the miscalculations of his papacy play a role complicating this task. I would simply ask one thing of those standing in judgment of Ratzinger and the Church as the sex scandal deepens. Warning: it will sound hopelessly naive. Remember that the best of the administrators tried to treat these men as individuals with a calling, as they were taught by tradition and example to do. All their instincts as priests told them to hold this respect in balance with the advice of mental health professionals. The worst cases of both sexual abuse and administrative incompetence do not involve this concern, and they should be judged accordingly. But no more than all the abusive priests should be lumped under one heading as "filth," neither should all the administrators be asked to relinquish their office. As in Ratzinger's case, we would need to worry as much about what one bishop has done as about what his successor might do.

Monday, March 15, 2010

When Allies Aren't

Everyone who follows international politics even a little now knows about the spat between Israel and the United States. Israel's Interior Minister released a plan for new residential buildings--settlements--in East Jerusalem, a place crucial to the future of a Palestinian state, and its projected capitol. The Israelis had promised to show restraint in launching such projects, without promising to stop settlements altogether, as the Palestinians insist.

The Interior Department announced the plan during Vice-President Biden's visit aimed at trying to re-start the peace process. Biden blew up. Tom Friedman of The New York Times thinks he should have left without a word said. Prime Minister Netanyahu claims he was "blind-sided." Pardon me if I sound disrespectful--I am, by the way--but sure, Bibi. In matters like this if he didn't know it simply demonstrates he doesn't have control of his coalition. Does that come as such a surprise in Israel?

The next step came as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton apparently read Bibi the riot act over the phone for 43 minutes the next day--the number seemed to matter to the State Department. One would love to have heard that call. If, as reports suggest, it focussed on Israel's embarrassment of the United States, that seems unsatisfactory. One might argue that Clinton's support of Israel makes her a logical Secretary of State at a time of great tension in the Middle East. One could turn that around, as well, and consider it her Achilles heel.

Embarrassment is not the issue. Neither, as Biden suggested, is a lockstep relationship between us and our cantankerous ally, if one can call the Israelis allies at the moment. Not that such closeness does not indeed make for a stronger negotiating position. It does. One cannot achieve such a relationship, however, with a supposed partner who does not really want to negotiate.

I have no expertise in diplomacy, and it shows in these blog posts. Nonetheless, I always remember one of two moments for which former Secretary of State James Baker, III earned my admiration, despite my opinion of him otherwise. On one occasion some time after Operation Desert Storm he reported back to President George H. W. Bush that the refugee crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan had reached horrific proportions that required action on our part. On the other, he famously announced to a Senate committee hearing that he had lost faith in the seriousness of the Shamir government in Israel, suggesting that he had better things to do than tolerate Israeli orneriness. He had a solution, though; when they got serious, they could call him, reading out his telephone number at the State Department digit by insulting digit. Shamir, unsurprisingly, did not take kindly to this brilliant piece of diplomatic grandstanding, but eventually took Baker's point, as he had no choice but to do--as Baker's stunt dramatically reminded him.

Tom Friedman thinks Joe Biden tried too hard to maintain civility, showing up pointedly late at a state dinner in his honor, but still appearing, at the moment Friedman thinks Biden belonged on Air Force Two. While I admire Biden's gesture of combined pique and personal restraint, Friedman has a point. Part of the problem would seem that while we might get this or that promise from Netanyahu, the conservative elements in his government, including his Interior Minister--a very important portfolio to the religious parties such as Shas--could care less. That announcement came out last week precisely to make that point, and to embarrass or at least pressure Netanyahu as much as Biden.

Which makes one wonder what we can accomplish by hosting talks with Netanyahu in Washington. I realize that the Israelis find our attempt to dictate internal policy infuriating, especially on a matter as crucial as settlements. We still need to listen to the Palestinians and the Arab world, so jittery right now that some major players have begun to peel away from the negotiating process. We have hit a point where the center has shown signs of not holding. We cannot risk a complete collapse of the regional framework for negotiation. If the Israelis resent our telling them what to do, how the Palestinians feel about Israeli pronouncements. One cannot forget, either, the importance of the Israeli lobby, to one important element of which Clinton is about to speak. Everybody here feels pressure, which, unfortunately, Netanyahu understands all too well.

