28 February 2010

Liberals and Conservative Christians

Nicholas Kristof writes today that conservative Christians have been doing a lot of the kinds of international work long championed, and practiced, by liberals. Kristof suggests liberals need to relax their "snootiness" and Christians their "sanctimony" to work together as a powerful coalition for social justice in the world.

He makes a good point. And I know some conservative (and not-so-conservative) Christians, and it does seem that their faith contributes to the ways in which they're very good people. Twenty-plus years ago, teaching English in China, I got to know several members of a Christian group also teaching there. They turned out to be really good people, too.

But the first time I met one of them, as I was working on fixing up the used bike I had just bought, his opening salvo was, "Oh -- look at the lady mechanic!"

And there, in a nutshell, lies my problem with the evangelicals and other conservative Christians (and, for that matter, conservative Jews and Muslims and probably conservatives in other faiths as well): very narrow ideas about gender roles.

Well, that and the fact that they think gays, Jews, Muslims and most of the rest of the world other than themselves are going to hell. Literally.

If I were to go off and volunteer with a Christian group, they might take me for the Jewish diversity cred. In that unlikely event, I'd then have to deal with all the questions... about keeping my name after I got married, going off to work while The Mate looks after The Offspring, letting said (male) Offspring wear pink clothes and long hair....

(Back in 1997, though,I applied for a job at a university that I didn't realize operated under the auspices of a conservative Christian group. The advertisement to which I responded hadn't mentioned it. By return mail, I got a four-page application form with questions about my pastor's name and address, and my relationship with Jesus.)

So while I applaud Kristof's column, I see following his advice as somewhat problematic for anyone who isn't nominally Christian, heterosexually and fairly conventionally married, raising fairly conventional kids -- and even many of those folks will have a tough time with evangelical intolerance toward people not like themselves. Conservative Christians need to give up more than sanctimony. They need to give up their conviction that it's their way or the highway.

23 February 2010

Figure Skating and Naming Americans

Tired tonight, and alone in a hotel room, so I've been sitting at my computer surfing YouTube and watching Olympic champion ice skating programs from years past -- Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Katarina Witt, Oksana Baiul, Michelle Kwan, Sarah Hughes.

Women's ice skating changed somewhere between Fleming and Hamill, and it just continued to get faster and more athletic over the years after that. It's amazing what they can do on two skinny little pieces of metal, and I'm always a little nervous, wondering where those sharp blades are going to end up if someone falls.

I have no idea who is in competition this year. I suppose I could turn on the TV, since I'm in a hotel room after all (no TV at home) but then I'd have to deal with advertising and commentary, and I'm not in the mood.

Men's figure skating has probably changed, too, but I'm not going to go watch a bunch of videos to find out how.

Remember the claims that Michelle Kwan wasn't American? Going back and looking it up (in Wikipedia), I see it was one headline on MSNBC that said "American Beats Kwan." (The skater who beat her was Tara Lipinski.) MSNBC apologized, and everybody moved on. Just over a decade later, and the claim that Obama isn't American is getting a lot more extended play, albeit not in the mainstream news media, except when it's Sarah Palin making the implications.

Kwan and Obama were born in America. Wasn't there a American cyclist in the news a couple of years ago that people were claiming wasn't American, because one parent was from Africa? When are my fellow Americans going to stop with this business of claiming other Americans aren't Americans?

Well, I'm not finding my way to a point in this post. I'll end (I can't claim to be concluding) with this: performances by Witt and Kwan brought tears to my eyes. Check them out here and here.

21 February 2010

Giving Up Coffee (For One Day)

I'm thinking about going one whole day without coffee.

I used to forego coffee one or two days a week, without ill effect. But for the past several years I've been in the grip of what's clearly an addiction, and I don't much like it. The last time I went a whole day without coffee was last Yom Kippur, and I was headachy and difficult to live with and had to have an afternoon nap. Part of that had to do with the fact that I was also fasting... but still.

I won't attempt this until the end of the week, after my classes have all been taught. If it's not too awful, maybe I'll try it again the following week. I'll keep you posted.

13 February 2010

Midwinter, Too, Shall Pass

I've had it with the cold, which has been hitting me pretty hard since I came down with "the itis," but soon enough the leaves will come out, and I will miss the stark bare trunks of the trees. And the late afternoon light of midwinter holds a mysterious promise, the whisper of a miracle in the warmer days to come.

11 February 2010

Shall We Ever Overcome?