So, here goes my wildly over-the-top (un-)diplomatic suggestion. Bibi speaks to the same group Hillary does. Even I know we can't deny him entry to the country. We can, however, freeze him out of discussions at the State Department and White House. No scheduled meetings with Hillary or Secretary of Defense Robert Gates or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen; no meetings of apology with the Vice-President; definitely no scheduled meetings with the President; not even any meetings with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. Giving Rahm Emanuel a chance to pound some reality into him couldn't hurt, maybe in a good-cop-bad-cop tandem with President Obama's other Jewish senior advisor, David Axelrod. Do it in Rahm's tiny office; the claustrophobia will help make the point. Only then do the President and Vice-President call them into the Oval Office for a carefully-timed hour or so with Hillary and Joe and Bob and Mike and Susan. Unscheduled, of course, and completely off-camera. No questions for the press afterwards. Make sure he gets back to the Israeli Embassy forthwith, and that his plane heads back to Israel that evening.

My point: unchristian as it sounds, humiliate him. Rub his nose ingloriously in the consequences of Israeli intransigence. Make it as crystal clear as we can that if Israel wants to go it on its own, they have every right, we wish them well, but don't tell us we didn't warn them when the next Intifada erupts. Hamas has quieted their guns and missiles for now. How long they continue to do so lies in the hands of the Israelis as much as those of Hamas and their patron, Iran. If they really don't care how hard we've worked to save them from sinking their own ship and bringing the rest of the Middle East with them, screw 'em. Sounds like a good line for Joe Biden. Rahm will already have put it more obscenely, maybe even in Hebrew. I'd like to hear that.

Biden thinks we can have no distance between us and Israel to negotiate effectively. Right now, we may have no credibility without distance between us and Israel. Selfish, and more in our interest than the Israelis, even the Palestinians? Perhaps. President Obama does, however, have other items on his agenda. Let Netanyahu worry a little about just how far this new guy might be willing to let Israel slip in his priorities. Maybe drop a hint about Special Envoy Sen. George Mitchell needing a vacation in Maine, a long one. Netanyahu will not think of such a withdrawal by us on his own. We have to nudge him. Okay, hit him over the head.

Bibi Netanyahu is a very proud man. Such treatment will get his goat past anything we can imagine. He'll pillory us for abandoning them. He'll accuse us of playing into the hands of Shas and the other extremists he got into bed with in order to form a government. His choice.

He'll also realize that Israel can't go it on their own. That he'll have to find a way to force the extremists and settlers to see that their way leads to hell, and takes the Palestinians with them. He doesn't need to go home in a chipper mood. In fact, he needs to go home pissed as hell, but aware that Shas brought him to this pass and that they, and the settler movement in general, are the obstacle between him and a place in history. Only he has the conservative credentials to break this impasse, as only Nixon could open us to China. We, in this sense, are stuck with him. He can't achieve a historic position for himself in Israel while winking at the obstructionist shenanigans of the right wing of his government and his electorate. And he can't do it while harboring any illusions about how hard the Obama administration will come down on his back (think lower, think what Rahm would say) if he continues to prevaricate.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Vancouver Winter Olympics: Afterthoughts

During the Salt Lake City Games of 2002, I sat over lunch with a colleague, an economist. He had some derision to get off his chest one day about the coverage of the games. Why, he asked, should we have to put up with those silly, sentimental profiles of athletes, "up close and personal," referring to the moniker ABC gave this sort of story back in the days of Jim McKay. He wanted to see the sports, period; forget about the contrived melodrama.

One can agree with my cantankerous colleague on one point. The networks need to avoid contrivance in such stories. NBC has, in several ways, improved the genre of athlete profile, and did a better job in Vancouver than in Utah eight years ago, where they probably got themselves more entangled in the pairs figure-skating controversy than they would now consider seemly.