We Shall Overcome: at the moment, The Offspring's favorite song for bedtime. And singing the verses to him -- "we shall live in peace" -- I sometimes feel a despair that it can ever come to pass.

A democrat has been in office for over a year, but the nation is still embroiled in the war his predecessor left him. The price the citizens of Iraq are still paying for that war is in evidence with the daily headlines. Every day, another suicide bomber; every day, another dozen or so dead.

But today, it seemed, some of our American taboos were falling. The Times reported that a pretty healthy majority of Americans polled support the right of gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. (Less, however, support the same rights for homosexuals. Go figure.)

The Times also reported today on Harold E. Ford Jr., who is considering running for senate against Kirsten Gillibrand, who won Hillary Clinton's seat after Clinton joined the Obama government. Ford took a job in New York a few years back after some people in his home state of Tennessee objected to his marriage.

No, not to someone of the same gender, but to someone of a different race.

The writer of the article in the Times was very carefully blase about that part. (But doesn't it seem a bit oddly inconsistent to object to sameness in the one case but difference in the other?)

And night after night, a six-year-old boy asks his mother to sing "we'll walk hand in hand." Maybe that fact itself spells optimism for the next generation. Repetition amplifies yet obscures the meaning of the verses, and they acquire the feel of prayer, conviction mixed with faith even if they don't (yet) speak truth.

Here's hoping that to a generation to follow, they will.

08 February 2010

The Names We Wear on the Backs of Our Cars

The car manufacturers have no doubt been thinking hard about this for a long time, but during my commute today I started contemplating the names we wear around behind us on our daily drives.

If you drive a Nissan, you can be a Rogue or a Titan; you can even command an entire Armada. Dodge drivers, in a similar vein, might be Challengers or Chargers, Rams or Vipers, while the driver of a Mitsubishi might be a Raider. (Is that anything like being a Pirate?)

Mercury, Subaru, and Toyota allow its drivers to go off and be Mountaineers, Foresters, and Land Cruisers, respectively, along the superhighways and back roads of the nation.

You can Escape in a Ford, or simply be bullish in a Taurus; Volkswagen drivers associate with smaller animals, like the Rabbit and the Beetle.

Jeep drivers are apparently most American, if American values can be summed up under the notions of Liberty and Patriot; you might need, along with those, to be a Commander.

Porsche suggests hotness and food all at once with its Cayenne. Maybe it's supposed to evoke fiery emissions. Hyundai, with its Genesis and Sonata, sounds high-brow, or maybe just evangelical. Driving a Kia, you can have Soul, which may or may not be intended to remind drivers that the company is located in Seoul; you can also drive a Sorento, which to me just sounds like cheese.

Other manufacturers suggest more civility. In a GMC, you can be an Envoy; in a Honda, you can be Civic or seek Accord.

Perhaps most ominous is the Cadillac Escalade, with its overtones of escalation, evoking schoolyard taunts and the international policies of certain presidents.

Trivial, probably. Subliminal, to be sure. But, I think, worth considering for the message we send each other and the world.

05 February 2010

Real Bodies

Driving east on Houston Street the other evening, I caught my first glimpse of the current Calvin Klein ad, with a much larger than life depiction* of a naked man, artfully arranged so the naughty bits are hidden behind a thigh. At least I think it was a man. It distracted me from driving for a moment, but I didn't get a very good look as I really did have to pay attention to the traffic.

It's just one of the more extreme images of barely human representations plastered all over this city on billboards and buses that paint men and women in forms idealized by our culture yet in some way truly grotesque.

All the more refreshing, then, to go to the gym. I joined the Chinatown Y at the beginning of January. A significant proportion, probably a strong majority, of the folks using the facility are Chinese, and I was brought forcefully back to my time living in China back in the late 1980s, when I spent a year teaching English at a university in Shanghai. The culture of bodies is different in China, and in the Chinatown Y. Women in spaces like locker rooms aren't so worried about covering up.

And it brings me back to a lesson I learned a long time ago, but forgot, in my 20-plus years living here in New York and looking at all of those airbrushed photos.

Real bodies aren't perfect. Real bodies have bulges, lumps, spots, asymmetries. When I don't see real bodies, I forget that. I think my body is defective, grotesque, just somehow wrong. But lately, I've been more forgiving of my own physical form.

Next up: forgiving my body for illness and infertility. That's a bigger job.

*I think we're intended to believe it's a photograph, but I'm pretty sure there's a significant amount of painting involved.