This year, for example, they handled Evgeny Plushenko's temper-tantrum over Evan Lysacek's victory in men's figure-skating more adroitly. One had a clear choice to make between the pro-Plushenko arguments of former Olympians Sasha Cohen and Elvis Stojko--Plushenko did a quadruple jump, the quad represents the future of men's figure-skating, Lysacek, who has performed a quad but stayed away from it because of a stress-fracture in his landing foot, did not insert one into his program as he considered doing, therefore, Plushenko wins--and the pro-Lysacek arguments of Scott Hamilton and Dick Button, admittedly with Lysacek in the room.

Did they mount a campaign for Lysacek? Clearly the Costas interview with Lysacek, Scott Hamilton and Dick Button enthroned him by inclusion in the company of two of our greatest Olympic figure-skating champions. If one listened carefully, however, and considered the inclusion of Stojko's and Cohen's opinions in a separate interview aired on one of Mary Carillo's late night segments, the answer seems no.

They mounted, instead, a hearty defense for the new scoring system, which Plushenko disdained to exploit, whereas Lysacek exploited it to the hilt, while giving both camps their due. The tempest came down to who skated more intelligently and, as Hamilton put it somewhat archly but in his gentle way, who had skated and trained harder and longer, Plushenko having returned to competitive skating only six months ago after a three-and-a-half year absence, compared with Lysacek's legendarily obsessive training regimen. The in-rink commentary team, which also included Hamilton, made another point. In the scoring, Lysacek and Plushenko tied on artistic merit; Lysacek won on technical merit. Translation: he skated better, as the new scoring system defines it, including a reward for more and difficult jumps deeper into the program, a scoring opportunity Plushenko foreswore.

If anything, though, NBC did themselves most proud with a series of stories--mind that word--of a more personal nature, done particularly in one case with admirable tact, as some in the media have observed. The production staff had a terrible decision to make before the games even got underway when a luger from the Republic of Georgia died in a practice run on the single most controversial facility of the games, the sledding hill. Apparently they ran the tape of his accident once, and then, with a carefully worded statement from Bob Costas, elected not to show it any longer. One can see it on Youtube; gruesome only begins to describe the sight of a man flying in midair at 90+ mph into a steel upright, his sled skittering along on the ice behind him.

Another tragedy came a week later. A French-Canadian figure skater, Joannie Rochette, lost her mother to an out-of-the-blue heart attack. Two days later she had to skate her short-program. As has been noted elsewhere, rather than try to get within the Rochette circle, Costas interviewed NBC's expert long-track speed-skating commentator, Dan Jansen, who lost his sister on the day of a race in which he was favored to win gold. He didn't. As he described it to Costas, the morning Jane died he conferred with his family about whether he should skate. They all agreed that Jane would have felt terrible about becoming the reason Dan didn't compete. Not so simple, though. Suddenly, after days of great practices, he didn't have his legs. He fell in a turn early in his first heat, then did the same thing in another race, and had a disastrous Olympics. Six years later he recuperated all that with a brilliant games.

Jansen sent Rochette an email, not sure whether she knew his name--she did, as it turns out--urging her to skate, to put all her heart into it, and to know that her mother would want that of her and for her. NBC let her alone from then on, until after her perfect skate in the long program that secured her the bronze medal. For this observer, Costas' studio interview with Rochette constituted one of NBC's best moments, and one of his. A very good interviewer, he asked her questions that gave her scope to describe her emotions, her mother's role in her life, her worries about her father. She talked about how, in fact, she'd heard Dan Jansen speak about coping with loss, and another speaker on the same subject, both times sure it would never happen to her. By that point, she'd had time to collect herself, time to be articulate, graceful, humble--herself. That interview completed the story elegantly and respectfully.

So many stories. Hannah Kearney in moguls, a delightful personality unknown to all but moguls maniacs, among which do not count me, though I loved the competition. Alex Bilodeaux, another moguls skier, with his own story--Frederic, his older brother who has a severe case of cerebral palsy--Shaun White, Lindsey Vonn, Apolo Ato Ohno, Bode Miller, the men's hockey team, Steve Holcomb, who came back from blindness to drive the gold-medal sled in four-man bobsled, the men's Nordic Combined team. A glut of great performances and gutty individuals.

Appealing as some of the major figures were, Shaun White particularly, some of them did not handle themselves as well, but arguably the network shared some blame. NBC got a little too close a couple of times when they should have given the athletes and their coaches more space. Julia Mancuso handled her rivalry with Lindsey Vonn badly, but she had the right not to be filmed crying at the start-house after a course official stopped her in the middle of a run because Vonn had fallen in front of her and hadn't gotten off the course yet on a day of bad weather and compressed schedules. Let her cry in private, and let Shaun White's coach pump him up with bed-and-bath language without a sound boom within reach. They already do amazing things on a very public stage, give them a little room to let disappointment out, and give the coaches the chance to say something more inspiring than "Win one for the Gipper." Ron Wilson had the privacy of the men's hockey team's locker room, just as Tim Johnson had the women's team's locker room to sprinkle whatever salt he needed. A halfpipe coach deserves at least the illusion of same.

Hannah Kearney flopped at Torino; she flew to gold at Vancouver. Costas, in a studio interview, let this very bright, articulate, bubbly personality have her stage. Disappointment to training to success, and the obstinacy of the training to achieve success. They did a better job than I remember a network doing before of emphasizing the athletes' training, though this may be unfair to earlier production teams. We saw Apolo Ohno running up loose-dirt banks, Shaun White doing tricks into huge containers of foam blocks, learned of Evan Lysacek's unheard-of insistence on skating his long program every day in practice. Stories of persistence, stories of grace, and, unfortunately, a couple of stories of childish petulance.

Stories connect us. Well-told, they give us insight into what these athletes have done and how, and against what odds. The network hedged their bets and had a few in the can they might have saved--one got a little tired of the over-exposure of Shaun White, Lindsey Vonn, and Apolo Ohno--but they showed their best lights when they had to improvise and rise to an occasion. Though it took them a little time to get the luge story right, they handled the figure-skating tragedy-cum-triumph with aplomb. The Olympics, after all, aim to bring not only the athletes together, but that part of the world--I doubt they have tv's in the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan, but who knows--that can watch them, as well. Great performances on snow and ice connect us, certainly, but emotions do, as well. Do not count me among the Olympics "up close and personal" curmudgeons. I will be ready when they converge on Sochi in four years to ski, skate, sled, jump, curl, face off, and shoot. Meantime, there's London in 2012.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

To Write a Book About a Time When...

I talk--and write--a great deal about a time in my life not long ago (but long enough) when I lived in a Trappist monastery as a postulant, i.e. someone desiring to enter the community as a monastic brother, a monk. A friend who knows me well and followed my monastic odyssey by email popped a question today on, of course, email. Why not write a book about the experience? An audience exists, I have things to say about that time, some clear, some funny. It could have some importance as a project. Sufficient distance might present an issue, but think about it. So went her gist.

Think about it. I actually started thinking about it while still a postulant. The monk who served as both Vocation Director and Associate Novice Master (now Novice Master) had hinted even in the discernment process before I entered that he had uses in mind for my writing, though if the Abbot shared those inclinations he never let on to me. I had received his permission for a photography project and that suited me fine. Writing, however, would have engaged a better-developed side of me. And the Vocation Director had dangled in front of me the idea of the Order's need for a new voice like that of Thomas Merton--the one Trappist monk whose name people might know if they otherwise know none. The same Merton, as the Vocation Director at Mepkin's mother house had emailed me, who had something to do with everyone's entering, and whom one needed to get over quickly upon entering. A heady precedent for one entering a Trappist house, probably too heady for one with an ego the size of mine.

Out, Merton continues to lurk, but less relevantly and certainly less stiflingly. A writer such as Kathleen Norris writes knowingly about the monastery from the outside--several of us, when I was an "us," used to say she "gets it"-- and so in one sense becomes the voice that echoes on one's computer screen. But not really. Kathleen, a Protestant and occasional preacher, writes as a gifted and trusted observer, given insights by monks she has gotten to know over the years and by her own experience of the monastic rhythm--as a visitor. Never having contemplated putting your heart and mind in the hand of an abbot for life changes everything.

This reminds me of one of my favorite stories from my monastic year. In the novitiate one day my brother postulant, a native of Peru immersed in its very traditional pre-Vatican II liturgical practices, asked for the umpteenth time squared, or so a couple of us thought, why "the Church Fathers" chose to abolish the 400 year-old liturgies of the Council of Trent. A former teacher myself, I complimented the Vocation Director after class on his juggling of three very different personalities. He smiled with a little mischief. "Oh, you mean that [one of you] wants to turn the clock back to 1955, and [another] has his eyes glaze over every time I mention that we had a Church before Vatican II?" He chuckled. "So that puts me in the middle," I offered, thinking of my difference in perspective as someone who, as a child, lived through the transition from Latin to English. As we came to the part of the monastery where we needed to observe silence, he chortled. "No, no, no, no, no. You've already drafted the constitutions for Vatican III."

Translation: I am not Merton; I didn't stay. I'm not Kathleen Norris; I'm a Catholic, and I entered. Then I left. She feels the safety of refuge at the Benedictine and Trappist houses of the upper Midwest, and even Mepkin, where she has visited, though not during my time. I long for Mepkin the place, the community, but find going there akin to walking through a minefield.

My last time there, my first since leaving, I felt for two days like a skater on a deep lake in which one has scuba-dived. The ice cracked the third day and I felt there again. Long enough to start bawling after the Kiss of Peace during Mass, administered as something just shy of a hug from my right by an older monk I adore and deeply love, one with whom I sang--both baritones, we were the "sopranos" in the small choir, which we found very amusing--and silently horsed around in pantomime every day cleaning dishes in the kitchen after the midday meal, the main one. I thought I saw a tear in his dry eye as he turned; I may have fooled myself. Half a turn later and my face was tear-streaked, to the inscrutable notice of another of the older monks, one with whom I'd had less contact, loved as a brother, admired as a practitioner of rigorous discipline, liked as an acerbic wit. Not one who had taken me under a short, rugged but gentle wing.

I write about monastic life as a third voice, and hopefully not a third wheel. One for whom joy and love mingle with pain and confusion. My story won't sound like either Merton's or Norris'. Granted, Merton's later journals grow increasingly troubled; forget about the speculation surrounding the trip at the heart of The Asian Journals. He died, in Bangkok, a Trappist of Gethsemani. I will almost certainly not die a Trappist. I can, however, tell a story of a soul and psyche torn between competing loves of the mind and heart, one who can translate for those who can't imagine it and for those who have tasted some of it what it means to live as a monk. For awhile, at least.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Recollected Mitzvah of Mindful Jihadi Dharma

During our undergraduate years at the University of Virginia a friend of mine took a course on church history in the Religious Studies Department. My friend grew up the son of a Baptist minister in the Tidewater area of Virginia. His professor came of Irish-Catholic stock and the rigorous training accorded ordained Jesuit priests. Since the course began with the Reformation, they amounted to a train wreck waiting to happen.

Happen it did. The professor began a lecture early in the term by positing a classroom at the University of Paris in the sixteenth century in which sat two--here comes the crucial part--very similar young men poised to have enormous influence on the history of the Church: Jean Calvin and Ignacio de Loyola. This stunning parallelism, not of their later influence but of their essential similarity, required more tolerance and perhaps humility than my friend possessed. As I recall, he dropped the class that afternoon.

Suggesting similarities across confessional lines within disparate strands of the same faith carries considerable risks. Expand the process to a consideration of spiritually cognate practices across faiths and the trains wreck while carrying hundreds of tankers of jet fuel each. Think World Trade Center; in fact, do think World Trade Center. It makes a good if more than just literally explosive place to begin.

After a brief digression. A friend--my boss--posted an article by Mark Galli in Christianity Today on her Facebook page the other day. The author argued that many people place too much emphasis on transformation in spirituality, which usually involves arriving at a state that feels better than our current one, and thus involves using God as a kind of Good Humor man of the skies. He argues instead for the importance of crisis as the moment in which grace can enter our lives. This same notion occurs in the Greek kairos, a favorite among monastics. Kairos, unlike the hyperactivity of willed transformation, involves waiting, a lot of waiting, something about which monks know a great deal. When the grace-filled moment comes, one acts, but under the aegis of inspirational grace, not one's own self-interested initiative.

Which brings us back to the World Trade Center. My own reading on Islamic countries and their traditions, among them spiritual, has not progressed to a point that makes me any kind of expert. It has become apparent to me, however, that the nineteen young men who kidnapped four planes on September 11, 2001, and succeeded in crashing three of them into their intended or at least secondary--i.e., the Pentagon--targets, believed in a notion of jihad that has two implications for us here. First, most Moslems subscribe to an understanding of jihad that concerns internal struggle, a purifying process, emphasis on process. In Galli's terms, the jihadist who blows himself and a few thousand innocent bystanders into incinerated ash in order to attain martyrdom and a place in Paradise belongs to the camp that ascribes to the transformational fallacy. A jumbo jet or an AK-47 or semtec explosive has replaced the Good Humor man, but the motivation remains the same: self.

Jihad as internal struggle to find Allah within; recollection, the monastic practice of self-reckoning to see where one has strayed from and where one has approached godliness in one's daily life; the Jewish notion of mitzvah, or service, that the Good Samaritan understood better than the priest and the Levite; mindfulness, the Buddhist practice of constant awareness that brings us back from our wanderings into distraction; and dharma, the Hindu notion of calling, or life's purpose, something like what we would call vocation. None of these notions exactly replicates the other, though to perform a mitzvah a state of recollected mindful jihad in one whose dharma called her to service would certainly help--if one could get past all the labels.

Theologians, spare me your quibbles about the (mis-)use of complicated terminology herein. We all struggle, many of us about more or less the same things. We all misunderstand each other. We think that in every Moslem household lurks a Qur'an and an AK-47; the Israelis suspect them all of Judeophobia; the Moslems suspect us--why, one can hardly imagine--of unimpeded hedonism; Buddhists think they alone have preserved monastic traditions; and Hindus are probably more tolerant of others' religious beliefs than the whole lot of us.

And yet we all have language suggesting our interest in the path to God/Yahweh/Allah/ nirvana/atman. We all acknowledge our frailties--just not to each other. So much in recent literature on Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, and in my own experience, suggests how easily human contact can bridge the chasms of misunderstanding. A Hazara cook for an American NGO in Lashkargah, Afghanistan; a group of Sufi dervishes welcoming an English traveler in Herat near the Iranian border; an Israeli poet with whom I used to amicably if intensely argue about Ariel Sharon; the Pakistani student who begged us at our small college on 9/11 not to blame all Moslems.

All these meetings are moments of kairos, moments when through recollection, through a spirit of mitzvah, of doing service, of sincere jihad, of mindfulness, and of attention to our true dharma, we can experience within ourselves more than ourselves. More indeed than each other, and certainly more and other than our preconceptions of each other.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

From Port-au-Prince, with Dread

As I write my watch has 11:08 p.m., about the time or perhaps even a little earlier than when my friend David Baron used to meet me at the University Diner (the UD in Charlottesville parlance) for various odd-sounding concoctions featuring either grilled doughnuts and ice cream (a grilled-with) or even greasier double-cheeseburger with bacon and a fried egg (one-eyed bacon double cheeseburger). I had a weakness for the latter; we both had a weakness for talking till 2:30 or 3:00.

David and I became friends accidentally. We both had a friend in common who had a passionate relationship going, then going south. David loves to tap into other people's stores of opinions and analyses; I tend not to shy from offering either. So, despite an age difference of several years, we became regulars at the UD. Our mutual friend got us drunk at his party as he left the country for a post-graduation round-the-world odyssey that became both. He thought he espied a homosexual note in the air. Though he wasn't altogether wrong, he didn't exactly have it right, either, and certainly not as a description of my friendship with Baron.

We continued the habit with markedly less frequency later when we both lived in New York , and had a memorable few days at his parents' on Long Island. We were in his parents' car when the news came over NPR of the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II, which gave me hope, later disappointed. Later that fall I developed mononucleosis and left New York. Baron--what some of his close friends from Charlottesville call him, though not all--wound up in New Orleans as film critic for The Times Picayune, in which capacity he continued to serve for twenty years. I had a couple of jobs in the art world, then got a couple of graduate degrees en route to teaching for just over a decade. We lost touch, in different worlds.

When I left academia and mental illness took me to the deepest bottom I have known, somehow the idea of Baron appealed to me as one of the logical people with whom to reconnect, after emailing our mutual friend for publishing advice, and hearing in response that he felt sure Baron would love a phone call. I have a tough time with phone bills, and David--that name does come up from time to time--abhors email, so our contact has been fitful. Same old Baron, though--eliciting my reading of the behavior of mutual friends, or rather one of mine and two of his. Somewhat wiser me, pointing out that my erstwhile romantic interest in her hardly qualified me as an interpreter of her husband, whom I had never liked, both for the obvious reason but also because I had never liked him, even before the obvious reason became obvious.

Baron, ever the novelist and critic, needed to see every nuance, and if he couldn't get to enlightenment himself would enlist the help of a guide. Annoying as I sometimes find this tendency--we spend our conversations very often on subjects in which I had little interest--it speaks to a kind of humility on the flip side of the obsessive curiosity. While this may sound hopelessly gossipy, even catty, I would never describe it that way. He simply wanted to know why people treat each other as they do and what precipitates behavior he doesn't understand. Baron is nobody's idea of a saint, and yet his interest in people has always had an element of purity about it, mixed in with some good old-fashioned Eastern European earthy realism. He can shine with the joy of surprise and sting very easily at a slight, real or imagined.

One of his joys has come from teaching, and in a specific place: Haiti. This is why I have allowed my wandering in and out of present and past tenses to stand. As I have gathered, he probably arrived in Port-au-Prince on the 10th, and remained there through the earthquake. I don't know yet if I've just written an obituary for my friend or not. Surely others in our group have stayed closer and have better claim. I just find it very difficult--aside from the fact that we have no facts except that noone apparently has heard anything (no news is no news, I hope)--to shift to the past tense. I see him alive and talking, perhaps even trying to carry on a conversation under the rubble as the only way he knows to stay and keep others alive. Baron babbling in Creole; I'd love to see that.

He has suffered from a long-term illness; the irony of a violent death would have elicited his characteristic low, tailing chuckle. I am at an age when I can begin to expect coevals to succumb to this illness or that. One doesn't imagine losing them this way, if indeed we have lost him--not knowing all manner of thing is the most difficult part of this, for now. I've felt numb all day, and guilty about it. The gaps in our friendship helps account for that, but also the not knowing what to feel because of not knowing what has happened. No news is no news. And yet even the possibility makes scenes from thirty-five years ago come alive.

Perhaps our reaction to a death, or the possibility of a death, parallels the experience of death itself, a kind of mental editing of the important, so that finally one can get it right one time, at least, and quickly. I hope David has time to worry about that; I hope a hospital has him and simply doesn't know his name. If not, I hope he has had the perfect conversation with himself, just once. And, perhaps, with One other...

Postscript, 1/15: David survived the earthquake. To paraphrase Mark Twain, fears of his death were somewhat, if understandably, exaggerated.